Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Writing Inspiration: Alice Munro on Writing

 As you've doubtless heard, the Nobel Prize-winning short story writer Alice Munro died this week at the age of 92.   I can't add anything to the obituary except to say her stuff is great; go read it.

The Paris Review has opened access to its interview with her, and there are, not surprisingly, gems in there about the writing life (below, with a few comments):

1. On Henry James: 

Do you ever revise a story after it’s been published? Apparently, before he died, Proust rewrote the first volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.


Yes, and Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult.

Comment: Yes. Yes, he did. THANK you. 

2. On having a regular writing time: 

Have you ever had a specific time to write?


When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon. [There's more in the interview.]

3. On notebooks:

You use notebooks?


I have stacks of notebooks that contain this terribly clumsy writing, which is just getting anything down. I often wonder, when I look at these first drafts, if there was any point in doing this at all.

Comment: This totally justifies the three Leuchtterm 1917 notebooks I just ordered by mistake on Amazon. 

4. On creative writing classes: 

Because you didn’t like teaching fiction?


No! It was terrible. This was 1973. York was one of the more radical Canadian universities, yet my class was all male except for one girl who hardly got to speak. They were doing what was fashionable at the time, which had to do with being both incomprehensible and trite; they seemed intolerant of anything else.

Comment: Um. I'll just leave that hanging out there & hope that creative writing classes are no longer like this. 

It was good for me to learn to shout back and express some ideas about writing that I hadn’t sharpened up before, but I didn’t know how to reach them, how not to be an adversary. Maybe I’d know now. But it didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing—more like good training for going into television or something, getting really comfortable with clichés.

 Comment: To the creative writing bros: You want some salve for that burn? 

5. On renting a space to write, as John Updike & others have done:

That seems reminiscent of your early story “The Office”: the woman who rents an office in order to write and is so distracted by her landlord she eventually has to move out.


That was written because of a real experience. I did get an office, and I wasn’t able to write anything there at all—except that story. The landlord did bug me all the time, but even when he stopped I couldn’t work. This has happened anytime I’ve had a setup for writing, an office. . . . So I had all this time, and I was in this office, and I would just sit there thinking. I couldn’t reach anything; I meant to, but it was paralyzing.

6. On her current writing practices:


We didn’t ask you questions about your writing day. How many days a week do you actually write?


I write every morning, seven days a week. I write starting about eight o’clock and finish up around eleven. Then I do other things the rest of the day, unless I do my final draft or something that I want to keep working on then I’ll work all day with little breaks. 


Are you rigid about that schedule, even if there’s a wedding or some other required event?


I am so compulsive that I have a quota of pages. If I know that I am going somewhere on a certain day, I will try to get those extra pages done ahead of time. That’s so compulsive, it’s awful. But I don’t get too far behind, it’s as if I could lose it somehow.

Comment: Tell us the quota! For Updike, it was three pages a day; for Graham Greene, 500 words.  Tell us to inspire/shame us into matching you.

7. And finally, on walking: 

How much do you walk?


Three miles every day, so if I know I’m going to miss a day, I have to make it up. I watched my father go through this same thing. You protect yourself by thinking if you have all these rituals and routines then nothing can get you.

 The entire interview is worth reading, but for now, I have to go walk my three miles so nothing can get me.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Writing inspiration: Clearing the decks for a writing summer

 Grades are in, and as I said over at Dame Eleanor's, I deliberately did not submit to the conferences I usually attend, however shiny they might be. Herewith a few random bullets of writing inspiration (or should I be all modern & say "writing inspo"?) for me to keep in mind:

  1. This is meant to be a writing summer, whether that means doing the #1000words challenge or something else. A sit-and-write group? Already signed up. An accountability group? Same. Let's let them work their magic without conference paper distractions.
  2. Fun fact: the things that have generated the most ideas and the most writing, brainstorming and otherwise, are these: 
  3. Being under the gun to write a conference paper. Q: But wait--didn't you give up conferences for the summer? How's that going to work? A: The stress of that became too much, so I'm trying something different.
    1. Committing to the for brainstorming & putting down any stupid idea that comes into my head, because eventually something useful comes out of it. It's boring until it isn't.
    2. Taking notes or making notes on texts I'm reading, because sooner or later simply summarizing becomes too boring and I branch out into thoughts, questions, speculations, or just plain writing parts of something larger.
  4. So, to sum up point 3: the beginnings of generative writing and getting past writing anxiety come from (1) stress or (2) boredom. I'm choosing boredom over stress and will see how it goes.
  5. Another task (Task B) that is ongoing is kind of low-hanging fruit: it's satisfying because it has to be done, but the time spent on it doesn't translate into writing. Moreover, there's no stress involved with it, so my tendency is to sit with the writing anxiety for a few unbearable minutes and then say, "Oh, I need to work on Task B anyway." Solution? I'm limiting myself to two hours of Task B per day.
  6. Finally, after making pretty much no progress on the next idea I had for a book project, I remembered this axiom from somewhere: Don't write about what you think you ought to write about. Write about what excites you. I've had an idea that excites me for a while now & am going to pursue that. 
Hope your summer goals are off to a good start!

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Wizard of AI

Based on the two or three students who consistently use it according to the evidence of (1) my own eyes and (2) GPTZero, AI produces papers that are matched in grandiloquence only by Frank Morgan, AKA The Wizard of Oz. 

You remember the Wizard, right? All smoke and mirrors with nothing behind it? No powers, just word-shaped noise from a bloviating charlatan. 



If I read one more content-free BS paragraph about the "nuances" of the "rich tapestry" of "intriguing" deep dives into the injustices of the "structural inequity of gender norms" by a writer whose "magnificent prose" has made her work "a landmark in the history of twenty-first century literature,"  I might lose my temper, or my lunch. 

Really, though, it's always my temper that I lose, in a "how can I stop this?" way. I waste perfectly good ideas-in-the-shower time by plotting ways to circumvent it, which means it lives in my head much more than the 10 seconds it took the students to churn out this insult to human intelligence.

And I may be going against the tide. This so-called "article" at CNN--written by AI? who's to say?-- says to embrace the bloviation and advises teachers to go with the flow and grade with AI. 

But listen up, CNN shills: reading student work is not only literally my job; it is also my pleasure. I like to see students grow and learn. If I didn't, I'm in the wrong profession. (Figure 2, opposite, is me making this argument. Blogger won't allow captions any more, for some reason.) 

And there are problems with just accepting its use, as the CNN shills and some colleagues in the profession have advocated.

1. There is no reason on God's green earth why I should read what students could not be bothered to write

2. It harms honest students and lowers morale if some students are using AI and "getting away with it" by having high grades. Spoiler alert: they do not get high grades because there is no there there, so to speak; the AI doesn't have to enter into the grading equation itself if the paper is content-free. But a D+ or C- is still a passing grade, and if the student doesn't care about the course, that's enough to pass.

3. The students have ideas, and they need to be encouraged to develop them.

So what's the solution? 

1. Writing first drafts in class, which is going swimmingly, by the way.

2. A much more robust and specific policy on academic integrity and the use of AI. It's too late for this semester, but it's there for next semester. 

 The Wizard of Oz used to be televised exactly once a year, at Easter. Although it's more available nowadays, the Easter rule still holds: I do not want to listen to the Wizard of Oz any more often than that.

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Signs you may be ready for Spring Break

  • When you know intellectually that the snow will stop some time, but in your heart, it's Groundhog Day forever: "It's going to be cold, it's going to be gray, and it'll last for the rest of your life." 
  • When you feel that if you have to go warm a chair at one more event where there are speeches, you will lose your mind.
  • When someone writes "I have been very busy, but someone ought to answer these 10 questions that I have" and your impulse to write back "Yes, you are busy and I have been sitting here eating bonbons with nothing to do, naturally" is growing strong enough to win, one of these times. I have to remember that, as Captain Awkward or someone said, they're not being busy *at* me, but by stating that, they kind of are being busy at me, aren't they?
  • When someone always has, say, four tasks in a project that all of us in the group must do and only does two of them--the easy, fun ones, leaving the hard ones for someone else because they're "too busy"--well, I have to remind myself through gritted teeth that they're not being busy *at* me and also decline to add those two tasks to the tasks I've already been assigned.
  • We've been through MOOCs, and now AI-assisted grading is rearing its Medusa-level ugly head again with this cheerleading piece from Axios: . I say "again" because composition teachers have been fighting this auto-grading trend for at least 25 years (I even have some posts about it on here, though I'm too grumpy to find them right now). 
  • AI plagiarism is feeling too personal right now, just like the regular old-school variety. You think I am stupid enough to be fooled by this? And you wasted my valuable time by turning it in and expecting me to read what you couldn't be bothered to write? And if I call you out on it I go into conduct proceedings and an administrative hell of documentation and meetings in which I can only hope that the powers that be have my back? 

