Saturday, December 30, 2006

Blogging the "Meet the Bloggers" session

My meeting got out a little early, so I was able to catch the last two papers of the "Meet the Bloggers" session. Since others who were there for the whole thing will surely write about it (as will the bloggers themselves), I'll keep this to a few impressions.

Very Famous Female Blogger (I don't want to out her even by giving her blog pseudonym, but you can figure it out).

  • Connected blogging with her work in 18th-century publishing and the essay, especially The Female Tatler, possibly by a pseudonymous "Mrs. Crackenthorpe," which successfully competed for audience with the mainstream Tatler for a while and was published on alternating days with it.
  • Mentioned Habermas's "enabling fiction of the public sphere" and that we don't realize just how imperfect the public sphere is.
  • Her impressions (based on her blog survey) were that "most pseudonymous bloggers are who they say they are; if they say they are women, they are," etc.
  • Pseudonymity invites risk, but those who choose to publish pseudonymously are willing to take those risks in order to gain something greater (for early women writers, money).
  • Blogging is "a way for people who are marginal to be in the public sphere."
  • Mentioned in the Q & A about threats of "outing" a blogger: it's important to maintain the distinction between persona and writer.

    Michael Berube
  • Praised The Valve's book events: "they rock."
  • "The state of book reviewing in our discipline is terrible" because of the delays in print publication, etc.
  • Discussed two "blogspats," one that occurred when he was accused of leaving a damaging remark on a grad student's blog. Noted that he didn't know it was a grad student & thought the person was "just a guy."
  • Second "blogspat" was "Burqagate," the flap over Ann Althouse's criticism of a blogger "because she had breasts" and Amanda Marcotte's photoshopping of a burqa-clad woman. (Look it up if you want more information.)
  • Discussed the ways in which leftists sometimes denounce even those on their side for not being severe enough in their denunciations (example: denouncing the people who denounced the Democrats who were too lukewarm in their denunciations of torture).
  • Blogspats: "junior high with hyperlinks." Gives us "important lessons about how to go about choosing sides."

    My notes on the rest are too scattered to be of use (which isn't to say that these are of use at all, mind you; the good stuff is in their talks, not here.)

    The room was packed--standing room only, and this at 8:30 a.m. on the last day of the conference, which is not, shall we say, a coveted time slot. (On my way to the session, I saw several rooms with 4-5 brave souls listening to speakers.) And why wouldn't it be packed? The panelists were smart, funny, and interesting, as you'd expect. There were non-pseudonymous bloggers in the audience who talked during the Q & A and, I'm sure, other chickenhearted pseudonymous bloggers like myself, who were there to hear thoughtful talk about blogging--and, probably not incidentally, to see the stars of the blogworld.
  • Thursday, December 28, 2006

    Random Bullets of MLA 2006

    Yes, there was a nice holiday sandwiched in there somewhere (which I might write about some time), but for about 10,000 people right now it's all MLA, all the time here in Philadelphia.

  • The weather is nice, saints be praised. At an MLA in Toronto some years back, the temperatures fell into the minus digits, which made walking between the hotels considerably less than pleasant.
  • I wish I had a camera to take pictures of the Reading Terminal Market, which is right next to the main conference hotel. It's like Pike Place Market in Seattle, an old building converted to small open shops--fish vendors (though no one throws the fish here, at least that I've seen), bakeries, and lunch counters of all sorts. If you go, here's a tip: it supposedly closes at 6, but I observed many very unhappy countermen serving us clueless MLA types at 5:30 p.m.
  • The cliche really is true: the dress code is black, black, and more black.
  • It's nice to see people greeting their friends here. On the other hand, I've never seen so many people ready to give a cool, appraising stare without either smiling or looking away once someone meets their gaze.
  • Due to other commitments, I won't get to see the "Meet the Bloggers" session on Saturday morning with Michael Berube, John Holbo, Scott Eric Kaufman, et al. but hope that others will blog about it. (I feel fairly certain that the panelists will.)
  • Secret message to panelists: When you look up from your paper and start speaking extemporaneously, time does not stand still! The clock keeps right on ticking and cutting into someone else's presentation time. Really. I wouldn't kid you about this.
  • To try to curb Meandering Speaker Syndrome, the MLA has placed timers on all the tables and blinking lights on the podium. Green means that you have 3 minutes left, Red means that your time is up, and the next step is a trap door that opens beneath the speaker's feet and drops him or her into a dungeon. All right, the MLA hasn't perfected that last step yet.
  • Friday, December 22, 2006

    An imaginary history of the MLA convention

    Time: December 26th, some time in the twentieth century. Place: A wood-paneled faculty club, somewhere on the eastern seaboard. Three male faculty members are sipping sherry and smoking pipes. We catch them in mid-conversation.

    Professor A: "I had a devil of a time getting out of the house too, Fred. Why, the children wanted me to play with them again today! What is it with this time of the year?"

    Professor B: "My wife wanted me to stay at home, too--something about a holiday being family time. Don't they know I need to Think Deep Thoughts?"

    Professor C: "And I'm even worse off. My wife hasn't had time to fact-check the citations for my latest article, and she hasn't typed a scrap of manuscript for me since this whole thing began!"*

    Silence. Puffing of pipes and sipping of sherry.

    Professor A: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could get away and talk to each other about something that mattered, like scholarship, instead of being at home with the family?"

    Professor B: "That's a great idea! We could stay away until all the mess was cleaned up and return just in time for New Year's Eve."

    Professor C: "We could meet in New York, or maybe sometimes in Chicago, for those on the West Coast. We're already in the Modern Language Association; how about holding that meeting right after Christmas? We're all free then."

    Professor A: "It would get us out of the house."

    Professor B: "No more messy family time!"

    Professor C: "It's a good thing that no women would be going to this convention. Why, their heads would explode, if they had to get ready for Christmas AND get ready for MLA."**

    All: "A woman at the convention? Hahahahahahaha!"

    And that, dear friends, explains why many of us will be getting up at the crack of dawn to fly to distant cities in about a week.

    Updated from the comments:
    (from Anonymous)

    Sally: Now WTF am I going to do with my kids on Jan 4 when they should be in school and I have to go to the New Improved Women Friendly MLA??


    *Seriously. I heard a grad director say once that it was good for grad students and faculty members to be married, so their wives could type their papers for them.
    **Seriously. Why do you think I'm writing this at 4:30 a.m.?

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    Technology in teaching

    The Chronicle has an interesting discussion with Henry Jenkins of MIT about using technology in teaching.

    Extracts (with comments):

    1. [Jenkins talks about] blogs as a way of sharing insights and experiences teaching -- as part of the process of mentorship within a department. Most of us spend far too little time talking with our colleagues about our roles as teachers and younger faculty are often starved for advice from senior members of their department but don't know how to ask. If a department created some blog or wiki that allowed for people to trade positive or negative teaching experiences -- everything from dumb things student wrote on tests to innovative ideas about classroom activities -- I think this would create a context for support for pedagogy within departments. Of course, the same can be done through fields.
    Earlier, Jenkins had repeated the usual thing about those scairdy-cat faculty (I'm paraphrasing his idea) who won't use technology because they see themselves as lone operators who don't like to ask for help.

    That aside, a wiki isn't entirely a bad idea, but does anyone think that people will truly open up, under their own names and in writing addressed to their colleagues about bad teaching experiences? How long would it be before students would be checking such a wiki to see Professor Blooper's Greatest Hits? How long would it take for the university to shut down such a forum on the grounds of FERPA and student privacy where quoting from papers is concerned? Also, every forum or discussion list I've ever seen (including the ones at CHE) where teachers relieved stress by posting student bloopers has had a few posters saying something along the lines of "this is not worthy of us as Educators."

    Also, isn't he missing the point? Isn't talking honestly about teaching what a lot of us (anonymous bloggers) do? It seems to me that a version of this community already exists, although he doesn't seem to know it.

    2. [Jenkins on low bandwidth issues]The MIT environment is very rich in bandwidth but every summer I spend time in the woods in the North Georgia mountain on dial up. I am always frustrated by the shift in how long it takes to do even simple operations and how many of the things I do easily in Cambridge are impossible to do in Clayton, Georgia. This is something that researchers in this area have not spent nearly enough time reflecting upon. It is frankly a blind spot in a lot of the research initiatives that involve new media for schools. I think any assignment needs to start from a realistic understanding of what it is going to be hard for students to do and what it is easy for them to do. One has to factor in the realistic constraints students face in designing activities. And one has to also know -- and inform them -- about resources on campus where they might be able to get faster connections or more expanded bandwidth. I am not sure there's any magic formula there.
    I'm glad he mentioned this problem, which has been talked about since, what, 1988 or so when people really started using technology in teaching. Those designing (and those funding) the next new shiny thing that's going to transform teaching technology put it into the report somewhere and it's promptly forgotten when funding time comes around. Even common technologies aren't responsive to this; has anyone tried Blackboard or WebCT on a dialup lately? Apparently we aren't any closer to solving this problem than we were in 1988, but at least it's still mentioned as a problem.
    3. [About teachers who are annoyed with students who use laptops in the classroom]: In some of our Intro to Media Studies classes, professors have asked TAs to do real time blogging during the lecture, throwing out links to web sites which are relevant to the content being covered. This way if students are multitasking, they may be reinforcing what is being taught rather than being pulled in a separate direction. After all, this is a generation that is used to absorbing information from multiple sources at the same time and often learns multimodally -- that is, by taking in the same information through multiple sensory inputs. So build on that.
    First of all, this may be excellent advice--for a lecture. For a discussion class? Not so much. In my experience, when the laptop screen goes up, the urge to participate goes down. I had two students this semester who were good at participation--until they began to bring their laptops to class. Don't get me wrong; they're welcome to bring laptops if they want to. But in a discussion-based class, attention to the screen leads to "discussions" like this:

    "Why might the heroine have said this to the hero, Student?"

