Racist Vandalism at EMU– Where is EMU President James Smith?

There was an ugly racist/hate crime vandalism/graffiti incident at EMU today, which I first heard about rather indirectly in an all-campus email from EMU VP for Communication Walter Kraft. Among other things, Kraft wrote:

A short time ago, we learned that racist graffiti had been spray painted on a wall of King Hall in the courtyard area of the building. The University strongly condemns such a racist and thoughtless act, which runs completely counter to the values and welcoming environment of our highly diverse Eastern Michigan University community. Our Department of Public Safety is undertaking a full and immediate investigation and the graffiti is being quickly removed.

My initial reaction to this email was “what the hell?” Some time passed and the story emerged. Basically, some moron(s) spray painted “KKK” and “Leave N*****s” (though not with the asterisks, obviously) on the side of a King Hall.

But not to bury the lead here: at the end of the day (today, at least), where the hell is EMU’s new president James Smith? We have this controversy on campus that is attracting strong regional (if not at least some national/education press) news attention and it has obviously (and justifiably) upset a lot of students on campus, and Smith doesn’t surface to make an actual statement before the media?!? He doesn’t appear in support of one of the student protests against this?!? That’s weak. Smith needs to be a lot more invested in the EMU community (and not just the EMU Board of Regents and football team) than this.

Okay, a rundown of the basic news:

I know there has been a lot of other news stories about this too.

Anyway, this graffiti/vandalism was identified and then cleaned up in the morning several hours before I got to campus today. It was painted on the side of King Hall, which is one of several odd buildings sort of in the middle of EMU’s campus. It’s formally a dorm that has been (sort of) rehabbed into a series of office spaces– WEMU is over there. The graffiti/vandalism/hate speech itself was on one wall in the “courtyard” area, which is actually not a very visible part of the building. It’s the kind of place you’d vandalize because you thought you’d be less likely to get caught. By the time I got to campus today, the graffiti was gone and there was a small protest/vigil of African-American students at the spot.

When I went into Pray-Harrold (where I do most of my teaching and where my office is), I saw in the lobby and on the elevator a lot of flyers that kind of looked like this (though this is a picture I took later and posted on Instagram). This, combined with the student protests that happened on campus that I’ve already mentioned, suggest to me that the EMU community is very much rallying against this simpleton hate speech and rallying for African-American students and other members of the EMU community.

So I think campus will be fine. I mean, I’m concerned about all sorts of examples of hate crimes and racism and the like that seem to be rising in this country in some correlation to the rise of the hate of the Donald Trump campaign. But at EMU specifically, I think the campus community is resilient enough to respond to some idiotic and likely drunk hateful vandals and simpleton spray-painters. It’s one of the many reasons I like working here, actually.

But again, where the heck is James Smith? I appreciate that it is Walter Kraft’s job as the VP for communication to have the initial responses to this– and by the way, I think Walter is a pretty good guy. But this was the first situation that’s happened on campus since Smith arrived where he clearly should have been out in person to speak out against this. I have no idea why he didn’t do this.

Slight addendum: To be fair, Smith did finally speak about this incident after a group of protesters showed up at the EMU President’s house.  See this story.

Posted in EMU | 3 Comments

Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)

I am writing this (or I at least started writing this) post while flying back from Italy where I was at the second conference I have attended in Anacapri in the last two years, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” sponsored by Federica Weblearning at the Universitá di Napoli Federico II (here’s a PDF of the program).  I of course didn’t have to do this on the plane, but a) because it’s the first day of classes, including for my online one, I thought it was worth it to to pay the money and do some teaching/worky-work stuff over the Atlantic and b) I wanted to do my best to stay as awake as possible to adjust to the time difference once we get home (more or less mission accomplished on that one).

Once again, I wondered why I was invited in the first place (pretty much the same reason as before, the Invasion of the MOOCs book and also because I was there last year), and once again I was one of only a few Americans (though also once again there were a few Canadians and folks from South America, too), and this time, I think I might very well have been the only “teaching classes on a regular basis” kind of professor.  Everyone else was some version of administrator, entrepreneur, policy analyst, researcher, and/or educational tech person. Originally, there had been some people on the program from Africa and India, but it didn’t work out for them to be there for one reason or another.

Here’s a link to my presentation (slides incorporated into the Google Doc that was more or less my script– the live version was a little different of course). A general recap of what happened after the break:

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Scholarship, The Happy Academic | 19 Comments

Trigger Warning Repeats With Added Herky and Flexner

I had collected/seen/read a bunch of recent pieces about “trigger warnings,” particularly the dust-up about the lack of such warnings at the University of Chicago. In response to that:

I could go on, but you get the idea. Anyway, I was going to write up some pithy little response but then I realized that I already had, and almost exactly one year ago. So, is the angst for and against trigger warnings the new signal of the coming fall college semester? Is it to accompany and/or replace the always problematic Beloit College mindset list? (Slight tangent: one of the truisms missing from this year’s list is the fact that students in the class of 2020 have never known a time where there wasn’t this shot-from-the-hip list of assumptions about what new college students are like.)

