Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Movin' on up

I'm relocating to my new blog site sooner than I had planned. Come check it out; it's so pretty!

I've spent the evening reading through this first blog and deleting most of the posts here, so as not to leave lots of personal history behind when I make this brand new start. It was an interesting experience to skim through over a year's worth of posts and to remember all of these moments -- some good, some bad, some very ugly indeed -- and then it was remarkably therapeutic to delete them. I'm having a whole new sense of the ephemeral kind of writing I do on my blog. It can be deleted at the touch of a button and is really more like a conversation with friends, one that has significant meaning in the moment and also contributes to strong relationships that have even more significant meaning in the long-run. (I hope that these relationships make the jump to the new blog site!)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest”

…or at least that’s what the painful tightness in my chest feels like. Fortunately, I now have cough syrup with codeine, which I much prefer to “a bottle of rum.”

Oh wait; darn it, D. has just informed me that “chest” in that song refers to a treasure chest rather than one’s upper abdomen. How did I never realize that before? Okay, never mind the Robert Louis Stevenson allusion. The point is that I’ve got bronchitis, and it feels like a big weight is pressing down on my chest. Most uncomfortable. I just started antibiotics this afternoon, which I’m hoping will have me right as rain in a couple of days.

How did I get into this state? After having this cold for a full week, on Sunday night I got almost no sleep at all. I couldn’t turn off my brain after the meeting with the President, and then right as we were winding down for bed, D. started throwing up (which she kept up off and on for the next 12 hours), and then she started snoring because she was so snuffly, and then whenever I did manage to drift off I would start coughing and wake myself up. Totally exhausting night. And then in my last class of the day on Monday, I practically coughed up a lung, which is what finally convinced me to make a doctor’s appointment for this afternoon. (On the plus side, I got major sympathy from my students.)

So last night I took Theraflu, two Tylenol P.M.s, and cough syrup, and then went to bed and slept for a full eleven hours! My eyes must have been oozing while I slept, because when I woke up they were sealed shut with dried-up crustiness; yuck. All of that sleep is, I think, the only reason I kept body and soul together today, although even then I had to let my morning class out early because I temporarily lost my voice.

We also got flu shots this afternoon. It used to be that you weren’t supposed to get a vaccination if you were already sick, but my doctor cleared me for it this afternoon and said that this prohibition doesn’t really matter any more, now that they use killed-virus rather than live-virus vaccinations. So I’m sick as a dog now, but I’ve tried to take steps to avoid being much sicker than a dog later this winter. (Do dogs get sick more often than other animals? What’s up with that expression?)

And now I’ve got fabulous drugs. I was lying on the couch around 6:30, groaning with pain whenever I coughed because it hurt so badly, and D. pointed out that I had an untouched bottle of cough syrup with codeine that I wasn’t taking, and that the whole point of the codeine was as a pain reliever. Oh right, that makes sense. So I’ve now started drugging myself and will take another dose before I go to bed. (And if this blog post is totally rambling, which I think is probably the case, let’s blame it on the drugs and the pain I’m in.)

D. is doing her very best to comfort me; she’s a total sweetie. She made me the most fabulous comfort food dinner (way delicious) and then bought me a TypePad account. Yay! So update your blogrolls and syndicate feeds, please, because I’ll be heading over to the new account pretty soon. I think I’ll post on both blog sites for a week or so and then migrate over to the new account entirely.

Someone on TV just said “People getting sawed up and eaten by bears? That’s not good.” So true, so true. Hmm, perhaps I’m getting spacy. Is this what drugs feel like? Time to stop blogging, no doubt, and plan on going to bed in the near future.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

English department job applications

I had every intention of mowing the lawn this morning, and it’s a beautiful day for it, but I’m just feeling too chilled and snuffly and coughy to leave the comfort of the couch and my afghan. So instead I’m spending the morning curled up and reading through job applications. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on my very first search committee, and I’m finding it an incredible learning experience. I’ll confess that I’m also feeling my age, since I’m seven to ten years older than most of the applicants (as far as I can tell from their dates of college graduation). This makes sense, of course, since this is my fifth year in my current job and I had a two-year lectureship after I got my Ph.D., and I took two years off from school before my doctoral program; so it is quite to be expected that people applying for their first job would be at least seven years younger than I am, but I’m having another one of those moments of realizing that time is moving an and that I’m getting older with each passing year. Yeah, that should be obvious, but it still unpleasantly hits me anew every once in awhile.

