Sunday, April 29, 2007

Aren't we there yet?

I have two teaching days left, and then one set of final papers and two sets of exams to grade--not to mention a crush of meetings and receptions and semi-mandatory social events--between now and May 15th, but as far as I'm concerned, the semester is already over.

How do I know that the semester is over?

Well, the trees are finally fucking blooming, that's for one (for the last two weeks, I've been peering intently at every one I pass, desperate for signs of life). And I've administered my evaluations. And I'm already putting in requests for my spring 2008 classes.

But the real sign that the semester is over is the fact that I've been spending hours a day ordering books through ILL and ABE and looking stuff up in the MLA database--and not just stuff for my current chapter or my most immediately due conference submission, but also for an essay that's not due for ages, and some abstracts I've been mulling over on entirely new topics, and weird shit for my teaching, and those couple of vague book projects that have popped into my head over the last six months. I've also been walking around the apartment picking up random books as they catch my eye and then collapsing on the sofa to poke around in them for 20 minutes.

I've recovered my curiosity--or my ability to be curious--about anything without an immediate deadline attached to it.

And that, my friends, is a sure sign that not just the semester, but the school year, are OVER.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Unanswerable mysteries of grading, and the grade-giver

I'm the one who assigns my students 5-6pp. papers. And I'm the one who goes out of her way to explain that what this means is that each paper should probably be substantively onto a fifth page--with no funny stuff done to the margins or font size.

So why is it that, as I work slowly and grimly through a stack of essays, I sigh and grumble every time I see one that fills a full six pages. . . and perk up every time I see one that's three and a half?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fingers uncrossed

So I've now heard back from Advisor, and I'm pleased to report that her advice was really very helpful. As I've mentioned before, we work very differently and I don't think she totally understands my intellectual and writing processes; this can sometimes lead to our talking at cross-purposes--and while I might know, rationally, when she's misreading or misunderstanding me, it's still hard for me not to believe that such moments are proof that a) she doesn't think I'm very smart, and b) she's right.

In this case, though, I found most of what she had to say entirely constructive and entirely to the point, and the one comment with which I strongly disagreed made me feel not anxious and doubtful but instead slightly smug and superior (on the grounds that I think there's more to a particular issue than she does, and I'm quite sure the finished product will bear me out). So that's progress.

But as happy and relieved as I was by this outcome, aspects of our correspondence were a little unsettling. This was the very first line of her email:
"I spent a good deal of time last night lying awake thinking about [your chapter]."
And no, that's definitely not a joke. Nor had she finished my chapter immediately before going to bed, nor had she just emailed me or I her; in other words, there was no reason for her to have me and my work in mind as she settled in to start counting sheep.

I'm always, I think, rather surprised by the discovery that I take up space in anyone's head when I'm not actually intruding myself upon his or her presence, and such an occurrence seems still more unlikely when it comes to Advisor, who gives the impression of rigorously purging her mind on a nightly basis of anything not immediately relevant to the next day's business. But this is the second time in three weeks that I've had evidence that I take up some small amount of her psychic space: at my most recent conference--the very same week that I mailed my chapter to her--I ran into one of Advisor's other former advisees, someone with whom I barely overlapped in grad school and barely know. "Hey," he said, "I just talked to [Advisor] the other day, and she mentioned that she was looking at something of yours."

"Really?" I said. I must have looked stricken, because he added, reassuringly, "that's all she said; I'd just asked her what she was up to."

I don't flatter myself that my work is so compelling that--even in draft form!--it keeps people up nights; if anything, this is surely proof of how consumed by our field Advisor is: any new work, any new idea, engages her to the point that she wants or needs to think it through immediately.

Nevertheless, being the vehicle for such engagement is nice, and the wide-ranging nature of her comments--which dealt not just with this chapter, but with the structure of the manuscript as a whole--surprised and flattered me. It's always agreeable to feel that you're worth someone's time. . . especially someone of such monstrous efficiency.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The book!

I just received my book today by courier (the store had held onto it in order to reattach the covers for me), and now that I actually have it, I love it even more than I'd anticipated; having the item here, in my home, and being able to hang out on my sofa and flip idly (if carefully) through it is just so different an experience than examining it in an antiquarian bookstore or rare books library. The book really ought to seem out of place here--among my selzer cans and CDs and unopened bills--but I think it's actually those everyday objects that transform it: no longer something to be examined only in a silent room, under somebody's watchful gaze, between the hours of 8 and 5, it now can be flipped idly through, picked up and set down again, and experienced, really, as it was supposed to be experienced.

And since I know y'all want to share that experience with me, here are a few pictures that don't at all do it justice, but that keep The Book, like myself, sufficiently pseudonymous:

Front cover. The bluish spots are just a result of the camera flash.

The introductory letter to the reader, obscured by my left hand (which also gives a sense of the book's dimensions).

Off to order some book supports. . .

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Next Big Thing

If it isn't already clear from my recent posts, both the semester and the academic year are limping painfully toward their close here at RU. Today I was missing half of my students in one class, most of them for semi-legitimate reasons; they're dragging, and so am I.

I don't think that my own exhaustion is especially apparent to my students, since I tend to get more manic and more enthusiastic the guiltier I feel about being underprepared (I'm also more patient on account of that same guilt: what right do I have to be short-tempered about my students' not remembering an obvious plot detail, or not being able to decipher a metaphor, when I barely completed the reading myself and have nothing so much as resembling a lesson plan?). But although I do believe that my guilty, half-assed classes are sometimes much better than the ones I've really thought through, teaching this way for any length of time is its own kind of stress; worrying about being the lamest and laziest fraud on God's green earth isn't exactly a productive use of my energy.

So I'm ready for summer. But as I approach that long, lovely vacation I'm also approaching Year Two on the tenure track and in this location, and I'm more concerned about those things than perhaps I ought to be.

Make no mistake: there are no actual hurdles that I anticipate in Year Two. What I'm worried about is the kind of sophomore slump I'm afraid I'm prone to. Consider: my first year in college was busy and exciting; I wasn't homesick and I didn't really question my abilities, or at least not too often. My second year? I was completely miserable. I remember starting to cry one day as I was walking across campus and realizing that not only did I have no idea what I was crying about, but that I had no one to talk to about whatever that something might be. Similarly, my first year in grad school, though certainly stressful, was also pretty exciting. . . but my second year was beyond miserable (and things didn't get better for a long while after).

Those examples are both drawn from my schooling, but even my second year of post-collegiate adulthood felt somewhat aimless and disappointing after the fun and novelty of that first year.

So you see the pattern. I think that I tend to throw myself into new situations hopefully and enthusiastically, and either genuinely enjoy myself or am too busy to wonder whether I am, in fact, enjoying myself. But after a year there's not a lot that's new, and I either get bored or realize how stressful or less-than-fully-satisfying my situation actually is.

Maybe what I need, then, is something to focus my energies and attention on for the next several years. For a long while, that something was finishing my dissertation and getting a t-t job; I had other interests and goals, sure, but those were the defining ones, the ones that directed all my other ambitions. But now I'm not sure what The Next Big Thing is supposed to be:
Is it my first monograph?

Is it getting tenure?

Is it working toward getting a different kind of job (or a job in a different location?)

Is it buying a house?

Is it getting married?

Is it developing some kind of sideline identity? (As, I don't know--a journalist? a novelist? a Wise and Famous Blogger?)
Not all of those are things that I care about equally (or even necessarily care about, period); the point is that while any one of them would be a reasonable short-term goal, they're all short-term goals: reasonable and entirely achievable. Most of them would present certain challenges and produce certain pleasures, but none is all-consuming. And I wish, I think, to be consumed.

Maybe this is just what it means to be an adult, or to have found something that one truly enjoys: from there on in, the challenges and the changes are much more modest and incremental, without the seemingly revolutionary potential of every decision made in one's early 20s.

I love my profession and I'm relieved to have made it to a job that I like in a city that I also like, with a good salary and benefits. Unless I started sleeping with my students, I'd almost certainly get tenure here--and I could stick around for the next 30 years, publish some books, and have a perfectly pleasant life.

And yet. . . the prospect of being here or anywhere for thirty years--even doing things I enjoy and am good at--feels strangely more like a sentence than a reward.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


It occurs to me that I may be just about the only person who regularly sends text messages who ALSO regularly uses semi-colons as punctuation in those messages.*

Anyone else?


*By "regularly" I don't mean "six times per hour," like Those Kids Today--but certainly multiple times per week, or sometimes per day.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Random bullets of NYC

  • I was starving when I arrived on Friday night, so Bert and I went to the deli near his apartment to get me a sandwich. While we were waiting for it to be prepared, a gangly, scruffy-looking guy came in. He plunked down first one six-pack of Budweiser, then another. And a package of Saran Wrap. Then a few pounds of flour. And a bottle of vinegar. After watching these items pile up on the counter for several minutes, Bert finally said (archly, drunkenly), "So. . . watcha makin' with all that?" Without missing a beat, the guy turned, locked eyes with him, and said, "CRYSTAL METH." We all burst out laughing.
  • I bought a $900.00 book. Thank you, IRS.
  • After buying said book, Bert and I spent most of Saturday afternoon with Victoria and the Mancunian, scouring midtown for shoes for V's wedding: Prada store, Blahnik boutique, Bergdorf's, Saks, and about five other places I'm forgetting. We hated pretty much every woman we saw there on sight, but the shoes were damn pretty.
  • Jonesy's latest play is fantastic.
  • Post-performance, we went out with Jonesy and her crew, and I had two incredibly large, incredibly strong martinis. This resulted, among other unfortunate things, in my VERY AGGRESSIVELY telling off the guy who was trying to make a move on her and whom I had decided was a total schmuck. Although he's actually sort of a friend of hers. Oops.
  • Other unfortunate things? I was violently and whimperingly sick all the next day. I don't believe that this was purely or even mostly alcohol-related--I must also have eaten something spoiled, or contracted a minor stomach bug. Whatever it was, it was deeply unfun.
  • I did, however, manage to drag myself uptown for the last few hours of a dinner thrown by some of Bert's other friends, for which I was nominally the guest of honor.
  • I have reconfirmed the degree to which I am a champion transportation-based grader: planes, trains, subways--you name it, I grade faster there than seated at a desk.
  • And now? I'm back. And it's still cold. And I still have three weeks of teaching left. But I think I might make it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Interruption in blog service

I'm off for a long weekend in NYC, so no blogging until next week--and if you're wondering whether I didn't just return from a conference, and whether maybe I travel too damn much, you're right on both counts. But it's been a brutal week around these parts, what with returning to hideously cold weather, crashing down hard from my conference high, and facing the fact that I still have, as of yesterday, three full weeks of teaching left. (And, well, there are other things.)

So what's a girl to do but overschedule herself with friends & fun--Jonesy's latest play, bar-hopping with Bert and Lulu, a little shopping--to perk herself up?

It's never failed me yet.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Success" meme

Okay, so dhawhee tagged me for this one: the task is to identify the five things that I do every day that contribute to my "success"--a word that I feel compelled to place in quotes, as I'm not sure that I'm exactly a frequent flyer on the success express.

But for my purposes I'll define success as whatever it is that got me a done dissertation and a pretty good job, and whatever it is that keeps me writing and submitting and publishing and presenting.
1. Like dhawhee, I'm a list-maker, and I make one nearly every day. This isn't to say that I get everything on that list done every day--far from it--but it calms me down and helps me focus.

2. I pile up projects. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success, but I've found that I get more done when I have more stuff to do. Take my reading group, for example: who has the time to read four scholarly books unrelated to her research in the course of a semester teaching a 3-3 load and going to three conferences? Totally not me. But because I have that obligation, I've met it. What would I have done with that time otherwise? Frittered it away on the internet or course prep.

3. Relatedly, I put off course prep until the last minute. I get my grading done promptly and I'm pretty good about getting handouts and assignments made up in plenty of time--but planning what I'm actually going to do in front of the class the next day? Best to do that at 10 p.m. the night before. Or 11 p.m. Otherwise, what need take only 30 or 60 minutes could well suck up three hours.

4. I goof off a lot. Seriously. On days when I'm working at home--and especially if I don't have plans in the evening--I get up at 10 or so, spend a couple of hours on the internet, take a shower & put myself together. . . and then putter around the apartment until 3 or 4 or even past dinnertime. I've come to the conclusion that I really need that time to be totally by myself, just doing mindless, pleasurable things, in order to free up mental space and relax.

5. In between that goofing off, though--and tending to teaching and administrative tasks--I try to get some scholarship done every day. This I always schedule in manageable chunks: two hours here, an hour there. I can work very intensely for short bursts, and if it's an especially good day, I may have two or three such bursts. What's much harder is to make myself work for 6 or 8 hours at a go. . . and in the long run I figure that an hour or two of work, nearly every day, is much better (and much more likely to happen!) than setting aside one or even two days a week that are theoretically totally devoted to writing and research.
So, uh. . . check back in two or three years, why dontcha, and let's see if those habits have actually gotten me somewhere.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Observations on my site stats

1. According to Statcounter, my average daily readership for the past few days has jumped phenomenally--increasing by some 60%. And yet, no one new has linked to me. Are my posts on conference-going that much more compelling than my regular fare? Are y'all trying to tell me something?

Well, wherever you're coming from, welcome! I hope you stick around.

2. Secret message to the grad student at INRU who has been spending lots of time on my blog these past few weeks: I'm really glad that your identity was recently made apparent, because I was starting to worry about who you might be. Now that I know, I'm cool with it. But if what you're trying to do is figure out whether we know each other in real life? Yes, we do, although not well.

Small world, huh?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Conferencing: part the second

I take fairly good notes at conferences--I was a superlative note-taker in college, if that's something to pride oneself on--and over the years I've wound up with pages and pages of notes recording the authors, titles, and main arguments of just about every paper I've ever heard. I jot down the names of seemingly useful books, underline things, and draw little arrows to the stuff that seems really important. (I also write nasty comments to myself when I think the speaker is an idiot--but I always try to remind myself of WHY the speaker is an idiot, so there's some record for posterity; even when I'm a bitch, see, I'm a conscientious one.)

The problem is, when I get home, I staple all those pages of notes together, clip them to the conference program, and put them in a file folder (usually labled by year: "Conferences 2006," "Conferences 2007"). . . and then I never look at them again.

I always assume that my memory will be jogged at the right moment--say, on that day ten years in the future when for some reason I'm struck with a burning desire to teach Donne's "Anniversaries," or write on Timon of Athens--but I'm beginning to suspect that this is untrue. Now, when the information that I receive is immediately useful to a current project, I usually have no trouble remembering it; I go home and put a sticky note on my desk, or add a title to my working bibliography, or whatever. But when the information is only possibly useful? At some point in the unknown future? It disappears into a black hole.

Maybe I need to cut up those notes so that they go into topical folders ("Misc. Shakespeare," say) that I might actually have a reason to refer to in the future. Or maybe I need to stop being such a nerd about note-taking.

But I don't know. How do people use conference notes? Do they, in fact, use them? And does anyone ever remember anything s/he doesn't write down?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Conferencing: part the first

I just got back from a conference in a lovely West Coast city, and although this is the first time I've attended this particular gathering, some things about conference-going are constants: good papers and less good ones; reconnecting with grad school and conference friends; meeting up with bloggers (in this case, rather a large and wonderful number of them).

But every conference has its own peculiarities, and so I felt more conscious, at this one, of observing the goings-on: trying to figure out the culture and the mores. I do this whenever I'm at a conference, though, and that's one of the things that I find most valuable about them: I feel as though I'm learning the culture not just of one specific conference, or even of conferencing more generally, but of academia in the broadest sense. Going to conferences teaches me how to do academia.

That's perhaps a strange thing to say, since I've been a member of this profession (in some fashion) for eight years now, and pretty active for most of the last four. But I feel that I'm always jotting down mental notes as I watch how various people present; how they ask questions; and even how they interact socially.

It astonishes me how little thought most people seem to give to these activities. On the one hand, there are the people I envy, who hold forth easily and extemporaneously on complicated topics in the question/answer period or in seminars (and I'm not merely referring to senior scholars; there's many a young grad student, from a third-tier institution, who seems more at ease putting together ideas on the fly than I do). On the other hand, there are the people who make me roll my eyes--who are such bad presenters, not necessarily of papers, but of themselves: who don't have any idea that they're communicating self-absorption or arrogance or condescension through their words, gestures, and tone.

I write frequently and rather boringly about the performative aspects of my job--boringly because it's nothing that hasn't been said before, and with more insight and complexity--but I suppose I never don't feel that I'm standing outside myself, scripting and stage-managing whatever it is that my corporeal self seems to be doing. (And this isn't just about getting used to a new professional role; I still feel like my performance of femaleness is an elaborate and somewhat hilarious bluff. . . and to the best of my knowledge, I've been female for 32 years.)

It's great fun to watch people do whatever it is that they do, and then either try on their behaviors or expend great time explaining to anyone and everyone exactly how wrong-headed and annoying those behaviors are. But--and more generously--I think that in paying such careful attention to human interactions I'm also trying to be a careful and sensitive reader of people and situations; I want, myself, to do things right--where "right" doesn't mean "professionally acceptable and appropriate" so much as it means "communicating one's intended self as clearly as possible."

Do I succeed in that? I hope I do, mostly, though it's not as if I don't still piss people off or rub them the wrong way (I was treated v-e-r-y frostily for the conference's first two days by an acquaintance who, I think, misunderstood something that happened at a previous conference). But that's the way it goes; the misunderstanders usually aren't the cleverest readers anyway.


But to return to the blogfriends-whom-I-met (who have nothing to do with the foregoing, although they are, necessarily, clever), I gotta say this: dudes. It was rad.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Fingers crossed

Today I mailed Advisor a copy of the new chapter that I've been drafting. I know that this is the right time to send it to her and that the project will benefit both from being set aside for a while and from getting an outside read--and since I actually have to set the thing aside for six weeks in order to finish up two unrelated projects, it makes total sense to use that time to get her feedback.

But I had a serious meltdown over the weekend wherein I became convinced that I couldn't send it to her because it wasn't good enough or smart enough, and because it loses its argument a number of times and jumps around and has too many long quotations and doesn't have a conclusion and no doubt makes a number of breathtakingly stupid claims about both the author and the decades I'm covering (which represent basically new material for me).

I knew that there was no point in my putting in another two months to give the thing more polish, since what I really wanted her advice on was the big-picture stuff--but I have a hysterical insecurity about showing her anything less than perfect, lest she get so hung up on the little things that she not see the big-picture stuff (and so conclude I'm a moron).

Now, it's true that the above is actually a pretty accurate description of our first meeting to discuss the first draft of my dissertation's very first chapter--and thus constitutes, I guess, something of a Primal Scene--but my neurotic fear of letting anyone see anything that truly is a work-in-progress didn't begin with her, and I know that my obsession with that one episode in our relationship (and the way I've allowed it to define our relationship ever since) has more to do with the shit in my own head than with how she's actually responded to me and my work in the years since then.

So I'm trying to work through this, and sending her this chapter is one way of doing that. There may be no way to prevent myself from freaking the fuck out on my own time, but I don't want those freakouts to affect my ability to get work done or to seek advice when I need it.

That being said--y'all are still welcome to send your good wishes, or a gift certificate for some CBT, or a big bottle of whiskey, or whatever, my way.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Still spring

I realize that I've already posted on the gloriousness that is spring. But really, I'm just not getting over it.

I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest. I grew up being very comfortable with a limited number of seasons and a lot of rainy, grey days. And for years after I moved to the Northeast I continued not to think much about the seasons--yeah, I hated the bitterest parts of the winter and the disgusting parts of the summer, and I was happy when each ended, but I didn't have a strong emotional or physiological reaction to seasonal changes and I coped quite well during dismal grey Novembers and late Februaries.

In about my sixth year out east, though, all that abruptly changed. I still recall that April, and the period in which my coworkers and I would go out for lunch every single day and sit in the sun in view of the Brooklyn Bridge. That's all we did: sit in the sun, barely talking. And it was that April--when I'd find myself smiling insanely every time I stepped outside--that I realized: this is what spring fever is all about!

I think my response to spring has grown more extreme every year, and this early time change isn't reducing the effects any.

Effect one: a newfound interest in my wardrobe. Now, I love clothes year-round, and I particularly love the way that each seasonal change gives me the illusion of an entirely new wardrobe, but lately I've been assembling ever-new and increasingly flamboyant outfits. Several days ago I showed up at the office in what I can only describe as some kind of demented homage to the Technicolor 1950s: knee-lenth black skirt topped with a fuschia sweater, fake pearls, patent-leather peep-toe pumps, and a teal brocade coat. When I walked into the department, my chair exclaimed, "Flavia! Did you just step out of a musical? You look like you're about to burst into song!" (And I was all, dude. I am about to burst into song. It's sunny and 60 degrees today and I'm BARE LEGGED for the first time in six months.)

Effect two: a weird compulsion toward physical activity. As those who know me in real life know, I am not a worker-out. (This isn't a matter of principle, but merely of practicality: I've been essentially the same size and shape for 10 years without working out--and if I were to start a gym routine, when the hell would I find time to blog?) For the last week, though, I've been doing something aerobic for 20 or 30 minutes, virtually every day. What's up with that?

Effect three: a complete lack of interest in prepping for my classes. To be honest, I'm not sure that this is spring-related, but it's convenient to think so.