Friday, August 28, 2015

Secret messages I didn't send

Dear Blackboard: I have the course materials online and a course blog and a Twitter presence. No, I do not plan to click through eight kajillion menus and watch yet more instructional videos in order to put everything in your course space. That goes double for all the "Partner" for-pay sites that are much more prominent in your interface than how to do simple tasks like setting up the gradebook. 

Dear Facebook: I am so much happier now that I've gone cold turkey and given you up at least for the time being. Then some professional thing will drag me back in, like Michael Corleone, and you can go back to making me sad again.

Dear Writing Progress spreadsheet: You are showing me, right there, why I should never agree to do a "little" piece that is not directly related to a current project. You show two weeks of writing and another week of pointless angst before I could get started. It turned out well in the long run, but all that pointless angst could have gone to a new project!  Lesson learned, I hope.

Dear Morning Self: This is just a reminder that if you half-read something and fire off a measured and polite but stupid response to a group of people, you will cringe-- because "stupid." Enough with the shoot first, aim later approach to email.  Save yourself the grief and don't respond.

Dear Future Self: There are two big national conferences at the same time next spring, one all the way across the country and one a short plane ride away.  Both have exciting work in your field. You want to apply to the far-away one, but next spring, you will wonder what you were thinking. Do yourself a favor and submit the proposal for the one that's closer.

Dear Colleagues and Students: It would sound sappy to say that your enthusiasm and good humor make the whole back to school process so much easier, so I won't say it. But it's true.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Writing inspiration: you're part of the Borg, and that's a good thing

I haven't been writing here as much, partly because I've been writing other things but partly because of something I read.

When The Little Professor announced a while back that she'd cleaned out her blogroll because most bloggers either had stopped writing or were boringly repeating themselves, I gulped and thought, "Is that me?" (For the record, I don't think I was ever on her blogroll, but still.)

Now I keep thinking that everything I post here has to pass by the ghost of  Edward R. Murrow standing at my shoulder. 

But two other pieces were reassuring.

First, Historiann's post about public engagement, with which I agree.  I've done interviews (under my real identity), given lectures, etc., because it's important to do and also flattering to be asked. But even here, where I'm not posting under my real name, I can still contribute.

Second, over at John Scalzi's Whatever blog, this terrific piece from Felicia Day that sums up the writing process perfectly. You should read the whole thing, but here are just a few excerpts that helped to get me up and writing this morning:
I am plagued with perfection syndrome, anxiety and an acute self-consciousness that makes me convinced that I have a gob of mascara under my eye when I attend any public appearance. In general, hubris is something I avoid at all costs. (The internet helps reinforce it because someone is always willing to step up and tell you how much you suck. Thanks internet!)
But after the initial seed is planted, all our emotional baggage arrives with a jolly, “Hey idiot, reality knocking!” to dry up the enthusiasm. Inhibitions show up. Second guesses. Procrastination-reading of five other works in a similar vein leads to crushing thoughts like, “He had a robot dog in his book, I can’t do that now or I’m a copycat! I have no other ideas. I’m the worst!” I went through it all. And it cost me weeks of my writing life.  [much good stuff omitted]
So when you think about creating, focus on the idea of adding to the collective Borg consciousness, if only to get over your own road blocks and make it easier to get your voice out there. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Update: Jeff Bezos is shocked, shocked at Amazon's practices--but ends up confirming them

Just a follow-up to the NY Times piece: in a new article, Jeff Bezos says he "doesn't recognize" the dystopian workplace described there. Want proof?

  • They have fun Fridays!
  • People only respond to emails after midnight if they want to.  Unspoken corollary: and if they want to keep their jobs, they'd better want to.
  • Any of the abuses should be reported to HR, Bezos says. Unspoken caveat: because things always go so well for whistleblowers in such an environment.
What keeps everyone motivated? According to Bezos, it's because The people we hire here are the best of the best. But note this:
An Amazon spokesman previously confirmed that the company manages out a pre-determined percentage of its workforce every year. The engineer also quotes an unnamed senior executive telling an all-hands meeting, “Amazon used to burn a lot of people into the ground.”
So if you don't want to be one of the ones "managed out" or ranked and yanked, you know what you have to do. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Amazon model: coming to a university near you?

The New York Times article "Inside Amazon"  led me to think up this little riddle:

Q: What's the difference between living in Westeros (Game of Thrones) and working for

A: In Westeros, you still fight 24-7 for survival, but they can only kill you once.

