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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, November 30, 2011

Writing in your head

Suppose you were writing a book review. If you are anything like me, you would be thinking about what to write as you read the book, with actual words, phrases and even sentences forming in your head. Writing,then, is a mental activity. you have to write it down to know what you have, and also so as not to forget it, but the main work takes place in the brain.

I only point out something so self evident because I think the writing down is an obstacle for some. the student who can talk but not write, for example. I think that I could write just as well by dictating my words as by typing them or composing with pen,
When I write a poem, I think it up in my head and write it down later.

So perhaps the issue is one of memory. A working memory so weak that it can contain only a few words at a time?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Getting Better At It

If you write every day and use some form of deliberative practice, in which you think consciously about what you are doing, then you ought to be getting better at it. Writing well should get both faster and easier.

I say this because there is a common view that writing never gets easier, that true improvement is not possible, or that the first draft will always be crappy even for a good writer. This has not been my experience. I find that my first drafts are better than they used to be, and that my finished writing is more eloquent than it used to be. I still rewrite, but now I am going from good to better rather than from shitty to mediocre.

If the conventional view were correct, then writing would be unlike any other human activity, in which deliberate and intelligent practice leads gradually to improvement.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I am smarter than you

I used to think of myself as very smart. This was a mistake, because what really matters is the ability to communicate ideas, whether through teaching or writing. It helps to have ideas, of course, but there will always be people more intellectually brilliant or more erudite, with more knowledge of philosophy or theory, than me (or you, probably). Some of these smart people write books that I cannot even understand (not smart enough maybe?), but then I wonder... I am fairly smart, so a book I don't understand probably puts itself out of range of large numbers of reasonably intelligent academic readers. Academic writing is already out of range of most of the general public, who read nothing at all. It is usually too specialized to be of much interest, and also very difficult. Often it is not well-written either. It should be possible to write in a way that at least reaches the average academic reader. I'd say even the below average one. You know that half of college professors are in the bottom 50th percentile of college professors? I'd say that something that an undergraduate majoring in your own field could understand might be a reasonable standard.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Outline for Writing Workshop

This is what we decided to do for the writing workshop. My colleague and good friend Jorge are doing this together.

Writing workshop for 11/11/11

I. Time management, writing every day, etc... (JM)

II. Strategies for managing a larger project, working with advisor. (Jorge)

III. The structure of the dissertation chapter and article. Avoiding the data dump (JM)

IV. Model articles. JM and Jorge.

V. Getting publications out of the dissertation. How to publish articles (JM & Jorge).

VI. Some academic writing blogs: Get a Life PhD, Writing as a Second Language, Constructing the Academy, Stupid Motivational Tricks (JM).


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Default Settings

The default font for Word is times new roman. I change my default to palatino, which I think looks better on the screen and page. One journal required me to submit in times new roman, so I did, but I was irritated.

What are your default settings? These might be largely unconscious, so you might not even be aware of what they are. It might be the use of the passive voice: "In this essay it will be shown that..." It might be certain authorial stance, a certain length of paragraph or sentence. One colleague I had once ended every paper with a section titled "conclusion." One grad student in his dissertation introduced the name of every proper name with a qualifier: "Cultural critic Edward Said..." "Literary theorist Jacques Derrida." That was damned irritating.

I distinguish two kinds of default, functional and dysfunctional. A functional one works well for you, like palatino for me. It is a comfortable habit that does no harm and reduces the number of irrelevant choices. I know approximately how long a paragraph I like to write, typically, and I am comfortable staying with that in most cases.

Dsyfunctional defaults are those that get in the way. They are bad habits that the writer is not even aware of. In some cases, like ending every article with a section title "conclusion," there was no real harm done. In other cases, though a default can show a certain unmindfulness. Introducing every single proper name with a description of who they are is irritating, because the writer has not chosen to do so when appropriate. Maybe she was reading too much Dan Brown.*


*The first sentence of a bestselling novel by this author is "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery."

