Scholarly writing and how to get it done. / And a workshop for my own ideas, scholarly and poetic
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...
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Is teaching "cost efficient"?
The kind of *transactional* learning that occurs in a class discussion, or when a professor gives personal comments to a student she knows in the flesh, is not very cost effective, after all. Perhaps even less so than research. We know the academic institution values teaching less, because when they hire someone to teach with no expectation of research, the salary is much lower on a per course basis.
What I am talking about is something that is already occurring. Once you take research out of the picture, you no longer have the mechanism for training college professors who adhere to the older values of humanism. As the intellectual standards slip, the more education will become more remedial rote work that can be quantified and parceled out into low-paying jobs.
This is a downward cycle, because the stupider people get, the less need they will see for higher intellectual pursuits. The more education will be oriented toward the bare minimum, which will make people stupider, which will make them even more disdainful of intellectual pursuits.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Sometimes I jump ahead of myself and develop my ideas intuitively, before I do my research, so my research is often playing catch-up to my writing. I still am not accurate at estimating how long things will take to do, despite my pretentions as a time-management guru. I am both too rigid with time and not rigid enough. In other words, I will sometimes impose rigid but useless scheduling rules for myself, but at the same time fail to follow more basic principles.
I am somewhat egotistical and conceited in some ways, but yet I find it difficult to do the necessary self-promotion. I can be peevish and ill-tempered. I am prone to sloth, envy, greed, pride, gluttony, lust, ire, and pride, not necessarily in that order.
Some of my research pursues issues of interest to almost nobody except myself. I don't know if that's a weakness or not. Self-absorption? I am a master at that.
That's only a partial list. The purpose of it is not to tear myself down, but to arrive at a realistic sense of weaknesses I can easily remedy and which are more intractable. Which of them are harmless foibles and which are keeping me back in more significant ways. There should be a third category too, of things that are neither strengths nor weaknesses, things that I can do just good enough, but that I don't really need to improve.
The Automatic University
I'm probably just oldfashioned but this vision of the university horrifies me. I was struck in particular by the collage of half-baked ideas gleaned (too quickly, I think) from studies of academic life. Citing that study by Mark Bauerlein about the alleged overproduction of uncited writing, which we've discussed already, Schumpeter argues that
The time wasted writing articles that will never be read cannot be spent teaching. In “Academically Adrift” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue that over a third of America’s students show no improvement in critical thinking or analytical reasoning after four years in college.
But Arum and Roksa showed precisely that only those students who are enrolled in more or less traditional liberal arts programs, where writing is required, showed such improvement. Students who don't write, and teachers who don't demand it, presumably believe that the time wasted writing school assignments cannot be spent "studying"! Better to watch a lot of online lectures and then take a multiple choice exam that a machine can grade.
The automated university-as-a-business that Schumpeter desires fails to valorize the qualities of mind that follow from regular writing practices. A good writer of prose is also a good teacher, and can easily detect good ideas in well-written prose. The regular writer, then, does not need to spend as much time "teaching". The student and the teacher are prepared by their respective efforts to prose the material. A quick bit of interaction. Some simple comments. Even something as a simple as a grade. That's all it takes to move the student in the right direction.
I'm truly afraid of the conception of a university as a machine and of education as something this machine does to the minds of students. Of course, no one is really that evil. Rather, most people see the university as a machine that does something to the resumé of the students. It transforms credentials, not competences. What Schumpeter might mean then is: since students don't learn anything at school anyway, we may as well make it cheaper.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Inventory of Strengths
First, modesty. (That is a joke.)
More seriously, I see nothing immodest about taking inventory of strengths as well as weaknesses. One strength I have is the ability for honest and realistic self-assessment. That is a very significant talent to have. It is easy to puff oneself up or to tear oneself down in a sort of useless way. Real self-assessment is a little more difficult.
I think I am a good writer of prose. I am fairly erudite in my own field, with a very solid scholarly base, and adept at finding questions of significance to tackle. I am intellectually curious and have developed several areas of research that interlock with one another in interesting ways. I am also very independent of trends. I am more likely to influence the debate than to let myself be influenced by others. My perspectives, as a consequence, are independent. I have some ability to think critically and some theoretical "chops."
