Saturday, January 11, 2020

Strategic alliances, or how I stopped worrying about not-loving some conferences

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as the annual dues statements for professional organizations roll around and many have ratcheted up their dues substantially: how do you decide which ones you support?

This probably works differently in the sciences, where (I’m told) some organizations elect you as a fellow or a member and it’s a great honor, but in the humanities, you join a group, you pay the dues, you get the journal, and if your paper is accepted, you go to the conference.

There are lots of levels of engagement, including being involved with elected leadership or committees, but the basics are these:

1. You pay your dues faithfully every year, no matter what.
2. You submit to a conference and have to be a paid member to be there, so you join before you submit.
3. You get accepted to a conference and then join so that your name will be on the program. 

I’m usually in the #1 category, but a few years ago, I realized how sensible it was to be in #2 or 3.

Example: Let’s call it the Crunchy Granola conference, the one where everyone wears brown instead of black. For the better part of 15+ years I paid every year. I presented at some conferences. I was elected to office and went to conferences every year (and often on my own dime). 

And then I noticed that my proposals were getting rejected more often than not. That’s fine: the organizers can’t accept everyone. There was less and less in the journal that had any relevance to my work. My interests had gone in a different direction, and they weren’t Crunchy Granola’s cup of tea. We had Grown Apart, as they say in letters to Carolyn Hax.

But on a different note, I had also become fed up with a radical egalitarian rhetoric that was not, shall we say, matched in practice. 

So I stopped paying the dues notice, and you know what? It was a relief. I guess I figured that I somehow had to stay with Crunchy Granola for my whole career, as though we were academically married, but I so didn’t. 

When I get a dues notice now, therefore, I think before automatically paying it. Does the journal have materials relevant to what I’m working on? Do I meet up with people working on relevant topics at conferences? Is my work at least sometimes accepted at those conferences, and do I have good conversations that further the work when I go? 

This is all obvious, of course, except that it definitely wasn’t for me because as someone whose parents weren’t professors and who is terminally naive by nature, I began by not knowing the norms, which is why stating them now has become a real thing for me. What I learned is that you can & should be strategic about those alliances and not look back once they don’t work for you any more. 

Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Reading Zone

(Rod Serling voice)

Imagine, if you will,  a world in which people must write for a living, but in order to write, they must read, and generally read it all. 

The inhabitants of this land are called Readers, or in other words, Academics.

Some of what the Readers must do is pure joy. They read all of an author's best books and are inspired to let words flow out effortlessly on the page. They cross the bridge into the realm of imagination, a world not of sight and sound but of mind.

But to cross the bridge, the Readers must pass the trolls that live under it. The trolls are also called readers--"Second Readers," in fact--and they pounce gleefully on any act of incompleteness. If the Reader has read and discussed only 30 out of 31 books by an author, the Second Readers will pounce on any lack of discussion of the 31st. They will accuse the Reader of heinous crimes and also of not being "smart," the gravest of all academic sins.

In this land of imagination, the Reader must navigate the 31st book regardless of whether Homer  nodded or fell off a cliff or into a coma as regards inspiration in this particular work. Sometimes the Reader herself nods and awakens with a jerk to find herself a few pages beyond what she remembers reading.

The Reader must push through this book page by page in an action akin to sewing by hand: pushing the needle through inch by inch, patiently waiting for the author's genius to reveal itself once more. The Reader who tries to skim finds that she has inadvertently driven the needle into her finger by missing important plot points buried fiendishly in seeming digressions or philosophical musings, and she will have to tear out the stitching and start over. She wishes she had time enough at last to finish this task that, after all, she chose to do.

The Reader's eyes may tear up from the effort, and her vision may blur. Since she has glasses on when she reads, which means that she has no depth perception, she may curse lightly when she rams her fingers into drawers or doors that she would swear were another 6" away.

However chaste her typical language, the Reader may even drop more than a frown at having to keep track of actions and characters in whom she seems to be more invested in the author. Like Mark Twain with his Pudd'nhead Wilson characters, she sometimes wishes that they would all go out back and get drowned in the well together.

