Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Random bullets of where has the time gone?

Happy fall! How's everybody doing? In no particular order, some thoughts:

  •  Twitter: There's a lot going on over there, including people leaving in droves, as Musk tries to charge $20/month for blue checks and bring back the most toxic man in America besides himself. I'm staying for now because of this logic: (1) Musk did this for attention and will get bored with it sooner rather than later; (2) he won't want to keep pouring money down a losing proposition; (3) he doesn't understand that the users are creating the content. Scalzi said it better than I just did.
  • Covid. Despite my masking everywhere for the past few years & getting every vaccine & booster, Covid has finally caught up with me over some travel--and yes, I masked on the plane, etc. It's funny: when you tell people that you have it, they say things like "oh, I need to get my booster" or "oh, I should start wearing a mask again," which subtly implies to my feverish ears that I should have done those things--which I already did. It's a "just world" type of hypothesis, where if you do what you're supposed to do, a particular result will follow, except that sometimes it doesn't. But the masking, vaccines, etc. have made the experience far less severe than it could have been. 
  • Travel. No two airport systems are alike, and since airports are filled with funnel points of no return, it's possible to be very stressed out about where to go and what the process is. I feel no need ever to do a puzzle escape room; the process of figuring out how to rescue lost luggage, where and when to check in, etc. is plenty challenging enough. The European system of announcing a gate on a board only10 minutes before the flight closes and when the gate is 10 minutes away ensures that you get an aerobic workout as you race down the corridors.
  •  Students. I hired students to do a project, and it's exciting and fun to work with them and to see them learn things. The only downside is that the project involves documents with cursive handwriting, which is challenging for them.
  • Writing. The writing is, or was, moving along pretty well on my new project.Is anyone doing NaNoWriMo? Do we do that any more? 

 Hope you all are well, and I really mean it. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Writing Inspiration and writing houses: David McCullough (1933-2022)

As you've probably seen, the writer David McCullough has died at age 89.

I mentioned his sonorous tones in Ken Burns's The Civil War a while back, but his books were good, too, an opinion that apparently I share with the Pulitzer Prize committee. 

Mornings on Horseback and The Wright Brothers were good, although TBH I was more interested in the work of others who wrote about Dayton, Ohio's, other famous son, Paul Laurence Dunbar (a friend of the brothers). Americans in Paris was maybe too familiar to me in its subject matter to get a lot out of it. 

But to get to the real stuff: writing inspiration.

Working for much of his career in a tiny windowed shed behind his farmhouse in West Tisbury, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. McCullough tapped away on a manual 1940 Royal typewriter purchased for $25 in 1965.

“I like the tactile part of it,” he told the Times. “I like rolling the paper and pushing the lever at the end of the line. I like the bell that rings like an old train. … I even like crumpling up pages that don’t work. … I don’t like the idea that technology might fail me, and I don’t like the idea that the words are not really on anything.”

First, the writing house. It's behind his house on Martha's Vineyard, which--okay, we'll never see that kind of environment if we're not rich & famous, but we can envision the writing house. 

From CBS, I learned its dimensions: 8' x 12'. This is slightly smaller than Thoreau's 10' x 15' cabin at Walden Pond, but McCullough wrote there rather than living there. 

It's clearly a working space complete with file cabinets and an honest-to-god typewriter table. Those wings at the side of the table are for holding paper. 

Most important, a typewriter table is the best height for typing, 26" and not the 29" height of most of our desks, including the one on which I'm typing this. A typing table (if I had one) is a little low for typing on a keyboard, but when you're typing on a manual typewriter, that angle allows you to see better and also to press hard enough on the keys with a downward motion.

Source: the only actual, honest-to-goodness writing I've done this summer has been on a manual typewriter, though not a 1940 Royal.This summer has been about process and preparation--think amassing a bibliography and reading--rather than making great progress. 

Here's the place I want to be, though--the one evoked by McCullough's words, which more than these mechanical things are helping me with writing inspiration this morning: 
“People often ask me if I’m working on a book,” he continued. “That’s not how I feel. I feel like I work in a book. It’s like putting myself under a spell. And this spell, if you will, is so real to me that if I have to leave my work for a few days, I have to work myself back into the spell when I come back. It’s almost like hypnosis.”

“Writing history or biography, you must remember that nothing was ever on track,” Mr. McCullough told the Times in 1992. “Things could have gone any way at any point. As soon as you say ‘was,’ it seems to fix an event in the past. But nobody ever lived in the past, only in the present.

