Monday, November 28, 2016

Writing inspiration: Reaching for the stars

In the spirit of those old commercials that said "don't hate me because I'm beautiful," I christen this post "don't hate me because I'm on sabbatical." I know it's crunch time for everyone, but it's writing time right now for me.

As Flavia wrote about in her recent posts, I have to keep reminding myself that when you're on sabbatical there's nothing wrong with wanting to write and losing yourself in the pleasure of writing. Being off Facebook helps enormously, in that I'm not getting stabbed by "completion envy" every time someone announces something they've finished or published. (Not a pretty fact, but true.)

Sure, I'm still avoiding some of the things I should be working on, including Big Sabbatical Project, but gathering low-hanging fruit still means that you've gathered some fruit, right?

The project that was 95% done is now sent, so that's two articles submitted this semester. Now, it would be better if they were the ones that are (1) overdue and (2) hugely overdue, but they're out of my hands and the folders are back in the file cabinet rather than on my desk. 

I'm now revising a third, one that seems fairly finished to me and that seems to say "why didn't you send me out for review before this?"  Because, like everyone else who's not on sabbatical, I couldn't put together the necessary consecutive hours of thought time and creative excitement to do the work on it, that's why. During a regular semester, we're all in triage mode all the time (attend this meeting or grade these papers?), but that's not what sabbatical is supposed to be about.

For the two submitted articles, I reached for the stars and sent them to some--what would you call them? aspirational?--journals in which I haven't published before. They might or might not get published, but at least I should get some feedback unless it's a desk-reject. As I've mentioned many times before, I don't have a writing group or trusted writing partner as some of you do, so conference presentations and article reports are about it for feedback.

These three articles are an elaborate avoidance strategy for the real projects, but at least I'm getting somewhere.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


I was so sorry to see, on Twitter and Inside Higher Ed, a report on the death of Scott Eric Kaufmann, who wrote at Acephalous, Lawyers, Guns and Money, The Valve (remember that?), Salon, and The A.V. Club, among other spaces.  LGM has links to all his collected works on the web.

SEK was a fine blogger and an interesting writer, especially in his visual analyses of film. I hadn't read his most recent stuff on the commercial sites, but he's also very funny, in all the text-based game dialogues he did and the newer Oldman Cats dialogues (except for a preview, inaccessible to me because they're on Facebook, which I'm off for an indefinite period). As Scott McLemee reminds us at IHE, he spoke about blogging at MLA 2006.

Correction: it was Timothy Burke who had a problem with "mere" bloggers. Carry on!At an early stage, he was dismissive of "mere" bloggers who wrote pseudonymously (guilty as charged), but I get that: you have to stake out your claim and he was not afraid to do that. I only met him in person once, very briefly, but he made his presence felt in what we all do here.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Ready for a writing post? Here's one on conferences.

In Hamilton, the second act is--let's just say very, very sad. Lin-Manuel Miranda calls it a "cryfest," and he wrote it, so he ought to know. The saddest song is "It's Quiet Uptown," and it is so sad that I've only listened to it maybe 5 times instead of the dozens that I've listened to the rest of the soundtrack. The next song, "The Election of 1800,"  begins with Jefferson saying, "Yo, can we get back to politics?" and James Madison saying, in a strangled voice, "Please!"

So, to reframe: "Yo, can we get back to writing?" "Please!" You understand, don't you?

I don't dare say this on Facebook for fear of being seared to a crisp as uncaring, apolitical, an accommodationist, a monster, "neoliberal" (which are all the same thing on Facebook)  at the very least. I'm not. I'm still upset.  I've contacted congressional representatives, donated, and the rest. (Fat lot of good contacting one representative did: what I got in return from one was a rah-rah Trump cheering newsletter talking about "draining the swamp." But at least I did it and will keep trying.)

To get back to writing: This fall, I've done three conferences, some with two papers, and an invited talk, all of which had to be written (no recycled work); I've submitted one article to the major journal in my field and have another about 95% ready.

The most recent conference was incredibly productive, both in terms of hearing new work and in terms of taking me in a new direction for what I can do next. I got direct and very positive feedback on my papers, and I connected with people who are working in this new-ish (for me) research area, who liked what I was doing.

