Sunday, December 01, 2019

Random bullets of as the semester draws to a close

How to keep everything going?
  • Shed some things. I unfriended (first time doing so!) on FB a toxic, performatively woke, and mansplainy colleague and FB, though still bad, is better because of it. 
  • Think about what you're doing re: student evals. Northern Clime has a lot of suggestions for bribing encouraging students to fill out the online evaluation forms, since evaluation numbers completely predictably fell off a cliff now that there's not a single time and place to do them. Right now it's the people who really like or hate you who'll do them voluntarily. But given the level of gender and racial bias in student evals, the subject of numerous studies, should we be propping up a system that is already stacked not in our favor? Especially when people think you bring this up not because of inequity but because your students must hate you? (For the record, they don't. I bring it up out of principle and then have to listen to bro-bragging about others' eval numbers, but I'm senior faculty and if I don't speak up, who will?)
  • Shed some more things.  I could barely make myself care about MLA citation format nine years ago, and since MLA changed to its latest system, I don't care at all. Do I painstakingly correct their MLA format? Or do I give them an example and give them credit if they attempted it? The latter. 
  • Give yourself a break.  It dawned on me, as I was standing in a passport line last week, that this seemed really familiar, because it was: I had gone to two international conferences in the space of a month. At that point I figured it's okay to be tired. 
  • Work on the things you can't shed. Like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, I am lugging burdens, not of pride or anything, but of writing projects that I promised to complete in some insane rash moment months ago. I can't shed them, but I can get them done. 
Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The wee small hours of the morning and 21st-century email etiquette

Ask a Manager, one of favorite sites for avoiding work, has a lot of useful advice about, you know, work.  Recently, Alison Green tackled the issue of whether it's rude to send emails late at night. A student worker asked this, and her advice was that while that's fine if you're sending emails to your peers, if you're a manager of some sort emailing your subordinates, it sets up an expectation that the emails will be answered immediately even if you say otherwise.

The academics that chimed in had a few takes on it:

1. We know that students stay up late and hey, sometimes we do, too, so no big deal if you answer an email late or on a weekend. Maybe we're traveling in a different time zone, too, so no worries about email at odd hours.

2. Also usually not a worry: waking people up as their phone buzzes with an incoming email. They can join the 21st century and turn off notifications like the rest of us or--here's a novel thought--not keep the phone by their bedside.

3. Schedule the email to go out later--at 8 a.m. instead of 2 a.m., for example--which you can do in Outlook and Gmail.

4. Draw a bright line between work and not-work; don't respond to email in off-hours.

What's your take on this?  I have a few new private email rules and questions since I last wrote about this:

1. What do you do when someone flat-out ignores their email and it's well known that you can only reach them through another form of social media that you may or may not use--and everyone just accepts it as an endearing personality quirk? My usual response is to send stuff through official channels (e.g., email) and let the chips fall where they may, unless they're going to fall on me--and then I knuckle under and use the other social media. A sellout position? Probably.

2. What about student or other emails sent after hours or over the weekend? Most of it still sits in my inbox like snowflakes falling on a windowpane, and definitely anything related to department politics can wait, because you know what kind of storm that's going to be. But when students are wrestling with The Great Demon CMS and trying to submit papers, I try to reply if it 's a weeknight (and papers aren't due on the weekend).

3. What if people ignore your carefully written email that took, yes, an hour to write in answer to their questions and then ask the questions again? Do you explain again, or do you say "you may have missed my response to this," copy and paste the first one, and send it--boom, done, with no further thought?

Any other email quandaries?

Friday, November 01, 2019

Recognizing the same old, same old--curmudgeonly or wise?

How does change happen in academe? The Chronicle has one take on it, although if I hear one more empty phrase about "breaking down barriers" and "silos"--hey, all you MBA types who want to disrupt the university, they're called "disciplines" and represent a body of knowledge--I'm going to build a cliché generator and pitch the resulting article to the Chronicle myself.

If you've been in academe for a while, you recognize the pattern of change. (And this happens everywhere.)

1. New higher-up administrator(s) pledges increased transparency, faculty involvement, and an exciting goal. Sometimes it's assessment, but it's always something that takes time and thought from faculty.

