Sunday, December 31, 2023

The last day of 2023

  •  It's the last day of 2023, and according to our friendly national media, Las Vegas is gearing up for a record day since the date is 12.31.23 or 123123 (a lucky day). It's kind of comforting--it really is-- to know that they've prepared by setting up a marriage license stand at the airport and have 6 Elvis impersonators ready to go in addition to the regular officiants. I've never been to Las Vegas, but it's nice to know that the regular Las Vegas institutions seem to be intact & unchanging. 
  • Speaking of changes, the airline I'm taking to MLA in Philadelphia has sent me notifications of flight schedule changes every week (literally) since September, so I'm kind of excited to see if they keep to the same schedule until departure. 


  •  This has been a strange year: we're nominally post-pandemic, according to the WHO, yet my students regularly got sick with COVID or something suspiciously like it (and so did I, for three weeks, though the tests said it wasn't COVID). After recovering, I walked into the doctor's office & when they asked "what shots did you want?" I channeled Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who, in response to being asked "what are you rebelling against?" replied "Whadda ya got?" (What I really said was "all of 'em.") 
  • Speaking of things that do and don't change, in this year of our lord 2023 no home printer that exists will regularly and reliably connect to wifi. Instead, they hold their hands to their foreheads and stagger to a fainting couch, telling me that they are offline. They are not offline, but I have to dutifully unplug/disconnect wifi/etc. and go through the whole dance, sometimes re-adding them under an alias, until they come to life and enthusiastically spit out documents I unsuccessfully tried to print several weeks ago. I've tried printer cables, but the Princesses, as they are known in our house, sometimes don't want to work with cables, either. I've read that The Youth don't like printers, and I sometimes warn the Princesses that with attitudes like theirs, it's no wonder The Youth (and the Washington Post, which says you can just drive somewhere and print, easy-peasy--so much better than home printing!) are dubious about their utility. I spent 5 hours with the Princesses the other day, scanning class materials to print and then to an underlying .pdf with OCR, but I had to use them both, since one would make copies but not scan to any recognizable location on earth and the other would do the reverse. (The Princesses are from different countries--one from HP and one from Epson--but they are united in their resistance to functioning as anything other than shelf decorations.)
  • It's been an odd year: it feels as though we're doing what we're supposed to do as though there was never a pandemic and as though there isn't world chaos, but it feels like the conversation between the Red Queen and Alice: 
    “Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
    “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

    We're through the looking glass and running twice as fast to stay in the same place.
  • Here's hoping for a smooth, peaceful, and joyous 2024, and Happy New Year to you all!

Saturday, December 09, 2023

Writing the ghosts away

Writing about "The Beckoning Fair One" must have cursed me, because I have written literally nothing on my own work since. What are the obstacles? 
  • All the writing advice is about carving out time and space for yourself. Let's take time: the advice is "Just say no" to extra work, committee, admin work, and so on. Figuring I've done my bit, as the Brits used to say during WWII, I've turned down things until I felt a little guilty. But Spouse pointed out, logically and also comfortingly, that I've already done a lot of all that and ought to let someone else have a chance to shine. 
  • Teaching and grading? Yes, that takes time, but not unmanageably so. I have time to work if I would actually get at it. 
  • Next, space: What about Virginia Woolf's famous room of one's own? I have a space to write that I really like: warm, good technology, comfortable desk chair, good reading chair, lots of books, and all that. 
  • How about resources? I have the materials I need--books, .pdfs, and a handy if too-tempting library.
  • What about the project? Was it imposed on me? Nope, I volunteered. I did half of it months ago, and it's on a subject I really like.
  • What about daily writing? I've done the usual suspects: read some writing inspiration, tried the old, time tracking, word counting, accountability partners, etc. Nothing helped.
  • Tried writing in different settings, writing with pen & ink, with typewriter, in my campus office rather than at home, everything.  Nothing helped. 
What did I write? Nothing. Could not do it, and the deadline hasn't gone away. 

So typing these words is an attempt to break the logjam, or banish the barriers, or to hail the goddess of writing, or to summon the collective spirit of blogitivity, to get moving on this thing.

Saturday, November 04, 2023

Writers on Writing: Oliver Onions, "The Beckoning Fair One"

 While sitting in front of a mountain of grading, undone reports, an overdue writing project, work on my new project, and other guilt-making items that piled up when I had a flu/cold the past couple of weeks and had no brains to deal with anything, I did what any sensible person would do: scroll through Twitter/X until I could face even one thing. 