But enough about me and my anxieties. I am learning an awful lot about what makes a good application (helpful if I end up going on the market again), all of which wisdom I’d be saving up to pass on to grad students if only I had any. But since I don’t, I’ll share these observations with the blogosphere instead. I know that this advice is too late to do any good to people who are currently on the market; but maybe it will be helpful to those still in grad school. Let me add that these are just my own novice conclusions; it’s possible (although not likely, I think) that my senior colleagues on the search committee will disagree with some of my assessments. And nothing I’m saying here is brand-new; this is hardly original advice. But with those caveats, here is my advice for folks applying to liberal arts colleges:
  • Remember that some of the people reading the application letter won’t be in your field, so make your dissertation/research sound interesting even to people who don’t know exactly what you’re talking about.

  • Please, please, please avoid jargon. My eyes glaze over, and I think that you wouldn’t be much fun to talk with over lunch. Maybe that’s unfair, but there it is. Remember that I’m reading a huge stack of these applications, and I’m going to be more interested in letters that are easy to follow and engaging, in part because I want engaging colleagues.

  • When you talk about your teaching in your letter, don’t just talk about which classes you’ve taught; also talk a little about your pedagogy, about assignments you’ve given or class exercises you’ve designed. And make sure that you sound passionate and energetic about teaching; we’ve got to believe that you really care about teaching.

  • That being said, shorter letters are better than longer ones. I’ll admit that I was one of those applicants who used 11-point font and small margins to get as much as possible on two pages, but I wouldn’t do so again.

  • This isn’t so much application advice as it is grad school planning advice: I’ve wound up defining a weeding-out litmus test for applications, and that is that applicants who have never taught a composition class are going to the bottom of the pile. Not that we teach so much comp here at St. Martyr’s (certainly far less than at a lot of liberal arts colleges), but we do each teach it occasionally, and certainly there’s an element of writing instruction in all of our courses. And besides, I want evidence that applicants have designed a syllabus and been entirely responsible for a course. I find this piece of advice particularly interesting because my own grad program has in recent years moved away from having students teach comp., and lots of the students are pleased about this because they’d rather be teaching literature, but I think that this move is SUCH a mistake and that the department is doing its students a real disservice. When I was in grad school, I volunteered for two terms to teach the remedial composition course, which in retrospect was one of the smartest things I could have done.

  • Similarly, make sure you’ve taught a variety of courses. At St. Martyr’s, you’ll probably only teach one upper-level English course per term, and the other courses will be Gen. Ed. courses. So I’m more impressed with applicants who have taught survey courses, intro to lit courses, maybe a genre course or something similar. The applications which say, “I’m prepared to teach courses not only in my specific dissertation topic, but also in these two other closely-related very specific topics,” go to the bottom of the pile; I just don’t see their being helpful at St. Martyr’s. If your school has TA opportunities for Gen. Ed. courses, volunteer for those courses. On a personal note, this conclusion has been a healing moment for me, because I’ll confess that in grad school I was really jealous of the students who had such amazing fellowships that they taught maybe one year in grad school; but now I’ve realized that my varied teaching experiences in grad school were actually great training for a career in a liberal arts college, which is what I was most interested in and where I ended up. So maybe I can finally let go of this particular grass-is-always-greener point.

  • Back to application advice: Have your letter-writers update your letters. If you’ve finished your dissertation, the letters that say “Applicant X has written one chapter of his dissertation, and it’s very good” aren’t doing you any good.

  • Have your dissertation director and other letter-writers observe your teaching. The more that I learn about your teaching, the better, and letters that address both your research and your teaching help to make the argument that these parts of your professional life are closely related, which is a great selling point.

  • If you’ve done any service at all in grad school, it’s worth mentioning it in your letter as evidence that you understand that there’s more to an academic position than teaching and research.

