Friday, December 30, 2011

Time Management Aspirations and the Technology to (Hopefully) Achieve Them

Resolving to manage research, reading and writing time better is like the academic's version of normal people resolving to stop smoking, lose weight or go to the gym seven days a week: perennially made and perennially broken.

I'm really motivated this year, though. (I know, I know. It's what the would-be-ex-smokers and -couch potatoes say, too.) One of the biggest and most unexpected transitions from frantically-dissertating graduate student to tenure-track assistant professor has been shaking the feeling that I have to be at my desk every waking second of every hour of every day. That's not to say that I don't anticipate being really busy and overworked for the foreseeable future. I do. (I make a schedule for myself each semester, and invariably it allows for 65-70 hours of work a week.) But I do want to be able to go to the occasional social outing, movie, concert, or other random weird wonderful thing that happens just because this is New York. Such things are probably not only good for me the human being, but also for me the scholar. When I was dissertating,  I was putting in so much butt-in-chair time that it was becoming counterproductive because I was badly burned out and just spinning my wheels for a lot of that time. I couldn't allow myself to do it, but in retrospect taking a day or an afternoon off once in a while would probably have let me get the same amount of work done, if not more. So my goal for this year is to work more efficiently so I don't feel so guilty during those few fleeting hours a week that I allot to myself for photography or reading for pleasure that I end up at my desk not so much working but working myself up into a lather.

As low-tech as my semesterly schedule is (it involves a calendar printout and colored markers) I'm enlisting a few technological aides in my quest for better time management and, somewhat ironically, for wasting less time overall on the internet. Let's see how they work out over the course of this coming spring:

1) Declaration of Facebook Bankruptcy

Inspired by people who declare email bankruptcy in which they delete everything from their inboxes, read or not, and simply start over, I declared Facebook bankruptcy last week. The final straw was actually the most recent changes to their format that makes everything its users have ever posted much more readily available. Yes, their claim that it gives the user much more control over her data is true, but what they don't mention is that achieving such control may require reviewing every single thing, post by post, that's been posted since, say, 2004 to verify the privacy settings. And as much as I have always abided by a firm policy of not putting anything on the internet that I wouldn't be comfortable with my mom seeing, I'm also a very different person than I was in my junior year of college and don't necessarily want the twain to meet. So, I obliterated my FB account and started over.

What does this all have to do with time management, though?

While security concerns were indeed the final straw, I had been looking for a way to break out of the way I had been using and overusing Facebook. The details aren't all that interesting, but the bottom line is that I want to be on Facebook for a lot less time than I have been in the recent past. Every time I tried to change my patterns, though, was unsuccessful, so I thought that a really clean break might help in that posting a lot and checking a lot and commenting a lot would no longer be part of an established part of my FB identity. I'm not sure if that's exactly what's happened — I think part of it is definitely down to the fact that in starting over, I'm necessarily ending up with fewer FB friends than I had before and so there is less mental and visual clutter for me on the site — but the result is as desired.

2) Pomodoro Technique

I've seen lots of other academic bloggers rave about using a tomato-shaped timer while they work. It seemed a little silly. (Heck, it still seems a little silly.) But I reached a point where, within reason, I was willing to try anything.

I downloaded the iPhone app version of the pomodoro timer, and started using it as indicated: Writing or reading for 25 minutes with the timer ticking down, taking a five-minute break, and repeating three more times before earning a longer break. The twenty five-five combination is referred to as "a pomodoro."

I've been pretty pleased with it so far. I close all extraneous windows of my web browser because while the timer is ticking, I know I'm just supposed to be working. I'm not good at delayed gratification (in other words, just telling myself that if I work for twenty-five minutes then I can web surf for five doesn't work) but somehow the idea of tomato-imposed obligation is working well for me. I'm also finding that it's cutting down on my overall internet time-wastage because if I've been working at my desk really intensely for the twenty-five minute block, I'm less inclined to spend my five minutes web surfing because I really want to get up and stretch my legs and make another cup of tea.

One thing that I've noticed so far is that the pomodoro helps me keep from sitting at my desk and attempting to work when I'm too tired or in the completely wrong frame of mind to be productive. The logic is a little circular, but it works: If the pomodoro is ticking, I'd better be working, and if I'm not working, there's no point in setting the next pomodoro, and the pomodoro needs to be running while I'm at my desk, so I get up and refresh myself.

