Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year! (Retropost edition)

Happy New Year, everyone! I don't want to reflect on this year (too little done on the Laocoon manuscript, for one thing), but here are some posts to ease out the old year and bring in the new.

No MOOC rants or controversial subjects were harmed in the making of these links.  Nothing will raise your blood pressure.  Have a peaceful night!

What if?
Conference advice

Creativity and Writing

Thursday, December 26, 2013

MLA Job Market Statistics

Bardiac very reasonably asks whether the job situation is worse now than it used to be.  
I don't have the answer, but the MLA does: 

This report has tables where numbers and percentages of jobs are broken down in most ways--by rank, by region, by month advertised, and so on. 

Among the conclusions of that report are that things are (slightly) looking up from the 2008-9 low and that more jobs are being offered after the big October issue. 

What about cohorts of previous Ph.D. graduates seeking jobs? Here's some older information from 2001-2002, from here: http://www.mla.org/professionalization
The Academic Job Search in English: A Statistical Representation for 2001-02
Job Seekers
New cohort of PhD recipients
Less new cohort members who accept postdoc positions
(   60)
Less new cohort members who do not pursue academic positions
(  120)
Total of new cohort who seek positions in four-year institutions
Previous cohorts of PhD recipients
From 1 year prior
From 2 years prior
From 3 years prior
From 4 years prior
From 5 years prior or earlier
Total of previous cohorts who seek positions in four-year institutions
Total number of job seekers

Also, here's a comment that I left over at Historiann's post about the job market, addressing the issue of why search committees don't contact people at every step of the process, which would be more humane:

The thing is, no one on search committees behaves maliciously, I don't think, and certainly not in the ways that have been charged.  We have a detailed and much-documented process to follow, and HR is right there at our shoulders, seeing to it that we follow it every step of the way. It's ultimately to ensure fairness. 
Why don't search committees notify those who didn't make the short list? Let's say you have 350 applicants, a long short list of 40-50 for additional materials, and a maximum of 12-20 you can interview either at the convention or on Skype. What may seem humane--that is, notifying the 300--is, if seen through institutional eyes, 300 lawsuits waiting to happen, when even one would be too many. And what if there was a flaw in the selection metrics somewhere and all the files or some subset of them need to be re-reviewed after consultation with HR? 
The reality is that the job isn't filled until an offer is made and accepted.  
As Bardiac says, it may be that the search committee goes back to the longer short list or even the whole list, especially if it's a hard-to-fill specialty. In other words, it's not really over until it's over.

That said, we need to keep trying to improve the process and do everything we can to make it humane and responsive to candidates.

Merry Christmas and Happy Boxing Day!

I hope Christmas and all holidays were and are peaceful, restful, and happy.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Calm down, everybody: no one says you can't teach essay writing

Wow. Ignore the interwebs for a week or so and they blow up with a new issue.  Who'd have thought it?

Recently, Rebecca Schuman (you know, she of the declaration that tenured academics have "blood on their hands") wrote a piece for Slate  that said if students hate writing essays and teachers hate reading them, why don't we stop assigning them?  Readers were shocked, shocked! to hear this and inundated poor Professor Schuman with hate mail and her superiors with demands that she be fired.

Profhacker published an open letter defending the Slate piece as an issue of "academic freedom," which  may be a bit of a stretch, and condemning the uncivil tone of the attackers, which is a very real problem and no stretch at all.

But let's review:

First of all, internets: get a grip.

Come on. It's Slate, where all headlines end in a question mark and "We are clickbait. Snark is good." is on the masthead.  Slate lives to be provocative, not informative.  That's why it exists.  Why are you surprised that a provocative piece appears there?

Facts aren't important over at Slate, any more than they are on other entertainment sites (on one of which I read something about "Alexander Hamilton and his daughter Theodosia," never mind that the writer meant Aaron Burr, because hey, it was a long time ago and there was a duel and they're both dead, right?). So Professor Schuman judged the audience and wrote a snarky essay that would gain a lot of notoriety.  That is Slate success, so why pick on her for judging the audience correctly?

Second, so what if she stirs up the conversation by being provocative, at Slate, ChronicleVitae, and pankisseskafka, her blog? Does that mean the conversation isn't worth having?  The fact that talking about writing essays gets started by real (or satirically expressed) outrage doesn't make it invalid. And again: Slate. You notice that Slate didn't publish her carefully reasoned explanation of what she actually does, and why? No click bait here, so let's move along.

Third, the "no essay" idea isn't even new.  Cathy Davidson has been pioneering this approach for a long time, and so have a lot of other people. We can argue about ways of writing until the cows come home, and maybe learn something from the discussion, even if what we learn is the inspired lunacy of some approaches. No one's forcing you to adopt The One Best Way (yet). That's the time to begin the more reasoned conversation.

So let's take a break from the outrage and realize that this is what passes for literate entertainment and discourse on the interwebs--and that the best way not to get upset by it is not to engage it if it upsets you.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Random bullets of interesting news

1. You know how people are always warned to make hard-to-crack passwords and end up using "password" or "12345678" or something easy anyway?  Would it make you feel better to know that the people behind the nuclear launch codes felt the same way?

From Making Light:
Given how nervous many of us were during the Cold War, it’s just as well that we didn’t know the interesting fact recently reported in The Guardian and Gizmodo: for about twenty years, and in direct contravention of orders from presidents and defense secretaries, the U.S. military had the eight-digit nuclear launch codes for Minuteman missile silos set to 00000000.

Apparently they resented the eight-digit “fire only if ordered to do so by the president” security system imposed on them in 1962, as it made firing nuclear missiles slower and more difficult. They responded by permanently assigning the system a single launch code that was the moral equivalent of using “password” or “12345678” or “qwerty” as the overall password for your online account.
But it gets worse: 

[I]n case you actually did forget the code, it was handily written down on a checklist handed out to the soldiers. As Dr. Bruce G. Blair, who was once a Minuteman launch officer, stated:
Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel.
This ensured that there was no need to wait for Presidential confirmation….
Feel safer now? 
2. And in MOOC news:
Many speakers repeatedly pointed out that the cost of MOOC production -- which can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars -- has created classes of MOOC producing and MOOC consuming institutions. This creates issues for both groups; the former doesn't want to appear elitist, while the latter rejects content not created by their own faculty members.
“Maybe this seems obvious,” said Christopher Brooks, a research fellow at the University of Michigan School of Information. “Lots of things seem obvious in hindsight.”
Or maybe, for some, in foresight. 

3. In closer-to-home news, I'm trying the "append only a final comment" to their last papers based on advice you've all given.    The comment gives feedback on the paper, but I didn't put in any marginal comments. The students have all been invited (via the comment) to come and talk to me next semester if they want a more complete set of comments on their papers. Do my hands twitch to add marginal comments? Yes, sort of. Is the time tradeoff worth it? Yes.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Just keeping the plates spinning

Aren't we all keeping the plates spinning about now, just trying to get through grading papers, or calculating grades, or turning in grades, or holiday preparations, or buying gifts, or baking, or cooking big meals, or sending Christmas cards, or seeing family, or writing up syllabi for next semester, or getting ready for the (still mercifully in January) MLA?

I want to turn my attitude around so that instead of seeing all these as points on an endless to-do list, or too many plates to spin, I see the relaxing or happy spaces in between.  I want to sit and concentrate long enough to shift focus and see the dancer spin the other way.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Random bullets of thankfulness

Historiann, Dr. Crazy, Belle, and What Now are being thankful for/expressing gratitude at this appropriate season, and so will I, knocking on wood lest I anger the spirits:
  • For my family, the ones who are here and the ones who left us this year. And for the fact that no one is traveling amidst storms this year, except via the magic of Skype.
  • For a job I love that allows me the autonomy and authority to speak my mind and the ability to do what I think is right.
  • For really enjoyable students despite my anticipated grumblings over some of their papers still to come.
  • Still grateful that MLA has been moved to January.
A couple of truly random bullets:
  • You may be an academic if your Christmas tree ornaments are held on every year with bent paperclips instead of the little wire ornament hangers because you've always got paperclips and who has time to go to the store for those little hangers?
  •  You might be an academic if the big red circle on your calendar is for the date grades are due rather than Christmas (Hanukah is early this year, so that isn't in the running this time.) 
And now I give you Bing singing Irving Berlin for Thanksgiving: 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A rhetorical question: should teachers stay or should they go?

I can't stop thinking about something that Historiann said in her comments section in the post on "Death of an Adjunct":
Tenured Radical raises a point that the Anderson article touches on but doesn’t address directly: the question of age. I’m already feeling (mid-40s) like my hold on the students has an expiration date. I think it’s hard to relate and appear relevant to students past a certain age, no matter how able-bodied, vigorous, or determined one is. (At least, not 4 classes a semester, every semester.)
 On one hand, I see how this could be, and it's clear that, to put it kindly, the subject of "DoaA" should not have been teaching.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about all the teachers I had who were older than mid-40s but still were vibrant and relevant in the classroom.  Yes, I had a couple who should have retired a few years before I had them, but mostly the older teachers were impressive. They just knew so much more, not that they displayed that unless we asked questions.

The time to quit would probably be when you're no longer curious, passionate, and really engaged in the classroom and in the profession.  On a personal level, I still feel all this, and students still respond to it as best I can tell (class discussions, good enrollments, good evals, etc.).

Colleagues (not necessarily those at Northern Clime) who are retiring or have retired have done so because, as they explained, "I don't want to do this any more. It's just time." But as Historiann's comment raises the issue, how would you know "should I stay or should I go"? What are the signs?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Bullets of a few truths, maybe not so universally acknowledged

  • During Sebastian Thrun's recent "aw, we were just kidding about MOOCs" statements (see Jonathan Rees and Historiann), someone, somewhere, called them "correspondence courses." Sinclair Lewis is rolling in laughter from beyond the grave.  
  • The fact that MOOCs ended up catering to, basically, the Honors Students of the Internet rather than people struggling with jobs and difficult lives caught the MOOC cheerleaders totally by surprise.  Who could have predicted that people with great internet access, lots of success in previous academic settings, and time on their hands would gain the most from those courses? Apart from every blogger, ever, and everyone who doesn't teach at Princeton or Stanford, apparently no one. 
  • Speaking of "difficult lives," four things from the news this week:
  • "You've had a chance to look at papers graded both ways, with typing and with handwriting, so which do you want for this one? Show of hands?" A lot for typing, because as one put it, laughing, "you have terrible handwriting." I said, "but I thought it was fabulous," and we all laughed.  I'm going to miss this group of students. 
  • I just want to be done with this book manuscript. I just want to be done. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Off-topic: Does childhood reading shape your sense of what's good?

When I was a child, I read voraciously, as most of us probably did.  What I didn't have was any kind of framework for putting these books into context, and except for Laura Ingalls Wilder, I didn't really pay much attention to the authors' names, much less know who they were.  I knew the names of Kipling and Stevenson because of "Just-So Stories" and their poems, respectively, but the names didn't signify anything except entertainment.

Some of them were more important in the aggregate than as individual texts. There was a long series of juvenile biographies that I made a beeline for every time I went to the library. The ones on Elizabeth Blackwell and George Washington Carver made a special impression, but I ate them all up.

Two of my favorites were a couple of books of fairy tales, one with "The Little Mermaid" and  "The Tinder-Box" and "The Little Match Girl" and "The Snow-Queen"; I think I knew about Hans Christian Andersen at that point.  But I didn't pay any attention to the author of the other book, because I didn't know his name, though his stories"The Happy Prince" and "The Nightingale and the Rose" were ones I read over and over.  Who'd ever heard of Oscar Wilde, anyway? Not me.

And my very favorite books of all for a while,  which I picked out of a bargain bin somewhere because of their covers, had stories of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Cadmus and the dragon's teeth, and  Proserpina,  and Medusa.  One was Tanglewood Tales and the other was A Wonder Book. It was years later  before I figured out that Nathaniel Hawthorne had written them and a while longer before I figured out that he was also the person who wrote The Scarlet Letter. When I read them, though, he was as anonymous to me as those series biographers. I was only interested in the stories and not the style, especially the stories of Cadmus and of Proserpina, for some reason. I know that for a long time experts in children's literature thought that the Hawthorne books were too preachy stylistically for children, but as a non-expert child, I didn't find them so.  

So here is my question: I read a lot of other things, too, as did we all, and a lot of stuff I don't remember.  Was there something in those stories, some literary quality that I didn't have any sense of perceiving at the time, that was making them memorable? Was it style?

What made a book memorable to you, and did it have an effect on how you developed as a reader?

Saturday, November 09, 2013

On the internets, mean is the new green

Historiann weighs in on the mean-spirited review of Disregarding Henry in The Chronicle and quite reasonably wonders why the reviewer bashes the author of a memoir about her experiences as the mother of a special needs child for telling the story of her experiences as the mother of a special needs child.  The substance of the review, which says little about the book in question, is that the author hasn't suffered enough and in the proper ways.

