Monday, April 23, 2018

Who is our audience?

The last few days I have been at the fantastically wonderful workshop on Feminist Philosophy and Formal Logic organised by Jessica Gordon-Roth and Roy T. Cook at the University of Minnesota. We're a group of about 25 people, of which only about 1/5 are men, and we've been put up in a rustic Minnesotan hunting lodge (complete with chocolate lab, feet-high drifts of snow, enormous fireplace, and possibly haunted basement art studio). In true workshop fashion, the presenting participants circulated papers in advance and then each was given about 15 minutes to summarise the important bits of their paper and then an hour to hold the floor for questions.

When I received an invitation to present, my first response was "But I don't know anything about feminist philosophy – here, should I say something about my women in medieval logic project instead?" and thankfully Jessica and Roy thought that was great and let me come anyway. I kicked off the first day (very nice, no preconceived notions of what we were supposed to be talking about), which ended up being rather historical in bent while the second day was slightly more formal in bent.

What was interesting was that both days ended up -- completely organically, being dominated by a particular thematic-question. The first day, it was "Who is a logician?" In my talk I spoke about Christian de Pizan's statement "Je ne suis logicienne", and what it meant to be a logician and who gets to self-identify as a logician and who gets to call someone else a logician -- and also who gets to self-deny and who gets to deny others. It was interesting the number of people who then went on to preface their talk or their comment on a talk with "I am not a logician" (in fact, I think I may have been one of the only ones who identifies as a logician first and foremost!).

But it's the question that seemed to characterise the second day that I want to talk about most: Who are we writing these papers for? Who is our audience?

The papers presenting formal models tended to be of a similar structure: Here's this cool thing in feminist philosophy that we can construct a formal model out of. The formal model doesn't always get things right, but there's a bunch of knobs that we can twiddle whenever the model makes some prediction that doesn't seem right. But there are a bunch of questions the formal model doesn't answer; these answers can only be gotten from the world. A number of the papers also made some sort of apology for the use of formal tools, and a discussion of how the authors tried to make the formal side of things more accessible to those who might not have had as much training in them as those who call themselves logicians do. What I found interesting is that these two groups of responses/reactions only make sense if you take the audience of the papers to be radically different.

There are, as I see it, three main groups of people that can be the answer to "Who are the formal tools for?":

  1. The feminist philosophers.
  2. The formal logicians.
  3. The authors.

(These groups are neither exhaustive, nor exclusive, but are the most likely/typical. The groups are also not uniform, even though I speak below of "the feminist philosopher" or "the logician".)

(1): If the audience for a paper presenting a formal model of some aspect of feminist epistemology, etc., then the model needs to substantially engage with the phenomena in the world: It has to get things right, it isn't enough to say "if it doesn't, we can always twiddle the knobs until it does." This isn't going to be helpful as a tool to the feminist philosopher who may not know how to twiddle the knobs appropriately.

(2): If the paper is a sort of "proof of concept" for logicians, along the lines of "look at this interesting stuff that you might not think was amenable to formal modeling or logic that actually is, maybe you should look into this further", then there is no need to apologise for using the formal methods. After all, the way to make this material accessible to the logicians is to speak it in a language they already understand! I will happily put myself in this group, and say that papers like this are for, among others things, me, and for people like me, who might not have previous been exposed to feminist philosophy or standpoint epistemology or anything like that, but now have more access to them via a language they understand. But this group also includes people for whom the logical symbolism is in fact the easier way to grasp new ideas than reading prose alone, for example, people with certain types of learning disabilities. To assume that the prose of the feminist philosophers is always more accessible than the symbols of the logician is not a helpful stance to take -- nor is any position along the lines of "If the only way you logicians will be interested in feminist philosophy is if we translate it into logic for you, then screw you" (any more than saying "if the only way you feminist philosophers will be interested in logic is if we translate feminist philosophy into it for you, then screw you" is), especially when everyone here are people who value logic and logical methods.

(3): I sometimes think that people downplay the importance of the process of modeling in favor of the end-model itself. But, speaking anecdotally here, I've always found the process of building the formal model way more useful than the end model itself -- the process is what helps me clarify the concepts, figure out what questions to be asking, find out where the uncertainty lies. Of course at the end I always hope that I've come out with a model that could be used for something, but the utility doesn't lie in the end-model alone, it also lies in the process by which we got it. So I think we should keep in mind that sometimes, the audience for papers like these can be the authors themselves, who can then take what they've learned from the process of modeling and use that to guide their future questioning.

I've actually got quite a bit more to say about questions of audience more broadly -- whom do we write for when we write academic papers vs. blog posts, whom do I write for when I write fiction, whom do my students write for when they write papers or dissertations, but I'll take that up in another post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"How do you do it?"

Twice in recent weeks I've been asked "How do you do it?", usually accompanied with a boggled look as the person in question tries to take into account my primary academic persona, my secondary academic persona, my life as a writer, the fact I have a partner and a child, and I still manage to binge-watch plenty of SciFi, eat a lot of pizza, drink a lot of beer, do medieval re-enactment on the weekends, and still get ~8 hours of sleep a night.

