Saturday, February 10, 2018

Me and my (shadow) notebook

We're getting good at keeping track of time, my little black notebook and I. 
  • Yes, it took me 7 hours to do that administrative task. It takes what it takes, but the thing is, I can't feel despairing because I wasted the day. It's not wasted. It has to be done. My notebook tells me how I spent that day when I'm beating myself up mentally about not writing more.
  • Receiving a long, detailed, multi-part email about non-urgent minutiae? How long will it take to read and respond? My notebook tells me. It's a number, that, anonymized, averages out to  "too long." Bottom of the reply list for it.
  • I send an email that doesn't receive a response but receive more non-urgent minutia-driven emails. Do I hasten to reply? I see from my notebook that this was discussed already with the person sending the email. I let the email sit for a while.
  • Meeting that's supposed to take two hours and we're only 2/3 of the way through the agenda? Unless the president or provost has convened it, I'm leaving at the end of two hours. This is the 70% rule that xykademiqz and gwinne have talked about.
  • Document, document, document those progressive emails.
    • X writes to say "I need you to break this rule for me" sent to someone not me. I reply to the person who forwarded it saying when X contacts me, I'll respond.
    • X writes to someone not me to say, "hey, could you get on this right now? Time's a-wastin' here!" Same answer. When X contacts me, though, I'm ready with a reply.
  •  The To Do List is in the little black notebook as well as in the spreadsheet. It's more satisfying to cross things off in pen than in a spreadsheet.
  • The spreadsheet only tells me when I didn't meet a goal (as in Paul Silva's How to Write a Lot) or how many words I wrote. The notebook tells me that I didn't get home until 9:15 p.m., which puts a little different spin on what looks like a wasted writing day though it was a useful campus one.
  • Because it also holds some drafts and bibliographies all in one place, I can tell when I've added something to a main document: the transferred material has a line through it.
  • In the notebook, I can trick myself into writing with pen and paper sometimes when the computer holds too many other distractions (grading, etc.), as Dame Eleanor talks about. 
  • And every day when writing happens, there's the number of words, circled, at the top of the page. Pasting or stamping gold stars to the page might be a step too far, but I don't need them anyway. The circled numbers are enough.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

My time is (not) your time

A while back, before the endless year of 2017, we were talking about keeping track of time (me and these happy few, this band of sisters on the blogroll) and productivity.  At the time Laura Vanderkam was making a splash by making excellent use of lots of money to hire help to do the work we do for free her "productivity journey" of logging every second of her day.

Gwinne asked in a recent post about how to find "high-energy time" for the work she needs to do.  That seems to me to be more the issue: not how to find time, because you can always get up at 4:30 a.m. or some outlandish thing to go to the gym, but how not to do a faceplant into your desk at 10 a.m. when you do so. Time is finite. Energy is finite. Put them together, as you must to do anything creative, and they seem to diminish in exponential proportions.

I was thinking of this recently because of something to do with an ongoing collaborative project and a document. Said document has been edited ad infinitum and back, but we had added something and needed to do a bit more. My collaborators are lovely, but the part we needed to edit was exacting stuff, requiring energy, logic, creative thought, and all those things I would usually save for writing. Add to this the fact that some in our group don't feel that they've done anything unless they've changed a word for its synonym (i.e., changes that don't make a difference).

So I clocked in and out in my little notebook. Time going over the sections to discuss: 2.75 hours. And then I mentioned it in my response, phrasing it positively as reminding ourselves of the work we're doing collaboratively and its importance.

Asked whether I would go over it again before our conversation, I said that I had the hour before the meeting to look at it. "Will that be enough?" they asked. "It will have to be," I said. "That's all the time I can allot to it."  The meeting went well, and we're still positive about the project.

What difference did it make to keep track of the time? Or to mention it?

It made me feel as though my time was not in a giant vat somewhere that people could dip into and out of as they needed to. I gave them a measure of it and let them know when it was enough. It still cut into my writing--after that, and class, I had no brainpower left--but I felt in control.

Pace Rudy Vallee, it's not so much that my time is or isn't your time (sometimes it is), but realizing that I can keep track and limit it makes a huge difference.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Random bullets of MLA 2018

