Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday hiatus

Time to take a break from the internets, ignore some emails, get some things done (though that'll be tough with no library, as Dame Eleanor points out), and make some cookies. Lots of cookies.

I can't do better for holiday wishes than the poem over at Roxie's World, but Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Random bullets of December

  • I'm in the midst of a much-put-off task (work-related but not writing-related) that apparently I will do anything to avoid, including eating cookies, shoveling the driveway, and scouring the internet for amusement.
  • Said scouring includes visiting blogs in search of amusement (thank you all!), but it doesn't seem fair to expect amusement and not give any back. However, this post can't really count as amusement until you get to the video below.
  • Today's excitement includes finding a rebate card with some money left on it and buying two more Kindle books for the iPad. Free books! Score! Well, they seem to be free because I never remember to take the rebate card when I actually want to buy something.
  • I've been reading a lot more for pleasure and semi-work since I got the iPad--that is, I get things that are maybe background or history for what I'm doing. So far, on any given day, I have a book going in the Kindle app and one in the Google Books app, and it's great to switch back and forth. If the sky ever clears up, I'm going to try out the Star Walk app I bought. You hold the iPad up to the sky, and it shows you the constellations and so on that you're looking at in whatever direction you point the iPad.
  • One of the desk copies I ordered is apparently now only print-on-demand from a major publisher. "We'll get it out to you right away," Publisher said a month ago. Didn't happen, so I bought a used copy. It was under $10, and it's easier to get that way than to try to contact the publisher and hope someone's going to respond in the next few weeks. At what point do you figure it's easier to pay money than to fight with the publisher about a desk copy? I don't know the tipping point, but I'm not going to stand on principle in that situation. They may owe me a book, but my time is worth something, isn't it? Especially when I could be eating or shoveling or reading blog posts?
  • Dean Dad writes about community colleges in California that are considering refusing to allow students to take the same class an infinite number of times (say, more than 5), since those who take a class for the third or fourth or fifth time are less likely to pass than those who retake it only once.
  • Just in case you're not one of the millions of people who saw this already, here's a video of dancing in an Antwerp train station that made me smile.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On Writing: Lessons Learned

Reverb10 now has a prompt I can answer, about lessons learned this year. Dr. Crazy has an introspective and interesting post up about this; she says that seeing happiness as a state of being that happens to you rather than as something you create is a trap (I'm paraphrasing).

I'd like to apply this to the process of writing. These aren't new lessons, but they're ones that seem to be more true this year than ever before.

1. Assess, reflect, and forget about it. If you're a person for whom any kind of deadline (writing deadline, going to a party--doesn't matter; both are firm dates and hence deadlines) makes you feel trapped, you spend a lot of pointless time fretting about the deadline coming up without necessarily doing anything about it. If you're not that kind of person, you say, "well, just put it out of your mind, then!" but if you are, you know that's not easy to do. If you have multiple deadlines, you fret about them all and accomplish nothing.

Here's what I learned that makes this more tolerable: if you know deep down that you have to write something, you will. You've done it before, and you will do it again. It's not easy or comfortable, but you will do it.

Silvia says that this knowledge comes from writing every day, and that may be part of it, although in looking over my work log for this past year, I don't write new material every day. But I now can scope out certain kinds of projects more accurately than before and estimate about how long the reading and writing will take and when I really need to start working. So: assess the problem, think about the time you have and the time you need, and let it go. You may still go through the "dither and blather" process, but it's a more time-limited process than before.

2. Every day in every way, the writing gets better and better (with apologies to Émile Coué). I'm learning this somewhat in creating the class. Every day something else occurs to me that didn't occur to me before, and I can't wait to write that down. I wrote a couple of things this year for which the process felt a little like a forced march, but the thing is, once something was written down, I knew I could make it better the next day. I know--this is the oldest precept in the writer's handbook, but I never really felt it before.

3. Give yourself what you need to succeed. I don't mean time, although that's important. I mean the little rituals and objects that make you want to write. For example, a few weeks ago I ran out of a certain kind of writing notebook that I use to keep track of progress when I'm working. It's apparently a habit with me to write things in this kind of notebook, since when I start to write I look around so I can make a notation in the book. Since I wasn't exactly out of paper (you pen and paper addicts--you know what I'm talking about!), I tried writing in another kind of notebook, and it just didn't work. Why not? Paper is paper, right? It's a stupid ritual, right? Stupid or not, it helps, so after arguing with my rational self for a while I went out and bought more of those notebooks so I could get back in a routine.

To get back to Dr. Crazy's idea about being active, I think that's the overall lesson here. Other people can tell you their systems (or why would we buy Boice's and Silvia's books?), but the key to all this is developing your own system. Maybe it's a writing log or another kind of log (I love me some Excel spreadsheets!), or maybe it's keeping a writing journal, or maybe it's keeping a to-do list.

A lot of bloggers have written about liking to cross things off their to-do lists (I do, too), but if you think about it, the system, however you define it, is really the carrot instead of the stick when you're talking about writing. Well, okay, the end product is the carrot, too, but it's really the feeling of being done that drives us on, and it's the systems we devise (the intermediate carrots) that get us there.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fascinated by the process

In the midst of everything else (getting ready for the holidays, grading, working on the MLA paper), I've been trying to respond to the copyeditor's queries for an article that will be coming out. The process has gone sort of like this.

Let's say that the article is on an obscure person who roomed with a famous 1950s movie star whose initials are MM and that OP later wrote a memoir about it. Here are some of the kinds of questions I've been answering.

1. On p. 15, line 2, you observe that women in the 1950s often wore red polish on their fingernails and toenails. Can you cite a statistic for this and add the source to your bibliography?

2. Can you confirm that Obscure Person indeed painted her toes with Midnight Red on August 10, 1955? What is the source for this?

3. Can you provide a source that demonstrates that Midnight Red was in fact a color used by Revlon in 1955?

4. Can you provide the birth and death dates for Obscure Person's nail technician?

Now, tracking this all down takes a whole lot of time that I don't have right now. On the other hand, I'm grateful for all the attention to detail because (1) I should have caught this the first time around; (2) someone might be interested; and (3) it makes me feel as though I'm writing for The New Yorker with its famed fact-checking.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Email sabbatical: one researcher's approach

Over at Lifehacker, there's an admiring post about "Researcher Danah Boyd," who's planning a trip and is setting her email for the six weeks she's away to go straight to the trash so she doesn't have to answer it. Here's some of her reasoning:
Do I miss things while I'm on vacation? Most certainly. Inevitably, I will receive numerous emails from journalists covering year-end stories about teens, people wanting me to review journal articles, students wanting help with their term papers, and perhaps an invitation or two. I do feel guilty not personally responding to these people to say that I'm unavailable but that's precisely the point. I need to let go in order to truly take a break and refresh.
At first glance, this seems positive: Absolutely. Does email really have to mean being on call all the time? If you're going to take a break, take a real one and leave the email requests (and the guilt) behind. Since she's already written to her usual correspondents and work partners telling them she's doing this, they ought to be ready for it.

On the other hand, what if you're a fellow researcher not in regular contact with her who is, say, putting together a conference panel or asking her to review an article for you? And you write to her and wait? And since you don't even get an autoresponse saying that she's gone, you wait some more or maybe send a second message, because you don't know it's going straight into the trash? And then you go on to someone else, but only after you've wasted a week or two?

Much as I hate autoresponse, it does strike a balance between "no information at all" and "personally responding," but those messages usually say "I'll be in touch when I return." She doesn't want that to be the message she's sending.


Positivity reverberating

It's the class, I tell you. I can't leave the new class alone. I wake up every morning not with new writing but with new wording for the class.

Then I have to put my shiny new ideas into the class. Sometimes it's a minor change of wording and sometimes it's a new way of organizing the information.

I write it down.

Then I admire it.

Then I change it a little.

Then I admire it again.

After about two hours, I figure it's time to stop having fun and get to work.

Productive procrastination: it's like eating cookies without the calories.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Time of the Season

It's that time of the year when you'd rather be thinking about the beginning of something than the end of something:

  • being excited about planning next semester's classes rather than actually, you know, grading the papers from this one, even though you loved this semester's classes.
  • thinking ahead to seeing family at Christmas instead of finishing up the Christmas shopping.
  • actually being at MLA instead of finishing up the paper for it.
  • the projects you've got lined up for next semester instead of finishing the ones for this semester.
  • Wednesday, December 08, 2010

    Another day, another non-reverb10 post

    I admire that people are doing the reverb10 thing and that they seem to be learning from it. My reaction is more Roxie's World than not, though (minus the terrible life events that are mentioned over there, which is why I took down my comment).

