Sunday, October 13, 2019

Mid-October update: On not crushing it and conferences

In the first season of Silicon Valley, the Pied Piper team interviews a candidate whose résumé states, without details, that he was "crushing it" for a certain period of time but then not "crushing it" to his usual standard in 2012. That's me this October.

 Spouse says that I'm exhausted because of all the chaos and bereavement over my mother's final illness and recent death, which was, in the end, the best one possible: quick and painless and peaceful, at home with family surrounding her. That's a fair point. But really, shouldn't the absence of the anxiety, stress, travel, and physical labor I've experienced over the past year give me more energy rather than less?

I also find myself simultaneously resenting having to go to conferences that I'm presenting at and resenting that I'm not presenting at ones where I'm not (MLA--panels I was on were rejected). "If only you were pregnant (completely impossible) or there were an airline strike or if you got the flu, you wouldn't have to go," says the insidious voice within.

Or I could just, you know, not go, but somehow that seems wrong without a reason. I did withdraw from one piece of it after concluding that there was no way it'd get done. But people just don't go all the time, don't they? There seems to be an uptick in no-shows at conferences, or is this just one person's false perception?

At any rate, none of my usual writing tricks are working, so I'll try the nuclear option--turning off the internet--and see if I can write the paper for it, keep working on the (overdue) article, and all the rest of it. Here's hoping for a better report next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Resilience, or learning critical distance when teaching

In class the other day, I was teaching some of my favorite stuff--call it dinosaur studies.

I had put extra time and effort into the brief lecture, including the pictures. I had found some video clips of T. Rex that I thought they would like and explained the context.

Some days, you go to teach a class just because it's your job, but on this day, I was pumped and excited.

As I wound up the whole thing and the video clip finished, I asked "Are there any questions?'

What I expected as I stood there:
 What I got:
  • "Are you going to hand back our quizzes now?" 
It totally brought me up short. I was in the moment. They really were not.

Now, they're a nice if quiet group, and I realize that I shouldn't let this get to me. But it did. I was totally deflated even in my other classes and, yes, oddly sad for the rest of the day. I started questioning whether I should even be teaching.

Rationally, this is nuts. Classes come and go, and individual class hours are unpredictable. We've all had spectacular days in the classroom sometimes and so-so days other times and "kill me now" days at least once in our careers.

Rationally, I know that they don't have to like what I like. They have their own interests that I doubtless don't share, and, while I try my level best to choose interesting as well as pedagogically useful materials, that's something you can't always predict.

But irrationally, I wanted them to share a little excitement about dinosaur studies. Irrationally, I felt that I'd taken a risk, like giving them a caprese salad only to have them demand the usual pizza.

And thinking about it now, I realize that we really need both perspectives. Yes, they have their own interests, and rationally that's fine, and I try to work with that as much as I can. But if I stop being excited about what's happening in the classroom and wanting them to love what I love in terms of literature, then what am I even doing?

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I've been rewatching Mad Men because there is no outside world in Mad Men, no politics, no brinkmanship, no, well, madmen on the loose.

The Undine of 2015 and earlier was pretty tough on the show sometimes, but nowadays I find it slow, and predictable, and very, very soothing. Together with The Good Place, it makes you think about your daily actions in ways that the dailiness of everyday life doesn't always facilitate.

In one episode--they're all a blur to me at this point, a sweet & comforting blur--Henry Francis challenges Betty Draper, who's just thrown one of her innumerable hissy fits about something or other. (Betty, comfortingly enough, only gets less selfish by microns rather than by inches.)

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?" Henry asks her.

Somehow, this swooshed me out of the minutiae of daily work life and up into one of those hovering spheres that you see in the movies. What it made me see is that I was drowning in those minutiae and that it felt suddenly like my choice to do that and that I could choose differently.

So, for example:
  • Do I really want to put that kind of time into a review or a meeting or one of innumerable memos? I do not.
  • Do I really want to move from unimportant project to unimportant project as a means of avoiding the hard work that (sorry, Marie Kondo) sparks joy? I do not.
  • Do I want to review yet another thing instead of writing and submitting something? I do not.
  • Do I really want to send a polite reply to the umpteenth scammy predatory journal email? I do not, and did not, and into the trash they go.
But there's also positive change:
  • Do I respond with cold fury if someone gets snippy in an email and escalate the icy politeness when I write back? You bet.  
  • If someone does that in person, does my body language (and steely gaze, and cold, measured tone) indicate that what I'm really saying is "You had best start over"? Yes.
  • Also, do I want to worry about and give an anodyne response to being called in by HR about  defending a student?  Or do I want to give them a coldly reasoned but furious piece of my mind, including stating that I know their primary goal is to hang individuals out to dry in order to protect Northern Clime from lawsuits? The latter, and that's what I did. We got to a better place after that, after they stopped trying to bully me, but the anger was necessary, I'm convinced.
 I know that this sounds as though anger is the only positive change, but there are other positive changes, too. It's slow going.

