Monday, November 30, 2009

Problem diagnosed. Can I get a do-over?

So, this weekend I was preemptively mourning the end of my glorious ten days off, contemplating a return to teaching, and wondering why my classes were going so badly this semester. My students (undergrad and grad) are doing poorly, and while I'm sure some of it is on them, I'm also aware that I haven't been doing the level of mentoring or even basic organization that I'm used to doing, in spite of the fact that I'm in the office until 7-9 p.m. six days a week.** None of these are new classes, mind you, though two of the three are kind of complex, and made more so by the fact that we've lost several teaching days here and there in the semester due to furloughs. Still, some of the problems this semester:
  • Medium-sized errors in the syllabus (like, having the dates wrong)
  • Forgetting to post readings online
  • Spacing off my pop quizzes in one class until I'm cornered into doing them every single day until the end because there are only that many days left
  • Late posting of essay topics, forcing me to renegotiate due dates
  • Astoundingly poor organization of my methodology syllabus, to the detriment of my students, who need this information
  • Complete inability to keep on top of the three grad students who are supposed to be turning in exams and thesis chapters before I go on sabbatical

Add to this the students' problems in paying for books -- one couldn't afford to buy the book, so he had gotten one from the library. Unfortunately, the library book was in the fourth edition, while I had assigned the tenth. Throw in the swine flu, the regular flu, and a nasty upper respiratory/headachey RINO virus, and low student and faculty morale due to furloughs, and you've got a recipe for disaster. I am dreading looking at my evaluations from this semester.

But this weekend, I just realized something else: part of the problem can be boiled down to four days; to be precise, the last four days before the semester began. Due to a confluence of circumstances, those four days were all I got to prep for my courses. And I think I've been paying for it all semester.

I need my upcoming sabbatical. But I'd also like a do-over on the semester.

**I only teach one night class.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Once Done is Half Begun"

The title is taken from something that one of us said in grad school when referring to a paper we were writing -- a malapropism that ended up being more accurate than the original. It's also a good way of describing how I feel right now.

The title is appropriate for two reasons. The first is the boomerang effect of the many things I've checked off my to-do list. For example, in the past two weeks I have sent off the copy edits for my book (5 days late), and a draft of the 8,000-word article/essay project to one of the editors (well ahead of schedule). Yet both of these are going to boomerang back to me several times, probably at times that are not convenient.

The second has more to do with teaching than with research: As the end of my glorious 10 days off approaches, and the end of the semester soon after that, I'm feeling a tension between a sense of accomplishment on the one hand, and the knowledge that it ain't quite over yet on the other. I'm 24 hours from being caught up on my grading, but every time I start to feel relieved, I realize that Tuesday I've got 12 ten-page papers coming in, then about two dozen four-pagers the following Tuesday, then, then then.... I can't let my guard down yet.

But what I can do for these next few days is continue not to set my alarm for 6:45. I can cook and eat well. I can get my apartment and office clean and organized for the onslaught of the next half-month.

Bracing for impact, folks. Who's with me?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

In keeping with the old world/new world theme of the holiday new nephew arrived this week, and now rejoices in the first/middle name combination of: Henry Hudson.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! And remember: the best part of the Thanksgiving meal is the pie-for-breakfast the day after.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Break time is here!

Whoo hoo!

Between furloughs, Thanksgiving, and my regular T/W/Th teaching schedule, I have THE NEXT TEN DAYS OFF!!!

Okay, so there's a little grading to do. And about 800 more words to write on my article draft. But there's also a lot of sleeping to be caught up on, and I'm gonna enjoy the hell outta that.

Happy, happy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Just Hit "Send"

I just sent off my copy-edited MS pages. I spent the weekend catching numerous errors in my prose, half-deleted sentences, awkward word choices, and the like. All the while praying that I wasn't introducing all new errors.

In two months, more or less, I get my page proofs. And I swear I'll give myself more time with these (they should arrive after classes have ended, so good there). And right now, I'm tired, and wishing that my "sleep for a week" week started today. Unfortunately, I have to get through three teaching days before I can do that.

There is a little triumph here, tempered with some fear. But mostly, It's: "Okay, where are all those things that I put off for the last two weeks while I finished this thing?"

Time to rest and enjoy this is coming soon, I promise. But for the next 3 1/2 days, it's nose to the grindstone time.

Almost there...

Check back at 5 p.m. EST for an important update.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm looking forward to...


That's really about it. I arrived in the conference city Friday night, after getting 6 hours of sleep the previous night. Then, because of the time shift, I had trouble sleeping, and had a wake-up call after only 4 1/2 hours.

Then, after 5 cups of coffee and one of black tea, and a too-big lunch, I delivered my paper. I've been told it went well, but I honestly have no way of judging, since I gave it while severely sleep-deprived. I ended up ducking out halfway through the final panel of the day (not mine) because I needed to be up and walking in order to stave off sleep. Caffeine works as liquid sleep for only so long.

