Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year's Resolutions: Read better stuff. Work better. Live better.

Both GetaLifePhD (" How to become more creative, focused, relaxed, and productive") and Fie have recently posted New Year's resolutions, so I'm inspired to do the same. Basically, they're all in the title of this post.

1. Read better stuff. When did reading an actual book turn into a commitment rather than a pleasure? Was it reading for work in grad school?

Somehow, clicking on one more internet listicle news seems to ward off the work of opening a book, when the book makes you feel better, is more informative, and is less likely to result in rage at rampant stupidity, bad facts, and worse grammar.

Some books are work, true, but it's more the commitment of time than anything else that leads to stupid internet reading. "I only have 5 minutes, so let me check the news," I say, but how much better spent that 5 minutes would be if I read something real instead of fake--or something that, if it's real, makes me feel enraged and helpless in the face of the events.

2. Work better. After the big push of a collaborative project in the fall, I haven't done much for the past couple of weeks. It's time to get moving--back to the gym (did so today, so hooray) and back to writing. How is this working better? A new year, a new Moleskine, and a new shot at a 30-day challenge about writing every day, maybe, will help with those January deadlines.

3. Live better.  The simple version of this is pretty basic: move more, eat less, sleep more, fret less. But maybe it's even simpler than that.
  • What makes you happy? 
  • What makes you feel creative?
  • What are you proud of being able to do, even if it's something no one else would care about?
  • Was there some incident or you came through with flying colors? Keep it in your mind as a talisman against worse moods or bad times.  
  • Someone's being a jerk? Take your hands off that man.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Post-holidays roundup

    • Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
    • Turning into a cooking and cleaning machine for a couple of weeks is my favorite part of Christmas, except for seeing family, which is, of course, the reason I do it. Honest.  I love seeing people eat what I cook and bake. I love doing laundry and picking up.  I love the idea that if I don't bestir myself, there'll be hungry people milling around the kitchen wondering where dinner is and that nobody can get out of the driveway if I don't shovel it every day.  They offer to help, but I choose to do it. There's a beginning and an end point to it, and it's just very satisfying, probably because I can go back to wrestling with writing refreshed at the end of the two weeks. It's a good workout, too--I am really tired at the end of the day-- and, unlike the also invisible work of administration, people are grateful that you do it. 
    • You can think about all the foods that you don't have to make or eat any more when you sing holiday songs. "So bring us a figgy pudding"--uh, no thanks. 
    • It's easier to ignore the news and (justifiable) endless outrage on Twitter, if you're too busy to look at it. 
    • Ditto for ignoring email, which I've been happily doing for more than a week. Grade-grubbers? Contact me in January, for you are not getting a response to the email you sent on December 24. 
    • Sometimes I dance a little happy dance at the thought that I am not going to MLA this year. 
    • Speaking of MLA, it does not have good tidings of great joy this year. From Inside Higher Ed:
    "The MLA's annual report on its Job Information List has found that in 2014-15, it had 1,015 jobs in English, 3 percent fewer than the previous year. The list had 949 jobs in foreign languages, 7.6 percent fewer than 2013-14. This is the third straight year of decline in jobs listed with the MLA. And those declines have reversed the gains made in English and foreign language jobs after the severe declines that hit the disciplines after the economic downturn that started in 2008. The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10. But the job totals for English this year are 7.7 percent below the English positions of 2009-10. The job totals for foreign languages are 7.3 percent below those of 2009-10."

    Thursday, December 17, 2015

    Thank you, Rebecca Solnit. Just thank you.

    Over at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit has a follow-up to her recent and provocative "80 Books No Woman Should Read"  called "Men Explain Lolita to Me." You should read it. Everybody should read it.

    A sample, with added boldface:
    It all came down to Lolita. “Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter informed me, which made me wonder if there’s a book called Reading Lolita in Patriarchy. The popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy assumes that we identify with characters, and no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience? This man thinks so, which is probably his way of saying that I made him uncomfortable.
    . . . . 
    But “to read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov” said one of my volunteer instructors. I thought that was funny, so I posted it on Facebook, and another nice liberal man came along and explained to me this book was actually an allegory as though I hadn’t thought of that yet. It is, and it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over. Then she weeps. And then another nice liberal man came along and said, “You don’t seem to understand the basic truth of art. I wouldn’t care if a novel was about a bunch of women running around castrating men. If it was great writing, I’d want to read it. Probably more than once.” Of course there is no such body of literature, and if the nice liberal man who made that statement had been assigned book after book full of castration scenes, maybe even celebrations of castration, it might have made an impact on him.
    What she says so well is what I was trying to get at here:
    Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves.  See, she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then, emotionally speaking, [and I don't buy it now] but I know a party line when I hear one and after one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.
    Solnit's "nice liberal men" mansplaining the book to her as though she just didn't get it--well, it took me back a few decades to when I had the same losing argument. I shut up, because I was a student and it was already a timeless classic, and if I couldn't see that, guess who was wrong?

    There were only two possibilities:

    1. You ignored Lolita's plight and reveled in all the nuances and games-playing and puzzles, etc. etc. etc.
    2.  You expressed discomfort at Lolita's plight, which revealed your obvious inability to "get it"--just as Solnit's commenters have said to her.

    Literary criticism has developed many ways of shutting people up, but this one is the most common. If you express discomfort at the subject matter, you just don't get it. Irony, satire, subtlety--all are beyond you because you're expressing emotion, like a fool (or a woman?) rather than reason and being smart. Remember, the adjective we prize most as academics is "smart" ("it's a smart book," "that's a smart argument") meant in a very specific way.

    Criticism loves the transgressive and gruesome, of course -- still does -- and this was transgressive for the time.* It was the same mindset that said if you don't laugh along with Hemingway at the comical spectacle of the horses gored in Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises, you just didn't get it. You don't have aficion. You're not Lady Brett Ashley, as you should be.

    What we find transgressive today isn't what was transgressive then, but it's the same impulse.  "Don't be sentimental," we hear, although the single most sentimental thing I ever saw was the movie Leaving Las Vegas, much praised for its unsentimental toughness because its subject was a male alcoholic writer (which critics love as a subject, because alcohol + writer = tough and manly) drowning in self-pity, or what would have been called self-pity if he had been a woman.

    But as with tech enthusiasts (I am one, really), to balk at something doesn't mean that you don't get it. Maybe it means that you're operating from a whole different set of ethical or social premises, and maybe, just maybe, those stirrings of discomfort deserve a second look.

    * Exhibit A: Current literary darling Mary Gaitskill. From Alexandra Schwartz's "Uneasy Rider," The New Yorker 9 November 2015, p. 77: "By reputation, Mary Gaitskill is a writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse."  Critical jackpot: "immune to sentiment" and "perverse."

    Saturday, December 05, 2015

    End-of-semester anger management

    Figure 1. Cary Grant does exactly what he's told to do.
    It's the end of the semester, and a lot of us are getting a little punchy because of too much work and too little sleep (and yes, we know we are privileged to be academics at all).

    I've been operating under the "two phrases" nonconfrontational approach recently. Some things are worth fighting for or about, and some aren't. If the subject is the latter and is a low-stakes situation, I think of these.

    The first is "a soft answer turneth away wrath." On a collaborative project recently, one longtime collaborator used some phrasing in an email that would normally have made me send a blistering reply. But it's clear we're all under a lot of stress with this project and that zie was feeling it. I sent a more diplomatic email and received an apology, where a blistering one would have made the whole thing worse. The length and strength of the collaborative relationship helped.

    The second is from the movie Gunga Din,* which I don't think I have ever watched beyond the opening scene. In the opening scene, you're introduced to the three main characters, of whom Cary Grant is one, and they're all brawling with a bunch of other men (I don't remember why).

    In the midst of the brawl, Cary Grant pushes one of the men to the window.  A sergeant watching from below says, "Hey, take your hands off that man."

    Grant does as he's told, and the man promptly falls out the window (but of course isn't hurt). He shrugs as if to say, "What? You told me to do it, and I did."

