Thursday, December 27, 2007

Logical Proof for the Existence of Santa Claus

Okay, this is a few days late, and going to be fairly esoteric, but since many of my readers are medievalists (and at least two recovering medievalists), I present:

A Logical Proof for the Existence of Santa Claus.

(And remember: I never claimed to be anything other than a big nerd.)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Romancing the Nervous Breakdown

I have never been one of those truly driven scholar-types. I have admired them, however. In fact, what held me in thrall was less the accomplishment than the craziness that fueled it. Example: at age nine (or thereabouts) I saw the movie The Paper Chase (the one where John Houseman intones, "You get grades the old-fashioned way: you earn them"). I fell in love with the idea of law school. Not with being a lawyer, mind you, but with law school: the stress, the challenge, the idea of pushing myself to the breaking point, then just a bit beyond. I think it's something akin to the mentality of people who run marathons.

As it has worked out, I have seen what this looks like in academia, and I'm not really it (except on those rare occasions when I am). I enjoy pure entertainment, company of other humans, walking in the rain, browsing bookstores, or just sitting in coffee shops just watching the world go by far too much to be that kind of scholar.

But I have to confess that I still find a perverse romance in it all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Girl Scholar Does the Holidays

Dateline: Home City

Today, 36 hours after leaving Fellowship City, I finally finished the last of this semester's errands -- you know, the semester I'm on leave? Yeah, that one. Anyway, the grad exam reports have been faxed in, the article MS sent off (later than I'd like, but not too late), and I'm traveling with work, because nothing says "Christmas" quite like two fragmented former dissertation chapters and a stack of articles.

Am I the only one who does this? Travels with work, I mean? I don't always actually do the work, mind you, but I've long ago ceased to be able to travel without at least three photocopied journal articles for every five days of vacation. It's a sickness, I know.

In other news: all but one of the presents (mom -- dear god) has been purchased, and I say thank the gods for Amazon, which will ship directly to the family homestead, where I can wrap them as they arrive. I am also lusting after a couple of consumer purchases for myself that I know the family won't be able to afford. And I helped dad decorate the tree tonight... and learned that there is a fine line between tree feng shui and OCD.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On leave, my ass.

So, I thought that being on leave would make it relatively easy to keep up a blog. But here's the dirty little secret about being on leave: You aren't, not really.

In the past two weeks, I have graded two graduate exams (okay, one, and am in the midst of the other), devised an independent study contract for a student of mine that I'll be supervising next spring semester, even though there will be someone else as instructor of record, written a couple of letters of recommendation for a former student trying to get into a Ph.D. program, and kept up with correspondence on a couple of issues at home having to do with salary and my teaching when I return. I've also got my annual review in the back of my mind, but I'm just not going to worry about that right now. Can't possibly.

The point is, even though I'm two time zones away from my home campus, I'm still working.

In other news: I finished the revision of The Never-Ending Article, and would have sent it off today if I'd have gotten out of the house before the post office closed. I've also been preparing to leave Monday to spend holidays in Home City, and been dealing with a flu of some kind. And to add to things, there have been Interesting Developments in my personal life. Huh. Wonders never cease.

All in all, it's been a busy couple of weeks. I have been lax about keeping up with my fellow med-bloggers out there, but I figure that this is a busy time of year for everyone, so hopefully all will be forgiven, as I send what I hope will be regular dispatches from Home City.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Tackling the Beast (again), and a Shout-Out

Well, there's no putting it off any longer; I'm diving back in to yet another round of revisions on Never-Ending Article. For the first time in a month and a half, I opened the folder with the article, gingerly reached into the envelope from Journal of Excellent Studies, and pulled out the chunky readers' reports. I made a list of the three Big Revisions, and took home a book and a couple of articles to read over the weekend. I've told J of ES that I'll turn it around by December 10. So ((deep breaths)), here we go.

And, on a related note, a huge Thank-You to D, who, when I e-mailed her about needing help in tracking down a copy of her recent dissertation to cite (haven't read it, but I know what it's about enough to know that it'll be incredibly helpful), e-mailed me a copy of the entire dissertation within an hour. D & I are working on topics with a little bit of overlap, and both pre-tenure, so it would be very easy for one of us to clam up about what we were doing, and refuse to share. I'm just eternally grateful that most of the people I've run into are not like that, but rather are cut from more generous cloth. Like D. To whom (may I emphasize this again?) I owe my thanks.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On Presenting the Work

Well, well. Huh. I wonder how that went.

Over the past two days, I presented some of my work in progress at Fellowship Institute, thus fulfilling one of the major conditions of my fellowship, and getting it out of the way early. I gave a 45-minute presentation on Monday, followed by 45 minutes of discussion.... then came back Tuesday at lunch for a one-hour follow-up discussion (smaller group). The audience was about 20 on the first day, 15 on the second. I structured the presentation so the first part was all brand-new stuff (all that theory/methodology), the second part was some very technical stuff specific to my subfield, and the third part was meant to be some nice concrete examples to bring it all home.

Except that I ran out of time (I always forget to plan for my digressions), and had to skip the third part, which really tied things together. Ooops.

So, the first day's discussion was rough. It focused mainly on the methodology section, which was fine, but people did challenge me on a couple of points. By this morning, I was able to process the comments and understand how they could help, and cut myself some slack, since this is really, truly brand-new work. But that's today: yesterday, I have to admit going home feeling a bit dumb.

Second day's went a lot better: I started off by telling one of my documents' stories, and once people had something to sink their teeth into, the discussion was lively and fun.

Better yet: several of the tenured faculty approached me afterwards and suggested that we have lunch, presumably to talk more. Which means that there's some interest there. Which is good.

Best of all: right after the presentation, several of the fellows (junior-ish faculty and one advanced ABD) went out to lunch together and had a nice time -- it was good to be able to take a deep breath and relax a bit with some very nice people.

I honestly have no objective idea how the presentation went. Nobody threw anything, which is good. But I did get some good feedback on a brand-new section, and the fact that some people were hotly debating some of my assertions in the new bit is a sign, I think, that I'm on an interesting track here, even if I'm still stumbling around a bit.

Post-presentation week agenda: clean up my desk at the office, set things up to begin yet another round of revisions on The Article ((shudder)); go to the library and check out The Count of Monte Cristo for a bit of fun weekend reading. (Remember "fun reading"?)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Process

Recently, someone asked me if the writing process came easily to me; the answer was a resounding "God, no!" Getting out that first draft is like pulling my own teeth. (I am, apparently not the only one who feels this way.) I've also discovered that, for me, it requires actually putting pen to paper. I think, it seems, through the physical act of writing; only later can I successfully type words on the screen. I don't really mind. I use what works.

Now, we can hope it actually did work. I've finished writing the presentation that I will be giving Monday afternoon (though I do still need to go over it as a whole, edit out problems, and cut three pages or so). I also realized that the section of new writing that I was adding was not destined to be a part of the chapter I had thought, but rather wanted to be part of the introduction. So be it. It's words, and I'm adding them to the counter. Plus, removing those tricky elements from the (as-yet-unwritten) chapter makes the chapter outline itself more straightforward, and less terrifying, so that's another plus.

(By the way, the graphic for my counter widget doesn't seem to be working -- I checked the site that provided the code, and it seems to have disappeared. Until I find a new widget to replace it, I'm just going to be displaying the raw numbers, I'm afraid.)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

One good idea

Just half an hour ago, after three days of pretty serious work leading up to Monday's presentation, I had One Good Idea.

You know what I'm talking about: it's that moment when a whole bunch of the minor ideas that were banging around in your brain like so many confused birds trapped indoors somehow, suddenly drop into place. They coalesce into an idea, which you type out as the first half of a sentence... change where the second half was going... elaborate a bit... go back and slightly tweak the phrasing in the first part... and voilà! An idea! Something that makes it all make sense!

You know, not too far beneath the surface, that your entire paper (chapter, book, whatever) can't rest on this one idea alone. One Good Idea is going to have to be joined by a number of her friends and relations to make the whole thing fly. You know that One Good Idea is likely to undergo a great deal of transformation before paper/chapter/book is finished. Perhaps you even suspect that One Good Idea will eventually dwindle in significance, or even disappear altogether, because that's happened before, as a natural product of a work's evolution.

But right now, you can lean back in your chair with a satisfied half-smile -- maybe even treat yourself to your indulgece of choice: a cigarette, an expensive chocolate, a soothing beverage, or an earlier-than-planned bedtime, guilt-free. Because, you see, you know that you have a direction now. You are no longer aimless. And you're not too dumb to do this. That One Good Idea proves it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to hit the hay a little early tonight.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Waist-deep in theory...

