Productivity past and present

Probably the most popular post on this blog is the one on GTD and the Weekly Review (followed by the one on Scrivener on the iPad and a link to Dean Young’s “Poem Without Forgiveness”). Self quantification is about a quest for a very particular type of individual perfection, one that turns behavior, habit, and routine into data points that can be used to determine future improvements, or simply to signify accomplishment. Productivity is a different kind of quantification—one that has, on the one hand, clearer benefits, but also insidious consequences.

Productivity systems have a lot in common with systems of self-quantification like the Fitbit ecosystem or the much more geeky and elaborate setups described in this (rather dated) New York Times article. Much of the advice on productivity, particularly David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, emphasizes capturing, recording, and tracking data—generally in the form of correspondence, ideas, action items, etc. You then create a system—in Allen’s original version, an actual, paper filing system—in which all of that data is immediately available and easily searchable.

And there’s certainly a benefit to that kind of continuous capture. For one thing, it removes a significant cognitive burden when you’re not trying to remember things and remember what you were trying to remember. And for those of us prone to anxiety, it reduces the number of things clamoring for attention and rumination.

But productivity doesn’t stop with task managers and to-do lists. There’s an ocean of advice out there on life hacking—how to make your morning routine as efficient as possible, how to shave off a few seconds from tasks you do repeatedly, how to turn your commute into “the most productive time of day”. Some of it’s just geeky fun—nobody really needs to make a tiny hot dog grill out of a tin can, and doing so won’t really make you any more efficient or productive. But a lot of it is aimed at helping you get more done with less, or eliminate things from your life so that you’ll have more time to work. Finding hacks so your chores don’t take as long is one thing, replacing your desk with a treadmill because you no longer have time for exercise is another.

Like the quantified self movement, the current productivity craze has its roots in the past, though not so far past. Productivity science emerged in the late nineteenth century and was honed in the early twentieth. If you’ve ever read a late-nineteenth century labor novel (you haven’t? well, why on earth not?), you’re probably familiar with the “speed up,” which in the novel is likely to result in the collapse of a secondary but beloved character. Factory owners discovered that they could continually increase the tempo and pace of work, often employing someone to set the pace or using machinery invented for the purpose. Eventually, workers would be unable to keep up, either because the pace was too fast or they had exhausted themselves. If the latter, businesses simply hired new workers. Unregulated labor markets for the win!

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On quantification

I started swimming again, after a year out of the pool and then, the year before that, something like fifteen years away. I was grateful to discover that, as was the case the last time I returned to swimming, the skills and motions I practiced so much at twelve came back to me with little difficulty at thirty (a fact which raises the question of why I quit being a pretty good swimmer at twelve to be a mediocre soccer player for years and years after).

Last week, I swam ten and a half miles. I did this largely because I enjoy swimming more than I’ve enjoyed any other exercise. That enjoyment stands in particularly sharp contradistinction to my feelings about running, an activity I loathe and have loathed my entire life, despite a decade of fairly serious soccer and uncountable attempts to get back into shape by hauling my recalcitrant and intensely unhappy carcass from point to point in search of the elusive and, I’m fairly certain, entirely fictitious “runner’s high.”

The other reason I swam ten and a half miles last week is that each day I recorded my yardage on my calendar, and there’s a deeply satisfying thrill to adding them all up on Sunday converting them to miles. Not that the final number was a surprise: I was aiming for a ten-mile week, and I knew exactly how far I needed to swim on Sunday to hit that target.

The thrill of adding those numbers up and hitting a target brings to mind David Sedaris’s recent and very funny essay on his Fitbit in the New Yorker. I read it on the plane from Houston to Atlanta, and if I hadn’t been trapped in a flying tin can, I probably would have ordered myself a Fitbit then and there. Sedaris describes a satisfaction in seeing the numbers creep up each day that I found immediately familiar: “During the first few weeks that I had it, I’d return to my hotel at the end of the day, and when I discovered that I’d taken a total of, say, twelve thousand steps, I’d go out for another three thousand. ‘But why?’ Hugh asked when I told him about it. ‘Why isn’t twelve thousand enough?’ ‘Because,’ I told him, ‘my Fitbit thinks I can do better.’”

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Turn-of-the-century health products of questionable healthiness

I’m combing through newspaper reviews right now, and if I stopped to chuckle at every funny advertisement and article, I’d never get done, but I couldn’t resist these two gems. The first is a sort of turn-of-the-century cleanse, which promises to aid the “millions of little suckers” that line your intestines:

millions of little suckers

You see, the food is Nourishment or Poison, just according to how long it stays in transit.

I like that they “are purposely put up like candy” for discretion and ease of use. I’m sure there were no ill effects when the kids found them and ate the whole box.

