Saturday, October 14, 2017

Reading irritations for a Saturday morning

The good news about being an academic in the humanities--okay, literature--is that you get to read a lot.

The bad news about being an academic in the humanities is that you get to read a lot, and you don't always get to choose what you read but you have to find an interest if you're going to write about it.

Right now, this never-ending story of a piece that I am working on has me reading some things that are worthy, even brilliant, but are a little . . . trying. Here are some additional irritations to add to last year's post.
  • Religious doctrine, religious reflection--very important, I know, but reading this stuff is a slog for me.  "Be a good person, the end" is my medieval-peasant style level of understanding, if that's not an insult to medieval peasants.
  • Travel writing. I love the blog entries that you all post from travels in other countries, but straight travel writing, 19th-century style, reads sort of like this: "As we meandered down the [word in another language], we were greeted by the [ditto], with their charming [ditto] beside them as they [ditto] in happy expectation of our [ditto]," followed by a paragraph describing the local flora and fauna in exhaustive and exhausting detail. It's Mad Libs, international style.  I don't lose my will to live, but I do lose my will to read. 
  • Modernist texts that like to play hide the person's name, or the pronoun reference, or the central defining event of the book by mentioning it once in 400 pages. I understand why that's important and representationally sophisticated and the rest, but for trying to slog through, please give us a name. Please. 
  • Cruelty to animals and children. If they show up in a contemporary text, you need to look out, because often they won't last long and will be dispatched in highly unpleasant and lengthily described detail to prove that the author isn't "sentimental." I gave up on John Updike's Roger's Version because of this, and you have heard me rant before about Lolita. "But look at the wordplay and the language," I was told. "Lolita herself is just a girl, just incidental." Not to me, she's not. 
And now back to reading my religious-doctrine-centric book with lots of travel and name-hiding and, I fear, some animal cruelty coming up.

Edited to add: Nope--child cruelty and death. Modern fiction, you never disappoint in your predictability.

What kind of reading do you find tough to get through?

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Writing by the numbers: was it worth it?

This is basically a reminder post, to future Undine, not to promise things as past Undine has done. It's a short record of time spent versus actual benefit, and it contains the valuable "Was it worth it?" test.
  1. Recent book review #1: read book carefully, made notes, spent at least 10 hours writing for 1200 words. Was it worth it? Well, I learned something. But was it worth it? Not really. 
  2. Recent book review #2: read book all the way through three times because I kept getting pulled away by other tasks and forgetting the details; made notes; spent at least 10 hours writing the 1200 words. Was it worth it? See above.
  3. Work on long-promised article project: spent all of summer 2016 reading for this project and making notes for it but not writing it up. Have now spent at least 10 hours each day to get to my 750 words, in part because the ratio of looking up & reading:writing is about 3:1 or 4:1, in terms of time, because it's a little outside my usual wheelhouse. Was it worth it? I'm learning things. But was it worth it? Time will tell, but it's clear I'm spending way too much time on this. And this doesn't even count the extensive editing and cutting down and stitching together I'll have to do.
  4. Spending last fall sending out those articles instead of working on the above? They were a combination of old and new research that I found exciting. Worth it? Yes, indeed.
  5. Refusing, on three separate occasions with three different subjects, to contribute to a prestigious bibliography project. Worth it? Yes, indeed.
  6. Doing a tenure review, with the many hours of reading & writing the letter that that implies? Well, worth it because we all need to be good citizens. Ditto for writing letters of recommendation for jobs and grants--grants that I haven't applied for, in part, because see #3. 
  7. Rummaging through my computer until I found a good 10 pages or so on the subject of another promised article project? Totally worth it. Gold, in fact.
  8. Being very choosy about the conferences I submit to, and only submitting if I actually have an ongoing project in mind? Very much worth it. I've stopped my membership in some organizations, and it feels so good not to have them nagging at you to submit proposals, not to mention that they rarely accepted them anyway. (Not MLA, although a friend of mine said once that instead of submitting a proposal to MLA she could just set fire to it, with about the same results as far as an acceptance went.)
 So, what that I actually did was truly worth it just for me and not just for the sake of being a good citizen? #4, #7, and #8. Future Undine, take note.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Chocolate and control and writing, oh, my!

Dame Eleanor has a post up with normal news, and JaneB has one that's funny and heartwarming, and John Scalzi has one about why it's hard to write  that's much more eloquent than my similar rant of a few weeks back.

So if you've already responded to the news and donated, etc. etc., here is a different question: how are you granting yourself a feeling of control when the world seems out of said quality--i.e., "self-care," as people say now? I've never had a mani-pedi or any of that salon stuff, but here are a few things:

1.  Eat more chocolate. I used to get this for special occasions, but now I keep a bag of my beloved Guittard chocolate chips in my office and eat them when I finish something especially administratively boring. Or feel more stressed than usual. Or after lunch. I'm trying to taper off, but maybe not right now.

2. Take another FB break. At first I was all "but--but--I won't be able to wish people whose emails I don't have Happy Birthday!" and then realized that they would survive. As to missing out on scholarly stuff that gets posted to FB--well, if you post a CFP there and there only, you've already limited your range considerably, so capturing the attention of a broad range of scholars clearly isn't what the organization is going for, and it doesn't need my attention.

3. Change office hours and meetings to suit the times I'll see the most people and that suit me the best. The corollary is that I've stored up enough rage courage to respond politely but with some heat to the people who are never in the office or attend meetings if I hear even a hint of "where were you when I looked for you at 4:30 on Tuesday?' or some such thing. *Yes, I keep track when I'm in a meeting and my colleagues are consistently absent, for exactly this reason. No, I probably shouldn't care.

