Learning the New Rules

Welcome to MassMedieval 2013!

After the first half of 2012 served up a lot more than I was ready for in both joys and sorrows, I spent the fall semester trying to adjust to some new realities–the most immediate of which was the sudden and transforming presence of my son Carl (a.k.a. C.J., Wee Laddie, Chuckles, and–much to the confusion of my brother’s dog of the same name–Buddy). Getting to know him has been tremendously rewarding, but it’s come with a certain amount of collateral damage to…well, everything else.

As we enter the new year and Carl’s 11th month, I won’t say that equilibrium has been reached (years of reading pre-modern literature has made me wary of thumbing my nose at the Norns), but I’ve got a bit of hard-won perspective about how Carl’s arrival has affected my work as a practicing (i.e., teaching and researching) medievalist.


Five ways having a baby has made me a worse medievalist:

1. The pace of my scholarly reading is down. Way down. I used to read (or at least peruse with intent) a book or two a month and several articles a week, between research in my fields of inquiry, materials for classes I was teaching, work by friends and colleagues whose production I try to keep up with, submissions for a journal I peer review for, and journals that showed up in my mailbox. Last semester? A sadly low percentage of that number. Definitely a new low, and one that I don’t plan to repeat this semester (see below for more on this).

2. Language skills? What language skills? Every minute I spend singing the Alphabet song or making what Carl thinks are hilarious clucking-and-trilling noises is a minute when I can feel my hard-won vocabulary in Old Norse or the future active tense of Latin crumbling away. Is there a children’s song that reinforces Old English word stems?

3. Grading happens on a schedule more appropriate to geological time. I once prided myself on the speed of my grade turnaround–entire exams returned in a weekend, papers and draft comments dealt with in hours, and complex projects turned back in a week or so. No longer–students still get their papers back, but the pace is charitably describable as sedate, a direct result of the baby’s spirited effort to dominate my attention at all times through the triple threat of being essentially helpless, unfazed by my pleas for reason and quiet, and, of course, deeply entertaining. Both the distraction and the resulting slowness seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future,  so I’m probably going to have to rethink my grading strategies somewhat (or stagger my assignments to keep the in-tray light at any given time).

4. Lack of time for writing. This has been a real frustration, partly because there’s always an excuse not to write, even when there isn’t another human being dependent on you for food, hygiene, safety, and comforting. My habit has always been to churn out writing in 4-5 page chunks (not all of it necessarily good or usable) over the course of a 4-6 hour marathon writing session (allowing time for revision both on the fly and during separate sessions after the initial draft is complete). Much of that productivity comes at the end of the long session, once I’ve had time for the ideas to germinate and figured out my best way forward with my argument. Given the freedom to do so, I can usually get into a pattern wherein I maintain that schedule for days or even weeks. I’ve never been much good at writing in short bursts, though, which is all I get now–45 minutes of uninterrupted writing time would be a luxury, frankly. So I’ve got to either change a lifetime’s habit or figure out a way to fit the occasional four-hour chunk of free time into my week.

5. There’s almost no time for reflection. This past semester, I had some deeply interesting conversations with my colleagues and students. A senior seminar on medieval outlaw legends wound up taking a series of especially interesting turns, as the students and I examined the archetype of the outlaw as a partial inversion of the Campbellian Ur-hero and contemplated the ultimately unsettling (and sometimes tragic) “happy endings” of many of the texts. I’d have liked a lot more time to pursue those conversations, and then to go back to my office to type up notes on our ideas to work on later. But the crunch of trying to organize my time efficiently meant losing that time that I used to use for making post-class notes–and, as a result, losing many of the nuances of our discussions. This, at least, I can fix, by making sure not to schedule anything immediately following my classes–but that’s often easier to say than to do.


Five ways having a baby has made me a better medievalist:

1. My reading “voice” is improving. Reading out loud to someone else every day (who lets me know the second he loses interest by trying to tear my beard out or stick cereal up the dog’s nose) is pushing me to read as a full performance–voices, expression, and all the hammy overacting I can manage. Bedtime reading is the best, since it doesn’t yet revolve around baby books per se–my Gollum voice really came along while reading The Hobbit, and my Scots-inflected Ancient Badger was the hit of our household while reading Badger’s Beech. The little guy seems to like it, and it’s definitely carrying over into my moments of reading to my students or while delivering conference papers–I’m quite excited to have a crack at the Canterbury Tales this spring and really give full value to the cartoonier bits of the narratives.