I am adept at time management and seeing research projects through to their completion, as well as generating new ideas. I can work with speed and efficiency, with no sacrifice of quality. I have no problem concentrating for a few hours and getting something significant done. I am tenacious and not easily discouraged.
Aside from Spanish, I can read a novel in just about any other Romance language (except Romanian). I have a decent knowledge of literature in the English language.
In my teaching I am good at coming up with new ideas for courses and at presenting very complex ideas. I am good at helping students develop their own research ideas. I am a compelling and engaging public speaker. I wouldn't think of using powerpoint in a public lecture.
I have a particular area of strength in mentoring and evaluation. I am good at helping others improve their writing and fulfill their professional ambitions. Some have said that I am "generous" in this area. I enjoy intellectual dialogue, and am a good listener.
I can write a poem better than some so-called professional poets. I am not a bad translator either.
I know how to combine these strengths to produce scholarly work that is compelling, intellectually demanding, thought-provoking, and imaginative. My time is up for this post, and I may have left something out, but it is a good start.
Just as Jonathan once had a low opinion of business-inspired approaches to the writing process, ten years ago I would have balked at the idea of modeling the writing process on an exercise regimen. In fact, I think I even used to explicitly balk at the idea of mens sana in corpore sanum.
But I do also remember, in those same days, beginning to worry about the collective and individual conditions that would be required to makes sense of a book like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Joyce's Ulysses. When I thought about my own work habits and those of my peers (even those of my mentors), and the sorts of poses, affectations, and contortions this produced in seminars and in writing, I came to suspect that it was pretty much impossible to have the conversation that would be necessary to decide what these sorts of books mean. If knowledge of the transcendental conditions of our experience of objects was to be possible at all, it would require minds that were a good deal more disciplined, I had to admit, than mine. By a similar token, I had to grant that a Joycean epiphany might be entirely out of my reach.
It wasn't until I started working seriously with other people's writing, people whose ideas I knew (or at least thought) to be have some rigour, but whose writing was always, it seemed to me, struggling at the edge of their abilities, that I realized that I had to get these authors to practice. I had to get them to see that they had to gain the necessary strength and grace to express the ideas that we had (I thought) been talking about all these years. And having noticed the mote in my brother's eye, I had to recognize the beam in my own.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Now I think that the source of an idea doesn't matter so much. I have my own "business" to take care of. They might need to be adopted to academic realities, but a good principle of work is a good principle, period.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Timeboxing is the technique of allotting tasks to very well-defined and usually short periods of time, or boxes. You might also call it microcheduling. During the winter break I am going to be doing some of that as I work to get a lot done before classes start on January 17. If I can fit in three or four 25-minute sessions almost every day between now and January 17, I could get an amazing amount written.
As the image of Sugar Ray Robinson suggests, I like the pun of "timeboxing." Putting on the gloves and sparring with time itself. A boxing match consists of three minute rounds with one minute breaks.
Jonathan's experiments highlight the importance of what we can accomplish in a very finite amount of time. Recently I've been trying to make a list of things I can do or would like to be able to do with some facility (i.e., ease) in 30 minutes. Things like:
- Run five kilometers,
- Swim one kilometer (I'm now almost able to do this),
- Write a prose paragraph for academic purposes,
- Copy-edit five paragraphs of someone else's academic writing.
The good thing about setting your pomodoro timer and going at some task for 30 minutes* is that gives you a stretch of time during which to focus your efforts. One thing you learn by this means is, precisely, to focus. You also learn how to do whatever it is you're focusing on better. If you go out for a run and always run out of breath after 10 minutes, start going for a 30 minute walk instead.
Many so-called cases of "writer's block" can be cured simply by actually writing for 30 minutes. So you have to have the ability to do that, at will. As I said in my eulogy of Christopher Hitchens's prose, the ability to do something at will implies an underlying strength. And you build up that strength in the same way that you demonstrate it—thirty minutes at a time.
