So, how was 2009 for you?

The conventional wisdom is that 2009 was bad for folks, mainly because of the economy.   I know very directly two folks who were laid off as a result of the bad economy– maybe three, but the details there are a little more sketchy.  But on the micro/family level, I think 2009 was a pretty good one for us.  A few highlights from last year’s blog posts/life:

And that was the year that was….

Bonus post: On Avatar

I wasn’t planning on writing anything else here until after the holidaze, but Annette, Will, and I went to see Avatar this afternoon and I felt compelled to write some thoughts before going off to bed.

Before I get to the (potential) spoilers, let me say this:  I enjoyed the movie quite a bit– perhaps not as much as Will and Annette, but still quite a bit.  It’s certainly worth seeing in the theater, preferably in 3-D and in an I-Max theater.  It looked absolutely fantastic and that in and of itself made the whole thing worth it.  Though one problem I have with the 3-D is that I wear glasses, and I have to say I don’t think the glasses over the glasses thing works that great.  I’m looking forward to the not so distant future in which the glasses are not necessary. Go and see it, you’ll be glad you did.

That said, I’m not sure this was a “great” movie or this generation’s Star Wars or whatever other hyperbole you want to apply.  I think the main problem/limitation I saw in the movie is that is completely derivative of so many other movies over the last decade or so.  More on which movies– along with many MANY spoilers– after the jump.

Continue reading “Bonus post: On Avatar”

The fall term that was

Alex Reid’s post (along with just the end of things) prompted me to post this end of the term summary of things:

Overall, I was pleased with the way my graduate class, Rhetoric of Science and Technology, turned out this term.  It was the first time I taught it online, and we posted a staggering 1,738 comments on 91 posts during the course of the semester.  If you average that out to about 200 words a post (many were less, many were more), I’d say that the class wrote about a novel and a half (in draft form, of course) worth of text.  Besides quantity, the quality of interaction was quite excellent– lots of give and take, lots of smart comments that indicate to me a lot of reading and a lot of thinking.  And as a bonus, we even had a couple of the people whose work we read weigh in on the class, not the sort of thing that can happen with the course is behind a firewall.  Anyway, the next time someone suggests you can’t teach an advanced seminar class online, I’m going to point them to this site.

But I will say there are two things I’ll definitely be changing the next time I teach this class.  First, the wiki writing experience didn’t work.  The idea was to use a wiki for students to work collaboratively on reading notes for the texts we were reading since a lot of what we read during the class is dense and complicated stuff.  That didn’t work well for two reasons.  First, with all of the activity going on at the class web site/blog, the wiki was too often repetitive and/or forgotten.  We tried talking about the last thing I assigned (a couple chapters from Collin Brooke’s book) on the wiki exclusively, but that didn’t work that well either.

Second, I think I’m going to change up the writing assignments for next year.  Instead of having one “seminar paper” at the end, I’m going to have a shorter project in the middle of the term where students will write based on the first group of readings (probably “the old stuff” and related essays); another shorter project for the second part of the term based on those readings (many of which I will probably get students to research and find); and a more comprehensive and “worth more” final.  We’ll see; this was only the second time I taught this course, so I’m still trying to figure it out.

My section of English 328:  Writing, Style, and Technology was a little more, well, odd this term.  In contrast to English 505, 328 is a class I’ve taught literally 50 or more times, and I kind of feel like I’ve “got it down” pat.  Perhaps that’s part of the problem, which is why I’m looking forward to changing some of it up in the winter term, a lot of those based on the stuff Derek has been messing around with this term.  It’s been fun for both me and our colleague Cheryl Cassidy (Cheryl is the other person here who has taught the bulk of these 328 classes over the years) to watch Derek begin to find his way in that class.  Anyway, this term was weird in several ways I probably shouldn’t go into in any detail; let’s just say that a majority of the students who signed up the class originally didn’t finish it, which is a first for me.

And then there was my section of English 121, Researching the Public Experience (aka first year comp/rhet).  This was the first time in years and years (maybe ever?) since I’ve been at EMU where I taught a “real” section of this class– that is, one that was offered during a normal term and one that was actually made up of mostly first year students and one where we got to participate in the “Celebration of Student Writing.” (I teach this often enough in the spring or summer terms, but those classes are 7.5 weeks long and usually mostly juniors and seniors who transferred in, who took it and failed it before, and/or who just forgot to take it until the end of their degree programs.  This is different population of students to say the least.)  I’d say it both went pretty well and it was kind of depressing, too.

