Saturday, June 30, 2007


It's a little unnerving to realize that, as much as I believe that I've backed everything up in this Year of Hard Drive Crashes (p.s.: my backup drive that's less than a year old stopped working this week, making a total of 4 drives involving 3 computers so far this year), some things are just plain missing. Some I have in paper form and have rescanned into the computer.

I got a set of proofs recently for a small, fairly straightforward project, though, and although I usually like to compare them with the originals, the originals were among those vanished papers. There may be a paper version deep in the bowels of a file cabinet somewhere, but instead, I just read them through and made the few corrections based on the how the text read.

From editor friends of mine, I've heard of contributors to journals or collections who 'll go to the barricades in defense of their own wording. I'll do that, too, if there's something major. (The "major" test is this: would I squirm with embarrassment if this article came out under my name with that sentence construction or word choice?) Sometimes the editors introduce errors that lead to a fury of "stet" markings. Mostly, though, I figure that if it sounds like my language and isn't factually incorrect, it's all right with me.

I hate to think where this places me on the scale of "proof Puritan" to "proof slut," though. What do the rest of you do?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Random bullets of reading criticism

  • When you're taking notes on a critical article and it's really good, do you find yourself taking so many notes and writing down so many quotations that you might as well memorize it?
  • Conversely, is there a halo/reverse halo effect when you read, much as there is when you read student papers, wherein after reading a really good article the next one seems pretty lame? Or is it that the article really isn't as good?
  • When you're reading a less-than-compelling article (have to be thorough!), do you ever succumb to the temptation to set free your inner snarky self? I find myself wanting to write things like "Dude! X made this argument 20 years ago" or "Well, duh!" even as I realize that this won't be helpful when I come back to the article in five years and wonder what on earth I was thinking.
  • Do you cringe when early critics (say, 1940s through 1960s) praise the "fidelity to Negro dialect" of some nineteenth-century author for something that we see as really, really racist?
  • Doesn't it make you wonder what tidbits of embarrassment critics of the future will find in our essays? For the record, I'm betting that all the "let's be dispassionate about/enthusiastic about describing the painful deaths of animals in the Hemingway manner" will be seen not as admirable aesthetic detachment but as a bad moral lapse by future generations of scholars.
  • Tuesday, June 26, 2007

    Why we teach critical thinking skills

    We teach critical thinking skills for a lot of reasons, but my zeal-o-meter for teaching these gets ramped WAY up by seeing hucksters and snake-oil salespeople like the person who wrote The Secret, which is, from what I've read in the papers, all over television shows like Oprah. This faux expert, with a cadre of other "visionaries," apparently says that you "attract" your own fate. What does this mean for the victims of 9/11 or Katrina?

    From her answers to the Associated Press:
    "In a large-scale tragedy, like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc. we see that the law of attraction [this is her trademarked term for a centuries-old concept used by generations of earlier hucksters] responds to people being at the wrong place at the wrong time because their dominant thoughts were on the same frequency of such events."

    See how easy that is? No meteorological events, no weather patterns, no failure of government planning, no terrorism--just bad thoughts on the part of the victims, who are entirely to blame for what happened to them.

    Am I wrong in seeing this as a logical extension of certain other "visionary" principles?
    From Ron Suskind's "Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush" in the New York Times in 2004:

    The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

    One of the things that I took for granted growing up was that wishful thinking or personal beliefs were not the same thing as reality. It's more than a little unnerving to see that this is no longer accepted as a principle on which everyone agrees. Part of the point of teaching is that students get to test their beliefs, which they consider realities, against the convictions of others. The dimwitted demagogues referred to above, though, demand that their convictions be regarded as truth.

    Okay, here's an anecdote that expresses a little of what I mean:

    The American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller once said, “I accept the universe.” When Thomas Carlyle heard this, however, his comment was this: `Gad! she’d better!’”

    I'm with Carlyle on this one.

    Monday, June 25, 2007

    Library gaming (from Inside Higher Ed)

    Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article encouraging librarians to think like gamers:

    “The librarian as information priest is as dead as Elvis,” Needham said. The whole “gestalt” of the academic library has been set up like a church, he said, with various parts of a reading room acting like “the stations of the cross,” all leading up to the “altar of the reference desk,” where “you make supplication and if you are found worthy, you will be helped.”

    So if this hierarchical model doesn’t reach today’s students, what will?