It's kind of an awkward question to be asked, but when the first person -- someone I've known since we grew up in the same neighborhood! -- asked, I put quite a bit of time into thinking about the answer, because I was being asked with a view to perhaps providing my friend with some tips she could incorporate into her own life. It was a useful exercise, and I ended up writing her a long and involved email with a lot of biographical detail. It also meant that when I was asked a similar question this Sunday night just gone, I was able to boil it down to three primary factors. But it was mostly useful because it forced me to see which contributing factors are ones I have/had control over, and which ones are difficult to suggest to other people to do.

So, how do I do it (all)? I've written here before about some of my productivity techniques (e.g., my daily writing, my New Year's resolutions), but they're actually products of my circumstances rather than contributors to them (if that makes sense). If I have to boil it down to the essence, it is these three things:

  1. I have a supportive partner.
  2. I have a child.
  3. I have incredibly low standards of household cleanliness/tidiness.

(1) is definitely one of the "luck" ones; though I figure I can take a little bit of credit for having picked a good one (and certainly some credit for not picking the three alternatives I had at various points in my life), there was no way I could have known in advance just how integral to my success he would be. His support ranges from the very high-level emotional/structural support (e.g., going along with my rather impulsive idea that we move to Europe to finish our PhDs; doing a PhD in logic at the same time I was doing the same so that I always had someone to talk to and sympathise with; leaving academia in order to follow me and my post-docs around Europe) to the very concrete (he works from home and does the lion's share of general household maintenance, including grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning; his job is often more flexible than mine so he handles unplanned childcare needs; he makes a lot of our travel arrangements when we go on trips). I know it's not polite to compare partners, but when I read some of the stories of other people's partners in some of the "women in academia" groups I'm in on FB, I can't help be see how lucky I am, and how much I have benefited from having him around. Advice: Get yourself a supportive partner if you don't already have one.

(2) As strange as it sounds, one of the best things I ever did for "work-life balance" (which is a phrase I have issue with, but those issues needn't be relevant here) was have a child. I got 12 weeks post-natal maternity leave, and took another week holiday, but then my daughter started nursery at 3 months old and has been in care ever since. (She loves it; I love it; it has been nothing short of amazing for everyone involved.) For the first year or so, she went to nursery 20 hours a week, Monday - Thursday, 1pm-6pm. At the time, I was a post-doc, and my supervisor (bless him) pretty much said "As long as you keep up a reasonable research output, I don't care if you're only in the office part-time." What I learned in that year was to become incredibly efficient in my work habits: When I was in the office, I worked as hard as I could so that my other 20 hours, I didn't feel bad if all I managed to get done was read a few articles or write a referee report or do some data entry in between naps, feedings, playing, etc. When we moved to Germany, G. started full-time nursery, 40 hours a week, at 15 months. I always knew that I didn't want her to be away from home more than a "standard" (whatever that means) work week, which meant that when 5 o'clock came around every day, there was little temptation to say "Oh, I'll just work on this a little bit longer." Even now, I have a "don't forget to pick your daughter up from after school club" alarm that goes off every weekday at 4:45pm, giving me enough time to walk up to school and get her by 5pm. I also found that when she was young, I was too tired to work in the evenings/weekends, and as she got older and I got less sleep-deprived, it got harder to work evenings/weekends when she was awake. I was continually frustrated and disappointed about not being able to get anything done on weekends and eventually -- when she was about 2.5 -- stopped planning to get anything done. (Literally, anything). This way if I did get something done -- laundry, cooking a meal, reading a paper -- it counted as a win. And you know what I found? My research output didn't materially differ, whether I was working 40 hours a week or 60 hours a week or more. My dad always used to say "garbage accumulates to fill the available space"; I'd like to say "work accumulates to fill the available time". No matter how much time you devote to work, there will always be more work that you can do. Advice: While I can't in good conscience recommend "go out and have a baby!", I can recommend: Try a week or two where you put a limit on the amount of time you spend on your paying-job-work. When you reach that limit, stop and do something else. See how much you can train yourself to get done when you have to work within stricter bounds.

(3) is pretty self-explanatory. How do I have so much time to spend doing the things I want to be doing? Because I prioritise them over many other things. Sometimes I prioritise them a bit too much -- I think everyone in the house, myself included, would be happier if I vacuumed more often and tried to keep the livingroom tidier -- but I never said I was perfect. :) Also, if I spend my evenings writing fiction or working on my onomastic research, I feel less aggrieved when I spend weekend time cleaning and tidying. (It's also much easier to clean the house on the weekend, when I have a 6yo awake and around, than it is to write; and it's also much easier to write in the evenings, when I have a 6yo asleep, than it is to clean.) But (3) is also related to something else, which is that I am an intrinsically pretty selfish person. I get 8 hours of sleep a night because I am not willing to sacrifice my sleep for other people. I prioritise the things I find worthwhile because I am a happier person when I do so. (And it's a compounding process: When I am a happier person, I am more productive with the things that I do, including the things I don't want to do.) Advice: Lower your standards.

