Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last bullets of 2008

  • I dreamed last night that I was at the inauguration. In fact, I was Obama. Do I want to take over the world, or what?
  • Reading all the MLA reports makes me feel both relieved that I didn't go and sad to have missed some of the good times.
  • Eager colleagues are at it again, going through their to-do lists and firing emails at me. The next one gets a throwdown challenge: "Do you want to meet tomorrow at 8 a.m.? No? Then shut up and leave me alone." No, what I'm really doing is much more insidious: I am rudely not wishing anyone a Happy New Year who contacts me with it-surely-can-wait work details. Yes, no one will probably notice.
  • I have been loving having this time to read and work. I've written a fair amount during the break, and now I'm getting ready for classes in a very random and relaxed way. It's actually a lot of fun.
  • Happy New Year to you all!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Brave new technologies: online manuscript submissions

The publisher of one of the pieces I had promised to do this fall (now finished and submitted--hooray!) required the work to be sent to the editor AND uploaded to its manuscript submission site. MLA does its program copy for the convention this way, of course, and ASA has an elaborate online system for panel and paper proposals, as do some other conferences. Most of the manuscript reviewing and program committee work I've done for conferences, however, has been done the old-fashioned way--via email and sometimes paper.

Here's what I want to know: I know that online submission of manuscripts to a database is common in the sciences, but is it widespread in the humanities?

If you've had experience with this (as either a submitter or as a reviewer), what was that like? Is it a better system? Worse? Easier? More frustrating?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The grass is greener, academic edition

After several years in a row of going to MLA, I'm glad that I didn't go this year. Grateful. Relaxed. Happy. Christmas was wonderful with the family.

And yet . . . lots of the cool kids are at MLA, so there's a little twinge that says "we're having a party, and you're not there."

Proof positive that academia is an addiction, don't you think?

Edited to add: I didn't realize that What Now and Sisyphus were there, too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We pause for this message from the holidays

Despite two more messages tonight from eager colleagues (stop, already!), I'm going on an academic fast for the next week--nothing but family, too many cookies, and a little writing, if I'm lucky.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Secret message to eager colleagues

To all those who are contacting me this week, when there is not one single administrative thing I am responsible for doing or can do until spring, about

--policy discussions that you want to have right now but that can wait until next semester
--procedures that you think ought to be discussed at length but can also wait until next semester
--handwringing about the terrible state of the economy in regard to certain cuts in the university budget
--hypothetical "what if?" scenarios for program development that will never come to pass (see previous point)
--whether I plan to be in the office next Wednesday to discuss any of the above

my answer is this:

--I am not going to deal with any of this right now.
--Chill out.
--Back away from the computer.
--Get a life.

If you don't, I will be forced to use the dreaded Annoying Autoresponse as a defense shield.

[Edited to add: Anything discussed or decided this week would have to be redone at the beginning of next semester anyway, because so many people are already gone. Having these discussions twice seems like a waste of time and effort, to put it mildly.]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's not you--it's the market

This is bad news and good news.

From Inside Higher Ed:
Today the Modern Language Association is releasing information on just how bad the situation is: The number of job postings in the MLA’s Job Information List will be down 21 percent in 2008-9, the steepest annual decline in its 34-year history. For English language and literature, the drop will be 22.2 percent and for foreign languages, 19.6 percent. . . .
For English jobs, the 1,420 positions the MLA lists this year is a drop from 1,821 last year. While the English totals hovered between 1,000 and 1,200 for several years during the mid-1990s, they have not been as low as this year’s figure since 1997-8. For foreign languages, this year’s MLA total is 1,350, the smallest number of jobs since 2003-4.

Over at the Chronicle, on one of the job boards, there is--or was--a little bragfest going on in the guise of problem-solving: "I have twelve MLA interviews and just don't know how to schedule them."
I submit to you, the jury, these ideas:
-- such claims are either highly exaggerated or just plain false
-- the job market is as bad as it has been in a long, long time
-- especially for Americanists
-- and that if you don't have an interview, it's not necessarily about you, your publications, your teaching, or anything else that you can control.

So the bad news is this: It's about the market, which is awful.
The good news, such as it is (and it isn't much), is this: It's not about you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on teaching

There's an essay by Malcolm Gladwell called "Most Likely to Succeed" over at The New Yorker this week. After having read (and listened to) some of his stuff, I always am a little suspicious, because everything seems to end up with the equivalent of "And that's why 2 + 2 really does equal 5!" Since I'm used to literary criticism, though, that doesn't bother me too much, and what he says about teaching does seem to make good sense.

Gladwell makes two major points: (1) for some occupations, you can't tell how good someone is going to be until he or she is actually practicing that occupation; and (2) good teachers have a quality that he calls (after Jacob Kounin) "withitness" and that I've always thought of as watchfulness. What this means is that a good teacher is always aware, as far as possible, of what's going on in the class--not just the activities, but the level of engagement.

It's easy to tell if students are engaged in a class if they're talking, but what if they aren't? Someone once commented after watching me teach, "you watch faces." I don't know if that's good or bad, but watching faces enables me to see if people are paying attention before they completely check out. Of course, no one can do this all the time; if that were true, Planner Girl wouldn't have gotten as far as she did with checking out of the discussion because I'd have noticed it earlier.

I've observed a lot of people's classes over the years, and "withitness," the ability to relate to individual students while keeping the group together as a whole, really stands out as something that keeps students engaged and motivated. Gladwell gives this example:
Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

That's why, I think, teaching takes so much energy and we all talk about how tired we are at the beginning of the semester. If teaching doesn't take a lot out of you, in the immortal words of LOLcats, "Ur doin it wrong."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Printed blogs?

I guess you could call this another nail in the coffin of print culture, but in this case, the magazines are the ones shooting themselves in the foot with the nail gun. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?)

As a magazine junkie of long standing, I've stayed faithful to--and subscribed to-- some of the old standards for years: Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Atlantic. I've bought subscriptions for family members year after year. I stuck with The Atlantic after it stopped publishing fiction. I even stuck with The New Yorker when the only articles it published were the ones about Hollywood deals (aka the Tina Brown years).

But lately, I've noticed something about the writing in Newsweek: it seemed familiar, somehow. That tone of knowing smartassery. The factual errors in the snarky opinion pieces that pass as cultural criticism. Beginning every story with a long personal anecdote, preferably one that emphasizes the writer's snark credentials or (if it's a serious story) something that Makes the Reader Empathize with the situation being described. (I've taken to skipping the first five paragraphs routinely, just to get to the news.) Trying to be provocative and fun, even if it means asking supremely stupid questions in the interview section. Then it hit me: Newsweek is trying to be a blog. News blogs started out by imitating and modifying print culture, and now print culture is imitating online culture.

You can't blame Newsweek for trying. Readership is down, and the magazine is " trying to be more provocative." It's the same impulse that The Atlantic is now following: it ran a long article about Britney Spears earlier this year and a medium-length article about a boxer in the most recent issue, and its redesign makes it look like Esquire without the ads.

But wait--don't we already have blogs? For free? The Wall Street Journal article says that Newsweek wants to have fewer readers and charge a higher price. The media critics (of which I am obviously not one) can better predict how this business model will work out, but as a longtime subscriber and a blog reader, I'm not convinced.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

If you're thinking about going to graduate school

Tenured Radical has had some (as usual) fine posts recently about going on to graduate school. The latest of them explains that, yes, the market is bad, but that grad school isn't the "Ponzi scheme" that one of her commentators called it.

If you get the MLA Newsletter, you've seen this graph already. It represents about 30 years (1975-2007) of the job market in MLA fields, which by traditional accounts tanked after the 1960s and never recovered. I am not saying that the job market is good; it isn't. What I am saying is that if the oral history is correct, there would be a diagonal going from the midpoint of about 1500 jobs advertised in 1975 down to 0-100 in 2007. What the graph shows is that there are peaks and valleys, the latest valley being circa 1993-1997. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.

