Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brain news: proving the attention span analogy

Time, which does think Americans are just stupid (whereas some politicos in this country are betting on the fact that we are stupid and proud of it), nevertheless proves my point about the Skinner box of email in this week's issue. Some fact nuggets from "Getting to No: The Science of Building Willpower":
  • Kelly McGonigal: "Short bursts of dopamine that come from things like e-mail make it hard to focus on long-term goals."
  • Addiction specialists doing brain scans of gamblers and non-gamblers found out that when there's a "near miss" on the slot machine screen (i.e., two cherries on one line and one cherry on the line down), non-gamblers' brains are all "eh, who cares" and see it as a loss, whereas gamblers' brains are on fire with "SO close!" and see it as a win.
  • Replacing a habit is possible if you maintain the same trigger and reward system. When you get home from work, set your running shoes beside the door and go for a run instead of sitting on the couch. You can then reward yourself with tv or whatever. Soon you will not want to sit down and will totally want to run because of the reward, or so they say.
  • Instead of getting up, thinking about the day's activities, racing out the door, and reading the always-depressing news online, we should "lie awake in bed, following our thoughts where they lead (with a pen and paper nearby to jot down any evanescent inspirations). We'd stand a little longer in the warm water of the shower . . . take some deep breaths" and drink some coffee, because "Caffeine increases the brain's level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of motivation and reward when we hit on a great idea."
  • This bullet is for Sisyphus, who longed for M & M's: turns out your brain "needs a lot of glucose" and that test subjects who drank sugary sodas were able to defer rewards better than this who drank artificially sweetened ones, presumably since the glucose gave the test subjects better wherewithal to plan and use their willpower.
  • The halo effect--when you go to the gym and figure, "aw, I deserve these fries after that workout"--is a real brain feature, as is the "what-the-hell" effect when you eat a little ice cream and decide that as long as you've broken a diet, you might as well eat the whole thing. I think this would apply to "I haven't written yet today, so it's a total loss and I might as well give up and not look at my work from yesterday."
In other brain-related news:
The writing-related takeaway? Give your brain some rest, a warm shower, and some time to relax and be creative, preferably with caffeine.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


1. The Skinner box of the present is email. You press the bar, and out pops a new message; if it doesn't, you press it again, and again, and again. Doesn't matter if you don't want to act on the messages; the process is addicting. If you make a pact with yourself not to check email for a couple of days (a weekend or whatever), the first hour is hard, and the rest are easy. Unless I'm expecting to hear from the Nobel Prize committee-and I understand that they call you rather than emailing--there's nothing that can't wait for a while.

If you do walk away from the Skinner box for a while, you will become calmer and your concentration will be better.

If you walk away and only check email after a day or two, you will be surprised at how fast you can respond to everything. You'll reply and move on rather than looking at it, thinking about a message, signing out, logging in, thinking about it, etc. before replying.

If you have colleagues who like to send you reports or action items late on Friday, which (ahem!) might tend to make you feel martyred, as in "why should I spend my weekend responding to you?" pay attention next time to when Friday colleague gets back to you if you do respond over the weekend; 95% of the time it isn't till Monday, even if you spend Saturday in crafting your response. A slow learner, I finally realized that I don't have to respond until Monday, either. I also realized that Friday colleague doesn't necessarily expect me to respond over the weekend. What can I tell you? I'm a slow learner.

2. What you can do with this non-Skinner box time is write, especially once you realize that the world will still turn on its axis and that your colleagues are not necessarily waiting for you to respond.

3. Not to mix a metaphor, but the blogosphere is the cookie or the M & M that awaits you if you get your writing done. If you read blogs before your writing is done, they will not taste the same, because you will be consuming them with guilt sauce rather than "job well done!" sauce.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Writing inspiration link love

Some recent great posts that will definitely inspire you to write:

If you'd like to clear your brain of writing and read a thought-provoking post on changing attitudes toward reproductive health, there's a great one (with comments) over at Historiann's.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Random bullets of writing

The number of days that you go without actually writing something on your project equals the number of hours (one hour for each skipped day) that it will take you to actually write something once you sit down to do it. Five days = five hours at the desk before my brain really engages.

Rewriting and even retyping what you have written is a good way to prime the pump for writing. You retype your own words, and the ideas start to change them as you write.

You might be in the midst of a writing project if every time someone gets introduced on Colbert, The Daily Show, or Fresh Air as "the author of a new book on X," you see it as a dog whistle-level reproach ("why is his book finished and mine not?") and inspiration ("someday that will be me, except without the fame").

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Same conversation, many voices

Profgrrrl has a good post up about being no longer junior faculty technically but not feeling like "senior" faculty exactly, either. She's moving smoothly toward full but right now she isn't there: "And so I try to become both comfortable with being nothing or being in-between while motivating myself to move forward."

There's another conversation that people in this position sometimes have (and yes, I am keeping this hypothetical for now). It goes something like this:

Powers that Be: "Yay, you're an associate! How would you like to commit to an extended term of service on this project? It will look good when you go up for full."

