Academic Partnerships, “False EMU” in the news, and finding a concluding “hook” to my book project

EMU is in the news once again for the wrong reasons, and interestingly enough, the latest problems are helping me find a conclusion to the book I’m working on. But before I get to that, let me try to explain a bit what’s going on here.

One of the things that happened at the end of the Fall 2016 semester (thanks in part to the knuckleheads who were in charge of the EMU-AAUP back then) was the administration entered into a deal with an operation called Academic Partnerships (AP). AP agreed to market nationally an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing program (BSN) along with an online Bachelors of “General Studies” program. In exchange, AP would collect around 50% of the tuition collected from these online students. As I wrote back in February when I went to an informational meeting on all this, I saw a lot of problems with this arrangement with AP, and the new leadership of the EMU-AAUP had LOTS of problems with the deal. The new EMU-AAUP leadership said that the arrangement with AP goes well beyond marketing and that ultimately, AP would be doing a lot of the teaching and curriculum work of these courses under the name of EMU and without faculty control, The administration has argued this isn’t happening and isn’t going to happen, that AP is just marketing.

The administration didn’t want to negotiate this at all, so the EMU-AAUP essentially took them to court: that is, a labor arbitration process where a judge/arbitrator hears the case and makes a ruling. I know that was in process, which might explain the timing of the EMU-AAUP’s PR campaign right now. So far, that campaign has been pretty effective. The Chronicle of Higher Education picked up the story here, “Faculty Members at One More University Push Back at Online Programs.”  Here’s a longish quote from that article:

As an online program manager, or OPM, Academic Partnerships has contracted with Eastern Michigan to market and recruit students for its online programs. Typically, OPMs — which also include 2U and Pearson Education — build a college’s online enrollment and bring in more revenue than the college arguably could bring in on its own. But critics argue that such partnerships can result in a lower-quality education and fewer consumer protections.

According to a recent report on the industry from the Century Foundation, “the involvement of a third-party — particularly a profit-seeking entity — in providing services so intertwined with the actual teaching and learning … presents potential risks to quality and value in the education.”

That “recent report” from the Century Foundation is perhaps something more interesting to me and my work on MOOCs than most quasi-casual observers of this arrangement with EMU, but among other things, OPMs are a lot more common and far-reaching than I thought. It’s pretty damning of the deal EMU has made, but also of the deal that many many universities have made.

Also in the press today is this piece from Michigan Public Radio, “Faculty unions fight EMU online degree contract with ads.” EMU’s spokesperson/PR guy Geoff Larcom is quoted saying that EMU won’t be using any AP “coaches,” and he went on to say this:

Larcom says initiatives like this are necessary, because Michigan’s population of college-bound students is projected to shrink over the next decade.

“Regional universities like Eastern Michigan, like our peers, are needing to think of ways to further enhance revenue,” he says.

Just as a slight tangent here: first, whenever anyone associated with the EMU administration says anything about the institution’s finances and then they don’t say anything about how much money EMU wastes on athletics– particularly football– I stop listening. The bottom line is the upper-administration and the Board of Regents cannot have it both ways. Second, universities like EMU need to recall that we are a state-operated and non-profit university and our main purpose is to educate students. We’re not about generating “revenue” generally, and if Michigan’s population of college-bound students does indeed go down over the next decade or so, then maybe EMU should think more about graceful strategies for getting smaller rather than “growing revenue.”

The story also got picked up by this piece from EdSurge, “Professors Take Out Ads Protesting Their University’s Online Degree Programs.” I came across this piece because Larcom posted a link to it on the EMUTalk Facebook page– he offered it as an example of how this article demonstrates faculty input and control in the process. I don’t think that’s what it says at all, but let me quote from the end of this article because I think this is what Larcom is referring to here:

“They wanted to know, ‘Do you really need letters of recommendation for students?’”[Ronald Flowers, Department Head of Leadership and Counseling in the College of Education] recalled. But he said he always pushes back in such situations. “Our faculty make the decisions about who gets in, and that process hasn’t changed at all.”

“There’s been a perception that Academic Partnerships has dictated some things,” he added. “But I’ve been in the room when we’ve had conversations where I’ve said, ‘This would threaten our academic integrity and we won’t go there,’ and they’ve said, ‘Fine.’”

He said that the charges made in ads placed this week by faculty groups about the university’s arrangement with Academic Partnerships are “not accurate.”

“I appreciate the concern about the nature of privatization of public education—I get it,” he said. “We don’t dispute that it’s a good conversation to have. But it shouldn’t necessarily be a conversation stopper.”

For union leaders, though, the biggest concern seem to be what might happen as these for-profit entities move closer to the academic core.

I suppose you could read Flowers’ recounting this exchange with AP as an example of how faculty (though in this case, I’d say administrators since a Department Head at EMU is technically not a faculty member but an administrator) can “push back” against AP. But the fact that this relationship with AP requires any faculty to “push back” is a huge problem. And all it would take for AP to get their way on lowering the standards is a less forceful administrator– which is why I think the EMU-AAUP’s fears are valid. It’s also the conclusion of that report the CHE article links to, “The Private Side of Public Higher Education.” One quick quote from that report relevant to this quote:

If institutions—public and nonprofit alike—are not careful to monitor these contractors, students and taxpayers who thought they were working with a relatively safe public institution may find that they have been taken advantage of by a for-profit company. More so than other contracting arrangements, OPMs represent the outsourcing of the core educational mission of public institutions of higher education, threatening the consumer-minded focus that results from the public control of schools.

But what about your MOOC book? Oh yeah, that. If you’ve read this far, I guess I can go into that a bit…

My book project has the working title “MOOCs in Context” and it’s about the rapid rise and fall of Massive Online Open Courses viewed from the instructor experience (I interviewed a bunch of people who created and taught MOOCs), the student experience (I took a bunch of MOOCs and write about that), and also from the historic experience (I compare MOOCs to previous technical innovations in distance education.)  I guess I have two basic arguments: first, there has always been a disconnect between what MOOC providers hoped/thought MOOCs could be and what MOOC students and faculty hoped/thought MOOCs were. Second, MOOCs are not “completely new” (a claim made repeatedly by MOOC providers and pundits); rather, they are part of a long history of distance learning technologies that have happened in higher education in the U.S. over the last 150 or so years.

I’ll spare the details for now, but MOOCs “failed” in the sense that they will not be altering the way that higher education works in the foreseeable future. They will not, as some pundits predicted just a few years ago, close down universities. But a lot of what I’m trying to do in the last chapter of this book is to ponder the “fuzzy future” of what comes after MOOCs. It’s obviously tricky, but one of the things I think the “MOOC moment” should teach us about the future of higher education is to be weary of the “transformative” promises of for-profit entities like AP. So from my point of view, this EMU “current event” story will fit in well with the end of my book. We’ll wait for what the arbitration says, but I hope it’s a happy ending.

 

Posted in Academia, EMU, EMU-AAUP, MOOCs | 1 Comment

Remember that racist vandalism at EMU? It’s Complicated

About this time last year, I posted here and here about what came to be called the “racist vandalism incidents,” which involved some spray-painting on the side of a building on campus (and some other writings in different places) the “N-word” and such. Well, now the police think they have their vandal, and it turns out to be an African-American man. He’s Eddie Curlin, he’s 29, he was a student at EMU from 2014 to 2016, and he’s currently in jail for something else. Here’s a link to the mLive article, though the Washington Post had probably a better article here.

Needless to say, this revelation complicates things.

As I wrote on Facebook, I guess it’s a good thing that the perpetrator isn’t a bent on violence and devoted white supremacist/hate group type of guy. Though when I think about it for a moment and consider some of the other racist incidents and such that have cropped up on college campuses around the country, crude graffiti hasn’t really been their M.O. It seems more common to see some variety of racist flyers or cards on campuses (we’ve had some of that at EMU and at U of M)– though I wouldn’t want to ignore the Richard Spenser-led/inspired gatherings/riots at UVa and the University of Florida recently. Scribbling “Go Home N-word!” on a wall or whatever seems more the actions of a a drunk frat boy or, in this case, some vandal seeking attention.

But as I also wrote on Facebook, I think it’s more complicated than what EMU police chief Robert Heighes said at the press conference for this. To quote:

“As far as motivation for this, it was totally self-serving,” Heighes said during a press conference Monday. “It was not driven by politics, it was not driven by race. It was an individual item done by one individual for all three of the major graffiti incidents on our campus.”

When asked what factors may have led to the acts of vandalism, Heighes said that information would come out eventually. He believes Curlin was the only perpetrator of the vandalism incidents.

“That will come out at the trial,” he said.

I don’t know Curlin’s motivations, obviously. Maybe he did this because of some deep-seated self-hatred; maybe he has the same sort of compulsions/mental illness that motivates arsonists; or maybe it’s some combination of all of the above (or, least we not presume guilt, maybe he didn’t do it).

But even if we don’t know Curlin’s motivations– even if Curlin didn’t know his motivations– Heighes is wrong that this was not about politics and race. And I don’t mean that in an academic way, as in “all language is about politics and race.” Curlin (or whoever) scrawled “Go Home N-word!” in a public space to provoke a reaction that is obviously rooted in politics and race. Curlin didn’t spray-paint “EMU sucks!” or “U of M sucks!” or “Eddie is great!” or anything else like that because he knew that no one would have cared. He picked his words carefully (well, carefully enough) to know his words and actions would get a reaction. He might not have anticipated the extent to which the EMU community reacted or the level of news coverage these incidents ended up receiving, but he knew it’d get noticed.

Worse yet is that the idea this graffiti was a “hoax” has blossomed all over the place– in the comments of the news stories I link to here, but also in predictably conservative to alt-right sorts of web sites (which I won’t be linking to here). The gist of these articles is “Here’s another example of racism that turns out to be fake news– what are these people complaining about?” As if we can all stop worrying about racism because all of these kinds of incidents have been hoaxes.

And let’s also not forget that the actual racist graffiti incidents were just the beginning of the disruptions on campus. Most notably, the EMU administration went way too far to punish students (notably black students) for protesting these racists incidents on campus. Here’s a post/video about this from early January 2017. So again, the impact and motivation of this graffiti wasn’t just self-serving, wasn’t devoid of politics and racism. It’s a lot more complicated, which might make getting past this incident all that much more difficult.

Posted in EMU, Politics | Leave a comment

Potter is not wrong, it’s just…

Clair “Tenured Radical” Potter seems to have struck quite the nerve with her Inside Higher Ed column “Angry About Adjuncting? The radical move might be to quit.”  The gist of the column is basically in the title: adjuncts who are angry and bitter about their working conditions ought to quit and seek employment outside academia. Lots of comments on the column and social media I saw more or less echoed the sentiment of “The Dude” in this exchange with Walter: Potter is not wrong, she’s just an asshole.

Actually, no— I don’t think Potter was being an asshole. I think she was trying very hard in her column to be kind with her mostly sound advice. It’s just not exactly the kind of advice adjuncts want to hear, especially if one is an adjunct and feeling trapped, depressed, desperate, on the edge of financial ruin, living in their car, contemplating sex work, etc. 

Seth “Here Comes Trouble” Kahn had a good blog post about this, where he points out the problems of Potter’s “just leave” advice (though I don’t think that’s exactly what she’s saying). He’s right– it’s not just that easy to give up sometimes because of personal and emotional investments, not to mention because a lot of adjuncts are “stuck” geographically or for family reasons or what not, plus a lot of adjuncts are “golden handcuffed” to the work in that it’s just barely enough money to get by and they don’t want to risk losing that. Though I think Seth kind of agrees with Potter too.

I’ve blogged about adjunct work and the job market frequently over the years because it has been a concern/topic in the academic media since I started caring about academic career things almost 30 years ago. I used to read the excellent Invisible Adjunct blog regularly. She (it was an anonymous blog) left academia and closed down her blog in 2004, and I do wonder once in a while how things turned out for her. I hope well. My point is none of this is new and there was never a golden age for being an adjunct, either real or imagined.

So while I realize that Potter’s advice might make her sound like she’s being an asshole, she’s still mostly right. I guess though I would add three other thoughts, all of which I’ve written about many times before:

  • Being an adjunct should be a temporary thing. Unless you can afford to work part-time because of life circumstances, being an adjunct should be a “transition” to a career and not a career in itself. Of course, this is advice to heed at the start of one’s adjuncting career, not after being in it for 10 or 20 years.
  • Don’t quit your day-job; make a gradual transition. I was an adjunct between my MFA and PhD studies, but I taught at night and had an office job during the day. This was really important for me professionally because I got a chance to see at least a taste of what a “real job” was like and also could (sort of) pay the bills and had insurance and such. But I think this advice works the other way too for the full-time/part-timer: that is, while I think there is a certain purity in Potter’s advice of just quitting, it seems to me the more sensible thing for the adjunct trying to leave academia is to try to ease into non-academic work a bit more gradually.

I should add that I am not speaking from experience on this one because I’ve been a professor/had the same job for about 20 years. But I will say that entering my fifties and the state of affairs at EMU has made me at least contemplate briefly a different career. I guess if I was serious about leaving my job, I would start by researching career counseling services, or maybe even temporary employment services. That’s how I got a “real job” oh so many years ago.

  • Higher Ed generally (and composition and rhetoric specifically) needs to find ways of cutting our dependence/addiction to cheap teaching labor. I blogged about this here with my “Modest Proposal” about MOOCs; in brief, I think my field needs to stop requiring every single college student to take first year writing. For me, this is not an argument about the value of the course because I think it is valuable. But the universal requirement perpetuates the exploitation of part-time instructors. In other words, part of the solution is of course on the “supply side” of things, which is what Potter’s advice and the call for decreasing the number of PhD students in the humanities (especially in fields like literature) are trying to address. But Higher Ed and the profession also needs to address the demand side of the equation as well.
Posted in Academia, Teaching, The Happy Academic | Leave a comment

On Baking Bread

Bread Baking (Fall 2017)

I baked bread again last weekend. That’s not all that unusual; I don’t think I’ve bought bread since March or April. It kind of came up on Instagram and Facebook because my long time friend and colleague (and fellow baker/cook-type) Bill Hart-Davidson commented that I should post some pictures. So I did. More than necessary. And now here I am writing about baking bread, also more than necessary.

I’ve tried to make bread for years. The first loaves I tried to make long ago (and I do mean rectangular bread baked in a loaf pan) were dense and inedible, I think now because I thought you had to knead the hell out of the dough and also because I was trying to follow terrible recipes. I’ve tried to make some of the breads featured in Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery cookbooks, and while I like both of these books for different recipes, the breads are overly complicated.

Two things I’ve learned from these past failures. First, it’s really hard to make baguette and similar kinds of breads. There’s a surprising amount of technique and (maybe less surprising) home ovens just aren’t designed for this to work well. It’s the same reason why it’s possible to make pizza at home that is better than what you can get from most delivery places, but it’s not possible to make pizza at home that is better than what you get at legit artisan pizza restaurants. Second, it’s really hard to make a soft loaf of sandwich bread– not Wonder bread, but normal and somewhat squishy sandwich bread that you get in your usual grocery store. At least it’s not really possible to make this kind of bread without adding a lot of stuff like butter, eggs, and powdered milk.

A few years ago, my first successful bread making resulted from following Mark Bittman’s (relatively) famous No-Knead Bread recipe. And by the way, if anyone is reading this thinking “hey, I’d like to make a good crusty loaf of bread at home, where do I start?” I’d say right there. From this recipe, I learned there are two keys for making good bread at home: time (this recipe takes 24 hours), and a cast-iron Dutch oven. This is a pretty basic piece of cooking equipment– the go-to pot for making stew, chili, soups, etc., etc.– and if you don’t have one, you should buy one anyway. A pre-heated and covered Dutch oven gets a lot closer to the environment in the ovens the professionals use to make really good bread. Essentially, you pre-heat the Dutch oven to 475 degrees, carefully take it out and take off the lid, dump in the dough, put the lid back on, and bake for about 30 minutes. Take the lid off and bake some more for another 20 or so minutes. Handling a rocket-hot cast-iron pan is also where a pair of grill gloves comes in very handy.

About a year ago, I was in a bookstore in Traverse City and I picked up a copy of The Elements of Pizza by Ken Forkish. I occasionally buy books (particularly cook books) because of the cover, and this one is an example of that impulse. It’s a very pretty book with lovely pictures, and it also turns out to be a really well-written book, one that I’ve been following for making pizza dough since I bought it. But pizza is a slightly different topic.

Then I found Forkish’s first book, the James Beard award-winning Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza. This, my friends, this book is the absolute best. Forkish explains the process of making high quality bread at home in extraordinary and easy to follow detail with great recipes and photos. What I like most (and experienced myself) is Forkish starts with recipes and techniques that are simple (there’s a good recipe at the beginning of the book where you can make some good bread in a day) and moves on to more advanced techniques, though still all with the same four ingredients highlighted in the book’s title. He also has some very useful videos where he demonstrates his recipes.

Like Bittman, Forkish’s technique hinges on baking in a Dutch oven, but I also learned from his book about the usefulness of large plastic tubs to mix and hold the dough (I bought mine at a local GFS, which is great for inexpensive kitchen stuff) and  wicker proofing baskets. The tubs are handy for anything where you need a big container (I’ve brined chickens in these before), and they are very useful for mixing Forkish’s recipes since they end up involving a kilogram of flower. The proofing baskets are a unitasker and not really necessary– a big bowl with a tea towel dusted with flour does the same thing– but they are handy and they are what gives the finished bread those cool-looking rings of flour.

Oh, another tool you kind of need to follow Forkish’s recipes is a kitchen scale, but in my mind, that’s kind of like a Dutch oven: if you don’t already have one, you should buy one anyway since these scales come in handy for all kinds of cooking.

Since June or July, I’ve been making natural leavin breads (aka sourdough) from the same starter, and that includes the current batch. Making the initial leavin took five days; to revive the leavin from storage in the refrigerator takes two days, so for baking this past Monday, I started waking the leavin this past Saturday.

This is perhaps too much work and time to spend on something as trivial as bread– even good bread– especially since there are plenty of places near me where I can get bread as good. Zingerman’s comes to mind. This past weekend, I ended up making a total of two kilos worth of bread, far more than Annette and I can consume– though fortunately, I have found that homemade sourdough bread lasts quite a bit longer than store-bought bread, and well wrapped, it will keep in the freezer for a couple of months.  Plus I sometimes give it away.

Still, I find it satisfying to make bread. Unlike academic work, it’s very systematic, it’s finite, and it produces a lovely result that is even edible.

 

 

Posted in Food, Fun, Life | Leave a comment

The random opportunities of an alt-ac career path

Somehow– I’m not really sure how– I have found myself on an electronic mailing list for the Kimble Group, which is a “recruitment search firm focused on the hiring needs of Fortune 500 companies as well as small businesses nationwide.” I must have clicked on something at some point, maybe at one of those moments where I think that I’ve “had enough” of academia or something, I’m not sure.

Anyway, here is a selection of the hundreds of different jobs these emails have suggested I apply for:

  • Substitute Teacher/Paraprofessional
  • Assistant Manager, Checkers Drive-In
  • Team Leader-Optical Dispenser-OptimEyes
  • Licensed Cosmetologist-Detroit Airport Spa
  • Assistant principal, Secondary (Detroit Int’l Academy)
  • Food and Beverage Supervisor, MGM Grand
  • Detroit Red Wings – Red Patrol Member
  • Executive Producer, McCann Detroit
  • Disk Jockey
  • Assistant Professor of Journalism – Public Relations
  • Medical Assistant
  • Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies – Filmmaking
  • Detroit Tigers Foundation Intern
  • Medical Assistant-Infectious Disease
  • Assistant General Manager, Taco Bell
  • Division Head, Hematology/Oncology – Henry Ford Health System

And so forth.

To be fair to the Kimble Group people, I think I was getting random job suggestions like this because I never updated my profile, though that was because I never quite understood how I started getting these emails in the first place. Once I did update it to stuff I could probably actually do (freelance writer and content strategy, for example), I did get an email for jobs I could kinda/sorta apply to.

Still, it’s amusing to me to think that what the Kimble Group was doing was sending me their best guesses as to what someone who has been a college professor for 21 years might be qualified to do, which is to say everything, anything, and nothing all at the same time.

Posted in Academia, Funny, The Happy Academic | 1 Comment

The last third

Late August/early September is the beginning of the year for academic-types. Just as summer is ending and normal people begin to think about fall and the year winding down, academic-types are thinking of starting again. Though this new school year finds me in a place where “starting again” isn’t quite what’s happening. I’m more imagining the last third of my career, give or take.

I’m not teaching this fall because I have a Faculty Research Fellowship from EMU, which is basically a “sabbatical light” sort of award. It’s a good thing and I am busy working on a book about MOOCs, but it also means I’m not getting ready to teach classes for the first time in like 29 years. Dang, I just did that math, but I think it’s right: I started teaching as an MFA student in 1988, and while I had a winter semester sabbatical and some other breaks along the way, I’m pretty sure I have taught at least one class every fall since 1988 as either a grad student, a part-time instructor, or a tenure-track faculty person. Until this year.

Plus I am beginning this semester as an “uber” or “fuller” professor. That’s not what it’s really called, but “salary adjustment promotion” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. This was one of the good things the union did a while ago (with the last contract?) that helps deal with both the problems of salary compression and motivating full professors to stay active. In a sense, it isn’t that big of a deal because everyone in my department who has done the paperwork and process for this promotion has gotten it. Like tenure and promotion more generally at EMU, it is more about “time served” than demonstrated excellence, though I think there’s a good argument to be made about why our system is both more humane and more empowering for faculty who take their scholarship seriously than what happens at most universities. But in another sense, it is a big deal because it is a significant pay raise and because it does tick off another career milestone: I’ve been a full professor now for 10 years.

Oh, and given the low bar for scholarly productivity at EMU, I’m pretty sure that the stuff I’ve done this year that didn’t count this time (presentations and a chapter in a book on MOOCs that just came out) plus my MOOC book (knocking on wooden things) will be enough in my scholarship bucket for me to get a second one of these salary adjustments in 2027, even if this MOOC book I’m working on is my last scholarly project. This assumes both the salary adjustment promotion and me are walking the earth in 2027, of course.

Plus PLUS there is the ongoing mess of course equivalencies and the generally bad and/or in-over-their-heads administrators at EMU right now, everyone from the President all the way down. I don’t have a lot of confidence in any of these people, and I don’t think my opinions about the administration are all that unusual.

Plus PLUS PLUS I turned 51 this year. I don’t know if that is that important of a milestone or not, but it seems a bigger deal to me than 50 was, maybe because of everything else that’s going on.

So the bad news is that career-wise, I probably have no choice but to ride out the storm at EMU. Never say never, but I’m too old and too senior and I don’t have the academic pedigree to compete for most of the tenured professor positions that might be coming about this year. Besides, we’re a package deal. Annette (also a tenured full professor) and I long ago decided that a “commuter marriage” wasn’t a good idea. So sure, we might look at the job market a bit more than we have in the past, but more than likely, we’re stuck.

Mind you, being “stuck” at EMU isn’t all bad. While the working conditions might be getting worse in different ways, I am pretty sure EMU isn’t going to be closing its doors in the foreseeable future. It could be a lot worse; I mean, I don’t worry about losing my job. I like my students and my colleagues. I like southeast Michigan. The pay and benefits are still pretty good (though it’ll be interesting to see what gets clawed back with the next contract). And as I’ve seen before, the working conditions at EMU (and most universities, actually) can turn from good to bad to good again on a dime. It’s bad now; it could be totally fine next fall.

But yeah, I’m not feeling particularly rosy about this new school year.

My friend and colleague Bill Hart-Davidson wrote a relentlessly positive Medium post here about his start to the new school year at Michigan State University, newly promoted to both a full professor and the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Letters.  The post is called “Like an Oak Tree” because he tells the story of an oak tree he has in his front yard that appears to be dying. In reality, that tree is becoming “reborn” by providing a “home” for the various woodland creatures feeding and living on/in it while simultaneously it is healing itself with new growth.  You should read that. It’s inspiring.

But right now, I am reminded of  T-shirt slogan I have seen before, “50 isn’t old if you’re a tree.”  And as an academic who is feeling kind of “done” and pessimistic, the metaphor of “dead wood” seems somehow more fitting.

I don’t think too frequently or specifically about retirement. Usually, I think “retire from what?” I mean, I still like what I do, it’s not exactly back-breaking labor, and I’ve gotten to the point where I really can take a long break in the summers. But sometimes (especially when the morale and environment is like it is right now), I think “how soon can I get out of this?” Either way, the start of this school year has brought into sharp focus for me that I probably am entering the last third of things. Thinking about retirement doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched now as it did even a few years ago.

Anyway, my new school year resolutions:

  • Finish the MOOC book. And finish a draft of it before my FRF wraps up this fall.
  • Go to the gym more.
  • Let go and find something else “to do” besides by EMU. What I mean by this is as I unplug from various service and quasi-administrative duties and instead focus on my teaching and me, I need to find things that provide value in my life that don’t have to do with EMU and my work. I’m not entirely sure what that means yet and there are people close to me (like my wife) who say I am not going to be able to “let go.” But I got to start trying.
  • Finish the book.
  • No really, finish the book! Which (more knocking! more knocking!) really is entirely possible.
  • Stay “out of it.”
  • Plan early enough for winter teaching– though I will of course need to know what I’m teaching in the winter more than a week before classes start, which will not necessarily be the case.
  • Start writing something else that has nothing to do with my “career.”
  • Okay, have a little fun, too.
Posted in Academia, EMU, Sabbatical II, Sabbatical Lite, Scholarship | Leave a comment

Will Richmond and Monument Avenue be next?

I lived in Richmond, Virginia from 1988 to 1993, while I was in the MFA program in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and then while working at a “real job” for a few years before I entered the PhD program rhetoric and writing at Bowling Green State. I didn’t go to Charlottesville much and I don’t know anything more than what has been reported about the terrorism from various “White Power” groups this past weekend. The catalyst for the KKK/Nazi/etc. violence was  supposedly the removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee, though I’ve also heard commentators say that issue was merely an excuse for the Robert Spencers and David Dukes of the U.S. to bring their hate shows to what is otherwise a pretty left-leaning college town. Doesn’t hurt that Trump seems OK with these kinds of folks being part of their base.

Anyway, with all this talk of the removal of statues of Confederate “Heroes,” I have to assume that one of the next hot-spots is going to be in Richmond along Monument Avenue. Apparently, a “Confederate heritage organization” has asked for a permit to march around the Robert E. Lee statue there on September 16.

Let me back up a bit:

Growing up in Iowa, the Civil War, the Confederacy, and issues of race in general were mostly absent. The Civil War was a topic that was covered somewhere in Junior High history class and that was about it. The town I grew up in, Cedar Falls, was (and I think still pretty much is) very very white. I graduated from high school in 1984 from a school that I had about 1200 students, and I can remember exactly one black kid. This is not to say there were no African-Americans in the area– it’s just that they all lived in Waterloo, which was the larger and much more gritty factory town that Cedar Falls bordered. But Iowa as a whole is very white, and people of color in the state make up a disproportionally large percentage of poor and working class people.

When I decided to go to VCU and move to Richmond, I thought I was moving to the East Coast. After all, Richmond is only about a two and a half hour drive to DC. Little did I know that I was actually moving to “The South,” and (just to give you a sense of how clueless I was) I was moving to the capitol of the Confederate States of America no less!

Richmond oozes with the sort of history that was foreign to my midwestern and suburban upbringing. The joke always was “they fought all around here.” I remember going on a tour of the state capitol building when my parents were visiting and the tour guide pointing out that the statehouse had been both the capitol of the state of Virginia and also of the country of the Confederate States of America, and that we did not in fact fight a Civil War but rather it was The War Between the States. A lovely place to visit in Richmond is Hollywood Cemetery, which is the final resting place of Jefferson Davis and hundreds (thousands?) of Confederate soldiers buried near the Monument of the Confederate War Dead. The grave markers are stone squares stamped “CSA.” There is a ton of stuff like this in and around Richmond. They really did fight all around there.

The other big change for me was demographic. I moved from a town (Iowa City) that was about 80% white to a city four times as populous that was about 40% white and over 50% African-American. A “cultural shift,” to say the least. But while people of color also made up a disproportionate percentage of poor and working class people, there was (and still is) a large African-American middle class population in Richmond, not to mention the fact that the city council and mayor’s office has had an African-American majority for some time.

Monument Avenue is a wide and long boulevard that runs from near the VCU campus to the west, beyond the city limits and near to the University of Richmond. The most famous part is in a historic neighborhood called “The Fan District.” This ten or twelve or so block section of Monument is lined with enormous multimillion dollar mansions and (as wikipedia puts it) “punctuated by statues memorializing Virginian Confederate participants of the Civil War Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, as well as Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and international tennis star.”

For the five years I was in Richmond, I lived in many different apartments within walking distance of this section of Monument Avenue. The statues on Monument vary in size and grandeur (the Robert E. Lee statue is 60 feet tall, including the pedestal) and I used to know all sorts of details about what it meant that different statues faced different ways and different horses had their feet up or not. Taken as a whole, the statues and the houses and churches that line Monument are stately, grand, and– well, “monumental.” I didn’t think a lot about how the statues honored the oppressive leaders of the oppressive and racist Confederacy– mostly because I just didn’t think a lot about such things at all back then. Rather, Monument Avenue was to me a good example of the strange contrasts and close proximity of things in “the big city,” because while Monument Avenue itself was home to the stately mansions paid for with old money, Grace Street (just a block away) used to be known for prostitution, drugs, drunks, and crime. I knew a couple of different people who were mugged within a block or two of Monument Avenue.

Though there was one time early in my years in Richmond where race and monuments met. Back in the late 1980s, the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday was just being adopted by all the states, and in Virginia during my first winter there in 1989, they celebrated “Lee Jackson King” day. Because I was an idiot, my thought was that there must have been some civil rights activists named “Lee” and “Jackson” that Virginia decided to honor along with King, or maybe even just one guy, the civil rights activist “Lee Jackson.” While wondering about this when out and about on my first “Lee Jackson King” day and I happened to see Confederate reenactment guys marching around the Lee statue. Aaahhh I said to myself.

Like I said, I didn’t think about this stuff a whole lot back then. I certainly think about it more now.

What’s next for Monument Avenue? There was a pretty good article that summed things up in Richmond’s weekly Style magazine, “Is Monument Avenue Set in Stone?” back in April. As this article points out, this has been an on-again/off-again issue for a while now. According to this article (also from Style), “Mayor Stoney Announces a Commission on Monument Avenue Statues.” Stoney’s position (at least based on this article published in late June 2017) seems to be that while the statues are bad and the commission ought to recommend ways of “adding context and correcting alternative facts,” moving the statues is not something “on the table.” Just last week (and before the tragedy in Charlottesville over the weekend), the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article about the first and apparently out of control meeting of the Monument Avenue Commission, “‘It’s theater of the absurd’: Monument Avenue Commission’s first public hearing borders on chaotic.”  If I could, I’d link to my friend Dennis Danvers’ post on Facebook about this because I agree with his argument– “It’s time to haul away the many Confederate monuments that litter the Commonwealth”– but as the comments suggest, this opinion is far from universal.

Anyway, I don’t know what should happen next with Monument Avenue. The statues should probably be taken down and replaced, but those are decisions that are going to have to be made by Richmonders and Virginians. I do worry that whatever happens on September 16 along Monument Avenue will more than simply intensify the debate though. Here’s hoping it’s not a repeat of this past weekend.

Posted in Life, Politics, Travel | Leave a comment

Where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs

Slowly but surly (surly but slowly?), the MOOC book project I’ve been working on continues. I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much, but I am hoping to finish a manuscript by late summer/early fall fall/early winter, which I think is completely possible since I have a “Faculty Research Fellowship” from EMU coming up. This means that I’m not teaching this fall, which is probably a good thing for me with all this nonsense about equivalencies.

I wrote about this a bit last year here and also here, and I am sure it will come up again. I’ve always been pretty positive about Eastern as a place to work (albeit a place that has always had problems), but I have to say I feel like it’s kind of a dark time at EMU right now. If I were “new” here, I’d probably pay pretty close attention to what other positions are coming open. It all does make me contemplate what I really want to do for the last third or so of my career and/or working life. But that’s a different blog post.

But where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

So MOOCs are still “a thing,” as they say, though they are no longer the kind of red-hot existential threat of a thing they were when Charlie Lowe and I were putting together Invasion of the MOOCs in 2013, let alone during the downturn/“Trough of Disillusionment” they were in when the book came out in early 2014. MOOCs have changed a lot, which actually kind of helps the argument I’m trying to make with the book I’m trying to write right now.

It seems to me that one of the biggest changes that has come about in the last year or so is the ways in which the discourse about MOOCs have been merging with/melding into other forms of online and/or distance education. For example, there’s the Handbook of Research on Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs edited by Elizabeth Monske and Kris Blair that came out late last year, which is as much about online instruction more generally as it is about MOOCs. (Not to brag too much, but a ton of the chapters in this book cite chapters from Invasion of the MOOCs, which was nice to see). Elizabeth Losh has an edited collection coming out later this month that I think will try to capture these shifts, MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education (and spoiler alert: I have a chapter in that collection). I think this sentence in the book blurb on Amazon gets at in terms of how MOOCs are changing: “The collection goes beyond MOOCs to cover variants such as hybrid or blended courses, SPOCs (Small Personalized Online Courses), and DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Course).” That’s funny: I thought I was just teaching small online courses as part of my regular teaching at EMU for the last dozen or so years. Turns out I’ve been teaching SPOCs!

I think that was part of what was going on with some articles that came out recently about an experiment in MOOCs online courses at MIT. The headline in the Inside Higher Ed article, “For-Credit MOOC: The Best of Both Worlds at MIT?” is sort of understandable, but it wasn’t really a MOOC. Based on what I’ve read in the executive summary of the experiment, what was really going on here is there was a special online course within the MOOC structure for a course on Circuits and Electronics at MIT. Basically, a small group of students– it ended up being a total of 27 who finished– were allowed to take the course with the MOOC materials though in a decidedly not “Massive” format with lots and lots of attention. Among other things, these students had regular interactions with the course TA, weekly homework and lab assignments, and students who seemed to be lagging behind were encourage to complete the work via personal emails and/or to come to campus office hours.

In other words, these students took an online/quasi-hybrid course and it worked out well. Oops, I mean a SPOC. So clearly, one of the lessons learned here is the scale, the class cohort, and the support for that cohort beyond the MOOC content all make a big difference. But I’ll also say something I (and lots of others) have said before: one of the positive things to result from the rise/fall/leveling of MOOCs has been the realization by the “Flagship” universities in the US that online and/or hybrid courses (which have been offered at places like EMU for a long time now, of course) might not be such a bad idea after all.

But online courses are of course not the same thing as face to face courses. It’s about the affordances of the formats, and you’re mileage will vary in all kinds of important ways. That is kind of the conclusion of a study sponsored by the Brookings Institution, “Promises and pitfalls of online education.”  I’ve only read the executive summary (one of the reasons why I’m linking to it here is to read it later) and Inside Higher Ed had a good piece of various experts reacting to the study. The two basic takeaways I have right now (neither of which is exactly earth-shattering) are a) yes, online courses are not a “one size fits all” solution, and b) under-prepared or otherwise marginal students struggle in college and need a lot more attention to succeed.

(As a slight tangent: while I often disagree with him, I think Fredrik deBoer highlights the often ignored basic requirements people need for academic success, which has nothing to do with the medium or format of how we offer college courses and everything to do with the luck of our births. Those of us who had parents who went to college, who grew up middle-class, who don’t have some sort of cognitive or developmental disability, who weren’t exposed to lead or born premature, and who weren’t abused or neglected have a much better chance at being academically successful than those who didn’t have this luck. All of which is to say it’s a whole lot more complicated than a class being online or face to face.)

But where was I again? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

One of the things I want to do as I start wrapping up this project is to revisit how I became interested in MOOCs in the first place: I want to take a couple more MOOCs. I haven’t completely decided yet, but I am leaning toward two different approaches to MOOCs that have emerged in the last year or so and that are different from the MOOCs I took before. I’m interested in the MOOCs that are happening at edX in association with Arizona State– ASUx. I’m also planning on doing something different from what I did before by signing up for a self-paced course in something I know I am really quite bad at, College Algebra and Problem Solving. My lack of math skills is one of the main reasons why I ended up as an “English major” way back when. I could pay the “verified certificate” fee of $49 and then, if I pass the course with a “C” or better, I can pay $600 for the credit which is valid at ASU or, presumably, transferable to other universities. Since I don’t really need this course for anything, I think I’ll pass on that– though upon registering, I see I can “upgrade to verified” later on. And I’ll be curious if there are things built into the course to “motivate” me to keep going with it.

I’m also going to sign up for a Udacity course– not part of their “Nanodegrees” but something free. Udacity made a pretty hard shift really away from higher education to more of a training model a few years ago and in some level of partnership with various corporate partners. Take the Digital Marketer nanodegree, for example: this program is supposed to take 3 months to complete to (presumably) make you eligible for jobs with salary ranges between $42K and $182k a year, and it is offered in collaboration with Facebook, Google, Hootsuite, and others. Since the “full-immersion” nanodegree is $1000 and the “self-study” version of the program is $600, I don’t think I’ll be going there– though like I said, the way things are going at EMU, maybe it would be worth the investment.

Anyway, for now, I’ll stick with something for free that still might be useful for me, Intro to JavaScript. We’ll see where that (and a math class!) takes me.

 

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Scholarship | 1 Comment

Writers Having to Work for A Living, a #firstworldproblems

The Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times includes a couple of essays in the “Bookends” section under the collective headline Do Grants, Professorships and Other Forms of Institutional Support Help Writers but Hurt Writing? Siddhartha Deb (who I think is a professor at The New School) laments bitterly how creative writing/artist like Deb are increasingly expected take on the duties and responsibilities for being a professor:

Unless teaching at one of a few select places, writers are increasingly required, apart from their teaching duties, to attend meetings, serve on committees and be on email 24/7. They are also expected, in an era when students are customers, the university a brand and everything a matter of opinion, often to put aside whatever knowledge and expertise they might have acquired in order to assuage the varying sensibilities of their customers. Otherwise, as in the case of the poetry professor in Wisconsin attacked for teaching material with L.G.B.T. content, one might be taken to court in order for an F to be changed to an A.

In the second short essay, Benjamin Moser (who has been a translator and a columnist or editor at Harpers and The New York Review of Books, just to name a few places) also laments bitterly how “writing” doesn’t pay. He writes “Many writers enjoy teaching or journalism or translation or editing, but many do these jobs because it’s hard to survive on writing alone. Money clearly communicates the still-prevailing attitude: that writing is not a real job.” Moser goes on to suggest, basically, that society ought to simply pay writers (again, of the capital L “Literature” variety):

But literature is not made by society. It is made by individuals who, like anyone else, have bills to pay. Those whose job it is to enunciate other values often find themselves punished for the attempt, though we all need those values: Nobody wants to live in a world whose only measures are financial.

So does the world owe writers a living? We have grown so used to subordinating everything to money that the question seems absurd. But it is easy to imagine a society in which art — like health care and education, care of the poor and the elderly — is a public good: in which we delight in work and workman both.

Oh, boo-hoo. Two writers who have careers and jobs that most other writers would literally kill a sibling to obtain are complaining that it is a shame they have to labor to support themselves, despite the fact that they are artists, God-Damn It! Boo-hoo-hoo.

Coincidentally, the next piece I came across on the NYTimes web site while looking for the link to this piece was this column by Tracie McMillan, “Who Do We Think of as Poor?” McMillian begins with an anecdote about how when she was working on a book– ironically enough about poverty!– she went on food stamps to make ends meet.

In any event: yes, “creative” writers (more on “creative” in a moment) are not and never have been paid just for making art. If robots automate so much of the workforce that a basic income becomes a thing in advanced capitalist states, then that might mean there would be lots of people who could afford to do whatever they wanted, including make art. Short of that, the basic challenge of artists has been balancing a way to make art and pay the bills.

Maybe it would be a good idea to pay all artists to make art. On the plus-side, there might be a lot more happiness in the world if more people were spending their time making art. On the down-side, I am sure the world would have a lot more shitty art. Regardless, pretty much every novelist or poet that you can think of either had a day job, was an academic (which is also a day job, though a somewhat odd one), was independently wealthy, or had a patron of some sort. I’m reading a book about Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises right now and it’s pretty clear that in the early years, Papa sponged off of his first wife’s trust fund.

But I guess this pair of essays irritates me for at least two other reasons. First, one of the most annoying academic colleagues out there is the one who treats the position as patronage instead of as a real job. At the kind of university where I work, we need faculty members who are going to participate fully in the job, which does indeed mean meetings, advising, grading, paperwork, and all of the other real job stuff of being a professor. So while I understand the appeal of a job where your responsibilities are basically to do whatever you want, I can speak from experience that it’s kind of a pain in the ass for the rest of us to deal with these folks.

And for the record: all of my current colleagues who teach creative writing are fully engaged and involved faculty members, so I don’t have any of those folks in mind at all. But I have had (still have?) colleagues who take this approach and not all of them have been (are?) in creative writing.

Second, these two essays assume a narrow and frustrating definition of “writer,” an attitude that persists even among some of my students who are majoring in Written Communication. Journalists, editors, and translators are all writers. Social media writers/editors, content managers, technical documentation specialists, advertising copy editors, and so on are all writers. And I’d argue that if you are any good at teaching rhetoric and composition courses, you’re also a writer– or you had better be someone who seems themselves as a writer.

Maybe the problematic term here is “creative,” which in English departments means writing in the form of poetry, fiction, and drama. Separating creative from other kinds of writing  suggests what the rest of us practice and teach is not creative, which is clearly unfair. A better term might be “art” writing in the sense that writing a novel or a poem is more about making something to be appreciated, as opposed to writing that attempts to do things or persuade an audience. But that distinction doesn’t work either since of course art also is always trying to persuade and do things, and there are plenty of examples of writing that became literature only after readers and scholars decided to call it literature.

Regardless, anyone who has a guest column in The New York Times and who has received support for their writing as academics or from grants and then whines about how the need to work hurts their writing has got a whole lot of #firstworldproblems.

