De-bumper sticker-ing

I spent far too much time taking the bumper stickers off the back of my Saturn IM001423today because we are getting ready to replace.  I say “too much time” because if I end up getting something for a trade-in, then the car dealership probably wouldn’t care about the stickers.  And if I sell it myself, the price-point will probably be low enough that the bumper stickers won’t make a lot of difference.

(As an aside:  I wasn’t even thinking about trying to sell it myself, but I was at a function this evening in which people were trying to tell me that I ought to give it a go on Craig’s List.  I don’t know what I can get for a trade-in, and that would obviously be the easiest solution.  But as one of these folks said, if it runs, it’s worth at least $1000, and I do think I could probably get more.  It really is still in pretty decent shape; if anyone out there is interested, let me know).

Anyway, I had a lot of bumper stickers back there, and it’s a shame I forgot to take a picture before I got down to work.  Most of them came off pretty easy, but some were, well, sticky.  So I was out there trying to scrape these off the remaining ones with a putty knife and/or a razor blade, when not one but two different neighbors (at different times) came by to ask what I was doing.  One is a neighbor I know pretty well, so it wasn’t that surprising he asked what I was up to, but the other was one I had never met.  I park my car on the street, so it is something of a landmark, so I guess it was noticeable that I was earnestly scraping away.

At the end, some old sticker remains– I wonder if it has something to do with the plastic of the bumper– but my main reaction was the back of my car looked, well, naked.  Like other normal cars.

We’ll see how the new car thing/selling the old car thing works out.  But I’ll tell you this right now:  whatever brand-spanking new car we get, I’m gonna put bumper stickers on it asap.

Why we need government-run health care (the simple movie)

My friend Michelle B. had this on the book o’ face and I thought I’d post it here:

Besides being very true, it also seems like a pretty good example of what could be done very simply for the various movie projects I assign in classes like English 328 or English 516….

Student writing is getting worse– or wait, it’s getting better!

Ladies and gentlemen:  It is time for the main event, the forever battle over students getting worse and worse as time goes on.  Let’s get ready to


Representing the world champion, the “going to hell in a hand-basket,” the eternal the youth are getting worse and worse, and carrying on the tradition of complaining about students that dates back in western culture to at least Isocrates, I give you Stanley Fish’s “What Should Colleges Teach?” on his New York Times “blog.” Judging by the many comments here that repeat “oh yes, the students are so much worse today than they used to be,” he’s clearly the champ and the crowd favorite.  And why wouldn’t he be?  Isn’t it much more satisfying for grown-ups to note the weaknesses of youth?  After all, to do so simultaneously suggests that the grown-ups of today are both “better” than the current youth, and it suggests that the previous youth (e.g., today’s grown-ups) were also better than the current youth (“When I was their age, we learned this stuff.  But now…”).

In the challenger’s corner, we have Clive Thompson and his WIRED article “The New Literacy,” in which he argues that “it’s not that today’s students can’t write.  It’s that they’re doing it in different places and in different ways.”  Boos from the crowd; looks like Thompson has an uphill battle.  Let’s see how this works out.


Fish opens with what he even admits is a pretty old attack:  the problem is that composition classes in college don’t teach the craft of writing, and they instead teach something– well, something else.  Political stuff.  Saving the world.  Not writing and grammar and rhetoric.  “As I learned more about the world of composition studies,” Fish writes, “I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.”  Those bastards in composition!!

Thompson’s opening anticipates and parries this old attack: “As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into “bleak, bald, sad shorthand” (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?” Right. Oh wait, the idea that the kids can’t write isn’t right? Perhaps we will read on….

Fish argues that his position now has “received (indirect) support from a source that makes me slightly uncomfortable, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.”  What could possibly be wrong with these folks?

Founded by Lynne Cheney and Jerry Martin in 1995, ACTA (I quote from its website) is “an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence and accountability at America’s colleges.” Sounds good, but that “commitment” takes the form of mobilizing trustees and alumni in an effort to pressure college and universities to make changes in their curricula and requirements. Academic institutions, the ACTA website declares, “need checks and balances” because “internal constituencies” — which means professors — cannot be trusted to be responsive to public concerns about the state of higher education.

Ouch.  Having a right-wing group supporting your position on education is always a little, um, uncomfortable.  What have you got, Thompson?

Andrea Lunsford isn’t so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

Ah-HA!  One of those evil compositionalists!  Of course she is saying this! The problem is though that Lunsford actually uses this stuff that academics like Fish and Cheney are supposed to respect, this stuff– oh, what’s it called?  right!  Actual research with actual student writers.

I think the thing that Fish gets most wrong is to assume that somehow, it is even possible to teach “grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.”  Grammar and rhetoric are always about something; you can’t just teach rules are about how to persuade and not have some kind of content.  And I think where Thompson and the Stanford study get it most right is to recognize that students (and everyone else) need to write with some kind of purpose and for some kind of audience, and they do this often in out of school settings, like Facebook and blogs and Twitter:

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.

