Saturday, July 31, 2010

Office Space, Academic Version

First they said, "You don't need good salaries, do you? You don't mind making less than a high school teacher, right?" and we said, "Low salaries--no problem."

Then they said, "Tenure just encourages deadwood. You don't need tenure, right?" and we said, "No, we trust you to give us a fair salary and decent health benefits, because that's how capitalism works: ethical standards of compensation for all!"

And now, at the Chronicle: "You don't need offices, do you? How about a big cart so you can lug your stuff around and sit in a lounge, Starbucks-style?"
Say a department provided a spacious, well appointed, comfortable, very exclusive commons area for its faculty members—something like a library's reading room, maybe, with library tables that professors could spread their work out over, conference rooms in which to meet students or make phone calls, club chairs and sofas for relaxing, reading, and conversing, maybe even a patio or garden. Each faculty member would have a big lockable storage space, or perhaps a rolling cart for books and papers, and could plug in a laptop anywhere in the commons on any given day. (Some companies have taken similar approaches.)

I'm sure there are faculty members who would hate such an arrangement. So maybe a two-tier system would be in order—a professor could have a private office if he or she thought it necessary, but those who agreed to use the shared space might get a little supplement in their paychecks each month, or get better parking or maybe a free faculty-club membership.
Ah, the ever-popular two-tier system, where whoever can be the most unpleasant gets the goodies and the most accommodating gets the rolling cart. Or, better still: charge us for the space necessary to meet with weeping students and conduct time-intensive advising appointments--that's the ticket!

I think I'm going to go ahead and call Lumberg out on this one. If he takes my red stapler, he's toast.
Edited to add: With all the anti-tenure articles and the rest, I'm starting to think that the Chronicle hates professors. It's getting to be like Dean Dad over there about how tenure is destroying the university and the old fogies are destroying it by not using technology. Just saying.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Writing process: zombie time

I don't talk about him much on this blog (partly because I don't have a clever name for him), but Spouse is also in a writing profession, except that he's a model writer in ways that I'm not: he gets up, goes to his study, and starts writing. He puts in a couple of hours before breakfast and before going to his office. We kid about this sometimes, since if one of us has a good writing day and the other one is struggling, we'll say that one of us has used up all the writing energy allotted to our house for the day.

But when Spouse is done writing for the day, he's done. He won't work after dinner because (a) he's already put in 12+ hours of work by then and (b) he says he dreams about work all night if he doesn't take some down time.

I get a second wind after dinner and a few hours into the evening. The only time I actively have a desire to write is after about 7 or 8 p.m. Even if I think I'm done, as in reading an unrelated book, I feel a positive compulsion to go to the computer and write "just a little bit."

It feels as though an alien force is dragging me there. I move to the computer as if against my will, and, once I'm there, I'm not distracted by anything. Before I know it, it's 11:30. It's zombie time, and I'm a writing zombie.

Edited to add: task for tonight's zombie time = finding a title. I brainstormed about 40 of them and they're all terrible--except the ones that somebody has already used for a book, of course.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Writing process: let yourself go

I'm still talking about the writing process because I don't want to think about all the "end of tenure" arguments going on right now. My take, based on my years as an adjunct: end tenure, and universities will do what's cheapest--and that doesn't mean a happy future of "high salary and limited job security with fixed term contracts." It'll be more like this example from recent history: "Outsource all the manufacturing and the U.S. will be the KNOWLEDGE economy and not lose any jobs." Uh huh. That turned out well, didn't it?

Back to writing. I've taken to starting each day with a Q & A about the project, a talk-out-loud (write out loud?) session in which I list all the things I'm thinking about in the project, what needs to go in there, what the objections might be, and so on. The entries go sort of like this:
  • Q. If you talk about the Floradora Girls in this chapter, you can't talk about them again in chapter 5. It's too much.
  • A. Rats. You're right. But if I shift the focus to Bert Williams, I can then make the connection to Marilyn Miller.
  • Q: That's better!

The other day, I sat down to this little self-colloquy and realized that the project was out of balance. The focus was wrong in two chapters, and I didn't know how to fix it. After struggling with it for a few hours, I did what any sensible person would do: I turned off Leechblock and read reviews of Mad Men. I cleaned the kitchen. I read a book related to the project. I went for a walk.

After a few hours of wandering around, it hit me: these chapters aren't about X; they're about Y. That should be the focus, and talking about Y also allows me to talk about other important issues. Hooray! I sat back down at the desk and wrote down what I needed to do. I'm excited about the project again.

Now, if I had just listened to Our Muse Ginger, I would have known that already, wouldn't I?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Off Topic: Mad Men

As a counterpoint to work, I've been rewatching Mad Men, which is a dessert/chaser so that I don't have bad conference dreams all night long. At its best, it's like a good novel, and thinking about it has banished a lot of 4 a.m. obsessive work thoughts when I wake up too early.

Last night I watched the premiere, and here are some thoughts--with spoilers, so stop if you haven't seen it or don't care about the show:

. . . . .

Ready?

. . . . .

  • On the positive side, the pace was good, with a new office and a new energy. The light and one of the views in this new space actually echoes the opening credits, which was interesting. The only trouble is that the show has always included some brief pauses or silences to let the multiple motives of the characters and the implications of their actions sink in. That's missing.
  • On the other hand, they've converted Don from a part-time SOB with a troubled interior life to a full-time SOB with none, or none that we care about. He's all brisk surface, and none if it is pretty, even if the character is played by Jon Hamm.
  • Speaking of pretty, the new lighting washes out the planes of the characters' faces, making them look older, pasty, and not good. If your lighting makes people like Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks look bad, there's something wrong.
  • This episode had three plots: a sitcom plot with Peggy and assorted ad hijinks; a grouchy melodrama starring Don; and the beginnings of a tragic melodrama starring Betty.
  • The thing is, I didn't feel that I knew any of these people, even though I've seen every previous episode, and, what's worse, I didn't want to know them. There has to be a sympathetic or somewhat likable character somewhere, doesn't there, to engage the viewer? Maybe this isn't true in postmodern fiction where we're too busy being dazzled by the intricacies of the author's cleverness and self-referentiality to care, but thinking about character is what chases the work dreams away for me. When I woke up at 4 a.m. today, I chased the work dreams away by composing this blog post in my head.

    Any thoughts?
  • Wednesday, July 21, 2010

    T. S. Eliot critiques my manuscript

    So, Tom, I've been working along here on this manuscript pretty intensively. When you said my argument was like nothing you had seen before, did you mean that it was brilliant and original?

    “That is not what I meant at all.
    That is not it, at all.”


    But the prose is good, right? After so many drafts, isn't the language in the introduction pretty clear?

    By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept...

    Well, maybe it could use another draft. Once I get this next part done, it'll be ready to go, though, won't it?

    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions


    Oh, all right. But don't you think I should get out a little more? I have no conversation any more because all I do is sit and type or stare at the screen.

    The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
    Her stove, and lays out food in tins.


    Yep, that's my life, all right. Wouldn't it be better if I went to campus and saw some people for a change?

    Only a flicker
    Over the strained time-ridden faces
    Distracted from distraction by distraction
    Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
    Tumid apathy with no concentration
    Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
    That blows before and after time


    Maybe not. So tell me, is this process of writing going to get any easier?

    Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
    Will not stay still.


    Sorry I asked, but thanks for the advice.

    Monday, July 19, 2010

    Cargo cult, manuscript edition

    More about the codex as inspiration idea:

    Last Friday, I did something that might be helpful to the project: I took all the previously published pieces* and conference papers I want to put into this book and put them all in one big file. Yes, it's messy, but it was exciting to see about half a book's worth of manuscript all together.

    It was even more exciting when I printed out the entire mess. It was truly a stack of paper. Now, we all know that a stack of paper does not a book make, although with some books I've read, I've wondered whether that was the organizing principle behind the whole thing. In reading the pages and marking them up, I started thinking about the ideas in different ways. I also did some cut-and-paste in the big mess o' articles document. That advice about how helpful it is to "touch your work every day" was even more true when I could actually, you know, touch the pages.

    Of course, what I've really done is made something that looks like a manuscript but isn't. You know the cargo cults that make airplanes out of packing boxes so that airplanes will come and material goods will follow? The faux manuscript is really just my airplane made of packing crates.

    Still, if it helps, count me as a believer.

    *Not more than two of these, of course, because I want a publisher to accept the book.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010

    Blogging the writing process: the gray room

    I'm struggling with a piece of writing (as if you couldn't tell) and it turns out that a difficult piece of writing makes the struggling writer extraordinarily inventive when it comes to avoidance techniques, especially those that look like progress in other directions (like cleaning the house).

    To break up the cycle, I was able to borrow an unoccupied office on another campus of Northern Clime University for a day or two. The office is gray, as in gray desk, gray walls, and dark gray carpets. Black chair and grey balance ball for sitting at the desk.

    It's quiet. It's cool. It's dark. I only had two books with me, and, after installing Freedom, no internet access for periods of time. You'd be amazed at how peaceful it was in there.

    While the writing is still at the stage of spectacular awfulness that makes you hurry through it, looking at it sideways lest yet another terrible phrase catch the eye, the point is that it did get started.

    Raymond Chandler's idea about writing is that if you get bored enough with your surroundings, you'll start to write out of desperation. The gray room helped to make that happen.

    Friday, July 09, 2010

    Blogging the writing process: seeking and finding

    Tenthmedieval has a pair of lovely posts up, one about taking notes (with screenshots) and one about writing in which he uses the term "environmental fretting," which I'm going to adopt immediately. He also has links to others' posts about their writing processes and to his notes catalogue.

    Here's the problem I keep running into: if my notes are organized into something like an Endnote database or put into folders, I perceive them as hidden and can't remember what I wrote in them. If they're disorganized, as in "heaped into one big Word file with a whole lot of commentary added" or stuck in a huge pile on my desk or in the huge folder optimistically labeled To File, I know what they say but don't have them organized at all.

    What I've been trying to do this morning is to organize some concepts so that they cohere in this project I'm working on: I have five things that relate to concept X, three for concept Y, etc. It's been kind of like those word puzzles on the SAT: "If John sits next to Jane but two seats away from Tyrone, and Tyrone has a beach cottage, who is sitting next to Susan and which person has red hair?"

    Reading the little pieces in Endnote, even if I search for the keywords I've inserted, doesn't make these ideas come together. Index cards don't work for me, either, because somehow they encourage a sense of fragmentation. I've tried, but the concepts just sit there like little white specks of dead ideas on the floor. Index cards worked great as flash cards for memorizing Anglo-Saxon vocabulary words back in the day, but for concepts, no dice.

    What this project apparently requires is the magic of print. I recently printed out transcriptions from various research trips, including the one last year and the recent one (and boy howdy--if I could write as fast as I can type and transcribe, I'd have a book manuscript by now), got out my trusty three-hole punch, and put them in notebooks. Now the pages are alive: I can flip through the pages of the notebook and read them in a manner that my brain has decided is the proper one for reading. When I was reading these files on the screen, I wasn't getting anywhere. Now that I have what appears to be a narrative, even though the order is random, I can see narrative patterns emerging. I can only "find" if the files aren't set up in the order that would allow me to "seek."

    Today's distraction: why, this blog post, of course.

    Thursday, July 08, 2010

    Tenure, R.I.P at the Chronicle

    There's a lot to talk about in the "Tenure, R.I.P." article over at The Chronicle, but there was one part in particular that struck me. Here, making the argument against tenure, is Cathy Trower, with my comments added:
    Cathy Trower, a senior research associate at Harvard University who has studied tenure for about a dozen years at the institution's Graduate School of Education, says tenure's harsh up-or-out system—and the escalating demands for research and publication at the nation's top universities—is actually driving away talented young people. "More and more men and women are saying, I don't want to be on that fast track," says Ms. Trower, who has studied 11,000 tenure-track professors at the nation's research universities. "Many are saying, This system is broken, I don't want it."

    Really? They don't want it? Why am I not hearing, on blogs, from grad students, or from anyone else, comments like "Tenure? Not my style. Glad I dodged that bullet!"?
    Only 70 percent of the tenure-track professors Ms. Trower studied at research institutions said they would choose to work at their universities if they had it to do over again.
    This is not the same thing as having the other 30% say they would never choose to work at a tenure-granting institution, though, is it? Trower defines tenure as "tenure at an R1 institution," which--breaking news, Chronicle!--isn't the only kind of institution that exists.

    And finally, this:
    Ms. Trower says it is possible to run a university with hard-working, committed scholars who are off the tenure track. "I'm outside the tenure system," she adds, "and I work really, really, hard."
    In other words, you can choose to work "really, really hard" and have all the stress and anxiety of a tenure system without any of its traditional protections. More work, less money--why, according to Trower, it's a win-win!

    What am I missing here?

    Monday, July 05, 2010

    Writing house fantasies


    Does anybody else out there have fantasies about having a writing house?

    I do. I know--I have a desk, and bookcases, and a computer, and space to write already, for which I'm grateful. Still, when I'm walking, or driving, or paddling a kayak, a little voice in my head will say, "That could be one. That could be a writing house. I could really get a lot of writing done there."

    Writing houses--at least the ones I focus on in my imagination--are small, about the size of a study, but they're self-contained buildings like the ones at the Tiny House Company or Michael Pollan's writing house. They have a window or two, and a view that's just beautiful enough to reward a glance without encouraging prolonged staring out the window. They have lots of natural wood surfaces, including tables or desks, and room for some books. The writing house of my fantasy has electricity but not Internet access or phones. Sometimes, in the nineteenth-century version of my fantasy, I bend the rules a little and picture working in a screened-in porch attached to a beautiful old shingle-style house high above the water (a recent house I saw inspired this one). So--wood, light, air, and nature are the only real requirements.

    Did you catch the fallacy in this particular fantasy? After I've swooned over cabins, screened porches, and other writing-house contenders for a while, somehow another voice always brings me back to that last sentence: "I could really get a lot of writing done there." The voice says, "It's not what's outside, but what's inside. It's not about the house; it's about you getting work done. You can do that perfectly well in your study at home if you just get at it."

    The writing house fantasy helps, though, because when I see one of the houses, I get excited about writing all over again.

    Updated to add more food for fantasy:
    David McCullough's writing shed.
    Roald Dahl's writing shed.
    Mark Twain's garden study.
    Virginia Woolf's writing house.

    Friday, July 02, 2010

    "Stop Close Reading" in the Atlantic

    Hey, kids! Here's a fun activity that you can do at home in your spare time to earn cash--and it won't take you more that 15 minutes! Honest!

    1. Take a term, any term.
    2. Define it narrowly in just the way you want it to be defined, preferably in a way that makes it sound terrible.
    3. Take a provocative stance, preferable one that argues against the term.
    4. Slap a bunch of ill-informed generalizations and opinions on it. (Logical arguments and evidence aren't necessary. See, I told you it was easy!)
    5. Write a 5-paragraph essay.
    6. Sit back and wait for the check from The Atlantic to arrive in the mailbox.

    While it's true that the metaphor-and-symbol hunt can become drudgery in the wrong hands, and an agonizingly slow pace can suck the life out of any book, "close reading" is more than it's made out to be in the article. If I were being a curmudgeon, I could point out that there's a logical inconsistency in "there would still be plenty of opportunity to point out metaphors and similes"--when, exactly, would you do this if you're speeding through all three volumes of Twilight or whatever "the kids" will "like"?

    Somehow I'm reminded of Woody Allen's joke: "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." Yes, and Moby-Dick is about a white whale, and all hell breaks loose in a Hawthorne novel when some woman starts wearing a piece of bling--a red letter A on her chest.

    Close reading isn't the devil. It's a technique that helps students figure out what's going on in a passage. It helps them to learn how to think critically and at multiple levels. It's possible to beat a dead horse about this (cliche alert! metaphor alert!), but even if you hate Brooks & Warren with every fiber of your post-New Criticism body, you have to admit that at some point interpretation comes down to the level of the word--or else how would you read Emily Dickinson?

    [Edited to add: Okay, this took me 15 minutes and is a 5-paragraph essay. James Bennet, you can send me my check now.]

    Thursday, July 01, 2010

    Grumpy answers to excellent questions

    Over at Inside Higher Ed, Kerry Ann Rockquemore has a series of columns on productivity, of which the latest is "Why Aren't You Writing?"

    Why, indeed? Before taking some of her excellent advice, I decided to answer some of her questions from the foot-dragging position I'm now occupying instead of the one that I hope to adopt in a day or so.

    "What's holding you back?"

    Would you accept "I'm really tired and don't feel like writing" as an answer? No? Let's try again with the errors she identifies.

    1. "Error 1: You haven't set aside a specific time for your research."

    Well, yes and no. I've set it aside, but my brain isn't showing up.

    2. "Error 2: You’ve set aside the wrong time for writing."

    Rockquemore suggests that the best time is morning, and she's probably right. Morning is the time when your brain is freshest, but that also means that it's a time when resistance toward writing can be at its highest. Balancing those two factors can be tricky.

    3. "Error 3: You have no idea how long writing tasks take."

    Oh, but I do. I know how long they take: for a slowcoach writer like myself, way too long. I like her idea of a chart, though. Anything that spells "chart" usually gets me back to work.

    4. "Error 4: You think you have to do everything yourself."

    She suggests "inexpensive" options for help with research tasks, but even "inexpensive" is too expensive for me and not the best option for the kind of work I do.

    5. "Error 5: The tasks you have set out are too complex."

    That's true, but I actually have a whole range of tasks. I don't want to work on any of them, even the kind (like reading copyedited proofs) that are usually gratifying and kind of fun.

    6. "Error 6: You can't remember what you have to do."

    I remember, all right. I made a list (her recommended remedy) even before reading the article, but that's partly causing the resistance to getting to work. There's such a lot of it.

    7. "Error 7: Your space is disorganized."

    My space is a thing of beauty--desk cleared right down to the wood, books arranged on the bookshelves in front of me, and folders with hopeful, ambitious labels signifying various projects all in their proper places in the wire folder stand. Excessive cleanliness for me is a symptom, not a cure: if I've been organizing, I haven't been writing.

    Rockquemore closes with this list:
    • Write every day for 30-60 minutes.
    • Identify what (if any) technical errors are holding you back from writing each day.
    • Experiment by trying one new strategy this week.
    • If you feel reactive to trying new strategies to increase your writing time, ask yourself: what beliefs are keeping you from experimentation?
    • If additional resistance emerges, welcome it with curiosity, engage it in conversation, and identify the behaviors and the feelings associated with it (you may even want to keep a resistance log).
    I think this post may be the first step in a resistance log. I don't know if I'm going to welcome Resistance with curiosity (we're old friends, Resistance and I), but I may engage it in conversation long enough to tell it to get out of my study.