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Contrafactum

I wrote a contrafactum to rhythm changes today. Or I should say that one just occurred to the fingers of my right hand as I was playing, aft...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Proprietary

Lorca is mine. Please don't write anything about him that I could possibly disagree with, or that question's my ideal image of him.

I sometimes feel like that, lacking any disance from my proprietary interest in the objects of my research. It's good to feel ownership in some sense, but not to feel one has a monopoly interest.

Writing as Solace

I draw real comfort from good writing, as from well-played music. It is soothing and refreshing. I hope that something I write will have that effect on someone else at some point. Most academic writing depletes rather than refreshing.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Other People's Writing...

Of course, other people's really good writing can get me going again. Here is Dryden translating Virgil:

Meantime imperial Neptune heard the sound
Of raging billows breaking on the ground.
Displeas'd, and fearing for his wat'ry reign,
He rear'd his awful head above the main,
Serene in majesty; then roll'd his eyes
Around the space of earth, and seas, and skies.
He saw the Trojan fleet dispers'd, distress'd,
By stormy winds and wintry heav'n oppress'd.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Other People's Writing Is Hell

I think it was Sartre who said that, or something similar. Working on other people's writing when I want to be working on my own is a peculiar form of torment for me. Even things that are reasonably well-written are not written in a way that will satisfy my particular preferences.. The average piece I am reviewing or evaluating is going to be written indifferently even when it has other merits. When I say written indifferently I mean exactly that: the writing is indifferent to the qualities I value in good prose.

It Doesn't Rain But It Pours

I have to read an article for a journal, a book manuscript for a press, an article for a colleague, a dissertation chapter, a paper written by a grad student for an independent study, and my undergraduate students' paper revisions. My approach to this is to get a few things out of the way quickly, so this morning (and afternoon) I finished the dissertation chapter and 40 pages of the book, and read through the article once. It doesn't have to be done all at once, but I I don't want to be only reading other people's work for the next month, and more things will come up: NEH summer stipend review panel next month, for example.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

More Critical Thinking

People tend to think in dichotomous ways. For example, if you happen to question the efficacy of various sorts of "alternative medicine," people will think you are an advocate of everything that the big pharmaceutical companies advocate. Really, though, those two questions are totally separate. A treatment associated with "alternative medicine" works (or not) because of whether it works, not because it is "alternative" or "natural." A drug developed by a drug company has the effects that it has, the efficacy (or not) that is has, because of what it does, not because of its origin. A scientific theory is valid if it works and produces the predictions it has predicted, not because it is "science." There is no contradiction in applying equal degrees of skepticism to anything and everything.

***

What does this have to with with Scholarly Writing? Nothing much, except that being very, very smart does not allow you to bypass cognitive biases. You have to figure out each new intellectual problem from scratch, figuring out what to believe and what not to believe. The kind of articles that seem to be pure confirmation bias do not seem quite as revelatory.

A Critical Thinking Exercise

On the internet you will find advertisements for colon cleaning that claim that an average adult is walking around with 5-25 lbs of fecal material in their large intestine, caked drily on the sides. How could you evaluate such a claim if you were not in the medical field? (I apologize in advance for this post. It just somehow needed to come out.)

(1) When you feel you have to take an enormous dump, step first on the bathroom scale. Then weigh yourself right afterwards on the same scale. How much weight did you lose? Probably less than a half a pound. I have a scale that measures in 0.2 lb increments and sometimes the scale gives me the same measurement before and after a substantial bowel movement. So the claim is that you have between 10 and 74 times more crap left inside you even after ridding yourself of some serious turds.

(2) Now go to the gym and pick up a 25 lb. weight? How heavy does it feel to you. Now pick up a 5, 10, 15, and 20 pound piece of iron. A pound of metal weighs the same as a pound of shit, so you need to get a feel for how much weight this really is. Imagine that you are carrying around the fifteen-pound dumbbell within your gut all the time. Does this seem plausible? Of you have a toddler handy you can lift him or her into the air. How heavy does the kid feel?

(3) Look at a pregnant woman. Suppose she is carrying an 8 lb. baby and the placenta Or look at a person who's 40 lbs oveweigth and carrying about 25 of it in a beer belly. Do you think your colon is carrying something of equivalent mass? Wouldn't it be as big as the uterus of a pregnant person? If so, how does the stool even pass through there? Wouldn't you die of a blockage before you got to 15 or 20 pounds? If the argument is that the matter is so compacted that it has a high density, remember again how much your elimination weighed after you did your business, remember again the relative density of metal and flesh.

(4) Now look at the advertisements again. What are they selling? How much would it cost to get your insides cleaned out? Now compare this to the price of the laxatives they tell you to use before a colonoscopy. Before you get one of these, you have to clean out your entire system, and the result is that there is nothing there. I guarantee you won't lose 20 lbs.

(5) Now think of what other mental experiments you might perform to evaluate a claim of this type. You need to balance what your own experience tells you, unbiased information, and the opinions of experts. Suppose the claim was one like "we only use one tenth of our brains." How would you evaluate a cliché meme like this? Maybe it might be more difficult with some more elusive ones.

Monday, September 19, 2011

When Stuck, Switch

When you get stuck for a while, it's helpful to switch to another kind of writing or to another project for a while. I'm temporarily stuck on my chapter so I've been writing some poems and movie reviews, which you can check out on the other blog.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Brown M&Ms

I tell my students I don't like the cliché "time immemorial" beginning to a paper. "Ever since Adam and Eve..." or "From the beginning of time..." Yet they continue to do this. I also don't allow them to use the word 'importante." Yet many insist on using this word.

We might call these my brown M&Ms. Van Halen stipulated in their riders to tour contracts a bowl of M&Ms without the brown ones. This has often been taken to be typical rock-band high-maintenance narcissistic self-regard and self-indulgence, but this clause actually served a deeper purpose, serving as a marker of attention to detail:
If brown M&M's were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance--lighting, staging, security, ticketing--may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

If students use the word "importante," if they haven't put a title on their paper, if they use the "time immemorial" beginning, then I know they haven't been paying attention to my very explicit oral and written instructions. Sure, an otherwise good paper might use the word importante in every other sentence, but usually this means that the student will also not apply recently reviewed grammar points in revising their writing. They will probably use the passive voice in a paper a week after I told them simply not to use the passive voice at all in Spanish.

Of course, the consequence of messing up a Van Halen concert might be very serious: death, if a stage collapses because a promoter has not paid attention to how much weight it has to support. The consequence of brown M&Ms is less severe. In writing, the consequence of messing up the small things is that the reader will lose faith that the writer is to be trusted in the communication of scholarly knowledge.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Depression as a Cultural Norm in Academia

Half the academics I know have been on anti-depressants or in therapy at one time or another, including este servidor. The other half probably have too, but haven't told me about it yet. The manual of psychological disorders (DSM) contains some that are culturally specific. That is, they are disorders bound up in cultural definitions that are not recognized outside of that particular culture. This does not mean that they are not real. I would point out that all psychological disorders are culturally constructed. Why call "mal de ojo" culturally bound but not Western ailments like "nervous breakdowns"? The sufferer suffers the same ill effects whether there is a culturally specific name that has no purchase in other contexts.

Academics are knowledgeable about treatments and seek them out. They don't tend to see depression as a stigma, so they seek out help. What is stigmatized is happiness, satisfaction. You are supposed to whine and complain a lot, participate in the culture of "college misery." If you look too happy, as Z has pointed out, people will start wondering whether you are working hard enough.

Of course, I don't mean to say that people get depressed because of this culture, that they should just opt out of their personal depression by realizing that it is culturally constructed. That is easier said than done. Also, to say that something is constructed does not mean that it is not real. Also, to say that something is constructed does not mean that it is not real. Also, to say that something is constructed does not mean that it is not real. I cannot say that enough times. Our very reality is cultural, that is the air we breathe, our psychological reality.

I would also like to separate the genuine concerns afflicting academia from the cultural norm of misery. In other words, there are really serious problems that have to be worked on, since academia is under attack from right-wing politicians and corporate-minded administrators. We should put our efforts into constructive work to fight back. The cultural norm of depression is a more general malaise that is not particularly useful, since it make us not want to get out of bed in the morning. This malaise also makes us think our own work in not valuable, and hence makes us weaker in the fight against idiot politicians and administrators.

Not Writing Is Hard

Not writing, being away from my research work for a medium-size stretch of time, is difficult, taking me away from the sources of my strength and self-confidence. I feel myself getting stupider and I forget what I am supposed to be doing. Why did I choose this job again? I have plenty of time to blog and take care of personal business and chat with colleagues, but the job seems oddly unrewarding.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Happiness

We recently considered Z's idea that research and writing are fun and satisfying activities. Here is a post from Thomas showing once again how "great minds think alike."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Revision

Some of my students (advanced comp and grammar in Spanish) revised their papers and did not get better grades. That is because the implicit standard for a revision is a half grade higher than for the first version, so to improve they have to get a full grade higher.

On weaker papers, the issues tended to be basic vocabulary and grammar, and so I could barely deal with issues of composition proper at all.

My goal is to get all of the students to write at the upper division Spanish level, (where some of the students are starting from). A student who starts at an A level should be able to write convincingly and with elegance by the end of the semester.

Nobody's Genre

My colleague likes to say that the MA exam is nobody's genre. In other words, the exam is a hurdle to be overcome. Studying for the examination is useful, because one has to read the works on the list and organize one's knowledge, but performance on the exam means very little. Very few people excel, beyond showing that they have read the list, and many students underperform. If the exam was one's best genre, that would be very sad, in a way, because nobody reads the exam except to see whether someone passes or fails.

Even the PhD exam is almost nobody's genre.

The dissertation, though, should be everyone's genre. This is a time to progress, not regress. At this point, the student has been trained to do nothing else except for writing a dissertation.

Mutually Contradictory Ideas

Profacero, in a comment on the last post, writes: "the ideas that your dissertation isn't important except insofar that it is done, and yet at the same time, it has to be your first book, are mutually contradictory." This is a point so crucial that it needs to be repeated. The dissertation is your entry into scholarship. While it is done in order to get the degree, it is not like a PhD exam (i.e., a meaningless hurdle that has no relation to your scholarly future). It represents what you will want to be known for and the source of publications during the first years in the profession. Graduate school should train you to write a good dissertation, and this dissertation should be very, very close to a finished book. The idea that a 28 or 36-year old graduate student is too young to be completing a valid scholarly project is very condescending, and part of the endless infantilization of grad students that doesn't do anyone any good.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Writing is fun and publishing is easy"

A lot of us have had the experience of wondering why something that comes relatively easy to us is seen, in the academic culture, as a form of torture. The blogger Profacero has startlingly excellent set of posts on this issue. She states seemingly counterintuitive axioms like "writing is fun and publishing is easy." Crazy, right? But I happens to agree with her.

Graduate school consists largely of training in research. Every course I took, except a single one in pedagogy, was designed to train me as a scholar. Even people who end up working in jobs where they don't do much research have had training to be scholars. The PhD remains a research degree. If, after completely such a degree, you still don't know how to do research, then something has gone wrong. Writing itself is easy. The only hard part is sitting down to do it regularly. Once that regular schedule is established, all it takes is working systematically to solve certain problems. There will be easier and harder days, as with anything else. Publishing is also very easy, since journal editors actually want to publish good articles. Once again, "easy" does not mean a total absence of rejection.

So what makes it hard? Part of it is the "volvo" culture denounced by Stanley Fish in this classic essay. We don't want to admit that it is fun because our claims of moral superiority are based on suffering. Of course, the working conditions of academia often crowd research out. Excessive teaching loads, lack of leaves and sabbaticals, an explosion of service and committee work, and sometimes an outright hostility toward (or envy of) research combine forces. The idea that research is hard provides the convenient excuse in such cases. Profacero also notes that the mantra about how hard it is serves a gate-keeping function.

I recommend you read all the posts in this on-going series. Since I have always taught at a an R1, I always feel like someone is going to answer, "sure, easy for YOU." So I'm glad someone else said it first.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Contagion

The technique of "contagion" is to read in the "target language"* or the "target style" or your own language before writing. On the level of the unconscious mind, you are picking up the prose rhythms of the language or style you want to emulate. You can also consciously write down little turns of phrases you might want to use. I never write anything in Spanish without doing some reading of this type for a few days right before.

The model should be realistic. I could write like Guy Davenport, Geoffrey Pullum, or Gilbert Sorrentino on a good day (or a bad day for them), or at least aspire to that, but not like Samuel Johnson or Thomas Campion. I wouldn't use Galdós in this way, or Azorín, but I would use Miguel Casado. In other words, a reasonably contemporary style, not too far removed in time, that embodies the virtues you want to emulate. Don't worry about becoming a clone, because what you are imitating is not the idiosyncrasy, the quirks particular to one writer or another, but the general virtues. In most cases you won't come that close anyway!


___

*"Target language" is a term used both in SLA for the second language one is acquiring, and in translation theory for the language into which one is translating (lengua de llegada). I coined, myself, the phrase "target style" to mean the ideal of style to which one is aspiring, though, like all good inventions, I am not the first person to come up with this phrase. The big box store Target also claims to have a certain "style." The phrase has also been used in the teaching of music composition.

Revision Strategies

Although most of you might not read Spanish, I have nothing else for you today but what I'm presenting to my own students, some strategies for revision. Even though I question the idea of shitty first drafts for more advanced writers, I think it's a great concept for undergraduates. Basically, my 5 strategies are: shitty first drafts, waiting 24 hours between each draft of a short paper, rewriting between 1 and four sentences of each paragraph from scratch, "contagion," or immersing yourself in a text in the target language for a half hour before writing in it, and keeping a running list of corrections or writing problems that you can consult when it's time to revise. (The "target language" can be English even if you are a speaker of English already, because your "target" is a prose style beyond what you are capable of now. For example, I might want to read Guy Davenport for an hour before writing if I feel my style is slipping.)
Los escritores profesionales tienen estrategias de revisión muchos más desarrollados y sofisticados que los alumnos. Típicamente, estos ven el proceso de revisión de una manera más sencilla--una cuestión de corregir los errores señalados por el profesor, de eliminar repeticiones o de buscar mejores palabras. Los escritores más expertos conciben el proceso como uno de buscar su propio argumento y de perfeccionar párrafos. He aquí algunas estrategias que podrían ser de alguna utilidad:

(1) El “borrador de mala muerte” (“Shitty First Drafts” de Anne Lammott): “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts” (http://www.orcutt.net/othercontent/sfds.pdf). Es decir: no hay que mostrarse satisfechos con el primer borrador, pero tampoco hay que desesperarse si el borrador no les parece muy adecuado. Normalmente, habrá que escribir dos o tres borradores ante de tener algo digno para entregar al profesor.

(2) 24 horas. Pero, ¿cómo revisar? Una buena estrategia es de escribir un borrador, esperar 24 horas, luego otro borrador, etc... Es necesario ver lo que se ha escrito como si fuera de otro, ganar un poco de distancia de lo escrito.

(3) Oraciones y párrafos. De cada párrafo, escoger una o dos oraciones (o tres o cuatro) para reescribir totalmente, desde cero. Serán las que “suenan mal” o que no parecen muy claras y concisas. Luego, mirar cada párrafo y juzgarlo desde la perspetive de la estructura variada de las oraciones. Cada párrafo debe contener algunas oraciones complejas (de varias cláusulas) y no más de dos oraciones sencillas seguidas.

(4) El contagio. Reemplazar cualquier anglicismo, o frase traducida del inglés, con una locución más auténtica. Un método de utilidad es el del contagio, que consiste en leer un texto auténtico escrito en español por 30 minutos antes de escribir, conscientemente anotando los modismos y giros que utiliza el autor o la autora e inconcientemente contagiándose de un estilo más castizo.

(5) Correciones. Haga una lista de las correciones propias para consultar a través del semestre. Aunque escribir de modo gramaticalmente correcto no es la meta absoluta del curso, es imprescindible evitar demasiados errores.

(6) En grupos, buscar otras estrategias de revisión. La mejor estrategia recibirá el “gran premio.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When I'm Not Writing A Lot I Have Fewer Tricks

I wonder why that is. It should be obvious: the tricks come from observations about my own process of writing. When the process is not happening, I don't get any great ideas about how to do things. I have to start writing more before I can come up with more tricks to write more.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

RLS the Book

Thomas's Research as a Second Language book looks very exciting. At first I didn't see the articulation between the first part of it, which was more philosophical, and the more practical manual section. There is a third section too, which he could explain better than I could. I'm confident that Thomas can make it work.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Grading System

Students turn in their papers by email by 11;59 p.m. of the due date. The title of their document is studentlastnamecomp2.doc. If the student forgets this format I change the doc title after I download it. The next morning, I create a folder and place every attachment in the folder, so the papers are in alphabetical order by student last name. I open a document and set it to "track changes." I grade each one on the computer screen, writing corrections and comments, and a final comment with the grade. I send back the attachments to the students by going to "file," "share," then "share as attachment." That way I never send a message without its attachment.

The advantages of this system: I never print anything. Students never print anything. I never have to struggle with my own handwriting. Students never struggle with my handwriting. I never lose a paper. Students never come late to class because they are still printing the paper due that day. I never struggle with a paper printed with an exhausted toner cartridge. Students get their papers back even if they are absent on the day papers are returned. I have an electronic record of the grades on each paper. The turn-over on papers is faster and more efficient. I never spill coffee on a student paper. Students can revise their papers by accepting my changes and going from there. I have an electronic copy of each paper, so I can track student progress over the course of the semester. For example, I can see if a student is making the same mistakes in every paper.

I do think it's valuable to print things out and read them, but I have a shocking confession. I have written articles that I have never printed out even once. The entire process has been electronic. Probably very few will ever read these articles on real paper either.