Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Axioms for a happier semester

Anastasia has a set of propostions for a new school year here and Natalie Houston over at Profhacker has another set (here).  I've already accumulated, or maybe I should say formulated, a few more:

  • Yes, you made a schedule, but stuff happens. Get used to it, get over it, and don't let it derail you from your larger purpose. It's the old trap that people describe with diets: "I ate one cookie, thus I'm doomed, and thus I might as well give up and eat a bunch more." If you stayed up late working, you can sleep in until 6 instead of getting up at 5. Cut yourself a little slack, but just not too much.
  • Be excited. Yes, you can resolve not to change your syllabus or assignments, but if you get a brainstorm for an awesome way to do something better, run with it as long as it doesn't derail everything. It's money, or an assignment, in the bank, and it'll pay off in the long run.   I stayed an extra hour at the office yesterday because I was writing up a new assignment (no extra grading, though!) and improving the old ones.  Not only is the new assignment going to improve something I already do, but it's going to enliven tomorrow's class, and, maybe equally important, make something I've taught before more exciting.  And next semester, I won't have to write this one up again; it'll be assignment gold in the bank.
  • Be visible.  I know there's a lot of advice out there about closing your door and working being the way to go, and sometimes you need to do that, but strike a balance. Believe me, people see through the whole "face time" charade if you're strategically showing up/sticking your head in when it suits you and ignoring colleagues and students the rest of the time.
  • On the other hand, playing "Where were you?" is a losing game.  You are never, ever going to be visible and available enough to satisfy everyone. Your students would like you to be there 24/7, especially the night before a test.  Your colleague who breezes in to teach a class once a week and doesn't see you at the exact minute that she expects to will decide that you're rarely around, your 4 days/30+ hours on campus that week notwithstanding. You can't win this game, so don't even try to play it and don't let it make you angry. 
  • Prioritize. Ask yourself, "How will this outcome be changed if I spend 4 hours on this task instead of two? Will it change at all? Will it be improved?" If the answer is no, think about how you're allotting time to it.  Any academic life and maybe life anywhere comes with more tasks than can possibly be completed and more demands than you can possibly satisfy. It's like eggs in a basket: you have to balance them so that they don't break, but some will inevitably break if you put in too many or don't pack them carefully.
  • Analyze the task: sometimes less is best.  This is part of prioritizing.  If an email asks you for X, do you then extrapolate from that that the sender wants you to answer Y and Z also, and to explain how they all work together?  And are you then disappointed that the sender responds only to what you said about X?  Don't make more work for yourself by second-guessing what you're being asked to do, especially if there's a discrete and limited task involved.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

President Obama's Plan and Mine for Controlling College Costs

Over at The Chronicle, several articles lay out President Obama's plan to control college costs.  I think a look at the bigger picture is in order. To wit:

1. Make the "job creators" who have had massive tax breaks since 2002--remember those bank bailouts?-- work a little harder at developing and sustaining solid, middle-class jobs in this country. The Dow and NASDAQ keep going up, and Marketplace keeps playing its happy song "We're in the Money," but what does that mean for people who can't get a job? We keep seeing all these worried articles about "the American people aren't spending enough," and then someone speculates, "do you suppose it's because they don't have jobs or don't feel certain about the jobs they have?" Gee, ya think?

2. Do something about the student loan crisis.  I'm not an economist, and surely economics bloggers like nicoleandmaggie are cringing at my naïveté right now, but I fail to understand why large corporations can get virtually 0% borrowing and can declare bankruptcy if they have to pay pensions, but the best we can do for students is temporarily not raising rates to 6.8% and promising that they won't go above 8.25 (and way more for parents).

Students are graduating with the equivalents of unsaleable houses on their backs, mortgage-level debt in some cases, and they do not have the privileges of corporations in borrowing or declaring bankruptcy. If you want to know why young Americans aren't buying cars, here's a tip: it's not necessarily because they're save-the-earth hipsters. They can't afford it.

3. Think before you act on the MOOC model. In what may be an example of tongue-in-cheek understatement, the Chronicle observes that "Evidence for the effectiveness of MOOCs remains thin, if nonexistent." Thomas L. Friedman is invoked as though he actually has a ghost of a clue about what is happening in education.

Again: education is a good thing, and college graduates fare better than those who don't graduate, but simply focusing on flipping classrooms doesn't help with the one-two punch of punishing levels of debt and high unemployment.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

On writing: Charts, lists, and inspiration--fail, fail, fail

I'm usually a big fan of charts and all those little tools that help you fake inspiration until the real inspiration comes along.  What's that thing that gets said about Hollywood--"If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made"? It usually works for inspiration, too.

Today, though, the charts, lists, and inspiring words just plain failed me, or rather, I failed me.

First I looked at GetaLifePhD's post about making a template. Great! I've done that before, all color coded and everything. Make an appointment with your writing! Pay yourself (with writing) first!

But then I couldn't get Google Calendar to sync correctly with the iPhone and iPad. Appointments would show up on one or two but not all of them. Sometimes they'd show up twice. Of course I had to Google this and solve it, because solving tech problems is fun and is also a great way to avoid writing.

An hour and a half later I was much wiser in the ways of possible solutions but none of them actually, you know, worked.

Enough of the chart, I said.  Bardiac suggests lists. Fine. I like lists.  But wait: I have the wrong kind of notebook for keeping track of progress. I have a Moleskine here, but that is not the right kind. Moleskines are for writing, not for lists. I must look online for the right kind and read reviews of notebooks this instant.  Many minutes later, I learn that the right kind is not online but at Staples.

Feeling uninspired, I decide on some writing inspiration, which Dame Eleanor has helpfully provided for her Maygust group: a link to With that link, I discovered that reading about writing routines is a lot like eating pistachios: "Just one more," I would say, and then "Just one more."

And they all said "write in the morning," when by now it was afternoon, so I had failed again.

All this while the various unsynced alarms and warnings were going off in Google Calendar and iCal, reminding me of what I was supposed to be--but wasn't--doing.

Good advice by bloggers, poorly applied by me.

But the night is still young, or youngish, and where there's time, there's writing hope.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Random bullets of beginning a semester

  • The Gertrude Stein version: not ready no not not not ready not even ready no. Not. Ready.
  • It was pleasant to see colleagues at meetings, though, and to talk with new people. 
  • I love to see the groups of new students wandering around, trying to be cool in their 18-year-old way but clearly a little excited and overwhelmed to be on campus. 
  • My syllabus, while not done, is on its way to being bulletproof. Kevlar is nothing compared to it. It is like Superman's chest, a masterpiece of deflecting "but you never told us that." 
  • Hypothetical example to make a real point: Imagine that years ago you slipped on a banana peel and fell into a wedding cake. Everybody laughed, but you're still a little touchy about it. Colleagues have come and gone since then,  and you think people have forgotten, but then, in a meeting, someone says, "it's like the time Undine fell into a wedding cake. Am I right, Undine?" She did WHAT? you can see new colleagues asking each other.  Yeah, thanks for mentioning that one, guys. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Movie Post: There's Always Tomorrow (1956)

[Note to readers: I'm not turning this into a movie blog, but I do want to write about movies sometimes just to remember what I thought of them and to get warmed up for writing. I'll mark these with "movie post" so that you can skip them if you're not interested.]

Last night, as I was trying to kick a vicious headache, I watched There's Always Tomorrow (1956) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies, straight down the line, but this wasn't that  incarnation of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Here they're neither the screwball comedy couple of Remember the Night (1940) nor the noir couple of Double Indemnity. They're halfway between Double Indemnity and their 1960s alter egos as pipe-smoking dad on My Three Sons and western matriarch on The Big Valley.

 Fun fact: MacMurray had it in his contract for My Three Sons that he could shoot all his scenes--reaction shots, dialogue, everything-- over the course of a couple weeks, MOOC-style, and then leave for the year, letting all the other actors emote to a blank wall when they were supposed to be talking to him in each episode. 
Figure 1. Shopping in style in Double Indemnity. Fun fact: the canned goods were rationed, since it was wartime, and guards made sure that no one took them away from the set after the day's shooting was done.
Figure 2: Classic Sirk, from the window to the reflection to the rain.
Anyway. As you see the camera angles, use of mirrors and screens, and copious amounts of suburban unhappiness, you'd start to think that this is a  Douglas Sirk movie, and you'd be right.  There's even a scene of Stanwyck looking out the window in the rain (as in All That Heaven Allows) and the shadows of the drops coursing down her cheeks like tears.

Clifford Groves (MacMurray) is a toy manufacturer in Los Angeles, married to a thoroughly domestic Joan Bennett. She's entirely wrapped up in their shrill, annoying teenage children and has no lines in the script that don't establish how indifferent she is to anything else, including Cliff.  The oldest, their insufferable son Vinnie, is played by William Reynolds, reprising his portrayal of the insufferable son of Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows the previous year and just as determined to put the kibosh on his father's happiness.

Figure 3. Pay attention to the robot. Like Hedda Gabler's gun, it shows up again later.
Norma Miller Vale (Stanwyck), a famous dress designer, comes to town with a trunk full of dresses and a gigantic torch that she's been carrying for Cliff all these years, as evidenced by the photo she carries of him during their relationship in earlier, happier times.  They meet, talk, and go to the theater after his wife won't go. Ignored by his family, Cliff starts to see Norma's charms all over again, since she's the only person who takes an interest in him.

Figure 4. They're happy, so of course it won't last.
When he has a business meeting in Palm Grove, the two meet there by accident. They swim, dance, and enjoy each other's company.  Palm Grove is their green world, although with characteristic Sirkian irony (foreshadowing?) it's actually a desert. They're seen by Vinnie and his friends, and Vinnie gets his righteous armor on to do battle.

Convinced that Something Is Going On, though everything's innocent, Vinnie starts listening in on his father's phone calls, despite the sensible protests of his girlfriend, Ann. "Nothing's going on, but I wouldn't blame him if he did stray," says Ann, to which we all say amen. 

The rest seems predictable: Cliff wants Norma to run away with him; Vinnie and his sister go to see Norma and plead with her not to take their father away; and Norma does the noble thing and gets on the plane for New York.

Figure 5. You can see it in her eyes: why not let them have it? Classic Stanwyck.
But what's not predictable is that before she leaves, Norma lets them have it: about how they ignore their father, taking him for granted so that he looks for affection elsewhere. It's a slightly skewed and far less creepy version of the logic in The Philadelphia Story,  when Tracy Lord's father says he wouldn't have strayed if his daughter had paid more attention to him.

Also not predictable: after Norma tells him that what they feel can't replace his family and bids him goodbye, there's a scene in which Cliff looks out into the industrial hellscape as the robot marches down a long, empty table. That's his mechanical life from now on, and he knows it. The movie continues, with Cliff going back to his family and Mrs. Cliff making small noises about neglecting him, but MacMurray's face looks haunted even as his family surrounds him.

The ending mocks the whole "man's return to the family after a vixen threatens it" plot of so many melodramas.  Sirk often hints at some kind of muted happiness after happiness denied, but the look on MacMurray's face totally negates it. The title says that there's always a tomorrow, but his look says there isn't.

Friday, August 09, 2013

This just in: NYTimes worries about privileged women. Again.

In "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In," , Judith Warner revisits the famous "opt-out" group from ten years ago. KJ Dell'Antonia gives the numbers but somehow concludes that women wouldn't want to go back:
Among the anecdotes are numbers: roughly a third of “highly qualified” women leave their jobs to spend time at home; 89 percent of those who “offramped” said they wanted to resume work, but only 73 percent of these succeeded in getting back in, and only 40 percent got full-time jobs, often at lower pay or with lesser job responsibilities. 
 I'm not sure why the Gray Lady is so obsessed with the happiness choices of women of privilege.  Maybe it's like reality shows, where viewers can think, "Okay, you're rich, but you didn't get everything you wanted, did you?"

Or maybe it's to induce schadenfreude in readers like humanities academics, most of whom will never see a six-figure salary in their wildest dreams. Idealism says that the purpose is to  make women aware of the limitations of their choices, but maybe what NYT is saying is that women are justly punished for ambition. Ouch.

At The Atlantic, Magda Pecsenye puts her finger on a possible flaw in the argument:
Blaming struggles of a limited group on personal choice is bad social science. Warner doesn't look at how well the women who stayed in the workforce are faring now, or how the men in their cohort are faring now. Without these comparisons there's no way to know if the women who opted out are doing substantially worse than they might have had they stayed in. 
In other words, "Hello, recession!"

The original participants all stated confidently that they'd waltz back into high-powered jobs when they were ready and are shocked to discover that that's not the case. As Historiann says, "No $hit, Sherlock!  Duhhhhh!  Awesome!!!  Eleventy.  Are there any other cliches and verbal representations of my eyeballs rolling back in my head that I’ve overlooked so far?"

As Bardiac says, "I'm sort of despairing here because the women the article talks about were/are way privileged; they sound like they all had college educations, and they all went to college when feminism was important on college campuses.  They all had job opportunities beyond what most people have."   

Bardiac's right. I think they thought their class privilege would trump the disadvantages of being (1) female and (2) over 40 when they tried to go back to work, which in a sexist and ageist culture is a big mistake.

But academics, and academic humanities, are seemingly in a permanent state of recession (unlike other parts of a university; h/t Margaret Soltan), which is why quitting after tenure elicits such strong emotions.

This reminds me of the "dropping out" issue that Flavia highlighted a couple of months ago.  The thing that her classmate was saying, Paul Revere-style, was that if you make the choice to leave, or opt out, or "drop out," you might never get a chance to opt back in.  And as Dr. Crazy points out, it's only an option for partnered people.

The real question, which is kind of obscured in the NYT's interest in the emotional happiness of the women it surveys, is this: how will you support yourself? And what are you doing to ensure that you can?  This is a human issue, which is another way of saying it's a feminist issue.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Random bullets of checking in

  • This place is warmer and more humid than Northern Clime, even though it's not a truly southern or tropical place. The insects make the trees hum at night, and the air seems to expand and contract with the cycles of their noises. Moss grows on the sidewalks. The flowering trees drip when I walk under them. Not being a horticulturalist, the closest I can come to naming the species is "tree with pink flowers that is not a rhododendron." 
  • Flavia's recent post  helps me to realize that some times are family times and you can't think about academics all the time. Sometimes the best thing is to clean a house, cook a meal, hold a baby, give a hug.  Come to think of it, give lots of hugs.
  • The Academic Year Express is roaring down the tracks, though, and it'll be here too soon.