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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting Dumber

I haven't been working on my chapter for a few weeks, and I feel much less intelligent. I have fewer ideas for SMT and for Bemsha Swing too. I'm mostly working on my classes and drafting some departmental by-laws. Interesting stuff. But it's making me palpably dumber as we speak.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learning Styles (Not)

There is reason for skepticism about the idea of learning styles. What makes a style relevant is the nature of the material to be taught, not the individual differences among learners. I've always been skeptical about this, frankly.

Teaching Language

Unlike a few of my colleague, I don't think teaching language and composition is beneath me. It is true that I am a scholar of literature, and not of language, but I find advanced level language courses to be very rewarding. Not being a linguist does not hold me back. Most of the students want to improve their level of Spanish language, and this occurs both in literature classes and in those devoted to the language itself. Literature classes are also language classes, in fact.

This semester I have two advanced language courses, and it frees my literature mind entirely for my own research.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


A copy editor asked me if I wanted to change the title of my article "Was Lorca a Poetic Thinker?" to "Was García Lorca a Poetic Thinker?" or "Was Federico García Lorca a Poetic Thinker?" I said no. I didn't title my book "Apocryphal García Lorca." That would have sounded awful. My next book is not going to be "What García Lorca Knew." Rhythmically, those titles just don't sound right to me.

It's complicated, because Lorca and Galdós are unique in being known primarily by their maternal surnames. Not quite unique, because I've heard Biedma for Gil de Biedma. It is wrong to say Gassett for Ortega y Gassett, but it's fine to say Ortega. It's wrong to say Márquez for García Márquez, or Llosa for Vargas Llosa, but you can't say "García" for García Márquez or "Pérez" for "Pérez Galdós."

Anyway, I think I was right to stick to my prosodic instinct in this case.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Classic style respects the stress position"

That sentence is on page 69 of Clear and Simple as the Truth (Turner and Thomas). The last element of a sentence is the most important, generally speaking, and so the classic writer puts something which is to be emphasized in that stress position. Often this is new information.

The initial part of the sentence, conversely, is the best place to situate the topic (what the sentence is going to be about) or to cover information already known to the reader. Frustration often ensues when the beginning of a sentence seems to offer no guidance at all as to what the sentence is going to be about.

The topic might be clearly stated, but the stress position might be wasted. "The role of violence in the novels of Ricardo Piglia..." That sound like a good topic for sentence, but too often it is followed by something vague or pointless like "is one of the defining characteristics of his work." You should say something specific and worthy of the stress position instead of a throwaway line this this. In this case, I would reverse those two elements: "One of the defining characteritics of RC's novels is the ...' i would also be more precise in my statement, trying to define a very specific treatment of violence, for example, or the narrator's implicit attitude toward it. So the topic is "novels written by Piglia" and the new information is "some specific and interesting point about these novels." That is classic recipe for a good sentence.

Can You Judge Your Own Writing?

I heard an interview with Bill Evans, given in the last year of his life. (He only lived from 1929-1980 which means I've matched Bill Evans since I turn 51 today. I have the advantage of not being a drug user.) He said he had begun to listen to his earlier records, and that he could hear his playing objectively, as though it were another player's.

So one very helpful way of judging your own writing is to look back into the past. If you aren't as old as I am, even looking back a year or two can be very illuminating. The point is to have forgotten the thought processes that went into the sentences and to really see what they are saying.

Needless to say, you need to develop the capacity to judge writing that is not your own. If you can't do that, then you are unlikely to be able to do that with your own. Inexperienced writers tend to judge writing by looking for errors or shibboleths. What I am talking about is a very advanced and nuanced analysis of writing that recognizes positive virtues as well. Elegance is not simply the absence of inelagance.

If you can judge writing, then you can judge your own writing, given enough the lapse of enough time. Now see if you can judge what you wrote yesterday or an hour ago with a little more objectivity. Shorten the length of time, in other words. Now you have that inner editor built in to in your writing itself.

Why not just write a draft and have someone else be your editor? Well, you can still do that, but the better your draft is, the more the editor can put attention into higher-level concerns. Also, suppose you give your editor a draft and it comes back with comments like "choppy," "run-on sentences,""vague" all over it. Then the next time you submit something else to this editor, you should have taken some care with the length and rhythm of the sentences already. You aren't starting from zero with every draft, but internalizing the critique into your own self-editing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Teaching & Research

My good friend and colleague Jorge has won a big teaching award. Of course, he is also one of the most publishing scholars in my department. Good teaching and good research often go together, so I don't think Jorge is a rare case in the least. It's like hitting and fielding in baseball: some will be better offensively and some defensively, but there will be plenty of talented athletes who are good at both.

