Friday, January 28, 2011

Historiann and Benjamin Franklin

Historiann has a terrific article about blogging and especially pseudonymous blogging up at Common-place. If you go to read it, as you should, you'll find out find out why we are like Benjamin Franklin's Silence Dogood and other good ideas.

I was especially struck by this:
Pseudonymity can work in the service of community-building in the blogosphere. . . . Although I'm not fully pseudonymous, my commenters are overwhelmingly pseudonymous. Nevertheless, regular readers and commenters probably recognize the commenters who appear most frequently because most of them have individual personality traits or interests that remain fairly stable. That is, they fully inhabit the names or roles they've chosen to play on my blog, and their pseudonymity, as well as the role I play as Historiann, is key to the kind of supportive community I wanted to build.
Supportive. Community-building. Can you see why I like this idea? Even though Historiann, like Roxie's World, is a "lightly pseudonymous blog," Historiann herself gets why some of us are, or are trying to be, pseudonymous.

That's important, because every so often, "real" bloggers who publish under their own names will write something like "why don't you man up and write under your real name?" (And yes, I used "man up" deliberately.)

I've thought about this a lot lately, because after listening to Moose at MLA, I was ready to stand up and say, "I'm a blogger, too"--sort of like an "I am Spartacus" moment. That feeling dissipated as I listened to the other speakers talk about the disadvantages, and I went back into my pseudonymous cave.

There was a lot more to this post about why I'm staying pseudonymous as long as I can, but really, Historiann explained it all. How about you?

Update: See also posts by ADM, Dr. Crazy, Comrade PhysioProf, and Prone to Laughter and their links.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Personal productivity insights

  • "And now for something completely different" really works. If you're going to take a break for lunch, take a break. Don't keep trying to read journal articles; read a different book or a magazine, something that's not related. Or take a couple of minutes and write a blog post :). When you get back to work, you'll then be refreshed by more than the food.
  • Love your tools. If you are a faux-organized type like me--that is, you are not naturally organized but have learned a lot of strategies for simulating organization--you probably have learned to love lists, Excel, timers, and everything like that. As long as the strategies don't overwhelm the task, these kinds of devices can energize you about working on your project because you want to fill in the slots or check off the boxes.
  • Only look at everything once. Back in the olden days when I was learning to bake, my mother told me that a friend of hers had a rule: "Only touch everything once." That means that if you get something out and use it, put it in the sink or dishwasher. Put away the ingredients after you've used them. I think that was what she meant, anyway. But this rule applies to other things, too, including email. For example, in my online classes, I was logging in a few times a day just to see how the discussion was going, but I wasn't commenting or grading. I've done this with blogs in face-to-face classes, too--spent time reading them and then had to read them again to comment or grade. That's a waste of time. My new rule for myself is that if I log in, I have to be doing something active: commenting or grading or responding to student emails.
  • Take a lesson from Amy Chua. No, not a parenting lesson; I have no comment about that, nor do I know anything about Ms. Chua except what I read in the WSJ article. But it's clear that she didn't get where she is by reading fluffy lifestyle pieces in magazines about people like herself or made-for-the-talk-show-circuit books by people like herself. In fact, I'm betting the only such book she's ever read is her own. It's not her fault if she makes a ton of money trading on people's gullibility; it's my own fault for being stupid enough to pay attention to stuff of this kind in the first place. Amy Chua's lesson-by-example for me is simple: "If you want to be productive, don't read my book, and ignore the massive publicity machine surrounding me and other celebrities/controversies enjoying 15 minutes of fame." In other words, unless something is either entertaining (hello, bloggers!), useful (again--hello, bloggers!), or both, I'm going to chuck it. That's how this week's Time magazine, which I subscribed to reluctantly after Newsweek stopped having any actual content, got thrown in the trash. [Edited to add: Well, the recycling bin, but that doesn't have the same drama quotient as "trash."]

Friday, January 21, 2011

Writing essay tests helps students learn? Do tell.

From the New York Times comes this late-breaking news: "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.":
Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.
What helped most with retention of material was writing essay tests--"retrieval" exams that tested the amount of information students were able to recall when they wrote about the subject.

The researchers speculate that this effect occurs because the mind creates information storage systems as writing occurs, or something like that. The analogy that immediately sprang to mind for me was a medieval system of memory retrieval, although oddly enough the memory mapping techniques now taught in schools didn't result in better retention.

So now let me say that again, slowly:

Writing an essay about a subject helped students remember specific information.

Writing. Not shiny edu-gadgets beloved of administrators, although you all know I love gadgets.

Specific information. Not the touchy-feely "fluff" that budget-cutters apparently think the humanities teach.

