Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

Winter Break

My disciplined life has fallen apart over break this year, but maybe this has provided a kind of rest I have really needed? I'm not sure yet. My main goal for break was to get back in touch with my research and writing again, and I have accomplished this (see below), and so I am happy about that.

Our weather has continued to be strange. We usually have a bit of a January thaw, but this year we had a much longer-and-warmer-than-usual January thaw. In fact, all of our snow melted (except the Piles and Ridges). But yesterday we got a couple of new fresh inches, and everything looks all pretty again. I'm glad. For some reason, I didn't want the students to come back to the strange unsnowy landscape.

If we go back to our usual pattern of having some fresh snow of about 4 inches at a time, I will be happy. I was somewhat disappointed that the two feet we had on the ground melted, but it had reached a point where it was hard to know where to go with the snow when shoveling (with the ridges 4-6 feet high!), so now we do have room again.

New Semester

Our new semester starts next week. I will be taking my Chair's course release this semester, which means I will be teaching two (instead of three) courses. One is a new course, but one I am very excited about: a whole course on Science and Religion! The other is a course I have not taught in a long time: Ethical Theory. While it almost feels like two new preps, it is a good time for me to teach both of these courses. Going through this material myself will be good for me in relation to my research.

As I plan these courses, I remind myself that I do have the freedom to simplify the structure of my teaching. I decided that I'm going to be unapologetic about lightening up a bit on the amount of work I require from my students (and thus also require myself to grade). What is truly best for my students? After all, our students get highly stressed and feel too busy during the semester too. More is not necessarily better. Too much pressure can diminish their enthusiasm. What is the ideal balance for them, that optimizes the educational value for them? It is hard to know for sure. What I have done in the recent past has felt pretty close to the right balance, but a little much, for them and for me, I think. Scaling back a little might be just the right thing to do.

My Research

At the end of this week, I am attending a workshop on Book Publishing for Academic Authors. In preparation for this workshop, we had to prepare and send materials in advance. What we were required to send is close to an actual book proposal. It was really good for me to have to work on this.

First I spent a whole day poking feebly at it. Everything in my soul that could resist did resist, simultaneously: dullness of mind; lack of confidence; existential angst; more lack of confidence; "who am I trying to kid"; despair. I would look at notes and passages I had written towards this project in the past, and I found it all painful. It was hard to regain the sense of remembering exactly where I had been going with this. Or, I would get a flash of amazement and enthusiasm, but couldn't bear that either. "Yeah, I'll get all excited about this again," I found myself saying to myself, "and then my busy life will push it back out, and I'll feel a sense of loss again, and thus I'll resign myself again to a diminished view of myself, without even really noticing, except that I'll notice a vague but growing sense of depression..."

But I tried to stop such trains of negative thinking and pushed on. "Still, I do have to get this quasi-proposal done! There's a waiting list for this workshop. I was lucky to get accepted. I must not squander this opportunity." So I pressed on, jotting some thoughts and notes towards a revised outline. But, still, it was an agonizing and exhausting day.

The next day I woke up clear and happy, set immediately to work, and suddenly it all came back with crystal clarity: my vision for this project, and who I really am.

It was kind of amazing.

So I did get my materials in on time, and I am quite happy about it all. I then turned to my calendar and scheduled in time for research and writing during the semester -- about two hours per day (with times when I could extend it if I wish to do so). I had tried this last semester, but it sadly fell apart. But this semester I do have a lighter teaching load, and so I am hopeful that I will be successful.

Related, I will be presenting some of my ideas at the Friends Association for Higher Education conference to be held at Woodbrooke this year. After that conference, I will also stay for the joint meeting of the Quaker Studies Research Association and the Quaker Historians and Archivists.

Discipline and the Art of Scheduling

All of this has me thinking again about the power of discipline and the art of scheduling. Last spring, I was forced to be highly disciplined about my work because that was my Extraordinarily Busy Semester (part of my Extraordinarily Busy Year, you might recall). This past fall was not so bad, even though I had a bit of an overload, and so the necessity to keep to a high level of discipline was not as great, but now it shows. My office desperately needs a major overhaul. I think my inability to take advantage of my more reasonable workload -- to use that as an opportunity to get reorganized and orient my work more in the direction I really want it to go -- was a reflection of just how exhausted my spirit still was, after the intensity of last year.

I am feeling a lot better now. And so I really am hopeful that if I start off this new semester with a well-structured schedule and a healthy commitment to being disciplined, this may be the semester in which I finally move more fully into how I want my work life to be.

The elements of discipline for me include:

* Meeting for Worship.
* Regular time for exercise.
* Enough sleep.
* Good nutrition.
* Regular music practice.
* Keeping in good touch with family and friends.
* Feeling on top of things at work (teaching; being chair; service commitments).
* Scheduling time for research and writing.

I see all of this as part of spiritual discipline. Not only do I see all dimensions of my work as calling, but the other elements of life that extend beyond work are spiritually significant as well: maintaining my own health and well-being so that I am able to be there for others in a real way; attending to my relationships to honor that of God within everyone.


  1. Good luck with the new year. Discipline is my new watchword as well.

    When you're at the FAHE at Woodbrooke, be sure to say hi to Wess Daniels, who writes www.gatheringinlight.com, because he's going too! He wrote a while ago about what he was planning to present, something about convergent Friends.

  2. Thanks, Robin!

    Excellent -- I look forward to meeting Wess Daniels!

    Best wishes to you in the new year as well!