This fight ends sort of  like the first Rocky, I am sure:  the upstart still loses.  But who knows?  Maybe after a dozen sequels, we’ll finally get a round where the good guys win.

A few other syllabi to contemplate

‘Tis the season for college teachers to get those Fall syllabi in order, and as I worry about my own, I thought I’d share here quickly a couple of links to stuff I’ve come across recently that I think look cool and worthy to steal borrow from:

Lessig ends blogging for what are emerging (for me, at least) classic reasons

Lawrence Lessig announced today that he’s more or less giving up blogging, and it’s striking to me how many of his reasons seem to correspond to my own very limited research on why it is people hang up the ol’ blog.  To simplfy:

  • Life and other work has intervened– Lessig is expecting another child and is taking on more time-consuming responsibilities at Harvard.
  • Technologies of blogging has become somewhat problematic, especially in terms of spam.  Though I have to say I think this is a kind of lame explanation/excuse since it’s easy to set up a blog to dissuade spam.
  • Moving to other spaces– or, in Lessig’s case, putting his energies on other spaces he’s already mainitaining:

This isn’t an announcement of my disappearance. I’m still trying to understand twitter. My channel at will remain. As will the podcast, updated as I speak. I will continue to guest blog at Huffington Post. And as enters a new stage, I hope to be doing more there. But this community, this space, this board will now rest.

Interestingly enough, I think the Lessig blog also exhibits the classic signs of ending blogs:  a flurry of posts in recent days here in late August 2009, but none in July 2009, and one in early June.

But I have no doubt that Lessig will remain an important and prolific voice online and beyond the blogosphere.

Teaching online and how I warn students

A student I had in English 444 online this summer and who I will be having in English 505 online this fall noticed that the warning message I send around to students before the class begins is more or less boiler-plate. This is true, and I was also reminded that a couple of different faculty colleagues have asked me for that warning.  So, in the spirit of sharing, I offer (after the jump) the email that I send to students before the class begins to warn them about what it is they are getting themselves into.

A couple of thoughts/caveats:

  • Feel free to borrow/modify from this for your own teaching, though if it makes sense to give me some credit, that’d be okay.
  • I see this as mostly a “buyer beware” sort of message, but the origins of this message are frustration.  When I started teaching online several years ago, I had a couple of students who wrote to me in email messages “I’m not very good with computers.”   I found this rather frustrating; why, I asked these students, would you sign up for a class where the main interaction involved a computer?
  • Has this message “worked?”  Yes and no.  Mostly “Yes” because some students receive this message and decide that the class might not be right for them, which I take as a success.  I’d rather have students recognize that the online class is not for them and not get into in the first place than have to withdraw when they can’t get their money back.  And I’d say “Yes” in that when students do get in over their heads, they do know that they had been warned.  But “No” in that I still have students who either don’t take my warnings seriously or who over-estimate their technical abilities or time-management skills (though fewer than before).
  • I ask students to respond to this message, and what’s interesting to me is that students who have had online classes before generally seem to appreciate it the most.

Okay, to the message itself:

Continue reading “Teaching online and how I warn students”

And just a brief word about Barney Frank

The above video is where Barney Frank asks a woman (who asked why he continues to support Obama’s Nazi policy on health reform) on what planet she spends most of her time and where he describes her as being a dining room table. As of right now, there are hundreds (thousands?) of articles out there that have headlines like “Frank fights back” or “Frank unleashed” or “Frank lashes out,” which kind of suggests in a way that he was either flying off the handle or taking some kind of risk in calling this nutjob a nutjob.

I actually think that Frank has done his political calculations quite accurately and he’s set an example for congresspeople across the country and on both sides of the aisle. I mean, what really is the chance that this woman (and other booing protesters at Frank’s town hall meeting) voted for Frank in the first place? What’s the chance that these folks would vote for him in the next election regardless of what he says? It seems to me that what Frank is really doing here (besides speaking the truth about these crazy people) is appealing to his base. Pretty shrewd, if you ask me.

Why wouldn’t you want to be read?

I’m beginning the wrap-up of my summer term around here (I won’t be done completely until August 25– it’s complicated).  I had two really fantastic classes– Writing for the World Wide Web and Technology for Teaching and Learning:  great and smart students, fun discussions, interesting insights, etc., etc.  In both of these classes, where we talked in different ways about blogging and social networking, the “why” question came up, especially in terms of blogging.  To paraphrase and simplify, a lot of my students asked “why would anyone want to post what they think about stuff out there for the whole world to see?”  And in a related note, there were some students who seemed anxious or even kind of afraid of the idea of an audience.

This meshes with one of the modest conclusions I discussed in my Computers and Writing Conference presentation called “Endings,” which was about why people quit blogging.  In my email survey/interviews, one of the reasons that came up as to why some folks give up blogging was because of the potential– real or imagined– that some particular people might end up reading what they wrote.  In other words, they quit not because they lacked audience; they quit because they realized they might have an audience.

