Monday, December 31, 2007

Academic resolutions

In the past five "found" days (i.e., days when I'd normally be at or traveling to MLA but have had restored to me this year), I've rediscovered the gym, spent time with my family, and coaxed my ancient PalmPilot back to life with new drivers that don't crash my XP computer. What I haven't done is a lot of work that I'd intended to do.

Here are a few work-related resolutions I'm hoping to keep in 2008. Some of them may be tough to keep, but I still want to try.

  • Just say no. I'm not talking about various mandatory reports and things that you can't get out of, because, well, you can't get out of them. But in looking back at this year, I can tell that I took on too many things that weren't necessary, just because someone asked me to do them. Manuscript reviews for presses are a prime example. Many of them were worth doing because of the subject matter, but some weren't, and since they take a lot of time and thought that could be spent on my own writing, I need to learn to say no unless there's a compelling reason to do otherwise.
  • Start writing earlier in the day. Although I try to work earlier in the day, my writing brain doesn't naturally kick in until the evening. The problem is that there aren't enough evening hours to do the writing I need to do, so I have to figure out how to get that same writing juice in the morning.
  • Not every call for papers has your name on it. It's easier to keep this resolution than it used to be, now that the CFP list at Penn has stopped sending emails and you now have to search actively for calls for papers at the site. It's still enticing, though, to see a CFP and think "hmm, I'd like to go to that conference; I'll submit an abstract and see what happens." What that statement should be is this: "I'd like to present a section from this particular work in progress; I wonder what conferences might work for that?"
  • It's easier to stay caught up than to get caught up. The hardest thing for me to remember that work doesn't do itself: papers don't grade themselves, writing doesn't magically appear on the computer screen, and simply lugging a book around doesn't mean that it gets read. You know how Method actors try to preserve a sense memory of an experience so that they can call it up when they have to act? Maybe remembering the misery of being behind with tasks will help with staying on time and on task.

    What resolutions are you making?
    [Edited to add: Bardiac, who is heading off soon for a great new adventure, and New Kid have a great one that encompasses all these: be mindful.]
  • Wednesday, December 26, 2007

    Happy holidays!

    Merry Christmas, Happy Boxing Day, and happy all other holidays!

    Activities since the last post: Sleep, eat, read, go to a party, talk and laugh with family members, open presents, watch old TV shows from Netflix, Skype with faraway relatives, eat some more, go to the gym, and eat.

    Food:
  • Warm pear cobbler.
  • Omelettes with chevre, fresh herbs, and smoked salmon for breakfast.
  • Pancakes (amaranth, cornmeal, and local unbleached flour), also for breakfast, with maple syrup.
  • For dinner: Roast beef for the omnivores; stuffed mushrooms for the vegetarians; a big salad with balsamic vinaigrette, apples, pears, dried cranberries, mesclun, and a sprinkling of local (well, within the state) bleu cheese for all.
  • And Yorkshire pudding. It's dramatic because if the ingredients aren't room temperature, and if you don't beat it enough, it won't rise, and if you leave it in the oven too long, it'll fall. It's just egg, milk, flour and salt, with a little butter on the bottom of the muffin cups, but when it works (as it usually does, for this is one of my hidden talents), it's beautiful with the roast beef.

    So as you can see, it's been a little bit Alice Waters and a little bit Charles Dickens (Yorkshire pudding). And now back to the holiday.
  • Monday, December 24, 2007

    A non-MLA Christmas

    I am not going to MLA this year, for what seems like the first year in ages. Despite the stress of getting ready for the holidays, it feels so peaceful. Here's how the tasks are stacking up:

    Differences from MLA years:

  • I am not frantically trying to fine-tune/write/rewrite the MLA paper, which despite good resolutions always still needs work before MLA. This means that I've actually been able to notice, and interact with, family members. Talk. Watch movies. Hang out. All the stuff called "normal life." It's wonderful.
  • Since I am of a personality type (INTP) that dreads any kind of commitments, even parties, once I'm committed to them, this is one thing I don't have to dread over the holidays.
  • I am only vaguely, but not, as is usual, obsessively, aware of bad weather, plane delays, and so on.
  • I am not reviewing job candidates' information in preparation for interviewing them at MLA.
  • I am actually looking forward to a family day tomorrow instead of scheming about how quickly I can get away from the festivities to continue with the incessant work (and anxiety) of getting ready for MLA.

