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:

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.