A blog post that will substitute for now for working on various MOOC projects

I am in the midst of what I have dubbed “sabbatical lite.” I finished up my quasi-administrative duties as program coordinator this summer and passed that baton on to Steve Benninghoff. This semester, I’m only teaching two classes because I’m getting a course release (more like payback) for MA projects I’ve directed over the last few years. Both of these are undergraduate courses and one of them is online. This is all setting the stage for my sabbatical proper, which will begin in January and go until next August.

It all makes me very nervous. I have had this song going through my head for weeks now:

 

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Posted in Academia, Blogging about blogging, MOOCs, Sabbatical II, Sabbatical Lite, Scholarship | Leave a comment

The Comcast Strikes Back

Complaining about Comcast is sort of like complaining about death or taxes and about as common.  I know that. But because of a Twitter exchange I had, I thought I’d add to the genre generally and specifically to my latest Twitter follower, @ComcastLisa. This is more for her than anything else, so if you have had your fill of internet posts complaining about Comcast, feel free to move along. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read on.

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“75% (more or less) of college professors are not tenure track:” can we get more specific on that?

This post was born out of this exchange with Marc Bousquet:

MeandMarcTwitterAs I say here, I don’t disagree with the often cited figure that 75% of instructors in higher education are are not tenure track, and it’s certainly not that I think everything is hunky-dory on the good ship academia. It’s just that I think this needs to be unpacked a bit.

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Posted in Academia, The Happy Academic | 2 Comments

Enough with the “no laptops in classrooms” already

There has been a rash of “turn off the laptop” articles in various places in the educational media, but I think what has pushed me over the edge and motivated this post is Clay Shirky’s “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away” on Medium. In the nutshell, Shirky went to the no laptop camp because (he says) students can’t multitask and students are too easily distracted by the technology, particularly with the constant alerts from things like Facebook.

Enough already.

First off, while I am no expert regarding multitasking, it seems to me that there are a lot of different layers to multitasking (or perhaps it would make more sense to say attention on task) and most of us perform some level of multitasking all the time.  Consider driving. I think it’s always a bad idea to be texting while actually moving in traffic because, yes, that’s too much multitasking for most people. But how about texting or checking email or social media while at a long light? I do it all the time. Or how about talking on the phone? For me, it’s easy to talk on the phone while driving if I am using headphones or if I’m driving a familiar route in normal conditions. When I’m driving an unfamiliar route in bad weather or in heavy traffic, not so much.

Second, distraction and not paying a lot of attention in class isn’t exactly new. When I was in high school, I sat in the back of the room in that chemistry class I was required to take and I read paperbacks “hidden” under the table. Students used to pass these things called “notes” on paper. Students did and still do whisper at each other in distracting ways. As both a college student and as a college teacher (certainly as a GA way back when), I’ve been with/had students who were distracted by and multitasking with magazines, newspapers, other people, with napping, etc., etc.

I agree with Shirky and some of the articles he cites that what’s interesting and different about contemporary electronic devices generally and social media in particular is that these are designed to distract us, to break our concentration. I routinely experience the sort of instant and satisfying gratification suggested in the abstract of this article. But to suggest that teachers/professors can solve this attention problem by asking students to temporarily turn off their laptops and pay attention to the sage on the stage strikes me as both naive and egotistical.

So here are three tips for Clay and other would-be haters for how to mentally adjust to the inevitability of laptops in their classrooms.

Number one, stop lecturing so much. When professors take the “stand and deliver” approach to “teaching,” the laptops come out. And why shouldn’t they? In an era where anyone can easily record a video and/or audio of a lecture that can be “consumed” by students on their own time, why should they sit and pay attention to you droning on?

I realize this is easy for me to say since I teach small classes with 25 of fewer students, but there are lots of ways to break up the talking head in a large lecture hall class too. Break students into groups to ask them to discuss the reading. Ask students to take a moment to write about a question or a reading and then ask them to respond.  Require your students to discuss and respond. Use the time in class to actually do work with the laptops (individually and collaboratively) to do things. Just stop thinking that teaching means standing there and talking at them.

Number two, be more interesting. If as a teacher (or really, just a speaker) you are noticing a large percentage of students not paying attention and turning to laptops or cell phones or magazines or napping, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being boring. I notice this in my own teaching all the time: when my students and I are interested in a conversation or an activity, the laptops stay closed. When I start to drone on or it otherwise starts getting boring, I see the checks on Facebook or Twitter or ESPN Sports or whatever. I use that as a cue to change up the discussion, to get more interesting.