And then there’s Anheuser-Busch’s Malt-Nutrine, “For Insomnia.” And yeah, I’ll buy that this probably does help with insomnia. Calling it “liquid food” seems a bit of a stretch, though.

predigested Barley-Malt

Malt-Nutrine is a liquid food, not a drug, and may be used continuously without danger of forming a habit.

Writing through (and after) the dissertation

At the beginning of April, I resolved to start each morning by writing at least 750 words. 750words.com explains the practice, which is based on the idea of “Morning Pages” from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I neither write my pages longhand, as The Artist’s Way recommends, nor use 750words.com’s online site (I use Day One, a well-designed journal app that syncs across all my different devices), but the concept is the same: start the day by writing, and focus on getting words on the page rather than making them perfect. The Artist’s Way emphasizes stream-of-consciousness writing, though without the explicit prohibition against lifting the pencil from the page that I’ve seen in some free writing exercises.

Sometimes I do use my 750 words for stream-of-consciousness free writing. I’m getting ready to write my job materials, and I’ve begun several mornings by just writing out all the reasons I’m a good teacher, or all the reasons someone should hire me. I’ll probably do that a few more times, re-treading the same ground in different ways, before I actually sit down to write a polished set of letters.

Sometimes I use my 750 words for a sort of narrative to-do list. I walk through all the things in my task manager and write about how and when in the day I’ll get them accomplished. I work out a plan for things that need to get done in the next few weeks. I reassure myself that I can get everything done, that I’m on track. On those days, writing about my tasks for the day helps me feel prepared for work I might otherwise find daunting. It’s a longer, more sustained version of the pep talk I give myself when I open my task manager and blanch at the volume or difficulty of things that need doing that day.

Other days, though, I ignore the stream-of-consciousness, just-keep-writing instruction and use that morning writing time for more formal composition and drafting. On those days, my rule for myself is that I can’t use those words on my dissertation or other research. Instead, I give myself some space to write something polished, focused, and having nothing to do with my academic writing.

The practice has some obvious benefits: it means I keep the writing habit, in some form or another. Most of my energy in the last month and a half was focused on teaching and grading, so writing every day made it a little easier to get back to the dissertation once the semester ended. Even now that I’m back, I’m working on revisions, so it’s often a small-scale business of adding footnotes and clarifying or re-writing individual sentences. Producing several pages of text each morning, even if it’s text about how much I don’t want to finish the grading, helps me hang onto the drafting habit when most of my efforts are focused on a different stage in the writing process.

It also reminds me that writing as an activity is separate from the dissertation–that is, that writing is not by definition chipping away at this document I’ve been working on for years. Uncoupling writing from dissertation-writing may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get a bit myopic this late in the process. Now that I can see the light at the end of the dissertation-tunnel, I’m getting myself ready for all the other kinds of writing I’ll be able to do.

Education reform and the college classroom

This article on Brooklyn-based education organization Blue Engine is worth a read. Blue Engine works with teachers to place recent college graduates as teaching assistants in high school classroom, lowering the teacher-student ration to 1-6. They also track a whole bunch of stuff about student learning, as is the trend right now.

I really like the idea of using high-achieving recent graduates as teaching assistants. It gets more folks in the classroom and avoids the sink-or-swim Teach for America approach, while giving grads the chance to find out if they like teaching in a lower-stakes environment:

One of the BETAs, Kym Scherbarth, is a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego. Scherbarth had considered going into teaching out of college, but she didn’t feel ready to lead a class. “I figured this was a good way to learn how to be an effective educator and decide if it was something I wanted to pursue,” she said.

I also like Blue Engine’s founder’s explicit acknowledgement that education reform doesn’t always work the way we think it will, and we can’t just dig in our heels in the face of disappointing evidence (cough, Michelle Rhee):

Blue Engine was born in the wake of a disappointing eight-year educational intervention led by its founder, Nick Ehrmann. And it shows. There is a refreshing humility baked into its model — particularly in the core idea that teachers need lots more support than they are given to do what they are expected to do. Ehrmann got his own start in education as a Teach For America corps member, teaching fourth and fifth grades at Emery Elementary School, in a tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He wanted his students in class 312 to make it through college, so working with the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” he raised over $1 million to provide them with tutoring, mentoring and scholarships over several years.

After he left teaching to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Princeton, Ehrmann’s Project 312 became the basis for his thesis. For years, he tracked the students’ progress against a comparison group from the same school. “I fully intended to arrogantly study what our nonprofit was getting right,” he recalled. “After six years, I found that our work had not had a shred of impact on academic achievement.”

