Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Resolutions for 2010:
  • To write something on current projects every working day, even if it's just for a little while.
  • To grade papers right away. It's not as though they're marinating in that bookbag and will be more flavorful for the extra time.
  • To dress a little less in MLA black casual and a little more in fashion fabulous. Picture at right? Totally my teaching outfit for May.
  • To say this to myself when something (or someone) irritating comes along, sends me an irritating email, or otherwise disturbs a happy and uneventful day: "Do you really care that much, and is a response likely to change anything? Let it go."
Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

NY Times: Books You Can Live Without

It's that time of year again, when you clean out your bookshelves in preparation for the new year, (or maybe you just want to forestall anyone submitting your name for future episodes of Clean House or Hoarders).

"Books You Can Live Without" asks several famous writers how they decided to clear out their libraries. Shorter version: (1) books I'm never going to read again; (2) outdated reference books; (3) books I'm tired of pretending that I'm going to read some day.

In a fit of cleaning not long ago, I did a version of this and got rid of a bunch of books, though not without a few pangs. Some I took to the used bookstore to be traded in for store credit (so I can buy more books, of course!) and some I took to Goodwill. Some, sadly, I couldn't even give away: I had to leave copies of old textbooks in the "Free" bin at the bookstore. I usually put them out on the Free Books table on campus, but I wasn't on campus this semester.

I needed to think about each book, but some were easier to chuck than others.
  • Fodor's London 1992, from my in-laws' trip there? Other old reference books? Gone immediately.
  • 10+ years of a print run of a journal now online? Gone.
  • A couple of books of highly elaborate and stylishly difficult postmodern contemporary fiction from 10+ years ago that I bought from the bargain bin, never got around to reading, and have never heard about since? Gone to the bookseller's. Apparently they were neither pleasurable enough to read nor absorbing enough in a literary sense to make the effort of reading them worthwhile. Who am I kidding? If I need to read them--well, that's what libraries are for.
  • Some ancient books of criticism--you know, the kind that talk appreciatively and in general terms about "innate female modesty and reticence" and "robust nature imagery"--that I picked up from a Free Books shelf when some equally ancient professors were retiring--gone.
  • The one book I ever bought in the How I Went to Tuscany, Fixed Up an Old House, and Learned about Life from the Quaint Italians series or whatever that genre of book is called. I bought it in an airport one time but even a long plane ride couldn't make me get through it. This one--gone without a backward glance. Let's just say I never bought another book about privileged white women Finding Themselves while Learning Life's Heartwarming Truths from the Simple, Close-to-the-Earth People of Another Culture.*
But even though they might not pass the "will you read it again in 100 years test," I kept a lot of books. What are your criteria for getting rid of books, assuming that you have to get rid of some?

*[In case it isn't obvious, I think the whole idea is highly insulting to other cultures.]

Monday, December 28, 2009

More random bullets, or denial isn't just a river in Egypt

  • I'm clinging desperately to a few remaining sabbatical days (think: by my fingernails while hanging off a cliff over an abyss that is the beginning of the new semester).
  • At some point, the syllabus for the new course I've never taught before has to stop being like a jigsaw puzzle and become like a mosaic. I have to stop moving the pieces of the course around and glue them down so that the syllabus can be copied.
  • In "Hybrid Education 2.0" over at IHE, Candace Thille of the Open Learning Initiative takes a few more swipes at what she sees as the dead horse/shibboleth of the lecture-only format. Apparently Carnegie Mellon has a new shiny way of teaching statistics and logic online (funded by Gate$$ fund$$) with an in-person assist from professors discussing the material according to student needs. The online logic course has only a "cursory level of instructor contact," though, and the instructors assigned to that are "glorified graders." What I want to know isn't being tested thus far: if a student takes Mr. Roboto's section of online logic in which choices are circumscribed, is he or she going to have the advanced (creative) thinking skills necessary for success in upper-division courses?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Random bullets of the season

  • Getting a reprieve of two weeks on that piece of writing--now that's the holiday spirit. Thanks, editor!
  • Yes, there are still some recommendation letters to be written. Aren't there always?
  • Presents sent to the relatives--check. Cookies made and sent to relatives--check.
  • I'm not going to the Big Conference this year, since I went to the other Big Conference in my discipline earlier this fall. To everyone who's going--enjoy MLA!
  • Signs that the new semester may be approaching: a dream in which I show up at two different committee meetings, only to be told "you're not on this committee." Whew, I think--and then realize that it's time to meet my students for a new course, the one I haven't prepped at all.
  • I read the MLA's new and grim report about the future of jobs but am not going to link to it, since everyone else has, but I will link to this spoof on the 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time (h/t Old is the New New).
Happy holidays, everyone!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Kate Chopin on writing schedules

Some wise man has promulgated an eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not preach," which, interpreted, means, "Thou shalt not instruct thy neighbor as to what he should do." But the Preacher is always with us. Said one to me: "Thou shalt parcel off thy day into mathematical sections. So many hours shalt thou abandon thyself to thought, so many to writing; a certain number shalt thou devote to household duties, to social enjoyment, to ministering to thy afflicted fellow creatures." I listened to the voice of the Preacher, and the result was stagnation all along the line of "hours" and unspeakable bitterness of spirit. In brutal revolt I turned to and played solitaire during my "thinking hour," and whist when I should have been ministering to the afflicted. I scribbled a little during my "social enjoyment" period, and shattered the "household duties" into fragments of every conceivable fraction of time, with which I besprinkled the entire day as from a pepper-box. In this way I succeeded in reestablishing the harmonious discord and confusion which had surrounded me before I listened to the voice, and which seems necessary to my physical and mental well-being.

from "In the Confidence of a Story-Writer"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Two sides of online teaching

From Inside Higher Ed and Clio Bluestocking. Let's call them "ideal" and "reality."

From Inside Higher Ed:
“Most of the professors who teach at the university level have had no experience with pedagogy or instruction in general,” says Janet Buckenmeyer, chair of the instructional technology master’s program at Calumet. “They’re content experts, not teaching experts." . . . Since most professors have spent their lives holding forth from the front of a lecture hall, many have not had to engineer their lesson plans with the sort of rigor required of a well-designed online course, Buckenmeyer says.
Puh-leeze. Not again. Most professors "holding forth in front of a lecture classroom" without a clue about teaching? Can't they let this monster die, along with the "teaches with yellowing notes from 1963" deadwood professor? They're like Bigfoot: everyone has heard of him, but nobody's actually seen him. There may be some, but this is more a 30-years-ago situation than the case today, isn't it?

Here's what I'd like to tell the "education consultant": While university faculty may not have taken education classes, most of them have been taught or have learned to teach well through observation, mentoring, talking with colleagues, and, well, the kinds of critical thinking that we apply to research.

Think about it. No one wants to fail at teaching, and it'd be a rare person indeed who wouldn't spend massive amounts of time figuring out how to succeed--that is, how to engage the students, construct good assignments, and so on. We're eager to find out different ways to do things, different techniques, and different assignments. We look at what's worked for online and traditional courses and reverse-engineer them so that we have the principles of a successful course as we design our own. We want to improve.

We know already that we need to have a sense of the goals for the class and what our students need to do to attain them. We also know to let them know what those goals are and what our expectations for them will be.

What I haven't liked about my dealings with "educational consultants" is this: they have a one best way to do everything (sorry, but that's my experience), and even if you have a better way, they don't want to hear it. Blackboard is the One Best Way. Using a rubric defined by them is the One Best Way. Having a pointless splash page with nothing but the course title instead of announcements on the main page is the One Best Way to set up Blackboard. And they're patronizing about it, too, as they inform you about how wrong you are--again, your mileage may vary.

So I read with interest Clio Bluestocking's run-in with a consultant who wants all the online sections of a course to be identical and--here's the thing--unchanging, with a "designing instructor" and lowly underlings non-designing instructors who can grade but not change anything about the course:
Maybe I'm being unfair. The non-designing instructors CAN change things, they just have to go to the designing instructor. The designing instructor then calls a meeting of the "team." The team then debates the change. Then, if the change is accepted, everyone must adopt the change. A year later.
In short, we are not stupid. We want to be good at what we do, and, guess what? many of us are. Please do us the courtesy of believing that we know a thing or two when we seek your advice instead of telling us that we are mere "content experts" and not "teaching experts." For what it's worth, I don't think you can be one without the other.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Robert Caro on writing

Apparently I can't get enough of the whole "writers on writing" thing, so here are Robert Caro's thoughts from this month's Esquire (in the "What I've Learned" series). I haven't read his Robert Moses bio or Master of the Senate but I really liked The Path to Power.

