Venticinque Anni Fa

Edited to add: Uh, whoops. Try Trentacinque Anni Fa. I am OLD.

I’m in Florence for a meeting this week. (I know, I feel bad for me too.) I flew out of Detroit yesterday morning, had a four-hour layover at JFK, and landed in Rome this morning at 7:30. Sped through the airport and hopped on a train to Roma Termini1, where I had a coffee and waited a bit over an hour for my train north. Found my way from Santa Maria Novella to my hotel with only minor difficulties presented by my state of delirium. Checked in and was delighted that they had a room ready for me. Collapsed for an hour and a half, and then forced myself up, took a shower, and went out for a walk.

Lungarno.

It is a ludicrously gorgeous day, so I decided to wander along the river and see what I ran into.

Here’s the thing: 25 35 years ago, I spent six weeks in Florence as part of a summer study abroad program.2 And I haven’t been back since. Someone asked me last week if I remembered much about the city, and my answer was no. I mean, I remember clearly how it felt being here. I remember things I did, things I saw, things I ate. But I don’t really remember the city, not enough to get around.

As I walked today, everything felt half familiar. Not that I’d necessarily seen any of these particular places or things before, but they all had the same sense of being in Florence that my memory offered up.

Piazza Santa Trinita. Definitely in Florence.

But I just let my feet guide the way, in through the small streets near the river, soaking up the general Florenceness of it all.

And then I stopped dead in my tracks.

Mercato del Porcellino.

I remembered this market.

It was partially the vaulted ceiling. Partially the stalls. Mostly the intensity of the smell of leather.

I stopped and looked around, and several pieces came together. The Uffizi are a couple of blocks that way, and the Duomo is about six or so blocks up there. And if I turn here, I’m about a block away from —

The galleries leading to the Poste Italiane.

— the post office. Not the most picturesque of landmarks, though the galleries are lovely. But during that summer in Florence, I was in the post office weekly placing a call home. Ooh, it was something to navigate: you signed in at a desk and gave them the number you were calling. You were directed to a booth and your call was connected. You didn’t talk long, because you knew you’d have to pay on your way out — and no kidding, a five minute call was on the order of $20.3

Poste Telegrafi Telefoni.

Things have changed a bit, needless to say.

Just a bit further down: different mail, different telegraph, different telephones. Needless to say, this was not there in 1988.

Walking back through the galleries, I paused to take this picture:

La Grotta Guelfa.

I don’t know if that restaurant was there 25 35 years ago, but it felt right. The whole area felt right.

I’d tried a few times before I got here to figure out exactly where I stayed when I was here before, but the pensione is long gone, and my fuzzy memory wouldn’t turn anything up. So I turned the corner and started heading back.

And stopped about twenty steps later.

Davanzati Hotel.

The profumerie wasn’t at all familiar. And I did not stay in the Davanzati Hotel. But the doorway, and the stairs…

I climbed the two flights, as steep as in memory, to the hotel entrance, and asked the incredibly sweet young man behind the desk if he spoke English. There was no way I could formulate this on the fly with the bits and pieces of my terrible Italian.

“I have a very funny question,” I said. “Twenty-five years ago, was this a pensione?”

He smiled and nodded.

“The Pensione Te-Ti?”

It was. I told him the story of my summer there, and he told me that the hotel, a bit remodeled and renamed, was still under the same management. I told him what a great experience I’d had then. And he told me that I would always be welcome.

It wasn’t until I got a few blocks away that I realized I hadn’t taken any pictures inside. No matter, though. I think I’ll remember.

Revisiting Neoliberal Tools

I had the pleasure this morning of being part of an excellent townhall on digital American Studies held by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien. My assignment was to think about the critical concerns that DH has surfaced regarding neoliberalism and the contemporary university, my opening thoughts about which are below.

In recent years, a series of critical and theoretical interventions — perhaps most pointedly the 2016 Los Angeles Review of Books essay by David Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia — connected the perceived technocentrism of the digital humanities to the positivist conservatism of higher education and other related institutions, resulting in the field and its proponents being considered “neoliberal tools.”

