Because I have a blog, I too get to chime in on Bérubé v. Dean Dad

There’s a bit of an intellectual food fight going on about every academic’s favorite workplace debate, the value (or lack thereof) of tenure.  The short version is that Dean Dad at Confessions of a Community College Dean is against it, while Michael Bérubé at his blog (now called American Airspace, I guess?) is for it.  Also in a very basic sense, Dean Dad and Bérubé are simply playing out the logical roles based on their place and status within the academy:  that is, DD is an administrator and wants to get rid of tenure because of the “economic reality” that tenure is not sustainable, and Bérubé is a professor and wants to protect tenure for all kinds of reasons, both noble and self-serving.  Since I too am a professor (not to mentioned a tenured one) and not a dean, I freely admit that I think  Bérubé is right and DD is wrong.  Basically.

Anyway, a few observations on their dispute and tenure before I get to grading and wrapping stuff up so we can get out of town for Thanksgiving:

  • There is a difference between a community college and a bachelor degree granting college or university, not to mention a university that grants graduate degrees.  Not to take anything away from community colleges, but it takes greater skill sets and qualifications in your faculty to teach those advanced courses.  At places like EMU, we graduate the kinds of students who DD turns around and hires to teach at his community college.  So I think this is one of the reasons why DD’s take on this seems to be it’d be no big deal to just hire people on contract– and at a community college, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal.  But you show me a university that grants graduate degrees that does not tenure its faculty and I’ll show you a graduate school that is difficult to take seriously.
  • Tenure and its definitions vary widely.  Here at EMU, we hire people with the presumption that we’ll tenure them, and in my dozen years in the department, we’ve never not tenured someone.  At that quaint liberal arts college in Ann Arbor, tenure is quite a bit more contentious and uncertain.  Here at EMU, tenure and promotion is largely a union issue; at many (most?) other universities, it is frequently a mysterious, “behind closed doors” sort of affair.  Also, while the numbers have moved around a bit, my guess is we have about as many faculty now at EMU as we did when the faculty organized, plus or minus 30 or so.
  • There’s a big difference between a “part-timer” (someone who is hired to teach on a semester to semester basis) and a “professor” on the tenure track, at least at a university.  Our part-timers (and we have some great ones, btw) do zero service, advising, or any of the other work beyond teaching, and they have little investment in the long-term value of the institution.  And why should they?  We pay them a wage that is probably just north of what they could be making at Starbucks.  In contrast, tenure-track faculty do lots of service and advising beyond teaching, and, because they’re tenured, they inherently have a long-term stake in the institution.
  • Which reminds me:  given the amount of stuff faculty do that is beyond teaching and the amount of stuff we do that is described generally as “administrative creep,” it seems to me that DD ought to be careful what he wishes for.  I mean, good luck getting your part-timers to participate in the bureaucracy of  program review and accreditation!
  • I think the amount of “dead wood” among the ranks of the tenured is highly exaggerated.  Sure, in my department of 40 or so tenured faculty, I can think of five or six who are kind of in that category.  But most of those folks aren’t so much “dead wood” as they are “looking forward to retirement.”  Most of my colleagues, even the ones who have been tenured for 30 or more years, are still quite active.  They might not do much scholarship anymore, but they still teach a lot and do lots of service.  And it ain’t the “dead wood” faculty who are causing troubles for administrators and everyone else.
  • DD keeps suggesting that the solution to the tenure problem is long term (say five years) and renewable contracts.  I think he is either being naive or this is a red herring because, in practice, there is no real difference between a “long term contract” and “tenure.”  I mean, does he have any idea how hard it is to not renew a contract and/or fire someone in any like of work?  Especially from what is essentially a “government job?”We have lecturers at EMU who work on year to year contracts, and as far as I can tell, the only way we can “release” these folks is if they do something horribly wrong or if there is some horrible financial crisis.  In a sense then, these folks might as well be “tenured.”  And along these lines, tenured faculty can (and have been) fired for doing horrible things and as a result of horrible financial crisis within an institution.  So….
  • … I don’t think that DD’s objections to the tenure system has anything to do with economics at all.  The “Great Recession” has already forced cost-cutting measures at many universities, including pay cuts and increased teaching loads.  No, at the risk of reading “too much into this,” I think DD is really objecting to:
  • Unions, specifically the AAUP, and
  • Particular tenured faculty who are pain in his ass.

I have some sympathy with both of DD’s problems– some, not a lot.  EMU has a faculty union (the AAUP), and while I often feel like the union does some dumb stuff and can be rather shrill, I would much rather be in a union than not.  And it is very true that some tenured faculty can be assholes, and tenure has the unfortunate side effect of reinforcing and even rewarding that behavior.  But hey, all you have to do is read Dilbert to realize that dealing with workers who are a pain in the ass are just another part of the world.

Sorta like dealing with pointy-haired bosses/deans.

Hello, China!

