Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hild and the Ammonites
(The connections between medieval culture and paleontology: they're everywhere!)

I've just been thoroughly enjoying reading Richard Fortey's wonderful Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, where I learned that the Jurassic Lias Formation is particularly well-exposed in the cliffs near Whitby. In that formation are many ammonites of the genus Dactylioceras, which are particularly beautiful. According to Fortey, local legend says that these ammonites (which were once among the most common molluscs on earth) are snakes that were turned into stone by Abbess Hild. Some of the fossils are even embellished with carved snake heads.

So you see, studying evolutionary biology has not just deep, but also superficial connections to medieval literature and culture!
Graduate School in English: Frequently Asked Questions

(I'm writing this up to post on the new "Graduate School" bulletin board in the department, but I thought it also might be useful here.  This is a draft, and when I get feedback from colleagues or from here, I will probably revise before giving the paper copy to the students. Some of this is Wheaton-specific, but I am too exhausted after the first day of classes to do more than paste right now). 

Frequently Asked Questions about Graduate School in English

Q: Why go to graduate school?

A: Don’t go just because you liked college and want more of the same. Go because you have a passion for a subject and want additional training. Graduate school is a significant expenditure of time and money—think carefully about your decision. If you want to be a lawyer or a professor, graduate school is essential. For fields such as teaching, you want to investigate whether or not getting a job first is beneficial: that job may, after a few years, pay your tuition to go to graduate school.
A trite but often-true comment is that you don’t go to graduate school to get a good first job (because it often doesn’t help there), but to move up the ladder faster after you get that first job.

Q: Where should I go?

A: You need to investigate. A school’s overall reputation is not particularly helpful for graduate school. You want to go to a program that teaches what you want to learn. Talk to your professors, particularly those members of the faculty who have most recently been to graduate school. Check the websites of the schools that interest you. Be willing to look outside New England. Who you study with is more important than where you study, so do some research.

Q: How do I pay for graduate school?

A: You can apply for scholarships and fellowships, but they are difficult at times to get. Large, land-grant schools, particularly those in the Midwest, will often pay your tuition and give you a stipend in return for your teaching first-year writing. Getting some experience tutoring can help you secure one of these teaching fellowships. See the Filene Center for more help with scholarship applications.

Q: When do I apply?

A: A general rule of thumb is that you want to get your applications basically finished up around Halloween of your senior year. But each program has a different deadline (usually in January), and you need to check these out on your own.

Q: Do I have to take the GRE? Which exams?

A: For most graduate programs in the US, you will need the general GRE (which has three areas, Verbal, Math and Logic). Most graduate programs in English only care about your verbal score. The GRE in English Literature is not held in high esteem by most members of the Wheaton faculty, as it measures more how many survey courses you have had rather than the in-depth thinking that we value. However, if the place you want to apply requires the GRE in English Literature, you will need to take it. We do not recommend taking both exams on the same day. Generally, you want to take your general exam in the October/November time frame and the subject exam, if you need it, in the later period.

Q: How do I handle letters of recommendation?

A: You want letters from professors who know you and your work well and can speak specifically about you. You should schedule a meeting to talk to your letter-writers well in advance of the deadline. Faculty on research leave will usually be able to write letters, but you need to give them plenty of notice. It is a good idea to give a professor a copy of your personal statement and an example of your work when you give them the paperwork for the letters.

Q: What about all that paperwork that comes with the letters?

A: You must be sure to print it unless it is to be submitted electronically (many law-school applications are, for example). Give your letter-writer:

1). Copies of all forms, filled out by you, with your signature in the “I waive/don’t waive” box. This is important and many students forget.
2). An addressed and stamped envelope. If the application says for the professor to return the sealed envelope to you, give the professor an envelope addressed to you. Write, in pencil, the deadline on the lower right-hand corner of the envelope. On the lower left-hand corner, write the school to which you are applying (this is for your benefit, so that you can put the right letter in the right packet if you are assembling it).
3). A list of the places to which you are applying and the deadlines for each of them.

