Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reading the top ten translated novels, part II

Last time I checked in on my project to read the top ten translated books of 2008, I had three books down. Five more I finished within a couple of weeks, leaving two. One of those I had tried, and finally decided life was too short to spend that bored (Voice Over by Celine Curiol). The final one has been sitting on my shelf. It was good, but not light, and I hadn't gotten around to it in part because it was a loan from a friend rather than the library. Now I am finished, or finished with the nine I am ever going to read, and so here are mini reviews.

Of course, while these books may have been shortlisted as for best novel, what is really meant is literary novel. There's nothing light and fluffy about them.

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederick Hermans is the story of a man who may or may not be a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II. He may be deluded and actually harming the resistance's cause, or he may be a hero whose contact in the resistance has disappeared. Either way, he is an unlikable character who does some very bad things that are not related to the war. (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers, but let's put the emphasis on very. He's not pilfering gumballs from the five and dime.) The author manages to achieve the right balance of distance from our main character - no matter how close we get we can't be sympathetic, yet we are right there with him - or at least there as he believes it to be, which may not be reality. The plot of course is unusual; most stories of World War II that take place in Europe are either about victims or about heroes.

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge is a tough read; it's the one I just finished. Serge was Russian but wrote in French, and his novels are highly political. In this case, the political shades over into the philosophical. It's the story of several people who are agents for Communist Russia in other parts of the world. Like the previous book, the question of whether one is on the right side or not is asked, yet it is not quite the same situation. The characters know exactly who they work for; the question is whether the organization is still dedicated to the cause or whether it has become overzealous and power-hungry. Given that this is Stalinist Russia, the answer is fairly obvious. But what does one do? To defect is not only risky but it cuts one off from the central purpose of one's life; to remain is morally compromising; to become an active communist separate from the organization is suicidal.

Yalo is psychological rather than philosophical. Like Darkroom, it involves a character for whom it is difficult to determine the truth. In Frederick's novel, though, the main character knows what he thinks - he may be delusional (or not), but he believes in his version of reality. Yalo, instead, is a man who does not know what he thinks or feels, who even has trouble knowing what he remembers. It "revolves around a single consciousness unable to make sense of it or its surroundings." For most of us, consciousness is a coherent experience (even if that coherence is an illusion); for Yalo consciousness is fragmented and indeterminate. In this story Yalo, our main character, has done things more senseless and awful than in the above two books, and the world has treated him in the same way. Yalo is not fully human, in a sense, and how does one respond to someone - or punish them - if they are not?

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya is on the shorter side and written in long sentences, long paragraphs that are almost stream-of-consciousness. The narrator is a rather paranoid young man hired to copy edit a 1000-page manuscript of atrocities, and he is also - pardon the language, gentle reader - to use the current slang, something of a douchebag. You can't really like the narrator, and this dislike is possible, perhaps, because he is just another self-centered, shallow guy. In other words, you can feel free to dislike him without fear of reprisal. (Yes; I disliked him more that the morally compromised characters discussed above.) I didn't feel like there was much to this book, or understand why it made the shortlist. It wasn't bad; it just wasn't great.

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig is about a young German woman who lives a narrow, impoverished life, working in the post office. Then suddenly her aunt invites her to stay in her glittering world of wealth for a while and she - not entirely honestly - reinvents herself. When she has to go home again, she can't adjust, and she eventually meets another young man with similar difficulties. They feed off of each other's unhappiness and eventually plan a future together - not one of hope. The book was easy to read without being shallow or glib, and rather fun in spite of its dark tones. Perhaps it was simply "fun" in comparison to the other books! But Zweig's writing is, frequently, light rather than ponderous.

And then there is Alejandro Zambra's Bonsai, which is short and easy reading. The reviews of this novella I saw are all raves, and I just don't get their enthusiasm. I found the book uninteresting and unmemorable, and I really have nothing at all to say about it.

So, that's it for 2008. I may do this again next year.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Winter flowers

Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
Photo from a short hike on Thanksgiving at Flat Rock Cedar Glade, a Nature Conservancy property near Murfreesboro. The hike is flat and only 2 1/2 miles, but it is a nice cedar glade and, as such, lovely in the summer. Even in the winter it is interesting, if not quite as colorful.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Books for new faculty members

As I've mentioned previously, I've been reading (and skimming) a lot of books aimed at helping faculty members. Many of these are aimed specifically at new faculty members; several more are targeted toward achieving tenure. Needless to say, I've formed some opinions of these books.

