How to write a lot– in theory

I’m in the process of updating/upgrading my RSS feeds on blogs and my own blog spaces– look for an alert to a new blog address soon– and through this process, I stumbled across an entry on Nels “A Delicate Boy” Highberg’s blog (and he cites a much longer and detailed entry at the pseudo-anonymous blogger’s “New Kid on the Hallway” site) about a book called How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia. I think both of these other blogs do a much better job than I can in terms of a review/explanation, particularly NKH.

What I take from these reviews is that Silvia is trying to make two basic points. First, write every day/often/just do it/etc. Second, put writing time into your schedule, and he (apparently) argues that academics ought to schedule the time of their writing just like they would schedule the time of their teaching. No excuses.

Now, this is all fine and good advice, it’s one of the main lessons I learned as a writer over the years, it’s advice I give my grad students working on projects, and it’s advice I have been trying to follow myself in my own writing this last year. But I’ve struggled lately to follow this advice, and it makes me think about it a bit. In the opening pages Style, Lessons in Clarity and Grace, one of my favorite books on writing style (and writing advice of a sort, I suppose), Joseph Williams kind of mocks this sort of simplistic advice. He says something like “Telling me that I need to ‘be clear'” (and here Williams is making a not so veiled reference to Strunk and White’s famous advice book) “is like telling me to hit the ball squarely. I know that. What I need to know is how.”

It also seems to me that the advice on scheduling writing time and sticking to it no matter what is the sort of advice that either a) works in theory better than in practice, and/or b) is advice that comes from someone who doesn’t teach courses that involve a lot of time spent grading/responding to student writing. Interestingly enough, b) might very well be correct: Silvia is a Psychology professor, and he might not have to spend as much time reading and commenting on student writing. Time and the teaching of writing expands and contracts. The time I would have spent this morning writing I spent instead on commenting on short student projects– and thank God I’m just teaching one class (the other half of sabbatical lite is perhaps kicking in) and these were short essays. When I’m teaching a full load next year, this issue will be even more significant, though conversely, I hopefully won’t have to spend as much time with service/administrative stuff, which also has a way of expanding and contracting.

Anyway, then there is also the “bags of shit er, timesuck” that drop from the sky on academics everywhere: the request from some administrator for a detailed report that is due in two days, the brouhahas that get stirred up from nowhere and that demand immediate and exquisite attention, the emergency a student advisee has in terms of some kind of graduation audit or fee. Not to mention life in general.

And then, then there is also the distraction of other writing that takes away from “THE WRITING,” things like, well, this blog post.

Anyway, none of this is to discount Silvia’s advice. I am sure it is sound.

And be sure to eat write er right, don’t drink too much, get plenty of exercise, get plenty of sleep, spend quality time with your family and friends, read good books, watch good movies, recycle. And just write.

Does anyone know anything about Scrivener?

I was talking on the phone the other day with an old friend of mine and in the course of our meandering conversation, her mentioned/recommended Scrivener, an Apple only software that is a word processor that is designed for “writers” with all kinds of compelling-looking features. You can try it 30 days for free and it’s only $40 after that, so I will probably monkey around with it anyway. But I’m sort of curious if anyone reading this message now has played around with it themselves.

The main question I have in my own mind is this: is this software that will help me be more efficient/”write better,” or is this software that will help me procrastinate/goof off?

A week of school done/some links from the week

This has been one of those weeks where stuff has piled up and then cascaded by me. One thing after another, and yet, not really that much of significance at the same time. If that makes sense. The one thing that I did learn/remind myself about is that “time management” with any kind of release time, sabbatical lite or otherwise, because I felt like I spent way WAY too much time getting my class in line, way WAY too little time working on my sabbatical lite project, and basically no time blogging.

So, in an effort to at least get caught up on the blogging, I offer a variety of links to stuff I’ve been reading lately:

And then today, I came across a couple of handy videos. First, there’s this one on Facebook:

Kind of interesting, though some of the connections they’re making here between the Facebook crowd and the CIA seem like they might be a bit of a stretch to me.

And, on a more cheerful note, this CommonCraft video about Online Photo Sharing:

Definitely a teachable moment here….

The beginning is near…

Of the winter term, that is, what every other university I know of refers to as “spring.” Though I have to say that calling this time of the year the “winter” term makes perfect sense, especially in Michigan, where winter is certainly in full effect through late March, when spring really starts, and quite often long after that, too.

