Friday, June 22, 2018

Random bullets of just past Summer Solstice

  • There's still lots of summer left, even if the days are getting shorter.
  • The writing is sort of moving along. I met a couple of (overdue) commitments, am working on others, and turned down some invitations for new projects because I will eventually learn not to overcommit.
  • Archives always say "no need to contact us!" but you really do, because the collection you want might be inaccessible for some reason. Somehow those are hard emails to write, though, and waiting for an answer while watching the travel prices go up isn't fun.
  • A survey recently asked about public engagement on social media for university faculty. They want us to engage, but I'm guessing that research, service, and teaching demands won't lessen. Instead, we'll be expected to drum up business in the form of outside lectures, interviews, etc. on top of everything else--and it'll be a standard to meet or be punished, not an extra to be celebrated.
  • I'm not going to bring up the political horror show here (donated, wrote to congresspeople already) but instead will concentrate on breathing in the cool summer morning air. Lilacs are past, but the honeysuckle is out. 
  • Today's a big anniversary for Spouse & me, so we'll be going out to dinner. I won't say which one, because some colleagues at my former university made fun of us for being married young (barely out of university) & and I'm still wary about revealing personal information after that. But yay for anniversaries!

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

In praise of distraction, or how to counter snobs who say "I don't own a television"

Inspired by gwinne's recent post about productivity and television, let me say this: I am too (experienced, old, productive, tired of academic bulls***--choose one or all of the above) to listen with a straight face to people who claim that they never watch television (including Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and the rest).

If you tell me this, I will laugh. I'm polite, so I'll try not to laugh in your face, but I will laugh.

Sometimes the further discussion reveals that while they would never watch TV, they do listen to This American Life on NPR. Or the BBC. Or play video games. Or read mysteries, a favorite among the academic crowd. Or they make an exception for PBS, because PBS. Or they go to the most recent depressing and obscure foreign film that they can find and brag about it. (Which can be good, but the bragging? not so much.)

Folks, it's all the same. Here's the big secret:  One is not morally superior to the other. All are ways of giving the brain a vacation, of distracting it so that it can stop beating you up for a while about the work you're not doing and give you a breather and fresh ideas so that you can do it.

But seriously--if you're not giving your brain a distraction, you're not giving it a rest. The productivity police may think that rest isn't necessary, but they're writing self-help, not creative work. 

One of the best takedowns of this attitude I've ever seen, and the reason I refer to this attitude as "I don't own a television machine," is from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "I'm No Henry Walden." The premise is that a Robert Frost-type poet named Henry Walden* has had Rob and Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) invited to a high-toned literary party where no one knows who they are or understands what they do.

If you want to see the whole thing, including a brilliant double-talk performance by Carl Reiner that I swear I have seen many times given as a paper at MLA, the link is below. If you just want to get a flavor of it, including the immortal "I don't own a television machine," go to 11:33.




*From Henry David Thoreau & Walden Pond. Fun fact for the Orson Welles crowd: Henry Walden is played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Writing inspiration: overcoming burnout and the Orson Welles syndrome

Figure 1. Orson Welles, wunderkind.
At a conference recently, I talked to a few people about their careers and about the wall of writing burnout I hit recently, asking them if they had experienced the same.

How bad was the burnout? Think of trying to get a balky toddler to eat a lima bean-spinach-kale casserole: that's how I was approaching writing. Those lima beans weren't going to taste any better cold--that is, after the deadline--but my brain toddler, unlike any real toddler, has to eat them anyway and get that writing done.

The people I talked to said that they were looking about three years ahead instead of to the next deadline. One was looking to get a book finished in that time. Ze had hoped to be finished by now, but life happened. A second, one of my collaborators on the big project, is shaping zir career around that for the next 5 years. A third is looking at gradually tapering off scholarship in preparation for a phased retirement. When I protested "but you're so productive! Don't you want to write another book?" ze said that there was no economic incentive and that ze would rather spend the time rock climbing.

Although they have different perspectives, they all had the same advice for me: be selective, because if you agree to do too much, you'll always be behind. Write about what you really want to write about. And take a break once in a while. If this sounds familiar, like advice that you and I and everyone else has given on their blogs, it is, yet it had some more force coming from people I'd known a long time.

It's probably unfair, but I'm thinking of Orson Welles, the genius writer-director-producer-actor who made radio history with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938 (inventing fake news?) and cinema history with Citizen Kane. He followed that, sometimes acting instead of directing, with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger (which he thought was formulaic but that I liked), Touch of Evil, and a host of other movies, some of which, like The Other Side of the Wind, he worked on for years.

