It’s the start of summer and I’ve been writing pretty steadily all the way through the past four weeks. I’m finally getting to the project that I’ve been giddily awaiting – wrapping up an article draft on perceptions of stepmothers and mothering in the Old Bailey.

The difficulty is that I’d gotten pretty far along with the project last fall before I had to put it on the shelf. Now, I’m picking up the pieces and I’m thanking past me for, once again, being smarter than I’d thought. In this case, I’d peppered the draft with notes reminding me that I wanted to insert more of a lit review dealing with A, B and C issues and another alert that I should draw from the cases of X and Y to beef up the examples I’m analyzing. It doesn’t matter what particular form you employ, whether it’s comments in the text or a outline sheet for the project. What matters is that you have these notes somewhere they’ll be the first things that you see when you get back to the project.

Leaving breadcrumbs for your research is so helpful especially when you know that research will be interrupted. When I was a grad student, I had no idea about this. Once I started my dissertation research, I was on the same subject pretty much non-stop until the last eighteen months when I added in some conference papers branching off in related areas. I never got far enough away from my research to need a guide when I returned to it.

That changed dramatically when I started this job and figuring out smart, helpful strategies to keep my research on track despite months of sidelining? That’s something I wish I’d figured out before the last decade but it still makes me happy to have all of these breadcrumbs laid out to follow.

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Feed the Soul

Summer is well and truly underway. I know this because I’ve planted some flowers in my front yard. The roses that survived the winter (four of five) won’t bloom for a few more weeks so I fed my colour craving with a swathe of begonias and violas. Red, orange, yellow: the cheery colours please me and feed my soul.

My summer work schedule is going pretty well. I’m only behind by a day and a half from my original plan which isn’t bad. To-do lists of particular tasks combined with long-range plans do the trick of keeping me from panic. Tomorrow I have to purchase more canned cat food, book a check-up for the older dog and get rolling on a RESP maturity application as well as finish the unit on Achaemenid Persia for the correspondence course I’m writing. I’ll try to get more read in the M.A. essay I’m supervising which appears decent so far. Lurking ahead on the horizon is the task I really want to tangle with: more Old Bailey writing, and that is up next. All of those tasks are on the plan. All of that work will get done. But they’re not exactly deeply nourishing in a personal sense.

Teaching preparation has an appeal, but I’ve found, over the years, that it’s not the best use of my time at the start of the summer so I’m resisting the urge to dive into my new course prep readings. I have an alluring stack of books on ancient, medieval and Renaissance occult topics, including Deborah Harkness’s study of John Dee’s angelic conversations. These all need to sit and wait until after the Old Bailey article is in good shape because an article for publication trumps reading for teaching. In any case, it will be better for my teaching to complete the reading closer to the time I’m refining all of the course plans and better know what I need to know and teach. Right? Right!

It’s funny but the prospect of my next research writing project just ahead feeds my soul as much as the begonias and violas in the flower bed. It may be a cliche that academics can’t tear themselves away from their research. I can and frequently do, but when a research topic gets me energized, I don’t want to wait! Soon, I won’t be waiting any more.

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Low on Spoons

Of late, I’ve been dealing with health issues and, you’ll be happy to know, I have an excellent doctor who’s taking this seriously. We’re pursuing a diagnosis and have already started on one part of a treatment which seems to really help.

That’s the upside. The downside is that I still don’t know what my problem is and what it will take to fix it. And, boy, howdy, does this body need some fixing because I am running low on spoons.

Yes, spoons. For those of you not acquainted with the Spoon Theory, explaining how chronic illness can be likened to a handful of spoons. When each task in your day, however modest, must be paid for in spoons, that morning handful can be quickly depleted. Walk up a flight of stairs? Pay with a spoon. Put away a load of laundry? Forfeit another.

The metaphor of a handful of spoons explains my situation of the past several months pretty well. Thankfully, my morning handful’s been getting larger every day for the past few, but I’m still nowhere near normal. That said, I have the prospect of a pretty full recovery, once we get the latest test results back.

Until then, I have to shepherd my spoons carefully – working on the article revision, supervising my M.A. student and wrapping up the last elements of the correspondence course manual. Yes, much of my work doesn’t require a huge output of physical effort, but my endurance is at low ebb. I don’t have the energy for a lot of normal activities: not walking the dog, not working on the next article, not reorganizing my office, not picking back up my needlework. Saddest of all, missing more long-anticipated conferences just ahead, beginning with the Toronto Berks.

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Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards

The teaching term has definitively ended and it was one of the best I’ve enjoyed in many years. However, if the term is over, the paperwork isn’t! Next week I have to polish off my annual report along with my teaching and research dossiers. The dossiers represent a staggering amount of paperwork although this year not quite so daunting as I’m between two deluges of publications. Next week I also must needs start on my summer’s hectic schedule of WRITE ALL THE THINGS.

In fancy-pants academic lingo, I’d label this week as “liminal”, being the semi-porous boundary between the old term and the new. It’s all stressful because, OMG wrap up all of this term-end stuff and get going on the summer research plan, now, now, NOW! But which way to jump? What gets done next?

A check-in on Friday with Jo VanEvery made a world of difference with my stress levels and sense of flailing. Jo helped me work through my long list of obligations, aspirations and implications, winnowing down to the important questions of what do I have to do, what do I want to do and how am I going to use my time to achieve those goals. Jo’s advice is always spot-on, as with her recent post on self-directed writing retreats, a version of which I will use in June to wrap up an article I desperately want to complete this summer because the project is very dear to me.

Now I have a better handle on the week ahead and the summer beyond that. I still have a lot on my to-do list but it’s going to be whittled down in an orderly fashion, matched up against a calendar for the time-sensitive elements (textbook orders due mid-month, grad student research essay deadlines in July and August). It may not be simple, but I feel a bit more in control as I look backwards and forwards this week.

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Despair in Disorder

Unlike Herrick, I do not delight in disorder. However, the end of term (and two piles of exams) has brought a lot of disorder to both my work and my personal environment. Add to this the usual burdens of the season and, well, I’m disturbed by all of these messes impinging on my space and taking over my brainpower. Because they do: there’s a palpable psychic weight to all of the stuff that accumulates, waiting to be managed. First thing that’s on my to-do list once marking is well and truly wrapped up is to tackle the mountains of random paper so I can purge what’s likely a lot of trash and set the rest to filing or, in the very rarest of cases, responding.

I had hoped to get on top of all of my office paperwork last summer but the new puppy took the wind out of my sails with her needy nature. Here’s hoping that the summer of 2014 will be one for organization and decluttering!

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Short and Long Cycles (of Courses)

Publisher’s reps are emailing me with increasing frequency, asking what I’m teaching next year and what textbooks I’m going to adopt. I’ve had to consult some documentation to see what that will be because I am teaching a metric whackload of new courses – three brand new ones, to be exact, two of which I’m team-teaching so that means they’re set aside three familiar classes (and one new distance course that I’ll offer online for the first time next January).

There are some courses that I always teach – Western Civ is a historian’s version of Freshman Comp (and just about as much fun as a course concept even though I try to liven it up each year). I taught Renaissance Italy for eleven years running before I ran screaming from what had once been a favourite subject. I give graduate level historiography and methods a serious side-eye having taught it all but three years in this millennium.

Repetition can wear me down. In fact, the major reason that I’m preparing a distance course is to relieve pressure from an over-popular course in Ancient Near Eastern history which can be offered more often online (with another academic taking over the instructor’s duties) than I want to do in the classroom.

I know some academics advise a tight rotation of select courses – come up with a two-year rotation and stick to it. I tend towards the other extreme: I prefer a three or four year plan of teaching that allows me to get a break from a subject and turn towards other interests. I also am always game for a neat new course concept (which is how I ended up co-teaching a course on the history of the occult next year).

