Friday, October 30, 2009

Job market signals from another planet

Dr. Crazy has a good post on the job market, with lots of great advice. I haven't written a post on the job market this year for fear of repeating myself (here and here and here), but there are a couple of things I've heard recently which have made me wonder if those of us giving the advice are operating on another planet from some other people.

1. Tailor the letter or not? I heard recently that some job candidates on the market had been given the advice "Don't bother to tailor your letter to the institution. It's a waste of time. Just give them the boilerplate and move on." My reaction wasn't very moderate; it was somewhere between "no" and "hell, no!" I've been on search committees and have chaired a few, and, like Dr. Crazy, I believe that tailoring the letter to the institution makes a difference. Part of the advice I gave in one of those earlier posts is "Don't make us guess. Connect the dots for us by showing why you fit our qualifications so well." I think that still holds true.

Let me put it this way: If you don't seem interested in the position--or interested enough to show some faint glimmering in your letter of who we are or what we're about, or even what the position is about, why should we think you'd be interested in coming to work for us? Let me be even more blunt: unless you are really, really exceptional, if you don't have time to show an interest in the institution, we don't have time to show an interest in you. Frankly, we receive too many applications to pay attention to those that are obviously sent as a pro forma exercise.

2. Lead with teaching or research? It depends on the institution, but for heaven's sake don't leave out the research entirely, even if it's a teaching institution (another piece of dubious advice apparently handed out by someone not trained on my planet). You need to have both. Oh, and please be specific about what you're doing in terms of research and teaching. "Student-centered learning," etc., is all well and good, but we get that in every letter. What do you do in class? Do you have an innovative exercise that makes the students respond really well to George Eliot? Tell us!

What I said a couple of years ago still holds true: Make your research sound exciting. When I think back to the search committees I've served on, after questions of fit and suitability for the position, the excitement generated by the possibilities of the candidate's research program is really what sticks in the mind and makes the candidate stand out. Also, don't make us do the math: if it's exciting and has great potential for changing a field, explain how that's the case. If you are the first person to study the social significance of lawn mower blades in consumer culture, you need to tell us why that is important. You recommenders will do this, too, but it's your letter that we read first.
3. Thank you/no thanks? "If you get a campus interview, don't send a thank-you note; it makes you look desperate." "Always send a thank-you note, even after the MLA or phone interview." What do you say, search committees? My take on this: I don't think it makes a huge difference, but since when is being polite considered "desperate"?

4. Have your dissertation chair give personal contacts in the department a call? What do you say, internets? On the one hand, it's nice to have a personal recommendation. On the other hand, as a search chair this always made me uneasy, since we just had to put that information in the folder for HR anyway, and we could never be sure how much weight to give this kind of informal recommendation.

I'd love to hear from those of you who are hiring this season so I know whether we're on the right track or whether it's time to get the old Interplanetary Passport renewed so I can go back to my own planet.

Update 11/16/09: Profgrrrrl has a good list of tips.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gender Bias Bingo

Want to play? You have to submit your own story, though, to get the t-shirt, and it's not clear what kinds of privacy safeguards are in place.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blogging the scholarly writing process at Georgetown

Carol Fungaroli Sargent at Georgetown's Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications is blogging her writing process as she works through Wendy Laura Belcher's book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. It's good stuff. Here are some samples:
  • "Writing doesn't have to take long. We only ask for an hour a day, although you can give it more if you're so inclined (a typical Booklab faculty member with a family does between 1.5 and 2 five days a week if a project is underway, and adds weekends only if it is due). Just that small commitment can yield more than most professors ever produce, and it can easily result in two articles per year and a book every two-three years."

  • "One of our authors read in a book that you should 'touch your work every day,' meaning that you should keep the project you're writing in a place where you can find it, and you should sit down to visit the work each day even if only briefly, in order to move things along. I completely agree with this. Some days it feels as though all I can commit to is opening the computer file, but once I begin then the body in motion does truly tend to stay in motion, and often I keep writing. Science is cool that way."
  • "3. No matter what happens, I will keep this commitment every day, and I will submit something, however poor and miserable, on the 23rd. This is writing as bricklaying, writing as plumbing, writing as a regular-person job. Artists take commissions all the time, and this is my commission."
  • Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Random and highly inconsequential bullets of this week

  • It's true that some people can read conference papers at close to the speed of sound--good papers, too, though if you're taking notes, you'd better give up before you start.
  • Speaking of taking notes, why is using laptops to take notes still tacitly verboten in conference sessions in the humanities? I first tried it 10 years ago and was too cowed to try it again until now, when I sat at the very back of a large session and typed my notes instead of writing them down. Since typing is my natural medium, as I suspect it is for most academics, and the notes are clearer and more organized, why don't more people type them? Or would you be suspected of doing what a person a few rows in front of me did--pulling out a laptop to check email and look up the subject of the presentation on Wikipedia?
  • What stopped me from typing notes in any other session was that ridiculous Windows music that plays when you start up--Bill Gates, are you listening? How about letting us turn that off? We know we're in Windows; we're not so self-esteem-impaired that we need a "Ta-da!" to celebrate turning on the computer.
  • When I went to check in on the return flight, the person behind the check-in desk asked if I would be checking any luggage. "No." "How would you like to check that bag if I don't charge you for it?" "Sure!" He put the tags on it, saying something about "faster to get everyone on board" if people checked luggage.

