Barnburning

Last week was a regular barnburner for writing here on the Bench.*  4,300 words in six days — not too shabby.  Is it good?  Hell no.  It’s bloated and hard to follow and not much fun to read.  I consider myself a perfectionist, but not for first drafts, apparently.  Get a rhythm going and whack away at big chunks of the marble; worry about chiseling David’s face after you know where his legs will be.  [insert your own strained metaphor here].  How to get that rhythm going?  Stay on task, it would seem; here’s how I spent my time last week:

  • WriteRoom: 9:28 hrs
  • Firefox (Zotero): 9:05 hrs
  • Word: 4:20 hrs

It turns out that when I keep my e-mail and web surfing shut down, I get more work done.  Go figure.

Here’s hoping for a another 4,000 word week.

*Nope, I don’t know where the phrase comes from, and yup, I’m pretty sure that I’ve used it incorrectly.

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No One Is That Interesting

I’ve given up on Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.  I had a feeling from the outset that it wouldn’t go well: the book is 800+ pages long and totally unrelated to my dissertation and teaching responsibilities (meaning: I ain’t got time for this shit).  Moreover, I’m just not that interested in Che.  I’m sure he was a fascinating individual who could stare into someone’s soul and convince her/him that the Revolution is Now, but I don’t really care.  It’s not about Che specifically; as a general rule, I don’t care enough about any individual to want to read her/his biography.  I detest biographies: on the screen, the stage, or the page.  Here’s why:

  1. Over an extended period of time, any one individual will annoy the hell out of me.  I need my space, and biographies don’t give you your own space.  You’re supposed to inhabit not just the subject’s world, but the subject’s brain, and there’s just not enough air in there for the both of us.
  2. Biographers always end up playing psychologist, and they always fail.  “So, Che, what makes you tick?” asks Anderson of a man who is dead and who never would have revealed such secrets, anyway, partly because Che himself didn’t know.  Just like you and me and everyone else, the subject of any biography is necessarily a mysterious and indecipherable stew of nature and nurture that even the subject herself can’t figure out.  And if she says she knows, she’s a liar, a fool, or both.  Such a mystery confounds efforts at the totalizing interpretation towards which all biographies tend.  In short: biographers do not and can not know what they are ultimately talking about, which is who their subject really is.
  3. Biographies run against my understanding of how history works (which is to say, how things happen).  Individuals are only nominally involved in the course of history.  Deeper currents — like economic structures — exercise their power with much more force, consistency, and consequence than the isolated person.  People matter, of course, but “people” in the plural sense, as in persons: groups of individuals whose collective energy (not to say deliberate cooperation) make things happen.

And that’s why I haven’t read David McCulough‘s Pulitzer Prize winners; it’s why I don’t like one-man plays; it’s why I don’t usually care for solo acts after the band breaks up.  And it’s why my bookshelf sags once more under the weight of Jon Lee Anderson’s Che.

Students Don’t Want Rigor

I learned from NPR this morning that “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift” in College.”*  It seems that, according to a study by two sociologists, students are spending less time studying (less than five hours/week) and writing (less than twenty pages/semester), leaving them lacking in the critical thinking department.  The authors suggest that some of this has to do with student evaluations: “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high.”  In a wonderful coincidence, I received the written comments on my evaluations yesterday, and here’s a sample:

  • “I feel this class was a little too demanding.”
  • “For a 100 level class there was too much work.”
  • “This should not be a 100 level class.”
  • “This class was more demanding than all of my other classes–even much higher level courses.  Work load was way too much.”

And wouldn’t you know it: in this class, I asked students to write 20-30 pages over the semester, and reading/studying required at least five hours/week.

This would seem to prove the implication of the “adrift” study: if you give students rigor, they’ll give you shit evaluations.  But I’m not drawing that particular conclusion (nor, I’d imagine, do the authors of the study, which I look forward to reading).  First of all, I’m happy to say that while the comments weren’t great, my numbers were pretty damned good — at or above the school average (which is pretty high, I should note).  Secondly, I don’t think the problem is that I gave the students too much to do.  It’s more to do with my accompanying message.  I’ve been putting more and more effort into selling the students on the idea that working hard is actually a good thing — that they should demand that much be demanded of them.  I’ll continue fine-tuning this message and the syllabi to go along with it.

That said, I’m dying to know what other classes my students were taking, and what, exactly, they had to do to get a good grade.  Show up and stay awake?  Or maybe consciousness wasn’t even a requirement — just keep the seat warm.  Were I in a position of any security and authority (read: if only I were tenure-track…), I’d ask not just for evaluation comparisons with the whole school, but between the humanities and sciences and within history.  I’ve got a feeling that 100-level sciences classes are keeping the critical-thinking bar pretty low: memorize and repeat your chemical concoctions and mathematical formulas, and you’ll be just fine.  The word on the quad is that history classes are hard, and I want to know where that’s coming from.

* Yes, yes, I know I’m late to this party.  Inside Higher Ed had something on this back in January, as have other bloggers.  My own rigor, it would seem, is lacking.

Vacation vs. Inspiration

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for your favorite benchwarmer.  Two weeks ago, thanks to the generosity of my in-laws, my spouse and I went to Hawaii for a week.  Last week, we were in Washington, DC; my spouse for a conference, and me for sightseeing, research, and conducting an interview relevant to my dissertation.  It was a study in contrasts of place and perspective.  In Hawaii, we sat on the beach and soaked up sunshine, surrounded by very old, very wrinkly, and very retired people.  In DC, we hustled from hotel to metro to destination and back again, surrounded by very young, very horny, and very ambitious people.  In both cases, I felt out of place, being 32 years old, neither terribly wrinkly or horny, and moving at a gear somewhere  between ambitious careerism and relaxed satisfaction.   But while I enjoyed the sunshine and utter lack of responsibility during our brief tropical vacation, Washington inspired me.  Not because of the young people, who were too busy trying to get laid or step on someone else’s fingers on their way up the ladder, but because of the focus, energy, and intent that reveals itself in different ways and at different times.  The monuments on the National Mall testify in part to individuals (Lincoln, FDR, and Jefferson, for me) and groups (like the Civil Rights movement) that looked at the world, found it lacking, and decided to do something about it.  Same thing with the Capitol, or the Supreme Court, or the Library of Congress — these represent the desire to leave a mark on the world, a good mark that will make the world better.  My dissertation and teaching fall short of such lofty goals, of course.  But I returned home exhausted and inspired, which is perhaps exactly where I need to be to push on with my PhD.  And hopefully more.