    Here's how "take your hands off that man" is helpful.  The hardest thing to learn as an adult is that (1) you're not in control of everything and (2) sometimes you have to shut up and let decisions that you wouldn't agree with take their course. Maybe things will work out.

    But say you've worked hard on something, or informed someone of the likely consequences of an action, maybe a couple of times.  The committee or person isn't listening.  There's nothing you can do. What do you do in that case? "Take your hands off that man."

    Obviously you need to continue to press your point if it's a high-stakes situation, but if not? Think Cary Grant and release your grip.

    * (Yes, I know: racism, imperialism, colonialism, war, violence, etc. etc. etc.)

    Saturday, November 28, 2015

    It's their game, but you don't have to play

    I was reading a post at Curmudgucation about all the information our shiny K12 education overlords now want to collect and datamine for their own amusement and/or enrichment (see also this one expressing skepticism about technology that will solve all educational problems).

    It got me thinking about how much truth to tell, or not tell, about the increasing demands for data we're getting.

    Does Facebook need to know my actual date of birth and educational information? Nope. Does it know them? Nope. If it's optional, I leave out the information. If it's not optional, I make something up.  I understand that this is part of the new social contract--getting "free" content in exchange for looking at ads--but the rest of the information isn't part of the bargain.

    I'm convinced that this is a good principle, not only because of identity theft cautiousness but because of a little something we used to call "it's none of your business."  When I used to answer surveys once in a while (because of good citizenship or something--this was before the ubiquity of push polls made me stop answering my phone), I'd tell them that I'd answer questions but nothing demographic about age, income, children in the household, etc.

    But there's a creeping (or creepy?) need to know more and more on the part of organizations.  For years I subscribed to Consumer Reports because I thought that's what grownups did and because it had useful, data-driven information about what appliances worked and which ones broke down.  I answered their annual surveys (good citizen, remember) about consumer products and felt as though it contributed to a useful aggregated whole.

    The most recent CR survey, though, didn't care if I had car trouble but did want to ask me a bunch of squishy questions about attitudes, which is in keeping with its new USA TODAY-ish emphasis on infographics with no actual information.  The survey wouldn't let me answer anything about products unless I answered the squishy questions, so I bailed out, pursued by a lot of angry-sounding emails hounding me to finish the survey.

    The same creeping information collection is occurring professionally, too, with more and more surveys sent out from various university departments or offices, always with more and more assurances that even though you have a unique identifier, the results are completely confidential.  They ask you questions, you decline to answer one, and they won't let you go on to the next page until you do.

    The survey designers seem to think that answering all the questions is mandatory. They couldn't be more wrong, because even if the good citizens have dutifully invested some time in answering, they'll bail out in a heartbeat because they know it's really voluntary. The survey designers can and will pursue you by email (thanks, "anonymous" unique identifier!), but it's your right not to answer.

    And our beloved Megahuge Literary Aggregation now demands a lot of demographic information. I could understand answering honestly about salaries, because it has a sliding scale of membership fees. But now it wants mandatory data about degrees, date of birth, and the rest. You can't pay your fees online unless you choose a year of birth, although you can respond "prefer not to answer" for gender.  What do you do? My answer: refuse to re-up online; write them an actual paper letter complaining about their intrusive demands, and make them send me a paper version for which I will send a check, which is more inconvenient for both of us. Update 2019: MLA no longer requires a date of birth to join the organization or renew membership.

    Remember, it's their game, but you don't have to play.

    Thursday, November 26, 2015

    Enjoyable, by a woman, modern literary classic: "critical walkback" says you can only pick two

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    I don't read much modern fiction (too much ancient stuff to unearth) and haven't read Jennifer Weiner, so I don't have a dog in this hunt, so to speak. But I did read The Goldfinch, which was really good for getting me through a bunch of delayed and canceled flights a couple of years ago, and what Weiner says in the article sounds right.

    In "If you enjoyed a good book and you're a woman, the critics think you're wrong," , Weiner describes a "critical walkback" that happens--surprise, surprise!--if a new book by a woman, at first critically acclaimed, becomes too popular:

    Call it “Goldfinching”, after Vanity Fair’s 2014 yes-but-is-it-art interrogation as to whether Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning, mega-bestselling book The Goldfinch is or is not literature. It’s the process by which a popular and previously well-regarded novel and, more importantly, its readers, are taken to the woodshed, usually by a critic who won’t hesitate to congratulate himself on his courage, as if dismissing popular things that women like requires some special kind of bravery – as if it doesn’t happen all day, every day.
    Weiner says that the same critical smackdown happened with Gone, Girl, The Lovely Bones, and some other books I haven't read. It's not just James Wood at the New Yorker, either: Mary Gaitskill took on Gone, Girl. 

    Now, women aren't obliged to like books just because they're written by women. They're not obliged to like any books, and if you read Dorothy Parker, who hated about 80% of what she reviewed, and Mary McCarthy, who slapped down just about all of it, you'll see that the critical smackdown isn't the province of men.

    But I'm intrigued by the idea that these works are considered bad only after they become popular. Why is that? Why is someone like Jonathan Franzen allowed to be popular and critically acclaimed?--which was the subject of another Weiner-Franzen controversy a few years back.

    With some critics, you get a feeling for their prejudices and can take their recommendations with the appropriate grain of salt. Emily Nussbaum apparently only likes gross-out or transgressive horror, for example, and ranks television shows accordingly.  The New Yorker puts (or used to put) David Denby on movies if they're to be favorably reviewed and Anthony Lane* (always entertaining) if they want them to be ripped up, unless they're foreign films, which are always favorably reviewed.  You get the picture.

    Yet are critics doing this critical walkback because they genuinely have second thoughts or because to be dismissive, even retroactively, gives you more critical standing as a Judge of High Art?

    *edited because Adam Gopnik doesn't write the film reviews, although he is always entertaining, too. 

    Friday, November 20, 2015

    Universal truths

    • If you get put on a new committee because of your new rank, they don't ask you when you can be there; they just tell you. If you're teaching at that time, too bad.  You get to burn a research day coming to campus so that you can meet with someone and get up to speed.
    • If you write a grant proposal, you will discover either an egregious typo or an unfinished sentence somewhere in the proposal--after the deadline and after you have turned it in. 
    • In this interview at the Chronicle, Camille Paglia has some good writing inspiration and some even better self-regard, with which she lights the paper and the interviewer on fire, I think.  But hey, writers should be confident, right?
    • Doodle polls have a "hidden" setting so that you can't see what other people have put in; did you know that? I wonder if it's so the person running the meeting can privately overturn the "most popular" date and time if it doesn't suit him or her or them. 
    • The best way to ensure a deluge of work is to sign up for something you want to do (the Iowa Writers Workshop MOOC), which will be entirely swept aside since you can barely keep up with what you are supposed to be doing. 
    • Too tired to work and in the mood for something with no thought to it at all? The Kitchenette's "Behind Closed Ovens" series has some funny stories and screens out anything disgusting.
    • The guy who invented NoMoRoBo is a god and should receive the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping those of us who still have land lines (because relatives) sane.
    • You can have a "no email on weekends" policy, but if more than 30 emails from your collaborators pile up in a day, you may have to break down and answer them. Never Weaken is a Harold Lloyd comedy, not a phrase to live by.

    Saturday, November 14, 2015

    I can't add anything to what's been said

    Thinking of those in Paris and Lebanon and wishing them even more of the courage and the strength that they've shown to get past this nightmare, and hoping that other nations can band together to fight this scourge.