...and the big fool (me) says to push on.

(warning: academic-geek post follows)

Yup. Silence recently because this is my Theory Weekend. Which is rapidly becoming a Theory-Weekend-Plus-Monday. Without giving away too much of my semi-secret identity: I've been intuitively playing with the ideas about performance, and finally decided to read some of the purely theoretical stuff. I'm not brave enough yet to tackle Judith Butler's work, but I have spent this weekend curled up with a couple of things by Erving Goffman (Yes, it's old, but pre-Linguistic Turn theory is always easier to read). I spent most of grad school successfully avoiding theory. Now, it appears, it's my turn.

I am finding useful things to peg my thoughts to. But by far my favorite quote so far is one that I won't be using in my work at all: "All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify."


Hoping to start organizing for writing on Tuesday, and actual writing on Wednesday.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why It's Okay to Feel Like a Fraud

Okay, enough with the word games; let's talk about something serious, and more directly related to the vita academica.

Several months ago, I refered obliquely to my fraud complex. Today, a poster on another site asked, "Is it just me?" I sent in a reply, but I thought I'd post it here, in the likely case that it doesn't appear at the original site:

No, you are not the only one to feel like a fraud. Nor am I -- I've talked to friends in academia, and most say the same thing -- although one male colleague opined that the tendency to feel like a fraud may fall predominantly along gendered lines. I've felt like a fraud ever since I was first accepted into a graduate program. I kept thinking that "When I get the M.A.," "When I get published..." "...get the Ph.D...." "...get a job..." (In case you're wondering: yes, I am now thinking "When I get tenure...") At every level, though, the stakes get higher, the peers more accomplished, and the expectations higher, so the fraud complex gets more acute, not less. Teaching makes us feel better, because we know that, once again, like in college, we're the smartest person in the room. But did we really get into this line of work to feel good about ourselves because we know more than a bunch of nineteen year-olds?

Sometimes I have to remind myself that feeling a bit ignorant is part and parcel of the non-teaching part of the job, which I got into to push back the boundaries of my own ignorance (that's ignorance -- not to be confused with stupidity). That doesn't ever stop; nor should it, because there's always more to learn. But I hope we all have those moments when we take stock of how far we've come. I hang on to those times when, every once in a while, I pull off that great presentation, publish in that respected journal, or get that big grant, and you realize that I do indeed know something. Not everything, but something.

Your thoughts?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Words... Words...

So, I managed to get another book skimmed, and am starting to feel like I have Tricky Concept #1 under some semblance of control. Should be ready to put words to page on Thursday. Which is not a moment too soon, as I need to give my Fellowship Institute presentation two weeks from today. Yipes!

And now, something completely different for you smarty-pants types out there (and I'd be surprised if my readers were anything but): Freerice lets you challenge your vocabulary skills while contributing to fund organizations that send food to places that need it. I tend to get stuck around level 45 or 46. So. There's your challenge, y'all.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Relaxed, and (sort of) ready


Well, believe it or not, I actually managed to relax on my trip to Chicago. I got to meet a number of other amateur (and one newly-professional) photographers, learned a lot, got a lot of great pictures, and re-invigorated my interest in my hobby, which had flagged a bit under the stress of working.

Unfortunately, I seem to be able to get really jazzed about only one thing at once: the motivation to work on Big Bad Chapter melted away, and only came back just today, when I got through a book on the subject of one of the subsections. In the interim, there were two whole days when I seemed to get nothing accomplished. Instead, I obsessively edited and posted photos, and staked out the photo posts of people who were on the trip. So, it seems only appropriate that this week's Onion contained the following article:

Uhh... yeah.

Friday, November 2, 2007

When guilt is an inherent feature of relaxation

Today, I finished up the conclusion to yesterday's book, reread an (admittedly short) article in German, and took notes on said article. I picked up another book (recommended by a colleague at Fellowship Institute), and am going to try to get through at least the introduction tonight. The progress is slow, but it's forward motion, nonetheless.

I also replaced a pair of headphones for the ol' iPod, and bought a bus ticket for an upcoming TRIP TO CHICAGO!!! Yes, that's right: I'm going to be taking off for a couple of days next week, not for a conference, but for recreation. I participate in an online photo-sharing community, and a couple of my online friends and I, who have never actually met in person, have agreed to meet up for a couple of days and go picture-hunting. My feelings on this are a mix of anticipation (social life! Whoo!!!) and guilty panic (omigod so much work to do so far behind where I wanted to be by now).

Crap. If "relaxation" inherently fills you with anxiety, then that's not very relaxing, is it?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Three things

My friend, Not Nurse Ratched, recently posted about a new productivity tip that she's working on: set three goals every day. Just three. Then get those done.

A very good idea, so I woke up today, with a list of three: finish reading a book, take the notes on it, and buy a new pair of headphones for my iPod.

If I stay up for another hour, I actually stand a chance of accomplishing #1 & 2. But I missed out on #3. On the other hand, I did manage to get to a yoga class today, so that's a good thing.

::sigh:: Is there anything more boring than a "to-do list" post? But this is what I've got today, I'm afraid.

UPDATE: Done! Well, except for the 12-page conclusion, and I can polish that off tomorrow morning before my coffee gets cold. Provided, of course, I don't sleep through my alarm again.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Saints and Sinners

There is a tempest brewing in the teapot that is the academic blogosphere. It all started with a post over at Dr. Crazy's (scroll down to October 26), to which she has since posted a couple of follow-ups. It then got commented on by a poster at RYS, which comment/post provoked a veritable shitstorm of comments, both pro and con (first installment here, with apparently more to come).

The topic: Are junior faculty who look for other jobs selfish brats?

I am disturbed by the level of vitriol heaped upon (can you heap vitriol?) the heads of untenured faculty whose sole offense seems to be keeping their eyes open for working conditions or job locations that might better suit their own needs. What is startling to me is how some commenters have cast as traitorous wretches those who have not considered their first tenure-track job to be the only job they will ever have. These faculty have been portrayed as not caring about their colleagues, their students, or their institutions. Faculty who think they can get better pay or working conditions are vilified as egomaniacs who are seeking "a place where their own peculiar preciousness will be admired by all." Faculty who wish to move to be near family (and we all know about the two-body problem so rampant in academia) are derided as wanting to be "close to mommy." Junior faculty, apparently, are supposed to practice a level of self-abnegation comparable to medieval saints.

Let me be clear: When we do a job search, we want colleagues who will stay for the long term. Nobody hires someone thinking, "Great! I hope we get four years out of this person before we have to search again," and losing a faculty member means a lot of work doing another search, and the danger of losing the line permanently. And, of course, there are those perennially unhappy job-hoppers who move every two years, looking for a perfect job that probably doesn't exist. But I suspect that these are the exception, rather than the rule. Most people with tenure-track jobs go on the market -- if they do at all -- for entirely legitimate reasons: salary, cost of living, family concerns, or to escape a toxic environment. And no one should begrudge them that.

I very much like my colleagues, and I would be sad to see just about any of them leave to take a job elsewhere. I think our department would be poorer for the loss, and I, for one, would miss them. But it would never occur to me to label them as selfish for doing what anybody in any other job would do.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

While I Was Away

First of all, thanks to all of you who checked in, both by e-mail in my absence (yes, B., I'm talking to you), and in the comments after I got back. It's nice to know that people are actually reading enough to notice when I go AWOL.

What happened: See the previous post. No, really: that was it. I took a huge hit to my confidence in my ability to do my job, and as a result, I went into complete retreat. I couldn't work, but I also couldn't properly procrastinate by blogging or stopping in at my blogfriends' virtual homes. I stopped taking pictures (a new hobby of mine), and stopped e-mailing friends. I just sat at home and the hours spun out (there's something to be said for the structure of regular teaching).

I do this sometimes. But after a week or two, I become disgusted with myself, and start taking those first steps back into the land of the living. Lately, I've been working on reading for Big Bad Theoretical Chapter (yep, that's the way I decided to go next), which will be part of my presentation at the end of this month, and will have the extra-special bonus feature of helping me reframe the article.

And, speaking of that: I got a very nice e-mail last night from one of the editors of Journal of Excellent Studies (hat-tip to Squadratomagico, who has also meme-tagged me), in response to my carefully-worded plan for revision. It was brief, but enthusiastic, and not in a form-letter way. So, on the whole, I am feeling more positive today.

