Thursday, February 28, 2008

Erase your memory? No, thanks, I already have.

In Psych 101, you learn about the Zeigarnik effect, a principle affecting memory. The Zeigarnik effect describes the situation in which you remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. It's named after a psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik, who noted that waiters would remember an order while they were still serving it but forget it immediately afterward.

Although my memory clings with a desperate grasp to annoying commercials, random bits of doggerel (why couldn't I have memorized as much of Paradise Lost as I have of pointless song lyrics?), and times when I made a stupid mistake, it's a complete sieve about some things.

Today, I was talking with a colleague about Significant but Not Required Invited University Social Event. "I thought I saw your name on the list," he said. "Aren't you going?" I had a virtually identical conversation with another colleague later. "Didn't you receive the invitation?" he asked. "I thought your name was on the list."

Uh oh. The thing is, I might have received the invitation, or I might not have received it. Like all faculty members, I get a lot of, let's say, not immediately relevant mail on glossy cardstock from other places in the university. "Come help us celebrate the 150th anniversary of the invention of the shoelace," one might read, or "Please come and support our cause at this dinner for only $100 a head."

I look at them, and, if they require an RSVP, I respond. Action taken. Task completed. Task forgotten.

This also happens if I respond to something like a survey or a ballot of some sort. "Did you complete our survey?" goes the reminder. Beats me. Dr. Zeigarnik would be proud.

So, in short, I may have committed a faux pas by receiving an invitation and not responding, or I may not have received an invitation at all, or--and here is the scary part--I may have responded and completely forgotten it. If I did this on paper, it won't be in the sentmail folder so I can check, either.

Welcome to the road company of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotted Mind.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Shorter Chronicle: Turnitin--Spawn of Satan or Grader’s Friend?

The Chronicle has an article (behind the subscription wall--sorry) about John Barrie, the founder of, the plagiarism detection site, the gist of which is the title of this post. The founder sounds as though he’s on a mission to stamp out writing-related moral turpitude before “another Enron”:
"The disturbing thing," he told the newspaper, "is that Princeton is producing our society's future leaders, and the last thing anyone wants is a society full of Enron executives."

Countering his view is Charles Lowe, who makes good points:
But critics say that's a fact to be lamented, not a cause for celebration. Not only does Turnitin grab student papers for use in its database without compensating the students, they argue, but it also encourages professors to spend time policing their students instead of teaching them. "Turnitin does sound wonderful on the surface," says Charles Lowe, an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University, "but a lot of faculty members aren't even aware of why they might not want to use it."

Lowe's argument is that uses student work for its own profits and generally without the consent of the students; it may create a climate of suspicion wherein students are presumed to be cheating; and instructors should stop being so lazy and make plagiarism-proof assignments.

I agree with Lowe, to an extent, but would note this: the idea that you can easily make a plagiarism-resistant assignment is true for writing courses but not for literature courses. In fact, a lot of the arguments I’ve seen against using have come from rhet/comp people, and they are completely right in what they argue. A lot of the arguments I’ve seen in favor of using it come from lit people, and they, too, are right. It depends on what you’re teaching.

There are two separate issues here: the utility/morality of using Turnitin, and the necessity to create plagiarism-resistant (no such thing as plagiarism-proof) assignments. Both are connected, however.

About the assignment: These days, probably only a rookie would give a general assignment to write a 750-word out-of-class explication of “My Last Duchess” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; it’s just too easy and too tempting for students to dump in material they’ve copied and pasted from the numerous sites that deal with well-known works. I’ve seen arguments saying that students feel insulted by such assignments and plagiarize as a means of expressing their contempt.

Most of the students I’ve caught plagiarizing, however (and never for an assignment like this, which I wouldn’t give), have had the same explanations: they ran out of time, or they thought the arguments they saw online would make their papers more impressive--mostly the former. But once in a while students will try to plagiarize even when given a well-designed assignment, one that engages students and requires drafts, unique perspectives, and so on. Yes, this occurs even in the best of all possible worlds, and it’s not proof of a lazy and disengaged instructor, a bad assignment, or even a bad student. That’s where people who make the case for Turnitin say that their product comes in handy.

