Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Missed connections

A few years back, a reporter from the Chronicle contacted me about a story. Which story? you ask. Good question. I was away at the time, so I didn't get the message until a few days later. I left a couple of return messages, but the reporter never called back. I figured that whatever the story was, the reporter had gotten the information needed and didn't think I'd need to be called back. I'm still a little curious, though.

Recently, the phone rang in my office. "Hello, I'm So and so from A Press. Do you have a few minutes to talk?"
Me: "Sorry, I'm on my way to class right now. Can you call back at X?"

Stupidly, I didn't write down the person's name or phone number, and I didn't get a call back. Here, for your viewing pleasure and in descending order of fabulousness/increasing likelihood of reason for the call, are my speculations about the call:
a. "We've heard that you're working on a manuscript in X area and wonder if you'd be interested in sending it to us."
b. "We'd like you to review a manuscript in X area" or "Here is a fabulous book [that scoops the project you're working on]; would you care to write a few words about it?"
c. "We have a book proposal we'd like to get a preliminary opinion on. Can we send it to you?"
d. "You did a textbook review of X book. Can we quote you in the materials?"
e. "Your former student, Y, has applied to be a book rep with us and has given your name as a reference. Can we ask you a few questions about him?"
f. "The credit card number you use to subscribe to our journal has expired. Can we get a new number from you?"

I'm guessing F.

[P. S. If it's F, of course I won't give out the number immediately but will call the press directly instead.]

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dreaming Alice James

I'd like to think that I'm not the only who who dreams about students and teaching. There are the usual panic dreams: I can't find the classroom where I'm supposed to teach, or all my books have somehow been locked in my junior high school locker, to which I've forgotten the combination. Or I'm supposed to give a lecture on the Merovingian kings or statistics or something else I know absolutely nothing about.

This dream was different: I was trying to lead my students across campus to an event that I'd assured them would be fascinating. Somehow in the dream I didn't know what the event was until I got there, but it was a one-woman show based on the life of Alice James (as she appears in Jean Strouse's biography), illnesses, intelligence, James family hysteria, and all. Although this wouldn't have been their first or even their forty-seventh choice of a fascinating extracurricular activity for class, they were interested enough because of reading Henry James to stay through the whole show.

Does anyone else have teaching dreams?

Friday, March 23, 2007

A new place to write?

Unless it's a teaching or meeting day, I usually work at home. When I read profgrrrl and other bloggers talking about all the work they get done at the local coffee shop (indy or Starbucks), though, I start thinking, "Yeah, that's the way to go! I ought to go to Starbucks, too." Then I remember three things:

(1) I don't drink coffee.
(2) I don't like pastries.
(3) Even if I liked both, part of the point of getting out of the house when writing is to avoid the occasion of sinfood. It's the "hmm--I'm stuck on a paragraph; let's see what's in the fridge" syndrome, the one that says there are no calories in food eaten while procrastinating.

So the coffee shop just doesn't feel comfortable to me. Libraries, however, are a different matter; whatever they pump into the atmosphere in those places makes me stop the nonsense and get to work. At Former U, I used to work in the library all the time, but at Present U, I'm too far away to make library work feasible when there's no actual need to be there.

But Local Regional U has a spanking new library, all light wood and tall windows and big tables to spread out work. It has peace and quiet and wireless. After working down there for a few hours today, I couldn't tell if they were putting the magic writing discipline atmosphere in the ventilation system, but I'm sure going to give it a try.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Research love, good and bad

As I once again spend the day reading background materials for what's actually a fairly small piece of writing, I'm trying to remind myself that research love comes in two flavors: bad and good.

What I mean by "research love" is the stage of a project in which you're really interested in it to the exclusion of other things: you read about it, think about it, even dream about it, and that's all you want to do.

Yes, I taught my classes this week (and will teach some more before the week is through), but all I really wanted to do was to talk about the work that's put me into this state. I wanted to read about this even between classes yesterday, which I didn't do, because part of getting ready for a class for me involves reviewing and writing notes and rereading the works I'm teaching as close to class time as possible, so that I'm in that particular zone for the class.

Is there a bad side to this? Yes. It involves a disease that should be called dissertatio procrastinatis or some such thing, because dissertation writers get it, too--that feeling that once that obscure ILL book you ordered came in, you'll get right on to the writing, but until then, any writing would be premature.

And it would, in a way, because it would bring the research love phase to a close and subject it to the hard rocky path of reality that's called "writing." I'm hoping that, as I start writing this piece, the research love phase will energize the rest of the process.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Message lost in cyberspace?

This is mostly a PSA post repeating something that this blog and others have mentioned:
if you're expecting some piece of work from people (i.e., you're organizing a panel, editing a book collection, sending out manuscripts for review, and so on), please send a quick message to acknowledge its receipt. You don't have to write anything fancy--"thanks" will do--but write something.

So far, in the past few weeks, I've had nothing but complete silence after sending the following: repeated messages to a possible panelist for a panel I'm organizing, a manuscript review, a message to a student who hasn't shown up to class in a month advising her to drop, and a proposal for a conference panel. I usually send a copy to myself at a different address the same time just to be sure that the messages all got sent, and they did.

After two messages, of course, sometimes people will respond by saying, "Yes, I got your message and the earlier one, too." Then why on earth didn't you respond the first time?

Why don't people respond? My current theories run from the sane (they didn't get the messages) to the considerably less than sane (they gave up e-mail for Lent? they're conducting an elaborate psychological experiment in which I'm an unwilling, non-IRB-approved participant?).

Maybe they enjoy all the attention I lavish on them with repeated messages. Maybe they're suckers for those obnoxious little red exclamation points that flag "important" messages and are waiting for me to use them. Or maybe they think I'm not really serious because I don't use the delivery confirmation feature.

Whatever the reason, unless the e-mail's from the long-lost son of a Nigerian dictator who's just waiting to wire you millions once you give him access to your bank account, it's polite to answer the e-mail.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

How to tell that spring break is almost over

If, for the past few days, you've gotten through some of your list . . .
And you've become so involved in and excited about your work that you lose track of time when reading . . .
And you wake up bursting with ideas that you want to write about . . .

Yup. It's just about time to grade some papers and start reading materials for class.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cliche watch (again)

I've already written about how cliches like "we take this very seriously" don't mean much except in the bizarro world sense of meaning the opposite of what they say.

Now two of my other favorite political cliches are in the news.

One is the profession that one is doing something "in good faith," which if you look at the outcomes associated with such words is almost never the case.

Example from the New York Times:
Mr. Sampson’s e-mail message, sent to the White House and Justice Department colleagues, suggested he was hoping to stall efforts by the state’s two Democratic senators to pick their own candidates as permanent successors for Mr. Cummins.

“I think we should gum this to death,” Mr. Sampson wrote. “Ask the senators to give Tim a chance, meet with him, give him some time in office to see how he performs, etc. If they ultimately say ‘no never’ (and the longer we can forestall that the better), then we can tell them we’ll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All this should be done in ‘good faith’ of course.”

That set of quotation marks says it all about the level of cynicism with which this phrase is too often employed.

The other is the perennial favorite of passive voice construction "mistakes were made." Again from the New York Times:

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.

The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else. It is a construction that other officials, from Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary to Ronald Reagan to John H. Sununu and Bill Clinton, have used when someone’s hand was caught in the federal cookie jar.

It is similar to a form of apology often heard here and in Hollywood, perhaps most memorably by Justin Timberlake’s press agent after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident involving Janet Jackson. “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance,” the agent said.

In 1991, Mr. Sununu, then the chief of staff to President George Bush, was caught violating various White House travel rules. He retreated behind the language of obfuscation. “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety,” he said. “Obviously, some mistakes were made.”

I teach this when I teach passive voice, not merely as an example of the construction but as an example of how language can be used in powerfully corrupt ways, and by powerful people, to distort and destroy meaning.

Examples like this can show students that we're not just saying that language matters because we're English teachers with a vested interest in abstruse subjects like voice and mode.

We're saying it because we understand that language is power, and the sooner students understand that, the better.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Not productive but sort of fun

Have you ever had this happen to you? You're reading along in a classic novel (one you've read before). You're sitting in a chair in the living room instead of at your desk because this is your idea of a festive and exciting thing to do during spring break. (Talk about the boring lives of academics!)

All of a sudden you drift into sleep, or a sort of semi-consciousness, in which you're dreaming an alternate plot to the novel--same characters and everything--and the plot makes sense. After about 15 minutes you realize that you're sleeping and start reading again. You're confused because the plot you dreamed is still vivid, and you feel as though you've momentarily lost your place.

Not that this has happened to me, of course ;-).

Monday, March 12, 2007

Does any of this count?

As I sat down to work today, I was reminded of the recent conversation between Horace and Tenured Radical about what things count in terms of academic service, citizenship, or what have you. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my day:

Work-related stuff
  • Wrote recommendation letter for student who graduated several years ago.
  • Finished and sent report on a short book proposal.
  • Read and return proofs for a short article.
  • Wrote e-mail responses to various people I've never met, answering questions about an author, about copyright, and about other issues. Most of these were of the "here's where you could find the answer to that" kind of replies. In my more self-deluding moments I see this as service to the community at large.
  • Wrote a gentle response to a grad student (not one of mine) who couldn't figure out where to find a book. I looked it up, pasted in the information, and then suggested that WorldCat could work the same magic for her. (Okay, I didn't use that level of snark in the message.)
  • Made plane and hotel reservations for upcoming conferences. This always takes about twice as long as I think it will.
  • Called about a journal subscription.

    Home stuff
  • Shredded and shredded and shredded the usual junk mail and credit card offers, since we're assured that meth addicts are ready to steal our identities if we don't do this. I don't know how so much of this gets sent, since I've opted out of all the mailing lists I could.
  • Wrote out bills, made online payments, etc.
  • Walked to the Literary Post Office to mail the bills. This is what passed for exercise today, since I ran as well as walked.

  • None of the home stuff counts, of course, but that's why I included it: none of the work stuff really counts, either. And yet neither space could continue to function if the tasks on this list and others like it didn't get done.

    Saturday, March 10, 2007

    Conversations with colleagues on research practices, (or advice to the gradlorn, part 2)

    Among the most compelling kinds of blogposts I read are those in which people talk about their research and their research methods; those are like chocolate to me, and there is no higher praise. A lot of bloggers have written about their research practices, including good recent posts by Dr. Crazy, Tenured Radical, Flavia, Dr. Virago, Mel, and Professor Zero.

    My IRL colleagues talked about similar methods when we talked a couple of weeks ago.

  • Both mentioned that they used freewriting and other methods to get started and that ideas had to be worked out over weeks, not written up in a mad dash a la the old days in grad school. (This is the "advice to the gradlorn" part of the post.)
  • One said that she often would write actual proposals based on various ideas she has, even if she hasn't seen a call for papers for that topic; in that way, she's ready if a call does come up. I'd never thought of doing this before, since usually the CFP and its promise (threat?) of a deadline spurs me to action rather than the other way around.
  • One also mentioned having some special program that allowed her to search her hard drive for materials related to her project. I mentioned using Google Desktop for a similar purpose, but it may be that her program is more specialized. I'm all about the free when it comes to software, so I probably will never know whether the special program does a better job.
  • We all agreed that reading and taking notes at the same time was disruptive; you read differently if you're stopping to write every few minutes. Of course, we were talking about reading primary texts; it's different, I think, if you're reading secondary sources.

    A few of my own methods:

  • The Post-It note is my best friend; I should have bought stock in 3M years ago just based on my own use of it to mark passages that later get transcribed into a file for use. Sometimes, if I'm in the midst of writing, the passages just get used even without being transcribed. Usually, though, I try to prepare a file of notes as well as quotations as part of the preparation; if I'm working with a short story collection, I write summaries, too. I always think I'll remember the stories, character names, and so on, but if I get pulled away for a several months because of department business, teaching, or other projects, I'm always glad that I took the time to note the particulars.

  • Dr. Virago mentioned putting questions into her research preparation files, and I do that as well. ("Preparation file" is my term for it; what do you call those things that aren't yet a draft but are more than notes?) The preparation file usually looks like a mess, with some paragraphs that are more formal in tone, some running dialogues in which I argue with myself about the validity/relevance/originality/logical inferences of points that I'm writing about, and notes about "didn't so and so say this in X?"

    About a research journal: I recently began to keep a record of words written for various kinds of tasks, including letters of recommendation, department service obligations, manuscript reviews, work on the main project, and so on. The idea behind this was to keep track of how much writing I'm doing is necessary but isn't going to keep my own work moving forward. It's been useful, but it's not a research journal.

    I'm working my way into keeping one, though, and am looking for advice, so if you keep one:

    Are these kept in a notebook or on a computer?
    Do you write in it every day, and if so, do you make yourself write a set amount?
    Do you go back to these and mine them for ideas, or does the mere fact of writing down the information help to spur on your writing?
    Do you keep your research notes in these, too, or do you just write about the writing process itself? Or do you write about the ideas?