“The difference is that it was their present,” he continued. “They were just as alive and full of ambition, fear, hope, all the emotions of life. And just like us, they didn’t know how it would all turn out. The challenge is to get the reader beyond thinking that things had to be the way they turned out and to see the range of possibilities of how things could have been otherwise.”



 P. S. Please forgive me for not commenting, WordPress bloggers. WP is on one of its periodic hate campaigns with me where it will not accept any identity or password, so I will have to make a new one.


Friday, July 08, 2022

There's imposter syndrome, and then there are imposters

 I've been fascinated recently with this article about a writer on the show Grey's Anatomy, who (necessary disclaimer--"allegedly") fabricated a cancer diagnosis and stole other people's experiences as her own as fodder for the show. Link to  Vanity Fair. 

We talk a lot about imposter syndrome--the idea that we're not deserving of the job we have, not worthy to be where we are in our careers, etc. But this is different; it's about an actual imposter, or maybe just someone who lies creatively.

I have only met one of these people in my life (that I know of), but it was memorable. Bear in mind that this happened a long time ago, pre-internet, at a small school that I wasn't teaching at (let's call it Academia U); she wasn't even in the humanities. But I knew her, and we were friends. Let's call her X. 

X had graduated from a top program, which gave her star power to me and to everyone in her department. She had written (co-written) the paper on a particular phenomenon. People sought her out. She was invited to keynote at more than one prestigious conference. Pre-WWW, who could check?

 She frequently told Academia U that it was lucky to get her, and, in fact, would regularly threaten to leave unless her salary was raised. She had job offers, she said. Academia U came through with a raise every time. 

But there was an odd problem when she went up for tenure: the school couldn't locate the publications that she claimed, beyond the famous co-authored one. Well, that was easy. She had mailed a disk with her manuscript (pre-internet, remember), and the disk was corrupted, but it was just about to be published. On another, the editor had gone on vacation and had just neglected to send the final copy to the printers. On another, some editorial intern had made a mistake that delayed publication. All just missteps.

 She had the worst luck, those of us who knew her agreed. All the editors apparently sent letters saying that yes, these were fabulous articles that would be published momentarily. That's not unreasonable: a letter on letterhead saying that a book or article is about to be published often appears in a tenure file. It's not clear to me whether the tenure process at that school in those days required outside reviewers or whether they accepted her manuscript versions (soon to be published, except for her accursed luck) as publications, but she got tenure & promotion.

But there was something else: for me, her dates didn't add up. One time when I went to lunch with her, during which she told me I could be as successful as herself --well, not as successful, but successful for the kind of person I was, I started to get uneasy. The prestigious conference in X city--wasn't that at the same time that she had said she had gone to visit a family member in city Y? If a disk was corrupted, why not send another one? Why wasn't her name showing up in the article index for her discipline, except for that one study? (Yes, I am petty. After that humiliating lunch, I went to the library and checked.) There were other inconsistencies, but when I called her on them later, she brushed them away and always had a ready answer.

Things came to a head when an official document appeared to someone official to have been forged. What! No, X would not do that, we agreed. Stupid government! They must have made a mistake. 

There was no publicity, and no court proceedings. But she quietly left Academia U for another academic job shortly after that. 

I don't know if there's a moral to this story, except that I'm now amazed that it took me so long to add 1 + 1 and get 2 out of it. Is it gullibility, naivete, or stupidity? Or is it simply trust that people are who they say they are and do what they say they do? I also recall being kind of impressed that she could keep so many stories straight for so long.

Do you suppose that this happens in academia more frequently than we think it does? Have you ever encountered an imposter or creative liar?

Friday, June 03, 2022

Service Tennis, or how to put that ball right back across the net

 As new academics, we're taught (or do we just internalize?) the need to make things right.

Or maybe this: as women who are new academics, we're taught (or do we internalize?) the need to make things right. 

  • Draft of some report or document not right? Let me get right on that and rewrite it so that it sparkles, thinking through and addressing its conceptual problems as I do so.
  • Committee work? Sure, I can volunteer.
  • Take notes? No problem.
  • Write a book review? Let me at it.
  • Review an article or book manuscript? Sure, why not? 

But possibly inspired by some of the feelings that the article Maya recommended in the comments of the last post and also by rereading a few of my self-directed come to Jesus talks about doing too much service, this year has brought a change.