4.  Figured out an academic version of the Serenity Prayer. As in "grant me the serenity to hear about another time-sucking initiative on which they claim to want our input, the strength to read between the lines, and the wisdom to know that it's already a done deal and I don't have to pay any attention to it."

5. Start writing again. Between travel and research trips and the news and writing conference papers and house renovation, this was a chaotic summer for writing; added to this is a series of things I promised to write and that are not exactly flowing from my pen. So: back on the horse, I say. I've actually written at least something every day for a few weeks, with the help of my old taskmasters Strict Workflow Pomodoro  on Chrome (which only lets me go to Twitter, my noncaloric chocolate substitute, when the apple turns green), 750words.com, and my black notebook where I record progress and cross things off. *My accountability group helps, too.

How about you? How are you gaining control over your life?
*Edited to add. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Patience, or the lack thereof

I'm still patient with my students--very patient. I want them to succeed. And I do like my colleagues. Everyone else is getting a little more, er, directness, though.
  • The sorority pledges (I assume because no one else is that gussied up, usually, on our campus) walking five abreast on the sidewalk, teetering on heels, who initially didn't move an inch and expected me to step into the street? Dream on, ladies. Ditto for people texting.
  • The person who emailed to say "why don't you do X?" when I had explained, twice, why that didn't work? Ze got a return email with my previous answer, this time in bold. The end.  You don't listen to my messages or explanations, so guess how I'm going to respond to yours?
  • Would I mind not moving into my new and at that time empty office for a month or so, so another faculty member could hang out and have meetings in it instead of in his own office? Would I mind? Like an idiot I said, "sure, whatever" but then got furious at myself, moved everything into the new office that day, and turned in my old key. Either my interior fuming or the stuff in the office must have gotten the message across, because I didn't hear any more about it.
  • You can shoot all the emails you want at me after 5 p.m. on Friday, if that's what your heart desires, but to me they're just silent snowflakes drifting down to settle into my inbox snowbank  until 7 a.m. on Monday.
I now see that this is sort of a companion piece to the previous post; thanks for helping me work this through. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Burned out on being accommodating

One of the truisms of our profession is that assistant professors have to protect their time and learn to say no so that they can get promoted and tenured, and that senior scholars have to make this happen. Fair enough. (Yes, I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a t-t job.)

Another truism of our profession is that associate professors have to protect their time and learn to say no or else they'll never make full, especially women faculty, who often do a lot of service. Senior scholars should make this happen, too. Fair enough.

A third truism of our profession is that senior scholars and full professors are--to judge by the Chronicle and other chatter about the web--pretty awful: self-absorbed, selfish about their time, and generally interested in making life miserable for their juniors. All that NYTimes kvetching about millennials and their avocado toast is nothing compared to how the press sees professors.

I want to be accommodating and helpful.  I'm a full professor and happy to step up, right? To write letters and reviews of all kinds, right? To go to campus for an hour-long meeting that completely kills a research day or show up to warm a chair at an event, right? After all, where am I going to go from here?

Here's the problem. Because I technically can, and because I don't want to be THAT guy, I say yes to obligations. And I think I am happy to do so, at the time.

But it's taking me longer and longer to do the reviews, letters, and the rest, because I procrastinate about writing them. Why? Because I don't really want to but feel that I ought to, so I do twice the amount of work on them that I would normally do in an effort to feel enthusiastic about it.  I can't seem to just wade in and git 'er done (which, in academic terms, is still a lot of hours).

For every article review, I think of my own articles, all things that are not getting done because I'm doing work on someone else's work. Peer review is important, and we should all do it cheerfully.

As I should. Or should I?




Saturday, September 09, 2017

Random bullets of a breathable Saturday

  • Yeah, Scalzi said it best; doesn't he always?
  • Being on a Facebook break is great. Checking in on FB and seeing all the perennial outrage and demands to march right now--much of it coming from people who are on a leisurely European vacation bicycling through France or whatever--not so much. I believe the young folk call it "virtue signalling," and if you want me to ignore your posts when I check in again in two weeks, that's a good start. 
  • Twitter thrusts its outrage in my face every day, but then, I ask for it by going to Twitter. Ditto for NYTimes and WaPo. I go to FB to see what my cousins and friends are up to, not to have my face ground in the awful news redux. Maybe my cousins and friends can write a letter instead, since I can't see them through the fog of awfulness.
  • We have finally gone from "this air WILL hurt you" to "this air might bother you," so I can't wait to get out and move for a change.  Fresh air and walking (and maybe Diet Coke) are the only drugs I really crave, and being told that both are hazardous has been hard--not Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma awful, but still. 
  • I am also ignoring email on the weekends. Nothing good ever comes in on the weekend. Here's what I would cross-stitch on a pillow: Email is always someone else's idea of what you ought to be doing, not your idea of what you ought to be doing. Respond accordingly.
  • I am reading for work again. I am getting ideas. I am writing. I am happy about it.
  • Is it a coincidence that the FB & email break coincides with wanting to work again? I'm betting it's not.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Writing inspiration, sort of

  1. From Air & Light & Time & Space: "Studies by Hartley and Branthwaite (1989) and Kellogg (1994) suggest that the most productive writers typically write several times a week for one to three hours per session. (Sword, Helen. Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (p. 50). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition).  
    1. Do you count reading and research in that time?
    2. How about visits to the library?
    3. Or making a bibliography?
  2. Do you keep track of the hours you devote to class prep (including reading and grading) and to administrative tasks?
  3.  If so, do you keep track of your writing hours in the same space, if you keep track of them? 
  4. The big question: 
    1. Do you set yourself a number of hours each day to write?
    2.  Or do you write until you have a certain number of words?

