Sunday, December 15, 2019

Let yourself go

"Let yourself go
Relax and let yourself go
You've got yourself tied up in a knot
The night is cold but the music's hot" 

I think Ginger has wisdom for all of us right about now.  Let yourself go, or "let it go" to quote a more contemporary role model. 

The thing is, a lot of times it's not up to us.

Annoying colleagues? You don't have to make their lives easier. You just have to be civil, unless they go from annoying to rude.

Colleagues trumpeting their own fabulousness until you feel as though you ought to climb into a cave somewhere? Congratulate them if you can. Ignore them if you can't. 

Christmas/holiday prep? Yes, it's stressful. Do what you can and leave the rest. The world will survive. 

If you're--ahem--morbidly obsessed with tales of disaster because of elderly family members (as I said over at nicoleandmaggie's), try to recognize that while the illness and death itself was sad but not traumatic,  being forced to have all the responsibility and none of the control over the course of years really was. Give it time. Try to let it go.

Start living life in 3D instead of 2D (computer screens). Maybe you want to take up knitting, or skate, or hike, or juggle.

Let yourself go.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Random bullets of as the semester draws to a close

How to keep everything going?
  • Shed some things. I unfriended (first time doing so!) on FB a toxic, performatively woke, and mansplainy colleague and FB, though still bad, is better because of it. 
  • Think about what you're doing re: student evals. Northern Clime has a lot of suggestions for bribing encouraging students to fill out the online evaluation forms, since evaluation numbers completely predictably fell off a cliff now that there's not a single time and place to do them. Right now it's the people who really like or hate you who'll do them voluntarily. But given the level of gender and racial bias in student evals, the subject of numerous studies, should we be propping up a system that is already stacked not in our favor? Especially when people think you bring this up not because of inequity but because your students must hate you? (For the record, they don't. I bring it up out of principle and then have to listen to bro-bragging about others' eval numbers, but I'm senior faculty and if I don't speak up, who will?)
  • Shed some more things.  I could barely make myself care about MLA citation format nine years ago, and since MLA changed to its latest system, I don't care at all. Do I painstakingly correct their MLA format? Or do I give them an example and give them credit if they attempted it? The latter. 
  • Give yourself a break.  It dawned on me, as I was standing in a passport line last week, that this seemed really familiar, because it was: I had gone to two international conferences in the space of a month. At that point I figured it's okay to be tired. 
  • Work on the things you can't shed. Like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, I am lugging burdens, not of pride or anything, but of writing projects that I promised to complete in some insane rash moment months ago. I can't shed them, but I can get them done. 
Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The wee small hours of the morning and 21st-century email etiquette

Ask a Manager, one of favorite sites for avoiding work, has a lot of useful advice about, you know, work.  Recently, Alison Green tackled the issue of whether it's rude to send emails late at night. A student worker asked this, and her advice was that while that's fine if you're sending emails to your peers, if you're a manager of some sort emailing your subordinates, it sets up an expectation that the emails will be answered immediately even if you say otherwise.

The academics that chimed in had a few takes on it:

1. We know that students stay up late and hey, sometimes we do, too, so no big deal if you answer an email late or on a weekend. Maybe we're traveling in a different time zone, too, so no worries about email at odd hours.

2. Also usually not a worry: waking people up as their phone buzzes with an incoming email. They can join the 21st century and turn off notifications like the rest of us or--here's a novel thought--not keep the phone by their bedside.

3. Schedule the email to go out later--at 8 a.m. instead of 2 a.m., for example--which you can do in Outlook and Gmail.

4. Draw a bright line between work and not-work; don't respond to email in off-hours.

What's your take on this?  I have a few new private email rules and questions since I last wrote about this:

1. What do you do when someone flat-out ignores their email and it's well known that you can only reach them through another form of social media that you may or may not use--and everyone just accepts it as an endearing personality quirk? My usual response is to send stuff through official channels (e.g., email) and let the chips fall where they may, unless they're going to fall on me--and then I knuckle under and use the other social media. A sellout position? Probably.

2. What about student or other emails sent after hours or over the weekend? Most of it still sits in my inbox like snowflakes falling on a windowpane, and definitely anything related to department politics can wait, because you know what kind of storm that's going to be. But when students are wrestling with The Great Demon CMS and trying to submit papers, I try to reply if it 's a weeknight (and papers aren't due on the weekend).

3. What if people ignore your carefully written email that took, yes, an hour to write in answer to their questions and then ask the questions again? Do you explain again, or do you say "you may have missed my response to this," copy and paste the first one, and send it--boom, done, with no further thought?

Any other email quandaries?

Friday, November 01, 2019

Recognizing the same old, same old--curmudgeonly or wise?

How does change happen in academe? The Chronicle has one take on it, although if I hear one more empty phrase about "breaking down barriers" and "silos"--hey, all you MBA types who want to disrupt the university, they're called "disciplines" and represent a body of knowledge--I'm going to build a cliché generator and pitch the resulting article to the Chronicle myself.

If you've been in academe for a while, you recognize the pattern of change. (And this happens everywhere.)

1. New higher-up administrator(s) pledges increased transparency, faculty involvement, and an exciting goal. Sometimes it's assessment, but it's always something that takes time and thought from faculty.

2. Faculty are asked for their ideas. Sometimes they're asked to rank things, go to seminars or webinars, meet in committees. They're asked to dream big: what would X program look like in an ideal world? What would make your program achieve better excellence (if you get my drift)? What could you do without if we make your dreams come true, not that you'll have to do without it?

3. Faculty dutifully fill out forms filled with hope & dreams: more faculty! Fewer administrative regulations! More money for research, or for students!

4. They take time out from their research to write the reports, go to the meetings, and so on.

5. Outcomes: 

a. Possibility 1: "So will we be getting money to do this?" "No." "More resources of any kind?" "No." (This is what Roxie's Blog used to call "excellence without money.") And those things that you might do without in a perfect world? We're not funding your dream, but we're cutting those.

b. Possibility 2: Report is deep-sixed and the administration does what it was intending to do anyway.

c. Possibility 3: A different change is implemented despite the advice of faculty and may or may not be a success.

d. Possibility 4: Real and positive change occurs.

6. Administrator(s) move on to the next school, now with a fresh initiative under their belt as proof of their innovation and effectiveness.

For our own sanity, I guess we have to believe that the process moves change forward in positive ways, and sometimes you see incremental and real changes. And I do think those higher-ups putting us through our paces in the process are sincere in wanting to make things better.

But when you see a proposal come around and think "didn't we do this 10 years ago?" should you put your heart and soul into it?

Or should you follow the Academic Serenity Prayer? "Grant me the serenity to hear about another time-sucking initiative on which they claim to want our input, the strength to read between the lines, and the wisdom to know that it's already a done deal and I don't have to pay any attention to it."

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Mid-October update: On not crushing it and conferences

In the first season of Silicon Valley, the Pied Piper team interviews a candidate whose résumé states, without details, that he was "crushing it" for a certain period of time but then not "crushing it" to his usual standard in 2012. That's me this October.