But for now, before I agree to working through someone else's draft to make sense of it, or explain something via email for the millionth time to someone who doesn't like the answer they're getting, or jump right on a complicated email issue with multiple questions instead of letting it marinate for a couple of weeks until I have time, I try to to remember Henry's question  "Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I'm trying to think of it, Henry.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Recommitting to writing

It's that time of year again. Let's play summer break bingo--but you'll have to imagine the squares. Give yourself a point for every one of these that you've seen or that has crossed your social media recently.
  • "Just back from my fabulous research trip to Paris/Florence/other European city, where I found oodles of new materials for my book in progress."
  • "So glad I had that fellowship to Fabulous Domestic Archive!"
  • "Excited to see the proofs for this article accepted for PMLA [or insert your flagship journal here]."
  • "What a great family hiking vacation in the mountains/at the beach! No phones, just fun. Nothing like taking time completely away from work to recharge the brain."
  • "Book proposal was accepted & now I'm under contract. Woohoo!"
  • "Made so much progress on my book manuscript this summer that I'm turning it in early."
  • "Completely revamped my syllabi/syllabuses and now I'm ready for the semester to begin."
  • "Yay! Panel accepted for MLA this year, so see you in Seattle!" 
I guess you could call it time envy.  You can be glad that these people are engaging in fabulousness and hard work, yet you're still slogging away at writing and maybe not even your own writing--i.e., reviews and reports.

Objectively you know you've knocked down a lot of things and crossed a lot of items off your list this summer. Subjectively, in your heart of hearts you know that this is obligation writing, low-hanging fruit that advances everyone's career but your own.

And if you're honest with yourself, you know you could have said "no" more, or put your own writing first; it's not the fault of other people or other tasks that you're not getting the writing done. They have to ask, but you don't have to say yes. Academia is an "ask culture," not a "guess culture," so you have to grow a spine and boldly say no. That time commitment you made rests with you.

So all I can do now is recommit to the writing, one day at a time or rather one half hour at a time, about the length of a pomodoro, and try, try again. 

Friday, August 02, 2019

Productivity is overrated? NOW you tell me.

I spent the last two weeks doing eldercare, cleaning and cooking and chatting and problem-solving and strategizing and being on the phone with banks, cable services, etc.,  trying to gain access to straighten out financial messes.  (PSA: for the love of God, please grant someone Power of Attorney so that they can legally act for you before you develop dementia.) When people inquired brightly "How are you enjoying your vacation?" I had to bite my lip.

In the meantime, the work I had no time to do rolled in through my email as usual, despite my autoreply. 750words gathered dust and spiderwebs because I had no words to give it.

But wait! The productivity writer Theresa MacPhail now says "OK, I admit it: Productivity is Overrated."

In questioning "academe’s 'I’m so busy' Olympics" MacPhail cites Melissa Gregg's Counterproductive:
"Paradoxically," Gregg writes, "the capabilities of productivity software create expectations of always more activity." And she should know. She’s surrounded by engineers and software developers trying to maximize their time. As Gregg is quick to point out, however, all of the time saved from efficiency and productivity apps only increases the amount of free time that one is then expected to funnel back into — you guessed it — more work.
 Isn't that the old joke about academe? You work harder and for that your reward is . . . more work?

Isn't it sick that I want to know exactly what "productivity apps" Gregg is talking about?

And isn't it ironic that the sidebar ad is  The Chronicle Productivity Guide to Writing & Publishing?

Maybe this is a welcome and needed corrective to the culture of busyness, like Slow Writing a few years back. Or maybe it's just the usual pendulum swing, as when HGTV derides as "dated" all the trends it spent the 2000s shilling for as "classic," or how 1970s-style unpadded & un-underwired bras are now making a return as the "bralet."

At this point, I'm going with "needed corrective" because my productivity meter has run out, and I need a break. It's nice to have the backing of experts on this.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Twitter reinvents itself as early blogs

I've been reasonably active on Twitter for a while now and have noticed a few things happening in the last few months.