Ehrmann focuses on increased rigor in high school classes to better prepare students for college work (he notes that there’s a difference between college-eligible and college-ready), as well as increased individualized support. From my position working with college freshmen and sophomores, these seem like essential and obvious elements in college preparation. One thing I wish my students were better trained to do is to use me as a resource–to work with me to improve their skills. All too often, when they do take advantage of my office hours, it’s to improve their grade–something that’s best addressed by focusing on skills and not treating the work in the class as a means to a grade. The added bonus is that an improvement in skills leads to an improvement in grades, but as a teacher, I don’t care about their grades, I care about their learning. The grades are just the carrot and the stick to get them to grow as readers and writers.

I have a hunch that if high school students had more opportunities to work closely with instructors whose sole purpose was to help them develop skills, and who could devote far more time an energy than an overwhelmed teacher of 30 students, they might arrive in my classroom better prepared to see me as a resource for their own learning and improvement, rather than as a giver of grades. A pipe dream, maybe, but I’m glad to see education reform that begins to address it.

Enough already

Ugh. Another snarky article about how graduate students in the humanities are deluded and responsible for their own misery, this time from Rebecca Schuman at Slate. I hate these rants for several reasons, one of which I’ve touched on earlier: there is no land of magical great jobs that people are sacrificing by going to graduate school, particularly in the humanities. Everybody’s having a tough time finding a secure, fulfilling job these days. The US labor market is undergoing some pretty fundamental shifts, and it’s far from evident which careers and fields will emerge from the Great Recession unbattered and offering opportunities to young workers.

Obviously, academia isn’t a secure career choice, but there are very few secure career choices these days, and even fewer secure career choices that someone committed to teaching and critical inquiry can feel passionate about. Most graduate students aren’t choosing between a run at the academy and a well-paid, highly-satisfying job in the non-profit sector. They’re choosing between grad school and a job they hate, or a low-paying job in a field that’s overrun with other folks looking for a career doing something they feel passionate about.

“Don’t go to grad school” makes all sorts of blanked assumptions about class and race that Tressie McMillan Cottom covers beautifully.

But that’s not even what irritates me most. Because, yeah, as individual advice, “don’t go to grad school” is pretty good. Everyone should be strongly advised not to go to grad school. But that cannot be the only message about grad school that makes it onto the national media radar. Not while we’re still holding out any hope for American higher education as an institution.

When we say “don’t go to grad school,” and especially when we say, “don’t go to grad school in the humanities,” we’re confirming the popular notion that the humanities are useless. They’re so useless that the best advice we can come up with is to just shut them down wholesale by depriving humanities departments of anyone to teach in them. They’re so useless that advanced study in the humanities can’t possibly prepare you for anything other than a professorship. They’re not only useless, but they’re toxic. Spend too long in a humanities discipline and you become a broken-down shell of a person whose primary contribution can only be angry rants about the academy.

All of that may be true in many individual cases, just as “don’t go to grad school” is good advice in many individual cases. But if this is the only advice we can offer, if this is the best solution to the problem of graduate education, then we might as well hand the job of educating American college students over to EdX and Coursera now.

These perennial rants are an opportunity to say, yes, graduate education in the humanities needs some serious attention and, yes, the people who teach college students to think and write should not have to live in poverty, but we need people to teach students to think and write. If no one goes to grad school, then the machines will have to grade the papers, and American students will be poorer for it.

Why keep giving advice that suggests exploited workers are to blame for their own exploitation? Why keep giving advice that offers absolutely nothing in the way of systematic or institutional solutions? Why keep giving advice that, if actually followed, would shut down education in the humanities? The only reason I can think of is that you don’t actually believe educating students in the humanities is worthwhile. And if that’s the case, why do you get to be the voice that everyone outside of academe hears? Why do you get a national platform? And why are those of us who still care about defending the humanities engaging with this stupid argument again and again?

Ghostwriting to pay the grad school bills

Amy Boesky has a lovely meditation in the Kenyon Review about ghostwriting, academia, and Sweet Valley High. Most of all, though, it’s a meditation on writing and authorship, and the creative and personal costs of academic work:

It took me five years to produce a 300-plus-page dissertation on early modern utopias and another five to turn it into a monograph that would eventually sell 487 copies. And yet, in a matter of a weekend morning, I could produce a chapter—a chapter!—of sparkling, exclamation-studded prose about those Wakefield girls. The Elizabeth in me loved the discipline, the reminder that while my twenties rolled on and I trudged back and forth from Eliot House to the library, lugging books in my arms like a woodcutter, I was producing pages—daily, weekly—that were being turned into actual books (OK, books with pastel covers, books without my name on them anywhere, but still!)—books that were selling, that were being translated (Hebrew, Danish, Dutch), that generated fan mail (OK, addressed to Francine and not to me). Books girls loved. The books I wrote as Kate William, the “author” name that came built in to the series, had readers.