The knock on Welles, dating from The Magnificent Ambersons, was that he didn't want to finish things, which apparently wasn't true. He did spend most of his career after Hollywood trying to get financing to fund the projects that he loved, like the Don Quixote film that remained unfinished at his death.

But what many may remember him for is the talk show circuit and his magic tricks, or the Paul Masson commercials where he solemnly intones "We will sell no wine before its time." He tried to do too much, often for financial reasons, and ended up not doing what he wanted to do (Orson Welles syndrome, TM Undine).

Now, Welles was a genius and could keep more balls in the air than most of us, yet you wonder what he might have done if he hadn't had to squander time and attention in making money with commercials, voice-over work, meetings with investors, etc. Would he have made more and greater movies? Would he have been able to make movies without resorting to that awful dubbing that makes some of those late movies (for me) unwatchable?

The thing is, most academics actually have that opportunity if we have jobs--to focus our attention and to choose projects--without having to take on too many side projects to keep the projects we love going. My conclusion is to try to take my colleagues' advice and assess what I really want to do next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chronicle asks again: Faculty offices? Who needs 'em?

Oh, Chronicle, Chronicle, Chronicle. You brought up this "no faculty offices" idea in 2010. I guess you figured it was time to revisit it, yes? https://t.co/GSmdZYUD97

If you want to know how popular open office spaces are, check out the threads at Askamanager.org.  Hint: they are exactly as popular as decreasing the sizes of airplane seats--in other words, beloved by the executives being paid $$$$, who all have private offices, and not so much by the people who actually have to work in them.

Herewith, from 2010, since I don't want you to have to click the link, a vision of how this would actually work:

New office commons: a day in the life

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

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

Stu Dent: "mumble"

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

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

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

Barista: "MOCHACHINO UP!"

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

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

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

Professor M: "DOES SHE HAVE A TEMPERATURE? ARE YOU SURE? OKAY, I'LL BE THERE IN HALF AN HOUR TO PICK HER UP."

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

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

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

Barista: "LATTE UP!"

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

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

And--scene.

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

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing Inspiration: Squad Goals


All across the country, academics are saying "there, that's done!," turning in grades, looking up, stretching their arms, and saying "Writing? Bring it on!"

Or some version of that. Because we're an academic squad, yes we are, and we're ready to get moving.

I don't want to make a list here of all that I want to get accomplished because (a) I don't want to bore you all and (b) as xykademiqz so eloquently pointed out a few weeks ago, a list like this would make me run screaming in the other direction.

So what are some more general goals?
  •  Limit your email time. I know, I know--this is advice we get and give anyway. But in the summer, unless you're teaching or have an admin job, you really can do this. As much as you can, ignore it.
  • Think about this: who's paying you this summer? If you're on a 9-month contract, YOU are paying you this summer, in the form of savings or however you've managed to figure out finances so you can live.  You are paying yourself to do the writing, and you are your own boss. So don't forget: all those lofty statements about "we can work on this departmental initiative over the summer" or emails that might as well have the header "let's discuss this contentious issue in long, irate, time-consuming threads" are asking you to stop working for pay (for yourself) and asking you to work for free. 
  • Write when you feel like it as well as when you're supposed to.  Boice, Silva, et al. make a big point of telling you to get writing at a regular time and then stop. But what if your ideas are still flowing at night even after you know you have to go to bed? Take out that notebook and do some writing so you won't forget it tomorrow. I read one time that George Sand, after a full day of strolling around Paris in pantaloons, negotiating contracts with her publishers, attending literary parties, and spending some time with her current lover, used to leave poor Chopin or whoever sleeping in her bed while she put on a dressing gown, went to her writing table, and wrote for a while. Let George Sand be your inspiration. 
  • Identify your rewards. Too much carrot-and-stick planning makes writing feel more onerous, but surely there's something you can promise yourself if you get done with what you'd like to do. Writing the word count down is a small reward, but maybe something like reorganizing books that desperately need it (an activity that's totally a procrastination strategy if you don't watch out) would be a good one. 
What would you add?