    James Paul Gee, a linguist who is the Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul, argued that librarians need to adapt their techniques to digital natives. A digital native would never read an instruction manual with a new game before simply trying the game out, Gee said. Similarly, students shouldn’t be expected to read long explanations of tools they may use before they start experimenting with them.

    Some thoughts:

  • Do I really have to play video games? Way back when, I tried a few of the text-based games that the Little Professor and Acephalous spoof so beautifully (heck, I even participated in MUD and MOO activities), but a game for me = less effort than work. If I have to put that much effort into it, I'd rather just work, thanks.

  • If preferring to experiment rather than to RTFM makes me a digital native, then I guess I am one, no matter how much I dislike the term.

  • I've seen the "library as church" metaphor before but had never thought of the reference desk as its altar.

  • It sounds as though those of us who are already building a "find this" model assignment and turning students loose rather than lecturing about the Library of Congress system are doing the right thing.

  • Wouldn't it be great if someone built a game that was based in finding library materials? To tell the truth, this would probably be more popular with teachers than students, but if it meant one less lecture on doing a keyword search, students would surely embrace it.

    On a more serious note, it's true that most students would rather deal with technology for an hour than ask a reference librarian something that would get them where they want to be in five minutes. From the article: "Even then, he said, librarians shouldn’t say that they are providing formal training, but should say things like 'let me show you a short cut,' the kind of language students use with one another all the time."

    Sometimes students are intimidated by the process, but sometimes there are other reasons. Although about 95% of the reference librarians I've encountered have been more than helpful, I've met a few who were so irritatingly condescending (a la the "priest at altar" model) that I steered clear of them: "This is the library catalogue online, you see? You can put in your search terms here, and then you can narrow your search by adding words." Sometimes, too, as the article says, they want to lecture about the history and nature of the resource before helping anyone to use it.

    Oh, and "dead as Elvis"? He's totally alive.
  • Grad school compendium

    This link is a little belated, but Horace has a great compendium of advice for grad students at To Delight and To Instruct.

    And while you're at it, read Dr. Virago's great post on the research project she teaches.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007

    Will work for praise

    Reviewing and evaluating is part of our job; if you think about it, it's most of our job as professors. We're paid for it, in one way or another: salaries (for teaching); books or checks, for manuscript reviews for presses; a "professional service" line on the cv for being a manuscript reader for a journal.

    If I'm honest about it, though, the real reward for some of this is just plain praise. I was really pleased when a number of the students this summer took the time to say (in turning in their last project) "thanks--your comments really helped" or "I learned a lot" or "I really enjoyed the class." Maybe I'm naive; a cynic might say that they're trying to ingratiate themselves so that a softened-up, benevolent Dr. Undine will go easy on the grading. Since all the grading is pretty straightforward, however, and (in an online class) there's no wiggle room for "participation," I'd like to think that they were sincere.

    The same holds true for reviewing. Although there's a pro forma quality to thanking the reviewers in the acknowledgments part of a book, when an editor this week took the time to thank me for my comments and pointed out the ways in which they'd be helpful for the author, it made my day. Eventually I'll fill out the forms and collect my check (or books), but right now, I'm still basking in being paid in praise.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2007

    Random Bullets of Almost Summer

  • Does everyone put off all kinds of tasks (shopping for clothes, painting, various household things like buying a doormat) until summer, or is it just me? It's as though I've been underwater and come to the surface, only to notice that the car needs to be cleaned and that the nondescript dark wool stuff I wear all winter really ought to be put away, now that it's June.
  • I believe that my cat could run some branches of the federal government better than they are run now. Let's review the sequence:
    1. Government announces that passports will be mandatory next January for travel to Canada and Mexico and that some new kind will be mandatory this summer.
    2. People with travel plans in the works dutifully apply for passports.
    3. Government is shocked--shocked!--to see that people are applying for passports in record numbers. From the Washington Post: "'We simply did not anticipate Americans' willingness to comply so quickly with the new laws,' Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said in a written statement to a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee." Apparently more than 110,000 passport applications are "piled in closets, the supervisor's office, and the break room."
      If you tell people they can't go out of the country if they don't comply, why would you be surprised if they try to comply? That's like being a McDonald's manager and saying "Who knew that people would show up for lunch and that there'd be a noon rush?"

  • The productivity apps are having an effect: I can see the clock ticking even as I'm writing this.
  • Now I'm off to get more house maintenance stuff done (oil change for car) before getting back to work.

