I need a reboot day.  After weeks of balancing precariously on the edge of total disorder in my teaching, research, and writing, I’m just about to fall off the cliff.  I even had to violate my Nature/Nurture Sunday to do some grading that I had put off for weeks. And still I’m not up to the bare minimum of where I need to be.  And that’s a problem, because I am so very, very close to being done with a lot of important things.  Top of the list: finishing and filing my dissertation so I can get hooded this June.  I’ve promised my committee the last round of edits by the middle of March, and that’s going to take some late nights.  When I start to think about that plus teaching plus an article I’m almost done with plus a conference at the end of this month and so on, I feel like I’m just about to lose it.  So I’m calling a time out.  Not a day off from work, but a day to take a step back and remind myself of which work is important and to figure out how to get that done.  The problem, of course, is that every second I take to plan is a second I take away from doing the work itself.  But right now, I need to figure out where I’m going and how to get there.  An important process, I’d argue, for every academic, and especially those just starting to learn how to balance all the fun and taxing work we do.


How to Write Historical-ish Op-Eds for the NYT

Earlier this week, Matthew Lassiter, author of the brilliant The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times.  This got me thinking: how does a historian get her/himself published in the pages of the Old Grey Lady?  I did a quick search for “professor of history” in the opinion pages over the last thirty days,* thought about the results, and herewith offer some ideas for getting your name into a dying medium.

First, the list of the op-eds:

Matthew Lassiter, “Populism and the Silent Majority” (3 Nov 2011)
Douglas Brinkley, “The Grand Canyon and Mining” (31 Oct 2011)
James Livingston, “It’s Consumer Spending, Stupid” (26 Oct 2011)
Randall J. Stephens, “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason” (18 Oct 2011)
Jill Lepore, “Here’s the Guy Who Invented Populism” (16 Oct 2011)
Jeremi Suri, “America the Overcommitted” (14 Oct 2011)
Louis Hyman, “Wal-Mart’s Layaway Plan” (12 Oct 2011)

And now, the rules:

  1. Write within your field of expertise, making connections to present-day phenomena.  Duh.
  2. Use an innovative interpretation of the past to make sense of the present.  See Lassiter.
  3. Find interesting individuals from the past and draw (tenuous) connections to the present.  See Brinkley and Lepore.
  4. Identify something really weird and apparently unexplainable in the present, and use the past to make sense of said bizzare thing.  See Hyman, Stephens, Lassiter, Lepore, and Brinkely.
  5. Provide some sort of policy advice or corrective.  See Suri, Livingston, Brinkley.
  6. Be famous, like Brinkley or Lepore.  Note that this does not mean you have to be a serious or rigorous scholar.  Just famous.

BAM.  That’s how you do it.  Get to work.

* Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a perfect sample.  Go read your statistics textbook, nerds.

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…

No E-mail Until Noon; Or, Another Distracting Effort at Reducing Distractions

Over the last few years, I’ve developed an increasingly complex and time-consuming morning routine.  After I wake up, I do a little Wii yoga, then read some of the work of Fr. Giussani, then walk the dog.  After that, I make breakfast, take a shower, and make my coffee.  I read my e-mail, then I check Google News, followed by other favorite web sites, like Lifehacker, ESPNSoccernet, a Portland Timers forum, and some other stuff.  Then I start Google Reader and read some blogs.  Finally, I start some work… but not before checking my e-mail again.

Not today.  I’ve started my morning without web sites, blogs, and, most frighteningly, e-mail.  Turns out most of this stuff doesn’t really inspire me or help me be more productive, which I always used as my excuse (“Maybe I’ll find something interesting to incorporate into my disssertation…”).  So I’m jumping straight from the shower into writing, after toweling off first, of course.  We’ll see how that goes; it may turn out to be yet another attempt to reduce distractions that becomes, in itself, a distraction.  Kind of like cleaning the house, which I tell myself I need to do in order to think clearly, but really do just to get out of writing.  Man, we academics are pathetic!  Get a real job and stop whining…

Types of Reading

Progress, comrades, has been hard to come by here on the Bench.  Over the last few weeks, work on the dissertation has ground to a halt, I’m barely staying on top of my teaching (just one more week of class to go, though), and I haven’t bagged anything in the job/fellowship hunt.  It’s not as though I haven’t done anything: a little research here, a little reading there, a little bit of outlining every now and then.  But I haven’t moved forward, which means I’m moving backwards — treading water isn’t really an option in grad school (or at least it shouldn’t be).