Even in its current state, with the needle firmly in the red zone of "hot mess," Twitter/X surfaces the occasional happy dog picture or something equally unexpected and welcome. This time, it was a set of BBC videos from the 1970s featuring women over 90 talking about the restrictions of growing up at the turn of the century. One was Berta Ruck, a romance novelist (had never heard of her), who was married to Oliver Onions (ditto); Onions was the author of Widdershins, a collection featuring what is apparently a classic and highly esteemed ghost story, "The Beckoning Fair One." 

"The Beckoning Fair One" is about 44-year-old Paul Oleron, who, tired of shuttling between his work room and his lodgings, moves into an old house leased to him by a highly reluctant landlord. He delights in fixing it up, having it painted a delicate white, and figuring out that a square hatch above a half-door is a powder-closet: put your head with its elaborate headdress through it, have your servant shoot the "powder-pistol," and your hair would be all powdered and ready for society. 

But Paul is not just an inquisitive man with a flair for decorating. He's a literary novelist with a tight deadline, and while he's admiring his rooms and speculating about their former occupants, his half-finished novel Romilly Bishop, about which he had been enthusiastic before moving in, languishes. His loyal friend Miss Elsie Bengough, a popular novelist, challenges him about when he defends where he lives: 

"Anyway," Oleron summed up, "I'm happier here than I've been for a long time. That's some sort of a justification."

"And doing no work," said Miss Bengough pointedly.

I won't spoil the story for you (it's at the link), but Oleron gradually abandons Romilly Bishop, and things ramp up as they have a way of doing in ghost stories, until an unexpected conclusion.

But what was striking was that the ghost story here--the gradual psychological horror, the shifting of consciousness--was really about the process of writing, or rather avoiding writing. All the rationalizations are there: Oleron solves a mystery in his surroundings and decides to knock off for the day rather than doing any writing; he excuses himself for not writing but "knows" that tomorrow will be better; he decides that what he's written is lousy and needs to scrap everything to pursue some nebulous vision; and with the new and improved Romilly, he has this exchange with Elsie: 

"And has Romilly progressed much better for your being cooped up?"

"I think she has. I'm laying the foundations of her. I shall begin the actual writing presently."

This ghost story is a cautionary tale. If I don't want to end up like Oleron, I shall indeed begin the actual writing presently.

Edited to add: This is the second time wig-powdering has come up as a blog topic. I sense a trend.


Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Random bullets of October, no surprises here

  • Well, there was September, and now October’s almost gone. I guess teaching takes up a lot of time—who knew?
  • Despite upsetting world events, in terms of weather, it’s been a lovely fall so far.
  • Despite all the “pandemic’s over—hooray” messages from the administration & the US government, students are getting sick from COVID as well as the usual ailments that in-person classes are heir to. I’ve finally caught something—not apparently COVID. It’s inevitable with in-person classes unless everyone keeps masking as we did in Fall 2021, and guess what—not happening. 
  • If some public health person did a study on when students and teachers get sick, I’m guessing they’d find that mid-October is prime time for that.
  • Here’s the playwright Arthur Miller’s writing house: . It’s 14 x 22 feet long, which is quite roomy. You can see the evolution of the place from the photographs: fireplace to wood stove, Royal manual typewriter to electric typewriter to computer, etc. It also has a Soviet-era desk chair, steel with padded green leatherette, that is just like mine, so clearly our levels of genius are running in sync. 
  • Goals moving ahead: write more, catch up with blog reading, and generally do better.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Back in the saddle again, school edition

Gene Autrey’s voice is singing this song is in my head as I write this, so here’s to riding the range once more with reminders I’ve forgotten over the past year. 

1. Teaching

Is it good to be back? Pretty much. 

Did I spend too much time preparing syllabi? Yes.

Too much time writing up a lecture? Yes. 

What is it with power dynamics in the classroom, by the way? If I go in with puppy-like enthusiasm for the subject and with lots of additional information, they respond coolly—“whatever”—as though they know it already, which they definitely do not.  

But if I tone down the friendliness and am more distant and authoritative, they warm up. It’s a power dynamic in classrooms that I forget about when I’ve been away from teaching for a while. Friendliness is fine, and so is the decentered classroom, but the whole “make sure you give away your authority so that they trust you” trend of a few years back always seemed false: you are the authority in the classroom, and to pretend otherwise seems disingenuous, not to say dishonest. The students sense this and respond accordingly. 

It’s a way of showing mutual respect, I think.

2. Writing

I’m excited to get back to writing: I turned in a conference proposal today for research related to my next book. And I haven’t even bought the all-important new notebooks yet, which is sure to create more writing inspiration. 