Anyway--flowers, bunnies, birds building nests: spring break will come, and not a moment too soon.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Random bullets of It's Leap Year! Take a Leap!

  • Those of you who are Frasier fans may recognize in my title one of the all-time great episodes, "Look Before You Leap." I will not tell you one single thing about it lest I spoil something, but one phrase may suffice as the crowning glory of the episode: "Buttons and Bows."
  • It's a mercy to have one more day until March begins.
  • Another thing I'm doing differently in my old-school style classes is to assign some minor points to daily class activities, the way I used to do In Days Of Yore. You show up, do the activity, and get full points. The points are almost inconsequential, and one assignment can be dropped to account for illnesses, but . . . they add up.
  •  I just received my first paper (not in an in-person class) that seemed off--word-salad-y, generalizations, etc., almost as if--as if it hadn't been written by a person but by AI (confirmed by GPTZero, which I had never used before). Did I confront the student about it? Readers, I did not, because detection sites can be wrong. Instead, I took a very close, painstaking look at it and graded it rigorously as if it were a regular paper. 
  • In the comments to the previous post, xykademiqz mentioned that students seem done with things being done online and Julie said that they don't seem to want to attend, maybe in part because the lectures are online, which is demoralizing. I think you're both right. There's a sizable proportion of the class (maybe 1/5?) who don't seem to show up, though they seem agreeable enough when they do. My attempts at lecture capture for them in case they're ill have been kind of dismal, because I can't stand at the podium and just talk but must walk around and use the board. This makes for hilarious but unhelpful captions that are worse because somehow the Zoom screen share always captures something other than the PowerPoint or document camera. 
  • Are the rest of you being inundated with emails about How To Do Things with AI/GPT? "It can generate ideas! Write a first draft! Take your dog for a walk!" etc. The only thing that sounds more like the 7th circle of hell than grading AI papers would be grading AI papers knowing that your students had been told to use AI and then expend more of their labor making the first draft somehow better. I feel bad for them. They have ideas of their own, and that's what I want to see them working on.

     Anyway, happy Leap Day!

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Random bullets of mid-February

  •  Writing inspiration: This may not sound like much of a win, but I finally (finally!) finished the piece I've been moaning about here for lo these many months. I thought for a while I'd be like Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch, gathering sources for The Key to All Mythologies until I keeled over at my desk, but not so. That's done, but wait--what's that on the horizon in a couple of weeks? A conference paper for which I made all sorts of rash promises? 
  • At least having finished one thing means I can finish something else. I'd become--what's the writing word for gun-shy? write-shy?-- and this has restored my confidence.
  • Being in an accountability writing group and a sit-and-write group has helped a lot.
  • Teaching: I am loving teaching my old-school type classes this semester and the students seem to be doing all right with it, too. 
  • Maybe it's a post-Covid phenomenon, but it feels as though they have a hard time sitting still and not participating, and since participation is what we want anyway as teachers, I'm leaning into it. And really, how is their difficulty in sitting still any different from ours when we're trapped in a meeting where our betters are discussing obvious points, world without end?
  • Do any of you feel as though you have another part-time job just attending all the meetings, presentations, etc. that your colleagues have arranged? 
  • Have you ever been in a group project where if one person--call him Comrade X--is outvoted in a decision, he will bide his time and come back to it over and over and over again to try to bend everyone else to his will since he is always right? Asking for a friend.
  • There needs to be space in the middle of all this for imagination, but that space is in short supply right now.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic: facts and logic? Who needs 'em?