I wish it had a few more functions than it does: For example, while it records your completed pomodoros for the day and over the life of the app, I think that recording the number of abortive pomodoros would make it even more useful. There's something about the video-gamish aspect of it that would keep me from wanting my number of failed pomodoros to be too high that would really make me think hard about whether in setting the timer again I could really be productive or if I needed to get up and do something else. (As I'm typing this, I realize that it does run a bit contrary to the pomodoro theory of just blazing through, but I'm not totally sure that this was designed for people reading Arabic philosophy in the original, which sometimes requires a little more flexibility. Of course, my emendation would only work if you're the sort of person, as I am, who can trick herself into doing an extra ten minutes of Wii pilates in an attempt to break her all-time high score. And  I modify the plan in other ways, too. When I'm reading I stick to the 25-5 pattern, but when I'm writing, I work through the first break and write for 55 minutes and then take a short break.)

3) Mel Gibson in Blue Facepaint

Er, Freedom: Software that keeps you from going on the internet for a given period of time. It asks you: How much freedom do you want? (I love the idea that freedom comes in quantifiable units and has a scale of measurement.) The software then disables your internet connection for the time period you've specified. If you want to go onto the internet, you have to do a hard reboot of your machine, which is enough of a disincentive that it works. There is also a variation of the software called Anti-Social, which disables access to social networking sites but allows access to things like JSTOR.

I've used Freedom in the past, and in truth it makes me a little edgy. I tend to chafe when I'm told I can't do something, and I think this software presses that button just a little bit with me, so I don't use it. But that said, I'm prepared to go back to it this semester if I find the above two techniques don't have the sustained effect I'm looking for.

4) A few other tricks

I'm planning on setting aside some concrete internet time when I can read papers and blogs, since I shan't be doing that during the working blocks of my schedule. I'm also planning on setting aside one specific time to answer email during the day so that I don't get distracted by having to respond to one email here and one email there and then have to completely regain focus after each email. There's nothing so pressing in my life that waiting for a response for potentially 24 hours will mean the difference between life and death, even metaphorically, for anyone.


I guess the sum total of these techniques also addresses the problem of distraction and fractured attention as much as time management, not that the two are unrelated. It's not just a question of productivity but of the quality of thought and work. I'm optimistic that with more concentrated and focused time, both will improve in the new year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Which I am Awesome

I just got an acceptance notice from a journal! The piece is one of what will be a cluster of essays (rather than articles per se) on a themed topic. I like what I wrote, and this was actually the perfect moment to write in an essayistic manner because I have the bones of a broader argument laid out, but I don't have all the details worked out yet; this was an opportunity to clarify my broad thinking about the project and at least get the idea (which is really a pretty cool one based mostly on codicology) out there while I continue to line up my ducks, research-wise. I have a few revisions to make but they're pretty minor.

(Woo hoo! A publication! Ahem. Carry on.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Movie Review: The Way (2010)

It is a rare movie that has the possibility of really being useful (rather than simply entertaining) in a medieval Iberia-focused classroom. I had high hopes that The Way, the newish Martin Sheen movie about a father walking the Camino de Santiago in memory of his son, would fall into that category. And while I'm definitely glad that I saw the movie, it was neither particularly good as a movie nor will it be especially useful in a classroom setting.

In the positive column, Martin Sheen gives a wonderful performance as Tom, a Ventura, CA-based ophthalmologist  who finds himself going to the south of France to collect the remains of Danny, his 40-year-old ABD anthropologist son who was killed in a freak storm in the Pyrenees during his first day of walking the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim route that goes all the way from Paris to the cathedral of Saint James in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. On the spur of the moment, he decides to have Danny's body cremated and trek to Compostela himself, scattering the ashes along the way.

Both the script and the cinematography really let Sheen's performance down, though. As Tom travels the Camino he collects a few other discontents and misfits and they form a scruffy hiking band, each of them trying hard not to like each other and to resolve their own issues; it's not really enough of a story to spin a whole script from and as a result, the writing is not particularly tight. So many sudden, jarring moments were naked attempts to manipulate the audience's emotions; the ones that stick out in my memory are the revelation, seemingly out of nowhere, that the Canadian pilgrim Sarah had been abused by her husband and was seeking absolution for having had an abortion rather than bear the man's child and the fleeting, unsympathetic glimpse of the Franciscan flagellants walking the Camino and bearing a large wooden cross. With respect to the cinematography itself, what should or could have been sweeping views of the landscape in Navarre and the Basque country and Galicia were fleeting and in fuzzy focus; and the stops that the group made in towns did not visually highlight life or architecture or much of anything there. Visually, the whole movie felt like a squandered opportunity.

