Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This week

School is back in session. I've been assigned some new things to do in addition to teaching, which means that, with the learning curve and all, I've been too tired to blog. A couple of observations:
  • I really like talking to students. I know--that's a duh! moment--but why does it feel more revealing to say that than to say something like "I really like being on sabbatical"? Sabbaticals are nice, and I could use one about now, but liking being on sabbatical is a no-brainer. Liking talking to students--well, to read the Chronicle blogs, it's not as much of a no-brainer.
  • "No-brainer" or maybe "no brain" would be a good word for my state after work this week.
  • It's a little like having a new baby, as I remember it. When you have a new baby, as Ianqui and K8grrl and AAOYR and others have mentioned, you barely have time to shower because you're so busy, yet if someone asked you to give an account of what you did during the day, it would be hard to say what exactly happened. People wonder how it could be so hard to find the time to shower, but it just is. The time just goes. So it has been this week.
  • The book I've been dragging around? The book that I'm supposed to be reading in those spare moments? I could save the weight and leave it home for all the workout it has had this week. The only workout has been in my arm muscles.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Other people's books

This week, in the midst of a whole lot of other on-campus stuff, I did the book check. You know the book check: you go to the bookstore and see whether your students will have books to buy for the semester. I used to think this was kind of useless until a couple of semesters ago when the bookstore gods ordered no books at all for any of my courses. I'd ordered the books in plenty of time, and I probably wouldn't have found out why they didn't order the books even if they'd returned any of my phone calls.

The books are indeed in, but my favorite part is walking around the shelves and looking at other people's books--not the ones they've written, but the ones they've ordered for classes. There's an internal monologue that goes with this, and it sounds something like this:
  • "Wow, I've always wanted to read that. . . and that . . . and that. If I buy that copy, though, there won't be enough for Z's students. Better put it back."
  • "Uh, oh--I was planning on using that novel next semester in my class, but X is teaching it this semester. Oh, well."
  • "Are the students really going to buy, let alone read, all 12 of those books for an undergrad class? Really? I wonder how that'll work."
  • "If I were back in grad school/undergrad, I would totally want to take this class."
It's exciting to see all those classes, or a part of them anyway, lying there waiting for the semester to begin. Or am I the only book geek who looks at the book shelves and thinks this?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

OT: The no-fail garden

The Bittersweet Girl said that she would like to hear more about my garden, and, since I'm avoiding all thoughts academic right now, I thought I would describe it. It's in an 8' by 8' plot bounded by wooden garden rails or whatever they're called. Some vegetables and fruits are foolproof, and that's the kind I grow.

Tomatoes are pretty foolproof, so I grow a lot of them. Most of the garden usually consists of various kinds of tomatoes, with some heirloom ones like Brandywines and a few hybrid varieties like Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. Guess which ones yield great tomatoes all summer long and which ones I end up pulling up, with green unripe tomatoes on them, in October after the heavy frosts begin?

Also foolproof: strawberries (picture). They stay there year after year, braving the freezing winter temperatures even if they're not covered by snow. There are no better strawberries than the ones you pluck and eat while they're still warm after brushing off the dirt.

In the foolproof but sneaky category: zucchini and lettuce. Zucchini will grow to the size of a very thick baseball bat if you don't discover it in time. If you let lettuce go, it will grow into a 3' tower. I didn't plant any zucchini this year, and all the lettuce got away from me except for a few bunches. I grew some peas this year, mostly because I found some seeds in the garage from about 10 years ago and thought I'd put them in the ground and see what happened. They grew really well.

Also foolproof: herbs and greens for salad. Right now I have burnet, sorrel, thyme, chives, parsley, a basil plant, cilantro, and lots of mint (picture). You have to put basil in every year, but the others are all perennials or self-sowing, so you don't have to do anything with them. I could have made a lot of salads just out of the garden (and have in years past) if the lettuce towers hadn't taken over when I wasn't looking. At various points in my life I've grown lots more herbs (borage, etc.), but that was back when I baked bread every week and kept a sourdough crock going, too, something that's not going to happen with school starting soon.

In short, if you're in the mood to have a garden but think you can't--well, you can't go wrong with these vegetables.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What makes you write?

Over at Edge of the American West, there's a good post and comment thread about the kinds of things people keep on their desks to make them write.

In the comment thread at EAW, people mentioned quotations, figurines, pictures, and, of course, the ever-popular terror inspired by a deadline. If you take as a given that time is part of it is time (see the 43folders post on Neal Stephenson), what makes you actually start writing?

I know I'm about ready to start writing if I get the urge to start rereading things I've recently published and things other people have recently published. At some level this seems reassuring, as though to say "you've done this before and you can do it again. Other people can do this, and you can, too." And despite my best efforts to use all the morning creativity I keep reading about, I am much more apt to start something and to find the real concentration needed if I work on it from late afternoon through the evening.

