Tag Archives: grad school

Kindle, iPad, tablet: not the same, with good reason

I just ran across an article claiming that iPads are superior to Kindles because iPads are more than just e-readers.

I love my Mac, but I love my Kindle, too. I love them for different reasons. I love that I can play with Calibre, Stanza, iMovie, and all Teh Internetz on my Mac. I love that I’m seriously unable to get distracted by web-surfing and e-mailing on my Kindle, and that I don’t need Calibre or Stanza to create readable personal files (thank you, .doc files, e-mail, and free.kindle.com).

I use my Kindle for reading, annotating what I read, and occasionally hitting the wi-fi to download the daily paper, classics from Project Gutenberg, some feverishly-typed-up study notes, or copies of my favorite magazines. For people who read tons of text, have five too few bookcases, and need to avoid distractions, the paperback-book-sized Kindle is far superior to the iPad. One could send an e-mail in a crisis, assuming wi-fi or 3G capability was up, yet the Kindle’s deliberately too-small keyboard is an effective deterrent for those of us on a social-media diet.

I think of tablets as slightly too-small PDF-reading and e-mail-checking machines with limited typing capabilities–and I mean that as a compliment. Tablets are almost there, as far as research tools, but I’d like to see a true 8.5 x 11 screen size and the ability to highlight and annotate PDFs before I commit to an iPad (or to whomever meets the requirements first). I would love to take a tablet into the stacks with me to take notes (or scan/photograph images) and to fill it with tons of academic database articles and newspapers. (Hey, I’m a writer. I’m a grad student. I have been a reporter and likely will be one again.) However, the tablet/iPad would have to have native PDF annotating and highlighting capabilities to win my eye. And with the AARP about to stalk me, the eyes get priority.

I broke up with my iPod Touch because the mice-type was making me blind and I didn’t enjoy the “alternative” of reading novels half a paragraph at a time. On the Kindle, I can resize text for whatever my need is at a given moment. Resizing PDFs on the small Kindle is a non-starter. (Imagine covering half of a page vertically and then trying to read it.) I thought the big Kindle’s sumptuous 9.7-inch screen would solve both text size and readable-PDF-page problems, but the DX was too awkward and heavy for casual reading or one-handed key-poking, especially for someone with bird-bone wrists and tiny hands. I swapped my big Kindle for a small one and have been watching the iPad/tablet developers duke it out ever since.

I got a great deal on an Acer Iconia A500 for my partner, who was disappointed at not having won an iPad in a drawing at work. Of course the A500 isn’t an iPad, but because she has an Android phone and the A500 runs on Android, it seemed like a good fit. It also seems more practical, in that it has “gigs and gags” the iPad doesn’t, like a mini-SD card reader. She’s warming up to it, in her usual technophobic way. The A500 can talk to her Mac, which treats it as a USB device, and she has many free software options (no online purchasing needed). It talks to her e-mail and she can tap the address on a work order and pull up a Google map. She can take endless cat-worship videos with “The Eye”–“Oh! It has The Eye in the front AND in the back!” And, if you have The Eye, you can use Es-Skippy, just like on the regular computer. A technophobe who develops a secret passion for Google Sky on her phone should have no trouble adapting to the A500.

Why do manufacturers always load stupid games onto your new toy without asking? Why not let us choose the games we want? We’re not all 12-year-old boys trying to sublimate our testosterone rushes via combat sims. I like the occasional game of Asteroids or Pac-Man, and I admit to letting the iPod whip my butt at level-one chess a few times, but I really don’t play games on my e-toys. (Okay, I have played Scrabble online. My idea of portable-device diversion is WriteRoom. Or a fresh download from Project Gutenberg.)

I’d much rather have the option to choose, say, five or six basic productivity programs: a mind-mapper, a PDF annotator, a fully-functional suite like Pages or Office, a web browser, and maybe a Leitner-box flashcard set and a decent gradebook). Call it the iStudy package.

Another marketing tip: Don’t fake-load the program in demo mode, only for users to find out that they have to pay $14.99 to get a fully-functional version (ahem, DataViz…). If the Documents to Go icon shows up, I don’t expect to unwrap a hollow box–and I definitely don’t expect my partner to have to pay for what seems to be a gift. The first thing she asked to see was the word processing program. She didn’t want me to pay for Docs to Go. I thought we could download OpenOffice, but the open-source gods haven’t cobbled the Android tablet version together yet.

Quite a few iPad-armed colleagues would appreciate an essay-grading app. If we could edit the rubric criteria, this would be a must-have. However, if we can’t open and view the essay alongside the app, and iPad can only run one app at a time (really?), we’d still need to pick up paper submissions from students.

