Monday, June 29, 2009

Desert island game and some random thoughts

There has to be a better way. I'm heading to the place of no internets, where I'll have no distractions, no office that I have to go to, and nothing but lots of time to strike a nice balance between hanging out and doing some writing. That's the good part.

The bad part is that, as if I'm playing the desert island game, I have to choose only about 5 books to take with me. (I'm not paying for an additional suitcase this year, now that fees are applied for the first bag.*) I only have .pdf copies of a couple of books, and one of the books has to be one I'm reviewing, so that leaves four. Should they be criticism? Primary texts I know really well but will need to cite? Humongously heavy biography that is really a useful reference but could double as a blunt instrument in a murder mystery because of its weight? If I'm really desperate, there's a library about 2 hours away that will have what I need, but of course I won't be able to check out books from there.

There should be a way to bring books and solitude together, shouldn't there? I know I've ranted about this before, but if we can download entire movies or TV just by paying for them at Amazon or iTunes, why can't Google make this happen? (I know, I know--copyright issues--but couldn't they get some kind of licensing in place that would allow it to work?)

* And about those bag fees: I hate them but I pay them because a flight anywhere from Northern Clime involves so many changes of planes (and usually races through the airport) that I don't want to deal with a suitcase, too. On the several flights I've been on recently, many people seem to be putting the suitcases in the overhead bin, which seems to be working out fine.

On the other hand, when the cheerful flight attendants remind us to put our computer bags under the seat so that people who didn't pay the luggage fees will have room in the overhead bins, they never explain why my legs should be doubly cramped so that someone else doesn't have to pay a fee to check a bag, so the computer bag goes in the overhead bin whether they like it or not.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Last archives post::what's major and what's minor?

Notorious Ph.D. has an interesting post about the two broad research patterns that researchers follow when going to archives: one is "casting about until a pattern emerges" and the other is to go in search of a specific person, text, or idea and see where the search leads you. In the comments, Tenth Medieval quoted something from Robert Darnton (or maybe it was on his blog) that resonated with what I'd felt during my recent trip:
As the tenor of a life begins to emerge from the manuscripts and I see a story unfold from one document to another, I have the sensation of making contact with the human condition as it was experienced by someone in another world, centuries away from mine. It may be an illusion, and I may get it wrong. I may sound like a romantic. But the archives, in all their concreteness, provide a corrective to romantic interpretations.
That sense of an emerging narrative--that's what's so seductive about working in the archives, especially if it's a story that you haven't seen someone else tell. The problem is, of course, that not all stories are going to be of interest to anyone but you, which adds a third dimension to Notorious Ph.D.'s questions: Which parts are major, and which ones are minor? How can you tell which leads are worth pursuing because they'll actually be important, and which leads are just the means of satisfying your own curiosity about a particular idea? And, more importantly, is this a distinction that you should even be making as you're looking at materials?

Frankly, unless you're looking for something very, very specific, I don't think that you can make that distinction when you're in the midst of working with materials, although it's hard not to, given the time constraints involved in being at a research site. You can't know what's major and what's minor at that time, although you can know what's been published and what hasn't, which can tend to guide your search. If Author Y's love letters have been well mined for articles, you need to know those articles going in so that you don't "discover" a narrative that's already been written.

Also, the work you put into getting some information may be vastly disproportionate to the space it ultimately occupies in the finished work, but it may be very important nonetheless. In a recent biography that I read of Author X, for example, only a paragraph or so was devoted to one part of his life, yet I knew (because I knew the author of the biography, which took him many years to write ) that finding this information had involved painstaking research in half a dozen archives, just for a seemingly minor piece of information.

So what if this one small piece of information that you found in the archives proves that Author X really did read and respond to Author Y, or really was present in, say, a war zone even though generations of critics have said that that didn't happen? Some theorists might say "Who cares?" and that it's a minor point, given that queer theory, postcolonial theory, or whatever says that theory Z explains it anyway without the need for facts, and what are "facts" but an artificial construct based on hegemonic and ideologically driven narratives, blah blah blah, etc. But the thing is, if it's a point that no one has mentioned before, it deserves to be seen and heard, doesn't it?

I can see that this post is "casting about until a pattern emerges" and not getting there, so I'll finish with this: Part of what archival research is about is letting the narratives that are there in the documents, and the narratives that are not there but are implicit in the documents, teach you what narrative you ought to be constructing once you're away from the archive. So, in other words, you need to pursue those insights but also let them rest at the same time so that you can discern the patterns.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I've been back for a couple of days, which is really just long enough to do laundry and pack, this time for a trip to the land without internet.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Lessons from the archive III: monkish life

When I told people I'd be coming to Research City, they said things like, "I live right near there! Let's get together" or "I want to take you out to lunch."

But I didn't contact them, partly because of basic inertia, partly because I didn't want to take hours out of research time (how selfish is that?), and partly because I didn't want to disturb this whole monkish life thing that is working in the archives.

There's a simplicity to this trip, after all the travel planning (which I hate) and arranging that goes into it. It's a combination of knowing what you're going to do and not knowing what you're going to find.

Knowing what you're going to do: Every day I get up, make the bed, go to the archive, work, eat something that's easy to find, read, and get some sleep. Except for a nightly phone call to my family, about all I say every day is "Yes, I'm finished with this box; can I have the next one?" and, at lunch, "Do you have iced tea?" I'm not here to fight with the phone company, or pay bills, or cook, teach, or do anything except work: read and think. (And write--I finished a long-promised and long-delayed article I had started and sent it off while I was here.)