You: "Sure! I'm on it!"

Time passes.

Powers that Be: "You did a great job with that term of service! How would you like to step in and do this one?"

You: "Will it help me with promotion?"

Powers that Be: "Maybe, but the thing is, we really, really need you to do it for the good of the department/college/university."

You: "Okay. It could be good experience."

Time passes.

Powers that Be: "How would you like to do this term of service/admin? You'd really be good at it."

You: "Do you think this will be helpful for promotion?"

Powers that Be: "We value research when we put someone up for promotion. That's just logical."

You: "No, I don't think so."

Time passes.

Powers that Be: "We'd like you to ---"

You: "I'm flattered and honored, but no. I'm working on my research."

As the chauffeur in Downton Abbey observes, "flattered is a word that posh people use when they're getting ready to say no," and I certainly want to be posh. But I am flattered, too, since PTB wouldn't ask if they didn't think I could do it.

But what's the dividing line here? You still need to do service. If you say no, you risk being seen as less competent than those who can get their research done and still do all the service stuff, although to be honest these people are more heard about than seen, like Bigfoot.

Yet it is crystal clear that with the best intentions in the world, and meaning no malice at all, the Powers that Be could flatter you into staying at one level forever instead of moving up to that big open meadow in the sky, where all the full professors do cool stuff.

[Edited to add: I swear this is my last post complaining about service. I want to talk about more exciting things, I promise!]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Harvard's new and startling teaching insights on teaching

Brace yourselves. At The Chronicle, "Harvard Seeks to Jolt University Teaching" is so revolutionary that you might fall off your chairs.

  • "Faculty would need to provide timely and specific feedback, and move beyond lectures in which students can sit passively receiving information."
  • "The traditional lecture also fails at other educational goals: prodding students to make meaning from what they learn, to ask questions, extract knowledge, and apply it in a new context."
  • "Writing is often an effective pedagogical tool, too."
  • "Taking a test on something is a very effective way to learn about it."

  • Are you shocked and surprised yet?

    Out in the educational blogosphere, we've been over (and over and over) these ideas, especially the whole "let's get rid of the lecture" idea that crops up as a brand spanking new insight every year or so. (And yet we're encouraged to do podcasts of our classes, which means capturing a lecture through visual or audio means.)

    I'm of two minds about this article. On one hand, it's good that there's a conversation going on about effective teaching methods, especially in rescuing the much-maligned test as a teaching tool from the current disdain for it. On the other hand, there is not one single idea in the whole article that hasn't been discussed repeatedly and for years in other venues, which makes me think that nothing has changed.

    Random bullets of diversion for those on a break

  • When cats sit on your desk and then stare fixedly behind you at a spot on the wall, and you look, and there's nothing there, are they saying to themselves "Ha! Made you look"?

  • Is there any phrase more ridiculous than "failure is not an option"? Failure is ALWAYS an option, even if no one likes to think so, and the imminent possibility of failure is likely to be the reason why someone says "failure is not an option" in the first place. What people mean is "we will try very hard not to fail." What's so difficult about saying that?

  • When caught behind a slow-moving bus, car, or 18-wheeler on a two-lane road, do you spend several minutes silently willing them to turn off at the next exit and give a mental "Yessss!!!" and fist pump if they do?

  • Do you think that your mental energy caused them to turn off? Discuss.

  • If you have to complete some service-related writing before your own writing, because otherwise the service writing will nag at you and break your concentration, do you feel pretty good, as though you accomplished something, when you finish the service writing?
  • Sunday, February 12, 2012

    On writing: stars and zeroes

    I started out this month with such hope. I would Write! Every! Day! and give myself stars for the days that I wrote, a la jo(e)'s stars for self-care and Jonathan's "Seinfeld Chain" of writing.

    This was supposed to have been a service-light semester for me, and it has instead been a service tsunami. Thus when I found myself having to leave the house at 5:30 a.m. for a campus meeting and not returning until after 8 that night, the writing just didn't happen. I just couldn't do it. My calendar for the week looks like a chain bracelet: 0 0 0 0 0. I read and thought about the writing every day; I just didn't generate any new words.

    But it struck me today that this is the beginning of a whole new week, and a whole new chance for stars. That's the way to think about each week, right?

    Friday, February 10, 2012

    Adjunct faculty: steps in the right direction

    Warning: heavy linkage ahead.

    Dean Dad calls attention to Josh Boldt's post and a crowd-sourced Google spreadsheet of per-course payment at a number of institutions. The numbers might surprise anyone who hasn't worked as an adjunct. They sure didn't surprise me, because I have.

    They would certainly surprise that Columbia philosophy professor (can't recall his name) who a few years ago caused an uproar by helpfully saying that if adjuncts didn't like getting paid ONLY $6-7,000 per course, why, they ought to go out and get themselves a tenure-track job. He also suggested that maybe we should just let students major in whatever is this year's trend ("water" was one of the disciplines, as I recall). Well, it was better than this, but you get the idea.

