Monday, August 30, 2010

Literary Stock Market

Maybe because I'm working at present on a figure whose critical stock was once high but has fallen dramatically, I'd like to see someone (not me) put together a line graph called the "Literary Stock Market." Although you can get a sense of this if you read the year-end reviews in various discplines, it'd be nice to see this in graphics form, wouldn't it?

Although numbers of conference, conference panels, and so on could help to determine rankings, you could also get a pretty good ranking by basing the Literary Stock Market on the numbers of citations in the MLA Bibliography each year, for a start. Whoever puts together the Literary Stock Market could also have little line indicators giving possible reasons if there are drastic rises and falls. For example, if you were working on James Fenimore Cooper (I'm making this up), there could be a spike and decline around the topics of American exceptionalism and the whole "American Adam" idea, maybe followed by a revival after postcolonial theory arrives. It would be hugely interesting as well to see how authors neglected in previous centuries have been revived or recovered.

You could also do this with individual books, as the classic, must-read novel of one generation of critics recedes before an interest in another of the author's books. You'd probably want to limit this to a particular area or time period, too, since following more than 15 or so lines would make the viewer dizzy.

I think you could do this in history: topics or figures once considered essential for study may have fallen into obscurity, and previously neglected topics may come to the fore.

Are there any figures in your discipline whose stock on the Literary Stock Market has fallen particularly far, or whose star has risen drastically?

[Edited to add: Speaking of popularity, that's why Joel Stein is against net neutrality. Shorter Joel Stein in this week's Time magazine: "Some sites should receive priority, including Fox News, if they are more important to many people, and especially to me, Joel Stein. How dare independent sites get in the way of my Glenn Beck, Lady GaGa, and Lindsay Lohan news? Fie upon the masses yearning for unpopular information not sponsored by a corporation! Let them eat cake--or at least wait longer while I get vital updates paid for by corporate America!" The article is so ridiculous that I think, or maybe hope, that he's kidding.]

Saturday, August 28, 2010

After some prodding, JSTOR does the right thing

Because I had been trying to keep a self-imposed ban on reading IHE/CHE as part of the positivity campaign, I'd missed the whole kerfuffle over JSTOR's new interface. Inside Higher Ed covers it well here and here.

Apparently what happened was that the new JSTOR interface, which includes its new current journals initiative, by default showed all materials, even those not covered in an institution's subscription. Oh, and instead of using OpenURL as Google Scholar does to show what's available at an institution, JSTOR provided a handy link to purchase the articles online for a handsome fee.

Quite understandably, this upset a lot of people, especially a lot of librarians, since students might be less likely to try another database (as faculty might) and might click on the pricey link instead.

JSTOR was shocked, SHOCKED to think that anyone believed they had done this for money:
"Did you have to make concessions that benefit your publishing partners but hurt the end user?”

“Absolutely not,” Guthrie, the JSTOR founder, told Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re absolutely not trying to have users purchase articles they already have access to.”
To JSTOR's credit, the interface has been fixed so that you can opt to see only materials at your institution, and some OpenURL features have been implemented. JSTOR wants to be a web portal, in some ways, so that students will look there first for content instead of the MLA Bibliography. I get what they're trying to do.

But I'm glad that IHE and the librarians called JSTOR out on this, just as Facebook users have called out Facebook every time it introduces a new "feature" to decrease privacy and monetize users' personal information. It seems to me this is part of a larger trend where customers are pushing back when trusted, or formerly trusted, institutions are capitalizing on users' trust to make more profits. At the post office, for example, you have to decline all the expensive options and extras one by one, repeating "media mail, please" until the person behind the counter gives up and stops trying to sell you next-day delivery.

In these times, it's probably inevitable that institutions, even those that profess a noble mission, will use whatever means they can to make whatever money they can. Maybe that's why students need us to teach them critical thinking about all the alternatives, not only in the matter of databases but in other consumer-driven decisions as well.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


It's a strange feeling when you get an article back and it's been accepted, but among the minor changes suggested by the reviewers is that you spend more time citing . . . yourself.

Paper is a technology, too

I like "technology." I really do. Like a lot of people, I have used/do use Twitter, blogs, web pages, listservs (remember those?), wikis, etc., in classes. For years I've graded papers that never saw a paper version but went from the student's screen to mine and back. I've assigned e-versions of texts. I've cursed at (but used) Blackboard, WebCt, and both homegrown and newer permutations of various CMS platforms.

But you know what? Sometimes paper just works better, and we ought to be able to acknowledge that.

Example: An upcoming conference is making the program available either in e-form or in paper form. I applaud the decision on a conceptual level, but it left me in a dilemma. Since I felt guilty ordering the paper form because of all the green rhetoric surrounding the choice, I ordered the e-version, but who am I kidding? I've tried getting .pdfs on a Blackberry screen, and even if the document doesn't fail to download and go into a holding pattern, which it does about 90% of the time, the print is too tiny to read.

What I'll probably do is print some pages before I go, but I'd really rather have a booklet so that I can mark the sessions in case I change my mind later. I won't know where I'm going at the conference, but at least I won't have a conference program that pegs me as a Despoiler of the Earth.

Example: In class, if a student does a presentation with a bibliography or questions written out, handing that out on a piece of paper allows the class to follow along. Telling them "go to the class wiki and comment there" doesn't have nearly the immediacy that I want for the discussion that's supposed to follow. And not everyone has a laptop/netbook/iPhone to be able to look at the presentation materials online, either. Paper's the logical choice here.

Example: I've noticed when reading double-spaced manuscripts or papers online, "page down" or the equivalent doesn't always drop you onto the next line from the one you're reading. I have to take a couple of seconds to find my place, which means my engagement with the ideas keeps getting interrupted. I've tried to compensate for this in various ways--making the font smaller, etc.--but the fact remains that it would be easier to read some of these things on paper, even though I don't always print them out.

One example of times when I don't want to print: Invitations to meetings (and I use the term loosely) now sometimes come with a raft of .pdf documents attached and an instruction to print them out before the meeting. Uh, no. That's not part of the deal. My home printer is not at your service. In these cases, I exercise my Thoreau-given right to civil disobedience and bring the laptop with me to the meeting with the documents loaded on it.

Another thing about administrators and technology: even though I like technology, it seems wrong to me that administrators are so dead keen on it that they care less about how it's used than if it's used. Faculty are now evaluated in part on whether they use technology or not (see The Chronicle for tsk-tsking about the sad sacks who don't), and I think it's because administrators are entranced by the shiny and in love with anything they can name and count. Good teaching = can't be counted except by student evals. Teaching with technology = something to count.

Back to paper. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are all kinds of technologies that we can choose from, and we shouldn't shy away from paper if it's the best one.*
[*Edited because the former ending made it sound as though someone was forcing me not to use paper, and that's not what I meant.]

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Off Topic: Positivity and Mad Men

Note: I don't think there are any spoilers here for those who are now up to speed on Season 4, but you never know. If you don't like Mad Men--nothing to see here.

In keeping with the pre-semester theme of positivity I'm trying to maintain, I thought I'd see whether the language of the characters on Mad Men has any words to live by.

Don Draper. Despite the sad train wreck that his life is becoming this season, Don has two habitual speech characteristics. The first is one that's in keeping with his life: "This never happened." As he tells Peggy in Season Two, "You'll be amazed at how much this never happened." This particular idea, like the past, is coming back to haunt him this season, as it's haunting Peggy in her recent interactions with Pete.

The second one is a little less obvious: Don is emphatically positive in his speech; he always goes one step beyond. Example: If someone asks him a direct question, he says "Yes" with no hesitation. Where a simple "yes" would do, he's given to saying things like "I do" or "I am." "Are you meeting Roger for drinks?" "I am." I can't recall a scenario in which he says "I don't know," maybe because he's always got a story worked out in advance. If he doesn't, he just says "This will be fine," as in "There will be good years, and there will be bad years, but it is always going to rain" (to the London Fog people). This may be because he's living a story, but the writers have been very consistent about his speech patterns. They're as choreographed, in a way, as his movements.

Betty Draper. "Go watch tv." "Go upstairs." "Carla! Take the children to the park." Then there's Betty, our Queen of Denial. Betty's about as eager to have her children around her as Henry Francis is to have the dog in the house. I would like to think it's because they distract her from a deep inner life of figuring out what she wants a la The Feminine Mystique or Priss in The Group, which she read a few seasons ago, but they aren't words to live by.

Joan Holloway Harris: "Look at you." All the characters in Mad Men say this at one time or another, but Joan is especially given to it. Joan usually uses it not as "Look at you--you're a mess" but "Look at you--you've finally figured out something that I knew already" (but not in a snarky way). It makes Joan a reflector of others who's so good at what she does that no one else sees it. They all look at Joan in that va-va-voom way, but they don't really look at Joan. It's in keeping with the show's premise that she's not only the heart of SCDP but that she knows more about just about everything than just about anyone--and no one gives her enough credit for it.

Peter Campbell: "What is going on?" Pete is the the forward-looking Cassandra, providing cues to the future that SCDP is slow to comprehend. He has evolved from his chronic foot-in-mouth disease of Season One. He's become more adept at blackmailing (his father-in-law this season versus Don in Season One) and has become more sympathetic as a character. He's still not adept at nuances, though--hence the classic moments in which he turns to someone and asks "What is going on?" or "What are you telling me?"

The other characters have speech patterns, too, but nothing I can pinpoint: we know Roger will say something funny and maybe outrageous, that Bert Cooper will have something pithy and Ayn Rand-ish, etc. Peggy's loosened up and gained a sense of humor this season, too, which is refreshing. But is there anything to carry forward into the new semester? Unlike Don, I'm not sure.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The middle ground of writing

In the spirit of positivity and John Steinbeck, I'm going to start the morning not with a warm-up letter to my editor but with a warm-up post.

It's that time at the beginning of the semester when no matter what you are writing, there's a voice in your head screaming "Must stop now! Must work on syllabus!" If you're working on a syllabus, it screams "Must stop now! Must get writing done lest Boice descend and strike you dead!"

But there's a middle ground for all this: manuscript reviews for journals or presses, book reviews, letters, colleagues' proposals, and so on. For those, there's a clear path: You read the materials. You bring your critical judgment to bear. You write it up in a helpful manner. You send it. You move on.

You feel better because it is a professional task and you did it. Somehow, you can tackle the other stuff again. And also--here is the big advantage--you get to cross an item off your list, a sweet reward in itself.

I have more of these to do, of course, and plan to get at them in a minute. But every one I complete is a step, and I'm envisioning this process as being like those cartoons where a character stands stock still, then takes a halting step or two, and then is off and running.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jonathan Franzen on writing

Jonathan Franzen's writing habits, from a profile in Time magazine this week (abridged version here).
He writes six or seven days a week, starting at 7 a.m. He's often hoarse at the end of the day because he performs his dialogue out loud as he writes it. . . . Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can't write serious fiction on a computer that's connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell's wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. "What you have to do," he explains, "is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it."
Wow. I thought Leechblock and turning off the wireless router was a big step in the right direction, but Franzen is really committed to driving a stake through the heart of the distraction. Well done!

In other news, I talked with some colleagues today, and naturally the talk turned to writing. One confessed that he'd had a good month. How much did he write? Let's just say it's in the tens of thousands of words. In a month. On a scholarly project. Envious? I am.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A syllabus present

I am avoiding all talk of tenure and deadwood (still clinging with a tight, desperate grip to positivity), but if you want to know what I think, go read Historiann's great post.

Now about the present: this afternoon, I opened up the folder with the old syllabus for one of this fall's classes for to begin the long, slow process of figuring out assignments and timing.

It was already filled in with correct dates and updated assignments--woo hoo! There's still a lot left to do, but there's a lot less than I thought there'd be.

Either the Syllabus Fairy got to this folder before I did, or I worked on it back when I ordered books and then forgot that I'd done so.

So to the Syllabus Fairy or to the May incarnation of Undine or whoever did this: thanks from August Undine.

[Updated to add: see also More or Less Bunk's take on the tenure/deadwood idea: "This is the academic politics of distraction writ large. Don’t blame us, blame the senile old fogey over there."]

Sunday, August 15, 2010

John Steinbeck on writing

Underneath a stack of books the other day, I found a copy of Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, and I started to read a little of it every day. (It's not a book that you want to gulp down at a single sitting.) Since what Steinbeck did was a little unusual, I thought I'd mention it here.

When he sat down to write East of Eden, which he saw as his "big book," Steinbeck took a 10 x 14 notebook that his editor, Pascal Covici, Jr., had given him and got to work. Every morning he'd warm up by writing an (imagined) letter to Covici on the left-hand page of the notebook before beginning work on the novel on the right-hand side. He talks a little bit about what's going on in his life, but he also works out his ideas there.
February 16. . . . Now I have sat a week. It is Friday and I have sweated out one page and a half. If I did not know this process so well I would consider it a week of waste. But I know better than that now and am content.

March 21. . . . You must thing I waste an awful lot of time on these notes to you but actually it is the warm-up period. It is the time of drawing thoughts together and I don't resent it one bit. I apparently have to dawdle a certain amount before I go to work. Also If i keep the dawdling in this form I never leave my story.

May 7. . . . Now to the book. This is a brooding time in the book--a time of waiting and a time in which dangers poke up their heads. Why doesn't Adam listen when Cathy says she will be going away? I don't know. Men don't listen to what they don't want to hear. I know I didn't and every man I think is somewhat the same. Every man. I must point that out very clearly. Adam has a picture of his life and he will continue to maintain his picture against every influence until his world comes down. I know that this is true. But I must make it convincing.
Part of what's interesting for me about this notebook is that the process seems to be the same for us all--not much of an insight, I know. Steinbeck gets distracted by other commitments (speeches) and finds it hard to come back to writing. He thinks about his writing tools and is pleased to sharpen another dozen pencils. He cleans his writing room--"really deeply cleaned it and found things that had been lost for a very long time." He worries about whether anyone is going to get book's Biblical symbolism.

Steinbeck also talks about his diet and how he intends to lose weight. This might seem trivial, but I think it's something else. In reading blogs and other writers' thoughts on writing, I've been struck by how often a mental commitment to writing is almost incidentally paired with some form of physical commitment or discipline--either completing a list of tasks or recommitting to some form of exercise. I wonder if the physical activity somehow reinforces the mental discipline needed to keep at the task of writing.

Now that the massive and exciting distractions of a new semester are about to start, it's comforting somehow to read about someone else's ordinary writing process.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Random bullets of academic denial

  • I mentioned that I'd written down my top ten internet fun sites and, from that list, am now allowing myself only one per day. Apparently, blogs (which count as one in my system) are it. So long for now, Facebook, Twitter, and NYTimes.
  • Female Science Professor and Historiann are reporting more attacks on tenure. If I were wearing my tinfoil hat, I'd wonder who's stirring up the let's-you-and-him-fight attacks on workers in all professions, not just the professoriate. Here's what I get from reading the news: professors and teachers should work for free, and they shouldn't worry if they're fired for cheaper workers after a couple of years. Doctors should work for free (Medicare cuts). Nurses should work for free. Union people should shut up and be happy they have a job but should make concessions to help Our Country in Its Time of Crisis by making upper management's stock options worth more. People in factories, managers, and salespeople, ditto. The only people who apparently deserve to make any amount of money are those who make huge, obscene amounts of it, like football coaches, professional athletes, and the CEOs of giant financial corporations. Them we should pay, because they are vital to our country's interests. Hmmm.
  • Like Horace, I'm studiously ignoring any signs that the semester is coming up fast.
  • Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    The Pensive Season

    In the spirit of being positive, and stolen entirely from the blog of Henry David Thoreau:
    What shall we name this season?—this very late afternoon, or very early evening, this severe and placid season of the day, most favorable for reflection, after the insufferable heats and the bustle of the day are over and before the dampness and twilight of the evening! The serene hour, the Muses’ hour, the season of reflection! It is commonly desecrated by being made teatime. It begins perhaps with the very earliest condensation of moisture in the air, when the shadows of hills are first observed, and the breezes begin to go down, and birds begin again to sing. The pensive season.
    As part of making life less hectic, I made a list of my top ten internet distractions, some of which I visit more than once a day if left to my own devices, like a rat pressing a lever in a Skinner box. My new plan is that I get to visit one each day but leave the rest alone. It's already made a difference in my receptiveness to the pensive season.

    Sunday, August 08, 2010

    Positivity and Lavender

    The lavender is past its peak in August, and it's a little beaten down by the rain. The bees don't mind, though, and neither do I since the smell is still wonderful if you walk by and brush your hands over the flowers. Although all the flowers on the trees are long gone, there's a rose garden right near the edge of the road on the steepest hill of my walk, and the smell of those roses encourages me on the climb. And there's lavender all along the way, and it'll still be there, and flowering, for a few weeks yet.

    It's the same way with the summer. Yes, I'll need to get classes ready and ramp up for the semester, but I wanted to inject a little positivity (h/t Dr. Crazy) into these last few weeks and stop worrying about what didn't get done or any academic craziness to come. I want to concentrate on finishing up the projects that need to get finished and be open to the excitement of the new semester. I want to stop thinking about the problems of academia at large, which I can do absolutely nothing about, and take a break from IHE and the Chronicle for a couple of weeks. When the lavender flowers have finally closed and are ready to be cut and dried, maybe I'll be ready to think about the rest of it. Maybe.

    Friday, August 06, 2010

    More on service: Hannibal Lector explains it all

    Nicole's comment on the last post got me thinking about a kind of service that's hard to say no to:
    I, on the other hand, took on only programs for which I was specifically needed (curriculum development for a core I teach) or would benefit me professionally (organizing a department brown-bag) and one that has a defined goal with set time (admissions committee).
    One tricky part of service is that middle kind. What if someone in your department organizes a brown-bag, or gives a lecture on campus, or gives a reading, or does a workshop? You are in the usual academic state of having way too much work to do as it is. Do you attend always? Sometimes? Never? How do you decide?

    Let's assume that the most important thing here isn't learning something new (although it may be). Let's assume that the most important thing is supporting our colleagues. If we're there to support colleagues, there are at least three ways to think about this.

    1. The nice way goes something like this: "Of course I'll go! I want to support my colleagues. So what if this is the third evening this week I've attended one of these?"

    2. The cold way goes something like this: "My seat in the audience does not translate into a line on my vita. I have an article to write and a writing schedule to keep. See you later."

    3. The middle ground goes something like this: "Quid pro quo, Clarice. Quid pro quo. (while mumbling something about fava beans and a nice Chianti)." In other words, you show up at my presentation, and I'll show up at yours. If you've been collegial in other ways, I'll show up, too, even if you haven't been to my presentation.

    What about you? How do you decide?

    Wednesday, August 04, 2010

    Managing your time: how to make this semester different from all others

    Historiann and Tenured Radical have a pair of great posts about how to take control of your time: their theme is "say no and set limits." These quotations in particular might get printed out and put above my desk:
    TR: "Your scholarship is part of your job. Schedule between 25 and 30% of the time you allot for work during the week to keeping your scholarship going."

    Historiann: "And just a reminder, friends: Don’t be afraid of being called 'selfish.' If you are in fact 'a girl,' it will happen anyway, so do what you need to do to succeed."
    What I'd add is two things:

    1. You can never do enough. Whatever you do, however many meetings you attend, someone will decide that you're not there, or have not written enough reports, or didn't show up for their best friend's piano recital, or something else equally vital.

    Case in point: last year, during graduation, a colleague said, "Have you ever been to graduation before?" I bit my tongue and said, "Yes, last year, and the year before that, and the year before that," without adding, "where we had extended conversations each time. What's wrong with you?"

    2. Don't take it personally. I used to worry about this more (do I really walk around in a cloak of invisibility?) before realizing that this says more about the memory/distractedness/nuclear level of self-absorption of the person making the comment than it does about you.

    Come to think of it, maybe TR's and Historiann's quotations should be cross-stitched to a sampler suitable for framing. If I weren't comically inept at all Womanly Arts involving a needle and thread, I'd make one right now.

    Monday, August 02, 2010

    New office commons: a day in the life

    Scene: The shared office commons now being touted in the Chronicle. Faculty sit at tables, their brightly-colored rolling carts by their sides. An elaborate Starbucks-like coffee counter is in the corner, its machines hissing and burbling. Students hover around the outside, waiting to see faculty but not wanting to break into the herd, so to speak. A few have braved the crowd.

    Professor X: "I'm glad you came to see me, Stu Dent. I've noticed that you haven't been coming to class much lately."

    Stu Dent: "mumble"

    Professor Y to student at the next table: "I can lend you a copy of that--oh, wait, I don't have any books on campus any more."

    Professor X: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't hear you. Can you tell me again?"

    Stu Dent: (very quiet voice) "It's been rough at home, because my mother has ca--"

    Barista: "MOCHACHINO UP!"

    Stu Dent looks nervous, but continues: "cancer, and she hasn't been doing well lately--"

    At the next table, a cell phone rings, and Professor M answers it: "HELLO? REALLY? SHE THREW UP AGAIN? I THOUGHT WHEN I DROPPED HER OFF THIS MORNING THAT SHE'D BE ALL RIGHT."

    Professor X, trying to be encouraging: "That must be really hard. Well, on the assignment you missed the other day--"


    Stu Dent: "I wanted to talk to you about that one, because [words drowned out in the noise from the steaming machine]"

    Professor X: "I'm sorry, what?"

    Professor N, who's been watching The Daily Show on his laptop with the volume low, now erupts in laughter.

    Barista: "LATTE UP!"

    At this point, Professor Y and the student are trying, but failing, not to look at/listen to the conversation of Professor X and Stu Dent.

    Stu Dent: "Never mind. See you in class."


    Disclaimer: This post in no way is meant to insult mothers, coffee drinkers, students, Daily Show watchers, professors, or baristas, but you get the picture.