In the “build it and they will come” (sorta) department:  I received a lovely email today from Sally Stephenson about using my freely available and online textbook, The Process of Research Writing. Stephenson is teaching in China and wrote to thank me for making TPRW available free and online:

I am currently on sabbatical from Frostburg State University in Maryland, now teaching Ph.D. students in China at Hunan Normal University, and so much of what we take for granted academically in the States is totally alien here. I am grateful for your permission to use your material and will make good use of it, and credit you accordingly. I especially appreciate all the trouble you took to put the APA and MLA examples up in Chapter 12. I’ve been drilling them on paraphrasing and quoting–something foreign to Chinese culture, which is based on the “one-for-all and all-for-one” philosophy–and am about to tackle the monster of citations and references.

In my search for your well-hidden email address, I also enjoyed browing your blog. Most blogs are blocked here in China, so you might be interested to know yours made it through the “Great Firewall” as it is not-so-fondly called.

So, not only do I have a fan in Asia; I’m escaping Chinese censorship.  Go figure!

“Downloading Optimism” (and btw, what’s new with electronic books?)

I know that the image there is going to be too small to read, but go ahead and click on it to read it.  This comes from Lucy Knisley who seems to be a bit of a Renaissance woman of sorts with comics, journal writings, illustrations, crafts, etc., etc.

Really REALLY smart stuff about a group of old school comics folks lamenting the falling of print, which was written and drawn by a comic artist who is obviously enthusiastic about digital books.  As she points out, there was a point in the past where these codex book things were weird (where’s the scroll?), and of course there was a time where print itself was weird, too (why are all the letters so neat and orderly?), not to mention stuff like page numbers, etc.  And, as she writes here, “I’d just rather not expend all my energy worrying over how my words are delivered, and instead concentrate on the quality and content of the words.”  Exactly, and the problem with journalism and traditional publishers is that they keep thinking that they are in the bottle business instead of the wine business.

Anyway, this also jarred in me the question again about “e-readers” or electronic books or whatever you want to call them. Knisley talks in this comic about reading stuff on her iPod/iPhone, but I don’t know if I could/would be willing to do that.  I don’t mind reading blogs or email or similarly “short” sort of things on my iPod, but I don’t know if I’d want to read a book-length work on my phone.  Too little of a window for me.

The Kindle is still problematic for my own reading tastes, as far as I can tell.  I don’t really like the way that the device is locked down/locked into only content (remember that infamous 1984 issue?), it apparently doesn’t handle PDF files well, and it doesn’t allow for easy annotations.  I’ve heard good things about Barnes and Noble’s Nook, but I’d certainly want to play around with it.  For me, the ability to handle the PDFs from academic journals and the things I assign students to read in various classes.  I don’t need one of these things to “just read” novels or magazines or whatever, which perhaps makes me a reader who is not in the marking plan for companies like or B&N.

Anyway, must reading for 516 and/or 444, probably for 328 too.

The hyperbolic coffee chamber

The other day, I was in Ann Arbor and at Comet Coffee in Nickels Arcade– it’s next to the place where I get my hair cut, and they do make a really good cup of coffee.   Anyway, they had the syringe-like AeroPress for sale.  I think I had read about it someplace– boing-boing maybe?– and I was sucked in by the hyperbole on the side of the box.

Now, I do like the AeroPress quite a bit.  I wanted something to make just a cup or two of coffee at a time, and my French press is a bit of a pain to clean.  What I like about the AeroPress is that it’s quick, easy, and even kind of fun to use, it makes a good single cup of coffee (well, sort of an Americano; one of these days, I might just try to “drink it straight” as if it were real espresso, or figure out a way to froth up some milk to make cappuccino), and it takes like 15 seconds to clean.  Plus it’s very portable– comes with a travel bag no less!

But some of the hyperbolic claims made on the side of the box and on the AeroPress web site are down-right bizarre.  For example:

“It makes the absolute best cup of coffee I’ve tasted in my entire life.” Lewis Singer – Cooks Junction

“I didn’t know the same coffee could taste so good.” Peter Whitely – Sunset Magazine

“A couple of years ago I bought a $1500 espresso machine. It works well – but it doesn’t turn out the consistent quality of the AeroPress. Now I use the AeroPress for ALL brewing and only use my expensive Italian machine for heating the AeroPress water and for foaming milk for my cappuccino.”
Tom Osborne – Stewarts Point , CA

Now, there are some people who do have some more coffee ethos who say good things about the AeroPress, but really? The best cup of coffee of your entire life?  Better than a $1500 espresso machine? And who are these people?  Should it mean something to me that it is the Lewis Singer of Cooks Junction?  Are the people of Stewarts Point known for their tastes in coffee?

And yet, I was sucked in by the hyperbole.  I saw the side of that box that a complete stranger with no ethos or credibility said “the best cup of coffee I’ve tasted in my entire life,” and I thought on some level “wow, let me give that thing a try.”  In other words, even though the claims made by the product’s advertising were and are completely ridiculous and unreasonable, it worked on me.

So, maybe making really outrageous claims can work sometimes.  And I could go for a cup of coffee, too….