One of the questions that you need to answer for yourself before you apply, and on the application as you apply, is this: why do I want to go to graduate school? The following are just some additional things to think about in answering this question.
  • Because I'm good at theory and analysis, and I enjoy my classes in (English or history or whatever). Having this kind of aptitude is a wonderful thing. Can you envision yourself putting this toward any other discipline? This is a little like having a talent for acting: more people have it than there are jobs for professional actors.
  • Because I want to be a professor. Why do you want to be a professor? Is it because you want to teach? If so, think seriously about secondary education. The pay is the same, or better, and jobs can be easier to find. Is it because you want to work with college-age students? Have you thought about administration?
  • Because I want to do research. If it's research that attracts you, there may be other jobs (public history, as TR notes, or working at foundations) that may be a better fit. An ADE report from a few years back showed that something like 80% of people in Ph.D. programs had "professor" as their career goal. Only 43-50% ended up as professors in tenure-track positions 10 years down the line, yet the survey showed that those who didn't become professors were still satisfied with their career paths.
And now some other questions:
  • Once you have the Ph.D., are you ready to move anywhere for a job? Like Willie Sutton robbing banks because "that's where the money is," job seekers have to move where the jobs are. This sounds obvious, but people sometimes won't or can't move for family reasons. Those aren't bad reasons, of course, but it's unrealistic to think that you'll get a job in a particular area.
  • Do you have an alternate plan in case you don't get a tenure-track job? In other words, will you regret spending the time in graduate school if a job doesn't materialize?
  • Can you envision working more hours than some of the people you know? The demands of research and teaching take a lot of time; even if you're mowing the lawn, to use the news media's favorite example of academic slackertude, you're thinking about your work. To quote from an old post: if you can't envision working on your research as a pleasure as well as a duty, you should rethink what you're doing and maybe get into another field.
  • Can you imagine spending your vacation money going to conferences and archives instead? Travel budgets will never fund the amount of travel to conferences that you have to do. Are you ready to make the conference/vacation travel tradeoff?
There are more items, but that's enough for now.

Edited to add: I'm not trying to say "go to graduate school" or "don't go to graduate school." Graduate schools need bright, interesting, and committed students with good ideas, and so does the profession. All I'm trying to say is this: if you want to go, know why you are going and what you want to do when you get there.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Class as oasis

A recent article in the news reported on a study that said people who didn't watch much television were happier than those that do. Of course, the cause-and-effect chain wasn't clear: are people who watch more TV depressed because they watch, or do they watch because they're out of work and depressed? Who hasn't felt enraged and helpless at watching the AIG follies and the rest of the news?

The point is that when you're besieged by news that you're helpless to do anything about, including the terrible job market that Sisyphus has been posting about so eloquently, it's hard to stay optimistic. You do what you can to make things better and use what influence you have to create support, financial and otherwise, for job seekers. But when you talk to anyone, the talk always turns to cutbacks, job loss, bad times, and the follies of those in power, so even if you don't watch the news, you can't escape it. That's why I usually focus on the light or amusing or annoying side of life here on the blog. I want it to be an oasis.

I have noticed lately that the only place where I feel really happy is the classroom. I like to teach, anyway, and I enjoy my students, and of course it's more fun going to a class that you enjoy, but this is something more. In the classroom, the news is left behind. In the classroom, we're creating something--a discussion, an analysis, a piece of knowledge--that's positive in contrast to what happens outside the class. And in the classroom, I have control over helping something positive happen. No wonder the classroom feels a little like an oasis right now.

Friday, December 05, 2008

This is the song that never ends

A month ago, at a large meeting:

Person A: "You know, the students really want to take Specialty Course Y; there's a lot of pent-up demand for it. Why can't we offer it?"

Person B: "It's not required for the major, and everyone is teaching essential courses. Besides, you're the only person who can teach Specialty Course Y, and you wanted to teach Specialty Course X instead."

A few weeks ago, in the hallway:

Person A: "I really don't see why we can't offer Specialty Course Y. The students really want to take it."

Person B: "We are all tied up with teaching the courses we need to teach for the tracks in the major. Specialty Course Y doesn't fit into one of those, although the curriculum committee could take a look at instituting that field as a track. Besides, you're the only person who can teach Specialty Course Y, and you didn't offer it this year."

Recently, in a large meeting:

Person A: "We really need to teach Specialty Course Y. The students really want to take it, and I don't know why we can't offer it. Of course we don't have time to discuss it now."

Person B, jumping up as if his/her pants are on fire: "Yes, we can talk about it right now. Specialty Course Y is not a required course for the major. It is not part of any track in the major; if we want to do that, we have to send it to the curriculum committee. Since you're the one who can teach that course, if you want it taught, you could offer it [instead of Specialty Course X]."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

NY Times on tuition

From the New York Times: "College May Become Unaffordable for Most in the U.S.":
Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent.

This comment from the comments section struck a chord with a lot of readers, apparently:
Every institution I have attended or taught at has steadily increased the number of highly-paid vice-presidents, managers, directors, coaches, and supervisors, usually while student enrollment held steady or increased only slightly, and sometimes while cutting back on teaching faculty or replacing retiring tenured professors with two or three part-time adjuncts each.

Meanwhile, every administrator needs a team of "assistants." Mostly they push papers, write reports that no one will ever read, and call meetings. As one former colleague put it, "We think of meetings as useless interruptions of our real work, but for them, meetings ARE their real work."


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Secret messages to students and colleagues

  • To Casual Student: Did you know that you could have an A in this class if you exerted some effort? You're smart, you do the reading, and you're a good writer, but it's as though you don't want to put forth any effort beyond what's absolutely required. Why didn't you revise when you were given the chance? Why didn't you turn in Minor Homework Assignment? This doesn't make me angry, because I like you and think you're an asset to the class, but it does make me a little sad. Not everyone has the brains and aptitude that you do. I wish you would make more use of them.
  • To Participating Student: Your in-class discussion skills are great, as are your ideas. Please, please come by the office before you turn in your paper or take it to the Writing Center so that the writing doesn't sabotage what should be a good piece of work.
  • To Vanishing Student: You were a good writer, and you could analyze materials well, but somehow you never connected with the class, did you? You stopped coming to class, and then, when I contacted you about absences, you dropped the class. That's too bad, but it's better than staying if you're not engaged with what we're doing, I guess.
  • To Colleague: I'd like to send you a valentine for the support you've given--really.
  • To Another Person in the Department: Is it a coincidence that whenever I am called upon to tell you something that you don't want to hear from a position of authority that I hold, you never respond but immediately contact the (male) person in authority over me? Coincidence? Sure it is.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Techno-envy: Pulse pen

I recently went through a phase of techno-envy over something called the Pulse pen. It's a recording pen that you use to take notes in special notebooks, and, when you tap a spot in your notes, the pen plays the recording back to you. You can also upload the notes and accompanying audio files to your computer for later playback.

The pen also has a few other features: it can translate words into other languages; you can upload your notes and share your "pencasts," if you want to; and, best of all, if you draw a tiny 8-note keyboard, you can play a tiny piano. How cool is that?

I started thinking about the uses. It would be great for going to conference sessions, because then you'd be able to go back more easily to what was said. Taking notes promotes better retention than typing them, and anyway, conference etiquette still dictates that no one pull out a laptop and clack away while the speaker is speaking. Also, the conference notes could then be stored easily on the laptop, and, best of all, there was a very good deal on it at a local store.

Then reality set in. This would be a great thing for conferences and for students in big lecture halls, if, say, you're in law school (New Kid? What do you say?) or in a STEM discipline, because you can draw diagrams and annotate in ways that you can't do when taking notes on a computer. But how often do I want, or does anyone want, to take such comprehensive notes of, say, a large campus meeting? And if you used this in a small meeting and let everyone know that it was recording their words, as you should, everyone would clam up, I'm guessing.

In addition, I have enough problems writing in a Moleskine, since I'm reluctant to write something down unless it is Important, as I mentioned over at Chaser's a few weeks ago. How much more important would something have to be to get the Special Pulse Notebook treatment?
Also, my note-taking skills, such as they are, have gotten me this far; do I really need this kind of detail in the notes I take nowadays?

In the end, I reminded myself about the difference between want and need, and I didn't buy it. I'm curious, though, to see if anyone else has or what their experiences have been.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two takes on e-textbooks (from the Chronicle)

In the Chronicle (behind the subscription wall--sorry) this week are two articles on e-textbooks, and I have a problem with both of them.