    Similarities with MLA years:

  • I still refuse to read the xeroxed letters that come in Christmas cards this time of year, since they provoke such unseemly emotions as envy ("How did she get to spend the summer at Oxford?"), cynical curiosity ("Vacations in Belize AND Hawai'i? On a professor's salary? Really?"), and despair ("Why isn't my book done yet, as his is?").
  • I still hate writing Christmas cards.
  • I still get to make lots of cookies, except this time I won't feel guilty about taking the time to decorate them.

    I feel as though I am trying out a new product: "Christmas 2.0, new and improved with more time. Now with less MLA and less guilt!"
  • Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    Calculating grades: the eyeball test

    I've been thinking about the grading process--not the grading itself, but calculating grades. Like Profgrrrl, I'm a big fan of Excel . Because of my death-match struggles with WebCT/Blackboard, I don't trust it to upload and download grades into Excel accurately, but keeping a separate gradebook in Excel isn't any extra work.

    I used to figure everything by hand, using a calculator and more than a few pages of yellow paper. Somehow, though, the process was agonizing, and not because of the calculations. The internal dialogue went something like this: "SmartGirl is so close to an A. Isn't her class participation worth more? So what if she bombed a couple of quizzes? But if her class participation grade gets bumped, shouldn't I also bump Dull but Diligent up and downgrade SleeperGuy, who says little but says it brilliantly?" Out would come the calculator again as I refigured everyone's grade and agonized some more.

    I tried a few grading programs, including one that promised that it could drop grades but did not, as I found when checking the results by hand. Once I learned to figure grades out in Excel, though, and to drop grades using the spreadsheet, the prolonged agonizing was done. Because you can plug in different numbers for a more or less subjective category like participation, it became clear that a point or so did not make a substantial difference in most grades, and it also made applying standards of fairness easier.

    One unexpected result was that using Excel helped me to see more clearly whether the percentages I'd assigned to various tasks worked well. Since the syllabus contains a combination of "effort" grades (that reward diligence) and, for lack of a better word, "performance" grades (that reward excellence, brilliance, or what have you), I can see immediately if I've weighted one over the other too heavily. For example, if Brilliant Student can flame out too easily by missing a couple of the "effort" grades, maybe those are weighted too heavily.

    This is where the eyeball test comes into play. Because the grades are all in Excel in a straight line (as they aren't in the multiple pages of the paper gradebook), I can get a better sense of the whole picture. I look at the paper grades, the quiz grades, and the rest, and it's clear when things are out of whack. Are the "performance" grades all at a C level and the "effort" grades at an A level, and is this bumping up essentially average performance too high in the final grading scheme, or vice versa? Does the eyeball test say that Student X should be getting an A because of paper grades, when her average is closer to a B range because of the "effort" grades?

    Because the percentages are set in the syllabus, they can't be changed for the current semester; also, usually the "eyeball test" just confirms what Excel is already saying: that the grades seem fair and reasonable. But using the eyeball test to check for fairness helps me to set the percentages for the next semester so that the class is graded equitably for both kinds of students.

    Just the facts, ma'am

    From "MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship," Profession 2007, pp. 27-28:
    Estimated percentage of English and Foreign Languages Doctorate Recipients Who Become Tenure-Track Faculty Members and Achieve Tenure at the Institution Where Hired

    Completed doctorate degree: 100
    Hired to tenure-track position within five years: 60
    Considered for institution at institution where hired: 38*
    Awarded tenure at institution where hired: 34

    *According to the report: "The MLA survey indicates that the largest number leave one tenure-track appointment for another. We have no way of tracking tenure outcomes for these junior faculty members" (27).

    For a reasoned analysis, read the report. The short version of the "Is the glass half full or half empty?" question seems to be that if you get a position, as 40% will not, and are considered for tenure at the same institution, you're pretty likely to get it. I'm not sure if this counteracts any of the gloom about MLA interviews and job anxiety, but I hope so. It's still a bad market.