    Image credit:

    Monday, November 09, 2015

    Random bullets of November

    • Flavia Fescue is right: "you should always ask."   In a quiet moment recently during an in-person exchange, I managed to ask an editor of a collection about an essay, tentatively accepted, that had me so stumped that I hadn't turned in the final version.  I wanted to ask "has that ship sailed?" but not in so many words.  Answer: no (hooray!).  I had been too chicken to ask via email, so this worked out well.
    • It's energizing as well as exhausting to see people at a conference, as I'm not the first to observe. Have you ever noticed that conferences (some of them, anyway) are among the few places where we can praise each other face-to-face for scholarship, whether we're acquainted or not? Think about it.  How many other places, except for an invited talk, do you get to hear applause for your words and kind words for your ideas? There's a glow of good fellowship, if that's still a word, that can make quite a difference in the most Novemberish of November moods.
    • On the other hand, you're always reminded that you can never work hard enough, fast enough, or long enough to get all the things done. To judge by the tone and number of emails that greeted me, I am pretty sure that some people never sleep and find you morally remiss if you don't email them from the plane on the way home.  This makes for a depressing return and a resumption of the feeling of hopelessness that has dogged me all semester. 
    • It's like this: When one of my kids was little, one unusually busy day I asked hir, "Have you done X? How about Y? Z is coming up," until ze said, "Stop chasing me!" and I apologized. Without going into specifics, that is exactly how I feel right now: Stop chasing me. 
    • But to end on a happier note: it will get done because it has to get done.  If it doesn't, people can be angry with me but unless they take to torchlight mobs and tumbrils, they can't actually hurt me.
    • And soon it will be Thanksgiving!

    Friday, October 30, 2015

    Florida CC asks faculty to bid for jobs: the English Department of the Future is here

    Way back in 2008, in "English Department of the Future," I wrote this:

    GA: "Hmm. That's not good. Those 5 deserve better for their tuition money; we have to keep the customers happy, you know. It's a good thing we don't have to rehire him in the spring. Do we still have the instructor bids from the fall?"

    Minion: "Yes. Of the 350 applications we got, at least five or six of them offered to teach the class for very close to what Instructor X is teaching it for, although none of them offered to pay for all their own photocopying, as he did. I think we can get someone for around $2,000 to teach this course.

    GA: "No benefits, of course?"

    Minion: (Laughs) "Of course not!"

    I was kidding. It was supposed to be satire. 

    According to IHE, a Florida community college trustee thinks it's a great idea:

    Putting a project out to bid is typically part of the public works process, since competitive bids tend to drive down the price and ensure fair opportunity for contracts. But should that process be applied to faculty hiring in public higher education? A member of the Board of Trustees for the State College of Florida at Manatee-Sarasota thinks so, and he’s set to brief the board on his proposal at an upcoming meeting. 
    That was in September. Between then and now, Beruff was reportedly working on a second proposal that would ask potential college employees, including faculty members, to quote their fee for services on job applications. That information would then be used in the hiring decision.

    I think I need a sign that reads "Professor Undine and her crystal ball predicting the future of higher education are available for a consulting fee.  The consulting fee is commensurate with what the top administration pays external consultants who give the same advice that faculty give them for free."

    Friday, October 23, 2015

    You're in the (almost) home stretch. Be good to yourself.

    Figure 1. If you don't dress like this, maybe no one will notice your absence.
    For reasons I don't at all understand, this has been an incredibly stressful semester. My colleagues are lovely, as always, so it may be just the feeling, possibly exaggerated, of being pulled in too many directions and failing at all of them (which is on me, not the work or the surroundings).

    The copy-edited book is back at the press, and I've finished a couple of small writing projects. Yet the stress of not getting other things finished--the recalcitrant article manuscript, conference papers, etc.-- is causing anxiety and things like the flashing lights and obscured vision that are signs of a very bad headache. It doesn't progress if I can stretch out with my office door closed for half an hour.  I don't want to call it a migraine, but still: flashing lights.

    So here's a list to pry me (us) off the ceiling at this point of the semester.

    1. You're in the (almost) home stretch. Be good to yourself.

    2. Try a cup of green tea.  Try a tall glass of water, which also combats fatigue.

    3. Even better, try to get out for a run. Listen to a podcast or a book rather than the voices inside your head.

    4. Your colleagues may forgive you for not showing up at the many events scheduled every week. (Maybe they are like Fie, who has some wise words about this in the comments to an earlier post.)

    5. About #4: unless you stride around in a swirling cloak like Orson Welles, chances are good no one will even notice your absence, so stop worrying.

    6. Eat good, simple food and make it a meal.  A handful of crackers or almonds wolfed down before someone's presentation is not the same as lunch or dinner.

    7. Looking at a list of five pieces of writing, all equally important, all requiring lots of time and complex thought, is a good way to paralyze yourself into thinking "I should do X -- wait, Y is due sooner --no, here's another email about Z."

    Pick one. If you find yourself sitting in front of a screen and unable to write, grade some papers, even if it does burn the sacred morning writing time.  At least you'll be doing something, and you'll feel better for it.

    8. Remember the big picture.  We're not doing brain surgery here. With the exception of recommendation letters, which have to be in on time, and grant letters (ditto), you can only get done what you can get done, as quickly and as well as you can manage it.

    9. Get some sleep.

    10. Get some fresh air, even if it's just for five minutes.  Breathe deeply.  The air is a wonderful tonic, which I'm making up but sounds like something Emerson should have said.

    What's your advice for de-stressing?

    Sunday, October 18, 2015

    Ten thoughts about lecturing

    I should probably have called this "Ten weird tricks about lecturing" or "Lecturing: what you learn will shock you!" to grab more page views.

    But it probably won't shock you.  Twitter has lost its mind over the "Lecture Me. Really" essay in the New York Times yesterday. The essay suggested that sometimes a good lecture helps listeners to bring together information in a compelling way and that taking notes might students help to assimilate information. You know, learn something.

    Twitter responded with roughly this sentiment: "Lectures are evil. Did we not drive a stake through the heart of this awful practice? Everyone knows that constant interaction on Twitter is the One Best Way to teach. Students alone know how best to learn, and they know what they need to learn, too. Why are you trying to impose your terrible methods on them all the time?"

    Herewith are ten thoughts about lecturing, in no particular order.

    1.  No one would say that lecturing is the best way to learn all the time, or that instructors should do this all the time, or that other ways don't work.

    2. When I began teaching, having duly learned how evil lectures were, I did not do it. Ever. Students began to ask for lectures. They wanted some information explained, so I learned to give lectures and to make them good.

    3. Lecturing is storytelling.  It ought to have a point, and an organization, and interesting information bits along with the things that they have to know, which might or might not be interesting to them.

    4. Pictures help. Interaction helps.  PowerPoint is really for pictures rather than bullet points.   Ask questions. Ask them to respond to what they're seeing.

    5. If you think of lecturing as if you're telling a story, you'll keep it short. Henry Ward Beecher and Jonathan Edwards are dead. No one can hold an audience spellbound for 3 hours or usually even an hour any more.  If you keep it to 20 minutes, or even less, it'll work better.

    6. Brief lecture + an activity immediately after that to capitalize on what students have learned = a winning combination. Not every day, but some days.  You have to mix things up in the classroom. See point 1.

    7. Keep lecturing for some of the "big picture" stuff. I had some instructors who could come into a classroom, open a book, and keep us more or less spellbound (with not much interaction) by analyzing poems for three hours. That's not a sustainable model for most of us.  Lecture entertainingly on the big ideas, and then follow it up with a group project or an analytical exercise about a specific poem or piece of prose.

    8. Sometimes when you're discussing a poem, you'll hear students say something as though they just thought of it, even though you said it earlier.  This is a good thing. It means that they're internalizing the ideas and taking ownership of them.

    9. When students work in groups, they may not get all the meaning that you'd like them to get out of a piece, the kind that you would have said if you had lectured about it. This is okay.  They will remember it better if they engage with it themselves.

    10. Bottom line: three methods.
    --Say you give 100% of some necessary information in a lecture.  Students may remember as little as 60% of it, depending on the student.
    --If students discuss the work in groups, they may only get 60% of what you think they should learn, but they will remember it.
    --When students present their work to the class, they may only say about half of that, or 30%. But they will have a better handle on that 30% because they've worked with it or listened to it from their peers.  That's why it's important to use more than one method.

    Updated to add: Miriam Burstein has some good thoughts on this.

