When in my last post I noted how busy I was going to be, I suspect I underestimated just how much work was in front of me. And while I spent a fair amount of time procrastinating by thinking about blog posts, I never managed to write anything down. Now, more than a month after my last entry, I know I need to start working through some thoughts again.
The past month and a half have been very busy: my colleague and I sent in the manuscript for our edited collection, I sent off an article, and I turned in my tenure file. The tenure file, perhaps, was the most anxiety-inducing bit of paperwork I’ve ever worked with. On the one hand, so much of it was simply collecting information: syllabi, student evaluations, copies of scholarship, bits of paper noting my service, etc. On the other hand, it gave me a chance to seriously consider the scope of my career; the narratives I wrote to explain the information dump forced me to think about how I define my career, how I got to where I am now (the good and the bad, the successes and the failures), and where I hope to go.
One of the most interesting parts of putting together my tenure file was reading all my past Faculty Information Forms, forms I turn in every year to note the work I have done and sketch what I want to do the following year. Some of my future plans were ambitious, even laughably so. Some of those future plans were dropped when other opportunities presented themselves.. Some of them are projects I still want to attend to. But what made this all so interesting was trying to construct a coherent narrative from false starts and abrupt changes in direction. And after a while, I just gave up. There is no neat narrative arc to be traced; the best I could do was try and connect what dots I could to show places where my teaching and my research coalesce (something that always plays well in such documents). But not everything fit into the model I had in mind when I set out to write these narratives. Not everything fit together the way I thought it all would. And this is important.
And during all this work – important, yet tiring work – I regret to say that I haven’t been nearly as effective this semester in the classroom as I hoped I would be. My colleagues are kind and have given me a pass – the tenure semester is rough, even when one is well-prepared – but I know that I can do better. In particular, it’s been very difficult this semester to really dig into my teaching materials. Usually, I re-read everything I teach along with my students; that keeps me fresh, reminds me why I love this material, and gives me the ability to find passages with ease. (This is pretty important when teaching something like The Sound and the Fury, for instance.) But this semester, when I get home, I just want to read for pleasure. I want to jump into Book 3 of “Game of Thrones.” I want to marathon the third season of “Archer” on Netflix. I want to spend several hours playing video games.
And right now – I mean right this very minute – I want to read about math.
Back when I finished my dissertation, I went to the local Barnes & Noble and bought a book about Fermat’s Last Theorem by Amir Aczel. Why? Because it had absolutely nothing to do with my dissertation. Because I had no fear of reading it with any future teaching or research project in mind. And because when I was in college, I enjoyed math and did well enough in it that I considered doing more than what the general education framework required.
And I loved that book.
I have since read more of his books,* books by other authors on math and physics subjects, and have befriended mathematicians (in part) to talk about math. And while it’s nice to get out of my subject, out of my pedagogy, out of my research, I have found that doing so helps me to not only rest my brain a bit,** it also gives me new insights into what I do teach.
Diving into books about math soon after finishing my dissertation gave me a new appreciation for the importance of structure, for instance. Sure, I had studied notions of structure in terms of narrative form, and those studies were from a decidedly literary perspective. But reading about math – reading about set theory, for instance – gave me new insights, new ways to think about the act of organization, and this led to slight changes in how I think about and teach literature.*** Sometimes, a new vocabulary can help us rethink old problems. Sometimes, new notions help us clarify what we didn’t know was foggy.
I’m lucky in that I have many friends from a variety of fields – modern and classical languages and cultures, math, anthropology, psychology, history, music, art…not to mention the variety of non-academic friends whose interests and ideas I often find inspiring. And often, I find myself borrowing from them, outright stealing from them, when something sticks in my brain. (Most often, I end up some crazed lunatic at the head of the class tossing out questions at my students, hoping they will help me make sense of the chaos that I bring to our discussions.) And these friends both help me to get out of my on work, and show me new ways of thinking about my work. Sometimes, this is overt; I go to these friends with questions, problems, and unformed ideas. Sometimes, I catch a stray comment that reminds me of a problem I’m working on, and I borrow what tools I can to try and solve it. More and more often, I find myself introducing some comment to my students with, “as my friend in [another field] might put it…”
So back to the beginning, I suppose. I’m tired, and I don’t have the brainpower to give my classes the time and attention they deserve. Not directly, anyway. And I have no research projects on my desk. (I have a book to revise, but that won’t happen until this summer.) So what am I going to do? I’m going to read manga. I’m going to watch the first two seasons of “Game of Thrones.” And I’m going to read Aczel’s book on math and the Kabbalah. And I’m going to rest my brain.
And who knows what will come of it?
*Seriously, check him out. He does an amazing job of explaining complicated math to non-specialists. Plus, he writes about really cool figures, problems, and developments. Also, everyone needs to know about Nicolas Bourbaki.
**I don’t mean that math rests my brain because it’s somehow easier. Far from it; I suspect I miss much of what I’m reading. Rather, I rest my “work brain,” and simply allow myself to enjoy without any need for attempting some sort of mastery. It’s actually comforting sometimes to read a book, note that I’m just not getting something, and reading along anyway. I’ll get something out of the reading, and I don’t at all care if I miss something. I won’t need to explain any of this to my students. And if I want to read more, I can always do so later.
***My students have expressed both joy and frustration at how often I draw Venn diagrams on the board, how often I express some notion in terms of an equation, or how often I use language they associate with math classes. One student recently told me that thought he was done with math. I laughed, and told him that math was not done with him yet. He did not seem happy.