Friday, September 30, 2005

If at first you don't succeed...

Try, try, again. That's become the theme of my week, in terms of my dissertation and teaching.

I stalled out on Chapter Three. I just couldn't face it on Wednesday (one of my "dissertation days" in the week) so I caught up on some life stuff and a bit of teaching chores. So I'm trying to get back on the horse today so I can push through and just finish the damn thing. I swear, there must be some circuit in my brain that trips every time I'm on the verge of actually getting ahead of schedule... like I need to live on the edge just to keep motivated.

I also exchanged e-mails with my two main advisors, who are both otherwise occupied this semester with Prestigious Professor Things. Consequently, the amount of time they plan to spend on, well, me appears to be shrinking by the day. There are a few components of my dissertation that still lack comments from one or both of them. Apparently that might not happen before the defense. (!!!!) On the one hand, I believe that each component has at least been read by at least one of them, so I would know if Major Problems had been spotted. On the other hand, hello, it's October! I would have thought that giving some feedback between now and December would be possible. On the other hand, they both expressed "complete confidence in my final product" and left it at that. Since I now find myself in the position of being an anxious and somewhat frustrated supplicant, I am consoling myself with believing that all of this inattention is really shorthand for: We can't be bothered now, it's all a formality from here on out, Histgrad, you will pass. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Teaching: had a few interesting moments this week. In my USI class, a student showed up who hadn't been there for a few weeks. He wants to try to get back in the swing of the class. I explained just how much of a hole he had dug for himself (moderately deep) but suggested he could still pass with regular work from here on out. I almost said, "Why don't you save us both some time and drop the class now?" when I learned that not only had he bought the wrong books (volume II of both the textbook and reader, which are the books for my USII class) but he read the assignment in the reader for class. So when the syllabus said "Boston Massacre/American Revolution" and he read all about the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 and US Imperialism, he didn't see any disconnect, until I put up the reading quiz questions and then he knew he'd read the wrong thing. Oy. Another student asked if colonial America was the time "when we had all those Presidents, you know, like Jefferson."

On Tuesday my Women's History students were supposed to debate the ERA in the 1920s. Lesson learned: they can't figure this out without significant guidance. In the past, it's always been a random student or two who can't figure out their side of the debate, so this year I told them to be very certain they understood their side, and to come and see me if they're confused. So Tuesday we attempt to start the debate and I realize that at least 50% of the students had completely prepared the "wrong" side, and even wrote speeches with the wrong evidence! So, thinking on my feet, I opted to postpone until Thursday, came up with something to do on Tuesday, and gave them a lot more background and context. Final result: Thursday we had an excellent debate and I was impressed by how thoughtful they were about the issue. So I think it is a good exercise but needs much more hand-holding beforehand.

Okay, my horse has arrived. Time to get back on it.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Angst: Histgrad, Chapter Revisions, and the Difficulty of Composing Titles

Chapter Three? Not so much.

Very random MST 3K quote: "Slow the plot down! Slow the plot down!"... which is how I'm feeling about Chapter Three. Prior to this chapter, I was happily speeding along, a chapter per full day of work or so... until now. This one is going to take a wee bit more work. After I stopped freaking out, it really doesn't look so bad, but it is the kind of work whereupon I have to get a book from the library, skim it, and incorporate it. Hopefully it will be easy to insert this author's perspective without having to redo entire sections... a few pages at most. But still, it'll take a while. My new goal is to have it in good shape by the time I head back to teach on Monday.

Some other random thoughts about writing and revising:

Chapter Fatigue: Sometimes I think it's a wonder that I ever managed to finish these chapters in the first place, since by the end of each one, I was so amazingly tired of them and almost couldn't bear to read through them one more time, to put in a few more edits, etc. Now I'm returning to these chapters, some of them having been finished YEARS in the past. So, I figured my fatigue would have worn off and they would seem new and fresh when I went back to revise them. Unfortunately not. Like some toxin, I've become quite sensitized to my own chapters and my own writing, and now I think the elapsed time from First (Re)View to Chapter Fatigue has got to be under eight hours. Good thing most of them are in good shape, or I have no idea what I'd do. Ugh. How do you keep yourself working when you're so sick of it all??

