Wednesday, November 11, 2015

AcrWriMo #3: the Funnel

Some people like to work on one project at a time, seeing it through to completion and then starting the next one. While focusing on one thing at a time can be an effective way to work, there are many advantages to thinking about your writing as a funnel:

______________________________ (here's all the ideas for projects you have)
   _________________________ (here are the projects you're collecting research on)
         ___________________ (here are the projects you're drafting)
                ___________ (here are the projects you're revising)
                         ___ (here are the projects you're submitting)

One nice thing about the funnel is that when you submit, you can always turn your attention to the revisions you need to make for the next thing, which keeps you from agonizing about the article or chapter you just send off, as Dr. Clay Spinnozi pointed out in our publishing workshop. You are always submitting because you are always writing!

Another advantage of the funnel is that you know what your next project is instead of casting around for ideas.  You might consider writing down all the ideas you have at the top of the funnel somewhere. This is especially nice when you're revising your dissertation: keep a list of ideas for the book version, and you can cut them from the dissertation without feeling bad.

Now not everyone is as easily distracted as I am, but I personally really enjoy being able to shift between the projects in the funnel. "A change can be as good as a rest," as my grandpa used to say. When I'm burned out from revising an abstract theory-heavy section of a chapter, I can move to the more concrete practice of coding responses from another project. If I just can't outline a new chapter right now, maybe I can edit the bibliography of an article. If I sit down to do my sustained writing and I just really don't want to do one task, I can coax myself into writing by beginning with another task *

* This task has to be in the funnel, though: writing long comments on a YouTube mash-up video or crafting the perfect response to a Facebook argument doesn't count.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

AcWriMo Advice #1: Environment

There are a lot of people who will tell you can you (read: they) can only write in the ideal place: quiet, surrounded by books, often in an oak-and-leather study with filtered afternoon light. Sounds great, but that's not the only place that can be effective for you. Stacey Pigg (2014) found that one of the great unteachable skills for undergraduate writers is learning where you personally can focus. Because you can be so flexible as a graduate student, you're fortunate to have a wide range of options: coffee shops, libraries, home, etc. Try a couple of these and find what works best for you.

But also recognize that just as there are different kinds of writing, there are different kinds of writing environments. For example, I'm sitting at the reception desk of Austin Pets Alive! which is a noisy place where I'm frequently interrupted; it's a bad place for be to do the sustained, focused- writing on a book chapter, but it's great for grammar-checking the proofs my editor sent me and writing you all an email. I'll do the quiet work in my office later today. Just because you're stuck in a dentist's waiting room or there's a tornado warning or you left the book you need at home doesn't mean you can't write: you might just have to do a different kind of writing.

You might also consider what goes into a writing environment besides just the space around you. You might invest in noise-canceling headphones or earplugs, or use an ergonomic chair or put your laptop on a cabinet to stand and write, as some of my colleagues have.  Environment also might include digital resources--do you need to turn off the internet or disable Facebook or set your phone to airplane mode?

Ultimately you can be successful in any place where you can write. I wrote a big chunk of my dissertation in the Walmart auto waiting room because it was the only place close to my house that was open in the very early hours. I put on headphones and hunkered down and no one asked me if I was waiting on a tire change. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Sabbath Day Talk

 Intro, who I am. I really want to be good.
 I want to honor my fathers and my mothers, and my ancestors back as far as I know them and then I want to discover even more of them to honor. I want to care for the poor and needy, visit the sick and afflicted and those imprisoned by earthly authorities or their own doubts and addictions. I want to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort and to be a witness of him at times and in all things and in all places. I want  to feast upon the words of Christ and becoming willing participants of his grace, tuned to hear the speaking of the still small voice and committed to follow its directions. In occasions of questions, struggle or need, I want to fast in order to strengthen our ability to hear his word and feel his comfort. Above all, I want to be  part of a holy people, consecrated unto him. I want to be, in God’s words, “unspotted from the world” (D&C 59:9)

            But I live in this world where I am busy with so many things. So many times I have wanted to be a consecrated person, but I thought, “I can’t do it now—there’s no time.” I get caught up in this mortal world, instead of sacrificing for eternity.  I know that, as Bruce R McConkie once said, “Sacrifice involves giving up the things of this world because of the promises of blessings to be in a better world”— but it can be hard to find time to keep myself unspotted from this world.