So is there a talisman, a quotation, a favorite pen, a mood, a piece of music that makes you get started?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Repurposing and creativity

Yesterday morning at about 7 a.m., I was standing in the open garage trying to look helpful as the sprinkler repairman worked his magic on the sprinkler head I had previously duct-taped together. On a previous visit, he'd tried to explain to me the various types of heads and why it was important to get the right kind, but even in dutiful apprentice mode, I had obviously failed to repair the head, so the least I could do was to stand and watch as he worked on it again. To add to the confusion, the neighbor's new kitten, who looks like a mini-me for one of my cats, had gotten into the garage and was tearing around.

As I stood there, I saw the ancient rope hammock that had recently been replaced with a new one, one that wouldn't dump random knees and elbows onto the ground when someone sat in it. It was trash day, so I thought I would put the old one in the trash.

To back up for a minute: I've been trying to be a little more green and careful this summer: growing vegetables, setting up a compost bin, going to the farmers' market, not eating out, putting appliances on power strips and turning them off when they're not used, and, of course, basking in the alien-like green glow of CF bulbs. As a lot of people do, I also save paper and print on the back sides of drafts, although that has come back to haunt me a few times when I've had stuff copied for class and the unwanted text in the drafts, with a big X through it, gets copied by mistake.

As I'm carrying the hammock across the garage and out to the trash barrels, it hits me: this isn't a hammock to discard. It's a whole lot of cotton rope connected to two wooden poles. With a little effort, it can go from useless to useful. I was having a repurposing epiphany.

As the repairman worked on the head, I set to work on the hammock, cutting the knots (Alexander the Great and his sword have nothing on me when it comes to that), untangling the weave, and coiling up the pieces of rope for later use. I'm not going to rely on those ropes if I get the urge to rappel down a cliff, but they're fine for tying up tomato plants.

The thing that struck me about this experience was that the hammock had, in my mind, turned into something else: a worthless thing had become something of worth just by revealing itself as a collection of parts rather than a whole. What would you call this? Reverse synergy?

And what made this idea happen? Trying to focus on something that I'd already failed at (becoming a sprinkler head technician)? Being distracted by the kitten? Having to stand in place while watching someone else work? Being mindful about being more green this summer? The fact that I was holding rope and wood in my hands instead of holding words in my head? A combination?

As you've probably gathered, I've been thinking a lot about creativity lately, especially how to coax it from its elusive lair. Maybe looking at the components, the small parts, rather than the bigger picture is part of that.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Deadlines as pieces of flair

Tenured Radical had a great post the other day called "Senior Scholars, This is Your Conscience Speaking" in which she tells us to get moving on those book manuscripts we're supposed to review. She's absolutely right, but I'd like to add one small demurral.

Deadlines are deadlines for a reason, and we ought to honor them. This goes double for tenure review deadlines, which are usually due late in the summer. I've never been late and am usually early with these, because someone's career is on the line.

The same mostly holds true with reviewing book and article manuscript submissions. But (and you knew there was a "but" coming) deadlines for reviewing manuscripts are not pieces of flair. Remember in Office Space where the manager tells Jennifer Aniston's character that wearing 15 pieces of flair is the minimum, but if she really were serious about her job and not a slacker, she'd want to wear more? If an editor says "We would appreciate receiving your review by August 30," I assume that this is a real deadline and that this isn't a hint that I should want to get it in sooner and will be considered a slacker if I don't. Of course everyone wants to get things done early, but that doesn't always happen. If I only have 15 pieces of flair here and get the thing in by the stated deadline, I'm still doing all right.

To get back to Tenured Radical's example: I think it's up to the editor. If the editor from the press wants it by the middle of the summer so that the author can do corrections in late July and August, he or she will tell me so and set a deadline in June or July--and, in fact, those have been more customary deadlines for book manuscript reviews than late August.

So do what Tenured Radical says and get those manuscripts reviewed and out the door. But just because they're resting on your "to-do" pile doesn't mean that they have to be in your guilt pile, too.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Spelling optional

From the Times Higher Education Supplement:

Teaching a large first-year course at a British university, I am fed up with correcting my students' atrocious spelling. Aren't we all!?

But why must we suffer? Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I've got a better idea. University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell.

The spelling of the word "judgement", for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of "judgment", so why can't "truely" be accepted as a variant spelling of "truly"?

Nope. It's hard enough to read some kinds of writing without trying to decipher the spelling. I'm not just talking about students, either. If you're the kind of person who sometimes reads comment threads at msnbc.com, consumerist, or the New York Times (yes, that would be me), don't you skip over the largely illiterate ones, the ones from people who can't spell, punctuate, or capitalize, let along make a logical point?

Someone should do--and probably has done--a study of this.

