Monday, September 27, 2010

Signs of the times: "Why do they hate us?"

This isn't as much a post as a link roundup of posts explaining why the educated middle class is to blame for--well, just about everything. The title riffs on Thomas Hart Benton's musings of the same name at The Chronicle.

1. For a minute or two, I thought the Chronicle had let up on the professor-bashing, and Benton does give some logical answers to his questions (albeit ones that we've mostly discussed on blogs before). But fearing that he's gone too far, he slides into his hairshirt and admonishes us to do the same:
But perhaps it is enough to say that the reason we feel more "hated" than ever is that we deserve it. Instead of collaborating, we competed with each other. We focused on our research instead of on the needs of undergraduates. We even exploited our graduate students, using their labor to underwrite our privileges, and then we relegated most of them to marginal positions as adjuncts. We waited too long to institute reforms to our profession, and now—after 40 years of inaction—the reforms are going to be forced upon us.
You hear that, you academic Marie Antoinettes? It's not that education has been systematically defunded over the past forty years, or that tenure-track jobs have been decimated, or that administration and college athletics have fattened themselves at the expense of instruction. It's not even that economic conditions and laws designed by the wealthy and for the wealthy have gutted the middle class, or that the richest 1% of Americans have gone from taking in 9% of the country's income in the 1970s to 23% in 2007. Nope, it's all our fault, because while the media were breathlessly waiting to hear what we had to say, we squandered the opportunity by bickering, and being selfish, and saying "let them eat cake," and all that.

2. Feeling guilty yet? No? Maybe that's because you're not a lazy librarian. Now, the public librarians I've known have worked very hard for very little money, but Santa Clarita just privatized its libraries and outsourced the work to a foreign-owned company, L.S.S.I., whose spokesperson makes the following winsome pitch about his love of learning in wanting to run the library:
“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
See, what regular librarians with a living wage and pensions do is "never have to do anything." What his workers will do for a pittance, besides enrich the pockets of investors and retire into poverty, is "work."

3. Still not convinced that the economic downturn is the fault of the college-educated middle class, with special guilt points if you're engaged in trying to keep knowledge alive? You're supposed to die if you're over 50 and don't have a job; everybody knows that. The conservative columnist Megan McArdle will show you the error of your ways in The Atlantic, but I'll let alicublog recap her two most recent posts for you:
4. Actually, the one person who seems to get why they hate us and say so honestly is Warren Buffett. From the New York Times, 26 November 2006:

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Too ranty? Maybe I should take this down. Let me know.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Philip Roth on writing

From this month's Esquire, Philip Roth on writing (p. 186):

Has the writing gotten any easier?

That's hard to answer. There are days and weeks that are very difficult. I've never been without the struggle. When I started writing, I did have false starts. I would write seventy-five, a hundred pages of something and toss it aside. I don't do that. I don't make false starts any longer. So that's an improvement.

Who knows what'll happen in the next ten years. Maybe it'll get better. Maybe it'll get worse. I don't know. At this stage of the game, you don't know what's going to happen. You see different writers as they get old, what happens to them. Some shut down. Some write sporadically--the way Bellow did it.

I have a slogan I use when I get anxious writing, which happens quite a bit: "The ordeal is part of the commitment." It's one of my mantras. It makes a lot of things doable.

Mine is from a fat relief pitcher, Bob Wickman: You gotta trust your stuff.

That's very good. I used to have little things over my desk at various times. One of them was "Don't judge it." Just write it. Don't judge it. It's not for you to judge it.

I have four or five friends who I ask to read my final drafts and to say whatever they want to say to me about it. I put it through that sieve, and they tell me what they think about it, and then I consider it and make changes if it seems appropriate. Often it does.

[See also Historiann's post on scholars writing about writing.]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Today in numbers

  • Approximate number of words written today: about 3,000.
  • Number of words that had anything to do with my own writing: 0.
  • Number of words in letters of recommendations, etc.: about 3,000.
  • Number of words in emails: who counts?
  • Most frequent interjection: "Don't you dare quit on me, screen! Don't you dare go all white and fuzzy with a "Not responding" sign. Don't you know I'm 2 hours into this letter already? What's that? The little Vista spinning blue circle that means the system is going nowhere fast?"
  • Number of times I sat and watched the little circle spin: who counts?

