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.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Got a bit more reading done today -- skimmed a book that was pretty general, but that did yield one interesting footnote, which I intend to follow up on.

I had an interesting conversation this morning with a friend who teaches U.S. History at another nearby university, and who is doing final revisions based on the readers' reports from the press who gave her a contract. The topic of the conversation was timelines. She sent her MS to the press for review in October, received readers' reports in January, sent a response in March, and had a contract by April, with a September deadline for final revisions.

Now, I know that all presses and processes are different. And I know that not everybody gets a positive response on their first round of proposals. But using her timetable as a rough guide, and adding six weeks to the beginning for the proposal stage... and assuming I get lucky and get a positive response from someone in my first round, that's 7 months from proposal to contract. I file for tenure a year from October, so (pauses to count backwards): Submit proposals in February, at the latest. December, to be safe.

December. That's six months from now.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Will Notorious Get Whacked?

(Post in honor of last night's final episode of "The Sopranos," which I didn't follow, but since it seems that everyone else did, I ought to make a nod in that direction.)

For the first time in a week, I went up to my department office. Upon checking my box, I found no real mail, but an entire sheaf of memos from the library, threatening stern looks, suspension of library privileges, and eventual disembowelment if I didn't return the books I had checked out through our interlibrary loan system. I was in no way done with all these books, but the thickness of the sheaf of ominous missives was so alarming that I actually went through the stack, and performed a sort of bibliographic triage: books I don't need after all (return immediately), books I need an article from (photocopy, and return), and books that will take a bit more of my attention before I decide what I will need from them (hang on to these, and hope the library doesn't send their goon squad after me).

I am less panicked than I might be, because our library, while it goes after students for their dollar-a-day ILL fines with a ruthless efficiency that would make a mob boss proud, does nothing to the faculty but send out even more threatening notes. Occasionally, they will suspend your ILL privileges until the delinquent items are returned safe and sound, but I've usually been able to sweet-talk the circulation desk staff into bending the rules if I really, really need them bent -- I'm a regular customer, after all.

Still, it's probably not a good idea for me to take advantage of the system this way. I'm afraid that one day, they'll actually start enforcing the rules on faculty, and I will find myself owing several hundred dollars in fines.

The high point of my day, after assuaging my conscience by taking back all but 6 of the 20 or so overdue items, was to make a new dish for dinner involving sliced eggplant rolled around ricotta and tempeh (I'm a vegetarian), and baked in marinara sauce. I served it with a salad of baby spinach dressed with olive oil and a balsamic reduction, and garnished with chopped walnuts. Best yet, I invited one of my neighbor friends over for a late dinner. It was a very nice way to end the day.

And if I don't post tomorrow night, remember: The librarian did it.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Peer Review

Another day, another book (and another language, too). I managed to skim this one rather efficiently, get the page and a half of notes that might be useful, and move on.

Another task I've been working on over the past few weeks has been my first-ever peer review of the work of another scholar. This one is a would-be journal article, written by someone in my subfield. Said subfield is small enough that I'm fairly sure I know who wrote it -- a relatively recent graduate of a well-regarded doctoral program who I think has an interesting project overall. The topic of the article was close enough to my own that I accepted the request to review it gladly, thinking that I could actually gain a new perspective on my own work.

Here's the issue: the piece needs work, and I've been agonizing over the most helpful way to construct my comments. The knowledge that I will soon (relatively speaking, of course) be submitting my book manuscript for make-or-break peer review has made me hyper-aware of the importance of the review process. Up until now, I had only seen reviewing from the reviewee's side of the fence, and have had the typical reactions to revise-and-resubmit verdicts: 1) initial irritation; 2) grudging decision to suck it up and make the changes; 3) realization that the reviewer's comments were mostly on-target, and that my article was better for having followed their suggestions.

Now, however, I see that there's an element to the reviewer's side of things that I hadn't considered before. Reviewers want to see good pieces in print, and genuinely want problematic articles (or books) revised to the point where the author won't be embarrassed by them. Reviewers also have a personal stake in the process: by putting a seal of approval on a particular article or book, we are putting our own reputations as credible judges of scholarship on the line.

