Friday, October 31, 2008

Office casual

There's nothing better than an office with a door that shuts (and locks).

I suppose most people consider their office workspace an outpost of their home, but for me this means that my office must allow me to get really, really comfortable. Yesterday, for example, I came back from three manic hours of teaching, spent another 20 minutes consoling and encouraging a good but very stressed out student, and then (with two hours until my night class) closed the door, took off all my jewelry, my boots, and my lipstick, loosened my skirt, and lay down flat on the floor to read.

I didn't have office hours and I did have to finish that night's text (and write a quiz and a lesson plan!), so the closed door made sense. But I tend to collapse after periods of being "on" for too long, and when I'm overwhelmed, I need to shut down as many systems as possible; I also have this vaguely OCD thing where, when I'm fixated on or frustrated by a task, certain physical sensations drive me TOTALLY NUTS. Normally, it takes me more than an hour of sitting semi-blankly at my desk to recover from my first two classes and start thinking about my night one, but yesterday I didn't have that time. Lying down helped hasten the process.

It usually doesn't come quite to that, but even on an ordinary day I'm likely to wander around barefoot, sit with my legs flung entirely across my desk, inhale my lunch like a savage, and do stretching exercises on my floor. I mean, it's my office, right? And stuff's gotta get done.

My office-casual habits may be native, or they may be partly learned: when I was a paralegal, everyone in the firm kept ridiculous hours. Two young attorneys I worked for routinely napped under their desks--their secretary being instructed to hold their calls--and my own officemates and I played our small stereo all day long, shot rubber bands at one another, smuggled in the occasional bottle of wine, and now and again barricaded ourselves under our desks (hidden behind file boxes) to sleep, avoid one of our attorneys, or just calm the fuck down. Our next-door neighbors had a pet fish, two pillows, and an entire magazine-stand's worth of reading material. Almost all of us had extra clothes stashed in drawers.

I don't spend nearly the amount of time at the office now that I did then--I'm usually only on campus three days a week, for maybe 25 hours--but the small drugstore and kitchen that I keep in my desk drawer and my readiness to sprawl on the floor show I've learned certain lessons well.

What do you do in the privacy of your office?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Scholarship and/as autobiography

Last week my reading group discussed Janet Adelman's Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice. This is the most recent of several books we've read that includes either explicit or implicit autobiography. Adelman's book is not a memoir-by-way-of-literature, like Reading Lolita in Tehran (or, perhaps more relevantly, Leonard Barkan's Satyr Square); it's a work of scholarship that opens with a several-page meditation on the author's Jewishness; the ambivalent reception that she and other Jewish scholars of the Renaissance once received; and her discomfort with Merchant itself.

I didn't feel that these autobiographical musings affected the rest of the book negatively, but neither, to my mind, did they affect it positively. For one thing, taken as autobiography, her opening anecdotes aren't especially interesting or evocative. It might have required too much text to make them better--Adelman's book is not, after all, a memoir--but as it is, these autobiographical moments work neither as autobiography nor as an entrée into the rest of her book.

By contrast, a book we read last spring, Jeff Dolven's Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, had what seemed to me both powerful and productive autobiographical resonances. Dolven's book, which deals with humanist education and the successes, failures, and revolts that it bred among Renaissance writers, felt personal without being in the least confessional. I got the impression from Dolven's discussion of some of the problems with imparting and assessing knowledge that he's a thoughtful, engaged teacher whose scholarly interests affect and inform his pedagogy. I don't know Dolven any more than I know Adelman, but that vague sense of the personality behind the text increased my interest in and enjoyment of his work.

So with those two books standing in for the others I've read that do similar things, I'm curious, first, as to whether my readers (especially those in other disciplines or subfields) perceive there to be a rise in autobiographically-infused scholarship; and second, whether or when you think such an infusion is productive.

If this is indeed a trend, I suspect it may be an extension of our belief that everyone has an agenda (and what seems to be a related rise in opinion- and personality-based journalism and punditry); perhaps some of us, especially those who work on potentially controversial or identity-based topics, feel that it's useful to foreground our own backgrounds, assumptions and prejudices. I understand that impulse, though I'm not sure I agree with it.

As the existence of this blog should make clear, I'm a fan of autobiography. Indeed, it wasn't until I began blogging that I realized I've always been attentive to authorial voice and persona; almost nothing, in fact, is more fascinating to me than the various ways we present ourselves to the world--and the degree to which those self-presentations are or are not in our control. But one of the reasons that I blog is to create a space for the autobiographical. The voice that I use in my scholarship is, I think, both personal and recognizably my own--but it is not explicitly autobiographical nor would I wish it to be.

Part of the problem is that autobiography has the potential to make our scholarship seem too personal and too partial. Yes, it's true that Adelman's Jewish last name might, all on its own, cause some readers to speculate about her reasons for writing on Merchant of Venice--just as my ethnic-Catholic last name or my friend's East Asian one might raise assumptions or expectations about "where we're coming from" when we work or don't work on certain topics; it's also true that all of us, whatever our backgrounds, have idiosyncratic and personal takes on the things we study. But to foreground the autobiographical in our scholarship isn't just to acknowledge the personal (which I support), but to imply that it's the most important part of our research.

Myself, I am interested in learning why people study the things they study and what started them on a particular project (or how that project intersects with and informs other areas of their lives). But I'm usually interested in that when I'm interested in the person, as part of a developing relationship; it's the sort of thing one chats about over a couple of drinks, or in the comments section to someone's blog. If I don't know you, it's your work I'm judging you by, not how affecting and interesting your personal narrative is--and indeed, I suspect that the better an autobiographical narrative is, as autobiography, the more inappropriate its presence in your book or article becomes.

But there's an easy solution here: get a blog!

Friday, October 17, 2008

For richer, for poorer

In talking to someone today, I mentioned a minor event that happened during the weekend of my Ph.D. graduation. Instead of referring to the festivities as "commencement" or "graduation," however, I said that such-and-so happened "at my wedding."

My subconscious is even more fucked up than I thought.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Random bullets of Fall Break

  • We've now reached the midpoint of the semester, which means I can clean my apartment, catch up on magazines, email a few friends--all for the first and possibly last time this term.
  • Saturday night a group of friends and I wrapped up the evening with the first drag show I've attended in Cha-Cha City. I've missed me some drag queens.
  • The earlier part of the evening was less agreeable, involving as it did two Oktoberfest wagons clip-clopping their way through the nightlife district and disgorging screaming 23-year-olds at every block.
  • After a rather gloomy September, October is proving gorgeous. So I'm mulling some cider, admiring the foliage--and choosing not to think about how long and bleak winter will be once it arrives.
  • In two weeks I'll be back in NYC for the first time in months. There's a professional component, but I'm mostly regarding it as a holiday.
  • I've been informed that my student loan payments are going up by more than $100/month (a 28% increase). And yet I'm still projected to be in repayment until 2027.
  • I've been wondering lately whether restlessness and vague dissatisfaction are constituitive conditions with me. I'm not unhappy and by most measures my life is as good as it's ever been, but I feel as though I'm waiting for. . . something. I just hope I know it when I see it.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Notetakers Anonymous

I spent part of the weekend filling in and cleaning up the footnotes to a project that I've been working on by fits and starts for more than two years. It's gone through some significant changes and revisions, and my footnotes reflect that process: some are extensive, with complete citations, commentary, and elaboration where necessary. Most, however, look like this:
"Smith, pp.??"

"Jones, pp.??; also maybe Brown?"

"Fine and O'Brien disagree, but [EXPLAIN]."

In some cases, filling the gaps is a cinch, but in others it takes significant effort not only to track down the relevant works and page numbers, but also to recollect whatever I intended for that footnote to do.

Part of the problem is that I don't have a standardized notetaking system. Perhaps half of my notes are on my computer, organized into files under general subject headings. I always print out hard copies, though, and it's these hard copies that I usually refer to when I'm working--I like to go back and underline or bracket important things or write additional notes in the margin.

A second group of notes exists only in hardcopy, since I often read in bed, in coffee shops, and other places where it's troublesome to lug my laptop around; I also focus better when I write in longhand. These notes fill legal pad pages organized by author, but with big blocky headings to remind me of the main topic on any given page.

A third group of notes consists of marginal annotations, either in books I own or in the many photocopied articles or chapters I acquire over the life of a project. I like this method the best, though it's probably the least efficient from the standpoint of information retrieval--since I often wind up leafing back through every single page of a given book.

I think there are benefits to my continually rereading my notes and reencountering my sources; for one thing, I don't retain information particularly well, especially when that information isn't immediately useful and only becomes so as a project develops. Still, I have the sense that most people use methods that are less ad hoc and more efficient than mine--methods that also don't threaten eventually to bury their authors alive in paper.

So tell me: how do you take, organize, and refer back to your notes?