From what I can see, this review is an anomaly. The Chronicle actually has better standards and is less willing to publish mean-spirited stuff than they used to be.  I'm surprised, though,  they let this one get to press unless (cynically) they thought of it as conversation-inspiring click-bait, as some of Historiann's commenters suggest. 

Old-school journalism used to say "If it bleeds, it leads," and advertising says "sex sells" (though Don Draper begs to differ).

On the internets, although we do love our cuteness overloads and cat videos and 5 amazing tricks to lose weight/get money/be productive/be more eco-conscious, we have a new measurement of success. Mean is the new green. If you doubt it, check out any comments section except those of our esteemed preceptress Historiann and the academic blogosphere. (Or don't, because you can't unsee the meanness in the comments.) We can't get enough of schadenfreude or of Daffy Duck syndrome: "It is not sufficient that I succeed. You must also fail."

The biggest surprise is that in this case, meanness moved above the fold to become the article itself. I'm guessing, or maybe hoping, that it was a lapse that won't be repeated soon.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

What matters/what doesn't

I see a lot of people, including bloggers, posting about what they are thankful for this month.  It's a nice trend, especially since the web seems to encourage posting about things that annoy or frustrate you (and I am no exception to that).

My version of that this month is thinking a little more about what matters and what doesn't, in life as much as in academe, and how things that used to matter often just don't, now, and vice versa.

Things that used to matter a lot or provoke a reaction but don't now:

  • Whether women keep their own names or take their spouse's name after they get married. This seemed like a huge issue back in the day, with me getting into arguments that women should keep their own names.  Maybe it still is, but especially with the legalization of gay marriage (yay!), it seems wrong to declare that women must or ought to do X or Z about their names.  You ought to be able to declare your identity in any way that the law allows without getting a lot of lectures about it.  
  • Whether the acquaintance or family member you're talking to actually listens to what you're saying. It used to frustrate me tremendously when a family member or acquaintance would ask a question about my work, let me get 10 words into an explanation, and then break off to tell an anecdote of their own or exclaim over the cute tricks of a dog or baby.  Now it doesn't. Once you realize that the person doesn't actually care about your answer, it's much easier and less tiring to keep what passes for conversation going by asking them questions about themselves. 
  • Issues of citation and typography, m- dash versus n-dash, fonts, spacing, MLA versus Chicago style, and all that. I used to care about whether MLA was better than Chicago. Not any more. Tell me the style sheet and I 'll do what you want. I don't have to care about it to do it right. 
  • Whether a student is telling the truth when he says he couldn't do the assignment because his roommate's grandmother's dog died or whatever.  I'm not the Dean of Students, and I'm not going to track down excuses, the way I've seen, at the Chronicle, instructors talk about demanding obituary notices before excusing an absence.  The syllabus is designed to allow some flexibility and some absences, partly for their convenience and partly for mine, so that I don't have to be the Truth Police. 
Things that still matter a lot:
  • Plagiarism. Where that's concerned, I still am the Truth Police, and they get reported.
  • Insisting on respect. Respect doesn't mean being docile at all costs, but it's possible to disagree without getting into rudeness or snide behavior. If you don't agree, you sure don't want to be in my classroom, meeting, or conference session. 
  • Fairness. I've heard that preadolescents go through a phase of deciding whether things are fair and being outraged about unfairness; later, adults learn that life is unfair and they have to get on with it.  I don't think that any of us ever get beyond the fairness issue, even if we understand that life can be unfair, and we need to do what we can to alleviate unfairness when we can. This sounds trite (because it is), but it's still true. Even in a class setting, you can make something more transparent, distribute some benefit more equitably, or even the playing field by creating assignments that cater to different student strengths. 
What issues have you given up as "doesn't matter" and what ones are still important to you? 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

At NYTimes: work for free? Or is the worker worthy of her hire?

At NYTimes.com today, Tim Kreider urges the slaves of the internet to unite http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html?_r=0&gwh=46789F128D5F8269B0F908E0E442E731 and rise up against working for free. (The essay is not about the recent and shameful conduct of Scientific American; go read Dr. Isis for that.)  Kreider protests all the requests he and others get to write/draw/paint/act/play music for free because "it's good exposure." What I learned from reading some of the comments is that (1) Arianna Huffington doesn't pay writers as a rule, which may explain why HuffPo has gotten so stupid and pointless lately and that (2) a wise man once told his neighbor, "A free horse is worked to death." Words to live by, wouldn't you say?

As academics, we do our "work" (writing) but not our "course load" (teaching, advising, etc.) for free , because it's part of our job and because it builds our credibility in the discipline. We're paid partly in the coin of "you should do this because you love it," something that the blogosphere has hashed out before.  It's a slightly different animal from what Kreider describes, but we still have to think about it in these situations:

  • Taking on an extra piece of advising, or a workshop, or some other piece of work because "it will benefit the university," says the administrator who is getting paid to convince you to do it. 
  • Doing administration or service and being paid in the coin of  genuinely believing that this will make your department better or benefit students, even though it counts nothing, zip, nada toward promotion and tenure and will take you away from the writing that will help you achieve them. 
  • Traveling to conferences to deliver papers--sometimes partially reimbursed, true, but necessary to do your job. 
  • Reviewing: not just student papers but grant applications, books, tenure packets, scholarly journals and so on. Worth doing? Absolutely--but there has to be a balance. 
  • And here is the one I'm most ambivalent about, in part because Open Access week raised awareness about it: Yes, information should be free.  Yes, information in journals would benefit more people if it were widely accessible outside the subscription databases.  
But am I ready not only to write the articles for free but also to fork over an ACA fee (payment to submit) that goes along with Open Access, whether that fee is $50 or $500? Can I come up with, and do I want to pay out of my modest salary, the $3500 (this is not a misprint; it's an actual fee quoted when I looked into it) necessary for the subscription databases to make one article free and OA?  Oasis (http://www.openoasis.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=265&catid=79&Itemid=256) says that universities will pay the fee, in some or most cases, and in the sciences, the fee may be paid from grants (http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676).
The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/oct/21/open-access-myths-peter-suber-harvard) has useful information on the subject, too.
Your thoughts?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

At Slate: "I Quit Academe" as a new essay genre

Over at Slate, Rebecca Schuman suggests that the "quitting academe" essay could practically constitute its own genre
Sarah Kendzior, Al-Jazeera English’s firebrand of social and economic justice, suggested this week that there should be a Norton Anthology of Academics Declaring They Quit, among whose august contributions she would place Zachary Ernst’s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower.” Ernst’s Oct. 20 essay is a deeply honest account of his acrimonious departure from what many would consider a dream job: a tenured position as a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri. 
Ernst’s contribution is indeed part of a raucous subgenre of “I Quit Lit” in (or rather, out of) academe, which includes Kendzior’s own acidic “The Closing of American Academia,” Alexandra Lord’s surprisingly controversial “Location, Location, Location,” and my own satirical public breakdown. All of us faced, and continue to face, the impressively verbose wrath of a discipline scorned, which itself is the completing gesture of initiation into the I Quit Oeuvre.
 Schuman may have a point. It may not be clear that academics are quitting at a greater rate than usual, but they're indubitably hustling over to their blogs to announce the quitting and the reasons for it.  Ernst, who has pride of place in her article, even stars in The Chronicle's entry in the begging-to-be-written Lifetime Original Movie this week, "Faculty Couples for Better or Worse," as one of the commenters points out.

