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Dropped my MOOC. Picked up a doctoral program.

I’m one of the vast majority of MOOC drop-outs, but in my case my course abandonment had two causes:

1. By the end of the 5th section, I had learned as much math as I need to know for the moment. What I wish for (and it probably exists) is an  app or website that would give me one or two problems per week to solve, so the stuff in my brain doesn’t slide out on the floor. My (mixed) review of life as a MOOC student will appear in a week or two.

2. I’m starting a PhD program in less than two weeks, and it’s already keeping me busy–my brow is still furrowed, just not over math. I feel anxiety going so public with this knowledge (the PhD, not the extent to which book-larnin’ furrows my brow), but eventually people are going to find out anyway.

To combat anxiety, I have been reflecting on some of the more improbable successes of my life. The day in 1985 I was commissioned in the Air Force, one of our leaders remarked that early on she had expected me to wash out. That possibility was on my mind for the entire twelve weeks, but somehow I survived a process in which candidates stronger, better-coordinated, and smarter than I had failed.

I am glad that leader didn’t share her thoughts in the beginning. I do remember the smile on her face the day I finally passed the long jump, my last obstacle to becoming an officer.  Wanting something doesn’t automatically make it happen, but in the words of grandmothers everywhere, “Can’t never could.”  (The story of that long jump is the opening to my food essay “Chow,” published in Gastronomica in 2007.)

So let me repeat: HOORAY! I’m starting a PhD program in two weeks! No, I’m not leaving my job! No, I’m not moving! Yes, I’m doing a PhD while running a small university library! The program has a very very long name! It’s at Simmons! That’s in Boston! That’s a long way from California! I will fly there twice a year and study under erudite scholars and professors of practice while averting my eyes from whatever fires get ignited back at the ranch! My cohort has 5 people, including me!  They’re nice, too! Yes, I won’t have time for literary writing! No, I haven’t mastered APA citation! Yes, I’ll complete the PhD in SIX WEEKS! All right, let’s say hopefully  four to five years, barring Life introducing other obstacles!

I’m surrounded by support — from my institution, from my library team, from Sandy, from my colleagues, even from the cats, who in the last six months became very accustomed to lolling in the sun, snoring gently, while I crammed for the GRE, worked on the application process, and post-GRE, studied math (not required for the PhD, and in fact part of my fallback plan in which I would support my own solo research by learning statistics).

I am also impressed by the extravagant welcome extended by the other cohorts–so much like the “radical hospitality” we strive for where I work. We may all toil in solitude, but we are not alone.

I also know why I am doing this. Of course, in any endeavor, reasons change along the way. But I’m in library leadership in higher education, or things related to it (or similar to it), for the remainder of my career, which will not conclude for a very, very long time. It only took me twenty years to learn the color of my parachute–talk about precocious!  Is a PhD necessary? Of course not. Will I learn from it, grow, and become better at what I do? Absolutely.  When it comes to education, it’s all good.

So, onward. As orientation approaches, I am nervously smoothing my starched pinafore, twiddling with my hair bow, rubbing the toes of my patent-leather shoes on my ankle socks, making sure I have a ruler and compass tucked in my Peechee — and very much looking forward to this next stage in my life. Viva learning!

Marriage Equality, Open Access, and Jury Duty

Equality Sign, by Emily Lloyd

Equality Sign, by Emily Lloyd

I’m sitting in the jury assembly room in San Francisco thinking about two historical moments: today’s DOMA case at the Supreme Court, and the singularly principled action of the editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration, which resigned en masse after concluding that “it is not possible to produce a quality journal under the current licensing terms offered by Taylor & Francis.”

You probably understand the former issue as well or better than I do. You may need more context to understand JLAGate:

  • Scholarly publishing is crucial for rank and tenure in many institutes of higher education.
  • Authors and editors generally produce and peer-review their content for sweat equity–they do the work, their output is published, they get rank and tenure.
  • Publishers charge libraries subscription fees ranging from modest to astronomical, with STEM journals the most breathtaking.
  • Academic libraries, particularly research libraries, acquire some of their prestige from the size and quality of their journal collections — which makes Jenica’s carefully-planned decision to drop ACS all the more courageous.

At least within the last 100 years, the system worked, in an awkward manner. But in the last couple of decades, absurdly spiraling subscription fees have pushed the scholarly communications pyramid scheme into imbalance, forcing libraries to drop other purchases and services in order to maintain their collections.

Within this context, a new model for scholarly publishing, the Open Access movement, has grown from a tiny acorn to — if not a mighty oak — at least a sapling with clear promise. (A quick crash course: Wikipedia’s definition of Open Access; website of a key OA voice, Peter Suber; and Slate article on the potential impact of Aaron Swartz’ death on the OA movement.)

I think there are parallels between today’s history-making SCOTUS case (whatever happens, history has already been made, really) and this particular “crisis moment” in so-called traditional publishing.

Among other issues, those who are arguing on behalf of tradition don’t have as much history behind them as they claim. Until very recently, marriage was not a union of two equals; in the same vein, scholarly publishing as we know it today is a couple-three centuries old at best.

Another parallel is the rapid change in attitude. A decade ago, OA could be safely ignored. But in a very short span of time, attitudes have changed, and every historical moment, such as the death of Aaron Swartz, seems to grow the OA movement, not arithmetically, but geometrically, with key voices lining up behind OA.

That said, the journey to OA is neither linear nor bumpless for many people in higher education, especially those for whom traditional publishing is necessary or at least highly valued (with the caveat that the current model hasn’t been around all that much longer than same-sex marriage, given the longer arc of history). It is not the quality of OA publishing that is at question, it is the perception of its quality in the higher education community, where perception plays a huge role.

Things are changing, and in this blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education,  Brian Mathews, the would-be editor of the journal issue that atomized the JLA board, struggles out loud with his thoughts.  I give Brian credit for his frankness as he (like Justice Kennedy) struggles openly with a new concept that he clearly is open to (no pun intended) but is still wrapping his head around.

None of us have all the answers in the shift to open access, and for those of us who have published a lot in the traditional model, please excuse our caution. As an essayist who has published a number of essays in well-respected non-OA literary venues, I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone what rights their works should have. (Which is congruent with my views on same-sex marriage, where I champion the right to choose who we marry.) But I do see OA as a tremendously beneficial development that — like gay marriage — has both a rightness and a certain inevitability to it.

ALA Councilor At-Large Recommendations, and some Council Tidbits

If you’re planning to cast your American Library Association ballot this weekend, I offer the following recommendations for Councilor at Large.

