Latest Post

After almost four weeks of instituting The Schedule, however imperfectly (or, in the case of this last week, almost not at all - thanks, stomach bug), I am pleased to report that progress has been slow but consistent. I wrote almost 20 pages and read 2.5 books.

I had hoped to be in a new research phase by now, for the Egyptian half of the project, but writing up last summer’s research is taking much longer than I expected. (Granted, I tend to have unreasonable expectations about how quickly I can do just about everything.)  Back then, I read dozens of sermons by John Chrysostom, jotted down pages of potentially relevant sections and references (thematically organized) and despaired that I didn’t have a thing to say about it all.

Well, after all these years of paper-writing, it still amazes me how much writing is a process of discovery. Once I forced myself to start putting something in writing, anything, it turned out that I had plenty of thoughts. Most of them are rough and inchoate, but once something is on the page, it troubles my brain until I figure it out and express it clearly.

Last semester I wrote about Chrysostom’s conception of the domestic church and how it centers on a re-formulation of the domestic banquet. This semester, I am writing about:

A) his ideas about literal vs. “spiritual” fasting, which leads into issues of the relationship between soul and body, 
B) the place of gluttony in his view of sin, and thus the place of fasting or moderation in his approach to the whole spiritual life, and
C) the role of social factors (like competition or peer pressure, or differences of socio-economic status within the congregation, etc.) in the communal experience of fasting for his audience. 

I could probably write the entire dissertation on Chrysostom, since he has so much to say about everything, but I’m not going to. I think the original plan of using two extended case studies - essentially half the dissertation on Chrysostom and Antioch, and the other half on Shenoute and Egypt (yay documentary papyri!) - is   the right way to go. Egypt will have to wait a little longer, that’s all.

I’m back to work on the dissertation in a more serious way now that I don’t have little things like marathon training and fellowship applications taking up all my time. I have no teaching obligation this semester, so I get to write and research full-time until May. This is lovely in theory, but in practice it is easy to swing between panic and inertia when faced with huge unstructured blocks of time, no deadlines worth mentioning, a toddler-length attention span, and all the distractions of home. 

I’ve always had the notion that we ought to approach dissertation writing like a regular 9-5 job, but have always found it somehow impossible to implement the discipline. (A year of serious depression didn’t help at all.) But last week we were brainstorming about how to organize the home office most efficiently, and eventually came around organically to the same idea. 

This was also one of those curious communication breakthrough moments, after 5+ years of marriage and 10 years of being students together.
Me: We have to have more lights in here if we’re going to work in the evenings.
B: Why? I like the atmospheric lighting.
Me: I can’t think unless the whole room is bright.
B: I never knew that.
Me: Yes, that’s why I always walk in and turn on the lights. I don’t know how you can work in the dark.
B: I work great in the dark. It’s very mellow.
Me: It puts me to sleep.
B: Oh.

The office is at its best in the morning, with north and east facing windows, so it is a great incentive to get up and start working, with good coffee and Baroque music. Then if one actually starts, one can stop at 5 when it starts to get too dark in the room to be mentally alert. And then one has the rest of the evening to do all kinds of other things! It’s funny how much this feels like a revelation, now that we’ve put it into practice for a few days.

So I am taking the just-keep-your-butt-in-the-chair approach to writing. I’ve read the productivity guides that say that being goal-focused instead of time-focused helps you avoid procrastination. This makes sense in theory, but it hasn’t worked very well for me. The writing process is so fluid, even when I think I know what I need to say, that it was hard for me to establish daily or weekly production goals. The vagaries of research are even more depressingly un-quantifiable.  However, even with only partial implementation of the new schedule, and unscheduled naps, and checking Facebook or chat forums regularly, I’ve still managed to crank out 8 more pages in the last week mainly by keeping the text in front of me for several hours at a time. Even better, I’ve stayed so chilled out about it that it doesn’t really feel like I’m working.

The fact that the office is the warmest room in the house when we close the door and use the space heater doesn’t hurt. Neither does the awesome new wall calendar from the Paper Source (see above). I’m a great believer in having the pleasantest possible conditions for work. I hesitate to proclaim the dawn of a new era or anything grandiose like that, given my past inconsistencies, but the indications are promising. 

I submitted the first version (definitely not the first draft!) of my dissertation proposal this week. I’m a slow writer at the best of times but it took me a month to write and re-write those two pages. Now I’m waiting for my director’s feedback.

It gives me chills to read the proposal (which has to be rather bold — there’s no space in two pages for humble circumlocutions) and think, “Am I really going to write this?” I must admit that I think it will be an awesome project, whatever its final form, but I’m scared to attempt it. 

I also like that I used the words “occludes” and “milieux.” I hate academic verbiage, and I fight hard against passive voice and excessive nominalizations, but one must still use a little bit of theoretical jargon to show that one knows what one is talking about. Still, I fear that my writing has actually gotten worse since my undergraduate days. I can analyze and argue at a much higher level now, of course, but my use of language was much lovelier when I was not so immersed in academic prose.

At least I can do some non-academic reading now that I am working on a more relaxed schedule. Any suggestions?

At Christmas, my little youngest two sisters (just turned 14 and 16) were politely asking what my dissertation is going to be about. I explained that I’m interested in people’s everyday lives in the ancient world, especially what they ate and what it meant to them, but that this sort of thing is often difficult to find out. I told them about some of the funniest documentary papyri that I’ve read, like the letter urging the recipient to come to town immediately, and not to be distressed about the pig, because the chief of police would take care of everything. Or the one from the boy who was mad at his father for not taking him to Alexandria and only sending him some stupid chickpeas as a present, and threatened to not eat or greet his father or shake his hand unless he was taken along next time. 

At bedtime, the youngest said, “Good night! Sleep tight! Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Then she became thoughtful, and asked, “Are you going to have bedbugs in your dissertation?”

"What?" said I, puzzled.

"You know. People long ago had bedbugs, right? Are you going to write about them?"

I think I said that I didn’t think bedbugs showed up much in the historical record, but I can’t quite remember. Mostly I was laughing. But who knows, maybe a little bioarchaeology would do the trick.