The best of intentions

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Dave Barry, The Salmon of Doubt

I love setting goals.

Over the years I have come to realize that I work best when I have clear and articulated goals I can work toward. This doesn’t mean that I have to know what I am doing. Quite the contrary—I like situations where I need to work out my thoughts on paper or come up with a work around or react and adjust. I just like those situations with clearly defined parameters.

Goals set those guardrails.

My problem is that I tend to set too many goals, fail to achieve them, and then feel bad. In the SMART acronym, “achievable” has always been my issue and I have not managed to brush missed deadlines off with the breeziness of Dave Barry.

This is the long way of saying that after setting the modest #AcWriMo goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise, I promptly managed to miss two consecutive weekend reflections.

On the one hand, I have spent most of this month reflecting on why this time of academic calendar is so hard, mostly while buried under an avalanche of grading. I touched on this in my first #AcWriMo post, and it remains true. There is a finite amount of time and both writing and teaching take as much as you are willing to give. Anything I write here is extra; some months are easier than others.

On the other hand, my missed reflections also speak to modest success. I averaged nearly an hour of writing a day during the first week of November. In truth, I would have liked to write more, but an hour is my usual target: long enough to write or edit a chunk, but short enough that it doesn’t consume my entire day. And yet, that one hour also meant that I fell behind on grading such that I spent following week playing catch-up. Here I sit on the first day of the third week and I wrote for nearly an hour and was able to dedicate some time to moving other parts projects forward.

Several of my students told me today that their goal is simply to make it to break next week. I am sympathetic to this position. In the words of Giuseppe from The Great British Baking Show, “my objective for this week is to survive.”

Giuseppe: “My objective for this week is to survive.”

At the same time, I can’t help but hope I’ll find a little spark, something that will plant a burning thought that just has to get onto paper.

#AcWriMo 2021

Through some dark magic that I don’t understand November begins on Monday, which means that it is once again time for #AcWriMo. Looking at my archives, I first came across the idea in 2012 (don’t read the post, it is awful) and have used it as a way to think about my writing every year since 2018.

Inspired by #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which authors aim to write a short novel in a single month, #AcWriMo aims to fulfill similar objectives of setting goals, establishing writing habits, and building writing community for academic writers.

All of these are very appealing to me, but, even when I set goals like I did last year, I have not yet successfully participated. In truth, November just falls at a bad time in the academic calendar for establishing writing habits.

It starts at a point in the fall semester when my grading load has peaked, my pre-prep has been exhausted, and my energy has reached a critical low.

It ends with a holiday week when I either need to travel or just want to curl up and sleep.

Although I had hoped that the stability of a full-time job would give me more space to write, that has not yet been true. Last year my part-time schedule was particular conducive to my writing habits. I only taught in the afternoon, which meant that I could almost always afford to spend part of the morning at my computer even when I had course prep or grading. The several years before that were more hit-and-miss, but I could make time more often than not, particularly at the start of the pandemic.

I have found this semester harder.

One of the questions I ask the committee when I interview for academic jobs is whether there is a tradition of reading each other’s work in the department. This question is designed to further signal that I an active scholar, but it also allows me to gauge what sorts of support the department has for research and whether there is a healthy department culture.

When I interviewed for this position the chair of the committee, now my faculty mentor, laughed and asked who has time to write. The department members have research profiles and some publish a substantial amount, but his cynicism reflects how much time it takes to invest in teaching, mentorship, and meetings. Given that the sheer number of courses I am teaching is lower than in the past few years, I think I underestimated the time commitment the transition would take, particularly when considering that I am adjusting to the classes as they are taught here, planning for future semesters (a welcome change, if I’m being honest), and participating in programs for new faculty.

Even when I can leave my work in the office, I rarely have energy to write when I get home in the evening. Granted, this is not unusual for me. I discovered years ago that my best writing happens in the morning and I rarely try to write anything more substantial than a blog post at night because any investment won’t be worth the return. Better to spend that time with my partner.

(For similar reasons I try to monitor my exhaustion levels: I do a lot more doom-scrolling social media when I’m tired. I have been doing a lot of scrolling recently. The current state of the world isn’t helping, either.)

The truth is, I actually feel reasonably good about what I have managed to accomplish this semester, I have just also accumulated a not-insignificant number of writing commitments. I am in good shape for most them, provided that I can recover a writing routine soon, but I regret to say that for one of these commitments I have become the sort of academic I told myself I never would be. The order management monitor is blinking a furious red on that one. I think of the pieces I owe in terms of the monitors at McDonalds that track how long it takes to assemble outstanding orders, maybe because I spent several years after college working in the quick-service industry.

However, there is a simple, selfish reason why I want to use the coming weeks to re-establish regular writing habits. There are certain things I need to make sure that I feel balanced. Reading fiction is one, alongside exercising and baking bread. Writing has joined this list. As recently as three years ago, I hemmed and hawed about whether I enjoyed writing, but the answer at this point is clearly yes. Writing is the mental exercise that accompanies my daily physical workouts, so getting these exercises in only intermittently has take a toll on my emotional state.

I did such a poor job of meeting the ones I set last year that I am hesitant to set goals this year. Even by my low standards, it was a poor showing. I want to write a lot of pieces this month, but I also know that I have little sense of what is attainable and a bad habit of working on whatever catches my attention at a given moment. In other words, saying here that I am going to write a certain number of things this month will have little effect on whether or not I write them. As a result, I am trying something different this year.

