Tuesday, March 31, 2009

OT: Cat 1, Printer 0

I'm sure you all saw this a few years ago on YouTube. Apparently one of my cats watched it, too. Today as I was duplex printing (Save the trees! Save the earth!), Calm Cat came to watch, as he always does. The HP printer I use prints one side, spits out the page part way for the ink to dry, and then draws the page back in to print the other side. This is clearly an affront not to be tolerated, so Calm Cat kept grabbing at the page and tearing it up as it was drawn back into the printer.

Did Calm Cat vanquish the printer? Of course. The print head got stuck, and I spent the next half hour with a pair of tweezers, picking shreds of paper out of the printer's innards. The printer is working now, and it now has an ally against the depredations of Calm Cat: the Spray Bottle of Doom, which is going to work its magic if he gets near the printer again.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

From the Chronicle: Are senior scholars abandoning journal publication?

From the Chronicle, "Humanities Journals Confront Identity Crisis":
Senior scholars, the A-list of academic publishing, seem to submit fewer unsolicited manuscripts to traditional humanities journals than they used to. "The journal has become, with very few exceptions, the place where junior and midlevel scholars are placing their work," according to Bonnie Wheeler, president of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. . . .

Several journal editors said they had observed this trend, and had different theories about it. Maybe it's a natural winnowing, as disciplines evolve and careers move forward. Humanities fields like history and literary studies have become more specialized over the past couple of decades, making more-general journals like PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, perhaps less tempting as venues. Journals go in and out of fashion. Eminent scholars get busier. . . .

The vogue for edited collections may also be distracting scholars. In 2005, James Eli Adams, an associate professor of English at Cornell University, published an article in the Journal of Victorian Culture called "The Function of Journals at the Present Time," in which he argued that the "explosion" of edited collections has tended "to siphon off a great deal of article-length work from senior scholars."
The article goes on to quote Craig Howes as saying that "a book [of articles] is valued more," although as the author of the article, Jennifer Howard, points out, articles in journals are read by more people because of database access.

Any thoughts about this? The last I'd heard, journal publication was a kind of gold standard, with edited collections considered to be maybe 14K to the 18K of journal publication; also, I had heard that edited collections were even harder to place than monographs, due to publishing constraints. What have you heard?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

No wonder full professors are disgruntled if they don't get promoted

From the New York Times, via University Diaries:
In a contentious Feb. 26 deposition between Dr. Biederman and lawyers for the states, he was asked what rank he held at Harvard. “Full professor,” he answered.
“What’s after that?” asked a lawyer, Fletch Trammell.
“God,” Dr. Biederman responded.
“Did you say God?” Mr. Trammell asked.
“Yeah,” Dr. Biederman said.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tech tools and writing inspiration

From BoingBoing, via Academhack, comes Steven Johnson's account of "How to write a book" (it's all worth reading, but I've cut it up here because I don't want to steal the whole thing):
The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text -- and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink . . .

When it comes time to actually write the book, I usually have a pretty clear sense of how the chapters are going to be divided up. . . . And so in the last stage before I actually start writing, I create a little folder in Devonthink for each of the chapters. And then I sit down and read through every single little snippet that I've uncovered over the past year or so of research. But I read through them all, and in reading through them all, I have a completely new contextual experience of them, because I'm at the end of the research cycle, not at the beginning. They feel like pieces of a puzzle that's coming together, instead of hints or hunches.

. . . I grab the first chapter folder and export it as a single text document, open it up in my word processor, and start writing. Instead of confronting a terrifying blank page, I'm looking at a document filled with quotes: from letters, from primary sources, from scholarly papers, sometimes even my own notes. It's a great technique for warding off the siren song of procrastination. Before I hit on this approach, I used to lose weeks stalling before each new chapter, because it was just a big empty sea of nothingness. Now each chapter starts life as a kind of archipelago of inspiring quotes, which makes it seem far less daunting. All I have to do is build bridges between the islands.

I've never used Devonthink because I don't have a Mac. I've tried Evernote (seemed cumbersome) and OneNote (but I only have a trial version), but I keep coming back to plain old Word, which I use in somewhat the same way. Mostly, however, I rely on a blizzard of Post-It notes stuck in books that are piled 6 deep all around my desk, typed notes, scraps written during dull conference presentations, and so on.

Do these tools really make a difference? Or is it the part I've bolded at the end, about starting in a file already full of notes, that makes the difference? Do any of you use these tools?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In which Mr. Thoreau reads my mind

"It is a great relief when for a few moments in the day we can retire to our chamber and be completely true to ourselves. It leavens the rest of our hours. In that moment I will be nakedly as vicious as I am; this false life of mine shall have a being at length."

Henry David Thoreau.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When worlds collide

I was looking over the list of contributors to an essay collection in which I have a piece coming out and started musing "X . . X . . . where have I heard that name?" Then it hit me: X is someone who blogs under his or her own name. There will thus be two bloggers in that collection, at the very least, but only one of us will know that.

It gave me pause, for a minute, although I don't know why it should; I've seen other bloggers on panels at MLA and elsewhere, even though I've never been to a meetup or tried to learn the IRL identities of any pseudonymous bloggers.

But since meatspace and blogworld do ultimately intersect, wouldn't it be great if there were some way, some secret handshake or something, by which we could say to each other "I'm a blogger, too"? Maybe a Masonic handshake or something?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing is fun. Starting is hard.

At the risk of semi-disagreeing with Professor Zero's "A Heretical Post," I have to qualify what she says when she says "Writing is fun. Publishing is easy."

She's right about the writing books that moan about writing and about the Frail Souls who put their hands to their foreheads when telling you how busy they've been. Maybe they have been busy, but they haven't been busy shingling roofs when the temperature is 104 degrees, nor have I, so let's not kid ourselves about the kind of hard work we do. So when is writing fun for me? (Your mileage may vary.)

1. Writing is fun when you're in the flow of it. Unfortunately, that "flow" experience sometimes gets spent on other things, like a piece of grad student writing I was commenting on the other day. My brain was pumping, I was making suggestions that will make the writing better, and I was enjoying that "flow" experience through commenting--but it didn't contribute one word to my own writing.

2. Writing is easy, but starting writing, and thinking about what you want to write, is hard. Over the weekend, when my colleagues were variously skiing, hiking, enjoying conferences, and visiting tropical places, I sat stubbornly in front of the computer monitor while trying not to bang my head on the desk while I tried to think through some concepts for a deadline-driven proposal. I'd like to think that doing worthy things like going to the gym or washing the floor or finishing an article review would help by breaking up the process, but all that does is say to my brain, "Why, you've worked a lot already today, haven't you? I guess you're all done."

From various comments, I'm guessing that my colleagues don't go through this long, slow process of gearing up to write. I've asked them about how they get started writing or if they get stuck a few times, and they look at me as if I've grown two heads. They're more like the people Boice describes in Professors as Writers, or the ones that Silvia describes in How to Write a Lot, who never experience anxiety because they know that they will write every day at a set time, without any of that nasty agony about ideas.

3. Writing is fun once you've finished a piece. Have you ever noticed how right after you finish something, you sort of love it for at least a few minutes? Everything, however minor, gets some admiration right after I finish it, from a politely cranky letter to a state politician to an article that gave me grief. Of course, two hours later I am dissatisfied with it again, but in that immediate glow of relief over finishing something, I'm happy with it and with myself for getting it done.

4. Writing is fun when you see your work in print. Again, like the "I've finished it!" afterglow, this doesn't last. You get the book or journal, you start to read, and soon you notice a sentence that you would totally revise if you had the article back again. But that's the nature of creating anything, isn't it? I've heard of famous directors who had to be barred from the projection room even after their films were released, because they'd try to go in and recut things.

So yes, writing is (or can be) fun, else why be an academic or keep a blog? But if it were easy, I'd be a few thousand words into the next project by now instead of trying to procrastinate by writing a blog post.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sven Birkerts mourns loss of cuneiform, clay tablets

I have a confession to make: despite all the rational reasons for not getting a Kindle, I have been reading far too many reviews of the new version and lingering over pictures and videos of the Kindle 2 in action. "Rational reasons" can't entirely stamp out the lingering techno-envy best expressed by "Shiny! Want it!'

So Sven Birkerts's "Resisting the Kindle" in The Atlantic ought to supply some more ammunition for rationality, shouldn't it? I thought so until I read this in a passage where Birkerts is bemoaning the ability to access the internet and look up something using a Blackberry, claiming that such an ability "abets the decimation of context":
Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—we learned it in school. This essential view of literature and the humanities has been—and continues to be—reinforced by our libraries and bookstores, by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts, the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative time-bound nature of the enterprise. We get this reflexively. . . .
That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.
Here are the problems with that argument:

1. Umm, Mr. Birkerts? That ability to look things up instantly? Not going away any time soon.

2. Also, wouldn't the ability to look things up help to PROVIDE rather than erase context? Doesn't access enable context rather than erasing it?

3. And having a little knowledge about context creates a desire for more, doesn't it? That's why (trumpet flourish) investing in the humanities is a smart idea. "Context of other texts" and "how it moved through the culture"--wait, what's that murmur? Why, it's a chorus of humanities professors saying, "That's what we do! If you want to learn more, we have a wealth of information to share with you, and we want to hear your ideas, too!" For example, I've seen various history blogs make gentle fun of the History Channel enthusiasts out there, but honestly, doesn't the History Channel (at least until it eschewed history for "Haunted History" or "UFO History" or "Big Shiny Man-Gadget History" or whatever it's doing now) help to nudge people toward history courses?

4. Birkerts envisions this context as being transmitted through libraries and bookstores as people scan the books on the shelves. Now, nobody loves browsing in libraries and independent bookstores more than I do, but this option presupposes (1) the leisure to hang out in libraries and bookstores; (2) an acculturation process that values and promotes such an activity; and, for the bookstore, (3) the money to buy books.

I somehow don't think he's envisioning the kind of chain bookstore where Ten Things I Learned from My Dog Morley or Addiction Memoir Confidential or The 365-Day Cat Golfing Calendar are the featured big sellers. Here again is class privilege in action: he's picturing a big-city library or independent bookstore experience for people who have the leisure and means to appreciate it and the cultural tools, granted by a humanities education, to understand what they're looking at.

So the Kindle isn't the problem. Even a dead-tree book won't have the proper context unless there's some kind of additional learning involved. The answer isn't to fret about the Kindle and wish ourselves back in time; it's to support the humanities that make that context possible.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The influential writers meme

The estimable Professor Zero has tagged me for the influential writers meme, and, although I fear that my list can be neither as rich as hers or as critically astute as Lumpenprofessoriat's, here it is. As I understand it, this is supposed to name authors who've inspired you or made you think. I took this to mean writers who had influenced me at an earlier stage of my life (hence the "greatest hits" nature of the list). Also, they don't have to be great writers, but I've left some off that at one point were important to me (how else to explain reading the entire "Strangers and Brothers" series of C.P. Snow one summer?), though I now can't remember why.

Bear in mind that this is done quickly and in no particular order; also, some obscure authors' names have been omitted to protect the guilty (me), and I'm not including critics.
  1. Raymond Chandler
  2. Jane Austen
  3. Laura Ingalls Wilder
  4. George Eliot
  5. Henry James
  6. Emily Dickinson
  7. Thomas Hardy
  8. Andrew Marvell
  9. T. S. Eliot
  10. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. William Shakespeare (it's true!)
  12. Ernest Hemingway
  13. John Milton
  14. Charles W. Chesnutt
  15. Kate Chopin
  16. William Wordsworth (and Dorothy Wordsworth)
  17. Edith Wharton
  18. Emile Zola
  19. Willa Cather
  20. W. Somerset Maugham
  21. Emily Bronte
  22. John Webster
  23. Jean Toomer
  24. Charles Dickens
  25. James Joyce
And now for the tags, also in no particular order (and since I can only tag 25, please consider yourself tagged even if your name is not listed. I tried not to tag anyone who doesn't seem to do memes.)
  1. Bardiac
  2. Mel
  3. Profgrrrl
  4. Lesboprof
  5. Sisyphus
  6. Dr. Crazy
  7. Horace
  8. Fretful Porpentine
  9. Heu Mihi
  10. K8grrl
  11. Bittersweet Girl
  12. Dr. Virago
  13. What Now?
  14. jo(e)
  15. Dance
  16. Philosophy Factory
  17. Dr. Brazen Hussy
  18. The Salt Box
  19. Moria
  20. 10eleven
  21. Historiann
  22. New Kid
  23. PhDme
  24. MuseyMe
  25. Cheese and Responsibility

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The magic box of writing talent

Bardiac has a great post about teaching composition, and I was with her right up to the point where she suggested driving somewhere and asking a comp specialist for suggestions about how to approach teaching certain things. While I respect the field and the research in rhet/comp, and I enjoy being in a group setting (like a conference or a meeting) in which such ideas are discussed, I'm a little wary of this approach. Over the years, I've had some great advice coming out of such one-on-one meetings, and I've also had some less-than-inspiring advice. To wit:
  • A venerable Mina Shaughnessy-inspired exercise that would have had me counting the numbers of errors and keeping a chart of them so that I could then comment on papers by saying things like "Great job! You have 4 fewer apostrophe errors than before!" At least I think this was the idea, because I never followed through with it, because here (although no one asked) is my philosophy of teaching writing: You and I are working together to make you, the student, a better writer. Any exercise that makes me spend more time on your writing than you do by keeping such charts on your writing makes me the owner of your writing, not you. But successful writers have to own their writing, warts and all, or it isn't theirs. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to take responsibility for your writing, and this kind of record-keeping (which I'd find a little creepy and humiliating if I were the student) makes your writing my responsibility and undermines your success.
  • An opposing philosophy that said, in effect, don't pay attention to things like agreement errors ("his, her, their--what's the difference? The language is changing! Get with the program!"), apostrophe errors ("It's dropping out of the language anyway"), and comma splices. If the students wrote enough, they would figure it out eventually, and, given that explanations that didn't rise out of their own experience were useless, it was best to spend the time on writing rather than explanations. Focus on content, not on style--or, to reverse an old saying, "Count the pounds, and the pence will take care of themselves." I do believe in focusing on content, but I also comment on structure, punctuation, sentence construction, and style.
Here's where the magic box of writing talent comes in. I've had a sense sometimes from my upper-division students that they believed that the composition courses they had taken had absolved them from paying attention to these issues. I am not saying that this is what they were taught; as we all know, it's possible to teach something in depth and have a student claim never to have heard of it when it is mentioned the next semester. (I've probably done the same thing when zoning out in a committee meeting.)

No, what I'm saying is that some juniors and seniors come in as if they have been given a magic box of writing talent that they carry into the classroom with them by virtue of their standing as juniors and seniors. This magic box, or certificate, or whatever it is, doesn't need to be opened and erases the need for comments on grammar, style, and punctuation. They're then shocked, and not in a good way, when they get their first papers back and see that comma splices, misplaced quotation marks, and labored sentences have been marked and do count, along with the ideas in the paper. "No one's ever told me not to do that before," some will say (which may not be the case), or "I didn't know you'd be looking at punctuation."

But the thing I want to convey to them is this: no one ever gets a magic box of writing talent, at least one that doesn't have to be opened occasionally to brush up the talents within. It's in fact not a magic box but a toolbox that has to be used consciously, with additions made throughout a writer's lifetime. The tools are accumulated through contact with teachers and editors and the editorial self, who may be even more attuned than editors to the stylistic tricks that a writer overuses ("not just as . . . so too again!"). It's a toolbox and not a magic box because writing is work, not magic, and it's work we all need to learn how to do.