What was memorable?
  •  New York City! How can you not love going to NY? Maybe it's different if you already live there or near there, but it's an exciting place to be even if you are among the hayseeds (that would be me) rather than the cosmopolitan cognoscenti. Going to a museum and becoming transfixed by a painting. Seeing a Broadway show (yeah, guess which one!). I had been there this summer in the same area and so was less prone to getting lost than usual. Yes, even on a grid system some of us will not know what direction we're walking in until we get to a corner.  
  • The "bomb cyclone," because "snowpocalypse" is so 2016. Yes, it snowed a lot on Thursday, and a lot of people weren't able to get to the conference because of the wind and cancelled flights. If you were there and didn't have to get anywhere, though, it didn't seem so bad--that is, if you're used to snow and cold of 8-10 degrees. There were snowplows, shovels, and enough salt on the sidewalks to bring Carthage to ruins again.
  • The conference hotel(s): Hilton and Sheraton. The hotels seem finally to have gotten the message that we'd rather grab something fast in a deli-like setting than sit down for a meal, and the Hilton had the perfect spot for that. Also: a real fridge rather than the dreaded mini-bar  whose sensors charge you if you move a bottle. This being NY, there were plenty of great restaurants as well as delis and supermarkets.
  • Conference rooms: Decent room temperatures, lots of water to drink, and hotels very close together. Also, the wifi password was in the PMLA program this year, and the wifi worked!
  • Mostly good sessions, with a lot more 4-person panels and roundtables than there used to be. Nobody grandstanding (that I saw) and droning on past their time. No one had to use the Hook. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the BLM session with Harry Belafonte.
  • Everyone loves to complain about people reading papers. But I went to a panel in one of the new 3-session "working group" formats that was 75 minutes of people randomly chatting about theory.  There were pauses. There were random generalizations. There were lengthy readings from theorists. In its reorganization a few years ago, the MLA killed off several of its standing sessions on authors, periods, etc., and I get why they thought it was a good idea. MLA also wants you not to read papers but to experiment with other presentation modes. But I would have killed for some tightly argued, highly focused papers in this session with a spirited discussion to follow. And this format gets three time slots per convention, proving, I guess, that sessions expand to fill the time available.   It'll be a while before I return to a "working group" session.
  • The MLA is even acknowledging that it's becoming less central to the job market, now with Skype interviews and everything. That's a move in the right direction. 
Wait--I have been doing this for how long? Previous MLA roundups:

Monday, January 01, 2018

Happy New Year! Resolutions 2.0

Random resolutions, updated for what I hope will be a focused year.
  1. If I can't sit still in the morning but have laser-like focus to write from 9-11 p.m.--indeed, I get restless wanting to write at that time--I need to stop fighting it and go with the flow.
  2. Recommit to writing every day, which I lost in the various caretaking activities. All my strategies--Excel record-keeping, 750words, pomodoros--do work until the writing sets me on fire (in a good way), so I need to keep at it.
  3. Continue using my superpowers for good, though they are super in a limited way. "That office told you what? Doesn't sound right to me. Let me make a call to see if something can be done." 
  4. Realize--as in feel it--that I have a great job that I love, and that any one lousy day does not take away from the entirety of the experience. 
  5. Keep going even if something is difficult.  This NYTimes piece says that gratitude, not grit, will help with resolutions and procrastination because you'll feel responsible to others and want to show them your good traits. I'm thinking that's called "guilt over not getting something done" but am certainly going to try.
Tha's all for now. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Year's end post for 2017

A popular meme on Twitter these days is to state three things that you accomplished this year. Everyone is posting about prizes won, book contracts, degrees completed, and all that.

But nothing I could post would be on this order of magnitude. Here's what I really did:

1. Took care of people. What else can you call it when you cook, clean, buy groceries, do laundry, listen to stories, be patient, and provide care for children or the elderly? That's not an accomplishment, but it is definitely needed. It's invisible labor, all right, until somebody doesn't do it.

2. Wrote. Yet most of what I wrote was and is hard-fought words on a piece that I just could not seem to write--two pieces, actually. I finished one, and I'm seeing the finish line on another, with a third promised (why? WHY?). My main vow is never to agree to contribute a piece like this again. There's nothing wrong with the project; I just didn't click with it (or it with me), but having agreed to do it, I have had to carry it around with me every day, all year, instead of knocking it out as should have been the case. Probably 80% of the time was spent resisting writing and 20% writing.

3. Worked with collaborators on a large project. Taught (new) classes. Both were rewarding, but again: not quantifiable, and not in the service of the projects that I was so excited about last fall (2016).

4. Did what I could to fight against, endure, or ignore the current political dumpster fire. Actum est de republica, indeed.
5. On the plus side: Travel! Travel to archives, to conferences, and, if you want to count walking and hiking, engaging in what the Japanese call "forest bathing."  Reading good books. Seeing family. Getting excited about ideas. Shepherding administrative changes through various approval processes to do what Silicon Valley calls "making the world a better place." 

What about your year?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Experiments in grading? Maybe another time

What better time to think about grading than when you've just done a bunch of it?

I'm overall pretty happy with my current standards and methods, which have been developed over the years with lots of help from readings in pedagogy, colleagues, and, probably most of all, experimenting from semester to semester to see what works and what doesn't.

