I used to be a medievalist.

I’m still a medievalist, of course, but in the years between grad school, where I wrote a master’s thesis on Beowulf and the Old Saxon Heliand and a doctoral dissertation on the scribes of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, I have not done the kind of manuscript study or textual analysis that I did in these works, much less kept up my reading facility in Old Saxon.

Actual evidence that I could translate Old English in grad school.

I am a generalist. I teach poetry from Homer to the 18th century, and I also teach a seminar on a 20th century Italian novelist. I guess it was bound to happen.

But it’s also a series of choices.

I have, in working toward tenure and promotion, done more research about the act of teaching than about the content I teach. That’s fine. Teaching is vitally important to me, and I do not regret that work. Also, I have never stopped wanting to read more, learn more, and broaden my scope. It’s why I chose Medieval Studies, as opposed to a smaller, more focused field. Some people make a whole career out of a single author. I have never been able to choose just one. (This holds for cookies too–and other things–if one kind is good, isn’t five a whole lot better?)

But I opened up my thesis the other day, and reading through my translation of the Old Saxon gospel and my argument about how the language was developing in relation to its other Germanic sibling languages, and the impact of that on our understanding of that text made me long to wander back to manuscripts and lay aside my anthologies for a bit.

Old English and Old Saxon texts minus the sweat, tears, and graphite.

There is a different kind of pleasure in encountering an ancient text in its original language. This was my job throughout most of graduate school, and if there is one thing I miss about that kind of study, it’s the language. To read The Heliand at that time meant calling up all my Old English and Old Norse knowledge and triangulating to deduce meaning in the Old Saxon. Otherwise it’s Dictionary City, and you look up every word. But if you’ve met Beowulf in an Anglo-Saxon bar, and watched Thor bash giants in Old Norse, Jesus’s life is pretty easy to follow in Old Saxon.

They warned me. My Anglo-Saxon professor said to relish our Beowulf reading, because that seminar was likely the only time we’d read the whole thing in the original. He was right. I look at excerpts to critique translations. I show my students a page or two, but never the whole thing. It’s not appropriate or practical in a sophomore level survey of British Lit.

But I miss it.

So diving back in a bit has been a joy. Not the deadline for this paper I’m writing, but the sitting and reading the stories again, and the language. Hearing the sounds of the long dead languages as I roll them around in my mouth and realizing I can still read them. Because the pleasure of a medievalist is to study languages for reading ability without the pressure of having to produce intelligible Old Saxon on my own. I don’t need conversation skills, just reading skills. And those skills have not diminished in my absence from the manuscript rooms.

Beowulf is still fierce and cocky (ӕglӕca); the Danish queen is still decorously smacking him down, telling him not to push his luck. Peter is still a badass; Jesus still is a powerful lord (mahtig drohtin), trying to rein him in. For my money Game of Thrones has nothing on these stories.

Maybe I’ll pursue this kind of work again seriously, but if I don’t, it’s nice to know I can still enjoy the experience of reading these “olde bokes,” as Chaucer called them. That’s what I was after all those years ago anyway.

Happy summer, everyone. May you find time for all the weird little things that make your heart happy. I’ll keep my nerd flag high, so you’ll know where to find me.

Living · Reading · Teaching · Uncategorized

Ode on a Shortened Summer

The most glorious myth of academic life is the summer vacation. People who don’t teach sometimes assume the summers are one long, three-month margarita party. That’s never the case, of course, although some may start out that way.

Instead, those who work at state universities, at least in my experience, spend a significant chunk of summer doing the research or creative work they don’t have time to do during the school year. Then there’s the planning of next year’s courses. This year that was dramatic and demanding, as my school converted from a quarter system to a semester system, so even people who have been teaching the same things for some time had to reconceive their syllabus, reading lists, and teaching strategies.
There’s also a very real need to rest one’s head and do something different for a bit, so you can come back strong. I try to reserve time to read things I will never have occasion to teach. I wrote a beautiful list and made a stack of books at the beginning of summer. In addition to three more novels in my lovely, pulpy, mystery series, I intended to read twelve books, mostly fiction, one a re-read of a book I haven’t read since college (Kamouraska by Anne Hebert).
This year’s haul from Solvang. The Book Loft always has the best new fairy tales.
Looking at my list now, I only read four, started four more, and don’t know exactly what happened with the others. I never even pulled the mysteries off the shelf. I did, however, read a tall stack of new fairy tales I bought on a trip with my daughter, write a handful of blogs and a pitch for a children’s novel, and now I am plowing through three non-fiction books I just HAD to read before school starts.
I guess what I’m realizing that what’s valuable about summer for me is the ability to plan and then pitch the plan entirely.
From September to June everything has to be very carefully orchestrated. I keep list after list and plan and organize, so that all goes well in my classes and professional life. Summer is a welcome rest for my brain not just because I’m not prepping, teaching, or grading, but because I can afford to go unscripted for a while. It’s very liberating.
This summer, because we are shifting from quarters that ended in June to semesters that start in August, our summer is about seven weeks instead of eleven. And scripted or not, it has been jam-packed. We’ll be ready, because we must be, but we might all be starting out a little tired, which we usually don’t, I think.
I resisted this conversion for a long time. I voted against it. I grumbled when our vote was ignored, and we were simply told to convert. But now, staring down the barrel of my first week, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ll have sixteen weeks instead of ten to get to know my students better. I’m glad to have more time to go deeper in the texts I teach and to assign more writing and more revision. I’m part of an academic family, so I’ll be glad to have more holidays match up and have some more time off in the winter. Mostly, though, I’m just always glad to go back. That’s the real perk of this job—not the summer break, but the fall return.

