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!