My take on trigger warnings hasn’t really changed– they aren’t that big of a deal, they arguably expand academic freedom in that they are a way for faculty to not censor content because students “have been warned,” and, as the example I share from my own teaching going on 20 years ago makes clear, these warnings are not always heeded. But I will share two new items for this year’s edition.

First, “Iowa professor: Herky the Hawk ought to smile more.”  “Herky” is the name of the mascot for the University of Iowa, the Hawkeyes, which sort of/kind of has origins as a nickname for the state but which I’ve frankly always thought of more as a made-up kind of name for a bird rather than anything having to do with geography or Native Americans. Anyway, to quote from the Iowa City Press-Citizen on the dangers of the grimacing Herky:

“I believe incoming students should be met with welcoming, nurturing, calm, accepting and happy messages,” Resmiye Oral, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UI, wrote recently in an email to UI athletic department officials. “And our campus community is doing a great job in that regard when it comes to words. However, Herky’s angry, to say the least, faces conveying an invitation to aggressivity and even violence are not compatible with the verbal messages that we try to convey to and instill in our students and campus community.”

Hard to say how “Herky-gate” is going to turn out, but it’s worth noting for now that a) this concern over the threats of a sports mascot come not from students seeking coddling but from a faculty member who seeks to coddle, and b) the UI faculty senate has declined to pick up the issue as part of their ongoing work on ensuring that the “university climate is one that is safe, inclusive, and supportive.”

Second, a trip in the wayback machine to trigger warnings circa 1930. As part of my ongoing MOOC research– specifically the historical part that looks at the parallels between MOOCs and correspondence study in the early 20th century– I came across the writing of Abraham Flexner in his 1930 book Universities: American, English, German.  Flexner’s crankiness about “the kids today” way back when is both amusing and enlightening as to how “the present” college youth have always been horrible. Here’s a favorite passage:

Surely the Dean of Columbia College knows American college youth. “I am convinced,” he has recently said, “that the youth of college age at the present time are as immature morally and as crude socially as they are undeveloped intellectually.” In part this is true because, the high school having coddled them, the college continues the coddling process. Every jerk and shock must be eliminated; the students must be “oriented”; they must be “advised” as to what to “take”; they must be vocationally guided. How is it possible to educate persons who will never be permitted to burn their fingers, who must be dexterously and expensively housed, first as freshmen, then as upperclassmen, so as to make the right sort of social connections and to establish the right sort of social relationships, who are protected against risk as they should be protected against plague, and who, even though “they work their way through,” have no conception of the effort required to develop intellectual sinew?

Heh. Maybe the trigger warning haters ought to time travel to the 1920s and straighten those kids out; maybe that would help fix the kids today.

Posted in Academia, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 2 Comments

As Koller Exits Coursera, Thinking About What’s Next with MOOCs in Context

Besides preparing for the start of the Fall term here at EMU, I’m also preparing for a return to Capri for the second International MOOC conference being sponsored by the University of Naples Federico II. No one is more surprised about this than me. As I wrote about/recapped last year, I assumed that my invitation last year was one of those once in an academic career kinds of things I got to recall while I was getting to retire or something. I guess now I get to tell the story of how I was invited twice.

The theme of last year’s conference was “The Future of Learning at a Distance and the Role of MOOCs,” and a lot (not all) of the talks were about the ways that MOOC were going to figure into changing higher education as we know it. The theme of this year’s conference is about “MOOC Identity,” concern with the fast changing nature of MOOCs, the role of professional and “less scholarly” MOOCs, and the evolving “corporate” and “academic” partnerships. Last year’s conference was great and I’m sure this year’s one will be too, but once again, a lot has changed with MOOCs in less than a year.

Which brings me to my point: as Rolin Moe discusses here and as Jonathan Rees discusses here, Coursera’s Daphne Koller’s is leaving and going to Calico (which is a Google/Alphabet company). On the one hand, she’s just the latest. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng left in 2012 (though both remain involved in Coursera on their board), and Sebastian Thurn stepped back from Udacity earlier this year (though he too remains involved, just not as directly).

On the other hand, Koller’s departure is different and important because she has been the face and driving force behind Coursera. She was the one who gave a TED talk where she said Coursera was going to bring the dream of higher education to the slums of South Africa.  She’s the one who (at least as quoted in Keven Carey’s The End of College) said something along the lines of “If only 2 percent of all the people in the world are willing and able to pay $74 for a service, that’s $10 billion a year, which is a lot of revenue for a company that can fit all of its employees into one part of one floor of a commercial office building in Palo Alto.” And she’s the one who later claimed that the hype around Coursera was always overblown and the company was doing well by pivoting as a credential provider, the kind of thing professionals might list as an achievement on their LinkedIn accounts.