    Friday, October 16, 2015

    Audience guilt

    Our campus is exploding with events right now. Everyone is hosting a talk, or giving a talk, or organizing something for students.  Club meetings. Presentations. I've taken time to prepare for and have presented at some of these and have attended some others.

    Right now, there's something every day of the week, including days that I usually do research.

    On one hand, it's wonderful to see so much interest and activity.

    On the other hand, if you start getting a migraine because you're running from one to the other, maybe it's time to stop.

    But what do you do about "audience guilt," the feeling that you ought to be going to show support for colleagues and students?

    Sometimes I've emailed the person to say "sorry, but I can't be there" when I have had an appointment.

    Does that really help, though, or does it ring false, as in "you should have been there, anyway"?

    Last week I was supposed to go to something but was so slammed with immediate work (as in meeting my classes in an hour) that I couldn't.  I got the work done, but the residual guilt got worse.

    How do you balance these things?

    Saturday, October 10, 2015

    No time left for you, research

    There's an episode of Frasier in which the character Roz Doyle (on right) comes to a Halloween party as O from The Story of O. At one point, someone asks her if she has a pencil or something.

    "If you don't see it, I don't have it," she snaps.

    That's where I am right now with time. When people ask me "could you do this?" or "did you send this?" or "where's that review?" or "did you finish that task?" or "when are we getting our papers back?" all I can say is, "if you don't see it, I don't have it/didn't send it."

    October seems to be a kind of triage month in which you assess who's going to be the most inconvenienced or angry if you don't get the task completed for their sector of your endless to-do list. The result is a number of things that are about 90% done but can't be completed as you shift from one to the other to put out the most immediate fire.

    One response of mine has been just to stockpile mildly complicated emails sent to me, some of them asking for favors.  If you care enough or it's important enough, you'll stop by the office. If not, well, maybe it'll resolve itself. Or maybe I just don't care.

    The loser in all this is research.  There's a piece I've been working on, one I thought would be easy to turn around, that became more of a writing and editing project than I thought.  The thing is, writing takes thought. Thought takes time. Time is something there just isn't enough of right now.

    It's still a great job, and my students were sweethearts about the papers being returned late.  But when it gets to the point where you wake up two hours after going to bed feeling that you have to get up and work some more, that's overtiredness, and it's unhealthy.

    For now, I'll keep plugging away at the list and wave at the research materials from the corner where they're sulking--no, actually they're waiting patiently, and they'll be fine if I get more sleep.  

    Wednesday, September 30, 2015

    Podcasts, with a detour to Lucille Ball

    I just learned from the post over at Historiann's that today is International Podcast Day, so Happy Podcast Day!

    Historiann mentioned Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This, which I binge-listened to over this past month (all except the actual Manson family murder segment).  The old Hollywood ones are especially wonderful, although I'd like to add this to the most recent one on Buster Keaton:

    Guess which famous redheaded TV star of the 1950s was tutored and mentored by Keaton and his director, Ed Sedgwick?

    Did you say Red Skelton?  You'd be partly right.

    The other redhead is Lucille Ball. Ball learned a lot from Keaton and Sedgwick not only when she was at MGM but also later, before I Love Lucy. Sedgwick especially was a father figure to her--she'd lost her own father as a child--but they both taught her a lot about comic timing and how to perform gags to best effect. Keaton was a genius, especially with props and physical comedy.

    Before I Love Lucy, Ball and Arnaz had an act in which she interrupted his band by pretending to be a tramp auditioning with a cello.  From the inside of the cello, which she'd open up, she'd bring out a little chair and a lot of other props. This act was taught to her by a European comedian whose name I can't recall, but who taught her how to get the most from those props? Keaton.

    Fun fact: when Skelton won an Emmy for his comedy show in 1951, he said, graciously, "You're giving this to the wrong redhead." 

    Back to Podcast Day.

    Here's a link to You Must Remember This.

    Also worth checking out: Futility Closet, which has unusual stories from history.

    BBC History Extra:

    What are your favorite podcasts?

    Sunday, September 27, 2015

    You are not invisible. Put down the phone.

    In "Stop Googling. Let's Talk," Sherry Turkle reports what she's learned about the ubiquitous habit of checking one's phone and what it has done to conversation, especially within families:
    One 15-year-old I interviewed at a summer camp talked about her reaction when she went out to dinner with her father and he took out his phone to add “facts” to their conversation. “Daddy,” she said, “stop Googling. I want to talk to you.” A 15-year-old boy told me that someday he wanted to raise a family, not the way his parents are raising him (with phones out during meals and in the park and during his school sports events) but the way his parents think they are raising him — with no phones at meals and plentiful family conversation. 
    In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.
    But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.
     Go read the whole thing; it's worth it.

    The thing is, if you take out your phone because they* take out their phone, all of a sudden it's a phone duel and not a conversation. You both win, and the conversation loses. 

    TL;dr. You are not invisible. You are a human being in a community of human beings. Put down the phone.

    Or, as Sherry Turkle says, "Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking."

    *I am trying out the inclusive "their" to see if I can do it.
    [Edited because I sounded like the world's crankiest crankypants and am tired of being negative. ]

    Friday, September 25, 2015

    In which I am tempted to MOOC: How Writers Write Fiction 2015 from the Iowa Writers Workshop

    I saw this at The Toast: the Iowa Writers Workshop is offering an 8-week MOOC on creative writing, and I am really tempted.

    How tempted? I actually signed up to be on their mailing list the last time and got a notice of this a week or two ago.

    Do I have time to do this? Absolutely not.

    But I have wanted to find out more about creative writing for a long time. I have longed for the opportunity to write fiction or creative nonfiction without the abject humiliation of showing my possible writing to the creative writing people I know. Abject humiliation from strangers, on the other hand, would be fine.

    I don't really want to do this under my own name, though, in case I am terrible at it. I'm pretty sure this was George Eliot's reason, too.  I wonder if I could use one of my aliases to sign up.

    Writing inspiration, Hemingway word count edition

    Figure 1. So Hemingway was a record-keeper!
    Instead of "sit down and write," this has been a week of "sit down and drive, stand up and teach, walk down the hall and meet," etc.

    I have a list of about 15 things to do immediately, divided up into writing, reviewing, teaching, and admin.

    Guess which category is the one with nothing crossed off?

    But just in time, the NYTimes has some writing inspiration: an exhibition of Ernest Hemingway's artifacts at the JFK Library.

    Here's a little writing inspiration for your Friday:
    He began the original draft of his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” which he finished in just nine weeks during the summer of 1925, on loose sheets and then switched over to notebooks. It wasn’t until the end of the third notebook that he wrote a chapter outline on the back cover (which also records his travel expenses and his daily word counts, something Hemingway kept careful track of), and some of the pages on display show him slashing out not just words and sentences but whole passages as he writes. “Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it,” Hemingway wrote later in an Esquire article. “That is .333, which is a damned good average for a hitter.”
    Figure 2. Even Hemingway had to cut words.
    Those are nice round numbers, but of course, Hem didn't have the Word Count feature. He kept track of his weight, too, writing it in pencil on a wall near his bathroom scales, and I'm guessing that the "fishing diary" in which he wrote an angry letter to Harold Ross of The New Yorker contains size, weight, and numbers of fish caught.

    The interesting thing for me about all this record-keeping is that Hemingway never mentions it in A Moveable Feast (either version), although whole chapters of that book are basically writing inspiration and absence-of-food descriptions. It's not in keeping with Hemingway Image (TM), probably, but it's oddly inspiring to those of us trying to keep on track by keeping track.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2015

    Reading and writing all the things


    When will I learn, oh, when will I learn that if I assign really long novels, criticism, and theory in a seminar that I have to (re)read them along with the students?

    I am now officially convinced that reading on a screen has destroyed my reading concentration for reading books on paper, which is really sad, since I'd rather read on paper. 

    It's more than the interwebz destroying concentration, though. I don't need glasses for the screen but do need them for reading on paper.  I can read endlessly on the screen, but my eyes tear up and get blurry after more than an hour reading on paper.  This is not optimal, to say the least.

