Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On getting things done

The question I was asked the most at this year's Kalamazoo medieval conference had nothing to do with research projects, blogs, or bungee cord chairs. Though I did receive the occasional interrogative on each of these topics, the question posed to me most frequently was "How do you get so much done?"

First, I should say that I don't think that I get much more done than most other academics at their career midpoint, at least not those who have been fortunate enough to land a position at a research institution. I just have a way of publicizing these projects ad infinitum, making me seem more prolific than I am.

I've written three monographs (Of Giants; Medieval Identity Machines; Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain), edited or co-edited five volumes (Thinking the Limits of the Body; The Postcolonial Middle Ages; Becoming Male in the Middle Ages; Monster Theory: Reading Culture; and the in-progress Cultural Diversity in Medieval Britain: Archipelago, Island, England). I've done maybe 15 journal articles and essays for collections, and maybe that many reviews and encyclopedia entries. But I've been a licensed medievalist since 1992 (the year in which I suspect many of this blog's readers were born). During that fifteen years -- thirteen of which have been in a tenure track and then tenured job -- I have had two and a half years of leave time, a combination of sabbatical, "special" release time as a junior faculty member to work on my book, and a year funded via a generous ACLS fellowship. I also have the good fortune of a reasonable teaching load; I can accomplish some research and writing during the semesters when I have had a full teaching schedule. And because we have a graduate program here, I've often been able to teach topics that I'm in the midst of researching, giving my work both a boost and a captive, catalytic audience of enthusiasts.

That's a long way of saying that I am quite aware that I've had more time available to me for research and writing than many of my friends and colleagues in the profession have been able to enjoy. The gift of time obviously makes a substantial difference to fostering productivity. It also, I should add, has allowed for a fairly well adjusted family life.

I am not a scholar who will one day be famous for having squinted at a line of the Domesday Book for two decades and then having coming up with THE brilliant essay upon animal husbandry and diseases of cattle in Suffolk. Likewise, some scholars linger over every word as it appears upon their screen, an agony of mental thesaurusizing to find le mot juste. Not me. I very much enjoy writing, finding that it liberates a surprising amount of pent-up energy. I often compose in my head long before I arrive at my laptop, so many a memorized sentence is bustling to escape. Like New Yorkers off a subway, in fact. I can't really type, so that rush hour of verbosity really does put my fingers in a tangle. Premeditation also makes for fairly swift composition, at least when I'm not simultaneously trying to translate Latin or work out the status of humanism as I'm composing. I'm also someone who keeps a very tight schedule. I hardly ever take a weekday off, and work steadily from early in the day into the afternoon so that by the time the kids are ready to be picked up I don't have to do much more than check my email to make sure the department office isn't on fire.

Another trick I use to compel composition is to agree to frequent conference panels and public lectures, especially ones in which I cannot deliver some talk I've given already. This strategy doesn't work so well now that I am department chair; I simply can't travel as much as I used to. Then again, another trick I've used in the past is serving me well right now: to initiate a new research project or jump start a languishing one, put together an edited collection or journal cluster on the topic. I'm too much of a perfectionist to miss deadlines, so this particular motivator to publication has worked well.

In the back of my mind, though, I fear that my work will be seen as thin or rushed just because it might seem like there has been a lot of it in a little time (an illusion I hope I just dispelled; time is the reason there has been such work). It was a little disconcerting to me, for example, to see in a very positive review of Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain in the Times Literary Supplement that "Given the author's and series' prolific output, it is understandable but none the less unfortunate that this book has the marks of a rushed job" (citing reliance on secondary sources and my own previous work, as well as poor editing; personally I'd disagree with the first two, but would have to agree with the third -- the copy editing process was a nightmare, and minor but aesthetically displeasing mistakes remained when the book went to print). For the record, I'd been at work on the book since c.1999 (the Gerald of Wales chapter, for example, appeared in The Postcolonial Middle Ages). The ACLS fellowship I mentioned previously gave me a year without teaching or administrative responsibilities to labor on its pages, and that year was quickly followed by a semester of sabbatical. I actually had so much time that I put the book through several versions (remember the fabulations?) and wrote an extra half of the book that I had to cull.

A long answer to a short query, I know. And what I didn't admit is that while I was composing this blog post with my left hand, my right hand was typing away at my second laptop. I just finished two scholarly essays and a book review.


Anonymous said...

I am not a scholar who will one day be famous for ... having coming up with THE brilliant essay upon animal husbandry and diseases of cattle in Suffolk.

Now that is a shame!

Eileen Joy said...

I really appreciated this post, Jeffrey--it was insightful. As someone who has had a kind of weird and, to quote my Australian friend Pam Osmand, a "catty-wonkers" career trajectory, I have often struggled to find time to research and write, while in the past 2 years, thanks to my job at Southern Illinois where there is generous research funding and time off from teaching, I have written almost as if I were a machine, but I find it makes me psychotic sometimes. I spend too much time alone, even when I am in the midst of others, and wish I could spend more time with my family [but that's not my fault; it's geography]. I think you *do* have a reputation for being prolific but *not* for being hasty or rushed in your work. Indeed, if it weren't for the daring and creativity of your writing, I know some medievalists [including myself] who would have lost their medievalist minds long before, or at the very least, would have felt very alone.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! Thanks for drawing back the curtain on how you get so much done. Could you (and perhaps Eileen) be more specific about what you consider to be a "research" emphasis at your institution? Is this just teaching load? Is that 2/2, 3/2, or 3/3? Or are we talking 2/1 nowadays? Are there other features that you value as much, or more, than the aforementioned release time?

