Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Recommitting to writing

It's that time of year again. Let's play summer break bingo--but you'll have to imagine the squares. Give yourself a point for every one of these that you've seen or that has crossed your social media recently.
  • "Just back from my fabulous research trip to Paris/Florence/other European city, where I found oodles of new materials for my book in progress."
  • "So glad I had that fellowship to Fabulous Domestic Archive!"
  • "Excited to see the proofs for this article accepted for PMLA [or insert your flagship journal here]."
  • "What a great family hiking vacation in the mountains/at the beach! No phones, just fun. Nothing like taking time completely away from work to recharge the brain."
  • "Book proposal was accepted & now I'm under contract. Woohoo!"
  • "Made so much progress on my book manuscript this summer that I'm turning it in early."
  • "Completely revamped my syllabi/syllabuses and now I'm ready for the semester to begin."
  • "Yay! Panel accepted for MLA this year, so see you in Seattle!" 
I guess you could call it time envy.  You can be glad that these people are engaging in fabulousness and hard work, yet you're still slogging away at writing and maybe not even your own writing--i.e., reviews and reports.

Objectively you know you've knocked down a lot of things and crossed a lot of items off your list this summer. Subjectively, in your heart of hearts you know that this is obligation writing, low-hanging fruit that advances everyone's career but your own.

And if you're honest with yourself, you know you could have said "no" more, or put your own writing first; it's not the fault of other people or other tasks that you're not getting the writing done. They have to ask, but you don't have to say yes. Academia is an "ask culture," not a "guess culture," so you have to grow a spine and boldly say no. That time commitment you made rests with you.

So all I can do now is recommit to the writing, one day at a time or rather one half hour at a time, about the length of a pomodoro, and try, try again. 



Friday, August 02, 2019

Productivity is overrated? NOW you tell me.

I spent the last two weeks doing eldercare, cleaning and cooking and chatting and problem-solving and strategizing and being on the phone with banks, cable services, etc.,  trying to gain access to straighten out financial messes.  (PSA: for the love of God, please grant someone Power of Attorney so that they can legally act for you before you develop dementia.) When people inquired brightly "How are you enjoying your vacation?" I had to bite my lip.

In the meantime, the work I had no time to do rolled in through my email as usual, despite my autoreply. 750words gathered dust and spiderwebs because I had no words to give it.

But wait! The productivity writer Theresa MacPhail now says "OK, I admit it: Productivity is Overrated."

In questioning "academe’s 'I’m so busy' Olympics" MacPhail cites Melissa Gregg's Counterproductive:
"Paradoxically," Gregg writes, "the capabilities of productivity software create expectations of always more activity." And she should know. She’s surrounded by engineers and software developers trying to maximize their time. As Gregg is quick to point out, however, all of the time saved from efficiency and productivity apps only increases the amount of free time that one is then expected to funnel back into — you guessed it — more work.
 Isn't that the old joke about academe? You work harder and for that your reward is . . . more work?

Isn't it sick that I want to know exactly what "productivity apps" Gregg is talking about?

And isn't it ironic that the sidebar ad is  The Chronicle Productivity Guide to Writing & Publishing?

Maybe this is a welcome and needed corrective to the culture of busyness, like Slow Writing a few years back. Or maybe it's just the usual pendulum swing, as when HGTV derides as "dated" all the trends it spent the 2000s shilling for as "classic," or how 1970s-style unpadded & un-underwired bras are now making a return as the "bralet."

At this point, I'm going with "needed corrective" because my productivity meter has run out, and I need a break. It's nice to have the backing of experts on this.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Twitter reinvents itself as early blogs

I've been reasonably active on Twitter for a while now and have noticed a few things happening in the last few months.

Bear in mind that I don't have thousands of followers and don't follow thousands of people, as seems to be the goal for a lot of people. I'm on Twitter because--as in the "Minute Men defended our Revolutionary Airports" thing by the Dear Leader last week--it can be amusing and is occasionally a place to see good resources float by in the Twitter stream.

But it has changed.
  1. Famous people (well, authors) who used to tweet a lot, like Margaret Atwood and Lin-Manuel Miranda, don't seem to be as active. My guess is that it's because they are actually, you know, writing instead of wasting time on Twitter as I am, but still.
  2. There's a lot less interesting, or interesting to me, actual information being circulated. 
  3. There are lots of retweets, the more outrageous the better, of the same information over and over. It's as bad as the NYTimes's months-long "Editor's Picks" on the front page. 
  4. There are a lot more memes, not just funny cat pictures or whatever, but stuff like this:
    1. Which literary critic or school of criticism are you? Take this quiz and find out.
    2. How old were you when you had your first (male/nonwhite/gender non-conforming) teacher?
    3. When is the movie better than the book?
    4. Who here is a fan of Stranger Things
  5. Focus on very particular and sometimes arcane forms of political outrage, while things like the Administration's big gift to Monsanto or whoever of rolling back restrictions on pesticides that kill bees (as our friends in France well know) go completely unnoticed. 
  6. Lots of furious comment threads that any academic program that doesn't have as its primary goal how to organize and destroy the neoliberal university ought to be burned to the ground. Sometimes this is paired with scorching anyone who gives advice on the job market, how to apply for graduate school, etc.
  7. Lots of comments about the Olds destroying the economy--emphasis on age rather than the real culprit, class and wealth. Thank you, Russian bots, for the "let's you and him fight" nature of this divisiveness that distracts from oligarchy and kleptocracy that is the real problem. 
  8. More pictures of food or daily life things than there used to be.
My theory for #5 is this: Trump says his daily racist and/or stupid thing, Twitter goes nuts for 24 hours, and he torches more environmental and civil rights and immigration safeguards unnoticed.  Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm not alone in this theory.

The rest is pure speculation and observation, based on nothing more than random ideas as research. 

But if you're a longtime blogger, doesn't this remind you of something?

Getting-to-know-your-personality memes?

Rage at the (academic) machine?

Little reports from daily life?

Twitter, or my tiny corner of it, seems to be reinventing the early days of blogs, when the blogroll was long and active. Memes? We had 'em, but less so nowadays. Rage? Check. Daily life reports? Check.

If you are on Twitter, have you seen this? Better still, if you're an Instagram user, how is this different on that platform, if it is?




Thursday, June 27, 2019

What I learned about letting things go from Father of the Bride (1951)

TCM showed the old Spencer Tracy-Elizabeth Taylor version of Father of the Bride the other night, and I watched the last half of it.

It's a funny movie and one of Spencer Tracy's best parts; Taylor is good, too, as is Joan Bennett and the supporting cast, especially Leo G. Carroll as the wedding planner/caterer.

There are a couple of great comic everything-goes-wrong nightmare sequences, sort of like the ones that every academic I know gets before the first day of class--e.g., you can't find the room, you have to give a spontaneous lecture on 15th-century French horses or something else you have no idea about, you're dressed in clown pants, or, worse, no pants--you get the idea.

One is a real nightmare, where his clothes start coming apart, he can't get up the aisle of the church because it's turned to some kind of rubber trampoline, and so on.

The other is the wedding rehearsal, which is total chaos with people milling around and talking over each other. When Stanley Banks (the Tracy character) says, "okay, let's have the REAL rehearsal," the clergyman says it was all fine and it'll be perfect on the wedding day--and he's right. Everything goes without a hitch despite, not because of, Stanley's frantic perfectionism.

You can see where I'm going with this. I spent a lot of time this week laying out timelines and project deadlines and start and end dates for a project. Heck, I even looked up a Gantt chart template and investigated Trello, though I backed away from that in favor of lists. Charts and lists are a way of controlling your sense of a project for a certain mindset, and that mindset is mine.

But when I gently hinted at timelines and "deliverables" to others, they strongly hinted that really, the wedding rehearsal went just fine and I should stop worrying about it.

It wasn't a waste of time, because now I have a better sense of how to put together my part of it. Did I take most of my timeline work out of the collaborative part? You bet. It wasn't going to help the project, though it is still going to help me, and it was going to confuse or annoy everyone else.

This is the important takeaway for me: I know what targets I have to hit, and I don't have to announce them to hit them. Like Elsa, I can let it go.

I just have to show up, do my part, and have some confidence that others know better than I do how this whole thing is structured and that they're seeing a vision that I'm not just yet--the perfect wedding, 

Monday, June 24, 2019

A short apology about the job market

In years past, I have written on this blog about the job market--advice about cover letters, about where to find resources, and about the MLA statistics on trends in hiring (spoiler: it's grim).

I've never said those preposterous things that are apparently clichés from senior professors, as in "there's a t-t job for everyone if you work hard enough" or whatever other nonsense they supposedly spout.

I spent years as an adjunct and know better than this. I've done what I could at my institutions to argue for equity in hiring, written and argued for more lines, created as much stability and as many benefits as possible for non-tt faculty, etc.That still doesn't create tenure-track lines, which come from the upper administration.

Because of all those adjunct years, I know that in getting a job preparation is involved, but so is luck, a lot of luck. But in hopes that advice about preparation would be helpful, I did write those posts.

And now I am seeing all over Twitter that any kind of job advice is a microaggression or just plain aggression against people who don't have a job and that even posting advice is traumatizing to applicants. A common theme is that tenured senior faculty ought to just plain shut up. There's a lot of anger about this.

Anyway, I debated about leaving the posts up or taking them down and decided to leave them up, figuring that if people didn't want to read them, they wouldn't.

This is sort of a two-part apology. I'm sorry about the job market and will continue doing what I can to make conditions better. And I'm sorry if those initial posts were upsetting but will try to stick to other topics in the future.

