Sure, Firefox and Blogger are both cool, but…

I was reminded of this general thread of discussion I’ve had here before because of this entry on kairosnews about the Firefox folks buying ad space in the NYT. Good for them, I thought, and on the PC in particular, I have been veryhappy with Firefox. As have my students: I have recommended that anyoneusing Internet Exploder on a windows PC shift to Firefox, and the one thathave done this have been very pleased indeed.

And right now, on a blogging mailing list I’m on, Dennis Jerzhas been asking about excessive amounts of spam messages being posted tohis blogs– or rather, I think his students’ blogs. Happily, I posted aresponse about how one of the best things about my shift to Blogger has beenabsolutely NO blog spam messages, something that was starting to occupy waytoo much of my day with MoveableType.

And yet, all is not perfect. For one thing, Firefox doesn’t work with Blogger on my Mac; neither doesMozilla. Both of them get hung up somehow with the login process, and thisis after I allowed for any sort of pop-up and cookies and all of that. Withthe Apple browser Safari, I can make posts just fine (like this one), butthe spell-check feature doesn’t work. Weird, huh?

Oddly, I just discovered Netscape 7.0 works– also buggy in some weird ways, but at least the spelling feature works.

Oh, and of course none of this is a problem on a Windoze PC. I guess those computers are good for something.

Anybody else have problems like these?

Bloggers f2f (and thanks for lunch!)

Had a great time Wednesday afternoon having lunch with Jeff “Yellow Dog” Rice and Nick“Bedford/St. Martins”Carbone at a nice Mexican restaurant on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. I’ve been reading and enjoying and learning from Jeff’s blog for quite a while, but I had never met him in person, so that was cool. The three of us gossiped about the computers and composition world and talked a fair amount about some of the cool things happening at Wayne State nowadays, too. A fine time.

The only bad thing about the whole thing for me was leaving. I don’t actually go into Detroit that much, and it seems that every time I go, I have no problem getting into the city, but I always get lost getting out of the city. Yesterday was no exception. One of the major freeways through Detroit (“The Lodge”) is completely closed right now. That threw me off and after a critically missed exit, I ended up all the way in Livonia before I managed to turn around and get back to familiar territory.

Note to self: the next time I make a trip to Detroit, chart a path back home, too.

HitMaps: It's a cool thing…

Check out HitMaps, which I learned about after visiting Collin’s blog the other day. According to this page, the way that it works is it connects the IP number/addresses of folks viewing a site with a world map. You can see my link/version of this toward the end of the right-hand column, after the archives and before the Creative Commons license logo. Go ahead and look; I’ll wait…

Pretty cool, huh?

The only thing I don’t get (or I guess I have a hard time believing) is why would someone in central Australia be looking at my blog? Is that some kind of IP number “spoof,” or is there someone out there in the outback really that interested in my official blog? Hmmm…. Well, I don’t know how well it works, but it does look cool.

Email for the ages

See this article, “British library starts email archive.” Here’s a snippet from that article:

The British Library is creating an archive to store the emails of the nation’s top authors and scientists, as the written word is replaced by electronic messages.

Emails from literary figures such as Ted Hughes, the late English Poet Laureate, will form a new digital archive alongside the library’s collection of paper correspondence, which includes love letters written by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas.

Curators have become concerned that conventional letters are becoming increasingly rare as writers and scientists abandon paper for more perishable email.

The library has appointed the world’s first digital manuscripts curator to collect important material that would otherwise end up as deleted items.

It has already acquired emails written by Hughes, and has created a list of important people whose computer files it would like to collect, including J.K. Rowling, A.S. Byatt, Alastair Campbell and Stephen Hawking. Jeremy John, who has set up the library’s first digital archive, is appealing to writers and scientists to ask them to store their correspondence in a way that will allow future generations to see their work.

I came across this via this entry from the Word Munger, and I tend to agree with his take on it: in general, probably not a bad idea, but do we really need to keep the spams and the “meet me at 3” kinds of messages for J.K. Rowling for the ages? Probably not, but the idea of keeping important emails is of course valid.