 Just when I thought it was safe to re-subscribe to The Atlantic,  our friend Caitlin Flanagan is at it again, opining that colleges aren't teaching students to think, or driving a car, or something (the metaphors get confused). 

Let's examine the logic, shall we?

1. "A teacher should never do your thinking for you."

Straw man fallacy. Who the heck ever said that they did or would?

2. "When you’re visiting a college, walk through the corridors of some of the humanities departments. Look at the posters advertising upcoming events and speakers, read the course listings, or just stand silent in front of the semiotic overload of the instructors’ office doors, where wild declarations of what they think and what they plan to make you think will be valorously displayed.

Does this look like a department that is going to teach you how to think?"

Soooo much to unpack here.

  • "semiotic overload of instructors' office doors": if you mean some weak sauce attempt at humor that struck me funny in The New Yorker, guilty as charged. Otherwise, here's a thought: Flanagan hasn't been on a campus in years, let alone walking down the halls of a humanities department. This is some Fox News/Hannity-inspired fever dream.
  • "wild declarations of what they think": Unless I've posted office hours as "Step right inside, folks, and hear the crazy feminist declaim on M WF 10-11," I don't think this is true, to put it mildly.
  • "valorously displayed": Does 3M make a valorous brand of Scotch tape specially to hold wild declarations on office doors? Otherwise, no. 
  • Logic leap: faulty evidence. From a few pathetic faculty posters, you're inferring how those therein "teach you to think," which you've already declared is impossible?
3. "The truth of the matter is that no one can teach you how to think; but what they can do is teach you how to think for yourself."

You don't say.  Is it also possible that water is wet and that human beings breathe air?
Mind. Blown.

4. "To the extent that I have learned how to think for myself, it’s because my father taught me. Usually by asking me a single question."

It's a nice anecdote, but there's more than a trace of the ubi sunt lament usually found in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere: why are there no professors like my dad?

This is an example of begging the question: that is, to assume prior agreement on a point that's very much not in evidence. ARE there no professors like her dad? 

Also, the ubi sunt part: 

When I was at beautiful Ivy or Oxbridge back in the olden days, I had an extremely famous professor (this time: Frank Kermode) who inspired me with the timeless truths of the humanities curriculum. 
Alas, there were few such professors then, and there are none today. That pesky GI bill opened education to the masses, and now students want grades instead of reading literature for timeless truths. Literature has been sullied by the grade-grubbing paws of these students. Where is the pure love of literature of yesteryear?  

5. And finally: "Many college professors don’t want to do that today. "

This has the former guy's fingerprints all over it: "many people think that drinking unicorn saliva will cure COVID"; "many fine people on both sides." 

Where is the evidence? 

I know I've made fun of The Atlantic before, but honestly: Atlantic, do better. 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Random bullets of teaching in the new semester: Zoom, teaching, AI


- It's my umpteenth year of teaching in person and my umpteenth year of teaching online as well. Does it take far longer than I ever imagined to prep courses that I have taught before? Yes. Is it exhausting? Yes. Do I still love it? Also yes.  

- I love the energy of teaching in a classroom and seeing the students' expressions.

- Teaching via Zoom on occasion: I still like it, and the students are old hands at it by this point.  But I had to stifle a laugh at the image that came to mind when they all logged on and then immediately turned off their cameras: it was like Sean from The Good Place sealing himself inside a cocoon whenever he heard something he didn't like. All those little black squares = all those little cocoons. (Image via DeviantArt.)

- That doesn't mean that I'm opposed to the Zoom cocoon. Indeed, during Zoom presentations when we're asked to turn off our cameras, I can listen a lot better, especially if I can move around. I don't know what it's called, but I can either (1) look intently at the speaker in person or on Zoom but not hear a word that they say or (2) look down, take notes, walk around, or whatever and be fully engaged with the topic. 

- Apropos of the last point: I think the MLA should place a walking meditation labyrinth in all of its larger meeting rooms, maybe in back of the chairs. Those who can watch a speaker and sit still and listen can sit in the chairs, and the rest of us can walk the labyrinth and listen in our own way. Activity is the key to engagement for some of us, as it is in the classroom, and conferences would be so much better if we could move (and also if the room temperatures were set at something less than blood heat).

