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 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?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Leaning in means never having to say you're sorry

We've heard a lot of non-apology apologies over the past couple of decades, from the Gulf oil spill "it'll never happen--oh, wait, it did, so deal with it" to the Great Recession ("the economy can't go down--oh, wait, it did, but it's totally the fault of all you unemployed people not spending enough").

I guess I was hoping for better from Sheryl Sandberg, who has apparently reinvented feminism for a new generation. (I dropped my doubts at the door, or rather shelved them,  after seeing how much she meant to women bloggers I respect.)

But really, Sheryl Sandberg? "We never meant to upset you"  is the "Geez, lighten up! I'm sorry that you can't take a joke" of non-apologies.

And then she drags out the old chestnut of every corrupt business everywhere, "we take this very seriously."
"Again, what really matters here is that we take people's privacy incredibly seriously and we will continue to do that."
Yeah, we've seen over and over again just how seriously Facebook takes our privacy. "Seriously" as in changing the security defaults every couple of months to reveal more information? "Seriously" as in making us hunt down the now-hidden controls to go back to more privacy?

I take privacy seriously, too, enough so that I use an entirely different browser for Facebook and use it for nothing else and clear the history and cookies after each session.

And to be willing to mess with people's moods just to sell more junk in the sidebar? When Facebook already has a head start on making people unhappy? 

And not to tell them about it? And then to say, "Meh, what's your problem? That's our business model." That's just wrong.

I think I have had enough this week with corporations being granted more rights than people.  I can't do anything about the Supremes, but I don't have to shop at places that agree with that model, and I don't have to be on Facebook.

And anyone who gives that party line in excusing corporate shenanigans doesn't deserve my trust, even if we are All Women Singing and Leaning In Together.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine Answers Your Questions

Dear Ms. Undine,

All the academics I know on Facebook are on vacation or hiking in the mountains or traveling in Europe, having a fabulous time. I am slogging away at writing. I am happy for them but also envious. What do you suggest?  -- Running in Jello

A. Dear Running in Jello,

Stay off Facebook. Sheryl Sandberg wants you to lean in and feel bad, and she's not a bit sorry about it, either.

Dear Ms. Undine,

I am supposed to write in the morning, but if I check email even for a second, I see a lot of messages requiring a reply. Many of them are about things that people want me to do for them. What should I do?  -- Curiosity killed the cat

A. Dear Curiosity,

I saw a message the other day that is just made for you.  It goes something like this: "An email inbox is a to-do list that is made for you by other people. It reflects their priorities, not yours."  If you pay attention to this message and don't check your email until late in the day, you will feel better.

Dear Ms. Undine,

Twitter is full of something called the World Cup and also full of outraged people.  Which do I have to pay attention to if I want to be well-informed about the news?  -- Christiane Amanpour, Jr.

A. Dear Christiane,


Dear Ms. Undine,

I keep telling myself "this piece of writing won't write itself," but secretly I think it will if I just leave it alone so that the pages will multiply. Am I right in thinking that the pages will multiply?
-- Hope Springs Eternal

A. Dear Hope,

Sadly, no.  Pages are not like guppies. Instead, they are like books, which will move around on the shelves until you can't find the one you want. There will be the same number of pages that you left, but you will find yourself lost when you go back to them if you don't keep your eyes firmly on them.

If you have questions to ask Ms. Undine, please leave them in the comments.