Eileen Joy said...

Anonymous--thanks for your questions [a lot, actually]. My current situation is a 3-3 teaching load, but as I was just appointed Director of Graduate Studies in my department, that is now a 3-2 load, BUT, because Southern Illinois has a really well-run Graduate School, I am able to apply for a one-course-release grant every year and those are usually funded at a level of about 75% [meaning 75% of all requests are granted]. In addition, my Graduate School offers very generous summer research fellowships in the amount of $6,000 and $8,000 [for 1/3 and 2/3 "off" summer time], which are funded around 50%. Of the 5 courses I teach every year, at least one is an MA seminar in medieval studies with about 8-10 students, the rest are in creative writing and early brit. lit & early world lit. [surveys with enrollments ranging from 25 to 38] and also at the senior level [400-level courses in Chaucer, for example, with 25-enrollment-caps], and I rarely teach composition [if at all]. ALSO, and I just have to share this, my school also provides very generous $$ incentives for developing new courses in what we call our New Freshman Seminar and Interdisciplinary Studies program [where I and another professor from another department can get $2,500 to develop a cross-disciplinary team-taught course, with enrollments between 50 and 100 students], AND, we also have other special grant programs for course development.

I must also say here that, before coming to Southern Illinois, in 2003, I spent five years teaching a 4-4 load, *all* first-year writing courses, while supplementing my income in the summer by teaching distance learning courses, teaching in a medium-security men's prison, teaching intensive writing seminars for junior high school students, working at Target [no lie], and also working as a history interpreter at Brookgreen Gardens [in S. Carolina, near Pawley's Island], taking tourists through the intra-coastal waterway and telling them about the history of the pre-Civil War rice plantations and also about the local flora and fauna. During those five years, I wrote my dissertation and also completed my first article [published in the British Library Journal] and wrote annual reviews for "The Year's Work in Old English Studies"] and delivered 2-3 conference papers a year. So, when I was under a lot of pressure, teaching-wise and $$-wise, I managed to get some things done, but now that I am at Southern Illinois, I am getting a helluva lot done, primarily because, even with a 3-2 or 2-2 teaching load, and even as the Director of Graduate Studies, my institution hands out what I believe are quite a few incentives for research [mainly in the form of in-house grants of either release time or summer money or both]. Our travel funding is also quite generous, such that it is not difficult to take 2-3 trips a year. In addition, my institution gives serious and *engaged* support to faculty who want to write external grants, and they reward us with extra travel and other types of financial support when we are successful with those.

But do you want to know what my *real* secret is as regards getting work done? I have a vice-chair who schedules all the classes and he make sure that regular tenure-line faculty only have to come in 2 days a week if that's what they prefer, as long as we are willing to teach one night course. So, for three years now, I have never had to be on campus more than 2 days a week. I would argue that someone who has a 3-3 load who has to be on campus 4-5 days a week could not get as much writing/research done as someone with a 3-3 load who only has to be on campus 2 days a week. I have always considered that my secret Southern Illinois "weapon." Also, my other secret: during the majority of the academic year, even though I have a partner and daughter, I live alone, with only myself to consult with each evening: "what shall we do tonight, self?" It is, in all honestly, delightfully freeing, while also sometimes very lonely, indeed. It can be human, then inhuman, but always productive.

J J Cohen said...

Though deans will hem and haw and pretend there is all kind of variation, in fact a full research teaching load is clearly 2/2. A partial release research load (the most common load at an institution that demands some publication but doesn't weigh it as heavily as a R1 university) is 3/2. A teaching load is 3/3. An insane teaching load -- not all that uncommon, as Eileen points out -- is 4/4.

Because I'm department chair, I currently teach 1/1. You'd think that gives all the time in the world, but it doesn't. I got very little accomplished last year in terms of scholarship because of administrative demands; they are far far greater than my one course release.

Finally, I want to say for the record: many professors who are not all that research active make it seem like there is a choice an institution makes between having research active faculty OR excellent teachers. What a crock. It is possible -- indeed, absolutely necessary -- to be both. Having just written up thirty faculty evaluations, I can say that my most actively publishing colleagues are also the finest instructors we have in our GW classrooms.

J J Cohen said...

PS Thanks for your own thoughts on getting things done, Eileen. You're right, the two day a week schedule really helps, as does some solitude. Both of those are things I now miss!

Michel d'Uebel said...

As Larry the Cable Guy has it: "Git er done!"

I am a simple man, and not as productive as Jeffrey. Before I pass on, I may have a mere 4 books--two monographs and 2 edited volumes, and a slew of articles. With the obligations and possibilities for co-authorship I have, I should hit at least 40 articles. I've always been more of an article-man. Peace.