Sunday, March 15, 2020

Well, that escalated quickly

There we are, thinking about academic life and its issues, and then--

hello, pandemic, is that you?

Concentrates the mind wonderfully, doesn't it?

Our house is pretty well stocked already because of my fervent devotion to the cult of Costco, and 
I'm already teaching online. Social distancing should be possible for us, and yes, I know that that is a privilege.

But like most other universities, we went to online instruction this week, and everyone is scrambling.

We're trying to make sense of university regulations that are both "you definitely should not be on campus" and "you absolutely have to be on campus" and to figure out how to best serve our students.

Some of the regulations seem to be of the vintage that warns students not to keep more than one cow on the campus commons, so that's fun.

Two observations that were not what I expected:

1. Even in the overstuffed Costco the other day, where the lines in the store were extremely long, most people were behaving with some generosity, humor, and helpfulness. Oh, sure, there were some people like the upper-class ladies in A Night to Remember about the Titanic--"young man, I insist that you do what I say. This is all too tiresome"--but most were not. I believe that their modern equivalents are called "Karens" and have "let me see your manager" smooth bobs rather than fussy flowered hats, but the attitude is the same.

2. I absolutely cannot concentrate on anything but the news, mostly via Twitter, NYTimes, & WaPo. I am starting to long for papers to grade, because those are concrete and predictable. When it comes to trying to do my own writing, though, my mind circles back to what's happening.

What have you noticed in this new reality we're facing?

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Out of the past: Peggy Sue Got Married and high school reunions

Figure 1: Time travel would make a reunion worth it.
Have you ever gone to a high school reunion? 

 I did, once. It wasn't bad, but Peggy Sue Got Married it was not. If there's no magical time travel, what's the point?

But then I got a message from a person I went to high school with, since this is one of the big zero-ending years.  They're planning a reunion, and apparently they had a hard time finding me.

They told me to sign in to this place on Facebook, and it was like a portal to another realm. It really did feel like falling physically into a blue spiral to another time.

This space is filled with all these people I have not seen and mostly have not thought of in decades. It was as though they were all living in an alternate world where high school was still going on, even though they all seem to be perfectly nice adults with jobs and kids and everything.

The people were all talking with each other and remembering things that I had no recollection of, like teachers and classes.

And the people who ran the high school are running this space, too. The same people who were on lists of most popular, or athletes, or cheerleaders, or honor society: they're all there. The "most likely to succeed" lists and things like that: they're posted there, too. That's what I mean by time standing still.

It was just weird to me. It's as though they've been carrying on their own lives in real life and also their high school lives in this alternate space all this time, and I have only now discovered it. 

I'm not trying to criticize this, truly, but it's made me think. Although I belonged to organizations back then, the high school wasn't especially interested in me. Thanks to my mother's insistence that only stupid people bothered to do homework or study, I didn't get the academic trophies, although I did really well on state tests.

Figure 2. Undine in high school
The short version: I wasn't Peggy Sue back then, and I'm still not. I've seen pictures of me in those organizations in high school from old newspapers, and my expression is like the one on the Peleton woman.

I felt somewhat on the periphery then. But in my life as it is now, in the work I do, I don't feel on the periphery.

I think I'm going to let that alternate world go on by itself and skip its festivities.

What about you? Do you go to high school reunions?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Update to changes post

Did the changes work? Well, yes and no.
  • I turned in Project B, going short on sleep and forgetting to eat lunch. (I never forget to eat lunch.) I submitted it at 2 p.m. and checked my mail to discover a message from noon saying "never mind about submitting it today; take a few months if you want to. We'll put this in the next issue if it's accepted rather than this one." Am I irrationally angry with the journal? Sort of, even though it's absolutely not their fault. Am I angry at myself for not getting it done in time? Absolutely. 
  • Stopping the advice columns? Yes.
  • Staying off FB? Mostly yes. 
  • Keeping Christine Tully's article on my browser for inspiration? Yes.
  • I revisited Project A with the following results:
    • Pages 1-3: "Hey, not bad at all. Nobody's said this, and it sounds interesting."
    • Pages 4-12: "Stop hiding the main ideas. Move a few sentences around and it's okay, pretty much."
    • Pages 13+: "The horror. The horror."
  •  Make TV a special rather than regular occasion--done. 
  • Answering email in batches & copying and pasting previous emails as answers to repeated questions when the already-sent answer has been ignored: working well.
  • Not reading emails on Saturday:
    • Pretty much working, although if I mistakenly leave Outlook open and see them come in, I'm irritated. 
    • I want to put on an autoreply that goes like this: "It's Saturday. Is this an emergency? Is someone bleeding? If so, call 911. If not, it can wait until Monday." 
Now back to the horror part of Project A. 

