On finishing(s)

While searching for snarky sports commentary at bedtime two nights ago, I stumbled across an interesting Twitter thread on finishing a manuscript (because I was tagged in it).

I am a big believer in the old Walter Benjamin line about how manuscripts aren’t finished, they are abandoned. But the key here is the verb abandon.

In finishing, you abandon the manuscript over and over: to get it under review, to get it back under review after revision; to deal with copyedits; to deal with page proofs. And that’s in the best of possible circumstances. There are even more little abandonments along the way. Today I “finished” a chapter I have been fighting with (on fatigue, draw your own conclusions) since mid March. It was also the least developed chapter of the first version of the ms that went to the press last year. Yeah, I know a lot is going on and most people aren’t writing. I am not saying that you should be writing. But I am absolutely driven to write. At least this book because I know why I am writing it and for whom (one of the people for whom I am writing is me).

Even so I ran away from this chapter a couple times to work on other chapters because I just couldn’t figure out how I wanted to make the argument work and how it should be presented. But at the end of last week I was finally ready to do what needed to be done. Now it’s on Carrie’s desk (aka in-house peer review) to see if I can cut even more before showing it to people. She will find the parts that don’t make sense, or that should be brought out and also tell me whether I should cut a 15-page section on medical models of fatigue down to 2-3.* Then I’ll edit again next week for half a day and send it to some people (and others will get it as part of the revised manuscript when I send in the whole thing).

All this is to say finishing is not a definite act. It is many many small acts.

I think it’s Robert Boice in Professors as Writers who says to “write before you are ready,” but regardless of who said it (if he said it, he wasn’t first), the same is true about finishing. When I send the MS back to Duke at the end of the month (fingers crossed), I will still have lots of prose editing to fix to make it more beautiful, and that’s assuming the readers don’t ask for more changes (they could). I will have all my image permissions (because I planned ahead) but there will be design issues to work out. It doesn’t matter. It’ll be finished when it goes back, and when any additional changes requested reviewers go back, when the copyedits go back, when the proofs go back, when it appaears in the catalogue, and only much later, when I hold an object in my hands.

*I am really trying to have shorter chapters this time. I’m at 55 pages/17,000 words. Not bad for, not great in terms of my targets.

Congratulations to Chemicals; Censure to People

It’s time to congratulate some pills and some part or another of my biochemistry. All I did was take 3 pills every night (plus a bunch of others for side effects).

It’s only been a couple weeks since my last update but I switched some drugs around so I had to be checked up on. The good news: my tumour marker is down to .4. That is very low–the lowest I’ve been in years and. the best my oncologist has seen. I’ve got a scan on August 4th, so that’s the next thing, which means an oncology appointment on my 50th birthday. Not normally what you want but I’ll take it since the scan should reflect the good news we are seeing in the bloods.

Side effects are about the same. I’ve got a blister/callous assemblage on my right big toe that doesn’t look like much but is keeping me from going on regular walks which is a bit of a bummer. Digestion is relatively well behaved, considering. Blood pressures are decent with the suite of drugs I’m on.

So, censure. Yesterday I went to get my blood drawn at 3pm which meant I was one of the last people for the phlebotomy room in the cancer centre. The nurse on duty told me a bunch people had been really rude to her that day (she’s black and obviously an immigrant from her accent so there’s that too). It boggles the mind — being a regular I get to know the staff, I’ve seen her go out of her way to get things right and she’s actually funny. The Gazette ran a story about people being real nasty to staff at restaurants. I’m not going to a restaurant any time soon but I guarantee you when I do, it will be a cause for celebration. What’s going on with people? Why are they being such, well, dicks?

Resources for Teaching Online

My department (Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University), got together and did a little skillshare on teaching online. Or rather, we broke into groups, people did homework, and then reported back. The resulting document is our best attempt to produce something useful for ourselves. It still leaves open questions about office hours and other things, but it’s a start.

Extra credit to my colleague Darin Barney, who took the lead in organizing the whole thing.

Download it here and feel free to share widely.

Cancer, Covid, Masks, Risks, News

Another week another doctor visit. This time I actually wound up seeing my oncologist in person. First, the good news: my tumour marker remains very low, so low that he told me it’s the lowest he’s ever seen with someone in lung mets. I am a very lucky person. I’m trying a new blood pressure drug.

Also, it has been over three weeks since I had diarrhea. I think I got lucky and got into a rhythm with eating, excreting, and Imodium, and now if I take 2 Imodium at the right time, I can get through the day without discomfort. I’ve had a couple bad days with cramps and all the rest, but at least I’m not getting super dehydrated on top of it.

So it turns out that my in-person doctor meeting was sort of by accident because the College of Physicians issued confusing instructions this week. But we are sort of in that phase. Quebec numbers are down, hospitals aren’t overrun with Covid cases, and restrictions are loosening…a bit.

And yet, I can’t help resenting people who are not wearing masks indoors or not wearing them well. Almost everybody at the Jewish had one on (certainly all the professionals) but a surprising number of people pulled out their noses, wearing them “feedbag style,” to borrow a phrase. There’s still a pandemic on. Everyone’s waiting for a magic bullet, but this is one thing we can do that reduces transmission (along with staying apart). The New York Times had a typically moralistic headline this morning, “Not Wearing a Mask is Like Driving Drunk.” I couldn’t bear to read the piece, but I understand the sentiment. I look at someone indoors without a mask and it feels like they are telling me, personally, to fuck off. It feels like an act of aggression, or at least coercive. Are they asserting their rights to public space over mine? Are they daring me to say something?

But of course it’s not about me at all, which is part of the problem. It’s people thinking about themselves, and doing so in the most ideological way possible: “I am an exception”; “the rules don’t apply to me;” “I am willing to accept this risk for myself and it’s an individual decision.”

The doctor and I also had a long conversation about various activities and risk, with me asking him about various scenarios. We can expand our socializing a bit from what we are doing now without worrying too much. At the same time, it’s going to involve frank conversations with people. Carrie and I were joking that it’s going to turn our social life into a parody of S&M, complete with boundaries and safe words–“I’m comfortable doing this, but not this.”

But, alas, no indoor singing with people not in our household, at least not yet….

Diminished Faculties Work Update

I said that I would get the revised manuscript done by July 1st. July 1st is next week.

That is not going happen. Let’s say August 1st.

I am behind. The reasons are not interesting; everybody is behind and I’m less behind than lots of others. I don’t actually care that I’m behind other than wanting the satisfaction that comes with sending it back out.

Here’s some stuff that has happened since my April post:

Two chapters have split like amoebae. So they are now four, which will make them more readable.

Wormholes have been thoroughly explored regarding Levinas, earplugs, sublimity, and a few other topics.

My desk is a hideous mess and needs to be cleaned.

I got stuck in fatigue, but after temporarily abandoning it, I think I am ready to return to it this week and see if I can get it where it needs to be.

Two other chapters require some rewriting but the rethinking has happened. I am excited to get into those.

I have mapped out the requested conclusion in the form of a user’s manual for impairment theory, complete with legal disclaimers and instructions for disposal. I am essentially writing it as a mad lib.

So August 1st. My 50th birthday is a few days later so the timing would be ideal.

Recording Your Lectures 2: the one thing you can do to improve your recording experience

Tl;dr: record in segments of 5-10 minutes. Never record a full class’ worth of material in a single take.

That’s the short version, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Slightly longer summary:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.


In the first instalment of this series, I focused on modifying your recording space as the most important factor in improving the sound of your lectures. In this instalment, I focus on how you will spend your time recording them. How very Cartesian of me.

(the next instalment will discuss addressing your students and performance factors)

People prepare differently for lecture courses when they are in a classroom. Some lecture from a script, some work from notes, some build an elaborate lesson plan. Some build it all into a slide ware presentation using PowerPoint or Keynote. I’ve been a “notes-with-quotes and stage directions” guy, so I walk into class with something like a chart of what I want to cover, but there is lots of room for spontaneity.

Think in terms of adding components together, rather than dividing up your time: However you prepare, once you’re in the classroom, it’s a block of time that is subdivided. You experience it that way, and your students more or less experience it that way (just add some boredom and distraction into the mix).

For an online class, you need to think in terms of addition rather than division. It’s not that you are dividing, e.g., 80 minutes into small units, it is that you are making smaller units that add up to 80 minutes. The pedagogy people will tell you students’ attention spans wane when they have to just sit through 80 minutes of you talking, but I am concerned about you, the teacher, in this episode.

What happens if you make a big mistake 40 minutes into recording an 80 minute lecture?

In a live setting, you’d correct yourself and move on. But perhaps because it’s recorded you are now more self conscious. Now you have a dilemma: you either learn how to edit audio (a nice skill to have but in the context of all you have to do for the fall, it’s Just One More Damn Thing), or you live with it.

By building up lecture from 5-10 minute units you reduce the need to edit and audition your recordings after the fact. Think in terms of topics or ideas or examples you want to cover. Or just stop every 5-10 minutes. It also allows you to course-correct if you, like me, do not work from a script and may realize you need to explain something else in advance of what you are discussing. Now, you no longer have to record your lecture for class in the order your students will hear it.

If you are recording audio into PowerPoint, this is super easy, since you just record the audio that does with a slide. If you don’t like the audio, you redo it, but you avoid having to re-do the whole lecture.

Building up lectures also lets you work in other activities the students can do for the class meeting. In a classroom setting, I pause every 10 minutes, give or take, to ask a question, solicit feedback, or do something else like look at an image or show a clip. This is also highly recommended for online learning, though it is more fiddly.

Finally, lectures in small chunks, if they are well-labelled, means that students can find the part they need more easily when it is time to review. This saves you the trouble of marking up a longer lecture for students, or them digging through it to get the bit of information they need.

Assessing your audio recordings: I’ve heard it said that Zoom meetings are like having meetings in front of a mirror: you are constantly looking at yourself. Recording your voice is in a sense worse because you are not used to hearing yourself speak, and our heads remediate the sound of our voices, so our voices sound different to us than to anybody else. The good news: you have gotten this far in your career not listening to your lectures. You probably shouldn’t start now. Yes, you should spot-check each recording for sound (just skip around to a couple spots). You are simply making sure it is intelligible. Don’t listen to the whole thing. It’s true you might miss a problem, but if there is a huge problem, students will tell you, and that’s ok–just like in a live classroom setting.

For whether the recording is good enough, ask yourself if it is roughly of the quality of a lecture you would give in a classroom. You can stop and start, hem and haw, stumble to find the right words, have odd timing. There can be weird background noises from time to time so long as you are clear. Students hear that sort of thing all the time in a classroom. For years I lectured over the racket of 200 people typing on their laptops. People coughed, farted, munched, sipped, stirred, shifted, sneezed, and shuffled over one another. A phone would go off now and then. That’s what an undergrad lecture course is like.

You will get better at it as the semester goes along, but you are used to hearing polished audio from radio or live performance. Your goal right now is not a perfect radio show; it’s a usable, easy-to-understand lecture. Focus on that.

To recap, this is how I would recommend doing it:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.

These first two instalments are all you really need to get going on recording audio for your students. But I will add additional posts on performance and technical subjects for those who want to get deeper into it.

My third instalment on gear is here. You should skip it unless you’re really into this sort of thing.

My final instalment on performance is here. This is highly recommended.

Recording Your Lectures 1: the one thing your can do to improve your students’ listening experience

Hang a blanket, quilt, or something else that’s absorbent behind you while you make your lecture recordings.

That’s it.

A whole lot of people are going to be audio recording their university lectures in the fall, or delivering lectures live over Zoom. This series of tutorials will give you some easy steps to make them better.

Students are going to spend hours listening to recorded lectures. It’s going to be difficult for them. Some small improvements in sound will make a huge difference in their experience of your course.

The most important thing you can do for the sound of your lectures is to reduce the room echo that people will hear in your recordings.

After months of Zoom meetings, I can tell you that many people deliver lectures from echo-y spaces. The current fashion for sparse decoration, and hard wood floors means that sound bounces around the room a lot.

The problem with echo is this: If you record yourself with a lot of echo, your words are less clear. It’s like doing course readings from a bad photocopy with blurry font (#gradschoolflashback). If your students have trouble hearing you, they have to turn you up more, which also amplifies all the echo in your room, which means they have to turn you up even more. Pretty soon they are blasting their ears. Now multiply that by 5 classes by 160 minutes a week. Brutal.

The solution: Luckily, this is easy and low tech to fix. You do not need fancy room treatment (unless you are a nerd like me and doing other audio recording).

You just need something behind you that absorbs sound. One inexpensive solution is a moving blanket or thick quilt. A Canadian Tire moving blanket will set you back about $20 (Canadian). You will want to hang this a couple feet behind you, about a bit higher than your head while sitting in the position where you will record. Anything can be used to hang it: a clothes rack will work just fine. Just make sure it’s hanging behind you and the mic.

Why this helps: Reverb comes from sound reflecting around a room. Your microphone tends to pick up sound coming from behind you.* By having something to absorb the sound, you get less echo in your mic, which is then less amplified by the software, which makes your words clearer, which means that students don’t have to work as hard to hear you, which makes your lectures easier to understand.

But this isn’t a perfect solution. This will not get you perfect acoustics, but it will greatly improve the sound your students hear. You can move the blanket around and position yourself as you like and try different approaches. It is worth messing around a bit to find a sound you like for your voice. Then just do it every time and forget about it.

Bonus round: If sound absorption is the goal, and fabric absorbs a lot of sound, should I record in a closet where all my clothes are hanging? Ask yourself if you want to record a semester’s worth of lectures from inside a closet. I believe the answer is a hard no.

An alternative solution: Some kinds of microphones pick up less room sound. These are particularly good for voice recording (and are often used in radio). If you use one, room sound is less important. The mics in laptops are just fine for recording your voice, but they do tend to get a lot of room sound because of how they operate. I will cover this in my microphones tutorial.

The second instalment tells you to record in shorter segments and not obsess over what you’ve recorded. This is the most important thing in terms of preserving your time and sanity.

You can skip the third post–don’t get hung up on the technical part of it unless you are really into that stuff.

The third instalment tells you what gear to buy if that quilt or blanket, your laptop, and your existing headphones aren’t enough (NB: do not listen or edit over bluetooth).

This final instalment deals with some of the points of performance and technique.  Once you have the moving blanket or quilt hanging up behind you, you can skip to this instalment with not much trouble.

*not true for all microphones, but that will be covered in a later microphone post