Monthly Archives: February 2013

Critical Readers Needed: Checking Up on the Media

Whether your friends have the “I don’t believe the liberal media” or the “Fox News: An Oxymoron” bumper sticker, you know it’s important to look at the media (whether print, broadcast, or online) with a critical eye.

Librarian Emily told me about a website that does just that. This University of Michigan-based site is an excellent source for learning how to detect bias in the news (or in any source, actually). It’s well worth your time.

Monday Motivator: Know Your Enemy

Last week, Librarian Pam and I revived the Library Losers. We had decided individually that we needed to lose weight, and, for some reason, it made sense to us to return to a process that had been an utter failure the first time. But, hopefully, now, we’ll have a better chance at success. This time we know our enemies (us) better.

Looking at the original Library Losers, there was one main problem: there was no accountability. If we didn’t meet our goals, we said so. But that was that. (And public shame doesn’t work for us!) This time, we have penalties or incentives tied to each of our weekly weigh-ins as well as a specific deadline tied to a bigger reward.

I also spent the last week evaluating my own actions to discover my major problems in the weight-loss arena (eating better and exercising more). The first thing I realized is that I have to avoid Wendy’s on my trips for a Diet Coke. There is just something about their French fries I can’t avoid. Also, as long as I bring my lunch, I’m usually in pretty good shape during the week as far as my eating goes. The same can’t be said for exercise, so I’m in the process of finding a time to go to the gym or even setting a timer for an at-home aerobics session.  My biggest enemy, which I’m sure is obvious to all readers, is that I have a very hard time passing up temporary pleasure for long-term gain. Pam’s task for this assignment will be helping me to conquer that enemy by holding me accountable to weekly check-ins and having to pay her a fine if I lose.

Pam’s problem is more along the lines of perfectionism. She once refused to wear a pedometer because it wasn’t 100% correct, and there was no way I could convince her that it was still a useful tool. She sometimes delays starting by waiting for the perfect moment. My job is to keep her on task and not let her use “imperfection” as an excuse.

 We often know the enemy is us, but we are just as often stuck in self-flagellation over our weaknesses instead of developing a plan to work around them. 

Will our new plan work? I’ll let you know on June 1.



The Jolly Librarian’s Management Handbook

When I became Dean of Learning Resources, I had little management experience. I had managed classrooms during my years of teaching, and I’d served as department coordinator.  But I had never been an actual boss.

So what happens when an English professor is suddenly called to guide a division? Obviously, the first thing I did was to look to those giants of literature who have pretty much accompanied me every step of my professional life. After all, I’d spent years telling students that literature can teach us a great deal about life. And wasn’t running a division a part of life?

Perhaps, it was my emphasis in 19th-century fiction that hobbled me as I tried to find a role model among my books. “Bartleby the Scrivener” might have had my sympathy as a student, but was not terribly helpful for my managerial role. And Poe was certainly no help in coming up with ways to deal with recalcitrant colleagues.

Still, over the years, I came up with a management style that works, and it turns out that the Victorians provided a guide after all:

  1. Be melodramatic. Every good Victorian character knew how to faint, weep, beat a chest, and bewail bad fortune. They also knew how to hint at awful things that might be waiting around the next corner. I like to incorporate those techniques whenever I can. I clap my hand to my forehead, grab and twist my hair, and, even, occasionally say alas. If someone comes repeatedly with a problem that can’t be solved at our end, I’ll lower my voice and say, “We must never speak of this again.”
  2. Be wordy. As all students of Victorian literature know, the novels were often serialized and then put in three-volume library editions. Therefore, the more words, the better. This can also work as a manager. If I sense that someone is about to complain about something and it’s a repeat occurrence without a solution, I start a story of a similar thing that once happened to me. I make sure I use the equivalent of Hugo’s digression of the history of Paris sewers. I mention what everyone involved in the story was wearing, and even do a little philosophizing like Dickens and the door nail at the beginning of A Christmas Carol. Long before I’m finished, the other person usually has backed away.
  3. Be sneaky. Women’s fiction during this period often put female protagonists in a position of fending for themselves by the death of a husband or parents or some awful perfidy committed by some nasty person. The characters then went on to have all sorts of adventures.  At the end, to appease Victorian readers, these women fit back into accepted social norms by marrying. Perhaps it was simply a way of thinking outside the box while seeming to be lying inside it. Similarly, I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to convince folks to do something radical is to assure them it’s not so radical after all.
  4. Be hard working. For some Victorian women authors, it was a matter of writing novels and stories to feed the family, for their husbands proved to be poor providers. (In fact, this pops up so often in biographical essays, that one wonders why someone hasn’t written a book, “Bad Husbands as Writing Muses.) “Scribbling women,” Hawthorne may have called them, but when one considers the few financial opportunities open to them, I think “surviving women” may be more apt. Sure, some of the works have faded into obscurity now, but that should not tarnish their accomplishments or dedication. One of my basic management beliefs is to be willing to work hard at any job that needs doing and hire people with that same belief.
  5. Be funny. Okay, so the Victorians might not have the reputation as the funniest people in the world, but I sometimes think that has more to do with generations of graduate students working to find a subject weighty and serious enough to be approved as a dissertation topic. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn will make you laugh out loud. Margaret Oliphant’s Miss Majoribanks has some very funny scenes. The Pickwick Papers, as well as sections of almost every Dickens novel, is funny. And let us not forget Alice in Wonderland. No manager’s handbook would be complete without a prescription for fun. People who enjoy their work and find humor in daily happenings  make a place welcoming for others.
  6. Be kind. Victorian novels have their villains, but they may be the last place where writers were not afraid to throw in some purely kind and gentle folks as well. Helen Burns helps Jane Eyre at Lowood. Joe Gargery is long-suffering and kind to Pip  in Great Expectations. I will never be as self-sacrificing as those two characters, but I do try to make allowances, give people what they want when I can, and not make any colleague’s life harder than it has to be. And most days, that’s enough.

