Friday, January 27, 2012

A Service Catechism


Q: What is the purpose of service at the institutional and professional level?

A: To ensure the smooth functioning of all academic pursuits: tenure, promotion, hiring, curriculum, assessment, conferences, and the advancement of scholarship by professional organizations.

Q: What is the effect of service at the institutional and professional level?

A: To suck up time--entire days and associated brainpower--that should be devoted to writing.

Q: Can service be completed in chunks of time so that you can ignore importunate emails during your writing time?

A: Not necessarily.

Q: What are the rewards of service? (Choose all that apply.)

A: (1) Promotion, (2) tenure, (3) status in the field (4) the gratitude of your peers, and (5) the knowledge that you're helping and are not being a slacker.

Q: Why do you participate in service activities? (Choose all that apply.)

A: (1) Promotion, (2) tenure, (3) status in the field (4) the gratitude of your peers, (5) the knowledge that you're helping and are not being a slacker, and (6) I'm just a girl who can't say no.

Q: Whose fault is it if service obligations eat into your time? (Choose all that apply.)

A: (1) Those who ask you to do the service and (2) yours. You can't control (1) but you can control (2) a little bit by saying no to some things.


Did I say no to something this week that would have hugely inconvenienced me and sucked up a lot of time and energy in order that someone else would have all the benefit of it?

Did I refuse to travel somewhere and destroy a writing day so that I could be an appreciative audience for something that was not necessary? (Hint: Killing a writing day so I can go sit in an audience somewhere is one of my least favorite parts of service responsibilities.)

Yes. Yes, I did.

Do you feel guilty about it?

Nope--not a bit.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Term Papers vs. Blogs and Cathy Davidson vs. the NYTimes

Over at HASTAC, Cathy Davidson has written a great defense of her assertion that term papers should be abolished in favor of blogs. Like a lot of great lines, it was provocative, good copy, and not what she actually said, apparently (hey, academic superstar celebrities need publicity, too!).

Matt Richtel at the NYTimes is having none of it, suggesting that unnamed "defenders of traditional writing" propose a "reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move right on to 140 characters about Shermn’s Mrch?" which Davidson rightly says is unfair.

I'm all for student-written blogs. I've been using them in classes for 10 years, and I think their use has helped students' writing, something that real researchers of this like Andrea Lunsford have confirmed (see Davidson's piece). I agree with all she says about students writing more and being more engaged when they're writing something they're (1) passionate about and (2) writing for a broader audience than just the teacher, which is what a blog gives you. Davidson's argument is attractive, and, in fact, is well established in the last 30+ years of writing pedagogy. Remember Ken McCrorie's Telling Writing and his (I think) railing against the comically stultified prose he called "Engfish"?

I guess I just have one question: what does Davidson mean by a "term paper"? I wrote something called a "term paper" in high school, but that was back when we incised the characters in cuneiform onto wet clay. "Term paper" seems to be the new whipping boy of writing alongside its maligned cousin, the five-paragraph essay, but are these really assigned in the same deadening way that she describes?

I'd never assign a "term paper" of the kind that she vilifies, but I would and routinely do assign papers that require an argument, with a thesis and evidence from the text and external sources. Students ought to be able to construct an argument and support it, shouldn't they?--and if they shouldn't, then why does Davidson couch her post about the issue in exactly that form?

The thing is, if you are in any kind of job that requires writing at all, you have to learn to write in a whole lot of different forms, including resumes and cover letters (her examples). You learn to see the conventions of these forms by writing in them and by seeing that conventions differ but that some good qualities of writing remain across them all. Isn't that what we're trying to get our students to see?

Despite the dramatic contrasts in which it's being framed by Davidson and the media, I guess I don't see this as a blogs vs. papers issue. What's wrong with "blog post -> short reading of a text -> longer argument -> presentation -> another blog post"? Or some other combination? Writing is a continuum, not an either/or.

Your thoughts?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Random bullets of Friday

Until I can muster the brainpower for a post on Apple's education initiative, here are some random bullets.
  • Blogspeak is already serving as a placeholder in what I'm writing. I just reread a section in which I said that a character "was in dire need of an ethics makeover," which, while true, doesn't exactly pass for scholarly prose these days--or does it?
  • My resemblance to Jean-Luc Picard may end at our mutual fondness for Earl Grey tea, but I wish I had one power that he had: the one where you say "make it so" and some minion does it. I'm thinking especially of scheduling meetings, which even with online scheduling software where people put in their preferences is a process with far too many to-and-fro messages and far too much wasted mental energy. This includes the gentle reminders to those who refuse to put in their schedules but greet every announcement of a meeting with "I can't meet at that time!" If I were Jean-Luc, I would say "Schedule a meeting. Send the documents. Book the room. Make it so." and it would be done. Actually, I would just say "Schedule the meeting. Make it so" and the minion would intuit the rest, instead of my wasting two entire writing days on scheduling and meetings this week.
  • Speaking of Apple, I recently joined the Cult of Steve after yet another Sony computer's hard drive bit the dust one year two years after purchase, apparently taking some programs with it. It would warn me that I ought to back things up to the external hard drive, since the hard drive was failing, and, when I tried, gave an error message equivalent to "Nuh-uh, can't back this up. Fail!" With Dropbox, I still have almost all of my documents, but the lost email files would sure be nice to have. On the plus side, I'm still using the speakers and subwoofer from a computer I bought 12 years and 3 computers ago, which work with Steve's creation just fine.
  • In addition to my slow learner status re: the short life of planned-obsolescence Sony products and my vow never to buy another one, I had been introduced to the Cult of Steve by gateway drugs such as the iPad and iPhone. Now it seems normal to have to hunt for files and be frustrated (but less so every day) by the inscrutable workings of a machine run by Powerful Beings who purport to know better than I do where my pictures ought to be hidden. (I'm allowed to tag them; I just can't find them.) It's good training for dealing with bureaucracies, anyway.