    Updated to add: Miriam Burstein has a good summary of several of the articles.

    Monday, December 17, 2007

    OT Tech tip: making e-books for ipods

    The grades are in, and now I can get to work on some writing. But first: a tech reward!

    As you can see from my Kindle-envy, I want to be able to carry books to read when I'm waiting. I've lost my more recent Palm Pilot, and the old one is too old to sync with any XP or later machine, so that leaves the iPod as a free device on which to read ebooks. The problem is that it only lets you copy a document that's really tiny (a page or so), but there is a solution.

    Here's how to put a whole book on your iPod:

    1. Go to Project Gutenberg and get a book (or convert your own file to .txt format in Word or another program).
    2. Go to the converter site at http://www.ambience.sk/ipod-ebook-creator/ipod-book-notes-text-conversion.php . Upload the file, and the site will convert it.
    3. Download the zipped file and extract it.
    4. Drag and drop the folder to the Notes folder in iTunes. Instructions are here; other instructions are here. You need to make sure that you have "Enable disk use" checked in the sync menu for your iPod.
    5. Sync the iPod.

    The conversion program breaks up the text document into small enough pieces so that the Notes program can read them, and it puts Forward and Back arrows into the document so that you can move around in it. The text on the iPod is tiny, but if the thought of being stuck waiting in a car or doctor's office without something to read makes you wish that there were an alternative, here it is.

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    Bad professor, good professor

    Like just about everyone else on the blogroll, I am grading and having some Sweeney Todd fantasies about running amok with the red pen.

    Apparently, though, there's an internal mechanism that translates Bad Professor thoughts into Good Professor words.

    Bad professor thinks: "Your paragraph is so chaotic that I have no idea what you're trying to say."
    Good professor writes: "A stronger focus in this paragraph would make your point more clearly."

    Bad professor thinks: "If you cut out the wordiness, you could take a Caribbean cruise with the time you save."
    Good professor writes: "Using active verbs and specific nouns (instead of words like "aspect") make your writing more vivid."

    Bad professor thinks: "George Eliot won't care if you praise her writing with empty words like 'wonderful' and 'full of human interest,' and neither will I. These are page-filling words, not meaningful ones."
    Good professor writes: "Can you make a more specific point about Eliot's writing and support it with evidence from the text?"

    And so on. Have any more?

    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    In which my students and I outsmart each other (in a good way)

    As one option for their final project, students can collaborate on a web project, a presentation, a wiki, a paper--whatever best suits their analytical purposes. The requirements are the same as they are for a person doing a paper or project alone; the students don't have to have twice as much information or twice as many pages even if there are two of them. All members of the group receive the same grade, and they know this going into the project. And the writing tends to be better, too, perhaps because they're working together.

    I suspect that the students think something like this: "If we pair up, or work in a group of three, that's only one-third the work for each of us! We've outsmarted her."

    I know that I think something like this: "Four fewer projects to grade because they've collaborated? Hallelujah!"

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    OT: The rewards of ecovirtue

    I discovered today that you don't have to let virtue be its own reward when it comes to bagging groceries.

    I have cloth bags from local stores as well as places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods that don't have locations in Northern Clime. These aren't the fashionable "I'm not a plastic bag", just the regular ones. Usually they grace the floor of the car, since I rarely remember them until I'm standing at the checkout counter, when it's too late.

    Today, as I was walking into the store, sans bags as usual, a girl yelled, "Stop! Don't make me carry that!" Turns out that she was yelling into a cell phone, and, with the clueless voice-volume-up-to-11 habits of a cell phone user, had no idea she'd made me jump. Somehow, though, in my sleep-deprived state I took this as a direct message from the bags, turned on my heel, and got them out of the car.

    Did you know that the store gives you a 5-cent credit for each bag? I didn't. I guess I hadn't been paying attention when I've used the bags before. I know it's just a token (it was 5 cents back in hometown fifteen years ago, too), but it's a nice token.

    So, to answer an age-old question: virtue is not its own reward. The reward of virtue is (drumroll) 5 cents.