I shouldn't be flippant, though, because these are real problems and real injustices that are happening. Since money is apparently never an issue--those who quit always transition effortlessly into a new career--the spectacular public bridge-burning genre of the "I quit" essay must be designed to make academe better, one blog post at a time.  How could you not admire that?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On writing: Richard Brinsley Sheridan's thought for the day

Sometimes when I wander over to writers' blogs where they're talking about writing a novel in a week or how many words they write a day, I wonder about a couple of things, especially with NaNoWriMo and its children coming up in November:

1. Who's reading those words?
2. Are those words worth reading?

If you're Margaret Atwood, writing 2000 words a day of Margaret Atwood-level prose is one thing. Same is true for Joyce Carol Oates or Anthony Grafton. But what about mere mortals like poor toiling academics?

I wonder this about academic writing when people tell about the many words they write in a day or promote their writing zealously on Twitter.  Sometimes those posts or articles are worth it, but only about 1/10 of the links that I've followed say anything genuinely new. Some books look totally worth it (like Rees's Refrigeration Nation) but others--maybe not.

Maybe that says more about the links that I've been enticed to follow than the quality of what's out there being promoted.  Maybe, too, it taps into a Calvinist distrust of "getting above yourself" like the one that Atwood and Alice Munro have talked about--that what's being advertised so heavily can't be good.

But as I slog my way toward inspiration and a completed manuscript, eking out words, I think of Richard Brinsley Sheridan:

You write with ease, to show your breeding;
But easy writing's vile hard reading.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On writing: Just say it!

I've been working on the introduction to the book manuscript, trying to write my way into Flavia's third stage of writing (writing excitement).  One of the things I'm noticing is where I'm hedging, and these are some words I'm replacing, along with the little lectures I'm giving myself:

  • Basically. Why is it basic, and if it's basic, why do you have to tell the reader it's basic? 
  • Also. Go ahead--I dare you to do this: copy & replace every "also" with nothing (I say to myself).  Does it make a difference? If it does, you didn't need it.
  • In particular. Can't you see that it's a particular example? 
  • Attempts to serve as, attempts to prove.  It does or it doesn't. Get off the fence and make this a more definite verb.
  • Is also evident in. How about "informs," a more definite verb?
  • Dashes and semicolons. Think about how your eyes glaze over when you see a semicolon-laden sentence, however nicely parallel the clauses are.  What are you, a writer or a mouse?  If you need a new sentence, start one. 
  • Way in which. Is anyone really going to care if you say "how" instead? 
  • Trendy words--er, important critical terms like "discourse." Do you really need these words?
  • Thus.  If the inference really does logically follow what you've said, do you need to signal it? "Thus" is important when you're presenting a paper, but is it a signpost that the written paragraph really needs? 
  • Just as . . . so too and Not only . . . but also.  Apparently First Draft Undine loves these parallelisms, but Subsequent Drafts Undine should learn that she is not the 21st-century Henry James of sentence stylings or Milton in writing epic similes. 
  • This doesn't even count the places where I add in a critic who maybe wrote something that referred in passing to a text in 1992 and who I see in my imagination glaring at me and crucifying me in reviews if I don't cite him or her. 
It takes a long time to write a shorter version, so hedging in an initial draft is just part of the process.  I sometimes think, though, that we should track our manuscript words to give ourselves an extra bonus for writing fewer rather than more words in a day. 

What words are you deleting today? 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Common knowledge

I was recently at a conference, and as part of the trip back I was set to spend the night at a chain hotel at the airport before flying out the next day. After getting to the airport, I went outside to the hotel shuttle area.

"Do I need to call for a shuttle?" I asked the guy who was working there. (Sometimes you do, and sometimes they automatically make the rounds of the terminals.  On one memorably long evening, the hotel sent a shuttle with nothing to indicate that it was going to that particular hotel, so I didn't hail it for a long time.)

"Which hotel?" he asked.

"Airport Hellscape Inn."

"Which one?"

"The one at the airport."

"Which one? There are two."

"I don't know."

"Find out," he snapped, and turned away.

Now, from his perspective, how could anyone not know that there were two Airport Hellscape Inns at this particular airport?  It was common knowledge.  From my perspective, it had never crossed my mind that there would be two, so it was not common knowledge. I looked at the printout, found out, and eventually got there.

I thought of this because in my new admin tasks, there's a whole raft of things that everyone takes to be common knowledge that it has never crossed my mind to ask about. "Of course so and so teaches this--is on leave--is involved with this program," I'll hear, or "this course is part of X esoteric requirement--needs to be reviewed by Y assessment office--is only taught every third year." There's a fund of common knowledge, written down nowhere, that I need to learn.  I'm learning it bit by bit, by asking questions of my colleagues, who are far more gracious than the shuttle guy.

It's not as complex as "the Knowledge," which all London cab drivers have to learn, but it's like that in that I need to be there, asking those questions and, even better, being in conversations where a question that I didn't even know I needed to ask arises from the conversation.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Adapting to admin

My sixth-grade teacher once told our class that in a few years, people would evolve--yes, we believed in science back in those days--to creatures with giant heads to accommodate our brains and a big pod foot to push the gas and brake pedals of our cars, since no one would walk any more.  He was kidding, I think and hope, about the pod foot. Certainly his vision has nothing over the satiric view of us all in Wall-E as giant overfed babies watching screens and lugging our drinks with us as we travel in carts everywhere.

If he had predicted fingers adapted to flying over keyboards all day and the inability to cordon off time, he would have been onto something.  The admin tasks I took on as part of leaning in (thanks a lot, Sheryl Sandberg) are eating up my life and writing time, and while I'm not complaining and am appreciative of the opportunity--I said yes, after all--I'm trying to figure out how to do things more efficiently.