  • Always type out your interviews before you go to bed, so you remember the expressions.
  • Research is fun. Writing is hard.
  • It's so easy to fool yourself into thinking that you're working hard. It's so easy not to write. So you use any trick you can to make yourself know there's work to be done. That's why I wear a jacket and tie when I sit down to write.
  • Every time one of my books comes out, profiles mention that I write on a typewriter that hasn't been manufactured in twenty-five years. And people send me their old Smith-Corona 210's for free. I used to have seventeen spares to cannibalize the parts. I'm down to eleven.
  • Hemingway said, "Always quit for the day when you know what the next sentence is going to be." I do that.
  • There is no bullshit with books. What's on the page is what's on the page. It's either good enough to last or it's not.
  • I live near Columbia, and I see a lot of college students. My best moment was seeing one of these kids carrying Master of the Senate. I could never ask him if he liked it. What if he said "Mehhh, it's not so great. I have to read it for class"? That would kill me. So I never do that.
  • Monday, December 07, 2009

    Winding down

    As this sabbatical winds down, I'm doing two things:

    1. Obsessively checking the enrollment stats for next semester's courses. Here's an academic conundrum: I (and we, really) want the courses to fill, because, like Sally Field, I want reassurance that "they like me! They really like me!"--conveniently ignoring that what they like, really like, may be a noon class or whatever fits into their schedules. Yet more students = more grading authentic assessment and hours of time devoted to it next semester. But I still can't stop checking the stock market of enrollment, as someone called it a few years back.

    2. Frantically trying to get some more writing done before it ends while realizing how woefully short I've fallen from the rosy sabbatical plan I laid out.

    What the sabbatical has given me more time to do is harder to measure than a simple word count. It's allowed me to read more, including primary texts, than I've been able to do in years, and it has allowed me to conceptualize the work I'm doing in a different way.

    Here's an analogy from, you guessed it, Mad Men. In rewatching Season One, I noticed that amid all the retro flash that had the critics agog, every time the copywriters brought something to Don Draper (the creative director, for those who aren't MM fans), he'd ask them two questions about the product before pouring himself a drink. The first one was "What are the features?" and the second one was "What is the benefit?" The copy they produced had to make sense in terms of both of those questions.

    As we all know from the Microsoft jokes ("It's a feature, not a bug!"), they're not the same thing. The first part, I think, appeals to the "ooh, shiny!" brain area, but the second one, the benefit, is the real reason for creating the product in the first place--or should be. One of the things that the sabbatical has let me do is to think more seriously about that second question in relation to the project I'm working on: not just "how is it different?" but "what is the benefit in thinking about the entire concept in this way?" I had ideas about this before, of course--no one writes without a purpose--but I've been able to think about it in more different ways, and, I hope, more creative ways that I'd done before. And although the report I write after I get back from sabbatical won't mention Don Draper or indeed this kind of thinking, it's one of the most valuable things that the sabbatical has given me.

    Thursday, December 03, 2009

    Slowcoach writing

    I think I first heard the term "slowcoach," as in "Slowcoach McClellan," in the sonorous tones of David McCullough. At any rate, I think I'm going to adopt it as a cautionary epithet.

    Tenured Radical, a blogger I admire, said something in passing this week a couple of weeks ago that made me think:
    But I should think that participation in group blogs that serve a field or a discipline should be taken into account as much as book reviews or encyclopedia entries, which everyone lists in endless, boring detail on their vitae as if they took more than a day to write. [and in the comments, in response to someone who challenged that timeframe] Two days. And seriously, why would they ask you for the entry unless you were an expert in that field?
    I agree entirely with her main point, but the "one day" or even "two day" timeframe gave me pause. That pause was filled with writing speed envy.

    Book reviews--okay, yes, those can be done quickly. Blog posts--nobody drafts those ahead of time, do they? Reports? Piece of cake. I can churn out administrativese at the speed of light.

    But encyclopedia articles, even when I know the material, take time (at least at a slowcoach writing speed), which is why I've been turning them down lately. Here's what goes through my head with every single sentence:

    1. Is it true? Am I misrepresenting the subject or the text in some way?
    2. Is it useful? Is there a better example that I could use?
    3. Is it new? Or am I just unconsciously plagiarizing myself or someone else?
    4. Does it explain the concept efficiently and (let's hope) gracefully?
    5. Does it relate to the sentences around it?
    6. Does it hit the right balance of detail to generality?

    Most of these questions apply to regular scholarly writing as well, which is why it's possible to wrestle with writing and rewriting a paragraph for an entire four-hour period and still not be entirely satisfied. But it's good to have comparisons of how it could be done if I were more efficient. If I don't speed up, someone's going to remove me from the Peninsular Campaign.

    Sunday, November 29, 2009

    I wake up writing

    Not screaming, but writing.

    Not as in "I make writing wake UP!" but as in "I wake up early, about 4 a.m., and since that's too early to get up, my brain busies itself by writing things in my head."

    This morning's writing was about Sandra Tsing Loh's pieces for the Atlantic, and it was in response to Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted. Short version of my response: She's the humor component of The Atlantic, now that they've gone to an editorial policy of publishing only serious articles that tell us we're going to hell in a handbasket. If you're worrying because her essays don't have a structure, don't: they're really just long, ranty, and often funny blog posts, with moments of truth interspersed with outrageously solipsistic and just plain bonkers logic (e.g., my marriage is bad; therefore marriage as an institution is unsustainable). She's better than the totally bonkers Caitlin Flanagan who used to fill this role, so lighten up.

    Sometimes it's a letter to the editor or to a congressman, or a screenplay, or a short story, or (too rarely) a new approach to the piece I'm actually supposed to be working on. Here are my questions: If you also wake up writing, do you get right up and write it down, even if it isn't something you're working on? Or does that take time away from your real writing?

    [Update: Historiann has a new post about Sandra Tsing Loh.]

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    Stolen reading time

    Profacero and some other bloggers keep up the practice of "reading for pleasure Wednesdays" posts. Although I'm not organized enough to do that, it made me think about stolen reading time.

    Stolen reading time is the time you get to read when you're doing something else, although I guess it's technically multitasking reading time. Examples:
    • Reading a book while you're stirring risotto = stolen reading time.
    • Reading a book while waiting for the computer to boot up = stolen reading time.
    • Reading while you're waiting in a long, slow-moving checkout line = stolen reading time.
    • Reading while eating breakfast or lunch = not exactly stolen reading time, but one of life's great pleasures nonetheless.
    The other day I felt as if I'd stolen some reading time. In the piece I was writing, I wanted to allude to a novel that I'd read years before but didn't remember very clearly. Ten seconds later, Google books had it ready for me. (For some reason, I'm getting fond of reading on the screen, sometimes even when I have a paper copy.) I got to the part I'd wanted to talk about but then just kept reading right past dinner, too absorbed in what was happening to stop; it was that good.

    A few days later, still working, I pulled a book off the shelf that I'd always intended to read. It, too, was related to the project, and it was amazing. Are the books really that good, or are they just enhanced by the glow that stolen reading provides? And is it procrastination if the project is going to be much better for my having read those books?

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009


    *poof* The more I thought about this too-dramatic post, in which I argued that going to 5-year contracts would mean kicking everyone over 45 to the curb, the more uncomfortable I was with it, especially after reading the judicious responses from readers.

    Read the comments--they're better than the post--and please chalk the original post up to too much caffeine. Sorry.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    The 5-minute blog post

    I'm not doing InaDWriMo or NaNoWriMo or any of those this month; I'm just trying to get through a piece of writing, so this blog post can only take me 5 minutes to write.

    In the spirit of Merlin Mann's pep talk and a warning, besides the 5-minute limit for posting, here's what I'm trying today:

    • More typing, less thinking. I know you can't really separate them, but getting the hands flapping on the keys is the action of the day. Turning pages? Reading more source materials? That can wait.
    • Write first, edit later. That big, juicy, and awful introduction that's crying out to be edited? Can totally wait for two hours. First, generate the writing, however awful you think it is while your hands are flapping. Then edit it.
    • Reading about writing a lot is not the same as writing a lot. Get moving.
    Time's up!

    Saturday, November 21, 2009

    HASTAC: Cathy Davidson on grading (redux)

    Just for fun this morning, I've been revisiting the discussion of Cathy Davidson's "crowdsourcing grading" post over at HASTAC.

    Davidson and the commenters make good points, especially about an internet culture in which everyone feels empowered--nay, entitled--to pass judgment on any random piece of writing available on the web. We're all being judged constantly anyway, goes the argument, and students will be judged by peers and outsiders in the workplace, so why not in a grading an assessment situation? I liked the clarification that Davidson offered in the comments:
    Advocating crowdsourcing, contract grading, written evaluation and other forms of assessment (including self- and group-assessment, which studies show is often far more rigorous than external assessment if the forms of the assessment are set up in the correct way) is not to say we don't want standards. Quite the opposite. It is to say that there are forms of knowledge and standards of excellence that certain systems do not test, so having complementary systems is good.
    She then goes on to say that feedback (comments) and not grades should be the focus, and I'd agree.

