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April 27, 2006

Lunchtime wisdom

Over lunch today, Derek and I developed a new mantra. I have many of them, accumulated over the years, and each new one is like the click that I feel when I finish a crossword puzzle. It makes everything fit together just a little bit more. This may be an obvious one, but hey, we were pleased with it:

The opposite of good writing isn't bad writing; it's not writing.

That's all.

April 26, 2006

The Vice of Loyalty

I've been meaning to blog this for a few days now. It's been a while since I dialed up the ol' Chronic-what?!-le of Higher Ed, and last week, when I did, I happened across a little ditty by Jason "Not His Real Name" Stone, called "The Price of Loyalty." Therein, the good Prof. Stone bemoans the fact that he now makes less money than a colleague of his who, although hired at the same time as he, tested the market, got a counteroffer, and a significant raise ensued.

Now, being a junior faculty member, I will confess that I am still learning the politics of salary negotiations, counteroffers, and the like. But here is how I see it: My productivity and loyalty to my department are not being rewarded; my salary will stay the same. My colleague, on the other hand, will be making several thousand dollars more than I do simply because he played the game.

In a sense, I'm being punished for loyalty to my department, and he is being rewarded for his lack of same. Ever hear the saying "Nice guys finish last"?

To be fair to Stone, there are probably a lot of people out there unaware of how frequently this happens, how there are certain people far more willing to play this game than others, and how the reward system in academia actually encourages this kind of mercenary-ism. Those people, as Stone notes, are paying the "loyalty tax." It was really driven home for me the first time that I saw an assistant professor being hired at a higher salary than I was currently making, which implied that my years of service were less valuable to me than procrastination would have been. (That's not quite accurate, but from the perspective of a relatively new assistant prof with a mountain of debt, that's how it felt, certainly.)

I've made no secret of the fact that that I'll be on the market in the fall--beginning this summer, I'll be going up for tenure, and considering that it's possible that Syracuse would choose not to renew my contract, searching for another position is the only sensible option. Considering that it's possible that Syracuse will renew my contract, having offers from other schools is the only sensible way to provide myself with negotiation leverage.

It's a little daunting, I suppose, to realize that next year at this time, I will either be leaving the ranks of the untenured, or leaving the ranks of Syracuse altogether, but if there's one thing I don't feel about this whole process, it's disloyal. I'm really a pretty loyal person, but I'm loyal to people more than I am to places, and certainly more than I am to institutions. I am grateful to every institution that's supported me, I suppose, but I don't feel awkward about saying that they probably got the better end of the deal in each case. Honestly, I feel as though I have been loyal in about the same proportion (and often more) than my various institutions have been to me.

Michael Bérubé has a nice reply to the recent DOE "report" blaming rising college costs on tenure, and this despite the fact that the number of full-time faculty has dropped substantially in the past 20 years, and faculty salaries rarely keep pace with inflation from year to year. Worth a glance is his parody of the attitudes that are at play in misleading, nonsensical junk like the DOE report. What's neither nonsensical nor misleading is the fundamental disloyalty involved in that mindset, though. Reading reports like that are what make me scoff just a little at Stone's essay. I don't fault him for his naivete, because I think our institutions benefit from keeping us in the dark about the tenure process, about each other's negotiations, and about just how loyal they actually are or aren't when it comes to our continued employment.

I certainly don't mean for this to sound like I have anything against SU, because I don't. I'll have to weigh my feelings about Syracuse if/when I have to make a decision about where I'll be in 07-08, but choosing to give myself options, to me, isn't an act of disloyalty.

That is all.

April 25, 2006

The dreams are not your friends

I'll forgo any discussion of how wacked out my sleep schedule is--suffice it to say that I'm waking up for the day right now. Yesterday was a long day, a combination of my wonky schedule with some department obligations.

So I slept a little more than normal, and as often happens when I do, I did a little vivid dreaming. Not that this is strictly relevant, but for as long as I can recall, I've dreamt in color, and while I go through phases, I usually can remember dreams pretty well. My dreams also tend to be heavily synthetic, bringing together people, places, and issues from my whole life in odd ways. It's not all that unusual, for example, to find a colleague suddenly married to the junior high school bully, or whatever.