I suppose this is also my way of coping with the necessary repetition. I may have to teach the first half of Western Civ every year from now until retirement, but I have fun new courses on the history of war and on the history of crime to leaven the boredom, at least for next year.

What about you? Are you drawn to new course concepts or options (even new themes in a core course would count) or do you prefer to keep your teaching to a tight set of regular-repeated topics?

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Here Be Dragons: A Book Review

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston might not be the title of a book that you’d expect to find reviewed on a historian’s blog. But that’s where you’d be wrong because this fabulous new YA fantasy has wide appeal in no small part because it’s a wonderfully clever bit of alternate history served up in a story you won’t want to put down.
The Story of Owen cover art
As exciting and engrossing as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter debut which married wizardry with an orphan’s coming of age, The Story of Owen uses dragons to drive a story of friendship and growth wrapping around Owen Thorskard, grade eleven transfer student and dragon slayer in training, and Siobhan McQuaid, an aspiring music major who may have just found a practical application for her talents as bard to the budding hero.

Johnston is a wizard of world-building, taking one new and compelling twist to turn our modern world into a dangerous prospect for young Owen and Siobhan. Industrialization didn’t just roll out factories and Fords, in Owen’s fantasy world, it also fuelled a boom in a scary ecological niche – dragons. Thus dragon slayers have become the vital force in protecting urban industrial centres as well as oil-rich regions and shipping routes. But why, then, oh, why, is this young dragon slayer coming of age in the rural world of Trondheim, Ontario?

That’s one of the many mysteries that unfold over the course of the book, explored through the perspective of small town student and would-be composer, Siobhan. She befriends Owen on his first day at school but, despite her best attempts to let the cool crowd take her place, finds Owen a fast friend. He, in turn, sees something in her smart assessments in their history class that links the two in an attempt to revive the ancient alliance of dragon slayer and bard.

All of this isn’t just for show. Just as in any other great story, there’s a threat looming ever closer. The rural world of Trondheim is under siege from the same forces that depopulated Detroit and most of Michigan: dragons. Owen’s family may have produced many great dragon slayers but is a high school junior really ready to take on not just one, but a host? Owen may just have to, with Siobhan by his side, molding his story and sniffing out the roots of this growing crisis.

“Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival.

There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition.

But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected.

Such was Trondheim’s fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds—armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard.

Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!”

Along the way to the spine-tingling conclusion, you keep bumping into perfect little vignettes of alternate history. Eloise (of Eloise and Abelard fame)? A dragon slayer. Yes, she was just that bad-ass of a medieval woman! Buddy Holly? Not just any musician, but the last great bard who chronicled the deeds of a dragon slayer. The day the music died wasn’t just a tragedy for fans, but it also cut off a major connection between the dragon slayers and the people they protected.

Queen Victoria, 1843

Queen Victoria features in Johnston’s rich alternate history

Queen Victoria? She was not just an imperial figurehead (as if!), but a determined protector of the British people and their lands who masterminded the impossible task: shifting a hatching grounds of the flying predators safely away from her favourite British haunts. Canadians will also enjoy a little thrill as, with the story set in modern-day Canada, the True North features naturally, from the steel mills of Hamilton to the outsized legacy of Lester B. Pearson. Lightly handled, all of this background never overwhelms but wonderfully sets the stage for Siobhan, Owen and other determined souls to save Trondheim and nearby Saltrock from the deadly menace of dragons that grows worse every day.

The Story of Owen delivers on every level for readers of all ages. I can’t wait for the release date so I can start making good on the promised gifts of copies to fellow book-lovers. If you’re a YA fan, you have to put Johnston’s book on your must-read list and if you’re not a genre fancier, you should still give it a whirl. A second book in the story world, Prairie Fire is due out in March of 2015. I know that I can’t wait!

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