Number three, “Let it Go.” Because here’s the thing: there’s really nothing professors can do (at least in the settings where I teach) to completely eliminate these kinds of distractions and multitasking and generally dumb stuff that students sometimes do. Students are humans and humans are easily distracted. So instead of spending so much time demanding perfect attention, just acknowledge that most of us can get a lot done with a laptop open. If you as the teacher are not the center of the universe, it’ll be okay.

Posted in Computers and Writing, Teaching, Technology, The Happy Academic | 2 Comments

Wanted: Assistant Professor, Rhetoric and Writing with an Emphasis in Technical Communication

I thought about combining this post with one about the job market in general and the differences between fields like composition and rhetoric and other fields in “the humanities” generally. And I just heard a story on NPR about the tough market for people with PhDs in the sciences for “postdocs” looking for tenure-track jobs I thought about reflecting on here. (Just to give it away a bit: academic careers for researchers are tough with all the cuts to funding, but the silver lining does appear to be work in the private sector for these folks).

But instead, I just want to pass along the ad and information about the search we have running in my program.  The ad itself is after the break; I’m not on the committee (anyone with questions about the position should contact Derek Mueller) and I am not speaking for EMU or anyone but myself. But I just wanted to share a couple thoughts about EMU and the area:

  • EMU is a great place to work. Oh sure, we have some of the funding problems of a lot of regional and MA granting kinds of institutions, but generally speaking, the finances and leadership have been pretty stable in recent years. The economy is improving in Michigan, so I’m crossing my fingers that some of that will trickle down from the state to higher education funding. EMU has a very strong faculty union, and I think that helps the working conditions a lot. This has some cons but the pros are pretty enormous in terms of setting the terms for work (both in terms of teaching load and what it takes to get tenure and promotion) and in terms of having a way to complain about problems. Let me put it this way: when I read about crazy things happening at other similar kinds of universities around the country– sudden increases in teaching load, “furloughs,” some sketchy hirings and firings, no way to grieve a problem, etc., etc.– I always think “that ain’t gonna happen at EMU.”
  • We’ve got great and interesting students. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and there are lots of education majors. But that’s been changing at EMU for a number of years, and increasingly, students come to EMU for all sorts of different programs, including our undergraduate and MA program in written communication. I would describe EMU as “opportunity granting” in that it isn’t as selective (or as expensive) as the University of Michigan or even Michigan State, but we’re not an “open admissions” university and everything we hear from admissions suggests we’re attracting students with higher high school GPAs and test scores. We’re kind of a commuter school and a returning student school, though there are a lot of traditional students living on campus too.
  • I’ve got fantastic colleagues. There are nine of us who are coming out of a “composition and rhetoric” sensibility in terms of training and teaching. That’s a big deal. My first job years and years ago at Southern Oregon University was a problem for a bunch of different reasons, but one of the biggest problems was I was “it” as far as the comp/rhet guy. There are a lot of jobs like that out there, and let me tell ya, that’s a lonely lonely space.
  • I also think this is a great opportunity because of where we are at with both our undergraduate and graduate program in writing. We have a well-established major and MA in writing, which means that whoever we hire isn’t going to have to invent the wheel. At the same time, we also are welcoming to new ideas and contributions in all kinds of different ways.
  • We’re right next to the University of Michigan– in fact, UM’s central campus is just over five miles away from EMU. The downside to this is that EMU is pretty much always overshadowed by “Big Blue.” When you’re at a party and you meet someone who is talking about working at “the university,” they don’t mean us. But the upsides are enormous. For example, faculty at EMU have the same borrowing privileges from the UM Library system as UM faculty (which reminds me I need to take some books back). And of course it’s really easy to partake in all of the various cultural, intellectual, and sporting things that come to the area because of Michigan.
  • It’s a great area to live, particularly Ann Arbor. Can’t sugar-coat the whole winter thing and last winter was the absolute worst. People I know who have lived here 40 years can’t remember it any colder. But besides the summers being great, it’s just a nice community. Ypsilanti has its pros and cons (I live in Ypsilanti, FWIW) as a kind of funky, artsy, blue-collar, rust-belt kind of place, less a “college town” than a small city on the outskirts of Detroit and the edges of Ann Arbor. For the travel-minded, we’re conveniently closer to the Detroit Metro airport than most of Detroit. And Ann Arbor itself is, in my view, great. It’s consistently voted one of the best places to live in America and one of the best college towns. Lots of great restaurants and shops and bars, a very vibrant downtown area, lots of festivals and events, great schools, not one but two Whole Foods, yadda, yadda, yadda. Given that a lot of universities and colleges are in the middle nowhere, I feel very lucky to be here.

