Sunday, December 30, 2018

A note on Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

 I've been rereading Ruth Franklin's wonderful bio Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and realized again that we should be reading more Shirley Jackson and not stop with "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House.

Franklin is equally good on Jackson's life and on the themes of her writing. Did you know that in the lean early days Jackson and her husband, the New Yorker writer, literary critic, and Bennington professor Stanley Hyman, had to share a typewriter? Can you make an educated guess about who got the typewriter the lion's share of the time? Their "open" marriage--guess who's the only person who took advantage of that and then was annoyed and puzzled at Jackson's distress and her late-in-life crippling agoraphobia?

Then I came across this in a discussion of Jackson's first novel, The Road Through the Wall (bolded for emphasis)

Compared with Jackson’s masterly late novels, The Road Through the Wall, unsurprisingly, is a slighter work. But it is marvelously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the bite of brilliant irony that would always define her style. There are wonderful moments of humor, as when one of the neighborhood girls, hoping to decorate her living room with high-class art, accidentally orders a set of pornographic photographs. And there is this astonishing aperçu from the novel’s prologue: “No man owns a house because he really wants a house, any more than he marries because he favors monogamy.” Both house and marriage are valued for the status they confer upon their possessor rather than for their intrinsic worth. In a novel that encompasses adultery, murder, and suicide, this may be the darkest line.
Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (p. 215). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

House as status --well, sure, but house as control. That's Gaslight. That's The Haunting of Hill House.

I'm recalling the example of someone I knew years ago when we lived in a place with very, very  hot summers. The apartment complex had air conditioning. The person I knew was a professor, and she worked from home, and she was pregnant, which makes you even hotter. But only her husband, who followed his bliss by pursuing art or saving souls or something and was out during the day, got the benefit of the air conditioning. Why? Because he had forbidden her to turn it on during the day to save money. The air conditioning could only be on if he could benefit from it. Let that sink in: he forbade his wife, the person who was paying for the air conditioning, from using it. And even if she hadn't been paying for it, on what planet does he get to make that judgment?  Aren't they partners? That's pretty much what I asked her one time. She shrugged it off.

This is only tangentially related (Content warning: abuse), but the NYT ran an article last summer explaining the way that smart devices were being used by abusers to control their victims--stalking through smartphones and security cameras, turning the heat up and down to mess with victims' minds, locking keypad doors remotely and refusing to let victims move about at will. When women report it, they're dismissed--surprise!--as crazy or hysterical, especially when their partner explains how crazy they are. Fortunately, those who help victims are becoming more aware of such technological gaslighting and are getting restraining orders that cover it. 

But to have the person you're supposed to be able to trust turn against you, and to have that person turn the house against you--that's Jackson's metier, and were she writing today, she'd have whole new fields to cover.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Writing inspiration: John Steinbeck by his second wife, Gwendoline

To distract from my complete and total lack of writing at a time when I really, really need to (because of deadlines and MLA), I offer up another take on John Steinbeck's writing practices. These are described by his second wife, Gwendoline/Gwyndolyn/Gwen Conger, in a previously unpublished memoir that was published recently. (You can see highlights in a review here and at the book site here.)

Short version: Steinbeck was not a walk in the park to live with, and any acrimony in this book is more than balanced by his immortalizing Gwen, to whom he was married from 1943-48 after they lived together for about 4 years, as the sociopathic, murdering, purely evil Kathy of East of Eden. Jay Parini, in his preface to My Life with John Steinbeck, says that Gwen must have been challenging to live with, too.

Here, with some comments, are some notes from the introduction:
She notes his almost fanatical dedication to his work: ‘He began his same usual work schedule, the one he kept to whenever he wrote, no matter where we lived. He arose early and made his ranch coffee. He always wanted a good brand of coffee, and it was always ranch coffee. A little past daylight he began his day, and after our coffee and talk sessions John, with his pajama top and khakis, went into his nest, usually by seven or seven-thirty.’ He took a brief break for lunch at noon, although he rarely said much to her during these meals, not wishing to disturb whatever was happening in his head: ‘If he were going strong, he would only have more coffee. He never talked, never said a word and I would not speak to him. Usually, his average output in those days was anywhere from twenty-five hundred words to five thousand words a day.’ 
Lawson,  Bruce. My Life With John Steinbeck: The Story of John Steinbeck's Forgotten Wife (Kindle Locations 163-169). Lawson Publishing. Kindle Edition.

1. "Nest" is what they all called Steinbeck's writing room. This was before the last phase of his career when he had the octagonal writing cottage in Sag Harbor. That house, and the Steinbeck estate more generally, was the subject of a lawsuit that you can read about at the link, involving Steinbeck's two sons (by Gwen) and his third wife, Elaine. Like many writers' and artists' final (third, fourth, etc.) wives (Mary Hemingway, Carlotta Monterey, etc.), Elaine seems to have had a great sense of his legacy and of protecting it in ways that to outsiders may seem ruthless.

2. "Ranch coffee" is coffee made with an egg to clarify the grounds, which apparently makes good coffee and also a spectacular mess. (Guess who got to clean the pot?)

3. Words per day: 2500 to 5,000. Are you envious yet?

4. After finishing a piece of writing, Steinbeck, always restless, would want to move to another place, another state, another country: "And always he sacrificed everything for his work. When he worked, he became a superhuman machine. When a book was complete, he sank into states of depression and turned to a new location for his life: a new city, a new town, new people, a trip to anywhere that took his fancy."

5. "John loved to keep his writings neat. Almost all of his works were in old folios or books, or on legal pads. Only late in his life did he resort to the typewriter."

6. As mentioned in the East of Eden notebook, he wrote letters to friends to warm up each morning. 

7. Chronically unfaithful during their marriage, Steinbeck was furious when Gwen started dating after their divorce. Like Philip Roth and Theodore Dreiser, he practiced the double standard: "you have to stay faithful, but I don't, and you belong to me forever."

8. He also blamed her for problems with East of Eden: 

One night, after the divorce, he yelled at me, ‘It’s all your fault!’ John stood outside the house and had awoken me by throwing stones up at the window. It was about the time he wrote East of Eden. I shall never forget seeing John standing there, saying, ‘My editors say that I have to rework this whole book, and I have never rewritten anything in my life.’ He calmed down, and I invited him in.
I told him, ‘John, dear, you are one of the greatest writers in the world, and maybe you have two books in one?’ ‘
Harold Guinzburg has never turned me down before, and they’ll never buy this book as it is.’
‘What did you come to me for then?’ I was irritated.
‘It’s your fault!’ he snapped back.
9. Gwen was a singer and wrote songs as well. When she had recorded about 24 of them, Mark Hanna, a theatrical agent, was interested in publishing them, but Steinbeck told her there should only be one writer in the family, so, "[t]o keep peace in our family, I reluctantly gave up my efforts as a songwriter. Sometimes now I wish I had continued writing songs, but then I just had to stop."
I hope there's more writing inspiration than the chronicle of a raging ego in this post, but even if there isn't, it's time for me to get back to work and try to emulate the level of concentration and productivity, though definitely not the behavior, that Steinbeck showed in his writing life.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

St. Lucy's Day

St. Lucy's Day isn't the shortest day of the year any more (because science, and maybe John Donne knew better even back then), but it feels like the shortest right now because of all that we're all doing. 

