Thursday, April 27, 2017

Highly rhetorical questions for the end of the semester


  • If you ask me a series of technical questions in a group email, and I jump right on it and spend 20 minutes answering them, and then you ask the same questions again in a slightly different form as if I had not responded, am I going to be passive-aggressive enough not to answer this one? To remind you that I answered the questions? To wait a few days before responding to any other messages? All of the above? Yes.
  • Is there a possibility that after the 1,751st draft of something in which we have collectively moved a passage from one place to another and back again, making inconsequential language changes and fighting about the MLA style each time, I will write an email saying, in more polite language, "Do whatever you want. I don't @#$@$^ care any more"? Yes.
  • If you're sick with some kind of deadly contagious plague, is it better to stay home or to come to work and buttonhole everyone you meet to tell them, "Boy, I can't believe I am this sick during the last week of classes! I really feel horrible"?
  • If you collectively dream up a position that not even Jesus with feathers on could successfully fill, is it someone's duty to point this out? 
  • If you are in a meeting and someone is being all pouty about something, is it better to let it get you down or to declare silently, like Roger Murtaugh, "I'm getting too old for this [stuff]" and get just angry enough to keep from being depressed? 
  • Knowing the volatility that everyone has at the end of the semester, is the best reaction to remember your colleagues with affection, keep your head down, and just power through? Yes. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Are you the colleague you want to meet in the hallway?

Figure 1. Edmund Wilson's version of auto-reply.
There's been a movement afoot to light on fire, in Twitter terms, anyway, anyone who tells a woman to "smile!" Next to "you look really tired," I can't think of any phrase that's less welcome, especially if you are really tired. Also, some of us have RBF and aren't going to look happy no matter what.

Just so we'll get the obvious out of the way:

1. Do people say this to men? No.
2. Do they treat women who smile all the time any better? No.
3. Are women who are all smiles treated well in the workplace? No, because they're taken less seriously.
4. Are women who are direct and/or abrupt treated well in the workplace? No, because they're seen as -- well, fill in your own uncomplimentary adjectives.

But despite this double-bind, you might want to think twice before embracing "grumpiness for grumpiness's sake," as recommended in  "The Case for Being Grumpy at Work." 

The author cites a number of studies about emotional dissonance, about the emotional labor that women especially experience when forced to pretend to be happy in the workplace, and so on. Women are expected to be more caring, which means that their anticipated response in the workplace is effectively lagniappe for employers, a trap especially for service workers like cashiers (been there, done that). 

But the author's equation of grumpiness with some superior form of pessimistic insight is wrong. You can be plenty pessimistic and not present yourself to others as grumpy. One's a way of perceiving the world. The other is a way of acting out so that the world can see that you have All The Feels. 

Look, nobody has to be happy or pretend to be happy all the time, especially at this point in the semester. I suspect that most of us cut our colleagues a little slack in April, knowing the stress we're under, and we hope for the same from others.

In other words, we're being the colleague that we want to meet in the hallway.

A curmudgeon thinks that this is a one-way street. Everyone should be charmed by his (or her) grumpiness, and all should cut him some slack, but he doesn't have to return the favor. You may think your grumpiness is adorable, but other people may not share your high sense of self-regard.

A "lovable curmudgeon" may exist in literature--who doesn't like to read about Edmund Wilson's famous postcards or Mary McCarthy's acid reviews?--but in real life, the term is an oxymoron.

One of the great lessons of adulthood is that except for a few of those close to you, nobody cares how you feel. They want to know if you get the work done. 

My approach is the same thing that I do in emails: mirror what I'm receiving. If you're professional and at least marginally pleasant, I'll respond in kind, and promptly.

If not, not.

I realize that this is a position of privilege and that not all jobs will allow this luxury. (See cashier experience, above.)  But at the very least, those of us who do have the ability to respond to rudeness or curmudgeons shouldn't indulge their behavior. 


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What does a sabbatical do?

I've been on campus for a few things recently, and while it's nice to be missed (it really is!), the downside is realizing that the sabbatical is coming to an end. There's still the summer, but still.