I keep most of the emails I send and a lot of the important emails I receive. I keep emails I receive for all kinds of different reasons, some in a sort of “CYA” fashion, some because they were really funny, some because they were really interesting. I have two problems in general with this, though. First, in switching computers (which I do every couple years, of course), I end up losing track of some of these email messages. Second, and this is a problem discussed in this Australian article, the software and eventually the hardware gets lost, doesn’t run, and/or breaks.

Part of the solution for this problem of software and hardware currency is to retreat back to an older and more stable technology, paper. Lots of people concerned about archiving and the ‘net have talked about that with all sorts of different things– web sites, including blogs– and email messages. One of these days, when I have more than 15 minutes, I might actually try to print an “archive” of materials. Of course, then the problem is where do you put the print-outs….

EMU students want evaluations online

See this article, “EMU students push for online prof evaluations.” A little explanation might be in order first, though:

EMU has this system where the “bubble test” numeric results of the student evaluations are published every two years in this book which is for sale in the EMU Union bookstore and that is also available at the library. What the student government wants is this information made available online.

That’s fine, but…

* The publication mechanism of these evalutions– in a book, online, wherever– is the least of the problems. I’ve taught as a grad student or a faculty member at four different schools now, and in my opinion, EMU’s student evaluation proceedure is the least useful. I suppose there are a lot of factors for this, but I think part of it has to do with the role of student evaluations in the faculty union contract. The union and administration have been working at revising the evaluation system, but that process has been going on for a few years and promises to go on for a few years more.

* One of the problems is EMU’s stupid computer system, the same one that has closed down EMU mail servers for the weekend while they “upgrade” things.

* Personally, I’d be more in favor of an online system if it were able to capture written comments from students. The question “Rate the effectiveness of your professor: 5 for excellent, 1 for poor” or whatever it is doesn’t really tell anyone much.

* Really, I think a system like might work better, if (and that’s a BIG if) there was some mechanism to get most student to participate in a thoughtful way. The problem with ratemyprofessors is you get such a small sample– I think there are five or six for me– and you get a pretty skewed example, too. The students who post tend to either be one with an axe to grind, or they tend to be ones who just absolutely loved you. It’s not a format that encourages a more diverse set of comments.

* Part of the problem with all of this is epitomized in the “lead” to the story that was in the Ann Arbor News:

When Eastern Michigan University student Edward Davis II (who is the student body president) went looking for a class to fill his science requirement, he decided on astronomy. The idea of learning about the stars and constellations was appealing. What he didn’t know was that it was a difficult class with a professor who was a tough grader.

Davis said he struggled in the class and wants others to learn from his experience. “Had I known, I would have steered clear of that professor, or at least gone into it with a different mind-set,” he said.

Look, if the only purpose of these evaluations is to find out who is offering the “easiest” classes, then I want no part of it, and frankly, students deserve what they get (or don’t get, as it were). On the other hand, if the goal of these online evaluations is to give students a lot more information about what their teachers and the classes they teach so they can make an informed choice, then I’m all for it.

The Happy Academic agrees: it ain't easy being a grad student…

Bitch PhD has apparently taken a (short?) break in writing about her sex life and recently wrote this post about working with both undergraduate and graduate students, particularly graduate students. She’s responding to this post from “real person” Sharleen Mondal, about the problems of being a grad student, which is in large part a response to this post from “pseudo” (is that the right word? I’m not sure…) person profgrrrl. Incidentally, both Mondal and the profgrrrl have other posts on their blogs about this stuff, but I’m not going to link to everything.

Anyway, here are some thoughts:

* I actually agree with Bitch PhD quite a bit. One highlight:

I think graduate school is a really weird place. On the one hand, we want and expect grad students to be adults, to act collegial. On the other hand, we have a lot of power over them. Think about our own faculty anxiety about not being smart enough, not measuring up, what if someone knows that we flubbed that, why are we blogging anonymously? Then multiply it exponentially. Grad students feel that everything is riding on their ability to be “good students,” a position that’s the exact opposite of being “good independent collegial thinkers.” We want the impossible from them. And often it’s the smartest, savviest, most intuitive students who sense our impatience (which has nothing to do with them, and is probably more a generalized impatience with our own jobs, especially those of us who are junior faculty), and get nervous about it, and then panic and stop being able to think.

