Trigger Warnings Triggering Memories of Teaching From Long Ago

A different kind of Trigger…

There are two articles making the rounds about trigger warnings of late. There’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. And there’s (at least one) response to it, “The Trigger Warning Myth” in New Republic and by Aaron R. Hanion. By “trigger warning,” both articles are talking about the warning given to an audience (students) to a text, movie, or whatever else that might have disturbing content.  While doing a quick search for a definition of trigger warning to quote, I also found out that the AAUP’s position on this is that trigger warnings are a threat to academic free speech. In any event, Lukianoff and Haidt thinks trigger warnings are an example of how we’re coddling the “kids today,” Hanion thinks that’s a myth.

It’s a complicated issue and I think critics like Lukianoff and Haidt have a point. Law students calling the use of the word “violation” a microagression doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of studying law. But I tend to side with Hanion’s view and that most of what Lukianoff and Haidt write are wrong, and as I understand trigger warnings, I think they have the exact opposite effect of censorship, contrary to the AAUP’s position on this. Hanion writes:

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

And a bit later, this longer passage:

While a miniscule number of colleges and universities have gone so far as to codify trigger warnings for professors, most trigger warnings exist as a pedagogical choice that professors make in situations over which we exercise considerable control. (And have existed as such for much longer than the present debate suggests: While “trigger warning” was not part of my vocabulary as an undergraduate, introductory comments like “we’re going to spend some time today on lynching images, so prepare yourselves for graphic and difficult material” were indeed.)

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one,” for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class,” meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.

Most of my teaching nowadays at the undergraduate level doesn’t merit trigger warnings (“just to let you all know: today we’re going to be talking about HTML and CSS” or “Hang on everyone, because today we’re going to talk about how writing is actually a technology”). But I’ve used the kinds of benign warnings that Hanion talks about with some controversial readings and activities in the past (and I’m likely to do that again this fall since I’m going to have students spending a little time with Yik Yak), though I didn’t call them “trigger warnings;” no one did until recently.

If anything, the current argument seems to parallel the debate about “political correctness” way back when, and more or less, the politics are the same in that the more conservative view is that trigger warnings/political correctness are silly. I think both trigger warnings and political correctness can be silly, but it also seems to me that they are also both gestures toward both civility and empathy with an audience. In other words, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

But thinking about this a bit more the other day triggered a teaching memory for me. It was when I was at Southern Oregon and in 1997 or so. It was a specific time where I didn’t give enough warning and where the shit kind of hit the fan. I didn’t get into any actual trouble with an administrator of some sort, but I did have students leaving class in tears. It was a time where maybe more of a warning would have helped, or maybe it was an example of how trigger warnings can only do so much.

And not so much as a trigger warning as a spoiler alert about the rest of this post: after the jump, I give away some key plot/synopsis details about the movies Scream (the first one, from 1996) and a Belgian film released in the U. S. in 1993 under the name Man Bites Dog (the French name was C’est arrivé près de chez vous, which I guess translates basically as It Happened in Your Neighborhood).

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

Yes, I can think of a better way of spending 9 bucks (or, NCTE, please don’t sell my email address)

Yesterday morning, I received an email from my “good friend” NCTE Membership Services with the subject line “Can you think of a better way to spend 9 bucks?” I didn’t think anything of it and sent it to “archive” unread. Later that day, a professional colleague/friend had a bit of a rant posting on Facebook (which he has since deleted– his prerogative, of course) about this email and more generally about NCTE. So this morning, I thought I’d go find that archived NCTE email and figure out what all the fuss is about.

That “nine bucks” a month is for an “Educators Professional Liability Insurance” plan offered through Forrest T. Jones & Company, which is an insurance company that has been offering these plans for a long time.

This is what they are offering in Michigan:

  • The “Educators Professional Plan” offers “Personalized protection for educators who are employees of educational institutions….The plan pays all your defense costs in addition to liability limit for professional liability claims. It also provides job protection benefits if you’re subjected to a demotion, transfer, reassignment or dismissal.” I have my doubts about that last sentence.
  • Then there’s the “Private-Practice Professional Liability” plan, which probably does have some merit if you are indeed a “self-employed educator.” Of course, anyone working for any kind of school or university is not. Next.
  • Finally, there’s the “Student Educator Professional Plan,” which I guess is for students who are doing student teaching, practicums, internships, and so forth. The line here is that this is “required by many colleges and universities.” Maybe that’s true, but I’ve never heard of that and I would assume that the university is the one doing the insuring of the student.

So, two basic observations:

First, while I am not a lawyer and I am not offering any sort of legal advice or insurance advice, the idea that your average NCTE member (that is, a K-12 teacher or a college professor) needs any of this insurance is dubious.

I’m in a faculty union here at EMU, and in any of these professional liability scenarios, I am certain that they would step in. Besides that, all of the examples they give where this insurance would be justified seem to me to be covered by the school’s insurance– that is, a student gets injured in a classroom or something goes wrong on a field trip. And the example of a student suing a teacher because of a bad grade– please, show me the court case where that actually happened.

When I did a search for “do teachers need professional liability insurance” or “teacher liability insurance scam,” I founds some interesting results. There’s this response from a Texas insurance lawyer who argues it’s a waste of money and, if anything, will make the plaintiff go after the teacher instead of just the school.  There’s this article that is actually a critique of the Michigan Education Association: basically, the MEA argues that one of the big benefits of being in their union is the liability coverage, but this “exposé” of sorts says that’s bull. Here’s a long quote that I think speaks to the lack of need for this insurance:

“That is one of the ‘top shelf’ benefits that they tout for being a member,” said James Perialas, president of the Roscommon Teachers Association, an independent teachers union that was created in 2012 when teachers voted to decertify from the MEA and form a local union.

Perialas said the MEA doesn’t come out and say it is the sole provider of liability insurance for teachers, but implies that it is.

“That is not only false, but is inherently misleading to teachers in the union. A teacher’s primary line of defense is his/her school district. They all purchase a liability policy that covers employees,” Perialas said. “Furthermore, many Roscommon teachers have purchased professional liability insurance through their homeowner’s policy, for approximately $25 a year if they want additional coverage. If they are still not satisfied, the teacher-specific liability insurance can be had with membership in organizations like the Christian Educator’s Association, or the Association of American Educators. I am a member of the AAE, and it also provides litigation insurance if I need a lawyer for a wrongful discharge.

And then there’s this piece about teacher liability insurance in Florida, where this time the union there takes the opposite view. The issue there was there was a proposal making its way through the legislature that would require the state Department of Education to run an insurance program. Here’s a quote from that article:

“The last time the state offered this liability insurance, it cost taxpayers $4 million and paid out one claim,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “This is wasteful spending. There are many other places in public schools that could better use whatever dollars are spent on this.”

The Florida Education Association offers liability insurance, and Pudlow said all 140,000 members are covered by that program. Pudlow said his organization has not experienced an uptick in claims in recent years.

So again, IANAL, this isn’t legal advice, find out for yourself, etc., etc., but no, the vast majority of teachers in this country don’t need this insurance.

Which leads me to my second point: NCTE, you should be a better organization than this. 

As it is, NCTE charges its 30,000 or so members between $22 (for students) and $50 a year for membership, and then, if you want to go to one of the organization’s conferences (which is the only reason why I’m a member of NCTE in the first place) it’s another $100-$150. So with this amount of revenue coming in– not to mention the organization’s books, journals, teaching materials, and God only knows what else– is it really necessary to squeeze a few more bucks out of members by selling a list of member emails to an insurance company?

And besides, this isn’t professionally responsible. A big part of what Forest T. Jones & Co. is buying from NCTE (besides the mailing list itself) is the ethos of the organization: that is, NCTE members (and frankly, this particularly applies to newer and more naive members) are being told by this professional organization that this insurance plan is a good idea– certainly a good way to spend $9 a month.  I’m not comfortable with that.

So my friend, NCTE Membership Services, please stop it. I don’t have a problem with you emailing me about dues, about upcoming conferences, or about upcoming publications coming out from NCTE and related presses and organizations. But if you’re going to include me on a mass email you send out, please let it be something that isn’t this spammy. Thanks.

Posted in Academia, The Happy Academic | Leave a comment

The end of EMUTalk is near/EMU-AAUP contract negotiatons

I’m always surprised when August arrives. Summer goes along with June and July– and that’s especially true for me this summer since it’s the first time I haven’t taught a summer course since I came to EMU, probably only the second or so time in the last 25 or more years. That’s not to say that I haven’t been working at all– I’m doing sabbatical things, I was involved in EMU’s first Cyberdiscovery camp, I’ve done a bit of quasi-administrative work, and so forth. Still, the summer pace is slower and the summer schedule is a bit more abstract, even “lazy.” But when August rolls around, I know that it means that the end of summer is near.

And with this summer, the end of EMUTalk is also near. I won’t be renewing the domain name or server space when the bill comes due this September– though technically, if someone else wanted to start up their own version of a site with the EMUTalk.org domain name, I suppose they could. Also before September, I am trying to figure out a way to download the entire site and then post it someplace as a file– that is, while it wouldn’t be an active blog anymore, it would at least be available as a “text” for anyone who is interested. If anyone knows the technicalities of converting a wordpress site into one big file, let me know.

But this is not to say that these kinds of posts/comments/discussions are disappearing entirely. For one thing, the EMUTalk Facebook discussion group already has 72 members– and you can join too!  Just login to your Facebook account and either click that link or search for EMUTalk. For another, I will continue to blog about these kinds of things at stevendkrause.com (including this post!), and I am thinking that I will be rearranging my site into more distinct categories, one of which will be “EMU.” Stay tuned.

Anyway, the one thing that is going on this summer that is EMUTalk-like news is faculty contract negotiations. There’s a meeting on Tuesday, August 4 at noon in Roosevelt Auditorium. According to Susan Moeller’s email to faculty the other day, this is the meeting where the bargaining team will show the administration’s first offer in terms of money and benefits. I won’t be making it to this meeting (I’ve got other plans), but I hope to hear from some folks who go here in the comments. But I don’t recall a meeting like this with the faculty this early in the process.

I think this is a positive thing and a pretty good indication of changing times. In the past, it seems like we would have a faculty meeting like this later in the negotiating process, and during one of these late August/early September meetings, the bargaining team has asked for a vote to authorize a strike, and sometimes, it would get real ugly real fast. Nowadays, it seems like the administration and the union have been able to get along and negotiate with each other in a much more (for lack of a better word) “mature” fashion.

The other thing that feels different now than things felt in the past is even the less than techno-sophisticated EMU-AAUP has a blog of sorts where we’re getting regular updates from the union about the negotiation. It’s not exactly a freewheeling and open discussion space, and the site itself is kind of a work in progress, better than what they had before but still not quite ready for prime-time, IMO. For example, take a look at the masthead picture on the negotiations blog:

negotiationsblog

As far as I can tell, that’s a picture of some building in Germany; I certainly don’t recognize that as an EMU building, and I’m pretty sure there’s no signage for the “Stadthalle” in Ypsilanti. Sure, maybe I’m picking at nits here, but that’s a pretty easy problem to fix.

Anyway, if you look at the actual updates on that site, it looks like things are moving right along. A few of the things that I’ve noticed (because they might indirectly impact me) are dealing with the uneven distribution of overload teaching and summer teaching; faculty won’t be able to be on full release to do administrative work; big changes to the graduate council and also electing the president of the faculty senate directly from faculty; more FRFs; and contractually mandated help with Concur. So as long as we get a modest raise and insurance costs remain about the same, then I think we’ll be in good shape.

Anybody have any other thoughts on the negotiation process so far?

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP, Life | Leave a comment

A few random thoughts on Cecil, @bittman, and chickens

I got into a mini-debate on the Twitters with @TrabiMechanic this morning about an article Mark Bittman wrote for Vox, “Eating Chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion.”  So I thought I’d write a blog post with a few more details and/or random thoughts about all this, and I thought I’d do it in the form of a blog post since, you know, 140 characters isn’t very much.

I’ll start off by quoting from the first couple paragraphs of Bittman:

If the outcry over the killing of Cecil the lion tells us anything, it’s that people are capable of genuine moral outrage at the needless killing of animals. And good for them. Animals are conscious beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain, and we have an obligation to make their lives as good as possible.

But in a given year, the typical American will cause the death of 30 land animals, and 28 chickens, by eating meat. And these animals aren’t just killed, they effectively live lives of constant torture and suffering — not directly at the hands of the people who eat them, but at the hands of the meat producers who sell them.

And then it goes on from there to talk about the evils of factory farming generally, etc.

Okay, a few thoughts as they occur to me:

  • That Vox article that is linked to in the Bittman piece, “Cecil the lion: The killing that’s enraged the internet, explained” gives a pretty good run-down of what happened and the debate around it, including (apparently) the debate as to whether or not regulated big game hunting is potentially a useful tool in the conservation of these animals. I don’t know enough about conservation to weigh in on that debate, though I heard a joke on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show that has a ring of truthiness to me that went sort of like this: If the number of a certain species in the wild does not exceed the number of seats in a large sports arena– say at least 50,000– then you shouldn’t be able to hunt it.
  • Two other rules of thumb: first, it’s probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that has a name, and it’s also probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that is (as described in that Vox article) sort of a beloved mascot. Maybe trophy hunter dentist Walter James Palmer didn’t know about all that, but I’ll bet his guides knew which lion he was shooting. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment.
  • Not that I have a problem with hunting generally– you know, deer, ducks, fishing, other things that people commonly kill for both sport and food. I eat meat so while I don’t think a whole lot of people in this country hunt only for food (for example, while the people I know who hunt deer typically have the animal butchered and made into tasty sausage and the like, I know that a lot of the reason they hunt is because “it’s fun”), I feel like it’s a little “holier than thou” for me to condemn hunters while I’m eating a porterhouse steak.
  • Speaking of eating meat:

Which is to say that not only do I eat meat, I also follow a lot of Mark Bittman’s recipes– which obviously include a variety of meats, including chicken. Granted, Bittman has also advocated pretty strongly for a “vegan before 6” sort of diet, which (when I can and when I’m paying attention) I try to follow as much as I can. Maybe more vegetarian before 6 than vegan, and hey, I just had some leftover chicken parmesan for lunch today, but still. And really, Bittman’s main complaint is factory farming, which is a legitimate problem that is hard for the average middle American consumer to avoid in any food product, including vegetables.

  • All of which is to say that I think the claim that eating chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion is specious at best. There are lots of things morally worse than killing Cecil the lion– to reference Godwin’s law for a moment, let me suggest that actions of the Nazis generally and Hitler in particular– and I think the connection between big game hunting and eating chicken is pretty non-existent. We could more easily talk about how this incident illustrates the problems of ongoing colonialism in Africa, about eco-tourism run amok, and about American/rich white guy privilege. And we could also talk a bit more about the demographics of the people on the Internets who are as or more upset about the killing of this lion than the murder of far too many African-Americans by police recently: that is, is it moral for people to be as or more outraged at the killing of this lion than Michael Brown?
  • Rhetorically, I find this an interesting exigency because of how it has been spread via social media and the like. For me, a lot of this has to do with rhetorical situation and my (long long ago) dissertation project on Immediacy, but it’s more than that too. I’m reading (and maybe teaching some of) Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which tells the story of several folks who have been shamed in different ways on social media. One of the more (in)famous stories is of Justine Sacco, who made a bad and insensitive joke on Twitter– “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”– and who was so ferociously attacked on social media that she really did pretty much have her life ruined. As far as I can tell, Ronson’s argument is that in the age of the internet, when such a public shaming can spread like a meme and frequently go way too far, there should be some kind of space or opportunity to forgive people for one bad mistake. Mostly, I agree with that, though there’s a big difference between Sacco and Palmer is that while she might have been stupid and insensitive, he might have broken the law, which is why Zimbabwe wants him back.
  • Anyway, if anything good comes out of this, I hope it’s more awareness that these two unrelated things, big game hunting and factory farmed chickens, are kinda bad.

Posted in Diet, Scholarship | 2 Comments

I am not sure what Kevin Carey is imagining here….

I started this on Sunday night while a bunch of folks were at my house playing a very very involved board game called Civilization. I did not play along. It is a long story, but the short version is I instead cooked what turned out to be a pretty good and more elaborate than I was planning dinner, and when it comes to playing games generally, I really have to be in the right mood and with the right game. I like game theory a lot more than actual games.

Anyway, late in the night while they were playing (the game went on for about 10 hours and still hadn’t finished), I got around to reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” I came to it via a commentary from a response Cathy Davidson had on HASTAC, “Universities are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Cary and NYT,”  and also on Facebook.

Carey opens with the story of an athletic scandal at UNC where student athletes were taking classes that were technically legitimate classes but where the lack of recognizable requirements (like not having to attend) helped the less scholarly of student athletes to stay eligible for sports. It seems to me that stories like this cheating scandal pop up every few years, but that’s a problem of college sports and not “college” generally, and probably a different post. Then Carey writes:

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

Let’s try to walk through that logic for a moment:

  • Big-time college sports tempt coaches, students, and even sympathetic professors/fans to create “in-house credit mills.”
  • While most colleges (presumably) don’t have a lot of this kind of problem, the design, value, and operation of most other colleges are “no different” from the school where these fake courses happened.
  • Therefore (I guess?), colleges/universities are “not coherent” when it comes to consistency, standards, classroom excellence, and influencing teaching and learning practices.

So for me, part of this is “well, duh,” that there is cheating in big-time college athletics. Obviously. As Davidson points out in her post, what Carey’s example demonstrates is a problem with college sports rather than college. But why would Carey (or anyone else) think that from this example it logically follows that the colleges across the board have no consistency/standards/oversight when it comes to teaching and learning practices? I know op-ed commentators are fond of the hasty generalization fallacy, but this seems a bit of a reach even for Carey.

Having read Carey’s book The End of College (and one of these days, I’ll blog a more extensive review of that), I think I know where he’s trying to go here. In his book, one of the main problems Carey has with higher education are the damn professors because professors are too independent, too lazy, too focused on their research, too indifferent to teaching, too petty, etc. So in Carey’s view, there’s no coherence or standards in higher education– that’s why it’s an illusion– in large part because professors get away with doing whatever it is they want to do. More on that in a moment.

But at the same time, Carey argues here that the college experience doesn’t vary much between schools. Carey wants to make this argument because one of the other points he hammers on in The End of College is that college rankings are way out of control. He cites Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, authors of How College Affects Students, which appears to be a giant and long-standing study on the question of (duh) how college affects students.  Carey writes:

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

And a little later:

 People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

If it’s true that at the level of big data that there isn’t much difference between different four year colleges– that is, you put all the undergraduate students attending “traditional” universities that grant bachelors degrees and those students come out statistically close to the same– then that means that there actually is a lot of consistency and coherence in higher education. And broadly speaking, I think this is true: that is, I believe that the experiences that EMU graduates have in terms of personal growth, subject knowledge, and academic skills are similar to those of University of Michigan graduates (though of course, individual results vary quite a bit). In other words, because the best available research suggests that there is a lot consistency, coherence, and statistical similarity between between different universities, there is no need for the mandated standardization and regulation Carey implies is necessary to make the college a less “illusionary.” Indeed, it isn’t an illusion at all.

But I want to dwell on that second paragraph I quote here because it demonstrates the problems I see with Carey’s “logic” generally. He begins with a claim that I think most people in higher education would actually agree with, that most people learn a lot in college regardless of what college they attend. Then he slips into a claim that the differences that exist within higher ed are a result of the “autonomy” and “academic freedom” of individual professors, and those professors are not “guided by a shared sense of educational excellence” at all. Rather, these damn individual professors are all just a bunch selfish entrepreneurs who bitch and complain about parking. Jeesh.

As Davidson points out in her post, if we’ve learned anything from the “No Child Left Behind” nonsense forced on to K-12 in this country, the absolute last thing we need is more regulation to curtail individual approaches to teaching, autonomy, and academic freedom. As she writes, “We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.”

But beyond that, who are these “professors?” Depending on how you define permanent work and the “tenure track” in higher education, at least 70% (maybe more) of the folks doing the teaching aren’t professors at all; rather, they are graduate students, part-timers, and full-time instructors who might enjoy job security through renewable contracts (or not– some full-timers are on contracts that are not renewable after 3-5 years). These folks are not professors in that they are not usually required to do the research and service/administrative work of professors (that’s certainly the case at EMU), and, for better or worse, they don’t enjoy the level of autonomy and academic freedom of professors. Take our first year writing program, for example, one that is similar to a lot of first year writing programs in that almost everyone teaching classes in it are not professors (full disclosure: I’m the interim associate director of that program right now). We have specific outcomes we expect everyone teaching the class to get their students to meet, and we have a curriculum that offers teachers options but only within the expectations of the course. We wouldn’t hire (or rehire) folks who weren’t willing or able to teach within those expectations. I can’t claim that this level of “programming” and “control” exists across the board in other disciplines, but I’m certain it isn’t “anything goes” for most of the non-professors doing most of the teaching in universities nowadays.

Further, Carey’s assumption about the level of autonomy professors (as in the 30% or so of us who are on the tenure-track) have in their teaching is wrong too. Davidson wrote a LONG comment on her own blog post outlining the steps that are pretty typical for getting a new course approved at a university, a process that more or less squares with my experiences here at EMU. The same kind of bureaucracy is in place for degree programs and any significant change to a course or a degree program. I wish I worked in the environment Carey imagines for me.

I guess what bothers me the most about Carey’s views here and in other places, notably in The End of College, is the amount of airtime it gets in places in the mainstream media like The New York Times. He purposefully sets up the most visible part of higher education– professors– as the sole problem, conveniently skipping past the bloated administrations and edu-entrepreneurs that are profiting the most from out of control tuition. He is a self-described education policy wonk who (surprise, surprise!) thinks that the problems in higher education can be solved with more strident and controlling policies and regulations.   He’s tapping into the lizard brain general public “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sentiment that always exists since things are always getting worse, and he does this by making sweeping generalizations that have truthiness to them but that are demonstrably wrong. The problem is it’s very difficult to change people’s lizard brain minds with actual logic and evidence.

Though Carey is right about one thing: the complaint that unites all of academia has to do with parking.

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 20 Comments

A short vacation post about academics on Twitter, @saragoldrickrab, and what our students don’t know

I’m on a vacation/family trip right now, and even while “away,” I tend to get up early and I’m currently enjoying a bit of peace and quiet. Almost all of the other 17 or so people sharing this giant vacation house are still asleep. So I thought I’d take a little time– just a little– to offer a few more thoughts about the Twitter conversation I had this morning. And let me apologize up front for not having all the details of this particular dust-up, for typing quickly (and thus with typos and bad sentences), etc.:

The latest installment of academics gone wild and/or “getting in trouble” on Twitter comes from CHE, “U. of Wisconsin Professor’s Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.” Seems fitting since I actually am in Wisconsin right now. Anyway, the “naughty” tweeter in question is Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in Education Policy. Here’s a quote from the article:

To several students who had tweeted their excitement about enrolling at Madison under the hashtag #FutureBadgers, Ms. Goldrick-Rab sent a link to an op-ed essay from the Journal Sentinel criticizing the removal of tenure protection from state statutes. Here are some of the responses she got:

Here CHE includes some response Tweets– here’s a link to that— where basically some not so informed college kids respond “ha ha we don’t care” and other nonsense. This was like a month ago. Then the College Republicans got involved a month later, in part because Goldrick-Rab kept on going and tweeted “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it’s terrifying.” This caused more outrage, more attacks on Goldrick-Rab on Twitter, and condemnation of Goldrick-Rab from both the UW Chancellor and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate.

And then, like I said, I stumbled into a spirited and pleasant Twitter conversation about some of this this morning.

So, a few thoughts in not a very precise order:

  • The general public doesn’t understand tenure or the difference between what it means to be a professor, an associate professor, an assistant professor, a non-tenure-track professor/instructor/lecturer, part-timer, or a graduate assistant, all of which is to say that the general public does not understand why all these professors in Wisconsin are in such a tizzy about weakening tenure. So it is not at all surprising to me that some 18 year old young people “stoked” about being admitted to UW think it is uncool for sara to kill their buzz with some sort of newspaper article, man. Because even though Goldrick-Rab is completely right, academics in Wisconsin (really, everywhere) have A LOT more work to do to explain to our students and the public at large how this all works and why this matters. A lot more work.

Most of what academics take as “common knowledge” about how higher ed works is a mystery to the rest of the world. I can recall times where some of these issues have come up informally in class discussions over the years– sometimes during faculty union contract negotiations– and I’ve taken five minutes to explain to a room full of juniors and seniors some of the basics of higher ed hierarchies, not only about faculty but also administrators. For most of my students– juniors and seniors,  mind you!– this is all new information. So again, while Goldrick-Rab is completely right, she made the faulty assumption that her audience of stoked would-be freshmen would actually understand her references to this op-ed.

  • The second mistake I think Goldrick-Rab made is the comparison to Hitler, and actually, as a general rule of thumb, I think any argument that makes a comparison to Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. to a contemporary figure– as in “Scott Walker is like Hitler”– is lazy and it’s going to cause trouble. This “x is like Hitler” trope shows up so much on Twitter because it’s shorthand and you only have 140 characters. The problem is it’s not accurate– I am no fan of Scott Walker, but I don’t think he’s likely to wage an aggressive war of domination in Europe and a systematic extermination of the Jews– and it can be taken way out of context by a group like College Republicans, who are already probably sensitive enough to informally being compared to Nazis. Anyway, my first piece of advice to any would-be academic Twitter-er: no Hitler comparisons.
  • Two other bits of advice to would-be academic Tweeters (and this is a bit of a tangent, but it came up in my Twitter conversation this morning) I’ll mention. First, Twitter is a terrible place to try to discuss anything that is at all complex or controversial, and yet academics try to use it for that purpose all the time. This is why (IMO) online spaces like blogs are still relevant and useful: instead of trying to convey all this on Twitter, I just shared a link to this. Maybe not as many people will read all of my rant here, but I am less likely to be misunderstood and/or taken out of context.

Second, academics (and anyone else, for that matter) who take to Twitter to express strong (and controversial) beliefs can’t get too upset when they are held accountable in some fashion for expressing those beliefs, especially when those beliefs actually take more than 140 characters (sans Hitler references) to convey. Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for academic free speech and I’m not suggesting that Goldrick-Rab or Steven Salaita or any other academic ought to be fired over Tweets. I’m just saying that if an academic (or anyone else) posts provocative stuff on Twitter, they shouldn’t be too surprised if a) it offends people and/or b) the message gets passed around and gets out of the writer’s control in a hurry.

  • Having said all that, I think the executive committee of the University of Wisconsin faculty senate are behaving like a bunch of wimpy knuckleheads. First off, Goldrick-Rab didn’t tell those young people not to come to UW; she referred them to an op-ed piece in Milwaukee’s mainstream newspaper about the impact of Walker’s budget cuts and rollbacks/changes to tenure. These really are things that the faculty ought to be telling would-be students; keeping them in the dark doesn’t do the students any good and it kind of indirectly supports Walker et al’s decisions. Second, what the hell is the point of faculty senate if it isn’t going to defend the faculty’s right to speak? I’m sure there are some details I’m missing here, but as reported in CHE, these people are throwing one of their own ranks under the bus. That’s appalling.
Posted in Academia, Social Networks, The Happy Academic | 15 Comments

EMU-AAUP contract negotiations and an eye on the future

By the way, this is a post I’m writing for both stevendkrause.com and for EMUTalk.org and it’s the kind of thing I’ll keep posting on stevendkrause.com once the sun that is EMUTalk.org sinks below the horizon for good in September or so.

The faculty union, the EMU-AAUP, is in the midst of contract negotiations this summer, and so far, so good. I have no detailed or inside knowledge about what’s going on, but I have chatted with a few colleagues who “know better,” and this is what has happened so far (at least according to the EMU-AAUP web site):

  • There is nothing particularly contentious on either side of the table right now. Probably the biggest fight is going to be over administration’s contribution to TIAA-CREF because the administration changed the way this works for new administrators coming to EMU so that it is a noticeably worse deal than it is right now. It’s more complicated than that, but I guess what it boils down to is the administration wants to pay less for retirement than they do right now, and the faculty obviously don’t like that idea.
  • Apparently, faculty at EMU have fallen behind our peers in terms of salaries and such, and given that the finances and enrollments at EMU are generally pretty solid, we will probably see a decent enough raise both in terms of a flat percentage and also in terms of the “bump” between assistant and associate and associate and full. Of course, the union continues to want to negotiate these raises as a flat percentage, which benefits the highest paid faculty at EMU. It is no wonder that the leadership of the EMU-AAUP has been dominated by faculty in the College of Business and the College of Technology, at least that’s pretty much been the case since I’ve been here.
  • There will almost certainly be some kind adjustment in health insurance, though that’s just an educated guess based on the fact that there has been some kind adjustment on health insurance with every contract I’ve seen.
  • The EMU-AAUP site has a blog of sorts where they have been posting updates to the contract negotiations so far, and things seem to be going smoothly. It’s early of course, and they always start with the less contentious stuff, but it looks like there will be some kind of new language/rules on student conduct, there are some changes to the way contracts work for tenure-seeking faculty that makes things a little easier, and there’s going to be some kind of “electronic dossier system” that will end the ridiculous stacks of binders and such that faculty submit for tenure and promotion and the like.

So while I wouldn’t want to predict too much, I’m not too worried about this contract cycle. I’m frankly a lot more worried about what happens next.

The next contract will be the first under Michigan’s change to a “right to work” state, which means that workers in a bargaining unit (in this case the faculty) have the right to “freeload:” that is, the union will continue to represent all faculty for the purposes of negotiations and for grievances, including faculty who decide to not pay their union dues. If enough faculty opt out of paying the dues, the union will be weaker and eventually it could go away.

Just to make matters worse (as reported in Inside Higher Ed here, “Threat to Faculty Unions”), there’s a case that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to hear next year that could further weaken public sector unions. I’m not sure it would make matters worse in Michigan or not because the IHE article makes it sound that if the court decides that a forced “fair share” fee to a union is unconstitutional, then all states would become “right to work” states.

Either way, the future is worrying. Up until this point, the union hasn’t really had to do much in the way of convincing faculty that the union was a “good idea” because everyone had to pay their dues regardless of how they felt about it. Now if the union doesn’t pay close enough attention to the faculty as a whole, they will risk losing members.

I don’t think there is going to be a bunch of faculty who abandon the union anytime soon, especially in the current unpredictable climate higher education is in, and, as I have said many times before, I am all for the union. At the same time, I think the EMU-AAUP has to make some subtle changes in how it does things.

First, it needs to continue to be responsive to the constituency generally and not just to those who are loudest. A really subtle example of what I mean: the EMU-AAUP opened contract negotiation season with this video that depicts the “battle” that as about to come as akin to one of good versus evil and with all of the drama and special effects of a summer blockbuster. Now, I get that this is a parody and it’s supposed to “fire up” the base and all of that. But a lot (most?) faculty don’t see the administration strictly as the “them” that the “us” is fighting, and the “we’re here to battle” is not exactly a tone to take at the start of what can hopefully become a mutually beneficial negotiating process.

And along these lines, I think the union has to be a little more careful in some of its communication and sometimes knee-jerk responses. A good example of this for me personally is the whole Yik Yak mess: if the EMU-AAUP had held on to its initial position of banning Yik Yak on campus (they seemed to have backed off on that), I probably would have opted out of union dues as a matter of public protest. It’s easy for me to imagine lots of other scenarios where the union leadership does something that ticks off enough people to cost them a lot in dues.

Second, I think the EMU-AAUP needs to do more to emphasize the positive, and there really is a lot of positive with the union. They need better PR and better communication. They’re starting to do that with the revamped web site (though I think there are a lot of clunky elements to the new design), but I think it needs to go further than that. Rather than assuming that all faculty see the obvious benefits to the union, the EMU-AAUP needs to sell itself a bit better than it has done in the past.

Like I said, I don’t think faculty are going to leave the union anytime soon. The one percent or so of salary that faculty pay in dues is definitely worth it to me (though one thing the EMU-AAUP might do– if this is possible– is to have more of a sliding scale on dues that is tied to salary and/or rank, which would make the incentive for lower paid faculty to skip out on dues even less– just a thought). At the same time, the future of the EMU-AAUP and of academic unions generally seems murky to me.

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP | 1 Comment

Post from sabbatical-land “less than zero” days to go: a few random thoughts and unsolicited advice

When I first started a “days to go” countdown in blog posts about being on sabbatical, I pegged the end of my sabbatical as being September 1 because I was off during the winter 2015 term and not teaching this summer. Well, a couple of things happened. First off, I never was completely “away” and I’ve really felt that lately this month with the “CyberDiscovery” camps both at Louisiana Tech the first week in June and here at EMU starting this past Monday. But second and more important, I am taking on some quasi-administrative work as the associate director of the first year writing program starting this July– and really, I’ve already started getting a few emails about all this I have to address here and there. So even though it isn’t a ton of work and responsibility (yet), it’s still not “on leave.”

The party sabbatical is over. Time to get back to work. But before I do, a few random thoughts and advice, mostly to myself.

Continue reading

Posted in Sabbatical II | 3 Comments

Seven Observations About Why Tenure is not “All That”

There’s been a lot of talk in the social networks I travel about tenure lately because of the mess in Wisconsin. For example, there are these two pieces from the New York Times, “Unions Subdued, Scott Walker Turns to Tenure at Wisconsin Colleges” and “Tenure Firmly in Place, but Colleges Grow Wary of Lasting Commitments.” Both of these articles only mention in passing the real crisis, IMO, that of the enormous budget cuts that Walker et al are forcing in the UW system.

Also, I don’t think either of these articles makes it clear that the system in Wisconsin is also unique in that tenure was specifically protected by state law– that’s what Walker managed to change. Ultimately, I suspect there will still be a system of tenure within the UW system that is more akin to the way tenure works in other states. But because of all of the emphasis on tenure, I also have a feeling that Walker et al will be able to cram through these budget cuts without a lot of pushback.

In any event, all of this has had me thinking about tenure in general and also how it has impacted me specifically. Perhaps my seven observations are all kind of obvious to other academics, but I thought I’d write them down anyway. But before I get to these points, let me offer two very important caveats/disclaimers/preferences/whatever:

  • I am for tenure. I don’t think it’s a perfect system (obviously), but I think it’s better than the alternatives. And of course, I’ve been tenured at EMU since 2002 and a full professor since 2007, and I’m not giving up tenure anytime soon.
  • I think the stuff going on in Wisconsin is insane. I worry tremendously for my colleagues and the students in the UW system, and I also worry about some of what’s happening there spreading to other states. I mean, I never thought Michigan would follow Wisconsin’s lead as a “right to work” state, but that’s exactly what happened a few years ago. I sure as hell hope that Walker’s moves in higher education don’t catch on.

Okay, my seven (or so) observations: Continue reading

Posted in Academia, EMU, The Happy Academic | 10 Comments

These hyperboles about the slow change in education make me want to eat my shoes while jumping off of a bridge, literally

My own effort at hyperbole with my post title here….

From The Wall Street Journal comes “Daphne Koller on the Future of Online Education,” It’s a pretty non-news/routine interview of Koller talking about MOOCs and Coursera, though one interesting little bit I hadn’t heard before is Coursera is planning on rolling out a MOOC MBA program. That makes a certain amount of sense, but that is also a far cry from the days where she was giving TED talks about bringing higher education to the slums of South Africa.

Anyway, what got me here was the opening paragraph:

“If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am,” says Daphne Koller, co-founder of the online-education company Coursera. The same couldn’t be said for agriculture, manufacturing and health care, she notes.

If I were to read this paragraph charitably, I’d say Koller was being hyperbolic: that is, she knew this was an untrue exaggeration meant to draw attention to her argument. The problem with that reading though is this “nothing has changed until now” trope has been invoked far too many times by her and by EdX’s Anant Agarwal and by Peter Norvig, and I’m sure by others too. It has crossed from hyperbole to “truthiness” in the sense that if you repeat something often enough, you start to convince yourself (and hopefully others) that it is actually true.

No, I think Koller et al have drunk their own kool-aid.  When Koller says nothing has changed in education for 300 years– until now!— I think she believes this to be literally the case. Think what you want about MOOCs (and my own feelings about them are much more complicated than they are “good” or “bad”), but this “nothing has changed ever in education” claim drives me crazy. So, let’s parse this out a bit: what would the professor from 300 years ago think if they were plopped into today’s classroom? Continue reading

Posted in Academia, MOOCs | 16 Comments