Thursday, December 22, 2016

And a partridge in a pear tree: summing up a sabbatical semester

In the comments on the last post, Gwinne had asked about what I'd done with my time on sabbatical.

Reading all the Facebook, blog, and Twitter posts about people grading sent me into a little tailspin last week, to wit: "What have I done? My sabbatical is half over! I haven't worked on my main sabbatical project! I have failed!" 

This had two results: 

1. Another Facebook break. See you later, Facebookers!

2. Grumpiness and chocolate for a day.

Then I decided to look at the data.

In short: 3 articles submitted, 3 conferences, 1 invited presentation this fall. Since the beginning of 2016, although I wasn't on sabbatical last spring: 7 conferences, 3 grant proposals, and assorted conference proposals. According to the Excel sheet, 73,000 words this year, give or take a few, although some of those are repetitive because they count proposals, though not article or manuscript reviews, letters of recommendation, or tenure reviews.

And a partridge in a pear tree.

How has sabbatical affected this whole process?

1. I wanted to work on those articles and felt desperate to work on them and to get them out, although I'm behind on some promised work. I prioritized the articles, because during my last sabbatical, I concentrated on the promised work and got absolutely nothing else done.

2. Those articles made me feel as though my brain were alive again, and working on them felt fairly transgressive. For one of them, I've already received a rejection, but it was so lovely and encouraging ("excellent but not a good fit for us") that I immediately sent the piece to the journal suggested by the reviewer.

3. In life changes: because of being home, I've gained some weight, yes, and certainly didn't need to. It's my own fault, though, for stress eating when bored or frustrated with writing.

Since the weather now and for the foreseeable future is best described as "ice everywhere," it's tough to get out to do the kind of roaming around on foot that I do during better weather. I'm trying to make more of a commitment to get to the gym and to be mindful about what I do eat.  Also, since I have to cook for the family every night, I can get more of what they like to eat that I'm indifferent to eating (like rice), which will help.

The priority now has to be the promised work, the sabbatical project(s) and associated travel, and getting some motivation back.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Writing inspiration: Reaching for the stars

In the spirit of those old commercials that said "don't hate me because I'm beautiful," I christen this post "don't hate me because I'm on sabbatical." I know it's crunch time for everyone, but it's writing time right now for me.

As Flavia wrote about in her recent posts, I have to keep reminding myself that when you're on sabbatical there's nothing wrong with wanting to write and losing yourself in the pleasure of writing. Being off Facebook helps enormously, in that I'm not getting stabbed by "completion envy" every time someone announces something they've finished or published. (Not a pretty fact, but true.)

Sure, I'm still avoiding some of the things I should be working on, including Big Sabbatical Project, but gathering low-hanging fruit still means that you've gathered some fruit, right?

The project that was 95% done is now sent, so that's two articles submitted this semester. Now, it would be better if they were the ones that are (1) overdue and (2) hugely overdue, but they're out of my hands and the folders are back in the file cabinet rather than on my desk. 

I'm now revising a third, one that seems fairly finished to me and that seems to say "why didn't you send me out for review before this?"  Because, like everyone else who's not on sabbatical, I couldn't put together the necessary consecutive hours of thought time and creative excitement to do the work on it, that's why. During a regular semester, we're all in triage mode all the time (attend this meeting or grade these papers?), but that's not what sabbatical is supposed to be about.

For the two submitted articles, I reached for the stars and sent them to some--what would you call them? aspirational?--journals in which I haven't published before. They might or might not get published, but at least I should get some feedback unless it's a desk-reject. As I've mentioned many times before, I don't have a writing group or trusted writing partner as some of you do, so conference presentations and article reports are about it for feedback.

These three articles are an elaborate avoidance strategy for the real projects, but at least I'm getting somewhere.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

RIP, SEK

I was so sorry to see, on Twitter and Inside Higher Ed, a report on the death of Scott Eric Kaufmann, who wrote at Acephalous, Lawyers, Guns and Money, The Valve (remember that?), Salon, and The A.V. Club, among other spaces.  LGM has links to all his collected works on the web.

SEK was a fine blogger and an interesting writer, especially in his visual analyses of film. I hadn't read his most recent stuff on the commercial sites, but he's also very funny, in all the text-based game dialogues he did and the newer Oldman Cats dialogues (except for a preview, inaccessible to me because they're on Facebook, which I'm off for an indefinite period). As Scott McLemee reminds us at IHE, he spoke about blogging at MLA 2006.

Correction: it was Timothy Burke who had a problem with "mere" bloggers. Carry on!At an early stage, he was dismissive of "mere" bloggers who wrote pseudonymously (guilty as charged), but I get that: you have to stake out your claim and he was not afraid to do that. I only met him in person once, very briefly, but he made his presence felt in what we all do here.

RIP, SEK. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Ready for a writing post? Here's one on conferences.

In Hamilton, the second act is--let's just say very, very sad. Lin-Manuel Miranda calls it a "cryfest," and he wrote it, so he ought to know. The saddest song is "It's Quiet Uptown," and it is so sad that I've only listened to it maybe 5 times instead of the dozens that I've listened to the rest of the soundtrack. The next song, "The Election of 1800,"  begins with Jefferson saying, "Yo, can we get back to politics?" and James Madison saying, in a strangled voice, "Please!"

So, to reframe: "Yo, can we get back to writing?" "Please!" You understand, don't you?

I don't dare say this on Facebook for fear of being seared to a crisp as uncaring, apolitical, an accommodationist, a monster, "neoliberal" (which are all the same thing on Facebook)  at the very least. I'm not. I'm still upset.  I've contacted congressional representatives, donated, and the rest. (Fat lot of good contacting one representative did: what I got in return from one was a rah-rah Trump cheering newsletter talking about "draining the swamp." But at least I did it and will keep trying.)

To get back to writing: This fall, I've done three conferences, some with two papers, and an invited talk, all of which had to be written (no recycled work); I've submitted one article to the major journal in my field and have another about 95% ready.

The most recent conference was incredibly productive, both in terms of hearing new work and in terms of taking me in a new direction for what I can do next. I got direct and very positive feedback on my papers, and I connected with people who are working in this new-ish (for me) research area, who liked what I was doing.

We all know that talking with people at a conference can really help, not only in terms of knowing what work is coming out but in terms of research opportunities (what X archive holds that isn't obvious from the finding aid, for example.) I don't think we think enough about how conferences can force us beyond our comfort zones and push us in new directions, however.  I rarely see a call for papers and think "great! This already-written piece will fit perfectly, so I'll make an abstract and send it in." Instead, I think, "that sounds interesting. I wonder if X would be a good idea for that?" and send in an abstract.

Then, of course, I have to do the research and write the paper, not to mention go to (and pay for going to) the conference or the archive. This does not make me happy, but at the same time, it creates some sense of tension and excitement that helps the writing, although that's probably the wrong way to look at it.

Maybe it's the thrill and agony of a deadline. Everyone differs in this. To give an example: Teddy Roosevelt, if given a writing assignment, would do it as soon as humanly possible, put it away, and forget about it. William Howard Taft would agonize and procrastinate, working over drafts forever.  If you've been reading this blog you know that I, ma'am, am no Roosevelt.  To get anything done, I need to borrow inspiration from the Roosevelts among you, and that means conferences.







Sunday, November 13, 2016

Random bullets and links since Tuesday

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Cassandra without portfolio

Well, the chipper feeling of that last post didn't last long.

I didn't see this coming, did you? In academia, we knew it couldn't happen because the candidate was racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, crude, a liar, etc. etc. etc. plus not being able put any plans or logic together, and everyone must hate this and see what we did. Right? Right?

