Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What does a sabbatical do?

I've been on campus for a few things recently, and while it's nice to be missed (it really is!), the downside is realizing that the sabbatical is coming to an end. There's still the summer, but still.

Although I haven't done All The Things, I've done enough to feel reasonably good, though it still seems as though I wasted a lot of time. I'll keep working on All The Things.

But the main thing that the sabbatical did was to give me back a sense of joy and curiosity. If something interested me, I could follow it and read about it and above all think about it, often to good effect.

I know that this isn't the path to research that GetALifePhd and other efficiency experts, like Paul Sylvia,  recommend, where you state that you will have 15 points to develop by 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday and you just do it. Maybe if you have data, that's the way it works.

But maybe that's the difference between the humanities and the social sciences. We really have only a few weapons in our arsenal: curiosity, knowledge, and the ability to think about the two together in productive ways to see what's been done and what needs to be done in terms of research.

When you're pressed for time, as we all are during the school year, we're a little like our students. We don't have the time to follow those winding paths, or Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit holes, so we try to answer immediate questions. Our students use the first results on Google, and though we might not do that, we use the same process of working for efficiency in an answer rather than for complexity.

During the sabbatical, I learned a lot of things I needed to know, but I also learned a lot of things that I didn't need to know, or at least that I don't need immediately. That's not a waste of time. That's the point of a sabbatical.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Nothing. What's new with you?

Still plodding along, still working hard, and still relishing a sabbatical that's almost over--that's what's going on here.  In other news:

  • A lovely trip to the archives in which I could revel in reading and taking pictures of materials all day long, and at the end of the day get something to eat and not cook or clean or do any of the other housekeeping stuff I've been doing all year. It felt like a vacation, though I was working hard every day. More archival trips, please!
  • Winter is receding, sort of, and has settled down into a grey skies, grumpy rain, and chilly wind pattern that beats the heck out of the ice, snow, and general misery we've had since November. Some day the sun will shine again, I'm almost sure. As a special added bonus, apparently the weather cleared up here while we had an epic snowstorm in Archive City.
  • About the sabbatical: so many ideas, and so little time!  
  • I've gotten so tired of seeing "woke" as an admiring descriptor that I silently correct it to the overused slang of another era, "peachy-keen" (1950s) and "bitchin'" (1960s) being two current favorites,  though maybe I should give "swell" (1920s) or "gnarly" (1970s?) a try as a change of pace.
  • Big collaborative project is going well.
What's new with you?

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Asked and answered at IHE and the Chronicle: why are halls empty? Because loyalty is a one-way street.

Deborah K. Fitzgerald's "Our Hallways are Too Quiet" at The Chronicle asks, in effect, "Haloooo? Is anybody there? Where'd everybody go?" (Bardiac has a post about this issue, too.)
Entire departments can seem like dead zones, and whole days can pass with only a glimpse of a faculty member as someone comes to campus to meet a student, attend a meeting, or teach a class. The halls are eerily quiet. Students, having figured this out, are also absent. Only the staff are present.
This seems a bit of an exaggeration, yet there's something in what Fitzgerald says. Yes, it's better if faculty are around so students can talk to them and so they can talk to each other. Being collegial at brown bag sessions, etc. can help with that.

But there's only so much time in a day, and, as the old saying has it, "what gets measured gets managed." Not to be too cold-blooded about it, but presenting at or organizing an event gets you a line for your CV or annual review. Warming a chair at one, well, doesn't. You show up because you care about your colleagues, and because you want to support them, but at year's end, you have to weigh where you want to spend your time.

Also, faculty, especially newer faculty, are being told endlessly by the productivity gurus "Get your writing done. Keep your door closed," which is exactly the opposite of what Fitzgerald suggests.

How often have we seen on blogs and academic sites advice about the plight of the (usually) overworked woman professor who's around a lot and gets to do the hand-holding and general friendliness on those empty halls while her male colleagues are away writing their heads off and getting treated like stars?

