Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The art of the job letter redux, part 2

Even though we're all saying similar things, some information about job letters may bear repeating:
  • When you write the letter, think about your audience. I know, this goes without saying, but you'd be surprised at how many writers do not address the criteria for the job they're applying for. If a committee at Small Directional State U gets an application from Fancy U many thousands of miles away, one natural question is this: why is Fancy U Ph.D. applying here? If the letter is the standard research/teaching boilerplate, without any mention of the job except for the INSERT JOB TITLE HERE slot in the first paragraph, the search committee may deduce, probably correctly, that the applicant is papering the known world with applications and decide that the writer isn't serious.
  • And then think about your audience again. If you're applying for a job at a teaching-oriented school, it's not just a matter of switching the paragraphs around and putting your teaching paragraph first instead of your research paragraph. The search committee will want to know how all those grandiose statements about teaching will translate into the courses you can teach for them. The job ad should give you some clues, even if it seems schizophrenic (eighteenth-century literature and modern poetry, for example). Use those clues, and talk about your teaching in specific ways.
  • And again. This usually comes out only in the interview, if you get that far, but if there's any hint of condescension, of how grateful the school should be to get your expertise, coming as you do from Big R1, know this: such an attitude is not received well. At all.
  • But in a lot of ways, the choice isn't about you. For example, if you're applying to Small School near Big R1, you may assume that Small School is lucky to have you, and indeed, Small School might feel this way in other circumstances. But if Small School already has three or four graduates of Big R1 in its department, the committee may not think it wise to hire another, just because they want a faculty with diverse educational experiences.
  • It really isn't. As a lot of other people writing about this have mentioned, committees and departments don't always know exactly what they want, although they've written a job ad that presumably addresses everything. But maybe when the applications pour in, they discover that people with expertise in X and Y also tend to have a background in Z. They realize that Z would be a "special added attraction" to the department, so to speak. Although it might be nice to cancel the search and cajole the powers-that-be for a new search next year that includes Z (as if that would be approved!), that's not how the world works.
  • There may be reasons why an ad specifies a full dossier. It may seem, and even be, more rational to ask for a cv and letter in the initial job ad, especially because sending all that information is expensive. But the committee may in fact be using letters from references or writing samples to get from the list of total applicants to the list of those who may be good matches for the job. Also, an institution may have layers upon layers of bureaucracy that have to be negotiated at every step, and adding the challenge of sending for more information, having it arrive and be processed, and then sending all the necessary paperwork through the system to the next step (more paperwork, more processing) might slow up the selection process intolerably. You can't predict this, of course.
[More posts and more links here.]

Monday, September 29, 2008

Inventions I'd like to see

In the spirit of offering a news-free zone, given all the gloom on the NYTimes and elsewhere, I offer an invention.

When you buy vitamins, you can read what you're getting in terms of % of daily requirements and all that. What you can't see is how big the vitamins are, because they're always encased either in opaque plastic or dark brown glass.

This isn't a problem for me. My preferred vitamins are referred to in the family as "horse pills" because of their size, and I don't have a problem swallowing them.

But others in my family have barely graduated from chewable vitamins (or the purple Tylenol, for that matter) and have a real problem with swallowing pills. Some never got the hang of swallowing them, and others are daunted by the idea of trying to swallow a pill that appears to be the size of a silk cocoon--the infamous horse pills.

So here's an invention I'd like to see: all vitamin makers, supplement makers, or whatever need to put a picture of the vitamin--actual size--on the side of the label. No one would then need to peer through the brown glass to try to figure out the size or shake the bottle to figure out from the thunk--or rattle--within how big the vitamins are.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I'm not ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille

I am still thinking about the second job letter post, but until then:

From Inside Higher Ed: I’ll Take My Lecture to Go, Please

It looks like students can be open-minded after all: When provided with the option to view lectures online, rather than just in person, a full 82 percent of undergraduates kindly offered that they’d be willing to entertain an alternative to showing up to class and paying attention in real time.

A new study released today suggests not only a willingness but a “clear preference” among undergraduates for “lecture capture,” the technology that records, streams and stores what happens in the classroom for concurrent or later viewing.
It doesn't surprise me that some students would have a "clear preference" for downloadable lectures, but 82%?

