Thursday, October 28, 2010

Get happy

There's a lot of talk about salaries in the profession around the blogosphere right now. Tenured Radical has some posts about it. Dr. Crazy, Roxie's World, and Historiann have good posts about the problem, too, as does squadratomagico, although hers is a very different perspective.

Given the talks happening all over about how we can best implement the English Department of the Future and hearing from friends of friends about tenured people being let go because of financial exigency, I'm not sanguine about the possibility of change. Not sanguine? That's putting it mildly. Actually, TR's post depressed the living daylights out of me for a few days because it revealed just how low my salary is by comparison.

TR suggests forming a union or joining AAUP, but as Dr. Crazy says,
And I’ll tell you: I get irritable when people talk about unionizing as if it’s the answer to any of the above problems, because that’s not a model that is likely to have any traction in my state, and so when people hold up unions as the answer, I feel like they are closing their eyes to my working conditions and the realities of my location, applying a solution that would work for them in a one-size-fits-all sort of way that certainly isn’t going to fit where I live and work.

In the present economic climate at my university, taking steps toward a higher salary would be like saying "I'm going to hold my breath until I turn blue unless you give me a unicorn." See, nobody's got a unicorn right now, and increasingly they don't have jobs, either. You're welcome to turn blue all you want; it's not going to change the budget numbers.

I don't have any answers, but a little Judy Garland might help to lift our collective spirits:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Reliably unreliable"--a good way to look at it

Over at Profhacker, Nels Highberg has an interesting post about being what he calls "reliably unreliable" when answering email.
I know what it’s like to have a student email me at 12:17 AM with a question about an essay due that same day at 9:30 AM, and then they complain that I was unresponsive. I know what it’s like to have a colleague call my office and leave a voicemail on Friday after 5:00 PM asking me to take care of something before a workshop set to start the next day at 8:30 AM (a workshop I am only supposed to attend and not help coordinate), and then they express shock that I chose to walk from the parking lot to the workshop and bypass my office, missing their request entirely. In such cases, I no longer feel bad.
Count me in on the "reliably unreliable" club, Nels. First of all, the student is going to complain if you respond at any time later than 12:18, because a student writing at that hour wants an answer now, so it's pointless to indulge that kind of behavior, unless you're awake and feel like answering. And if a colleague leaves a message on an office voicemail over the weekend and expects an answer (voicemail? really?) before the weekend is over, an "Are you serious?" is the best response he or she can expect.

Why wouldn't you answer an email right away, if you've read it?
  1. Because it teaches everyone (not just students) unrealistic expectations about instantaneous responses. It's not always, or even mostly, students who demand this kind of attention.
  2. Because if, say, someone in your department has initiated some kind of discussion over the weekend, then you're hooked into the conversation: if you give them one response, they'll want you to continue to engage in the discussion. There is no departmental discussion so gripping that it can't wait until Monday, and if there is, you don't want to be part of it. No good will come of it.
  3. Because you ought at least to pretend that you have a life and are not hanging out waiting for people to shovel work into your lap on the weekend.
This goes double for long, involved emails. "E-Mail Auto Response" at the New Yorker has this one just about right:
Please note that if your e-mail is more than three (3) sentences in length I have read the first three (3) sentences, skimmed the opening paragraph, and sort of eyeballed the rest of it. Please do not expect a response to your e-mail anytime soon, if at all, for I am not a mind reader, and therefore cannot guess the nature of anything beyond the first three (3) sentences.
For me, it depends on a few things, though not all at once:
  1. Is it short enough to answer quickly? Is it going to require that I look something up or otherwise compose something more elaborate than a sentence or two?
  2. Is it going to nag at the back of my mind if I don't answer it? Is it faster to answer the email than to think about it? (Zeigarnik effect: if you take care of it, you can forget it faster.)
  3. Do I get to check something off my to-do list by answering it?
  4. Is it respectfully phrased, logical, etc.? If it shows that the writer has an attitude problem (rudeness), then it goes to the bottom of the pile for response when I get around to it, which will probably be never.
So do you take your time answering emails?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

E-textbooks (again): students prefer dead tree versions

At the New York Times, Lisa Forderaro expresses surprise that the students at Hamilton College prefer print textbooks to the digital kind (which, she notes correctly, you "rent" instead of buying). Why do the students prefer paper to screens?

