$pou$e -> spouse

Sorry for the two-week long interlude, but the spouse was laid off, and we’ve been figuring out how to cope.  It came as a total shock, which of course seems silly, given that everyone’s neck is on the chopping block these days.  But we were feeling pretty secure; even when I lost the fellowship that I had been counting on, we were in good shape.  Now we’re in decent shape–like a 40-year old dude who plays tennis once a week–but things are a bit trickier.  Budget-watching, belt-tightening, all of that.  I’ve been thrown two weeks off-schedule for dissertation writing (okay, okay, I was already running behind…), and I no longer have the entire house to myself during the day.  So things are more complicated in day-to-day life.

But this has also given me reason to think more deeply about my academic future, and it’s clarified the picture somewhat.  For a while , I was beginning to think that we could stay on this same path and do just fine: my spouse would work full-time, and I would be an adjunct and part-time writer while taking care of the house and future kids.  The shitstorm that hit us two weeks ago has reminded me of the instability of real jobs like my spouse’s, and the reasons for our original plan — me as secure tenured professor, spouse as home-based professional.  Of course, this will be difficult, perhaps — probably? — even impossible.  We may have to accustom ourselves to instability, with both of us working on at “at-will” basis (as in: at the will of the boss-man).  I don’t particularly like that vision of the future.  On the other hand, it does mean that we get to stay in our house (assuming that we can find sufficient work), around the neighbors that we like and close to the family that we love (and the family that we don’t mind that much on occasion).  But in any case, we’re going to need to make a decision pretty soon: shoot for the job security of tenure-track that requires moving to new places, or stay close to home and get used to job instability?  I’m not particularly sure I like making this choice, but it’s one that has to be made, I think.

How to Stop Your Left Arm from Twitching

Last night, while working on a book review that I had promised the editor 41 days ago, my left arm started twitching.  And it wouldn’t stop.  I’ve had twitches/spasms before, but they usually give up after a while.  This one, though would not quit.  And it was violent, too–like, all of the muscles in my upper left arm were trying to break out of my skin.  I found this excessively irritating and distracting, because I was trying to write this damned book review.  So I tried clenching my fist, slapping my arm, shaking my arm.  Nothing worked.  I gave up and tried to finish the book review, but didn’t, and went to bed.  Then I got up today, started writing the book review, and the twitch came back.  Was it some sort of punishment for having procrastinated?  A manifestation of stress, which, according to the interwebs, causes twitches?  I don’t know.  I know that the twitching didn’t stop when I (finally) sent the review off, at least not immediately.  But I though there might be something to the stress bit, because I’ve been juggling too much shit for my little brain to keep track of: dissertation, book review, article revisions, job applications, current teaching gig, remodeling the upstairs of our house.  So I decided to get away from the house and from the office.  I piled up all the stuff I’ve been meaning to read–back issues of The Nation, journals that have piled in my “do.” box, and that William Sewell book, Logics of History, which I’ve read before but been wanting to go back to–and headed off to a coffee shop, where I sat my ass down in a comfy sofa and just read for a few hours.  Twitch gone.  Mental state slightly better.  Work load roughly the same, but the way I figure it, that’s never really going to change.  I’ll finish one thing, take on another, and it’ll all even out.  I’ve long had the theory that every person has a certain level of stress that she will find a way to meet, no matter the time in that person’s life.  I’m sure I was freaking out about spelling tests when I was 10 as much as I’m freaking out about my dissertation now.  In any case, today was a valuable lesson for me.  Every now and then, get thee the hell away from the places that mean work and deadlines and responsibilities.  And maybe that twitch will go away.

Oh, NO! Something I Haven’t Done Before! The HORROR!

It seems that in every class, there’s at least one student who gets freaked out by the fact that they’ve never done “this”–read a lot of books, write a research paper, whatever–before.  It’s not just worry or anxiety, but real frustration and anger.  Having reviewed the syllabus, the student will say something along the lines of “I’m really worried about how I’ll do all of this work,” which actually means, “Tell me how to get an A, right now, or you’re an asshole.”  I understand this, to some degree.  Students want and sometimes need good grades, and they want clear direction on how to do so.  Maybe they have received such direction in other classes, particularly those in entry-level science classes, where getting an A is a matter of answering 9 out of 10 questions correctly.  History’s a bit different, of course, what with grading that is (supposedly) partially objective and subjective.  I try to explain that aspect of the field, while also giving students a clear picture of what I’m looking for: thesis statements, supporting arguments, reasonable and logical explanations of those arguments, appropriate use of primary sources as evidence, etc.  I’ve also tried to design my courses so that the students make progress through the stages of writing history: we start the semester by talking about narrative and story-telling; then we move to a section on historiography; then a section on the use of primary sources; and then, as they are writing their final research papers, the process of putting together an original argument making use of all that other stuff.  I explain these steps to the worried students, and suggest that they take one step at a time.  I also relate to them that other students in the past have been in exactly the same situation and have yet emerged from the course with their wits in tact and, in some cases, As on their report cards.  And I try to remind the student of some other new challenge that s/he has taken on in the past and mastered–maybe cooking, or playing an instrument, or a sport, or whatever.  Finally, I tell the worried students that if they already knew how to do this, they wouldn’t need to take the course anyway, right?

But there always seems to be one student who isn’t persuaded, someone who, after this long discussion–okay, lecture–about how we all can, must, and should take on new challenges, doesn’t seem to have heard any of it.  S/he wants to know how to get the A, and wants to know right now, dammit.  And I have to strangle the voice inside me that wants to say “Get over it or get out of school.  If you don’t want to learn something new, then you have no business being in college.  You obviously only want to confirm what you think you already know.  How dull.  How sad.”  Alternately, I want to recommend counseling.  There’s something more going on here than concern about a grade.  This person has serious doubts about her/his abilities and perhaps even self-worth, and they need to speak to a professional about where that comes from.  I’m certainly not the person to talk to about it.  After all, I’ve never done that before.

First Day Jitters…Again

It’s always the same.  Today’s the first day of teaching a new class, and I’m feeling a wee bit anxious.  Part of this stems from the complete new-ness of the course; it’s not just that I designed a new course, but that I rethought the way that I teach material, in response to some poor student evaluations last semester and inspiration of a sort from What The Best College Teachers Do. I’m hoping that the re-think will help students get excited about the material and about the process of doing history, so I’m anxious to see how that works out.  But I’m also nervous because I’ll be meeting 15-20 new people and trying to impress them with my mastery of material, my abilities as a teacher, and my overall personality.  Were I cool, this wouldn’t be a problem.  I wouldn’t care what people think about me, and I would just do my thing, so confident that I wouldn’t even be aware of my confidence.  But I’m not cool.  I want the students to like the class, like the material, like me.  It’s pathetic, I’m sure, but I can’t seem to help myself.  So I’ve cleaned myself up real nice, ironed my clothes, and made sure to go over my notes at least a dozen times.  Deep breath, and….go.