Monday, September 20, 2010

A new reason for writing class notes by hand

The New York Times Magazine has an article about middle-school students using the Livescribe pen (used to be Pulse Pen) in class. Short version: it's helping them, for several reasons:
  • They can focus more on what the teacher's saying instead of trying to write down everything, since the pen captures the audio of the lecture. One student just writes down "LIST" if the teacher is rattling off a series of items; he then goes back to fill in the list.
  • They can review the material with the audio and fill in their notes later.

I suspect that part of the benefit here is that with this pen, students are actually going over their notes more than they used to. They're also able to relax and listen to the teacher, which may take away some anxiety.

Of course, one education expert is raining on this particular parade. Lisa Nielsen, who works for the school district, doubts whether this is useful; teachers should instead be pulling in YouTube videos and web sites from "content experts" because, after all, students who were given (and probably memorized) a teacher's PowerPoint slides did better on a test than those who listened in class. They don't need to "write down everything that the teacher says."

Well, who said they did? The point of the article is that students don't have to write down everything but that they tend to be more focused--in part because if they're talking instead of paying attention, the pen picks that up, too.

I wonder, though, how much information those students retained after a few weeks and whether those given PowerPoints were able to recall the information as well as the others. The article doesn't say, but it does predict that maybe having one good note-taker in a class would allow everyone else to stop taking notes.

I think this misses the point. For a lot of people (myself included), making those marks on a piece of paper while listening helps you to focus and remember the content better. The marks can be notes, or they can be doodles; it's the process of making the marks that helps. If you write notes instead of drawing a giant, tattoo-like picture in your notebook, the notes may help you later, but for concentrating at that moment, both kinds of making marks seem to accomplish the same thing.

At any rate, it'd be interesting to see if this worked in a college classroom. It would be right up there with the other invention I'd like to see: a giant tilted mirror at the back of the room like those in stage musicals, so that I could see who's taking notes and who's writing vital Facebook updates.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Productivity roundup

You know how the conventional wisdom is to break up your exercise routine so that you don't get too bored with it and so that your muscles will get stretched in different ways? Maybe productivity is like that, too, so here are some new links, mostly from business. A lot of it is stuff we know, but hearing it in a different form somehow gets me revved up to get back to work.
  • Presentation Zen has a 10-minute video of John Cleese talking about creativity. Among his points: (1) Create an oasis or "tortoise enclosure" for yourself by limiting the time and space in which you work and (2) If you sleep on a problem, often the answer will come to you. The same video is at Ewan McIntosh's site, along with a list of Cleese's points.
  • Sebastian Marshall's post on "What gets measured, gets managed" suggests a level of record-keeping for productivity (and life!) that's well beyond what I could ever manage but that does work.
  • Ryan Waggoner suggests the "pomodoro technique" using a timer (25 minutes of work/5 minute break), which is basically the "sprints" method that a lot of us use. It's a variation on a technique called "timeboxing," which is what Cleese is recommending.
  • The ever-trusty Lifehacker has a post recommending that the timer you use should be an external timer, not one that sits on your computer desktop; the post includes links to good (free) timing applications, though.
  • Don't forget all the productivity posts at ProfHacker, too.
For a little eye-candy for all you library-lovers, check out the middle picture in this sequence. It's from an article about a couple who bought the house next to theirs and remodeled it into a library. (As seen at Nicole and Maggie's)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bookless library, meet bookless book

We may have a winner in the "let's kill all the libraries" sweepstakes. Inside Higher Ed reports on"A Truly Bookless Library" at the University of Texas at San Antonio:
The difference between the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library and other science-focused libraries is not that its on-site collection is also available electronically.

It is that its on-site collection is only available electronically. . . .