The writing formula for a piece of writing that you promised but don't want to do: twice as long to write and at least four times as much procrastination beforehand. All this means my time is up and I have to try to write tonight what I could not write all day. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Addendum: I'm also tired of "if you can't effect major social change, do nothing," or a Twitter attack on Little Free Libraries

An LFL heinously upholding neoliberalism.
Okay, the next post will be about writing or something, I promise.

But I came home after a full day and a long drive to see this on the news and on Twitter--on the traditionally slow "news dump" time of Friday afternoon:
  • Against precedent of having the Justice Department vet pardons, Trump throws yet MORE red meat to his base and pardons the convicted Joe Arpaio.
  • Hurricane Harvey is bearing down on Texas and Louisiana, drenching it in torrents of rain and wind so strong it's swaying concrete buildings.
  • Trump disgracefully issues an order banning transgender service members, after the Joint Chiefs had individually indicated it's a terrible idea on so many levels--not just rights but fighting strength.
  • He also might deputize school safety officers to enforce immigration arrests in the schools, where children are supposed to be safe. 
  • This is on top of threatening to hold U. S. hostage, via the debt ceiling, to pay for the ridiculous, racist, and unnecessary wall that he swore to the Trumpettes that Mexico would pay for. With no sense of irony, one of his cabinet said "It'll be like the Maginot Line." Uh, yeah. Ask France how that one worked out.  Maybe they ought to go for Hadrian's Wall instead.
 And this is just an hour's worth of news.

But what's most important? What's A#1 on the radical librarians' agenda this evening? (Google them if you want to. I don't want to give them the link.)

Little Free Libraries.

That's right, the little free-standing book houses where you can take a book and leave a book. Where little kids can get books for free (and so can adults).  Where someone in your community cared enough to put the time and effort in to reach out to neighbors.

They don't solve the problem of inadequate library funding, say the rad librarians. True enough.

They make people feel good without a radical tearing down of the oppressive structures that enable systemic privilege and you can fill in the rest of this speech yourself.  True enough.

But shouldn't a small good get the benefit of the doubt?

Apparently not. 

I'm tired of the false equivalence thing not only because in the media it gave us Trump (Hillary's emails! Hillary's emails!--remember that?) but because in giving equal weight to horrible things like white supremacy and the trans ban and things that just aren't quite correct enough, like the Little Free Library, we're squandering an opportunity.  And with things the way they are, we don't have the luxury of wasting opportunities to set things right.



Friday, August 18, 2017

How can we write in the current environment?

I saw a tweet the other day that said something like "I hope I can put the 6 hours a day I spend watching the news about the U.S. destroying itself on my annual review."

Amen to that.  I know that this is a first world/academic world problem, and it's insignificant in the face of what Charlottesville has suffered and what continues to happen throughout the country,  but it's a problem nonetheless.

How do we keep calm and carry on, as the Brits say, when there's a fresh !@#$show every time we open our laptops? How can we develop consecutive thoughts about research when the country is being run on the reality show principle that every day is an escalation of the worst of the day before? When Nazis are back and racism is horrifyingly endemic? I might be ripped apart for saying this, but we were making progress on racism. Obama did give us a sense of hope. Now the president endorses white supremacy, and the Congress does nothing? Is this the United States?

And what if we are horrified by what's happening but express ourselves incorrectly? For example, Tina Fey did a sketch recently about eating sheet cake to drown out stress or to satirize people's desires to turn away rather than to protest. I didn't think it was hilarious but thought it was okay--until social media tore her a new one, pointing out the parallels to Marie Antoinette, branding her with the most heinous of insults--"liberal" and "neoliberal" and "racist"--and generally taking her down.

It feels disloyal or traitorous, somehow, to write about something other than the events that are happening around us. About the only non-news things on Twitter, for example, are those that are put out by twitterbots, which would churn out tweets if the sky was falling, which it kind of is.

If we need to write about our actual research, we seem unfeeling or uncaring (we're not). Ditto for teaching, with each fresh tragedy appropriately bringing with it a "syllabus" to teach resistance to the Nazis. Yet we have obligations that demand other kind of content, and we have to consider that, too, don't we?

I have research-related posts and writing that I want to do, but I keep thinking I'll wait for the !@#$show to end or at least die down. Like the never-ending heat this summer, though, it never does.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Off-topic: Some Sears homes



The Westly, apparently one of the top 4 models.
As a chaser from current news and the last post, I give you some Sears homes.

With Sears in its current cratering state, it's possible that people don't know that it once shipped not only girdles, engagement rings, and farm equipment, but houses. From 1908-1940, you could have all the pre-cut materials shipped to you on a rail car (plumbing and heating extra) and build the home on your own lot. The lot sizes were included so you could decide.

This fancy model has a servant's room.
These were well-built homes, and especially if you live in the Northeast or Midwest, you've probably seen them. This site (http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/1908-1914.htm) has pictures and floor plans, and if you're looking for distraction, it's a great place to visit. Here are the most popular models.






Floor plan for "Modern Home #115" from 1908-1914.
It's an interesting tour through the early twentieth century, too. The earliest plans don't include bathrooms as a matter of course; the later ones do.  The one at left has a pantry, parlor, 3 bedrooms, and an attic but no bathroom.


You can see the trend toward neo-Colonial versions emerge in the 1930s, with names like "The Salem" and "The Lexington," but the majority continued to be bungalows.  One defining feature seems to be whether the homeowner was willing to pay for extras like dining rooms and hallways--not so different from today, really.

By 1940, the homes are virtually all two-story or 1 & 1/2 story models, more Cape Cod than bungalows.




After the war, one of the hit movies celebrating/satirizing  individualism in home ownership was Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).  You can see a clip from it above. (The completely blank stare from Cary Grant when he doesn't have the faintest, foggiest notion what the builder is talking about is priceless. I have so given that blank stare at being given a choice between two options when I didn't even know there were options to be considered.) There were a lot of these houses built, too, all over the country, including Northern Clime.

