Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Wishing you peace and joy and happiness in 2021

This isn't a traditional year-end post. There aren't any lists of accomplishments, because it feels as though I didn't do anything (certainly in terms of writing).  I'm grateful to have had a roof over my head and the luxury of working from home.

There's nothing ranked, like the best movies I saw or anything like that. In fact, I'm tired of rankings, evaluations, criticizing, and negativity in general. It's no fun even to read a snarky review. I've always hated the thing where actors go on a show and trash a movie that they just made (you made it, didn't you? and got paid? so shut up), and now it's like that with a lot of things. 

My feeling is this: Someone tried. Someone put in an effort. Someone did something. If you want to be one of the cool kids about it and criticize, knock yourself out. I'm not a cool kid, never was, and am not joining that particular competition at this stage of my life. 

Instead, I'm celebrating what little I did do, which is the bare minimum that we all did; those of you with kids or elderly parents are doing far more. I cooked and baked; the last time I had a meal out was February (except for a takeout salad in June). Except for masked trips to the grocery store every couple of weeks, I stayed home, even when all of Facebook was winging or driving its way somewhere this summer. When fall came and it was like the spring all over again, I got up every day,  put one foot in front of the other, fired up the Zoom camera, and reached out to students. 

It's going to be a while before we're all vaccinated and the world returns to some form of normal (October is my guess), but we've at least got a good chance at it now. In the meantime, in with the new year, same as the old year, for now--but maybe with some more peace and joy and happiness, too.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Update to the previous: Joseph Epstein doubles down on the condescension, gathers a doofus follower

 Briefly, because I don't want to give this much more house room: 

Some critic at the National Review, AKA a man with a lot of opinions and little information, took Dr. Jill Biden to task for her dissertation. Did he play the Yale card? Yes, of course he did. Did I not say it's the National Review, home of William S. Buckley, author of God and Man at Yale? 

Anyway, it didn't go well:

 And then The Chronicle of Higher Education, which I gave up reading (and subscribing to! I actually subscribed for a number of years) a while back for good reasons, has given him leave to explain his views, and folks, it's not pretty:

  • Conservative tut-tutting about kids these days? Check.

  • Ditto about grade inflation AND misogyny AND a racist theory to boot: "Those evaluations helped lead to rampant grade inflation (“somehow the grade of C jumped up to B”). “At the school where I taught, a proudly left-wing teacher was said to give black students automatic A’s as an act of reparation." Check.

  • Too much political correctness ruining the university? Check. 

  • And I refer you to my previous post about the ubi sunt lament that extremely privileged white men like to indulge in about the good old days. I think I should sue him for plagiarism, don't you? "Don’t get him started on college presidents today. Back in Epstein’s time, that office was occupied by scholars of stature like Robert F. Goheen at Princeton or Alfred Whitney Griswold at Yale. Now he can only dimly recall that “the president of Harvard is a woman, or was a woman until recently.” I can only assume he thinks that is some kind of sick burn. 

    The thing I don't  understand is why everyone is giving him house room, AKA responding to him on Twitter, FB and everywhere else after he's done the sh*t-stirring that he obviously set out to do. We corrected him, but like a certain person in the White House, he just feeds on it and sows more chaos. We should be ignoring him--but then again, what am I doing but giving this attention? 

    < Apparently one of his books is called Narcissus Leaves the Pool. No, kiddo. Narcissus is still at the pool, gazing at his own reflection and terrified that others might be able to gain a place at it.  


Monday, December 14, 2020

That's DR. Undine to you, Joseph Epstein

 This may be a blogtime first for the number of days between posts--sorry. This is a catching up and promising to do better post. 

First of all, how about that old rich white guy's screed against women academics using the titles they've earned and not knowing their places? I don't need to link to it, but there's a nice takedown here:

If you didn't see it (it's linked to at the takedown link), the basic argument is this: 

1. He, a B.A., is better educated 

Narrator: He's not

2. And more worthy of respect, even though he doesn't know the difference between an honorary and an earned degree

Narrator: Ditto

3. Than Dr. Jill Biden, who earned her Ed.D. and wrote a dissertation of "dubious value"

Narrator: A: No. and B: Is he qualified to judge?

