Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blizzard 2010, Take Two

We're snowed in, and it's fun to watch Nashville try and cope. Now, I fully understand that it snows here so infrequently that it doesn't make economic sense to keep a full set of plows on hand. I also understand that driving in the snow is a skill that takes practice, and most people here haven't had much opportunity to practice it. So I'm not laughing at the drivers. Nor am I laughing at those seriously impacted by the snow; there aren't enough beds for the homeless now, because some of the places have had to temporarily close since their volunteers can't get there.

But some of the choices people make leave me baffled. There was a woman crossing the street, glaring at the dirty piles of mush as she gingerly tried to avoid them. What, I wonder, made her think clogs were the right choice in footwear for today?

Then there were the parents who were letting their kids sled in the street. "It's OK, I'm watching the traffic," said the dad. This was said only a few blocks from Shelby Golf Course, where I anticipate most of East Nashville's children are at this moment.

I would have wondered at the mailman wearing shorts, except given my friends who have worked for the post office (N=1), this doesn't surprise me at all.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Flirt FAIL

Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
So, apparently the secret to a good online dating site photo is kissy face.

Now, I don't have any photos of myself that would qualify. Nor do I have any photos of my friends in which they are making said face. And I started to wonder, is this a generational thing? The data for the article went up to age 31, and it doesn't report what percent of women are doing it at what ages. I went back to college photos, to sorority events, and none of us were doing it. Back in my day, we didn't have digital cameras, and we didn't take as many photos or show them to as many people. We didn't have any of this online social networking nonsense. We also had to walk uphill both ways to class, barefoot, in the snow. But I digress ... We settled for doing the basic sorority pose most of the time. You know .... slight turn to the side, slight bend forward, hands just above your knees or on the girl in front of you, and biiiiiiigggg smile!

So, in the name of scientific research, I decided to see if I could do it. If millions of teenagers on MySpace can do it, how hard can it be? I forewent the recommended cleavage, not having time for an augmentation tonight.

Results? First, I should not take up acting or modeling, although I may be able to play Derek Zoolander in a community theater production if they're hard up. Second, I don't know what I was expecting. I can't take a good self-portrait, even though I can take good photos and pose well for others. (I will also blame this on my generation.) Third - no. I can't do it. At all. You can see the awful results here. I look ... afflicted may be the word I am looking for, although I also considered mentally subnormal.

I guess Teh Menz of Teh Intertubes will never know what they are missing. And without cleavage or kissyface, I will be SINGLE FOREVER!

Excuse me, I have to go adopt several cats.

Publishing a book

Here, go depress yourself.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


One little detail about my dissertation I've been working on is pseudonyms for the colleges I'm studying. It shouldn't be this difficult, but I had to reject any number of schema. Numbers or letters implied hierarchy among the three. Colors carry too many connotations. It's hard to find common last names that aren't in use already (Smith, Jones, Brown - all taken). First names don't sound dignified ("Fred College"). Many things were just too whimsical.

So I've finally settled on tree names. Common trees sound rather dignified, have positive associations, and can't be readily rank-ordered. There are a few schools with "Elm" or "Oak" in their names, so I'm excluding those. Pine College, Maple College, and Birch College - I think I'm set.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
I was never a fan of outlining. It was something we were made to do in school, and I know I wasn't alone in going back and creating ex post facto outlines when we were required to turn them in.

This changed a little bit in graduate school. No one demanded to see outlines at this point, but I tended to start off a paper by opening up a document, inserting page numbers (tip from John Braxton: Do this first thing so you don't forget), and then writing the following headers: Introduction, Theoretical Framework, Literature Review, Data, Methods, Results, Discussion - or some variation thereof. Conceptually, it wasn't particularly useful; it simply reflected the required components of a research article. If I was feeling particularly frisky, I might divide the lit review into something like "Historical sources" and "Case studies."

However, in the last few months, I've discovered that I love outlining and it makes writing so much easier for me. The thing is, by the time you sit down to write a journal article, there is not a lot of mystery about what you'll say. You know what your results are, and the conventions around scholarly articles demand compliance with a formula. So it's not as if I'm stifling creativity. This isn't Finnegans Wake.

(The photo here, by the way, is of my outlining breakthrough. An paper needed serious revision, and I was going through and editing when I realized it needed more than that. The outline on the left was the result.)

