Generalisstimo

Rebecca at ProtoScholar has been on a tear of great posts lately. Her musings on being a generalist or specialist struck a special chord with me.

One of the disadvantages I felt coming back to school is that I’m ignorant of a whole body of knowledge (library science, library processes, library history) that I think many of the younger grads around me have already ingested. The more I hear about catalogers, indexers, and archivers, the more I feel I’m missing out on a deeper conversation. Because I’m not a specialist, I have to survive as a generalist.

But. An advantage to being a forty-odder is that I can bring a wider range of associations to bear on certain topics, or at least a perspective that wouldn’t occur to many of my peers, and that can give me an advantage. Many of my oddball interests of the last 20 years are for whatever reason surfacing now and then in my studies, and I’m able to use them in class discussions or papers.

Rebecca says the best scholars are specialists in one area but generalists in others. Certainly, if we’re going to make our careers matter in the few decades left to us, it’s up to us to see the associations our work can have in other areas of life: the community, the family, social institutions, and so on. That may mean specializing in what we study and research, but finding ways we can apply it generally to the world.

I see myself as a jack-of-some-trades and have always withheld part of myself from becoming too specialist, but I think now is a good time for me to explore how deeply I can go into a topic and really own it intellectually.

This reminds me two oddball thoughts, just to show where these ramblings can lead:

  • The writer Arnold Bennett once observed, on the issue of free will, that life worked out best for him if he assumed that he alone possessed free will, while everyone around him was predetermined to act as if they couldn’t help themselves. He said it took a lot of stress out of life. So: how would I act differently if I saw everyone around me as specialists but myself as a generalist?
  • The psychologist/philosopher William James, in discussing memory, used the analogy of a bowl full of fishing hooks. You could not pick up only one hook, he said, because they were attached to each other such that lifting up one lifted up a cluster. In the same way, memory is associative: the more things you know, the more connections you can make to new knowledge, and so the more you can remember. In a way, that’s how I see generalists and specialists; generalists can call up a cluster of associations, some useful, some not, and it’s this trait that I’m able to call on as a student. We’re highly distractable, us generalists, but it keeps life interesting.

(originally posted in 2007-11-10, updated for micro.blog)

If a mythical Tyler asked you that question “What have you been reading lately that you learned from?” what would be your answer?

The distinction is between “reading edifying works, rather than works that challenged me and taught,” the key is the latter, so answer the question!

The Secret Pulse of Time

Designer name to come

Sent in by our friend Philippe (whom we met back in August), who wrote “You need to see this cover…” I’ll go a step farther: if you teach, you need to show this to your students when you discuss the basics of graphic design. Repetition, balance, contrast, etc…they’re all here. The type is somewhat shoe-horned in – I’ll grant you that – but this is a great number of classes rolled into one book jacket.


UPDATE: A reader points out the similarity to this…
The Secret Pulse of Time

THE LOW NOTE IN THE HARMONY

In my youth, I was easily impressed by drawings with fine linework.



It feels undeniably cool to make such lines. Artists like Norman Lindsay (above), Virgil Finlay, Frank Frazetta and Berni Wrightson enjoyed it so much, they sometimes got carried away drawing delicate little lines.

As I matured, I noticed how some artists added a lower note to the harmony, combining light and elegant lines with heavier lines for emphasis. Below, the great Alex Raymond draws an entire figure using a…

THE LOW NOTE IN THE HARMONY

On actual Halloween night I didn’t even dress up, me and a group of friends just went to Keagan’s where my sister bartends. … Earlier that night I forgot to buy candy so all these little kids were coming to the door looking for candy. All I had handy were airplane bottles of Captain Morgan and some birth control pills — but hey, at least it’s something. I don’t see you giving back to the community.

Bonus: Kelly Link recommends Lynda Barry’s Cruddy for the holiday, a book I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read, even though my wife recommended it to me years ago when we first started dating. I might give it a try tonight. Why am I more willing to take advice from a stranger on the Internet than from someone whose tastes I know and trust? That is a recurring thing with me, and it is seriously messed up.

3 from Seven Hundred Penguins

For book design geeks like us, it doesn’t get any better than the recently published Seven Hundred Penguins.

I won’t turn this into the Seven Hundred Penguins blog, but I will occasionally take some photos and post them here (yes, scans would be nicer, but this book is not getting smushed onto my scanner). I needed a good laugh today, and all of these brought a smile to my face.

Photograph by Tony Palladino (1968)


Photograph by Brian Worth
Design by Brian E. Rockett (1967)


Design by Erwin Fabian (1960)


3 from Seven Hundred Penguins

Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash?

