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Another month of daily musings

It’s the end of another month. As has been my practice for some time, when I reach the end of the month, I try to step back and see where things stand with my musings. Early on, I reflected on what I saw as changes to my writing style. I’ve seen fewer changes of late, but that doesn’t mean that my writing is done changing. So the end-of-month musings are now a chance to look back and think about topics and themes.

It appears that I’m staying exactly 310 musings ahead of last year. If I recall correctly, the lost musings were most likely early in the fall of 2017 [1], so it is likely going to be a while before I’m on track to be 365 musings ahead of the prior year. A few times, I was tempted to write and post more than one musing in a day. Then I realized that a year from now, I would suddenly go from being 365 musings ahead to 365-n musings ahead. That seems wrong.

I did have one day in which I had no time to muse. If I recall correctly, that’s the day we drove to Kansas City and back to see the Grinnell Singers perform. In any case, I made an exception the next day and posted two musings.

Beyond that, let’s see what’s happened this month.

This turned out to be a month in which I thought more about my writing. One question I ended up asking myself was Am I writing faster? That question came to mind when my department chair presented me with a last-minute request for a one-page single-spaced somewhat-detailed description of the schedule for the new CSC 326 and I was able to throw something moderately coherent [2] together in under an hour. Does writing moderately coherent text for an hour or so each night make me better at writing moderately coherent text quickly? I’m not sure. It strikes me that I’ve always been a relatively fast writer and, ever since taking Little Red Schoolhouse, I’ve also been a moderately coherent writer. But my initial inclination was that my writing is just slightly faster and slightly more coherent.

Then I ended up having to look back at some musings from my first year of musing. It’s interesting. Some feel like they are better than what I would write right now. For example, I’ll be giving a speech to Duke TIP award winners in a month or two, and I feel like I’d be hard-pressed to top the speech that I wrote nearly two years ago. But others feel incomplete. For example, an old classmate told me that they had read my musing on studying at Grinnell. When I went back to look at it, it felt incomplete compared to the current musings [3]. And I found outstanding typos in a few of those early musings. It makes me wonder whether I should revisit some of them.

I also know that some of this month’s musings won’t look very good when I come back to look at them. I few definitely fall into the category of this musing is disjoint and written at the last minute, but I don’t have the time or energy for anything better. I’ve accepted that such musings are part of the daily musing process. I hope that you have, too.

I also find that I’m hitting something like a consistent pace. The vast majority of my musings seem to be about 900 to 1000 words when I feel like I’m done with them. It’s not anything intentional. Rather, when I hit the point that I feel like I’ve written all I feel like writing about the topic [4], the total is generally in that range. A few are shorter. A few are much longer [5]. But the majority are that size.

What about topics? I ended up writing a fairly substantial meta-musing on the process of musing. It strikes me that there are a few more whine about workload musings than normal, but there are usually a bunch of those. I thought that I was done ranting. But it looks like I ranted more than normal this month.

I also fit in a few musings about teaching and professional life and added a few personal musings. I suppose that’s a typical distribution [6].

I wonder whether it is time for a month of (mostly) consistent topics? I probably don’t have the time or energy for a month of Grinnellians you should know (or know about) and I’m not teaching a class like CSC 281, which would benefit from musings as the text. So I expect that next month, like most months, will remain a hodge-podge of topics. Perhaps after I rearrange the list of forthcoming topics [7] I’ll find an interesting set for May or June.

Once again, I heard from a few people who I did not know read my musings, including a few colleagues and at least one parent of an alum. I continue to be surprised by the variety of people who read what I write. There are enough newcomers that it may be worth writing an introduction to the series. You’ll probably see that in the next week or two.

I did hear three interesting comments from colleagues about the musings. Let’s see …

As a relatively new faculty member, I appreciate the alternate narrative to what I hear from the administration. While my primary intent is not to provide an alternate narrative, I do write about Grinnell, in part, to suggest that there are multiple potential perspectives on many issues. Isn’t open discussion a key part of academia and shared governance?

I often find that people ask me if I’ve read what you’ve written recently. [Sam expresses surprise.] You do intend to provoke conversation, don’t you? At the time they said that, I wanted to respond with a commend like No. I write to learn. I write to think. I write to have written. [8] And that’s really true. For example, it wasn’t until I sat down and wrote the musing about overloads that I realized that one of my objections to early faculty teaching overloads is that the power imbalance makes it much more difficult for them to negotiate.

But then I wrote yesterday’s musing on course tags. That musing is clearly intended to provoke discussion. And, a day after writing it, I find that I want to provoke even more discussion about the problems associated with course tagging (and of associated issues like hurdle rates) and about possible alternatives that better acknowledge that different students should plan different courses of study. So, yes, dear colleague, I do intend to provoke, whether I know it or not.

Do you realize that when you search the Web for Grinnell + X, your musings are one of the most common results? I rarely search the Web for Grinnell and other topics, so it had not occurred to me. I actually find the notion a bit scary. Are my musings many people’s first encounter with the College? If so, is that good or bad? Should the College perhaps be encouraging others to write regularly so that there are other perspectives? I do write many positive things about Grinnell, as it’s an institution I love very much. But I am also critical. I don’t want my musings to discourage students from considering Grinnell.

Neither members of the administration nor members of Communications have said anything about the prevalence of the musings in Web search results. They certainly know that I write and post daily musings. The lack of commentary either means that they are comfortable with the musings or they are reluctant to confront a tenured and vocal faculty member. I hope it’s the former. Perhaps some have even decided, as in the case of a parent I spoke with, that the musings suggest a particular positive about Grinnell: Grinnell is so supportive of free and open discussion that they let someone like me write and post regular notes. But perhaps I should take the initiative and reach out to the Dean’s office and to Communications

I should also mention that I had my first experience of finding my own musings when searching for Grinnell plus x. In that case, I was trying to find public information on research opportunities for all. But all I really found were my musings.

I started the prior end-of-month musing with a list of the numbers of outstanding musings in various categories. I’ll end with an update to that list. No, the category headings are not particularly sensible. They represent repeated experiences adding new things that I want to muse about in the near future, and, in effect, represent a stack of stacks. You can read more details about the categories in a previous musing.

You may note that there’s one new category: musings with substantial drafts. Those primarily come from two situations. Some are from times that I sit down and start to write, hit a writer’s block on that topic, and move on to another topic. Others are from times when I’m feeling particularly energetic or inspired and want to get some extra ideas written down. In both cases, I expect to make substantial revisions to the substantial drafts. In at least one case, I discovered that what I thought was a substantial draft was only one paragraph.

Category                     Last Month      This Month      Change
--------                     ----------      ----------      ------
musings w/substantial drafts     0               8             +8
after SIGCSE                     3               0             -3
next set                         7              25            +18
almost immediate (?)             6               7             +1
new "soon", teaching             9               6             -3
new "soon", other               13              18             +5
new "soon", short, teaching      7              10             +3
new "soon", short, other        24              28             +4
old "soon"                       7               7              0
new, but no so new              32              29             -3
series: fun books                4               4              0
series: anniversary musings      3               3              0
series: addiction/organization   2               2              0
old forthcoming musings         11               5             -6
more from csc 281                0               5             +5
"quick (?)"                     25              23             -2
general                        129             128             -1
Grinnellians you should know    66              65             -1
other people                     9               9              0
topics to revisit               12              12              0

Did I mention that I like gathering meaningless data, such as making lists of numbers and deltas? What did I learn from doing all of that? It looks like I pulled apart a few categories. I may have delved into the depths of the list, but I think that was generally to move things to a different list. For example, although there’s one fewer name in my list of Grinnellians to write about, that’s because I moved them to my top category. I hope to be able to write about them soon [9]. And it seems that after writing thirty-one (31) new musings I ended up with an increase in twenty-four (24) outstanding topics. Isn’t the list supposed to get smaller, rather than larger?

The growth of the list also means that musings that I intend to write immediately end up taking much longer. For example, I had planned to react almost immediately to a piece in Chronicle on writing, but it took almost three weeks. I see that I still have an outstanding musing planned on the Codecademy [10] Ruby Tutorial. I wonder if I’ll remember all of my criticisms when I get to it.

Making that list also reminds me that at some point I really need to find a way to restructure the list so that I do more frequently look at the old planned topics. Of course, doing so will mean that some almost immediate ones will be delayed even further. I wonder if I’ll get the reorganization done [11] by the end of next month. We shall see.

I’ve gone on a bit long, as is typical for these end-of-month musings. I found the work useful. I hope you did, too. In any case, I’ll see you in a month [12,14].

[1] As long-term readers know, I took on much too large a workload in the fall, including a 4.5-course teaching load and additional non-institutional professional responsibilities.

[2] And, it appears, successful for the purpose for which it was intended.

[3] It does, however, already exhibit my fondness for endnotes.

[4] And I’ve added the requisite collection of endnotes.

[5] The longer ones generally include these end-of-month musings.

[6] I was going to say a normal distribution, but then I realized that my statistics colleagues might expect something very different.

[7] See a subsequent section for more details.

[8] I write for a lot of other reasons, too. See the forthcoming introduction for some more.

[9] I won’t tell you who it is, but I did reference them in a recent musing.

[10] Codecademy is not the same as Codeacademy. Don’t you love Interweb naming?

[11] And the corresponding musing on reorganization.

[12] Since I muse daily, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, too. But I’ll write more about the experience of writing in a month.

[14] I won’t actually see most of you, but you know what I mean.

Version 1.0 of 2018-03-31.