Monday, March 31, 2008

I love fieldwork

Yesterday I was at Mar Thoma as usual, but I was giving out questionnaires on Qurbana experience to the youth. I got 62 surveys back and did one interview of a young CCD teacher who got so emotional talking about the East Syrian rite that she started trembling and forgot about the meeting she was supposed to go to.

A girl in my friend's 9th grade class diffidently asked me for my autograph after she had filled out the questionnaire. Bemused, I ended up writing in the front of her CCD notebook thanking her for her help with my research and invoking God's blessings on her. Her answers to the questionnaire were really wise and beautiful.

A young man who just got back from five years in India started teaching me Malayalam. (I had to work hard to make him believe I actually planned to learn it, first.) Nandi!

Today I'm tabulating the results and looking for correlations between the young people's birth place, command of Malayalam, and preferred mass and their way of speaking about the experience of worshiping in the Syro-Malabar rite. I'm having a blast.

I actually think that the reason I'm enjoying this so much is very similar to the reason that Michelle likes washing mugs: each questionnaire, with its handwriting, its unique phrasing, its biographical information, and its futile attempt to constrain the spiritual life to a few brief lines, gives me some insight into the complexity of the wonderful people I've met at Mar Thoma and their relationship to their unique and beautiful liturgical tradition.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Structured procrastination

I was remarking today on how many important professional things I've gotten done in the past couple of months since I stopped working on my dissertation. I've taught my first class (a whole world of impossible demands in itself), updated my CV, applied for a grant, submitted important proposals, begun working on a totally new article for possible publication, and sent a bunch of emails to strangers about important matters that I would normally agonize over for months (in this case, I instead only agonized over them for weeks).

This is not because I've suddenly become a productive person. It's because I'm letting my dissertation atrophy, and I have to do something useful to keep myself from overflowing with panic about it. I found a highly entertaining article about this phenomenon:

The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. In universities the vast majority of tasks fall into this category, and I'm sure the same is true for most other large institutions. Take for example the item right at the top of my list right now. This is finishing an essay for a volume in the philosophy of language. It was supposed to be done eleven months ago. I have accomplished an enormous number of important things as a way of not working on it. A couple of months ago, bothered by guilt, I wrote a letter to the editor saying how sorry I was to be so late and expressing my good intentions to get to work. Writing the letter was, of course, a way of not working on the article. It turned out that I really wasn't much further behind schedule than anyone else. And how important is this article anyway? Not so important that at some point something that seems more important won't come along. Then I'll get to work on it.

Maybe this is why they make me write a dissertation, so I'll get all these other things done. Maybe it's all a ruse, and in the end I won't have to finish it?