    Thanks for any ideas.

  • technorati tag:

    Wednesday, March 07, 2007

    In which I am a comedian

    Snippet from class:

    Me: "So what else do we know about this character? That she's an herbalist?"

    Back row dies laughing. "Herbalist!"

    Me, slow on the uptake, a few seconds later: "Of legal herbs--you know, healing herbs."

    Monday, March 05, 2007

    Conversations with colleagues, or advice to the gradlorn

    Dr. Crazy and Dr. Virago recently had good posts about their research and writing practices--talking about book contracts, research journals, and the like. I recently met informally (i.e., pleasantly, as in not in a committee meeting) with some colleagues, and we got to talking about this, among other things. Here are a few points distilled from our conversation.

  • First of all, we all agreed that you have to work pretty darned hard, especially before you have tenure. This isn't exactly a newsflash, but one of the things that came out of the conversation is that we all do this because we really love it. Okay, maybe that's also not a newsflash, but the "advice to the gradlorn" point is this: if you can't envision working on your research as a pleasure as well as a duty, you should rethink what you're doing and maybe get into another field.

    This isn't meant to be harsh; it's just that, like acting, getting a Ph.D. and a tenure-track job is about like landing a good part in a Broadway play, except with less fame and less money. (This, BTW, is why I found watching A Chorus Line when I was an adjunct so depressing that I vowed never to see it again.) The odds may be a little better, but as the MLA Newsletter recently reported "PhDs in the fields represented by the MLA appear to have about a 35% chance of getting tenure" (27)--if you get hired in the first place. My point isn't simply to repeat these dismal statistics; it's to repeat what another colleague said when she'd considered acting as a profession: her professor told them that if they could envision themselves doing something else, anything else, that they ought to get out while they could.

  • This first piece of advice led to the second one: you'll have to work hard after you graduate, too, so get over it. This issue of work came up because we had all talked to seniors (and even some people in grad school) who seem to have bought into the idea that being a college professor is like being a high school teacher, except with fewer hours in the classroom so you can kick back and mow your lawn on a Wednesday afternoon. We've all tried to disabuse students of this notion, but a few of them seem to cling to it.
  • I guess the third piece of advice we came up with is that if you do get a job or want to get through, you have to learn to "suck it up." That doesn't mean that you have to put up with harassment or discrimination, but if you're annoyed because someone doesn't do your copying fast enough or give you a classroom with windows or whatever, there's no point in whining about it (except on blogs, of course, the proper forum for all manner of complaints). This goes double if you're on the first year of a tenure-track appointment: there's no way you won't feel overworked and underappreciated, and yes, you'll be tired, but it does get easier over time. I once saw a grad student having a complete melt-down hissy fit about copying during which she screamed (yes, screamed) at the entire office staff for not having her stuff done on time. I'm guessing that, professional as they are, they never went out of their way to help her again, and I wouldn't blame them if they didn't.

    I didn't get to the research advice at all--next post, maybe.

    technorati tag:

  • Thursday, March 01, 2007

    Catching up

    I'll write a real post soon, but for now--

  • A couple of writing days that were textbook examples of bad practices: Write a paragraph. Decide it doesn't make sense, that the elements don't fit. Decide to check e-mail. Go back to paragraph. Delete most of it. Pick up a book. Read. Write some more. Repeat.

  • A class in which one of the groups of students did an outstanding job of talking about the story they'd chosen to discuss, so much so that they made me think about the story in new ways even though I'd taught it before. This is why we teach.

  • Figuring out how to transfer music and audiobooks from the iPod to a computer whose hard drive had been wiped out. I tried iDump and EphPod, but both kept crashing; what worked was (1) deleting iTunes; (2) plugging in the iPod so that the computer could see it as a plain hard drive; (3) copying the iPod folders to the Music folder; and (4) importing the Music folder into the iPod.

  • Having lunch out with some colleagues since a visitor was in town. Why don't academics do this more often? Everyone I know (myself included) eats hunched over a desk, wolfing down a sandwich or salad in the five minutes before office hours start. Well, almost everyone: some people are ambitious enough to bring leftovers from last night's veggi tofu lentil bake or whatever and microwave them, but that takes a lot of forethought.