But I feared it. Looking back there were some little nagging things, like something you catch out of the corner of your eye, weren't there?  Like the guy who predicted all the elections correctly?

Back in the mid-NAFTA-1990s, I went around asking, "But if all the jobs and factories go abroad, who's going to have living wage jobs to buy all the junk we will now be able to buy so cheaply?" (something I also asked on the blog) and was told "Shut up! Knowledge economy! Jobs for everyone! Don't worry about it!" which sort of worked a little bit for some people in the tech boom and then not so much because of a lot of corporate reasons involving outsourcing jobs and moving their corporate headquarters abroad. Same with the 2008 housing collapse: the lending principles didn't add up, but I figured that it was my stupidity and not their mendacity.

One day I came into the room and told Spouse, "I'm worried, because you-know-who is talking about job loss and H1B visas and the Democrats aren't doing that as much." But then with every revelation about his prejudices and actions, the pundits would say x group certainly won't vote for him now (evangelicals, women, etc.) because it would offend their moral sensibilities and I would think, they absolutely do not care, regardless of what they say they value. Yes, I saw the charts, and yes, I know that higher-income voters voted for him and that too many white women did, too.  It was horrible but true what he said about being able to shoot someone down in cold blood and still people would vote for him.

And then Hillbilly Elegy, along with all those economic hopelessness articles in WaPo, became part of an economic conversation about rural areas that we were not having, or not having enough of, in the academic vortex of Twitter. Michael Moore called it (as 
xykademiqz told us today)  and so did David Wong, who basically says that our president-elect is a brick thrown through our windows of privilege.  [Edited to add: Matt Taibbi has an analysis at Rolling Stone and Elizabeth Drew at The New York Review of Books.]

Now we who were with Her are left in the aftermath of the election trying to take meaningful action in this country* and maybe to think about what Ethan Coen said in his satirical "thank you notes" in the NY Times: 
6. All our media friends. Thank you for preserving reportorial balance. You balanced Donald Trump’s proposal that the military execute the innocent families of terrorists, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced pot-stirring racist lies about President Obama’s birth, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced a religious test at our borders, torture by our military, jokes about assassination, unfounded claims of a rigged election, boasts about groping and paradoxical threats to sue anyone who confirmed the boasts, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced endorsement of nuclear proliferation, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced tirelessly, indefatigably; you balanced, you balanced, and then you balanced some more. And for that — we thank you. And thank you all for following Les Moonves’s principled lead when he said Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”

And the Republicans? They got their whole wish list--President, House, Senate--but I can only imagine that they are now like the couple at the end of The Graduate, wondering what they've gotten themselves into.




* Here's a pro tip for those who have dramatically exclaimed that they'll move to Canada: It is very, very hard to immigrate to Canada as a U. S. citizen, unless you already have dual Canadian or British citizenship: you'll need a job offer in a field that they don't have enough of (spoiler alert: humanities grads--they've got 'em!), then a path to landed immigrant status (hard to get, and you have to be there 5 years before even being considered for citizenship), then money for lawyers, and so on. If you have bad vision, health problems, age problems (as in being over 45), they want to know about that, too, and not in a "we'd like to take care of you!" way, either. Yes, they want to see a recent set of chest x-rays, too, or used to.


Tuesday, November 08, 2016

And dauntless crusaders for women--the votes!

Go and vote, if you haven't already!

It's an inspiring day, isn't it? How could you not be a little choked up at all the people lined up to vote and also the lines to honor Susan B. Anthony by placing the "I voted" stickers at her grave (live feed is here: https://www.facebook.com/News8WROC/).

Or, as some might say, "Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now."

I voted a few weeks ago and took my ballot to the mailbox, since we have to sign them on the back and who doesn't worry a little about identity theft? (Our county clerk doesn't, based on a few letters I exchanged with her about it, but our letter carrier does: he came to the door and lectured me about putting outgoing mail in the mailbox the other day, which I almost never do.)

I'm working on a project right now that involves women in the era right before the 19th Amendment. So much talent and achievement: lawyers, tax attorneys, attorneys-general, state senators, and someone who helped Jeannette Rankin get elected exactly 100 years ago yesterday, long before either she or Rankin would have been eligible to vote in a national election.

Well done, sister suffragettes!
*

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Do clickbait articles like "Why professors are writing crap that nobody reads" erode the humanities? Here are 5 weird tricks to tell you the answer.

Figure 1. It got your attention, didn't it?
This little number--"Why Professors Are Writing Crap That Nobody Reads"--was all over my Facebook feed recently, as it may have been all over yours.

Why?  Why does this stupid piece of clickbait provocation keep popping up every few months? I didn't link to it because you don't need to read the article; Google tells me that there are 13 million+ hits on the same exact subject.

Although I'm calling out this one because it's the most recent, it's a whole genre, and you could take your pick of reasons why they're written and published:
  1. It requires absolutely no thought at all to write, since the conclusion is always the same: "Well, the main reason is job security." No kidding! Do tell me more, Captain Obvious. 
  2. It's quick to do, because you can always pick up some random figures from a recent study to "prove" your points.
  3.  Snark is the currency of the internet, and everyone wants to raise their social profile by getting a lot of hits.  It's easier to hurt something than to build it up. 
  4.  It's basically an aggregator paragraph or two that popularizes someone else's research with a few sensational provocations--calling what professors write "crap," for example.
Yes, we'd like it if more people read our stuff. And yes, we ought to reach out to the general public, as I do, or try to, on my other blog, and as many of you on the blogroll already do. Yes, we shouldn't be enabling Elsevier and the rest to make the big bucks by profiting from our free labor as writers and editors. Finally: yes, it's true that we ought to give more weight to informative posts on social media like blogs or platforms like Vox, Medium, LitHub, and the late, lamented The Toast.

But there's an insidious side to all these calls to stop publishing for a scholarly audience and judge an essay's worth based primarily on its popularity. Here are the five weird tricks promised in every clickbait headline to tell you why, although I'll spare you the usual pointless slideshow festooned with ads to show you the list:

1. You can't judge the impact of an article by its immediate popularity. Did Vannevar Bush's classic "As We May Think" make as much of an impact in 1945 as it has since the development of the computer? Some pieces take a while to come into their own. How many ideas popular in their own time (cough*eugenics*cough) were popular and entirely destructive?

2. All research, and certainly humanities research, builds on previous work--standing on the shoulders of giants, I think they call it. The general public may think that an article mapping where speakers in England used "icicle" and where they used "isacle" is pointless, but maybe it tells later researchers where the Vikings landed, or something. I don't know, because I'm not a specialist in Old English, but that's exactly the point: I don't know, and neither do you, dismissive writers and casual readers on the web.

3. It plays into our current national value of being ignorant and proud of it. There are a lot of things I don't understand because I'm not trained in the field, but that doesn't mean that they are not worth attention. A civil society has to trust its members, and it ought to trust that people with expertise know something.

4. The people who read these essays are in a real position to harm funding for research--not just voters, but legislators, who like to wave things from the internet around during their speeches to prove that they're current with what the public is saying. Every time a state legislature moves to cut funding for higher ed, saying "why can't they teach 7 classes a day, 5 days a week?" this is the kind of article they cite.

5. People are hungry for real information, which is why we should share it, but not everything is going to make enough news to gain the kind of currency that these articles demand.  What's going to make a bigger splash on Google News--identifying the multiple authors of a manuscript or a cute walking molecule simulation?

When these articles appear on Facebook, I have held back from saying what I really think, in the name of being noncontentious. I think it's time to start being contentious.