Yes, Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash! They’re performing “Blue Yodel No. 9,” which Armstrong recorded with The Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, and pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, on July 16, 1930, in Los Angeles.

This recreation is from The Johnny Cash Show, first broadcast on October 28, 1970. According to Michael Minn’s Louis Armstrong Discography, Armstrong’s appearance on this show marked his return to the trumpet after a two-year health-related hiatus. Listen for the gently bouncing trumpet phrases from 4:14 to 4:19: that’s the sound of a genius at work.

Blue Yodel No. 9 (YouTube)

Related post
Invisible man: Louis Armstrong and the New York Times
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Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash?

Soundcheck's CD Picks of the Week (Soundcheck: Tuesday, 23 October 2007)

Each week, the Soundcheck staff digs through their inboxes for the best, catchiest, or strangest music they can find. Here are Soundcheck’s pick for the week ending Oct. 26.

Various Artists, “Sonic Rebellion: Alternative Classical Collection” (Naxos)
If you’re looking for an introduction to modern music landmarks from the past 50 years, you could do worse than this collection. Ignore the cheesy cover and some questionable edits (who knew Terry Riley had a fade-up on his minimalist landmark “In C?”). Then, geek out on short pieces by Cage, Wuorinen, Varese, Crumb, Nancarrow, and a dozen others. –Brian Wise

“Sonic Rebellion” is available for purchase at Amazon.com

Orishas: “Antidiotico” (Universal Music Latino)
This Grammy-winning trio is a hip-hop group of Cuban expats who live in Paris, Milan and Madrid. Their fourth album blends boleros and rumbas with rap and pop. It makes you move … and it provokes, tackling everything from racism to immigration to the Buena Vista Social Club. –Gisele Regatao

“Antidiotico” is available for purchase at Amazon.com

Ben Perowsky’s Moodswing Orchestra: “Volume Two” (El Destructo)
This project from New York-based drummer Ben Perowsky is full of spacey trip-hop beats, oozing bass lines, and the occasional typewriter. In other words, this is late-night, bedroom-recording-studio stuff. Perowsky assembled lots of friends for this odd, but beautiful record, including Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, bossa nova singer Bebel Gilberto, and Joan Wasser of the indie group Joan as Policewoman. –Joel Meyer

“Volume II” is available for purchase at Perowsky.com

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, “Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians” (Innova)
Out in the farmlands of Allendale, Mich., Bill Ryan, the director of GVSU’s new music group, decided to have his all-student, all-volunteer band learn to play Reich’s 1976 masterwork – long considered one of the most challenging pieces in new music. It was a labor of love –- intense, obsessive love –- and they not only learned to play the piece, they learned to play it well. – John Schaefer

GVSU’s recording of “Music for 18 Musicians” is available for purchase here.
Soundcheck’s CD Picks of the Week (Soundcheck: Tuesday, 23 October 2007)

What I found out on set on other films is, what makes a crew really roll is when the director makes decisions very quickly and very straight. What confuses a crew and actors is when the director is a little bit like, “I’m not sure what to do there.” The minute you’re confused, you lose everybody. But what’s funny is, I didn’t have to push myself too hard—I was never confused. I was always pretty strong and knowing exactly what I wanted to do, and when I didn't—when I had a moment where I didn’t know exactly what to do, I pretended I did. Which made the crew entirely follow me.

My big fat learning experience

I started the fall semester a younger and more idealistic man than I am here at the halfway point (fall break). Still, I survived (and thrived) and things are looking up. September was my transition month from going to grad school to being a grad student: that is, I can say now that if the task or decision before me has nothing to do with 1) my job or 2) school, then its value is marginal and I have to consider whether to spend time/energy on it. (The beauteous Liz, of course, excepted.)

What was so different about this semester?

  • I started with one class that met twice a week, but when I added a second class (on the advice of my advisor), the extra class's workload was such a shock to my organizational systems and my schedule that my legs are still quivering.
  • Last spring, I had two two-hour classes: one met Tuesday morning, one met Monday evening. It was very easy to accommodate my work schedule, my writing group, and still get schoolwork done.
  • This fall, I have two morning classes, each one is 75 minutes. One meets on Mondays-Wednesdays at the relatively decent hour of 9:30 a.m., the other on Tuesdays-Thursdays at a tremendously inconvenient 11 a.m. The latter class means I don't get to work until after 2 p.m. Since I work a mandated 45-hour week (if I work less than 45 hrs, I get paid less), this means staying at the office till 9 or 10 p.m., meaning all that I can do when I get home is have a late supper, unwind, and go to bed. (Unless I have homework due the next morning, but that's another story.)
  • The extra class disrupted my usual commuting and parking habits. I missed one session driving around looking for a parking space. Lesson learned: as much as possible, reduce the randomness of finding a parking space. I was lucky early on in the semester, but the luck didn't hold. So, I was tipped to a park-and-ride lot halfway to Hillsborough, which is further out from campus, but there are always plenty of spaces. However, the extra distance means that I'm now commuting via bus and car about 8 hours a week.
  • The start of the fall semester coincided with the end of the federal fiscal year, and I had a stiff schedule of deliverables to meet with a hard deadline of September 30. Of course, a major 10-15 page paper was also due on September 25. Criminy. And the first half of October was spent helping my team recover from a major project meltdown. So I couldn't sneak any reading or research at the office--when I was at work, I worked. Big blocks of time for schoolwork can only happen on the weekend.
  • The paper was a literature review, which I'd never done before. I got some great advice from my friend and mentor Cassidy and some great tips (especially from Cal Newton's Study Hacks blog) on smart ways to research and write such a paper. The main thing is, it took a lot of time to learn how to manage the overall project, then it took time learning the subject matter, then it took time pulling it all together. I used a vacation day on Sept 24 (my 46th birthday, as it happened) to relax and go over the paper. I discovered to my horror that I'd written an annotated bibliography instead of a literature review. So I totally recast the paper that day and evening (a loverly way to spend a birthday) , got to bed at a decent hour, and succeeded in getting an excellent grade. Note to self: learn RefDesk or Zotero to format citations!
  • Along the way, I learned to make use of the interstices of time available to me. The posts on scheduling time by Cal and Proto-scholar helped me really leverage Google Calendar more and visualize my commitments. I decided to routineize my schedule as much as possible. So, even though my Tue/Thu classes happen later than my Mon/Wed classes, I still rise at the same time every day, get to the bus stop by 8:30 a.m. at the latest, and use the block of time spent on the bus and slurping coffee before class to do my readings for that day or that week. (I always print out the next week's readings on Thursday or Friday.)
  • During my lit review, I fell down the rabbit hole of technology by spending an afternoon messing with CiteULike, which, to be fair, did lead me to some articles that I used, but that I finally saw to be not as useful to me as I had expected. I also spent my first research afternoon tweaking my Windows setup, trying out various programs, etc. Total procrastination monkey. That's when I simplified my methods (remember the Extreme Programming motto, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work"). I will be trying Cal's new method of using Excel as a research database (again, Proto-scholar adds to the conversation) for my current paper, whose themes have been pre-defined by the professor. I'm also trying out Zotero, to see how it does with citation export (though this may violate the "do the simplest thing" principle).

My manager, who's getting his MBA, had a teacher who often repeated the motto, "Don't wish it was easier--wish you were better." I thought of that often during my transition period--I can't change my deadlines, I'm not going to drop the classes, I can't make the buses run faster, I need to maintain my 45-hour work schedule so I can meet my financial obligations.

And so, at some point, I realized that all this meta-thinking and self-management is part of the learning experience. I've had to re-frame a typical workday from 8a-5pm to 12pm-9pm. I have to dedicate some portion of the weekend to making up time I miss from the office, which means getting better at scheduling. I had to drop my writing group and my banjo lessons, so I could focus my disposable time on school. Many of the habits and routines of my old life that I thought immovable I now see as malleable and, in many ways, optional. Liz has been great about taking on some of my old chores and agreeing that some chores (like yardwork) will have to wait for my attention until the semester is over.

I've also discovered that, even with this tough schedule, I like taking 2 classes at a time. I find that jamming together the class readings causes me to see connections that I would miss were I taking each class on its own. There's also the pressure of trying to meet my obligations that obliges me to make faster connections and discover new ways to re-frame current problems or speed up time.

When I eventually signed up for next semester's classes, I picked one 3-hr class that meets on Mondays, and then picked a Monday-Wednesday class that meets in the morning. I've cleared it with my manager that I will be out of the office on Monday but will make up the time on Saturday and throughout the week. It's an unconventional schedule, but I'm living an unconventional life right now, and that's also something I needed to learn.

"The Autumn of the Multitaskers"

From “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” an essay by novelist Walter Kirn in the November Atlantic:

“Where do you want to go today?” Microsoft asked us.

Now that I no longer confuse freedom with speed, convenience, and mobility, my answer would be: “Away. Just away. Someplace where I can think.”

Related posts
Multitasking makes you stupid
Multitasking: “not paying attention”
On continuous partial attention
(Thanks to L. Lee Lowe, who pointed her readers to this essay.)

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“The Autumn of the Multitaskers”