Here's a quiz to see if you would fit in at

1) You develop a serious illness, or give birth to a child, or have someone close to you die, so your productive work hours slip to 85 per week.  What can you expect from Amazon, the company whose initial answer to warehouse workers' keeling over in 100-degree heat wasn't air conditioning but having ambulances (and no doubt pink slips) waiting outside for the fallen?

a) Supplemental paid leave
b) Flex time for completing your work
c) You'll be fired or forced to quit.

2) You collaborate with others to make a better product or to ship something faster, but Amazon uses "stacked ranking" or "rank and yank" where everyone is ranked frequently and people are fired after every ranking. You

a) Defend your team and the product
b) Explain the long-term benefits to the company
c) Anonymously report the person you want fired on the company's special feedback software, helpfully included in the worker directory along with pre-written derogatory messages; you can also gang up with your fellow Targaryens to sink someone, since these are pasted verbatim into the victim's performance review.

3) If you get an email after 1 a.m. on a weekend, when should you answer it?

a) the next morning
b) Monday morning
c) within an hour, or else you'll start getting text messages on your phone--that you pay for yourself--asking you why you are so slow

4) Which of the following statements is false?

a) One worker reported seeing people crying at their desks as a common sight.
b) Some companies are reluctant to hire former Amazon employees because they're known as "Amholes" for their combative ways
c) Jeff Bezos is truly sorry for this culture and wants to build a kinder, gentler workplace.

Kidding!  Bezos is proud of the "purposeful Darwinism" that drives people to ulcers and to quit.

What does this corporate horror show have to do with the modern university?

I keep seeing in The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and in statements from various administrators at various places things like the following:
  • Greater emphasis on numbers of publications and demands for "impact measures" to be reported, even though those scores that the scientists use aren't readily available to people in the humanities.
  • Greater emphasis on grant dollars brought in, even though--again--the minuscule number of grants available in the humanities, the extreme competition for them (NEH = same acceptance rate as getting into Harvard or  Stanford), and the dollar amounts they bring in pale in comparison to those in the sciences, against whom the humanities are increasingly being compared in a misguided bid for "accountability."
  • More and more kinds of performance assessments for students and for instructors.
  • More and more interest in automating courses, "optimizing" for scale as though students are widgets, etc.  
  • Misguided applications of MBA jargon designed to corporatize the university.
Maybe I'm being too alarmist; there's hope, after all, in the movement for decent salaries and benefits for non tenure-track employees. And the university is still a place that, as all the mission statements say, upholds humanistic principles.

But this gave me pause:
Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices. Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event.
This is the Judas software that allows workers to backstab one another anonymously "anytime," as the name promises. In the shiny widgets arms race that universities seem to have adopted, I'm hoping this is one product that will fly beneath their radar.

And kudos, by the way, to the NY Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld for such a good article, and to the brave Amazon and ex-Amazon workers who spoke out despite a Bezos gag order. 

Saturday, August 08, 2015

At ChronicleVitae: Work Less. Play More. What are your ways of doing this?

At ChronicleVitae, Allison Vaillancourt advises readers to work less, play more, and get some sleep:
The most striking finding from my unscientific research study was the theme of rituals and routines. Every single person described something they do on a regular basis in order to maintain a sense of calm and focus. For some, their routines were things you might expect — daily exercise, a strict bedtime, a meditation practice, a healthy breakfast, or a nonnegotiable dinnertime with a partner or family members.
All academics know that, next to a cult of "smart" ("that was such a smart paper" or "she's doing such smart work") we've made a cult of being busy, most of which goes with the job but some of which is self-inflicted. No one wants to be the person who isn't busy, because if you're not busy, how can you be smart?

Vaillancourt has a roundup of ways that people she knows accomplish this kind of self-care, including scheduled quiet time and an app called Habits Wizard.  Although the last thing I need is to have one more app running my life, the point is that if it works for you, you should try it. 

I'd only add that if your routine involves other people, like a quiet dinnertime without dogs milling around and stealing food off the table (family drama on a recent vacation, now resolved*), it's important to have buy-in from the people it involves.

In looking at Vaillancourt's suggestions and those of her respondents, a few things seem to be essential: (1) ritual or routine; (2) quiet time; and (3) restricting access to yourself during those times.
  • "Quiet Sundays" with no email until after 5, something I've tried to do on weekends for a few years that has worked pretty well.
  • Exercise that you actually enjoy, if possible--walking, running, biking, dance, etc.
Some of the ones she mentions are ones I'd like to incorporate more regularly, like looking at the stars on a regular basis rather than sporadically. What other self-care practices would you recommend?

