Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Vote vote vote

First of all, I hope all in the Sandy states are safe and well.

If you haven't voted already and you're in an early voting state, go and do it.
If you're in a regular-voting state, figure out how you're going to get there and make a plan to vote.
If you are female, you have had this right for less than 100 years (it boggles the mind), so you ought to do it for the foremothers.

It does make a difference, especially in this close election year, and if you are in an in-person voting state, you get to see the election ladies and feel good about participating in something that helps us all.

Of course I have opinions, lots of opinions, about how you should vote, but you don't need to hear them. What you need to do is vote.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The news from Amherst

[Trigger warning for sexual assault accounts at the links and phrases below.]

The New York Times story on the dismissal of a rape survivor's story at Amherst and of the institutional response is horrifying. Most horrifying is the attempt to gaslight the victim into questioning what she saw, felt, experienced, and had (in the institution's mind) the audacity to report. 

She was asked "Are you sure it was rape?" and told she couldn't change rooms despite feeling unsafe.  She was told not to seek justice, since it would be pointless. She was sent away and institutionalized for a time. 

While the responses she and others received from friends are terrible, the ones from the institution are worse.  The former try to mitigate a terrible reality, but the latter--from administrators who should know better--try to convince her that nothing ever happened, that the real problem is her response to being assaulted and wanting to see something done about it, presumably to insulate the institution from any liability or responsibility for what happened. 

We have all read about this sort of response for too many years--of victims forced to sit in "mediation sessions" with the rapist on campuses, of military survivors of rape labeled with a mental illness and discharged from the service without benefits rather than having the rape dealt with as an assault, which this case disturbingly brought to mind.

A cynical person would conclude that the institutions are only concerned when issues of liability or publicity are brought into the picture, but I think it's more complicated than that: there needs to be immediate change not just in the rhetoric of dealing with assault but in campus culture and methods of response, including the increasing involvement of professionals. Amherst president Dr. Biddy Martin has said that this must stop and she seems to mean business:
But in her first year here, after hearing from students, she made several changes, like having trained investigators look into those cases, revising the student handbook, and hiring a nationally known consultant, Gina M. Smith, to review and revise Amherst’s approach. She . . . released a statement that had neither the defensiveness nor the bland wait-and-see that are common to institutional responses, declaring that things “must change, and change immediately.” She made more administrative changes, and said in an interview in her office on Thursday that she is inclined to make more still, like having experts — rather than shifting panels of professors and students — adjudicate complaints.
Let's hope that this kind of proactive response spreads, and let's demand it at our institutions. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

TIME leads the cheering for MOOCs

"And the heavens parted, and behold, the MOOC descended from heaven and revolutionized education"--no, wait. That's not a quotation but only the tone of the author's puffy opinion piece, this week's feature article in Time.  Here is the shorter version, so you can decide whether to read it yourself.

A sample "fact": "Online classes were not, generally speaking, very good. To this day, most are dry, uninspired affairs, consisting of a patchwork of online readings, written Q&As and low-budget lecture videos" (35).

Hey, there, Ms. Author: do you have any source for that, or are we just playing straw man bingo here? Straw man bingo, you say? Okey-dokey then.  Just checking. I thought Time fancied itself a news magazine, but whatevs.

Amid the glow of the piece--the physics MOOC at Udacity was so awesome!--a piece so fulsome that I thought glitter was going to spring off the page, I did learn this tidbit from Udacity's co-founder David Stavens: "I think the top 50 schools are probably safe.  There's a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live in side the bubble, is wonderful" (41). Gee, you think?

And when Author visits the University of the District of Columbia, she sees the other kind of school that is "safe": "very selective--and very unselective--colleges will continue to survive" (41).

The rest of us? Well, we're pretty much --- oh, go ahead and supply the word yourself: obsolete. Jonathan Rees has been warning us about this, in more elegant language, for months now.

And there's more! Here's the takeaway: "Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will help strip away all the distractions of higher education--the brand, the price and the facilities--and remind all of us that education is about learning" (41). You don't say!  About learning? Really? Not about sports teams and the facilities that universities keep building in a desperate arms race for students? Not about creating a community of people who can learn together? Not about the connections to community, alumni, businesses, and place that can help a lot of students through internships and jobs? Not about research--for who'll do the research when professors at the Top 50 are teaching all the courses in the country? I read this and wondered idly how many graduates of the Top 50 got jobs in part through their connections, people they knew from their university experience, extra research they did by working with a professor, a project they did that an employer saw--no, that surely doesn't have an effect on a person's career. At all.