So last night, there were 2 main people besides me in my dream, one whose house I was visiting, and another who I was supposed to meet there and do something with. These two people, in addition to not reading my blog, to my knowledge have never met nor ever lived in the same city, but there you go. Anyhow, Friend 1 lived in a house-ish place, in the middle of a big city (might have been NY) that was the size of a city block, and had an interior park, which is where most of the dream took place. My visit coincided with some sort of office party that my friend was hosting, and so I spent the majority of the time having really awkward conversations with (mostly) people I didn't know (there were a couple of random people from other times in my life who miraculously worked at Friend 1's office, of course). As this was going on, apparently Friend 1 decided to ditch on the party, as I surface from one awkward conversation to find a bunch of the people, including Friend 1, gone.

And in the dream, this isn't a big deal, because Friend 2 is coming in a few minutes, and we're supposed to go out and do stuff. So there's some weird stuff that goes on with multiple showers, rooms within rooms, Escher kind of stuff, but everything goes fine. Then Friend 2 arrives, with 3 other unknown people in tow, and I'm invited to join them as 5th wheel on their double date. I go ballistic, and get into a really nasty shoutdown with Friend 2, and end up basically leaving. I'm not big on the walkout, but I have been known to employ it, and apparently here, I do.

I woke up not long after that, so at least I got some closure, I suppose. But the thing is that I woke up kind of angry at both Friend 1 and 2, and that's what makes me feel a little uneasy. I'm mad at them for stuff that I dreamed. And rationally, I know that there's no justification for how I feel, and it'll fade in a couple of days, easy, but still. I know pretty much what the dream is about, and I have a solid sense of what all is contributing to this kind of dream--I could even work up an educated guess about why Friends 1 & 2 were the ones my unconscious chose to express this stuff.

None of it quite dissolves the unhappiness I feel at 2 of my friends right now, right or wrong.

That is all.

April 23, 2006

At a breakneck pace

It would be nice if I could honestly say that this is the speed at which my revisions are going. They're coming along pretty well, but I always want my writing to go faster.

No, the title is more a reference to the fact that, two days ago, I woke up unable to turn my head to the right. Turns out I sprained a something-or-other in the right side of my neck. And then, a day later, after holding my head stable to keep it from making me cry, I apparently overtaxed a muscle on the other side of my neck. Fortunately, the pain has softened a bit, even if it's spread out all over, and double fortunately, I've been slapping IcyHot patches back there every 8 or so hours, and that's helped.

It's made it a little tougher to sleep, which has correspondingly made it tougher for me to focus when awake, but oh well. What are you gonna do?

That's all.

April 21, 2006

The Rhetoric of Rollback

I don't have a great deal to say about this, but lately, I've been somewhat fascinated by the resignation of Scott McClellan. In particular, I'd like to recommend to you Jay Rosen's analysis of McClellan, whom Rosen sees as a crucial figure in what he calls the "Rollback" of media privileges at the current White House. Let me quote at length (although there's plenty more where this came from):

McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?

You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are so large to start with—then to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw presidential power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.?) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press!

What's fascinating to me about this is how the WH has (successfully) undermined something that many of us in rhet/comp simply take on faith--the value of effective communication. Of course, one could argue that McClellan was wildly successful and effective in his (non)communication. But there's something deeply cynical about this, and directly at odds with the optimism necessary to teach writing (or speaking, for that matter). We have to believe that the skills and talents necessary to communicate well will ultimately carry their own rewards. Goodness knows, it's difficult enough to teach what is perceived as a contentless course without having that fundamental optimism thrown into question.

And I don't mean to suggest that we should all now experience existential crises because of one demonstrable moron, regardless of how centrally placed McClellan happened to be. The larger pattern includes a lot more people who were hired by the current WH not because they were in any way qualified but because they assented. McClellan's just one of many.

At the same time, though, when I think what a blow this administration has dealt to the idea of reasoned discourse, the idea that we can and should communicate with one another, and that we should make a good faith effort to persuade and to be persuaded--when I think of that blow, it makes me a little sad. I know that, as ideals go, this one is pretty impossible, but it's one of the ideals that underlies our society far more than I think we sometimes realize. As we teach our students to write themselves and the world, we do so with an ethic that is undercut both by the idea that "McClellan was there to make executive power more illegible" and by the fact that no one really ever called the WH on it, not the press, not those of us interested in rhetoric, not the general public.

Anyways. Anyone interested in contemporary rhetoric and particularly political rhetoric should zip over and bookmark Rosen's column.

That is all.

April 18, 2006

Slow to reply? That's why.

I'm making what I consider to be excellent progress on one front this month, and that's the revisions to my manuscript. I'm still planning on having the whole thing new and improved by the end of the month, and with each passing day, that goal seems more and more realistic. I can't tell you how delightful it is to have a writing goal not only seem realistic but to be such. It ends up carrying its own momentum from day to day, and that's the way writing works best for me now.