Moe’s point is that MOOCs are a myth/dream/hope the EdTech world continues to chase:

We push MOOCs not because they have any chance of solving whatever it is which needs to be solved, but because we want to believe there is some one-click option that we could employ and it would create the solution we desire.  [T.S.] Eliot is the oft-quoted but wrong lens.  It is better to consider Barthes’ view of myth and the resurrection of the falsely obvious.  In his preface to Mythologies (1972), Barthes notes how the dominant cultural nodes throughout everyday life conspire to “dress up” our reality to contextualize it in terms of history.  This history should not be considered objective, factual or just but rather the determination of the dominant social climate of the time.  As Neil Selwyn (2013) notes, the expansion of technology (and the rise of EdTech) coincides with a growth in libertarian ideals and neoliberal governmental policies, a one-two punch of individual exceptionalism and belief in the power of the outsider.  We believe in the spirit of the entrepreneur, the perspective of the organization and the power of the technological.

Rees’ metaphor is of the abandoned ship, though he references the mysterious case of the Mary Celeste which was discovered abandoned but none of the crew members were ever found. The “MOOC ship” has/is being abandoned because it never lived up to the hype of the initial “mania,” but it is more than that:

If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities.  Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.

Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time.  Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.

I think Moe and and Rees are slightly wrong, but basically right. I say “slightly wrong” because, as I will be reminded once again in Capri in just over a week, there are many players still involved in the MOOC biz, and the ones outside of the U.S. have different reasons and means of support than the ones inside the U.S. As I learned last year, a lot of the MOOC efforts in Europe are government-sponsored enterprises of various types, and this year’s conference looks to feature speakers from Africa and India, two places that have different goals and needs with higher education generally and MOOCs in particular.

Also, let’s not forget that a) there are some Canadians (paging Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and George Siemens) who would argue in different ways that Coursera and Udacity and the like never were “true MOOCs,” b) there are still a lot of other big MOOC players where things seems to be going at least “okay” (EdX, for example), and c) just because someone leaves a company doesn’t mean the company is going under (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs immediately come to mind).

But again, Moe and Rees are basically right in that the hype of MOOCs completely transforming higher education as we know it has proven to be wrong and it was always wrong. For me, that’s part of what makes MOOCs all the more interesting to study as both another innovation– not a disruption– in distance education technologies, and also as a phenomenon about the glaring ignorance of how education “works” combined with ginned up fears of missing out.

A simple and cursory tour of the history of distance education demonstrates that there have been plenty of hyped phenomenons similar to MOOCs in higher education over the last 150 or so years. Some (radio and television immediately come to mind) had their moments but were ultimately transformed into something else– in the U.S., public broadcasting. Correspondence and “traditional” online courses were hyped, feared, and/or critiqued as threats to the foundations of “The University,” but they ultimately became relatively “normal” means of taking college classes in the U.S.

MOOCs have always had a significant student audience problem. Rees is right– a lot of the problem (based on my own experiences and writing about this, at least) is that the MOOC learning experience isn’t at all comparable to the actual college experience, face to face or online. And while talking about dropout rates with MOOCs is tricky for many reasons (Are MOOC participants really “students?” If they poke around a MOOC for a week and decide they aren’t interested, are they a “dropout?” If a participant gets what they want out of a MOOC but doesn’t finish, is that a “failure?”), any mode of instruction where over 90% of participants don’t complete the course for some recognizable and transferable form of “credit” is not going to replace what we’re doing right now.  But it’s more than that. I think it’s always been a problem of the MOOC providers offering a different “product” than what degree-seeking college students want.

As I have blogged about before, there is consistent data about why students choose the institutions they choose, and by a wide margin, the top two reasons incoming students cite for their choices are the school’s academic reputation and the perception that the school’s graduates get good jobs. The cost of attendance as a reason for picking a particular school is more or less tied for third with financial assistance, schools reputation for social activities, and a visit to campus. In other words, while everyone agrees that tuition is too high, the cost of attendance doesn’t turn out to have a whole lot of effect on the choices going to college students (and their families) make. This survey data is very much in evidence in my local community, where the expensive (and the more highly perceived) University of Michigan attracts many more applicants than the less expensive (and less highly regarded) Eastern Michigan University. If costs were more important than perceptions about academic reputation and potential employment, then EMU would be the school turning away more than half of the people who apply.

In any event, Koller et al initially thought (hoped?) they would draw students away from a place like EMU (and maybe even U of M) because their certificate options were so much cheaper. But that’s like setting up a hot dog stand and trying to sell it to people who are trying to go out to a decent and multi-course sit-down meal. Worse yet, almost all of the participants MOOCs have attracted already have college degrees and they’re not that interested in paying for some “infotainment.” To extend my food metaphor a bit more: it’s hard to market hot dogs to people who really aren’t that hungry– oh sure, maybe they’ll have a sample, but they aren’t going to pay for one.

