The Interface

Yesterday afternoon, I taught my first new class in almost nine years.

Seriously, nine years. At the end of the Spring 2010 semester, I went on sabbatical, and then I joined the staff of the MLA. And while I did teach here at MSU last spring, it was a very different experience; I co-organized a proseminar that brought in a lot of colleagues from around campus to help guide a group of graduate students in thinking about the potential role of digital technologies in their research.

This semester, it’s just me and my students, with my syllabus — the first new syllabus I’ve put together in almost nine years! — to guide us.

I’m pleased with the syllabus, and excited by the students, and looking forward to seeing where it all leads us. But it’s funny to arrive at this point in my career feeling like a novice again.

Not least in thinking about how to structure our in-class engagements. We meet once a week for three hours — a format I never felt terribly good at, even when I was teaching consistently. It’s an enormous stretch of time, one that has to be broken up into smaller chunks in order to keep us present and invested and on-task. But at the same time, with the book-a-week structure of the semester, it’s important to ensure that we give each text the full range of attention it requires.

If you have strategies for ways to structure sessions of three-hour seminars, I’d be most grateful to hear them. In the meantime, I’m pondering ways of maintaining the excitement of the semester-long narrative within the close-up work of each week’s conversation…

10 December 2018, 17:22

I’m working on a big piece of writing that’s had me a bit paralyzed, both because there seem to be too many unknowns as yet and because the stakes of this particular piece of writing — a report! — are enormously high. Over the last couple of days, though, I’ve started making some progress, which is great; now what I mostly need is distraction-free time in front of a computer, which AHAHAHAHAHA.


I’ve been having some difficulty getting myself to focus lately. Some of the scatteredness I feel is undoubtedly situational: I have traveled four of the last six weeks, and on the two I haven’t traveled, I’ve been in at least one day-long local meeting, all of which has cumulatively left me feeling uncentered and behind on everything I need to be doing. Some of it’s where I am in my various large-scale projects right now: wrapping up all the final details on the book in production and preparing a bunch of talks about various aspects of that book but not yet settling into thinking about the thing that I think I want to work on next. Some of it’s the world, which provides no end of rage- and/or despair-inducing fodder these days, making it hard to think about much else. And some of it’s personal, physical, chemical: I’m of an age, as they say, and the side effects of that age (including intense insomnia and associated issues) are requiring medical support, but that support is itself producing a range of side effects that leave me… unfocused.

I’m writing this both as a way of cutting myself a bit of slack — who could think creatively and productively under such circumstances? — and as a way of attempting to jumpstart my brain again, to see if I can get myself to zero in on an idea for a few minutes and even perhaps come up with some strategies for more such re-focusing. Because this absence of focus is not just increasing my stress levels (as I feel decreasingly on top of what needs doing), but it’s also pretty demoralizing, leaving me wondering how I ever thought clearly enough to have any good ideas in the first place.

Part of what I need, I think, is to unplug a bit — to shut down the channels and devices that are fraying my attention and see if I can get back to some good old single-tasking. That requires a couple of things, though: first, finding ways to remain present with whatever it is I’m trying to pay attention to (and to notice when I’ve wandered off and bring myself back), and second, and perhaps most importantly, finding ways to slow down enough to feel as though I can take the time to pay attention to exactly the thing I’m doing right now. And that’s a serious challenge. Because there’s always something else clamoring for attention, at least in my head, something that is convinced that it’s more urgent or important than whatever is in front of me.

I need, as my friend Alan Jacobs is currently exploring, to find ways to increase my temporal bandwidth. Perhaps, though, I mean this phrase to resonate a bit less in the way that I think Alan is using it — to describe the expansion of one’s awareness beyond the relentless immediacy of the Now and into an understanding of and care for the past and the future — than in the slightly more esoteric, even mystical, sense that I always took from Pynchon, a sort of dilation of the Now itself. I care deeply about what has happened, and what will happen, but I want to slow down enough to keep what is happening from simply whooshing by. To keep the present from being something I feel like I have to rush to keep up with, and instead expand the moment to be able to encompass something like thought again.

It feels more than a little self-absorbed, today of all days, to be worrying about what’s happening inside my head rather than what’s happening in the world. And perhaps I should be clear that this isn’t about disengaging. I’ve voted, I’ve donated, I’ve written and called and will continue doing so. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that I can’t do any good out there if I’m not doing any good in here. Insofar as I need to disengage, it’s in the service of a deeper engagement. And creating the conditions of possibility for that deeper engagement is going to require some serious effort, I suspect, and no small discipline, to retrain my attention and regather my focus, especially because the world isn’t going to help. But it feels increasingly important for me to try.

22 October 2018, 17:34

I drove to city hall this afternoon and turned in my absentee ballot. In doing so, I saved $0.80 in postage and paid $1.85 in parking. But considering the crap luck I’ve had with absentee voting in the past (I’m looking at you, 2016), I’m taking no chances.

Only bummer: no sticker. But I voted.