Monday, December 31, 2007

Academic resolutions

In the past five "found" days (i.e., days when I'd normally be at or traveling to MLA but have had restored to me this year), I've rediscovered the gym, spent time with my family, and coaxed my ancient PalmPilot back to life with new drivers that don't crash my XP computer. What I haven't done is a lot of work that I'd intended to do.

Here are a few work-related resolutions I'm hoping to keep in 2008. Some of them may be tough to keep, but I still want to try.

  • Just say no. I'm not talking about various mandatory reports and things that you can't get out of, because, well, you can't get out of them. But in looking back at this year, I can tell that I took on too many things that weren't necessary, just because someone asked me to do them. Manuscript reviews for presses are a prime example. Many of them were worth doing because of the subject matter, but some weren't, and since they take a lot of time and thought that could be spent on my own writing, I need to learn to say no unless there's a compelling reason to do otherwise.
  • Start writing earlier in the day. Although I try to work earlier in the day, my writing brain doesn't naturally kick in until the evening. The problem is that there aren't enough evening hours to do the writing I need to do, so I have to figure out how to get that same writing juice in the morning.
  • Not every call for papers has your name on it. It's easier to keep this resolution than it used to be, now that the CFP list at Penn has stopped sending emails and you now have to search actively for calls for papers at the site. It's still enticing, though, to see a CFP and think "hmm, I'd like to go to that conference; I'll submit an abstract and see what happens." What that statement should be is this: "I'd like to present a section from this particular work in progress; I wonder what conferences might work for that?"
  • It's easier to stay caught up than to get caught up. The hardest thing for me to remember that work doesn't do itself: papers don't grade themselves, writing doesn't magically appear on the computer screen, and simply lugging a book around doesn't mean that it gets read. You know how Method actors try to preserve a sense memory of an experience so that they can call it up when they have to act? Maybe remembering the misery of being behind with tasks will help with staying on time and on task.

    What resolutions are you making?
    [Edited to add: Bardiac, who is heading off soon for a great new adventure, and New Kid have a great one that encompasses all these: be mindful.]
  • Wednesday, December 26, 2007

    Happy holidays!

    Merry Christmas, Happy Boxing Day, and happy all other holidays!

    Activities since the last post: Sleep, eat, read, go to a party, talk and laugh with family members, open presents, watch old TV shows from Netflix, Skype with faraway relatives, eat some more, go to the gym, and eat.

  • Warm pear cobbler.
  • Omelettes with chevre, fresh herbs, and smoked salmon for breakfast.
  • Pancakes (amaranth, cornmeal, and local unbleached flour), also for breakfast, with maple syrup.
  • For dinner: Roast beef for the omnivores; stuffed mushrooms for the vegetarians; a big salad with balsamic vinaigrette, apples, pears, dried cranberries, mesclun, and a sprinkling of local (well, within the state) bleu cheese for all.
  • And Yorkshire pudding. It's dramatic because if the ingredients aren't room temperature, and if you don't beat it enough, it won't rise, and if you leave it in the oven too long, it'll fall. It's just egg, milk, flour and salt, with a little butter on the bottom of the muffin cups, but when it works (as it usually does, for this is one of my hidden talents), it's beautiful with the roast beef.

    So as you can see, it's been a little bit Alice Waters and a little bit Charles Dickens (Yorkshire pudding). And now back to the holiday.
  • Monday, December 24, 2007

    A non-MLA Christmas

    I am not going to MLA this year, for what seems like the first year in ages. Despite the stress of getting ready for the holidays, it feels so peaceful. Here's how the tasks are stacking up:

    Differences from MLA years:

  • I am not frantically trying to fine-tune/write/rewrite the MLA paper, which despite good resolutions always still needs work before MLA. This means that I've actually been able to notice, and interact with, family members. Talk. Watch movies. Hang out. All the stuff called "normal life." It's wonderful.
  • Since I am of a personality type (INTP) that dreads any kind of commitments, even parties, once I'm committed to them, this is one thing I don't have to dread over the holidays.
  • I am only vaguely, but not, as is usual, obsessively, aware of bad weather, plane delays, and so on.
  • I am not reviewing job candidates' information in preparation for interviewing them at MLA.
  • I am actually looking forward to a family day tomorrow instead of scheming about how quickly I can get away from the festivities to continue with the incessant work (and anxiety) of getting ready for MLA.

    Similarities with MLA years:

  • I still refuse to read the xeroxed letters that come in Christmas cards this time of year, since they provoke such unseemly emotions as envy ("How did she get to spend the summer at Oxford?"), cynical curiosity ("Vacations in Belize AND Hawai'i? On a professor's salary? Really?"), and despair ("Why isn't my book done yet, as his is?").
  • I still hate writing Christmas cards.
  • I still get to make lots of cookies, except this time I won't feel guilty about taking the time to decorate them.

    I feel as though I am trying out a new product: "Christmas 2.0, new and improved with more time. Now with less MLA and less guilt!"
  • Wednesday, December 19, 2007

    Calculating grades: the eyeball test

    I've been thinking about the grading process--not the grading itself, but calculating grades. Like Profgrrrl, I'm a big fan of Excel . Because of my death-match struggles with WebCT/Blackboard, I don't trust it to upload and download grades into Excel accurately, but keeping a separate gradebook in Excel isn't any extra work.

    I used to figure everything by hand, using a calculator and more than a few pages of yellow paper. Somehow, though, the process was agonizing, and not because of the calculations. The internal dialogue went something like this: "SmartGirl is so close to an A. Isn't her class participation worth more? So what if she bombed a couple of quizzes? But if her class participation grade gets bumped, shouldn't I also bump Dull but Diligent up and downgrade SleeperGuy, who says little but says it brilliantly?" Out would come the calculator again as I refigured everyone's grade and agonized some more.

    I tried a few grading programs, including one that promised that it could drop grades but did not, as I found when checking the results by hand. Once I learned to figure grades out in Excel, though, and to drop grades using the spreadsheet, the prolonged agonizing was done. Because you can plug in different numbers for a more or less subjective category like participation, it became clear that a point or so did not make a substantial difference in most grades, and it also made applying standards of fairness easier.

    One unexpected result was that using Excel helped me to see more clearly whether the percentages I'd assigned to various tasks worked well. Since the syllabus contains a combination of "effort" grades (that reward diligence) and, for lack of a better word, "performance" grades (that reward excellence, brilliance, or what have you), I can see immediately if I've weighted one over the other too heavily. For example, if Brilliant Student can flame out too easily by missing a couple of the "effort" grades, maybe those are weighted too heavily.

    This is where the eyeball test comes into play. Because the grades are all in Excel in a straight line (as they aren't in the multiple pages of the paper gradebook), I can get a better sense of the whole picture. I look at the paper grades, the quiz grades, and the rest, and it's clear when things are out of whack. Are the "performance" grades all at a C level and the "effort" grades at an A level, and is this bumping up essentially average performance too high in the final grading scheme, or vice versa? Does the eyeball test say that Student X should be getting an A because of paper grades, when her average is closer to a B range because of the "effort" grades?

    Because the percentages are set in the syllabus, they can't be changed for the current semester; also, usually the "eyeball test" just confirms what Excel is already saying: that the grades seem fair and reasonable. But using the eyeball test to check for fairness helps me to set the percentages for the next semester so that the class is graded equitably for both kinds of students.

    Just the facts, ma'am

    From "MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship," Profession 2007, pp. 27-28:
    Estimated percentage of English and Foreign Languages Doctorate Recipients Who Become Tenure-Track Faculty Members and Achieve Tenure at the Institution Where Hired

    Completed doctorate degree: 100
    Hired to tenure-track position within five years: 60
    Considered for institution at institution where hired: 38*
    Awarded tenure at institution where hired: 34

    *According to the report: "The MLA survey indicates that the largest number leave one tenure-track appointment for another. We have no way of tracking tenure outcomes for these junior faculty members" (27).

    For a reasoned analysis, read the report. The short version of the "Is the glass half full or half empty?" question seems to be that if you get a position, as 40% will not, and are considered for tenure at the same institution, you're pretty likely to get it. I'm not sure if this counteracts any of the gloom about MLA interviews and job anxiety, but I hope so. It's still a bad market.

    Updated to add: Miriam Burstein has a good summary of several of the articles.

    Monday, December 17, 2007

    OT Tech tip: making e-books for ipods

    The grades are in, and now I can get to work on some writing. But first: a tech reward!

    As you can see from my Kindle-envy, I want to be able to carry books to read when I'm waiting. I've lost my more recent Palm Pilot, and the old one is too old to sync with any XP or later machine, so that leaves the iPod as a free device on which to read ebooks. The problem is that it only lets you copy a document that's really tiny (a page or so), but there is a solution.

    Here's how to put a whole book on your iPod:

    1. Go to Project Gutenberg and get a book (or convert your own file to .txt format in Word or another program).
    2. Go to the converter site at . Upload the file, and the site will convert it.
    3. Download the zipped file and extract it.
    4. Drag and drop the folder to the Notes folder in iTunes. Instructions are here; other instructions are here. You need to make sure that you have "Enable disk use" checked in the sync menu for your iPod.
    5. Sync the iPod.

