Sunday, October 27, 2013

At NYTimes: work for free? Or is the worker worthy of her hire?

At today, Tim Kreider urges the slaves of the internet to unite and rise up against working for free. (The essay is not about the recent and shameful conduct of Scientific American; go read Dr. Isis for that.)  Kreider protests all the requests he and others get to write/draw/paint/act/play music for free because "it's good exposure." What I learned from reading some of the comments is that (1) Arianna Huffington doesn't pay writers as a rule, which may explain why HuffPo has gotten so stupid and pointless lately and that (2) a wise man once told his neighbor, "A free horse is worked to death." Words to live by, wouldn't you say?

As academics, we do our "work" (writing) but not our "course load" (teaching, advising, etc.) for free , because it's part of our job and because it builds our credibility in the discipline. We're paid partly in the coin of "you should do this because you love it," something that the blogosphere has hashed out before.  It's a slightly different animal from what Kreider describes, but we still have to think about it in these situations:

  • Taking on an extra piece of advising, or a workshop, or some other piece of work because "it will benefit the university," says the administrator who is getting paid to convince you to do it. 
  • Doing administration or service and being paid in the coin of  genuinely believing that this will make your department better or benefit students, even though it counts nothing, zip, nada toward promotion and tenure and will take you away from the writing that will help you achieve them. 
  • Traveling to conferences to deliver papers--sometimes partially reimbursed, true, but necessary to do your job. 
  • Reviewing: not just student papers but grant applications, books, tenure packets, scholarly journals and so on. Worth doing? Absolutely--but there has to be a balance. 
  • And here is the one I'm most ambivalent about, in part because Open Access week raised awareness about it: Yes, information should be free.  Yes, information in journals would benefit more people if it were widely accessible outside the subscription databases.  
But am I ready not only to write the articles for free but also to fork over an ACA fee (payment to submit) that goes along with Open Access, whether that fee is $50 or $500? Can I come up with, and do I want to pay out of my modest salary, the $3500 (this is not a misprint; it's an actual fee quoted when I looked into it) necessary for the subscription databases to make one article free and OA?  Oasis ( says that universities will pay the fee, in some or most cases, and in the sciences, the fee may be paid from grants (
The Guardian ( has useful information on the subject, too.
Your thoughts?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

At Slate: "I Quit Academe" as a new essay genre

Over at Slate, Rebecca Schuman suggests that the "quitting academe" essay could practically constitute its own genre
Sarah Kendzior, Al-Jazeera English’s firebrand of social and economic justice, suggested this week that there should be a Norton Anthology of Academics Declaring They Quit, among whose august contributions she would place Zachary Ernst’s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower.” Ernst’s Oct. 20 essay is a deeply honest account of his acrimonious departure from what many would consider a dream job: a tenured position as a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri. 
Ernst’s contribution is indeed part of a raucous subgenre of “I Quit Lit” in (or rather, out of) academe, which includes Kendzior’s own acidic “The Closing of American Academia,” Alexandra Lord’s surprisingly controversial “Location, Location, Location,” and my own satirical public breakdown. All of us faced, and continue to face, the impressively verbose wrath of a discipline scorned, which itself is the completing gesture of initiation into the I Quit Oeuvre.
 Schuman may have a point. It may not be clear that academics are quitting at a greater rate than usual, but they're indubitably hustling over to their blogs to announce the quitting and the reasons for it.  Ernst, who has pride of place in her article, even stars in The Chronicle's entry in the begging-to-be-written Lifetime Original Movie this week, "Faculty Couples for Better or Worse," as one of the commenters points out.

I shouldn't be flippant, though, because these are real problems and real injustices that are happening. Since money is apparently never an issue--those who quit always transition effortlessly into a new career--the spectacular public bridge-burning genre of the "I quit" essay must be designed to make academe better, one blog post at a time.  How could you not admire that?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On writing: Richard Brinsley Sheridan's thought for the day

Sometimes when I wander over to writers' blogs where they're talking about writing a novel in a week or how many words they write a day, I wonder about a couple of things, especially with NaNoWriMo and its children coming up in November:

1. Who's reading those words?
2. Are those words worth reading?

If you're Margaret Atwood, writing 2000 words a day of Margaret Atwood-level prose is one thing. Same is true for Joyce Carol Oates or Anthony Grafton. But what about mere mortals like poor toiling academics?

I wonder this about academic writing when people tell about the many words they write in a day or promote their writing zealously on Twitter.  Sometimes those posts or articles are worth it, but only about 1/10 of the links that I've followed say anything genuinely new. Some books look totally worth it (like Rees's Refrigeration Nation) but others--maybe not.

Maybe that says more about the links that I've been enticed to follow than the quality of what's out there being promoted.  Maybe, too, it taps into a Calvinist distrust of "getting above yourself" like the one that Atwood and Alice Munro have talked about--that what's being advertised so heavily can't be good.