These are the primary factors. There are some other things which contribute to my productivity: I've always lived within walking/biking distance of work/daycare. For a 9-5 day, I leave the house around 8:15 and get home around 5:30. I embarked on what laid the foundation for my secondary academic specialism when I was 10 (seriously when I was about 15), and for many years it was my hobby, a means of relaxation and escape. I've now turned it into a proper academic endeavor, and if my primary research is going well, I will happily allow myself to spend working-hours time on onomastics instead of philosophy/logic. But likewise I am also happy to work on that material in the evenings because I can still treat it as a hobby: when I chose to work on it "out of hours" it is because I am doing so for the intrinsic enjoyment it brings, not because of any deadlines or requirements or guilt or the like.

Before concluding, I will say there was a bit of a learning curve when I started my job at Durham in Oct. 2014, and moved from purely research positions to a position where I have to balance research with teaching and admin. My first few terms I got quite anxious about how little time I got to devote to research; but then I realised "Oh. That's what term breaks and summer break are for," and with that realisation I've been able to stave off anxiety about projects and also tap into the "you have [[this much]] time to get all these projects done, so when break starts, you do the work." (This is the start of the third week of Easter break. In the last two weeks, I have brought four papers to their next stage of completion (two new papers in submission; one R&R resubmitted; one significant draft submitted for a workshop). Two of those papers were co-written, and that's another factor in productivity -- I offload all the bits I hate about writing to my co-author! (He does the same to me, so it's fair.)) I also limit the amount of time I spend prepping for teaching -- I generally have 4-6 contact hours a week, and spend about 2 hours prepping for all of them -- and work to integrate my research into my teaching as much as possible. (Having been in this position long enough to not have new preps each year helps a lot!)

So how do I do it all? Weekdays my alarm goes off at 7:45 so that G. and I can be out the house and on the way to school by 8:15. I drop her off at 8:45, and get to my office around 9:00, where I work until 4:45 and then head up to school to pick her up. We're home by around 5:30, and eat supper between 5:45-6:15. Around 6:45 we start the bedtime routine, which ends around 7:15/7:30; she's allowed to stay up reading until 8:00 if she wants but after 7:30pm I am not available for general mothering activities. I head to bed around 11pm, read for about an hour, and am usually asleep by midnight. During my time in the office, I read, write, teach, prep to teach, hold office hours, meet with students, etc., etc., etc., prioritising my logical and philosophical research, but sometimes devoting a day or two to onomastics. During the evenings, I write fiction, do onomastic data entry, or indulge in another hobby (like calligraphy and illumination). Weekends are for chores and errands, but also family time -- we have lunch at the pub every Saturday in between G's peforming arts lessons and running errands, and Saturday evenings I make pizza and J and I eat it, drink beer, and binge whatever TV series we're on. It's a pretty good life.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

March Writing Wrap-Up

March was an interesting month, writing-wise:

You can totally tell what days I was on strike and what days I was not. You can also spot the weekends, including the weekend that I didn't write anything because I was away in York at a weekend getaway with three other writers (which makes the fact that none of us wrote anything that weekend supremely amusing), and yesterday, the day before Easter, when we had friends visiting and spent the day sight-seeing, cooking, and watching a 3h15m version of Hamlet on TV.

You can also see not only when the strike ended but when term ended. I prioritised a few student-facing issues right after the strike ended, but after that, my priority was four papers due by April 6. The first needed only to be a draft, but was really too drafty in the state it was in; I got that one sent off on Monday. The second was tidying up loose ends of a paper that was originally due Feb. 15, and which my co-author and I had basically finished by then, but then the deadline was moved and the strike happened and we sent it to another friend for comments so nothing happened on it for a month and a half. I was quite surprised when we sat back down on Wednesday to look at it again just how close to finished it was; and it got sent off yesterday. The third was something I started just a few weeks before the strike and was ostensibly for a Mar 31 deadline; I didn't meet the deadline but should still be able to finish it up this coming week and I'll send it off anyway. The deadline was for the inaugural issue of a new journal; if I miss the first issue, there'll always be a second one. The fourth paper is an R&R that was originally due mid-March, but we received an extension on due to the strike. I'm co-writing it with the same person as the paper sent off yesterday, so we haven't had a chance to look at that one yet: But we're pretty confident we can do it during the four work days next week.

I still wish I had a slightly more regular fiction writing habit than I do, but I've made progress on a number of things, and have a couple of deadlines in April that I hope to meet. I find it useful to write stories for specific calls/topics/deadlines, but one consequence of this is that when the story is rejected, I then find it harder to pick another venue(s) for it, because it was so targeted. It's always a bit more dejecting to have a purpose-written story rejected, but I've pretty well managed to keep my turn around time between rejection and resubmission down to < 1 days, and keep 5 things in submission at a time (5 is all I've got finished/unpublished at the moment; working on trying to increase that number!)

I'm quite proud of the fact that I managed an average of just over 1k/day. I hope to keep that up in April as well. I'm participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, with a focus of finishing up my novella Base 8, which was mostly written in November NaNo but which needs some serious editing.

The last thing that makes me happy was how little admin I did this month. Whoo!