Popular views of teaching in research posit two kinds of college professor: the absent-minded researcher who can't be bothered to teach well, and the dedicated teacher who is so devoted that there is no time for publications. Nowadays, you have to have a good teaching portfolio as a grad student to even get a tenure-track job. Pedagogical training is better and more extensive than it ever was. At least in the humanities and some social sciences, many prominent scholars genuinely care about undergraduate teaching and want to do it well. (I can't speak to the sciences, because I simply do not know enough, but it wouldn't surprise me to find more dedication to teaching than we might expect based on popular stereotypes.) People who stop doing research don't automatically become better teachers either. A good balance between the two activities helps to prevent academic burnout.

Composition Ideas?

Help me by giving me your best tricks or hacks for teaching composition, in the comments to this post. I am planning my course syllabus and need to get some inspiration. Keep in mind that I am teaching composition in Spanish, not English.

One idea I had is to give a separate grade for revisions. In other words, students have to revise a paper completely and the grade for this will have no necessary relation to the original grade. In fact, the standard for revision is higher, so a student could even fail to match the original grade.

Anyway, I thank you in advance for your suggestions; even if I don't use a particular suggestion I still appreciate your giving me one.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Student Affairs Mission Creep

I have problems with articles like this one:
Many, if not most, faculty members and those who employ them still seem to believe their primary mission is to disseminate "expert" information. Colleges hire professors and instructors who have no pedagogical education or training and who are often profoundly lacking in knowledge of human development as well. Ironically, the further one advances in the academic hierarchy, the less one is expected to know about teaching and those who are taught.

Take your dirty scare-quotes off my expertise. So we believe our primary role as teachers is to teach. Imagine that. We lack pedagogical training, so maybe we should take courses in the education school, right? The same courses our students tell us are worthless bullshit busywork courses. Our years of experience in the classroom count for nothing, by this logic.

A substantial expansion in the role of student affairs bureaucracy means that even less attention will be paid to the primary mission, the dissemination of expert knowledge. Every time there is a new perceived problem (in this case developmental delay, or the well-known fact that 18 and 19 year-old freshman are not particularly mature), there is an opportunity for student affairs mission creep. This drives the cost of higher education up without improving actual EDUCATION.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Concision and Precision

I've always thought that precision and concision went together rather well. In this post, the author implies that more words bring more clarity. Now obviously, an extremely terse utterance can be vague or ambiguous, but I don't think concision itself is inherently vague. Concise writing is writing high in information. It is not necessarily brief, since a concise history of the world would still be 2,000 pages. The word "terse" implies that necessary information is withheld, whereas the word "concise" implies that the writer did not use unnecessary words.

Redundancy in writing can serve the purpose of disambiguation. Suppose we are meeting on Friday at 8. Well, we might want to say Friday, Aug. 26, at 8:00 p.m. Where are we meeting? Starbucks. But which exact Starbucks? Friday, Aug. 26 is redundant, because August 26 is a Friday, but more information allows for less error. If someone said Thursday, Aug. 26 we would have to clarify. Do you really mean Aug. 25? Careful writing, though, can still be high in information per word without using too many words. Really verbose writing forces the reader to find the main points amidst the verbiage. Writing low in information tends to make me skim over large passages very quickly. I often have to go back to find out what the point was.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


My department chair suggested I check out an iPad from the dept longterm. I think it is going to be perfect for the coffee shop when I leave laptop vat home.

Any Old Key Will (Not) Fit the Lock

Thomas has done quite a bit of painstaking work on one of the most famous anecdotes in the field of Organization Studies.. I've been following Thomas's work on this for quite some time. Briefly, Karl Weick, a guru of this field, plagiarized a poem by Holub from the TLS. The poem recounts the probably apocryphal anecdote of a group of soldiers in the Swiss Alps who get lost and find their way back home with the aid of a map: a map of the Pyrenees, a completely different mountain range. The idea is that "any old map will do." In other words, you don't need a map or plan that corresponds to anything in reality itself.

Aside from the plagiarism itself, the use of this anecdote raises other issues. What if I were trying to enter a locked room in a strange house and took out a random key from my pocket, on the theory that it doesn't matter what key I use, as long as I have a key in my possession. You would probably think that is ridiculous, since a key is designed for a specific lock. The whole point of a key is its uniqueness. Otherwise I could get into any house or office with any key. Or if I used a Polish dictionary to decipher a text in Spanish, because "any old dictionary will do." Ridiculous, but to about the same degree as the anecdote of the wrong map. What if I set my GPS to a random destination instead of where I really wanted to go? What if I made (or tried to make) chicken soup using a chocolate chip cookie recipe, on the theory that "any old recipe will do."

