Index this Time Vampire

Okay, so I said I would tell you why I’ve sucked at posting so badly of late. Truth is there are a lot of factors; I have time vampire ideas to last me quite some time. And since I will inevitably run into a lack of inspiration soon, we’re going to drag them out as long as I can. This week’s vampire: Indexing.

You’ve all used a book index before; it’s how you get valuable information out of unnecessarily dense books without having to read the whole damn thing. We’re grateful for indices, we’re glad they exist. But someone has to put them together.

Despite all our wondrous technology, someone has to come up with a list of important terms throughout the text. Then you have to reconcile said terms. Then you have to search every page of the nearly 300 page text for that term. Big publishers contract someone to do that for them (this is actually a way several intentional communities raise money) but mine just relies on free grad student labor (read: me).

So yeah, that’s where I’ve been. I’ll never use an index without whispering a prayer of support for the poor bastard who put it together.

Time Vampire: Finding Money

Some years ago I interned at a large cultural institution I’m not going to name. One of the most important, and horrifying, lessons I learned there was that whether I went into academia or the public sector, half my time was going to be spent trying to find money. The nature of my chosen profession is that there just isn’t a lot of money in it. Government institutions are underfunded and universities are too busy funneling every available dollar into their athletics programs. That means that if you want to do research, you’re going to have to find a grant or fellowship out there to cover it.

I’m supposed to be writing my dissertation right now. I’ve gotten next to nothing done. Part of that is procrastination, and part of that is letting myself get sucked into doing jobs which should go to other people. But a big part of it is that I’ve been tracking down and applying for fellowships and grants. Thus far, I have been turned down for every one. That was a good use of my time.

Keep in mind I’m out of funding through my department, so next year I’m unemployed. Not only is no one going to give me money to go to Oregon and do research in some archives, no one’s going to give me money to pay my rent either.

So I’m stuck now: Do I continue devoting my time to tracking down obscure grants, praying that no other underfunded grad students are doing the same? Or do I actually write my dissertation in the hopes of just getting out of here and getting a grown up job? Because, of course, the faster I write the less money I need. The more grants I spend time applying for, the more grants I need. Ugh.

It’s a self-sustaining time vampire.

I fail at Vacation

I’m one of those people who can almost always summon the energy needed to get through the task at hand. I can function on four hours sleep per night for a couple of weeks at a time in order to survive the end of semester crunch. I can muscle through an autoimmune flare up. I can write a ten page paper in three hours. The problem is I tend to collapse afterwards.  Since late elementary school, the result of this ability has been me being sick over every school break. Oh sure, I make it through the semester with nearly perfect attendance, but as soon as there’s no school to miss anyway I’m down for the count. It always seemed unfair; I never got to enjoy my break because I was inevitably sick as a dog.

This didn’t get much better during undergrad. And there was the added entertainment of professors thinking Thanksgiving and Spring Break were justifications to assign extra work.

It continued through my MA program with the added twist that work didn’t necessarily stop over Winter and Summer breaks.

When I started my PhD it got even worse. Now I spend ten hours a week at least over the Summer working in a job that doesn’t pay me. My father keeps scolding me that I’m supposed to be on vacation and I have to explain to him it’s the trade off for having fifteen weeks “off” in the summer. Of course, during the semester I tell myself that fifteen weeks “off” in the summer is the trade off for working sixty hours a week for what is barely a living wage. The bottom line is that, like a lot of grad students, I have more to do than can feasibly get done, so “breaks” become “catch up time.”

What really hit home today, however, as I left the office (having spent my second “vacation” day in a row there) is that it’s not going to change. I dealt with those ruined breaks back in undergrad by promising myself that when I got a grown up job my vacations would be true vacations. Little did I know then that I’d be going into academia. Part of the reason I had so much work to do yesterday is that it was catch up time for my boss as well, so he spent that time creating more work for me (I’m sure that’s not quite how he viewed it). I’m going into an industry where there’s no such thing as vacation time—you work it around the course schedules. There are sabbaticals, but you generally have to find a way to finance them on your own. Want to have a baby? (I don’t, but if I did…) You can take a semester off or pay for a substitute.

