Books Don’t Keep you Warm

Here is your obligatory complaining about the weather post: on Tuesday it was warm enough for a run outside.  Today I’m going to have to shovel my driveway before I leave for class.  Because I live in New England.

I’ve spent the week looking yearningly out of windows and hoping that the words “Spring Break” would actually mean something to the weather gods.  Unfortunately for me, the weather gods are tricksy jerks and care not for a university schedule, or even the pleas of a desperate doctoral candidate looking for some small way to salvage what’s left of her sanity.

On that note, I don’t know why I’m continually surprised at the revivifying quality that exercise has on my mind.  No matter how many times I prove it to be true, I am consistently astounded by the fact that if I go for some kind of physical activity right at the point when my eyes get bloobity and I can’t really read/comprehend what’s on the page in front of me, an hour later I’m raring to go again.  This re-realization only compounds my yearning for the warmer weather; convincing myself to go outside for an hour is so much easier when “outside” is a pleasant place to be.  I do break down and move my workouts indoors during inclement weather, but even walking from my door to the gym can sometimes be a fight when it’s bitter and leaky out there.

If anyone knows anyone who has a hookup with someone who can make spring come faster here in Massachusetts, I’d be ever so grateful.  I’m plumb tired of being cold.

Dissertation work is draining, and my book fort doesn’t seem to be moving one way or another.  This is mostly due to the fact that the minute I manage to reduce my “to read”

artistic desk shot.  This doesn't really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

artistic desk shot. This doesn’t really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

pile to workable number, I get another dose of ILL books from the library and stack them on top again.  Despite diligently hacking away at the pile on my desk (which at one point this week was tall enough to literally bury me), I’m still surrounded by things that need to be read.

I suppose I should look at the other end for any indication of real progress: it is true that my “have read” book fort is steadily growing larger.  It has, at this point, expanded to the point of walling me into my desk.  I have to traverse an obstacle course before I can actually sit down these days.  The scary part is that I haven’t even really begun to work on the bulk of the project; I’m still just picking at the edges.  I suppose that means I’ve chosen a topic ripe for exploration, but it does leave me a wee bit nervous about just how many library books I’m going to be held accountable for before this is all over.

And that’s not even to consider the archival work ahead of me.  I’ve identified piles upon piles of things that I’ll have to sort through; but at least those items won’t follow me home.  Well, they will, but in neatly sifted digitized form so that they won’t take up any room on my floor (just on my hard drive).

And on that note, it’s time to re-launch today’s attack upon Research Mountain.  Wish me luck!

 

Revenge of the Microfiche

Over the course of the past two days, I have spent a grand total of 3.5 hours sitting in the library with a microfiche machine scanning a 1963 dissertation to PDF so that I could take a copy home with me and peruse it at my leisure rather than be bound by the in-library usage of a microfilm reader.

If you’ve never scanned microfilm, you can consider yourself a happier person for it.  It entails sitting at a dimly-lit workstation with machines that haven’t been updated in the last fifteen years (and can’t be since the drivers for the microfiche readers are no longer made

My work area at the library today

My work area at the library today

to accommodate updated windows systems… also a microfiche reader will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand dollars and that’s the cheap model… for technology that hasn’t been updated since the eighties and actually can’t be updated anymore).  You line up your shot, click at least three times, then wait twenty seconds for the reader to scan the page.  You hope that the page scans with an appropriate brightness setting and, if it does, you move on to the next page.  Advancing the film is an entirely manual process.  There’s no automating it.

The book that I scanned was 250 pages worth of frames.

So you sit, advance, click click click, wait… sit, advance, click click click, wait… You can perhaps hope to do some bits of work in the interim between clicks (if you have work that you don’t need to think about constantly).  I used the opportunity to catch up on my grade-book keeping… for the first hour at least.  Essentially, once you’re done, you now have a pile of reading to do and your eyes are glazed over from a marathon of fluorescence.

I couldn’t help but think that it would be reason enough to become a rock star academic just so I could have someone else be responsible for this kind of menial task for me.  At the same time, there is something romantic about scanning your own microfilm.

Oh, did I mention that the students behind the reference desk often know nothing about the readers and so, if there’s a problem that you can’t fix yourself, you have to wait for someone from IT to show up?  Because those readers are probably older than the student workers.  I was advised by the circ desk worker that I was the first person he had ever encountered who needed to know where the readers lived.  That’ll give you hope for the researchers of tomorrow.

Living life in twenty second intervals is extremely disorienting.  The day slips by and you haven’t even noticed.  It made me wonder what other things would look like if performed in twenty second clips.

Cooking?  Baking?  The greatest works of literature?  Acting?  Dancing?  Twenty seconds is all you get… then you pause to re-align… then you get another twenty seconds.  Anyway, suffice to say that I got very little done today… and yesterday.  It feels, however, like I accomplished a few mammoth tasks.  And I guess that could be accurate(ish).  I did manage to fit some proof-reading, record-keeping, e-mail writing, twitter feeding, contract-writing, and internet-surfing in between those bits of film.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dissertation that’s old as sin to get through (this dude’s, not mine… mine is still in its infancy).  I also have two plays to review in two days (both Shakespeare-related – Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppets’ Midsummer Night’s Dream at ArtsEmerson tonight, then Vagabond Theatre Group’s Breaking the Shakespeare Code tomorrow).  If you need me, I’ll be buried under my job for a while.

Archives: The Real Deal

So here’s the thing about archival work: while it is absolutely thrilling in concept, in practice it is more often dusty, sneezy, and tedious.

Let me paint a picture for you here.  Mind you, this is a hypothetical situation based upon a compilation of real-life experience I have had.  Take it as historical fiction.

You know that a certain performance, which you are extremely interested in, played at y London theatre on x day.  Let’s say, for the sake of ease, that this performance is a performance of Hamlet in which Hamlet was played by a woman whose name you have found but not her picture (yet).  The theatre is a medium-sized London house in the early twentieth century (before WWI).  You know that the archive has a stack of broadsides for this theatre which spans the date range encompassing the performance.

First of all, getting into the archive is a process.  Generally all you will be

it’s been a while since I’ve posted an artful picture of my desk. Seem appropriate here.

permitted to enter with is a pencil, a laptop, a notebook, and a camera.  They’ll have lockers outside where you will be expected to strip away and store any “unnecessary” materials.  This includes your coffee and water bottle for obvious reasons, but in so doing also means that you have perhaps a 2-hour working window before you need to take a break, get a drink of water, or run to the powder room.

So you call up the broadsides and they come in a giant box that looks like it hasn’t been opened in twenty years.  The broadsides are crumbling at the edges because they haven’t been stacked properly and, as a favor, the archivist asks if you could re-stack them as you go in order to better preserve them.  The stack is approximately four inches high.

So you page through one at a time (because you can’t page any faster than that if you’re re-stacking, or even if you’re not re-stacking since they’re arranged in precise chronological order and you don’t want to disturb that… also they’re fragile and will crumble if they aren’t dealt with properly).  While this is exhilarating at first (tee!  You’re a real researcher!), it gets tedious very quickly.  Inevitably what you’re looking for is at the middle of the stack.  As you approach the target date, you can feel your blood begin to pump a little faster.  Here it comes.  That thing you were looking for!

You hit the target date.  And there’s a broadside, but not the one you were expecting.  Alternately, the broadside is missing.  You squint, wondering if you missed something, and continue paging.

If you’re lucky, it’s only moved by a day or two.  If you’re having a particularly bad archive day, it may be filed in the wrong year.  The archivists are horrified by this oversight (and very polite about it and extremely helpful in assisting you to locate the missing broadside).

