Homework First, Then Bliss

I'm doing it again: blogging about how much I want to be writing but feel like I can't or shouldn't be because I have so much work to do. It's Sunday morning, you say, how could I possibly have work to do now? Oh, but I spent yesterday at the bank, then at yoga and fencing practice, then I took a nap and finished the novel that I've been trying to read for nigh on the past week, then made dinner, then watched several episodes of Dexter (season three). I've had my down time, it's time to get back to work. But I don't want to, not just now.

I had a rule for myself when I was growing up (presuming, that is, that I am grown up now): every day when I came home from school, I would do my homework first. That way, I told myself, I could spend whatever time I had left in the evening doing whatever I wanted confident in the fact that I was caught up. This system worked well through college, when the homework was still more or less manageable. It has been somewhat less successful ever since. Oh, I've still kept to it for the most part: don't take that vacation until you've finished designing that syllabus, don't take time off in the middle of the day (say, for lunch) when there is still class to prepare, don't have another child (thank goodness I had the first one!) until you've finished your book. The problem is, I haven't been "caught up" in the sense of having all of my homework done since, oh, I graduated from college.

Happily, I have made myself some new rules since. I am, as a rule, not free for meetings or seminars on evenings or afternoons when I have fencing practice. If I did not have this rule, I am sure that I would have stopped fencing years ago, not because I wanted to, but because I would never have "had the time." I try to blog at least three times a week, not because I have to, but because I feel happier after I have. I don't schedule meetings with students except during my office hours unless it is absolutely impossible for them to meet with me then. But in other respects, I am still the schoolgirl trying to get her homework done. What I would like to do today is write this blog post, then go to church, then maybe take a walk, then read a bit more about dogs. My husband has a party that he would like to go to tonight and it would be fun to see some of his friends. Instead, however, if I follow my first rule, I am going to have to spend the day grading papers and doing laundry, if, that is, I don't want to fall behind.

Carl McColman over at the Website of Unknowing has a post this week about discipline that speaks to many of the issues that I am struggling with here. Full disclosure: I've just started reading his blog a few weeks ago, and I am incredibly jealous. He (like Jennifer at Conversion Diary) is pretty much saying everything that I want to be saying in my blog, but much better than I ever could and without even having an academic degree. Plus he's published ten books and counting while I, as you know, am still struggling with number two. Which is actually relevant to my frustration about doing my homework. See, here I am, the good student, having gone to graduate school and gotten my Ph.D., having jumped all the hoops and been well trained, and somehow they who have not jumped even one hoop (at least of the "do your homework first" sort) are doing exactly what they want to be doing (respectively, working in a bookstore owned by Trappist monks; raising four kids and writing a memoir about her conversion) while I, somehow, am not.

Don't get me wrong, I love teaching. In fact, that is one of the few things of which I am relatively sure. I am, like it or not, temperamentally a natural-born teacher. I love explaining things and thinking of ways to explain things better. If "following your bliss" means finding the things that give rather than take energy, I'm pretty sure (most of the time) that teaching is the right thing for me to do. But teaching can happen in a number of contexts, not just academically, just as there are plenty of writers out there who have never published an "academic" book. So this isn't really about teaching as such. It's about wondering whether in my discipline to get my homework done I somehow missed doing what I actually most wanted to do. "Discipline," Carl says (citing a sign that used to hang in his friends' jewelry studio), "is knowing what you want." Pathetically enough, however, one of the things that I want most--at least, have wanted most for most of my life--is to be the Good Student. And that, as I'm finally coming to realize, is more or less a dead end.

Most of my colleagues realized this years ago. They have no scruples whatsoever about vanishing for weeks, missing meetings, canceling classes. They travel and publish and could care less about having their homework done; I know this because I hear every so often from students about how they still haven't gotten papers back weeks after they turn them in. Oh, that I could be that irresponsible! But, no, homework first, then bliss. It might be more satisfying, even more productive to spend the day doing something other than grading, but I've promised my students to have the papers back to them within the week and so I will. Bliss will simply have to wait.


  1. At least from your students' side, we are far more impressed by prompt paper-grading than many publications. That, and by professors who put in the extra effort to make detailed comments, even on footnotes!

  2. Thanks for your kind words, but remember the grass isn't always greener on the other side. I'm always haunted by two questions: "Should I get my Ph.D.?" and "Should I do to seminary?" So much of life is finding joy wherever we happen to be, and then thoughtfully and carefully planning to go in a direction that seems to make sense, even if (as is usually the case) we'll end up somewhere other than we planned. If you had asked me six years ago about working for the Trappists, I would have laughed at you. Now I give thanks for it every day. But I still wonder if I shouldn't go back to school and work toward getting a "real" job. It's funny how life works out.

  3. @Carl: Indeed, it is funny how life works out! And, yes, thank you for the reminder about the greenness of the grass. I have been enjoying your blog immensely, particularly the posts these past couple of weeks on faith and discipline. I have also been referring my graduate students to your blog for what you have been saying about what it means to be a mystic and finding vocation. I don't know if the post on the Blackwell books was meant as an exercise in thinking about whether to pursue a more academic route, but I do want you to know how valuable I find your writing from a perspective outside of academia. You are able to say things that academics find it very difficult to say but often want to be saying themselves.

  4. I hope I'm not so late to this that you'll miss this comment. I feel I could have written most of this post! I'm thinking a lot lately about what matters to me--really matters--and how incompatible it is with wanting to be the Good Student. And I don't even mean grading, though I do intend to turn a lot of homework assignments into simpler, in-class sorts of things; I mean service, all the time and energy that goes into committee work that ultimately doesn't give me the satisfaction or recognition that either research or teaching give. I have done a lot of it because of some quasi-medieval idea about service (and I have a lot of idealistic notions about the Institution of the University), but I think I'm being exploited. Seeing this post just confirms my feeling that I need to resign from some of this work and do more of what I truly care about.

  5. If you can bear it, I've written a long and rather self-involved post as a sort of rejoinder to this one (and to an email a reader sent me yesterday): http://anamchara.com/2009/11/18/the-road-not-taken/

    If your fate is to be a Good Student, like my fate is to be a Bookseller, then I hope for you delicious joy in your studies. No reason why homework and bliss won't dance together. P.S. Really looking forward to reading your book.


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