In a way, this is a logical step. Distance education programs since the 1960s have had a television component and many still do, although many are still talking heads with PowerPoint instead of talking heads with whiteboards and charts. There are also the university lecturers on YouTube, which Virginia Heffernan ranks in the New York Times Sunday Magazine ("I'd give it an 85: the beat is good, and you can dance to it.")

But--and this is not news--unless you're delivering a rigorously ordered lecture and allow no questions, a classroom session can't be captured as a static performance. It's not a Puritan sermon; it's more a call-and-response, with reactions from students helping to shape and guide what gets said. If students don't come to class, what will happen?

Even if the classroom experience can be recorded and put into iPod video form, if no one shows up in the classroom, preferring to listen to the class later, we won't have any student responses and nonverbal reactions to help make the class a really good one.

Teachers aren't exactly performers, but we are closer to that model--the comedian or actor or singer--than to the model of the, ahem, politician who reels off what's on the teleprompter and refuses to take questions. We need that energy. Some days we give more of it than we take, and some days we get energy from the students. It's an ecological system, and I worry that the studentless classroom translated to video form will mess up that ecology.

Having said that, I've recorded (or have had recorded) video lectures and indeed whole classes for distance learning on occasion. For one class, my predecessor told me how the classes would be used, for he'd heard from the students about this. "They like the videos," he said. "They write to tell me that they watch them when they're ironing, and they fast-forward whenever the students talk or things get dull."

I guess our lectures deserve to be fast-forwarded or skipped through if they don't hold the interest of students, but maybe, just maybe, the students in the classroom had something useful to say that some--not all--of the distance students were too busy ironing to hear. (And did they take notes? I didn't ask.) Somehow, though, it's disturbing to think that a class could become like a TiVo version of Days of Our Lives or Family Guy.

Monday, September 22, 2008

OT: Financial news roundup

A few years back, a commenter making nominations for the Cobb Awards called Daily Kos "a big bowl of Angry Flakes that never runs out." Reading the news about the financial crisis in the New York Times is like eating those Angry Flakes every morning with curdled milk and no sugar on top.

I promise I won't keep posting about this, but here's your daily heapin' helpin' of Angry Flakes:
  • Your Money at Work, Fixing Others' Mistakes: So what’s a fair price that we TARPistas should pay for the assets? If we bought at 60 cents, a price that the bank would argue is appropriate, we would most likely face a loss. The bank, however, would be much better off than if it had to dump at 30 cents. . . . Do you think, perchance, that financial services lobbyists might be working their Hill contacts right this very minute to ensure that the TARP valuations are rigged in their favor? . . . Such is our lot today: They break it. We own it.
  • from the Washington Post: Socialism, you say? We're already into that. The administration's plan amounts to socialism for the rich only. And as Reed explained in an interview, his proposal is actually more in keeping with capitalism than a pure bailout. "If taxpayers take risks, they should be able to reap some of the rewards," he said. Frank is trying to get this provision into the final bill.
  • More Washington Post: Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson made the rounds of the talk shows on Sunday, pleading for financial executives to be allowed to keep their multimillion-dollar compensation packages even if their companies need to be rescued by the $700 billion federal bailout.

    "If we design it so it's punitive and so institutions aren't going to participate, this won't work the way we need it to work," Paulson, whose net worth is said to be north of $600 million, told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday."

Okay, I feel better. I'm done now.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Web reading: short takes from the Chronicle

News flash from The Chronicle: "Not all young people are tech-savvy" by Siva Vaidhyanathan.

They aren't? You mean five years' worth of bloggers' comments to this effect are correct? You mean that "digital natives" are a myth? Oh, the humanity!

In other news, Mark Bauerlein channels Nicholas Carr, but he also cites an interesting study from Jakob Nielsen:

Nielsen has gauged user habits and screen experiences for years, charting people's online navigations and aims, using eye-tracking tools to map how vision moves and rests. In this study, he found that people took in hundreds of pages "in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school." It looks like a capital letter F. At the top, users read all the way across, but as they proceed their descent quickens and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown around the middle of the page. Near the bottom, eyes move almost vertically, the lower-right corner of the page largely ignored. It happens quickly, too. "F for fast," Nielsen wrote in a column. "That's how users read your precious content." . . .