I just feel like some of my motivation is gone. All that, “It will be better when…” is turning into “I need to learn to cope with…” Ugh.

Anyways, I’ve decided I’m not going into the office tomorrow!

I brought home a bunch of files, so I could work from home.

A New Career Option: Becoming a Superhero

I think everyone who reads this blog knows that I periodically threaten to drop out of grad school to open an ice cream shoppe (the “e” is not silent). I still haven’t given up on that idea, in fact, I declared yesterday that a particular abandoned building will be my premises. But I do have another back up career option in case this whole folklorist thing doesn’t work out:

I’m going to become a superhero.

I know you’re all thinking that grad school has finally made me crack, but bear with me a second.

The idea occurred to me last Spring at a midnight showing of The Avengers. No, I wasn’t inspired by the awesomeness of the movie. (Though it was pretty frellin’ awesome. I was going to write a review saying that, but we were on hiatus.) The movie hadn’t even started yet. But as I was sitting there waiting for it I realized that given the state of education funding in our country and the fact that so many of those who decide budgets for such things call the humanities and social sciences “frivolous”, my chances of becoming a superhero are equal to or better than my chances of getting a tenure track job any time soon. And then I thought, “Would that be such a bad thing?”

I didn’t know. I needed to do more research.

Fortunately, I was there with my friend J who teaches courses on comic books and therefore qualifies as a superhero expert. I turned to him and asked, “Do you think that superheroes get health insurance?”

He says he thinks that if you get on with a team like the Avengers or the Justice League or the X-Men you can, the problem is that you have to go “in network” with the team’s medical facilities for everything. Otherwise your copays are astronomical. The solo superheroes on the other hand we figure are like adjuncts with no coverage. Which has to suck big time because I’ve been told putting “juggler” as your occupation makes you a level 3 health risk, so putting “superhero” must make you something around a level 8. Sure, you can try to phrase it nicely and write “Man without Fear” or “Caped Crusader” but those wily insurance companies probably see right through that. (Of course, Batman can afford his own health care and Daredevil qualifies for disability coverage given that he’s blind, so this is all rhetorical.) We now know the real reason superheroes live double lives: they need a second career to get insurance!

Okay, so in this regard academia and superhero-dom (superheroics?) are about equal.

“What about retirement?” I asked. He says he figures there’s no retirement plan, they basically expect you’ll die before you get there. Fair enough. Still not much different than academia.

But here are the other perks you get as a superhero: cool clothes that might be made of unstable molecules (though if you go the solo route you’re gonna be making your own out of scraps from the college costume department like Daredevil); fame and possibly fortune; international and possibly interplanetary travel; housing possibly provided…

Academia offers… library access.

Now honestly, that’s a huge point in its favor. Because I love libraries and I love interlibrary loan even more.

In the end it all came down to this: in academia a huge chunk of your career will be spent writing grant proposals; as a superhero it will be spent battling the forces of evil.

If you’ve written a grant application recently, you know why the forces of evil are sounding like the easier option.

So there you have it: my new career trajectory. Stay tuned to the same peanutbuttery blog for a forthcoming post on my superhero qualifications.

Time Vampire Worth Letting Bite You

I recently read an article written by a woman who teaches freshman writing classes, which argued against the importance of teaching students proper citation format.  She stated that her students generally know how to format citations and are terrified of doing it wrong, but they lack other skills such as forming a coherent argument.  Honestly, I’d love to know where she teaches, because when I taught freshman writing classes my students couldn’t do either and showed no concern for proper citation.  But that’s beside the point.  She felt like time in high school writing classes would be better spent teaching kids how to actually write.  She went on to argue that proper citation is sort of an archaic practice anyway, and isn’t as important as many teachers make it.  As long as students get all the information in their list of sources somehow, shouldn’t that be enough?