And I'm glad to be back among the living. Hi!

Monday, October 29, 2007


re·cal·ci·trant (rĭ-kāl'sĭ-trənt): adj. Marked by stubborn resistance to and defiance of authority or guidance.

So, here's the deal. The article I sent off came back... with yet another verdict of revise-and-resubmit. Reader #1 wanted only two minor changes, the work of three minutes. Reader #2, however, was not so convinced, and gave me four and a half pages of suggestions for revisions.

Many of these suggestions are good, and there's one that pointed out a boneheaded factual error I made. But others seem to object to a lot of the underlying premises of the article. I fretted. I fumed. I internally stomped my feet and slammed doors. Recalcitrant, you see, is just "bratty" in four syllables.

On the other hand, I could tell from the comments that this was a knowledgeable person, and if a knowledgeable person points out where you're going wrong, you should take the opportunity to improve.

On the other hand (yes, that's three hands now), I'm up for tenure review in a year. This has got me very anxious. I need to publish this piece.

I was unsure what to do: Take weeks out of the book project that I had finally gotten back to, in order to resubmit to this high-ranking journal? Or ignore the comments and send it off to a less prestigious journal?

So, I did something sensible: I sent it off to a couple of friends, one of whom has been a mentor of mine since my grad school days. Their verdict: the comments require some serious revisions, but they're not as disastrous as you think they are. Take two weeks only, work hard on the revisions, and send it off again, because this journal is worth it.

So, that's it: I finish the work I'm doing (more on that in the next post), which will take me up to Thanksgiving, then work on the revision for two weeks, and try again.

But I'm still kind of stomping my feet, a little.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Still Alive, and a Music Suggestion

As Gregory of Tours said, at the beginning of his
History of the Franks, "A great number of things have been happening; some good, others bad." Which is my way of apologizing for lying down on the blogging job. I promise an update in a couple of days.

In the meantime, allow me to make a music suggestion: "Gulag Orkestar" by Beirut. Imagine David Byrne collaborating with a gypsy caravan to make a soundtrack for a Sergio Leone western. Add some euphonium. Stir.

Yes, they have a more recent album ("The Flying Cup Club"); if you're a fan of French folk music, you will like it a lot. But G.O. is my recommendation, and I'm sticking to it. Plus, the cover photo (found in an old volume of Russian photography in a library in Leipzig) is just pretty neat.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Contemplating the Workload

Today, over at Reassigned time, Dr. Crazy has a post on the research, teaching, and service expectations at her university. They are quite different from the ones I face. Coincidentally, I was just discussing publication expectations for tenure with a colleague at Fellowship Institute. Again, very different.

So, I put the question to you: What are the expectations at your place of employment (and in your department) for research, teaching, and service. Is there a difference between junior and senior faculty (Dr. Crazy reports her senior colleagues "checking out" after tenure, and the junior faculty bearing the brunt of service work; this is again, vastly different from my own experience). If you're tenured faculty, do you think the expectations have changed markedly in the years since you arrived? And, most importantly: do you think the current expectations are reasonable, in the context of your own institution?

Here's my breakdown:

1. Teaching: Technically, 4-4; in reality, there are little ways to work this down, and in my department, I don't think anyone teaches more than 3-3, and many teach even less. 3-3 is my standard load, though I can usually swing a 3-2 every couple of years. In addition, any graduate advising that we may take on -- I generally have 2-3 M.A. students of my own at any given time, and serve on one or two other grad committees. The Americanists have it much harder: usually 8-12 students of their own, and as many again as secondary readers. Luckily, the college is working on ways to credit these students against the normal teaching load... something like 5 grad students (of your own) in any given semester = one course. Seems fair.

2. Research: My sense is that, right now, a book contract, or three peer-reviewed articles published after your hire date is enough to get tenure. But that expectation is vague, and shifting all the time. Most of the faculty hired in the last 15 years had a book contract when they went up for tenure; most (though certainly not all!) of those hired before then published less. Not surprising: up until recently, this was the "teaching school," so research was not expected, and not particularly valued. But recently, the "buyer's market" in Humanities hiring means that mid-level schools like mine have their pick of faculty from research institutions, and most of these came in with a research agenda they were excited about. So they just kept researching and writing, 4-4 (or 3-3) teaching load be damned.

I might also note that, while books are the norm for our faculty, very few have second books. That may just be a function of having so many faculty under 40. But the next five years or so will tell, I suspect.

3. Service: junior faculty are wonderfully protected -- a couple of department committees a year, and usually some college- or university-level service thrown in there for three of those first six years. Many committees, in fact, can only be served on by tenured (and sometimes even full!) professors. With a department that, until the past couple of years, has been seriously bottom-heavy, a small handful of tenured profs have been bearing the bulk of the department's service load. So, the nice thing here is that they have a vested interest in getting us young 'uns tenured!

I'm generally happy with this, though I'd love to have a permanent 3-2 teaching load. (And, as the Spanish say, "...y un jamón.")

That was longer than I thought it would be. How about you?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Well, I've been mulling over the decision I need to make, but it seems I have a good excuse to put it off for a bit. You see, I completely forgot that one of my M.A. students was taking his field comprehensive exam (written) this weekend, so I find myself needing to spend the next ten days skimming the books and articles I assigned him for the two questions I'm having him answer. This is especially critical because this particular student occasionally reads a book or article and completely misinterprets the author's argument, then goes on to build his paper on a misunderstanding. Since I haven't read most of this stuff since grad school, I need to refresh my memory, so I don't find myself saying "Reynolds argued that? Huh. Well, maybe..."

Did I mention this is my first comp as primary examiner? So I'm overpreparing?

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Rough Year for Medievalists

It's the second week in October, and most of the job ads that are going to be out, are. So this seems an opportune time to assess the situation. Let me preface this by saying that, although I follow the job ads, in no way was I planning on being on the market this year. And it's a darned good thing, too, because the medieval field in my discipline is having a rough year. I've counted 21 jobs. Not so bad? The three years around when I went on the market, there were about 32 medieval jobs in my discipline, each with usually 90 or so applicants. Those were good years (yes, a three-to-one qualified-applicant-to-job ratio is considered "good"). And a handful of the jobs this year are really quite good: a few R1s, a few high-end liberal arts colleges. So, why do I think 21 job openings makes for such a rough year? Well, take away:

• 2 positions open to hires at the level of associate or full professor
• 10 positions that are medieval combined with another chronological field – common at small colleges
• 1 position that is very geographically specific

…and we have eight jobs that the majority of junior medievalists can apply for, that won't involve them competing against not only 90 people in their field, but also 50-150 additional people in another neighboring field. Eight.

I'm posting this, not to be an ass, but to offer my heartfelt sympathy and support to those on the market this year. And to remind myself of how lucky I was. Would I have gone to grad school if I'd known the TT market was this bad? Probably – I had a weird and possibly unique set of motivations that had nothing to do with market forces. But I might have stuck with the M.A. and settled down in a nice Community College job in Home City, rather than chasing the TT job.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Which way next?

Here's my dilemma: I need to figure out which chapter to work on next. I have three chapters left to draft, which essentially boil down to two substantive choices:

1. One of the two archivally-based chapters, each dealing with a specific issue in the larger topic. These are, in many ways, cannibalized from the dissertation, but with extra material both primary and secondary added in, and the larger analytical framework threaded through; or…

2. The Big Bad Theoretical Chapter, which forms a bridge between the background chapter (written, and looking decent) and the four archivally-based chapters. This chapter is where I really lay the foundation for doing something new and different. It's critical, and absolutely critical that I get it right. Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about it. I've done no work yet on this chapter at all, and all I know about it is that: a) It needs to get me from point A to point C; and b) I know about four of the authors whose ideas are currently providing the bulk of my inspiration. Oh, and did I mention that this is not the kind of work in my discipline that my graduate training prepared me for?

Option one is by far less daunting: I know more or less what either of these two chapters has to say, and I can guess how long each is going to take me (six weeks for either one, I'd guess). Option two is more intimidating, because I know neither of these things about it. It's a bit of intellectual quicksand that I will have to traverse, sooner or later. But the reading promises to be interesting.

But: I have a research presentation to give at Fellowship Institute just after Thanksgiving, and I'm thinking that, if I need feedback and input on any chapter, it should be Big Bad, since I'm so lost. On the other hand, if Big Bad takes longer than six weeks to think about and draft, I could find myself still floundering when the presentation comes around.

I've gone back and forth on this for a week or two now. I'm leaning towards option one. What is really pulling me that way is this: If Big Bad's job is to take me from point A to point C, it would be helpful to have point C finished, rather than half-finished.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


Yep. I've put a lid on chapter 4. Or, at least a draft of chapter four. It's not quite as "done" as I'd wanted it to be: for example, the second half of the chapter is still littered with square brackets advising me to check a reference here, or add some more analysis there, and the conclusion is, frankly, lame. But the honest-to-god truth is that I simply couldn't look at this thing anymore. I had gotten to the point where I was simply moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak.

So anyway, even as we speak, the thing is printing out. I'm going to post this, then label a file folder "Chapter 4 Draft", and put it in my desk drawer, never to be looked at again until I've got drafts at this level of all the other chapters, too. By then, I should have some perspective.

Oh, and by the way: in this last iteration, the chapter lost some 550 words, so the word count went backwards for a while. Not bad, though: I expected this chapter to be about 13,000 words, and it ended up at 15,500 -- for better or for worse.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It just never ends...

I still keep trying to write my conclusions for this chapter, and every time I sit down to outline what I've already got so I can see (and thus sum up) my main points, I see another thing that really belongs somewhere else, another paragraph of infelicitous prose, another example of why I need to rethink my decision twelve years ago to give up a promising career as a barista....

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Herding Cats

No posts for a while, but for a good reason: around four days ago, I hit the point in The Chapter That Would Not Die where I could start to see the argument emerge. So, for the past few days, the pages have slowly been transforming from the stage that my friend and colleague C. refers to as "verbal vomit" to an actual chapter with a real live argument, and I'm beginning to have a bit of hope. I should have a semi-respectable draft within the next 48 hours.

Along the way, the revision process has involved pulling apart old material from the dissertation (four years ago now!), trying to make it play nicely with new material from recent archival trips, incorporating secondary research, providing some cogent analysis, and above all, trying to thread through (or even remember!) the overall theme of the book as a whole. What's this process like? Well, you know:

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Waaaay Outside the Ivory Tower

Today, I'm taking a break from my ivory tower to (re)post a couple of pictures from the website of Ko Htike, one of a few brave bloggers who are collecting e-mailed stories and photos from the current chaos in Burma/Myanmar, and using foreign-hosted proxy sites to get the words and images out.

This is huge, folks. If you're teaching, please consider making your students aware of it, and find out what you can do.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Playing Hooky

Today, for the first weekday in three weeks, I decided to take advantage of the freedom that the fellowship affords me, and not go to the office. That's right: I'm playing hooky.

Yes, I'm going to get some work done today, but the word count moved up another 600+ words yesterday, and I came home exhausted and frustrated with my own writing. I need a day to decompress a bit.

So, in the meantime, for your entertainment and edification, I am pleased to present this somewhat unheimlich picture of penguins:


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Well, duh.

As I've been working on The Chapter That Would Not Die, and especially since I've been getting words down, I've been frustrated with how slowly it's been going, how clumsy my writing has been, and most especially, how I don't really know where I'm going. I've been expecting difficulties like this with chapter two (as-of-yet-unwritten), because I know that one is all brand-new ideas. But I was convinced that the current chapter, like two I've finished and two yet left to go, would go fairly smoothly, because it's essentially a revision -- albeit a deep one -- of things I had written in the dissertation.

Then, just this afternoon, it hit me: it's not.

That's right: after working for a couple of months on the reading for and drafting of this chapter, it only just now occurred to me that, while I've worked with most of the cases for the dissertation incarnation of this project, never once did I directly address the issues that are central to this chapter. In fact, I avoided said issues because, frankly, it's something that bores me to tears. I can't believe I just realized this. So of course it's slow and frustrating: it's new territory.

Does this mean that the remaining two "revision" chapters will go more smoothly? I hope so. After the last two frustrating weeks of writing, and contemplating the extreme suckitude of what I've got so far, I really, really hope so.

For those of you who were waiting...

...I have my 2,000 words. 9:21 a.m., Tuesday. 41,111 total words. 43.3% of the estimated total.

Now, on to the next 2,000.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Still Going

Running a day or two behind, but I'd like to draw your attention to the word count, which has moved. No, not by 2,000 words -- not quite. As of 5 p.m., I have added an additional 1,680 words since I set my 2,000-word goal last week. 320 words to go, but I really think I need to take a break, because the next subsection is going to require some sustained concentration, and I've only got about half an hour left in me at this moment in time. Those of you who care can watch for update later this evening...

UPDATE, 10 p.m.: I blew off those last 320 words in favor of stocking the groceries, and making up a rattatouille soup and couscous to pack for lunch for the rest of the week. Tomorrow, however, is another day.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Other People's Words

Today was a wash as far as my own work, but a nice day nonetheless: I overslept, then had a nice breakfast out, followed by yoga, a massage, and dinner with friends.

What else was I doing? Well, a friend of mine in a related field asked me to read the introduction to her book manuscript. It actually looks like we're going to exchange more chapters, so this will be good for both of us. And reading other people's manuscripts is just something we all do, right? So, even though it was not part of my little subfield, I read it.

I'm happy to report that it was great.

Now, maybe I just found it interesting because it's not the stuff I'm supposed to be working on, but the writing was good, the material was engaging, and -- most importantly -- the 20 pages I had made me want to read more. Send more chapters!

I did make some suggestions for small changes and clarifications, but the changes were small, and probably not utterly essential. Isn't it nice when you can tell a friend, in all honesty, that their work is interesting, and good?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Still Shooting for 2,000

Friday – the end of another workweek. Today I stayed late at the office, despite the fact that a huge storm was on the way in, in order to pull together the last bit of materials for my weekend writing. Remember that 2,000-word goal for this week? I've still got it, but am also going to have to insist that the week doesn't end until Sunday night, rather than Friday, as I originally planned. Stay tuned.

In other, less academic news: tonight around 7, just as the big storm was on the way in, I decided that I was not going to make it through the night without a can of diet soda. So, I hopped on my bike and rode about 5 blocks to pick one up, getting on the road just as the leading edge of the storm hit. I was still wearing my tank top (the pre-storm day had been hot and humid), and the rain was just starting to come down. Unless you've lived in a place where it never rains, you won't be able to understand the indescribable feeling of rain on bare arms. Maybe I'm weird, but I thought it was about the coolest moment of my day.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Comparing Notes

I got into a conversation with one of my colleagues at Fellowship Institute today, about how we write. I had just spent three hours going through and consolidating the 15 or so files of notes from manuscripts, notes from secondary sources, and notes from other random stuff, and trying to organize them according to the two or three versions of the outline of the final section of this evil chapter (note to self: don't start a complicated section of a project until you know you're going to have time to see that particular section through to the end -- if not, you'll end up with confusing, semi-overlapping versions that take ages to sort out before you even figure out what you have to work with).

I blogged a while ago about how I write by spending ages taking and organizing meticulous notes, and only beginning to write once I've got everything in order. I just can't do it any other way, as I have very limited recall (a pretty serious liability in my line of work, and one that I've had to learn to work around). My colleague, on the other hand, reads for a day or three, then sits down and free writes from memory, then goes back and digs through his recent reading to find the precise sources for the stuff he remembers. We were both astonished that the other person could work as they did. My method, born of necessity, means that I often go for weeks of work without writing a word; on the other hand, when I do write, I can do half a dozen pages a day, no problem, and often more. But I do envy my colleague, whose system allows him to write a little something every single day.

That must be very nice.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Q: What's a pirate's favorite Greek lyric poet?


Q: And his favorite ancient Greek mathemetician?

A: AARRRchemedes.

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

EDIT: From my friend MAARRRtha, The Ten Commandments, Pirate Style.

Feel free to add your own contributions in the comments...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Digital Me

Yes, I should be working. But it's been a long day, and I'm wiped out. So I followed the link from Tenured Radical, and used the digital portait maker to make a digital me (sort of), wrinkles and all:

If you would like to waste time, too, click here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Enough, Already

Today, at long last, I finished reading a book in another language that, while I technically read it, is not one of my best. It hurt. But it's done.

Last Friday, I was discussing The Chapter That Would Not Die with one of my colleagues at Fellowship Institute, and declared (perhaps rashly): "That's it -- I need to write. If it's ["it" = background reading for final sections of TCTWND] not read by the end of this weekend, it's not going to be read." Guess I gotta make good on that now. So, tomorrow will be the day to compile what notes I have. Writing begins Tuesday. Goal for Friday: 2,000 words, and an end to this chapter.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Shana Tovah

Tonight (okay, last night; my internet went down just as I was trying to post this) marks the third night of the annual Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanna. I was lucky enough to be invited to the home of a new friend at Fellowship Institute, an observant Jewish woman who, somewhere in the midst of a huge scholarly project, managed to find the time and energy put on a massive feast for over a dozen people.

I've been to Passover seders before, but never to a Rosh Hashanna celebration. There is a bit early on where everybody spared a thought for the year just past, then took a slice of apple, dipped it in honey, and thought upon the sweetness of the year to come. Fellowship aside, the past twelve months have been rough for me: I've dealt with a death in the family, the end of a long-term serious relationship, and a semi-serious medical problem that I still haven't fully recovered from. As I stood there holding my bit of honey-dipped apple, I allowed myself to think about these things, to let them be a part of my past (to remember, without letting it constantly haunt my daily life), and opened my mind and my heart to the possibilities ahead.

Shana Tovah, all. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


As the new academic year ramps up, academics in the ol' Blog-O-Sphere have seen a bit of chatter about, well, chatter; that is, about the difficulty of doing research work in your office because people just won't leave you the hell alone. Belle at Scattered and Random tells about how the hallway chatter drove her to seek out a closet-cum-carrel in the library. Another Damned Medievalist espouses the joys of departmental social life, but points out that the flip side of pleasant sociability is the inability to get anything done in one's office. And even I have recently waxed poetic about the potential in having an office away from the hustle and bustle of instructional activity.

But after about a week in my new office home, I find I have a confession and an apology to make: I am a chatterbox.

I am that person who stops by and says "Wanna go grab a coffee?" while you are just getting into your midmorning work groove. I am the one who raps on your half open door, then steps inside to shoot the breeze for anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. I am the one who comes by, out of the blue, book or article (or student essay, when I'm teaching) in hand, saying " Am I the only one who wants to poke my own eyes out when I read this?" I like to think I'm pretty good at picking up nonverbal "go away" signals, and try not to overstay my welcome, but the fact is that I am the reason that you are not getting anything done. Sadly, I'm also the reason that I'm not getting anything done.

I'd like to think that, at this point, this is the product of a time of the semester when new people are coming in, and you just want to meet them and establish a social base. But, for your sake and my own, I now realize that I'm going to have to monitor this kind of interaction, or I'm going to find myself facing a wasted year, and a lot of firmly shut office doors.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Repeated Assertion ≠ Fact

An odd sort of symmetry prevailed today between my work and national events.

In the news today, General David Petraeus issued a report on the war in Iraq. The upshot was the same as it's been for years: every day, in every way, things are getting better. Hunky-dory. Stay the course.

In my own work, I finished reading a book that claimed to prove something about topic X. In final analysis, it really made a nice, well-supported, if not too earth shattering argument about topic Y. Topic X (the one I was interested in) was certainly a presence in the chapters, but a minor one, and the evidence really didn't support the argument about X that the author claimed. It would have made a nice leitmotif to the better argument about Y -- admittedly, a less sexy topic than X. Yet in the introductory and concluding sections of each chapter, the author kept asserting that that chapter's evidence proved something conclusive about topic X.

In both cases, I was deeply irritated by the constant insistence on a conclusion that the evidence didn't really support. When someone, whether academic author or public official, does this, I feel like my intelligence is being insulted.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Office Space

In my short career as a researcher-writer, I've always done my work at home, or at coffee shops, with varying degrees of productivity. Each offers something (convenience and sociability, respectively), but both offer their share of distractions. But pros and cons aside, the fact is that I've never been an office worker, because I've never had my own office. I shared with two other TAs as a grad student; as a faculty member, I share an office with a lecturer. And no matter how great your office partners are (and mine have been invariably good), you cannot treat a shared office as a work space. Add to that the hustle and bustle of instructional activity, and you might as well give it up.

Now, for the first time, I have my own office: a glorious, attractively-painted, freshly-carpeted twelve-by-twelve space with lots of sunlight, in a building for researchers (that is, no classrooms, no office hours). The difference is amazing: I come to work, and I'm "at work." No one comes by to ask me about whether I've filled out some sort of paperwork or other. Nobody is standing in the hall, chattering on a cell phone. Just me, in my sunny corner office, reading and writing. It's a real work space, with no distractions (unless I really go looking for them -- and sometimes I do).

I now officially have no excuses.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Rediscovering the Stacks

Today was what I felt to be my first "real" day at Fellowship Institute. People are still trickling in, but today I met three of the people I'll be sharing the next year with. Good news: they all seem like wonderful folks. Two are pre-tenure women about my age (give or take a couple of years), and I'm excited about getting to know them better.

I'm also getting my office set up. Fellowship Institute just moved to a different building while the old one is being rehabbed, which means that our offices are freshly-painted, freshly-carpeted, and in lovely condition. By happy chance, mine is the largest of all the fellows' offices; I have dubbed it "the Ballroom" (Okay, it's not that big, but it is easily 50% larger than my shared office at Job University).

And, I went to the library.

Remember when you were an undergrad, and you did your bibliographic research by finding one book on the subject you were researching, then went to that place in the stacks and looked at the entire shelf around it, eventually clearing out half a dozen books that you never knew existed? Well, I did a modified version of that today. I discovered books roughly on my research topic that I never would have run across otherwise. And I was delighted to rediscover the joys of browsing. Because Job University serves a primarily undergraduate population, one is less likely to run across such things. I had forgotten how much I liked this aspect of research.

The stacks at Fellowship University are vast and in places creepy, but right now, I feel like I could spend hours and hours there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Students Get It

Via University Diaries, an editorial by an undergraduate at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, decrying the increasing prevalence of online courses at his (her?) university.

There has been huge push in U.S. universities towards providing online or "hybrid" courses. Many faculty realize that students in these courses miss out on a large part of the university experience. Apparently, some students do, too.

Now, if only we could get college administrators to understand.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Music to Write a Book By

In my normal life, I like halfway decent music, I swear. I'm never going to be on the cutting edge of anything, but I like to think that nothing I listen to is going to cause anyone to roll their eyes. Lately, for example, the music in heaviest rotation has been the Police, Jolie Holland, Cat Power, Andres Segovia, and the Garden State soundtrack.

This all changes when I flip to my "work" folder on iTunes. There you will find not only a bit of classical music (which I don't normally listen to, but there's something wonderfully apocalyptic about a requiem mass), but also an embarrassing collection of cheesy neo-medieval music. Seriously, this stuff is the aural equivalent of reading a trashy romance novel with Fabio on the cover while attending your local Renaissance Faire. I don't know how else to describe it. It is, by all measures, Not Good Music.

And yet... somehow, as background noise it works to put me in a write-about-the-middle-ages frame of mind. Just so long as I don't actively pay attention to it, I'm fine.

I'm sure other people have less embarrassing work music. Thank god this blog is (mostly) anonymous.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hanging Around

Today I continued the work I have been poking away at for the last week: going through upon which I've jotted notes, culling the bibliographic notations, and compiling the many bibliographic notes I have, both in computer files, and on the stacks of notepads that appear to date back to 2003. Ugh. Yes, I know I won't get through all of these readings, but at least I know what I've got in front of me.

I also managed, for the first time, to buy enough groceries to make a real recipe. For the past week, I've been slowly stocking things like oil, vinegar, spices, dry beans and the like. But tomorrow, I'm going to make a black bean soup and a jicama salad. It feels good to have real food in the fridge. It's been weeks.

Finally, I allowed myself a little recreation. The mile-square neighborhood I live in in Fellowship City is, I think, required by federal law to hold some sort of outdoor festival every three weeks, and this weekend was no exception. Tonight, in addition to tons of live music (free) and good food (not free, but net proceeds went to support the festival), there was an "aerial dance troupe" that performed on trapezes, stilts, and long reams of silk (see photos) hanging from a giant oak tree in the middle of the small park that this festival was held in. Think Cirque de Soleil, but done by all your neighbors. Some (like the young woman in this photo) had dancer/gymnast builds, but some others looked like your average-size-12 woman, and at least two were over 45 years old. People performed according to their abilities, and it looked like everyone was having a blast. Apparently, the way you get into this group (though probably not in the more strenuous or dangerous acts, like in the photo) is to show up for classes and rehearsals, and be enthusiastic. I think that's great. Fun, and a challenge, but without the need to be perfect all the time.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Eight things

Okay, I've been tagged twice now for that "Eight Interesting Things about You" meme, so I'll succumb:

1. I am a morning person.

2. I believe that (possibly) the best thing about being a grown-up is getting to eat whatever you want for breakfast.

3. I took a job with a traveling carnival for eight weeks at age 17.

4. I read six languages; speak three of those (including my native language) with some degree of proficiency.

5. I hate peanut butter. Always have.

6. I smoked for years, quit for years, took it up again in the wake of a bad man problem, but am kinda sorta trying to quit again now. Have cut back a great deal, anyway.

