Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips

Last week, I was in Naples and Capri, Italy to attend the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference. My brief talk/presentation/position statement (everyone just gave small talks) was more or less called “A Small View of MOOCs: A Limited Look at the Recent Past and Likely Future of MOOCs at the Edges of Higher Education in the United States,” and that link takes you to a Google Doc version of my talk– the slides and the script I more or less followed. Here are links to my tourism pictures of Naples, Anacapri, and Pompeii on Flickr.

After the break, I go into way more detail than necessary about the conference and the trip. Read on if you’re interested, though a lot of it is really me writing/thinking out loud for myself, which is often the case on my blog, right?

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Posted in Blogging about blogging, MOOCs, Scholarship, The Happy Academic, Travel | Leave a comment

A “Modest Proposal” Revisited: Adjuncts, First Year Composition, and MOOCs

I’m posting this at 37,000 or so feet, on my way back from Italy from an international conference on MOOCs sponsored by the University of Naples (more accurately, Federica WebLearning). Normally, I wouldn’t pay as much as I’m paying for wifi on a plane, but I wanted to stay awake as much as possible to get back on USA time by Tuesday morning and because I had some school/teaching work to do. Plus there’s a weird extra seat next to me because my row with three chairs has a row of four chairs right in front of it.

Anyway, I’ll be blogging about that in the next few days once I go through my notes and collect my thoughts about the conference and about Italy. In the meantime though, I wanted to post this. I was trying to place this as a “thought piece” in something like Inside Higher Ed and/or The Atlantic, which is why there is more “apparatus” explaining the field and the state of adjunct labor in fycomp than is typical of things I write about that here. But nobody else wanted it/wanted to pay me to publish it, so it will find a home here.

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Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Scholarship, Technology, Writing | 1 Comment

Wanted at EMU: Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing: Writing Pedagogy/Curriculum Development

As the chair of the committee, I’m pleased to invite applications for a new faculty position here at Eastern Michigan. The ad is below and I’m happy to answer any questions anyone might have, but just a few things to mention not in the ad:

  • Here’s a direct link to the position on EMU’s academic HR site:
  • For all kinds of reasons, I think EMU is a great place to work. We have a long tradition of a strong faculty union, which I think has been quite successful in helping set the terms of work and negotiating good contracts. Our department gets along well with each other, and the colleagues I work most closely with in written communication are fantastic. We have a really interesting and diverse student body and a very well-established first year writing program, major, and MA.
  • I’m not going to lie, we do have winter here in Michigan. That said, I really like living in Southeast Michigan. The whole area is affordable, and there are nice neighborhoods within walking distance from campus (I live in one of them). As the home of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is one of the great “college towns” in America in terms of libraries, restaurants, stores, bars, book stores, theaters, events, coffee shops, etc. We’re on the edge of Metro Detroit which has all of the trappings of any major metropolitan area.


The Department of English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University invites
applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor in writing with emphasis in writing pedagogy, curriculum design, and writing studies, beginning Fall 2016. We seek a colleague who will collaborate on the development of a series of intermediate writing courses, in addition to teaching first-year writing and teaching a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in the Written Communication Program.

Candidates will hold a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, Writing Studies, or a closely related field by August 2016. The ideal candidate will have scholarship, teaching experience, professional experience, and a research program reflecting a commitment to first-year writing, curriculum design, and writing pedagogy. The candidate will join an established, vibrant community of teacher/scholars, which includes nine tenure-track faculty in the EMU Written Communication Program.

All applications must be made online at:
Our review of applications will begin on October 15, 2015, and will continue until the position is filled. Application materials should include a letter of interest that specifies teaching and research agendas, a CV, a statement of teaching philosophy, and a writing sample. Please direct questions to the Search Committee Chair, Dr. Steven D. Krause,, 612 Pray-Harrold Hall, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197.

If contacted, you will be asked to present three letters of reference and official transcripts of your highest degree earned at the time of interview.

EMU enrolls approximately 23,000 students and offers an outstanding benefits package and a collegial work environment. EMU’s distinct mix of comprehensive academic resources, strong community initiatives, focus on Education First, and nationally-recognized undergraduate and graduate student research achievements set it apart. The EMU campus is located in the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor community, five miles from downtown Ann Arbor and 35 miles west of Detroit, MI and Windsor, Ontario.

Posted in Academia, EMU | 2 Comments

EMU News: When should concern turn to panic with the presidential search?

Loyal readers of will note that that site is no longer: the account has officially expired, though I still own the domain name and it is redirecting now to It’s a free wordpress install that is a complete archive of the site, nine years worth of posts and comments.  And I suppose it could become a “real site” again, if need-be.

But as I always said, one of the main reasons why I hung it up at is I felt like it was all my voice and I already have a blog, one where I intend to keep posting the kinds of things I used to post on Which brings me to my point, the EMU presidential search.

EMU-AAUP President Susan Moeller sent around an email this morning with the subject line “EMU Presidential Search to be done in SECRET!” It sounds the alarm about the search process for a new president at EMU. You can read the whole thing after the jump, but here’s how she starts in her opening paragraph:

On Monday, September 14, 2015, Regent Crumm sent an email to the campus community announcing that the search for the new EMU President will be a closed one.  This means that the entire President search will be done in secret.  We will NEVER know who the candidates are – we will only know who gets the job in the end.

And then it kind of goes on from there.

But the added concern/panic factor is the EMU Board of Regents is using Parker Executive Search to find candidates, the same head hunter firm that the University of Iowa recently used in its hiring of a new president. And my alma mater has ended up hiring J. Bruce Harreld, a guy with no academic leadership experience, though he apparently knows a lot about fast food. In other words, the worry is we’re going to get stuck with a similar kind of business wonk, and not a particularly distinguished business wonk at that.

I’m of two minds about all this.

On the one hand, the EMU-AAUP has a way of leaping to conclusions, and I don’t think we should panic quite yet. Presidential searches are never “open” affairs. When EMU hired Susan Martin, there was a process where an executive head hunting firm vetted candidates and somehow we ended up with four BoR approved finalists (I can’t remember how they did that). Then the candidates all gave presentations and there was opportunity for faculty, staff, students, alumni, etc., to give input. But it was just input; at the end of the day, the Board of Regents hires the president.

As Moeller points out in her letter, the University of Michigan hired its current president completely in secret, which is the process I think they’ve always had. In other words, the board is saying we’re just following “standard practice.” Don’t get me wrong, I think the BoR should seek input from the campus community. But to me, Moeller’s argument against the way they did it at Michigan, that– “please note that EMU is not the University of Michigan”– isn’t persuasive.

As for Parker Executive Search: this is a company that does a lot of these kinds of searches, and the real problem with the sham hire the University of Iowa did for its president is the state of Iowa. It’s a long story, but all accounts suggest a political hack job that has a lot more to do with the (Republican) Governor and (Republican) chair of the state board of regents and their dislike of the University of Iowa and the Democratic voters in the county where the University is located. Plus there’s a complicated scheme in the works in the state to redistribute some of the money that U of Iowa brings in now to the other two state universities. In other words, the politics here in Michigan generally and at EMU in particular are very different.

On the other hand, this does have a whiff of something that could go bad fairly quickly.

I think one of the reasons why Susan Martin got off to a good start as president were the candidate forums brought the campus together and gave folks at least the impression that the board was listening to them. Skipping that process entirely could be bad for everyone, including both the Board of Regents, the search committee, and whoever it is they decide to hire. I mean, that’s why Iowa is getting such bad press right now; does EMU (and the Parker firm for that matter) really want to have similarly bad press?

So I guess I want to hear a little more from the powers that be about how the search is going to happen before I panic and/or send out emails WITH LOTS OF CAPITALS! But I think everyone agrees no one who cares about EMU ought to wait too long.
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MOOCs and PR: That’s not exactly what/all I said

Here’s an example as to why I am often not all that interested in talking to reporters. I was quoted in Crain’s Detroit Business in the article “Massive online courses grow; what’s in it for the universities?” by Kirk Pinho. Here’s how I’m quoted:

Steven Krause, a professor in the Eastern Michigan University Department of English, Language and Literature who co-edited the 2014 book Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, said that in many ways MOOCs are good public relations for universities.

“It represents, for UM or Ohio State University or MSU a little less so, PR. And it’s not a huge cost to them. It’s more about trying to attract a student to apply to UM rather than take a MOOC online. It’s essentially advertising,” he said.

That’s not inaccurate, but it’s not at all complete, either.

Pinho called me up to talk MOOCs after getting my name from one of the PR folks here at EMU. He told me he was pretty much done with his article and was contacting me at this point to get some additional thoughts. He seems like a nice guy; we chatted for about 30 minutes about a variety of different things, mostly MOOCs.

Just to be clear, Pinho isn’t misquoting me or misrepresenting me. I do think that MOOCs represent a form of PR for the universities offering them. It’s just that I said a lot more than that. For example, I think that the University of Michigan et al feel a completely earnest and legitimate obligation to give back to the community at large, sort of along the lines of what Geralyn Stephens from Wayne State says in this piece. Pinho and I talked a bit about some of the possibilities of “internal” MOOCs, along the lines of what Stephens talks about as well. We talked about completion rates and how one of the problems with MOOCs is the definition of “student” and how that also problematizes things like completion rates. And on a completely different topic, we also talked a bit about how companies like Coursera seem to be making a pivot away from higher education and more toward “just in time” training and certificates.

And anyone who has read this blog at all knows that I think MOOCs are about a whole lot more than PR.

Anyway, I realize Pinho is just trying to do a job here and this is just one out of seemingly hundreds of articles that are “out there” in the MSM along the lines of “gee whiz, what’s up with all this MOOC thing I am hearing about?” I am guessing that Pinho’s editors were the ones who cut the shit out of his piece to make it fit, etc., etc. It just gets kind of frustrating to see what I thought was the least interesting thing I said to be the only thing that makes it into this article.

But at least the book got mentioned again, so that’s a good thing.

Posted in EMU, MOOCs, The Happy Academic | 1 Comment

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 | 3 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.

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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 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 (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:


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?

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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 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