We're working from fairly inflexible lists at home and at work, and the "self-care" guidance dispensed in the popular press--eat more kale! get more exercise!--somehow isn't cutting it right now, at least for me. It's the Sheryl Sandberg broccoli approach to self care. With apologies to the original cartoon in the New Yorker, I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.

And let's just say this: getting ready for Christmas or other holidays is not helping with the stress levels. 

So what does or has helped? Well, television, including The Good Place and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I knew that  MMM might be for me when Emily Nussbaum said she hated it. Nussbaum hates shows that don't wallow in cruelty, horror, and violence and where nice things occasionally happen. By the transitive hate property, I therefore thought that there might be something in MMM for me. For an hour every night, I get to live in a gorgeous technicolor 1950s fantasy where problems are mild and solvable, not like the horror comedy of watching the posturing fool in the White House energize his base."Cloying fantasia," I am there for you.

What else helps? Saying no to the things you can. Making cookies. Looking up new recipes for scones. (Food is big in the "what else helps?" department.)

And remembering that this will turn around eventually or on December 22, when we start getting more light again.

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day
By John Donne

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Not news to you all, of course; but today I remembered this from a long-ago course I took in metaphysical poetry. 


Saturday, December 01, 2018

Random bullets of December 1 and the "quit cooking" genre

Figure 1. Knickers the cow, the Mona Lisa of internet attention.
  •  Someone on Twitter posted that all the news should just be giant cows, always. Everybody wants to explain Knickers the cow ("a steer, not a cow, you ignoramus!" says the New York Times), but I just want to look at all the giant cows, kittens, sloths, dogs, and otters all day, at this point.
  • I saw a headline the other day stating that the president was in a "terrible mood" on his way to the G20 summit. I am "voted for George Washington" years old and have never before seen presidential moods reported, as if he's a toddler being picked up from day care and we're the harried moms being given the slip of paper with a smiley or frowny face.
  • Is it heresy that, just for a minute every December 1, I wish they'd cancel Christmas and all the other winter holidays and just let us have a good, long rest? A Rest Holiday, where you eat whatever's in the house instead of cooking and read and watch old movies? Heresy? Okay, moving along.
  • Liz Lenz's "I'm a Great Cook. Now That I'm Divorced, I'm Never Making Dinner for a Man Again" is getting a lot of attention on the interwebs. It's a good essay, but who would ever cook twice for a man who rates every meal 3/5 stars--or indeed, any man who ever rates a meal at all? What kind of  partner greets any meal that someone cooks for him/her with other than profound thanks? It reminds me of those scenes in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when Midge puts on a fetching negligee and full makeup to go to bed, then sneaks out to the bathroom to put in curlers and apply face cream after he's asleep. 
  • Someone should write about "cook until you drop for ungrateful men and then stop" theme in women's writing.  
    • Mrs. Dalloway has glimmerings of this. 
    • Nora Ephron's Heartburn famously has her dumping a key lime pie over the head of her lying, cheating husband with the greatest reason of all time. Paraphrased: "If I hit him with a pie, he won't love me, but he already is cheating on me and doesn't love me, so I have nothing to lose"--and bam! I hope that really happened, and I would love to see any picture with Carl Bernstein dripping with key lime pie. 
    • In Marilyn French's The Women's Room the main character has a similar realization re:cleaning the house. 
    • And in Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, she throws an entire Christmas buche de Noel and the rest of the dinner in the trash because she's fed up. 
    • Let's also not forget Mad Men's Megan Calvet, who throws a plate of spaghetti at the wall when Don shows up drunk. (Why did they eat the spaghetti without any sauce in that show? That's a question for another time.) 
Sadly, we do not have Rest Holiday. Instead, we have "grade all the things" and "write all the things," so that's enough with the reveries about women who have just plain had enough and are ready to throw something, which I now see is the real theme of this post.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Writing inspiration from Jonathan Franzen

Figure 1. Jonathan Franzen on Lithub.
It's time to check in with our bird-lovin', Oprah-scornin', Edith Wharton-hatin' friend Jonathan Franzen again.

Franzen published 10 rules for writing on Lithub, and Twitter has been having, um, a little fun with them.

The rules themselves are not that bad. They're pretty sententious, like Franzen's fiction, and pretty humorless (ditto).  Here's one of them:

"It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."

A couple of thoughts: 

1. "his workplace." Should we let it go? 
2. So Joyce Carol Oates isn't writing good fiction? 

I have a feeling that this is actually a burn against unseen adversaries, designed to make them feel, as the young folk say on Twitter, "seen." 

At least it's a list and not an endless paragraph in 6 volumes, and at least he isn't telling you to get rid of your dog if you want to be a great writer.  

The Guardian collected the responses to his list, and some of them are pretty funny. Not to be outdone, Lithub published a collection right after they published the list from Our Boy.

But how different are these, really, from the lists that we all make from time to time or that wend their way around Twitter? 

Does he deserve this level of mockery, or is it because he takes himself so seriously?

I'm not holding any brief for Jonathan Franzen. (I have read Jonathan Franzen.) But we put up with Captain Obvious statements all the time, including a fair number in obscurantist language from literary theorists, and all we say is, "Yes, emperor, those clothes are stunning." 

My guess is that hating Jonathan Franzen is like a meme, and maybe like some others, he'd rather be hated and talked about if he has books (or a political persuasion) to sell than to be ignored. 

And he's not on Twitter. He's . . . writing. So even if his advice isn't inspiring, I stick by my guns that his example is.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The correct way to Woman

The brilliant Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me, called it "mansplaining," but there's more to it than that.

We all know what mansplaining is, and it includes things like asking "Can you tell me how to get some apples?" and having a chorus reply, "Oh, no no no, you're doing it all wrong; what you want for your pie is rhubarb" as if you don't know what you want the apples for and need instruction.

So it's not mansplaining, exactly. More and more these days, on listservs and in smaller emails, we're (or I am) being instructed on the correct way to Woman.

Is it since Trump or since Kavanaugh? Hard to tell. But it goes something like this:

"I, a white male, recognize your oppression and in solidarity, and to show my virtue, you must do X, Y, and Z and feel A, B, and C. You must operate in solidarity with other women, according to the rules I've set, and if you don't, you are complicit in the problem as I have defined it and are too stupid to recognize your own oppression, as I have explained at great length on this listserv. Kthxbai."