2. I’m developing new interests, especially in certain cultural aspects of medieval life. Predictably, these center around medieval child-rearing and perceptions of childhood. Aside from knowing that Aries’ Centuries of Childhood (with its argument that “childhood” as a distinct time of life is a post-medieval invention) is pretty generally discredited by the evidence, I’m essentially a neophyte. Now I’ve got a small stack of books and articles to read on the subject, and am just beginning to educate myself–and am in the very early stages of cobbling together ideas for a “Premodern Childhood” syllabus for the Literature for Elementary Education Majors course at Bridgewater.

3. A renewed appreciation for gross-out humor. I expect this to come in handy for a variety of reasons, but there’s really nothing quite like the infectious grin of a baby’s unabashed delight with the sounds, smells, and by-products his body can make to make me long for a chance to reread some of the earthier passages from lyric and poetry collections, to say nothing of teaching the divisible fart of the Summoner’s Tale or Egil Skallagrimsson’s emetic solution to poor hospitality. And, of course, to make me all the more appreciative of reading about such things rather than experiencing them during a 3 a.m. diaper change.

4. Thinking about history–and about literature–in new ways. This isn’t as directly professional, but I’ve found that I think differently about some of the things I read–and appreciate details in what I read that otherwise might not catch my eye. For example, I’ve known since I first read it in grad school that Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe begins with a dedication of sorts to his son Lewis. It’s one of those bits of 14th century literature trivia that would come in handy if anyone ever gets around to introducing Medievalists’ pub trivia at Kalamazoo, but otherwise wasn’t terribly important. I believe in the importance of the author, but not in the necessity (or even desirability) of biographical criticism. But now I read these lines somewhat differently:

Lyte Lowys my sone, I aperceyve wel by certeyne evydences thyn abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns; and as wel considre I thy besy praier in special to lerne the tretys of the Astrelabie. Than for as moche as a philosofre saith, “he wrappith him in his frend, that condescendith to the rightfulle praiers of his frend,” therfore have I yeven the a suffisant Astrolabie as for oure orizonte, compowned after the latitude of Oxenforde; upon which, by mediacioun of this litel tretys, I purpose to teche the a certein nombre of conclusions aperteynyng to the same instrument.

A small part of me now sees in those lines a man, possibly slightly bemused by his son’s interest in the complexities of an astrolabe but also more than a little pleased by Lewis’ “abilite to lerne sciences” and inquisitive nature (in fact, some of this reads like the 14th century equivalent of a humblebrag) . I don’t know whether that will affect my scholarship, but it’s certainly  enriching my reading.

5. I’m more patient. That phrasing is a bit imprecise–as those who know me might note, the implied comparative is misleading.  I’m learning some patience, both as a necessity in dealing with a baby and as a survival strategy for not becoming too frustrated with myself when I leave home papers I meant to return, or when I know I’m being difficult to live with, or when, at the end of a long day and with lecture notes to prepare or quizzes to grade, I just don’t have the energy to do anything more than fold some laundry, watch some television, or read a magazine. What I’m finding is that this is, slowly but surely, making its way into my interactions with my students, many of whom are also operating on the edge of exhaustion and trying to balance home, work, and school (often with more grace than I’m managing). My friend Josh Eyler has recently written about the need for empathy in our work more effectively than I could (click here for his blog). So far, what I’m learning from my son is that he’s a person in progress, and that much of the time the best thing I can do for him is to help him not to get hurt and recognize that he’s learning as fast as he can. I’m learning, and need to keep remembering, that my students and I are also in progress–and that sometimes I can do them more good by helping them not get hurt than by tearing my hair out over the pace of their learning.

So, ten months in, that’s the essence. Hopefully I’ll enter the spring term a bit more battle-tested and slightly better at the whole baby/world balancing act. Wish me luck…


Filed under Professional stuff, Teaching

7 responses to “Learning the New Rules

  1. Jennifer

    What a great post!

  2. Loved reading these thoughts. Brings back fond memories for me, of juggling writing & academics with a new child. Having kids changes everything, doesn’t it? And believe it or not, sounds like you’re doing great! I’ll bet reflecting like this will only help.

    • jpsexton

      I appreciate the vote of confidence. I suppose adjusting to parenthood is like being a little crazy–it’s when I think I’ve got it all figured out that I’ll *really* be in trouble…

  3. Great post, buddy! You’ve hit the nail on the head here. Thanks, too, for the shout-out.

    • jpsexton

      Hey! I’ve been enjoying your intermittent updates on adjusting to the parenthood/academic juggling act. It seems fairly typical of us both that you’re mostly coming up with positive learning experiences and I’m mainly grumbling about having to make adjustments.

      • This, of course, is why we make the quintessential team! In all seriousness, though, I thought your post ended with a very positive look at learning and students. Your comments about Carl demonstrate just how great a dad you are too.

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