Q: What is the most important part of my application?

A: For creative writing or journalism, your application will be judged almost entirely on your portfolio, and often on the first few pages of that portfolio. Revise, revise, revise! And use the resources at the Kollett Center to help you. Your personal statement will be important as much for the quality of the writing as for the content. Your sample paper (if this is requested) should be as perfect as you can make it.

Q: What if I don’t get in?

A: Try again. Graduate schools used to look at students who came straight from undergrad as “fast track.” This is no longer true. Some additional life experience is actually a big plus, so by doing something other than grad school for a few years, you will actually be improving your chances. Of course if you can sail around Cape Horn in an open boat with only a sloth and a chinchilla for companions, you’ll have a compelling story. But the average age of students in graduate school has been steadily creeping up for years. You may run into setbacks, but, as a Wheaton student, you can overcome them with the same qualities of perseverance and intelligence that got you this far.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My daughter, the famous actor, and the plastic animals:
A story of contingency

I was recently reading Dinochick Blogs and noticed that the author had just received her Primeval Predators: the plastic animals of the Burgess Shale.  You may remember these plastic animals from a few years back, when I gave a paper at Kalamazoo and used them as visual aids

Anyway, I have a story about the Burgess Shale animals, my daughter, and famous actors. 

A couple of years ago I was part of the educational programming at The Gathering of the Fellowship, part II, in Toronto, a Tolkien fan event.  The Gathering had different levels of tickets you could buy that gave you different kinds of access to the people there.  There was a "VIP" event one evening at which the various speakers, artists and actors (from The Lord of the Rings films) would meet and greet people who had purchased the VIP tickets. 

Now, the people who bought these tickets wanted to meet the actors from the films, not meet me, and I figured that I would go to the event, watch people talking to the actors, and then leave.  But there were a few wrinkles. 

My son, who was two years old, was really having trouble falling asleep in a hotel room with all the rest of us present and awake.  So while my wife worked on getting him to sleep, I  took my daughter, who was nearly six years old, down to the event.  That day we had been at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I had bought the Burgess Shale plastic animals--for my teaching, but when you have a six-year-old and you buy plastic animals, you can bet that she'll be playing with them. 

So I found a corner of a room for her to sit on the floor with Anomalocaris and Wiwaxia and Opabinia, making a little animal circus.  Then, to my surprise, a few people wanted to talk to me about Tolkien.  While I was talking, I drifted away from my daughter and got more involved in the conversation. 

Then suddenly I noticed a lot of flashbulbs going off.  When I turned around I saw, and I am not making this up, Craig Parker, who played Haldir in The Lord of the Rings sitting on the floor playing Burgess Shale animals with my daughter.  He was completely surrounded, and I am not making this up either, by a circle of (mostly) women with cameras, taking pictures of him playing with Anomalocaris, et al.   I stood there in shock and watched this, and it went on for about fifteen minutes.  He and my daughter kept chatting and doing "Burgess Shale circus" (Anomalocaris and Opabinia can both do very good backflips) and people stood around and took pictures of them. 

Now I'm sure that part of this whole thing was that Craig wanted a short break from all the people who were chatting with him.  But it was really awfully nice of him to play with my daughter all this time.  And for the rest of the event, he went out of his way to go up to her, give her a hug and say "hi."  She also became friendly with Bruce Hopkins, who played Gamling.  And so, by the end of the Gathering, my daughter was saying "There's my friend the famous movie star," and "there's my other friend, the famous movie star who wanted to take his horse surfing" (a story Bruce made up for her).    

So it all started with the Burgess Shale animals, and I think Stephen Jay Gould would have been pleased and surprised what his book Wonderful Life had wrought.  Certainly all the contingency that interested him is evident in this story.  