  • “The screen won’t go blank,” said Faton Begolli, a sophomore from Boston. “There can’t be a virus. It wouldn’t be the same without books. They’ve defined ‘academia’ for a thousand years.”
  • “Last semester, I rented for psychology, and it was cheaper. But for something like organic chemistry, I need to keep the book. E-textbooks are good, but it’s tempting to go on Facebook, and it can strain your eyes.”
These seem like sensible answers to me. If even twenty-somethings are feeling eyestrain, that's good to know.

Also, as Forderaro says, "Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way." This doesn't seem to dissuade the digital true believer, though:

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”
This is true but not true, and, paired with the idea about writing in margins, flipping through the books, etc., suggests that students are somehow not thinking clearly but clinging blindly to an old tool.

Hold on a minute. Aren't students the people most likely to try out a new format and discard the old one if they decide it's more useful, and haven't they done this repeatedly with various technologies and practices, right down to the sophisticated methods of plagiarism that we all complain about? Except for the comment about books defining academia, which shows a quite admirable sentiment, all of the objections have nothing to do with "don't want to change what I'm used to" and everything to do with "the e-textbooks just don't work as well for me."

I don't think they're being resistant. I think they're making a rational choice about what works best for them.

The line of reasoning that considers resistance to using a particular technology as a particular kind of obstinacy reminds of other experiments (not to mention the hilarious Professor Pushbutton machine that Historiann found). Does Duke still give out iPods to its freshman class? Is Reed College continuing with its KindleDX program?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't experiment with these technologies; we should, and we should keep trying. But we should also be willing to see that if they don't work well, it's not a statement about resistance to technology but about using the appropriate tool for the job.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blogs of ages past

The decision of the BitchPhD bloggers and BitchPhD herself to close up shop has a number of current bloggers like Roxie's World and Dr. Crazy and AnnieEm thinking about blogs that have shut down and the nature of blogging. (AnnieEm says that Berube's quitting, too, but he quit before for a year or two and then came back, so here's hoping.)

Like the moms at Roxie's World, I used to read BitchPhD in the early days when it seemed like one earnest, passionate voice, and I sort of trailed off when it became a group blog, not because the group bloggers were less earnest but because I missed that original voice. If I think about what draws me into reading blogs, it's the voice of the blogger.

Now, at BitchPhD, I found a lot of good stuff, although sometimes I felt as though I were being told the One Best Way to be a feminist. Sometimes I agreed, and sometimes I didn't. But that's the point, with a blog: if a blogger doesn't care about what he or she is writing, what's the point of blogging? I'm not talking about writers' blogs that are really press releases (here's my itinerary for the latest press junket, and here's a picture of my book with a convenient link), but blogs written primarily not for commercial purposes. You can disagree, but you don't doubt that the person cares.

There are a lot of great new blogs now (see blogroll!), but I'm thinking of blogs that have shut down over the past few years whose voices I miss. Mel at In Favor of Thinking would be one, especially her post on grading championships. MaggieMay (and her stories) would be one, and JustTenured would be another. Dr. Brazen Hussy just shut down recently, which leaves entirely open the Angry Bird Banding section of the blogosphere, among other things. There are others, too, whose blog titles I can't remember but whose voices I can.

I guess if this were a banquet, I'd raise a virtual glass to those bloggers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