Okay, enough from me. If you’re interested, check out the ad.

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A Comcast Customer Service Experience: Screwing Up in Reverse

We had been having problems with our Comcast/Xfinity/Whatever it’s called internet access for a while, and my calls to Comcast to check on the service were pretty futile (“Is your modem plugged in? Is your computer on? You should unplug your modem and then plug it back in. Okay, is your modem plugged in?” and repeat).

I finally got around to doing some “research” with the Google and, according to some web site I found (so obviously it must be true), our modem was no longer supported. And actually, that did have a ring of truth to it because that modem had to be at least six years old, maybe a lot older. So off to Best Buy and then back home with a new modem.

I knew that there was a reactivation process with the modem, so I was prepared for being on the phone with Comcast again. I made it through the electronic screening gauntlet and started talking to a nice human. “I need to set up a new modem,” I said. “I can help you with that,” she said. We were off to the races.

Things started turning bad almost immediately when the “tech” person asked me for the number on the back of the modem. “Which one? There are three of them”– that is, a couple of different device serial numbers of some sort and (just to skip ahead a bit, the one that Comcast actually needed) the Media Access Control ID. She asked for all of them, which took a while because a) it was a crappy phone connection and b) I’m pretty sure this person was not in the U.S. So there was a lot of me saying “D! I said D!” and her saying “Did you say B? or G?” But fine, eventually we worked it out and she had all the numbers she could ever need.

Then after about twenty minutes of numbers and waiting for something, my increasingly unfriendly and less competent customer service person said something like “oh, no!” in a low voice. “What?” I asked. “The system went down, I… I… I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she said. We were about 40 minutes in at this point. I’d had it.

“You know, this is really stupid. I don’t think you know what you’re doing here,” I said in my testy angry voice. She sighed, and then– click– hung up.

oh no she didn’t….

So I called right back, ran through the Comcast phone tree, got to a human. “How can I help you?” she asked. “I just got hung up on by another customer service person. That’s completely unacceptable and I would like to speak with a supervisor,” I said.

“Oh, I’m so sorry that happened sir, but I’m sure I can help you with–”

“I JUST GOT HUNG UP ON BY ANOTHER CUSTOMER SERVICE PERSON. THAT IS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE AND I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK WITH A SUPERVISOR!”  I said a bit more forcefully.

That worked. I got on with a supervisor (or at least someone who said he was a supervisor) who got the modem running. But even better: the supervisor dude apologized and completely jacked up our service for all the trouble. So now, we’ve got (for the next year at least) HBO, Showtime, a bunch of channels I’m sure we’ll never watch, and some higher speed of internet access. There must be some kind of checkbox on a service screen at Comcast that he clicked to give us everything.

So the moral of the story:

  • If you get a new modem for your Comcast internet set-up, plan on spending the better part of an afternoon to get it done.
  • Ask for the supervisor, especially if they hang up on you.
  • And hey, Comcast supervisor dude: good job of turning this into a positive.
Posted in Around the house, Technology, Television | Leave a comment

What and why do students and faculty (and anyone else) want to and not want to write?

I read two different education media articles the other day that both spoke to me in oddly similar ways about the reasons for (or for not) writing. First there was from IHE, “What Students Write,” which is a sort of review/essay about Dan Melzer’s book, Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. The article is good and the book sounds great. The very short version (based on just the article) is that Melzer studied over 2100 different writing assignments across the curriculum at about 100 different institutions. Not surprisingly, most of the writing assignments teachers give are shitty, mostly an exercise for students to prove to the teacher that they can repeat back in a written text (an essay, an exam, etc.) what was in the lecture and/or reading.

Melzer calls this largest category of writing assignments “student to examiner;” I would more cheekily call it “parroting,” or “Polly wants a cracker” writing. Oh, and students better repeat what the teacher said correctly. Here’s a quote:

Short-answer and essay exams made up about one-fifth of assignments in the study. Melzer said in an interview that the testing scenario makes sense, given the constraints on professors’ time. Offering multiple opportunities for feedback in a non-test scenario takes a lot more work, he said. But such opportunities are critical to writing development and lead to better student outcomes.

“There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says.

