Thursday, June 27, 2019

What I learned about letting things go from Father of the Bride (1951)

TCM showed the old Spencer Tracy-Elizabeth Taylor version of Father of the Bride the other night, and I watched the last half of it.

It's a funny movie and one of Spencer Tracy's best parts; Taylor is good, too, as is Joan Bennett and the supporting cast, especially Leo G. Carroll as the wedding planner/caterer.

There are a couple of great comic everything-goes-wrong nightmare sequences, sort of like the ones that every academic I know gets before the first day of class--e.g., you can't find the room, you have to give a spontaneous lecture on 15th-century French horses or something else you have no idea about, you're dressed in clown pants, or, worse, no pants--you get the idea.

One is a real nightmare, where his clothes start coming apart, he can't get up the aisle of the church because it's turned to some kind of rubber trampoline, and so on.

The other is the wedding rehearsal, which is total chaos with people milling around and talking over each other. When Stanley Banks (the Tracy character) says, "okay, let's have the REAL rehearsal," the clergyman says it was all fine and it'll be perfect on the wedding day--and he's right. Everything goes without a hitch despite, not because of, Stanley's frantic perfectionism.

You can see where I'm going with this. I spent a lot of time this week laying out timelines and project deadlines and start and end dates for a project. Heck, I even looked up a Gantt chart template and investigated Trello, though I backed away from that in favor of lists. Charts and lists are a way of controlling your sense of a project for a certain mindset, and that mindset is mine.

But when I gently hinted at timelines and "deliverables" to others, they strongly hinted that really, the wedding rehearsal went just fine and I should stop worrying about it.

It wasn't a waste of time, because now I have a better sense of how to put together my part of it. Did I take most of my timeline work out of the collaborative part? You bet. It wasn't going to help the project, though it is still going to help me, and it was going to confuse or annoy everyone else.

This is the important takeaway for me: I know what targets I have to hit, and I don't have to announce them to hit them. Like Elsa, I can let it go.

I just have to show up, do my part, and have some confidence that others know better than I do how this whole thing is structured and that they're seeing a vision that I'm not just yet--the perfect wedding, 

Monday, June 24, 2019

A short apology about the job market

In years past, I have written on this blog about the job market--advice about cover letters, about where to find resources, and about the MLA statistics on trends in hiring (spoiler: it's grim).

I've never said those preposterous things that are apparently clich├ęs from senior professors, as in "there's a t-t job for everyone if you work hard enough" or whatever other nonsense they supposedly spout.

I spent years as an adjunct and know better than this. I've done what I could at my institutions to argue for equity in hiring, written and argued for more lines, created as much stability and as many benefits as possible for non-tt faculty, etc.That still doesn't create tenure-track lines, which come from the upper administration.

Because of all those adjunct years, I know that in getting a job preparation is involved, but so is luck, a lot of luck. But in hopes that advice about preparation would be helpful, I did write those posts.

And now I am seeing all over Twitter that any kind of job advice is a microaggression or just plain aggression against people who don't have a job and that even posting advice is traumatizing to applicants. A common theme is that tenured senior faculty ought to just plain shut up. There's a lot of anger about this.

Anyway, I debated about leaving the posts up or taking them down and decided to leave them up, figuring that if people didn't want to read them, they wouldn't.

This is sort of a two-part apology. I'm sorry about the job market and will continue doing what I can to make conditions better. And I'm sorry if those initial posts were upsetting but will try to stick to other topics in the future.

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Opportunity cost" and the pleasures of daily tasks while writing

Figure 1. Not me.
This is not the post where I reveal that I have become a Stepford wife, and I do not wear a straw hat while shopping.

However, I was recently reading about the new childhood guru Emily Oster and her "parenting by the numbers" approach.

(Digression and disclosure: when my kids were little, I skimmed a book one time--Berry Brazelton--that sounded sensible but aside from that figured that I knew how to parent better than the book pundits. "Be loving, be consistent, and see to it that they didn't get too tired or overstimulated" was my mantra, and aside from that, the experts could step right off. It seems to have worked.)

Back to Oster. This sentence stopped me cold:
As a child in the nineteen-eighties, Oster said, “we were the only people who ordered groceries from the grocery store.” When young Emily asked her mother, “Why don’t we ever go to the store, like regular people?,” her mother told her, “Because my time is very valuable. I have a high opportunity cost.”
I found this sentence  insufferable amazing. Maybe she didn't like grocery shopping, and maybe the "opportunity cost," whatever that is, was indeed too high. Okay. Different strokes and all that.

But if you're taking care of little kids, a trip to the grocery store can be an outing (if you are home with your kids).

And when the kids are grown and you are writing, a trip to the grocery store can be, yes, an outing.

Think of it this way: you're looking at a world in basically two dimensions all day when you're writing. Screen, meet eyes. Eyes, meet screen. Even reading books feels somewhat two-dimensional because it's all transactional: you search for what you want and hope you find it, with the aid of post-its and notes. It's black and white, or sepia and white, if you're dealing with old materials.

Then you go to the grocery store and things are in three dimensions. They have shapes. They have color. You make choices. You shift your brain to the sensory realm of cooking and eating. Your planning changes focus. You see people who are moving around instead of in a photograph.

Figure 2. I want to go to there.
Okay, it's not a walk around Walden Pond or even a lovely morning walk, but a trip to the store feels like a reward at the end of the day, especially when your eyes are watering and smarting from work.