    My issues, or Issues, if you prefer, are twofold. These aren't meant as criticisms of the people who are doing it, because some of the prompts are worthwhile. But in case anyone was wondering:

    (1) I'm kind of allergic to Inspiration and use up my quota of tolerance for it listening to speeches at graduation every year.

    (2) The last time I was in a situation where I had to write a prompt not of my choosing was at an Edumacation Workshop. The point was that whatever we wrote was wrong, because--surprise!--we had not asked what we were to assess before starting the prompt. Since I had read the same assessment stuff that they assumed we had never heard of, I was way ahead of the presenters, who were very proud of themselves for this little trick. I didn't write the prompt because I could see where this exercise was leading.

    And anyway, if you're going to give a prompt, why not make it something like "are we human, or are we dancer?" and put it to a beat?

    This isn't to say that reverb10 hasn't had an effect, though. I've been trying to figure out why I had such a visceral and immediate response against it, even though I've done the occasional meme. My best guess is that even though it's voluntary, it felt coercive (again--to me), and if someone else has an item to add to my to-do list, they're going to have to get in line.

    Saturday, December 04, 2010

    A different kind of writing challenge

    A lot of bloggers are doing the reverb10 challenge right now (see sidebar). The challenge is to write a blog post based on a prompt every day this month. Today's word must be "wonder." I'm often game for these kinds of challenges (like NaNoWriMo), but I'm passing on this one.

    My "writing challenge" for this month is different. Last year, I finally followed Paul Silvia's advice and made a writing chart in Excel. Given that I can now track such things, I'm trying now to beat last year's total of written pages for the year.

    My chart is a little different from Silvia's. In this chart, the word totals for writing tasks like reports, letters of recommendation or tenure letters, manuscript reviews, grant reviews, etc. don't count; I can only enter word counts for research-related writing on articles and so on.

    My chart has columns for the date, the project, the number of words I started and ended with (which gives the day's total), and a column that converts word count to pages. The "project" column is really a space for a few words about what I was doing (teaching, class prep, travel) if I wasn't working on a project, which makes it easier to track why I wasn't writing. There's a column called "Comment" that I use to show when I sent an article or delivered a paper--probably unnecessary but very satisfying.

    At the bottom of the pages and words columns, of course, is the payoff: the number of pages/words for the year. I don't know if I can beat 2009's number by the end of 2010, but I'm going to give it the old college try.

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    Theory and experience, or "but it looked good on paper"

    A long time ago, when I was a more trusting soul, I read a cat care book that recommended using the upholstery brush attachment of a vacuum cleaner--with the vacuum cleaner running--to groom your cat. What's not to love? The cat hair is magically vacuumed up, and the book assured me that "cats love it!"

    Those of you who know how much cats generally love vacuum cleaners can guess the rest. Anyway, the deep scratches on my arms healed after a month or so, but I was never quite so trusting about some kinds of advice again.

    Dean Dad has a post up about a similar "it looked good on paper" moment: treating first-year students as an incoming cohort, putting them all in the same classes, and so on. What happened?
    It was one of those (retrospectively) glorious exercises in perspective. From the college’s perspective, the idea of group bonding, integrated instruction, and deliberate exposure to extracurriculars should have added ‘good’ to ‘good’ to ‘good.’ To the students, though, it felt like High School II. In high school, they saw the same people over and over again from class to class; they were actually eager to break away from that at college.
    The commenters at Dean Dad's say the same thing happened at their schools.

    My "it looked good on paper" moment (apart from the cat experience) has been with rubrics. I believe in them, and I've developed what I think are some good ones. But when I've asked for feedback on courses where I've used them for some assignments, the students say things like "I like the comments you give us better than the rubric" or "I like it when you write a long comment." Part of this is doubtless my fault for not using rubrics all the time; maybe if they didn't know they could get long comments, they'd be happy with the rubric.

    Have you ever had an experience like this, where something ought to work well based on all the theories, but it just didn't work in the classroom?

    Saturday, November 27, 2010

    On writing: dither and blather

    Over at The Chronicle, The Shadow Scholar has been getting more than his 15 minutes of fame for cheerfully admitting that he makes a good living at writing papers--nay, theses and dissertations--for students willing to pay his prices. Everyone in the comments is shocked and outraged by his admission and his lack of ethics, but I was sort of struck with awe at this: "It's not implausible to write a 75-page paper in two days. It's just miserable. I don't need much sleep, and when I get cranking, I can churn out four or five pages an hour."

    Wow. Is it possible to write 75 pages in two days?

    I've concluded that there are really two parts to the actual writing process (not the editing process, which is also part of a larger writing process). These are Getting Started and Keeping At It. Keeping At It is not hard. Getting Started is misery.

    When I've asked highly productive colleagues and friends how they get started, sometimes they seem confused ("What is this Getting Started of which you speak?" their expressions say) and sometimes they say, "Well, I get up and start reading things, and then I start writing." None of them mention the Dither Period, which unfortunately seems somehow essential to the Getting Started process for me.

    The Dither Period is that time period when you know you should be writing but can't manage it. You sit at the desk and leap up as if you're on a hot stove. You've already cut down all distractions--no internet, no going to the store or seeing friends, no cleaning binges--so on top of everything else, the Dither Period is boring. You think about the work, read a little, wander around the house, sit down, leap up, and wander some more. Finally, you can't stand it any more and you sit down, write the word count on a pad of paper (an ignominious "0," but you have to start somewhere), set the timer for 20 or 30 or 50 minutes, and get going. Now you're in the Getting Started mode.

    Actually, you're in Blather mode. You just write things down based on what you know and think, making side notes when you have to. Your quotations look like this: "Put down that quote where he says this--I think it's in X book." When the timer rings, you write down your word count, because in Blather mode, every word does count. Maybe you set little goals for yourself about how much you'll write before the next timer period. And so on.

    At the end, you'll have words. They may not be what you want, or they may turn out to be all right after all. The important thing is that you've created something you can work with--a Blather fabric--that you can then cut and stitch into something worthwhile.

    But 75 pages over a two-day period? I don't think that even Blather mode could produce that much.

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Warm pumpkin custard (left over from the pies and baked in a dish) for dessert last night with excellent sharp cheese.
    • Pumpkin custard with sharp cheese and icy cold apple cider for breakfast.
    • Fresh thyme, dug out from under the snow, for roasting the turkey.
    • The smell of turkey roasting all day long.
    • Skyping/calling/Google videoing with various family members, and the guilt-free knowledge that we're too far away to have to navigate slippery roads or endure the warm embrace of a TSA agent to see them.
    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

    Sunday, November 21, 2010

    Syllabus hero

    The other day over at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan said (or linked to someone who said) that laptops were becoming more scarce in classes these days. Is this true? I'm not teaching classes right now where this is an issue, so I'm curious: are we on the downside of the laptop-using curve? Are the Facebook-checking students having to delay gratification for 50 minutes until the class is over? (I know, I know--some students take notes with their laptops. Some get 8 hours of sleep a night, write their papers months in advance, call their parents every week, and spend the rest of their time studying, but can we agree that not everyone does this?)

    Second question: Is this the result of teachers banning laptops?

    I was thinking about this because in looking up syllabi around the web the other day, I came across a few by instructors that ought to be called syllabus heroes. Syllabus heroes are the people who make policies that make mine look timid. Their syllabi include statements like these:
    • No laptops. No exceptions.
    • Texting in class = be asked to leave.
    • Turn off your cell phone. If it rings, everyone in the class loses participation points for the day. (I made that one up, but what I saw was similar.)
    • Be disruptive in class, and everyone in the class has to take a pop quiz.
    The statements make no apologies and no explanations; they just state the facts.

    And banning laptops? Can we even do that? Would it hold up if someone went to the Chair or Dean and argued that we were destroying their ability to learn and will to live?

    Saturday, November 20, 2010

    A flash of insight

    Right now the secondary narrative of my life is this St. George and the Dragon relationship I'm having with the online instruction people. Hint: I am St. George in this scenario, and I really am more amused than irritated. Note: We are supposed to be able to teach these courses as we wish to teach them, so I'm not violating any principles in wanting to change things.

    The Dragon has wanted meetings. I have had meetings. Lots of meetings.

    The Dragon wants me to maintain the course structure as far as folder structures and so on in the labyrinthine course space. Sure. Fine. Whatever.

    The Dragon wants me to change nothing about the course, including adding assignments or changing the grading plan. I disagree.

    The Dragon wants me to link to nothing beyond the world of the course. Uh, that would be a big negative on that one.

    The Dragon wants me to give it my materials now so that I have no control over them and cannot change them for 8 weeks. I don't even have the desk copies yet. Nope.