We all know that talking with people at a conference can really help, not only in terms of knowing what work is coming out but in terms of research opportunities (what X archive holds that isn't obvious from the finding aid, for example.) I don't think we think enough about how conferences can force us beyond our comfort zones and push us in new directions, however.  I rarely see a call for papers and think "great! This already-written piece will fit perfectly, so I'll make an abstract and send it in." Instead, I think, "that sounds interesting. I wonder if X would be a good idea for that?" and send in an abstract.

Then, of course, I have to do the research and write the paper, not to mention go to (and pay for going to) the conference or the archive. This does not make me happy, but at the same time, it creates some sense of tension and excitement that helps the writing, although that's probably the wrong way to look at it.

Maybe it's the thrill and agony of a deadline. Everyone differs in this. To give an example: Teddy Roosevelt, if given a writing assignment, would do it as soon as humanly possible, put it away, and forget about it. William Howard Taft would agonize and procrastinate, working over drafts forever.  If you've been reading this blog you know that I, ma'am, am no Roosevelt.  To get anything done, I need to borrow inspiration from the Roosevelts among you, and that means conferences.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Random bullets and links since Tuesday

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Cassandra without portfolio

Well, the chipper feeling of that last post didn't last long.

I didn't see this coming, did you? In academia, we knew it couldn't happen because the candidate was racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, crude, a liar, etc. etc. etc. plus not being able put any plans or logic together, and everyone must hate this and see what we did. Right? Right?

But I feared it. Looking back there were some little nagging things, like something you catch out of the corner of your eye, weren't there?  Like the guy who predicted all the elections correctly?

Back in the mid-NAFTA-1990s, I went around asking, "But if all the jobs and factories go abroad, who's going to have living wage jobs to buy all the junk we will now be able to buy so cheaply?" (something I also asked on the blog) and was told "Shut up! Knowledge economy! Jobs for everyone! Don't worry about it!" which sort of worked a little bit for some people in the tech boom and then not so much because of a lot of corporate reasons involving outsourcing jobs and moving their corporate headquarters abroad. Same with the 2008 housing collapse: the lending principles didn't add up, but I figured that it was my stupidity and not their mendacity.

One day I came into the room and told Spouse, "I'm worried, because you-know-who is talking about job loss and H1B visas and the Democrats aren't doing that as much." But then with every revelation about his prejudices and actions, the pundits would say x group certainly won't vote for him now (evangelicals, women, etc.) because it would offend their moral sensibilities and I would think, they absolutely do not care, regardless of what they say they value. Yes, I saw the charts, and yes, I know that higher-income voters voted for him and that too many white women did, too.  It was horrible but true what he said about being able to shoot someone down in cold blood and still people would vote for him.

And then Hillbilly Elegy, along with all those economic hopelessness articles in WaPo, became part of an economic conversation about rural areas that we were not having, or not having enough of, in the academic vortex of Twitter. Michael Moore called it (as 
xykademiqz told us today)  and so did David Wong, who basically says that our president-elect is a brick thrown through our windows of privilege.  [Edited to add: Matt Taibbi has an analysis at Rolling Stone and Elizabeth Drew at The New York Review of Books.]

Now we who were with Her are left in the aftermath of the election trying to take meaningful action in this country* and maybe to think about what Ethan Coen said in his satirical "thank you notes" in the NY Times: 
6. All our media friends. Thank you for preserving reportorial balance. You balanced Donald Trump’s proposal that the military execute the innocent families of terrorists, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced pot-stirring racist lies about President Obama’s birth, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced a religious test at our borders, torture by our military, jokes about assassination, unfounded claims of a rigged election, boasts about groping and paradoxical threats to sue anyone who confirmed the boasts, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced endorsement of nuclear proliferation, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced tirelessly, indefatigably; you balanced, you balanced, and then you balanced some more. And for that — we thank you. And thank you all for following Les Moonves’s principled lead when he said Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”

And the Republicans? They got their whole wish list--President, House, Senate--but I can only imagine that they are now like the couple at the end of The Graduate, wondering what they've gotten themselves into.

* Here's a pro tip for those who have dramatically exclaimed that they'll move to Canada: It is very, very hard to immigrate to Canada as a U. S. citizen, unless you already have dual Canadian or British citizenship: you'll need a job offer in a field that they don't have enough of (spoiler alert: humanities grads--they've got 'em!), then a path to landed immigrant status (hard to get, and you have to be there 5 years before even being considered for citizenship), then money for lawyers, and so on. If you have bad vision, health problems, age problems (as in being over 45), they want to know about that, too, and not in a "we'd like to take care of you!" way, either. Yes, they want to see a recent set of chest x-rays, too, or used to.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

And dauntless crusaders for women--the votes!

