Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The jet set

Next week I'll be headed to Washington, D.C. for the national honors meeting, at which I'm giving two presentations and leading a half-day workshop. The following week I'm going to Montreal for the national religious studies meeting -- no presentations there, but plenty of board of directors duties.

I've been too busy to look forward much to the trips. There's too much preparation, especially for the first meeting, to think about packing or sightseeing. But some of that preparation can't be rushed, either. There's a temptation to just take a couple of hours and grind it out, but you can't grind out ideas or inspiration.

Today was a gorgeous day -- low seventies, brilliant sunshine. After my classes and meetings, I went out to the big fountain that serves as the campus focal point, sat on a bench, and jotted down thoughts for those presentations and workshop sessions. It's all material that I've spoken and presented about dozens of times, and the workshop is based on one that we did three years ago, just with slightly different personnel and emphasis. But you still need a reason to say this rather than that. You need an idea and an organizing principle.

I sat by the fountain soaking up the sun, knitting, thinking, writing. All the ideas came in the first quarter hour. Then I tried to think about objections, counterexamples, extensions. I watched classes that had managed to persuade their instructors to come outside gather under shade trees and try to ignore loud groups of students taking pictures of each other with the fountain as a backdrop. I gathered my thoughts and plans for the next week, and tried to figure out when I'd get this piece done and that piece done.

The semester is half over, and after I get back from my travels, there won't be much left to the two classes I'm teaching. It will be time to finalize the syllabi for next semester and make holiday plans. These trips are the watershed and the crucible of the season. I'll be as busy and stressed during certain days over the next two weeks as at any time during the year. But it's all in the service of the ideas that come when they come, the ones you can't force but that nevertheless have to arrive before the deadline. The ones you scratch down in a notebook beside a fountain on a perfect fall day, playing hooky from the office.

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