Weekend Reading: Lake Time Edition

I’m technically on vacation this week, which is perhaps why this week’s readings mostly revolve around relaxing, de-stressing, unplugging, and reflecting. On a related note, ProfHacker begins its own summer break after this post. We’ll be away for two weeks, returning on Monday, August 12. Okay: to the readings!

“The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life”: While some have responded to Radhika Nagpal’s essay by focusing on her relative privilege as an assistant professor in Computer Science at Harvard—a fact that no doubt greatly informs her perspective—I nonetheless found her reflection useful as I consider my own career as a junior faculty member. Having worked at institutions on the other end of the research continuum, if anything I suspect that the pressure to live an always-on, hyper-ambitious academic life is accelerated at institutions like Harvard. In particular, Nagpal’s decisions to take advice reservedly and insist on family and leisure time resonated with my own experiences thus far—though in my case we’ve yet to see how successful these strategies will be!

I’ve enjoyed my seven years as junior faculty tremendously, quietly playing the game the only way I knew how to. But recently I’ve seen several of my very talented friends become miserable in this job, and many more talented friends opt out. I feel that one of the culprits is our reluctance to openly acknowledge how we find balance. Or openly confront how we create a system that admires and rewards extreme imbalance. I’ve decided that I do not want to participate in encouraging such a world. In fact, I have to openly oppose it.

“#Unplug: Baratunde Thurston Left The Internet For 25 Days, And You Should, Too”: One can also respond to Baratunde Thurston’s argument by focusing on the professional privilege that allows Thurston to perform his experiment—25 days with “NO SOCIAL MEDIA UPDATES, RESPONSES, CHECK-INS, LIKES, TAPS, POKES, NOOGIES, TICKLES, OR HEAD LOCKS”—with relatively little risk. He has, after all, a personal assistant who can convey any truly important information from the wired world to him while he’s ostensibly “unplugged.” Nevertheless, I think Thurston’s piece reflects thoughtfully on the possible tradeoffs of constant connectedness. His pre-unplugged life sounded much like mine and, I suspect, many other ProfHacker writers and readers. In particular, I appreciate Thurston’s revelation, which echoes Thoreau 150 years previous, that we willfully trade away hard-won benefits in service of our gadgets:

The first season of Downton Abbey features a remarkable scene in which the Dowager Countess, who is always quick to offer a sharp retort in defense of tradition, responds to another character’s announcement of weekend plans with a truly confused inquiry: “What is a weekend?” One major feature of industrialization was the adoption of leisure time for those of us not among the leisure class. Yet one major feature of the Networked Age is our de-created ability to disengage. Will the concept of downtime have been a temporary blip in the history of civilization?

The greatest gift I gave myself was a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence, and emptiness. I don’t need to fill every time slot with an appointment, and I don’t need to fill every mental opening with stimulus. Unoccupied moments are beautiful, so I have taken to scheduling them.

“Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”: In that same spirit, here’s a throwback reading: the second chapter (and philosophical heart) of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Thoreau’s experiment was, of course, enabled by his own privilege. Anytime I teach this text, a student will wryly point out, in hopes of defanging Thoreau’s argument, that he lived on Emerson’s land, went home for many meals, and gave his mother his dirty laundry. Despite generations of students wryly pointing out such facts, however, Thoreau’s book continues to move readers to think deliberately about how and why they are living their lives as they are. Though some cast Thoreau as a Luddite and a pessimist, I see neither as his predominant mode. What I find (and love) in Walden is a relentless optimism about human possibility:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

“45 Ways to Communicate Two Quantities”: My final recommendation has nothing to do with this week’s themes. So it goes. It’s something that made the Twitter and Facebook rounds among my friends last week. It’s a fascinating case study in how visualizations both illuminate and mediate our understanding of data.

Let’s try to find all possible ways to visualize a ludicrously small data set of two numbers. Afterwards, let’s try to pick the best visualization.

With such a tiny dataset, you would think we would complete both exercises in less than 5 minutes. Yet, we spent more than two hours without having actually accomplished either of the two tasks.

Not only was the number of possible ways to visualize two values far higher than expected, but also each single visualization method admitted multiple and interesting variations and opened new questions and discussions.

No video this week. As I said, I’m on vacation and as such have a very limited data plan—a tethered cell phone on a lake with only two bars connection!. I need the bits I have to get this piece posted. So instead, how about…

…A Summer Reading Bonus! With vacation comes the rare opportunity to read for fun and pleasure, which for me usually means reading recent science fiction. This summer I’ve greatly enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore—a novel of ancient tomes and modern text analysis that Matt Kirschenbaum called “the first digital humanities novel”—and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312—a tale of universal terraforming, alien body modification, and political subterfuge. I must confess I’m still in the midst of this one, but it’s been a rollicking read so far.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user David Mellis.]

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