    (Looks up from screen): "What?"

    "Why might the heroine have said this to the hero, Student?"

    "Umm. I'm not sure."

    I did take both of them aside and said something like this: "Look, bring the laptop if you want, but you haven't been discussing the works along with the class; this could affect your participation grade."

    Second, haven't recent studies shown that this much-vaunted "multitasking" learning is a crock? Students think they're paying attention to everything, but they're not. Certain law schools, as reported in the CHE, have banned laptops or shut off wireless access in the classroom for this reason.

    Do laptops really "enhance the classroom experience" as Jenkins says they can?

    Friday, December 15, 2006

    Lost weekdays

    After a hard drive crash, even if you're lucky and have backed stuff up, it'll still take a few hours to load back all the software and documents.

    I've spent the last few days doing this, and most of the documents are there. Since Endnote 9 decided to go from having a single file for everything to having the file that you work in plus a data file, however, there's twice as much that can go wrong. Apparently the backup I did saved the file I work in but NOT the data file, without which the other file is useless. I found a backup copy . . . from June.

    So the joys of semester's end: trying to reconstruct a database of 250+ entries for a deadline-driven project, one that includes some notes. Some notes are in Word and thus have been saved; others have not.

    There's a moral in this ("save everything, all the time"), which I thought I'd done with an automatic backup system.

    Just because there's a moral in this, though, doesn't mean that I want to hear it right now.

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    Can't win them all

    Yesterday, as I was collecting the final exams for one of the classes, ArticulateGuy* came up to the desk. "You wanted us to answer three questions on this part but just write one of the essays, right?" he asked.

    ArticulateGuy has completed all the requirements for the course except one, and it's a big one. He hasn't turned in a single paper. Not one.

    Now, as a concerned teacher, I do send a reminder e-mail (a mass e-mail saying "I haven't received X") if I don't get a paper from someone. Just one e-mail: my secret motto is "I'm a mom, but I'm not YOUR mom." However, last week I'd had this exchange with ArticulateGuy.

    "ArticulateGuy, I didn't receive a paper from you this week."

    "I know. I'm a bad student."

    It'd be nice to get to the bottom of THAT statement, but I had another class in 5 minutes, so here's what I said:

    "You're smart, and you have good things to say in class. Get the paper in to me."

    Yesterday, I mentioned it to him again as he was making sure that he'd followed all the directions on the exam. "Look, ArticulateGuy, you can't pass the class if you don't turn in the papers. I'll be turning in grades before Friday, so you have a chance if you can get something in to me. I don't want to nag (ha!), but I just wanted to let you know."

    This breaks my "I'm not your mom" rule, but I couldn't help it. I hate to see them crash and burn like this.

    I'm holding out hope, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for his paper.

    *with apologies to ArticulateDad for stealing part of his pseudonym.

    Saturday, December 09, 2006

    How far we've come

    From a New York Times article on Helen Vendler (free registration required):

    Back in the States, Vendler enrolled in 12 English courses in a single year at Boston University so as to qualify for graduate school at Harvard. In her first week there in 1956, the chairman of the English department told her, “We don’t want any women here.” (Years later, he apologized.) Another professor, the renowned Americanist Perry Miller, considered Vendler his finest student and published one of her course papers, but denied her admission to his Melville seminar. “The men come over in my house and they sit around and drink and we talk. I wouldn’t talk like I wanted to if there was a woman there,” she recalled him explaining.

    Food for thought.

    Friday, December 08, 2006

    Last day

    Ferule and Fescue asks "Do you perorate?" on the last day of class. Well, sort of--but at the wrong time, the beginning of the class.

    In the fiction class, I use the excuse of going over the exam guide for the final as a way to sum up themes, make connections, and say a few things about the works. The conversation that followed was what was most valuable, though. I'd asked them questions along these lines:

    1. What work or works did you enjoy the most? Why?
    2. What work did you think was the most significant? Why?
    3. What work in this period would you like to see replace one of the current offerings (if you'd like to see this)? Why?

    It was an interesting discussion, and the answers to the first question varied widely; most answered Big Famous Novel for the second one, but there were some surprises there, too. We got to talk about the ways in which the works fit together, why I'd included some works instead of some others, the limitations imposed by a 15-week semester (if long novel A is included, it's hard to include long novel B without drastic cuts elsewhere), and so on. Almost as an afterthought, a few months ago I'd included one assignment to find current cultural references on Big Famous Novel and we'd discussed them in class; a student yesterday commented that she'd enjoyed it when we talked more about current cultural parallels with the novels, as we'd done with BFN and another book.

    In the other class, I also did a "this is what the course has taught you" at the beginning before continuing the regular class discussion.

    So, in short: their voices, not mine, were the last things that they heard. There are no Professor Kingsfield applause lines in that way of wrapping up a class, but I'm satisfied.

    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Waiting for the third shoe to drop

  • I've lost my checkbook. (Why do I carry one, anyway, instead of just relying on cards?) I put a "stop payment" on all the remaining checks and have searched my car and all the places it could be as well as called a few places where I've been--no luck.
  • I turned on my one-year-and-one-week-old computer today to see a message that a hard drive was failing. (I thought I just had one, but the Intel RAID controller lists two.) I clicked on the button that said "Advanced information" and saw this: "Status: error occurred." Thanks, I knew that already. How about some information about the error?
  • Let's hope that these things don't go in threes.

    Updated to add this:

    The hard drive is officially toast. At least it let me back up most of my important documents. Most are on my laptop in various forms as well. I picture maniacal laughter at Sony headquarters: "Ha! She thought it would last beyond the warranty period, and it did--a whole week beyond the warranty."

    I took it to the national chain with the tech guys in red shirts, since they'd been had been pretty good in previous computer meltdowns. The tech guys had been turned into real Salesmen since I'd last taken equipment in to be fixed.

    "Here's our basic and intermediate service," the guy in a Santa hat explained, "but for only $259 you can get our special 'Peace of Mind' service."

    "What might that be?"

    "Well, we will back up your data [I'd already explained that I had backed it up to a flash drive and an external hard drive] and will load any two pieces of software that you already own onto your computer, if you drive home and get the disks. So much more convenient, and then you can enjoy your time with friends and family, ma'am."

    "So that's $80 more than the intermediate service just to load two pieces of software onto the computer?"

    "Oh, but we back up your data, too, so you have peace of mind. Just think of all the time you can spend with your family! Most of our customers just love the extra service!"

    Can you guess that I declined?
  • Saturday, December 02, 2006

    You may be a college professor if . . .

  • you are genuinely excited about finding a way to drop quiz grades in an Excel spreadsheet. (To drop 2 grades,
  • you spend Saturday afternoon grading instead of getting out in the pale light that passes for sunlight before the sun sets at 3:30 p.m.
  • you spend time wondering if Flighty McSpacecadet, a good but erratic student, will actually turn in a project that he owes you.
  • people around you are talking about some "holiday" that happens at this time of year but all you're doing is bracing yourself for finals and MLA.
  • you've bought your sole decoration for said holiday (a wreath) and it's been sitting on your porch for a week waiting for when you have a spare 5 minutes to hang it up.
  • you decide that shoveling off the back deck so that the cats won't get their feet cold is an activity preferable to grading even one more paper.

    Any others?
  • Wednesday, November 29, 2006

    As seen at Bardiac

    As seen at Bardiac:

    [Edited to add: Apparently I was supposed to write something as well.

    1. Write a post linking to this one in which you explain the experiment. (All blogs count, be they TypePad, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, &c.)
    The experiment is explained on Scott Kaufmann's blog; he explains it better than I could. It's basically to measure the speed of memes for an MLA paper he's writing.
    1. Ask your readers to do the same. Beg them. Relate sob stories about poor graduate students in desperate circumstances. Imply I'm one of them. (Do whatever you have to. If that fails, try whatever it takes.)
    I think everyone's done this already, but here goes: please do the meme.
    1. Ping Technorati.

    Professors as students

    A long time ago, I used to do workshops for fellow faculty members. The people who came to the workshops were all volunteers who wanted to learn something specific. Since it involved computers, we met in a lab, and none of the things I said before turning them loose on their computers took more than 5-10 minutes.