iPad as classroom text reader: a thought experiment

As I've done more reading on the iPad, I've wondered what it might be like to use it in a literature classroom. I'm inspired partly by the posts over at Teaching, Learning, and Living with an iPad, a site that's chronicling a writing class in which all the students received iPads. Some thoughts:
  • Reading on the iPad is nice. It hasn't been hard on the eyes, and the page-turning capabilities are a lot faster than those on the Kindles I've seen. Like the Kindle, it has a dictionary function, a notes function, etc.
  • As it currently exists, the iPad has one advantage over a standard netbook or laptop if you use it in the classroom: no multitasking. Wait--that really is a feature and not a bug, since students wouldn't be able to Facebook while you're hoping they're following the text. That feature will disappear with the next system update, however.
  • The down side is that students wouldn't be able to keep a text open and write their notes beside the text, which in an ideal world they would be doing instead of Facebooking.
  • The book situation wouldn't work as it does for the tech writing class. First, in testing various e-textbooks over this past year, I learned you don't "buy" an e-textbook in the sense that you keep it permanently (or sell it back to the bookstore); you rent it for a specific period of time, usually one semester or maybe 6 months. This costs about 80% of what it would cost to buy the book. This isn't necessarily good or bad, but since lit students, unlike students in the sciences or tech writing, may want to keep their books for later reference, buying an e-textbook wouldn't make sense unless you're teaching a contemporary author whose works are under copyright.
  • The good part about an e-textbook is that it's designed for use in a class and has navigation features like a table of contents with links, which would make navigating to specific sections easier.
  • The good part about not using an e-textbook is that, if you're teaching a pre-1923 literature class, you'd have lots of public domain choices for texts. If you're using a text that doesn't have significant problems with/variations in editions, Project Gutenberg has lots of works formatted for Kindle, which would work on an iPad.
  • These books wouldn't have the navigation features of a purchased e-textbook, however, and here's where mcconeghy's response to a previous post might provide a solution. Imagine that you're in class. Maybe you'd usually say something like, "Turn to page 127. How has Dorothea Brooke's perspective changed since her comment on page 45?" and you'd expect the students to be able to flip back and forth between the two. Since it'd take a while to do that on an iPad, and there aren't any page numbers anyway, couldn't you say "search for 'red bows on blue dress'" or something like that to get students to find both instances of the phrase? Couldn't the search function replace the flipping pages function?
  • I'm a good typist, and I have small hands, but the iPad keyboard is still a challenge. It might be a challenge for students as well--any thoughts?
  • Also, as a sad testament to the increasing irrelevance of the apostrophe, the iPad has put it on the numbers keyboard, so you have shift to that keyboard if you want to use a contraction or a possessive form. It could be that students would get faster at shifting between keyboards, or it could be that we all will start using no contractions at all and talking like Mafia dons ("I do not think he would like to sleep with the fishes"), or--best guess--R.I.P. apostrophes.[Edited to add this: Emily says in the comments that an iPod touch automatically adds the apostrophe. I just checked, and the iPad does, too. Thanks, Emily!]

[Edited to add: I realize, too, that the whole thing would be easier just using a paper book. There should be a universal rule: whenever you have to use the concept of a workaround, the original method of using the tool/technology is probably better in the first place.]

Saturday, October 09, 2010

A silver lining, of sorts

Although we hear that the recession is over for the bankers and those on Wall Street (or did I repeat myself?), most universities are going through various kinds of cuts, budget crises, and meetings designed to achieve what our friends at Roxie's World have so aptly called "excellence without money." SUNY Albany's recent dismemberment of its foreign language and classics department shows evidence of this attitude--see IHE and Dame Eleanor Hull's post on that-- although I'd like to know how it intends to keep R1 status without those departments. Isn't "doctoral comprehensive" meant to mean, well, inclusive of humanities?

Universities often think that humanities can achieve this better than other areas of the university, or so the distribution of cuts would indicate. I'd like to think this is because the administrators of universities think that humanities people are so devilishly clever that the cuts don't matter since we can work around them, but it's probably more that they believe that the humanities don't matter.

Anyway. My university, Northern Clime, is going through various conversations about cutbacks, and what has impressed me most is the way in which the faculty members in my department have been pulling together. Their suggestions have been generous, flexible, and ingenious about the budget realities we're facing. No one's drawing a line in the sand and saying "you can't touch my courses/area" or "we don't really need your area, so how about if we cut that?" or "your requirements are flexible, but mine can't be changed." When there are meetings, there's very little whining or retrospectives about "when I first came here, we could do X and Y and now we can't."

The process of planning is still demoralizing, but it's much less so because of the good humor and flexibility of my colleagues. Don't call me Pollyanna, the Glad Girl: No one would wish for the terrible budget situation, but if it's here--and it is--the silver lining is that it shows something in us that we might not otherwise have seen.

I wonder if this budget crisis is bringing this collegiality out in other places.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Random bullets at midweek

  • How much do you remember about a book (criticism, not fiction) a few years after you've read it? After you've skimmed it?
  • Do you remember the general subject? The argument? Examples?
  • How embarrassed are you if a few years later, a student is reading the book because you said it was good and asks you about the argument--and you can't remember? (My answer: sort of embarrassed, but not as much as I'd have been some years ago.)
  • You know all those writing techniques that say to get at the writing in the morning, putting everything else aside, and then stop? Well, I've gotten a piece just about finished, but the trouble is that I don't want to stop. It's like chips: you can't eat just one.
  • Speaking of chips, how pampered are Americans, anyway? This is from the Wall Street Journal:
    Frito-Lay, the snack giant owned by PepsiCo Inc., says it is pulling most of the biodegradable packaging it uses for its Sun Chips snacks, following an outcry from consumers who complained the new bags were too noisy.
    Come on. Dude, you're sitting in front of your TV and the bag is too noisy? You're at home, for Pete's sake. The noise isn't going to kill you. And if the bag is too noisy for the place where you're trying to open it, here's a tip: any place where the bag noise is a problem is a place where you shouldn't be eating chips in the first place.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Today's Koan: If a reference can't be cited using MLA, does it really exist?

If a reference can't be cited using MLA (or Chicago), does it really exist?

For example, say you have a Kindle or an iPad. I've been given an iPad as a present--yay!--so let's stick with that as an example. You can download books from the Kindle store on, if you put the free Kindle app on your iPad. You can also buy or download books from the iBooks store, including free public domain ones. The thing that doesn't come along with these nifty editions is a set of page numbers that corresponds to the page numbers in the original text.

That's not a problem with .pdf documents, since they're images of the original. You can read them and, since Sept. 30, annotate them using the GoodReader app, or read and annotate them using iAnnotate. You can copy text from the .pdf and paste it into Docs-to-Go.

So far, I like the experience of reading on the iPad. If you have a book with endnotes, for example, the endnotes are links, so you can click on the note and then click back to the text. You can write notes in both the Kindle and iBooks apps, although I haven't explored that much because it's harder than I thought it would be to type on the screen-based keyboard.

What if you want to cite a book that you've downloaded? Kindle books--for scholarly books, anyway--cost about the same as the paperback edition, and they cost more than a used copy, so if I'm going to shell out the money for one, I want to be sure that I don't need to get another copy.

The piece of advice I've found most often is "go get a print copy of the book, find the citation, and cite the page." This is probably the best advice for now, but it's a colossal timewaster and a duplication of effort to have to hunt up the book if you've already bought it. If the book is in Google Books, you could try searching for the phrase in there, but a lot of books aren't in Google Books.

APA has addressed this by suggesting that you cite is as you would any unpaginated material: "Name the major sections (chapter, section, and paragraph number; abbreviate if titles are long), like you would do if you were citing the Bible or Shakespeare." Since paragraphs aren't numbered, I would be less than thrilled to have to scroll through and count the paragraphs just so I could cite the reference. And what about paratextual elements such as epigraphs? Do they count as paragraphs when you're counting?

Some other sources suggest that you cite the Kindle location number, which would be swell if the editor of the journal you're submitting to has a Kindle and not so much otherwise.

The Chicago Manual of Style suggests just citing the Kindle edition and maybe the chapter number.

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Seventh Edition floats above the fray by saying (in 5.7.18) that you should just say what kind of file it is: "Microsoft Word file, JPEG file" or whatever. Presumably you could say "Kindle file" or "iBooks file" there, too, although all of the examples given are for short pieces. That wouldn't provide much information if you were trying to cite from a book-length source. As EduKindle asks, "Why is it so hard to cite a passage on a Kindle?"

Beats me. I'll be happy when MLA gets this straightened out, almost as happy as I'll be when they decide to jettison those #@%$& angle brackets that they make you put around a URL (see 5.6.1) as though we'd all just stare helplessly at an http:// prefix without knowing it was a web address unless it was safely contained in a set of angle brackets. [Edited to add: tenthmedieval has a good explanation for this in the comments.]