Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Writing Match

Whom does it benefit to say writing is hard? asks Dame Eleanor Hull. I am not sure but I can hazard that it mystifies writing and discourages people from trying. I, for my part, caught writing difficulty from Reeducation, according to which writing ease was a sign of poor health. Not wishing to suffer the consequences of poor health, I decided to rid myself of the symptom; I consciously chose to stunt my career and my intellectual growth because the only alternative appeared to be yet more destructive. This was an odd episode although it may be less eccentric than it sounds in the present mysterious shorthand — Reeducation was long the main topic of my weblog but is not the focus of this post, so I will only say that what I learned in it has been analyzed in part by Joanna Russ.

So I have problems around writing with disastrous consequences, but these all started too late in life for anyone to be able to claim these were native to me. I was, after all, the student who would always take an exam over write a paper, because it was more practical, but who enjoyed the papers more; the fast dissertation writer who never had a fellowship such that I had whole days to devote to writing, but was always also working some form of job; the professor on a 3-3 load who sent out at least two pieces a year, and so on.

I learned all the skills I needed freshman year and earlier, and I am more privileged than most because I did have advice from some professors and near professors who were not my professors but who knew what they were doing.

Freshman year there was my dorm, which I have talked about before — the dorm where people were working out physically in preparation for their Ph.D. orals. This building was populated by undergraduates who wanted to practice foreign languages with genuine foreigners, and foreigners who turned out to be advanced graduate students and visiting scholars. They knew exactly what they were doing and they had numerous tasks. They were charged with making good progress to degree but also with keeping up on the news and doing various forms of sightseeing so that people in their countries would be fully satisfied with them. They had enormous calendars on which they would block out their plans: when they would write each paper, when the new movies (banned in some countries) were opening, when they would cross the Golden Gate Bridge on foot, when they would see Point Reyes and Yosemite, when they would visit the wine country and Carmel, when they would ski at Tahoe.

They had to get it all in; that telegram home (there were telegrams then), “graduated first in class,” and the follow-up photograph from Mt. Tamalpais or in Sausalito or North Beach that would go by air mail were all important. And it was quite marvelous and it seems very antique now, but the point is that these people all had calendars where they would block their work plans out. “I must play an examination match against five crafty professors,” they would say, “and I am in training! With this work plan, I will win!

I was of course taking five classes in those days, so I was also playing an examination match against five professors at the end of the term. I was not yet sure I could win, so I decided I needed a calendar of my own. It served me well since I did win my examination match and even a small prize.

More fundamental than this calendar trick, good though it is, were some planning tricks I learned in the sixth grade by interviewing a professor. I had been assigned my first real research paper so I asked a professor how to do it. The professor broke it all down into questions of length and time.

Professor: How long do you have to do this?
Elementary Student Zero: Six weeks.
P: Is there a length specified, or a minimum number of sources?
Z: There is no specified length. There must be at least two and preferably more sources, of which none may be an encyclopedia.
P: How much time do you realistically expect to devote to this project each day?
Z: One hour during school and one hour after school.
P: That is ten hours a week for six weeks. Since you have no specified length, I think one ten hour week should be enough to write it. I think you should make that the fifth week. Then during the sixth week you can write it all out in nice, even writing, and draw any pictures you may want to put in — or do anything else like that that may have come to mind.
Z: Yes, that is a good plan.
P: It means you have four weeks for research, or 40 research hours. In that time I don’t think it is possible to handle more than 10 books. You won’t be able to read them all completely but you may find some that you want to use parts of. You will have to choose the 10 most useful or interesting books. If there are others of interest but that don’t make your cut, you can keep a list of them to use in the future.
P: First, do look your subject up in the forbidden encyclopedia, to get an overview of it. That will be your first research hour.
P: For your second  research hour, search in the card catalogue under subject, phrasing your concept in a few different ways so that you cast a wide enough net. You could try by title and that may yield a few items but it is less reliable, since titles vary so. If you find something you like, you could search later under the author’s name to see if they have written anything else of interest.
P: Perhaps you should plan to do your third and fourth research hours back to back. In the first hour, pull all the books on your list and put them on the table. In the next hour, look at them and choose 10 favorites. Check them out.
P: Now you will have 36 research hours left. You want to save some of this time to think and plan, and you may find you want to trade some of the books in for others, so perhaps you could think in terms of reading in 1 or 2 books a day at first. You will end up spending more time with some than with others. Take notes on the parts you like or find interesting.
P: After three weeks you will have a lot of information and notes. In the fourth week you could start blocking out your ideas and arranging your notes to fit them.  During this fourth week you will be thinking about what you want to say and looking up information to fill in gaps. By the end of the week you will have your writing plan.
P: Then in week 5 you write, and in week 6 you finish, revise, and decorate.