7. I prefer overcast or even drizzly days to sunny ones.

8. I believe that the best thing about living alone is being able to turn on the music and sing badly or dance like an idiot without worrying about anyone walking in on me.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How I know I'm Not in Job City Anymore

(Yes, it's another post about the weather. I promise that it will be the last such post for a while. It's just that it's such a novelty for me right now.)

I grew up in a place that has only a little bit of what could be classified as weather. But after over two idyllic decades, I took off for eight years in Grad School Town, whose weather I once heard described as "nine months of winter, and three months of hell." I fell into several climate-related habits: I kept one eye glued to the radar map on weather reports during storm season; I checked both temperature and humidity or wind chill before deciding what to wear and what clothes to pack with me (Snow? Leather shoes go in the bag. Thunderstorms? Put the suit jacket in the bag, and wear the Goretex. Heat index of 110? Wear the tank top, but pack a cardigan for the destination, which will be heavily air-conditioned.); and I always, always unplugged the computer before leaving the apartment for more than 15 minutes, for fear of storm-induced power surges wiping out every bit of work I'd done for the past year.

But I hadn't realized how four years in Job City -- a place that has even less in the way of weather than Home City -- had lulled me into complacency. But now, I'm back in a place that has Weather. Capitalized. And today, for the first time in years, I found myself bookmarking the website for regional NEXRAD radar, and unplugging my computer when I left the apartment. Just in case, you know.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Talking about the Weather

Today, in Fellowship City, water fell from the sky. All day long.

I don't really mind. It does that in Home City, too. But not in Job City. Hardly ever. The first year I lived there, I amused myself by giggling over the local news' "storm watch" coverage whenever there was the slightest shower. You may think I'm exaggerating, but I assure you that I'm not.

I'm actually looking forward to the rain, snow, and overcast days. They're the kind of days that make me want to fix a pot of some hot beverage, stay in, and work. I actually wanted to do that today. Unfortunately, until next week I have no books, no files, no library privileges, and my desk is sitting unassembled in a box behind the couch. Then again, I did give myself permission to not-work the first two weeks I was here, while I set the place up. And I'm actually encouraged that the weather has already prompted wanting-to-write feelings.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I've got to admit, it's getting better

I've now furnished the apartment. There are boxes everywhere. There is still no food in the fridge. But the boxes from UPS arrived today, a few hours after the furniture, so I've been able to settle in.

I also met the neighbor, who is very nice. Here she is, pictured with her human (also very nice):

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I Have My Apartment

...and sadly, it's a bit of a dump: bad, half-assed repainting job, broken window in the kitchen, back door to the building doesn't even close. And I've resolved to myself to never, ever look at the lawn.

I've put in so many calls to the property manager as I discovered one thing after another that he must be sick of me already. But I have to live in this thing for a year, after all. So I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that the problems will be taken care of quickly.

On the positive side, I've bought a bike, and joined the local natural foods co-op. Plus, the neighborhood is great.

I just need to take a deep breath (or perhaps several), and have faith that, by the end of the month, this will all be worked out. Besides, this is not about living well; it's about getting a book written.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Just a quick post tonight, to let people know that I've arrived safely in Fellowship City. Mostly uneventful, except that the short connecting flight from Nearby Hub City was in the smallest plane I'd ever been in (19 seats, not counting the cockpit), and when this small craft met with a storm system halfway between Point A and Point B, I was fairly sure that we weren't going to make it.

Tomorrow morning I go pick up the keys to the apartment that will be my home for the next year. It's a bit funny -- I still don't feel either undue excitement or separation anxiety. Maybe it's because I know I'll be coming back to the same job, apartment, furniture, and friends next year. This just feels like an extended out-of-town trip. Perhaps it will sink in later.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ready. Sort of.

I have mailed the last box. I have packed the big suitcase (the small one remains). I have changed my address with the post office. I have dumped out the remnants of food in the fridge. I have cleaned the apartment more or less thoroughly.

I am leaving in just under 10 hours. I probably should be panicked. But I'm just too tired.

Next post will be a couple of days, after I find reliable high-speed internet access in Fellowship City.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Goodbye, Netflix

Lately, my life has consisted of sorting the miscellaneous crap in my apartment and office into piles, moving said piles into boxes (or the trash or Goodwill, whenever possible), and shipping said boxes across the country. But moving also offers a myriad of smaller joys such as canceling utilities and setting them up in other places.

Today, I made a decision that I hope will take me a long way towards my goal of scholarly productivity: I canceled my Netflix account.

Netflix, for the three of you who aren't familiar with it, is the beautiful, seductive, and ultimately destructive enemy of would-be scholars. Even those of us who have held out against cable TV, and rarely turn on the box to see the crap that comes out of it, are taken in by the siren song of Netflix, which holds out the promise of obscure foreign films you can't get at the local video store, Hollywood blockbusters that you might be ashamed to pay to see (or be seen seeing) at the local theater, and, most dangerously of all, several-season runs of highly addictive TV shows (Deadwood, the Wire, The X-Files [through season 5, at least], or all three Joss Whedon series). I almost never turn on the TV, but could happily spend two to three hours a night four times a week glued to my laptop screen (that's right: I don't have a DVD player), and you didn't even want to be around me when, for no discernible reason, my scheduled DVD was a day late.

I have a problem with moderation.

But today I made the decision, not to transfer the account to my new address in Fellowship City, but rather to cancel altogether. I'll probably go through pretty serious withdrawal. But it may be a small, temporary price to pay for more productivity. Or at the very least, for getting to bed at a decent hour.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Medievalist at the Movies

My students and friends know that I love a good (awful) medieval-themed movie. Bad movies can produce great teaching moments. In my classes, I have shown bits of "Kingdom of Heaven," "Braveheart," and "The Mists of Avalon" (ugh) to name but a few. Plus, I believe that the way we imagine and reimagine the medieval over the years tells us a lot about who we are, as a society.

So it is with real delight that I note the forthcoming appearance of a new film version of Beowulf, starring... well, just about everybody.

I can't wait.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

My Life in Boxes

From age 18 to 32, I moved, on average, once every fourteen months. I don't like moving, but there is one advantage that I hadn't considered until now: fourteen months doesn't give you much time to accumulate a lot of junk between annual moving-related purges.

Now, however, I'm facing a partial move after having lived in my current apartment for a record-setting four years. And let me tell you, you never know how much crap you have until you try to put it all into boxes and move it halfway across the country.

I am fortunate, in that I'm subletting the place for the year, and the incoming faculty member who is taking it is taking it with all the furniture, kitchen stuff, and assorted things like potato peelers and toilet brushes that you need in a new place. I am renting furniture for the year, so my move consists mainly of clothes, books, and files. Yet these items seem to multiply and increase in size (and weight!) as soon as I remove them from the shelves, closets, and cabinets that are their natural habitat. I've moved tons of books up to my office, taken bags of clothing to the Goodwill, and still the stuff just keeps on coming.

And, a year from now, I get to do it all again...

But, I'm not complaining too much, as this is all in service of a year to devote to writing, writing, writing. It's worth a few boxes, I think,

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Finished! (And a Sense of Unease)

About half an hour ago, I finished the revisions on the article MS. Oh, sure -- I still need to print the thing out in a couple of days, doing the obligatory read-through to weed out the inevitable errors and infelicitous phrases, but I went through the reviewers' suggestions, point-by-point, and it seems that I've been able to address almost all of them.

Whenever I "finish" a writing project, I usually feel one of two ways. Sometimes (infrequently) I think "This is brilliant! People are going to read this, and think I'm pretty smart!" More frequently, however, I'm left with a sense of how it's not as good as I want it to be, but I don't know how to get it there, and wonder if maybe I'm the dumbest Ph.D. out there. My fraud complex kicks into high gear, and I'm sure that this will be the point where everyone finally sees that I'm hopeless.

In all probability, the truth lies somewhere in between. And probably, what I've produced is good enough. I'm not sure if my inability to be content with that is a good thing or not.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A Mac User Rants

I love my Mac.

