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!