Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday hiatus

Time to take a break from the internets, ignore some emails, get some things done (though that'll be tough with no library, as Dame Eleanor points out), and make some cookies. Lots of cookies.

I can't do better for holiday wishes than the poem over at Roxie's World, but Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Random bullets of December

  • I'm in the midst of a much-put-off task (work-related but not writing-related) that apparently I will do anything to avoid, including eating cookies, shoveling the driveway, and scouring the internet for amusement.
  • Said scouring includes visiting blogs in search of amusement (thank you all!), but it doesn't seem fair to expect amusement and not give any back. However, this post can't really count as amusement until you get to the video below.
  • Today's excitement includes finding a rebate card with some money left on it and buying two more Kindle books for the iPad. Free books! Score! Well, they seem to be free because I never remember to take the rebate card when I actually want to buy something.
  • I've been reading a lot more for pleasure and semi-work since I got the iPad--that is, I get things that are maybe background or history for what I'm doing. So far, on any given day, I have a book going in the Kindle app and one in the Google Books app, and it's great to switch back and forth. If the sky ever clears up, I'm going to try out the Star Walk app I bought. You hold the iPad up to the sky, and it shows you the constellations and so on that you're looking at in whatever direction you point the iPad.
  • One of the desk copies I ordered is apparently now only print-on-demand from a major publisher. "We'll get it out to you right away," Publisher said a month ago. Didn't happen, so I bought a used copy. It was under $10, and it's easier to get that way than to try to contact the publisher and hope someone's going to respond in the next few weeks. At what point do you figure it's easier to pay money than to fight with the publisher about a desk copy? I don't know the tipping point, but I'm not going to stand on principle in that situation. They may owe me a book, but my time is worth something, isn't it? Especially when I could be eating or shoveling or reading blog posts?
  • Dean Dad writes about community colleges in California that are considering refusing to allow students to take the same class an infinite number of times (say, more than 5), since those who take a class for the third or fourth or fifth time are less likely to pass than those who retake it only once.
  • Just in case you're not one of the millions of people who saw this already, here's a video of dancing in an Antwerp train station that made me smile.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On Writing: Lessons Learned

Reverb10 now has a prompt I can answer, about lessons learned this year. Dr. Crazy has an introspective and interesting post up about this; she says that seeing happiness as a state of being that happens to you rather than as something you create is a trap (I'm paraphrasing).

I'd like to apply this to the process of writing. These aren't new lessons, but they're ones that seem to be more true this year than ever before.

1. Assess, reflect, and forget about it. If you're a person for whom any kind of deadline (writing deadline, going to a party--doesn't matter; both are firm dates and hence deadlines) makes you feel trapped, you spend a lot of pointless time fretting about the deadline coming up without necessarily doing anything about it. If you're not that kind of person, you say, "well, just put it out of your mind, then!" but if you are, you know that's not easy to do. If you have multiple deadlines, you fret about them all and accomplish nothing.

Here's what I learned that makes this more tolerable: if you know deep down that you have to write something, you will. You've done it before, and you will do it again. It's not easy or comfortable, but you will do it.

Silvia says that this knowledge comes from writing every day, and that may be part of it, although in looking over my work log for this past year, I don't write new material every day. But I now can scope out certain kinds of projects more accurately than before and estimate about how long the reading and writing will take and when I really need to start working. So: assess the problem, think about the time you have and the time you need, and let it go. You may still go through the "dither and blather" process, but it's a more time-limited process than before.

2. Every day in every way, the writing gets better and better (with apologies to Émile Coué). I'm learning this somewhat in creating the class. Every day something else occurs to me that didn't occur to me before, and I can't wait to write that down. I wrote a couple of things this year for which the process felt a little like a forced march, but the thing is, once something was written down, I knew I could make it better the next day. I know--this is the oldest precept in the writer's handbook, but I never really felt it before.

3. Give yourself what you need to succeed. I don't mean time, although that's important. I mean the little rituals and objects that make you want to write. For example, a few weeks ago I ran out of a certain kind of writing notebook that I use to keep track of progress when I'm working. It's apparently a habit with me to write things in this kind of notebook, since when I start to write I look around so I can make a notation in the book. Since I wasn't exactly out of paper (you pen and paper addicts--you know what I'm talking about!), I tried writing in another kind of notebook, and it just didn't work. Why not? Paper is paper, right? It's a stupid ritual, right? Stupid or not, it helps, so after arguing with my rational self for a while I went out and bought more of those notebooks so I could get back in a routine.

