Cycles of the Day

I’m old enough to remember (I start a lot of sentences that way now…) when computers were something of a novelty, when the bowling alley I worked in started installing arcade games like Asteroids and Missile Command and Centipede. But there were low-tech versions as well, and one of them was a free “app,” we’d call it now, that calculated your biorhythms.

What are biorhythms? Oh, children, you might as well ask me who Tom Selleck or Cybill Shepherd were, you pain me so greatly with your youth…

Biorhythms were a 1970s pop-psych version of astrology, basically, in which the moment of your birth launched a series of sine waves endlessly rolling from +1 to –1 but on different periods. Your Intellectual rhythm was a 33-day cycle; your emotional rhythm was a 28-day cycle; and your physical rhythm was a 23-day cycle. So, harnessing the power of the computer for trivia as we so often do, you could put in your date of birth, and the computer would calculate your cycles for the coming month, pointing out auspicious days during which all three sine waves would be in positive territory, warning of simultaneous troughs.

I am not a believer in biorhythms, but I have found that I have daily rhythms. My intellectual and emotional state is higher in the morning, my physical and emotional state is higher in the afternoon, and my intellectual state stands alone in the evening.

What does this imply for my working life? That in the morning, I have creative gumption. I can do things that are focused and risky, like teach and send out applications and contact literary agents. In the afternoon, I have physical gumption—time to do chores, to work in the woodshed, to sit through yet another meeting, things that don’t require a lot of creativity. And in the evening, I can do things that are focused and private—I can write, I can read.

I knew, back when I was writing my dissertation, that I wasn’t going to be able to come home and write in the evening if I’d had an intellectually demanding day ahead of it. So I got a job selling furniture, which I could leave behind at 6PM and be able to write for five or six hours after dinner. And I’ve learned to never teach a class between 12:30 and 2:30 in the afternoon. I have NEVER had a good class in the early afternoon, as a student or a teacher. I’m awesome before lunch, though.

You too should study your daily cycles, to understand what times of day work best for the various aspects of your life. Try to defend those times when your work comes most readily to hand, and schedule meetings during the slop time when you’re no good for thinking. The subcommittee on website revisions does not deserve your best resources.

The Anonymous Professor

  • Her son was murdered, and she began to study sociology as a way to understand the world her son had travelled in. She now teaches at a small college, a 5/5 load, trying to bring other students to understand of the duties of friends.
  • He grew up in wheat country, not understanding as a child that the grain elevators and railroad tracks, along with bringing a few jobs in, also took enormous resources away for pennies. “I never heard the word taco until I was twenty-five,” he said. “I never had one until I was twenty-seven.” He now teaches others how to read—and to be curious about—the world around them.
  • He has published nearly 500 articles in chemistry, and his new college lured him away from a prior position with a lab fund of two million dollars and a job for his wife. He makes two dozen international trips a year, and has not booked his own travel in twenty years. He brings undergraduate students into his lab teams, working alongside postdocs.
  • “I decided when I was twelve,” she said, “that I either had to go to college or I’d end up like my family.” She recently used vacation days to attend the funeral of her brother, who’d died of an overdose, following on the history of their father’s similar demise years earlier. She did not tell her faculty colleagues why she was away.
  • She graduated from high school at 17, her BS in mechanical engineering at 21, her PhD in mechanical engineering at 25, and was tenured at a top-tier research university at 31. She brings her school millions of dollars a year in research funding, and has been responsible for dozens of new PhDs from her research group.
  • He works in the registrar’s office at another college, and also DJs on the weekends. He collects international rock music, and once burned a CD of Vietnamese psychedelia for a colleague in his office. He teaches Intro to Sociology at a nearby community college, on their late-night shift from 11:30 pm to 2:30 am.

How little we know of those people who stand in front of us. If we become one of them, how little we know of our colleagues. As long as we hold our generic label of “professor”—as opaque a term as “barista” or “waitress” or “soldier,” a nameless servant who does their duty—we are permitted to not know the person. Education can be thought of merely as packets of information being shifted back and forth between invisible entities, like automated stock trading.

“Student,” of course, is equally opaque. But because of their youth and naivete, they’re often more willing to tell us their stories. I had a young woman in tears in my office, knowing (incorrectly) that she wasn’t capable of doing the work that her college demanded. “I know I’m only here because of field hockey,” she wept. I had a young man in class who was going to college in order to make enough money to buy back the farm that had been in his family for five generations, that his father had been forced to sell. I had varsity athletes who told me of the galvanized steel pails around the weight room that were there within handy reach, for them to vomit into from overexertion and dehydration in their pre-dawn workouts. I had a student tell me about his mother calling from Taiwan every Saturday morning to find out if he was dating a nice Chinese girl yet, to tell him once again how it would be her death and shame if her grandchildren spoke another language.

