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.]