Certainly this advice is most apropos for folks applying to liberal arts colleges, but I can’t imagine that any of it would be bad advice for folks interested in research universities. I hope it’s been helpful; if nothing else, it’s a record for my own sake, so that if I end up on the market again I can remind myself of all of this advice. Now if only someone would write such a list for folks who have been in a job for several years and are looking for their second job.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Such a helpful metaphor

I haven’t heretofore been a regular reader of Confessions of a Community College Dean (aka “Dean Dad”), although I’m definitely going to start, having been led there by Academic Coach. So over lunch today I was checking out some back posts and found a post from last Monday on sprinting versus marathoning as a metaphor for the energy requirements for teaching versus administration. So helpful in understanding my energy problems this term!

As I’ve bitched about more than once this term, I am way over-extended on service/administration responsibilities this term. It’s been building for the last couple of years as I’ve been asked to be on this committee or have volunteered to take on that task. The kicker was last term when I wound up on a committee without even being asked if I would serve on it; I was informed of this new committee only when an email went out to all committee members and I discovered that I was listed as a subcommittee co-chair! And this term it’s gotten even worse, and I haven’t really felt that I could say “no” to anything because I’m applying for tenure. I was trying to schedule a meeting yesterday and realized that my calendar is so full of non-teaching-related meetings that it’s difficult to fit another meeting in during business hours. And, as I have also bitched about this term (hmm, a pattern of bitching is clearly emerging here!), I’m now so overwhelmed with administrative tasks that I’m not really doing things particularly well anymore, at least by my standards; and that declining quality is especially true in my classes, which I find frightening since teaching is why I got into this biz in the first place. I just don’t have the energy – both mentally and physically – to stay on top of everything I’m supposed to be doing and to do it well.

And Dean Dad has just helped me to figure out why: as a teacher, I’m so trained for sprint mode – i.e., lots of preparation for a hard, fast, time-limited run. As he points out, this works well for teaching but not for administrative work, which is more like long-distance running and requires slower pacing; an administrator who tries to tackle all projects at a sprint will wear out almost immediately.

In teaching, I am so in control of the timing; I can close the office door or go home and prepare at my own pace, with few distractions, and then during class itself I’m in charge of how the time gets broken up and what we do. I tackle projects and finish them on my own calendar, and I rarely leave things half-done; even with grading, I can decide that I’m going to grade 5 papers today, and if I don’t get them all done, I can add the remaining papers to the next day’s pile, and it’s still all under my own timing and control, and when I’m done, I’m done. (Although I often end up in the position I’m in tonight, of having a whole stack that has to get done by tomorrow’s class.) The thing that has worn me out with all of these administrative responsibilities is that I can never get them finished and I can’t do most of them alone: I make a phone call and have to wait for an answer; I try to schedule a meeting and have to wait for replies about availability and room reservations; I try to coordinate activities and have to rely on other people to do their part (or not) on their own schedule. I’m so used to a to-do list that is about finishing things, about accomplishments that I can cross off my list (e.g., prep for class, grade papers, hold office hours). But with service/administrative things I’m having to learn (with the help of David Allen’s Getting Things Done) to break all projects down into smaller pieces (e.g., make phone call, send memo, reserve room) and to rarely actually finishing any project. I’m slowly learning to do this – although I hate it as a way of working – but now I see that I need to learn to adjust my pace as well. I’ve been tackling my service obligations in the same way that I do my teaching, by blocking out chunks of time and trying to finish the tasks in that time period (e.g., this afternoon I will plan this event, tonight I will schedule and prepare for the meeting), but that’s often not actually possible because I don’t have all the information I need, or I have to do part of the project now, wait for other people, and then do the next part of the project after I hear from them. What really works for administrative stuff is to do little bits on every project every day, a schedule which builds in the wait or lag time that has been making me so crazy. In other words, I need to be a marathoner (content to keep running even when I’m not seeing progress) instead of a sprinter (who finishes up each race in a relatively short period of time and then can start a brand-new race).

As Dean Dad points out, it’s very awkward to be doing both teaching and administration, because then you’re switching back and forth between running modes in a way that’s difficult for the muscles. And I’ve got another problem with it as well: One of the things that appeals to me about the schedule of writing a little bit every day (which I have NOT been doing this term) is that I keep my book in my head all the time; to use another metaphor, the soup is on the back burner or the front burner, but it’s never off the stove, which makes it easier to bring it to a boil, and there’s that lovely soup aroma in the kitchen all the time. The problem with doing a little bit on every project every day is that I can never put the stupid projects out of my head, and I realize that I don’t actually enjoy most of the projects I’m working on, so I resent having to think about them. And I know that David Allen says that writing everything down in “next item” lists helps to keep it all out of one’s head so that there’s lots of free brain space for creativity, but this hasn’t been working for me yet, although it sounds great in theory; what I find is that all projects are crammed into my head all the time, and I’m always fretting about when I’m going to hear back from so-and-so or when I’m going to get around to scheduling that meeting, leaving no space at all for the interesting things that I actually like about my work. Not liking this administrative work leads me, I think, to the task of reducing these responsibilities so that I can do more work than I like, but I don’t think the marathoning versus sprinting conflict will get resolved any time soon. In the meantime, however, the metaphor will help me to think about controlling my pacing in my work, and maybe that’s the first step to not feeling so worn out and exhausted all the time.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Happy blogiversary to me!

Today is the one-year anniversary of What Now? in the blogosphere. Yay!

So let me take this opportunity to say thanks to all of you who have made my year of blogging a real blessing. You’ve made my life better in some concrete ways:
  • I appreciate my job a lot more than I did, now that I have a lot more sense of what happens in other schools (one from a whole slew of examples: now I understand that our salary compression isn’t as bad as the salary inversion that some folks have)—perspective is everything! And now that I know how rough things can get at research universities, I no longer spend so much energy fretting that I’ve been left behind in the academic world, that everyone else is having a more fabulous life than I am. I haven’t exactly solved my grass-is-greener problem, but I’m doing better in this regard.

  • You all have given me endless help with syllabi, class assignments, and a whole range of teaching activities, for which I am most grateful.

  • You’ve even helped with housekeeping and homeowner problems! (starting way back when Mel helped with our moth problem by telling me about pheromone traps, which did a real whammy on our moth population; they didn’t solve the problem altogether but have made it all very manageable—only the occasional moth to kill).

More importantly, you’ve given me the sense that the world is full of friends, some of whom I know in real life and some of whom I don’t, and of potential friends. I think that I’m a calmer, more optimistic, happier, and more confident person than I was a year ago, and that this change is a result both of the self-exploration that comes from writing my blog entries and of the community and support that come from you all in your comments, your emails, and your own blogs. In conversation with other people, I regularly refer to you all as “friends” and “colleagues,” which means that my world is a lot fuller of friends and colleagues than it was a year ago!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Monday, August 22, 2005

A romantic story

Last week New Kid included me in the five-question meme by sending me a set of questions, at my request, but I’m only now answering them because things were a little hectic last week. But after two days of hard syllabus work, not to mention knocking off a couple of administrative tasks for school, I called a halt to work for the day at 3:00 this afternoon. I went out and did some yard work for a couple of hours, because my brain felt too full of details and I needed to do a little physical labor to balance out the brain tiredness. Now I’m showered and sipping white wine, and D. has dinner on the grill, and I’ve got “Iron Chef” (my new TV interest) on TiVO, and I’m ready for a little downtime hangin’ out with the blogosphere. So I’m going to turn my attention to New Kid’s first question, which is a blog entry in and of itself:
"How did you and D. meet/get together?"

Ah yes, a good story. D. and I met in … (wait for it) … a monastery!

Well, where would you go to pick up chicks? What better spot than an Episcopal monastery?

In all seriousness, we were both there for a one-day workshop on “discernment,” which is shorthand for figuring out what the hell God is leading you to do. I have serious issues around discernment—did then, still do—and I was trying very hard to figure out whether I should take an academic job I’d been offered that just seemed completely wrong for me, whether I should keep going in academia at all, whether I should pursue the priesthood, and what I should do about the person I’d been kind of interested in romantically for a year who kept sending me mixed signals but seemed obviously never going to return my interest in any healthy way. Yeah, I had kind of a lot on my plate, and a one-day workshop was certainly not going to change any of that, but I thought that finding out what Christian tradition had to say about discernment was a place to start. Plus a priest had asked a friend and me to teach a four-week class on discernment to the 20s/30s group at our parish, so we thought we should probably figure out what we were going to say; so when we saw this one-day workshop advertised, he and I signed up and then drove up to this monastery together and had a lovely day together.

D., it turns out, was at the workshop because she also had a lot on her plate. She also was trying to decide between academia and the priesthood (and ultimately made the opposite choice from mine, obviously), and she also had some relationship sorting out to do, since she was dating someone but it clearly wasn’t going anywhere.

Not that I learned this at the time. She and I had a moment at the end of the workshop when someone in the hallway said, “Oh, you two are both grad students at LPU. Do you know each other?” Well, no, we didn’t know each other, so we chatted for a few minutes. During which time, I’ll confess, she totally annoyed me! She was way too confident, way too sure of herself, and I was quite irritated by the time we parted ways a few minutes later.

All in all, we made little impression on one another, and we both promptly forgot the other for several months.

Flash forward six months or so. We’re at a cocktail party that’s being hosted by a mutual acquaintance; it’s a diocesan LGB gathering, a bunch of gay Episcopalians getting together for drinks and appetizers. I normally didn’t go to these things, mostly because I had such a bad experience the first time I went, to a pool party that consisted almost entirely of men in their fifties with pierced nipples running around in micro-speedos. I felt completely out of my element and had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to any more of these events, but then a priest at church publically referred to me as “stra…uh…straight” and afterward explained that I’d been single so long that he’d temporarily forgotten that I was bi. I immediately had a crisis of conscience and decided that I needed to make a statement to my parish that I really wasn’t straight just because I was single, dadgumit. So I went to this LGB diocesan cocktail party (which was pretty much just a statement to myself), and, as usual, there were maybe four women at the event.

But one of those women was D., and we ended up talking for the entire evening. At the very beginning of the conversation, D. said, apropos of something or other, “I was at a discernment workshop at Such-and-Such Monastery this winter…,” at which point I interrupted her to say, “Wait, I was at that workshop also!” And then we chatted a little more and slowly the memory of our first conversation came back. (Naturally I didn’t tell her how much she had irritated me!) And then we talked for hours. Later, D. told me that her heart leapt a beat when she found out that I was an Episcopalian academic who’d taken a day to head off to a monastery for a discernment workshop and who was trying to decide on academia versus the priesthood; how much more could we have in common? My heart did not leap a beat, mostly because I had succeeded so well in turning off that part of my heart that I really didn’t have a single romantic thought at that point in my life; honestly, I distrusted attraction so much that I was unwilling to think romantically about anyone that I wasn’t already friends with. The next day at church, a couple of friends who had been at the party with me said, “You know, I think that D. was really interested in you; there was a definite sexual tension in the air,” but I replied, “Oh no, we just had a lot in common. But I would like to pursue a friendship with her.”

So when I sent her an email that Monday morning with the message, “Lovely to meet you Saturday night. Let’s get together on campus for lunch sometime and continue our conversation about monastic communities” (and no, I am not making that up), I really meant it; no coyness for me—dadgumit, I wanted to talk about monastic communities some more! But she, sly one that she was, replied to my email, “Sounds great! But my days on campus are hectic; how about dinner instead? Are you free on Friday night? Do you like [swanky expensive French restaurant]?” A friend of mine, reading this email over my shoulder, advised me, “WN, I think you need to accept the fact that this is going to be a date, not just two new friends getting together.” And he was quite right; it was definitely a date.

And the rest is history. D. and I still like to say that it was a very good omen that we first met at a monastery during a discernment workshop, even if that’s not when our relationship actually began.

Isn’t that sweet?!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

House church

Last night, we had a lovely evening at our friends’ house, all of us hanging out on the wide front porch. Another friend had also arrived to hang out with us and spend the night, so there we were, five lefty, overeducated, lesbian Episcopalians, shootin’ the breeze all evening. We had a brief discussion about what time church was the next morning and just how hot the unairconditioned building was going to be (something with which D. and I are very familiar, since our parish building is also hotter than hell). We quickly agreed that it was going to be too much of a pain for all five of us to get up and showered (in the house's single full bathroom) and breakfasted before 10:00 a.m. church, so we decided to do “house church” instead. One of the friends we were staying with this weekend is a priest, so we decided she could celebrate the Eucharist and we would do church ourselves.

So that’s what we did this morning. We sat around the dining room table with our friends’ chalice and paten, port in the former and a carefully cut-out circle of bread on the latter. Three of us lay folk read the Hebrew bible, psalm, and epistle readings (I got the last one), our priest friend read the gospel passage, D. gave us a short reflection to start off the “sermon”—in this case, a conversation about the lectionary passages—and then the priest celebrated the Eucharist and we served one another the bread and wine. We used Eucharistic prayer C, which is lovely and is the one we chose for our blessing (my two favorite lines: “At your command all things came to be: … this fragile earth, our island home” and “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal”). (Unfortunately, the people’s responses are more complicated than in the other Eucharistic prayers; one of my friends pointed this out [since none of us had Books of Common Prayer in front of us], and another friend said, “Well, that’s okay, we all have the responses memorized”; of course, as the least church-y person in the group, I actually did NOT have the responses memorized, although I knew them well enough to fake my way through it, and of course I knew the rest of the service just fine.)

What a lovely way to worship this morning! Clearly such a small community of congenial friends wouldn’t be the way to worship every week, at least as one’s primary service—mostly because it would be too easy and comfortable. Part of being a worshiping community is having to live into Christian charity with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ who are completely annoying, who disagree with one, who are different enough that we all grow and stretch by gathering around the table together (can you tell I’m thinking about tomorrow night’s vestry meeting?); plus there’s that whole radical hospitality thing to the sick and hungry and disenfranchised, and I’m not going to encounter that with my friends, who mostly share the same kinds of privilege that I do. But for one weekend, in a gathering that was essentially a temporary retreat from the world into the bosom of friendship, it was just wonderful.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Writing a book

For the past couple of summers I’ve been working on a book project. It’s on a subject I started thinking about as I was finishing my dissertation, and I even had a paragraph about it as my next-book-after-the-diss.-book in my job application letters. Of course, I then got a job that didn’t require a book for tenure, and I happily chucked my dissertation aside (having taken a few articles out of it, the last of which is now forthcoming). The dissertation had some really good cultural and literary analysis of individual texts but never hung together as a book, and it was a relief to let those individual analyses stand on their own without being cobbled together into a lame whole; we’ve all read enough of those books that should have been articles, and I didn’t want to contribute to that particular publishing phenomenon. So now I’m at work on this new book project and am trying to figure out what my own book-writing process, as opposed to the dissertation-writing process, looks like.

For the dissertation, my grad program and my director had standardized hoops for me to jump through in the form of the prospectus defense and individual chapters due to my committee at certain times. And of course my final diss. ended up looking quite different from my prospectus, which is what everyone had told me would happen and which was fine with my committee. The two hardest parts of the diss.-writing for me were (1) deciding what it all added up to, what my overall thesis was and what the big import of all my textual and cultural analysis was; and (2) how to organize my material into chapters; I ripped my chapters apart and put them back together in myriad ways for the entire process of the dissertation, and I could never tell that one way or the other made much difference, which I think is a pretty good indication that this wasn’t good book material (at least in my hands).