The first one explains that teachers in an education course have had their students create a wiki instead of buying a textbook ("Is Higher Education Ready to Switch to Digital Course Materials?"), which may be a great model in education classes. But this made me come to a full stop:
Only 20 years ago, a university's reputation was in large part measured by the quality and extent of its library. Now many students have access at home to more information than even the greatest academic library contains. Not only is more information available, but our tools of access are becoming exponentially better — and those improvements are taking place constantly. Academe has yet to acknowledge how such trends are changing the educational process.

Now, I do believe strongly in the value of student-created materials like wikis, but when it came to this paragraph, the authors lost me. Say what? We don't need libraries now because we have access to "more information than even the greatest academic library contains"? Really? Really?. Again, maybe this is true for what they teach in education classes; I don't know about that and can't say. But to apply this to any kind of MLA field is, to put it politely, a whopper.

The second article is Mark Nelson's "Is Higher Education Ready to Switch to Digital Course Materials? The Cost of Textbooks Is Driving Electronic Solutions."
Each year one of the biggest debates in higher education seems to be: Is this the year that electronic textbooks take off? Many of the barriers are falling. E-reader devices are getting better. The inventory of digital content is expanding. Business models are emerging to support the needs of students, faculty members, and publishers. People are getting more comfortable with new modes of information delivery and the pervasiveness of technology in our lives. Discussions of the future of digital course materials are now more often about "when" than "if." . . . . Among the early adopters of e-textbooks are for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix, where most textbooks are delivered digitally, and all but a small fraction of students use e-books rather than print versions.

Leaving aside the "as the University of Phoenix goes, so goes the nation" idea (it's an online university; it makes sense that its books are delivered in that way, too), Nelson isn't wrong about the basic idea. I've done a little searching for e-textbooks, however, and they have a few drawbacks:
1. They're almost as expensive as the regular versions.
2. You rent them: that is, they expire after a period of time.
3. You can't mark them up easily.

Here's my counterproposal for "business model to fit the needs of students": free.
1. If you teach texts are out of copyright, you create a reading list based on Google books or Gutenberg (if there's a good text there).
2. Everybody brings a netbook or laptop to class and works from that. Better still: maybe a tablet notebook or laptop so that they can mark up .pdf files. If you require this, however, you end up with the problem of money and access to equipment, since not all students will have these. Heck, I don't have a tablet notebook, either.

The drawbacks, however, are the same as those for the e-textbooks.
1. Even if the reading is short and you've formatted it to be as tree-friendly as possible, students will not print it out.
2. Students can't mark up the text.
3. All the internet deficit disorders that we've been talking about for years will distract attention from the class discussion.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Yes, I know all about its dubious and genocidal origins, but even if it isn't called Thanksgiving, isn't it a good thing to have a day in the year that's devoted just to family and friends--not to give gifts, nor to have a religious celebration, but just to being grateful for the people you have in your life?

The turkey goes in early, and since it takes a goodly number of hours to cook, that means a lot of time to go for a long walk in the snowy drizzle outside with whoever's up for the weather.

Then, about two hours before the turkey comes out, it's like an episode of Iron Chef but with fewer flaming saute pans. I make the potatoes, stuffing (not in the turkey so that the vegetarians can eat it), applesauce, stuffed mushrooms, green beans, corn, gravy, and squash, the latter requiring me to go all Wes Craven on a butternut squash and hack away at it with a heavy Chinese cleaver.

As we eat dinner and talk, I'm grateful that just for a little while, we can close the curtains and shut out all the things that CNN and the New York Times harangue us about as often and as long as we read them. Yes, those events are important. But there's nothing to recharge a sense of hope and energy like gathering with the people you most care about, and for that, and for the time and permission that Thanksgiving gives you to do that, I'm grateful.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Open the pod bay doors, Hal. I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave

From the Chronicle: Machines Become Teachers

Computers will become better at teaching than most human professors are once artificial intelligence exceeds the abilities of people, argues Ben Goertzel, director of research at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Palo Alto, Cal., a private organization promoting Mr. Kurzweil's ideas.

These new computer teachers will have more patience than any human lecturer, and they will be able to offer every student individual attention — which sure beats a 500-person lecture course.

Sure, one-on-one human teaching will always exceed a computer-student experience, Mr. Goertzel acknowledges, but what college undergraduate gets a personal tutor these days?

(In answer to the last question: maybe students who go to the Writing Center or Math Center on campus?)

The article has some ideas that don't seem applicable to an MLA discipline (virtual research assistants?) but that may be useful in the sciences. You'll be shocked to learn, too, that the Internet has made research easier and that Google is really, really awesome.

On the other hand, the "computers will replace teachers" argument given here, like a lot of the many, many articles written about this since the early 1980s, relies on the either/or fallacy: either an impersonal 500-person lecture hall or a personal, albeit virtual, tutor. There's no mention of a discussion-based class, no mention of the human interaction that takes a class to unexpected places and makes it memorable.

I think the real question here is what is meant by "teaching." A long time ago, the idea was "computers will replace teachers because we can sit students in front of terminals and make them practice verb tense endings until their eyes bleed." Drill and kill, it was called. That was individual attention, but not in a good way. Does "teaching" mean having the infinite patience to impart a piece of information until the student gets it? That seems to be the model being proposed in the article.

Computers have already transformed the way we teach (no duh), but more for their communications functions than anything else. I think the real transformation will probably be more like a "questing together" model, something like World of Warcraft or some other game seems to be. I don't play it but have read about it, and it seems to me to be closer to what happens in a class than the "patient tutor drilling students" model.

So who's with me for a quest to find Hester's missing A? We'll have to get by Chillingworth first, but if we group together, we can cast some spells, knock him out with his own potions, and make it in time to save Dimmesdale.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A dialogue of self and soul

with apologies to Yeats

Self (editor): "Those paragraphs have to be trimmed. They're upsetting the whole balance of the piece."

Soul (writer, whining): "But those took me hours over the course of 4 days! I etched them on glass with a diamond!"

Self: "Sorry, but they have to go."

Soul: "Do you know what this does to my word count during InaDWriMo, or do you just not care ?"

Self: "Nope--don't care. Write a new paragraph. Get your mind off these."

Soul: "I think I need some chocolate first."

Self: "You ate it all at lunchtime."

Soul: "I really need to do the dishes, and the laundry needs to be folded."

Self: "Sit still and write."

Soul: "You know, the bathtub grout hasn't had a thorough cleaning lately."

Self: "Sit still and write."

Soul: "How about a blog post? That will warm me up for writing."

Self, who has been looking away: "Hey! Get back here!"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What we talk about when we talk about conferences (to undergrads)

Female Science Professor has a great take on what our students think when we're not in the classroom: "Perhaps now there is one less student who thinks that when professors are not teaching, if only for a day or week or two, they must be on vacation or, at the very least, in a state of suspended animation in their professor pod, waiting to be re-activated just in time to put on their professor suit and head to class via the secret professor tunnels."

If I thought of my professors at all as an undergraduate (and I usually didn't), this wouldn't have been too far afield, and I'm assuming things haven't changed that much except that I hope students today are less clueless than I was. I did get a glimpse of this attitude one time when student stopped dead in his tracks as he saw me going into a local fish market: "You shop HERE?" he gasped.

Students have their own lives and their own personal dramas, and I've never thought that they would be terribly interested in ours, nor should they be. Students and professors are in the classroom on shared ground--our interest in literature or writing--and there's never enough time to discuss those, let alone personal lives. (All right, if you want to be cynical about it, we're there for another shared purpose: their need for 3 credits and my need to provide those credits. I prefer the former explanation.)

But if you're absent from a classroom, they do see it as a vacation, or so I've gathered from comments over the years, just as everyone outside academe assumes we spend the summer lying in the hammock with a cold glass of lemonade. So now I do explain what conferences are and why we need to go to them. There's the exchange of knowledge, of course, and learning about new scholarship and all that. Sometimes I tell them what I'm working on, but briefly, since their attention span will run out waaayyy before my enthusiasm about talking about my project will. I figure that the classroom ought to be about the subject matter, the students, and--a distant third--me, in that order, and any time spent talking about my work is time that isn't being spent on the first two parts of that equation.

What arrests their attention when I talk about conferences, however, is the practical side of things. We sit in small, stuffy rooms from 8 until 5 every day, listening to people read papers to us, even when the weather is nice outside. In short, during the span of a conference, we're doing some of what they do every day, except that we take turns in teaching others. It doesn't sound like a vacation, although I tell them that we do enjoy this, but by that time, I'll bet they think the professor pod option sounds mighty fine by comparison.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I must be a shapeshifter

In the perfect storm of uselessness meeting the other day, one of my colleagues called me by the wrong name. Twice.