But that's the challenge and the fun of it, too: the tasks are interesting, and figuring out how to do things better than I'm doing them right now is, too. I just have to figure out how to turn off the admin brain that wants to play with these new challenges and get back to the old challenges of writing and teaching.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The relatability factor

The Little Professor has a nicely argued, well-bred rant about how "relatability" is supposed by her students to be a core literary value. She raises the issue of David Gilmour, who has had his head handed to him by the media for this:
I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
So, no chick lit and no George Eliot, though as several commenters pointed out, he glides lightly over all the Proust on his shelves in his category of "serious heterosexual guys," boasting about how many times he's read Proust and the hours he's logged listening to audiobook versions.

I teach and have written on a lot of "real guy-guys," too, yet I am not in a Manliness Studies department because for me, relatability  is not THE point but A point. It's one to be made when you're trying to convert students from "I liked it/It sucked" reading judgments to something more substantial: critical thinking.

I get what he's saying about loving some writers and not others. Like our students, we find some authors more "relatable"--but the difference is, we don't stop there. It's my job, as I see it, to find value in literature and to find some "way in" to teach it, to find something to get excited about so that I can  honestly convey some of that to students.

As instructors, we always have something more to learn, and if we're closed off to that, either in what students can teach us or in what a piece of literature that we don't automatically like can do for us, we're not learning.  We're stuck in our own brains. We start pontificating instead of listening and learning.

Gilmour may be an inspired teacher, but if your "truly great literature" circle maps 95% onto "middle-aged white men" in a Venn diagram (exception: Virginia Woolf), you may want to think about how that affects the way your students are shaping their literary judgments.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Random bullets of Thursday

  • Warm chocolate brownies with fresh raspberries on top can really start off an evening right. They are baking as I type this.
  • After a long, busy (but pleasant) day of dealing with other people's thoughts and ideas, I get to spend some time on my own ideas. Well, except for doing some grading. 
  • Brownies are out! Time to start the evening. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Off topic: *poofed*

  • *Poof*--sorry, this seemed too much after I had posted it. Chalk it up to fatigue. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Random Bullets of Friday

  • I am saddened and angry but not a bit surprised at the "Death of an Adjunct" news and controversy.  Sadly, this isn't a new situation. I knew older adjuncts when I was a grad student and wondered how they lived and got health insurance. The casualization of the academic work force and 20 years of cutting funding for "safety net" programs hasn't made the situation better, especially now since recent votes are trying to starve the poor by cutting food programs.  The thing is, adjuncts aren't the only ones being treated this way; it's a systemic problem in this country, with workers being treated as disposable widgets (Paging Mr. Dickens!). And why don't we have single-payer insurance not tied to employment like every other rational country in the world? Working to make this better on my own campus is what I (and all of us) can do locally. I am stopping now before I start on a rant. 
  • Good reviews of something I wrote have made it easier to face the messy section of a chapter I'm working with this week and to say "once I wrote something that made sense, and I can do it again." 
  • Any online article with a number in the title is 95% likely to be completely pointless. 
  • There is a . . .  creature that makes a croaking noise outside my window. I can't see it, but it doesn't seem to be a toad or frog. Is it a bird? An insect? A different kind of animal? It goes silent when I go outside to see if I can find it. 
  • When I get to work at home for a day, I feel like a dog that goes and rolls in the grass because it's just so happy to be free. I love my job, students, colleagues, and all, but my brain wants to roll in the grass on a writing day because it's not taken up with other people's requests.  
  • Penn State just eliminated a $1200 fine that it had begun imposing for not answering its mandatory wellness questions: "Among other questions, the online survey asked employees about their plans to become pregnant, about how frequently they drank too much alcohol, and about whether they had experienced problems with violence, depression, or a divorce or separation." Talk about a rhetorical "gotcha": "How frequently they drank too much alcohol" = "When did you stop beating your wife?" 

Monday, September 16, 2013

NYTimes: "No Child Left Untableted"

At The New York Times, Carlo Rotella's “No Child Left Untableted” is a good look at what's happening to those who'll be our students in a decade or so. Rotella calls the businesspeople "smart and well-intentioned," but he does have some reservations. A few quotations, with some thoughts:
  1. There are a lot of people who are trying to make informed, thoughtful choices about educational policies, like Greg Anrig:
Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at the Century Foundation and the author of "Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools," [says that]  The research on successful schools and good teaching . . . highlights the importance of relationships among the people in a school: administrators and teachers and students. “None of these studies identify technology as decisive.” Where technology makes a difference, it tends to do so in places with a strong organization dedicated to improving teaching and where students closely engage with teachers and one another. “A device that enhances such interactions is good,” Anrig said. “But kids focused on the device, isolated, cuts into that.” 
2.  But others are focused more on the financial killing to be made. 
The first time I met with Joel Klein, the chief executive of Amplify and an executive vice president of News Corporation, he checked his e-mail on his phone a lot, even as we talked about the concern that technology isolates rather than connects people. I pointed this out, and he, in turn, expressed wonder that I don’t even allow the use of laptops in my classroom.
First, I’m impressed that Carlo Rotella sat through this epic display of rudeness, when most of us would have walked out. Second, I love the irony of this: that Klein can’t be bothered to hold an actual conversation with a person sitting in front of him but is most interested in preaching his vision. Of course, that’s what salesmen do—talk and only listen just enough so that they can interrupt you with selling points--but if you’re buying a car, you have a choice of which pitchmen to listen to. Children in schools equipped with Klein’s lucrative-for-Amplify “vision” won’t have that choice.

 3. But at least Klein still thinks teachers have a role to play: 
They might begin by transferring to it what they already do now — existing lessons, homework, tests — but it can only make the hoped-for difference in how and what students learn if teachers come up with new ways to use it. “If it’s not transformative,” Klein told me, “it’s not worth it.”
 [. . .]
He did go on to say that he wouldn’t put fourth graders in a MOOC — a massive open online course — and that he would exercise great restraint in introducing technology into a kindergarten classroom.
Should I say "Well, that's big of him"? No? Okay. I won't.

4. But data is the future: 
Soon, games that know what a student has read (the tablet’s library will contain 1,000 books) will be able to strategically sprinkle a particular word in his path based on how many times the research says you need to see a new word in order to learn it. In a few years, according to Leites, advances like “gaze tracking” and measurement of pupil dilation “will revolutionize” the gauging of cognitive response by making it possible to determine exactly what students are reacting to on the screen.
Am I the only one who finds this a little creepy and a little sad?

5. The teaching end of this article fares better, as in the training session with Robin Britt, the “Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF),” which I misread initially as “pelf,” Sinclair Lewis’s slang word for “wealth.”
Britt repeatedly made a fluid gathering-and-pushing gesture with both hands, as if demonstrating a basketball chest pass, as he said: “Then you move that group out, they’re off practicing to reinforce what you just taught them, and you pull together another group, or you go to an individual, then you flow them out to the next task. Gather and flow.”
I hadn’t seen this passage when I used basketball as a metaphor the other day, but in this context, it’s individual basketball. Passing from person to person among the players themselves doesn’t seem to count. Still, it's interaction.