Things I Suck At: Thinking of Titles. None of my chapters have official titles. When I e-mailed them to my advisors they were just titled Histgrad Chapter One, etc. In my computer they had their own names, such as "This is IT," "Onward and Upward," "Keep Going," and "Almost There." Obviously not suitable for the Official Dissertation. I try so hard to resist the traditional title format (which, of course, I succumbed to for the title of the whole dissertation), you know, the ubiquitous colon format... Snappy Little Phrase: Long explanation, Usually With Commas, That Describes the Subject and Argument of the Chapter in a Perfectly Compact Way. Historians also love the related version of this which is "Long Quote Before Colon:" followed by the description of the chapter. I'm not a fan of the quotation as part of the title, partially because figuring out the punctuation is a nightmare, especially when citing someone else's. I always admire folks who can name chapters or books without resorting to the colon. But I digress. Long story short: every chapter needs a title and that's going to cause me (and/or my husband) some angst.

In the end, that's the theme of the day. I kind of like's definition: "an acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety; usually reserved for philosophical anxiety about the world or about personal freedom."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Chapter Two: Check.

Again, wow, that was easy. I entered a few minor changes suggested by my advisor, and it's practically finished. I've got two small bits of information to track down, but they're footnote fodder, so they're not part of any Substantive Thinking that needs to happen. So I'm calling it completed. Which is a good thing, because the temperature in my study/sunroom is above 80 degrees at the moment, and I think my brain is starting to melt.

I've got a few hours left before doing some evening errands. My husband finally Saw The Light and agrees with me that our 19 inch TV is a bit, well, small. Our living room is long and narrow, so we literally have to move the furniture every time we watch TV, or else get up and run towards it, hoping to be able to see the football play before it is over.... So we're going to see how cheaply Costco will sell us something a wee bit bigger. Nothing fancy at all. I don't have the energy to decode all those terms like HD, plasma, blah, blah, nor do I want to pay for them...just something larger will do for now.

So I'm going to use my few spare hours to revise a lecture I'm giving tomorrow on business and labor in the 1920s, just so I won't have to subject myself to the same internal monologue when I'm giving it: "Are you giving this same crappy lecture again? Seriously? Because it makes no sense whatsoever and, really, you don't know much about labor, do you?" I always have something of an ulterior motive, which is to marshall historical evidence to demonstrate to students that Unions Are Good, so perhaps I'd better actually make some sense!

Onward to Chapter Three! I'm currently ahead of schedule, which is so unprecedented as to make me slightly nervous... hopefully staying ahead of schedule will allow me to share the whole draft with friends before the defense. And stay sane. Sanity is good.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Guilty Pleasures

Thanks to Community College Dean for a fun post about guilty pleasures -- he asks, "what are your guilty pleasures, and what’s the term for the opposite of a guilty pleasure (something you’re supposed to like, but don’t)?"

Here are mine:

Stuff I’m supposed to like, but don’t: Foreign films (I want to watch a movie, not read it...wait, didn't Joey from Friends make this same argument?), all types of mushrooms (eeew... must be the texture), Serious Novels, cartoons from the New Yorker (I just don't get them, and then I feel like a small town hick), eating lamb (only one person has ever cooked lamb that I liked, so perhaps I should just admit defeat), jazz (can't think of a good excuse here...just don't like it), gazpacho (what is it? soup or runny salsa? In which case, soup should be hot and salsa should come with chips), seriously dark chocolate (give me the sweet Euro milk chocolate any day) and any fish that has white flesh (I'll eat "pink" fish like salmon or tuna, whereas fish sticks make my skin crawl.)

Stuff I like, but I’m not supposed to: Friends (now that I've mentioned it), 90210 reruns, Kraft macaroni and cheese that comes from the box and is all fake yellow and yummy, trashy mystery novels, that song by Hanson "Mmmm....bop" (great for exercising), Diet Mountain Dew (all natural!), Dairy Queen (I know, Big Corporate Franchise and all that, but it's soooo good.), Manwich (such a good, quick dinner), any sugared cereal made by humankind (Cookie Crisp, Apple Jacks, Cap'n Crunch, Lucky Charms...all my good, good friends), anything with a fake strawberry or banana taste, and that white frosting on a grocery store cake that you know is pure Crisco, but oh, so good.

I guess most of my guilty pleasures are food. And no, I'm not 300 pounds, if you were wondering. See previous posts about exercising to verify that fact.

Confess away, readers! (this means you, too, lurkers....)


How do you reward yourself as you work?

I'm big on both small and large rewards. Delayed gratification is one theory I regularly apply. If I grade five more quizzes, I'll have dessert and watch the Daily Show. After I make it through my Monday/Tuesday gauntlet, I get to sit and enjoy the new Onion and "Savage Love." There are many things -- walks to get ice cream, a nap, taking 20 minutes to finish my current mystery novel, etc. Of course, I rarely just DO these things without attaching them to some minor achievement (guilt being the raison d'etre of a grad student, of course -- I have to really deserve a break before taking one!)