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Opportunity cost" and the pleasures of daily tasks while writing

Figure 1. Not me.
This is not the post where I reveal that I have become a Stepford wife, and I do not wear a straw hat while shopping.

However, I was recently reading about the new childhood guru Emily Oster and her "parenting by the numbers" approach.

(Digression and disclosure: when my kids were little, I skimmed a book one time--Berry Brazelton--that sounded sensible but aside from that figured that I knew how to parent better than the book pundits. "Be loving, be consistent, and see to it that they didn't get too tired or overstimulated" was my mantra, and aside from that, the experts could step right off. It seems to have worked.)

Back to Oster. This sentence stopped me cold:
As a child in the nineteen-eighties, Oster said, “we were the only people who ordered groceries from the grocery store.” When young Emily asked her mother, “Why don’t we ever go to the store, like regular people?,” her mother told her, “Because my time is very valuable. I have a high opportunity cost.”
I found this sentence  insufferable amazing. Maybe she didn't like grocery shopping, and maybe the "opportunity cost," whatever that is, was indeed too high. Okay. Different strokes and all that.

But if you're taking care of little kids, a trip to the grocery store can be an outing (if you are home with your kids).

And when the kids are grown and you are writing, a trip to the grocery store can be, yes, an outing.

Think of it this way: you're looking at a world in basically two dimensions all day when you're writing. Screen, meet eyes. Eyes, meet screen. Even reading books feels somewhat two-dimensional because it's all transactional: you search for what you want and hope you find it, with the aid of post-its and notes. It's black and white, or sepia and white, if you're dealing with old materials.

Then you go to the grocery store and things are in three dimensions. They have shapes. They have color. You make choices. You shift your brain to the sensory realm of cooking and eating. Your planning changes focus. You see people who are moving around instead of in a photograph.

Figure 2. I want to go to there.
Okay, it's not a walk around Walden Pond or even a lovely morning walk, but a trip to the store feels like a reward at the end of the day, especially when your eyes are watering and smarting from work.

Cleaning the house and doing laundry are somewhat the same, except that they don't get you out of the house.  When you're stuck on a piece of writing and you take a break to load the dishwasher or fold clothes, your brain is still working, but your focus has shifted. (Spouse is in a writing-heavy profession and does the same thing with housework as a break.)

So while maybe I have a high enough "opportunity cost" to order groceries and hire out some household tasks, the cost in terms of getting a break from work wouldn't be worth it to me.

On the other hand, it'd be nice to have the extra time. What about you? Do you hire this stuff out?

Sunday, June 09, 2019

#thanksfortyping, writing, and invisible labor

Anand Giridharadas's takedown NYT review of Jared Diamond's latest book points out, to devastating effect, the book's essential truthiness rather than truth. To judge from the review, his method is apparently "ask a few friends I know in other countries what's going on and then write about it." He's definitely guilty (again, according to the review) of "Theme spotting. Enough said" in making conclusions and sweeping generalizations from a limited pool of evidence.

But what caught my eye was this:
Diamond is proud to be from another time. He tells us his manuscripts are typed by someone else, he relies on his wife and secretary to use a computer, and he clings to the belief that video games are “solitary,” even if massively multiplayer online games are where a growing number of Americans go to be social. He also thinks phones are ruining America because people check them every four minutes.
A few random thoughts:
  •  I get that he might not know about video games and e-sports (he's 80-something), but a lot of people don't know much more than they read in popular media about them (raises hand). The thing is, most of us (raises hand again) don't opine about something about which we know nothing.
  • Do you suppose that if there weren't a "typed by wife and secretary" power dynamic going on here that someone would have called him out on the factual errors? 
  • Or is he like Wendell Berry, who is too pure to use a computer and sees no need when he can have Wife type his work? I asked about this and "academic handmaidens" a few years ago, and it seems to be still A Thing.
  • Anecdata and a true story: I knew a professional man who refused to deal with the Internet because it involved typing, and "typing is for secretaries." This was years ago, but last I heard, he still believed this. He's missing a lot, but at least no one's going to mistake him for a "secretary."
Remember #thanksfortyping back in 2017? People were combing through acknowledgments pages for all the "thanks to my wife for typing" notices and finding that, oh, by the way, the "typing" often involved researching, translating, transcribing, indexing, editing, etc. etc., not to mention the work of women in history such as Sofia Tolstoy. It was an attempt to make visible the invisible labor that supports writing, often by women in the service of men.

I'm wondering, though, if there's a different dynamic that we haven't seen, possibly a healthier one, in which academic partners help each other out with this invisible labor.

A few questions:
  1. Have you ever typed something (or worked on data, or transcribed, or edited) for a partner?
  2. Has he/she/they ever typed something (or worked on data, or transcribed, or edited) for you? 
  3. Is your partner in the same field? 
 My answers would be (1) maybe--don't remember; (2) yes; (3) no.