The Portolan Project Moving Forward

I’ve written to a possible donor about funding for the SLF that might allow me to put off doing a Portolan Project Kickstarter for a few months, which would be great; I could just focus on producing good work, rather than taking out time to raise money — it’d also mean that we would have a more complete project to show as part of the Kickstarter, so people really understood what we were asking them to fund.

I’ve also written to one of the writers we interviewed, to start the process of creating materials to supplement the teaching videos.

What I’m hoping to do is attach little assignments to each teaching video. I can write them, but if the writer wanted to contribute something, we’d love to have it from them. So

for example, to accompany the interview we did with George R.R. Martin, I’d love to present:

***

George R.R. Martin on writing epic fantasy: [15-20 minute audio embedded on the page]

George recommends: [3-5 texts that are relevant]

George suggests you try this: [writing prompt(s)]

***

I’m trying to balance this in various ways. For one, the page itself, I’d like to be welcoming and non-intimidating. This isn’t where we’re going to get three pages of Delany essay — not for the first round assignments, anyway. 

That works on the teaching side too — if I keep what I ask of the writer very simple and brief, then hopefully it doesn’t feel so onerous that they would need to be paid to do it.

There’s a tricky line here, because on the one hand, I think teachers should be paid for their labor, obviously. I don’t want to undercut the work that teachers put in creating serious lesson plans and designing courses.

But on the other hand, if I have to spend a lot of time fundraising to pay for instructional labor, this project will honestly not be in my capacity, or the SLF’s capacity this year. (I am trying to be much more careful about capacity these days, so I don’t overcommit and run myself into the ground.)

So I’m going for a sort of middle ground, where I ask the writers if they’d like to contribute something small and relatively easy, it’s entirely up to them, I fill in where they’re not interested, and that will hopefully let us get up at least a dozen videos and instruction pages by the end of the summer. (My actual stretch goal is 3 dozen finished by the end of the summer, to set up for a fall Kickstarter — we’ll see.)

And then if all that goes well, then I can build in fundraising that will let us actually pay at least a small honorarium for that work of creating instructional materials going forward. This is the proof-of-concept phase.  I’d like to pay people for the interview itself as well — it takes time from them, and that time should be compensated if possible.

We’ll see how it goes, and if people actually find this useful!

(Am I completely off-base, thinking the world could really use better free instruction on how to write fiction and create interesting stories? I guess we’ll find out…)

Photo of George form our interview in Dublin — I wish I’d been set up to do video as well as audio. Oh well. I’ll make him talk to me again sometime. 

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Public TV and Summer Book Recommendations

Hey, folks — I’ll be on local public TV again, with a few book recommendations for good summer reading during a pandemic. They asked me for five books, and I gave them:

– Tender at the Bone (Ruth Reichl)

– The Lesson (Cadwell Turnbull)

– Give a Girl a Knife (Amy Thielen)

– A Game of Fox and Squirrels (Jenn Reese)

– Salt Fat Acid Heat (Samin Nosrat)

Sadly, they then put them in an order (not up to us), and we, per usual, ran way out of time, so I only got to talk about the first two. But I do recommend them all!

(I miss having the profssional WTTW make-up person; I did my best, though. Is that scoop-neck top showing too much skin for TV? I think it slipped down a bit while I was talking…

And every time I see my face, I’m reminded that my mom always said my forehead was too big, and I should get bangs… (I have no patience for maintaining bangs))

I’m going to be doing a lot of video recording in my office, I think — need to think about what I want on that back wall. The wall calendar is useful, but uninspiring. I think I may want to move it elsewhere, and have a big, glorious painting there.

I was on a Zoom call with Alex Gurevich yesterday, and he had what I think was one of his wife Christa Grenawalt‘s paintings in the background, and it looked so good. I mean, it looked good enough that it was maybe a little distracting because I just wanted to look at the painting, not at him, so that might be counterproductive. . Hm.

Oh, also wanted to note that it was great meeting D.L. Mullen, who has apparently just celebrated a year running Semicolon Bookstore in West Town. Must check it out! Locals, support your local bookstore!

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A Long Thing About Schooling

There’s a big discussion happening in the local working moms group about schooling, including a lot of critique of teachers and a lot of bewilderment about why they aren’t just doing Zoom classes all day. I ended up writing a long thing:

A few thoughts, as a UIC professor, and as the parent of a 4th grader and 7th grader (Holmes and Brooks):

a) There’s a real problem generally with synchronous teaching (‘live’ via Zoom or anything else, even online chat).