(Last year, at the Santa Fe Institute, I got to meet Doug Erwin of the Smithsonian.  When I got back from SFI, my daughter said "The next time you see him, can you ask if we can borrow Opabinia?" I haven't dared ask that question.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Method: Push the Metaphor Until it Breaks
(or, mocking "imbricated" yet again)

I've been involved in an interesting exchange of emails with a student about how to do Tolkien studies, and that discussion have evolved into a larger discussion about intellectual practice.  This student is non-traditional, someone who has come to academia from a physical-labor and highly skilled job.  He/she asked me for some trick about how to generate ideas for papers and arguments.  I came up with a few and thought I would share one here:  push the metaphor until it breaks, then look at the broken pieces and figure out why it broke. 

So, for example, if you hear Foucault's metaphor of the "prisonhouse of language," push the metaphor: who is the warden? what shape would that prisonhouse be? Do people get work release? Is there parole?  Do people in it have just one cell mate?  Communal showers? Exercise yard?   Etc., etc. 

If you can build the metaphor bigger and bigger, and figure out how all those pieces might fit in, then that metaphor might be robust.  In Daniel Dennett's terms, it's a good "intuition pump." But if the metaphor collapses when pushed, then you know that perhaps it wasn't a good one, that it wasn't carrying the things you wanted it to carry. 

Which brings me to "imbricated," a metaphor in theory-speak for discourses that overlap, but don't overlap completely. 

Here's the problem.  "Imbricatus," especially when applied, as it originally was, to fish and reptile taxonomy (to describing animals with scales), really means "overlapping like shingles on a roof." (The alternates for scale descriptions are often "tessellatus," tessellated, like floor tiles, and tuberculatus, having small patches of scales surrounded by a lump, a tubercle). 

But do discourses really overlap like shingles on a roof?  To push the metaphor, that means that the overlap on each shingle is exactly the same amount.  And furthermore, that each shingle is identical to each other shingle, so the "imbrication" is really the same everywhere.  It seems to me that the metaphor of "imbricated discourses" breaks right here, and it breaks because the metaphorical description is not a particularly good intuition pump.  When you think of discourses as overlapping like shingles, the abstraction doesn't really help you understand anything else about the discourses.  When you start to manipulate the metaphor in your mind, you don't really find anything that you didn't already know (the way that manipulating other metaphors, such as genes as "wanting" to assist their copies--though I'm not a great fan of this metaphor--does help to uncover new relationships). 

And this is why I think that using the phrase "imbricated discourses" is really just a bit of ossified jargon whose real purpose is to obscure, not to illuminate.  "Partially overlapping" or "networked" or "intertwined" might not seem so technical, but these are actually better intuition pumps.  Hence I take the phrase "imbricated discourses" as being equivalent to a cliche in a short story: I start to think that the author hasn't put as much thought as was needed into the argument and is lazily relying upon materials pre-fabricated (and not pre-fabricated very well) by others. 

So the method is this:  don't automatically avoid the metaphor, but see if, by going along with it to the extreme of reducto ad absurdum, you can get it to break.  Then do failure analysis. 

(and I'll note that a very extended metaphor, that doesn't easily break, was developed by King Alfred in the Preface to the translation of Augustine's Soliloquies.  Alfred himself pushes that metaphor a long, long way without breaking it). 

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Model
(But would it work if it were generalized?)

As you may have guess from the my post from the other day, the late Stephen Jay Gould is one of my intellectual heroes.  I have, to my sorrow, become convinced that a lot of his more theoretical biology is not right, or that he exaggerated the novelty and significance of some of  his ideas (a failing to which we are all prone).  But I still love him.  And I have to tell you that when I met Gould, he was immediately entered into the highly competitive "Famous Person who is  not a Jerk" hall of fame.  Others included in this august group include Simon Keynes, John Hines, Michelle Brown, E. O. Wilson, Sarah Beckwith, Bharti Mukherjee.  (Those who didn't make the cut include David Halperin, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, Kathleen Biddick--sorry guys; maybe next time you won't be jerky to the little people).  But I'll tell the story of Gould and my undergraduate student's play and Gould's dinner with us later.  Now I want to talk about Gould's methodology and how I've tried to emulate it.  

