Monday, May 31, 2010

Eight things no conference-goer wants to hear

  1. "I'll skip this part in the interests of time, but in it I discuss this idea . . ."
  2. "How many of you have read Mildly Obscure Author?" (Half the audience raises their hands, because why else would you go to a panel where said author is likely to be discussed?) "That's great--great! He should be better known. Well, Mildly Obscure Author was born on this date in . . ."
  3. "How much time do I have left?" "You're two minutes over." "All right, I'll just skip to my last few pages, then."
  4. "Since there aren't that many of you in the audience, let's move our chairs into a circle and we'll just talk about what our papers would have said if we'd read them." (This can work on occasion, but usually not.)
  5. ". . . and I've brought along a number of her books so that I can share some passages with you . . ."
  6. Twenty minutes into a supposedly twenty-minute paper: With several pages left to go, Presenter looks up from reading the paper and starts extemporizing: "You know, this reminds me of her other work, Y, in which . . ."
  7. Paper read in a quiet, rapid monotone with no emphasis on any one word so that it's hard to grasp the ideas. We call it "reading" a paper, but we actually should call it "performing" the paper. Sometimes people are nervous, and it can't be helped, but practice the paper ahead of time.
  8. "Our time is officially up, but we can take a few questions from the audience . . ."
Most presenters don't do these things, but there are a few. What else don't you want to hear or see at a conference?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

On writing, from ProfHacker

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Planned Obsolescence) has a good post up at ProfHacker, "The First Half-Hour of the Morning":
This is a lesson that I've had to re-learn repeatedly. I'll find myself, about mid-semester, having a hard time squeezing any writing into my schedule, and it will only slowly dawn on me that the situation is being worsened, if not created, by the fact that I'm starting my day in crisis-management mode, which is a mode I can never get out of once it's set in.

On the other hand, if I start my day with thirty minutes of writing, I'm far more likely to be able to return to the project in some random free block of time later in the day.

So I discipline myself: I climb out of bed, brush my teeth, feed the cats, make the coffee, and then sit down at the computer -- and do not open my email. Instead, I open whatever document I'm currently writing in and set a timer for thirty minutes. And I spend that thirty minutes focusing exclusively on that document.

Because whatever new crisis my email is going to bring me that morning isn't going to get any worse in the next thirty minutes, but getting my focus back once I've allowed the crisis into my morning simply will not work.

This post has stuck with me, even though a lot of bloggers (myself included) have talked about setting aside writing times before. Although some of the commenters say that you can block out any 30 minutes in a day, it's not as easy to shut off your mind as it is to close the office door and turn off the internet.
Fitzpatrick's post reminded me of this study:
She [Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life] recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption. (For more advice, go to
I've noticed this, too: my attention span shortens throughout the day, until it lengthens again in the evening and I can concentrate once again.

A side note: I like ProfHacker, although my reaction is often "hey, I wrote about that a while back/have been doing that for years." What ProfHacker posts on productivity do, though, is remind me of this: if you've written about this before, why aren't you following all those precepts you've been writing about for years?

Application fail.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Service and gender equity

Profgrrrl, Dr. Crazy, Historiann, and Female Science Professor have some great posts about issues that Dr. Crazy grouped together as "Gender, Equality, Mobility": spousal hires (Profgrrrl), salary compression and gender equity (FSP and Historiann), and all three (Dr. Crazy). Go read their posts for some thoughtful commentary.

I'd like to add a fourth one loosely connected with gender: service and promotion.

The MLA Report "Standing Still: The Associate Professor Survey" says it best: "On average, it takes women from 1 to 3.5 years longer than men to attain the rank of professor, depending on the type of institution in which they are employed and regardless of whether they are single, married, or divorced or have children." According to the survey, women report that they do not spend significantly more time on service than men do, although they spend more time on teaching.

I wonder about this, although all I have is anecdata. Do women really spend the same amount of time on service as their male colleagues, or do they just not count some of the kinds of service that they do perform?

I'm thinking of conversations with colleagues from other institutions who are irritated that "the men" in their departments aren't doing X or Y service task. When I asked them why they didn't give the tasks to "the men" instead of taking those tasks on themselves, they laughed and said, "They wouldn't do it! It would never get done."

My belief is that if "the men" wouldn't do Task X or Y, the department would soon figure it out. Either (1) something would go badly awry in the operations of the department, in which case the faculty member who hadn't done the work would come under scrutiny, or (2) it wasn't worth doing in the first place, in which case the female colleagues should give it up, too. Either way, the colleagues weren't doing either themselves or "the men" any favors by completing these tasks.

Were "the men" really slackers, or were these colleagues just unfairly painting an entire gender with the same "slacker" brush? Did my female colleagues count the extra work that they did as service?

Are the kinds of service that women do different from the kinds of service that men do in departments? Does that service have anything to do with rates of promotion?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

So how's your new employee, writing boss?

  • The first week of the "pay yourself" plan went pretty well. I finished the edits on an accepted article and got it sent back, made some inroads into a conference paper due soon, and got some textbooks ordered and a secondary reading list started for the fall. The textbook order and reading list weren't the scholarly work I'd assigned myself to do, of course, but it did need to be done, and I got to perform the magical operation of crossing an item off the to-do list. Yes, I am one of those people who will write an item on the list just for the pleasure of crossing it off later.
  • Once again, I discovered that my favorite time to write is really in the evening. The house quiets down, the sky opens out in darkness, and it's just me, the computer screen, and ideas. This would be perfect if I didn't wake up unbidden at 5 a.m. every day regardless of when I get to sleep.
  • The write at night/get up early syndrome may explain why yesterday was a trance day. I got a fair amount of reading done, but every time I stopped moving for too long, I fell asleep.
  • On the other hand, getting up early means that I can walk early, thus being exposed to the smell of early morning (which dissipates by about 9 a.m.). I can't explain it, but the air just smells different at that time. I'm working on a theory that it is somehow much better for the brain to get out and walk then since there are some kind of special chemicals that will make writing better later.
[Edited because no one needs to hear my Cassandra-like political ruminations.]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Being your own boss, scholarship edition

Since September, I've been putting some money in the bank each paycheck because I wanted the time to write this summer instead of teaching a summer course. This is in part an extension of the "book review mantra"; I can manage with less money (I hope), given what I've saved, but I can't get back the writing time that I'd usually spend grading and teaching.

Now here's the part that sounds a little crazy: what I've saved isn't exactly as much as a summer course, but I'm thinking of it as my salary for the next 6 weeks. I have $X amount per week, and thus $Y amount per day, that I am paying myself to write. If I don't write, I'm not only wasting time; I'm wasting money. Every day I don't write is not simply a day that I could have gotten some writing done; it's a day when I could have been teaching and making money instead.

In a way, it's not terribly different from what we usually do when we think about writing and productivity. Somehow, though, having to account for that $Y at the end of the day as well as for a word count seems to give the whole thing a different twist.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Lessons from Mom

Lessons I'm glad I learned from my mother (although she didn't put them in these words), with commentary:
  • A person who treats you abusively once will do so again. Make the first time the only time. You're better than that, so walk away and don't look back. This was phrased in terms of if a boyfriend ever grabbed you roughly, but it's a great lesson for psychological abuse as well as physical abuse--and men aren't the only ones capable of being abusive, either.
  • Don't make any rules you're not willing to enforce consistently or statements you're not willing to stand behind. I picked this up from her based on parenting, but it really applies to pets, children, students--really, everyone. For example, don't write a policy on your syllabus unless you're willing to enforce it. If you're going to have exceptions, make them available to everyone, not the students who will beg the hardest.
  • Trust your instincts.
Lessons I wish I hadn't absorbed:
  • Education is all right, and so is working for a year or so as a teacher, but the real goal of a successful woman is to get married so you don't have to work again ever. She denies now that this is the case, but it was the clear message when I was growing up. I may have been the last person in the U. S. to hear this message.
  • Only stupid people need to do homework or work hard at school. A B without effort is better than an A you worked for.Boy howdy, did this one cause me problems!

Monday, May 03, 2010

If they only knew . . .

  • that sometimes their papers are so interesting that I have to set a timer so that I can stop commenting and go on to the next one.
  • that sometimes their papers have so many problems that I have to set a timer so that I can stop trying to untangle their sentences and go on to the next one.
  • that sometimes I laugh out loud because they've said something so clever or witty or insightful or true that I can't help it.
  • that sometimes I try to stop myself from exclaiming out loud if I've entered the paper zone known as the Howling Wilderness of Factoids and Generalizations.
  • that the test of perfection in MLA citation style is its invisibility: if it's done correctly, I won't notice it and will feel more free to concentrate on what they're saying.
  • that in reality I care a whole lot less about correct MLA citation style than they think I do.
  • that although I am impartial in that I look at each paper as a fresh start and not based on what the student has done before, sometimes I can hear their voices as I read.
  • that although I have an elaborate bookkeeping system for tracking who turned in what and when, at this point in the semester I may forget that something came in a little late.
  • that if they didn't turn in something despite a reminder from me, I have to tell myself it's not my fault, and I spend more time thinking about their failure to turn it in than I should.
  • that I think about this even though I know that they may be attending my classes for all sorts of reasons, and doing the best work that they can do may not be at the top of their list of life priorities right now.
  • that I'm looking forward as much as they are to the real end of the semester, when finals are over and grades are in, and I can be put back into my pod person teacher closet (as they see it) until next fall.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

From The Chronicle: "A Gentle Reminder to Special Collections Librarians"

"A Gentle Reminder to Special Collections Librarians" is not for the many friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable Special Collections librarians out there. No, it's for the ones who look at you as though you are standing there with matches and a can of gasoline if you ask to see an item. It's by a Yale Special Collections librarian, Todd Gilman, who was not able to see a collection he was both knowledgeable about and interested in because it was guarded by Cerberus a librarian who "believed she was doing her job—that her behavior was justified because I was foolish enough to just 'turn up' expecting to use 'her' collection." He adds this as the lesson:
Let this, then, serve as a gentle reminder to rare-book curators that your job is not to keep readers from your books but just the opposite: to facilitate readers' use of the collections. If altruism or professional integrity aren't sufficient motivators to get you to play nice, you might consider the fact that you have a job only because people want to read what's in those collections, and you will keep your job for only as long as readers feel welcome to approach you to make use of the materials.
I've had both kinds of treatment (mostly good) in visits to archives, but I always assumed that the few instances of bad treatment occurred because I was not one of the Elect in whatever way the local librarian chose to define it.

Have you found helpful librarians, or is Todd Gilman's experience more universal than not?