Thursday, March 29, 2012

Most boring spring break ever, days 3 and 4: Apparently I Needed This

So, as usual, my grand plans were a bit too ambitious. You know what I've been doing a lot of over the last few days?

I've been sleeping.

Now, this is not to say I haven't gotten anything done. I'm slowly getting caught up on a couple of projects. I finished one of three grading projects (two large and one medium). I finished some revisions on an article (overdue by 10 days) and a book review (overdue by one week). And yes, I've even done some social stuff, and gotten to yoga. These are all good things.

But I've been sleeping a lot. The alarm goes off at a perfectly reasonable hour, and I turn it off and sleep for another hour. Or two.

I'm not beating myself up about this. I know that my body is telling me something. I've been running a sleep deficit all semester. And there have been a lot of icky illnesses going around,[1] so maybe my body is fighting all these things that might otherwise seriously wipe me out, were I to fall ill. And I've been going to bed far too late.

But I also know that mornings are my best creative work time. And I know that what I need to do is get to bed at a decent hour so I can get up early, meditate,[2] and get right to work. When I get in this rhythm, I can get in three very productive hours.

Everyone is different on this. And I know myself, and what I need to do. So now, it's time to just buckle down and do it. Because you know what? That paper needs to get written.


[1] Seriously, have these nasty bugs been going around where you live, too? I have friends who have been completely laid up anywhere from two to six days, and have felt rotten for two weeks after they were finally able to get out of bed.

[2] This is another thing that's been falling by the wayside. And it's another thing that I know for a fact makes my life better if I do it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Most boring spring break ever, day two: An immutable law of student interaction

Today I checked off one of the items on my "vacation" to-do list: I graded a stack of paper proposals for one of my undergraduate classes. And because the students won't be getting them back until after spring break is over, I sent out a quick e-mail blast to the class as a whole, telling them that they were finished, and that if they wanted me to send my comments via e-mail so they'd have them to work with, they should send me an e-mail and I'd respond as quickly as possible.

Within the first hour, I had my first two requests. And it's here that I discovered (rediscovered?) what seems to be an immutable law of student interaction: The students who take the most initiative to get feedback and assistance are generally the ones who need it least. Seriously: these first two students to request my comments are the only two who got full points on the assignment. The third (and so far only other) student to ask got the equivalent of an A-minus on her proposal.

Now, it's possible that most students aren't too concerned right now, because we did have proposal conferences before spring break, so it's not like they don't have anything to go on at all. And I'm sure that more students, representing a broader range of performance, will be writing in over the next couple of days, and they'll get exactly the same attention from me as the early-birds do. But I do find it interesting -- though not surprising -- that there is a strong correlation between taking initiative and generally doing well on assignments, and that the cause/effect relationship is circular. Which is to say, these students were already doing good work because they know to get out ahead of these things and ask for help when they need it.


In other news: going out for real social time tonight. And also, here's a thing I saw yesterday:

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sheltering in Place; or: Come along for the ride on the world's most boring spring break!

As I noted in my previous post, I managed to screw up my first vacation-vacation in years. I'm not going to dwell on that. Instead, I'm going to focus on what I am going to use this unexpected unclaimed week to do:
  • Finish the final (penultimate?) revision of an essay for a collected volume, one week overdue
  • Write a book review, one weekend overdue
  • Grade a stack of midterms
  • Grade a stack of proposals
  • Go to the office and do some prep for students on a paper project
  • Go through the e-mails
  • Get back on the regular yoga schedule
  • Do a couple of social things, long delayed
  • Take some pictures
  • Get started on the damn conference paper

Sounds almost as much fun as strolling the beach in Rio, doesn't it? Okay, not so much. But it's basically getting myself back on track for the two goals ("prepare the foundation" and "health") that I've got so far this year, and that March has allowed to slip away from me. And you know what? Just for the hell of it, I'll blog one of them every day this week, too. How 'bout that? You all get to come along with me on the world's most boring spring break! Whoo-hoo!

Monday, March 19, 2012

More Excellence Without Money

(hat tip to the many excellent [without money!] posts at Historiann and Roxie's World)

Today, only a few short hours before I found out that I screwed up a vital piece of travel arrangements for my first! real! vacation! in years, and that it would not be happening after all, word came down from on high: due to continuing budget cuts, next year my campus will have no money for faculty research/conference travel.** None. Zero. Zilch.

I should explain something here: My university has traditionally been a teaching-focused school. But for the last decade and a half or more, we've been pushing towards the "teacher/scholar" model, and supporting that with money for a couple conferences a year (presenters only) and occasionally "topping off" research grants that fall short of our full salary. The idea -- a sound one, IMO -- is that scholarly engagement and good teaching go hand in hand. My own experience of the model is this: being engaged in my own scholarship, and in the broader scholarly community, does more than keep me up to date. It reminds me of why I got excited about my area of study in the first place, and I take that excitement back to the classroom with me: "Look at how truly cool this is, you guys!"

Also, I'm really proud of my own work. I like getting in and digging and writing and all that, even when it's hard, because dammit, I made something, something new that wasn't there before.

Over the years, I've gotten used to footing the bill for my own research travel, and scrabbling together whatever outside money I could. I even got used to paying for any conferences above the one (or sometimes one plus a bit) that were funded. It was doable, though I could always wish for more.

But now? I'm frustrated. The language of the announcement -- that we would be "allowed" to take "self-financed travel" -- was even more galling, as it sends the message that the university is being super-nice by letting us do the job we were hired to do, so long as we pay for it out of our own pockets. It is the very definition of adding insult to injury, and it's another blow to morale.

At this point, I would be fully justified, I think, in going up for promotion with a craptastic post-tenure publication record, and saying, "Look, this isn't my fault. You want a teacher/scholar, you need to support that model." But the fact is that I want to do the research. Being a contributing member of that larger community is important to me personally.

So, I know that some of you readers must be in a similar situation. Maybe my "new normal" is something you've been living with for a while. What do you do? How do you make it work? How do you take care of your own needs as a researcher when the deck is stacked against you?

Please help -- any words of advice, or stories from people who have managed this, are so very welcome. Because the fact is that I have grown to hate the sound of my own complaining. I've been actively embracing the many good things about my job and working on not letting the bad get under my skin. But today... it just got too hard to do that. And I need help before a doom-spiral begins and demolishes all that good work I've been doing on being a more positive person.

**Among other things: Here I should note that others in my department have it worse: advising -- a difficult and time-consuming job in a large department like ours -- is no longer going to be supported with any course releases. And that's truly heinous.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

You know what's frustrating?

I'm not writing. At all.

And I really want to be.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why do I still do this to myself?

Stack of papers.

Four-day weekend.

Three days gone.

Not one single paper graded.

You'd think I'd have learned by now.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Office Hours

Here it is, another 10 p.m., me just arriving home from one of my marathon Tuesday/Thursday office days. My schedule this semester means that I've got a giant block of time between my noon class and my night class. And, of course, I use a large chunk of that time for office hours. And therein lies today's dilemma.

When I was an undergraduate at a semi-fancy liberal arts college, a lot of my learning took place in professors' office hours. A naturally curious person, I quickly learned the difference between the kind of question you ask in class, and the kind of question that is tangential, and best held for a one-on-one discussion. At least once a week, I was in some professor's office hours for twenty minutes or more, taking advantage of the opportunity to go into some thing that we had touched on in class or in the readings, but hadn't really explored in depth. I learned to see my professors as human beings, and they got to know me as the same.

But for the majority of us professor-types who don't work at liberal arts colleges, office hours are lonely times. For various reasons having to do with the culture of most universities, students just don't visit us. I've always thought this was a little sad -- as I said, some of my best learning took place in these one-on-one discussions. But over the years, I've gotten used to office hours being time where I could:
  • get some grading done
  • finish writing a lecture
  • clean up committee work and paperwork
  • run to the library to grab a book
  • eat my lunch
This semester, however, has been different. Part of it is how I'm structuring assignments -- students in all three of my classes need to develop their own projects, and so a lot more are coming to see me to talk about ideas and get suggestions. I have five "official" office hours a week, and these are now packed -- or, at most, I have 10 minutes here and there. Even more, students will stop by and ask for 15 minutes when I'm in, even if it's outside of official office hours. Most of the time, if I'm in my office, I don't feel comfortable turning away a student, unless I'm truly at DEFCON 1, because they're seeking out help, and my own experience has taught me the value of one-on-one time for real learning. I want to encourage that. I want them to really see that we're both on the same team, and both striving for the same goals.

On the other hand, I've got about a dozen little 15-minute projects all piled up. And today I ate my "lunch" at 5 p.m.

Obviously, I've got some mental rearranging to do.

On the plus side: I've redecorated my office, so it's a really nice space now. So there's that.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Meta-Project, Phase Two: Health

So, after having taken two months to get phase one ("Prepare the Foundation") about 85% finished, it's on to phase two of the meta-project. The theme for this month is "health."

It's way too easy for academics to sacrifice their health. There's always something to do. In very little time, we stop getting exercise, stop cooking, stop doing anything but working. And when work falls apart, it all falls apart, because that's all we've been doing.

I've decided that, for me, it's time to knock it the hell off. I decided that provisionally a while ago, but it really hit home the other day when I was looking at a stack of reading and grading, and thought, "Well, dammit. I'm going to have to skip yoga[1] again -- that'll make it a week and a half now." And suddenly, it hit me: I was making a conscious decision to sacrifice my physical well-being for my job. Worse, I was doing it without thinking, because that had become the natural choice for me.

So, this is the theme for the month of March: I work on making conscious choice for health, in all its forms. Some ideas...

For physical health, I've recommitted to at least three yoga practices a week (I could substitute any serious exercise here, but yoga is the one I like personally). I'm also aware that I eat (and drink) a lot of garbage. Part of this is just making bad choices, so I want to think seriously about how much salt, diet soda, and caffeine I am consuming. Can I make healthier choices, at least 50% of the time? But the other part of the food thing is that I neglect to keep the fridge stocked with healthy things. So, I know what to do there, too.

For mental/spiritual health, I've started daily meditation, first thing in the morning. I'm already several days into it,[2] and I already feel calmer. It's hard to sit there, doing nothing -- not even making a mental to-do list! -- for 15-20 minutes every morning. But when I do, I find that the day goes more smoothly. And I no longer want to throttle people who present me with minor irritations.

Finally, financial health. Annddd.... here's the big news that I promised you in the previous post. Three weeks ago, I paid off my last credit card. Consumer debt had been claiming roughly one-third of my take-home pay for the past 9 years. Finally, it's done. So my financial health goals: start saving. For a house, for retirement, for those occasional extra expenses.

That's the intention for March. I think it's doable.

[1] The fact that it was yoga in particular doesn't matter so much as the fact that it was "that thing that is simultaneously really good for me and that I actually like to do." For you, it may be running, or swimming, or fencing, or whatever. The point is, when I realized that I was actively collaborating in staying away from something that was doing double-duty in making me well, I thought, "well, that's just the last fucking straw, isn't it?"

[2] Though I missed it this morning because there was a glitch with my download... I know: lame excuse.