  • Draft of some report or document not right? Well, it's a collective draft. I fix what I can't live with and figure "many hands make light work" for correcting the rest. Could I make it better by spending more hours on it? Yes. Should I make it better by spending more hours on it? That's the real question.
  • Committee work? Is this a committee that has some actual use for what I bring to the table, or am I warming a chair? If the latter, bye.
  • Take notes? Yes, if no one else steps up. I've done enough volunteering to do this for an academic lifetime. Let's start acting as if this takes a village, which it does, and the same people don't have to do this always.
  • Write a book review? Never again, honestly. Marley's ghost is still haunting me, and this is probably the last one I will volunteer to do. I'd rather recommend a more junior scholar who can benefit from the experience, and it's better for them, too.
    • Also, what's with the new trend of sending ebooks or a link where you have to sign up for a site, etc., to get the book on a time-limited basis? Ninety percent of the value to you as a scholar doing a book review is that you get to read and have a copy of the actual book. The last thing I need is more hours of screen reading where it's tricky to mark up the copy with points you'd like to make.
  • Review an article or book manuscript? It depends. Is this helpful in terms of alerting me to new trends in research as well as being a service to the profession? A few years ago, an insidious voice started inserting itself whenever I reviewed something. You could be writing right now, it would say. You only have X number of productive hours in a day. Is this how you want to spend your time? This benefits others, which is laudable. Does it benefit you, as well? Isn't that also a laudable goal? 

I thought of this today when I received back a draft of something I'd sent to a committee, of which the point person mentioned that some changes would be good and that the other point person was on vacation. In the old days--and this was my first impulse--I'd have spent time making the changes and then sent it back.

Today, I lobbed it right back across the net and said "send it back to me once you've made the changes. Have a great day!"

 If you think of all this as your responsibility, it sounds selfish.

If you think of it as a collaborative game, you can hit that ball right back across the net and see it as a win for everyone.

Edited to add: see “Tips to Reclaim Your Time” by Leslie K. Wang over at IHE.


Monday, May 16, 2022

NYT: "My College Students are Not Okay" by Jonathan Malesic

 First, here's the article:

 The TL;dr on this is that students are tired--exhausted, even--and disengaged. When they go to class, they won't speak up, as if they're watching you on Zoom. 

Based on an N of 1 (me) over the past two years, I agree on some things Malesic's saying, but not all.  

  • First of all, we need to separate out Zoom classes, in-person classes, and designed-to-be-online and asynchronous classes. These are different animals. I only taught a few Zoom classes, and they seemed to work pretty well. 
  • The in-person classes? I guess I didn't post a lot about them, but honestly, they were great. We wore masks but it worked fine (worked a treat, as the Brits say). Was it their energy, being glad to be back, that made the energy in that classroom? Was it partly me (ditto)? Was it the approximately 1.5 times the effort that I put into those classes? More effort doesn't always result in a better class experience (shudders in memories of classes past), but maybe this time it helped?
  • Online classes: these take 2 x the effort of an in-person class, and this semester especially I'd estimate that my time was spent about 80% on teaching and the remaining 10% each on research and service. This isn't ideal and is definitely not what my contract calls for, but it felt hugely necessary. Some thoughts: 
    • In an in-person class, you know how sometimes you feel as though you are emotionally lifting them, encouraging them to speak, etc. and are wiped out at the end of the class, and at other times you might be a little tired or whatever but their energy helps you? This semester, I poured so much energy and time into teaching that it wore me out--but then they started giving back, even though it was an online class--more & better responses, coming to office hours (via Zoom), etc. 
    • And they deserve the credit for coming through so well--they really do. To borrow a piece from Bardiac's post, they really did exceed expectations, by and large; those weren't "well, it's COVID so it's an A" grades at all. They know what the expectations for writing are, and some of them complain mightily about having to write in complete sentences, etc., at first. It's a kind of "Do you know who I am?" attitude that sometimes afflicts seniors and majors who claim they haven't been called to account for their writing before, but then they learn and it's a pleasure to see the change for the better.
    • While it's doubtless true, as some of Malesic's interviewees say, that you can't teach some courses online (hello, lab science!), I don't teach lab science and would say that some things can be taught & discussed just fine online. I'd say in any given class about 5-10% were "disengaged" in Malesic's sense.
    • I just looked at course evals, and the students seem to have gotten a lot out of the classes, so there's that. 

