Sunday, October 31, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Job dissatisfaction

This might be blasphemous to say, but I need to say it: I'm not looking forward to going back to the teaching grind next year (and let's not even start on service obligations). It's not because I'm enjoying my research and unscheduled time so much (see this post about how I'm just figuring out how to handle that unscheduled time; note how many times I mention how boring some of my work is). Nope, it's because I really kind of dread the whole package of teaching -- not just the worst parts (grading! oy, the grading!) but also the frenetic, when-will-this-semester-be-over grind, and even, I hate to say it, being in the classroom. I can't even put my finger on why -- I have always liked our students (well, most of them) and they have told me many times over that they like me -- but the excitement is definitely gone.

Maybe it's because next year I'll be facing another year of Old and Middle English, which I have to say, I kind of hate teaching. Oh, there are moments where I love it, and there were two sets of classes some years back who geeked out with me and made it awesome, but - ugh! - how can I possibly look forward to talking about weak adjectives and strong verbs and Middle English Open Syllable Lengthening...OMG. Kill me now. Horace, who just wrote a joyful post about what's cool about being a humanities professor (and whose positive post title I'm riffing only negatively) gets to talk about "the nature of time and the past in literature, about how drama and performance help us understand our very identity, how the language of advertising leaves us without a language of our own to describe our experiences of the real world." I, on the other hand, get to talk about i-mutation. Zzzzzzzz...And what's even worse is that it didn't used to bore me. But the thought of doing this over and over for the next god knows how many years is making my head explode.

And not even the thought of teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare in the spring term, or a newly designed Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic syllabus in the fall cheers me up. Something is seriously wrong with me if the thought of "The Miller's Tale," Twelfth Night, and "The Cattle Raid of Cooley" can't raise my spirits or at least make up for strong verb paradigms and brace constructions.

I have a feeling that part of what's coloring my attitude is the woeful morale at our university and especially in our soon-to-be-dissolved-and-chopped-into-three-colleges college. But I keep telling myself that that shouldn't really have an effect on my day to day experience, especially not in the classroom. Perhaps also, because I'm on sabbatical and not as crazy-busy as usual, when I witness just how burnt out and dog-tired Bullock is because of his overload of advising and service responsibilities (a situation created in part by the shrinking of his department by retirement and death without any replacements), I feel it more strongly than I would if I were distracted by a frenetic pace of my own. Or maybe my mood is a response to the bigger war on the humanities and higher ed in general here in the US and elsewhere (especially in the UK). One my Facebook friends (and who still reads this blog, I think) asked for robust language to defend the humanities. Once upon a time I could give it; now I just want to give up.

Tell me that this is what sabbatical is for -- to rejuvenate, to re-energize -- and that by next year I'll feel ready to take it all on again. Tell me that I'm just burnt out and I'm expecting to rebound too quickly. But most of all, tell me it's OK sometimes not to like my job.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Speaking (again) of delivering bad news to students in the humanities...

...I wonder if the author of this little movie read the post below? Of course, it could just be because it's that time of year.


And yes, I *do* question the meaning of my existence.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hacking sabbatical

I didn't really think of my sabbatical starting until the Fall term started up, in part because I'd had such a busy summer of professional activities that would have happened whether I was on sabbatical or not. So, for me, sabbatical started August 23. And it took me the last two months to finally figure out how to manage my time and to get into a groove. Thank dog, then, that I took the whole year, despite the reduction in salary.

My problems in getting started were threefold: 1) the major project I'm working on is in its very amorphous beginning stages and the immediate tasks at hand were and remain super dull and tedious; 2) I'd forgotten how to manage so much unscheduled time; and 3) ZOMG! The Intertubes! Let me explain point 1 and then I'll talk about how I harnessed technology (my university's admins love to throw around phrases like that) to deal with points 2 & 3 and at least ameliorate the issues in point 1, and also how I actually added to my goals for sabbatical to paradoxically make it more likely that I'll complete those goals.

Even before we get to the issues with my major project, there was another task I had to take care of by a September 15th deadline, and that was the editing of a handful of medieval texts for an inclusion in a student anthology, along with writing the introductions to them. I learn a lot from such projects, and they're one of the most important things we do as scholars, I think, even though at most places they don't count as much as original peer-reviewed research, and so I'm happy to do such projects in that sense. But, ZOMG!, it is tedious work. And I think that tedium got me off to a bad start and in bad habits. I'd edit a stanza of text and then check Facebook. Then I'd edit another stanza and play 5 games of Mah Jong. Then I'd edit another stanza and read blogs. And so on. I let it drag out until mere days before the deadline, so poof! there went a month of sabbatical.