In the other corner comes this from CHE, “Anatomy of a Serial-Plagiarism Charge” about Mustapha Marrouchi, who is a postcolonial lit professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. There’s more about the case in an article behind CHE’s firewall, but the gist is that Marrouchi has apparently been plagiarising to different degrees for decades, this despite the fact that he was enough of a “big shot” in the field to get hired away from a previously high-paid spot at Louisiana State to an even sweeter gig at UNLV. What the non-firewalled piece I’m linking to here does do is highlight a number of incidents that do look kind of fishy.

So, what do these two articles/incidents say about what it is that students and teachers write and read, what they want to write and read? A few thoughts:

I like to write and always have. Writing is one of the few things I am actually good at and I can recall being rewarded for my talent as far back as grade school. I like to read too, though like a lot of my students (especially the creative writing types), I like to write more.

I write and read every day, but I still have a hard time with “assigned” writing, meaning for me not assignments from a teacher (I’m not taking any classes) but writing I am supposed to be doing for some other reason. There are at least three projects I’m procrastinating on right now to write this post instead. The same goes with reading. There are a stack of academic books and novels I am supposed to be reading right now so I can be a better person and a good intellectual, not to mention to be prepared to teach in a couple of weeks. But I am more likely to be reading the links to things on Twitter or the listicles on Facebook about which Hollywood stars began their careers as strippers.

So I guess there are some ways in which these reports of lazy writing assignments and serial plagiarism are not that surprising to me. Like everyone else in my field, I try to develop writing assignments with a clear purpose and audience beyond just writing to me as the teacher and beyond just having students prove to me they did the reading and/or were otherwise paying attention. I do think it makes a difference. I think students learn more from such assignments, I find this writing a lot more pleasant to read and grade, and I think it helps students to not plagiarize. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I also think it’s true that there’s a difference between assigning writing and teaching writing.  So when professors give the sort of stupid assignments that Melzer is writing about in his book and with no actual teaching involved, it’s no wonder that those professors are disappointed and even angry about their students’ writing.  Garbage in, garbage out.

But good assignments aren’t a cure-all. Not everyone likes to write just to write, and students frequently don’t like to write and thus resist new assignments. I gave a talk back at the CCCCs in Louisville in 2010 (a talk I should probably assign myself to revisit and rewrite into a longer essay) about using the movie RiP! A Remix Manifesto as a topic and a guiding principle for teaching first year writing.  Among many other things, I said that while it is certainly more pedagogically effective and ethical to give writing assignments that are not parroting, many of my students ultimately reverted to writing five paragraph essays. When students do this, I think it is because it is the path of least resistance (it’s always easier doing something you’ve done rather than doing something you haven’t done before), but also because students don’t trust me. Perhaps for good reason. They’ve had years of previous school writing assignments where teachers obsessed over their repeating what the book/the teacher said and where they were dinged on the grade for grammar stuff. And the whole situation is by definition not “authentic” since it is writing assigned and tied to a grade. Students are “made” to do this– at least in the sense that it’s tied to requirements for a class and a grade. Even assignments that ask students to “self-reflect” on something on their own are still assigned.

Then there’s my cynical connection of assigned writing (bad assignments in particular) to Mustapha Marrouchi. I don’t know anything about him or his scholarly work beyond what I read in The Chronicle. But based on that reading, here’s a guy who has had quite the successful academic career by publishing convoluted literary and cultural theory liberally sprinkled with plagiarised and otherwise paraphrased quotes. He’s been doing this for years, and while he has apparently sort of/kind of been called on this before, he’s only just getting into serious trouble for this now. How did this happen and how did he get away with it that long? Is it possible that so few readers– academic or otherwise– read  Marrouchi’s work that no one really noticed it as a serious problem for more than 20 years? Did no one care?

And why did Marrouchi do this anyway? As the examples in that CHE piece make clear, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot for Marrouchi to cite his sources, to write “as Terry Eagleton put it” or whatever. Was he as a writer just too lazy to cite his sources? Was much of Marrouchi’s scholarship the equivalent of the five paragraph drudgery assigned to him by academia so that he could get another line on his CV? What’s going on here?

I guess this gets me back to the question about what and why does anyone write anything. But I don’t really know the answer to my questions, not even for myself as a writer.  All I can say is do the best that you can with writing assignments, hoping for the best but understanding the inherent limitations of the rhetorical situation that is Education generally. Make all writing as engaging and as new and as thoughtful as possible.  Don’t make students do dumb assignments just so they can do dumb assignments that get some grade. Don’t write dumb and/or plagiarized scholarship just so you can write scholarship.