A couple of blog talks

I’m giving a couple of talks today about blogging as part of a “Technovations” Forum sponsored by the Faculty Development Center:

I’m not entirely sure how many people are going to be at these talks or if what I’m intending to talk about is going to be useful or not, but I thought I’d put these up here to share with the world, so to speak.  And to help me remember what I did with these files later on….

A good example of why correctness and handwriting still matter

This is on the BBC news radio as I type this:  “How does Brown’s handwriting compare with other PMs’?” talks about this a bit, but basically, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown sent a hand-written condolence letter to a mother who’s son was killed in Afghanistan, and it turns out the letter itself was filled with errors and exhibited terrible handwriting.  To quote from the article:

The spelling mistakes in Gordon Brown’s solemn letter to Jacqui Janes were not the only shortcoming, according to the bereaved mother.

In expressing his condolences for the death of Jamie Janes, who died in Afghanistan on 5 October, Mr Brown appeared to correct the soldier’s first name, as well as rushing the communique.

“I saw he had scribbled out a mistake in Jamie’s name,” Ms Janes told the Sun newspaper. “The letter was scrawled so quickly I could hardly even read it and some of the words were half-finished. It’s just disrespectful.”

I will say this: I at least give Brown credit for the effort of a hand-written note; I don’t think that happens in the U.S….

“The Revenge of the Space Pandas”

A lot of family life and energy around the house lately has involved Will’s participation in the Greenhills Middle School production of “The Revenge of the Space Pandas, or, Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock.”

Here’s a link to a Flickr set of a few pictures and videos.

Now, I’m not going to critique the actual performance/production, because my son was in it (basically as an extra, though he did have one scene as “cameraman”) and hey, it was a middle school play! It was both cute and a bit “rough,” with some very charming and entertaining moments.  But of course it was wonderful, at least from my point of view.  Still, the play itself– wow that was weird.

It’s a David Mamet play he wrote in the late 1970s.  Binky (along with his friend Vivian and his sheep Bob) invents/discovers a “two-speed clock” that somehow allows the trio to travel to a different planet or dimension called Crestview which is ruled by George Topax and which is populated with Crestviewians and Space Pandas.  Topax wants to take and keep (and kill?) Bob the sheep because he wants a sweater.  Hijinks ensue.

Now, on the plus-side, there are funny and absurd moments, and some moments of that staccato Mamet dialog.  No f-bombs or other vulgarities obviously, but there were moments where you do have some of the kind of rhythms of language you see in other Mamet work.  But what’s the deal with the Space Pandas?  What’s the relationship between them and the Crestviewians?  And couldn’t they just, you know, sheer Bob and give the Topax guy a sweater?  And so forth.

Like I said, weird weird weird.

But like I also said, the Greenhills folks did a fine job of it.  Originally, Will wanted a bigger part, but to be honest, I’m not sure he would have had the energy for it.  He’s been pretty pooped this week, and his was a small part.  And he’s not crazy about the make-up.  But there will be some production next year, and we’ll see what he decides to do then.

A few miscellany

For the first time in what seems like a month, I feel “caught up,” almost.  I think ever since the “National Day O’ Writing” thing, I’ve been bailing water.  Anyway, I haven’t thought through much in terms of anything too interesting to say, but thought I’d post a few links, a few updates:

  • My English 505 class goes well, and it took a somewhat surprising turn the other day:  Richard Vatz, the author of “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation,” contacted me after coming across the class online.  Which is just another one of those examples I suppose of the pros and cons of putting an online class truly online and “out there” for the world to see.
  • Utah State UP will live another day with a different model, as a (mostly?) electronic press.
  • “Are we naked in the cloud?” from the Atlantic. I think the answer is “well, yes,” which is why cloud computing will only go so far, at least until these sorts of ownership/privacy issues are sorted out.
  • Just got on Google wave; we’ll see how it goes….
  • Maybe I haven’t been writing enough lately because I haven’t been feeling grumpy.
  • I tried to comment on this post about imagining an online composition platform at Alex Reid’s blog (and that didn’t work), so I’ll post something here:

    For starters, I don’t think online versions of first year writing is a good idea– at least not entirely online, and at least not at EMU.  We admit a fair number of first year students at EMU who are “at risk” in some fashion, and what I see in my current section of freshman comp is a real mix in levels of responsibility and maturity.  Some students would be fine with a completely online class; many would not.  Hybrid first year writing classes is another issue though.

    Second, the online platform that I imagine is probably something like a wiki.  I’ve been using media wiki for this term and I used a wetpaint wiki for my spring 2009 term class.  Of course, this isn’t an online class, but I like the interface for publishing student work and class materials, and I think that students like it too.  There is a level of “individuality” with this set-up because I have organized the site by having each student have a page, but at the same time, all the stuff is right there together.  The down-sides of these sites are they don’t foster ongoing conversation that well (though I suppose that’s in part because we haven’t tried– it is a face to face class, after all), and there are different technical issues.  Mediawiki is a little unwieldy for students; Wetpaint is super easy to use, but there isn’t much you can do to customize it.