    No duh. Did the airlines just figure out that we're all carrying suitcases to put overhead instead of checking them? Or that with trying to find overhead space, gate-checking bags, helping the elderly folks to put their bags overhead, and the rest it takes twice as long to load a planeful of people as it used to, even with the flight attendants haranguing you to get out of the aisle? I'm grateful to the renegade check-in desk person for his action and hope that the higher-ups in the airlines, who have probably never flown coach in their lives, will start to rethink their position about charging for luggage.
  • As we were waiting at the gate, a little kid, probably about two, was laughing and running around in the area with his mother in pursuit. I smiled, but the guy next to me grumbled, "Hard to tell who's in charge of who!" I said, "She's probably just letting him run around to get him tired out for the flight," to which he said, "Hm! Does he have to run around here?" I didn't want to be part of that conversation, so I moved away, but honestly, Cranky Guy: get a grip. Nobody likes it when babies cry on planes, including the parents, but babies can't help it: they're babies. They don't cry as much when they sleep, and they sleep better when they're tired, and if they're toddlers or little kids, they're more apt to be tired if they run around before they board. What part of that equation don't you understand?

  • [Edited to add: And I'd rather listen to a dozen babies cry than hear the loud-voiced blowhards who for some reason feel compelled to talk about various air disasters as we're taking off.]
    [Apparently you can disable the startup sound: I wish I'd known that sooner.]

    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    The writing process: taming your inner two-year-old

    Peg Boyle Single on daily writing at Inside Higher Ed:
    Motivation in writing comes from prewriting, prewriting, prewriting. Motivation occurs when you have done the necessary planning steps so that when you sit down to write prose, you have had time to subconsciously play around with the ideas and you only have to retrieve and type down the ideas, not to think them up. Motivation occurs when you have a very detailed long outline, filled in with citeable notes, by your desk that guides your writing. The citeable notes are short phrases (written in your own words) that remind you to insert the appropriate references into a particular section.
    This is excellent advice, as it is every time we hear it. (Single freely admits that Boice et al. give some of the same advice). She also recommends that you not write more than 4 hours a day and claims that this will lead to an enjoyment of the writing process.

    Here's why I brought up the inner two-year-old. You can make a two-year-old sit in a chair, just as you can make a writer sit in a chair. You can give her a book or something to play with, just as you can sit there with a blank computer screen and no internet. You can even do the old parental "false choice": "Do you want The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Avocado Baby"? Chances are, she'll fall for one or the other. But on some days, she won't. What you can't do all the time is control her thoughts. I submit that your brain is--or can be--that inner two-year-old.

    Maybe Brain accomplishes a lot when you're sitting in your enforced writing chair. Maybe you get a lot done most of the time. But sometimes, Brain decides not to kick in then and has a delayed reaction.

    Example: Say you've followed Single's/Boice's/Sylva's advice and have sat at your desk despite little productivity that day. You ignore the recommendation letters waiting to be written, the papers waiting to be graded, the class prep--everything. You get in the car (and you're already behind and anxious about it, because you haven't reread the work or graded the papers that are due back to students because of the sacred writing time) and start your 45-minute commute to campus.

    Suddenly, your brain comes to life. Ideas are washing over you; it's a Flannery O'Connor epiphany and no mistake. "I've got to write this down," you think--except that you can't. You get to campus and go straight into class. Seven hours later, after you've taught, gone to meetings, and met with students, you have a dim recollection of something transformative that occurred to you this morning, but everything isn't there.

    That's why I'm wondering this: can the repetitive action of sitting down to write tame the mischievous two-year-old that is your brain?

    And a less frivolous question: does it work to force yourself sit joyfully at the writing desk in the morning if you have a full day ahead of you and a recalcitrant brain?

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    Short post on excuses

    Like Ianqui, I've wanted to write an excuse to my blog for not updating just because things are getting busy.

    But one of the things I was busy at was busy work--mundane stuff for an organization that took me a whole day to do (think sorting, filing, stapling, labeling, stuffing envelopes). I'm not doing it again. Ever. I've just learned that there are machines for that (yes, I'm slow on the uptake). There are not machines to work on my major project for me. Invoking my new book review mantra, I--or the organization--can buy the service, but I can't buy back the day I spent on the task. I'm chalking this up to my own ignorance about what could be automated and not to the organization, which isn't to blame for my stupidity and probably would be happy to pay for the service.

    When I thought about explaining this to the organization, at first I wanted to say that I couldn't do the task because my shoulders hurt after doing it (true). In rehearsing this with Spouse, however, he said, "Don't make it a personal issue. You're not doing it any more. You don't have to give a reason except that it can be done by machine and you won't be spending your time that way."

    Dr. Isis has some wisdom about exactly that reasoning this morning:
    Regardless of how you choose to allocate your time, I have learned recently in conversation with a group of more senior women in academia that there is something that we do that our male colleagues don't do -- we over explain, and that can color how people perceive us. For example, assume that you are chillin', getting ready to leave for your child's school play in two hours and someone says, " Can you attend this meeting in two hours?" A woman is more likely to say, "I can't. I have to go get my child and then attend his school play." A male colleague with the exact same play to attend to might say, "I can't. I have another commitment."
    I should have known this--indeed, did know it--but one of the things I'm realizing over and over again, despite the Lessons for Girls, is just how hard it is to say no. Or say no and not explain.

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    The shadow knows

    Just a quick post to say that lately, if I'm in conversation with a group of people or at a conference, and we're talking about etexts or libraries or academic blogging or the future of the book, I find myself wanting to say, "You're so right! I wrote a blog post about that just last week and said --"

    But since it's Professional Self and not Shadow Blog Self having those conversations, I just say, "You're so right!" and beam a smile back at the person. Sometimes I'll go ahead and reiterate the arguments I've made here, but I am always a little worried about it--as though this minuscule portion of the blogosphere is read by multitudes.

    I guess Professional Self wants to claim credit for everything good but is too cowardly to own up to all the rants and everything else that comprises a blog. Shadow Blog Self is a little more forgiving about the imperfections of blog utterances, so for now, SBF owns it, and PS doesn't.

    Friday, October 02, 2009

    This is your brain on multitasking, part 2

    At the Chronicle, Mark Bauerlein is a little late to the party--he's just figured out that texting while driving might, just might, not be a good idea--but he cites an interesting study from Stanford in support of his proposition that multitasking is changing the brain, and not in a good way:
    The primary finding was that "People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time." When people spend months and years trying to multitask, their mental habits follow. Most important, their capacity to filter out distractions and irrelevant items deteriorates. As one of the researchers put it, "They're suckers for irrelevancy." The researchers set up experiments that isolated the ability to ignore things that didn't help subjects complete a problem, and low-multitaskers did well, high-multitaskers poorly.

    They also did some memory tests. Result: "The low multitaskers did great," [researcher] Ophir said. "The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains."

    Finally, they did a test of concentration and the pattern held.

    "Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers. 'They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing,' Ophir said. 'The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds.'"
    A couple of things about this research:
    1. Can we stop now, please, with the edu-gurus' insistence that we break up class activities into 90-second bursts or whatever because "that's how students learn now! They multitask! Their brains are better! They're digital natives! Isn't that great!"? I thought that part of the process of brain maturation and education was training students toward, among other things, developing a longer attention span. You don't expect a 3-year-old to have the same level of absorbed attention for an activity that's not of her choosing as you do for an 18-year-old. I'm not saying that we should go back to the old model of boring students to death just because we can ("It's good for them!"), but it seems to me that adopting a progressive infantilization of students through encouraging multitasking and decreased attention spans isn't in their best interests.

    2. It makes me think of the internet information = firehose analogy so popular with librarians and others teaching students how to search. We can teach them good searching techniques to narrow that gush of water/information into a useful stream, but if the "multitasking is good for you" push is training their brains into being unable to avoid the full rush of water, what good are we doing?

    3. I put one part of that in bold because I'm guilty of it, too. I hadn't thought that the whole idea of cheating on and procrastinating about one project because you're temporarily far more fascinated by another was an outgrowth of multitasking (I thought it was laziness and procrastination), but maybe it is. Maybe it's the Samuel Taylor Coleridge model (Pantisocracy! Wait--no, poetry!) of writing winning out over the Anthony Trollope one (up at 5:30 a.m., 250 words every 15 minutes or else). On the other hand, maybe Raymond Chandler had the right idea about acknowledging how attention wanders but disciplining it (through boredom) to get back on track.
    Learning how to sort, assess, filter, evaluate, and analyze information with the goal of producing intelligent, coherently expressed writing about those thoughts is what we're supposed to be teaching students. At least this study gives some support for considering that a process not necessarily served best by multitasking.

    [Called "part 2" because part 1 is here. That one was on a UCLA study. What is it about California that makes its scientists so concerned with increasing attention spans?]