    Davidson offers a more complete version at in which she says that her students asked her to rethink grading in terms of this new paradigm and she concludes "They were right." I'm not sure whether she means that she decided that she needed to give grades, or that she needed to hand over the process of grading to students, but she ends with this: "In the workplace and in our communities, we have to learn more about how to make judgments, to offer feedback, and to take criticism from those who are not 'the boss of us.'"

    Well, yes, we do need to learn more about this process, but I'd say that part of learning about the process is giving feedback about what constitutes good and bad feedback. Nuanced, intelligent responses = good. (And you will never, ever, see a more polite and adulatory comment thread than the one at HASTAC.) Twitter piranha-like ganging up on a speaker = Lord of the Flies. Are the student graders assessed on their grading abilities, and, if so, who makes that determination--Davidson or the other students?

    I guess what I'm trying to work through is that somehow, somewhere, there's always going to be an Invisible Hand of the Professor that's responsible for correcting the market forces of commentary and assessment. In reading through this material, I'm trying to figure out specifically where and how that invisible hand touches the grading process.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    Don Draper Matt Weiner cures your writer's block

    Conversation on a day when all I've done is read, take notes, think, and write? I got nothing.

    But Matt Weiner can solve your problems. From Los Angeles Magazine (broken into bits for easy reading):
    “I don’t get writers block. I really don’t. I’m not trying to be obnoxious about it. What I have is an idea I have not worked my way through. I’ve learned to have confidence in the fact that if I’m having trouble writing it, it’s not good and it’s not done and I need to do something else and loosen the machinery.

    And I don’t care if it’s gambling or drinking or just talking a walk, which is probably what you’re supposed to do, but you need to change your state.

    And I talk to people. I tell the story over, and over, and over again. . . . And you know, I bang my head against the wall and you can bang your head against the wall and do fine, but it’s the advice Don gave to Peggy: Think about it intensely and then do something else and it will be right in front of you. You can’t force it.

    I also work well with a gun against my head. I’m not trying to invite writers block, but usually what writers block is, is imaging all the possibilities of a blank page.

    And the other thing I do—oh my god, I can’t believe I’m about to say this—I have an amazing way to get over this, which is that I do not sit down at a typewriter and write or a computer. I dictate.

    Now even if I’m on the phone and doing all the procrastinating things, when I’m dictating Don comes in, he sits at the typewriter…It works just like that. I get into the scene and at the end of the day I can write an entire draft in a day. It might be garbage, but I can rewrite it."

    Saturday, November 14, 2009

    In a more moderate key: libraries as public spaces

    I've been thinking about something that Rufus said in response to the earlier library post:
    I can't listen to librarians talk about how we need to stop thinking of libraries as places with books without imagining a priest saying, "We need to really stop thinking of the church as a place where people come to hear about the scriptures and pray. Because, gosh, the new generation (digital natives- i.e. internet addicts) really just wants another place to hang around and dick around on their laptops."
    Why are we so invested in the idea of libraries as a sacred, or at least special, place? Why are those who like libraries so outraged at the thought that they'll be dismantled for yet another Starbucks-like space?

    Here are a few possibilities, but please--add your own.
    1. They're one of the last public spaces around that don't require you to (1) do something or (2) buy something, and yet they offer you riches in return: books.
    2. Yes, this is latent romanticism showing its face, but if you love books, you like being around them--leafing through them, admiring the covers, paying attention to the slick or rough feeling of old paper, the impress of the type, and everything else. You get ideas. The connection of past with present work and future possibilities is stimulating.
    3. Browsing the shelves, you'll see things that you might not see with even the most assiduous and well-informed search.
    4. You're around people, but you don't have to talk to them. Because it's a public space, it's energizing in a way that being at home isn't.
    5. You can sit and read, and read, and read, without anyone asking you if you want anything (a refill, a different book). There's an assumption of privacy within public spaces that's hard to come by anywhere else.
    6. A library is quiet, or at least mostly quiet. You aren't hearing people nattering away but saying absolutely nothing on cell phones.
    If you grew up with books as an important part of your life as a child, I'll bet that you can conjure up a mental picture of your childhood library right now. Mine was a converted house, quite small, with scuffed, creaky wooden boards on the floor and most of the light coming in through some large uncurtained windows. If you sat on a bench by the window, you could read Alcott and decide to check it out, or P. L. Travers and decide that it wasn't for you (because when you come right down to it, Mary Poppins in the books is really Scary Mary).

    I'm not saying that time, or libraries, have to stand still because of what they may mean to a few of us, but the idea that the library has functions other than just another place to chat and drink coffee needs to be considered.

    Thursday, November 12, 2009

    Update on the "bookless library"

    Two items from today's news.

    1. From The Chronicle (behind the subscription wall--sorry) (now free, as JHoward notes in the comments; thanks, Chronicle!):
    In Face of Professors' 'Fury,' Syracuse U. Library Will Keep Books on Shelves
    By Jennifer Howard
    A fight between humanities scholars and the library at Syracuse University over plans to send books to a remote storage facility has reached a temporary truce, with both sides agreeing to consider alternative solutions. The conflict began several weeks ago when the library announced it wanted to free up shelf space and save money by sending some of its print collection to a facility in Patterson, N.Y.
    . . .
    The reaction was so fierce because of the high value humanities researchers still place on hands-on browsing, Mr. Watts said. "The big issue in the letters and among humanists generally is the importance of being able to browse collections and not have them in a remote location," he said. Recent library renovations to create more computer and work space have caused books to be moved around, according to Mr. Watts, and "part of the fury has been fueled by what looks like the emptying of shelves."
    . . .
    [L]ast night, more than 200 students and faculty members attended a meeting of the University Senate to hash out the library situation, according to the university's student newspaper, The Daily Orange.

    The senate meeting "was the most longest and most vocal in years," Suzanne E. Thorin, the university's dean of libraries, told The Chronicle. "It means there's a lot of burning passion on this." Humanities faculty members have made it clear they consider the library their "central laboratory," she said.
    Yes, exactly: a "central laboratory." I don't have anything to add to this except to hope that the 200+ people who turned out have convinced Dean Thorin that (1) we're not just random kooks who have an unhealthy attachment to books and that (2) print culture isn't dead yet.

    2. About print culture: over at Perplexed with Narrow Passages, Christopher Vilmar has a good post about Robert Darnton's thoughts on e-books versus printed books. A few excerpts:
  • The book is not dead.
  • As new electronic devices arrive on the market, we think we have been precipitated into a new era. We tout “the Information Age” as if information did not exist in the past.
  • Whatever the future may be, it will be digital.
  • Unless the vexatious problem of digital preservation is solved, all texts “born digital” belong to an endangered species. The obsession with developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old.

  • Yes, yes, yes, and yes. "Digital" is the future, but the future isn't here yet. We need both print and digital media right now. I'm hoping that conversations like the ones linked to here will increase our understanding. Didn't we learn anything from deconstruction? Both/and, not either/or.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Random conference thoughts

  • Sometimes, when I'm listening to a speaker and she starts making the air quotes sign, I wonder if she's going to start truckin'.
  • There is no greater clarity of vision in editing a paper than that which descends the night before, in your hotel room, when you look at the paper you've already sent to the rest of the panel and say to yourself, "No! I didn't say that, did I? I'd better fix it"--or unprintable words to that effect.
  • Altoids, or, barring those, strong peppermint Lifesavers will keep you alert and listening during that 4:00 conference panel that you really wanted to hear but are afraid you'll nod off during.
  • When did Starbucks become the official Hell Caterer to the conference world? If I don't eat another stale Starbucks bagel and scald my tongue on their hyperheated tea again for a few months, that'll be fine with me.
  • Saturday, November 07, 2009

    Dean of Libraries hates books, libraries; views on espresso machines, gym equipment unknown

    Via The Little Professor, who has an elegant post about why this is a totally stupid perhaps an ill-advised idea:
    “Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead,” said Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University. “Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”
    And there's more:
    Despite the objections of “a minority of very loud faculty members,” Thorin said, the days of wandering through the stacks are over. “People,” she told the audience, of whom many were librarians, “the world has changed, and so have your students, and so have your faculty!”
    She's totally drunk the "digital native" Kool-Aid, hasn't she? Yeah, those pesky faculty members, with all their prattling on about "knowledge" and "humanities." If we could get rid of them, maybe we could afford a new espresso machine and maybe even some treadmills!

    And here's something from Richard Luce: "“To interact with one another — to talk, to collaborate, to think, to communicate, to be with one another,” he said. “Isn’t that what we do in our best libraries?”" If you don't have any content to the information you're exchanging, or any permanence, you're transmitting chat. Libraries as Twitter? (Sorry, Twitter, but although I've seen "come see what I've done" tweets a lot, I haven't seen deep thoughts on there. It's more an alerting service for thoughts written elsewhere than a mode for transmitting ideas.)

    I had a long argument one time in my one and only library science course (as an undergrad). I remember it because I was a terminally quiet student in this class, the kind everyone hates. "What's the function of the library?" the professor asked. My answer was vaguely Arnoldian--something about keeping books that people couldn't afford to buy, classics, keeping knowledge alive, best that has been thought and said. Nope! The purpose of the library is to serve the people, I was told. If they want 30 copies of Dan Brown, then that's what you buy, and if you have to chuck Dickens to do it, well, Dickens is toast.

    Miriam Burstein (Little Professor) calls this a thought experiment. I'd call it a thoughtless one.

    [Edited so I sound more rational on this topic; I could hardly be less so.]

    Friday, October 30, 2009

    Job market signals from another planet

    Dr. Crazy has a good post on the job market, with lots of great advice. I haven't written a post on the job market this year for fear of repeating myself (here and here and here), but there are a couple of things I've heard recently which have made me wonder if those of us giving the advice are operating on another planet from some other people.

    1. Tailor the letter or not? I heard recently that some job candidates on the market had been given the advice "Don't bother to tailor your letter to the institution. It's a waste of time. Just give them the boilerplate and move on." My reaction wasn't very moderate; it was somewhere between "no" and "hell, no!" I've been on search committees and have chaired a few, and, like Dr. Crazy, I believe that tailoring the letter to the institution makes a difference. Part of the advice I gave in one of those earlier posts is "Don't make us guess. Connect the dots for us by showing why you fit our qualifications so well." I think that still holds true.

    Let me put it this way: If you don't seem interested in the position--or interested enough to show some faint glimmering in your letter of who we are or what we're about, or even what the position is about, why should we think you'd be interested in coming to work for us? Let me be even more blunt: unless you are really, really exceptional, if you don't have time to show an interest in the institution, we don't have time to show an interest in you. Frankly, we receive too many applications to pay attention to those that are obviously sent as a pro forma exercise.

    2. Lead with teaching or research? It depends on the institution, but for heaven's sake don't leave out the research entirely, even if it's a teaching institution (another piece of dubious advice apparently handed out by someone not trained on my planet). You need to have both. Oh, and please be specific about what you're doing in terms of research and teaching. "Student-centered learning," etc., is all well and good, but we get that in every letter. What do you do in class? Do you have an innovative exercise that makes the students respond really well to George Eliot? Tell us!

    What I said a couple of years ago still holds true: Make your research sound exciting. When I think back to the search committees I've served on, after questions of fit and suitability for the position, the excitement generated by the possibilities of the candidate's research program is really what sticks in the mind and makes the candidate stand out. Also, don't make us do the math: if it's exciting and has great potential for changing a field, explain how that's the case. If you are the first person to study the social significance of lawn mower blades in consumer culture, you need to tell us why that is important. You recommenders will do this, too, but it's your letter that we read first.
    3. Thank you/no thanks? "If you get a campus interview, don't send a thank-you note; it makes you look desperate." "Always send a thank-you note, even after the MLA or phone interview." What do you say, search committees? My take on this: I don't think it makes a huge difference, but since when is being polite considered "desperate"?

    4. Have your dissertation chair give personal contacts in the department a call? What do you say, internets? On the one hand, it's nice to have a personal recommendation. On the other hand, as a search chair this always made me uneasy, since we just had to put that information in the folder for HR anyway, and we could never be sure how much weight to give this kind of informal recommendation.

    I'd love to hear from those of you who are hiring this season so I know whether we're on the right track or whether it's time to get the old Interplanetary Passport renewed so I can go back to my own planet.

    Update 11/16/09: Profgrrrrl has a good list of tips.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Gender Bias Bingo

    Want to play? You have to submit your own story, though, to get the t-shirt, and it's not clear what kinds of privacy safeguards are in place.

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Blogging the scholarly writing process at Georgetown

    Carol Fungaroli Sargent at Georgetown's Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications is blogging her writing process as she works through Wendy Laura Belcher's book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. It's good stuff. Here are some samples:
  • "Writing doesn't have to take long. We only ask for an hour a day, although you can give it more if you're so inclined (a typical Booklab faculty member with a family does between 1.5 and 2 five days a week if a project is underway, and adds weekends only if it is due). Just that small commitment can yield more than most professors ever produce, and it can easily result in two articles per year and a book every two-three years."

  • "One of our authors read in a book that you should 'touch your work every day,' meaning that you should keep the project you're writing in a place where you can find it, and you should sit down to visit the work each day even if only briefly, in order to move things along. I completely agree with this. Some days it feels as though all I can commit to is opening the computer file, but once I begin then the body in motion does truly tend to stay in motion, and often I keep writing. Science is cool that way."
  • "3. No matter what happens, I will keep this commitment every day, and I will submit something, however poor and miserable, on the 23rd. This is writing as bricklaying, writing as plumbing, writing as a regular-person job. Artists take commissions all the time, and this is my commission."
  • Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Random and highly inconsequential bullets of this week

  • It's true that some people can read conference papers at close to the speed of sound--good papers, too, though if you're taking notes, you'd better give up before you start.
  • Speaking of taking notes, why is using laptops to take notes still tacitly verboten in conference sessions in the humanities? I first tried it 10 years ago and was too cowed to try it again until now, when I sat at the very back of a large session and typed my notes instead of writing them down. Since typing is my natural medium, as I suspect it is for most academics, and the notes are clearer and more organized, why don't more people type them? Or would you be suspected of doing what a person a few rows in front of me did--pulling out a laptop to check email and look up the subject of the presentation on Wikipedia?
  • What stopped me from typing notes in any other session was that ridiculous Windows music that plays when you start up--Bill Gates, are you listening? How about letting us turn that off? We know we're in Windows; we're not so self-esteem-impaired that we need a "Ta-da!" to celebrate turning on the computer.
  • When I went to check in on the return flight, the person behind the check-in desk asked if I would be checking any luggage. "No." "How would you like to check that bag if I don't charge you for it?" "Sure!" He put the tags on it, saying something about "faster to get everyone on board" if people checked luggage.

    No duh. Did the airlines just figure out that we're all carrying suitcases to put overhead instead of checking them? Or that with trying to find overhead space, gate-checking bags, helping the elderly folks to put their bags overhead, and the rest it takes twice as long to load a planeful of people as it used to, even with the flight attendants haranguing you to get out of the aisle? I'm grateful to the renegade check-in desk person for his action and hope that the higher-ups in the airlines, who have probably never flown coach in their lives, will start to rethink their position about charging for luggage.
  • As we were waiting at the gate, a little kid, probably about two, was laughing and running around in the area with his mother in pursuit. I smiled, but the guy next to me grumbled, "Hard to tell who's in charge of who!" I said, "She's probably just letting him run around to get him tired out for the flight," to which he said, "Hm! Does he have to run around here?" I didn't want to be part of that conversation, so I moved away, but honestly, Cranky Guy: get a grip. Nobody likes it when babies cry on planes, including the parents, but babies can't help it: they're babies. They don't cry as much when they sleep, and they sleep better when they're tired, and if they're toddlers or little kids, they're more apt to be tired if they run around before they board. What part of that equation don't you understand?

  • [Edited to add: And I'd rather listen to a dozen babies cry than hear the loud-voiced blowhards who for some reason feel compelled to talk about various air disasters as we're taking off.]
    [Apparently you can disable the startup sound: I wish I'd known that sooner.]

    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    The writing process: taming your inner two-year-old

    Peg Boyle Single on daily writing at Inside Higher Ed:
    Motivation in writing comes from prewriting, prewriting, prewriting. Motivation occurs when you have done the necessary planning steps so that when you sit down to write prose, you have had time to subconsciously play around with the ideas and you only have to retrieve and type down the ideas, not to think them up. Motivation occurs when you have a very detailed long outline, filled in with citeable notes, by your desk that guides your writing. The citeable notes are short phrases (written in your own words) that remind you to insert the appropriate references into a particular section.
    This is excellent advice, as it is every time we hear it. (Single freely admits that Boice et al. give some of the same advice). She also recommends that you not write more than 4 hours a day and claims that this will lead to an enjoyment of the writing process.

