The Tree

Mom & me, next to the tree (December 1967).

I hunted through the cabinets where I’ve stored the old family photos to find this one this morning. It’s probably my favorite Christmas picture.

There are so many things about this picture that I’m haunted by, my mother chief among them. She’s barely 23 here — quite mature, by the standards of the time, to have had her first baby, and yet I can never see this picture without focusing on how unbelievably young she is. I want so badly to reach back through the image and help.

I also can’t help but focus on how tired she looks: I’m about to be four months old, and it looks like it’s been a pretty eventful four months. Her wrists are so delicate, and her skin is so pale. And yet for all that superficial fragility, she would hold everything together a few years down the road, when it all must have seemed like it was falling apart.

Youth aside, exhaustion aside, in this picture is my most intense connection to my mother. But for a slightly different nose, the girl holding the baby could perfectly well be me. My life, just starting in this picture, could have circled around to this point with no effort at all.

So much of the path I’ve taken — that she helped me take — has been different, and yet it all for me starts here, in the open-mouthed wonder of it all. How did they get this thing in here? And what for?

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

Tools and Values

I’ve been writing a bit about peer review and its potential futures of late, an essay that’s been solicited for a forthcoming edited volume. Needless to say, this is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time considering, between the research I did for Planned Obsolescence, the year-long study I worked on with my MediaCommons and NYU Press colleagues, and the various other bits of speaking and writing I’ve done on the topic.

A recent exchange, though, has changed my thinking about the subject in some interesting ways, ways that I’m not sure that the essay I’m working on can quite capture. I had just given a talk about some of the potential futures for digital scholarship in the humanities, which included a bit on open peer review, and was getting pretty intensively questioned by an attendee who felt that I was being naively utopian in my rendering of its potential. Why on earth would I want to do away with a peer review system that more or less works in favor of a new open system that brings with it all the problematic power dynamics that manifest in networked spaces?

In responding, I tried to suggest, first, that I wasn’t trying to do away with anything, but rather to open us to the possibility that open review might be beneficial, especially for scholarship that’s being published online. And second, that yes, scholarly engagements in social networks do often play out a range of problematic behaviors, but that at least those behaviors get flushed out into the open, where they’re visible and can be called out; those same behaviors can and do take place in conventional review practices under cover of various kinds of protection.

It was at this point that my colleague Dan O’Donnell intervened; by way of more or less agreeing with me, Dan said that the problem with most thinking about peer review began with considering it to be a system (and thus singular, complex, and difficult to change), when in fact peer review is a tool. Just a tool. “Sometimes you need a screwdriver,” he said, “and when you do, a hammer isn’t going to help.”

Something in the simplicity of that analogy caught me up short. I have been told, in ways both positive and negative, that I am a systems-builder at heart, and so to hear that I might be making things unnecessarily complicated didn’t come as a great shock. But it became clear in that moment that the unnecessary complications might be preventing me from seeing something extremely useful: if we want to transform peer review into something that works reliably, on a wide variety of kinds of scholarship, for an array of different scholarly communities, within a broad range of networks and platforms, we need a greatly expanded toolkit.

This is a much cleaner, clearer way of framing the conclusions to which the MediaCommons/NYU Press study came: each publication, and each community of practice, is likely to have different purposes and expectations for peer review, and so each must develop a mode of conducting review that best serves those purposes and expectations. The key thing is the right tool for the right purpose.

This exchange, though, has affected my thinking in areas far beyond the future of peer review. In order to select the right tool, after all, we really have to be able to articulate our purposes, which first requires understanding them — and understanding them in a way that goes deeper than the surface-level outcomes we’re seeking. In the case of peer review, this means thinking beyond the goal of producing good work; it means considering the kind of community we want to build and support around the work, as well as the things we hope the work might bring to the community and beyond.

In other words, it’s not just about purposes, but also about values: not just reaching a goal, but creating the best conditions for everyone engaged in the process. It’s both simpler and more complex, and it requires really stopping to think not just about what we’re doing, but what’s important to us, and why.

If you’ll forgive a bit of a tangent: I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which focuses on developing practices for renewing one’s energy in order to be able to focus on and genuinely be present for the important stuff in life. I only posted to Twitter, however, the line from the book that most haunted me: “Is the life I am living worth what I am giving up to have it?”