4. And that she, "kiddo, Jill"--should shut up, stop using "Dr.," and get back in the kitchen, where she belongs.  And also, get off his lawn.

Narrator: Accurate summary. 

* note on "kiddo"--you know who uses "kiddo" all the time, according to Joyce Maynard? J. D. Salinger, about whom some of you here have expressed, um, strong and wonderful opinions. I think we've found out exactly what kind of person Holden Caulfield all growed up would turn out to be. 

Instead of apologizing, the WSJ doubled down and called women's outrage "cancel culture." Draw your own conclusions about that. 

But really, Epstein's screed is just another in the WSJ's series of "who is destroying our sacred white education?" series. 

Now we know the answer:  The wimmenz! The middle-class wimmenz!

As I wrote back in 2013--you can call me Cassandra--this is just one of their attacks on contemporary education: 

First of all, I think this is the same article they run every month under a different title and by-line. It goes something like this:

When I was at beautiful Ivy or Oxbridge back in the olden days, I had an extremely famous professor (this time: Frank Kermode) who inspired me with the timeless truths of the humanities curriculum. 
Alas, there were few such professors then, and there are none today. That pesky GI bill opened education to the masses, and now students want grades instead of reading literature for timeless truths. Literature has been sullied by the grade-grubbing paws of these students. Where is the pure love of literature of yesteryear?

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Mom of the World, or Shouting into the Void

 If you're a mom, or a teacher, or have a certain kind of organizational brain, you're used to this: 

Mom version: 

Day 1. "Mom, where are my socks?"

"In the drawer where they always are." (Or in my case, in the laundry basket where I hadn't folded them.)

"Oh, okay." 

Day 2. "Mom, where are my socks?" etc. 

But you put up with it because they're kids and learning.


Teacher version: 

"How many sources do we need for this paper?" (after you've already said "as many or as few as you need" in class many times.)

"As many or as few as you need. If you're supporting a point . . . " (and you can do this from memory, I'm sure.) 

You answer patiently because they're students AND you have learned that some draconian teacher in their past has probably terrified them by saying "this specific number, no more and no less." They need that reassurance that, unlike a real colleague I had one time, I am not going to dock them points for putting one space rather than two after a period back when that was a thing. 


But what about grown-ups? 

Person A to Person B & C (me):"Where did we put this file? Who has it? What did we say about X? Isn't that a problem?"

Person C (me): "The file is here. Here is the system I set up so we could all keep track of these files together. Here is what we decided about X, and here is why we thought it was a problem." 

Person B: "I don't remember what we decided, Person A, but I think X is a problem because [what I as Person C just said without crediting me]." 

Person A: "Thank you, Person B, for your vast insights and wisdom."

Person C (me): "Hello! I'm talking here."

In short, apparently I am the Mom of the World, organizing things and shouting into a void that is not responsive. As with other responsibilities where this has happened, the world will not change, but I can stop being its Mom.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Midpoint while teaching & writing in cyberspace

 We're halfway through the semester, and so far the Great Online Experiment is going--as well as can be expected?  In The Invisible Woman, her biography of Dickens's mistress, Ellen Ternan, Claire Tomalin says that's the phrase always used for women after childbirth, and while that is so not me, it seems to fit. Given "these challenging times" in which everyone "hopes you are well," we're doing what we can, I guess. 