I can't tell you how objectively useful these books are, since I haven't actually started a faculty job yet, I'm a sample of one, yada yada disclaimer disclaimer. ( in other words, this is not, "In this study, we randomly assigned new faculty members to read one of ten books. New faculty who read Turducken's Guide to Achieving Tenure, or, Guess Which Part of Research-Teaching-Service is the Chicken were twice as likely to achieve tenure as those who read Cthulu's Top Ten Tenure Tips.") Nevertheless, I found some books more helpful than others. The biggest problems?
  • Spending a lot of time on the applying to grad school or early grad school process in a book whose title guarantees it won't be picked up until well into the dissertation
  • Dubious advice (ie, "List your marital status on your CV")
  • Lots of remedial tips ("Many professors have offices, and these often have desks.")
  • Vague tips that can't be easily operationalized
  • A tendency to assume all fields are like the author's (ie, advising scientists that it is important to publish a book to get tenure)

With that said, here are the books I would recommend to grad students looking into faculty careers or new faculty members dealing with how to manage their time, run their own classes without drowning, and figuring out what exactly their job is. Because the one thing I consistently hear from assistant professors is that the first few years are painfully harder and that they work longer hours than they did in grad school. If that doesn't strike fear into a PhD student's heart, he or she doesn't have a heart.
  1. James Lang's Life Life on the Tenure Track: Strictly speaking, this isn't an advice book - he does have one, and it is a fine book. This is merely an account of his first year as an English professor in a small liberal arts college. This book just tells you what to expect (yes, even if you'll be teaching grad students and carrying a heavy expectation of research) so that you will then want to go out and read the others. You should also give this to your spouse, your parents, and anyone else who will wonder if you are trapped under a heavy object and unable to reach the phone during that first year.
  2. Emily Toth's first and second Ms. Mentor books: These have the enormous advantage of being funny and the disadvantage of not pretending to be comprehensive in their coverage. Although the first one is specifically for women, I think lots of the advice is applicable to any gender. Together, these books do the best job of conveying the culture of academe.
  3. The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure--Without Losing Your Soul by Rockquemore and Laszloffy: You may not be a black academic, but then again, neither am I. I am not recommending this book because it will make you a better person by making you aware of what some of your colleagues may be going through (although it might do that), but because it has some very specific, useful tips for how to organize your office and use your time efficiently.
  4. Finally, Robert Boice's Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus is an absolutely terrific book on how to be productive. You can read it now, and maybe that will save you some trouble, but I recommend buying it and putting it away until some time in your first year when you realize your first year is at least as miserable as James Lang's was (except perhaps without the chronic disease) and that you thought you could handle it but you can't and you are SO BEHIND and oh crap here comes the department chair ... that is, when you've hit academic bottom, because only then are you ready for change.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving tourism

At the Jack Daniels Distillery with the man himself.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hey! Check out us over here, in the ed school!

Articles like this one baffle me. If you don't feel like clicking through, here's a quick summary: professor of religion defends lecturing, believing that other forms of learning such as discussion can't take place without lecture first.

Now, what baffles me is not his conclusion. I don't have a dog in this fight. (If he argued that lecturing was the only valuable pedagogy, I certainly would take issue, however.) What I don't get is his mode of argumentation.

He refers to "conventional wisdom" and "entrenched opinions" and other synonyms throughout the article. Conventional wisdom says X, but his personal experience says Y. Ergo, X is wrong.

But why is he talking about conventional wisdom and opinions at all? There are scholars studying learning in a rigorous way in psychology, curriculum and instruction, and centers for teaching at nearly every college in the country. If the author was writing about chemistry, would he look to "entrenched opinions" for expertise? No, he'd look to chemists.

This happens frequently in conversations about higher education among scholars - despite being academics themselves, they seem to forget that there are academics dedicating their careers to understanding higher education and learning. Yet they re-invent the wheel and talk as if we know nothing about how education works. We're a long way from knowing everything, admittedly. But trust me, there are studies on how much students retain from various modes of teaching, and one person's experience doesn't add much of anything to our knowledge.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


As I continue to read/skim books of advice for faculty, today I encountered something disturbing. It's not the only book that does this, which is why I'm not calling it out, but it was particularly blatant in this case.

The book has chapters on minorities and women, and those chapters are aimed specifically at minorities or women. The presumption seems to be that whites or men have no need to learn about these issues, which is odd when the chapters discuss encounters one will have with Neanderthal colleagues. It is especially odd given that some of the women-only advice includes why one shouldn’t date colleagues; unless the authors meant to specify lesbian relationships, male faculty members are clearly just as involved. Why is this a women's issue?

At one point, a chapter mentions that students will ask, "Why do we have to learn about this multicultural stuff?" A good question, given that apparently faculty are excused from doing so.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How to work

In the last few months, I have been working hard on adopting a more efficient mode of working. Perhaps I shouldn't state this here, where any hiring committee can see it, but the transition to working independently was a rough one for me. I'm going ahead and saying it because this is true for most graduate students, although for many of them the transition doesn't really come until they take a faculty job* - and also because I am overcoming it. So after flailing around for a while, I think I've found a system that works for me.

The biggest adjustment initially was adopting something of an 8-5 work model. There are important exceptions I won't bore you with here, but in general, I'm on campus five days a week, and when I am there, I am working on school-related stuff. When I am home, I am not working on school-related stuff (the biggest exception being reading for class, which is allowed at home). I had always liked the flexibility of the academic life, but I had been carrying it too far. So: Structure is good.

I've also been reading a lot of Robert Boice and other writers on scholarly productivity. I'm not as resistant to his ideas as he says some flailing scholars are, not because I am some open-minded paragon**, but because (as one of his students said), "What I'm doing now clearly isn't working, so what is there to lose?" The biggest thing I've picked up from him is the idea of moderation. Don't wait for inspiration on a project, and don't binge on it. I tend not to work for more than an hour at a time on any particular task, with the obvious exception of meetings that last longer than that.

A final thing I've figured out is that I do better with different tasks at different times of the day. Writing is easy before lunch; in the evening, it's nearly impossible. I can read at any time of the day except after lunch, when even a bodice-ripper could cause drowsiness. The early afternoon is a good time for administrivia, mindless tasks, sending email, etc. So I structure my day around my body's clock.

The result is that I've been getting more done and feeling a lot less guilt.

*I work for two deans who don't have big grant-driven projects. As my adviser has gotten deeper into the world of administration, he's given me less and less oversight. And I think it's an interesting way to do things - better to struggle now than in year one of the tenure track.
** Although I am that, too, of course.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hiking in Bellingham

The top
Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
On my way back from ASHE, I stopped in Bellingham and then Seattle before flying home. I saw friends in both cities (and my apologies to those of you I didn't have time to see - my visits were brief). While in Bellingham, I did a brief hike with my friend up Mt. Galbraith. This hill, which is privately owned but open to the public, is honeycombed with trails and heavily used by mountain bikers and trail runners. Yes, we saw a lot of runners, but only one other guy hiking, unless you count the trail maintenance crew* working near the trailhead, because it is definitely unsafe to run with mcleods. The trail is also open to unleashed dogs, which we saw several of, and horses, which we did not see any of. All users seem to get along quite well.

The trail itself - we hiked the Ridge Trail - is moderate, and there's a nice view from the top, pictured here.

* Thank you trail volunteers!

All a-twitter

If you wish, you can follow me on Twitter.

Monday, November 9, 2009

To the point

What is wrong with this paragraph (from Slate, of all places)?

"To be fair, he does regularly bear witness to cultural rarities, including Santeria rites in Cuba, and he does savor such dishes as a Korean fish snack with the texture of "a Q-tip covered in Vaseline." To be sure, more truthful titles—Rather Interesting Places? Nice Things to Eat?—wouldn't really fly. To be clear, many a travel show deals in extremes, excesses, and superlatives. To wit, Man v. Food seeks to prove that a gastronomist can never have too much of a good thing, however much his body might object to the notion."

A little too-too, perhaps?

ASHE part II

Thanks, Inside Higher Ed, for covering this session. I really wanted to attend it but had to be somewhere else. Now I know what I missed!

On the final day of ASHE, I went to quite a few different sessions, which varied widely in quality. One poor graduate student was incredibly nervous; she read too fast for me to follow her, without pauses (and yes, read, not spoke). I still have no idea what she did or what she found. I also went to the grad student luncheon (free book! thanks publishers). And I talked briefly to a couple of folks on search committees.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

ASHE 2009

Another ASHE conference is coming to a close. This year has been unusual for the number of very good sessions I have attended. Perhaps that is because I am learning to choose sessions based on who is presenting, not just what I'm interested in. I've also been to several symposium and panel sessions, which tend to be more lively than traditional papers. Some of the highlights have included:
  1. "The (Sometimes Uneasy) Relationship between Higher Education Researchers and the Media" - Editors from the Chronicle and IHE and several big-name researchers discussed how news outlets discuss what to cover and how to get your name out there as an expert.
  2. "Developing New Theories of Higher Education as an Organization" - Michael Bastedo gave a good presentation, but Jason Lane's talk on principal-agent theory as applied to boards was very helpful for my own work.
  3. "The Utility and Challenges of Critical Race Theory and Critical White Studies" - totally outside of my area, but I think it's a good idea to go to a few topics you don't typically study at a conference. This was a really great session, and I'm not just saying that because someone dropped an F-bomb.

I was also excited to see that this year's dissertation of the year winner was Gen Shaker, a fellow Center on Philanthropy grad. One thing I love about ASHE is catching up with my colleagues that I see only once or twice a year - it's extra nice when they win awards!

There are still a few events left today, and then I head down to Bellingham.