The ballot has many people I’d be delighted to serve with. But I am shortlisting the their following candidates for a variety of reasons: I’ve worked with them on Council or other ALA activities,  they have strong, clear positions on ebooks, they contribute to a diverse ALA, and what I can only term “fit.”

Karen Johnson DowningMartin GarnarPatricia M. HoganMaria Taesil Hudson CarpenterRichard HuffineAlys JordanCharles Kratz, Dennis LeLoup, Bernard Margolis, Min Chou, Stephen L Matthews, John PecoraroLauren Pressley, and Larry Romans.

Also, I am emphatically for the five-year dues increase schedule (LJ has a good summary), which gives ALA a modest additional revenue stream they can plan on, gives ALA its first dues increase since 2006, and ensures that ALA doesn’t have to cut farther in the bone than it has in the last seven years. (The previous dues increase happened in 1995.) It amounts to $1 – $4 per year per member, which at the highest level, $130, would mean a total possible rise to $150 by 2017.

But back to Council… 

One Councilor has been raising an issue that can be summarized this way: Council is not effective; Council is ineffective because it is too large; Council is too large because it has too many at-large Councilors.

Having served on Council off and on for nearly 20 years, I would first note that Council has vastly improved since the mid-1990s, when the discussion list was chaotic and it felt like most of Council’s time was spent listening to reports being read out loud in between real-time, agonizing revision of endless GODORT resolutions. Council feels mannerly and focused. It is indeed a big body, and as part of a larger process of discernment, it’s worth asking if Council is too big (however much that evokes the scene from Amadeus where the emperor says, “Too many notes!”).

But if we’re going to look at Council, then let’s look at Council. Here are some facts you might not be aware of.

Council composition: every division and roundtable has Council representation; so ACRL, PLA, GLBRT, etc each have a Councilor. So does every state “chapter.” The very smallest roundtables are represented as a group by one Councilor. There are 100 Councilors at Large, 50 chapter councilors, and approximately 20 councilors representing divisions and roundtables.

State chapters have historically been represented by state library associations. Each state association pays dues, though I was unable to find the dues schedule on the ALA website.

State chapters are independent nonprofit organizations and set their own rules–see ALA Bylaws for more about their relationship with ALA.  As a bit of ALA history that illustrates this independence, the state chapters in the South were only integrated in 1964 when an ALA member, E.J. Josey, authored a resolution that  forbade “Association officers and staff from participating in state associations that deny membership to black librarians.” ALA couldn’t tell the state chapters what to do, but it could tell its own people what it couldn’t do–an adroit use of governance in support of civil rights activism.

State chapter councilors are elected by state chapter members, who are not necessarily ALA members. The state chapter Councilor must of course be an ALA member, but that’s not true of the Councilor’s electorate. I knew this before I began studying Council, as I’ve voted in numerous state chapter elections and have participated in chapter activities off and on between 1992 and 2009, but it didn’t hit home until I began studying Council composition.

Based on its 2012 report to ALA, total membership in the California chapter is under 2,000, placing it barely above the median of chapters that reported membership, even though California is the most populous state by a significant margin. I’ve heard the actual membership is around 3,000, so I’m not sure what to believe. But I’ve been advised that turnout for CLA elections is currently in the 10-20% range, which would be roughly 200 to 600 ballots, depending on the actual membership. Based on known voter behavior, it’s possible even fewer vote for chapter Councilor.

By comparison, the lowest qualifying Councilor at Large in the 2012 ALA election received 1,925 votes, and the highest received over 3,000.

(Sidebar: another thing I never thought about is whether chapters reported to ALA… I just assumed they did. I’m still surprised to see 2012 is the first year of such a report and that little over half the chapters participating in the survey reported their total membership, with close to ten saying they didn’t know how many members they had and a dozen or so more leaving that field blank. Really?)

Though in theory state associations “provide geographic representation” for all librarians, and some state chapters also represent regional ACRL members, many state associations, including CLA, are largely comprised of public librarians and generally focus on issues significant to public libraries.

Locally, this public library focus is evident through CLA’s Board composition, which is largely but not exclusively public librarians, and also through its activities and even its press releases. An announcement on the CLA website that library funding is preserved means really that public library funding has been preserved.

A review of CLA press releases from 2011 underscores this focus. It’s possible that the fate of public university funding has come up for discussion or even vote in CLA, but it would be hard to prove by what’s on the website.

Is it a bad thing that CLA could pretty much be called CPLA?  Like the size of Council, not necessarily. In California, there are separate associations and endeavors, such as CSLA, CARL, and BayNet, that provide regional and statewide services and programs for other types of librarians. CARL has a relationship with ACRL that ensures it has some voice through the ALA ACRL Councilor.

Also, having worked in nearly every type library, I’m aware that public libraries have particular advocacy needs, such as state funding, that fit well within the state association model. So I think of the state library associations I’ve been involved in not so much as a source of regional representation for all types of libraries but as an important structural component for library services and funding largely specific to public libraries.

Right now, the issue of who elects chapter councilors, and the companion issue of regional representation,  is something easy to gloss over. It’s an antiquated model (I wager the state chapter model had a lot to do with the complexity of travel and communication in the early 20th century), but the size of Council, and the many types of Councilors, ensures a diversity of participation.

But if the “solution” to Council were to shrink its at-large Councilor demographic without any other changes, there would be two results that are not healthy for ALA.

First, public librarians would have a disproportionately larger voice in ALA decision-making, assuming at-large Councilors continue to represent a mix of library types while state chapter councilors would continue to generally be public librarians elected by public librarians.

Second, the strength of the ALA voting electorate would be further diluted by the election of councilors by non-ALA members.  One way to reverse that would be if ALA members paid dues to their state associations in order to be eligible to vote for ALA chapter Councilor candidates in state association elections–or for that matter run for the position. Frankly, spending up to $165 for regional representation feels like a poll tax (and a reminder: the highest rate for ALA dues is $130). It is a poll tax I’m willing to overlook in the current structure, given the historical relationship of chapters to the national association, but again — if we’re going to look at Council composition, then this question needs to be addressed as well.

An alternative, found in some associations, would be for state chapters to organize council representation through super-regions and elect fewer Councilors to ALA. If fewer at-large councilors would improve ALA, the same should hold for chapter councilors.  This model is found in a number of professional associations.  I’m unclear this is a good fit for ALA, but it should certainly be on the table.

There are other paths to be considered, such as doing away entirely with chapter councilors and electing regional representatives who are basically at-large candidates running from their home states or regions. I don’t think any of us want that, because we value the historical chapter-ALA relationship. But if we’re opening the door to considering Council composition, then everything needs to be on the table.