  • As mentioned previously, I feel oddly closer to and more relaxed with my students teaching this way. Is it because of the informality baked into the whole Zoom teaching process? Because I have actual books at home that I can use to illustrate points? That I spend more time checking in on how they're doing? I can't tell. What I can tell is that I'm really happy to see them on class days, happier than I have been for a while.
  • They seem to be--adjusting? I offered to meet with them (masked, distanced, etc.) in person and have traveled to campus for that purpose, but only one person took me up on the offer. Or are they more resigned than adjusted? 
  • Of course they don't have to keep their cameras on, and I've told them so. But they do, which is really helpful and makes a huge difference.
  • I'm still getting asked admin questions from time to time, and I am responsible about answering and referring without giving my opinion. Whose circus is it? Whose monkeys? Not mine. And I really do think that a change in perspective in the position will ultimately benefit everyone, despite the absolute perfection of my judgment in all things :).
  • It's still very hard to write, but some glimmerings are starting to emerge of some ideas.
  • WordPress has decided to become more horrible even than in its last "new & improved" update. Now it hides ALL the things I need to access, makes it harder to start a page, sends you to a bunch of clicks when all you want to do is add a file, and is generally behaving in an exasperating and time-consuming fashion. Did WordPress decide that we have too much time on our hands? 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Has it really been a month?

 Time expands and contracts at a different rate now, as I'm definitely not the first to notice. Here are some random bullets until I can write a real post:

  • We're teaching online (synchronously) and I am so far enjoying it. That's heresy, I know, but I feel much more relaxed with the students and much, I don't know, better and more connected to them. I asked the students whether they wanted recorded lectures or live ones, and they voted for live; in a humanities discipline, there's a lot of Q & A that goes on in the midst of a class, so it probably works better for this class. Not having a long commute is really helping, too. I'm really enjoying the students, and I love being able to show them books without having to lug them a long distance. I bought a document camera, and it's great for this. 
  • I had promised the students that I'd be on campus for in-person check-ins sometime, but our campus, like some others, is Covid Central right now, so maybe I'll postpone that. The powers that be don't want us on campus; they wisely want us to stay put, so who am I to argue? 
  • It still took many, many--too many--hours to scan, upload, and prepare the classes, like maybe 50+ hours over the course of a couple of weeks. That's without recording any lectures! 
  • But I did quit my admin job, as you all so wisely advised, or rather I let my contract run out though I'd thought about continuing. After spending pretty much all my time last spring and this summer on administration, it's a relief to take a deep breath. My colleagues were gracious about it, and I had definitely done enough and left things in good shape.
  • As if to fill up the void, let's see: family drama surrounding my mother's estate takes a fair chunk of my week every week, and having the landscape try to kill us with fire, deadly smoke, and of course the ever-present pestilence is really distracting. Let's not even talk about the political situation, which is terrifying.
  • I don't know how people are managing to write. I can barely keep up with the reading in the courses I'm teaching, and yes, I understand it's worse for the students and am cutting them all kinds of breaks. 
 Happy first day of fall!


Friday, August 21, 2020

More pictures

I have a syllabus to do (don't we all right now?), but here are a few more pictures from the little house. As you can see, the furniture gets moved around quite a bit, except for the bookcases. 

What looks like a blue studio couch is actually the chair, which folds out like a Transformer.
Here's the chair in chair form. The unit on the wall is an Amana heat pump for heat & AC.
You can see the bookcases against the wall. The windows on that side are small, like the one over the desk, just enough to give a cross breeze.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Writing House

(This may be a temporary post because of the pictures, but I'm so happy that you want to hear about my little writing house.)

The New York Times recently posted an article about backyard offices, and for once I may be ahead of the curve.

You see, for decades I had talked about wanting a writing house. I looked at all the pictures online and dreamed about it, as longtime readers know. 

Finally, when we were out from under many years of paying off student loans, Spouse said, "If you want this, we should do it," so we saved up and got it built. It's a permanent Christmas/birthday/anniversary present and better than any other present could be.

I'm not Michael Pollan with acreage in the woods somewhere, so it's in the back yard. 

We decided on 12 x 16, the largest we could have without a permit in our area. We hired someone to build it, so it has frame construction, insulation, and tall ceilings. 

It's a functional 4-season space, with A/C, heat, and wifi. The lights inside are bright enough to illuminate the whole space, and it's quiet.  It's not an art studio filled with decorative elements like in the NYT piece and elsewhere online. (I've made quite a study of these little structures, clearly.) 

 It's meant for work, with 4 bookcases, a desk and desk chair, and two chairs for sitting, including the rocking chair.

