Upgrading the office and (unexpectedly) the computer

My Desk, Spring 2009It seems like I move my office/desk space about once every two years. Maybe that is some sort of subconscious/unconscious response to life; maybe it’s just instinct, like migration. Or maybe, more reasonably in this case at least, it’s just in response to events and the way the house was being used.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we have this study/loft kind of space in our house where Annette had set up her desk. But because she does her work in the living room, dining room table, coffee shops, etc. (in other words, anywhere but at her desk), this really nice space was largely a place for her to store stuff. So I convinced her to let me move out of the basement (aka “the man cave”) and into the light.

Office space, or what's behind me....Since we’re between winter and spring terms around here, this seemed like a good time to make the move. I underestimated the impact of rearranging, particularly how long it would take. Moving into this space first meant moving stuff out of here into other rooms, which caused other things to move, and before you know it, I was rearranging half the house. And then there was moving about a ton of books a couple of flights of stairs, which definitely worked my gluts yesterday.

And just to throw another wrench into the works, my three year old iMac had what I would equate to a major stroke. Basically, just as I was setting it up on my new desk, the processor and video started going wacky. I am fairly confident that it was just a coincidence that this happened while moving stuff around (in hindsight, it was easy enough to remember a couple of kind of bizarre crashes and the like), but I have to wonder if that computer just did not like the sunlight in the new office. The good news is I was able to boot into target disk mode and the hard drive was/is fine; the bad news is that the diagnosis at the Apple store was that fixing the logic board/video would probably come close to $1000. So, seeing that price-point, I went ahead and bought the iMac on my new desk.

I might have been able to limp along with the old iMac because it was not completely dead. Just now, I was able to reboot it and do some software rig-a-ma-roll and get to iTunes to deauthorize that computer so I can use iTunes on this new computer. Who knows? Maybe it could have been/could still be fixed for less. But just dealing with my iTunes account was a strain on its poor rattled computer brain. Besides the wonky screen (lines, whole chunks just dropping away or getting warped, etc.), it froze completely after five minutes, forcing me to reboot it again. So while I wasn’t crazy about buying a new computer right now, I think I made the right choice.

It’s weird because I’ve had Apple computers for almost 25 years now, and while I’ve had some laptops crash and burn on me, I’ve never had a problem with a desktop unit. I’ve got two desktop computers in my office, an iMac maybe a year older than the one I just replaced and one of those “Lamp-style” iMacs that’s probably 5 or 6 years old. Both of these computers are servers and are on 24/7, and both are trucking along just fine. I’ve got a couple of G4 laptops (one of which was repaired several years ago) and both of them still work, though they are slow and clunky in comparison to what’s available nowadays. So I guess I’m going to chalk this failure up to just one of those things.

So far, I like the new desktop set-up a lot. I boosted the RAM up to 4 GB and the processor is noticeably faster. The keyboard is too little, but I think the Apple store people are going to be cool with me swapping it out for a numbered keyboard. I’m backing up with Time Machine over the wifi to a 1.5 TB drive I bought so everyone in the house can back stuff up as needed– since we already had a base station, this was a significantly cheaper option than Time Capsule– and that seems to be working well. And hey, there’s actually this non-cave-like light in the room! Go figure!

Misc. Post on the end of the school year

I wrapped up my winter 2009 term yesterday; here are some miscellaneous thoughts on the school year that was:

  • I taught a full load this year, which in my department is three courses a term. Last year, when I was on quasi-sabbatical, I taught one course. The year before that, when I was both the writing program coordinator and the acting director of first year writing, I taught two courses, one each term. The year before that, when I was just the writing program coordinator, I taught two courses each term. In other words, I’ve taught almost as much this last school year as I did the previous three.
  • Not that I’m complaining, mind you. My classes are a lot smaller than the classes most of my lit colleagues teach, and I like teaching more than I like release time administrating. I think. I don’t think there’s a lot of difference in terms of work-load, but there is definitely a different kind of rhythm to “just teaching.”
  • In the fall, I taught all on-campus for the first time in quite a while. It was interesting to think of the similarities and differences between face to face teaching and online teaching. I was reminded of a presentation I saw once at the CCCCs a long time ago where some computers and writing big-shot (his name escapes me right now, but I think he has since retired– I’m not sure) gave a presentation about how not teaching in a computer lab for the first time in a long time. Among other things, he felt like he became “the server” because he was collecting and hauling around all this paper from his students. And I was also reminded of the section in Steve Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You when he hypothesizes about what people would think of the book if it came after video games. In any event, one of the ideas that’s been rattling around my head all year is a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed-like article where I talk about the same thing with online teaching. The criticism/critique of teaching online is always “you can’t do ‘x’ in an online class the same way you can do it in a face to face class;” but what I kept thinking about last fall was how I couldn’t or wouldn’t do ‘y’ in my face to face class the same way I could in my online class, if that makes sense.
  • I had students in both English 328 and in English 516 make movies of different types this year. The 328 students worked in small groups to make a short movie and then they each wrote essays about the experience. I learned lots and lots from the experience. What I found most interesting about the movie making for the 328 class was that as a collaborative project, it more or less worked the same in both the face to face classes and online classes. In the face to face classes, I had students get into groups to make the movies, gave them some time and help when the asked for it, and pretty much turned them loose onto it. Some groups got right down to business, some mostly stood around pointing fingers at each other about who’s responsible for not getting things done, and most groups were somewhere in-between. In the online classes, I had some groups get right down to business, some blame each other, and most somewhere in-between. Students who really were “distant” (and out of two 20 student sections of 328, I only had three or four students who really were a long ways away) tended to be the script writers, and I’m hoping to find ways to get them more involved in the actual production with other tools like taskbarn.
  • For 516, I had students make movies as book review presentations. This is something I have been doing in the online version of the class for the last couple years, but for those classes, I let students off the hook by letting them use things like PowerPoint with sound files attached and by not having any real time limits. This time around, I specifically said they could not use PowerPoint and they had to be 10 minutes or less. But just like the online version of the class, I didn’t give these students any instruction on how to do this– more or less, I told them to go and figure it out. Well, almost no instruction; we did have one evening session where students spent about an hour working together to make a little movie right there in class, the point being that the available technology makes this really easy to do nowadays. Plus I did work with a number of students to get their projects to work. So given my “hands off” (mostly) approach to teaching this and my relatively low expectations, I was pretty much blown away by the quality of these presentations. As you can see from this link to the category of book reviews from the class blog/site, some videos are obviously better than others, but some of these are really quite good. This idea for 516 is a keeper for me.
  • I like the projects for 328 I have now, including the collaborative movie and essay about it, but I did very much miss having my 328 students keep web sites where they posted their essays. I had a particularly hard time all year trying to convince students about the need to write for an audience beyond just the teacher, and I have to wonder if any of that is this lack of a truly public space where they post writing. Or it could just be my imagination. In any event, I’m thinking about having students keep WordPress.com blogs because WordPress has the distinct advantage over Blogger of allowing for static pages, meaning students could still post the assigned blog writings to the ongoing “blog part” of things while posting finished/revised drafts of essay projects to static pages on the site. I’d have to change some instructions on blogging, but I don’t know if WordPress.com is that much harder than Blogger is nowadays.
  • I had a kind of a troubling email exchange with a grad student this year; for obvious reasons, I’m not going to post any details about that. But the incident did make me reflect a bit on some of the downsides of the “student-centered classroom” and/or empowering students– particularly graduate students– in certain ways. I don’t have any of these kinds of problems with about 97% of my students, of course; but that 3% can cause troubles and that stick in my mind.

    Most of the time, the small amount of problems I have are pretty much harmless; for example, I can think of times when I’ve laid out some sort of activity for a class– say a small group activity or a peer review or something like that– and then a student says “I think I have a better idea about how we should do this.” Um… well, I am sometimes open to these kinds of suggestions, but no, probably not, because I usually plan this stuff out in advance. Sometimes, when the student thinks of themselves more as a “colleague” than a student (usually an older student and/or a grad student who is also a teacher as a graduate assistant, at a community college, or at a high school), this can become kind of problematic to say the least because, well, we’re not really colleagues.