The downside of this newfound productivity is that I'm being particularly mercenary about the rest of my life, only surfacing occasionally, and really, being pretty unapologetic for this. I trust that those of you reading this, and expecting something from me, will understand. After months of trying to squeeze my writing into a full-to-bursting schedule, and slowly feeling the clouds of an imminent tenure case approaching, I've simply reprioritized for a spell.

The blog, it understands, if begrudgingly.

More to today's point, I resurfaced briefly to attend the awards ceremony for the Graduate Education Award I received. I'll point to the picture when it's up, but I did want to mention that maybe the single most important thing about these kinds of award ceremonies to me is the fruit spread. Not that I can't go out and buy a bunch of fruit, but I tend to buy it one at a time, given that I live by myself. So canteloupe one week, grapes another, etc. Today, I got to load up my plate with a variety.

There's something vaguely unsettling to me about launching into an encomium on the fruit plate, but I'll leave it there. Let it stand as a reminder to anyone whosoever might think about inviting me to give a talk on their campus. A variety of fresh fruit could very well cover for a multitude of sins.

Just don't invite me to do anything this month. That is all.

April 17, 2006

News Flash: Yale Cares!

It's hard not to approach this story from today's IHE, Finishing the PhD, with bemused snarkiness. The story is about Yale's current attempt to streamline its doctoral programs:

Currently, Yale does better than most institutions, with humanities doctorates (which in national comparisons tend to take longer than other disciplines) finishing in just under seven years on average, but Butler said he would like to see that figure closer to six.

Reading accounts like this are like watching from afar the inbreeding of European royal families or reality television celebrity for me. It's so distant from my own experience as a grad student at two different schools and a professor at another two. At these schools, 3 of which have doctoral programs, 6 years would have been considered a borderline problem, not an average to work towards. In some ways, this speaks, I suppose, to the implicitly classed nature of the field I'm in, but stories like this, where the Ivies stumble upon stuff that we out here in the sticks have been doing for years, makes me smirk.

Let's see:

  • Students finishing in less than six years (Check)
  • "good adviser-advisee relationships are established in the first two years" (Check)
  • "early on, students...plan an intellectual agenda" (Check)
  • "focus on preparing students for the job market" (Check)
  • "integrate students into professional life sooner" (Check)

And I could go on with all sorts of features that aren't in the article itself, like the ethics of allowing program size to be determined by departmental labor needs or faculty-student ratio, for instance. By no means is our own program perfect, but articles like these, about programs like these, makes me sympathetic to those students who attend institutions like Yale expecting graduate education and receiving instead an education in the corruption of graduate school.

While I'm not a big fan of discussions of accountability, which are too often initiated by people whose motives are less than pure, it's hard not to look at situations like these and to believe that what they need are some standards for program performance and corresponding incentives, both positive and negative, for meeting them.

That is all.

April 13, 2006

Black Swan Blogging

Spencer has a post from near a week ago now where, in part, he talks about the difference between revising and rewriting. I take the former to be much more modest in scope, a tweaking of a basically stable text, while the latter, as Spencer observes, is a lot more messy and transformative. When I think back on the writing that I've done that I've considered successful, I can name the places where I did good work revising and also the ones that required rewriting.

I've been thinking about this distinction lately, because I think there's an analogous distinction to be made when it comes to organizations--perhaps someone's already made it, I don't know. But there's a difference between making tweaks to an organization headed in the "right direction" and trusting in its momentum on the one hand, and making large changes or having to generate that momentum on the other. It's not so much that one is right and one is wrong--I can imagine each is appropriate in particular circumstances, just as I've had pieces of writing whose needs for revision or rewriting have varied widely.

Problems emerge, though, when there's a clash between perceptions, when one person looks at a situation and sees "revision" while another looks at it and sees "rewriting." For the record, I'm neither person in this example, at least initially, but this is an oblique way of getting around to the fact that I've been sitting on my hands for the past week or so. I've been specifically not blogging what I hold to be a fairly important situation occurring in the background right now, and I say this knowing that some of my colleagues who read this may be after me to tell them what I'm talking about. Some of them will already know, and everyone else will just have to trust that I'm being intentionally careful for a reason, both here and in general.

This is sometimes the point where those of us who post under our birth names express a desire for a pseudonymous blog, some place where we can write through our thoughts, but that's not the issue here. There is no way for me to talk about the situation without tipping it off, so ingrained is it in our particular context. Instead, all I can do is not blog about it, but doing so makes it harder for me to post about more inocuous topics. Big changes have a tendency to seep into your spare thoughts, and even as I've started a post or two in the past few days, I find my mind drifting back to the big things, distracting me from my attempt to deflect my attention a little.

We don't talk much about the "not blogging" that we have to do sometimes--the examples we hear about blogging are all Dooce and Tribble--when for every person who missteps online, there are probably dozens who exercise judgment or restraint, or at the very least, think carefully about the implications of what they say and don't say in these spaces. A couple of weeks ago, in his CCCC talk, Thomas Rickert referred to Nassim Taleb's discussion of black swans, events that are by definition rare and unpredictable. I don't mean to suggest that showing restraint or good judgment is rare (!!!), but rather that there's something similar to the logic of black swan events and what I'm talking about here. Here's Taleb on our inability to understand risk:

Our system of rewards is not adapted to black swans. We can set up rewards for activity that reduces the risk of certain measurable events, like cancer rates. But it is more difficult to reward the prevention (or even reduction) of a chain of bad events (war, for instance). Job-performance assessments in these matters are not just tricky, they may be biased in favor of measurable events. Sometimes, as any good manager knows, avoiding a certain outcome is an achievement.

Although it's a little misleading to call it "black swan blogging," I suppose, I've been thinking of it in these terms. My own affective experience of "not blogging" is that it's taken a great deal of effort on my part to hold my tongue or my fingers, and yet, the page itself empties out as older entries fade into archive, and it looks like I'm just not engaged. There's a certain degree of engagement that is necessarily invisible, a threshold past which transparency can do more harm than good, and lately, I've been struck by how hard it is to articulate this idea positively. Harder still to recognize it and its value, when judicious restraint and inactivity look the same. Neither is as sexy as tales out of school about job searches and the danger, danger, danger of blogging.

That's all for the moment. Maybe it will have helped me a little to write about why it's been hard to write. We'll see.

April 12, 2006

The blog and I, we


The blog and I, we
Will soon post something better
Than crappy haiku

April 8, 2006

There's a piece of good news for you

I came into the office Friday night to work on the manuscript (it being that time of the year and all), and what should I find waiting for me on my desk but a little missive from the Graduate School. Turns out that I've been selected as one of the recipients of this year's Excellence in Graduate Education Faculty Recognition Awards. Woo hoo!

Nice to be recognized, certainly, but this award in particular is for faculty who contribute by

  • organizing and providing a supportive environment for research and scholarship, including teaching and modeling responsible conduct, careful advising and instruction in teaching
  • enhancing students’ academic and professional skills
  • sponsoring students’ entry into the academic and professional community of the discipline
  • guiding students in administrative, organizational, and professional matters
  • helping students achieve career placement and professional success
  • serving as a role model of successful mentoring and training graduate students to effectively supervise and mentor

That's not a half-bad description of what I've been trying to do as graduate director for the past 1+ years, so I'm particularly flattered by this.

That is all.

April 6, 2006

I knew it

This week's closing moment on Lost? I called it.

Several eps ago, when Hurley and Libby were in the hatch doing laundry, and Hurley asked her if he'd seen her before somewhere, Libby told him that he stepped on her foot as he was getting onto the plane.

Problem was, if he had, then Libby would have been in the front section, not the tail.

Of course, my theory was that Libby was one of the Others, so I didn't quite get it right. But still.

(I know, I know, I should write more about the last couple of episodes.)

April 4, 2006

Dear Dr. Collin,

"Dear Dr. Collin Gifford Brooke, PhD '97,

We are currently in the final stages of editing your biographical information to be included in The University of Texas at Arlington Alumni Directory, but we need your help!"

Umm...yeah. Here's a little story:

When I was doing my PhD in the Education State Texas, not only did I earn less than 10K annually, but we TAs had the distinct privilege of being allowed to pay for our tuition out of that princely sum, a fact that kept me from actually registering for a number of the courses that I took. But we got by, I suppose. What really got me was that there was a rule that, in our final semester of dissertation work, we were required to enroll for 9 credit hours. My final semester, I had already taken a position at Old Dominion. I didn't need the credits for the degree, but hey, it was a rule. And since I was no longer a TA, and no longer living in TX, I got to pay out-of-state tuition for those unnecessary credits. At a time when I was trying to recover from living well below the poverty line for several years, I got to shell out another 3000 bucks.