A lot of students have tech or family challenges (one device for a family of five, for example, two of whom are working remotely and three of whom are in school) making it impossible for them to participate synchronously — equity recommendation is thus that NOTHING significant be done synchronously, because otherwise, you are privileging students with more access to tech. (One of my students could only do Zoom on a phone with no video or voice capacity for him — just texting into the chat window to participate.)

At the college level, the way that plays out in my classroom is that I:

– give hopefully engaging assignments, including requirements that they comment in a shared Google doc on their classmates’ work within 24 hours, which helps to create some of the engagement you’d see in a normal classroom

– I do some recorded lectures (note that there are serious concerns with recorded lectures as well, having to do with privacy, intellectual property rights, potential for harassment, and more)

– and I also host optional Zoom meetings during regular class time

But if I have a class of 30 and 2-4 students actually show up for the Zoom meeting (which has been typical this spring), that’s a significant portion of my time being given to those 2-4 students, time I could be spending on generating better assignments, responding to student work in the shared Doc file, etc. After a few weeks, I ended up dropping my Wednesday synchronous Zoom class in order to free up enough time to do some work that benefited more of the class (though I kept Mon and Fri).

College students are obviously in a different situation — some of mine have gone home to other countries, so our classes are being held in what’s the middle of the night for them now. Others are working full-time and supporting their parents who have been laid off. But the tech issues are common throughout the population, and many high school students and even older middle school students have been pressed into childcare responsibilities to help make it possible for parents to continue working remotely.

Zooming with my students is actually MUCH MUCH easier than pretty much anything asynchronous; I’d so prefer just dropping in to talk to them over recording a lecture or generating shared doc assignments. The latter takes me three times as long, usually. But consensus in the teaching forums is clear that synchronous at the moment creates real equity problems.

b) That said, the fall will look very different, and I expect to be doing much more synchronous teaching then. Over the summer, UIC is asking us to put in 8 hours / week on learning how to teach online (which is very different, when done well, from emergency remote teaching). A few aspects of that:

– we’ll be learning and using a single cohesive digital template for teaching at UIC (it’s unclear to me at this point if they’re actually paying us for this, or expect us to volunteer our time). In this emergency situation, a survey of the students made clear that the biggest challenge for them was that their professors were using all kinds of different tech, requiring them to learn and adapt, and it was very hard. I think a cohesive approach will help a lot, and I hope the university can find the funding to compensate us for the massive amount of extra work involved.

– students who enroll in synchronous classes (in-person or otherwise) will know that in advance, and will be able to adjust their schedules and tech to participate fully

– students will not be cross-scheduled against other classes for synchronous activities (which was happening a lot this spring — some of my students had to miss my Zoom class, held during class time, because another professor had decided to hold his exam them, and was requiring twice as long as normal, for some reason that I don’t understand, sigh)

– a lot of us, whether the university pays us or not, will be studying online education and how to do it effectively; a friend who works in the field recommended this book, which I have bought and plan to start reading as soon as the semester is over:

https://smile.amazon.com/…/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_d_asin_title_o04…

It’s really a different thing altogether from in-person teaching, even at the college level, and I can’t imagine how much more different it must be if you’re working with little ones.

*****

Final thoughts — some teachers have adapted to emergency online teaching well, some haven’t. Please do keep in mind that some of the factors affecting those having difficulty may be:

– inadequate tech in their own homes

– inexperience with tech, especially among older teachers; some seniors are really only comfortable on the phone, for example, and need quite a lot of reassurance and handholding to even participate in a Zoom call

– greatly increased childcare responsibilities (especially disruptive if you have little ones, and if your kids are older, you may be forgetting just how hard it is to work when a toddler is climbing on you or screaming bloody murder)

– illness (one of my employees had Covid-19, and has been basically knocked out for six brutal weeks; she keeps trying to work, and I keep telling her to please rest)

– increased caregiving responsibilities for elders

– unsupportive partners (I hate to say it, but a lot of teachers are women, a lot of them are married to men who don’t take their work seriously, and don’t support them in it)

– economic hardship making additional demands on their time and mental capacity (if their partner has lost his job, for example, or if parents are suddenly in greater need)

and perhaps most importantly:

– trauma response and PTSD: we are living through a worldwide disaster, we’re only two months in, and while some people are able to adapt quickly, many are not, and I would argue that the majority of us are experiencing mental health issues as a result of this.

I would say that it’s only last week that I really started coming back to normal in terms of my own ADD-affected mental capacity — before that, I was having huge executive functioning difficulties. It took me two hours to just lay out the remaining deadlines for the semester for two classes; that task would normally take 15 minutes. Sometimes I would just read the news and burst into tears. I’ve had three big fights with my husband in the last six weeks about differing assessments of risk behaviors, and we basically never fight — this is more fighting than we’ve had in the last six year, I think. (We’re fine now, thankfully.) Also, masses of my time has gone to sewing masks for healthcare workers and trying to help set up a mutual aid network. There’s just SO MUCH to cope with right now.