But as I slog my way toward inspiration and a completed manuscript, eking out words, I think of Richard Brinsley Sheridan:

You write with ease, to show your breeding;
But easy writing's vile hard reading.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On writing: Just say it!

I've been working on the introduction to the book manuscript, trying to write my way into Flavia's third stage of writing (writing excitement).  One of the things I'm noticing is where I'm hedging, and these are some words I'm replacing, along with the little lectures I'm giving myself:

  • Basically. Why is it basic, and if it's basic, why do you have to tell the reader it's basic? 
  • Also. Go ahead--I dare you to do this: copy & replace every "also" with nothing (I say to myself).  Does it make a difference? If it does, you didn't need it.
  • In particular. Can't you see that it's a particular example? 
  • Attempts to serve as, attempts to prove.  It does or it doesn't. Get off the fence and make this a more definite verb.
  • Is also evident in. How about "informs," a more definite verb?
  • Dashes and semicolons. Think about how your eyes glaze over when you see a semicolon-laden sentence, however nicely parallel the clauses are.  What are you, a writer or a mouse?  If you need a new sentence, start one. 
  • Way in which. Is anyone really going to care if you say "how" instead? 
  • Trendy words--er, important critical terms like "discourse." Do you really need these words?
  • Thus.  If the inference really does logically follow what you've said, do you need to signal it? "Thus" is important when you're presenting a paper, but is it a signpost that the written paragraph really needs? 
  • Just as . . . so too and Not only . . . but also.  Apparently First Draft Undine loves these parallelisms, but Subsequent Drafts Undine should learn that she is not the 21st-century Henry James of sentence stylings or Milton in writing epic similes. 
  • This doesn't even count the places where I add in a critic who maybe wrote something that referred in passing to a text in 1992 and who I see in my imagination glaring at me and crucifying me in reviews if I don't cite him or her. 
It takes a long time to write a shorter version, so hedging in an initial draft is just part of the process.  I sometimes think, though, that we should track our manuscript words to give ourselves an extra bonus for writing fewer rather than more words in a day. 

What words are you deleting today? 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Common knowledge

I was recently at a conference, and as part of the trip back I was set to spend the night at a chain hotel at the airport before flying out the next day. After getting to the airport, I went outside to the hotel shuttle area.

"Do I need to call for a shuttle?" I asked the guy who was working there. (Sometimes you do, and sometimes they automatically make the rounds of the terminals.  On one memorably long evening, the hotel sent a shuttle with nothing to indicate that it was going to that particular hotel, so I didn't hail it for a long time.)

"Which hotel?" he asked.

"Airport Hellscape Inn."

"Which one?"

"The one at the airport."

"Which one? There are two."

"I don't know."

"Find out," he snapped, and turned away.

Now, from his perspective, how could anyone not know that there were two Airport Hellscape Inns at this particular airport?  It was common knowledge.  From my perspective, it had never crossed my mind that there would be two, so it was not common knowledge. I looked at the printout, found out, and eventually got there.

I thought of this because in my new admin tasks, there's a whole raft of things that everyone takes to be common knowledge that it has never crossed my mind to ask about. "Of course so and so teaches this--is on leave--is involved with this program," I'll hear, or "this course is part of X esoteric requirement--needs to be reviewed by Y assessment office--is only taught every third year." There's a fund of common knowledge, written down nowhere, that I need to learn.  I'm learning it bit by bit, by asking questions of my colleagues, who are far more gracious than the shuttle guy.

It's not as complex as "the Knowledge," which all London cab drivers have to learn, but it's like that in that I need to be there, asking those questions and, even better, being in conversations where a question that I didn't even know I needed to ask arises from the conversation.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Adapting to admin

My sixth-grade teacher once told our class that in a few years, people would evolve--yes, we believed in science back in those days--to creatures with giant heads to accommodate our brains and a big pod foot to push the gas and brake pedals of our cars, since no one would walk any more.  He was kidding, I think and hope, about the pod foot. Certainly his vision has nothing over the satiric view of us all in Wall-E as giant overfed babies watching screens and lugging our drinks with us as we travel in carts everywhere.

If he had predicted fingers adapted to flying over keyboards all day and the inability to cordon off time, he would have been onto something.  The admin tasks I took on as part of leaning in (thanks a lot, Sheryl Sandberg) are eating up my life and writing time, and while I'm not complaining and am appreciative of the opportunity--I said yes, after all--I'm trying to figure out how to do things more efficiently.

But that's the challenge and the fun of it, too: the tasks are interesting, and figuring out how to do things better than I'm doing them right now is, too. I just have to figure out how to turn off the admin brain that wants to play with these new challenges and get back to the old challenges of writing and teaching.