Inside, I can sit at the desk and write, or pace back and forth, or read in the rocking chair. I can and do stay up late without bothering anybody, when the writing is going well, which is often late into the night rather than in the morning. 

What else to say about it? Having this space makes me happy every single day, no matter what else is going on. 

I'm clearly besotted with this little house, and although I have looked at a lot of them online, this one suits me right down to the ground. 

What would you have or want in your writing house?



Monday, July 27, 2020

Online it is and random bullets of other news

  • What is happening in the fall? It's official: our undergrad courses are online in the fall unless there's some really pressing need (like lab science courses) to be in person. That's a huge relief. Grad courses: about the same, although I still have an assigned room.
  • Writing inspiration: lately I've been time-tracking rigidly, as in "9:40-9:43 stood up & got a snack." It seems to have helped productivity. 
  • Chasing that writing feeling: But nothing has been as good as when I sat down last night at around 9:45 p.m. and the writing just flowed, for the first time in forever. No anxiety, no fidgeting, just writing. It felt good. At 12:30 a.m., Spouse came down and asked what was wrong. Nothing is wrong, I told him. I'm writing. It was lovely.
  • Enough is enough. Doing about two official things in a day--two Zoom calls or whatever--is apparently about enough, for my body shuts down and I fall asleep sitting up after that. It's never for very long, but it happens. Residual stress, maybe? 
  • Absence from social media is good for the soul. If FB is to be believed, I am literally the last person in this part of the U.S. not to have gone on or be planning to go on vacation--a car trip, a camping trip, a hiking trip, renting a house at the beach. These are all COVID-conscious academics and relatives, yet everyone is going away. So the strategy here is twofold: (1) stay off FB and (2) have fun planning a really passive-aggressive autoreply for when they all get back from their vacations and start bombarding me with emails. (I won't do it, but I want to.)
  • A post about a secret to share. COVID news is fine, but it feels as though between the political hellscape and COVID, we could all use a break to talk about something else. I would really like to share a secret with all of you blog friends: I have a little writing house and want to tell you about it, if you are interested.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Invictus, I guess, and maybe some writing inspiration

Are you finding you're having good weeks and bad weeks in coping mentally with the way we live now?

This isn't meant to be a complaint. I have nothing to complain about--no child care to worry about, enough space & time to walk, the strength to get my own groceries (23rd Psalm motto: my mask and my gloves, they comfort me), a car, etc.

But at the end of the day, I'm hard pressed to say what I did, especially in terms of intellectual work.
  • Some days it's a few hours of meetings: some colleagues, when I say "we've been on Zoom for 90 minutes; it's time to wrap up" will say "just this one thing then." Sometimes I simply say "gotta go" and bail anyway. But that still leaves a lot of time to read & write, so why don't I?
  • Some days--well one day every 2-3 weeks--it's grocery day, so I mask up (I only have one mask, having lost the other) and drive around and get what we need. I come home, do the Silkwood shower, and get to work, or try to. 
  • Some days it's sit and obsess about the fall classes, which are not totally online, even though I'm trying not to. 
  • Some days, once I've gone for a long walk, which I try to do every day, I just want to admire the trees. 
  • If I do an article or manuscript review, well, then--I'm done, right?
  • There's always cooking and baking and some laundry, but I look forward to those tasks, because I get to watch old comforting TV then and not otherwise, a self-imposed rule. Spouse has always done the laundry, but he has backed off after seeing from my woebegone face that I couldn't spend 20 minutes watching The Crown or The Office if I weren't folding clothes.
Last week was the week of magical thinking about writing.
  • If I sit down to write before breakfast, I will write.
  • If I walk first, before breakfast, I will write.
  • If I walk, then shower, then eat breakfast, I will write.
  • If I change it up and eat, then walk, then shower, I will write.
  • If I start at 8:30, I will get in the habit of it and write.
 You get the picture. I figured that there was a magical sequence to daily activities and if I could just get the sequence right, the writing would follow. It was a helpless feeling: oh, no, I've got the sequence wrong. Too bad about today!