I know we’re all worried about our kids, and while my ADHD son is delighted to enjoy the freedom of home and couldn’t care less if he never progressed beyond 4th grade math, my middle school daughter is seriously missing her friends, the classroom environment, and is struggling to maintain motivation to complete schoolwork. It’s helped her a lot to do schoolwork with her friends while Facetiming, by the way; she needs the social aspect, so ‘study groups’ might be a really good approach to supporting kids going forward.

We are all still in the midst of a disaster, teachers and administrators as well as parents and kids. Everyone I know in academia is working really hard, to the best of their capacity.

Sometimes, that isn’t very good work, I admit. But I think by the fall, we’ll be doing a lot better, especially if the community can support us in our efforts, and have faith that we’re really, honestly, trying. I worry so much about my students, you have no idea.

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Mohanraj and Rosenbaum are Human

Started a shared doc with Darius and Benjamin with podcast notes. I continue to be slow to adapt to this brave new world of shared docs and such, but I’ll get there. It just makes me anxious — what if someone deletes something important? There seems to be a lot of trust involved in working collaboratively in the cloud. I need to figure this out for fall semester, though — there’s a good chance my classes will be online, and students can do great work with shared document note taking, I know.

(We’ll know more about who’s teaching online and who’s teaching live in a few weeks, but right now, I think the priority at UIC is looking like the classes that need to be live will be live (such as science lab classes), some that are being designated as core to the ‘freshman experience,’ will also be live, and very few others will be.)

That said, the podcast development is fun and exciting. In case you’re curious, here’s what’s in there so far:

Mohanraj and Rosenbaum are Humans

**1) Show Ideas**

– how people manage risk

– how we’re handling all this personally

– how you and Esther and the kids are doing (if you’re comfortable talking about Esther as therapist and your relationship stuff and your synagogue work, all of that would be interesting, I think, and I’d do the same from my end with Kevin and Jed and the kids and teaching)

– how Switzerland and the U.S. are handling coronavirus differently (I have no idea what’s happening there, actually)

– maintaining SF community during a year-without-conventions

– writing during all this

– motivational structures

– the frustration and grief of a delayed book launch; plans and strategies for handling it (Liz Gorinsky)

– Swiss and American educational systems during the pandemic

– international guests (Yudhanjaya, Aliette — fold in pandemic check-ins — New Zealand (Toni, Jed’s friend, etc.))

– domestic labor during the pandemic (the big chart)

**2) Show Ideas with Potential Guests**

(*confirmed interest)

– Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and Cadwell Turnbull on post-colonial island SF

– Charlie Stross and Alex Gurevich (*) on economics in a pandemic world

– Charlie Jane Anders, Annalee Newitz (*), Eileen Gunn, Ellen Datlow, Susan Groppi, Neil Harrison, and Jed Hartman (*) on history of online magazines / Strange Horizons (break out SH separately?)

– Ellen Datlow, Sheila Williams, Neil Clarke, Vanessa Rose Phin, on magazines in a pandemic world

– Mary Robinette Kowal on virtual convention culture and practices

– I’d like to talk to John Scalzi about something. Not sure what. 

And then there’s even a table where I’ve started logging episode notes.  It is very sketchy right now, but it will get filled out!

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Waking Up Full of Don’t Wanna

Sometimes you just wake up full of don’t wanna, and I’m thankful that this morning, I don’t haveta. I have a university Zoom town hall at 10:30, talking about the fall semester (sigh). But until then, I’ve put on comfy pj’s, gotten myself coffee and meds and two seeni sambol buns, and returned to bed to sink back into Cadwell Turnbull’s _The Lesson_, which is entirely gripping.

Turnbull does a terrific job of balancing the brutal aspects of his quiet alien invasion story with beautiful language, rich characterization, thoughtful implications around gender (very reminiscent of Octavia Butler in that regard), and even humor.

So great to have something great to read. I’m going to have to see if I can squeeze this novel into my American writers of color in SF/F class. If anyone is teaching an African American SF/F class, this would be great in conversation with Nisi Shawl’s _Everfair_, Samuel Delany’s _Tales of Neveryon_, and Butler, of course.

It’s giving me little sparks of ideas for my own SF too…

(Side note: I think we may have settled on a name for Benjamin’s and my new podcast: “Mohanraj & Rosenbaum Are Humans.” I really like it. 🙂 Darius, I want to interview Turnbull for it or for the SLF or both, perhaps in conversation with Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Make a note, please.)

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First Podcast Episode Notes

Podcasting notes! Help needed. This morning, I spent two hours + online with Benjamin Rosenbaum, recording the first in what we hope will turn into a podcast. A few notes & questions from the experience:

– we still don’t have a title, even though we were supposed to spend the time brainstorming the title; we’re going to need help with this, I think, so when we post this raw material on YouTube (once I’m done uploading it), if you happen to feel like listening and suggesting names, we will be forever grateful

– it was GREAT talking to Ben; it felt fun and energizing, like being at a con. There was a little Zoom lag, but not too bad (and Kev has now brought a booster out to the shed, so we’re hopefully that will be better next time). I was surprised that it wasn’t as tiring as Zoom often is; I think in part it was because we did a lot of turn-taking (both tending to go off on spates), so the lag didn’t affect the conversation too much, and because we know each other so well that we can easily read each other despite the lossage of information inherent to virtual vs. embodied.

– we were going to try to use Zencaster for audio and Zoom for video, but were getting echoes from having both going, and though we could have muted Zoom, that would have meant clean audio, but a video without sound, and I wasn’t at all confident that we could lay the sound back over the video track — maybe that’s easy? I don’t know! My former student, Darius Vinesar, is serving as our audio engineer, and he’s eager to learn more on the job, but he doesn’t actually have a lot of expertise yet; if anyone can advise us on this, that’d be so helpful

– we could also abandon the Zoom and just do audio — I’m told that Zencaster will give us cleaner audio. So the question is, do people actually get anything out of seeing our two talking heads in a video? Please weigh in, especially if you’d actively like us to keep recording video

– we spent about an hour on set up and intros, talking about how we know each other, our writing careers so far, etc. More than I expected about Clarion. And then the second hour, we ended up talking about RaceFail in the SF community a bit, and how we handle these difficult conversations. There was various commentary on books and writers throughout. We finished up with discussion of near future and far future SF, the challenges of extrapolation, and balancing character-driven prose with sense of wonder eyeball kicks and the like. I may have had some critique of Picard in there, but Ben hasn’t seen it yet, sadly. The plan is to have Darius pull out at least that last piece, maybe a few pieces, and try releasing those as standalones as well, so if you’re just interested in one of those, you can just listen to that. The last one, certainly, dovetails well with the SLF’s Portolan Project.

– I have more time right now than Ben, so where I’d be happy to record three times a week, I’m not sure he can manage that this summer. But at least once a week, hopefully? We’ll see. Depends a lot on whether y’all actually like this

– the plan is to pay for it (because we want to pay Darius for his audio engineering work especially) through a Patreon dedicated to the podcast. Any further thoughts on that are welcome too.

– I’m not sure whether the other people I want to talk with are all going to be part of this podcast, or yet another podcast. For example, if I co-host an episode with Pooja Makhijani, talking about food, cooking and writing, should I do that as a Serendib House podcast instead? I’m a little worried about fragmenting into a thousand different projects, but I think Ben and I might have a coherent identity for this podcast (SF/F / writing / secular humanism / religion / parenting & family / community / international culture / pandemic) that really isn’t the same as what I’d do for a Serendib House or Maram podcast (cooking / gardening / parenting / making / writing / teaching / community). There’s overlap, certainly, BUT? Maybe I need two different ones? And does the SLF need its own too? (With some pieces being used for multiple ones??)

Oh, lots of rambling notes. Here is the raw, unedited video of Ben and I rambling. Any thoughts welcome.

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Moments From a Pandemic

Moments from a pandemic:

  • Anand, shouting in delight just now: “Oranges!” (we got a grocery delivery last night; we’d been getting a little short on fresh fruit, and were definitely feeling it)
  • Roshani reminding me that we’re entering acceleration phase, and no, I really don’t need to go to the garden store right now, seriously, for the next two weeks, just stay home, Mary Anne. Go prune something. Move a plant.
  • From a note I sent my students this morning: “it’s definitely a situation where all your teachers are trying to build the plane while we’re in the middle of flying it…we’re just trying not to crash right now, but it’s a little bumpy!”
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Pajama Day Inspiration

Kavi was chilly this morning and I told her to put on socks and she said her feet weren’t cold and I told her heat radiates out of our heads and feet, so if she covers them, she’ll stay warmer overall. I’m not sure she believed me, but she dutifully went upstairs, and came back down dressed like this, bunny slippers and all.

I think I’m going to dig up my elephant onesie and teach in it on Friday. I’ll e-mail the students and tell them it’s pajama day. 

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