To get back to Dr. Crazy's idea about being active, I think that's the overall lesson here. Other people can tell you their systems (or why would we buy Boice's and Silvia's books?), but the key to all this is developing your own system. Maybe it's a writing log or another kind of log (I love me some Excel spreadsheets!), or maybe it's keeping a writing journal, or maybe it's keeping a to-do list.

A lot of bloggers have written about liking to cross things off their to-do lists (I do, too), but if you think about it, the system, however you define it, is really the carrot instead of the stick when you're talking about writing. Well, okay, the end product is the carrot, too, but it's really the feeling of being done that drives us on, and it's the systems we devise (the intermediate carrots) that get us there.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fascinated by the process

In the midst of everything else (getting ready for the holidays, grading, working on the MLA paper), I've been trying to respond to the copyeditor's queries for an article that will be coming out. The process has gone sort of like this.

Let's say that the article is on an obscure person who roomed with a famous 1950s movie star whose initials are MM and that OP later wrote a memoir about it. Here are some of the kinds of questions I've been answering.

1. On p. 15, line 2, you observe that women in the 1950s often wore red polish on their fingernails and toenails. Can you cite a statistic for this and add the source to your bibliography?

2. Can you confirm that Obscure Person indeed painted her toes with Midnight Red on August 10, 1955? What is the source for this?

3. Can you provide a source that demonstrates that Midnight Red was in fact a color used by Revlon in 1955?

4. Can you provide the birth and death dates for Obscure Person's nail technician?

Now, tracking this all down takes a whole lot of time that I don't have right now. On the other hand, I'm grateful for all the attention to detail because (1) I should have caught this the first time around; (2) someone might be interested; and (3) it makes me feel as though I'm writing for The New Yorker with its famed fact-checking.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Email sabbatical: one researcher's approach

Over at Lifehacker, there's an admiring post about "Researcher Danah Boyd," who's planning a trip and is setting her email for the six weeks she's away to go straight to the trash so she doesn't have to answer it. Here's some of her reasoning:
Do I miss things while I'm on vacation? Most certainly. Inevitably, I will receive numerous emails from journalists covering year-end stories about teens, people wanting me to review journal articles, students wanting help with their term papers, and perhaps an invitation or two. I do feel guilty not personally responding to these people to say that I'm unavailable but that's precisely the point. I need to let go in order to truly take a break and refresh.
At first glance, this seems positive: Absolutely. Does email really have to mean being on call all the time? If you're going to take a break, take a real one and leave the email requests (and the guilt) behind. Since she's already written to her usual correspondents and work partners telling them she's doing this, they ought to be ready for it.

On the other hand, what if you're a fellow researcher not in regular contact with her who is, say, putting together a conference panel or asking her to review an article for you? And you write to her and wait? And since you don't even get an autoresponse saying that she's gone, you wait some more or maybe send a second message, because you don't know it's going straight into the trash? And then you go on to someone else, but only after you've wasted a week or two?

Much as I hate autoresponse, it does strike a balance between "no information at all" and "personally responding," but those messages usually say "I'll be in touch when I return." She doesn't want that to be the message she's sending.


Positivity reverberating

It's the class, I tell you. I can't leave the new class alone. I wake up every morning not with new writing but with new wording for the class.

Then I have to put my shiny new ideas into the class. Sometimes it's a minor change of wording and sometimes it's a new way of organizing the information.

I write it down.

Then I admire it.

Then I change it a little.

Then I admire it again.

After about two hours, I figure it's time to stop having fun and get to work.

Productive procrastination: it's like eating cookies without the calories.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Time of the Season

It's that time of the year when you'd rather be thinking about the beginning of something than the end of something:

  • being excited about planning next semester's classes rather than actually, you know, grading the papers from this one, even though you loved this semester's classes.
  • thinking ahead to seeing family at Christmas instead of finishing up the Christmas shopping.
  • actually being at MLA instead of finishing up the paper for it.
  • the projects you've got lined up for next semester instead of finishing the ones for this semester.
  • Wednesday, December 08, 2010

    Another day, another non-reverb10 post

    I admire that people are doing the reverb10 thing and that they seem to be learning from it. My reaction is more Roxie's World than not, though (minus the terrible life events that are mentioned over there, which is why I took down my comment).