Friday, January 13, 2012

On writing: Starting over after a hiatus

It may not be exactly "starting over," but the poor book ms., abandoned in the flurry of MLA and associated paper-writing, not to mention the holidays and the start of classes, must feel, well, neglected.

How to begin again? Here's the plan:

(1) Print it out. Reading on the screen just doesn't give me the same perspective, and I will recycle the paper, so yes, that's necessary.
(2) Read it--all of it--while resisting the temptation to fix things at the sentence level.
(3) Go back through the research journal (printed version) and see what I've forgotten or missed. Highlight those parts and put an X through what's already done.
(4) Assess the roughest parts of more or less finished chapters and list the improvements needed--and then leave them alone for now.
(5) Generate some actual new text on the chapters not yet started and rough in some sections on the half-finished chapters.
(6) Go back to the "write every day" plan, even if that means using again, since that really did help to establish the habit.
(7) Rev up the Excel chart again, since that acts as a conscience in tabular form.

As part of this new plan, I also have two resolutions:
(1) I'm going to try to reserve the computer where I write for writing and class work, not reading distraction sites.
(2) I want to have a complete draft of my next conference paper done at least 3 weeks before the next conference.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Random Bullets of MLA 2012

  • Seattle, a no-snow and nearly a no-coat-needed city. Also, Pike Place Market, restaurants, and for the fans, two Starbucks stores on every corner. Great choice, MLA planners!
  • Free wireless in the conference room block, in the well-lighted convention center, in the Sheraton session rooms--a godsend. The password was still a mystery for a while: It seemed to be passed from person to person, or so someone told me, and when I arrived at one session all ready to tweet it, I couldn't get in because I hadn't thought to ask someone for the password.
  • Better spirits all around. Last year was all about the grim job market, or so it seemed. There was a lot of optimism in the air this year: better job market, enthusiasm about digital humanities, well-attended alt-ac sessions. People looked hopeful, or maybe it was just all that Starbucks caffeine causing those smiling faces.
  • Really good sessions and papers.
  • Lots of iPads and laptops, including use by presenters.
  • Good tech support for presenters: there was a try-out room, and the technicians came by to check whether the laptops would project before tech-using sessions.
  • Saw Rosemary Feal from afar at the big events and learned that her name is pronounced Fay-AL.
  • Learned that the Twitter feed is best read judiciously, since it induces "I should have been there" session envy regardless of how fantastic the session is that you attended.
  • Some sessions were tweeted by multiple people, but other great sessions weren't tweeted at all. Am not sure whether the tweeters are organized in some way so that the tweeting is distributed among sessions or whether they're all just voluntarily tweeting from sessions they'd be attending anyway.
  • When people sit at the twitter/laptop table set up in the back of a room, I keep expecting them to hold up signs at the end of each paper: 5.5, 5.9, 6.0.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Peter Principle of Software Development

A quiz for software developers.

1. If a feature has proven to be especially useful to users in the past, you should
a) Get rid of it.
b) Rename it so that users will not know where to find it (Preview developers, I'm looking at you. Why transform "Save as" into Export? Why?)
c) Surround it with three new pointless "features" that no one would ever want to use.

2. A feature is simple to get to in an earlier version, requiring only two clicks of a mouse. The next version of the software should require how many clicks to access the same feature?
a) Three
b) Five
c) Five plus a Google search for where to find the feature

3. If a feature is accessible through a fast keystroke combination, what should you do in the next version?
a) Make it accessible only by drop-down menu accessed from a mouse, so that it takes longer
b) Make it accessible only with a mouse AND rename it
c) Make it accessible only via the mouse AND tell the user to go remap the keyboard or write a macro if she's so keen to use keystrokes. Keystrokes are for peasants.

4. Should you, under any circumstances, explain how to do things in the users' manual?
a) Hahahahahahah--what a comedian you are!
b) What users' manual? You mean the giant .pdf with lawyers' warnings that tell me not to use the laptop as a tray to carry hot coffee and not to put the mouse in my mouth--in six languages?
c) No. Users' manuals build community by forcing people to Google the problem and find out the answer on various tech forums.

5. If a user minimizes or shuts down some feature by mistake, causing it to vanish, how long should it remain invisible to the user?
a) Forever. If you didn't write down what the feature was called--hey, your loss. Learn to work without it. It builds character.
b) It depends on the feature. If it's one that the user might want to use, forever, but if it's some pointless frill like sharing your private information with Facebook, it should pop up again and again.

6. For website developers: when designing a site where users have to enter important information that counts for something, should you have pointless pop-ups asking the user to donate money/consider visiting another site/choose between two equally incomprehensible options before continuing?
a) yes

Anything else you'd like to add to the quiz?