Not knowing what you're going to find: I didn't find any smoking guns, anything that would tie together an entire line of reasoning, as I had done in a previous trip here. But reading through the materials was a kind of revelation, in that it made me see connections that I hadn't seen before, and that's a really good thing. I found enough to make me want to come back and live the monkish life a little more. It's not a contemplative life in a religious sense, but it's a contemplative life in an academic sense, and that's fine with me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lessons from the archive II: as the days dwindle down to a precious few

When I arrived and started working, it felt as though I had all the time in the world here. I could pursue some loose ends, look at letters of minor interest, and so on.

But now, every piece of writing becomes an exercise in time management, or maybe I should say time anxiety. What if I spend a lot of time on Box X, when Box X + 1 has what I really want? What if I get back and discover that the part of the letter I didn't transcribe is the one I need?

The answer to this one is simple, but not cheap: throw money at the problem. Plan to return, or, barring that, request copies.

That's only part of the solution, though. What's different about being here is that if I see a lead, I can pursue it, something that's difficult to do long distance.

Also, and I think this is the real issue: I like being inside Author's head for now. It's nice to be immersed to the point where you start to see certain phrases showing up in her letters to several people, or to see her sense of humor, or to read her response to a cranky lecturing letter she's received from someone.

But now I want to know more about certain things: why did she abandon some stories and finish (and publish) other ones? With some of them it's obvious, since the plot has no place to go, but others are at least the equal of those she did publish. More to the point, why were a number of stories that she didn't finish or publish about a particular kind of relationship?

I guess she's never going to answer that last one, so coming up with an answer, however hypothetical, is my job.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lessons from the archive

  • No matter how much a word looks like "podcast" in the author's handwriting, it is highly unlikely to be a word that the author would use.
  • It may be easier, on the whole, to be a tortured creative genius and fill notebooks with tiny handwriting in black ink than to decipher that handwriting years later.
  • No matter how much energy I think I have, it is never as much as that of an author who likes to write letters.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A brief hiatus

I'm in Research City, spending long, concentrated days in the archives, enjoying hours spent seemingly inside the head of the authors whose letters I'm reading, and wondering if, with all this typing and transcribing, absorbing words and sentence structure, I'll start to sound like these authors once I'm done.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Trance day

Other bloggers have talked about their plans for the summer, mapping out their time, and so on, and I have a chart along those lines myself. Somehow the chart failed me today, however, even though I have a lot to do. It was a trance day, and I did nothing all day long.

A trance day is a day when you might as well have stayed in bed. It's sort of like a vacation day, except instead of doing lots of outdoorsy fun things, your only exertion, mental or otherwise, is fixing a bowl of cereal, and even that seems like kind of a challenge.

On a trance day, the exercise plans are the first to go: even my beloved early morning walk didn't get done this morning. I got up early and fell back asleep after I sat on the couch to put my shoes on. All day it felt as though someone else was carrying my brain around, and they'd wrapped it in a comforter so I couldn't hear what it was saying.

About noon, I quit staring stupidly at the computer, gave up, and watched Bette Davis movies all afternoon. I did a little reading, but I barely moved off the couch all day, and yes, since falling asleep in the morning wasn't apparently enough, I fell asleep this afternoon, too.

I'm hoping that the trance day has given me a lot of stored energy for tomorrow and that whoever has my brain will give it back.

[Edited to add a picture of Davis in Jezebel.]

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Summer school teaching, the absence of (II)

Ink's comments on the last post about summer teaching got me thinking.

It's about 80 degrees here, dry and sunny, but I'm in the shade, and there's a cool breeze blowing. There are birds chirping all around in the trees, and, since the cats sharing the deck with me are too comfortably lazy to go after the birds, it's peaceful all around. The neighbors have mercifully progressed from their Windchimes Phase to a Water Fountain Phase, which is far more pleasant to listen to, and all the kids and dogs seem to be elsewhere, so all I hear are the birds and the wind in the trees. The work I'm responding to today is up on the screen on my laptop, and I have a tall glass of iced tea near at hand.

So yes--is the absence of summer school something I could get used to? To quote Ink, "It sounds kind of heavenly."

Monday, June 01, 2009

Summer school teaching, the absence of

For a variety of reasons this year, I didn't get to teach summer school even though I put in for it. This is the first time in several years that I'm not teaching a summer school class. Yes, it's taking a hit in my travel funds, the reason I teach every summer, but I've been fortunate enough to have some small grants this year to make up for it.

I didn't think it would make a difference in terms of time, since I try to teach the same class each year (an online one), so although there's some time spent in getting the materials together and grading, it's not like teaching a whole new prep. No big deal, right?

I was wrong, and here's why.
  • Without teaching to take up that time, I don't feel that I have to reward myself by "treating" myself to fun sites and am spending a lot less time web surfing.
  • Without grading, I don't have any way to procrastinate about writing; there's no "well, I have to get these papers back to them, so I can't write today."
  • Since I don't have to check email constantly to see if students are contacting me, I can ignore it with a clear conscience--or turn it off entirely because there's nothing from colleagues that can't wait.
  • I'm also finding out the truth of Winifred Gallagher's advice to sit down for 90 minutes of uninterrupted time early in the morning, since the intervals of attention I can pay to the writing diminish during the day.
  • This works even better if I get up and go for a long walk very early, before sitting down to write, since that helps with the "get me out of this chair!" twitchiness that can otherwise occur.
By now you're probably nodding and saying "Of course you can write better if you're not teaching, too! Duh!" But you see, I thought the two were compartmentalized, that the time I was devoting to teaching wasn't having an effect (except in terms of time) on the writing. I was convinced that with sufficient time management skills I could do both.

What I've learned is that with sufficient time management skills I can do both--but there's no solution to mustering sufficient attention management skills except not to have the huge attention elephant of teaching a class at the same time in the room. It's a little humbling to realize that rationally compartmentalizing your time doesn't have any discernible effect on how much you can actually get done.