It went reasonably well mechanically/logistically.  I used a wiki powered by MediaWiki, and that had advantages and disadvantages.  All of my students posted all of their work to different pages within the wiki and they used the wiki to comment on each others’ various drafts and exercises.  Students liked being able to see what others in the class were doing in one centralized place like this, and I liked it for those reasons along with various “classroom management” issues.  I didn’t collect any paper from them this year, I knew exactly when they did (or didn’t) do things because it was all time-stamped on the wiki, and viewing the “history” of one of the major portfolio assignments gave a very clear picture of the revisions and changes that they made.  But the problem of the wiki was it was still a little more technical/complicated for students to negotiate than I would have preferred.  Maybe I’ll use it again the next time I teach this; maybe I’ll try using something like PBWorks or whatever else has come along in a couple years.

But it was also kind of depressing because of what I guess I’d call an “achievement gap.”  This has been on my mind/in the news around EMU as of late because the board of regents and other forces around campus are growing more concerned about the institution’s retention rate, which is something like 39%— that is, around that percentage of students actually graduates from EMU within six years.  Compare that to U of Michigan, where the number is more like 90%.  I saw this statistic played out in my section of freshman comp.  Of the 25 students on my role, 9 of them either withdrew from the class or failed it– and pretty much the only way to completely fail the class is to just not show up and/or do the work.  Of the 16 who did finish, three were juniors or seniors who were taking 121 too late and who were already well on their way to graduation.  Of the 13 “real” first or second year students left, I would guess that five or six of them won’t be at EMU in a year or two from now– some for good reasons (I know at least one student in this class who was planning on transferring because of a change of heart about a major), but most because of “life distractions” (e.g., working too much) or because of their abilities.

So, if my section of 121 was a little micro-version of the institution, that 39% figure seems about right.  Actually, it might even be kind of high.

Anyway, I don’t worry that much about the sorts of issues that Alex was worrying about in his post, about the problems of teaching writing as a series of discreet moves rather a more authentic writing/writerly experience.  Institutionalized education is by definition artificial and a form of imitation of “the real,” which also has an element of “realness” in and of itself.  Alex uses the youth soccer coaching analogy, and I think that works well here too:  writing classes are more like practice, where the players run through a series of drills and do some scrimmaging to prepare for the “real game” that comes later.  I’m okay with that.

But what I do worry about is that ever-eternal problem at “opportunity granting” institutions like EMU:  what is the line between giving a kid who did not do great in high school a second chance with college versus just taking money from someone who is so poorly prepared for college that they just don’t have a chance of succeeding?  That’s the kinda depressing part.

Anyway, the term is a wrap, and for the first time in many a holiday season, I’m not taking any work with me on my various travels– some things to read (mostly for fun), a notebook and a pen (no laptop), and an iPhone.   See ya next year.

The iPhone giveth, the iPhone taketh away

Two articles I might include in 516 this coming term, if I decide to have some kinda discussion in there about hand-held devices:

  • How the iPhone could reboot education is from WIRED about a project at Abilene Christian University where all the first year students and most of the faculty have iPhones and use them in different and kinda cool ways.  This article has links to other iPhone and education (sorta) articles.
  • AT&T takes blame, even for the iPhone’s faults is a NYTimes article that more or less makes the claim that the problem with the iPhone and connectivity is not AT&T but the phone itself.  I think this is interesting because I’ve said to plenty of people that I love my phone but hate AT&T; perhaps I ought to give a little less hate.

In both cases, it seems to me it begs the question if we ought to call these devices “phones” anymore or something else.  But like I said, a potential topic for 516 for the winter, which I’m hoping to start planning and/or thinking about in earnest very soon.

“Another one bites the dust” makes me think I should revise an old presentation

I came across this last week but didn’t have time to post a link or anything: “Another One Bites the Dust” is an Inside Higher Ed story about an international effort at online education closing up its “doors,” so to speak:

Of all the projects to build international online universities, U21 Global might have been the most ambitious. Universitas 21, the international consortium of highly reputed research universities that opened U21 Global in 2001, predicted the program would enroll 500,000 students and be netting $325 million annually by 2011.

But the program has been fraught with financial losses over its eight-year run, and currently enrolls only 5,000 students. A number of affiliated universities have walked away, including four in the last two years.

Basically, the article explains how this is another example of these online programs, which frankly seem primarily designed to make universities and investors a lot of money as opposed to provide quality education, failing. There are a bunch of others that have either failed entirely or which have not done well. In fact, with the exception of the University of Phoenix and Kaplan and a couple of other programs like it, I think it’s fair to say that online programs are successful– both in terms of extending opportunity to students and making money– when they are tied to “real” and previously existing colleges and universities. I’d wager that places like Phoenix and Kaplan make most of its money from people who need “just in time” education for their current job or to move into a slightly better one– an accounting course, something on how to make a web site, etc. I would bet that the number of students they have that look like EMU students, both traditional and non-traditional, are minimal.

This all reminds me of a presentation I gave almost 10 years ago now at an Midwest MLA called “Haven’t we said this before? What the History of Correspondence Courses Teach Us About the Promises and Problems of Online Distance Education Courses.” Basically, I sum up some of what David Noble wrote about in his article “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education” and in his book called Digital Diploma Mills and his comparison online teaching to correspondence school programs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I managed in that process to actually get a hold of a thesis a guy did at U of M in 1938 about correspondence schools and some other research on distance education of the time.  True, the comparisons that Noble makes between now and then are relevant in that the hype was similar:  back then, the postal service was going to make the brick and mortar universities irrelevant.  Much in the same way that failed to happen, the idea that online universities are going to replace places like EMU is pretty far-fetched.

But the comparison that Noble doesn’t follow through on that my (admittedly limited) research did suggest was that correspondence courses and “hybrid” courses (ones that were taught primarily by mail but that also did meet face to face a few times a term) did play a role in the educational experience for lots of people back then, in Michigan in particular.  In other words, correspondence courses really were a bit like online courses now:  they aren’t a replacement to the university experience, but they can certainly be a part of the mix.

It’d be interesting to revisit that presentation at this stage.  For one thing, the research process took me into a lot of cool places at U of M– a special collection of institutional documents, the book storage facilities, etc.  For another, now that I’ve been teaching online a lot for the last couple of years, I think I have a little more to stay on the practice.

Note to self: cookie recipes (including pepper nuts)

It’s the season for making Grandma Krause’s Pepper Nuts again, and the first thing I did to recall the recipe was search my blog. I was surprised that I hadn’t included it here, to my current blog, so here it is:

Grandma Krause’s Pepper Nuts

1 cup dark karo syrup
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup butter, softened (or margarine or crisco or, in the old days, lard)
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1/2 cup hot water
2 tsps baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp anise oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
7 cups (or so) flour

1.In your trusty KitchenAid standing mixer mix together the syrup, molasses, butter, sugar and hot water until well combined. If you lack a standing mixer, you can do this with a large bowl and a hand mixer.

2. Add everything else but the flour and continue mixing until combined.

3. Start adding the flour, about a cup at a time, mixing each time until the flour is well incorporated. If you have a trusty KitchenAid standing mixer, lucky you! You can keep mixing this until all seven cups of flour are combined. I shifted from the regular mixing paddle to the bread hook attachment after the fifth cup of flour.

If you don’t have a standing mixer (unlucky you!), you’ll probably have to give up on the hand mixer after the fourth or fifth cup of flour and knead the rest of the flour in as you might with the making of bread or pizza dough.

Either way, you may have to add a little more or a little less flour to get a dough that is moist but not sticky.

4. Take about a handful of the finished dough and roll it out on a lightly floured surface in long snakes that are about the width of your pinky. Lay these out on a cookie sheet. You can create different layers of the dough snakes by separating them with parchment paper or plastic sheeting.

5. Chill these dough snakes. Grandma Krause’s recipe said to chill “overnight or for at least a couple of hours.” I have done this before by putting them in the freezer or outside (which is as cold as the freezer, of course) for an hour or so, though in the movie, I left them out overnight with no adverse effect. They do need to be chilled and even a bit dried out.

6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350-375 degrees. (It kind of depends on your oven, but while Grandma Krause said 350, I think 375 is probably more accurate). Take each snake and cut them into tiny bite-sized pieces of dough. Put the little dough pieces onto a cookie sheet, being sure to spread them out so they don’t touch either. The cookies will expand slightly in size.

7. Bake about 9 or 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool them on a clean counter or a clean cookie sheet and store them in a sealed container. Serve them in little bowls as if they were nuts. Makes a pailful.

And here’s a link to last year’s post about baking cookies, which includes recipes to chocolate kisses cookies and rolo and pretzel “cookies.”

I dunno, perhaps in the new year I’ll start a recipe category….

If I write it down, maybe it will become true

In the wishful thinking department:  I spent some time this afternoon making an unusual (for me) long and detailed “to do” list of everything I need to do before the end of the winter term, at least everything I could think of  at the time.  It’s two and half pages long.

But if– IF!– if I can get through this list before December 19, I will actually have something that resembles a “break” (maybe even a “vacation?”) between this term and the next.

Wish me luck.