San Antonio says it now has the first actual bookless library. Students who stretch out in the library’s ample study spaces — which dominate the floor plan of the new building — and log on to its resource network using their laptops or the library’s 10 public computers will be able to access 425,000 e-books and 18,000 electronic journal articles. Librarians will have offices there and will be available for consultations.
In other words, UTSA has built a library, a.k.a. a large expensive room with comfy chairs, so that students can do exactly what they can now do from their dorm rooms and the local Starbucks. Frankly, I don't know how it calls itself a library. From what I can gather, it lacks even the basics, such as an espresso stand or a set of treadmills.

More seriously, I can see how a College of Engineering may not need books; I don't know enough about the scholarship of engineering to say. What does confuse me is why UTSA felt that it needed to dedicate a space called a "library" when what they're envisioning is a place for students to hang out and talk to each other. Does UTSA not have a student union? Is there not a room in there which could be designated a "library" or quiet studying space? My assumption is that UTSA must be rich enough not to worry about it, so I won't worry about it, either.

My question is more about the bookless books in the bookless library--the 425,000 e-books that will be available to students. I have three basic questions:

1. Does UTSA have licenses enough for them all (something that's brought up in the comments at IHE)? Let's assume that two professors assign an outside reading from one of these books in their 100-section lecture classes. Does UTSA have 200 licenses for this book, or are some students going to be shut out?

Disclosure: I've had this happen in much smaller classes once when I assigned a reading from a licensed e-book. The first person was able to check out the book for 24 hours under the university's license and everyone else was out of luck--and very vocally unhappy when the class next met. I never used an online book in that way again for exactly that reason.

2. The second one may be more idiosyncratic: it has to do with the handling of books. Historiann's recent post details some of the issues, such as not being able to mark up the books as easily and not being able to flip back and forth as you can with a paper book. I'd agree, and to these I'd add another: doesn't the sheer amount of screen-time that you get from reading things online, even on a dedicated device, contribute to some eyestrain and fatigue? There's something about switching media (screen to paper and back again) that rests the eyes in ways that a prolonged exposure to one or the other can't accomplish.

3. Will UTSA check in with its students to see how they're faring in this brave new world? I'd be interested to see if they're taking some kind of benchmark measurements about what students know/how much they read and will check again a few years down the road.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I've been thinking about writing about audiobooks for a while, and Tenured Radical's recent post has inspired me to do so.
  1. It's easier to keep several books going at one time and keep your mental place in them than it is with print books. I don't know why this is, but I can click on Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello after a couple of weeks spent on, say, Lyndall Gordon's Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds or Simon Schama's Rough Crossings and still recall what's going on with the Jefferson-Hemings family very well.
  2. Since you can't skim and can't easily jump ahead when you're driving, if a chapter is dense with an intricate accounting of financial documents, you have to be able to tolerate the less-than-gripping stretches where you'd usually skim.
  3. It's also hard for me to get past the "I paid for this, so I ought to listen to it" sense of a book, much harder than it is to put down a dull print book that I've bought. I did skip a chapter of David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History but now don't feel that I can say I've read it. Of course, can you ever say you've "read" an audiobook?
  4. On the other hand, as you listen you really do get a sense of every word, although you can't mark or highlight the text as you would when you're reading. I've listened to some literary works that I knew well and have picked up on additional nuances just by listening to the audio version.
  5. I hope this doesn't sound too shallow, but the narrator/reader can make a difference. For example, some readers do the accents when they read quotations, and some don't. The reader for Lives like Loaded Guns, who sounds a little like Julie Andrews most of the time, does a kind of dry, scratchy New England accent when she reads the words of the Dickinson family (lower voice for Edward and Austin, higher for Emily). John Slattery (yes, that John Slattery) does a great job with accents and the regular narration in A Farewell to Arms, although I didn't even realize that he was the narrator for a while. ("Why does that voice sound so familiar? Oh, wait--")
  6. I hate it when the recording engineers or producers or whoever decide to snip out too many natural pauses in the editing process. I couldn't say for sure that that's what happened in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, but listening to that one for too long will leave you breathless since there aren't pauses where you'd expect them.
  7. Buy an abridgment only if you're up for the challenge of figuring out what's going on, since a lot of them seem to simply lop out random chapters. I've bought a few by mistake and been mightily confused with a random character pops up in the last third of the book.
  8. With audiobooks, you're limited to what's available. I've downloaded some books from Librivox but mostly go through (2 books/month for $22). Having a limited set of choices isn't necessarily bad since it forces you to read things you might not pay $35 for in a bookstore. For example, I might have given a casual glance to Martha A. Sandweiss's Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line if I'd seen it at a book exhibit, but since it was available in audio form, I bought it and it was excellent.
Does anyone else listen to audiobooks?
[Edited to add links.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Of newspapers, libraries, and H. L. Mencken

Tenured Radical has an interesting post up about her travails in getting the paper copy of The New York Times delivered early enough to read it before it ends up in the recycling bin. Hearing that the NYT is going to an online-only model in the future, she concludes with this: "Then I was struck by a brighter thought. At a certain point you have to stop running from a problem, and do the sensible thing: throw money at it. So off to the iPad store I go." She also writes about Jeffrey Hamburg and Anthony Grafton's article on saving the Warburg Library.

I've experienced some of what she's talking about-- (I used to subscribe to the Sunday NYT but had to give up because it usually arrived on Tuesday)--but the part about the Warburg Library was what caught my attention.
A visionary scholar, Warburg was obsessed with cultural exchanges of all kinds and in all periods, and tinkered throughout his life with new ways to frame and display visual images, in order to reveal their interconnected meanings across time and space. His unconventional tool for studying this shifting web of historical relationships was a picture atlas that remained in perpetual flux, and to which he gave the name Mnemosyne, or memory.
The library is in danger of having its special character changed and its stacks closed, not to mention the possibility of having parts of its collection sold, which would, of course, destroy the connections and interconnected meanings that were possible by seeing the materials in context. (Go read the article, which says this much better.)

Not everyone agrees, I know, but regular libraries foster those connections in a smaller way when you browse the stacks. There's a process, and I don't know what to call it, when you're gathering information on a topic and working with its concepts in the back of your mind. You browse through your own books, or journal articles, or the library stacks, and suddenly you're making more connections. Conferences have always helped with this, but in recent years, the online bookstores (, Powells, and university press web sites) added to the process, as have Google Scholar, Google Books, and the online journal databases. It's not exactly research, because you're not "searching" so much as "informing" yourself in a casual way, and it's also not research because it's not in depth. You skim information; you don't take notes on it. But it's a useful and important process, because it feeds your mind with pieces of information that may not seem useful at first but may arise at a later state in the project. It's our own version of the picture atlas, maybe.

Why H.L. Mencken? Because Mencken believed in the value of books, and because Hamburg and Grafton quote him to good effect:
A center of European culture and a repository of the Western tradition that escaped Hitler and survived the Blitz may finally be destroyed by British bean counters. It is a picture, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “to bemuse the vulgar and to give the judicious grief.”
And because it's his birthday, of course!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Random bullets of this week so far

  • I think I've talked to more people this week than I talked to all summer. It's exciting to talk with students about their plans and projects. It's exciting to teach. It's exciting to go to the library and get books.
  • It's also tiring. Last week was so exciting in that way that all I could do for two days of the weekend was fall asleep every time I sat down, not that I sat down if there was any chance of lying down. According to those around me, I was a little less animated than the inhabitants of Zombieland, with less color in my face.
  • I read the "10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly" at the Chronicle and paused at this:
    2. Set goals based on output, not input."I will work for three hours" is a delusion; "I will type three double-spaced pages" is a goal. After you write three pages, do something else. Prepare for class, teach, go to meetings, whatever. If later in the day you feel like writing some more, great. But if you don't, then at least you wrote something.
    While I really like this goal, on some days, that means I would be teaching at 11:30 at night if I waited until I got three double-spaced pages.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

We need to get better at making analogies

Just to let you know in advance: no positivity here.

There's another article on tenure at the New York Times; it's Christopher Shea's review of those books attacking tenure that we've all seen in the news. After repeating the false assertions, he defends university professors. To Hacker's and Dreifus's airy (or should I say "windy"?) assertions that professors barely work anyway and could write books on the weekends, Shea writes:
But it seems doubtful that, say, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the acclaimed Civil War history by Princeton’s James McPherson, could have been written on the weekends, or without the advance spadework of countless obscure monographs. If it is false that research invariably leads to better teaching, it is equally false to say that it never does.
Shea then makes the accurate point that public institutions are being gutted while some wealthy institutions have fared much better. I saw a connection here to what Robert Reich asserts in his Op-Ed piece:
Where have all the economic gains gone? Mostly to the top. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.
Anyway. Let me climb down from this soapbox and make a point. We need to get better at explaining that the "few hours a week" we spend in class is actually the culmination of a lot of work--the payoff period. Think about it:
  • Do we say that wheat farmers only work a couple of weeks in August and make the big bucks for their year doing two weeks' worth of work? Of course not. There's a lot that goes into farming, including planting, harrowing, spraying, etc., but if you look only at the payoff period of harvest, that's what you'd say.
  • Does a clergyperson work only for the hour on his/her holy day that he/she delivers a sermon, leads prayers, or whatever?
  • Does a salesman work only when he/she makes a big sale? That's the payoff period, so we should only count those hours when we figure what the salesman's annual wage works out to, right? All the sales that didn't pan out, all the prep work--they don't count as work, if you use the calculus that academic critics use.
  • Does a manager only do real work when he/she presents at a major meeting? The rest of the work (staff meetings, writing reports, managing people, etc.) doesn't count, because it's not the "payoff period."
  • Does a surgeon only get paid for the time he/she is actually in surgery operating on patients?
These aren't great examples, of course; that's why we need better ones. And this wouldn't address the serious problems and academic injustices that Shea also mentions (adjunctification of the work force, etc.) But among the most damaging attacks on academe is the idea that we only work a few hours a week. Maybe we could start countering that with some good analogies.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Life of the zoned-out mind, or thoughts while copying

Notorious Ph.D. has an interesting post called "Life of the Mind" in which she notes that a lot of bloggers are setting up times for reflection (like Heu Mihi), doing yoga, or attempting to be positive in a sea of negativity. I like this post because it gave me a different way to think about spending time at the library getting materials, which I did for a couple of hours this week and last.

Now, not everything is online, as you may have heard a few thousand times, and having to get bound periodicals and other materials in the stacks is a mixed blessing. On one hand, you're spending a lot of time doing something that's taking you away from writing, but on the plus side, you get to browse the stacks, and I found a lot of potentially useful items to check out.

When I got to the copiers, though, I started to think that other faculty have research assistants or departmental work-study students or maybe personal assistants (yes, some faculty have these!) to do this work, because there was a notable dearth of faculty types around, although to be fair maybe I just go to the library at odd times. I put my stack of journals on the table and settled in to copying, which is a slower process with the new scan-and-copy copiers than with the best of the old copy-only ones. It was just me and a row of under-20-year-olds, copying away. *

You can't really do anything else when you're making a copy, because you're flipping pages and pushing buttons and checking to be sure that you got everything. You can't text or check email, and you have to keep track of what you're doing. You're in the copy zone. It's a little like knitting, maybe, but you're surrounded by snippets of words and pieces of paper, so you have to pay some, but not too much, attention.

It was while I was in the copy-mind zone, though, that I got a terrific idea for a new course and also figured out what I wanted to do with a piece of writing.

I'd been thinking of the copying as an inefficient process (which it is) and a distraction from writing time (which it also is) and something that other faculty don't seem to spend time doing (which may or may not be true). When I read Notorious Ph.D., though, I realized that I could think of it as a different kind of enforced thinking time. How's that for positivity?

Incidentally, am I the only person who still needs to get articles from bound journals once in a while?

*Edited to add: Now that I think of it, the 20-somethings were not actually using the copiers but just milling around a row of empty ones. I'm guessing that the bound journals don't hold a lot of attractions for them.