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.]