Then on Monday something snapped: it's just writing. There is no magic sequence. It's just writing. If you break out in a fidgety cold sweat when you sit down to write, well, pick up a book and start reading, and you'll want to write fast enough.

Someone Being Wrong on the Internet is nothing to Someone Being Incomplete in a Book for getting your writing juices going.

I control the process. Me, not magic sequences. It may be lousy, but what comes out is still writing.

Henley's words*:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

*Yes, I know: imperialism, yadda yadda, but it helped in the moment. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Our plans aren't firm, but yours had better be

There's a steady drumbeat across the land. Do you hear it?

It's called "what are you doing in the fall?" and unlike the university, which has an infinity of time to make up its mind, we instructors are supposed to make ours up tout de suite.

What we still don't know:

1. Whether and how obvious steps like providing masks for everyone are going to happen.
2. Whether we're supposed to teach in masks or those face shields. I have an issue there with face shields, because I can't have anything on my head or I get a raging headache (even winter hats and headphones bring this on).
3. Whether modifications are going to be made to the open toilets in the bathrooms so that they're not spewing virus.
4. Ditto door handles--can we get something better that doesn't require you to wrestle it to a standstill with both hands?
5. Where our classes will be held. This is kind of a Catch-22, and it's not all the university's fault; they can't assign rooms until they figure out who's going to be on campus. But by the same token, we need to know if we're going to have to teach in a poorly ventilated--i.e., no windows--classroom for up to 3 hours at a stretch.
6. What's going to happen if people do show up with a temperature. This last is extremely concerning, because by that point, the person may have already infected people, including people with vulnerable family members. (Raises hand.) Checking to see if people are sick: good, but not enough. This isn't the flu, where there are treatments. People often die or are disabled by this disease.
7. What magic fairies are going to clean the classrooms often enough to make a difference.
8. Where the additional recording equipment, cameras, and helpers for the in-person and online recorded materials are going to come from. 

What we do know:

1. We instructors need to let them know what we're planning in about 10 days.
2. We are strongly encouraged to teach in person for the good of the university.
3. We need to let them know what our concerns or conditions are if we are not going to teach in person.

To back up a minute: in Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes or one of his other novels, one character is  talking about the "smoking may be hazardous to your health" warnings on cigarette packs.

One of his friends comes in and says it ought to be more blunt: "Smoking will kill you f**** dead."

My "concerns," in a nutshell?

"Covid can kill you f**** dead."

Friday, June 12, 2020

Departmental divides?

Like faculty at most universities, we've gotten some mixed messages about next fall that for sheer vagueness must have been crafted by McSweeney's:
After careful deliberation, we are pleased to report we can finally announce that we plan to re-open campus this fall. But with limitations. Unless we do not. Depending on guidance, which we have not yet received.
 We've been told that we should prepare to teach online, or in person, or some combination, TBD.

We've also been told that we can opt out of teaching in person. Some universities are apparently requiring doctor's notes (!), but as best I can interpret from the vatic utterances being issued on a regular basis, we don't have to do this.

I'm wondering what will happen to the cohesiveness of departments, though, if some people teach in person and some do not. (Bardiac mentions this in her most recent post.)
  • Obviously the most vulnerable will be contingent faculty. How can we protect them from feeling as though they have to be there?
  • In terms of logistics, will there be enough classrooms that will permit social distancing--and, if so, how will they be allocated, assuming people are going to teach in person? 
  • Also, on a practical level, I'm discovering that I'm just not as loud when I talk with a mask on. How's that going to work in a big room with no microphone?  
 But also important is this:
  • Will there be a departmental divide between the two groups? 
  • Will those who teach in person be considered differently (as more present, more engaged, more concerned for students, more productive) than those who teach online? 
  • Conversely, will those who teach online be seen as protecting students' health?
  • Will that difference extend to how instructors are considered by their students? By their colleagues? Both? 
  • What's going to happen to those little hallway exchanges? Is the group that's able to do that going to bond more effectively than the ones who are teaching from home? 