    [Edited to add: I forgot the big one! Summer school is over and the grades are in--whoopee!]
  • Saturday, June 16, 2007

    Productivity apps

    Part of the peri-writing process described below really doesn't have much to do with writing at all (like ordering books that I might need someday from Since hope springs eternal, though, here are three downloads for Firefox that I'm trying out in hopes that they'll help productivity.

  • Do you hate those flashing little movies that come up on every site nowadays? I used to move the screen up and down, skipping paragraphs, even, so that I could stand to read the text at the NY Times and other sites. This extension (Flashblock) blocks them and puts a little F in the space instead. You can click on it if you want to see the picture.
    I completely love this extension.

  • Pageaddict: . I just saw this one via Lifehacker and am trying it out. It'll tell you how long you spend on various web sites, which could induce enough guilt to get you back to work.

  • Timetracker: This is another one I saw on Lifehacker and just installed. It keeps track of the time you spend web surfing. You can set it up to ignore legitimate, work-related sites. Again, I'm hoping the guilt factor will spur on some productivity here.
  • Thursday, June 14, 2007

    On Wasting Time

    Dr. Crazy has a post up about wanting the summer fun to start. If you're an academic, it never can because--surprise!--there's always another book to read, manuscript to work on, and so forth.

    Exactly right. When I emerged from the cocoon of feeling too sick to work earlier this week, I thought, "all right, now I'll be productive." I have deadline-driven writing to do, but my brain is still in lazy sickness mode: it's hard to sit at the desk, let alone to work or to make my brain think about what it ought to be thinking about. What I apparently can do, very well, is to sit in a trance and think about the work I'm not getting done.

    About the best I can manage now is what I call "peri-writing." It's not really writing, or even pre-writing, but it's the work that surrounds writing. This involves huge amounts of time (in between reading a manuscript sent to me for review) spent looking up things I ought to read, making notes of things I should look at, and so forth. The manuscript review is part of this, because I can then say to myself, "hey, this person isn't as lazy as you are, and here's a manuscript to prove it. Get moving!"

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007

    Why professors in English should be happy about The Sopranos

    We should be happy about The Sopranos.

    I don't mean just The Sopranos, although that's been the focus of a media frenzy for the past few days. I mean any well-written television program that inspires the kind of response that viewers have had to shows recently--Buffy and the rest of Joss Whedon's creations, or maybe Lost (which I haven't seen) and some others.

    As I read the media frenzy (which was excellent procrastination fodder, by the way), I came across the following items:

  • The HBO site actually crashed after The Sopranos aired because people were trying to get to it, presumably to enter their opinions (which are about 60/40 opposed to the ending, from what I've read).
  • The New York Times and other major papers covered the ending. Even NPR, which usually acts as if it has never heard of television and is above all that crass, plebian interest in the visual, weighed in.

    What I'm seeing, though, as a person who teaches about interpreting texts is . . . a huge interest in interpreting texts.

    Everyone has an idea about the ending (see some theories at the New York Times, and everyone passionately wants to share those interpretations. Isn't that what we dream about as classroom teachers?

    On interactive boards, people talked about symbolism and the meaning of the number three. They evoked Dante's Inferno to explain what David Chase was up to this season. They explored imagery, the length of shots, and point of view. They brought up allusions to literature, to the Bible, to music, to Italian legends about cats, and to previous episodes in the series. Every glance and gesture had meaning, and determining that meaning became the order of the day.

    And, when some people got too far off base, others would correct them: "Where's the evidence for that?" Do you hear that? That's the sound of "Where's your support for that in the text?" When someone posted a particularly analytical or insightful comment, others praised it. Those with a greater range of allusions chimed in with the information and were thanked.

    Finally, the final episode made these interpreters of texts deal with uncertainty. Multiple interpretations, undecidability, fragmentary glimpses of an ultimately elusive meaning, the wish to posit an author/authority function that frustratingly won't respond--hmm, have any classroom instructors dealt with that in modernist/postmodernist works before?

    I don't say that we have to teach The Sopranos, though there are a lot of critical essays on this and on Buffy already. What we ought to take away from this, though, is that there is a hunger for interpreting texts, if it's the right text and the motivation is there. Supplying those is our job.
  • Monday, June 11, 2007

    Online class: student voices

    This is the last week of the online class. What I've mostly been doing is grading the things the students have sent me and keeping the discussion going. (I have not made peace with WebCT/Blackboard but have wrestled it to a standstill.) I have only met one of them in person, but I have a sense of their personalities (or think I do) from our frequent online contacts.