In order to help us to become consecrated, God gave us the time to practice the things of another world when each week he gives us the Sabbath Day. Since, as Christ said, “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), we should take advantage of this day as a way to step away from this world and enjoy a more celestial life.

Elder Clayton, in a press meeting for the Church just a few weeks ago said, What we hope is that the Sabbath will become a delight for people at home, that they'll love what happens in their homes on Sunday. It will be a time to draw apart from the world, to just give ourselves some rest from the things that are always before our eyes the other days of the week, all the things we worry about.”

The Sabbath Day was instituted by covenant since the beginning of time and in modern days is requisite for preparing a divine people. It is a perpetual covenant (Exodus 31:16-17) and God’s people keep it. In the end, we must keep the Sabbath holy by being holy. We cannot be holy if our minds and our actions are focused on wealth, selfish pleasure and the things of this world.

If we aren’t in the world, I’d like you to think of the Sabbath as a combination of two different kinds of “unworldliness”. The first kind of unworldliness is in the past, from when the Sabbath was originally ordained, after God created this world and humanity and then rested from his labors (Genesis 2:2-3). This is the part of the Sabbath that reminds us of Eden and what it would be like to live in Eden. The second aspect of the Sabbath reminds us of Zion, a time that has occurred in pockets here and there, but we know will someday cover the whole world These two ways of living, as in Eden and as in Zion, can be practiced at any time of the week, but on the Sabbath we especially have the time to practice this way of living to keep ourselves “unspotted from the world.”

Let us speak first of Eden.

In Eden, Adam and Eve didn’t yet have to work hard and earn their bread by the sweat of their brow.  The Sabbath gives us a chance to reclaim this Eden. In Jesus the Christ, Elder Talmage writes, “To the many who profess to regard the necessity of toil as a part of the curse evoked through Adam’s fall, the Sabbath should appeal as a day of temporary reprieve, a time of exemption from labor and as affording blessed opportunity of closer approach to the Presence.”

On the Sabbath Day, we can rest from the labors of the week. Six days have been given us to do our work, but on the Sabbath we can enjoy peace. Many of us now work what has been called a “post-Fordian” work schedule. This means we can do our work anywhere. Instead of having to go into an office, we find that all we need is a computer and an internet connection to be doing and worrying about our work. Sometimes we don’t even need that—a smartphone will do. Under such circumstances, it can be tempting to work all week long, not resting and not recognizing that there is a life beyond work.

Prophets have declared that when a nation grows careless in observing the Sabbath Day, all aspects of life are affected, and they might have forseen how easy it is today to work at anytime  and thus begin to feel that we need to work all the time.

Many countries now find that their workers are suffering from a constant preoccupation with work. Germany is “considering new ‘anti-stress’ legislation, banning companies from contacting employees out of hours” [Stuart, 2014],  stating that “there is an undeniable relationship between constant availability and the increase of mental illness” [Nahles, 2014].

In May 2014 Japan invented a new national holiday, Mountain Day, to pry workers away from their work. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, “"In Japan, there is of course paid vacation, but people don't take it," says Seishiro Eto, a member of the governing Liberal Democratic Party who led the push for the holiday. "I hope with Mountain Day, people will be able to take more of their vacation."” All Japan and Germany really need, though, is a Sabbath.

The Lord knows that it can be hard not to focus on the work we love to do, or feel we need to do, and by instituting the Sabbath, he has done for us what these governments are now hastily attempting—forcing us to slow down, take a break, and enjoy our lives, our families and the world that the Lord made before he rested.

The other way that the Sabbath can be an Eden to us is in giving us the space and time to approach the presence of God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve dwelt in the presence of God. They could receive direction from him in person and learned of his plan for them.

We know how important it is to pray, to read scriptures, to fast and to worship, but on the Sabbath, we can put away the things of the world and focus more fully on our spiritual lives. Brigham Young said “When a people assemble to worship, they should leave their worldly cares where they belong, then their minds are in a proper condition to worship the Lord.” True Sabbath keeping seeks to communicate with our father more fully and obey his commandments. I was struck by the story Brother Burton told a couple of weeks ago about how his family used to go get ice cream every Sunday evening. Later, his mother, acting under the spirit and under wise counsel, decided that it was more important to be obedient and be in a position to receive the spirit than to enjoy ice cream at a parlor.  What a great example of putting God first on the Sabbath!