This paper was very successful and strangely, it did in fact turn out to be preliminary dissertation research. And this is how and why everything I needed to know about research and writing, I learned in sixth grade and the first week of freshman year. And that is why, although I may have sometimes had bad circumstances which prevented me from actually using these skills, they are second nature and having this second nature makes me quite impatient with much advice that is bandied about on research and writing.



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Et pour en finir…

The other practical reason I oppose going on about how work is suffering is that it makes for such an unprofessional atmosphere. Graduate students do it, secretaries do it, and instructors do it. Pink collars do it and ladies do it. “Oh, it is so hard.” “We aren’t getting any younger.” “How are you today, dear?” I am a working man; I have never seen tenured professor, no matter how old, go on about suffering; I am not interested in starting.

The janitors don’t do it, the groundsmen don’t do it, and only the most cliquish of professors and administrators do it as some sort of smoke signal to others that they were in on judging some secret matter together. Other people dress professionally, wear good haircuts, take care of their health for the long haul, and do things as efficiently as possible. I understand about not being in a mental or emotional state that allows for that, but I cannot approve of inviting others to share it.

I have a piece of advice for job candidates, too: invent an outside interest or hobby, or at least imagine one you might undertake here. When asked what you like to do for fun, please do not say that fun is not something you do since you are so dedicated to work. It is a really bad sign when people say that. If you truly have no answer it is better is to say something like: “You know, I never did [X], but I always wanted to try it; have you?”


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I keep writing posts on why I dislike teaching foreign languages and then eliminating them, since one of my chairs, my dean and several other such people know where this blog is. However, here is one more issue: the kindergarten aspect of it. 

Portuguese Composition is a senior level course with graduate students in it and many students, including most of the graduate students want to replace serious film with Disney videos dubbed into Portuguese and serious reading with articles from on “relationships” and “codependency.”

I understand that their Portuguese may not really be above that level but the point of having class is to raise it, as I have said. Yet they are in a language teaching methodology course so they know best. Pallas Athena save me from pedagogues.


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5:58 AM and I am still waiting for rosy-fingered Eos to step across the fields. Despite chairing a committee whose charge is to prove to legislators and the public at large that we are working, my personal concern is not that at all since there is no room for doubt.

I am informed that our effective salary cut over the past three years has been 7.5%. This does not include the reductions to retirement contributions by the university, the increase in health insurance premiums, or the further transfer to faculty of departmental operating expenses and routine research costs.

Meanwhile I have one bedroom dismantled. It had just been repaired and repainted from damage sustained in Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and now it needs some repainting again due to damage from Tropical Storm Lee. I haven’t had a chance to do it although men will come to work on the window that storm also cracked tomorrow.

Now the other bedroom is rendered useless as well since my house has been beseiged by trucks the last two nights, with loud generators. They are covered with hoses and labeled Enviro-Compliance, and my street is blocked off by pickup trucks from the electric company. I have no idea what they are doing and I am not sure inquiries would be welcome, since they may be sucking a classified chemical spill out of the ditches.

Fortunately I have a fancy sleeping bag, bought my senior year of college, so I can camp out in the center of the house. I would prefer to be less displaced. But when I am this tired I can tell by my reactions where and when I really think I still am, which is interesting.

The long distance bus that goes along the main road and is labeled Houston, I find myself thinking of as the San Francisco bus because it is going to my right. The students who look to be 23 or 24 years old, I think of as slightly older than me.


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De la Food

In addition to the rumor that I make all my own clothes there is a rumor that I never work out at all, a rumor that I work out a lot, and a rumor that I watch what I eat. I have denied all of these rumors but now, having seen what passes for dinner among some, I see that I watch what I eat, yes. It is truly amazing how highly processed is such a high a percentage of the food ingested by many.


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Monday’s 14 hour day killed me and this was counterproductive. I do not recommend working above 12 hours and really, 11 is the better maximum. You have to keep a good pace, always keep some energy in reserve, never use all the power you have.


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On Men Who Know I Think They Are Buffoons

The reason I think they are buffoons is that they assume women are mentally retarded and hysterical, so they speak to us as though we were.

I never understand this quickly enough. I tend to think they are speaking in this manner because they are low IQ and not very grown up.

By the time I understand the actual reason for their behavior and start to dissimulate, it has usually become clear to them that I think they are low IQ and not very grown up.

Therefore, their feelings are hurt. The solution for them would be to stop behaving as they do in the first place.


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On Class War

Where I used to work there is permanent class war because professors put professional standards above personal convenience and instructors do the opposite. You cannot have a program in that way, especially when the instructors are the more powerful group and have the most backing.