- We are going old school in my classes this semester: writing drafts by hand and revising drafts in class. I have a lot of reasons for this: (1) replicating the experience of giving an uninterrupted space for students to write; (2) being able to comment on their drafts before they revise them; (3) giving them time out of their busy schedules to focus; (4) being there if they have questions. 

- The whole AI thing is about a distant number 40 on that list. Yes, I suppose they could have AI write their papers, but the vapid nonsense that AI usually spews out--like a mission statement on steroids--would be a waste of their time. 

- It would also be a waste of mine, and spending any time at all on wading through that slush and figuring out whether it was plagiarized or not would be maddening. Sometimes students write slush--don't we all? and haven't we all?--but if it's honest slush, it has promise. If it's AI slush--well, why should I bother to read what no one was bothered to write? 

- About reading what no one bothered to write: I grant you that the Washington Post and New York Times seem to have dispensed with their copy-editors--you know, those people who catch things like geographical errors and subject-verb agreement--but I'm not paid to read them, and if they have news (hint: read the digital images of the print edition rather than the fluffy stuff that they put on the front pages of their app), I don't mind as much. 

- Speaking of reading the news, I picked up and reread Rosemary's Baby the other day and laughed when I realized that I would rather read about the literal Satan incarnated than the former guy.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Random Bullets of MLA 2024 (Philadelphia)

 Time for the MLA Random Bullets Roundup!

  • First, despite the weather Philadelphia  was a good conference venue. The Marriott, Loews, and Convention Center were all close and within easy walking distance of each other. The Loews and Convention Center had had former lives as a bank and a train station, respectively, so it was fun seeing the traces of what they used to be. 
  • There were, as always, a few directional challenges for your geographically inept correspondent—hidden escalators in the Loews, etc., but I used the usual strategy of following people who looked like they knew where they were going and eventually got there. 
  • The book exhibit, though smaller than pre-COVID, is growing. There was space to get around and see the books, which wasn’t always the case in the pre-COVID crammed exhibits world.
  • The MLA theme this year must have been something about emotion, or it may be that emotion is the new critical trend, because there were lots of panels about feeling. 
    • “The — turn” must be on its way out.
    •  I was, I confess, a bit taken aback that a profession that runs on being (1) “smart,” (2) critical, (3) hierarchical, and (4)  insanely and incessantly productive suddenly cares about feelings, even if it’s only to analyze them, but it’s an intriguing trend. 
    • Maybe it’s like all the self-care & wellness & work-life balance programs we now get at the workplace, where you’re supposed to take MOAR time and add MOAR to your schedule to testify that you’re being relaxed and healthy in exactly the right quantifiable way. Their hearts are in the right place, but  . . . maybe not the outcome they're looking for.
  • I saw in the program and heard about a session where people were to bring (or come as?) their favorite object but didn’t attend that one—perhaps it was a working group? 
  • In terms of technology: the tech mostly worked, and people finally seem to have stopped being precious about using the microphone and started using it so everyone can hear. The Wi-Fi codes were published in a separate guide that I only received late in the conference; I couldn’t make it work, but that’s on me.
  • Masking—maybe a third of the people were masked at any given time, which is a good thing. People sometimes commented about protecting vulnerable family members, etc., but really, no explanation is necessary or expected, which is a very welcome change. I wore my mask on the plane and in the airport, of course, and increasingly put it on during sessions, especially when I heard someone coughing behind me.
  • There was a public awards ceremony, but it was really (when I went there to hear the remarks) more for awardees and their academic families, so to speak, so I left.
  • The Big Meeting was unanimous on some things but contentious on others. The voting clickers stopped working, so voting was held by a show of hands (not a private ballot). 
  • This conference seemed a bit less expensive than previous ones, or maybe it's that Reading Terminal Market and Trader Joe's made quick dining much easier. 
  • Edited to add: I overheard someone, recounting to a newbie in the manner of the Ancient Mariner, that there used to be job interviews only at the MLA in the olden days before Zoom. There were doubtless still job interviews happening, but it wasn't as obvious as it used to be.

Other MLA Conference Posts: