Monthly Archives: July 2009

Puzzling Evidence

Sometime between Josiah’s and Laura’s wedding and my interviews in Glasgow, the red silk tie that Margaret gave me several years ago developed a very peculiar problem. The once-solid red tie has grown dull diagonal stripes; the tie looks as bright as ever in certain parts, and a muted murky red in others. The diagonal stripes don’t align with any external point of contact. It can’t be that, for instance, I bumped against a diagonally-muddy-striped wall. They aren’t congruent with any physical stressor they’ve encountered; it won’t work to imagine that the tie was folded or squeezed in a certain way to produce these regular diagonal stripes. I’m quite prepared shrug and say, “Oh, well, so much for that tie.” I just hate to give up trying to figure out what on earth happened.


In response to my seeking competitive estimates for our relocation program, Margaret and I received the following emailed bid:

Dear Mr. Adam
On 7/14 our firm Sessum, Sessum & Sessum assessed the re-location needs at your residence in Durham, NC. This communication will provide an estimate of the time and materials required for your relocation to various destinations, domestically and internationally.
It is our understanding that items to be transported include those belonging to two sons in the midwest, a daughter in transit to Michigan, a wife in transit to Maryland, and yourself in transit to Scotland, Ireland or someplace like that. Items will be transported to these destinations from various locations, including Durham, NC, with miscellaneous items in Princeton, NJ, Chicago, IL, and possibly Maine.
You should know we’ve never encountered a move like this before. However, we are confident in our abilities to orchestrate it successfully.
We estimate approximately 3000 shipping containers and 33,022 man hours to complete the following:
Assembly of packing materials
Inventory and packing from 3 locations simultaneously
Loading and unloading
Driving, flying, transporting of household contents
We estimate time and materials at $17,500 for labor and materials for the above effort.
Given the trauma our firm has accumulated just from reviewing and assessing your needs, we are increasing our estimate by $30,000.
The total for the entire move is estimated at $47,500.
We hope you find this estimate acceptable, and look forward to helping your family through this very exciting and devastating transition.
Thank you!!

Thank you, SS&S — for the offer, though probably not for the contract.

Grading, Marking

Via a link from Brooke, Chris Heard’s flow chart for grading (US)/marking (UK) papers. On this topic, I add that such a flow chart provides the criteria that a teacher can then make explicit when framing the assignment itself — so that students can know in advance that the teacher will be basing the grade on this or that characteristic.
From IHE, an article that proposes a system for using online interaction effectively to enhance the value of comments on student papers. I’m not convinced by the specifics of what they suggest, but the underlying principle of closing the feedback loop provides a flashing neon clue for all teachers. Right now, I’m in the midst of relocation chaos; there’s no guarantee that any resolution I make this morning will endure to the fall semester. But I hope I’ll remember to make sure to elicit specific feedback from students with regard to the comments I make on their papers. I’ll commend the University of Glasgow (my new employer), though, for producing student handbooks that spell out across-the-board criteria for assigned papers; grading criteria gain usefulness in proportion to the generality with which they’re applied (so that in an academic ecology in which every teacher deploys different criteria, or makes no criteria explicit, students will have a difficult time making sense even of explicit guidelines).

Moving to the U. K. — Clash of Bureaucracies

I received a packet of forms to fill out today relative to my criminal record, my housing situation, my tax status (in the U.K.), and so on. It makes me want to yell out the window, “But I don’t have a Taxpayer Identification Number! (Not for the U.K.)”
The storage garage is relatively orderly. We have a few boxes to close up, my clothing to distribute into transportable divisions, three estimates for shipping to obtain (Glasgow will reimburse the lowest), and my renegade pocket notebook to recapture.
The notebook — a Miquelrius, comparable to a Moleskine — fell out of my pocket on the Duke Shuttle bus on Monday. I called around about it Tuesday morning; no one seemed to know where it was. Margaret and I searched all over, to no avail. Today, I hopped on the Shuttle again, and asked the driver where I ought to look if I lost something on the bus. “What’s your name?” she demanded.
It turned out that she had found it, and was trying to get my attention as I stepped off the bus. When I didn’t hear ehr, she asked the other passengers if any of them knew me. One thought I was a Div School faculty member, so she gave him the notebook and told him to get it to me.
So today I went to every Div School office I could think of, to check to see whether the mystery passenger had brought my notebook there. No luck.
On my way back home on the Shuttle, I told the driver my tale of woe and intrigue, and she looked around on the bus. “You know that guy I gave the notebook to?” she hollered back at one passenger. Yes, she acknowledged, she knew him. He gave it to such-and-such a person at the Divinity School, someone I hadn’t seen in his office. I gave her my card, and asked her to give it to the notebook recipient; I emailed him myself, when I got off the bus. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Check It Out