Why do we leave our homes and become something other? Why do we stand on the far shore and try to welcome various of the refugees escaping their homelands? Why do we become so obsessed by fruit-fly digestive chemistry, or a 19th century political economist, or the ways that teenagers use their communities, that we spend much of a career in isolation, pursuing those ghosts? The answers are as diverse as we are, too often hidden away even from ourselves. If we explored, and shared, the motives and dreams and fears that drive us, perhaps we would do better at the human work of teaching and learning.

Unseen Allies

Years ago, I read an interview with John Updike in which he talked about the joy of receiving a fresh box of his new books. He smelled them. He held them in his hands, admiring their covers, turning them gently so they’d catch the light like a jewel. He opened one, pleased with the publisher’s choice of typeface, so graceful, so elegant. And then, invariably, within the first few minutes of browsing, he’d come across a typo, and his joy was dashed.

I now have my own box, as of yesterday morning. And I have done exactly those same things. But I cannot yet bring myself to open one, for fear of my own glaring error.

My phobias, though, are not the point of today’s message. Today’s message is about how much better the book is because someone else made it that way. I spent much of the summer and fall of 2015 exchanging documents with the Press’s stellar Renaldo Migaldi, Senior Manuscript Editor. Renaldo read every single one of the 110,000 words in the manuscript, already a remarkable dedication; you and I as civilians almost certainly don’t read every single word of the things we read—we gloss, we slide, we skim. Renaldo did not. He dug in, locating every hitch and hiccup along the way. Of which there were a stunning number.

Now, remember, this is the University of Chicago Press, the curators of the Chicago Manual of Style. One does not argue with the very people who hold the sacramental chalice. So I, rightly and wisely, conceded nearly every point, and the book is vastly better for it. I am forever grateful to Renaldo for making the PhDictionary a far, far better work than it had started out to be.

And yet… this book is written in a colloquial, casual voice. I wanted it to be fun to read. And so the few tangles that Renaldo and I found ourselves in was due to my use of some construction that just sounded like folks talking. And, of course, it WAS technically incorrect, but I managed to hang onto a few of them where I thought they were most crucial to the spirit of a story.

Language is musical. If you play some selected notes off the beat, it humanizes the sound, gives it intention and specificity. If you play every note off the beat, you’re just inept. Renaldo brought this manuscript into sharp time, against which my most personal hesitations or surges could be heard more clearly.

Even this most internal of projects—a sole author communicating my own thinking—is a team endeavor. There are at least four people I can name at the Press whose attention to this book has brought it alive; there are a dozen early readers and reviewers who simultaneously encouraged and nudged. As Elizabeth Warren rightly says, none of us build it on our own.

Yes, but…

Why are faculty meetings so miserable?

I think it’s because, as scholars, we’ve trained ourselves in ways that make it almost inevitable.

Think about the basic moves of a scholar’s career. To paraphrase Birkenstein & Graff’s work on academic templates, the origin of almost every piece of research can be summarized as “Although the phenomenon of __________ is relatively well understood, it is not yet clear how ______ takes place.” Or, to paraphrase even more briefly, “Yes, but…”

We make our bones by carving out some small aspect of a larger problem and complicating that aspect, bringing it to center stage. So what happens when a dean brings a request to the table? Or when a hiring committee is down to its last candidates? Or when a policy needs to be revised? We gloss over the 78% of it that we might agree upon, and raise the disagreements to the top of the pile so that we can exercise our analytical powers upon them. By so doing, we find aspects of the problem that we might natively have agreed upon and make them unstable as well. Before long, a pretty reasonable idea is remanded to a subcommittee for further study, but not until all 35 people in attendance have given us their unique reading on the underlying problem that makes this problem insoluble.

Sometimes this strategy is taken up on purpose. A common block to data-driven curricular reform is to read an interesting and evocative piece of assessment, and say “This is really powerful. You know what else we need to study is…” This puts the onus back upon the assessment team, and the speaker is never held responsible to act any differently. But I think most of the time, we’re just enacting the very best skills of academic life in venues where they’re counterproductive. (And all of our very best skills are counterproductive in some venues.)

Here’s a proposal to make faculty meetings enjoyable. Whenever someone comes to the table with a recommendation, ask yourself whether that recommendation is cruel and mean-spirited. If not, ask yourself whether you think it irreparably damages the department or institution, whether it rises to the level of existential threat. If not, say—out loud—”That’s a terrific idea. Go for it.” And then let it go and take up the next item on the agenda.

