Post from sabbatical-land 180 days to go: three miscellany items

Colleagues and friends routinely ask me if I’m “enjoying” my sabbatical. It ebbs and flows.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m getting lots done. The research and reading and writing goes on with the “MOOCs in context” project; I’m starting to line up interviews with MOOC instructors, which will make up a lot of the third section of whatever this turns out to be (let’s remain optimistic and call it a “book”). I turned in a revised draft of a chapter for a collection on MOOCs, and I have the beginnings of my CCCCs presentation. So I kind of feel like if I didn’t accomplish anything else between now and September 1 (assuming these interviews go off without a hitch), I think I would have satisfied the unspoken agreement of scholarly productivity during this time away.

At other times, I feel like I’m not really doing anything. These feelings are slightly more mixed. Sometimes, my feelings about not getting enough done are cavalier, a sort of “screw it, I earned this break” feeling. More often, my fallen Catholic guilt kicks in. And at still other times, because I really am away from teaching and the rest of the day job (the quasi-administrative duties, the appointments, the hanging around and socializing in the office, even the busy-work), I’m bored. I get things done when I’m busy; when I have too much free time, I pick up a potentially unhealthy SimCity habit.

So yes, I’m enjoying my sabbatical. Except when I’m not.

But this post is really about three miscellaneous things I have wanted to blog about for a while and things I can imagine writing about more later, but that I don’t have that much time or interest right now. So better to get something down rather than let the moment pass entirely.


First: I’ve decided to close down by September.  I blogged about that over there; basically, I am closing it down because I’ve been doing EMUTalk long enough, and as I try to make myself more aware of how I am using my time productively (or not– see above on “enjoying” my sabbatical), I am really starting to realize that EMUTalk is more of a time-suck/distraction than I had allowed myself to believe before. Plus if I want to take on some kind of administrative job, there would be no way I could keep maintaining that site. That’s if I were to actually get one of those jobs, and that’s a pretty big “if.” Plus it hasn’t really become what I was hoping it would become, more of a “Citizen Journalism” hub about EMU and the area than just me spouting off. “Just me” is what this site is for, right?  But as far as I can tell, the ideals of “citizen journalism” haven’t really paid off anywhere.

I didn’t plan it this way, but Andrew Sullivan decided to give up blogging at about the same time– or at least it was the 10th anniversary of him not blogging anymore, as Gawker put it. Ana Marie Cox had a good reflection on Sullivan specifically and blogging generally here at The Daily Beast, “Andrew’s Burnt Out? Blogs Are, Too.”  I like lots of this article, but this sentence resonates for me: “Today, it’s hard to believe that serious people held serious panels, dozens of them, debating the difference between ‘blogging’ and ‘journalism,’ an exercise that probably seems as incomprehensibly pointless to the average teenager today as debating the difference between a ‘computer’ and ‘phone.'” And she also points out the obvious other means of getting stuff out there quickly that weren’t there before folks like Sullivan (and me, for that matter) started: Facebook, Twitter, whatever new is coming around, etc.

I’m of course also reminded of one of the best panels I’ve ever been a part of at a conference (certainly the best one I’ve ever organized), the “Is Blogging Dead? Yes, No, Other” roundtable at Computers and Writing at the University of Michigan in 2011.

As for this blog: obviously, I’m still writing things here/using this space for posts like this, and I suspect that will basically continue. It’s a lot slower now than it was in the old days/pre-Facebook and/or Twitter and it has been like that for a long time. But I’ve also been thinking about ways things might change here slightly as well in the next year or so. I still think a space like this is useful as a way for me to share chunks of scholarly activity that otherwise wouldn’t get much of an audience– for example, conference presentations. The last presentation I gave and posted here, “MOOCs as Liberators, MOOCs as Colonizers: A Dilemma,” has to date received almost 80 hits, which means that about 10 times as many people have at least clicked on that link than actually sat through the panel discussion in real time.