Sunday, May 06, 2018

A lighthearted thought experiment

What familiar person or character has the following traits?
  • lies constantly and often, saying impulsively whatever makes him look better at the time
  • never thinks ahead to the consequences of his actions
  • contradicts himself all the time without ever acknowledging the contradictions
  • brags incessantly about what he thinks are his achievements
  • refuses ever to apologize
  • causes continual chaos in the workplace
  • promotes people based on their good looks
  • fires people based on perceived disloyalty 
  • throws underlings under the bus in a heartbeat
  • has a set of rabid followers
  • has declared bankruptcy multiple times
  • considers himself a genius but is actually not intelligent
  • sees himself as a savvy business manager but is a disaster
  • consistently fails upward for reasons that no one understands
  • makes terrible decisions with regard to real estate
  • makes promises that he never intends to keep
  • sabotages the careers of those who serve him
  • perceives himself as universally beloved and quite a comedian
  • is happiest starring in his own reality show
  • hates people who stand up against abuse 
  • objectifies white women, gays and lesbians, and all people of color (racism, homophobia, sexism)

The answer is

*

*

*
(Wait for it)

*

*

(Drum roll)

*

*

*

Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell, on The Office. 


Ba-dum-bump! Thank you! I'll be here all week! 

Friday, May 04, 2018

Writing inspiration: a self-interview with Hamilton lyrics

1. So, Undine, what are you going to tell anyone who asks about your summer plans?

There's a million things I haven't done, but just you wait. Just you wait.

2. What's the next step?

Scammin' for every book I can get my hands on.

3. What do you want people to wonder if they see you around?

Why do you write like you're running out of time?
Write day and night like you're running out of time?
Every day and night like you're running out of time?
How do you write like tomorrow won't arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you're alive?

4. Any thoughts about those in universities who won't participate in various initiatives but then want to complain later?

If you got skin in the game, you stay in the game.
But you don't get to win unless you play in the game.
Oh, you get love for it
You get hate for it
You get nothing if you wait for it.

5. What about taking on some extra service now?

Lord, show me how to say no to this.

6.  What about various university hijinks, like funding for athletics versus funding for the humanities?

It must be nice to have Washington on your side. 

7.  As you look at this heap of deadlines and projects, how will you ever get it done?

I'll write my way out
Write everything down far as I can see.  

8. And then?

Take a break! Run away for the summer and go upstate.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Making grading human again

Can you stand another post about grading?

I was struck by something making the Twitter rounds a few weeks ago. Someone (can't find the original tweet--sorry) asked students about the readers of their papers.

Said one student: "I've never had a reader for a paper. I have only had rubrics."

Ouch.

Do rubrics promote consistency? Reams of studies apparently say they do.  Can people use them successfully? Apparently so, though they don't work as well for me. The only rubrics I use are minor ones for checklists: did you number your pages? did you write the date on the paper? do you have a bibliography?  Did you call this file "Paper 1" and thereby make it indistinguishable from the 40 other files called "Paper 1" that are currently filling up my grading folder?

But that tweet gave me pause. Are rubrics not representative of a human being reading and making judgments?  What about typed comments? What about no comments except at the end of a paper?

More to the point: do students perceive these as indicating little human interaction?

Background: About halfway through the semester, I stopped typing in all the comments in Word and went back to grading on the iPad.

But I had grown weary of typing on an external iPad keyboard in which some of the letters were missing. Logitech keyboards only last about a year, and this wasn't my first one, so when I couldn't get another because the iPad was too old, I got a new iPad, the one with the external keyboard, and an Apple pencil. It was a combination of YOLO and a big Costco rebate that made me do it. I had to update iAnnotate, too.

What a difference! Using the Apple pencil is amazing, and yes, I actually want to grade papers now, though that honeymoon may wear off eventually.  It's like no other stylus I've ever used; it's like writing on paper, but smoother. I still type the final comment, but not the inline ones.

Back to the main point: I felt more connected to the students' writing again, as though I were responding immediately and personally rather than simply robotically explaining things.  It's as though I were in more of a conversation with them. The grading standards didn't change, but my approach did, somehow. Maybe it's partly that I wasn't sitting at a desk but could write with the iPad on my lap, as I might when reading and taking notes. Maybe it was that we were further into the semester and were more used to each other.

What did the students think? I asked them whether they had a preference, and most did not. Some were kind enough to say that if writing the comments took longer, I ought to take care not to overwork and handwrite everything, which was pretty nice of them (but then, they're nice students).

I still think there's a place for typing the comments on the side, especially at the beginning.  But once you've established the grounds for what's happening, you can enter a more conversational mode. You can interact with their papers with a pen and handwriting and be a reader, not a rubric. You can make grading human again.




Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Short takes on the week so far

What do you mean it's only Tuesday?

Academic Lesson 1. Will work for food, or less. Did you hear the one about the university that invited fully qualified Ph.D.s to submit their curricula vitae for a position that paid literally nothing? But remember:

You have to have a Ph.D.
To qualify.
To work for no money at all.