I've also used somewhat larger rewards to mark the completion of each chapter. A nice pair of shoes, kitchen appliances (ice cream maker! sensing a theme? and having a dishwasher installed, something that I love more than someone should love a material object), and a vacation. I've still got a Chapter Five completion reward sitting out there... I'm thinking of something made by LeCreuset. Things that are somewhat "frivolous" but are also ways to pamper myself for all the hard work.

Chapter One: Check.

For once, that was easy. I entered my advisors' suggested typographical changes, slightly edited the conclusion to the chapter, entered a few other random bits, and it's finished! Onward to Chapter Two!

Who knows if the rest of them will be this easy... my memory is that I don't have any Major Revisions to do, which I guess is a good reason why chapters sent to advisors should be in good shape in the first place -- or -- it says that my advisors are not trying to stand in my way by making suggestions that would take months to implement. Either way, I'm happy. We're all on the same Histgrad-Will-Finish page.

So... just to help me get up the courage to open another chapter (this revision process is an exercise in adrenaline production) I'll look at a few of the comments first. Okay, this isn't so bad... "Bravo! A wonderful chapter that needs only a few changes. Nicely argued and written with great evidence." "Real control over your evidence..." "... Central set of ideas holding everything together." "Excellent."

Okay, breathing better now. It seems like the main critique was that I over-stated my evidence in places, which kind of surprises me, since I would guess I'm more likely to be somewhat of a timid historian. [see that previous sentence?? how many times did I qualify what I said?] But that's okay, I can go back in and soften my argument. No problem.

Sunday, September 18, 2005


No, no success yet on Chapter One (although my advisors' suggested revisions were so minor I should have it finished by tomorrow). Rather, I just found something after searching and searching for it! I can get very obsessed about finding something... even though I claimed I don't have ADD in a previous post, my office does look pretty messy. I always say there is a method to my madness, but the past two days have tested that theory.

In September of '03, I attended my good friend's dissertation defense. A side benefit for me (besides attending the party afterwards, of course!) was that I took some notes. Part of the notes were for her benefit because, after all, who remembers what is said in moments like that? But part of the notes were for my benefit, as I noted what kinds of questions the advisors asked. (we share 2/3 of the same committee members, and the same chair.) I figured that all academics are somewhat creatures of habit, and they'll likely approach my defense with some of the same questions. It just felt like a little security blanket for me, something that gives me some sort of an idea of what I'm getting into.

Well, part of the process of getting ready to revise the Whole Thing was pulling out jumbled papers that include thoughts and notes and others' comments... but the defense notes were not among them! Yikes! So I looked and looked and looked yesterday, but no luck. I took the notes before we moved to our new house, so that always involves another level of thinking, "Well, in the apartment it would have been there... so where is that stuff now?"

This morning I realized I'd have to become my own historian and discover what I was working on at the time. So I had to face what I thought would be a depressing investigation: what chapter was I working on at the time, and how long was I working on it? Pretty interesting findings, I must say. Chapter One took way too long to finish, but was finished in April of 2003. (which was during my first year of full-time teaching!). Chapter Two was finished a year after that, in April 2004. That's my biggest chapter and drew from an enormous amount of documents, so it sure did take a while. Chapter Three was finished in September 2004, which means it took 6 months. Chapter Four was finished in February 2005, which was also a 6 month process. Chapter Five (perhaps known as the Epilogue) was finished in mid-April 2005... a shocking 2.5 month process! Sure, Chapter Five was probably half the length of other chapters, but still... a good lesson in how momentum works. And how you just want to Get. It. Done.

Anyway...long story short, since I was working on Chapter Two at the time the aforesaid notes went missing, I concentrated my search there and found them in a folder labeled "Chapter Two Debris." hallelujah! I'm very relieved. When I do finish the written revisions I can begin to give some thought to the general questions they'll likely ask. For me, personally, defending something in an oral argument situation (our doctoral exams were 100% oral, nothing written, hence terrifying for me) has always freaked me out, so it's good to have some sense of how one worked. Knowledge is power.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A Serious Question

Okay, really, where do all the odd socks go?? I'm taking a "break" from grading (only an academic would think this constitutes a break) to clean out the floor of my closet, which at this point is a graveyard of jumbled black shoes. Okay, so I have a problem.

