Tip 46: Life, the Universe, and Other Important Things

The Hemingway Conference was amazing. If you get the chance to go in 2012 to Michigan, you should show up. You’ll learn more than you thought there was to know. Much of it will be very useful and it might change the way you view the world.

I was set to write everything I heard, but when my plane touched down in the States, my mother was in ICU. I spent eight hours a day with her for eighteen days. Then she died.

My plan is to write a requiem here, even though Mother did not teach English or college.

But I wanted to post on something I realized this week and that I think is important.

I enjoy The Chronicle of Higher Education’s forums. There is a lot of interesting stuff there and people have the most interesting questions. I learn a lot about the academy in general and things that will help me in particular.

There are some fora that are all about helping you get an academic full-time tenure-track job. They are very useful.

However, some of the forumites believe that a ft tt position is more important than anything else. It trumps being with your children. It trumps being with your family. Tt jobs should never be left except for other tt jobs.

I disagree with that. Some things are more important than a job, even a cream-of-the-crop dream job.

My mother was 16 years older than me. She was one of my dearest friends for about 25 years. And she taught me, through her life, what was important.

My family, my spouse and sons, my parents and siblings, my nieces and nephew, are more important than a tenure-track position. Even one that allows me to work with graduate students and help prepare future teachers. Even one that caters to my desire to learn by paying for tuition and supporting extensive conference attendance.

If I, like my mother, am on my deathbed in 16 years, most of my students, no matter how influenced, will not be in mourning. They will be sad but remain essentially untouched.

My family, however, would notice my absence. They would miss my presence. They would remember me and weep. (No keening, though, since I found out this week that includes drinking the blood of the dead. None of that.)

I would like a ft tt job. I would love to have one where the full range of my interests and abilities was encouraged.

But there is no job in the world that could replace my family.

I am grateful for that fact.

If you have family, I hope that it is the same for you.

Low-Quality Research

I don’t have any high impact journal publications, but I mostly publish what-works articles. That’s the pedagogy of teaching, which is the same stuff that I like to read.

However, The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article on the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research.

It’s worth reading, especially if you also read the comments to get both sides of the story.

Good Information on Conferences for Newbies

If you haven’t done a lot of conferences (or even if you have but are branching out) there are some good posts on conferences.

The Whole Process
Guide for the Conferentially Perplexed can be found by clicking on the link and then clicking on the link with that title at the top of the page. I’m sorry there isn’t a direct link, because it is an excellent source.
It covers:
Getting Your Paper Accepted
Writing Your Paper
Presenting Your Paper
Comments or Questions?
Chairing a Session
What to Expect at the Conference
After the Conference

Types of Papers
Conference Paper Types

Getting Accepted
The Conference Abstract. This is not exactly what I do, but it’s got good stuff in it.

Attending Conferences
How to Productively Attend a Conference, but with a way cooler, but less understandable, title.

How to Attend a Conference by Notes in the Margin blog. It covers conference as party, classroom, social gathering, and vacation. It’s something I think about every time I am at a conference, though not quite in the way described.

Instead, I divide my choices into

If I go to a conference for teaching, then I want to come home with lots of good applications. The session I attend may not intend to be for teaching, it may be about research, and yet I can still use it in my classroom. I had a lot of those at Kalamazoo.

Fun sessions keep me from burning out with information overload. Sometimes they aren’t as good as they appear in the program, but usually they are a relief.

Research. If there is something that is very close to my topics of study, I attend. Even if I don’t want to, I go. You can never tell if that one thought you’ve been searching for will come while someone else talks around the topic. Also you might find collaborators. Certainly you may find new directions in which to go.

Presenting at the Conference
A Guide for Humanities Conferences

The most useful, and often disregarded advice, is to write for an oral medium. Really. It’s important.

Keeping Up With Conferences
How to Keep Track of Academic Conferences Without Losing Your Mind

What are people doing online?

People aren’t reading online.

They’re skimming.

With that in mind, your goal should be to make your text easy to scan.

Highlight keywords*
Use meaningful headings and subheadings
Use bulleted lists
Limit paragraphs to one idea
Use the inverted pyramid, putting the most important information at the beginning
Use fewer words
Use simple, clear language; readers hate marketese and gobbledygook

found on Writing, Clear and Simple

See also Jakob Nielsen’s Writing for the Web tips.

Update: I have added this to the graduate students category because if the students are writing on the net for future schools or employers to read, this is important stuff to know.

Small Conferences’ Usefulness

Why I Attend Small Conferences by Kevin Brown, from Inside Higher Ed has some really good points.

First, I actually get to interact with peers from colleges and universities that are more like mine.