I tend to outline fractally; I start off high-level, and iteratively fill in more detail. At some point, when the outline runs several pages, I just fill in paragraphs to match the outline. There's practically no sitting there thinking, hm, what goes next? Because I already know. My writing has become so much more efficient.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Weekend update

I went out Friday night, but other than that my weekend has been quiet. Saturday I went to the Center for Teaching's GradStep workshop and then spent the rest of the day hibernating - I watched the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. The show is so awesome, it would be hard for the final episode to be totally satisfactory. And they were OK (don't worry, no real spoilers here), except there was a little too much cheesy expository wrap-up. I think the problem is, the show is at its best when the episodes are character-driven, and the finale had to be plot-driven to wrap up loose ends.

This morning I did a bunch of boring administrative tasks at home that have a high drudge/reward ratio. Like punching holes in a 200-page document, six pages at a time, to put in a binder. But that suited my mood; sometimes it just feels good to get something unambiguously done (and have a clean desk).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


You've seen those cartoons where something starts rolling down a snowy hill, right? It starts off slowly, then as it picks up snow it move faster and faster.

That's what my dissertation experience is like. For a long time, things were moving slowly. Selecting dissertation sites took a long time, because I had to contact very busy people. Then the IRB process went reasonably quickly - well, quickly given that I was doing it around the holidays. This week I began contacting my research sites to set up interviews, and all of a sudden I've gained a great deal of speed. One interview has been tentatively set for Jan. 29, although it looks like we may move it back a little.

I'm actually contemplating graduating in May, which is a little aggressive. At Vanderbilt, in order to participate in the ceremony, everything must be turned in and done by the end of March. My impression is that at most schools, you have a longer window, and you might be able to walk if everything was turned in but you technically have a later graduation date. Anyway, May might not be doable, but August certainly is.*

I just hope that when I come to a sudden stop at the bottom of the hill, the snowball doesn't fall apart.

* Barring the unforeseen. I could be beamed up by aliens or fall into a coma, you never know. I don't want to get over-confident and anger our alien overlords.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hidden Passage backpacking trip

Our weekend backpacking trip was to Pickett State Park to hike Hidden Passage. This hike is about ten miles total, and our plan was to do it over three days. (Day two was going to be mostly hiking on side trails, which would have added to our total mileage.) As I indicated already, we scaled back to two days due to the steady rain the first night and second day. The hike itself is only moderate in difficulty; the most strenuous part is the side trail to Double Falls.
Hidden Passage is pretty in the distinctive Big South Fork way - lots of sandstone overhangs and little waterfalls. Apparently, however, there was a fire at the park fairly recently, leading to burnt-over sections that were more interesting than pretty. I suspect that it might be a little too hot in mid-summer because of the resulting lack of shade, but it was beautiful in winter, with ice. I imagine that spring waterfalls and fall colors are equally scenic.
We spent the night at the campsite near Double Falls. We had hoped to see the falls, but in order to do that one has to cross the creek. Supposedly it is sometimes dry, and generally wadeable, but on our visit it was several feet deep and iced over. You can see the crossing in the photo at left. Nevertheless, the campsite was quite nice, and we had it all to ourselves.
Despite the rain, we had a good time. While it made a nice, easy backpacking trip, it is eminently doable as a day hike - you won't find many hikes of this length that offer a better effort/reward ratio.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I went backpacking this weekend. It was supposed to be two nights, but we scaled it back to one because of the rain. I'll blog more about the trip later.

Today I went to a job talk and then to a MLK day event with Rita Bender and Bob Moses. Nope, it's not a holiday for classes at Vanderbilt, which it should be.

I got IRB approval today for the final portion of my dissertation - hooray!

Friday, January 15, 2010

A long and winding road

For those of you not in academia, I thought it might be interesting to see what a job interview for a faculty member is like. It's a long process. This following is a distillation of a schedule for one of the searches our department is running this semester:

Day 1: Dinner with the search committee.
Day 2: Breakfast with two faculty members. Four half-hour meetings with four different faculty members. Lunch with three more faculty members. Four more half-hour meetings, three with faculty and one with the dean. Late afternoon, the job talk. Dinner with two more faculty members.
Day 3: Breakfast with yet another faculty member. Lunch with students. Meeting with department chair.