1. At what level of bad spelling/incoherent sentence structure/poor logic do readers stop reading, say, a comment thread? An email message? A blog post?
2. Do all readers stop reading these, or is it just that subset of humanity whose titles rhyme with Menglish Meachers?
3. Which of these annoys you most if you're reading online?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Inventions I'd like to see

  • Instead of a wristwatch, why can't someone invent a time-telling tattoo? A temporary one would be better than a permanent one. It would be digital dots on the skin (you know: the 88:88 pattern) and powered either by movement or by solar energy.
  • Big, refillable water bottles are cumbersome to carry, and those who are committed to not using the plastic throwaway ones are kind of stuck when they're at an airport. How about a collapsible water bottle that wouldn't get the TSA in an uproar, especially now that USAirways is charging $2 for water on a flight?
  • The library labels that gradually change color: I still want to see those come to pass.
  • Ditto for digital, easily downloadable versions of books (scholarly books, not Tom Clancy or Candace Bushnell).
I was going to add bottled versions of the smell of morning air to this, but there really isn't any substitute for that, is there? The cool air that smells so good that you can almost taste it at about 6 or 7 in the morning: if they could add that to airplanes, air rage would be a thing of the past.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Autoresponse in email: a rant

This is an entirely irrational prejudice, but I hate autoresponse emails. You know: "I am out of the office until X and will reply to your message when I return."

Now, I know they serve a useful purpose. I know that they're an efficient way of letting someone know that the message was received but that the person can't respond right away.

They irritate me because--irrational, remember?--they remind me that someone else is away from email and I am not. This doesn't even address the royal pain they are if you manage a discussion list and have to delete an "I am out of the office" response for every single message sent to the list.

When a person who's doing the autoresponse thing sends me a message (please do this, meet at this time, look this up--in other words, do a favor) and then I get an autoresponse in return, it's as though the person has sneaked away from the Fortress of Solitude (where I can't be, remember) to shoot an arrow and then has retreated to the fortress. The autoresponse in this case just says "I have important things to do, so would you do this task for me, since you have more time than I have?"

Well, no on both counts. And if I could, I would send you a flaming arrow of autoresponse back to your Fortress of Solitude telling you so.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Green computing: everything old is new again?

From Inside Higher Ed: is Rockhurst College's move to "green computing" the wave of the future?
The new computers, which are about the size of VHS tapes, are literally stripped of their guts. They have no need for hard drives or memory, because the servers will store everything instead. That means less material is needed to produce the units, one of many factors that Rockhurst touts as “earth friendly.”
(I wish they'd show a picture of the monitors, too, since the VHS-size computer by itself doesn't give enough detail.)

Hmm. I think that just maybe we've been down this road before (can you say VAX, boys and girls?), and yet I really like the philosophy behind this. A loose and very impressionistic history of computing on campus would go something like this:
  • 1970s: Big mainframes and scheduled times to use them. Computer users easily identifiable by the rubber-banded stacks of punchcards and green-and-white printout pages they carry.
  • 1980s: Computer classrooms that non-CS people get to use. Big mainframe systems and "dumb terminals" with monochrome monitors that glow amber or green. Rudimentary e-mail clients. Later in the decade, rooms of stand-alone computers. Wastebaskets are overflowing with long, ticker-tape-like ribbons of paper torn from the sides of printer paper. Students must save their files to a central server.
  • 1990s: Networked computer classrooms. Students could talk to each other and, after 1995 or so, could connect to this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. Monitors sometimes hidden below the desk with a glass screen inset into the desk to view them. Later in the decade, classrooms with laptops or laptops wheeled in on a cart, thus making the fixed desk-monitor-chair positioning of the traditional computer classroom optional.
  • 2000s: Laptops everywhere, the better to check Facebook and Wikipedia in class. More multimedia authoring and technology, which still makes the computer classroom viable for a lot of places. Individuals can carry their files with them. Later in the decade: students must save their files to a central server?
Here are some questions/observations:
  • Back in the 1980s, students had to print things in a computer lab because printers were too large and expensive. As printers got cheaper, they'd hook up their computer to a printer in their dorm room. Now, however, since computers have become so mobile (very small laptops, using iPhones, etc.), are students going back to printing to central locations because it's easier than messing with an individual printer? I know there are still some of the latter, because at the end of the semester I get handed blue/pink/washed-out black papers as the student sheepishly explains "My printer is just about out of ink." But is the individual printer becoming a thing of the past?
  • For that matter, is the computer classroom/lab getting phased out in favor of something else? Is this happening on your campus?
  • The photo accompanying the article shows a flash drive attached to the thin client. I'm assuming that this means they can access their files on the server from their laptops, if they have them, as well as saving them to the flash drive, but are we going toward saving it all to a central server or online? Are flash drives (in student perceptions, anyway), the 5.25" floppy disk of the future?
  • And a philosophical question: does saving one's classwork to the central server while maintaining other devices (iPod, etc.) for things that are important to one's life serve to create a distinction between work that somehow belongs to "them" (the university), since it's kept in "their" space, and work that belongs to "me," since it's kept in "my" space?