When I first got the job, I read (since I’m an English major) management books, and they had some helpful hints. But I realized early on that I was never going to be one of those bosses who could be comfortable with the business model. I needed something a little more quirky. I needed my Victorians!


Read It Out Loud

Last week, I attended the reception for Think, our college’s journal celebrating critical thinking. All those published were encouraged to come read their essays to the group. I stood up to read mine and immediately noticed two things: One, I was incredibly nervous. Two, I was amazed at how awful my essay sounded in the real world compared to how it had sounded in my head.

It is one of the eternal mysteries of the composing process that what we write can sound so perfect in our heads. Then a week or so later, the paper is handed back, full of red marks and comments. And we realize that we don’t disagree with any of those marks; our essay does suffer from those weaknesses. Grammar errors jump out at us like snakes on the page. The lack of transitions appear like linguistic cliffs that we’ve fallen from. Some of our sentences sound as if we lost control of English for part of the essay.  What happened?

As experienced writers often tell beginners, put some distance between yourself and each draft. Then you can go back and look at it with fresh eyes. And that’s great advice. But what if you have procrastinated and your paper’s due tomorrow?

One way to give yourself a fighting chance is to read your paper aloud. There are several ways to do this: You can give a copy to a trusted friend and have him/her mark anything that doesn’t quite work as you read. You can tape yourself. Or you can simply read it out loud in the privacy of your own home. In any case, you’ll hear your mistakes when the words are said out loud.

So next time, make reading the assignment out loud one of your steps. You’ll probably be horrified, but then you’ll make changes for the better.

Reading Lives: The Philosophy Series

Philosophy may teach us how to live, but the study of philosophy texts may simply leave us shaking our heads. The folks at Blackwell Publishing realize this dilemma and brought out a series of books to make philosophical thought more accessible to the contemporary student. The Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series has something for almost everyone.

And our library has several of the titles:

House and Philosophy

Watchmen and Philosophy

South Park and Philosophy

The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy

Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Jeopardy and Philosophy

The Walking Dead and Philosophy

The last contains such thought-provoking essays as “Are You Just Braaaiinnnsss or Something More?” and “The Only Good Walker is a Dead Walker.” (And you don’t have to be a philosophy major to enjoy them!)

The obvious question from this week’s reading is what roles would library staff members play in the Zombie Apocalypse? Now, since not everyone is up on their zombie knowledge, the Jolly Librarian agreed to answer for them. So here goes:

Sally (via the Jolly Librarian): Unfortunately, Sally would be one of the first to be bitten when she stopped  her bike by a group of Walkers to tell them about the benefits of TEL

Pam (via the Jolly Librarian): Pam would also go early when she debated too long over whether the Walkers had souls and was bitten.

Colette: I have to first admit that I’m not hip to the zombie culture.  After a painful two hours spent with Woody Harrelson, I wrote off the whole genre.  I haven’t seen the zombie movies or TV shows.  If there are zombie books, I have not read them.  Rob Zombie is as close as I’ve gotten in a musical genre (and I’ve written him off too). My selection for which character I’d be in the Walking Dead series is going to have to be generic – like picking which Breakfast Club stereotype I fit.  I am, at my core, a rule follower. It’s a curse.  I’m the one at 2 a.m., in the middle of nowhere, bringing my vehicle to a complete stop at the stop sign. I’m sure my parents are proud of this fact.  If there is a group of rule followers in the Walking Dead, I think I’d be among them. Sadly, I suspect that during a zombie apocalypse, I’d be eaten early, in the pilot episode, probably while I was stopped at a stop sign.  I am also a mother, though, so if a zombie were coming for my son, the rules would cease to matter and I’d turn into whichever character has Medusa hair, a perpetual case of PMS, and a loaded shotgun.