 Spouse says that I'm exhausted because of all the chaos and bereavement over my mother's final illness and recent death, which was, in the end, the best one possible: quick and painless and peaceful, at home with family surrounding her. That's a fair point. But really, shouldn't the absence of the anxiety, stress, travel, and physical labor I've experienced over the past year give me more energy rather than less?

I also find myself simultaneously resenting having to go to conferences that I'm presenting at and resenting that I'm not presenting at ones where I'm not (MLA--panels I was on were rejected). "If only you were pregnant (completely impossible) or there were an airline strike or if you got the flu, you wouldn't have to go," says the insidious voice within.

Or I could just, you know, not go, but somehow that seems wrong without a reason. I did withdraw from one piece of it after concluding that there was no way it'd get done. But people just don't go all the time, don't they? There seems to be an uptick in no-shows at conferences, or is this just one person's false perception?

At any rate, none of my usual writing tricks are working, so I'll try the nuclear option--turning off the internet--and see if I can write the paper for it, keep working on the (overdue) article, and all the rest of it. Here's hoping for a better report next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Resilience, or learning critical distance when teaching

In class the other day, I was teaching some of my favorite stuff--call it dinosaur studies.

I had put extra time and effort into the brief lecture, including the pictures. I had found some video clips of T. Rex that I thought they would like and explained the context.

Some days, you go to teach a class just because it's your job, but on this day, I was pumped and excited.

As I wound up the whole thing and the video clip finished, I asked "Are there any questions?'

What I expected as I stood there:
 What I got:
  • "Are you going to hand back our quizzes now?" 
It totally brought me up short. I was in the moment. They really were not.

Now, they're a nice if quiet group, and I realize that I shouldn't let this get to me. But it did. I was totally deflated even in my other classes and, yes, oddly sad for the rest of the day. I started questioning whether I should even be teaching.

Rationally, this is nuts. Classes come and go, and individual class hours are unpredictable. We've all had spectacular days in the classroom sometimes and so-so days other times and "kill me now" days at least once in our careers.

Rationally, I know that they don't have to like what I like. They have their own interests that I doubtless don't share, and, while I try my level best to choose interesting as well as pedagogically useful materials, that's something you can't always predict.

But irrationally, I wanted them to share a little excitement about dinosaur studies. Irrationally, I felt that I'd taken a risk, like giving them a caprese salad only to have them demand the usual pizza.

And thinking about it now, I realize that we really need both perspectives. Yes, they have their own interests, and rationally that's fine, and I try to work with that as much as I can. But if I stop being excited about what's happening in the classroom and wanting them to love what I love in terms of literature, then what am I even doing?

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I've been rewatching Mad Men because there is no outside world in Mad Men, no politics, no brinkmanship, no, well, madmen on the loose.

The Undine of 2015 and earlier was pretty tough on the show sometimes, but nowadays I find it slow, and predictable, and very, very soothing. Together with The Good Place, it makes you think about your daily actions in ways that the dailiness of everyday life doesn't always facilitate.

In one episode--they're all a blur to me at this point, a sweet & comforting blur--Henry Francis challenges Betty Draper, who's just thrown one of her innumerable hissy fits about something or other. (Betty, comfortingly enough, only gets less selfish by microns rather than by inches.)

"Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?" Henry asks her.

Somehow, this swooshed me out of the minutiae of daily work life and up into one of those hovering spheres that you see in the movies. What it made me see is that I was drowning in those minutiae and that it felt suddenly like my choice to do that and that I could choose differently.

So, for example:
  • Do I really want to put that kind of time into a review or a meeting or one of innumerable memos? I do not.
  • Do I really want to move from unimportant project to unimportant project as a means of avoiding the hard work that (sorry, Marie Kondo) sparks joy? I do not.
  • Do I want to review yet another thing instead of writing and submitting something? I do not.
  • Do I really want to send a polite reply to the umpteenth scammy predatory journal email? I do not, and did not, and into the trash they go.
But there's also positive change:
  • Do I respond with cold fury if someone gets snippy in an email and escalate the icy politeness when I write back? You bet.  
  • If someone does that in person, does my body language (and steely gaze, and cold, measured tone) indicate that what I'm really saying is "You had best start over"? Yes.
  • Also, do I want to worry about and give an anodyne response to being called in by HR about  defending a student?  Or do I want to give them a coldly reasoned but furious piece of my mind, including stating that I know their primary goal is to hang individuals out to dry in order to protect Northern Clime from lawsuits? The latter, and that's what I did. We got to a better place after that, after they stopped trying to bully me, but the anger was necessary, I'm convinced.
 I know that this sounds as though anger is the only positive change, but there are other positive changes, too. It's slow going.

But for now, before I agree to working through someone else's draft to make sense of it, or explain something via email for the millionth time to someone who doesn't like the answer they're getting, or jump right on a complicated email issue with multiple questions instead of letting it marinate for a couple of weeks until I have time, I try to to remember Henry's question  "Have you ever thought that there are other ways to live?"

I'm trying to think of it, Henry.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Recommitting to writing

It's that time of year again. Let's play summer break bingo--but you'll have to imagine the squares. Give yourself a point for every one of these that you've seen or that has crossed your social media recently.
  • "Just back from my fabulous research trip to Paris/Florence/other European city, where I found oodles of new materials for my book in progress."
  • "So glad I had that fellowship to Fabulous Domestic Archive!"
  • "Excited to see the proofs for this article accepted for PMLA [or insert your flagship journal here]."
  • "What a great family hiking vacation in the mountains/at the beach! No phones, just fun. Nothing like taking time completely away from work to recharge the brain."
  • "Book proposal was accepted & now I'm under contract. Woohoo!"
  • "Made so much progress on my book manuscript this summer that I'm turning it in early."
  • "Completely revamped my syllabi/syllabuses and now I'm ready for the semester to begin."
  • "Yay! Panel accepted for MLA this year, so see you in Seattle!" 
I guess you could call it time envy.  You can be glad that these people are engaging in fabulousness and hard work, yet you're still slogging away at writing and maybe not even your own writing--i.e., reviews and reports.

Objectively you know you've knocked down a lot of things and crossed a lot of items off your list this summer. Subjectively, in your heart of hearts you know that this is obligation writing, low-hanging fruit that advances everyone's career but your own.

And if you're honest with yourself, you know you could have said "no" more, or put your own writing first; it's not the fault of other people or other tasks that you're not getting the writing done. They have to ask, but you don't have to say yes. Academia is an "ask culture," not a "guess culture," so you have to grow a spine and boldly say no. That time commitment you made rests with you.

So all I can do now is recommit to the writing, one day at a time or rather one half hour at a time, about the length of a pomodoro, and try, try again. 

Friday, August 02, 2019

Productivity is overrated? NOW you tell me.

I spent the last two weeks doing eldercare, cleaning and cooking and chatting and problem-solving and strategizing and being on the phone with banks, cable services, etc.,  trying to gain access to straighten out financial messes.  (PSA: for the love of God, please grant someone Power of Attorney so that they can legally act for you before you develop dementia.) When people inquired brightly "How are you enjoying your vacation?" I had to bite my lip.

In the meantime, the work I had no time to do rolled in through my email as usual, despite my autoreply. 750words gathered dust and spiderwebs because I had no words to give it.