*Resolved by me finally keeping my mouth shut about wanting to keep the dogs out when we eat, because it's only for a week and I'm already seen as the family lunatic for being bothered by this.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Random bullets of here, there, and everywhere

  • While I haven't gone to a fancy place like Barcelona like Profacero or Blargistan like Notorious, and I'm not moving to a new place like Flavia or Heu Mihi, or even returning from an exciting fellowship like Historiann, or getting invited to do all-college lectures like Fie, this has been a summer with a lot of travel. I'm ready to put the suitcase away for a good long while and ready to stop being on a 3-hour time difference that has me automatically waking up at 3:50 a.m. as though it were 6:50 a.m.
  • The details of this stage of the book (illustrations, permissions, etc.)  are like planning a wedding or remodeling a room.  All the details that never entered your head before are now things that are apparently vitally important, and you'll be asked to decide things where you didn't even know there was a decision possible. I don't remember being consulted this extensively on my first book.
  • In its eternal quest for more and better clickbait, the New York Times turned its serious investigative chops from rich women getting stylists to do their hair and makeup immediately after giving birth (this is significant how, exactly?) to whether the air conditioning is turned down too low in offices in the summer.  A group of extremely thin 20-something white women in sundresses who complained about having to wear sweaters say yes in the article, so yup, it's officially too cold for everyone. People of other genders, ages, races, and weight categories don't count and weren't consulted.  I have always liked colder rooms, especially to teach in, because heat is much harder to deal with.  But my preferences aside, doesn't the Gray Lady have something better to do, like report on the economy?  
  • Although I have a number of projects to finish, I keep thinking "I could write X book next" or "I ought to write a biography of Y" or "Since there's a trend now toward novelized versions of real-life biographies (The Paris Wife, Circling the Sun, Vanessa and Her Sister), maybe I could write one of those."

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Map Thief and Book Collecting

I picked up Michael Blandings's The Map Thief  in the airport yesterday to read on the plane and highly recommend it.  It's about, well, a man who steals maps from Yale, Harvard, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, and the British Museum, among others, and gets away with it for many, many years.

Having just been to one of these archives, I was ridiculously excited to see it appear in the book--way more excited than the exceedingly unhappy librarians were to discover the thefts, to be sure.  We have a thing in my family, sort of a joke and sort of not, of saying "I've been there!" when a place shows up in the news, so of course I had to bring out the book and show it to the family, as in "I know that reading room! I know that court building! I know that coffee shop they're talking about!"

This book, like The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, tries to get at the heart of why someone--specifically, Forbes Smiley, the thief--would do this.  Part of it is the old Willy Sutton thing about why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is." After first making himself an expert in maps pretty much for the love of them, Smiley stole from archives because that's where the maps were, and if he could get $50,000 to $100,000 for one, it seemed worth it to him.  It's a bit like the creepy art underworld in The Goldfinch. He'd fold up the map, put it in his coat pocket, wave to the librarian, and leave. 

But there was more to it than just the money.  Like a lot of other criminals, he was able to rationalize what he did by saying, "Well, people don't appreciate my great expertise. The libraries aren't paying enough attention to these maps. By removing them from atlases and selling them to people making real collections, they'll be studied much more."

I was surprised to learn that, as an expert on maps, he apparently wasn't subjected to the processes that other researchers go through, from filling out forms for each set of materials studied to having the guard rifle through his papers and laptop when he left the archives. And you archive hounds will cringe not only when he steals the maps but when he touches some of them up to make them more salable.

I was thinking about this when reading Historiann's post on book collecting, in which she wonders whether lit people get into book collecting.  While I'm acquainted with some serious Grolier Club-type collectors, I wouldn't say I'm a real collector.  I do, however, try to get first or early editions of one or two of the authors I study, because there's nothing like being able to hold and read from your own first edition, even if it's not what a real collector would consider to be in great condition.  You can go to your shelves in the middle of the night and it's there, without a library tag telling you to bring it back on such and such a date.  It's yours.

The thing is, some of us have the book gene but not the collecting gene, so to speak.  We want the book because we feel a connection to the author, but we lack the inclination as well as the money ($25,000 is the going rate for a well-known classic by one of the authors) to watch eBay, scope out auction houses, and keep track of prices as if we're primarily interested in them as an investment, because we're not.

And when we buy books, like Tom Bredehoft (whom Historiann cites), it's often because we think they're interesting or we may write about them some day. I have a couple of schoolbooks, one a grammar book, from the 1820s or 1830s, and they are not in great shape (cover missing) and are probably not valuable, but they are interesting and I enjoy looking at them. I don't want to search for perfect copies of them. It's the interior, rather than the exterior, that interests me, but both are important for the reading experience.