The Fall semester starts in just under two weeks for me, which means that it is now time for the annual rush to get lots of stuff done in time and/or before things actually get started. I have especially noticed the past week or so the pre-semester struggle to balance working on syllabi and calendars and a new class with scholarship. If I don’t feel like one, I can do the other right? In general, it is not a bad thing to switch off between two tasks as long as both get done. The problem comes in when you want to do one more than the other, or avoid one more than the other. I’ve been struggling with getting motivated to write the scholarship. The goal is to have a complete draft of an article developed from a conference paper done before August 13 (Monday, first day of class), but it’s been rough actually making myself start some days.
Another observation I have made is that it seems like I find a new writing technique to try out about every year. Admittedly, the beginning of a new semester is a good place to start a new habit like this but it seems like I’m needing a new one about once a year. In any case, the new process is an adaptation from something I saw addressed to novelists on social media (Twitter maybe): 500 words OR 5 pages editing OR (my addition) 2 hours of research 5 days a week. So far it seems like 500 words is not a lot at one sitting, but it’s supposed to add up, which in theory it does. The problem with this technique is that it does not account for the amount of time that researching or running down a source can take in academic writing. Most scholars know the feeling of trying to figure out a something as small as a footnote, which can take hours or days. Or finding a really promising citation, but then spending an hour trying to figure out if you have access to the source. Then you have to read the source, and if it does suit your need, work it into what you’re doing, not forgetting to record the citation. This takes time. I figure 2 hours is about what it would take me on average to meet the writing or editing part of the rule, so that’s what I’m going with.
I think that part of the reason for the annual reset is that I’m usually just back from a conference mid-late July, full of all kinds of new ideas and possible interests to pursue. This time I was in Toronto for the Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society. Something I’d noticed previously at Kalamazoo (ICMS 2018) was that in addition to the usual which panel sounds better out of two interesting ones I was having to decide between something that sounded more like fun (as in popular culture) and ‘I have no idea what this is but it sounds interesting’ (‘scale jumping’ anyone?) and something more traditional that sounds like I should go to that one (manuscript-y things). More often than not, when I went to one of the first two, I enjoyed the panels far more and got more ideas for myself than the last one. It’s an interesting trend, although I’m not entirely sure what it means.
As often seems to happen, I was again reminded of some things that students face, like getting an assignment just right before it’s due. In my case, this was discovering a much more concrete thesis idea somewhat under pressure (I figured it out about a week before the paper was scheduled to be given) and a good conclusion (in this case, a Mythbusters reference closing a paper on Chaucer). As with many conferences, there’s the inevitable informal competition to see who can or who did put off writing or finishing their presentation each time. May I never be a winner for that one.
There were however a couple of firsts for me at or immediately following my panel. Someone whose work I’d used in my research was there (and asked me a question, which is kind of an academic high five), and I’m just glad I’d seen his name badge earlier and knew who he was. Right after the panel, someone else whose work I’ve used came up and pointed out a small, but possibly highly useful point that would allow me to bring in some manuscript evidence in to the argument if I ever manage to get it developed enough for submission to a journal, and all together I think this may have been the first time that I walked out of the panel and had to immediately take down a few notes on my own paper (on my presentation copy).
I once heard someone say that academics don’t go on vacations; we go to conferences. There is some truth to this. Especially when the conference is held somewhere I have never been to or haven’t been in years, it’s interesting to get to explore a little bit, both on my own and for conference events. This year I had to skip the excursions day the day after the conference formally ended to head back home, but I still got to see a bit of Toronto, especially around the University which is within walking distance of downtown and Chinatown. There are also quite a few fun coffee shops, which is something I personally like to try out. Seeking out and exploring the local coffee culture has becomes a little bit of a habit for me in recent years, and Toronto has a good mix of places as far as I can tell. I also had more ramen (3 out of 5 nights) than I have had in a long time.
During the conference itself, there were two events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One was more of a cocktail hour, but the other was a special small display of medieval Ethiopian artifacts pulled from the collections just for the medievalists. This included some painted polyptych wooden pieces, and a few books. The spell and anti-spell books were pretty impressive, and I wish I could have read them to see how they compared to the European ones (mostly in Latin) that I can read. After viewing this little exhibit, we were free to visit the rest of the museum. As it turns out, there was a major special exhibit dedicated to Canadian Inuit artists. I wandered in by accident, and by the end I was pretty fascinated by the art and the ideas behind it: http://ago.ca/exhibitions/tunirrusiangit-kenojuak-ashevak-and-tim-pitsiulak
What first caught my attention was an aesthetic that I appreciated, and then there was the artist’s explanation of the owl image that seems to be her most famous work. I’d never thought of owls that way, and I really liked how she put it. This year the conference seemed especially interested in taking notice of the local native culture, as evidenced by a notice early in the program concerning how the University of Toronto is built on lands originally belonging to local native tribes, as well as opening the conference with a smudging ceremony. I had no idea what this was when I saw it on the program, but it turns out it’s a native purification ceremony, which in this case was followed by presentations not entirely in English. There was also a play performance of a Nigerian adaptation of a piece of the Canterbury Tales, and it too was multi-lingual. This new focus on multiculturalism is most certainly intentional as medieval studies has recently been facing some public (at least if you’re an academic interested in these areas) issues with inclusivity and racism. These issues are more complex and difficult than I can address here and now, but they’re out there and not hard to find. Just ask Google