    Anyway. This is part of MLA President Michael Berube's call for real change in treatment and pay for the new faculty majority: "Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities." The MLA has talked about this for a long time, including in its 2009 report, but there seems to be a new seriousness and urgency about it, as there should be; you can read more at New Faculty Majority. (For the record, the places I've taught have really worked hard to ensure long-term contracts, health benefits, and other issues of fairness for contingent faculty.) Somehow this new energy on the part of the MLA makes me think, or hope, that these are steps in the right direction.

    The debate seems to have spilled over into the "I've got tenure--how depressing" thread over at the Chronicle, too. As I've said before, "post-tenure depression" frankly baffles me, but then, everyone has different stress or depression points. The comments over at the Chronicle break down into two categories: (1) "I felt the same way, too" or (2) "You have a full-time job! How DARE you complain?" [Note: Dr. Virago has a good take on this in the comments.]

    Tuesday, February 07, 2012

    At the Chronicle: Good Deeds That Are Most Punished, Part 1

    David Perlmutter's article "Good Deeds That Are Most Punished, Part 1" over at the Chronicle will have, I suspect, more parts than the History Channel's endless repetitions of the multipart series The World at War. (Maybe it only seems as though listening to Lawrence Olivier's narration of the series takes more time to watch than the war itself.)

    Back to Perlmutter. Here's a taste:
    What if everyone just looked out for No. 1? The entire promotion-and-tenure system—which depends on altruistic volunteerism—would collapse. Nevertheless, there are many situations where taking too much time, trying too hard to do good, or doing good for the wrong reasons or for the wrong person can lead to career trouble, or worse.
    Absolutely true. Spending lavish amounts of time on teaching is a good way not to get tenured, or, if you're tenured, not promoted.

    "Good deeds most punished" goes for service, too. If you're organized and at all good at service, like Dr. Crazy, your reward is . . . MORE service heaped on you, which makes less time for research. If you're disorganized, not terribly present, or just difficult to work with, your punishment is . . . LESS service and more time to write.*

    Come promotion time, guess who gets rewarded? The one who served on committees, compiled assessment data, wrote reports, killed a writing day to watch someone's presentation, and organized and ran meetings? Or the "no service, no thanks" faculty member who did none of these things and spent the time on research?

    I'll bet that took a long time to figure out.

    I'm thinking back to profgrrrl's great advice earlier this year: she said that, just we're advised to do on airplanes, we should put on our own oxygen masks first before assisting others. If you don't take care of what matters to you first, whether in scholarship or in your personal life, the rest of your time is going to be eaten up by others' priorities, and nobody is well served in that way.

    It's worth remembering, even on 12-hour days when the first minute you have to think about your own work may be during the 13th hour.

    *My colleagues aren't like this, but still.

    Monday, February 06, 2012

    Excitement and annoyance

    • I like what I'm writing now. I find it interesting, so interesting that my patient family has to listen to me talk about it. It's a different approach to an already-published piece that I'm fitting into this chapter.
    • Even after all the committee work, memo-writing, teaching prep, and so on I look forward to getting back to this piece. I want to see where it leads!
    • Oh, never mind. Let me just be excited about my writing!

    Friday, February 03, 2012


    In preparing for the pointless exercise that is the annual performance review, I discovered something in the evaluations that I'd never seen before: several students in one class commented that they couldn't hear me.

    I'm plenty loud, and no one has ever said that before in all my years of teaching. "Grades too hard"--yes. "To much writting" with exactly that spelling--oh, yes indeed. Never "too quiet," though.

    What happened? I think it was a combination of the bigger-than-usual class and a large classroom with lots of external noise. I couldn't hear it most of the time, but it must have been louder toward the back of the class.

    Here's the thing: not one person over the course of 16 weeks indicated that they couldn't hear me. Not one. I didn't even get "could you repeat the question?" when I called on people in the back of the room, or maybe I did but chalked it up to their inattention rather than my voice volume. I feel bad that they couldn't hear me; I could have done something about it if I'd known.

    Why didn't they speak up? It might be that those who couldn't hear checked out mentally (hey, I've done that, too), or that they figured they would pick up whatever it was from their classmates' comments. I think part of it, though, was that these Northern Clime students didn't want to ask me to speak up because it might be rude.

    Now the story part: a long time ago, I went to an event at a school where the population was largely from a city famed for its directness in speaking up. (I'm not saying people there are not polite; I'm saying that they have the reputation of being very direct and don't suffer fools gladly.) It was graduation, and the speaker was extremely distinguished internationally. He was also elderly and soft spoken. After his first few words, I heard a voice bellow from the back of the hall.


    He looked confused and stumbled over the next few words. Then a few more people yelled the same thing: "Louder!"

    This was back before members of Congress would heckle the president, you understand, when yelling in this way was seriously rude, so I was mortified. He couldn't speak up much more (and why was there no adequate microphone?), but the calls stopped after a while and he finished his speech.

    What I thought when I read those evaluations is that I wished I had had one of those students from Direct Expression City in that class just once so someone would have told me to talk "louder."