In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational e-mail messages, and news feeds, Nielsen exclaimed, "'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else.
Bauerlein, like Carr, concludes that "reading" web texts, Twitter, etc. is not "reading" as in reading Kafka or Tolstoy. Bauerlein's solution is a little more drastic, however: "
Digital technology has become an imperial force, and it should meet more antagonists. Educators must keep a portion of the undergraduate experience disconnected, unplugged, and logged off."

I am not sure that digital technology is an imperial force. I mean, does it have a flag? Bauerlein has a point, though, about the rush to digitization. Can't we have both kinds of reading? Maybe the paper kind of reading needs a new motto.

"Read different."

Yeah, that's the ticket.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

OT: Food for thought

I try not to comment on politics here because those people on the sidebar, not to mention thousands of other blogs, say everything better, with more facts and more eloquence, while I just get all red in the face and start to splutter.

But I was struck by this sentence from Paul Campos's post at Lawyers, Guns, and Money in response to the tab for all the companies that are getting put on the American taxpayer's Visa card, so to speak: "[T]o put it another way, in America today profit is privatized but risk is increasingly socialized."

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

E-books again, with a British flavour

I'm still thinking about the "art of the job letter" post I want to write, but in the "the medium is the message" category, this item in The Independent caught my attention this morning. The writer, John Walsh, mentions Nicholas Carr's essay in The Atlantic earlier this year and then moves on to practical matters:
The instructions tell you, "One battery charge is equal to 6,800 page turns (that's enough to read War and Peace five times over on a single charge!)" Yeah, right. But it's not going to happen on the Sony Reader. Nobody is ever going to read Tolstoy on this fatuous device. It's an electronic simulation of a page, but it'll never convince you it's a book, to be read by your sentient eyes and brain. It doesn't have the solidity, the pages, the tactile companionship of a book. You'll never know where you are in the story, or how much of it is left. You won't have the cover artwork, to steal inside your head and become a lifelong reminder of the book it encased.

And you can't turn the pages. I spent half an hour reading Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the first book to be installed) with my fingers itching to turn a page; "turn" one electronically, and the screen goes blank before the next page is displayed. It's a nasty moment, the screen going blank and interrupting your train of thought; but it's a good metaphor for the blankness to which our minds are tending, as we gradually lose the ability to interpret the old world of sequential thoughts in the new blizzard of information retrieval.

I hadn't thought about the "you don't know where you are" issue before in quite this way, though I've been interested in the Kindle for a while.

Everyone I've talked to or have read about who has a Kindle or Sony Reader loves it. Loves it. Wouldn't be without it. It's light, it's handy, and it isn't a burden to carry. Professor Z also had a good point about the backlight feature of the Kindle being handy if you're in a place with sporadic electricity. If you have a Kindle, you can get the books instantly. When you talk to people about what they like, however, it's almost always the ability to carry around popular or contemporary literary fiction for dull moments: airplane rides, train rides, waiting for the bus.

Walsh notes that while Booker Prize-winning books used to fly off the shelves, now difficult fiction by authors like Adam Mars-Jones or Anne Enright doesn't sell as much as he thinks it should or as much as he thinks it used to. He finds it hard to imagine that anyone would read War and Peace or difficult literary fiction on this device. But is this the fault of the device, the fault of the culture, or both?

And is "fault" too strong a word to use for this idea? At the end of a long day, even academics don't always say, "Okay, I'm finished with grading, committee meetings, reading a lot of academic prose, writing, and whatever else goes into a long day. Since this is the one night out of the week I don't have more work to do after dinner, I can't wait to dive into a 1,050-page novel with lots of convoluted syntax and highly symbolic imagery, one that comments on and interrupts itself incessantly." Do we say this? What we're likely to dive into is (in descending order) (1) a book related to research, but not necessarily criticism; (2) a classic novel we've always meant to read; (3) books we've read before, soothing books that can drown out the din of "you still haven't done this!" lists in our heads; and (4) magazines, light books, web pages, and blogs. Insofar as the e-book devices foster this kind of reading, maybe Walsh has a point. Or maybe we would be doing this kind of reading with or without the e-book device.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Observation while driving

If your message is "We buy houses for CASH $$$$ - Call 555-555-5555"

and you post this message on a telephone pole

on a torn scrap of cardboard

written in Sharpie marker

the medium trumps the message.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The art of the job letter redux , part 1

The MLA Job Information List goes live in about a week, and ABDs, new Ph.D.s, adjuncts, instructors, and tenure-track people looking to "trade up" will all take a look. (So will those of us on search committees, since we'll hope that our carefully crafted, word-by-argued-about-word ad will bring in good applicants.)