    Sunday, December 09, 2007

    Gnomic utterances

    I have spent most of the day (about 10 hours, with breaks) on a paragraph and a half.

    It is still not done.

    It is still not good. (Not yet, anyway.)

    I have been inside this paragraph so long that it has become overly allusive of concepts that reside nowhere except in my head. It reads like shorthand or gnomic utterances.

    Only Yoda can understand it at this point. Or should I say: Understand it only Yoda can do?

    Back to work.

    Saturday, December 08, 2007

    Professor Volcano

    From "How to Get What You Want in Academe" by Gary Olson at the Chronicle:
    (Shorter Olson: This isn't the way.)

    At a recent professional meeting, a department chairman described being yelled at by a faculty member disgruntled over not being assigned to teach a favorite course.

    "I was flabbergasted," the chairman said. "This newly promoted associate professor hollered at me right out in the busy hallway as if I were a misbehaving child." He was especially annoyed because the complainant had chosen to adopt an adversarial tone from the outset. "The scene in the hallway was not the culmination of a long discussion or debate," the chairman said. "He simply acted out from the get-go."

    It was a department chairman who did the shouting in another recent incident I know of, yelling at the dean of his graduate school because of the dean's newly imposed restrictions on doctoral-defense committees. The dean reported the incident to the chairman's academic dean, who sighed and responded, "Yes, he often behaves badly, especially when things don't go his way."


    Explain to me please, someone, why the chair did not say "I will not discuss this until you speak politely and rationally," turn on his heel, and leave. I'm old school about this stuff: if you can't restrain your rudeness, you don't get to talk to me. Period. I don't care who you are.

    Did you notice the response? Both the dean and the chair acted as if Professor Volcano and Choleric Chair were tantrum-throwing two-year-olds. "Acting out," "behaves badly, especially when things don't go his way"--those are the explanatory terms you'd use for someone under the age of three. If you're under the age of three, you ought to get cut some slack on this stuff because maybe you missed your nap. A tantrum in your thirties and beyond? Not so much.

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    From The Onion

    "Wow, what a special treat this was for all of us," said Talking Points Memo head blogger Joshua Micah Marshal, who, along with all other bloggers, checks Tiedemann's site every day just in case something monumental occurs. "I thought I was going to have to wait until Monday to find out if Ben decided to put [the shelf] in his bedroom or the living room. The pictures were great, too." Within two hours of going live, Tiedemann's 15-word post received 34,634,897 comments.

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Last day

    The classes are finished for the semester (except for finals). I was pleased with the presentations assigned in one class; the students did a good job. In the other class, we talked about the class over cookies. Yes, I bring cookies on the last day--the more sugar and chocolate, the better. Don't worry--the evaluations were done last week.

    I learn a lot from these discussions about what worked and what didn't in the texts chosen for the course. Since they've already turned in evaluations and we focus on talking about books, I figure that they're telling me what they really think.

    In the discussion about the books, one of the students complimented the way I'd done something, and my Victorian damsel credentials revealed themselves. Yes, dear reader, I heard this from the class: "Look at her blush!" Since I don't have a fair complexion, I hoped that no one would notice, but they did. It was embarrassing, but apparently you don't have a choice about blushing. Oh, well.

    The last day of class feels a little like coming to the end of a knitting project, back when I used to have time to knit. You cast off the stitches and then the project is done. If only the last stitches for this weren't a few sets of papers!

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    Notes or no notes

    I like my students (I really do), and the classes are going well. They are largely attentive and participate in class--so why should I care whether a few don't take notes?

    Most do, but some, like Planner Girl, don't. Some students claim that they can pay attention better if they don't write anything down, and that may be true for some people. That's fine unless they're leafing through something unrelated to the class and obviously not paying attention to me and to others who are speaking. This also extends to not picking up the book when I am (or their classmates are) referring to a specific passage. I'm not talking about reading newspapers; they don't read newspapers in my class, because that makes them the recipients of my full and lavish attention (questions directed to them about the book we're reading, requests to read passages from the book, etc.), which they decidedly do not want.

    But why should it annoy me? It's really my problem, not theirs. They're not being disruptive. They're just not paying attention.