*I'm not using this in the formal way Francesco Cirillo originally proposed but just riffing off Jonathan's use of the computer application. My "30 minutes" does not include the five-minute break, but it certainly could include such breaks when longer sequences (like writing four paragraphs in two hours) are considered.
Friday, December 16, 2011
Results of the 2nd Experiment
Experiment (Part II) How much can I write in 25 minutes
Another title for the book might be "The uses of Lorca." I might use that title if I were to write the book in English. I want to argue in favor of certain uses and against others, but most of all to point out that these uses have both causes and consequences. I believe that the monograph will make a serious contribution to Lorca studies, building on the increased emphasis on Lorca's "afterlife," of which my own book Apocryphal Lorca is a prominent example. Nevertheless, I want to balance the interest in the uses others have made of Lorca to something that I want to call "Lorca himself." Now the idea of constructing Lorca (or Lorcas), obviously is incompatible with the notion of a true Lorca (against which falsifications can be measured). That will be a theoretical problem for me to resolve in the book. What I mean by "Lorca himself" is not Lorca as he really was, but Lorca as I want him to be. A modernist poet comparable to others in Europe, a poet of radical modernist subjectivity, a poetic thinker, etc...
So this book will be about my Lorca. A third title I would use is Mayhew's Lorca. That phrasing puts me, as author of the book, front and center. A fourth title I have used in speaking to myself about the project is even more facetious: Another Damned Lorca Book. This title has two implications: do we "need" another book about Lorca? And do I need to be the one to write it. It turns out that I think the answer to both questions is "yes." My book won't duplicate any other, and nobody (or almost nobody) else could write this book, or one similar to it.
I have great respect for Lorca criticism, especially the work of Luis Fernández Cifuentes, Cristopher Maurer, Andrew Anderson, and Roberta Quance. My feeling, though, is that I also have to "have my say" in a few more books. Part of this is the idea of "dancing with the one that brang you." I owe a lot to Lorca: writing about him was the best thing that happened to my career, and I feel that the good effects will continue for a few more years.
I am interested in the way that hypercanonicity works. Other writers could not be approached as I approach Lorca because their work does not give rise to as many "uses." The order of magnitude of difference is enormous. A hypercanonical writer is subject to constant rewritings, translations, homages, parodies, song settings, political disputes. There is controversy over digging up his bones. The rules change completely: the hypercanonical writer has a biography in the way that most writers do not.
What is distinctive about my approach is that I don't really like the fact that Lorca is so canonical. I don't care for a lot of those disputes, or misuses, even though I find them interesting. I think that if I were more enthusiastic about uses of Lorca I would be less adept at making distinctions between them.
What I have found extraordinary in working on this project is how fast I have been able to develop ideas. I can turn on the computer or the pomodoro timer and the ideas just flow out of me about as fast as I can type the words. I guess all the hard work of being a scholar and professor has given me more ideas than I even knew I had. This is also a sign that the project is going to go someplace and make an impact on the field. I will be blogging about it on both blogs so that you will be able to track my progress as I work. This is a book I wouldn't be able to write if I were not a blogger with great readers.
Results of the experiment
The Twenty-Five Minute Challenge
One of my other ideas here is to refute the idea of a "shitty first draft." I believe that any writer should learn to be able to write serviceable prose on the first try. (Thus I won't be going back to revise sentences, though I will work on improving one before going on to the next.) You might argue that my writing here is "contentless," similar to what I might produce while playing "the complete sentence game." I won't disagree with you, but I don't think that is a serious objection. If I were writing about my own project, I could write nearly as quickly as I am doing here. In fact, I often write two or three hundred words in 25 minutes while using the timer. (Six minutes have elapsed now.)
Another analogy might be jazz improvisation. Of course, you might take several "takes" to record an improvisation that elates you, but suppose that you could only put one of these takes on your record? Then at least one of those takes would have to be something superior to a "shitty first take." I like the idea of rewriting from scratch more than the traditional notion of producing a "rough draft" and then making it better through soul-killing revision. I rarely revise my own poetry, preferring to throw out a poem that doesn't work.
Many academics are not that articulate in spoken language, because of an overemphasis on writing. I think that speech should also be fluent and comprehensible. If you can't produce such speech, then you might not be a good writer either, because you won't produce a steady stream of comprehensible language.