In any event, on tap for me as of tomorrow for this term:

  • “Sabbatical Lite” continues since I am teaching but one class, doing administrative stuff, and still doing research. Once again, we’ll see how this works out. Since I have been granted some modest funding, I’m hoping/planning on getting my surveymonkey blog survey up and running for the “Blogs as Writerly Spaces” project. With a little luck, I’ll start collecting some cool data.
  • I’m teaching “Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice” again, which is a required course in our MA in the Teaching of Writing program. The course is pretty much what it’s about, although there is a focus on pedagogy that isn’t really in the title. It’s online again, and I’ve decided to experiment/try doing the whole class on emuonline this time around, meaning there isn’t going to be a class web site. Students will still have to make web sites, I will have my own little blog for the class (as will the students), and we’re going to do some cool stuff with wikis and video at different points of the term that I am hosting outside of emuonline. So maybe I’ll post some links to things here as the term goes on.

    I really like teaching this course, but it is always a challenge to get it together. I think I know what we’re going to be doing in general every week, but around half of the readings right now are still in the “TBA” stage. I was talking about this today with a colleague of mine: the great thing about being in computers and writing is it’s always new and interesting and changing and stuff. The bad thing though is that it’s always new and changing. If I taught rhetorical theory or the history of rhetoric class, I don’t think I’d have to scrap 2/3rds of the syllabus every year.
  • Speaking of computers and writing and collecting some good blog writing practices data, I need to get a proposal together for Computers and Writing in Georgia. I doubt I’ll end up proposing anything that has to do with the conference theme on open source software though; we’ll see what happens, I guess.
  • And this semester will mark the end of my term as the writing program coordinator, or at least that’s the plan. This is a job that involves running our undergraduate and graduate programs in writing, it’s a job that rotates around a bit, and it’ll be time for someone else to do it soon. There will be some transition during the spring and summer of course, but this is the last term where I expect a lot of meetings and such associated with this.

I know there are many MANY more things on my “to do” list for the term already, but for the time-being, I think the best thing I can do is get to bed so I can get that bright-eyed/bushy-tailed feeling.

The end of Sabbital Lite for Fall 2007

Last week, I read Deb Hawhee’s blog entry on her upcoming sabbatical, about a dean telling her that she had better not show up on campus next semester, and I have to say, I got a bit of a twinge. That probably should have been me, I thought.

Well, it’s not quite that bad.
Continue reading “The end of Sabbital Lite for Fall 2007”

NCTE prelude post

I was in the office doing various quasi-administrator kinds of things all day on Monday, and when I left, I had the satisfying feeling of leaving a note that said I will not be returning until November 26. This warning/promise was somewhat short-lived since I’ve been to my office twice since putting up that sign, but that was/is the plan. I’d like to say I am doing this so I can hole-up and work on the BAWS project, but the main reason is travel of both the conference and family variety.

Tomorrow, I’m off to New York City (I hope the salsa is as good as they suggest in those Pace commercials…) for NCTE, where I am part of a double session/featured session called “Writing, Reading, Composing: The Movie(s).” Here’s a link to my web site for the project, though there isn’t much there other than links to the movies I’ll be chatting about.

It’s been an unusual deal for me. I made the “Celebration of Student Writing” last fall basically because I was the interim writing program administrator and because I could– that is, we had this cool equipment and a desire to use it. I posted a link on the WPA-L mailing list, my EMU friend and colleague Linda Adler-Kassner pulled together a presentation, and I was in. I was debating about going because NCTE isn’t usually my conference and because New York City is way too freakin’ expensive and I knew my wife wasn’t going to be able to go with me. But somewhere along in the process, we became a “featured session” that is going to run all afternoon on Friday.

We’ll see how it turns out. Given the topic and the time, I think we’ll have a big crowd. We have had some interesting discussions about some of the technicalities and, as a “plan b,” one person presenting is bringing a sound system and I’m bringing a mini projector from school. I’m also planning on making a sort of “movie of the movie session” with my Flip video camera, along with a little “traveling with Steve” video log. Stay tuned….

Oh, and next week I’m not going to school because it’s Thanksgiving. Duh.