Do You Know Who I Am?

I've received some invitations to be a referee in my email recently. "Hey, we're starting a new on-line journal, if you want to submit articles or be a referee for us... If you want to be a referee, send us your cv."

My reaction, always, is to delete the message. Why? I have enough peer-reviewing to do already. I can publish, myself, in better journals. Being a member of an editorial board or being asked to referee a certain article in my speciality is fine, but I don't need to send you my cv to referee for you! I am an established, senior scholar in my field at an R1 institution and if you are contacting me at all to do peer reviews you should know who I am.*

The journal in question who most recently contacted me requires that their referees simply have a PhD and be college faculty. (Any idiot can get a PhD.) There is no effort to get the most qualified referees, merely a mass email sent, I presume, to many, many people. This particular journal did not seem to be scam or one that required a submission fee. That is all the more unfortunate. If someone is starting a legit journal, they should contact distinguished scholars for the editorial board, not a random group of no-name referees.


*"Do you know who I am?" is always an assholic thing to say. I apologize for sounding like an asshole in this post. Even if you feel the urge to say that, don't say it. Ever, Even if the person who's irritated you deserves this response, you will still be more of an asshole than that person, who is simply dumb, rude, or ignorant, but is not the arrogant jerk that you are.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Socratic Teaching

The Socratic method involves some complications. Ideally, it would be the method I always used, but I find myself sometimes lecturing, sometimes doing the group activities that the students like, sometimes using Socratic questions but not doing so well with them. I think if I outline the problems I am having maybe I will find a solution.

The instructor in this method either does not know the answers to the questions or pretends not to know, or knows but isn't saying yet. The Socratic method for a discussion often becomes a guessing game or fishing expedition rather than a true discussion. Socrates himself badgered his interlocutors until they came up with his own conclusions. The Socratic method is ineffective if the results are those reducible to matters of fact. It only works when the true aim is to teach the students to think better than they do, and where the students could conceivably come up with answers surprising to everyone in the room.

Students sometimes don't have enough to say. They need the questions in advance. Even graduate students, who you would expect to be able to discuss a text just by virtue of having read it, need a lot of initial prodding or advanced preparation.

The gap between the professor and the students can be too great. There has to be way of finding a middle ground, taking the students beyond the kind of answers they would typically give by prodding them a bit.

Finally, the language issue. Students don't feel that they can express their ideas in Spanish. What they say is often unclear, simplified, or otherwise modified by a process of interior translation.

Using a timer to incorporate research into the work day

I am unusual, perhaps, in doing research and writing at my desk in my office at school during normal business hours. A lot of people I know think that you have to work only at home so you won't be bothered, or only in the evening. I've started using a pomodoro timer, which has several advantages. You can focus intensely for 25 minutes at a time on a specific task, and you can also keep track of how much time you spend on something. Yesterday, for example, I spent 1 session of 25 minutes on class preparation, 1 on my book Lorca: modelo para armar, and 5 on a panel reviewing grant applications. I also read a paper for an independent studies course, met with the student in question, taught my class, and a few more things. The point is, I worked in 1 session on the book (as I've already done today). On a day I didn't teach (Monday, I devoted 3 sessions of 25 minutes to that same book, accomplishing quite a bit and coming up with some ideas I hadn't thought of before. You might say 25 minutes is barely enough for a day, and I would agree with that. It is infinitely superior, though, to zero minutes. If I can manage to do double or triple or quadruple that, on a few days a week, then I will make substantial progress.

The pomodoro timer comes with breaks between the sessions. I set mine for 7 minutes rather than 5, because I have enough time. The energy is more lacking in my case, especially since I've been sick and also have undergoing a major personal crisis. I'll be on campus 11 hours today, so I should be able to squeeze in a few more sessions of pomodoro devoted to class preparation and other tasks I am behind on.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I recently came across a paragraph that included phrases like the following:
To the foregoing roster of the transformative implications ...