I've owned four computers in my life, all of them Macs. I love the design, the ease of use, and the idea that I'm not a slave to the clunky software and frequent glitches that plague machines running Windows. I know how to use a PC, of course, and often have to do so when using machines other than my own, but I don't see myself ever buying one. It's not just a matter of liking the Mac; I have a visceral aversion to Microsoft. I just do.

Nevertheless, I'm not hardcore enough to forgo Microsoft Office. I had the Mac Works suite years ago, and found it problematic. I've heard there is a new, better Mac suite out there, but Office is convenient, as so many of my students, colleagues, and professional contacts are PC users. Office makes it easy for us to share work, and that's been important enough to me for me to keep it installed and updated, despite my anti-Microsoft leanings.

Until now.

I just got notification from my university that Microsoft has just released a new version of Office that -- brilliant move, guys! -- is incompatible with earlier versions of the same software. Yep, that's right: if you create a document in Office 2007, and you send it to someone running an older version of the same software, they won't be able to read it, until they also buy and install the new version.

Worse yet: if the recipient (for example, yours truly) is running MS Office on a Mac, they're shit out of luck, because Microsoft has announced no plans to release an updated version for the Mac. None at all.

Transparent marketing ploy, anyone? The Evil Bastards in Redmond have tried this before, with Explorer. Problem was, there were so many superior web browsers out there (I'm typing this on Firefox right now, and also use Safari) that users simply switched to something else, and web designers wrote code compatible with the other browsers. I never heard of a single Mac user being the least put out of joint by not having their very own version of Explorer to use (most of us had been politely ignoring it for years). But Office is ubiquitous, and notoriously finicky about communicating with other software programs, which makes this particular bit of corporate skulduggery a real issue.

UPDATE: I just did a bit of poking around, and it turns out that the Mac version is scheduled to be available in January 2008. Apparently there were many, many bugs in the Beta version. It's a pretty serious delay, but I'm just grateful that I won't be teaching this fall, so won't have to deal with it too much.

(Oh, yeah: work. I've been plugging away at article revisions -- still shooting for Monday -- but also have begun the packing process. More on both of these later).

Thursday, August 2, 2007

That One Little Thing

Just a quick update: over the last several days, I've finally been putting fingers to keyboard, to finish that one little thing standing between me and the two big things I need to do (move across the country, and work on the book). A full month of reading produced only another page and a half of writing, but I think I've almost addressed most of the reviewers' comments on the article MS I've been writing.

Of course, the new writing isn't good. It never is, at first. And at some point, I will write a post about giving oneself permission to write utter crap. But not tonight. I need to go over what I've written today, and figure out how much is left to go.

Monday. Monday I want to send this off, come hell or high water.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

When Work Itself Becomes Procrastination

As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, my current writing project is getting a revise-and-resubmit put away before I need to pack up and move across the country for a fellowship year. This has involved reading books and articles written my people working in fields adjacent to my own, so I can make work on medieval history relevant to the non-medievalists who read this journal. So, off and on for the past month, I've been going through stacks of books and articles in fields not my own, in order to write perhaps two paragraphs for the introduction.

So, it is with pleasure that I report that I have at long last become more efficient: today, I collected six books from the library, immediately rejected two as irrelevant, and in a little over two hours, gutted the other four to extract the bits I needed. I also found three blessedly short articles that will help, printed them out, and am determined to be just as ruthless with them.

Of course, it occurs to me that, by working on these revisions, I may subconsciously be putting off working on the much more complicated and intimidating book manuscript. In honor of this bit of self-analysis, I am inaugurating a new "procrastination" subject label. I'm hoping I won't have too much occasion to use it over the next year, but I fear I might.

Monday, July 23, 2007

on reading for pleasure

I grew up surrounded by books, with weekly trips to the library, where I was eternally frustrated that my mom would only let me check out three books at a time. My parents read to me; later, I read to myself, for pleasure. I read Madeline l'Engel, trashy grown-up novels at sleepovers with friends where we giggled over the dirty parts, and historical fiction which led me semi-directly to my current career. So, whenever I'm in Home City, one of the places that I always make a point of stopping at least twice is Big Independent Bookstore. BIB is one of the last of a dying breed. But it's going strong.

The one in Home City has a number of branches in that town, and I visited two of them, and bought two academic books, and one novel (Zadie Smith's White Teeth, which has been on my "to read" list for about five years now). I loved being so surrounded by books that I could get lost. I loved the fact that the selection was determined by the owners and employees, not some national headquarters. I loved the fact that they sold books -- not CDs, DVDs, toys, character-licensed merchandise... just books. (Well, okay: there was coffee, too.)

But the best part of visiting BIB is that there are ample spaces to plonk yourself down and dive into a book, right there. And people were doing just that. =>

Now, with no children of my own, I read to my niece & nephew whenever I get a chance. And I love to see other adults doing the same. This kid is obviously engrossed, and there's not a hand-held video game in sight.

So, I invite readers out there (yes, all three of you) to use the comment space to shamelessly promote your favorite indie bookstores, and encourage you to patronize them, either in person or online. Let's make sure that the next generation of geeky little readers has the same opportunity as we do.

Monday, July 16, 2007


I'm in Home City now, and as always, it's like I never left, for both good and ill. I'm staying at the family home, in a bedroom across the hall from the one I grew up in. I'm in a twin bed -- again, same as it ever was. And there is the inevitable low-frequency background hum of minor family drama. But I find it's like living in a high-traffic neighborhood: after a while, you get used to the noise, until you no longer notice it at all.

Home city is a wonderful place. And yes, I did bring a few photocopied articles with me. I'm determined to get through them while I'm here. But there are friends to visit, a great local bookstore to wallow in, and the general city ambiance to soak up. So, reports over the next couple of days are likely to have less than usual to do with matters academic.

Oh! But on several recommendations, I'm reading Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird." I started it on the plane, and it's wonderful. For anyone looking to fall in love with writing again, this is a good place to start.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

"Summers Off"

So, no posts lately. In part because I've had an out-of-town guest who just departed, and tomorrow I'm embarking on a trip to Home City, but largely because I've not done much of note. Yet we are at July 15, the official halfway point of the summer, and I have dilly-dallied, and find myself with little accomplished.

It is a constant of academic bloggers, contributors to the forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education, and academics in general that nobody understands that our "summers off" are anything but. We cry that we are researching, writing, developing courses... on and on. But my self-assessment at the halfway mark leaves me with a sobering realization: I do tend to treat summer as "time off," much more than I should, even though I know that I need to be working.

Now, this may not be a bad thing. After all, after pushing hard all year long, we need time to recharge the batteries a bit. We also need to do all those things that we didn't have time for while teaching (and yes, the 55-hour teaching workweek is no lie) -- things like schedule long-delayed medical appointments, visit the family, sleep more than six hours a night, and (my personal favorite) clean the house. Seriously, if you're not an academic, you have no idea what messes our houses can become the last six weeks of the semester. And, of course, like any working stiff, we need a bit of vacation time.

But, for me at least, this bit of slack can extend far into what is supposed to be productive work time. And for many of us, guilt becomes an inherent feature of relaxation.

So, I've finally hit the point where I'm ready to buckle down. But now it's off for a week with friends and family. And yes: I'll be bringing reading with me.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Words! Actual Words! (and a note about footnotes)

Okay, so many of them are reworked from an earlier piece. And it still needs a bit of "thickening-up" with secondary sources. And I have no idea what the analytical throughline is going to be with this particular bit. But screw it: I GOT 941 WORDS TODAY! According to my handy-dandy word-count tracker, this brings me a full percentage point closer to my goal.

And now, the part of the post dedicated to my friend Not Nurse Ratched: One of the things that I did today was to pull 90% of the discursive footnotes up into the text. Now, unlike NNR, I do not believe that footnotes are a pernicious evil second only to pedophiles and people who text-message on their cell phones in movie theaters. I am a fan of discursive notes, which can allow an author to explore an interesting tangent without disrupting the flow of the argument at hand. However, I am bowing to the reality that, even among academic publishers, the trend is towards endnotes. As a reader, I find endnotes endlessly obnoxious -- all that flipping back and forth to find out where your author got any bit of information. But even worse is the reality that the reader is less likely ever to read your stunning-but-tangential insights, rendered in beautiful and sometimes witty prose** if your notes are at the back of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page. I hate to waste what wit I have. So it's into the text with as much of it as I can possibly manage.

**Think I'm kidding? Read the notes -- footnotes, mind you -- to David Nirenberg's Communities of Violence. His argument in the text is incisive and original, and he sticks to it throughout. Below the footnote line, however, lurk all those stories that don't necessarily fit, but that are just too damned good to leave out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Books 'n' Veggies

Today, inspired by the blog of one of my dearest and oldest friends The Lazy Gardener, I bought a copy of Leanne Kitchen's The Produce Bible. No, I'm not planning on taking up gardening, but I am close to several farmers' markets, and have always wanted to be the kind of person who could base meals around what was fresh and in season. This book is very cool: it has a four- to eight-page section on about a zillion fruits, veggies, and nuts, each introducing the item in question, the season it's best in, how to select one, and then a few simple recipes featuring each. Oh -- and the photographs of both raw materials and finished dishes are gorgeous. I can't wait to take it for a spin.

But never let it be thought that there was no work accomplished. Au contraire! No, no actual words yet. But I did take an important set of steps:

1. I outlined, more or less, what I need to do in the last third of the chapter I am working on.

2. I went through my document files, and picked out the documents that corresponded to each sub-section of the outline.

3. I decided on which two subsections I was going to work on first (LESSON ALERT: break chapters down into manageable three-page chunks; these are easier to envision yourself actually writing than trying to think of the whole chapter, or even major section of a chapter).

4. I ordered up the books and articles that I will need to work on those particular sections.

Which left me at 9:15 with plenty of time for fun: blogging, and now a movie rental, with soda and popcorn.

A Very Good Day, I think.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Starting the Next Phase

Today I finally did it: I got to the phase where I've ordered up materials for an actual, real-live chapter. I've started going through some older documents, too, and deciding what the final categories for this chapter should be. It may not be much, but it's something.

And in other news: it's my birthday. I'm not yet pushing 40, I don't think, but I am now most definitely pulling 30. But right now, I feel like that's no big deal.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


That's how I feel right now: Slow.

I started the summer with a plan, an agenda, and a timetable. And somehow, I've fallen way, way behind already. I need to put an end to phase one of the reading, so I can get on to the next bit.

I did manage to respond to the journal that gave me the revise-and-resubmit, stating my intentions to complete the revisions and resubmit by the end of the summer. And I got some materials ordered for that, and did a bit of reading on the diminishing (thank god!) stack of phase one reading. But I do feel a bit behind, still.

But, as they say: tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What I Haven't Been Doing

No, wait. First, what I have been doing: I got another book tossed back at the library today. Another thick tome that I spent a day on and determined was interesting, but only 20 pages or so were relevant.

What I haven't been doing is cleaning my house. New Kid has a post up on some show about messy houses. I haven't seen that show, but I know mine isn't that bad: the sheets and towels are clean, the bed is made, and I even scrubbed the sink a couple of days ago! But I haven't swept the floor for ages, and we don't even want to talk about the bathtub. And, of course, the desk is cluttered:

(Technically, a picture from a month ago, when I was still in the throes of grading, but replace the bluebooks with a stack of my own reading materials, and you get the idea.)

Now, I've never been much of a house cleaner, but here's the thing: I work best in the complete absence of clutter. Problem is, there's no one to pick up after me but me. And it's getting to the point where I can't stand it anymore: I want a clutter-free desk, a desk lamp without a coat of dust, and even a clean bathtub.

Fortunately, I expect that my desperate desire to avoid work will force me to clean house sooner or later.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

R & R

No, not "Rest & Relaxation" -- perish the thought! No, in this case, "R & R" stands for that most ambiguous of readers' reports on an article I submitted: "Revise and Resubmit." It's better than "Thanks, but no thanks," but a far cry from "Accept, with revisions." What it means is that the readers have some suggestions as to how to improve the article, but that the revised version will have to go through the regular review process again, with no guarantee of acceptance.

The good news is that the reports were generally positive, and the suggestions were understandable: The journal is thematic, rather than a medieval-specific publication, so I need to add some more context and explanations to make the whole thing more comprehensible to nonspecialist readers. Most of this is the work of a few days: add a sentence or two here, translate a term there, explain what my sources are, and why I've chosen them. But one of the readers wants me to engage with the scholarship from non-medieval scholars, to show why non-medievalists should care. Again, for a nonspecialist journal, this is a reasonable request, but it means that I'll have to do a month or so of reading to add one to two paragraphs.

Yet, it's a good journal, so I think I'm going to do it. Wish me luck.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Trying To Be a Good Sport

Still reading, still working my way through those "just to make sure" books. So far, little joy, although there was one lead for a future project I have in mind.

Most of today was taken up with my first-ever visit to a tax accountant. My fellowship arrangement with my college is such that I'll be "donating" the entire amount of my fellowship to the college, in exchange for which they will continue to pay me salary and benefits while I'm gone. Sounds good, right? Except for this: the fellowship money is taxable. I had hoped that, because it was a donation, I could write it off. But it turns out that it may not work that way.

In any case, I'm trying to tell myself that a slight tax hit (to the tune of less than $1,000 for each of the two tax years that the fellowship period straddles) is a small price to pay for the privilege of having a year to do nothing but work on the book. And it is! But I still can't help being a little bitter about having to pay taxes on money that I'll never get to spend.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Life Beyond Books

No work-related post today. It was party time, dammit.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Another day, another book. Okay, half a book. But dammit, I burned 6 hours on physical therapy today, including two hour-and-a-half bus commutes, plus interminable waiting time. I did manage to read a bit on the bus, though. Gotta get more efficient at that.

I've got an article out for review, and the journal editor e-mailed me yesterday to let me know that a response has been sent out to me. This journal is a bit odd, in that it seems to want to do things through snail mail. Still, I'm hoping for the best, but bracing for a revise-and-resubmit. With any luck, I'll know one way or the other by Tuesday.

Fingers crossed. I need another pre-tenure publication.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Errant Nonsense

One of the problems with the more general books and essays I'm looking through is the fact that they're, well, general. I'm surveying them because they were cited in someone else's notes, but I'm finding that many of these are written for an audience of nonspecialists. They survey the general terrain, but break little new ground. That's not to say that such books and essays are useless, but they are less than helpful for what I'm trying to accomplish right now. My goal is to get through them as quickly as possible (by the end of next week I should be done) so I can move on to my chapter-specific bibliography, secure in the knowledge that I've looked at what I know to be out there.

But what really got to me today was not the generalness of one of the essays, but rather the fact that it asserted something that I know to be untrue. I know this primarily because I've written (at least tangentially) on the topic, and have documents to back up my position, where the author of the essay in question has not even a footnote to back up her assertion. I can hardly fault the author for not having looked at the same documents I have, of course. But my broad sense of the secondary literature is that no author writing on this subject would agree with the essay author's position, which sounds more like the kind of cliché that one of my undergrads would come up with, rather than the product of someone well-read in a particular area.

As a result, despite the relatively minor role this incorrect assertion played in the overall piece, I mistrusted everything that particular author had to say from that point on. Considering that this errant nonsense came on page four of the essay in question, that one little unsupported assertion caused some serious damage to the credibility of the piece as a whole.

I've known for a long time that we learn to write by reading. Today, I learned that we also learn how not to write the same way.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thinking About Writng

That word counter sits in my left sidebar, mocking me.

I don't know how other academic writers work, but as for me, I need to do a chunk of reading before I can sit down to write. When I wrote the dissertation, I made the mistake of trying to do all my reading for the whole thing, before I did all my writing. I've scaled that back a bit now, thank goodness: I've made chapter to-read lists, and will work my way through a chapter's worth of reading, or even a subsection of a chapter, then sitting down at the keyboard only when I feel fully prepared to handle that chapter, or that subsection. But the end result is merely a matter of degree: for me, there is always a period when I'm not writing. That "reading period" has often become an excuse for not writing. I know perfectly well why I do this: writing, for me, is not fun. It is hard, grueling work. It's something like how I imagine giving birth might be: eagerness to see the finished product, but the process is painful and disagreeable.

Yet more and more lately, I've found myself wanting to write, even romancing the act of writing. This desire to write (not to be confused with the desire to have written) is alien to me. Yet it's there, like a new and unexpected roomate who I hope will eventually become a friend.

Which brings me to my point: on the recommendation of a friend in another department, I picked up, of all things, "On Writing" by Stephen King. We can talk more about the relative merits of that particular author later, if you like; for now, let me just say that I am enjoying this book. And I bring it up because there is one particular passage that struck me:

"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair -- the sense that you can never completely put on the page what is in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you, or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. You must not come lightly to the blank page."

I think I like that very much.