2. Faculty are asked for their ideas. Sometimes they're asked to rank things, go to seminars or webinars, meet in committees. They're asked to dream big: what would X program look like in an ideal world? What would make your program achieve better excellence (if you get my drift)? What could you do without if we make your dreams come true, not that you'll have to do without it?

3. Faculty dutifully fill out forms filled with hope & dreams: more faculty! Fewer administrative regulations! More money for research, or for students!

4. They take time out from their research to write the reports, go to the meetings, and so on.

5. Outcomes: 

a. Possibility 1: "So will we be getting money to do this?" "No." "More resources of any kind?" "No." (This is what Roxie's Blog used to call "excellence without money.") And those things that you might do without in a perfect world? We're not funding your dream, but we're cutting those.

b. Possibility 2: Report is deep-sixed and the administration does what it was intending to do anyway.

c. Possibility 3: A different change is implemented despite the advice of faculty and may or may not be a success.

d. Possibility 4: Real and positive change occurs.

6. Administrator(s) move on to the next school, now with a fresh initiative under their belt as proof of their innovation and effectiveness.

For our own sanity, I guess we have to believe that the process moves change forward in positive ways, and sometimes you see incremental and real changes. And I do think those higher-ups putting us through our paces in the process are sincere in wanting to make things better.

But when you see a proposal come around and think "didn't we do this 10 years ago?" should you put your heart and soul into it?

Or should you follow the Academic Serenity Prayer? "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."

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Mid-October update: On not crushing it and conferences

In the first season of Silicon Valley, the Pied Piper team interviews a candidate whose résumé states, without details, that he was "crushing it" for a certain period of time but then not "crushing it" to his usual standard in 2012. That's me this October.

 Spouse says that I'm exhausted because of all the chaos and bereavement over my mother's final illness and recent death, which was, in the end, the best one possible: quick and painless and peaceful, at home with family surrounding her. That's a fair point. But really, shouldn't the absence of the anxiety, stress, travel, and physical labor I've experienced over the past year give me more energy rather than less?

I also find myself simultaneously resenting having to go to conferences that I'm presenting at and resenting that I'm not presenting at ones where I'm not (MLA--panels I was on were rejected). "If only you were pregnant (completely impossible) or there were an airline strike or if you got the flu, you wouldn't have to go," says the insidious voice within.

Or I could just, you know, not go, but somehow that seems wrong without a reason. I did withdraw from one piece of it after concluding that there was no way it'd get done. But people just don't go all the time, don't they? There seems to be an uptick in no-shows at conferences, or is this just one person's false perception?

At any rate, none of my usual writing tricks are working, so I'll try the nuclear option--turning off the internet--and see if I can write the paper for it, keep working on the (overdue) article, and all the rest of it. Here's hoping for a better report next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Resilience, or learning critical distance when teaching

In class the other day, I was teaching some of my favorite stuff--call it dinosaur studies.

I had put extra time and effort into the brief lecture, including the pictures. I had found some video clips of T. Rex that I thought they would like and explained the context.

Some days, you go to teach a class just because it's your job, but on this day, I was pumped and excited.

As I wound up the whole thing and the video clip finished, I asked "Are there any questions?'

What I expected as I stood there:
 What I got:
  • "Are you going to hand back our quizzes now?" 
It totally brought me up short. I was in the moment. They really were not.

Now, they're a nice if quiet group, and I realize that I shouldn't let this get to me. But it did. I was totally deflated even in my other classes and, yes, oddly sad for the rest of the day. I started questioning whether I should even be teaching.

Rationally, this is nuts. Classes come and go, and individual class hours are unpredictable. We've all had spectacular days in the classroom sometimes and so-so days other times and "kill me now" days at least once in our careers.

Rationally, I know that they don't have to like what I like. They have their own interests that I doubtless don't share, and, while I try my level best to choose interesting as well as pedagogically useful materials, that's something you can't always predict.

But irrationally, I wanted them to share a little excitement about dinosaur studies. Irrationally, I felt that I'd taken a risk, like giving them a caprese salad only to have them demand the usual pizza.

And thinking about it now, I realize that we really need both perspectives. Yes, they have their own interests, and rationally that's fine, and I try to work with that as much as I can. But if I stop being excited about what's happening in the classroom and wanting them to love what I love in terms of literature, then what am I even doing?