But I’d like to move past the issue of Council’s size and at-large representation, and share the  following two recommendations for improving Council.

First, Council should meet four times per year. Right now we are reactive to whatever is “hot” right before the summer and winter solstice. Let’s become an equinox-and-solstice Council.  (Note: if I’m reading the bylaws correctly, this doesn’t require any “legislative” action other than the ALA president calling a meeting.)

The solstice meetings would be the important face-to-face engagement that establishes community among Council itself. The equinox meetings, which could be easily held through technology such as Gotowebinar and balloting products such as BallotBoxOnline, would enable Council to take action quarterly, and would also allow Council actions to be observed by ALA members, whether or not they attend ALA conferences.   (And ALA members who do attend conference often have busy schedules that preclude sitting in on Council proceedings.)

This would also allow items to be referred to other units for additional input without essentially tabling the items for half a year.

I firmly believe if more ALA members saw Council in action, more members would appreciate our work. Watching democracy in action is like watching paint dry, but I can affirm that Council proceedings are well-run, thoughtful, and deliberative.

I also believe that online meetings would enhance the democratic nature of Council by enabling members, regardless of their ability to attend conference, to observe Council proceedings twice a year.  I would even hazard that more members would attend conferences if they had a chance to see ALA governance in action other times of the year.

I furthermore believe that the ability to communicate with Councilors in real-time while issues are being deliberated would strengthen the democratic nature of Council.  I have found that Twitter conversations during Council have helped me reason through issues and ask questions of the “Tweetlectorate.”  Chatting, emailing, tweeting, or otherwise engaging with Councilors during procedures is a good thing.

I know that there are complexities to ALA governance to consider, particularly given the fall/spring meetings of ALA units. But I don’t believe these complexities are insurmountable.

Second, and I have been saying this in one form or another for nearly 20 years, Council’s text transcriptions should be streamed in real time to ALA Connect during Council sessions.

ALA already pays to have proceedings transcribed in real time, so that the text of the discussion is broadcast on two huge screens in Council’s meeting room. That’s the expensive part of this activity–the human transcription. I once called the company that provides this to ask what it would cost to stream the text, and I don’t recall the answer, but it was reasonable.

Why not add text streaming so that even at “solstice Council,” busy members can snack on Council proceedings while they do other things, and members who are not at ALA can observe Council? And of course, the text streaming during Equinox Council would be equally available to the busy multi-tasking body politic.

(Note: for the record, I am not at all concerned that ALA members would decide to forgo ALA conferences because they could watch Council at home. Council is important, but we’re just not that exciting.)

Again, as shared in my last post, Bobbi Newman has done a great job discussing the at-largeness issue. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

 

The Cassoulet Saved Their Marriage… The Melting Pot Helped Ours

Today is the publication day for The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage, an anthology of essays about marriage and family edited by Caroline Grant (of Literary Mama fame) and Lisa Catherine Harper (writer and writing teacher extraordinaire, author of A Double Life). This anthology includes a shorter version of my essay, “Still Life on the Half-Shell,” published in Gastronomica several years ago. Whilst cavorting on Facebook and Twitter with the editors and other writers, I suddenly remembered the symbol of my enduring love for Sandy: bad fondue.

Part of the fun of being anthologized is reading the takes on a topic by other writers, and social media amplifies that by creating a loose “anthology tribe” where contributors become, if not life-long bosom buddies, at least riders on the same train. Deborah Copakah Kogan, co-author of the title essay, posted on Facebook today, “My husband, Paul Kogan and I wrote the title essay, about both our annual cassoulet fete and about having been asked to write an essay extolling our allegedly saved marriage while we were busy battling it out in couples therapy.”

I was touched by her transparency, but what Deborah surfaced in me was not the occasional relationship strife (which happens whenever Sandy does not recognize that I am right; I don’t know why she’s so stubborn that way), but the long slow twisted complication that was our life in Florida. We have now been back longer than we were there, and I look forward to the day in 2014 when we will have been in California this time around for longer than I have lived anywhere else in my adult life.

At home, in the kitchen, among our ceremonial glassware (which includes a small shot glass I once stole from my father ‘s glassware because I loved its design so much, and we now call it the Michael Schneider Glass), are two cheap champagne glasses, emblazoned with the logo of the fondue chain The Melting Pot, that represent how much we were in the struggle together. These two glasses are souvenirs for meals that I won’t recap, except to say that we girded our loins in tandem, then afterwards put on torn sweatclothes and stared at each other and laughed.

[INFOMERCIAL ALERT] I haven’t written about The Melting Pot, and may never, but several similarly resonant experiences are included in”Still Life on the Half Shell,” and you would get to experience these moments if you would a) buy the book for yourself, b) buy the book for your library, or c) recommend your library buy the book. (Or read the extended-play version in that issue of Gastronomica.)

That doesn’t mean I have fully evolved to the point where I have resolved my issues with The Melting Pot. Christine Lind Hage, a friend and someone I dearly look up to and love to spend time with, made the mistake of asking if I could meet her at The Melting Pot several ALA conferences ago. “NO!” I shouted. “NO! I DO NOT WANT TO GO TO THE MELTING POT!”  Christine replied very carefully, “Um… ok… no Melting Pot…”

And of course it had nothing to do with overpriced mediocre fondue (a dish I can usually do without in most circumstances), or even with the Melting Pot serving as a  metonym for the sorry state of restaurant dining in the South, but with a ton of stuff that was what we carried on our backs during that era, and I don’t mean just the experience of being somewhere that isn’t a great fit, but all the baggage and stress and sturm und drang, that huge bloated sack of regret, self-examination, 50-50 hind-sight, financial anxiety, forward-facing confusion, and at times real fear. It’s easy to look back and say everything worked out for the best–but when you’re in the situation, you don’t have that forward vista.

(And yet I met some of my all-time very favorite people in Tallahassee, people who were kind and good and supportive and full of hope and acceptance and fun and wisdom.)

The day we started on our journey back to California — largely symbolic for Sandy, who would return to pack the house and meet me several months later, but what’s wrong with symbolism? — it took us close to an hour to get past the city borders. We kept checking the contents of the car trunk, our purses, the glove box, the back seat… did we have this, and did we have that? I would drive perhaps a mile, and then one of us would ask to pull over and we would begin rummaging again. There we were, that huge soggy sack of experience entwined around our wheels.

