Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I am almost, almost caught up with my grading.

This will be the weekend, I swear.

(Apologies for another nearly content-free post. But it was my last chance to get one in before September officially ended.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Earlier than expected

I just had my first full-on in-office meltdown. There were tears and sobbing. And it's not even October.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Girl Scholar's Sure-Fire, One Hundred Percent-Guaranteed Plan for Total Insanity in Twelve Weeks** or Less

So, perhaps I'm the only one paying attention to my blog's sidebar, but have you noticed that there's now not one but two word-counters there?

Yes, I'm insane.

I've finished the Shitty First Draft and Slightly Better Second Draft of the big article project that I want in review-ready (though anticipating one more revision before final submission) form by the end of the semester. But I've also got a conference coming up in November. And the paper actually has to be good, because the organizer got the bright idea of getting Esteemed Former Advisor to chair the panel.


I'm currently calming myself by telling myself that it's only ten or eleven pages, and I can write only ten or eleven pages on anything. But I also remember my disaster at Kalamazoo last year, when I discovered that I really couldn't, not always. And this is my first real foray into Shiny New Project territory.

So, this morning I read a book on the new topic. I'm on my way. Wish me luck.

**The "twelve weeks" of the title refer to the approximate length of time between the day I started this absurd write-every-day thing, and the end of the semester.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Do they really think I can understand them?

The guys who shout at me from car windows while I'm riding my bike, that is. It happened again today.He could have been yelling "Nice t!ts!" or "Get out of the road, btch!" (both of which have been yelled at me on previous occasions), or even "Eureka! I've just solved Fermat's last theorem!" The fact that the yeller was leaning out the passenger window to look at the yell-ee (me) as he passed implied to me that he was expecting some sort of response. But of course, the magic of the doppler effect (bike = 15 mph; car = 35 mph) turned his words into an aural smear.

Somehow, I don't think I'm missing much.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Mom Answers Student E-mails

Okay, not just yet, but perhaps appearing in this space soon, because I have decided that, from now on, I will be forwarding all correspondence from my students addressed to "Mrs. Notorious" to the only person I know who goes by that name: my mom.

It should be interesting to see what she makes of it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The House Always Wins

So. This guy wants to know why women are so unhappy, why they're getting unhappier over time, and why they get less happy as they get older.

He presents the quandary: "Wherever researchers have been able to collect reliable data on happiness, the finding is always the same: greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men."

He promises to tell us next week why this is. I'm worried about what the above statement portends. But I've actually got an answer of my own worked up, one that explains both the "decrease over time" and the "decrease with age" phenomenon. It's one that goes back to a grad school seminar on, believe it or not, revolts and revolutions in early modern Europe. In that seminar, we were introduced to some historian's theory of the "J-curve." I have only the haziest recollections, so someone else can fill me in, for certain. But here's what I remember. According to this historian, revolutions don't happen when things have been bad for a long, long time. By that time, people are used to it. Rather, they happen when there have been consistent improvements followed by a change for the worse, or expectations of improvements that suddenly fail to materialize. Imagine an upside-down letter J. Get it?

Now, imagine that women's** expectations of the limitless possibilities for their lives are thrown into contrast (a contrast that gets sharper as women age) with the realization that, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) all this, we're still expected to spend enormous amounts of our energy trying to be something we’re not: pretty, thin, young, compliant, non-swearing, perfectly-groomed, dependent, dumb, nurturing, self-sacrificing, quiet-voiced, unconditionally adoring, nonthreatening, patient, or simply never, ever angry. In other words: “feminine.” And the older we get, the more we realize that the house always wins in the end.

Yeah. I suppose that could make a woman a bit unhappy.

UPDATE: Rootlesscosmo provides a link in the comments to a site that exposes how the "problem" of women's unhappiness (often implicitly blamed on feminism) is based on dubious statistics, but keeps getting recycled every few years anyway. Kind of reminds me of that whole "you'll never get married after 35" thing. I'm now convinced that the premises upon which the question is based are specious, but still stand by my answer to this non-question -- if that's not too illogical.

**In light of the content of this post, I am bitterly amused that Blogger does not recognize the word "women's."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How the hell did I manage to do THAT?

In the last 13 days, I have written a draft of an article, from start to finish.