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I've been rewatching Mad Men because there is no outside world in Mad Men, no politics, no brinkmanship, no, well, madmen on the loose.

The Undine of 2015 and earlier was pretty tough on the show sometimes, but nowadays I find it slow, and predictable, and very, very soothing. Together with The Good Place, it makes you think about your daily actions in ways that the dailiness of everyday life doesn't always facilitate.

In one episode--they're all a blur to me at this point, a sweet & comforting blur--Henry Francis challenges Betty Draper, who's just thrown one of her innumerable hissy fits about something or other. (Betty, comfortingly enough, only gets less selfish by microns rather than by inches.)

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?" Henry asks her.

Somehow, this swooshed me out of the minutiae of daily work life and up into one of those hovering spheres that you see in the movies. What it made me see is that I was drowning in those minutiae and that it felt suddenly like my choice to do that and that I could choose differently.

So, for example:
  • Do I really want to put that kind of time into a review or a meeting or one of innumerable memos? I do not.
  • Do I really want to move from unimportant project to unimportant project as a means of avoiding the hard work that (sorry, Marie Kondo) sparks joy? I do not.
  • Do I want to review yet another thing instead of writing and submitting something? I do not.
  • Do I really want to send a polite reply to the umpteenth scammy predatory journal email? I do not, and did not, and into the trash they go.
But there's also positive change:
  • Do I respond with cold fury if someone gets snippy in an email and escalate the icy politeness when I write back? You bet.  
  • If someone does that in person, does my body language (and steely gaze, and cold, measured tone) indicate that what I'm really saying is "You had best start over"? Yes.
  • Also, do I want to worry about and give an anodyne response to being called in by HR about  defending a student?  Or do I want to give them a coldly reasoned but furious piece of my mind, including stating that I know their primary goal is to hang individuals out to dry in order to protect Northern Clime from lawsuits? The latter, and that's what I did. We got to a better place after that, after they stopped trying to bully me, but the anger was necessary, I'm convinced.
 I know that this sounds as though anger is the only positive change, but there are other positive changes, too. It's slow going.

But for now, before I agree to working through someone else's draft to make sense of it, or explain something via email for the millionth time to someone who doesn't like the answer they're getting, or jump right on a complicated email issue with multiple questions instead of letting it marinate for a couple of weeks until I have time, I try to to remember Henry's question  "Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I'm trying to think of it, Henry.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Recommitting to writing

It's that time of year again. Let's play summer break bingo--but you'll have to imagine the squares. Give yourself a point for every one of these that you've seen or that has crossed your social media recently.
  • "Just back from my fabulous research trip to Paris/Florence/other European city, where I found oodles of new materials for my book in progress."
  • "So glad I had that fellowship to Fabulous Domestic Archive!"
  • "Excited to see the proofs for this article accepted for PMLA [or insert your flagship journal here]."
  • "What a great family hiking vacation in the mountains/at the beach! No phones, just fun. Nothing like taking time completely away from work to recharge the brain."
  • "Book proposal was accepted & now I'm under contract. Woohoo!"
  • "Made so much progress on my book manuscript this summer that I'm turning it in early."
  • "Completely revamped my syllabi/syllabuses and now I'm ready for the semester to begin."
  • "Yay! Panel accepted for MLA this year, so see you in Seattle!" 
I guess you could call it time envy.  You can be glad that these people are engaging in fabulousness and hard work, yet you're still slogging away at writing and maybe not even your own writing--i.e., reviews and reports.

Objectively you know you've knocked down a lot of things and crossed a lot of items off your list this summer. Subjectively, in your heart of hearts you know that this is obligation writing, low-hanging fruit that advances everyone's career but your own.

And if you're honest with yourself, you know you could have said "no" more, or put your own writing first; it's not the fault of other people or other tasks that you're not getting the writing done. They have to ask, but you don't have to say yes. Academia is an "ask culture," not a "guess culture," so you have to grow a spine and boldly say no. That time commitment you made rests with you.

So all I can do now is recommit to the writing, one day at a time or rather one half hour at a time, about the length of a pomodoro, and try, try again.