Then I started the car and we found ourselves rolling past The Melting Pot. We exchanged glances. We kept going. We were quiet. The next time we stopped we were in another state.

 

 

Mellen, Sky River: what a mighty big waste…

I’m up, up, up in the air, flying over the Southwest as I head to Albuquerque and then Santa Fe for a quick visit with my mother. Sandy was able to visit her in January during a business trip, and now I’m the one with the precious combination of time and opportunity.

I would be using this in-flight time for my math homework, but this flight doesn’t have wifi. One of the limitations of anything with the word “online” in it is that for the most part, you need to be online. I suppose I could have downloaded the YouTube versions of the course lectures before I left the house or printed off the homework assignment, but I was having an attack of FirstWorldiness and envisioned myself surrounded by bandwidth from our home to the house at the end of the Turquoise Trail. At SFO, the wifi was too slow for almost everything except Twitter, which serves as a reminder that sheer connectivity isn’t enough; it needs to be a “good-enough” connection for whatever you’re trying to do.

In any event, this gives me a precious window of time to read, write, and stare at my row-mate’s peanuts, this being a flight that is half-full, which I personally ensured by paying extra for Earlybird Check-in. Give me those peanuts, I am thinking. Givvvve me those peanuts.

In between coveting my neighbor’s legumes, I’ve been mulling over matters that fall into my “what a waste” category (if you’re feeling spry, you can dance this to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man”). What a waste, what a waste, what a waste, what a mighty big waste…

Edwin Mellen sued a librarian for doing his job. This sketchy publisher saw the potential to exploit Canada’s weaker copyright framework to cast a chilling effect by threatening Dale Askey for simply doing what librarians are supposed to do, which among other things is to call out sketchy publishers on their sketchiness. There wouldn’t be any point to “reader’s advisory” if we could only say positive things (isn’t there  a science fiction short story on that topic..? Something about a town where a young monster had to be praised lest he wreak havoc?).

After a tremendous amount of public pressure (including from ALA and ACRL), Mellen has dropped one of its lawsuits, but the other lawsuit needs to go away, now, and we need to keep this topic on our front burner.

Innovative Interfaces dropped its lawsuit against OCLC. Oh, pardon me: “Sky River” dropped its lawsuit against OCLC. You may think OCLC is a big galumphing behemoth, which was what ran through my mind after they spurned the candidate I nominated for Member Council and then turned around and whined that they needed to extend the election due to low participation. But OCLC is also a member cooperative with an honorable history and some very interesting products and research.

It’s not news to FRL readers that I personally feel about Sky River the way I do about buying CAFO chicken thighs, which is that I could save some money but in the end it’s not worth it. (I in fact talked myself into buying non-righteous chicken thighs last week at CostCo, and now I feel so bad about my momentary lapse I’m going to donate a little extra to the Humane Society, which has done a lot of good work educating people on the issue of humane treatment of the food we eat.) But regardless, that whole business was tacky, and it’s good for III to get beyond that era.

[Note: I didn’t have wifi access for another day, until after I set up my mother’s wireless network, among other daughterly chores. I left this post in the first-person because it felt right. There’s one more issue I have written about in draft, but a part of me almost wants to leave it be.]

MOOC Nation, Part 1: My So-Called Online Teaching Life

I’m enrolled in a MOOC to prepare me for college math. Go ahead and laugh — then tell me the last time YOU solved a compound inequality problem.  Of course, the other reason I’m in a MOOC is to explore the current state of online learning.

I have copious notes about my experience, in which, I am proud to say, I have advanced to graphing linear equations, and I had originally planned to begin this series with my observations on the class I’m attending. But once I began writing I realized I wanted to provide context for my foray into this wild.

I am not an e-learning newbie. I taught online library science classes a decade back, and even mentored other instructors in the art of managing classroom chat discussions. I’ve taught online workshops as well. I have taken writing classes online, including several from Stanford Continuing Education, and got a lot out of them. In 2011-2012 I also led a campus-wide pilot of Collaborate, Blackboard’s live elearning product, and Team Library recently authored a grant related to lecture capture (actually, I’ve been working on this development project for 18 months, in one version or another). On our library team, three out of five of us graduated within the last decade from a library school now fully online. This is not foreign terrain.

When I stopped teaching online, it was intentional. The most notable reason was that I was planning to go back to graduate school, and teaching full-semester courses on top of being a student as well as working full-time was far more than I could handle.

Still, it was easy to stop teaching. My satisfaction level as an instructor had been declining oh so gradually, but then went into sharp free-fall. Before I proceed, please heed me when I say the program in question changed a lot in the last decade, undergoing two major movements forward in leadership and concomitant transformations, and e-learning technology has improved as well (though not as much as it could).

Like many adjunct instructors, in both programs, I found the parent institution opaque; it was the source of my paychecks, the provider of my students, and the agency that housed my “classroom,” which at first was a small  room with grubby walls so distinct in shape and size I can still see the unimproved windows in the back of the room. In the second program, my classroom became Blackboard. It was easy to teach myself how to twirl the knobs and dials in Blackboard — so easy that I did not ask myself if I fully understood online teaching or how to do it well.

In the new program, I soon learned that at least with the tools available at the time and my inexperience with e-learning, I wasn’t crazy about “asynchronous” instruction, that is, a teaching model without real-time lecture or discussion. I’ve had instructors insist that they are happy teaching this way, and mazel tov to you, but I missed that immediate real-time engagement.

I offered optional lecture sessions through chat and a number of students took me up on it, but overall the class felt too much like a correspondence course poured laboriously (my labor, mind you)  word by word into a learning management system. Human speech, like handwriting, is an amazing efficiency, as you realize if you’ve ever written documentation for anything. Taking all my pedagogy and spelling it out letter by letter consumed a huge amount of time.

In the last class I taught, the class size had doubled from my previous course, and I also had to deal with plagiarism and a no-show. It’s amazing I taught for so long without dealing with any one of those three problems, but when they surfaced in concert, it was a lot to deal with, particularly in the isolated world of the online adjunct instructor.

I did my best with the no-show, but despite concerted efforts on my part, this student, who had shown up briefly at the beginning, only surfaced at the end of the class, wheedling to be given dispensation. According to the school, this was her modus operandi–something I wish I had known at the beginning of the class. I doubt this student understood how much money she was spending (or more likely, debt she was accruing) on not getting an education–a syndrome writ large across our country. E-learning didn’t turn this student into a no-show, but I am convinced it was an enabler.

Even with the challenges, I thrummed with a connection to many of the students. I loved how willingly they embraced my favorite Q&A: What’s the most important library database? The one between your ears. I reveled in how many of them took up the work of the class joyously, and I was rejuvenated by their newbie-librarian zeal. And of course, teaching is learning, and that was very satisfying too. I hear occasionally from my students, and what a rush of warmth to my soul when they reappear to tell me of their lives.

Again, the school has changed quite a bit since then, and tools for early intervention in online education have also improved; I’ll assume that attrition and student learning outcomes are now monitored assiduously. This is certainly not a technology issue as much as it is a program management issue, and online performance can in many ways be easier to monitor. As for the plagiarism — I believe it would have been dealt with much differently today. But all said and done, it was easy to stop teaching.

I tried graduate-level teaching once more. When I was between jobs in early 2007, I responded to a job ad for online adjunct instructors for a library school I had no prior experience with, fully certain they would at least explore the possibility that I would teach for them. Less than 24 hours later I received an email of rejection. I  have to thank them for not leaving me in suspense. I will remain ever-curious why I was so swiftly eliminated from consideration, but I’d like to think part of the reason was that I didn’t have the level of online learning training and experience they were seeking.

A decade later, when online learning is criticized, its docket of concerns includes much of what I encountered the last time I taught:

  • The idea that because a class isn’t limited by physical seats, it can scale without impact on the quality of instruction.
    Students left academically adrift.
  • The human overhead of creating and maintaining online courses.
  • The question of fit: whether the material, the student, or the instructor are “right” for online learning.
  • Teacher — and student — preparation. (On this last point, I know quite well that the school I taught in now has a highly intentional and excellent onboarding program for students — one I would emulate to a tee if I were to establish and lead an online learning program at my institution.)

My colleague Marcus Banks had responded to an earlier post of mine about online learning by stating,

Skepticism is always necessary in the face of the flavor of the month (or year, in the case of 2012 and MOOCs). That said, it’s always easier to defend what’s known than to embrace what’s new. Seems to me that MOOCs can be a democratizing force that reaches those struggling students who may not be able to afford or have any inclination to sit in the traditional lecture hall. Surely we can figure out how to build engaging, responsive and effective learning opportunities that are online only. We may have to regardless, depending on how student preferences evolve.

Marcus and I are actually synoptic in our understanding of major trends and only moderately less than congruent in our assessment of the state of e-learning today or the potential that MOOCs have to offer.  Yes, the sunny side is that online learning can open doors for students. Look at me: as a child I was identified as a student who struggled with math, I’ve largely avoided math my entire life, beyond simple arithmetic and basic spreadsheet formulas, and in my current job I am in no position to seat myself in a traditional classroom for months at a time. Yet I plod along, week at a time, with my slow but steady success, much of it due to the benefits of a well-designed online class.

It’s also too easy to point to spectacular and highly-visible failures, such as the course on the instructional design of online learning so poorly designed it imploded in less than two weeks, or the frustrated professor who stopped teaching a course midstream, as condemnation of online learning or “proof” that we’re in a craze that will soon abate–an argument that reminds me of the librarian who told me in the mid-1990s he was “waiting for this Internet thing to blow over.”  I’m sure many a course going forward will have absorbed the lessons-learned in those debacles.

Where Marcus and I part is in his assumption that my concerns about e-learning represent “defend[ing] what’s known” at the expense of “what’s new.” Based on my personal experience as an instructor, I’d prefer to observe that the path to innovation is paved with instructive lessons, and that the more experienced you are, the more likely you are to fold the Book of Fail into the iterative design process.

I know how much intervention goes into ensuring at-risk students succeed, and I also know that we, as a nation, are failing too many of these students. Online learning could be part of the solution, but not without full acceptance of the problems we need to solve and the effort it will take to solve them. And as an advocate for those who have the least and need the most, I’m going to cast a very critical eye any time techno-educrats propose tiered systems, including the model where at-risk students are poured into massive online courses. Without very careful and caring design, without sufficient resources, these run the risk of becoming the higher-ed equivalent of public housing projects.

Absolutely, let’s look for success.  But there are patterns worth observing in e-learning, just as there are in higher education, and we owe it to students to temper our enthusiasm (or our sense of inevitability) with an intentional focus on the design — and significance — of failure.

ALA Midwinter 2013: Back in the Saddle Again

Ovaltine Latte

Ovaltine Latte

I missed ALA Annual 2012, so it was with particular joy I reentered familiar terrain. I juggled the conference activities with a grant we were finishing, which was only possible because I spent four days navigating four square city blocks (my hotel, the Convention Center, meeting rooms in the Sheraton, and nearby restaurants), with only a couple of excursions beyond.

I don’t remember Seattle being so deliciously  compact, but it was a boon to this bifurcated traveler. So now follows my report… a wee dry, if you aren’t an ALA wonk.

Friday
8:00am – 9:00am LIAL11 Reunion Breakfast: met with dear colleagues. Collegial idea-share is a great way to kickstart a conference! Note: it is really bad form for a restaurant to have two restaurants with the same name. One of our party spent a while in the “other” restaurant due to this reason.
9:00am – 12:00pm PAN Print Archives Meeting. PAN is the CRL Print Archives Network, and that translates to librarians interested in shared storage for print collections — a very responsible, loving, strategic approach to the future of print books. Librarians packed a very large room; several years ago it was a handful of people around a table. This was mostly an update on local initiatives, but it was validating to see how many deans, executives, and other library leaders were in the room. I wasn’t able to attend any official “top tech” sessions at Midwinter, but I consider this meeting a de facto program in that genre, because shared print is one of THE key tech trends in higher ed.
1:30pm – 3:30pm Committee on the Future of University Libraries Meeting (ACRL ULS). I was curious about the work of this committee. This was a pleasant exchange.
(A little grant-writing…)
6:00 pm LITA Happy Hour. Caught up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a year, followed by…
Ad hoc dinner with two old friends (a great closing bracket for the day).

Saturday

Saturday was a day of scooting from meeting to meeting, concluding with a solo dinner of Washington oysters and a dessert reception among (mostly-) beloved colleagues. You know how some of you love baseball games — I mean, really, really love baseball games? This was that kind of day for me.

8:00am – 10:30am Council Orientation Session (ALA)
10:30am – 12:00pm Nominating Committee for the 2014 ALA Elections [Closed--I would share details but I'd have to kill you later. Nutshell: this committee recommends nominees for ALA president and Council.]
1:00pm – 2:30pm ALA and E-books: Prospects and Directions for 2013 – Panel talk: publisher, ebook broker, librarian. I need a Jamie LaRue action figure. He was fabulous. One thing I love about Jamie is that regardless of the talking points of the two industry wonks, he stuck to what he had to say about the role of libraries in coming up with our own solutions.
3:00pm – 4:30pm ALA Council / Executive Board / Membership Information Session – Brava, ladies of the dais, well-run.
5:30pm – 7:30pm Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries I (I am a recent appointee to Subgroup 5, so as a  first cousin once removed, I attended to catch up).
8 pm I dined on pitch-perfect oysters at Shuckers, a restaurant in the Fairmont much more elegant than it sounds.
9:00pm – 10:00pm ALA Council Reception — I remember reading a complaint on some social network that ALA only served coffee at these receptions. Folks, the bar is downstairs and nobody cares if you bring a drink. Very nice mingling.

Sunday

It was Sweater Vest Sunday, an initiative to wear sweater vests to show our support for intellectual freedom, and I was feeling sad because my vest wasn’t plaid or cable, which is what I think of when someone says “sweater vest.” But apparently my plush animal print vest fit the bill, as it garnered praise at Council, which ran exceedingly smoothly, though there were two resolutions which would have fared better had they been shared over the Tubes several weeks before Council–I know, a new-fangled idea; call me Judy Jetson.

The real trick of this day was spending an hour with one group of friends I only see at ALA and then getting to another, somewhat inconvenient location to see another group of friends I only see at ALA.

8:30am – 11:00am ALA Council I Governance/Membership Meeting
Lunch at the Atheneum, then worked on the grant
6:00pm – 7:00pm Dinner with friends
7:00 pm – 8:00 pm GLBTRT Social

Monday

So to wrap up the next two days, it was business of the association, grant-writing, an amazing Ovaltine latte with one friend, and then a strikingly delicious grilled cheese sandwich with another friend.  Tuesday afternoon was yet more grant-writing, a lot of it in the original Starbucks.

Did I mention that I realized why people in Washington State wear those knit caps? I should have bought one my first day, because it was damp and chilly the whole time — but sunny inside, where it mattered.

10:00am – 12:15pm ALA Council II
Exhibits, grant-writing, and an Ovaltine latte with dear friend MJ
6:00 pm Awesome grilled cheese sandwich with another dear friend VN
8:30pm – 10:00pm Council Forum II (ALA)

Tuesday
9:30am – 12:30pm ALA Council III

Tiptoe through the Tech Trends

Sony Walkman Due to a scheduling conflict I regretfully had to turn down a chance to make an encore appearance at LITA Top Technology Trends at ALA Midwinter 2013, though I was highly flattered to be invited, particularly with an invigorating new single-topic format. At this point my Midwinter schedule is like a set of nesting Russian dolls reflected in mirrors and circumscribed within Venn diagrams.

But the invitation did cause me to stop to think about technology trends — at least, the ones I’ve observed in myself and the people around me, a group that I do not claim represents any specific demographic other than The Republic of Me.

I’m also setting aside the topic of books, except to note my own behavior below, for what that’s worth, and to observe that the concept of shared print monograph repositories is rapidly gaining momentum. Colleagues in SoCal held a summit last month, and I’ll be at the PAN Forum at Midwinter (big thanks to CRL for their national leadership and to Robert Kieft at Oxy for leading the SCELC convos). I’ve also been invited to participate in Subgroup 5 of the Digital Content Working Group, Library Community Education and Outreach. So, you will hear from me.

Anyhoo, the following may strike a few chimes with my readers and their own republics:

Ed Tech and Higher Ed

MOOCs: According to the hype, Massive Open Online Courses are part of the “disruptive” “innovations” that are creating a new “synergy” by “reinventing” higher education. Lubricated by endless conference chatter and initially uncritical coverage from the media, MOOCs enjoyed close to a year of nonreflective enthusiasm, with any number of institutions contemplating how to “get into that space.”

Inevitably, MOOC backlash has already begun, with several articles cautioning that warehousing at-risk college students in online classes may not improve graduation rates. Can the people say DUH? As Carlson and Blumenstyck wrote in that great Chron piece, “Here’s the cruel part: The students from the bottom tier are often the ones who need face-to-face instruction most of all.”  Students are increasingly not ready for traditional college when they get there, both in what they know and in their study skills and habits, and vast online lecture halls aren’t going to close that gap. Like the all-volunteer army, MOOCs are a great solution as long as your own kids aren’t the ones signing up.

MOOCS and other online learning methods do have their place. I have a blog post series in work — MOOC Nation — that will track my progress through two math MOOCs this spring. Stay tuned.

Devices and Distractors

At home, we are assuming that 2013 will be the year we retire my 1993 Honda Civic, which Sandy drives to work, a half-mile from our apartment. This old car, purchased used in 1996, has required very little maintenance in its life, so I didn’t begrudge it a rather expensive repair that will keep it from bursting in flames while Sandy is driving, always a nice touch, particularly where parishioners are involved.

So commenceth a slow, deliberate search which may stretch all year, aided or encumbered (take your pick) by iPad apps, websites, chat rooms, online reviews… but if it’s a car I’m going to sit in up to three hours a day, my rump wants first-hand knowledge. In a Honda showroom, the second or third feature the saleswoman showed me in the Fit, after how to flip the back seats around to make more space for groceries, was the USB charger in the glove box. I suddenly remembered early ads for Palm products, which overwhelmingly featured men — and here was Honda touting the ultimate chick accessory, the all-purpose device charger. (Good location, too: I hide my iPhone in the console of my 2008 Civic where it both recharges and is away from temptation.)

On other fronts, our Comcast TV subscription is on death watch–something we have heard from other friends our age, which portends poorly for the networks if their commercials are any indication, with their well-creased actors imploring us to Ask Our Doctor about the latest geriatric nostrums. We keep planning to deploy an exercise where–armed with Apple TV, Netflix, Apple devices with Airplay, various apps, and a one-month subscription to Hulu Plus–we avoid using the setbox for several weeks to see if we miss it. The networks are wisely gambling on inertia, because we can’t quite cut the cord yet. Interestingly, the preparation for this experiment has already yielded benefits; we can resume our old (and old-fashioned) habit of watching NBC evening news together by streaming its app when I come home.

December 2012 was the month I made my first mobile bank deposit, though I had to “pose” the check a few times to get it right. I waited a day and sure enough, the check showed up in my account. Routine for some of you, but quite a plus for for me and those occasional small checks that show up, consuming gas, parking, and time (though I will miss the crew, and the free cookies, at the Irving Street branch of Wells Fargo).

2012 was the year I shifted as many magazines as possible to tablet apps; we also gave up our paper subscriptions to the New York Times and the SF Chronicle and went digital-only for both. The drivers were comfort, cost, and convenience: my periodicals are always with me now, with excellent backlighting, and most support fonts that are comfortable even when I’m walking fast on a treadmill. Journals that are PDF-accessible but not on tablets get downloaded to Dropbox for tablet access. I only regularly read paper magazines on airplanes, during  takeoffs and landings. I don’t miss filling a recycling bin with discarded paper or stockpiling address labels to shred.

Paper continues to be by far my least favorite format for books, to the point where if I can’t check it out from Overdrive from my library or SFPL, or I can’t buy it in Kindle, it might not get read at all. The one routine exception is for reading on the Muni, for which I pack any small, skinny, interesting book in my purse because I avoid flashing an iPad or iPhone on public transportation. (Hello, Just Plain Data Analysis!)

Apple has me in its grasp fairly tightly — MacBook, iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, Airport Express — but in 2012 I began to feel more provisional about using Apple products, as Apple changed charging adapters, poured more devices on the market, and not only frog-marched iOS users to a defective Maps product but took a while to repent.  My iPhone also isn’t a particularly good phone–and that’s after two phones and two carriers. Furthermore, some of the best, most essential iOS apps come from Google.

That said, the ability to use Airplay to stream almost anything not produced by Apple’s Mortal Enemies (such as Amazon Prime),  Apple’s sheer ease of use, and (here we go again) the induced inertia of owning so many Apple products, gives us reason to stay in the fold a while longer. I have lived through WordStar, Commodore, Sony, Gateway, Palm, Blackberry, and many other companies that ruled the earth until they didn’t; some new idea is always out there, ready to sneak up on us.

On the homebrewing front–brewing being a technology that has been evolving for thousands of years–I didn’t brew from July until December — a planned hiatus, due to New Zealand and the Pythagorean theorem and whatnot. (It is astonishing how useful that theorem is; I even used it to estimate the necessary range of our new wifi router.)

I brewed a small-batch stovetop oatmeal stout at the beginning of our winter break, which I gussied up with organic cocoa nibs and a cold-steeped extract of Philz french roast, and yesterday brewed a cream ale, the homebrew version of American “swill”–though like most things, when you make it at home it tastes so much better.

Each time I was reminded why the young’uns are all about crafts and maker-this-and-that these days: with so much “digital” in my life, it was so refreshing to engage with grain and hops and water and yeast, kettles and spoons and mash tuns, and best of all, my glorious 22″ whisk, which serves as a mash paddle, wort aerator, and personal defense weapon.

My most complex brewing tool by far is my beloved green Thermapen thermometer, which also serves me well when I am grilling or cooking, or even when I want to instantly check the temperature of anything from a wedge of cheese to a room. I now make my yeast starter in a large Erlenmeyer flask, which looks geeky but hails from 1861, if Wikipedia’s somewhat sketchy citations are to be believed. There are all kinds of apps and equipment for brewing, but in the end, the brewer herself is the most important device in the process (returning to the theme that technology can’t solve people problems).

Last musing: a couple of weeks ago, while perambulating through the Embarcadero with Sandy, we saw a well-coiffed woman about my age in exercise gear, carrying a yellow Sony Walkman cassette player, and I almost stopped her to ask her about it. I just didn’t know what to say, other than “I used to have one of those, in the Reagan administration” or “You can skip the CD model and go directly to an iPod shuffle.” If she had been younger and dressed less conservatively I would have assumed it was a playful container for an MP3 player, but it really looked like a working Walkman. I guess it was working for her, but I was fascinated. I wonder what was on the tape!

Rediscovered Management Lessons

This is a smattering of lessons I keep rediscovering in management, which I felt like summarizing as I tick into a new calendar year. A lot of it is obvious, very little of it is new to me (and some of it has been said here before) — but management seems to consist of relearning the same things repeatedly, each time in new ways.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure. As I noted in my American Libraries article on branding, hiring is enough of a chimera anyway; rushing the process will just make things worse.

Every once in a while I find myself the lone defender on an issue. Sometimes I check in with myself and decide that I’m wrong. But other times I remember two examples of a lone holdout. The first is a case study of Donna Dubinsky, who at Apple championed a change in distribution methods. The second is a friend of mine who successfully led a complex political/technical challenge. He remarked recently that at times he was the only person who believed in his direction. But he was clearly right, in retrospect. (Note: sometimes I will be the lone holdout, and I will be wrong. So it goes.)

Eat sensibly and get regular exercise.

“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” The sensemaking that happens when a patron walks into a lobby, the first interaction with service points–these are crucial. I’ve been a member of the UCSF fitness center for several years, and I was startled to discover a poster on the lower level listing the “management team” — I didn’t recognize any of them. But the cool factor is that the level of customer service at the center’s front desk is so exceptionally, consistently high no matter when I visit or how busy it is, and the lobby is so intentionally welcoming, that I sense I know them anyway.

Management often feels like navigating by flashlight. I’m groping just a few feet ahead of myself, trying not to fall into holes, listening for sounds. A slow and methodical footfall helps.

Ultimately you rise and fall by the quality and quantity of your human capital. A small team of really great people can do amazing things.

Every team has limits on what is doable, and it’s a good thing to learn how to delicately communicate that. Nobody outside the library is sitting around asking, “Does the library have enough people to do what needs to get done?”

Message management is key. Much in library work can be delegated… but keep a firm grip on external communications, from signage to interaction with other agencies to who gets to pull the trigger on campus-wide messages.

Speaking of communication, it’s always a work in progress–but a very worthy cause.

You are the metronome. You set the pace.

Much as I disagree with Woody Allen’s life choices, I fully agree with him that “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” This is one of several management jobs in my career where showing up at work and being a presence has been crucial to success. If you think I don’t go to as many conferences as in some previous positions, you’re right.

That said, I’m going to begin working from home at least one day per month (I’ve been saying this for three years, so take it with a grain of salt) because the mindset for being an active presence is not the mindset conducive to editing grant narratives or finishing NCES statistics. Yes, I do take work home (though not obsessively), but even better is having a dedicated, hard-to-interrupt work day dedicated to the task–a nice mixture of urgency (I won’t get another day like this soon!) and luxury (home in my jammies, counting the stats!).

I also make sure I get to just enough conferences, and visit just enough peer directors, to get some Vitamin Colleague.  Your staff can’t be that for you. They need you refreshed, balanced, and with your sense of humor intact–and there are things you shouldn’t share with them, no matter how tempting.

Take care of your boss. Meet deadlines small and large without prompting; don’t force your boss, or his or her staff,  to be your administrative assistant. Be open to ideas. Come prepared to meetings. Cut your boss some slack–he or she puts up with your imperfections, after all.  Remember to thank and praise your boss from time to time–you will never be privy to some of the hardest things they have done. (Yes, I have had bosses it would have been hard to do this for, but I still wish, in retrospect, I had tried harder.)

Show respect for the other departments you work with. I pride myself on a 100% on-time submission of my monthly credit card bill because it is one less thing for the finance department to worry about. If I think I’m going to be late, I tell them in advance. If I am having invoice issues with a vendor, I settle them as promptly as possible. Again, this isn’t about them being likable–though they are a likable bunch–but because it’s the right thing to do, morally and politically.

It’s worth wangling the library into the key discussions on campus — online learning, student success, etc. There is always a library tie-in, even if it’s not self-evident at first. The catch is to remember that the library can’t solve all problems.

One of the most delicate dances is the use of your facility by other agencies. There are no easy answers. It’s a case of balancing finite space with a distinct purpose with the political capital of resource-sharing. But a space once shared can rarely be reclaimed.

Build and maintain a strategic map. You need good relationships everywhere on campus–and not just with the people you feel at ease with.

Student workers do not set library policy. From time to time they will complain that one or more library users Did Something Bad and therefore some new library-wide draconian rule must immediately go into effect, optimally reinforced with a plethora of scolding signs printed on bright orange paper in all-caps Bold Comic Sans — yes, I speak from experience — but see above, message management.

Checklists are your friend. Campus Safety loves that we use opening and closing checklists–and so do I. Despite clear evidence that checklists save lives and improve processes, we may be their only friend, but that too is ok. (Policy and procedure are your friends, too.)

This is easily the fifth job in my life where I’ve implemented a key locker and insisted on key management. As with checklists, life is better when your keys are organized. Plus I find it too weird to work in a LIBRARY that can’t organize keys. (Bully for you if you have access cards, but we ain’t there yet.)

Consistent service is key.  It is tempting to give a different level of service to the patron with the winningest charm. But ethically and strategically, we should provide the same level of service to all users. That doesn’t mean ignoring problem patrons or never being flexible, but for your typical patrons, there should never be a gulf of service between the patrons who are chummy and those who are simply there to get the job done.

In a similar vein, some of your best workers may not be one of the Cool Kids. I remember a conversation several years back about why so-and-so in another library was promoted to Head of Reference over another, sparklier employee. I’m guessing that from the director’s perspective, So-and-So was a reliable worker who showed up, did the job, got the administrivia done, knew how to keep a ship sailing, and (quoting Dr. Johnson) had a bottom of good sense, particularly in dampening the inevitable Library Melodrama.

There is a natural tendency in libraries to lean toward fees and service limits as governors on behavior and methods for mitigating demand on human capital or other resources. But I recall asking a peer library why they charged for a specific service, and their response was they didn’t know why and therefore they were eliminating the fee. Other times a limit can be packaged more attractively — such as asking a user which of the umpty-ump books she has suddenly requested she would like first rather than “no, you can’t request that many books at once.”

Periodically review your successes as a team. Remember the “olden days” and celebrate where you are and where you are going.

Additionally, review your organizational worldview, and if need be recalibrate. I am almost finished reading Tribal Leadership, and one of the “click” moments I had was realizing that though I was good at lifting up our own successes, I was starting to fall into the trap of being too critical of other departments–that nasty Us vs. Them habit that paves the way for siege mentality, pitypottism, and other unprofessional and counterproductive syndromes. Ick! Bad juju!  I will allow myself the luxury of that level of criticism when I am absolutely sure my personal leadership has achieved absolute perfection (in other words, it will never happen).

Word.

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

So, about my writing. I mean my literary-essay writing, not blog posts or journo-style magazine writing or academic writing.

I’ve spent the past year:

  1. Moping over the breakup of my writing group,
  2. Pursuing several professional goals that required intense study of un-fun stuff but were also convenient excuses for not writing, and
  3. Feeling sorry for myself whenever I see another writer’s good fortune posted on Facebook or Twitter, and
  4. Making resolutions about writing that I then fail to follow through on.

On the first point, it’s like a break-up, as a writing colleague told me a few months back. Go ahead and mourn for a little while, but get back in the writing saddle without them and keep on writing. They were a good thing while they lasted, but nothing lasts forever.  After a while, the breakup moves into lame-excuse category.

On the second point, that stuff is done, so no excuses there, either.  I have always had that stuff, and will continue to do so. Besides, for  8 years I managed to have a writing life alongside many other responsibilities.

On the third point, for a writer with a full-time-and-then-some day job, I have a pretty good publishing record. Almost every essay I felt was ready to send out in the last eight years has been published, and by very respectable publications. I’ve had essays republished in commendable anthologies, had an essay nominated for a Pushcart, and am looking forward to “Still Life on the Half-Shell” being republished in 2013 in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage, edited by Lisa Catherine Harper and Caroline Grant.

Obviously, I can write publishable work. Yet in the last year I have sent out only two essays, to the same publication, and took that editor at face value when he said the essays weren’t worth publishing, lambasting myself for my bad writing. How amateurish of me!

On the fourth point, I know how I write. I schedule the time and announce I am going to write. Then I find a generic coffeeshop (as a writing colleague noted, nothing “too hip”; the Tallahassee Panera still ranks as my perfect writing location), sit down for three hours with Vivaldi or Boccherini pacing my work, and I write, stopping only to divest and replenish herbal tea.

I do not write by sitting in my home office. I can do library work in that home office, but it is not separate enough to do literary writing–yes, not even when I am home alone. And yet for almost a year I claimed I can write in that space, and then I did not write there, and so I did not write.

I do not write by scheduling an hour here or there for writing. An hour is just about time for me to stretch out my writing muscle until I’m truly focused. The real writing happens in the next several hours. The last 15 minutes are spent worrying that my writing session is almost over and watching the baristas wipe off the tables as they close down shop for the night.

I also do not write by taking literary writing time and using it for other, non-literary writing tasks. Allowing that work to encroach on my literary writing has not been good for me. I pursued an MFA because I wanted to go somewhere else with my writing. Some people talk about where a good book takes them: that’s just one planet over from the place my writing takes me.

So attention has been paid. The habit has been resumed. I have a writing evening, a writing place, a pile of manuscripts to dust off, and a few flabby writing muscles to tone up again.  The baristas and I, we are one with the night.