Sunday, May 22, 2022

Meetings and Happiness?

I've been teaching at my university for 19 years now, and I had one of my happiest semesters this semester. Why? I've been thinking about it, and among other reasons, I considered one surprising possibility: meetings. 

Now listen, if you asked me in most contexts, I'd tell you that I despise meetings. I do. Too often, they seem unnecessary and overly long. And in too many instances, them don't seem to go well.

But when I started trying to pinpoint my happiness at work this semester, I realized that I in fact had more standing/regular meetings than ever before. I didn't call them "meetings" though. I thought of them as me just talking with someone or a small group. In four notable instances, those talks took place during regular, scheduled moments, like, ummm, meetings. 

In short, those non-meeting meetings included weekly:
For the purposes of tracking my experience, I decided to make sure I took note of those conversations and how it was associated with my happiness at work this past semester. I also think it's useful to give people a sense of what a being a professor can be like beyond the formal components like teaching classes and grading papers. 

Those weekly IRIS Center meetings

[Part of a series on "Meetings and Happiness."]

I discovered a cool glitch in the system. 

This semester, the IRIS Center folks -- Kristine Hildebrandt, Jessica DeSpain, and Meg Smith -- held open office hours on Thursdays at 10:00 am for any faculty member who wanted to ask questions about tech-related projects. They also had a standing IRIS meeting at 3:00 pm on Thursdays.   

I jokingly viewed their setup as a glitch because it meant I could receive all these free weekly consultations and assistance on my major projects. I felt like I was getting some secret advantage.  

It's quite common, I've learned, for literature professors to work in isolation. In many cases, people work on articles, book manuscripts, and special projects by themselves. However, I do much better when I talk through ideas before and while I'm working on scholarly projects. 

The IRIS Center open office hours and afternoon meetings provided me with a crucial opportunity to gather my ideas and get input for the projects I was working on this semester. By the time I sat down to write or develop a project, I had gotten useful input from Hildebrandt, DeSpain, and Smith.

Those weekly, two-hour meetings didn't feel like meetings. They were a mix of brainstorming, advice-giving, news-sharing, fact-gathering sessions. I looked forward to attending each week. 


Lunches with Donavan Ramon

More discussion concerning my happiness this semester....

We recently hired a new professor, Donavan Ramon, in African American literary studies. He joined us in fall 2021. One main reason we hired him was so that we could expand the size of our program for first-year black men students. 

I am viewed as one of Ramon's "faculty mentors," though I sometimes shy away from that designation. But then, I did recall the approach of my own faculty mentor, Eugene B. Redmond, my first year at SIUE in 2003-2004. Monday - Thursday, Redmond would call me to have brief conversations at 7:00 am. For my entire first year! 

I wouldn't do Ramon like that. But I did decide to establish a weekly lunch with him so we could talk about teaching, research and writing, and adjusting to SIUE. So that's what we did. For his entire first year. 

We had a good time. And we both learned a lot. We got to trade ideas on novels and scholarly works. We got to think about what worked and didn't work in our classes. We reflected on our past experiences as undergraduates and graduates students. We speculated about next year's students. And on and on. Really good times.

Our colleagues Cindy Reed and Elizabeth Cali sometimes joined us for some of the lunches. 

Ramon and I really settled into a groove with our discussions by his second semester. Our meetings, along with the other ones I was having, were integral to my ability to have such a happy semester. 


This long-running conversation with Elizabeth Cali

Extending some points on my happiness this semester....

Nearly every Wednesday afternoon and then every Thursday morning after the IRIS meetings, I would meet with my colleague Elizabeth Cali.  

She and I have been talking, nearly non-stop about African American literary studies, classroom approaches, black writers and culture, and popular culture for about seven years at this point. We hired Cali to teach African American literature in our department in 2014, which is when we initiated this long-running conversation. 

This semester was special because beyond usual conversations, we worked on the ins and outs of a podcast project we're collaborating on. We devised a plan for the project, and we recruited several professors to contribute scripts. So this project gave us even more to discuss this semester.

Cali is unusually knowledgeable and energetic about histories of black literary art. She's read everything it seems so I'm always learning something new, or realizing something new I need to read. 

What became even clearer this semester is how good she is at offering creative responses to particular behaviors. In short, she's a good problem solver. Being aware of that knowledge, I would email her about unsolved problems early or late in the week, and by the time we'd meet each mid-week, she'd have various possible approaches we might consider. 

Our long-running conversations do doubt contributed to my high levels of happiness this semester. 


"Let me ask you a quick question": Meetings with Cindy Reed

[Part of a series on "Meetings and Happiness."]

Two years ago, we hired Cindy Reed. She and I did not get to talk as much her first year because the university was largely online because of Covid restrictions. But we've been catching up since she returned to full in-person this semester. 

And I say "catching up," because I first met Reed years ago, as she earned an MA with us. 

Her office is right across the hall from mine, and this past semester, we had informal meetings on nearly every Tuesday and Thursday morning, and on some Wednesday mornings and afternoons. On a number of Wednesdays, she joined Donavan Ramon and me for our weekly lunches.

My Tuesday and Thursday morning meetings with Reed would always begin the same way. Either she'd walk over to my office, or I'd walk over to hers, and we'd open with a common starter: "Hey, let me ask you a quick question." That quick question was the start of conversations that almost always lasted 40 to 50 minutes before we headed off to our respective classes. 

The quick questions were about this or that black poet or this or that approach to a topic for a course. Or, I was filling her in on some bit of histoy about African American literary studies, the department, or the university. 

In early March, Reed and I began to spend considerable time planning for the fall when we'll expand our program for first-year black students. We've cumulatively spent hours talking, texting, and emailing each other this semester about what we want the courses and co-curricular activities for the program to look like.  

Starting the conversation so early made it possible for us to go in more relaxed about major upcoming changes. And since we were dreaming up possibilities, we had time to speculate, rethink ideas, raise questions, and laugh about all kinds of things in the process. 

The relaxed and jovial nature of our discussions contributed to making this semester happy for me. 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Number of unique words in four novels by Toni Morrison

[Some preliminary notes on a project that my brother Kenton and I are working on. Thanks to poet/professor Opal Moore for the nudge.] 

Have you ever thought about Toni Morrison's word usage, and specifically the number of unique words she uses in multiple novels? I was curious, and decided to do a few measurements.

For the purposes of comparison, I needed a baseline, so I took a look at the first 5,000 words in two of Morrison's novels: The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987). Off the top, before any calculations, I assumed that Beloved would have the most extensive vocabulary, mainly because it's one of the most critically-acclaimed American and African American novels. 

My assumption was wrong.  

Take a look. 

At about 1,515 unique words, The Bluest Eye has more diverse word usage or a more vaired vocabulary than Beloved at 1,336. It's possible that the different approaches to the storytelling explain the difference. Still, for some reason I expected an author's later novel, Beloved, to have more diverse word usage than the writer's debut. 

I later added Sula (1973) to the mix. It contains 1,563 unique words, topping both The Bluest Eye and Beloved. And later still, I added Paradise (1997), which contains 1,788 unique words among the first 5,000 words of the novel. 

The number and variety of word usage give us ways of thinking about elements of novels beyond our conventional approaches to literary analysis.  These numbers don't tell us whether one novel is better than another one, but they do give us some indications concerning how writers use words. Gaining more information on black word usage can of course be useful. 

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Examples of Langston Hughes graphs

Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of the most widely anthologized African American poems, and to chart the work's circulation, I have developed an extensive bibliography of reprints of the poem in dozens of anthologies. Below, I provide a few examples of graphs based on data I collected about the appearances of the poem by decade. 

First, here's a look at the decades and number of anthologies that included the poem.

1920s: 3 anthologies
1930s: 3
1940s: 4
1950s: 2
1960s: 5 
1980s: 5
1990s: 18
2000s: 14
2010s: 5
2020s: 1

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" was reprinted in 18 anthologies during the 1990s -- more than any other decade in my dataset.  The poem appeared in 14 anthologies during the 2000s -- the second highest total. During the 1980s, Hughes's poem appeared in only 5 anthologies. 

Now, here's a look at the information with a scatterplot graph:

Here's a look at the scatterplot with lines, which accents the rises and dips. 

And one more: a bar chart:

It's one thing to state that there were some spikes in decades of apperances, but presenting that statement along with graphs offer possibilities for visualizing bibliographic data. 

I plan to extend this kind of work -- using data and visualizations -- to highlight aspects of African American publishing history.