6. What will interacting with screens for six hours a day do to their eyes? Well, what does it do to your eyes?
And overstimulation can just plain hurt. Erika Gutscher, who teaches science at a year-round school in East Cary, N.C., that has been piloting the Amplify tablet since March, reports that she and her students love the tablets but get headaches if they use them too much.
Haven’t you found the same thing—that too much screen time numbs you or can give you a headache? Not to mention the (dead horse topic alert: cursive!) issue of brain connections made when students use pen and paper to write things down.

7. And a big-picture view from Sherry Turkle. 
Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor and a prominent Cassandra who writes about the unanticipated consequences of our immersion in electronic technology, described some aspects of tablets in the classroom to me as “the dystopian presented as the utopian.” She said, “We become smitten with the idea that there will be technological solutions to these knotty problems with education, but it happens over and over again that we stop talking to kids. . . . “There’s a reason they call them ‘discussion groups’ and not ‘conversations,’ ” Turkle said. “You learn how to broadcast, which is not the same thing as what you and I are doing now. Posting strong opinions isn’t a conversation.”

Thank you, Sherry Turkle! “We stop talking to kids.” Or we stop having discussions with each other in classrooms. Or we look at cell phones and check email while preaching our message without listening.

And Britt, the PLEF trainer, gets it, too:
As he told them more than once, “It’s the teacher, not the technology.” 
Asked how to handle students goofing off on the tablet in class, Britt reviewed the mechanics of the app blocker. “But,” he added, “that’s a case where maybe you want to use proximity instead.” Proximity? A couple of the trainees started scanning their tablets’ apps in the hope of finding that feature. Maybe it controlled a miniature drone. But Britt moved up the row of desks to stand right next to the questioner and said to everyone: “You already know how to do this. You keep going with the lesson but you move closer, you show him you can see what he’s doing.”

"You already know how to do this." Yes. Yes, we do. And you can't find everything you need on a screen. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tighten up or chill out? The classroom balancing act

I've been thinking about Steven J. Corbett and Michelle LaFrance's  "It's the Little Things That Count" over at the Chronicle.  Corbett and LaFrance have a lot of suggestions, and probably like most of us who read the article I divided them in my own head into good ones (a.k.a. things that I already do) and iffy ones (a.k.a. things I would not do).  For most of these, the fine line between do and don't probably depends on your classroom persona: how much is you, and how much is too much?
  • Good advice: Get there early to talk to students linger so that they can talk to you after class [to which I'd add "as long as you're not hogging the classroom and keeping the next instructor waiting"].  A little too much, maybe: asking students about a "hot" YouTube video and playing it as they come in.  That might work if you have a process-oriented rather than a content-oriented class (writing class vs. literature) or if it relates somehow to the subject matter--and you'd be surprised at how much does relate--but not as a general rule. 
  • Ask about their lives: maybe good advice, within reason, but don't pry. 
  • Good advice: Perform with a positive attitude, or, as Harry Richman tells us, "leave your worries on the doorstep." Absolutely. If you have energy and a good attitude, they probably will, too, and if they don't, it's not for lack of trying. Not to flood the post with videos, but think about what Judy Garland sings in Summer Stock:  "Forget your troubles, come on, get happy." 

  • Email the students back asap. Yes--within reason.
  • Adjust the thermostat. Would that we could! The thermostat is usually a purely decorative object in any classroom I've seen.  One time I asked someone from maintenance about an overly hot room and mentioned that I had turned the thermostat as low as it could go. He confirmed that, yes, indeed, that had no effect on the room temperature, which was actually set somewhere else ( I'm guessing somewhere in time-travel land by my elderly, frail great-grandmother, who during her last years wore cardigans in 90 degree heat). 
  • Surrender control of the class sometimes.  Yes.
  • Allow students to eat and drink, wear headphones, check their cellphones, and leave class early.  One of these things is not like the others.  
    • Eat in class? I don't care.  Some of them do everything but lay out a linen tablecloth with their lunches, and if you teach at noon, you're bound to get some of this.  They're done in 5 minutes or so and then they have the energy to participate in class. 
    • Wear headphones [edited to add: just during tasks that require concentration. Thank you, Dr. Crazy in the comments] and check their cellphones or laptops (because we all do it, right?). No, I don't, and I don't expect them to, either. I've tried classes both ways, and the cellphone/laptop classes are less engaged with the discussion.  They just are. 
      • Think of it this way: when's the last time you saw a game of soccer or basketball where players were free to stop dead in their tracks and check their cell phones in the middle of the field?  A classroom discussion is exactly that kind of fast-moving game, except that there isn't a losing side, and if you're in a game where the conversational ball is being tossed around, you'd better be ready. 
      • It's not too much to ask that we're all in the same mental as well as physical space for 50 minutes or 75 minutes a few times a week. 
    • Leave class early? If there's genuinely nothing left to do, maybe instructors need to plan their classes better, although during writing workshop days students can leave if they've finished what they were supposed to do.  The problem is that if this happens a few times, they start factoring that into their expectations for the class. Class time becomes something to be measured and maybe cut down, as if it's a punishment rather than an opportunity. 
Your thoughts?

Friday, September 06, 2013

Random bullets of food for thought

In thinking about Madwoman's post on academics leaving academe (more later), I came across a  post with a clickbait title on how feminism went astray. "Where Feminism Went Wrong" at the Chronicle is saying something but I'm not sure exactly what except that women should realize that perfection may not be attainable. Lots of generalizations about how women were misled into thinking they could have it all, yadda yadda, but the conclusion is a can't-argue-with-that "We need to struggle. We need to organize. And we need to dance with joy."

I was interested in this part: "We need to focus less of our energies on our own kids' SAT scores and more on fighting for better public schools; less time on competitive cupcake-baking and more on supporting those few brave women willing to run for office. We need fewer individual good works and more collective efforts."

Two things: 

1. Competitive cupcake-baking, handcrafted Halloween costumes, and the rest are perennial events in the motherhood sweepstakes, and women used to seem demon-possessed to persecute one another over them. Does this still happen? Is it worse now than ever before? The Atlantic deploys Caitlin Flanagan to tell me it is, but is it really? 