Gould was a specialist on Cerion, a genus of land snails from Bermuda and the Bahamas.  He continued consistent, painstaking and excellent work on these snails throughout his working life.  He said that, to be a good scientist, you have to gather data with you own hands, do your own measurements, touch and feel the specimens.  Generalizing this kind of work beyond biology, I think of this kind of research as the "immersing yourself in the material" (such as translating for yourself very long texts or reading entire shelves of EETS material or the ASPR), and its results, in publications, as the "technical contributions" we make or the "technical research" we do.  In medieval studies the analogues would be emending (or un-emending) texts, discovering sources, re-dating material.  I think this is very, very important, and when I am in a position of judging people for endowed Chairs, tenure, fellowships, etc., I look to see if they've made any technical contributions and rate these much more highly than literary criticism or theoretical approaches. 

But Gould did not only do technical research on land snails in Bermuda and the Bahamas.  He also proposed and argued for some significant revisions of the Darwinian "new synthesis" (which had been developed when Mendelian models of heredity were coupled with the principle of Natural Selection; recent work that is called "Evo-Devo" -- Evolution and Development -- has integrated work in developmental biology into the new synthesis.  This is where bio is right now).  With Niles Eldredge Gould proposed "Punctuated Equilibrium," the idea that morphologies are static for long periods of time and then change rather rapidly rather than the continuous rate of very slow change that Gould attributed to Darwin (opponents of Gould noted that Darwin had at least made a few motions towards punctuated equilibrium and that Gould and Eldredge weren't as revolutionary as they claimed to be; the truth is somewhere in the middle -- Gould and Eldredge were excellent self-promoters, and not all Darwinians were complete gradualists, but Punctuated Equilibrium did more to change the thinking of theoretical biologists than opponents often admit).  With Elizabeth Vrba, Gould made other theoretical contributions, and in his final opus, published posthumously, he tried to revise the Evo-Devo paradigm somewhat (though there is still a lot of argument as to whether or not Gould's claims for being different are really true -- he wanted to focus on contingency in a historical sense and on constraints of possible body plans in the Evo-Devo sense--paleontologists I know say that they always believed in contingency (see K-T asteroid impact); developmental biologists whom I know say that a major part of their work is figuring out which biochemistry and morphology is absolutely constrained and which is more subject to variation).  

I would liken this aspect of Gould's work to aspects of theory or literary criticism in medieval studies: they are matters of interpretation, sometimes significant (because they lead researchers to new technical questions or they help to integrate many disparate facts), sometimes less so (because they are simply arguments over "spandrels" and how important they are in evolution or wholly insider debates). One difference might be that Gould was making a lot of the theory himself or at least modifying it significantly rather than taking the theory of X and applying it to the texts Y and Z.  Valuing this part of Gould's work is difficult.  I know one pretty prominent biologist who told me that "everything that Gould was right about was conventional wisdom and everything he was revolutionary about turned out to be wrong. Mostly he just changed emphasis."  I think changing emphasis is pretty important, but I am not a working biologist.  In literary study, I'm inclined to be a lot less interested or impressed by "The Seafarer: The 500th debate on the number of speakers" or "Yet another argument about 'ofermod'" or "How feminine is Grendel's mother?" than I am about work that integrates wide-ranging material (like that by Lapidge, Gretsch, Orchard).  

But in addition to his detailed technical work and his theoretical approaches, Gould also wrote a monthly column, This View of Life in Natural History, a magazine I had been reading since I was six years old.  Nerdy story:  when I arrived at college and first had a checking account (I only had passbook savings before then), the first two checks I wrote were to the American Littoral Society, which entitled me to their journal, Underwater Naturalist, and to the American Museum of Natural History (my favorite indoor place on the face of the earth, and where I hope someone can smuggle in my skeleton when I'm dead) which got me Natural History at college.  
Gould's "This View of Life" was the must-read for any issue of Natural History, and I can remember sitting in my windowsill at Morewood Gardens, at Carnegie Mellon, eating a quiet lunch and just loving learning about biology and evolution from Gould.  This was Gould's popular work, where he took technical materials from evolutionary biology and explained it clearly to interested laypeople (and every biologist I know read "This View of Life" religiously).   In "This View of Life," Gould made arguments about evolutionary theory for a wider audience, presented technical materials for lay readers, and he just wrote beautifully and entertainingly.  