I had asked our administrative assistant to send me a form, and she did send it to the right address--but addressed me by the wrong name.

I kind of like this new Zelig-like ability to disappear into the woodwork. This means I can skip the next meeting and pretend that I was there all along.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A perfect storm of uselessness

It's a crunch time of the semester. Deadlines are due, and some are overdue. Writing is going slowly, and it can't go anywhere at all on a teaching day. What better time to hold a meeting, then?

Let's say that the meeting is about our favorite fake discipline, underwater basketweaving, and you are responsible for the department of scuba masks. At the meeting--the long, long meeting--all of the information is directed toward underwater basketweaving. You are called on (by the wrong name) and asked one question about scuba masks. The rest of the time, you're inundated with information about underwater basketweaving, none of which you need to know except insofar as you're interested in the subject; it has little bearing on what you need to do, and your part has little bearing on it. Best of all, another meeting about underwater basketweaving is scheduled. It was . . . well, insert the title of the post here.

On the other hand, even though I'm feeling stressed out by deadlines, I love going to class and teaching and talking to my students. Some mornings, after waking up far too early worrying about the writing and what's going to happen with budget cuts, I get into class and it all goes away. So a secret message to my students: even though you're tired and ready for a break--thanks.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Too tired for bullets (no academic content)

Some deadly sins.

Pride: A student came by the other day and stood in the doorway. "What are you teaching next semester?" she asked. "I was just talking with Stu Dent, and we agreed that your class last year was the best class we've ever taken at Northern Clime University." This totally made my day.

Envy: Every time someone like Malcolm Gladwell or some other prolific author publishes another book, I think about the etching-words-with-a-diamond on glass project that is still going slowly and wonder how he does it.

Gluttony: Guittard Milk Chocolate Chips are good straight out of the bag. There's no need to waste them by putting them in cookies.

Sloth: See the etching-with-a-diamond project. This has to be laziness.

Anger: I think I've got that one covered.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Random bullets of gray November

  • Update on the rude people thing: kill them with kindness and professionalism. They will go away and stop bothering you. Excellent!
  • Apparently the "kill them with kindness" school also works with campus-wide committees. I expressed my willingness to meet on days when I'm not usually on campus and have never heard from the scheduler again, not even after I sent a follow-up email.
  • We need a name for a new kind of competition: the ecovirtue-fest. Haven't you heard people doing this lately? Example:
    1. "I don't use harsh dishwasher detergent with phosphates.
    2. "I don't even use the dishwasher."
    3. "I scrub all my dishes by hand with organic plant matter and water I've dragged from the creek, and then I put it on the garden."
    Apply to all other controversies (CF lightbulbs, disposable diapers, television watching and having cable), and you've got yourself a deathmatch.
  • If I wrote everything at the snail's pace at which I'm writing during this month of InDaWriMoInaDWriMo, my next book manuscript would be ready in about 2023. It's about as fast as etching the words on glass with a diamond.
  • When you get a journal acceptance and the readers' reports are complimentary, do you read the reports over three or four times just to savor them? I do the same thing when I get criticism, just to be sure that I understand what's being asked, so why not do so when the report is good?
  • If a friend or someone from the media contacts you with a question that might require a little research, why does that question become immediately and completely more fascinating than anything you're currently writing?
  • I like seeing the full moon, but I would like it not to be the major light in the sky when I leave in the morning and the major light in the sky when I drive home at night. Wasn't there a day in there, somewhere?

[Edited because I am terrible at acronyms.]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008


If you use Blogrolling, you know it's undergone a catastrophic FAIL recently. I've been shifting the blogroll to the one on Blogger, but the Blogrolling one just disappeared before I could transfer everyone over. I'll be working on it, but for now, apologies to those who disappeared.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

WWOD? Lessons from Obama

This week's Newsweek is all about the election, and as I read about our new president-elect (it's still exciting to think about this!), I realized that the behavior of Obama on the campaign trail could provide some good lessons to take away, especially about anger management.

Rudeness makes me angry, and I've been angry a lot lately, though for professional reasons that anger hasn't been directed at the people being rude. Nor has it been directed at my family, although they've heard a lot about the situations that are causing the anger (and causing me to *poof* blog posts). The problem is that anger is also a kind of drug. The adrenaline reaction is just there, and you spend far too much time thinking about what you'd say, and "what if X says thus and so," and being sure that you're being fair to the person who has annoyed you, and all that. It interrupts writing time, for sure.

But look at our future 44th president. He doesn't seem to waste time with anger.

  • "Obama's debate coach, Michale Sheehan, a veteran of many campaign psychodramas over the years, was struck by the senator's calmness. The candidate was always in control of his feelings. During one afternoon prep session, Obama begged off. 'I'm a little tired and a little cranky,' he told a roomful of aides. 'I'm going to my room for a half hour and I'll be in better shape to work with'" (104). First lesson: I've been working a little too long and too hard (but not on writing) lately, and I can recognize those signs of fatigue, so maybe, using the WWOD? method, I can chill out and take some time rather than trying to get back to everyone immediately.
  • "In debate prep, Obama's advisers repeatedly instructed him: Do not get personal. Stay calm and in control. . . . 'Command and control: we told him, 'Write it down on your pad when you go in,'" said Joel Benenson, a pollster who was on the debate-prep team" (103). Second lesson: Command and control. Write it down. And implicitly: don't get backed into a corner where you will say something that will haunt you later.
  • "Obama himself floated coolly over the whole flap[Geffen's support for Obama instead of Hillary] , telling a reporter, 'It's not clear to me why I should apologizing for someone else's remarks . . . that doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign'" (47). Lesson three: Focus. Choose your battles. Save your words for where it counts.
  • And there's another example that I can't find right now where something goes wrong and Obama says, in essence, let it go; we have bigger things to worry about. Lesson four: let it go.
  • Finally, there's a scene when Obama gets the nomination and starts joking with Michelle: "Obama . . . let loose his inner nerd. 'The lithium crystals! Beam me up, Scotty!'" (74). Lesson five: Don't let go of the inner nerd and the playfulness that goes with it.
So thanks, President-elect Obama, for the new mantra.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Administrative skills

*poof* Sorry. This one seemed just too grumpy. I guess I am disappointed that Obama can't start right now.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Both sides of writing

Some days, you get up, you turn off the internet (except for 2 1-hour periods for necessary work emails), and you sit at your desk from 7-3, with a break for lunch. You're working on "it's like pulling teeth" article.

You think a lot. Your brain is working really hard. You alternately think you're really onto something and that you're just spinning your wheels.

Your word count barely moves. You end up with maybe 250 words all day, along with a lot of revisions. (It says something, doesn't it, when your junk file for the piece is as long as the piece itself?)

Then you hear the doorbell ring, and you see the U.S. Mail truck driving past. You check the mail, and you get the copies of a journal that you're in.

You sit down and read the article again, the one that feels as though it was written in the distant past by someone else. You look at your name at the top of the page.

Okay, you think. Article in print was once an "it's like pulling teeth" article itself, and here it is. Maybe I can do this after all.

[Edited to add: Guess what? The news sites and poll sites stayed the same, even if I had the internet off. Turns out I didn't need to check them obsessively after all.

Oh, and one more thing: VOTE.]

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Writing inspiration

For those doing InaDWriMo and NaNoWriMo, a little Raymond Chandler.
Raymond Chandler to Alex Barris

March 18, 1949

From Raymond Chandler Speaking, p. 79

I’m always seeing little pieces by writers about how they don’t ever wait for inspiration; they just sit down at their little desks every morning at eight, rain or shine, hangover and broken arm and all, and bang out their little stint. However blank their minds or dull their wits, no nonsense about inspiration from them. I offer them my admiration and take care to avoid their books.

Me, I wait for inspiration, although I don’t necessarily call it by that name. I believe that all writing that has any life in it is done with the solar plexus. It is hard work in the same sense that it may leave you tired, even exhausted. In the sense of conscious effort, it is not work at all. The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Either write or nothing. It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school. If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules. A. You don’t have to write. B. You can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The paradox of print culture

From a 2006 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: ""The main trend that's beginning to be important is an interest in print culture," said Shannon McLachlan, humanities editor in the academic division of Oxford University Press."