Another issue is speed. Obviously, you can think fairly fast, faster than you could speak, write, or type. My fingers are barely keeping up with my thoughts. More accurately, they are not keeping up at all. I think a sentence in my brain, then type it, and this process slows me down immensely. So, if you know what you are going to say, you should be able to write as fast as you can type.
Now the problem is that, quite often, you don't know what you are going to say. Writing is the process of finding out what you really want to say. I have avoided this problem here because I am simply writing down thoughts that occur to me rather than attempting to produce a piece of publishable scholarly prose. I would insist, though, that the same process is at work either way. If you have thought a lot about your subject matter, at some point you should be able to write about it fluently, as a student is asked to do while taking an exam. Think of it as "taking an examination on your project." The essay question is to explain your project, and you have x amount of time to do it. What would you write? Here you don't have the option of writing a shitty first draft, because the examining committee is going to grade you on it. Your prose will not be deathless (who's is?) but it has to say what you have in mind and do so in comprehensible form.
At this point, I have seven minutes left. I often say that I can work for very small amounts of time on my project and still get something done. I have almost no minimum time that I think is "too short" for me to produce some prose. So this last paragraph or two will be a test of this principle, even though I find that I have very little left to say. Think of routine types of writing like email messages. Mine are carefully worded when they have to be, but I write them quickly because I don't feel they require more time, as long as they are careful enough and express what I want to say. I'm sure everyone does this kind of writing without stressing out too much over it. Blogging is another example, since I often write a blog post about as fast as I can type. I believe that blogging has given me greater facility in writing.
I think the idea of "facility" is greatly underrated. If you can write fast without glibness or facility in the negative sense (of being glib and facile), isn't that preferable to writing with great pain and suffering. People who write without facility often produce a good, but "cramped" style, in contrast to the fluency and grace of better writers.
As the last minute and a half shows up on my timer I wonder what, if anything, this experiment can tell me. I will have a "baseline," in terms of the number of words I can fluently produce in twenty five minutes. In the first comment I will tell you how many words I have written. I might do a follow up to reflect on my experiment, but my time is up right now with six seconds left.
Explaining Your Work
Hitch's 20-minute Prose Form
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Other facets (and a rant)
What I need to do, though, is to have some kind of literary agent who would do the work of getting me permissions (for translations) and publishers, who would send my poems out to magazines to be published, who will politic on my behalf and get me job offers, etc... My research program is just too demanding at the moment for me to do all these other things. Of course, it is demanding because I want it to be. I've reduced some clutter by declaring a moratorium on articles and reviews for the next calendar year.
Once I do get an outside offer to leave my current job, I will take it. You can't insult me by paying me 30K less than the other full professors in my department and then expect me to remain happy with a counter-offer. This is not a question of if but of when, because with my standing in the field there is no way I am not getting another job in the next few years. If I leave and one of my other colleagues, a very good full professor, retires, the department is going to take a serious hit in prestige. It won't be a crappy place, but it won't be a storied Spanish department as it's been in the past, or anywhere close to it.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
I am fairly certain I won't get it if I don't put my name in for it. My department chair has agreed, so I have to line up a few more people to sign the letter.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Now think of the the same actor doing it, but with power point slides projected on a screen. Would the words on the screen add or detract from the actor's performance? If the actor were any good at all, the mere words projected there would certainly detract rather than adding anything. The speech is all about how the audience has to supply the scenery with their imagination, how language works to create mental images: "Into a thousand parts divide one man / And make imaginary puissance." "Think, when we speak of horses, that you see them, imprinting their proud hoofs in the receiving earth." The prologue asks for the indulgence of the audience, because the means by which the spectacle is to be performed are very poor. The stage is a "cock pit" with "narrow walls," while the objects to be depicted are larger-than-life. What the speech implies but doesn't say is that this poverty of means masks the great power of language and voice alone to transfix the public.