Interested? Southern Illinois University at Carbondale is looking for applicants! Pretty sure you'd be on the hook for your own moving expenses and dry-erase markers, too. 

Peer to Peer University tried volunteer faculty a few years back, and Western Governors University has a model that sounds a bit like it, but this may be a first. We are living in the English Department of the Future, for sure.

Academic Lesson 2.  It's a good week to remember this precept:

No one cares how hard you work, especially if it's to attain results that they've come to expect.

Academic Lesson 3: The Lesson of the Master. I have decided to learn a lesson based on observation: the person who did this job some years before me--someone I greatly admire--devoted x hours to it and not a second more, leaving each day promptly to go and do zir scholarship. Ze didn't look back, didn't answer emails out of sequence, and didn't let this part of the job intrude into zir scholarship. Ze did the job well and was and is very productive.

I've been like one of those eager workers in a factory, trying to get everything done right away. What I have learned is Academic Lesson 2, when what I need to learn is Academic Lesson 3.

Academic Lesson 4: Still fine to be ageist in the ChronicleThe article about "Feeling Anxious?" has some good suggestions about mindfulness.

But do you know the only group that was called out for its appearance? Hint: not gender, not race, not class, but this: "Some of these people are in their 70s, with bags under their eyes, and CVs as long as Jack Kerouac’s scroll of On the Road. Yet, they never stop." I get that the author was trying to be funny, but really?





Wednesday, April 18, 2018

It's my time, and I'll do what I want

Oft I have travelled in the realms of gold. Or maybe just traveled. And then traveled some more.

But recently everything feels out of control, or, more accurately, I feel as though I am not in control of my time. Incessant emails, demands for information, writing tasks, more emails, more meetings--sure, it's standard drill for an administrator. It has to be done when it has to be done, and if your own writing suffers--with consequent damage to grants, writing, awards, etc.--that's just too bad. No one twisted my arm to do this, and I believe in what I'm doing.

Figure 1. Still the best technique.
You can only feel pushed so far, though, before you want to reassert control, which I did in three ways recently. If you don't want to read about petty triumphs, this isn't the post for you.

The first is the end-of-semester anger management technique I wrote about--surprise!--at the end of the semester a couple of years ago: "Take your hands off that man!" 

"You want it to say X, even after I explained the problems with that? Fine. X it is then." Take your hands off that issue. Let it go, and don't look back.



Figure 2. One of these things is . . .
The second is this: A couple of weeks ago, one of my collaborators--you know, the ones from The Good Place--asked about something in my area of expertise; I spent some time on research and a careful answer, which ze ignored, as per usual.

In recipe terms, I said something like "You know, Worcestershire sauce and vanilla extract may look the same, but if you use Worcestershire sauce in your chocolate chip cookie recipe, you're in for a world of hurt." Today I received an email saying "full speed ahead with the brown liquid for the cookies, yes?"

Figure 3 . . . not like the other.
I wrote back and said, "So glad that we're going to go with any old brown liquid condiment for all the cookies without checking to see what it is; much easier to find than figuring out, as I recommended two weeks ago, whether it's actually vanilla extract or not."  Collaborator: "What? Oh, no."

The third one is reaching a breaking point with a passive aggressive colleague who concern-trolls and challenges every single decision I make. Ze will argue for A, and, if I do A after due consideration and input from others, Ze will ask why I didn't do B instead.

There's a particular kind of passive aggression that mistakes my friendliness for weakness and a willingness to be Instructed and Corrected, like Grady in The Shining. I've experienced this before and finally figured out that that's what was happening here: I was being friendly. That was a mistake, and I Corrected it, though not with an axe.

Figure 4. Grady explaining "correction" to Jack.
Let's just say that if you (while still courteous) drop the friendly demeanor, sit up straight, and speak forcefully and in definite terms, calling the person out on zir contradictions and staring intently at the aggressor while doing so, it will do your heart so much good. I'm pretty much done with the semester, but I am definitely done with this nonsense, and for once I let it show.

And maybe tomorrow I'll turn off email and do some of my own scholarship for a change. 







Saturday, March 24, 2018

The conference cycle as it really is

1. Call for papers comes out. 

"That looks so interesting, and the conference is in a cool place!  I have to submit something. Do I have something already written? Nah, but the New Direction will spur me to do better work."

2. Acceptances/rejections come out.

If I didn't get in: Mildly sad, then "Oh, well, that's a relief."

If I did get in: "Hooray, hooray!  So excited to go and present this work that I haven't written yet."

