20-22 June 2017 – Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers

  • Professors as Writers – A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing
  • by Robert Boice
  • New Forums Press
  • Copyright 1990
  • 130 pages (+56 additional pages in two appendices)

Rating (for the entire book) – 8 out of 10

Chief among my professional goals at the moment is to get started on my research again.  Early in my career – pre tenure – I could grind out the articles like nobody’s business. Of late, I’ve slipped. I enjoy reading books on how to be a better writer and – at some point – came across a reference to Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers. Last week, I checked out a copy from the University library.

Beginnings

Boice worried me at the beginning with a clunky, dull forward (pp. vii-viii) that made me glad that I hadn’t paid for the book. The proprietor of a book store once told me that if you’re ever unsure about whether to read a book, try to first chapter and make your decision on that basis. As a general rule, I’ve found that to be sound advice. IMG_0249

But I wasn’t going to quit Professors as Writers because of a boring forward – and I’m glad that I didn’t do so. Boice soon rights the ship. Boice hits you with one of main themes right from the start – success as a scholarly writer depends on working for a short, set duration at specified times. Boice wants you to be a tortoise, not a hare. 

Chapters 1-5 – I am the 85% 

Toward the beginning of the book, Boice states that research reveals that – in most academic disciplines – 15 percent of the professors publish 85 percent of the scholarship. He also says that the sole way to know our disciplines in depth is to contribute to them as scholars. At the end of Chapter 2, he includes an exercise asking the reader to describe recent attempts to write. Likewise, Chapter 3 contains several pages on which Boice asks the readers to assess whether common writing problems apply to them. (I did the exercises as I went through the book and found them to be very helpful).

Chapters 4 & 5 get into the crux of Boice’s recommendations.  He talks about the value of automatic (or spontaneous) writing for removing writing blocks. Automatic writing amounts to stream-of-consciousness writing. In Chapter 5, he switches to generative writing, which is similar to automatic writing; the writer works without self judgment, but focuses his or her work on a research-related topic. I tried the exercises for both of these. My automatic writing was mediocre, but the generative writing was excellent.

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Chapters 6 – 8 – Long-run Strategies and Dealing with Relapses

Chapters 6 & 7 concentrate on the need to discipline oneself to produce a steady flow of work. Boice states that tracking your progress (time spent, number of words written, and percent of daily goal accomplished) will keep you on track. He said that we need to give ourselves an unpleasant contingency (such as mailing a $25 check to a hated organization) if we don’t complete our scheduled writing. I’ve already decided that my contingency will be no Internet if I don’t complete my writing.

Chapter 8 focuses on potential issues with relapsing to former bad habits. Boice states that continuing to use contingencies prevents relapse.

So Far, So Good

My summer work is going well. I’m about halfway through a journal article – and I’m even enjoying the process. Obviously, time will tell whether Boice’s plan is for me. I recommend Professors as Writers. While Boice can repeat himself too often, the “meat” of the book is thought provoking and should help scholars who need to regain their writing momentum.

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19-20 June 2017 – Reading Pages 164-261 of Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis

  • Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis
  • by Robert D Putnam
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Copyright 2015
  • 261 pages

Rating (for the entire book) – 7 out of 10

This morning I finished Robert D Putnam’s Our Kids. Monday I got done with everything but the final ten pages before I slipped off to sleep about 10 p.m. Tuesday morning, I finished the book over my morning coffee.

Chapter 5 – Community (pages 191-226)

After mildly disappointing me with Chapters 3 & 4, Putnam rallied in Chapter 5. It’s difficult to put my finger on why I liked Chapter 5 better; suffice to say that the material just seemed more interesting.

IMG_0248In discussing the importance of community, Putnam compares two different parts of the Philadelphia area – 1) the wealthy “main line” suburbs and 2) the inner city Kensington neighborhood (which was the setting for the movie Rocky). Putnam compares two single mothers and how their communities helped – or didn’t help – them deal with the challenges of raising two daughters.

Putnam focuses on four ways that communities can support their members – 1) social networks, 2) mentors / savvy, 3) neighborhood organizations, and 4) religious organizations. It is in this section that Putnam comes closest to stating Our Kids’ thesis –

“If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children isn’t good: in recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we’ve shirked collective responsibility for our kids” (p. 205).

