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. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Was there ever a time of idealism in college?

Dean Dad has an interesting post about artists and the advice being given to them:
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But where some variation of “follow your dreams” would have gone when I was in college, I heard “learn a trade” and “get good at living on very little money.”
He continues:
What I didn’t see, though, was youthful idealism.  I didn’t see what I used to think of as teenage bravado.  I saw some very young people who had been forced by circumstance to act in ways that used to be the province of their elders.  I saw young adults, rather than teenagers. 
In many ways, that’s great.  Given the very real economic obstacles many young students face, a certain gritty realism is appropriate.  And if memory serves, teenage bravado can be wearing in its own right.
But that “bulletproof” teenage stage -- that, in retrospect, relies on a base of economic security -- serves a purpose.
Dean Dad's take on this is interesting, for he sees it as a generational issue, whereas I see it as a class issue.

Although I went to college in a time that was supposed to be somewhat idealistic, the people I knew at public universities never went through a "bulletproof" stage of economic security where they thought "follow your dreams" was good advice. Idealism costs money, either immediately or in the future, and they knew it. 

That's not to say that people weren't idealistic, or that they didn't do the same stupid things that college students have always done, but they understood the "gritty realism" of the consequences. The idea that you could throw yourself on the economy like a trampoline and bounce back wasn't part of the equation.

Private universities or elite publics--sure.  My friends who came from upper-middle-class professional backgrounds knew they could do whatever they wanted. If they made money in the summer working for their parents' friends, it went toward backpacking in Europe and not toward next year's expenses.  It's not that one was wrong and the other right, but they were different experiences.

I've been thinking about this because of reading other Mid-Century Males, Jack Kerouac and other Beats in particular.  Kerouac didn't want to be tied down, which may be the understatement of the decade, but whenever he got the urge to travel, which was most of the time, he had two things going for him: (1) plentiful manufacturing or service jobs that he could get easily and then leave and (2) like Allen Ginsberg, a family that, though not wealthy, would scrape up the money for bail for him when he got in trouble with the law.

The same seems to be true for the following decade, the 1960s, as I mentioned in a post about a year ago in talking about Sara Davidson's Loose Change:
What I actually took away was that people in those days could quit, drop out, or do any damn thing they felt like doing, and there would be someone or something to pick them up afterwards: plentiful jobs, more jobs than there were applicants, seemingly;  a network that would allow the main character, with just a phone call from one of her parents, to go to Europe and work as a translator in Italy; and a generous system of social service benefits that wouldn't let them fall into poverty.  They could change the world--or at least the upper-middle-class white women in the book could--because the world was going to support them financially no matter what they did.  I realize that that's probably not true, but it has a truthiness to it and seems true, given what Davidson describes.
  I think Dean Dad is right, but only partially so.  The idealism gap, if you can call it that, was always there for some students, but now it's hitting the class that used to be told "follow your bliss," and that's what speaks to the troubling reality that he's talking about.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8pjd1QEA0c

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.