At first brush, the line produces something not too far off from despair: we are always giving up something, and we frequently find ourselves where we are, having given up way too much, without any sense of how we got there or whether it’s even possible to get back to where we’d hoped to be.

But I’ve been working on thinking of that line in a more positive way, understanding that each choice that I make — to work on this rather than that; to work here rather than there; whathaveyou — entails not just giving up the path not taken, but the opportunity to consider why I’m choosing what I’m choosing, and to try to align the choice as closely as possible with what’s most important.

In the crush of the day-to-day, with a stack of work that’s got to be done RIGHT NOW, it can be hard to put an ideal like that into practice. And needless to say, the opportunity to stop and make such choices is an extraordinary privilege; thinking about “values” in the airy sense that I’m using it here becomes a lot easier once things like comfort, much less survival, are already ensured.

But this is precisely why, I think, those of us in the position to do things like create new programs, or publications, or processes, need to take the time to consider what it is we’re doing and why. To think about the full range of tools at our disposal, and to select — or even design — the ones that best suit the work that is actually at hand, rather than reflexively grabbing for the hammer because everything in front of us has always looked like a nail.

So, an open question: if peer review is genuinely to work toward supporting our deeper goals — not just getting the work done, but building the future for scholarship we want to see — what tools do we need to have at our disposal? What of those tools do we already have available, even if we’ve never used them for this purpose before, and what new tools might we need to imagine?

Engage. Disengage. Repeat.

I believe that I have caught myself just this side of a major case of burnout.

If that sentence is an exaggeration, it’s not by much. A few friends who had the dubious pleasure of talking with me just after I arrived at THATCamp Leadership last week can attest that I showed up with an attitude that was in need of a little adjustment. Whenever I was asked how I was, I’d find myself starting out by saying “things are great,” which I meant, but which gradually gave way to a Five-Minute Complaint. I kept trying to stop myself, but it kept bubbling over. I’d hit some kind of limit, and my self-censor was just gone.

It wasn’t that I was unhappy about being where I was; I was very pleased to be back at George Mason, to be seeing my friends, to be participating in an event that promised to be both important and energizing.

It wasn’t that I was unhappy about where I’d just come from; I’d had an excellent, if action-packed, visit to talk with faculty and administrators at an institution thinking seriously about its digital initiatives in the humanities.

It was more that where I was and where I’d just come from were on the tail end of five solid weeks of travel and committee meetings, involving eight cities (not counting New York) and more planes, trains, and automobiles (and one unexpected van) than I can count.

It was thirteen nights in eight hotels over a five-week period, capped off with a musty room with two double beds (rather than one king) on a low floor (rather than a high one) with an industrial rooftop right outside my window (rather than pretty much any other view possible from that building).

Something about that room was the last straw, the thing that sent me right over the edge into a bitter litany of complaint aimed at anyone who would listen. But it wasn’t the room, and it wasn’t the trip: it was everything I’d gotten myself into over the previous month and a half, and — especially — knowing full well that I’d done it to myself. That no one was responsible for where I was, or for the mood I was in, except me.

I’ve spent the week-plus since trying to how to rectify this situation, how to pull myself back from the edge of complete flaming disaster. (1) Because, of course, my major projects did not grind to a halt in the office while I was traveling. Nor did the deadlines for the writing I’ve promised people this fall get any further away. It has become painfully clear that something has got to give — or that something will be me. And so, after a lot of thought, I think I’ve figured out what I need to do in order to make things better.

Less.

I need to do less.

* * *

You would be fully justified in rolling your eyes at this point. Because, yeah, duh. But this is a lesson that I have had to teach myself over and over.

I can read about the importance of significant downtime and totally get it. I can even go so far as to write about the degree to which stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation or about the role of goofing off in the most important, most creative work that I do.

But I somehow cannot internalize it all enough to refrain from over-scheduling myself. Or at least I have not done so. And even when I think I’ve done a good job of protecting myself, of determining what’s enough and trying not to go beyond it, I manage to cram enough tiny things in around the edges that I end up just as over-scheduled and exhausted as ever.