About the utility/morality of Turnitin: I’m leaving aside the whole copyright issue with students’ papers, although it’s certainly a big one. I’m concerned primarily with how Turnitin affects individual classes.

Morality: One argument says that having students submit papers to Turnitin assumes that all students are cheaters, and I’ve heard instructors say that they only submit “suspicious” papers. Isn’t this more insulting to the individual student, however—to assume that he or she is cheating? If you were a student, wouldn’t you be distressed to learn that your instructor had singled out your paper because she was suspicious of it? Wouldn’t you wonder why she had submitted it and whether her suspicions had more to do with you as a person and maybe your gender/race/social class/attitude in class than with the paper itself?

Utility: Another argument says that you can get just about the same results using Google, so, why use Turnitin? Answer: it saves time. I have used it in the past, early in its development, and don’t do so now, but it did save huge quantities of time. (Yes, when I used it students could opt out of having their papers submitted by doing an alternate assignment, though no one chose that option.) Most instructors hate plagiarism because it violates principles of ethics, but they also hate it—or I do—because it wastes my time, and I hate any activity that wastes my time.

So here’s the question: is it all right to use something like Turnitin, which may be questionable ethically, if it saves you a lot of time? Is it all right to use something that may be profiting from students' work without their consent if it helps to stamp out a greater problem, namely plagiarism?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Syllabus squeeze, or "Hey, I read that in high school"

What do you call it when you find out that a book, story, or poem that you'd wanted to teach--or that you regularly teach--gets taught in high school? What about if several of your colleagues want to teach it? What happens if it's so popular that whole realms of the Sparknotes-enotes corner of the internet are devoted to it?

In theory, at least, this isn't a problem. Hey, it's good for the students to read a book more than once, isn't it? In practice, though, you hear something like this:

  • The Awakening, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

    "Yeah, we read that in English."

  • Hamlet?

    "We did that in AP, and we partnered with a class in Japan over the internet. We put it on as an opera and sang it in both languages. My teacher said that having just a male ghost was too patriarchal, so we turned Ophelia into a ghost in Act V so that there'd be gender equity and the two ghosts could sing duets together."

    Okay, I'm kidding, but just barely.

    Seriously, what do you do about syllabus squeeze, when you feel as though you're making choices based not on the best texts that for what you want to do in the class but on issues that should be completely irrelevant, like whether they've already read the book in high school or whether analyses of it litter the internet, thus making plagiarism a too-tempting option?

    If you're idealistic, maybe you assign them anyway and hear "my high school teacher said X" or "Dr. X said this" or, worse, just see the faces of those for whom Hamlet is a been-there, done-that, got-the-t-shirt event and that they plan to reread it approximately never. Or maybe they don't do this, but it's a crapshoot.

    If you're cynical, maybe you knock yourself out finding obscure texts to teach. But you know what? Some of those classics are classics for a reason, and some of them are engaging for students and important in ways that others are not.

    So what do you do?
  • Tuesday, February 19, 2008

    Ooooh, snap! A transcendental smackdown.

    From The Blog of Henry David Thoreau:

    But the fact is, the earnest lecturer can speak only to his like, and the adapting of himself to his audience is a mere compliment which he pays them. If you wish to know how I think, you must endeavor to put yourself in my place. If you wish me to speak as if I were you, that is another affair.

    [Title edited because I am culturally illiterate and did not know throwdown from smackdown.]

    Sunday, February 17, 2008

    Glimpses of another time

    Squadratomagico has a post up about what academics (and implicitly academics in the liberal arts) give up when they choose academics as a career. Among the things that she discusses are proximity to family, choice of a place to live, sense of a self outside the job, and even separation from one's partner if one follows the job instead of the partner to a new place and hopes for a better placement in a few years.

    It's been this way for at least thirty years, as everyone who has gone to graduate school since the 1970s has always known before going into a Ph. D. program, but that doesn't make the situation good. It's been the same for several decades and despite occasional spasms of hope ("Urgent need for more Ph.D.'s in English predicted, studies say"--remember those headlines?), the employment situation doesn't seem to be changing.