There are caveats to be had, of course. First caveat: it's based on material from the book. This essay is supposed to be a more condensed version of the most innovative parts of that book's argument, but also with a broader geographic and chronological scope, so there's work to be done. Still, it's mostly familiar ground, not at all like starting from scratch.

Second caveat: it is indeed a Shitty First Draft, lacking introduction and conclusion, and replete with square brackets saying things like "[300 words here on topic X; see professor B's book, pp 67 => ??]" and "[get info on country Y -- check authors Q & Z]", and also, more than once, "[rewrite this para. to avoid self-plagiarism]".

But, wow! I wrote 7,000 words in 13 days, working no more than 2 hours a day. I wouldn't believe it if the evidence weren't sitting right here in front of me.

There's still a long road to go before I can show this to anyone, much less until it's truly finished. But this is seriously encouraging.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why We Write

(or "Writing in a Time of Crisis")

So, I hinted at the end of the previous post that I would share my thoughts as to why, precisely now, I've decided that it's Time To Write (and by extension, publish, one hopes). I think that people have been guessing that it's because I'm lining myself up for some juicy job. I'm not. Trust me: the number of TT jobs in the field of Medieval Stuff this year can almost be counted on one hand, and most of the ones that do exist aren't that interesting to me. So let's stop the wild speculation right there.

It's also not because I've got some fabulous new thing I'm working on. My main project this semester is an essay that I was invited to submit for a volume, based on stuff I've already done. Except for a conference paper, Shiny New Project is on the back burner this semester.

It's also not because I'm just one of those people who loves the act of writing, and churns out publications at breakneck pace. In fact, writing has always been like pulling teeth for me,** and I've always considered my productivity to be a bit on the low side.

I write because of my university's financial crisis.

I write because the other two components of my job, teaching and service, are becoming increasingly corporatized: our teaching mandates are more concerned with time-to-degree, "outcomes assessment" and job training than with actual education, and because "service" here is every year less about contact with students, and more about going to long meetings run top-down by people who speak entirely in verbs-made-from-nouns and acronyms, and devising rules to preemptively avoid imaginary lawsuits. In both cases, we are driven by budget imperatives, and decisions made by people who don't teach, don't research, and think that professors are a lazy, whiny lot. These opinions about who I am, what I do, and what I'm worth are intensely demoralizing. Writing reminds me that these people are dead wrong.

I write because it is the one part of my job entirely in my control.*** I don't do it for any dean, provost, or state legislator. I don't pick my topic based on what will put butts in the chairs. I write because I need that daily reminder of why I fell in love with the study of Medieval Stuff in the first place: if I cease to care, then how can I expect my students to care? I write because I need to feel like a part of a scholarly community beyond Urban University, where everyone is hunkered down, waiting for the next blow. I write because I'm still an idealist who believes in learning for its own sake, and knows that losing that belief will turn me into an awful teacher. I write because, if I don't write, I'll become one of those embittered proffies who inhabit the halls of every department at institutions like mine**** across the country, doing the bare minimum of teaching because they don't care anymore, doing no writing because no one else around them cares, and spending most of their time either starting (or continuing) minute turf battles, giving the same lectures, readings, and scan-tron tests year after year, and terrorizing their junior colleagues. I remember those old men from my first two years here,***** and I wondered how they got that way. Now I see how it could happen. But I don't want it to happen to me.

I write, in short, because writing allows me to maintain my optimism about my job as a whole, in the face of increasing obstacles. The greater those obstacles become, the more I need writing to maintain my enthusiasm for both teaching and learning. Cutbacks in support and increases in teaching load are making it more difficult to research and write, rather than less. Writing is my way of pushing back.

The leaders of my university, my state, and my country are having a hard time figuring a way out of the current crisis. Writing is my way out.

**I like having written, and revising and fine-tuning my writing can be satisfying. But those first drafts? Ugh.

***Not to be confused with "publication of my writing," which is out of my control.

****I'm not arguing that all 4-4 profs are bitter and checked-out. I'm writing from the soon-to-be-4-4 perspective myself, and this post is meant to encourage people like myself to make choices that can keep that from happening. A teaching-focused institution can allow for just as much individual expression as one that helps you get research done, provided that your teaching is valued, and your autonomy and expertise are respected. And, of course,
people teaching 2-2 or less are just as capable of becoming bitter in the way I describe above. But a heavy teaching load that prevents you from doing other things that are more personal (whether it be writing, triathalons, or playing the highland pipes), if combined with a message that the only results that matter are the ones that can be quantified and placed on a spreadsheet, can be fertile ground for problems, and I think this confluence of circumstances is more likely to happen at mega-4-4 institutions like Urban University than at other types of school.