* * *

If I’m going to be completely honest with myself — and this is hard — a huge percentage of this over-scheduling is about ego. People like my work enough to want me to come talk to them, and they’re nice to me when I get there, and that feels awfully, awfully good. (2) There’s of course also a general people-pleasing aspect to the difficulties I have turning down requests. And as long as I’m at it I’ll acknowledge that I’ve also fallen under the spell of competitive busyness; every time somebody says “I don’t know how you do it” about my travel schedule I get a sad little boost.

Ha, I don’t know how I do it either.

I feel as though I’ve been able to do some good out there in my travels — as though I’ve been able to help some departments and institutions jumpstart some much-needed conversations, and as though I’ve been able to help demonstrate some of the possibilities for the academy’s future. But I also know, when I’m willing to look at it squarely, that I’ve gotten a lot out of just feeling important. But that’s finally wearing thin, and the toll is beginning to make itself known.

* * *

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that during this same period I’ve found myself withdrawing from the various venues where I engage with colleagues and other folks online. I haven’t been very present on Twitter, and I certainly haven’t posted here. Some of that withdrawal has been about not having enough time or space or whatever to devote to figuring out whether I had anything worth saying. Some of it has been about a level of conflict of late that I haven’t had the energy to face.

In any case, for someone whose job is focused on fostering productive online engagements, this withdrawal has not seemed to me a Good Sign, and it’s been one more thing that’s had me worried.

But I’m now thinking that the withdrawal is in part about the conservation of energy, and as such may not have been such a bad thing after all. Total disengagement would be a problem. But disengaging enough to restore oneself, in order to be better prepared to re-engage, is utterly, utterly necessary.

It’s like sleep. It’s cyclical. And you’ll go crazy without it.

* * *

I’ve been reading a fair bit of self-help type stuff of late, partially (3) because I’m interested in the genre, in how it can describe and shape lived experience, and in the purposes it might serve in a scholarly context, and in part because I have felt myself in need of something that might help me personally figure out a better path. A more manageable way of being in the world.

Among the things I’ve read lately is Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which, if they’ll forgive me, is a rotten title for a very important book. (4) The key lesson in the book — heck, it’s in the subtitle, but if you’re interested, read farther than that — is that our belief that the resource we are shortest on, the thing that if only we had more of we could do what we need to do, is time, is dead wrong. In fact, the resource we are shortest on is energy, and we resist many of the things we need to do in order to conserve and restore our energy because they look to us like enormous wastes of time.

However, it’s clear that those wastes of time are precisely the things that allow us to step out of the barrage of the urgent long enough to discover, focus on, and make room for the important. In order to be genuinely engaged where it most matters, in other words, you have to find regular, routine ways to disengage. And to somebody as completely inculcated into our always-on, more more more culture as I am, that disengagement does not come easily.

Or at least it doesn’t come easily in a productive form. But it’s becoming clear that if I don’t figure out some better strategies for managing productive disengagement, a few much more damaging modes of disengagement are lurking just around the corner.

* * *

So, doing less. It’s not just a matter of saying no to more things. I keep trying to find some quantitative limit for how much I can do — no more than one trip every two weeks! no more than three major service commitments! — and yet it keeps not working. The over-extendedness just gets worse.

I finally realized something about why last week. In talking with my coach (5) about the issue, it suddenly became clear that the problem is the nature of the quantitative itself. If I set a limit of four trips per semester, it becomes very hard to distinguish between four trips and four with one little add-on. Or five, for that matter. With maybe one small side thing tucked in there too. And something local, because that’s not really a trip. And next thing you know, I have a calendar filled with five solid weeks of three-city trips and am railing at my friends over cocktails.

It’s the nature of the more more more culture: if you can run two miles, isn’t it better to run five? If you can write an article about something, isn’t it better to turn it into a book? If you can speak in four places this semester, isn’t it better to add on just… one… more…?

The quantitative will do you in every time, precisely because so much of how we operate is all about finding our limits and pushing past them. So it’s becoming clear to me that I’ve got to turn my attention to the qualitative, if I’m going to change anything, even if it’s not entirely clear what in this context the qualitative might mean.