Perhaps the grossest manifestation of my inertia: the books that I start but don’t finish.  My shelves bulge with books half-done, my laziness proven by the bookmarks on the twenty-second page.  This often comes from the mood I’m in: fun reading?  Dissertation reading?  Theory reading?  And so, in baby step towards general momentum, I’ve categorized my types of reading moods and plucked from the shelves books for each category.  I hope that with such organization, I’ll make progress through these books and begin anew the forward march through my dissertation, teaching. etc.  The first list:

  • Fun Reading: Che Guevara by John Lee Anderson.  Truth be told, I have very little interest in El Che.  But I received this book for Christmas (or was it my birthday?) a few years ago, and it has since sat on the shelf, its stark colors tempting me and mocking my faux-radicalism.  I accept your challenge, El Che.
  • Soul Reading: Why the Church? by Luigi Giusanni.  For the last few years, I’ve been reading the work of Giussani, the founder of a lay movement called Community and Liberation.  It started through the inspiration of a dear friend who became a priest, and it has continued as my spouse and I look into the Catholic church as a spiritual home.
  • Theory Reading: Das Kapital I. I read it ten years ago as an undergrad, but I didn’t really understand it then.  I’m following David Harvey this time around, in hopes that I can better understand the text and, therefore, the nonsense of capitalism.
  • Dissertation Reading: Rule of Experts by Timothy Mitchell.  Another one that I’ve read before, but I didn’t get it then.  And I’m not really getting it now.  I’m too dull, I suspect, to understand this crazy-nuanced treatment of colonialism.  But I have to try; my dissertation’s treatment of colonialism is BORING.
  • How-We-Do Reading: Critical Intellectuals on Writing, edited by Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham.  A selection of interviews with really smart people like Noam Chomsky and Stuart Hall and bell hooks, and really crazy people like Donna Haraway and Jacques Derrida, all about how and why they write.  (or, as Derrida would say, “write–whatever that means”).  Recommended by someone on Crooked Timber, I think.

Academic Mission Statementing

I am both repelled and intrigued by Jessica Quillin’s Insider Higher Ed article on writing a career “one-pager.” Repelled because the piece reeks of the business jargon, public relations image manipulation, and pseudo-corporate opportunism that I escaped from, wish never to return to, and believe is sucking humanity’s last juices of creativity and authenticity.  Intrigued because I would very much like a job, please, and this sort of thing might help.  I may not write a one-pager or “career map” (you just heard the sound of my stomach turning), but I did recently compose a “professional mission statement” like some of those MBAs do in their first year of baby-grad school.  The rough draft goes something like this:

I will write meaningful and interesting history about places, people, and events that are important to me and my community, and I will teach other people to do the same.

Ain’t that nice?  But also vague.  So I’ve also written some definitions and clarifications:

“meaningful”= enlightening, in the sense of learning lessons from the past and being liberated by the past–by the knowledge that things can and do change, and that people help make that change.
“interesting” = engaging, fun to read, page-turner, surprising, provocative, stimulating, poignant
“community” = the people I care about, the place where I live, the wider world that I consider myself to be a part of and which affects me

That’s a bit better.  And despite the weekend-corporate-retreat feel of the entire exercise, I think there’s something useful in this.  Namely, that this mission-statement-thingy should act as something of a filter for my actions: if what I’m about to do won’t help me reach that goal, maybe I shouldn’t be doing it.  I’m looking at you, season three of the X-Files; you may be totally awesome in every imaginable way, but perhaps watching three episodes in a row the night before a journal article is due is a Bad Idea.

Now, it’s time to attend to some Action Items to realize the potentialities of my mission statement.

Productive Scheduling

Last week was a good one for my dissertation.  I finally figured out how to maneuver around that guy who’s working on a very similar subject (at least I think I found a way), which is a relief.  I conceptualized and started a very thorough outline for an important chapter, and for me, outlining is a very big deal.  And I spoke with an editor of a journal who would like to publish something from me–probably that chapter that I’ve outlined (and which I’ll be presenting at a conference at the end of the month).   So a pretty great week.

Some of that was luck, of course.  But I’ve got to give credit to my redoubled efforts to stick to a schedule, and my different approach to it.  In the past, I’ve set up a schedule and told myself to “stick to it.”  In practice, that meant doing things in the scheduled order, not necessarily at the time that I had scheduled it.  So if I had scheduled blog writing from 8:30-9am, but I didn’t get to my computer until 9:15am, I would still do the blog writing, instead of doing what I scheduled for the 9am block.  Last week, I started doing whatever I had scheduled for that particular time block.  So if 9am rolled around and I hadn’t done any blog writing, tough shit–no blog writing.  There have been two benefits from this.  The first is that I’ve done a better job of actually sticking to the schedule; instead of saying “well, I’ll just do that blog writing now, and push the other stuff back,” I’ve pushed myself to get started on the task when I’m supposed to be.  The second is that the rhythm of the schedule has increased my productivity.  My brain is apparently so regimented that if I do the thing at 9am one day that I did at 9am the day before, it’s easier to pick back up from where I left off.  Or at least that’s my working hypothesis right now.  And since it’s 8:57am, I should be going.