In other words, you have to think very precisely about the critical and theoretical tools you are using, and distinguish between hammer-like things (a hammer is good for just about every nail) and key-like objects (a key only fits one lock, a map is only good for the territory it maps).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Blind Rewriting

I wrote a post for my other blog on "semantic prosody," a post that will appear later this week. As I neared the end of it I had the distinct impression that I had already written it. Sure enough, I did a quick search and found a post with the exact same title and the same ideas, more or less, in different order. Unfortunately, the earlier post was much better than the re-creation. I had obviously put a lot of effort into the first one.

I do a lot of rewriting that is not revision of a text that I have in front of me, but rather "blind rewriting." I simply write up my ideas again without looking at what I've done before. This is useful technique to take me away from my original formulations of my ideas. There is no particular magic in those particular sentences I wrote last month or last year. I can start again any time.

Now obviously it is a waste of time to do this too much. Where it comes in handy is when you aren't particularly happy with a relatively short piece of writer, or a short chunk of something, and you think it might be faster to rewrite it without having to fix bad sentences. The second attempt might be no better than the first, but I think the principle is a good one. Reformulate your ideas in new sentences to gain a fresh perspective. Usually if you can only explain your ideas in one way, then you don't really understand your own ideas very well. You should be able to write two essays with the same ideas without repeating a single sentence from one to the other.


What role does pure luck, or chance, have in academic careers?

A lot of things that seem to be luck are really not, since fortune favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur supposedly said. In other words, you can put yourself in the position to make a lucky discovery. You submit enough good articles to good journals and you get some acceptances. What you are really doing is stacking the odds in your favor.

On the other hand, things that seem to be undetermined by chance actually are sheer accidents. They offer a job to one person, who turns it down, and you get it instead. You happen to go into a field that later turns out to be hot and offers you more possibilities.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Strategic Plan

Over the summer, I sent my dept. chair a link from the CHE about how useless Strategic Plans are. Of course, that makes me the most logical person to head the dept. committee on implementing the university strategic plan on the departmental level.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lay and Lie

A great post from the language log archives.

I'm sure I have made mistakes in spontaneous speech with these three verbs. I am not the most articulate person in the first place and the signals just get crossed in my brain. This is not some great moral failure or a sign of the collapse of civilization. It is just grammar and there is no need to get upset about it. Pullum is very good on this. In fact, I think he is the funniest writer on the internet.


I am not well organized enough to use a lot of technology to do my research. All I use are books, a word-processing program, and the internet. Nevertheless, if you need to be better organized than I am, there are a lot of technological tools you can use.

What I basically do is put everything in the actual word document that I am working on. A bibliographical reference goes in the work cited. A paragraph from a primary or secondary source goes into the body of the text. I don't first collect data somewhere else and then write. I simply begin writing from the beginning. Where this doesn't work so well is when I've neglected to collect a complete reference and have to go back to check a book out a second time from the library.

Your most sophisticated piece of technology is your brain. Everything else is just a way of storing information in retrievable form.


I get smarter around smarter people, and dumber around dumber ones. In an intelligent environment, my intelligence also increases, and the lack of such an environment drags me down. When I read too much bad prose, my prose gets worse. Good stylistic models challenge me to improve.

I have an internalized standard of quality, which I developed in Graduate School. It came down a bit when I realized my field didn't really have the same standard. This allowed me to ease up a bit, in a way that I was not happy about, but I never really lost my standard. I know exactly where it is.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ping Pong and Frisbee

When my brother was a little kid, we would throw the frisbee back and forth in our cul-de-sac. I was seven years older, so I was basically teaching him how to throw a frisbee. Later, when he was a teenager, he won frisbee contests and could roundly defeat college students, much older than he was, at frisbee golf.

I used to take my daughter to the gym to play ping pong. Later, got a table. I played easier on her when she was little. When she went to a music camp this summer, she could easily beat almost every other high school kid at ping pong. She lost one game to a kid, but then turned around and beat him, but was otherwise undefeated. Now I can barely score a point off of her.

I have no particular talent for either frisbee or table tennis, but I was good enough to provide enough to provide the proper amount of resistance and / or practice to make a kid much better than I will ever be.

