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.