My goal this month is to be more attentive to how I am spending my time so that I can use more of it to write. That’s it: a month-long meta-cognitive exercise. The only accountability I am assigning myself is a single post each weekend on writing. These posts might be anything on that topic, but I expect that they will be variations on a theme rather than simple recaps—if only because I would need to explain what I am working on for such a recap to be at all meaningful and I am often hesitant talk about works-in-progress in this space.

To be honest, I don’t know how this experiment will go. Possible outcomes range from tapping into a well of discipline that results in significant progress on academic projects and a flurry of posts here, to only being able to focus writing on more frivolous projects like the paper I shelved a while back uses Britney Spears songs as subheadings, to discovering that I simply can’t muster the energy to write despite my best intentions. The answer will likely change by the day, so the question will be whether I can stay on schedule with modest gains more days than not. Tune in next week to find out!

AcWriMo 2020

I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.

These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.

And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.

The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.

In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.

  1. One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
  2. Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.

That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.

#AcWri2019

Last year I wrote a handful of posts reflecting on my relationship with academic writing, using Scholarshape’s reflective #AcWri project. My writing was inconsistent this time last year, cycling through several rough weeks of writing followed by one good one, but I still maintained something that resembled a regular writing practice.

This semester, much to my great frustration, I had to give up my regular practice before the end of September.

Writing during the semester is always a challenge, and not being in a stable position only compounds the difficulty. In addition to the usual preparation and grading, both magnified by the financial pressure to take on a heavy teaching load, there is the anxiety of the job market, both for permanent jobs and for classes for the next semester.

Going into this semester I had resolved not to submit any abstracts this year. I quite like giving papers despite chronic struggles with anxiety, but preparing them takes time and time has been in short supply, so I had hoped to grant myself forgiveness in advance. FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, though, and I’ve sent myself into a neurotic spiral on at least two occasions, once while seeing updates from a conference and again from a reminder that a deadline for proposals is coming up next week for a conference I am almost certainly going to attend in the spring. But my situation this year is in flux: I lack institutional support for conference travel and there is a very real possibility that this will be my last year in academia, so for the time being I am resigned to collecting ideas and reminding myself that it is okay to rest.

For similar reasons, my writing has largely been stuck on the same topics for some time. My primary focus is still my book manuscript on Classical Ionia, which I described last year, but I have become increasingly interested in memory in ancient Greece and begun to dip my toe into a future project on bread and bread baking. The problem of course is that research and writing take mental energy that I have not had while also teaching five classes and applying for jobs.

On the other hand, I am almost done with job applications, I can taste the end of the semester, and I am practically aching to get back to my writing projects. Regardless of whether I continue to teach at a college level after this year, I have ambitions of continuing to write and want to at least finish the projects I have begun. I am not there yet and there will invariably be new difficulties––among them, interview season, figuring what happens next, holiday travel, and recurrences of depression and anxiety––I am close enough that I am looking forward to reestablishing a writing routine.

#AcWriMo: Identity

I am intermittently participating in Scholarshapes’ “reflective” #AcWriMo for 2018, not necessarily in-step with the prompts. I previously wrote a post on the topic “about”; today’s post is on identity categories, the prompt for day 14.

In some ways my scholarship seems to have almost nothing to do with my identity. Being entirely superficial about it, I am not, for instance, primarily interested in questions of gender, sexuality, religion, or rural, small-town identity. In each case, I recognize the importance of and like reading about these issues to incorporate into my teaching, but they are not the questions that comes first to my mind when I sit down to research. Nor do I research books, games, sports, or food, my other hobbies and interests, though I hope to research food as part of a future project. In fact, the questions that come first to me as a student and now an early-career scholar tend to look like those of someone who grew up reading old-school political histories and fantasy novels—probably because I was.

This does not, however, mean that my identity is absent from the types of questions that influence my research. It just took a while to figure out what linked the questions I kept coming back to in classes and, eventually my dissertation.

There are outliers, but unifying threads to most of my research is the tension between the center and periphery and a dissatisfaction with histories that normalize the political, cultural and economic centers. This manifests in a number of forms, including an interest in how the Macedonian court of Philip and Alexander incorporated newcomers into their court, interest in the Roman provinces, and an interest in parts of Greece outside Athens and Sparta. In particular, it manifests in my main research project that reinterprets the position of Ionia in the Aegean. The question is how any of this a reflection of my identity.

I grew up in small town Vermont, far enough north that I’ve had people tell me that it might as well have been Canada. Fads and trends came almost stereotypically late before the arrival of fast internet, like in Pawnee from Parks and Rec. In fact, Woodbury, which is where I went to elementary school, was peripheral to the larger town of Hardwick, where I went to high school, meaning that this peripherality operated on two levels. Adding to all of this was that my parents had moved to Vermont from the midwest. I recall that the integration to high school was harder coming from Woodbury than anything about my parents’ backgrounds, but these factors are all woven together into my background.

I don’t consciously think in these terms when I choose what I research, but in retrospect these factors absolutely shape my approach to history as much as they shape my exasperation with New York or Los Angeles as normal for America.***

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***This is not exclusively an urban-rural distinction, or a coastal-flyover one, but a complaint about using a funhouse mirror version of two of the largest metro areas in the United States as shorthand for “American” in cultural representation.