Thursday, March 31, 2011

Victory Over My Own Brain

Back in late summer/early fall, I was noting that I was getting some words down, but I couldn't indulge in a sense of triumph, I thought, because those words were only Shitty First Draft words -- "verbal vomit," as someone I know is wont to call them. As a consolation prize, I told myself that those would form the basis for papers, and papers would be chapters, and chapters might be a book. Not sure if I believed it, but I did keep telling myself that, just to keep encouraging myself toward forward motion.

looping back: sometimes it pays off.

Guess what? Turns out that I was right. About the first couple parts, at least. All that shitty first draft stuff? Yep, it's getting dumped into the draft of my upcoming presentation, hundreds of already-written primary source-based work (and analysis) at a time, at which point my job becomes only to cut, shape, and polish. Ha! Take that, Girl Scholar's Anxiety-Ridden Brain! Look on my word counter, and despair!

Valuable lesson: All forward motion is inherently good.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Today has been a good day.

Today, I:
  • completed a narrative outline of my upcoming paper
  • polished off one part of a headache-inducing committee assignment
  • took a nice walk with a good friend
  • found some good illustrations for my upcoming presentation
  • got in a good bike ride
  • stocked up on diet coke
Tonight, I will:
  • go to a half-obligatory, half-convivial gathering and be recognized for a small non-work-related accomplishment
  • begin sorting notecards according to the narrative outline
  • roast and eat some veggies
  • do some yoga (at home: sadly I missed the studio class again)
It's not a major day, but one filled with a number of small good things and no bad things. I'm gonna run with that.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A New, More Forgiving Way of Thinking about the Work I'm Doing

Athletes can push themselves very hard, but a good athlete also knows when she's pushed perhaps harder than she can take. She doesn't beat herself up for being sore the day after a grueling bit of exertion. Nor does she castigate herself for not being an olympic-class swimmer the first time out if she's spent the last ten years training as a pole-vaulter.

My brain is battered. In an ideal world, I could give myself recovery time, but deadlines suggest that there's going to be a bit more pushing before that happens, and I'm going to pay for it. I'm throwing new challenges at my little brain, and it may not be up to them all just yet.

BUT... I in no way need to blame myself for feeling worn-out. It is a natural consequence of over-exertion, and initial clumsiness is to be expected when exercising new mental muscles. I will likely stumble a bit in my upcoming presentation, but in the long run, it's going to be o-fc*king-kay.

A few (very few) words on the Bill Cronon sh*tstorm

By now, probably all of my readers have read about how leading environmental historian William Cronon has become the latest person to be winged by Wisconsin Republicans' attempts to radically shift the way things are done in that state. I'm not sure I can add much to the debate, so I'm just going to present a few bullet points and encourage y'all to really go read:
  • You can find Bill Cronon's original post here. It's long, but I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. He lays out what happens, why it happened, and why he's resisting a FoIA request for his e-mails.
  • Excellent analysis from more incisive historian minds than my own can be found at Historiann and Tenured Radical.
  • UW Chancellor Biddy Martin's somewhat tepid response (at least to my outsider's eyes) can be found here. I hesitate to judge based on this, because we all know the mare's nest of debate that lurks behind all such cautiously worded statements [edit: my commenters are tending towards interpreting Chancellor Martin's words as cautious, but actually as firm a defender of Cronon as she can be in her current position, and I'm inclined to kinda sorta agree]. Whatever it means, it's an important document to read, and its importance will only increase over the coming weeks, so watch this space.
  • For the record, I do believe that this is an attempt to harass an intellectual who is criticizing government. The state owns his computer, sure; but to me, this is tantamount to saying it also owns his brain and what comes out of it.
  • Also for the record: this may be a good thing in some ways, in that it emphasizes the importance of tenure at a time when it is increasingly under attack -- in the same way that the last month of protests have shown how unions are relevant. Sometimes we need our rights and freedoms threatened to wake us up to why they need to be defended (or why they're obsolete and need to be scrapped and/or reformed, depending on your personal persuasion).
  • On a personal note, I still believe in Wisconsin. They may have given us McCarthy, but they also gave us Fighting Bob La Follette.
  • Finally, confidential to Wisconsin GOP: It's "Cronon" with an "o." Spelling counts.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I've been here before

Back my first semester in grad school, as a young M.A. student, the first paper I ever had to submit was one of two 20-pagers for a seminar with Big Deal Professor. I was new, I suspected that I was there on sufferance, and this was the professor who had drawn me to this school. So, I listened carefully to what he had to say in class, drew up a proposal for my first paper, got his approval, and began to read.