But nonetheless, I hauled out an entire pile of mismatched socks that I've been throwing in there for months. Most of them will still lack their partners. I know they're not in the washer. Nor the dryer. Nor anywhere en route between the basement and the dresser. What happens to them?? Is there some black hole in the universe into which particularly bad (or good?) socks go? Are my feet so awful? Why do they leave me?

Good News, Bad News, and Tuning Out

The Good News: I did it!!!! I just e-mailed off the introduction, which I'm pretty pleased with, in the end. Nice to feel that much closer to the end.

The Bad News: Yikes! Time to dive into the dissertation as a whole and first up: Chapter One revisions. I'm already behind Plan A Schedule (which, while tight, still meets my Advisor's revised timeline) so I've got to knock out this puppy this weekend to avoid stress down the road. So much for a brief celebratory respite after finishing the intro. With that said, I will make time tonight for a vanilla malt and some Daily Show taped earlier this week.

The Good News: My advisors (bless their hearts, as my mother would say) left really encouraging comments on the front page of Chapter 1, which gives me the courage to open it up and forge ahead. Some excerpts: "This is quite wonderful -- at once authoritative and lively. [which I confess is my all-time favorite compliment] Congratulations!" "Little room for improvement." "No writing problems." "Off to a good start." Etc. After getting these comments, lo' those many years ago, I really felt energized and ready to keep working on Chapter Two. So I've vowed if I ever supervise anyone who is working on a years-long project, that I will be Super Supportive in the early stages (i.e. don't drop the hammer at the beginning, even if merited) since getting momentum going is key.

The Bad News: the negative voices in my head are out in force at moments like this.

So... I'll just have to turn off those voices in my head. Every time I turn something in, I think something like, "Wow, what is it, mid-September? And when should this have been finished, why, yes, mid-June! And here it is, mid-September." But, I vow to you, I'm not listening to this voice today! (insert fingers in ears and yell "lalalalalalalalalaala.....")

I'm also turning off the voices in my head that will be slightly disappointed at the pace at which this entire thing in, my advisor's comments on Chapter 1 are dated April 14, 2003. I won't even depress myself further by beginning to count how many years it took me to get from prospectus to Chapter 1.

Water under the bridge. Lalalalalalalala....

p.s. My cat, who is nicknamed Varmint, spilled a half-empty can of coconut milk last night, which happened when she was (of course) up on the counter looking for food. Later I found her prospecting in the garbage and eating the papertowels we used to wipe up the coconut milk!!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Whisper, whisper, giggle, giggle

Perhaps I should feel glad that I managed to make it four weeks into the semester before the chit-chatting students reared their ugly heads. I teach "large" (to me, anyway) classes of around 40 people. Apparently the folks sitting in the back and along the sides believe they've developed some special powers that allow them to be invisible, and consequently, I surely can't see that they're whispering to each other, giggling, and/or writing notes in each other's notebooks.

These are first year college students, so many of them are traditional college age (community colleges are full of 19-22 year olds these days because of students' financial constraints) so many of them haven't yet adjusted to how a college classroom works. But part of me says that's just an excuse -- isn't polite and respectful behavior something they should exhibit regardless of the location? So I've recently been pondering how to deal with this issue. (Thanks to New Kid on the Hallway for a great post about the Packer-Uppers.)

I've found that the chatters fall into two groups: 1) good students who are talkative during class discussion but just don't sit still and concentrate during lecture. So I'd hate to totally alienate them and embarrass them by making a big fuss and throwing them out of the room. With these folks, 95% of the time it works when I take them aside after class, explain the impact of their behavior, and ask that they stop it. They're good kids, and they listen. If they stray during the semester, giving them the Evil Eye during lecture usually brings them back into the fold, or I'll have another conversation after class. Group 2 is composed of students who only attend because they have to. I know they are not doing the reading because they habitually fail reading quizzes. They are not taking notes. They're just punching the time clock because attendance is required. They chat to pass the time and because they are not engaged in the class. The Evil Eye is only a temporary fix.

[A good friend of mine from graduate school adds an excellent twist to the Evil Eye. Not only is she unafraid to throw them out, she'll stop lecturing and say in a very loud voice, "Bob! I notice you're talking. I assume you have something to tell us about the economic crisis of the 1890s. Can you share it with the class?" She says it works like a charm. ]

Since this is a perennial problem, I make a big deal out of it during the first day of class and I threaten to kick them out of class for the day and not count their attendance. Since I require attendance, I have pretty close to 100% of the students there each day, so obviously they care about getting attendance points. The problem is: I'm not sure I have the guts to go through with it. I'm sure this comes back to some deeper psychological issue for me... fear of making a fuss, fear of being labeled a "bitch," etc. I also feel partially paralyzed by the issue... I feel sort of stunned that anyone is behaving this way in the first place! And, of course, by not following through on my threat I risk losing credibility.