    There was a time, though, when the situation wasn't like this, as I've heard from older colleagues, so I thought a glimpse of those times might be interesting--or maybe would call them into being again.
  • An older colleague once told me about his experience at MLA back in the late 1960s: "I had six interviews, but when I walked into the pit (the interviewing room), search committees from other colleges would try to flag you down and get you to interview with them. They would try to sell you on their schools as you were walking by." I think he was ABD at the time when this was happening.
  • Another colleague told of going to MLA on a lark ("lark" and "MLA" are two words that do NOT belong in the same sentence these days) with some friends. They took some resumes with them and planned to sign up for some interviews with schools while they were there, because back then schools posted job descriptions and signup sheets. If you were there, and you fit the description, you could sign up and get an interview, apparently.

    Let's hope those days aren't gone for good.
  • Friday, February 15, 2008

    Shootings on campus

    Once again, sadly, shootings on campus, with five dead and many others wounded, at Northern Illinois University. Our thoughts and hearts go out to them.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    Surviving February: Human Hibernation?

    A few months ago, The New York Times published "The Big Sleep," an op-ed that alluded to Graham Robb's theory that in the Middle Ages, people basically slept the winter away:
    In the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. “Seven months of winter, five months of hell,” they said in the Alps. When the “hell” of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. They lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. If someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.

    The same mass dormancy was practiced in other chilly parts. In 1900, The British Medical Journal reported that peasants of the Pskov region in northwestern Russia “adopt the economical expedient” of spending one-half of the year in sleep: “At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread. ... The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself” and “goes out to see if the grass is growing.”

    I've been thinking about this ever since. Can it really be true? Medievalists, what say you? Is this a well-established fact in medieval studies, and, if so, why don't they teach us about this in Chaucer class? Is it even possible, physiologically speaking, to sleep this much after you're 17 years old? And if so, wouldn't your muscles waste away the way that those of people in nursing homes and intensive care units do?

    Edited to add: I'm writing about this now because while this seemed totally impossible in November, by February--the month where days are short, cold, and gray--it's seeming more sensible by the minute.

    Update 3-19-08: There's a letter to the editor about this in the NYTimes in 1906 , but it still sounds unlikely.

    [Another post about human hibernation and Malcom Gladwell's take on it.]

    Friday, February 08, 2008

    Darwinism in Academe

    From Jessica Burstein's "No: A Love Song" in the Chronicle (I think it's behind the subscription wall--sorry). Burstein tells about having a panel rejected by an organization that she'd been with since its first meeting (I was at that first conference, too), and along the way she says this:
    Here's what I know to be true. Academe is about being rejected. Everyone is told no. Am I right about this close reading? No. Will you read my dissertation? No. Can I have this job? No. How about this fellowship? No. Publish my article? No. Might I have tenure? No. Do you want my book? Nope. Could I get a promotion, a raise, an office with a window, an office, 15 extra copies on the Xerox machine? No, no, no, no, and yes — wait, I changed my mind: No.
    . . . In Texas, or its outlying areas — Cincinnati, Seattle, Amsterdam, Algiers — academics proceed by virtue of an algorithm of envy. Born of denial, "no" is its currency, while "yes" swaggers through alleyways like dinners with Susan Sontag or Stephen Fry: You weren't there; but they had fun, and quips were exchanged.

    Finally! She's so right, and yet this is the part of academics that we all pretend mightily just isn't so, that all things are open to us, when actually most of us will spend our careers getting rejected.

    And yet we enable this behavior to occur. I'm reminded of this when I hear well-known people in the field saying things like "I think I'll do a panel on X at the next MLA" or other big conference. Isn't it a competitive process for them as it is for the rest of us grimy proles? How do they know it'll be accepted? Is it because--gasp--the proposer has a big name? MLA and all other conferences piously deny this, although a few years back PMLA, in an essay about why fewer academics submitted articles to it (answer: because they thought they had a snowball's chance in hell of being accepted), did admit that it relied heavily on "solicited contributions" rather than those submitted to a blind review process. (I think that has changed.) I know that some conferences "strongly encourage" (yes, that's a euphemism)including a "well-known scholar" as a respondent or chair if the organizer wants the proposal to be accepted.