    Now, I'm sure that the Dragon really does think it knows best and is being very helpful, but its #1 concern is that nothing change, ever. My #1 concern is to give the students the best possible online experience and education that I can give them, based on what I know from previous online teaching experiences and, oh, by the way, being a professional in the field of literary studies for a goodly amount of time.

    Here's the insight that caused me to put the sword away and stop instigating contact: I have the power to change things in the course space without asking anyone about it. I'm not going to violate any meaningful rules or principles (folder structure), but if I change something and they don't like it, they're going to have to come to me about the issue.

    This is a whole different dragon-slaying contest from what I was doing, which was explaining what I wanted to do and then having them respond, "But that would change an assignment, wouldn't it?"

    I just got contacted for yet another introductory meeting but was warned by the Dragon representative that ze was very busy and zir time was limited. With my new insight, I replied that I would only be available on a certain date during a 3-hour block of time for a meeting and cheerily concluded that ze should let me know if ze wanted to schedule a meeting.

    Insight! It's a wonderful thing.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    Two links in defense of the humanities

    Michael Berube, over at Crooked Timber, dismantles the idea that the humanities have been declining as a major:

    And Gregory A. Petsko, at Genome Biology, responds to SUNY Albany's purge of its language departments by providing an eloquent defense of the humanities from a scientist's perspective. A sample:
    But universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I'll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world's number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn't - well, I'm sure you get the picture.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Random bullets of gray November

    • Here's a question: if the monograph is in trouble, dying, hard to publish, etc., then why does seemingly every presenter at a conference have a new book either just out or just coming out (or, in a bid to make the audience truly envious, both)?
    • I think we ought to have an award patch for our blog sidebars that says something like "I survived my meeting with the Center for Teaching Awesomeness/Course Management System Gurus." These are often a requirement for getting access to modify the course no matter how much you've done in online in the past, so I kept my words to a minimum and my temper under wraps. On the 30th or so time I was told emphatically not to do something that usually works well because it would mess up their system of teaching for future people teaching the course, I finally said, "I don't really care about who teaches the course after me. Can't you just archive the course as it is now and put that one back in for the next person?" Archiving a course goes back to about 1999 in Blackboard if not earlier, so I think they could manage it. They said they'd look into it.*
    • Why is it that budgets for Centers for Teaching Awesomeness never get cut, but budgets for paying fine teachers are being cut all over the place?
    • I also plan to start a movement for the Abolition of Mayonnaise on Fast Food Sandwiches as a Default Option. Because of commuting and what's available, I have to eat at one of these places on some days and always order "no mayonnaise," something that gets ignored about half the time. When did mayonnaise become de rigueur on burgers,* anyway, and does anyone really need it who couldn't ask for it? (I told you these were random bullets.)
    *Edited to add: An online course in which I am not permitted to add ANY external links seems to miss the point of online education, don't you think?

    (** at least those with lettuce and tomatoes, which seem to trigger a mayonnaise auto-response.)

    Monday, November 01, 2010

    Online learning: the rock star tour

    Over at The Chronicle, there's a special section on Online Learning. Some of the writers are all about "education should be free! cheap!"--but you'll have to take my word for it. Most of the section is behind the subscription wall. (Cue ironic Colbertian raising of one eyebrow here.)

    A lot of it is stuff that bloggers have been talking about for a long time: don't use a technology unless there's a pedagogical reason for it. Lots of information is available online. Prepping and teaching an online course takes longer. These are all good ideas, and the articles are good, but you get the drift.

    But I was fascinated by the commentary by Dalton Conley, vice provost and dean of the social sciences and a professor of sociology at New York University, who is out to sell a book (also not free). His piece is "Steal This Education: Abbie Hoffman said a revolutionary's first duty was to get away with it. Now you can." It's the old Abbie Hoffman "steal this book" argument, although I'm surprised he didn't bring up Matt Damon's speech in Good Will Hunting that says the same thing.

    After Conley rehearses the same old, same old about how no one ever changes a lecture in 10 years and how useless it is to lecture in front of a class, he has this to say:
    By freeing me from standing before 200 students to teach "Introduction to Sociology" each fall, the new project will allow me to spend some time at our study-abroad site in Florence for a weeklong workshop, then visit our Abu Dhabi campus, and perhaps stop at NYU in Shanghai for a third workshop before heading back to my curates in New York.
    In short, it's online learning as a rock star tour.

    Now what I want to know is this:
    1. Does he have a concert rider that prohibits green M&Ms and specifies a pool table backstage at every concert?
    2. Who grades all those papers?
    3. "Curates"? What is he, the Pope?
    4. Who pays for all that travel? NYU must be a rare, blessed island of academe with no money troubles.

    More seriously, think about it this way: if teachers are indeed like rock stars where short bursts of impersonal attention will suffice, then maybe he's right. After all, wouldn't that put education on the model of listening to music at home and then going to the occasional concert? Why do people go to concerts, anyway, if they can get the music at home? Isn't it to share an experience? Doesn't the fact that the person is in the room make any difference?

    But what if you're one of those students in a large lecture that wants to walk down the stairs and speak to him after class? Do you then say "Wow, I can't wait to ask him this question when he's here on April 25?" Or do you just email him and get a curatorial reply?


    [Edited to add: If you're going to do online education and build the university's brand, this would be a good way to do it, I guess. I just took exception to the idea that it was necessarily a better way than being there in person.]

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Get happy

    There's a lot of talk about salaries in the profession around the blogosphere right now. Tenured Radical has some posts about it. Dr. Crazy, Roxie's World, and Historiann have good posts about the problem, too, as does squadratomagico, although hers is a very different perspective.

    Given the talks happening all over about how we can best implement the English Department of the Future and hearing from friends of friends about tenured people being let go because of financial exigency, I'm not sanguine about the possibility of change. Not sanguine? That's putting it mildly. Actually, TR's post depressed the living daylights out of me for a few days because it revealed just how low my salary is by comparison.

    TR suggests forming a union or joining AAUP, but as Dr. Crazy says,
    And I’ll tell you: I get irritable when people talk about unionizing as if it’s the answer to any of the above problems, because that’s not a model that is likely to have any traction in my state, and so when people hold up unions as the answer, I feel like they are closing their eyes to my working conditions and the realities of my location, applying a solution that would work for them in a one-size-fits-all sort of way that certainly isn’t going to fit where I live and work.

    In the present economic climate at my university, taking steps toward a higher salary would be like saying "I'm going to hold my breath until I turn blue unless you give me a unicorn." See, nobody's got a unicorn right now, and increasingly they don't have jobs, either. You're welcome to turn blue all you want; it's not going to change the budget numbers.

    I don't have any answers, but a little Judy Garland might help to lift our collective spirits:

    Saturday, October 23, 2010

    "Reliably unreliable"--a good way to look at it

    Over at Profhacker, Nels Highberg has an interesting post about being what he calls "reliably unreliable" when answering email.
    I know what it’s like to have a student email me at 12:17 AM with a question about an essay due that same day at 9:30 AM, and then they complain that I was unresponsive. I know what it’s like to have a colleague call my office and leave a voicemail on Friday after 5:00 PM asking me to take care of something before a workshop set to start the next day at 8:30 AM (a workshop I am only supposed to attend and not help coordinate), and then they express shock that I chose to walk from the parking lot to the workshop and bypass my office, missing their request entirely. In such cases, I no longer feel bad.
    Count me in on the "reliably unreliable" club, Nels. First of all, the student is going to complain if you respond at any time later than 12:18, because a student writing at that hour wants an answer now, so it's pointless to indulge that kind of behavior, unless you're awake and feel like answering. And if a colleague leaves a message on an office voicemail over the weekend and expects an answer (voicemail? really?) before the weekend is over, an "Are you serious?" is the best response he or she can expect.

    Why wouldn't you answer an email right away, if you've read it?
    1. Because it teaches everyone (not just students) unrealistic expectations about instantaneous responses. It's not always, or even mostly, students who demand this kind of attention.
    2. Because if, say, someone in your department has initiated some kind of discussion over the weekend, then you're hooked into the conversation: if you give them one response, they'll want you to continue to engage in the discussion. There is no departmental discussion so gripping that it can't wait until Monday, and if there is, you don't want to be part of it. No good will come of it.
    3. Because you ought at least to pretend that you have a life and are not hanging out waiting for people to shovel work into your lap on the weekend.
    This goes double for long, involved emails. "E-Mail Auto Response" at the New Yorker has this one just about right:
    Please note that if your e-mail is more than three (3) sentences in length I have read the first three (3) sentences, skimmed the opening paragraph, and sort of eyeballed the rest of it. Please do not expect a response to your e-mail anytime soon, if at all, for I am not a mind reader, and therefore cannot guess the nature of anything beyond the first three (3) sentences.
    For me, it depends on a few things, though not all at once:
    1. Is it short enough to answer quickly? Is it going to require that I look something up or otherwise compose something more elaborate than a sentence or two?
    2. Is it going to nag at the back of my mind if I don't answer it? Is it faster to answer the email than to think about it? (Zeigarnik effect: if you take care of it, you can forget it faster.)
    3. Do I get to check something off my to-do list by answering it?
    4. Is it respectfully phrased, logical, etc.? If it shows that the writer has an attitude problem (rudeness), then it goes to the bottom of the pile for response when I get around to it, which will probably be never.
    So do you take your time answering emails?