The irony of this is pretty apparent. As the news media and the CHE itself are forever telling us in breathless tones, This! is! a! DIGITAL! AGE! complete with its own "digital natives." Foundations and agencies that won't fund research for a scholarly monograph, another form we've been told is dead, throw money lavishly at digitization projects so that people don't have to look at all that nasty print. (I would say the purpose is broader access, as it sometimes nominally is, but since most of the projects are locked up behind a subscription wall in one way or another, it seems that the "more access" tag line is just something thrown around to impress the granting agencies.) The print copies get thrown out, sometimes (fortunately) for Nicholson Baker to find, and sometimes, unfortunately, just to fatten a landfill somewhere. People don't read in the same way they used to (Nicholas Carr), if they read at all (Steve Jobs).

But McLachlan isn't wrong about print culture, at least in the classroom. Over the past few years, more and more people seem to be teaching using the original materials--newspapers, magazines, broadsides, etc.--in addition to, or even (since the page images are online) instead of the traditional anthologies. And students respond to--indeed, are excited by--these materials, whether they see them when you take them for a library visit or bring them into the classroom yourself. This leads to some exchanges like the following:

Students, after working with old editions of Harper's, The Cornhill Magazine, The Atlantic, etc. and seeing Henry James, Mark Twain, and such authors represented in them: "You told us that The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction a couple of years ago. Why did they do that?

What to tell them? That The Atlantic did a focus group, or forty, and concluded that no one read its fiction? That the fiction took up too much space, and that, like Tina Brown when she took over Vanity Fair and later The New Yorker, making their principal subject matter Hollywood business scandals, The Atlantic wanted to stop publishing what Brown called "7,000 word essays on zinc"?*

Or so it could print an article about Britney Spears and celebrity and put her on the cover, thus misleading legions of US Weekly fans into buying the magazine?

Or so it could more closely resemble Slate and Salon in its new redesign and editorial focus on lightly-researched personal opinion pieces on popular culture, written in a style that I've come to think of as Internet-speak?

In short, so it could become more like what readers have voted with their feet (or their computer mice) to tell them what they wanted to read (short, light pieces with lots of personal disclosures and a celebrity flair)?

So print culture becomes an exciting object of study at exactly the cultural moment when print and digital media are united in trumpeting its demise, or at the very least, as in the example of The Atlantic, its transformation at the hands of the culture that everyone assumes is obliterating it. This seems to me a tremendous moment for looking at these ideas in the classroom and for engaging students in a genuine way with the past through looking at the present.

[Edited to add: And what did I tell the students? What do you think?]

*Thanks to Female Science Professor for reminding me about this. Brown was talking about The New Yorker, but The Atlantic is a past master of the "zinc" article, too.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Professionalism and rudeness in email

A pop quiz. [Edited to add: Actually, this is a poll. I really would like to know what y'all do in these situations.]

1. If you receive an email from someone that is not abusive but is gratuitously rude and snarky, and it's an email that you have to answer for various reasons, what do you do?

a. Ignore the rudeness and answer professionally anyway.
b. Address the rudeness in person.
c. Say something about the rudeness in the email itself.
d. I don't care if it's from Bill Gates offering me a million dollars or the university president himself; I don't answer rude emails.

2. If you receive an email like this, what do you say to yourself?

a. "X may be having a bad day, or maybe her feelings were hurt by some unrelated incident, which is why she sent the rude email."
b. "Oh, Y always acts like that; it's just his way of expressing himself."
c. "Who cares about the rudeness? The content has to be answered."
d. "Who cares whether X was having a bad day or if Y is always a rude so-and-so? Writing rude emails is unprofessional."

3. What about abusive emails?

a. Ignore the abuse and address the issue, if there is one in the message.
b. Respond to the issue and make it clear that you won't tolerate the abuse by talking to the person face to face.
c. Respond professionally, but copy your department chair or someone else so as to leave a record of the conversation.
d. Put the person in your killfile and refuse to deal with him or her.

Let's just say inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Conference season

I'm deliberately echoing--stealing?--Lesboprof's title for her excellent post on conferences and what they can and cannot do for you. Here are just a few additional points.

  • Sessions. Every big conference (ASA, MLA, etc.) has a thick program book full of sessions you'll want to see. Every big conference also has a huge list of cultural things you'll kick yourself for not seeing, as long as you're in the area. What will happen is this: you'll plan to go to 19 out of 20 sessions, say. The session you miss--the session when you went to the art museum instead--will be the one that you'll hear about later. "Did you go to hear X?" people will say. "That session was fantastic; it totally transformed the way everyone will talk about the field." If you know in advance that whatever session you don't attend is the one that will be the best, and resign yourself to that, you'll feel better about the ones you do attend.
  • Learning things you can't learn in another way. When you go to a conference, you hear things that you ordinarily wouldn't hear. So and so is doing a big book on Y, and everybody seems to know this but you. How do they know this? They go to conferences. Now you know it, too.
  • Life doesn't stop because you're away at a conference. Students and your colleagues will still want answers from you, if they know you can check email. Actually, they'll want answers anyway, but you'll be too busy to write long answers/look up administrative minutiae/care. The place won't blow up if you ignore them for a couple of days. If you have to check email, and you don't want to use autoreply, do some triage and don't write long responses to anything.
  • You'll be tired.You'll be energized by the conference, but you'll also be tired afterward. When you get back, no one will care if you're tired--not your cats, not your colleagues, not your students. No one. If you can share the excitement but not the fatigue, so much the better; if not, it's sufficient to keep yourself from hitting people on the head with a dictionary.
  • It's expensive to go to a conference, so plan carefully. Lesboprof calculates that it costs about $1500 to go to a conference and that you might get $500 in travel money. You'll get even less than that if you have a fixed amount of travel funding per year and you're going to a lot of conferences. Is the conference you want to attend worth it?
  • Conference papers are like ball dresses. In other words, conference papers age, like ball dresses in a trunk, if you put them in a file folder and don't get back to them. It's easy to see how that happens. You'll get back from the conference. You'll be fired up about working more with your paper and turning it into an article to send out. But there are those 50 papers to grade, those recommendation letters to write, those committee meetings--and all of a sudden it's six months or a year later, and you need to do a lot more work using materials that you now don't remember as well to get the thing into publishable shape. Unless you have little birds to sew up your ball dress/paper, like the ones in Disney's Cinderella, you may end up with a trunk full of conference papers and a lot of good intentions. Make sure that your research agenda is driving your conference-going and not the other way around.
  • Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    Mendacity, great and small

    Over at The Chronicle (behind the subscription wall), Gina Barreca has discovered the world of online term papers. The students think we aren't paying attention, she says, but we are:
    I bet I could hand back in-class writings from the 65 students I’m teaching this term based on their handwriting and their stylistic quirks. I know who they are. If they suddenly started offering essays (entirely, indubitably, unreasonably) written in voices different from the ones I’d heard in class, read in earlier assignments, or listened to during office hours, I would wonder who they were channeling. I would hand back the paper in question and say straight out: “HA HA HA! Obviously you were making a big joke here. Now let’s see the actual paper. Now.”
    She's right. We'd know, because we know the students' voices.

    But what about the gray areas?

    When students emailed me their papers recently, one of them had sent me a blank document. I emailed her back, and she came to talk to me. Here's our conversation:

    Student: "I'm so sorry. I don't know what happened."
    Me: "Just send it to me as soon as you can."
    Student: "I can't. My computer is broken."
    Me: "Didn't you save it to a USB drive?"
    Student: "No."
    Me: "Did you print a copy?"
    Student: "No."
    Me: "Did you email yourself a copy?"
    Student: "No. I wrote it in the computer lab, and when I went back, it wasn't there any more. All I have are the notes. I can get it to you, like, tomorrow morning."
    All this interspersed with statements like "I know it's hard to believe," etc.

    A week later, I got the paper.

    Okay. We've all had this student. It's all classic excuse-making, isn't it?

    So, a poll: do you believe her, or not?

    Usually, no. I'd normally think that I was being played for a fool. Maybe I was. I decided not to make an issue of it this time.

    But here's the thing. Remember in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when Big Daddy goes on and on about "Mendacity!" and how everyone around him, including his family, is so filled with mendacity that he can scarcely stand to look at them?