In the past I've usually relied upon the combination I mentioned above (personal conversations + the Evil Eye) and that has generally solved the problem. But maybe I'm just short of patience this semester, but today I resolved to cut off the behavior at the pass instead of making individual interventions. But since I'm not likely to go through with my stated plan of throwing them out (unless, of course, they were really disruptive... even though I'm a Midwesterner, I do have my limits!), I realized I should come up with something else that felt more natural to me.

So today I tried something new. I told them that I had two announcements. One was that I was generally impressed with the class and their work thus far (true), and two, that I was becoming increasingly frustrated with a small minority of chatters, most of whom I'd spoken to on Tuesday either during or after class. [The timing could not have been more perfect, since in mid-speech the worst offenders of the Group 2 chatters were talking away... so I stopped talking, pointed at them, and said "THAT is what I'm talking about."] So I explained that while I still intended to enforce my throw-you-out policy, I realized that throwing them out would solve the problem for me, but not solve the larger problem for them, which is that they're not taking good notes during lectures and are putting themselves at risk for failing the class. So instead of throwing them out, I will now be coming to class every day with a paper assignment based on the lecture topic for that day (I worked up a generic topic I can use for every lecture, printed out a bunch of them, and waved them around as I talked.) I explained that chit-chatters would be given the required paper assignment, due next class. So hopefully this was a savvy way to revise my original policy in the guise of a larger pedagogical goal.

I think it worked! The usual chatters were silent. More notes were taken. And my semi-hard-ass routine didn't squelch the others, who asked more questions than usual today. So we'll see how it plays over the long haul... I vow to enforce this policy by actually handing out the paper assignment if needed.

A related tangent: in the past, this issue prompted me to learn another Fundamental Law (see previous post) about teaching. This is a lesson I learned last spring, namely: Don't Make Assumptions, although, of course, this post is full of them. Anyway, I had a student (we'll call her Debby) who was in both my USII class and my Women's History class. In Women's History, she sat near the front and was an A student. Prepared, respectful, engaged. In USII, she ignored most of what happened, and clearly wasn't engaged. She did enough reading to put herself in the B range, but she clearly was capable of more. In USII she sat in the very back row, next to a guy (we'll call him Andy.) I couldn't tell if they were girlfriend/boyfriend, or just friends. Well, I assumed that he was being a bad influence on her, and that she was altering her usual behavior to somehow please him. He was a similar student -- earning a B but could have been doing better, and he also gave the impression that he was not engaged.

One day (on which Debby was wearing bright yellow silky lingerie -- another rant from my past!) I lost my patience. She sat in the back row with her face in a book (granted, it was the book from my women's history class and she was doing the reading assignment, but still -- rude.). And he was sitting there, giving me what I perceived to be hostile body language (you know the pose, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, etc), as he listened to the lectures without taking notes. I was talking about something horrible like prisoners of war or genocide and they started to laugh. I interrupted class to find out what was so funny, and that shut them up.

So I pulled them aside after class and said, "Frankly, I'm not sure why either of you bother to come to class. Clearly you are not engaged in the class. You don't take notes. You don't regularly do the reading, and today you sat there and read a book from another course. That's going to have to stop." I figured she'd be meek and embarrassed about her behavior, and that I'd get attitude from him. Just the reverse!

She immediately went on the defensive and said the only reason she came to class was "for the attendance points" and that it wasn't any of "my business" if she wanted to sit there and read something else because "she's paying for this." Once I emerged from the shock these statements caused, I explained that it was simple respect that she pay attention in class and she would have to exhibit respect or be asked to leave.

He, on the other hand, apologized profusely, admitted their laughter was inappropriate but explained why (something to do with his father still being in 60s protest mode, so while it was still inappropriate, it made something close to sense), and said that he really felt awful about how I'd mis-read him, and that he loves the class and thought we had a really nice repoire going. You could have knocked me over! A few hours later he sent an e-mail to apologize again, and told me that he would hate for me to assume that he's only attending class for the attendance points. So after that I called on him more often, he became more engaged, and he still keeps in touch via e-mail. For example, he sent me an e-mail this summer about the revelation of Deep Throat's identity.

So while I'm now on the offensive against the chatters, I try to remember that behind (almost) every chatter is someone who really wants to be a good student.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Fundamental Laws

Right now I'm facing one of those marooned hours...just enough time to feel like I should really do something productive before yoga class, but I'm wiped and just can't seem to gather the willpower to fix some footnotes or grade some quizzes. Seems like a great time to blog, after I've killed some time at the Onion, of course. The weekly Monday-Tuesday punch has done me in. I teach a Monday night class, which is supposed to last from 6:30 to 10. Insane.

So that means a pretty late night on Monday and a quick turnaround before Tuesday morning's two classes. And the commute last night was rough... due to a light drizzle. The roads were all wet and shiny, SUV lights glared in my mirrors (when I run the world, you'll need a permit and good reason to drive one of those), and my damn windshield was, as usual, covered in some film that made it impossible to see. In dry weather, it appears crystal clear. Get it slightly wet and it looks all cloudy and opaque in spots. I drove slowly and kept my eye on the yellow line at the side of the road, and thankfully made it home. I came in the back door and started to cry. Now, I know I really should love my Reliable and Fuel Efficient Small Japanese Car, but it's always had some sort of windshield poltergeist that makes for crappy visibility in rainy weather, and the thing handles like a watermelon. And do you really want to be driving the same silver colored car that everyone else is? I swear that I'm either stuck in that scene from Office Space or trying to get into someone else's car in the parking lot.

So today I wandered into the auto parts store after work and bought the most expensive wipers in the place. Seemed like a good place to start, since one really should be able to operate one's motor vehicle in the rain. I bought a pair made by Bosch. I dunno. I figure since they make fantastic dishwashers they might make good windshield wipers (?). Tomorrow I will attempt to install said wipers and then clean the windshield but good.

Besides my griping, I've also been giving some thought to teaching and time management. It's a fundamental law of Physics (or some science-y) discipline that gases expand to fill the space available. I propose that this is also a fundamental law of teaching. On the positive side, this means that teaching is a profession that is endlessly new -- each day is a new challenge that you could prepare and prepare for, and then revise and revise after the fact. How could I teach this better? How could I design something that would reach this particular group of students in a more effective way? Am I really giving this same old crappy lecture again? Would taking the time to cue up a 4 minute film clip really make the point? I'm guessing that most teachers could think of a few things they'd really like to improve if time were not an issue.

The negative side of this fundamental law is that the expanding gas of teaching could be suffocating! How do you preserve your personal life, your family life, your physical and mental health in the face of a job that could be never-ending? And, more importantly, how do you find time to Be a Scholar? Scholarship for me requires taking off the teacher hat (let's hope my dissertation isn't written in the same lingo I use to boil down complicated historical concepts for my first year college students) and putting on the scholar hat. It involves engaging in a different discussion with a different audience. And it requires, quite simply, TIME.

After I came up for air -- which happened at some point in the second semester of my first year of teaching a 4-4 load -- I realized that, for me, teaching would always expand to fill the space available. And if I intended to make any progress on my dissertation, I was just going to have to shrink that time. So for years I've been shrinking and shrinking the time I spend on teaching. I believe that that quality of the output remains high since I made an initial investment in time before I put things In the Can. But it sure makes for some stressful mornings. I'll get up, work on my dissertation for an hour or so, then head for campus -- carefully calibrating to arrive an hour before class or so. And voila! I've got to prepare for class in that hour. Sometimes it's no problem, sometimes it's super stressful, and sometimes things just don't get done. But at least I worked on my dissertation.

And the only other Fundamental Law I can think of right now is that we should never, ever, assume we have any initial understanding of what our students do and don't know. This week my students in the night class were comparing statistics from the Virginia/Chesapeake Bay colonies and the Massachusetts Bay colonies. I asked them to work in small groups and focus on a few sets of statistics so we could develop a picture of the North vs. the South during this period. There was some confusion before I realized that some students didn't understand that Virginia is in the south and Massachusetts is in the north. Wow.

What are your fundamental laws?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Definitely an oncoming train.

I just got one of those e-mails that makes any self-respecting grad student want to curl up in the fetal position. Or run around the house screaming in panic. I haven't decided yet.

In a previous post I detailed my "plan of attack" for turning in my dissertation on time. My advisor said I needed to send a copy of the whole thing to my committee by November 18. So with that in mind, I made a schedule. I felt that the schedule I'd made for myself was just about right... not too tight, but also just stressful enough so that it would keep my feet to the fire. Be calm, I told myself. Be calm. You've got just enough time.

