Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Random bullets of the "Is COVID over yet?" semester

  • Answer: Ha! not even close to over. On the other hand, we can now get vaxxed AND boosted AND have good masks available, though few or no rapid tests. 
  • Also good: as Omicron spikes & Washington, D. C., declares a state of COVID emergency or whatever, MLA is allowing previously in-person panels to be remote. Most of us are grateful.
  • But remember Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, saying "Please--it's just drizzling" as a hurricane raged outside and she demanded a helicopter to take her back to NYC or heads would roll because how dare a natural event keep her from something to which she was entitled? Yeah, some of the academics on Twitter who were all "Pandemic? what pandemic?" are disgruntled, and no, I don't care. It's a pandemic. People are dying. Hospitals are full.  Even the NHL canceled, for God's sake. MLA powers that be--Paula Krebs and the rest--if you're out there, thank you!
  • Teaching this semester (in person and online) was fine. It was really hard work but really rewarding, if that makes sense. I know they learned things, and I think they had fun doing it. 
  • Writing: not much to report in that sector. I'd say I spent about 80% of my time on teaching this semester, no lie. But I'm getting glimmerings of wanting to work on a new project and have ordered books.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

RBOC and some writing inspiration

  •  First, some writing inspiration from Paul McCartney in The New Yorker: "As McCartney recalls, “George would say, ‘Be here at ten, tune up, have a cup of tea.’ At ten-thirty you’d start.” Two songs were recorded by lunch, and often two more afterward. “Once you get into that little routine, it’s hard, but then you enjoy it. It’s a very good way to work. Because suddenly at the end of every day you’ve got four songs.” This puts Sir Paul in the "write every day" camp, and I am here for it. At the end of the day you've got four songs; at the end of the pomodoro, you've at least got more words than you did at the beginning.
  • More writing inspiration, but very vague, I'm afraid: a writer recently posted that he gets up really early to write not despite his being too tired but BECAUSE of it. The fatigue, etc. helps him to stop dancing around and actually get down to writing, because it turns off his inner editor. I saw this and shouted "this is me!" to the cats, except that for me 9 p.m. is the witching hour when the inhibitions put out a "gone to lunch" sign and I can settle into writing. I am still doggedly trying to write in the morning because at 9 p.m. on a teaching day, I am really too tired for any work, but morning writing is never going to be the same as those quiet evening hours.
  • Seeing pictures of modern writing houses, I'm struck by how they seem to come in two styles: stuffed to the gills with mementos, children's pictures, artwork, and various cozy knicknacks; and bare in a pure minimalist style, with just fancy chairs, a laptop, a couple of artbooks, and some inspirational "live laugh love" thingy on the wall, with nary a functional file cabinet in sight. The point is that they have a definite aesthetic. Mine does not have an aesthetic, unless "office for reading and writing" is an aesthetic. To my mind it's the most beautiful (because it's roomy and mine and I love it), but I was ridiculously fretting about its not making A Coherent Aesthetic Statement and that I was somehow shortchanging it because I wasn't making it beautiful enough. Spouse wisely said "it's for your work, not theirs. Work is your aesthetic."
  • My double life of pretending regret about not going to conferences and that there is no COVID or that travel is not a challenge, like the rest of the academic conference world, is making me a bit irritable privately, though I'm still maintaining the public facade. 
  • Was Halloween always such a big deal? When I was a kid, we dressed up and went trick-or-treating on October 31, usually with our parents, but they didn't dress up and the houses were just regular houses, not decorated. Around here everything is Halloween for all of October, and a lot of people decorate and dress up. Was it always this way? Or do we just want more holidays now (not a bad thing)? 

Friday, October 29, 2021

If a crazy donor put up $200M to build a windowless dorm, with tiny rooms, would your university do it?

 UCSB says, "heck, yes!"

Short version: "97-year-old billionaire-investor turned amateur-architect Charles Munger, who donated $200 million toward the project with the condition that his blueprints be followed exactly."

These include the following:

  •  2 exits for a building to hold 4500 students.
  • 1 bathroom per 8 rooms, which is bad for all kinds of reasons I leave to your imagination.
  • Did I mention NO WINDOWS? In a place with a view of the ocean? 
  • And that he's paying 200M but UCSB will shell out 1.5 billion to create & maintain this monstrosity?

When he's not reaching into the past for all kinds of inhumane social experiments for his inspiration, Munger apparently makes this offer to various campuses, and some have accepted (Michigan? Not clear.).

 As is unfortunately typical of some university governance processes when money is involved, this was apparently rammed through without any discussion. 

The consulting architect, Dennis McFadden, clearly a man of principle, has quit, because “in the nearly fifteen years I served as a consulting architect to the DRC, no project was brought before the committee that is larger, more transformational, and potentially more destructive to the campus as a place than Munger Hall.” 

Let's recap: take students stressed out by a year of COVID. Warehouse them like lab rats and force them to interact. Provide not enough bathrooms. And fire drills in that place (how did this ever pass a fire code?) will be a real treat, with 4500 students streaming out the two doors at 2 a.m., unless prank fire-alarm pulling has vastly changed over the decades. 

Wasn't there a lab rat experiment that proved what a bad idea cramming people into a windowless space could be?

And when sleep-deprived students show up in our classes, guess who will get to bear the secondary consequences?

 Nothing could go wrong here, nothing at all.  

P. S. With its steady drumbeat of "no offices for professors is the great future that awaits us all," I'm surprised that CHE isn't cheerleading this effort.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Bad Art Friend: the blue/gold dress of 2021

You've doubtless seen this one: Robert Kolker's "Who is the Bad Art Friend?" in the NYTimes Magazine. 

Here's the short version:

1. A lightly-published writer (Dawn Dorland) donates a kidney, seeks support (praise?) for doing so by setting up a Facebook private group and inviting writers and others to it, including the more-famous Sonya Larson. She posts an open hypothetical letter to the kidney recipient explaining her reasons. 

2. Larson lurks on the group but doesn't post. Dorland looks at her stats, sees this, and reaches out to Larson by email (who does that?).

3. Larson writes a story, "The Kindest," in which a deluded white savior type donates a kidney to Chuntao, who is--unimpressed? 

In the earliest version of the story, Larson, in order to mock the white savior more effectively, uses part of Dorland's letter word for word, telling her group of writer friends, the Chunky Monkeys, that it was too good not to repeat. Later, she changes it slightly. 

Dorland pursues Larson: those are my words. Larson feels pursued but doubles down: oh, you own all the words and kidney situations, do you? Tells her friends, who along with Larson have been mocking the needy Dorland all along. Lies to Dorland.  Lawsuits ensue. 

The reactions, from Celeste Ng and others on Twitter and in the NY Times comments, have been fascinating. 

1. Writers: Dorland was never our friend; we just liked to mock her. Anyway, she was annoying, and persisting in claiming her words is borderline harassment. She was not part of Our Group, the Chunky Monkey in-crowd. We are Creatives and taking those words and Dorland's life situation was creative license--deal with it. And anyway, Dorland shouldn't write about her kidney donation, because she's begging for praise and it destroys the purity of her gift. Only we should write about it. 

Honestly, this is the take from most of the writers I follow on Twitter, all of whom say "it's clear who the bad guy is here--Dorland, duh."  

The Atlantic has an essay by Elizabeth Bruenig saying "get a load of that awful Dawn Dorland" with no hint of the stolen words backstory, which gives me reason 1,000 why I'm glad I am no longer a subscriber after decades of paying money to The Atlantic. 

2. People who aren't writers: "Wasn't that mean, though, to take her words and gang up on her? Why are you mocking her for being needy and for, excuse me, giving a kidney?" 

My take, as a lowly English professor:

Leaving aside everything else: Isn't the appropriation of someone else's words without attribution what we call . . . plagiarism? And call out in student papers?

I get why Larson would attack and get her group to back her with a lot of excuses. I've seen it whenever I've confronted a student about plagiarism, even when I'm sitting there with a word-for-word comparison. They get defensive and angry. 

It doesn't change the facts. I still report it to Academic Integrity or whatever the university unit about that is calling itself this year. 

Would I ever say this, though, on Twitter? Absolutely not.  I went through middle school, and believe me, I knew Mean Girls.  I also know that the Mean Girl syndrome doesn't stop there. 

Larson said that she wanted "The Kindest" to be a blue/gold dress story, where the woman with the white savior complex and the woman who got the kidney were both wrong and right, depending on your subject position. 

But Kolker's reporting, it seems to me, is providing the real test.

What are your thoughts? 

Updated to add: 

Here's Olivia Craighead at Gawker: sure, there was 'light plagiarism' but ewww Dorland. Dorland pitched her story to the NYTimes, which we can all agree was the REAL crime.

Buzzfeed: #teamSonya

Last update: Summer Brennan lays out the whole case, with screenshots, here:


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The two-headed conference Cassandra and other stories

 I know I wrote about this last time, but about conferences: can we just not?

Conference 1. Recently, for a conference in a month or two, I had to tell people that despite being vaxxed I was just not comfortable sitting in a crowded plane/crowded airport/crowded hotel rooms/crowded restaurants just now. Virtual was an option, so why on earth wouldn't we choose that? I didn't mention the $2000 (I added it up) out of pocket cost of going to the conference because there is no departmental travel money.

They looked at me as if I had grown two heads.  Really? Why do virtual when we could be in person and see everyone?

Conference 2. Then, for another conference in a deep red state that's unvaxxed and proud, I decided not to submit a proposal. It would have been another $2000 out of pocket, incidentally, but that wasn't the main reason.

People I talked to: why on earth not? Don't you want to go? Everyone will be there!

Because we're in the midst of a pandemic, that's why. I didn't say this, because again: I didn't need to be looked at like I'd grown two heads.

Conference 3: With plenty of time to spare, I told the organizers of a small conference that I always attend that I wasn't going to be there for a roundtable. No problem, they said, but again: really, you're not going?

I don't know about where you are, but here, hospitals are full. People can't get needed surgery. Oh, and also: people are getting sick and some will never get well. Children under 12 can't get vaxxed yet. There's a large contingent of people doing their "research" about lizard people and microchips and whatever other ridiculous nonsense the right wing is cooking up and deciding not to get the vaccine. They're storming school board meetings and banging on doors and threatening teachers in addition to being general maskholes and behaving badly in public places.

Oh, wait--according to the Washington Post and the NY Times, this is everywhere in the U. S. 

So both of my two heads and I will stay home from at least these conferences for a while. I will hope that everyone is safe from the virus while traveling and that, unlike Cassandra, who predicted the future and wasn't believed, I will be wrong and that COVID will spare everyone.  And unless I have to, I'll keep my mouth shut, because I don't want to be judged for not believing in the COVID-free conference bubble that the rest of academe seems to think exists.


Other stories:

  • Teaching is going really well. It's great being with students again, and teaching and learning with all of us fully masked is not a problem at all. It was even okay that one day when (1) I forgot my whiteboard markers and handouts; (2) the overhead camera declined to work;  and (3) the computer didn't work, either.
  • I am spending so much time on teaching that very little else is getting done. All the work on teaching I do now is work I won't have to do in the future, although right now there aren't hours enough in the day. Everything seems to take twice as long as it used to. I've started keeping track even more closely in my little black book: how many hours to write up this lesson/lecture, this quiz, answer these emails, grade these papers.
  • A lot of the time is going into developing rubrics, which our LMS seems to like if not require; also, some students have written to me looking for them. As you know, I have had mixed--make that very little--success with rubrics, but I'm apparently willing to put 20+ hours into it to try to make it work. 
  • Is anyone else exhausted this fall?
  • On the plus side, our sweet elderly cat will stop braying at the door if we feed her canned food 3 times a day, so that is a win. 



Sunday, August 15, 2021

Ready for conference travel? At IHE, Joshua Kim says "not so much."

 Over at IHE, Joshua Kim asks whether  we're ready to go back to conference travel and whether we have any conference travel planned for this year.

Answering second part first: Yes, I do have conference travel planned.

Answering first part second: No, Joshua. I am so not ready. 

Why? Let me count the reasons.

1. Judging by what I've read and saw when I was on Twitter, travel is a nightmare right now. Expensive flights. Canceled flights. Hours on the phone to rebook the flights. No rental cars. Filthy rental cars that break down. This is all quite apart from the necessity of being Niles Crane and wiping down surfaces, not eating so you won't have to remove your mask--and a significantly higher risk of people acting out in the air. 

2. Somewhat related: all kinds of systems and protocols are changing all the time right now, especially internationally. There's a mask mandate. No, there isn't. You have to quarantine. Well, maybe not, but you have to test within 24 hours.  It's natural that advice constantly changes, and it's right that we get the best information, but planning isn't easy. And--bonus--when you get there, you will not be seeing people's faces, because they will have masks on.

3. Also somewhat related: Did I mention that there's this pesky global pandemic still going on? One with a hugely infectious Delta variant that's getting worse every week? And that kids under 12 can't be vaccinated yet? And that if you're vaccinated you might not get as sick, but you still might get sick? Am I the only one who knows this? 

It's like the options in the "Spam, spam, & spam" Monty Python skit, where they're give options like "spam, spam, eggs, and spam" and "eggs, spam, and eggs" but there is no option without spam, just one "that's not got much spam in it." We don't have a virus-free option, just one that, if we're vaccinated, has "not got much spam (virus) in it."

4. It's expensive. I pay my own work travel, most of the time, since our travel allowance for the year is never enough; sometimes it covers most of one conference, but most of the time not. Figure $1500 minimum for a conference, between airfare, hotels, conference fees, cabs/Lyft/Uber, meals; it all adds up. Those thousands of dollars winging across the country to present a paper? It's mostly out of pocket, from my laughably titled vacation fund.

5. With his authority, Kim says "Zoom conferences are the worst." With my authority, I say, "No they aren't." If the purpose is to schmooze with others and go out to dinner, then no, Zoom can't do it all. If the purpose is lively intellectual conversation, then yes, it can. 

But apart from "Zoom conferences are terrible," I'm with Joshua Kim on this one. 

How about you? 


Friday, August 13, 2021

5-minute post 8/13/21

 Inspired by Dame Eleanor and xykademiqz, a 5-minute post.

  •  Let's see--what's positive? My campus wants people to get vaccinated. I bought more masks and am practicing my death glare for people not wearing them on campus. 
  • Once in a while the temperature goes below 90-100 degrees, although the air quality index hovers somewhere between very unhealthy and "Judas Priest, don't go out there if you don't want to kill your lungs." I really miss walking, not to mention breathable air.
  • I've stayed off Twitter for the week, and in addition to shedding its negativity, I've found more time to read actual books and even some contemporary short stories. 
  • My remaining sweet cat is trying to make up for the absence of her sister and brother by being affectionate and demanding enough for three cats. I also have an elderly cat, whom I love but who spends 16 hours a day within three feet on either side of the back door, either braying to go out or braying to come in. 
  • I am successfully keeping my mouth shut when people say "hooray, no more Zoom teaching!" because that's not our option this year and I want to be perceived as being on "Team In-Person."
  • No Zoom got me thinking about this: did your campus have you designate a teacher who could take over your classes last year? Basically a pedagogical next-of-kin in case, as they delicately put it,  you were "unable to complete the course for some reason"? We had to do this last year, but nobody's asked about it so far this year. 


Friday, August 06, 2021

How YOU doin'? A follow-up to the previous post, I guess.

Seriously, Joey Tribbiani (Friends) & those associations aside, how are you doing? 

 I ask because we're supposed to be all over this COVID drama, right? Right? 

And we're supposed to soldier on, Delta variant be damned. 

Teach in masks, because we're all hands on deck. Back to school meetings? In person, with a Zoom option if you're still harboring some illusions that there's still a pandemic.

People planning in-person conferences for the most COVID-ridden, anti-vax, no ICU beds left at all states in the union as if there is nothing going on. The pandemic is never discussed except as a topic for a CFP.

And then my second cat this year vanished. 

Well, that happens. Search and search and search and put up posters and notify all the sites. 

Soldier on, and all that.

So I'm trying to work. Soldier on. No stress relief of walking or running because it's been 95-105 degrees and "very unhealthy" with smoke.

Keep cooking. Keep writing. I'm a rock of stability. Keep on keeping on.

I started listening to a song--not even a sad song--by the band that's gotten me through the last 6 months--you know, the mental grout band.

And burst into tears.

Twitter didn't help, you'll be shocked to learn. Now, Twitter has only two channels lately: outrage and snark. Today the snark--which, again, I'm only assuming because the cool kids of academic twitter were posting about it but, not being part of the in crowd, I wasn't in on the joke--was making fun of a poem in which someone expressed grief.  I am DONE. 

What I wanted to tweet was "JFC, what is WRONG with you people?" But it would have been pointless, so I just blocked Twitter with my handy apps. 

So my answer to the question in the title of the post would be "not great, Bob!" 

Since we're due for a few days in which the air is only moderately unhealthy, here's my plan:

1. Eat chocolate.

2. Take early morning walks.

3. Stay off social media.

4. Binge-watch some Mad Men or something. 

5. Get some sleep. 

How are you doing? 



Sunday, July 18, 2021

"Why People Are So Awful Online": Roxane Gay, being right once again

In "Why People Are So Awful Online," Roxane Gay pinpoints something that we've been talking about for a while and completely nails it, as usual: 

In our quest for this simulacrum of justice, however, we have lost all sense of proportion and scale. We hold in equal contempt a war criminal and a fiction writer who too transparently borrows details from someone else’s life. It’s hard to calibrate how we engage or argue.

One person makes a statement. Others take issue with some aspect of that statement. Or they make note of every circumstance the original statement did not account for. Or they misrepresent the original statement and extrapolate it to a broader issue in which they are deeply invested. Or they take a singular instance of something and conflate it with a massive cultural trend. Or they bring up something ridiculous that someone said more than a decade ago as confirmation of … who knows?

Gay says "we seek control and justice online" and that's why we want our voices heard. True enough--but at what price? 

 The first paragraph especially resonates with what happens on Twitter. Remember the radical librarians getting all up in arms about Little Free Libraries? 

Today, Twitter is all up in arms again about titles--"should you call a professor doctor or professor or or or"--and though it's an important topic, and was fifteen years ago or so when people first started making an issue of it and talking about it endlessly, do we really need to revisit it quarterly? 

Maybe we do. Maybe this is like the old days of ChronicleVitae, when I used to get frustrated because it gave no new information and finally realized that it wasn't meant to be informative for people past the first year of grad school. The fault was with me for reading stuff I already knew, not the medium for putting it out there. Maybe Twitter is the same way.

Yet I confess that most of the time a subset of academic twitter is too "inside baseball" for me to understand at all. Shade is thrown, and subtweets proliferate like minnows, and knowing references are apparently caught by those in the know, of whom I am not one.

 It's all a bit like being back in junior high and not knowing what the cool girls were talking about, except that now I have neither the time nor the inclination to figure it out. As Gay says, she now has a life and family and can't spare the time. 

I've been writing about Twitter here for 10 years, and while nothing can touch the levels of misinformation and horror that the former guy brought to it, Gay may well be right about the level of negativity it has now attained.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

5-minute post

Long time, no see! Following xykademiqz and gwinne, here's a 5-minute update post:

  • Even if I don't get any vacation again this year (see also: heat dome, smoke, western hellscape), I have an autoreply all ready to pretend that I do, and I'm not afraid to use it. As an administrator, I never felt as though I could take the time to disconnect, but current & past administrators around me all have better sense about work-life balance, and if they're not on duty, they're emphatically not on duty.
  • Have learned that it's totally easy to pretend that you want to go back to in-person conferences and the classroom this fall. Pro tip: Nod enthusiastically when people bring it up, and lie, lie, lie like a champ.
  • Missing the land of no internets and adjacent waterways fiercely this year, which I suspect is standing in for other kinds of loss. Knowing that I might not revisit this region for years, if ever again, is something I try not to think about.
  • My research right now is writing-adjacent rather than writing--necessary but rote work--and my brain needs to get back to writing. 
  • Inside Higher Ed now wants you to sign in, just as the Chronicle does, so the bar of "is this worth reading?" is now a lot higher there as well. 
  • Even a broken clock like Caitlin Flanagan is right twice a day, and she has a point about Twitter. Since the former guy is gone (thank God), it has devolved into a lot of in-jokes and fussy, pointless  fights about whether "best" is too curt as an email closing (previous post on this here). On the one hand, it's a good sign if people are consumed with such trivial stuff. On the other hand--can you say "waste of time?"

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Making it look easy/it's not as easy as it looks

An anecdote, or maybe a parable, about academe. 

If you have a large extended family, and that large extended family has gatherings periodically, chances are excellent that the women of that family have taken turns spending huge amounts of time organizing, cleaning prior to, cooking for, and cleaning up after those gatherings. 

Yes, people bring potluck dishes or rolls or steaks or whatever, but there's still a point person who's in charge of seeing to it that everything actually happens. Maybe you've had to do this yourself (raises hand). 

When my mother--let's call her Barbara-- was the one to do this when we all lived at home, it was . . . strenuous. She'd get up early, get the groceries, start cleaning (and we had to clean, too, or, since we were teenagers, at least heave all the clothes and random stuff strewn on the floor into the closet before everyone arrived), and then start cooking. You know the drill: boil the eggs for deviled eggs and the potatoes for potato salad; peel, chop, and cook some more stuff. Maybe some creamed potatoes, too? A big salad?  Make piecrust and a few pies, maybe rhubarb and apple and lemon meringue? And let's not forget a casserole and some kind of Jello thing with fruit or carrots or (I want to say one time) sauerkraut in it.

Then everyone arrives, and the table is laid, and everyone's ready to eat. 

And my beloved grandmother--truly, she was--says, "You know, Barbara always does this so easy." 

She thought she was giving a compliment, I think, but my mother had steam coming out of her ears every time.

I'm thinking about this because of the various tasks that faculty, and by this I mean primarily women faculty, undertake to keep things going in service and administration. 

And the tasks are always with a "just": 

  • "You'd just have to call X or email Y or look up Z."
  • "You'd just have to call a meeting." 
  • "You might want to take a second and just reach out to these five people to see their thoughts on this."
  • "It's just a report; it shouldn't take too long to do."
  • "It's just a small gathering; it'd be nice to get everyone together to celebrate."

Point #1 is this: if you do it right, and you put the time and effort into it, whatever "it" is as a task, you'll make it look easy. Point #2 is that it's not as easy as it looks, but that no one will ever see that or credit you with it, or care that you've done it well, because see Point #1.

Because you do it so easy, you see.


Monday, April 19, 2021

NYTimes's Adam Grant on Languishing : When you've lost that (writing) feeling

 At first I didn't click on Adam Grant's "There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling" because I thought it was my friendly companion "meh." But it really does have a name: Languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.


    Last summer, the journalist Daphne K. Lee tweeted about a Chinese expression that translates to “revenge bedtime procrastination.” She described it as staying up late at night to reclaim the freedom we’ve missed during the day. I’ve started to wonder if it’s not so much retaliation against a loss of control as an act of quiet defiance against languishing.


That means we need to set boundaries. Years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. When engineers managed the boundary themselves, 47 percent had above-average productivity. But when the company set quiet time as official policy, 65 percent achieved above-average productivity. Getting more done wasn’t just good for performance at work: We now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress.

I don’t think there’s anything magical about Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. It clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.

This makes a great deal of sense, especially with a phenomenon that I've been thinking of as "running out of steam." Say you're excited about Project A, you do the homework on Project A, you set aside the time to work on Project A, and then  . . . nothing. 

It's not like usual writing procrastination and anxiety, which are still there for some things. It's more like the excitement dissipating when you have to conjure up the energy to actually put those words down. The energy vanishes.

It's also important to note that not everyone in academia has the luxury of languishing--parents of little kids, overworked instructors, etc. etc. etc. Tanya Golash-Boza of GetaLifePhD wrote on Twitter had published "75 books and articles"* because she sleeps 8 hours a night, writes for 1-2 hours every workday, and doesn't "get in her own way." 

There was swift backlash, and she later revised it to acknowledge her academic privilege of a low courseload and good research funding--and attributed her success to not hanging around Twitter [except to promote her brand] and spending the time writing.

Her basic point, though, is the same as Grant's: set boundaries. Give yourself time to write, and then do it--i.e., get out of your own way. 

In other words, don't languish. Get past the "meh."

 *Edited to add: I just realized that this reminded me of Bachman in Silicon Valley, when he lumps his  his money with Bighead's and announces that their company has $20,013,000, never specifying that the the $20 million belongs to Bighead and the 13K to guess who.


Monday, April 05, 2021

The function of criticism at the present time, or how not to behave, NBC

 No, this is not a Matthew Arnold fan post. It's about meanness for the sake of meanness on the interwebs.

You may have seen this a few days ago:

In it, a writer called (checks notes) Jeff Slate* takes the occasion of Paul Simon selling his back catalog (as Dylan and countless others have done, let it be noted) for megabucks to slam Simon for no clear reason: 

  • "Always a ruthless operator, Simon no doubt saw the sale by Dylan to the rival company as a golden opportunity."
  • "It may feel as though he's saying "screw you" to all the folk-loving fans** who grew up with him (who are no doubt listening to his recordings on Spotify — which pays him pennies, of course — in their Audis), but Simon has never worried about what anyone thinks of him. "
  • "That means Young and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Paul Simon — all giants in their day — will be no more than footnotes, at best, to Dylan and the Beatles, if only because history is a blunt instrument and doesn't have room (at least not in the broadest sense) for subtlety.

    "So, Paul Simon, who is essentially an also-ran '60s icon on a centurial or millennial scale, is making a rational calculation. "

    Wow. I don't hold any particular brief for Paul Simon or know anything about his life, or whether he's a "ruthless operator," or "broke Art Garfunkel's heart," or any of it. 

    I know some of his songs, but I'm not a drunk music bro in a dorm somewhere at 2 a.m. arguing about the relative purity and worth--and worth because purity--of 1960s musicians, so I'll let that relative worth argument lie there.

    The reaction on Twitter was damning, and the ratio, lovely readers, was satisfyingly long. The comments were along these lines: 

    • Jeff who? 
    • Did Simon reject his demo tape, or something? 
    • JFC, what is wrong with this guy?

    My bigger question is this: why did NBC publish a screed like this? What's the point? There's no information in this article. There's no informed music criticism. There's nothing specific at all. There's nothing but what Charles Dickens would have called a bit of spleen.

    Now, 19th-century writers loved to tear up fellow writers; Poe in particularly was known for the savagery of his reviews.  But his reviews had a point, and this  . . . has none except the writer's animus toward Paul Simon. 

    We've gotten used to internet meanness along with items like The New Yorker not knowing the difference between "discreet" and "discrete" in a headline. (I have a screenshot!).  

    And I've seen some snide and pointless swipes even from music critics like NPR's Ken Tucker, aka a Derry Murbles wannabe for you Parks and Rec fans. 

    But Matthew Arnold told us that we could do better, even if no one clicks through.  Do better, NBC. 

    It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word,– disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. By steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country at any rate are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.

    *I wondered at first if this is a pseudonym, given Slate's reputation for full-on snark in most of its articles. 

    **Same argument was made when Dylan went electric at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. Get. Over. It.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

What's getting you through this spring? The mental grout theory of coping.

Some things are looking up. They really are. Want proof?

  • People are getting vaccinated (including me, hooray!).
  • The days are getting longer. Sure, they're still cold, gray, and rainy, with snow and hail from time to time, but they are longer.
  • The political hellscape has lifted and things are getting done. Proof: people are picking at each other on Twitter for very minor sins of omission in fights that exist only among the theory bros and other cool kids.
  • Call my Agent is on Netflix and is absolutely fantastic, a sure way to get out of your head for an hour a day. It's French, and it's hilarious (and the subtitles are really good).

But one thing I've noticed is that every spring, I seem to do a deep dive into something that takes me a complete world away from work. For some people it might be knitting, or yoga, or skiing, or whatever else gives you a brain vacation. The main principles are that it has to (1) be engaging enough to completely flood your brain with something other than work and (2) it has to have little to no utility in any kind of work life. 

The way I think of it is this: the work and daily tasks in your life are like rocks living in your brain. Some of the rocks are huge; some have sharp, irregular edges that bang into you when you're trying to fall asleep; but all of them are there and won't go away, although they change shape and configuration from time to time.

If all you have in your mental inventory is a set of boulders weighing you down and grating against each other, it's going to get you down. What you need is some grout, or smooth mental filler, that you can use to keep those rocks from moving around too much when you need to get some rest and relaxation.

Now, some movies, television shows, podcasts, books, and the like can do this (see: Call My Agent), but you might also need more mental grout than this.

This could be anything, like, say, a deep dive into the films of Orson Welles. Or learning an embarrassing amount about Bonnie and Clyde. Mad Men. Or who really killed the Princes in the Tower. Doesn't matter if you're not an expert on whatever it is; in fact, that's preferable, because then you can learn more. My mental grout this spring is a band, but it could have been anything. It's whatever puts you back to sleep when anxieties awaken you at 3 a.m.

After a time, you might shift the composition of the mental grout to something else, but the point is that it exists, not what it consists of.

Do you have some mental grout that's helping you get through everything? What is it?

Monday, March 15, 2021

Conferences: Might as well face it, you're addicted to sloth

What usually happens in the spring? Pay attention to conference calls for papers. Go to meetings on campus. Prep class. Grade papers. Try to write. Put in grant applications that you don't have a chance of getting. Drive, drive, drive, in all senses.

This spring has been . . . different. Even though I can see that all the people moaning on Twitter about how  Covid has sapped their productivity are in fact publishing up a storm, promoting themselves, doing Zoom lectures, on and on and on and on, I somehow . . . don't care. That is, I like and promote their work, but as for me? No FOMO here. 

 I recently had to add up all the conferences at which I was going to attend and present--and pay for; no conference money was going to be forthcoming from Northern Clime--and I thought I must have been crazy to agree to it all.  Farhad Manjoo had a recent opinion piece in the NYT--"Do you really need to fly?"--and posed the question that all conference-goers have asked themselves: do we really need to hurl ourselves across the country or across continents to read a paper aloud for 20 minutes, or, best case, give a 50-minute keynote? Couldn't we do this through Zoom? 

Yes, the point of conferences is really the conversations that we have in the hallways or session Q & A or, for you sociable types, cocktail parties or dinner. But couldn't some of this be done virtually?

Manjoo says that things are going to change, that we're going to see that this level of travel is nuts and that a lot can be done virtually. However, I think it's an arms race thing that may change, but only slowly. Unless the big conferences embrace some version of virtual conferences, it's going to create a two-tiered system, sort of like the way that (regrettably) online publications a few years ago were seen as inferior. "Is it a monograph that will count or an online publication?" we heard. "Both?" we said, but did the tenure and promotion committees agree? Do they agree now? 

Somehow we've got this Theodore Roosevelt strenuous-life attitude about travel as inherent virtue, however miserable the travel and wrong-headed it might be. Sure, it's a conference, but is it a real conference if it's not in person? Sure, the archive has all those materials digitized beautifully, but is it really research if you didn't go to the archive, spending money, taking time, and risking the inevitable misery of catching a cold to do so?* If you didn't suffer (and yes, in a privileged academic way; this does not compare with real suffering) to get to the archive in person, how do you know it's real scholarship? If you didn't eat the stale bagels and buy the $6 granola bar and drink the scalding coffee from the official Hell Caterer to the Conference World and feel anxious about every minute of the conference, did you really get the full experience? 

The conversations, ideas, and networking do make conferences worthwhile, not to mention they're pretty much required if you want to be an active scholar in most fields. And I'm not stupid enough to confess the relief from the constant travel that this year has given me, not when everyone everywhere is proclaiming in-person conferences as an absolute good, like chocolate chip cookies or clean air. But this year has given a sense of what life might be like without quite so many of them, and the grass on the other side of the fence (whispers) is a little greener than I thought it would be.

Either that, or I'm addicted to sloth. 

*The MLA Committee for Scholarly Editions says that digitized isn't good enough:  "Have all transcriptions been fully compared by the editor with the original documents, as distinct from a photocopy of those documents?"

If you can't travel to see the originals, or the archive is closed, you don't get the seal of approval, I guess. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Snow and writing

 The snow is snowing all around,

It falls on field and tree,

It falls on all our parkas here

And on the ships at sea.

    With apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson

Snow isn't news for a lot of us; it's certainly not for those of us here in Northern Clime. I feel bad for those of you in usually warm places, though, who are now going through this without the benefit of the equipment (plows, etc.) of northern places. 

If I kept a gratitude journal, there would be one overriding theme in it this year, and especially when the snow comes: teaching online instead of in person. While none of us are happy about the reason, thank you, powers that be, for letting us teach online during COVID. Thank you.

Let me clarify the reason for that gratitude: teaching online means that I'm not risking my life on scary, ill-plowed two-lane roads to get to campus in bad weather. Our campus has declared maybe two snow days in the many years I've been there, so yes, we have to show up. For one of those days, I finally struggled to campus after 2.5 hours of white-knuckle driving only to have them close campus. Yes, I had to turn around and drive home. One time they closed the highway while I was still on it 30 miles from home, and I had to drive on the old highway, the one that you can still drive on but that they abandoned because it was too steep & scary. I made it, but it was, as the young folk say, a mood. So, gratitude. 

Here's one post I wrote back then:

 That also brings me to writing, which I have time to do now that it's snowing and we're online. After the election, a weight fell off my shoulders, although like most anyone who watched the news, I assumed there would be violence on January 6. After that, after the impeachment despite its outcome, there's a feeling that the grownups are in charge again and our brains can turn to stuff we can actually do something about, like writing.

The new plan, which is bearing some minor fruit, is to do this:

  • Write by hand before putting it into type. This is new, because I've been able to touch type since I was maybe 15 years old and have always composed by typing. It was typewriters back then and computers starting in 1986, but always typing. But writing by hand now feels less stressful than the blank page, and there's less possibility of distraction from the interwebs.
  • Keep strict track of time. This involves not just pomodoros but writing down the times and what I'm doing.
  • Keep piling stuff in the main document and not worry about whether it's terrible or not until a few days have passed. Yesterday I looked: yes, some was terrible, but some was okay, and all of it is more than I would have written otherwise. 

Hope you are all safe and warm!


Sunday, February 07, 2021

Random bullets of settling in to 2021: Things are looking up!

  •  Happy New Year!
  • Who had armed takeover of the Capitol by violent white supremacist Trump worshippers & Trump's impeachment on their 2021 bingo card? Sadly, Spouse and I kind of did, but it was still horrifying.
  • But we have a new and competent administration now, and there are vaccines, and said competent administration is getting those vaccines to us and cleaning up the mess of 4 years of misrule as swiftly as possible.
  • Everyone is now promoting their Substack on Twitter. Substack, I learned, is a newsletter format that lets you subscribe for a fee to read the thoughts of people you would like to follow. So: a blog, but not free.
  • How's your imagination doing, now that we're still in lockdown? Mine is running toward thinking about some of the antique furniture I've recently received after my mother's house was sold. Now, this furniture isn't old by European or British standards, but it's old by mine. I'm thinking especially of a little burled maple table that would have been made in the 1830s-1840s in, probably, Connecticut or Rhode Island. It's a plain little table, nothing fancy, but every time I walk by it, I wonder what its original owners would have thought of where it is, what it's seeing, so to speak, and otherwise imagining myself back into its original time and place. 
  • Classes are going well remotely. Writing is going poorly, but maybe inspiration or the will to work will hit now that things are looking up.