Well, since I have actual students who sent in actual papers to be graded, I have to sign off now.  Given the pace of the cheerleading, I guess I should be grateful that we still have classes and the opportunity to connect with students, since apparently that whole model is going the way of the dodo.

Can reading prevent psychopathy?

From a fascinating and disturbing article in The Chronicle, it appears that the answer is maybe, kinda, sorta yes.
With the aid of fMRI, Zacks and his co-authors peered deep inside the brains of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self. Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went out of the house into the street") were associated with increased activity in regions of the temporal lobes involved in spatial orientation and perception, while changes in the objects that a character interacted with (e.g., "picked up a pencil") produced a similar increase in a region of the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Most important, however, changes in a character's goal elicited increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex, damage to which results in impaired knowledge of the order and structure of planned, intentional action. 
Imagining, it would seem, really does make it so. Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we "mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative," according to one of the researchers, Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses. 
Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, "The Dreams of Readers," "more alert to the inner lives of others." We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn't.
Combined with other recent brain research on deep reading,  maybe we have a new sort of argument to make to those who want to gut the humanities in favor of science.  That won't help with the people who hate all knowledge and learning as belonging to "snobs," but it's a start.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Random bullets of this week

  • There was a lot of time spent this week, and very little of it belonged to me, though I had to be there. If you're an academic, you probably know that feeling. 
  • Hearing more about requirements for promotion to full professor was interesting: all involved research productivity, and none involved warming a chair at various meetings and burning a whole writing day to do so. Collegiality and showing up may be important, but it doesn't count as research productivity.  
  • Ditto for writing committee reports, creating new assignments, and preparing for class.
  • Ditto for teaching, especially when you have one class that is . . . challenging . . . in the seeming lack of interest in some members on occasion to read and participate in class discussions.
  • But part of this is my own fault for not looking at my own work every day. Except for the days when I got up at 5 a.m. and didn't get home until 9:45 that night, I could have done something, even if it was just reading the chapter over again. 
  • And there were some good conversations with colleagues whom I rarely see, so that goes on the plus side of the ledger. And a good, sanity-restoring lunch with a colleague from another institution.
So this week's goal at Dame Eleanor's is really to do better than I did this week. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writing inspiration: Hilary Mantel

From The New Yorker: 

When she wakes in the morning, she likes to start writing right away, before she speaks, because whatever remnants sleep has left are the gift her brain has given her for the day. Her dream life is important to the balance of her mind: it’s the place where she experiences disorder. Her dreams are archetypal, mythological, enormous, full of pageantry—there are knights and monsters. She has been to the crusades in her dreams more than once. 
When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions. She tried this for the first time when she was writing “The Giant, O’Brien”: the giant came in, but, before sitting down in the chair, he bent down and tested it, to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, she never got any further, because she was so excited that she punched the air and shouted “Yes!” But from then on she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.
In the last months of writing a book, as the end comes in sight, she becomes possessed. She doesn’t go anywhere, or talk about anything other than the book. She stops only to eat. Her sleep and work hours become erratic: often she will wake up at three in the morning, write for several hours, and then go back to bed. She becomes more and more anxious: it feels to her like stage fright, unnaturally and intolerably prolonged, as though at last she were spinning all her plates at once, darting about from one to the other and terrified of making a mistake because she knows that if one plate spins off balance they will all come crashing down.
Read more

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Conference tips no one ever tells you