In unrelated news, John Warner tells us at IHE that "In Higher Ed, Loyalty is a One-Way Street." He describes the insanity necessary to get a raise:
So, not loyalty, but leverage counts. This is similar to scenarios where, in order to be considered for a raise, tenure line faculty must hit the job market, secure a competing offer, and try to use it to improve their local position. 
The unbelievable waste this practice entails is sort of mindboggling. When I was first informed of its ubiquity, I almost couldn’t believe it, but I now know it to be common. 
The faculty member who likely has no real desire to leave, but wants or needs a raise, must carve out time from their regular duties to hit the job market. They may also miss classes to interview for these jobs they don’t really want.
I think Warner's point answers Fitzpatrick's, to a degree.  As faculty we're getting mixed messages.

1. Be loyal and supportive. Show up! Be there for students and your colleagues. Hang out. Our college would be better for it.

2. If you pin your loyalty to an institution, you're loving something that can't love you back. You'll have to strongarm it into a raise by being disloyal and getting a competing offer. If you don't do what it values--and even sometimes if you do--it can turn you out without a backward glance.

So academe says it values loyalty above all, but that's not what its actions show. Houston, I think we have a problem.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Cursive handwriting rises from the dead

Figure 1. Thoreau could walk around Walden Pond
 with a notebook and a pencil he made himself.
He knew that the hand  was connected to the brain, all right.
The AP announces that cursive handwriting is once again being taught in schools, after being sidelined in favor of printing (reasonable) and keyboarding (not).

The insistence that keyboarding alone would fill the gap assumed that people would have available at all times a keyboard, battery power, and wireless access.  Like Apple, which insists that the default should be using data on your phone to listen to music instead of downloading it, this assumes a level of financial privilege and an urban environment in which you're never out of range.

Where I live, you're out of range plenty of times. You're better off with a notebook and pencil, like Thoreau, and even if you're in range when walking in the woods, a notebook, unlike a phone, never talks back with little buzzing messages. You talk to it, in writing, and it listens.


I know I've written about this to the point of exhaustion (yours! sorry), citing everything from the class dimensions of not teaching cursive (ruling class needs it, grimy proles don't) to the uneasy alliance with American "traditionalists" who want it, but this point needs emphasis one more time, for two reasons.

First, the connections between hand and brain, as when you do something with your hands and it helps to rewire neural connections in your brain and create new areas, is well documented, as when students take notes by hand instead of typing them. True, you don't need cursive to do this, but I'm in favor of anything that gets students writing by hand because this connection is real and helps them in a way that keyboarding doesn't.

This is what Anne Trubek misses in her bestselling takedown of handwriting. In the new article, she says it's like piano lessons: you don't need them to succeed at life. What about the correlation (not causation, I know) between piano playing and math ability? Doesn't this hand-brain connection deserve more study?

Second, here comes that pesky class dimension and the humanities again. You might not need piano lessons, or music lessons, or art lessons, or a knowledge of literature, history, foreign languages, economics, and politics to succeed in life. But you can bet your bottom dollar that any little Trubeks, and any other middle-class children of aspiring parents, will have access to these "frills," even if the parents have to pay for them separately. Why? Because more knowledge is better and is a marker of future success, that's why. Trubek saying you don't "need" piano lessons is only part of the truth.  They're an added value that helps not only to develop the brain but helps students to succeed.

Figure 2. Lorelei Lee explains the economics of added value.
I'm reminded of what that great economist and philosopher Lorelei Lee says in the movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. When accused of marrying Gus for his money, she says, "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"

All those humanities frills, including cursive handwriting, do help. Why should they be reserved only for children whose parents are wealthy enough or savvy enough to ensure that their children get them?

Friday, March 03, 2017

Writing inspiration: writing group models, part 2

In an essay that's making the rounds of social media, here's another kind of writing group: Researcher Alice Kelly describes the process as this:

I convene a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers to write together for three hours twice a week. After coffee, I ask everyone to share their goals for the first 75-minute session with their neighbour. Goals must be specific, realistic and communicable, such as writing 250 words or reworking a particularly problematic paragraph. I set an alarm and remind everyone not to check email or social media. When the alarm goes off, everyone checks in with their partner about whether or not they achieved their goal. After a break, we do it again. After our Friday morning sessions, we go for lunch together. And that’s it.
Have you ever participated in a group like this? Does it help with writing or make you want to claw the walls of the coffee shop?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Writing inspiration: writing group wisdom

For the first time since my dream about the Mad Men writing group and Dame Eleanor's group a few years back, I am in a writing group.  Hooray!

