Thursday, February 28, 2013

In which I become a literary character

Partly because of all the news about standing versus sitting, and partly because now that I've gotten more exercise over the past few years, sitting too long makes me antsy, I've taken to setting up boxes  on the desk so I can stand and type. 

Then it occurred to me that I could do the same thing with reading. I've done this at home, where an ancient printer on a file cabinet is just about the right height to rest a book. Looking for a similar space in my office, I hit upon an empty space on my shelves. I put the book on there, sometimes leaning on an adjacent file cabinet for variety, and read. 

Then, the other day, I had the nagging feeling I had seen this before. I was, well, imitating someone. Standing facing the wall . . . apart from my fellow copyists in the hall outside . . . behind a door rather than behind a screen . . . 

Yes, friends, I thought I had become Bartleby, except that unlike him, I have not resolved to "do no more writing." 
The next day I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing. 
"Why, how now? what next?" exclaimed I, "do no more writing?" 
"No more." 
"And what is the reason?"
"Do you not see the reason for yourself," he indifferently replied.

Criticism and primary texts in class discussions: out far or in deep?

In teaching lower-division lit classes, when we're explicating a poem in class, I'm just about guaranteed to get this question at least once: "How do you know the poet meant to put all that symbolism in there? Maybe he was just trying to write a poem" or "Did he write the poem first and then put in the symbolism?"

My response is always "That's a good question," because it is. We talk about the poem, and about the revision process, and about what some poets have said about their writing processes.  Sometimes those who write fiction or poetry will chime in.

In upper-division classes, though, students don't always ask that question. In those classes, I usually assign critical readings to accompany the primary texts, which can lead to a different set of responses about whether a particular essay helps to explain the text or seems just plain bonkers.

The problem is that, like the "did the poet really mean all this stuff?" question, talking about the critical approaches can derail discussion of the text.  They're happy to talk on an abstract level about why a critical approach works well or works poorly, but then I say, "What about this passage on p. 59?  Why does the text go in this direction?" or, more broadly, "What did you think about/make of this passage?" or "What is X that's mentioned here?"

Then . . . crickets.  I'm comfortable with pauses and waiting while they look again at the passage, and sometimes, if they're struggling, I'll talk them through it.

It's a balancing act, trying to talk about both while not slighting either.  That's what made me think of Frost's "Neither Out Far nor In Deep." The poem has a totally different meaning, of course, but on the days when the discussion doesn't work as well as it should, the phrase sticks in my head as exemplifying where it went awry. We didn't go "out far" (criticism) or "in deep" (text).  On good days, we can do both.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

On work, life, poetry, and dreams

Right now, it feels as though the circle of my attention keeps getting drawn tighter and tighter. There's teaching, there's the usual academic stuff of departments and service, there's driving on sloppy roads, and then there's the all-consuming manuscript. I eat the same things, do the same things, and --well, you know the drill. It's February, after all, and we can't hibernate the way our forbears are supposed to have done.

I feel as though I'm treating the blog the same way--bouncing between posts about writing and about larger stuff (MOOCs) without acknowledging that there's lots of life that can't be encompassed between these two poles.

Probably in response to that, I've been having a series of dreams about hiking in the California mountains. I've never lived in California or hiked in its mountains, but in the dreams, it's sunny and I'm following a dirt trail, sometimes smelling eucalyptus or seeing wildflowers.

Sometimes I see tiny lizards scuttle across the trail. I can see other mountains a hundred miles away, and in this latest dream, there was a little town at the bottom of the mountain where artisan shops sold things like handcrafted jewelry, pens, journals, cheese, and so on. As I'm walking on the dusty boardwalk from one shop to another, a rainstorm comes, but it just makes the smell of the dust rise and combine with the smell of the rain, which is pleasant.

As a consequence of this dream vacation, fragments from two poems popped into my head this morning:

The first few lines from John Berryman's "Dream Song 14"

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy   
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,   
Henry bores me, with his plights, gripes   
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.   
And the tranquil hills, gin, look like a drag   
and somehow a dog
has taken itself, its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving            
behind: me, wag.

And the last four lines from Wallace Stevens's "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock":

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

A dream and poetry vacation in the mind is as good as a real rest, I think.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why bother calling it "college" at all?

