Friday, May 16, 2014

Breathe, just breathe

Summer has started, and so have the deadlines, some missed already and some for things due immediately.  That may be why my dreams are all about I'm writing a conference paper, but it's the wrong paper, not what I said I'd do at all. I can't see the words on the page when I type. I'm locked out of email--of course, since all the passwords for everything had to be changed because of Heartbleed, that's a waking reality, too. The nicest one was where it was the wrong paper I was writing, but for visuals someone had made silkscreened panels with portraits of the writer and gold thread embroidered in them, which was much better than PowerPoint.

But it's summer, or nearly so, and the trees are flowering. Between the smell of the early morning air, the trees, and the pine bark, walking and running every day is almost as good as chocolate. Although I have to stop working on it to work on the deadline things, the writing I've been doing has been going well and is interesting.

Breathing means taking a break from reading The Chronicle and maybe taking a break from Facebook and Twitter.  It also means mastering the art of replying to emails that say "Here's a great idea! Let's meet to talk about it!" by saying, "Fabulous idea! Why don't you look into it and we can talk about it in August?"  Like weekend emails, which I learned to stop seeing as something that had to be answered right away, these are expressions of enthusiasm and ideas, but that doesn't mean that they need a response.

Breathing means the kind of conscious spending of your time that you don't get to do during the school year.  You can choose your work, and you can choose to turn off the distractions, or some of them, anyway. Right now, with deadlines looming, it's easy to feel short of breath mentally, as though wherever you turn there is stressful work to do. I'm hoping that seeing this as being under my control (after all, I did agree to these deadlines) is going to help with the calming breathing that's going to get the projects done.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Do you have a 5-year academic plan?

Karen Kelsky, of The Professor is In, shares a success story of a student who had a 5-year plan in graduate school and is now about to win tenure at an R1. She shares one of the years of the student's calendar and adds the result. It's pretty inspiring:

This student obtained, in total, some $200,000 of research funding in graduate school (in cultural anthropology–a field that does not have massive grants), in addition to her basic TA funding package.  She had several publications before finishing, and secured a tenure track position at an R1 institution in her first year on the market.  She is solidly on track for tenure, and this past year she won another major research fellowship that gave her a year’s leave time for new fieldwork on a second project.
A calendar like this is a great idea in a lot of ways, and (I'm guessing) a lot of us have internalized a calendar something like this. Deadlines for Kalamazoo or MLA or CCCC are at such and such a time each year, grant deadlines are at always at a similar time, and so on.  I try to inform my students about deadlines in the field, too, so that they can develop a similar yearly calendar if they haven't already.

And Kelsky is also right that, as they say about the lottery, you can't win if you don't play. If you do submit to a conference or put in a grant proposal, there's a chance you'll be rejected, but if you don't submit anything, there's a 100% chance you won't get to present at a conference or get funded.

The only thing I'd add to this plan is this: it helps with a good outcome, but it can't guarantee one, because the ultimate results are often not in your hands.  You have to be flexible.

  • Grants don't always happen; in fact, grants usually don't happen. The NEH funds about 6% of applications for individuals. What if, as is likely, you're among the 94% that didn't get funded? What's your Plan B? It's like being a prospective college student, in a way: what if you don't get into Stanford or your equally competitive first choice?
  • Publications don't always happen, either, or at least not on a schedule and timeline that's going to facilitate the outcome you want. Your article may get rejected more than once, or your research plans may be disrupted due to a lack of funding (see above).
  • Your writing might not take the direction you've planned, either. Maybe what you thought was a straightforward topic with a clear timeline turns out to be more complex than you thought, or you need more research than you thought, or you just plain need to think longer and harder about it than you originally planned. 
  • Opportunities can arise that aren't in your plan. Serendipity happens, but rarely on a schedule (or else it wouldn't be serendipity). Are you going to say yes, and, if so, how does that affect your plan? 
  • Sometimes life intervenes: you get the flu, or have a baby, or your family gets sick and you have to care for them. 
  • Also, money isn't a part of this plan. What if you have to teach more to make more money so that you can go to conferences, or you can't afford to go to a major conference because it's being held overseas or far away? A conference costs, on average, at least $1500 unless you can drive to it; research trips cost more; and if you're turned down for a travel grant, how will you accomplish these goals? 
As a fan of charts, I like the idea of a 5-year plan in theory, but with some flexibility built into it. Do you have a plan like this?

Monday, May 05, 2014

Mad Men Season 7: Random Bullets

"Don't worry. It's not symbolic."
"No. It's quite literal."

I treated myself to Mad Men non-HD from iTunes ($22.95) this week. A few episodes downloaded, and then Episode 4, "The Monolith," got stuck. It would not download more than 10 minutes, but iTunes insisted it had already downloaded and could not be downloaded again. An endless loop of frustration? Symbolic or quite literal?

What's the song for this event and this season, Matt Weiner? "Riding along on a carousel, round and round and round and round with you"? Or "Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/ Here I am, stuck in the middle with you"?

Season 6 was not fun. Watching Don Draper double down on what we saw him do for all of Season 4--drink too much, stick with an irritating and sanctimonious Wise Woman of a mistress, and mess up at work--was, well, like being on a carousel, and not in a good Kodak-moment kind of way.

So far this season, we are in for even more misery theater.  Here's how it seemed to me last year: "There's a trend in television now that I think of as Misery Theater: how much can you punish or torture the protagonist for his or her sins and still keep the audience's attention? For you Game of Thronesfans, let's call it the Theon Grayjoy rule, or maybe we should just call it Degradation Limbo: "how low can you go?"

Well, now Theon/Don is reduced to shuffling around the office, doing the bidding of lesser men, as new creative director Lou ("He's adequate!" protests Cutler) is poised to cut down his ideas. Unlike Theon, he literally has all his body parts, but symbolically not so much.

Don has so angered everyone in the office with his antics that they're willing to stomp on his good ideas (new computer account) along with the bad ones. Then again, everyone in the office is in a foul temper all the time, including Peggy, and it's apparently all Don's fault. The only ones who aren't are Roger, who seems happier since he stopped trying to work at all, and Ted, who looks as if someone just stole his beloved puppy.

But the interwebs seem quite certain that the Mets pennant means that Don may be back on track in 1969, and certainly the sight of him typing on a magically restored typewriter at the end gives one hope. If he can write a pitch like Accutron, he's still got the gift.

"Just do the work, Don," Freddy Rumsen tells him. Words to live by, for sure, and I hope for the sake of the show that there's a silver lining to this endless black cloud.

By the way, did anyone else get a kick out of the computer sequence? It's big, it's shiny, it's the future, and no one knows or cares what it can do because Big! Shiny!  Future! I think the model was the MOOC 360.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Even economists love literature

From The New Yorker
Krugman took Milanovic’s hand and apologized for suggesting, in The New York Review of Books, that Piketty was the only living economist who was literate. “When was the last time you heard an economist invoke Jane Austen and Balzac?” Krugman had written. Milanovic feigned indignation. “I used Jane Austen in my book, too—and Tolstoy! ‘Anna Karenina’!” he protested.
“But Anthony Trollope has many more,” Durlauf replied.“Why Jane Austen?” Durlauf asked. “Austen has a lot of details about income and money,” Milanovic said.
“My wife made me read Jane Austen,” Milanovic said. “And then I actually realized that I could use it for my own work. Mr. Darcy had ten thousand pounds! Also, I use Balzac. I didn’t cite it in my book, but I did all the calculations. I have it on my Excel.”
I somehow love the idea of internationally renowned economists doing the calculations for literary characters' fortunes and putting them in Excel.

Also, show of hands: who else besides me wants to see those Excel tables? Who else wants to see the fortunes of characters in Jane Austen and Balzac and Henry James and Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf all laid out so we can adjust them for standards of living at the time and make graphs of them?

*Of course, we know that nicoleandmaggie love literature, but Paul Krugman? Who knew?

Friday, May 02, 2014

Writing inspiration: John Updike

Walking really does help you to be more creative, even if the source of the information is HuffPo.

For inspiration and productivity, you could do worse than to emulate John Updike. I know that David Foster Wallace faulted his steady productivity and self-absorption, but like his friend Joyce Carol Oates, Updike just kept on. Snippets from various parts of Adam Begley's Updike:
From breakfast until late lunch, he wrote.  In that summer of 1957, when he was working on The Poorhouse Fair, he made up his mind to produce a minimum of three pages every morning (and many mornings, he did better). 
His schedule remained essentially the same for the next fifty years.  He never seems to have had any difficulty in getting himself to start work, or to sit still and concentrate for the number of hours necessary to meet his three-page quota.  It sounds like a contradiction in terms.
Having guests in the house did not mean that Updike altered his work schedule; he shut himself away as usual for his daily three hours. 
Updike's work is controversial for a lot of reasons, portrayals of women being among them*, but for sheer literary industry, doesn't this inspire you?

[More in an Updike interview at The Paris Review]

*My take, in part: the Rabbit tetralogy works, although Rabbit, Redux, which seemed good back when I read it, seems in retrospect a Very Special Episode on the turmoil of the sixties. Maybe it wouldn't seem that way if I read it again. The Maples stories and most of his other stories, Couples, The Centaur, The Poorhouse Fair, and his essays were all well worth reading. Marry Me was a more intensely focused version of Couples.

The Witches of Eastwick--no. Just no. I stopped reading Roger's Version when the child abuse parts came up and didn't read S. or any of the Bech books or the later fantasies--come to think of it, I stopped midway through Roger's Version and never went back to Updike.

[Edited because I confused S.  and Roger's Version in the original post, and I had forgotten that I had read Marry Me.]