A journal of my thoughts

The old Calvin and Hobbes — from 8/25/92 — that came up in my comics feed yesterday:

This blog is, in a sense, a journal of my thoughts:

— responses to things I’ve come across (things people have said, events I’ve seen, events I’ve experienced, news reports, cartoons and comics, movies and tv, music, artwork, food, plants, animals, whatever);

— reports on my life history, family and friends, emotional and physical states, beliefs and opinions and guiding moral principles; reports on research (mine and other people’s) in linguistics and  psychology and in g&s (gender and sexuality studies, though Gilbert & Sullivan do occasionally appear; I do not, however, deal in goods & services);

— and creative writing (fiction and poetry) and artwork (mostly my collages).

The responses and reports are not just passing on of things but attempts to place these things in some context (which often involves exposing my personal involvement with them, sometimes in open and unsparing detail), to analyze them, to interpret them, to connect them (sometimes in unexpected or surprising ways) to other things, and often to play with them, to use them to entertain — in displays of Martians attacking Indianapolis, so to speak.

Useful, maybe significant, and amusing. So: you read my blog, you’re getting me — but not a crude and unvarnished me, instead one highly crafted for my audiences. And, for good or ill, what you’re getting is something that very likely (to use the words of a colleague, about a draft of a piece I was working on for publication) could only have been written by Arnold Zwicky. It is, as people have been saying about my writing for, oh, 60 years now, idiosyncratic. Sometimes they say eccentric. Sometimes they say that I am obviously smart and accomplished (ever the Wunderkind) but that — disappointed sigh — whatever I’ve done is not what they had expected, or hoped for, from me. Sometimes they say that — aggressive growl — they don’t understand why I write about the things that I do, meaning that I should abandon it and do something more intelligible, less frivolous, more worthwhile, less repellent, more interesting, less peculiar. What I should be writing about is the sort of thing that most other people are doing, but on a topic that no one happens to have written about before, applying my industry, cleverness and insight to fill in the gap.

I’ve undertaken a fair number of projects of this sort, which have obvious attractions, two being that they’re of a manageable size (I’m inclined to be a miniaturist and to be deeply wary of grand schemes and big ideas) and that they’re very likely to succeed. Which means that if I don’t do it, someone else soon will. In principle, I’m fine with that. In practice, I’m inclined to wander from the simple task into connections with other phenomena, general principles that might be at play, and (especially) foundational and conceptual issues. Ending up with something idiosyncratic.

But something I think people might be illuminated by, or entertained by. And I feel assured enough to put this material forward publicly — a long time ago, in publications (many in obscure places) and in lectures (in classes, at conferences, in invited talks); but now, in an even more free-wheeling style, in this blog. Because I think that at least some of the ideas are useful, maybe significant, and that my presentations are amusing (at least for certain audiences) — not because (see Calvin above) I believe myself to be a genius whose ideas are naturally more interesting and important than other people’s.

And really cheap. Calvin may have some scheme to make people pay for his thoughts, but mine you get free. Partly from an academic Die Gedanken Sind Frei ethos, partly because universities provide faculty salaries (and infrastructure) to underpin that ethos (well, yes, in addition to teaching, you’re expected to advance the state of knowledge through your research and to communicate your results through publications, lectures, and the like), and partly because I can’t imagine anyone being willing to pay for my work.

When I did get income beyond my regular university salary (at UIUC and then Ohio State), it came almost entirely from extra teaching in the summers — plus very modest royalties from publication, and largely symbolic lecturing fees (most commonly $20 plus expenses, once a startling $200, sometimes just a floor to sleep on and the promise of a good Chinese meal; and then of course colloquia and other public lectures at my own institutions were just for fun).

(Highlights from a monumentally complex story.) In 1985 I took on a visiting, then consulting, and eventually adjunct, professor appointment at Stanford, teaching there during winter quarters until 1998, when I moved full-time to Stanford. At first my Stanford teaching and advising was without pay from Stanford; I did extra teaching at Ohio State to float being in California during the winter. Then in 1995 I took early retirement from Ohio State (and became a DUPE, a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus), and began a new life as a gig worker, supplementing a modest pension with fees for teaching some courses at Ohio State and Stanford. In 1998 I moved entirely to California, and got a very modest salary for teaching two courses, advising students, and participating in the affairs of the department. I retired from that position in 2010 and have since had the ornamental title of Adjunct Professor — which does, however, come with significant university services (e-mail, file storage with public access, and especially library services, including electronic access to all sorts of scholarly resources).

But I get along on a very tight budget, so it would be a boon if what I wrote actually made some money. I refuse to allow ads on my blog; in fact, I pay to keep them off this blog. And then the arrangements for selling access to the blog as a subscription service are daunting, and I am barely coping with life as it is; I’m also uncomfortable with making my friends pay to read my essays. (Plus I’m fearful of being humiliated by discovering that no one values my writing enough to pay for it.)

My academic writings are mostly available on-line and for free, through this blog. Now I have a long history of blog essays, on Language Log from 2003-17, on this blog beginning in December 2008. On the order of 10,000 essays in all, and all available, again for free. Looks like I’m sticking with that.

Gig work. I have the backing of my Ohio State pension, but tons of my friends and acquaintances work in the gig / freelance economy without a safety net: they are (among other things) artists, cartoonists, musicians, authors / writers, editors, waiters, skilled trades workers, tutors, computer consultants, office temps, trainers, drivers, sex workers, actors, lexicographers (bet you weren’t expecting that one), and the giant army of contract instructors in higher education that make the whole enterprise economically viable. They have to chase jobs down, often doing several at the same time, roll with constant change and new circumstances, and energetically sell themselves (I truly hate selling myself). Most of them are proud of doing a good job at whichever gig they’ve taken on; only a few of them are property appreciated for the work they do; and a lot of them are underpaid. I’m in awe.

Back to school. And then to note that this discussion of teaching and performing comes along at a poignant time of the year — back-to-school time (though not, for the moment, in Columbus OH, where the public school teachers are on strike). Academic friends are describing the beginnings of their school years: details of courses to be taught, enrollment hassles, scheduling woes, enthusiasm for the fresh start, new students, new topics — and career benchmarks: my 18th year of teaching, how did that happen?; my 35th year of teaching; and the like.

If I hadn’t put down my chalk and my whiteboard markers in 2010, this would be my 67th year teaching. Wow. I haven’t been physically up to it for many years, and nothing in the work that I do now would be of use to our students in their careers, so there’s no place for me at a lectern (or moving restlessly around in front of a class, as I used to do when I was young). But as the days get shorter and cooler, I remember the wonderful parts of teaching — there are a great many — and I miss it. Well, I continue to do a very eccentric, idiosyncratic, peculiar form of teaching, for other audiences, on this blog. It pleases me, it seems to please them, and that will do nicely.

The Adjunct Professorship. I’ve been letting this posting wander away from Calvin’s journal of his thoughts, while I wait to end it with a sweet wrap-up about my Adjunct Professor appointment at Stanford. My current appointment is for three years, 9/1/19 through 8/31/22 (which is to say, a week from today). I’ve been deeply anxious about the reappointment, but the Linguistics administrator (who’s been doing all the paperwork) reassured me that the reappointment offer letter had been drafted and was, as of this morning, on the desk of faculty affairs in the Dean’s Office. The previous letter was as bare-bones as could be:

Arnold Zwicky is hereby appointed Adjunct Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University for the period September 1, 2019, through August 31, 2022.

I conjure up worries: Is it just for a year, because I’m so old and housebound? Is there some condition having to do with the controversial nature of my writing and my public presentation of myself? (In earlier years, people made attempts to have me fired from Stanford (and from Ohio State), so I suspect that insofar as the higher administration is aware of me at all, it views me as a nuisance, better kept from public view.)

But this is probably just my anxiety (my anxiety has legitimate roots, but that doesn’t make it rational in the current circumstances). Probably the dean’s office just thinks this is a routine thing, no rush on it, and they’ll get to it eventually. I mean, like there’s a whole week. To get the letter of offer to me, for me to get my letter of acceptance back to them, and for them to have the appointment registered in the faculty-staff database, which is the truly crucial event.

Think good thoughts about your Woolly Mammoth. (“As long as it’s woolly, I don’t ask questions”, said the one shepherd to the other, about the mammoth grazing alongside their sheep.)


2 Responses to “A journal of my thoughts”

  1. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    Thinking good thoughts about our Woolly Mammoth and chuckling out loud about the shepherd.Truly a shaggy mammoth story.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I treasure this mammoth cartoon (by the wonderful Sam Gross) as a piece of excellent life advice. Someone once suggested to me that it was a combination of the canny peasant cartoon and the wise Jew cartoon, with a mammoth as icing, so of course I liked it.

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