Let's pair this information with the widely-reported study that Historiann posted about the other day, the one that's being reported in the news as "college students don't know nuthin' about nuthin'" but that, as she correctly notes, shows this:
Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.
Could someone beyond an obscure pseudonymous blogger put this 2 + 2 together, please, and let the legislators know about it?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MLA 2011 and the Great Twitter Debate

First, go read the great post and comments over at Roxie's World about the role of Twittering at the recent MLA. Go ahead; take your time. You'll be glad you did.

It seems to me that Twitter does three things really well.
  1. In normal times (i.e., not during a convention) it points you to other media and allows the Twitterer to promote him or herself in a gentle way: "Go read my blog post! My article! This link!"
  2. In normal times, it conveys external news along with approval/disapproval/excitement about something that's currently happening: "Go read this article! Can you believe that a politician said this?"
  3. In conference times, it's a way of collectively live-blogging a session that conveys some of the excitement and ideas of the session.
The debate over Twitter is about the last one of these. There's too much to condense, but here are some of the questions raised, with apologies in advance for overstating some complex issues:
  1. Did the preponderance of tweets from digital humanities sessions create a sense that those were more exciting sessions that the ones that didn't get covered?
  2. Did the fact that the tweeted sessions seemed to dominate the news coverage skew the sense of what was happening elsewhere at the convention?
  3. Are some sessions just more tweetable than others, or do people at the untweeted sessions need to get with the program and (there are hints of this among the comments) be less stodgy?
  4. Alternately, you know those bumper stickers that say "Hang up and drive"? There are some comments that suggest that tweeters put the computer away and just listen.
  5. Finally (and this is a contentious one), does the tweeted/nontweeted session divide create another category of insiders and outsiders?
As someone who was there, went to sessions, and read the Twitter stream, I'm of several minds about this. On one hand, it was exciting to see commentary going on in real time, although I wondered in some of those sessions whether the presenters were disturbed by seeing people staring at laptop screens instead of at the front of the room--and whether others in the row were disturbed by the clack of keys. (Probably not.) It was also exciting to see accounts of presentations I didn't get to see because of commitments elsewhere.

On the other hand, in some sessions, the papers were so amazing and complex (yet eminently listenable) that I could barely take adequate notes on them; a tweet couldn't possibly have done them justice. This is not to say that papers that can be tweeted are too simple; I'm just agreeing with Roxie's typist's point:"Still, I admit to thinking that some of what is untweeted is really untweetable -- Certain kinds of presentations, certain modes of argument simply don't lend themselves to that kind of quick and dirty distillation, and I don't think that's bad." Sometimes, you're just sitting there in an intellectually stimulating stream of good ideas, and you just have to let your mind go with them.

So: Twitter at MLA-- yea or nay? It depends. It was great for what it did, but I don't think we can ignore the reservations that Roxie's World has specified, and I don't think the answer is necessarily "more Twitter for all!" To pull out one of my hoary old blog mantras, one technology or medium isn't going to work for everything, and expecting it to be useful in all situations (like those of the complex listen-only papers) is to strain it beyond what it can usefully do.

And anyway, you know that someone will sooner or later tweet a message to announce where the full version of those listen-only papers has been published. That's the power of Twitter.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Random bullets of back in the saddle again

I'm back at work (classes) but still in high spirits because of MLA, so here are some random bullets.
  • The first thing I have to remember is that the reduced teaching load for this semester is a gift. It is not an invitation to spend exactly the same amount of time on fewer classes, even if the classes that you have are higher in enrollment. This week I spent all my time on teaching. I need to remember the "fewer classes = less time" rule and change how I spend my time before the papers start rolling in.
  • In this teaching delirium, I had devised a plan that would have me on campus even more days than before for an extra-duty assignment. When I mentioned this plan to a Sane Person, the Sane Person said nothing and just lifted one eyebrow. Sane Person was right! I rearranged the schedule so that I will now be on campus less and complete the extra duty assignment much more effectively.
  • Paying attention to news controversies (like the WSJ one about how to be the mother of perfect children; you know the one I'm talking about) and reading comment threads is a complete waste of time regardless of the train-wreck fascination that they can hold. I'm going to reinstitute my personal ban on those.
  • About those controversies: I've found myself even paying attention to the stupid ones, like the astrology one and the "Two spaces after a period" one over at Slate. (The parenting one is stupid, too, but disturbing.) If you learned to touch type with two spaces, you'll type two spaces, and if you didn't, you won't, and in either case, Replace All will make everything right in the manuscript. Let's move on.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Brief MLA Report: the Fabulous, the Good, and the Okay