    My issues, or Issues, if you prefer, are twofold. These aren't meant as criticisms of the people who are doing it, because some of the prompts are worthwhile. But in case anyone was wondering:

    (1) I'm kind of allergic to Inspiration and use up my quota of tolerance for it listening to speeches at graduation every year.

    (2) The last time I was in a situation where I had to write a prompt not of my choosing was at an Edumacation Workshop. The point was that whatever we wrote was wrong, because--surprise!--we had not asked what we were to assess before starting the prompt. Since I had read the same assessment stuff that they assumed we had never heard of, I was way ahead of the presenters, who were very proud of themselves for this little trick. I didn't write the prompt because I could see where this exercise was leading.

    And anyway, if you're going to give a prompt, why not make it something like "are we human, or are we dancer?" and put it to a beat?

    This isn't to say that reverb10 hasn't had an effect, though. I've been trying to figure out why I had such a visceral and immediate response against it, even though I've done the occasional meme. My best guess is that even though it's voluntary, it felt coercive (again--to me), and if someone else has an item to add to my to-do list, they're going to have to get in line.

    Saturday, December 04, 2010

    A different kind of writing challenge

    A lot of bloggers are doing the reverb10 challenge right now (see sidebar). The challenge is to write a blog post based on a prompt every day this month. Today's word must be "wonder." I'm often game for these kinds of challenges (like NaNoWriMo), but I'm passing on this one.

    My "writing challenge" for this month is different. Last year, I finally followed Paul Silvia's advice and made a writing chart in Excel. Given that I can now track such things, I'm trying now to beat last year's total of written pages for the year.

    My chart is a little different from Silvia's. In this chart, the word totals for writing tasks like reports, letters of recommendation or tenure letters, manuscript reviews, grant reviews, etc. don't count; I can only enter word counts for research-related writing on articles and so on.

    My chart has columns for the date, the project, the number of words I started and ended with (which gives the day's total), and a column that converts word count to pages. The "project" column is really a space for a few words about what I was doing (teaching, class prep, travel) if I wasn't working on a project, which makes it easier to track why I wasn't writing. There's a column called "Comment" that I use to show when I sent an article or delivered a paper--probably unnecessary but very satisfying.

    At the bottom of the pages and words columns, of course, is the payoff: the number of pages/words for the year. I don't know if I can beat 2009's number by the end of 2010, but I'm going to give it the old college try.

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    Theory and experience, or "but it looked good on paper"

    A long time ago, when I was a more trusting soul, I read a cat care book that recommended using the upholstery brush attachment of a vacuum cleaner--with the vacuum cleaner running--to groom your cat. What's not to love? The cat hair is magically vacuumed up, and the book assured me that "cats love it!"

    Those of you who know how much cats generally love vacuum cleaners can guess the rest. Anyway, the deep scratches on my arms healed after a month or so, but I was never quite so trusting about some kinds of advice again.

    Dean Dad has a post up about a similar "it looked good on paper" moment: treating first-year students as an incoming cohort, putting them all in the same classes, and so on. What happened?
    It was one of those (retrospectively) glorious exercises in perspective. From the college’s perspective, the idea of group bonding, integrated instruction, and deliberate exposure to extracurriculars should have added ‘good’ to ‘good’ to ‘good.’ To the students, though, it felt like High School II. In high school, they saw the same people over and over again from class to class; they were actually eager to break away from that at college.
    The commenters at Dean Dad's say the same thing happened at their schools.

    My "it looked good on paper" moment (apart from the cat experience) has been with rubrics. I believe in them, and I've developed what I think are some good ones. But when I've asked for feedback on courses where I've used them for some assignments, the students say things like "I like the comments you give us better than the rubric" or "I like it when you write a long comment." Part of this is doubtless my fault for not using rubrics all the time; maybe if they didn't know they could get long comments, they'd be happy with the rubric.

    Have you ever had an experience like this, where something ought to work well based on all the theories, but it just didn't work in the classroom?