I’m not here today to make the case that neoliberalism plays no role in the rise of the digital humanities, or frankly of the rise of anything else on university campuses these days. Honestly, to say that any aspect of our institutions bears some relation to the neoliberal is only to point out the water in which we all swim. All of our work — our programs, our courses, our research — is determined by a set of forces that are today hopelessly beholden to the market, whether that work is digital or not.

In the particular case of the digital humanities, however, it’s important to distinguish between, on the one hand, what an institution’s administrations and governing bodies might assume that the digital can do for the humanities, and the digital humanities might do for the institution, and on the other hand, what the digital humanities actually does, and is for. A university’s administration might see DH as a way of increasing the “marketable skills” delivered as part of humanities degrees, in order to ensure that the credential provided appears to be worth paying for. Or a university’s administration might see the grant programs that support many digital humanities projects and assume that DH is a way to increase external funding for an area on campus that doesn’t bring in the dollars in the way that STEM fields do. Or a university’s administration might see the capacity for digital technologies to produce more quantified metrics about scholarship and its impact and assume that digital humanities will foster uptake of such measurement.

All of these assumptions have some basis in truth. Learning how to manipulate a computer is a valuable skill in today’s economy. In the US context, at least, there are more sizable grants available for large-scale digital projects than there are for writing books. And the impact of work in DH is often more readily quantified than is the impact of work in book-based fields. But all of these assumptions hinge on a critical misunderstanding: that DH is about the technology. This is one of the sources of the critique of DH and its neoliberal tools, after all; as Brian Greenspan has noted, “the very taint of technology is enough to convince some conventional humanists that DH must somehow smack of neoliberal tendencies” (Greenspan). The associations of technology with the technocratic, the managerial, and the kinds of “disruptive innovation” that have overtaken our culture are enough to make any good scholar leery about what those technologies are doing in our literature departments.

But DH is not primarily about tool-building, or even archive-building, even though the technologies we use and produce often draw the lion’s share of attention. In my own institution, Michigan State University, where digital humanities is both an academic program and a research unit, we understand DH as a kind of Venn diagram, bringing together both uses of technology to study the questions and materials that are explored within the humanities, and uses of humanities-based modes of inquiry to technology and its uses. But even here, those two parts of the Venn diagram should not be understood as putting technology on one side and theory on the other, and only bringing them together in the overlap. Every choice we make about our uses of technology in DH brings with it — or should bring with it — a reckoning with the social, communal, and ethical issues the technology surfaces.

What I want to ask at this point is whether the work of humanities fields that don’t explicitly focus on digital technologies have engaged to the same extent in critical considerations of their own systems and methods. Because, honestly, all work in the academy is technological, whether those technologies are foregrounded, as in the digital, or not. It’s in part for this reason that Brian Greenspan argues that, “if anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill.” That machine may not be driven by industrially-produced code, but it is industrial all the same: the scholarly machine grinds along whenever our tenure and promotion standards demand the production of a published monograph, or whenever we rank some journals as more prestigious than others. Greenspan continues:

DH doesn’t so much pander to the system (at least not more than any other field) as it scandalously reveals the system’s components, while focusing critical attention on the mechanisms needed to maintain them. And that’s precisely its unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, DH takes the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the 21st century.

In fact, much of the “disruption” that DH has sought to create in recent years has had little to do with technology per se, and far more to do with this radical critique of the ways that scholars work, their relationships to their institutions, and more. In this vein, we might explore:

  • The Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, which developed a set of ethical principles for crediting the work done on complex projects;
  • The Colored Conventions Project, which defies assumptions about ways that humanities scholars work by always speaking from the point of view of the collective;
  • Mukurtu, which foregrounds Indigenous data sovereignty in the structures of the projects it supports, in keeping with the principles of CARE;
  • Humanities Commons, which seeks to transform the economics and politics not just of research-sharing, but of research community facilitation; and
  • HuMetricsHSS, which is using thinking derived from digital scholarship to insist upon new values-enacted principles for assessing and evaluating scholarly work.
  • and any number of other digital projects that focus on process rather than product, recognizing that they will in some sense never be “done.”

In all of these ways, these projects and others present possibilities for ways of working that not only evade but actively seek to counter the neoliberal university’s tendencies toward the use of quantified metrics for productivity, toward competitive individualism, toward data extraction, and toward market-based notions of research impact. Through projects like these the digital humanities broadly conceived has the potential become not a source of neoliberal tools, but rather a transformative force within the university.

What Is This Meeting For?

I’ve had two ridiculously awesome work events in the last two days, and want to share them with you, because in some ways the excitement I have about them is a bit unexpected, a bit counter-intuitive. And it’s got me rethinking my approach to remote work and team building.

The first of these events was a Zoom Q&A session that formed part of the review being done for my potential reappointment as Director of DH@MSU. This session was stressful to prepare for, in part because of its interview-like structure. The committee overseeing this review asked me to provide a current CV and to prepare a range of statements and reflections, both looking back on the last five years and developing a vision for the next five. Under normal circumstances, we’d have scheduled a time during which I’d give a brief talk hitting the highlights from those documents and then would field questions from attendees. Given all things COVID, they instead asked me to record the brief talk part, which was made available with the written materials, and then we scheduled an hour on Zoom for Q&A.

A huge number of colleagues from across DH@MSU, as well as from my research unit, MESH, were invited to read/watch the materials and then come participate in the Q&A. I had no idea who would come and what they’d want to ask, whether it would be a grilling about my failures or a questioning about my vision. It could have been anything. In fact, I joked with the committee chair before the event that we’d missed an opportunity to call it an AMA. It turned out — not surprisingly, given the general levels of over scheduling and burnout on campus — to be a smaller group than it could have been, but those colleagues who came had fantastic, generative questions that wound up turning what could have been a test for me into a highly collegial conversation in which we thought together about our collective future. It was enormous fun, and I came away with some great ideas for work that we might do together in the year ahead.

The second of these events, which took place the next day, was a meeting of sorts of the MESH team. We’ve been wrestling with some issues, including that team members working on one of our projects often don’t have the opportunity to learn about what’s going on with other projects. Some of these issues are just typical growing pains, as a new unit expands and matures. Others of them derive from the challenges of remote work, and our inability to have some of those informal hallway chats that would be part of a more standard co-located working arrangement. And our typical response to these communication issues of late has been to apply MOAR ZOOM, but it’s become less and less clear over time what exactly all our meetings were for.

As a result, we agreed to meet up in our team channel in Teams for several hours on a Thursday afternoon to have a semi-asynchronous text-based chat about team culture and how we want to think about our work together. The team channels in Teams (sigh) are both conducive to this kind of conversation and not; the fact that a top-level post is called a “conversation” and that one “replies” to that initial post lends itself to a multi-threaded discussion. On the other hand, new replies change the order of conversations and notifications can bounce you out of a window you’re typing in, and keeping up with what you’ve seen and what you haven’t is uneven. The interface, in other words, is a little chaotic.

In fact, our experience was utterly, utterly chaotic, and yet the most energizing experience I’ve had in some time. New questions and replies flew so fast that it was a bit dizzying, but I found myself more focused and engaged than I’ve been in a meeting in the longest time. Even more importantly, we got far more input from far more voices than we do in a standard video-based meeting, and we’ve come away with a record of a ton of new ideas for things we might try.

Together, these experiences have me thinking about the ways my colleagues and I connect with one another, and in particular the reasons that we default to meetings as means of communication (and the reasons we then dread those meetings), and the times when other channels of communication — written documents, real-time chat, etc — might be better ways to go. I’m also pondering — with the help of GitLab’s crazy extensive guide to all-remote work — new ways to ensure that our increasingly dispersed team can keep the collaborative energy that I felt this week going.

I don’t have any brilliant conclusions as yet. This post is mostly a placeholder for my own very much in-process thinking, which I’m looking forward to continuing to explore in the weeks ahead.

#ENG818

Over the last several months, I’ve regularly bugged folks on the Twitters for suggestions for a new class I’ve been putting together for this semester, called “Peculiar Genres of Academic Writing.”

The initial ask.

This is a course I’ve wanted to teach for eons, both because it fills a gaping need that I felt in my own graduate education, and because I’ve longed to get back to teaching writing.

More begging.

Putting this course together has been a joy, not least in getting to read through so many great examples of those peculiar genres as folks shared them with me.

Begging for blogs.

I’m enormously grateful for all the suggestions everyone made, as well as for the excitement that I heard out there every time I mentioned the class. I promised repeatedly that I’d share the syllabus once it was done (or at least “done”).

I’m a huge advice writing nerd.

Today I finally got the course site published, so the syllabus is now available to all. (Some of the readings are not, alas. But I’ll be happy to share what I can.)

Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to my planning. Problems in the syllabus are all my responsibility, of course. I’ll look forward to updating as things evolve.

Plans

For the last several years, I’ve had a daily planning routine. While I’d begun that routine in the Moleskine that was always nearby, I moved it onto my computer about a year ago, taking advantage of Obsidian‘s daily notes capabilities. I set up a template for those notes that allowed me to capture a few morning thoughts, a sense of the day’s schedule, a few key priorities, and then any later notes from meetings or events during the rest of the day.

My Obsidian daily notes template.

It’s been great having this reliable space for thoughts and notes, but it hasn’t been so great for planning at the level of the day. For one thing, my actual calendar is elsewhere — in Outlook, where it needs to remain so that my colleagues can find times to meet with me as needed. For another, my actual task lists and projects are elsewhere, too — in Things, which works extremely well for me. Beyond that, though, the daily notes version of my schedule and goals more or less records a plan already made, rather than allowing me the necessary distance and vision to build that plan.

I did some poking around looking for a planner app that might allow me to bring together my calendar, my task list, and my notes in more flexible ways. Ideally, I’d want to be able to assign tasks to available time on the calendar, to take notes on events, and to keep tabs on progress toward whatever goals I might have. Unfortunately, I haven’t found an app whose developers’ brains work the ways that mine does. (Yet. I could still imaging finding the right thing.)

Finally, a tweet from Nyasha Junior made me reconsider my approach.

@NyashaJunior, asking for planner recommendations.

I read through the piles of excellent responses she received, and explored a lot of great-looking paper planners. And in the process it hit me that what I was looking for was something with the flexibility of paper and the convenience of the digital — which made me start thinking about my reMarkable.

I originally bought the reMarkable in order to have a focused, paper-like environment for PDF reading. Since then, the release of the Zotero beta for iOS has taken over most of that space; the workflows for extracting highlights and notes into Obsidian are just too good to ignore. But the reMarkable remains unbeatable for both pen-on-paper feel and for single-tasking focus: whatever document you’re in is where you are, with no apps or notifications to distract you.

So I started searching for, and found, a reMarkable-based planner. In some ways — technological ways — it’s super simple: it’s a giant PDF. But that simplicity disguises enormous flexibility. Careful linking allows you to move from pages representing calendar months to pages for weekly and daily planning, as well as additional pages for goal setting, project planning, habit tracking, and more.

It doesn’t connect to anything, except my brain and my hand. So each day’s plan requires me to copy my calendar events and my tasks — but at least so far, the act of doing so seems to open up possibilities for the rest of the day, allowing me to think about how the pieces fit together. It’s a bit reflective, and it allows me to doodle in ways that planning apps don’t.

I’m literally one day in with this new system, so it remains to be seen how it works over the long haul, and how I might maintain the connectedness of my Obsidian notes while having this separate space for planning. But so far I’m encouraged, and thinking about how a small return to longhand exploration might shape the days ahead.

23 July 2021, 09:51

I’m in the early pages of Jenn Shapland’s gorgeous My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which brings the methods and subjects of literary criticism and biography and memoir together in lyrical and deeply personal ways. At one point, Shapland comments on McCullers’s loving relationships with women:

There are so many crushes in a lifetime, so many friendships that mix desiring-to-have with wanting-to-be. It’s the combination of wants that makes these longings confusing, dangerous, and queer.

Shapland 20

This took my breath away, not least for the way its description dragged me back to the days of my MFA program, and to the boy I spent those three years desperately in love with, a love that was only partially and never sufficiently requited, that left me simultaneously heartbroken and ashamed of that heartbreak.

It took years after it all ended for me to figure out that on some level I didn’t want to be with him, I wanted to be him. I wanted the boarding school and the Ivy League education, the rakish grin, the scruffy rejection-but-not-really of style. I wanted the ridiculous vocabulary, the encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite writers, all of whom were so much better than my faves. I wanted the ability he had to insist on taking his time rather than rushing into forced production, the compulsion and the patience to hold himself to aesthetic standards that I found both impressive and impossible.

I’m not sure I would have recognized that longing as queer, even once I figured it out, but I do now see a kind of queerness in it. And I definitely see danger. It took a very long time for me to recognize that not only would being near him never make me into him, but that it would inevitably make being me seem a source of disappointment. It took even longer, far too long, to shed that disappointment.

In the Swim

Are there skills you developed as an adult that you enjoy enough that you wish you’d picked them up when you were younger?

Mine, which has come on with a vengeance in the last month, is swimming. Lap after lap after lap.

The swimming lessons I had as a kid were 100% aimed at making sure I didn’t drown. I was never given any instruction on swimming well. And certainly never given any sense that I could potentially be good at it, or of how to go about getting good at it.

In grad school, a friend tried to get me to swim with him, and I discovered that while I had a strong breaststroke I couldn’t swim a length of freestyle without wanting to die. Later, at Pomona, I tried again, but hadn’t magically gotten any better.

But two years ago, I got in the pool at our gym here just to do some laps of breaststroke, and threw in a length or two of freestyle. And it wasn’t good, but I didn’t think I was going to die, which seemed like a positive sign.

So I started reading things online about how to swim and discovered one obvious thing I was doing wrong: kicking too hard. It sounded completely counterintuitive but I figured I’d give the advice I was reading a shot.

And it worked? It actually started to feel… good?

But then it got cold and I stopped swimming. And then there was COVID and the gym closed down and that seemed like the end of my progress. Except when we rejoined the gym this summer and I got back in the pool for the first time, it turned out that I was able to pick up where I’d left off.

I’ve been swimming like crazy for the last three weeks, and the progress I’ve made is amazing. As in, today I swam a mile of freestyle, without pause, in a time that seems to me pretty respectable for a slow old lady.

Part of me wishes I could go back and give my childhood self a few hints — well, a few hints and access to a pool and a swim team and a family able to support such luxuries — to see if I might have gotten any good.

But it’s amazing to have this now. To get good at something after 50 feels like a victory of its own.

Opening Up Peer Review

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak as part of a workshop held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS). A NECS working group had drafted a Statement on Open Scholarship that was under consideration for adoption by the membership, and the workshop was intended to provide an opportunity to dig into some of the issues raised by the statement. I took advantage of the opportunity to do some thinking about open peer review, which I hadn’t written about since before Generous Thinking. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to have put these thoughts together, especially regarding the questions of community and equity that have become so important to my recent work.

Thanks so much for asking me to participate in this workshop. One of the things that most excites me about the NECS statement on open scholarship is that it treats open access as a step toward creating greater equity in our fields, but it does not stop there. The statement recognizes that disseminating our work in open venues is just one important move toward a much larger and more important rethinking of the ways that we work and the values that we both bring to and uphold through that work.

That rethinking includes moving away from treating scholarly work as a production line, turning out an endless supply of new products, and instead understanding scholarly work as an ongoing process of discovery and exchange and conversation that benefits from openness in fostering greater collaboration and dialogue.

