Friday, September 12, 2014

Solving for X, where X = time to write

It's that time in the semester when it's late enough to see how the trajectory of meetings, classes, admin, etc., is going to go but early enough to correct the course. What's vanished, as usual, are the two things that matter most: time to get out and exercise, and time to write.

The usual distractions are under control, I think.  I stopped checking email on weekends, and the sky hasn't fallen, although I did miss out on a couple of opportunities by ignoring email until Sunday night.  I've blocked Facebook during work hours, even during department meetings, and my Twitter presence has dwindled to about nothing.

 No, this is about other variables: the carefully planned day of meetings that, when one of them gets shifted, means another full day on campus and no writing or exercise. That's a variable I can't control.

Another variable I can't control is administrative deadlines. These aren't a problem in themselves, but they require big blocks of time to do the tasks. Imagine if you had 1,000 widgets to put into a complex set of boxes but got called away in the middle.  You'd have to restart the process, so these tasks can't be done in 15-minute blocks with interruptions.

A variable I can control is clock time--getting up earlier, for example, as many people advise. But since I don't always sleep well, getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to write can lead to sleepiness when driving.  I can't control fatigue, either, after a day on campus.

I did try the 10-15 minute "write when you have time" method the other day and was nearly late for a meeting, since I got absorbed in the task at hand.  The research journal I started a couple of years ago has been the best way to keep engaged with the writing, though.

In short, I'm still solving for X, but I think the answer may lie in (1) regular writing in my research journal; (2) ignoring email as much as possible; and (3) getting some more sleep.  (3) may not be immediately achievable, but (1) and (2) certainly are.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Roundup: Now with writing inspiration

*Poofed* part of this because it was entirely too cranky, even for me.
  • Historiann's lovely writing space, which inspired me to clean both my office and my home desk.
  • "Less is More" in writing by GetALifePhD (Tanya Golash-Boza) has some writing inspiration. 
  • Inspired by Flavia Fescue's posts about writing in journals,  I downloaded Day One, a journal app. It tries desperately to post whatever I write to Facebook and Twitter and is hell bent on getting me to put in information so that it can report to our Alien Overlords of Social Media.  I haven't given it any information, but I don't trust it. Isn't a journal supposed to be private, or is exposing your private thoughts to the known world the new function of a journal?
  • Karen Kelsky says it's a mistake for job applicants to use a dossier service. Having been on many, many search committees as chair and as just a member, I don't agree.  The key thing is going to be the candidate's letter, CV, writing, and general tenor of the letters.  I can and do write those job letters for my students on the market, although it takes time, but is there really an Interfolio disadvantage? Readers, what say you? 
  • Speaking of writing recommendation letters, if you have not yet read Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, do it. Your local library probably has it, it's a quick read, and it's both hilarious and uncomfortably close to the truth about how many of these letters we have to write for everything and the place of humanities in the university pecking order. 
  • John Oliver takes on student debt:

Friday, August 29, 2014

Don't email me? Welcome to my bunker, and pull up a chair

This article at Slate (originally from IHE)  describes the experience of a professor at Salem State who banned student emails.

The good news is that more students came to her office as a result and her evals went up, so I guess if it works for you, you ought to keep doing it.

But are professors really "assaulted" by email?  That's a pretty strong verb.
Duvall’s frustration is shared by many in academe -- or anyone with an email account -- from faculty members beset by questions they have answered both in class and in writing to students inundated by university email blasts. This spring, when Duvall taught at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, she adopted a new email policy to cut down on emails from students telling her they would be late, or would miss class, or would have leave early, or any of the countless others that could be handled face-to-face.
Instead of wasting class time on walking her students through an increasingly complicated flowchart diagram of when they could and could not email her, Duvall stopped the problem at its core: No emails -- unless you’re scheduling an in-person meeting
A flowchart for email, really?

I know that professors complain (in blogs, at CHE) about massive numbers of emails from students, but since we're dealing with a "my experience is data" topic anyway, I haven't experienced this. Students have usually been respectful and not asked pointless questions, unless my memory has erased those emails.

Wouldn't you rather have an email than have the student show up at your office, sneezing and coughing and shedding used Kleenex into your wastebasket,  to tell you she's not going to be in class? Or am I the only recipient of these "see, I am really, really sick and not lying" visits?

Don't you think if a student emails you to say she'll be late or absent that it shows some attempt to be engaged with the class or respectful of your expectations that she'd be there?  Yes, it's better if they stop after class to tell you that they'll be absent, and most of them do that anyway.

If there's some special circumstance or absence, like a sports team event, wouldn't you rather have it in an email where you can document it instead of relying on your memory?

I'm all for more in-person interaction with students, but this would, for me, be a sealing wax policy too far.  What do you all think?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine dispenses more wisdom

Dear Ms. Undine,

In between admin, prepping classes, meeting, and still trying to keep some time for writing, I take out a few minutes to read higher education sites for distraction, which are filled with stuff I already know--teaching tips, how to handle email, and the like as though it is a fresh, new thing. I could have written them myself. This annoys me, because it violates my prime directive of not wasting my time. What should I do? 

Signed, Been there, done that

Dear Been there,
You know the answer to this one: you are looking for distraction in all the wrong places, and you, not they, are wasting your time.  

Those sites are for people who are just starting out, and to them, those things are exciting and new.  You know how kittens and puppies get intrigued by things that your cat or dog now ignore, and how nice you think it is that they are excited by them?  This information is valuable, just not to you. Be happy that people find them valuable, and stop reading them, or you'll be saying, "hey, kids, get off my lawn" at the next faculty meeting.  Oh, and pick up a book instead.

Dear Ms. Undine,

I noticed that you wrote about your lengthy syllabus with lots of policies, and there is a recent Slate article about the same thing. I have two questions. First, how did two people decide to write about this at the same time?  Second, do you agree with the article about just writing tl;dr and protesting the syllabus?