Jonathan Rees has another MOOC post guaranteed to make your blood boil, and he promises another post soon. From via More or Less Bunk:
Koller believes that with the right grading “rubric” students can grade each other’s papers even on issues of critical reasoning and grammar, thus solving seemingly daunting logistics problems.
Well, I can "believe" in unicorns, but that doesn't mean that they're about to descend to earth and shower us with magical kisses.  Anyway, the ETS thinks that it has that problem licked with its e-rater essay software, so why don't all these corporate types get together, merge all their software solutions, and eliminate the pesky professors altogether? (Oh, wait . . . )

Of course, e-rater has a few glitches:
Les Perelman, a director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was allowed to test e-rater. He told Winerip that the system has biases that can be easily gamed.
E-Rater prefers long essays. A 716-word essay [Perelman] wrote that was padded with more than a dozen nonsensical sentences received a top score of 6; a well-argued, well-written essay of 567 words was scored a 5.
"You could say the War of 1812 started in 1925," Winerip says. "There are all kinds of things you could say that have little or nothing to do in reality that could receive a high score."
The thing I can't figure out is why the various MOOC providers are so intent on aligning themselves with colleges and universities.

  • The high-status universities that started the whole thing want no part of diluting their brands by actually granting credit from their illustrious institutions.  They know that the real graduates of their institutions will have the high-status jobs anyway. 
  • There's an incessant MOOC bashing of a straw man--the large lecture class--because it isn't modern and shiny and technologically interesting in the way that a taped lecture delivered over the internet can be. Traditional college is too "old-school" (heh) to be of interest to digital natives, blah blah blah. 
  • Unlike those nasty colleges that require students to show up and earn credits, the for-profit MOOCs are interested in monetizing education at the expense of quality profits bringing everyone together to sing "Kumbaya" and learn for the sake of learning.  Granted, I think that this really is the idealistic vision of MOOC professors and some MOOC initiators--that they want to share their knowledge with everyone. But for-profits are harvesting and selling that freely given expertise, or if they aren't yet, they will be soon.  
  • The political factions that are starving public universities to death and touting MOOCs apparently despise colleges, or the humanities, anyway. From Salon.com  "Conservatives don’t like big government and they don’t like taxes, and increasingly, they don’t even like the entire way that the humanities are taught in the United States." It's a two-fer: college is government (hated) and also humanities (hated), so why wouldn't you love what gets rid of both? 
If we are in the midst of a Great Divide that will return in-person education to its pre-WWII status of educating the few, the proud, and the wealthy, with lesser alternatives for the rest, why define the form of education being proposed as "college"?  In other words, if you hate it, why do you want to wear its credentials? 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Writers on writing: Adam Phillips

From Joan Acocella's review of Adam Phillips's Missing Out in The New Yorker. This part isn't online, so I'm typing it in from the print version.
At the age of fifty-eight, he has published seventeen books, not counting the seven that he has edited.  He also writes frequently for The Threepenny Review and, especially, for the London Review of Books. He just keeps cranking it out.
 And he says he doesn't fuss over it.  . . . [Asked about] his experience of writing, Phillips answered that it came easily. If, in producing a piece, he felt stuck, he just chucked it in the wastebasket. In other ways, too, he takes a relaxed, even antic view.  By now, he doesn't feel obliged to write his books on his own. (Of his last six, three were co-authored.) .  . . But, even when he's writing alone, about psychoanalysis, he doesn't feel that he actually has to write a book.  As he has explained, he writes some essays and then, trusting that their emergence from his brain at around the same time means that they must be related, publishes them in one volume.  So, while some of his books are advertised as collections of essays, that's what many of his other books are, too. "Missing Out" is in this category.  It discusses, at length, not just missing out but "King Lear" and "Othello," and also includes the text of a lecture that he gave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 2011, on theatrical representations of madness.  Phillips pretty much does any damn thing he pleases.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Email Pong

I like to check Profhacker sometimes, because it does have helpful information, and for productivity gadget procrastinators like me, it is a perfect storm of things that I Must Have before doing another lick of work.

Recently, Profhacker's Natalie Houston asks "Would You Announce Your Email Habits?" and links to an article about "How to Check E-mail Twice a Day."

Now, Houston's basic premise about setting times to check your email and "batching" responses is a good and sensible one. I've said it on this blog before, too, and most of us have tried it. It generally works.

Would I tell people? No. Do I tell them I am not going to answer email on weekends? It's in my syllabus, so I guess so.

But the link  suggests that, with a suitable flourish of trumpets, you make this announcement to everyone you know.  The writer seems to think that they'll read that email and remember it among the hundreds of others they get each day. It just seems a little precious to me to imagine that people will care.

Others suggest that you add it to your signature line. Signature lines have grown over the years from a modest 4-line name-and-address thing to 10+ lines with more promotions for products than the Academy Awards.  Still, I guess that's better than a whole separate email.

Then I started thinking.  What if your spam informative email about what and when you'll bother to reply crosses swords with an autoreply?

Original: "I will only answer email at 11 and 4."

Reply: "I am out of the office until future date. Please contact X if you need to speak to someone about the program."

Original: "I will only answer email at 11 and 4."

Reply: "I am out of the office until future date. Please contact X if you need to speak to someone about the program."

Back and forth, back and forth, like an endless, stately, slo-mo (is there any other kind?) game of Pong in which the paddles hit the little blip but the little blip--the message--never scores.

Yes, this made me laugh today.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Peter Elbow: Academic writing--bad on purpose?

Peter Elbow has a new book out--and, more important for fans of teh webz, an interesting blog post--on why academic writing can be so impenetrable:
When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:
 X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.
And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.
Elbow goes on to say that even strong, confident academic writers "interrupt themselves" with opposing arguments in this way. Overall, he says, "I want to celebrate the mental ability to feel the truth in conflicting ideas."

 My first thought: John Keats, you were right! "The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems."

 Second thought: Elbow is right, but I want him to say more (to which any sensible person would say "buy the book, then").  What about academic jargon and theory-speak?

 That's a difficult proposition, taking on the jargon question, because here's the basic debate if anyone brings up the issue:

 Scholar A: "Why do you use so much jargon?"

 Scholar B: "It is not jargon! These words are an indispensable set of terms that serve as shorthand for difficult conceptual ideas and theoretical systems. Sometimes those terms don't cover it, so I have to invent my own and use them without defining them."

 Scholar A: "I'm asking why you use ridiculously obfuscatory language to mystify readers when your concepts are really pretty simple and not all that novel."

 Scholar B: "You're just too stupid to understand my Complex Ideas."

 Scholar A: "Am not!"

 Scholar B: "Are too!"


 Your thoughts?

Monday, February 11, 2013

On writing: immersion

The hardest thing about writing is immersing yourself in it when your brain is fighting you.

The second hardest thing, after you've gotten into a habit or flow of writing, is coming up for air.

Once you've exhausted all the internet distractions, jumping up to do a load of laundry, and whatever else you do to avoid work, you find yourself writing and getting into it.

But how do you stop? I've been working in the mornings, trying to take a break in the afternoons to get class work done, then going back in the evenings, which is, whether I like it or not, the time when my best ideas come to me and the best writing gets done.

When you take that break, though, your brain doesn't know enough to say "Switch now! No more thinking about the manuscript. Put those ideas down and hop on the Comma Splice Express for some paper grading!"

With toddlers who have a tantrum when they have to put away their toys and take a nap, we say that they have trouble with "transitions." I guess academics can have that, too.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt on, er, correspondence courses

From Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, 1922, with no comments but a little bolding for emphasis.  Babbitt and his son Ted are talking about the value of a traditional, in-person college education versus correspondence courses taught to thousands by mail.

"Oh punk. I don't see what's the use of law-school—or even finishing high school. I don't want to go to college 'specially. Honest, there's lot of fellows that have graduated from colleges that don't begin to make as much money as fellows that went to work early. . . . And then I could take up correspondence-courses. That's the real stuff! You don't have to recite to some frosty-faced old dame that's trying to show off to the principal, and you can study any subject you want to. Just listen to these! I clipped out the ads of some swell courses." . . .

He snatched from the back of his geometry half a hundred advertisements of those home-study courses which the energy and foresight of American commerce have contributed to the science of education.

[From the ad]: "Soon found I could talk right up to the Super and get due credit for all the good work I did. They began to appreciate me and advance me fast, and say, old doggo, what do you think they're paying me now? $6,500 per year! And say, I find I can keep a big audience fascinated, speaking on any topic. As a friend, old boy, I advise you to send for circular (no obligation) and valuable free Art Picture to:—

     Desk WA        Sandpit, Iowa.


The advertisements were truly philanthropic. One of them bore the rousing headline: "Money! Money!! Money!!!" The second announced that "Mr. P. R., formerly making only eighteen a week in a barber shop, writes to us that since taking our course he is now pulling down $5,000 as an Osteo-vitalic Physician;" and the third that "Miss J. L., recently a wrapper in a store, is now getting Ten Real Dollars a day teaching our Hindu System of Vibratory Breathing and Mental Control."

Ted had collected fifty or sixty announcements, from annual reference-books, from Sunday School periodicals, fiction-magazines, and journals of discussion. One benefactor implored, "Don't be a Wallflower—Be More Popular and Make More Money—YOU Can Ukulele or Sing Yourself into Society! By the secret principles of a Newly Discovered System of Music Teaching, any one—man, lady or child—can, without tiresome exercises, special training or long drawn out study, and without waste of time, money or energy, learn to play by note, piano, banjo, cornet, clarinet, saxophone, violin or drum, and learn sight-singing."

. . .  "There's no reason why, if efficiency-experts put their minds to it the way they have to routing products in a factory, they couldn't figure out some scheme so a person wouldn't have to monkey with all this practising and exercises that you get in music." Babbitt was impressed, and he had a delightful parental feeling that they two, the men of the family, understood each other. He listened to the notices of mail-box universities which taught Short-story Writing and Improving the Memory, Motion-picture-acting and Developing the Soul-power, Banking and Spanish, Chiropody and Photography, Electrical Engineering and Window-trimming, Poultry-raising and Chemistry. 

"Well—well—" Babbitt sought for adequate expression of his admiration. "I'm a son of a gun! I knew this correspondence-school business had become a mighty profitable game—makes suburban real-estate look like two cents!—but I didn't realize it'd got to be such a reg'lar key-industry! Must rank right up with groceries and movies. Always figured somebody'd come along with the brains to not leave education to a lot of bookworms and impractical theorists but make a big thing out of it. . . ."

 "Oh sure, Dad; of course." Ted had the immense and joyful maturity of a boy who is respectfully listened to by his elders. Babbitt concentrated on him with grateful affection:

 "I can see what an influence these courses might have on the whole educational works. Course I'd never admit it publicly—fellow like myself, a State U. graduate, it's only decent and patriotic for him to blow his horn and boost the Alma Mater—but smatter of fact, there's a whole lot of valuable time lost even at the U., studying poetry and French and subjects that never brought in anybody a cent. I don't know but what maybe these correspondence-courses might prove to be one of the most important American inventions."

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Writing inspiration: What Scrivener can do (so far)

  • It can let you move pieces of the manuscript around really easily, much more easily than in Word. Flying dinosaur section first! No! Swimming dinosaur section first! You can name the little sections and let them slug it out in the different configurations by moving them around on the corkboard or in the outline feature.
  •  Scrivener has a feature that lets you set a certain number of words per day (the default is 1000) and a target for the project as a whole.  You get to see the little bar advance even as you write, if you want to. If you are on a charts-and-word count regimen of reinforcement (in the absence of Divine Afflatus Inspiration), this is motivating. You don't even have to put a Word Count bar on your blog and then update it. It updates itself and resets itself every 24 hours.  
  • It will allow you to set the bar to 0 for the day (instead of a negative number) even if you begin the day by taking out words. This eliminates the temptation to leave in terrible sentences just because they are words already counted. 
  • I don't dare do everything in Scrivener yet, though, since I don't know how it'll handle footnotes and other things. Basically, it's still something of an extra step, but it's an extra step that makes me write, so I'm not complaining.
  • Right now I'm slogging through some sections that will be totally fascinating when I've rewritten them, or so I'm telling myself, but right now are just placeholders and explorations of ideas to come. I need to keep going, and that's what the process is helping me do.
  • Here's the process, which is a little redundant. But if it makes me pay attention to the writing, and think about ideas each step of the way, I'm going to stick with it. 
    • Wake up and write in notebook (longhand, via Flavia's suggestion about writing in notebooks) for both initial text and research journal. 
    • Transfer/rewrite to
    • Copy & paste into Scrivener and Word. 
    • See how the pieces connect and edit accordingly, adding new text.