I can't imagine how infuriating this must be for men and women of color; it's plenty infuriating for me. I have been Womaning for some time now and think I've got it covered, thanks.

As it happens, I am in solidarity in fighting against problems and I do what I can do. But like most adult human beings, I resist being bossed around--resist it vigorously, in fact.

And men aren't the only ones who want to tell women how to Woman.

 I was thinking about this when looking again at the Salinger biography this morning (because it's not work).

Even without holding any particular brief for Maynard as a writer, you can see that what she's recounting in the early sections is the story of abuse, with herself as the object of it. Predictably, David Shields, Jonathan Yardley, etc., had no use for the story and Maynard's outing of The Great Man.

But neither did Cynthia Ozick, Larissa MacFarquhar, Elizabeth Gleick, Juliet Waters, and, famously, Maureen Dowd, and Caitlin Flanagan, who all had scathing and by-now-all-too-familiar things to say about a woman who speaks out about her abuse: She did it wrong and had no right to tell her story. Only Michiko Kakutani, Liza Schwarzbaum, Joyce Carol Oates, and Katha Pollitt were able to set apart the writing, which they weren't crazy about, from the person, whose experiences they understood as damaging.

Salerno's book came out in 2013, and many of the reviews were from 1998, after Maynard's memoir was published, both of which seem a lifetime ago. The reactions have shifted 180 degrees, so that's progress.

I guess there's no point that ties these two ideas together, except that one (Salinger) sparked me to think of the other one (how to Woman). I think, though, that especially when a majority party and its leader is telling delighted followers what the One Best Way is, we ought to think twice before taking the advice of anyone on the other side who's telling us what their idea of the One Best Way to Woman might be. Your ideology does not oblige me to behave in the ways you dictate to me, even if it's correct and not crazypants. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

To those who do free stuff to make the world a better place: thank you.

When I was out walking yesterday, I saw that our neighborhood's Little Free Library had a sign up that Todd H. Bol, founder of the Little Free Libraries movement, had died. (See the obit at BoingBoing, the source of this picture.)

I don't have a Little Free Library because giving away books of literary criticism from rhymes-with-Luke-Luniversity-Fress isn't going to win many neighborhood hearts and minds, but still: farewell, R.I.P., and thank you, Todd H. Bol. You wanted to make the world a better place, and you did.

You might remember that last year the Radical Librarians were criticizing Little Free Libraries because they were just not quite correct enough and that they should cease to exist so that those who put them up could go advocate for more library funding--because obviously people who love books couldn't possibly do both. Obviously.

It's not an either/or with this or with other schemes for betterment.

Also, we ought to thank the people who make things for free.

For example, around the web (okay, on Twitter and comment boards) you'll see that someone has put up--for free--software on GitHub or a site that does something specific you need for research.

Let me emphasize: for free--not adware, not 30-day trials.

Most people say thanks, but a few are all "this sucks! Why doesn't it do X function that I need?"

Or "why doesn't this website have this thing I need for free?"

Or "why doesn't this transcription or site include all the metadata I need?"

Or--but you get the picture.

Now, big sites like Google Books have an obligation (says I) not to disable previously available functionality, like page numbers. Why have they done this for the preview function in many cases? No one knows. (Digression--sorry.)

Political action is important, and so is giving money. But so too is thanking the people who are trying to make the world a better place. It's not either/or.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Academic hoaxes: irritating waste of time or the most infuriating waste of time in a time of massive national lies?

A group of merry pranksters with a mean streak a mile wide and lots and lots of time on their hands perpetrated a hoax recently by submitting faked papers and getting a couple of them published. 

So whose time did they waste?

  • That of the journal editors, who are doing this for no pay.
  • That of the poor reviewers, who were forced to wade through the pretentious BS and try, in good faith, to say something not awful in case this was the misguided effort of a grad student.
  • That of all of us who have to look at this nonsense in the news at the Chronicle and everywhere else.
  • That of all in the humanities, who will now have to redouble their efforts to prove to skeptical legislators that the humanities are worth supporting. 

Academic hoaxers, or any kind of hoaxers (except Poe and Twain, because Poe and Twain) make me furious.

They abuse the trusting nature of human beings. It's a bullying move. It shows you have power over someone and that you're displaying it in front of an audience to humiliate your victim.

So you get to be a bully and make someone look like a fool. You do you. Happy now?

It's only one step away from the kind of bullying power trip that we saw in the news last week with the Kavanaugh hearings, and I don't have to say any more about that.

Abuse someone's trust. Trick them into believing one thing when you mean to hurt them. Carry out your plan and then laugh at your victims.

If you want to read more, here's some views from The Chronicle.

One of the people there said "Any academic who thinks hoaxing as such is unethical or nugatory is a dull and petty functionary."

Two points:

1. It IS unethical.
2. I'd rather be a dull and petty functionary than a jerk. 

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The parable of the pies: how the sausage gets made

If you're in an academic department, and especially if you've held any kind of administrative position, you might recognize the truth of Bismarck's (or, as Wikipedia tells me, John Godfrey Saxe's) well-known apothegm, as paraphrased in one of my favorite Hamilton lyrics:
No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.
 I'm not even close to the higher-up Northern Clime University "room where it happens," but at a lower level, I've had ample opportunities to see how the "art of the trade" happens in just about every set of decisions.

 But even assuming that everyone is nobly concerned with the best interests of the students and the university, differences of opinion happen while that sausage is getting made.

Let's say that your department wants ten apple pies and that the pies are not to fix something that is going horribly wrong.  You fill out the multitude of forms, talk to individuals, see the lay of the land, and then approach Admin with the request.

Admin says, "You must be joking! No pies for you."

You say, "But here are the reasons we need the pies to take better care of our students."

Admin says, " . . . "

You say, "And if you give us the pies, we can form a consortium, build partnerships, raise our standing among peer institutions, and be perceived as a local god."

Admin says, " . . . "

You say, "And we'll write a grant to get the matching funds and hope it gets funded."

Admin says,  "Well, we can see our way clear to give you five pies, four apple and one mince."

Jubilant at this success, you take this to your colleagues for the first time.

One group--let's call them the incrementalists, or Hillary voters--says, "It's a start! Let's get going on that grant. Do you think we could negotiate for two more pies?"

Another group--let's call them the ideologically pure, or Jill Stein voters--says, "You sellouts! Everyone hates mince! Why did you agree to this? We need ten apple pies, full stop.  This is untenable and ideologically impure. Ten pies or we dissolve this department! Burn it down!"