I think there’s also been a disconnect of perceptions of what MOOCs are potentially for between administrative-types (not to mention various pundits and politicians) and the faculty involved in developing and teaching MOOCs. None of the MOOC professors I’ve read, published in Invasion of the MOOCs, or interviewed for my current project think that MOOCs could replace the experience of taking an actual college class. MOOCs might be useful for lots of things (research, community outreach, PR, and maybe even a way to validate “life experiences” for credit of some sort), and maybe MOOCs make the idea of an online class more palatable. But that’s it.

So what I’m getting at is what’s interesting about looking at context of the rise and fall of MOOCs is not about MOOCs themselves. It’s not useful (or smart) for anyone to look at the “end” of MOOCs and to happily pronounce “well, I’m glad that’s over with and I’ll never have to worry about that again.” No, what’s interesting is seeing how the MOOC phenomenon has proven to be similar and different compared to earlier instructional technologies, and what impact MOOCs will have on what’s next.

Posted in Academia, MOOCs | 25 Comments

Meanwhile, a few pictures from my garden/yard

My silence here has been the result of being too busy about some things and not able to say much (yet) about other things. I’ve been too busy with teaching since the end of June– two classes, one of which was a mere six weeks long (and that was a mistake), and another that wrapped up on Monday. It is too much work too fast, but the money is hard to pass up. Without getting into the details of my salary, faculty teaching in the summer are paid 10% of their base salary per summer class they teach. That adds up so the work is welcome, though for a whole bunch of reasons, this might be the last summer I do this kind of teaching for a while.

And there are many things I would like to write about that I can’t write about here, at least not yet. Some have to do with ongoing scholarly projects, though the thing that is most on my mind that I want to write about but I don’t feel like I can has to do with some very strange faculty contract hijinks. But the dust has to settle on that first.

How’s that for vague?

Instead, I’ll mention three things that are broadly speaking in the department of what I’ve been doing lately/what I’m looking forward to doing soon.

Summer teaching went well, fall is coming soon. Like I said, summer (teaching) is over and prepping for this fall term is coming along, though oddly. I am preparing a face to face version of a class I most recently taught online (and I haven’t taught this class face to face in several years), and also an online version of a different class I most recently taught face to face. It is making me feel sort of backwards in an odd way.

This coming school year is the first year in some time where I won’t be teaching a graduate course, though the course Writing for the World Wide Web has both undergraduates and graduate students in it and I am continuing this year as the Associate Director of the First Year Writing Program and that typically involves a lot of connection with Graduate Assistants. I kind of miss the teaching, though I like the undergraduate teaching experience just as well and those classes have the advantage of not being at night.

Oh, and I moved offices, graduating (based on seniority– I’ll be starting my 18th year at EMU this fall) to a larger office with a window. More on that later I am sure.

I’ve been really into pizza lately because of this book, The Elements of Pizza. I bought it while we were up in Traverse City in May. Besides being a beautiful book, I very much appreciate the advice from Ken Forkish, techniques and recipes that walk the thin line of overly obsessive to playfully forgiving (it’s just pizza, after all). Forkish has talked me out of my childish visions of a backyard pizza oven and talked me into just getting it to work in my oven (though I am not sure my oven really gets hot enough, but that’s a slightly different conversation). I need to get his bread making book, Flour Water Salt Yeast.

The garden has been so-so. In some ways, it has been an example of neglect that has turned out kind of nice anyway:

Is it a garden or is it weeds?

All those white flowers that are kind of pretty are actually just weeds, and those weeds are kind of covering up other weeds. This close-up of some of the front-yard garden is a little nicer and more planned:

Flowers and stuff in the front

I’ve had two main experiments plant-wise this year. One is corn, which I planted as kind of a joke:


The other is these basically black tomatoes which I believe are called “Indigo Rose:”

Indigo Tomatoes

Besides being really pretty, they have taken a bizarrely long time to ripen (and it’s kind of hard to tell when they’re ripe, too). And they taste like tomatoes.

Posted in Life | Leave a comment

Clinton’s not exactly brilliant plan on addressing costs in higher ed

There was an article in Inside Higher Ed the other day about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “innovation” plan for helping to address costs in higher education. I am sure there is a lot more to this than what IHE was able to summarize, but here’s part of what IHE said:

The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation.

For entrepreneurs, the plan proposes letting them and potentially their first 10 to 20 employees defer payments on their student loans, penalty-free, for up to three years “as they work through the critical start-up phase of new enterprises.” Entrepreneurs whose start-ups serve “distressed communities” or “provide measurable social impact and benefit” will after five years be able to apply to have up to $17,500 of their loans forgiven.