    I keep seeing students and even some professors chime in on the Chronicle's boards and elsewhere to say something along the lines of "I don't care if you pay attention. The college is paying me to talk and impart knowledge, so that's what I'm doing, whether you listen or not." The student version goes like this: "I'm paying $$$ to go to school here and take the class, so whether I pay attention or not is really my choice." (And again: my students are nice. They're not disrespectful in this way, and this doesn't seem to be their attitude.)

    Well, here are a few reasons I'd like to give them for taking notes:

  • Because even when we are discussing Seemingly Unrelated Topic, we are really discussing Related Topic, as you'll find out and be confused by in a few minutes.
  • Because you'll remember better, even if you're doodling at that particular minute. (I am a doodler as well as a note-taker, and it really does help when I'm listening.)
  • Because even if I'm not discussing something in traditional lecture format but am responding to the class, it may be important. This goes double if I say "You may want to make a note of this."
  • Because when you sit there and seem to show a lack of interest in what the class is saying, it's like having a sore tooth that you can't help testing to see if it's still sore: my attention keeps being drawn to you, at the expense of some of the energy in the class dynamic.
  • Because good stuff is being said by your classmates, and it's rude not to be paying attention to what they're saying.
  • Because when we have an open notes-no book in-class quiz or writing, you'll wish you'll had taken some.

    I still don't think I should be annoyed by their reluctance to take notes and don't penalize them for not doing so. On the other hand, there are usually advantages to taking notes (see last bullet points), and if they make that discovery on their own, so much the better.
  • Monday, December 03, 2007

    Academe and the handmaiden

    I'm just catching up with Perlmutter's "The Joyless Quest for Tenure" at the Chronicle. To put it mildly, I have a few problems with it.

    1. What quest-romances has he been reading where the protagonist says, "Golly gee whiz, I'm glad to be going on this quest! What a swell adventure it'll be!" and lives happily ever after? Isn't a quest by definition, well, hard to achieve and not especially joyful?

    2. Perlmutter tells us to "Just avoid being relentlessly negative," a state that doesn't seem to go away with time. Are people really depressed and not especially joyful when they get tenure? Do we really need to throw them a Tenure Shower with Post-Its and "Guess the Citation Format" games just to cheer them up?

    3. Dr. Crazy has rightly called him out for the assumption that "wife" and administrative assistants (translation: academic wives, for people of a certain mindset) would take care of the petty details. As Dr. Crazy pointed out, some of us have this support and some of us don't. Even though this advice is well meant, it's the kind of advice that could only come from someone who has (and has always had) this kind of support--a person with academic privilege.

    I'm reminded of Wendell Berry's essay "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." Shorter Berry: "Because it is Good for the Earth and I am an environmentally pure soul, I refuse to buy a computer. Oh, and also because I just put the pages on my wife's typewriter and she types them. See how easy it is to get along without one?"

    There's a kind of idealism, or "professionalism," or whatever you want to call it, that doesn't want to get its hands dirty by doing something of lower status but isn't averse to having someone else do so. Sometimes this status differential is obvious (just ask me about my years as adjunct faculty), and sometimes less so: "Undine, would you like to take notes?" if I'm the only woman at the table. Mercifully, I think there's less of this than there used to be, but I guess what I'd like to see is this "academic handmaiden" work made more visible so that the privilege of those who use it is equally visible--visible enough, in fact, that Perlmutter wouldn't be caught off guard by comments about it as Wendell Berry was twenty years ago.


    And the "have your wife type your papers" thing isn't a myth; I've actually heard this.

    Saturday, December 01, 2007

    Writing Resolutions

    Seeing all the successful writing totals for InaDWriMo at Dr. Brazen Hussy's, Chaser's, Tenured Life, and elsewhere makes me wish I'd done it. I did write and revise things this month, but a lot of time was taken up with responding to others' work rather than writing my own. It counts, but it doesn't count, if you see what I mean.

    So: in the spirit of all, and with the idea that public declarations might force some productivity, I'm putting some goals on the sidebar and plan to keep track of word counts in a spiffy new Moleskine bought for this purpose.