At the center of that process lies peer review, a form of sharing and discussion with colleagues that is designed to ensure that the work we produce is as good as it can be. Conventionally, that process or review has been handled through an intermediary, with a high degree of secrecy: editors select reviewers, who usually remain anonymous to the author, who in turn is often anonymous to the reviewers. The reviewers evaluate the work on behalf of the editor and submit reports to the editor, which the editor may or may not pass on to the author, and which are frequently redacted. The author then typically responds to the editor with information about how they will address the reviewers’ concerns in revision.

The anonymity and third-party mediation of this process evolved out of a desire for objectivity and impartiality in peer review — a laudable aim, if arguably an impossible one. If critical theory over the last fifty years has taught us nothing else, it has shown that we are all deeply subjective beings, and perhaps especially at those moments when we think we’re being most objective. Even more, those categories of identity that go unmarked — for gender, for race, for sexuality, for class, and so on — have close associations with what we define as “objective,” making minoritized perspectives always already “subjective.” As a result, our conventionally mediated anonymous forms of peer review sacrifice the potential for a highly productive set of exchanges among colleagues in service to an ideal that promotes and prolongs the status quo.

Opening up peer review is not a simple matter, of course. Scholars who act as reviewers in open processes need to find constructive ways of conveying critical responses — which often takes more thoughtful, careful work than does reflexive dismissal and rejection. They may also need to find the wherewithal to “speak truth to power” in cases where an author outranks them in the academic hierarchy — something that always feels risky, and especially so for early career scholars. Authors similarly need to confront their own feelings of vulnerability in making the bumps and foibles involved in the drafting process visible, and they need to be prepared to engage thoughtfully with critical commentary, perhaps especially when they disagree.

But all of this, as I hope you hear, is not about our publications, or about our publishing systems, but about us — about how we relate to one another, about how we engage with one another as we discuss our work. And thus all of it is within our power to improve — especially if we act as a community of practice, with an emphasis on community. We’ll need to establish standards and expectations for how collegial, constructive, and yet critical conversations can be carried out, and we’ll need to hold ourselves and one another accountable for adhering to those standards and expectations. But if we can do that, there is an enormous potential benefit for all of us, and for students and scholars yet to come, in getting to see and be part of the conversations that form a crucial part of the scholarly process.

Over the last dozen years, I’ve constructed and engaged in a range of open review processes. The first of these was a process I held in 2009 in conjunction with the submission of my second book, Planned Obsolescence, to NYU Press. While the press sent the manuscript to two anonymous reviewers, as usual, I posted the entire manuscript in CommentPress for discussion. The two reviewers from the press gave my editor, and through him, me, very thoughtful suggestions about how the manuscript might be strengthened, but the nearly 40 reviewers in the open process actively discussed those suggestions with one another, and with me, allowing me a much richer sense of what was just an idiosyncratic opinion and what was a real problem I needed to contend with — and even more, what that problem meant in the context of my argument. That open process also drew in a far broader range of readers and perspectives, including folks outside my immediate field whose opinions would never have been consulted in a conventional review process. And having those reviews as part of the public record of the manuscript’s development allowed me both to give credit to those reviewers whose ideas were particularly formative in my thinking and to allow the genealogy of the eventual book to remain visible to students and other readers curious about how the arguments evolved.

Since that time, I’ve replicated the process with a number of other projects, including a couple of journal articles and another book project. And in each case, the community of readers helped me to find means of rethinking and clarifying my arguments and their expression. I do want to acknowledge, though, that it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns. First off, this process has required a lot more labor, both from me, in encouraging and engaging with readers, and from the readers themselves. And parts of these processes have been difficult, including a few places where I wish the flaws in my drafts were perhaps a little less public, and a few comments that stung. But all of that — including the vulnerability and the exposure I felt — has both made the work better and made me a more generous scholar, recognizing as I do the enormous generosity readers extended to me in taking the time to read my work and to share their responses to it.

So what I hope that this workshop and the NECS statement on open scholarship will help the field develop is more such practices that are designed to highlight and reward the generosity of the scholarly community, that enable us to explore and expand on our processes of research and communication by calling attention to the work of peer review as a crucial contribution to scholarly conversations, enabling all of us to pursue both the goals that we have for our individual work as well as the collective goals to which our work contributes.

Focus

I’ve been wearing glasses with progressive lenses for a few years now, since it became clear that no form of contact lens-based correction was going to work anymore. (I tried multifocal lenses, and found that the sweet spot for my focus was about eight feet away. I do very little that requires me to look at things that are eight feet away. I also tried the thing where you correct one eye for distance and the other one for reading, and your brain is supposed to make up the difference. My brain handled that okay as long as I wasn’t the least bit tired, which was way less frequent than I’d like.)

Anyhow, I adjusted to the progressives quickly enough after a few false starts. But during the pandemic, as I found myself strapped to my computer most of the day, I started developing a bit of neck pain from tilting my head back to exactly the right angle to get the spot on the screen aligned with the right spot in my glasses. I said something about it to my eye doctor last summer, and he gave me a prescription for computer glasses. Which I promptly put on the shelf next to my desk and ignored.

About a month or so ago, I’d had it. I ordered a pair of frames online (exactly the same frames as one of my pairs of progressives, because I did not have the patience to actually try things on) with the computer lenses in them.

And they’re amazing. First off, because they’re a much lighter prescription than my correct-all-the-distances glasses, they’re literally lighter too, so I’m way less prone to the headaches produced by the weight of my glasses on my nose. And because I can see my two computer screens clearly through any point in the lenses, I’m having to do way less to contort myself, which is a relief.

But there’s another benefit that I hadn’t considered at all when I bought these. The focal distance for these glasses is roughly between 18 inches and four feet, which means that everything other than my computer screens is rendered in a soft blur. Which means these glasses are like focus mode for your face: they reduce external distractions and increase the possibilities for concentration. Which is unexpected and kind of amazing.

The only problem is that I forget I’m wearing them, and so will often get up from the computer and experience the rest of the world in a bit of a haze. But then, given the rest of the world, it could be worse.

Retreat

Y’all. I found myself really needing to make some progress on a writing project. In order to do so, I needed to clear both my head and my schedule.

Like a ton of you, I never took any real down time during the summer. I kept saying I was going to, but put it off for one reason and another, and by the time I tried to schedule it I couldn’t. And it wasn’t just a no-break summer; it was a systems-are-breaking-all-around-you summer. Here’s your duct tape and your baling wire; spend hours on Zoom with your colleagues and see if you can keep it all running. All of which meant that, as a colleague of mine said a couple of weeks ago, I felt at the beginning of October like I usually do in April: exhausted, short-tempered, and desperately in need of a break.

And yet: October! Projects! With deadlines! And semester in progress! And then there’s this writing project, which is the second-easiest thing to put off (down time apparently being the first).

Except that the project has some time pressure behind it. I mean, it doesn’t exactly have an expiration date, but the sooner it comes together the better, for a whole lot of reasons. 1

So I made a commitment a couple of weeks ago to deliver a proposal for the project… in a couple of weeks. And then I looked at my calendar and figured out that with a little effort I could totally unplug for a four-day weekend and focus in on getting it done. I warned my colleagues week before last that I’d be completely out of pocket, and then reminded them last week. On Wednesday at 4pm, I put out of office bounces on my email accounts, and set my Slack/Teams statuses to away, and turned off every notification I could. And I settled in for the staycation equivalent of a writing retreat.

By Friday afternoon the proposal was done and ready to send. By Sunday morning I had a schedule for posting drafts of the chapters here to get input into how things should expand and develop as I work. And in the midst of all that, I read a book I’ve been asked to review, sketched out my initial thoughts about what I want to say about it, read half of another book for fun, cooked for the week, and rearranged a part of my kitchen that’s been annoying me.

And I slept over eight hours every night. And I’m actually excited about getting back into the swing of things tomorrow. If this is what unplugging can do, I clearly need to make a regular practice of it.