It seems to me that there can be good, sincere colleagues on both sides, but most people are probably more one than the other.

Incrementalists have some faith in change within the system--not all systems everywhere, but the specific little corner of the system that they can influence. This is sometimes true.

Ideological purists have faith that if they throw a cog in the machine or blow it up, something better will result. This is also sometimes true.

As an incrementalist who works to make things better ("bends toward justice"), I see the five pies as a glass half full. Not everyone would agree.

But I have become an ideologue in one respect: I am completely, totally, and utterly done with the loud virtue-signalling and vilification that ensues from people who haven't lifted a finger after some of us have worked our tails off to get those five pies.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Catching up on the week and some writing inspiration

I'm getting ready for something for which have to get the writing done--have to. I've been paralyzed with anxiety about writing. What worked the other day?

Sit down and time myself like Anthony Trollope. He used to write 250 words every 15 minutes for 3 hours a day, by the clock, before he went to work. Every day. Now, you can say what you want about the quality of Trollope's novels (most of them are pretty good), but you can never deny that they are done. 

So, with the help of this

  1. I wrote down the time in my trusty black notebook, giving myself 25 minutes (a Pomodoro) to write 200 words in Every time I got up from the desk or looked at email, I had to write it down. Pomodoro after pomodoro until the afternoon when I went for a walk. It worked! 
  2. I promised myself when I finished 2000 words for the day I could have chocolate. I didn't get to 2000, and I didn't get chocolate, but I got to 1300, which is more than I would have otherwise. 
  3. Writing before school isn't an option because I get up early and have a long commute, but if I leave at 2:30 the day is still relatively young and I can get some writing done after dinner sometimes. 
Other positive items:

1. Three weeks ago I gave up FB and advice columns, cold turkey, and I don't miss them. FB was making me miserable because everyone was finishing book proposals, book chapters, etc. and I was not. Deciding there was no need to torment myself, I hung a "gone fishin'" sign on the site and haven't been back--ditto for the advice columns.

2. One of my colleagues who never attends any kind of department meeting and is minimally on campus saw me the other day and said, "Where have you been? I haven't seen you around." I said, "right there in the office and around," and I did not strangle her, so victory is mine.

3. I'm really enjoying my classes. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

MLA Job List and some links

The MLA Job List opens today (September 10) at

Remember, this isn't the be-all and end-all that it used to be. As Jonathan Kramnick reminds us in "The Way We Hire Now" (
To get a grip on where things now stand, start with the fact that the MLA jobs list has lost its monopoly. The low cost and simplicity of doing things online has meant that advertisements now appear on any number of platforms, including The Chronicle, Interfolio, Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), HigherEdJobs, and well beyond.
Don't forget the jobs at, too.

If you're looking for information on historical trends (and the now-infamous rosy vision of the Bowen report), here are some links.

MLA Report on the JIL 2016-17 (chart is from this source):
At the Chronicle (paywalled but free with this link): On the Bowen report and what went wrong:

Some older posts from this blog about job letters, still maybe useful:

The art of the job letter:
The art of the job letter redux, part I:
The art of the job letter redux, part II:

Good luck, everyone!

Friday, September 07, 2018

Off-topic: NYTimes on Joyce Maynard: "Was she predator or prey?"

It's been fascinating to see the shift in opinion on Joyce Maynard and her memoir At Home in the World.

A few years back, when I was contemplating mid-century male novelists like Updike and Salinger, I had this to say about Maynard's book:
 The whole Salinger thing that she was pilloried for is only a part of the book, and apparently, in another interwebs development I totally missed, everyone is in a pro- or anti-Maynard camp: either "How dare you malign The Great Man?" or "How dare The Great Man have acted so cruelly toward women?"  Maynard's take on the relationship, in the new preface, is not so much "what was I thinking to quit Yale and move to New Hampshire with Jerry Salinger?" as "how could he violate my innocence by overpowering me with his adoration? Shouldn't we think of 18-year-olds as girls instead of women?" It's a fair question, but really, who could have stopped her or any of us at 18? That's not a hornet's nest I'm willing to wade into in this space.   . . . 
When she shows up at Salinger's door in 1997--which I think took a lot of courage, by the way--he tells her that she had the capacity to become something but has become nothing, or something like that. She's obviously made something of herself, having had a successful career,  and she is a survivor, but is there anything in what Salinger says? Or is this just another case of a powerful man falling in love with an image that he creates and trying to destroy the image when she turns out to have a voice of her own? 
In case you didn't know, Maynard was pilloried by a lot of people for writing the memoir of her own life simply because Salinger was part of it, as though the Great Man's privacy could never be disturbed.

The attacks were really vitriolic. Chief among them was Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post and Maureen Dowd, who took a day off from being Inspector Javert to Hillary Clinton's Jean Valjean to excoriate Maynard for being a "leech woman" (and got the point of that movie wrong, but anyway).

In a recent New York Times essay (which, by the way, is pretty much lifted from At Home in the World), Maynard links her experience to the #MeToo movement and wonders whether maybe a change is at hand:
Last fall, when word of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses of women in the entertainment industry overtook the press, followed by near daily revelations about other prominent and respected men accused of similar violations, I supposed this was the moment when my own experience might be seen in a new light. I thought my phone would ring.
The call never came. And though I believe that if the book I wrote 20 years ago were published today it would be received differently, it does not appear that enlightenment concerning the abuses of men in power extends retroactively to women who chose to speak long ago, and were shamed and humiliated for doing so. As recently as last fall — on the occasion of my having published a memoir about the death of my second husband, a book in which Salinger never appears — I was referred to as “the queen of oversharing.”
Oversharing. What does it say about us that a woman who speaks the truth of her experience should be dismissed for telling more than the world feels comfortable hearing? (And it is always a woman who will be accused of this; when a male writer confesses intimate details of his life, he’s brave, fearless, even brilliant. Consider, just for starters, Norman Mailer. Or, more recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard.)
Exactly right. Maynard has always mined her own life for material, but has she done so more than an Updike, a Mailer, a Roth, or, yes, a Salinger?

What's fascinating is that the comments in the comments section are squarely on Maynard's side. There's no one grousing about style (as Yardley did) or how dare she expose Salinger.  The tide has shifted, it seems, even if no one picked up the phone to call Maynard for an interview. Maybe there really is a sea change in attitudes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Getting rid of some things, mostly ideas

It's fall and time to shed some things, mostly ideas.

1.The idea that computer tech is necessary, as A. O. Scott reminds  in the New York Times:

When you’re not reviewing movies, are there any tech products you are currently obsessed with?
A few years ago, when I was struggling to finish writing a book, I decided I needed to tune out the distractions of Twitter and email and New York Times news alerts so that I could make my daily word count. I started leaving the house for a few hours with no laptop or phone — just a ballpoint pen and a 5-by-7-inch notebook, the same setup I’d been using for years to take notes in dark theaters.