So, I wrote a probably-too-detailed critique of this particular piece I'm reviewing, but tempered it with lots of encouragement. I probably went a bit overboard on both counts, but I'm sending it off soon, with hopes that the author takes it in the spirit it was meant. And to any past reviewers of my articles who I may have grumbled about: I get it now. Thank you.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Job Skills

Today's project was getting through an article. Thank the gods it was more relevant (although only slightly more so) than the book I referred to in yesterday's post. I didn't manage to get the notes taken, but the article is read and done.

So why burn a whole day on a single thirty-page article? Two reasons:

First, today was a rough day, physically. I've got a persistent (but hopefully not permanent) condition known as frozen shoulder that causes very limited mobility, and sometimes, like today, enough pain to leave me exhausted. So I didn't even start working today until 4 p.m.

Second, the article isn't in English. This is one of the challenges of being a medievalist: we are expected to read Latin, German, and French, plus whatever other languages our particular research area might require. This article was in one of those other languages.

I have two contradictory feelings about the work I do in other languages. On the one hand, I'm proud of this ability of mine. Most people in my country speak only English. The fact that I can get along with relative fluency in three additional languages, plus read two others, is one of those few parts of my skill set that non-academics can appreciate. It's also something that I can use in my non-academic life, now and then.

On the other hand, there is a part of me that is a bit puzzled when people are impressed by this, if it comes up in conversation. That part of me says, "This is part of my job, that's all." Plenty of jobs have semi-arcane skills that I will never master, nor ever need to, but that I admire in others. I can't do statistics, fix a leaky pipe, interpret blood pressure readings, or make an omelette that doesn't turn out as a scramble -- all things that other people do as a part of their jobs on a daily basis, and which I'm grateful that they will sometimes do for me.

Friday, June 8, 2007

I've Learned My Lesson

Resolved: If a scholarly book will not be helpful for the project I'm working on, and I know it, I will put it aside. If I think it might be enjoyable reading, I will put it on the bedside table, or make a note to pick it up again later, but I will not waste two valuable research days on it.

And yet, like a bad relationship, once I had committed to it, I resolved to see it through to the end, even if my treatment of the last dying bit was somewhat half-assed and unenthusiastic. The compulsive note-taker in me kicked in ("But we have little colored sticky tabs!") and I kept slogging, long after it had ceased to be anything but mildly irritating. I need to learn to let go, if I'm not getting anything out of it anymore. Cut my losses. Issue the book a bill of divorce, and move on.

On the other hand, if a mildly interesting but hardly groundbreaking book like this one can find a home at a university press, maybe mine can, too?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

On Useless Reading, and a Cool New Widget

Today I read 200 pages of a 340-page book. 20 pages into it, I knew it wouldn't be of much help to what I was doing: too off-topic, too general, too reliant on secondary sources, rather than primary materials.... Unfortunately, by that time, I was also really interested. So, rather than putting it down, I continued reading. I have vowed to finish it tomorrow morning before heading off to physical therapy, then take notes on it in the evening (no book goes wasted!) and be done with it.

To my readers who aren't academics, let me explain briefly what I mean by "reading" 200 pages in a day. Here's how it goes: you read the introduction and conclusion closely. Then, you read the introduction and conclusion of chapter one. Then you read the first sentence or two of every paragraph, slowing down to read more if something catches your interest. Move on to chapter two. Repeat.

Anyway, I'm not horribly concerned that this book hasn't yielded much for the book. I'm right now working my way through the short list of "books and articles with general-sounding titles that might, just maybe, have something useful." After that, it's on to the chapter-by-chapter lists. More on that when I get there.

Oh! And I'd like to draw your attention to the cool new "book in progress" widget that I first saw on New Kid on the Hallway's blog. it's pretty neat, huh? The problem is that the automatic percentage calculation seems to be off, so I have to manually calculate, then go in and fix the code. Still, it's fun.

But don't expect the numbers to move much (or at all) for the next couple of weeks. As I said, I'm reading.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The System, or Why I Need To Get a Life

Today, among other things, I took notes on a book that I have been reading for the last couple of days. This may seem simple, but I've managed to make it quite complicated. You see, I have a System.

When I was in grad school, I observed that a couple of my professors had, in their offices, boxes upon boxes of file cards, presumably filled with notes on books and articles they had read while researching (I'm assuming here; for all I know, they could have been boxes of recipe cards). They kept the cards, for handy reference on later projects.

Now, I had been trained in the old-school method of taking notes on index cards, so I was familiar with the process. I wrote my M.A. thesis using 4 x 6 cards. But it struck me how time-consuming it would be to go through all those boxes. What if you needed a reference, and had a vague memory that you might have read something on the topic 18 months ago? How would you know which box to begin in? And what about all the cards that you forgot existed, but that contained valuable references that might be just what you need, if only you could remember them?

So, as I started on my doctoral dissertation research, I invested a whole bunch of time teaching myself to use FilemakerPro. And even more time developing templates -- one for abstracts of books and articles, another for more detailed notes on each. And now, everything worthwhile that I read has its own little searchable file on my computer, cross-referenced with the searchable "abstracts" file. My grad school friends laughed at how anal-retentive this all was, especially for someone whose desk pretty consistently looked like it had been hit by a small, incredibly localized tornado. I laughed, too. It seemed ridiculous. Yet, almost a decade later, I'm still doing it. Sometimes, I even have fantasies of teaching myself a fancy computer language, and making a real database (I almost surely won't). But for now, I'm fine. It takes a lot of time, and I still marvel at how sick it is. But dammit, it works for me, so I'm sticking with it.

Now, I just have to pray that I never need to switch software...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Testing... testing...?

(Just an introductory post here, in case anybody's listening.)

I never thought I'd start a blog. "Who blogs?", I thought. "Who on earth could be so self-important as to think other people would care about the minutiae of his or her life?!? Hrmph. You'll never catch me doing anything like that."

Just goes to show: if you want the gods to laugh, make a plan.

I've just finished my fourth year in a tenure-track job in the Humanities. I was one of the fortunate few who was able to land a tenure-track job the same month I defended my dissertation. For eight years of graduate school, those were my two goals: Finish the dissertation. Get a job. I never thought beyond that.

Now, here I sit at the end of year four, realizing that I have two new goals: Turn the dissertation into a book. Keep the job. And here I've been fortunate again: I've been awarded a couple of very nice fellowships which will allow me to take a year off of teaching and work on finishing the book. But I'm a chronic procrastinator. Hence, the blog.

You might think: "Getting a blog is the absolute WORST thing she could do! She will procrastinate! She will write posts when she should be writing her chapters!" Possibly. But also, just possibly, a bit of daily accountability will do me some good. So here's the deal; here's my contract with my (as of yet largely imaginary) readers:

1. I will try to post something every day. Topics are likely to have to do with my academic life. Sometimes, this will simply be something dull, such as "Today I read article X, which may be useful for helping me with chapter Y", or "Today I wrote 426 words." I may also talk about personal issues (for example, I'm in physical therapy right now, and I do a bit of whining about it). I will endeavor not to use this blog as a place to air dirty laundry, mainly because it's just not classy. But I make no promises about any of this.

2. If you are an academic, and want to exchange words of encouragement about the writing process, I will welcome yours, and try to reciprocate with my own.

3. I will try respond to comments (from everyone, not just other academic geeks) on a semi-regular basis. Spam and obnoxious comments will be deleted. I don't want to buy your product. I don't want to see pictures of your (or anyone else's) body parts. I don't need cheap pharmaceuticals. (At least, not yet. Ask me again after I've spent six months wrestling with the manuscript. I might be in the market for some Xanax at that point.)

4. If the blog begins to keep me from doing the actual work that it was created to motivate, the blog goes.

Thank you for your visit. Please help yourself to the candy dish.