    But then you go to class, and you get to talk to students about the reading, and they say things that are insightful about the work or that reveal something about their thought processes, and it's fun.  There, I said it. It's fun to teach even though we're supposed to prioritize other things.


    The writing has been disrupted because of running back and forth to campus so much for meetings.  I've been trying to do more of my own writing in the office by sitting at a table, which signals writing, instead of at the desk, which I associate with class work, email, and other tasks. The other day, I left the office entirely and went to a table in the library.

    Melissa Dennihy's essay "How to Get Writing Done" at Inside Higher Ed suggests holding fast to a research day, which probably is essential for new assistant professors but might be difficult for associates and others who have a lot of committees. 

    On the other hand, I've had several meeting requests lately that were the kind I associate with when my kids were toddlers and I used the psychology of the forced choice: maybe they don't want to get dressed at all after their bath and you ask them whether they want the blue or the red pajamas.   "Which of these two times [when I'm not available but the person requesting the meeting is] would you like to meet, Undine?" "Neither, but how about this time, when I am?"

    Sunday, September 13, 2015

    What's your take on the Victorian Lady?

    Figure 1.J. Herbin ink and some of my pens.
    Recently, the frivolous corner of the internet has lost its mind over something even more inconsequential than the "blue-black or white-gold dress" controversy: Victorian Lady Sarah A. Crisman, who chooses, she says, to live as a Victorian in Port Townsend, Washington. This means dressing up, making your own clothes, lighting by kerosene, and so on.

    There's an article on Vox,  a precursor article on xojane from a couple of years ago, and innumerable pieces like this snarky one on Deadspin that point out the things that get left out of this vision like, oh, slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, industrial oppression of workers, and all those wrongs that we are at least trying to right.

    My most immediate reaction on reading the article when she mentioned ink "from a company started in 1670" was "Cool! She uses J. Herbin ink, just like me!" I have written with dip pens, although I don't currently own one due to an act of heroic resistance to buying one when I was in Research City this summer.  I cook and bake from scratch (cakes, bread, pizza, Yorkshire pudding, etc.) using cast-iron pots, so there's that.

    But think about it: who among us doesn't have some vestiges of the Victorian age that we carry over into our lives? Isn't that what a lot of craft-people are actually doing with scrapbooks, quilts, and so on? We/they just don't write blog posts patting themselves on the back about living like the ancestors. And is this different from the many other acts of impersonation that populate television reality or reality re-enactment shows like Pioneer House or its brethren?

    And who doesn't remember the implicit "Thank DOG I now have a sewing machine" in Ma Ingalls's voice when she had to do all that sewing for Laura's wedding in These Happy Golden Years? Okay, that's not what she actually says, which is this:
    "[Pa] lifted the blanket away, and there stood a shining new sewing machine.
    "Oh, Charles!" Ma gasped.
    "Yes, Caroline, it is yours," Pa said proudly. There'll be a lot of extra sewing, with Mary coming home and Laura going away, and I thought you'd need some help." . . .
    A long time ago, Laura remembered, a tone in Ma's voice when she spoke of a sewing machine had made Laura think that she wanted one. Pa had remembered that.(241-242)

    And when Laura decides to sew the long seams of the sheets down the middle instead of using the traditional method, Ma agrees: "Our grandmothers would turn in their graves, but after all, these are modern times" (265).

    Why, yes, Caroline Ingalls. Yes, they are. Caroline would have shooed Victorian Lady out of the house with her ever-handy broom. 

    I think a lot of the condemnation that Victorian Lady has received is due to her smug tone, insistence that she's living as a Victorian rather than doing this as a hobby, and condemnation of the 21st-century's pace, as if she herself doesn't have a website and a business plan for monetizing her way of life. She's living a medical age of penicillin and pretending that she's not, so to speak.

    Or maybe it's a fear that, like some other re-enactors (see Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic) this kind of cosplay will encourage the erasure of historical evils.

    But the counter-argument is this: Victorian Lady obviously has plenty of money to indulge her hobby, and what's the harm?

    What's your take on her decision to cosplay (or is it steampunk?) by "living" in a different era?

    Friday, September 11, 2015

    A bright spot or two

    This was one of those weeks when some kind of Fool Translator Device inside my brain made every statement come out as halting and idiotic. 

    Everything came out wrong, or so it seemed. When I made a joke in the department meeting, I had to say, like Foghorn Leghorn, "I say, that's a joke, son!"--but not in those words. 

    I misnamed files, sent out files with errors in them, and all the while cringed at the promised work that I wasn't getting done. I stumbled over words in front of the class. You know how you can be writing on the board and all of a sudden the word looks strange to you and you can't be sure that you're spelling it right as thirty pairs of eyes bore into your back? Yup.

    Even writing was giving me trouble.  I need to use a better word than "humble-bragging" in an essay, but that's the only one that comes to mind, so it's still there.

    I thought caffeine was supposed to make you sharper, and I need to drink tea or Diet Coke in order to stay awake during the long commutes on a narrow and twisting road. The VW Bug that drove me off onto the shoulder this week as it passed an 18-wheeler in my half of the two-lane highway is just the latest example of why keeping alert is important.  This level of caffeine makes me sleepy all day and up every hour at night, however, and it's my theory that that's when the Fool Translator Device gears up for the next day.

    But then on Thursday, behind on everything, behind on and barely finishing the novels I was rereading since I'd assigned them, it all worked out. We did group work in one of the classes, and as I walked around, students were eager to talk with me about the topic their group was researching.  We had good discussions in another class--high-intensity but with a lot of laughs, too.

    And the edited Laocoon manuscript came back to me nearly a month early, with nice comments about how it really didn't take much editing and was a pleasure to read.

    So after most of a week that had me saying "what's the point?" and feeling that I couldn't do anything right, these two bright spots turned it around.

    Friday, September 04, 2015

    Writing inspiration: by popular request, the Excel writing spreadsheet.

    Thanks to Sisyphus's and anonymous's requests in the comments to the previous post, I thought I would talk about the Excel spreadsheet I use to keep track of writing.

    First of all, here's what it looks like:

    1. The first three columns are pretty obvious: Month, Date, Day.

    2. The next two columns (4 & 5) are the beginning and ending word count.

    3. The next column (6)  is a total word count for the day, based on a pretty simple Excel formula (B5-B4, and so on). If I'm editing and have a negative word count, I put in a zero. That's not accurate, but it's more happy-making than seeing the total go down.

    4. The number of pages column  (7) is just the word count total divided by 350.  I know that counts a page as 250 words, but if you're using a proportional font like Times Roman or Cambria, 300-350 is more accurate. I usually keep this scrunched up so that it doesn't go to 8 decimal places.

    5. The Task column (8) says what I did, rather than what I intend to do.  An intention/aspirational list of things to do always makes me less productive, so now I just record what actually got done.

    This is from January, when I was going over the footnotes and manuscript for the millionth time before sending it to the press.  You don't see a panicky note about "Write MLA paper" there because I presented part of the book instead of writing something new.

    6. The right-most column with nothing in it is actually the most satisfying one; it's the "Sent" column. When something gets sent, whether it's a letter, a manuscript review, a recommendation letter, or whatever, it gets noted in that column.

    Other notes:

    • I don't use a lot of color, but days when I'm on campus are tinted in one color, and days when I'm away on trips are tinted another.  
    • There's a running tally of words for the year down at the bottom of the Total column. 
    • Every year, I rename the spreadsheet, make the appropriate adjustments for dates and days, and clear the rest of the contents. 
    • I keep notices other items on another page of the spreadsheet: to-do items like manuscript reviews, letters of recommendation, upcoming papers to write, etc.
    Paul Silvia, of How to Write a Lot fame, keeps a spreadsheet in SPSS that is simpler than this. From p. 41, here are his categories:

    Month / date / day / words [total] / goal / project / year
    • I didn't bother with "year," because it's pretty obvious that it'll be the same year for 365 days.  Maybe SPSS doesn't allow the same flexibility as Excel and he has many years on the same page.
    • Silvia's "Goal" column has two settings: "Met" and "Unmet." The idea is that you assign yourself a project or a number of words for the day and assess whether you've met it or not. I tried this, but it was too discouraging on bad writing days. The simple number totals work better for me. 
    Anyway, this is a combination external record and conscience that nags just the right amount, so I've kept it going since 2011.