Signed,  Mysteries of the universe

Dear Mysteries,

There are only two explanations  for your first question: either (1) I have massive powers of telepathy and the ability to make the universe bend to my will by echoing my thoughts or (2) it's the beginning of the semester and everyone is making up a syllabus. Obviously the first is the rational explanation. 

About your second question: No, I don't agree that the long syllabus is the decline of academia as we know it.  When you explain the syllabus, you can emphasize certain parts, but if it's all there, they can read (or, okay, ignore) it on their own. They are not going to follow a link, and everyone knows it, so that's a non-starter. My only regret is the absence of sealing wax. 

Dear Ms. Undine,

I had a conversation today in which someone observed that her male teachers were more apt to share information about themselves when introducing themselves to the class than her female teachers.  Do you think this is true?

Signed, Gender difference or coincidence?

Dear Gender,

I don't know, but I'm curious about this.  Readers, what do you do when you introduce yourselves, or what do you think? 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

First day impressions

  • I hope they're going to like the class. I worked hard on the syllabus and readings.
  • I don't do much more the first day than explain the syllabus and introduce some of the assignments, since there's a lot to cover.  
  • If your university is like mine, it now has lots of policies, goals, and so on in specific boilerplate language that has to go into the syllabus. The syllabus now resembles Henry VIII's divorce petition to the Pope with all the wax seals. 
  • I wish I could add an interesting wax seal for each of the policies.
  • I wish we could have a day of experimenting with sealing wax without giving the fire marshal a heart attack.
  • It was nice to see colleagues when they are (and I am) relatively rested after the summer, even if we all worked all summer. 
  • It felt strange to be on campus instead of out for a walk/run early in the morning, looking at the deer in the fields and speculating about which little buildings behind people's houses might be writing houses.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Through a glass eye, darkly: listening to the Alternavoice

Flavia has good a post up about a book that she read and that, quoting Dorothy Parker, she says she wants to hurl with great force out of her house.  It's a book about a guy having a mushy, lukewarm crisis of faith. She also says that she doesn't necessarily finish books any more once she's given them a fair (100 pages, more than fair) chance.

Finishing books? Not necessarily, any more.  I recently tried a modern classic, but after reading the preface about how it would be challenging, frustrating, and confusing, even a little boring with all the digressions, but that the 1000+ pages would be totally worth the effort, I let the Kindle app quietly return it to the library without forging ahead.  Maybe I'll try again in twenty or thirty years. If I'm going to work that hard, I'd rather work, if you see what I mean.

No, the thing that worries me a little is that in rereading some classics, including my recent stretch of visiting the mid-century males, my first reaction is often no longer "This is a Timeless Classic with Enduring Themes and Universal Truths," the gospel I was taught, but "Oh, great--more twentysomething guy problems."  As Mark Twain once said of James Fenimore Cooper in a very different but totally hilarious context, I'm seeing through a glass eye, darkly.

I can't tell whether this is a gender issue or an age one, since I've read so many more novels since first encountering those classics. I can still appreciate all the formal stuff and even a little stylistic fancy footwork, but in the big Crisis of Faith moments, a still, small voice in the back of my head is saying something like "Dude. You are worrying about this, really? Get a grip."

The Alternavoice hasn't always been there when I read. I think reading all the junk on the web has cultivated it, from listicles to the faux questions at Slate and HuffPo and now all the news sites.  It's not there with everything I read, which is a good thing.

And the Alternavoice isn't all bad.  It slips out in class sometimes, in some almost-snark pointing out problems in a text. I don't want to go all trollish on a piece of writing, of course, but it's good for the students to see that what we're reading isn't holy writ and that there's another way to look at the hero's dilemma.

Maybe I need to write up an assignment where they can let their Alternavoices loose, but once it's out of the cage, as evidenced in my brain in the last year or so, it's out for good.

Do you have this voice when you read literature? Is there some situation or plotline that especially brings it out?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dear Ms. Undine answers more questions

Dear Ms. Undine,
From Shutterstock

Someone just wrote a book that is entirely composed of tweets about writing a book. People post about how they are writing (#amwriting) and how good they feel about it. The author says that it's not cruel to make fun of these people. The book sells for $9 on Amazon.

If I cite this using MLA, do I put it as an edited book? Did I miss the boat on collecting other people's words for free and charging for them? Is it possible that making fun of random strangers who post on Twitter could be considered cruel?

Signed, Soft-hearted Susan

Dear Susan,



Dear Ms. Undine,

I want my class to be a success on the first day. Do you have any advice?

Signed,  Newbie

Dear Newbie,

You can find a good list at Vanderbilt or your own university's teaching and learning center.  That list is mostly great advice, although I don't follow this part under the "sharing information" section: "Personal biography: your place of birth, family history, educational history, hobbies, sport and recreational interests, how long you have been at the university, and what your plans are for the future."

I figure if they know that I'm a humanoid life form and where my office is, that will about exhaust their interest in me.  If they want to know more, they will ask.


Dear Ms. Undine,

I would like to save paper by not printing a syllabus but by putting it in Blackboard/Canvas instead. Students will read it there before they come to class, right?

Signed, Dances with Trees

Dear Dances,

Long ago, in a classroom far away, a dewy-eyed Ms. Undine believed as you do.  Then she checked the usage statistics to see how many students had looked at the syllabus and emerged a broken woman.

You don't have to hand out print copies of everything, but a print copy of a syllabus is like a contract for the class.  Just the physical act of handing out something on paper will help them to take it more seriously.  They are online all the time, and what's there is ephemeral to them. Since a piece of paper is no longer the norm, it has more weight than a bunch of pixels.