Survey says… / Sabbatical Lite midterms of sort

I think I’m going to take the weekend off from BAWS/sabbatical/school work (other than getting caught up on my email, which will give me a chance to email some friends of mine anyway) and concentrate on stuff around the house– family things, cleaning, putting up Halloween decos, carving pumpkins, etc. After this last week, I feel like I earned it.

I finally managed to get my Blogs as Writerly Spaces surveys and human subject review paperwork submitted. I say “surveys,” but really it’s one survey (which I am going to invite folks to participate in more or less randomly and via email) and one set of case study questions (and I’m going to try to find case study subjects by the survey and also by trying to just invite some folks whose blogs I like to read). I’m happy to share my questions with anyone who is curious, and a big shout-out to friends and colleagues Dennis Danvers, Bill Hart-Davidson, Steve Benninghoff, and Linda Adler-Kassner for the advice and help they passed along. And also a big help to Joe Scazzero in the EMU faculty development center, which is one tip I would pass along to anyone putting together a serious survey: get someone to look at it who a) is an expert at survey construction and b) knows almost nothing about the topic of the survey.

As anyone who has ever put together a real survey knows, surveys is hard. They seem like they’d be easy– what first year composition teacher hasn’t had a student whose solution to a research pickle was to come up with a survey on the fly? But easy they ain’t. I puzzled over mine for the better part of the last month, and I feel like that was actually pretty quick. One of my colleagues told me a story about a survey she did with some folks way back when with a bunch of others, and took them about a year to come up with questions they were happy with.

Anyway, I’m pleased with that, and I’m also pleased that I am done with the Human Subjects Review stuff (what every other school seems to call “IRB”)– or at least I’m “done” as long as they exempt my project, which I expect they will. Not a lot of blood being drawn, not a lot of electrical shock, etc. Once that is all put to bed, I’ll load stuff up on surveymonkey and keep my fingers crossed that folks will actually participate.

And how is “sabbatical lite” treating me? Well, it comes and goes. I’ve had some weeks this semester in which it has worked out quite well, but last week was not one of them. I had to be on campus for something every day last week, and the “never before 1 pm” rule is starting to look less than workable. So in the sense that a sabbatical is supposed to be about “getting away,” sabbatical lite ain’t working.

On the other hand, not teaching (and thus not grading/commenting on a bunch of student writing) does give me a lot more time to do things like write surveys, read scholarly things, write my own things, etc. I do feel like I’ve gotten a lot done, I’m not really sure I would have gotten a lot more done if I was sabbaticalling in the traditional way, and I’m looking forward to next semester when I will essentially have an extra course release left over from splitting this one semester sabbatical over two.

Still, if I had the chance to do this over, I wouldn’t do this again. Sabbatical lite was the best choice I could have made at the time, but my advice to anyone contemplating splitting up a sabbatical themselves would be to not do it. And if I have a chance to apply for another sabbatical anytime soon, I’ll probably ask for the full year. Of course, with my son on the verge of entering private secondary school (probably) and then college (hopefully), I doubt I’ll be able to afford that….

A ten (or so) minute post on sabbatical stuff so far

I haven’t been posting here (or my unofficial blog, for that matter) much lately, I suppose because I’ve been busier than I thought. Doing what? Well, in no particular order:

  • I would like to say that I’m making incredible process on my book project, but that would be an exaggeration. I am making some though. I think I am taking what I can only describe as the “National Novel Writing Month” approach to the academic/quasi-academic book project: what I’m doing is more or less writing as much stuff as I can by just sitting my ass down and just writing with the plan of going back later to do much rewriting based on reading and research. We’ll see how it goes.
  • I do have a survey of sorts in draft. Right now, I’m just sharing it with some friends/colleagues, and on Wednesday, I’m talking to someone at EMU about constructing this survey so that it will be workable.
  • I still have to do the paperwork for what at EMU is called “Human Subject Review” but which tends to be known as “Institutional Review Boards” or IRB. It is a pain, but for this project, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. danah boyd had a blog post recently where she listed the pain in the ass nature of IRB as one of the main reasons why she isn’t going to pursue an academic career. I can kind of see her point, especially given her interest in things like how minors use MySpace (minors always complicated permissions). But it is also kind of a cop-out IMO, sort of like saying “I don’t like putting my own gas in the tank so I’m refusing to take that cross-country trip.”
  • The verdict is still out on my “sabbatical lite” thing. I feel very pulled between two contrasting emotions/thoughts, one where my lack of teaching and general presence on campus makes me feel “out of it” regarding various department and program matters, and the other where I feel like the things I do need to do on campus because of the way I am splitting up my time is taking away from reading and research and writing. Push and pull. I think it might take a while longer before I know for sure how good or bad of an idea this will end up being.
  • I am also using my time as a bit of “time off” in the sense that I have been busy painting my house (the front is done) and generally fixing stuff up around here (next week, new flooring in the kitchen), and I have been trying to hit the gym as much as possible (though that is also where I do most of my scholarly reading). The truth is I’ve probably spent more time doing this than I have spent actually writing and reading. I at first felt quite guilty about this, because I earned this sabbatical based on a proposal that promised that I would write a book manuscript and that’s what I should be doing. But colleague after colleague have told me that a sabbatical is as much about taking a break and getting away as it is about anything else. The other morning, when the weather was beautiful and I decided that it was more important to take one more long bike ride instead of sitting in my basement in front of the computer, I recognized the point my colleagues were trying to make.