So sitting in my in-box today, innocuously titled "Schedule Update," was an e-mail from my advisor, who had apparently just been reminded by another committee member that November 18 is the deadline for the whole committee to receive the copy, but that my advisor/chair needs to read the whole thing first, just to be sure I should be going forward with the defense. So when is that due?? Two to three weeks EARLIER!


I told her that I'd just have to do my best. Since I've never revised a dissertation before, I have no earthly idea how long it is supposed to take! And frankly, I have never, ever, in the whole entire process of writing this dissertation met any of my self-imposed deadlines. Since this is the first time I'm coming up against an Actual Deadline, I'm a bit freaked out. Just a smidge. There's a first time for everything, right?

I just hate the feeling of sprinting to the finish... I always imagined that I'd leisurely stroll into my defense, feeling rested and ready. I guess the "break" between November 1 and December 15 will give me some time to marshall my forces, but still. I'm just way too old to pull anything akin to an all-nighter. And I do have a full-time job. I've got three classes. 120 students. I'm Department Chair.

Ugh. Enough complaining. Back to the salt mines.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Attention Deficit Disorder -- another name for Dissertation Deficit Disorder?

Those of you who know my 72 year old father will find this not-at-all surprising: he's recently been diagnosed with ADD and is taking Ritalin! File this under: I coulda told you that! The man is the opposite of a couch potato (good, in that he's not overweight) but he simply could not sit still, or concentrate on any one task for a long period of time. Big projects went unfinished. His attention span for any movie was seriously 15 minutes, tops. He'd watch the movie, fidget a bit, talk (loudly) to his cats, try to discuss the movie with his family members, and then give up and leave the room. (That's for rented movies at least, I thankfully haven't been subjected to his behavior at a movie theater, but I think there he manages to rise to the occasion.) Somehow he got a bee in his bonnet about Adult ADD, went through an extensive diagnosis procedure, and is now fine-tuning his Ritalin dose. [I told him he would make a fortune if he went down to the campus of Local University and sold it to desperate students during finals week.] So far it seems to be having a positive effect -- he has more energy, is more focused, and is completing projects left and right.

In some ways, this is inspiring. You're never too old to try something new, to try to make an improvement in your life. But gradually I've started to wonder: since ADD is inherited, what does that say about me?? The Doctor told my mother that, yes, it can be inherited, but that girls ("especially those who are bright") are skilled at overcoming the situation and compensating for any ADD tendencies. So did I inherit it? Have I merely been "compensating" all these years?

So lately I've been viewing my fidgeting, my daydreaming, my dissertation avoiding with a new and anxious eye. Is there some biochemical reason I just can't make myself concentrate sometimes?? Oh, were it that simple. In the end, I don't really think I have ADD. I'm pretty organized. Even though parts of my life/office are sloppy, I know where things are. I finish projects. I certainly have no problems sitting for hours on end watching even the most mundane television show. And I have managed to write hundreds of pages based on thousands of (well-organized) documents. But wouldn't it be nice to take a magic pill that would enable me to sit and intensely focus on dissertation-related projects?

This is not to suggest, of course, that I don't believe that ADD exists and that, for some, Ritalin truly is a "magic bullet." I've seen it with my own eyes. If only someone could prescribe Dissertationin for me... but I guess that's something I'll have to find on my own, huh?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The light at the end of the tunnel? Or just an oncoming train?

Well, folks, I can finally see a light approaching. I don't yet know whether it is friend or foe... I've finally, hopefully, maybe, nailed down a date for my dissertation defense: December 15. Because my advisors are away on leave this year, they are only available on specific dates during semester break. So December 15 it is. That falls during my finals week, so the timing is certainly not spectacular, but you gotta do what you gotta do. All that's left is to double-confirm the date, double-confirm all advisor attendance, find a room, buy a plane ticket, file the relevant paperwork, find an outside observer, and, oh yeah, one small detail: FINISH MY WHOLE DISSERTATION!!!!

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.

T minus Defense = 99 Days
T minus due date to advisor=72 Days
T minus personal drop-dead due date = 55 Days

Yikes. All those numbers are under 100.

But I think I can do it. Hell, I guess I'll just have to do it. That's approximately seven weeks of major work. I've got about seven major projects/revisions. So that means one big project per week. If I stray too far from that schedule, I'll know I'm in trouble.

Along those lines, I made some strides in finishing the never-ending, languishing introduction today. I incorporated Husband's edits, so Friday (another non-teaching day for me) will be for ye olde padding the footnotes, i.e. picking up a number of books that I Really Should Demonstrate I Read and deciding whether they'll be part of the text, or shoved in the footnotes. The weekend for revising said footnotes, and voila?

