A lot of what Leonhardt said in ‘Not Good for Learning’ is just wrong

I usually agree with David Leonhardt’s analysis in his New York Times newsletter “The Morning” because I think he does a good job of pointing out how both the left and the right have certain beliefs about issues– Covid in particular for the last couple years, of course– that are sometimes at odds with the evidence. But I have to say that this morning’s newsletter and the section “Not Good For Learning” ticks me off.

While just about every K-12 school went online when Covid first hit in spring 2020, a lot of schools/districts resumed in-person classes in fall 2020, and a lot did not. Leonhardt said:

These differences created a huge experiment, testing how well remote learning worked during the pandemic. Academic researchers have since been studying the subject, and they have come to a consistent conclusion: Remote learning was a failure.

Now, perhaps I’m overreacting to this passage because of my research about teaching online at the college-level, but the key issue here is he’s talking about K-12 schools that had never done anything close to online/remote instruction ever before. He is not talking about post-secondary education at all, which is where the bulk of remote learning has worked just fine for 125+ years. Maybe that’s a distinction that most readers will understand anyway, but I kind of doubt it, and not bringing that up at all is inaccurate and just sloppy.

Obviously, remote learning in the vast majority of K-12 schools went poorly during Covid and in completely predictable ways. Few of these teachers had any experience or training to teach online, and few of these school districts had the kinds of technologies and tools (like Canvas and Blackboard and other LMSes) to support these courses. This has been a challenge at the college level too, but besides the fact that I think a lot more college teachers at various levels and various types of institutions have had at least some prior to Covid experience teaching online and most colleges and university have more tech support, a lot (most?) college teachers were already making use of an LMS tool and using a lot more electronic tools for essays and tests (as opposed to paper) in their classes.

The students are also obviously different. When students in college take classes online, it’s a given that they will have the basic technology of a laptop and easy access to the internet. It’s also fairly clear from the research (and I’ve seen this in my own experiences teaching online) that the students who do best in these formats are more mature and more self-disciplined. Prior to Covid, online courses were primarily for “non-traditional” students who were typically older, out in the workforce, and with responsibilities like caring for children or others, paying a mortgage, and so forth. These students, who are typically juniors/seniors or grad students, have been going to college for a while, they understand the expectations of a college class, and (at least the students who are most successful) have what I guess I’d describe as the “adulting” skills to succeed in the format. I didn’t have a lot of first and second year students in online classes before Covid, but a lot of the ones I did have during the pandemic really struggled with these things. Oh sure, I did have some unusually mature and “together” first year students who did just fine, but a lot of the students we have at EMU at this level started college underprepared for the expectations, and adding on the additional challenge of the online format was too much.

So it is not even a teeny-weeny surprise that a lot of teenagers/secondary students– many of whom were struggling to learn and succeed in traditional classrooms– did not succeed in hastily thrown together and poorly supported online courses, and do not even get me started on the idea of grade school kids being forced to sit through hours of Zoom calls. I mean honestly, I think these students probably would have done better if teachers had just sent home worksheets and workbooks and other materials to the kids and the parents to study on their own.

I think a different (and perhaps more accurate) way to study the effectiveness of remote learning would be to look at what some K-12 schools were doing before Covid. Lots and lots of kids and their parents use synch and asynch technology to supplement home schooling, and programs like the Michigan Online School have been around for a while now. Obviously, home schooling or online schooling is not right for everyone, but these programs are also not “failures.”

Leonhardt goes on to argue that more schools that serve poor students and/or non-white students went remote for longer than schools. Leonhardt claims there were two reasons for this:

Why? Many of these schools are in major cities, which tend to be run by Democratic officials, and Republicans were generally quicker to reopen schools. High-poverty schools are also more likely to have unionized teachers, and some unions lobbied for remote schooling.

Second, low-income students tended to fare even worse when schools went remote. They may not have had reliable internet access, a quiet room in which to work or a parent who could take time off from work to help solve problems.

First off, what Leonhardt seems to forget that Covid was most serious in “the major cities” in this country, and also among populations that were non-white and that were poor. So of course school closings were more frequent in these areas because of Covid.

Second, while it is quite easy to complain about the teacher unions, let us all remember it was not nearly as clear in Fall 2020 as Leonhardt is implying that the risks of Covid in the schools were small. It did turn out that those settings weren’t as risky as we thought, but at the same time, that “not as risky” analysis primarily applies to students. A lot of teachers got sick and a few died. I wrote about some of this back in February here. I get the idea that most people who were demanding their K-12 schools open immediately only had their kids in mind (though a lot of these parents were also the same ones adamant against mask and vaccine mandates), and if I had a kid still in school, I might feel the same way. But most people (and I’d put Leonhardt in this camp in this article) didn’t think for a second about the employees, and at the end of the day, working in a public school setting is not like being in the ministry or some other job where we expect people to make huge personal sacrifices for others. Being a teacher is a white collar job. Teachers love to teach, sure, but we shouldn’t expect them to put their own health and lives at any level of risk–even if it’s small– just because a lot of parents haven’t sorted out their childcare situations.

Third, the idea that low-income students fared worse in remote classes (and I agree, they certainly did) is bad, but that has nothing to do with why they spent more time online in the first place. That just doesn’t make sense.

Leonhardt goes on:

In places where schools reopened that summer and fall, the spread of Covid was not noticeably worse than in places where schools remained closed. Schools also reopened in parts of Europe without seeming to spark outbreaks.

I wrote about back in February: these schools didn’t reopen because they never closed! They tried the best they could and often failed, but as far as I can tell, no K-12 school in this country, public or private, just closed and told folks “we’ll reopen after Covid is over.” Second, most of the places where public schools (and universities as well) that went back to at least some f2f instruction in Fall 2020 were in parts of the country where being outside and/or leaving the windows open to classrooms is a lot easier than in Michigan, and/or most of these schools had the resources to do things like create smaller classes for social distancing, to install ventilation equipment, and so forth.

Third– and I cannot believe Leonhardt doesn’t mention this because I know this is an issue he has written about in the past– the comparison to what went on with schools in Europe is completely bogus. In places like Germany and France, they put a much much higher priority on opening schools– especially as compared to things like restaurants and bars and other places where Covid likes to spread. So they kept those kinds of places closed longer so the chances of a Covid outbreak in the schools was smaller. Plus Europeans are much MUCH smarter about things like mask and vaccine mandates too.

No, the pandemic was not good for learning, but it was not good for anything else, either. It wasn’t good for our work/life balances, our mental health, a lot of our household incomes, on and on and on. We have all suffered mightily for it, and I am certain that as educators of all stripes study and reflect on the last year and a half, we’ll all learn a lot about what worked and what didn’t. But after two years of trying their fucking best to do the right things, there is no reason to through K-12 teachers under the bus now.

Country White Bread Made with Poolish

The other day, I baked some bread that turned out exceptionally well and I posted a couple of pictures on Instagram (and that also showed up on Facebook):

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Steve Krause (@stevendkrause)

My friend Lisa asked about a recipe, and since I haven’t written/blogged about anything like that for a while, I thought I would procrastinate a bit (okay, procrastinate a lot) and write this.

Back in 2017, I wrote in some detail about my bread making ways as directed/guided by Ken Forkish’s excellent book Flour Water Salt Yeast. Sure, I have read other things about baking bread and have followed other recipes, but this is what I always go back to. It’s an extraordinarily detailed and well-written book, and considering the fact that the recipes in this book are all just variations of the same ingredients (thus the title) with slightly different techniques, I think that’s quite the accomplishment. And apparently, he has a new book coming out too.

I had been making mostly natural levain (aka sourdough) breads the last two or three years, but besides taking a few days to revive the starter and proofing, my results lately have been inconsistent and not great. Maybe I need to make some new starter. So I went back to Forkish’s book and gave the poolish recipe another try.

First things first (and this is stuff I kind of cover in the post from a few years ago):

  • This recipe makes two French “boule” style loaves of bread: round, ball-shaped loaves that are very crusty and the sort of thing that’s great for hearty sandwiches, toast, or just eating by the slice when it’s still warm. It’s not like baguette (though you can use this dough to make baguette, but that’s a different thing),and definitely not like soft sliced grocery story bread.
  • This isn’t rocket science, and if you follow the recipe closely, it will probably turn out well even if you don’t do a lot of baking. There are a lot of details here both because I had a lot of procrastinating to do, and also because I wanted to describe the steps in as much detail as possible. That said, this does take a bit of practice and your results might not be that great right out of the gate. Just keep trying.
  • The measurements matter, both in terms of ingredients but also in terms of temperatures and time. I can never get it perfect (the original recipe calls for .4 grams of yeast for the poolish, for example), but you want to get as close as you can and actually measure things. And as a tangent: that’s basically the difference between “cooking” and “baking,” as far as I can tell.
  • This does require some special equipment.
    • At a minimum, you need a kitchen scale and at least one four or five quart cast iron Dutch oven that can go into the oven at 475 degrees– so not one with a plastic knob on the top. I think the kitchen scale I’ve got cost me $10 or $20 and I use it all the time, so a very worthwhile investment. I have a fancy enameled Dutch oven I use for stews and soups and stuff, but for baking bread, I use the much less expensive, cast iron models you can get for around $50 at a hardware store (and those work just as well for stews and soups and stuff as well). Everyone who cooks regularly should have both of these things anyway. I bake bread at least once a month (and usually more), so I have two of the cast iron Dutch ovens– and as you will see with the steps below, if you bake a lot, using two instead of just one Dutch oven helps speed things up A LOT.
    • It’s helpful to have a couple of large food storage containers, too; here’s a link to what I’ve got on amazon, though I bought mine at the local Gordon Food Service store. You can just use a couple of really big bowls and some plastic wrap to cover them, but besides being  great for baking, these containers are also useful for things like brining a chicken or a turkey.
    • While not essential (and probably not something you want to spend the money on unless you want to regularly bake bread like this), a couple of wicker proofing baskets. Besides helping to create the cool texture of the finished bread, they also allow the dough to proof properly– and it’s what professional bakers use. Here’s a link to the kind of ones I have (also on amazon); I’d recommend just getting the baskets and none of the other baking doodads like a “lame” (which a French knife used to score the bread– I just use a razor blade or a sharp knife) or weird pattern molds or anything else.
    • Finally (and also all stuff in the category of you probably already have these things if you cook at all regularly), a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients (or large food storage containers), two medium-sized bowls lined with clean tea towels for proofing each loaf (or the proofing baskets), a dough knife/board scraper, a razor blade or very sharp knife, an instant read thermometer to measure the water temperature and some very heavy-duty oven mitt or grill gloves (which is what I use) to handle the smoking hot Dutch ovens, and a cooling rack for the finished bread. Oh, also: two plastic shopping bags, or a couple of small plastic garbage bags.

Okay, with all that out of the way:

Ingredients:

For the poolish:

  • 450 grams white flour
  • 50 grams whole wheat flour
  • 1/8th teaspoon of instant dried yeast
  • 500 grams of water (a bit warm, at about 80 degrees or so)

For the final dough:

  • 450 grams white flour
  • 50 grams wheat flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon of instant dried yeast
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
  • 250 grams of water (quite warm, at about 105 degrees)

Steps:

  • You want to start with high quality flour. My go-to is King Arthur, though I also sometimes splurge on some kind of artisanal, stone-ground, small batch flours once in a while too. You can also make this with all white flour or try adding more wheat or maybe a little rye flour, but be careful about using too high of a ratio of not white flour because it can throw things off in terms of amount of water, yeast, time, etc.
  • At about 6 pm and the evening before you plan to finish and bake the bread, make the poolish. In a 6 quart tub (or a very large bowl), whisk together the flours and the yeast, and then mix in 500 grams (by weight, though volume is the same) of somewhat warm (80 degrees) water. Mix thoroughly so there are no pockets of dry flour left at all. Snap on the lid or cover snuggly in plastic wrap, and leave it out on the kitchen counter overnight.
  • At about 8 am the next morning, start to make the final dough. You have a little bit of “wiggle room” on when to start this step– a bit earlier, a bit later, etc.– but you don’t want to start much earlier than 12 hours after you started making the poolish, and not much later than about 14 hours.
  • In another larger bowl (or a 12 quart tub), whisk together the final dough flour, yeast, and salt until well-combined.
  • Measure out 250 grams of very warm/bordering on hot water, around 105 degrees. Uncover your poolish, which by now should be quite bubbly and tripled in size. Carefully pour the water around the edges of the poolish to loosen it from the container, and then poor the whole thing into the larger container where you mixed the other dry ingredients.
  • Mix this dough thoroughly. Now, Forkish goes into surprising detail about “the best” method for doing this by hand with large pinching motions, but I honestly don’t usually want to get my hands that goopy with the dough. So I just use a big metal spoon I like that keeps my hands a bit cleaner and that gets at all the dry flour bits out of the corner of the container. Mix this so there are no dry parts left and cover it back up.
  • This first proofing/resting lasts about 2 hours, though you do need to fold the dough at least twice. Again, Forkish goes into a lot of detail about what “folding” means, but what I do is lightly flour my hands and then scoop underneath the dough, folding it back over onto itself. I go all around the tub so that I’m folding/turning over the whole mess of dough so what was on the bottom is on the top. I try to do this the first time after it’s proofing/resting for about 30-45 minutes and then the second time about another 45 minutes later. After 2 or 3 hours, the dough should be more than doubled in size.
  • Next, it’s time to make the loaves. You’ll want to start this at about 10 or 10:30 am; again, there’s some wiggle room here, but it should be ready in about 2 hours and you don’t want to wait longer than 3 hours. You’ll need about 2 feet of cleared off and squeaky-clean counter space to deal with the dough; once you have that, spread a light dusting of flour onto the counter. If you don’t have wicker bread baskets, you’ll need two bowls that are each about 8 or 9 inches wide and a couple of clean tea towels. Set up your bowls/baskets first by liberally flouring the inside of them. This helps the dough to not stick, and it also gives that cool color/texture to the finished bread. Set the bowls/baskets nearby.
  • Take the lid off of the now proofed dough, flour your hands, and dump the dough out of the container and on to the floured work surface. You don’t want to add too much more flour to the dough, but you also don’t want to make it into loaves while it’s sticky. So what I tend to do is flatten the dough out into roughly a rectangle shape, add a little more flour to the top of the dough, flip it all over, and flatten it out again. You don’t really have to knead the dough much, but you do want to work it so you squeeze out some of the bigger air bubbles that will have developed.
  • Using a dough knife/bench scraper, divide the flattened out dough in half. You don’t need to obsess over it or anything, but you want to shoot for more or less equal halves. Bring the corners of each half of dough up together and form the dough into a tight ball and smooth ball. Put the rougher side/seam side of the ball in the bottom of the basket/bowl.
  • Put each basket/bowl inside a large plastic bag, making sure that the opening of the bag is bunched up/closed at the bottom. The best thing for this are the sort of plastic shopping bags you get from the drugstore or grocery store, though a (obviously clean and never used) small garbage bag works as well. These loaves will be ready for baking in about an hour.
  • Right after you bag up your bread for the final proof, put your Dutch oven(s) on the middle rack of the oven and pre-heat it to 475 degrees. You want to have the lids on too because you are preheating both the larger oven and the smaller, baking Dutch oven(s).
  • If you only have one Dutch oven, you’ll have to bake in stages. So after about 40 minutes of the oven pre-heating and the loaves sitting out on the counter for their final rise, put one of your proofing loaves into the refrigerator, still contained in that plastic bag. You’ll take it out of the fridge again after the first loaf bakes. Of course, if you have two Dutch ovens, you can bake both loaves at the same time.
  • Either way, about an hour to 90 minutes after you divided the bread up into two loaves and after the oven has been preheating with one or two Dutch ovens for at least 30 minutes and after it is indeed at 475, you’re ready to bake. This step moves kind of quickly and can be a little nerve-racking because the dough can be a little tricky to handle, and of course, the pots you’re going to cook this in are dangerously hot. But here’s what I do:
    • Put on this grill gloves or heavy-duty oven mitts, take the Dutch Oven(s) out of the oven, place them on top of the stove, and remove the lids. Take off the grill gloves.
    • Turning to the bread, take them out of their plastic bags and carefully invert the dough on to the floured counter. Using either a single razor blade or a very sharp knife, make a few scoring cuts on the top of the loaf. You can get super fancy with this or you can skip this step entirely, but I like to make two or three gashes in the top because it helps release some steam and it looks cool at the end.
    • With floured and otherwise bare hands, carefully scoop under the dough to pick up the entire loaf and then gently lower it into the waiting and ripping hot Dutch oven. Now, three important things to note. First, the dough at this point can be kind of tricky to pick up; it’s sort of like handling a half-pound blob of jello, so you kind of have to get your fingers under the loaf and cup it with your hands. Second, that pot is super-duper hot so be careful to lower the dough into the pot while not touching the pot with your bare hands! Third, don’t worry too much if the dough ends up being kind of uneven or whatever when you put it into the Dutch oven(s) because as long as it is proofed properly, it will still bake fine.
    • Put those grill gloves or oven mitts back on, put on the lid(s), and put the Dutch oven(s) back into the oven at 475. Don’t peek! Keeping the Dutch oven(s) closed for this first 30 minutes is key to a crunchy crust, and also it is what enables the “oven spring” that will cause the bread to rise and round-out further, and, unless you really fumble getting the bread into the Dutch oven(s) (it happens), this is also what will “round out” (so to speak) the shape of your loaf.
  • Bake for 30 minutes– again, no looking and no opening the oven, either.
  • After 30 minutes, get out those grill gloves/oven mitts again, open the oven, take off the lids and briefly admire your now lovely but not quite browned bread, and close up the oven again. Set up a cooling rack on the counter.
  • Reduce the heat to 450 and continue baking for about 30 more minutes without the lids, checking it again after about 20 minutes to make sure it’s not getting too dark on top. How dark (burnt?) is too dark/too much is probably a matter of personal tastes, but I’d encourage you to let it get really dark brown even to the point of a few burnt-looking spots for the best crusty flavor. If it looks like it is getting just too dark too quickly, you can always turn the oven off and let the bread continue to bake, or, after about 20 minutes, take the Dutch oven(s) out of the oven and leave it on top of the stove to bake through for another 10 minutes.
  • For one last time, put on those grill gloves/oven mitts and tip your now complete bread onto the cooling rack. The best (and most satisfying) sign that you have succeeded in making a lovely and crusty bread is the cracking sound it makes as cools.
  • Leave the bread alone at least an hour before you cut into it! This is a “discussion” I have with my wife all the time who always wants to cut immediately into the steaming hot bread. I understand that, but the bread is still basically baking as it cools, and if you cut into it too early and while it’s still really hot, you’ll release a ton of heat and steam and the inside of the bread (the “crumb”) will be more sticky than ideal. It’s hard to resist, but it’s worth it.

 

Online Teaching and ‘The New Normal’: A Survey of Faculty in the Midst of an Unprecedented ‘Natural Experiment’ (or, my presentation for CWCON2022)

This blog entry/page is my online/on demand presentation for the 2022 Computers and Writing Conference at East Carolina University.

I’m disappointed that I’m not at this year’s Computers and Writing Conference in person. I haven’t been to C&W since 2018 and of course there was no conference in 2020 or 2021. So after the CCCCs prematurely pulled the plug on the face to face conference a few months ago, I was looking forward to the road trip to Greenville. Alas, my own schedule conflicts and life means that I’ll have to participate in the online/on-demand format this time around. I don’t know if that means anyone (other than me) will actually read this, so as much as anything else, this presentation/blog post– which is too long, full of not completely substantiated/documented claims, speculative, fuzzy, and so forth– is a bit of note taking and freewriting meant mostly for myself as I think about how to present this research in future articles, maybe even a book. If a few conference goers and my own blog readers find this interesting, all the better.

Because of the nature of these on-demand/online presentations generally and also because of the perhaps too long/freewriting feel of what I’m getting at here, let me start with a few “to long, didn’t read” bullet points. I’m not even going to write anything else here to explain this, but it might help you decide if it’s worth continuing to read. (Hopefully it is…)

The research I’m continuing is a project I have been calling “Online Teaching and ‘The New Normal,’” which I started in early fall 2020. Back then, I wrote a brief article and was an invited speaker at an online conference held by a group in Belgium– this after someone there saw a post I had written about Zoom on my blog, which is one of the reasons why I keep blogging after all these years. I gave a presentation (that got shuffled away into the “on demand” format) at the most recent CCCCs where I introduced some of my broad assumptions about teaching online, especially about the affordances of asynchronously versus synchronously, and where I offered a few highlights of the survey results. I also wrote an article-slash-website for Computers and Composition Online which goes into much more detail about the results of the survey. That piece is in progress, though it will be available soon. If you have the time and/or interest, I’d encourage you to check out the links to those pieces as well.

I started this project in early fall 2020 for two reasons. First, there was the “natural experiment” created by Covid. Numerous studies have claimed online courses can be just as effective as face to face courses, but one of the main criticisms of these studies is the problem of self selection: that is, because students and teachers engage in the format voluntarily, it’s not possible to have subjects randomly assigned to either a face to face course or an online course, and that kind of randomized study is the gold standard in the social sciences. The natural experiment of Covid enabled a version of that study because millions of college students and instructors had no choice but to take and teach their classes online. 

Second, I was surprised by the large number of my colleagues around the country who said on social media and other platforms that they were going to teach their online classes synchronously via a platform like Zoom rather than asynchronously. I thought this choice– made by at least 60% of college faculty across the board during the 2020-21 school year– was weird. 

Based both on my own experiences teaching some of my classes online since 2005 and the modest amount of research comparing synchronous and asynchronous modes for online courses, I think that asynchronous online courses are probably more effective than synchronous online courses. But that’s kind of beside the point, actually. The main reason why at least 90% of online courses prior to Covid were taught asynchronously is scheduling and the imperative of providing access. Prior to Covid, the primary audience for online courses and programs were non-traditional students. Ever since the days of correspondence courses, the goal of distance ed has been to help “distanced” students– that is, people who live far away from the brick and mortar campus– but also people who are past the traditional undergraduate age, who have “adult” obligations like mortgages and dependents and careers, and  people who are returning to college either to finish the degree they started some years before, or to retool and retrain after having finished a degree earlier. Asynchronous online courses are much easier to fit into busy and changing life-slash-work schedules than synchronous courses– either online ones of f2f. Sure, traditional and on-campus students often take asynchronous courses for similar scheduling reasons, but again and prior to Covid, non-traditional students were the primary audience for online courses. In fact, most institutions that primarily serve traditional students– that is, 18-22 year olds right out of high school who live on or near campus and who attend college full-time (and perhaps work part-time to pay some of the bills)– did not offer many online courses, nor was there much of a demand for online courses from students at these institutions. I’ll come back to this point later.

I conducted my IRB approved survey from December 2020 to June 2021. The survey was limited to college level instructors in the U.S. who taught at least one class completely online (that is, not in some hybrid format that included f2f instruction) during the 2020-21 school year. Using a very crude snowball sampling method, I distributed the survey via social media and urged participants to share the survey with others. I had 104 participants complete this survey, and while I was hoping to recruit participants from a wide variety of disciplines, most were from a discipline related to English studies. This survey was also my tool for recruiting interview subjects: the last question of the survey asked if participants would be interested in a follow-up interview, and 75 indicated that they would be.

One of the findings from the survey that I discussed in my CCCCs talk was that those survey participants who had no previous experience teaching online were over three times more likely to have elected to teach their online classes synchronously during Covid than those who had had previous teaching experience. As this pie chart shows, almost two-thirds of faculty with no prior experience teaching online elected to teach synchronously and only about 12% of survey participants who had no previous experience teaching online elected to teach asynchronously.

In contrast, about a third of faculty who had had previous online experience elected to teach online asynchronously and less than 18% decided to teach online synchronously. Interestingly, the amount of previous experience with teaching online didn’t seem to make much difference– that is, those who said that prior to covid they had taught over 20 sections online were about as likely to have taught asynchronously or to use both synchronous and asynchronous approaches as those who had only taught 1 to 5 sections online prior to the 2020-21 school year. 

For the forthcoming Computers and Composition Online article, I go into more detail about the results of the survey along with incorporating some of the initial impressions and feedback I’ve received from the surveys to date. 

But for the rest of this presentation, I’ll focus on the interviews I have been conducting. I started interviewing participants in January 2022, and these interviews are still in progress. Since this is the kind of conference where people do often care about the technical details: I’m using Zoom to record the interviews and then a software called Otter.ai to create a transcription. Otter.ai isn’t free– in fact, at $13 for the month to month and unlimited usage plan, it isn’t especially cheap– and there are of course other options for doing this. But this is the best and easiest approach I’ve found so far. Most of the interviews I’ve conducted so far run between 45 and 90 minutes, and what’s amazing is Otter.ai can change the Zoom audio file into a transcript that’s about 85% correct in less than 15 minutes. Again, nerdy and technical details, but for changing audio recordings into mostly correct transcripts, I cannot say enough good things about it.

To date, I’ve conducted 24 interviews, and I am guessing that I will be able to conduct between 15 and 30 more, depending on how many of the folks who originally volunteered to be interviewed are still willing.

This means I already have about 240,000 words of transcripts, and I have to say I am at something of a loss as to what to “do” with all of this text in terms of coding, analysis, and the like. The sorts of advice and processes offered by books like Geisler’s and Swarts’ Coding Streams of Language and Saldaña’s The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers seems more fitting for analyzing sets of texts in different genres– say an archive for an organization that consists of a mix of memos, emails, newsletters, academic essays, reports, etc.– or of a collection of ethnographic observations. So for me, it doesn’t so much feel like I am collecting a lot of qualitative data meant to be coded and analyzed based on particular word choices or sentence structures or what-have-you, and more like good old-fashioned journalism. If I had been at this conference in person or if there was a more interactive component to this online presentation, this is something I would have wanted to talk more about with the kind of scholars and colleagues involved with computers and writing because I can certainly use some thoughts on how to handle my growing collection of interviews. In any event, my current focus– probably through the end of this summer– is to keep collecting the interviews from willing participants and to figure out what to do with all of this transcript data later. Perhaps that’s what I can talk about at the computers and writing conference at UC Davis next year.

But just to give a glimpse of what I’ve found so far, I thought I’d focus on answers to two of the dozen or so questions I have been sure to ask each interviewee:

  • Why did you decide to teach synchronously (or asynchronously)?
  • Knowing what you know now and after your experience teaching online during the 2020-21 school year, would you teach online again– voluntarily– and would you prefer to do it synchronously or asynchronously?

In my survey, participants had to answer a close-ended question to indicate if they were teaching online synchronously, asynchronously, or some classes synchronously and some asynchronously. There was no “other” option for supplying a different answer. This essentially divided survey participants into two groups because I counted those who were teaching in both formats as synchronous for the other questions on the survey. Also, I excluded from the survey faculty who were teaching with a mix of online and face to face modes because I wanted to keep this as simple as possible. But early on, the interviews made it clear that the mix of modes at most universities was far more complex. One interviewee said that prior to Covid, the choices faculty had for teaching (and the choices students saw in the catalog) was simply online or on campus. Beginning in Fall 2020 though, faculty could choose “fully online asynchronous, fully online synchronous, high flex synchronous, so (the instructor) is stand in the classroom and everyone else is in WebEx of Teams, and fully in the classroom and no option… you need to be in the classroom.” 

I was also surprised at the extent to which most of my interviewees reported that their institution provided faculty a great deal of autonomy in selecting the teaching mode that worked best for their circumstances. So far, I have only interviewed two or three people who said they had no choice but to teach in the mode assigned by the institution. A number of folks said that their institution strongly encouraged faculty to teach synchronously to replicate the f2f experience, but even under those circumstances, it seems most faculty had a fair amount of flexibility to teach in a mode that best fits into the rest of their life. As one person, a non-tenure-track but full time instructor said, “basically, the university said ‘we don’t care that much, especially if you’re… a parent and your kids aren’t going to school and you have to physically be home.’” This person’s impression was that while most of their colleagues were teaching synchronous courses with Zoom, there were “a lot of individual class sessions that were moved asynchronous, and maybe even a few classes that essentially went asynchronous.”

A number of interviewees mentioned that this level of flexibility offered to faculty from their institutions was unusual; one interviewee described the flexibility offered to faculty about their preferred teaching mode a “rare win” against the administration. After all, during the summer of 2020 and when a lot of the plans for going forward with the next school year were up in the air, there were a lot of rumors at my institution (and, judging from Facebook, other institutions as well) that individual faculty who wanted to continue to teach online in Fall of 2020 because of the risks of Covid were were going to have go through a process involving the Americans with Disabilities Act. So the fact that just about everyone I talked to was allowed to teach online and in the mode that they preferred was both surprising and refreshing.

As to why faculty elected to teach in one mode or the other: I think there were basically three reasons. First, as that quote I had above just mentioned, many faculty said concerns about how Covid was impacting their own home lives shaped the decision for either for teaching synchronously or asynchronously. Though again, most of my survey and interview subjects who hadn’t taught online before taught synchronously, and, not surprisingly, some of those interviewees told stories about how their pets, children, and other family members would become regular visitors in the class Zoom sessions. In any event, the risks and dangers of Covid– especially in Fall 2020 and early in 2021 when the data on the risks of transmission in f2f classrooms was unclear and before there was a vaccine– was of course the reason why so many of us were forced into online classes during the pandemic. And while it did indeed create a natural experiment for testing the effectiveness of online courses, I wonder if Covid ended up being such an enormous factor in all of our lives that it essentially skewed or trumped the experiences of teaching online. After all, it is kind of hard for teachers and students alike to reflect too carefully on the advantages and disadvantages of online learning when the issue dominating their lives was a virus that was sickening and killing millions of people and disrupting pretty much every aspect of modern society as we know it.

Second — and perhaps this is just obvious– people did what they already knew how to do, or they did what they thought would be the path of least resistance. Most faculty who decided to teach asynchronously had previous experience teaching asynchronously– or they were already teaching online asynchronously. As one interviewee put it, “Spring 2020, I taught all three classes online. And then COVID showed up, and I was already set up for that because, I was like ‘okay, I’m already teaching online,’ and I’m already teaching asynchronously, so…” That was the situation I was in when we first went into Covid lockdown in March 2020– though in my experience, that didn’t mean that Covid was a non-factor in those already online classes.

Most faculty who decided to teach synchronously– particularly those who had not taught online before– thought teaching synchronously via Zoom would require the least amount of work to adjust from the face to face format, though few interviewees said anything so direct. I spoke with one Communications professor who, just prior to Covid, was part of the launch of an online graduate program at her institution, so she had already spent some time thinking about and developing online courses. She also had previous online teaching experience from a previous position, but at her current institution, she said “I saw a lot of senior faculty”– and she was careful in explaining she meant faculty at her new institution who weren’t necessarily a lot older but who had not taught online previously– “try to take the classroom and put it online, and that doesn’t work. Because online is a different medium and it requires different teaching practices and approaches.” She went on to explain that her current institution sees itself as a “residential university” and the online graduate courses were “targeted towards veterans, working adults, that kind of thing.” 

I think what this interviewee was implying is it did not occur to her colleagues who decided to teach synchronously to do it any other way. As a different interviewee put it, inserting a lot of pauses along the way during our discussion, “I opted for the synchronous, just because… I thought it would be more… I don’t know, better suited to my own comfort levels, I suppose.” Though to be fair, this interviewee had previously taught online asynchronously (albeit some time ago), and he said “what I anticipated– wrongly I’ll add– that what doing it synchronously would allow me to do is set boundaries on it.” This is certainly a problem since teaching asynchronously can easily expand such that it feels like you’re teaching 24/7. There are ways to address those problems, but that’s a different presentation. 

Now, a lot of my interviewees altered their teaching modes as the online experience went on. Many– I might even go so far as saying the majority– of those who started out teaching 100% synchronously with Zoom and holding these classes for the same amount of time as they would a f2f version of the same class did make adjustments. A lot of my interviewees, particularly those who teach things like first year writing, shifted activities like peer review into asynchronous modes; others described the adjustments they made to being like a “flipped classroom” where the synchronous time was devoted to specific student questions and problems with the assigned work and the other materials (videos of lectures, readings, and so forth) were all shifted to asynchronous delivery. And for at least one interviewee, the experience of teaching synchronously drove her to all asynch:

“So, my first go around with online teaching was really what we call here remote teaching. It’s what everybody was kind of forced into, and I chose to do synchronous, I guess, because I didn’t, I hadn’t really thought about the differences. I did that for one quarter. And I realized, this is terrible. I, I don’t like this, but I can see the potential for a really awesome online course, so now I only teach asynchronous and I love it.”

The third reason for the choice between synchronous versus asynchronous is what I’d describe as “for the students,” though what that meant depends entirely on the type of students the interviewee was already working with. For example, here’s a quote from a faculty member who taught a large lecture class in communications at a regional university that puts a high priority on the residential experience for undergraduates:

“A lot of our students were asking for the synchronous class. I mean… when I look back at my student feedback, people that I literally wouldn’t know if they walked in the room because all I had (from them) was a black (Zoom) screen with their name on it, (these students said) ‘really enjoyed your enthusiasm, it made it easy to get out of bed every morning,’ you know, those kind of things. So I think they were wanting punctuation to just not an endless sea of due dates, but an actual event to go to.”

Of course, the faculty who had already been teaching online and were teaching asynchronously said something similar: that is, they explained that one of the reasons why they kept teaching asynchronously was because they had students all over the world and it was not possible to find a time where everyone could meet synchronously, that the students were working adults who needed the flexibility of the asynchronous format, and so forth. I did have an interviewee– one who was experienced at teaching online asynchronously– comment on the challenge students had in adjusting to what was for them a new format:

“What I found the following semester (that is, fall 2020 and after the emergency remote teaching of spring 2020) was I was getting a lot of students in my class who probably wouldn’t have picked online, or chosen it as a way of learning. This has continued. I’ve found that the students I’m getting now are not as comfortable online as the students I was getting before Covid…. It’s not that they’re not comfortable with technology…. But they’re not comfortable interacting in an online way, maybe especially in an asynchronous way… so I had some struggles with that last year that were really weird. I had the best class I’ve had online, probably ever. And the other (section) was absolutely the worst, but I run them with the same assignments and stuff.”

Let me turn to the second question I wanted to discuss here:  “Knowing what you know now and after your experience teaching online during the 2020-21 school year, would you teach online again– voluntarily– and would you prefer to do it synchronously or asynchronously?” It’s an interesting example of how the raw survey results become more nuanced as a result of both parsing those results a bit and conducting these interviews. Taken as a whole, about 58% of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “In the future and after the pandemic, I am interested in continuing to teach at least some of my courses online.” My sense– and it is mostly just a sense– that prior to Covid, a much smaller percentage of faculty would have any interest in online teaching. But clearly, Covid has changed some minds. As one interviewee said about talking to faculty new to online teaching at her institution: 

“A lot of them said, ‘you know,  this isn’t as onerous as I thought, this isn’t as challenging as I thought.’ There is one faculty member who started teaching college in 1975, so she’s been around for a while. And she picked it up and she’s like ‘You know, it took a little time to get used to everything, but I like it. I can do the same things, I can reach students and feel comfortable.’ And in some ways, that’s good because it will prolong some people’s careers. And in some ways, it’s not good because it will prolong some people’s careers. It’s a double-edged sword, right?”

My interviewee who I quoted earlier about making the switch from synchronous to asynchronous was certainly sold. She said that she was nearing a point in her career “where I thought I’m just gonna quit teaching and find another job, I don’t know, go back to trade school and become a plumber.” Now, she is an enthusiastic advocate of online courses at her institution, describing herself as a “convert.”

“I use that word intentionally. I gave a presentation to some graduate students in our teacher training class, I was invited as a guest speaker, and I had big emoji that said ‘hallelujah’ and there were doves, and I’m like this is literally me with online teaching. The scales have fallen from my eyes, I am reborn. I mean, I was raised Catholic so I’m probably relying too much on these religious metaphors, but that’s how it feels. It really feels like a rebirth as an instructor.”

Needless to say, not everyone is quite that enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching online again. This chart, which is part of the article I’m writing for Computers and Composition Online, indicates the different answers to this question based on previous experience. While almost 70% of faculty who had online teaching experience prior to Covid strongly agreed or agreed about teaching online again and after the pandemic, only about 40% of faculty with no online teaching experience prior to Covid felt the same way. If anything, I think this chart indicates mostly ambivalent feelings among folks new to online teaching during covid about teaching online again: while more positive than negative, it’s worth noting that most faculty who had no prior online teaching experience neither agreed nor disagreed about wanting to teach online in the future.

For example, here are a couple of responses that I think suggest that ambivalence: 

“Um, I would do it again… even though I would imagine a lot of students would say they didn’t have very positive experiences for all different kinds of reasons over the last two years, but now that we have integrated this kind of experience into our lives in a way that, you know, will evolve, but I don’t think it will go away…. I’d have to be motivated (to teach online again), you know, more than just do it for the heck of it. Like if I could just as well teach the class on campus, I still feel like face to face in person conversation is a better modality. I mean, maybe it will evolve and we’ll learn how to do this better.”

And this response:

“The synchronous teaching online is far more exhausting than in person synchronous teaching, and… I don’t think we cover as much material. So my tendency is to say for my current classes, I would be hesitant to teach them online at my institution, because of a whole bunch of different factors. So I would tend to be in the probably not category, if the pandemic was gone. If the pandemic is ongoing, then no, please let’s stay online.”

And finally this passage, which is also closer to where I personally am with a lot of this:

“If people know what they’re getting into, and their expectations are met, then asynchronous or synchronous online instruction, whether delivery or dialogic, it can work, so long as there is a set of shared expectations. And I think that was the hardest thing about the transition: people who did not want to do distance education on both sides, students and instructors.”

That issue of expectations is critical, and I don’t think it’s a point that a lot of people thought a lot about during the shift online. Again, this research is ongoing, and I feel like I am still in the note-taking/evidence-gathering phase, but I am beginning to think that this issue of expectations is really what’s critical here.

Ten or so years ago, when I would have discussions with colleagues skeptical about teaching online, the main barrier or learning curve issue for most seemed to be the technology itself. Nowadays, that no longer seems to be the problem for most. At my institution (and I think this is common at other colleges as well), almost all instructors now use the Learning Management System (for us, that’s Canvas) to manage the bureaucracy of assignments, grades, tests, collecting and distributing student work, and so forth. We all use the institution’s websites to handle turning in grades for our students and checking on employment things like benefits and paychecks. And of course we also all use the library’s websites and databases, not to mention Google. I wouldn’t want to suggest there is no technological learning curve at all, but that doesn’t seem to me to be the main problem faculty have had with teaching online during the 2020-21 school year.

Rather, I think the challenges have been more conceptual than that. I think a lot of faculty have a difficult time understanding how it is possible to teach a class where students aren’t all paying attention to them, the teacher, at the same time and instead they are participating in the class at different times and in different places, and not really paying attention to the teacher much at all. I think a lot of faculty– especially those new to online teaching– define the act of teaching as standing in front of a classroom and leading students through some activity or by lecturing to them, and of course, this is not how asynchronous courses work at all. So I would agree that the expectations of both students and teachers needs to better align with the mode of delivery for online courses to work, particularly asynchronous ones.

The other issue though is in the assumption about the kind of students we have at different institutions. When I first started this project, the idea of teaching an online class synchronously seemed crazy to me– and I still think asynchronous delivery does a better job of taking advantage of the affordances of the mode– but that was also because of the students I have been working with. Faculty who were used to working almost exclusively with traditional college students tended to put a high emphasis on replicating as best as possible the f2f college experience of classes scheduled and held at a specific time (and many did this at the urging of their institutions and of their students). Faculty like me who have been teaching online classes designed for nontraditional students for several years before Covid were actively trying to avoid replicating the f2f experience of synchronous classes. Those rigidly scheduled and synchronous courses are one of the barriers most of the students in my online courses are trying to circumvent so they could finish their college degrees while also working to support themselves and often a family. In effect, I think Covid revealed more of a difference between the needs and practices of these different types of students and how we as faculty try to reach them. Synchronous courses delivered via Zoom to traditional students were simply not the same kind of online course experience as the asynchronous courses delivered to nontraditional students.

Well, this has gone on for long enough, and if you actually got to this last slide after reading through all that came before, I thank you. Just to sum up and repeat my “too long, didn’t read” slide: 

I think the claims I make here about why faculty decided to teach synchronously or asynchronously during Covid are going to turn out to be consistent with some of the larger surveys and studies about the remarkable (in both terrible and good ways) 2020-21 school year now appearing in the scholarship. I think the experience most faculty had teaching online convinced many (but not all) of the skeptics that an online course can work as well as a f2f course– but only if the course is designed for the format and only if students and faculty understand the expectations and how the mode of an online class is different from a f2f class. In a sense, I think the “natural experiment” of online teaching during Covid suggests that there is some undeniable self-selection bias in terms of measuring the effectiveness of online delivery compared to f2f delivery. What remains to be seen is how significant that self-selection bias is. Is the bias so significant that online courses for those who do not prefer the mode are demonstrably worse than a similar f2f course experience? Or is the bias more along the lines to my own “bias” against taking or teaching a class at 8 am, or a class that meets on a Friday? I don’t know, but I suspect there will be more research emerging out of this time that attempts to dig into that.

Finally, I think what was the previous point of resistance for teaching online– the complexities of the technology– have largely disappeared as the tools have become easier to use and also as faculty and students have become more familiar with those tools in their traditional face to face courses. As a result of that, I suspect that we will continue to see more of a melding of synchronous and asynchronous tools in all courses, be they traditional and on-campus courses or non-traditional and distance education courses. 

 

 

My CCCCs 2022

Here’s a follow-up (of sorts) on my CCCCs 2022 experiences– minus the complaining, critiques, and ideas on how it could have been better. Oh, I have some thoughts, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone is particularly interested in those thoughts. So I’ll keep that to myself and instead focus on the good things, more or less.

When the CCCCs went online for 2022 and I was put in the “on demand” sessions, my travel plans changed. Instead of going to Chicago on my own to enjoy conferencing, my wife and I decided to rent a house on a place called Seabrook Island in South Carolina near Charleston. We both wanted to get out of Michigan to someplace at least kind of warm, and the timing on the rental and other things was such that we were on the road for all the live sessions, so I missed out on all of that. But I did take advantage of looking at some of the other on demand sessions to see what was there.

Now, I have never been a particularly devout conference attendee. Even at the beginning of my career attending that first CCCCs in 1995 in Washington, DC, when everything was new to me, I was not the kind of person who got up at dawn for the WPA breakfast or even for the 9 am keynote address, the kind of conference goer who would then attend panels until the end of the day. More typical for me is to go to about two or three other panels (besides my own, of course), depending on what’s interesting and, especially at this point of my life, depending on where it is. I usually spend the rest of the time basically hanging out. Had I actually gone to Chicago, I probably would have spent at least half a day doing tourist stuff, for example.

The other thing that has always been true about the CCCCs is even though there are probably over 1000 presentations, the theme of the conference and the chair who puts it together definitely shapes what folks end up presenting about. Sometimes that means there are fewer presentations that connect to my own interests in writing and technology– and as of late, that specifically has been about teaching online. That was the case this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think the theme(s) of identity, race, and gender invoked in the call are completely legitimate and important topics of concern, and I’m interested them both as a scholar and just as a human being. But at the same time, that’s not the “work” I do, if that makes sense.

That said, there’s always a bit of something for everyone. Plus the one (and only, IMO) advantage of the on demand format is the materials are still accessible through the CCCCs conference portal. So while enjoying some so-so weather in a beach house, I spent some time poking around the online program.

First off, for most of the links below to work, you have to be registered for and signed into the CCCCs portal, which is here:

https://app.forj.ai/en?t=/tradeshow/index&page=lobby&id=1639160915376

If you never registered for the conference at all, you won’t be able to access the sessions, though the program of on-demand sessions is available to anyone here. As I understand it, the portal will remain open/accessible for the month of March (though I’m not positive about that). Second, the search feature for the portal is… let’s just say “limited.” There’s no connection between the portal and the conference on-demand program, so you have to look through the program and then do a separate search of the portal opened in a different browser tab. The search engine doesn’t work at all if you include any punctuation, and for the most part, it only returns results when you enter in a few words and not an entire title. My experience has been it seems to work best if you enter in the first three words of the session title. Again, I’m not going to complain….

So obviously, the first thing I found/went to was my own panel:

OD-301 Researching Communication in Practice

There’s not much there. One of the risks of proposing an individual paper for the CCCCs rather than as part of a panel or round table discussion is how you get grouped with other individual submissions. Sometimes, this all ends up working out really well, and sometimes, it doesn’t. This was in the category of “doesn’t.” Plus it looks to me like three out of the other five other people on the program for this session essentially bailed out and didn’t post anything.

Of course, my presentation materials are all available here as Google documents, slides, and a YouTube video.

To find other things I was interested in, I did a search for the key terms “distance” (as in distance education– zero results) and “online,” which had 54 results. A lot of those sessions– a surprising amount to me, actually– involved online writing centers, both in terms of adopting to Covid but also in terms of shifting more work in writing centers to online spaces. Interesting, but not quite what I was looking for.

So these are the sessions I dug into a bit more and I’ll probably be going back to them in the next weeks as I keep working on my “online and the new normal” research:

OD-45 So that just happened…Where does OWI go from here?: Access, Enrollment, and Relevance

Really nice talk that sums up some of the history and talks in broad ways about some of the experiences of teaching online in Covid. Of course, I’m also always partial to presentations that agree with what I’m finding in my own research, and this talk definitely does that.

OD-211 Access and Community in Online Learning– specifically, Ashley Barry, University of New Hampshire, “Inequities in Digital Literacies and Innovations in Writing Pedagogies during COVID-19 Learning.”

Here’s a link to her video in the CCCCs site, and here’s a Google Slides link. At some point, I think I might have to send this PhD student at New Hampshire an email because it seems like Barry’s dissertation research is similar to what I am (kinda/sorta) trying to do with own research about teaching online during Covid. She is working with a team of researchers from across the disciplines on what is likely a more robust albeit local study than mine, but again, with some similar kind of conclusions.

OD-295 Prospects for Online Writing Instruction after the Pandemic Lockdown— specifically, Alexander Evans, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, “Only Out of Necessity: The Future of Online Developmental FirstYear Writing Courses in Post-Pandemic Society.”

Here’s a link to his video and his slides (which I think are accessible outside of the CCCCs portal). What I liked about Evans’ talk is it is coming from someone very new to teaching at the college level in general, new to community college work, and (I think) new to online teaching as well. A lot of this is about what I see as the wonkiness of what happens (as I think is not uncommon at a lot of community colleges for classes like developmental writing) where instructors more or less get handed a fully designed course and are told “teach this.” I would find that incredibly difficult, and part of Evans’ argument here is if his institution is really going to give people access to higher education, then they need to offer this class in an online format– and not just during the pandemic.

So that was pretty much my CCCCs experience for 2022. I’m not sure when (or if) I’ll be back.

 

 

CCCCs 2022 (part 1?)

Here is a link (bit.ly/krause4c22) to my “on demand” presentation materials for this year’s annual Conference for College Composition and Communication. It’s a “talk” called “When ‘You’ Cannot be ‘Here:’ What Shifting Teaching Online Teaches Us About Access, Diversity, Inclusion, and Opportunity.” As I wrote in the abstract/description of my session:

My presentation is about a research project I began during the 2020-21 school year titled “Online Teaching and the ‘New Normal.” After discussing broadly some assumptions about online teaching, I discuss my survey of instructors teaching online during Covid, particularly the choice to teach synchronously versus asynchronously. I end by returning to the question of my subtitle.

I am saying this is “part 1?” because I might or might not write a recap post about the whole experience. On the one hand, I have a lot of thoughts about how this is going so far, how the online experience could have been better. On the other hand (and I’ve already learned this directly and indirectly on social media), the folks at NCTE generally seem pretty stressed out and overwhelmed and everything else, and it kind of feels like any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise, will be taken as piling on. I don’t want to do that.

I’m also not sure there will be a part 2 because I’m not sure how much conferencing I’ll actually be able to do. When the conference went all online, my travel plans changed. Now I’m going to be be on the road during most of live or previously recorded sessions, so most of my engagement will have to to be in the on demand space. Though hopefully, there will be some recordings of events available for a while, things like Anita Hill’s keynote speech.

The thing I’ll mention for now is my reasons for sharing my materials in the online/on demand format outside the walled garden of the conference website itself. I found out that I was assigned to present in the “on demand” format of the conference– if I do write a part 2 to this post, I’ll come back to that decision process then. In any event, the instructions the CCCCs provided asked presenters to upload materials– PDFS, PPT slides, videos, etc.– to the server space for the conference. I emailed “ccccevents” and asked if that was a requirement. This was their response:

We do suggest that you load materials directly into the platform through the Speaker Ready Room for content security purposes (once anyone has the link outside of the platform, they could share it with anyone). However, if you really don’t want to do that, you could upload a PDF or a PPT slide that directs attendees to the link with your materials.

The “Speaker Ready Room” is just want they call the portal page for uploading stuff. The phrase I puzzled over was “content security purposes” and trying to prevent the possibility that anyone anywhere could share a link to my presentation materials. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that kind of the point of scholarship? That we present materials (presentations, articles, keynote speeches, whatever) in the hopes that those ideas and thoughts and arguments are made available to (potential) readers who are anyone and anywhere?

I’ve been posting web-based versions of conference talks for a long time now– sometimes as blog posts, as videos, as Google Slides with notes, etc. I do it mainly because it’s easy for me to do, I believe in as much open access to scholarship as possible, and I’m trying to give some kind of life to this work that is beyond 15 minutes of me talking to (typically) less than a dozen people. I wouldn’t say any of my self-published conference materials have made much difference in the scholarly trajectory of the field, but I can tell from some of the tracking stats that these web-based versions of talks get many more times the number of “hits” than the size of the audience at the conference itself. Of course, that does not really mean that the 60 or 100 or so people who clicked on a link to a slide deck are nearly as engaged of an audience as the 10 people (plus other presenters) who were actually sitting in the room when I read my script, followed by a discussion. But it’s better than not making it available at all.

Anyway, we’ll see how this turns out.

Actually, in-person learning is the “gold standard”

As someone who has been teaching online and researching distance education for a while now, I find the current enthusiasm about the format a bit weird. For example, take this piece from Inside Higher Ed on January 6, “Rhetorical War Over Online Versus In-Person Instruction.” Here are the opening two paragraphs:

Kenneth W. Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University, posted a letter on the university website late last month telling students and faculty members that the Boston institution intended to open as planned for the spring semester because “in-person learning remains the gold standard.”

The statement, which was not caveated in any way, struck many in education circles as strikingly unnuanced, especially for a chancellor whose institution offers a robust catalog of online courses. Henderson is not Northeastern’s top administrator, and while at most institutions the chancellor is the top person, in a new structure implemented by Northeastern, Henderson is a cabinet member.

The writer, Suzanne Smalley, goes back and forth between the desirability of the in-person college experience and the efficacy of online classes. She brings up many of the usual examples and quotes many smart experts, though I ultimately think she emphasized the advantages of the online format.

What a difference a global pandemic can make, huh?

By “gold standard,” I think Henderson means that the f2f experience is widely acknowledged as the best and most desirable approach for late teen/early 20-somethings (aka, “traditional” students) for going to college. It is the point of comparison for most people regarding the effectiveness of online courses, as in “online courses are just as effective as f2f ones.” This doesn’t mean folks defending the effectiveness of online instruction are wrong– and I’ll come back to that point in a moment– but I am at a loss who would be “struck” by such an “unnuanced” statement. All of the most prestigious, well-known, and selective universities in the U.S. are residential experiences and they hold the vast majority of their courses f2f. These are the universities that most students want to attend, which is why these kinds of universities are more selective about who they allow to attend. That’s just a fact.

Henderson said in-person learning rather than in-person courses represents the gold standard, and that’s important. I think he’s trying to include everything that happens for students in addition to courses. He’s making the connection between learning and the broader college life experience that includes living on or near campus, parties/the Greek system/other social activities, sports, getting into semi-supervised sex/drugs/rock-n-roll trouble, and so forth. But this doesn’t have a lot to do with the mode of delivery of courses.

This is not to say that everyone who goes to college has access to or even wants this “gold standard.” At EMU, we have traditionally aged/right out of high school students looking for the full college life experience with dorms and off-campus apartments and sports and campus activities and all that. But the majority of our students– including the ones in the dorms– are coming to EMU in part because they couldn’t afford the full-on college life experience at Michigan or MSU, or because they didn’t want to move too far away from home. Plus we have a lot of “non-traditional” students, folks who tend to be past their early twenties and who have grown-up responsibilities (jobs, spouses, kids, mortgages, etc.) that are not compatible to the college life experience. It’s kind of hard to go to all the games and parties if you’re a full-time student working two jobs to help pay the bills for school and your new baby.

It’s clear that online courses/programs can be just as effective as f2f courses/programs under the right circumstances, assuming that “effective” means students demonstrate the same level of learning in both formats. But as Van Davis, who is the “service design and strategy officer for Every Learner Everywhere,” is quoted as saying in this article, “The gold standard isn’t the modality. The gold standard has to do with the level of interaction that students are able to have with each other, and that students are able to have with the content, and that students are able to have with instructors.” I agree, and there are plenty of f2f courses with almost no interaction, unless you count some prof lecturing at a captive audience for 50 minutes at a time as “interaction.”

But I also think online courses/programs are most effective for students who have the maturity and discipline to interact effectively online, and in my experience, that means upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. There’s also the issue of what I’d describe as the aesthetics of the experience. I personally “like” teaching classes online, but lots of my colleagues and my students definitely prefer the f2f experience, and a year and a half of teaching all online has shown me that I would prefer to teach a mix of f2f and online classes. Maybe the real “gold standard” here is the flexibility for both teachers and students to engage in a course in the format that best suits their own needs.

Ultimately, it’s like a lot of things we’ve learned during Covid and and how to make do online. We can have a family game night or small party with friends via Zoom, but it’d sure be nice if we could do that more often in person. We can hold large academic conferences online and we should continue to offer some online participation as an option (and I had a long blog post about this before the CCCCs got cancelled in 2020 that I think is relevant here) more or less for the same reason why we teach courses online: to give access to people who otherwise can’t come to the f2f conference. But it’d be sure nice if the 2022 CCCC’s was still going to happen f2f. We can have department meetings via Zoom, but– well actually, that last one is an example where I prefer the distance.

2021 was, I don’t know, what?

I mean, what just happened? Was it better than 2020? Worse? Absolutely no different to the point where we might as well group 2020 and 2021 into one Covid memory?

Hard to say.

I was feeling hopeful and optimistic around New Year’s and with last year’s wrap up/reflection post because a vaccine was on the way. Biden won and Trump lost. Then there was January 6, which at the time seemed like a dangerous bunch of idiots and confused Qanon supporters, but as the year went on and Congress and the media investigated, the insurrection seems to have been a lot more than that. 100 years from now, will people remember this time for this kind of nonsense and Trump or the plague of Covid? Both? Neither?

In late January/early February, my former EMU colleague and friend Clayton Eshleman died– I blogged about it here. He was 85, had been in ill-health, and I hadn’t been getting together with him for lunch for a while. It was still sad to see him go.

But things started getting better in March. Biden was still popular, Covid numbers were down, vaccines were starting roll out. We took a few days to go down to Hocking Hills in Ohio and hung out at a cool airbnb and hiked around a very icy Old Man’s Cave with our friend Michelle.  And then the light at the end of the tunnel: on March 17, Annette and I both got our first doses of the vaccine (Pfizer, it turned out). It was not easy to do. I searched for appointments for us for about a week and finally found a couple at a pharmacy in Coldwater, which is a little town in the very red south central part of Michigan about 90 miles away. I swear every other person there to get the shot was also from around Ann Arbor. We followed that up with shot number 2 in early April, and back then, Annette and I thought of ourselves as “cured” or at least now able to get back to our lives.

We started going back to the gym again (which is still requiring masks), and after the winter semester wrapped up, we were rarin’ to go. I took a long weekend roadtrip out to Iowa to see my parents who I hadn’t seen in person since Christmas 2019. We went to fucking Las Vegas in May— and saying that now after everything that’s happened with Covid since then seems absolutely crazy, but back then, we thought the vaccine would protect us from everything and we were just getting a bit of a head start on what was going to be a great summer.

Then, summer. I’m not going to go into it and it wasn’t all Covid, but stuff got dark. But it did get better. We returned to the same cottage we had near Glen Arbor in 2020, ate some fancy food, saw some nature, hung around the cottage in lovely weather. Before and after that, there was golf for me and kayaking for Annette, and before too long, another semester at EMU. And then August came and after a family trip to see folks in Iowa, it was time for another school year.

As I wrote about here, my mindset coming into this school year was different (and perhaps not great) because of a lot of the unpleasantness in the previous term and because EMU had a buyout offer which I could have taken. It was the first time in my career where I really thought about retirement– not that seriously because there’s no way I could afford it, but not completely unseriously either. After all, I did have at least one colleague younger than me who took this deal (and good riddance to that person as well), and a friend just a bit younger than me left his job for good too. Maybe it’s all connected to the great resignation, I don’t know.

You’d think after the 2020-21 school year that things would have been better in fall 2021– at least students would be used to the online format of most classes by now. But in a lot of ways, it was quite a bit worse. Some of that is what I’d describe as “the luck of the draw” in terms of the individual students I had, though most of it was just everything that was lingering on, including higher Covid numbers in Michigan than we’d seen before (and we’re climbing again with Omicron too). Everyone was tired and defeated and at least a little (and sometimes a lot) depressed. So it was rough. I certainly didn’t do my best work, and a lot of my students crashed and burned all the way to the end.

And yet at the same time, it also got better. I have been reading about Covid every single day for almost 18 months now, and the reality of the situation as far as I can tell– even now with the Omicron variant and the breakthrough infections it has been causing– is serious illness and death from Covid 19 is almost exclusively limited to the unvaccinated and to people with serious pre-existing conditions. So at some point this past fall, I decided that the worry and anxiety about Covid (not to mention not doing anything in public for fear of the virus) caused by all the preventive measures was worse than the possibility of getting the disease. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to get Covid, I always wear a mask in stores or whatever, and I’m still not fully back to doing everything I did in the before-times. I don’t hang around in coffee shops much anymore, for example. But Annette and I got boosted as soon as we could, and with some reasonable precautions, I think we both felt ready to do more things.

So we had friends over around the fire pit, we went back up north to stay at a fancy bed and breakfast, we had a great Halloween. We had the Krause version of Thanksgiving/Christmas in Kansas City, and then the Wannamaker version of Christmas in Naples. And now here we are, at the end of 2021, whatever that was. I have a lot of friends and colleagues who think that all of those outings and roadtrips and airplanes and airports and getting together with folks is just flat-out dangerous. Wait more until it’s safe. But I don’t think covid is ever going to ever completely end, and we’re going to have to start to learn how to live with it.

Last year, I was feeling optimistic because of Biden, the vaccine, and what people were predicting was the beginning of the end of Covid. This year, I’m not going predict much of anything for 2022. Annette is going to be presenting at the MLA convention in Washington, D.C. next week and I’m going along as a tourist. As of today, the conference is still on, I think mainly because it was too late for the organization to cancel (though I don’t rule out some kind last minute change). I was looking forward to a f2f CCCCs in Chicago in March, but that’s been all moved online. I understand that decision, but based on what I read and hear about Omicron, there’s a very real chance that Covid will be a lot more under control by then. Who knows?

There’s only one thing I know about 2022 right now: Annette and I are both are on research fellowships, which means we’ll get a break from teaching until September so we can focus on our scholarship. I’ll be spending my time away from teaching working on the interview and then writing part of the project I started last year, along with other writing, reading, and other stuff away from the office. Crossing my fingers.

The secret to avoiding graduate school debt Carey and Dempster don’t want to talk about…

This morning, I read a discussion between Kevin Carey and Doug Dempster in Inside Higher Ed, “Debating the Value of Arts (and Other) Degree Programs.” Carey is a journalist/writer specializing in issues of higher education, and Dempster is the former dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. They were discussing an article Carey wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in August called “The Great Masters Degree Swindle.” I haven’t read that original article, but given this conversation, the gist of it is pretty clear. There are a lot of graduate programs, particularly in “the arts” and “the humanities,” which are popular but which also are expensive and have a low return on investment. Carey spent time in that article talking about a very expensive graduate program in film studies at Columbia University and he names some other fairly exotic and expensive graduate programs in things like acupuncture and Positive Psychology (whatever that is). But I’m sure he also means graduate programs in things like creative writing, music of various sorts, acting, painting, etc., etc., degrees where there are  few chances of earning a decent living.

Carey and Dempster both agree the arts and similar pursuits are valuable in all sorts of different ways, though also both questioned the extent to which someone who wants to try their hand at filmmaking or acting or journalism needs to go to graduate school. Both talk about and around the problem of the rising costs of higher education generally, though neither of them have any solutions to any of this. And neither of them discussed the wisdom of going to graduate school in fields like this at all, nor do they discuss PhD programs– so I’ll put a pin in that for now.

But I was surprised neither of them brought up the obvious solution to the problem of paying for graduate school– or at least the obvious way for graduate students in many fields to greatly reduce the amount of debt. This solution has been around in the U.S. for at least 60 years, long before I started my MFA program in fiction writing in 1988, and it’s the way that everyone I know who is now in academia in some way got started in the profession.

It’s called a “Graduate Assistantship.”

When I applied to MFA programs in the late 1980s, I didn’t know much about graduate assistantships and I didn’t think much about how I would pay for graduate school. I just applied to what I thought were some of the best creative writing programs in the country and where I thought I might be able to get in. One of the places I applied– kind of on a whim– was Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Virginia. I got in, and Greg Donovan (who is still a professor at VCU and who was at the time the director of the MFA program) called me on the phone. “Steve,” he said, “I’m calling you to let you know we want to admit you to the program, and we also want to offer you a graduate assistantship.” He made this call to everyone who was offered an assistantship.

So, cocky young person that I was, I said this was exciting but I also had been admitted to some other really strong programs, I’d have to think about the pros and cons of it all, etc. etc. etc. Greg listened patiently and said “Those are all good points and also good programs, Steve. But listen, it’s not worth going into that much debt for a degree in creative writing.”

That sealed the deal for me, and the rest (as they say) is history.

The details of graduate assistantships vary a lot, but generally, “GAs” (sometimes called something like “Teaching Assistants” or TAs or “Research Assistants” or RAs) are competitive positions where universities pay graduate students a pathetically small amount of money and free or nearly free tuition to attend graduate school. In exchange, GAs perform some sort of labor, generally related to their studies. In English departments (and that usually includes creative writing), that means labor like teaching first year composition and sometimes introductory literature courses, assisting professors in teaching (especially large lecture hall courses), tutoring in a writing center, or working as an editorial assistant for a journal of some sort. I think there are analogous teaching/tutoring/editing positions in most of the humanities. In most of the sciences, GAs tend to work with/for professors in labs.

As far as I can tell, there are very few opportunities for graduate assistantships in fields where the potential earnings are higher– disciplines like medicine, business, law, and so forth. But for most of the fields these two are discussing, GA positions are more common. Even with the meager resources we have at EMU and even with our modest graduate school reputation, we still offer a number of GA positions in our department and across the university.

Furthermore, these positions offer the kind of workplace experience that Carey says (and Dempster kind of says this too) is something these outrageously expensive graduate programs lack. Everyone I know who has a career in higher education– including in staff positions like advising– got their start as a graduate assistant. Again, these folks don’t discuss PhD programs at all nor do they discuss the challenges of getting a faculty position of any sort (and so I won’t go into that either), but I’ve been a part of a lot of faculty searches over the years, and there is no way we would ever hire anyone for a faculty position who had not had experience as a GA.

Now, GA positions are far from a perfect solution. For starters, this does nothing to deal with the debt from undergraduate studies– that’s a whole different problem. The pay (“stipend”) can be ridiculously low and the positions can be very exploitive, which is why there are a number of institutions where GAs have unionized. The free or dramatically reduced tuition GAs get is usually worth much more than what GAs actually see in a paycheck, and that pay is also typically not enough to live on. That is especially true at underfunded universities like EMU. Most of our graduate assistants still end up borrowing at least some money and/or working part-time outside of the university. But the alternative is to pay all the costs of graduate school out of pocket, and that is obviously a worse situation.

The other potential problem with GA positions is because they are competitive, not everyone can get one. Then again, maybe if you’re an aspiring actor or journalist or painter or whatever and you want to go to graduate school but you are unable to find a university willing to fund at least part of the bills in exchange for labor that will also give you some valuable workplace experience, well, then maybe you should rethink those plans.

Anyway, it’s not that Carey and Dempster are wrong in their discussion, but I’m just surprised that they present going to graduate school anywhere and for pretty much anything as being only possible if students pay for everything themselves. That’s simply not true, and it is especially not true for a lot of the degree programs in fields where the ROI is more suspect.

What’s missing from the new University of Austin? (Hint: everything but disgruntled academics)

Twitter was all afire with news of the forming of The University of Austin by a group of right-leaning academics, pundits and gadflies, primarily led by Bari Weiss. Here’s a link to the announcement, written by who will be the new “university’s” president, Pano Kanelos, a post titled “We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We’re Starting a New One,” which was published on Weiss’ substack site “Common Sense.”

It’s an easy story to make fun of because all the people involved in this new “university” have found themselves criticized or canceled for one reason or another, and the announcement’s tone is classic “I am taking my ball and going elsewhere” pout (more on that below). What makes this even  more amusing is the University of Austin happens to be located in the same city as another well-established university. Somehow, I expect a lawsuit of some sort that will result in either a name change or a move to a new city.

When I first heard this story, I tweeted and compared these plans to MOOCs, and I thought about the book I published two years ago, More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs. The book is for sale of course, and it is also available in its entirety on JSTOR here. Unfortunately, the book was published just as Massive Open Online Courses were no longer a threat to traditional higher education and after MOOCs morphed into a series of training courses and “edutainment” (think MasterClass). Fortunately, my book is actually about the history of efforts and failures to “disrupt” higher education.

In my book, I argue that MOOCs were not an unprecedented innovation in distance education, but rather a continuation of previous innovations like more “traditional” online courses and programs that began getting traction in the 1990s, along with correspondence courses and programs from the early 20th/late 19th centuries. Since the demise of MOOCs (and since my book was published), there have been several other lukewarm at best attempts to change everything about higher education. There was the launched and now largely failed Global Freshman Academy part of Arizona State’s enormous online presence. Frank Bruni wrote last year about Minerva University as an alternative for going to college online during the pandemic, but as far as I can tell, Minerva remains an eccentric school of about 1000 students.  There was Outlier, which was pitched as a better version of MOOCs, and while it still appears to be around, they seem a long ways away from “disrupting” higher education as we know it. And so forth.

But as I read and re-read and thought about Kanelos’ announcement, I realized there actually is something different. The University of Austin is trying to create an entirely new kind of “higher education,” one completely devoid of students, courses, degrees, and research, and one sustained entirely by the presence of cancelled faculty and disgruntled quasi-intellectuals. Kanelos is not the first academic to imagine how much better the university life would be without students, but he may very well be the first one to actually write this down and announce it to the world.

More details than perhaps you want after the break.

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Continue reading “What’s missing from the new University of Austin? (Hint: everything but disgruntled academics)”

Recipe: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Ingredients:

Sauce:

About a tablespoon of minced garlic

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

28 oz (a “big can”) of crushed tomatoes

16 oz (a “small can,” or if you want more sauce, another “big can”) of diced tomatoes

About a good tablespoon worth of your favorite Italian Seasoning

About a teaspoon of grated nutmeg (optional, of course)

Salt and pepper to taste, maybe a 1/2 tsp of each  (go easy on the salt because you’ll be adding the meatballs)

A half cup or so of wine, beef stock, or water (optional)

Meatballs

1/2 pound lean ground beef

1/2 pound ground turkey thigh or ground pork

Between a 1/2 and a full cup of bread crumbs

About a good tablespoon worth of your favorite Italian Seasoning

About a 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese

A handful of finely chopped parsley and/or basil (if you’ve got it)

A teaspoon of grated nutmeg (again, optional)

3 or 4 tablespoons of milk or cream to bind it all together

Salt and pepper to taste, maybe a 1/2 tsp of each (the cheese adds a fair amount of saltiness, so just a bit)

Cooked spaghetti or a similar pasta

This is a meal I make all the time and one where I never have to look up any of the ingredients or steps in the process, so why is it worthy of a recipe? And what if it’s something so common that it’s just another thing “everybody” makes? Who needs a recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or for a hamburger? And since I can look up pretty much any recipe for anything nowadays, why write any of this down? I mean, it’s not like there aren’t already a zillion spaghetti and meatball recipes on the internets. What’s the point of any of this?

Didn’t mean for this to turn dark like that. Anyway…

When my wife wants a comforting and homey dinner, this is it. I make this at least once every two weeks, sometimes more often than that. This recipe with a salad and maybe some garlic toast or whatever can serve four people, though this is what I make for me and Annette, and the leftovers are good for lunch for a couple of days. This is one of those things where you can do from start to finish in about an hour and it’ll be good, but it’ll be better if you let the sauce cook on the back of the stove for closer to two hours. Obviously, there are a million variations.

Instructions:

  • Start the sauce. Put a large sauce pan on a not yet lit stove burner. Add two or three tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of chopped garlic. Turn the burner on to medium, and give it a stir once in a while for three to five minutes. The idea here is to infuse a little garlic-flavor into the oil and what will be the sauce, but without really browning the garlic.
  • When the garlic starts to just barely simmer, add the tomatoes. Purists might say you should only use whole tomatoes canned in Italy or whatever. I do tend to buy not the cheapest canned tomatoes, but I don’t usually have the time or interest to hand crush them. So I tend to use one “big can” of crushed tomatoes, and one “small can” of diced tomatoes. Sometimes I want more sauce and I’ll use two “big cans” of tomatoes.
  • Add the Italian seasoning, nutmeg, and a touch of salt and pepper and bring it up to a simmer. It won’t taste right until it simmers at least 20 or so minutes while you make the meatballs, but do taste it as you go. I also suggest going easy on the salt at the beginning because once it simmers and cooks down for a while and once you get the meatballs and cheese and stuff involved, it’ll get more salty. Simmer that sauce for a minimum of about 45 minutes, and for pretty much as long as you want. You’ll simmer it some more after you add the meatballs.
  • While the sauce simmers, make the meatballs. Dump the ground meats into a large bowl. I always use at least half ground lean beef, and then half of either ground turkey thigh or ground pork. Either way, I do think the different meats do add a flavor you don’t get with just one variety– the same is true with meatloaf. Add the Italian seasoning, a bit of salt and pepper, parmesan cheese, and (if you’re using) fresh chopped parsley and/or basil and grated nutmeg. Then start with about a half cup of breadcrumbs– and either use some you’ve made yourself from leftover bread (and of course you should make your own breadcrumbs with your leftover bread simply by cutting it up in chunks, toasting it a bit, and then running it through the food processor), or just some normal/plain supermarket breadcrumbs. I wouldn’t use panko here–save that for the fried foods. And finally, start with about a quarter cup of milk or cream and mix in more if necessary.
  • With your previously washed and sparkly clean hands (and if you haven’t washed your hands yet in this process, what’s wrong with you?), roll up those sleeves and get mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. If the mixture is too sticky, add some more breadcrumbs– but be careful because no one likes meatballs (or meatloaf or crab cakes either) that have too much breading. I make them a little bigger than a golf ball, and I usually get 13 or 15 meatballs out of this mix. You can make them bigger or smaller of course, and adjust the cooking time accordingly.
  • You could pan-fry them, but I cook my meatballs in the oven because it’s a lot less mess. Put the meatballs on a sheet pan and broil them so they get a little browned on each side– about 3 minutes a side (I flip them over halfway through)– or until they feel like they’re starting to cook through. They don’t have to be done because they will cook in the sauce for a while. If you want, you can deglaze the sheet pan with a little red wine or beef stock and add that to the sauce.
  • Put the meatballs into the sauce and turn it down so it is barely or not quite a simmer. The meatballs should be cooked through in about the amount of time it takes to heat up a big pot of water and to cook the pasta, but I like to let the meatballs slow simmer in the sauce for 30 or 40 minutes.
  • Cook the pasta according to the directions. I of course like spaghetti with my meatballs, but any pasta will do. Put the pasta into bowls, top the pasta with sauce and the desired number of meatballs (usually 3 or 4), and grate on lots and lots of good parmesan cheese.