The other day, danah boyd posted an insightful column about laptops/smartphones in meetings and lectures. While I try to prescind from portentous claims about a “clash of civilizations” or “paradigm shifts,” I suspect that people who have begun to assimilate the capacities of cyborg life (constant net access, fractional attention processing) will irritate the dickens out of people who have not begun that transition (if they are not outright resisting it). Over the next few years, we’ll develop a new etiquette that takes account of both the changed digital capacities (on one hand) and of (semi-)cyborg priorities and attitudes (on the other); we’ll have different technological developments that will irritate tardy adopters; the world will go on. Climate change is a danger to civilization; cyborg existence will change civilization, and some folks won’t like the change, but Juvenal and Lucian didn’t like the changes of civilization in their time, either.
I don’t try to extort attention from students or conference participants. Sometimes I ask that students concentrate their capacities on immanent-capacities (memory, association, improvisation) only, but that’s for the specific purpose of cultivating those capacities — not to insulate me (or them) from the vastly-expanded capacities made available online. Apart from that caveat, I have to win direct attention from classes and audiences; if I’m not engaging their willing focal attention, then I can’t complain if they’re checking their email. Heck, I could use more time for clearing email myself.

Report From Between

As I noted before, we had an unwelcome influx of water in the storage area of the garage where our Stuff is waiting. We think we’ve identified the source, and we’ve taken care of the wet books. We’ve been sorting books into “Glasgow” and “Storage” categories, except that in the middle of the night I realized that we have already assigned just about as many books to “Glasgow” as I had in my Seabury office, and we don’t know how big the office will be, and there is approxiamtely zero room for books in the flat. Ergo, we will probably have to perform another sorting of the books into the categories “Essential” and “Manageable-without.”
This brings to the fore a very prominent aspect of the digital transition in publishing: while “nothing can replace the tangible, sensuous qualities of a book,” there’s a physical limit to the quantity of books that most people can (or should) take on. I have hardly bought any books at all for several years, and we’ve had to cut our library by a third already (and quite possibly more when Margaret moves to Glasgow next year). Print publishers have effectively eliminated me as a customer, because I can’t carry their products around any more. Contrariwise, if I could buy good, usable electronic versions of the books on my list, my eligibility as a consumer would know no practical limits (storage being elastic if not yet infinite).
It appears to me that the non-digitally-hip print publishers operate on the assumption that their customers will have functionally unlimited storage space, an assumption that places severe limits on their market. Even among academics and book-reliant professionals, more and more have to deal with smaller living space and greater mobility — both circumstances militating against the expansive acquisition of published works. Imagine, though, the possibility that a reasonably-priced edition of a big, fat book were available in a PDF-like format, with no DRM restrictions; while some copies would absolutely certainly be shared illegally, the number of viable customers would also increase markedly.
I expect that publishers even in the digital dimension will try to perpetuate the limitations that define physical-dimension publishing — alas, in so doing, they defer the arrival of a vigorous digital marketplace (that will overtake us all willy-nilly) and exchange long-term pounds for short-term pence.
(These observations apply generally as well to some of the projects described in IHE’s article on “Digital — and Financially Viable” ventures. The Stanford Encyclopedia seems to be on a sounder track, and TLG on a path calculated to keep would-be classicists at an arm’s length.)