I would liken this part of Gould's career to those medievalists, like Scott Nokes and Tom Shippey and Michelle Brown, who make a real effort, in different venues and in different ways, to explain medieval studies, and their importance, to lay people. This work not only helps to recruit new students and spread the word of important intellectual discoveries, but it makes the general public, parents, legislators and donors more willing to support medieval studies.  I also think--and here I am not a majority opinion, I think--that if you can't explain the technical materials in terms that a layman can understand (or you choose not to) you are abdicating an important responsibility of disseminating your work as well as doing it.  This doesn't mean that an article in ASE should read like a blog post (God forbid), but it does suggest that impenetrable prose is a failing.  In Wonderful Life, after all, Gould spends 118 pages on arthropod taxonomy and its significance, and that book made best-seller lists and I regularly teach it to first-year students in English 101 (as an example of extended argument and beautiful writing.  We don't skip the discussion of bi-ramous appendages and tagmosis in the cephalon).  

I will, of course, never reach Gould's level, but I have tried to model my career and my research on what I perceive of his approach (and the single best piece of advice I ever got about graduate school, I got from Wonderful Life, where Gould says that most important thing is the person you study with, not the place  you go.  Which is why I went to do my Ph.D. with Allen Frantzen despite the rest of the Loyola English department, the funding situation, etc.).   My idea is to balance real, technical contributions (my re-dating of the Rule of Chrodegang translation, for instance or, in Tolkien studies, my work on trying to figure out what Tolkien was trying to do with Goths and the ancestors of the Rohirrim) with more literary approaches (Blood and Deeds in Beowulf) and of course my theory in How Tradition Works, and at the same time doing outreach, involving undergraduates and the community in research, and communicating to as wide an audience as possible why what we do is interesting and important.   

The nice thing about this model is that I am never bored.  The bad thing is that I always have too much on my plate.  But thus far--at least 15 years since I really realized that I was going to be an academic--it has served me well.   I don't know if it is generalizable as a model of scholarship.  Elite places, correctly, in my view, value technical contributions more.  And it is a sad state of affairs that there is no humanities equivalent to Natural History (if anyone founds one, I volunteer to write the equivalent of the "This View of Life" column), so that kind of outreach is difficult.  But I can, without too much hesitation, recommend this kind of balancing.  Having to explain for a general audience sharpens your thinking.  Having to make technical contributions helps keep you out beyond the event horizon of the twin black holes of mere opinions: solipsism and politics.  Not eliminating your subjective, hard-to-argue literary intuition opens up more fields of inquiry than the re-trenchment approach of late 20th-century philology: "we will only speak of what we can absolutely prove."  

Finally, and here I shill for the liberal arts education yet again, the kind of polymath study that Gould did enables breakthroughs in all areas.  The more you know about what is going on in other fields, the more you can apply to the difficult problems in your own field.  And the more you stick with your technical projects, the more the other things will fall into place.  And really, in the end, Gould was just a great person to sit a listen to and argue with.  In my experience, the place to really find people like that is in the Science Center. Happy hunting.

Monday, August 18, 2008

You know what would have made the famous Angelina Jolie "Naked Philology" scene in the Beowulf movie even better?

If she had had this tattooed on her lower back:

"None among all the sciences is prouder, nobler or more contentious than philology, or less merciful to error."
Is that a reasonable translation, Marcel, or should I have said "No science" and "more merciless to error" to be idiomatic?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Brief Moment of Olympic Pride and Cheerleading

The country of which I am a dual citizen is just crushing everything beneath its feet in the running events. 

Go Jamaica!!
Three Medievalish Scholarly Books I Wish I had Written

Mechthild Gretsch, The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform.

(possibly the book of scholarship that has most inspired me in my life and the most learned, precise argument I have ever read in my field. I read it straight through twice the first time I picked it up. Never, in my opinion, has anyone done more to integrate disparate materials into a coherent and believable argument [though a lot of Lapidge's stuff comes close])

Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth.

(I had plans to write this book. I had an outline to write this book. Then I read it and discovered that Tom had written it ten years before I started the outline. And it was better than mine would have been. I was prepared to hate Tom for that. Then I met him and it was the opposite).

Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

(Ward-Perkins manages to make a discussion of pottery shards (superficially the most boring subject in the history of earth) into a fascinating page-turner that proves a much larger points. I would give one of my various paired organs to be able to write like him).

The Three Most Inspirational Non-Medievalist Scholarly Books I Have Ever Read

Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype.
(Possibly the most beautifully constructed, long argument I have ever read).

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

(A true synthesis of the kind I have always wanted to write, and an enormous pleasure to read. Like the other books on this list, I pick it up to find a quote and find that I am still reading it forty-five minutes later).

Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

(Yes, I know that not all of Gould's claims have stood up. Yes, he contradicts himself within a span of eight pages at the end. Yes, he's wrong about Hallucigenia. Don't care. I remember sitting next to my aunt's pool in the summer of 1980 and feeling like the top of my head was coming off, this book was so inspiring).  

I'm curious to know what books serve the same function for my colleagues.  

Friday, August 15, 2008

So a mathematician walks into a bar...

In a comment to the previous post, John Cowan told an engineer vs. mathematician joke. I am married to an engineer, co-teach a course with a mathematician, have published jointly with a biologist, and am in the midst of an enormous project with a computer scientist and another mathematician and a biologist. There is some truth in all the stereotypes. So here are my two favorite jokes that poke fun at the different disciplines.

First joke

An engineer, a chemist and a mathematician are all staying at a hotel after a conference. Three small fires simultaneously break out in the wastepaper baskets in their rooms.

The engineer wakes up, looks at the fire, makes a quick calculation, puts exactly the right amount of water into the ice bucket, and pours it on the fire. Fire is out and no water spills out of the basket.

The chemist wakes up, looks at the fire, fills up five different vessels and dumps them onto the fire and then, just for good measure, runs the shower on the wastepaper basket for an hour. There's a lot of water damage, but the fire is out.

The mathematician wakes up, looks at the fire, looks at the ice bucket, looks at the water tap, and says "There is a solution." Then he goes back to sleep.

Second joke

A physicist, a biologist and a mathematician are sitting in a cafe and chatting. They notice two people go into a house. A few minutes later, three people come out.

The physicist says "The initial measurement was in error."
The biologist says "They must have reproduced."
The mathematician says "If one person goes back into the house, it will then be empty."

Gratuitous completely nerdy math joke

Q: What do you get when you cross rabbit and elephant?
A: Rabbit elephant sine theta.

Gratuitous completely nerdy physics joke

2+2=5 for very large values of 2 or small values of 5.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I'm learning to think
more like a mathematician, and that's a good thing.

Last year I co-taught the "The Edge of Reason," the paired Math/Science Fiction courses that my friend and colleague, Professor Bill Goldbloom Bloch and I designed (Bill, by the way has an absolutely brilliant book on the mathematics of Borges' "Library of Babel" coming out any day now from Oxford). So every teaching day I was in a classroom with a mathematician, learning more of the very high-end math along with the students and really starting to understand how mathematicians think.

This year Bill and I are teaching an experimental course, Logic and Language, in which we will be taking students (mainly sophomores) through, among other things, Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, Computability and Logic by George Boolos, et. al., and Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Topics to be covered include transformational generative grammar, information theory, computability, Turing machines, and Gödell's incompleteness theorem.

This summer I have been collaborating with Prof. of Computer Science Mark LeBlanc and Prof. of Mathematics Mike Kahn (a specialist in statistics). We have been building some pretty cool software.

In prepping and teaching the courses, and doing the research, I've learned a lot of important reasoning skills, because mathematicians and computer scientists have different ways of thinking that are incredibly useful. Here's just one.

Let's say other people have proven a lot of things about Turing Machines. And let's say you're working on something else, like Wang Tiles. Well, a mathematician thinks, "hmmm... there's all this cool stuff about Turing Machines over here. If I can prove that a set of Wang Tiles can work like a Turing Machine then, boom!, I've just proved a whole ton of stuff about Wang Tiles without having to prove it specifically for Wang Tiles."

This sounds obvious in my summary, but it's the kind of obvious that I really only got after we'd done stuff like it a bunch of times. For example, number theory, long thought to be the most abstruse and useless part of math, turns out to be absolutely essential for doing secure credit card transactions on the internet. That's nice to know, but it's mind-blowing to work through all the underlying math and see how it all falls together.

And this brings me to just one quick opportunity to shill for a liberal arts education that includes a lot of math and science: The only way to make those kinds of connections, to say "Oh, this set of Wang Tiles is really just a Turing Machine," is to have, floating around in your head, a lot of information about different and disparate fields. That's why I read as much evolutionary biology (and now as much math) as I can get my hands on: the more I pack into my skull, I think, the more likely I am to be able to make those kinds of connections and to think like a mathematician.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Turtla (or, possibly, Turtle)

Today, after dropping off my daughter at camp, I was driving back along Route 1 here in Dedham. I noticed something on the side of the road. It was this guy (possibly girl; a female would be more likely at this time of year, but this turtle's plastron seems pretty concave to me, so I was thinking "turtla" rather than "turtle").

I was afraid that he was going to wander into traffic and get killed--and possibly hurt someone in the process, since he weighs at least 15 pounds and is about 30 inches long--so I pulled over and picked him up, thinking to take him back to the marshy woods behind TGI Fridays. But as I began to carry him through the parking lot, I noticed some workers looking at me funny as I brought the turtle closer and closer to where they were working. I rapidly came to the conclusion that they might not appreciate my letting a 15-pound snapping turtle loose near where they were working.

So I took the turtle back to my car and put it in my trunk, saying to him "You're a lucky turtle, buddy. I'm from New Jersey. Usually when we put somebody in a car trunk, they don't come back out."

I'm waiting until it gets dark tonight, and then I will release him safely.

This has been quite the year of the turtle. Last summer I rescued an endangered gopher tortoise from the road in Florida, and in June my daughter worked on a Diamondback Terrapin conservation project with my colleague Prof. Barbara Brennessel (you may know her as the co-author of the paper testing medieval medicine in Anglo-Saxon England).

At least none of these turtles peed all over me the way that the turtle I took out of the road on Cape Cod a few years back did. Who says nothing ever improves?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Department Chair Stuff

A few years ago I was the Chair of Wheaton's Educational Policy Committee (Ed Pol). I had been on Ed Pol for three years, including the years in which we did our massive curriculum overhaul, and I'd been recording secretary (so I can say, honestly, that I wrote the new curriculum -- It would be more accurate to say that I typed the new curriculum, but let's not split hairs). But because I had been on Ed Pol in a challenging environment, I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to be Chair.

Ed Pol is probably the most influential committee at Wheaton, where just about everything is run by the faculty committees (Ed Pol has the President and Provost on it, which helps a lot), so I had real hope that I could accomplish a few things. First, my particular hobby horse, I wanted to create tighter links between the sciences and the humanities. Second, I wanted to make some tweaks on our "Connections" curriculum. Third, I wanted to work with the President and Provost to clarify the relationships between Wheaton's various "centers" (Filene Center for Work and Learning, Global Center, Multicultural Center, etc.) and the curriculum (ok, I'll be honest: I wanted to lay down some markers that said "Only the faculty control the curriculum. Period." But I was happy to do this under a rubric of cooperation).

Instead, I found my time and my energy highjacked by one administrator who, I have to say, was a whiny pain in the ass. We spent hours and meeting after meeting on a stupid, useless proposal. I kept finding ways to reject it, and it kept coming back and wasting more of my time.

Of my many character flaws, one of the worst is my love of saying "I told you so." As a mentor pointed out, saying "I told you so" means that you didn't do a good enough job in arguing for a position and that failure of politics or rhetoric has had negative results. But I have not learned to overcome this flaw, and so I say now "I told you so." The useless program that this administrator wasted so much of my time on has not had one single student sign up for it. So much for the lie that "students are demanding this." It was, as I noted then, a complete waste of time, predicated entirely on ego and bureaucratic empire-building. But it did managed to prevent me from accomplishing the things I wanted to accomplish as Chair of Ed Pol. Yes, I got the trains to run on time, and that's a good feeling, but the larger-scale things I thought we needed to address did not get addressed. I have a feeling I will be saying "I told you so" again not that long from now.

Last year, my first as as department Chair, similar things happened. I had a lot of plans for what I wanted to accomplish, but mostly found myself scrambling from one new crisis to another. Partly this occurred because my Chair responsibilities were dumped on me two weeks early with no transition at all. You'd think two weeks over the course of a year wouldn't matter, but it did. A lot. I am only now catching up on all the various stacked deadlines. But more than the dumping of responsibilities, the chaos of the departmental files, and a set of crises that started in June and continued pretty much uninterrupted through the year was my not knowing how to handle being department Chair. But over the year I think I learned some things, and so I pass on to you a few lessons that may be useful when you become Chair.

Not everything is crucial. This summer I decided that by June 20th, I had done enough department Chairing for that particular month. So for ten days I didn't answer emails, didn't go to meetings, etc. You know what? Nothing bad happened. When I picked up on stuff starting on July 1, everything was fine. Remarkable. This rule only applies to things without external deadlines. You may not as Chair or regular faculty member, make the staff's jobs more difficult by being late with things. That is totally unacceptable. But for reports that no one will read, make-work, and meetings that are about (*shudder*) feelings, things will wait.

It's your agenda. Within reason, of course, but if someone wants their proposal on the agenda, let them do all the other crappy department Chair work and set the agenda. I bent over backwards for people about stuff, and still they whined. Clearly, they're going to whine no matter what. So ignore the whining and set up the agenda that you think is important. (Note: anything that is below item 6 on the agenda is very unlikely to get done at that meeting. Don't put your stuff below item 6).

You don't need to take crap from people. Academics tend to be exceedingly obnoxious in their emails. I was joking about the "Friday afternoon nasty-grams" to a friend of mine who was temporarily doing administration, and he knew immediately what I was talking about. I kept track, and I got a Friday afternoon nasty-gram for seven consecutive Fridays at one point. From six different people. My solution: if any email is even the slightest bit obnoxious, it doesn't get answered, and I don't mention that I received it. Let the obnoxious person come up to you and ask "Did you get my obnoxious email?" (this has never happened).

Maintain boundaries. You were elected department Chair, not "Slave of the English Department." Don't answer email after certain hours (unless that helps you be more efficient), don't read or answer email on weekends. Protect your research time. Last year there were weeks when put in >20 hours on department Chair stuff while still maintaining my teaching and raising two young children. This was not wise. When I was Chair of Ed Pol I used to joke that we needed "Meeting Dosimeters" similar to those used for people who work with radioactive materials. When your dosimeter has gone above the safety level, you simply can't do any more work with radioactivity that month. It should be the same thing with meetings and other Chair stuff: decide how much you are going to do per week, and stick to that. To quote my friend Bryon Grigsby, who is now a Provost: "Nobody is going to die based on what happens in the English department."

I'm in an unusual situation this year with Department Chair: On midnight of July 1, 2009, I will be going on a one-year research leave. Then I will come back and be Chair for one more year. That means I'm not a lame duck this year, but there is also light at the end of the tunnel (even though The Cake is a Lie). I'm hoping that this dynamic makes for a productive and successful year. Maybe I'll even be able to follow my own rules.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Five Word Summary on Being Department Chair

The cake is a lie.