But wait! The productivity writer Theresa MacPhail now says "OK, I admit it: Productivity is Overrated."

In questioning "academe’s 'I’m so busy' Olympics" MacPhail cites Melissa Gregg's Counterproductive:
"Paradoxically," Gregg writes, "the capabilities of productivity software create expectations of always more activity." And she should know. She’s surrounded by engineers and software developers trying to maximize their time. As Gregg is quick to point out, however, all of the time saved from efficiency and productivity apps only increases the amount of free time that one is then expected to funnel back into — you guessed it — more work.
 Isn't that the old joke about academe? You work harder and for that your reward is . . . more work?

Isn't it sick that I want to know exactly what "productivity apps" Gregg is talking about?

And isn't it ironic that the sidebar ad is  The Chronicle Productivity Guide to Writing & Publishing?

Maybe this is a welcome and needed corrective to the culture of busyness, like Slow Writing a few years back. Or maybe it's just the usual pendulum swing, as when HGTV derides as "dated" all the trends it spent the 2000s shilling for as "classic," or how 1970s-style unpadded & un-underwired bras are now making a return as the "bralet."

At this point, I'm going with "needed corrective" because my productivity meter has run out, and I need a break. It's nice to have the backing of experts on this.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Twitter reinvents itself as early blogs

I've been reasonably active on Twitter for a while now and have noticed a few things happening in the last few months.

Bear in mind that I don't have thousands of followers and don't follow thousands of people, as seems to be the goal for a lot of people. I'm on Twitter because--as in the "Minute Men defended our Revolutionary Airports" thing by the Dear Leader last week--it can be amusing and is occasionally a place to see good resources float by in the Twitter stream.

But it has changed.
  1. Famous people (well, authors) who used to tweet a lot, like Margaret Atwood and Lin-Manuel Miranda, don't seem to be as active. My guess is that it's because they are actually, you know, writing instead of wasting time on Twitter as I am, but still.
  2. There's a lot less interesting, or interesting to me, actual information being circulated. 
  3. There are lots of retweets, the more outrageous the better, of the same information over and over. It's as bad as the NYTimes's months-long "Editor's Picks" on the front page. 
  4. There are a lot more memes, not just funny cat pictures or whatever, but stuff like this:
    1. Which literary critic or school of criticism are you? Take this quiz and find out.
    2. How old were you when you had your first (male/nonwhite/gender non-conforming) teacher?
    3. When is the movie better than the book?
    4. Who here is a fan of Stranger Things
  5. Focus on very particular and sometimes arcane forms of political outrage, while things like the Administration's big gift to Monsanto or whoever of rolling back restrictions on pesticides that kill bees (as our friends in France well know) go completely unnoticed. 
  6. Lots of furious comment threads that any academic program that doesn't have as its primary goal how to organize and destroy the neoliberal university ought to be burned to the ground. Sometimes this is paired with scorching anyone who gives advice on the job market, how to apply for graduate school, etc.
  7. Lots of comments about the Olds destroying the economy--emphasis on age rather than the real culprit, class and wealth. Thank you, Russian bots, for the "let's you and him fight" nature of this divisiveness that distracts from oligarchy and kleptocracy that is the real problem. 
  8. More pictures of food or daily life things than there used to be.
My theory for #5 is this: Trump says his daily racist and/or stupid thing, Twitter goes nuts for 24 hours, and he torches more environmental and civil rights and immigration safeguards unnoticed.  Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm not alone in this theory.

The rest is pure speculation and observation, based on nothing more than random ideas as research. 

But if you're a longtime blogger, doesn't this remind you of something?

Getting-to-know-your-personality memes?

Rage at the (academic) machine?

Little reports from daily life?

Twitter, or my tiny corner of it, seems to be reinventing the early days of blogs, when the blogroll was long and active. Memes? We had 'em, but less so nowadays. Rage? Check. Daily life reports? Check.

If you are on Twitter, have you seen this? Better still, if you're an Instagram user, how is this different on that platform, if it is?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

What I learned about letting things go from Father of the Bride (1951)

TCM showed the old Spencer Tracy-Elizabeth Taylor version of Father of the Bride the other night, and I watched the last half of it.

It's a funny movie and one of Spencer Tracy's best parts; Taylor is good, too, as is Joan Bennett and the supporting cast, especially Leo G. Carroll as the wedding planner/caterer.

There are a couple of great comic everything-goes-wrong nightmare sequences, sort of like the ones that every academic I know gets before the first day of class--e.g., you can't find the room, you have to give a spontaneous lecture on 15th-century French horses or something else you have no idea about, you're dressed in clown pants, or, worse, no pants--you get the idea.

One is a real nightmare, where his clothes start coming apart, he can't get up the aisle of the church because it's turned to some kind of rubber trampoline, and so on.

The other is the wedding rehearsal, which is total chaos with people milling around and talking over each other. When Stanley Banks (the Tracy character) says, "okay, let's have the REAL rehearsal," the clergyman says it was all fine and it'll be perfect on the wedding day--and he's right. Everything goes without a hitch despite, not because of, Stanley's frantic perfectionism.

You can see where I'm going with this. I spent a lot of time this week laying out timelines and project deadlines and start and end dates for a project. Heck, I even looked up a Gantt chart template and investigated Trello, though I backed away from that in favor of lists. Charts and lists are a way of controlling your sense of a project for a certain mindset, and that mindset is mine.

But when I gently hinted at timelines and "deliverables" to others, they strongly hinted that really, the wedding rehearsal went just fine and I should stop worrying about it.

It wasn't a waste of time, because now I have a better sense of how to put together my part of it. Did I take most of my timeline work out of the collaborative part? You bet. It wasn't going to help the project, though it is still going to help me, and it was going to confuse or annoy everyone else.

This is the important takeaway for me: I know what targets I have to hit, and I don't have to announce them to hit them. Like Elsa, I can let it go.

I just have to show up, do my part, and have some confidence that others know better than I do how this whole thing is structured and that they're seeing a vision that I'm not just yet--the perfect wedding, 

Monday, June 24, 2019

A short apology about the job market

In years past, I have written on this blog about the job market--advice about cover letters, about where to find resources, and about the MLA statistics on trends in hiring (spoiler: it's grim).

I've never said those preposterous things that are apparently clichés from senior professors, as in "there's a t-t job for everyone if you work hard enough" or whatever other nonsense they supposedly spout.

I spent years as an adjunct and know better than this. I've done what I could at my institutions to argue for equity in hiring, written and argued for more lines, created as much stability and as many benefits as possible for non-tt faculty, etc.That still doesn't create tenure-track lines, which come from the upper administration.

Because of all those adjunct years, I know that in getting a job preparation is involved, but so is luck, a lot of luck. But in hopes that advice about preparation would be helpful, I did write those posts.

And now I am seeing all over Twitter that any kind of job advice is a microaggression or just plain aggression against people who don't have a job and that even posting advice is traumatizing to applicants. A common theme is that tenured senior faculty ought to just plain shut up. There's a lot of anger about this.

Anyway, I debated about leaving the posts up or taking them down and decided to leave them up, figuring that if people didn't want to read them, they wouldn't.

