Sunday, May 31, 2009

Deny, deny, deny

Over at the Blog of Henry David Thoreau is posted one of my favorite passages from his journals. You see, HDT had been out fishing with a friend and had set fire to some woods--yes, those woods. What he concludes is sort of tragic and comic at the same time:
I said to myself, "Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them ? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food." It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it. . . . I at once ceased to regard the owners and my own fault, — if fault there was any in the matter, — and attended to the phenomenon before me, determined to make the most of it.
What's funny about this, besides the obvious irony of his burning up those woods, is that he never even gets around to saying "Whoops! My bad" or its nineteenth-century equivalent. "If fault there was any in the matter"--none at all if you say so, Henry. Break out the marshmallows and make the most of it, by all means.

What's sad about it is the self-righteous denial of responsibility, the one that nowadays manifests itself with phrases like "It's obvious that X happened, but there is nothing to be gained by rehashing the past, so let's move on."

Let's move on.
Let's put this behind us and look to the future.
There's nothing to be gained from second-guessing this decision.
There's no reason for a post-mortem about this issue.

It is what it is.

Every time I hear one of these coming from the government ("Markopolos knew about Madoff's Ponzi scheme and tried to warn the government? That's not relevant right now"), or from large corporations ("You've wanted us to make small cars for the last thirty years? Why didn't you say so?"), or from university administration, or from an individual who has colossally screwed something up in ways that it will take someone days to untangle, it makes me crazy.

But what this passage says is that this kind of rationalization didn't spring up overnight; it has its roots in human nature and, yes, American individualism.

(Next time: happy thoughts, I promise.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Limitless paper in a paperless world

Or "Dunder Mifflin, I love you."

I keep reading about people scanning all their paper to .pdf files, and I think it's a great idea, in theory. I have a naming system for files now that I like a lot, and I almost always read articles in .pdf format now. I scan my conference notes to .pdf so that I'll actually use them (although I still look wistfully at the Pulse pen site.) When I print, I print duplex.

But (and you knew this was coming).

Every time I've changed from one computer to another, I have managed to lose some files. Every time, despite backups and my new best friend, Dropbox.

Today, I've been working on something that I had given a conference paper on about five years ago. Easy, right? Since I hadn't published that paper, I went to look for it in the computer folder where it should be, and it wasn't there, nor was it on the old computer, the backup drive, or anyplace else.

So I went searching down in the file cabinets in the basement. I keep a folder for each conference with conference notes, a program, and a copy of the paper I gave in chronologically-arranged file drawers. Sure enough, it was there under "2004 Conference Name." I brought it back upstairs, scanned it to a .pdf, and converted it to a text file, so I'd have it the next time I went looking on the computer.

The point is, though, that if I hadn't had the paper copy, I wouldn't have had any copy at all. This is at least the fourth time that I've had this experience. Maybe I'm unusually careless with saving work, or maybe these had gone up in smoke with some of the hard drive crashes I've had over the years, but whatever the cause, the paper copy has saved me every time.

I'm writing this down so the next time I get the urge to toss out all the folders and put everything on a jump drive, I'll think twice.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Writing Practices and Diet Books

I was at a conference recently, and since it was a conference where I know people and go out to dinner (not always the case at conferences), some of us got to talking over dinner about our writing practices.

This topic fascinates me, and apparently it fascinates a lot of us, since it comes up as a blog topic from time to time. I think that writing practices and the books that describe them, like Professors as Writers or How to Write a Lot, are really diet books in disguise. You know how the bottom-line message for diet books is really "eat in moderation + exercise + inspiration + maybe one catchy magic ingredient (like grapefruit) = weight loss"? The bottom-line message for writing books and programs is "write every day + keep writing every day + keep writing every day = productivity."

Yet we're all still looking for the "one catchy magic ingredient" that the weight loss books have trained us to look for, the one that will ensure that we can actually get the writing done. That's the magic ingredient that Boice and company are determined to deprive us of, because it doesn't exist, but that doesn't stop us from seeking it. It's our little talisman, the grapefruit that we think keeps us writing, when actually it's the practice of writing (the "exercise" part) that is responsible for the good result we're seeking.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the writing practices and talismans:
  • The lucky chair. This one speaks for itself, I think: if the beginning of your project goes well when you sit in a particular chair, that's the chair you want for the whole project.
  • Handwritten first drafts. These are very important for some people--and they have to be written with particular tools.
  • The lucky pen or pencil. For the handwritten drafts people, this can be a particular kind of pencil or, if it's a pen, a specific pen.
  • The right kind of paper. "A legal pad." "No, a yellow pad that isn't legal length." "No, a lined pad, but the paper has to be white, not yellow." "A ruled notebook." "A Moleskine--everything goes in here, thoughts and initial drafts included."
  • Atmosphere. "I have to have music on when I write." "I write with the tv on low in the background, or else other thoughts crowd out the thoughts about the project." "No music. No sound at all."
  • Time of day. "I get up and start writing." "I can write during the morning if I've already started a project, but I usually start a new project by writing in the evening." "I can only put in about 4 good hours a day." "I can write all day if I'm really working."
  • Space. "I write in the dining room." "I can't write in my campus office--too many distractions." "I have a room in the library." "I have an office in the research center." "I go to my family's cabin in the woods." [Note: I actually met someone once (not in an MLA field) who wrote all his books on cruise ships. He would gather all the material and go on a longish cruise, and he would have a book when he stepped back on dry land.]
One person at dinner, a highly respected senior scholar, seemed a little bemused by this conversation, as though writing was just something you did, not something that you obsessed about the minutiae of, and we did eventually turn to another topic. But as long as we're all still searching for that magic grapefruit, I think it'll continue to be a fascinating topic.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