Saturday, February 08, 2020

There'll be some changes made

This time of year, while not exactly hibernation, is the February slump. But as Sophie Tucker sings, there'll be some changes made today.
  • I've been working on the same endless project (Project A) daily--daily--for 6 weeks and it isn't done, all while fending off an editor on a far more interesting and closer-to-done project, Project B. I just didn't want to give up. This stance made no sense: Project A doesn't even have a publisher (it's in a collection), and Project B is accepted. Well, this weekend I'm getting the final edits on Project B done because the issue is going to press. Does this mean I'm a quitter? Maybe, but I have to shake something up.
  • Because I was so bored with avoiding Project A, I had gone back to reading distraction stuff--advice columns, FB, etc. Am now stopping that, too, including less Twitter. All FB and Twitter do is make you angry or leave you feeling like a failure, not to mention calling attention to the death of democracy.
  • Much as I love hanging out with Spouse, if we watch a TV show together, he gets up after it's done and does something else. I sit there and look desperately for other distractions. I told Spouse that until I break the pattern, we need to change it up.
  • As gwinne has done, I'm making a few policies:
    • Truly not looking at email on weekends.
    • Answering email in batches. Letting my collaborators' emails, which can easily reach 15-20 a day, pile up and answering them in a batch. 
    • Walking every morning. I have too much energy to go to my desk right away, which is what I have been trying to do, and all I do is get anxious and fidgety. A walk calms me down. 
    • Beginning by reading, as gwinne is doing. 
Back to work!

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Things I liked and didn't like this week

It is Sunday night, and I was so tired today that I feel asleep sitting up and literally didn't know where I was or what time it was when I woke up a little while later.  Herewith, then, the lazy blogger's guide to her week.

  • Playing with our kittens, recently adopted from the local shelter,  which is awesome (kittens and shelter).
  • Making more vegetable-centered meals.
  • Experimental chocolate chip cookies made wholly with oat flour.
  • Obeying my older cat, who insists that I sit down and write most evenings by nudging me toward the study. 
  • Noticing that I have written something on the project I've been working on every day this month. Every day!
  • Christine Tully's article at IHE about using a writing day or writing time effectively.
  • The weather (lots of rain washing away lots of snow).
  • My mad skills with setting up pumps in window wells to drain off excess. (See: lots of rain washing away lots of snow). 
  • Getting a good (dare I say glowing?) review with contract to follow on something I wrote.
  • Getting more ideas the more I work. 

Didn't like:
  • Email from a colleague: "Hey, would you do me a favor? I would do it except that I am just so busy with my scholarly project that I really don't have time right now. I'd like it if you'd get it done soon." Would you ignore such a request for a week or more? Would you then respond curtly? Yeah, me too.
  • Fielding a barrage of emails from a colleague (let's call her Karen) who was obviously on fire about a joint project we're on. Email after email came hurtling in, with phrases like "please reply to this right away." Needless to say, my responses were completely ignored but the barrage continued, along with one final request for me, until I got a cheery "That's all for now! Karen out!" Would you respond with a single line "did you get my revision to X document?" and resolve not to send another single word until you hear a response? Yeah, me too. 
  • The feeling that I'm letting down not these two but others whom I've promised work that's not yet done. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Strategic alliances, or how I stopped worrying about not-loving some conferences

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as the annual dues statements for professional organizations roll around and many have ratcheted up their dues substantially: how do you decide which ones you support?