While you’re paging, you find something that’s tangentially related to your primary research topic.  Alternately, it’s related to some other project that you’re working on.  You find some way to make a note to yourself that you pray you’ll remember to look at later on because, really, where do you file random notes to yourself with any efficacy?

So you finally find the stack of broadsides advertising the run.  Now you need to document them in detail as precise as possible.  You set them up to take pictures with your camera (or, as I’ve recently started doing, your phone since its camera is actually better than the one that’s dedicated to being a camera).  But make sure you take at least two or three because heaven forbid your pictures come out blurry.

Unless you decide to tether the camera to your computer (or, again as I’ve recently started doing, use dropbox to wirelessly transfer the pics so you can take notes on them as you go).  You now need to figure out how to demark which of these extremely similar looking broadsides is noteworthy, why, and how this broadside is different from all other broadsides.

And you hope you’ve gotten it right because coming back to the archive is a difficult/impossible task (depending on its proximity to your home/office) so really you’ve just got this one shot to document it.  In the immortal words of Ru Paul “Good luck; and don’t F#&% it up!”

So yes, archive work is thrilling.  If I wrote here saying that I had less than an amazing time during archive days and that I was anything under exhilarated by the prospect of rare books and manuscripts, I would have to hang up my scholar cap right now and go join the circus.  But that being said, it’s one of those tradeoff things.  You suffer for your art; for that one moment of “ah hah!”; and the dinosaur bones are always buried under layers upon layers of dirt.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without Research, Grumbled Dani

So, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

Also, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of places are closed tomorrow and Wednesday.

I mention this only because it completely crept up on me and I had banked on this entire week to get some work done in order to appease the research panic I’m currently working through.  I knew I needed access to a bunch of things but was pretty casual about when I actually got that access.  Except next week I’ll be going to New York to spend some time with my family because apparently Christmas doesn’t happen on Christmas if you’re a member of my family and you thereby need to celebrate it on viable days when archives happen to be open instead of closed.

So that whole week that I thought I had is instead three days.  Unless I was smart and got a bunch of archive stuff done today, Monday, before it closed.  And by “a bunch” I mean I need to page through about thirty years’ worth of material to analyze a couple patterns I’m tracking.  I also needed to pick up a few ILL books that had arrived.  Which basically meant that, unless I got my cute behind to the library today, I was going to be caught in a grinding halt for the entirety of Christmas (you know, whatever time I found in those two days to eke work out).  I time-manage best when I have piles of work I can do, even if I don’t necessarily have the time to get through them.

Sure.  I thought, No problem.  Archive day Monday then I’ll be good to go for the break.  No.  Big.  Deal.

A couple observations:

Okay; see those four shelves of GIANT GREEN BOOKS in the middle?  Yea.  That was "a day's work".  Hah.

Okay; see those four shelves of GIANT GREEN BOOKS in the middle? Yea. That was “a day’s work”. Hah.

If a publication is a monthly publication, thirty years is a lot of material to look through.  Like… a lot.  Like… an impossible amount.  For one day at least.

Campus is really deserted today.  Like… ghost town.  Kinda creepy deserted.  I have an entire floor of the library to myself.

Which leads me to believe that if I do stay after closing today (five PM because the library apparently operates by normal business hours during intersession rather than the “yea we’re open like all the time forever” hours that I’m used to), nobody would really notice my presence down here in bound periodicals.  I could spend Christmas happily paging through and doing my research by the light of my laptop.

….anyone feel like delivering a Christmas goose to Tisch Library?  If you need me, I’ll be buried under this pile of periodicals.

LOOK! SHINY!

It’s finals time.

That means a lot of things (among them: grinding the gears, burning the midnight oil, and lighting both ends of the candle for the next few weeks).

If your life is like my life, then inevitably when you become the busiest is when everyone suddenly decides that they would like to be social with you. And, while I do love my friends and family and do need occasional breaks from aforementioned clichés of business, it can be really frustrating sometimes that busy season of necessity means “the season in which I ignore people”.

