Monday, November 17, 2014

Real world math

This is really in nicoleandmaggie's wheelhouse, not mine, but here goes. It's more of a link roundup than a post with a point.

  • The NY Times has been running good articles on saving for college, including some that talk about what to do if parents haven't saved for college, another that tracks declining support for state institutions, and a third that explains why rating institutions won't help lower costs. There was one recently (I can't find it now) that was shocked to realize that FAFSA (and CSS, the private version) counts everything as an asset, including retirement accounts, which are dangerously treated as funds to be tapped for college. (The unmentioned corollary is that neither FAFSA or CSS has any interest in listing debts, like car loans or mortgages--just assets.)
    • How likely is it that there could be significant overlap between the academics saving for retirement (below) and those who, having had children in their mid-30s to 40s, are 18 years later confronting the realities of college costs? I think you know the answer to this one.
    • Although students are applying for many more colleges than before (too many, says this article), part of the reason is that they want to play schools' financial package offers against one another once they're accepted. One piece of advice from one of the articles: if you play this game, make sure that the financial aid package is for more than a year. I've known parents who have steered students to the school with the best package of aid, only to have that aid dry up after the first year when it's tough to change. 
  • Over at The Chronicle, "Retire Already!"  speaks to us from a land of sunshine and unicorns, where everyone has a million dollars saved up for retirement and the only factor keeping anyone 55+ from retiring is their selfish, limpet-like clinging to jobs. But here are two hypothetical scenarios for faculty members; which one sounds more like the people you know? (Both are purely hypothetical, based on what I've read at The Chronicle and on comments.)
    • Golden Child graduates with a PhD at 28, immediately lands a tenure-track job, progresses up the ladder with raises every year and the expected promotions, has a lavish retirement package, and jets off to fabulous places (or like the writer above, accepts fabulous artist-in-residence residencies) when she retires at 65.
    • Regular Person finished a PhD in her mid to late 30s, gets a TT job at 40-45, and goes through several years of no raises at all, not because of merit but because of the recession and flatlining funding. Promotions are forthcoming, but because of salary compression, she makes less as an associate than her new-minted assistant colleagues. She has 15- 20 years, until "Retire, Already!" says she should stop, to save up enough money, at 6% of her salary per year or whatever the retirement plan is,  to last the rest of her life--say, 30 more years if she retires at 65.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Attitude reset: Jumping off the Anxiety Treadmill and taking a break from "polishing the shiny"

I read one time--okay, lots of times--that since the key to establishing a successful routine is to get into a habit, like writing,  the flip side is also true: if you have bad habits, such as reading advice columns or stress eating or checking Facebook incessantly, if you have a break of even a few days, the ties of habit and the neural pathways that reinforce them get weaker, so it's easier to give them up.

Being at a conference is a good reset break. Yes, it's stressful as well as stimulating, and yes, you will definitely get sick when someone drops into a chair next to yours and announces that they're coming down with a cold but just didn't want to miss this session, but the reset part is pretty much worth it. I had already gone on a Facebook fast and felt much calmer as a result.  Going to a conference is like pressing the reset button on bad habits. If you leave Twitter alone, too, you may even stop feeling like the Red Queen, as though you have to top everyone not only in productivity but in bragging about it--excuse me, "wisely promoting your brand and your scholarship."

At Inside Higher Ed, there's a great post called "Get Cracking" that calls this endless self-promotion "polishing the shiny." From the article:

[I]t reminds me of how pervasive the combination of raised productivity quotas (measured in quantity and dubious reputational metrics of quality) coupled with the need to be spending a substantial amount of our time promoting our personal brand through multiple social channels is making it hard to do anything other than produce and polish that shiny surface like mad. No time to think, or learn, or listen. We can’t do those things because producing and polishing the shiny takes all of our time and we’re scared. Scared we’ll fail. Scared we’ll be overlooked. Scared we won’t make the rent. Scared we won’t have a future.

I am starting to think of the whole education-social media complex as a giant Anxiety Treadmill. No matter how much you do, no matter how fast you run, someone is always doing more. Tweeting from a conference, of which there are multiple ones every single week of the year. Publishing a book or article. Getting a contract. Being invited to do a talk. I've written here before about whether our obsession with the number  of words we write bears any correlation to the quality of those words, or, for that matter, to the readers we hope will learn from them.

Think about it.  Do you sit down with a journal just for fun and to keep up, or do you look at it only when you're doing some research of your own? Do you think to yourself every time you sit down to read something not immediately related to research, "Yes, but when I'm reading I'm not writing"? 

