Saturday, October 25, 2014

Maybe a little bit more advice on the job letter

I've written a bunch of posts full of advice about the job letter, and I don't want to repeat myself so this will be short.

As far as I can tell, the advice has not changed from blog to blog or year to year, but there are a couple of points in otherwise good posts that I would like to challenge.

1. Karen Kelsky (Professor is In) usually has good advice, like about tailoring a job letter. (Of course I think it's good; it's advice I've given myself. ) I did read somewhere that it's too much of a burden for the applicant to tailor a job letter, but if you're applying for a job you are serious about, what do you think?

 But she thinks Interfolio and non-tailored letters from your faculty recommenders are a sign of the apocalypse, or anyway serious professional laziness on the part of faculty.  I'm happy to write personalized letters, but as a member and/or chair of a search committee, I certainly didn't expect personalized letters from faculty members that had tailored them to our specific hiring needs.

2. Philip N. Howard's helpful Inside Higher Ed essay on the lines needed in job letters has a lot of good advice, too. Amidst this excellent advice, though, is one thing that might not be true:
"Address your letter to the person heading the search or the department head. A greeting such as 'Dear Committee Members' shows you haven’t done enough research." 
"Research" in this case may involve defying the HR requirements of posting the ad, which for various reasons may not list a name at all but may instead  specify that the letter has to be addressed to "Search Committee Chair" or some such. I don't know why they do this, and I'm not brave enough to go to HR and find out.

So "research" in this case may involve using the name of the department chair, or calling the department and requesting the name of the search committee chair. I get why Howard would think this is important, but what if 300 applicants all call the administrative assistant to try to get this information in the name of "research"?  It's nice if you have the name, but don't lose any sleep over it if you don't. It's a salutation, not the Holy Grail.

Let me assure job candidates who may be reading this that, as a search committee member and/or chair, I could not tell you whether the hundreds of letters I read had my name, the department chair's name, "Dear Committee Members," or "Dear Bozos on the Bus." Quite honestly, we skip to the first paragraph -- AS WE SHOULD-- and get right to the substance of your qualifications and interest in the position.

3. The letterhead issue is another one that bloggers, CHE, and IHE have written about for the past ten years or so. Karen Kelsky points out that you should be able to get an electronic version, or, in a pinch, Photoshop a version of it for your electronic publications.  I'd only add that your department probably has this for the asking for grad students (although some don't give it out).

 In a funny reversal, when I asked for this letterhead template a few years ago, various Northern Clime admins assured me that we had no such thing for faculty or students. What was I talking about! Didn't exist! A student did have a copy of it, though, so that's how I was able to post much better-looking versions of letters to job portals and Interfolio. For the most recent logo redesign, we were officially sent the template, which is a step in the right direction.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pedantry or self-preservation?

It's grading season--wait, it's always grading season, isn't it?--and as the papers come flooding in, it's inevitable that we'll get some of these:
--papers with no page numbers
--electronic papers called things like "myroughdraft.doc" or the ever-popular "paper1.doc."
--papers with no Works Cited
--papers with no names
--papers with Works Cited in a separate file
--papers in some odd format that can't be opened
--Works Cited in some peculiar numbered list, which we don't use in MLA

Now, on the papers themselves, we're used to explaining, or not explaining if you believe in minimal marking, when there's a comma splice or a fragment or a missing apostrophe. I am sometimes told I'm the first person ever to point these out to the student, which, if true, is kind of sad and inspiring at the same time (as in they're better off to learn about it now).  Along with commenting on the contents, which is the more important part, it's part of our jobs to note these.  We grade holistically, so we're not dinging them for points all the time.

But those format things in the list above used to make me bang my head on the desk.  Why would they not follow the guidelines that I'd given to them? I'm writing a final comment, and I have to number the pages myself to say "On p. 4"--why, oh why, is it up to me?

[Edited to add, in light of Tenured Radical's recent column: I don't make fun of them for this, or think they are doing it to spite me, or think it reflects on them as people in any way.  Anyone who's ever filled out a grant application or any other kind of form can testify that when you're trying to get it done, you'll always find some piece that you find arbitrary. That puts you and the students on the same level ground about requirements.

No, my issue is strictly whether it makes more work for me or not.]

Then I got smart.  The papers are still graded holistically, but here's a test: does it make more work for me if Stu Dent didn't complete the format things? Then Stu Dent gets a gentle reminder on the first paper, and after that, it's -1 for those things. It's not enough of a penalty to hurt them, but it's enough to get their attention--and it seems to work.

Some would call it pedantry.  I call it the "you make me work to do something you were supposed to do, you pay" rule, or self-preservation.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Test post

The Mac OS updated itself today, and in addition to making all the icons look like international traffic signs, it's messing with things like Firefox and Chrome.

I log in, but it says I'm not logged in when I try to comment on other blogs, sort of like this duet from Annie Get Your Gun. Watch it if you are brave and can watch Betty Hutton without screaming.

"No, you can't."

"Yes, I can."

"No, you can't."

And so on.



Friday, October 17, 2014

Writers on Writing: Winston Churchill

I want to reply to Historiann's challenge, but first a post about writing.

From The Guardian, a window into Winston Churchill's methods of writing, with comments:
Downstairs there is a room with green lamps hanging from the ceiling, and maps on the wall, and a telephone exchange: and here Churchill kept his researchers – about six of them at once, junior Oxford dons, research fellows, some of them destined for high academic honours. There they were, filleting, devilling, rootling around in books and documents in search of stuff that might be of use.
Comment: Would you want this?  It's the Doris Kearns Goodwin way of writing (teams of researchers finding material that you fashion into text) and it works well for her and others.  But would you have as good a sense of the primary texts if you had outsourced, so to speak, the initial reading of them? 

I'd like to try a research assistant, since I'm sure it would help. If nothing else, I could set a research assistant to changing all the @#$%^& in-text citations to endnotes in Chicago 16 style.  (I have experimented with Endnote's Chicago 16 setting & don't see any way to do this automatically.)

After dictating to a squadron of scribes all night, Churchill would have text. Oh, boy, would he have text--more, Boris Johnson, the author, tells us than Dickens and Shakespeare combined:
The sheaves of typewritten paper he would then correct and amend by hand – and we have innumerable examples of his cursive blue-inked marginalia – and the results would be typeset as they would appear on the page; and even that was not the end.
He would fiddle with the text. He would switch clauses around for emphasis, he would swap one epithet for another and, in general, he would take the utmost delight in the process of polishing his efforts; and then he would send the whole lot off to be typeset again.
Why did he write? Partly for money, but also for this:
His creative-depressive personality meant that writing (or painting, or bricklaying) was a way of keeping the “black dog” of depression at bay. He wrote for that sensation of release that comes with laying 200 bricks and writing 2,000 words a day.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The End Matter

I'm close enough to the end, or I'm deluding myself I'm close enough to the end, of this manuscript to start compiling the Works Cited in an actual document rather than Endnote as I work through the footnotes. In looking at the press's guidelines today, guess what citation format I'm supposed to use.

MLA? No.

Chicago 14? No.

Chicago 15? No.

APA? Bite your tongue.

Chicago 16?  Yes indeed, the only one that I had not, until today, shelled out $42 to purchase. Now, if I ever leave academe, I will have enough hefty Chicago/MLA Style books to serve as doorstops for every door in the house.

This made me think of one of my favorite essays, whose title I've shamelessly stolen, Louis Menand's "The End Matter."  Among other gems, there's this one:
To begin with, the designers of Word apparently believe that the conventional method of endnote numbering is with lowercase Roman numerals—i, ii, iii, etc. When was the last time you read anything that adhered to this style? It would lead to sentences like:
In the Gramscian paradigm, the “intellectual”lxxxvii is, by definition, always already a liminal status.lxxxviii
If I weren't laughing so hard, I would cry, because every single time I rename or resave a file, my footnotes revert from Arabic numerals to the Word default for endnotes, something that looks like ASCII run amok.

And I have been looking into the mysteries of compiling master documents in Word, of which only two pieces of advice found online are remarkably consistent:

1) If compiled improperly, master document can turn your chapters into word salad.
2) Sometimes it turns your chapters into word salad just for the sheer joy of destruction.

I still have a lot to do, conference papers to write, and so on, but the fact that I'm getting this close to the end matter makes me think that this will not be the Key to All Mythologies but an actual book.

And now, for a treat, I'm going to read "The End Matter" one more time.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Clap your hands if you believe

I'm not writing here much lately because, in looking at CHE and IHE and ChronicleVitae, I feel as though I've seen these issues before, some of them a lot of times, and written about many of them (ditto).