    Maybe I'm not as outraged by the possibility of student mendacity right now because my mendacity quotient is all filled up with things like AIG. Oh, sure, they finally canceled $8 $80 million in junkets because, for some reason that they clearly don't understand at all, blowing through taxpayer money to reward themselves for screwing up just isn't flying right now. They're also puzzled about why they can't lobby against mortgage regulation using taxpayer money. Now there's world-class mendacity.

    I'm still keeping students to strong standards, of course, but this one time, I chose to give the student the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I'm just tired of believing that there's mendacity everywhere.

    Friday, October 17, 2008

    A short theory of administration

    There is more to the upper administration of a university than this (there must be), but if an anthropologist from the Planet Zog were to extrapolate data on what university administrations do based on the paperwork they generate, it would look something like this:

    1. Schedule and hold meetings. At meetings, command that reports be written.

    2. Require that vague questions be answered with specific numbers.

    3. Collect reports from subcommittees and faculty members.

    a. If report contains budget numbers, demand that the budget be cut by some percentage to fund other, wealthier parts of the university.

    b. If report contains enrollment and class numbers, demand that the numbers be increased to create more efficiencies in terms of scale.

    c. If report contains recommendations, ignore all but those that align with previously determined objectives.

    4. Issue response to report.

    5. Request another report based on new directives listed in response to original report.

    Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

    [This refers to any university, not a particular one.]

    Thursday, October 16, 2008

    My time is your time

    "Hi," began the cheery email. "Although you're on the large, campus-wide committee, we omitted your name from the initial mailing announcing a meeting today. Here are two huge, complicated documents to read and respond to; they're on the agenda. Can you join us at 3 p.m. today?"

    No, I can't. And if I could, I'm not sure I would, with such short notice. So what do you say?

    "Sorry, but I can't be at the meeting because I'm not on campus today."

    Backspace backspace backspace backspace. Why should I explain where I am?

    "Sorry, I can't be at the meeting today. I'll try to make the next one." That's better.

    But what if the next meeting is also on a day when I'm not on campus? (There are only a few such days this semester, and some weeks don't have any.) A campus day doesn't mean a 5-minute bus ride; it means a long drive, and a long day. It also means a day with no writing, because I'm too fried and too tired at the end of the day to write anything.

    There's an unwritten rule that whoever calls the meeting gets to set the times, which seems fair. On the other hand, since I'm on campus so much this semester, I'm becoming irrationally irritated by meetings scheduled on the one day a week that I'm not there, especially if the people calling the meetings are mostly not around at other times. This goes double if, as so often, the meeting is one where I'm only an attendant lord, there mostly to swell a progress or be a dutiful audience. They're calling the shots. My time is their time.

    What to do? I can only think of three solutions.

    1. Become the boss of the world and schedule all meetings on a day convenient for me.

    2. Become irrationally annoyed by the scheduling.

    3. Keep saying "Sorry, I can't make that meeting" at the risk of annoying everyone else.

    Any suggestions?

    Thursday, October 09, 2008

    Five excuses in lieu of a blog post

    1. Busy with some writing.
    2. Away.
    3. Head filled with clues to research (I hope).
    4. Limited internet.
    5. Sorry!

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008

    The art of the job letter redux, part 2

    Even though we're all saying similar things, some information about job letters may bear repeating:
    • When you write the letter, think about your audience. I know, this goes without saying, but you'd be surprised at how many writers do not address the criteria for the job they're applying for. If a committee at Small Directional State U gets an application from Fancy U many thousands of miles away, one natural question is this: why is Fancy U Ph.D. applying here? If the letter is the standard research/teaching boilerplate, without any mention of the job except for the INSERT JOB TITLE HERE slot in the first paragraph, the search committee may deduce, probably correctly, that the applicant is papering the known world with applications and decide that the writer isn't serious.
    • And then think about your audience again. If you're applying for a job at a teaching-oriented school, it's not just a matter of switching the paragraphs around and putting your teaching paragraph first instead of your research paragraph. The search committee will want to know how all those grandiose statements about teaching will translate into the courses you can teach for them. The job ad should give you some clues, even if it seems schizophrenic (eighteenth-century literature and modern poetry, for example). Use those clues, and talk about your teaching in specific ways.
    • And again. This usually comes out only in the interview, if you get that far, but if there's any hint of condescension, of how grateful the school should be to get your expertise, coming as you do from Big R1, know this: such an attitude is not received well. At all.
    • But in a lot of ways, the choice isn't about you. For example, if you're applying to Small School near Big R1, you may assume that Small School is lucky to have you, and indeed, Small School might feel this way in other circumstances. But if Small School already has three or four graduates of Big R1 in its department, the committee may not think it wise to hire another, just because they want a faculty with diverse educational experiences.
    • It really isn't. As a lot of other people writing about this have mentioned, committees and departments don't always know exactly what they want, although they've written a job ad that presumably addresses everything. But maybe when the applications pour in, they discover that people with expertise in X and Y also tend to have a background in Z. They realize that Z would be a "special added attraction" to the department, so to speak. Although it might be nice to cancel the search and cajole the powers-that-be for a new search next year that includes Z (as if that would be approved!), that's not how the world works.
    • There may be reasons why an ad specifies a full dossier. It may seem, and even be, more rational to ask for a cv and letter in the initial job ad, especially because sending all that information is expensive. But the committee may in fact be using letters from references or writing samples to get from the list of total applicants to the list of those who may be good matches for the job. Also, an institution may have layers upon layers of bureaucracy that have to be negotiated at every step, and adding the challenge of sending for more information, having it arrive and be processed, and then sending all the necessary paperwork through the system to the next step (more paperwork, more processing) might slow up the selection process intolerably. You can't predict this, of course.
    [More posts and more links here.]

    Monday, September 29, 2008

    Inventions I'd like to see

    In the spirit of offering a news-free zone, given all the gloom on the NYTimes and elsewhere, I offer an invention.

    When you buy vitamins, you can read what you're getting in terms of % of daily requirements and all that. What you can't see is how big the vitamins are, because they're always encased either in opaque plastic or dark brown glass.

    This isn't a problem for me. My preferred vitamins are referred to in the family as "horse pills" because of their size, and I don't have a problem swallowing them.

    But others in my family have barely graduated from chewable vitamins (or the purple Tylenol, for that matter) and have a real problem with swallowing pills. Some never got the hang of swallowing them, and others are daunted by the idea of trying to swallow a pill that appears to be the size of a silk cocoon--the infamous horse pills.

    So here's an invention I'd like to see: all vitamin makers, supplement makers, or whatever need to put a picture of the vitamin--actual size--on the side of the label. No one would then need to peer through the brown glass to try to figure out the size or shake the bottle to figure out from the thunk--or rattle--within how big the vitamins are.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    I'm not ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille

    I am still thinking about the second job letter post, but until then:

    From Inside Higher Ed: I’ll Take My Lecture to Go, Please

    It looks like students can be open-minded after all: When provided with the option to view lectures online, rather than just in person, a full 82 percent of undergraduates kindly offered that they’d be willing to entertain an alternative to showing up to class and paying attention in real time.

    A new study released today suggests not only a willingness but a “clear preference” among undergraduates for “lecture capture,” the technology that records, streams and stores what happens in the classroom for concurrent or later viewing.
    It doesn't surprise me that some students would have a "clear preference" for downloadable lectures, but 82%?

    In a way, this is a logical step. Distance education programs since the 1960s have had a television component and many still do, although many are still talking heads with PowerPoint instead of talking heads with whiteboards and charts. There are also the university lecturers on YouTube, which Virginia Heffernan ranks in the New York Times Sunday Magazine ("I'd give it an 85: the beat is good, and you can dance to it.")

    But--and this is not news--unless you're delivering a rigorously ordered lecture and allow no questions, a classroom session can't be captured as a static performance. It's not a Puritan sermon; it's more a call-and-response, with reactions from students helping to shape and guide what gets said. If students don't come to class, what will happen?

    Even if the classroom experience can be recorded and put into iPod video form, if no one shows up in the classroom, preferring to listen to the class later, we won't have any student responses and nonverbal reactions to help make the class a really good one.