... I now want to add, and devote the rest of this essay to unpacking, one last matter, the question of ...

What follows wishes to bear out the claim that ...

And thus from here—counter-intuitively enough, from the ...

I wish this kind of writing were absent from academic prose, but it is very common. The problem is that people who begin sentences with "what follows wishes to bear out the claim" are those charged with teaching others how to write and think clearly. I advise against including strings of words that don't say anything. Signposting is one thing, but doing it with so little grace is inexcusable.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dissertation Chapter

The nuts and bolts of the dissertation chapter. Are they the same as those of a 7,000 article?

You might think of the dissertation chapter, which is 40 pages not 20, as the double of the 6-7 thousand word article. Since they are longer, they tend to be less readable, harder to get through. What makes them longer, typically, is the kind of work that shows the committee that the dissertator knows what she's talking about. Longer literature surveys, more background material on socio-political context, plot summaries...

The basic structure, however, can be the same. The tasks for the introduction are identical. The chapter will require 3-4 sections in the body of the text, only these sections will now be longer. The challenge is one of elegance: it is much harder to move gracefully in a longer piece with more assigned tasks.

Nuts & Bolts (ii)

Every kind of paper has its nuts & bolts, its most logical and conventional organizational structure. Once you figure out what that form is, you can master it.

Now I imagine that you probably also want to learn how to write papers that do not follow a structure like that. For example, I would be very bored writing poetry analysis poems in which I always analyzed four poems. My recent paper "What Lorca Knew" does not follow a conventional structure. What I see more often, though, is someone struggling with basic mastery of the forms themselves. Their papers are not unconventional because they are innovative or creative people, but because they simply don't know what they are doing yet. The don't even realize that there is a form already developed by other people, that would be highly appropriate for what they are trying to do.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Nuts & Bolts

The writing philosophy below dates from 2002, and I still agree with most of it. All of it really, but today I would add other things and de-emphasize some points.

I also have a document on "Nuts & Bolts of Analytical Papers." It is oriented toward the mechanics of writing about poetry, how to organize a paper on this subject, but it also has lessons for other types of papers. I am too lazy right now to type it all out for you, but maybe I will later.

How would you write a paper / article on a novel, for example?

The introduction would have to include the following: a contextual framing of the novel. Who wrote it, when and where, why it is significant. What the novel is about. Where it takes place, who narrates it, what the central conflict is.

What the critical problems are that need to be resolved. What some other critics have done with the novel and how relevant that is to the approach being taken here.

A thesis statement, defining the approach taken here. If you have an excellent thesis, chances are you have an excellent paper.

Body of the paper.
Don't summarize the plot. Every high-school student knows this, but not every dissertation writer does. But... you can use the plot as an organizing principle for the body of the paper. In other words, you can talk about events in the novel in chronological order, and organize your substantive points like beads on thread. By the end of the paper, the reader will know what happens in the novel, even though you have never done a deadly "plot summary."

You will also typically be using quotes from the novel in a similar way. In my document about analyzing poetry, I point out that you should never have a long quotation from a literary work without commenting on it. There should be a certain proportionality between the quotes and the amount of analysis. If you have nothing to say about a quote, why are you quoting it?

Quotes from other critics follow a similar logic. If most of your paper is a response to other critics, your own perspective will be lost. You won't have a "critical voice." You can't let the other critics do your work for you. On the other hand, you have to maintain a dialogue with what these critics have said. That means comparing your ideas to theirs.

Typically, you will want to make three or four main points about the novel. The body of the paper will be about sixteen pages, so you can think o the paper as 3-4 pages of intro, 3-4 pages for each main section of analysis, and 1-2 pages of conclusion.