2. Time and attention are resources, and resources are scarce. You can say "spend less time focusing on your own kids and more on the collective good of the whole," but is that going to happen? What's more likely is that people would try to do both. Maybe it was easier to take collective action instead of worrying about your kids' futures in the days of "feminist foremothers," since the unemployment rate in 1968 was 3.6%--basically, full employment. Maybe that's just an excuse, though. 

It seems to be the same issue all over again: we would all like the benefits of the long-term collective action and thoughtful reflection that these changes promise, but the short-term hits to family, jobs, and precious spare time that they require will, we fear, leave us individually worse off than before, and in the competitive world for jobs and educational slots, will leave us permanently behind. Like the Red Queen, we believe we need to do all the running we can just to stay in place and not lose ground. 

Now about the quitting academe issue. Madwoman with a Laptop says that that post generated lots of traffic and a lot of great comments, and Historiann's post did the same.  I've read a fair number of eloquent posts on this issue, but is there evidence that junior academics are leaving en masse? I know that talented people who don't have tenure-track jobs are leaving, and the loss is the academy's; do the same numbers hold true for those on the tenure track?

  • Sunday, September 01, 2013

    The Bottleneck

    (Yes, this is a Melville-like post title, but it's a frustrating and elusive idea, just like the books of Guess Who.)

    I recently completed a writing task that I've done lots and lots of times before. This time, though, for some reason it proved to be a bottleneck.

    I couldn't work on it without getting all angsty and avoidant. I couldn't work on my own manuscript  until it was done.

    It was like pushing writing through a sieve. Of cement.

    It shouldn't have been tricky, but my attitude somehow made it so. Why this task? Why now?

    I don't know, but now I'm leaping about and rejoicing.  It's finished, and the final product shows no signs of what went into writing it.

    Has that ever happened to you--a task that you say "no problem" to and then can't seem to write? How did you get over it?

    Wednesday, August 28, 2013

    Axioms for a happier semester

    Anastasia has a set of propostions for a new school year here and Natalie Houston over at Profhacker has another set (here).  I've already accumulated, or maybe I should say formulated, a few more:

    • Yes, you made a schedule, but stuff happens. Get used to it, get over it, and don't let it derail you from your larger purpose. It's the old trap that people describe with diets: "I ate one cookie, thus I'm doomed, and thus I might as well give up and eat a bunch more." If you stayed up late working, you can sleep in until 6 instead of getting up at 5. Cut yourself a little slack, but just not too much.
    • Be excited. Yes, you can resolve not to change your syllabus or assignments, but if you get a brainstorm for an awesome way to do something better, run with it as long as it doesn't derail everything. It's money, or an assignment, in the bank, and it'll pay off in the long run.   I stayed an extra hour at the office yesterday because I was writing up a new assignment (no extra grading, though!) and improving the old ones.  Not only is the new assignment going to improve something I already do, but it's going to enliven tomorrow's class, and, maybe equally important, make something I've taught before more exciting.  And next semester, I won't have to write this one up again; it'll be assignment gold in the bank.
    • Be visible.  I know there's a lot of advice out there about closing your door and working being the way to go, and sometimes you need to do that, but strike a balance. Believe me, people see through the whole "face time" charade if you're strategically showing up/sticking your head in when it suits you and ignoring colleagues and students the rest of the time.
    • On the other hand, playing "Where were you?" is a losing game.  You are never, ever going to be visible and available enough to satisfy everyone. Your students would like you to be there 24/7, especially the night before a test.  Your colleague who breezes in to teach a class once a week and doesn't see you at the exact minute that she expects to will decide that you're rarely around, your 4 days/30+ hours on campus that week notwithstanding. You can't win this game, so don't even try to play it and don't let it make you angry. 
    • Prioritize. Ask yourself, "How will this outcome be changed if I spend 4 hours on this task instead of two? Will it change at all? Will it be improved?" If the answer is no, think about how you're allotting time to it.  Any academic life and maybe life anywhere comes with more tasks than can possibly be completed and more demands than you can possibly satisfy. It's like eggs in a basket: you have to balance them so that they don't break, but some will inevitably break if you put in too many or don't pack them carefully.
    • Analyze the task: sometimes less is best.  This is part of prioritizing.  If an email asks you for X, do you then extrapolate from that that the sender wants you to answer Y and Z also, and to explain how they all work together?  And are you then disappointed that the sender responds only to what you said about X?  Don't make more work for yourself by second-guessing what you're being asked to do, especially if there's a discrete and limited task involved.

    Saturday, August 24, 2013

    President Obama's Plan and Mine for Controlling College Costs

    Over at The Chronicle, several articles lay out President Obama's plan to control college costs.  I think a look at the bigger picture is in order. To wit:

    1. Make the "job creators" who have had massive tax breaks since 2002--remember those bank bailouts?-- work a little harder at developing and sustaining solid, middle-class jobs in this country. The Dow and NASDAQ keep going up, and Marketplace keeps playing its happy song "We're in the Money," but what does that mean for people who can't get a job? We keep seeing all these worried articles about "the American people aren't spending enough," and then someone speculates, "do you suppose it's because they don't have jobs or don't feel certain about the jobs they have?" Gee, ya think?

    2. Do something about the student loan crisis.  I'm not an economist, and surely economics bloggers like nicoleandmaggie are cringing at my naïveté right now, but I fail to understand why large corporations can get virtually 0% borrowing and can declare bankruptcy if they have to pay pensions, but the best we can do for students is temporarily not raising rates to 6.8% and promising that they won't go above 8.25 (and way more for parents).

    Students are graduating with the equivalents of unsaleable houses on their backs, mortgage-level debt in some cases, and they do not have the privileges of corporations in borrowing or declaring bankruptcy. If you want to know why young Americans aren't buying cars, here's a tip: it's not necessarily because they're save-the-earth hipsters. They can't afford it.

    3. Think before you act on the MOOC model. In what may be an example of tongue-in-cheek understatement, the Chronicle observes that "Evidence for the effectiveness of MOOCs remains thin, if nonexistent." Thomas L. Friedman is invoked as though he actually has a ghost of a clue about what is happening in education.

    Again: education is a good thing, and college graduates fare better than those who don't graduate, but simply focusing on flipping classrooms doesn't help with the one-two punch of punishing levels of debt and high unemployment.  

    Monday, August 19, 2013

    On writing: Charts, lists, and inspiration--fail, fail, fail

    I'm usually a big fan of charts and all those little tools that help you fake inspiration until the real inspiration comes along.  What's that thing that gets said about Hollywood--"If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made"? It usually works for inspiration, too.

    Today, though, the charts, lists, and inspiring words just plain failed me, or rather, I failed me.

    First I looked at GetaLifePhD's post about making a template. Great! I've done that before, all color coded and everything. Make an appointment with your writing! Pay yourself (with writing) first!

    But then I couldn't get Google Calendar to sync correctly with the iPhone and iPad. Appointments would show up on one or two but not all of them. Sometimes they'd show up twice. Of course I had to Google this and solve it, because solving tech problems is fun and is also a great way to avoid writing.

    An hour and a half later I was much wiser in the ways of possible solutions but none of them actually, you know, worked.

    Enough of the chart, I said.  Bardiac suggests lists. Fine. I like lists.  But wait: I have the wrong kind of notebook for keeping track of progress. I have a Moleskine here, but that is not the right kind. Moleskines are for writing, not for lists. I must look online for the right kind and read reviews of notebooks this instant.  Many minutes later, I learn that the right kind is not online but at Staples.

    Feeling uninspired, I decide on some writing inspiration, which Dame Eleanor has helpfully provided for her Maygust group: a link to http://dailyroutines.typepad.com. With that link, I discovered that reading about writing routines is a lot like eating pistachios: "Just one more," I would say, and then "Just one more."

    And they all said "write in the morning," when by now it was afternoon, so I had failed again.

    All this while the various unsynced alarms and warnings were going off in Google Calendar and iCal, reminding me of what I was supposed to be--but wasn't--doing.

    Good advice by bloggers, poorly applied by me.

    But the night is still young, or youngish, and where there's time, there's writing hope.

    Tuesday, August 13, 2013

    Random bullets of beginning a semester

    • The Gertrude Stein version: not ready no not not not ready not even ready no. Not. Ready.
    • It was pleasant to see colleagues at meetings, though, and to talk with new people. 
    • I love to see the groups of new students wandering around, trying to be cool in their 18-year-old way but clearly a little excited and overwhelmed to be on campus. 
    • My syllabus, while not done, is on its way to being bulletproof. Kevlar is nothing compared to it. It is like Superman's chest, a masterpiece of deflecting "but you never told us that." 
    • Hypothetical example to make a real point: Imagine that years ago you slipped on a banana peel and fell into a wedding cake. Everybody laughed, but you're still a little touchy about it. Colleagues have come and gone since then,  and you think people have forgotten, but then, in a meeting, someone says, "it's like the time Undine fell into a wedding cake. Am I right, Undine?" She did WHAT? you can see new colleagues asking each other.  Yeah, thanks for mentioning that one, guys. 

    Saturday, August 10, 2013

    Movie Post: There's Always Tomorrow (1956)

    [Note to readers: I'm not turning this into a movie blog, but I do want to write about movies sometimes just to remember what I thought of them and to get warmed up for writing. I'll mark these with "movie post" so that you can skip them if you're not interested.]

    Last night, as I was trying to kick a vicious headache, I watched There's Always Tomorrow (1956) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies, straight down the line, but this wasn't that  incarnation of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Here they're neither the screwball comedy couple of Remember the Night (1940) nor the noir couple of Double Indemnity. They're halfway between Double Indemnity and their 1960s alter egos as pipe-smoking dad on My Three Sons and western matriarch on The Big Valley.

     Fun fact: MacMurray had it in his contract for My Three Sons that he could shoot all his scenes--reaction shots, dialogue, everything-- over the course of a couple weeks, MOOC-style, and then leave for the year, letting all the other actors emote to a blank wall when they were supposed to be talking to him in each episode. 
    Figure 1. Shopping in style in Double Indemnity. Fun fact: the canned goods were rationed, since it was wartime, and guards made sure that no one took them away from the set after the day's shooting was done.
    Figure 2: Classic Sirk, from the window to the reflection to the rain.
    Anyway. As you see the camera angles, use of mirrors and screens, and copious amounts of suburban unhappiness, you'd start to think that this is a  Douglas Sirk movie, and you'd be right.  There's even a scene of Stanwyck looking out the window in the rain (as in All That Heaven Allows) and the shadows of the drops coursing down her cheeks like tears.

    Clifford Groves (MacMurray) is a toy manufacturer in Los Angeles, married to a thoroughly domestic Joan Bennett. She's entirely wrapped up in their shrill, annoying teenage children and has no lines in the script that don't establish how indifferent she is to anything else, including Cliff.  The oldest, their insufferable son Vinnie, is played by William Reynolds, reprising his portrayal of the insufferable son of Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows the previous year and just as determined to put the kibosh on his father's happiness.

    Figure 3. Pay attention to the robot. Like Hedda Gabler's gun, it shows up again later.
    Norma Miller Vale (Stanwyck), a famous dress designer, comes to town with a trunk full of dresses and a gigantic torch that she's been carrying for Cliff all these years, as evidenced by the photo she carries of him during their relationship in earlier, happier times.  They meet, talk, and go to the theater after his wife won't go. Ignored by his family, Cliff starts to see Norma's charms all over again, since she's the only person who takes an interest in him.

    Figure 4. They're happy, so of course it won't last.
    When he has a business meeting in Palm Grove, the two meet there by accident. They swim, dance, and enjoy each other's company.  Palm Grove is their green world, although with characteristic Sirkian irony (foreshadowing?) it's actually a desert. They're seen by Vinnie and his friends, and Vinnie gets his righteous armor on to do battle.

    Convinced that Something Is Going On, though everything's innocent, Vinnie starts listening in on his father's phone calls, despite the sensible protests of his girlfriend, Ann. "Nothing's going on, but I wouldn't blame him if he did stray," says Ann, to which we all say amen. 

    The rest seems predictable: Cliff wants Norma to run away with him; Vinnie and his sister go to see Norma and plead with her not to take their father away; and Norma does the noble thing and gets on the plane for New York.

    Figure 5. You can see it in her eyes: why not let them have it? Classic Stanwyck.
    But what's not predictable is that before she leaves, Norma lets them have it: about how they ignore their father, taking him for granted so that he looks for affection elsewhere. It's a slightly skewed and far less creepy version of the logic in The Philadelphia Story,  when Tracy Lord's father says he wouldn't have strayed if his daughter had paid more attention to him.

    Also not predictable: after Norma tells him that what they feel can't replace his family and bids him goodbye, there's a scene in which Cliff looks out into the industrial hellscape as the robot marches down a long, empty table. That's his mechanical life from now on, and he knows it. The movie continues, with Cliff going back to his family and Mrs. Cliff making small noises about neglecting him, but MacMurray's face looks haunted even as his family surrounds him.

    The ending mocks the whole "man's return to the family after a vixen threatens it" plot of so many melodramas.  Sirk often hints at some kind of muted happiness after happiness denied, but the look on MacMurray's face totally negates it. The title says that there's always a tomorrow, but his look says there isn't.