2.  The idea of showing up for every single thing when some of my colleagues don't bother. There are no consequences for not showing up or rewards for showing up except the glow of being a good citizen. I'll still mostly show up, because good citizenship, but it's the parable of the vineyard all over again, and no matter how many times that's been explained to me, I still don't buy the logic.

3. The idea that good researchers can't be good teachers. According to the NYTimes, the United States has only one university--Harvard--and the sum of all college experiences is broadcast through its graduates, so no need for actual reporting. The latest piece in this vein is from Adam Grant. I'm a decent researcher and a good teacher, and I remain excited about both, so I'm stacking my anecdata against Grant's and declaring this idea a sheddable one.

4. Better yet, the idea that great writers don't have dogs. Apparently it's not because they keep writers from making paragraph breaks, although you could understand if Knausgaard made that charge, but because dogs distract writers, as evidenced by the many personal experiences that Knausgaard relates. This paragraph didn't have the intended effect of making me think about the idea; rather, I too want to put down a lot of my personal experiences and have The New Yorker pay me for them.

5. The idea that generational labels have meaning. Stop it. If I hear one more time about boomers doing this or Gen X doing that or millennials being poor because of avocado toast (hint: try the student loan crisis and a gig economy), I might have to throw something--or, more likely, roll my eyes. It's an extremely lazy way of making large generalizations, and it's not helpful.

6. This is sort of inspired by Dame Eleanor's posts about keeping or not keeping things from her mother's house, but getting rid of what you don't use feels good, and so does taking pleasure in things that you do have. Those hardwood floors that caused a month of disruption last year make me happy every day, but so does getting rid of things. Growing up, my mother (like Dame Eleanor's) made a big fuss about collecting antiques, silver, etc. But honestly, how many embroidered bridge table cloths or tea sets does one non-bridge player need? Instead of thinking of it as "getting rid of" something, I'm thinking of it as "rehoming" them by sending them to whatever charities are sending their trucks by that week. Someone's going to think it's a treasure, and imagining that is more pleasing than my wondering what on earth I'm ever going to do with them.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Dear Ms. Undine: What's July etiquette for academic life?

Dear Ms. Undine,

I recently wrote an email to a person in my department, trying to set up a meeting a month from now. This person had her email set to auto-reply, but she responded to say that the time was all right with her. Then I wrote to her again, demanding the answer to something very minor but more complicated.

I reasoned that she, like me, is simply dreaming of the time when school starts and has nothing better to do for the next month than answer my questions. Why isn't she responding?

Nothing Else on My Plate

Dear Nothing,

Based on her experiences in academia, Ms. Undine suggests that the person in your department indeed might have something else to do. This something might be research that she's frantically trying to finish, or relatives she's trying to visit, or maybe just a simple afternoon in which she can continue making burnt offerings to the goddess of summer so that fall will be delayed this year. In any of those cases, your email is not welcome.

Dear Ms. Undine,

I am a student and like to get everything done ahead of time; in particular, I like to read all the books over the summer and then decline to discuss them in class because I've forgotten the details. When I wrote to my instructor demanding a syllabus, however, the instructor said that it wasn't ready. I thought teachers have a vacation for the whole summer, so why isn't it done?

Eager for Now

Dear Eager,

You are correct: instructors have nothing else to do all summer. Your instructor is making the very best syllabus possible, and that means that she is spending every spare available moment, many hours a day, getting it ready. You wouldn't want to spoil that kind of perfection by rushing it, would you?  That would be rude.

Dear Ms. Undine,

I'm an administrator and have great powers of vision, including being able to see through computer screens. I keep sending out cheerful messages about "Remember, the X event will be early this year!" and reminders about new assessment procedures, but when I do this, I see the recipients turn pale and mutter curses about July being the summer. Why does this happen, Ms. Undine? I'm just trying to give them a heads-up about exciting university events.

My Time is Your Time

Dear My Time,

Your faculty members do not want a heads-up. They want to keep their heads down, plowing through all the work that they thought they would get done in June and over the July 4 weekend. Your email reminds them that time is not infinite, which as poor mortals they dreamed for a week or so earlier in the summer that it would be.  Do not remind them of their own mortality, or, more important, the mortality of their summer work hours.

Dear Ms. Undine,

All my friends on Facebook and Twitter are running circles around me in terms of research and having fun. They're getting more done, and it makes me despair at my own slowness.

Sloth and Envy

Dear Sloth,

Mark Zuckerberg has a little-known patent on something called the Facebook Enhancement Screen, and I believe he licenses it to Twitter and Instagram as well. The FES means that everyone's life looks more golden than your own and that no one tells the truth about the days when all they could do is binge-watch Love It or List It and eat thin mint Oreos. There is no protection against the FES except not to look at social media. No one will think that you are less polite if you make stealth raids into it to like content that you don't actually read.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Writing inspiration: last archive day

Waking up at 4:30 a.m. when the local Starbucks (closest food) does not open until 7:30 a.m. isn't ideal, but it did give me some time to reflect on a few things after seeing the work of my betters.
  • These people took care of business. When I was sitting there reading folders full business letters and contracts, I had to stop and think that this was just one side of what Author A (let's call his/her/gender neutral them "A") was doing every day. Let's not forget the usual things: building or making or buying houses, gardens, boats; getting the plumbing fixed, etc.
  • And they took care of friendship. Reading another whole set of letters, I realized that they were not about anything consequential to researchers because that's of course not the point, is it?  But the letters were about things that were absolutely, vitally important to A and their correspondents' lives: family doings, asking about mutual friends, civic engagement, shared tasks, gifts, ill health, visits and travel, and oh, incidentally, work. It's easy to miss the forest for the trees in this and try to cherry-pick one reference to what we see as A's "real" work, when actually, their life can't be separated out any more than ours can today. When you read them as a whole, you see a fabric of human connection being woven.
  • And they kept things and kept track of things. Notebooks, story plans, drafts, scraps of paper, newspaper clippings, diaries. It's heartening to see that A sometimes starts a notebook and then leaves the rest blank, since I'm guilty of this, too. But did you ever stop to wonder what would happen if someone needed to research you and your work? (Not likely, but still.) What would they find? I'm not the first to comment that the electronic age has changed what we keep and discard, and recycling has probably taken the rest. Would any of us even have an archive?
  • And they wrote. Every day, sick or well, rain or shine. As you see the authors get older or, in the case of younger authors, become ill, it seems--well, gallant is the only word for it. In the midst of all of the above (and all that's not included there: eating, sleeping, exercise, excursions, being with friends, reading, domestic or romantic crises, tragic losses) they put words on paper, not on Twitter and FB (I'm sniping at myself, not at anyone out there). Sometimes they didn't succeed in finishing something but kept the scraps anyway. It's a good reminder that even the things that didn't work out were part of the process for something else. 
Anyway, this is a "note to self": do better, and remember that if you don't keep at it, it won't get done. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

WaPo: "Leisure reading is at an all-time low"--but what's left out?