    Here's why I brought up the inner two-year-old. You can make a two-year-old sit in a chair, just as you can make a writer sit in a chair. You can give her a book or something to play with, just as you can sit there with a blank computer screen and no internet. You can even do the old parental "false choice": "Do you want The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Avocado Baby"? Chances are, she'll fall for one or the other. But on some days, she won't. What you can't do all the time is control her thoughts. I submit that your brain is--or can be--that inner two-year-old.

    Maybe Brain accomplishes a lot when you're sitting in your enforced writing chair. Maybe you get a lot done most of the time. But sometimes, Brain decides not to kick in then and has a delayed reaction.

    Example: Say you've followed Single's/Boice's/Sylva's advice and have sat at your desk despite little productivity that day. You ignore the recommendation letters waiting to be written, the papers waiting to be graded, the class prep--everything. You get in the car (and you're already behind and anxious about it, because you haven't reread the work or graded the papers that are due back to students because of the sacred writing time) and start your 45-minute commute to campus.

    Suddenly, your brain comes to life. Ideas are washing over you; it's a Flannery O'Connor epiphany and no mistake. "I've got to write this down," you think--except that you can't. You get to campus and go straight into class. Seven hours later, after you've taught, gone to meetings, and met with students, you have a dim recollection of something transformative that occurred to you this morning, but everything isn't there.

    That's why I'm wondering this: can the repetitive action of sitting down to write tame the mischievous two-year-old that is your brain?

    And a less frivolous question: does it work to force yourself sit joyfully at the writing desk in the morning if you have a full day ahead of you and a recalcitrant brain?

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    Short post on excuses

    Like Ianqui, I've wanted to write an excuse to my blog for not updating just because things are getting busy.

    But one of the things I was busy at was busy work--mundane stuff for an organization that took me a whole day to do (think sorting, filing, stapling, labeling, stuffing envelopes). I'm not doing it again. Ever. I've just learned that there are machines for that (yes, I'm slow on the uptake). There are not machines to work on my major project for me. Invoking my new book review mantra, I--or the organization--can buy the service, but I can't buy back the day I spent on the task. I'm chalking this up to my own ignorance about what could be automated and not to the organization, which isn't to blame for my stupidity and probably would be happy to pay for the service.

    When I thought about explaining this to the organization, at first I wanted to say that I couldn't do the task because my shoulders hurt after doing it (true). In rehearsing this with Spouse, however, he said, "Don't make it a personal issue. You're not doing it any more. You don't have to give a reason except that it can be done by machine and you won't be spending your time that way."

    Dr. Isis has some wisdom about exactly that reasoning this morning:
    Regardless of how you choose to allocate your time, I have learned recently in conversation with a group of more senior women in academia that there is something that we do that our male colleagues don't do -- we over explain, and that can color how people perceive us. For example, assume that you are chillin', getting ready to leave for your child's school play in two hours and someone says, " Can you attend this meeting in two hours?" A woman is more likely to say, "I can't. I have to go get my child and then attend his school play." A male colleague with the exact same play to attend to might say, "I can't. I have another commitment."
    I should have known this--indeed, did know it--but one of the things I'm realizing over and over again, despite the Lessons for Girls, is just how hard it is to say no. Or say no and not explain.

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    The shadow knows

    Just a quick post to say that lately, if I'm in conversation with a group of people or at a conference, and we're talking about etexts or libraries or academic blogging or the future of the book, I find myself wanting to say, "You're so right! I wrote a blog post about that just last week and said --"

    But since it's Professional Self and not Shadow Blog Self having those conversations, I just say, "You're so right!" and beam a smile back at the person. Sometimes I'll go ahead and reiterate the arguments I've made here, but I am always a little worried about it--as though this minuscule portion of the blogosphere is read by multitudes.

    I guess Professional Self wants to claim credit for everything good but is too cowardly to own up to all the rants and everything else that comprises a blog. Shadow Blog Self is a little more forgiving about the imperfections of blog utterances, so for now, SBF owns it, and PS doesn't.

    Friday, October 02, 2009

    This is your brain on multitasking, part 2

    At the Chronicle, Mark Bauerlein is a little late to the party--he's just figured out that texting while driving might, just might, not be a good idea--but he cites an interesting study from Stanford in support of his proposition that multitasking is changing the brain, and not in a good way:
    The primary finding was that "People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time." When people spend months and years trying to multitask, their mental habits follow. Most important, their capacity to filter out distractions and irrelevant items deteriorates. As one of the researchers put it, "They're suckers for irrelevancy." The researchers set up experiments that isolated the ability to ignore things that didn't help subjects complete a problem, and low-multitaskers did well, high-multitaskers poorly.

    They also did some memory tests. Result: "The low multitaskers did great," [researcher] Ophir said. "The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains."

    Finally, they did a test of concentration and the pattern held.

    "Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers. 'They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing,' Ophir said. 'The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds.'"
    A couple of things about this research:
    1. Can we stop now, please, with the edu-gurus' insistence that we break up class activities into 90-second bursts or whatever because "that's how students learn now! They multitask! Their brains are better! They're digital natives! Isn't that great!"? I thought that part of the process of brain maturation and education was training students toward, among other things, developing a longer attention span. You don't expect a 3-year-old to have the same level of absorbed attention for an activity that's not of her choosing as you do for an 18-year-old. I'm not saying that we should go back to the old model of boring students to death just because we can ("It's good for them!"), but it seems to me that adopting a progressive infantilization of students through encouraging multitasking and decreased attention spans isn't in their best interests.

    2. It makes me think of the internet information = firehose analogy so popular with librarians and others teaching students how to search. We can teach them good searching techniques to narrow that gush of water/information into a useful stream, but if the "multitasking is good for you" push is training their brains into being unable to avoid the full rush of water, what good are we doing?

    3. I put one part of that in bold because I'm guilty of it, too. I hadn't thought that the whole idea of cheating on and procrastinating about one project because you're temporarily far more fascinated by another was an outgrowth of multitasking (I thought it was laziness and procrastination), but maybe it is. Maybe it's the Samuel Taylor Coleridge model (Pantisocracy! Wait--no, poetry!) of writing winning out over the Anthony Trollope one (up at 5:30 a.m., 250 words every 15 minutes or else). On the other hand, maybe Raymond Chandler had the right idea about acknowledging how attention wanders but disciplining it (through boredom) to get back on track.
    Learning how to sort, assess, filter, evaluate, and analyze information with the goal of producing intelligent, coherently expressed writing about those thoughts is what we're supposed to be teaching students. At least this study gives some support for considering that a process not necessarily served best by multitasking.

    [Called "part 2" because part 1 is here. That one was on a UCLA study. What is it about California that makes its scientists so concerned with increasing attention spans?]

    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    A food post

    Historiann had a food post the other day all about food and identity and political significance. This one doesn't have any of those things, except food.

    The sun is still warm on my shoulders as I walk out to the garden, but the grass is cool, and there's a nip in the air, since it is, after all, nearly October. The shadows are getting long, too.

    I reach down under the broad squash leaves and grab one of the yellow crookneck squashes that are underneath. They're a little prickly, like the leaves, but they're still warm from the sun. I give it a twist and it breaks off from the plant. The prickly parts tamp down when I touch them, but the squash is still warm.

    I put the wire colander down on the ground under the tangled tomato plants and start picking. This kind of plant bears tomatoes that are tiny, like currants, and sweet--labor-intensive, but worth it. I push aside the leaves of some of the other plants and pick some different kinds: yellow, pear-shaped cherry tomatoes, orange ones, and one of the big tomatoes that's ripened over the weekend. The tomatoes are warm, too, but they don't hold the heat as the squash does. There are other varieties planted here, but the fruit on them is still a sturdy green with no hint of red. They may not ripen before the frost.

    On the way back up the steps to the back door, I bend down and pinch off some basil leaves.

    Inside, billows of steam are coming from the stove because the pasta is boiling. I give the contents of the wire colander a quick rinse, cut up the squash and toss it into the boiling water with the pasta for a couple of minutes, chop the basil, drain the pasta and squash, and throw everything into a bowl.


    Saturday, September 26, 2009

    Inside Higher Ed: Libraries of the Future

    Speaking of old television programs, there was one called The Honeymooners that has been playing on an infinite repeating loop on one station or another for years. In one of the episodes, the main character, Ralph Kramden, decides to sell an apple peeler or something, and to do this he decides to have his friend Ed Norton help him make a TV commercial in which he plays "Chef of the Future." When I saw the "Libraries of the Future," guess what went through my mind.