* * *

One key to the qualitative, I think, is figuring out how to determine what’s important, and how to separate it from what’s just nice, or ego-gratifying, or adding to the frequent-flyer record. But the real challenge in that is that I don’t mean “important” in some externally-defined sense: what’s best going to further my career goals, or promote my organization, or what have you. I mean what is most important in a very personal sense: what’s most in line with the things I value, the things I want to be, the ways I want to live. What’s going to support me not just in getting more done, but in doing what I most want to do, and doing it better.

What am I doing it all for, is the question I keep asking myself.

* * *

As I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been hoping that some conclusion would present itself to me, some anecdote that would cheerily illustrate everything I’m pondering here. I’m not sure that anything can; I’m not sure that concluding, in fact, is the right way to end this line of thought. As the links above might suggest, I’ve written too many times before about the need to recalibrate and reshape the way I’m living, and yet. Here I am. Again.

I had, however, a near-perfect day yesterday. I did a bit of work in the morning, and then went and got a fantastic haircut, and had a great lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in eons, and then headed back home. And on a whim, I told R. that I wanted to take a walk in the park. Rather than push it, though, in the ways that I usually do (surely you can go a little faster!), I let myself just… walk. A bit faster than a stroll. Kind of an amble. It only took about five minutes longer than usual to make the loop of the park, and in the process, I got to do two really important things. I got to spend the hour really talking with R., and I got to look around.

And the trees. If it’s not peak leaf around here yet, at least a few of the trees are there: flaming reds and yellows mixed in amongst the still-rich greens. It was absolutely gorgeous, the best moment of my favorite season.

It’s uncomfortably obvious (see footnote 5 above) to point out that it will all be gone in the blink of an eye. But it will be. And I’m grateful, really really grateful, not to have missed it.

That’s what I’m doing it for. That’s what I want to keep my eye on. How the things I elect to do can better contribute to my ability to engage with the here and now, and, when I need to recover, can let me gently disengage.

I do not know how. But I do know why. And that’s at least a start.

I Am Not Blogging

This post is likely little more than a bit of ritual throat-clearing, designed to help me get past a stage in the trying-to-write-again process in which I simply cannot get myself to focus on what it is that I need to write (promised articles coming due in very rapid succession) and yet cannot find a way to noodle around with something new, either. The result is that I find myself looking guiltily at this space, thinking I should be writing something here, that it might help get me going again, but finding myself with nothing much worth writing about.

It’s not as though I’m not writing, though, all-day-every-day: memos and reports and email messages and proposals and even one very big important project for the day job. It’s just that all of that has taken a tremendous amount of energy off the top of the thing I persist in thinking of as “my own writing.” But deadlines are pressing, and I find myself flailing around a bit, looking for that magical point of entry into these articles.

And so, I’m back into my too frequently forgotten strategies: sitting down at the computer first thing in the morning, before the day’s demands get the opportunity to make themselves known; doing whatever freewriting I need to do to get myself loosened up; consulting the notes I’ve made about the projects in front of me.

This post is a moment of knuckle-cracking before I set fingers to keyboard, hoping that the loosened-up hands will magically tap out the answers. Wish me luck.

UGH.

I honestly don’t know what’s worse: that I never knew these lyrics at all until @Karnythia linked to them in the context of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, or that I have not been able to shake the mouth-full-of-marbles version I’ve heard since childhood ever since.

I mean, I knew it was racist and sexist in that generalized “boy, aren’t YOU exotic! I could just eat you up” kind of way — which is to say, little worse than most rock music. But now it’s become the world’s most vile earworm.

I’m horrified that I didn’t know. And I’m disgusted that I can’t get rid of it.

On the Working Vacation

As I posted a while back, I’ve been on an extended European trip this summer, beginning with several conferences, followed by a pretty blissful four-week stint in Prague. As week four begins today, and as I see this trip beginning to draw to a close, I’ve been reflecting a bit on how it all went, and how to carry some of this feeling with me back home.

When folks have asked me lately how my vacation has been, my instinct has been to say “great! It’s been super productive!” Which causes people to blink, or shake their heads, or otherwise give me the you’re doing it wrong look.