3. Months intervening.

 "I'm doing the research, but I really ought to write the paper well ahead.  Nah, I've got this Deadline on Another Thing- Crisis Level Admin Task - Teaching and prep - Papers to Grade. I have lots of time."

4. A couple of months or weeks before the conference. 

"I said I'd write about WHAT? Who wrote this proposal?"


5. Near the conference dates, but please, Flying Spaghetti Monster, not on the plane. 

Write write write write write. 

 6. At the conference before the panel.

Please let it go well please let it go well please let it go well. 

"I will never put myself through this level of stress again. I will write all papers months in advance, hand to FSM."

7. At the conference after the panel. 


Huge relief, like exiting a roller coaster. Turn into Sally Field: "They liked it! They really liked it!"

8. Browsing the announcements tables. 

"Hey, that looks like a really interesting conference, and it would stretch my work in new directions. When's the deadline for the call for papers?

Friday, March 16, 2018

Women in academe: short takes on the news

 Well, let's see what we've learned in the past few weeks.

1. At InsideHigherEd.com, we get our annual confirmation that "female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically 'entitled' students," thus hurting us on course evaluations. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/01/10/study-finds-female-professors-experience-more-work-demands-and-special-favor

Comment: We're "helpers, not doers" according to the findings of the study. Awesome.

2. And IHE found the same thing true last year: women faculty--wait for it--do, yes, more service, to their "possible detriment." https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/04/12/study-finds-female-professors-outperform-men-service-their-possible-professional

Comment: I think this is an annual one and the most frequently replicated study in all of science. I've seen variations of it for 15 years, and I've learned two things: (1) the findings are always the same and (2) the role of women in doing service doesn't change.

If you want to see more variations, check out any of these past posts (which have links).

3. Also at IHE, which is killing it on reporting this stuff with a straight face: we can teach identical courses online, where students can't even see us, and they'd still rather have a male professor. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/14/study-says-students-rate-men-more-highly-women-even-when-theyre-teaching-identical

See also: lower course evaluations.

Figure 1. "Queen Bee" is a misogynistic red herring.
4.  But we're learning to be more rude to each other, apparently: https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/incivility-work-queen-bee-syndrome-getting-worse

 "Across the three studies, we found consistent evidence that women reported higher levels of incivility from other women than their male counterparts," Gabriel said. "In other words, women are ruder to each other than they are to men, or than men are to women."

Comment 1: Not to me, or at least they'd better not be. 

Comment 2: This is disheartening--or is it? Or are they interpreting as rudeness behaviors that they'd tolerate from men?

Figure 2. Joan Fontaine in Born to be Bad.
Comment 3:  The study defines incivility as "low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm," but that's always been true for a certain subset of both men and women, hasn't it?

Think about Joan Fontaine's Christabel, in Born to be Bad, who is manipulative seven ways to Sunday. Example:

 Christabel is trying to oust the fiancee of the clueless and wealthy Zachary Scott, and doing a bang-up job of it, too. But she wants to keep Robert Ryan for her lover, so she praises the fiancee in the "bless her heart" manner familiar to those from the South (I've heard):

Christabel: "What a fine girl she is. So strong! So sensible! So capable!"
Robert Ryan: "You ought to see her change a tire."

He's calling her out on her passive-aggressive BS, but none of the other men see it for a second. So Christabel isn't rude, but she knows exactly what she's doing and the damage that she's causing. Who among us hasn't known a Christabel in academe?

Anyway.  Maybe there'll be some good news in the next set of studies. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Writing inspiration: Wordsworth, academic writing, and learning lessons over time.

The things that you learn about writing and about yourself accrue over time, don't they?

Figure 1. The Abbey he's actually not at but a few miles above.
Remember Wordsworth's "Lines, Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"?

The narrator thinks back to his youth:
when first I came among these hills; when like a roe / I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides / Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,  /Wherever nature led
Did anyone else used to stay up all night and write a paper due the next day as an undergrad? It was sometimes good, sometimes bad (no revision!), but hey, it was done.

And now we're more like this:

hearing oftentimes 
The still sad music of humanity, 
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power 
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused,

On one hand, that's a bit too elevated a sentiment for academic writing, but what we're doing is "interfusing" all that we've done into a meaningful piece of writing, even if it isn't "sublime."
I'm not doing justice to this poem at all, but it made me think of some recent things I've (re)learned:
  • It is what it is, or it takes what it takes. If it takes you 25 hours over several days to write a five-page paper about something that you already know well, with a ratio of about 4 hours of thinking and reading to 1 hour of writing, well, that's what it takes. Don't beat yourself up about it (says the person who has been doing just that). Try to make deadlines, but do your best even if you can't.  It's a process.
  • Speaking of process, when you're recollecting in tranquillity, like Wordsworth, you come to know your own processes well. That anxious bout of administrative editing when you should be writing? It's displacement writing, dealing with a lesser anxiety to avoid confronting the greater anxiety of the academic writing you have to do. The writing is working in the background, and it will emerge in good time when you do write. Bonus: the administrative task is that much closer to being done.
  • Don't follow literally the advice all over Twitter to "write drunk, edit sober." How do people do this if they're literally drinking? Maybe it works for them. What I took away from it, though, is to loosen up and spill everything out in paragraph form, if possible, and in list form, if not, even if it's too colloquial or too pompous or otherwise not a thing that I want in the paper. (I know that this is perennial advice, via Annie Lamott's "sh*tty first draft," but it's still important.)
  • Edit and revise and edit some more.  That bounding roe of an undergrad Undine would never have believed it, but--surprise!--it's as much the editing that tells you what you think as it is the writing. Again, know your processes: I have to see it on paper at certain stages, the header should have some kind of an autotext time stamp so that I know which version it is, and it helps if I have a red pencil to mark a big slash across pages after I've made the edits.
  • The more work you do, the more you know. The reading I've done to develop the three pieces of writing over the past six months (you know, the ones you've heard me complaining about) is actually paying off now in ways I couldn't have anticipated. 
  • Recognize what's not working.  Sometimes, if you're stuck on a piece of writing, there's a piece in there that doesn't belong, no matter how insightful it is or how fond you are of it. You can spend a lot of time trying to shoehorn it in, but sometimes you have to cut your losses and all those hard-won words. Mark Twain said that you should "kill your darlings" (also adverbs), but good news: with writing, you can put them in another file and save them for another day. If they're good, they'll survive.
  •  Delete those annoying emails. Tired of sanctimony and virtue-signalling and lengthy email lectures on Correct Principles when you already hold those principles? If there's no action required, delete them. Or put them in a folder called "Colleague Bloviations." It'll make you feel better and help your sense of focus. 
  • Let your writing helpers help you. Writing or accountability groups. 750words, Strict Pomodoro, Excel spreadsheets, etc. And for a bonus: get a new black notebook, since the old one is almost full.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Big picture, small details, collaboration, and The Good Place

Figure 1. If you're not watching The Good Place, you should be.
I've mentioned before that I'm part of a collaborative project that's been going on for some years. (Think editing a journal, running a conference, or working on a grant.) We all have the same background but our strengths differ slightly: one knows MLA style up, down, and sideways, etc.

The details are important in this project. What I'm good at, though, is the big picture stuff--organization, logic, and sense-making in the writing that we're dealing with. I might not pay attention to whether the comma after an italicized phrase is also italicized or not, or even notice it, but then, my collaborators will, so I'm not worrying about it.

So far, this has worked well, and we work well as a team. But in one recent facet of the project, there's a huge problem that I'm having trouble convincing them is a problem. I've done the work to show why it's a problem, and explained it more than once, but no dice.

 A few analogies may help.

***

Dried Leaves
  1. Someone gives you a nest of crumbly dried leaves and you have to put it together as a folio of coherent writing that makes narrative sense. 
  2. Wait--you also have to put it together in the order that the person who gave you the leaves implies, but will not tell you, is the one, true, and correct order. 
  3.  You investigate over many hours, find evidence that helps, put it together, and write up an explanation. Aha! you think.
  4. Your collaborators say, "I think that there is a pixel of green on this leaf. We have to discuss that at length."
Titanic

You say: "If we take this route, we'll get to a lifeboat."

Your collaborators say, "these gates across the third-class east stairway should be painted black, not blue."

The Trolley Problem

You, as Chidi from The Good Place: "Logic and ethics make this the best solution! Also, arrrgggghhh!"

Collaborators, as Eleanor and Michael: "Did you notice that there are 14 spikes holding the rails on the left side and 15 spikes on the right side? We have to discuss that at length."

***

This will all probably work itself out, but right now, I'm Chidi.

***
Or not, and I need to get out of this project, when they praise each other for their mad skilz and brush past my genuine intellectual contribution to say "thanks for keeping track of the edits."  Yeah, I might be done. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Productivity, MBTI, and plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

 Xykademiqz's interesting post on her MBTI type has me thinking about how personality or certain traits or however you want to define it affects how we work.

It turns out that we're the same type (INTP), and boy howdy, did her post resonate with how I approach planning. I'm looking forward to her next post on the subject and to participating in the comments.