I’m not doing it maliciously, it’s just the only way I can get anything done.

Distractions come in two varieties: the long-form distraction, and the momentary distraction.

The long-form distraction is by far the simpler type to avoid. If I don’t plan well in advance for a night away from my desk, I don’t spend a night away from my desk. As much as it kills me to miss the various parties, social functions, and gatherings that inevitably occur right before the holidays, it would kill me more to neglect my work and do poorly on my finals. Wise researchers take note: this policy works. Understanding friends will understand; this is what your job entails at the moment and, thereby, any declarations of “lameness” on account of it should be systematically ignored.

For that, a break is a break and it’s important to remember that the world doesn’t revolve

this is my desk from several months ago… the book fort gets built to the right and is, currently, taking up more space on my floor than my actual desk.

around nineteenth century circus clowns performing Shakespeare. Make sure you budget time for drinks, dinner, or some fun activity at least once a week or you will wind up an overwrought bucket of stress by the time things are said and done. Also, human eye contact is good for the soul.

So long as you can balance work and play, the long-form distraction shouldn’t prove too much of a problem.

The momentary distraction can come in several forms: an e-mail, a text, a facebook message, a gchat, or a well-meaning person (your landlord, your roommate, etc.) poking a head into your workspace to bring you news from the outside. While this may seem the less innocuous form of distraction, for me it’s deadly. I find that, reliably, for every thirty seconds I have spent being momentarily distracted, it will take me at least five minutes to get back to where I was in my stream of thought pre-interruption.

For me, the problem is several-fold. I have a hard time in general with my attention span, especially if I’m not yet into “the zone”. Once I hit the red, I can go for hours; but getting there is particularly difficult for me. I blame modern technology; I am truly a product of my generation who would rather have a constant influx of disparate information to keep my mind chewing than go deep-diving on any one thought. How I wound up a professional academic with this particular personality quirk is a giant question of the universe. In addition, I am extremely sensitive aurally and have found that external words in any form (music, TV, talking, etc) will completely take me out of the internal mind-tempest that research requires.

The best way to avoid these problems is (I have found) to turn off (or at least silence) my phone, keep my browser windows open to library resources ONLY, and work during the day when there’s no one in my house but myself. If I wind up working overtime (which is extremely frequent during finals crunch), I either try to arrange to work when my roommate is out of the house, or arrange a schedule with her that involves noise-canceling headphones (I am fortunate to have a very understanding roommate). Alternately, working after the household has gone to bed is something that I have found to be extremely soothing and productive (though you do have to plan for it so that you make certain you get your much-needed finals-time sleep).

Today’s short-form distraction: decorating the department’s desk with a menorah made from a Poland Spring bottle, some glitter, and a dream.

A great way to improve the quality of your finals life is to make your nearest and dearest aware of these distractions and what they do to your work. If those people most likely to distract you understand that encouraging text messages are best left sent between the hours of 9 and 11 PM, they are less likely to inadvertently interrupt your stream of thought with a mid-day friend-crisis. If those people can fathom that when you say “I’m buried in mountains of work”, you literally mean that your book fort is actually large enough to cause a deadly avalanche, they are less likely to give you a hard time for skipping Friday night beer-o-rama. Give them concrete examples of how their actions affect yours in this volatile, stressful time. If they really love you, they’ll let you go crawl into your cave and re-emerge sometime after December 18th.

So… what are you waiting for? You have finals to write! Heck, I have finals to write! Go stop procrastinating and get your butt in gear! (…unless it’s your pre-planned night off in which case have fun, relax, and get enough sleep. Drink lots of fluids, eat right, and we’ll all get through this together somehow, I just know it).

Thanks

Hello from the finals front!

Things are really starting to get hairy here. I’ve pinned down my seminar paper topics, I’m beginning to push up on some deadlines, and the book fort is full to toppling (though I did manage to return 25 books to the library yesterday with the help of some very sturdy reusable shopping bags). In addition to my own deadlines, I have the students’ deadlines to worry about and, what with the hurricane having set all of us back, what I am certain were some very well-planned due dates have become a muddle of insanity and piles upon piles of things for me to do over the next couple weeks.

In light of this, it is difficult for me to see these next few days as holidays. Yes, campus was technically closed today; I was still in dropping off papers and picking up books. No, I

the pile of drop-off books from the other day riding securely in my passenger seat. Also, validation for when I say “Shakespeare is my co-pilot”.

don’t have to go to class tomorrow; but I have still been up since before the sun working steadily on my piles of to-dos.

Despite this, I would like to take a moment now (as I do every year) to think about the things I am well and truly thankful for.

Inter-library loan; making it so that I don’t have to drive all over the city state country to hunt down the research materials I need. Thank you, ILL and the Boston Library Consortium, for bringing books in a steady flow directly to my home library.

My family who puts up with random phone calls at odd times of the day with the usual “sorry I haven’t called in a while, been really busy, I’m working on this new project about Shakespeare as performed in the [eighteenth/nineteenth/seventeenth] century by [aristocratic hacks/black people/circus clowns]. I’m working really hard for that class I’m TAing and I have a TON of grading on my desk right now, but I have to go because I’m on my way to [class/the library/a meeting/rehearsal] so… love you! Call you later!”

My dear friends who make my life a happier place and remind me that despite my best efforts, I am not a research machine and do occasionally need to leave my desk in order to make eye contact with actual human beings. Special shout-outs go to my gay best friend who knows both how to hash a research problem with me and the fastest way to make me forget about whatever the day’s stress was, my roommate who knows not to make eye contact with me before 10AM and that the best way to appease the savage beast is to feed me, my girls’ weekend girls who are always there for me (if not in person then in well-timed letters and boxes of comfort-yarn), and my Partner in Crime without whom I would be well and truly lost (and much sadder for the wear).

The faith of my department (which, for those who are keeping track, hasn’t gotten rid of me yet so I must be doing something right).

Totally my fairy godfather; this was taken at my MA graduation.

The aforementioned Best Professor in the World; my academic fairy godfather who somehow knows from two to three states away precisely when I’m in my darkest hours of crisis. Without even having to send up a bat-signal, I always seem to receive an e-mail of some kind from him during my most hopeless moments.

The theatre, my man Will, and all those who are keeping him alive onstage. Live theatre makes life worth living, and the people who make live theatre are no less than great magicians of our time. This means you, Bob Colonna.

And you, dear reader, because without you I would be talking to an empty room. And, really, there’s nothing engaging about a crazy person ranting about her insane life to an empty room.

So have a good holiday, take some time off, and for the sake of all things Bardy walk away from your desk for at least a few hours. Personally, I’m going to go finish packing and then I have a date with a turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving!

News from the Front

Random news from the front:

  1. For the love of all things holy, please don’t wear jeans conferencing. I’ve seen people do this from graduate students to faculty members and every time I see an offender, my blood boils.

Wearing jeans at a conference communicates that you don’t take the conference

sunrise over Nashville Saturday morning

seriously enough to dress professionally for it. The old axiom “dress for the job you would like to have” definitely applies. Would you wear jeans to a job interview?

I was networking every moment of every day in Nashville (including a clandestine encounter with a Yale reference librarian on the shuttle from my hotel to the airport). There was never a moment when I wasn’t, in some way, on display. You never know who you will meet or where you will meet them, and especially at a large conference where most of the participants are staying in your hotel, you want to make sure you look your best for any possible encounter.

So say it with me: I will not wear jeans at a conference.

  1. My book fort is up to 47 and counting. Of these 47, there are only six that I have not yet cracked. This means that, in addition to keeping up with my class reading, I have read all or most of 41 additional books since the end of September. No wonder my brain is tired.
  1. I spent four hours in the archives at Harvard yesterday paging through so much material that the poor reference librarians were working overtime just to pull my requested obscure folders, boxes, and files. I cannot say how thankful I am for all the work that these people put in to making sure that I can do my work.

On that note, paging through two hundred year old documents will never get old. However, I live in fear of the day that one disintegrates in my hands through no fault of my own, or I accidentally turn the page a bit too rigorously and tear something that’s older than my country.

Though if I ever need to hide from some murderous gunman, I’m going to do it inside of an archive. They are seriously the safest places I’ve ever encountered and the murderer would have to breech so many levels of security and protocol to find me that I’m pretty sure he would just give up when faced with the infinite yards of red tape at the library privileges office. And even if he didn’t they’d strip him of everything except a pencil, notebook, and digital camera before they would buzz him through three different glass door anyway. And that would be just to get into the reading room! Since we already know that archive librarians are superheros, he’d pretty much have to contend with the most badass of superpowers before he found his way down to me crouching behind the stacks of bad Hamlet Quartos (mostly because those would be the things most worthy of being destroyed that would actually be available in the archive). Although now that I’ve given away my planned hiding spot, maybe I should instead take cover by some collection of modernist paraphernalia…

  1. For the purposes of one of my research projects, over the course of the last week, I’ve clocked more hours than I care to relate conflating the first folio Richard III with Colley Cibber’s 1700 adaptation. While I cry inside to really and truly see the deplorable reworking of my patron Bard’s great works that so many generations of theatre goers were subject too, I also think that this should earn me some kind of stamp on my nerd card. I take every chance I get to bring it up in conversation because, well, who does this stuff? “Oh, yes, I spent another two hours conflating Cibber’s Richard with Shakespeare’s first folio… how was your day at work?” “How’s your paperwork going? Cibber’s just dandy.” “What did you do today? Oh, me? Just understanding adaptations of great works of literature and how they affected generations upon generations of theatre goers and their comprehension of Shakespeare… no big deal.”

another thing that proves my geek cred is my insanely awesome pair of Shakespeare socks.

  1. Dramaturgy is a weird job. To give you a small sampling of questions which have crossed my desk this week: “Define ‘moated grange’.” “What does x line of text mean?” “What are some ritualistic gestures of the Catholic mass?” “Woops! This character was cast as a woman! How do we solve this problem textually?” To my geek cred, I find it fascinating to answer these questions; when I know the answer off the top of my head, it makes my little bard heart sing. When I have to dig for the answer, all the better; I’m learning something about Shakespeare that I didn’t know before!
  2. It’s snowing in Boston! And, as everyone knows, there’s no business like snow business!

Ode to a Reference Librarian

I

O Noble Reference Librarian, thou keeper of ancient tomes,
Thou from whose ever-seeing eyes the musty dark
of ignorance runs; fleeting into caves it roams.

Knowledge’s power and its difference stark
stands tribute to the echoes of my heart
without your watchful guidance and wisdom to mark.

Though all alone my research I may start,
eventually I am lost without your aid,
read between the lines: you’re pretty darn smart.

When I feel my resolve begin to fade,
and madness overtake my lengthy notes,
one e-mail from you and my project is made. 

Wise sage, who art everywhere and nowhere;
preserver of my sanity; hear, O hear!

II

Thou with whom all knowledge of the archive’s content
rests, solely within the confines of your mind,
Thou may these hopeless finding aids augment!

When I a promising volume or folder find,
I cannot help but wistfully wonder
if by you this call number it has been assigned.

And when I am delivered my research’s plunder
if it contains not what I was expecting
I know it must be someone else’s blunder.

This fondness is not something I’m affecting.
You truly are my savior, through and through
when I, my primary sources, am selecting,

You always have an answer for me,
where should I look next? You tell me; O hear! 

III

Thou who didst calm me with thy helpful words,
your e-mails always packed with burning hope
and, within me, that hope to joy transferred.

When I am lost, you throw me strongest rope
with which to pull myself from doldrums’ grasp
(though afterwards I may feel like a dope).

 Sometimes I come to you with dieing gasp,
knowing my project may be at its end,
lack of sources killing it like venom of the asp. 

But then, my broken thought tracks you do mend,
and breathe into my research new life
when bibliographic entries you me send.

You always do more than I expect of you,
and bring me joy with your encouraging words; O hear!

IV

If I were forced to spend my days
in a world without you or your kin,
surely my research I would appraise

At much less worth than now it holds within.
And thou, O incomparable! If even
I were as in my career’s prime and had been

looking with my mind’s full potential heaving,
thou wouldst still my puny efforts shame
(thy power over the materials I fully believe in).

As thus, to thee with questions I came,
O! Help me in my research’s day of plight!
Without thee, my paper’s going to be lame! 

Help me to bring new knowledge to academy’s light!
And weave an argument from sources tight!

V

Lend me thy thoughts, even as I am merely
a Graduate students with small street cred,
I am most in need of your help clearly!

And (although I know by now I’ve said
this several times, it bears to be repeated)
Without you, all my evidence is fled! 

Sometimes I feel as though I may have cheated
by enlisting your skillful help in my fond chase,
but when my project’s finally completed 

I will ensure I’ve thanked you in the space
allotted for such words of grateful praise
(and also try to say it to your face). 

The knight of research’s call! O reference librarian,
If you forsake us, the academy you’ll raze.

(…an over-working reference librarian made my weekend today, so I decided to make his weekend.  Not even sure if he’ll ever read this.  If you’re slightly confused, you may want to google “Ode to the West Wind”….)

List, List!

This is another end-of-week drive-by sandwiched between a marathon research session, some much-needed laundry (especially considering I was laundering bits of my costume for tonight) and a visit with my family before I get my stuff together to go to the theatre (to be honest, I wasn’t certain I’d find time at all to post again this week).

As such, have a list!

 1)    I promise that sometime in the near future I will write a piece on the nature of

my family! …we are all making the most flattering faces in the land.

stage fright.  Because I have been extremely public about my stage fright, many many people have asked me about it over the course of the past week or so and that has revealed a few misconceptions about the nature of stage fright.  Briefly: stage fright has nothing to do with talent, or even experience.  Anyone, from the first-time actor to the seasoned professional, can be victim of stage fright for different reasons.  Mine tends to stem from the fact that I’m a) a perfectionist and b) my biggest critic (in other words: an artist).

2)    The middle of the semester has hit and, between the mountain of unread books that need to be worked into a presentation by the following Monday, the vast world of undone research that needs doing, the stacks of grading that continually accumulate no matter how bravely I beat them back, and the reading that just keeps coming, I’m absolutely swamped.

3)    Headed into the final weekend of As You Like It.  If you haven’t seen us yet, what’s your excuse?  Come on out, see some Shakespeare, remind me that there are people in this world who love me.

4)    My family (and a dear old friend) are in town to see the show this weekend.  How awesome!

5)    I hope your weekend is less stress-inducing than mine is.

Pumping Iron

Yesterday, in a rush of Hermione-esque academic over-achievement, I completed the first research project of the year.

About a week ago, I was given the syllabus to our class in Popular Entertainment and Iconography.  As such, I was also presented with this assignment.

As an exercise, the professor presented us with a list of 68 quasi-random items.  These items were presented simply as they were without any further explanation; just a list of words.  Upon further examination, it became evident that these items ran the theatrical gamut: some were people, some were phrases, some were theatrical devices, some were plays or the titles of variety acts, etc.  The assignment was simple: find out what each of these things were, their relative cultural importance, and cite a reliable print source for each item.

And so began the great academic scavenger hunt.