    Friday, August 28, 2015

    Secret messages I didn't send

    Dear Blackboard: I have the course materials online and a course blog and a Twitter presence. No, I do not plan to click through eight kajillion menus and watch yet more instructional videos in order to put everything in your course space. That goes double for all the "Partner" for-pay sites that are much more prominent in your interface than how to do simple tasks like setting up the gradebook. 

    Dear Facebook: I am so much happier now that I've gone cold turkey and given you up at least for the time being. Then some professional thing will drag me back in, like Michael Corleone, and you can go back to making me sad again.

    Dear Writing Progress spreadsheet: You are showing me, right there, why I should never agree to do a "little" piece that is not directly related to a current project. You show two weeks of writing and another week of pointless angst before I could get started. It turned out well in the long run, but all that pointless angst could have gone to a new project!  Lesson learned, I hope.

    Dear Morning Self: This is just a reminder that if you half-read something and fire off a measured and polite but stupid response to a group of people, you will cringe-- because "stupid." Enough with the shoot first, aim later approach to email.  Save yourself the grief and don't respond.

    Dear Future Self: There are two big national conferences at the same time next spring, one all the way across the country and one a short plane ride away.  Both have exciting work in your field. You want to apply to the far-away one, but next spring, you will wonder what you were thinking. Do yourself a favor and submit the proposal for the one that's closer.

    Dear Colleagues and Students: It would sound sappy to say that your enthusiasm and good humor make the whole back to school process so much easier, so I won't say it. But it's true.

    Monday, August 24, 2015

    Writing inspiration: you're part of the Borg, and that's a good thing

    I haven't been writing here as much, partly because I've been writing other things but partly because of something I read.

    When The Little Professor announced a while back that she'd cleaned out her blogroll because most bloggers either had stopped writing or were boringly repeating themselves, I gulped and thought, "Is that me?" (For the record, I don't think I was ever on her blogroll, but still.)

    Now I keep thinking that everything I post here has to pass by the ghost of  Edward R. Murrow standing at my shoulder. 

    But two other pieces were reassuring.

    First, Historiann's post about public engagement, with which I agree.  I've done interviews (under my real identity), given lectures, etc., because it's important to do and also flattering to be asked. But even here, where I'm not posting under my real name, I can still contribute.

    Second, over at John Scalzi's Whatever blog, this terrific piece from Felicia Day that sums up the writing process perfectly. You should read the whole thing, but here are just a few excerpts that helped to get me up and writing this morning:
    I am plagued with perfection syndrome, anxiety and an acute self-consciousness that makes me convinced that I have a gob of mascara under my eye when I attend any public appearance. In general, hubris is something I avoid at all costs. (The internet helps reinforce it because someone is always willing to step up and tell you how much you suck. Thanks internet!)
    But after the initial seed is planted, all our emotional baggage arrives with a jolly, “Hey idiot, reality knocking!” to dry up the enthusiasm. Inhibitions show up. Second guesses. Procrastination-reading of five other works in a similar vein leads to crushing thoughts like, “He had a robot dog in his book, I can’t do that now or I’m a copycat! I have no other ideas. I’m the worst!” I went through it all. And it cost me weeks of my writing life.  [much good stuff omitted]
    So when you think about creating, focus on the idea of adding to the collective Borg consciousness, if only to get over your own road blocks and make it easier to get your voice out there. 

    Monday, August 17, 2015

    Update: Jeff Bezos is shocked, shocked at Amazon's practices--but ends up confirming them

    Just a follow-up to the NY Times piece: in a new article, Jeff Bezos says he "doesn't recognize" the dystopian workplace described there. Want proof?

    • They have fun Fridays!
    • People only respond to emails after midnight if they want to.  Unspoken corollary: and if they want to keep their jobs, they'd better want to.
    • Any of the abuses should be reported to HR, Bezos says. Unspoken caveat: because things always go so well for whistleblowers in such an environment.
    What keeps everyone motivated? According to Bezos, it's because The people we hire here are the best of the best. But note this:
    An Amazon spokesman previously confirmed that the company manages out a pre-determined percentage of its workforce every year. The engineer also quotes an unnamed senior executive telling an all-hands meeting, “Amazon used to burn a lot of people into the ground.”
    So if you don't want to be one of the ones "managed out" or ranked and yanked, you know what you have to do. 

    Saturday, August 15, 2015

    The Amazon model: coming to a university near you?

    The New York Times article "Inside Amazon"  led me to think up this little riddle:

    Q: What's the difference between living in Westeros (Game of Thrones) and working for

    A: In Westeros, you still fight 24-7 for survival, but they can only kill you once.

    Here's a quiz to see if you would fit in at

    1) You develop a serious illness, or give birth to a child, or have someone close to you die, so your productive work hours slip to 85 per week.  What can you expect from Amazon, the company whose initial answer to warehouse workers' keeling over in 100-degree heat wasn't air conditioning but having ambulances (and no doubt pink slips) waiting outside for the fallen?

    a) Supplemental paid leave
    b) Flex time for completing your work
    c) You'll be fired or forced to quit.

    2) You collaborate with others to make a better product or to ship something faster, but Amazon uses "stacked ranking" or "rank and yank" where everyone is ranked frequently and people are fired after every ranking. You

    a) Defend your team and the product
    b) Explain the long-term benefits to the company
    c) Anonymously report the person you want fired on the company's special feedback software, helpfully included in the worker directory along with pre-written derogatory messages; you can also gang up with your fellow Targaryens to sink someone, since these are pasted verbatim into the victim's performance review.

    3) If you get an email after 1 a.m. on a weekend, when should you answer it?

    a) the next morning
    b) Monday morning
    c) within an hour, or else you'll start getting text messages on your phone--that you pay for yourself--asking you why you are so slow

    4) Which of the following statements is false?

    a) One worker reported seeing people crying at their desks as a common sight.
    b) Some companies are reluctant to hire former Amazon employees because they're known as "Amholes" for their combative ways
    c) Jeff Bezos is truly sorry for this culture and wants to build a kinder, gentler workplace.

    Kidding!  Bezos is proud of the "purposeful Darwinism" that drives people to ulcers and to quit.

    What does this corporate horror show have to do with the modern university?

    I keep seeing in The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and in statements from various administrators at various places things like the following:
    • Greater emphasis on numbers of publications and demands for "impact measures" to be reported, even though those scores that the scientists use aren't readily available to people in the humanities.
    • Greater emphasis on grant dollars brought in, even though--again--the minuscule number of grants available in the humanities, the extreme competition for them (NEH = same acceptance rate as getting into Harvard or  Stanford), and the dollar amounts they bring in pale in comparison to those in the sciences, against whom the humanities are increasingly being compared in a misguided bid for "accountability."
    • More and more kinds of performance assessments for students and for instructors.
    • More and more interest in automating courses, "optimizing" for scale as though students are widgets, etc.  
    • Misguided applications of MBA jargon designed to corporatize the university.
    Maybe I'm being too alarmist; there's hope, after all, in the movement for decent salaries and benefits for non tenure-track employees. And the university is still a place that, as all the mission statements say, upholds humanistic principles.

    But this gave me pause:
    Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices. Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event.
    This is the Judas software that allows workers to backstab one another anonymously "anytime," as the name promises. In the shiny widgets arms race that universities seem to have adopted, I'm hoping this is one product that will fly beneath their radar.

    And kudos, by the way, to the NY Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld for such a good article, and to the brave Amazon and ex-Amazon workers who spoke out despite a Bezos gag order. 

    Saturday, August 08, 2015

    At ChronicleVitae: Work Less. Play More. What are your ways of doing this?

    At ChronicleVitae, Allison Vaillancourt advises readers to work less, play more, and get some sleep:
    The most striking finding from my unscientific research study was the theme of rituals and routines. Every single person described something they do on a regular basis in order to maintain a sense of calm and focus. For some, their routines were things you might expect — daily exercise, a strict bedtime, a meditation practice, a healthy breakfast, or a nonnegotiable dinnertime with a partner or family members.
    All academics know that, next to a cult of "smart" ("that was such a smart paper" or "she's doing such smart work") we've made a cult of being busy, most of which goes with the job but some of which is self-inflicted. No one wants to be the person who isn't busy, because if you're not busy, how can you be smart?

    Vaillancourt has a roundup of ways that people she knows accomplish this kind of self-care, including scheduled quiet time and an app called Habits Wizard.  Although the last thing I need is to have one more app running my life, the point is that if it works for you, you should try it. 

    I'd only add that if your routine involves other people, like a quiet dinnertime without dogs milling around and stealing food off the table (family drama on a recent vacation, now resolved*), it's important to have buy-in from the people it involves.

    In looking at Vaillancourt's suggestions and those of her respondents, a few things seem to be essential: (1) ritual or routine; (2) quiet time; and (3) restricting access to yourself during those times.
    • "Quiet Sundays" with no email until after 5, something I've tried to do on weekends for a few years that has worked pretty well.
    • Exercise that you actually enjoy, if possible--walking, running, biking, dance, etc.
    Some of the ones she mentions are ones I'd like to incorporate more regularly, like looking at the stars on a regular basis rather than sporadically. What other self-care practices would you recommend?

    *Resolved by me finally keeping my mouth shut about wanting to keep the dogs out when we eat, because it's only for a week and I'm already seen as the family lunatic for being bothered by this.

    Thursday, August 06, 2015

    Random bullets of here, there, and everywhere

    • While I haven't gone to a fancy place like Barcelona like Profacero or Blargistan like Notorious, and I'm not moving to a new place like Flavia or Heu Mihi, or even returning from an exciting fellowship like Historiann, or getting invited to do all-college lectures like Fie, this has been a summer with a lot of travel. I'm ready to put the suitcase away for a good long while and ready to stop being on a 3-hour time difference that has me automatically waking up at 3:50 a.m. as though it were 6:50 a.m.
    • The details of this stage of the book (illustrations, permissions, etc.)  are like planning a wedding or remodeling a room.  All the details that never entered your head before are now things that are apparently vitally important, and you'll be asked to decide things where you didn't even know there was a decision possible. I don't remember being consulted this extensively on my first book.
    • In its eternal quest for more and better clickbait, the New York Times turned its serious investigative chops from rich women getting stylists to do their hair and makeup immediately after giving birth (this is significant how, exactly?) to whether the air conditioning is turned down too low in offices in the summer.  A group of extremely thin 20-something white women in sundresses who complained about having to wear sweaters say yes in the article, so yup, it's officially too cold for everyone. People of other genders, ages, races, and weight categories don't count and weren't consulted.  I have always liked colder rooms, especially to teach in, because heat is much harder to deal with.  But my preferences aside, doesn't the Gray Lady have something better to do, like report on the economy?  
    • Although I have a number of projects to finish, I keep thinking "I could write X book next" or "I ought to write a biography of Y" or "Since there's a trend now toward novelized versions of real-life biographies (The Paris Wife, Circling the Sun, Vanessa and Her Sister), maybe I could write one of those."

    Saturday, July 25, 2015

    The Map Thief and Book Collecting

    I picked up Michael Blandings's The Map Thief  in the airport yesterday to read on the plane and highly recommend it.  It's about, well, a man who steals maps from Yale, Harvard, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, and the British Museum, among others, and gets away with it for many, many years.

    Having just been to one of these archives, I was ridiculously excited to see it appear in the book--way more excited than the exceedingly unhappy librarians were to discover the thefts, to be sure.  We have a thing in my family, sort of a joke and sort of not, of saying "I've been there!" when a place shows up in the news, so of course I had to bring out the book and show it to the family, as in "I know that reading room! I know that court building! I know that coffee shop they're talking about!"

    This book, like The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, tries to get at the heart of why someone--specifically, Forbes Smiley, the thief--would do this.  Part of it is the old Willy Sutton thing about why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is." After first making himself an expert in maps pretty much for the love of them, Smiley stole from archives because that's where the maps were, and if he could get $50,000 to $100,000 for one, it seemed worth it to him.  It's a bit like the creepy art underworld in The Goldfinch. He'd fold up the map, put it in his coat pocket, wave to the librarian, and leave. 

    But there was more to it than just the money.  Like a lot of other criminals, he was able to rationalize what he did by saying, "Well, people don't appreciate my great expertise. The libraries aren't paying enough attention to these maps. By removing them from atlases and selling them to people making real collections, they'll be studied much more."

    I was surprised to learn that, as an expert on maps, he apparently wasn't subjected to the processes that other researchers go through, from filling out forms for each set of materials studied to having the guard rifle through his papers and laptop when he left the archives. And you archive hounds will cringe not only when he steals the maps but when he touches some of them up to make them more salable.

    I was thinking about this when reading Historiann's post on book collecting, in which she wonders whether lit people get into book collecting.  While I'm acquainted with some serious Grolier Club-type collectors, I wouldn't say I'm a real collector.  I do, however, try to get first or early editions of one or two of the authors I study, because there's nothing like being able to hold and read from your own first edition, even if it's not what a real collector would consider to be in great condition.  You can go to your shelves in the middle of the night and it's there, without a library tag telling you to bring it back on such and such a date.  It's yours.

    The thing is, some of us have the book gene but not the collecting gene, so to speak.  We want the book because we feel a connection to the author, but we lack the inclination as well as the money ($25,000 is the going rate for a well-known classic by one of the authors) to watch eBay, scope out auction houses, and keep track of prices as if we're primarily interested in them as an investment, because we're not.

    And when we buy books, like Tom Bredehoft (whom Historiann cites), it's often because we think they're interesting or we may write about them some day. I have a couple of schoolbooks, one a grammar book, from the 1820s or 1830s, and they are not in great shape (cover missing) and are probably not valuable, but they are interesting and I enjoy looking at them. I don't want to search for perfect copies of them. It's the interior, rather than the exterior, that interests me, but both are important for the reading experience.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2015

    Karen Kelsky on self-promotion

    Karen Kelsky at ChronicleVitae advises younger scholars to "Ignore the Haters and Toot Your Own Horn." 

    Now, one of the ways she says to do this (the second one) is to introduce yourself to people at conferences, suggest getting together for lunch or coffee, etc. 

    I never thought to do this when I was a junior scholar but, since I benefited from being invited to these by more senior people, I've tried to model that behavior & invite more junior people for lunches and things now that I'm a senior scholar.  Similarly, junior people ask me to get together for coffee and I'm genuinely happy to hear about their research.  This is what academics do, and I never thought of it as tooting our own horn.  It's reciprocal.

    How do you feel about this, her first suggested method?
    So how do you self-promote? Aside from self-citation, there are two basic avenues. The first is to send your publications to colleagues, peers, and influential people in your field. By important or influential, I mean people who are active leaders in your particular area of study, particularly those who have had an impact on your thinking. That was done in the old days via the sending of paper “offprints.” Now, sending a link or an attachment via email would be fine. Include a note that says something to the effect of: “I am sending you this article because your work has been very helpful to me in the development of my thinking. I’d welcome your thoughts on it.”
    How do you respond if, on top of the email tsunami you get every single day, you get an invitation to read something that is not part of the heap of work stacked on your desk, not part of the many, many deadlines you have, and not from someone who is depending on you to turn around that article/recommendation letter/manuscript review/reader's report, etc. in record time? Do you read it and respond, or do you ignore it?

    Self-promotion is part of the game in 2015, especially for new scholars.  I get that. 

    Twitter (and Facebook) are a big part of self-promotion.  Indeed, some day I am going to do a study to see how many messages are devoted entirely to promoting someone's work.  (I'm guessing about 30% of tweets, down from around 40% because I unfollowed some people who promoted their posts--the same posts or articles--multiple times in a day.) 

    I am heretical enough to believe that self-promotion has no relationship to the quality of the scholarship, though. Instead, it reflects the ego and self-promotional savvy of the person doing the tweeting.  That doesn't mean that the scholarship isn't good, but the number of retweets doesn't have any bearing on the quality of the work.

    I have also noticed that some of the incessant tweeters are, in person, people who aren't especially good listeners. (Correlation or coincidence?)

    But what's the line between letting people know about the work you're doing and annoying people by doing so?

    Wednesday, July 01, 2015

    Notes from the archive

    I'm in Archive City again (well, an Archive City), and settling into a routine. All I do is eat, and sleep, and write, and walk to and from the archive. It's not a vacation, but it is a break, and a welcome one.

    It's funny: the city isn't cool and quiet, and yet I have an impression of things being cool and quiet because that's what an archive does for you.  Some thoughts about the experience:
    • There are campus tours going on, lots and lots of them, and it's fun to see the maybe-someday-students and sometimes their parents walking around and talking. They are chattering and hanging out in the sunshine as I go into the cool stone building where their voices echo when they go inside for a quick tour.  Soon, they're back outside, and it's quiet and cool again.
    • At one archive I've worked in, you're assigned a table, but here, you get to choose, and everybody seems to choose a spot and stick to it. I think it lessens the distractions, not that there are a lot in a room full of people reading.
    • This must be what it is like to be an athlete in training, not that I would know. You get up early, work on one task before the archive opens (writing); then you go to the room and read; then you come back to your room and resume writing.
    And some thoughts about the process:
    •  For some folders, I've laid out the work plan and am supposed to be simply checking problem areas in the transcriptions from before as well as taking photographs of the manuscripts. (I have managed to turn off the bells & whistles and am no longer the fool with the noisy camera.)  But then I start to read the manuscript, and I just want to sit there and let those words unfold, with all the crossouts and inserts and everything. It's like hearing a more direct voice from the author with all the hesitations and choices.
    • Reading fluent, graceful English in the form not only of manuscripts but of items as small as a thank-you note is a pleasure. 
    • It also makes me realize just how much debased and trivial junk I read on the web every day--stuff that says nothing and yet it's there so I read it anyway. I think that's why the web is so addictive: a lot of the writing and many of the ideas are basically junk food, repeated endlessly as they cycle through their 24 hours of fame. You read and read, but it's never satisfying. 
    • Oh, author, why did you stop writing that story just when I was getting interested in it?  Why didn't you finish it? Maybe you found it boring or unpromising, but I didn't.

    Friday, June 26, 2015

    A happy brief post: trifecta!

    • SCOTUS upholds marriage equality!
    • SCOTUS upholds the ACA!
    • The CSA battle flag comes down in South Carolina and everywhere else!

    Tuesday, June 23, 2015

    Wonders of Technology?: Kindle Page Numbers

    Back in 2011, Amazon announced with great fanfare that it was including page numbers, real page numbers, in its Kindle books.  I was excited about it back then, too.

    Has that promise come to fruition?

    Sort of.   Of maybe 15 random Kindle books on my iPad, here's the breakdown:
    • 4 have actual page numbers corresponding to actual published books.
    • 4 more have "page numbers" corresponding to someone's Platonic conception of an edition that never existed.
    • 7 just have location numbers and that infuriating thing where they try to figure out my reading speed, as though you never jump back and forth in a text.
    Some observations:
    • The public domain texts are least likely to have page numbers, real or imagined, as you'd expect. 
    • Newer trade books are more likely to have page numbers, but that's not a given.  
      • Jon Krakauer's Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town has real page numbers, as does David Shields and Shane Salerno's Salinger.
      •  Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's just-published The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland and Susan M. Schweik's older The Ugly Laws do not; they only have location markers. 

    At least Amazon tells you whether there are real page numbers or not.  If you click on the "length" dropdown tab, it will say one of two things:
    • "Contains real page numbers based on the print edition, ISBN #whatever."  This will have the real page numbers.
    • "Based on the print edition, ISBN #whatever." This will not have the real page numbers.
    There's an new and expensive book that would be really helpful for the upcoming research trip; it's long and weighs a ton, so I was thinking about the Kindle edition (still very expensive--over $60). Since the extremely expensive book is "based on the print edition" but without page numbers, I think I will pass on it.

    But wouldn't you think that after four years, the publishers would have gotten the memo about readers wanting page numbers?

    Sunday, June 21, 2015

    Time for a media fast

    Here's the news cycle that the web encourages:

    Say you find a story that for some reason interests you, like maybe the Rachel Dolezal story, to name a nonstressful example.

    You read the first reports as they start to come in from feeder sites.  Then you go to the NY Times, WaPo, Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed or other actual news sources. You click on their links.

    Then you go to HuffPo, Jezebel, Slate or other quasi-news aggregator sites. You notice that what's reported in all these various sites and that the sites conflict with each other. In the Dolezal story, for example, that would be all the variations on number of siblings and so on.

    Maybe you check out the comments to see if any insiders have information.  Maybe you even click on the listicle aggregators ("Five things to know about Rachel Dolezal," "What Twitter thinks of Rachel Dolezal," etc.) that are basically automated collections of what people no better informed and far more angry, hostile, and profane than yourself think of the issue.

    Maybe you read the long, thoughtful opinion pieces, or at least skim them. 

    If you're on Facebook, people have stories and opinions. Lots of opinions.

    If you're on Twitter, people have opinions and outrage.  Lots of outrage.

    As new revelations come out, you read those, too, because whether it's fracking or Rachel Dolezal or some other story, you want to see how it ends.

    Before you know it, you've sunk way too much time in following a story that isn't worth that kind of time and attention.

    It's not that you should barricade yourself away from the news or refuse to have conversations about it.  But you realize that you should have spent your time instead on something worthwhile where your attention could make a difference.

    It's like the information is rat food in a Skinner box, and you are the rat, pressing the bar for more. The food pellets, though, are composed of anger, outrage, and stress.

    So here are five things I intend to do the next time I start scurrying down this particular web rabbit hole. 

    1)  Go outside and run my hands over the lavender, which is in bloom, so my hands will smell like lavender as I type.
    2)  Pick some weeds out of the garden.
    3) Stand up and read something.
    4) Turn off the wifi or use Freedom.
    5) Log the time I'm wasting, with RescueTime or something else, or stop going on Facebook.

    Maybe this is a media diet rather than a fast, but it's a start.

    *Edited to add: I don't mean to be ungrateful about Facebook--it does let me connect with friends and family members--but a break sounds like a good idea.

    Saturday, June 20, 2015

    We should not say his name

    We should not say his name.

    We should not read his manifesto.

    We should not listen to the thousands of words being wasted on trying to decide whether he was mentally ill or hated religion.

    We know why he did it: racism.

    We know how he did it: abusing the trust of a welcoming congregation to spread hatred, violence, and death.

    We know what he would like: publicity.

    We should not give it to him.

    Thursday, June 18, 2015

    Random bullets of mid-June

    New and improved with categories!
    • Travel. Has this happened to you?  When I see "seats assigned at check-in" on an itinerary for a flight, I assume that it means "fooled you, you sucker! We're going to bump you from the flight"--because they do. Am I the only person this happens to, or have you gotten bumped if you didn't have an assigned seat?
    • Work Progress.  I'll be turning in the Laocoon manuscript for copyediting and production this weekend, and it should be out next year.  Hooray! 
    • Work Progress. Now to get at the overdue piece for another project.  Flavia wrote recently about the whole phenomenon of writing for companion volumes, and while I agree about their proliferation, I just signed on to do another one, after I turned one down earlier in the year. These do get cited, so they are indeed useful. 
    • Cats. One of my cats hates doors being closed (don't they all?), and so if she sees a partially closed door, she will rear up on her hind feet, put her front legs together, and launch herself at the door until it opens. This is a dog behavior, sort of like huskies stiffening their front legs and launching themselves downward to break through the ice or a coyote pouncing on a mouse. I don't know where she got it from.