Monday, July 29, 2013

Short hiatus

More unbloggable family stuff, some very sad, some very happy, so there'll be a short hiatus. Meanwhile, the MOOC posts over at Historiann's and Jonathan Rees's (including his Slate article) are saying way more than I could right now--go read them!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Writers on Writing: Anthony Grafton

At the Daily Beast, via Tenured Radical and Saved by History, Anthony Grafton (whom I know only through his comments at Historiann's and TR's) on writing:
Describe your morning routine.

Absolutely. When I want to write, at home, I get up about 5, make coffee, slowly begin to be conscious. I’ll do a fair amount of other work, check email and Facebook and news sites, then I’ll bring my wife coffee and read the newspaper. It’s a long day’s reaching consciousness. By 8 I like to be at the computer and I like to write until about noon.

Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I write my first draft on the computer. I used to write everything out by hand, but just don’t have the time, patience, or legible handwriting to make that possible anymore. I like to write quickly, so in ideal conditions I’ll have done a lot of research, made a lot of notes, before I sit down. But I don’t do an outline. By the time I could do an outline, I’ll already know what I need to say, so I’ll just sit and write.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

If I’m writing full-time I’ll get about 3,500 words per morning, four mornings a week.

Wow, that is amazing. I’ve done over 50 of these interviews now, and the vast majority of writers aim for 1,000 words a day. 3,500 per morning is quite something.

Well, I’m sure that their 1,000 is better than my 3,500, but this is just the way I do it. I always start by rapidly revising what I wrote the day before. So it’s very quick writing, and it takes a lot of revision, but this is the way I write chapters of my books.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

With relation to writing, I have a couple. One comes to me from Mr. Hyde, my wonderful English teacher at Andover. He started each term with a trick, for example saying, “Gentlemen, this term you will learn to write without the passive voice. Please use the passive voice. As soon you do, I will stop reading your paper and give you an F, so you will be saving me time!” His point was not that we should never use the passive voice, but never to do so without thinking. This was a wonderful way of inculcating that principle. I still feel a pang of guilt when I use the passive voice. So I try for a very active style of identified subjects doing clear things to identified objects.

One of my favorite teachers at Choate, Mr. Yankus, had a similar warning against using the verb “to be” in any essay. Maybe there’s something about boarding-school English teachers that they’ve all agreed on the same teaching tactics.

That was the second term with Mr. Hyde: “Gentlemen, now you will learn to write without the verb to be!”

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

Well. yes. I’m looking at a full-sized replica of Agostino Ramelli’s bookwheel, on which I keep my dictionaries, and which fills about half of the small study in which I write. This was made for an exhibit at the New York Public Library in 1992. They had no room for it, so I managed to get it. I can spin my chair from my MacBook Air on which I write to the many dictionaries I depend on for reference. I’ve also got, you know, a crocodile hanging from the ceiling, a skull, a scale, an hourglass—my wife is working towards making my study into a little wunderkammer.

You’d be astonished at how many writers I interview have crocodiles hanging from the ceiling of their studies …

There’s this wonderful verb in German that means “to hedgehog yourself in.” That’s kind of what I do to write.

Do you have any superstitions?

My main superstition is that when I’m writing a piece for a review, like The New York Review, I like to write the draft in one day. I don’t feel right if I can’t do that, writing it all in one sitting.
A few thoughts:

1. It's interesting that he doesn't get right at writing, as Francis Ford Coppola and others recommend, but looks at social media first.

2. I have the same superstition about writing reviews.

3. I have wanted a bookwheel like that for years. Years!  It would go in my writing house.

4. After seeing that Joyce Carol Oates video, I would love to see a similar piece on Professor Grafton, complete with bookwheel.

5. He sounds like a gracious man as well as a smart one. If this isn't writing inspiration, I don't know what is.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

MOOCs: Can we say "I told you so" yet? Probably not.

No real post because of family events but --

SJSU has suspended its Udacity courses because of failure rates from 56-76%. See also Tenured Radical and Edge of the American West.

It's the lesson of MOOC 'n Bake: MOOCs may be great for self-paced learners seeking a tech credential, or those who just want to learn more about a subject, but a substitute for real fried chicken education they're not.

But evidence-based practices and actual student outcomes have never been a strong suit for MOOC enthusiasts. Quality and student learning are not their concern; efficiency and cost containment are.

As long as someone's willing to lavish grant money on MOOCs, and as there's money to be made by mass producing and "delivering content," MOOCs aren't going away anytime soon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

At WSJ: Education ain't what it used to be, or why the humanities shouldn't be taught

Over at The Wall Street Journal is an article  so clickbait-worthy for humanities professors that I hesitate to link--but hey, why not let you see for yourself?

"Who Ruined the Humanities?"

First of all, I think this is the same article they run every month under a different title and by-line. It goes something like this:
When I was at beautiful Ivy or Oxbridge back in the olden days, I had an extremely famous professor (this time: Frank Kermode) who inspired me with the timeless truths of the humanities curriculum. 
Alas, there were few such professors then, and there are none today. That pesky GI bill opened education to the masses, and now students want grades instead of reading literature for timeless truths. Literature has been sullied by the grade-grubbing paws of these students. Where is the pure love of literature of yesteryear?  
Now, I have a certain sympathy for the author's love of literature because I obviously think it's important, too, and what he says about the thrill of books--yes, I get that.

But is the best way to get students to have this relationship to books, where the books help them to experience their lives in different ways, to avoid teaching the humanities?

I'm imagining students, taking 15 credit hours, working 20 hours a week at Mickey D's. What happens if you toss them a copy of The Odyssey or Henry IV, Part I, and say, "Here, kid, this will change your life. Read it in your spare time"?

Maybe they'll read it, if they have the spare time of a Thoreau.

But context counts.  Reading together counts, and talking about ideas with other people who've read the same books counts, doesn't it?

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

MOOC leaders leap, wonder if maybe they should have looked

In "Beyond MOOC Hype" at IHE, Ry Rivard reports that some MOOC cheerleaders are starting just now to ask the questions that the rest of us have been asking since 2011. 
After showering MOOC enthusiasts with money, Dan Greenstein has an insight:
"It seems to me, at least with respect to MOOCs, that we have skipped an important step,” he wrote in an Inside Higher Ed op-ed last week. “We’ve jumped right into the ‘chase’ without much of a discussion about what problems they could help us to solve. We have skipped the big picture of where higher ed is going and where we want to be in 10 or 20 years.”
Yup.   And Carol Geary Schneider:

Carol Geary Schneider, the head of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, worries that MOOCs can amplify the “least productive pedagogy” in American higher education, which she calls lectures followed by multiple-choice tests. But she does see potential for MOOCs to help flip classrooms so professors can spend less time lecturing in class and more time engaging students. 
“It would be a tragedy if you substituted MOOCs in their current form for regular courses,” she said in an interview. “But it would be a creative breakthrough if you take advantage of MOOCs and other forms of online coverage to make more space and more time for students to apply concepts and methods appropriate to their field to real problems.”

So Schneider does see the lecture/multiple-choice question format as less than ideal, although she does not question the "flipped classroom" model.  I'm also a little worried about "coverage," which suggests a simple transmission model of pedagogy.

But it's a start. Now if we can make them go back and read all the bloggers' posts about this, they'll maybe have some answers for our questions.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Book love

Over at nicoleandmaggie's, there's a link to a story about weeding books at the Urbana Free Library.  When the Head of Adult Services was away for three weeks, someone created a spreadsheet, red-lined every book that was over 10 years old, and, because she wanted to use part-time workers' hours efficiently, told them to get rid of every redlined book on the list regardless of use.

A couple of lessons there: just because you put it in Excel doesn't make it efficient or wise, and just because it's more than 10 years old doesn't mean that it's useless. Valuable art books, gardening books--all expensive to replace--are gone.  What do you think the odds are that the library will actually replace them?

I've been thinking about this because I've been clearing out some of my shelves to make way for the results of a trip to the City of Books. I have no more wall space for bookshelves and couldn't justify them anyway.  Books are the items that most make me a candidate for Hoarders, since I keep thinking, "well, I haven't looked at it in 15 years, but maybe I'll want to read it again sometime."

That's a harder claim to make now, with web availability for a lot of the books. My main criteria for getting rid of some copies are estimated use and also duplication: I've finally convinced myself that I don't need three copies of Tom Jones or six copies of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. 

But the secondhand bookstore near me will only take certain books, and while I dropped some off at Goodwill, if they won't take them, I can't face putting them in the recycling bin. They're not kittens, but I still want them to go to a good home.

One set I'm not getting rid of is actually a partial set: it's dispatches from Gettysburg, part of a series of Civil War dispatches published in the 1880s or 1890s. On the recent 150th anniversary, I looked at a few of them, just in remembrance.

Where did I get them?

A library was throwing them out, and I snagged as many from the free books table as I could carry before they went into the dumpster.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Writers on Writing: Revision and Revision and Revision

Right now I'm working on a chapter and it feels as though I am not herding cats, but trying to put fish in a tank that will hold them all without injuring them.  The last three chapters have felt as though they ought to be books in themselves, but I don't have that luxury right now (because: deadline!), so I keep reminding myself that selection is a virtue. I don't have to write about every book that will fit the chapter's criteria.

Here are some pieces of writing inspiration on revision.

Craig Fehrman at The Boston Globe talks about how technology changed the way the modernists thought about revision. No more dashing off an inspired piece of writing until the Man from Porlock interrupts and then throwing your pen down and declaring the poem done. For Pound, Eliot, and Hemingway, revision was all.

In all this, the most important technology may have been the typewriter. Today we equate a keyboard with speed, the fastest way to get words down, but as Sullivan points out this wasn’t always the case. In fact, a typescript offered a chance to slow down. Most Modernist writers, like Hemingway with “The Sun Also Rises,” wrote by hand and then painstakingly typed up the results. That took time, but seeing their writing in such dramatically different forms—handwritten in a notebook, typed on a page, printed as a proof—encouraged them to revise it aggressively. “Much as I loathe the typewriter,” W.H. Auden wrote, “I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Typescript is so impersonal and hideous to look at that, if I type out a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I looked through it in manuscript.”

Joyce Carol Oates apparently still writes by hand but revises via computer in this three-minute video.

Some highlights:
--She can "basically write all day long."
--She writes every day, as soon as she can, even before 7 a.m.
--She looks out the window and her cat keeps her company.
--Revision is "exciting and relaxing."
--Writing is "thrilling."

Yes, the video is inspiring. Yes, it will make you feel like an unproductive slug.