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A year is a long time in running

Well, well, well… It’s been a looooong year, but here we are, at the very end of it. I thought I would reflect on some of my running goals, the peaks and troughs, and what running resolutions I might set for 2017.

So how did it go? All in all, I don’t think it was a bad year. There wasn’t a lot of progress in pacing, per se, but I was a lot steadier and more consistent in getting out for runs, and I had some really good months (unsurprisingly during the summer).

Volume Highlight Lowlight
January 32.4 km over 4:51 across 6 runs It’s hard to remember this far back… The usual New Year weather blues!
February 94km over 8:31 across 16 runs Picking up training volume again, including a 54:23 10k The number of runs that are just shy of 5k
March 90.4km over 8:13 across 14 runs First 10k+ run (13.7km in 1:13) That my average pace starts a slow decline here
April 94.2km over 9:06 across 15 runs Steady as she goes… Noticeable pace decrease, including two 10ks (57 and 59)
May 131.8km over 12:05 across 13 runs Two half-marathons (first ever at 1:57, second at 1:58) That I was too cheap to pay for the Runner’s World app training…
June 91km over 8:16 across 12 runs I at least managed an 8-miler I couldn’t face a long long-run this month, having done halves in May
July 112.82km over 10:06 across 17 runs A good increase in the number of runs Quantity =/= distance
August 136.4km over 12:25 across 22 runs Still on the up, including some 10-milers and some 8-milers Average pace is down, though…
September 113.1km over 10:47 across 19 runs Holding fairly steady and enjoying the sunshine Only one 8-miler
October 60km over 5:32 across 12 runs Despite travel and moving house, I’m still managing a few runs a week Most runs now pretty short
November 70.75km over 6:29 across 15 runs Got in a 10k and a 5-miler Pace is still trending down
December 76.18km over 7:05 across 14 runs Starting to pull back up again, distance-wise  Still a bit slower

I have found myself slightly frustrated with Strava after discovering that it didn’t have the delightful Excel download feature of RunKeeper, so pulling together my stats was a bit of a hassle. I’m going to have to think about whether I try Nike+ Run Club (which I think lets you download stats), or the paid-for version of Strava.

Highlights

  • The two half-marathons I did, just by myself.

I’m happy that my first one ever was supposed to be a 10-miler that I just pushed on with, and it came in sub-2:00. But the fact that I only managed two and then my half-marathon-a-month plan fell apart is indicative of a fairly basic fact: I’m not that interested in longer distances.

  • Running is more part of my everyday routine than in 2015.

There was almost no week when I didn’t run at all. I had some niggles, like shoulder cramps (yep, a weird one) or tight ankles, but still trundled on when and how I could.

Lowlights

  • That the half-marathon-a-month plan fell by the wayside so easily.

I’m partly baffled by quite why this happened, and partly glad that it helped clarify quite what I’m running for.

  • That I still haven’t figured out how best to get speed workouts into my routine.

I do these workouts intermittently, when I’m feeling guilty or in a clear rut. If I want to “progress”, which I guess means getting faster,  then I need to take these more seriously, as well as strength training, etc.

  • That my pacing seems to have decreased.

If this is a function of running longer, then it’s disappointing that I haven’t picked up a great deal across the year, which may reinforce the point above about speed workouts.

Are programming languages languages? A question about digital humanities CVs

It’s that time of year, and I’ve been refreshing my academic CV to see how it’s taking shape. Although I’m a part-time PhDder and work full-time in another industry, I try to be as active as I can in academic endeavours, so there’s plenty of updates and tweaks to be made.

Taking a look at some colleagues’ CVs for tips and hints on structure, etc., it began to strike me that those of us who are interested in digital humanities face a challenge: where do our programming skills belong?

Sometimes, it’s easy. There is a role or project that involved particular development work. But increasingly people put HTML, or CSS, or Java alongside French or Japanese, with a “fluent” beside them (I’ve yet to see anyone using an ILR or CEFR scale marking, though). The first time I saw this I smiled a little smile to myself. Well, we’ve got to try to get these things on the CV somehow. But after a while, I started to wonder: when we say this, do we mean it? As a literary scholar, I have strong feelings about the fact that words mean things. And as a spouse of a professional developer, I feel sceptical.

