Tuesday, June 05, 2018

In praise of distraction, or how to counter snobs who say "I don't own a television"

Inspired by gwinne's recent post about productivity and television, let me say this: I am too (experienced, old, productive, tired of academic bulls***--choose one or all of the above) to listen with a straight face to people who claim that they never watch television (including Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and the rest).

If you tell me this, I will laugh. I'm polite, so I'll try not to laugh in your face, but I will laugh.

Sometimes the further discussion reveals that while they would never watch TV, they do listen to This American Life on NPR. Or the BBC. Or play video games. Or read mysteries, a favorite among the academic crowd. Or they make an exception for PBS, because PBS. Or they go to the most recent depressing and obscure foreign film that they can find and brag about it. (Which can be good, but the bragging? not so much.)

Folks, it's all the same. Here's the big secret:  One is not morally superior to the other. All are ways of giving the brain a vacation, of distracting it so that it can stop beating you up for a while about the work you're not doing and give you a breather and fresh ideas so that you can do it.

But seriously--if you're not giving your brain a distraction, you're not giving it a rest. The productivity police may think that rest isn't necessary, but they're writing self-help, not creative work. 

One of the best takedowns of this attitude I've ever seen, and the reason I refer to this attitude as "I don't own a television machine," is from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "I'm No Henry Walden." The premise is that a Robert Frost-type poet named Henry Walden* has had Rob and Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) invited to a high-toned literary party where no one knows who they are or understands what they do.

If you want to see the whole thing, including a brilliant double-talk performance by Carl Reiner that I swear I have seen many times given as a paper at MLA, the link is below. If you just want to get a flavor of it, including the immortal "I don't own a television machine," go to 11:33.




*From Henry David Thoreau & Walden Pond. Fun fact for the Orson Welles crowd: Henry Walden is played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Writing inspiration: overcoming burnout and the Orson Welles syndrome

Figure 1. Orson Welles, wunderkind.
At a conference recently, I talked to a few people about their careers and about the wall of writing burnout I hit recently, asking them if they had experienced the same.

How bad was the burnout? Think of trying to get a balky toddler to eat a lima bean-spinach-kale casserole: that's how I was approaching writing. Those lima beans weren't going to taste any better cold--that is, after the deadline--but my brain toddler, unlike any real toddler, has to eat them anyway and get that writing done.

The people I talked to said that they were looking about three years ahead instead of to the next deadline. One was looking to get a book finished in that time. Ze had hoped to be finished by now, but life happened. A second, one of my collaborators on the big project, is shaping zir career around that for the next 5 years. A third is looking at gradually tapering off scholarship in preparation for a phased retirement. When I protested "but you're so productive! Don't you want to write another book?" ze said that there was no economic incentive and that ze would rather spend the time rock climbing.

Although they have different perspectives, they all had the same advice for me: be selective, because if you agree to do too much, you'll always be behind. Write about what you really want to write about. And take a break once in a while. If this sounds familiar, like advice that you and I and everyone else has given on their blogs, it is, yet it had some more force coming from people I'd known a long time.

It's probably unfair, but I'm thinking of Orson Welles, the genius writer-director-producer-actor who made radio history with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938 (inventing fake news?) and cinema history with Citizen Kane. He followed that, sometimes acting instead of directing, with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger (which he thought was formulaic but that I liked), Touch of Evil, and a host of other movies, some of which, like The Other Side of the Wind, he worked on for years.

The knock on Welles, dating from The Magnificent Ambersons, was that he didn't want to finish things, which apparently wasn't true. He did spend most of his career after Hollywood trying to get financing to fund the projects that he loved, like the Don Quixote film that remained unfinished at his death.

But what many may remember him for is the talk show circuit and his magic tricks, or the Paul Masson commercials where he solemnly intones "We will sell no wine before its time." He tried to do too much, often for financial reasons, and ended up not doing what he wanted to do (Orson Welles syndrome, TM Undine).

Now, Welles was a genius and could keep more balls in the air than most of us, yet you wonder what he might have done if he hadn't had to squander time and attention in making money with commercials, voice-over work, meetings with investors, etc. Would he have made more and greater movies? Would he have been able to make movies without resorting to that awful dubbing that makes some of those late movies (for me) unwatchable?

The thing is, most academics actually have that opportunity if we have jobs--to focus our attention and to choose projects--without having to take on too many side projects to keep the projects we love going. My conclusion is to try to take my colleagues' advice and assess what I really want to do next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chronicle asks again: Faculty offices? Who needs 'em?