3. Meetings

Since I’m not doing admin, all I have to do is (1) show up and (2) contribute if there’s something to say. It’s not necessary or desirable for people to hear every thought that’s in my head, nor is it necessary to smile all the time. Show up, be respectful, and be done. 

Here’s hoping you have a good beginning of the semester!

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Random bullets of early August

1. New College in Florida is dismantling its Gender Studies program, and West Virginia University is carrying out the draconian cuts promised in this article from June. It's behind a paywall, so I can't see it, but the board doesn't care if it destroys the university. 

2. Nicole and Maggie have resurrected the "life after tenure" meme from 2013 and aww, nostalgia. Here

s what I said then:

Short version: pretty much the same, with more job security. Here are a few more posts about it.

3. Xykademiqz is coming out with a book!

4. I'm once again summoning the spirit of the dog my family had when I was a child:

Our family used to have a dog that did this: If she didn't want to acknowledge the presence of something she was afraid of, like a cat or something she'd chewed up and knew she'd get in trouble for, she wouldn't look directly at whatever it was but would turn away and look at it out of the corner of her eye.

I am that dog, and the semester is what I'm seeing out of the corner of my eye. 

5. It's like living in a science fiction novel, being the last person on God's green academic earth not to be away vacationing somewhere and sending autoreplies in response to my responses to their queries. What did I do? I set one up myself, a perfectly polite one. Only you and I know that its secret message comes straight from my inner Logan Roy. 

6. This seems to be a lesson that I have to keep failing at learning over and over again: if you respond too quickly, or include an answer both to A (what they asked) and to B (the next logical step), it's all so many electrons wasted in the ether. Your reward may be to be ignored, or, worse, lectured about it. I've posted before about imaginary cranky responses to email, but maybe the autoreply and an information diet for the requesters is a much better response.

7. But it's still summer for a few weeks yet. Walking in some glorious cool weather, eating ripe tomatoes, watching the bees in the lavender and bee balm--all are there to be enjoyed now. 

P.S. I haven't seen Barbenheimer (as xykademiqz posted about), but the new season of What We Do in the Shadows has a scene with the energy vampire council that made me fall off the couch with laughter. It's every Zoom meeting ever. Context: energy vampires feed on the negative emotions of others.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Random bullets of July

  • It’s summer, it’s hot, and it’s going too quickly. Although they’re pretty, I always dread seeing Queen Anne’s Lace flowers because they mean that the second half of summer has begun. 
  • Traveling from a dry climate to a more humid one is a shock to the system. People joke about “it’s a dry heat,” but there really is a difference. I got off the plane and felt as though I had walked into a wet sponge. 
  • Despite all the weather & other stuff (waves at the world), people where I was and in the airports seemed—what’s the word? Happier isn’t exactly right. Maybe more resigned? Patient? They seemed less frantic than before the pandemic (or the panini, as they say on Reddit). I was in a city where I’ve been several times, and, quite unusually, people even said hello once in a while and smiled and held doors for each other—things like that. 
  • Not everyone, though. On the plane, a woman swept her long hair back over her seat back so that it was hanging over onto my screen—and I swept it right back over the seat back without thinking twice about it, and that was the end of the matter. My action was instinctive, but my thinking is, if you don’t want me to touch your hair, don’t put it in my space. Who does this? You are not Rapunzel, and I am not a handsome prince. Still, that’s a pretty minor thing to deal with.
  • Work is going well.

Monday, June 26, 2023

June: Thinking positive thoughts about everything but email

It's June! This is the time of year when the apple & plum blossoms turn to tiny green fruit, when the butterflies entice the cats into trying to catch them, and when the sky stays light well past a tired person's bedtime. How can you not love the summer solstice? I'm trying to be more positive and less critical, and this time of year can be a big part of it.

Work (though not writing) is going along well. It's a kind of work that must be done so that other work can be done--think sorting index cards or classifying and writing down types of paper clips or figuring out what an author means when she says "about that other matter" or dates a letter simply "Tuesday afternoon." But since I'm the one who has to do it, I'm finding it fascinating, or if not fascinating, all-absorbing. It seems like rote work, but it will pay off down the road. It already is, really, in overall connections I'm making in my head about the bigger picture of the project.