This probably works differently in the sciences, where (I’m told) some organizations elect you as a fellow or a member and it’s a great honor, but in the humanities, you join a group, you pay the dues, you get the journal, and if your paper is accepted, you go to the conference.

There are lots of levels of engagement, including being involved with elected leadership or committees, but the basics are these:

1. You pay your dues faithfully every year, no matter what.
2. You submit to a conference and have to be a paid member to be there, so you join before you submit.
3. You get accepted to a conference and then join so that your name will be on the program. 

I’m usually in the #1 category, but a few years ago, I realized how sensible it was to be in #2 or 3.

Example: Let’s call it the Crunchy Granola conference, the one where everyone wears brown instead of black. For the better part of 15+ years I paid every year. I presented at some conferences. I was elected to office and went to conferences every year (and often on my own dime). 

And then I noticed that my proposals were getting rejected more often than not. That’s fine: the organizers can’t accept everyone. There was less and less in the journal that had any relevance to my work. My interests had gone in a different direction, and they weren’t Crunchy Granola’s cup of tea. We had Grown Apart, as they say in letters to Carolyn Hax.

But on a different note, I had also become fed up with a radical egalitarian rhetoric that was not, shall we say, matched in practice. 

So I stopped paying the dues notice, and you know what? It was a relief. I guess I figured that I somehow had to stay with Crunchy Granola for my whole career, as though we were academically married, but I so didn’t. 

When I get a dues notice now, therefore, I think before automatically paying it. Does the journal have materials relevant to what I’m working on? Do I meet up with people working on relevant topics at conferences? Is my work at least sometimes accepted at those conferences, and do I have good conversations that further the work when I go? 

This is all obvious, of course, except that it definitely wasn’t for me because as someone whose parents weren’t professors and who is terminally naive by nature, I began by not knowing the norms, which is why stating them now has become a real thing for me. What I learned is that you can & should be strategic about those alliances and not look back once they don’t work for you any more. 

Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Reading Zone

(Rod Serling voice)

Imagine, if you will,  a world in which people must write for a living, but in order to write, they must read, and generally read it all. 

The inhabitants of this land are called Readers, or in other words, Academics.

Some of what the Readers must do is pure joy. They read all of an author's best books and are inspired to let words flow out effortlessly on the page. They cross the bridge into the realm of imagination, a world not of sight and sound but of mind.

But to cross the bridge, the Readers must pass the trolls that live under it. The trolls are also called readers--"Second Readers," in fact--and they pounce gleefully on any act of incompleteness. If the Reader has read and discussed only 30 out of 31 books by an author, the Second Readers will pounce on any lack of discussion of the 31st. They will accuse the Reader of heinous crimes and also of not being "smart," the gravest of all academic sins.

In this land of imagination, the Reader must navigate the 31st book regardless of whether Homer  nodded or fell off a cliff or into a coma as regards inspiration in this particular work. Sometimes the Reader herself nods and awakens with a jerk to find herself a few pages beyond what she remembers reading.

The Reader must push through this book page by page in an action akin to sewing by hand: pushing the needle through inch by inch, patiently waiting for the author's genius to reveal itself once more. The Reader who tries to skim finds that she has inadvertently driven the needle into her finger by missing important plot points buried fiendishly in seeming digressions or philosophical musings, and she will have to tear out the stitching and start over. She wishes she had time enough at last to finish this task that, after all, she chose to do.

The Reader's eyes may tear up from the effort, and her vision may blur. Since she has glasses on when she reads, which means that she has no depth perception, she may curse lightly when she rams her fingers into drawers or doors that she would swear were another 6" away.

However chaste her typical language, the Reader may even drop more than a frown at having to keep track of actions and characters in whom she seems to be more invested in the author. Like Mark Twain with his Pudd'nhead Wilson characters, she sometimes wishes that they would all go out back and get drowned in the well together.

Sooner or later, the book will end. The Reader will leave this part of The Reading Zone and learn, like all those who have gone before, that leaving it or Willoughby or the devil-fortuneteller cafe or the bus station is essential and a learning experience--until the next encounter with The Reading Zone.