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Compassion

Compassion

I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.

Academic Fandom: Collaborative Doctoral Work

Academic Fandom: Collaborative Doctoral Work

I really miss school.

I work at a school, yes. But I miss being a student in one. Many people think I’m crazy, but I love being in school. I love the reading, the writing, and most of all the discussion. I’m a Harvard graduate, I know what it can be like to sit in a room full of extremely bright people and wrestle with a thorny problem. I love not knowing and struggling to understand, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing if any of them work.

But I’m a drop-out. I dropped out of a phd program at the very institution at which I am currently employed, in fact. It’s simultaneously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the smartest decision I ever made, and the decision I am most likely to feel regret about. I don’t regret it because I want the life that would have come with finishing; I think I’m far better off as a librarian, playing with tech and managing projects and helping faculty with their courses, than I would be with a load of research and teaching to do. I adore my job, and I feel very lucky to have found this particular path. I only regret it because I’d like to do the work.

There’s nothing stopping me from going back. Not to that program, or that topic, or that department, though. I think I’ve moved into a new area now. If I were to go back, it would be in a very different way. And I wouldn’t do it in order to become an academic in the end. Not as job training. Just to improve the person that I am, and to enrich the work I’m already doing.

But you couldn’t drag me back to that style of PhD program. I was lonely, bored, confused about the purpose behind anything I was doing. I felt lost. I have discovered over time that my motivation comes from interacting with other people. This wasn’t immediately apparent all through graduate school because I was de facto surrounded by others. I didn’t realize how much my enthusiasm depended on the community. As soon as I lost that community, I seriously lost my way.

So I was thinking about it a bit, and talking to some doctoral students about the issues they’re facing, I think I’m actually on to something. I think I’ve figured out what kind of doctoral program I’d want to enter. It would go something like this.

You start a doctoral program with a group of like-minded people, interested in working together. In fact, I think the group should actually apply to a program together, be upfront about their collaboration. It’s not a huge group, maybe 4-5 people. Those 4-5 people have agreed beforehand that they want to work on an area of mutual interest. But each of them comes to the subject from a different angle, maybe even a different discipline altogether. They’re looking at maybe the same data, or the same subjects, or at historical data from the same decade, or the same region. Something ties them together, makes each other’s work interesting and appealing to each of them. It gives them a common language and common heroes.

They would all have their own advisers, potentially their own departments to turn to for support and guidance. But the group goes through their programs together, sometimes off doing their own courses and conferences, sometimes working closely together. If they’re doing data collection, the data is shared among the group. They may actually gather data together, and work from the same starting point. Sharing data isn’t plagiarism, after all; the insights you draw from it are the key part.

They discuss approaches and revelations, they have people to turn to when they are wrestling with a thorny problem. They influence each other; they also resist being influenced, or deliberately buck the trend. They read some books in common, but not all. Each brings a lot of unique insights and perspective from their own perspective, or discipline, or area. Comps would be a course (or set of courses, really) where the reading lists are created in an order that will allow all the participants to gain from each other’s thinking along the way. You read your own comps reading list, but you get insight from four others at the same time. Maybe they bring in speakers to talk to them. People to come inspire them or challenge them.

When it comes time to start writing, they have a structured plan, with key milestones and deadlines. They arrange to write their sections with commonalities at the same time, like writing a research paper for a seminar course. The writing process for the collaborative group might look like another set of courses, in fact: they take a “course” together to get each section or chapter finished, with a common deadline and requisite celebrations. They can get a mental tick mark as they complete each step, move through the process like an undergraduate moves through first, second, third, fourth year, graduation. The path of progression would be clear, manageable, collegial. The group could work together along the way to publish collected essays revolving around a theme or element of their collective work. They would meet weekly to discuss their work, their ideas, to be inspired and influenced by each other. They would work collaboratively toward independent goals that are inter-related and complementary. When they’re finished, their dissertations could be published together as a series of books, all related and referencing each other.

Chemistry already works this way, in collaborative units. I think if the humanities started doing the same, the work would be richer. And less tedious to produce.

After I thought it all through, I realized what I was considering: creating a fandom. A fandom in academia, around a topic/theme/group/region. A fandom with it’s language, traditions, communities, familiar cast of characters all re-written and re-imagined by each member. As long as it’s a fandom, it comes with a built in audience of people who are actually interested in your take on the very familiar subject. The conversations are deeper, the details and differences are more obvious. The process gains some meaning, even if that meaning is entirely about finding something to contribute to the group. Flagging enthusiasm can be bolstered up by someone else’s reinvigoration.

