It's not quite keeping balls in the air, but once an academic year begins, the real challenge is to keep multiple demands in focus -- once classes start, the question is how to keep teaching, committee work, reading, writing, editing all going. This is on my mind since I have just completed a draft of a long review chapter (on scholarship produced on Mark Twain during 2009). The draft is about 34 pages long. It needs to be about 25 or so. And, of course, the sooner this is done the better for the editor. And for me.
Composing a review chapter is much like building a wall. Each essay or book takes on a particular shape and size. My job is to fit the individual parts together to form some kind of integrated whole. Part of the challenge, of course, is just reading all that stuff (it takes about a summer of consistent reading). Next is making sure to capture the author's point and writing a solid paragraph or two describing and summarizing and evaluating whether the author has been successful getting that point across. Next comes the draft, which requires linking similarly themed discussions or at least pieces about the same piece of writing (connecting essays about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee or a short story, for example) and making sure that there is at least some kind of "flow" between major combinations. I never worry about length at this point. It's easier to cut material than to go back and find new material to add. The final stage is editing. I will begin that tomorrow. It will require some time to go through the 30 or so pages and to make sure that the individual paragraphs and links between and among critical works make sense. I actually enjoy the work of editing.
The key now will be strike some kind of balance so that I can meet all the individual obligations for the start of an academic year -- and still do the necessary editing work. Juggling is the one metaphor that makes sense here, and I have to keep in mind the amount of time I need and the amount of time I have.
None of this, of course, is ever really part of a public discussion of academic work. Recent blasts aimed at those with tenure demonstrate a lack of understanding of the kind and extent of work that is often part of an academic career (since recent complaints come from academics themselves there is something strange about this self-indictment -- perhaps a kind of guilt over having a job during difficult economic times). I will pay more attention to this once the year fully begins -- and, of course, once I get past the editing of the review.