Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Resting, at Last!

People have an image of the leisurely life of a university professor, but that's at least outdated (if it ever was accurate). There are some periods of leisure, to be sure, but the year is punctuated with waves of work (marking papers, meeting writing deadlines, etc.).

The academic semester ends with three or four weeks of howling tornadoes of work. The stress of marking papers builds to a crescendo over the weeks, with the Wagnerian peak of stress coming at the very end, when one has to certify that every detail on one's grade reports is correct.

That morning, one wakes up (or doesn't, having worked through the night) in time to pore over all the numbers one last time, prints everything out, looks over them one last time to make sure there are no typos, then signs one's name literally 60 different places to certify each number. Lastly, one gathers the whole mess of paperwork along with one's giant stack of exams — 300 of them, in my case — for the long march down the hall to the registry office.

If you're like me, by this point your eyes are wide awake but you can't see much; your head is drooping and there's a throb behind your temples; your hands are shaking from exhaustion and caffeine. You finally reach the office, where a staff-member who is probably just as overworked and stressed as you are checks that you've done everything right. (In my case, there are usually a few signatures missed or put in the wrong place.) Then you're done, and you go home to...

... nothing. No work at all. There's nothing to do, but your stressed-out brain can't quite believe it.

So the rest of that day you're in an agitated stupor, shell-shocked, not quite what to do with yourself. If you have a favorite movie, now is a good time to watch it. Don't bother renting a new one to watch, because you won't remember a thing from it anyway. Yesterday was that day, for me.

Today is the first real day of rest after fall semester finally ended. I believe the stress hormones have finally been flushed from my bloodstream, and now I can lean back, relax a little bit, and get started reading up for next semester's classes. There's a lot of work to do during the next six weeks, but I can do it on my own time and wherever I want.

(Old grad student joke: You know you're a grad student when you catch yourself saying "I'm so glad the semester's over so I can finally get some work done! The thing is, that doesn't end after grad school.)

By sheer coincidence, this morning we received a belated shipment from Taobao: three bottles of a really good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon Ma Lei bought for a song (about $6 apiece). We've been expecting it for days, but the motorcycle-delivery guy was stopped by snow and ice.

His timing couldn't have been better. If they'd come while I was still marking papers I probably would've blasted through all three in as many days, without really tasting a drop. Now I can actually enjoy!

I used Amazon and iTunes Christmas gift cards (thanks, Mom!) to download several books to help my teaching, as well as some good music to listen to while reading.

I also bought one pure pleasure read (Qiu Xiaolong's murder mystery Death of a Red Heroine, set in early 1990s Shanghai). I've already started reading it with my first glass of wine.

It starts with a great "hook" — literally. A riverboat captain plays hooky with his old high school friend whom he hasn't seen in 20 years, to go fishing in a secluded river not yet polluted by the march of factories. They have tremendous success until, just when they're ready to go home, they find the body of a murdered woman. Now the day is ruined: the lovely fish they've caught will have died by the time they wait for the police, make their statements, and fill out the necessary reports. The captain will also have to admit on the reports that he was fishing with his buddy when he should have been moving cargo. Nonetheless, he picks up the phone and calls the police.

That's as far as I've read so far.

I've vowed to savor this wine, so I'll hold myself to two glasses a day. Likewise, the mystery story: I'll read it only while I'm drinking my two glasses. That way I have more incentive to draw out the pleasure of the wine, while at the same time forcing myself to savor the story over more than just a day or two.

Class prep will give me plenty of real work to do this break. Next semester I'm teaching four different classes, three of which will require significant prep work. Two I've never taught before, and one I'm teaching from a very different syllabus than in the past.

I've also vowed to start on my research agenda, which should be fun but a lot of work. I also want to do some more writing on my books about China (both fiction and non-fiction). Also important to me is to start back on my Chinese-language studies. I made a lot of progress last summer, then lost most of it when the teaching year began. I hope I'll be quick to recover the vocabulary and sentence structures I've forgotten in the past 20 weeks.

Crucial, too, is what I am not doing: for the first time since I came to China, I have declined all holiday teaching jobs. I'll probably still tutor my three students, but beyond that I'll do nothing but my own work.

And I can't wait!

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