What does it mean when we say we are “fluent” in a programming language? Is coding ever so smooth, graceful and effortless as speaking or writing in a ‘natural’ language? Do we ever code easily and accurately in the same way as we might speak our mother tongue?

The rate of bugs or errors in your average professional code—the type produced by developers at Apple or Google—is about 1 every 10 lines. If one were to have a typo or lexical error in every 10 sentences of written work, one’s supervisor would raise a red flag!

Now, perhaps we may quibble about whether a line of code is equivalent to a sentence (or, indeed, the comparison to a mother tongue), but I think the point stands. The rate of error is much higher in professional “fluent” code than in academic written prose.

Similarly, professional coders do not for the most part store the whole or majority of the language intuitively in their brain in the same way as one’s mother tongue. The reliance on coding reference materials, such as Stack Overflow, is higher than the reliance on linguistic ones, such as dictionaries. Tales of developers finding a perfect and helpful answer on such repositories, only to discover that they themselves submitted it years before, are legion. What would be the equivalent in terms of a ‘natural language’? Stumbling across the idea of using consonance to convey a certain effect, having forgotten that it existed?

All in all, reading “fluent in HTML” on an academic CV strikes me as a category mistake. And it makes me wonder about their French, too…

Marketing MOOCs for the CV arms race

Male-female gap among higher education and MOOC student rates in developing countries (c) New Republic

I’ve been taking MOOCs for years, watching sites like Coursera and EdX develop from a small handful offerings into something decidedly and globally on-trend in the higher education sector. At first, in 2012, the motivation for many of the courses that sprang up seemed to be love of learning, and providers seemed to offer liberal arts education at the far reaches of the word ‘liberal’, a utopia of free access to knowledge that could democratise education across the globe. However, MOOCs have so-far proved a bit of an echo chamber.

Although it only covered EdX, a recent MIT-Harvard study found that 40% of MOOC participants are teachers, an astonishing statistic. 70% of all participants already have BAs. An earlier study, which focused on UPenn Coursera students, found that students tended to be young, well-educated, and employed. MOOC participants are well-educated people who value learning and education. Those without access to tertiary education, particularly in developing countries, are under-represented. Meanwhile, philomaths with relatively high levels of privilege flock to subjects that can bolster their CVs and enhance their careers, choosing computer science over the humanities at a ratio of nearly 4:1, and MOOC sites are developing ways to monetise their offerings: verified certificates, ‘nanodegrees’, and ‘specialisations’.

This suggests that, without further efforts to deliver on the oft-quoted democratising aims, MOOCs will become a new tool in the increasingly frenetic CV arms race, often starting at undergrad level, which already sees students throwing thousands at professional qualifications (the UK legal profession is a prime example and has been for years…), and those with masters degrees taking entry-level jobs.

At the moment, MOOCs’ pay-off for participants is still unproven. Whether they will prove valuable on CVs will depend on how employers across industries respond to verified certificates, ‘nano degrees’, and ‘specialisations’. However, the increasingly professionalised offerings (a course on Public-Private Partnerships starts imminently on Coursera) suggest a wholesale divergence from what many had initially hoped would be the result of the MOOC explosion. Capitalising on the insecure labour market with career promises is the clear intention of some sites. Udacity’s front page recommends “pick which programming language to learn first based on salary, geography, application types and recent trends”. There is no particular love of learning here. Even the suggestion that the decision is based around the “lifestyle you want” is suspect. Salary comes first. It’s all about the ££.

To me, one of the most worrying elements of the MOOCs-in-an-arms-race is the gender disparity, in developing countries, between male and female participants in MOOCs (30%) versus in traditional education (10%). We already know women often have to appear more qualified than male competitors in order to land a job. Taking a MOOC in one’s spare time to boost one’s CV, particularly a paid one one leading to a verifiable certificate or the completion of a particular ‘track’, might become another hurdle to women participating on equal terms with men in the labour market. Advantages and disadvantages will continue to accumulate on either side of a MOOC-divide, and those with more free time and free cash will push even further ahead.

So it is with a rather heavy heart that I must confess to having succumbed to the lure of Coursera’s ‘signature track’. I could say that it was all because of the allure of the Leadership specialisation that might be coming soon, which course announcements have taken care to mention. I could point out that I’ve taken a few leadership-related MOOCs before, and I’m particularly passionate about women’s leadership roles. I could claim to be investing in MOOCs as a whole (or Coursera, at least). All of these things played a part in the decision. However, what tipped me over the edge was something incredibly petty: the ‘signature track’ badge in the Coursera forums.

I don’t even particularly like the forums. They’re badly designed, leading to many repetitive discussions/comments because submitting something is more valued than contributing to a good conversation. But it was the marketing of the ‘signature track’ within them, seeing the little badge repeatedly, that reminded me of the reasons one might pay for the signature track, proving effective on me in a way that the countdown for signing up had never been.

The first time I posted in the forum after I’d paid up, the badge came up next to my name, and I felt immediately suspect. I looked again at the badge, one of the few on display on that particular page. And it occurred to me, rather too late, that in fact those little badges are more questionable than the direct positioning of MOOCs as weapons in a CV arms race, because they make inequality tangible in the day-to-day space of the course. Why should fellow students know that I am on the ‘signature track’? That information is imposed on my fellow students because I have chosen to pay up. Within a course, signature track students might have access to additional resources, and will have a different certificate at the end of it, but the forums, where posting is often mandatory, are a digital space that now explicitly privilege some participants over others. Coursera’s marketing proves more effective by virtue of creating a hierarchy of students. If an arms race between MOOC participants starts within the pedagogic space, then the education on offer is ‘liberal’ in only the shallowest sense of the word.

I’m really rather ashamed of myself for signing up to it.

Drive and academic identity

I posted a few days ago about the decrease in the number of book reviews that I’ve been posting recently, focusing instead on recipes, TV and film reviews, and other things that come under the ‘personal’ tag. In thinking more about this decrease in my emotional drive to read fiction, I realised that it began around two months ago when – surprisingly – I finally submitted my PhD applications.

I went through my Masters part-time whilst working full-time (and wrote about it here under the MA tag), and I’ve applied to do my PhD in the same vein. I finished my Masters at the beginning of 2013, and over the rest of that year, I spent quite a lot of time fiddling with my proposal, and even got around to starting to plan chapters, structure, etc. I fiddled and fiddled because I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe I’d leave it another year. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a full-time academic. I wasn’t sure I needed a PhD. I was sure that I wanted to do one, at some point, but the modalities were hazy in my mind. When I finally submitted my applications (only two. I won’t mention to where), it was a concerted effort, a deliberate push, and it left me intellectually tired afterwards.
Whilst that’s natural, needing a break turned into a sort of forced hiatus as I waited for the outcome of the applications. I’m still waiting, but now I’m frustrated at myself for stopping, reading and writing. I’m frustrated at myself for externalising my motivation for reading, writing and thinking. I am not doing it to please an institution or tick boxes to earn a qualification. I am doing it because I find joy in the thinking, writing and reading. I am still not sure whether I ever want to be a full-time academic, so why have I let myself be sucked into some imaginary treadmill of academic work, done only for external validation? What on earth have I been thinking, waiting for some sort of academic life to start when I am the only person responsible for whether I live that way…?
I’m tired of being frustrated at myself, so why not just get on and do it? I hope that I get accepted onto one of the programmes I’ve applied for, but if I don’t, there’s no reason why I can’t keep on going.
Step 1: updating my academia.edu profile.
Step 2: where the hell did that notebook go?!

PhD planning

For quite a while I’ve been slowly circling a prospective PhD topic. There were a few candidates at the start of this year, but I’ve whittled it down to one now, and I have been pulling out books from the wonderful London Library on it for a while (sidebar: that place is aces, and I recommend all London/England-based folks to consider a membership). It could still go in two directions, though: English Lit or Comp Lit. I’ve not decided which, yet, and I might even consider applying to both.

The difficulty is that, in general, I am more attracted to Comp Lit programmes in the States than those in the UK, perhaps because they are longer, allowing for greater opportunities for language learning and exploring literature in two-plus languages. However, I’m disinclined to go to the States, in part because I have a fair amount of student debt in the UK already, and in order to pay it off I really need to stay full-time employed (or get good funding) for at least part of my PhD work. In the grand scheme of things, I think it is preferable to do PhD work full-time, not least because it allows for greater involvement with journals, conferences and activities like undergrad teaching that can be really important for pursuing an academic career afterwards. I’m not sure I’m quite committed to that yet either, though! There are plenty of good reasons to avoid academia, at least right now, with the state of higher education as it is (in both the UK and the US), but it does still call to me…. For example, I once turned down a pretty darn good graduate school deal because I wasn’t sure academia was a good bet, but it didn’t take very long for me to be drawn into the part-time MA that I’m doing now.

There are plenty of great bloggers out there with useful tips for graduate students and those hoping to do graduate work (Justin O’Hearn, for example), but the decision to embark upon a research degree is always difficult, and as much as advice as there is out there, it’s always a personal and (I think) irrational choice.

I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and at least email programme directors about how they structure part-time work. There’s no reason not to anymore, and it’s October (tomorrow)! Deadlines are looming, really. Unless I wait until next October when I will have my final MA result, but it will be that little bit harder to solicit references (the part I hate most of applications).

Oh, it’s a dilemma alright!

Career advice from the “pros”?

So, occasionally I get emails from Experience.com. I don’t know when this started happening—I think at the end of my first year I got home and found that they had sent me some junky mail, and happened to think it might be interesting, so it’s probably my own fault. I generally don’t read their emails, but occasionally they suggest an article or whathaveyou that might look interesting, so I read it. Often for the mocks. Sometimes they’re so simplistic, I have to assume my cohort is comprised mainly of idiots. Other times, they’re just funny in and of themselves.

Take this one by Rands Pantelones (you can find his own blog here), entitled A Glimpse and a Hook: Confessions of a Hiring Manager. It has some good advice: people are reading your resume fast; everyone knows buzzwords are going to be fudged, so don’t be an idiot and put down something you can’t talk about; etc. It’s also full of hypocrisy.

Take this paragraph:

Sound like a human. Here’s a doozy, this intern says he “planned, designed, and coordinated engineers efforts for the development of a mission critical system”. ZzzzzzzzzzZzz. What did this guy actually do? I honestly don’t know. Let’s call this type of writing style resume mumbo jumbo and let’s agree that usage of this style is tantamount to saying nothing at all.

Okay, probably not bad advice, right? Indeed, rather good advice, as not only is this lacking in concrete information, but it sounds down-right suspicious, doesn’t it? This is an intern, after all. I would be very inclined to take Mr. Pantelones seriously if only for one thing. He can’t take his own advice. The entire essay begins thus:

While hiring phenomenal teams is the most important thing I do, I’m balancing that task with the fact that I need to build product and manage the endless stream of people walking into my office.

Product? Product? What product, sir? Mumbo jumbo much? “Product” probably tops quite a few of those lists about office mumbo jumbo that people despise (I just can’t be bothered to find them right now).

Oh, and “hiring phenomenal teams” sounds like something that comes out of every recruiters’ and employers’ brochure to make themselves better and more important than they really are, so they will get our attention (ditto “endless stream”).

Rands suggests that he’s made some pretty bad hiring choices, and he does seem to love his mumbo jumbo, as much as he claims otherwise. So, if someone were treating his resume the way he argues all hiring managers do, would he get a job? I think all Experience.com readers should think about that when they’re wondering how much credence to give to his depiction of resume consideration. What a shame there’s no comments section on that site…

That being said, I think Mr. Pantelones is probably good at his job. He just goes to show how prevalent all the ‘mistakes’ (embellishment, mumbo jumbo, etc.) really are in the job market-place these days, and you sort of have to laugh a bit at the irony, don’t you?

The Future of English?