Wednesday, October 12, 2016

At CHE: How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe

At The Chronicle, "How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe" Carl Cederstrom and Michael Marinetto suggest four ways to live less anxiously. [There's actually a fifth, and it's a big one: be tenured, as Cederstrom is, or in a presumably secure lecture position, as Marinetto is, but let it pass.]

Here they are, with commentary, in descending order:

4. Teach well.
This takes on the old canard that teaching doesn't matter--that, indeed, teaching too well means you're not serious about your research. The authors advise putting "care and attention" into teaching, to which I would say, "well, who doesn't?" Maybe people need this reminder, though.

3. Stop writing badly.
This is an example of "begging the question"--that is, it assumes that everyone writes badly and that, as the authors say, they do it on purpose. Does this really happen? Still? I don't read a lot of really bad writing in academe, although working through theory-dense reading to get to a Captain Obvious point, which happens a lot, makes me stabby.

2. Be an amateur.
This is the old "follow your bliss" and "do what you love," which, okay, makes good sense if you have the security of a position that lets you do it. It charges and stimulates your brain.  They're basically saying don't be afraid to speak out even if you don't think you have the credentials.

1. Kill your institutional aspirations.
Also known as "say no to service," this advice got a lot of blowback in the comments from people who noted, correctly, that if white male academics are busy following their bliss, the service demands will fall on women and people of color. They congratulate themselves on, as they quote one person's prescription, distancing themselves from the university "spiritually" while leeching off its money. [The sentiment is phrased with such an obnoxious sense of entitlement that I won't quote it here, because see above: makes me stabby.]

Some of the commenters mention that institutions bring this on themselves when they require committee reports, surveys, etc. and then completely ignore the results and ask for the same things again, over and over, resulting in a colossal duplication of effort and waste of time.

So is there a way to live less anxiously in academe? The shorter version is probably "do your utmost with things you care about and let the rest go as much as you can."

Edited to add: Don't forget Sophia Gould's wonderful "I am the woman in your department who does all your committee work": https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/i-am-the-woman-in-your-department-who-does-all-the-committee-work

And see xykademiqz's great post on a different kind of entitlement: https://xykademiqz.com/2016/10/08/noisy/


Tuesday, October 04, 2016

You heard it here first: my take on a conservative academic's perspectives on some things

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Mark Bauerlein has declared that "We've reached a point where we need a jolt," and that the name of that jolt is Donald Trump.

I would call it a nuclear conflagration rather than a jolt, but instead of passing judgment (who, me?), I offer some of his other opinions as they've appeared on this blog via CHE over the years.
Based on the CHE articles--and there were many more I didn't discuss--I'd always assumed that MB was their Andy Rooney-like lovable professional curmudgeon, but maybe not.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hoarding, Marie Kondo, and the Academic Office

Figure 1. Not my desk, but I can dream.
At The Atlantic, "Hoarding in the Time of Marie Kondo" talks about the dilemma of the hoarder, for whom everything "sparks joy."

The test case in the article, "Marnie," is in an income bracket that allows her to scoop up multiple pairs of shoes at Nordstrom's and to part with a $7,000 dress only reluctantly, so money isn't a problem, except maybe in the sense of having too much of it to spend. But she's not the category I'm thinking about.

According to Marie Kondo, as everyone knows by now, you need to get rid of things if they don't "spark joy.": "“You will never use spare buttons,” Kondo writes. “You are going to read very few of your books again.”

Two things:

  • Marie Kondo is not an academic, or she would never say that about books.
  • Marie Kondo is also not an academic if she has never rummaged through a sewing box for spare buttons at 11:30 p.m. to sew a missing button on a shirt or suit jacket before she has to get up at 3:30 a.m. to make a 5:00 a.m. flight to a conference. She couldn't do it beforehand because she had to finish the paper first and there are no button stores open at 11:30 p.m. so if she did not hoard the buttons she would be out.of.luck. Just saying.
This article made me wonder about hoarding in academia, though.
  • I don't know if I've met actual hoarders, but I've been to plenty of offices with papers and books heaped on every surface.  Haven't you? And many of these people were highly productive.
  • A lot of recent research has found a link between messiness and creativity, which confirms this idea.
  • According to Randy Frost, a hoarding expert quoted in the article, “People who hoard tend to live their lives visually and spatially, instead of categorically like the rest of us do.” This fits with the "piles o' stuff" system of organizing that I use, at least, when I'm deep in a project, which contributes to the messy desk. And isn't this how you visualize books on your bookshelves--by shelf position, approximately, and by spine color?
  • Discarding and buying and discarding and buying, for books especially, seems wasteful, not to mention expensive. You can't get back the notes you wrote in the book, and there's a time factor as well as a money factor involved in reordering and re-buying a book you need. 
  • On the other hand, thinking about getting rid of things as "wasteful" is the mark of a hoarder, according to the article.
  • It feels good to get rid of stuff in the house, though . There's a real feeling of accomplishment to putting those bags out for whichever charity is picking them up, and I always admire the cleared space for a while after that.  
  • There's clutter and then there's sentiment. I went through my email folders and deleted a bunch of old department emails recently, since surely someone has a record of them if I ever need them. But thinking about scanning pictures and throwing out the originals seems daft to me. I've lost a lot of pictures over the years going from computer to computer, but the actual printed versions from pre-computer days are still in albums and I look at them about 1000 times more than any computer pictures. 
Are we predisposed to certain kinds of hoarding if we're academics? I'm not talking about Discovery Channel-level habits, but maybe keeping more than we need. Your thoughts? 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Random bullets of September, writing, and book news

It's been a month since I've posted here (really?), and a busy one.

  • My book is out, and I wish I could post a picture, because I really like the cover. I also really, really like having it finally be out. People even bought it and asked me to sign it at some recent appearances, which strikes me as amazing, and I will be on tv next month (already recorded). 
  • Question to all: if/when you published a book, did you send copies to people in the field, friends, etc.? The press already has a long list of places they sent it for review, so I'm worried that if I send it to some, (1) they might see it as a conflict of interest if they have already been asked to review it, which of course I can't know and (2) presumptuous. Your thoughts? 
  • Thanks again, all of you who read even during the slog of the Laocoon manuscript, slowcoach writing, and all the rest. To be fair, I didn't start serious work until well after the slowcoach writing thing--maybe 2010 or 2011?--but that's still a lot of time. I'll never be as fast a writer as Tanya Golash-Boza, but then again, I'm not a social scientist with data ready to be written up. 
  • Hi, Historiann, if you're reading! The other night at a dinner, I recommended The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright to a tableful of university professors who teach captivity narratives, so they might order it for their classes. 
  • In other news, some of the many low-level bureaucrats at Northern Clime are giving me a hard time about a scholarly project, absolutely non-controversial (think: describing the literary stylings of novels about squirrels), that will cost them nothing. They want me to come in and discuss "whether we can allow this project to be at Northern Clime." On a matter of academic freedom? Oh, no you didn't. While I was fuming, Spouse came in and said "kick it up to the Dean," which I'll be arranging to do next week. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Okay, I get it: you don't like cursive handwriting

Figure 1. You can read this, right?
In "Handwriting Just Doesn't Matter," a clickbait-y title that considerably overstates the evidence supplied in what turns out to be a surprisingly reasonable essay, Anne Trubek lists all the usual suspects about why we don't need cursive handwriting.

Actually,  I agree with a lot of her reasoning:

1. More people are writing more than ever before, so the kids are all right. (Pretty much true).

2. Typed work levels the playing field since bad handwriting can prejudice teachers (which is true).

3. The current proponents of cursive have seen it as a patriotic act, which is pretty sinister (which is sort of true and really one of the strongest arguments).  Typing is more small-d democratic.

4. She and her son had a hard time learning it, so it's not needed. (Can't judge this one.)

Weaker arguments:

1. Everyone has a keyboard or phone (and by extension is presumably wirelessly connected, with fully charged keyboard/phone) at all times. (Nope, not buying this one. Do we have free hardware and free software and free connectivity for everyone in this country? Disgracefully, no. )

2. It's not important to be able to read cursive, since only "experts" can read documents in cursive: "Reading that 18th-century document [the Declaration of Independence] in the original is difficult for most people who know cursive, as the script is now unfamiliar." Proof? Source? No, it's not difficult to read. It's not necessary, though, to be able to read it in cursive, although this seems to be an obsession with the #3 people above.

 The stronger corollary is that these documents are also written in foreign languages, which, although she doesn't say it, is something the U.S. more or less gave up on a while back.

3. She glides over all the studies that show that students who write notes by hand--which is NOT the same as cursive--retain information better.

Where Anne Trubek and I agree most is on this benign and sweeping conclusion: "The cultural values we project onto handwriting will alter as we do, as they have for the past 6,000 years."

As I've argued a lot on this blog, unlike Anne Trubek, I think that handwriting and/or cursive is important but isn't a hill to die on. But like other forms of creativity or self-expression (or the humanities, for that matter), we need to think a little before we can argue for its elimination on utilitarian grounds.

 Every time some form of handcraft goes extinct, whether it's canning or calligraphy or drama clubs or music--or, worse, becomes a class marker, as in prep schools will teach it  but public schools will not--we lose a little something of our small-d democratic systems.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Email: You're doing it wrong, according to random clickbait writers

A few years ago, in 2010, I wrote a post noting how "I hope you are well" had started appearing as the opening to most of the emails I received:
A few years ago, I started noticing that a number of academics didn't just launch into requests or whatever when writing emails. Instead, the emails began with the sentence "I hope you are well" or another courteous phrase unheard of back in the olden days.

And the complimentary closes of the emails became more polite, too. Although a lot of people still apparently prefer "best," I've seen comments at the Chronicle saying that this is too curt, and in the last couple of years, I've seen a lot more variety in this part of the email, too: "best regards," "warm regards," "all best," "with best wishes," "cordially," and so on.
I saw this phrase, and some more courteous phrases generally, as an improvement on the necessarily somewhat curt messages we used to send in the early (pre-)Internet days when it was impossible to go up or down a line to correct typos in the email clients then in use.

I don't usually use this phrase, which is mostly reserved for--ahem--only the prickliest of correspondents--but I don't have anything against it.

But Dayna Perkins, a random person on the internet, wrote a clickbait-y piece full of opinions for New York magazine about it, saying we ought to stop using it.

And she links to Rebecca Greenfield, a media-friendly opinion consultant at Bloomberg, who says we also shouldn't be using "best." She cites another bunch of people with lots of opinions.

Well, I, too, am a random person on the internet, and I disagree with exactly as much weight of factual evidence and authority as they're showing.

I ought to know better than to fall for opinion clickbait at this point. I also know that negative clickbait (don't/never/these 5 things will kill you) generates more clicks than positive opinion pieces, so I really should have known better.

But since I want to be respectful and move along, I will sign this as follows:

I remain, dear madame, most affectionately,

Yr most obedient and faithful servant,

Undine


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Class and academe: a somewhat meandering childhood story with a point

Figure 1. Like the version in my great-aunt's house.
[If you're tired of my posts about/current interest in issues of class, you can skip this post.]

One day, when I was about 10, I walked over to my great-aunt's house. (This wasn't an everyday thing; my parents must have been out of town or something.) My great-aunt had retired from her job as a saleswoman in the major department store of our nearby city. 

My great-aunt and great-uncle lived about a block away in our village, in a stone house built sometime in the early years of the 19th century. The house itself had two living rooms, or rather a living room and a parlor. The living room had regular comfortable furniture; the parlor was mostly Empire and Victorian, with horsehair-covered settees and the first hair art picture I had ever seen.

The house was on the edge of a ravine, under huge maple and oak trees, with a chicken coop where it was a great treat for us kids to gather eggs.

It wasn't common to keep chickens in those days, as it is fashionable now (vide the Portlandia episodes that reference this), and it wasn't fashionable to be conscious of healthy food then, either. But my aunt and uncle had been keeping a large garden for this reason since the 1930s, growing asparagus and making things like whole wheat bread and dandelion wine (which looked and smelled disgusting, incidentally).

On this particular day, I knocked on the screen door and stepped over the worn stone threshold. The kitchen was large, and the fireplace that had originally served as both cooking and heat source was there but unused; my memory is that there was a stone floor still.

When I walked in, I saw the jars of peaches that my aunt had just canned. They were all over the counter and the wooden kitchen table, and she was lifting another rack of them out of the canning kettle.

This was pretty exotic to me then, since like most of her contemporaries, my mother didn't can things much or make bread.

As I chatted with my aunt, I said something like, "It's amazing that you can can these peaches. I wish I could do this when I grow up."

She then turned to me and said, not angrily but seriously: "I never went to college. This is all I can do. But you can go to college and do so much more."





Saturday, August 13, 2016

Class, J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, and the First Jobs Meme

I'm more and more realizing that I come from a middle-class family that thinks like a working-class family, according to the levels of savvy about m-c norms that J. D. Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy.

 Vance describes wildly dysfunctional families--mine was not; it was wonderful and happy--but in terms of general class cluelessness, I offer this:

--Neither my parents nor I had any conception that there was such a thing as financial aid for college. No. Clue. I had a Regents' scholarship, and we thought that was all that was available. [Edited to add: The idea that you would get competing offers from private schools and play them off against each other, as is apparently common, might have occurred on Mars for all we were aware of it.]

--Intense mockery from the larger extended family for wanting to do what Hamilton calls "rise above my station."  Which job did I want? Nurse or teacher?  What's puzzling is that some of them were professionals--lawyers and such--so I think this was probably gender rather than class-based.

--Which state school did I plan to attend, the one 40 miles away or the one 60 miles away? (Vance talks about this place-bound thinking as a class issue; ditto for private versus public institutions.)

--Rules were for keeps, whereas for middle- and upper-middle class students, rules were meant to be bent with a well-placed phone call.  Here's what I said about them in 2009:
 As I said in a too-long comment over at Sisyphus's blog, if you were raised with working-class values (as I was, and which transcend technical middle-class status), you thought that when someone told you the rules, they were really the rules. You didn't realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that's not how the world works for you if you don't have class privilege to back it up. And then, when you saw others sail past the rules that you'd abided by, you felt angry and betrayed, because you'd played by the rules and they hadn't.
 I did not know that rules would bend to class privilege until well beyond graduate school.  Now I make a point of telling students like me, "Look, let's make a call and see what we can do."

So, forthwith I give you, as seen at Flavia Fescue's, the first jobs meme.

1. Babysitting, a lot of it, enough to buy my first typewriter in high school. Now that I think of it, some of my wages from being a cashier probably paid for part of it, too.

2.  Tried to get a job at the library but couldn't. Ditto a newspaper job. Jobs were scarce in those days.

3. Supermarket cashier. My mother, using her influence, got me an interview at the local chain supermarket, where I worked at a checkout stand through high school and college. I felt lucky to have this job, since each summer I had to earn whatever spending money I needed for the whole school year. This was back when you had to memorize prices (no bar codes), so I got to be good at it fairly fast.