Chapter 6 – What is the be done? (pages 227-261)

Unfortunately, Chapter 6 is a big letdown. Putnam proposes solutions, but even he seems to realize that he doesn’t know the answer. However, he states that the problem with “our kids” is a growing crisis and that ignoring the crisis is tantamount to ignoring global warming – “… but in both cases, if we wait for perfect clarity, it will be too late” (p. 228).

Sorry, Dr. Putnam, but I don’t think that argument is good enough. For one, he’s comparing a natural science (climate science) to a social science (sociology). Natural sciences are much more subject to laws and generalization than are the social sciences. If society is to make the expensive investments that Putnam proposes, we must be more certain about both a) the nature of the problem and b) the outcomes we expect to attain. Failure to understand the problem one wishes to address is a cardinal sin for any scientist.

Another shortcoming of the book lies in Putnam’s failure to focus more on the changing nature of work. Today’s knowledge-based economy is brutal to those without advanced degrees. Putnam starts his analysis in 1959, before automation, global trade, and stagnating economic conditions combined to make things very difficult for blue-collar workers. The 1950s economy did much to create the good times that Putnam enjoyed as an adolescent.

I could go on, but I’ll stop…

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Final Thoughts

My reaction to Putnam’s Our Kids is very similar to my reaction to his Bowling Alone – both are terrific at detailing some of society’s pervasive problems. Each book addresses a pressing issue and tells the reader why the issue matters.

Both books have the same shortcoming – solutions aren’t easy. Putnam is a social scientist (as am I), and the challenge of devising a better society is that there are so many relevant variables. If you read Our Kids with the mindset that you are going to better understand these issues, you will not be disappointed. If you read the book looking for The Answer, you’re likely to be disappointed.

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Sunday, 18 June 2017 – Reading Pages 80-164 of Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis

  • Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis
  • by Robert D Putnam
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Copyright 2015
  • 261 pages

Rating (for pages 1-164, Chapters 1 through 4) – 7 out of 10

Sunday I continued with Robert D Putnam’s Our Kids. While I am still enjoying the book, I thought that Sunday’s pages were a disappointment. Putnam’s research is interesting. But his presentation is lacking. Our Kids would have been better if Putnam had worked with a co-author who improved the book’s pacing.

Chapter 3 – Parenting (pages 80-134)

Unfortunately, Our Kids bogs down at the beginning of Chapter 3. In the preceding chapters, Putnam has already provided profiles of kids growing up in different socioeconomic classes in both Port Clinton, Ohio, and in Bend, Oregon. Nonetheless, he begins Chapter 3 with still more of these profiles. The difference is that these kids live in the Atlanta area and all of them are black. This material might have worked if it were shorter, but Putnam drags it out for almost 30 pages (pp. 80-109).

Chapter 3 does pick up a bit when Putnam discusses what researchers have learned about parenting’s impact on child development. But he never fully regains the lost momentum.

Chapter 4 – Schooling (pages 135-164)

Things don’t improve much in Chapter 4. Putnam again begins with overly-long biographies of kids from different social classes. This time, the kids are all Hispanic and live in Orange County, California. By this point, Putnam has covered white, black, and Hispanic kids and the reader wonders if he’s just trying to cover his politically-correct bases.

For whatever reason, I found the school material to be more compelling than the parenting material from Chapter 3. Putnam discusses Hispanic Americans’ attempts to move to better school districts in order to pave the way for their kids to attend good colleges. At the same time, he profiles the Hispanic underclass that remains stuck in underperforming schools. (I still have 26 pages left in Chapter 4, so I’ll withhold final judgment for a while).

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Summary

Putnam let me down Sunday. What I read wasn’t bad, but I can’t say that it was overly compelling, either. We’ll see if he can rally in the book’s remaining hundred or so pages.

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Saturday, 17 June 2017 – Reading Pages 1-79 of Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis

  • Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis
  • by Robert D Putnam
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Copyright 2015
  • 261 pages

Rating (for pages 1-79, Chapters 1 & 2) – 9 out of 10

A few years ago, I came across a copy of Robert D Putnam’s Bowling Alone in a thrift store. In Bowling Alone, Putnam shows the decline of community in the United States since World War II. I read the book and enjoyed it. Putnam is the rare academic who can make his ideas interesting to a general audience.

Therefore, I was excited when I heard about Putnam’s 2015 Our Kids, in which Putnam returns to his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, and examines what’s happened to social mobility in the U.S. Putnam uses his own high school class of 1959 as a point of comparison to how much has changed with today’s high school graduates.

Chapter 1 – The American Dream (pages 1-45)

Putnam comes out with guns blazing, stating on page 1 that today’s Port Clinton “…is a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks” (p. 1). He then spends a lot of time discussing the differences in the social mobility enjoyed by his generation and the stagnation that is the curse of today’s graduates.

Chapter 2 – Families (pages 46-79)

The second chapter is weaker. Putnam begins with the unprovable statement that rich and poor families “…tend to be structured differently [true], a result of the economic disparities that have arisen in recent decades [perhaps true, but unsupported]” (p. 49). Putnam’s later discussion in Chapter 2 concedes that one cannot “tease out” cause and effect based his data.

It’s one thing to say what has happened to social mobility, which Putnam does very well. It’s very difficult to say why it has changed.

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My Questions

From what I’ve read so far, I have two questions about Putnam’s thesis –

1) To what extent did the post-World War II era represent a “Golden Age?” From the end of World War II until the mid-1970s, the U.S. Enjoyed a tremendous economic expansion, partly based on the fact that our economic competitors were temporarily hobbled by WWII. Some people have suggested that – in comparing today to that era – we overlook the fact that it was an aberration, atypical. Whether that is true or not, we cannot reproduce the complex set of circumstances that arose to produce that prosperity. Today’s economy produces wealth in a different way.

2) Consistent with his earlier Bowling Alone, Putnam laments the decline of any sense of commmunity. He states that there is no sense that today’s disadvantaged youth are “our kids.” This point is well taken. However, similar to #1, I think that he overlooks the fact that we are unlikely to reproduce the society the produced the “all for one” attitude.

When I think of my World War II-era grandparents, I think of that “our kids” attitude. My grandparents grew up in tightly-knit small towns filled with people who had lived in those towns their entire lives. But today’s society is transient. Making a living depends on keeping ourselves mobile. Moreover, the entry of women into the workforce means that today’s adults have little time to form “the ties that bind” towns together – everyone’s tired after spending our days at the salt mine.

Summary

On the whole, I’m really enjoying Our Kids. I think that the solutions to these problems are very complex and I’m interested to see if Putnam can offer any realistic solutions.

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15-17 June 2017 – Reading Fran Zimniuch’s Philadelphia Eagles – Where Have You Gone?

  • Philadelphia Eagles – Where Have You Gone?
  • by Fran Zimniuch
  • Publisher – Sports Publishing
  • Copyrights 2004, 2015
  • 200 pages

Rating – 5.5 out of 10

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Way back in the late 1970s, I started watching pro football with my father. One of the exciting, young team’s was Coach Dick Vermeil’s Philadelphia Eagles. I remember watching the Eagles lose a heartbreaker to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC wildcard game on Christmast Eve in 1978. Vermeil never took the Eagles to the Super Bowl title, but his teams were fun to watch.

Fran Zimniuch’s Book

A month or so ago, I was loafing on Edward R. Hamilton’s website (hamiltonbook.com) and saw that they had a remainder of Zimniuch’s Philadelphia Eagles – Where Have You Gone? I’ve always been a sucker for those “Whatever-Happened-To?” Stories. Back in the day, athletes didn’t make that much money, so they had to get jobs like the rest of us when their playing days ended. It was an easy choice to order to the book.

So So

Unfortunately, I thought that the book was only OK. There are many good points. Zimniuch covers a ton of ground in less than 200 pages. I particularly enjoyed reading about Eagles who played before I started watching football.

Also, the book is very easy reading. It consists of about 30 profiles of ex-Eagles that can be read in any order you like. You can easily read a bit of the book, then pick it up again in six months without missing a beat. It would be a perfect beach read or something to enjoy in a hammock with a cold one.

At the same time, the book has many shortcomings. Most of the profiles are very short – perhaps two pages without many words on each page. There’s just not a lot of good information in those profiles; too many of them are like reading something from Wikipedia – “In 1975, Billy Bob caught 36 passes. In 1976, he grabbed 48. But then he fell off to 33 catches in 1977.” In other words, too much space is wasted repeating information that is already on the Internet.

The title of the book is also misleading. Most of the profiles tell very little about what the ex-players are now doing – often, no more than a paragraph. The main focus is on what happened while the player was with the Eagles.

The Final Gun

How you look at this book depends on whether you are a “glass-half-full” or glass-half-empty” sort of person. If you judge the book by what’s between the pages, it’s nice, light reading. But if you judge the book by “what might have been,” you will feel disappointed. These ex-Eagles must have some great stories that they could have told.

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The Washington Post on Outlaw Country Inventor Billy Joe Shaver

In my humble opinion, we focus far too much on the world’s huge success stories. Those stories provide a false sense of what life is really like. Far more interesting (at least to me) are the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” stories of those who almost made it, or who made it for a while but couldn’t maintain it.

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The Washington Post had a great article in May about Billy Joe Shaver, the purported inventor of outlaw-country music. I don’t know much about the man, but his story is far more interesting than are the stories of the big successes (e.g., Waylon, Willie, Johnny Cash). If you like stories about popular music, entertainment, or colorful characters, you will love this one.

It is here –

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/billy-joe-shaver-invented-outlaw-country-music-why-is-he-still-rambling-around-texas-in-a-van/2017/05/25/c7e7312c-3a61-11e7-a058-ddbb23c75d82_story.html?utm_term=.5ed05ef60400

 

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017 – Reading all of Bill Geist’s Way Off the Road

  • Way Off the Road – Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America
  • by Bill Geist
  • Broadway Books
  • Copyright 2007
  • 236 pages

Orange Beach, Alabama

Monday we made it over to the Orange Beach Public Library. I hadn’t been in a while, and I looked forward to combing the stacks. My kids found so many books that my wife and I both had to carry them out. But I had trouble settling on one.

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I knew that I needed a change of pace after Death on Diamond Mountain, but nothing seemed just right. Eventually, I happened upon Bill Geist’s Way Off the Road. Tuesday I read most of it & it fit the bill quite nicely.

Kuralt’s Successor

For years, CBS News’ Charles Kuralt combed the backroads of America looking for stories about stories of off-the radar people in flyover country. Kuralt’s stories for his On the Road series were often terrific and showed helped remind us that there many good-hearted people in the U.S.

I don’t know whether Geist was Kuralt’s official successor or not, but starting in 1987 he filled the same role for CBS News. Way Off the Road is a loose bunch of vignettes based on Geist’s experiences. The book reflects Geist’s humor, which is very dry and stands in stark contrast to the earnest Kuralt.

Easy Reading

Because of the “vignette format,” Way Off the Road is very easy to pick up and put down. It’s a perfect fill in when you need something to read. Some of the stories work, some are “so so.” But you never bog down.

For me, a few of the highlights were –

1) “Prairie Dog Suckers” (pp. 19-25) about a man in Cortez, Colorado, who runs a business sucking prairie dogs from out of their holes.

2) “Population: Elsie” (pp. 109-118) about the single remaining resident of Monowi, Nebraska. She is an incredibly-busy widow who runs the entire time and a bar and grill. I didn’t have high hopes for this one, but it’s a great story of rural life in America.

3) “Figure 8 School Bus Racing” (pp. 119-128) reports on the many variations of the classic demolition derby that are alive and well in Bithlo, Florida. The event and the 6000(!) spectators are about as redneck as you can get.

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The O.B. Public Library – Small, but Wonderful

 

Geist Isn’t Perfect

While I really enjoyed the book, it disappoints in place. In one (“The Alien Highway,” pp. 69-74) Geist reports on the strange people and occurrences near Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The story closes on a bizarre note with Geist calling a conspiracy nut “… a complete … f—ing idiot.” The nut then points a pistol at Geist. The story’s interesting, but nothing prepares the reader for the quick shift in tone.

The following story was the one that I liked the least. In “Bombsville” (pp. 75-80), Geist visits McAlester, Oklahoma, where most of the ordinance (i.e., bombs) are made for the U.S. Military. Geist asks the people who spend their days making bombs how they feel about their work. It’s a good premise, but – in another abrupt shift in tone – Geist comes off as a condescending elitist. When a minister indicates that – while he would prefer to live in a world without war – he sees no problem in McAlester building bombs, Geist snarks “With Reverend Moore it’s ‘praise the Lord and pass the ammunition'” (p. 80).

Last Words

Some of the other stories were a little flat, but the good far outweighs the bad. I read almost the entire book Tuesday and finished it Wednesday morning while I had my Captain Crunch. I give Way Off the Road an 8 out of 10.

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