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?

*Updated to add: The Man Booker Prize this year goes to George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo, which is by all accounts wonderful, and which I want to read--but it features #4 (Lincoln mourning his dead child) and #3 (a surreal, experimental style that one account said will leave you not understanding what's happening for chapters at a time). Just . . . leaving that out there.

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),, 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.