Success is a Result, Not a Goal

Flaubert said that success is a result, not a goal. (Le succés est une conséquence et non un but). It is a consequence of what you've done. Seeing it as a goal, deferred to the future, means making it more nebulous, less grounded. Of course, until it exists, it has to remain merely a goal.

What this axiom seems to suggests is the emptiness of the notion of "promise." Seen before the fact, success is a big question mark. Seen in retrospect, it seems almost inevitable. So success is almost a sure thing, the logical consequence of a series of actions.

Easy for me to say, I guess. I've always seen it more or less like this.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


There is too much shame in academic writing. Nobody should feel bad about normal editing or stylistic suggestions. This being said, most stylistic suggestions, even for a very advanced writer, are going to be very basic. In other words, most failure is at the base of the pyramid rather than at the top. Nobody should be ashamed at making basic mistakes, because most stylistic blunders are basic for almost everyone. Of course I pay attention to nuance here, and address the finer points, but what trips up most people is basic clarity.

Do It My Way

In case you missed this post from the past. I think it is more relevant now than ever. Or equally so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review Scam Spam

Be wary of emails like the ones described here. Someone I know recently asked me about a solicitation she had received from a new journal asking her to be a reviewer and/or editor. It was obvious that is was not a legitimate outfit, so I told her not to respond. If a journal wants you to review a paper, they will send you a personal (not mass) email and ask you to review an article on a subject you are half-way familiar with. The particular solicitation my acquaintance received was full of unidiomatic and ungrammatical phrases--not the kind of message you'd get from a legit journal in a humanities field.

There are also scam conferences. You get an email inviting you to a conference in a field you have nothing to do with. It might not even sound like a real field, usually it's something vague-sounding in order to attract more papers. There might really be a conference, but the point is to charge people a hefty registration fee to attend. The conference organizers basically just rent out some meeting rooms in a hotel and make a huge profit.

This journal charges a $550 "handling fee." Obviously, they pay their reviewers nothing, so most of that fee is going to be pure profit. You should never pay a handling fee to submit an article to any journal. I've never done this in my life. The editorial board has people I've never heard of from obscure places.

You shouldn't submit to journals, either, where you have to be a subscriber to submit. The only exception is when subcription comes along with membership in a professional organization. You have to be in the MLA to publish in PMLA. I wouldn't subscribe to Hispanic Journal just to submit an article there, though. It's a second-line journal at best, so I don't really need to publish there, and it's not something I would subscribe to except to publish there. Old issues of a journal that my library gets anyway would just clutter up my office. That's true even of great journals, unfortunately.

In other words...

Every metadiscursive phrase or tic bears its own clues as to the writer's thinking. "Of course" means that that you are making an assumption or leaving something unquestioned. "In other words" means that you didn't say it right the first time. What follows "in other words" is what you might have said in the first place, if you had thought of it first. That doesn't mean that you should always go back and eliminate the first formulation of the idea, but you should always at least think about doing this. You could even rewrite the first formulation to make it better and still leave the second. Some ideas need restatement for clarity or rhetorical effect.

I used to use "At the same time, however...." virtually every other sentence. Here the logic is to leave both halves of the contradiction operant. Or "I'm always giving you what you already know first, then I'll spring the new information on you." There is nothing particularly wrong with any of these devices, used in moderation, but it helps to have some self-awareness. I was using the word "entail" a lot a few months ago. When I noticed that I realized that my thinking was orientated toward a certain variety of logical consequences. Once I realized that, I could clarify my own ideas more easily by sorting out different kinds of "entailment" and seeing whether I really needed to use that word so much.

Shitty First Drafts

As you might imagine, I am of two minds about the concept of "shitty first drafts." The idea, from the writer Anne Lamott, is that "All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts." The advantage of this approach is that it frees the writer from having to worry about the quality of the first draft. Even a good writer's first draft will be shitty, according to this logic, and so the difference is that the good writer writes something, even if it is shitty, and then revises it until it is good and then excellent. The bad writer presumably either writes nothing in the first place, or does not know how to revise. For the writer terrified of putting words down on paper, the notion of a shitty first draft is wonderfully freeing. This approach works for many people.

So what's the problem? At some point the writer needs to learn to write, not just revise. The first drafts will not be perfect, but they will not be shitty either. Revision will still be necessary, but much less. The experienced writer will avoid certain kinds of mistakes on the first draft. After all, if you can't write, you won't be able to revise either, because re-writing is still a form of writing. A good writer needs to know the feeling of composing a good sentence, once in a while, on the first try. I'd much rather have a model that emphasizes the development of the writer's competence.