But one that I'd like to see more specific data about is a trend whereby the PhD and inventive variants are promoted as good bets for working in various unnamed industries or libraries. Aren't librarians having trouble finding work? What kinds of industries? What kinds of foundation work?  The articles I've seen tout 3 or so success stories as the wave of the future, but what are the facts?

Sometimes the Ph.D. is promoted as an enrichment degree so valuable even if you don't get a job, you'll be glad you spent 10 years doing it, which might be true if you are independently wealthy or retired.

Sometimes they even propose expanding or creating new degrees that don't have the expectation of university teaching at the end of it, as in the recent kerfuffle at Cornell.  The descriptions of what exactly graduates would do are both uplifting and stunningly vague, as though even those proposing the degree don't have much of a concept beyond mad critical thinking and research skilz--good in themselves, but how about specifics?

Sometimes, it's not only an enrichment but something you owe it to the world to treat as a calling:
To sustain scholarly inquiry, we need scholars around the country and world engaged in research and capable of critically assessing each other’s work. We need to ensure that humanities graduates at all levels — in K-12 schools, museums, local societies, media, universities, and government — have the space and time to engage in scholarship and be part of the conversation.
Well, yes. Yes, we do need scholars.  Let me add the important corollary that scholars need to eat, and have health insurance, and maybe a place to live and a car to drive, even if you're not counting expensive, frivolous extras like having children.

The article goes on to say we need to address supply and demand:
On the demand side, we must expand the number of tenure-line positions in the humanities across the nation and resist the deprofessionalization of teachers and professors.
Well, done and done, then!

I should not be so cynical about this, but it is crazymaking to read something like this--"we must expand"--when none of this, none, zip, nada is in the power of ordinary academics to do.  We can try, but we do not control the money. Let me repeat: We do not control the money. We have little say over how it is spent, how salaries or research funds are allocated, and did I mention having no control whatever over allocations from the state or Board of Regents or whoever determines the university's budget?  For most of us, simply retaining a line when someone retires instead of having it snatched back by central administration is cause for feasting and dancing around a sacred idol.

When I was little and saw Peter Pan, there was a scene where Tinkerbell was dying and we all had to clap our hands and believe if we wanted to make her well.  Without more facts, these articles seem to me to be saying "clap your hands if you believe, and you will make it so."  I wish these confident assertions were true, but I want some investigative reporting rather than opinion pieces to tell me how they might be.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine answers self-evident questions

Dear Ms. Undine,

Ms. Mentor calls October "exploding head month" because of all the grant applications due then.  A whole lot of local ones are due next week. How can I deal with applications that want to know how much money I need to spend on June 10, 2015 when I can barely get through the stuff I need to do for next Tuesday?

Signed, Future Shock

Dear Future,
Here are some possibilities:
1. Start last year.
2. Start tomorrow for next year.
3. Seriously, practice a little time management.
4. Comfort yourself in the knowledge that with grant support so tight (NEH: 6%) you are likely only to be bragging fodder for its glossy brochures anyway: "We got 10 zillion applications and only funded 5! Look how selective we are! Yay for us!"

Dear Ms. Undine,

Clay Shirky, a famous person on the Internet, has pronounced laptops a distraction in the classroom and restricted their use, something I figured out and did a long time ago.  Now the fanboys who have called me a Luddite and blamed me for not liking the Shiny Things are falling all over themselves pronouncing the Wisdom of Clay.  Why is this so?

Signed,

Not Ned Ludd

Dear Not Ned,

Because you are not famous on the Internet, and because, I fear, you are not a guy and hence to fanboys do not have the mental equipment to think intelligently about Shiny Things. Think of yourself as the secret Queen of the Internet who predicts all things but whose power would be diminished if anyone listened to you.  In other words, get over it.

Dear Ms. Undine,

Out of idle curiosity, I looked at the MLA Job List and discovered that there are only 5 jobs in the country, 3 in something resembling my specialty, at the associate or full level!

Signed,

This is a job market?

Dear This,

Unless you have spent the last 30 years in silent meditation and prayer, surely this cannot be a surprise to you.  Ms. Mentor had a column about this recently, which if the CHE had a search feature instead of a Ouija Board, I would seek out and link to.  Surely you can find better things to do with your idle curiosity, like putting your books in some kind of order, or writing something, or taking a walk around the block, or, better still, helping your students and junior colleagues to get prepared for their job applications.