Do you have any Sears homes in your neighborhood, or have you seen any?


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Catching up and current events

I've been gone again with travel, and more travel, and still more travel via planes, trains, and automobiles.  I'm home for now, though.

While away, I barely looked at the news. It is always depressingly the same:  the President is a crazy person who threatens all our lives with his stupid, showy, dangerous posturing, the only certainty of which is that he times each new outrage to the daily 24-hour news cycle before moving on to the next. In the meantime, his administration guts the hard-won protections (EPA, health care, women's rights, voting rights, the social safety net for the elderly, immigrants, the poor, and the rest) that keep  us functioning.

And then the white Nazi terrorists at Charlottesville, and seeing the brave students standing up against Nazis. In this country. (And the President, who uses Twitter as a flamethrower against movie stars and dictators as crazy as himself, says nothing lest he disturb his Nazi followers, but enough about that.)

How is it that random violent idiot terrorists--er, "low-information voters for Trump"--can dress in camo and patrol the streets with assault rifles, which we're not allowed to call assault rifles officially because the NRA has a fit, as if this is a normal thing to do?

And, while we're at it, why can't the CDC track gun violence as a public health issue, which it definitely is? And why is concealed carry in classrooms permitted in ten states? (Wait! I know the answer to that one, and I'll bet you do, too.)

People are being raked over the coals on Twitter for asking questions like "how did we come to this?" and "what can we do?" so I won't ask those. 

But I do think about people of my parents' generation, the older ones of whom fought in World War II. A close family member was a pilot and flew during the D-Day invasion and the Battle of Remagen. Other families have heard stories from Holocaust survivors.  Did we really go through all that to have Nazis here in this country?

I know that the U.S. has a fraught history of racism and isn't close to perfect. But we are better than this and need to show it.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

A midsummer night's thoughts

Back from travel and more travel, lovely but draining. It was a conference, but a conference in Europe, so I got work credit and the benefits of seeing life from another perspective.
  • The perspective of "oh, yeah, Roman ruins, no big deal" to those who live there, but a wondrous thing to me. Walking on roads that I now see are laid in the Roman pattern while not being in Rome gives me a whole sense of the empire's reach that we never got in Latin class and a new appreciation for those stylish nail-soled boots. 
  • And to see foundations laid by the Romans, built up by the Normans, abandoned, reclaimed, repurposed into air-raid shelters or what have you--again, magical. Knowing that there's not a square inch that hundreds of people in previous millennia haven't already walked on--which is not the case where I live--still amazing.
  • Here as there, people take their dogs everywhere, especially the elderly ladies with their tiny dogs, as a matter of course.
  • How I know I'm a hopeless rube: dinner at 9:30 p.m., however delicious, takes some adjustment when you're used to getting up at 5 a.m.
  • The blue of the evening sky. The moon. The moon in the blue sky even close to midnight.
  • Architecture and public sculpture--aspirational, representational, and worth seeing--everywhere I looked. Things happened in these spaces, some terrible, and they were commemorated lest we forget. 
  • Walking to see everything, about 10 miles a day. When you walk, you own the space in a different way than when you ride or drive. We took trams or buses some places, of course, but walked much more than we had before. In my usual walks, I feel as though I own the terrain, as Thoreau did, because I can visualize it all and see the minute changes.  Walking in a strange place gave me a temporary possession or perhaps a different understanding of it, one reinforced by all those cobblestones, narrow streets, and buildings.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Writing inspiration: random thoughts

Gwinne's post on writing had me thinking about the process (and also made me buy the Air & Light & Time & Space book), so here are some random thoughts:
  • It's still June! You still have a lot of summer left--really! That's it for the inspiration part of this post.
  • Doing all the home improvement stuff was a little like having a baby: your brain refuses to do much else for a time since the process is all-consuming. I'm slowing coming out of this and was able to send a long-promised revision today 
  • I don't know why this is, but if I promised to write something and don't want to write it, I have a really, really hard time even looking at it. This last instance took me about 2 months to write a couple thousand words that I could have knocked off in a week or two if I wanted to do it--but I didn't. It was in the middle of the house disruption, but still: there's a lesson here about promising things you're not enthusiastic about doing. 
  • All those authors who talk about "write first--walk later" must live in a much cooler climate than Northern Clime, where if you don't get out first thing in the morning, the temperature is in the 90s before you know it. Also, who can sit still first thing in the morning? 
  • This month is an experiment in writing without access to books--well, access to most of my books, anyway, since they're still in boxes except for two bookcases full.  How far can you go and how much can you write without a lot of books, using just online articles & books & information and what you already know? Time will tell. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

For Bardiac, who asked to see the floor results (will disappear)

Bardiac had asked to see the results of the hardwood flooring installation, so here goes! I'll take this pic down in a day or two. The flooring is red oak, with a clear finish.

*Poof*--all gone!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

June: home upgrades but work downgrades

For the past month I (we) have been doing some much-needed house refreshing--hardwood floors in place of 20-year-old carpet, some new carpet--which involves packing & carrying more books and furniture than I even thought I had. This has gone on for weeks, and it involved lots of trips to Goodwill & other charities to donate furniture & books that I should be able to take out of the library if needed, Marie Kondo-style.

It also confirmed my medieval (?) view of the world. I read or heard one time that in medieval times the peasantry observed mass from behind a lattice screen (medievalists, this may not be true, but hear me out) because they had only a primitive set of beliefs in which simple transgressions brought immediate punishment or because (more likely) the nobility didn't want to rub elbows with them. My behind-the-lattice primitive set of beliefs was borne out in this process of home refreshing because for everything I dared to order that might be considered hubristic (new carpet, hardwood in place of worn and stained carpet) something else in the house of equal value broke and had to be replaced or repaired (furnace, water damage). My wanting a decent-looking house was discovered by the Powers Above, and absolution came only in the form of having to literally pay the price for things that broke. Random events joined by post hoc reasoning or sound retribution for the sin of house pride? You decide.  

Hours spent in moving, cleaning, and talking to repair people has played havoc with my writing, of course, so more about that anon.



Friday, May 05, 2017

The merry month of May

First, the not-so-good:
  • Did I come down with the deadly plague after encountering the cheerful colleagues in the previous post? Why, yes, and I lost a whole week of work in addition to feeling horrible and lying in bed. On the other hand, it's probably not their fault; there's a lot going around at this time of year.
  • Getting an article rejection, a grant rejection, and a "where are your revisions?" email was icing on the cake, though it probably serves me right for trying to look at email when too sick to reply.
  • The political news, especially on Twitter first thing in the morning, is the gift that just keeps on giving, isn't it? I'm reminded of the line from Mad Men: "They won't stop until they figure out how to steal more bread from the mouths of children."
But then, it's May, and there is some good somewhere.
  • The snow is gone, and the rain even stopped for a day so we could see the sun.
  • There are flowers out now, though I know that's not a blessing for those of you with allergies. One of the walks I took pre-plague goes by a steep dropoff with fields and trees, and one set of those trees has white flowers with a scent so delicious you can almost taste it. They don't seem to be mock orange (which has a great scent), and I don't know what they are.
  • I wake up at 4 every morning now (thanks, plague!), and now that I feel better, it's cool and beautiful when I go outside to get the paper. The birds are singing then though it's not quite dawn.
 Time to see if I have a brain left to do some of the work that got neglected this week.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Highly rhetorical questions for the end of the semester


  • If you ask me a series of technical questions in a group email, and I jump right on it and spend 20 minutes answering them, and then you ask the same questions again in a slightly different form as if I had not responded, am I going to be passive-aggressive enough not to answer this one? To remind you that I answered the questions? To wait a few days before responding to any other messages? All of the above? Yes.
  • Is there a possibility that after the 1,751st draft of something in which we have collectively moved a passage from one place to another and back again, making inconsequential language changes and fighting about the MLA style each time, I will write an email saying, in more polite language, "Do whatever you want. I don't @#$@$^ care any more"? Yes.
  • If you're sick with some kind of deadly contagious plague, is it better to stay home or to come to work and buttonhole everyone you meet to tell them, "Boy, I can't believe I am this sick during the last week of classes! I really feel horrible"?
  • If you collectively dream up a position that not even Jesus with feathers on could successfully fill, is it someone's duty to point this out? 
  • If you are in a meeting and someone is being all pouty about something, is it better to let it get you down or to declare silently, like Roger Murtaugh, "I'm getting too old for this [stuff]" and get just angry enough to keep from being depressed? 
  • Knowing the volatility that everyone has at the end of the semester, is the best reaction to remember your colleagues with affection, keep your head down, and just power through? Yes. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Are you the colleague you want to meet in the hallway?

Figure 1. Edmund Wilson's version of auto-reply.
There's been a movement afoot to light on fire, in Twitter terms, anyway, anyone who tells a woman to "smile!" Next to "you look really tired," I can't think of any phrase that's less welcome, especially if you are really tired. Also, some of us have RBF and aren't going to look happy no matter what.

Just so we'll get the obvious out of the way:

1. Do people say this to men? No.
2. Do they treat women who smile all the time any better? No.
3. Are women who are all smiles treated well in the workplace? No, because they're taken less seriously.
4. Are women who are direct and/or abrupt treated well in the workplace? No, because they're seen as -- well, fill in your own uncomplimentary adjectives.

But despite this double-bind, you might want to think twice before embracing "grumpiness for grumpiness's sake," as recommended in  "The Case for Being Grumpy at Work." 

The author cites a number of studies about emotional dissonance, about the emotional labor that women especially experience when forced to pretend to be happy in the workplace, and so on. Women are expected to be more caring, which means that their anticipated response in the workplace is effectively lagniappe for employers, a trap especially for service workers like cashiers (been there, done that). 

But the author's equation of grumpiness with some superior form of pessimistic insight is wrong. You can be plenty pessimistic and not present yourself to others as grumpy. One's a way of perceiving the world. The other is a way of acting out so that the world can see that you have All The Feels. 

Look, nobody has to be happy or pretend to be happy all the time, especially at this point in the semester. I suspect that most of us cut our colleagues a little slack in April, knowing the stress we're under, and we hope for the same from others.

In other words, we're being the colleague that we want to meet in the hallway.

A curmudgeon thinks that this is a one-way street. Everyone should be charmed by his (or her) grumpiness, and all should cut him some slack, but he doesn't have to return the favor. You may think your grumpiness is adorable, but other people may not share your high sense of self-regard.

A "lovable curmudgeon" may exist in literature--who doesn't like to read about Edmund Wilson's famous postcards or Mary McCarthy's acid reviews?--but in real life, the term is an oxymoron.

One of the great lessons of adulthood is that except for a few of those close to you, nobody cares how you feel. They want to know if you get the work done. 

My approach is the same thing that I do in emails: mirror what I'm receiving. If you're professional and at least marginally pleasant, I'll respond in kind, and promptly.

If not, not.

I realize that this is a position of privilege and that not all jobs will allow this luxury. (See cashier experience, above.)  But at the very least, those of us who do have the ability to respond to rudeness or curmudgeons shouldn't indulge their behavior. 


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What does a sabbatical do?

I've been on campus for a few things recently, and while it's nice to be missed (it really is!), the downside is realizing that the sabbatical is coming to an end. There's still the summer, but still.

Although I haven't done All The Things, I've done enough to feel reasonably good, though it still seems as though I wasted a lot of time. I'll keep working on All The Things.

But the main thing that the sabbatical did was to give me back a sense of joy and curiosity. If something interested me, I could follow it and read about it and above all think about it, often to good effect.

I know that this isn't the path to research that GetALifePhd and other efficiency experts, like Paul Sylvia,  recommend, where you state that you will have 15 points to develop by 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday and you just do it. Maybe if you have data, that's the way it works.

But maybe that's the difference between the humanities and the social sciences. We really have only a few weapons in our arsenal: curiosity, knowledge, and the ability to think about the two together in productive ways to see what's been done and what needs to be done in terms of research.

When you're pressed for time, as we all are during the school year, we're a little like our students. We don't have the time to follow those winding paths, or Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit holes, so we try to answer immediate questions. Our students use the first results on Google, and though we might not do that, we use the same process of working for efficiency in an answer rather than for complexity.

During the sabbatical, I learned a lot of things I needed to know, but I also learned a lot of things that I didn't need to know, or at least that I don't need immediately. That's not a waste of time. That's the point of a sabbatical.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Nothing. What's new with you?

Still plodding along, still working hard, and still relishing a sabbatical that's almost over--that's what's going on here.  In other news:

  • A lovely trip to the archives in which I could revel in reading and taking pictures of materials all day long, and at the end of the day get something to eat and not cook or clean or do any of the other housekeeping stuff I've been doing all year. It felt like a vacation, though I was working hard every day. More archival trips, please!
  • Winter is receding, sort of, and has settled down into a grey skies, grumpy rain, and chilly wind pattern that beats the heck out of the ice, snow, and general misery we've had since November. Some day the sun will shine again, I'm almost sure. As a special added bonus, apparently the weather cleared up here while we had an epic snowstorm in Archive City.
  • About the sabbatical: so many ideas, and so little time!  
  • I've gotten so tired of seeing "woke" as an admiring descriptor that I silently correct it to the overused slang of another era, "peachy-keen" (1950s) and "bitchin'" (1960s) being two current favorites,  though maybe I should give "swell" (1920s) or "gnarly" (1970s?) a try as a change of pace.
  • Big collaborative project is going well.
What's new with you?

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Asked and answered at IHE and the Chronicle: why are halls empty? Because loyalty is a one-way street.

Deborah K. Fitzgerald's "Our Hallways are Too Quiet" at The Chronicle asks, in effect, "Haloooo? Is anybody there? Where'd everybody go?" (Bardiac has a post about this issue, too.)
Entire departments can seem like dead zones, and whole days can pass with only a glimpse of a faculty member as someone comes to campus to meet a student, attend a meeting, or teach a class. The halls are eerily quiet. Students, having figured this out, are also absent. Only the staff are present.
This seems a bit of an exaggeration, yet there's something in what Fitzgerald says. Yes, it's better if faculty are around so students can talk to them and so they can talk to each other. Being collegial at brown bag sessions, etc. can help with that.

But there's only so much time in a day, and, as the old saying has it, "what gets measured gets managed." Not to be too cold-blooded about it, but presenting at or organizing an event gets you a line for your CV or annual review. Warming a chair at one, well, doesn't. You show up because you care about your colleagues, and because you want to support them, but at year's end, you have to weigh where you want to spend your time.

Also, faculty, especially newer faculty, are being told endlessly by the productivity gurus "Get your writing done. Keep your door closed," which is exactly the opposite of what Fitzgerald suggests.

How often have we seen on blogs and academic sites advice about the plight of the (usually) overworked woman professor who's around a lot and gets to do the hand-holding and general friendliness on those empty halls while her male colleagues are away writing their heads off and getting treated like stars?

In unrelated news, John Warner tells us at IHE that "In Higher Ed, Loyalty is a One-Way Street." He describes the insanity necessary to get a raise:
So, not loyalty, but leverage counts. This is similar to scenarios where, in order to be considered for a raise, tenure line faculty must hit the job market, secure a competing offer, and try to use it to improve their local position. 
The unbelievable waste this practice entails is sort of mindboggling. When I was first informed of its ubiquity, I almost couldn’t believe it, but I now know it to be common. 
The faculty member who likely has no real desire to leave, but wants or needs a raise, must carve out time from their regular duties to hit the job market. They may also miss classes to interview for these jobs they don’t really want.
I think Warner's point answers Fitzpatrick's, to a degree.  As faculty we're getting mixed messages.

1. Be loyal and supportive. Show up! Be there for students and your colleagues. Hang out. Our college would be better for it.

2. If you pin your loyalty to an institution, you're loving something that can't love you back. You'll have to strongarm it into a raise by being disloyal and getting a competing offer. If you don't do what it values--and even sometimes if you do--it can turn you out without a backward glance.

So academe says it values loyalty above all, but that's not what its actions show. Houston, I think we have a problem.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Cursive handwriting rises from the dead

Figure 1. Thoreau could walk around Walden Pond
 with a notebook and a pencil he made himself.
He knew that the hand  was connected to the brain, all right.
The AP announces that cursive handwriting is once again being taught in schools, after being sidelined in favor of printing (reasonable) and keyboarding (not).

The insistence that keyboarding alone would fill the gap assumed that people would have available at all times a keyboard, battery power, and wireless access.  Like Apple, which insists that the default should be using data on your phone to listen to music instead of downloading it, this assumes a level of financial privilege and an urban environment in which you're never out of range.

Where I live, you're out of range plenty of times. You're better off with a notebook and pencil, like Thoreau, and even if you're in range when walking in the woods, a notebook, unlike a phone, never talks back with little buzzing messages. You talk to it, in writing, and it listens.

Anyway.

I know I've written about this to the point of exhaustion (yours! sorry), citing everything from the class dimensions of not teaching cursive (ruling class needs it, grimy proles don't) to the uneasy alliance with American "traditionalists" who want it, but this point needs emphasis one more time, for two reasons.

First, the connections between hand and brain, as when you do something with your hands and it helps to rewire neural connections in your brain and create new areas, is well documented, as when students take notes by hand instead of typing them. True, you don't need cursive to do this, but I'm in favor of anything that gets students writing by hand because this connection is real and helps them in a way that keyboarding doesn't.

This is what Anne Trubek misses in her bestselling takedown of handwriting. In the new article, she says it's like piano lessons: you don't need them to succeed at life. What about the correlation (not causation, I know) between piano playing and math ability? Doesn't this hand-brain connection deserve more study?

Second, here comes that pesky class dimension and the humanities again. You might not need piano lessons, or music lessons, or art lessons, or a knowledge of literature, history, foreign languages, economics, and politics to succeed in life. But you can bet your bottom dollar that any little Trubeks, and any other middle-class children of aspiring parents, will have access to these "frills," even if the parents have to pay for them separately. Why? Because more knowledge is better and is a marker of future success, that's why. Trubek saying you don't "need" piano lessons is only part of the truth.  They're an added value that helps not only to develop the brain but helps students to succeed.

Figure 2. Lorelei Lee explains the economics of added value.
I'm reminded of what that great economist and philosopher Lorelei Lee says in the movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. When accused of marrying Gus for his money, she says, "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"

All those humanities frills, including cursive handwriting, do help. Why should they be reserved only for children whose parents are wealthy enough or savvy enough to ensure that their children get them?



Friday, March 03, 2017

Writing inspiration: writing group models, part 2

In an essay that's making the rounds of social media, here's another kind of writing group: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/how-make-writing-humanities-less-lonely Researcher Alice Kelly describes the process as this:

I convene a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers to write together for three hours twice a week. After coffee, I ask everyone to share their goals for the first 75-minute session with their neighbour. Goals must be specific, realistic and communicable, such as writing 250 words or reworking a particularly problematic paragraph. I set an alarm and remind everyone not to check email or social media. When the alarm goes off, everyone checks in with their partner about whether or not they achieved their goal. After a break, we do it again. After our Friday morning sessions, we go for lunch together. And that’s it.
Have you ever participated in a group like this? Does it help with writing or make you want to claw the walls of the coffee shop?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Writing inspiration: writing group wisdom

For the first time since my dream about the Mad Men writing group and Dame Eleanor's group a few years back, I am in a writing group.  Hooray!

It's really an accountability group of the kind that Boice and Silvia have separately recommended. We're not reading drafts, but we set goals and hold each other accountable for meeting them. "No excuses" is Silvia's motto, and it's ours, too.

I'm starting to think that the process of thinking about writing--the act of analyzing what you do when you write--is a recursive process, much as the act of writing itself is. When I read old "writing inspiration" posts here at this blog and elsewhere, it helps me to think about the process, which in turn helps me to think about the writing I'm trying to do.

The writing group is already helping with this, in these ways:

1. You work harder when you know you have to look into the eyes of a group and say, "No, I didn't meet that goal this week."

2.  They can cheer you on when you get things done.

3.  They can also fix you with a mildly stern gaze and point out that taking on too many low-hanging fruit-type writing assignments can leave your main project behind.

4. Since these are people in approximately my general field, I can ask for and give suggestions about publication venues.

5. Seeing how much everyone is accomplishing when not on sabbatical is a bracing reminder that I ought to be accomplishing more and to set goals accordingly.

This is the sixth year I've kept the Excel spreadsheet to keep track of writing, and there's a separate page where projects and deadlines are listed. It really does help. But I can choose not to open the spreadsheet, whereas the writing group is going to expect to hear from me.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Internet pranks by academics and fake news

Some of you may remember, in 2013, that Mark Sample, a ProfHacker writer, thought it would be amusing to pull an internet prank in which he pretended to be in danger and disappear, leaving people to worry about him. 

I wrote about that in a post called "Cry Wolf," and in linking to it and rereading it yesterday, my anger at that stupid stunt came back in full force, and I added to that post and to yesterday's.

In comments on the original "Cry Wolf" post, Stacey Donahue, who had convinced me to leave it up, mentioned the #OccupyMLA hoax, so I looked that one up and added this:
Edited to add: here's a link to the #OccupyMLA hoax, otherwise known as more pranksters wasting the time and patience of everyone on a serious issue so that tweets about genuine injustices will be ignored next time when people believe it's a hoax: http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/occupying-mla/45357

All three of these hoaxers dressed it up in theory-speak and tried to spackle it  over with pretensions to doing something useful, but this is the same juvenile mindset that makes 11-year-old boys put firecrackers in mailboxes every 4th of July.  I don't see why we should either excuse it or trust the perpetrators.
And to yesterday's post, I added this:
Forgot to add this: if you want to play pranks with the the sensibilities of people who follow you, be prepared to be unfollowed and to never have anything you say taken seriously again, even though The Chronicle (a more forgiving medium) publishes your stuff. This is one scholar's body of work I never have to read. What credibility would that scholarship have? How would I know he's not making it up, too, a la the Sokal Social Text hoax?

Edited again, because apparently I still am angry about these oh-so-clever bros (see link above) messing with our minds on Twitter and thinking how meta they are for planting lies and making us fall for it: you call it a pomo experiment, but the erosion of trust is real.
Here's my question: why does this make us--okay, me--so angry? I wasn't involved, it was years ago, and there was no personal harm intended.

