Monday, July 25, 2005

On Productivity

(Setting aside the obvious irony of writing about "productivity" instead of, well, actually doing something productive like finishing the revision of King Alfred's Grammar).

For me the secret to productivity is keeping a lot of balls in the air. This approach has both positive and negative effects (some of which I'll discuss in more detail in an upcoming post on "Is is bad to have an 'eclectic' publication record?").
If one project runs into a stumbling block or a delay (such as having to wait for Interlibrary Loan books or articles), I can just move on to the next instead of waiting in frustration. But if one project gets hung upon a genuinely difficult intellectual problem, it's very easy to give in to temptation and move on to something else. This is particularly difficult when I have a lot of things to do around the house. Example: last week, when I was having trouble re-writing the section of the grammar book on word order and cases, I went down in the basement and built some shelves. It was certainly fun to do some carpentry (and my five-year-old now knows the difference between and rabet and a dado), but it did very little to get the grammar book revised in time to use it in the fall.

(I also lost some productivity points when I spent big chunks of Saturday and Sunday--well, when the children were napping or at birthday parties-- finishing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince -- but I really enjoyed the book and thought Rowling mostly avoided bogging down the way she did in Order of the Phoenix. Two future posts on Potter: "Rowling 'Technologizes' Magic'" and "My Prediction: Draco Malfoy = Gollum").

Overall, I think the standard model of humanities work--the professor sitting alone in front of a stack of books and a computer, wrestling the recalictrant material into a book or article-- is a productivity-killer. The Research Group, as done in the sciences, seems to me to be a far better spur to productivity. My wife was in a science/engineering research group (the Steel Research Group--although she worked on polymers) at Northwestern and I saw first-hand how such groups provide social and intellectual support. True, they can bog down in politics (usually over lab space and funding) and waste time like any other group of people, but in general they seem incredibly successful.

I have consistently tried to set up such research groups since I have been in graduate school, with varying degrees of success. At Loyola the attempt at a research group fell apart, wrecked on the shoals of Ph.D. student anxieties, egos and personality conflicts. At Wheaton I had one fairly large group of students that lasted for a couple of semesters, but in general I've had my best results working with one or two students on a specified project and with science faculty and students on longer-term projects. But I'm still trying to get a self-perpetuating research group going rather than having to re-start every year.

So, for example, I wrote a single journal article with my student Laura Comoletti; wrote an article and started a long-running bibliography project with my student Hilary Wynne; founded the journal Tolkien Studies with Prof. Verlyn Flieger and independent scholar Douglas Anderson and edited the first issue with students Melissa Higgins, Laura Kalafarski and Mariah Herbst; compiled another bibliography with my student Melissa Smith-MacDonald; started the Anglo-Saxon Medicine Project with Biology Prof. Betsey Dyer and student John Walsh and recently published in Anglo-Saxon Englandthe results of that five-year project with Biology Prof. Barbara Brennessel and her student Robyn Gravel.

In each case the collaboration spurs productivity not only by having someone else contribute to the work but also by forcing me to meet deadlines (i.e., have something to talk about at meetings). More importantly, the collaboration is great fun because two brains are better than one, and having someone to talk to about a project helps weed out stupid ideas. Also, the science approach to having to sketch out all the research in advance so as to ask for funding helps enormously in taming open-ended humanities projects.

I'm now working on the Sheep DNA in Parchment project with Biology Prof. Shawn McCafferty and exploring a cognitive neuroscience project (using EEG to try to better understand how people read poetry -- specifically poems with apo koinu constructions) with Psychology Prof. Rolf Nelson. I'm also compiling the next year's Tolkien Studies bibliography with my student Vaughan Sherrill and, if she decides to join the research group, my student Lindsey Ford. And I'm revising and expanding King Alfred's Grammar with Bruce Gilchrist from Univ. of Toronto.

For my own "productivity", I have to finish the grammar book, write an article on the construction of elvish, immortal bodies in Tolkien, revise my syllabi (for Math/SciFi; Rings, Swords and Monsters: Tolkien, Wagner, Beowulf; and Anglo-Saxon), re-do all of my websites, create an errata page for Beowulf and the Critics, record Beowulf as an mp3,write my lecture on Tolkien's medieval scholarship for Hillsdale College, revise my prospectus for The Dark is Rising Companion in light of Ms. Cooper's comments, write my own entries for the The JRRT Encyclopedia, and, if they ever arrive, correct the galleys for How Tradition Works, and...

Now I am so tired just thinking about all of this that I am going to go watch the Red Sox.

So much for productivity.


Frank said...

You certainly have a lot on your plate! It all seems to get done, though. Good for you. I wish I had your work ethic; I'm just a lazy-ass.

Derek the ├ćnglican said...

A The Dark is Rising commentary. Very cool...

Chris Laning said...

A newsgroup I sometimes follow has a standard description for all of those no-doubt-useful, constructive, and suddenly necessary things that always seem to need doing when you really should be working on a difficult project. Their description is "Excuse me, I have to go vacuum the cat now." A certain amount of cat-vacuuming is healthy and can help the tired brain get through some sorts of difficulty. Just don't let it take over ALL the time!

squire said...

We in Reading Room discussion group have set up a Yahoo group site in order to work together on our Encyclopedia entries. The opportunity to get feedback, ask questions, and share research sources is invaluable, since most of us are not affiliated with academic institutions. The idea of doing this kind of work alone, with just that computer and those books, dismays me -- are online research groups really so rare in the humanities?

Diane said...

"Rowling 'Technologizes' Magic", huh? (grin) I wondered when she'd take a page from my book. (So to speak.)

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