The Washington Post reports that "Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low," which is one more piece of news that doesn't sound good for the humanities.  It's a good piece overall, and the main part is this:
That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017.
Even prior to 1995, before computers/online entertainment/social media took a huge share of the market, reading levels were declining due to TV.

But I wondered about this:
"Numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts show that the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015." 
  • Is this the only kind of reading that counts?  What about nonfiction--history, biographies, even true crime?  Is the NEA counting airport novels and things like that?
  • Are they counting listening to audiobooks? That's a huge reading market, but some people don't consider that reading.
  • Are they counting people who read on their devices?
  • Are they counting like flash fiction, the humor at McSweeney's, long-form pieces in traditional or online magazines (, LA Review of Books), or, yes, blogs, for entertainment?
  • Are they talking only about new books in the  "I will sit down and engage with this serious but difficult (i.e., Literary with a capital L) fiction" mode or are they counting a comfort-read like Little Women or Harry Potter?
 In other words, are they considering the following?

1. The genre of the leisure reading (at least broken down by fiction/nonfiction);
2. The medium of the reading (audio, computer- or device-based).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe this is like the alarm that routinely goes out about people not writing much these days. Au contraire--people write all the time: texts, captions, comments on online pieces, Facebook posts, Twitter, etc. It's just that they're writing--and now, maybe consuming--forms for pleasure that we don't consider reading for pleasure.

Off topic: Thank heavens someone finally told the New York Times that it's the Darwin Martin house and not the Martin Darwin house in Buffalo. Maybe The New Yorker could lend them some factcheckers?  I routinely notice grammatical errors and typos in the NYTimes (you probably do, too) that wouldn't have happened 10 years ago, so maybe that's not a priority for the paper, especially on leisure pieces, when the country's on fire. On the other hand, at least they're not reporting it as simply "upstate," which is what every other news organization writes about anything in New York state that's not NYC.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Random bullets of just past Summer Solstice

  • There's still lots of summer left, even if the days are getting shorter.
  • The writing is sort of moving along. I met a couple of (overdue) commitments, am working on others, and turned down some invitations for new projects because I will eventually learn not to overcommit.
  • Archives always say "no need to contact us!" but you really do, because the collection you want might be inaccessible for some reason. Somehow those are hard emails to write, though, and waiting for an answer while watching the travel prices go up isn't fun.
  • A survey recently asked about public engagement on social media for university faculty. They want us to engage, but I'm guessing that research, service, and teaching demands won't lessen. Instead, we'll be expected to drum up business in the form of outside lectures, interviews, etc. on top of everything else--and it'll be a standard to meet or be punished, not an extra to be celebrated.
  • I'm not going to bring up the political horror show here (donated, wrote to congresspeople already) but instead will concentrate on breathing in the cool summer morning air. Lilacs are past, but the honeysuckle is out. 
  • Today's a big anniversary for Spouse & me, so we'll be going out to dinner. I won't say which one, because some colleagues at my former university made fun of us for being married young (barely out of university) & and I'm still wary about revealing personal information after that. But yay for anniversaries!

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

In praise of distraction, or how to counter snobs who say "I don't own a television"

Inspired by gwinne's recent post about productivity and television, let me say this: I am too (experienced, old, productive, tired of academic bulls***--choose one or all of the above) to listen with a straight face to people who claim that they never watch television (including Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and the rest).

If you tell me this, I will laugh. I'm polite, so I'll try not to laugh in your face, but I will laugh.

Sometimes the further discussion reveals that while they would never watch TV, they do listen to This American Life on NPR. Or the BBC. Or play video games. Or read mysteries, a favorite among the academic crowd. Or they make an exception for PBS, because PBS. Or they go to the most recent depressing and obscure foreign film that they can find and brag about it. (Which can be good, but the bragging? not so much.)

Folks, it's all the same. Here's the big secret:  One is not morally superior to the other. All are ways of giving the brain a vacation, of distracting it so that it can stop beating you up for a while about the work you're not doing and give you a breather and fresh ideas so that you can do it.

But seriously--if you're not giving your brain a distraction, you're not giving it a rest. The productivity police may think that rest isn't necessary, but they're writing self-help, not creative work. 

One of the best takedowns of this attitude I've ever seen, and the reason I refer to this attitude as "I don't own a television machine," is from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "I'm No Henry Walden." The premise is that a Robert Frost-type poet named Henry Walden* has had Rob and Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) invited to a high-toned literary party where no one knows who they are or understands what they do.

If you want to see the whole thing, including a brilliant double-talk performance by Carl Reiner that I swear I have seen many times given as a paper at MLA, the link is below. If you just want to get a flavor of it, including the immortal "I don't own a television machine," go to 11:33.

*From Henry David Thoreau & Walden Pond. Fun fact for the Orson Welles crowd: Henry Walden is played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Writing inspiration: overcoming burnout and the Orson Welles syndrome

Figure 1. Orson Welles, wunderkind.
At a conference recently, I talked to a few people about their careers and about the wall of writing burnout I hit recently, asking them if they had experienced the same.

How bad was the burnout? Think of trying to get a balky toddler to eat a lima bean-spinach-kale casserole: that's how I was approaching writing. Those lima beans weren't going to taste any better cold--that is, after the deadline--but my brain toddler, unlike any real toddler, has to eat them anyway and get that writing done.

The people I talked to said that they were looking about three years ahead instead of to the next deadline. One was looking to get a book finished in that time. Ze had hoped to be finished by now, but life happened. A second, one of my collaborators on the big project, is shaping zir career around that for the next 5 years. A third is looking at gradually tapering off scholarship in preparation for a phased retirement. When I protested "but you're so productive! Don't you want to write another book?" ze said that there was no economic incentive and that ze would rather spend the time rock climbing.

Although they have different perspectives, they all had the same advice for me: be selective, because if you agree to do too much, you'll always be behind. Write about what you really want to write about. And take a break once in a while. If this sounds familiar, like advice that you and I and everyone else has given on their blogs, it is, yet it had some more force coming from people I'd known a long time.

It's probably unfair, but I'm thinking of Orson Welles, the genius writer-director-producer-actor who made radio history with his "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938 (inventing fake news?) and cinema history with Citizen Kane. He followed that, sometimes acting instead of directing, with The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger (which he thought was formulaic but that I liked), Touch of Evil, and a host of other movies, some of which, like The Other Side of the Wind, he worked on for years.