Sooner or later, the book will end. The Reader will leave this part of The Reading Zone and learn, like all those who have gone before, that leaving it or Willoughby or the devil-fortuneteller cafe or the bus station is essential and a learning experience--until the next encounter with The Reading Zone.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year!

Every year, like everybody else in the world (pretty much), I make resolutions. Every year (ditto), I fail to live up to them.

Why make them, then?

Because not to even try is to give up, and all of life is about not giving up. Mary Pickford decided at some point that she had done enough hard work in her life, which lord knows she had, and retreated to her bed and to alcohol after a certain point. Jack Warner's second wife barely came downstairs for the last few decades of her life because she said she was done with entertaining. I understand feeling as though you deserve a rest, and certainly they had enough money to do whatever they wanted, but this kind isn't good for anyone.

I also don't mean beating your head against a brick wall if you have clear evidence that something's unrealistic or not working. As Megan's mother Marie cruelly but correctly said on Mad Men, the world could not support that many ballerinas.

I mean trying to the best of your ability to do things that you can do, and maybe a few things that you think you can't do, to the best of your ability.

So here are a few resolutions for the new year, some of which--ahem!--you may have seen before.

File under "everything old is new again":

1. Lowering FB use. About three weeks ago, I went on Facebook, experienced an immediate stress reaction (think twitching eyes and breaking out in a cold sweat), posted a "bye for now!" message, and stayed away until yesterday. Discovery: checking in every couple of months is plenty. I'd quit it entirely except that it's the only way of finding out about (and disseminating information about) family events. 

2. My creativity and writing energy is still best at night, but it's unsustainable to write until 11 if you wake up without prompting between 4:30 and 5 a.m. Spouse says I am sleep-deprived when I do this, and the fact that I fall asleep instantly if I sit down for more than a few minutes suggests that he's right. I'm going to try again to show up for writing in the mornings.

3. Recognizing again that any kind of writing takes what it takes in terms of time and mental energy. It might take others only a few hours to put together a conference paper, or so they tell me when they tease me about spending 30 hours on it (I logged them). If it takes me 30 hours--and they're not wasted, because the time is spent in really thinking about the material--I have to accept that that's what it takes and not beat myself up for not being able to dash it off.

File under "let's try some new things":

1.  Now that I have actual research assistants and projects to manage, I've been exploring Trello, Asana, Excel spreadsheets, etc. as a means of tracking tasks. Is it worth putting together a "scrum board" like this one on Silicon Valley for my own projects as well?

2. Recognize that the feeling of relief after finishing something is far more fleeting than the months of dread that went into writing it and stop doing some kinds of tasks (book reviews, which are not worth the dread).

3. Keep track of the books I read for pleasure, and, since most of them are biographies or histories related to work anyway, make notes about them.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Let yourself go

"Let yourself go
Relax and let yourself go
You've got yourself tied up in a knot
The night is cold but the music's hot" 

I think Ginger has wisdom for all of us right about now.  Let yourself go, or "let it go" to quote a more contemporary role model. 

The thing is, a lot of times it's not up to us.

Annoying colleagues? You don't have to make their lives easier. You just have to be civil, unless they go from annoying to rude.

Colleagues trumpeting their own fabulousness until you feel as though you ought to climb into a cave somewhere? Congratulate them if you can. Ignore them if you can't. 

Christmas/holiday prep? Yes, it's stressful. Do what you can and leave the rest. The world will survive. 

If you're--ahem--morbidly obsessed with tales of disaster because of elderly family members (as I said over at nicoleandmaggie's), try to recognize that while the illness and death itself was sad but not traumatic,  being forced to have all the responsibility and none of the control over the course of years really was. Give it time. Try to let it go.

Start living life in 3D instead of 2D (computer screens). Maybe you want to take up knitting, or skate, or hike, or juggle.

Let yourself go.

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."