The conclusion is typically shorter than the introduction, because the tasks it requires are fewer. You don't have to explain what the novel is about, who wrote it. It should not repeat verbatim the contents of the introduction, but rephrase the thesis in relation to the evidence presented in the 3-4 / 3-4 page sections. Don't summarize, but rather explain, extend. The classical conclusion also suggests something already not in the thesis. It reveals the significant implications of what has been accomplished. Something like: if this is true about Galdos's Desheredada, then we will also have to re-evaluate our entire understanding of....

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Writing Philosophy

My colleague had a piece I had written for a writing workshop several years ago, long before I started Stupid Motivational Tricks. She just gave it to. It will be interesting to see whether I still agree with what I wrote.

Writing philosophy

How can we define acceptable writing in an academic environment? There are certain basic norms or conventions to be learned, but merely following basic guidelines is not sufficient. You also need to develop your own sense of style or "writing philosophy." I have articulated my own below, but this is only an example. Other faculty members will have other approaches.

Good writing, for me, packs a rhetorical punch. It has to have a rhythm in the unfolding of sentences and the development of ideas, carrying the reader forward toward an inexorable conclusion. I want what I write to be concise and rich in information. I value clarity, but not at the expense of complexity. My prose should correlate strongly with my stance as a literary critic: dull, lifeless writing can actually undermine my arguments.

I strive for "vertical integration," that is to say, the well-articulated connection between a conceptual scheme, or theoretical framework, and specific details or examples. Some people are more comfortable with concrete details; others are more abstract thinkers. The integration of these two styles is extremely difficult: few people are equally at home with abstract and concrete thinking, and fewer still have learned to integrate these styles.

Whenever possible, I avoid empty words like theme, important, diverse, and interesting, or critical clichés like "this book makes a significant contribution to the field." (You might want to make your own list of words to be banished from your writing.). I dislike trite puns and the typographical clutter caused by parentheses within words: "the ca(n)on of (con)temporary literature." I make a distinction between technical terms and "jargon." Call a metonymy a metonymy, if that's what it is, but don't use jargon in order to strike a posture or to call attention to your own cleverness.

That being said, there is no single standard for good writing: develop you own preferences by reflecting on the qualities you most admire or dislike in the writing of others. You should have a few favorite writer-scholars. Listen carefully to what others say about how you write in order to ascertain whether you are meeting your own goals.

Grammar Lessons

Grammar on the other hand...

My course is advanced composition and grammar. The students are getting to be good writers, but they still make far too many grammatical mistakes. Once again, I am motivated to teach grammar because I am interested in language and linguistics. My students are interested in grammar in the sense that they want to eliminate mistakes from their Spanish, but they are not interested in grammar itself. I usually devote Tuesday to grammar and Thursday to composition, and the Th class tends to be more fun and interesting. When I correct compositions I tend to want to get the grammar out of the way, cleaned up, so that I can concentrate on issues of composition.

Composition Lessons

Although I don't enjoy every aspect of teaching Spanish composition, I am interested in it because of my commitment to my own writing, and to improving all of YOUR writing. I think I am doing a better job teaching it this semester than ever before, mostly because I've been able to tie it into my own personal goals. Today for class I am making a handout with the best sentences (or clusters) of two or three sentences) that I could find from all their compositions. I realized they had all improved to the point where I could include almost everyone. This is the revision of the fourth composition, and I used an idea suggested to me by the profacero blogger: can thoughts and actions ever coincide? (This turned out to be a kick-ass topic, by the way, although some students did more with it than others.)

This exercise teaches me to see the students themselves as writers (at various stages of development). I've trying to get them to define realistic goals for themselves as Spanish majors. They won't have perfect Spanish, but they should be able to write clearly, coherently, with varied vocabulary, just as they should be able to speak the language with a decent, but not perfect accent. In other words, they should be pronouncing the language correctly more or less, even if you wouldn't mistake them for native speakers. In their writing, they should be able to express their ideas, even if they continue to make some mistakes in grammar.