Bear in mind that I don't have thousands of followers and don't follow thousands of people, as seems to be the goal for a lot of people. I'm on Twitter because--as in the "Minute Men defended our Revolutionary Airports" thing by the Dear Leader last week--it can be amusing and is occasionally a place to see good resources float by in the Twitter stream.

But it has changed.
  1. Famous people (well, authors) who used to tweet a lot, like Margaret Atwood and Lin-Manuel Miranda, don't seem to be as active. My guess is that it's because they are actually, you know, writing instead of wasting time on Twitter as I am, but still.
  2. There's a lot less interesting, or interesting to me, actual information being circulated. 
  3. There are lots of retweets, the more outrageous the better, of the same information over and over. It's as bad as the NYTimes's months-long "Editor's Picks" on the front page. 
  4. There are a lot more memes, not just funny cat pictures or whatever, but stuff like this:
    1. Which literary critic or school of criticism are you? Take this quiz and find out.
    2. How old were you when you had your first (male/nonwhite/gender non-conforming) teacher?
    3. When is the movie better than the book?
    4. Who here is a fan of Stranger Things
  5. Focus on very particular and sometimes arcane forms of political outrage, while things like the Administration's big gift to Monsanto or whoever of rolling back restrictions on pesticides that kill bees (as our friends in France well know) go completely unnoticed. 
  6. Lots of furious comment threads that any academic program that doesn't have as its primary goal how to organize and destroy the neoliberal university ought to be burned to the ground. Sometimes this is paired with scorching anyone who gives advice on the job market, how to apply for graduate school, etc.
  7. Lots of comments about the Olds destroying the economy--emphasis on age rather than the real culprit, class and wealth. Thank you, Russian bots, for the "let's you and him fight" nature of this divisiveness that distracts from oligarchy and kleptocracy that is the real problem. 
  8. More pictures of food or daily life things than there used to be.
My theory for #5 is this: Trump says his daily racist and/or stupid thing, Twitter goes nuts for 24 hours, and he torches more environmental and civil rights and immigration safeguards unnoticed.  Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm not alone in this theory.

The rest is pure speculation and observation, based on nothing more than random ideas as research. 

But if you're a longtime blogger, doesn't this remind you of something?

Getting-to-know-your-personality memes?

Rage at the (academic) machine?

Little reports from daily life?

Twitter, or my tiny corner of it, seems to be reinventing the early days of blogs, when the blogroll was long and active. Memes? We had 'em, but less so nowadays. Rage? Check. Daily life reports? Check.

If you are on Twitter, have you seen this? Better still, if you're an Instagram user, how is this different on that platform, if it is?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

What I learned about letting things go from Father of the Bride (1951)

TCM showed the old Spencer Tracy-Elizabeth Taylor version of Father of the Bride the other night, and I watched the last half of it.

It's a funny movie and one of Spencer Tracy's best parts; Taylor is good, too, as is Joan Bennett and the supporting cast, especially Leo G. Carroll as the wedding planner/caterer.

There are a couple of great comic everything-goes-wrong nightmare sequences, sort of like the ones that every academic I know gets before the first day of class--e.g., you can't find the room, you have to give a spontaneous lecture on 15th-century French horses or something else you have no idea about, you're dressed in clown pants, or, worse, no pants--you get the idea.

One is a real nightmare, where his clothes start coming apart, he can't get up the aisle of the church because it's turned to some kind of rubber trampoline, and so on.

The other is the wedding rehearsal, which is total chaos with people milling around and talking over each other. When Stanley Banks (the Tracy character) says, "okay, let's have the REAL rehearsal," the clergyman says it was all fine and it'll be perfect on the wedding day--and he's right. Everything goes without a hitch despite, not because of, Stanley's frantic perfectionism.

You can see where I'm going with this. I spent a lot of time this week laying out timelines and project deadlines and start and end dates for a project. Heck, I even looked up a Gantt chart template and investigated Trello, though I backed away from that in favor of lists. Charts and lists are a way of controlling your sense of a project for a certain mindset, and that mindset is mine.

But when I gently hinted at timelines and "deliverables" to others, they strongly hinted that really, the wedding rehearsal went just fine and I should stop worrying about it.

It wasn't a waste of time, because now I have a better sense of how to put together my part of it. Did I take most of my timeline work out of the collaborative part? You bet. It wasn't going to help the project, though it is still going to help me, and it was going to confuse or annoy everyone else.

This is the important takeaway for me: I know what targets I have to hit, and I don't have to announce them to hit them. Like Elsa, I can let it go.

I just have to show up, do my part, and have some confidence that others know better than I do how this whole thing is structured and that they're seeing a vision that I'm not just yet--the perfect wedding,