Think about this the next time you want to give a power point presentation. Even without being a Shakespearian actor, you could accomplish a lot with the means at your disposal. I do a rousing version of Henry V myself.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Not Doing Research Makes Me Dumber
For me, just reading or "keeping up" doesn't do it. I can't keep up my scholarly base just by mostly passive consumption of primary texts, or the scholarly work of others. I need to be engaged actively and urgently in the production of thought. Of course, the passive consumption still occurs, but for me it is not enough.
I realize that everyone is not like me in this regard. Other people might not need to be on the "edge" all the time, or they may not fear losing it. Some don't have the psychological need to feel smart, or to stretch their brains constantly.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
One More Follower
More on Citation Measurement
If I want to produce new knowledge, I would be better off writing about Gamoneda. But, since nobody else in the US except for me works on this poet, my citations will be very low. Who needs yet another article on Lorca? Well, we could call for a moratorium, but an article I write on Lorca is likely to pick up far more citations. My book on Rodríguez, a major, major figure, has only a few citations, for example.
So the idea that there is too much scholarship, but at the same time much of it gets uncited, is a curious one. An article on more popular topic gets more citations, but contributes less to the field.
I also reject the idea that we should simply stop writing about canonical figures, because they are exhausted. If you look at some of most-cited articles from ALEC, they are very good ones, ones which do contribute new knowledge. In my own work I have shown that Lorca is not exhausted, that everything possible has not been said about his work, ni mucho menos.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I have 50 followers for Bemsha Swing and 49 for SMT. This means that SMT will soon overtake BS as my more popular blog, since a while back I had many more followers there than here.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
My most influential article, one that I know for a fact has defined a debate in my field, has only 13 citations on google scholar. Because of this article, I was well-known in Spain even before Apocryphal Lorca. Many people disagree with this article, but that's ok with me, because you can't be deliberately controversial and then expect agreement.
Some of these citations are me, citing my own article. Others don't seem to be citing me at all, or cite me only tangentially. Apocryphal Lorca has two citations, one from another article by me and one from the introduction to the special issue on Lorca in which my article appears. I guess the impact of this book is also non-existent, even though numerous people have written to me about it, how they have used in their courses, etc...
Monday, December 5, 2011
A New Trend in Hiring
Never mind that you spent time and effort to craft a very careful letter of recommendation that includes all the information, but conveyed with more nuance and art. I noticed this last year or the year before. It never happened to me before.
The Ideal Job
I experience high levels of autonomy in my job. Nobody tells me what I have to write about, and I can design courses of my own that reflect my own interests. Aside from class time, office hours, and a few meetings, I can organize my time however I want. I am trying to think of a job with as much autonomy as mine and I cannot think of one.
Autonomy also brings competence, in the sense that I can be responsible for my own areas of competence, developing them with no interference from anyone else.
Relatedness, in contrast, is a sore point. I have a hard time "relating" to students sometimes (to use a favorite word of theirs). I don't collaborate on research with anyone. I like my colleagues very much but I don't spend a lot of time with them every day. Autonomy and relatedness are inversely correlated much of the time. I value autonomy very highly, but I am suffering a bit from the isolation of academic life, especially since my personal life is rather miserable too.
Why This Is Wrong
I know it takes a long time to get a PhD. But let's think for a moment about what level of erudition it takes to be a "doctor," or learned one, in literature. There are few prodigies in scholarship, because it takes time to absorb knowledge and develop originality. An originality based not on disconnection from the field, but from deep absorption.
Berman also proposes a kind of fixed, lockstep curriculum, streamlined to allow for quick progress. So students would not be exposed to the research of their faculty members (courses based on the interests of the faculty) but a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that would make graduate teaching deadly for all concerned. This streamlined approach would not have allowed Jill and I to do our "poetry and performance" seminar, for example.
In place of a dissertation, Berman proposes three articles. In practice, this would amount to three seminar papers. The so-called PhD would not really be an expert in anything in particular, having written 75 pages rather than 250. He or she would never have been exposed to the original research of the faculty, and so wouldn't have a clue to what research really is.
Why do we elect literature haters to the presidency of the MLA? People who have contempt for the life of the mind? First it as MLP, then Gerald Graff, and now Berman.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
(I found this through Tanya's facebook feed.) I am quoting these habits and then interpreting them for my own purposes.
