Lessons from an Idealized Life

My week-long experiment in leading the idealized life of an academic has nearly come to an end, and I’ve learned two important lessons:

  1. I am either too slow, dull-witted, or require too much sleep to make such a leisurely life work.  Not if I want to get anything done, anyway.  This week, I did a little bit of brainstorming on my dissertation and sketched out some ideas for teaching in the fall, but that’s about it.  No writing, no outlines, no concentrated periods of thinking or musing.  Just skipping around from the newspaper to the Internet to my e-mail to whatever happened to be lying on the desk.  Of course, I rather enjoyed the break, but if I’m going to revise one chapter a week for the next five weeks — which I plan to do — I need more time for my actual work, not the crossword puzzle.  In other words, it turns out that real-life academics don’t have time for shit like getting up late and drinking espresso.  There’s work to do, dammit.
  2. My junk-food news diet has wreaked havoc on my mental health.  For years, I have consumed the latest in world affairs through Google News and its links to assorted media outlets.  But my attention span has waned; I can barely muster the patience to read the headlines and one-sentence follow-ups on Google News, much less read the full articles.  It’s become an addiction: I check Google News at least a dozen times a day, lingering anywhere from 5-15 minutes.   I just can’t do that if I want to read the paper in the morning, which takes about an hour.  And I do want to read the paper in the morning: it forces me to slow down, read about issues that I would normally just ignore, and — when things are going well — actually think for a while.  Which is exactly the frame of mind I need for my work: deliberate, thoughtful, and comprehensive.  In short, the newspaper provides better food for my brain than Google News.  Moreover, I am better equipped emotionally to handle the speed of news presented by newspapers rather than Google News.  I often feel whiplashed by Internet news: the latest stories and trends flash by without a chance to consider their meaning.  There’s no time to build a narrative with Google News: it’s all a jumble of updates and disappearing people, places, and events.  There’s no sense to it, because there’s no time to put it into a story, and stories and narratives are the ways we understand ourselves and our worlds.  And so I’m changing my news diet: no Google News (or other Internet sources) for me, at least until the late afternoon when my brain starts shutting down.  With luck, this will not only help me think more clearly about my academic work, but also provide a deeper sense of calm or serenity or something.

And so, I’m developing a new schedule for next week, one that keeps the newspaper, drops the Internet, and gets back to the business of writing a dissertation and becoming a good teacher.  But first, I think I’ll have one more peak at the latest developments in US soccer…

The Idealized Life of an Academic

I’ve decided to pursue the idealized life of an academic for the next week or so.  An imaginary construction, the Life of an Academic is a conglomeration of ideas about academia from people with real jobs, pre-graduate school students, and geezers in the Ivory Tower who fantasize about the good ‘ol days.  It looks something like this:

  • Get out of bed late, then fetch your coffee from either a friendly barista or an expensive espresso machine in the kitchen.
  • Spend an hour reading the New York Times, preferably in the confines of a mahogany-clad at-home office.
  • Muse for an hour or so, perhaps about your latest writing project, or nothing in particular.   The State of the World, maybe, which is surely in dire need of your wisdom and guidance.
  • Write for a bit.  On a typewriter, if at all possible, or at most on minimalist word processing software.
  • Afternoon: take a short lunch, then write some more for a little while, but spend a lot more time reading wonderful history books and the occasional journal, if necessary.  And when the brain is absolutely fried, finally get around to grading some papers.
  • Evening: read some more, and maybe draft up an op-ed on this-or-that.

We’ll see how much real work I get done over the course of the next seven days.  My guess: not much.

Done, but Not Nearly Dusted

I sent off the first draft of my last chapter yesterday.  Hoo-ray!  It’s a relatively major milestone, and I’m happy to reach it.  But the finish line is still quite a ways off, and there are a lot of hurdles in the way: the many, many distractions that I’ve already lined up (woodworking projects, mountain biking trips, movies to watch, re-subscription to the New York Times), the non-dissertation stuff-to-do (class prep for the fall semester, job application season), and, oh yeah, the baby on the way.  Will our flawed hero have the tenacity, focus, and scheduling skills to manage it all?  Stay tuned.  (No, really, I hope you’ll check in — I hope to blog more frequently.  Another distraction.)

Concussed

So...that was interesting.

Last Thursday, I (apparently) took a bit of a knock to the head while mountain biking, and ended up with a concussion, a ride in an ambulance, some time in the ER, and about ten stitches.  I don’t remember the crash itself — there’s a gap between a memory of me thinking, “gee, I’m going pretty fast” and the next memory of me moaning for help.  Thank God I was (a) wearing my helmet, which now has a nice little crack in it (plus a bit of blood for effect) and (b) riding with friends, who were ahead of me, but were thoughtful enough to turn around and look for me when I didn’t catch up with them.  They called the ambulance, woke me up, kept me from going into shock too terribly bad, etc.  Everyone was stellar: the EMTs, the emergency room doctor, resident, and nurses (well, except one nurse — Steve — who didn’t share my concern about the blood gushing out of my knee), and my spouse, who kept it together in the ER despite the disturbing image of me strapped into a neck brace and back board.  CT scan and X-ray were fine; in fact, the only long-term damage is a chipped tooth.  And my confidence, of course — I’m sure I’ll be a bit gun-shy the next time I go riding, which, I’ve been instructed, will not be for a few weeks.

One of the memories I do have from the accident is talking to my friend about my dissertation while waiting for the ambulance.  My friends were checking my cognitive functions, and they decided to ask about my work.  To which I thought: “Shit, that’s hard enough when I’m totally awake!”  I mumbled something about the topic and the time period, but I don’t think I generated a thesis statement.  And that’s too bad, because wouldn’t it have been awesome to come up with a great thesis while coming out of a concussion?  Now that’s a good way to introduce a book.

Unfortunately, this has put me a bit behind.  I meant to have my last chapter sent off this week, but I don’t think that will happen.  I also want to get a panel proposal ready for the ASEH, which is due this Friday.  And there’s some summer school grading and this and that and the other thing.  On top of it all, it still feels a little weird to look at the computer screen and type.  There’s a slight disconnection there, and it’ll probably take some time to heal.

Crazy stuff.