Although I haven't done All The Things, I've done enough to feel reasonably good, though it still seems as though I wasted a lot of time. I'll keep working on All The Things.

But the main thing that the sabbatical did was to give me back a sense of joy and curiosity. If something interested me, I could follow it and read about it and above all think about it, often to good effect.

I know that this isn't the path to research that GetALifePhd and other efficiency experts, like Paul Sylvia,  recommend, where you state that you will have 15 points to develop by 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday and you just do it. Maybe if you have data, that's the way it works.

But maybe that's the difference between the humanities and the social sciences. We really have only a few weapons in our arsenal: curiosity, knowledge, and the ability to think about the two together in productive ways to see what's been done and what needs to be done in terms of research.

When you're pressed for time, as we all are during the school year, we're a little like our students. We don't have the time to follow those winding paths, or Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit holes, so we try to answer immediate questions. Our students use the first results on Google, and though we might not do that, we use the same process of working for efficiency in an answer rather than for complexity.

During the sabbatical, I learned a lot of things I needed to know, but I also learned a lot of things that I didn't need to know, or at least that I don't need immediately. That's not a waste of time. That's the point of a sabbatical.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Nothing. What's new with you?

Still plodding along, still working hard, and still relishing a sabbatical that's almost over--that's what's going on here.  In other news:

  • A lovely trip to the archives in which I could revel in reading and taking pictures of materials all day long, and at the end of the day get something to eat and not cook or clean or do any of the other housekeeping stuff I've been doing all year. It felt like a vacation, though I was working hard every day. More archival trips, please!
  • Winter is receding, sort of, and has settled down into a grey skies, grumpy rain, and chilly wind pattern that beats the heck out of the ice, snow, and general misery we've had since November. Some day the sun will shine again, I'm almost sure. As a special added bonus, apparently the weather cleared up here while we had an epic snowstorm in Archive City.
  • About the sabbatical: so many ideas, and so little time!  
  • I've gotten so tired of seeing "woke" as an admiring descriptor that I silently correct it to the overused slang of another era, "peachy-keen" (1950s) and "bitchin'" (1960s) being two current favorites,  though maybe I should give "swell" (1920s) or "gnarly" (1970s?) a try as a change of pace.
  • Big collaborative project is going well.
What's new with you?

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Asked and answered at IHE and the Chronicle: why are halls empty? Because loyalty is a one-way street.

Deborah K. Fitzgerald's "Our Hallways are Too Quiet" at The Chronicle asks, in effect, "Haloooo? Is anybody there? Where'd everybody go?" (Bardiac has a post about this issue, too.)
Entire departments can seem like dead zones, and whole days can pass with only a glimpse of a faculty member as someone comes to campus to meet a student, attend a meeting, or teach a class. The halls are eerily quiet. Students, having figured this out, are also absent. Only the staff are present.
This seems a bit of an exaggeration, yet there's something in what Fitzgerald says. Yes, it's better if faculty are around so students can talk to them and so they can talk to each other. Being collegial at brown bag sessions, etc. can help with that.

But there's only so much time in a day, and, as the old saying has it, "what gets measured gets managed." Not to be too cold-blooded about it, but presenting at or organizing an event gets you a line for your CV or annual review. Warming a chair at one, well, doesn't. You show up because you care about your colleagues, and because you want to support them, but at year's end, you have to weigh where you want to spend your time.

Also, faculty, especially newer faculty, are being told endlessly by the productivity gurus "Get your writing done. Keep your door closed," which is exactly the opposite of what Fitzgerald suggests.

How often have we seen on blogs and academic sites advice about the plight of the (usually) overworked woman professor who's around a lot and gets to do the hand-holding and general friendliness on those empty halls while her male colleagues are away writing their heads off and getting treated like stars?

In unrelated news, John Warner tells us at IHE that "In Higher Ed, Loyalty is a One-Way Street." He describes the insanity necessary to get a raise:
So, not loyalty, but leverage counts. This is similar to scenarios where, in order to be considered for a raise, tenure line faculty must hit the job market, secure a competing offer, and try to use it to improve their local position. 
The unbelievable waste this practice entails is sort of mindboggling. When I was first informed of its ubiquity, I almost couldn’t believe it, but I now know it to be common. 
The faculty member who likely has no real desire to leave, but wants or needs a raise, must carve out time from their regular duties to hit the job market. They may also miss classes to interview for these jobs they don’t really want.
I think Warner's point answers Fitzpatrick's, to a degree.  As faculty we're getting mixed messages.

1. Be loyal and supportive. Show up! Be there for students and your colleagues. Hang out. Our college would be better for it.

2. If you pin your loyalty to an institution, you're loving something that can't love you back. You'll have to strongarm it into a raise by being disloyal and getting a competing offer. If you don't do what it values--and even sometimes if you do--it can turn you out without a backward glance.

So academe says it values loyalty above all, but that's not what its actions show. Houston, I think we have a problem.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Cursive handwriting rises from the dead

Figure 1. Thoreau could walk around Walden Pond
 with a notebook and a pencil he made himself.
He knew that the hand  was connected to the brain, all right.
The AP announces that cursive handwriting is once again being taught in schools, after being sidelined in favor of printing (reasonable) and keyboarding (not).

The insistence that keyboarding alone would fill the gap assumed that people would have available at all times a keyboard, battery power, and wireless access.  Like Apple, which insists that the default should be using data on your phone to listen to music instead of downloading it, this assumes a level of financial privilege and an urban environment in which you're never out of range.

Where I live, you're out of range plenty of times. You're better off with a notebook and pencil, like Thoreau, and even if you're in range when walking in the woods, a notebook, unlike a phone, never talks back with little buzzing messages. You talk to it, in writing, and it listens.

Anyway.

I know I've written about this to the point of exhaustion (yours! sorry), citing everything from the class dimensions of not teaching cursive (ruling class needs it, grimy proles don't) to the uneasy alliance with American "traditionalists" who want it, but this point needs emphasis one more time, for two reasons.

First, the connections between hand and brain, as when you do something with your hands and it helps to rewire neural connections in your brain and create new areas, is well documented, as when students take notes by hand instead of typing them. True, you don't need cursive to do this, but I'm in favor of anything that gets students writing by hand because this connection is real and helps them in a way that keyboarding doesn't.

This is what Anne Trubek misses in her bestselling takedown of handwriting. In the new article, she says it's like piano lessons: you don't need them to succeed at life. What about the correlation (not causation, I know) between piano playing and math ability? Doesn't this hand-brain connection deserve more study?

Second, here comes that pesky class dimension and the humanities again. You might not need piano lessons, or music lessons, or art lessons, or a knowledge of literature, history, foreign languages, economics, and politics to succeed in life. But you can bet your bottom dollar that any little Trubeks, and any other middle-class children of aspiring parents, will have access to these "frills," even if the parents have to pay for them separately. Why? Because more knowledge is better and is a marker of future success, that's why. Trubek saying you don't "need" piano lessons is only part of the truth.  They're an added value that helps not only to develop the brain but helps students to succeed.

Figure 2. Lorelei Lee explains the economics of added value.
I'm reminded of what that great economist and philosopher Lorelei Lee says in the movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. When accused of marrying Gus for his money, she says, "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"

All those humanities frills, including cursive handwriting, do help. Why should they be reserved only for children whose parents are wealthy enough or savvy enough to ensure that their children get them?



Friday, March 03, 2017

Writing inspiration: writing group models, part 2

In an essay that's making the rounds of social media, here's another kind of writing group: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/how-make-writing-humanities-less-lonely Researcher Alice Kelly describes the process as this:

I convene a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers to write together for three hours twice a week. After coffee, I ask everyone to share their goals for the first 75-minute session with their neighbour. Goals must be specific, realistic and communicable, such as writing 250 words or reworking a particularly problematic paragraph. I set an alarm and remind everyone not to check email or social media. When the alarm goes off, everyone checks in with their partner about whether or not they achieved their goal. After a break, we do it again. After our Friday morning sessions, we go for lunch together. And that’s it.
Have you ever participated in a group like this? Does it help with writing or make you want to claw the walls of the coffee shop?