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 clich├ęd 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%]