I am exhausted, and will be hitting the hay before 9 p.m. local time, if all goes well.

There is still one more deadline to meet, Monday, but I'm sure I can do it. Then another week of classes, then I sleep for all of Thanksgiving week, if I can manage it. I've earned it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Turning Point

This past week, I got through a week of epic grading: 30 midterms and a dozen ten-page papers. Also, a couple last revisions on the conference paper and a meeting or three.

Now, I leave for a conference to present my first-ever post-book new-project paper. On the plane with me will be:
  • My book MS, with revisions, to go over on the plane so I can get it back Monday (5 days past deadline)
  • A paper that my friend from Exotic Research City asked me to go over and correct the English
  • A grant proposal that a colleague has asked me to give a once-over
  • Two thesis chapters from my pokiest grad student

Oh yeah -- and my camera.

By the time I get through Monday night, my major deadlines will all have been passed, and I'll be able to be a bit more relaxed. See you then.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Glory Hallelujah

Last night, around a half past midnight, three minutes after I had turned off the computer for the night (isn't that always the way?), it suddenly hit me** how I could make my conference paper not suck.

Twenty minutes ago, I finished a revision of said paper. It's not going to change anybody's world, but I'm now fairly certain that I will not embarrass myself or Esteemed Adviser at the upcoming conference.

((sigh of relief))

**I know that good writers avoid the passive voice like the plague. But I just can't bring myself to claim agency in these late-night inspirations. They happen to me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reader Poll: How careful are you?

I'm going back and triple-checking my footnotes right now. I've prioritized: first, archival document citations (on line now! hooray!); second, published primary sources; third, page numbers in secondary sources (I have much of this on my computer)... or as many as I have time for before deadline. In other words, I'm shooting for sending this off with a final check of 100% of my primary source citations, and likely about 75% of my secondary sources. I feel guilty about that remaining 25%, and glad I'm at least semi-anonymous.

So, since this is incredibly dull, tedious work, and I'm likely to be at it for the next week, more or less, I thought I'd find whatever amusement value in it I could by conducting an unscientific poll of my readers. If you participate, I'd like you to (just this once) log in anonymously. Then answer as many of the questions below as you feel like:

1. When you're doing your editing before publication, how meticulous are you in checking your citations (and does this vary by publication type)?

2. Have you ever caught a citation blunder of yours in print? Did it really, really bother you? Or did you just shrug ruefully and move on?

3. (for comparison purposes): Have you published one book? Multiple books? Articles only?

4. Have you found that your approach to this part of the process has changed over time? If so, how?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Thanks for the encouraging comments on the last post. I don't disagree with the fun of setting off into uncharted territory; my problem is with having to then draw a map of that territory that other people will judge.

But that's not the point of this post. The point of this post is that last night, I think I figured out why I'm struggling with this conference paper when papers used to kind of flow out of me while working on the dissertation. I have, in the process of revising the dissertation into a book, become argument-driven.

This is one of the key distinctions between the dissertation and the book, and one that everyone has to discover for themselves as they go along. For me, the moment came when I was writing fellowship proposals in the summer between my second and third year on the tenure track. I was forced to confront the question: So what? In other words, what's the point of all this blah-blah? The grant-writing process, for me, was mostly the process of inventing, nearly from scratch, an analytical framework that the dissertation generally lacked. The pre-submission revision process was me turning the dissertation inside-out, in order to make the argument, not the documents, the main point.

But here's the problem: once you've crossed that line, whether that's in graduate school or (as in my case) much later, you can't go back. You can no longer feel comfortable presenting a paper or writing an article that's just a bunch of neat stories, with a loose "argument" tacked on as an afterthought. The argument has to be the point. And this paper is my first try at constructing an all-new argument. Gah.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Perils of New Projects

I've been absent from blogging for a couple of weeks now, because I've been wrestling with a conference paper, and I'm always hesitant to blog about such things, which are often less interesting. After all, all academics have to write these papers, and the fact that some go less smoothly than others is hardly blog-worthy. But I've finally decided that my experience with this paper is paradigmatic of a larger struggle: getting going on a new project.

It looks like the book is going to be out next spring, which means that it will see the light about 11 years after I began working on it in earnest, as a dissertation. during about 8 of those 11 years, I was able to peel of parts to present at conferences. The first ones were document-driven, rather than argument-driven, and I felt that I was fumbling around for a point to these papers. But by the end of that time, I felt pretty confident about what the larger message was, and how to frame a smaller part of that message in 10 pages or so.

And what's my reward for finishing a big ol' book? That's right: I get to fumble around again, and wonder if my paper makes any sense, and wonder if my audience will be able to tell that at this beginning stage, I don't really know what my argument is. What I've got instead is a bunch of vaguely interesting documents that I'm imposing a place-holder argument on while waiting for the real pattern to emerge.

So, here we go. I'm confronting my own ignorance again. And desperately hoping not to make an ass of myself.