It’s not that it’s easier than the traditional PhD; it wouldn’t be. You’d still have to do the reading, pass your comps, do your languages if you have to, collect your data and compose your dissertation. It’s just that it wouldn’t have to be such a solitary task. I think this is the kind of PhD that could actually be fun to do. And wouldn’t the work be richer, with constant insight from others? It wouldn’t prevent you from doing solitary work. Solitary work is the foundation of most academic work, and, ironically, most fandom work too. But what is the benefit of solitary work? Don’t we learn better and think better when challenged and supported and listened to by others? Why do we cut so much of that out of the doctoral process? Doesn’t the solitary work gain meaning when it’s in aid of the collaborative? Isn’t academic inherently collaborative, with academics building on each other work, just at a relatively slow pace? From the slow process of getting an article published and the long wait for meaningful citations in future published work, it’s still highly collaborative. Just crazy slow. Would it be terribly wrong to speed it up a bit?

Taking on Debt, and other Stressful Life Events

Taking on Debt, and other Stressful Life Events

I didn’t anticipate that buying real estate would be so stressful. I guess it makes sense that something involving putting yourself into this much debt would be, but it’s isn’t even so much that. Everyone warned me that after all the paperwork was signed I would feel pangs of regret and that was normal, but that wasn’t so much the problem either.

Mostly it was just all the little steps involved that I didn’t entirely anticipate, but probably should have. I’ve never bought anything serious before (computers obviously don’t count as “serious”). I didn’t realize how many people needed to know this much about me.

The first part that surprised me (but probably shouldn’t have) was that the mortgage company wanted to know every detail about my financial history. I don’t mean running a credit check or knowing how much money I intend to put down, or even requesting pay stubs or anything like that. I didn’t realize they would want to have record of every transaction I made on all of my accounts for the last three months. My mortgage company now knows the depths of my relationship with Shopper’s Drug Mart. My parents donated a sum of money to my house-buying endeavours, which appeared in my saving accounts as a bank-to-bank transfer. Everyone wants to know where that money came from; everyone. I had to get my father to sign a waiver that indicated I would never have to pay it back. The teller at the bank wanted to know how I got it; she said that “funny things” happen these days and they have to ask questions when a largeish sum of money appears and someone tries to take it out the next day. It wasn’t the next day. It was a month later, and I have been a loyal customer of this particular financial institution for the last 30 years. My mother is a former employee of this particular financial institution. No one trusts anyone when it comes to money.

Before all that was just finding out if I qualified. I’d actually done the calling around a couple of months earlier, so I knew that I did, but it was still stressful, sitting on the phone, listening as they punched in the numbers. “Let’s just see how the ratios look.” Pause. Pause. Pause. I know the ratios look okay. But suddenly it’s like being back in junior high and waiting to see if the cool kid is going to pick you for their soccer baseball team. Come on, is it a yes? Is it? I know it’s got to be a yes, I’m a good kicker! Come on! Pick me! “Oh, the ratios are fine, sure, you qualify.” Great! Now suddenly I feel sort of dirty.

Do you know how many times I’ve had to declare that I’m single? I figured it would be remarked upon, a single woman buying real estate. So I can’t say I was entirely surprised about it, but, man. Did I ever have to clarify it a lot. And the house inspector told me that maybe my townhouse would be “lucky” and now I would “find a man”. Sadly there’s no keyboard smiley that entirely captures my reaction to that statement.

My brother-in-law is telling everyone that I’m a grown up now, which I mostly agree with, except when I’m calling all the experts; there’s always a surly woman on the other end of the phone who has zero patience for the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing and expects me to know all the lingo.

There’s a whole language to buying real estate that makes no sense until you’ve had to participate in it. You need a status certificate as part of the process of buying a condo. You need to decide between a variable and a fixed-rate mortgage; is it portable? Is it assumable? (Why do I suddenly feel undereducated?) You discover the land transfer tax what What It Means to You. You work out what “title” means, why you have to have it insured, and why a “title search” is not nessarily just something you do in a library catalogue (and that it isn’t nearly as cheap). You find out that a “lien” isn’t just a posture you assume when feeling jaunty. Dual agency: boon or bust? I Aluminum, or copper wire?