June is also the season of non-reciprocity, though. It's the month of the almighty auto-reply, when academics on vacation send you requests, you respond, and you get an autoreply in return, or get invited to subscribe to their substack, or added to their publicity mailing list. And sometimes, you get lots of emails from someone who pays absolutely no attention to the carefully thought-out replies you've already sent. It's communication, all right, but it's neither collegial nor reciprocal, because you've become an instrument, an entity of solutions that require work on your part and will benefit them. The solutions: wait before responding; provide minimal responses; or just don't answer at all. 

Also, you can draw your personal boundaries to maintain focus on your own work. There's a lot we do--reviewing articles, manuscripts, etc.--that counts for very little, and before you say yes to something, think about what you'll learn from doing the review as well as how it services scholarship and the larger academic community. I say yes a lot--most of the time, in fact--but then, I almost always learn something when I do. Other types of service might not be as rewarding, such as writing book blurbs. I used to do this if asked, to be collegial, but last time, I put some significant hours--writing time, remember--into one, and it didn't get used. The publisher can use whatever blurbs are going to best sell the book, of course, and aren't obligated to use what I wrote, but similarly, I'm allowed to spend my time where it's not going to be wasted: on my own writing.

To get back to positive thoughts: June! Early morning air! Lavender! How's your summer going?

Saturday, May 13, 2023

At the Chronicle: Kevin Dettmar gets it right about summer service.

Over at The Chronicle, Kevin Dettmar answers a department chair's question--"How do you get professors to respond in the summer?" with some words of wisdom: His answer is, basically, "pay them," and it is so good to hear that. 

From the piece (behind a paywall, sorry): 

For scholars, summers represent what the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are to the retail trade: the time when we move, if barely, from the red into the black for the year’s writing and scholarship. And as someone who has tried to remain productive, I guard that time jealously — no, viciously. So I’m in full sympathy with your faculty colleagues, as perhaps you are as well.

Other good advice: "plan ahead" and "show them the money."

Dettmar's analogy about the retail trade is a good way to look at it, too: it's not so much the time that you spend in answering an email as the loss of focus and time that answering a request represents. Northern Clime and its administrators have been good about this, even if you don't leave a scorched earth out-of-office message as I've seen elsewhere on the web.

But I needed the reminder that Dettmar provides and that I wrote about in 2018 to push me into applying this principle to another time-sucking practice, not from university departments but from faculty who are heading off for three weeks on a fabulous research grant or vacation and will eat up all your time on either side of their time away by impinging on your time with a flurry of emails and requests, especially if you haven't set a firm boundary.

You don't have to have a fabulous grant, or a destination further than your own back yard, to ignore these requests. As Dettmar says about department chairs, their timetable is not your problem, and you don't need to make it your problem to be accommodating. 

An example: in Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar, the mother tells Majorie, who's working for free at a summer camp, something like "they can wait for a while for what they're paying you." It's not always true, but it's worth keeping in mind.

Maybe this isn't a problem for you, or you have a scorched-earth out-of-office message doing that work already. But if you don't--if you're inclined, like me, to respond too quickly and be too accommodating--this is a reminder that you're paying yourself to write or research or relax this summer, and that anything work-related that interrupts might be able to wait a while, for what they're paying you.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Taking Stock: Random Bullets of an end-of-semester retrospective

 For academics, it’s natural to think of the beginning of May as the end of the year, because, well, it is. 

  • Was it a good year? Pretty much, yes. Yes, I got Covid (not too badly) despite all the vaccinations, but approximately 100 percent of the people I know who have traveled by plane got Covid, so by that metric, only having it once was not too bad.
  • Did I get the writing done I’d hoped to do? No, but I did get some done, and some previous articles were published. 
  • Being on sabbatical and away from campus and its various dramas may have made me a little less diplomatic. I was talking with a colleague at an event recently about a Big Initiative that some were promoting in the department, one I’d read about. “What did you think of BI?” Asked my senior colleague. “It’s bonkers,” said I. “Oh, it was my idea,” he said. “Um, well, it's still not a great idea, and I’ll tell you why—“ and, Reader, I told him. The old administrative me would have been more circumspect, but come on—I’m senior faculty, too, and if the tenured people don’t stand up against a bonkers idea, who will? At least the debate will spur some thoughts on both sides, and if there’s a reason that it is sensible instead, I’m willing to be convinced.
  • Speaking of administrative work, I see in the trending posts sidebar that the “To Resign or Not To Resign?” Post from 3 years ago is on that list. I did resign, and it was definitely a good call. Having the responsibility without the power to put plans into action was making me lose sleep and perspective, and just letting go was a huge relief.
  • Speaking of letting go, I've realized that one of the collaborators in the long-term project ignores my emails explaining things or answering questions and that it's a waste of time to give a substantive reply because ze won't read it. Solution: diplomatic responses along the lines of a telegram (10 words or less) if absolutely necessary to reply and saving explanations for meetings.
  • Apologies for random capitals; I can't seem to get rid of them.
How was your semester?