Cleaning the house and doing laundry are somewhat the same, except that they don't get you out of the house.  When you're stuck on a piece of writing and you take a break to load the dishwasher or fold clothes, your brain is still working, but your focus has shifted. (Spouse is in a writing-heavy profession and does the same thing with housework as a break.)

So while maybe I have a high enough "opportunity cost" to order groceries and hire out some household tasks, the cost in terms of getting a break from work wouldn't be worth it to me.

On the other hand, it'd be nice to have the extra time. What about you? Do you hire this stuff out?

Sunday, June 09, 2019

#thanksfortyping, writing, and invisible labor

Anand Giridharadas's takedown NYT review of Jared Diamond's latest book points out, to devastating effect, the book's essential truthiness rather than truth. To judge from the review, his method is apparently "ask a few friends I know in other countries what's going on and then write about it." He's definitely guilty (again, according to the review) of "Theme spotting. Enough said" in making conclusions and sweeping generalizations from a limited pool of evidence.

But what caught my eye was this:
Diamond is proud to be from another time. He tells us his manuscripts are typed by someone else, he relies on his wife and secretary to use a computer, and he clings to the belief that video games are “solitary,” even if massively multiplayer online games are where a growing number of Americans go to be social. He also thinks phones are ruining America because people check them every four minutes.
A few random thoughts:
  •  I get that he might not know about video games and e-sports (he's 80-something), but a lot of people don't know much more than they read in popular media about them (raises hand). The thing is, most of us (raises hand again) don't opine about something about which we know nothing.
  • Do you suppose that if there weren't a "typed by wife and secretary" power dynamic going on here that someone would have called him out on the factual errors? 
  • Or is he like Wendell Berry, who is too pure to use a computer and sees no need when he can have Wife type his work? I asked about this and "academic handmaidens" a few years ago, and it seems to be still A Thing.
  • Anecdata and a true story: I knew a professional man who refused to deal with the Internet because it involved typing, and "typing is for secretaries." This was years ago, but last I heard, he still believed this. He's missing a lot, but at least no one's going to mistake him for a "secretary."
Remember #thanksfortyping back in 2017? People were combing through acknowledgments pages for all the "thanks to my wife for typing" notices and finding that, oh, by the way, the "typing" often involved researching, translating, transcribing, indexing, editing, etc. etc., not to mention the work of women in history such as Sofia Tolstoy. It was an attempt to make visible the invisible labor that supports writing, often by women in the service of men.

I'm wondering, though, if there's a different dynamic that we haven't seen, possibly a healthier one, in which academic partners help each other out with this invisible labor.

A few questions:
  1. Have you ever typed something (or worked on data, or transcribed, or edited) for a partner?
  2. Has he/she/they ever typed something (or worked on data, or transcribed, or edited) for you? 
  3. Is your partner in the same field? 
 My answers would be (1) maybe--don't remember; (2) yes; (3) no.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Random bullets of writing inspiration

Let's have some writing inspiration, shall we?

1. First, Dame Eleanor's good post on getting started again, with these words:
The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is Virginia Valian’s: make the task smaller. As small as you need to. Ten minutes. Five. And be kind to yourself, because the piece of work is not really the problem. It’s all the emotions that have got tangled up with that piece of work.
2. Next, this piece from Laura Moss, editor of Canadian Literature, on how to get your article published: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/05/15/how-increase-your-chances-getting-your-work-published-scholarly-journal-opinion

This essay had a lot of good advice, although the single most cryptic piece of advice was this:
No. 16. Avoid theme spotting. Enough said.
Apparently a lot of readers besides me thought "theme spotting? huh? what's that?" so Moss explained in the comments:
Theme spotting is when you read with a predetermined outcome in mind and then lo and behold you find it is true. In English, this is when you say, the theme of X is prevalent in this novel and then spend the whole essay proving how it is prevalent. In other disciplines, I suspect a similar form of targeted blinkered argumentation must occur. Basically, my point is to not forget the 'so what' part. The theme might be there but why should we care. Theme spotting stops at the theme. Hope this clarifies.
 3. Here's an article about David Milch, who wrote and created or co-created (read the article if you want to sort it out) Hill Street Blues and Deadwood, among other iconic shows:
Five days a week, Milch commutes twenty-five yards along an arbor-shaded path that extends from the back of his house to a converted garage, where he writes until it’s time to break for lunch. Before he developed Alzheimer’s, he rose most days by 4:30 a.m., ready to work. He now shows up in the garage at nine-thirty or ten.
 4. At IHE, Susan D. Blum tells us how she rents a place for a week to recharge her writing, and it's worth reading. Her issue is distractions, and the retreat works great for her. Mine isn't distractions but avoidance, so I'm not sure it would work as well for me, but it's definitely writing inspiration.

Reading all these helped me to clarify the steps I have to take.

1. On one piece of writing where I know that every sentence will be torn apart by the editors to make changes that are distinctions without a difference (which contributes to the Fear that Dame Eleanor talks about): I refused to go to bed last night until I had written at least something on it. I wrote about 50 words, but that's 50 words more than I've done on it in any day in recent memory. Also, I'll try deep breathing once it's submitted and I get it back.

2. On another piece of writing, an ancient revise & resubmit that might or might not get accepted after making substantial changes: I need to reread it and figure out if it's worth revising or if I should send it somewhere else.

3. On a third piece of writing, which I got stuck on and became stale: time to revisit it.

4. On two pieces where the editors approached me and solicited the article: get on with it!