Some other things will happen, too. The forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education will overflow with questions ("What does this school REALLY mean if it asks for underwater saltwater basketweaving instead of just underwater basketweaving?") and furious screeds about slights in the hiring process, some of which verge from rude to heinous and others of which can't be helped ("It's been two weeks and I haven't heard yet. What is WRONG with these people?").

One of the good things that will happen is that the Chronicle, and Inside Higher Ed, and the forums will all offer some good advice. Mentors will offer good advice. Departments will offer good advice.

Bloggers will offer good advice, too: Tenured Radical, for example, has promised a series on the search process. If you've read all these job-related blog posts for the past several years, the ones posted by Bardiac, Tenured Radical, Dr. Crazy, Sisyphus, Dean Dad, Narratives, and CitizenSE, among others (you can see a list here, in a post I wrote last year about the job search), you'll see that we're all saying variations on the same things. Every year we're all saying variations on the same things.

And that's a good thing. What this consistency says is that there are conventions, but there is no magic bullet, no secret formula that will guarantee a job. It's not news that there are a lot more people looking for jobs in MLA fields than there are jobs. Ultimately, and I know everyone has heard this before, it's not about the job seeker; it's about what the department needs, or thinks it needs. The only thing you can really do is to present yourself in a way that makes the department believe that you can answer those needs, and this is the art of the job letter.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Writing thought for the day

Stolen shamelessly from The Blog of Henry David Thoreau:
Saturday, September 06, 2008

Thoreau's Journal: 06-Sep-1841 Some hours seem not to be occasion for anything, unless for great resolves to draw breath and repose in, so religiously do we postpone all action therein. We do not straight go about to execute our thrilling purpose, but shut our doors behind us, and saunter with prepared mind, as if the half were already done.


Sometimes, in a writing project, you realize that you're not so much procrastinating (although there's always lots of that) as gestating. There's an idea there. You can feel it, even though it isn't formed enough to come out on the page in any sensible way.

If you start by freewriting about it (pace the freewriting advocates), you can send yourself in a direction where your original idea disappears and you can't get it back. It's wrong, I think, to consider freewriting something harmless you can throw away if it doesn't work. Although this may be true for some, for others of us, freewriting etches a path that leaves a trace in the brain even if you throw away the words. You're left knowing that you had a better idea but not knowing what it is. Some would say that the idea on paper, completed, is better than the idea in the brain: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But wouldn't you rather give that other idea a chance, if you can?

So sometimes, especially when the weather is so perfect that staying inside takes a physical act of will, you'll find yourself refusing to execute your thrilling purpose and sauntering about with a prepared mind. And, despite advice from all the writing gurus (I'm looking at you, Germano), that's all right, too. Thanks, Henry David.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

You know it's the beginning of the semester when . . .

  • . . . you are answering and sending emails at a rate that resembles those scenes in old movie Westerns, when the bad guys shoot at the feet of the cowboy to make him dance.
  • . . . the emails from your least-read discussion lists, which you used to linger over lovingly as a distraction from work, now get deleted without a glance.
  • . . . you are completely floored by a question that someone asks you about a task that apparently you were supposed to do. You not only didn't know you were supposed to do it; you didn't even know there was such a task.
  • . . . you realize the text you thought you would teach in an entirely new, provocative, interesting, and thoroughly prepared way is actually going to get taught in the same tried-and-true fashion this semester.
  • . . . you spend time creating and writing up what you think is a new, provocative, and altogether exciting way to introduce a text and save it in a file. When you look at your class notes from the last time you taught the course, you see that you have saved an introduction to that text with exactly the same filename and some of the same material, and you have no recollection of doing so.
  • . . . you start jotting things down in the calendar of the next four months and realize that it is entirely too short a time to do what you wanted to do.
  • . . . you have no time to get groceries and couldn't get to the farmers' market last weekend, with the result that your meals look like the Monty Python spam skit: pasta, pasta, and more pasta, with maybe some potatoes and cabbage to break things up. Still, this is sort of thrilling, like coasting on empty when you're driving a car: you hate to give in until you're down to Tang (for cleaning the dishwasher), Panko bread crumbs, and the six bottles of ketchup that you bought on successive runs to the store, thinking you were out of them.