Very true, I think. Grad students have to occupy this space of being “independent” thinkers and our students (so not too independent), of being “professionals” (if they are teaching assistants of some sort) and of still being “amateurs” (because they are heavily supervised and generally inexperienced teachers). Of course, all academics (happy, anonymous, and otherwise) have to pass through this phase at some point. I remember it and I try to sympathetic with the experience.

* I’ve written a bit about this in the past as well, mostly on my old blog. See this post, and this one. Sorry about all the spam comments here– that’s why I use blogger now.

* I’ve taught a fair number of grad classes and I’ve worked with about a dozen students on MA projects since I came to EMU in 1998 (we don’t have a PhD program, so that’s a whole different thing). In my experience, the ability of our grad students varies a lot more than the abilities of our undergraduates. In other words, the students I have in the junior/senior level classes are a lot more consistent than the students in the grad classes. So in a way, that makes teaching grad classes a bit more tricky than teaching undergrad classes.

Incidentally, my current graduate class,English 516, is going quite well. A very good group.

* I can’t really speak to the problems that profgrrrl is having with her students, or that Mondal is having with some of her teachers. But I can say this: it has taken me a number of years to get my act together in terms of teaching grad classes and I feel like I’ve learned a lot since the ’98-99 school year, the first semester I taught a grad class here.

Back then, I think my expectations were unrealistic because I wasn’t trying to “meet” the students where they were at in terms of their abilities and goals. And really, I think I was still too close to my own experience. profgrrrl suggests that junior faculty are more “current” and therefore more “demanding” than senior faculty. I don’t know, maybe. But in my own case, I think the fact that I taught a grad class only two and a half years after I finished my PhD distorted my expectations.

I guess what I’m getting at is I think it’s natural for people who actually manage to finish the PhD, get a job, and end up teaching graduate classes (and keep in mind that few academics actually get to this point) to have a sort of distorted view of reality in terms of their own abilities and knowledge. It’s also easy as a new tenure-track faculty member to feel like you’re kind of still “in competition” with your own students because you aren’t that far away from being a student yourself. For me, a little distance from my own PhD experience has helped.

Blast from the past

Surfing around this morning, I came across a link to the Computers and Composition Homepage, something I should probably include as a link on my English 516 page. Conveniently, they have full text for issues from long long ago (1983-1990) and abstracts for articles since then. I’d like to see full text for everything, but that is in the future, I suppose.

Anyway, one kind of interesting essay I browsed through was this one, “My Write of Passage: From the Quill Pen to the Personal Computer,” by the late and great Edward P. J. Corbett. Published in 1990, it is largely a reflection on what it was like for him to make the shift from writing with a pen to writing with word processing software– in this case, Nota Benne– and how it changed his habits as a writer and such. Much of what he writes about is of course obvious to us now, 14 years later. But one passage struck me:

It is a commonplace now that humanists generally have been slower to adopt the computer than people in the physical and social sciences. Solveig Olsen, the professor of German at North Texas State University, who is the general editor of the collection of essays that MLA published in 1985, Computer-Aided Instruction in the Humanities, offers his own explanation for the reluctance of humanists to adopt the computer in their academic work. He says,

Several factors account for its [CAI’s] slow acceptance among humanists: fiscal constraints, lack of familiarity with technology, skepticism caused by the exaggerated claims of an aggressive industry, disenchantment with early experimental programs, and some fear of the machine as a ‘dehumanizing’ force (p. xiv).

Those factors and others that Professor Olsen does not name have undoubtedly disposed many humanists to be slow in availing themselves of the reputed benefices of the computer.

I think a lot has changed since Corbett’s essay and since the Olsen collection Corbett quotes. The idea of using computers to teach writing is not exactly seen as a strange thing anymore. At the same time, it’s easy to imagine this same kind of passage in a collection of essays about the present. The more things change… well, you know.

On sentence diagramming (no kidding!)

One of the things that used to be great about the web and that is currently great about blogs is you can stumble across all kinds of fun stuff without anyone even trying. For example, as I have recently posted over on my unofficial/life blog, there are a number of interesting web sites that make fun of and/or report conspiracies about the election (okay, okay, I just post the ones that make fun of Bush). This morning I found Funny stuff.

But the thing I found this morning that fits here is this, “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, an essay by the writer Kitty Burns Florey about sentence diagramming that I came across while browsing through Erin “Critical Mass” O’Connor’s blog. Basically, Florey (who is the author of a couple of books I haven’t heard of) writes fondly in this essay of her memories of learning sentence diagramming, apparently while in Catholic school.

I think this is an interesting essay for a couple of reasons. First off, Florey actually explains sentence diagramming, and includes some images of sentence diagrams as she remembers it. I find this useful because when someone says– usually fondly– something like “remember sentence diagramming?” I find myself thinking but not saying “no, not really.” I kind of remember making sentence diagrams at one point, but I can’t tell you want grade I was in, and it didn’t have a lot of influence on me one way or the other. Florey’s illustrations remind me a bit.

Second, she points out what sentence diagramming really is: kind of an interesting language game, one that might sort of help a writer learn about some parts of speech, but not something that teaches anyone about how to write. Let me quote her at some length here:

Today, diagramming is not exactly dead, but for many years it has been on a steep slide into marginality. This is probably partly because diagramming sentences doubles the task of the student, who has to learn a whole new set of rules – where does that pesky line go, and which way does it slant? – in order to illustrate a set of rules that, in fact, has already been learned pretty thoroughly simply by immersion in the language from birth. It’s only the subtleties that are difficult – who vs. whom, adjective vs. adverb, it’s I vs. it’s me – and most of those come from the mostly doomed attempt, so beloved in the early days of English grammar, to stuff the unruliness of English into the well-made boxes of Latin and Greek, which is something like forcing a struggling cat into the carrier for a trip to the vet.

Another problem is that teachers – and certainly students – have become more willing to accept the idea that the sentences that can be popped into a diagram aren’t always sentences anyone wants to write. One writer friend of mine says that she disliked diagramming because it meant “forcing sentences into conformity.� And indeed language can be more supple and interesting than the patterns that perfect syntax forces on it. An attempt to diagram a sentence by James Joyce, or one by Henry James (whose style H. G. Wells described so memorably by as that of “a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost upon picking up a pea�), will quickly demonstrate the limitations of Sister Bernadette’s neatly bundled sentences. Diagramming may have taught us to write more correctly – maybe even to think more logically – but I don’t think anyone would claim that it taught us to write well. Soon after I got to college, one of my English professors spent an hour kindly explaining how I could make my writing less stiff and pompous – an hour that I can honestly say changed my life – and the years have shown me that Virginia Woolf’s comment on the subject is the simple truth: “Style is a very simple matter: all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.�

Makes sense to me…

Bush’s bulge– real or conspiracy theory?

I’m not talking about the “bulge” Bush displayed after landing on that aircraft carrier a year and a half ago– you know, the super-macho prelude to the whole “mission accomplished” thing. I’m talking about the mysterious bulge that was apparent on the back of W’s suit during the first presidential debate– here’s a picture:

I read about this at “This Modern World” just now– go there and you’ll see more and some other interesting links of various “fast moves” the Republicans are apparently trying to pull.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of this. I have to say that the picture here and some of what is linked from the Tom Tomorrow site makes a pretty compelling case. On the other hand, I also like to think that if there was any “truth” to this story, the Kerry campign would have called a “foul” at some point. Hell, with all the other rules associated with these debates, I have to think that this kind of device would be a form of cheating. Hmmm…