No, not the language, I’m afraid, but the disciplinary area of English Literature.

My thesis being done, and as I wait upon one final graduate school’s response/some funding questions before making a final decision about my course of study next year, I’ve been doing some ’round-the-houses’ reading as ‘preparation’ for graduate study, particularly Terry Eagleton‘s anniversary-edition Literary Theory: An Introduction, with its nice new preface, and Michele Lamont‘s How Professors Think, a somewhat sociological approach to how funding panels work within academia and the production of a category of ‘excellence’ at the top of the academic hierarchy.

Both are interesting (in different ways), and both raise the question of how the discipline called ‘English Literature’ might or might not be in crisis through a self-multiplication (particularly due to the proliferation of literary theory) that raises doubt about any true way to define excellence in scholarship or literary works themselves.

To me, this is particularly interesting given my own crisis of disciplinary affiliation, transitioning from hard sciences to English Lit before pondering if Comparative Literature (with an additional focus on language skills and transnational viewpoints) or English Lit (with some ad-hoc, personal focus on language skills and transnational viewpoints) would be a better fit for graduate school. Oh, yes, and who could forget the historical, philosophical and political/social science interests thrown in there too, thanks to the Human Rights Scholars Seminar and my personal approach of texts in-situ with respect to historical, philosophical, sociological and artistic developments. Although I perform strong close-readings, I tend to feel on a personal level that they only find relevant meaning within a larger context (autobiographical through to national or even universal). I ultimately chose to define myself as an English Lit grad student because the locus of all my theoretical and contextual interests turns out to be, 9.9 times out of 10, English literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Lamont’s text, however, contains some very interesting—and somewhat troubling—quotes from unnamed professors who serve on American funding panels that consider English Lit proposals. Take, for example, this one:

When it comes to literature, there is no [a priori prestige] … [T]he sense in which projects [in English literature] are dismissed or rejected or questioned tend[s] to be more confident than the way other projects are evaluated … [O]ne of the real question marks is: Are these literary projects really calling upon information the way history does, or [on] a body of knowledge or a background that we can really trust to be scholarly in any even sort of commonsensical sense of that word?

The questioning of whether English Lit these days is even scholarly resonantes with Eagleton’s text precisely because he speaks of the discipline as stemming from a desire in the nineteenth century to establish a ‘poor man’s Classics’, accessible to those of the lower classes and to those of ostensibly lower intellects (i.e. women). Eagleton notes that this bias (particularly in the form of a preponderence of female undergraduates in English) still exists to a certain extent, and I wonder if that is part of what is visible in the negative attitudes from both English and non-English professors in Lamont’s book.

In a recent class discussion, this topic was raised viz “mobility studies”—whether or not such a discipline should be created, whether or not a “mobility studies” discipline would even be productive for those who affiliate themselves with the study of mobility as well as another discipline (the pertinent case-in-point was Professor Stephen Greenblatt, one of the biggest proponents of such studies in recent years). I personally see little value for “mobility studies” in becoming an independent discipline: it is precisely because it is an interdisciplinary field of study, because its members have their own sense of mobility, that it works.

Similarly, if the English discipline really is in the midst of a “legitimation crisis”, as Lamont argues, then there is no benefit in attempting to solve such a crisis via splintering into “women’s studies”, “literary theorists”, “Victorianists”, etc., precisely because the value of these pursuits is heightened by their interrelations, points of friction, and coalescences. “Women’s studies”, for example, may also be a segment of history, political science, sociology, psychology, even. Women’s studies within the English Literature discipline can easily borrow tools and approaches from these other disciplines, or even from literatures in other languages, but ultimately, the focus is literature written in English. This commonality with Victorianists, for example, creates readings and theories that are in dialogue with each other, rather than mutually unintelligible. Moreover, readings engage the techniques that are substantively belonging to the English Literature discipline: the skills of close-reading and intuitive response to and recognition of great writing. I don’t think there’s any other discipline I could situate myself in that would be so fluid, so flexible, and at the same time so wholly in tune with what is really striking and interesting to me. The future of English Literature is surely bright.