Friday, September 30, 2016

Hoarding, Marie Kondo, and the Academic Office

Figure 1. Not my desk, but I can dream.
At The Atlantic, "Hoarding in the Time of Marie Kondo" talks about the dilemma of the hoarder, for whom everything "sparks joy."

The test case in the article, "Marnie," is in an income bracket that allows her to scoop up multiple pairs of shoes at Nordstrom's and to part with a $7,000 dress only reluctantly, so money isn't a problem, except maybe in the sense of having too much of it to spend. But she's not the category I'm thinking about.

According to Marie Kondo, as everyone knows by now, you need to get rid of things if they don't "spark joy.": "“You will never use spare buttons,” Kondo writes. “You are going to read very few of your books again.”

Two things:

  • Marie Kondo is not an academic, or she would never say that about books.
  • Marie Kondo is also not an academic if she has never rummaged through a sewing box for spare buttons at 11:30 p.m. to sew a missing button on a shirt or suit jacket before she has to get up at 3:30 a.m. to make a 5:00 a.m. flight to a conference. She couldn't do it beforehand because she had to finish the paper first and there are no button stores open at 11:30 p.m. so if she did not hoard the buttons she would be out.of.luck. Just saying.
This article made me wonder about hoarding in academia, though.
  • I don't know if I've met actual hoarders, but I've been to plenty of offices with papers and books heaped on every surface.  Haven't you? And many of these people were highly productive.
  • A lot of recent research has found a link between messiness and creativity, which confirms this idea.
  • According to Randy Frost, a hoarding expert quoted in the article, “People who hoard tend to live their lives visually and spatially, instead of categorically like the rest of us do.” This fits with the "piles o' stuff" system of organizing that I use, at least, when I'm deep in a project, which contributes to the messy desk. And isn't this how you visualize books on your bookshelves--by shelf position, approximately, and by spine color?
  • Discarding and buying and discarding and buying, for books especially, seems wasteful, not to mention expensive. You can't get back the notes you wrote in the book, and there's a time factor as well as a money factor involved in reordering and re-buying a book you need. 
  • On the other hand, thinking about getting rid of things as "wasteful" is the mark of a hoarder, according to the article.
  • It feels good to get rid of stuff in the house, though . There's a real feeling of accomplishment to putting those bags out for whichever charity is picking them up, and I always admire the cleared space for a while after that.  
  • There's clutter and then there's sentiment. I went through my email folders and deleted a bunch of old department emails recently, since surely someone has a record of them if I ever need them. But thinking about scanning pictures and throwing out the originals seems daft to me. I've lost a lot of pictures over the years going from computer to computer, but the actual printed versions from pre-computer days are still in albums and I look at them about 1000 times more than any computer pictures. 
Are we predisposed to certain kinds of hoarding if we're academics? I'm not talking about Discovery Channel-level habits, but maybe keeping more than we need. Your thoughts? 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Random bullets of September, writing, and book news

It's been a month since I've posted here (really?), and a busy one.

  • My book is out, and I wish I could post a picture, because I really like the cover. I also really, really like having it finally be out. People even bought it and asked me to sign it at some recent appearances, which strikes me as amazing, and I will be on tv next month (already recorded). 
  • Question to all: if/when you published a book, did you send copies to people in the field, friends, etc.? The press already has a long list of places they sent it for review, so I'm worried that if I send it to some, (1) they might see it as a conflict of interest if they have already been asked to review it, which of course I can't know and (2) presumptuous. Your thoughts? 
  • Thanks again, all of you who read even during the slog of the Laocoon manuscript, slowcoach writing, and all the rest. To be fair, I didn't start serious work until well after the slowcoach writing thing--maybe 2010 or 2011?--but that's still a lot of time. I'll never be as fast a writer as Tanya Golash-Boza, but then again, I'm not a social scientist with data ready to be written up. 
  • Hi, Historiann, if you're reading! The other night at a dinner, I recommended The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright to a tableful of university professors who teach captivity narratives, so they might order it for their classes. 
  • In other news, some of the many low-level bureaucrats at Northern Clime are giving me a hard time about a scholarly project, absolutely non-controversial (think: describing the literary stylings of novels about squirrels), that will cost them nothing. They want me to come in and discuss "whether we can allow this project to be at Northern Clime." On a matter of academic freedom? Oh, no you didn't. While I was fuming, Spouse came in and said "kick it up to the Dean," which I'll be arranging to do next week. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Okay, I get it: you don't like cursive handwriting

Figure 1. You can read this, right?
In "Handwriting Just Doesn't Matter," a clickbait-y title that considerably overstates the evidence supplied in what turns out to be a surprisingly reasonable essay, Anne Trubek lists all the usual suspects about why we don't need cursive handwriting.

Actually,  I agree with a lot of her reasoning:

1. More people are writing more than ever before, so the kids are all right. (Pretty much true).

2. Typed work levels the playing field since bad handwriting can prejudice teachers (which is true).

3. The current proponents of cursive have seen it as a patriotic act, which is pretty sinister (which is sort of true and really one of the strongest arguments).  Typing is more small-d democratic.

4. She and her son had a hard time learning it, so it's not needed. (Can't judge this one.)

Weaker arguments:

1. Everyone has a keyboard or phone (and by extension is presumably wirelessly connected, with fully charged keyboard/phone) at all times. (Nope, not buying this one. Do we have free hardware and free software and free connectivity for everyone in this country? Disgracefully, no. )

2. It's not important to be able to read cursive, since only "experts" can read documents in cursive: "Reading that 18th-century document [the Declaration of Independence] in the original is difficult for most people who know cursive, as the script is now unfamiliar." Proof? Source? No, it's not difficult to read. It's not necessary, though, to be able to read it in cursive, although this seems to be an obsession with the #3 people above.

 The stronger corollary is that these documents are also written in foreign languages, which, although she doesn't say it, is something the U.S. more or less gave up on a while back.

3. She glides over all the studies that show that students who write notes by hand--which is NOT the same as cursive--retain information better.

Where Anne Trubek and I agree most is on this benign and sweeping conclusion: "The cultural values we project onto handwriting will alter as we do, as they have for the past 6,000 years."

As I've argued a lot on this blog, unlike Anne Trubek, I think that handwriting and/or cursive is important but isn't a hill to die on. But like other forms of creativity or self-expression (or the humanities, for that matter), we need to think a little before we can argue for its elimination on utilitarian grounds.

 Every time some form of handcraft goes extinct, whether it's canning or calligraphy or drama clubs or music--or, worse, becomes a class marker, as in prep schools will teach it  but public schools will not--we lose a little something of our small-d democratic systems.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Email: You're doing it wrong, according to random clickbait writers

A few years ago, in 2010, I wrote a post noting how "I hope you are well" had started appearing as the opening to most of the emails I received:
A few years ago, I started noticing that a number of academics didn't just launch into requests or whatever when writing emails. Instead, the emails began with the sentence "I hope you are well" or another courteous phrase unheard of back in the olden days.

And the complimentary closes of the emails became more polite, too. Although a lot of people still apparently prefer "best," I've seen comments at the Chronicle saying that this is too curt, and in the last couple of years, I've seen a lot more variety in this part of the email, too: "best regards," "warm regards," "all best," "with best wishes," "cordially," and so on.
I saw this phrase, and some more courteous phrases generally, as an improvement on the necessarily somewhat curt messages we used to send in the early (pre-)Internet days when it was impossible to go up or down a line to correct typos in the email clients then in use.

I don't usually use this phrase, which is mostly reserved for--ahem--only the prickliest of correspondents--but I don't have anything against it.

But Dayna Perkins, a random person on the internet, wrote a clickbait-y piece full of opinions for New York magazine about it, saying we ought to stop using it.

And she links to Rebecca Greenfield, a media-friendly opinion consultant at Bloomberg, who says we also shouldn't be using "best." She cites another bunch of people with lots of opinions.

Well, I, too, am a random person on the internet, and I disagree with exactly as much weight of factual evidence and authority as they're showing.

I ought to know better than to fall for opinion clickbait at this point. I also know that negative clickbait (don't/never/these 5 things will kill you) generates more clicks than positive opinion pieces, so I really should have known better.

But since I want to be respectful and move along, I will sign this as follows:

I remain, dear madame, most affectionately,

Yr most obedient and faithful servant,

Undine


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Class and academe: a somewhat meandering childhood story with a point

Figure 1. Like the version in my great-aunt's house.
[If you're tired of my posts about/current interest in issues of class, you can skip this post.]

One day, when I was about 10, I walked over to my great-aunt's house. (This wasn't an everyday thing; my parents must have been out of town or something.) My great-aunt had retired from her job as a saleswoman in the major department store of our nearby city. 

My great-aunt and great-uncle lived about a block away in our village, in a stone house built sometime in the early years of the 19th century. The house itself had two living rooms, or rather a living room and a parlor. The living room had regular comfortable furniture; the parlor was mostly Empire and Victorian, with horsehair-covered settees and the first hair art picture I had ever seen.

The house was on the edge of a ravine, under huge maple and oak trees, with a chicken coop where it was a great treat for us kids to gather eggs.

It wasn't common to keep chickens in those days, as it is fashionable now (vide the Portlandia episodes that reference this), and it wasn't fashionable to be conscious of healthy food then, either. But my aunt and uncle had been keeping a large garden for this reason since the 1930s, growing asparagus and making things like whole wheat bread and dandelion wine (which looked and smelled disgusting, incidentally).

On this particular day, I knocked on the screen door and stepped over the worn stone threshold. The kitchen was large, and the fireplace that had originally served as both cooking and heat source was there but unused; my memory is that there was a stone floor still.

When I walked in, I saw the jars of peaches that my aunt had just canned. They were all over the counter and the wooden kitchen table, and she was lifting another rack of them out of the canning kettle.

This was pretty exotic to me then, since like most of her contemporaries, my mother didn't can things much or make bread.

As I chatted with my aunt, I said something like, "It's amazing that you can can these peaches. I wish I could do this when I grow up."

She then turned to me and said, not angrily but seriously: "I never went to college. This is all I can do. But you can go to college and do so much more."





Saturday, August 13, 2016

Class, J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, and the First Jobs Meme

I'm more and more realizing that I come from a middle-class family that thinks like a working-class family, according to the levels of savvy about m-c norms that J. D. Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy.

 Vance describes wildly dysfunctional families--mine was not; it was wonderful and happy--but in terms of general class cluelessness, I offer this:

--Neither my parents nor I had any conception that there was such a thing as financial aid for college. No. Clue. I had a Regents' scholarship, and we thought that was all that was available. [Edited to add: The idea that you would get competing offers from private schools and play them off against each other, as is apparently common, might have occurred on Mars for all we were aware of it.]

--Intense mockery from the larger extended family for wanting to do what Hamilton calls "rise above my station."  Which job did I want? Nurse or teacher?  What's puzzling is that some of them were professionals--lawyers and such--so I think this was probably gender rather than class-based.

--Which state school did I plan to attend, the one 40 miles away or the one 60 miles away? (Vance talks about this place-bound thinking as a class issue; ditto for private versus public institutions.)

--Rules were for keeps, whereas for middle- and upper-middle class students, rules were meant to be bent with a well-placed phone call.  Here's what I said about them in 2009:
 As I said in a too-long comment over at Sisyphus's blog, if you were raised with working-class values (as I was, and which transcend technical middle-class status), you thought that when someone told you the rules, they were really the rules. You didn't realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that's not how the world works for you if you don't have class privilege to back it up. And then, when you saw others sail past the rules that you'd abided by, you felt angry and betrayed, because you'd played by the rules and they hadn't.
 I did not know that rules would bend to class privilege until well beyond graduate school.  Now I make a point of telling students like me, "Look, let's make a call and see what we can do."

So, forthwith I give you, as seen at Flavia Fescue's, the first jobs meme.

1. Babysitting, a lot of it, enough to buy my first typewriter in high school. Now that I think of it, some of my wages from being a cashier probably paid for part of it, too.

2.  Tried to get a job at the library but couldn't. Ditto a newspaper job. Jobs were scarce in those days.

3. Supermarket cashier. My mother, using her influence, got me an interview at the local chain supermarket, where I worked at a checkout stand through high school and college. I felt lucky to have this job, since each summer I had to earn whatever spending money I needed for the whole school year. This was back when you had to memorize prices (no bar codes), so I got to be good at it fairly fast.

4. Job I did not try for: waitress, due to an intense hatred of smoking and knowing that I'd have to clean ash trays. This was before "smoke-free" anything.

5. Worked in food service in a dining hall, both on the serving line and prepping vegetables.

6. Drugstore clerk. Hated it.

7. Filing and typing in an academic office.

Flavia, I thank you for posting this list, for I had thought that maybe I was making it up about the class dimension of jobs.  In thinking more deeply about it, I can see that I wasn't.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Take a break! Let's go away for the summer; let's go upstate

Take a break. That's what everyone thinks academics do in the summer, to our infinite fury.

"Take a break FROM GETTING PAID FOR THREE MONTHS. Is that what you mean?" we mutter under our breath.

Yet we need some kind of break, for sure; even a week is good.

I recently spent a week with family, near but not at the beloved Land of No Internets.  And when annoyed, insistent emails about non-urgent matters from my collaborators piled up--as in, if I didn't respond to a question within an hour, they'd send the wrong reply to higher-ups--I had had it and told them that they could keep emailing, but I wasn't going to respond.

Once a year I get to see family together in this way. Once a year. The collaborators can chill out for 5 days, don't you think?

But it was a much better visit overall than last year's because I took Lin-Manuel Miranda's famous advice and took a break. I didn't cook as much, or clean as much, and if the dog wanted to steal food off the table, fine by me.  (Others dissuaded him, but I was not going to.)

I swam and kayaked and sat by the water and read and went to get spring water.  I talked with my mother about genealogy (which she loves, but I'm the only person who will listen to her talk about it).  It made me think about all the family who have lived in that part of the state for generations, since it was settled, especially when I drove by the old graveyards.

Did Facebook & Twitter, when I checked them, make me feel guilty about not getting work done? Of course. That's their job. But I have a sabbatical, and I'll get into work mode soon enough.

So did "take a break" work?

Yes.

What I learned was that the world does not hinge on my control. It only wants my participation. There's a difference.