*****Making me even more grateful for current colleagues, whose good humor in the face of collapse makes this whole thing bearable, and a department chair who really does her best to mitigate the worst of the effects.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Still writing every day

...but it's making me tired.

I've cranked out an astounding number of words on my first draft in the past week. Really, I'm amazed. But now, week three of the semester, and the intro stuff in the courses is really over, and I've run out of the "easy" bits in my draft. So I'm wondering how I'm going to keep caught up and maintain the pace.

Fortunate, I suppose, that I hadn't planned on having any social life at all this semester. And I'm hoping that once I've got that first draft under control, the pace will slow a bit -- just in time for grading! But this is going to be one seriously busy semester.

Why am I doing this to myself? There are reasons. More on that in the next post.

TUESDAY MORNING UPDATE: Pushed-back wake-up time another 15 minutes to account for 9:30 class. 590 drafty words (and moderate feeling of accomplishment) by 7:10. Still tired, but coffee is helping.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


...feels like a good day.

That is all.

Friday, September 11, 2009

You're So Vain, You Probably Think This Post Is About You

Dear Professor Piece-of-Work,

Yes, I'm talking to you. You who wrote that one book with a somewhat controversial and certainly intriguing thesis. It's not anywhere near any of my own research interests, but I assigned it to my grad students, because it's interesting, and has plenty to both agree and disagree with. It's also great for grad classes because it's not overly long, and the writing and ideas are really accessible. I like that book.

But I never really liked you. I mean, to be fair, I only met you once at a conference, when I was a grad student, and you a junior faculty member fresh out of That One School. But you were by turns condescending and rude to me on that occasion, and it stuck with me. This even colored my reaction to your picture on the faculty website -- I couldn't help imagining you thinking "I'll wear this outfit and pose just so; that will make me look intellectual, and possibly just a little dangerous."

Okay, that last bit is probably just me projecting. But the following is not: in the years since your first book came out, you've taken the opportunity to review just about every book even remotely related to your subject, and you've manage to subtly but thoroughly trash every one of them. Sure, there was the obligatory two-sentence paragraph at the tail end of every one saying how people should definitely read the book in question. But everything leading up to that point was intended to disparage the book under review. I haven't read every review you've written, but every one I have read kinda follows this pattern.

Which is why I giggled with unworthy, shameful delight when I read a recent review of your second book. Did you read it? Uh-huh.

Sorry, but even in academia, a little human decency and (dare I say it?) humility goes a long way.


--N. Ph.D.

Things that can wait until after I write

Things that I've discovered can wait for a couple of hours:
  • e-mail
  • shower
  • listening to the news
  • checking blogs/facebook/whatever
  • elaborate breakfast preparation
  • grading/lecture-writing
Things that cannot wait under any circumstances:
  • getting dressed (vy important!)
  • contact lenses
  • enough food to hold me for a couple of hours
  • caffeine procurement

593 words today.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

You know what helps?

With writing every day, that is? Two things:

1. Plan it/Post-it: The night before, I decide what my reasonable project for the next day is going to be -- something that I could write around 500 (crappy) words on. I also see if I'm going to need to consult any resources to write those words. Two articles? Dig 'em out and put them by the computer. Then I write myself instructions for the next day on a virtual post-it for my computer desktop, so it's the first thing I see when I turn on my computer.

2. Turn off, tune in, write: The next morning, when I sit down to write (first thing), I turn off my internet connection. I can do all that (e-mail, blog, whatever) after I've finished my little post-it task. I've been doing this for three days straight now, and I've discovered that the e-mails I've gotten overnight are rarely so urgent that they can't wait two hours.

These are two things that won't come as particularly revelatory. But this is the first time that I've actually done them, and... it works.

Today's word count: 882, though in the form of notes that will have to be shaped later this afternoon.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Writing from a Place of Ignorance

So, the book is in, but no time to rest on my laurels, because I've got an ambitious writing program for this semester that includes a workable (thought not review-ready) draft of an 8,000-word essay by December, and a 2,000-word conference paper by November. I've picked up a writing guide that suggests beginning by assessing your feelings about writing, and confronting the things that have blocked you in the past. And what came out of this little exercise last night was that my biggest block was not feeling like I could write until I had read everything there was to know about the subject. So this morning, I tried something totally new for me: writing from a place of ignorance.