Here's a link to the test she posted https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test and my result (at right). I first took the official version of test on paper years ago as a process of figuring out job search strategies or something and then took it online a few times. Have I changed over the years?  Uh, nope.

As I mentioned over at her place, something about planning (is it on the P scale of the test?) makes this type feel trapped. That doesn't apply to work--I can lay out a course, a class, an admin task, etc. and follow through just fine--but to plan out life stuff (especially writing) in this way just doesn't work.

An example: I had a friend once who claimed that she planned out her dinners a whole year in advance. She claimed that this gave her great peace of mind. (Teddy Roosevelt was apparently like this: he would write papers or speeches months in advance and never think about it again.)

To me, planning dinners like this seemed bonkers, and it made me itch just to think about it. How would you know whether the asparagus was good that week? What if you didn't want to eat tuna casserole on a Friday six months hence? I've tried this kind of planning for even a week a few times, and I always rebel and switch up the days. There's nothing like knowing that you have to do something to make you rebel against doing it.

And that, right there, is why those posts about making lovely little check boxes that xykademiqz links to and making a timetable for something like writing is so tough to do. I can admire it, but I can't really do it. The most I can do is to draw a line down the right-hand margin of my little black book and list a few tasks that I hope I can get through that day.


Here's another visual aid about how I start writing: watch Ed Norton (Art Carney) as he sits down to play the piano. Yeah, that's me.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Me and my (shadow) notebook

We're getting good at keeping track of time, my little black notebook and I. 
  • Yes, it took me 7 hours to do that administrative task. It takes what it takes, but the thing is, I can't feel despairing because I wasted the day. It's not wasted. It has to be done. My notebook tells me how I spent that day when I'm beating myself up mentally about not writing more.
  • Receiving a long, detailed, multi-part email about non-urgent minutiae? How long will it take to read and respond? My notebook tells me. It's a number, that, anonymized, averages out to  "too long." Bottom of the reply list for it.
  • I send an email that doesn't receive a response but receive more non-urgent minutia-driven emails. Do I hasten to reply? I see from my notebook that this was discussed already with the person sending the email. I let the email sit for a while.
  • Meeting that's supposed to take two hours and we're only 2/3 of the way through the agenda? Unless the president or provost has convened it, I'm leaving at the end of two hours. This is the 70% rule that xykademiqz and gwinne have talked about.
  • Document, document, document those progressive emails.
    • X writes to say "I need you to break this rule for me" sent to someone not me. I reply to the person who forwarded it saying when X contacts me, I'll respond.
    • X writes to someone not me to say, "hey, could you get on this right now? Time's a-wastin' here!" Same answer. When X contacts me, though, I'm ready with a reply.
  •  The To Do List is in the little black notebook as well as in the spreadsheet. It's more satisfying to cross things off in pen than in a spreadsheet.
  • The spreadsheet only tells me when I didn't meet a goal (as in Paul Silva's How to Write a Lot) or how many words I wrote. The notebook tells me that I didn't get home until 9:15 p.m., which puts a little different spin on what looks like a wasted writing day though it was a useful campus one.
  • Because it also holds some drafts and bibliographies all in one place, I can tell when I've added something to a main document: the transferred material has a line through it.
  • In the notebook, I can trick myself into writing with pen and paper sometimes when the computer holds too many other distractions (grading, etc.), as Dame Eleanor talks about. 
  • And every day when writing happens, there's the number of words, circled, at the top of the page. Pasting or stamping gold stars to the page might be a step too far, but I don't need them anyway. The circled numbers are enough.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

My time is (not) your time

A while back, before the endless year of 2017, we were talking about keeping track of time (me and these happy few, this band of sisters on the blogroll) and productivity.  At the time Laura Vanderkam was making a splash by making excellent use of lots of money to hire help to do the work we do for free her "productivity journey" of logging every second of her day.

Gwinne asked in a recent post about how to find "high-energy time" for the work she needs to do.  That seems to me to be more the issue: not how to find time, because you can always get up at 4:30 a.m. or some outlandish thing to go to the gym, but how not to do a faceplant into your desk at 10 a.m. when you do so. Time is finite. Energy is finite. Put them together, as you must to do anything creative, and they seem to diminish in exponential proportions.

I was thinking of this recently because of something to do with an ongoing collaborative project and a document. Said document has been edited ad infinitum and back, but we had added something and needed to do a bit more. My collaborators are lovely, but the part we needed to edit was exacting stuff, requiring energy, logic, creative thought, and all those things I would usually save for writing. Add to this the fact that some in our group don't feel that they've done anything unless they've changed a word for its synonym (i.e., changes that don't make a difference).

So I clocked in and out in my little notebook. Time going over the sections to discuss: 2.75 hours. And then I mentioned it in my response, phrasing it positively as reminding ourselves of the work we're doing collaboratively and its importance.

Asked whether I would go over it again before our conversation, I said that I had the hour before the meeting to look at it. "Will that be enough?" they asked. "It will have to be," I said. "That's all the time I can allot to it."  The meeting went well, and we're still positive about the project.

What difference did it make to keep track of the time? Or to mention it?

It made me feel as though my time was not in a giant vat somewhere that people could dip into and out of as they needed to. I gave them a measure of it and let them know when it was enough. It still cut into my writing--after that, and class, I had no brainpower left--but I felt in control.

Pace Rudy Vallee, it's not so much that my time is or isn't your time (sometimes it is), but realizing that I can keep track and limit it makes a huge difference.




Monday, January 08, 2018

Random bullets of MLA 2018

What was memorable?
  •  New York City! How can you not love going to NY? Maybe it's different if you already live there or near there, but it's an exciting place to be even if you are among the hayseeds (that would be me) rather than the cosmopolitan cognoscenti. Going to a museum and becoming transfixed by a painting. Seeing a Broadway show (yeah, guess which one!). I had been there this summer in the same area and so was less prone to getting lost than usual. Yes, even on a grid system some of us will not know what direction we're walking in until we get to a corner.  
  • The "bomb cyclone," because "snowpocalypse" is so 2016. Yes, it snowed a lot on Thursday, and a lot of people weren't able to get to the conference because of the wind and cancelled flights. If you were there and didn't have to get anywhere, though, it didn't seem so bad--that is, if you're used to snow and cold of 8-10 degrees. There were snowplows, shovels, and enough salt on the sidewalks to bring Carthage to ruins again.
  • The conference hotel(s): Hilton and Sheraton. The hotels seem finally to have gotten the message that we'd rather grab something fast in a deli-like setting than sit down for a meal, and the Hilton had the perfect spot for that. Also: a real fridge rather than the dreaded mini-bar  whose sensors charge you if you move a bottle. This being NY, there were plenty of great restaurants as well as delis and supermarkets.
  • Conference rooms: Decent room temperatures, lots of water to drink, and hotels very close together. Also, the wifi password was in the PMLA program this year, and the wifi worked!
  • Mostly good sessions, with a lot more 4-person panels and roundtables than there used to be. Nobody grandstanding (that I saw) and droning on past their time. No one had to use the Hook. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the BLM session with Harry Belafonte.
  • Everyone loves to complain about people reading papers. But I went to a panel in one of the new 3-session "working group" formats that was 75 minutes of people randomly chatting about theory.  There were pauses. There were random generalizations. There were lengthy readings from theorists. In its reorganization a few years ago, the MLA killed off several of its standing sessions on authors, periods, etc., and I get why they thought it was a good idea. MLA also wants you not to read papers but to experiment with other presentation modes. But I would have killed for some tightly argued, highly focused papers in this session with a spirited discussion to follow. And this format gets three time slots per convention, proving, I guess, that sessions expand to fill the time available.   It'll be a while before I return to a "working group" session.
  • The MLA is even acknowledging that it's becoming less central to the job market, now with Skype interviews and everything. That's a move in the right direction. 
Wait--I have been doing this for how long? Previous MLA roundups:

Monday, January 01, 2018

Happy New Year! Resolutions 2.0

Random resolutions, updated for what I hope will be a focused year.
  1. If I can't sit still in the morning but have laser-like focus to write from 9-11 p.m.--indeed, I get restless wanting to write at that time--I need to stop fighting it and go with the flow.
  2. Recommit to writing every day, which I lost in the various caretaking activities. All my strategies--Excel record-keeping, 750words, pomodoros--do work until the writing sets me on fire (in a good way), so I need to keep at it.
  3. Continue using my superpowers for good, though they are super in a limited way. "That office told you what? Doesn't sound right to me. Let me make a call to see if something can be done." 
  4. Realize--as in feel it--that I have a great job that I love, and that any one lousy day does not take away from the entirety of the experience. 
  5. Keep going even if something is difficult.  This NYTimes piece says that gratitude, not grit, will help with resolutions and procrastination because you'll feel responsible to others and want to show them your good traits. I'm thinking that's called "guilt over not getting something done" but am certainly going to try.
Tha's all for now. Happy New Year!