And so, my "friends" from the UTA Alumni Office, the day I lift a single finger for you, much less sign my name to a check, will be the day after I receive my refund check from you for that last, unnecessary semester's worth of credits.

And not a day sooner. That is all.

299 really rather dull moments

Unfortunately, the NCAA Championship game was dead boring, unless you had a rooting interest in the Gators. Me, I'm glad they won. I like Donovan, and I like their team, but I was more interested in seeing a good game.

All the talking heads were falling over themselves to anoint UCLA the 2nd Coming (or I guess it'd be the 3rd Coming, now, post-O'Bannon), and they failed to observe one simple point. As "great" as UCLA's defense was against LSU two nights ago, LSU actually outscored them in the second half. UCLA didn't need to score, true, but for a long long stretch of that game, they basically didn't score. And so, when for a long long stretch of tonight's game, they basically didn't score, I wasn't really shocked.

I was a little shocked by how much better Florida's interior game was, at both ends. I was pleasantly surprised at how talented Florida's bigs were at interior passing. They have skills, and they deserved to win tonight. UCLA, for all the hype, was exposed as a team that didn't play a serious power conference opponent until tonight (LSU, the 4th or 5th best SEC team, doesn't really count). They got there by beating other good teams (Gonzaga, Memphis) from bad conferences--good on them for getting as far as they got, but they no more deserved to be on the court tonight than LSU did on Saturday. Florida was that dominant.

Two additional notes. My favorite moment of the night came with about 8:55 left, when Joakim Noah walked over to inbound the ball, and the camera caught him winking and flirting with the UCLA cheerleaders. I laughed out loud.

Second, it was a little depressing to me that they couldn't talk about the game for ten minutes afterwards without lapsing into the refuge of the analytically weak: gossip about whether or not the kids at each school will stay or declare for the draft. Really. Pathetic. Give em a little space for goodness sake--they just played for the national championship and the NBA draft isn't for months yet. The most obnoxious part about it was the assumption, on more than one white announcer's part, that Florida's kids were more likely to stay because they all came from families of ballplayers, and thus didn't "need the money." Cuz, y'know, the "kids" these days, they're all about the green.

Sadly, that is all.

April 3, 2006

A new CCR student, Class of 2034

If you haven't already, get yourself over to EWM, and wish Derek all the best for his partner's pregnancy, and his progeny's impending birth.

Me? I'm entertaining myself coming up with the most outlandish names I can think of. Not only would Digby Ignatius Mueller have the advantage of acronyming out to DIM, but nickname-wise, I'd have the rare pleasure of calling him Diggy Iggy. That's the best I've got so far.

You got better? Do share...

April 2, 2006

One Shining Moron

By no means am I the only person sad that George Mason's amazing NCAA run ended last night. But even as I rooted for GMU to figure out a way to win one more, I had to admire Billy Donovan's strategy wherein he basically used the first half to set up what ended up being a blowout. His frequent substitutions ended up wearing down the Patriots, and it showed in the 2nd half, especially with the bigs. Jai Lewis looked a step or two slower in the 2nd half, and missed plays that he was making in the 1st; meanwhile, Florida cruised. Good for them.

LSU embarrassed themselves. Badly. I kept track: it wasn't until 2:39 left in the game that LSU tied UCLA's first-half output, and it wasn't until 1:55 left that LSU exceeded that score. That's right. If UCLA hadn't scored a single point in the second half, they wouldn't have lost the game until the final two minutes. Talk about domination.

Speaking of embarrassment, I think it's time that CBS found themselves a new top analyst. Not only did Packer look like an ass before the tournament and then suffer the indignity of having to call a Final Four involving one of the teams he originally claimed shouldn't have made it, but then there was this little gem. Packer's keys to the games involved 1 crucial player from each side--Glen Davis, who squeaked out 14 points, mostly garbage, on 5-17 shooting, and then Aaron Afflalo, who only managed 9 points on 3-11 shooting. Neither player was a factor at all, and the one who actually got the better stats (Davis, barely) was on the losing side. Thanks for the insight, Packman.

I know that it's hard for the networks now, what with ESPN, but if CBS can borrow Jay Bilas, then why not some of the others who have been covering these teams for the whole season? It's getting to the point where I almost can't listen to Packer anymore--last night, during the second half, during Afflalo's lackluster showing, he actually wasted time trying to rationalize his analysis from the first half. Ugh. For what's arguably the best sporting event in this country, it'd be nice to have something a little more engaging than 4th-rate announcers.

That is all.