4. Job I did not try for: waitress, due to an intense hatred of smoking and knowing that I'd have to clean ash trays. This was before "smoke-free" anything.

5. Worked in food service in a dining hall, both on the serving line and prepping vegetables.

6. Drugstore clerk. Hated it.

7. Filing and typing in an academic office.

Flavia, I thank you for posting this list, for I had thought that maybe I was making it up about the class dimension of jobs.  In thinking more deeply about it, I can see that I wasn't.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Take a break! Let's go away for the summer; let's go upstate

Take a break. That's what everyone thinks academics do in the summer, to our infinite fury.

"Take a break FROM GETTING PAID FOR THREE MONTHS. Is that what you mean?" we mutter under our breath.

Yet we need some kind of break, for sure; even a week is good.

I recently spent a week with family, near but not at the beloved Land of No Internets.  And when annoyed, insistent emails about non-urgent matters from my collaborators piled up--as in, if I didn't respond to a question within an hour, they'd send the wrong reply to higher-ups--I had had it and told them that they could keep emailing, but I wasn't going to respond.

Once a year I get to see family together in this way. Once a year. The collaborators can chill out for 5 days, don't you think?

But it was a much better visit overall than last year's because I took Lin-Manuel Miranda's famous advice and took a break. I didn't cook as much, or clean as much, and if the dog wanted to steal food off the table, fine by me.  (Others dissuaded him, but I was not going to.)

I swam and kayaked and sat by the water and read and went to get spring water.  I talked with my mother about genealogy (which she loves, but I'm the only person who will listen to her talk about it).  It made me think about all the family who have lived in that part of the state for generations, since it was settled, especially when I drove by the old graveyards.

Did Facebook & Twitter, when I checked them, make me feel guilty about not getting work done? Of course. That's their job. But I have a sabbatical, and I'll get into work mode soon enough.

So did "take a break" work?

Yes.

What I learned was that the world does not hinge on my control. It only wants my participation. There's a difference.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Secret messages to contemporary fiction writers

As most of you have probably figured out from all those shout-outs to Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, and the rest, contemporary fiction isn't my area. For a promised article with an immediate deadline, though, I'm reading a lot of it--bearing in mind that contemporary for me is anything from about 1990 on.

Some of what I'm reading is brilliant. It's amazing. It's astonishing, and it's powerful. It deserves its status as a contemporary classic.

But some of it is less so, even within works by the same author. Some pieces are amazing, and others seem more like a bag of tricks.

  • Maybe you were told to write down striking images in your Moleskine and to save them up to use later. Maybe you were told to use figurative language like alliteration, too, to make the language memorable. But please use these sparingly, because reading some of these works is like sitting down to eat a big cereal bowl of chunky rocks. The words can barely make sense because the reader has to work so hard to find a verb. I'm not asking for easy, but it's possible to be literary, powerful, complex, and still enjoyable.  
  • A few really powerful and well-developed characters in a short story can work more magic than fifteen characters all competing for airtime.
  • This goes double if all the characters have been given highly eccentric names. 
  • If you put a character in a novel or story purely to illustrate a point--the Evils of Capitalism, say--the reader is likely to recognize that right away, say, "Got it, thanks," and be longing to skip some of the character's speeches.  

  • I recall from the Steinbeck East of Eden diaries that Steinbeck wasn't sure that readers would get his Big Symbol of Cain and Abel. By this he seems to mean the book's structure wherein the sons of Adam and Cathy (a Lilith figure) are twins, one good and one evil--get it? I like East of Eden, but that's not exactly a hidden symbol. You can trust your reader. 
  • There's an old rule in screenwriting that every scene has to do two out of three essential things: develop character and relationships, advance the plot, or articulate/deepen the themes. Fiction probably has to do more than this with each of its scenes, but it's not a bad rule to bear in mind.
  • Death, dismemberment, torture, loss, repression, and violence are not the only things that can evoke powerful emotions or make a good story, although they make a lot of good ones. 
  • And when does a conventional trope become a cliche? I know that all animals in a contemporary story will die, and I'm ready for that. (TVTropes hilariously calls this "death by Newbery Medal," but it happens in literary fiction, too.)

As I said, most of the fiction is really fine, but that's not to say Homer doesn't nod on occasion, as in the list above. 

Do you have any "bag of tricks" items that you've seen in current fiction? 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Open access: you go first. No, YOU go first.

Note: Published as a distraction from the unrelentingly grim national news. For thoughtful reflections on those events, see the recent posts by Historiann and What Now.

At the Chronicle, Paul Basken reports that despite a faculty vote to encourage open access publication, "only about 25 percent of professors systemwide are putting their papers into a state-created repository that allows free outside access."

The title of the article is "The U. of California’s Open-Access Promise Hits a Snag: The Faculty."

Like everyone else, I love the idea of open access in theory, but I have questions.

Is it "the Faculty," though? Read between the lines and you'll see a few other lightly mentioned or unmentioned snags:


  • "But publishers, predicted to be the primary obstacle, have proved surprisingly compliant: Only about 5 percent of publishers have made any attempt to ask faculty members to opt out, he said."  
    Comment: "Asking faculty members to opt out" is not the same as a publisher giving his/her/its/their blessing to publishing on a university site before publication. Many publishers will allow only uncorrected proofs to be archived, not the final version of an article. Others allow only the manuscript, or "preprint."  What use is that to scholars? How do you cite this, since there would be no final page numbers? What's the point of preprints in this case?
  • "Much of the open-access movement centers on efforts to persuade scientific journals to adopt revenue models that do not rely on subscription fees. A common alternative asks authors, or their institutions or funders, to pay a fee to cover the costs of reviewing, editing, and assembling their journals."
  • Comment: For a humanities journal, that gold access "fee" that the essay so blithely skips over can be $3500 to $4000.  For ONE article.
  • Would your university or department pay that? Mine would not.  
  • Humanities grants would not pay for this, as the scientific ones do. 
  • And what if one journal had a fee of $2500 and a more prestigious one had $4000? Wouldn't you feel pressured to publish where the fee is lower, even if the higher-ranked journal would accept your article? 
  • And wouldn't this fee-for-review model encourage the kind of scammy "International Journal of Everything under the Sun" solicitations that clog my mailbox every morning?
  • To get people to comply, "California has relied on automation, creating a computer system that looks for any article by a university faculty member. The system then sends an email to the author, offering a link that automatically puts the article into the state’s open-access repository. That approach has been key just to getting up to the 25-percent compliance rate, Mr. Kelty said."

  • Comment: This is a good idea, full stop. I'd do this with articles I have already published, wouldn't you? 
  • The push for open access is to create journals that will compete with regular $$$$ journals put out by Elsevier, etc., which have an unbeatable business model: pay the editors in nothing but prestige, the contributors ditto, and the reviewers not even prestige, since they're supposed to be anonymous, and rake in the profits. Cutting back on this business model is a worthy goal./b>
    • Comment: Will publishing only in open access journals result in a tenurable record at Harvard or at your institution, or will a faculty member still need to publish in Science, Nature, PMLA, Novel, or whatever other top-level journals are out there? Once again, the most prestigious schools have to take the lead on this. Apparently people at UCLA, Berkeley, and the other California schools don't think that they can accumulate a tenurable record based on open access, and until they do, I doubt that others would follow suit, however worthy the goal. 


    So, in short: it's not just about the faculty. It's about an entire academic system that is pushing the faculty to do things that are worthwhile but--surprise!--are not necessarily rewarded. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Writing inspiration: Why do you write like you're running out of time?

Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years. 

--Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 5.

 I came to Alexander Hamilton through two sources:

1. I am and have been for some time a huge fan of Ron Chernow, having read his Washington biography, all 35+ hours of it. I have Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder but haven't read it yet. These are for fun reading (not related to work) and there hasn't been a lot of time recently to do any.

2. At one point in my life, probably the mid-century males portion of it, I read and reread obsessively Gore Vidal's Burr and, to a lesser extent, 1876. 

Burr was the best piece of fiction that Vidal ever wrote, at least that I read: Washington, D. C., the supposed third volume in the trilogy, although it had been written much earlier, was too louche and decadent, and the other American historical novels (Lincoln, Empire) relied too heavily on a few stylistic tricks.  Vidal was much better as an essayist.  But Burr was exceptional in Vidal's canon, maybe because the acerbic wit that Vidal brought to it seemed temperamentally suited to discussing Burr.

So, knowing that Chernow had written Washington, I downloaded his bio Alexander Hamilton and got about halfway through it when I started hearing about a musical based on it.

Yes, that one. 

I bought the soundtrack and am now obsessed with it.  Quite apart from the amazing lyrics, though, it's a great piece of writing inspiration for the story it tells.  Hamilton writes his way out of the West Indies, writes as Washington's "right-hand man," writes 51 (or so) of The Federalist Papers, which I think I last had to read some of in high school, and writes writes writes for the rest of his life.

One thing that struck me forcefully this time: Burr was 48 at the time of the duel and Hamilton was 49 (if you accept Chernow's date of 1755 for his birth).  Middle-aged. Old enough to know better, which makes the whole thing more sad, somehow.

But still, an inspiration to writers.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Random bullets of so much travel, with a side order of Sinclair Lewis


  • Reason for blog absence: travel and conferences and more travel and more conferences. Paid for by the department or frequent flyer miles and savings? What do you think? 
  • Did I just fall asleep in my chair a minute ago? Yes, indeed. If I stretch out on the floor for 20 minutes, does that count as a nap (which I'm forbidding myself) or as, um, "yoga"? Yoga it is!
  • The hardest part is giving up the momentum I had on Thing One and Thing Two, which I was working on like a demon before having to quit and get ready for the conferences. Using the old rule--all right, my old rule--of having to spend at least one hour of wasting time and avoidance for each day you're away from the project, I think I'm ready to get started again. 
  • About the election: I used to think I was watching Berzelius T. Windrip (legally available here if you're in Australia), but now I think I am watching Dusty Rhodes, which is Andy Griffith at his most folksy and most terrifying.  
  • You all know by now I'm a Sinclair Lewis fan. Here's a section on Berzelius T. Windrip from Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935), with some breaks, comments, and bolding added. Liberal editor Doremus Jessup is speaking first:
But wait till Windrip shows us how to say it with machine guns! . . .  On the whole, with scandalous exceptions, Democracy's given the ordinary worker more dignity than he ever had. That may be menaced now by Windrip--all the Windrips. All right! Maybe we'll have to fight paternal dictatorship with a little sound patricide--fight machine guns with machine guns. Wait till Buzz takes charge of us. A real Fascist dictatorship!"
"Nonsense! Nonsense!" snorted Tasbrough. "That couldn't happen here in America, not possibly! We're a country of freemen." 
 "The answer to that," suggested Doremus Jessup, "if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is 'the hell it can't!' Why, there's no country in the world that can get more hysterical--yes, or more obsequious!--than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns his State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio--divine oracles, to millions.
Comment: Listen to AM radio, as I do during the long distances. Hasn't changed.
Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding's appointees? Could Hitler's bunch, or Windrip's, be worse? Remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut 'Liberty cabbage' and somebody actually proposed calling German measles 'Liberty measles'?
Comment: Remember "Freedom Fries"?
And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the--well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it?
Comment: Check out the link for a recent endorsement.
Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? . . . Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children?
Comment: Contemporary equivalents--we have them.
Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?
Comment: Still happening and still here.
. . . Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition--shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor--no, that couldn't happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We're ready to start on a Children's Crusade--only of adults--right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!"
"Well, what if they are?" protested R. C. Crowley. "It might not be so bad. I don't like all these irresponsible attacks on us bankers all the time. Of course, Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he'll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word 'Fascism,' Doremus? Just a word--just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours--not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini--like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days--and have 'em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. '
Comment: Or "great again"?
Nother words, have a doctor who won't take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!"
Comment: What do you think?


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Projecting power, gender edition

How do you project power--not arrogance, but power--through your speech and body language?

We've all seen the advice telling us not to say "sorry" or "just" in emails, and I did quit using these so much once I realized how much they tended to diminish the message. It's one thing to be polite, but when you use those words without a reason (i.e., reflexively, not if you've screwed up), you're putting yourself in a submissive position for no particular reason.

For example, if you've been charged with collecting a specific type of information, you can be polite but there's no need to couch your request in the form of some kind of huge personal favor.  You know the kind of message--and I've written plenty of them: "Sorry to bother you, and I know you're really, really busy, but could you just take a minute to fill this out for me?  I'd really appreciate it. Thanks so very, very much!" The studies say that this is a gendered thing (guilty as charged), so stopping the excesses of this kind of language is a start.

There's another way that we project power or fail to do so.  An example: I'm on campus today, and there's a big whoop-de-do type of meeting--Regents or something--happening as well as some other campus activities.  As I was going down the main staircase in one of the buildings, I passed by a woman who stared long and hard at me when I passed.  I did not have spinach on my teeth or a tinfoil hat on, so there was no reason for that.

Now, as a young female person in the world, many years ago, I had somehow internalized that the proper response to a stare like that was to drop your head and smile.  It was respectful, and somehow friendly, and, more to the point, it was just what you did.  What I realize now is that it's a posture of submission and that the dominant person in the exchange person will probably not do the same, though a person of roughly the same age/gender/status probably will.

But then I realized many years ago that the moms at the gym, the ones who worked the Stairmasters as though they were training for the Iditarod and bragged incessantly about their kids, always gave the cold hard stare. I learned to give the cold hard stare back, and boy, did it feel good.

Back to the staircase.  Instead of the "drop head, lower eyes, and smile," did I give the long, hard stare back?  Yes. Yes, I did.  Was it because I was saying to her "I'm a full professor at Northern Clime and you can back way, way the --- off before you give me that stare?"

Not exactly. What I was saying is "I'm a grown person in the world, and if you want to stare at me, I'll stare right back. The end."

This is the message we need to be sending. You can be polite, but when it comes to taking up space as a human being, you will meet people with the respect that they mete out to you.

And you won't. back. down. https://youtu.be/nvlTJrNJ5lA


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Productivity post: Time is on your side (yes, it is)

Two recent articles are making me think about how we conceptualize time as academics.

The first is Laura Vanderkam's "The Busy Person's Lies" in the New York Times. I knew her name from discussions over at nicoleandmaggie's place. Although I'm not a True Believer (because what she & Sheryl Sandberg seem to attribute to savvy management I see as having money enough to throw at problems), the information Vanderkam provides about where her time actually went is interesting.

Vanderkam's point is that we exaggerate the misery or the things we hate to do and that there's a lot of time wasted that we don't count. We don't work as long and as hard as we think we do, she says. Her estimates seem pretty reasonable except that she says she spends only 3 minutes a day logging her time every half hour, which seems very low.

According to Vanderkam, logging one's time leads to a feeling of abundance and gratitude as women realize that they aren't as busy as they think they are, #blessed.  Her honesty in this article, or what appears to be honesty, goes a long way toward supporting this point and toward giving me more respect for her ideas than I have had previously.