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Current events

Gwinne has a post up that says it better than I can. The  racist actions that led to George Floyd's murder and the ongoing attempts at a military coup by the Dear Leader are beyond horrifying.

Like Gwinne, I donate, learn and teach about the racist history of this country, and do what I can. I write letters. I vote.

All I can do now is support in every way as much as possible.

It's not enough, and it's not going to be enough. It can't be enough until there is substantive structural change.

I'm sorry. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Minor mysteries of pandemic days

  • Why are virtual conferences, seminars, and scholarly get-togethers of all sorts springing up like weeds on my timelines & in my inbox? Why would adding Major Conference Stress, writing a paper frantically amid Covid distractions, and taking the whole circus to Zoom be appealing to so many organizations right now? I get that the lovely people behind all of these are trying to continue a scholarly community, but honestly, having even a small amount of time to think about actual writing WITHOUT Major Conference Stress is one of the few silver linings to this whole situation.
  • I nominate the following as the major genre of writing these days: “Our days are full of despair, and I in particular am completely undone by it. Can’t work at all. And oh, by the way, I’m thrilled to announce that my new 5,000 word article on Vox or Medium or the following journal about my despair and undone-ness has just been published.” 
  • Does anyone share a House Hunters’ Hate-Watch level of interest in what may be called the Scholarly Influencer syndrome? I’m not on Instagram, but my understanding is that Influencers are paid handsomely by ordinary people with apparently oodles of money to show what kind of of pillows and nail polish they buy, or something. The Scholarly Influencer exists, too. I’m not talking about people who share and bond over experiences, liking and congratulating others for achievements and creating a value-added sense of community by posting information that’s not about themselves. I’m talking about the kind that immediately jumps on Facebook or Twitter to announce publications and promote themselves but can’t be bothered to respond to others and be part of the community on either. 
  •  Is anyone else either (1) amused or (2) irritated by the flood of emails telling you of their vast concern from companies you may have ordered something from once 15 years ago but first you have to log in using a password, which requires the whole Password Authentication Dance? 
  • Edited to add: why so many think pieces telling me that baking bread (which *ahem* some of us have been doing for many decades) is pleasurable and comforting? Where’s the follow up piece explaining that water is wet? 
What minor mysteries are puzzling you right now?

Saturday, May 02, 2020

A useful parable, or story, or something, about returning to campus this fall

Dame Eleanor asks about what we're thinking will happen in the fall--online or not?

Well, we are supposed to be back in person. I'm not giving it any more thought than that because summer is when I have to make up for all the writing I didn't do this spring.

If we go back, I will get ready for it, I hope. If we don't, I'll get ready for it, I hope.

One of my favorite ways to think about a situation like this is a joke or parable or story that I heard on a TV drama about Henry VIII decades ago. It goes something like this:
The king--oh, heck, let's call him Henry VIII-- was extremely fond of his favorite horse--let's call him Bucephalus, because that was not his name. However,  he had become really disenchanted with one of his advisors. Let's call him Cromwell, because that is not his name.

Really disenchanted, as in Anne of Cleves disenchanted, Tower disenchanted, thinking about the rack disenchanted. 
 Henry was about to send Cromwell to the Tower. Somehow he got wind of this and sent word that he had a great thing to tell Henry. He met up with Henry walking in the gardens.

"Your majesty, if you give me a year, I can teach Bucephalus to talk," said Cromwell to Henry's back.

Henry turned around. "You can?"

"Yes. If you give me a year, I will train Bucephalus to talk. But it will take the entire year."

"If you do not teach him to talk, you realize that you will be hanged, drawn, and quartered?"


"Very well then. A year from today."

Cromwell bowed his way back from the royal presence. A friend who had been watching stood there with his mouth open.

"Are you insane?" he hissed. "You can't teach a horse to talk. No one can."

"The way I look at it is this," said Cromwell. "A year is a long time. In the space of a year, many things may happen." 
"I may die."
"Or the king may die."
"Or the horse may die."
"Or," he added, "the horse may talk."