The thing was, I was totally using that editing job as a way to procrastinate on my own research. I could have been doing both all that time, but I didn't. But finally I got that job out of the way and it was time to move on to my own research -- no more excuses. But the first problem with this project is that it's so early in its development, it's hard to know what it needs and where I should be going in terms of textual, historical, and theoretical research and reading. I'm not even sure what the size of the project is; though I proposed it as a book project in my sabbatical application, I'm starting to think it might be a Speculum-length article. Or maybe a couple of articles of shorter length. And the working thesis/argument I have now may totally change as I continue to do the primary text research. God knows that happened on my first book, which started as a project on class and economics and a specific body of literary texts and morphed into a project on gender and those texts. And before that, I just wanted to write on those texts because there hadn't been any book-length works on them in a long while and I thought I had interesting, newish ways of looking at them. That's also kind of how this project started: I kind of fell into finding my primary material, realized it was both understudied and yet potentially significant, and then started thinking about it more. But that makes it harder to know where to go with the stuff because you're not entering a widely populated critical conversation; instead, you've got to find ways to introduce it into the conversation by relating it to conversations already going on. But the question is, which ones? In practical terms, that means: which existing scholarship is going to help me figure out what's going on here? What should I be reading to help me think through this?

Meanwhile, the one task I know I need to do -- find and catalog for myself all the instances of the literary phenomenon I'm working on -- is a slow and tedious one. See, the stuff I'm working on is what I think of as an obscure subgenre of 15th and 16th century poetry, and so I have to find it by combing through reference works like the various editions of Index of Middle English Verse. I go through a reference work like that one entry after another, looking for texts that might be the kind I'm trying to study and define and then entering them into a Word file I made (so I can search it electronically). And then I've got to track down the available editions of these poems (which sometimes means getting my hands on articles in obscure 19th century German journals!); and after that, in the Spring, I'm going to look at the manuscripts of texts without editions or whose editions don't tell me enough about the manuscript contexts (and that part means another longish trip to England - so yeah!). But right now, I'm in the most boring stage. I'm only up to M in the New Index of Middle English.

As you can imagine, that work is about as interesting as reading a phone book, and so it's also a task prone to procrastination and distraction. In fact, I really should have done it a little bit at a time last year when I was teaching, because it's totally the kind of task you can work into a busy teaching year with just a few minutes a day. But I am teh lame and did not do that. And now I have to Get. It. Done so I can effectively use sabbatical time for that trip to the manuscript libraries in the UK and here in the US, too, especially since that's how I justified the necessity of my sabbatical in my application -- I said I needed to do "literary field work." But trying to do hours of that kind of work -- or heck, even one hour -- at a time is going to create diminishing returns on productivity, because the more mind-numbingly bored I become, the more mistakes I'll make and the more I'll procrastinate with those games and Facebook and so on. And furthermore, I can't spend my whole sabbatical doing work that dull. I'll go insane.

So. What to do? Well, here's how I "hacked" sabbatical to help me make better use of my time and be more productive, both in terms of what this longer-term project needs to get off the ground this year and also in terms of having something to show for my time next year. As I said above, I actually added some additional goals to my sabbatical besides this maybe-a-book project (which is the only thing I mentioned in my application for sabbatical). I had already planned to finally get to writing an article I've had brewing for a couple of years. It has its problems and roadblocks, too, but it's much further along than the nascent book project, so at least it has some shape. I also took on another editorial job, related to that one I mentioned above. I know, I know -- more tedious work. However, I think I've figured out how to deal with that, too, which I'll get to in minute. I also accepted an invitation to write a chapter in a forthcoming multi-volume guide/companion/introduction to British literature on the same genre of text as the texts I'm editing and have edited and that the article project is on, so those projects are all interrelated and will aid one another. Plus, along with editing texts for either scholarly or student editions, I think the scholarly guides to literature are another really important feature of what we do in the profession. (So next time some fool is dismissing scholarly research as something no one reads, mention a Norton Critical Edition or a Cambridge Companion to said fool and ask him where he thinks such works come from. But I digress.) Those are the projects that will go under my "professional activity" section of next year's annual merit report. But I'm also doing things for teaching, for pleasure, and for well being -- including, for instance: re-reading a bunch of the classical, medieval, and renaissance texts from my undergrad great books core curriculum; reading lots of detective fiction; trying to get back in shape; and reading introductions to English morphology, phonology, and syntax, to make me a better teacher of Old and Middle English -- and these are all part of my daily schedule.

Now, it might seem like I'm being over-ambitious, but here's why I think more tasks will help me. Remember how boring I said some of my work is? Well now, if I get bored with one task, instead of playing Mah Jong or reading Huffington Post, I just switch tasks. If I get stuck on a problem in my article project, instead of checking Facebook, I switch tasks. If I'm frustrated with all of my own projects, I can read The Illiad or about the Northern Cities Vowel shift and still feel professionally engaged in some way, but give my brain a rest. And if I'm sick of all the brain work, I get on the tread mill or on my bike, or I chase Pippi around the yard. (She doesn't play fetch; she plays keep away.)

And here's the hacking part. I've incorporated two apps to help me achieve these things. The first one is an iPhone app called Daily Deeds. I'm pretty sure I learned about this from ProfHacker, so I'll give them general credit. Anyway, it's a simple little program that lets you enter a list of tasks that you want to accomplish daily (or at least in a recurring way). And if you accomplish said task, you check it off. You can then e-mail yourself reports to show you how much you're doing something each month. In my own version, I've entered a whole bunch of tasks and sub-tasks related to all of the above (so, for instance, I have an entry that says "catalog stuff from the NIMEV," another that says "read some Classical/Med/Ren lit," another that says "read some criticism and take notes" (so it serves for *all* my projects), and one that says "run, ride bike, or walk Pippi" (to account for all physical activity in a low-pressure way, just to help myself make it a daily routine, no matter how hardcore or not). I can't tell you how satisfying it is to check something off! And it doesn't matter how short a time I spend on something -- if I do it, I get to check it off. This 'carrot,' combined with allowing myself to switch tasks the moment I get bored or frustrated, means I now -- finally -- spend at least 6 hours a day actually *working*.

And there's the other tech tool that has helped me do that. I don't have the best willpower when it comes to things like Facebook or blogs or other online distractions, but I need the web for some of the work I'm doing (using the MED and OED, for instance), so I can't use Freedom and turn off the internet entirely. So instead, I use the Leechblock extension for the Firefox browser, which allows me to select the sites to block and the times to block them. So now, from 9am to 5pm each weekday, I cannot access Facebook, HuffPo, the real estate sites around here, Blogger or Wordpress blogs, or all the other things I routinely tend to want to distract myself with..."just for minute," I'll say...and which end up sucking hours of my time each week. And often, I move downstairs with one of the books I'm reading by about 4pm, so I'm away from the computer when I'm allowed back on the sites.

So this is how I'm "hacking" sabbatical: counter-intuitively adding more tasks to make more progress on each of them; switching tasks often; rewarding myself for activity on tasks by chalking up check marks on Daily Deeds; blocking myself from my biggest online time-wasters; and now, telling you all about it so that I stick to it! Let's see if it continues to work.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sleepy sabbatical

One thing, at least, that I've finally figured about sabbatical is that I can sleep in. Of course Pippi sees to it that one of us is up by 7am at least (earlier in the summer when the sun is up earlier), but usually that's Bullock. I think she's figured out that he wakes easier than I do. I don't sleep much longer -- I'm usually up by 8, though today it was nearly 9 before I woke up -- but to me that seems almost decadent, since there are people on our campus with classes and meetings at 8am.

Now, you noticed that I said "finally figured" out. Yes, that's right. Given the ridiculous guilt-anxiety cycles that we academics make for ourselves, plus the conventions of the Monday-Friday work week in the white collar world in which I was raised, it took me quite some time to allow myself this sleep. (Yeah, I was forgetting that the word sabbatical is related to the word sabbath.) At first I had dreams of keeping some crazy schedule where I was up by 6 and exercising or walking Pippi by 7. Yeah, right. Now I realize my schedule can be what I want it to be (well, Pippi has to be walked *some* time by 9 or 10 am) as long as I'm still doing what I need to do.

There are other things I've finally figured out, but Pippi actually hasn't been walked yet and it's my day and she's letting me know that as I type (her chin is on my lap and she's looking up at me with her puppiest puppy-dog eyes). Time for walkies!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Speaking of delivering bad news to students...'s the pre-law version.

Bullock is our college's pre-law adviser and I used to be a paralegal once upon a time, and we couldn't stop laughing (especially during the part about Constitutional law). But New Kid, you may want to advert your eyes.

H/T Lawyers, Guns, and Money

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Help! Advice needed! (Delivering-bad-news-to-students division)

Before I get to the advice request, on a somewhat related topic I just want to say that Greg Semenza, who is a very cool guy, sent me a signed copy of the second edition of A Guide to Graduate Study in the 21st Century. And he quoted and cited this blog in the introduction as well as thanking me in the acknowledgments. (He quoted this post, which I really should put on a "Best of Virago" list in the sidebar or something. He quoted a farming metaphor that apparently I made in that post, but which seemed so hilariously out of character for me, a city/suburban girl, that I had to go back and see if I actually wrote it or if one of the commenters did. It seems I did!) So you must now all buy his book for *your* graduate students, because he is clearly a genius with good taste. And also because I said so. :)

Anyway, the advice I need is related to talking to students about grad school. Greg's book is *awesome* for students already in or accepted to Ph.D. programs, or, slightly adapted, for students in MA programs (which is how I use it). But it doesn't deal with the whole process *before* -- the making yourself competitive for grad programs, choosing them, applying to the, etc. (Let's skip, for the moment, whether anyone should be applying to Ph.D. programs in the humanities at all. I know how to have that talk.)

But here's what I don't know how to do. I don't know how to tell a student "There's no way you're going to get into ______." Or "I really can't recommend you to ____ program." Or, worst of all, "I really can't recommend you for Ph.D. programs." Many of our students, the BAs and the MAs, are often really naive about the competition out there and about the selectiveness of even the state school Ph.D. programs. The best of them, who have all the same natural gifts as the students who will get into the most competitive programs, have never had to compete for admission to anything (we're an open admission school at the undergrad level, and though our MA program is slightly selective--we do turn down some people--it's not terribly difficult to get into). And they don't have a lot of friends (or any others) who are also applying to graduate programs, so they grossly underestimate the numbers of people doing so. They've been big fish in little ponds all their lives and haven't really been pushed, either by their professors or their cohort. (We try, but really, you need a critical mass of ambitious peers to really show you what you can accomplish. And once you're at the top of a group, it's hard to see that there are higher things to aim for.) But they can't possibly see this from their vantage point. And we can tell them, but they don't always get the message. (There are obviously exceptions. But if they were all like the exceptions, I wouldn't be writing this post.) We even have a few faculty members who share the naivety (for various different reasons), and they are often wowed by these students and encourage them to apply to schools they're never going to get into (and only those schools), so we have to work against bad advice they've been given.

For example, about a year or so ago, a former student, whose work in our MA program fell about in the average range for our students, wrote to me to tell me she was going to apply to a particular Ivy League school for the Ph.D. And just that school. But she was going to visit it first to make sure it was right for her. *Headdesk* So I wrote back and gave her the statistics for the previous year's admissions (because I happen to know people at said Ivy and they could give me the cold, hard facts). To my utter shock, this did not deter her! Her response was something along the lines of "Oh, I know it's competitive, but I think I've got what it takes!" *double headdesk* And others to whom I give the bad news talk think I'm just trying to keep them down, that I'm holding them back. (What would motivate me to do that is beyond me -- our students' success is our success.)

For many, I can say a nicer version of "Fine, don't believe me. Go ahead and try." And sometimes I get them to add less glorious programs to their list (or simply more programs), and they *do* get in and go on to good things. (I basically suggest they apply to one or two "dream" schools -- it's good to dream! -- but then to a range of other, more realistic schools. Then I have to help them figure out what those are, because they have no idea.) So sometimes I can work with them and get them to where they want to be, which is in a Ph.D. program on the way to being a college professor. Ooh, and one of the first RBU students I wrote a letter for is now a tenure-track assistant professor! Hooray! So I'm not saying our students should just give it up. I'm saying they need to be more realistic. I'm *pretty* good at getting them to that point (Ms. Ivy League being the weird exception).

But where it gets tricky (and this is really where I need the advice) is with the ones who want me to write letters of recommendation. I don't think students realize we have professional reputations, that we know people at these schools they're applying to, and that our word won't mean anything (for them or for other students) if we write glowing letters for students whose work just doesn't stack up. And writing a truthful, damning letter seems passive-aggressively cruel; I think it would also make me look like an asshole to the people reading it. So the only alternative is to say, "Sorry, I can't do that." But I am such a wuss when it comes to such confrontations, especially when I like the student personally and have been working with them for some time, which is often the case (and this is really where I need your help). I make the lamest excuses just to avoid saying, "I really can't recommend you." For example, once I told a student that since the paper she'd written for me in class was a critical history and not an original argument, my recommendation wouldn't be worth much (which may be true but wasn't the real reason I was turning her down). Help me "woman up" and deliver the bad news. How would you do it?