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Random bullets of tech, etc.: working hard or hardly working?

  1.  Mostly working hard. I've completed some writing & received editorial compliments on a forthcoming article, which makes me happy. Judgment: Working hard.
  2. My on-again, off-again love affair with Endnote is on again after I discovered how easy it is to attach and read .pdfs in it. Yes, it's more expensive than Zotero (which costs $0), and definitely more glitchy, but I understand it, which goes a long way when you don't want to reformat your brain to learn a new kind of software. One of its most touted features blows up my computer in a spectacularly awful way if I dare to try to use it, so I won't be doing that again any time soon. Judgment: Hardly working.
  3. Does anyone else do this with new technology? My iPhone had gotten so ancient that Apple had done the tech equivalent of telling me to send it to Shady Pines for a good long rest, so I bought a new one a month ago. Why did I wait a month to set it up? Because I knew there was a good chance that the "Setup your new phone in 15 easy steps" would go wildly wrong and that I would have to sit on hold to get it straightened out. It didn't go wildly wrong, just a little wrong (problem: too ancient an iPhone to do the new kind of setup), and yet, I did spend time talking with tech support to get it set up. Judgment: Hardly working.
  4. It's funny: I used to read The Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed fairly religiously, the latter more than the former, but since they're both paywalled now and you can't read more than a few words, I've mostly given up. Yes, IHE gives you some free articles if you sign in, but by the time I've tried to log in, been told that my password is wrong (and it always is), I kind of lose interest. Same is true for CHE, which I can get months-old versions of from Northern Clime's online library, but by the time I've logged into the library, done the two-factor authentication, found it, etc. it doesn't seem worth the bother. I feel about those the way I feel about games: if it's more work to play than fun to play, forget it. Judgment: Hardly working.
  5. Same holds true for article links posted on the dying hulk of Twitter: if you have access, use a gift link in your tweet, for heaven's sake; otherwise you're just tormenting us with something we can't read. The whole "whither goest thou, English major?" set of articles recently were probably good, but except for the one in The New Yorker, I couldn't read any of them and, yes, gave up. Judgment: Hardly working.
  6. For one brief moment, in wrestling with images this week,  I wanted to go back to an easier, simpler time when departments had People to whom you could say "I'd like .TIFF files of X, Y, and A," and they would make it so. Or is this simpler time a complete illusion? Were there ever such People to help professors in this way? Anyway: hardly working. 
  7. For a brief moment, Northern Clime had some screencast system where students and instructors could project stuff on a screen, if you downloaded it and learned the intricacies of the program, but then it went away, to be replaced by something else, maybe.  Time spent learning software that gets replaced frequently = time spent on hold with the phone company, working your way through the bots and the automated systems until a real person can fix the problem. Hardly working.
  8. Wordpress hates me again this week, so I couldn't comment at nicoleandmaggie's or any of your Wordpress blogs. I fill out the info, and WP tells me, "I'm afraid I can't do that, Undine." Congrats on DC1 going to Carleton! Hardly working.
  9. On the other hand, this whole process of frustration at not being able to read or access stuff means more time to do actual, you know, reading and writing, so here's the good news, related to point #1: working hard.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Random bullets of an in-person conference

 I recently returned from a conference in a field that I love (think: flying dinosaur studies) but that I don't publish in as much. It's the second or third in-person conference I've been to since lockdown, and while Zoom conferences provide more access and don't cause you to spend your vacation fund traveling somewhere (no reimbursements for this trip), in-person still has some advantages.

This was a different experience because it's a conference where I knew no one--well, I knew maybe one person--and no one knows me, so I had no expectations about how things would go. 

  • Everyone was so nice! Sure, there were obviously people who were Eminences, but they were nice, too, and their questions in Q & A sessions didn't exclude the rest of us. 
  • There was no alternate paper-giving (i.e., "this is more of a comment than a question"). There was none of the "And you are? And you teach where?" kind of nametag-checking and conversations I've seen at other conferences. 
  • Getting on an elevator, I saw an Eminence whose books I've had on my shelf for ages and was a bit starstruck. I see Eminences at my usual conferences but haven't had this starstruck feeling for years--maybe because it's a different field?
  • Let's not forget the sheer fun of seeing in person the people whose books line my shelves and my folders full of .pdf articles.
  • The papers were brilliant but also accessible--really amazing. The panelists really did aim to convey ideas and encourage discussion. Part of it may have been that there were enough panels on the areas that interest me that I knew all the texts they were talking about and felt at home in the discussions. 
  • Also, hearing and overhearing incidental discussions about what people are working on gives you a hazy but useful impression of what might be going on in the field, one that helps the impressions and notes from the sessions themselves. 

And about the conference experience?

  • It's hard to explain, but people seemed kind. Their eyes were kind if they met your gaze.  There's a hard-edged conference face that you see a lot when people are stressed and trying to get from Point A to Point B, even if they're not being stone-faced in looking at your name tag before they meet your eyes. There didn't seem to be any of that--and again, as an anonymous observer, albeit with a name tag, I would have seen it. 
  • Maybe this is because everyone's happy to be back in person after the pandemic? 
  • The conference had encouraged masks, and probably about 10% of people wore them at any given time. 
  • The conference tech for showing media was all good. I saw only one mad scramble for Mac dongles because the people at Apple can't get it together and have the same kind of dongle from year to year. The EU has put its collective foot down and mandated USB-C connectors from now on, and it's about time. We can't do that here, because it might be suspiciously linked with the metric system or something, hence un-American, but it's a great idea.
  • Something that works: a pitcher of ice water and glasses. Something that doesn't always: a water dispensing machine with no instructions for use. This conference had water pitchers but also the machines. Do you press the buttons on the front, which seem to be made to be pressed?  Nope, you hold your hand about two inches from one of the buttons, which is in fact a sensor. I learned this from one of the hotel people refilling shelves of glasses and immediately passed on this great wisdom to the people after me. 
  • A thing that seems to have disappeared is people live-tweeting a session. This may be because Twitter is a total trainwreck these days, but the evolution of conference etiquette seems to be this:
    •  2011: thinking about live-tweeting a session.
    • 2012: Wondering about the etiquette of live-tweeting, which in the early days people did without threading their responses, which was very annoying.
    • 2012: Tables set up for those tweeting.  I didn't see this at MLA this year, so maybe it's not a thing any more.
    • 2023: People type or write from their seats, and there's always wifi, so they don't have to make a big deal of it. They maybe do one tweet promoting their session before the conference and maybe one responding to a session, and that's it. Maybe people have come to the same conclusion I did privately some years back: it's in a book or an article, and I can read it later with real attention instead of dividing my attention between trying to condense complex ideas into 120 characters and listening to the speaker.
Have you noticed anything different about in-person conferences these days?

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Can AI (ChatGPT) Replace Writing?

AI writing (ChatGPT, etc.) is supposed to be transformative and all, the Washington Post tells me.

 The New York Times  worries about jobs; no worries, says the Washington Post, since AI requires "chat whisperers" to get the best from the software. CNET tried publishing articles written using it, but oops--too many mistakes.

AI can also spark creativity, apparently, although the examples most outlets choose to illustrate the creative problem-solving sound like obvious solutions. It's more of a springboard to creativity than a solution to writing, as scifi magazines have found out since they were flooded with AI-written stories and had to stop submissions for a while.

But what can the writing part of AI do well as of this writing?

1. Perfect C essays, all correct grammar, platitudes, puffery, and no substance.

2. Mission statements, ditto. 

There are surely nuances I'm missing, but everything I've seen so far either when testing it myself or when reading about it has been pretty much on the spectrum from 1 to 2.

It will get better, but ChatGPT--which, yes, is in its infancy--is so far like a bar trick--you know, where someone puts a quarter inside a bottle or something by magic means, or folds a dollar bill in a certain way to win a bet. I can't be more specific because I mostly only see this on Better Call Saul, but you know what I mean. 

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about how this might affect the classroom: one IHE writer calls it a "plague on education"  while others suggest creative uses for it. Some instructors have started using it to get students to question their assignments and test its limits. 

I'm kind of eager to see how this might work in the classroom next year. What about you?

Edited to add: Here's the first paragraph of what it wrote when I asked it to write like me. Like looking in a mirror, don't you think? This blog is all about the peppy self-help pitch, am I right?

Write a blog post in the style of 


"The Art of Doing Nothing" Greetings and salutations, my dear readers! Today, I would like to talk about the lost art of doing nothing. Yes, you heard that right, doing nothing! In our fast-paced world, it seems like everyone is in a rush to do something, be it work, hobbies, or socializing. The constant stimulation and activity can be exhausting and leave us feeling drained. But, what if I told you that taking a break from it all and doing nothing can actually be beneficial for our health and well-being? Studies have shown that taking time to do nothing can reduce stress, increase creativity, and improve our overall mental and physical health. It's a simple concept, but often overlooked. So, how exactly can we incorporate this into our daily lives? One way to start is by simply taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly and do nothing. No phone, no TV, no distractions.

Friday, February 10, 2023

More on handwriting

[Sorry! I was trying to get rid of a dead link in this old post and it posted as a new one.] 


The Washington Post has an article, "The Handwriting Is on the Wall" about the death of cursive (not handwriting per se--thanks, Sisyphus, for making that distinction). Here's a snippet from p. 2:

In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills. But Graham worries that students who remain printers, rather than writing in cursive, need more time to take notes or write essays for the SAT. Teachers may say they don't deduct for bad handwriting in class, but research tells another story, he said. When adults are given the same composition written in good handwriting and poor handwriting, "they still give lower grades for ideation and quality of writing if the text is less legible," he said. Indeed, the SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print, according to the College Board.
I'm not as worried about the first statistic. First graders aren't college students, and by the time students have practiced some form of handwriting for 12 years, they're bound to get pretty good at it. Some people can print as fast as they can write (anyone ever teach engineering students? I rest my case), so that statistic may not hold true. But what about the second part? Have you ever noticed a correlation between types of handwriting and the content of the work? Most people I've talked to who've graded a few thousand essays have formed some impressions, although they don't let it get in the way of assessing a paper. Maybe if everyone starts printing, those differences in scores will be erased--or maybe the advantage then will go to the fastest typists. Also, will it become difficult for people who don't know how to write in cursive to read cursive writing? Disclosure: the handwriting thing is hitting home for me because it seems to be going down the tubes just as I've gotten all interested in pens, inks, and paper. I've been trying to keep a notebook recording word counts, notes, page counts, information to look up, etc., and have been writing in it with my new pen. (I'm not obsessed yet the way some are, but I can spend far too much time pondering the qualities of J. Herbin versus Noodler's Ink or Clairefontaine versus Moleskine notebooks. Okay, maybe I'm a little obsessed.)

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Latest in the "let's kill all the libraries" movement: newly-formed Vermont State University

Quick midday post: the newly consolidated Vermont State, the latest college to kill the libraries, is really, really committed to it:

Administrators announced Tuesday afternoon that the system’s member schools — Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College — will shuffle their athletics programs and transition its five campus libraries to an “all-digital” model. 

The library shift is set to take place by July 1, and will eliminate seven full-time positions and three part-time ones, according to Parwinder Grewal, the inaugural president of Vermont State University. ...

As part of those changes, campus libraries will shift online, meaning students will only be able to access books, academic journals and other materials online. Most of the physical books and other materials will be donated and administrators plan to “repurpose” the spaces. 

We're not talking about your basic Starbucks Memorial Library here, knocking out a few obsolete science journals to make room for the ever-essential coffee machines and treadmills.

All the books will be gone. 

I kind of get it. My students don't seem to go to the library much, except when I take them on a tour or make an assignment requiring it. 

But the no-books model has some issues.

1. How could you not like to go to the library and work with real copies of, say, The Illustrated London News or Harper's Weekly in big oversized bindings, especially when your campus may or may not have access to the increasingly-behind-paywalls digitized versions? Learning is so 2-D in a digitized world: we look at screens all day, every day. It's kind of exciting, as my students tell me every semester, to go and look at the actual materials. 

2. And given that budget cuts happen every single year in a university, and library budgets are especially prone to being given the axe--happens at Northern Clime every year--what happens when students don't have access to a particular paywalled resource?

3. What happens if you're working with a historical text (a novel, say, from Google Books or HathiTrust) where part is missing, blurred, or otherwise inaccessible

4. In a broader sense, won't this lead to more of a haves vs. have-nots situation, with this being one more place where resources are removed for the have-nots but kept for well-funded universities? 

Maybe this is all an irrational fear on my part. I guess it's reminding me of an exam I had to grade one time for an independent study student (not my student). The exam hit the basics but did not go one word, one thought, or one sentence beyond what was absolutely required. Did it pass? Yes. But it was like a ChatGPT essay: grammatically correct and without insight, a perfect C. 

Somehow I think that a curious student + a library with books has a better shot at a different perspective, which may be a romantic illusion.

Your thoughts? 

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Random bullets of February 1

  •  First of all, happy February! January's over, and you got through it, so yay!
  • I'm still hoping that the cloud cover clears so that I can see the green comet
  • If you haven't read about New College of Florida--about how the Florida governor is undercutting academic freedom and removed the well-respected scholar Patricia Okker in favor of one of his sycophant/cronies, here's your chance. What I'm seeing from other academics is that New College was basically the honors college of Florida. Here's more from the New York Times about how DeSantis is laying waste to the education system, one step at a time, to "build his brand" for 2024. 
  • Speaking of "building a brand," I am sick to death of those videos of big talking heads of influencers flapping their gums at me from a camera 2" away whenever I go to a news site or Twitter. If I wanted to see big talking heads saying nothing, I would go to TikTok or Instagram. I realize that this is a niche view and that apparently all Americans have lots of time and money to waste in paying attention to influencers, but please, make it stop on sites where news might actually be present. Yes, I sound like my grandmother. Consider this my entry in #crankyrantsmanship for February.
  • About two years ago, we started hearing about substacks instead of blogs, which are apparently passé. A substack is a blog or newsletter that you pay for instead of reading it for free. Since binge-reading blogs is a treat for me when I have time and email is a "one more thing I have to deal with," I'm not usually tempted to subscribe, except for George Saunders's story club (which I still haven't joined), and I'm definitely not inclined to write one, since it requires a real rather than sporadic commitment. Questions: 
    • Do any of you have a substack (maybe under your real names)? 
    • Do you like the format and interaction?
  •  I'm hesitant to say anything about writing for fear of jinxing the progress made thus far this year, but it's going all right. What's different?
    • I've gone back to the pomodoro system and
    • I'm tracking in the notebook as well as in the Excel spreadsheet.
    • Notes and brainstorming count as much as real writing. Hey, they're words, too, right?
    • For the current project, I'm using Scrivener for the draft so that I can see all the notes I've made, which is easier than having 15 Word documents open. 
  • How's your February going? 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Random Bullets of MLA 2023

Figure 1. Marriott Marquis in San Francisco.
 Happy New Year! It's time for the (somewhat) annual MLA roundup.

The last MLA I attended in person was in Chicago (2019). I attended & presented at MLA 2022 virtually and attended but didn't present at 2021. I like virtual conferences, and as my Visa bill tells me this month, they're also a lot less expensive. (No reimbursements from Northern Clime.)

But on to 2023 San Francisco!

  • It's probably not news to anyone that the travel to San Francisco presented "challenges," as we now call problems. Southwest had just barely recovered from its scheduling meltdown when an "atmospheric river" unleashed a "bomb cyclone" of rain on the Bay area, right at and before--you guessed it--the exact time when MLA was scheduled to start. I lucked out by getting there just before everything hit, but the rain and wind were epic at times. 
  • Because of travel and illness issues, I heard that some sessions scheduled to have, say, 5 people had only 2 show up. That can't be helped (except through virtual sessions), since even the mighty MLA can't control the weather.
  • The MLA had the good sense to choose a main conference hotel--the Marriott Marquis--right across the street from the 4th St. Trader Joe's. How great is that? Instead of a soggy $15 breakfast sandwich, you could get food that you actually wanted to eat. The rooms had real mini-fridges so that you could stock up on salads or Diet Coke or other familiar treats. And the hotel actually honored the deal where if you were a (free) Bonvoy member, they waived the $14.95 internet fee.
  • Speaking of technology, A+ for that! When I went up to the projector with my big bag o'dongles (HDMI, VGA, etc.--thanks, Apple!) ready to get set up, I discovered that the HDMI cable and connection were already at the podium, so there weren't any awkward cords. Audience members politely reminded people to lean into the microphone. And there was even a tech person coming by to make sure that we were all set up, that the screen actually showed what we had on our computers, etc.
  • The conference venues (the hotel and the Moscone Center West) were good as well. The Moscone Center is cavernous, with ceilings about twice the height that you'd think is necessary, but that's just what you want in COVID times--social distancing. 
  • I heard from other attendees that some of the hotel sessions were overcrowded but didn't see it at the conference center. Of course I got lost going from one to the other, even though they are literally like one block apart, but that's due to my terrible sense of direction and the lashing rain that made the street signs hard to see.
  • The MLA sensibly mandated masks, and everyone I saw wore masks except when actually presenting papers. 
  • The Big Meeting went smoothly and focused on issues of actual, practical use to the profession. I groaned inwardly when we were broken into small groups for discussion a few hours into the meeting, considering it cosmic payback for doing this in teaching, but the discussion was actually interesting.  

This doesn't address the many interesting sessions, but I'd be here all day doing that. 

Happy 2023!

Other MLA Conference Posts: