In part, I mean “getting my house in order” quite literally, in the sense that much of my time in the past week has been spent sorting out a household problem of the most unexciting kind. It sounds simple enough: some time ago our dryer began catching items in its edges and scorching them – not a good thing! So I finally set up a “service call” and, after warning me that if he even stepped across the threshold he’d have to charge me at least the minimum for the visit and it might not be worth it for a dryer that is over a decade old, the nice man from Sears diagnosed the problem, “costed” the parts and repairs, and left us convinced that we didn’t want to fix the thing because to do so would cost very nearly as much as a new dryer. And a new dryer, of course, instead of developing yet more expensive problems, would actually be under warranty. And it might (technological advances being what they are) actually dry clothes more efficiently. Thus was launched the great Washer-and-Dryer quest of 2011 — washer too, because our old set was ‘stackers,’ a decision by our home’s previous owner that had seemed odd to us until we started looking for alternatives that would actually fit inside the closet where the laundry hook-ups are. Hours of internet research followed, and then multiple phone calls and then trips to stores (tape measure in hand, eventually, because it turns out you can’t trust the information you find on the internet!). It’s such a boring thing to spend so much time on, and yet it’s just the kind of thing you don’t want to screw up because you need the darned things to work, preferably for years. It’s a boring thing to write about, too! And this is just the kind of thing that gets the snide hashtag #firstworldproblems on Twitter…so I’ll stop, except to say that our new, pretty basic but, we hope, efficient and effective (and non-scorching) set arrives on Saturday. As most of the appliances in our house are at least that old or older, I fear we are living on borrowed time, especially with our cook-top and oven (original, I believe, with the house, which was built in the late 1980s). I promise not to keep you up to date.
I’ve also been getting things in order at work. A couple of weeks ago I laid out the tasks I need to get done to be ready for the start of classes in September: Blackboard sites, course syllabi, and other assorted paperwork and preparation. At this point I am happy to say the syllabi are ready for all three of my fall courses, including details about course requirements and policies, and, most important, full schedules of readings and assignments. I’ll give these one more thorough examination before I make them official, but I don’t expect to change anything major. I’ve also prepared the Blackboard sites for all three courses. I won’t be using these sites for much besides organization and storage of course materials except for in one class, where we will use the discussion boards for questions and responses. Even so, it takes a lot of tedious work to put the various pieces in place, including setting up and testing links to a range of online resources, uploading handouts, and so forth. There are some bits and pieces I still need to draw up, including study questions for novels I haven’t taught before, and I’ll keep puttering away at those, but those can be added easily enough now that the overall system of tools and folders is in place. I do hate Blackboard: every step is so laborious. But it is helpful having course information centralized in this way as well. I know we don’t have the latest version. I can’t say I’ve found the most recent upgrades improvements, but maybe the next level will give us a more intuitive interface and even (dare I dream?) drag-and-drop capabilities. Though I’m not completely finished with class preparation, there are some things it never makes sense to do very far ahead of time (like actual lecture notes, which I find need to be pretty fresh to be useful), and the panic I was feeling at the beginning of the month has more or less abated.
As for my other work, there too I am getting things in order. I’m actually caught up right now on thesis chapters to read. That won’t last – I expect not only another Ph.D. installment this week but an entire M.A. thesis, for which I am serving as 3rd reader. I must make the most of this little lull and … work some more on my conference presentation for Birmingham! I finished a first full draft version of the Prezi I was building for it (if it even makes sense to talk of a “draft” of something as malleable as a Prezi). Looking at it this weekend I felt that I had found pretty much all the pieces I wanted to include (the accompanying commentary, of course, is what will make it all intelligible, or so I hope) but it still seemed kind of linear and unimaginative given what you can actually do with Prezi’s layout options — it looks as if I took PowerPoint slides, shuffled them up a bit, and laid them out on the table in related clusters. I’m going to spend some time working on my speaking notes separately now, and then go back to the Prezi and tighten it up. I’ve been looking at some of the samples on the Prezi site (like this astronomy one: cool!) and getting a sense of how you can use the zooming functions and the multi-directional layout options more creatively to end up with a presentation that lets you step back and display the big picture as well as come in close and explore the details. In the end, of course, what matters most is that your audience understand your points and the relationship between them. What I have been appreciating about Prezi is that it lets me think about those relationships and play with them right there on the ‘canvas,’ muttering to myself as I go. I know that in PowerPoint you can shuffle slides around, but the slides themselves are both harder to set up and fussier to change than the Prezi, where you literally just slide things around. That said, I definitely want to do a trial run in one of our classrooms that has its own ‘desktop’ computer and a data projector, to check how what I see on my own computer translates to that technology. I think I’m also going to prepare a simple PowerPoint version: the conference organizers have told us to bring PPT presentations on memory sticks to use in the conference rooms, and even though I have double-checked that the available computers will have internet access (which should be all I need to run the Prezi right from the Prezi site), I don’t want to be caught short by some factor I haven’t anticipated. The conference program is up and it looks like it will be a very full three days of sessions. With my departure now only two weeks away, I am starting to feel my usual pre-travel jitters, which I will keep in check by focusing on planning. I’ve just started looking more attentively into trains from London to Birmingham, for instance. Both prices and times for the trip seem to vary enormously. Oh dear: something else to fret about!
In other news, I don’t think I ever mentioned here specifically that the piece I wrote on Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series ran on the Los Angeles Review of Books site on August 5th (link). I’m really impressed at what the folks there have accomplished in what seems like a very short time (though I realize a lot of work went on in preparation for the launch even of this temporary site!), and also at their larger ambitions for the review, which reflect a deep commitment to but also a welcome optimism about books and book culture. If you haven’t been paying attention to them, one piece that is well worth reading because of the way it contextualizes their efforts is editor-in-chief Tom Lutz’s “Future Tense.” Among the many interesting things he says is this, about their editors and contributors: “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit ‘for free’ as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job.” As I noted briefly on Twitter, the kind of writing the LA Review of Books represents is not the kind that is usually required or rewarded by universities (I bet most if not all of the academics who are heavily involved in this experiment in knowledge dissemination are tenured), so if they are indeed being encouraged by their institutions to proceed, that’s a promising sign that at least some administrators understand that there are more ways to use academics’ time and expertise than specialized, peer-reviewed publication.
I’ve been taking kind of a mini-sabbatical from Open Letters Monthly, partly to make sure I concentrated on my ‘must-do’ tasks, partly just to regroup and think about my priorities over there, including how best to balance them against the upcoming term, which promises to be one of my busiest in a while. I haven’t forgotten the essay on Richard III, gender, and genre, but my motivation for it rather sagged, especially given how esoteric it is, really — except for my own quirky interest in it, I couldn’t see the point of it, and it’s certainly not time-sensitive, unlike other work I’ve been doing. I’ll take a fresh look at it when my informal leave of absence is over and see if I feel excited about finishing it, and also if, on sober second thought, it seems like something anyone else would want to read! I also need to be ready to steer a couple of incoming pieces from other contributors through for the September issue, so I hope to be re-energized and back in the editing business soon. Watching the LARB take off has prompted some reflections on how we fit into the broader context Lutz describes: as Ed Champion remarks in his response to Lutz’s essay, there is a pretty extensive array of online review publications already, including OLM. (As a side note, following on the issue of how academics might fit into the ‘new’ order, one of the comments at EdRants says “Perhaps the kind of long-form book reviewing that was the rule in the old print world should be gathered into the fold of academia, and it seems like the LA Review of Books model might be the thin end of the wedge here.” The more I think about these issues, the more they seem to deserve a separate post, as they open up all kinds of questions, including about the role of academics in the wider world of books and reviewing – which were, of course, some of the questions that were most on my mind when I first began blogging.)
And now, I must go put some laundry in, as our old set leaves tomorrow and though the four-day interval before the new ones arrive may not seem like much, it’s not negligible with a teenaged boy in the house! Then I’ll settle in to address the next things on my to-do list.