Let's put this into a few more specific (but totally fictional) situations. How would you deal with each of them? Updated to add: How would you deal specifically with being asked to write a letter of recommendation in each of these cases? That's the key issue for me. Assume that we've already had all the "should you go to graduate school?"/"what's graduate school like?"/"what's on the other side of the Ph.D.?" type talks.

1) An MA student has mostly A- and B+ grades in hir chosen area of specialization and doesn't realize those are damning grades for an MA student applying to Ph.D. programs, and wants you to write a letter of recommendation. You gave hir an A, but in a less relevant class where earning an A might have been easier (say, a methods class or an undergrad/grad survey). [Hm, in this case, I might just go ahead and write the letter, describing the level and expectations of the class as well as hir work in it. And now that I'm not Grad Director, I might not look stupidly naive myself for recommending hir. What do you think?]

2) A student (BA or MA) is applying exclusively either to unrealistically competitive schools or to schools that rejected hir in the first round the last time ze applied and won't add less selective schools to hir list or drop the ones that didn't accept hir the first time.

3) Your department has a 0.000 batting average with getting any of your students, BA or MA, into the nationally ranked flagship school program up the road, and you know everyone in the department in your field (and in a number of other fields), and the student asking you for the letter is not even close to best of the students they've turned down.

4) The student asking you for a letter has barely survived hir Honors thesis or MA experience, kicking, screaming, procrastinating, and delaying all the way, and hir work isn't that outstanding. You know a Ph.D. program isn't right for hir *personally* as well as professionally. How do you convince hir of that when ze's got the classic combination of unrealistic goals and terrible working habits?


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Random bullet points of "I'll get the hang of sabbatical yet"

  • You'd think that because I'm on sabbatical, I'd be posting more. Well, clearly that's not the case. And it's bumming me out a little because after I kinda, sorta, not really came out at NCS, lots of people told me that they liked my blog and wished I'd post more and I promised I would. And I meant that. So what's up? Well, there are a couple of factors, too long for a bullet point, so maybe I'll write about them in a full post. And maybe *that* will get my blogging engine started again.
  • I feel like I'm frittering sabbatical away. That's a post in the making, too.
  • I really need to start exercising again. I'm trying to get back into it, and lord knows there's no time like a sabbatical year to do it, but I need to find a new thing or find a way to make running new again for me. After the Boston Marathon in 2007 I got really burnt out, plus I no longer had any more goals that really meant anything to me. That's a post brewing, too. But I'm riding my bike. Today I rode 12 1/2 miles and every time I have to go to campus, I ride it there, too. So that's something.
  • The frittering, not-blogging, and not-running are part of my time management anxiety. Sabbatical is slipping away!!! Only 10 1/2 months left!!! (See counter to right.) Oh noes! Yeah, ridiculous, isn't it? But that's how I feel. WTF? What's wrong with me?
  • On the positive side, I *have* been reading stuff for fun. Finally finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I liked a lot. As a fan of crime fiction, I especially enjoyed the mash-up of various sub-genres, and the way it kept switching things up. Also, I think I need to emulate Blomkvist's schedule in Hedeby for his research routine -- it would work for my rhythms. So see, the pleasure reading may have had a therapeutic effect on the sabbatical anxieties. Maybe.
  • I'm also re-reading The Iliad. At first it was because I thought I'd be teaching our European Lit to the Renaissance class next year for the first time, so I set myself a schedule to re-read all of my undergrad great books syllabus, but I may now be needed for Shakespeare. So now I'm just re-reading it for fun. Shut up! It is *too* fun! I may even continue with the plan since I might still teach that class in the future, and there's no time like sabbatical, right?
  • Also, I've advanced to the Budokan concert in Beatles Rock Band and have 5-starred every song up to that point on the bass. OK, so I have to keep it on the Easy level, but I'm still pleased with myself.
  • My research? Yeah, don't ask about that. The first rule of Dr. Virago's research is that you don't talk abut Dr. Virago's research.
  • Seriously, it's going. Sloooooooowly, that is. Here's some advice: don't apply for a sabbatical when you're at the beginning of something. Apply for it when you have something to write -- as Dr. Crazy smartly did. Her productivity is both inspiring and also, yes, anxiety-inducing.
  • If only my research were as exciting as Blomkvist's. Or that I were stranded in a small, northern Swedish town with nothing else to do. Huh, do you think Bullock would mind if I took off for Sweden for six months?
  • And now, for Eileen at In the Middle, a random picture of Pippi, "the super model of dogs," as I called her at NCS. (Yes, that's right, Pippi came up in the discussion at the blogging panel at NCS. She's famous!) Here she is, hittin' the road at the end of summer (photo by Bullock, dog wrangling by me):