    It's a lot like a face-to-face class in some ways. Some are cheerful and personable in their interactions ("Hi Professor Lastname" "Have a nice weekend") and some are less so, sending the attached materials but leaving the message blank. A couple are petulant. In the first week, one of them wrote to say, "Hey Undine. You set this up in a confusing way." In my coldest tones, I explained that I was sorry he felt that way (see non-apology apology, the art of) but that everyone else had managed to figure out how the class was organized, especially since the organization was explained in three e-mail messages and the syllabus, which I suggested he review. He had settled down by the next week.

    I guess the amazing part to me is that from a collection of names on a roster a few weeks ago, they've become real students to me. I know they were real students before, of course, but I mean students with real voices. You know the way that you can sometimes see a student after a few years and maybe remember a paper that he wrote or a comment that she made yet not remember the student's name? That kind of student voice.

    Tuesday, June 05, 2007

    On Grad School: Our Motto is "Catch up!"

    Dr. Crazy's recent and much-admired post on grad school has Horace at To Delight and To Instruct collecting such posts. Since she and others have said more gracefully the important parts, what follows is a short response, in random bullet form.

  • I did not experience grad school as a process that broke down my entire sense of self and rebuilt it, a la the boot camp model. I didn't experience my professors as cruel, either; that may be because they weren't, or it may be because I was too oblivious to notice.
  • One of the biggest differences between grad and undergrad was that in grad classes, you were supposed to "get it" without being told. If a name was mentioned casually, you didn't raise your hand and ask but went scurrying off to the library to figure out who it was before anyone could figure out that you didn't know who it was. If a professor said, "Nice work. This should be publishable," he never gave any suggestions about how to make it publishable, or where it could be sent, or what conferences it might be suitable for, or anything else. If I had to identify an unofficial model for grad school, it would be "Catch up!"
  • Another motto would be "nobody cares what your problems are." This may sound heartless, but in retrospect, it prepared us for real jobs. In reality, as grim as it sounds, mostly people don't care if you're having a bad day, or you're depressed, or you just can't get motivated to do what you promised. They just want it done, and whining about it (which was semi-acceptable at lower levels) just wasn't acceptable. You could gripe to your fellow grad students about X or Y, but you were expected to suck it up, a useful talent--and policy--for later life.
  • Another useful thing to note is that you don't have to--and indeed shouldn't--express every opinion you have. I recall sitting in a class in Old English one time and being struck by an image in the poem we'd read for that day that I thought was quite beautiful. "Purple passage!" scoffed the professor, and the rest of the class laughed. My opinion didn't change (still hasn't--take THAT, Professor X!), but I recognized the wisdom of keeping my mouth shut. (And I've published more than he has, too, so there!)
  • Some theories and approaches are indeed transformative and will blow your mind. What they don't tell you is that some, well, aren't and won't. You can work your way through mind-bogglingly dense prose sometimes and discover genius, but sometimes that prose is just a cover-up for mind-boggling banality. The painful part is that both take equal time to read and decipher, and the critical fad significant critical paradigm of today may well be yesterday's news in a year or two. I've been out of grad school long enough to have seen this in action, so trust me on this.
  • Snotty, pretentious, PITA fellow grad students do exist. Avoid them, if possible, since they carry a negative energy that's hard to break free from.

    So, what's the short version? Grad school isn't a Vincent Price chamber of horrors. Keep your own counsel, take pleasure in and sustenance from the good friends you'll make, do your work, and believe that you can do it.

    technorati tag:

  • Good Timewaster

    If you have time to waste, or if you're grading, check out Making Light's comments section, in which the commenters render great works of literature in lolcat and leetspeak. A sample (Pride and Prejudice) at #96:

    Rich man can has girl.

    Bngli: i can has dance?
    J4N3: k
    l12: i can has dance too?
    DarC: no u ugly go way
    l12: LOLz
    Bngli: BRB

    MrC0lnz: l12 i can has heart?
    l12: no gway
    Chrltt: u can has me
    MrC0lnz: K BRB

    lyd14: o hai

    DarC: i can has heart?
    l12: no gway u rude

    DarC: hai
    l12: OMG thought u were AFK!!1!