Oh, Chronicle, Chronicle, Chronicle. You brought up this "no faculty offices" idea in 2010. I guess you figured it was time to revisit it, yes? https://t.co/GSmdZYUD97

If you want to know how popular open office spaces are, check out the threads at Askamanager.org.  Hint: they are exactly as popular as decreasing the sizes of airplane seats--in other words, beloved by the executives being paid $$$$, who all have private offices, and not so much by the people who actually have to work in them.

Herewith, from 2010, since I don't want you to have to click the link, a vision of how this would actually work:

New office commons: a day in the life

Scene: The shared office commons now being touted in the Chronicle. Faculty sit at tables, their brightly-colored rolling carts by their sides. An elaborate Starbucks-like coffee counter is in the corner, its machines hissing and burbling. Students hover around the outside, waiting to see faculty but not wanting to break into the herd, so to speak. A few have braved the crowd.

Professor X: "I'm glad you came to see me, Stu Dent. I've noticed that you haven't been coming to class much lately."

Stu Dent: "mumble"

Professor Y to student at the next table: "I can lend you a copy of that--oh, wait, I don't have any books on campus any more."

Professor X: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't hear you. Can you tell me again?"

Stu Dent: (very quiet voice) "It's been rough at home, because my mother has ca--"

Barista: "MOCHACHINO UP!"

Stu Dent looks nervous, but continues: "cancer, and she hasn't been doing well lately--"

At the next table, a cell phone rings, and Professor M answers it: "HELLO? REALLY? SHE THREW UP AGAIN? I THOUGHT WHEN I DROPPED HER OFF THIS MORNING THAT SHE'D BE ALL RIGHT."

Professor X, trying to be encouraging: "That must be really hard. Well, on the assignment you missed the other day--"

Professor M: "DOES SHE HAVE A TEMPERATURE? ARE YOU SURE? OKAY, I'LL BE THERE IN HALF AN HOUR TO PICK HER UP."

Stu Dent: "I wanted to talk to you about that one, because [words drowned out in the noise from the steaming machine]"

Professor X: "I'm sorry, what?"

Professor N, who's been watching The Daily Show on his laptop with the volume low, now erupts in laughter.

Barista: "LATTE UP!"

At this point, Professor Y and the student are trying, but failing, not to look at/listen to the conversation of Professor X and Stu Dent.

Stu Dent: "Never mind. See you in class."

And--scene.

Disclaimer: This post in no way is meant to insult mothers, coffee drinkers, students, Daily Show watchers, professors, or baristas, but you get the picture.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing Inspiration: Squad Goals


All across the country, academics are saying "there, that's done!," turning in grades, looking up, stretching their arms, and saying "Writing? Bring it on!"

Or some version of that. Because we're an academic squad, yes we are, and we're ready to get moving.

I don't want to make a list here of all that I want to get accomplished because (a) I don't want to bore you all and (b) as xykademiqz so eloquently pointed out a few weeks ago, a list like this would make me run screaming in the other direction.

So what are some more general goals?
  •  Limit your email time. I know, I know--this is advice we get and give anyway. But in the summer, unless you're teaching or have an admin job, you really can do this. As much as you can, ignore it.
  • Think about this: who's paying you this summer? If you're on a 9-month contract, YOU are paying you this summer, in the form of savings or however you've managed to figure out finances so you can live.  You are paying yourself to do the writing, and you are your own boss. So don't forget: all those lofty statements about "we can work on this departmental initiative over the summer" or emails that might as well have the header "let's discuss this contentious issue in long, irate, time-consuming threads" are asking you to stop working for pay (for yourself) and asking you to work for free. 
  • Write when you feel like it as well as when you're supposed to.  Boice, Silva, et al. make a big point of telling you to get writing at a regular time and then stop. But what if your ideas are still flowing at night even after you know you have to go to bed? Take out that notebook and do some writing so you won't forget it tomorrow. I read one time that George Sand, after a full day of strolling around Paris in pantaloons, negotiating contracts with her publishers, attending literary parties, and spending some time with her current lover, used to leave poor Chopin or whoever sleeping in her bed while she put on a dressing gown, went to her writing table, and wrote for a while. Let George Sand be your inspiration. 
  • Identify your rewards. Too much carrot-and-stick planning makes writing feel more onerous, but surely there's something you can promise yourself if you get done with what you'd like to do. Writing the word count down is a small reward, but maybe something like reorganizing books that desperately need it (an activity that's totally a procrastination strategy if you don't watch out) would be a good one. 
What would you add?

Sunday, May 06, 2018

A lighthearted thought experiment

What familiar person or character has the following traits?
  • lies constantly and often, saying impulsively whatever makes him look better at the time
  • never thinks ahead to the consequences of his actions
  • contradicts himself all the time without ever acknowledging the contradictions
  • brags incessantly about what he thinks are his achievements
  • refuses ever to apologize
  • causes continual chaos in the workplace
  • promotes people based on their good looks
  • fires people based on perceived disloyalty 
  • throws underlings under the bus in a heartbeat
  • has a set of rabid followers
  • has declared bankruptcy multiple times
  • considers himself a genius but is actually not intelligent
  • sees himself as a savvy business manager but is a disaster
  • consistently fails upward for reasons that no one understands
  • makes terrible decisions with regard to real estate
  • makes promises that he never intends to keep
  • sabotages the careers of those who serve him
  • perceives himself as universally beloved and quite a comedian
  • is happiest starring in his own reality show
  • hates people who stand up against abuse 
  • objectifies white women, gays and lesbians, and all people of color (racism, homophobia, sexism)

The answer is

*

*

*
(Wait for it)

*

*

(Drum roll)

*

*

*

Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell, on The Office. 


Ba-dum-bump! Thank you! I'll be here all week! 

Friday, May 04, 2018

Writing inspiration: a self-interview with Hamilton lyrics

1. So, Undine, what are you going to tell anyone who asks about your summer plans?

There's a million things I haven't done, but just you wait. Just you wait.

2. What's the next step?

Scammin' for every book I can get my hands on.

3. What do you want people to wonder if they see you around?

Why do you write like you're running out of time?
Write day and night like you're running out of time?
Every day and night like you're running out of time?
How do you write like tomorrow won't arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you're alive?

4. Any thoughts about those in universities who won't participate in various initiatives but then want to complain later?

If you got skin in the game, you stay in the game.
But you don't get to win unless you play in the game.
Oh, you get love for it
You get hate for it
You get nothing if you wait for it.

5. What about taking on some extra service now?

Lord, show me how to say no to this.

6.  What about various university hijinks, like funding for athletics versus funding for the humanities?

It must be nice to have Washington on your side. 

7.  As you look at this heap of deadlines and projects, how will you ever get it done?

I'll write my way out
Write everything down far as I can see.  

8. And then?

Take a break! Run away for the summer and go upstate.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Making grading human again

Can you stand another post about grading?

I was struck by something making the Twitter rounds a few weeks ago. Someone (can't find the original tweet--sorry) asked students about the readers of their papers.

Said one student: "I've never had a reader for a paper. I have only had rubrics."

Ouch.

Do rubrics promote consistency? Reams of studies apparently say they do.  Can people use them successfully? Apparently so, though they don't work as well for me. The only rubrics I use are minor ones for checklists: did you number your pages? did you write the date on the paper? do you have a bibliography?  Did you call this file "Paper 1" and thereby make it indistinguishable from the 40 other files called "Paper 1" that are currently filling up my grading folder?

But that tweet gave me pause. Are rubrics not representative of a human being reading and making judgments?  What about typed comments? What about no comments except at the end of a paper?

More to the point: do students perceive these as indicating little human interaction?

Background: About halfway through the semester, I stopped typing in all the comments in Word and went back to grading on the iPad.

But I had grown weary of typing on an external iPad keyboard in which some of the letters were missing. Logitech keyboards only last about a year, and this wasn't my first one, so when I couldn't get another because the iPad was too old, I got a new iPad, the one with the external keyboard, and an Apple pencil. It was a combination of YOLO and a big Costco rebate that made me do it. I had to update iAnnotate, too.

What a difference! Using the Apple pencil is amazing, and yes, I actually want to grade papers now, though that honeymoon may wear off eventually.  It's like no other stylus I've ever used; it's like writing on paper, but smoother. I still type the final comment, but not the inline ones.

Back to the main point: I felt more connected to the students' writing again, as though I were responding immediately and personally rather than simply robotically explaining things.  It's as though I were in more of a conversation with them. The grading standards didn't change, but my approach did, somehow. Maybe it's partly that I wasn't sitting at a desk but could write with the iPad on my lap, as I might when reading and taking notes. Maybe it was that we were further into the semester and were more used to each other.

What did the students think? I asked them whether they had a preference, and most did not. Some were kind enough to say that if writing the comments took longer, I ought to take care not to overwork and handwrite everything, which was pretty nice of them (but then, they're nice students).

I still think there's a place for typing the comments on the side, especially at the beginning.  But once you've established the grounds for what's happening, you can enter a more conversational mode. You can interact with their papers with a pen and handwriting and be a reader, not a rubric. You can make grading human again.