How would this make grading any easier for instructors and less confusing for students? It wouldn’t:

“I don’t understand why you didn’t mark up my paper! If you e-mail me comments, why can’t I e-mail you my paper? Why should I have to pay to print out my paper?…”

Really, Apple and other developers have overlooked this research/academic/writerly market niche for too long. Let us decide whether to download Angry Birds or Chess or whatever, but first give us the tools we actually might use with an iPad or other tablet. Include a few good market-targeted programs instead of junk apps priced into the deal yet destined for the recycle bin. That, and a slightly bigger screen, would convince me to part with a few hundred bucks, possibly for the October-surprise version of iPad.

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The Old College Try(ing)

The fiction reading list expands to fill the time allotted, then overflows: literary Great Stuff oozing through the cracks of the intellectual shack I’ve cobbled together. Great Stuff expands, fossilizes, resists whittling down. Okay. I’ll say it. I’d be an idiot not to postpone comps until fall. I’ve got ten weeks before the exam and my particular reading list is a string of electrons pinging between servers. Even an English major with dyscalculia can do that math.

Here’s what studying great literature at a public university involves nowadays. See how well this squares with the ideal Oxbridge tutorial, that Ivy League privilege-anxiety foremost in current anti-intellectual discourse, that “Dead Poets Society” cave scene before youth, freedom, and discovery expanded into a synthetic blob of backstabbing, suicide, and kangaroo committees.

First, I’m lucky because I’m fully funded through Year Six. This is the middle of Year Five. Twelve years was, until recently, not unheard of for doctorates in the humanities, although that’s the outer limit of one’s scholarly welcome. Now, we are being prodded to finish in half that time or less, as opposed to the seven-year norm. For grad students in the humanities, being fully funded entails teaching. In the current academic climate (everywhere, not just at my alma mater), that means we are responsible for planning, running, and grading multiple introductory sections. We also have to attend this meeting, that meeting, the other meeting, in a kind of dry run for tenure-track Valhalla. One thing you’ll get at my institution is professionalization in excelsis. I admit that’s a good thing. All that extracurricular training gives us a sliver of an advantage in the academic job market, which itself is pretty thin.

Teaching assistants’ take-home pay may be about 1/3 that of a convenience store manager, but tuition is on the house. To make ends meet, I gamble on the future: I take out student loans to cover the rest of my (well, actually, our) very modest living expenses and to pay for conference travel once, possibly twice, a year. The People’s Universities no longer pay for their graduate students to present at regional or national conferences, which is where grad students go for the elusive academic job interview. That’s because The People’s Universities everywhere function at the pleasure of elected state officials, many of whom think “the gubmint” (reminder: that’s you and me, folks, not them) shouldn’t pay for anything (but sweetheart-deal private contractors). What little money comes the grad students’ way trickles down through layers of administrators and warrens of managers, many of whom (but not all) manage the university as a private corporation, not as a public trust. When the annual budget cut or the mid-year budget cut strikes, as it always does, our non-degree-program workload increases. Academic trench warfare means holding the line for graduate funding while finding more ways to justify graduate students’ presence at The People’s Universities everywhere.

It’s been this way for over a decade. It reminds me far too much of the oil bust that interrupted my undergraduate studies in (hello) the early ’80s. I know what it means to work three crappy jobs and go to school full-time, or to work one real job all night and then go to school 2/3 time on the quarter system. I hardly lack motivation. I just want to finish my reading and get on with whatever’s next. High on the list: paying off my student loans and trying to mitigate all those years of lost income/retirement savings. I’m not 25. I’m not single. I have grown folks’ bills. I will never sell my soul, but I will sell my time to the highest bidder.

One hungers for the idealized graduate life of yesteryear. Did it ever exist? Whither the corduroy-elbowed denizens of library carrels? Whither library carrels, for that matter? I’m not sitting around smoking a pipe and debating the merits of Hemingway’s vs. Faulkner’s prose in the campus pub with my three closest pals. (Whither the campus pub?) I don’t smoke a pipe–I don’t smoke anything–but I remember, by proxy, how grad school was in the 1970s and 1980s. My mother was one of those housewives who went “back to school” and is now happily doctored, published, and tenured. I watched her study; I studied alongside her; sometimes I even helped her study by reading manuscripts aloud while she transcribed them. My father, who never finished college but has read more than anyone I know, was a muckraking journalist. My family, it seems, was not the norm. They let me play with typewriters. I watched the Vietnam War three times a day. They did not censor my reading. By the time I was ten, I had read Wordsworth’s poetry, The Tempest, and The Godfather (wedding party and horsehead and all), all of my own free will, and my mother had vouched for me with the librarian because I’d read just about every book in the kids’ section. I was also writing poems and stories from first grade on, producing and peddling my own magazines in elementary school, and binding books by junior high.

I never had a chance. I was doomed to be a writer, a reader, a thinker.

Where I do this is immaterial; that I do it is vital.

I say this using my fancy college words. But I also know about smoke-filled rooms and lying politicians and putting my bus money in my shoe and acting crazy on the street when a shifty-looking guy is about to mug me. I sought my first craft training in newsrooms, not workshops. Like my dad, I can and do read on my own time because reading is its own reward–just you and the (in)glorious mind on the page. Seems to me, though, that a university oughta be the best place to read a lot in a short time.

So here I am, mixed diction an’ all, dawl.

My street sense tells me The People’s Universities are getting mugged, conned, jumped, jacked, and hustled by the folks with the purse-strings. And they never, ever will say, “Okay, I’ve got enough money now. Here’s your temporary fee increase back. And let’s expand the arts programs. Those guys in the Sports Palace have enough. It’s time for Our Fair State to develop world-class writers.”

This is why I have taken a 1.5 graduate courseload while teaching a .5 FTE load (plus professionalization, teaching portfolios, tutoring portfolios, editing publications, serving on committees, presenting at conferences, publishing, and all that professory jazz). For folks keeping score at home, that’s the equivalent of two full-time jobs, not one. When I started, I looked at how many years of funding I was guaranteed. Then I counted backwards from there and took the required core as quickly as possible. I had planned to take a year to study for each comp exam and a year for the dissertation (only because I’ve written a master’s thesis and a book already, have had the concept in mind since before I applied, and have been picking at the research and planning in odd moments). Sure, I “lost” a year or so with “unnecessary” forays which are, in fact, completely necessary supplements of or complements to my research interests. I flog my “advanced” Spanish whenever I can. I took a doctoral-level ed psych. I took a master’s-level screenwriting class. I took Old English, because I believe no self-respecting English Ph.D. should escape at least the rudiments of Old English. I took various lit courses which I never got around to during the previous two degrees, nearly all of which count as requirements. Other than that, I’ve gone straight through with no break. I teach every summer. I do the “voluntary” work required, in light of budget cuts, to maintain my preexisting level of funding.

And Lord have mercy, I have to reread every freaking novel and craft treatise I’ve read in grad school and a handful more that I’ve heard of but never read, much less studied.

This is not going to happen between now and ten weeks from now.

Part of me says, “Oh, hell, you’ve read most of this stuff more than once or twice, even if it was in 1992. Or at least once in the past five years. Maybe you can go get a trot like everyone else (surely not everyone relies on trots–do they? Grad students?!. . .).”

My real self says, “No way. This is not a capsule plot recitation. You gotta deal with some bad mofos struttin’ around with all their kaleidoscopic plots hanging out. You have points of comparison to consider. Swann’s Way. Moby-Dick. Your boy García Márquez. And you’ve never gotten around to Midnight’s Children. Or Housekeeping. And you want to read Tres Tristes Tigres in translation. And the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium. And you need to make fresh notes on all of it. Girl, you might have enough time between now and October. Maybe.”

So after several e-mail exchanges with my fiction advisor, I think I’ll need to apply a little TV news horse-sense to the situation: Restack the show. Dedicate this semester to reading and note-taking, and to generating the working draft of the diss, which is the working draft of what I prematurely describe to all as “my real book”–meaning my over-48-page-minimum-for-full-poetry-collection-status-in-the-world book–and take the fiction exam this fall. It makes more sense. I have all kinds of strike-force research trips planned this spring and summer, and there’s no law against working on the diss before finishing both exams. Plus, I’m itchy-antsy to stay in poetry mode while I teach poetry this semester.

Because no one (well, almost no one) is going to say, “Here, O Poet-scholar–take $30K and a year off to travel and work on your beautiful dissertation-real-book-manuscript,” I squeeze in tiny side trips on the way to and from other places. I become a poet-field reporter in full crash mode. I use my reporter brain and my poet brain, my emergency brain and my scholar brain.  (I also keep a backup light-up brain in my office, but that’s for real emergencies.)

Now I just have to keep all the Great Stuff from oozing out between now and October. And keep my dollar in my shoe.

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I Can Has Brain Transplant?

My brain is soup.After wrestling with my fiction form and theory midterm, which is designed to approximate comps without a four-hour time limit, I’ve just finished catching up on the response papers I haven’t done for ed psych because of AWP, the flu, and my inability to comprehend the somewhat-quirky syllabus. Now I just have to worry about catching up on all the articles I need to have read by class tomorrow, when we’ll get the ed psych take-home, which (along with the ed psych research paper and the poems I need to write and revise) will expand to fill the spring break allotted. On the up side, I’ve learned a ton of useful things from both classes already and have a strong core for my ed psych research paper that also applies to my own teaching. Plus, I got the OK for two independent studies between now and fall: a comp-rhet theory that will expand upon the EPY research and apply it specifically to how our English GTAs are trained, and a directed readings on the poetry of exile, which is as close as I’m going to get to a comparative literature class in my program. Dr. Bottoms and I will swap fascinations: his with Eastern European poets and mine with Cuban poets. Oh joy!By fall, all should be hunky-dory. I’ll be down to my last few courses, and I’ll probably be able to take both Old English and Spenser right on schedule.Now… it’s 1800 time. Ching ching! (toast) 

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