First, the fabulous:
  • MLA Gods: Putting MLA in Los Angeles, home of palm trees and sunshine, when lots of us are struggling through an epic winter? Genius.
  • Getting a hotel for us that was way beyond our humble expectations (remember, we're the people who will stay in dorms to save money)? Genius.
  • Also genius: wifi, wifi, everywhere, although I had to get the SuperSecret MLA code for the JW Marriott lobby, which probably wasn't supposed to be secret but that I didn't get, from a kindly fellow MLA person tapping away on his computer.
  • Yes, Virginia, there are kindly fellow MLA people, lots of them. They live in the hearts of academics even when you think that all anyone does is nametag-surf. I even saw people smiling on occasion and being helpful to people that they didn't seem to know, although MLAers usually roam only in packs or herds of the like-minded, for protection. Could the sunshine have been beaming down benevolence rays?
  • Seeing spotlights in the sky and hearing the roar of the crowd at the Staples Center one night. No, it wasn't for a group of MLA bigwigs on the red carpet, but it was still exciting.
  • Excellent panels, of which I want to single out Moose's talk on Thursday night, which was, well, fabulous--funny, organized, and right on point. You can read it at her place, so I won't talk more about it, but everyone loved it. I went to a lot of the "archives" panels, too, which were also excellent. There's a genuine excitement about the new ways we can "do" literary and other kinds of studies, and we heard about a lot of smart and interesting approaches. Don't forget, there's more of this going on today.
  • Lots of good meetings with people and talks with old friends over meals.
  • Seeing more people than I thought I even knew.
The Good:
  • Lots and lots of places to eat close by, if you didn't want to seek out esoteric food.
  • Did I mention the weather?
The Okay:
  • Not a lot of places to get a quick sandwich or bagel, unless you wanted to join the long black-clad lines at Starbucks. Sometimes you just want to eat and get to the next session, but unless you could live on coffee or pastries (both of which I hate), you were out of luck.
  • I have to confess that after a couple of the "hard times" panels, I heard some audience members say, "I can't take another one of these"--"these" being the panels on the grim news of the profession.

Monday, January 03, 2011

MLA, MLA everywhere

Is it just because I'm going to MLA this year that I'm noticing so many posts about it? Anyway, here are some posts:
  • Moose at Roxie's World is going to be speaking in a blogging session, Session 150. I want to go to that session.
  • Dr. Crazy makes some good points about the new family-friendly timing, namely that it's not so family friendly if you have kids in school. So far, I've been really happy that MLA isn't ruining Christmas as it usually does (Stress over MLA & presentations + an introvert's tendency to dread going to conferences = not fun times), but I can see her point.
  • Sisyphus, on the other hand, figures that the timing is perfect.
  • Meanwhile, back at the IHE ranch, Melissa Nicholas has found a way to make MLA job interview candidates stress out about whether they have the right clothing (a suit) to wear or not. She means well, but as one of the commenters said, the time to tell everyone this was about a month ago, not two days before the convention when all you can do is worry that you have the wrong clothes.
  • For the record, I have been on and chaired several hiring committees, and I could not begin to tell you what anyone wore. What they said--yes. Whether they were prepared for the interview--yes. Whether they had exciting ideas for classes to teach--yes. Whether they wore a suit? Not at all, although I don't think anyone had a suit with a skirt. However, the IHE post did make me feel as though I ought to do an emergency shoe shopping trip tomorrow, since I understand that snow boots are not much worn in Los Angeles.
  • The Little Professor will back me up on the "don't worry about the suit" idea. Actually, I am backing her up, since she posted about it first.
  • Although she's writing about the OAH, Tenured Radical has a great post up about how to knock the softball interview question "tell us about your dissertation" out of the park.
And I know it's a big step, but since my paper is already in the hands of the respondent, I'm going to go computer-free at MLA (well, except for the iPad).

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone! How about some bullets of twenty-eleven?
  • Yes, we have to make the changeover from "two thousand and x" some time, so why not this year?
  • It was heavenly not to wake up and head out to the airport the day after Christmas for MLA.
  • On the other hand, that means that the new semester is coming up at the speed of light.
  • And so is MLA. Where'd I put that nametag, again?
As I was out walking just now in the very cold winter twilight, I started thinking about resolutions for this year and was wondering this: is a resolution the same as a goal? I think of resolutions as not having an end point--something like "write more"--as opposed to goals, which are more like "write x amount each day," or "exercise more" as opposed to "lose ten pounds."

Anyway, here's what I want to remember for 2011:
  • Curiosity and excitement about a project are your friends. Don't try to push them away by limiting the amount you want to do in favor of what you "ought" to do.
  • That goes double for listening to budget doom-and-gloom from colleagues or the internets. Can you do one single thing to help the situation? If not, stop listening and just check in once in a while rather than following each twist and turn of the drama.
  • Learn more. Write down what you learn, especially if you're piecing together something you found in an archive. You think you'll remember it. You won't.