Sunday, April 8, 2012

April is the Busiest Month

I stole a little time away from work yesterday to put a few plants in the ground and continue getting my new garden infrastructure in place. The deer, the porcupine, and the neighor's marauding dog have all put in an appearance this week, and I'm feeling the need to get those fence-posts in very soon! But the time outside, while useful and therapeutic, put me even farther behind, because I'm in the throes of an over-busy spring of teaching, planning, and conference-going--which is to say, a pretty normal spring for anyone in the academic business.

This puts me in mind of something I came to realize while I was doing my research a couple of summers ago in New York state: farmers’ and academics’ schedules are diametrically opposed, in ways that are either perfectly complementary or impossibly out of sync. This isn’t accidental, of course--our school year is still based on the old let-the-kids-out-to-work-on-the-farm-in-time-for-haying pattern. The majority of people in this part of the world were no longer farmers (or even rural) by 1920 or so, but the rhythm of the agricultural year still shapes our academic lives, even after all this time.

Mike Scannell, Harrier Fields Farm
What this means for academics who want to study agriculture is that the people you need to observe and talk to are at their very busiest during the months of the year when you actually have time to do your research. Many of my fieldwork interviews in Columbia County were done literally in a field—that is, in a farmer’s field. One dairy farmer excused herself in the middle of our interview to help her daughter-in-law chase the cows back into the barn, and one of my most useful and memorable encounters, with latter-day yeoman farmer Mike Scannell of Harrier Fields Farm, took place among his Red Devon cows, who live outside year-round and who were busy fertilizing the field for him the whole time we were talking.

One of the reasons my interview with Mike was so useful was that he's a farmer who has read widely and thought very deeply about the history of American agriculture and the various dilemmas that small farms find themselves in today. When does he do all this reading? In the winter, of course--when life on the farm slows down and he has more time to reflect. It's another one of those natural-rhythm things that make sense in the context of an agricultural life. There's a time when you're crazy-busy, and then a time when you can actually catch your breath before it all starts up again.

Lately I never seem to get out of the crazy-busy phase, and I hear the same thing from more and more of my fellow scholars (Sharon Leon at the Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media wrote a good blog post about it earlier this week). Digital technology and the increasingly rushed and productivity-oriented pace of many areas of higher education, plus the fact that "contingent" knowledge workers like me usually have to juggle multiple overlapping jobs and schedules, means that there's no longer any naturally-occurring down-time for many of us.

A lot of people are working on eating more seasonally these days, and it strikes me that it would be a good idea to figure out how to work more seasonally, too. That might mean gearing up during the growing season and then slowing down in the winter, or maybe it would be an academic schedule that actually did give us a chance to think and reflect and write during the summer. Or maybe (and this is my own perfect world) it would involve a nice syncopation of the two different but potentially complementary rhythms. 

Whatever the mix might be, I guess this particular season is always going to be busy.  One of my farmer-interviewees in New York state told me, during a hectic 30-minute conversation in his barn, "On the first nice day of spring, a dairy farmer gets a week behind schedule;  by the fifth nice day, he's two weeks behind." That's about where I am right now, madly prepping conference presentations and classes while trying to carve out a little time to put manure on the new garden beds and get the holes dug for the fence posts.  It's all good, and I tell myself that there are far worse things than having too much work that you love.  I hope that someday soon I'll have a chance to work on book-scale rather than blog-scale ideas again, and in the meantime, I'm just trying to do what the farmers do:  to keep growing. 

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