Tag Archives: Being an Academic

Discovery (writ small)

I was reminded a couple of weeks ago of the thrill of discovery, or perhaps “discovery.” I’m working with the Five College Medieval Manuscript Digitization Project (website), and was doing some basic work getting some images we can work with for cataloguing (while the nice images are being worked on), and measuring the leaves of the UMass Ege collection. I was curious to know what the next oldest book or leaf in the UMass Special Collections Library was, so I did a really basic search in the library catalogue: location Special Collections and date 1100-1600. I knew there was a copy of Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio’s Hecatommiti from 1593, because I’d consulted it a few years ago. Turns out there are a bunch of early printed books, but more importantly for the Manuscript Digitization project, there’s actually another medieval manuscript!

It hasn’t been entered into the project catalogue yet, but I got a chance to look through it. It’s a list in alphabetical order of the interpretation of Hebrew names from the Bible, in a version that was common in the thirteenth century (incipit “Aaz apprehendens”). This particular exemplar has 38 folios (three gatherings of 12 and two leaves at the end), and ends with “Tirus angustia v[e]l tribulatio s[i]v[e] plasmatio aut fortitudo” (transcription from the MARC record).  It’s a fragment of a larger volume, as evidenced by the fact that the gatherings of this piece are numbered 32-35, in pen, in a much later hand. If the first 31 gatherings were also 12 folios each, it’s possible (likely even?) that it contained an entire Bible before the list.

The volume as it is now was rebound in the late 1980s* in marbled paper boards with a leather label on the cover. It also has a clamshell box that’s UMass-made. The library’s MARC record indicates that the volume was bought from Bernard Quaritch in 1988, and the special collections librarian I spoke to about it said that it must have been a gift, since they don’t usually buy from Quaritch. I’ve got a lead on a set of Quaritch catalogues, so I’m going to try to track down the sale and see what else I can find out about the volume. Once I know what sale it was, I might even be able to find out the price and who bought it, since Quaritch keeps an archive of sale catalogues, including as much of the sale information as they can.

In the meantime, despite the fact that this book was in the catalogue and not hidden, I feel like I’ve discovered something. It’s good to know that the thrill is still there.


* The rear paste-down has a watermark with the year 1985, and the special collections librarian was positive that UMass wouldn’t have done that rebinding, so it must be between 1985 and 1988.


I had my first job interview yesterday, by Skype. It was a sort of fascinating experience in a few ways. First of all, it was an interview with people I’ve met, and some of whom I’ve worked with, and I hear that many people find it harder to interview with people they already know than with complete strangers.

I think the strangest part was my own reaction. I’ve always been comfortable with performance; I did theater in middle and high school, and while getting on stage always gives a few flutters, I don’t suffer from stage-fright or too much anxiety. The lead-up to the interview was pretty much in keeping with this knowledge I have of myself. I did my research, looked at the program of the school that the interview was with, looked at the courses, thought about what kinds of things I’d like to add or contribute to at the school, reread my application materials. All without much anxiety, maybe just a little edge of nerves that kept me working on it.

I was dressed, sitting at my cleaned-up desk in front of my computer, which I’d raised up on a book when I checked the previous day to see what exactly the camera would pick up, and discovered that it would be better a little higher. I was at the computer half an hour early, with Skype on, just in case, still not nervous but knowing that I had half an hour to occupy so that I wouldn’t spend it getting nervous. I chatted online with a friend from out of town, started a new knitting project, mentally reviewed some of my research and ideas.

When the call came, I had already put my knitting down and closed the chat window, and I was ready. I said hello through the strange introductions (strange because I already knew most of the people). With that little tingle of awareness that I was now performing but still not with real nerves. And then, as I began answering my first question, it all hit me.

I won’t say much about the interview itself; I think it went fine.

After we hung up, though, I was trembling. So much adrenaline! I had to sit quietly for 5 minutes just to be able to breathe properly, and then I knit for another 15 (well, knit and unraveled, Penelope-like, because it was the beginning of a pattern that I needed to figure out and kept messing up). And I was still pretty stunned after that, but needed to run some errands.

It’s strange to discover something like this. I felt like I knew all about myself in terms of performance–theater, music, teaching, conferences, grant application interviews–and now I find that apparently this is different enough that I react physiologically completely differently than I have to my other experiences.

Just goes to show that there’s always something else to work on and learn.

A wretched beginning

I think I ought to begin as I mean to continue, which is to say that if this idea of writing a blog founders in the very first week, that’s not a particularly good sign. Thus, a post from the dining room table of my parents’ house, where I am for the holidays.

And perhaps suitably, a reflection on the business of getting work done over the holidays, or over breaks in general. By this time, I have a good system worked out with my parents. Several years ago, my father made me a tiny sign that says “BUSY” in a wallet-size table-top picture frame. I place it next to my laptop on the table when I’m actually working and would prefer not to be disturbed. In theory, it works very well. In practical terms, I’m interrupted about the same number of times, but the interactions are shortened by me being able to point at the sign and then keep working. It does cut down on a certain amount of stress, though, because simply having put the sign up means that my desire to work was already in evidence and not merely a convenient means of escaping a conversation.

A minor social problem, to be sure. And one that might be obviated by finding somewhere else to work in the house (although part of the problem is that there isn’t any other particularly good place). Behind it, however, is the news, familiar to most academics, that school breaks are the best, if not the only, time to work.

On this particular break, I started with four postdoc applications to write, two articles to polish and send on their merry ways, and one set of grades to finish. The grades are done (I’m lucky that it’s only one set), one of the articles is half-polished, and I thought about the postdocs quite a lot. I’m lucky that I don’t know anyone in town anymore other than my parents, though, who might be offended by my seeming inability to find time to do much of anything during what is supposed to be my break.

I snuck some extra work in as well, without anyone being particularly aware of it. Our annual neighborhood holiday party (which for many years has been much larger than just the neighborhood) was an ideal place for me to practice, with access to reasonable quantities of alcohol, various elements of my job interview: descriptions of my dissertation research, defenses of my theoretical research, discussions of my teaching practices, chats about my career goals. The conversation where a neighbor asked when I would be settling down and starting a family is, I hope, one that I won’t have to have in a job interview, but I’ve been warned to expect anything, even the marginally and not-so-marginally illegal.

I came home from the party unusually late. My mother and I usually last a couple hours; last night we stayed until after 11:30pm. My father was already asleep. This morning, I woke up strangely reinvigorated. I sat down right after breakfast with one of the articles, set up my sign, and got to work. Right now, as I’m typing, my father is reading my article across the table from me, teasing me lightly for my use of the word “literally” (which I maintain is appropriate in context as well as humorous).

And I realize that this is break. I like teaching. Love it, really. But this is like coming home. I got this feeling earlier this semester too, when I caught a few hours between applications and class prep to work on an article. Somehow all of the talking last night about what it is that I do reminded me of precisely that: what it is that I do. So today I did it.

Hopefully I can catch that same sentiment in interviews!