Thursday, May 19, 2016

Projecting power, gender edition

How do you project power--not arrogance, but power--through your speech and body language?

We've all seen the advice telling us not to say "sorry" or "just" in emails, and I did quit using these so much once I realized how much they tended to diminish the message. It's one thing to be polite, but when you use those words without a reason (i.e., reflexively, not if you've screwed up), you're putting yourself in a submissive position for no particular reason.

For example, if you've been charged with collecting a specific type of information, you can be polite but there's no need to couch your request in the form of some kind of huge personal favor.  You know the kind of message--and I've written plenty of them: "Sorry to bother you, and I know you're really, really busy, but could you just take a minute to fill this out for me?  I'd really appreciate it. Thanks so very, very much!" The studies say that this is a gendered thing (guilty as charged), so stopping the excesses of this kind of language is a start.

There's another way that we project power or fail to do so.  An example: I'm on campus today, and there's a big whoop-de-do type of meeting--Regents or something--happening as well as some other campus activities.  As I was going down the main staircase in one of the buildings, I passed by a woman who stared long and hard at me when I passed.  I did not have spinach on my teeth or a tinfoil hat on, so there was no reason for that.

Now, as a young female person in the world, many years ago, I had somehow internalized that the proper response to a stare like that was to drop your head and smile.  It was respectful, and somehow friendly, and, more to the point, it was just what you did.  What I realize now is that it's a posture of submission and that the dominant person in the exchange person will probably not do the same, though a person of roughly the same age/gender/status probably will.

But then I realized many years ago that the moms at the gym, the ones who worked the Stairmasters as though they were training for the Iditarod and bragged incessantly about their kids, always gave the cold hard stare. I learned to give the cold hard stare back, and boy, did it feel good.

Back to the staircase.  Instead of the "drop head, lower eyes, and smile," did I give the long, hard stare back?  Yes. Yes, I did.  Was it because I was saying to her "I'm a full professor at Northern Clime and you can back way, way the --- off before you give me that stare?"

Not exactly. What I was saying is "I'm a grown person in the world, and if you want to stare at me, I'll stare right back. The end."

This is the message we need to be sending. You can be polite, but when it comes to taking up space as a human being, you will meet people with the respect that they mete out to you.

And you won't. back. down. https://youtu.be/nvlTJrNJ5lA


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Productivity post: Time is on your side (yes, it is)

Two recent articles are making me think about how we conceptualize time as academics.

The first is Laura Vanderkam's "The Busy Person's Lies" in the New York Times. I knew her name from discussions over at nicoleandmaggie's place. Although I'm not a True Believer (because what she & Sheryl Sandberg seem to attribute to savvy management I see as having money enough to throw at problems), the information Vanderkam provides about where her time actually went is interesting.

Vanderkam's point is that we exaggerate the misery or the things we hate to do and that there's a lot of time wasted that we don't count. We don't work as long and as hard as we think we do, she says. Her estimates seem pretty reasonable except that she says she spends only 3 minutes a day logging her time every half hour, which seems very low.

According to Vanderkam, logging one's time leads to a feeling of abundance and gratitude as women realize that they aren't as busy as they think they are, #blessed.  Her honesty in this article, or what appears to be honesty, goes a long way toward supporting this point and toward giving me more respect for her ideas than I have had previously.

Still, not all hours of the day can be productive, or maybe "productive" in the way that can be quantified.  A recent article on time-logging mentioned that, for example, waiting by the side of a road when your car breaks down gets logged as "leisure," but it's not exactly a day at the beach.

Another example: Full-time care of young children is rewarding but also exhausting in ways that no productivity charts can measure, something Vanderkam may not realize because she has a nanny. If you go to a computer after a day with a 2 1/2 year old, you might just stare at it, too tired to move, let alone think.

And although I log some kinds of time (the writing spreadsheet and a to-do list system that's similar to some of the ones at Profhacker), I suspect that logging time every half hour would lead to a feeling more like #killmenow than #blessed.

The second is an article at IHE about The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. It's clear that they're women after my own heart or entirely right (same thing). A few snippets (quoted from the article but broken up because who doesn't love a listicle?):

  1. [T]he discussion focuses on the links between time, commitments and personal stress, and emphasizes trying to achieve a sense of “flow” or “timelessness,” which presents as creativity (and productivity). How to get into the flow? Avoid or eliminate to the extent possible environmental factors that interfere with creativity, the book says. Protect “a time and a place for timeless time” and continually remind yourself “that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.”
  2. Slow Professor proposes getting off-line as much as possible and doing less by thinking of scheduling as eliminating commitment’s from one’s day, not taking them on. 
  3. Perhaps most importantly, it proposes leaving room in one’s schedule for regular “timeless time,” starting with some kind of relaxing, transitional ritual. Incorporate playfulness and shun those negative self-thoughts. And don’t forget leaving time to do nothing at all, the book says.
Maybe writing books based on some kinds of popular data (time management) only requires the 5-minute snippets that Vanderkam doesn't want us to waste. It's a convection oven for when regular heat just isn't fast enough, and it makes a palatable product.