In class, I'm going to have them make only positive remarks about one another's sentences. Negative critique is much easier, and the composition teacher himself (me in this case) can fall into the habit of mostly pointing out things that are wrong. Praise can sound very empty when it is not specific, so I will force the students to come up with very detailed explanations of why the sentences are praiseworthy.

Models for your own writing should be realistic ones. You can learn from reading García Márquez or Borges, but you aren't going to write like them as a Spanish major. The textbook I am using has some examples written by real students, but they are mostly very bad. I am proud that my students write better than that.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Spanish Professor

Part of my image of myself as a writer and scholar depends on my ability to function as a scholar in Spain: to give talks there, to maintain correspondence with Spanish academics, to write in Spanish and publish articles and reviews written in Spanish. Even though the bulk of my works are in English, I still need to feel that I can write in Spanish when called upon to do so.

Other components of my identity include a certain relationship with poetry. I need to feel that I can write a poem when I want to, even though I don't teach "creative writing." And even write a poem in Spanish.

It is also important for me to own fountain pens.

I discover, then, that I need to cling to certain features of my identity as a writer that might seem inessential. I write my scholarship on the computer, mostly in English, and entirely in prose. Yet my image of myself as a writer is one involving Spanish, poetry, and fountain pens. Hmmm... I'm not sure how to explain this. Perhaps there are certain markers of identity with a symbolic importance.

Emulating Bad Models

If you take as your model a kind of standard academic prose, without really considering whether you, personally, really want to write like that or not, you will end up imitating the worst aspects of the prose in your own field. That is why it is important to emulate particular models of good prose, rather than unconsciously writing in a style that you assume will be an acceptable default.

If you write a kind of generic acadamese, you will still be able to get published, You will fit in, more or less. But you will never take that next step. You won't receive compliments on your elegant writing. Nobody else will take your writing as a model for their own.


What is generic academese? Lots of passive voice and long words. Inelegant signposting. Vagueness. A "written" quality far from any language used in real speech. A lack of personality or of a distinctive "voice." Numerous quotes from other scholars who also write indifferently.

The Image of Yourself As Writer

Following up a theme I've developed here recently, I'd like you to visualize your image of yourself as a writer.

Roland Barthes talks about André Gide and the image of the writer, a kind of conventionalized topos that, according to Barthes, was a little old-fashioned: he couldn't imagine a young kid wanting to grow up and emulate Gide. If you look at Woody Allen's recent picture "Midnight in Paris," you see a kind of image-repertoire of the writer in cartoonish form.

The point here is that you might carry in your mind a stereotype that doesn't correspond to your own identity. You might not have a tweed jacket with elbow patches, or be able to picture yourself in one. I certainly couldn't. You have to imagine yourself as a writer, and that might entail a revision of your image of what a writer looks like.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Shameless Bragging

I will have published four articles and one book review in calendar year 2011. Our (all but non-existent) merit pay is based on the calendar year (strangely), so I think that this is an extraordinarily good year. Only 2009, when I published two monographs and one article, was better.

(And perhaps 1990 and 1994, when my two other books came out. In 1990 I also published in MLN.)

Even two articles a year is considered very good in my particular field. We don't tend to collaborate with dozens of other scholars at once or spin off endless short papers from the same experiment, so we don't produce paper after paper. If a tenure candidate had 12 articles in 6 years (plus an accepted book ms.), that would constitute a very strong case. Or if someone retired after a forty year career with 80 articles, that would be a pretty distinguished scholar. Two monographs (+ 8-12 articles posttenure) is the standard for promotion to full professor at a research university.

As I've argued before, it is actually harder to do a little bit of scholarship than to do a lot. If your aim is to produce and publish one article (on average a year), then it might be very difficult. The article might stall in the writing phase, or be rejected. It isn't likely to be as good, because it does not flow out of a more developed research program or a well-maintained scholarly base. Someone who doesn't have time for research during the academic year has difficulty switching gears in the summer and getting his fountain pens cleaned or removing the rust from her prose.