    Thursday, October 21, 2010

    E-textbooks (again): students prefer dead tree versions

    At the New York Times, Lisa Forderaro expresses surprise that the students at Hamilton College prefer print textbooks to the digital kind (which, she notes correctly, you "rent" instead of buying). Why do the students prefer paper to screens?

    • “The screen won’t go blank,” said Faton Begolli, a sophomore from Boston. “There can’t be a virus. It wouldn’t be the same without books. They’ve defined ‘academia’ for a thousand years.”
    • “Last semester, I rented for psychology, and it was cheaper. But for something like organic chemistry, I need to keep the book. E-textbooks are good, but it’s tempting to go on Facebook, and it can strain your eyes.”
    These seem like sensible answers to me. If even twenty-somethings are feeling eyestrain, that's good to know.

    Also, as Forderaro says, "Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way." This doesn't seem to dissuade the digital true believer, though:

    “Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”
    This is true but not true, and, paired with the idea about writing in margins, flipping through the books, etc., suggests that students are somehow not thinking clearly but clinging blindly to an old tool.

    Hold on a minute. Aren't students the people most likely to try out a new format and discard the old one if they decide it's more useful, and haven't they done this repeatedly with various technologies and practices, right down to the sophisticated methods of plagiarism that we all complain about? Except for the comment about books defining academia, which shows a quite admirable sentiment, all of the objections have nothing to do with "don't want to change what I'm used to" and everything to do with "the e-textbooks just don't work as well for me."

    I don't think they're being resistant. I think they're making a rational choice about what works best for them.

    The line of reasoning that considers resistance to using a particular technology as a particular kind of obstinacy reminds of other experiments (not to mention the hilarious Professor Pushbutton machine that Historiann found). Does Duke still give out iPods to its freshman class? Is Reed College continuing with its KindleDX program?

    I'm not saying that we shouldn't experiment with these technologies; we should, and we should keep trying. But we should also be willing to see that if they don't work well, it's not a statement about resistance to technology but about using the appropriate tool for the job.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    Blogs of ages past

    The decision of the BitchPhD bloggers and BitchPhD herself to close up shop has a number of current bloggers like Roxie's World and Dr. Crazy and AnnieEm thinking about blogs that have shut down and the nature of blogging. (AnnieEm says that Berube's quitting, too, but he quit before for a year or two and then came back, so here's hoping.)

    Like the moms at Roxie's World, I used to read BitchPhD in the early days when it seemed like one earnest, passionate voice, and I sort of trailed off when it became a group blog, not because the group bloggers were less earnest but because I missed that original voice. If I think about what draws me into reading blogs, it's the voice of the blogger.

    Now, at BitchPhD, I found a lot of good stuff, although sometimes I felt as though I were being told the One Best Way to be a feminist. Sometimes I agreed, and sometimes I didn't. But that's the point, with a blog: if a blogger doesn't care about what he or she is writing, what's the point of blogging? I'm not talking about writers' blogs that are really press releases (here's my itinerary for the latest press junket, and here's a picture of my book with a convenient link), but blogs written primarily not for commercial purposes. You can disagree, but you don't doubt that the person cares.

    There are a lot of great new blogs now (see blogroll!), but I'm thinking of blogs that have shut down over the past few years whose voices I miss. Mel at In Favor of Thinking would be one, especially her post on grading championships. MaggieMay (and her stories) would be one, and JustTenured would be another. Dr. Brazen Hussy just shut down recently, which leaves entirely open the Angry Bird Banding section of the blogosphere, among other things. There are others, too, whose blog titles I can't remember but whose voices I can.

    I guess if this were a banquet, I'd raise a virtual glass to those bloggers.

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    iPad as classroom text reader: a thought experiment

    As I've done more reading on the iPad, I've wondered what it might be like to use it in a literature classroom. I'm inspired partly by the posts over at Teaching, Learning, and Living with an iPad, a site that's chronicling a writing class in which all the students received iPads. Some thoughts:
    • Reading on the iPad is nice. It hasn't been hard on the eyes, and the page-turning capabilities are a lot faster than those on the Kindles I've seen. Like the Kindle, it has a dictionary function, a notes function, etc.
    • As it currently exists, the iPad has one advantage over a standard netbook or laptop if you use it in the classroom: no multitasking. Wait--that really is a feature and not a bug, since students wouldn't be able to Facebook while you're hoping they're following the text. That feature will disappear with the next system update, however.
    • The down side is that students wouldn't be able to keep a text open and write their notes beside the text, which in an ideal world they would be doing instead of Facebooking.
    • The book situation wouldn't work as it does for the tech writing class. First, in testing various e-textbooks over this past year, I learned you don't "buy" an e-textbook in the sense that you keep it permanently (or sell it back to the bookstore); you rent it for a specific period of time, usually one semester or maybe 6 months. This costs about 80% of what it would cost to buy the book. This isn't necessarily good or bad, but since lit students, unlike students in the sciences or tech writing, may want to keep their books for later reference, buying an e-textbook wouldn't make sense unless you're teaching a contemporary author whose works are under copyright.
    • The good part about an e-textbook is that it's designed for use in a class and has navigation features like a table of contents with links, which would make navigating to specific sections easier.
    • The good part about not using an e-textbook is that, if you're teaching a pre-1923 literature class, you'd have lots of public domain choices for texts. If you're using a text that doesn't have significant problems with/variations in editions, Project Gutenberg has lots of works formatted for Kindle, which would work on an iPad.
    • These books wouldn't have the navigation features of a purchased e-textbook, however, and here's where mcconeghy's response to a previous post might provide a solution. Imagine that you're in class. Maybe you'd usually say something like, "Turn to page 127. How has Dorothea Brooke's perspective changed since her comment on page 45?" and you'd expect the students to be able to flip back and forth between the two. Since it'd take a while to do that on an iPad, and there aren't any page numbers anyway, couldn't you say "search for 'red bows on blue dress'" or something like that to get students to find both instances of the phrase? Couldn't the search function replace the flipping pages function?
    • I'm a good typist, and I have small hands, but the iPad keyboard is still a challenge. It might be a challenge for students as well--any thoughts?
    • Also, as a sad testament to the increasing irrelevance of the apostrophe, the iPad has put it on the numbers keyboard, so you have shift to that keyboard if you want to use a contraction or a possessive form. It could be that students would get faster at shifting between keyboards, or it could be that we all will start using no contractions at all and talking like Mafia dons ("I do not think he would like to sleep with the fishes"), or--best guess--R.I.P. apostrophes.[Edited to add this: Emily says in the comments that an iPod touch automatically adds the apostrophe. I just checked, and the iPad does, too. Thanks, Emily!]

    [Edited to add: I realize, too, that the whole thing would be easier just using a paper book. There should be a universal rule: whenever you have to use the concept of a workaround, the original method of using the tool/technology is probably better in the first place.]

    Saturday, October 09, 2010

    A silver lining, of sorts

    Although we hear that the recession is over for the bankers and those on Wall Street (or did I repeat myself?), most universities are going through various kinds of cuts, budget crises, and meetings designed to achieve what our friends at Roxie's World have so aptly called "excellence without money." SUNY Albany's recent dismemberment of its foreign language and classics department shows evidence of this attitude--see IHE and Dame Eleanor Hull's post on that-- although I'd like to know how it intends to keep R1 status without those departments. Isn't "doctoral comprehensive" meant to mean, well, inclusive of humanities?

    Universities often think that humanities can achieve this better than other areas of the university, or so the distribution of cuts would indicate. I'd like to think this is because the administrators of universities think that humanities people are so devilishly clever that the cuts don't matter since we can work around them, but it's probably more that they believe that the humanities don't matter.

    Anyway. My university, Northern Clime, is going through various conversations about cutbacks, and what has impressed me most is the way in which the faculty members in my department have been pulling together. Their suggestions have been generous, flexible, and ingenious about the budget realities we're facing. No one's drawing a line in the sand and saying "you can't touch my courses/area" or "we don't really need your area, so how about if we cut that?" or "your requirements are flexible, but mine can't be changed." When there are meetings, there's very little whining or retrospectives about "when I first came here, we could do X and Y and now we can't."

    The process of planning is still demoralizing, but it's much less so because of the good humor and flexibility of my colleagues. Don't call me Pollyanna, the Glad Girl: No one would wish for the terrible budget situation, but if it's here--and it is--the silver lining is that it shows something in us that we might not otherwise have seen.

    I wonder if this budget crisis is bringing this collegiality out in other places.

    Wednesday, October 06, 2010

    Random bullets at midweek

    • How much do you remember about a book (criticism, not fiction) a few years after you've read it? After you've skimmed it?
    • Do you remember the general subject? The argument? Examples?
    • How embarrassed are you if a few years later, a student is reading the book because you said it was good and asks you about the argument--and you can't remember? (My answer: sort of embarrassed, but not as much as I'd have been some years ago.)
    • You know all those writing techniques that say to get at the writing in the morning, putting everything else aside, and then stop? Well, I've gotten a piece just about finished, but the trouble is that I don't want to stop. It's like chips: you can't eat just one.
    • Speaking of chips, how pampered are Americans, anyway? This is from the Wall Street Journal:
      Frito-Lay, the snack giant owned by PepsiCo Inc., says it is pulling most of the biodegradable packaging it uses for its Sun Chips snacks, following an outcry from consumers who complained the new bags were too noisy.
      Come on. Dude, you're sitting in front of your TV and the bag is too noisy? You're at home, for Pete's sake. The noise isn't going to kill you. And if the bag is too noisy for the place where you're trying to open it, here's a tip: any place where the bag noise is a problem is a place where you shouldn't be eating chips in the first place.

    Sunday, October 03, 2010

    Today's Koan: If a reference can't be cited using MLA, does it really exist?

    If a reference can't be cited using MLA (or Chicago), does it really exist?

    For example, say you have a Kindle or an iPad. I've been given an iPad as a present--yay!--so let's stick with that as an example. You can download books from the Kindle store on, if you put the free Kindle app on your iPad. You can also buy or download books from the iBooks store, including free public domain ones. The thing that doesn't come along with these nifty editions is a set of page numbers that corresponds to the page numbers in the original text.

    That's not a problem with .pdf documents, since they're images of the original. You can read them and, since Sept. 30, annotate them using the GoodReader app, or read and annotate them using iAnnotate. You can copy text from the .pdf and paste it into Docs-to-Go.

    So far, I like the experience of reading on the iPad. If you have a book with endnotes, for example, the endnotes are links, so you can click on the note and then click back to the text. You can write notes in both the Kindle and iBooks apps, although I haven't explored that much because it's harder than I thought it would be to type on the screen-based keyboard.

    What if you want to cite a book that you've downloaded? Kindle books--for scholarly books, anyway--cost about the same as the paperback edition, and they cost more than a used copy, so if I'm going to shell out the money for one, I want to be sure that I don't need to get another copy.

    The piece of advice I've found most often is "go get a print copy of the book, find the citation, and cite the page." This is probably the best advice for now, but it's a colossal timewaster and a duplication of effort to have to hunt up the book if you've already bought it. If the book is in Google Books, you could try searching for the phrase in there, but a lot of books aren't in Google Books.

    APA has addressed this by suggesting that you cite is as you would any unpaginated material: "Name the major sections (chapter, section, and paragraph number; abbreviate if titles are long), like you would do if you were citing the Bible or Shakespeare." Since paragraphs aren't numbered, I would be less than thrilled to have to scroll through and count the paragraphs just so I could cite the reference. And what about paratextual elements such as epigraphs? Do they count as paragraphs when you're counting?

    Some other sources suggest that you cite the Kindle location number, which would be swell if the editor of the journal you're submitting to has a Kindle and not so much otherwise.

    The Chicago Manual of Style suggests just citing the Kindle edition and maybe the chapter number.

    The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Seventh Edition floats above the fray by saying (in 5.7.18) that you should just say what kind of file it is: "Microsoft Word file, JPEG file" or whatever. Presumably you could say "Kindle file" or "iBooks file" there, too, although all of the examples given are for short pieces. That wouldn't provide much information if you were trying to cite from a book-length source. As EduKindle asks, "Why is it so hard to cite a passage on a Kindle?"

    Beats me. I'll be happy when MLA gets this straightened out, almost as happy as I'll be when they decide to jettison those #@%$& angle brackets that they make you put around a URL (see 5.6.1) as though we'd all just stare helplessly at an http:// prefix without knowing it was a web address unless it was safely contained in a set of angle brackets. [Edited to add: tenthmedieval has a good explanation for this in the comments.]

    Monday, September 27, 2010

    Signs of the times: "Why do they hate us?"

    This isn't as much a post as a link roundup of posts explaining why the educated middle class is to blame for--well, just about everything. The title riffs on Thomas Hart Benton's musings of the same name at The Chronicle.

    1. For a minute or two, I thought the Chronicle had let up on the professor-bashing, and Benton does give some logical answers to his questions (albeit ones that we've mostly discussed on blogs before). But fearing that he's gone too far, he slides into his hairshirt and admonishes us to do the same:
    But perhaps it is enough to say that the reason we feel more "hated" than ever is that we deserve it. Instead of collaborating, we competed with each other. We focused on our research instead of on the needs of undergraduates. We even exploited our graduate students, using their labor to underwrite our privileges, and then we relegated most of them to marginal positions as adjuncts. We waited too long to institute reforms to our profession, and now—after 40 years of inaction—the reforms are going to be forced upon us.
    You hear that, you academic Marie Antoinettes? It's not that education has been systematically defunded over the past forty years, or that tenure-track jobs have been decimated, or that administration and college athletics have fattened themselves at the expense of instruction. It's not even that economic conditions and laws designed by the wealthy and for the wealthy have gutted the middle class, or that the richest 1% of Americans have gone from taking in 9% of the country's income in the 1970s to 23% in 2007. Nope, it's all our fault, because while the media were breathlessly waiting to hear what we had to say, we squandered the opportunity by bickering, and being selfish, and saying "let them eat cake," and all that.

    2. Feeling guilty yet? No? Maybe that's because you're not a lazy librarian. Now, the public librarians I've known have worked very hard for very little money, but Santa Clarita just privatized its libraries and outsourced the work to a foreign-owned company, L.S.S.I., whose spokesperson makes the following winsome pitch about his love of learning in wanting to run the library:
    “A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
    See, what regular librarians with a living wage and pensions do is "never have to do anything." What his workers will do for a pittance, besides enrich the pockets of investors and retire into poverty, is "work."

    3. Still not convinced that the economic downturn is the fault of the college-educated middle class, with special guilt points if you're engaged in trying to keep knowledge alive? You're supposed to die if you're over 50 and don't have a job; everybody knows that. The conservative columnist Megan McArdle will show you the error of your ways in The Atlantic, but I'll let alicublog recap her two most recent posts for you:
    4. Actually, the one person who seems to get why they hate us and say so honestly is Warren Buffett. From the New York Times, 26 November 2006:

    “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

    Too ranty? Maybe I should take this down. Let me know.

    Saturday, September 25, 2010

    Philip Roth on writing

    From this month's Esquire, Philip Roth on writing (p. 186):

    Has the writing gotten any easier?

    That's hard to answer. There are days and weeks that are very difficult. I've never been without the struggle. When I started writing, I did have false starts. I would write seventy-five, a hundred pages of something and toss it aside. I don't do that. I don't make false starts any longer. So that's an improvement.

    Who knows what'll happen in the next ten years. Maybe it'll get better. Maybe it'll get worse. I don't know. At this stage of the game, you don't know what's going to happen. You see different writers as they get old, what happens to them. Some shut down. Some write sporadically--the way Bellow did it.

    I have a slogan I use when I get anxious writing, which happens quite a bit: "The ordeal is part of the commitment." It's one of my mantras. It makes a lot of things doable.

    Mine is from a fat relief pitcher, Bob Wickman: You gotta trust your stuff.

    That's very good. I used to have little things over my desk at various times. One of them was "Don't judge it." Just write it. Don't judge it. It's not for you to judge it.

    I have four or five friends who I ask to read my final drafts and to say whatever they want to say to me about it. I put it through that sieve, and they tell me what they think about it, and then I consider it and make changes if it seems appropriate. Often it does.

    [See also Historiann's post on scholars writing about writing.]

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    Today in numbers

    • Approximate number of words written today: about 3,000.
    • Number of words that had anything to do with my own writing: 0.
    • Number of words in letters of recommendations, etc.: about 3,000.
    • Number of words in emails: who counts?
    • Most frequent interjection: "Don't you dare quit on me, screen! Don't you dare go all white and fuzzy with a "Not responding" sign. Don't you know I'm 2 hours into this letter already? What's that? The little Vista spinning blue circle that means the system is going nowhere fast?"
    • Number of times I sat and watched the little circle spin: who counts?