So while I can think about the contingencies and the likelihood (or not) of teaching in person in the fall, so far, I'm hoping that the horse will talk. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

To resign or not to resign from admin? that is the question

I don't know. Maybe I should quit this admin job. Maybe it's time. (If you don't want to read complaining about something that's not covid, look far away from here.)

 It's not about the work, even though it has taken over my life because as Dame Eleanor said in the comments of my last post, those tasks are easy to knock off.

It is kind of about the hours, because they're eating up all my time.

But really, it's about this. The people I'm working with are good people, but we definitely have different approaches:
  • I'm a systems person, in that I like to have things set up so that they're fair for everyone. With a system, you can point to a way that things work so that they're fair and work within it. It frustrates me when others say "but what about X person?" and don't consider how decisions are going to affect Z and A. Thinking about the individual isn't bad--I don't mean that--it's just that operating in the moment like that leaves a lot of fallout for someone else to consider, and that someone else is often me. It's just a different way of operating, but for me it's exhausting.
  • Also in being a systems person: if you believe that something is going to be a clusterfail, do you let those chips fall where they may? Can you do that and be a good person? I guess I don't think you can, because I keep giving my opinion about how to fix certain things that I know about when asked. The person whose job it is to answer these questions is off doing scholarship or something, and I'm putting out fires that are not my fires to put out. 
  • Or sometimes I'm trying to put out fires but failing to do so. Example: being asked "How do we solve A?" and answering "well, we can do B and C," only to hear "I guess there's nothing we can do about A, then." I can see problems or barriers and explain them, but if people aren't listening to that, it really is a waste of time.
  •  It’s invisible and thankless work. Sure, I can look in the mirror and say "problem solved--well done, you!" but that's about it. It seems petty, and it is, but there you have it. This is the only thing that's brought me to tears in these many months, and while I know there's a lot of displacement here (my mother's death, covid, etc. etc.), that's still saying something.
The other conclusion I've reached is that maybe the problem is me. Do you remember the "it's a mystery" exchange from Shakespeare in Love?

Henslowe: "Strangely enough, it all turns out well."
Fennyman: "How?"
Henslowe: "I don't know. It's a mystery."

Maybe it'll all turn out well in ways I can't anticipate. Maybe I could "unhand that man" and everything would still be okay.

And maybe I could ignore my email until noon every day at the very least, since that's a practical step in the right direction.

Edited to add: And this is why I love blogging and all of you. I can't share this with anyone else.

Edited to add: it’s completely understandable that no one would notice the work because they have much bigger things on their mind right now.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Random bullets of still glad to be here

Here's how things are going so far:

First of all: yes, I'm grateful for being able to stay home and for having the supplies I need. Yes to all that.

But like everyone else right now, I'm distracted, unable to concentrate, and feeling exhausted.  If I wake up at 3:30 a.m., well, that's it for the night's sleep. This is so even with studiously ignoring all the dystopian fiction and plague novels being relentlessly pushed on Twitter (why? WHY?).

What I have been able to do is keep things going in the administration part of my job, although I've been spending a good 35-40 hours a week on it. That's far above what's in my contract, but it's what's needed to get everything done. Teaching is second, and research right now a nonexistent third, although that's the majority of what I'm supposed to be doing.

The problem is that administrative tasks are something that people notice only if they don't get done. It's invisible work. It's not valued. It's also exhausting to explain how systems work to people who aren't interested and ask the same questions over and over. With my collaborators, after three years I quit trying to get them to participate in a common system that would save us work because they said they wanted it but then ignored it. With administration, that's not so easy. I would like to "unhand that man," but then there would be real consequences.