The knock on Welles, dating from The Magnificent Ambersons, was that he didn't want to finish things, which apparently wasn't true. He did spend most of his career after Hollywood trying to get financing to fund the projects that he loved, like the Don Quixote film that remained unfinished at his death.

But what many may remember him for is the talk show circuit and his magic tricks, or the Paul Masson commercials where he solemnly intones "We will sell no wine before its time." He tried to do too much, often for financial reasons, and ended up not doing what he wanted to do (Orson Welles syndrome, TM Undine).

Now, Welles was a genius and could keep more balls in the air than most of us, yet you wonder what he might have done if he hadn't had to squander time and attention in making money with commercials, voice-over work, meetings with investors, etc. Would he have made more and greater movies? Would he have been able to make movies without resorting to that awful dubbing that makes some of those late movies (for me) unwatchable?

The thing is, most academics actually have that opportunity if we have jobs--to focus our attention and to choose projects--without having to take on too many side projects to keep the projects we love going. My conclusion is to try to take my colleagues' advice and assess what I really want to do next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chronicle asks again: Faculty offices? Who needs 'em?

Oh, Chronicle, Chronicle, Chronicle. You brought up this "no faculty offices" idea in 2010. I guess you figured it was time to revisit it, yes?

If you want to know how popular open office spaces are, check out the threads at  Hint: they are exactly as popular as decreasing the sizes of airplane seats--in other words, beloved by the executives being paid $$$$, who all have private offices, and not so much by the people who actually have to work in them.

Herewith, from 2010, since I don't want you to have to click the link, a vision of how this would actually work:

New office commons: a day in the life

Scene: The shared office commons now being touted in the Chronicle. Faculty sit at tables, their brightly-colored rolling carts by their sides. An elaborate Starbucks-like coffee counter is in the corner, its machines hissing and burbling. Students hover around the outside, waiting to see faculty but not wanting to break into the herd, so to speak. A few have braved the crowd.

Professor X: "I'm glad you came to see me, Stu Dent. I've noticed that you haven't been coming to class much lately."

Stu Dent: "mumble"

Professor Y to student at the next table: "I can lend you a copy of that--oh, wait, I don't have any books on campus any more."

Professor X: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't hear you. Can you tell me again?"

Stu Dent: (very quiet voice) "It's been rough at home, because my mother has ca--"


Stu Dent looks nervous, but continues: "cancer, and she hasn't been doing well lately--"

At the next table, a cell phone rings, and Professor M answers it: "HELLO? REALLY? SHE THREW UP AGAIN? I THOUGHT WHEN I DROPPED HER OFF THIS MORNING THAT SHE'D BE ALL RIGHT."

Professor X, trying to be encouraging: "That must be really hard. Well, on the assignment you missed the other day--"


Stu Dent: "I wanted to talk to you about that one, because [words drowned out in the noise from the steaming machine]"

Professor X: "I'm sorry, what?"

Professor N, who's been watching The Daily Show on his laptop with the volume low, now erupts in laughter.

Barista: "LATTE UP!"

At this point, Professor Y and the student are trying, but failing, not to look at/listen to the conversation of Professor X and Stu Dent.

Stu Dent: "Never mind. See you in class."


Disclaimer: This post in no way is meant to insult mothers, coffee drinkers, students, Daily Show watchers, professors, or baristas, but you get the picture.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing Inspiration: Squad Goals

All across the country, academics are saying "there, that's done!," turning in grades, looking up, stretching their arms, and saying "Writing? Bring it on!"

Or some version of that. Because we're an academic squad, yes we are, and we're ready to get moving.

I don't want to make a list here of all that I want to get accomplished because (a) I don't want to bore you all and (b) as xykademiqz so eloquently pointed out a few weeks ago, a list like this would make me run screaming in the other direction.

So what are some more general goals?
  •  Limit your email time. I know, I know--this is advice we get and give anyway. But in the summer, unless you're teaching or have an admin job, you really can do this. As much as you can, ignore it.
  • Think about this: who's paying you this summer? If you're on a 9-month contract, YOU are paying you this summer, in the form of savings or however you've managed to figure out finances so you can live.  You are paying yourself to do the writing, and you are your own boss. So don't forget: all those lofty statements about "we can work on this departmental initiative over the summer" or emails that might as well have the header "let's discuss this contentious issue in long, irate, time-consuming threads" are asking you to stop working for pay (for yourself) and asking you to work for free. 
  • Write when you feel like it as well as when you're supposed to.  Boice, Silva, et al. make a big point of telling you to get writing at a regular time and then stop. But what if your ideas are still flowing at night even after you know you have to go to bed? Take out that notebook and do some writing so you won't forget it tomorrow. I read one time that George Sand, after a full day of strolling around Paris in pantaloons, negotiating contracts with her publishers, attending literary parties, and spending some time with her current lover, used to leave poor Chopin or whoever sleeping in her bed while she put on a dressing gown, went to her writing table, and wrote for a while. Let George Sand be your inspiration. 
  • Identify your rewards. Too much carrot-and-stick planning makes writing feel more onerous, but surely there's something you can promise yourself if you get done with what you'd like to do. Writing the word count down is a small reward, but maybe something like reorganizing books that desperately need it (an activity that's totally a procrastination strategy if you don't watch out) would be a good one. 
What would you add?

Sunday, May 06, 2018

A lighthearted thought experiment

What familiar person or character has the following traits?
  • lies constantly and often, saying impulsively whatever makes him look better at the time
  • never thinks ahead to the consequences of his actions
  • contradicts himself all the time without ever acknowledging the contradictions
  • brags incessantly about what he thinks are his achievements
  • refuses ever to apologize
  • causes continual chaos in the workplace
  • promotes people based on their good looks
  • fires people based on perceived disloyalty 
  • throws underlings under the bus in a heartbeat
  • has a set of rabid followers
  • has declared bankruptcy multiple times
  • considers himself a genius but is actually not intelligent
  • sees himself as a savvy business manager but is a disaster
  • consistently fails upward for reasons that no one understands
  • makes terrible decisions with regard to real estate
  • makes promises that he never intends to keep
  • sabotages the careers of those who serve him
  • perceives himself as universally beloved and quite a comedian
  • is happiest starring in his own reality show
  • hates people who stand up against abuse 
  • objectifies white women, gays and lesbians, and all people of color (racism, homophobia, sexism)

The answer is



(Wait for it)



(Drum roll)




Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell, on The Office. 

Ba-dum-bump! Thank you! I'll be here all week! 

Friday, May 04, 2018

Writing inspiration: a self-interview with Hamilton lyrics

1. So, Undine, what are you going to tell anyone who asks about your summer plans?

There's a million things I haven't done, but just you wait. Just you wait.

2. What's the next step?

Scammin' for every book I can get my hands on.

3. What do you want people to wonder if they see you around?

Why do you write like you're running out of time?
Write day and night like you're running out of time?
Every day and night like you're running out of time?
How do you write like tomorrow won't arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you're alive?

4. Any thoughts about those in universities who won't participate in various initiatives but then want to complain later?

If you got skin in the game, you stay in the game.
But you don't get to win unless you play in the game.
Oh, you get love for it
You get hate for it
You get nothing if you wait for it.

5. What about taking on some extra service now?

Lord, show me how to say no to this.

6.  What about various university hijinks, like funding for athletics versus funding for the humanities?

It must be nice to have Washington on your side. 

7.  As you look at this heap of deadlines and projects, how will you ever get it done?

I'll write my way out
Write everything down far as I can see.  

8. And then?

Take a break! Run away for the summer and go upstate.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Making grading human again

Can you stand another post about grading?

I was struck by something making the Twitter rounds a few weeks ago. Someone (can't find the original tweet--sorry) asked students about the readers of their papers.

Said one student: "I've never had a reader for a paper. I have only had rubrics."


Do rubrics promote consistency? Reams of studies apparently say they do.  Can people use them successfully? Apparently so, though they don't work as well for me. The only rubrics I use are minor ones for checklists: did you number your pages? did you write the date on the paper? do you have a bibliography?  Did you call this file "Paper 1" and thereby make it indistinguishable from the 40 other files called "Paper 1" that are currently filling up my grading folder?

But that tweet gave me pause. Are rubrics not representative of a human being reading and making judgments?  What about typed comments? What about no comments except at the end of a paper?

More to the point: do students perceive these as indicating little human interaction?

Background: About halfway through the semester, I stopped typing in all the comments in Word and went back to grading on the iPad.

But I had grown weary of typing on an external iPad keyboard in which some of the letters were missing. Logitech keyboards only last about a year, and this wasn't my first one, so when I couldn't get another because the iPad was too old, I got a new iPad, the one with the external keyboard, and an Apple pencil. It was a combination of YOLO and a big Costco rebate that made me do it. I had to update iAnnotate, too.

What a difference! Using the Apple pencil is amazing, and yes, I actually want to grade papers now, though that honeymoon may wear off eventually.  It's like no other stylus I've ever used; it's like writing on paper, but smoother. I still type the final comment, but not the inline ones.

Back to the main point: I felt more connected to the students' writing again, as though I were responding immediately and personally rather than simply robotically explaining things.  It's as though I were in more of a conversation with them. The grading standards didn't change, but my approach did, somehow. Maybe it's partly that I wasn't sitting at a desk but could write with the iPad on my lap, as I might when reading and taking notes. Maybe it was that we were further into the semester and were more used to each other.

What did the students think? I asked them whether they had a preference, and most did not. Some were kind enough to say that if writing the comments took longer, I ought to take care not to overwork and handwrite everything, which was pretty nice of them (but then, they're nice students).

I still think there's a place for typing the comments on the side, especially at the beginning.  But once you've established the grounds for what's happening, you can enter a more conversational mode. You can interact with their papers with a pen and handwriting and be a reader, not a rubric. You can make grading human again.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Short takes on the week so far

What do you mean it's only Tuesday?

Academic Lesson 1. Will work for food, or less. Did you hear the one about the university that invited fully qualified Ph.D.s to submit their curricula vitae for a position that paid literally nothing? But remember:

You have to have a Ph.D.
To qualify.
To work for no money at all.

Interested? Southern Illinois University at Carbondale is looking for applicants! Pretty sure you'd be on the hook for your own moving expenses and dry-erase markers, too. 

Peer to Peer University tried volunteer faculty a few years back, and Western Governors University has a model that sounds a bit like it, but this may be a first. We are living in the English Department of the Future, for sure.

Academic Lesson 2.  It's a good week to remember this precept:

No one cares how hard you work, especially if it's to attain results that they've come to expect.

Academic Lesson 3: The Lesson of the Master. I have decided to learn a lesson based on observation: the person who did this job some years before me--someone I greatly admire--devoted x hours to it and not a second more, leaving each day promptly to go and do zir scholarship. Ze didn't look back, didn't answer emails out of sequence, and didn't let this part of the job intrude into zir scholarship. Ze did the job well and was and is very productive.

I've been like one of those eager workers in a factory, trying to get everything done right away. What I have learned is Academic Lesson 2, when what I need to learn is Academic Lesson 3.

Academic Lesson 4: Still fine to be ageist in the ChronicleThe article about "Feeling Anxious?" has some good suggestions about mindfulness.

But do you know the only group that was called out for its appearance? Hint: not gender, not race, not class, but this: "Some of these people are in their 70s, with bags under their eyes, and CVs as long as Jack Kerouac’s scroll of On the Road. Yet, they never stop." I get that the author was trying to be funny, but really?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

It's my time, and I'll do what I want

Oft I have travelled in the realms of gold. Or maybe just traveled. And then traveled some more.

But recently everything feels out of control, or, more accurately, I feel as though I am not in control of my time. Incessant emails, demands for information, writing tasks, more emails, more meetings--sure, it's standard drill for an administrator. It has to be done when it has to be done, and if your own writing suffers--with consequent damage to grants, writing, awards, etc.--that's just too bad. No one twisted my arm to do this, and I believe in what I'm doing.

Figure 1. Still the best technique.
You can only feel pushed so far, though, before you want to reassert control, which I did in three ways recently. If you don't want to read about petty triumphs, this isn't the post for you.

The first is the end-of-semester anger management technique I wrote about--surprise!--at the end of the semester a couple of years ago: "Take your hands off that man!" 

"You want it to say X, even after I explained the problems with that? Fine. X it is then." Take your hands off that issue. Let it go, and don't look back.

Figure 2. One of these things is . . .
The second is this: A couple of weeks ago, one of my collaborators--you know, the ones from The Good Place--asked about something in my area of expertise; I spent some time on research and a careful answer, which ze ignored, as per usual.

In recipe terms, I said something like "You know, Worcestershire sauce and vanilla extract may look the same, but if you use Worcestershire sauce in your chocolate chip cookie recipe, you're in for a world of hurt." Today I received an email saying "full speed ahead with the brown liquid for the cookies, yes?"

Figure 3 . . . not like the other.
I wrote back and said, "So glad that we're going to go with any old brown liquid condiment for all the cookies without checking to see what it is; much easier to find than figuring out, as I recommended two weeks ago, whether it's actually vanilla extract or not."  Collaborator: "What? Oh, no."

Figure 4. Grady explaining "correction" to Jack.

And maybe tomorrow I'll turn off email and do some of my own scholarship for a change.