There’s also a big emphasis on STEM programs, education toward jobs, etc., etc.

I think Alexander Holt has a nice follow-up column to this, also in Inside Higher Ed, “Clinton’s Giveaway to Silicon Valley.” Among other things, Holt points out that more STEM training isn’t automatically “the solution” since there is some evidence that there is actually a larger supply of STEM trained would-be employees than jobs, that the status quo already has loan deferment plans along the lines of what Clinton is proposing, and the last group of students who college students who need financial help from the government is would-be entrepreneurs. To quote:

If Clinton wants to give away money to people who will eventually be wealthy, this proposal is a great idea. People working in tech start-ups will likely go on to earn a fairly high income in life. If a young entrepreneur has a degree from a good school and highly valuable skills, she can still get a high-paying job even if the company fails. If her company succeeds, she will eventually have a lot of money.

And just to add: for the most part, Clinton’s plan to help entrepreneurs is not going to help most of the students we have at Eastern. Most/many of our students are from working class/working poor backgrounds and they are often first generation college students. These students are getting college degrees to get a foothold into the middle-class. Sure, some of our students have Silicon Valley-like savvy and the desire to start their own businesses, but the vast majority of our students are trying to get into an already existing field and business. The same probably goes for most students at most universities, actually.

But speaking specifically about MOOCs and alternative providers: Clinton (and whoever she is listening to on this) is just flat-out ignoring how higher education works. I’ve blogged about this many many times before, and I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new or controversial. To sum up:

  • MOOCs and professional training enterprises (like Lynda.com) are mostly useful to adults who already have college degrees and jobs who are seeking additional training and credentials, and particularly training and credentials in IT related fields. Traditionally-aged (18-21 year olds, more or less) would-be college students are interested in a degree program, not miscellaneous classes that they cobble together from various MOOCs and “boot camps.” This is why MOOCs have been pivoting to the adult/corporate training market and away from the higher education market.
  • While everyone agrees that college is too expensive and that the costs should be contained, the solution is not to offer cheaper and largely unproven alternatives. Rather, the solution (IMO) is to look at all of the alternatives that already exist. Unlike in a lot of parts of the world, in the U.S. we have hundreds of community colleges and regional universities (like EMU) that are geographically accessible.
  • Furthermore, (as I’ve blogged about before too), while the costs of attendance obviously matters to traditional college students and their families, it is only one factor students make about where to go to college, and it’s usually not the most important choice. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying first year students for fifty years, and in answer to the question about what was “very important” in their decision about where to attend college, cost consistently runs behind “the college has a very good academic reputation” and “the college’s graduates get good jobs,” and it is almost tied with “the college has a good reputation for its social activities.” If cost was the most important reason for why students decide to go where they go, Washtenaw Community College would have to turn down a significant percentage of the students who applied and the University of Michigan would be begging people to think about going there. In short, the solutions being proposed– making higher education cheaper– doesn’t address the real problem, which is access to high quality higher education.
  • To the extent that MOOCs are going to be useful for students earning college credit, it is most likely going to be for things like the College Level Examination Program (aka CLEP tests), advanced placement, or for various “experience-based” degrees and credits. For example, Georgia Tech has an Online Masters of Computer Science program that is running more or less as a MOOC. As I understand it, a lot of the students in this program are IT people who are well-versed in the kinds of things they are studying.The students enrolled in this program are there not so much to “learn new things;” they are there to prove to a credential-providing institution that they already know these things. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t going to help the 18 to 20 year old looking for experience in the first place.
  • While the dropout rates in MOOCs might mean a lot of different things, one thing is for sure: students who successfully start and complete a MOOC for credit have an unusually high level of self-motivation and ability to work independently. Most traditional college students are not like this. Actually, most everyone is not like this.

Now, if Hillary et al were to call me and ask for my ideas, the first thing I would suggest is that they look around them to the solutions that exist in the form of accessible community colleges and regional universities like EMU. In theory, I’m for a system where students can attend universities like EMU for free, though in practice, I worry about the strings that would be attached to that kind of program by the Feds (as if Institutional Assessment of various flavors wasn’t bad enough). Besides, it’s a fantasy to think that Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) can wave a magic wand and make that happen over night.

What could happen more easily (maybe?) is the Feds could boost the amount of money going into the Pell Grant program, they could ease the restrictions on how students can use that money (let them go to summer school, for example), and they could roll back the cost of student loans to either zero points interest or the same as the prime rate. There is absolutely no reason why the Federal government ought to be making any money off of its student loan program.

But then again, no one asked me, so….

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Scholarship, The Happy Academic | Leave a comment

EMU attempts to cut costs by focusing on the little things and ignoring the obvious problems (you know, like football)

Everyone at EMU received an email from interim president Don Loppnow with the subject line “Campus message: Dining services,” but what I really think this message is about is the title I have for this post. In the nutshell, one of the “budgeting by a thousand tiny cuts” measures the EMU administration has decided to take is to outsource dining services. The talk of this has been going on for quite a while now, so this is hardly a surprise.

I have to say I’m confused by the potential benefits of all this. Loppnow’s email claims that everyone that EMU now employs in dining services will remain an EMU employee in dining services with the same contracts and what-not. Plus an outside vendor will bring in all kinds of new food options– food trucks!– and do all sorts of renovations to dining halls and all of that. Well, where’s the cost savings then? It sounds more like an act of creative bookkeeping combined with a willingness on EMU’s part to give whatever outside vendor the profits from their food truck et al enterprises.

I guess what I’m saying is I don’t completely disagree with the administration’s move to outsource this stuff and there are a lot of other institutions like EMU that already do this– though Michigan prisons outsourced their food options too, and that’s worked out not so great. EMU claims an outside vendor will invest “millions” in upgrades over the course of the contract, however long that might be. But again, this move doesn’t seem like much of a budget cut in the sense of actually “saving” money; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyplace where the administration has given an actual dollar figure on how much money EMU saves in this move.

Anyway, here’s the passage of the email (I include all of it below) that I initially skimmed past that made me spit up my coffee when I read it again this morning:

It is important to note that Eastern’s overarching institutional priority is to provide our students with a solid educational and research experience – one that will lead to successful careers upon graduation. While our current food services operation and employees do an excellent job, food services is simply not the University’s core mission. Educating students is.



Hmm, I wonder what other things EMU spends too much money on that is clearly not a part of our institution’s mission to provide students with a solid educational and research experience? Who else is doing an “excellent job” but is doing work that is simply not a part of our core mission?


Look, if EMU wants to outsource dining services because they think we’ll get better food for slightly less cost for us (and obviously a big profit for whatever vendor wins the contract) and if everyone actually does keep their jobs, then I have to say I’m ambivalent. The EMU-AAUP’s argument has been that dining services people will end up losing their jobs and/or not be in a bargaining unit anymore and it will result in lower quality food, the administration’s argument is the opposite. Both of these arguments are predictions.

However, a) there is absolutely no way that the overall budget savings from this plan are going to make a difference in dealing with out of control spending from sports, and b) while dining services might not be a part of the “University’s core mission,” it’s a hell of a lot closer to that mission than football.

Continue reading

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP | 1 Comment

A Candy Bar Explanation of My Ambivalence of Clinton v. Sanders

As I write this post, the news is that Bernie Sanders is meeting with Barack Obama to (I guess) come up with an elegant way to exit the race to be the Democratic nominee for president, a race he’s pretty much lost to Hilary Clinton. Soon we will all be able to move on.

Frankly, I’ve felt quite ambivalent about the process. While I know many people (mostly indirectly and on social media) who had a religious and fanatic devotion to Bernie Sanders and/or a burning white-hot hatred of Hilary Clinton, I felt and continue to feel unusually ambivalent. I’m okay with either of them and have been all along. I voted for Clinton in the Michigan primary, but I was totally okay with the fact that Sanders won it. If the conversation right now was about how Sanders had pulled off the political upset to win the nomination, totally fine with me.

So the whole social media phenomenon of things like #iguessimwithher or the sentiment summed up in this excellent post at Good Bad Librarian! “I’m With Her (But We’re Seeing Other People)” or pretty much a third or more of my Facebook/Twitter feed for the last several months– this whole thing has been hard for me to understand and hard for me to explain.

And then it hit me: from my point of view, Clinton and Sanders are each a half of a Twix bar.

Surly you have heard of this candy bar (not necessarily my “go to” choice, but one I always enjoy), but just in case: as Wikipedia reminds us, Twix “is a chocolate bar made by Mars, Inc., consisting of biscuit applied with other confectionery toppings and coatings (most frequently caramel and milk chocolate). Twix bars are packaged in pairs, although smaller single bars are available.”

And surly you have seen the humorous commercials about the battles between “Left Twix” and “Right Twix.” The basic premise here is the two “inventors” of Twix split the company over vehement disagreements over what is actually nothing. “Left Twix flowed caramel on cookie, while Right Twix cascaded caramel on cookie,” and so forth. The comedy, obviously, is in the fact that the differences being observed between Right and Left Twix are non-existent.

So for me, that’s pretty much the Sanders v. Clinton debate. Though I am certain there are those who might read this and say I WILL NEVER EVER EVER VOTE FOR RIGHT TWIX AND THAT DAMN LEFT TWIX RIGGED THE PROCESS FROM THE BEGINNING.

Or is it Right Twix who did the rigging? I forget.

Posted in Fun, Politics | Leave a comment

In which I recall a less serious time when a small child wandered off

The case of the child wandering into the enclosure for Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo brought back the memory of the time when Annette and I lost Will at the mall.

He was somewhere around two and a half or three years old. For some reason (I cannot remember why now), we thought it was a good idea to get a proper little kid portrait of him done at JC Penney. I believe we were there in the morning on a slow day in the summer, and I recall we were early for our appointment. So we had to keep Will entertained for the fifteen/twenty minutes, and we did this by chasing him around the mostly empty store. Will ducked into/underneath a circular rack of shirts or something on hangers, Annette and I ran around opposite sides of the clothing rack, and he popped out the other side, laughing hysterically. Simple, goofy fun. We repeated this routine at least three or four times.

Then he vanished. I mean completely, like that Vegas-styled magic trick where they drop the curtain and there’s nothing there. Nothing.

As I recall it now, I felt a mix of panic and disbelief– panic for the obvious reasons, disbelief because he literally vanished. Annette and I frantically searched the nearby clothing racks yelling WILL! WILL! WILL!, and generally freaked out. We got a hold of some kind of manager and told her what was going on, and as I think about it now, her reaction was reasonable to the point where this had almost certainly happened before. There was some kind of announcement about a lost child and we continued to look for him.

Then we found him– I think it was actually Annette who found him– outside the mall entrance of JC Penney’s. He was standing and carefully examining a kiosk that was selling mini aquariums that contained very small and colorful frogs. As I believe Annette recalls it, she said something to him like “OH MY GOD, WILL, YOU RAN OFF! DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” and Will’s reaction was something like “What’s the big deal? I wanted to look at the frogs.”

And after we all collected ourselves, we had Will’s portrait photo made:


(At least that’s my memory of this– maybe Annette and Will will have slightly different takes on this).

In any event, filtering this back to the current story about killing a gorilla/”bad” parenting/bad kids:

  • It’s sad, but it kind of sounds like they had to shoot the gorilla. I’ve also heard that these kinds of incidents of people getting inside enclosures or animals getting out are obviously rare but not as uncommon as I for one would hope.
  • There was an interesting little piece in the New York Times, “Who Is to Blame When a Child Wanders at the Zoo?” which, among other things, points out that some kids are a lot more “wily” than others. (Not that Will was really like that– this is the one and only time he did something this wily). And this article also makes me wonder about some discussion about blaming this child– I mean, isn’t this the kind of action that suggests a certain level of intent and agency on his part?
  • I don’t blame the mother in this story, but it probably would help her case a bit if she had said something about how she messed up and she felt bad about what happened.
Posted in Family, Life | Leave a comment

A less than complete recap/blog post about #cwcon 2016

I was in Rochester, New York last weekend for the annual Computers and Writing Conference at St. John Fisher College. This was not my first rodeo. I think I have about 20 different presentations at probably about 12 different meetings, maybe more. I have a love/hate relationship with the conference. C&W will always have a place in my heart because it was the first conference where I ever presented– back in 1994– and maybe because of that (and also because I’ve always thought of it as the conference that most closely aligns with my research and teaching interests), I have found the whole thing kind of frustrating in recent years.

A better and more complete (albeit more chaotic) way to get a sense of what happened this year is to go to Twitter and search for #cwcon. I tried to make a Storify of all the tweets, but the limit is 1000, so I only was able to get tweets from Sunday and some of Saturday. If I get around to it, maybe I’ll make another Storify or two– unless there’s a better/easier way to capture all those tweets.

Anyway, a recap from my POV:

  • Bill Hart-Davidson and I drove there together. Bill and I have known each other since 1993 (he was on that panel with me at C&W in Columbia, Missouri back in 1994, and he claimed on this trip that Cindy Selfe either chaired our session or was in the audience, I can’t remember which) and we both like to talk a lot, so there and back was pretty much seven straight hours of the Bill and Steve talk show. It’s a good thing no one else was with us.
  • We got there Wednesday late in the afternoon and played a quick nine holes with Nick Carbone before meeting up with a bunch of Ride2CW and conference goers at a lovely place called Tap & Mallet.
  • Bill and I stayed in the dorms at St. John Fisher. Dorms are a staple of #cwcon, but this is the first time I’ve actually stayed in them mainly because ew, dorms. But given that the hotels for the conference were almost 10 miles away and St. John Fisher is small private college, we both opted for the calculated risk that these dorms would be okay. And that risk paid off, too. The only things missing from the room were a television and, oddly, a garbage can.
  • Bill ran a workshop Thursday, so I ended up hanging out with Doug Walls (soon to be faculty at NC State, congrats to him) for a lot of the day and then working on school stuff back in the garbage can-less dorm.
  • Had kind of a weird Friday morning because I woke up for no reason at 5 am or so, went back to sleep thinking that I’d wake up at 8-ish and I ended up sleeping until 10 am. So, with the morning of the first day of presentations thoroughly trashed, I went to the George Eastman Museum instead. Pretty cool, actually.
  • Friday afternoon, I saw some presentations– a good one from Alex Reid, and an interesting/odd session from some folks at East Carolina called “Object-Oriented Research Methods and Methodologies for Open, Participatory Learning” which was not at all what I was expecting. It ended up mostly being about using fortune tellers/cootie catchers as a sort of heuristic for writing research. Showed up a little late for a panel where Bradley Dilger and crew were talking about the Corpus & Repository of Writing project. Interestingly, there were a number of talks/presentations/workshops on methods for capturing and/or mining a lot of “big data” in writing– well, big for our field at least. What I didn’t see much of was what all this mining and corpus-building gets us. Maybe the results will come eventually.
  • Went to the banquet/awards/Grabill keynote. More on the awards thing in a moment, but to kick off the after-eating festivities, there was a tribute video to Cindy and Dickie Selfe who are retiring this year. The set-up for the banquet made watching the video pretty impossible, but it’s on YouTube and it’s definitely worth a watch. Both of them have been such giants in the field, and it really is a lovely send-off/tribute.
  • Jeff Grabill gave a good talk– it’s right here, actually. I think he thought that he was being more confrontational than he actual was, but that’s another story. Alex Reid has a good blog post about this and one of the other key things going this year at the conference, which has to do with what I think I would describe as a sort of question of naming and identity.
  • Speaking of which: my session was on Saturday morning. My presentation was about correspondence schools and how they foreshadow and/or set the groundwork for MOOCs. It was okay, I guess. It was a sort of mash-up version of a part of the first chapter/section of this book I’ve been working on for far too long (which is also one of the reasons why I’m not going to post it here for now) and I think it’s good stuff, but it wasn’t really that dynamic of a presentation. I ended up being paired up with Will Hochman, and his approach was much more of an interactive brainstorming session on trying to come up with a new name for the conference. I don’t know if we “solved” the problem or not, but it was a fun discussion. Lauren Rae Hall and she created a cool little conference name generator based on stuff we talked about.
  • Walls made me skip the lunch keynote to get pizza (twisted my arm, I tell you!) and then I went to the town hall session where Bill was on the panel. Alex Reid blogged a bit about this (and other things) in this post; while I suppose it was interesting, it was another example of a session that is advertised/intended as one where there is going to be a lot of audience discussion and where, after the many people on the panel all said their bits, we were pretty much out of time. And then we drove home.

So it was all good. Well done, St. John Fisher people! Though I can’t end this without beating the drum on three reoccurring themes for me, the hate dislike/grumpy side of me with #cwcon:

First, I think the work at reconsidering the name of the conference is perhaps symptomatic of the state of affairs with the general theme of the conference. “Computers and Writing” is a bit anachronistic since the definition of both “computers” and “writing” have been evolving, but it wouldn’t be the first name of an organization that seems out of date with what it is– the “Big Ten” with its 14 teams immediately comes to mind. So maybe the identity issues about the name of the conference have more to do with the fact that the subject of the conference is no longer a comparatively marginalized sub-discipline within composition and rhetoric.

Take that with a significant grain of salt. I was on a roundtable about the “end” of computers and writing in 2001 and we’re still chugging along. But that video honoring Cindy and Dickie Selfe featured some other senior members in the C&W community remembering the “old days” of the 1980s and even early 90s (really not that long ago, relatively speaking) when anyone in an English department working with a computer was considered a “freak.” Scholarship and teaching about technology and materiality (not to mention “multimodality” which often enough implies computers) might not be at the center of the field, but it’s not on the “lunatic fringes” of it anymore either. That’s good– it means folks like the Selfes were “right”– but it also makes #cwcon a little less “special.” I can go to the CCCCs and see lots of the same kinds of presentations I saw this last weekend, not to mention HASTAC.

Second, I really wish there was a way to hold this conference more regularly some place easy to get to. Rochester wasn’t bad (though still a regional airport), but in recent years, #cwcon has been in Menomonie, Wisconsin; Pullman, Washington; and Frostburg, Maryland. And next year, it’s going to be Findlay, Ohio, which is good for me because that’s only 90 miles away but not exactly easy for anyone planning on not driving there.

And third, there’s still the lack of basic infrastructure. As Bill and I discussed in our 14+ hours of car time, HASTAC specifically and Digital Humanities generally have their own organizational problems, but at least there are web sites and organizations out there. We’re a committee buried in a large subset (CCCCs) of an even larger organization (NCTE), and as far as a web site goes, um, no, not so much. During the many awards, I tweeted that it sure would be nice if there was a page of winners of various things posted somewhere. Someone who will remain nameless said it was all they could do to not tweet back something snarky about “where.”

If I get the time or energy to track that info down, I’ll post it here or somewhere else….

Posted in Academia, Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, Travel | 4 Comments