Here is the covid-related part of this: the best part of being in administration is the connection you get to make to people, but if you're not doing that, it seems thankless in addition to being time-consuming.  I can't quit in the middle of this crisis, but I can think that there are other ways to live once it abates.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Learning bullets of sheltering in place

Nextdoor: We are all Gladys Kravitz now.
  • Although I am still distracted--aren't we all?--my brain has come back online for administrative and class work. I worked on that stuff all weekend. Those of you with kids at home (gwinne, I'm thinking of you) are heroes.
  • Social media 1: still not on Facebook, which I am thankful for.
  • Social media 2: Twitter has been surprisingly generous in tone. I try to post and retweet helpful items and haven't been dragged for it yet. Also, it's a learning space:
    • How to sew a mask and why a vacuum cleaner HEPA bag insert may be useful. 
    • What Instacart is, though we're encouraged to shop ourselves if we can to not overwhelm it for those who cannot get out. 
    • Online course resources for all ages. Virtual museum tours. Performances by musicians. 
    • Actual news, with links, about the pandemic.
  • Social media 3: Nextdoor. I joined this just recently, and while I had heard tales of its suspicious nature and complaining--the Gladys Kravitz syndrome of minding other people's business--what's mostly there are offerings of help or advice: which supermarkets might have some out-of-stock necessity, for example. I haven't been to the store for a couple of weeks, so it's helpful to know this. 
  • In work news: My awesome colleagues have stepped up with all of the changes and we're all working hard to make the rest of the semester as good as it can possibly be for the students.
  • However, if a faculty member who has not attended a faculty meeting for at least five years (apparently with impunity; yes, I'm petty and have kept track) floods everyone's mailboxes with questions and complaints about a university policy, is that sea-lioning? Sea-lioning:  "a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretense of civility and sincerity." Or is that just what they call on The Good Place being an "ashhole"?
  •  Remember that phrase "I hope you are well" that we started seeing in emails about 10 years ago? These days we really, really mean it.

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.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year!

Every year, like everybody else in the world (pretty much), I make resolutions. Every year (ditto), I fail to live up to them.

Why make them, then?

Because not to even try is to give up, and all of life is about not giving up. Mary Pickford decided at some point that she had done enough hard work in her life, which lord knows she had, and retreated to her bed and to alcohol after a certain point. Jack Warner's second wife barely came downstairs for the last few decades of her life because she said she was done with entertaining. I understand feeling as though you deserve a rest, and certainly they had enough money to do whatever they wanted, but this kind isn't good for anyone.

I also don't mean beating your head against a brick wall if you have clear evidence that something's unrealistic or not working. As Megan's mother Marie cruelly but correctly said on Mad Men, the world could not support that many ballerinas.

I mean trying to the best of your ability to do things that you can do, and maybe a few things that you think you can't do, to the best of your ability.

So here are a few resolutions for the new year, some of which--ahem!--you may have seen before.

File under "everything old is new again":

1. Lowering FB use. About three weeks ago, I went on Facebook, experienced an immediate stress reaction (think twitching eyes and breaking out in a cold sweat), posted a "bye for now!" message, and stayed away until yesterday. Discovery: checking in every couple of months is plenty. I'd quit it entirely except that it's the only way of finding out about (and disseminating information about) family events. 

2. My creativity and writing energy is still best at night, but it's unsustainable to write until 11 if you wake up without prompting between 4:30 and 5 a.m. Spouse says I am sleep-deprived when I do this, and the fact that I fall asleep instantly if I sit down for more than a few minutes suggests that he's right. I'm going to try again to show up for writing in the mornings.

3. Recognizing again that any kind of writing takes what it takes in terms of time and mental energy. It might take others only a few hours to put together a conference paper, or so they tell me when they tease me about spending 30 hours on it (I logged them). If it takes me 30 hours--and they're not wasted, because the time is spent in really thinking about the material--I have to accept that that's what it takes and not beat myself up for not being able to dash it off.

File under "let's try some new things":

1.  Now that I have actual research assistants and projects to manage, I've been exploring Trello, Asana, Excel spreadsheets, etc. as a means of tracking tasks. Is it worth putting together a "scrum board" like this one on Silicon Valley for my own projects as well?

2. Recognize that the feeling of relief after finishing something is far more fleeting than the months of dread that went into writing it and stop doing some kinds of tasks (book reviews, which are not worth the dread).

3. Keep track of the books I read for pleasure, and, since most of them are biographies or histories related to work anyway, make notes about them.