The Not-So-Lazy Summer Blog

My life runs on an academic calendar. I teach; my partner teaches, and our kids are teenagers—one in high school, and one starting college. The wheel of our year rolls around the semester system.
In some ways it feels more natural to me—seasons correspond to semesters and breaks. It starts in the fall, with the welcome reprieve from Southern California summer. But SoCal summer is where we are now. It’s hot. I’m wilting. If I leave the house, I come back annoyed and sluggish. But one must leave the house, right?
You’d be amazed how many days this summer my kids have not left the house.
But we grown-ups have been homebodies too. On an academic schedule, you bustle from fall to spring, and leave some things for summer, when you have more time. Planning classes. House repairs. Yard work. Vacuuming.
So summer is when we anti-hibernate and focus on our home. It’s too hot to leave anyway.
Our happy house sits near the top of a hill in a little suburban track, and we own the hillside beneath our back yard. This year we had four sets of squirrel babies on that hillside. The number of bird species I have counted from the patio reached thirty (the last was a road runner! I’m not even kidding—it flew right in my back yard). The skunks continue to visit in the evenings, hopefully taking care of the June Bug larvae, so our tiny lawn doesn’t die.
And we’re gardening—butterfly-friendly flowers in the back, and veggies in the front, where the squirrels won’t eat them. The big goal for outside is to xeriscape the front yard. I’m optimistic.
We’re slowly getting greener and greener, and I’m loving it. This is our first summer with solar panels, so our outlandish air-conditioning habit doesn’t feel so awful. The front lawn has been forfeit since the last drought, but since we’re only capable of sustained effort in the summer, it’s taken several years for us to make it around to that project. This is our year. It will be a tasteful mix of wood chips, stones, and native California plants, right up to the vegetable garden. One cannot live on succulents alone.
My husband has been doing most of the outside work, and I’ve been coordinating the annual purge of extra stuff we accumulate over the year. All year long little piles form like anthills, and in the summer, the donations begin. If I do my job well, by the time school starts in the fall there will be room for new school clothes, and all the things we lost last year will be found, unearthed from beneath stacked books and camping gear that never quite made it back to the garage.
The purge has gone well inside, and outside the garden is bursting with life, even in the heat. As a native Nevadan, I still marvel at how EVERYTHING grows in California. About nine things grow in Nevada, and the top three are sage brush. But here, sunflowers and pomegranate trees and ginger all happily grow about their business with minimal effort, really. I continue to marvel, even after sixteen years. (I should own that I have a very high capacity for marveling, but still—it’s amazing.)
We have a few more weeks of summer and still a long list of household and work-related tasks, but we’ll get as much as we can done before the march back to our various campuses. And while we can, we’ll enjoy the sunflowers.

Lots of Work, but No Less Play: Observations on Academic Worklife and Personal Happiness

Every once in a while a student who’s considering going in to academia asks me how I manage to maintain a happy work/life balance.  I certainly don’t feel like an expert, but I am happy. But he first answer to that question has little to do with me:  find a partner who supports you and likes seeing you happy.
Rob and I got married very young. We were both sophomores in college, both enjoying college, and both invested in a long haul, education-wise. We were also both youngest children, so a friend of mine who was interested in Birth Order and personality warned us that “Two youngest children will spend each other in to the ground.”
I suppose he wasn’t wrong.  We’re still paying off student loans, even as our children get ready for college. What we both brought to the relationship, whether from birth order or some other reason, was a conviction that we deserved to be happy, and joy at seeing the other person happy. That was enough to be getting on with.
Some of the ways that has been borne out over the years are by spoiling ourselves and each other by spending money on our respective hobbies. One of the vows we wrote in to our wedding ceremony was “to encourage each other’s development as an individual, through all the years and changes of our lives.” One thing about getting married at 19: growing up and changing needs to be understood and embraced. He plays WarHammer, a game which involves dropping a ton of cash on plastic bits you can’t even play with until you’ve built and painted them. It also means I happily spend $20 on a single stamp set, seeing it as an investment in my future happiness.

It also means we’re protective of each other’s time. He’s quick to point out that a free weekend is sometimes worth more (cosmically) than what I would make grading Graduate Writing Tests, and I was overjoyed when my raise meant he could drop a class at the school that was both farthest away and the least fun for him.

Mostly, though, it means we have each other’s back in terms of support. When he’s got grading to do, I safeguard his time by picking up slack around the house. When I have something to write, he packs the kids off to Magic Mountain for the day.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about this is not how stinking lucky I am (I am—I’m aware!), but how this balance happened in a single generation.  My mom was delighted to be a Stay At Home Mom, and my dad was delighted to be a Provider.  But somehow as they raised me, it never occurred to me not to work outside the home. And Rob, who was raised by a single mom, always knew he wanted to be an involved dad.
Maybe that’s a place to start, or in my case, end—start from the understanding that you need to work—to contribute—but with the knowledge that a) there are different kinds of work, and home-making counts, and b) if you work at something you love, you’re already halfway to balance.  Second, remember that no matter how much you love your job, it is a job.  As such it supports your life, but is not your life.  This is the difference between living to work and working to live, right?  You owe it to yourself and to your family to have a full, happy home-life, and if you have kids, to model that for them.
And then, if you can, get on the Scheduling Committee, so you can write your own schedule. 😏
PS:  The Robbian Corollary to Work/Life Balance requires far fewer words.  He believes you need to be challenged to be happy, but also supported.  So the best way to do that is to have a demanding, challenging job and a relaxed, happy home.  Hard Job/Easy Home, rather than Easy Job/Hard Home.  I could be wrong, but I expect that’s his advice for everything from choosing a career to choosing a partner to the Grand Secret of Happiness on Earth.  He’s much more succinct (and dramatic) than I.