    The conversion program breaks up the text document into small enough pieces so that the Notes program can read them, and it puts Forward and Back arrows into the document so that you can move around in it. The text on the iPod is tiny, but if the thought of being stuck waiting in a car or doctor's office without something to read makes you wish that there were an alternative, here it is.

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    Bad professor, good professor

    Like just about everyone else on the blogroll, I am grading and having some Sweeney Todd fantasies about running amok with the red pen.

    Apparently, though, there's an internal mechanism that translates Bad Professor thoughts into Good Professor words.

    Bad professor thinks: "Your paragraph is so chaotic that I have no idea what you're trying to say."
    Good professor writes: "A stronger focus in this paragraph would make your point more clearly."

    Bad professor thinks: "If you cut out the wordiness, you could take a Caribbean cruise with the time you save."
    Good professor writes: "Using active verbs and specific nouns (instead of words like "aspect") make your writing more vivid."

    Bad professor thinks: "George Eliot won't care if you praise her writing with empty words like 'wonderful' and 'full of human interest,' and neither will I. These are page-filling words, not meaningful ones."
    Good professor writes: "Can you make a more specific point about Eliot's writing and support it with evidence from the text?"

    And so on. Have any more?

    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    In which my students and I outsmart each other (in a good way)

    As one option for their final project, students can collaborate on a web project, a presentation, a wiki, a paper--whatever best suits their analytical purposes. The requirements are the same as they are for a person doing a paper or project alone; the students don't have to have twice as much information or twice as many pages even if there are two of them. All members of the group receive the same grade, and they know this going into the project. And the writing tends to be better, too, perhaps because they're working together.

    I suspect that the students think something like this: "If we pair up, or work in a group of three, that's only one-third the work for each of us! We've outsmarted her."

    I know that I think something like this: "Four fewer projects to grade because they've collaborated? Hallelujah!"

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    OT: The rewards of ecovirtue

    I discovered today that you don't have to let virtue be its own reward when it comes to bagging groceries.

    I have cloth bags from local stores as well as places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods that don't have locations in Northern Clime. These aren't the fashionable "I'm not a plastic bag", just the regular ones. Usually they grace the floor of the car, since I rarely remember them until I'm standing at the checkout counter, when it's too late.

    Today, as I was walking into the store, sans bags as usual, a girl yelled, "Stop! Don't make me carry that!" Turns out that she was yelling into a cell phone, and, with the clueless voice-volume-up-to-11 habits of a cell phone user, had no idea she'd made me jump. Somehow, though, in my sleep-deprived state I took this as a direct message from the bags, turned on my heel, and got them out of the car.

    Did you know that the store gives you a 5-cent credit for each bag? I didn't. I guess I hadn't been paying attention when I've used the bags before. I know it's just a token (it was 5 cents back in hometown fifteen years ago, too), but it's a nice token.

    So, to answer an age-old question: virtue is not its own reward. The reward of virtue is (drumroll) 5 cents.

    Sunday, December 09, 2007

    Gnomic utterances

    I have spent most of the day (about 10 hours, with breaks) on a paragraph and a half.

    It is still not done.

    It is still not good. (Not yet, anyway.)

    I have been inside this paragraph so long that it has become overly allusive of concepts that reside nowhere except in my head. It reads like shorthand or gnomic utterances.

    Only Yoda can understand it at this point. Or should I say: Understand it only Yoda can do?

    Back to work.

    Saturday, December 08, 2007

    Professor Volcano

    From "How to Get What You Want in Academe" by Gary Olson at the Chronicle:
    (Shorter Olson: This isn't the way.)
    At a recent professional meeting, a department chairman described being yelled at by a faculty member disgruntled over not being assigned to teach a favorite course.

    "I was flabbergasted," the chairman said. "This newly promoted associate professor hollered at me right out in the busy hallway as if I were a misbehaving child." He was especially annoyed because the complainant had chosen to adopt an adversarial tone from the outset. "The scene in the hallway was not the culmination of a long discussion or debate," the chairman said. "He simply acted out from the get-go."

    It was a department chairman who did the shouting in another recent incident I know of, yelling at the dean of his graduate school because of the dean's newly imposed restrictions on doctoral-defense committees. The dean reported the incident to the chairman's academic dean, who sighed and responded, "Yes, he often behaves badly, especially when things don't go his way."
    Explain to me please, someone, why the chair did not say "I will not discuss this until you speak politely and rationally," turn on his heel, and leave. I'm old school about this stuff: if you can't restrain your rudeness, you don't get to talk to me. Period. I don't care who you are.

    Did you notice the response? Both the dean and the chair acted as if Professor Volcano and Choleric Chair were tantrum-throwing two-year-olds. "Acting out," "behaves badly, especially when things don't go his way"--those are the explanatory terms you'd use for someone under the age of three. If you're under the age of three, you ought to get cut some slack on this stuff because maybe you missed your nap. A tantrum in your thirties and beyond? Not so much.

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    From The Onion

    "Wow, what a special treat this was for all of us," said Talking Points Memo head blogger Joshua Micah Marshal, who, along with all other bloggers, checks Tiedemann's site every day just in case something monumental occurs. "I thought I was going to have to wait until Monday to find out if Ben decided to put [the shelf] in his bedroom or the living room. The pictures were great, too." Within two hours of going live, Tiedemann's 15-word post received 34,634,897 comments.

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Last day

    The classes are finished for the semester (except for finals). I was pleased with the presentations assigned in one class; the students did a good job. In the other class, we talked about the class over cookies. Yes, I bring cookies on the last day--the more sugar and chocolate, the better. Don't worry--the evaluations were done last week.

    I learn a lot from these discussions about what worked and what didn't in the texts chosen for the course. Since they've already turned in evaluations and we focus on talking about books, I figure that they're telling me what they really think.

    In the discussion about the books, one of the students complimented the way I'd done something, and my Victorian damsel credentials revealed themselves. Yes, dear reader, I heard this from the class: "Look at her blush!" Since I don't have a fair complexion, I hoped that no one would notice, but they did. It was embarrassing, but apparently you don't have a choice about blushing. Oh, well.

    The last day of class feels a little like coming to the end of a knitting project, back when I used to have time to knit. You cast off the stitches and then the project is done. If only the last stitches for this weren't a few sets of papers!

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    Notes or no notes

    I like my students (I really do), and the classes are going well. They are largely attentive and participate in class--so why should I care whether a few don't take notes?

    Most do, but some, like Planner Girl, don't. Some students claim that they can pay attention better if they don't write anything down, and that may be true for some people. That's fine unless they're leafing through something unrelated to the class and obviously not paying attention to me and to others who are speaking. This also extends to not picking up the book when I am (or their classmates are) referring to a specific passage. I'm not talking about reading newspapers; they don't read newspapers in my class, because that makes them the recipients of my full and lavish attention (questions directed to them about the book we're reading, requests to read passages from the book, etc.), which they decidedly do not want.

    But why should it annoy me? It's really my problem, not theirs. They're not being disruptive. They're just not paying attention.

    I keep seeing students and even some professors chime in on the Chronicle's boards and elsewhere to say something along the lines of "I don't care if you pay attention. The college is paying me to talk and impart knowledge, so that's what I'm doing, whether you listen or not." The student version goes like this: "I'm paying $$$ to go to school here and take the class, so whether I pay attention or not is really my choice." (And again: my students are nice. They're not disrespectful in this way, and this doesn't seem to be their attitude.)

    Well, here are a few reasons I'd like to give them for taking notes:

  • Because even when we are discussing Seemingly Unrelated Topic, we are really discussing Related Topic, as you'll find out and be confused by in a few minutes.
  • Because you'll remember better, even if you're doodling at that particular minute. (I am a doodler as well as a note-taker, and it really does help when I'm listening.)
  • Because even if I'm not discussing something in traditional lecture format but am responding to the class, it may be important. This goes double if I say "You may want to make a note of this."
  • Because when you sit there and seem to show a lack of interest in what the class is saying, it's like having a sore tooth that you can't help testing to see if it's still sore: my attention keeps being drawn to you, at the expense of some of the energy in the class dynamic.
  • Because good stuff is being said by your classmates, and it's rude not to be paying attention to what they're saying.
  • Because when we have an open notes-no book in-class quiz or writing, you'll wish you'll had taken some.

    I still don't think I should be annoyed by their reluctance to take notes and don't penalize them for not doing so. On the other hand, there are usually advantages to taking notes (see last bullet points), and if they make that discovery on their own, so much the better.
  • Monday, December 03, 2007

    Academe and the handmaiden

    I'm just catching up with Perlmutter's "The Joyless Quest for Tenure" at the Chronicle. To put it mildly, I have a few problems with it.

    1. What quest-romances has he been reading where the protagonist says, "Golly gee whiz, I'm glad to be going on this quest! What a swell adventure it'll be!" and lives happily ever after? Isn't a quest by definition, well, hard to achieve and not especially joyful?

    2. Perlmutter tells us to "Just avoid being relentlessly negative," a state that doesn't seem to go away with time. Are people really depressed and not especially joyful when they get tenure? Do we really need to throw them a Tenure Shower with Post-Its and "Guess the Citation Format" games just to cheer them up?

    3. Dr. Crazy has rightly called him out for the assumption that "wife" and administrative assistants (translation: academic wives, for people of a certain mindset) would take care of the petty details. As Dr. Crazy pointed out, some of us have this support and some of us don't. Even though this advice is well meant, it's the kind of advice that could only come from someone who has (and has always had) this kind of support--a person with academic privilege.

    I'm reminded of Wendell Berry's essay "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." Shorter Berry: "Because it is Good for the Earth and I am an environmentally pure soul, I refuse to buy a computer. Oh, and also because I just put the pages on my wife's typewriter and she types them. See how easy it is to get along without one?"

    There's a kind of idealism, or "professionalism," or whatever you want to call it, that doesn't want to get its hands dirty by doing something of lower status but isn't averse to having someone else do so. Sometimes this status differential is obvious (just ask me about my years as adjunct faculty), and sometimes less so: "Undine, would you like to take notes?" if I'm the only woman at the table. Mercifully, I think there's less of this than there used to be, but I guess what I'd like to see is this "academic handmaiden" work made more visible so that the privilege of those who use it is equally visible--visible enough, in fact, that Perlmutter wouldn't be caught off guard by comments about it as Wendell Berry was twenty years ago.

    And the "have your wife type your papers" thing isn't a myth; I've actually heard this.

    Saturday, December 01, 2007

    Writing Resolutions

    Seeing all the successful writing totals for InaDWriMo at Dr. Brazen Hussy's, Chaser's, Tenured Life, and elsewhere makes me wish I'd done it. I did write and revise things this month, but a lot of time was taken up with responding to others' work rather than writing my own. It counts, but it doesn't count, if you see what I mean.

    So: in the spirit of all, and with the idea that public declarations might force some productivity, I'm putting some goals on the sidebar and plan to keep track of word counts in a spiffy new Moleskine bought for this purpose.

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007

    Random bullets of technology

  • I am over my desire for a Kindle, a tech-excitement that reading texts on my laptop helped to satisfy. Although I usually print .pdfs because that's the only way to mark them up if you don't have the fancy Adobe package (but just the reader), I've been reading them on screen to save paper.
  • In ordering books for next semester, though, I couldn't help noticing that many of them would be $2 or less on a Kindle (or free, if the students used Project Gutenberg). I wonder if I'll see any in class?
  • Profgrrrl mentioned attending a Skype meeting the other day. I so want my department to get in on this, since it would save a lot of time for many of us.
  • The students who are using technology in their final projects seem really excited about doing them, and a couple have said that it made them think about the texts in different ways. (Good!)
  • Sunday, November 25, 2007

    Not ready to go back? Join the club.

    Someone must have slipped a guilt pill into my students' pumpkin pie. On Friday, I started getting e-mails about the most random things, or maybe not-so-random things:
  • "I just realized that I didn't do X. Can I do extra credit to make up for it?"
  • "Do you want me to e-mail you a draft of this?"
    Not right now.
  • "Hi. Here is a complicated hypothetical situation--want to respond?"

    As long as there is pie left in the dish, there is vacation time left. It's not their fault, since I always stress how available I am, but respond? Maybe tonight, during the magic "12 hours until class" time, but before then, I am on vacation (which means work, of course, and grading, but not thinking about class).
  • Friday, November 23, 2007

    A short turkey post

    It's hard to know which is the best thing about Thanksgiving:
  • The fact that once you put the turkey into the oven in the morning, you have all kinds of time to go for a walk and watch old movies with family members, though things get busy again about two hours before dinner.
  • The knowledge that, since you're just having the usual stuff, pretty much everything can be made (pies, mashed potatoes, squash, dressing, vegetables, etc.) in the time it takes to listen to, and sing along with, Holiday Inn.
  • The post-Thanksgiving breakfast of pie and turkey, eaten while everyone else is still asleep.
  • The knowledge that you're not one of the vast hordes invading stores at 6 a.m. on Friday. Added bonus: nothing that is on sale at that hour is anything you'd want to buy.
  • Wednesday, November 21, 2007

    On e-books and textbooks

    Maybe as a result of lugging, sorting, reshelving (and dusting--let's not forget dusting) all the books I organized this week, I've become transfixed by stories about Kindle, the new e-book reader from Amazon. The great Toni Morrison endorses it, and I can see why.

  • Unlike the Sony reader, the Kindle has a keyboard and allows you to make notes on the text.
  • Apparently you can download Project Gutenberg texts as well as the 88,000 books at Amazon, though for .pdf files you will have to convert them to a readable format.
  • You can get books on the fly, through a wireless connection, without having to download and import them.

  • It doesn't allow you to read things in .pdf format (although some conversions are possible).
  • Books are about $9.99, which is about $5.00 too expensive, IMHO. Since there's no paper involved, why are e-books so expensive generally?
  • If I drop the Kindle, I've just bought myself a $399 brick paperweight. Yes, you read the price right.

    Over the years, when asked by publishers whether I'd consider adopting an e-book, I've always said no because (1) the students couldn't annotate it and (2) they wouldn't be able to bring it to class with them. A device like this might change things, though, since students wouldn't be able to say that they'd forgotten their book that day, especially if their books for all their classes were on a Kindle.

    On the other hand, there are still some drawbacks.

    (1) It's still more work to open a window and type a comment than to scribble one in the margins. And what about the random markings (circling the names of places and characters, for example, or lines and check marks by an important passage) that help readers to remember and find things in a text?
    (2) Would students want a book that they couldn't sell back to the bookstore? Only information stored in physical media (CD, printed books) can be transferred to another person in any legal and meaningful way.
    (3) However fast the electronic pages refresh themselves, an e-book can't reproduce the experience of skipping forward and back in a text. Sometimes the feeling of a book is what you want. For example, flipping through a big chunk o' pages and scanning the text for a word, or even the pattern of the paragraphs, can often get you where you want to be, even though printed books don't have a search feature. (I know, I know: it's called an index, but novels don't have them.)
    (4) What about the charms of seeing your own childish handwriting (with thoughts to match) on a book that you owned back in the day?
    (5) I'm willing to bet that one of these devices wouldn't last a student for his or her whole college career, although a laptop might.

    Does anyone have one of these? Does anyone WANT one of these? I confess that I kind of want one, and if it were $99 instead of $399, I might be tempted.
  • Monday, November 19, 2007

    I have books! And now I have books in order!

    I keep most of the books I use all the time in the place where I do most of my work (home office, 3 1/2 bookcases), but after a while they multiply and start to double up on the shelves. I have other bookcases in other rooms, but so far they have defied any sense of order.

    My attempts to organize them would go like this. I would pick up a book, or several, and then realize that I had Big Decisions to make:
    1. Shelve British and American and other lit works together?
    2. Shelve criticism with the books or by itself?
    3. Shelve books according to interest and taste or alphabetically? For example, do I group about ten of them together because they are in the category "obscure women's autobiographies that I really, really want to read some day" and I will otherwise forget about/lose them if they're in the alphabetical section?

    You can guess the next step: I pull a book off a shelf, and, while pondering the imponderable, I sit on the floor and start leafing through it, leaving heaps of strewn books that I'll eventually shove into any old shelf just to get them off the floor.

    But today, faced with the prospect of Thanksgiving company, I worked on putting books on shelves where I might have a chance of finding them again. There are still lots of them in heaps on the floor, but hey, the night is young and the people coming for Thanksgiving won't be here for another couple of days.

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Reading with the class

    A question for the blogosphere: Do you always (re)read the material along with your class? Or do you just plan the class based on what you know and go from that, if you've taught the work before? Since you've already read the work at least once, do you feel at all dishonest if you're not putting in the time reading along with the students?

    Bardiac said something a while back about preparing a class for the next week. Although I can do some of that (getting handouts ready), if I prepared a class the week before, I'd essentially have to do the whole thing over again right before class. I'd have the general outlines and some questions, all right, but if I don't read the stuff or at least skim it just before class (either the night before or the same day), I'm apt to forget something, and it's usually the exact same something that students have a question about. It's as if the book and notes are a flashdrive with the information I need to upload to my brain right before class.

    I've read that some actors could turn on their characters in mid-sentence, shifting instantly into character, while others need time to get into or to remain "in character." Since teaching is a kind of performance, it makes sense that this would apply to teaching, too. If so, I'm the second kind of actor.

    This week has been really busy (as it has for everyone, judging from the blogposts I've read), but even though I've taught these works a lot before, I still couldn't bring myself to go into class without doing the rereading or at least reskimming, if that's a word.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    End of the (teaching) week

    I'm finished teaching for the week. I'm home. And I found myself standing at the counter and clinging to it because I'm so tired.
    Here, in lieu of a real post, is something I saw at Lawyers, Guns, and Money (on sidebar):

    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    A thought on writing

    Cross-posted from The Blog of Henry David Thoreau

    Thoreau's Journal: 11-Nov-1851

    It is fatal to the writer to be too much possessed by his thought. Things must lie a little remote to be described.

    Saturday, November 10, 2007

    This is your brain on multitasking

    Walter Kirn has an article in The Atlantic on multitasking. It's behind the subscription wall, but if you heard him on The Colbert Report, you heard most of it. Shorter Walter Kirn, for those who didn't see him: Multitasking? He's against it.

    Here are two passages, along with an observation from class (the real point of this post, if there is one):
    Efficiency, convenience, and mobility.

    For proof that these bundled minor virtues don’t amount to freedom but are, instead, a formula for a period of mounting frenzy climaxing with a lapse into fatigue, consider that “Where do you want to go today?” was really manipulative advice, not an open question. “Go somewhere now,” it strongly recommended, then go somewhere else tomorrow, but always go, go, go—and with our help. But did any rebel reply, “Nowhere. I like it fine right here”? Did anyone boldly ask, “What business is it of yours?” Was anyone brave enough to say, “Frankly, I want to go back to bed”?

    Comment: That person? That person saying "I want to go back to bed"? That was me, but just under my breath.

    Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

    Comment: Walter, Walter, Walter. Can you not understand that sometimes the sorting/filing/whatever boringly repetitive tasks are so boring that we don't especially want to remember what we're doing? Or that having a source of sound--not random tones but music--is keeping us from the mental sounds that say "You should have had this done LAST WEEK!"?

    So, my take on multitasking? It can be good, and it can be bad. It can also be annoying.

    I have a student who diligently takes notes if I'm talking about Certified Important Material. She knows it's important if I'm gesturing in front of a PowerPoint slide or writing on the board or writing on something that's projected on a screen. If her classmates are talking, though, even if they're saying good things, she whips out a planner and gets to work on it. I have no idea about the complexities of a 20-year-old's life these days; maybe she's more overscheduled than Donald Trump. My guess? There's nothing that couldn't wait until class is over. She continues this even when I sum up and expand on what the class is saying (you teachers know the technique) because, although she thinks she's multitasking, she's actually lost the entire thread of what we're talking about. She thinks she's listening and sorting index cards, so to speak, but she's neither listening nor sorting particularly well.

    And that, in a nutshell, is your brain on multitasking.

    Wednesday, November 07, 2007

    Maybe a project does have 9 lives

    This morning after I got finished with some other work, I decided to look at a book proposal that I had been working on but had put aside in favor of my current project. It had been at least a year since I'd looked at it, and it was one of those ideas that just wouldn't come together.

    Today, though, I could see immediately what was wrong with it and how it might be reconceived in some really interesting ways. Better still, I saw how other work that I'd done and presented on in conferences would fit into this project beautifully, and what's more exciting than a project that you've already done more than half the work for? (The current project isn't nearly that far along.)

    This was very exciting. I worked on Revived Project (RP) all afternoon, making plans and outlines, fitting ideas and pieces already written together in this new design and thinking about what would still need to be done.

    Is this just "the project's always greener on the other side of the fence"? Maybe. I still have a lot of other writing to do right now, and my current project still beckons. But wouldn't it be foolish to sit on something for which at least 60% of the material already exists, at least in draft form?

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    Another Hotel California

    Ever since Maggie so memorably used this song to characterize the great junior/senior divide it has been playing inside my head, along with one of Paul McCartney's late and not great compositions. (Sir Paul wrote a lot of good songs, but this one you don't want to have stuck in your head. Trust me--or, if you don't, look below.*)

    As I was locking my door well past the dinner hour and heading out for the long drive home after a cool 10 hours in office, classes, and meetings, one of the grad students said, "You still here?"

    The grad students are always around. They hang out and chat with each other (and work, of course), just as I used to do as a grad student. They're on my floor all day long, although I am always in earlier than they are.

    But I had outlasted all but one of them. And I had literally just spent more time in my office--and commuting to my office--than I had spent at home for the past two days.

    And then the song struck again: "You can check out any time you like, but you can NEVER LEAVE."

    [*If you REALLY want to know, here it is: "Ballroom Dancing."]

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    The downside to Daylight Savings Time

    There are two, actually:

    1. Waking up at 4:01 a.m. and not being able to go back to sleep.
    2. Knowing that with the day's schedule you won't even be home until after 9:30 p.m (10:30 p.m. body time)

    Thursday, November 01, 2007

    Moving up or moving out

    The big dust-up over junior faculty moving (see the posts at Dr. Crazy's, Maggie May's, and at the snark-about-students blog), and especially the tone of animosity with which those junior faculty are attacked, is both dismaying and bewildering. For the record, I'm senior faculty and honestly can't see what the problem is with junior faculty looking for jobs. It's especially fascinating that this gets characterized as selfish, for what's more selfish than demanding that someone hang around and publish like crazy for six years without anything more than a "you'll probably get tenure" promise to go on? Pot, meet kettle.

    One perspective that no one has touched on yet is this: if I were a beginning job candidate, with a Ph. D. on which the ink was still fresh, all this talk about job-hopping junior professors would be making me nervous. I'd wonder how I could ever compete with people who already have a tenure-track job and are looking to move up. I can't say anything useful about the junior/senior split, but I can talk a little about this issue. (These are my personal opinions and observations; if, God forbid, anyone figures out who I am or where I work, they should not be taken as either exemplary or representative of the opinions there.)

    First of all, things do even out when you have a pool of candidates. Let's say that you have 200 qualified candidates for an average search (I've heard of some pools of 700, but I don't think that's usual). Of those, extra materials will be requested from some--a shorter list, and maybe 10-12 will be interviewed at MLA. (Some schools interview 30 or more.) Of those, 2 will be invited to campus, and 1 will get the job.

    In that mix, when considering who'll be invited for MLA interviews, there'll probably be some new-minted Ph.D. degree holders, maybe some advanced ABDs, some new assistant professors looking to move, and maybe some advanced assistants or associates also looking to move. Assume that the letters, research agendas, and so on make those in this list (maybe 30-50 people) seem like good prospects. Each category, though, has advantages and disadvantages:

  • ABD. If you're ABD and in this group (i.e., the group we're considering inviting for MLA), your research probably looks really promising, and your letters are probably glowing. Disadvantage: You're, well, ABD. We would need to be reasonably sure that you would finish your degree before you get to campus and are likely to look for that assurance both in the letters and in our MLA interview with you.
  • New Ph.D. You have the degree in hand, and you probably have a good, competitive research agenda. The disadvantage is that you may not have as much teaching experience, but here's the thing: we don't expect as much teaching experience from you, although we do expect interesting ways of talking and thinking about the courses you could teach for us.
  • Fairly new assistant professor. You've probably served on committees, taught a full load, and have a research program in place. Your narrative has to make sense to us, though, especially if you've bounced around in a few t-t jobs. Why are you applying? Is it to move up? Get a reduced teaching load? Your letter probably explains this (or not, if you just have one job and it's clear that we would be a step up for you).
  • Advanced assistant professor or associate professor. You know the ropes and have published enough that we know what we'll be getting, which is an advantage. A committee will have different research expectations for someone who has been out for a few years, too. If you're a fifth- or sixth-year assistant, though, we may wonder about your tenure prospects where you are or whether you really want an offer from us just for leverage with your home department. If you're an associate and we're advertising for an assistant professor, you may have some 'splaining to do. Are you really willing to give up tenure and start the tenure clock over at this job? That may be the case, but again, the narrative (loosely conceived) that you're telling us has to make sense to us. Also, if it's not advertised as "open rank," there's no chance that the committee will suddenly decide to hire at the associate level, so using that as a negotiating tactic is a non-starter. If the ad had specified associate professors, we'd have had a different pool to choose from, and such a switch would never be approved by the administration.

    A committee can't second-guess why candidates apply for a job, or why they want to move, or anything like that. It can only try to choose people who seem to be the best fit. My point is that candidates of all levels can be that "best fit."
    [Updated to add: There's an index of all the posts on the junior/senior divide at Prone to Laughter.]
  • Monday, October 29, 2007

    What October means to me

    After grading on Friday night, spend the weekend working on a book manuscript review. Take copious notes. Spend today writing up the review. Pack it into your increasingly bulging "to be mailed" folder to take to campus. Think to yourself that the author ought to be grateful for such thorough recommendations. Realize that this will never happen.

    Start reading for the class in which you're to teach a new novel tomorrow.

    Turn on the internet at the end of the day. See e-mail, a nice reminder from a student: "I know you must have sent the letter you said you'd write for me."


    Consider having tattooed on your forehead (backwards, so that you can read it whenever you look in a mirror): You will never catch up. Never.

    Repeat every day in October--and, as it now appears, November as well.

    Friday, October 26, 2007

    Plagiarism redux

    James M. Lang has an essay on plagiarism ("It's Not You") at the Chronicle this week that describes pretty well how I feel about this (after catching another instance of it while grading tonight):

    When my students violate academic honesty, they are not sinning against me; they are sinning against the standards of an intellectual community they have agreed to join. The proper response is to follow the standards that the community has established for such offenses.

    So, no private lectures delivered without a punishment, no slaps on the wrist. Document the offense, fail the student for that assignment, and/or require completely new work from the student. Keep it all on the record in the event of future offenses.

    Sure, I still get angry when I discover a plagiarized paper — I even get angry at plagiarism cases I hear about secondhand, like my colleague's. If you feel anger, you feel it. Sometimes that can't be helped. But feel it and let it go. And don't address student violators with anger. After all, it's not about you.

    Exactly right: let the system work the way it's supposed to work but leave the vindictiveness behind. (He quotes a colleague who wants to exact punishment beyond that dictated by the university.) This assumes, of course, that your institution has a system that works and not one where you have to wait until the student agrees that he or she plagiarized or until hell freezes over, whichever comes first, before anything can be done.

    I know colleagues who threaten an F for the course but then give plagiarizers a stern talking-to and then let them rewrite the paper. This doesn't make sense to me for two reasons. First, I'd think that word would get around that you don't mean what you say. Second, this system punishes me instead of the student, since I have to burn my Friday evening tracking down the sources and then (insult to injury) have to regrade the paper. No, thanks.

    I get angry, too, but my approach is like Lang's: there's a punishment listed on the syllabus (an F for the paper and a report to the appropriate office of student affairs). I explain to the students what's going to happen in a very matter-of-fact way. It's a hit to their grade, no question, but if they shape up and work hard, they can still pass.

    Sometimes there are tears and sometimes not, but the point is that they might learn something from the experience. At a minimum, they learn that I can find my way to Wikipedia and Google, too, and if things go well they learn that there are consequences, but not irremediable ones, when they screw up.

    Saturday, October 20, 2007

    The art of the job letter

    So many people have written such good posts about this recently that this post may be short. Check out the advice at Academic Cog, CitizenSE, Dr. Crazy, Bardiac, Tenured Radical,and Narratives, just for starters, and don't neglect the excellent advice in the comments. (I wrote about this issue last year, too.)

    Some things to remember:

  • Your letter is just part of the process.. As the talk that Sisyphus heard indicates, you can have a letter perfect in all details, but if you look too similar to someone already in the department, or offer a subspecialty that isn't needed, or whatever, you might not make it to the interview stage. It's a matter of fit; it really is. Also, if the committee is searching in some area that overlaps with another area (women's studies, say), committee members have to be sensitive to the research areas (and touchy egos) of that department as well. These are things you can't predict or control, so don't feel as though you've done something wrong if you don't get an interview.
  • Make sure that you really are suited for the position. I know, lots of people now have jobs that they applied for and got even though they were a long shot for the position. If you just had one grad course in a field, though, or have just taught one course in it, do consider carefully before putting yourself forth as a specialist in the area. Even if you get through the committee's review, which is unlikely, candidates invited for interviews will still need to be vetted by diversity committees, HR, or other agencies that ensure that those invited match the qualifications of the job.
  • Make your research sound exciting. When I think back to the search committees I've served on, after questions of fit and suitability for the position, the excitement generated by the possibilities of the candidate's research program is really what sticks in the mind and makes the candidate stand out. Also, don't make us do the math: if it's exciting and has great potential for changing a field, explain how that's the case. If you are the first person to study the social significance of lawn mower blades in consumer culture, you need to tell us why that is important. You recommenders will do this, too, but it's your letter that we read first.
  • Ask a nonspecialist in your field to read your letter and especially your research paragraph. Some research paragraphs sound as though they've been turned out by an academic cliche generator: "always already," "interrogate" (which has come to seem an increasingly uncomfortable piece of LitCritSpeak, given the current political climate), "imbricate," etc. Everything will be "trans" and not "inter": transnational, transcultural, etc. Gender is always "performed"; hierarchies or binaries or boundaries are always "interrogated" or "deconstructed" or "destabilized." Some of these are unavoidable, of course, but if you give your letter or your paragraph to a person in your department (but not in your field) and his or her eyes glaze over, it's time to lighten the mix. Oddly enough, sometimes writers never mention the authors or texts they're working with in this paragraph, so dense is the theoryspeak. A little of both is better. The best research paragraphs use critical terminology but describe the projects in such a way as to make us see immediately the significance of what you're doing not only for your immediate project but for the discipline.
  • More on the research paragraph.. Also, if you have publications (or forthcoming publications), mention at least one or two of the relevant ones. I know they're on your CV, but again: we read your letter first. The letter tells us how we ought to read your application. If we've got, say, 200-300 letters to read, you can't count on us to scour your CV to figure out that you got X prize or that you have Y publication forthcoming. We will probably notice it, but we might not.
  • Tailor your letter for the institution. This is old advice, I know, but when someone sends what's clearly a piece of boilerplate (intro, research, teaching, and conclusion) rattled off with no regard to the institution or the specific needs of the department in regard to teaching, it gets less consideration. This is especially true if you're applying to a teaching-oriented school. What courses could you teach? How could you fit into the our department, and what needs would you fill?
  • Don't make us do the math. I mentioned this above about making the search committee ferret out your real area of specialization, but this goes for the CV, too. If you lump all of your "works in progress" and "works under consideration" in with your publications, we'll just have to sort them out anyway, and it won't make us happy to do so. Also, you can point us to your web site, but we probably won't go there unless we're really interested. I guess the sum of the advice is this: If you want us to know something, tell us; don't make us hunt for it. We don't have time.
  • Teaching is important, too. Your teaching paragraph should--surprise!--be specific and convey your excitement about teaching. Again, think about all those eye-glazing cliches about "student-centered classrooms" and "interactive assignments." What we want to know is this: how do you achieve this? What do you actually DO that's innovative or that works? You don't have to go on for pages, but an example or two would be great.
  • Letterhead or no letterhead? I'm with Tenured Radical: use the letterhead. It's not disloyal, and everyone else uses it. I'd say that fewer than 1 out of 10 letters won't have some kind of letterhead.

    One complaint for search committees: I wish that job ads would specify the head of the search committee instead of HR or "Search Committee" or the academic coordinator as the person to whom the letter should be addressed.

    And good luck to all applying this year!
  • Wednesday, October 17, 2007

    Secret messages to the world

    Secret messages that'll never be delivered (in the tradition of profgrrrl):

  • To students: Apostrophes are not like the confetti or rice that you throw at a wedding. You cannot sprinkle them randomly throughout your paper whenever you think you see a noun or pronoun and hope for a good outcome. There is no good outcome to be had from such a practice.
  • To someone in my building who has some kind of hand-operated machine (for binding stuff, maybe?): Please break out the WD-40 and oil the thing. It squeaks at a frequency that I don't think you can hear, but I can. I feel as though I'm living in a hamster cage with a wheel squeaking away.
  • To the woman who was filing her nails while waiting at the checkout desk at the library: Don't. Just don't. Unless you're a sixth-grader braiding your friend's hair (and even then), personal grooming doesn't belong in non-grooming-related public spaces. You are old enough to know better, and whatever multitasking or time-management skills you think you're showing are more than offset by the way that you're skeeving the rest of us out. Why don't you try knitting, instead, like everyone else at the conference I was just at?
  • A thought-provoking video

    Interesting video from Michael Wesch at Kansas State U, based on a survey in his cultural anthropology class last spring. What do you think?

    Tuesday, October 16, 2007

    Back to the real world (teaching)

    I feel disconnected from my students a bit because of being at conferences last week and the week before. I arranged other things for them to do and all, but still it feels odd (to me, at least) because I wasn't there. After being away, I feel the need to work a little harder at being engaged and present--eliciting ideas from them more actively, encouraging them, synthesizing their ideas, and making the class really work.

    There's an odd phenomenon that happens sometimes when I leave for a conference. It didn't happen this time, but it has happened before: even when I set things up ahead of time and explain that I'm at a conference, I usually get at least a few students who send these mildly accusing little notes: "I went by your office, but you weren't there." "I wanted to ask you about my paper, but you weren't there." Sometimes there's just a subtle resistance that expresses itself in the classroom on the day you get back: no one wants to talk, or they seem uninterested in the material, or complain that they "didn't know what you wanted us to do, since you weren't there" (even if I've sent them a message, announced assignments in class ahead of time, posted them to Blackboard/WebCT, and everything else).

    You may have noticed a theme here: "you weren't there." At the risk of being reductive, I can safely say I've seen this behavior before, in my cats. It goes like this: I get home. They are glad to see me for a second and a half, and then they remember that I left them. This is not supposed to happen, so they stalk around and ignore me for a while until they decide that we are friends again. (Children do this, too.)

    I'm glad that the classes didn't behave this way this time--or was it just my determination to put some energy into it staved off the reaction? Either way, it's good to be back.

    (Topics I'd like to write about soon: job letters, Mysteriously Angry Colleagues [a meditation on jobs past], and enviroblogging or whatever we were supposed to write about for today.)

    Friday, October 12, 2007


    I'm still at the conference, but I have papers to grade and so am skipping some events.

    All I have to say is this: I hate it when they plagiarize. I hate it when they plagiarize. I hate it when they turn a not-fabulous but written-by-themselves paper into a plagiarism case by lifting a paragraph, changing a couple of words, and dropping it into the paper. Do they not know that they've just turned a C paper into an F? Do they think I wouldn't notice when their tortured sentences smoothed out all of a sudden?

    Additional things I hate: printing out and highlighting the relevant sections. Telling the student that a meeting is necessary. Bracing for arguments and tears ("But I didn't copy the whole thing!") because the syllabus states that if the paper is wholly or partially plagiarized, it is a plagiarized paper.

    They are juniors and seniors, many of them future teachers. They should know better.

    But I still hate it.

    Thursday, October 11, 2007

    Conference post

    I am at Big Interdisciplinary Conference, the one where, unlike MLA, some people choose not to wear black exclusively. Also unlike MLA: haughty looks, like black-rimmed glasses, are optional.

    Instead, this conference has been inspiring, not in a "let's march to the courthouse, power to the people" kind of way, though it would be entirely within the spirit of the conference if this were so, and the organizers would be thrilled. No, this has been inspiring in an "exciting subject matter" kind of way. One panel, on a subject related to a secondary area that I've done some work in, made me want to start writing about that area IMMEDIATELY, as in jotting down notes about how I might integrate and extend the theories of the panelists. I also started thinking about how this area might be incorporated more extensively into the courses that I teach.

    All this intellectual dizziness, if you can call it that, did mean that my notes for one of the papers are a little scattered; however, since I was already familiar with the text in question and the panelist didn't expect anyone in the audience to be familiar with it, I could see where the panelist was going with the argument (and that's where s/he did in fact go) and so didn't miss anything major.

    Why do we go to conferences? To get social/professional credit, of course (you can't get promoted without them), sometimes to see friends, sometimes to get information for research or teaching. Sometimes, as Tenured Radical puts it so well, it's a great way to get work done: you have a finite amount of stuff (I'm paraphrasing here) and a finite amount of time with no one to bother you as you sit in a hotel room and tick items off the list. (This would be working better for me if I had not grabbed a big irrelevant folder of articles instead of the book manuscript I am supposed to be reviewing.) But conferences can also get you fired up about your work, sometimes through conversations with others and sometimes just by what you hear in panels. At a certain level maybe we're just intellectual sensation-seekers, and conferences are our Space Mountain.

    Tuesday, October 09, 2007

    You know you're tired when . . .

  • You hear about somebody who sleeps only 6 1/2 hours a night and think "lucky bastard!"
  • Your first thought upon awakening, and the thought that makes the day worthwhile, is this: "In 17 hours, I can be right back here in bed, sleeping."
  • You write an email and instead of signing it "best," write "beset." (Paging Dr. Freud!)
  • Sunday, October 07, 2007

    Random bullets of conference and travel

  • Why is it more tiring to sit in a room all day and listen to presentations that to give a presentation, participate in a roundtable, etc.?
  • Why can't Starbucks have a "I'd just like a plain bagel" line so that people can get something like that without standing in the fancy coffee line? Why can't they especially do this at the airport?
  • Why do the flight attendants announce "We have a very full flight today, so try to step out of the aisle when putting your things in the overhead bin"? Have you been on any flight in the past 5-6 years that hasn't been "very full"? A few years ago, you could occasionally snag a whole row of seat and take a nap--ah, the golden age of travel.
  • I wish I had a recording memory chip in my brain for all the excellent conversations and good information I heard. I take notes when I can, but you don't want to whip out a Moleskine and start writing down what someone says when you're standing in a hall talking. I always think I'll remember it all, but I rarely do. Sometimes I write down "conference notes" after a conference, just to preserve the things that aren't in my notes already.
  • There is a demonstrable conference effect: let's call it Conference Brain Fog. You think you're listening, and all of a sudden you realize that you've been in a reverie for the past 10 minutes and have entirely lost the thread of the speaker's talk. Sometimes, of course, there IS no thread in the speaker's talk, which is what sets you off on the reverie in the first place. One sign of the reverie: counting the numbers of colors in the carpet.
  • It's nice to have a conference in a lovely location, but why does it always seem that the only sight you see is four walls, a speaker at a podium, and the back of the chair in front of you?
  • There's an odd dynamic when there are non-pseudonymous bloggers at a conference, most of whom are stars in the blog world, if you are better known IRL than in the blogworld but are a pseudonymous blogger.
    [Edited to add: I'm leaving for another conference shortly. I feel like Profgrrrl!]
  • Tuesday, October 02, 2007

    Brief hiatus

    Conferences coming up at the speed of light--more in a while.

    Monday, October 01, 2007

    OT: Tech Tips: Capturing stills from a DVD

    This may be old news to everyone else, but since it took me forever to figure out (with the help of this site) and others, I thought I'd post it here so I wouldn't forget it.

    VISTA. If you're running Windows Vista, use your graphics software (PaintShopPro, Adobe, ArcSoft Photo Studio, etc.--there are many others), to capture the images. Start the DVD playing in Windows Media, pause it when you get something you want to capture, and then use the Capture tool in the graphics software. That'll put the picture right into the graphics software, where you can save it.

    XP. If you're running XP, download and install the VLC player (free) at Start playing the movie in the VLC player, pause it when you see a good picture, press CONTROL-ALT-S, and the picture will be captured as a .png file. You'll need to open Paint or some other graphics software to convert it to a .jpg, but that just takes a second.

    Updated 10-3-09: The newer version of the VLC player requires you to pause the dvd, right-click on the image, and choose Video --> Snapshot.

    Tuesday, September 25, 2007

    At the Chronicle: Confessions of a Journal Editor

    Jeffrey J. Williams has an interesting essay at the Chronicle, "Confessions of a Journal Editor." It's behind the subscription wall, but here are a few of the flaws he mentions seeing all too frequently:

    "Glossomania," or excessive citation. Yes, we know you've been to the library, or at least Google, but sometimes it's too much of a boring thing. Or more likely masking insecurity in a fog of citation. Or simply being lazy. . . .

    Indirection. Some journal articles suffer from being excessively roundabout, taking longer to get to the point than Henry James. A common habit in literary articles is to start with a quotation or a description of a literary scene. Sometimes, as in Stephen Greenblatt's essays, that can be a brilliant device, but it is sorely overused and often a false start, the real point being on page 5. Or the main points are buried, in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. . . .

    False difficulty. A common expression in the humanities is that an author "complicates" a topic. That is another academic habit of overcompensation, much like excessive citation. Shouldn't our goal be explanation rather than complication?

    Of course not everything can be simple, and difficulty might go with the territory. But the reverse does not follow: A torturous explanation does not indicate difficult thought; it usually only indicates bad writing, its faux difficulty presuming its faux profundity. Think of Wittgenstein: He presents us with nubs that gnaw at us, but his sentences run clear. . . .

    Lazy language.

    Another glitch is announcing or narrating what you are doing, in phrases like "I would like to argue." Such meta-comments might aid in moments of physical intimacy but are usually unnecessary during an essay. Just argue it!

    And then there are a slew of phrases that should henceforth be banned. "Always already" was once striking, but that was in 1972 and it's now a cliché. "Cutting edge" is a phrase that is anything but cutting edge. "Problematic" is just clunky, and actually what people probably mean is "troublesome" or "contradictory." . . .

    What's interesting about this is that he actually puts into writing some of the moral absolutes that go unspoken in scholarly prose: to "complicate" something is always good, as in "unlike those poor fools who wrote about this so simplistically before." To accuse someone of "essentializing"--well, them's fightin' words.

    I'm not necessarily crazy about "I would like to argue," but to me it does serve a useful purpose; in essays when it's used, usually the author is saying something like this: "I'm done with the introductory fluff and the obligatory citing of every article under the sun. Sit up, now, and pay attention; here comes my thesis." In that way, it can be a good signal to the reader, especially if the article is one that you're skimming to see if it's worth reading later.

    I know, I know, we've heard some of this before--but being reminded of what to do, as Williams does, can't hurt.

    Monday, September 24, 2007

    Meme of Four

    Sisyphus has tagged me, and since, like Horace, I am easily flattered, here it is, the Meme of Four (with a few changes, since I just don't have answers for them all):

    4 Pieces of Clothing I wish I still owned (and/or that still fit):
    1. tap shoes
    2. a swirly dress that made me feel like Ginger Rogers, many pounds ago (I sense a theme here)
    3. an all-weather jacket that I loaned someone and never got back
    4. a 1940s-era thrift-store coat with shoulders that made me look like a linebacker--but a fabulous, Joan Crawford-style linebacker

    4 names I've been called at one time or another:
    (can't think of any; same for crushes)

    4 professions I secretly want to try:
    1. Lawyer
    2. Benevolent Despot of the World, but I get to define "Benevolent"
    3. Computer guru
    4. Manuscripts librarian at a big research library

    4 musicians I'd most want to go on a date with:
    1-4. I can't do better than Sisyphus's response: "Well as long as it’s a magic meme I’d say either Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix, even though I think the date would end three days later with me waking up alone and hung over in a small roadside motel of Route 66 with the police pounding down the door. Terrifying, yet who can resist?"

    4 foods I'd rather throw than eat:
    1. lima beans
    2. liver, pork chops, ham
    3. pastries (cinnamon rolls, Danish, and all that stuff)
    4. fried chicken

    4 things I like to sniff:
    1. fresh air in the morning. Really.
    2. cinnamon rolls (I like the smell but not the taste)
    3. coffee
    4. lilacs

    Friday, September 21, 2007


     I see a lot of deer these days during my walks, usually closer than this. Most of the time, they're grazing by the road staring at me, and I stare right back.
    Posted by Picasa

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007

    MLA Job Information List: Do not want!

    Flavia and Mel have recently had good posts about the MLA Job Information List, with Flavia talking about wondering what might be out there and Mel about the anxieties it raises even if you're tenured and happy.

    I used to look at the JIL (and the Chronicle), and, such is the power of the feeling as though you're "cheating" on your current job, even after I had a job I liked and was tenured, I'd make sure the office was deserted before I checked out the paper version.

    For the past couple of years, though, I haven't looked at it at all, unless our department had an ad in there or was in the process of writing one for a search. It's not like giving up Bloglines or something, either, where you have to stop yourself from looking; I just stopped and didn't look back. I don't miss it.

    Does this mean that I no longer have goals I want to reach or things I want to accomplish? Of course not; it's just that the things I want to do (promotion, eventually; lots of research projects) don't have anything to do with what had become, for me, the huge time suck of dream job/anxiety that the JIL inspired.

    Looking at the list can serve a lot of good purposes, and people want to move for all kinds of good reasons, but I'm talking about feeling compelled to consider this option every fall the way a lot of us do. What kind of profession is it that makes us think we aren't "successful" unless we're always anxiously searching for something better than what we have? Academics, that's what.

    Sunday, September 16, 2007

    Reports R Us

    It's a lovely day: the sun is shining, it's about 70 degrees, and there's a light breeze blowing. In short, it's a perfect day for sitting at my desk and catching up on all the report-, letter-, and memo-writing that I didn't have a chance to finish during the week.

    If you're the chair of something (committee or whatever)or have simply been dragooned into writing the necessary stuff for an organization, it's hard not to have a feeling of futility as you churn out hundreds of words in the service of something that only a few people will ever read or care about while the materials for your research gaze down at you reproachfully from the shelf above your desk. (On the other hand, this presupposes that more than a couple people will ever read your research, but hey, a person can dream, right?)

    I think I've gotten better at writing this stuff over the years, though part of it is probably that I'll never know or care whether an annual report got a glowing review or was tossed aside with a "she calls THAT a report?" comment. I take time with them, of course, as I do with the various recommendation letters for students and colleagues I've been writing lately, but most of the satisfaction in writing them consists in the act of crossing them off the list and seeing that page full of black lines where list items used to be.

    Maybe that's why those hundreds of words spill out onto the paper so quickly, while a single paragraph of writing an article can take all day. That's why, if someone were to ask me (as no one ever will) whether I write quickly or slowly, my answer would be "both."

    Saturday, September 15, 2007

    Writing inspiration for a Saturday

    From this week's New Yorker:

    Kaufman began the novel after his most recent screenplay, which he undertook at the age of eighty-six, came to nothing. His alliance with McSweeney’s was a product of circumstance. “My literary agent, who was younger than me, had died suddenly, and I had nobody,” Kaufman said. He is now writing a second novel. “Years ago, I was working in Italy, and Charlie Chaplin and his family came from Switzerland,” he recalled. “We were at a beach north of Rome, and it was a very foggy day and the beach was lousy. At about three o’clock it cleared up, and Chaplin said, ‘I’m going back to the hotel. Unless I write every day, I don’t feel I deserve my dinner.’ That made an impression on me.”

    From Michael Korda's Another Life: A Memoir of Other People:

    Korda, an editor, had gone to visit the best-selling novelist R. L. Delderfield:
    Delderfield apologized for keeping me waiting, but he always worked until four on the dot, he said. He believed it was important to treat writing like any other job and put in a good day's work. He was particularly happy to see me here today, he went on, because it was something of a red-letter day. In what way? I asked. Delderfield beamed. At exactly three o'clock this afternoon, he said, he had finished his new novel. . . . I nerved myself to ask, If Delderfield had finished a new novel at three what had he been doing from three to four? Ah, Delderfield said, just what he always did. As soon as he ripped the last page of the novel out of his typewriter, he put a fresh piece of paper in, typed page one, chapter one, and started a new novel. Time and tide, he said, in his soft countryman's voice, waited on no man.

    Wednesday, September 12, 2007

    Classroom multitasking

    The other day, I came into class and had about five things to do at once before class could start: (1) set up the laptop and equipment (screen) so students could give presentations; (2) give out handouts; (3) get books and other materials out of my bag; (4) answer the questions of the nervous, hovering student who was about to do a presentation; (5) put information on the board. As I was doing all this, going from one to the other (writing on the board while the projector warmed up), another student, from his seat, started asking, "When are you going to collect our assignments that are due today?" "I have a plan," I said, and kept on writing, etc., to which another student stage-whispered to the first one, "and you're messing it up." They laughed.

    Having that much go on in the minutes before class is a little unusual, but unless you're like a professor I once had who'd walk quietly into a room with his book, no notes, and launch immediately into a discussion of the day's reading without even a "Hello," there's some preliminary set up--staging?--before class can start: you have to get out the book, marker or chalk, notes, papers you intend to give back, and so on, and this takes a little time. Packing up takes a little time, too, because you want to clean the board and get out of there before the next class comes in.

    The multitasking I like is the kind that occurs when students want to linger and talk about what we've just been saying in class or walk back to the building to keep the conversation going. The multitasking I'm lousy at, though, goes something like this: I'm frantically stuffing books, papers, computer, and the rest into a bag to get out of the classroom, and a student comes up and says, "I have to be absent on [a day a month away]; what will we be doing?" or "Can I meet with you on X day at X time?" or anything that involves something I have to remember. The same thing happens some times when I'm ready to start class and a student wants to come up and discuss some projected absence or an appointment.

    Note to students: The pencil is my memory stick. If you don't see a pencil in my hand so that I can write down what you're telling me, the chances are good that I won't remember it.

    Friday, September 07, 2007

    College, Hollywood-style (pre-1950s)

    As I was driving to work the other day, I started thinking about how professors' jobs and campus life generally were depicted in old Hollywood movies. Of course, there are more recent depictions: what about Ross from Friends, who held down a tenured position at NYU while having oodles of time to hang out at the coffee shop and got articles published without ever spending five minutes in writing them? The old ones, though, seemed to have a set of rules.

    1. College professors are poor, if by poor you mean having a beautiful old Victorian mansion and a maid. See The Male Animal for an example of this. Of course, in 1940s and 1950s movies, characters often yearn to get rid of that spacious Victorian heap with its 10' ceilings and move into a 3-bedroom split-level in the suburbs. In these movies, expect to hear a lot of talk about poor faculty salaries, even as the maid serves tea, and expect to think to yourself, "I wish I were poor like that."
    2. Football and other sports are the raison d'etre for a college. See Father Was a Fullback, etc. Sometimes pesky professors try to interfere with the big game by insisting that students do a little thing like pass an exam even in the face of the administration's and the trustees' insistence that beating State is much more important. Even the staid Mr. Belvedere gets into the act in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, setting a high-jump record after he teaches sorority girls to behave like ladies. Night into Morning is the most realistic picture of all these. In that movie, Ray Milland is an English professor who actually spends some time grading blue books in between bouts of handling his personal life. He agonizes about giving an oral exam to a failing student who's needed for the big game but finally does so.
    3. There is a place for women on campus. Indeed there is, and a woman on campus is there mainly to provide a disturbing element: distracting the quarterback of the football team (Campus Confessions), or, if she's older, to be a Wise Dean or an Easily Shocked Spinster Librarian (and yes, I know this is a stereotype, but these movies trade on stereotypes).
    4. Faculty-student romances are common, and a good thing, too. It's a sorry heroine who can't get her professor to marry her, and a lot of professors are single heartthrobs (Van Johnson in Mother is a Freshman, Fredric March in The Wild Party) just to make this possible.

    5. Administrators generally quiver like Jello at any hint of displeasure from the trustees. The Male Animal isn't as funny a movie as it thinks it is, especially in its mandatory drunk scenes, but there is a surprisingly effective plot thread: Henry Fonda insists on his right to read selections from the letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Sacco and Vanzetti) to his class even if he'll be fired as a communist sympathizer for doing so. Joan Crawford likewise stands up against censorship in Goodbye, My Fancy (pictured above), lambasting her former lover and weak-willed college president Robert Young with a few pithy quotations from Walt Whitman.
    Have I missed any college cliches? Are there any new variations?
    [Edited to add: Kiita has a good post on this with a lot more (and a lot more recent) films at chasing the red balloon: The thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy..]

    Tuesday, September 04, 2007

    Civil disobedience or passive aggression? You decide.

    Someone who sends out the announcements for a related department always does so by attaching an enormous color .pdf poster and sending it with the message. No subject line. No text. You
    a. open the message every time, wait patiently for the .pdf to unfold itself, fight off the "Update me now!" messages that happen EVERY time you open Acrobat, and think "Isn't it nice to know about this event."
    b. delete the messages without reading them.

    Monday, September 03, 2007

    And that's why it is called Labor Day

    . . . because that's the day when grad students start bombarding you with chapters, introductions, lists, and other things they've been working on all summer. I know how they feel: "There! That's off my desk now, and I can relax!" I also know how I feel: pleased that they've worked so hard, but a little . . . ambivalent about getting this stuff on the day that's an official day of rest. (I know: it's my fault for opening e-mail.)

    . . . because the department chair is apparently having some really productive brainstorming sessions today about all the things we can do, meetings we can have, etc. this semester and is e-mailing us about them. Again: not her fault, but mine for opening the e-mail.

    . . . because this is the day to wash, rinse, and wax (or non-wax, whatever the stuff is called) the floors in the house before the real beginning of the semester. I wonder if anyone else thinks this the whole way through such a process: "I'll bet that Famous Critic X never has to wash the floors."

    . . . because the letters I didn't get written on Friday didn't write themselves over the weekend, and they have to go out tomorrow.

    But it's also a day of fun: a six-mile walk (instead of the usual four miles), picking some strawberries and cherry tomatoes out of the garden, and some work that I've been wanting to do for a while.

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007

    Motivation fairy, where art thou?

    The semester is kicking into high gear, but somehow, it's not taking me with it. So far, I have a burning desire to do only the following: (1) sleep; (2) sleep some more; (3) read blogs; (4) go for long walks. To mix a metaphor, I've fallen off the Internet experiment wagon and need to get back on the horse.

    So, without a visit from the motivation fairy, I'm posting a list of items that ought to get me moving:

  • I have some additional research money this year due to an award and need to make a more concrete plan about how to use it to apply for grants.
  • Some deadlines for conference papers, book manuscripts under review, and writing projects are approaching at the speed of light.
  • Ditto for some reference letters I need to write.
  • A colleague is going up for promotion to full, and while my nobler self is happy about that, my crabbed, envious self says I'd better get moving if I want to do this in a couple of years when I'm eligible.
  • Because my classes are enjoyable this semester, I'm spending a lot of time on them, maybe too much time, as a way of avoiding other responsibilities. Maybe preparing for these should be the reward(like a virtual dish of Belgian chocolate ice cream) at the end of the day.
  • Monday, August 27, 2007

    Words to the wise for newbies and not-so-newbies

    Tenured Radical has a post with excellent advice for new (and not-so-new) professors. While this is really just a post seconding her suggestions, I have a couple of other, more minor ones to add:

  • Learn to do whatever you can for yourself. In a department where I used to work, one of the administrative assistants had a sign up that said something like "Your failure to plan does not constitute an emergency for me." She would reinforce this by sitting at her desk and reading the newspaper in a very leisurely manner, ignoring us while we were dancing around her, flailing our arms, imploring her to open the photocopying room (or to fix the copier, which was about as robust as Marguerite Gautier on a bad day).

    In addition to being nice and to saying "thank you," as TR suggests, some of us learned that if we could cajole Ms. "What? Me hurry?" into showing us how to change the toner, add paper, or whatever else we needed to do, we didn't need to bother her. The same holds true for ordering desk copies, calling for travel reservations, or whatever else is nominally in the administrative assistant's realm: if she (or he) is busy, and if it's not a usurpation of his or her power to do it yourself, do so and lighten the load, unless there's some kind of status war involved that you don't want to be part of.

    And yes, say "thank you."

  • Leave your door open and your light on. Obviously you can't always leave your door open if you're taking a phone call or are on a noisy hall, but colleagues who might be inclined to stick their heads in and say hello if it's open will walk right on by if it's closed. You want to get to know people, and this is a good way to see them, students as well as your new colleagues.

  • Don't take things personally; it's not always about you. The Chronicle and other publications on academe sometimes make the departments sound like a snake pit, where every movement, word, and gesture is parsed by mean-spirited colleagues waiting for you to slip up. Although some people may behave this way, thus leading to the widespread advice on the Chronicle's career boards to "STFU," most will want to welcome you and see you do well.

    This isn't the interview process: your new colleagues already decided that you fit in to some degree, or you wouldn't have been offered the job. They are probably giving you something of a popularity rush right now as everyone tries to get to know you. This will drop off in a few weeks, but not because of anything you said or did; it's just that everyone gets busy.

    Speaking of busy: I have yet to meet an academic (or anyone else, for that matter) who responds well to any intimation that he or she is not as busy as you are. This seems to infuriate everyone without exception. Yes, you'll be really busy, but to complain that you're more overworked or have less free time than X to X's face is stupid impolitic.
  • Friday, August 24, 2007

    Anybody else tired?

    Well, the first week of school is officially over, and, as usual, I'm wiped out. This happens every year, and it never makes any sense: why should teaching the first week, when you have little or no writing to grade and less class prep than usual, be so tiring?

    This is shaping up to be (crosses fingers) a good semester for teaching, though. At the risk of sounding like that old "don't hate me because I'm beautiful" commercial, I'm on a reduced load this semester: one section of a survey class I like to teach and another one, a new prep, on a subject area that really interests me. The bookstore even ordered the books I asked it to order, and mostly in the quantities I asked for, mirabile dictu.

    I'd planned to go for a walk and then work tonight, but somehow, as the miles rolled by on the drive home, that plan grew less and less attractive. What did sound attractive is sitting on the couch, sipping wine and catching up on all the interesting blog posts I've missed this week.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    Not, alas, a news item

    Cero's comments on the last post got me thinking about this, too:

    Explain to me, please, why various parts of the campus network go down sporadically at this time of the year, leaving us stuck for things like printing out rosters--which, in keeping with the "it's all at your fingertips and so convenient for you" ethos of every university today, are no longer made available to us.

    What's that you say? The network is getting heavy use because the students are back and classes have started?

    Who ever could have predicted heavy use of the server at this time of year? Why, it's not as though school starts every year at this time and someone could have predicted the problem.

    End of snark attack.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    Hobbies for the back-to-school crowd

    Classes started this week, and my students seem nice. Why is it that I'm so pathetically pleased when they smile back at me or even smile all on their own?

    But classes did signal the end of my week of pursuing the following hobbies:

    Exercise 1

    1. Work on a syllabus for hours at a time . . . double-digit hours at a time. Decide that this is absolutely, positively, the last revision and that it's time to print the thing and get it copied. Go to bed relieved that it's done.
    2. Upon awakening, have a brainstorm about something that absolutely, positively must go into the syllabus. Open the file and start work on it again.

    Exercise 2

    1. Decide that the days you have allotted to reading a longish book are too many. Let them read more pages! Let them take responsibility for getting through the reading over the weekend! After all, you did this when you took the class back in the Pleistocene Age.
    2. Change syllabus to reflect fewer days spent on the work. Move other material to take its place.
    3. Recall student groans about excessive reading from past semesters.
    4. Restore the original number of days to the work. Repeat.

    Exercise 3

    1. Discover that the new and improved--and more expensive--edition of a book you were forced to order is missing several vital pieces you had planned to use in class.
    2. Become grievously irritated. Go on and explain the book's deficiencies in a review.
    3. Hunt around for your old copy of the book so that the pieces can be photocopied. Curse the habits of marking up books that have left all your books unfit for photocopying.
    4. Go to the secondhand bookstore. Buy an unmarked copy.
    5. Continue to grumble under your breath as you photocopy the necessary parts.

    Saturday, August 18, 2007

    Random bullets of Friday (by the numbers)

  • Number of syllabi completed and dropped off for copying: 1.
  • Number of syllabi left to do: 1.
  • Number of people who attended the long department meeting on Friday: almost everyone.
  • Number who sat and typed on a laptop most of the way through it, working on e-mail except when he/she was talking: 1. (My charitable self says that maybe s/he was sending notes to him/herself--hence the e-mail screen.)
  • Number of "team-building exercises" inflicted on us: mercifully, 0.
  • Amount of Haagen-Dazs Belgian Chocolate ice cream I bought specially on Thursday night and promised myself as a reward if I got through the whole thing: 1/4 cup, the perfect amount.
  • Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    Random bullets of panic (back to work edition)

    I'm back from the limited-internet land near the lake and the river that runs between two countries [tm jo(e)]. It was nice, even if the insect-less state of affairs here in Northern Clime made me forget that mosquitoes, blackflies, and other pests will get you if you aren't careful back near the lake and the river.
  • Please tell me that classes don't start VERY SOON, even if you have to lie.
  • All that new course prep that I airily waved away in June and July, thinking I'd have plenty of time? Yes, it has to be done, let me see (consults calendar) . . . yesterday.
  • The desk copies? The ones I ordered in May? So not in. But says I can have the most important one by tomorrow (talk about instant gratification) so that I can get the syllabus made up for my trip to campus on Friday.
  • Oh, and all that reading and writing I took along, thinking, why, what else will there be to do on the lake? I barely made a dent in any of it.