The other thing I think I want to more in the near future is of the kind of writing I categorize as “Scholarship Review.” I wrote/thought about this the last time I had a sabbatical too; basically, it seems to me that academics (at least in my field) spend a whole lot more time making scholarship than they do actually consuming it– unless you count consuming/reading scholarship in the name of making more of it. And I’m thinking about trying to play around more with Medium, which seems to be sort of a throwback to the way blogging used to work, though instead of following a list of particular blogs, the service finds stuff you might be interested in reading (with mixed results). So once the dust settles one way or the other on this MOOC stuff, I can see returning more to using this space to reflect on reading things.

Second: I’ve been thinking a bit about syllabi lately– not so much about the specific courses I’m scheduled to teach in the fall (though they too are on my mind) but about what them as a sort of philosophy or even as a bit of an obituary. David Carr died in mid-February. I wasn’t a regular reader of his columns on media, but what I read was very good. Carr published the syllabus for a class he taught at Boston University back in August 2014, a class called “Press Play.” The New York Times sang the Carr’s course’s praises in “David Carr’s Last Word on Journalism, Aimed at Students.”

As is always the case with “famous syllabi,” I am torn.  On the one hand, Carr is an engaging writer– even in a syllabus– and he comes across as oddly cynical and yet romantic about the whole educational enterprise, sort of like a more gruff, modern, and journalist-like version of the Robin Williams character from Dead Poet Society. But on the other hand and also like the Williams’ character in Dead Poet Society, Carr’s syllabus doesn’t strike me as terribly realistic. It certainly is only the kind of thing that Carr was able to get away with because he was New York Times award-winning columnist David Carr. For example, if I included paragraphs on my syllabus like…

I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade—work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.


Don’t raise your hand in class. This isn’t Montessori, I expect people to speak up when they like, but don’t speak over anyone. Respect the opinions of others.


Excuses: Don’t make them — they won’t work. Stories are supposed to be on the page, and while a spoken-word performance might explain everything, it will excuse nothing.

… I am sure I’d have problems. I have to shudder what would happen to the likes of me if a student complained about my grading “rubric” of where you start/where you end, not to mention my disdain for for both Montessori and spoken-word performance.

If anything, the syllabus is becoming even more a quasi-legal document, and one that’s been growing for a long time. I characterize this as the problem of the “no furniture on the roof” clause. I’ve told this story many times but maybe not here: my own syllabi have been growing in ways over the years that reminds me of a lease Annette and I signed on an apartment in Bowling Green long ago. We rented from a woman who owned probably about a half-dozen properties around town and also who had been in the business of renting out to college kids for a long time. Most of the lease was standard stuff, but while reading it over, we kept coming across these strange clauses and rules for things we’d never think about doing in the first place. Each one of those clauses had some kind of story associated with it. The one I always recall is the “no furniture on the roof” clause, which was in this landlord’s lease because years ago, there were some kids who decided to put some furniture out on the roof that was over a porch one fine and sunny day, and the feet of the chairs punched big holes in the shingles and tarpaper. Thus the no furniture on the roof clause.

So my own typical syllabus is now about ten pages long. I’ve included different things over the years, but I’ve added clauses like “you shouldn’t spend class time reading the newspaper or sleeping,” and “your research project has to include evidence from more than one journal” and “in order pass the course, you have to complete all the major assignments, regardless of what grade you have on any of the other assignments” because each of these have been a problem at some point in the past. And the situation is likely to get worse. As part of the dust-up around EMU about things like Yik Yak and students behaving poorly (which in a few examples has even escalated to the point of restraining orders and campus cop involvement), the Provost has encouraged more language in syllabi about proper behavior and the like.  As if writing down “don’t be an asshole” will stop assholes from being assholes.

Third: this article from the BBC, “Google’s Vint Cerf warns of ‘digital Dark Age.'” The headline is a bit of an exaggeration because I don’t think Cerf thinks we’re in danger of civilization collapse and we’ll be living in some sort of powerless dystopia. Rather, he’s talking about how new technologies and formats make previous documents/data really hard to read. Got a VHS tape in your house you can’t play anymore? I do. And Cerf is really talking here about the way far away future, like the year 3000.

So he has this concept called “Digital Vellum” and he gave a talk about this at Carnegie Mellon University back in February. Interesting stuff; I might have to watch this later– nothing but time on the sabbatical, right?


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