Perhaps it’s true that I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never been terribly good, though, at doing the things one is supposed to do on vacation or on a trip to a new place. I’m not a sight-seer. I don’t feel compelled to visit the national landmarks and museums. I do, however, like to sit still, to let myself really be where I am, and to let my brain wander where it will. Where it will wander, when given the chance, is often to reading, or writing, to new projects or new directions for in-process projects.

For this reason, for me, the “working vacation” is not a contradiction in terms, not a capitulation to the always-on logic of the new economy. It’s one of the best ways for me to retreat from the busyness — or the business — of the day-to-day and focus on the things that matter to me, whatever they might be.

My time in Prague has been a working vacation in a most literal sense: most of my time has been charged as vacation, but some of it has been charged as remote working. I’ve kept up with a much-streamlined version of the things going on in my office, I’ve handled some small much-delayed tasks, and I’ve used the rest of my remote working time to focus in on one large day-job project of the sort that I would never have been able to get to during the normal 9-to-5, a substantive chunk of writing that required distance just to get space on my agenda.

The rest of my time has been spent on my own projects. I’ve drafted an essay, I’ve begun sketching out another one, and I’ve read a lot. And for the first time in eons, I’ve found that reading scholarship has been just as much fun as reading fiction.

I’ve had fantastic meals, and I’ve slept a ton, and I’ve spent time hanging out with friends and watching television series that I missed. But being able to be just selfish enough about my time to restart my reading brain again has been really exciting. That self-directedness has made this time both enormously restorative and enormously productive — and perhaps productive precisely because it was so restorative, and restorative precisely because it was so productive.

In a week, I’ll be returning to the more socially-oriented aspects of my job, and I’ll undoubtedly discover just how much of the usual business my colleagues kept out of my inbox while I was gone. I’m grateful to them for that, and to my boss for the willingness to negotiate this working vacation with me. I’m looking forward to returning to the office with renewed energy — and hoping to find ways to maintain the space for creative thought that I’ve had the luxury of rediscovering this month.

Get Me Rewrite!

Consider this a plea for help:

This site has been through some serious migrations over the years. It’s had two different hosting providers and three different blog platforms, among other kinds of changes. As a result, its permalink structure has changed over time, and I’ve had to use mod_rewrite to grapple with redirecting old inbound links to where they need to go.

By and large, I’ve been able to manage this. I’ve got one big lingering problem, however, that results from neither a server nor a platform migration.

For several years, Planned Obsolescence ran on a single-site WordPress installation, with pretty /%postname%/ permalinks. A little while back, I got the bright idea that I should consolidate it with a few other WP instances I was running, through one clean multi-site installation.

This is now the main site of that multi-site instance. But multi-site WP adds /blog/ to the URLs of all posts in that main site. And so inbound links that are looking for http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/post-title get 404’d.

I have searched around, both within wordpress.org and out in the larger internets, for a way to use htaccess to redirect such inbound links to http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/blog/post-title. But I’ve run into several problems, most notably, infinite redirect loops: even when I include a !blog condition in the rewrite rule, the request still gets caught in some redirect vortex. I also need to make sure that a few pages and secondary blog directories don’t wind up with /blog/ added to their URLs.

I’ve created a 404 page that attempts to explain the problem, and I should probably just let it go at that, but knowing all those errors are out there makes my OCD kick in. So if there were a mod_rewrite guru out there willing to help me work through this problem, I’d be enormously grateful.

Eleven

I have once again missed my own anniversary. It turns out that June 18, the day I launched this summer’s adventure, was the day this blog turned 11.

Eleven! Planned Obsolescence is fully a tween, alternately chatty and sulky. Here’s looking forward to seeing how it develops from here.

Getting Back to (My Own) Work

One would think, this many years and books and articles into a writing career, that I might have solved the getting-started problem by now. Or if not the getting-started problem, then at least the keeping-going problem. Not so much, though.

When I was a faculty member, writing often got back-burnered during the semester. Not always intentionally: I’d plan time in my schedule to do some bits of reading and writing intended to keep my projects moving forward, but gradually that time would be overcome by teaching work, chairing duties, committee obligations, and the like. I’d find myself at the end of the semester, at last facing open space in my schedule, and I’d think Okay. Where was I? And inevitably the need to get my bearings in the project again took longer than I wanted, heightening the sense that my limited work time was still being sucked away by things beyond my control.