But in the end, it appears that I did all the right things, and closing is just around the corner. Here’s to luck.

Enter Homeowner, stage left

Enter Homeowner, stage left

I’ve been a bit distracted lately. Let me tell you the story.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Multiple Listing Service, looking at places available for living in. Why I’ve been doing that is really an open question. I guess mostly just interest. What’s around? How much does it cost? What can I reasonably afford in this, one of the most expensive cities in the country?

And, it’s fun to see how people decorate. Or, shall we say, how people are prepared to live. It’s easy to criticize some one else’s design choices from the other side, of course, particularly when you (like me) watch way too much HGTV. It’s also given me a lot to think about; what exactly am I looking for? How much space do I really need? How much am I prepared to pay for? What’s more important, a great layout, a great price, or a great location?

About a month ago I discovered that there’s a condo building just down the street from me with units up for sale. I was delighted; I already know how to live in this location! A shift of a street to the right wouldn’t be difficult at all! It would be perfectly dreamy! But when I went to look at the place (with my parents in tow), I discovered that it didn’t fit into my vision of my own future. In spite of/because of it’s feasible price, it was just too small. (In fact, it looked like a Comfort Inn room.) I fell into despair.

Seeing a place I could afford and was in the right location that in my gut I absolutely loathed made me think. A lot. What wasn’t there? What was it I was looking for? The conclusion I came to wasn’t the obvious (granite counters, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, etc.). What I wanted was a nook. I wanted a space I could carve into a writing nook. Because that’s what I do in my free time. I wanted to make space for my free time. And that’s what was missing from the Comfort Inn room I looked at. I could fit a living room and a dining area into it. The bedroom was pretty big. Nice balcony. But where do I put my nook?

After a day of hand-stapled-to-forehead, I went back to MLS and started all over again. And that’s when everything changed.

What do you do when you intend to buy something (at some point in the next, oh, year or two), and you see something that you think would be perfect for you, interest rates are going up, and the price is so low it makes you cock your head in surprise? You call the agent, that’s all you can do.

So within a week or so it was all settled; I bought a townhouse.

Two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one an en suite off the master bedroom), two storeys. A laundry room. Ground level, so also a sliding door from the dining area that leads to a patio. At the moment it’s pretty overgrown, but by the time I’m done with it it will be an outdoor dining area, a seating area, and a garden. It’s an end unit, so neighbours only on one side. It’s on a private, quiet courtyard facing away from any streets. A view of greenery from all windows. central A/C and heat, water, and electricity included in the condo fee. And the piece de resistance: a “den”. It’s listed as a den, but it’s really not. It’s actually a 9 by 8 foot space at the top of the stairs, with a window. I laughed a little when I saw it, since that hardly qualifies as a den, but it’s the perfect nook.

What else can I do?

Closing date is August 1.

Public Service Announcement

Public Service Announcement

Two Important Things I Learned Today:

  1. Beds need to be put together properly, or else they will fall apart.

    When you buy yourself a bed, it’s probably best to either a) read the instructions before/as you put the thing together, or b) note the spaces where wood slats seems to be begging for screws and actually give it what it wants. If you’re me, what you opted to do instead of putting your bed together properly was just to throw those slats on the frame and then throw the box spring on top of them. Surely they’re not going to move around or fall off about oh once a week. (It was a very hot day when my bed was delivered. And I was tired. And by myself. Have you ever tried to put a queen sized bed together by yourself in a very small room?)

    So today, after the top slat on my bed fell out for the millionth time, I pulled my mattress off the box spring and slid it (on its side) into the kitchen. (Man: a queen sized mattress is no light weight, I tell you.) And then I pulled off the box spring and leaned it up against the wall. And then I got out my ikea tool box and screwed those damn slats to the bed frame like I should have done the first damn time. I swept out the bunnies that had started to multiply underneath, and then put the box spring and the mattress back. Now I have a structurally secure sleeping space. All is (more) right with the world.

  2. Don’t drag software you use every single minute of the day into the trash.

    In a fit of oganizational pique, I accidentally added 5,000 new files to my itunes playlist. Files that I didn’t want there. Do you know, the only way to delete files from your itunes list, as far as I can tell, is to delete them manually? One by one? I suggest you take my word for it, because I don’t know about you, but most people don’t have time to manually delete 5,000 files from itunes. You can delete them en masse from the folder in your itunes library, but getting them off your itunes display is another thing entirely.

    So what did I do? Smartypants me, I decided the best way to get rid of those 5,000 extra files was to delete itunes and then reinstall it, so it would have a look through the library again and only show what’s actually in there. Drag, drop, empty trash. Download.

    Oh, sorry! There is nothing to install! I don’t even know how to explain this error; I couldn’t even re-install itunes from the system disk. It was as if my computer had decided that, since I had so thoughtlessly and shamelessly deleted itunes, i didn’t deserve to install it again. No itunes for you!

    [Insert mad panic here.]

    Let’s take a moment to consider what this would mean. No more listening to inspiring tunes at work. No more syncing my ipod. No more creative playlists for all my trips on the Go train into Toronto, or the Go bus trips, or even the humble city bus commute I do twice a day. No more audio joy.

    I pulled out all my installation disks and I was so ready to do a clean install on my machine that I zipped up my manuscript and uploaded it just in case of total data loss.

    Much thanks to my dear Catsy (who diagnosed and cured my malady) and Jason (who deleted his own itunes in solidarity).

    So it turns out that the installer is so smart that it won’t let you install itunes if you have the receipt for a previous itunes installation in your Receipts folder under the global directory. So you really need to delete that in order for the installer to admit that you need this thing that it is you’re trying to download, oh yes you do.

Oh unix. We love you and hate you all at the same time.

Learn from my mistakes. Don’t do these things. Beds need the slats screwed in (they really do), and itunes doesn’t belong in the trash. Thank you for listening.

OCLC Spam

OCLC Spam

comment spam | kom*ent spam |

Comment spam (also called blog spam or link spam) is the placing or solicitation of links randomly on other sites, placing a desired keyword into the hyperlinked text of the inbound link. Guest books, forums, blogs and any site that accepts visitors comments are particular targets and are often victims of drive by spamming where automated software creates nonsense posts with links that are usually irrelevant and unwanted.

I think we’re all fairly familiar with comment spam at this point. It’s super annoying, and most blog platforms have tools to help us bloggers deal with it. That’s the status of things on the internet right now.

But when I started to get comment spam from OCLC, I really wondered what the heck was going on. Generally it’s presumed that spam comes from people who have paid a professional to generate it for them. The online viagra peddlars, for instance. But OCLC? Why would they do such an underhanded thing?

At first I thought it must be some kind of joke, and I just ignored it. But after a few such comments I started to get annoyed, and fired off a question to OCLC. I took a screenshot of my comments moderation page, uploaded it, and sent that along too, to demonstrate the problem. Why am I getting comment spam from these people? Is this the latest OCLC advertising blitz?

After a significant amount of confused back and forth with OCLC support (at first they thought I was complaining about getting spam email from them, in spite of the screenshot, and asked me if I’d signed up for something), they still have no idea why I’m getting these comments. They admit that the IP addresses (plainly visible in the screenshot) belong to professional spammers, which makes it look as if OCLC has paid these people to harrass me.

Anyone else getting OCLC spam? Anyone at OCLC want to take a crack at explaining this?

Edited to add: OCLC assures me that they had nothing to do with the spammers. I believe them, but I’d really like to know: what is the point of random, pointless comment spam? Who’s getting something out of this? It’s very random and strange.

Annie

Annie

I wonder if there’s a special psychiatric condition to explain why I’ve been longing to hear the soundtrack from Annie all day.

The sun’ll come out tomorrow…

Four Things

Four Things

I got tagged, and while I rarely participate in memes, I can’t pass up a real honest-to-goodness professional tagging, so here I go:

The idea here is to list four things from each of these categories, presumably to share more about yourself. Or something like that.

Jobs:
Page
Camp Counsellor
Mail Girl
Academic Programmer

When I was 18 I was a Page in our local public library (children’s department). I sorted books, I put them on shelves, I shelfread. Little did I know that my first job was going to be so closely related to my career. (Not that I ever have any actual contact with books in my current job, but hey, I do still work in a library!)

I was a camp counsellor for many many years. Through high school and through my undergrad degree. I loved it. I can’t express enough how much I loved that job. I worked primarily with 12-15 year old girls, the ones in that difficult stage. They were amazing, they were inspiring, they were energizing. Those many summers I spent living in a tent and living at a considerable distance from flush toilets is the reason I can play the guitar. Also why I know so many ice-breaker games, but I don’t pull that skill out very often these days.

During my first master’s degree, I delivered mail for Harvard Divinty School’s staff, students and faculty. Best. Job. Ever. First off, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as sorting mail. I mean, once you know who everyone is, you can just do it like you’re flying through it. Also, I delivered the mail, and got to put little post-it note smiley faces on the packages. I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. It was great.

What the job title “Academic Programmer” doesn’t tell you is that to do it you need to live in a residence hall full of 18 year olds. I did this when I was 29. I helped them with their academic issues, directed them to services on campus, that sort of thing. It was fantastic, and really taught me a lot about radical reference service in higher ed.

Movies:
Six Degrees of Separation
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Being John Malkovich
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Four Places I’ve lived:
Guelph, Ontario
Ottawa, Ontario
Cambridge, Massachusetts
London, Ontario

That’s leaving aside Toronto (and Mississauga), of course.

Four TV shows:
Star Trek: The Next Generation (well I am a geek, what can I say)
The Collector (I’ve been watching this one lately)
America’s Next Top Model
Ellen (it’s on when I get home!)

Four places I’ve vacationed: I’m not sure I’ve ever properly vacationed, but I’ll give this a go.
Norway (don’t ask)
New York, NY
Duncan, BC
My couch (eventually I will add London, UK to this list, but so far, I have never taken an official vacation)

Four of my favourite dishes:
Breakfast (at any time of day)
Fish and chips (in spite of my deathly fear of fish)
Butter chicken
Turkey dinner

Sites I visit daily:
Livejournal (to read my friends list)
Metafilter
Defamer (don’t judge me!)
The Zokutou word meter (I’m obsessed with my word count, what can I say)

Places I would rather be:
With my nephew
On a long walk with my ipod in my pocket
in front of my computer (Wait! I’m already there!)
My bed. (Wait! I’m already there too!)

Books:
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore
Green Grass, Running Water, Tom King
Our Lady of the Lost and Found, Diane Schoemperlen

Songs: (This one changes every week or so!)
Liquify, The Servant
The World you Love, Jimmy Eat World
Your Legs Grow, Nada Surf
Everybody’s Changing, Keane

Cars:
None yet. I don’t know how to drive.

Four bloggers I am now hereby tagging:
Jason Nolan
Catspaw
Sherri
Caitlin

An Open Letter of Complaint

An Open Letter of Complaint

Dear CBC,

I heard a recounting of weblog history on the radio this morning, and it’s completely wrong. If it were just once I would ignore it, but I hear this history repeated on the CBC over and over. Even a tiny bit of research on the matter would have avoided this problem. It seems that someone at the CBC would rather go with their gut on the history of the weblog than actually look it up.

Weblogs did not begin as “diaries”. This is like saying radio began in 1981 with the launch of MTV. Weblogs in fact began as change logs for websites. At the time, it was standard practice to post a line with a date attached to indicate that change had been made to a website. With time, those change logs morphed into sites dedicated not to posting diary-like reflections but annotated links. The first incarnation of weblogs was as an annotated bibliography of the web, since searching wasn’t quite as easy and efficient as it is now, and this was a way to make sure people saw the cool parts of the web.

Blogging didn’t get conflated with personal online diaries until well after 1999 with the creation of Blogger, and when I started blogging in earnest in 2000, blogs were still largely expected to be link-heavy rather than diary-like. As blogging got easier and the broadband revolution took over (with more and more parents getting home connections and more and more teenagers getting online as a matter of course), blogs were increasingly expected to be personal accounts of daily life. At that time, blogging platforms like Livejournal, Xanga, MySpace, etc. started being used more frequently for personal purposes. With increased access to the internet, the userbase of the internet changed; new users were more interested in sharing their personal stories and less interested in geeking out about the web. While blogging was intially a sort of meta-internet (creating websites about other websites), with time users of all stripes started using the web as a means of communication rather than as a tool to remark on the medium itself.

Today, there are blogs of all varieties; political, professional, corporate, personal, fictional, etc. Highlighting one element of the blog world (the personal, diary-like weblog or the political journals alone) does a great disservice to the medium, and encourages the general perception of weblogs as simply diaries or pulpits of political opinion. They are so much more than that.

Sincerely,

Rochelle