Go and vote, if you haven't already!

It's an inspiring day, isn't it? How could you not be a little choked up at all the people lined up to vote and also the lines to honor Susan B. Anthony by placing the "I voted" stickers at her grave (live feed is here:

Or, as some might say, "Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now."

I voted a few weeks ago and took my ballot to the mailbox, since we have to sign them on the back and who doesn't worry a little about identity theft? (Our county clerk doesn't, based on a few letters I exchanged with her about it, but our letter carrier does: he came to the door and lectured me about putting outgoing mail in the mailbox the other day, which I almost never do.)

I'm working on a project right now that involves women in the era right before the 19th Amendment. So much talent and achievement: lawyers, tax attorneys, attorneys-general, state senators, and someone who helped Jeannette Rankin get elected exactly 100 years ago yesterday, long before either she or Rankin would have been eligible to vote in a national election.

Well done, sister suffragettes!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Do clickbait articles like "Why professors are writing crap that nobody reads" erode the humanities? Here are 5 weird tricks to tell you the answer.

Figure 1. It got your attention, didn't it?
This little number--"Why Professors Are Writing Crap That Nobody Reads"--was all over my Facebook feed recently, as it may have been all over yours.

Why?  Why does this stupid piece of clickbait provocation keep popping up every few months? I didn't link to it because you don't need to read the article; Google tells me that there are 13 million+ hits on the same exact subject.

Although I'm calling out this one because it's the most recent, it's a whole genre, and you could take your pick of reasons why they're written and published:
  1. It requires absolutely no thought at all to write, since the conclusion is always the same: "Well, the main reason is job security." No kidding! Do tell me more, Captain Obvious. 
  2. It's quick to do, because you can always pick up some random figures from a recent study to "prove" your points.
  3.  Snark is the currency of the internet, and everyone wants to raise their social profile by getting a lot of hits.  It's easier to hurt something than to build it up. 
  4.  It's basically an aggregator paragraph or two that popularizes someone else's research with a few sensational provocations--calling what professors write "crap," for example.
Yes, we'd like it if more people read our stuff. And yes, we ought to reach out to the general public, as I do, or try to, on my other blog, and as many of you on the blogroll already do. Yes, we shouldn't be enabling Elsevier and the rest to make the big bucks by profiting from our free labor as writers and editors. Finally: yes, it's true that we ought to give more weight to informative posts on social media like blogs or platforms like Vox, Medium, LitHub, and the late, lamented The Toast.

But there's an insidious side to all these calls to stop publishing for a scholarly audience and judge an essay's worth based primarily on its popularity. Here are the five weird tricks promised in every clickbait headline to tell you why, although I'll spare you the usual pointless slideshow festooned with ads to show you the list:

1. You can't judge the impact of an article by its immediate popularity. Did Vannevar Bush's classic "As We May Think" make as much of an impact in 1945 as it has since the development of the computer? Some pieces take a while to come into their own. How many ideas popular in their own time (cough*eugenics*cough) were popular and entirely destructive?

2. All research, and certainly humanities research, builds on previous work--standing on the shoulders of giants, I think they call it. The general public may think that an article mapping where speakers in England used "icicle" and where they used "isacle" is pointless, but maybe it tells later researchers where the Vikings landed, or something. I don't know, because I'm not a specialist in Old English, but that's exactly the point: I don't know, and neither do you, dismissive writers and casual readers on the web.

3. It plays into our current national value of being ignorant and proud of it. There are a lot of things I don't understand because I'm not trained in the field, but that doesn't mean that they are not worth attention. A civil society has to trust its members, and it ought to trust that people with expertise know something.

4. The people who read these essays are in a real position to harm funding for research--not just voters, but legislators, who like to wave things from the internet around during their speeches to prove that they're current with what the public is saying. Every time a state legislature moves to cut funding for higher ed, saying "why can't they teach 7 classes a day, 5 days a week?" this is the kind of article they cite.

5. People are hungry for real information, which is why we should share it, but not everything is going to make enough news to gain the kind of currency that these articles demand.  What's going to make a bigger splash on Google News--identifying the multiple authors of a manuscript or a cute walking molecule simulation?

When these articles appear on Facebook, I have held back from saying what I really think, in the name of being noncontentious. I think it's time to start being contentious.