I’m always a little surprised when anybody says they’d rather not have people read their writing.  Granted, I wouldn’t want to have everyone to read everything I write and I like to think that the writing that I share with audiences now is better than the writing I wrote to share with other 10 or 20 years ago.  But from my point of view, the main point of writing is to get other people to read it.  Sure, there is the desire to please yourself too, but for me, the main reason why people write is because they think they have something to say to others.  The goal then is to get other people to read that writing and for them to get something out of it. To me, to write only for yourself is missing at least half of the point of writing in the first place.

The Food (W)hole dilemma (the health care edition)

Whole Foods C.E.O. John Mackey had an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day where he argued for a rather conservative/anti-Obama/anti-public option take on health care reform.  Mark Maynard wrote about it, there’s a piece in the Huffington Post that goes in great detail refuting Mackey, and Mackey tries to dig himself out on his own blog.

On the one hand, I tend to agree with the critiques of Mackey’s WSJ piece, though to be somewhat fair, Mackey does have some good points on his blog. It was the Journal’s idea to characterize Mackey’s article as a critique against “Obamacare,” and they apparently cut out most of the stuff that Mackey had originally included about the importance of emphasizing good nutrition and wellness.  But it is pretty easy to read Mackey’s piece as the rantings of self-interested CEO trying to minimize his labor costs in order to maximize profits for share holders.  Which, of course, he is.

This is hardly the first kinda creepy thing I’ve noticed about the Food (W)Hole.  In January 2008, there was a local story I blogged about here about a fish guy who was fired from Whole Foods under somewhat dubious circumstances.  Whole Foods has notoriously resisted efforts at unionization.  And other stuff, as this site notes.

But on the other hand, I really like Whole Foods.  They have excellent products and service, and if you know what to shop for or what’s worth spending the extra money on, I honestly don’t even think it’s that bad of a deal.  And I have to say if I boycotted every store that had some kind of political stance that didn’t line up perfectly with mine or that was run by a douchebag CEO, I’d have to revert to a hunter-gather lifestyle.

So I’ll keep shopping there and indulging my yuppie/foodie self.  But I am once again reminded this isn’t Whole Foods Co-Op but Whole Foods, Inc.

Some artists are just kinda wrong

From the blog Livin’ it Up Big Time comes this entry, “Looks Like If The Words Are Bleeding (Collected Collegiate Student Essays, 2002-2009).” This popped up on the WPA-L mailing list.  Basically, the blogger/artist Theodore Diran Lyons III took some particularly poor examples of writing assignments he had collected from seven years of teaching at different institutions, tacked them up on the wall, circled some of the errors in red and highlighted other errors with large font pull-quotes, and said it was an art piece about illiteracy in America.  Comments on his blog ensued, and I am apart of the thread as the long-winded “Steve,” if you’re curious.

I don’t know, perhaps I was giving the guy far too much grief/far too much attention here, but I got sucked in.  The whole conversation bothers/bothered me.  This is certainly an example of the sort of feedback loop I’ve experienced/written about in terms of blog writing and viral media.  I guess I also think it’s interesting the extent to which we reached an impasse regarding the definition of illiteracy (which is obviously more complicated than mistakes circled in red), and the extent to which Lyons is so defensive about all this.  Oh well; I guess we all have a way of being defensive, eh?

I think one of the key differences of opinion is the idea about what counts as a “fair game” object of art or public discussion.  Lyons wants to claim that artists can claim pretty much anything.  In his way of thinking about it, the students abandoned these essays (they didn’t pick up them up at the end of the term), so they were his to do with as he pleased.  I think that when we ask students to write things, it is uncool to turn around and then use those things in our own work.  For example, it would be problematic for me to lift chunks of text from one or more of my students’ essays and then claim it as my own (though we’ve all heard stories of this happening before).  And it is clearly and completely wrong for teachers to use a public forum– a blog, an art gallery, both, etc.– to make fun of students’ failings.

I suppose it’s different here since Lyons isn’t exactly presenting this work as his own and he did work to conceal the identities of his “illiterate” students; but he is using his students’ work, unbeknownst to them, in an attempt to make a point.  And in my way of looking at it, he is using his students’ work to more or less demonstrate that they are not very smart and to make fun of them.

That’s just mean.

It also seems to me that the more successful of this mode of found/quasi-performance art uses as the subject/victim the artist himself.  I’m thinking of people like Chris Burden, who nailed himself (well, someone else obviously must have done the nailing) to the back of Volkswagen and who was shot by an assistant as art.  Think what you will of Burden’s art, but in these pieces, at least he is the object/victim.  In contrast, Lyons’ piece victimizes his students.  Granted, we’re talking about abandoned writing assignments here and not truly life-threatening acts/art, but these students are victims of a sort nonetheless.

For me, a more interesting piece might have involved Lyons tacking up some of the student evaluations he has collected over the years on a big wall in some sort of pattern.  Maybe there are reoccurring comments from students he could circle?  Maybe he could note the ways he himself has progressed as a teacher?  Maybe he could note the mistakes he continues to make?  Lord knows that’s a piece I could put together.