Friday, January 29, 2016


Starting next Friday, I'll be traveling to D.C. every weekend to participate in a 10-week research seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was lucky to be admitted to the seminar; even luckier that my institution was willing to cover most of my costs; and luckiest that this is a semester where I can (probably, but we'll see) swing the time commitment.

I've had my eye on this seminar since it was first announced more than a year ago, and it's a good fit for my second book project. But I was also eager to participate for reasons that are maybe both more nebulous and more urgent than the exact topic of this exact seminar.

I am, you see, looking for New Things.

I've written before about the problem of maintaining a sense of momentum at midcareer. Most of us, I imagine, still get excited about new courses and new research projects, but after the mountainous landscape of one's early career, the vista that lies ahead--stretching into the next ten or twenty years--can seem pretty flat. That's not a bad thing, exactly, but I've always been the kind of person who needs a prize on which to keep her eyes.

So this seminar is a way of doing something new, of keeping things interesting. The last time I did something of this sort--an intensive week-long symposium that I referred to on-blog as The Institute for Advanced Flavia Studies--it turned out to be a pretty crucial bit of professional development. I gained a new conceptual framework for my first book and I made some terrific friends.

But I'm not looking for that, specifically. I'm just looking for something to throw myself into for a time--the kind of opportunity that seemed to grow on trees in graduate school but that has been harder to find (or to find the time for) since then. As unhappy as I was in grad school, I can't say I wasn't constantly doing New Things. I took courses just because they sounded interesting; signed up for summer language classes; went to speakers series organized around a particular theme; took week-long master classes in things like editorial theory and paleography. Many of these didn't start out as relevant to my work. . . but because my mind is obsessively centripetal, they tended to wind up that way.

So I've been monitoring the Folger's seminar listings for a while now, just as I've also been keeping tabs on what summer programs are being offered by the NEH and Rare Book School, and which language institutes have programs when, and where, and of what cost and duration.

I can't do everything. I don't even want to do everything. But I do need to do something, at least every couple of years. And this year, that something involves a roll-aboard suitcase, TSA pre-check, and getting up earlier, every Friday, than God himself intended.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Course design and creativity

After five frenzied days, I think I have both of my syllabi written.

Let's hope so, since classes start tomorrow.

All these years later, I'm still surprised by what intense, creative labor course design can be. Whenever I'm building one from scratch, I find myself convinced there must be some perfect, Platonic version out there--a combination of readings, a sequence of assignments--that will allow the topic to bloom forth, revealing its fullest meaning and potential. (And not finding that perfect form means the class will suck and fail and EVERYTHING WILL BE RUINED.)

It's delusional, I know--but sometimes, after spending a day writing and rewriting the two or three blurby little paragraphs that lay out the purpose and the big ideas of the class, I realize why I do it. Suddenly, there it is: the whole argument, the whole thing I believe, the theory I want to test that might help me make this class more than just "an exploration of X topic."

And that kind of revelation, whether or not it's connected to anything I've thought or written before, or anything I expect to write in the future, is the same high I get from writing, from research, from the kinds of discovery and meaning-making that happen when I'm alone in a little room all by myself.


Still, as creatively satisfying as course design is, I'm on guard against spending too much time on it; that's why I waited until Thursday, when we'd returned from our latest travels, to start working on my syllabi. Obviously, I'd already ordered the books, and I'd started thinking about the supplemental readings, but I was deliberately not letting my mind fully turn to the topic.

And it strikes me that deferring this work may be a version of "the power of procrastination" that Adam Grant writes about in this weekend's NYT. As Grant notes,

Our first ideas. . . are usually our most conventional. . . . When you procrastinate, you're more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns. Nearly a century ago, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people had a better memory for incomplete tasks than for complete ones. When we finish a project, we file it away. But when it’s in limbo, it stays active in our minds.

According to Grant (and the research a former student of his has done on the subject), this can be taken too far--when you're really panicked or pressed for time, you're likely to grasp at straws and throw together anything that will work--but a certain amount of procrastination, and a certain amount of time pressure, really does stimulate creativity.

In my case, I wasn't actually procrastinating writing my syllabi. I just had other things to do first, and I'm enough of a monomaniac that I can't simultaneously develop a new class and focus on my own writing. My natural preference is to focus on just one thing at a time, and the more creative the labor involved, the harder I find it to switch between projects.

But in the real world, we can't focus on just one task at a time--and though I get overwhelmed easily, I also get grumpy and bored when I don't have enough going on. So I've taught myself to manage multiple projects by parceling out my time in portions large enough to feel I can achieve some degree of immersion: four uninterrupted hours; a day; a week. Here is where I work on A! And there is where I turn to B!

Because I have pots going on multiple burners throughout, I'd like to think that some of the benefits that Grant ascribes to procrastination still accrue: even while I was working on my Milton chapter or the textual notes for my edition, I knew syllabi-writing was on the horizon. And occasionally, when stuck on a sentence in my chapter, I'd take five minutes to sketch out the reading schedule for my senior capstone, or I'd toggle over to the internet to see if there was an online version of one of my supplemental texts. So a corner of my brain was still ticking.

Greater productively through procrastination. I'd said it before, and I'll say it again.

Friday, January 01, 2016

New Year's Meme

(Ninth in a series)

1. What did you do in 2015 that you'd never done before?
*Got a tattoo
*Sold a house
*Left a job I loved
*Watched a family member enter a final illness

2. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes: one friend had her first and another her second.

3. Did anyone close to you die?
This was a year for facing mortality. A grad school friend and a grad school professor both died, and (like last year) another friend lost an infant daughter. And the early months of 2016 will bring another death.

4. What countries did you visit?
Only Canada (a couple of times).

5. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015?
More leisure travel. Less death.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
In terms of effort, selling our house and getting all our possessions in the same state, if not under the same roof (much of it is still in storage).

In terms of satisfaction, throwing ourselves into a new city and a new social scene. I'm surprised how many people I already know, and how optimistic I'm feeling about this place.

7. What was your biggest failure?
I could have been more patient and generous with various people whom I knew to be under stress. Actually, I could just be more patient and generous, full stop.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing serious.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
My mink coat. (Yes, I bought a mink coat. It's vintage, it's full-length, and it's ridiculous. And I'm wearing it evvvvvverywhere.)

10. Whose behavior merited celebration?
All of Cosimo's extended family.

11. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
I think this blog is too public for me to specify!

12. Where did most of your money go?
Getting the house ready to sell and then moving drained our bank account. But most of my moving expenses were eventually reimbursed, and we made money on the sale, so all's well that ends well.

13. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
a) About the same
b) All my clothes fit, so who's counting?
c) Richer: my new job came with a nice raise, and (for the moment) we don't have a mortgage

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Blogged, for one.

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Contemplated mortality.

16. What was the best book you read?
Either Richard Price's Lush Life or Giuseppe di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo (in English, alas. Someday in Italian!)

17. What was your favorite film of the year?

18. What was your favorite album of the year?
Adele, 25

19. What was the best play you saw?
Best new play: King Charles III (Broadway)

Best revival: Pericles (Stratford Festival)

20. What kept you sane?
Living with my spouse full time. Making progress on the book. Getting out & about in the city.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2015.
I don't know about "lessons." But I know that I am not resigned.