Keep that encouragement coming. I'm gonna need it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


No comment necessary. Check out what Barbara Bush had to say on Marketplace:

In a segment at the top of the show on the surge of evacuees to the Texas city, Barbara Bush said: "almost everyone I've talked to says we're going to move to Houston."Then she added: "What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."

(from Editor and Publisher via Daily Kos)

Friday, September 02, 2005


A few rants on a Friday morning.

First of all: what is up with the lingerie, people?? My friends will agree that I'm certainly not a prude, and I'm the first one to throw on a tiny tank top in hot weather, but I don't wear such items (much less a lace trimmed lingerie-ish top) TO WORK OR SCHOOL. Apparently these students didn't get the memo from the New York Times Style Section a while back about how "demure is in." Yesterday I literally could not avert my eyes from a student in my WOMEN'S HISTORY class who was wearing a very low cut tank top that was trimmed with an inch-wide band of shiny silver SEQUINS that were literally like the flash bulb of a camera. "Sequins" really isn't the right word for these things because they seemed to be some supernatural event, some self-powered item that could emit a bright stream of light, which said, "Look! Look here!!!!" (I always start to laugh when I think of the Onion headline: Nation's Co-Eds Prepare Breasts for Springtime Display.)

Onto more serious matters: Katrina.

Words are, of course, inadequate to express my horror and sadness over the numerous heartbreaking stories I've heard over the past few days -- from the large to the small, from lost lives, to pets who were left behind, to a man in his 50s who lost the journals he'd kept every day of his life since he was 10 years old. But I do find that words are adequate to express my anger over how this whole nightmare had been handled, and my anger with the folks (read: Bush Administration) whose inaction and ill-preparedness has left my country looking like some far-away war zone or famine. Bush said "no one" could have predicted the break in the levees? No one?? Really, George??

The NYT has published blistering editorials. Daily Kos has numerous examples of how money (and National Guard troops and equipment) were diverted from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers to fund the war in Iraq and to give some rich fuck a tax cut. But then an excellent, eloquent rant about this whole situation (and how the media is covering it) arrived in my e-mail in-box this morning.

Here's my friend's rant:

I think I have massive guilt about being kind of perversely fascinated by the storm, like wanting to see a huge train wreck, and then I ACTUALLY saw the train wreck and now I'm like "I take it back I take it back I take it back..."

Plus I witnessed an exchange between Al Sharpton and Fucker Carlson last night that made me want to vomit. Everyone is a racist pig. Sharpton was like "I'm going down to minister to people and to lead a clothing drive," and Fucker is like "well, good for you [his actual words, totally condescending] but are you ALSO going to condemn all the violence and rape and murder?" and I was so angry, like this pudgy white fuck felt that it was Sharpton's job to say rape and murder are wrong. Fucker would NEVER have asked anyone else that question. Everyone condemns rape and murder. The victims are FUCKING BLACK, you motherfucker, why *wouldn't* he condemn it? To expect Sharpton to have to answer for every bad thing a black person does, and NOT give him credit for All of the Good he and others do ... it's so fucking nakedly racist I want to spit. All these fucking white people sitting around congratulating each other on their fine coverage of events, their daring, their generosity, etc. NOBODY FUCKING CARES, you are useless, people are dying slow, horrible, ignominious deaths right in front of your eyes -- it's a ratings bonanza! I have never seen such slo-mo suffering on such a scale. And this exact shit happens in Africa all the time, right now, where thousands of (black) people suffer the worst treatment / conditions at the hands of a well-armed evil few, and we don't do anything, nothing, because oooh, they're shooting at us. If only those blacks could behave themselves, we'd help. Well, guess what, they're EXPLODING us in Iraq, and we are in THERE fighting, so... We hate blacks and cannot get motivated to behave decently, mercifully where they are concerned because we blame them for being stupid and criminal and bringing it on themselves because if we let our conscience flicker for a second, if we take any kind of broad historical view of how things got to this point ... we would be so crippled by guilt that we would cease to function as a country. So fuck 'em. Thin the herd. Eliminate hundreds if not thousands from the gene pool and welfare rolls (mmm, welfare rolls). I'm sure there's secret glee in some conservative quarters (well, if it weren't for the crippling of our economy which is beginning now and will follow for years to come, thanks). It's nice to see Homeland Security was so well prepared for this event.

Plus some asshole was on last night commenting on the "lawlessness," talking about "this is what happens when you take God out of the schools..."