The longer piece is commissioned: I've been asked to write something that plays off my argument in the book, but that extends that argument both chronologically and geographically. It's going to be broader, and necessarily more general, but it needs to make an actual argument, rather than being merely expository.

So this morning, I threw myself out of bed early, rather than sleeping in as I could have on a holiday, got myself to my writing spot, and started to write. At this stage, all I could muster were musings: What would my essay need to cover? Where would it build off of what I already knew? What new territory would I need to cover? From there, I mused about new resources I would need to gather, both secondary and primary. I also wrote about people and resources I could consult to get me there.

Within an hour and a half, I had written over 900 words. Now, these are not words that will make it into the final project (note that the word counter in the sidebar is reset to zero). But they're words.

It seems that the only way to be one of those "write every day" people (and all the truly productive academics I know are of this type) is to actually do it. Writing every day might mean just writing up whatever I will have read the previous evening. Or it could be that famed "shitty first draft" that Anne Lamott speaks of. But most of all, in these early stages, it means writing without worrying about my ignorance. Ignorance is not stupidity, it's just lack of information, and that information will come in time.

More on this as it develops.

UPDATE: Only 10 minutes after finishing this post, I cruised over to Clio Bluestocking's place, where I saw that she had posted on much the same thing (though with more detail on her project-in-progress), including a link to the "shitty first draft." Gotta love the synchronicity of it all.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

First Week: The Good and the Bad

I have made it through the first week of my first semester as a tenured proffie. It doesn't feel that different: I still share an office, I still have to do pretty much all the same things I had to before. But here's the good news/bad news round-up:

GOOD: My classes all had sufficient enrollments not to be canceled, but not so much as to be oppressive. Manageable class sizes. And the students seem enthusiastic. One even came up after class and told me that she'd been looking forward to taking the class because her best friend had told her that my classes were great.

BAD: I gave students in one class a massive first-week assignment on Tuesday, due Thursday, but somehow thought I had posted the readings when I hadn't. A combination of factors meant that I didn't get the students' frantic e-mails until 10 p.m. the night before the assignment was due. So I had to push back the assignment, and I came off looking a bit disorganized.

GOOD: I downloaded some freeware, and can now extract clips from commercial DVDs, save them to my hard drive, and embed them in powerpoint** presentations (short clips only + classroom use only = Fair Use under copyright law), so I don't have to be constantly switching media during class. Used it in class for the first time today, and it worked perfectly. I am enthused.

BAD: The faculty got a notice yesterday that next year's competition for research-related course releases will be canceled, due to budget shortfalls. My official teaching load is 4-4, but course releases get almost everybody down to a 3-3. Until now.

GOOD: I got a shiny new laptop from my employer, to replace the old one that has suffered four years of heavy use, crumbs dropping into the keyboard, and two falls off the back of my bike. Budget problems mean that for the next year or two, the computer refresh program will be severely restricted, so I got this one just in time.

BAD: I have another hole in my office window.

GOOD: I have acquired a writing buddy in the department, and we're going to be working on getting a draft of an article each this semester. He's smart, and motivated, so I think it'll be great.

I am cautiously optimistic.

**I am a mac user, and bought their office suite while in Puddletown this summer. So, I'll soon be taking Keynote out for a spin.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I'm okay, really.

Hi all,

I've gotten a lot of off-list e-mails (and one iTunes gift -- thank you, rootlesscosmo!) in the last 24 hours from people concerned about my mental health. I want to thank you all for your concern. That's nice to know that people are checking in -- even people who have never met me. And thanks for the words of wisdom and understanding from those who have been there.

But honestly, these are situational blues, and I'll be fine. The new semester has started, full of promise, as it always is. and a meeting with a retaining wall on my ride home from work (just in time for my one-year bikeversary!**) put it all in perspective:

Hard to get worked up over "Ooh, poor dear me, I have tenure and a book!" when you're suddenly missing a good piece of your epidermis, and wondering if the healing process is going to leave you with a dirt tattoo.

Guys dig chicks with road rash, right?

**One year, 1850 miles.