This assignment has easily been the most useful thing that I’ve been asked to do in my entire graduate career.  It required me to acquaint myself with library resources (some of which I knew we had available, some of which I did not); it demanded that I utilize lateral thinking to uncover what I didn’t know about a topic from what I knew (“I know this has something to do with popular theatre, likely vaudeville or circuses, maybe in the late eighteenth century… why is it on this list?”); and it prompted me to really think about how I research and how to research most efficiently (where would be the easiest place to look for this information?  What will yield the best answer in the least amount of time?).

The word “exercise” has also become important in this enterprise. To call something an “exercise” implies a repeated action which makes you stronger.  It implies that you’re going to sweat, struggle, and do things that scare you.  It implies that you will do these things until they come more easily.  You’re working out a muscle and, by doing so, making that muscle stronger.  Thinking of this assignment in that way made the assignment not only make sense, but also hold a great degree of import.  Doing things like this will, in the long run, improve me and my work.  This notion also positions my professor as a sort of coach; shouting at me to do one more set of pushups even though I don’t think I can get through the set I’m currently on, assigning me new creative ways to do things which will improve my game, and always always making me hurt so that so that I will emerge stronger.

Research methodologies are something one develops throughout one’s career and, often, not something that can be taught.  Certainly I can be shown where to find databases via my library’s website, or what archives may be useful to me, but how I document and catalogue the information I find is a system which is extremely personal to me, and one that I have cultivated through my years within academia.  Research is also rather personal; while we may talk about the things that we’re actually researching, we don’t tend to talk about the ways in which we process these things.  Often times, the processing portion is unable to be articulated.  How do you deal with information?  How do you change raw data into something that is useful to your project and presentable to a reader?

The research process is one that is rapidly changing.  When I was first introduced to a

the view from my chair in the library last night.

library, I was told to write every fact down on an index card with a citation on the back of each card.  In this way, my research was portable, traceable, and easily manipulated.  Now, I just take my netbook to the library (on the rare occasion when I need to even set foot in the library) and work almost exclusively out of word documents.  My iPad is also a valuable resource since, once I compile my information into a large word document, I can then keep my outline available while I’m writing.  Because of these changes in technology, research becomes both easier and more difficult.  While information is more readily available at my fingertips 24/7, it also means that I’m expected to know more and go deeper with this research.  Anyone can do a Wikipedia search; it takes a researcher to understand where the wiki article is wrong and why it’s not credible.

I’m not going to say that this weight-lifting session wasn’t stressful.  It was extremely time-consuming and, being the slightly obsessive creature that I am, that meant that it was life-consuming.  I had a moment of weakness in which, after I had pulled out every trick in the book to try and uncover a credible source for the origin of the word/concept of “pastie” (that would be the burlesque accoutrement, not the yummy snack) and still came up empty, I began to devolve into an unraveled ball of perceived academic failure.  How could I call myself a scholar if I couldn’t even uncover this simple fact?  What was I doing with my life?  Why were pasties eluding me?

And it was at that moment when I had to lean back in my chair, and laugh.  I was stressed out over pasties.  I couldn’t measure my success in my career by a set of nipple shields.  It was time for a break.

Valuable lesson here: zoom in close enough and everything becomes daunting.  When this happens, take a few steps back, walk away from the computer for a couple hours, and remember why you’re doing this and what you’re gaining from it.  If that doesn’t work, make yourself some tea and hit the gym for a while.  If that doesn’t work, it may be quitting time for the day.

So here I am, my efforts boiled down to 15 pages of notes to myself and a list of citations as long as my forearm, and I can’t be more proud of my efforts.  I did it.  I conquered it.  There were only a few minor freak-outs along the way, and I even managed to have fun during the process.

This exercise has gotten me pumped for the semester.  Research, especially target and stalk research, is like a treasure hunt.  Each successful finding was a new chance to feel accomplished, a new chance to learn something, and a new chance to feel like, despite any misgivings that may crop into the recesses of my mind, I can accomplish.

So take that, semester.  I’m onto your tricks.  You had best watch your back.