But yes, to Malesic's point: more requests for extensions than usual, etc. do point to their being exhausted and burned out. 

And so are we, aren't we?

Monday, May 09, 2022

The teacher I want to be

 First of all, I do love teaching. 

Second, I believe in flexibility, and my syllabus has all kinds of alternative assignments, escape clauses, and get out of jail free extensions built into it--all stated right up front, with no need to have class privilege to know that they're available. I talk about them. They're in the syllabus. I email students about them, if they seem not to know.

For a lot of years--decades, even--this has been enough. If a student tries, it's hard not to succeed if they put any effort at all into it, because there's always another way. They may not get the grade that they think their writing deserves, because they insist that I'm the only teacher who's ever told them about picayune details like writing in complete sentences; however, they usually come around once we've met for a few times and gone over their papers. But in my classes, there other ways to succeed.

Yet it's been a tough semester for us all. Contra academic conferences, which are so over COVID, my students are getting sick regularly despite being vaxxed, and I've made a lot of allowances for that. I've responded to emails on weekends. I've been available. I've given feedback. I've met with them. I've notified them through the course space if they didn't turn in papers (online classes--you kind of have to do this). I have put in more hours on teaching this semester than in any recent semester I can remember.

And now, a minute and a half before grades are due, students who haven't checked into the course space for literally months want to turn in assignments that they had ignored for said months. Or they've skipped a bunch of assignments but are emailing "I need an A." Or they start rules-lawyering over some minor point, which is hard to do given the really specific details in the syllabus. Or “I have a lot of work in my other [implied: more important] classes and am handing this in late.”

And with all the "take it easy on your students; COVID, etc." directives being issued, it's hard to say no without seeming like a monster.

It's probably for this reason that I'm finding this really dispiriting, even though I know I shouldn't take it personally. It's like some kind of fall from grace, or a fall from the kind of teacher I thought I was and want to be. This didn't happen in the Before Times, or happen as much, and it didn't bother me when it did because I could just point to the numbers. 

I don't want to be that tough old rounder who rejoices in saying no, but it's getting harder to keep that store of goodwill and enthusiasm flowing and to be the kind of teacher I want to be.

Monday, April 18, 2022

How long is this semester? Groundhog Day long, that's what.

  • Like a good portion of the rest of the country, Northern Clime is getting snow. In April. Every day. Snow. What is it Bill Murray says? "It's going to be cold, and it's going to be gray, and it's going to last for the rest of your life." Yeah, what he said. 
  • Tulips are coming up, but they're saying "nuh-uh, not going to bloom when we're just going to freeze to death." 
  • I am playing whack-a-mole with our LMS. When I see that someone's turned in one of the minor full-credit assignments, I go in and give it comments immediately, just so I can see it disappear from the ever-lengthening sidebar list of things to grade. 
  • I gave a conference paper (the conference had sensibly moved online), and rediscovered (1) how stressful it is and (2) the feeling of giddy elation when it's over. It's the old story of hitting yourself in the head: it feels so good when it stops. 
  • The mask thing is going pretty well, though. Most places I go--that is, the grocery store--there's a good third of the people who are masked. If you think about it, how much attention did we pay to people's faces before the pandemic? Not a lot, and it's the same now; I barely look at them and vice versa. Nobody's said anything to me about it, and everyone seems pretty chill. 
  • I'm ready if someone does say something, though. Here's my projected response: "Merry Christmas!" Cheerful enough to be inoffensive, and strange enough to make them give me a wide berth in case I am unhinged, and, in this part of the country, armed. 
  • It's hard to get back to writing and thinking, although the conference paper proved that I could do it, so I guess it's time to get back to it. 
  • Updated to add: a Florida judge just voided the mask mandate on planes for bonkers reasons ("masks don't do anything"). This is bad for so many reasons (children, immunocompromised people, and, oh, by the way, the rest of us who don't want to get any flavor of COVID). From an academic perspective, people on Twitter are now fretting about flying to conferences. Not to harp on the same old idea, but you know how you can't get COVID if you're at a conference? Through a Zoom screen. We are all supposed to be throwing praise parades for the in-person conferences, but this is a risk that just got riskier, not that anyone is paying attention.
  • Another update: “who needs a mask? Covid is over completely, so definitely not me” from Megan McArdle ( ) conservative columnist and author of helpful advice like “if you’re not rich, perhaps you should consult your broker” and “old people get poor and die—get over it”