I’ll admit there’s a good deal of merit to what she was saying.  I do think the most important skill students should get out of a writing class is how to create a good thesis statement and argue it effectively.  Honestly, to some extent I think that’s even more important than learning proper grammar.  All students will use this technique somehow or another later in life and they need to know how to do it right.  They also need to know how to recognize a specious argument when they see it.

But proper citation is important.  And not just to avoid plagiarism (though the truth is a lot of college students these days don’t even understand what plagiarism is).  I’ve become acutely aware of this recently because I’m compiling reading lists for my PhD exams, which means I’m hunting through a lot of people’s bibliographies and then trying to track down sources they reference.  Guess what?  It turns out there are a lot of published works with really badly formatted bibliographies.  And errors that may seem trivial can severely limit one’s ability to track down a book or journal article based on a bibliographic citation.

To be fair, the article I mentioned (which I can’t remember the location of, or I’d link it.  I do realize how hypocritical it is that I’m not using proper citation here.) did seem to acknowledge that proper citation format is important for publication, but sort of dismissively stated that if students become academics they can learn that later.  Guess what?  As the editor of an academic journal I can assure you they can’t.  It’s a rare, rare thing when an article is submitted with a properly formatted bibliography.  Poor citation format won’t really hurt your chances of publication with us, but we will require you to fix it before we publish it.  Which probably eight times out of ten means I will fix your bibliography, because I have found when I email authors telling them to do it, they can’t figure out how.  No, it shouldn’t be hard, but evidently it is.

And I feel like it’s a basic skill you should learn before graduating high school.  I’m not saying it’s important for students to memorize MLA, APA and Chicago styles, but they should know how to look up a format and format citations accordingly.  Just give them the tools so they know how to use them, that’s all I ask.

A lot of people might argue that most high school students won’t grow up to be academics, and that’s true.  But most of us will never use a lot of the things we learn in high school, but we learn them so we can start developing those basic skills in case they need them later.  I have never in my adult life needed to balance a chemistry equation.  I rarely use geometry and almost never use algebra.  But I do understand the logic in introducing me to those in high school.  (I do not understand why my guidance counselor forced me to take Pre-Calculus even though I didn’t need it to graduate, but that’s another rant).  I also understand the argument for trade schools that would skip a lot of this stuff, but again, another can of soup.

So I realize it’s a bit of a time vampire, but learn how to cite properly.  Or find a reliable computer program that will do it for you.  Otherwise it becomes a time vampire for other people.

Presentation Style

I promise, barring a conference emergency, this is my last conference related post for a while.  But I thought it might be of interest to some of our readers to hear my strategies for conference presentations.  Or more to the point, how vapid and superficial I can be.

Now professional conferences are a chance for working scholars to share and get feedback on their research.  It’s how you find out what’s going on in the cutting edge of your field.  It’s also a chance to hear leaders in your field, which can be incredibly inspiring (and provide connections for future jobs).

But I’m not leader in my field.  My research isn’t particularly cutting edge.  And a lot of the times it’s on a somewhat obscure subject.  I could beat myself up over all this stuff, but the truth is, there’s a limit to how much control over all that I have.  So my strategy is twofold:  I try to insert humor whenever possible and I make sure I look cute (as cute as I can… I’m not saying I’m all that).

The second part was advice from one of my advisers (who I must say, practices what she preaches).  The first part is… well you know I like the funny.  I think “If you can’t be interesting, be funny” are words to live by.  And I try to.  I discovered today that my friend J follows a similar strategy.  When I commented on what a bad strategy it might be, he said, “Look the bottom line is, at a certain point during conferences where people lose their ability to process theoretical material.  But they can always tell whether your blazer fits and your shoes are snazzy.”  (Honestly, I think there are a lot of people out there who don’t notice what anyone’s wearing, but that’s another matter).

Truth be told, I don’t know if any of this works on my audience.  But I know that it works on me.  I’m much more comfortable being funny than being deep.  And wearing a cute pair of tights, snazzy heels and a nice pencil skirt really does make me stand a little taller. Literally and figuratively.  It makes me more comfortable up there, which probably makes me more articulate.  And maybe, just maybe makes me more fun to listen to.

Or maybe not.  This year an older gentleman began snoring loudly during my paper.  But at least that brought the funny.

Some (annoying) thoughts on Commodification

If you’ve read this blog or you know me at all, you know that I love being a big nerd.  I love being an academic.  Hell, I love being a know-it-all and acting superior on occasion.  But at the same time, there are times I wish I could turn off my academic brain.

For example:

I know a lady who makes and sells all sorts of natural remedies.  Among them the best damn thing I’ve ever found to work on bruises.  I get a LOT of bruises.  And this stuff legitimately helps them heal faster.  It also works with scars and burns and just about everything.  (No, before someone asks, it’s not arnica.  My experience is that arnica really doesn’t do anything to help with bruises—it helps with inflammation and a little bit with pain, but that’s it).

Here’s where it causes me a little trouble:  She claims (and I assume it’s true though I haven’t done any research into it) that it’s base on traditional Native American medicines.  And if she’s Native American she doesn’t openly identify herself as such.  I took an entire class in heritage and cultural property which examined issues like this and raised some problematic questions.  It could be argued that this woman is profiting from centuries of research by Native Americans and she’s not sharing profits with them.  They didn’t get to patent their medicines like pharmaceutical companies, much less extend said patent like said companies are getting to do more and more.  (I’m sure Cammy would point out that if these medicines are as old as claimed, any patents on them would  have long since run out anyway.  That’s not really my point.)

My point is that every time I buy this stuff—and I’m going to keep buying this stuff because it’s awesome—this annoying little pretentious voice in the back of my brain yells at me for participating in the commodification of indigenous culture.  And since I clearly don’t care enough to stop, I just wish I could shove a sock in its mouth and make it shut up.

Time Vampire of the Week: Time on my Hands

Okay, so today’s time vampire seems paradoxical, except I’m willing to bet several of our readers have experienced it.  They say a task expands to fill the amount of time allotted for it.  Based on my experience, that is so true.

As you all know I’m a graduate student.  And I’m comfortable enough with poverty that I’ve decided to take this summer “off” minus intermittent performing and circusy related gigs.  (Note:  someone please inform Microsoft autocorrect that “circusy” is indeed a word.)  Except that “time off” in grad student land is not what “time off” is in movies and television.  (I started to say “in the real world,” but since every time I’ve ducked my head out into the real world I’ve screamed and pulled it back in, I don’t feel like I can speak about it with any authority.)  The bottom line is that I’m “off” for three and a half months.  Except that during my time off I need to write three book reviews (which entails actually reading said academic books), write three contracts and get them signed, publish an issue of a peer reviewed academic journal (which requires writing an introduction to said issue), type and mail edits to three articles for another journal issue, solicit entries for yet another issue of said journal, revise a constitution, browbeat a renowned academic into getting me a manuscript he promised a long time ago, compile the official reading list for my qualifying exams, and prepare to teach a brand new class in the Fall.

Guess how much of that I’ve done?  In the past month I’ve managed to type edits for one article and finish one of the books (and I had already read most of it).

Why so unproductive?

Because none of this needs to be done before the end of July.  And most of it doesn’t need to be done before the end of August.  And I’m someone who thrives under pressure.  And, like most people, I’m a procrastinator.

So why should I do any of this now when I could just spend the entire month of August budgeting myself four hours of sleep a night?

No seriously.  I’m asking that question because I really need some motivation here.  Because all this free time?  Is eating up all my time.  And I need help!

Cocktail Answers

I talked to my mother tonight.  For those of you who have never met my mother it’s important to understand that there is a fundamental difference between my mother and me—she believes in sharing everything, I believe in sharing the bare minimum where my family is concerned.  I’m not actively hiding anything, I just often think things aren’t important to share.  My mother responds to this by pelting me with questions.  She insists it’s just about wanting to be part of my life (my brother and sister spoiled her by buying houses within 20 minutes of her so she feels like I live in outer space).  Tonight she was asking me about the school work I’m doing right now.  I tried to give vague answers.  She persisted.  So finally I explained I’m writing a paper about moments of nourishment in The Sowdone of Babylone and how those moments are used by the text to try to resolve issues of conversion, assimilation and neighborlove.

There was silence and I imagine my mother was blinking blankly at the phone.

There’s a bigger problem here—the further you get into any area of academic (or I imagine technical) specialty, the harder it becomes to have conversations with outsiders about it.  I’m guessing this is why so many academics wind up pairing off (memo me:  add “must understand middle English” to personal ad). Take, for example, the conversation I had with one of my friends at our swing dance class about the aforementioned paper:

Me:  Well, there’s this magic girdle that the Saracen woman has and it nourishes everyone but they only get to use it once because Roland accidentally throws it out a window.

Her:  Of course, he does.  Fuckin’ Roland!  He always does that. I hate that guy!

This conversation made perfect sense to us, but I’m guessing many of you have no clue who Roland is or why we hate him so much.

The resolution to a situation like this and the one I have with my mom is what is called “The cocktail answer.”  This is the explanation you give at cocktail parties when someone asks you “what kind of folklore you do.”  It’s like how I say Cammy’s an international arms dealer because I don’t understand her actual job.  My problem is I’m no good at cocktail answers.  I kind of have one for my dissertation topic, except that what I wind up describing bears very little relation to what I’m actually writing about.  But perhaps that’s the beauty of a cocktail answer.  It doesn’t have to be accurate; it just has to shut people up.  And if I can figure out how to shut up my mother (who I really do love like crazy), that will be a miracle.

Academic Time Vampire

If any of you have been trying to connect with me this week you have probably failed.  There’s a good reason.  I’ve been kidnapped by this week’s Time Vampire:  Academic Conferences.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love academic conferences.  It’s like a vacation to nerd town.  What’s more, it’s your neighborhood of nerd town.  It’s a place where you can make a joke about an obscure theory and have people laugh at it.  It’s hours and hours of people talking about the things to which you’ve decided to dedicate your life.

The downside?

It’s hours and hours of people talking about the things to which you’ve decided to dedicate your life.

Which means you want to be in the thick of things all the time.  And that massive project due in one week you’ve barely started?  That stack of papers you’re supposed to be grading?  That medieval saint’s life you were supposed to read?  That blog you help run?

All fall by the wayside.  Which means you’ll be scrambling like mad next week to catch up.

In the midst of this you’re circulating and networking and trying to secure a career for yourself once you graduate.  And serving as a representative of the groups you’re already affiliated with.  Oh yeah, and you’re in a city you’ve never visited and may never visit again, trying to actually see something besides the interior of the overpriced hotel.

And this says nothing about the preparation.  Writing your presentation.  Packing.  Oh packing.  Trying to find the outfits that will best help you represent yourself to people you only see every year or so.  That may be hiring you in a year or so.  Dying your roots, because you’re about to see people you only see every year or so and don’t want them to know how much grey hair you have.

Oh yeah, and as much fun as it is, it’s also exhausting, so it will take you a couple weeks to physically recover.

Seriously.  I’m having an amazing time, but I also feel like this conference has stuck its pointy teeth (incidentally, in my field we actually have panels on vampires.  And colloquial expressions, like “time vampires”) into my life and is just slurping away the next month of it.