Emily: I’d hole up in my house and disguise myself as a zombie a la Bill Murray in Zombieland.

Jolly Librarian: I would try to lead my rag-tag team on the road to survival, but I’m pretty sure I’d be shot in the back when Emily and Colette decided I wasn’t tough enough for the zombie wars. (There’s also a chance I’d be accidentally shot by Pam when she panicked during the first attack.) 




Critical Readers Desperately Needed!

Last week, one item that grabbed many readers’ attention was the fact that their sweet, fuzzy kitty cat was also a killing machine. Cats are apparently killing billions of other critters each year. Obviously, the greatest damage is done by feral cats and those house cats who are allowed outside. It even made the nightly news. Then the rebuttal began. First, it was the cats. Then there was the article that looked at how the statistics were gathered in the first place.

It’s enough to make your head spin, or at least it did mine. But it reminded of an important point. Critical reading skills have always been important, but perhaps never more so than in an age where the sound bite rules. As readers and viewers, we have to be able to look behind the quick presentation to find the whole picture. Sometimes, just like in The Wizard of Oz, when we look behind the curtain , we may find that the big scary story may be nothing but a dressed-up shadow man.

Now I would argue that the cat story can’t be that big of a surprise. Anyone who has ever owned a cat knows that the critters kill. I remember coming home once as a kid to find my cat Charlie in full battle with a spreading adder, a snake that looks enough like a cobra to make me think we had full-fledged version of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” going on at my house. And more than once, I heard my mother scream only to find that one of our cats had brought in a mouse, more or less dead.

No matter how the statistics are analysed in this case, cats are going to kill things, and that should make a difference in what we do with feral cats and whether or not we let our own cats outdoors. (And even if you don’t care about birds and moles as victims, please remember that once you let your cat outside, she (In my childhood world, cats were always girls.) becomes a possible victim as well.

Every day we are inundated with news stories of studies and experiments that indicate we are eating too much meat, eating too little meat, should have more mammograms, should wait to have mammograms, etc. Proponents and opponents of every controversy throw out sound bites that sound fairly convincing. Sometimes folks are definitely trying to trick us; sometimes they’re not. But in any case, we need to be better receivers of information (whether printed or broadcast or sent through telepathy)

So for the next few Tuesdays, the Jolly Librarian will take a look at critical reading.

Monday Motivator: Take Advantage of the Good-Enough Time

You’ve probably all heard some version of the story: Jason wants to learn to play the violin. But at his school, it’s cooler to play football, so he does. He’ll learn violin once he goes to college. In college, though, he has to study and party. He’ll learn the violin when he graduates. Then, of course, he has a job that takes up his time. Then he gets married, and it doesn’t seem quite right to leave his new bride to take violin lessons. Then he has kids, and they need lessons themselves. He never forgets the violin but decides that he’ll take lessons when he retires. Then on the day of his retirement party, Jason is hit by a car as he’s crossing the road. (Cue the violin music.)

The moral is that life is uncertain; take advantage of the present moment to achieve your dreams. But I think the message needs refining a bit: There are very few perfect moments to work on your goals and dreams. But there are lots of “good-enough” moments to work on them. 

As often happens, my inspiration in this area comes from the students here. Last week, I attended the reception and reading of Think, NSCC’s journal dedicated to critical thinking. I was impressed with the quality of the student essays, but I was also impressed by the fact that the essays were written at all. These students, like many community college folks, have spouses, children, jobs, and various adult tribulations. This was probably not the perfect time for any of them to contribute to a journal. Yet they did. 

If our mythical Jason had taken advantage of the small times that were not perfect but good enough, he might have died with one less regret. The “good-enough” times may be all we get, but, if we take advantage of them, they can be enough.


February 1: Another Beginning

After being depressed over my lack of progress on my 2013 resolutions, I woke up this morning in a better frame of mind. For one thing, a gentle snow had fallen. Also, I was about to meet some friends for breakfast.

But more than that, it was the beginning of a new month, and as I turned over my calendar to reveal the February Cezanne painting, I was inspired by the 28 blanks, still to filled in. So I decided to start again. 

Seneca tells us to count each day as a separate life, but, for me, there are just better times to start anew than others. I need more of a definite beginning: a new semester, a new year, even a new month.

 So this morning, I looked at my resolutions and recommitted to those that still speak to me. And I enter this unwritten month with optimism.

At least until tomorrow.