    These libraries of the future will--surprise!--have no books:
    The university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas. . . . “We're already starting to see a move on the part of university libraries... to outsource virtually all the services [they have] developed and maintained over the years,” Greenstein said.
    What's worrisome about this is that the article talks not about managing collections but about "outsourcing" the "storing and managing of books." This sounds like off-site storage, which is okay, maybe, for an obscure book of criticism from the 1930s, but I'm wondering if all books would be stored in this way.

    I'm surprised that no one has made the efficiency argument yet about off-site storage. Quick quiz: which of these is more efficient?

    1. Faculty member (or student) looks up a book, goes into the stacks, leafs through the book and others in the area, carries books to circulation desk, checks them out, and carries them home.

    2. Faculty member looks up a book and sends a request for a book in closed off-site stacks. Library person receives the request and prints it out. Another library person (probably a work-study student) takes the call slip and hunts down the book in the stacks. Two days pass. Circulation desk emails the faculty member. Faculty member goes to the library to pick up the book, decides that she needs another one, and repeats the process.

    Oh, and the Chef of the Future? His gadget completely fails.

    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Words we need to have

    Embriskenment: the act of lighting a fire under one's own prose, metaphorically speaking, while editing so that the sentences move along at brisk, lively pace.

    Compujudgment: the process by which various computer programs, like RescueTime, Remember the Milk, and Leechblock, gang up on you to judge whether you're being productive or not.
    • Bonus points if you actually feel guilty about what the summaries will say at the end of the day about how much time you've wasted.
    • Triple points if you can actually see the ghosts of David Allen, Merlin Mann, and Robert Boice hovering over the corners of your monitor like Agents of Doom.
    Facebookiania: in-depth knowledge acquired about colleagues' avocations, pets, and favorite bands that crowds out one's knowledge of their research interests.

    Folder grooming: the act of cleaning out, sorting, and reordering folders so that writing can begin.
    • Bonus points if the folders have any relationship to the project at hand.

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    5-minute conference presentations--and spin some plates while you're at it

    Back in the days of variety shows, there used to be some guy whose whole act was setting up poles and spinning plates on top of them, usually to Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance." (I've seen it parodied in movies like That Thing You Do.)

    Now Henry Farrell wants to give academics--well, political scientists, anyway--about the same amount of time for their conference presentations:
    Mr. Farrell, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, uses a blog post for The Monkey Cage to call for a system that would keep presentations at the American Political Science Association moving along—and that would cut them off after five minutes, or perhaps 10 as a compromise.
    To ensure that everyone stays within the time, he's not going to use the much-ignored red and green lights that MLA has used. Instead, he wants to use Ignite, a kind of software that makes PowerPoint slides change automatically every 15 seconds. If you only get 20 slides as a maximum length for your presentation--well, you do the math.

    Of course, most of us in the humanities have papers rather than PowerPoints at conferences. I've heard roundtables with this 5-minute format, too, although a lot of times people go over those limits. Would this work for a real conference presentation in which an argument had to be developed, supported, and advanced, though?

    The spinning plates association came up because I was imagining presenters in the humanities trying to time their talks according to the inexorably advancing slides, keeping all those ideas in the air as they raced frantically through their material. Add a little Khachaturian to a presentation like that, and you've got yourself a YouTube sensation!

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    College for $99 a Month

    From Washington Monthly, via Edge of the American West.

    The article is about Straighterline, a for-big-profits educational company. The principle is simple and is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith--who went to Williams and Harvard, by the way, not the University of Phoenix or another online school. Here it is: charge very low tuition and make it possible for people like the 50-year-old laid-off worker Barbara Solvig (whose story is the "hook" in the article) to complete her education. The idea is that the basic Econ 101, English 101, etc. will be offered online, thus skimming off tremendous profits for Smith and his investors. Oh, and it's all for noble motives:
    Students will benefit enormously from radically lower prices—particularly people like Solvig who lack disposable income and need higher learning to compete in an ever-more treacherous economy.

    But is Smarthinking, the tutoring company that Burck founded, likely to hire a 50-something American worker like Solvig in this "treacherous economy," given industry's hatred for those over 30? Is it likely to employ unemployed or underemployed Ph.D. grads or ABDs in the U.S.? Of course not.
    Smarthinking pooled the demand from hundreds of colleges and tens of thousands of students while hiring credentialed tutors in places like India and the Philippines. As long as “on demand” was defined as a high likelihood of being served within a few minutes, economies of scale and cheap foreign labor could be combined to drive per-student service costs to unheard-of lows.
    Let's leave aside the humanities, culture, and research for a minute, just as Smith's model will leave them aside permanently, and look at something more basic: how are these online courses going to teach people to draw blood and insert catheters, not to mention even more knowledge- and skill-based practices? If you want to be an R.N., how will you learn these things?

    What's that you say? That's not the job of an online course? All right, but the courses that do teach such things are expensive. They're time-consuming. They require hands-on teaching with skilled practitioners.

    Dean Dad has talked about how expensive it is to train nurses, and what pays for those expensive specialized courses? The lower-division ones that Smith is proposing to take over and teach for $99 a month. How long do you think that universities are going to continue teaching money-losing but vitally important courses if they don't have a means to balance the loss of income in some way?


    Saturday, September 19, 2009

    Think things were better in the olden days? Think again.

    I've been reading The Autobiography of William Lyon Phelps (1939), and while it does have some sigh-worthy features (such as having colleges like Yale and Harvard call him up and, in effect, start a bidding war to have him come and teach there . . . when he was an instructor), it also has a few tidbits that should give one pause.* Here are some excerpts from 1891-2 and a few years later. A lot has changed--but then again, a lot hasn't:
  • "In the early Spring, obsessed by the work I was doing on my Doctor's thesis and by the fear that I should not finish it in time, I became afflicted with insomnia" (258). A faculty member tells him that he has already done enough to be worthy of a degree and that he can polish it up later, thus helping Phelps to avoid "a complete and prolonged breakdown."
  • In those days, Harvard had a composition requirement for freshman, sophomores, and some juniors in which a daily theme was required, which Phelps regarded as an unnecessary compulsory exercise: "The only men on the Harvard English Faculty who were excused from reading themes were Professor Child and Professor Kittredge. . . One day I met [Professor Child]in the Yard, and he asked me what I was doing; I replied, 'Reading themes.' He looked at me affectionately and said, 'Don't spoil your youth'" (274).
  • "During the entire academic year at Harvard, I read more than eight hundred themes every week; I read all day and a good part of the night. Once I was sick for two days, and a substitute read for me, because even one day's lapse made it impossible to keep up" (274).
  • "There is no doubt that in those days (1880-1900) popularity with the students was a serious handicap . . . [because] extreme popularity made the ruling powers feel that the candidate must have stooped to conquer. Professor Sumner used to say it was often easier for a man from another college to receive an appointment than for a man on the ground; 'the latter's faults we know, and all we know of the distant man is that he has faults, but as we do not know what they are, we forget their certain existence'" (287).
  • A few years later, at Yale, Phelps decides to teach "the first course in any university in the world confined wholly to contemporary fiction. I called the course Modern Novels." This "amazing addition to the curriculum" (298) inspired all kinds of ridicule in the newspapers, usually under the headline "THEY STUDY NOVELS."
  • "I well remember also [Professor Lounsbury's] saying to me over and over again, and always with emphasis, that it was ridiculous to judge the value of a college professor by what his students thought of him. They were not qualified to judge. It was only what other professors thought of him that should count; for they were his peers" (324).

    *(You see how contagious Phelps's style is?)
  • Friday, September 18, 2009

    Another Starbucks Memorial Library

    From the Chronicle's "Is it a Library? A Student Center?" (behind the subscription wall--sorry). This one's at Goucher College:

    Any new library building will have hissing espresso machines, padded chairs, and noisy study areas. But what does one make of a library with an art gallery, a restaurant, and open forum space that can seat at least 700 people? How about treadmills, exercise bikes, and rowing machines as well?

    . . . Among those attractions, on a balcony overlooking the forum, is the exercise equipment—ellipticals, bikes, rowing machines. "We'll see how much they are used," Mr. Ungar says. "It's a gamble—something I insisted on, because I think that if we are going to have a place where you can do everything, exercise should be part of it."

    There is also a studio for the campus radio station, classrooms, a commuter lounge with a full kitchen, a unisex bathroom with a shower, along with all of the usual trappings of a traditional library: circulation and reference desks, study spaces, computer labs, and a prominent space for the display and preservation of special collections.
    Ah, yes--nothing says the vita contemplativa like the sight of sweating bodies on a treadmill. It's interesting that a mega-espresso machine is mandatory for new libraries but books are more or less optional, just one sideshow "attraction" among the rest. But at least this one does have books:
    The stacks are one of the first things people see when approaching the building from the road, with the candy-colored shelves—blue, yellow, red—and quiet study areas clearly visible inside. It's an intentional placement, meant to signal that books still hold a prominent place in the building, despite all the other attractions.

    On the other hand, this does kill two birds with one stone: instead of a brisk walk outside to wake you up when you get all dozy reading in the stacks, you can get on a treadmill and get the brain cells moving again, or refuel with industrial-strength coffee.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    The same, but different

    Dispatches from the same routine in a different place.
  • I love watching students walking along campus paths and reading, standing in food lines and reading, and sitting on benches in the sun and reading. I've seen a few students texting and walking, but more of them are reading books and walking. That's somehow reassuring: they apparently didn't get the "death of reading" memos that the media churns out hourly.
  • I especially love watching them because I'm on a strange campus and none of them are my students. Don't get me wrong--I love my students--but it's nice to be on a campus that's not your campus, since if you're on your own campus, people expect you to go to meetings and do other things incompatible with writing.
  • I'd forgotten how much I like working in a library and how much I get done in that atmosphere of enforced academic monasticism. Even with the clatter of work-study students moving books around, it's still a peaceful place.
  • When it's time for a break, I have a choice: there's fresh air and sunshine right outside the door, and there are stacks full of old and strange books to pick off the shelves and leaf through. The best ones are those that have a host of jokes and references that were clearly popular in, say, 1870 but are really obscure today (or should I say "to-day"?). That's the shorthand of a culture, recorded in texts in which the authors didn't even think that that's what they were writing. Who needs cryptological-anthropological mysteries when there's one lying right there on the library shelf waiting for someone to discover it?
  • Sunday, September 13, 2009

    Only of interest to writers

    For the next few days, I'll be in a different place (literally) and am trying to get to a different place figuratively with my writing. New library--new surroundings--new city (I'm tagging along at a conference not in my discipline)--and, I hope, new energy. I've left most of the books behind--that's what libraries are for--and am going to write out of what I know and add the citations later. This is an old trick that I've used before, but someone posted about it recently (Notorious PhD, maybe?), and it's time to pull that rabbit out of the hat again.

    The trouble with a routine is that it becomes . . . routine. As you get tired of thinking your way through some of the ideas, you search for distractions, and if there are blog controversies going on (like the ones at Historiann's and Dr. Crazy's and profgrrrl's), you get all invested in that instead of in your work. These were interesting posts, of course, as were all the responses and comments, but if you're in a routine, that's the trouble. You think about that in the shower instead of about what you'll be writing that day, and that's not good.

    So I won't be weighing in on any controversies, or have anything new to say about job letters, or teaching, or how everyone wants to kill the libraries. I won't be writing any new posts about what are apparently favorite topics here, judging from search results: human hibernation and capturing stills from a DVD. But if I see interesting things that I can post about without giving away too much about the location, I'll do it.

    Goal for the week: some IRL writing and, here on the blog, some 30-second diversions for writers that you won't tax your brain about after you read them.

    Tuesday, September 08, 2009

    Boston Globe: A library without the books

    From the Boston Globe, with some interruptions by me.

    Cushing Academy (yearly tuition: $42,850) is getting rid of its books:
    “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. . . . We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’
    And learn to spout clichéd language like "shape emerging trends and optimize technology"?
    Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.
    I know how Cushing Academy can save $500,000: put in a Starbucks instead. What's the difference? And that way they won't have to train the erstwhile "information specialists" to be baristas, too.
    Tracy and other administrators said the books took up too much space and that there was nowhere else on campus to stock them. So they decided to give their collection - aside from a few hundred children’s books and valuable antiquarian works - to local schools and libraries.

    “We see the gain as greater than the loss,’’ said Gisele Zangari, chairwoman of the math department, who like other teachers has plans for all her students to do their class reading on electronic books by next year. “This is the start of a new era.’’
    And students mark up these books how, exactly? But not everyone is happy with the Brave New World:
    “Unless every student has a Kindle and an unlimited budget, I don’t see how that need is going to be met,’’ Fiels said. “Books are not a waste of space, and they won’t be until a digital book can tolerate as much sand, survive a coffee spill, and have unlimited power."
    So far we agree. But wait--there's more:
    "When that happens, there will be next to no difference between that and a book.’’

    Here's a test: Anyone out there still have a book on a 5 1/4" floppy disk, suitable for reading in the drive on your x286 processor Windows 3.1 system computer? How about a book on a 3" misnamed "floppy disk" or a Zip disk? Still have them? I do. How often do you read them? Daily? Weekly? Never?

    How often do you read from books on paper that are over 100 years old? Daily? Weekly? More than you read the books on computer disks?

    But of course reading old books on paper doesn't "shape emerging trends" or "prioritize the ramfoozle" or whatever the currently fashionable phrase is.

    I know I've ranted about this before. But this is something that deserves a rant every time.

    Monday, September 07, 2009

    Microsoft and Blackboard

    Joshua Kim has an article up at Inside Higher Ed called "5 Reasons Microsoft Will Buy Blackboard." Below are Kim's points, with thoughts (some real, some irreverent).

    "1. The education market will continue to grow and is an important sector for a technology and platform company to have a presence." Kim is right: if it has to do with computers and making money through subscriptions, Microsoft wants a piece of it. Also, education is one of the sectors where Apple is still a significant presence, and the Lords of Redmond may want to chip away at that.

    "2. Buying Blackboard will instantly address the problem of Microsoft loosing relevance in higher education." Kim mentions the threat posed by Google, but it's going to be hard to fight Google's "free" service with Microsoft subscription fees, even if Word can put squiggly red lines under errors like "loosing."

    "3. The CMS market will evolve towards the cloud." But how would we know we were using Blackboard, if the endearingly glacial pace at which it works is gone? When are we going to go and get cups of tea, if not when we click on a page in BB, wander away to put the kettle on while it loads, and then come back once it's finally there? Seriously, the cloud concept could speed things up, and that's a good thing.

    "4. Microsoft could improve the Blackboard experience by bundling in cloud based services such as personal storage, robust presence awareness and collaboration, and integrated calendaring, messaging and e-mail." Yes, these would be improvements, but I'm thinking Microsoft isn't going to give these away for free. If students have to pay for some flavor of Microsoft AND fees for using Blackboard, I can see instructors turning away from this model because it'll be just too expensive for students. Or if Microsoft bundles in its features to create a new Blackboard on steroids (Microboard? Blacksoft?), does anyone want to place a bet that the extra cost won't be bundled in along with the features? Kim mentions that this would improve Blackboard's terrible search feature (one can only hope), but this would probably occur at the cost of having more things sewn up in back of subscription walls and away from what students can actually see. That's frustrating.

    "5. Education is an important core value for the Microsoft culture." It's true, and Kim goes on to say this: "Think of the depth of educational content that Microsoft could capture, share, and distribute in conjunction with a cloud based Blackboard sitting on a universal database of learning materials." This would work well for Microsoft certification programs, but applying it to the liberal arts? We're back in Edupunk-land again. Also, "capture, share, and distribute"? Does this mean "steal currently freely available or public domain content, tie it up behind a subscription wall, and charge for it?" I think we've seen this happen before.

    I also wonder if this hypothetical alliance is coming about 5-10 years too late. A lot of faculty have migrated either to really good work-arounds for online class work (Google docs, wikis, blogs, etc.) that are preferable because they're customizable or solutions like Moodle.

    Saturday, September 05, 2009

    Here are the answers. You guess the questions.

    Invent your own questions. (Hint: One of these is meant to be delivered in a heavily sarcastic tone.)

    1. Not as productive as I'd hoped, and I haven't done nearly enough writing yet, but I'm working on it.

    2. I hadn't planned on coming to campus on that date, but--. Wait. No, I'm not coming in on that date.

    3. I haven't sent that yet, but it's almost done.

    4. As a matter of fact, I haven't had a lot of time to read that book or any of its sequels.

    5. No, I haven't made up the syllabus yet for the course that starts in January.

    6. Sure. It's just one long series of days spent lying in the hammock with a glass of lemonade, what with all the sabbatical time off.

    Wednesday, September 02, 2009

    Writing inspiration

    It's time for a writing inspiration roundup; all of these are from Writers' Rooms at The Guardian. (Go there: the pictures are interesting, too.)

    Justin Cartwright:
    I think the secret with writing is to do it every day. I have in this room more or less everything I need, from reference books to Post-it notes, so that I have no excuse for pencil sharpening. There is a small kitchen, where each day starts with an elaborate coffee ritual.

    Alexander Masters:
    There's no pattern about the way I write, except it's always the first thing I do. I wake up anywhere between 4am and 10am, depending on the merriments of the night before or if a dream jolts me, then scribble, type or slash through yesterday's work till I start to feel a little sick from not eating.