So now I’m on my own with this new book, no advisor or committee telling me what to do and no deadlines other than self-imposed. As I did with my diss., I’m working on a particular cultural phenomenon as depicted in literature in a certain time period. (Is that vague enough?) Because this phenomenon has had little critical attention, I’m always on the lookout for additional primary sources that deal with this phenomenon, which means that my source list is always in a state of flux. (So I’m a little jealous of books that deal with, say, the novels of an individual author, since such a project has clearer boundaries. Those are still difficult books to write, obviously, but at least the primary source list is more defined.) And I’m finding this project a fairly complicated one to imagine as a whole book, mostly because I’m dealing with so very many primary texts, some of which are big novels entirely devoted to the cultural phenomenon, some of which are short texts, some of which are nontraditional texts, some of which mention this cultural phenomenon only briefly. How do I fit all of this together into neat and seemly chapters? The way I handled it in my diss. was to discuss two texts per chapter and ruthlessly force them into some conformity, but it always felt fake, that I was placing the demands of writing a dissertation and pleasing my committee over the demands of my primary sources. And I think that was a fine decision to make in grad school, but I want to make a different decision now.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m not planning the book. Nothing like a prospectus at all, even in my head. Oh sure, every once in a while I muse about how chapters might be arranged and what it all might add up to, but for the most part I’m not worrying about the whole. What I’ve done for the last couple of summers is to write about my individual texts, sometimes briefly and sometimes extensively, depending on what seems appropriate. I’m building a collection of short scraps of writing, two pages here, ten pages there. I don’t know yet how they’re all going to fit together, and I’m fine with that. Last summer I broke this rule a little bit because I wanted to have an in-process piece as a scholarship sample for my pre-tenure review; so I put together some scraps of writing that I thought might go together eventually, created some transitions between those scraps, and eventually wound up with a fifty-page draft chapter, but I’m deliberately not doing this yet for my other writing scraps. It’s been incredibly freeing and has helped me write very productively; I think that in the past I’ve sometimes been so worried about the whole project that I can’t work very effectively on the parts of the project, if that makes sense.

My inspiration for this approach is Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird was an incredibly important book for me to read when I was writing my diss. The two most important things I got from her were (a) write "shitty first drafts," and (b) on any given day, tackle only a little piece of the big picture. (She keeps a 1” x 1” picture frame on her desk as a reminder that, at any given moment, she just needs to fill in that much of the overall picture that she’s working toward.) Even my language of “scraps” for what I’ve been writing is a way for me to relax and let my anxieties about the final product go; I essentially say to myself, “I can write really badly today, because I’m not working on a chapter; I’m just writing scraps to go into the computerized version of a shoe box.” This might sound like I’m devaluing the work I’m doing, but actually I’m lowering the bar so that I can actually do work, thus circumventing the paralysis problem I dealt with when working on my diss.

I’m also taking a lesson from my own composition classes and am realizing that I learn what I think by seeing what I write, so I’m putting aside the “big thesis” question for now and am waiting to see what burbles up when I start looking at all of these scraps together. I’ve got some ideas about what all of this might add up to in the argument department, but I’m spending very little time thinking about the question.

So then here’s the plan of action: I do this scrap-writing about primary sources for a couple of more summers. This summer I also seem to be scrap-writing for an introductory historical chapter. During the 2006-07 school year, I apply for a sabbatical the following year, which I think I will very likely get. We have the option of one semester at full-pay or one year at half-pay; given that financial picture, and knowing my own preference for working with some external structures in place (in grad school I turned down a second year of a dissertation scholarship to TA one course a term instead, and I got so much more done and was so much happier), I think I’ll choose the one semester option. During that semester, I’ll spread out all of my writing scraps and start putting the puzzle together, scrap by scrap. My goal for the end of my sabbatical term is to have an outline for the book and rough drafts for the chapters (my former isolated scraps, now happily residing with other scraps). I then start the revising project the next summer and in a couple of months have work that is polished enough to start sending out inquiry letters to publishers. So that’s the plan.

Potential problems with this plan:
  • People seem to think it’s weird, and maybe they know what they’re talking about. In my pre-tenure review “interview” with my department, I explained this process to my senior colleagues, all of whom found it very strange. They are very supportive of the book itself and think it’s going to be very publishable and a real contribution to scholarship, but they think I’m going about writing it in a very odd way. And they are senior to me, and most of them have written a book, so they probably know more than I do about how to write a book, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong about this. On the other hand, I know my own writing process; in school, when we had to turn in outlines with our papers, I always wrote the paper, revised it, and then fulfilled the assignment by writing an outline based on my already-written paper. Writing an outline beforehand has just never worked for me for shorter assignments, so it’s not strange that it doesn’t seem to work very well for me with larger projects either.

  • It makes it difficult to “pitch” the book until it’s completely written. This means that it will be pretty hard for me to apply for grants that could extend my one-semester sabbatical to a full year, since I won’t really know what the book is going to look like until I’ve actually done the work of the sabbatical.