"Consuming more than you create"
Obviously, as scholars we have to do more reading than writing, in number of pages for example. But an example of consuming more than you create might be spending most of your research time reading and procrastinating rather than beginning to write. The minute I have an idea for an article, I begin to write it. I then read in order to find the answers that I need to include in the article I am already writing.
"Watching your own vanity metrics"
This one stopped me in my tracks. I spend a lot of time tracking blog stats, and looking myself up in google scholar. I am going to stop that right away. No more tracking my downloads on KUScholar!
"Starting the day responding to others"
I do check my email first thing in the morning. It's not a problem, because usually there is not much there. A solution might be to turn email off completely while working on specific tasks, especially writing. I tend to keep the email on all day and respond and/or delete as they come in.
"Prioritizing the wrong activities"
I think I have my priorities straight (though see post below this one). Giving my students my best self and being a productive scholar are my two main priorities.
"Relying on multi-tasking to 'save time'"
I am against multi-tasking on principle. Aside from the email problem, I don't tend to do it. I could solve the email conundrum easily by turning it off and checking it once an hour. I wish I could filter out all the crap the university sends me. KU today, KU this week, message from the provost about this, message from the chancellor about that... The only email I want to get is directed to me personally and relevant to my work or life.
Now make a list of your own ineffective habits that don't appear on this list. I've been able to save a lot of time for the next few months just by doing away with the email vigilance and with the vanity metrics from today on.
How Self-Confident Should You Be?
Curiously, the renewed self-confidence resulted simply from returning to work, after a few months in which I wasn't producing a lot or even trying that hard. My self-confidence seemed to slip during those months. No mystery there. Cut off from the source of my strengths, I began to doubt myself. Sure, I had been able to produce before, but would I ever do so again? Even though the break was a deliberate one, in some sense, and I knew intellectually that I would be able to resume when I wanted, the effect was predictable.
Of course, if you're anything like me, you will be doubting yourself with some frequency. Isn't the book I'm writing just a repetition of what I've done before? Aren't people going to reject this, or be uninterested in it, because most people want to follow the dominant paradigm of Jo Labanyi Spanish cultural studies in which poetry itself is insignificant? Writing another book or two won't get me a better job / salary / a distinguished professorship here at KU, etc... Maybe I don't write well enough in Spanish to write my book about Lorca in that language?
Doubt is useful, I guess, but I would advise that you address doubts as pragmatic problems to be resolved rather than as existential ones. In other words, if you have a nagging doubt, bring it out into the open and see what's going on. A generalized doubt like "I'm not good enough" is largely useless, because it has no practical solution.
Self-confidence is not arrogance, but the necessary fiction needed to get the work done at all.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Preparing in Real Time
This excludes the extra time it takes me to read a lengthy novel, for example. If we are reading 60 pages for a particular day, then I would need an hour to read those pages, and maybe another half an hour to 45 minutes to prepare the actual class.
Sometimes, preparation is quicker because I have materials from previous semesters that I can use. Sometimes, it is much slower because the material is all new. Prep can be broken down into two aspects: knowing the material and planning the actual class.
I can grade x number of papers in an hour. Maybe 1 graduate paper, 2-3 undergraduate papers, 4-6 short compositions, etc...
So finitude ought to be possible with teaching as well as with research. If I teach five hours a week, I can spend five hours preparing and an average of two hours grading. That is twelve hours. Add meetings with students and other extras, like answering emails from them, that is about 15, if I don't have to read novels.
If I were better organized I am sure I could spend less time and be a better teacher than I am now. For example, I often just reprepare a class instead of using perfectly fine material I once prepared, simply because I cannot find it.
I am writing about this because I think that teaching is the missing link in the management of scholarly writing. I hear people say they cannot get other things done because they are teaching, or because the semester is too busy... Even I fall into this trap sometimes. If you treat teaching as a finite activity, requiring a certain number of hours, and you schedule those hours, then you will be able to see what time you might have for research. For example, if you are teaching 3 rather than 2 courses, then my twenty hours might be 30.