It's really an accountability group of the kind that Boice and Silvia have separately recommended. We're not reading drafts, but we set goals and hold each other accountable for meeting them. "No excuses" is Silvia's motto, and it's ours, too.

I'm starting to think that the process of thinking about writing--the act of analyzing what you do when you write--is a recursive process, much as the act of writing itself is. When I read old "writing inspiration" posts here at this blog and elsewhere, it helps me to think about the process, which in turn helps me to think about the writing I'm trying to do.

The writing group is already helping with this, in these ways:

1. You work harder when you know you have to look into the eyes of a group and say, "No, I didn't meet that goal this week."

2.  They can cheer you on when you get things done.

3.  They can also fix you with a mildly stern gaze and point out that taking on too many low-hanging fruit-type writing assignments can leave your main project behind.

4. Since these are people in approximately my general field, I can ask for and give suggestions about publication venues.

5. Seeing how much everyone is accomplishing when not on sabbatical is a bracing reminder that I ought to be accomplishing more and to set goals accordingly.

This is the sixth year I've kept the Excel spreadsheet to keep track of writing, and there's a separate page where projects and deadlines are listed. It really does help. But I can choose not to open the spreadsheet, whereas the writing group is going to expect to hear from me.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Internet pranks by academics and fake news

Some of you may remember, in 2013, that Mark Sample, a ProfHacker writer, thought it would be amusing to pull an internet prank in which he pretended to be in danger and disappear, leaving people to worry about him. 

I wrote about that in a post called "Cry Wolf," and in linking to it and rereading it yesterday, my anger at that stupid stunt came back in full force, and I added to that post and to yesterday's.

In comments on the original "Cry Wolf" post, Stacey Donahue, who had convinced me to leave it up, mentioned the #OccupyMLA hoax, so I looked that one up and added this:
Edited to add: here's a link to the #OccupyMLA hoax, otherwise known as more pranksters wasting the time and patience of everyone on a serious issue so that tweets about genuine injustices will be ignored next time when people believe it's a hoax:

All three of these hoaxers dressed it up in theory-speak and tried to spackle it  over with pretensions to doing something useful, but this is the same juvenile mindset that makes 11-year-old boys put firecrackers in mailboxes every 4th of July.  I don't see why we should either excuse it or trust the perpetrators.
And to yesterday's post, I added this:
Forgot to add this: if you want to play pranks with the the sensibilities of people who follow you, be prepared to be unfollowed and to never have anything you say taken seriously again, even though The Chronicle (a more forgiving medium) publishes your stuff. This is one scholar's body of work I never have to read. What credibility would that scholarship have? How would I know he's not making it up, too, a la the Sokal Social Text hoax?

Edited again, because apparently I still am angry about these oh-so-clever bros (see link above) messing with our minds on Twitter and thinking how meta they are for planting lies and making us fall for it: you call it a pomo experiment, but the erosion of trust is real.
Here's my question: why does this make us--okay, me--so angry? I wasn't involved, it was years ago, and there was no personal harm intended.

I think "erosion of public trust" is the key.

We've all seen that Goebbels quotation by now: "“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and or military consequences of the lie." 

We've also seen how the "straight from the horse's mouth" medium of Twitter lends credibility to the most outrageous lies and how charges of "fake news" have become the "lie big enough."

We know that if a certain tweeter-in-chief told his followers that the earth was flat and paved with unicorn tongues, they'd believe it, because he's told them that all voices but his are fake. The technique isn't new. All cult leaders do this. Charles Manson did the same thing.

That's the harm, right there, and that's the cause of the anger.  Mark Twain once said that if a cat sat down on a hot stove once, she would never do it again--but she would never sit on a cold stove, either.

Or, as the old saying goes, once burned, twice shy.

So whether you're posting fake twitter b.s. as a postmodern exercise in meta-tweeting blah blah blah with supreme contempt for the poor fools who are taken in, or whether you're doing it to control a legion of followers, you're still doing the same thing.

You're manipulating people's minds and eroding their trust in a system of information that promotes the common good. You're teaching them to trust nothing, and, in the process, to rely on their gut instincts about what's true--Stephen Colbert's famous "truthiness"--and we have visible daily evidence of how well that's working out.