Sometimes, I read things that I think are wrong

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in a kind of interesting and conflicted stage with my sabbatical lite/BAWS project: I’m doing a lot of reading, I’m doing some writing, but I’m also doing a fair amount of writing program coordinator work to get the semester started, and I’m also trying to/worried about painting my house. And of all these things, the painting of the house is the most time sensitive duty– or really, weather sensitive.

In any event, one book I’m reading while on the stationary bike at the gym is Geert Lovink’s Zero Comments, and while I am gleaning some interesting observations as I go, I have to admit that I am struck by some of what Lovnik is saying here that just strikes me as, um, wrong.

Here’s a particularly problematic paragraph with my comments in between:

The blogosphere has been shaped neither by dotcom entrepreneurs nor by techno-geeks. Really? The folks who brought us blogger, wordpress, and/or Moveable Type aren’t entrepreneurs or techno-geeks? Basic computer knowledge does the job. Um, you mean basic computer knowledge like PHP, MySQL, Python, managing server space, and the like? Not even html skills are required. Only if you want your blog/site to look, feel, and function as the work of someone who doesn’t understand the medium at all. For business types there is no immediate money in it. There are dozens of companies making real money off of blogs nowadays, and hundreds of wannabes out there. The open character of blogs even forms a risks who are into branding and PR. Unless you are into radical transparency or you use blogs to shape your message and PR. The geeks feel protected in their Slashdot community and prefer the cleanliness of ASCII in email versus the glossy personality-driven approach of blogs. Isn’t a blog? For most academics. blogs are irrelevant as they don’t count as publications. The same could be said of Internet activists who have not moved beyond the use of e-mail and their own content management system. Whaaaa???

I could go on even with this paragraph, but you get the idea. And again, I want to be clear that I don’t think that everything that Lovink is saying is wrong– this is just a particularly problematic paragraph. But I guess it makes me think of two things with my own project. First, the problem with making too many pronouncements about technology along the lines of what Lovink has done in this paragraph is that the pace of rapid change in online practices versus the glacial pace of print means that things that seemed dead-certain and obvious three years ago can look downright silly once the book hits the market. Second, there’s still a lot of room for debate about what exactly are these things we call blogs and blogging.

A couple of software doo-dads for winter 2008 teaching

As sabbatical lite continues, I come across things that might be good software to incorporate into teaching in the winter term. That is slightly up in the air, but I know I am teaching English 516, and it looks like it’s going to be online again. This is good news for me because I thought the online version ultimately turned out great last winter, and it might aid and abed my quasi-sabbatical strategies.

Anyway, both of these software doo-dads come from a tech-rhet discussion. The first is Google Page Creator, which is a so-so web page editor (and it’s so-so since it hide the code, etc.). It’s a tool to at least check out, and it is possible to upload more traditional HTML and CSS documents. Since it hosts up to 100 MB of stuff, it might be a pretty worthwhile alternative to the puny amount of space from EMU. And actually, combine that with Blogger and Google video and/or YouTube and you’ve got a whole Google-verse of web 2.0 goodness!

The other cool thing is an MIT project/product called Scratch, which is described as “a new programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — and share your creations on the web.” They claim it is something for ages 8 and up, so it might be something I can figure out. But I’ll have to worry about that later– pesky book and research, doncha know.