Still, not all hours of the day can be productive, or maybe "productive" in the way that can be quantified.  A recent article on time-logging mentioned that, for example, waiting by the side of a road when your car breaks down gets logged as "leisure," but it's not exactly a day at the beach.

Another example: Full-time care of young children is rewarding but also exhausting in ways that no productivity charts can measure, something Vanderkam may not realize because she has a nanny. If you go to a computer after a day with a 2 1/2 year old, you might just stare at it, too tired to move, let alone think.

And although I log some kinds of time (the writing spreadsheet and a to-do list system that's similar to some of the ones at Profhacker), I suspect that logging time every half hour would lead to a feeling more like #killmenow than #blessed.

The second is an article at IHE about The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. It's clear that they're women after my own heart or entirely right (same thing). A few snippets (quoted from the article but broken up because who doesn't love a listicle?):

  1. [T]he discussion focuses on the links between time, commitments and personal stress, and emphasizes trying to achieve a sense of “flow” or “timelessness,” which presents as creativity (and productivity). How to get into the flow? Avoid or eliminate to the extent possible environmental factors that interfere with creativity, the book says. Protect “a time and a place for timeless time” and continually remind yourself “that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.”
  2. Slow Professor proposes getting off-line as much as possible and doing less by thinking of scheduling as eliminating commitment’s from one’s day, not taking them on. 
  3. Perhaps most importantly, it proposes leaving room in one’s schedule for regular “timeless time,” starting with some kind of relaxing, transitional ritual. Incorporate playfulness and shun those negative self-thoughts. And don’t forget leaving time to do nothing at all, the book says.
Maybe writing books based on some kinds of popular data (time management) only requires the 5-minute snippets that Vanderkam doesn't want us to waste. It's a convection oven for when regular heat just isn't fast enough, and it makes a palatable product.

The kind of books and articles that most academics write, though, can only be done with reflection and time not only for the "flow" experience but for knitting connections together in the brain. It's slowcoach writing  or maybe slow cooker writing, since the ideas have to simmer to break down the tough membranes of resistance between the ideas to bring out the flavor of the new and strange. 





Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing inspiration: Hemingway again

From David Brooks's column on Hemingway's house in Cuba, with commentary in italics (I know it's David Brooks, but give it a chance):

1. When you see how [Hemingway] did it, three things leap out. The first is the most mundane — the daily disciplines of the job. In the house, there is a small bed where he laid out his notes and a narrow shelf where he stood, stared at a blank wall and churned out his daily word count. Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.

Worth remembering, those "daily disciplines of the job." This has been a tough week at Northern Clime, but the routines--even writing when I could manage it--have helped. 

2. Second, there seem to have been moments of self-forgetting. Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she notes it’s fashionable to say you do your work to serve the community. But if you do any line of work for the community, she argues, you’ll end up falsifying your work, because you’ll be angling it for applause. You’ll feel people owe you something for your work. But if you just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done — then you’ll end up, obliquely, serving the community more. Sometimes the only way to be good at a job is to lose the self-consciousness embedded in the question, “How’m I doing?”

Dorothy L. Sayers has a good point. Ultimately, you have to write what you think or know or believe is true, which is what Hemingway always talked about--"the true gen." You have to do what's right and focus on the task at hand even if some necessary unhappiness results. "Serve the work."  You're not going to be applauded, but if you're protecting others, or your work, you need to keep going.  

And if others don't like what you're doing or writing, think about it: what's their perspective or interest? Where are they coming from? Is their opinion valid, relevant, and ethically in tune with what you're trying to do? Do they wish you and your work well, or do they have a different agenda in mind? 

Maya Angelou once said,  "When people show you who they are, believe them." Their response to your work or your actions is conditioned by who they are, just as yours is. Believe who they are, and consider whether the power you're giving them over your words or actions is warranted.  

3. Finally, there was the act of cutting out. When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity. Then in middle age, out of softness, laziness and self-approval, he indulged himself. But even then, even amid all the corruption, he had flashes when he could distinguish his own bluster from the good, true notes.

Flashes, yes, although there's still a lot of bluster and self-pity in some late Hemingway. What he seems to have hated is that for stretches he couldn't distinguish the false from the true or, even worse, when he knew what he was writing was false and couldn't write truly (a Hemingway phrase). Valerie Hemingway's Running with the Hemingways gives a good account of some of those last years, when it seems that no one dared to stand up to him. Standing up to Hemingway might have made him unhappy, but it might also have resulted in better and truer work. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Springtime Festivus

What happens every spring? No, not baseball. No, not daffodils, although they happen, too.

Spring, and especially the end of the semester, is the time when otherwise sensible and rational academics get. . .touchy.

Minor slights become major affronts that demand action.  Discussion lists and Facebook blossom with testy demands for accountability.

Letters and petitions flourish about matters that a face-to-face conversation could solve. Sides are chosen and colleagues demand that you join them or else be held accountable for not caring enough.
Escalation becomes the norm, and old injuries, real or perceived, are brought out for their annual airing. It's a springtime Festivus.

I'm not talking about the social issues that are genuinely causes to protest, but rather things like "how come the professors on one floor get green staplers and we have to settle for red ones?"

I'm exaggerating, of course, but I get caught up in this, too.  A few years back, I recognized that it's a pattern and now earnestly try to keep my mouth shut and, if that doesn't work, to "take my hands off that" problem.

Have you noticed this, or is it just my end-of-semester crankiness clouding my judgment? Or should we be more attentive to these issues all the time instead of just in the spring?



Monday, April 18, 2016

Does luck play a role in academe? Absolutely.

Figure 1. Walter White in Breaking Bad
At The Chronicle, "Do You Know How Lucky You Are?" asks that very question. (It's behind the paywall, unfortunately, so the first piece of luck would be actually getting access to the article.)

The author, Robert H. Frank, explains that if John Cusack and Matthew Broderick hadn't turned down the role of Walter White on Breaking Bad,  the world might never have gotten the chance to see the brilliant performances that Bryan Cranston gave in that show.

Frank, a tenured professor, says that luck played a large role in his life as well, from being hired as part of an unusually large cohort of tenure-track faculty at Cornell to the success of his publications. As one proposed essay collection falls through, he submits the essay to one of the most prestigious journals in the field, and it's accepted. He extends the argument in another essay, sends it to another prestigious journal, and bingo, it's accepted, too.

Now obviously, as Louis Pasteur said, "fortune favors the prepared mind," but luck plays a significant role as well.

Maybe you send an article on, say, the aesthetics of lawn-mower blades to the Journal of Lawn-Trimming Aesthetics and the editor has just said to him/herself, "You know, we haven't done an issue on trimming tools for a while."  Is that luck, or is it the zeitgeist, or maybe both?

Or you meet someone at a conference who happens to be putting together a collection.

Or your manuscript is turned down by one press only to be published by a better one.

Of course, Frank only talks about good luck, not bad luck.  I still wonder what would have happened way back in 2007 if I hadn't been rushing off to class when Major University Press contacted me. About what, you ask? I never found out.

Can you think of times when luck played a part in your career?

Friday, April 08, 2016

The Masked Avenger: an extension of "A Good Little Girl"

I was blown away by xykademiqz's fabulous post "A Good Little Girl," which I had somehow missed the first time around. Go read it. You won't be sorry.  Here's the heart of the matter:
The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.
nicoleandmaggie point out in the comments that women do this because study after study shows that they are punished more for not doing all the extra service, etc.