Unseen Work

I tend to mistrust “how-to” books. I think they’re too sanitized to be trustworthy, reducing complex and contextual circumstances to linear recipes. Much more interesting are the “how-it-happened” books, in which some person talks about how their amazing life got to be so amazing. Filled with stories and accidents and roads not chosen, these are the books that I’ve found more reassuring and helpful. There’s a reason The PhDictionary isn’t structured as a how to get a job book…

One of my very favorite “how it happened” books of recent years is Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2009, London, Jawbone Press). Bill Bruford was the drummer for the band Yes in its early years of huge success, then jumped ship for King Crimson during its early years of huge success, and then pursued a succession of personal projects (Bill Bruford’s Earthworks) and fun side jobs (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, or BLUE). He’s one of these players who revolutionized his instrument—contemporary drummers do things a little differently because of him, they have more possibilities at hand (so to speak…).

Bruford’s structured his book around a series of common questions he never wants to answer again. What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? Do you just play anything you like? Do you like doing interviews? And one of those questions was “Oh, you’re a musician. So what do you do during the day, then?” He never actually does the arithmetic in the book, but as I read, I came to estimate that maybe 30% of his professional working life as a drummer was spent behind a drum kit, practicing or rehearsing or performing or giving lessons. The substantial majority was engaged in the business of music:

  • auditioning and hiring other players
  • arranging practice venues
  • scheduling studio time
  • reviewing designs for t-shirts and CD labels
  • managing product distribution
  • scheduling tours and organizing transportation
  • getting paid by promoters and venues
  • shipping musical instruments and sound equipment around the world, and setting them all up when he arrives
  • doing interviews, signing autographs, working his own merchandise table after the shows

Here’s a fraction of the setup for a concert in Cadiz, Spain (after he’s rebuilt his own drum kit, a job the technicians had bollixed up wholesale):

After about 30 minutes, I take time to mic and position the grand piano, mic and position the bass amp, position and monitor the music stands, and complete the thousand-and-one other tasks that will make the stage ready for the arrival of my colleagues. This is, of course, the job of the production manager, for which I am now wearing the seventh of my nine hats. The drum kit is functional and soundchecked with minutes to spare; the others walk in. Unnecessarily sensitive to the collective mood, my radar scans the arriving group and gratifyingly registers laughter, stories. Next up, then, for the next hour and everyone’s amusement, is the bilingual soundcheck, with no translator.

While not as glamorous, academic life also has its unseen logistical worlds, jobs no one ever teaches us but that we must know how to do in order to do the work people think we do. We need to learn to operate and modify software, to set up and calibrate equipment. We need to learn how to respectfully ask permission to engage the archives of a crabby family, or a justifiably resentful subjugated culture. We need to learn to book our own travel, to act as our own literary agent, to act as our own promoter, to be our own tech support when we’re on the road and our laptop acts up. We manage down, when we bring the recalcitrant student into some degree of engagement with our course; we manage up, when we bring the recalcitrant dean into some degree of acquiescence with our research plans. We organize schedules, write budgets, manage expenses, build and supervise teams. We manage hurt feelings and encourage new partnerships. All of those are learned skills, too often learned in shame and secrecy by screwing up unnecessarily and repeatedly.

One of the goals of The PhDictionary was to make those logistical skills at least visible, so that younger readers could know that these problems were coming and that they could ask about them in advance. But a second goal was to make those logistical skills newly visible to older readers who already do them—to remind advisors and chairs and deans of their own responsibilities to teach the logistics and the culture of our profession, not merely the 30% of working life that has to do with content.

Yet again, in the anteroom…

I went up to Middlebury College last night to watch a marvelous movie, Mr. Turner, about the English painter JMW Turner. It’s absolutely a marvel, with Timothy Spall giving a fully embodied performance of a deeply talented and deeply unlikeable man. But for our purposes, I’d like us to consider this brief clip of the Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition.

If you are considering a career in higher education, these are the people who will—or will not—grant you entry. They all know one another, and have for decades. They know one another’s work, they have their ongoing friendships and grudges, none of which will be visible from outside. Pleasing one will offend another. And you, coming in with your avant-garde ideas, will have a hard time getting traction. You may be placed, yet again, in the anteroom…

As a thought experiment, imagine yourself coming into a setting like this and trying to become a part of it. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that you have a sponsor, an ally on the inside… walking in unannounced and un-introduced will gain you nothing at all. So let’s imagine that the mighty Mr. Turner himself has taken you under his wing, and is introducing you to his colleagues in the Academy. How would you work the room? How would you do the ethnographic work of understanding how to position yourself?

And let’s now address those who are already inside the safety of membership. If you wanted to bring a young colleague into this community, how would you do it? What features of her work would you bring to the fore with different members of the chamber? Who would you make sure she met?

The faculty of higher education is a membership organization, no different than the Elks Club or the Masons, in which the current members elect new members. You need a sponsor, and that sponsor has to intercede on your behalf with skill and tact. And whether prospective member or sponsor, you need to think carefully about the tactics you’ll employ.