Finally, I am not one to throw around the O-word liberally, but Tom's encounter with a Roma community, begun when a young gypsy boy stole the backpack containing Danny's ashes, was preposterously Orientalizing in the full-on Saidian sense of it. It turned out that the boy's father was the one enlightened, English-speaking member of the community and as such forced him not only to return the backpack but to carry it for Tom all the way to the edge of town on his way out, switching the boy all the way.

It's not that bad movies have no place in a classroom. In fact, one of the ones I find to be most useful is the Orlando Bloom vehicle Kingdom of Heaven. It's just that this movie was neither good enough nor bad enough for that. It's a movie worth seeing, but maybe not until it comes out on Netflix.

Postscript: In spite of all of this — especially in spite of the lack of moving scenery — the movie did make me want to walk the Camino in a way I've never been especially interested in doing before. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Email Etiquette and a Contemplation of Generalized Exhaustion

I awoke yesterday, the last morning of the semester, after a week of extended office hours and in-class writing workshops, to an email from a student from my intro lecture class who had attended neither, asking if he could meet with me and my co-instructor to go over his paper (the required first draft of which he had, incidentally, never handed in). My colleague was going to be in meetings all day and I have a drop-dead deadline for a not-yet-finished journal article in two weeks and have really set working on it aside of late to be available to students in the last weeks of term; given all of that and given that the student who emailed me hadn't even bothered to come to the writing workshops and meet-with-the-professor-one-on-one opportunities that we held during and outside of class time, I felt little compunction about reminding him that we had offered many opportunities to confer with us and telling him that neither of us would be in the office to see students that day.

I received the following email (with no salutation, reproduced here entirely as-is except for replacements indicated in brackets for anonymizing purposes) in reply:

Very well then. It's just that I've had other things to attend to regarding my schoolwork and I have been trying to polish my paper so that it makes sense. It is too bad that you cannot help out and help see that this paper is exactly what you ask for.
I was going to ask you about the format of the paper, because on your instructions it says that the format is based on primary sources. The thing is that with the topic of my paper being [TOPIC FOR WHICH PRIMARY SOURCES DO INDEED EXIST], it is quite impossible to get primary sources. I was going to ask how should my paper be set up to account for that.
Thanks anyways,

After several hours in which I allowed my blood pressure to return slowly to normal, I replied:

I think you've missed the point somewhat. If a student does not fulfill some of the basic requirements for a course, requirements like class attendance on a workshop day and submitting a first draft (even a late first draft) that were put into place to ensure that all students could receive adequate face-time and  feedback on their work, and then waits until the last day of the semester to ask for help with something as fundamental as not being able to find primary sources for an assignment that requires their use, it is simply not a reasonable expectation that his professor would necessarily be able to reschedule or neglect her other professorial responsibilities to accommodate those deficiencies.
To answer your question about form, you'll find that the assignment sheet says that the sample organization that is offered is merely a suggestion, that the primary concern of this assignment is content rather than form and that students are welcome to organize their papers as they see fit. Hope this helps.

I'm just baffled. I understand that the student was frustrated that neither of us was available to meet with him. But I have trouble understanding the lack of self-awareness about the wisdom of asking for exceptions to deadlines and modifications to schedules (and ex post facto, to boot!) from a person after you've just told her that her class is a low priority for you; it's not a question of offending me (this is not something my ego is caught up in that way at all) but of making me wonder why I should make any given student's work for the class a higher priority than he himself makes it. And I do definitely understand the temptation to take blocks of "free" time and rearrange or re-prioritize the work that's meant to be done over the longue duree; but I can't see making a decision to do so somebody else's problem. Nevermind that passive-aggressive is rarely the right tone to strike with anyone. I was pretty pleased with my response.

I took a while to consider the advisability of publishing this post, and I think what drove me, ultimately, to go ahead with it is that it wasn't really just about this student. This email is emblematic of what the semester as a whole has been like. I'm so glad it's over. First year on the TT is really rugged. More on that later, though. For now, back to the article.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunny with Highs in the 40s, Low Chance of Blogging

Posting will be light to intermittent from now through January. Carry galoshes, prepare for delays, and please do check back in early 2012.

Friday, December 9, 2011

By George, I think she's got it!

I just saw an article entitled "The Archaeology of Irrigated Spaces in Southeast Granada during the Medieval Period." If you parse it out, what the author is saying is that the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

I took my students to the Met today. On the right is the sticker to show that I had permission to explain things and gesticulate wildly in the medieval and Islamic* galleries. On the left is the cover of the new museum map in Arabic.

* At the desk, the girl who was filling out the info said, "That gallery has such a long name. I hope "Islamic" is PC enough."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Not Fit for Publication in a Family Newspaper

(Prefatory note: Blogger just ate my post! What follows is a reconstruction.)

Now that I am at the point of introducing the Libro de Alexandre in my introductory course, I am reminded of an episode from my upper-division seminar last fall when I completely inadvertently taught my students to curse in Spanish in a more historically-informed and literate way:

The topic of the course was Andalusi ways of reading and writing. And so the major theme that I was hoping to convey to my students about the
Libro de Alexandre was the idea that a text can be self-conscious and tell the reader something about the circumstances of its own composition, relatively similar to the major point that I'm making about the text this semester.

In class, one of the things I asked my students to do was to break into small groups and compile a list of all the references to reading and writing that they could find in the excerpts I had assigned. One reference that did not make the list was to the fact that Alexander's journeys were so wondrous and extensive that their description would not have fit on the skin of
quinze cabrones (fifteen goats). The point, in this context, is that the narrative voice steps away from the narration to tell the reader something about the composition of the text. It came out that none of my students had understood the reference. That was completely fine and expected — truly, my main goal in that class session was that my students would walk away with a basic comprehension of the first medieval text they had ever read in the original, and with some strategies that they could use to approach the language of other texts we would read over the course of the semester. In the interest of developing the latter, I thought it might be more effective to approach the problem Socratically instead of going right in for the big reveal.

So I asked: "In modern Spanish, if you call someone a
cabrón, what are you literally calling him?"

My intention was for them to make the connection themselves between a word they already knew — an insulting swear word that is courser in usage than its literal meaning, big goat,  would suggest — and the use of goat skin in making vellum as a writing surface.

The next time I try this, I will be more emphatic in my enunciation of the word
literally, because instead of the lightbulbs going off over their heads, my students started to exchange glances until one of them gingerly raised her hand. Tentatively, and with more than a hint of incredulity in her voice that the professor should have asked such a question, she answered, "Um, a f***er?"

Nervous laughter changed to some genuine giggling, much of it on my part when I saw that I had, essentially, given a lesson in the historical development of a popular and serious Spanish swear word. I regained my composure and explained the connection I was trying to make. But I bet that nobody who was in that room will ever forget that the
Libro de Alexandre was written on vellum!

Where's Walter?

(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)

The commodity topic for the past two weeks in the intro lecture class has been paper and parchment; so for my lecture later today, I'm presenting the Libro de Alexandre as a textual locus for finding hidden references to different types of writing. So it actually worked thematically to throw a little Where's Waldo reference into the Powerpoint as a slide header. In presenting the verses here, I hope that the students will see places in which the poem refers to its own sources — including one written by a certain Walter of Chatillon — and how the text itself views those sources.

I resisted the urge to take the time to find a little picture of Waldo and make a clipping path so I could stick him in with Alexander's men.

Edited on 12/8/11: A student in my seminar, totally unbidden by me, described the Hall of Justice ceilings in the Alhambra as being like Where's Waldo?. So I've now managed to have Waldo included in both of my classes this week.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Week in Links (11/28-12/4)

I wish I had the gumption to write syllabi like the two that are linked to from this Slate story. (Of course, I also wish I were I massively successful novelist, too):

The Extraordinary Syllabus of David Foster Wallace

For knitting academics who may be on the verge of a big project-related freakout (ahem), from a blog I've seen before but don't read regularly, a post that caught my attention in Spanish Prof's blogroll:

Writing, Knitting, Teaching, Practicing

In my line of work, I'm always happy for a new and interesting take on the Jews-Christians-Muslims theme, especially one that might appeal to students who are otherwise a little resistant:

Come Together

And the New York Times fails to answer the crucial question about one aspect of life on campus: How does he get the piano down there?:

City Cracks Down on Performers in Washington Square Park

Saturday, December 3, 2011

One More #OWS Photo

From just outside the building where I teach:

(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Margaret Crosby, PhD

The current exhibition at the small, lovely, out-of-the-way gallery (in other words, you've probably not heard of it but definitely should make a visit) at NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World contains objects from the excavations at Dura-Europos. I'd certainly not ever seen more than one or two objects from that site displayed in isolation, so visiting the exhibition gave me a much better panorama of what was there. (All of the Dura objects had been in storage for the restoration of the Art Gallery since before I began my studies at Yale, so it's not that I was negligent in exploring the available resources; they weren't available.) Two of my favorite objects were a very rustic Hercules-and-lion statue (which also made me wonder, I guess given the juxtaposition of the Mithraic cult objects and the paintings from the synagogue, whether there was any connection drawn in antiquity between Hercules and the lion and Samson and the lion) and several Greek-Aramaic bilingual inscriptions.

What really captured my imagination, though, was this photograph, mounted in a second room in the gallery that contained many photographs from the field as well as letters and other ephemera of the scholars who excavated at Dura.

This was just a quick snap that I took in the gallery with my iPhone (before realizing, somewhat abashedly, that all photography, and not just flash photography, is prohibited). You can click to enlarge the image here or find a clearer reproduction of the image here, the fifth image from he top.

The caption identified the woman as Margaret Crosby, a graduate student in archaeology at Yale (the American institution that headed up the excavations) and the first woman to work at the site in her own right (that is, not by virtue of being the wife of one of the archaeologists). This all piqued my Gertrude Bell imagination and fantasies (truly, I was born in the wrong century!) as well as the sort of camaraderie felt by Yale women, still only a generation out* from the admission of women as undergraduates, in spite of the fact that the population is fully 50/50 now. And I wanted to find out more about her: Who was she? How had she ended up at Yale and at Dura? Did she finish her degree?

Her life seems like the sort of thing that is ripe for a fruitful archival investigation up in New Haven, but since Dura and ancient Greece, which is what Dr. Crosby ended up specializing in, are well out of my area of expertise, I shan't be the one to undertake it. For now, what I've been able to find reads a bit like what was written very one-dimensionally and matter-of-factly about Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson prior to the recent biography that really humanized them and added depth to their history. From the postscript to Susan I. Rotroff and Robert D. Lamberton's Women in the Athenian Agora (American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2006):

"Margaret Crosby (known to her friends as Missy, a nickname she traced back to being addressed as such by a friendly English boatman, encountered on a family holiday when she was eight years old) grew up in Minnesota, where an active girlhood left her with a taste and talent for hiking and mountaineering (she ultimately bagged most of Greece's major peaks). Like Virginia Grace, she was a member of the Bryn Mawr class of 1922. Two years of study in Europe followed before she began graduate work at Yale. There she concentrated on ancient history, but a season at the Yale expedition to Dura Europos, in Syria, deflected her decisively into archaeological fieldwork. Upon completion of her degree she joined the Agora excavations as an Agora Fellow and embarked on a life almost evenly divided between the archaeology of Athens, and family duties and pleasures back in the United States. Throughout her career, her work and interests crossed unspoken gender lines. Her primary responsibility at the Agora was the supervision of fieldwork, and from 1935 to 1939, and then again from 1946 to 1955, she spent every season in the field (and field seasons in those days were epic in their duration — often as much as five months long). She also took on other duties (all the while continuing the daily excavation schedule), and oversaw the records operation in 1946, when Lucy Talbott was absent. In the realm of scholarship, it was the complex and highly technical fields of epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) and metrology (weights and measures) that particularly attracted her — interests that drew on the same powerful linguistic talents she deployed as a code-breaker in the Office of Strategic Services** during World War II. The inscription which she published is one of many found in the Agora that record leases on the famous silver mines of Athens, the material resource that formed the foundation and rise of Athens in the 5th century B.C. and continued to fuel the economic power of Athens in later years. By the early 1960s Missy had completed her excavation and publication assignments. By all accounts an unassuming and self-effacing woman, for all her scholarly abilities, she retired to a quiet life filled with travel, gardening, family and friends" (52-4).

References for some of her work:

Crosby, Margaret. An Achaean League Hoard. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 1936.

---. "The Leases of the Laureion Mines," Hesperia 19:3 (1950).

--- and Mabel Lang. The Athenian Agora: Weights, Measures and Tokens. Athens: American School of Classical Studies, 1964.

So there's at least a partial answer to the question: Who was the woman in that photograph?

*This link on the history of women at Yale is oddly, and to my mind unnecessarily, both defensive and patronizing. (Look! We've always let women serve the tea and marry professors!)
** See p. 99.

Edited on 12/18/11 to add this link: Dura-Europos, a Melting Pot at the Intersection of Empires