And I kept reading. And reading. For four weeks solid I read, because I was new both to the topic of my paper, and to the broader topic of the course in general. I knew nothing, and thought I had to know everything.

And four weeks into the reading phase (keep in mind that this was only the first of two major papers due that semester, about 7 weeks in), I figured out my first valuable grad school lesson: There will always be another book you should read. But you can't possibly, so at some point, you just need to arbitrarily call a halt to the reading, and start writing.

So I put away the books, and wrote, and revised, and bagged my first grad-school A.**

And now, here I am, fifteen years, two advanced degrees, one book, and a handful of articles later, with a presentation on new materials staring me in the face. Oddly enough, the paper version is going to have to be about -- you guessed it -- 20 pages long. And there are a stack of books and articles that I think I absolutely, positively must get read before I can start to write. And only just now did I remember 25 year-old me, and how she was brave enough to just stop reading, and start writing. So I'm giving myself until Sunday, and then, ready or not (and I'm probably more ready than I think I am), I write.

**This was before I figured out that anything less than an A-minus is a warning shot fired across a grad student bow. But it was a triumph at that moment, and that's how I will continue to treat it, thankyouverymuch.

Friday, March 18, 2011


I've written a grant proposal for my second book project. I've gotten a couple of people to put their eyes to it and give me some suggestions (thanks, Squadratomagico & T!). I have my first presentation on it in a couple of weeks.

And guess what? It feels facile. I have an idea that seems neat in the proposal, but I have no earthly clue if or how the result is going to say something really new. And that's terrifying.

Part of this, I know, is the result of being at the beginning of a project, barely into the new sources, both primary and secondary. Part of it is due to having just finished a project that managed to make a pretty original argument about a worked-over topic. So I keep plugging away at it, knowing that my real inspiration for the last project didn't come until I worked on it for several years.

I know these things. So why doesn't that knowledge make me feel any better?**

Fig. 1: the only member of my family who knows how to chill the hell out.

** Oh, but you know what does make me feel better? As of today, I'm back on the bike!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Conference

Hey, Medievalists!

Did you get your Kalamazoo program today?

Did it seem... small?

I flipped to the back, and rather than the usual 700-odd (some very odd) panels, there were only 574. So I'm not imagining things.

We're not your typical conference.

What do we think? Off year? Trending downwards? Restricted travel budgets?

And the pearlescent pea-soup color for this year: love, or hate?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Today, in fake-achievement news:

from my e-mail this morning:

"I would like to be the first to offer you a well deserved congratulations. You are scheduled to be published in the 2012 Edition of the Academic Registry. Your contact information was acquired by our research staff, who pour over academic journals, conference lists, and published papers in an effort to find the most accomplished academics nationwide."

What, precisely, are they pouring over those journals? And won't the libraries be upset?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More of Me Telling You What You Don't Want to Hear

And again, another advice request, along the lines of "Should I go to graduate school?"

I have, perhaps justly, been accused of being far too snarky with these questions, mainly because I have no idea whether any individual should go to grad school. That's a personal decision, with complex factors involved.

Illustration: The future is unclear.

But let me start off with the short answer: Should you go to graduate school? Not unless you absolutely have to.

And now, to unpack that, in handy bullet points that reflect the letter-writer's reasons for considering grad school, and will likely resonate with others contemplating the same decision:**
  • You've done the corporate thing, and decided you'd be happier out of that, even if it means working as a barista as you are currently doing (You see how this correspondent is playing to my weakness? Baristas make it possible for me to do my job without killing anyone, and I love them all unconditionally). I respect that: If your current job is making you miserable, then do something that makes you not miserable, and screw anyone who thinks you're "trading down." Only you can know that. But you'd really like to pursue a particular semi-obscure area of academic study, which you think will be better than both of those things. Here's the problem, though: If you left the first job because you were, as you say, "overwhelmed with the politics," then academia is probably going to present similar challenges. The politics are different, but they are very real, they're impossible to avoid in the long run, and they will, from time to time, wear. your. ass. down. You need to know that.
  • You're thinking about going back to pursue a passion from your early university days that you shelved for a more "practical" major. Again: Hooray for pursuing passions. But do you need to go to grad school to do it? Does it need to be how you make your living? I've often called myself lucky for having a job that allows me to get paid for doing what I love, but I've recently heard some convincing counter-arguments that when you make what you love your job, you stop loving it so much. It's something to consider. Can you do something that pays the bills, and make this the non-vocational thing that you look forward to when you're not working?
  • You'd like to make a career out of this, but are concerned with job prospects. And you're right to be concerned. Job prospects are bad, and getting worse, and even the jobs that are there aren't what they're cracked up to be: stagnating wages, states rescinding pensions, faculty unions under attack, increased teaching load (see my previous post) -- and that's if you're one of the dozen or so people in your field nationally*** who is both lucky and good enough to land a tenure-track job.
So, here's the question, in a nutshell, that you need to be asking yourself:
If I spent 6-10 prime income-earning years working towards a Ph.D., perhaps going into debt to do so, possibly being treated like a recalcitrant teenager (right or wrong, academia's a hierarchical world) by professors 10 years younger than me, and at the end of that, there was no job and no hope of one, and I'm back to slinging lattes again... would I consider it time and money well-spent? Would I be happier than I am now?

See? Notice the lack of snark? I think I've grown.****

**This, of course, all leaves aside the question of whether you can even get into grad school, about which I have even less of a freakin' clue, so don't ask.

***Yes, you read that right: a dozen or so jobs for the whole damn country each year -- and that's being optimistic. And probably about 100 highly qualified people competing for them. We won't even talk about where in the country you'd "like" to work, because I'd fall down laughing.

****Okay, maybe a little snark in the footnotes, but it's at least marginally constructive. Now: where's my cookie?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Writing and Publishing on a 4-4?

Strong possibility of 4-4 next year, and from here on out? Did I hear that right?

fig. 1: It's getting awfully crowded in here...

Freeze my wages, furlough me now and then, take away my freakin' photocopier privileges, and then talk about increasing my workload by another class, on top of last year's increase from 3-3 to 3-4?

Okay, so I know that many of you are handling this teaching load already, so pardon me for bitching, but... Really?

((deep breath))

No, here's the more productive thing to ask: How do you do it? I mean, assuming that your university still expects you to crank out peer-reviewed articles or books for tenure and/or promotion, and that you yourself have ideas that you want to get out there: How do you do it?

(Preferably without going completely insane.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What I'm Writing These Days

Yeah, it ain't blog posts, as you may have noticed.

But last night, I sat down to put something in the "assorted notes" for my presentation this April -- some stuff that will go in the intro... and two hours later when I looked at the clock again, I had written an entire draft of my introduction.

Look at the word counter: It's alive!!!**

I still hate this semester. This is the heaviest courseload I've ever had, combined with the heaviest service load I've ever had. The ass-kicking I promised to deliver it looks like it's going to be mutual. But I'm going to win.

**Okay, yeah: a 1200-word intro for a 7000-word presentation is, shall we say, excessive. But I'll cut later. Right now I want my words...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

another year...

...another bike accident. Hit-and-run drivers = not cool. Helpful bystanders and bike helmets = thumbs up.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Another non-post (with a giggle at the end)

Obnoxiously, this is not a post. It's just an update to say I'm not dead. Just about, but not quite. For explanation, see this post from two weeks ago.

Yes, the part two of the funding post hasn't been forgotten. But this semester is kicking my ass.

But just to show that I have a sense of humor: I got an e-mail from our union rep. S/he is concerned about the workloads and stagnant pay of associate profs. Yep: me, too. S/he wants to the union can take it on in their next bargaining session. Great idea. So... when would I/we be available for a meeting to discuss specifics?