My current situation is only somewhat different. I’m in a 12-month position now, and while my calendar doesn’t ever really reach those points of hiatus at which all the other obligations fall away, I do have the extraordinary luxury of time away during the summer, a combination of vacation and remote working that allows me to turn my focus at least in significant part back to the thing I refer to as “my own work.”

The challenge I’m facing today, however, is trying to remember what my own work is, and this is where I think I’ve completely blown it in my second year in my new position. My running joke, when people ask me about how my transition to the new job has gone, has been to say something about the shock of finding oneself in a 12-month, 9-to-5 gig after 20 years on the academic calendar, but then to point out that, by way of compensation, I’ve discovered this thing called a “weekend.”

It always gets a laugh, especially among academics: the notion of the weekend is a crazy luxury. Two full days to do whatever you want with! And you get them every week! And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that most of my evenings belong to me as well. Very often, in fact, work can be contained within work hours — an amazing concept, that.

During my first year in the new gig, I worked hard to protect my evenings and weekends, and I mostly did a good job of it, primarily because I was so exhausted from the intensity of the 9-to-5 days. In year two, I’ve found myself a little better adjusted to the rhythm of the days, but (perhaps as a result) I feel as though I’ve gotten declining benefits out of my weekends. A good bit of the problem is totally self-induced: I’ve travelled way too much lately, and a lot of that travel has of necessity spilled over into evenings and weekends. And then there’s been the deluge of personal stuff that has taken up out-of-office time: apartment stuff, moving stuff, life stuff.

So there are perfectly understandable reasons for it, and yet I find myself here, facing a small window in which I can focus my attention largely on writing, with zero sense whatsoever of where I am, and what I should be doing.

Don’t get me wrong: I have a list of small writing projects that need to get done in the next few weeks, articles and chapters that I’ve promised people, the obvious stuff to turn to first. The question, though, is about the overall direction of my writing. Back in October, I sketched out two potential Big Projects that I imagined working on — but now, eight months later, I feel so distant from that moment and those sketches that I cannot imagine being able to pick either project up and get going.

I’m sure that over the next several weeks I’ll either remember what it was I wanted to work on or imagine a wholly new project. My challenge to myself for the coming year, however, is to keep that project in sight. I do not want to convert my evenings and weekends wholesale into just more work time, doing away with the benefits of the 9-to-5 schedule without the compensations of the academic life to balance their loss. But on the other hand, if I can make that work more genuinely “my own” — writing that I’m doing entirely for myself, writing that’s energizing rather than draining, writing that’s even fun — I’m hoping that I might be able to find the motivation to keep it moving forward outside of work.

This post is mostly meant to help me jumpstart finding my focus and generating that motivation, but any suggestions or strategies you’d like to share in the comments would be oh-so-gratefully received…

Summer 2013

Having wrapped up a whirlwind spring, in which I successfully got through the craziness of buying an apartment in NYC, got myself more or less moved into it, closed down my California office and shipped everything east, and attended a ton of conferences and meetings and gave a bunch of other talks — and mostly managed to keep things at work moving forward in the interstices — I’m now off on my summer adventure.

Like last summer, I’m on the road for quite a while, starting with a spate of bouncing from conference to conference and concluding with a nice long period of being still in Prague. Unlike last summer, however, I am staying in Europe for the entirety of the trip, and not bouncing back to the US until it’s over.

Sadly, this means that I’m missing several US events that I’d like to be at — most notably AAUP and DH — but the physical toll that my mid-tour return stateside took on me last year was way too high.

So this year’s schedule is a good bit less insane than last, and I expect it to be terrific fun:

And so far, so good, on all fronts; I arrived in Geneva this morning, hopped a fairly easy bus transfer to my hotel, had some breakfast and struggled to stay awake until my room became available, and then crashed for several hours. This afternoon, got a bit of work done. Tonight, an early dinner, a good night’s sleep (please please please), and on to OAI 8 tomorrow.