Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Conference papers: the good, the bad, and the "don't even think about doing that"

To judge by their exposure on blogs and in the MSM, there are two kinds of articles about conferences, neither of which focuses on the true substance of the papers being presented. The first is the kind that runs in newspapers late December every year right alongside the perennial "Drive Safely--It's New Year's Eve!" articles. It's the "silly titles at the MLA" article in which the reporter shakes his head over the Death of Literary Study or the decline of western culture. There's one of those over at The Valve right now.

The second kind is the "why, oh why, are conference papers read so badly?" piece, and one of those is online at the Chronicle . William Major, the author, recounts his experiences of reading papers to small audiences and of seeing a panel chair fall asleep. Here's a memorable excerpt from the piece:

"Yet it was during one such sleepy lecture that I witnessed a moment of intellectual honesty as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. The late eminent Guy Davenport -- writer, scholar, Renaissance man -- was in attendance at a reading and made his presence known by sprinting from the room in the middle of the proceedings, an exit so conspicuous and theatrical as to overshadow all that the poor lector had to say that evening. It was a night that I am certain lives on in the audience's memory, though the lecture itself has long been forgotten."

Major concludes in the usual way, by asking his readers to remember the audience, wondering why conferences are necessary, proposing stricter standards for accepting papers, suggesting that panels with small attendance sit in a circle and talk [which often happens, as far as I can tell], and so on. He also suggests that only completed papers be accepted, which I think will probably never happen because (take your pick) (1) people are too busy to write papers until just before the conference or (2) people enjoy the brinksmanship aspect of writing a paper at the last minute and being able to say that they wrote the paper on the plane.

As a conference veteran, I have a couple of examples to put in the mix.

The Good

1. A few years back at MLA, I saw an excellent presentation in which everything went wrong for the presenter, a major scholar. His paper had been lost with his luggage, so he announced that he'd read the paper from his laptop and turned the computer on. The computer refused to boot up. He tried again. Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. Instead of being shaken by this, he went on to present the ideas in his paper lucidly and brilliantly, periodically (and without comment) attempting to turn the computer on. It was the best paper I never had read to me.

2. At this past MLA, one roundtable session had rules that seemed beyond byzantine when they were explained to the audience: the presenters had to read their papers, ask a question of the next panelist, field a question, or something like that. The audience looked puzzled at first, and yet it worked beautifully. This format kept the basic structure of reading short papers, yet the questions and so on broke up the "listening to papers" trance and made the session a lively and thought-provoking experience.

The Bad

1. The "long-winded presenter" phenomenon is almost too common to mention. I love the touching faith implicit in general advice to chairs such as "keep track of the time" and "prepare a 5-minute warning card and pass it to the presenter." Once I saw a presenter handed such a card. She ignored it. The chair tugged at the presenter's coat. She ignored it. The chair cleared her throat. The presenter glanced at the chair, took another drink of water, and kept going. Some presenters just won't quit.

2. I've also seen panel chairs give an "introduction" to the session and its theme that's almost as long as a paper, thus crowding into the last panelist's time.

Don't even think about doing this

These should probably be under the heading of "the bad," but perhaps they don't bother everyone. They do bother me.

1. Situation: The speaker gets up and starts reading. She (or he) announces that the title has changed, that it's from a larger project, blah blah, the usual stuff. Okay. Now she begins to read, and after a few pages stops. You can see her reading ahead in the text. She flips a page. Flips another page. Scans some more text as though someone's just handed it to her off the AP wire and she's never seen it before. Flips another page. The audience members sit there, watching her, until they get bored and start leafing through the program. Finally she starts speaking again, having wasted what should be 2-3 minutes of her time but will probably end up being 2-3 minutes of the poor last panelist's time.

Comment: You have had from six to nine whole months to cut this paper down to size. Please, please get it into reading form and practice it the night before.

2. Situation: The speaker has heard all that advice about talking about rather than reading a paper. [Note: I don't agree, for the most part. Many of the "spoken" papers I've heard have been much more rambling and harder to follow than the "written and read" ones.] He decides to "talk" his paper in this fashion: He reads a sentence and then looks at the audience to deliver a comment about it--what he found, how this relates to something else, where it fits in his larger project, etc. He reads another sentence and talks about it. Over and over again.

Comment: If you want your audience to think that they are living in your paper for eternity, this is a good way to go.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Overheard on Campus

Female student: "So you guys are my real friends, but you're not 21. When I want to go out drinking, I have to go to my second tier friends. That sucks."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Working Vicariously

I've heard it said that one reason for the prevalence of blogs is that reading them is a way of living vicariously. For me, it's a way of working vicariously, or learning about how others work. Like many people, I get quite a bit done, but it never seems to be enough.

For example, for years the Chronicle and other publications about academics have asserted quite offhandedly that of course everyone has a trusted circle of readers, or at least a writing partner, to read manuscripts before they're sent out. It must be true for a lot of people (as evidenced by various blog posts), but I wonder how many other academic outliers have no experience of such a group.

Keeping a research journal is another thing that bloggers and some colleagues have discussed; Dr. Crazy posted about this some time back. I immediately had all the wrong kinds of questions: is it kept on paper, in a notebook, on a computer? Is there software for this? Is it for concepts, details, quotations, articles? How's it organized? I have a system, more or less, for keeping track of my projects, but this sounds like a better way.

Equally good are all the discussions of words written, hours of writing completed, to-do lists with items crossed out, which taps into the whole 43 Folders/Lifehacker delusion that if it's just organized properly, that list will shrink and the words will flow from the keyboard with style and brilliance (aka the Michael Bérubé fantasy).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Likely Outcomes?
From an article on the Adjunct Advocate:
"Ms. Lesko thinks that the best way to win beneficial restrictions on the use of adjuncts in academe is simply to focus on data that show, for instance, that an adjunct teaching seven classes cannot teach as well as an adjunct teaching two or three classes. Do that, she says, and the parents and students who pay tuition will pressure institutions to change because the current regime of part-time employment in higher education will be seen as delivering a lousy product. In other words, when playing to people in Peoria, aim for their wallets, not their class solidarity — and forget the rhetoric of abuse."

In a market in which the supply of potential adjuncts was roughly equivalent to the demand, Lesko might have a point, but what's the most likely outcome when looking at, as Mr. Cheney might say, the job market we have rather than the market we want?

1) Parents will surely place this issue at the top of their radar screen and demand that adjuncts be limited to two or three classes, thus ensuring better wages for all.

2) In the event that parents notice, and care, and make an issue of this, administrators will respond to this data, slap their foreheads, and immediately provide better wages with all of the unlimited funds at their disposal.

3) The data will be used to cut the number of sections given to individual adjuncts and spread among a greater number of the ever-increasing pool. This will have the effect of denying some adjuncts health benefits, since a certain number of courses taught is usually required to receive benefits, and will also ensure that those who have been squeezing out an existence teaching 7 courses will not be able to survive without getting a job at Wal-mart.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Inside Higher Ed: "The Un-Retiring"

"The Un-Retiring," an article by the pseudonymous "M. Douglas," is online at Inside Higher Ed.

For those who don't have time to read it, here's the short version: "To older professors: hurry up and die, already. Or retire. We don't care. Just go away."

Now, some of the behaviors Douglas describes (borderline harassment and trying to block tenure on the grounds that the person is a "feminazi") are unnerving, no question. But Douglas's concerns seem to be more that (1) Professor X is old; (2) he's really old; (3) old enough to be the grandparent of other faculty members; (4) and did he mention that Professor X is really old?

I don't think that age necessarily has much to do with being obstructionist, driving people out, and generally making life miserable in a department; to judge from Ms. Mentor, various academic blogs, and my observations, those are pretty much equal opportunity behaviors.

A few questions:

1. Don't most departments have some mechanism for turning over the position of chair so that this kind of thing can be avoided, or at least a chair review and evaluation every so many years?

2. Are there really that many "deadwood professors" out there? The, ahem, very senior faculty I see at conferences don't strike me that way. Of course, they're at conferences, which may be the difference.

3. What about deadwood female professors? It's rare to see a post about them.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Chronicle article: "The Grading Factory"

An article in this week's CHE describes Fred Kemp's TOPIC program of teaching composition at Texas Tech. I've read about this for some years but had not seen it fully described before. To minimize the effects of bad teachers and to have students write more (admirable goals), graduate student instructors are divided into "classroom instructors" and "document instructors": the former teach in the classroom, and the latter grade papers online under a piecework quota system, as follows: 17 drafts per week to comment on and grade; 18 on which to offer a grade (but not comments); 25 peer critiques to review; and 20 student self-evaluations. This is supposed to take 12 hours a week, which means an average of 10 minutes per document. It also makes the system sound like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but we're assured that this isn't the case.

The system sounds interesting, and it does have the effect of having a student's writing graded strictly on product (this, after years of the comp mantra of teaching that writing is about process, not product). And, as is stressed in the article, it's a gold mine for researchers, though whether that ought to be a primary justification for students' writing isn't clear.

Okay. Here are some questions:

1. The system is rigid enough that a final grade of 89.9 can't be "rounded up" from a B+ to an A-, and yet paper grading, even when it is normed and discussed, is necessarily *somewhat* subjective unless it's done by martinets who deduct one point for a comma error. The system allows for this: if the two graders' grades are apart more than 8 points, the paper is kicked over to a third reader. That's a good system, but I'd still say that it's not a fine enough increment to declare an 89.9 an inflexibly and objectively derived grade, not when that grade is based on much more flexibly assigned points earlier in the semester.

2. One benefit described is that the DI (document instructor) can eliminate repetitive comments by cutting and pasting (or inserting somehow) links to explanations of things like comma splices. That's fine, and we've all done versions of that. But what got my attention was the idea that, as one instructor put it, you can use "search and replace" to hunt for and grade errors.

Sorry--my cognitive dissonance alarm is screeching. This is the same discipline that (rightly) pitches a fit every time someone claims to come out with some kind of grading software that flags basic errors, even if the software isn't used to grade the content of the papers. Automated search/replace or automated software? What's the difference?

3. What do the students write about in these essays? What do they THINK about? How do the instructors know whether this is all just material rehashed from a class discussion? Do they have class discussions that encourage critical thinking? I'm sure that they must.

4. Wouldn't this lead to a hierarchy in which classroom instructors would be considered "above" document instructors? Is there a distinction made when the grad students graduate, or are all considered to have had equivalent teaching experiences? Also, doesn't this reinforce the already and unfortunately prevalent view of grading as a lesser form of work--one that could eventually be outsourced to freelancers or the people at or its offshore equivalents? Doesn't this reinforce the sorts of classroom practices that have been so vigorously scorned in pedagogical circles for years, such as lectures?

5. Some classroom instructors say that their authority is undermined because they don't get to grade the writing; Mr. Kemp argues that it turns them into coaches, a good thing. As a veteran of exit exams and portfolio systems, I'd agree with the "coach" analogy and believe that it can be valuable. But what about the conferencing time spent with students, when you can see their work improving draft after draft? And what's lost if their writing gets better but their ideas do not, because there's no one who can say, "Remember when you said X in your second draft? You left it out here, but that was an interesting idea worth developing"?

With all that, the system is surely a worthwhile experiment, and Fred Kemp and TTU ought to be applauded for their boldness in trying something new.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

From The Atlantic: "Introverts of the World, Unite"

Excerpts from the article:

Yeah—chattiness suddenly seemed like the key to social success and happiness.

That story so sums up the kind of extrovert hegemony that can make life miserable. I think it's particularly hard for girls and women. "You'd be so much more popular if you'd talk more." It seems to me that the world would be a much better place, and that people would be much more rightly popular, if they talked less. Because so little of what most people say is actually worth hearing.

True. Although sometimes it's interesting to listen to other people talk. It's too bad it's not more acceptable to go to a party and just kind of soak things up.

Yeah. They should sell skybox seats at parties for people like us.

You asked about shyness versus introversion. My limited reading on the subject suggests that, psychologically speaking, they're regarded as different things. That reflects my own experience; I'm not particularly shy myself. To me, shyness implies a real reluctance to be socially aggressive or assertive. It's very difficult for shy people to put themselves out there if they need to. For introverts, it's never easy to do, but it's more a matter of reluctance to expend the energy, because it tires us out. That's what I feel most strongly. If I have to go to a party and then a dinner afterwards, I'm completely ruined for the evening. But if I'm called upon to run a business meeting or something, I don't feel any reluctance or anxiety about it. So, in my mind there's always been a fairly clear distinction between introversion and shyness.
. . . . .

If I get onto a topic I'm interested in and feel strongly about then it's true that I can get animated and engaged. But I'm not so good at chatting about things like the weather.

Right. The weather's not interesting. But once an introvert gets on a subject that they know about or care about or that intrigues them intellectually, the opposite often takes hold. They get passionately engaged and turned on by the conversation. But it's not socializing that's going on there. It's learning or teaching or analyzing, which involves, I'm convinced, a whole different part of the brain from the socializing part.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Norman Rockwell Vacuum Cleaner Repair Shop

In an era when sites like have to exist so that you can sneak your way into a conversation with a live human customer service rep, it's tempting to wax effusive about the Lost Age of Customer Service. If you live in a small town or small city, you're fanned by the breezes of that lost age, so to speak, but it has its drawbacks.

Fred's Vacuum Cleaner Service (a pseudonym) is one of those places. Five years ago or so, you could take a vacuum cleaner in there and they'd warn you ahead of time: "This is going to cost you." And it did: $7.23, $11.65, and on in that range. They charge more now, but they still care, really care about vacuum cleaners. And that's not altogether a good thing.

You're picking up your ancient, wheezing Hoover upright from the shop, and the conversation's going swimmingly. You mention that you have another vacuum cleaner that needs to be fixed.

"Is it still under warranty?" Still jovial.

You mumble that it might be.

"What kind is it?"

A gift. A Dyson.

"A Dyson"--this with heavy scorn.

"Can you fix it?"

"A Dyson. They're very picky about what's under warranty." A sigh. "I hate to work on them, but yes, I can fix it."

"But it'll cost you."