I am able to receive encouragement, support, and constructive criticism on the papers I present. There are too many horror stories of young professors and even graduate students who have been flayed by the questioning at national conferences.

smaller conferences offer opportunities for leadership that national conferences often do not.

One thing I like about the small conferences is that you can get to know people. This allows more collaboration and more contact across schools. That’s a blessing to us and to our students.

Don’t get too attached.

As writers, we value words. We value writing. We especially value our own writing.

That is one reason why it is so hard to get articles back from journals that are filled with red ink. It’s useful. We learn where our sentences weren’t tight enough or our thoughts derailed the topic. But it’s painful.

No, I meant that sentence to be unclear. (Okay, I didn’t, but I don’t have any thoughts on how to say it better.) No, I really liked however at the beginning of the sentence rather than in the middle.

BUT, and it’s a big but, we have to deal with it. Seeing all the ways my paper could be made better, ways I didn’t see on my own, gives me a sense of frustration. Why couldn’t I write it that well to start with? But it also makes me grateful. Someone cared enough about what I wrote to try and help me make it better. Most of the time, they are right. Sometimes it’s just a personal style choice. Sometimes it’s a big deal. And sometimes it is very hard to agree to the changes.

So I am telling you what I am telling myself, as I review all the changes (100s- Am I really that bad a writer?) for an article. The point of the article is to share what I know and to get published. Don’t get too attached to the language you used to originally make your point. If your point gets made more effectively and more efficiently, isn’t that better?

On Writing Book Reviews

bk-w-paper1An interesting, and apparently useful, thread on writing book reviews has some interesting information.

As a beginner, there are normally publications (web based and/or print) associated with professional socieities or the like that frequently publish a list of “books recieved.”

You write a letter of inquiry to the review editor. State your qualifications (I’m interested in reviewing XYZ because [how it fits your work]. I have [relevant academic qualification]). Once you get more pubs, list a few major/relevant ones.

If you establish a reputation for: a. meeting (not exceeding) word counts; b. timely delivery; c. balanced review (alas, often in that order), you’ll get more work than you want.

Also, make sure the books are tightly relevant to your area of concentration. You don’t want to waste effort or become too diffuse (or have, in time, your evaluations lack credibility; that you look like a review-hack).

From John Proctor

For me, this is again an issue. What is my field of interest? How much specialization do I need to have? How should I decide on this? I guess I need to think on this some more.

And John Proctor came back and weighed in on what a good review should look like, a very useful set of information.

By my lights, a good review should:

1. be a reasonable, stand alone, readable document. It should have interest as a discrete piece of writing.
2. Focus on the contents of the book (thesis, data, methodology, key insights resulting).
3. Be a critical but fair evaluation (reading the book on the book’s own terms. Note lacunae in data, consistency in methodology, validity in thesis).
4. Address potential audience clearly. At minimum, this should be “this book would be an excellent survey of X for students of Y” or “this book is best aimed at graduate students or professional scholars beginning a study of X,” or “this book advances the scholarly conversation on Y.” Best is to not just tell me who it’s best for, but why “this book would be a ready supplement to the undergraduate classroom because [specific reasons].”

In other words, it should indicate clearly who should read this book and why.

Finally, there’s 5. point to what the field/scholar/reader of the book should do next. “X is a fine treatment of Y; however, Z remains…” This latter will be, true, of most use to those others who have read the book.

And you’ll have between 300 to 1500 words to accomplish all this.

Writing a good review is not easy; it’s an scholarly artform of its own (perhaps, as a writing exercise, as difficult, if not more so, than a uniquely composed peer-reviewed essay).

I don’t think I would have as much trouble writing a book review, but I probably need to decide on a few areas of interest and push those.

JerseyJay has a very different perspective, but it still seems useful:

For what it’s worth, this is my method:

1. I choose a broad research topic that interests me and I research it with an eye towards publishing articles/monograph about it.

2. I keep my eye open for relevant new books that would be useful.

3. I find one that I think could be useful and that I don’t want to buy.

4. I write to a relevant journal with a resume of my interests and CV and ask if I can do a review.

5. If they say yes, they send me the book and I read it, use it for my broader research, and write a review.

6. If not, I try at another journal.

Thus, rather than a diversion from my research, book reviews serve as building blocks for it.

Very rarely have I been turned down for a review. If so, it is because they have some protocol for selecting reviewers or the book is already assigned to some other reviewer.

I think I need to think about this.

One problem with review article, again by John Proctor, but on a different thread:

I think review articles become a demerit if:

1. they are “all over the place” in terms of speciality. That makes it look like you’re just doing hack work for the sake of getting a by-line in print somewhere and not seriously pursuing a scholarly niche.

This is an issue for me. Where am I looking? Gotta go back to MindMeister and see where I am and where I want to be.