Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Twenty-four hours to go . . .

and, in the immortal words of the Ramones, I wanna be sedated.

I'm leaving for the conference tomorrow, and the big presentation isn't done yet--but it will be, I hope, unless it's time for a message from the universe.

Hasn't this happened to you? You put in a proposal, are delighted when it's accepted, and plan it in a general way for a few months. Then you look at what you actually promised, and you've said you'd do everything short of a bagpipe fanfarade and a one-woman re-enactment of the siege of Troy.

Yeah, me too.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another casualty of the cell phone

Today I saw another of the minor casualties of cell phone use: a suburban mom walking along with one of those tennis-hat-thingies on her head, yakking away on a cell phone while she walked a large white poodle. Five feet behind her, dutiful and silent, was a 7-year-old boy walking another dog. Every once in a while, still yakking away, she'd turn around to look at him, but he knew better than to interrupt her. I'll bet that this gets billed at the country club (for yes, forgive me, but this did look like a classic country club mom) as "special time with my son."

I see this a lot: moms of all classes and races walking along with kids and completely, totally, utterly ignoring them in favor of exchanging inanities on the cell phone. And yes, unless the phrase you're uttering is "you need me to perform life-saving brain surgery in half an hour? I'll be right there!," whatever you're ignoring your kid for is not worth it. Same thing holds true for the moms cruising by in those Hummers, Suburbans, and Escalades with a phone plastered to their ear, ignoring the kid staring out the window in the front seat.

Can it be a little boring sometimes walking with toddlers and older kids? Yup, you bet. But most of the time it's fun; it's a time when they have your attention but aren't oppressed by it. You're not trying to make them do anything, and they're not trying to make you do anything. There's no pressure, so they can call your attention to a bug that they see, or a car that they see, or how the obnoxious kid in school made fun of their shoes. Or you can sing old songs. Or play a game that has no name: when you get to a corner, spin the child around and have her point, and whatever direction she points in, that's where you walk.

If you're not listening to them now, who is? If you're not listening to them now, why should they listen to you later?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Ben, Jerry, and the Art of Writing

Finished and sent off a short essay this morning, although I was supposed to be working on the big presentation. The editor had contacted me and instead of putting him off, I just sat down and wrote the piece. It was shorter and less formal than most of the things I write, and there was less pressure because it had been solicited, but still--to just sit down and write, and to write something that looked good when I'd finished, felt great.

Great enough that I deserved some Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream for lunch. This may be the missing piece to teaching effective writing: sufficient chocolate rewards.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why I like Mark Twain

From the memoirs and letters of Grace King:

Mr. Clemens repeated two of Joe Twichell's jokes, which were witty of him, Mark--Joe is a temperance minister visiting an old woman in his congregation, she offered him some splendid home made wine. He refused--"You know I'm a teetotaler." "So am I" said she, "but I'm not a fool."

The country here is all wild about the American board of Missions, which recently had a meeting to determine whether to preach to the savages probation or not. I don't know whether you have kept up with it or not. Well after a long contest, they decided by a vote of 80, against 53 that there should be no probation after death, & that the ancestors of the savages had to burn, nolens volens. So Clemens came in with the paper this morning with "News! News! Hell's elected by thirty majority."

On Writing and Not Writing

After seeing Boice's Professors as Writers touted so much in the academic blogosphere, I bought a copy and am trying to work through the exercises despite an innate and probably unfounded distrust of self-help books. I say "unfounded" because this is the first one I've ever read.

As mentioned in other posts, it's not that I don't write and publish a fair amount--I do--but that I'd like the process to be less filled with the general agony of procrastination. (Yes, that's like wishing for world peace, but I can dream, can't I?) That was the reasoning behind taking on more contract writing than usual this summer: if I can keep limber, so to speak, by writing those pieces, which should be easy, I can keep the momentum going for the more scholarly stuff. Since starting is always the hardest part, I'm hoping that this constant writing will help.

Boice counsels patience and promises results, which is comforting. I'm only on chapter 3, so I'm hoping that he soon tackles the two large elephants in the room when it comes to writing:

1. Mushbrain.

2. Fatigue.

These two tend to go together. "Mushbrain" has you staring at a sentence you just wrote, one that took about half an hour of writing and rewriting, and realizing that you can't tell whether it's good or so obvious that you wouldn't wish it on a 101 student. Fatigue can cause mushbrain, but it can also be counterproductive in other ways: falling asleep sitting bolt upright with fingers on the keys isn't such a good strategy, either.

The old New Yorker joke is that on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. (That was back in the days when Internet had a capital I and wasn't used ironically in a plural form.) After reading all the accounts of productivity on various blogs, I'd add that on the internets, no one is ever tired.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The best activity for Father's Day is

1. Working on a long presentation that's due very soon.
2. Mowing the lawn.
3. Playing croquet with family members in from out of town.

Choose 2 out of 3.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Messages to self & student

To student:

1. An A- is not a "harsh" grade.
2. Indicating that you've read my "opinion" about your grade but do not agree with it--in other words, challenging a grade by implying that your opinion and my professional judgment have equal weight--does not require me to change the grade, even if you have rendered this disagreement in respectful, if overly familiar (HEY UNDINE) terms.

To self:

The great lesson of adulthood is that you don't have to like everything you do. You just have to do it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The invisible cats appear

Yesterday I held office hours (all day) for the online students, in case they wanted to come in, and some actually did! Some had questions, and some, I think, just wanted to be sure I wasn't some ELIZA-type instructor emulator--not that the university wouldn't prefer that as a cost-cutting measure.

I may lose my techno-union card for saying this, but there's something about face-to-face interaction that's impossible to replicate in online teaching.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cliches: We take them very seriously

Most people who teach writing caution their students against using clichés, and some clichés are more grating than others. I’m not talking about the ones that lend themselves to comic misspellings (the classic “it’s a doggie dog world” comes to mind), but the ones that get thrown around like so much confetti, like “achieving excellence.”

The one that really drives me crazy is “we/I take ___ very seriously.” Students are fond of writing this in their job application letters (“I will take this job very seriously”), which leads me to write, what, no clown nose and Bozo horn this time? All right, I don’t write that, but I do ask them this: when’s the last time they heard an applicant claim to take a job lightly and pay little attention to it? It’s a meaningless phrase.

The phrase gets overused in the popular press, which is where they probably see it. When I hear this phrase, I now understand that it means this:

1. We don’t care.
2. We don’t have to.
Actually, it's more like this: 1. We've noticed that you're upset.
2. We want you to stop being upset, but we don't plan to change anything.
3. Go away and stop asking questions.

It’s gotten quite a workout lately with all the data thefts (VA data on stolen laptop, etc.), when the PR department scrambles to the microphone to tell the press that “We take data security very seriously.”

Got any examples? Why, sure.

The British understatement version:

1. Spokesman Peter Gerrard explained: "We have five or six main providers and they are all UK-based. We take any feedback or complaints seriously and are determined to only work with reputable companies."

The "trust us" version:

2. "We take the role of central bank very seriously," she said. "Select employees can take laptops home."

What's on them? How are they protected?

"We can just say they are highly secured laptops," Kosydor said before cutting off the questions.

And, because you can never use too many intensifiers in a sentence:

3. At the same time, the decades of tradition that have made the Triple Crown probably the most challenging and elusive prize in all of sports is something that we take very, very, very seriously."

Updated to add this one from FEMA. from an AP article called "FEMA funds spent on divorce, sex change":

"Even as we put victims first, we take very seriously our responsibility to be outstanding stewards of taxpayer dollars, and we are careful to make sure that funds are distributed appropriately," Walker said.

[Unpleasant subject matter alert: if you’re unusually squeamish, skip this paragraph.]


The latest incarnation is about the essentially unregulated use of cadaver tissue in operations, which has caused several deaths:

An FDA quality and compliance official, Mary Malarkey, said she believes tissue is safe and that she would have no qualms about receiving it.

"I do actually have family members and friends who have,'' Malarkey said. "I take that very seriously.''


You see, I have a responsibility to warn readers about what’s in this space. I take that very seriously.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Chronicle discovers a new technology

In its charmingly belated way, the Chronicle has discovered another "new" technology: Endnote and RefWorks. [Edited: Here's a free link:] It's one of the "most e-mailed" links this week.

I haven't used RefWorks but have used Endnote through several versions. I started with version 3.0 and am now up to version 9, so that'll tell you something. I skipped the very buggy version 8, but other than that I've faithfully plunked down the $100 or so for upgrades every couple of years. Needless to say, I'm a huge fan of this software, and it's a subject about which I tend to bore everyone silly if they're unlucky enough to ask about it, which (surprise, surprise) they tend not to do. Every once in a while I see a reference to it, but no one seems to share my geeklike devotion, especially in the humanities.

So--better ten years late than never, Chronicle, if it'll bring new devotees to the fold.

[Edited to add: Profgrrrl beat me to the punch on this one; sorry for being a copycat.]

Monday, June 05, 2006

Proof that popular culture has not entirely passed me by

A colleague was showing me a wall of a room that he’d painted the other day. He said, “I know it’s brown, but I wonder: how much more brown could it be?”

What I didn’t say but wanted to:

(Say it with me, Spinal Tap fans)

“The answer is none. None more brown.”

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Herding invisible cats

Most of the students in the online class have been in touch and are keeping up. Their voices come through in the e-mails they send me and their discussion board postings, though their pattern of addressing me varies widely:

Dear Dr. Lastname
Hi Undine
Ms. Lastname

and, like a telegram:


Some never write a message of any kind; they just send attachments and a blank message.

But there are a few who, after conscientiously posting to the discussion board and turning in assignments, have vanished into cyberspace. I've tried writing to them but haven't heard back from them, nor have they turned up for office hours. (Well, it is an online class; I don't really expect many visitors during office hours.)

So for these invisible ones I'm borrowing a page from Profgrrrrl, who sometimes writes secret messages to students and others:

C'mon, check in and catch up with the class. There are only a few more weeks, and you've worked really hard up to this point. If you've dropped, send a message (even HEY UNDINE will work) and let me know. Thanks.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

From Dean Dad: Things I don't do

Stolen shamelessly from Dean Dad's excellent list of things he doesn't do or doesn't get.

1. Heat (stolen from Dean Dad's #1). I hate hot rooms and hot weather, and the vicious sun poisoning I get in the summer doesn't help. Hawaiian beaches? They don't look as attractive if you know that you'd sit on the beach with a long-sleeved shirt. Maybe the heat antipathy is responsible, but I don't mind cold--don't feel it, in fact. If there's a meeting and everyone is saying, "It's cold in here," there'll always be one dissenter: me.

2. To Dean Dad's team-building exercises, I'd add inspirational speeches of any kind. No, make that any speeches of any kind. I learned early to fake an expression of rapt attention and let my mind wander elsewhere when trapped (graduation speeches, college president speeches, keynote speeches, etc.). This also explains why I've never seen the Oscars or any other awards ceremony: I understand that there are speeches involved. If you want me to pay attention to it, write it down so that I can read it.

3. Nascar (channeling Dean Dad), giant truck rallies, any kind of televised sports. In fact, pretty much televised anything, which makes cultural studies out of bounds for me: I've never seen CSI, American Idol, any reality show, etc.

Those are normal for an academic (except the heat part), but here are the less common ones, the ones I wouldn't admit IRL.

4. I'm a female academic and yet have little to no interest in mystery novels, academic or otherwise. Judging from conversations around me, this makes me an anomaly.

5. I just don't get the high heels with jeans phenomenon. Years ago, I had read that the point of high heels was to shorten the Achilles tendon or something, thereby making women's legs look attractive, rendering them unable to run and thus heightening a look of vulnerability, and so on. (Okay, the anatomy may be wrong, but you get the idea.) That it may have this effect permanently was one of the reasons why the look died a well-deserved death in the 1960s. Jeans have the opposite purpose: they're supposed to be comfortable, not uncomfortable.

All right, let's review: you put on pointy-toed high heels, the purpose of which is to look attractive in skirts rather than to be comfortable. You then put on jeans, the purpose of which is to be comfortable, and hide the very feature that the high heels exist to show off. I see it, but I don't get it.

6. Chess. I wish I could play chess and other complex games, but they seem so much like work that I'd rather, well, work.