I'm not denying that there's knowledge to be gained through these channels, especially Twitter.  But is  it worth the feeling of running and getting nowhere?

In trying to step off the Anxiety Treadmill, I discovered one thing: when you look back on that frantic  stream of information, it feels a little being on board a ship and looking at the land receding behind you. They're gesturing, but you don't have to listen to it, at least until you decide to dive back in again.  Then you can do the reset button all over again. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Random bullets of travel

I'm sitting in an airport and I can smell bread baking.  Who bakes bread in an airport? Subway? It doesn't matter. It smells great even though I am not hungry.

Did you know that some airlines won't check your luggage if you arrive more than 4 hours early for your flight? It's true.

I am on a streak of losing things and leaving things behind out of distraction and carelessness. Some of them  I find (keys) and some of them I don't.  This may mean something (stress? fatigue?). But I'm sure there's a better week ahead.

A completely hypothetical and in no way real situation: Let's say you know how to do something and have the equipment to do it and it's an essential feature of a conference--a Jenga-building machine, let's say.  The speakers are supposed to build with Jenga, but in the spirit of academics everywhere, the Jenga-building hall has not provided the right equipment and although most speakers are gracious, a very few speakers are too something (too proud? too lazy? too invested in their Jenga incompetence as a mark of their vast intellectual acumen? ) to bring their own equipment and make sure that the Jenga-building will proceed apace.

You hurl yourself into the breach just to be a decent person and, since you have the equipment, set it up and help them with Jenga-building during their presentations. Later, you hear complaints from a few audience members, not about your Jenga-building help but generalized griping that the Jenga-building should have been faster, smoother, and easier. If you had not helped the speakers, their presentations would have had no Jenga at all.

Two questions:  Would you (1) do it all over again if the same conditions came up because most speakers are decent and gracious or (2) "accidentally" leave your Jenga-building equipment behind the next time?

And to the person who said, "Someone ought to get in there and check out the Jenga-building equipment throughly and and in advance," what do you say?  (1) "I'm glad you volunteered to do that." (2) "As a random audience member who isn't any part of organizing the conference, I'll get right on that" (3) Other.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Maybe a little bit more advice on the job letter

I've written a bunch of posts full of advice about the job letter, and I don't want to repeat myself so this will be short.

As far as I can tell, the advice has not changed from blog to blog or year to year, but there are a couple of points in otherwise good posts that I would like to challenge.

1. Karen Kelsky (Professor is In) usually has good advice, like about tailoring a job letter. (Of course I think it's good; it's advice I've given myself. ) I did read somewhere that it's too much of a burden for the applicant to tailor a job letter, but if you're applying for a job you are serious about, what do you think?

 But she thinks Interfolio and non-tailored letters from your faculty recommenders are a sign of the apocalypse, or anyway serious professional laziness on the part of faculty.  I'm happy to write personalized letters, but as a member and/or chair of a search committee, I certainly didn't expect personalized letters from faculty members that had tailored them to our specific hiring needs.

2. Philip N. Howard's helpful Inside Higher Ed essay on the lines needed in job letters has a lot of good advice, too. Amidst this excellent advice, though, is one thing that might not be true:
"Address your letter to the person heading the search or the department head. A greeting such as 'Dear Committee Members' shows you haven’t done enough research." 
"Research" in this case may involve defying the HR requirements of posting the ad, which for various reasons may not list a name at all but may instead  specify that the letter has to be addressed to "Search Committee Chair" or some such. I don't know why they do this, and I'm not brave enough to go to HR and find out.

So "research" in this case may involve using the name of the department chair, or calling the department and requesting the name of the search committee chair. I get why Howard would think this is important, but what if 300 applicants all call the administrative assistant to try to get this information in the name of "research"?  It's nice if you have the name, but don't lose any sleep over it if you don't. It's a salutation, not the Holy Grail.

Let me assure job candidates who may be reading this that, as a search committee member and/or chair, I could not tell you whether the hundreds of letters I read had my name, the department chair's name, "Dear Committee Members," or "Dear Bozos on the Bus." Quite honestly, we skip to the first paragraph -- AS WE SHOULD-- and get right to the substance of your qualifications and interest in the position.

3. The letterhead issue is another one that bloggers, CHE, and IHE have written about for the past ten years or so. Karen Kelsky points out that you should be able to get an electronic version, or, in a pinch, Photoshop a version of it for your electronic publications.  I'd only add that your department probably has this for the asking for grad students (although some don't give it out).

 In a funny reversal, when I asked for this letterhead template a few years ago, various Northern Clime admins assured me that we had no such thing for faculty or students. What was I talking about! Didn't exist! A student did have a copy of it, though, so that's how I was able to post much better-looking versions of letters to job portals and Interfolio. For the most recent logo redesign, we were officially sent the template, which is a step in the right direction.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pedantry or self-preservation?

It's grading season--wait, it's always grading season, isn't it?--and as the papers come flooding in, it's inevitable that we'll get some of these:
--papers with no page numbers
--electronic papers called things like "myroughdraft.doc" or the ever-popular "paper1.doc."
--papers with no Works Cited
--papers with no names
--papers with Works Cited in a separate file
--papers in some odd format that can't be opened
--Works Cited in some peculiar numbered list, which we don't use in MLA

Now, on the papers themselves, we're used to explaining, or not explaining if you believe in minimal marking, when there's a comma splice or a fragment or a missing apostrophe. I am sometimes told I'm the first person ever to point these out to the student, which, if true, is kind of sad and inspiring at the same time (as in they're better off to learn about it now).  Along with commenting on the contents, which is the more important part, it's part of our jobs to note these.  We grade holistically, so we're not dinging them for points all the time.

But those format things in the list above used to make me bang my head on the desk.  Why would they not follow the guidelines that I'd given to them? I'm writing a final comment, and I have to number the pages myself to say "On p. 4"--why, oh why, is it up to me?

[Edited to add, in light of Tenured Radical's recent column: I don't make fun of them for this, or think they are doing it to spite me, or think it reflects on them as people in any way.  Anyone who's ever filled out a grant application or any other kind of form can testify that when you're trying to get it done, you'll always find some piece that you find arbitrary. That puts you and the students on the same level ground about requirements.

No, my issue is strictly whether it makes more work for me or not.]

Then I got smart.  The papers are still graded holistically, but here's a test: does it make more work for me if Stu Dent didn't complete the format things? Then Stu Dent gets a gentle reminder on the first paper, and after that, it's -1 for those things. It's not enough of a penalty to hurt them, but it's enough to get their attention--and it seems to work.

Some would call it pedantry.  I call it the "you make me work to do something you were supposed to do, you pay" rule, or self-preservation.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Test post

The Mac OS updated itself today, and in addition to making all the icons look like international traffic signs, it's messing with things like Firefox and Chrome.

I log in, but it says I'm not logged in when I try to comment on other blogs, sort of like this duet from Annie Get Your Gun. Watch it if you are brave and can watch Betty Hutton without screaming.

"No, you can't."

"Yes, I can."

"No, you can't."

And so on.



Friday, October 17, 2014

Writers on Writing: Winston Churchill

I want to reply to Historiann's challenge, but first a post about writing.

From The Guardian, a window into Winston Churchill's methods of writing, with comments:
Downstairs there is a room with green lamps hanging from the ceiling, and maps on the wall, and a telephone exchange: and here Churchill kept his researchers – about six of them at once, junior Oxford dons, research fellows, some of them destined for high academic honours. There they were, filleting, devilling, rootling around in books and documents in search of stuff that might be of use.
Comment: Would you want this?  It's the Doris Kearns Goodwin way of writing (teams of researchers finding material that you fashion into text) and it works well for her and others.  But would you have as good a sense of the primary texts if you had outsourced, so to speak, the initial reading of them? 

I'd like to try a research assistant, since I'm sure it would help. If nothing else, I could set a research assistant to changing all the @#$%^& in-text citations to endnotes in Chicago 16 style.  (I have experimented with Endnote's Chicago 16 setting & don't see any way to do this automatically.)

After dictating to a squadron of scribes all night, Churchill would have text. Oh, boy, would he have text--more, Boris Johnson, the author, tells us than Dickens and Shakespeare combined:
The sheaves of typewritten paper he would then correct and amend by hand – and we have innumerable examples of his cursive blue-inked marginalia – and the results would be typeset as they would appear on the page; and even that was not the end.
He would fiddle with the text. He would switch clauses around for emphasis, he would swap one epithet for another and, in general, he would take the utmost delight in the process of polishing his efforts; and then he would send the whole lot off to be typeset again.
Why did he write? Partly for money, but also for this:
His creative-depressive personality meant that writing (or painting, or bricklaying) was a way of keeping the “black dog” of depression at bay. He wrote for that sensation of release that comes with laying 200 bricks and writing 2,000 words a day.