    I'm also reminded of this when I'm on a conference committee or hiring committee. Everyone gleefully wishes for a big pool of applicants or proposals to make a "strong program" or get the "strongest applicant." The more competitive a pool is, the better, according to everyone's estimation, and if a pool is small, everyone wonders whether it's good enough.

    But wouldn't a sufficient number of good ones (applicants, proposals) do? Do we have to wish for excessive numbers? We're not breeding salmon here; we're choosing applicants or proposals. How Darwinian do we have to be? How many people do we have to say no to in order to satisfy ourselves that we're competing our way to the top?

    The answer is "a lot," and that's why Burstein's conclusion is unlikely to change anytime soon.

    Thursday, February 07, 2008

    RBOC (still here)

    I will write a more substantial post soon, but for now, RBOC--now new and improved, with whining added!
  • Like the rest of the northern half of the country, I am ready to be finished with snow, snow, bad roads, worse roads, and generally awful weather. I'm a northern person from way back, but come on!
  • With the shovel, kitty litter, rug, rope, and other accouterments of northern living cluttering up the back of my car, a state trooper from around here would know I'm just ready to dig myself out of a snowbank and not preparing to bury a body. A state trooper from the south would think I'm another Crazy Astronaut Lady, minus the duct tape and diapers.
  • Classes are going well, and I got another piece of writing out the door this week.
  • Monday, February 04, 2008

    A warning from the academic unconscious?

    I don't usually post dreams, but this is an academic one.

    I'm rushing to leave for a conference and reach in a manila folder to grab a copy of my paper before I ride out to the airport. Take the laptop this time? Nah, no need for that, I think.

    Later, at the conference, I'm sitting in front of the audience and am up next. To my horror, I discover that what I have grabbed is not the paper I wrote but something else: the notes folder, with the first page of the paper, assorted scribblings, and a couple of articles. I leaf through it, but there is no paper there. Do I explain? Try to wing it? Read the first paragraph, then announce that I'm going in a different direction and will talk about something different, as I've seen done before?

    The panel chair calls my name . . . and then I woke up.

    Sunday, February 03, 2008

    Finished, done, gone, and out the door!

    I've just sent the long article, so all told, that's three things sent this week (if you count proposals, and I certainly do count them). That leaves just work for class and a couple more things to get done before Tuesday.

    In the meantime, I am lining up the possibilities for non-Superbowl-related amusements:

  • Shoveling the driveway again. Because like everywhere else in the northern half of the U.S. we've been getting record amounts of snow here in Northern Clime, this has become a daily (or sometimes twice daily) meditation-and-exercise regimen.
  • Knocking down the deathcicles that are hanging from my eaves. Seriously, one of the icicles is at least three feet long and tilted at an angle that would stab the unwary visitor to death if it were to fall off. There ought to be a murder mystery in which the weapon is an icicle, which would melt away and leave no trace.
  • Mediating the Cat Deathmatch that keeps erupting because Older Cat has decided to take Younger Cat's place on top of the filing cabinet in the room where I work. Younger Cat considers me her possession and will usually not tolerate any other cats within 5 feet of me, so my concentration keeps getting broken by hisses and yowls.
  • Clearing the decks for the next set of projects. By the time I've finished writing something, it's as though I'm a bird in the midst of a nest of papers and you can't see the floor anymore. Putting the previous project's copies, drafts, books, and general detritus away somehow gets my brain ready for the next batch.
  • Friday, February 01, 2008


    I'm still trying to catch up on projects with missed deadlines (hence the light blogging).

    Here's a question, though: why does the knowledge that others are still later with their work than I am make me so deliriously happy? I'm not happy because they're behind, exactly, but I feel absurdly relieved if, after receiving something or hearing from an editor, I'm reassured that I'm not the only one who is late.

    Is this schadenfreude? Is is the Daffy Duck philosophy of life, which states that "It is not only necessary that I succeed, but that you fail"?

    I don't think it's either one, exactly. I'm not happy at others' misfortunes and don't want them to fail, but I am happy to learn that others are in the same boat. Is this "misery loves company" instead? Is there a name for it? Academic commiseration?