    Teachers aren't exactly performers, but we are closer to that model--the comedian or actor or singer--than to the model of the, ahem, politician who reels off what's on the teleprompter and refuses to take questions. We need that energy. Some days we give more of it than we take, and some days we get energy from the students. It's an ecological system, and I worry that the studentless classroom translated to video form will mess up that ecology.

    Having said that, I've recorded (or have had recorded) video lectures and indeed whole classes for distance learning on occasion. For one class, my predecessor told me how the classes would be used, for he'd heard from the students about this. "They like the videos," he said. "They write to tell me that they watch them when they're ironing, and they fast-forward whenever the students talk or things get dull."

    I guess our lectures deserve to be fast-forwarded or skipped through if they don't hold the interest of students, but maybe, just maybe, the students in the classroom had something useful to say that some--not all--of the distance students were too busy ironing to hear. (And did they take notes? I didn't ask.) Somehow, though, it's disturbing to think that a class could become like a TiVo version of Days of Our Lives or Family Guy.

    Monday, September 22, 2008

    OT: Financial news roundup

    A few years back, a commenter making nominations for the Cobb Awards called Daily Kos "a big bowl of Angry Flakes that never runs out." Reading the news about the financial crisis in the New York Times is like eating those Angry Flakes every morning with curdled milk and no sugar on top.

    I promise I won't keep posting about this, but here's your daily heapin' helpin' of Angry Flakes:
    • Your Money at Work, Fixing Others' Mistakes: So what’s a fair price that we TARPistas should pay for the assets? If we bought at 60 cents, a price that the bank would argue is appropriate, we would most likely face a loss. The bank, however, would be much better off than if it had to dump at 30 cents. . . . Do you think, perchance, that financial services lobbyists might be working their Hill contacts right this very minute to ensure that the TARP valuations are rigged in their favor? . . . Such is our lot today: They break it. We own it.
    • from the Washington Post: Socialism, you say? We're already into that. The administration's plan amounts to socialism for the rich only. And as Reed explained in an interview, his proposal is actually more in keeping with capitalism than a pure bailout. "If taxpayers take risks, they should be able to reap some of the rewards," he said. Frank is trying to get this provision into the final bill.
    • More Washington Post: Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson made the rounds of the talk shows on Sunday, pleading for financial executives to be allowed to keep their multimillion-dollar compensation packages even if their companies need to be rescued by the $700 billion federal bailout.

      "If we design it so it's punitive and so institutions aren't going to participate, this won't work the way we need it to work," Paulson, whose net worth is said to be north of $600 million, told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday."

    Okay, I feel better. I'm done now.

    Friday, September 19, 2008

    Web reading: short takes from the Chronicle

    News flash from The Chronicle: "Not all young people are tech-savvy" by Siva Vaidhyanathan.

    They aren't? You mean five years' worth of bloggers' comments to this effect are correct? You mean that "digital natives" are a myth? Oh, the humanity!

    In other news, Mark Bauerlein channels Nicholas Carr, but he also cites an interesting study from Jakob Nielsen:

    Nielsen has gauged user habits and screen experiences for years, charting people's online navigations and aims, using eye-tracking tools to map how vision moves and rests. In this study, he found that people took in hundreds of pages "in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school." It looks like a capital letter F. At the top, users read all the way across, but as they proceed their descent quickens and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown around the middle of the page. Near the bottom, eyes move almost vertically, the lower-right corner of the page largely ignored. It happens quickly, too. "F for fast," Nielsen wrote in a column. "That's how users read your precious content." . . .

    In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational e-mail messages, and news feeds, Nielsen exclaimed, "'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else.
    Bauerlein, like Carr, concludes that "reading" web texts, Twitter, etc. is not "reading" as in reading Kafka or Tolstoy. Bauerlein's solution is a little more drastic, however: "
    Digital technology has become an imperial force, and it should meet more antagonists. Educators must keep a portion of the undergraduate experience disconnected, unplugged, and logged off."

    I am not sure that digital technology is an imperial force. I mean, does it have a flag? Bauerlein has a point, though, about the rush to digitization. Can't we have both kinds of reading? Maybe the paper kind of reading needs a new motto.

    "Read different."

    Yeah, that's the ticket.

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    OT: Food for thought

    I try not to comment on politics here because those people on the sidebar, not to mention thousands of other blogs, say everything better, with more facts and more eloquence, while I just get all red in the face and start to splutter.

    But I was struck by this sentence from Paul Campos's post at Lawyers, Guns, and Money in response to the tab for all the companies that are getting put on the American taxpayer's Visa card, so to speak: "[T]o put it another way, in America today profit is privatized but risk is increasingly socialized."

    Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    E-books again, with a British flavour

    I'm still thinking about the "art of the job letter" post I want to write, but in the "the medium is the message" category, this item in The Independent caught my attention this morning. The writer, John Walsh, mentions Nicholas Carr's essay in The Atlantic earlier this year and then moves on to practical matters:
    The instructions tell you, "One battery charge is equal to 6,800 page turns (that's enough to read War and Peace five times over on a single charge!)" Yeah, right. But it's not going to happen on the Sony Reader. Nobody is ever going to read Tolstoy on this fatuous device. It's an electronic simulation of a page, but it'll never convince you it's a book, to be read by your sentient eyes and brain. It doesn't have the solidity, the pages, the tactile companionship of a book. You'll never know where you are in the story, or how much of it is left. You won't have the cover artwork, to steal inside your head and become a lifelong reminder of the book it encased.

    And you can't turn the pages. I spent half an hour reading Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the first book to be installed) with my fingers itching to turn a page; "turn" one electronically, and the screen goes blank before the next page is displayed. It's a nasty moment, the screen going blank and interrupting your train of thought; but it's a good metaphor for the blankness to which our minds are tending, as we gradually lose the ability to interpret the old world of sequential thoughts in the new blizzard of information retrieval.

    I hadn't thought about the "you don't know where you are" issue before in quite this way, though I've been interested in the Kindle for a while.

    Everyone I've talked to or have read about who has a Kindle or Sony Reader loves it. Loves it. Wouldn't be without it. It's light, it's handy, and it isn't a burden to carry. Professor Z also had a good point about the backlight feature of the Kindle being handy if you're in a place with sporadic electricity. If you have a Kindle, you can get the books instantly. When you talk to people about what they like, however, it's almost always the ability to carry around popular or contemporary literary fiction for dull moments: airplane rides, train rides, waiting for the bus.

    Walsh notes that while Booker Prize-winning books used to fly off the shelves, now difficult fiction by authors like Adam Mars-Jones or Anne Enright doesn't sell as much as he thinks it should or as much as he thinks it used to. He finds it hard to imagine that anyone would read War and Peace or difficult literary fiction on this device. But is this the fault of the device, the fault of the culture, or both?

    And is "fault" too strong a word to use for this idea? At the end of a long day, even academics don't always say, "Okay, I'm finished with grading, committee meetings, reading a lot of academic prose, writing, and whatever else goes into a long day. Since this is the one night out of the week I don't have more work to do after dinner, I can't wait to dive into a 1,050-page novel with lots of convoluted syntax and highly symbolic imagery, one that comments on and interrupts itself incessantly." Do we say this? What we're likely to dive into is (in descending order) (1) a book related to research, but not necessarily criticism; (2) a classic novel we've always meant to read; (3) books we've read before, soothing books that can drown out the din of "you still haven't done this!" lists in our heads; and (4) magazines, light books, web pages, and blogs. Insofar as the e-book devices foster this kind of reading, maybe Walsh has a point. Or maybe we would be doing this kind of reading with or without the e-book device.

    Wednesday, September 10, 2008

    Observation while driving

    If your message is "We buy houses for CASH $$$$ - Call 555-555-5555"

    and you post this message on a telephone pole

    on a torn scrap of cardboard

    written in Sharpie marker

    the medium trumps the message.

    Just sayin'.

    Sunday, September 07, 2008

    The art of the job letter redux , part 1

    The MLA Job Information List goes live in about a week, and ABDs, new Ph.D.s, adjuncts, instructors, and tenure-track people looking to "trade up" will all take a look. (So will those of us on search committees, since we'll hope that our carefully crafted, word-by-argued-about-word ad will bring in good applicants.)