I think "erosion of public trust" is the key.

We've all seen that Goebbels quotation by now: "“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and or military consequences of the lie." 

We've also seen how the "straight from the horse's mouth" medium of Twitter lends credibility to the most outrageous lies and how charges of "fake news" have become the "lie big enough."

We know that if a certain tweeter-in-chief told his followers that the earth was flat and paved with unicorn tongues, they'd believe it, because he's told them that all voices but his are fake. The technique isn't new. All cult leaders do this. Charles Manson did the same thing.

That's the harm, right there, and that's the cause of the anger.  Mark Twain once said that if a cat sat down on a hot stove once, she would never do it again--but she would never sit on a cold stove, either.

Or, as the old saying goes, once burned, twice shy.

So whether you're posting fake twitter b.s. as a postmodern exercise in meta-tweeting blah blah blah with supreme contempt for the poor fools who are taken in, or whether you're doing it to control a legion of followers, you're still doing the same thing.

You're manipulating people's minds and eroding their trust in a system of information that promotes the common good. You're teaching them to trust nothing, and, in the process, to rely on their gut instincts about what's true--Stephen Colbert's famous "truthiness"--and we have visible daily evidence of how well that's working out.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Tips for social media types

Thank you, sincerely, for all the useful things you all post on Twitter. I mean it. I learn a lot every day about resources that are available. I "like" a lot of things and repost many.

Thanks especially when you choose the most cogent or telling sentence out of the piece before posting a link. It really helps.

But when you say, without explanation, "this is a must-read," it makes me want to set fire to it.

Too many acronyms and abbreviations make my head hurt. There are hundreds of intelligent, literate people on Twitter whom I follow who don't use them, and if you clutter up your message that way, I'm going to skip your message and go on.

A Twitter essay, strung out in 15+ posts of 140 characters each, clogs up my Twitter feed and is annoying to read. Go write a blog post or publish on medium.com or lithub like everybody else.

If you set up bots to repeat the same message several times over a 24-hour period, it whispers "spam" to me and everyone who follows you. If you do it for more than a 24-hour period, that whisper turns to a shout.

If you (or your bots, and you know who you are), post just a link to Facebook on your Twitter feed, I'm not going there. Why?

  • First of all, the angry timekeeper guardians that protect me from my own baser timewasting instincts (like Freedom and Strict Pomodoro on Chrome) won't let me go to Facebook, for my own good.
  • Second, FB is a closed system, and I object to having to log in to get a piece of information. Mark Zuckerberg already has enough information about my opinions, habits, and friends and family, thank you very much. 
  • Third, 99.9% of the time it's a piece of self-promotion, which, though not bad in itself, isn't worth the extra clicks and logins. 
Somewhere, if you're tweeting about a conference or event, someone involved ought to give its full name so we mere mortals can tell what you're talking about. Sometimes even clicking on the hashtag doesn't shed any light on the subject. 

Forgot to add this: if you want to play pranks with the the sensibilities of people who follow you, be prepared to be unfollowed and to never have anything you say taken seriously again, even though The Chronicle (a more forgiving medium) publishes your stuff. This is one scholar's body of work I never have to read. What credibility would that scholarship have? How would I know he's not making it up, too, a la the Sokal Social Text hoax?

Edited again, because apparently I still am angry about these oh-so-clever bros (see link above) messing with our minds on Twitter and thinking how meta they are for planting lies and making us fall for it: you call it a pomo experiment, but the erosion of trust is real.

Any tips that I missed?

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The winter of our discontent



As the long winter of our discontent drags on, I struggle to find something to say here that isn't simply repeating the several million messages of escalating daily outrage in Twitter or that doesn't sound entirely frivolous--like posts about writing.

To do the former is to pile more doom and gloom, and you already have enough of that on Twitter to sink your own feelings ever deeper. People are recommending books that are ever more dystopian both ecologically and politically, as if they figure you can't get enough of "I told you so" misery.

To do the latter is to suggest that you're gleefully dancing on the grave of American democracy, as in people hissing, "Don't you even care?"

Both positions can leave you feeling powerless, despite the actions you've taken (calling legislators, etc.)

What to do?

Well, "fight on," obvs.

But maybe also give a little time and space to some things that help mentally.

One, for me, is contemplating pictures from the past of my region --not to go back there politically (because nostalgia = racism, sexism, and all that, I do get it, I really do) but just . . .  to look and imagine being there, in that time and space, to see if it can be recaptured for --

Two, some writing that's not academic but might be fiction or creative nonfiction, never to be published (since it's neither sci-fi nor dystopian nor memoir) but just to turn the brain over to a different place for a while.

And then I'll write more about writing if everyone promises not to hiss at me in the comments.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Welcome to 2017!

I haven't posted here or over at my Real Name blog in forever--well, a month, anyway, and haven't even been reading many blogs because the news has been so, um, compelling.

I keep saying things like, "But how can that be legal?" and "Doesn't everyone see X?" and "That's insane" and, to my elected representatives, very respectfully, "Hello, I'm a registered voter in your district, and here's my address, and here's what I think about defunding the NEH."

The NEH may not love me, like it doesn't love the 94% of people like me that apply and don't get funded in its elite 6%, but I still love it, because it does good things. Also, Humanities and Democracy.

My thinking is that right now, those who rule politically are basically shaking up a snow globe of ideas so heinous that you wouldn't think they are real. They come fluttering down via the media & Twitter thick and fast,  and we're the little figures inside trying to pin them down to one so we can protest it. But what they really want to do is to use the whole snow globe to smash this country.

Anyway. I'll write a real post soon.

So how was your winter break?