    Miranda Seymour:
    I don't start writing until I've done the research and got an idea pretty clear. When I sit down here, with my laptop, I've got my work pared down to a bunch of typed notes and a page of scribbles about the way the chapter or piece might take shape. It doesn't always take that shape, but I like the reassurance.

    Peter York:
    How could books drive me out of my book room? It's just as well that I write in the same facile way wherever I am - no blocks or anguish, no contemplation, no elaborate revision, no need for love-tokens or nice views. Mine is street-level urban W1, but I usually close the shutters.

    David Starkey:
    I organise my work in the form of a daily diary. Each chapter is strictly chronological but is also monothematic - say, a war, a set of peace negotiations, a joust. I normally begin my first paragraph just before I break for lunch and then work solidly through the afternoon. I start cooking supper at about half past five or six and then go back to the Mac for a final blitz before drinks. Every three or four days, I'll finish a chapter, which James reads over drinks, while I try not to watch his expression. It's better than any publisher's editor and instantaneous.

    Jonathan Bate:
    The very early morning, before the mayhem of the school run, is the best time for sustained writing. If I haven't hit 500 words by breakfast, the day can be forgotten - the rest of it will be squandered on emails, pencil-sharpening and web-surfing.

    Edited to add: Judging my day by Bate's description, I'd better give up right now.

    From The Onion: Ask a College Professor Having Trouble with the Audiovisual Equipment

    From The Onion. Ouch.

    Okay class, so today we are going to be talking about geopolitical competition in Armenia during the Middle Ages. As soon as the projector gets going, we'll start. Sometimes it just takes a few minutes to warm up. Um, while we have a little bit of time, does anybody have any questions? Anything about the reading for today or about what we talked about on Monday? No? Well, just a couple more seconds here and we should be on our way. Hmm, I feel like that light should be green. Anyway, I'll just get started, and when it comes on I'll….Okay, something is definitely not right. The screen should not be blinking like that.

    Tuesday, September 01, 2009

    Off-topic: stop mangling the language, please

    Today I had to go to the Literary Post Office, so I thought I would go when it opened rather than waiting for late in the afternoon when the lines are long. Since Chain Supermarket is on the way, I stopped by there as well since except for tomatoes from the garden and some hummus, I'm pretty much out of food.

    The guy ahead of me bought one thing--gum, maybe--and got some cash back. "Have a nice day!" the cashier called after him.

    Then she turned to me. I had a few things, not much, but I had the reusable, eco-friendly cloth bags I always use with me. The cashiers at Chain Supermarket hate reusable bags, even the branded ones from Chain Supermarket. They don't give you anything back for using them, of course, and they seem to figure that if they can't put your groceries in plastic bags, for an average of 2 items per bag and 10 bags per order, you're wasting their time. Those cloth bags marked me as a troublemaker, right then and there.

    I swiped my card and put in to get some cash back. The cashier looked in her drawer, sighed heavily, and realized that she didn't have enough $20 bills to make up the $40 I'd requested. She counted out some $5 bills and turned to me. "For your ease and convenience, ma'am, there's an ATM in the corner." She was clearly annoyed.

    Not thinking I'd get a lecture with my groceries, I asked, "But doesn't the ATM charge you a fee?"

    "I have no idea. I never use it," she snapped, turning away.

    I was too stunned by the rudeness to say anything, because Northern Clime is generally a pretty friendly and non-rude place. What I should have said was "No, my 'ease and convenience' is best served by getting cash back on the groceries. What you're talking about is your 'ease and convenience.'"

    But all I could think of is that she was talking in the language of the shopping cart return corrals. Because some highly-paid consultant apparently thought Chain Supermarket should give a reason for returning the shopping carts, and because "Return Carts Here" apparently seemed too rude and abrupt, the signs now say "For your safety and convenience, return carts here" or some such thing.

    And none of it is about our safety, ease, or convenience, so why not stop mangling the language and say what you really mean?

    [2013: Updated to add: I did tell the store manager, and he said he'd talk to her. She didn't get fired or anything, which is good, but I've never gone through her line again--life's too short. And I've cut down on shopping there by about 85%]

    Sunday, August 30, 2009

    Choose your own textbook

    The New York Times has an article called "The Future of Reading" about an admittedly small trend in middle schools: students picking their own books to read instead of having teachers select the books. They don't all read the same book; they each choose a book, read it, blog about it, present the work to the class, and so on. The idea is to encourage kids to read, regardless of the content.

    It's not all about student choice, though. If you read between the lines, it's clear that the class is assigned poems so that they can learn about symbolism, imagery, and so on; also, if the teacher believes that the student has chosen a book that's too far from literature (a Transformers comic, say), she'll recommend that the student move on to something more challenging for the next book. Students who don't choose more challenging books hear about it, although it's not clear if this has an effect on their grades.

    I'm intrigued by this idea because, as the article notes, not everyone is able to connect with the classics chosen for the classroom. When I was in school, the principle seemed to be Great Authors' Books That Have No Sex in Them: Silas Marner but not Adam Bede, Death Comes for the Archbishop but not My Antonia, Ethan Frome but not The House of Mirth, and Julius Caesar but not Romeo and Juliet. Those pretty much bored everybody equally (sorry, but back then it was true), but more recently there've been attempts to break it up by gender. Depending on whether the current trend is "OMG! We are leaving behind the boyz" or "OMG! Why should we always read what boys want?" we get either male adolescent adventure or How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. Considering the alternatives, the "choose your own book" idea sounds really great.

    I'm wondering how this might work in a college classroom, or whether it could work there. (I'm not talking about grad seminars, where it could work very well.) We already give students some choices about what they read, but if students had as a common reading only the poems that were assigned in a survey course, for example, what would we do about discussion?

    Could we have a choice of readings from a menu (which would sort of defeat the purpose)? Would you be able to refrain from assigning something that you know "teaches well" and really let the students have a voice?

    If you were teaching a class in Chaucer or early American lit, would the students know enough coming into the class to choose their own readings? Do we have any responsibility to introduce students to certain works (the Wife of Bath's tale, for example)?

    What would you tell the students who come up with variants of the following: "You're the expert, not me. What do you think we should be reading?"

    What's going to happen when students who've had free-range reading through middle and high school get to college and see a book list?

    As usual, I have questions. I don't have any answers.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009

    Edupunk: "Classes? We don't need no stinkin' classes!"

    Dean Dad has a good post about the Edupunk movement, which, once you get past the bad boy rhetoric of the people talking about it, is about taking free content--a course from M.I.T.'s Open Courseware here, an online lecture from Stanford there--and making your own university program out of it, the better to (1) tap into the insatiable desire for electronic content on the part of today's students and (2) bring down costs.

    Here's the part that caught my attention: "While it has yet to get accreditation, the not-for-profit [Peer2Peer University] plans to offer bachelor's degrees in business and computer science using open courseware and volunteer faculty; fees would add up to about $4,000 for a full four-year degree."

    Uh-huh. "Volunteer faculty." What's not to love about working for free? I'm waiting breathlessly to see if the M.I.T. faculty who put their courses online will also forgo their magnificent salaries to participate in this model. Of course faculty who have car payments, mortgage payments, and student loans with lenders notoriously uninterested in being told "sorry, I can't pay you--I'm working for free" will be a little skeptical about this model. Western Governors University has a model that's slightly above free: "For every 80 students, a PhD faculty member, certified in the discipline, serves as a full-time mentor."*

    Let's skip over the salary issues and look at what actually counts: student learning.

    It's possible that students, especially in technical fields, will be able to learn enough to pass the necessary tests. Can this happen in the humanities? I'd like to think that it's possible. Given truly motivated students, a lively online community conducted by wikis or discussion boards or blogs, and interaction with dedicated faculty, the model could work. Some online classes already use the "canned course" model in which everything is put together by a "master teacher" and delivered by someone who's paid to grade papers and deliver the course.

    It seems to me that we (traditional faculty) already use a lot of online content in teaching our courses, but we put it together with a lot more of our own content in ways that create a coherent whole. We discuss the material with our classes. We answer questions. We respond to student writing, and we know when to encourage and when to push the student a little harder. We talk to them. They talk to each other. It's a community of learners. I have an investment in seeing that they learn what they need to learn and that there's a depth of understanding as well as of knowledge.

    But if someone comes to you and says "I've put together these 56 sites and am ready to be tested in this for credit; I just need you to sign off on the fact that I know what I'm talking about," what's your answer going to be?

    *To be fair, WGU isn't working on the same model as P2P, and having 80 students to mentor may work out to the usual courseload that someone in a trad university would carry.