Except for a three-hour gap the last morning, there aren't any real breaks in the schedule - there are a few 15-minute gaps between meetings. Long enough, if things are running on time, to use the restroom, but not enough to clear your head or stop being "on." This schedule is pretty typical, although sometimes the first-night dinner is dispensed with.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Part of my dissertation hinges on the notion of board effectiveness, and I am struggling to define it. There is an habit of defining board effectiveness by process rather than outcomes, since the latter are hard to observe, but let's set that issue aside for a moment - nontrivial as it is - and just talk about outcomes. But the question is, are we talking about board or institutional outcomes, and how can we separate them at top management levels?

This isn't just an education problem. Imagine a widget factory. Someone who works on the assembly line can easily be evaluated. More widgets = better performance, given a few caveats (ie, not sabotaging other workers). What about the manager of the assembly line? Once again number of widgets (produced by subordinates) is surely a part of it, but other things matter, too. A slightly lower production level may be worth it if turnover among workers is lower, depending on the company's cost structure, or a lower level of injuries or grievances. Higher up, another manager is deciding whether the widgets should be made with or without dongles and whether the plant should be retrofitted for efficiency or closed altogether. This manager's output is decisions and paperwork, which are hard to directly evaluate - do we compare them to the counterfactual, which is unknowable, or to the competition, which may perform better or worse based on unpredictable and unknowable factors?

By the time you get up to the president, there is almost nothing directly measurable (except for his or her treatment of employees, such as not sexually harassing them), and so the big cheese is measured on company performance. But we know that the performance isn't all about the president. Maybe the economy tanked, for example. Presidents are about as hard to evaluate as board members, except that most of their work is a group effort, not individual, so you ... what, take the company performance and divide it by 30?

Back to higher education boards: The specific, measurable components of their job are arguably only a small portion of what they ought to be evaluated on. If they're all donating generously, but the dropout rate is increasing and the campus restrooms are disgusting, are they doing a good job?

I'm sure there is a literature on this subject, not in specific reference to non-profits, but in terms of workplace evaluation. I don't know this literature, though, and it's not being used in any of the work I've seen on boards. Any suggestions or thoughts would be welcome.


A provocative post about how changing the value of response sets in a survey results in different results. The gist is that if you are offered five choices, you assume the middle one is "average" and shape your response to that.

You've probably seen claims that the oldest entities around are nonprofits - colleges and churches. Here's a look at the oldest for-profit corporations, which are no spring chickens.

The tagline says it all: "How school lunch programs manage to promote obesity and hunger at the same time."

A rousing call for org theorists to study education.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Appalachian State: Assistant Professor in Higher Education, Adult and Developmental education.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Professional development

I've been reading the serieses (um, what's the plural of series?) of a particular novelist in reverse chronological order as of late, purely by happenstance - I was introduced to her through her latest series, and then happened to find two older ones at a used bookstore. It offered me an interesting perspective on her development as a writer, one I wouldn't have seen if I read in the other direction. For one thing, I wouldn't have made it this far.

The newest series is really quite good, and the characters and setting stay with you afterwards. The previous series is the equivalent of beach reading for the sword-and-sorcery set. I enjoy them when I'm reading them but forget about them not long after I put them down. This may sound like a criticism, although it isn't intended as such; I find most of Tolkein's offspring utterly undigestable, so mindless fun is a huge step up. The series before that - well, it isn't bad. I wouldn't say it's good, either. If I had read it first, I doubt I would have picked up anything else by this author - although if it had been a choice between her next book and the usual airport selection, she might not have lost.

What's particularly interesting is to see writing issues in this earlier book that have been eliminated from her writing by now. One I kept tripping over in the early stuff is changes in the scale of time. You know, two characters are having a conversation, so the action is occurring almost in real time, and then suddenly 15 minutes have passed and the heroine is fixing the ship's engine, or something. These transitions were handled awkwardly in the early book; I kept finding myself going back a few sentences to figure out what I had missed. This isn't a problem in her later books. It's nice to see this kind of development on the author's part, because it sometimes seems as if literary figures spring up fully formed; their later books get deeper and richer, although not necessarily better.*

*Or, unfortunately, they get worse, as every napkin they doodle on gets snapped up by a publisher.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

California hurts

In California, the governor has proposed a constitutional amendment that would require 10 percent of operating funds be spent on the public universities. It's no secret that California higher education is in desperate fiscal straits and that reform is needed. From that amount of money alone, the plan sounds good (although let's not look too closely at the details, which involve addenda such as privatizing prisons, or the fact that it leaves out community colleges). Still, I find myself thinking this is not a good idea.

California's fiscal crisis has come on because the state is hamstrung in how it can spend its money and in what revenue it can raise in the first place. The ease of creating ballot propositions have led the state to cut property taxes and led to a host of partially funded programs and spending mandates. The folks in Sacramento ostensibly creating the budget have less say in how California's money is spent than in practically any other state, and any attempt to raise taxes to meet these spending needs is resisted.

Hey, I'm a tax-and-spend liberal. But you can't spend unless you tax, and you can't take all the power to make spending decisions away from the experts. It's not that average California citizens are stupid or ignorant. It's that thinking about the state budget is not anywhere close to their full-time occupation. Expertise ought to produce better spending decisions than voting a couple of times a year for what you want. (And if it doesn't - well, there goes any argument against supporting higher education. What do we need experts for?)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What I'm not reading

Dave sent me this article advocating reading books you expect to hate. I like the idea in theory, but there are plenty of books that I feel confident in my pre-judgments of and won't repent for refusing to read:
  • memoirs (unless they are of really spectacular achievements - and never 20-somethings recounting their childhoods)
  • "true" paranormal revelations
  • serialized Star Trek novels
  • the Left Behind books
  • "Christian" series romance
  • Danielle Steel
  • inspirational stories
  • series that are hurriedly gotten-up imitations of successful ones
  • novelizations of movies that are based on books
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

But, to be open-minded, there are books I tend to avoid that maybe I need to go out on a limb on ...
  • books without quotation marks around speech (I'm looking at you, Cormac McCarthy)
  • novels about some famous dude's wife or some girl in a painting
  • Jack Kerouac
  • epic multi-generational tales
  • biography
  • the secret importance of {some ordinary object} in civilization

Monday, January 4, 2010


University of Montana: Assistant/Associate Professor.

Why I'm glad I'm not in English any more

This year's MLA job market is the worst ever (since they've started keeping records). So, what ought graduates do?

Take a look at comment #7 from lms347: "If humanities PhDs would be willing to say, "Screw this. I can make more money and be just as fulfilled outside of academe" the way that some social sciences or science PhDs are willing and able to do, then maybe things would be a bit different."

Which gives the impression humanities PhDs are simply recalcitrant or closed-minded, yes? If only they would open their eyes!

Those social science and science jobs in industry or think tanks - you know what the required credential is for most of them? A PhD. You know what skills they require? Those learned in PhD programs.

Those alternatives suggested to teaching English and the humanities? Say, being an editor, or a high school teacher (both suggested by other commenters) - or perhaps working in a library or as a consultant - do you know what degree they require? Well, a masters would be nice. Maybe a teaching credential or some other degree that requires even more schooling.

Is it any wonder that after ten years of working on their PhDs, English lit graduates are more reluctant to seek non-academic careers than are economists? "This degree has to get me something - I spent ten years in poverty to earn it - so I'd like a job that uses it." That strikes me as perfectly natural. It's the system that is broken, with production not matching demand; it's not some curious flaw in the product.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I spent the end of the year in Phoenix, going to a Desiree Rumbaugh workshop and spending time with friends, but the only souvenir I brought back with me was a cold. The symptoms have principally been a stuffy nose, which leads to no sleep, some sneezing, and a very mild sore throat. This morning, however, I woke up with an entirely new and somewhat discomforting symptom: A desire to work up a budget for my expenses. No, I can't explain that either.

So I did. We'll see how well my budget matches what I actually spend. I don't mean, "Do I end up overspending on dining out?" I'm more concerned about areas of non-frivolous spending - car repairs, medical bills, that type of thing.

Maybe I actually have some sort of strange new year's bug that covertly forces one to make resolutions and all that.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Welcome to 2010

It's not only the start of a new year but of a new decade. I should be doing retrospective posts, like everyone else, but you know what? 2009 was a cruddy year. I am glad to see the last of it. Heck, the oughts were a disappointing decade. Not only did we not get the flying cars and spaceships we were promised, it was a decade in which my life seemed to stand still in many ways. Ten years ago I wasn't too far out of college, working in a job that earned me $14k/year before taxes, and living the wild and crazy life of a single girl, except without the wild or crazy part. Now, I'm back in college, not earning much more (after inflation), and still single. The more things change ...

But surface indicators aren't the only way to measure my life, and there are things that are different. I think some of those will make 2010 better.

And some things, I don't want to change. My family is healthy; I have a lot of great friends; and whatever I have to complain about, things could be a lot worse.

So happy 2010. May this year, no matter what your 2009 was like, be better than the year before.