Thursday, September 22, 2016

Collaborating with myself

So it seems I'm going back to the beginning. I've been asked to write an essay whose topic overlaps with the subject of my first book--and though I suppose I could hit 8,000 words by writing "see my book" 2,666 times, I've decided not to go that route. Instead, I've been re-reading notes I made in the earliest stages of my dissertation research, reconsidering texts I decided not to write about, and reopening debates I thought I'd slammed shut.

Sure, there's new stuff to consider: scholarship that's been done in the intervening years, primary texts that were never on my radar screen. But the easiest point of entry is through work I've already done (even if I don't remember it). I have a file folder of notes from the summer I spent reading through the rare books library almost at random, and a stack of books that I bought in the course of my research, filled with sticky flags and marginalia, but at this point never expected to open again.

Even the books I didn't buy are somehow finding me, as I noted on Twitter:

I know that we're never "done" with the subjects we write about and that the nature of scholarly publishing means we're only recognized as authorities on topics once we've moved on to new ones. But though I tend to think of my publications as external hard drives--off-site storage for everything I once knew or thought about a particular topic--that's not quite true. A fuller record emerges in the careful longhand notes I took on pages torn from legal pads, in the fights I pick in the margins of books, and in the queries that appear in ancient brainstorming documents that still live in my computer.

Encountering some of this is embarrassing. The margins of the dissertation that I last read in 2001 show me trying, desperately, to believe that the author hadn't said everything there was to say about a particular text. So "duh," "no it doesn't!" and "this can't be true" make regular appearances. I also take it upon myself to correct the author's typos.

But the majority of these encounters are pleasurable. I'm delighted to find I took detailed notes on things I no longer remember reading, and some underlined and starred passages that I'd forgotten strike me as so provocative or true that they're like a little hit of the old drug, jolting me with some of the same excitement I felt working on this material the first time around. (But minus the agony, tedium, and self-doubt; whether this means that the drug I was taking in grad school was purer and hence more dangerous, or cut with innumerable dubious substances, I leave you to decide.)

Chiefly, though, re-reading my notes helps me to see the questions I haven't settled and the issues I still want to explore. There's one fight I chose not to have that maybe I do want to have. There's a text I excluded that now feels compelling. Sometimes I think of my first book as a decade-long struggle to chisel out, ever more finely, ideas that were already there from the beginning. But going back to these notes reminds me that I haven't actually been thinking the same thoughts for fifteen years. Even if it's true that I chose the best ones, some of the scraps that I left on the floor aren't half bad.

This essay isn't going to be revolutionary, and neither will it come as a surprise to anyone who knows my book. But I'm more interested in extending that work than I thought I was. I'm also enjoying this opportunity to collaborate with my earlier self, the one who didn't yet know all the answers.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Compulsory affect

I'm not one for bumper stickers or slogans. As a child of the '80s I did once have a number of buttons festooning jacket and backpack, but they were never a means of aligning myself with this cause or that. In fact, the one bumper sticker I really wanted to put on the family automobile, circa 1992, was a vintage one reading "The Nation Needs Nixon." That probably tells you everything you need to know about how I felt then, and still do feel, about people who think their politics need to be legible to every person they meet.

For this reason, I tend to stay away from social media on days like today. The constant demand for--and policing of--expressions of joy, outrage, or mourning is my least favorite thing about Facebook and Twitter. I mean, yeah: I may be shocked and saddened about something that happened, but if all I have to say is "oh no" or "can't believe the news," how is that useful? And though I do re-post opinion pieces that I find interesting or well-expressed, I try to stay away from mere venting or emoting ("how can people take this seriously??" or "SO HAPPY about the Supreme Court decision!").

Partly it's that I wish to avoid banality, and partly it's that I don't want to be reducible to a position or a set of beliefs. But it's also that I'm uncomfortable with the idea that I might be seen as performing my politics in a self-congratulatory way or in order to get credit for thinking the right thoughts. Most of my friends know my politics, more or less, and most share them. It's neither interesting nor brave for me to declare on Facebook how personally outraged I am by Donald Trump's latest racist remarks.

This is a long way of saying that I never thought I'd be the kind of professor with little stickers on her office door identifying her as down with this cause or that group. But here we are: a couple of weeks ago I found myself adding to my collage of images--portraits of John Donne and Queen Elizabeth, snapshots of the Globe, and images of Renaissance tapestries--a rainbow flag with "safe space" written on it and a #blacklivesmatter decal.

Because if my support for members of the LGBT community and people of color is something I can take for granted among my peers--to such a degree that sporting a button or bumper sticker would strike me as asking for a pat on my straight, white, head--this is not the case with my students. Moreover, my students do not necessarily themselves belong to networks where those positions are taken for granted.

I'm not sure whether I'd display such decals if I taught at a lefty liberal arts college, but I don't. I teach at an urban university whose population is overwhelmingly first-generation, 27% of whom are minorities (a number that does not include our many students of Middle Eastern descent). Like Dean Dad's students, a lot of them don't have the time to be political. Most of them have never heard the term "trigger warning" or know what people mean when they talk about "preferred gender pronouns." This doesn't mean that they're tougher than other students--less likely to find certain kinds of content upsetting or to be questioning their gender or sexuality--just that they're not in a place where they regularly encounter those debates.

And while for some people my being a humanities professor makes my liberalism axiomatic, what my students probably see is a middle-aged, married white lady who teaches really old poems. Why would they assume that I have any interest in the experiences of racial minorities or any familiarity with queer or transgender people? In that context, it seems possible those stickers might signal something a few students would value knowing.

I'm still not sure how comfortable I feel about this, and I have some concerns about misinterpretation. But for now I'm going with it. I'm also going to try to feel more generous about those who relentlessly perform their politics on Facebook. After all, I don't know their motives or audience any more than they know mine.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Scheduled up, scheduled out

My teaching schedule is the worst I've had in a decade.

I was prepared to suck up the MWF part--it is, after all, my turn to suck it up--and with two classes scheduled back-to-back in the mid and late afternoon it seemed like it might be okay. But then one of my classes didn't make, and the only reasonable class I could swap into was at 9 a.m. And if a three-day-a-week 9 a.m. class is pretty bad, a three-day-a-week 9 a.m. class followed by MORE THAN FOUR AND A HALF HOURS OF DEAD TIME is just about the worst thing I can imagine.

Actually, scratch that: the worst thing I can imagine is all of the above at an institution that has a Tuesday/Thursday common hour--a period when no classes are scheduled but alllll meetings for university business are. Meaning that, when you have a MWF schedule, you can expect to be on campus four or five days out of five.*

Needless to say, I'm disgruntled.**

But both because there's no help for it and because I find a certain amount of structure salutary, I've decided that the only solution is to schedule my work-week within an inch of its life. Last semester, when I was traveling every week and doing a graduate seminar's worth of reading on top of my regular job, I kept my shit together by laying out a clear schedule for exactly what happened when, Monday through Friday. (Then I returned on Saturday, collapsed, and did nothing for a day and a half.)

This semester won't demand that kind of scheduling, but I think it needs it: I've got a few too many plates spinning in my writing life and I've never been great at keeping multiple projects going simultaneously. Moreover, though I have a couple of hard deadlines, most of my projects are either long-term and ongoing, things no one else is checking up on, or both.

So I have a two-part plan. Because my natural preference is to focus intensively on just one thing at a time--especially if that thing is writing, reading, or grading--I need a schedule that designates and protects discrete chunks of time rather than just hoping they happen. This means corralling my shorter or more interruptible tasks into my less-productive on-campus hours (and using my least productive hours to run errands and the like).

The Schedule

Monday / Wednesday / Friday
During that huge chunk of time--almost fourteen hours!--I do all my course reading and prep (luckily, these are relatively low-prep classes) and handle administrivia. I also work on the edition for an hour or two each day.

When I get home at 5, I take advantage of the fact that I'm brain-dead but upright and go to the gym.

After any meetings, I work at home, reading/researching if I need it, writing if I don't.

After any meetings, I go to the art museum library and write for four or five hours.

On weeks when papers are due, I can also squeeze in 3-4 hours of focused grading time on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Absolutely nothing related to teaching. Ideally I'll write/read for two or three hours in a low-key way, with the rest as leisure.

No work of any sort until 2 or 3 (we go to Mass, have brunch, read the Times). After that I might write or read for a couple of hours--or I might just take the whole day off.

One of the goals is to make weekends low-key and pleasurable, working only when and if I feel like it, on things that are sustaining--rather than feeling as if there's always something I ought to be doing.

The Log

In addition to this schedule, I've started to keep a work diary for my writing/scholarship, logging, each day, roughly how many hours I spend doing what on which projects. Again, the aim isn't to feel guilty, but the opposite: to notice and appreciate progress over time (especially on long-term projects, or projects without deadlines, or those, like the edition, where it's tough to see forward momentum because it doesn't manifest itself in word or page counts). I also hope this will be an effective way for me to remember to keep checking in on all my different projects rather than working on just one--until a deadline approaches and I panic and have to drop it for six weeks to finish something else.

This kind of itemization might stress some people out, but in the past I've found it tremendously reassuring to be able to point to concrete accomplishments--that I spent six hours proofreading textual notes, or wrote 1,500 new words, or read eight articles, or whatever. Armed with that evidence, I can feel justified in taking a day or two off. Without it, I tend to have only the haziest sense of what I've done, and it never feels like enough.


I'll let you know how it goes. So far, the only thing that's proving hard is the part where I get up at 7 a.m. three days a week. That part is going very poorly indeed.

*And seriously, this is moronic. At my previous job, the English department set a Wednesday period aside for all department and committee meetings, on the principle that MWF faculty shouldn't have to come in for a fourth day when TTh faculty could just come in for a third.

**And yes, yes, I know: most jobs in the world are five days a week and nine to five and blah blah--but as one friend put it, academic labor is so intense, inflexible, and all-consuming that one of the compensations is the ability to schedule at least some of it as we like. So yeah, you get to sleep until 9. . . in exchange for teaching night classes. You get a four day weekend. . . but more than half of it is spent grading. (As the joke goes, you get to choose which sixty hours a week you want to work.)