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.