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Faculty Forum: The Tyranny of the Immediate

By Kristen Ghodsee

The college declared a “weather emergency,” so I canceled all obligations. Today is a gift, I thought, a stolen handful of hours from my otherwise relentless schedule. I could write a limerick or bang out the first paragraphs of a new essay.

Before the precipitation turned from snow to freezing drizzle, I went out to shovel in my pajamas, enveloped by the protective layer of my parka. I raked piles of white from the edge of my roof, brushed down the car, and cleared a patch on the lawn for the dog to do her business. Crisp air invigorated me. My mind filled with the poetry of the quiet December morning.

 I could pour a few hours into researching my family history, tracking down Puerto Rican census records from 1930. Or I might edit those little stories about the manual typewriters in my growing collection. Possibilities spread before me like flavors of gelato.

I sat down and booted up the computer, feeling the creative energy percolating inside. The physical labor and the fresh air conspired to loosen my mind, and my fingertips itched to tap something original into the keyboard. But before I opened the crisp white expanse of a new document file, I checked email.

Amid the campus announcements, I read the Writer’s Almanac (it was Flaubert’s birthday) and the Word of the Day (behoof). I spotted a personal invitation to a conference in Warsaw. I decided it looked interesting but feared the dates conflicted with another conference. I opened a browser and Googled the other conference. No conflict. I wrote back: “I’d be delighted to attend.”

I opened an email from a Serbian scholar based in the Netherlands. She urgently needed names of East European feminist researchers based in the region. That’s easy. I spent fifteen minutes compiling emails and affiliations. “Wau!!” she replied immediately after I sent the list, “How lucky we are to know you!!!”

I closed my email and opened a new Word document before I lost any more time. The small vertical line of the blinking cursor beckoned me.

I ruffled the papers on the side of my desk looking for some lines I’d jotted down on the back of a student paper when I remembered the pile of grading. No, I said to myself. I refused to squander my snow day on grading. I could do that in the office tomorrow.

I double-clicked a desktop file called “story ideas” and read my notes. At the top of the list were the words “capitalist command center.” Somewhere in a book about smuggled KGB files, I had found this delicious bit about how Soviet intelligence services once searched for the secret location from which the American economy was controlled.

What book was this from? I opened a new tab, logged on to Amazon, and searched my order history. Scrolling through my recent purchases, I remembered that I’d promised to write a review for a book I finished last week. When was that due?

I reopened email and saw a new message from a student asking me to resend a study guide for the final exam. I sent it to her and closed the browser. I needed to focus: the capitalist command center.

I had handwritten notes for this on my desk somewhere. I searched and unearthed a stack of medical bills that needed paying and submitting to my flexible spending account. And then there was that problem with the optician using the wrong billing code. Insurance companies needed calling.

I got up to make tea, staring out the window at the smooth duvet of snow on the lawn as I waited for the water to boil. Unwrapping a bag of English breakfast, I knew my book review was already late. If I waited too long, I’d have to reread the book.

The pine branches bobbed under the thick enamel of powder and I felt a few words gyrate in my imagination. Maybe if I just sat down at one of my typewriters I could work without any distractions.

But it was too late. Creativity dribbled out of me like the last squirt from the tea bag squashed against the inside of a spoon. I returned upstairs to grade papers.

Kristen Ghodsee is professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.

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