An Oscar-season reminder that Crash is the worst

Mallory Ortberg and Anne Helen Peterson are talking about Crash over at the Awl. In addition to re-capping all the reasons this movie, more than the many, many other mediocre Best Picture winners, deserves our continued condemnation, they make a good case for why we should still care about how bad Crash was. The whole conversation is worth a read, but Peterson concludes with a nod to the utility of popular art with questionable politics:

Because even when people stop renting Crash on Netflix, its legacy is still with us. It’s in The Blind Side, but it’s also very much in The Help. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a single “white people solve racism” film in this year’s Oscar bunch—it’s so incessant, so culturally assertive, so eager to be green-lighted by all manner of white execs who want to show that they’re willing to cast black actors so long as their salvation is rooted in the extravagances of white privilege. Crash hurts my soul—but it’s also an incredible teaching tool. When I’m talking about the mid-2000s in class, twenty years from now, I’ll be able to point to it as a perfect crystallization of all America wishes it was and all it was not. That’s a fucking tragedy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad this film exists. Traces matter, however repugnant.

Ortberg is less optimistic:

I think it’s wonderful that you think there will still be human teachers in American universities twenty years from now.

Hooking Americans on processed food

This bleak and fascinating New York Times magazine article on the science of addictive junk food is a must-read. It’s excerpted from Michael Moss’s forthcoming book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Moss describes the incredible efforts of junk-food manufacturers to maximize the addictive qualities of their products–from mouth feel to bliss point. One of the most fascinating things is how quantifiable all that is; companies hire food scientists, sure, but also statisticians and mathematicians to break down the data in remarkable and fine-grained ways and pin-point the exact formula that brings the greatest returns at the lowest price.

All of which is incredibly intriguing, but what I love about this article is that it doesn’t bemoan individual eating habits. There’s no hand-wringing over laziness and lack of willpower. And the last anecdote, which focuses on attempts to get people who already drink a lot of Coke to drink even more, makes crystal clear the relationship between processed food manufacturers and the poor:

In his capacity, Dunn was making frequent trips to Brazil, where the company had recently begun a push to increase consumption of Coke among the many Brazilians living in favelas. The company’s strategy was to repackage Coke into smaller, more affordable 6.7-ounce bottles, just 20 cents each. Coke was not alone in seeing Brazil as a potential boon; Nestlé began deploying battalions of women to travel poor neighborhoods, hawking American-style processed foods door to door. But Coke was Dunn’s concern, and on one trip, as he walked through one of the impoverished areas, he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.”

Moss demonstrates again and again how junk-food corporations rely on fat, salt and sugar to hook consumers, and convenience to make it difficult for over-worked Americans to choose less-processed options. And while we often use addiction as a metaphor for problems Americans face–workaholics, rageaholics, etc.–Moss makes it clear that in the case of junk food, the language of addiction is not simply a convenient metaphor.

Downton Abbey’s unfulfilled potential

I gave up on Downton Abbey after two episodes this season: it was contrived and ludicrous, and when it wasn’t being silly, it was boring. And that’s coming from someone who has read more contrived and silly nineteenth-century novels than I can count.

But the other problem with Downton, a problem it’s had since the end of the first season, is that all of that fascinating revolutionary potential disappeared completely with the start of WWI. It was a very British sort of development–the Great War brings everyone together in British solidarity. I might even have bought that, if it hadn’t been quite so permanent. All the restlessness and class solidarity that seemed to be emerging downstairs in season one evaporated, never to return.

Over at the New Republic, Lili Loofbourow examines the ways the third season of Downton ran off the rails:

It lacks [Upstairs Downstairs's] darkness, and if once upon a time Julian Fellowes’s decision to humanize the downstairs help seemed aimed at making viewers question an aristocratic institution, the show is now fully committed to making us root for Downton. Any notion that the estate is not a benevolent employer gainfully supporting hundreds of people—and an overall social good, if badly managed—is only acknowledged in passing. Back in the first season, Gwen the maid’s departure to be a typist seemed to herald broader horizons for the staff in a changing world. Gwen’s life was hard. We saw her getting up in the cold and struggling; life downstairs was unpleasant. That’s no longer the case. We don’t see the servants rising in the dark, or cleaning, or scrubbing. Instead, they’re waiting at table and doing ladies’ hair and eating together and having tea. Even their rooms seem less drab. When it comes to preserving Downton and the social order it represents, the servants and the family are literally on the same cricket team.

I might be able to forgive the politics and the melodrama if only it was fun melodrama. But I reached my limit for moping Bates and Matthew’s inexhaustible inheritance luck. And, though I haven’t seen the finale, I understand that likeable Irish revolutionary and former chauffeur Branson is now on his way to becoming a respectable capitalist. I give up.