    Monday, June 04, 2007

    Office Space

    Thomas Hart Benton at the Chronicle writes about why he's moved from his nice home office (with an Aeron chair! I've never even seen a real Aeron chair!) to the barn:

    Another more common distraction at home and at work is the availability of the Internet. I am a regular reader of at least 30 blogs and more than a dozen newspapers. And I am constantly browsing for new book recommendations on and searching for books on sale at several other sites like Daedalus, Labyrinth, and Edward R. Hamilton. That feels like the moral equivalent of work, even though it is really procrastination.

    All of those activities, combined with my addiction to e-mail, means that I receive a continuous flow of custom-tailored information that is almost always more interesting to me than what I am writing.
    . . . .

    So for all its lack of amenities, my third office in the barn offers fewer temptations to avoid writing. I have no Internet connection, and there's no one here to speak to besides myself. So far, my productivity has improved significantly, even though my desk is a door on two sawhorses, and I am sitting on a box.

    In other words, the writing space he's now chosen makes it easier to write, an idea that fuels some of my most persistent fantasies about writing (that it's easier in a coffee shop, for example). I write in my study at home or sometimes in a library; it's hard to write in my office on campus for the reasons Benton mentions.


    I have been known to harbor what is known in my family as a "writing house" fantasy. This fantasy encompasses everything from a tiny house placed in the backyard to something along the lines of Mark Twain's study in Elmira. Sometimes I dream of building one of these on the side of a mountain that's about 10 minutes from here (on land I couldn't afford anyway, of course). In my dreams it might look like Michael Pollan's writing house, or it might be something more fanciful.

    Curse you, Thomas Hart Benton! Now I am in full writing house fantasy mode, when all I really need to do to be productive is turn off my Internet connection.

    Sunday, June 03, 2007

    Procrastination and Productivity, Redefined

    From the New York Times:

    “The longer you work, the less efficient you are,” said Bob Kustka, the founder of Fusion Factor, a productivity and time-management consulting firm in Norwell, Mass. He says workers are like athletes in that they are most efficient in concentrated bursts. Elite athletes “play a set of tennis, a down of football or an inning of baseball and have a pause in between,” he says. Working energy, like physical energy, “is best used in spurts where we work hard on a few focused activities and then take a brief respite,” he says.

    And those respites look an awful lot like wasting time.

    It has taken me years to make tentative peace with my stops and starts during work. Every morning I vow to become a morning person, starting full speed out of the gate. And every morning I daydream, shuffle papers, read e-mail messages and visit blogs, and somehow it is time for lunch. Then, at about 2 p.m., a sense of urgency kicks in, and I write steadily, until about 5 or 6, when I revert to the little-of-this, some-of-that style of the morning.

    I apparently have an avatar working for the New York Times, or maybe just someone who watches how I work.

    Saturday, June 02, 2007

    Friday, June 01, 2007

    Day for Night

    In Diary of a Mad Housewife, the heroine reads Proust when she is sick. I had a colleague once who said that she didn't mind being sick because then she caught up on all her theory reading--Foucault, Derrida, and all that.

    Theory reading and Proust.. Are they kidding?

    The weightiest material I've been able to manage this week is the New York Times online and some blogs. Even that reading fails, though, when you're up and feverish at night. At those moments, television is your best friend.

    Since I am usually asleep within seconds, I did not know what insomniacs must have known for years about television in the middle of the night: that dreams of perfection and wealth can be yours if only you follow the instructions of those who have shows at 2:30 a.m. Here is some of what I learned:
  • People have become rich! rich! rich! (which apparently involves lying around on boats with a cool drink) in real estate with no money down. You can't lose!
  • A kindly man will show you how to turn on your computer and open up Word if only you get his series of DVDs.
  • You can buy your own tiny plastic helicopter that really flies and send it careering around your house via remote control, to the probable consternation of your cats and definite danger to the eyes of anyone in its path.
  • Extremely buff people get that way by using a series of increasingly bizarre contraptions and videotapes at home. This is especially true for a blonde woman who due to cosmetic surgery can no longer move any muscles in her face.

    I don't take Nyquil unless I'm desperate because it inspires Hunter S. Thompson-esque dreams and leaves me exhausted the next day, but I'm beginning to wonder if lying there and watching tv when you have a fever doesn't have much the same effect.