Teaching goal of professors: produce good majors and graduate students.

Teaching goal of instructors: automate classes as much as possible so as to teach as many courses on overtime as possible and make as much possible money in the least amount of time. Also, convince administration to assign them as many upper division courses as possible. According to instructors, a PhD is obtained by doing two years of coursework beyond the MA (i.e. a PhD  is the MA + 30) and its functional equivalent is seniority at the MA level. Therefore, replacement of professors by instructors in upper division courses is reasonable — especially since there are plenty of textbook representatives available to teach them the relevant course content.

The administration’s official goals were those of the professors but their real goals were those of the instructors. The assistant professors with the best pedagogical training were threatening to the instructors and were turned down at tenure time for alleged poor teaching. I think this was far worse than not counting teaching at all for tenure or not caring about it — because this was negative caring.

What other universities do: limit the total number of courses each person is allowed to teach. If you cannot afford to live on that amount of money then you must go into another line of work.

Why we could not do that: there were not enough unemployed M.A.s walking around on the streets to enable us to just hire someone else. We had to let our instructors teach seven and eight courses because if they did not, they could not buy property or new cars. We would become less viable for them and there would be nobody at all left to teach, it was said. We could not simply raise salaries such that instructors would not require so much overtime, it was said.

This last point was valid in its way. Despite what they alleged, instructors did not make much less than assistant professors, who had many more responsibilities and who also had research expenses to cover, so they also deserved raises. Still it would have been more convenient for many had the instructors been paid more so as to feel happier and work with a different set of goals in mind.

The instructors said they put teaching first but this was only because they did not do research or service: they liked saying they were faculty, but they did not actually like the students or the material.

Our academic advisors told us to put teaching last and they did us a great disservice. I already dislike lower division teaching enough;  to have had to listen to so many lectures about how doing it right would hurt my career only makes it more painful. In real life you have to be very much up on lower division teaching and able to effectively defend against these instructors and these kinds of situations in general.

When I think of these poorly informed professors preaching on about this matter I want to push them right off the Berkeley Marina. With a plopping sound they will fall right into the water and then stand there waist deep, looking surprised.



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On Clothes

Sometimes rumors about me get back to me. A current one is that I make all my own clothes. I must be doing so, it is said, because you cannot buy those clothes in local stores and the colors are too right and the fit too good for them to have been store bought at all.

Many of my clothes were in fact bought locally, just not at the mall. The winning dress, however, is a Rützou dress I bought in Madrid, in the Malasaña district to be exact, just off the Plaza Dos de Mayo, spending 100 euros on this least expensive sale item in the store.

I had thought the dress German until this moment but I see it is actually Danish. That explains why it fits me. This dress is made of a silk knit and no, I do not believe in suffering through the use of bad clothes.


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For Whom the Writing is Hard

Jonathan Mayhew I have news for you: contra everything else I have ever said, writing is not fun or easy. It may be for thee and me — or is in my case, when I take the time to do any or have the  peace of mind one needs to think the long thoughts one must in order to have anything new and deep to say. However, I have now verified that we are in a minority and it is because of field. I did not expect this semester to undertake informal research on the difficulty of writing but I have amassed at least some anecdotal data.

I chair a committee which is writing a long document to justify the existence of several entities on campus. We are humanists and social scientists, and each of us is doing research for and then writing several different pieces of the document. I am the editor and compiler.

The humanists chose the more qualitative and philosophical portions of the project. They did the research and wrote their pieces, which needed very little editing. The social scientists chose the more quantitative parts of the project and gathered data, created charts to help them interpret it, crunched numbers and entered things on Excel sheets. Then they struggled with their prose.

Finally they straggled in, with incomplete writing but piles of fascinating data, tails between their legs. “I am so embarrassed. Can you help me make this look better? I have wonderful information and ideas but I will never be able to express myself as elegantly as you and Professor Y.” That they were in this much genuine anguish was extremely interesting.

The most embarrassed and blocked, although not the very worst writers, were the ones with the largest holes in their vitas and I understood instantly: there really is such a thing as a writing problem that is just that — a writing problem, that probably only can be overcome with a get-it-done attitude, really basic decisions about discipline like “I will write for 30 minutes now,” and the acceptance of the fact that for them, writing will just always be hard.

Robert Boice is in psychology and works with social scientists, so I now understand what he means much better than I have ever understood before. There really are people to whom his advice applies precisely. This, of course, only provides further support for my own point: if you are not one of those people, then you really are not one of those people; if the writing problems you have come from another source, you must allow yourself to name the true source if you hope to actually address them.



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