    Some other things will happen, too. The forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education will overflow with questions ("What does this school REALLY mean if it asks for underwater saltwater basketweaving instead of just underwater basketweaving?") and furious screeds about slights in the hiring process, some of which verge from rude to heinous and others of which can't be helped ("It's been two weeks and I haven't heard yet. What is WRONG with these people?").

    One of the good things that will happen is that the Chronicle, and Inside Higher Ed, and the forums will all offer some good advice. Mentors will offer good advice. Departments will offer good advice.

    Bloggers will offer good advice, too: Tenured Radical, for example, has promised a series on the search process. If you've read all these job-related blog posts for the past several years, the ones posted by Bardiac, Tenured Radical, Dr. Crazy, Sisyphus, Dean Dad, Narratives, and CitizenSE, among others (you can see a list here, in a post I wrote last year about the job search), you'll see that we're all saying variations on the same things. Every year we're all saying variations on the same things.

    And that's a good thing. What this consistency says is that there are conventions, but there is no magic bullet, no secret formula that will guarantee a job. It's not news that there are a lot more people looking for jobs in MLA fields than there are jobs. Ultimately, and I know everyone has heard this before, it's not about the job seeker; it's about what the department needs, or thinks it needs. The only thing you can really do is to present yourself in a way that makes the department believe that you can answer those needs, and this is the art of the job letter.

    Saturday, September 06, 2008

    Writing thought for the day

    Stolen shamelessly from The Blog of Henry David Thoreau:
    Saturday, September 06, 2008

    Thoreau's Journal: 06-Sep-1841 Some hours seem not to be occasion for anything, unless for great resolves to draw breath and repose in, so religiously do we postpone all action therein. We do not straight go about to execute our thrilling purpose, but shut our doors behind us, and saunter with prepared mind, as if the half were already done.


    Sometimes, in a writing project, you realize that you're not so much procrastinating (although there's always lots of that) as gestating. There's an idea there. You can feel it, even though it isn't formed enough to come out on the page in any sensible way.

    If you start by freewriting about it (pace the freewriting advocates), you can send yourself in a direction where your original idea disappears and you can't get it back. It's wrong, I think, to consider freewriting something harmless you can throw away if it doesn't work. Although this may be true for some, for others of us, freewriting etches a path that leaves a trace in the brain even if you throw away the words. You're left knowing that you had a better idea but not knowing what it is. Some would say that the idea on paper, completed, is better than the idea in the brain: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But wouldn't you rather give that other idea a chance, if you can?

    So sometimes, especially when the weather is so perfect that staying inside takes a physical act of will, you'll find yourself refusing to execute your thrilling purpose and sauntering about with a prepared mind. And, despite advice from all the writing gurus (I'm looking at you, Germano), that's all right, too. Thanks, Henry David.

    Wednesday, September 03, 2008

    You know it's the beginning of the semester when . . .

    • . . . you are answering and sending emails at a rate that resembles those scenes in old movie Westerns, when the bad guys shoot at the feet of the cowboy to make him dance.
    • . . . the emails from your least-read discussion lists, which you used to linger over lovingly as a distraction from work, now get deleted without a glance.
    • . . . you are completely floored by a question that someone asks you about a task that apparently you were supposed to do. You not only didn't know you were supposed to do it; you didn't even know there was such a task.
    • . . . you realize the text you thought you would teach in an entirely new, provocative, interesting, and thoroughly prepared way is actually going to get taught in the same tried-and-true fashion this semester.
    • . . . you spend time creating and writing up what you think is a new, provocative, and altogether exciting way to introduce a text and save it in a file. When you look at your class notes from the last time you taught the course, you see that you have saved an introduction to that text with exactly the same filename and some of the same material, and you have no recollection of doing so.
    • . . . you start jotting things down in the calendar of the next four months and realize that it is entirely too short a time to do what you wanted to do.
    • . . . you have no time to get groceries and couldn't get to the farmers' market last weekend, with the result that your meals look like the Monty Python spam skit: pasta, pasta, and more pasta, with maybe some potatoes and cabbage to break things up. Still, this is sort of thrilling, like coasting on empty when you're driving a car: you hate to give in until you're down to Tang (for cleaning the dishwasher), Panko bread crumbs, and the six bottles of ketchup that you bought on successive runs to the store, thinking you were out of them.

    Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    This week

    School is back in session. I've been assigned some new things to do in addition to teaching, which means that, with the learning curve and all, I've been too tired to blog. A couple of observations:
    • I really like talking to students. I know--that's a duh! moment--but why does it feel more revealing to say that than to say something like "I really like being on sabbatical"? Sabbaticals are nice, and I could use one about now, but liking being on sabbatical is a no-brainer. Liking talking to students--well, to read the Chronicle blogs, it's not as much of a no-brainer.
    • "No-brainer" or maybe "no brain" would be a good word for my state after work this week.
    • It's a little like having a new baby, as I remember it. When you have a new baby, as Ianqui and K8grrl and AAOYR and others have mentioned, you barely have time to shower because you're so busy, yet if someone asked you to give an account of what you did during the day, it would be hard to say what exactly happened. People wonder how it could be so hard to find the time to shower, but it just is. The time just goes. So it has been this week.
    • The book I've been dragging around? The book that I'm supposed to be reading in those spare moments? I could save the weight and leave it home for all the workout it has had this week. The only workout has been in my arm muscles.

    Thursday, August 21, 2008

    Other people's books

    This week, in the midst of a whole lot of other on-campus stuff, I did the book check. You know the book check: you go to the bookstore and see whether your students will have books to buy for the semester. I used to think this was kind of useless until a couple of semesters ago when the bookstore gods ordered no books at all for any of my courses. I'd ordered the books in plenty of time, and I probably wouldn't have found out why they didn't order the books even if they'd returned any of my phone calls.

    The books are indeed in, but my favorite part is walking around the shelves and looking at other people's books--not the ones they've written, but the ones they've ordered for classes. There's an internal monologue that goes with this, and it sounds something like this:
    • "Wow, I've always wanted to read that. . . and that . . . and that. If I buy that copy, though, there won't be enough for Z's students. Better put it back."
    • "Uh, oh--I was planning on using that novel next semester in my class, but X is teaching it this semester. Oh, well."
    • "Are the students really going to buy, let alone read, all 12 of those books for an undergrad class? Really? I wonder how that'll work."
    • "If I were back in grad school/undergrad, I would totally want to take this class."
    It's exciting to see all those classes, or a part of them anyway, lying there waiting for the semester to begin. Or am I the only book geek who looks at the book shelves and thinks this?

    Sunday, August 17, 2008

    OT: The no-fail garden

    The Bittersweet Girl said that she would like to hear more about my garden, and, since I'm avoiding all thoughts academic right now, I thought I would describe it. It's in an 8' by 8' plot bounded by wooden garden rails or whatever they're called. Some vegetables and fruits are foolproof, and that's the kind I grow.

    Tomatoes are pretty foolproof, so I grow a lot of them. Most of the garden usually consists of various kinds of tomatoes, with some heirloom ones like Brandywines and a few hybrid varieties like Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. Guess which ones yield great tomatoes all summer long and which ones I end up pulling up, with green unripe tomatoes on them, in October after the heavy frosts begin?

    Also foolproof: strawberries (picture). They stay there year after year, braving the freezing winter temperatures even if they're not covered by snow. There are no better strawberries than the ones you pluck and eat while they're still warm after brushing off the dirt.

    In the foolproof but sneaky category: zucchini and lettuce. Zucchini will grow to the size of a very thick baseball bat if you don't discover it in time. If you let lettuce go, it will grow into a 3' tower. I didn't plant any zucchini this year, and all the lettuce got away from me except for a few bunches. I grew some peas this year, mostly because I found some seeds in the garage from about 10 years ago and thought I'd put them in the ground and see what happened. They grew really well.

    Also foolproof: herbs and greens for salad. Right now I have burnet, sorrel, thyme, chives, parsley, a basil plant, cilantro, and lots of mint (picture). You have to put basil in every year, but the others are all perennials or self-sowing, so you don't have to do anything with them. I could have made a lot of salads just out of the garden (and have in years past) if the lettuce towers hadn't taken over when I wasn't looking. At various points in my life I've grown lots more herbs (borage, etc.), but that was back when I baked bread every week and kept a sourdough crock going, too, something that's not going to happen with school starting soon.

    In short, if you're in the mood to have a garden but think you can't--well, you can't go wrong with these vegetables.