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Aspiring to mediocrity

What I mean by this is that we need to achieve competence. For example, I would like to play jazz piano that sounds like generic playing tha...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mayhew's New Contract

The University of Kansas and Profssor Jonathan Mayhew have agreed to a contract designed to keep Mayhew at KU through the 2021-22 academic year.

"We believe Jonathan Mayhew is among a very small number of elite Spanish Professors," KU Provost David Vitter said, "and this ensures that we compensate him accordingly. We are proud of the way he represents the University of Kansas and the entire State of Kansas, and we are thrilled that he will remain a Spanish Professor for at least another decade."

In order for Mayhew to earn the maximum amount of the contract, including retention bonuses, he must remain at KU through the 2021-22 Academic Year.

Mayhew's current contract, which runs through June 2018, pays him $3.376 million, including base salary and annual service payments, as well as retention payments that are payable in 2013 and 2018.

The new contract pays Mayhew $3.856 million annually, an increase of some $480,000 per year. In addition, Msyhew will earn a second retention bonus of $876,000 per year, payable in 2015 and 2018. That second retention bonus is replaced in 2019 by an agreement to pay Mayhew a one-time sum of $6 million if he remains a KU Spanish Professor through March 2022.

"I am thrilled that we will live in Lawrence for years to come," Mayhew said. "We love Lawrence and the University of Kansas. We are very appreciative of Chancellor Gray-Little and Sheahon Zenger for the faith and trust they have shown in us, and we look forward to our association with KU in the years to come."

Top Sabbatical Tips

How do you waste a sabbatical? What are the top 5 ways of not getting anything done during extended time off?

1. Don't start working right away. The sabbatical lasts a long time, so you don't want to start right away. Maybe the first of October is a good start date, or the first of March for the spring semester.

2. Travel a lot. Since you have so much time, schedule as many trips as possible. That will break up your rhythm of work and prevent you from ever getting into a groove.

3. Don't set up any specific goals for what you want to get accomplished every week, every month, or during the entire sabbatical. For God's sake never create a daily schedule of work! After all, you have six months with no other responsibilities to worry about. You don't want to constrain your time with a petty schedule.

4.Make sure you say yes to all other opportunities. Review a book? Sure. A tenure case? Why not? Remember, your time is infinite. You can fill the days with other projects and your writing will still get done, because you have all the time in the world.

5. Once December, or July, comes, it is time to stop working on research and begin to think about teaching again. Sure, you didn't get as much done as you could have during those infinite 6 months, but academia is hard! Without having a leave, it is impossible to get anything done, since who can write during the school year when time is not infinite?

My Field is Crap

My experience with tenure evaluations, peer reviews of articles, panels to evaluate grant proposals, and book reviews suggests to me that my own field is crap. This might be merely a manifestation of Sturgeon's Law and hence not worthy of note, but it contains a whiff of hope for aspiring scholars: if your work is not crap, you will be able to publish it. An article that is good, not crappy, even if it is not great, can be published with relative ease. Mere competence puts you ahead of the game.

Some flaws that I habitually see include poor writing, a plodding, dissertation-like recitation of anecdotes, lack of concern for the reader, the failure to present significant conclusions... Most scholarship is dull and any peer evaluator is going to be elated if you can be interesting, compelling, and just not suck.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stale

The discussion of stale PhDsis interesting. I disagree with commenters who see this as (primarily) an issue of age discrimination. Rather, it is a kind of social-Darwinian thinking that leads to the idea that anyone who didn't get a job after a certain number of years is not as as good as someone who landed a t-t job quickly. This is unfair, given the dip in the job market that severely damaged an entire cohort of academics, but it has almost nothing to do with age discrimination, in my opinion. Needless to say, I am against writing in a job description, "PhD between 2010 and now." That being said, I would tend to look more favorably on a PhD from 2010 than one from 2003, if hiring an Assistant Professor. If you haven't had a highly successful career between 2003 and now, then why should I assume that you will turn it around now?

The freshly minted PhD (I hate that phrase, but that's what they are called) has the advantage of not having had time to screw up yet. He or she is pure promise, pure futurity.

Will Work For Food

It occurred to me that I could give the same presentation ("Open Secrets of Scholarly Productivity") at other universities. I am not looking at this as a source of income right now. As long as you feed me (and pay transportation and hotel, if I have to travel more than a hundred miles round trip), I will be happy. Once I perfect my presentation, my price will go up, so now's the time to invite me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Five Questions

Five Questions for Jonathan Mayhew

First Seminar

In October I am giving my first, ever talk on scholarly productivity outside of my own university. I've given workshops for grad students, but never taken this show on the road. I will be talking at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville on "The Open Secrets of Scholarly Productivity." In other words, what everyone who productive already knows (pretty much) and what the conventional wisdom has wrong.

Emory

It looks like Emory is closing down its graduate program in Spanish. I have always thought of Emory as a reasonably strong program in my field, so this comes as a surprise, though the administration is shutting down whole departments as well. I know Northwestern also stopped giving graduate degrees in Spanish a few years ago. I won't gossip further until I have better information.

Of course, not every university should be giving a PhD in every field, but it is still possible to get tenure track jobs with a Spanish PhD from a strong program. My department still have virtually 100% rate of placement, for example.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Good Fight

What is worth fighting for:

(1) Preserving traditional academic values of critical thought and autonomy. Outrage at the threatened dismantling of an English department at a CUNY branch is highly appropriate. We can also be outraged at SLU's proposal to do away with key protections of tenure. Looking out for adjuncts that are going to be fired by an out of control administrator is not incompatible with looking out for tenured professors.

(2) The actual content of our disciplines, whether philosophy, English, or anthroplogy. The study of the highest achievements of human culture is inherently valuable.

What is not worth fighting for?

I am not going to argue for the academic culture of self-hatred and depression. I understand why it exists, but I won't fight to preserve it. I won't get into small squabbles if I can help it.

Putting research 1st

On Putting research first. Here are some particularly well expressed ideas:
The goal is to actually put as much time into it as my contract stipulates, namely 30% of 60 hours or 18 hours per week.
and
I always thought that research was just part of the job, the reason you were there, really, but in other ways just a normal part of the job. It was only after becoming a professor that I was told it was not, but that is an old tale from earlier years of this weblog. Now one is back to feeling one has a right to research or rather, a right to be a person who does research.
It seems to me that saying that one should put in the research effort stipulated by the contract is a wonderful approach. Then when someone questions your commitment, or priorities, all you have to do is say that you are fulfilling the terms of your contract. For me, for example, the amount of my effort going to research is 40%. So really, I should be working 40% of the time on this, just as I should be working 40% on teaching and 20% on service. If your contract doesn't spell that out, then you would have to find another approach, I think. For example, what weight is given to research in hiring / tenure / raises. I also like the twin emphasis on "part of the job" and "the reason you were there." It is part of the job, not something added on to it as an extra. But, in some sense, it is the reason you are there on a deeper level. If you are a chemist, that has to come before being a teacher of chemistry, logically speaking. What you are teaching is what you have learned, whether through original research or the research of others.

Good news

SLU drops "controversial post-tenure review proposal

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stylistic Exercise

Start off slow. Like this. Short sentences or fragments at the beginning. That would be the first paragraph.

Gradually gather steam, constructing sentence of greater length and sophistication. With the occasional short, fragmentary interruption. A few paragraphs of medium-length phrases and clauses, until you fall in to an easier rhythm. It is really rather easy to write in longer units of breath; simple parallelisms (or parenthetical remarks) will suffice. There is nothing particularly difficult about medium, or even long, chunks of discourse.

At this point you should have the confidence that arises from having gone this far without stumbling, even if at the beginning you sorely felt that lack of a firm and steady footing as you began to make your way. At any point you can dial it back and revert to short or medium length sentences. No shame in that. The point is to know that you possess a certain degree of fluency (or fluidity [from the same Latin root: to flow]) as you wend your way up and down the mountain of prose. Later I'll be giving instructions on how to end. At the point you can relax a little more and not even worry about the length of sentences. Your job will be complete.

Right now, though, I recommend that you develop even more elaborate ways of creating complex, but easy-to-follow, units of prose, so that your reader will, also, have the confidence to trust you as a writer, to know that you have everything under control and you move through the middle part of your essay and the average length of your thoughts increases considerably. The ideal to strive for is not length for its own sake, but rather the easy alternation of varying lengths. If you want, you can begin the paragraph with a really long or really short sentence, but then "go smaller" or "bigger" in what follows. The reader should never feel that you are stuck in one particular pattern, or that you are simply unconscious of the desired effect. Instead, he or she should feel that you never bog down into brief, choppy units of sense, or lose him or her in a sea of clauses without end.

Visually, you will be able to discern how long your paragraphs are. Some recommend paragraphs of about six sentences, but there is no hard and fast rule. Once I scoffed at the idea of six sentences, but then discovered that I was following this pattern without even knowing it. I believe my sentences average twenty-five words, though I have not verified this. A good sentence will normally consist of two to three clauses, or a single clause of somewhat greater length. Again, it bears repeating that it is not difficult to create a sentence that goes on and on but still does not leave the poor reader behind.

Beginnings and endings are the hard part. The middle is pretty much a process of going on, and starting and stopping. Between beginning and ending, I would say that beginning is far more challenging. If you can begin well, everything else will typically fall into place. The conclusion should not be a mere repetition of the introduction, but rather a widening gyre of implications and future possibilities. You can wax poetic at that point. As I mentioned earlier, at a certain moment you will stop worrying about how long or short your sentences are, and simply be in a good "groove" or rhythm as you compose your prose. You've already demonstrated that you can write sentences in any length you want, starting or stopping on a dime. You have little left to prove. Just "be yourself" in your writing style. You don't have to stretch yourself any longer, simply to prove that you can. The metaphor of "winding down' is apt for this occasion, although it is always good to reserve a little extra in case you need it for the home stretch.

If sentences have twenty five words, and paragraphs six sentences, then a paragraph will contain one hundred fifty words or so. I realize that what I've written here exhibits some stylistic flaws, perhaps in the use of too many adverbs or "hedges," too many words in air or scare quotes, too many clauses that fulfill no other function than filling space. Still, I feel I have produced another stylistic exercise that allows me to grow as a writer. The total effect of these exercises will only be evident at a later date.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Feeding

Breastfeeding while teaching a class is unprofessional. There, I said it. It's not just breastfeeding discreetly in public, since usually all eyes are directed to the instructor. This professor is an idiot who not only did this, but then tried to suppress a newspaper story about it in an arrogant and high-handed way. The baby is question was crawling on a filthy* classroom floor, putting foreign objects in its mouth. It could have choked on the paper-clip that students observed it putting in its mouth.

*I don't know that the floor was filthy, though that would apply to 95% of classroom floors I have seen in teaching college since 1982.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

1,000 Posts

This is post 1,000 of SMT. Just sayin'. This blog has been successful far beyond my initial expectations, and threatens to eclipse my old-school blog Bemsha Swing.

Segway

Suppose we got to the point where we only got around on segways. Sure, we still know how to walk, in theory, but we rarely do so. Now imagine that there is a physical education course that requires actual walking and other forms of self-propelled locomotion. The students howl in protest that they must leave their segways at the door. Surely the instructor does not UNDERSTAND that modern technology has made walking all but obsolete. But maybe the very point of the class is to introduce a way of getting around that strengthens the muscles of the legs.

The final exam in the course involves some self-propelled locomotion. Some of the dumbass students, however, hide their segways in the bushes. After all, the professor's requirements are absurd. In real world they will never be asked to WALK.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

750 More Words

It occurred to me that there are a lot of way to say "a large quantity." So this is a stylistic exercise that I performed on the 750 site:
To get it all down, on paper or screen. A river of words. A plethora of verbiage. A respectable quantity of scholarly publications. Mountains of prose. Vast landscapes of sentences and paragraphs. Piles of shit. Bucketfuls, sackfuls, fistfuls. Myriad perspectives on the subject matter. A deluge of books and articles. Enormous quantities of academic output. Heaps of stuff, of entries on a cv. A veritable onslaught of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, articles (definite and indefinite). Loads of fun. A sizable amount of work. Tons of research. Gadzillion things accomplished. Boatloads of "significant contributions to the field."

Megabytes, gigabytes of information. An endless supply of synonyms. Platefuls of edification. A ceaseless flow, a cornucopia of virtuoso performances. Limitless reserves of unnatural resources. An embarrassment of riches. A countless array of intelligence, perspicacity, perspicuousness, expertise, knowledge, brilliance, cleverness, imagination--not to mention creativity, genius, and precocity. Unending displays of competence. Solid, unimpeachable reputations, as far as the eye can see. Infinite layers of subtlety. Overflowing vessels. A Babel worthy of Borges.

Silos, bank vaults, storage facilities, boxes and other analogous containers, full to the brim. An abundant store of possibilities still unrealized. An unimaginably extensive horizon, looming over us, dwarfing the already not inconsiderable accumulations of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, chemistry, applied behavioral science, biomedical research, physics, and other areas of study too numerous to count. Rainmakers, the stars and superstars of universities and colleges, have worked 24/7 to amass library-fulls of monographs, thousands or millions of cubic feet for the storage of many a quaint an curious volume of forgotten lore, gleaned by the teeming brains of bards and scops, poets, prophets, and savants, scientists, wise men (and women), theorists, researchers, adjunct and tenure-track faculty--inspired by muses and duendes, fueled by trillions of gallons of coffee and scotch, an unimaginably humongous galaxy of the best that has been thought and said. Touchstones and benchmarks without any logical stopping point. Volcanoes, geysers, of wisdom and practical applications.

Have I mentioned, yet, the inexhaustible databases, the wealth of concrete manifestations of all this? Ships arriving in port, laden with new insights, brainstorms, inspirations, ideas, the seemingly never-ending working out, working through, elaborating, explaining, explicating, annotating, summarizing, synthesizing and analyzing, improving, of this storehouse, this prison-house of language?

And what of the laconic, the terse, the concise, the pithy, Pound's "piths and gists:--all that does not belong to the plethoric mode, the worship of quantitative measure, the bean-counting, the bureaucratic quantification, the immense weight and heft of sheer numbers, hills of quantifiable items? Long careers, or whole armies of worker ants slaving away in the beaneries, might be devoted to the abuse of measurability, the massiveness of mass itself.

Bathtubs full of archives, miles of microfilm, kilometers of hexameters, lightyears of lexemes, syntagms, discursive structures of uncharted scope, in the full range of time and space, or even in alternative universes. A planetful of human minds, all chained in the saltmines of schools and academies, might not be sufficient! We must return to the origins, the springs, the foundations, the prehistoric archetypes and prototypes, the millennial erudition of a thousand blooming flowers.

I have a good deal more to say on this subject, and other matters which have remained in the inkwell: the unplumbed depths, the bottomless wells, the unchartered bottoms, the still inchoate forms taking shape in caverns measureless to man, in domed expanses of unimaginable extension. (The end is not yet in sight. I have miles to go before I sleep, although these words are indeed dark and deep.) Here I might linger a while, enjoying the eternal present, frozen moments of time chosen out of even vaster, dimensions, before the onslaught of dementia, oblivion, the daunting prospect of forgetting more than one ever knew, of being wrong, mistaken, in ways too varied to be put into a finite set of possible outcomes. To err is human. Error, too, is gigantic, making knowledge seem comparatively puny, where it once appeared gargantuan, larger-than-life, of Goliath-like proportion, the height of a redwood. The sea of what is known will always be small when set beside the flood tides of what cannot be known, whether because of the limits of time and space or because some things are unknowable by their very nature. A tsunami might be an even more apt metaphor: as though I could run out of them! There are always more where that came from, the "bottomless cup" in an all-night diner, the perpetual motion machine churning out even more than you ever thought possible.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Do You Like to Read?

Here is a question posed by another blogger. I find myself uninterested in many forms of reading. I prefer reading for a few minutes and then writing, or thinking, or ruminating on what I have read. Of course, I have read and enjoyed it in the past. Every year I would re-read LOTR or Catch-22, or The Cave by Robert Penn Warren. Most literature professors were kids who loved to read, and I was also that kid, but at a certain point I lost my taste for the kind of reading in which I was "lost in the book." I needed the stimulus of another language, preferably one I don't know completely, or of a text that is ostensibly dull, like a novel by Henry Green.

I am often not crazy about being subject to an author's control. I like reading every other page, or starting on page 100. I like some of the techniques described in Ron Padgett's book Creative Reading. I'd love to teach a course on that.

I still say that having read more than anyone else is a good way of beating out the competition. I know I've read things few other people have. What I'm saying is that I don't have the pure pleasure of immersion. And of course, reading scholarship in my own field is often tortuous.

Monday, September 3, 2012

750 Words

I'm doing this thing of writing 750 words in the morning, free writing, on a site set up for that purpose. You can google it if you are interested. Anyway, I decided to do it in heroic couplets this morming. I apologize for their badness. One couplet is not closed: there is missing line somewhere. Oh well.

The absence of constraint makes writing hard:

I'll write in verse although I am no bard.

To get it done's the thing, no doubt of that.

Although my lines may turn out rather flat,

To give my brain a rest, I turn to rhymes.

Hoping that prose will happen other times.

In other centuries this form was used

For prose-like functions. Many poets mused

With no conception that they should use prose

When couplets were a vehicle for those

Subjects that held most interest for them:

(Subjects we might now classify as STEM.)

I've now attained the mark of ninety words.

Seven-fifty is the goal I've set. The birds

Can now be faintly heard outside my panes.

I hear a crow as answer to my pains.

It's 8 o'clock in this apartment. Star-

Bucks coffee is what's taken me this far.

If I did this each morning, I would be

Adept at writing, in a form for me

As natural as breathing. What's the point

Of exercising, if the elbow joint

Never will bend the way you want it to?

If this will work for me, why not for you?

I've reached one-ninety now, my word-count shows.

I'm hoping that by now you know that prose

Is not the only way that writing flows.

To fill a page with some alacrity

Not agonizing over every cee

Or dee you have received in college classes.

To keep on going, til the sweat forms beads

On neck and shoulder, til this writing leads

To some epiphany that rivals Joyce.

That would be cause for us to now rejoice

And note the word count is at two fifty.

The way it's taken shape is truly nifty

If you will pardon me my lack of modesty.

By any measure, what I write's a travesty

But reaching seven-fifty is a way

Of stimulating prose another day.

To publish articles or books, a burst

Of creativity is not the first

Thing one must have. I advocate

A different method. In a state

Of quiet meditation, born of strong

Persistent writing all week, all year long.

I'm at three-fifty now, I'm getting tired.

It's almost nine, and very few are wired

For verse as I am, this I recognize.

To stick to prose, for most it would be wise.

And yet I've learned from this brief exercise.

Something about the way my brain might work:

Some cruel constraint might help me not to shirk

My duties as a writer. Write as much

As you feel comfortable with writing. More

Than this is not advisable. Before

You publish, you must write it down on screen

Or paper. Make your writing shining, lean

And tense as finely muscled athletes are.

In academia you'll be a star.

Few write that well. For most it is a chore

And readers will regard it as a bore

To plow through horrid swaths of plodding prose.

Write well, you'll come up smelling like a rose.

I know that is cliché. At many times

You'll have to go back later. Many crimes

Against good writing in a draft that's rough

Will never see the light of day. It's tough

To look at what you've written yesterday

And know you must start over. But to say

That all your work's been wasted is not true:

The average person will improve with time

And practice. Now I'll find a decent rhyme

(A thing you will not trouble you in prose)

And try to make another couplet close

As though I were a poet of another age.

(That line contains six feet, contain your rage:

I'm trying to get it done before it's nine

A.m, not work on it all day, until it's time to dine.)

I'm at six-hundred now. Or twenty four.

Those last few word I typed make even more.

I only need to eke a few lines out

Before I claim to lay to rest the doubt

That I can write each morning as I wish

In verse or prose. Not good or bad: a dish

That satisfies an appetite for work.

I've reached six-eighty now, to shirk

At this point would be writing suicide.

I only need to stem the mounting tide

Of laziness a little while, until I'm done

With what I promised. Whether rain or sun

Outside my window, I will finish this

And reach a state of academic bliss.

A few lines more, for now I'm at seven-thirty.

I've written this, to get my writing dirty:

Filled with bad rhymes, and doing worse than ever.

But reaching the goal, as was my sweet endeavor.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Curmudgeon

It would seem that there is a segment of the instructors/professors in English grammar who wish to dispense with a number of grammatical rules. I find this a bit extreme. Practically all, if not all, rules may be ignored in some instances. This does not warrant dispensing with the rules. Some rules may require a bit of creative thinking to create the same mood that the writer feels is necessary to create by abandoning the rule. Indeed, this "kill the rules" tendency might be seen as intellectual laziness, but I almost hesitate to identify it as such.

I shall hunker down and await the outrage of the progressive professional grammarians who, in the extreme, would unwittingly reduce the language to a level of "Dick and Jane" stories.
This comment, posted on bog entry by Pullum at the CHE site, illustrates the typical whining of someone who thinks he knows something about "grammar" or "rules." Note the stiff, unidiomatic quality of the language, the fussy, overcautious, hedging tone. He wants to preserve some stylistic values, but can barely express his ideas with clarity: "Some rules may require a bit of creative thinking to create the same mood that the writer feels is necessary to create by abandoning the rule." What does that mean? If it isn't a "rule" in the first place, then all this fussiness is pointless.