The kind of books and articles that most academics write, though, can only be done with reflection and time not only for the "flow" experience but for knitting connections together in the brain. It's slowcoach writing  or maybe slow cooker writing, since the ideas have to simmer to break down the tough membranes of resistance between the ideas to bring out the flavor of the new and strange. 





Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing inspiration: Hemingway again

From David Brooks's column on Hemingway's house in Cuba, with commentary in italics (I know it's David Brooks, but give it a chance):

1. When you see how [Hemingway] did it, three things leap out. The first is the most mundane — the daily disciplines of the job. In the house, there is a small bed where he laid out his notes and a narrow shelf where he stood, stared at a blank wall and churned out his daily word count. Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.

Worth remembering, those "daily disciplines of the job." This has been a tough week at Northern Clime, but the routines--even writing when I could manage it--have helped. 

2. Second, there seem to have been moments of self-forgetting. Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she notes it’s fashionable to say you do your work to serve the community. But if you do any line of work for the community, she argues, you’ll end up falsifying your work, because you’ll be angling it for applause. You’ll feel people owe you something for your work. But if you just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done — then you’ll end up, obliquely, serving the community more. Sometimes the only way to be good at a job is to lose the self-consciousness embedded in the question, “How’m I doing?”

Dorothy L. Sayers has a good point. Ultimately, you have to write what you think or know or believe is true, which is what Hemingway always talked about--"the true gen." You have to do what's right and focus on the task at hand even if some necessary unhappiness results. "Serve the work."  You're not going to be applauded, but if you're protecting others, or your work, you need to keep going.  

And if others don't like what you're doing or writing, think about it: what's their perspective or interest? Where are they coming from? Is their opinion valid, relevant, and ethically in tune with what you're trying to do? Do they wish you and your work well, or do they have a different agenda in mind? 

Maya Angelou once said,  "When people show you who they are, believe them." Their response to your work or your actions is conditioned by who they are, just as yours is. Believe who they are, and consider whether the power you're giving them over your words or actions is warranted.  

3. Finally, there was the act of cutting out. When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity. Then in middle age, out of softness, laziness and self-approval, he indulged himself. But even then, even amid all the corruption, he had flashes when he could distinguish his own bluster from the good, true notes.

Flashes, yes, although there's still a lot of bluster and self-pity in some late Hemingway. What he seems to have hated is that for stretches he couldn't distinguish the false from the true or, even worse, when he knew what he was writing was false and couldn't write truly (a Hemingway phrase). Valerie Hemingway's Running with the Hemingways gives a good account of some of those last years, when it seems that no one dared to stand up to him. Standing up to Hemingway might have made him unhappy, but it might also have resulted in better and truer work. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Springtime Festivus

What happens every spring? No, not baseball. No, not daffodils, although they happen, too.

Spring, and especially the end of the semester, is the time when otherwise sensible and rational academics get. . .touchy.

Minor slights become major affronts that demand action.  Discussion lists and Facebook blossom with testy demands for accountability.

Letters and petitions flourish about matters that a face-to-face conversation could solve. Sides are chosen and colleagues demand that you join them or else be held accountable for not caring enough.
Escalation becomes the norm, and old injuries, real or perceived, are brought out for their annual airing. It's a springtime Festivus.

I'm not talking about the social issues that are genuinely causes to protest, but rather things like "how come the professors on one floor get green staplers and we have to settle for red ones?"

I'm exaggerating, of course, but I get caught up in this, too.  A few years back, I recognized that it's a pattern and now earnestly try to keep my mouth shut and, if that doesn't work, to "take my hands off that" problem.

Have you noticed this, or is it just my end-of-semester crankiness clouding my judgment? Or should we be more attentive to these issues all the time instead of just in the spring?



Monday, April 18, 2016

Does luck play a role in academe? Absolutely.

Figure 1. Walter White in Breaking Bad
At The Chronicle, "Do You Know How Lucky You Are?" asks that very question. (It's behind the paywall, unfortunately, so the first piece of luck would be actually getting access to the article.)

The author, Robert H. Frank, explains that if John Cusack and Matthew Broderick hadn't turned down the role of Walter White on Breaking Bad,  the world might never have gotten the chance to see the brilliant performances that Bryan Cranston gave in that show.

Frank, a tenured professor, says that luck played a large role in his life as well, from being hired as part of an unusually large cohort of tenure-track faculty at Cornell to the success of his publications. As one proposed essay collection falls through, he submits the essay to one of the most prestigious journals in the field, and it's accepted. He extends the argument in another essay, sends it to another prestigious journal, and bingo, it's accepted, too.

Now obviously, as Louis Pasteur said, "fortune favors the prepared mind," but luck plays a significant role as well.

Maybe you send an article on, say, the aesthetics of lawn-mower blades to the Journal of Lawn-Trimming Aesthetics and the editor has just said to him/herself, "You know, we haven't done an issue on trimming tools for a while."  Is that luck, or is it the zeitgeist, or maybe both?

Or you meet someone at a conference who happens to be putting together a collection.

Or your manuscript is turned down by one press only to be published by a better one.

Of course, Frank only talks about good luck, not bad luck.  I still wonder what would have happened way back in 2007 if I hadn't been rushing off to class when Major University Press contacted me. About what, you ask? I never found out.

Can you think of times when luck played a part in your career?

Friday, April 08, 2016

The Masked Avenger: an extension of "A Good Little Girl"

I was blown away by xykademiqz's fabulous post "A Good Little Girl," which I had somehow missed the first time around. Go read it. You won't be sorry.  Here's the heart of the matter:
The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.
nicoleandmaggie point out in the comments that women do this because study after study shows that they are punished more for not doing all the extra service, etc.

Now, this is hypothetical, because all my colleagues are and have ever been lovely human beings, but I've alluded a few times here to those who would impose, if possible, by making excessive demands for service, or would make life complicated because they are very special and shouldn't have to answer emails, or would, in an "office commons" situation, manage to be so unpleasant that others would give in just to shut them up. (We have offices at Northern Clime, so this is truly theoretical.)

But there is hope because there are Masked Avengers out there, and I am one.

The Masked Avenger is a senior-in-rank person who wants to see justice done. Ze is not going to be bullied, in part because ze is senior and has no more--well, you know--to give. Ze is unimpressed by rudeness, even by "God, PhD."

And the Masked Avengers are on a mission. They--I--want to see equity and fairness, even in the petty things, where often times unpleasant behavior pays off when people give in so that the unpleasant person will shut up and go away.  They take it on so you don't have to, maybe taking on administrative or service tasks that allow this protection of juniors to happen.

We Masked Avengers can't make your life massively better, because we don't always have that power.  But we are out there, and we are legion, and we have your back.

Are you a Masked Avenger in your department? Do you have one in your department?

Monday, April 04, 2016

Dear Ms. Undine does not tolerate April fools

Dear Ms. Undine,

Why do people like to play April Fool's Day pranks? Especially computer pranks, like Google's failed mic drop?

Signed, Pranked

Dear Pranked,

Ms. Undine has never quite understood this.  Mark Twain said (in Pudd'nhead Wilson) that on this day we're reminded of what we actually are during the other 364, but that's not a good enough reason.

Frankly, Ms. Undine thinks that the computer manufacturers play enough pranks on us every year, making us play hide and seek to find the features we depend on with each new iteration of software (looking at you, Microsoft Office) and with each new version of hardware (looking at you, Apple.  I have enough Mac dongles to make myself a hula skirt by stitching them together, and you just introduced a new connector?). If we had one "stable computer day" every April 1, now there would be a holiday to celebrate.

As for the other pranks: well, apparently human beings love humor better if it is crude and/or cruel, which is why we invented the internet after we made bear-baiting illegal.


Dear Ms. Undine,

I think you are a hypocrite.  After making fun of the awesome Cue Cat, you bought one recently. Why?

Signed,
Inspector Gadget

Dear Gadget,

Because all the lovely commenters on that post said it would be good for LibraryThing, that's why.  I haven't tried it yet, but I have already rounded up little catnip toys for it to chase.  It's the only non-rectangular thing on my desk and is already a fine distraction. Go Go Gadget Paws!


Dear Ms. Undine,

You write about mid-century male writers sometimes.  What did you think of Gay Talese's recent comment that he couldn't think of any women writers that inspired him?

Signed,
Surprised and Outraged

Dear Surprised and Outraged,

Figure 1. Supposedly Frank Sinatra, but maybe Gay Talese.
You should only be one of those (outraged), because how could you be surprised?

Ms. Undine admits that she had classed Gay Talese in her mental memory bank as a 1960s Esquire writer, sort of a ring-a-ding-ding generation Jonathan Franzen, who wrote something about wife-swapping way back in the day. He was brought up in a generation when it would have been a manly point of pride not to have read any women authors, and a look at his Google books just now suggests that that hasn't changed much.

In other words, Ms. Undine thinks this is a tempest in a gin bottle.  She recommends that women writers forget him right back and quit worrying about it since  there are bigger fish to fry, like this year's VIDA count.