    I learned that I could count on the following:

    If there were 15 people in the group
    • Most would listen to what I said, look at what I'd put on the screen, and work with it.
    • 1 or 2 would have clicked ahead instead of listening to me, gotten themselves stuck, and frantically be waving their arms for help.
    • 1 would have been sitting in the back, talking (not in low tones) to the person next to her, chatting away, cracking jokes, and laughing while I gamely tried to explain things at the front of the room. (Yes, a few times I stopped talking, stared in her direction, and waited, just as I do in class. This worked for about 90 seconds until she started up again.) As soon as I stopped talking, her hand would shoot up and she'd say, "What was that? What did you want us to do?"
    One of the things I took away from these experiences is that there are people who cannot shut up if they are not the center of attention; they can't help themselves, and you just have to work with them. I think that the experience of being a teacher doesn't help with this tendency, since if you're in a room with others, you're used to being the one doing the talking.

    I've seen this in small group committee meetings, too, where people will deflect conversations to irrelevancies, interrupt the chair, interrupt others, talk aloud to themselves, and so on. Again, this isn't malicious; if anything, it's just high spirits and the sense of a small committee meeting as a social as well as a work occasion. I think that sometimes they act this way because they're used to being the one doing the talking (see above) and sometimes because they believe it helps to kill time in the meeting. My take is a little different: if we stay focused and get the work done early, we can leave early.

    Professors like to complain about their students' inattention in class, but what these experiences have taught me is that we're not so different after all when it comes to being task-oriented when sitting in a confined space.

    Sunday, November 26, 2006

    Please tell me vacation isn't over

    It was a fine Thanksgiving: immediate family, lots of togetherness watching old movies, and lots of togetherness-alone time as well (sitting in the same room reading and not talking).

    The turkey, stuffing (two kinds--vegan and other), squash, stuffed mushrooms (vegan), vegetables, and the rest all turned out well, especially the turkey. To quote from one of my favorite old movies, The Women, "If you put a pork chop [read turkey] in a hot oven, what's to keep it from getting done?" Although I liked reading all the exotic recipes on other people's blogs, part of the point of Thanksgiving for us is the traditional food, so that's what we had. The only departure from tradition is the route of the Thanksgiving walk/hike that we take while the turkey is roasting; this year, we went to a nearby park that I'd somehow never visited and walked as the snow came drifting down.

    And now I have a to-do list with too few items crossed off and a stack of papers sitting in an orange folder telling me that this time is over? Bah, humbug.

    Tuesday, November 21, 2006

    Random bullets of Thanksgiving break

    In the face of others' excellent posts this week on anonymity in blogging, "why I blog," selflessness in academe, conference presentations, and other topics (go read them--lots more on the sidebar!), here are short snippets from the last few days.

    • A tip for editors: if you ask me to review something and return my report electronically, when I do so, please, please take 2 seconds to hit reply and say "Got it--thanks!" Don't turn me into an e-mail stalker ("Did you get the report I sent on X?"), or, worse, a borderline obsessive type who sends a paper copy just in case.
    • Naps. Is there any pleasure as great as dutifully trying to read a dull but necessary book, getting sleepy, and realizing that, for a change, you don't have to make heroic efforts to keep awake but can just go ahead and take a nap instead?
    • Food. jo(e) writes about her mother baking cookies and making doughnuts. We all like to bake in my family (my sister does pies, while my forte is cookies and cakes), but no one but my mother makes doughnuts, and she makes them only when there are enough people around to eat them quickly--not much of a trick given our large extended family. She'd get out an ancient deep-frying kettle with a cloth-covered electrical cord--yes, that's how old it was; I think the patent number was "1"--add the shortening, and plug it in. The ancient kettle was retired a few years ago for one with some of these newfangled things called "safety features," but the doughnuts are still great. They taste best when someone drives to the cider mill and gets a few gallons of fresh-pressed local cider while the doughnuts are frying. Cold cider. Hot doughnuts and doughnut holes. Enough said.

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006


    Like most places, our school has a set advising period. It started in mid-October when the department sends out messages, puts up posters, and supplies sign-up sheets for faculty members to put on their doors. After a couple of weeks, the department usually extends the "official advising period" and puts up more brightly colored and imposing posters ("IMPORTANT!").

    I'm not sure why they bother, because advisees seem to come in two kinds: the ones who sign up the first day and come in bright and early in the advising period with a full slate of courses they need to take, and the others.

    The others are just showing up now, once they've figured out that they can't register until they've seen an advisor. They're writing me slightly aggrieved notes:

    "I came by to sign up for a time, but there weren't any time slots left. " (That's because the advising period ended two weeks ago, but never mind; I e-mailed the person back and set up a time.)


    "I'm available these times [none of which intersect with any times I'm available.] Please e-mail me and let me know when we can meet." (I respond by telling the person when I'm available and leave him or her to figure it out.)

    Somehow, it all works out. The stragglers usually have no idea what they want to take (what a coincidence!), so those appointments take longer, but they get the courses they need, or a close approximation. Then they depart, leaving behind them only the smell of Dayquil and cough drops (for all of them have vicious head colds, an added bonus when you're sitting next to them for half an hour being coughed on), ready to be surprised by the whole process again next spring.

    Sunday, November 12, 2006

    Request from an unknown student

    Sent Saturday evening at about 11 p.m.

    Hi Undine,

    I'm a 3rd-year student in [Unrelated Department] and would like you to participate in our research project about [unrelated subject]. We would like you to participate on [day this week when I'm not on campus].




    Uh, no.

    Believing firmly in helping students with this kind of thing, I'm usually a sucker for this kind of "interview a professor for a class," "fill out this survey" kind of academic citizenship, but on short notice and a day I'm not on campus? I sent a polite note declining the invitation but refrained from observing that hailing a professor that you've never even met by her first name might not make the best impression. (First names for professors are the norm for grad students but not undergrads around here.)

    Friday, November 10, 2006

    Random Bullets of Conference

    I am at semi-big and very interesting conference. The weather is lovely--unseasonably warm for this area, I hear--, the panels are good, and all my conference stuff (presenting paper, attending meetings, chairing a panel) is over.

    It's at conferences like this that you remember why you go to these things and put up with all the expense and stress of the travel: to talk with people who are as interested in Major Author as you are, and to hear about More Obscure Author that you immediately want to look up and read. You get to catch up with people that you only see at conferences, and you find out what they're working on.

    In fact, my conference experience is a lot like What Now?'s, so I'll just link to her.

    Good times!

    Monday, November 06, 2006

    Got ballots?

    [Edited to add: Voters, thank you!]

    I don't usually post about politics because (1) other people have more nuanced reactions than "What on EARTH were you thinking?" and (2) I'm usually too busy banging my head on the keyboard when reading the latest set of baldfaced lies and platitudes from the Dear Leader and his puppetmaster Rove.

    Like Maggie May, I'm nervous about this election; like a lot of other people, I got all hopeful in 2004 (not to mention 2000) and then was crushed.

    Even without the Election Ladies, I've voted already (in a vote-by-mail state) and just want to say this: Vote, and vote so that it counts. I say this because I've run into a few people who've said quite airily that they intend to vote for, I don't know, the Plaid Shirt party or something else just as a protest against the system. Don't do it!. We saw that in 2000 (I'm looking at you, Nader voters, though no one now admits voting for him), and look where it got us.

    Vote so that maybe there's a shot at turning this country around.

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Library update

    One of my students stopped by this week to talk about her term project. The class has several options for a project, but one option involves analyzing old periodicals. When I discussed this in class, some students didn't know that those were on the shelves, and only a few had ventured into the dim caverns of the library where they're kept. I waxed rhapsodic about the joys of reading old periodicals, winding up with, "And it's really fun!" Their faces told me that their idea of fun might involve something other than the library, but they still seemed interested (or had the good manners to seem interested).

    The student who stopped by was one who had ventured into the dim caverns of the compressed stacks--and seemed to be as excited by that adventure of discovery as I am: "I love old books!" It's nice to know that some in the class share this feeling. Take today, for example: If it's dinnertime on a cold, dark, rainy night, and I've been up since 5:15 and on campus since 8:00 a.m. , and if the last thing I feel like doing is going to the library before heading home, I can usually find the motivation to track down books and make copies if I can go to the old periodicals/books area as a reward.

    I mention this in part because of a recent comment posted to a previous post about book dumping at Cal Poly Pomona (go to the comments page to read the whole thing; I'm not sure about the etiquette of reposting the entire comment on the blog):

    "The 200,000 books in storage are going to be thrown away. The library is being converted into a book crematorium."

    Wednesday, October 25, 2006

    A hypothetical situation

    Okay. Say you belong to an organization and that the organization has a newsletter. Say that you've volunteered to lay out the newsletter in Publisher because you are a soft touch, aka a sucker. Because it's Publisher, and you know how to wrestle it into a form that looks nice, you do this for the organization.

    Bear in mind that you are not an art professor, nor are you a trained expert in design. Even after you've designed the masthead and the layout, it takes a good three hours to lay out the publication.

    This is three hours during which you are not doing your own research, grading papers, preparing for class, or sitting with your feet up and having a glass of wine. You are sitting and obsessing about the relative space occupied by text boxes when you ought to be grading the papers that your students have patiently been waiting to see.

    When someone who's responsible for the content and proofing then says to you, "You know, I think this bit from page 3 would look better on page 6," and you know that that means moving everything in between, with all the headaches of moving anything in Publisher, what would you do?

    a) Say "You sure have a good eye for that! I'll get on it right away."
    b) Ignore the suggestion.
    c) Address the situation by making an even more creative suggestion as to what the person who made the suggestion can do with the newsletter.

    Me and My (Deadbeat) Shadow

    In department news: many meetings, but nothing I can blog about. I did learn some important lessons (not in a situation involving me) about whom the department will and will not support once push comes to shove, though.

    I also got two phone calls on my cell phone yesterday, neither of them for me. When I got a new cell phone number about a year ago, I didn't realize that it came complete with the ghost of past owners. I'm still getting 2-3 calls a week for "Todd," my deadbeat shadow.

    I've learned at least a few things about Todd.
  • He apparently liked to gamble. A lot. I get a lot of calls alerting me to hot tips at some gambling site.
  • He apparently didn't have a day job, since if I don't keep the phone turned off, it's apt to ring in the middle of a meeting at any time of the day.
  • He also was apparently a person of considerable interest to a Chicago law firm, which liked to call and leave very long automated messages on my voice mail demanding that Todd call them back immediately. This went on for a long time because whoever was responsible for sending out the messages apparently never listened to see whose voice mail it was. I finally called the law firm and told them to stop calling.
  • He wasn't too good with handling money, since I get calls from collection agencies demanding that Todd call them back immediately. A live person actually called yesterday, so I was able to tell him that "Todd" hadn't owned this phone in quite some time. Maybe that'll stop a few of the calls.

    I do want the calls to stop, but it has been sort of interesting piecing together the life of my deadbeat shadow.
  • Monday, October 23, 2006

    OT: In other news . . .

    I see that Jane Wyatt has died. As an old movie buff and John Galsworthy fan, I remember her as Dinny Cherrell in One More River, but to everyone else she's Margaret Anderson of Father Knows Best, and, more famously, Mr. Spock's mother on Star Trek. Although I don't usually associate family members with movie stars, Jane Wyatt has always reminded me strongly of my mother-in-law (still with us, fortunately), with all that serenity and graciousness. They even went to the same college.

    And, in other news, I downloaded the new Internet Explorer 7. As a longtime Firefox fan, I was a little amused: see, the new IE has these cool things called TABS, so you can OPEN MORE THAN ONE WINDOW AT ONCE. What a concept! Seriously, it has some nice features, like a separate button for Google Scholar. It'll still be useful for those occasions when I'm trying to see some video (which, except for YouTube video, my beloved Firefox just cannot seem to find the right plugins for viewing).

    Sunday, October 22, 2006

    Sunday walk, continued

    Abandoned stone building
    Originally uploaded by undines.
    It's an abandoned building on the path beside the river, but it doesn't appear to be very old.

    Sunday walk

    River view 1
    Originally uploaded by undines.
    After giving a talk yesterday to a local group (prep time: about 10 hours for a book that I've taught frequently), I thought a walk by the river today might be nice. I was right.

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    Election ladies

    Our state has gone to mail-in ballots, which means the end of polling places for this fall's election. The reasons were cost, "convenience," blah blah blah. Something will be lost, though.

    Ever since I started voting, the polls have always been staffed by people, mostly women, who were well on the other side of 70. I'm sure that they had an official title, but I always thought of them as the "election ladies." They'd look up your name--it usually took two of them, one to pronounce your name and the other to look it up--and then you'd sign the book. They'd give you your ballot (punch card or paper ballot or a Scantron sheet and Sharpie marker, depending on the state) or point you in the direction of the mechanical voting machine. Usually there was a cheerful election lady on the way out to see that you put your Scantron sheet or punch card into the locked box or machine. Sometimes she gave you a sticker that said "I voted!"

    This felt like democracy, somehow. There I was in a place where I'd never usually be (an evangelical church was the most recent site for our district), with a lot of people I'd never usually see. We were all doing the same thing--voting--and if it felt like a little slice of a Frank Capra movie, that wasn't such a bad thing.

    If you think about it, the election ladies were the first generation of American women (born circa 1920s) who came of age knowing that they could vote. Their mothers probably voted after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, but that generation had known what it was not to have a vote (as many other groups have known, to the eternal disgrace of the U.S., right up through the 1960s). Maybe the election ladies served as WACS in WWII. Maybe their mothers had impressed on them the significance of being able to vote, a right that women have had in this country for less than a hundred years. Maybe (let's not get too sentimental) they just wanted to get out of the house for election day. Whatever their reasons, the election ladies have volunteered to be at the polls every time, and now they won't be needed.

    I'm going to miss the election ladies.

    Monday, October 16, 2006

    A day in the life

    Some days are made for writing, or so I hear, and some days are just days like this.
    • I spent the morning on business/administrative/class stuff: sending e-mail followups resulting from the big meeting at the conference, writing an exam, and all that kind of thing.
    • For the first time, I asked to attend a department meeting via phone hookup, since the commute for the meeting takes three times as long as the meeting itself. I'm not a slacker--I'll be doing the 3-times-as-long-commute for a meeting on Wednesday--but figured that maybe this would be an acceptable alternative.
      • Approximate amount of the conversation I could hear: 20%
      • Approximate amount that I cared that this was all I could hear: 0%
      • Exact amount of gratitude I had for the administrative professional who set this up: 100%
    • Since I'd been away and the law of the land apparently dictates that only pizza can be eaten in my absence, there wasn't any food in the house, so I went to pick up some groceries. We don't have Wegman's, Trader Joe's, or Whole Foods, but we do have a local chain with three types of stores: Standard Supermarket, Upscale Organic Market, and Funky Downmarket Store. I usually go to Funky Downmarket, since it has a lot of the same variety as Upscale Organic but also carries a full slate of 1950s brands for the over-80 crowd. For some reason I really like seeing all those brands (Barbasol, Gleem--for all I know, it carries Burma Shave); it feels like time travel. It also carries a full array of strange regional candies from independent candy companies, which I figured out after reading Candyfreak.
    • More later.

    Saturday, October 14, 2006

    Conference snippets

    I'm in Big Airport returning from a conference, waiting for a flight that's been delayed about two hours (as they have all the way along the line) that will take me to Northern Clime airport. The conference itself was too busy to report on at the time, but here are a couple of observations:

  • Most presentations that I saw were excellent. You could really learn something from the papers, and they seemed to get the audience (me included) fired up about the topics and about our own work. Although I always dread going (expense, the stress of travel, and having to talk to people being the top three reasons), conferences do energize you. (Question: How many conference-going cliches can you find in this bullet point? They're true, anyway.)
  • Why does a hotel in a relatively warm climate (50-70 degrees this time of year) feel the need to have (1) windows that don't open, (2) a thermostat that only can be turned down to 64 degrees at night, and (3) a big pouffy down comforter on the bed? So that my eyes will look big and pouffy like the down comforter all day long? If you love the cold and don't do well in heat, though, there was some consolation in that the conference rooms, which felt perfect to me, caused everyone to come in and complain about the low temperatures.
  • Even at a conference at which many of the panels address class and injustice, and at which grassroots organizing is seen as important, no one seems to notice the class hierarchy of institutions represented at the conference (Elite institutions and R1s = many panels; smaller institutions and community colleges = very few panels.) If community colleges and smaller state and private institutions constitute the place where many working adults or first-generation college students receive an education, why aren't there more panels accepted from these institutions?
  • Monday, October 09, 2006

    Running through Jello

    You know those nightmarish dreams where you're running through Jello or mud trying to get away from something and can't make any progress?

    Today I thought I'd put down some estimates for how long tasks should take and compare it to how long the tasks actually took:
  • Creating two questions for graduate exam when I'd already read the student's bibliographies and supporting materials. . . Estimated: 45 minutes; Actual: 60 minutes. (This isn't bad; it's down from 45 minutes per question.)
  • Writing a 700-word newsletter article and sending it (with supporting pictures) . . .
    Estimated: 45 minutes; Actual: 2 hours, 24 minutes.
  • Updating a study guide . . .Estimated: 20 minutes; Actual: 45 minutes
  • Collecting & editing & sending some handouts to be printed. . . Estimated: 15 minutes; Actual: about 45 minutes.

    Academic jello. I definitely need to run faster.

  • Thursday, October 05, 2006

    Dead week

    At the end of the semester, a lot of campuses, including ours, have "dead week." For us, this means that you can't have papers due, can't give exams, and generally must go easy on the students.

    This was a different kind of "dead week," in that they were so quiet that signs of life were few and far between. Mild provocation didn't work ("Did you want her to kill Annoying Character?"). Softball questions didn't work very well ("What do you think the author meant by calling Character X 'Obviously Symbolic Character Name'?"). Humor worked a little, but not for long.

    I couldn't get mad, somehow; it's midterm week, and they're tired. They look tired, anyway. They need a day off, and they'll get one because I'll be away at a conference. They may not need a midterm, but they're getting one of those, too.

    Monday, October 02, 2006

    OT: The Wal-Mart Way

    From today's New York Times,:

    Wal-Mart executives say they have embraced new policies for a large number of their 1.3 million workers to better serve their customers, especially at busy shopping times — and point out that competitors like Sears and Target have made some of these moves, too.

    But some Wal-Mart workers say the changes are further reducing their already modest incomes and putting a serious strain on their child-rearing and personal lives. Current and former Wal-Mart workers say some managers have insisted that they make themselves available around the clock, and assert that the company is making changes with an eye to forcing out longtime higher-wage workers to make way for lower-wage part-time employees.
    . . . . . . .
    “They need to be doing some of this,” said Charles Grom, an analyst at J. P. Morgan Chase who covers Wal-Mart. It lets the company schedule employees “when they are generating most of their sales — at lunch, in the evening on the weekends.”

    I wonder if Charles Grom works for minimum wage part time, with no health benefits except as he is "encouraged" to use Medicaid as Wal-Mart workers are. I wonder if he is called into work at varying times of the day or night, disrupting family life and sleep schedules.

    Human resources experts have long said that companies benefit most from having experienced workers. Yet Wal-Mart officials say the efficiencies they gain will outweigh the effects of having what labor experts say would be a less experienced, less stable, lower-paid work force.

    Sarah Clark, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the company viewed the changes as “a productivity improvement through which we will improve the shopping experience for our customers and make Wal-Mart a better place to work for our associates,” as Wal-Mart refers to its employees.
    . . .
    Tracie Sandin, who worked in the Yakima store’s over-the-counter drug department until last February, said, “They said, if you don’t have open availability, you’re put on the bottom of the list for hours.”

    The view varies, apparently, if you're being paid the big bucks to abuse the noble art of rhetoric by spinning self-justifying lies, as Sarah Clark does, or whether you actually have to, you know, work under these "productivity improvements."

    The article also goes on to say that since Wal-Mart began its plan to exterminate fire its older and disabled employees, it has removed stools and other items that allowed people with back and hip problems to work comfortably at checkout counters. Last year, an executive also favored making all employees go out and get carts, lift heavy boxes, etc., to get rid of those who might even possibly need health care. What's next? Races in which the first 10 employees getting to the finish line can keep their jobs and the rest are fired?

    In addition to the obvious inequities of the Wal-Mart way for the company's employees, what troubles me is that the Wal-Mart way creeps into the academy, especially in the exploitation of part-time faculty (been there!), despite all the noble resolutions passed at MLA every year. It isn't news that there's an increasing pressure to treat students as customers by being available around the clock, teaching only that which is entertaining, and so forth. The comparison isn't fair--Wal-Mart employees don't have any options, and academics presumably do--but it's an uncomfortable reminder of where things could be headed.

    Saturday, September 30, 2006

    Better than movie day

    As an undergrad, I loved "movie day" in a class; who didn't? The class got to see and do something out of the usual routine. Students still like "movie day." That doesn't mean they're slackers. It just means that a change is as good as a rest. I don't show a lot of videos in class, but there are some times when it just plain works better than more readings or more explanations from me (for example, if you're reading novels about a manufacturing process or Moby-Dick).

    Even better than a movie day for breaking up the mid-semester slump--which I haven't yet seen but might be on its way--is a class in which there's a guest lecturer or student reports. A friend of mine used to refer to these as days on which you could "put your feet up and relax." Of course, I still listen, take notes, and so on. But it's a day on which someone else is primarily responsible for keeping the class going, presenting information, and asking questions. It's good for students to hear someone else's voice and respond to someone else's questions.

    Last week I had a day like that: a grad student taught a portion of the work we're reading. She did a good job, and class got to hear someone else's voice, figuratively as well as literally. Since I was sitting in their midst and apparently thus rendered invisible, when she had them do group work, I was able to hear how they were talking about the work.

    So: working but in a way not working. Seeing and hearing something different. It's not only better than a movie day; it's almost as good as a snow day.

    Friday, September 22, 2006

    It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .

  • that if you have, say, two standing meetings, neither of these will be held on the days that you teach, nor will they be held on the same day so that you can go to campus and get them both over with at once.
  • that if you have office hours from 12-1:30, and your office has thus far been so quiet that you can hear crickets chirp, on the one day when you step out for five minutes to get a sandwich for lunch, a student will come by, find you gone, and write you an email about it.
  • that if after a diligent search for a book in your library catalog, you give up and decide to order it, you will receive a note (sometimes an indignant note) from Acquisitions pointing out that it's in the library even if it isn't in the catalogue.
  • that the one student who has been missing in action from class is the only one for whom you, and apparently the university, have no email address whatsoever.
  • that if the day dawns gray and rainy, and you put on a sweater because it's 45 degrees outside, the weather will turn warm and sunny so that you look like a refugee from December, stuck in the wrong time. This one I don't mind, if it means good weather.
  • Tuesday, September 19, 2006

    A car & driver illusion shattered

    Well, maybe not shattered. Maybe slightly dented.

    Driving up the road to campus today, I saw another Prius. They're not too common around here; I see maybe one other one a day.

    As I turned onto campus, I saw a student starting to cross at the crosswalk and stopped. The other Prius zipped right by us on the right. Since the students have sensibly concluded that it's rare for cars to stop, even though they're supposed to, the student of course slowed down and wasn't injured.

    But still. According to PriusChat, all Prius drivers are brave, loyal, trustworthy, cheerful, thrifty, reverent, obedient and the rest, and when they're not bragging about their gas mileage (their only vice), they're out saving the whales.

    Monday, September 18, 2006

    The Literary Post Office

    This wasn't a conversation I had expected to have at the post office today, but it's a nice one to report. After dropping off a package to be mailed, I asked for some stamps.

    Me: "The Katherine Anne Porter ones, please."
    PO counter man: "Have you read any of her work?"
    Me: "Yes, lots."
    PO counter man: "She mostly wrote short stories, didn't she?"
    Me: "Yes, and a novel--Ship of Fools. It took her twenty years."
    PO counter man: "Really? She wrote Ship of Fools, eh? That'll be $7.80."

    Nice to know we have a literary as well as literate post office.

    Sunday, September 17, 2006

    A different PSA about the MLA Job List

    Flavia posted a PSA the other day announcing that the MLA Job Information List is now online. Like Flavia, I kept up a sporting interest in looking at the list even after I had a job (and tenure), but that changed after serving on (and on occasion chairing) search committees.

    I have a PSA of my own; it's basically a few pleas for job seekers based on experiences past and current. (BTW, this post is a snark-free zone, unlike some others I've posted.)

  • Please do think about whether you're really interested in the institution and the general area of the country before you apply. If you're not really interested, don't apply. For example, if you get an interview and end up asking questions that basically ask how often/how much you can stay away from the institution/the area, we know that we've pretty much wasted our time and interview money on someone who doesn't want to be there.

  • Ditto if you tell us that your advisor thinks this would be a good "first job."

  • If the ad specifies a specialist in Subject Y, and you taught one course in Subject Y back in grad school but your major area and dissertation are in another field, please think twice before applying and trying to spin this into a major area for you. We'll figure this out in any case when we read your materials.

  • Proofread your cover letters carefully. Concluding with some variation of "and that's why I'm a perfect candidate for [Not Your Institution]" doesn't inspire much confidence.

  • If your research is exciting to you, and teaching is exciting to you, make sure that that comes across. You don't have to jump on a couch, but if you want to spend your life doing these two things (teaching and research), the search committee, and later the interviewers from the committee, ought to be able to figure out why it's exciting, what the possible research implications might be for the field, and so on.

  • This gets said over and over again, but try to personalize your letter for the institution to which you're applying. Printing out a boilerplate letter is faster than tailoring one to the job, but reading the same phrases in densely printed boilerplate about dissertation, teaching philosophy, and so on, especially in the increasingly long letters that we get, is a MEGO moment (my eyes glaze over).

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    Monday, September 11, 2006

    A little silence

    (Sorry--I had to take down the last post but will post again soon.)

    Saturday, September 02, 2006

    Teaching Carnival 11

    Check out the Teaching Carnival by George at Wordherders. You won't be sorry.

    The library: an enemy to books?

    From the Chronicle about Harold B. Schleifer, Dean of Libraries at Cal State Polytechnic in Pomona. This is the kind of thinking that I fear:

    After getting an estimate of $240,000 to move and store up to 200,000 books, of the library's collection of about 700,000, Mr. Schleifer proposed to trim that figure by $80,000 by asking his staff to find 70,000 or more books the library could throw out. If a book hadn't been checked out in a decade, and if copies were available at nearby libraries, or if it was damaged, it could be pitched. (my emphasis).

    The librarians were disturbed enough to write a strongly worded memorandum to Mr. Schleifer. The collection-management staff called the idea of discarding more than 70,000 books to save $80,000 "penny-wise but pound-foolish" and "antithetical to our professional values."

    "If the decision is made to discard books at this level we will not be able to help you explain the decision to the campus community," the librarians wrote.


    I know that the library's mission is changing toward digital media, and maybe that's all right for public libraries (though I really don't think so). But for a university library?

    What about the faculty members who need the books, even if "they haven't been checked out in ten years"? I'd estimate that roughly a quarter of the books I check out haven't been checked out in twenty to forty years. (I've even been known to check out a few extra old books just to keep the library from exactly this sort of misguided lunacy.) That doesn't mean that they are useless books. It means that just maybe, they're books that need to be recovered or rediscovered; they're books that shed light on classics or are classics themselves. They're books that we'll never discover if the library, following current trends, decides that more coffee shops and computers are the answer to users' needs.

    What about students who'll never know about these books or see them, if they're gone or at a nearby library?

    And what counts as a "nearby library," anyway? Many students don't have cars; those that have enough interest to go down into compressed stacks to look for books may not have the transportation or the interest to go to a nearby library. The "order it and get it 24 hours later" model of keeping materials off-site may be necessary sometimes, but it's a pain in the neck and definitely a second-best choice regardless of whatever "strategic plan" rhetoric tries to justify it. Also, many libraries charge students for Interlibrary Loan materials (mine does: $2). Do we really want to put MORE impediments in the way of students having access to materials?

    What about serendipity--finding something you'd never find if you weren't physically in the stacks looking for something? Sometimes you copy a journal article and discover some related materials that never come up in even the most careful database search. Also, it's sometimes faster to copy something or even skim through it on paper than to wait for those hefty .pdf files from JSTOR.

    And about those digital resources? Guess what--they can, and do, go away. Library budgets get sliced all the time, and there's no guarantee that the archive that exists this week will be available a year from now. It's the same process: someone in administration decides that you don't need it, and so it's cut. Also, although I'm a huge fan of online resources, they aren't perfect. Sometimes the links don't work, or the journal isn't available as advertised. Or, as happened to me this summer when using microfilm, pages are just plain missing. It's clear that UMI is probably never going to go back and re-microfilm the last few missing pages of a newspaper issue from 1910. (This is apparently not a unique problem.) That's now the record of that publication, and if it's a flawed record, I guess we're supposed to say "so what?"

    The heroes in all this are the librarians who wrote the "strongly worded memorandum" to Dean Schleifer. I'd like to raise a virtual toast to you all.

    [Update (from the comments):

    thought you might appreciate another update. I have an online petition up and running and have been using my lunch hour to give out information to students here at Cal Poly on the book dumping situation. Yesterday the campus police questioned me and about my activities.


    go to the website to sign the Save Our Books petition ]

    Thursday, August 31, 2006


    George Williams (link thanks to Mel)asks some interesting questions about teaching. I've been thinking about how my teaching practices have and haven't changed over time.

    One thing I learned (and have written about on this blog) is that the either/or of the "sage on the stage" vs. "guide on the side" model has its limitations. Although I'm convinced that students learn most when they're coming up with the ideas, they don't always value their insights unless you're there writing ideas on the board as the students articulate them, nodding, actively listening to what they're saying. The best classes aren't taught; they're built from the insights of the students. It's invisible teaching and the hardest kind to do.
    And sometimes a short lecture works really well. Admit it: don't you like to listen to a well-told story, one with some point and drama to it, especially if it's clear that the person telling the story is passionate about the subject? I do. Good lecturing is a higher level of good storytelling; it conveys ideas vividly and sets the stage for the discussion to follow. Like a good storyteller, a lecturer ought to know when to shut up. I heard a moderator say this one time at the beginning of an all-faculty meeting: "Remember, if you're the speaker, no one in the audience is having as good a time listening as you are talking."

    I've also learned that it's important to realize that you may not see yourself as a performer, but the students do. As Slaves of Academe says in a post about teaching,"Put down by critics on the left and the right, academics are some of the hardest working entertainers in the Biz." It's a tightrope performance, and it can leave you breathless, figuratively speaking, especially in those moments when the students' ideas converge and there's an "aha!" moment.

    I also learned early that the no-fault, full-disclosure syllabus is your friend. What I mean by that is that if you build in some "get out of jail free" cards (drop a low quiz grade, set a fair attendance policy), you won't have to play Queen for a Day (remember Alice Walker's mention of this in "Everyday Use"?) as students vie to come up with the most pathetic excuses. They're adults; we ought to treat them that way.

    That brings me to a difficult issue: how do we ensure that they're doing the reading? I've tried a lot of possibilities (weblogs, questions, reading journals, short writings, listservs, Blackboard/WebCT discussion boards, etc.) and still use some of them; in fact, I'm especially pleased with the blog assignment I've devised for this semester.

    But I also use (avert your eyes) the much-despised quiz on occasion. Although I agree with Dr. Crazy that these can be "infantilizing" to students, I don't think they have to be.

    Here's why: quizzes helped me to learn to read literature. As an undergrad, I had a professor in a Victorian novels course who'd give us daily quizzes, which at first the class hated. Some of the questions were logical, and some, we thought, were insanely specific: "What kind of flower did X send to Y?" "What was the title of the book that A gave to B?" "What brand of perfume did Z buy before the party?"

    Now, anyone can cruise through a Sparknotes site and get the general idea of The Scarlet Letter or Vanity Fair, but questions like this are too idiosyncratic and detailed for the Sparknotes crowd. When writing an in-class short essay, Sparknotes students can gas on for quite a while about plot and character, even themes, and if they're good writers, as teachers we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But the quizzes in that Victorian lit class separated the sheep from the goats when it came to the reading. They made us learn to mark up our books and write notes in the margins. They kept us honest.

    More than that, we (okay, I) got to like them. It became like a Jeopardy game to see how many I could get right. And better still, it taught me to look, really look, at the details and ask why. What did that choice mean? What did it say about the character and the work? Why would a character choose a rose and not a violet, for example? That led to discussions about the language of flowers, courtship rituals, and the rest, discussions that wouldn't have been possible unless we'd read the book closely. Like a lot of students, I could be led but not pushed, and those quizzes led me by piquing my curiosity and, let's face it, by stimulating my sense of competition. Haven't you ever gone over a quiz in class and heard students saying "Yes!" as they get the answers right? It was a test, but not a high-stakes one, so there wasn't any pressure. But it was a test, so a natural competitive drive makes you want to get it right.

    So although it's not at all fashionable, and although I use a lot of other methods as well, I still think that the lowly quiz has a place in the classroom: five to ten questions, short answer, know it or don't. And I still remember some of the questions--and answers--from that Victorian novels class.

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    Tuesday, August 29, 2006

    Not about academics

    This post might come down shortly, since it's really OT, but it's big news in my life.

    This weekend, I did something I have not done for 12 years. After 12 years of driving an increasingly ancient car, I bought a new car. A Prius. It's terrific.

    Now, when you drive an old car for years and years, your expectations for a new one are low to begin with: "Power windows? You don't have to crank them up? And you mean it has a CD player instead of a cassette deck?" But this really is a nice car.

    Some observations:

  • It gets good mileage, though nowhere near the touted 61/50 highway/city mpg.
  • It has plenty of power to pass other cars on a hill, if you have to do that.
  • Everything (radio, climate control) is controlled by a touch screen with lots of instant updates as to the car's status (mpg, temperature, etc.). It beeps when it's in reverse, like a truck.
  • You can't see the front hood at all when you're sitting in the car.
  • I thinkthe driver of a big 4WD pickup truck with an extra-long cab looked at the car with envy as I drove away from a stoplight. I like to think it was envy and not disdain.

    Sure, I bought it because being a little more green helps, and after all, being a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging college professor is my job. But this car is fun!
  • Tuesday, August 22, 2006

    First Day and CSI: Office

    The first day of classes went well. What can you talk about, really, except the idea behind the course and the syllabus? That's easy if you really care about the subject, although I still heave a huge sigh of relief when the first day is over.

    I also spent some time cleaning up my office. This is nowhere near the chore it was when I first moved in a few years ago. I spent a lot of time then with Windex and paper towels, trying to figure out what the previous tenants had done when they were there.

  • Those nuts and seeds in the desk: did they keep hamsters in there? Feed the squirrels? Or were they just really, really dedicated to some variety of granola whose wholesome rocky goodness I could only imagine by seeing those seeds?
  • The tape all over the desk: was this an elaborate Hallowe'en prank gone awry? Did someone have that many pictures to be nailed down? Had I inherited the desk of Les Nessman?
  • I know what they did for sport: threw coffee at the door. Or something. Maybe they crashed into the door regularly with open coffee mugs while on their way to class.
  • But they did leave me presents: a nonfunctional pushbutton phone, a phone book from 1990, and enough departmental interoffice envelopes to start a bonfire.
  • Monday, August 21, 2006

    Let the games begin

    Classes start tomorrow, and for a change, I am ready (sort of).

  • Syllabi done and copied? Check.
  • Met with co-teachers for team-taught course? Check.
  • Wrestled WebCT to a standstill so that it will follow my will instead of what passes for logic in its demented system? Check. Mostly.
  • Finished the merciless bear of a piece of writing that has been wrestling me to a standstill for the past three weeks? Check, thank God.

    Still to go:
  • Background lecture ready for one of the classes? Um, no.
  • Check status of clothing other than the hiking/canoeing shorts I've been living in for the past few months? No.
  • Treat myself to the new calendar and other school supplies that I'd dearly love to buy? Not yet. That's a treat saved for Friday.
  • Sunday, August 20, 2006

    Retail therapy, academic style

    Not that I can't benefit from the occasional raid on Nordie's as much as the next person; given the academic tendency toward frumpitude, I'd probably benefit from more of them. Clothes shopping doesn't constitute retail therapy for me, though.

    The real thrill, a la The Little Professor, is that yesterday I picked up a full set--16 volumes!--of an author I work on for $95. That's $95 for the whole set, or less than $1.60 a volume.

    Thursday, August 17, 2006

    Random Quotations Meme

    As seen at Professional Mirror, Professorial Confessions, and Reassigned Time:

    1. Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.
    Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)

    Comment: You get to be rude to me once, maybe, if your house is on fire or something. Rudeness is the eighth deadly sin.

    2. A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
    Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

    3. Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.

    Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784), (attributed)

    Comment: If it wouldn't violate quotation #1, there are some times when I'd like to write this on a manuscript review.

    4.Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    5. Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of.

    Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790), 'Poor Richard's Almanack,' June 1746

    Tuesday, August 15, 2006

    WebCT encourages voluntary simplicity

    After years of competition, Blackboard and WebCT merged last year in what some academic sites promoting open source models saw as a Satan I-Satan II hookup. After using several versions of Blackboard over the past few years and then WebCT, I'm impressed with the sneaky brilliance of the newest version (6 something). It is brilliance, right, to have more and more features but fewer and fewer useful ones in each version? My conclusion: WebCT must be nudging us toward the voluntary simplicity movement.

    So far:

  • Course banner? Nah, there's no place for it, although you can put it as an image link in the header. Voluntary simplicity step #1: Write an "image source" tag instead of messing with the banner in WebCT.
  • Announcements? There's an announcements feature, to be sure, and they are mysteriously "sent" somewhere. I don't know where; they don't appear on the first page of My WebCT Classes or on the class page itself. You can click on the "Announcements" link to read them, but why, oh why, aren't they on the opening page as they were back in, say, Blackboard 3? Instead, the "Course Content" shows up on the opening page, like it or not, complete with your choice of icons. Voluntary simplicity step #2: Use the header function for announcements.
  • Course menu? In Blackboard and WebCT4, you could arrange it to suit yourself, including making indented sub-menus for various people's syllabi, but not now. Voluntary simplicity step #3: Make a web site and link to the syllabus there.

    Okay, there is a "student view" in this version, although you can't use it to test any features that you might want to test, like chat or the whiteboard. And they've gotten rid of the multi-step process by which you approve or "release" information using "update student view"--at least this is what I'll choose to believe until a student e-mails me with "Dr. Undine, I can't find that reading you said you put in WebCT."

    But my conclusion about this version is that WebCT is slowly but surely nudging us toward the purity of the web without any pesky course management systems to mess it up. Simplify, simplify.
  • Saturday, August 12, 2006

    How to tell when you're too tired to work any more

  • You are making notes on a book and write this sentence: "Baby vampires set to work on wrappers." The book is not about baby vampires, or any kind of vampires, for that matter.
  • The automatic utility on your backup hard drive kicks in and you think it is some song by a new artist that Pandora thinks you might like.
  • You are not longer sure whether the lights on your desk are on. They are. Your eyes have closed.
  • The cat stretches and gets down from the top of the filing cabinet where she keeps you company all day to go and shed fur on the chair where she sleeps at night.
  • Tuesday, August 08, 2006


    The other night, a group us, all women, gathered for a party at a friend's house. (The friend is having surgery--not serious, except that all surgery is serious.) We talked and joked and drank wine and ate more dessert than we needed because, hey, if three people bring dessert, you eat three desserts so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. We sat outside in the summer heat and didn't watch the sunset because we were laughing too hard.

    We were all ages, from a new assistant prof to more senior people. We told stories. We reminded each other of stories that ought to get told.

    I didn't call this post "womenfest" or "womynfest" because we didn't sit around and talk about empowerment. We just felt it in each other's company.

    This is what summer ought to be like.

    Sunday, August 06, 2006

    You're on Notice!

    You're on Notice!
    Originally uploaded by undines.
    Fun timewaster based on the Colbert Report's "on notice" board. List generated at

    Friday, August 04, 2006

    Preparation for teaching

    Dr. Crazy has already responded to ghw's call for posts about teaching, and here's a short response to one of the questions posted.

    What kind of preparation for teaching did you get in grad school? Was it adequate?

    The preparation I had was considered good at the time but would probably be considered inadequate today. Those of us with tutoring experience (which I'd had) were put right into the classroom after an intensive few weeks of late-summer preparation, and our weekly seminar combined practical advice with theoretical readings. Some, like Mina Shaughnessy's classic Errors and Expectations, were genuinely useful. Others discussed points obvious to anyone with a lick of common sense in solemn and elaborately obfuscatory language as though they were reluctantly imparting the key to the Holy Grail. These works were useful, too, for learning that while complex ideas sometimes cannot be expressed in "clear" language, dressing up simple ideas in complex language doesn't result in theoretical complexity.

    Although we had mentors who gave us feedback on our teaching as well as the helpful seminar, we really learned the most from the other TA's. The experienced ones could tell us how they taught "A Modest Proposal" or comma splices without resorting to the dreaded "lecturing," which was implicitly forbidden. We passed around assignments and techniques, talked about problem students, and moaned about grading papers.

    I did learn one other lesson. During one seminar, we were invited to talk about our teaching problems. From all those hallway and office doorway conversations, I knew that we all had a few: X was stumped over what to do with a student's third "dead grandmother" excuse of the semester, Y had a bunch of basketball players who'd pack up and leave whenever she had them do group work, and Z couldn't get his group of zombies to talk about any essay, ever. My classes were going pretty well, but I did have one problem, a bossy girl who wanted to run every group editing session according to her own feel-bad principles. The "discuss your problems" session went something like this:

    Professor: "So, what teaching problems have you encountered?"

    Undine: "Uh, there's a girl in my class who . . . (description)."

    Professor: "That's too bad, Undine, that you're having such a problem. Perhaps you could . . . {don't recall what he said)."

    Professor: "Anyone else?"

    X: "No, my classes are going just fine." Y nods, and Z agrees. The whole class nods, pitying Undine for her ineptitude.

    The lesson I learned, in case you haven't figured it out yet, was know when to shut up.

    Saturday, July 29, 2006

    Tools for wasting saving time

    Mel's recent posts about productivity and checklists made me think about the collection of tools I've been trying out. I say "wasting" instead of "saving" time because these can be procrastination devices par excellence, but they do help you to get work done if used in the proper spirit.

    • From a blog post some months ago (sorry--can't remember where) I collected an Excel template called the "Writing Marathon Template": It's satisfying to see the word count mount up, and the template scolds you ("you'll never finish at this rate!") if you don't meet your goal.
    • [Updated to add: Here's the home page:]
    • PowerProf suggested the Egg Timer some months back, and it's great. Setting the timer for a specified time helps with the "getting started" process of writing. There's a free version, but the $5 spent is well worth it.

    • is an online timer that helps you to track your productive (and not-so-productive) activities.

    • There are probably lots more online toys for these purposes, but just had a post about one that I've used for a long time: a paper appointment book divided into 15-minute segments for tracking what you're doing.

    • Another paper favorite: the trusty old steno notebook, with each page divided into 4 quadrants: Write, Read, Respond, and Do.

    Of course, the irony is that when the writing is going really well, these are all superfluous because you lose all track of time and just want to keep going.

    Thursday, July 27, 2006

    Married to the (University) Mob

    Dr. Crazy's recent post on why she's looking for a new job and New Kid's response talk about the loyalty to self/loyalty to institution issue. One metaphor being used is that of marriage, as New Kid comments:

    One of my greatest dissatisfactions with academe is the kind of underlying encouragement to see the job as a calling, to see one's commitment to a job as a "marriage" or becoming part of a "family," because I think this is part of the way that academe abuses its practitioners.

    Like liz ferszt in the comments section at Dr. Crazy's, I've seen this from both sides; there's no question that having a faculty member come in for a year and then leave is disruptive, especially if the department is small, the budget is tight, and the powers that be would rather fund yet another Assistant to the Associate Sub-Head in Charge of Administrivia than shell out for a faculty line to replace the departing person. The fear of having junior faculty move eventually even causes some haunting fears at hiring time: "If we hire so and so, will she stay?" This can't, and doesn't, enter into the decision-making process, but it's not an unrealistic idea.

    That said, I'd side with the junior faculty on this one. Although we'd like to deny it, working at a university is like a marriage, albeit an old-fashioned and unequal one with all sorts of sexist overtones. We (academics) are the dewy, eager prospective brides who want the institution to "marry" us by offering a tenure-track position. We don't want to be the ones good enough to teach courses for a university but not good enough to hire when a t-t position comes available. Even as t-t faculty, all the power is implicitly on one side: "We chose you out of hundreds of applicants. If you behave yourself, publish like mad, and seem grateful enough, at the end of six years we may make this marriage permanent--unless, of course, we decide we'd like someone newer and more exciting." It seems to me that the increasing trend for junior t-t faculty to explore their options on the job market is just an attempt to even up this power differential.

    I don't think that institutions mean to abuse this power. Departments hire candidates because they want to see them stay, of course. But whatever it may promise in the courtship process (and there's that metaphor again), however much it might want to behave ethically and in the best interests of the faculty member, an institution will always place its own interests first. Always. That's the nature of an institution. A faculty member who forgets this, who places the institution's interests ahead of her own or at least refuses to acknowledge that the two are different, does so at her peril.

    Sunday, July 23, 2006

    A real post soon

    I'm still in the land far away (near the river that runs between two countries) where conversations on whether the cat is too hot and needs to go into a cooler room are not uncommon. (My reaction is that if the cat wants to be cooler, he'll go to a different room himself.)

    But being here also means kayaking on the lake and walking the back roads and watching foxes run across the road and seeing family--all worth doing, especially since the trip will be over soon.

    Tuesday, July 18, 2006

    Some like it hot . . .

    but it sounds as though most of us would appreciate a break from the heat.

    So here, in bullet form (M & M's, or bullets, being easier to eat in hot weather than paragraphs or chocolate bars), are a few items:

    * It's nice being a visitor in this place where I can't walk down a road without running into one or another of my cousins. It feels a little strange, though, to go to a town 30 miles away and still run into cousins, friends, or friends of friends. This is an advantage now. It was not an advantage when I was trying certain mild (not wild) feats of daring in high school.

    * Borrowing from jo(e)'s pet peeves meme:

    1. Grammatical pet peeve: random apostrophes on signs. Or should I say "random apostrophe's on sign's"? Actually, roadside signs are pretty entertaining. For example, some years back while driving on back roads in Vermont, we went by a small house with at least an acre of painted cement lawn elves, rabbits, turtles, toads, deer, and other assorted fauna along with the requisite plywood cutouts--silhouettes of deer, men leaning on posts smoking pipes, and the ever-popular backside-of-large-woman-in-print-dress. The sign read "lawn cutie's for sale," and ever after lawn decorations have been known in my family as "lawn cuties."

    2. Arts and entertainment pet peeve: Probably the same as most women's--the conspiracy to pretend that women are naturally a size 2--and that the ample breast size of those size 2 movie stars is natural and never enhanced by the surgeon's art.

    3. Wild card: People who ask a question and don't listen to the answer. My secret strategy for dealing with people like this (once I know who they are) is to answer the question with a question about themselves, which was the point of their question to begin with.

    Sunday, July 16, 2006

    Far, far away

    Some random observations from research trip land & family land:

    1. People here understand that the sign I read as "speed limit" really means "suggested speed for people not living in Big Eastern City." They know it means 80 when the sign says 55. This is why they are more efficient than I am.

    2. Ditto for a car's signal lights, which are vestigial appendages that simply slow you down. (I hope these two don't sound too cranky. I live in a place that apparently considers guard rails an interference with one's God-given and democratic right to plunge off a cliff, which people do with some regularity near Northern Clime, so each place has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to driving.)

    3. I read blog posts in which people talk about working in coffee shops, but give me a library every time. After I finished my work at the research library, I went to the main library at Not My Campus and stayed until they turned off the lights. I'd have stayed longer if they would have let me, but that was obviously out of the question.

    4. It's nice hanging out with family by the lake, but it would be even nicer if finding time to write a promised piece wasn't such a challenge.

    Monday, July 10, 2006

    Wild nights! Wild nights!

    But since I am not Emily Dickinson, the wild night consisted of the following:

    1. Staying up until 4 hours before the rest of the house awakens (at the crack of dawn, always, always).

    2. Cruising the internets, reading the New York Times and catching up on blog reading.

    3. Resenting the fact that I just got back from a conference and tomorrow have to leave on a research trip, however productive that might be.

    4. Watching an obscure movie.

    5. Not working on impending article promised long ago for a far-too-soon deadline.

    As penance, today I

    * scanned a whole lot of microfilm to .pdf and burned it to a CD at the library.

    * turned in an overdue book order.

    But I can hear Boice, David Allen, and the rest of the efficiency crew hanging their virtual heads in shame at my defection.

    Saturday, July 08, 2006

    Glacier, part 2

    Glacier, part 2
    Originally uploaded by undines.
    Another view. It, like all the glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere, has been receding.

    Mendenhall Glacier

    Mendenhall Glacier
    Originally uploaded by undines.
    The presentation went very well, and after? Walk the trails near the glacier in Juneau.

    Wednesday, June 28, 2006

    Twenty-four hours to go . . .

    and, in the immortal words of the Ramones, I wanna be sedated.

    I'm leaving for the conference tomorrow, and the big presentation isn't done yet--but it will be, I hope, unless it's time for a message from the universe.

    Hasn't this happened to you? You put in a proposal, are delighted when it's accepted, and plan it in a general way for a few months. Then you look at what you actually promised, and you've said you'd do everything short of a bagpipe fanfarade and a one-woman re-enactment of the siege of Troy.

    Yeah, me too.

    Tuesday, June 27, 2006

    Another casualty of the cell phone

    Today I saw another of the minor casualties of cell phone use: a suburban mom walking along with one of those tennis-hat-thingies on her head, yakking away on a cell phone while she walked a large white poodle. Five feet behind her, dutiful and silent, was a 7-year-old boy walking another dog. Every once in a while, still yakking away, she'd turn around to look at him, but he knew better than to interrupt her. I'll bet that this gets billed at the country club (for yes, forgive me, but this did look like a classic country club mom) as "special time with my son."

    I see this a lot: moms of all classes and races walking along with kids and completely, totally, utterly ignoring them in favor of exchanging inanities on the cell phone. And yes, unless the phrase you're uttering is "you need me to perform life-saving brain surgery in half an hour? I'll be right there!," whatever you're ignoring your kid for is not worth it. Same thing holds true for the moms cruising by in those Hummers, Suburbans, and Escalades with a phone plastered to their ear, ignoring the kid staring out the window in the front seat.

    Can it be a little boring sometimes walking with toddlers and older kids? Yup, you bet. But most of the time it's fun; it's a time when they have your attention but aren't oppressed by it. You're not trying to make them do anything, and they're not trying to make you do anything. There's no pressure, so they can call your attention to a bug that they see, or a car that they see, or how the obnoxious kid in school made fun of their shoes. Or you can sing old songs. Or play a game that has no name: when you get to a corner, spin the child around and have her point, and whatever direction she points in, that's where you walk.

    If you're not listening to them now, who is? If you're not listening to them now, why should they listen to you later?

    Monday, June 26, 2006

    Ben, Jerry, and the Art of Writing

    Finished and sent off a short essay this morning, although I was supposed to be working on the big presentation. The editor had contacted me and instead of putting him off, I just sat down and wrote the piece. It was shorter and less formal than most of the things I write, and there was less pressure because it had been solicited, but still--to just sit down and write, and to write something that looked good when I'd finished, felt great.

    Great enough that I deserved some Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream for lunch. This may be the missing piece to teaching effective writing: sufficient chocolate rewards.

    Tuesday, June 20, 2006

    Why I like Mark Twain

    From the memoirs and letters of Grace King:

    Mr. Clemens repeated two of Joe Twichell's jokes, which were witty of him, Mark--Joe is a temperance minister visiting an old woman in his congregation, she offered him some splendid home made wine. He refused--"You know I'm a teetotaler." "So am I" said she, "but I'm not a fool."

    The country here is all wild about the American board of Missions, which recently had a meeting to determine whether to preach to the savages probation or not. I don't know whether you have kept up with it or not. Well after a long contest, they decided by a vote of 80, against 53 that there should be no probation after death, & that the ancestors of the savages had to burn, nolens volens. So Clemens came in with the paper this morning with "News! News! Hell's elected by thirty majority."

    On Writing and Not Writing

    After seeing Boice's Professors as Writers touted so much in the academic blogosphere, I bought a copy and am trying to work through the exercises despite an innate and probably unfounded distrust of self-help books. I say "unfounded" because this is the first one I've ever read.

    As mentioned in other posts, it's not that I don't write and publish a fair amount--I do--but that I'd like the process to be less filled with the general agony of procrastination. (Yes, that's like wishing for world peace, but I can dream, can't I?) That was the reasoning behind taking on more contract writing than usual this summer: if I can keep limber, so to speak, by writing those pieces, which should be easy, I can keep the momentum going for the more scholarly stuff. Since starting is always the hardest part, I'm hoping that this constant writing will help.

    Boice counsels patience and promises results, which is comforting. I'm only on chapter 3, so I'm hoping that he soon tackles the two large elephants in the room when it comes to writing:

    1. Mushbrain.

    2. Fatigue.

    These two tend to go together. "Mushbrain" has you staring at a sentence you just wrote, one that took about half an hour of writing and rewriting, and realizing that you can't tell whether it's good or so obvious that you wouldn't wish it on a 101 student. Fatigue can cause mushbrain, but it can also be counterproductive in other ways: falling asleep sitting bolt upright with fingers on the keys isn't such a good strategy, either.

    The old New Yorker joke is that on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. (That was back in the days when Internet had a capital I and wasn't used ironically in a plural form.) After reading all the accounts of productivity on various blogs, I'd add that on the internets, no one is ever tired.