    And sometimes, this sense of empowerment/entitlement can cross the line into a sort of weird student “bullying” of the teacher. I’m not talking about a student questioning a grade, though I suppose that completely legitimate conversation can cross over to bullying. I’m talking about a space where a student feels so empowered and entitled to get in the teacher’s “face,” usually metaphorically, in order to get her or his way. You know, a bully. Maybe a student bullies the teacher because they feel overly empowered (consciously or not) by a sort of warped idea that the student-centered classroom means that the student ought to get whatever he or she wants. Maybe it’s a part of the “student as customer” culture. Maybe some people are just jerks.

    Like I said, these are very rare problems and I don’t want to dwell on this too much. I had some fantastic students this year, I really did. But it’s funny how that one or two really mean students stick with you.
  • Anyway, that is the school year that was, and now it’s time for spring/summer break. Not that this means it’s time for a “break,” really; I am teaching in the spring term starting May 1, I’ve got a ton of other writing projects to get on, and there’s a whole bunch stuff to do around the house. But you get the idea.

Taskbarn and online collaboration

See Taskbarn, a free project management/collaboration tool.

I don’t know if this would help or not (and I haven’t played with it yet), but one of the challenges my online students in English 328 had this term was collaborating on the movie projects. I knew this might be tricky. I’ll post more about this later, but the short version is that it all “worked out,” but not without some challenges along the way.

In the end, the groups in both of my online sections mostly did face-to-face collaboration, which makes sense since at least 80% of the students in these online classes are currently taking class on campus. In fact, I think there were only two students in total who were really “distance learners,” one in another state a couple time zones away, and another in the military and stationed in the Middle East. Without getting into details now, people coped as best they could and it basically worked out about as well as the collaboration did in the fall term in the “normal” face to face class.

Still, I think that students really could/should be able to do the whole thing online by exchanging text, audio, and video. In theory, they could use emuonline for this, but it has some kind of clunky features in terms of uploading large files and such. So maybe something like this would work better.

A fifteen minute (or so) procrastination about a new computer desk layout

While taking a little grading/commenting break, I came across 15+ Beautiful and Elegant Mac Setups. This got me thinking about two things.

First, I probably am going to once again migrate my desk to a different part of the house, the study area upstairs where Annette has a desk space in theory, but only in theory since she generally is more comfortable and productive working not at a desk at all. Kind of like Richard Branson, though with considerably less money.

Second, if I just cleaned my desk once in a while, I might actually have something worthy of an “elegant” and maybe even “beautiful” desk set-up. And cleaning would be another form of procrastination from grading. Must… resist….

Introducing the Krause-Wannamaker square foot garden

Square foot gardening:  building the boxWe’re trying a new gardening experiment this year: a long version of a Squarefoot Garden to suit the space we have. We don’t have a lot of sun, and this narrow space between our house and our neighbors (out of the picture, but probably less than ten feet away) is actually the only part of our yard where we’ve had any luck growing tomatoes over the years; thus this modification, which is two feet wide and sixteen feet long.

Of course, we can’t even think about planting much (maybe some seeds? maybe stuff like chard?) until after Mother’s Day because of frost and the like.

Depending on how commenting on essays, meeting with students, and generally wrapping up the term goes next week, I might be able to work up a batch of “Mel’s mix,” which is 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite. This might actually be the most tricky part of the whole process. Home Depot didn’t have vermiculite, and it seemed a little pricey when I asked about it at the Ann Arbor Home and Garden store; of course, that is easily the most expensive and/or over-priced store in town. Stay tuned….

Friday night link round-up

I’m having a relatively quiet evening here watching some TV and surfing the ‘net, so I thought I’d post a few links of stuff I’ve come across: