Summertime doldrums, or, I hate the idle pleasures of these days…

Well, OK, that puts it a bit strongly — but I find I don’t flourish in the summer, despite being happy (who could not be?) to have some warmth and sunshine. I find the relative formlessness of the days difficult: I do better with more of a routine, including a routine that gets me out of the house and into my office on a regular schedule. I have an office space at home, but for years now my “real” workplace has been on campus, and though I use my home office for lots of things, from marking to blogging, still, there’s something psychologically useful to me about being “at work” rather than at home. That includes the absence of domestic distractions: being at work in a predictable way really helps me feel less torn when I am at home between wanting to appreciate being with my family and give my children the time and attention they deserve, and trying to get work-related chores and projects cleared away. I realize that I am fortunate that the nature of academic work makes it possible to be home a lot during summer vacation, and my children are finally old enough to occupy themselves a fair amount, but I still don’t find it easy to concentrate, and the feeling of time drifting away amidst what we like to call (in honour of Mr Casaubon) “desultory vivacity” becomes nerve-wracking to me after a while. We also find that the city empties out during the summer as people head to their cottages. Neither of us was raised with the whole cottage phenomenon, and we aren’t interested in pursuing it now. We invested in a home in a very quiet and pretty part of town partly to obviate the need to rush away as soon as the weather turns nice, and we find one property quite enough to take care of (not to mention, to pay for). For various reasons, our family is also not particularly portable, so mooching off our friends at their cottages is not a live option. And so summers also feel quite isolated. Heck, even the internet is quieter in the summer!  I need to make a deliberate effort, in these circumstances not to prove a villain and get all restless and snarly.

To make sure I am in fact staying on top of my to-do list for work, I’m trying to focus on tasks that are more or less mechanical, like re-organizing my class syllabi and setting up Blackboard sites. I’m making progress here: two of my three fall syllabi are basically ready. All three fall Blackboard sites are in progress, though there’s a fair amount of housekeeping to do on them, because I’ve changed reading lists and am also revising assignment sequences since they were last used. I hate Blackboard. Everything about it is unbearably slow and clunky to manipulate. I also have the perhaps foolish idea that the course sites should be attractive, and should in some way reflect the themes and readings for each course, so that students feel that they are in a space that is an extension of our class time. I’m not computer-savvy enough to mean anything that elaborate by this, but I do choose colour schemes and custom icons and graphics to suit. For the Victorian ‘woman question’ seminar, for instance, I made a banner for the heading that is all different paintings of the Lady of Shalott, and at some point in the term we will reflect on the various representations in the context of our discussions of things like Victorian women as artists, problems of women entering the public sphere, idealizations of sick or dead women, and so on. I suppose I could just do the whole thing in a strictly utilitarian way and save myself time and grief (you don’t want to know how annoying it was getting that d–n banner made and then inserted–a process not helped at all by the painful sloth that comes over my otherwise zippy ASUS netbook when I’m inside the Blackboard interface).  I wonder if the students either notice or care how we set these things up. In any case, the tedious pointing and clicking of adding files, assignments, calendar entries (that’s the worst!) and links to things like the university’s academic integrity site as well as relevant web resources all has to get done by September, and it’s not the kind of work that gets thrown off too much by invitations to play MarioKart, demands for lunch, or doing taxi service to or from play dates or camps.

The other work project I’m puttering away at is my presentation for the conference in Birmingham, which suddenly does not seem far off at all! I leave in just over a month. I’ve been learning Prezi, because what I’d seen of it (e.g. here) made it look just right for the kind of wide-ranging, open-ended talk that seems appropriate: the panel is on “knowledge dissemination in Canada,” and I was invited to talk about my experience as a blogger. I intend a short preamble to the more autobiographical / anecdotal part that will address some principled reasons for academics to think about and maybe even try blogging — the state of academic publishing, debates about open access vs. ‘gated’ scholarship, the potential value of academic expertise in the public domain — and also a bit about academic literary criticism and its relation to the wider book culture. But I’m not going to be trying to prove one particular point or argue for one particular value or approach, so the linearity of PowerPoint doesn’t suit. I did use PowerPoint the last time I spoke on these issues, to my departmental colloquium back in 2007, so I do have some graphics I may be able to recycle! But Prezi is an intriguingly different beast and if I can get the hang of it, I think it will work well for mapping relationships between all these different but interwoven threads. Also, it’s fun to play with–which I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said about PowerPoint. And it comes with a warning that it may cause motion sickness in your audience if not handled with care. Now tell me you aren’t longing to try it! Imagine the effect some uncontrolled zooming might have on a batch of unsuspecting first-year students…

I’m reading, too–right now, Troubles, by J. G. Farrell, which won the “lost” Booker a while back. I am loving it: it is brilliantly, mordantly, funny, with a current of uneasy violence running through its main storyline that is perfectly suited to the novel’s historical context, the Irish “troubles.” It’s yet another book (like Old Filth or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) featuring a retired servant of the empire — though in this case Major Archer is retired from active service but still a young man — yet it does not give me the same uneasy feeling that I’ve been through these moves before. We’ll see if I still feel that way at the end of the book. When day is done and I can’t even putter any more, I am watching Downton Abbey. This does seem familiar (wasn’t it called ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ the last time?), but it is also very well done. I’ve just finished watching the Emma Thompson / Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Oliva Manning’s The Fortunes of War, which was excellent: I was most impressed that the series kept the oddly understated quality of the novels, which for some viewers might have made it unbearably slow in its pacing, which it is (slow,  not unbearable). While I watch these, I work on my bookshelf sampler, which I now believe I will actually finish by the end of the summer! I have just a bit more gilt for the book bindings and one final garland and then it’s time to mount and frame it.

My summer doesn’t sound so idle when I lay it all out like this! Add in that I’ve done some serious housecleaning (including, just this morning, taking everything out of the fridge, cleaning all the shelves and drawers, and putting everything back in all nice and orderly) and enjoyed such genuine summery activities as strolls in our beautiful Public Gardens, not to mention plenty of quality time with the kids doing other activities, and I feel quite pleased with the balance of work and play after all. Yet I will still welcome September, with its bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils* and the return to what feels–to someone who has, one way or another, been in school for nearly 40 years–like normal life.

*Sorry: I couldn’t find a clip with that actual line in it! But it’s near this point in the movie, I’m sure.

3 Comments to Summertime doldrums, or, I hate the idle pleasures of these days…

  1. July 26, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    For several years I ended up having a book to write over the summer holidays – nightmare! I learned how to type whilst keeping up a running conversation with my son, or at least a chain of uh-huhs’ and ‘oh reallys?’ and ‘mmm, lovely!s’. I reached the point of swearing never again, and have found it a relief to be able to just kick about without anything pressing to do. Even at 16 my son still likes to know I’m here and available should he need me. But I do know what you mean – the urge to Get Something Done rarely sleeps properly through the summer months, just dozes a bit……

  2. July 27, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Rohan,
    It was such a pleasure to read this post. Even the part about cleaning the refrigerator was, to me, moving and comforting. I have not been on an academic calendar for many years, so the structure and pressure never let up for an entire season. I often wonder what that would feel like. And now I wonder whether I would take the time to give my refrigerator what sounds like a wonderful cleaning. It could certainly benefit. Nevertheless, the pressures have kept me from visiting your blog as often as I would like over the past couple months. I did hear something today that I want to tell you about. On NPR, a story about the Norwegian crime writer Ann Holt and her view of the recent violence in Norway.

    I tried to see if you have written about her, as I remember several posts about Scandinavian crime fiction. Couldn’t figure out how to do the search, though. Anyway, you can read or listen to the piece at http://www.npr.org/2011/07/27/138756602/crime-writers-expose-scandinavias-dark-side

    I thought of you immediately as I was listening. Very interesting.

  3. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    July 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    @litlove, you are so right about that “urge to Get Something Done.” One trick, I suppose, is to expand the sense of “Something” to include family activities! But I think it’s because an academic’s work is never really done that we have such a hard time drawing the lines between work and leisure.

    @Susan, I think because I’ve been either a student or a teacher for so long now, what I wonder about is what it would be like to have a real 9-5 M-F job and feel no pressure after work hours! But in fact I know I’d hate that, because it would mean always being at work 9-5 M-F, without any flexibility… I will say that it feels good to have cleaned the refrigerator that way! My daughter helped me taking things out and putting them back in, and then drying the shelves and so forth as I washed them–with a little good music on, that made it a bit of work and a bit of play for us both! Thank you for the link to the NPR interview: I will listen to it soon. I don’t know her, though you are right I have written some here about other Scandinavian crime writers.

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