Posted in Academia, Reading, Scholarship, Teaching, The Happy Academic, Writing | 3 Comments

Salaita and the limits (or lack thereof) of academic speech on social media

The latest installment in the story of academic freedom versus social media comes to us from one Steven Salaita. Here’s a long quote from this Salon piece, “Return of the blacklist?” that more or less sums up what seems to have happened to him:

A few weeks ago Steven Salaita had reason to be pleased.  After a full review by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had received a generous offer of a tenured, associate professor position there — the normal contract was offered, signed by the school, he had received confirmation of his salary, a teaching schedule, everything except the final approval of the UIUC chancellor.

In academia this is not at all unusual; departments and schools are told to go ahead with the offer, so as to be competitive with both the candidate’s current school and others that might be bidding for their talent.  Salaita is a world-renowned scholar of indigenous studies (and also a frequent Salon contributor). At that point, as required by academic protocols, upon accepting the position he resigned the one he held at Virginia Tech.

But final approval never came.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that “Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, informed the job candidate, Steven G. Salaita, on Friday that they were effectively revoking a written offer of a tenured professorship made to him last year by refusing to submit it to the system’s Board of Trustees next month for confirmation.”

According to Inside Higher Education: “Sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.”  Nevertheless, IHE goes on to report: “But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told the News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”

This has been followed by a number of defenses of Salaita. I think the most articulate one I’ve read is from my long-time blogging friend Michael Bérubé, who at the AAUP blog defended Salaita’s academic freedoms. Among other smart things, Bérubé writes:

Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, your decision effectively overrides legitimate faculty decision making and peer review in a way that is inconsistent with AAUP guidelines regarding governance. Those faculty members who engaged in the process of peer review for Professor Salaita cannot be said to have been unaware that he has strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict– as do many millions of people. To overturn faculty peer review on the basis of a Twitter feed, therefore, is to take a page straight from the Kansas playbook.

The “Kansas playbook” being about that state’s board of regents rather silly social media policy, which I blogged about way back here.

In a kind of interesting twist, former AAUP president Cary Nelson defended the University of Illinois’ decision to not hire/withdraw the offer to Salaita. He writes about it at Inside Higher Ed in “An Appointment to Reject,” and the basic premise of his argument seems to be two-fold. First, Nelson thinks Salaita’s tweets are horrific. Nelson quotes from several of them– and Salaita is a pretty crude dude– and calls him loathsome, sophomoric, irresponsible, sordid, bombastic, and anti-Semitic. But his second reason is more or less based on a technicality. He writes:

I should add that this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be. But a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole. Here at Illinois, even the department head who would have appointed Salaita agreed in Inside Higher Ed that “any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration.” Had Salaita already signed a contract, then of course he would have to have received full due process, including a full hearing, before his prospective offer could be withdrawn. But my understanding is that he had not received a contract.

And in the Chronicle of Higher Education article about all this, Nelson is quoted as saying “Academic freedom does not require you to hire someone whose views you consider despicable. It prevents you from firing someone from a job for their views.”

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Posted in Academia, Social Networks, The Happy Academic | 2 Comments

Here’s what I think grades mean; what do you think?

I’m preparing syllabi for the fall term (we don’t start until after Labor Day, happily), and I’m mulling over including the section after the break, “What do grades mean?” This isn’t coming from any specific exigence– not even my less than great course evaluations– so much as it is coming from what I guess I feel like an increasing need on my part to be as transparent as possible to my students about various things.

Most of this text is based on stuff I have sometimes included on syllabi for first year writing, the place where I’ve seen the greatest discrepancy between what does and doesn’t constitute a certain grade. I think a lot of this text is plagiarised borrowed from several other places. And I should point out that I’m not convinced that including this language will make a whole lot of difference in terms of students complaining (or not) about their grades. But it’s a try.

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What I Learned from My Crappy Student Evaluations

My teaching evaluations for this past winter (what everyone else calls spring) semester came in, and man, they were pretty bad, some of the worst (maybe the worst?) of my career. At least the worst I can remember. Jeez.

It’s probably a bad idea for me to reflect too much on them this shortly after getting them, but it does prompt me to write a couple of things about these evaluations in particular and evaluations in general. Maybe for next time I get these kinds of evaluations, maybe for others out there who are looking through some student evaluations themselves.

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Posted in Teaching, The Happy Academic | 3 Comments