Posted in Academia, The Happy Academic, Writing | Leave a comment

Please excuse this post that is not entirely about the death of another grandparent

Earlier this week, a little attempt at humor appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece by Shannon Reed called “To My Student, on the Death of Her Grand­moth­er(s).” Over 300 comments later (as of this morning, at least), it’s a column that just keeps giving and giving, as a failure, a morphing rhetorical situation, and as a teachable moment. I wasn’t going to write or think about it any more (I actually have a blog post in progress about MOOC stuff!), but I’m having a hard time just away. So…

Told in the form of a satirical/humorous email or letter reply to a student asking for some sort of excuse because of the death yet another grandmother, this time during finals, Reed (or some persona of Reed) expresses sympathy and then offers a long and exhaustive list of things the student will need to do for Reed to “buy” the excuse. Terms of the deal include a videotape of the eulogy from the funeral, agreement that the student dress in black for a semester, and agreeing to remain chaste for a year.

Ha-ha.

Comment hijinks ensued. I didn’t read them all of course, but I did skim many. Almost immediately (and maybe this is the first comment?), there was “You’d think this was a lot less funny if your grandmother, with whom you were close, suddenly passed during finals week, as mine did my sophomore year.” There were many other references to personal experiences with deaths of loved ones while in college with no or little awareness that this was supposed to be a joke, as in “My mom died the Friday before finals, and all my teachers treated me with sympathy and kindness.This teacher, if this ever really happened, should be fired.” Then there were comments that seemed to go even further down the bureaucracy/procedure hole (again, as if this was real). There was this one in response to the previous comment, “Isn’t that pretty harsh? Would you like to be judged by the same standard?” and this bizarrely detailed comment on how FERPA plays into all this– though it is nice to see that this writer believes this was written as satire (though not very good satire). There were dozens and dozens of comments where the commenter thought this was a good moment to share their unique take on dealing with excuses like dead grandparents, dozens and dozens of comments about how Reed is an awful person, and even a few who tried to point out it was all a joke. Ha-ha.

Oh, and then there’s this blog response that for me walks that line between being completely legitimate and “holier than thou,” To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s).

First off, I think this is a fine example of how the medium alters the situation such that the rhetor completely loses control. The place where the audience takes all of this is far far away from the writer’s original intent. That’s not unique in web-based forums like this, but a) it remains for me one of the defining characteristics of “digital” rhetorics/immediate rhetorical situations, and b) this particular example seems pretty extreme.

Closely related is the fact that this is the audience disconnect with the genre. The Chronicle of Higher Education does not usually publish humor (or attempts at humor); rather, it usually publishes earnest pieces about the state of affairs in higher education. The subject matter here– venting about students and their “lame” excuses– is the sort of thing that usually comes packaged in CHE as some kind of commentary about the state of the “kids today” and/or advice for faculty. It is not McSweeney’s, which, if this had actually been funny, would have been a better venue. I think this explains why so many of the responses to Reed’s piece are so earnest.

Anyway, I think this article and the backlash around it is a good “teachable moment.” If I were still working with Graduate Assistants teaching for the first time, I might share this with them. In my view, it’s always bad form to complain about students in public (albeit online) places and publications. Oh sure, students can be incredibly frustrating and anyone who has been teaching for a while has all kinds of stories like this one. But those stories are the sort of thing that ought to stay in the office (or the bar) among fellow instructors. And especially never make fun of hypothetically dead grandmas.

As for what to do about these kinds of excuses, I’m not sure this is the best advice in the world but this is what I do:

I started teaching as a Graduate Assistant in 1988 at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in those days, the university had a rule that basically said that if a student missed more than something like three weeks of class in a term, that student couldn’t get a passing grade regardless of the reason why the student missed that much class. At EMU, the institutional language for this is a lot more convoluted and squishy, but basically, it says a student can’t fail only because of a lack of attendance. So, in a sort of combination of my past practice and what’s going on now, I usually have an attendance policy that allows students to miss up to two weeks of a course for any reason, but then there’s a heavy penalty where students lose the participation part of the grade (which is usually worth at least 25% of the overall grade). So if they miss a lot of class for any reason, the student generally (see below) cannot pass.

In other words, there are no “excused absences” for anything because (as I usually say to students on the first day of class) I don’t want to be put into a position where I have to ask for and then speculate about the validity of a death certificate, and I don’t need to dig into the details about how close you were to your now dead uncle or grandmother or whoever. I lay this policy out in pretty strict and stark terms on the first day of the semester since it is always easier to lighten up on rules later on (and it is absolutely impossible as a teacher to start the semester with no rules for things like attendance and then impose them later on), and also because it’s fair warning to students about how things are going to go. I’ve had students who showed up the first day and, faced with an attendance policy where missing more than two weeks of a class means they probably can’t pass, have raised their hands and tell me that they have to be gone for two weeks (for work, for a family trip, for a sporting event, whatever) and if I think that is going to be a problem. Yes, I say, yes it is.

(For what it’s worth, I have a similar though more complicated “attendance” policy for online classes as well. I’ll spare the details for now, but students just “disappear” from online classes all the time).

I have lots of reasons for this approach, but the bottom line is if learning is going to be a social and interactive enterprise that requires participation and presence, then you can’t do these things if you’re gone. Students often think of these rules as being “unfair” and “restrictive” or whatever, but the fact of the matter is attendance policies are usually for students’ own good. Attendance policy or not, show me a student who has missed too many classes and I’ll show you a student who is likely to fail the class for missed work anyway.

Though as I said a few paragraphs ago, this is generally my attendance policy. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I do realize that students are indeed people and, like the rest of us, shit does sometimes happen. Plus after doing this for almost 30 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out the real and fake dead grandmas– at least I think I have. In any event, I’ve had good students over the years who missed more than two weeks of class because life/shit has clearly happened to them and we’re able to work it out pretty much on a case by case basis.

The more troubling cases for me are the students who have completely legitimate reasons for missing class who bend over backwards to not miss class. A completely made-up and extreme example: “My mother was shot in a drive-by shooting last night and I’m the oldest kid so I have to deal with all the details of the funeral and the house and everything. Is it okay if I miss class Wednesday? I promise I’ll be back Monday.” In those situations, I will often offer my sympathies, of course excuse them from class, and remind them that school is school and it is not necessarily life. You can take this class later, but you have to deal with all of the complexities of life as they happen.

Posted in Academia, Teaching | Leave a comment