All of us can renew our commitment to focus on God on Sunday, and follow the spirit to know what things we should put away on this day. At the last General Conference, Elder Nelson said, “when I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, “What sign do I want to give to God?” That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear.” We return to Eden when we use the Sabbath to strengthen our relationship with God and seek him more diligently.

Imagine a world where everyone kept the Sabbath as if it were Eden. What if everyone within reason was able to have a day of rest, to see themselves not as workers, but as people? What if everyone could spend time each week with their families, in introspection or in spiritual exercise? What if everyone could be given time to pray, to meditate, to take long strolls, call home, and to read the words of the Lord? Wouldn’t that be an Eden?

Now let me jump ahead from Eden to the future, to the Zion that we will see. Zion has existed in pockets at various times.

At one time a prophet named Enoch led Zion. In this city “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” How were these people of one heart and mind, dwelling in rightouesness and caring for the poor? They did God’s work.

When we seek Zion on the Sabbath, we do God’s work rather than seeking our own pleasure.  We care for each other in ways that the Lord would care for us. We serve faithfully in our callings, visit the sick and the sorrowful, visit the captive. We are all needed. We all have something we can do to build the kingdom of Zion. As President Faust once said “You can be powerful instruments in the hands of God to help bring about this great work. You can do something for another that no one else ever born can do.”  

On one Sunday, November 30, 1856, , Brigham Young read a letter describing the plight of handcart pioneers who were stranded out on the plains –look, this just became a Pioneer Day talk!—cold and starving. At this time, he called the people to action. “Prayer is good,” he told the Saints at morning worship service, “but when baked potatoes and pudding and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place on this occasion; give every duty its proper time and place.” The people responded right away: some of the women in the congregation leaned over and pulled off their socks right there to send with the rescue efforts.

They began right away on that Sabbath to do good and we can too. The Sabbath Day is a day to “deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him” (Isaiah 58:7).

 Sometimes the good we do on the Sabbath will be of a more invisible sort—doing home and visiting teaching to make certain that every person in the ward feels loved and watched over, teaching the gospel to our friends and family members, turning our hearts to our fathers—but when we do the work of the Lord, we build Zion.

Again I’d like you to imagine a world where everyone took time at least once a week to do the good they mean to do. What would it look like if everyone had time to write thank you notes to those who had influenced them for good or visit the elderly and sick? What would happen if every week the spiritually and physically poor were attended to? Wouldn’t that be Zion?

If all of this seems too idealistic, if it seems like the sort of thing that human beings just can’t do—well, you’re right. We can’t. Not alone, anyway, but then we were never asked to do it alone. If the Sabbath Day is a chance for us to be consecrated, to make us holy, it is imperative to remember that we can be holy only with the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

For this reason the sacrament is the climax of the Sabbath Day and all the days preceding and following it. In this action we make ourselves more unspotted from the world by letting Christ’s Atonement cleanse us, remind us of our covenants to be his consecrated people. We let his grace work in us as we promise to take his name upon us and always remember him. If we are to build little Edens and little Zions, then we can do so only with the power of Jesus Christ. The sacrament reminds to overcome human nature and be more like Christ, more holy, and the rest of the Sabbath Day gives us a chance to practice being more Christ-like.

And when we become more Christ-like, then the Sabbath becomes a delight. Let me read the scripture that line comes from. It’s Isaiah 58:13-4 : If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

I like the second verse just as much as the first. We call the Sabbath a delight when we delight ourselves in the Lord, when our wills are aligned with his and we no longer think about strict lists of dos and don’ts, but engage in a weekly practice of becoming more like Christ, in re-creating Eden and Zion in a fallen world. 

Before ending, I’d like you to take a minute right here and right now to review the past: are there practices that you have engaged in on the Sabbath that have sent you back into the world and away from seeking the will of the Lord? I encourage you to commit to stop them. Are there things you have done which have filled your soul with the approval of God? I encourage you to cultivate them.

Some of you will commit today to doing more and seeking righteous industry; some of you will commit to doing less and seeking peace. This Sabbath, though, take time to meditate on how you can build a Sabbath of Edens and Zions in your own life. I know as you do so not only will you be blessed, but our whole ward will be stronger, our families will be stronger and we will bless everyone around us until this world becomes a heavenly world.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Class Outside and other Mysteries

It is lovely weather lately. Texas' best season is March and April and I will always stand by this: the bluebonnets are out, the leaves on the trees are fresh and young, the sunlight is swept by the rain. This year, because of the rain we've gotten the past couple of weeks is perhaps even better than usual. The past week, everytime I've been inside I've wanted to be outside. In class the other day, we opened the windows to let the cool breeze in and it was lovely in part, so I wanted it in whole.

So yesterday I told my students to grab their bags and come on outside. There's a courtyard right next to our building with steps and sometimes we hear students rehearsing Shakespeare out there and it seems an ideal way to spend a spring afternoon.  Instead of sitting in a dark room, looking at a screen, I could print off copies of the sample paper I want them to look at and we could sit outside and have an enriching discussion on the grass.

As soon as we get out, the steps look unlikely--they are covered in dry leaves, and even if they weren't the direct sun is hotter than it seemed in class. "Can we go back to the air conditioning?" a student jokes. Kind of. Someone points out a nice cool spot of shade in the grass, so we head over there and sit down. Cross legged, kind of sideways. One of my students is in a skirt. Another sits and and then immediately stands up, "Don't sit there!" she exclaims, "There are lots of prickles there."

Finally everyone gets situated and it goes pretty much as I planned: I take their questions about the forthcoming assignment. I have them read silently the first model (my own writing, in true National Writing Project fashion) and then we identify how it relates to their own projects. Good discussion. Then it's time to read the next model, a student paper of their forthcoming projects. One long-legged student stands up. "Is it okay if I sit over there on the benches to read?" He's been squirming for a few minutes now.

"Sure," I say, because I can't think why not. "We'll take around 10 minutes."

As usual, some students finish early, some later. No one really chats, though; we're all sitting in a circle, so I can look them in their eyes. Also,  it's outside. I say we're going to regroup and the students who sought out a bench come back. We talk about the model. I point out what I think are the strengths of the paper. They identify characteristics that relate to work we've already done in class. I have to shift around too, and, more often than I like, I find myself talking about something supportive and encouraging while tearing some innocent clover or leaf of grass into atomic particles.

We want to listen to a sample student project, a podcast a previous student made, so I play it off my laptop and we all strain to hear. The students on the far edge (near the prickles) cup their ears to hear, but I think they get it. After a discussion of that part, then, I hand out the last handout and describe the homework for next time. The clock tower chimes the quarter hour and we unbend and wander off.

A student sneezes. "I think I'm allergic to Texas," he says, more cheerfully than he sounds. Today, I will learn later, is one of the worst allergy days of the year. Several of my students, it seems, have allergies.

So I don't think I'll go outside again. Class Outside is one of those great forbiddens, more lovely because they are forbidden and like all great mysteries, you find that the actual experience of it includes pluses and minuses. The distance romanticizes it. These mysteries are sometimes well worth it--marriage springs to mind, and traveling the world. Sometimes, though, it's better to open the windows and let yourself be tempted instead.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Being a Gimli instead of a Galadriel

I am short and I am strong. In Tolkein terms, I am Gimli.

This is a sad realization for a young lady to come to. Everyone wants to be an elf. I want to be an elf, I want to be freakin' Galadriel, man. No one ever spoke of the beautiful and elegant dwarf woman.

But I'm kind of amazing, physically. I was in an Aikaido class on a lark and the big, experienced guys (of the beginning class) had a hard time breaking my grip. "She's really strong," the instructor said by way of explanation to the thin, wiry woman whose wrists I had grabbed behind her back. "Do you life weights?" another class member asked me a little while later.

"I, well, sometimes," I said.

It was kind of a middle place to be. I was proud because, yeah, I do lift weights, a couple of times a week--I'm not a weightlifter--and there are several things I can't do that I feel strong people can do, like pull ups, for example. But I am strong. I can carrying the water cooler jugs by myself at work, tossing them up on my shoulder and on to the top of water cooler. I can haul in my groceries at all once. It's pretty cool.

But there's something about our society that says you can only be strong as long as you are also beautiful.

Hey, don't get me wrong--I think it's awesome that our society says that women can be strong at all--back in my mom's day, girls would skip PE because they didn't want to be considered too muscley, and skinny-fat was the standard look--no one wanted people to know she had muscles. This is a real improvement, to see models on the covers of running magazines and shoulder muscles on our actresses. But it all fits best if you also happen to be 5'11 and thin.

I'm not. I'm this short, hour-glassy strong woman. I wear a solid sports bra and I have to take one-and-a-half steps for those gazelle-legged dashers' every one, so I do. I'm surprising fast and surprisingly strong and I am tenacious. I recover faster than almost anyone I know. When I ran the Tough Mudder with my much taller boyfriend, I kept reenergizing after each event, until at the end I was kind of dragging him along, forcing him to run. Yesterday I did an 11-mile run and today I feel like I could do it again.

This is, I think, characteristic of us dwarves. It might even be characteristic of us women. Some studies, like this one, find that women's athletic ranking relative to men's increases in longer distances, because we are so fatigue resistance as the distances get longer. Also, we short types tend to do better in ultra marathons as Jason Koop points out:  "With ultra endurance running, women have a huge advantage simply because they're smaller."

Dwarves, in other words, are not natural sprinters.

Part of the revolution that needs to take place in the way we accept our bodies is to recognize that bodies of all sorts are amazing and can be strong, not just the ones that look like Angelina Jolie, or even the US women's volleyball team. There's no right way to strong.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Some thoughts on rhetoric and the gospel of Jesus Christ

Rhetoric and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

I study rhetoric, which is a field much maligned. It is, in common parlance, manipulative, shallow and antithetical to good reasoning. I’m not surprised, but that’s not how I see rhetoric. That’s not how most rhetoricians see it. Rhetoric is a beautiful process by which human beings see other human beings, consider them fully and then “inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 43). This process is absolutely in line with the principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and is, in fact, illuminative of Mormon beliefs.

In the first LDS hymnbook, the one that Emma Smith compiled, she included a song called “Know This, That Every Soul Is Free,” presumably because it reflected some of the distinctive doctrines of the recently organized church. The first verse affirms that “God will force no man to heav’n” (hymn number 240) and this concept is indeed heavily endorsed by the LDS church; the principle of agency is so enshrined in Mormon theology that we see agency as extending before the creation of the world, when Satan proposed an opposite plan that would strip human beings of their agency and force them on a path instead of letting them choose to accept covenants and grace that would enable them to live a celestial life.

If God cares for his children as much as we say he does, but if he will not force them to divinity, how will he endeavor to aid them? The next verse of the hymn explains, “He’ll call, persuade, direct aright” (240, emphasis added). Persuasion is one of the tools that God uses, either directly, or through human or heavenly agents, to encourage righteousness, even if he will not ever “force the human mind” (240).

The ways in which human agents can use persuasion righteously are outlined further in Doctrine and Covenants, 121, a famous chapter of revelation directed to church leaders  about the proper use of their authority. Here, the Lord directs:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy. (D&C 121: 41-42)
The use of persuasion is listed along with such common Christian virtues as gentleness and love.. As international relations professor Cory W. Leonard pointed out in an address to BYU, “section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants places persuasion in close quarters with at least three qualities previously introduced: namely, meekness, long-suffering, and love. These virtues can modify and direct our persuasive efforts, especially as we interact in a world filled with conflict, strife, and disagreement” (“By Persuasion, Longsuffering, Meekness, and Love” 3 May 2011). I agree with Leonard, but might even go a step forward: I believe that persuasion is a kind of love, a love that restrains power and influence instead of wielding it oppressively.

That’s not to say there isn’t such thing as manipulative rhetoric, or practices that are underhanded and unfair, but good rhetoric, the only kind worth of the name, is a different sort of thing all together. To see where I’m coming from, consider Plato’s Phaedrus. It may seem incongruous to jump from a BYU devotional to a treatise that presumes pederasty, but hear me out. The Phaedrus is notable in rhetoric circles because not only does Socrates talk about rhetoric, but in a reversal of opinion from the Gorgias, he describes a type of rhetoric that he may actually like. In Socrates’ third speech, he describes how the lover who truly loves will want to support the object of his affection, helping him to grow and develop and become the best that he can. This relationship, Richard Weaver points out, is a metaphor for the rhetor and the audience—while the worst types of speaker and writers will want to keep their audiences ignorant and dependent, the best will see the divine potential within the beloved and do everything necessary to help that potential to develop. That’s the kind of rhetoric that is divine—the kind that recognizes something in the audience that seems eternal and then moves to articulate and realize that divinity.

In my mind, that is the essence of Mormonism: to see the divine potential in each individual and encourage them, though the exercise of their own agency, to develop it. That can only be accomplished by persuasion, because we, as agents of God, cannot “force the human mind.”