New MLA Handbook: Print. Print. Print. Print.

Ink asked an excellent question in the comments, so rather than hijack my own comments section, I'll write about it here:
I just heard about that yesterday and I don't really understand what is wrong with print being viewed as it not PC, somehow? I don't have the new version yet, so maybe it's explained in great detail.

Frankly, I just don't want to type "Print" a billion times on my Works Cited. Especially since we're all trying to go green and that just makes the bibliographies longer...sigh.
I hadn't thought about the longer bibliographies issue, but Ink is absolutely right. Maybe the MLA thinks that taking away its requirement for long URL citations will balance that out. The MLA giveth, and the MLA taketh away. And once the varieties of e-readers (Sony, Kindle, Kindle reader for iPhone, and the various tablet readers that are on the way) get involved, I suspect that the MLA Handbook, and our bibliographies, are about to get a whole lot longer.

The MLA thought (and still thinks) it was important to specify the database, so we all do that, even though it seems unnecessary if you're citing a .pdf version of a print journal. Aren't they photographically identical? At least in the new version, you don't have to specify which library site you were in when you accessed JSTOR or EBSCO, which is an improvement (See 5.6.4). I can also see the necessity of specifying "Print" for the sciences, since so much of what they do is online, or for specialists in digital media areas within the humanities.

But for plain vanilla literature and literary history people? How many of the books you actually use, including new books, are available in any complete form online? (I don't mean Google's book snippets; they don't count.) In my field, that figure is about 3 out of 100, and I've looked assiduously (,, books for the Kindle, etc.) to find books available in this form. Believe me, if they were available online, I'd be throwing money at them, since it would be so convenient to have them online.

Are there enough books online to justify this new MLA requirement of "Print" after what may turn out to be 97% of the books in a bibliography? What about the books you use; are they online enough to make this necessary?

[Updated to add: check out Ink's satiric post on this issue (link is above).]

Friday, May 15, 2009

You know you're procrastinating when . . .

. . . after removing all other possible distractions, you reach for the new MLA Handbook, look at the citation formats, and say to yourself, "This is fascinating. Fascinating!"

Oh, and while I like the "all media are equal" idea in that it doesn't assume that print is the default medium, I'm kind of curious to see the first books coming out that will have bibliographies looking like this (from 5.5.2):

Kirby, David. What is a Book?. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002. Print.

Tatar, Maria. Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A shout out to editors

Because I've been doing minor revisions on a piece for a collection that's in its final stages before production, I've been thinking a lot about the process of editing. My conclusion is that (drum roll) it makes writing better.

Now I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes I've heard people complain about the editorial process as one in which their deathless prose was mangled. I'm not sure if anyone writes deathless prose any more, now that Henry James is dead, but my guess is that everyone can use a little help, even if you're enraptured with your own prose right after you've finished writing it. Most of us do a lot of self-editing before we send something out (although I've reviewed manuscripts where someone apparently thought, "Commas? I don't need no stinkin' commas!" and sent it), so it ought to be in good shape.

But here's what editors can do, if they're good, when they're responding to a manuscript*:
  • They can praise the right things, and praise them in the right proportions. I know that this is the "carrot before stick" approach that we use in student papers, but we use it there because it works, so why shouldn't it work on us as well as for us? This is the sugar high that gives you the energy to tackle all the work that you know you're going to have to do when you revise.
  • They can point out, tactfully, when your wilder flights of fancy have left the building, so to speak, and can ask questions that can bring you back down to earth.
  • They can suggest phrases to cut while still retaining the sense of the piece, phrases that you'd labored over for so long that you can't really see for yourself that they aren't needed.
  • They can question you on matters of fact and on items that you'd thought were obvious (but weren't).
  • They can also, through their questions, make you think about the issues in new ways.
  • Although you have to try to conform to the citation style, it's their job to make sense of the style, which sometimes is MLA, sometimes Chicago A or B, and sometimes a little number that the publishing house has whipped up all on its own, like Chicago with a soupçon of MLA and a dash of CBE.
Of course it's initially frustrating to receive a request to cut 1000 words and add another line of argument to what you'd already considered done. Also, occasionally there are problems: in a recent piece, the editor had changed a sentence so that it was a grammatical error, and I appended an explanation of why I'd changed it back in the proofs.

