Wednesday, March 24, 2021

What's getting you through this spring? The mental grout theory of coping.

Some things are looking up. They really are. Want proof?

  • People are getting vaccinated (including me, hooray!).
  • The days are getting longer. Sure, they're still cold, gray, and rainy, with snow and hail from time to time, but they are longer.
  • The political hellscape has lifted and things are getting done. Proof: people are picking at each other on Twitter for very minor sins of omission in fights that exist only among the theory bros and other cool kids.
  • Call my Agent is on Netflix and is absolutely fantastic, a sure way to get out of your head for an hour a day. It's French, and it's hilarious (and the subtitles are really good).

But one thing I've noticed is that every spring, I seem to do a deep dive into something that takes me a complete world away from work. For some people it might be knitting, or yoga, or skiing, or whatever else gives you a brain vacation. The main principles are that it has to (1) be engaging enough to completely flood your brain with something other than work and (2) it has to have little to no utility in any kind of work life. 

The way I think of it is this: the work and daily tasks in your life are like rocks living in your brain. Some of the rocks are huge; some have sharp, irregular edges that bang into you when you're trying to fall asleep; but all of them are there and won't go away, although they change shape and configuration from time to time.

If all you have in your mental inventory is a set of boulders weighing you down and grating against each other, it's going to get you down. What you need is some grout, or smooth mental filler, that you can use to keep those rocks from moving around too much when you need to get some rest and relaxation.

Now, some movies, television shows, podcasts, books, and the like can do this (see: Call My Agent), but you might also need more mental grout than this.

This could be anything, like, say, a deep dive into the films of Orson Welles. Or learning an embarrassing amount about Bonnie and Clyde. Mad Men. Or who really killed the Princes in the Tower. Doesn't matter if you're not an expert on whatever it is; in fact, that's preferable, because then you can learn more. My mental grout this spring is a band, but it could have been anything. It's whatever puts you back to sleep when anxieties awaken you at 3 a.m.

After a time, you might shift the composition of the mental grout to something else, but the point is that it exists, not what it consists of.

Do you have some mental grout that's helping you get through everything? What is it?

Monday, March 15, 2021

Conferences: Might as well face it, you're addicted to sloth

What usually happens in the spring? Pay attention to conference calls for papers. Go to meetings on campus. Prep class. Grade papers. Try to write. Put in grant applications that you don't have a chance of getting. Drive, drive, drive, in all senses.

This spring has been . . . different. Even though I can see that all the people moaning on Twitter about how  Covid has sapped their productivity are in fact publishing up a storm, promoting themselves, doing Zoom lectures, on and on and on and on, I somehow . . . don't care. That is, I like and promote their work, but as for me? No FOMO here. 

 I recently had to add up all the conferences at which I was going to attend and present--and pay for; no conference money was going to be forthcoming from Northern Clime--and I thought I must have been crazy to agree to it all.  Farhad Manjoo had a recent opinion piece in the NYT--"Do you really need to fly?"--and posed the question that all conference-goers have asked themselves: do we really need to hurl ourselves across the country or across continents to read a paper aloud for 20 minutes, or, best case, give a 50-minute keynote? Couldn't we do this through Zoom? 

Yes, the point of conferences is really the conversations that we have in the hallways or session Q & A or, for you sociable types, cocktail parties or dinner. But couldn't some of this be done virtually?

Manjoo says that things are going to change, that we're going to see that this level of travel is nuts and that a lot can be done virtually. However, I think it's an arms race thing that may change, but only slowly. Unless the big conferences embrace some version of virtual conferences, it's going to create a two-tiered system, sort of like the way that (regrettably) online publications a few years ago were seen as inferior. "Is it a monograph that will count or an online publication?" we heard. "Both?" we said, but did the tenure and promotion committees agree? Do they agree now? 

Somehow we've got this Theodore Roosevelt strenuous-life attitude about travel as inherent virtue, however miserable the travel and wrong-headed it might be. Sure, it's a conference, but is it a real conference if it's not in person? Sure, the archive has all those materials digitized beautifully, but is it really research if you didn't go to the archive, spending money, taking time, and risking the inevitable misery of catching a cold to do so? If you didn't suffer (and yes, in a privileged academic way; this does not compare with real suffering) to get to the archive in person, how do you know it's real scholarship? If you didn't eat the stale bagels and buy the $6 granola bar and drink the scalding coffee from the official Hell Caterer to the Conference World and feel anxious about every minute of the conference, did you really get the full experience? 

The conversations, ideas, and networking do make conferences worthwhile, not to mention they're pretty much required if you want to be an active scholar in most fields. And I'm not stupid enough to confess the relief from the constant travel that this year has given me, not when everyone everywhere is proclaiming in-person conferences as an absolute good, like chocolate chip cookies or clean air. But this year has given a sense of what life might be like without quite so many of them, and the grass on the other side of the fence (whispers) is a little greener than I thought it would be.

Either that, or I'm addicted to sloth.