You all know the usual conference tips: read your paper aloud to yourself, time it, etc. Here are a few conference tips that don't get mentioned enough. 
  • Pack some granola bars or crackers. Seriously. There will be early sessions and slow elevators, when riding down 30 floors to the inevitable Starbucks, waiting in line there, and riding back up to your floor (or finding a seat at said Starbucks) won't get you to an 8:00 session on time.  Unless you can afford the $15 bowl of room-service oatmeal to be delivered to you for breakfast, a granola bar or whatever will stave off enough hunger so that you can get something after the early session. 
  • Drink water--a LOT of water.  When you're talking to people, running around all day, and drinking tea or coffee, it's easier to get dehydrated, especially in the dry air of hotel rooms.  Restaurant food, and especially grab-it-to-go food, can be more salty than the food you usually eat. You might not feel thirsty, but that feeling of sleepiness or distractedness in sessions can be due to being dehydrated. Drinking water will help keep your energy up. 
  • When you get to the conference hotel, walk around to orient yourself. I know: this is obvious, but it's easy to forget if you've had a long trip already. Where are the restaurants? Where's a quick place to grab a sandwich? Is there a drugstore or little grocery store handy to get fruit or snacks? What about a bookstore? 
  • Look up at the hotel's exterior shape and facade: what street is it on? what's distinctive about it, so if you get lost a few blocks away you can look up and see it?
  • If you always end up tinkering with your paper and need to print a copy, does the hotel have a business center, and what are its charges? (Most do, but some in smaller places don't.) If not, is there a copy shop or FedEx close by? 
  • The Q & A at the end of the session is often a great discussion (even though sometimes people want to Hold Forth), and if you rush out after the last paper, you'll miss it. It's a great way to have a conversation, or at least to be in the conversation, with others who are interested in your subject matter. Even if you don't want to ask a question, you'll probably learn something interesting. 
  • If you liked someone's paper, say so, either after the session or when you see the person later. 
  • If you are presenting, try to listen to the others who are in your session or at least to seem to listen. If you pull out your cell phone and check it or keep typing on your laptop at the front of the room, even if you're just looking something up or tweeting, it signals inattention and might be unnerving to the person who's speaking. 
  • Talk to people and go to events, even if you're not a natural extrovert. There are all kinds of conference small talk you can engage in to introduce yourself, from something specific about a paper or an author ("I'm interested in what you had to say about X") to more general introductory topics ("What are you working on now?") to the conference itself to general things about travel, food, and places to eat. Unless your name is Bill Clinton, you might feel a little strange about going into a reception and talking to people you don't know, but that's part of what conferences are for.  
  • Bring your professional cards, if you have them. I know: it's old school, we're living in a digital age, and all that, but I still see a surprising number of people exchanging cards at conferences. It's still easier to exchange cards than to write down someone's email address when you're rushing to another session or straining to hear them over the din of a reception. 
Any other tips? 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

This is your brain on Jane Austen.

No time for a real post, but this story from NPR is some food for thought. A researcher who noticed that she could get so absorbed in a book that "the house could burn down" around her wondered whether the brain processed information differently with this kind of absorbed reading instead of casual reading (with Twitter, cell phone, internet, Facebook leaping into the reader's consciousness every few minutes). She teamed up with neuroscientists to test her hypothesis, and guess what she found?

"Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects," she said, "because everyone was going to be doing the same thing, right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways."

Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading.

But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: "What's been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading." 
Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.
So the next time you hear about multitasking while reading being just the same as reading deeply, you can say, with authority, "No. No, it's not."  Jane Austen will thank you for it.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Tweeting conference sessions: it's not all about the tweets

The recent kerfuffle about twittergate asks some questions that have come up at Chez Undine and other blogs after the 2011 MLA Conference:

  • Is it rude to tweet someone's remarks at a conference? [I don't think so.]
  •  If so, is that because of the content of the tweets or the distraction of having someone sitting there tapping away while the presenter is talking? [Distraction.]
  • Is there an expectation of privacy at a conference session? [Hmmm. Yes and no, but read the comments, such as Mark Sample's, at IHE.] 
Kathleen Fitzpatrick weighs in with some sensible advice: respect the speaker's preferences, but do tweet if possible, being careful to distinguish your ideas from the speaker's words.

This is all sound advice, but it misses something that those who are upset about tweeting (and I'm not, for the record) don't see. After watching this phenomenon at a few rounds of conferences over the past couple of years, where some sessions were tweeted and some not, I can tell the upset presenters this:  having someone tweet your session is a compliment, since only the sessions that tweeters consider to be cool or interesting will be tweeted at all.  It's like being a musician and having a non-satiric Weird Al Yankovic pick your song to record. 

That was hugely apparent at the last MLA, when during some sessions several tweeters would come in and sit at the back tables reserved for them while at other sessions those tables sat empty except for the discarded water glasses of a previous session.  

There's an interesting dynamic at work, I think: genuine curiosity about certain subjects makes people want to tweet those panels, but in watching the tweets and the tweeters, I also sensed an air of reclaiming the conference and reconfiguring it in a different way, establishing an alternative hierarchy to the more traditional groups of old-guard scholars  and creating a community through tweets.

I could be entirely wrong about this, but focusing on the act of tweeting may be looking too narrowly at the subject. There's a complex culture of tweeting behavior at conferences that would make a great study for some sociologist or anthropologist.