This last, I think, gets underrated. We experiment all the time, trying an approach, a topic, or an assignment one semester and modifying it if it doesn't work. Right now we're being inundated with very self-righteous screeds from both sides on laptops in the classroom. The thing that they seem to forget is that you have to find a balance that will work for your and your students. 

Right now I'm fascinated by the accounts people who grade in non-traditional ways and have so many questions for them.
  • Cathy Davidson's version of contract grading sounds interesting. Students contract for a grade and then complete assignments graded by their peers S/U, while Davidson confines herself to comments. It sounds good but highly labor-intensive; she says that she has never used it in a class of more than 30, and she has a TA and a Teaching Apprentice to help with the 30-person class. 
    • Since the production of an edited video is part of the course, who pays for the software? (Maybe this isn't an issue since she teaches at Duke.) Who teaches them to use it and to upload it to YouTube? 
    • What happens if the required writing has some good ideas but some grammar or structural problems (like wordiness)? Problems like that can take several papers to get ironed out, and if papers can be handed in an infinite number of times to get to an "S" (not sure if this is the case), does the student get discouraged? What about the teacher? 
    • What happens if everything is grammatically correct but entirely uninspired? 
  • Jesse Stommel says he doesn't give grades at all. He says a lot about what he won't do but never says what he does, because he's apparently saving it for a future post. 
    • He makes some good points--grading on a curve is pretty heinous, true, and feedback is far more important than actual grades. But how does he not give any grades at all? I suspect that there's some semantic wiggle room going on here--that there's some "commenting" and "assessing" that he doesn't call grading but that the rest of us would.
    • At every university where I've been employed, I have to fill out a grade sheet at the end of the term or face some draconian consequences, like being fired. I can't just announce to the registrar that grades are part of a neoliberal capitalist oppressive system that disenfranchises students and march on out of there. Or can I?
  • Kevin Gannon's "How to Escape Grading Jail" at the Chronicle has some good suggestions. 
    • Smart "calendaring" that means not too many essays in one week. 
    • Rubrics, which I've never had any luck with but are always worth trying. 
    • Recorded rather than written responses. He uses Voisi, records comments, uploads them to Dropbox, and sends the students a link. For me, this would be more time-intensive than simply typing the comments (with the help of auto-text), but I've recorded comments before when teaching online. I asked the students how they liked it, and they seemed to like it as a novelty but didn't want me to switch to it. 
The main thing I took away from all these is the same thing with which I began: you experiment, and you ask for feedback, and you observe your class and students to see what works.

And don't think that you have the One Best Way. None of us has the One Best Way, or we could stop trying.

Other posts about grading here:

Friday, December 08, 2017

At The Atlantic: Bryan Caplan's entry in the "kids today! Amirite?" sweepstakes

At The Atlantic, Bryan Caplan says "The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone." (

But just when you think he might have a point--there are indeed many kinds of work for which traditional college isn't needed where people will make way more than college professors, for example--he joins the chorus, usually led by the minions of wealth at the Wall Street Journal, about kids these days.

He has a minor point with this:
"The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them."

If we can swallow "useless subjects"--I can't--it's still somewhat true that the traits are important, yet so is the place where you learn to think.

But here's what he concludes:
Kids these days don't like to learn: "Indeed, today’s college students are less willing than those of previous generations to do the bare minimum of showing up for class and temporarily learning whatever’s on the test. . . .  Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Effort has since collapsed across the board. “Full time” college students now average 27 hours of academic work a week—including just 14 hours spent studying.
What are students doing with their extra free time? Having fun.
 Aaaaannnnd--there it is. Kids these days. Having fun. I don't know what his students are doing at George Mason University, but mine are working. They're holding down jobs and trying to get through with a minimum of debt because they don't have a trust fund.

His argument is basically twofold, but wholly conservative.

1. People in Certain Classes of Society ought to know their place and become worker drones if they can't properly appreciate, with suitable leisure, Great Thoughts.

2. Things were better in the old days, when everyone was intellectual.

This tells me (1) his political perspective about social class and (2) that he has no idea that students have been excoriated for "having fun" for literally millennia.

As I wrote in a little screed of my own against this kind of article in 2013
First of all, I think this is the same article they run every month under a different title and by-line. It goes something like this:

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?  
Now, I have a certain sympathy for the author's love of literature because I obviously think it's important, too, and what he says about the thrill of books--yes, I get that.

But is the best way to get students to have this relationship to books, where the books help them to experience their lives in different ways, to avoid teaching the humanities?

I'm imagining students, taking 15 credit hours, working 20 hours a week at Mickey D's. What happens if you toss them a copy of The Odyssey or Henry IV, Part I, and say, "Here, kid, this will change your life. Read it in your spare time"?
This is the "kids these days" argument 2.0, and I'm still not buying it.