Tuesday, December 30, 2014


I'm not much on New Year's resolutions, but it struck me that a revolution, of a mild sort, might be just the thing. They're only one letter apart, after all.

The question I want to ask is this one: what events, attitudes, or actions that you could control this year would you like to change for next year? How do you plan to do it?

1. I'd like to be more positive next year instead of immediately thinking of a snarky or negative answer to things I see, mostly on the internet. The stupid clickbait headlines, always in the form of a question, seem to be begging for this, but why give in to it? 

Action: Let's go with Mr. Lincoln's "the better angels of our natures" instead of the worse ones and consciously turn some of those negative thoughts around. I've already started doing this to an extent.

2. I'd like to be more inwardly patient instead of getting annoyed with people over trivial things.  I'm usually outwardly polite, but this is getting harder to sustain. So what if they're bragging incessantly about how productive they are or if they've just discovered that water is wet and want to share their vast knowledge with everyone?  It has nothing to do with me, so why get annoyed?

Action: Stay away from bragfest arenas like Twitter and Facebook. Set a limit--maybe check in every 6 weeks or give them up.  Stay away from professional sites that tell you what you already know, like that water is wet.

3. I'd like to get better control over my time and to stop being angry about email interruptions. In fact, looking at these items, I realize that I'd like to stop being so inwardly angry about trivial things, since the things that are making me angry (email, things I read) are almost entirely within my control.

Action: I'd slipped a little on the autoreply and email rules I'd set for myself and as a result let email and other events intrude where they didn't have to.

4. I need to structure writing time that operates as I really work.  I get up and write in the morning, but it's hard to sit in a chair because I have so much energy then. The time when I want  to write is in the evening after about 8 p.m. I have fought this tendency because of all the advice about writing early.

Action: Get more exercise in the morning (as I do in the summer) so that I can write more effectively. Get up from the computer when my eyes give out at 2 p.m. and do something else for a while.  Don't fight the writing at night impulse but use that time to go back and write from the morning ideas.

Put together, these don't look so revolutionary, but I'm guessing that there'd be a quiet change for the better if they're put into practice. 

What are you going to change this year?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Random bullets, holiday edition

  • Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy Boxing Day!
  • Happy celebration of grades being turned in and the semester being over!
  • I just wrote a comment over at Fie's place about why I'm still keeping up with the blog even if I'm trying to go full tilt on getting the book edited with footnotes done. It's an alternative to the other writing, and I find myself thinking of little things I would like to write here. The words want to be here, and it doesn't take that long to write them down. 
  • Speaking of writing, Historiann's Christmas post really lit a fire under me ("now that the book is off to the editor"), so Historiann, thank you for that.
  • Once again this year I thank the goddess Rosemary Feal or whoever is responsible for the later MLA dates. It is so wonderful not to have to wake up in the middle of the night on the day after Christmas to transport my suitcase, my paper anxiety, and myself to the airport for a full day of travel and wondering whether the conference hotel will give away my room before I get there (yes, this happened to me even though I guaranteed the room with a credit card). Just having the chance to regroup before that trip makes the whole holiday season better.  This year my paper is a section from the book, so it needs to be trimmed and spruced up for reading but is otherwise done, I hope.
  • In Alice in Wonderland, people are always advising Alice to keep her temper. This is sound advice that I am following with the people who email me to ask admin questions on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I keep my temper and write back after a day or so, being careful to spend no more than 10 seconds and 10 words on the message.
  • Latest insight: University offices are like everywhere else when it comes to dealing with the people there. Some are lovely, like going into a bakery; some are so bureaucratic that the DMV sounds like a day at the beach; and some, you learn, will be confrontational, like dealing with an insurance company that automatically and aggressively denies your claim even if you're in the right.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Random bullets of some things

  • Really enjoyed my class(es) this semester.  In one, I was a couple of minutes late about a week ago, which is very unusual, and when I came in, they said, "There she is!" and gave me a round of applause in what I'm assuming is a mocking but affectionate way.  Lots of positive comments on the class from them, too, and the feeling was certainly mutual: I really liked them.
  • One minor way I liked them: they always identified themselves by name in their emails (great) whereas people from random other places will email me with entire messages like "Hey, did you get that thing I sent, and why haven't you done something with it?" without identifying the "thing" they're talking about.  This is getting into rant territory, so I'll stop there. 
  • On the positive side, I've decided on a few steps for email so that this doesn't degenerate into the "I hate email" blog:
    • You don't have to be the first to respond if someone sends you and several others a "please fix this" email.  In fact, if you wait it out, you might not have to respond at all.  Since I'm usually a get-it-done person on these, this was a hard lesson but a good one. And some demanding messages -- the 3rd or 4th in a row about things that have already been solved -- are just getting deleted.
    • Sometimes a break makes people want to wax philosophical about ways to do things differently and how you might spend your time over the break by outlining strategic ways to accomplish them. Hence anything with phrases about planning for the future, possible scenarios, or "next year let's do this" is getting a fake autoreply that says "Great idea. You look into it, develop a plan, and report back in January." 
  • Now to get back to work in the manuscript, grade some papers, and try to chip away at the Christmas to-do list. 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Imaginary email responses (a cranky post)

I'm rewatching The Office on Netflix while folding laundry, because it is more soothing than getting stressed out about the work I'm not doing when I'm folding laundry, and laundry constitutes a delightful break in the day at this point in the semester. Those of you who watched The Office may remember when Pam tried to get people to reply to the wedding invitations she sent out.  Short version: no one would send an RSVP. Kelly said she'd only come if Ryan would be there. Meredith said she'd text Pam on the morning of the wedding for driving directions. Ryan said he liked to keep things loose. On and on.

That episode struck a chord with me.  Some of these are hypothetical; others, not so much.
  • If you send me an email that says nothing more than "See attached," here's a news flash: I have an equally terse two-word reply in mind that I am too polite to send.  Best case scenario: I open the attachment and don't respond. Usual case scenario: it goes into the junk mail file immediately.
  • If I've asked you to respond to a poll so I can schedule a meeting, and you reply with a message listing all the various times you are not available but never answering the poll, here's a pro tip for you: I'm not going to enter them into the poll for you, or indeed take any notice of your special unavailability at all. If you think I care more about having you at the meeting than you care about being there, let's just call it a grievous error of judgment on your part.  Just click on the link and fill in the poll like the rest of us.
  • If I ask you to fill out a form and you write back with an email saying "you know I always do X and Y," do you think I will fill out the form because your time is so much more important than mine? Seriously? If the most eminent people at the university are courteous enough to take the time to fill it out (and they do; maybe that's how they got to be eminent), you can do it, too. Get over yourself.
  • If I write to ask you a question after a lengthy email exchange during which you changed your mind 5 times, would it kill you to answer the question instead of saying"I thought we cleared that up"? If we "cleared it up," I wouldn't be writing to ask you the question, now, would I?
  • If after failing to respond, you send me an aggrieved email that you or your wishes were not considered, that sound you hear is me playing the world's tiniest violin for your distress. Oh, and also shuffling your complaint to the bottom of my considerable email pile.  
  • I am also not interested in a lot of attitude if you outrank me in the academic worldsphere. Unless your 10-line self-promotional sig file includes the name "God, Ph.D." I am unimpressed with your attitude and will take special pains to indicate that. 
  • Edited to add: Northern Clime University, I love you, but at this point in the semester when we're already drowning in email, could you please refrain from sending those all-employee messages every day about "Next Tuesday is take your kitten to work day!" and such?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Writing inspiration: Creativity link roundup

After yesterday, when I did not do one scrap of writing (Thanksgiving, yes, but if I had time for a Godfather marathon with family, I had time to write), I figured it was time for some writing inspiration.

"How Environment Can Boost Creativity" is interesting, once you make your way past the blizzard of popups that The Atlantic has taken to hurling between its articles and the public.

Apparently a messy desk can help (check), dim lighting (check, though not dim by choice), and a little noise:
Evidence also supports the habits of people who eschew a desk altogether, instead opting to work in a coffee shop. A little bit of ambient noise (between 50 and 70 decibels—the average noise level of a coffee shop) slightly disrupts the mental process, which one study showed to help people engage in more abstract thinking during a word-association task.
This explains why so many people write in coffee shops, maybe, and why I ought to give it a try.  But I play music to drown out the voices within; does that count?

You can even listen to coffee shop sounds on your computer, if you want to: https://coffitivity.com/

And more interesting points:
Though few people actually do it anymore, writing by hand can help with idea generation, learning, and memorization.
Other studies have shown that taking walks, or working in rooms with high ceilings, can promote divergent or abstract thinking.
Another tip: Get a little tipsy.
Handwriting: will try it again. Walks: absolutely. Rooms with high ceilings: is this the library effect? And a little tipsy? How about if you reach for a Diet Coke instead, even if wine is probably better for you?

What about coffee itself?  Just as I was about to try to learn to drink coffee because of all the health benefits, we were told that it might hamper creativity.
The New Yorker  reviews the research and concludes, "Yup, afraid so," whereas The Atlantic, in a deep state of denial and perhaps dizzy from all the popups, says, "Nah, don't worry about it.  Next to Adderall, it's the best thing we've got."

There's also a creativity search engine, Yossarian, from "I tried to make a search engine write me a poem" at NYTimes.  I didn't try it, because you have to create an account and log in, and I do not need one more password to write down.

I calculate that I spend at least 15 minutes a week tending passwords--looking them up in a book I have, since every one is a precious unique snowflake, as we are told to make them; having password reminders sent and then trying to remember the passwords for the email account where I have the reminders sent, and so on.

Now we're being told that maybe depression is related to creativity or at least deep problem-solving behaviors.  "What if We're Wrong about Depression?" suggests a physiological basis related to infection and a possibly adaptive evolutionary purpose, which the ubiquitous brain science writer Maria Popova puts in context over at BrainPickings. No one would ever, ever choose this as a strategy for creativity, but it helps to have another way to think about this debilitating problem.

But maybe the best strategy is Rachel Toor's "The Habits of Highly Productive Writers." It's a great piece of writing inspiration. She advises that a little self-hatred if you don't get your writing done can go a long way toward getting it out the door and that yes, you can get bored with your own writing midway through.

I'm not so sure about Toor's friend who has "trained his family" that he can ignore them because his writing is more important, though. Maybe he's Faulkner, who said the same thing, or maybe he's just this guy.  He'd better be pretty darned sure that his writing is worth it, and unless he's Faulkner, I doubt that it is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Teaching: What's love got to do with it?

Xykademiqz has a good post and cartoon up about how teaching is valued at a research university (hint: aim for "decent") and What Now? has a good post about the tyranny of the online gradebook in which she discovers that her students haven't been reading comments on their returned papers but just checking their grades.

These struck a chord with me because they're examples of a slogan that gets repeated often, and cynically, over at the CHE discussion forums: "You can't care more than they do."

In Xykademiqz's case, the "they" would be administrators who care about grant dollars and researcher recognition, with adequate teaching being a baseline that, if you go above it, might indicate a lack of research seriousness, as a colleague of hers keeps insisting.

In What Now?'s case, the "they" could be students who care about the grades but not the comments.  She started putting the grades in later, so they'd have to look.  I did that, too, for a while, but then got lazy and posted the grades with the papers.  The result has been that I'm not sure whether they're reading the comments or not.

  In fact, I thought about putting in a secret word on the comments and then giving them an extra point on the paper if they could identify the word by writing it down in class. I didn't do it, because I don't want to treat grades as a game (and I "can't care more than they do," right?), but I was sorely tempted.  With the final paper, taking advice from all who chimed in on this blog, I wrote a little note saying that since they wouldn't have a chance to write another paper, I wouldn't be writing marginal comments but would be available for discussions about the paper if anyone wanted to talk.  The range of those who took me up on this was 0%-0%.

But here's the thing: can you live with yourself and are you happy if you approach teaching from an absolutely rational standpoint?  Xykademqz, for example, has more midterms because she knows it's pedagogically sound.  I write comments for the same reason and meet with students whenever I can to discuss their papers--that is, when they ask to see me (because "can't care . . ." etc.). Yes, I know that "minimal marking" has its adherents and is supported by research blah blah blah, but I think they deserve to know what's going on, especially when it's plain that they have no clue whatsoever why there's a checkmark in the margin beside a sentence.

Think about the tradeoffs that we might make if we really treat teaching rationally:

1. If you have a choice of teaching a class with a cap of 40-50, for which you have no grader but that you love, do you request that class or another that enrolls, say, 25?  How about a class that enrolls 100 for which you are well suited but that takes a lot of prep?

2. Do you eliminate one assignment or an exam, even if you think the students might need it, because of the time demands?

What other kinds of tradeoffs do we make?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Real world math

This is really in nicoleandmaggie's wheelhouse, not mine, but here goes. It's more of a link roundup than a post with a point.

  • The NY Times has been running good articles on saving for college, including some that talk about what to do if parents haven't saved for college, another that tracks declining support for state institutions, and a third that explains why rating institutions won't help lower costs. There was one recently (I can't find it now) that was shocked to realize that FAFSA (and CSS, the private version) counts everything as an asset, including retirement accounts, which are dangerously treated as funds to be tapped for college. (The unmentioned corollary is that neither FAFSA or CSS has any interest in listing debts, like car loans or mortgages--just assets.)
    • How likely is it that there could be significant overlap between the academics saving for retirement (below) and those who, having had children in their mid-30s to 40s, are 18 years later confronting the realities of college costs? I think you know the answer to this one.
    • Although students are applying for many more colleges than before (too many, says this article), part of the reason is that they want to play schools' financial package offers against one another once they're accepted. One piece of advice from one of the articles: if you play this game, make sure that the financial aid package is for more than a year. I've known parents who have steered students to the school with the best package of aid, only to have that aid dry up after the first year when it's tough to change. 
  • Over at The Chronicle, "Retire Already!"  speaks to us from a land of sunshine and unicorns, where everyone has a million dollars saved up for retirement and the only factor keeping anyone 55+ from retiring is their selfish, limpet-like clinging to jobs. But here are two hypothetical scenarios for faculty members; which one sounds more like the people you know? (Both are purely hypothetical, based on what I've read at The Chronicle and on comments.)
    • Golden Child graduates with a PhD at 28, immediately lands a tenure-track job, progresses up the ladder with raises every year and the expected promotions, has a lavish retirement package, and jets off to fabulous places (or like the writer above, accepts fabulous artist-in-residence residencies) when she retires at 65.
    • Regular Person finished a PhD in her mid to late 30s, gets a TT job at 40-45, and goes through several years of no raises at all, not because of merit but because of the recession and flatlining funding. Promotions are forthcoming, but because of salary compression, she makes less as an associate than her new-minted assistant colleagues. She has 15- 20 years, until "Retire, Already!" says she should stop, to save up enough money, at 6% of her salary per year or whatever the retirement plan is,  to last the rest of her life--say, 30 more years if she retires at 65.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Attitude reset: Jumping off the Anxiety Treadmill and taking a break from "polishing the shiny"

I read one time--okay, lots of times--that since the key to establishing a successful routine is to get into a habit, like writing,  the flip side is also true: if you have bad habits, such as reading advice columns or stress eating or checking Facebook incessantly, if you have a break of even a few days, the ties of habit and the neural pathways that reinforce them get weaker, so it's easier to give them up.

Being at a conference is a good reset break. Yes, it's stressful as well as stimulating, and yes, you will definitely get sick when someone drops into a chair next to yours and announces that they're coming down with a cold but just didn't want to miss this session, but the reset part is pretty much worth it. I had already gone on a Facebook fast and felt much calmer as a result.  Going to a conference is like pressing the reset button on bad habits. If you leave Twitter alone, too, you may even stop feeling like the Red Queen, as though you have to top everyone not only in productivity but in bragging about it--excuse me, "wisely promoting your brand and your scholarship."

At Inside Higher Ed, there's a great post called "Get Cracking" that calls this endless self-promotion "polishing the shiny." From the article:

[I]t reminds me of how pervasive the combination of raised productivity quotas (measured in quantity and dubious reputational metrics of quality) coupled with the need to be spending a substantial amount of our time promoting our personal brand through multiple social channels is making it hard to do anything other than produce and polish that shiny surface like mad. No time to think, or learn, or listen. We can’t do those things because producing and polishing the shiny takes all of our time and we’re scared. Scared we’ll fail. Scared we’ll be overlooked. Scared we won’t make the rent. Scared we won’t have a future.

I am starting to think of the whole education-social media complex as a giant Anxiety Treadmill. No matter how much you do, no matter how fast you run, someone is always doing more. Tweeting from a conference, of which there are multiple ones every single week of the year. Publishing a book or article. Getting a contract. Being invited to do a talk. I've written here before about whether our obsession with the number  of words we write bears any correlation to the quality of those words, or, for that matter, to the readers we hope will learn from them.

Think about it.  Do you sit down with a journal just for fun and to keep up, or do you look at it only when you're doing some research of your own? Do you think to yourself every time you sit down to read something not immediately related to research, "Yes, but when I'm reading I'm not writing"? 

I'm not denying that there's knowledge to be gained through these channels, especially Twitter.  But is  it worth the feeling of running and getting nowhere?

In trying to step off the Anxiety Treadmill, I discovered one thing: when you look back on that frantic  stream of information, it feels a little being on board a ship and looking at the land receding behind you. They're gesturing, but you don't have to listen to it, at least until you decide to dive back in again.  Then you can do the reset button all over again. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Random bullets of travel

I'm sitting in an airport and I can smell bread baking.  Who bakes bread in an airport? Subway? It doesn't matter. It smells great even though I am not hungry.

Did you know that some airlines won't check your luggage if you arrive more than 4 hours early for your flight? It's true.

I am on a streak of losing things and leaving things behind out of distraction and carelessness. Some of them  I find (keys) and some of them I don't.  This may mean something (stress? fatigue?). But I'm sure there's a better week ahead.

A completely hypothetical and in no way real situation: Let's say you know how to do something and have the equipment to do it and it's an essential feature of a conference--a Jenga-building machine, let's say.  The speakers are supposed to build with Jenga, but in the spirit of academics everywhere, the Jenga-building hall has not provided the right equipment and although most speakers are gracious, a very few speakers are too something (too proud? too lazy? too invested in their Jenga incompetence as a mark of their vast intellectual acumen? ) to bring their own equipment and make sure that the Jenga-building will proceed apace.

You hurl yourself into the breach just to be a decent person and, since you have the equipment, set it up and help them with Jenga-building during their presentations. Later, you hear complaints from a few audience members, not about your Jenga-building help but generalized griping that the Jenga-building should have been faster, smoother, and easier. If you had not helped the speakers, their presentations would have had no Jenga at all.

Two questions:  Would you (1) do it all over again if the same conditions came up because most speakers are decent and gracious or (2) "accidentally" leave your Jenga-building equipment behind the next time?

And to the person who said, "Someone ought to get in there and check out the Jenga-building equipment throughly and and in advance," what do you say?  (1) "I'm glad you volunteered to do that." (2) "As a random audience member who isn't any part of organizing the conference, I'll get right on that" (3) Other.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Maybe a little bit more advice on the job letter

I've written a bunch of posts full of advice about the job letter, and I don't want to repeat myself so this will be short.

As far as I can tell, the advice has not changed from blog to blog or year to year, but there are a couple of points in otherwise good posts that I would like to challenge.

1. Karen Kelsky (Professor is In) usually has good advice, like about tailoring a job letter. (Of course I think it's good; it's advice I've given myself. ) I did read somewhere that it's too much of a burden for the applicant to tailor a job letter, but if you're applying for a job you are serious about, what do you think?

 But she thinks Interfolio and non-tailored letters from your faculty recommenders are a sign of the apocalypse, or anyway serious professional laziness on the part of faculty.  I'm happy to write personalized letters, but as a member and/or chair of a search committee, I certainly didn't expect personalized letters from faculty members that had tailored them to our specific hiring needs.

2. Philip N. Howard's helpful Inside Higher Ed essay on the lines needed in job letters has a lot of good advice, too. Amidst this excellent advice, though, is one thing that might not be true:
"Address your letter to the person heading the search or the department head. A greeting such as 'Dear Committee Members' shows you haven’t done enough research." 
"Research" in this case may involve defying the HR requirements of posting the ad, which for various reasons may not list a name at all but may instead  specify that the letter has to be addressed to "Search Committee Chair" or some such. I don't know why they do this, and I'm not brave enough to go to HR and find out.

So "research" in this case may involve using the name of the department chair, or calling the department and requesting the name of the search committee chair. I get why Howard would think this is important, but what if 300 applicants all call the administrative assistant to try to get this information in the name of "research"?  It's nice if you have the name, but don't lose any sleep over it if you don't. It's a salutation, not the Holy Grail.

Let me assure job candidates who may be reading this that, as a search committee member and/or chair, I could not tell you whether the hundreds of letters I read had my name, the department chair's name, "Dear Committee Members," or "Dear Bozos on the Bus." Quite honestly, we skip to the first paragraph -- AS WE SHOULD-- and get right to the substance of your qualifications and interest in the position.

3. The letterhead issue is another one that bloggers, CHE, and IHE have written about for the past ten years or so. Karen Kelsky points out that you should be able to get an electronic version, or, in a pinch, Photoshop a version of it for your electronic publications.  I'd only add that your department probably has this for the asking for grad students (although some don't give it out).

 In a funny reversal, when I asked for this letterhead template a few years ago, various Northern Clime admins assured me that we had no such thing for faculty or students. What was I talking about! Didn't exist! A student did have a copy of it, though, so that's how I was able to post much better-looking versions of letters to job portals and Interfolio. For the most recent logo redesign, we were officially sent the template, which is a step in the right direction.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pedantry or self-preservation?

It's grading season--wait, it's always grading season, isn't it?--and as the papers come flooding in, it's inevitable that we'll get some of these:
--papers with no page numbers
--electronic papers called things like "myroughdraft.doc" or the ever-popular "paper1.doc."
--papers with no Works Cited
--papers with no names
--papers with Works Cited in a separate file
--papers in some odd format that can't be opened
--Works Cited in some peculiar numbered list, which we don't use in MLA

Now, on the papers themselves, we're used to explaining, or not explaining if you believe in minimal marking, when there's a comma splice or a fragment or a missing apostrophe. I am sometimes told I'm the first person ever to point these out to the student, which, if true, is kind of sad and inspiring at the same time (as in they're better off to learn about it now).  Along with commenting on the contents, which is the more important part, it's part of our jobs to note these.  We grade holistically, so we're not dinging them for points all the time.

But those format things in the list above used to make me bang my head on the desk.  Why would they not follow the guidelines that I'd given to them? I'm writing a final comment, and I have to number the pages myself to say "On p. 4"--why, oh why, is it up to me?

[Edited to add, in light of Tenured Radical's recent column: I don't make fun of them for this, or think they are doing it to spite me, or think it reflects on them as people in any way.  Anyone who's ever filled out a grant application or any other kind of form can testify that when you're trying to get it done, you'll always find some piece that you find arbitrary. That puts you and the students on the same level ground about requirements.

No, my issue is strictly whether it makes more work for me or not.]

Then I got smart.  The papers are still graded holistically, but here's a test: does it make more work for me if Stu Dent didn't complete the format things? Then Stu Dent gets a gentle reminder on the first paper, and after that, it's -1 for those things. It's not enough of a penalty to hurt them, but it's enough to get their attention--and it seems to work.

Some would call it pedantry.  I call it the "you make me work to do something you were supposed to do, you pay" rule, or self-preservation.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Test post

The Mac OS updated itself today, and in addition to making all the icons look like international traffic signs, it's messing with things like Firefox and Chrome.

I log in, but it says I'm not logged in when I try to comment on other blogs, sort of like this duet from Annie Get Your Gun. Watch it if you are brave and can watch Betty Hutton without screaming.

"No, you can't."

"Yes, I can."

"No, you can't."

And so on.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Writers on Writing: Winston Churchill

I want to reply to Historiann's challenge, but first a post about writing.

From The Guardian, a window into Winston Churchill's methods of writing, with comments:
Downstairs there is a room with green lamps hanging from the ceiling, and maps on the wall, and a telephone exchange: and here Churchill kept his researchers – about six of them at once, junior Oxford dons, research fellows, some of them destined for high academic honours. There they were, filleting, devilling, rootling around in books and documents in search of stuff that might be of use.
Comment: Would you want this?  It's the Doris Kearns Goodwin way of writing (teams of researchers finding material that you fashion into text) and it works well for her and others.  But would you have as good a sense of the primary texts if you had outsourced, so to speak, the initial reading of them? 

I'd like to try a research assistant, since I'm sure it would help. If nothing else, I could set a research assistant to changing all the @#$%^& in-text citations to endnotes in Chicago 16 style.  (I have experimented with Endnote's Chicago 16 setting & don't see any way to do this automatically.)

After dictating to a squadron of scribes all night, Churchill would have text. Oh, boy, would he have text--more, Boris Johnson, the author, tells us than Dickens and Shakespeare combined:
The sheaves of typewritten paper he would then correct and amend by hand – and we have innumerable examples of his cursive blue-inked marginalia – and the results would be typeset as they would appear on the page; and even that was not the end.
He would fiddle with the text. He would switch clauses around for emphasis, he would swap one epithet for another and, in general, he would take the utmost delight in the process of polishing his efforts; and then he would send the whole lot off to be typeset again.
Why did he write? Partly for money, but also for this:
His creative-depressive personality meant that writing (or painting, or bricklaying) was a way of keeping the “black dog” of depression at bay. He wrote for that sensation of release that comes with laying 200 bricks and writing 2,000 words a day.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The End Matter

I'm close enough to the end, or I'm deluding myself I'm close enough to the end, of this manuscript to start compiling the Works Cited in an actual document rather than Endnote as I work through the footnotes. In looking at the press's guidelines today, guess what citation format I'm supposed to use.

MLA? No.

Chicago 14? No.

Chicago 15? No.

APA? Bite your tongue.

Chicago 16?  Yes indeed, the only one that I had not, until today, shelled out $42 to purchase. Now, if I ever leave academe, I will have enough hefty Chicago/MLA Style books to serve as doorstops for every door in the house.

This made me think of one of my favorite essays, whose title I've shamelessly stolen, Louis Menand's "The End Matter."  Among other gems, there's this one:
To begin with, the designers of Word apparently believe that the conventional method of endnote numbering is with lowercase Roman numerals—i, ii, iii, etc. When was the last time you read anything that adhered to this style? It would lead to sentences like:
In the Gramscian paradigm, the “intellectual”lxxxvii is, by definition, always already a liminal status.lxxxviii
If I weren't laughing so hard, I would cry, because every single time I rename or resave a file, my footnotes revert from Arabic numerals to the Word default for endnotes, something that looks like ASCII run amok.

And I have been looking into the mysteries of compiling master documents in Word, of which only two pieces of advice found online are remarkably consistent:

1) If compiled improperly, master document can turn your chapters into word salad.
2) Sometimes it turns your chapters into word salad just for the sheer joy of destruction.

I still have a lot to do, conference papers to write, and so on, but the fact that I'm getting this close to the end matter makes me think that this will not be the Key to All Mythologies but an actual book.

And now, for a treat, I'm going to read "The End Matter" one more time.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Clap your hands if you believe

I'm not writing here much lately because, in looking at CHE and IHE and ChronicleVitae, I feel as though I've seen these issues before, some of them a lot of times, and written about many of them (ditto).

But one that I'd like to see more specific data about is a trend whereby the PhD and inventive variants are promoted as good bets for working in various unnamed industries or libraries. Aren't librarians having trouble finding work? What kinds of industries? What kinds of foundation work?  The articles I've seen tout 3 or so success stories as the wave of the future, but what are the facts?

Sometimes the Ph.D. is promoted as an enrichment degree so valuable even if you don't get a job, you'll be glad you spent 10 years doing it, which might be true if you are independently wealthy or retired.

Sometimes they even propose expanding or creating new degrees that don't have the expectation of university teaching at the end of it, as in the recent kerfuffle at Cornell.  The descriptions of what exactly graduates would do are both uplifting and stunningly vague, as though even those proposing the degree don't have much of a concept beyond mad critical thinking and research skilz--good in themselves, but how about specifics?

Sometimes, it's not only an enrichment but something you owe it to the world to treat as a calling:
To sustain scholarly inquiry, we need scholars around the country and world engaged in research and capable of critically assessing each other’s work. We need to ensure that humanities graduates at all levels — in K-12 schools, museums, local societies, media, universities, and government — have the space and time to engage in scholarship and be part of the conversation.
Well, yes. Yes, we do need scholars.  Let me add the important corollary that scholars need to eat, and have health insurance, and maybe a place to live and a car to drive, even if you're not counting expensive, frivolous extras like having children.

The article goes on to say we need to address supply and demand:
On the demand side, we must expand the number of tenure-line positions in the humanities across the nation and resist the deprofessionalization of teachers and professors.
Well, done and done, then!

I should not be so cynical about this, but it is crazymaking to read something like this--"we must expand"--when none of this, none, zip, nada is in the power of ordinary academics to do.  We can try, but we do not control the money. Let me repeat: We do not control the money. We have little say over how it is spent, how salaries or research funds are allocated, and did I mention having no control whatever over allocations from the state or Board of Regents or whoever determines the university's budget?  For most of us, simply retaining a line when someone retires instead of having it snatched back by central administration is cause for feasting and dancing around a sacred idol.

When I was little and saw Peter Pan, there was a scene where Tinkerbell was dying and we all had to clap our hands and believe if we wanted to make her well.  Without more facts, these articles seem to me to be saying "clap your hands if you believe, and you will make it so."  I wish these confident assertions were true, but I want some investigative reporting rather than opinion pieces to tell me how they might be.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine answers self-evident questions

Dear Ms. Undine,

Ms. Mentor calls October "exploding head month" because of all the grant applications due then.  A whole lot of local ones are due next week. How can I deal with applications that want to know how much money I need to spend on June 10, 2015 when I can barely get through the stuff I need to do for next Tuesday?

Signed, Future Shock

Dear Future,
Here are some possibilities:
1. Start last year.
2. Start tomorrow for next year.
3. Seriously, practice a little time management.
4. Comfort yourself in the knowledge that with grant support so tight (NEH funds 6% of its individual scholar grants) you are likely only to be bragging fodder for its glossy brochures anyway: "We got 10 zillion applications and only funded 5! Look how selective we are! Yay for us!"

Dear Ms. Undine,

Clay Shirky, a famous person on the Internet, has pronounced laptops a distraction in the classroom and restricted their use, something I figured out and did a long time ago.  Now the fanboys who have called me a Luddite and blamed me for not liking the Shiny Things are falling all over themselves pronouncing the Wisdom of Clay.  Why is this so?


Not Ned Ludd

Dear Not Ned,

Because you are not famous on the Internet, and because, I fear, you are not a guy and hence to fanboys do not have the mental equipment to think intelligently about Shiny Things. Think of yourself as the secret Queen of the Internet who predicts all things but whose power would be diminished if anyone listened to you.  In other words, get over it.

Dear Ms. Undine,

Out of idle curiosity, I looked at the MLA Job List and discovered that there are only 5 jobs in the country, 3 in something resembling my specialty, at the associate or full level!


This is a job market?

Dear This,

Unless you have spent the last 30 years in silent meditation and prayer, surely this cannot be a surprise to you.  Ms. Mentor had a column about this recently, which if the CHE had a search feature instead of a Ouija Board, I would seek out and link to.  Surely you can find better things to do with your idle curiosity, like putting your books in some kind of order, or writing something, or taking a walk around the block, or, better still, helping your students and junior colleagues to get prepared for their job applications. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Was there ever a time of idealism in college?

Dean Dad has an interesting post about artists and the advice being given to them:
But where some variation of “follow your dreams” would have gone when I was in college, I heard “learn a trade” and “get good at living on very little money.”
He continues:
What I didn’t see, though, was youthful idealism.  I didn’t see what I used to think of as teenage bravado.  I saw some very young people who had been forced by circumstance to act in ways that used to be the province of their elders.  I saw young adults, rather than teenagers. 
In many ways, that’s great.  Given the very real economic obstacles many young students face, a certain gritty realism is appropriate.  And if memory serves, teenage bravado can be wearing in its own right.
But that “bulletproof” teenage stage -- that, in retrospect, relies on a base of economic security -- serves a purpose.
Dean Dad's take on this is interesting, for he sees it as a generational issue, whereas I see it as a class issue.

Although I went to college in a time that was supposed to be somewhat idealistic, the people I knew at public universities never went through a "bulletproof" stage of economic security where they thought "follow your dreams" was good advice. Idealism costs money, either immediately or in the future, and they knew it.

That's not to say that people weren't idealistic, or that they didn't do the same stupid things that college students have always done, but they understood the "gritty realism" of the consequences. The idea that you could throw yourself on the economy like a trampoline and bounce back wasn't part of the equation.

Private universities or elite publics--sure.  My friends who came from upper-middle-class professional backgrounds knew they could do whatever they wanted. If they made money in the summer working for their parents' friends, it went toward backpacking in Europe and not toward next year's expenses.  It's not that one was wrong and the other right, but they were different experiences.

I've been thinking about this because of reading other Mid-Century Males, Jack Kerouac and other Beats in particular.  Kerouac didn't want to be tied down, which may be the understatement of the decade, but whenever he got the urge to travel, which was most of the time, he had two things going for him: (1) plentiful manufacturing or service jobs that he could get easily and then leave and (2) like Allen Ginsberg, a family that, though not wealthy, would scrape up the money for bail for him when he got in trouble with the law.

The same seems to be true for the following decade, the 1960s, as I mentioned in a post about a year ago in talking about Sara Davidson's Loose Change:
What I actually took away was that people in those days could quit, drop out, or do any damn thing they felt like doing, and there would be someone or something to pick them up afterwards: plentiful jobs, more jobs than there were applicants, seemingly;  a network that would allow the main character, with just a phone call from one of her parents, to go to Europe and work as a translator in Italy; and a generous system of social service benefits that wouldn't let them fall into poverty.  They could change the world--or at least the upper-middle-class white women in the book could--because the world was going to support them financially no matter what they did.  I realize that that's probably not true, but it has a truthiness to it and seems true, given what Davidson describes.
  I think Dean Dad is right, but only partially so.  The idealism gap, if you can call it that, was always there for some students, but now it's hitting the class that used to be told "follow your bliss," and that's what speaks to the troubling reality that he's talking about.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Solving for X, where X = time to write

It's that time in the semester when it's late enough to see how the trajectory of meetings, classes, admin, etc., is going to go but early enough to correct the course. What's vanished, as usual, are the two things that matter most: time to get out and exercise, and time to write.

The usual distractions are under control, I think.  I stopped checking email on weekends, and the sky hasn't fallen, although I did miss out on a couple of opportunities by ignoring email until Sunday night.  I've blocked Facebook during work hours, even during department meetings, and my Twitter presence has dwindled to about nothing.

 No, this is about other variables: the carefully planned day of meetings that, when one of them gets shifted, means another full day on campus and no writing or exercise. That's a variable I can't control.

Another variable I can't control is administrative deadlines. These aren't a problem in themselves, but they require big blocks of time to do the tasks. Imagine if you had 1,000 widgets to put into a complex set of boxes but got called away in the middle.  You'd have to restart the process, so these tasks can't be done in 15-minute blocks with interruptions.

A variable I can control is clock time--getting up earlier, for example, as many people advise. But since I don't always sleep well, getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to write can lead to sleepiness when driving.  I can't control fatigue, either, after a day on campus.

I did try the 10-15 minute "write when you have time" method the other day and was nearly late for a meeting, since I got absorbed in the task at hand.  The research journal I started a couple of years ago has been the best way to keep engaged with the writing, though.

In short, I'm still solving for X, but I think the answer may lie in (1) regular writing in my research journal; (2) ignoring email as much as possible; and (3) getting some more sleep.  (3) may not be immediately achievable, but (1) and (2) certainly are.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Roundup: Now with writing inspiration

*Poofed* part of this because it was entirely too cranky, even for me.
  • Historiann's lovely writing space, which inspired me to clean both my office and my home desk.
  • "Less is More" in writing by GetALifePhD (Tanya Golash-Boza) has some writing inspiration. 
  • Inspired by Flavia Fescue's posts about writing in journals,  I downloaded Day One, a journal app. It tries desperately to post whatever I write to Facebook and Twitter and is hell bent on getting me to put in information so that it can report to our Alien Overlords of Social Media.  I haven't given it any information, but I don't trust it. Isn't a journal supposed to be private, or is exposing your private thoughts to the known world the new function of a journal?
  • Karen Kelsky says it's a mistake for job applicants to use a dossier service. Having been on many, many search committees as chair and as just a member, I don't agree.  The key thing is going to be the candidate's letter, CV, writing, and general tenor of the letters.  I can and do write those job letters for my students on the market, although it takes time, but is there really an Interfolio disadvantage? Readers, what say you? 
  • Speaking of writing recommendation letters, if you have not yet read Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, do it. Your local library probably has it, it's a quick read, and it's both hilarious and uncomfortably close to the truth about how many of these letters we have to write for everything and the place of humanities in the university pecking order. 
  • John Oliver takes on student debt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8pjd1QEA0c

Friday, August 29, 2014

Don't email me? Welcome to my bunker, and pull up a chair

This article at Slate (originally from IHE)  describes the experience of a professor at Salem State who banned student emails.

The good news is that more students came to her office as a result and her evals went up, so I guess if it works for you, you ought to keep doing it.

But are professors really "assaulted" by email?  That's a pretty strong verb.
Duvall’s frustration is shared by many in academe -- or anyone with an email account -- from faculty members beset by questions they have answered both in class and in writing to students inundated by university email blasts. This spring, when Duvall taught at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, she adopted a new email policy to cut down on emails from students telling her they would be late, or would miss class, or would have leave early, or any of the countless others that could be handled face-to-face.
Instead of wasting class time on walking her students through an increasingly complicated flowchart diagram of when they could and could not email her, Duvall stopped the problem at its core: No emails -- unless you’re scheduling an in-person meeting
A flowchart for email, really?

I know that professors complain (in blogs, at CHE) about massive numbers of emails from students, but since we're dealing with a "my experience is data" topic anyway, I haven't experienced this. Students have usually been respectful and not asked pointless questions, unless my memory has erased those emails.

Wouldn't you rather have an email than have the student show up at your office, sneezing and coughing and shedding used Kleenex into your wastebasket,  to tell you she's not going to be in class? Or am I the only recipient of these "see, I am really, really sick and not lying" visits?

Don't you think if a student emails you to say she'll be late or absent that it shows some attempt to be engaged with the class or respectful of your expectations that she'd be there?  Yes, it's better if they stop after class to tell you that they'll be absent, and most of them do that anyway.

If there's some special circumstance or absence, like a sports team event, wouldn't you rather have it in an email where you can document it instead of relying on your memory?

I'm all for more in-person interaction with students, but this would, for me, be a sealing wax policy too far.  What do you all think?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine dispenses more wisdom

Dear Ms. Undine,

In between admin, prepping classes, meeting, and still trying to keep some time for writing, I take out a few minutes to read higher education sites for distraction, which are filled with stuff I already know--teaching tips, how to handle email, and the like as though it is a fresh, new thing. I could have written them myself. This annoys me, because it violates my prime directive of not wasting my time. What should I do? 

Signed, Been there, done that

Dear Been there,
You know the answer to this one: you are looking for distraction in all the wrong places, and you, not they, are wasting your time.  

Those sites are for people who are just starting out, and to them, those things are exciting and new.  You know how kittens and puppies get intrigued by things that your cat or dog now ignore, and how nice you think it is that they are excited by them?  This information is valuable, just not to you. Be happy that people find them valuable, and stop reading them, or you'll be saying, "hey, kids, get off my lawn" at the next faculty meeting.  Oh, and pick up a book instead.

Dear Ms. Undine,

I noticed that you wrote about your lengthy syllabus with lots of policies, and there is a recent Slate article about the same thing. I have two questions. First, how did two people decide to write about this at the same time?  Second, do you agree with the article about just writing tl;dr and protesting the syllabus?

Signed,  Mysteries of the universe

Dear Mysteries,

There are only two explanations  for your first question: either (1) I have massive powers of telepathy and the ability to make the universe bend to my will by echoing my thoughts or (2) it's the beginning of the semester and everyone is making up a syllabus. Obviously the first is the rational explanation. 

About your second question: No, I don't agree that the long syllabus is the decline of academia as we know it.  When you explain the syllabus, you can emphasize certain parts, but if it's all there, they can read (or, okay, ignore) it on their own. They are not going to follow a link, and everyone knows it, so that's a non-starter. My only regret is the absence of sealing wax

Dear Ms. Undine,

I had a conversation today in which someone observed that her male teachers were more apt to share information about themselves when introducing themselves to the class than her female teachers.  Do you think this is true?

Signed, Gender difference or coincidence?

Dear Gender,

I don't know, but I'm curious about this.  Readers, what do you do when you introduce yourselves, or what do you think? 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

First day impressions

  • I hope they're going to like the class. I worked hard on the syllabus and readings.
  • I don't do much more the first day than explain the syllabus and introduce some of the assignments, since there's a lot to cover.  
  • If your university is like mine, it now has lots of policies, goals, and so on in specific boilerplate language that has to go into the syllabus. The syllabus now resembles Henry VIII's divorce petition to the Pope with all the wax seals. 
  • I wish I could add an interesting wax seal for each of the policies.
  • I wish we could have a day of experimenting with sealing wax without giving the fire marshal a heart attack.
  • It was nice to see colleagues when they are (and I am) relatively rested after the summer, even if we all worked all summer. 
  • It felt strange to be on campus instead of out for a walk/run early in the morning, looking at the deer in the fields and speculating about which little buildings behind people's houses might be writing houses.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Through a glass eye, darkly: listening to the Alternavoice

Flavia has good a post up about a book that she read and that, quoting Dorothy Parker, she says she wants to hurl with great force out of her house.  It's a book about a guy having a mushy, lukewarm crisis of faith. She also says that she doesn't necessarily finish books any more once she's given them a fair (100 pages, more than fair) chance.

Finishing books? Not necessarily, any more.  I recently tried a modern classic, but after reading the preface about how it would be challenging, frustrating, and confusing, even a little boring with all the digressions, but that the 1000+ pages would be totally worth the effort, I let the Kindle app quietly return it to the library without forging ahead.  Maybe I'll try again in twenty or thirty years. If I'm going to work that hard, I'd rather work, if you see what I mean.

No, the thing that worries me a little is that in rereading some classics, including my recent stretch of visiting the mid-century males, my first reaction is often no longer "This is a Timeless Classic with Enduring Themes and Universal Truths," the gospel I was taught, but "Oh, great--more twentysomething guy problems."  As Mark Twain once said of James Fenimore Cooper in a very different but totally hilarious context, I'm seeing through a glass eye, darkly.

I can't tell whether this is a gender issue or an age one, since I've read so many more novels since first encountering those classics. I can still appreciate all the formal stuff and even a little stylistic fancy footwork, but in the big Crisis of Faith moments, a still, small voice in the back of my head is saying something like "Dude. You are worrying about this, really? Get a grip."

The Alternavoice hasn't always been there when I read. I think reading all the junk on the web has cultivated it, from listicles to the faux questions at Slate and HuffPo and now all the news sites.  It's not there with everything I read, which is a good thing.

And the Alternavoice isn't all bad.  It slips out in class sometimes, in some almost-snark pointing out problems in a text. I don't want to go all trollish on a piece of writing, of course, but it's good for the students to see that what we're reading isn't holy writ and that there's another way to look at the hero's dilemma.

Maybe I need to write up an assignment where they can let their Alternavoices loose, but once it's out of the cage, as evidenced in my brain in the last year or so, it's out for good.

Do you have this voice when you read literature? Is there some situation or plotline that especially brings it out?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine answers more questions

Dear Ms. Undine,
From Shutterstock

Someone just wrote a book that is entirely composed of tweets about writing a book. People post about how they are writing (#amwriting) and how good they feel about it. The author says that it's not cruel to make fun of these people. The book sells for $9 on Amazon.

If I cite this using MLA, do I put it as an edited book? Did I miss the boat on collecting other people's words for free and charging for them? Is it possible that making fun of random strangers who post on Twitter could be considered cruel?

Signed, Soft-hearted Susan

Dear Susan,



Dear Ms. Undine,

I want my class to be a success on the first day. Do you have any advice?

Signed,  Newbie

Dear Newbie,

You can find a good list at Vanderbilt or your own university's teaching and learning center.  That list is mostly great advice, although I don't follow this part under the "sharing information" section: "Personal biography: your place of birth, family history, educational history, hobbies, sport and recreational interests, how long you have been at the university, and what your plans are for the future."

I figure if they know that I'm a humanoid life form and where my office is, that will about exhaust their interest in me.  If they want to know more, they will ask.


Dear Ms. Undine,

I would like to save paper by not printing a syllabus but by putting it in Blackboard/Canvas instead. Students will read it there before they come to class, right?

Signed, Dances with Trees

Dear Dances,

Long ago, in a classroom far away, a dewy-eyed Ms. Undine believed as you do.  Then she checked the usage statistics to see how many students had looked at the syllabus and emerged a broken woman.

You don't have to hand out print copies of everything, but a print copy of a syllabus is like a contract for the class.  Just the physical act of handing out something on paper will help them to take it more seriously.  They are online all the time, and what's there is ephemeral to them. Since a piece of paper is no longer the norm, it has more weight than a bunch of pixels.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

At NY Review of Books: The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Ed

As a distraction from the national news, here are snippets of a review of the film The Ivory Tower  from the NY Review of Books, starring our old friend the MOOC. Below are the usual claims and the reality.

1. MOOCs will free up professors from the drudgery of lectures through the flipped classroom model and will allow them to "teach" through hands-on help with students. Professors will not become glorified teaching assistants or handmaidens to greatness. because that's just stupid fear-mongering on the part of thuggish teachers' unions. It won't happen because trust us, it won't, universities being unlike any other business in that they will provide free services for the public good once they can't charge for them.
A conventional delivery system for “the personal touch” in the MOOC format is the so-called “flipped classroom.” Here a teaching assistant circulates in a roomful of students who have watched the assigned video, and helps them to sort out questions about details. The assistant—as Ivory Tower suggests with a single understated caption—will often turn out to be somebody who was once a professor but whom economies facilitated by MOOCs have demoted to the status of section leader.
2.  Students will learn better and more efficiently in a MOOC.
 In 2013, the company [Udacity] was awarded a trial of its offerings in a contract with San Jose State University; and in July of that year, scores were posted for its spring term entry-level courses. The pass rate in elementary statistics was 50.5 percent; in college algebra, 25.4 percent; in entry-level math, 23.8 percent. Teachers have been fired en masse for results like these by administrators or politicians who would not sit for an explanation.
3.  A rock star teacher in a MOOC makes a world of difference and will do a much better job than, well, 500 ordinary teachers.
What you really want, [a Udacity adept] thinks, is the academic equivalent of a “rock star” to project knowledge onto the screens and into the brains of students without the impediment of fellow students or a teacher’s intrusive presence in the room. “Maybe,” he adds, “that rock star could do a little bit better job” than the nameless small-time academics whose fame and luster the video lecturer will rightly displace.
Note that there's no proof here, because why do you need proof when you have one anonymous stockholder's or employee's opinions? We all know that people learn from celebrities.  Maybe Kim Kardashian could teach a class.

4. MOOCs have always been about the greater good of reaching thousands with free learning. That's why university administrators, a notably starry-eyed bunch unconcerned with the bottom line, are so keen to implement them.
Still, however fanciful the conceit may be, the MOOC movement has a clear economic motive. Many universities today want to cut back drastically on the payment of classroom teachers. It is important therefore to convince us that teachers have never been the focus of real learning.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Don't multitask; partition your day. Your brain demands it.

No post today, but "Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain" at the New York Times describes what the brain struggles with when interrupted. Read the whole thing; it's worth it.
Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.

If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.
 Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’re doing. What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to leave your email program off than to hear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.
And this from the Wall Street Journal
“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller. “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Simply put, we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we do is shift focus, trying to manage multiple threads. “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not” said Miller. Researchers like Miller say they can actually see the brain struggling. “You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks” explains Miller. “They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them. 
The challenge is to define the problem – and the solution. “The current system lets other people add things to my to-do list” says Esther [Dyson]. 

Friday, August 08, 2014

Writing house fantasies: a picture

Over at the New York Times, "Plot Thickens as 900 Writers Battle Amazon" informs us about the Hachette Publishing/Amazon struggle.

I know that this is an important controversy, but what the NY Times published and what I read were two different things.
What it says:
ROUND POND, Me. — Out here in the woods, at the end of not one but two dirt roads, in a shack equipped with a picture of the Dalai Lama, a high-speed data line and a copy of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” Amazon’s dream of dominating the publishing world has run into some trouble.
Douglas Preston, who summers in this coastal hamlet, is a best-selling writer — or was, until Amazon decided to discourage readers from buying books from his publisher, Hachette, as a way of pressuring it into giving Amazon a better deal on e-books. So he wrote an open letter to his readers asking them to contact Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, demanding that Amazon stop using writers as hostages in its negotiations.
 What I read:
Blah blah blah blah WRITING HOUSE PICTURE.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine answers some more of your academic questions

Dear Ms. Undine,

IHE recently reported that colleges in Michigan are outsourcing their hiring of adjuncts to something called EDUStaff.  The colleges are delighted because they can chisel even more money from adjuncts stop retirement contributions to faculty and, in one case, "ending retirement contributions saved the college at least $250,000 in the first year." I'm guessing the money went toward a climbing wall, more luxuries for the football team, and a new no-books atrium for the library, but I'm concerned that individual schools won't get to know the people who are teaching their students.  Am I right to be concerned?

Signed, Miffed in Michigan

Dear Miffed,


Dear Ms. Undine,

Recent essays on being published and on mistakes humanities scholars make in trying to be published  seem to say that publication is a possibility and that, in fact, "if you're not a writer, you're not a player." Being a player makes me feel like Frank Sinatra at the Sands circa 1960.  Do I have to be a player to be a writer?

Signed, Ring-a-ding-ding

Dear Ring,

Not unless you have Sammy and Dean and Angie Dickinson on speed dial.

Dear Ms. Undine,

I want to submit an article, but I am now terrified of the "mean girls" who constitute a totally vicious academic universe. I'm picturing Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, but meaner. Is it true that peer reviewers live to inflict pain?

Signed, Anesthesia

Dear Anesthesia,

No. Although there are exceptions, they live to carve time out of their own writing time in order to provide what they hope is helpful feedback to improve someone's article.  Some academics are mean, but then, some people are mean, and the internet is a whole lot meaner.

Dear Ms. Undine.

All I do is get up and write or revise all day long. Sometimes, just to shake things up, I recite poetry to the cats.  I'm pretty sure they listen to me. Is this normal behavior for a writer? Is this normal behavior for cats?

Signed,  Wonder while I wander

Dear Wonder,

Your question is in two parts, so I will answer both.

1) Yes, totally, totally normal, no problem here at all, no sir.
2) Yes. Cats will listen to anyone with opposable thumbs and access to the food dish.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On writing and rewriting: the spinning wheel

Yes, it's another writing post.

Jonathan links to a post called "How I Wrote Certain of my Books," which is inspirational but also depressing (note the plural form on "books"):
And then there’s the drafting, my absolute favorite part of the process. At first I write a paltry few hundred words a day, but with the outline in place, the materials at the ready, and everything referenced exactly, I soon hit a stride and can write thousands of words a day. I get up in the morning excited to write, I go to bed wishing the night would pass faster so I could get back to it.
 See why it's inspirational? I thought no one but Anthony Grafton and Joyce Carol Oates could write this way.

But what about rewriting?

Let's take the piece I've been working this month on as an example. In looking at my Excel sheet where I track just word counts, here's what I found:

  1. I started with about 6,000 words already pretty polished and written, or so I thought. 
  2. I spent 2 days rereading and taking new notes on source materials.
  3. I spent 11 days, from 2 to 4 hours a day, just rewriting and re-looking at sources, moving the word count needle from 6500 down to about 5800 and back up to 7200. 
The piece is much better, several drafts later; in fact, I'm putting on the final edits before sending it.  And this wasn't a case of being stuck: I knew what I wanted and needed to write. 

But with rewriting, sometimes I feel as though I am standing at a spinning wheel and respinning the same wool. It has all the time-consuming properties of writing without the joy of writing hundreds (let alone thousands!) of words a day and, for you record-keepers out there, the joy of seeing those numbers go up in the spreadsheet. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Random bullets of academic writing thoughts

  • I plan to leave out cookies and milk to catch the evil troll who rolls back the progress on my manuscript every night. I toil over it all day long, and leave it as, if not a shining thing, at least a respectable one with shining bits.  "It's 100% better," I say when leaving it for the evening. When I look at it the next morning, though, imperfections bounce out at me, and I realize that it is maybe 20% better, so clearly a troll did something terrible to it overnight. 
  • I read Rebecca Schuman's article on peer review over at Slate (who didn't?). She suggests that everyone who submits an article for review should be forced to read in order to get reviewed, sort of a "take a penny, leave a penny" approach.  Since this ought to happen through goodwill and scholarly collegiality, I'm a little worried about sullen teenager syndrome--you know, where you make a reward contingent on raking the lawn but you don't exactly get a stellar job if the teenager doesn't feel like doing it. I'd like to think that being professional shouldn't mean coercion.
  • Crowdsourcing reviews, although successful as an experiment in Kathleen Fitzpatrick's case, leaves open the possibility of "and thanks to the anonymous hordes who spent many many hours of their life reading and commenting on my prose and made my Fabulous Book so Fabulous." Part of being a reviewer is knowing that your thoughtful comments (not mean-girl screeds, as Schuman suggests) will improve the article, or at least ask the right questions. Will scholars really spend that time in reviewing, which is already a time-consuming task, if they're just part of an anonymous horde instead of one of a couple of experts sought out by the journal or press? It worked for Fitzpatrick, but her project had this as an integral and novel part of the book. Multiply this by hundreds of books and articles. Would you spend your research time this way? Jonathan has another objection: the non-expert factor.
  • Gregory Semenza has a nice writing inspiration post about the value of 10 minutes: if you have 10 minutes between classes, use them to write. I like the idea of using small increments of time well, especially the "touch your writing every day" part, but that might be just enough time to get absorbed in the material before having to go off to class.
  • Not about academic writing, but the death of James Garner seems to have moderated internet trollery in the comments on the obituaries of him. He seems to have been a decent human being and a good actor, and it was nice for once to scan comments and not see the awfulness of humanity that people usually display there. I shouldn't read comments, but sometimes I get sucked in by them. This comic at xkcd.com says it all, really:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nonacademic books I'd like to write

While working endlessly on this book, I keep fantasizing about the books I would write if I weren't, you know, writing a book.

When I'm struggling with a paragraph ("The subject of this is WHAT? The point of this is WHAT? It's necessary because WHY?"), my brain whispers to me about them.

"If you wrote a biography," it begins, knowing that I like to read them, "you would already have an idea about the structure.  You could spend all your time in an archive. People would line up to buy it, unless, of course, you insist on writing about an obscure author."

"Or," it continues, "you could write one of those books that are about how meaningful it is to read a book and how much it meant to you, like those books about Jane Austen and Middlemarch and Laura Ingalls Wilder. You read. You have opinions, God knows, and a life that has been influenced by books. Why wouldn't people line up to buy your opinions? They buy everyone else's, and maybe you could be charming and funny enough to gain a readership."

Now the brain is really settling into the topic. "Why not a book of academic advice?" it continues.  "Your credentials are about like those of the other academics who give advice, and if you can learn to be more dogmatic, people will listen."

"Or maybe a novel? It might not sell, because you wouldn't want to write about vampires or zombies or space aliens or spies or mysteries or being an academic who can afford to live in Tuscany, but if there's an audience out there for novels where the conflict centers on meting out justice to rude people (hello, Jane Austen fans!), you could write one of those."

"Brain," I say, "shut up. If it were that easy, I would have done it already. And anyway, part of the appeal would be that this would sell."

The brain looks at me, injured.  "Fine," it snaps. "If all you care about is fame and fortune, then you can sell out and see if I care. Go write The 365-Day Cat Golfing Calendar . I'm sure people would line up to buy it," the brain ends with a sneer.

"And if you don't get back to work," it continues, "I'll wake you up at 4 tomorrow morning again so that you can fret for an hour before you get up."

[Edited to add: Wordpress has decided to hate me once again, so WP bloggers, I can't comment on your blogs right now--sorry. I've tried a couple of times at nicoleandmaggie's, etc., but the goddess of WP is implacable right now.]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Random bullets of a Thursday

  • The nice thing about Twitter is that if someone says something monumentally stupid with a very self-satisfied air, you can just stop following him or her. 
  • Ditto for Captain Obvious statements, of which there are many.  I have gotten very impatient with stupidity this summer, which would be a problem if I saw these people in person at a conference. But if you unfollow, they won't notice you're gone, so no hurt feelings, no harm, no foul.
  • I want to get this piece done, so I can go back to the big project. I apparently don't want to start thinking so that I can write, though.  It's as though I have a gas grill all ready to start but don't want to push the ignition switch. 
  • Profacero's post about productivity made me think about this. I don't have any emotional resistance, though. It's just laziness on my part. 
  • There is just enough daily engagement with the leaning-in part of my new job that I can't ignore university messages.  It nibbles away at the corners of my concentration as if it's pretending not to touch the rest of the cookie. But if you're looking for distractions--as I often am, because: laziness--it's hard not to give it the whole cookie instead of the crumbs.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

At Chronicle Vitae: Clueless faculty say to grad students "let them eat cake"

At Chronicle Vitae, a select group of STEM faculty are giving the profession the Marie Antoinette* treatment by responding to the jobs crisis as though it's 1968 all over again.  You've heard all these before:
  • "The best students will always succeed."
  • "Students just don't want faculty positions." 
  • “It’s my JOB to create more people like me.
You can read the rest at the link.  Humanities professors aren't quoted in the article.

I'm taking it on faith that these are actual quotations and not random spoutings from an online cliche-generator sponsored by the people who hate tenured faculty, which is what they sound like.

These are the people whose heads would explode if you called them climate-change deniers or quoted them as saying that Adam and Eve walked with the dinosaurs. But how is the failure to recognize this reality for their students any less irresponsible and damaging?

* I know she never said it, but this is kind of a fact-free post, wouldn't you say, so isn't it appropriate?