Now, this is hypothetical, because all my colleagues are and have ever been lovely human beings, but I've alluded a few times here to those who would impose, if possible, by making excessive demands for service, or would make life complicated because they are very special and shouldn't have to answer emails, or would, in an "office commons" situation, manage to be so unpleasant that others would give in just to shut them up. (We have offices at Northern Clime, so this is truly theoretical.)

But there is hope because there are Masked Avengers out there, and I am one.

The Masked Avenger is a senior-in-rank person who wants to see justice done. Ze is not going to be bullied, in part because ze is senior and has no more--well, you know--to give. Ze is unimpressed by rudeness, even by "God, PhD."

And the Masked Avengers are on a mission. They--I--want to see equity and fairness, even in the petty things, where often times unpleasant behavior pays off when people give in so that the unpleasant person will shut up and go away.  They take it on so you don't have to, maybe taking on administrative or service tasks that allow this protection of juniors to happen.

We Masked Avengers can't make your life massively better, because we don't always have that power.  But we are out there, and we are legion, and we have your back.

Are you a Masked Avenger in your department? Do you have one in your department?

Monday, April 04, 2016

Dear Ms. Undine does not tolerate April fools

Dear Ms. Undine,

Why do people like to play April Fool's Day pranks? Especially computer pranks, like Google's failed mic drop?

Signed, Pranked

Dear Pranked,

Ms. Undine has never quite understood this.  Mark Twain said (in Pudd'nhead Wilson) that on this day we're reminded of what we actually are during the other 364, but that's not a good enough reason.

Frankly, Ms. Undine thinks that the computer manufacturers play enough pranks on us every year, making us play hide and seek to find the features we depend on with each new iteration of software (looking at you, Microsoft Office) and with each new version of hardware (looking at you, Apple.  I have enough Mac dongles to make myself a hula skirt by stitching them together, and you just introduced a new connector?). If we had one "stable computer day" every April 1, now there would be a holiday to celebrate.

As for the other pranks: well, apparently human beings love humor better if it is crude and/or cruel, which is why we invented the internet after we made bear-baiting illegal.


Dear Ms. Undine,

I think you are a hypocrite.  After making fun of the awesome Cue Cat, you bought one recently. Why?

Signed,
Inspector Gadget

Dear Gadget,

Because all the lovely commenters on that post said it would be good for LibraryThing, that's why.  I haven't tried it yet, but I have already rounded up little catnip toys for it to chase.  It's the only non-rectangular thing on my desk and is already a fine distraction. Go Go Gadget Paws!


Dear Ms. Undine,

You write about mid-century male writers sometimes.  What did you think of Gay Talese's recent comment that he couldn't think of any women writers that inspired him?

Signed,
Surprised and Outraged

Dear Surprised and Outraged,

Figure 1. Supposedly Frank Sinatra, but maybe Gay Talese.
You should only be one of those (outraged), because how could you be surprised?

Ms. Undine admits that she had classed Gay Talese in her mental memory bank as a 1960s Esquire writer, sort of a ring-a-ding-ding generation Jonathan Franzen, who wrote something about wife-swapping way back in the day. He was brought up in a generation when it would have been a manly point of pride not to have read any women authors, and a look at his Google books just now suggests that that hasn't changed much.

In other words, Ms. Undine thinks this is a tempest in a gin bottle.  She recommends that women writers forget him right back and quit worrying about it since  there are bigger fish to fry, like this year's VIDA count. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Conferences and other things

  1. When you go to a huge conference that you've never been to before, where your field is only a small part of the conference and there are multiple panels devoted to things you never even knew people studied, it's wonderful.  You don't feel obligated to attend every possible panel but can wander around and enjoy the city.
  2. You can also drop into some of those panels totally unrelated to your field and just enjoy the presentations that sound interesting. You might learn something about Fountain Pen Studies or Wookie Genealogy or the Numerological Symbolism of  Divination Techniques that will be useful, but you don't have to. It's a wonderful feeling. 
  3. Here's an etiquette question: say you're one of 4 people in an audience, and the other three are obviously friends of the three presenters.  A question gets raised about a work you know well, and the presenters and audience are all agog with the implications of this question, which they've obviously never heard about before, though it's a routine one in the criticism. Do you (1) raise your hand and explain this or (2) sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut, since you know they'll figure it out if they research it? I chose (2) because I didn't want to be That Person, but I wonder if I did the right thing. 
  4. Because of the conference and other matters mostly relating to the book, my writing streak is seriously broken, but I'm getting back to it today.  
  5. Huffington Post distilled the New Yorker piece on writing inspiration down to a 10-point listicle for the TL;DR crowd, but I can't link to it because I have never clicked on a HuffPo link that went where it said it was going to go. HuffPo is as bad as the other aggregators with the click-n-switch annoyance, so I don't want to subject you to the same frustration. 
  6. The Amazon Dash, the "awesome Cue Cat of 2015" that I wrote about last year, is real, and Amazon is extending it to things like breath mints (insert your own joke here) and cat litter. By the way, I think there is a market for packaging cat litter in smaller packages, because elderly people have a hard time lifting the 35-40 lb. packages that the rest of us carry around. Even if they can get it to their cars with the help of the grocery store baggers, they can't carry it into the house. 
  7. One of the sessions listed in #2 is something I actually attended.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Writing inspiration: dreams, creativity, and process edition

Some writing inspiration ahead.

First of all, Maria Konnikova's "How to Beat Writer's Block" at The New Yorker sums the research up in a nutshell. Here are two especially good parts:
“I think one must trust the writing process. Understand that creativity requires nonlinearity and unique associative combinations,” he says. “Creative people do a lot of trial and error and rarely know where they are going exactly until they get there.”
That, in the end, seems to be the main message of research into writer’s block: It’s useful to escape from external and internal judgment—by writing, for instance, in a dream diary, which you know will never be read—even if it’s only for a brief period.
 I'm glad to hear this. I started keeping a dream journal of sorts about four years ago, and while I can't prove that it's helped, simply writing things down seems to have made things better. I don't write the dreams down here, usually (some exceptions: the Mad Men writing group, hiking dreams, and blog wonderland), but a lot of times I dream in movies--that is, watching a movie that I wrote and directed. Sometimes they're just comic skits but more often whole movies. Move over, Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

Seriously, though, the stories I tell myself in my dreams have, I think, gotten less formulaic and more creative since I've been writing them down, and writing while dreaming has to help with writing while not unconscious.

And recently the whole work process has gotten easier--lots of ideas and a willingness to work on them.  There's still a little dither and blather early in the morning, but this week (spring break) I've been moving from writing on Thing 1 to revising Project A to drafting Project B to editing project C. And I want to work on them. That's the most amazing part.

What's working?
  1. Reconciling myself to the idea that, rain or shine, the only time I want--really want--to write new and creative things is after 7 p.m. and deciding that it's okay to do other things (edit, revise) before that. If you sit down to do it every day, who cares if it's 7 p.m. or 7 a.m.? 
  2. Building in little breaks with Pomodoro. Sometimes when I've been concentrating on a paragraph or sentence, even a couple of minutes of distraction (news sites, a glass of water, putting in a load of laundry) sends me back to it with a fresh perspective. 
  3. Logging the work, in the spreadsheet and in a little time notebook that I've been keeping. 
  4. Getting the reward of an X in the box at 750words.com. 
Nicoleandmaggie have the second in their series of writing productivity posts up; go read it.  Unless someone forces me, I'm always going to fail on two of the measures: (1) drinking coffee (never learned how) and (2) writing in the morning. But this week is showing me that those aren't the only ways to go.