  • I won’t be producing articles from the book until the book is mostly done. In my field, it’s standard to publish one or two articles from the book before the book publication, and in fact successful publication of those articles is one way to pitch the book to publishers by proving that there’s real interest in the material. This is the one concrete suggestion that my senior colleagues made to me about my process, and I think that they’re right that I need to think about how to pursue article publication as I continue with my scrap-writing. This is an area of my overall plan that needs more thinking.

  • Finally, I do think it’s worth my bearing in mind that this approach toward writing the book may really be an elaborate mental disguise for a lack of confidence and/or an unwillingness to buckle down and do the hard work of planning chapters and developing a thesis. My current approach is to be aware of this potential but to continue with my scrap-writing as long as it seems productive, but I’ll need to reexamine the process at least annually to make sure that I’m still working effectively toward the larger goal of the book.
Whew! Sorry for such a long post. I thought that this blog entry could be the place for this year’s examination of the process that I mentioned in that last bullet point. And I’m also really curious to hear about other people’s writing processes, so please feel free to comment and share.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The background work of my brain

D. and I were at a church party this evening that was in part about honoring the folks who spearheaded our parish’s recent capital campaign (and Lord save me from ever having to do that job). One of the honorees is a woman in her 60s who serves on the vestry with me and who was one of D.’s and my sponsors at our Holy Union blessing. In thanking everyone for the applause she’d just received, she said that it had been difficult work (and that’s an understatement—this fundraising campaign brought out some real ugliness in the parish, unfortunately) but that she only took on projects that she thought would bring her closer to God, and that this campaign had done so at every turn.

I’ve heard this woman make such statements before, but it really struck me this time. I have to confess (as I did to D. on the way home from the party) that I rarely think about what will bring me closer to God when deciding what projects to undertake, what decisions to make, etc. And here she and I are, both serving on the vestry, and while I get fed up with it at every turn, it’s bringing her closer to God.

D. repeated an observation that she’s made more than once, that our brains are always engaged in background tasks; if we ask ourselves a particular question at least once every day, the brain starts to gather information on that question automatically throughout each day. This woman from my parish clearly asks herself at least once a day how that day’s work could bring her closer to God; and, big surprise, she apparently finds answers to this question regularly.

In response to D.’s observation, I thought for a moment about what question I ask myself at least once a day, what my brain’s background work is. And here’s what I came up with: professional competence. Yes, several times a day, I assess my own and others’ professional competence as it has been or might be revealed in interactions, memos, expressed ideas, casual or formal conversation, etc. Gee, no wonder I feel competitive with other people; no wonder I’m often dismayed by others’ perceived incompetence or fretting about my own potential incompetence; no wonder I vacillate between smugness and insecurity. Ick, ick, blech.

It was kind of a shock to realize this about myself and to think about what it means for my life that this is what my brain is chugging away at in the background all the time. I don’t think it makes me a bad person, but I bet it doesn’t make me the happiest person I could be. I’m going to try to be aware of this background work and to spend some time thinking about what I’d like this background work to be instead. What daily question could my brain be asking instead that would bring me more peace than the ongoing assessment of professional competence?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

What Now? An Introduction

I discovered the world of academic blogs only last week and have spent the intervening days thinking frequently, “Now that might be a blog entry” or “I’d like to think about this some more; maybe in a blog entry?” I’m not sure why I hadn’t considered the possibility of blogging before; my partner has had a blog since December, so I’ve seen the whole writing-posting-commenting cycle up close and personal for months now. But then again, she’s significantly more techno-savvy than I (which wouldn’t be hard), and her blog is very much a part of her professional arena, so I guess it didn’t occur to me until now that this is a world into which I might venture.

But here I am now, venturing. I’ve decided to call my blog “What Now?” which, for me, includes several possibilities, queries that I’ll want to address in this blog:

Frustration: “Damn it, what now?”
Zest for life: “Fabulous, what now?”
Setting priorities: “Having done this, what now?”
Basic organization and clarification: “Wait a minute, what now?”

This is the first day of classes, a day that always includes some frustration, some zest for life, some setting of priorities, and some attempts at basic organization. So the “What Now?” blog is born today!