But by giving this kind of careful reading to your work, they can do something that you can't entirely do for yourself. It's sort of like carrying a suitcase: you get to a point where you can't carry it any more, and they pick it up and carry it for you. When they hand it back to you, you have a new energy and can take it further than you ever could have on your own.

*(and this is where I knock wood so that some kind of editorial nightmare doesn't befall me after I've written this.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lessons for girls: trust your instincts

Historiann, Dr. Crazy, and Profacero have a series of excellent posts that Historiann has grouped under the title "Lessons for Girls."

I have one more: trust your instincts. By that, I mean judge people based on how they treat you, not based on hypothetical models of how people behave.

For example, as a feminist, I believe that women can and do help each other, can fight against injustices, can support each other against exploitation and harassment, and so on. But people are individuals, and individuals have their own flaws and their own agendas.

[I redacted the rest of this post because, upon reflection, it didn't fairly reflect the person I wrote about--sorry.]

Productivity: more good advice to ignore

This is really a placeholder post, put here as a reminder and a reproach to myself, from John Tierney's article in the New York Times:

She [Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life] recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption. (For more advice, go to

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

Gallagher says in a follow-up answer (to "Sarah") that "Like dieting, getting control of your craving for novel information requires rationing and self-control."

Now, I know this. You know this. So does Paul Silvia, the author of How to Write a Lot, who recommends the same method.

So why is it so hard to follow through, except by actually turning off the internet connection? But Gallagher has inspired me. I'm going to pull my funds from the investment bank of Facebook and put it under the mattress known as Word.

Monday, May 04, 2009

On writing: morning five and evening five

I've been working on a piece of writing and have noticed a certain, shall we say, refrain at the beginning and end of days.

1. How could it suck so badly when I worked so hard yesterday?
2. How did that sentence get in there?
3. What delusional state was I in to think that there was an organizational plan here?
4. I still have how much to go?
5. Well, that part isn't too bad.

1. At least I have more words than when I started.
2. All right, the bad parts are better now.
3. I think I know where I want it to go tomorrow.
4. I still have how much to go?
5. I can do this. It's getting there.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Fine lines in the road to promotion

Recent articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed discuss the MLA's report on slower promotion rates to full professor for women. (The Chronicle's is behind the subscription wall, but you can get all the information at IHE.) Here's an excerpt from IHE:
Many women report being punished for performing the parts of their job in which they may take the most pride. One woman is quoted saying that her career had been “helped and hindered by my own propensity continually to propose new courses or substantially revise existing ones" and by "the unusual time/effort I put into grading written work by both undergraduate and graduate students.” Another woman surveyed said she hurt her career because of a "difficulty saying no."
  • The issue about saying no is really partly an issue of energy. In the case of BSS (whose most recent bullet I dodged, by the way) saying no, and knowing that you'll say no, still eats up time and emotional energy. I think part of the issue for female faculty is calibrating the kind of response to give. If you're too pleasant and accommodating, well, there are always other faculty out there looking for an Academic Handmaiden who'll take your pleasantness for a strong wish to be one. If you muster the energy to say no--and it does take more energy to say "no" than "yes"--sometimes it may come out in a more strident way than you intended, just because of the unintended vehemence of your answer. Then you look like someone who's "not a team player"--or worse.
  • Time spent in the office. My theory is that although admin would like people to be in the office a lot and students would like us to be there 24/7 in case they get a random impulse to drop by, women faculty who make it to full professor are in their offices less than those who seem to be stuck at associate. In short, the culture of a place may encourage being available (and police it through pointed remarks like "oh, are you on campus today?") but it rewards staying away and getting research done. Could mentoring help this paradoxical situation? I'm not sure how, since there's a double message here: "Be on campus and available" and "Stay away and write if you want to get promoted." Balancing the two is another of those fine lines.
  • In the comments section at IHE, one commenter ("Jen") mentions that she's on sabbatical but is going to go in for a meeting since there otherwise won't be a woman on the committee. Would I do this? Not on your life; if you're on sabbatical, you're gone. Committees are eternal, and the mills of academe grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small, so there's little chance that something major would transpire while you're away. Yet I wonder if women aren't more prone to the "my department can't get along without me, for who else would do X?" syndrome than men are.