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    A new reason for writing class notes by hand

    The New York Times Magazine has an article about middle-school students using the Livescribe pen (used to be Pulse Pen) in class. Short version: it's helping them, for several reasons:
    • They can focus more on what the teacher's saying instead of trying to write down everything, since the pen captures the audio of the lecture. One student just writes down "LIST" if the teacher is rattling off a series of items; he then goes back to fill in the list.
    • They can review the material with the audio and fill in their notes later.

    I suspect that part of the benefit here is that with this pen, students are actually going over their notes more than they used to. They're also able to relax and listen to the teacher, which may take away some anxiety.

    Of course, one education expert is raining on this particular parade. Lisa Nielsen, who works for the school district, doubts whether this is useful; teachers should instead be pulling in YouTube videos and web sites from "content experts" because, after all, students who were given (and probably memorized) a teacher's PowerPoint slides did better on a test than those who listened in class. They don't need to "write down everything that the teacher says."

    Well, who said they did? The point of the article is that students don't have to write down everything but that they tend to be more focused--in part because if they're talking instead of paying attention, the pen picks that up, too.

    I wonder, though, how much information those students retained after a few weeks and whether those given PowerPoints were able to recall the information as well as the others. The article doesn't say, but it does predict that maybe having one good note-taker in a class would allow everyone else to stop taking notes.

    I think this misses the point. For a lot of people (myself included), making those marks on a piece of paper while listening helps you to focus and remember the content better. The marks can be notes, or they can be doodles; it's the process of making the marks that helps. If you write notes instead of drawing a giant, tattoo-like picture in your notebook, the notes may help you later, but for concentrating at that moment, both kinds of making marks seem to accomplish the same thing.

    At any rate, it'd be interesting to see if this worked in a college classroom. It would be right up there with the other invention I'd like to see: a giant tilted mirror at the back of the room like those in stage musicals, so that I could see who's taking notes and who's writing vital Facebook updates.

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Productivity roundup

    You know how the conventional wisdom is to break up your exercise routine so that you don't get too bored with it and so that your muscles will get stretched in different ways? Maybe productivity is like that, too, so here are some new links, mostly from business. A lot of it is stuff we know, but hearing it in a different form somehow gets me revved up to get back to work.
    • Presentation Zen has a 10-minute video of John Cleese talking about creativity. Among his points: (1) Create an oasis or "tortoise enclosure" for yourself by limiting the time and space in which you work and (2) If you sleep on a problem, often the answer will come to you. The same video is at Ewan McIntosh's site, along with a list of Cleese's points.
    • Sebastian Marshall's post on "What gets measured, gets managed" suggests a level of record-keeping for productivity (and life!) that's well beyond what I could ever manage but that does work.
    • Ryan Waggoner suggests the "pomodoro technique" using a timer (25 minutes of work/5 minute break), which is basically the "sprints" method that a lot of us use. It's a variation on a technique called "timeboxing," which is what Cleese is recommending.
    • The ever-trusty Lifehacker has a post recommending that the timer you use should be an external timer, not one that sits on your computer desktop; the post includes links to good (free) timing applications, though.
    • Don't forget all the productivity posts at ProfHacker, too.
    For a little eye-candy for all you library-lovers, check out the middle picture in this sequence. It's from an article about a couple who bought the house next to theirs and remodeled it into a library. (As seen at Nicole and Maggie's)

    Saturday, September 18, 2010

    Bookless library, meet bookless book

    We may have a winner in the "let's kill all the libraries" sweepstakes. Inside Higher Ed reports on"A Truly Bookless Library" at the University of Texas at San Antonio:
    The difference between the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library and other science-focused libraries is not that its on-site collection is also available electronically.

    It is that its on-site collection is only available electronically. . . .

    San Antonio says it now has the first actual bookless library. Students who stretch out in the library’s ample study spaces — which dominate the floor plan of the new building — and log on to its resource network using their laptops or the library’s 10 public computers will be able to access 425,000 e-books and 18,000 electronic journal articles. Librarians will have offices there and will be available for consultations.
    In other words, UTSA has built a library, a.k.a. a large expensive room with comfy chairs, so that students can do exactly what they can now do from their dorm rooms and the local Starbucks. Frankly, I don't know how it calls itself a library. From what I can gather, it lacks even the basics, such as an espresso stand or a set of treadmills.

    More seriously, I can see how a College of Engineering may not need books; I don't know enough about the scholarship of engineering to say. What does confuse me is why UTSA felt that it needed to dedicate a space called a "library" when what they're envisioning is a place for students to hang out and talk to each other. Does UTSA not have a student union? Is there not a room in there which could be designated a "library" or quiet studying space? My assumption is that UTSA must be rich enough not to worry about it, so I won't worry about it, either.

    My question is more about the bookless books in the bookless library--the 425,000 e-books that will be available to students. I have three basic questions:

    1. Does UTSA have licenses enough for them all (something that's brought up in the comments at IHE)? Let's assume that two professors assign an outside reading from one of these books in their 100-section lecture classes. Does UTSA have 200 licenses for this book, or are some students going to be shut out?

    Disclosure: I've had this happen in much smaller classes once when I assigned a reading from a licensed e-book. The first person was able to check out the book for 24 hours under the university's license and everyone else was out of luck--and very vocally unhappy when the class next met. I never used an online book in that way again for exactly that reason.

    2. The second one may be more idiosyncratic: it has to do with the handling of books. Historiann's recent post details some of the issues, such as not being able to mark up the books as easily and not being able to flip back and forth as you can with a paper book. I'd agree, and to these I'd add another: doesn't the sheer amount of screen-time that you get from reading things online, even on a dedicated device, contribute to some eyestrain and fatigue? There's something about switching media (screen to paper and back again) that rests the eyes in ways that a prolonged exposure to one or the other can't accomplish.

    3. Will UTSA check in with its students to see how they're faring in this brave new world? I'd be interested to see if they're taking some kind of benchmark measurements about what students know/how much they read and will check again a few years down the road.

    Friday, September 17, 2010


    I've been thinking about writing about audiobooks for a while, and Tenured Radical's recent post has inspired me to do so.
    1. It's easier to keep several books going at one time and keep your mental place in them than it is with print books. I don't know why this is, but I can click on Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello after a couple of weeks spent on, say, Lyndall Gordon's Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds or Simon Schama's Rough Crossings and still recall what's going on with the Jefferson-Hemings family very well.
    2. Since you can't skim and can't easily jump ahead when you're driving, if a chapter is dense with an intricate accounting of financial documents, you have to be able to tolerate the less-than-gripping stretches where you'd usually skim.
    3. It's also hard for me to get past the "I paid for this, so I ought to listen to it" sense of a book, much harder than it is to put down a dull print book that I've bought. I did skip a chapter of David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History but now don't feel that I can say I've read it. Of course, can you ever say you've "read" an audiobook?
    4. On the other hand, as you listen you really do get a sense of every word, although you can't mark or highlight the text as you would when you're reading. I've listened to some literary works that I knew well and have picked up on additional nuances just by listening to the audio version.
    5. I hope this doesn't sound too shallow, but the narrator/reader can make a difference. For example, some readers do the accents when they read quotations, and some don't. The reader for Lives like Loaded Guns, who sounds a little like Julie Andrews most of the time, does a kind of dry, scratchy New England accent when she reads the words of the Dickinson family (lower voice for Edward and Austin, higher for Emily). John Slattery (yes, that John Slattery) does a great job with accents and the regular narration in A Farewell to Arms, although I didn't even realize that he was the narrator for a while. ("Why does that voice sound so familiar? Oh, wait--")
    6. I hate it when the recording engineers or producers or whoever decide to snip out too many natural pauses in the editing process. I couldn't say for sure that that's what happened in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, but listening to that one for too long will leave you breathless since there aren't pauses where you'd expect them.
    7. Buy an abridgment only if you're up for the challenge of figuring out what's going on, since a lot of them seem to simply lop out random chapters. I've bought a few by mistake and been mightily confused with a random character pops up in the last third of the book.
    8. With audiobooks, you're limited to what's available. I've downloaded some books from Librivox but mostly go through (2 books/month for $22). Having a limited set of choices isn't necessarily bad since it forces you to read things you might not pay $35 for in a bookstore. For example, I might have given a casual glance to Martha A. Sandweiss's Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line if I'd seen it at a book exhibit, but since it was available in audio form, I bought it and it was excellent.
    Does anyone else listen to audiobooks?
    [Edited to add links.]