This is sort of a two-part apology. I'm sorry about the job market and will continue doing what I can to make conditions better. And I'm sorry if those initial posts were upsetting but will try to stick to other topics in the future.

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Opportunity cost" and the pleasures of daily tasks while writing

Figure 1. Not me.
This is not the post where I reveal that I have become a Stepford wife, and I do not wear a straw hat while shopping.

However, I was recently reading about the new childhood guru Emily Oster and her "parenting by the numbers" approach.

(Digression and disclosure: when my kids were little, I skimmed a book one time--Berry Brazelton--that sounded sensible but aside from that figured that I knew how to parent better than the book pundits. "Be loving, be consistent, and see to it that they didn't get too tired or overstimulated" was my mantra, and aside from that, the experts could step right off. It seems to have worked.)

Back to Oster. This sentence stopped me cold:
As a child in the nineteen-eighties, Oster said, “we were the only people who ordered groceries from the grocery store.” When young Emily asked her mother, “Why don’t we ever go to the store, like regular people?,” her mother told her, “Because my time is very valuable. I have a high opportunity cost.”
I found this sentence  insufferable amazing. Maybe she didn't like grocery shopping, and maybe the "opportunity cost," whatever that is, was indeed too high. Okay. Different strokes and all that.

But if you're taking care of little kids, a trip to the grocery store can be an outing (if you are home with your kids).

And when the kids are grown and you are writing, a trip to the grocery store can be, yes, an outing.

Think of it this way: you're looking at a world in basically two dimensions all day when you're writing. Screen, meet eyes. Eyes, meet screen. Even reading books feels somewhat two-dimensional because it's all transactional: you search for what you want and hope you find it, with the aid of post-its and notes. It's black and white, or sepia and white, if you're dealing with old materials.

Then you go to the grocery store and things are in three dimensions. They have shapes. They have color. You make choices. You shift your brain to the sensory realm of cooking and eating. Your planning changes focus. You see people who are moving around instead of in a photograph.

Figure 2. I want to go to there.
Okay, it's not a walk around Walden Pond or even a lovely morning walk, but a trip to the store feels like a reward at the end of the day, especially when your eyes are watering and smarting from work.

Cleaning the house and doing laundry are somewhat the same, except that they don't get you out of the house.  When you're stuck on a piece of writing and you take a break to load the dishwasher or fold clothes, your brain is still working, but your focus has shifted. (Spouse is in a writing-heavy profession and does the same thing with housework as a break.)

So while maybe I have a high enough "opportunity cost" to order groceries and hire out some household tasks, the cost in terms of getting a break from work wouldn't be worth it to me.

On the other hand, it'd be nice to have the extra time. What about you? Do you hire this stuff out?

Sunday, June 09, 2019

#thanksfortyping, writing, and invisible labor

Anand Giridharadas's takedown NYT review of Jared Diamond's latest book points out, to devastating effect, the book's essential truthiness rather than truth. To judge from the review, his method is apparently "ask a few friends I know in other countries what's going on and then write about it." He's definitely guilty (again, according to the review) of "Theme spotting. Enough said" in making conclusions and sweeping generalizations from a limited pool of evidence.

But what caught my eye was this:
Diamond is proud to be from another time. He tells us his manuscripts are typed by someone else, he relies on his wife and secretary to use a computer, and he clings to the belief that video games are “solitary,” even if massively multiplayer online games are where a growing number of Americans go to be social. He also thinks phones are ruining America because people check them every four minutes.
A few random thoughts:
  •  I get that he might not know about video games and e-sports (he's 80-something), but a lot of people don't know much more than they read in popular media about them (raises hand). The thing is, most of us (raises hand again) don't opine about something about which we know nothing.
  • Do you suppose that if there weren't a "typed by wife and secretary" power dynamic going on here that someone would have called him out on the factual errors? 
  • Or is he like Wendell Berry, who is too pure to use a computer and sees no need when he can have Wife type his work? I asked about this and "academic handmaidens" a few years ago, and it seems to be still A Thing.
  • Anecdata and a true story: I knew a professional man who refused to deal with the Internet because it involved typing, and "typing is for secretaries." This was years ago, but last I heard, he still believed this. He's missing a lot, but at least no one's going to mistake him for a "secretary."
Remember #thanksfortyping back in 2017? People were combing through acknowledgments pages for all the "thanks to my wife for typing" notices and finding that, oh, by the way, the "typing" often involved researching, translating, transcribing, indexing, editing, etc. etc., not to mention the work of women in history such as Sofia Tolstoy. It was an attempt to make visible the invisible labor that supports writing, often by women in the service of men.

I'm wondering, though, if there's a different dynamic that we haven't seen, possibly a healthier one, in which academic partners help each other out with this invisible labor.

A few questions:
  1. Have you ever typed something (or worked on data, or transcribed, or edited) for a partner?
  2. Has he/she/they ever typed something (or worked on data, or transcribed, or edited) for you? 
  3. Is your partner in the same field? 
 My answers would be (1) maybe--don't remember; (2) yes; (3) no.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Random bullets of writing inspiration

Let's have some writing inspiration, shall we?

1. First, Dame Eleanor's good post on getting started again, with these words:
The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is Virginia Valian’s: make the task smaller. As small as you need to. Ten minutes. Five. And be kind to yourself, because the piece of work is not really the problem. It’s all the emotions that have got tangled up with that piece of work.
2. Next, this piece from Laura Moss, editor of Canadian Literature, on how to get your article published:

This essay had a lot of good advice, although the single most cryptic piece of advice was this:
No. 16. Avoid theme spotting. Enough said.
Apparently a lot of readers besides me thought "theme spotting? huh? what's that?" so Moss explained in the comments:
Theme spotting is when you read with a predetermined outcome in mind and then lo and behold you find it is true. In English, this is when you say, the theme of X is prevalent in this novel and then spend the whole essay proving how it is prevalent. In other disciplines, I suspect a similar form of targeted blinkered argumentation must occur. Basically, my point is to not forget the 'so what' part. The theme might be there but why should we care. Theme spotting stops at the theme. Hope this clarifies.
 3. Here's an article about David Milch, who wrote and created or co-created (read the article if you want to sort it out) Hill Street Blues and Deadwood, among other iconic shows:
Five days a week, Milch commutes twenty-five yards along an arbor-shaded path that extends from the back of his house to a converted garage, where he writes until it’s time to break for lunch. Before he developed Alzheimer’s, he rose most days by 4:30 a.m., ready to work. He now shows up in the garage at nine-thirty or ten.
 4. At IHE, Susan D. Blum tells us how she rents a place for a week to recharge her writing, and it's worth reading. Her issue is distractions, and the retreat works great for her. Mine isn't distractions but avoidance, so I'm not sure it would work as well for me, but it's definitely writing inspiration.

Reading all these helped me to clarify the steps I have to take.

1. On one piece of writing where I know that every sentence will be torn apart by the editors to make changes that are distinctions without a difference (which contributes to the Fear that Dame Eleanor talks about): I refused to go to bed last night until I had written at least something on it. I wrote about 50 words, but that's 50 words more than I've done on it in any day in recent memory. Also, I'll try deep breathing once it's submitted and I get it back.

2. On another piece of writing, an ancient revise & resubmit that might or might not get accepted after making substantial changes: I need to reread it and figure out if it's worth revising or if I should send it somewhere else.

3. On a third piece of writing, which I got stuck on and became stale: time to revisit it.

4. On two pieces where the editors approached me and solicited the article: get on with it!

Friday, May 24, 2019

Schadenfreude or woman-hating? Naomi Wolf and the big mistake

2/26/21 Naomi Wolf is even more bats**** than you might have thought. Forget I ever said to give her the benefit of any doubt.

Content warning: False, crazy conservative lunacy about "nanopatticles" (sic). All I know is that if Apple can do this plainly bananas thing (spoiler: they can't), (1) people will be lining up to go and (2) it will cost $2000 more than the competition, because Apple. 



11/09/20 Updated to add: 

Forget what I said. This idiot (Naomi Wolf) has just once again proven that she’s a complete tool by protesting protective measures in the midst of a pandemic, and she deserves no attention or grace at all. None.

First, I already know this: #notallwomen

But Selina Meyer, the hilariously foul-mouthed VPOTUS on VEEP, had this to say when her staff tried to get her to say what she thought "as a woman":

“No, no, no, I can’t identify as a woman! People can’t know that. Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that, which, I believe, is most women.”

You watch VEEP and you like to think that she's kidding.

And then Naomi Wolf, who goes by @DrNaomiWolf [now naomirwolf] on Twitter, makes a gaffe, and you see what happens.

Now, I hold no brief for Naomi Wolf, whom I've never read or even read about except for seeing her name. I probably should, but I don't. Sue me.

Anyway, today she made a mistake.

A big mistake:

Short version: in an interview with the BBC to promote her new book, which argues that the number of gay men executed for homosexuality was undercounted in the 19th century, the interviewer, Matthew Sweet, called attention to her misunderstanding of a term:
When she went on BBC radio on Thursday, Wolf, the author of Vagina and the forthcoming Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, probably expected to discuss the historical revelations she’d uncovered her book. But during the interview, broadcaster Matthew Sweet read to Wolf the definition of “death recorded,” a 19th-century English legal term. “Death recorded” means that a convict was pardoned for his crimes rather than given the death sentence.

Oops. But the discussion that I saw unfolding on Twitter was gracious, with Wolf acknowledging her mistake and Sweet being gracious in return.  

It was altogether a model of how to behave. Yes, bad scholarship needs to be corrected. Yes, we need standards. I agree.

And then Caitlin Flanagan got into it to pile on the hate.

I used to read Flanagan in The Atlantic, so I wasn't exactly surprised, but somehow this ad hominem attack confirmed that she had drunk the Internet hatred Kool-aid.

You get used to attacks, from the ridiculous faked video of Nancy Pelosi that right-wingers created and that Facebook won't take down, to the "likability" test that has people, chin in hand saying, "Hmm, that Elizabeth Warren. Did you know that she wants to make money? You just can't trust a woman like that."

Maybe Wolf deserves to be dragged in this way for reasons beyond bad scholarship. Don't know. Can't say.

My point is this, though: Could we please stop proving that VEEP is as accurate with its bleakly hilarious view of who hates women (everyone) as it is about how the political system works?

Updated to add: Just read this about Naomi Wolf's career of truthiness and, okay, I get it now. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Chronicle Forums feature going away

First question: Did you know that The Chronicle's Forums feature was going away? It is.,264325.0.html
The Chronicle is moving to a new set of technologies to power While there are many upsides to that change, one downside will be the loss of support for our forums. The software that powers these forums is about a decade old, and we won’t be able to continue them after we upgrade to our new technologies. Those changes are scheduled to take effect in the fall of this year."
Second question: Do you care that the Forums feature is going away?

I kind of do, actually.

The Forums had some good advice, especially on jobs and teaching. I never posted there, but I did read them sporadically over the course of many years and even got to recognize the personas of the various commenters there. Yes, they were a clique, and they could be less-than-welcoming to newcomers, but they did have information.

The comments had been going down in number and relevance over the past year or two, probably because of some shakeup that only the regular readers were privy to and possibly because they'd already answered the questions that people had x1000. How many times can you tell people "Apply for the Damn Job (AFTDJ)" or tell them that search committees take forever to reach decisions? It was valuable, though.

Occasionally they'd refer newbies to the search feature, which was so beyond terrible that I referred to it here one time as a Ouija Board rather than a search feature. Tell the truth: have you ever been able to find Ms. Mentor on the site except by accident?

The Chronicle's move is probably part of the broader trend toward getting rid of comments; IMDB did it, remember, and so have most newspapers. On sites with comments, the Internet is like a Mr. Hyde Kool-Aid that people drink to release their vicious, base, and uncaring selves. You can supply your own examples without too much trouble.

Every place now wants to move the discussions to Facebook, the better to enrich Mark Zuckerberg and track our data for our overlords. But not everyone is on Facebook, and if we are, we know we probably shouldn't be.

(Side note: Facebook is the Diet Coke of the Internet. We know it's bad for us--heck, a guy at Costco the other day said "that stuff is terrible for you!" as I loaded a case into the cart--but we can't quit it entirely.)

Anyway. As each online space rises and gets destroyed in its turn (and I am an Old who remembers Usenet), there are two constants:

1. There's an airline-like consolidation that herds us into fewer and fewer spaces where we can be more intensively scrutinized and monetized.

2. There are fewer and fewer places to be multiple people--that is, playful and irreverent in one place and a Serious Professional in another.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Off-topic: a PSA about dementia in the elderly

My mind isn't on writing right now; it's about dealing with the last of the family members with dementia (the other three are now gone).
  • Fun fact #1: you can beg, wheedle, and cajole the elderly person about signing a power of attorney (PoA) or living will or doing advance planning to help them with financial matters and decisions over the course of a decade, but if they get stubborn (they will) and furious (they will), they will flat out refuse. You will hear "I'm in charge of my own money and still pay every bill on time and always will and my mind is as sharp as ever." It isn't, but at this point they will not sign and there's nothing you can do about it.
  • Fun fact #2: there's a stage of dementia when the person is still competent to sign a PoA but suspicious, stubborn, and paranoid, so good luck with #1. After that stage, of course, the person becomes more agreeable but isn't competent to sign a PoA.
  • Fun fact #3: you'll see a stream of nurses, doctors, and medical assistants who will ask the person things like "Do you still drive?" "Of course!" "Still do your own cooking?" "Of course!" and you'll know that none of this is in any way true. 
  • Fun fact #4: if nurses and social workers have said that the only safe place for the person with dementia is assisted living and a drama-loving family member has filled the elderly person's mind with Dickensian visions of it as The Home where residents are fed gruel, how likely is it that the elderly person will agree to consider such a step? And the elderly person ("sharp as a tack!") has total control over their finances, so good luck with that.
  • Fun fact #5: If the elderly person has moved over a thousand miles away from every member of their family, can you guess where your airline miles and family bank account are going to be spent during repeated crises?
  • Fun fact #6: You will feel like James Bond as you strategically disable things like the car and the stove in ways that the elderly person will not notice (you hope). 
TL;dr #1: It takes all the brainpower, cleaning power, and energy of one fully capable adult human being every day to keep a person with dementia going--all the doctor visits, phone calls, medications, and hours of conversations, not to mention keeping the elderly person from smoking near the oxygen apparatus that keeps them alive.

TL;dr #2 There is a miraculous pillminder  that locks and dispenses the right medication at the right time, because the person with dementia will otherwise spend hours rearranging medications that could kill them if they take too many. If the meds are in an openable pillbox, they will snap at you ("I know what I'm doing!") if you protest the rearrangement. The miraculous pillminder takes away all the arguments.

Anyway. I do love this person but had to express a little of what's been going on. I will probably *poof* this because it's not on topic. Sorry to be so gloomy, but thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Writing inspiration: Robert Caro, time, and age

I know I've written about Robert Caro before, but I'm about to dive into On Working. Here's a roundup of recent articles by and about him:

First, a tidbit: Caro writes in longhand and then on a typewriter:
It's because of something that was said to me at Princeton by a professor, a very courtly gentleman, Southern gentleman, who was my creative writing teacher. Every two weeks we'd hand in a short story. I was in his course for two years. For two years he gave me high marks, but I always did these short stories at the last minute. ... I would always start at the last minute and just type, because I could write very fast.

At our last session, he hands back my short story ... and he compliments me, and as I'm getting up to go he says, "But you know, Mr. Caro, you will never achieve what you want to achieve unless you stop thinking with your fingers." ...

But when I quit to do a book, and I began to realize how complex the story of Robert Moses was; I said I must make myself think things all the way through, and the slowest way of committing your thoughts to paper is by writing in hand. So I write three or four or more — sometimes I write a lot of drafts in hand. Then I go to my typewriter and that's how I write.
 Now the age part:

As with George R. R. Martin, at some point in every interview, the interviewer comes up with something like "Mr. Caro, you're 83 and still projecting your next book on Johnson. Don't you think you ought to get a move on?" The one from the NYT is this:

What does it mean to know that there is a group of people out there having the somewhat morbid concern that you might not finish your book before you die? It’s hard to avoid that. Every time someone does an article on me it’s there.

Caro's response is basically this: "You've got me there, but really, that's your problem."  In other word, the process of writing takes what it takes. He's got 99 worries but mortality isn't one.

It's not so much that he's advocating slow writing for its own sake; instead, he wants to get it done the way he wants to get it done.

As I get back to writing after a month of various elder care crises and chaos, I find this comforting.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Handwriting and Cursive Handwriting: Once more, with feeling

The New York Times reports that cursive handwriting is making a comeback, and the headline is this: "Cursive Seemed to Go the Way of Quills and Parchment. Now It’s Coming Back."

I've written (though not by hand--hah!) on this blog about handwriting and specifically cursive handwriting, most recently in response to Anne Trubek, who has a lot of strong opinions about it

But I have a few issues with, well, this issue.

First--you see what I did there in the title?

Writing by hand is not writing in cursive.

Writing by hand means making marks on a piece of paper (or with an Apple pencil on an iPad, or whatever else isn't typing). It can be printing letters rather than connecting them. It could probably mean shorthand.

Cursive is a subset of handwriting in which the letters are connected. If I could draw a Venn diagram in Blogger, it would show a little circle inside a big circle.

Second,  what's the evidence?

The evidence is that writing notes by hand, not writing notes in cursive handwriting, is what helped students learn back in those studies done earlier in the century. Cursive may be faster to write, but it's not a defining factor. It'd be nice if students learned it, but no classroom has 18 hours a day.
Figure 1. My precious.

Third, there's an ominous political tinge to all this.

Now, I happen to like cursive, and yes, I think that, like languages, music lessons, and unpaid internships, it will become a class marker to separate the haves from the have-nots, if it hasn't already. I also like fountain pens. I mean, who wouldn't like to write with those beauties in the picture?

And yes, it'd be great to have students who could read cursive so that they can read letters from ages past, or letters from their grandparents, or handwritten notes on graded papers. (If they can't read the last-named, they will have a hard time in my class, but so far, no complaints.)

But the idea that they have to be able to read cursive in order to read the Declaration of Independence or other documents from the founders--well, those documents have been in print form for quite some time now.

Figure 2. Go ahead. Tell us what it says, cursive-reader.
And the idea that "Magna Carta" was "written in cursive" is kind of like saying that a tiger is a cat. Technically, yes, but its being written in cursive isn't as much of a stumbling block as that it is written in Latin, which the NYT doesn't mention. Let's not even get into the varieties of handwriting, like 5th-century Uncial or secretary hand, which have to be learned as a separate skill.

There's a fantasy going around now in conservative circles about how if students can read cursive, we can just get back to the originary documents, including the Constitution, written in cursive, that will mystically reveal extreme right-wing principles about how God hates the poor, the rich deserve to be richer, etc. and other principles dear to the GOP heart.

I do like cursive. I am glad it is being taught. But I don't agree with the reasons now being touted for teaching it. 

Figure 3. Something about "all men are created equal" seems to be missing from the reasoning of some state legislators who promote cursive handwriting.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Time management and the confetti bomb

Gwinne and Dame Eleanor have good posts up about time management and schedules and also links to people who write about time management and schedules. ("fabulous SHU" and "GetaLifePhD" and "Raul Pacheco-Vega" are three of them.)

Such charts! Such beautiful, colorful charts! I hunger for their time charts.

But then reality sinks in. As xykademiqz described so eloquently (and I posted, too), charts are not for the likes of us INTP types. And even if the MBTI is invalid, I'm claiming that it is because it fits.

Figure 1. Leuchtteurm1917 or . . .
For now, I'm sticking with the ex post facto method: the black notebook, in which I record what I'm actually doing, with a to-do list in the right margin, rather than how I think my day might unfold. I also keep the Excel spreadsheet for writing and noting events.

It's gotten so bad (or good) that if I do anything mildly work-related--write, read, grade papers, answer emails (especially answer emails)--I grab frantically for the black notebook to write down the time.

If I work, it's in there. If I waste time, it's in there. At least I know what I was supposed to be doing, because of the to-do list.
Figure 2.. . . Moleskine? Name your poison.

This is where the confetti bomb comes in. Suppose you're sitting in your office, as one does, grading papers, as one does, and keeping to your color-coded grading block.

Then, if you're a person in the world, and especially an administrative person in the world, someone walks in and says, in effect, "Congratulations! Here's a juicy, complex problem that it will take many phone calls, meetings, and a lot of thought to solve. Oh, and it needs a solution now."

That someone heaves a confetti bomb, which then detonates all over your desk.

Now, you could say this: "Now is my SACRED WRITING TIME or SACRED GRADING TIME or MY ORANGE BLOCK! Can't you see that it is my orange block and not a confetti block? Go away immediately. My chart says you can't be here."

Or you could do what most of us do.

Get to work cleaning up the confetti bomb, and write it in your notebook so you'll know why your best-laid plans gang aft agley. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Random bullets of being incognito

I'm at a conference where I do not know a single solitary soul and where no one knows me. I'm incognito!
  • This has advantages:
    • First, I don't feel that I have to attend anything at all except my own session, so what I do go to is pure delight. 
    • Second, I'm sick with a cold (feverish, coughing, feeling horrible, not sleeping), which makes me everyone's nightmare conference-goer ("please-don't-sit-near-me, PLEASE-don't-sit-near-me"), so I am staying away from everything possible and sitting far from everyone if I do go to something. 
    • It is purely fine to give yourself permission to stay in the room, sleep, and get better, and no one notices if you're gone. Also: one splurge on room service.
    • Third, since I know no one, I don't have to hunt up people for dinner or, conversely, explain why I am staying in so as not to be Typhoid Mary. 
  • This has disadvantages: 
    • Missing sessions that I'd like to see.
    • Wanting to meet some people whose books I've read but realizing in advance the look of horror that would come over their faces if Typhoid Mary introduced herself. 
I am also extending the "incognito" thing via autoreply, since everyone back at Northern Clime took advantage of spring break to fire off complicated questions and land them on my desk instead of theirs.

I thought of going all Edmund Wilson on them or maybe "nope nope nope don't care right now leave me alone" but settled for a traditional, dignified "reply when I return."

Now I'm the one holed up in a Fortress of Solitude and firing flaming arrows of autoreply.

And I'm incognito.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

On copyediting and Arrested Development

There's an episode of Arrested Development that perfectly encapsulates my experiences with copyedited material.

Michael: Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m going to give you a promotion. Welcome aboard, Mr. Manager. George Michael: Wow. I’m Mr. Manager. 
Michael: Well, manager; we just say manager. And you can hire an employee if you need one. George Michael: Do you think I need one? 
Michael: Don’t look at me, Mr. Manager. 
George Michael: Right, it’s up to me now. I’m Mr. Manager. 
Michael: Manager. We just say-- 
George Michael: I know, but you... 
Michael: Doesn’t matter who.

So which is it? Mr. Manager or just plain manager?

Dates in parentheses after a work is mentioned in the text? If I put them in, the copyeditor deletes them. If I don't put them in, I get an AU QUERY: "Please insert dates after titles."

Spell out "University Press"? If I do, it gets abbreviated to "UP." If I don't, it appears in full or sometimes as "Univ. Press."

Western, Eastern? I consult The Chicago Manual of Style and think I have it set, but if I have it capitalized, it's made lower-case and vice versa.

US or U.S.? If I use the periods, the copyeditor changes it to US--and vice versa.

Use a short form of the publisher's name? If I spell it out, it gets shortened. If I don't, it gets added back in.

Include the number of a journal that is paginated by issue? Don't get me started. 

I'm more amused by this than anything else.  I have heard of senior scholars who wax splenetic at the thought of changing a capital (think: Romanticism versus romanticism), but for me, that's not a hill to die on. I embrace a sort of learned helplessness since there's no point in fighting some of these.  Only if there's a change that creates a grammatical mistake will I shout "STET!" in the margins.

The new loosey-goosey MLA Handbook, 8th Edition, which is sort of Chicago-lite, doesn't help much.  I actually went to the session on this at MLA and asked questions that had been puzzling me, but they mostly said something along the lines of "Well, that is a pretty pickle, isn't it?" without answering the question.

Between MLA 8, Chicago 16 (and now 17), and various quirky house styles, I now take my best shot with the help of Endnote and Zotero, knowing that this is a battle that can never be won.

For I am Mr. Manager.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

White male privilege: a poem. Or a rant. Take your pick.

If I have to endure one more lecture

        Or email

        Or posted screed

        Or self-righteous comment

        Or public online attack

From another tenured white male

         Who is eager to show how woke he is

          And how committed to “the struggle”

         By making every conversation about “the struggle”

         And derailing every conversation to show how committed he is

         Even though creating funding, safeguards, and equality is the process I’m trying to further

         And, in the process, making it all about him and his wokeness,

I just might lose it.

Updated: McSweeney’s nails it again:

Friday, February 15, 2019

NYTimes tells you to answer your email. Okay, I'll get right on that.

In "No, you can't ignore email. It's rude", Adam Grant makes some good points about why you should respond, though. Here are some of his ideas and some of mine.
  • First of all, unless you're so awash with self-importance that people only exist when you want them to, you pretty much have to. It's your job. 
  • But according to Grant, "Your brain is not just sitting there waiting to be picked. You should not feel obliged to respond to strangers asking you to share their content on social media, introduce them to your more famous colleagues, spend hours advising them on something they’ve created or 'jump on a call this afternoon.'"
  • What about rude emails? Just say no to answering them. If for some reason you have to respond, be as polite and clipped as possible--and save the email exchange in case you need it later.
  • Some colleagues won't answer emails, and that's their prerogative. If I'm scheduling a meeting and they don't respond, keeping the original meeting time is mine. But what about people who ignore emails and then demand that you accommodate the request they couldn't be bothered to convey before? Just say "hell, no." 
  • What about emails sent after hours? Me: "You can shoot all the emails you want at me after 5 p.m. on Friday, if that's what your heart desires, but to me they're just silent snowflakes drifting down to settle into my inbox snowbank  until 7 a.m. on Monday." Group emails sent on a weekend seem to devolve into a snowstorm, if you catch my drift (see what I did there?), and answering just draws you into the thick of it. 
  • Grant: "Remember that a short reply is kinder and more professional than none at all."
  • Grant:  "If it’s not an emergency, no one should expect you to respond right away. Spending hours a day answering emails can stand in the way of getting things done." Me: no kidding.
  • Also, limit the number of times you apologize. Seriously. 

*You would think that the NYTimes would be in a complete shame spiral at even the thought of the word email, given that their blame-heavy "both sides" reporting on you-know-who's emails (along with Putin) handed the election to our current president, who just declared a national emergency to please his base.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

In search of lost time: the Costco plan

Figure 1. Not Walden Pond.
Over at Inside Higher Ed, Michael S. Harris has a good essay called "The Zero-Sum Game of Faculty Productivity." Harris argues that"The best way to tackle the zero-sum game and better prioritize our time is to make explicit the trade-offs that exist in faculty work."

This isn't an earth-shattering idea, and in fact it reminds me of a post I wrote a few years back, "Groundhog Day: Mid-career Academic Choices."

But it's a great reminder that time is limited, and so are our choices.  Harris gives some examples, with my commentary:

1. "For example, what if you spent more time creating an interactive activity for class than revising the look of your lecture slides?" Great idea, although revising the look of lecture slides is 99th on any list of 100 tasks.

2. "What if you created an answer sheet with clear explanations to distribute to class rather than writing brief notes in the margin on each individual student exam?" This is a lovely sentiment. What would happen is that students would ignore the answer sheet and come to your office or, more likely, email you because they don't see why theirs isn't like the best answer. It's nice to believe that they see what you see, but many will not, and they'll feel injured at the depersonalized nature of the feedback and say so on your evaluations.

 3. "What if you checked your email three times a day instead of three times an hour?" Great suggestion for anyone who does not have time-sensitive things going on. Still, three times a day should be plenty. 

Harris quotes Steve Jobs, who reduced the number of product lines so that he could focus Apple's attention on a few of them. (That's also what McDonald's did when it started out: a few products done well rather than many done not so well.)

It struck me that what Harris is talking about is the Costco plan. A very long time ago, a student of mine related to a Costco executive wrote that its philosophy was not to give consumers endless choice but to choose the best thing and stock it. That's it.

Now, obviously Costco stocks more than one kind of toothpaste, one kind of shampoo, etc., although in my house we still kid about the Soviet-style choices that are made for us: "Costco loves us. Costco knows what is best. You WILL grow to love the Costco choices. Two plus two is five."

Figure 2. Thoreau, definitely not in Costco's mission statement.

But the reality is that if you trust the choices, and as a Costco cult member I generally do, your shopping is more efficient and you save time.

Applying this to your own work, as Harris suggests, makes sense.

What are the things you need to do?
What are the things you want to do?
What priorities do you have?
What are the things getting in the way of them?

I'm not saying that you should make your mind into a retail giant, but if you're trying to pursue 15 smaller things instead of figuring out how they fit into your plan of 5 big ones, the choices alone are distracting you and taking up time.

Or, to put it another way in the words of that old anti-capitalist Henry David Thoreau:

Simplify, simplify.

[Edited to add: More Thoreau posts.]

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Writing inspiration and logjams

So a few days ago I started a post about how for some blessed reason (MLA, or Chicago, or finally getting so bored with this piece that I couldn't stand it) I finally broke through on the piece of writing that consumed my entire fall with guilt and dread. I could write! I finished it & sent it AND finished the edits they requested. Like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, my burdens fell from me.

And then I looked for an image and settled on the ice circle (below), because spinning wheels seemed appropriate.

And then I looked up "logjams" and realized that what I really meant was "icejams."

And then I decided to abandon the whole thing.

Isn't that the writing process in a nutshell--falling down an internet rabbit hole until you don't remember why you were there? (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a song about Google-stalking that sort of addresses this, "Research Me Obsessively.")

But I didn't abandon the writing. I still want to work, mirabile dictu. Whatever malaise/logjam/icejam/dread had me binge-watching The Crown instead of doing any work whatsoever has broken at least for now.

The real source of writing inspiration in this post comes from Robert Caro's new piece in The New Yorker. It's about going down a rabbit hole of research and finding pay dirt at the end, to mix a metaphor.

Stay warm, all of you in the polar vortex!

THE ice circle from  Maine:

Ice circle from North Dakota:

An ice circle from Washington state.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Brief and off-topic: Don’t stop believing

The 20th anniversary of The Sopranos is everywhere in the news, and HBO has been running a marathon of it, which ended tonight. I’ve been dipping in and out while taking a break from work and have found that I recall nothing. Tonight was the finale, though, and I do remember that.

From June 12, 2007:

When it ended, Spouse and I looked at each other, gasped, and laughed in delight. What a great way to end the series, with complete undecidability! It wasn’t until later that I learned that people were confused (did the cable go out?), then outraged, then as obsessed as if Lee Harvey Oswald was the man in the Members Only jacket.

David Chase said it doesn’t matter if (spoiler!) Tony is shot in the end or not, and I’d agree.

But in rewatching the finale—Episode 6.21, “Made in America”—just now, if Tony did get shot, it’s a good time for it. He’s spent the episode tying up loose ends, including a sit-down with his enemies and the death of one of them. He talks to Uncle Junior, who doesn’t remember him.  Carmela has a spec house in her sights. The famously slacktastic A.J. Wants to go into the army and then be a helicopter pilot for Donald Trump (!), but he’s talked out of it by his parents and encouraged to be a gofer for an adult movie company instead. As Meadow utterly fails at parallel parking, Tony’s looking fondly at his family, sharing onion rings, and  playing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox. Cut to black.

If you want to see a breakdown of the scene, it’s here:

I don’t recall many moments from the series, but every time “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on the radio, I think of it. Do you?

Monday, January 07, 2019

Random Bullets of MLA 2019

Figure 1. A sunny Chicago in January--who knew?
Now it's the moment you've all been waiting for--MLA 2019 in bullet form!

The good: 
  •  Weather. The last time I was in Chicago for MLA, the weather was, well, Chicago-ish: sleet, snow, ice, and long trudges up and down hill between the Sheraton and the Hyatt (or Hilton? it's a blur.) But look at those blue skies! If you were up early, the wind was biting, but some days got up to nearly 50. Also, after last year's snow apocalypse, there weren't as many people dazed from all the weather delays. Well done, Chicago weather gods.
  • Great panels. I can't tell if MLA papers are getting more interesting, if I'm choosing which ones to attend with more care, or both, but there were terrific sessions. One trend: not only more DH panels, but the ones that were there were full. I tried to go to one early morning panel, but it was packed to the rafters and in a tiny room, so I left. After last year, I didn't attend any working groups, because once bitten, twice shy. 
  • More panels than in previous years tried to follow accessibility and credit guidelines, with handouts or links, which is good. Here's a tip, MLA: maybe a space on MLA Commons where we can ALL post these papers so that people can follow along on their devices. I know that "not everyone has a smartphone" could be an issue, but it would help most people. 
  • Also, I only heard one person try the "you can hear me without a microphone, right?" routine, which is privilege dressed up as false modesty, and he was gently encouraged to use the mike. 
  • Book exhibit seemed more full and lively this year (possibly because of the snow last year) and just walking through there is enough to make you want to get to work. Lots of wine and snacks at booths, and I actually drank a glass of wine there at 3 in the afternoon. Don't let anyone tell you that academics don't lead a wild life. Also, some exhibits had the same deals online, which is helpful when you're traveling with a small suitcase (as most of us are these days) and don't have room to carry books back.
  • Helpful convention staff. So, so helpful to have friendly people on hand to tell you which way to go to get to the rooms. There were 3 levels with multiple hallways (all underground), but all you had to do was ask and there were multiple people to tell you. 
  • Jobs. Lots of conversations about precarious jobs and the lack of jobs, but not in the grim spirit of 2011.  
  • Also noted: I didn't see a lot of obviously anxious job seekers--that may have been because interviews were at a different hotel--but in talking with people from departments that were hiring, I heard a lot of "We interviewed through Zoom/Skype and chose our finalists that way." MLA has encouraged online interviews to save costs and stress for job candidates, and it seems to be working. I'd be eager to see the numbers. Our 2014 dreams have come true!
  • Great location, with easy walking to restaurants and also lots of cabs/Uber/Lyft. I liked being able to walk over the brass plates marking the original outlines of Fort Dearborn on my way to Starbucks.   
The okay:
Figure 2. We can see the wifi signal, but what's missing?
  •  Wifi. Wifi was plentiful, and free, and good. What's wrong with this picture? After a momentary lapse into printing the password in the program last year, they didn't print it this year. You had to ask, or, as I did, consult the handwritten scrap of paper at one of the information desks, placed there by friendly people who nonetheless must have gotten sick of being asked for the password.
  • Minibars.  The Hyatt hasn't gotten the memo yet that everyone prefers a refrigerator to a minibar, which is so 1993.
The not great:
  • Nothing the MLA could control, really, but we had to walk by this every day. 
  • Figure 3. Hypnotized like a snake with a mongoose,
    I couldn't stop staring at this.
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