Weeds, The Wire, and Wasted Time

I’ve been sick most of the week (recovered now, thank you) and on the couch yesterday because of oral surgery (it went fine, thank you again).  On top of that, my spouse and I watched three straight hours of The Wire the other night; this, after having spent the better part of the previous week watching the entire fifth season of Weeds.   And it occurs to me: I am a worthless sack of shit.

I usually get this way during periods of down-time (vacations, especially): I bemoan the wide gap between what I want to get done and what I’ve actually accomplished.  My solution often is a new schedule: figuring out my goals and how much time I should set aside to meet them.  I’ll be doing that again, of course.  But I think it’s time for a new approach.  I need to excise the time I waste doing things that are pretty much worthless.

Television, naturally, is the most obvious culprit.  I’m pretty deliberate about what I watch: X-Files, The Wire, Weeds, Community, Parks & Rec, The Office, 30 Rock. But I’m still burning up a lot of time for a few laughs and a little drama, but not much in the way of intellectual or emotional development, lasting memories, or even relaxation–I just feel lazy.  I’ve noticed this especially with The Wire and Weeds.  I mean, I enjoy those shows, but for only a fleeting moment; it’s not like they somehow make me a better person.  More and more, I’m angry at how much time I spend with so little pay-off.  There are other things, too, I’m sure–the Internet is an awesome time-suck.

In the past, I’ve chalked these sorts of activities up to, “Well, I need to give my brain a rest so I can be more productive.”  Bullshit.  Time for a perspective change.  Time to ask whether whatever I am about to do will actively contribute to my levels of pride, happiness, or excitement.  If it can’t meet one of those three criteria (which I think encompass both professional and personal satisfaction), then I can’t see the use of it.

And now: back to watching the first round of March Madness.  You just be quiet.

My Writing Process

It seems that the longer I spend writing, the longer my writing process becomes.  I’m now up to no fewer that five steps:

1) The warm-up.  Getting the fingers going and the brain clicking.  Blog posts are good for this, although it means that you, dear reader, have to put up with it.  It’s kind of like the first batch of pancakes–the griddle’s not quite hot and the batter hasn’t fully set, but you’ve got to throw something on there anyway.

2) The page puke.  Get all that crap in my head out on a piece of paper so I can get a sense of what I’m dealing with and what ideas I want to hit.  Others call this a “brainstorm,” but that sounds far too creative.

3) The outline.  My outlines have become monsters.  We’re not talking broad ideas here; my outlines stretch from thesis all the way down to the pieces of evidence I’m going to use.  I have a feeling that this is going to have to change as I work on longer projects–say, a dissertation–but this has served me pretty well so far.  This is really where I’m doing the thinking and creating–building the argument, finding connections, creating segues, etc..  That’s probably why my outlines are so detailed–I want to make sure I don’t forget how it all goes together in the next step.

4) First draft.  A steaming pile of crap.  For a while, I was trying edit-while-writing, but that road leads to one sentence a day for me.  So I just try to push through without worrying about grammar, punctuation, slick sentences, etc..  Just get the logic worked out.  Evidence can also wait–put some brackets where I’ll want it later on.

5) Second draft.  Where the major revisions occur: style, argument, evidence.  This is also the point of no return; once I’ve committed to this level of revision, I’m committed to finishing the project.

6) Final-ish drafts.  Here’s where I put the thing out to my friend-reviewers.  Their comments can take me all the way back to step four.  Rinse and repeat until draft is shiny, soft, and full of volume.

Grumpy Bastard

I’ve been doing my level best* to confine my teaching–including prep work, etc.–to Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving M/W/F for dissertation.  But I keep falling behind, and this week I had to stay up late on Monday and get up early on Tuesday to grade and prep lectures.  Predictably, classes yesterday went poorly.  Fine; we’re allowed bad days, I say.  I’m more concerned that I was a truly grumpy and unpleasant bastard from Monday night through Tuesday.  The students, fortunately, didn’t bear the brunt of it.  My spouse, unfortunately, did.  Turns out I’ve developed an impossible need for absolute silence when I work, and it becomes even more exacerbated when I’m under the gun.  My spouse having the audacity to breathe or offer me a glass of water–well, that was simply unacceptable, and I delivered a few sharp and extremely ill-advised remarks.  Ugh.  Apologies galore, and my spouse forgave and understood, proving once again that I am the junior partner in the relationship.

Lessons learned?  Get my shit done during the day, especially if it’s due tomorrow.  If I’m going to work in the evening, choose stuff that’s not time-sensitive–reading a book for my dissertation is fine, but grading papers that need to be returned tomorrow is not.  And if that means that I need to do teaching prep during part of a dissertation day, so be it.

* I love that phrase.  It ranks right up there with “I don’t give a flying fuck.”  Which, of course, I shouldn’t say.  Dirty, dirty words.