If I find I have written a really shitty draft, what I do is discard it and start again from scratch with the same ideas but different words. Looking at my own crappy sentences is far from inspiring. Those crappy sentences don't suggest better ones to my imagination. In fact, there is a danger in revising sentences that were never destined to be great in the first place. If a sentence really isn't working, the problem is not a cosmetic one that can be fixed by revision. Erase it completely and write what you really meant to say.

Maybe I'm being too literal-minded about this. I would say the idea of a "shitty first draft" is, indeed, a stupid motivational trick, but it is not my stupid motivational trick. For the same reason, I hate the idea of a "rough draft.".

Monday, August 8, 2011

Small Ball

"Small ball" or "inside baseball" (metaphorically) refers to a strategy of putting forward claims that are too insignificant or too specialized, or demonstrating points in a way that is too plodding or mechanical, or arguing with over-fine interpretations of the evidence. It is the result of a few factors: being so immersed in a field, or example, that one loses perspective, the "big picture." Small ball can be very convincing to other specialists who also have no perspective, but is likely to bore those in other fields. We should, in fact, have fine, detailed knowledge at the granular level, but the danger is in losing sight of what anyone else cares about. Sometimes debates in other fields, not my own, seem trivial, because I am not acculturated into the lore of the field.

Sometimes, the perspective is so limited that more important matters are forgotten. I am very guilty of that myself. For example, I should have probably spent more time in Apocryphal Lorca explaining how Lorca's death reverberated in leftwing circles in the 1930s. To me it's such an obvious point that I forgot to give it its proper magnitude and was later zapped by a reviewer. Quite rightly.


It is interesting that "inside baseball" refers both to a strategy of playing the game, an offense based on squeeze plays, stolen bases, bunts, etc... rather than power hitting and slugging, and also to a way of talking about baseball, one that emphasizes the finer points of strategy that the casual fan does not care about. I only knew of the second meaning, but when I looked it up I saw that it was synonymous with "small ball." Granted, small ball can be a thing of beauty on the diamond, with its scrappy, opportunistic quality.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Extreme Nerdview

Pullum Xtreme nerdview. Otherwise known as "inside baseball," or the tendency to address issues using language that doesn't take the non-specialist into account.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Reverse Outline

A post by Tanya on a technique I had never heard of before, the "reverse outline" or "after the fact outline." I am likely to use to use, it, or a variation on it, when i finish this current book manuscript. The idea is to take a large project and construct an outline of it after the fact, looking at each paragraph and its central claim, then using that as a tool to reorganize and streamline.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How To Maximize Your Chances of Rejection

Here's how to have an article rejected.

Have a very skimpy bibliography. Nine items is enough, especially if it is a canonical work with hundreds of articles that might be cited. Don't quote anyone on the editorial board of the journal. People hate to have their work cited. Don't engage in dialogue with the field. You know best.

Submit a 10-page course paper or a 50 page dissertation chapter, unrevised.

Don't bother with a cover letter. The editor will never read it anyway.

Don't follow MLA style; the editor will recognize your brilliance and fix the format for you. Don't bother looking at the guidelines for authors before submitting. That would be a waste of time.

Don't familiarize yourself with the journal beforehand, looking to see what kind of things they like to publish. Journals are pretty much all the same. Submit an article on an obscure writer to a journal that only publishes on the canon.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Happy Writer / Dealing with Rejection

Maybe I'm not the best person to talk about how to deal with rejection. I've only been rejected by five or six separate journals. Really crappy journals have not rejected me, mostly because I don't submit to them very much, so I've only been turned down by the best. There are only two journals that I've tried but have yet to accept me. What pains me more is that two of my best articles were never published at all.

So how to deal with rejection?

The first thing to consider is that nobody sees on your cv a list of rejected articles. Someone reading a cv only sees what you've published, not the fact that you might have had some rejections along with way.

Secondly, nobody has a 100% percent acceptance rate. Not me, not anyone I know. The closest I can think of is my brilliant spouse.

If you submit to very good journals, your acceptance rate will go down. About 80% of my rejections have been for PMLA and Hispanic Review. So if you submit to very good journals, you have to expect rejection and not take it as a big deal if you are trying to get into prestigious journals. Even a very good article might be turned down.

Sometimes a journal was correct to reject you. I know that's true in my case. At one point I got complacent and started to send things out that weren't very polished. The field, in its collective wisdom, quickly told me not to do that.

The journal does not care about you. It is not a personal rejection. It is a rejection of your work. I know that still feels bad, but it is rarely personal.

Eventually, if you do good work, you will get accepted. Later on I will tell you how to submit an article to maximize your chances.