    Sunday, September 12, 2010

    Of newspapers, libraries, and H. L. Mencken

    Tenured Radical has an interesting post up about her travails in getting the paper copy of The New York Times delivered early enough to read it before it ends up in the recycling bin. Hearing that the NYT is going to an online-only model in the future, she concludes with this: "Then I was struck by a brighter thought. At a certain point you have to stop running from a problem, and do the sensible thing: throw money at it. So off to the iPad store I go." She also writes about Jeffrey Hamburg and Anthony Grafton's article on saving the Warburg Library.

    I've experienced some of what she's talking about-- (I used to subscribe to the Sunday NYT but had to give up because it usually arrived on Tuesday)--but the part about the Warburg Library was what caught my attention.
    A visionary scholar, Warburg was obsessed with cultural exchanges of all kinds and in all periods, and tinkered throughout his life with new ways to frame and display visual images, in order to reveal their interconnected meanings across time and space. His unconventional tool for studying this shifting web of historical relationships was a picture atlas that remained in perpetual flux, and to which he gave the name Mnemosyne, or memory.
    The library is in danger of having its special character changed and its stacks closed, not to mention the possibility of having parts of its collection sold, which would, of course, destroy the connections and interconnected meanings that were possible by seeing the materials in context. (Go read the article, which says this much better.)

    Not everyone agrees, I know, but regular libraries foster those connections in a smaller way when you browse the stacks. There's a process, and I don't know what to call it, when you're gathering information on a topic and working with its concepts in the back of your mind. You browse through your own books, or journal articles, or the library stacks, and suddenly you're making more connections. Conferences have always helped with this, but in recent years, the online bookstores (, Powells, and university press web sites) added to the process, as have Google Scholar, Google Books, and the online journal databases. It's not exactly research, because you're not "searching" so much as "informing" yourself in a casual way, and it's also not research because it's not in depth. You skim information; you don't take notes on it. But it's a useful and important process, because it feeds your mind with pieces of information that may not seem useful at first but may arise at a later state in the project. It's our own version of the picture atlas, maybe.

    Why H.L. Mencken? Because Mencken believed in the value of books, and because Hamburg and Grafton quote him to good effect:
    A center of European culture and a repository of the Western tradition that escaped Hitler and survived the Blitz may finally be destroyed by British bean counters. It is a picture, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “to bemuse the vulgar and to give the judicious grief.”
    And because it's his birthday, of course!

    Wednesday, September 08, 2010

    Random bullets of this week so far

    • I think I've talked to more people this week than I talked to all summer. It's exciting to talk with students about their plans and projects. It's exciting to teach. It's exciting to go to the library and get books.
    • It's also tiring. Last week was so exciting in that way that all I could do for two days of the weekend was fall asleep every time I sat down, not that I sat down if there was any chance of lying down. According to those around me, I was a little less animated than the inhabitants of Zombieland, with less color in my face.
    • I read the "10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly" at the Chronicle and paused at this:
      2. Set goals based on output, not input."I will work for three hours" is a delusion; "I will type three double-spaced pages" is a goal. After you write three pages, do something else. Prepare for class, teach, go to meetings, whatever. If later in the day you feel like writing some more, great. But if you don't, then at least you wrote something.
      While I really like this goal, on some days, that means I would be teaching at 11:30 at night if I waited until I got three double-spaced pages.

    Saturday, September 04, 2010

    We need to get better at making analogies

    Just to let you know in advance: no positivity here.

    There's another article on tenure at the New York Times; it's Christopher Shea's review of those books attacking tenure that we've all seen in the news. After repeating the false assertions, he defends university professors. To Hacker's and Dreifus's airy (or should I say "windy"?) assertions that professors barely work anyway and could write books on the weekends, Shea writes:
    But it seems doubtful that, say, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the acclaimed Civil War history by Princeton’s James McPherson, could have been written on the weekends, or without the advance spadework of countless obscure monographs. If it is false that research invariably leads to better teaching, it is equally false to say that it never does.
    Shea then makes the accurate point that public institutions are being gutted while some wealthy institutions have fared much better. I saw a connection here to what Robert Reich asserts in his Op-Ed piece:
    Where have all the economic gains gone? Mostly to the top. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.
    Anyway. Let me climb down from this soapbox and make a point. We need to get better at explaining that the "few hours a week" we spend in class is actually the culmination of a lot of work--the payoff period. Think about it:
    • Do we say that wheat farmers only work a couple of weeks in August and make the big bucks for their year doing two weeks' worth of work? Of course not. There's a lot that goes into farming, including planting, harrowing, spraying, etc., but if you look only at the payoff period of harvest, that's what you'd say.
    • Does a clergyperson work only for the hour on his/her holy day that he/she delivers a sermon, leads prayers, or whatever?
    • Does a salesman work only when he/she makes a big sale? That's the payoff period, so we should only count those hours when we figure what the salesman's annual wage works out to, right? All the sales that didn't pan out, all the prep work--they don't count as work, if you use the calculus that academic critics use.
    • Does a manager only do real work when he/she presents at a major meeting? The rest of the work (staff meetings, writing reports, managing people, etc.) doesn't count, because it's not the "payoff period."
    • Does a surgeon only get paid for the time he/she is actually in surgery operating on patients?
    These aren't great examples, of course; that's why we need better ones. And this wouldn't address the serious problems and academic injustices that Shea also mentions (adjunctification of the work force, etc.) But among the most damaging attacks on academe is the idea that we only work a few hours a week. Maybe we could start countering that with some good analogies.

    Thursday, September 02, 2010

    Life of the zoned-out mind, or thoughts while copying

    Notorious Ph.D. has an interesting post called "Life of the Mind" in which she notes that a lot of bloggers are setting up times for reflection (like Heu Mihi), doing yoga, or attempting to be positive in a sea of negativity. I like this post because it gave me a different way to think about spending time at the library getting materials, which I did for a couple of hours this week and last.

    Now, not everything is online, as you may have heard a few thousand times, and having to get bound periodicals and other materials in the stacks is a mixed blessing. On one hand, you're spending a lot of time doing something that's taking you away from writing, but on the plus side, you get to browse the stacks, and I found a lot of potentially useful items to check out.

    When I got to the copiers, though, I started to think that other faculty have research assistants or departmental work-study students or maybe personal assistants (yes, some faculty have these!) to do this work, because there was a notable dearth of faculty types around, although to be fair maybe I just go to the library at odd times. I put my stack of journals on the table and settled in to copying, which is a slower process with the new scan-and-copy copiers than with the best of the old copy-only ones. It was just me and a row of under-20-year-olds, copying away. *

    You can't really do anything else when you're making a copy, because you're flipping pages and pushing buttons and checking to be sure that you got everything. You can't text or check email, and you have to keep track of what you're doing. You're in the copy zone. It's a little like knitting, maybe, but you're surrounded by snippets of words and pieces of paper, so you have to pay some, but not too much, attention.

    It was while I was in the copy-mind zone, though, that I got a terrific idea for a new course and also figured out what I wanted to do with a piece of writing.

    I'd been thinking of the copying as an inefficient process (which it is) and a distraction from writing time (which it also is) and something that other faculty don't seem to spend time doing (which may or may not be true). When I read Notorious Ph.D., though, I realized that I could think of it as a different kind of enforced thinking time. How's that for positivity?

    Incidentally, am I the only person who still needs to get articles from bound journals once in a while?

    *Edited to add: Now that I think of it, the 20-somethings were not actually using the copiers but just milling around a row of empty ones. I'm guessing that the bound journals don't hold a lot of attractions for them.

    Monday, August 30, 2010

    Literary Stock Market

    Maybe because I'm working at present on a figure whose critical stock was once high but has fallen dramatically, I'd like to see someone (not me) put together a line graph called the "Literary Stock Market." Although you can get a sense of this if you read the year-end reviews in various discplines, it'd be nice to see this in graphics form, wouldn't it?

    Although numbers of conference, conference panels, and so on could help to determine rankings, you could also get a pretty good ranking by basing the Literary Stock Market on the numbers of citations in the MLA Bibliography each year, for a start. Whoever puts together the Literary Stock Market could also have little line indicators giving possible reasons if there are drastic rises and falls. For example, if you were working on James Fenimore Cooper (I'm making this up), there could be a spike and decline around the topics of American exceptionalism and the whole "American Adam" idea, maybe followed by a revival after postcolonial theory arrives. It would be hugely interesting as well to see how authors neglected in previous centuries have been revived or recovered.

    You could also do this with individual books, as the classic, must-read novel of one generation of critics recedes before an interest in another of the author's books. You'd probably want to limit this to a particular area or time period, too, since following more than 15 or so lines would make the viewer dizzy.

    I think you could do this in history: topics or figures once considered essential for study may have fallen into obscurity, and previously neglected topics may come to the fore.

    Are there any figures in your discipline whose stock on the Literary Stock Market has fallen particularly far, or whose star has risen drastically?

    [Edited to add: Speaking of popularity, that's why Joel Stein is against net neutrality. Shorter Joel Stein in this week's Time magazine: "Some sites should receive priority, including Fox News, if they are more important to many people, and especially to me, Joel Stein. How dare independent sites get in the way of my Glenn Beck, Lady GaGa, and Lindsay Lohan news? Fie upon the masses yearning for unpopular information not sponsored by a corporation! Let them eat cake--or at least wait longer while I get vital updates paid for by corporate America!" The article is so ridiculous that I think, or maybe hope, that he's kidding.]

    Saturday, August 28, 2010

    After some prodding, JSTOR does the right thing

    Because I had been trying to keep a self-imposed ban on reading IHE/CHE as part of the positivity campaign, I'd missed the whole kerfuffle over JSTOR's new interface. Inside Higher Ed covers it well here and here.

    Apparently what happened was that the new JSTOR interface, which includes its new current journals initiative, by default showed all materials, even those not covered in an institution's subscription. Oh, and instead of using OpenURL as Google Scholar does to show what's available at an institution, JSTOR provided a handy link to purchase the articles online for a handsome fee.

    Quite understandably, this upset a lot of people, especially a lot of librarians, since students might be less likely to try another database (as faculty might) and might click on the pricey link instead.

    JSTOR was shocked, SHOCKED to think that anyone believed they had done this for money:
    "Did you have to make concessions that benefit your publishing partners but hurt the end user?”

    “Absolutely not,” Guthrie, the JSTOR founder, told Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re absolutely not trying to have users purchase articles they already have access to.”
    To JSTOR's credit, the interface has been fixed so that you can opt to see only materials at your institution, and some OpenURL features have been implemented. JSTOR wants to be a web portal, in some ways, so that students will look there first for content instead of the MLA Bibliography. I get what they're trying to do.

    But I'm glad that IHE and the librarians called JSTOR out on this, just as Facebook users have called out Facebook every time it introduces a new "feature" to decrease privacy and monetize users' personal information. It seems to me this is part of a larger trend where customers are pushing back when trusted, or formerly trusted, institutions are capitalizing on users' trust to make more profits. At the post office, for example, you have to decline all the expensive options and extras one by one, repeating "media mail, please" until the person behind the counter gives up and stops trying to sell you next-day delivery.

    In these times, it's probably inevitable that institutions, even those that profess a noble mission, will use whatever means they can to make whatever money they can. Maybe that's why students need us to teach them critical thinking about all the alternatives, not only in the matter of databases but in other consumer-driven decisions as well.

    Wednesday, August 25, 2010


    It's a strange feeling when you get an article back and it's been accepted, but among the minor changes suggested by the reviewers is that you spend more time citing . . . yourself.

    Paper is a technology, too

    I like "technology." I really do. Like a lot of people, I have used/do use Twitter, blogs, web pages, listservs (remember those?), wikis, etc., in classes. For years I've graded papers that never saw a paper version but went from the student's screen to mine and back. I've assigned e-versions of texts. I've cursed at (but used) Blackboard, WebCt, and both homegrown and newer permutations of various CMS platforms.

    But you know what? Sometimes paper just works better, and we ought to be able to acknowledge that.

    Example: An upcoming conference is making the program available either in e-form or in paper form. I applaud the decision on a conceptual level, but it left me in a dilemma. Since I felt guilty ordering the paper form because of all the green rhetoric surrounding the choice, I ordered the e-version, but who am I kidding? I've tried getting .pdfs on a Blackberry screen, and even if the document doesn't fail to download and go into a holding pattern, which it does about 90% of the time, the print is too tiny to read.

    What I'll probably do is print some pages before I go, but I'd really rather have a booklet so that I can mark the sessions in case I change my mind later. I won't know where I'm going at the conference, but at least I won't have a conference program that pegs me as a Despoiler of the Earth.

    Example: In class, if a student does a presentation with a bibliography or questions written out, handing that out on a piece of paper allows the class to follow along. Telling them "go to the class wiki and comment there" doesn't have nearly the immediacy that I want for the discussion that's supposed to follow. And not everyone has a laptop/netbook/iPhone to be able to look at the presentation materials online, either. Paper's the logical choice here.

    Example: I've noticed when reading double-spaced manuscripts or papers online, "page down" or the equivalent doesn't always drop you onto the next line from the one you're reading. I have to take a couple of seconds to find my place, which means my engagement with the ideas keeps getting interrupted. I've tried to compensate for this in various ways--making the font smaller, etc.--but the fact remains that it would be easier to read some of these things on paper, even though I don't always print them out.

    One example of times when I don't want to print: Invitations to meetings (and I use the term loosely) now sometimes come with a raft of .pdf documents attached and an instruction to print them out before the meeting. Uh, no. That's not part of the deal. My home printer is not at your service. In these cases, I exercise my Thoreau-given right to civil disobedience and bring the laptop with me to the meeting with the documents loaded on it. There's no reason why I should subsidize the university's printing costs.

    Another thing about administrators and technology: even though I like technology, it seems wrong to me that administrators are so dead keen on it that they care less about how it's used than if it's used. Faculty are now evaluated in part on whether they use technology or not (see The Chronicle for tsk-tsking about the sad sacks who don't), and I think it's because administrators are entranced by the shiny and in love with anything they can name and count. Good teaching = can't be counted except by student evals. Teaching with technology = something to count.

    Back to paper. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are all kinds of technologies that we can choose from, and we shouldn't shy away from paper if it's the best one.*
    [*Edited because the former ending made it sound as though someone was forcing me not to use paper, and that's not what I meant.]

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Off Topic: Positivity and Mad Men

    Note: I don't think there are any spoilers here for those who are now up to speed on Season 4, but you never know. If you don't like Mad Men--nothing to see here.

    In keeping with the pre-semester theme of positivity I'm trying to maintain, I thought I'd see whether the language of the characters on Mad Men has any words to live by.

    Don Draper. Despite the sad train wreck that his life is becoming this season, Don has two habitual speech characteristics. The first is one that's in keeping with his life: "This never happened." As he tells Peggy in Season Two, "You'll be amazed at how much this never happened." This particular idea, like the past, is coming back to haunt him this season, as it's haunting Peggy in her recent interactions with Pete.

    The second one is a little less obvious: Don is emphatically positive in his speech; he always goes one step beyond. Example: If someone asks him a direct question, he says "Yes" with no hesitation. Where a simple "yes" would do, he's given to saying things like "I do" or "I am." "Are you meeting Roger for drinks?" "I am." I can't recall a scenario in which he says "I don't know," maybe because he's always got a story worked out in advance. If he doesn't, he just says "This will be fine," as in "There will be good years, and there will be bad years, but it is always going to rain" (to the London Fog people). This may be because he's living a story, but the writers have been very consistent about his speech patterns. They're as choreographed, in a way, as his movements.

    Betty Draper. "Go watch tv." "Go upstairs." "Carla! Take the children to the park." Then there's Betty, our Queen of Denial. Betty's about as eager to have her children around her as Henry Francis is to have the dog in the house. I would like to think it's because they distract her from a deep inner life of figuring out what she wants a la The Feminine Mystique or Priss in The Group, which she read a few seasons ago, but they aren't words to live by.

    Joan Holloway Harris: "Look at you." All the characters in Mad Men say this at one time or another, but Joan is especially given to it. Joan usually uses it not as "Look at you--you're a mess" but "Look at you--you've finally figured out something that I knew already" (but not in a snarky way). It makes Joan a reflector of others who's so good at what she does that no one else sees it. They all look at Joan in that va-va-voom way, but they don't really look at Joan. It's in keeping with the show's premise that she's not only the heart of SCDP but that she knows more about just about everything than just about anyone--and no one gives her enough credit for it.

    Peter Campbell: "What is going on?" Pete is the the forward-looking Cassandra, providing cues to the future that SCDP is slow to comprehend. He has evolved from his chronic foot-in-mouth disease of Season One. He's become more adept at blackmailing (his father-in-law this season versus Don in Season One) and has become more sympathetic as a character. He's still not adept at nuances, though--hence the classic moments in which he turns to someone and asks "What is going on?" or "What are you telling me?"

    The other characters have speech patterns, too, but nothing I can pinpoint: we know Roger will say something funny and maybe outrageous, that Bert Cooper will have something pithy and Ayn Rand-ish, etc. Peggy's loosened up and gained a sense of humor this season, too, which is refreshing. But is there anything to carry forward into the new semester? Unlike Don, I'm not sure.