Will Richmond and Monument Avenue be next?

I lived in Richmond, Virginia from 1988 to 1993, while I was in the MFA program in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and then while working at a “real job” for a few years before I entered the PhD program rhetoric and writing at Bowling Green State. I didn’t go to Charlottesville much and I don’t know anything more than what has been reported about the terrorism from various “White Power” groups this past weekend. The catalyst for the KKK/Nazi/etc. violence was  supposedly the removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee, though I’ve also heard commentators say that issue was merely an excuse for the Robert Spencers and David Dukes of the U.S. to bring their hate shows to what is otherwise a pretty left-leaning college town. Doesn’t hurt that Trump seems OK with these kinds of folks being part of their base.

Anyway, with all this talk of the removal of statues of Confederate “Heroes,” I have to assume that one of the next hot-spots is going to be in Richmond along Monument Avenue. Apparently, a “Confederate heritage organization” has asked for a permit to march around the Robert E. Lee statue there on September 16.

Let me back up a bit:

Growing up in Iowa, the Civil War, the Confederacy, and issues of race in general were mostly absent. The Civil War was a topic that was covered somewhere in Junior High history class and that was about it. The town I grew up in, Cedar Falls, was (and I think still pretty much is) very very white. I graduated from high school in 1984 from a school that I had about 1200 students, and I can remember exactly one black kid. This is not to say there were no African-Americans in the area– it’s just that they all lived in Waterloo, which was the larger and much more gritty factory town that Cedar Falls bordered. But Iowa as a whole is very white, and people of color in the state make up a disproportionally large percentage of poor and working class people.

When I decided to go to VCU and move to Richmond, I thought I was moving to the East Coast. After all, Richmond is only about a two and a half hour drive to DC. Little did I know that I was actually moving to “The South,” and (just to give you a sense of how clueless I was) I was moving to the capitol of the Confederate States of America no less!

Richmond oozes with the sort of history that was foreign to my midwestern and suburban upbringing. The joke always was “they fought all around here.” I remember going on a tour of the state capitol building when my parents were visiting and the tour guide pointing out that the statehouse had been both the capitol of the state of Virginia and also of the country of the Confederate States of America, and that we did not in fact fight a Civil War but rather it was The War Between the States. A lovely place to visit in Richmond is Hollywood Cemetery, which is the final resting place of Jefferson Davis and hundreds (thousands?) of Confederate soldiers buried near the Monument of the Confederate War Dead. The grave markers are stone squares stamped “CSA.” There is a ton of stuff like this in and around Richmond. They really did fight all around there.

The other big change for me was demographic. I moved from a town (Iowa City) that was about 80% white to a city four times as populous that was about 40% white and over 50% African-American. A “cultural shift,” to say the least. But while people of color also made up a disproportionate percentage of poor and working class people, there was (and still is) a large African-American middle class population in Richmond, not to mention the fact that the city council and mayor’s office has had an African-American majority for some time.

Monument Avenue is a wide and long boulevard that runs from near the VCU campus to the west, beyond the city limits and near to the University of Richmond. The most famous part is in a historic neighborhood called “The Fan District.” This ten or twelve or so block section of Monument is lined with enormous multimillion dollar mansions and (as wikipedia puts it) “punctuated by statues memorializing Virginian Confederate participants of the Civil War Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, as well as Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and international tennis star.”

For the five years I was in Richmond, I lived in many different apartments within walking distance of this section of Monument Avenue. The statues on Monument vary in size and grandeur (the Robert E. Lee statue is 60 feet tall, including the pedestal) and I used to know all sorts of details about what it meant that different statues faced different ways and different horses had their feet up or not. Taken as a whole, the statues and the houses and churches that line Monument are stately, grand, and– well, “monumental.” I didn’t think a lot about how the statues honored the oppressive leaders of the oppressive and racist Confederacy– mostly because I just didn’t think a lot about such things at all back then. Rather, Monument Avenue was to me a good example of the strange contrasts and close proximity of things in “the big city,” because while Monument Avenue itself was home to the stately mansions paid for with old money, Grace Street (just a block away) used to be known for prostitution, drugs, drunks, and crime. I knew a couple of different people who were mugged within a block or two of Monument Avenue.

Though there was one time early in my years in Richmond where race and monuments met. Back in the late 1980s, the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday was just being adopted by all the states, and in Virginia during my first winter there in 1989, they celebrated “Lee Jackson King” day. Because I was an idiot, my thought was that there must have been some civil rights activists named “Lee” and “Jackson” that Virginia decided to honor along with King, or maybe even just one guy, the civil rights activist “Lee Jackson.” While wondering about this when out and about on my first “Lee Jackson King” day and I happened to see Confederate reenactment guys marching around the Lee statue. Aaahhh I said to myself.

Like I said, I didn’t think about this stuff a whole lot back then. I certainly think about it more now.

What’s next for Monument Avenue? There was a pretty good article that summed things up in Richmond’s weekly Style magazine, “Is Monument Avenue Set in Stone?” back in April. As this article points out, this has been an on-again/off-again issue for a while now. According to this article (also from Style), “Mayor Stoney Announces a Commission on Monument Avenue Statues.” Stoney’s position (at least based on this article published in late June 2017) seems to be that while the statues are bad and the commission ought to recommend ways of “adding context and correcting alternative facts,” moving the statues is not something “on the table.” Just last week (and before the tragedy in Charlottesville over the weekend), the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article about the first and apparently out of control meeting of the Monument Avenue Commission, “‘It’s theater of the absurd’: Monument Avenue Commission’s first public hearing borders on chaotic.”  If I could, I’d link to my friend Dennis Danvers’ post on Facebook about this because I agree with his argument– “It’s time to haul away the many Confederate monuments that litter the Commonwealth”– but as the comments suggest, this opinion is far from universal.

Anyway, I don’t know what should happen next with Monument Avenue. The statues should probably be taken down and replaced, but those are decisions that are going to have to be made by Richmonders and Virginians. I do worry that whatever happens on September 16 along Monument Avenue will more than simply intensify the debate though. Here’s hoping it’s not a repeat of this past weekend.

Posted in Life, Politics, Travel | Leave a comment

Where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs

Slowly but surly (surly but slowly?), the MOOC book project I’ve been working on continues. I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much, but I am hoping to finish a manuscript by late summer/early fall fall/early winter, which I think is completely possible since I have a “Faculty Research Fellowship” from EMU coming up. This means that I’m not teaching this fall, which is probably a good thing for me with all this nonsense about equivalencies.

I wrote about this a bit last year here and also here, and I am sure it will come up again. I’ve always been pretty positive about Eastern as a place to work (albeit a place that has always had problems), but I have to say I feel like it’s kind of a dark time at EMU right now. If I were “new” here, I’d probably pay pretty close attention to what other positions are coming open. It all does make me contemplate what I really want to do for the last third or so of my career and/or working life. But that’s a different blog post.

But where was I? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

So MOOCs are still “a thing,” as they say, though they are no longer the kind of red-hot existential threat of a thing they were when Charlie Lowe and I were putting together Invasion of the MOOCs in 2013, let alone during the downturn/“Trough of Disillusionment” they were in when the book came out in early 2014. MOOCs have changed a lot, which actually kind of helps the argument I’m trying to make with the book I’m trying to write right now.

It seems to me that one of the biggest changes that has come about in the last year or so is the ways in which the discourse about MOOCs have been merging with/melding into other forms of online and/or distance education. For example, there’s the Handbook of Research on Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs edited by Elizabeth Monske and Kris Blair that came out late last year, which is as much about online instruction more generally as it is about MOOCs. (Not to brag too much, but a ton of the chapters in this book cite chapters from Invasion of the MOOCs, which was nice to see). Elizabeth Losh has an edited collection coming out later this month that I think will try to capture these shifts, MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education (and spoiler alert: I have a chapter in that collection). I think this sentence in the book blurb on Amazon gets at in terms of how MOOCs are changing: “The collection goes beyond MOOCs to cover variants such as hybrid or blended courses, SPOCs (Small Personalized Online Courses), and DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Course).” That’s funny: I thought I was just teaching small online courses as part of my regular teaching at EMU for the last dozen or so years. Turns out I’ve been teaching SPOCs!

I think that was part of what was going on with some articles that came out recently about an experiment in MOOCs online courses at MIT. The headline in the Inside Higher Ed article, “For-Credit MOOC: The Best of Both Worlds at MIT?” is sort of understandable, but it wasn’t really a MOOC. Based on what I’ve read in the executive summary of the experiment, what was really going on here is there was a special online course within the MOOC structure for a course on Circuits and Electronics at MIT. Basically, a small group of students– it ended up being a total of 27 who finished– were allowed to take the course with the MOOC materials though in a decidedly not “Massive” format with lots and lots of attention. Among other things, these students had regular interactions with the course TA, weekly homework and lab assignments, and students who seemed to be lagging behind were encourage to complete the work via personal emails and/or to come to campus office hours.

In other words, these students took an online/quasi-hybrid course and it worked out well. Oops, I mean a SPOC. So clearly, one of the lessons learned here is the scale, the class cohort, and the support for that cohort beyond the MOOC content all make a big difference. But I’ll also say something I (and lots of others) have said before: one of the positive things to result from the rise/fall/leveling of MOOCs has been the realization by the “Flagship” universities in the US that online and/or hybrid courses (which have been offered at places like EMU for a long time now, of course) might not be such a bad idea after all.

But online courses are of course not the same thing as face to face courses. It’s about the affordances of the formats, and you’re mileage will vary in all kinds of important ways. That is kind of the conclusion of a study sponsored by the Brookings Institution, “Promises and pitfalls of online education.”  I’ve only read the executive summary (one of the reasons why I’m linking to it here is to read it later) and Inside Higher Ed had a good piece of various experts reacting to the study. The two basic takeaways I have right now (neither of which is exactly earth-shattering) are a) yes, online courses are not a “one size fits all” solution, and b) under-prepared or otherwise marginal students struggle in college and need a lot more attention to succeed.

(As a slight tangent: while I often disagree with him, I think Fredrik deBoer highlights the often ignored basic requirements people need for academic success, which has nothing to do with the medium or format of how we offer college courses and everything to do with the luck of our births. Those of us who had parents who went to college, who grew up middle-class, who don’t have some sort of cognitive or developmental disability, who weren’t exposed to lead or born premature, and who weren’t abused or neglected have a much better chance at being academically successful than those who didn’t have this luck. All of which is to say it’s a whole lot more complicated than a class being online or face to face.)

But where was I again? Oh yeah, MOOCs.

One of the things I want to do as I start wrapping up this project is to revisit how I became interested in MOOCs in the first place: I want to take a couple more MOOCs. I haven’t completely decided yet, but I am leaning toward two different approaches to MOOCs that have emerged in the last year or so and that are different from the MOOCs I took before. I’m interested in the MOOCs that are happening at edX in association with Arizona State– ASUx. I’m also planning on doing something different from what I did before by signing up for a self-paced course in something I know I am really quite bad at, College Algebra and Problem Solving. My lack of math skills is one of the main reasons why I ended up as an “English major” way back when. I could pay the “verified certificate” fee of $49 and then, if I pass the course with a “C” or better, I can pay $600 for the credit which is valid at ASU or, presumably, transferable to other universities. Since I don’t really need this course for anything, I think I’ll pass on that– though upon registering, I see I can “upgrade to verified” later on. And I’ll be curious if there are things built into the course to “motivate” me to keep going with it.

I’m also going to sign up for a Udacity course– not part of their “Nanodegrees” but something free. Udacity made a pretty hard shift really away from higher education to more of a training model a few years ago and in some level of partnership with various corporate partners. Take the Digital Marketer nanodegree, for example: this program is supposed to take 3 months to complete to (presumably) make you eligible for jobs with salary ranges between $42K and $182k a year, and it is offered in collaboration with Facebook, Google, Hootsuite, and others. Since the “full-immersion” nanodegree is $1000 and the “self-study” version of the program is $600, I don’t think I’ll be going there– though like I said, the way things are going at EMU, maybe it would be worth the investment.

Anyway, for now, I’ll stick with something for free that still might be useful for me, Intro to JavaScript. We’ll see where that (and a math class!) takes me.

 

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Scholarship | 1 Comment

Writers Having to Work for A Living, a #firstworldproblems

The Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times includes a couple of essays in the “Bookends” section under the collective headline Do Grants, Professorships and Other Forms of Institutional Support Help Writers but Hurt Writing? Siddhartha Deb (who I think is a professor at The New School) laments bitterly how creative writing/artist like Deb are increasingly expected take on the duties and responsibilities for being a professor:

Unless teaching at one of a few select places, writers are increasingly required, apart from their teaching duties, to attend meetings, serve on committees and be on email 24/7. They are also expected, in an era when students are customers, the university a brand and everything a matter of opinion, often to put aside whatever knowledge and expertise they might have acquired in order to assuage the varying sensibilities of their customers. Otherwise, as in the case of the poetry professor in Wisconsin attacked for teaching material with L.G.B.T. content, one might be taken to court in order for an F to be changed to an A.

In the second short essay, Benjamin Moser (who has been a translator and a columnist or editor at Harpers and The New York Review of Books, just to name a few places) also laments bitterly how “writing” doesn’t pay. He writes “Many writers enjoy teaching or journalism or translation or editing, but many do these jobs because it’s hard to survive on writing alone. Money clearly communicates the still-prevailing attitude: that writing is not a real job.” Moser goes on to suggest, basically, that society ought to simply pay writers (again, of the capital L “Literature” variety):

But literature is not made by society. It is made by individuals who, like anyone else, have bills to pay. Those whose job it is to enunciate other values often find themselves punished for the attempt, though we all need those values: Nobody wants to live in a world whose only measures are financial.

So does the world owe writers a living? We have grown so used to subordinating everything to money that the question seems absurd. But it is easy to imagine a society in which art — like health care and education, care of the poor and the elderly — is a public good: in which we delight in work and workman both.

Oh, boo-hoo. Two writers who have careers and jobs that most other writers would literally kill a sibling to obtain are complaining that it is a shame they have to labor to support themselves, despite the fact that they are artists, God-Damn It! Boo-hoo-hoo.

Coincidentally, the next piece I came across on the NYTimes web site while looking for the link to this piece was this column by Tracie McMillan, “Who Do We Think of as Poor?” McMillian begins with an anecdote about how when she was working on a book– ironically enough about poverty!– she went on food stamps to make ends meet.

In any event: yes, “creative” writers (more on “creative” in a moment) are not and never have been paid just for making art. If robots automate so much of the workforce that a basic income becomes a thing in advanced capitalist states, then that might mean there would be lots of people who could afford to do whatever they wanted, including make art. Short of that, the basic challenge of artists has been balancing a way to make art and pay the bills.

Maybe it would be a good idea to pay all artists to make art. On the plus-side, there might be a lot more happiness in the world if more people were spending their time making art. On the down-side, I am sure the world would have a lot more shitty art. Regardless, pretty much every novelist or poet that you can think of either had a day job, was an academic (which is also a day job, though a somewhat odd one), was independently wealthy, or had a patron of some sort. I’m reading a book about Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises right now and it’s pretty clear that in the early years, Papa sponged off of his first wife’s trust fund.

But I guess this pair of essays irritates me for at least two other reasons. First, one of the most annoying academic colleagues out there is the one who treats the position as patronage instead of as a real job. At the kind of university where I work, we need faculty members who are going to participate fully in the job, which does indeed mean meetings, advising, grading, paperwork, and all of the other real job stuff of being a professor. So while I understand the appeal of a job where your responsibilities are basically to do whatever you want, I can speak from experience that it’s kind of a pain in the ass for the rest of us to deal with these folks.

And for the record: all of my current colleagues who teach creative writing are fully engaged and involved faculty members, so I don’t have any of those folks in mind at all. But I have had (still have?) colleagues who take this approach and not all of them have been (are?) in creative writing.

Second, these two essays assume a narrow and frustrating definition of “writer,” an attitude that persists even among some of my students who are majoring in Written Communication. Journalists, editors, and translators are all writers. Social media writers/editors, content managers, technical documentation specialists, advertising copy editors, and so on are all writers. And I’d argue that if you are any good at teaching rhetoric and composition courses, you’re also a writer– or you had better be someone who seems themselves as a writer.

Maybe the problematic term here is “creative,” which in English departments means writing in the form of poetry, fiction, and drama. Separating creative from other kinds of writing  suggests what the rest of us practice and teach is not creative, which is clearly unfair. A better term might be “art” writing in the sense that writing a novel or a poem is more about making something to be appreciated, as opposed to writing that attempts to do things or persuade an audience. But that distinction doesn’t work either since of course art also is always trying to persuade and do things, and there are plenty of examples of writing that became literature only after readers and scholars decided to call it literature.

Regardless, anyone who has a guest column in The New York Times and who has received support for their writing as academics or from grants and then whines about how the need to work hurts their writing has got a whole lot of #firstworldproblems.

Posted in Academia, The Happy Academic, Writing | Leave a comment

Please excuse this post that is not entirely about the death of another grandparent

Earlier this week, a little attempt at humor appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece by Shannon Reed called “To My Student, on the Death of Her Grand­moth­er(s).” Over 300 comments later (as of this morning, at least), it’s a column that just keeps giving and giving, as a failure, a morphing rhetorical situation, and as a teachable moment. I wasn’t going to write or think about it any more (I actually have a blog post in progress about MOOC stuff!), but I’m having a hard time just away. So…

Told in the form of a satirical/humorous email or letter reply to a student asking for some sort of excuse because of the death yet another grandmother, this time during finals, Reed (or some persona of Reed) expresses sympathy and then offers a long and exhaustive list of things the student will need to do for Reed to “buy” the excuse. Terms of the deal include a videotape of the eulogy from the funeral, agreement that the student dress in black for a semester, and agreeing to remain chaste for a year.

Ha-ha.

Comment hijinks ensued. I didn’t read them all of course, but I did skim many. Almost immediately (and maybe this is the first comment?), there was “You’d think this was a lot less funny if your grandmother, with whom you were close, suddenly passed during finals week, as mine did my sophomore year.” There were many other references to personal experiences with deaths of loved ones while in college with no or little awareness that this was supposed to be a joke, as in “My mom died the Friday before finals, and all my teachers treated me with sympathy and kindness.This teacher, if this ever really happened, should be fired.” Then there were comments that seemed to go even further down the bureaucracy/procedure hole (again, as if this was real). There was this one in response to the previous comment, “Isn’t that pretty harsh? Would you like to be judged by the same standard?” and this bizarrely detailed comment on how FERPA plays into all this– though it is nice to see that this writer believes this was written as satire (though not very good satire). There were dozens and dozens of comments where the commenter thought this was a good moment to share their unique take on dealing with excuses like dead grandparents, dozens and dozens of comments about how Reed is an awful person, and even a few who tried to point out it was all a joke. Ha-ha.

Oh, and then there’s this blog response that for me walks that line between being completely legitimate and “holier than thou,” To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s).

First off, I think this is a fine example of how the medium alters the situation such that the rhetor completely loses control. The place where the audience takes all of this is far far away from the writer’s original intent. That’s not unique in web-based forums like this, but a) it remains for me one of the defining characteristics of “digital” rhetorics/immediate rhetorical situations, and b) this particular example seems pretty extreme.

Closely related is the fact that this is the audience disconnect with the genre. The Chronicle of Higher Education does not usually publish humor (or attempts at humor); rather, it usually publishes earnest pieces about the state of affairs in higher education. The subject matter here– venting about students and their “lame” excuses– is the sort of thing that usually comes packaged in CHE as some kind of commentary about the state of the “kids today” and/or advice for faculty. It is not McSweeney’s, which, if this had actually been funny, would have been a better venue. I think this explains why so many of the responses to Reed’s piece are so earnest.

Anyway, I think this article and the backlash around it is a good “teachable moment.” If I were still working with Graduate Assistants teaching for the first time, I might share this with them. In my view, it’s always bad form to complain about students in public (albeit online) places and publications. Oh sure, students can be incredibly frustrating and anyone who has been teaching for a while has all kinds of stories like this one. But those stories are the sort of thing that ought to stay in the office (or the bar) among fellow instructors. And especially never make fun of hypothetically dead grandmas.

As for what to do about these kinds of excuses, I’m not sure this is the best advice in the world but this is what I do:

I started teaching as a Graduate Assistant in 1988 at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in those days, the university had a rule that basically said that if a student missed more than something like three weeks of class in a term, that student couldn’t get a passing grade regardless of the reason why the student missed that much class. At EMU, the institutional language for this is a lot more convoluted and squishy, but basically, it says a student can’t fail only because of a lack of attendance. So, in a sort of combination of my past practice and what’s going on now, I usually have an attendance policy that allows students to miss up to two weeks of a course for any reason, but then there’s a heavy penalty where students lose the participation part of the grade (which is usually worth at least 25% of the overall grade). So if they miss a lot of class for any reason, the student generally (see below) cannot pass.

In other words, there are no “excused absences” for anything because (as I usually say to students on the first day of class) I don’t want to be put into a position where I have to ask for and then speculate about the validity of a death certificate, and I don’t need to dig into the details about how close you were to your now dead uncle or grandmother or whoever. I lay this policy out in pretty strict and stark terms on the first day of the semester since it is always easier to lighten up on rules later on (and it is absolutely impossible as a teacher to start the semester with no rules for things like attendance and then impose them later on), and also because it’s fair warning to students about how things are going to go. I’ve had students who showed up the first day and, faced with an attendance policy where missing more than two weeks of a class means they probably can’t pass, have raised their hands and tell me that they have to be gone for two weeks (for work, for a family trip, for a sporting event, whatever) and if I think that is going to be a problem. Yes, I say, yes it is.

(For what it’s worth, I have a similar though more complicated “attendance” policy for online classes as well. I’ll spare the details for now, but students just “disappear” from online classes all the time).

I have lots of reasons for this approach, but the bottom line is if learning is going to be a social and interactive enterprise that requires participation and presence, then you can’t do these things if you’re gone. Students often think of these rules as being “unfair” and “restrictive” or whatever, but the fact of the matter is attendance policies are usually for students’ own good. Attendance policy or not, show me a student who has missed too many classes and I’ll show you a student who is likely to fail the class for missed work anyway.

Though as I said a few paragraphs ago, this is generally my attendance policy. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I do realize that students are indeed people and, like the rest of us, shit does sometimes happen. Plus after doing this for almost 30 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out the real and fake dead grandmas– at least I think I have. In any event, I’ve had good students over the years who missed more than two weeks of class because life/shit has clearly happened to them and we’re able to work it out pretty much on a case by case basis.

The more troubling cases for me are the students who have completely legitimate reasons for missing class who bend over backwards to not miss class. A completely made-up and extreme example: “My mother was shot in a drive-by shooting last night and I’m the oldest kid so I have to deal with all the details of the funeral and the house and everything. Is it okay if I miss class Wednesday? I promise I’ll be back Monday.” In those situations, I will often offer my sympathies, of course excuse them from class, and remind them that school is school and it is not necessarily life. You can take this class later, but you have to deal with all of the complexities of life as they happen.

Posted in Academia, Teaching | Leave a comment

How to respond when a non-academic wants to talk about how you “don’t have to work in the summer”

I’ve been meaning to write something about summer work in academia along the lines of what Alex Reid did back in mid-April. But I hadn’t gotten around to it until now (and this post took me over a week to write, off and on), I suppose because I was on a vacation for three weeks in May, right after the Winter term ended at EMU. That’s not meant to be ironic or anything in terms of a post about “work” in the summer; it’s just the way it is.

Alex was initially responding to an article in CHE (now behind a firewall but I think I recall at least skimming it) called “Making Summer Work” that was offering advice to academics about how to make their summers “more productive.” Alex’s points are all spot-on, about how it’s weird that professors are characterized by the rest of the world as having cushy/lazy jobs as it is– and you don’t work in the summer!– but how professors themselves focus on the intensity of the 60+ hour work week and how it just keeps going and going and going in the summer too. It’s a losing battle; “[n]o one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their ‘summers off’ productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.”

I can relate to all of this. Back when I was in graduate school and when I was just starting down the tenure-track, my mother (or some other well-intended but not academic-type) would say something like “it must be nice to have such a long summer vacation like that” and I’d go on a tirade about how there was no such thing as time off in academia!

Now I’m a lot more likely to say something like “Why yes; yes, it is nice,” or “Yes, though I don’t get paid to work in the summer.” Though it’s still complicated.

For starters,  I used to teach (e.g. “work”) in the summers. I didn’t teach two summers ago because I was on sabbatical, but other than that, this summer is the first since I came to EMU in 1998 where I am not teaching and thus contractually not obligated to do anything. Summer school here is divided into two 7.5 week terms, and I usually taught two courses during one of those terms– or sometimes three courses, one in one term and two in another. The reason I taught in the summer is simple: money. EMU pays faculty 10% of their base salary per summer course. You don’t need to know my salary to know that being able to make 20% of my base salary for teaching two courses in a little less than two months is a good deal.

I’m not teaching this summer for two reasons. First, summer teaching at EMU– at least in my department, but I think this is broadly true across the university– has almost entirely dried up. Second, I’ve gotten to the place financially where I can afford to not teach/work for EMU for the summer. I mean, I’m not saying I’m never going to teach in the summer again because never is a very long time and I still like money. But I’m not planning on it.

Then there is the definition of “work.” I work all the time (including in the summer and while on vacation) doing stuff like planning classes, meeting with students, reading academic things, and writing academic presentations/articles/books/blog posts because I’m a professor and it’s my job, but also because this is work I enjoy and it brings me a great deal of personal satisfaction and meaning. It’s not the kind of “work” that Tim Ferriss has in mind in trying to avoid in the 4 Hour Work Week, the kind of work one does only for the paycheck.

So all those caveats and qualifications aside, yes, I do not have to work in the summers. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I don’t get paid to work in the summer when I’m not teaching, so I only do “the work” I want to do. This summer, I’m working (too slowly) on my MOOC book, I am reading things that might be interesting for future projects, I’m meeting with students about their MA projects, I went (briefly) to the Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay this past week, and I might even agree to go to a meeting or two. “Work” I won’t be doing includes program review/assessment documents, attending official department committee meetings (there aren’t any in the summer because I’m far from the only one who won’t do that), doing writing program administrator stuff, responding to irrelevant paperwork requests, holding specific office hours, and so forth.

The “contractual obligated” part of things with the EMU faculty union is taken quite seriously around here. I was in a discussion on Facebook with someone at another institution about all this and this person insisted that faculty should think of themselves as year-round employees no matter what. I understand that perspective, but that is not part of the local culture. I had a colleague a few years ago (this person has since retired) who left at the end of the winter term, did not come back until the fall term, and was completely absent in the summer. This person had an auto-reply on their email that said “email me back in the fall.” I was on a university-wide committee several years ago and whatever administrator wanted this committee to meet in June. The only way that faculty on that committee would agree to that meeting was to be paid a couple hundred dollars each to show up– and by the way, that was clearly a waste of money since nothing got done at that meeting anyway.

Besides, my base pay really is for eight months of work a year. I’m not complaining about my salary, but I also know that if I was an administrator and working 12 months a year, I’d be making much more money than I’m making now. The same is true if I had a “real job,” too. As an academic, I already do too much work for free; that doesn’t need to include the summer.

Anyway, to sum-up:

  • If you’re a graduate student or tenure-seeking/relatively new faculty member, you legit probably don’t have your “summers off,” at least not entirely. You’re probably doing something like writing a thesis or a dissertation or something to help your tenure case, and perhaps teaching as well. Work at this stage of your career is a mix of pleasure and pain, and it’s undeniably harder to explain to non-academics how you actually do have to work in the summer. Try “yeah, but if I don’t finish my thesis/dissertation/homework, I won’t be able to graduate next year;” that might work. But try to take at least some time “off,” even if that only means reading academic stuff while sitting in a park someplace once in a while.
  • If you’re newly tenured and a non-academic tells you “it must be nice to have your summer off,” reply “hey, I’ve been working my ass off for the last 10 years finishing my PhD and then getting a tenure-track job and then getting tenure. So yeah, it is nice having a summer off finally!” Seriously, take some time off. Do those home repairs/remodeling you’ve been putting off until you got tenure. And/or go on a trip, take up golf, etc.
  • If you’re an established academic-type, tenured and promoted and such, and you’re still working 16 hour + days, including in the summer: why? Why are you doing that? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the work, but no one is going to think any less of you for giving your garden some attention. Except for those non-academic-types who think you never work; just tell those people that having summer off is really nice, thank you very much.
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Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise Part 3: London & Reykjavik

Twenty-one days, which is as long as I’ve been away from home in as long as I can remember. A great trip– including parts one and two— and now I’m ready to be back home, at least for a couple of weeks. Once again, here are pictures on Flickr, the complete album (more or less– I haven’t added all of the pictures Annette took yet), and here are links to the parts one and two blog posts.

The last excursion we took from the ship was to Stonehenge in part because if you’re going to be in southern England (our last port of call was Southampton), you’ve got to go to Stonehenge, but also because the cruise excursion included a trip to the airport. Kind of crappy weather, but well worth it. It looks exactly like you think it looks, though there were a few surprises. First, it was a bit smaller than I thought it would be and there was a surprisingly busy road only a few hundred yards away from it. Second, Stonehenge is actually part of a much larger site that includes burial mounds and such. Third, the very nice visitor’s center has robust wifi and a cool little museum that even includes a Spinal Tap record.

From there, we went to the airport and where we were picked up by some old friends (mostly of Annette’s) who have lived in (well, near) London for at least 15 years, maybe more. We spent the night at their place, catching up on things, meeting their daughter and some friends, and learning some basic pub culture about how one buys drinks.

The next day, we made our way to our hotel via bus and tube, which was no easy task with four large suitcases and lots of stairs. (As a slight tangent: if I take a trip like this again, I think I’d like to seek a compromise in terms of packing to stay put on a cruise ship versus packing to be on the move). Our hotel was right on Leicester Square, which felt a lot like a small version of Times Square in New York: there was a “TKTS” discount musical/play ticket kiosk, an M&M store, throngs of people and street performers, etc. In fact, if I had to sum up my overall impressions of London in a sentence, I’d say it’s a lot like Manhattan, only not laid out in a grid pattern (making getting lost really easy to do) and a lot older. After getting to the hotel, we didn’t have much time to do tourist stuff, though the National Gallery was right there so we went to look at some fine art for a while.

Our first full day in London involved a lot of walking, like almost 10 miles according to my Fitbit app. Went to the British Museum, then wandered around a lot, went to the Tower Bridge, wandered around some more, and then (because it was included in the “London Pass” tickets thing we bought before the trip), we went to this thing called the “London Bridge Experience.” Essentially, it’s a haunted house. Annette thought it was great; me, not so much.

We were a little bit more organized on our second full day in London (though just a bit more organized). Part of this London Pass thing was a “hop on/hop off” tourist bus, which is kind of goofy but also a good way to at least drive by more stuff (and not surprisingly, we really didn’t see enough of London in the time we were there because we just weren’t there long enough). Highlights included a visit to the reconstruction of the Globe theater, the Tate Modern right next door, the Tower of London, more walking around, and then we ended out tourism with a very long ride on the bus where we drove by lots of stuff to see if we ever go back.

Then to Reykjavik, Iceland. Why you ask? First off, Icelandair has pretty cheap transatlantic flights, though their flights usually stop in Iceland. But one of their features is you can take a several day layover (I think up to seven?) at no additional cost, which means that if you are flying Icelandair, stopping for a day or two in Iceland is pretty easy. Second, we stopped their for a few hours on our honeymoon many many years ago and we always thought it’d be a cool place to visit again. And it was cool (both in the sense of it being “groovy” and also kind of cold, like in the 40s and windy), but (not surprisingly) a lot has changed in 23 years.

When we stopped there back in 1994, what we were assuming was we were going to have four or so hours to sit around the airport (which is about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik). Instead, we were given– for free, mind you– a bus tour of the area around the lava fields near the airport that included a stop at an indoor salmon farm and also a stop at this place called “The Blue Lagoon,” which, Wikipedia tells me, is essentially the water run-off from an electric power generator fueled by geothermal heat. Locals started bathing in the waters back in the early 1980s, and in 1992, they built a facility to open up the waters to anyone who wanted to go. When we went way back when, we could have rented swimsuits and tried the waters ourselves, but that seemed kind of weird. So we just kind of hung out for a while, got back on the bus, and flew home.

Now the Blue Lagoon is a posh spa/resort you have to book weeks in advance. The cheapest entry is over $55 a person– and that’s just basic entry to the place. There are no free bus rides out to there anymore, and now it looks like it’s a pretty big complex with all sorts of fancy restaurants, spa treatments, a fancy hotel, and so forth. Like I said, it seems like a lot has changed.

Anyway, after the frenetic pace of London (and really just the whole trip), we were both ready for just a day of chilling out/hanging out in Reykjavik. The day we got there, CNBC posted this advice on “How to vacation in one of the most expensive countries on earth for only $50 a day” (spoiler alert: the advice is don’t eat or drink out and do things that are free like walk around), advice we of course didn’t follow. Reykjavik (at least the downtown/touristy part) is easily the most expensive place I’ve ever been in terms of eating and drinking. There was a stand next to our hotel selling hot dogs for $12; a burger was going for about $20; cocktails were over $20 each; and so forth. On the plus-side of it all, tips and taxes are included in the price and it was all excellent, so….

Three highlights (besides just walking around, shopping, gawking at stuff): The first night there, we stumbled across Lebowski Bar, which is a The Big Lebowski-themed bar complete with a drink menu that included over 20 variations on a White Russian. First thing the second day, we went to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja church (an elevator ride, happily) and had some tremendous views; and we also visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is small museum of various animal penises in jars (several variety of whales, for example) and various phallic objects, including the Ypsilanti Water Tower. A little piece (or big piece?) of home right here in Iceland– so proud.

So quite the adventure. Would I do it again? Probably, now that I know a lot more about what I’m getting myself into. And probably not again this summer.

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Our Transatlantic Cruise Part 2: Ports of Call

The cruise part of this trip is almost over and still a mixed bag for me. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s not; sometimes the food is good, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the weather has been good, other times not so much.

Anyway, we just finished our next to last port of call for this trip. Our last stop is tomorrow in Southampton, England, and from there, we’ll head into “part 3” of the transatlantic trip, the way back through London and then Iceland.

I’m uploading photo highlights to this Flickr album as we go and I’ll keep uploading pictures there, too. But a brief run-down of the stops:

The Azores: specifically, around Ponta Delgada (which is the main city of the islands, which are a part of Portugal) on the island of São Miguel. Cruise ships always offer multiple options for port tours and excursions, and they can sometimes get pretty pricy for something that’s easy to do yourself. We decided to take one of these tours for the Azores, we took one of these tours and it was totally worth it. We got on to a bus, stopped first at a small pineapple growing operation (apparently, they grow a lot of pineapple here, mostly for the European market, but this place looked way too small to be anything other than a stop for the tourists), then drove out to see the stunningly beautiful Caldeira do Alferes or “crater lakes.” Then more beautiful vistas and views, a lovely park, and then lunch which included an order of some shellfish favored by the locals, Limpets. The other big thing about the Azores is dairy: there were cows kind of wandering around everywhere, and apparently, most of Portugal’s dairy comes from these islands. Great cheese, too.

Basically, as our tour guide put it, the Azores is kind of like what would happen if Hawaii and Ireland had a baby: you have a lot of lush green and steep hills/mountains, but the weather seems more misty and cool. It would be a fantastic place to go for at least a few days to hike and take in more of the views, and as far as I can tell, the place hasn’t really been “discovered” by tourists yet. And it was cheap, too.

Lisbon, Portugal: Stunningly beautiful old town area. And hilly— I think we walked up the equivalent of about 500 flights of stairs. Did some shopping (though I made the mistake of not buying something that I liked when I saw it because I never did see something like it again), saw lots and lots of cool street art/graffiti, had a nice lunch, walked up to São Jorge Castle, walked around some more. Two little memories for me at least: first, I took what I think is at least so far the best picture of my trip, this shot of a guy taking pictures of a young woman posing in front of a cool tile art/mosaic on the street. Second, while in a square overlooking something beautiful, a dude from Senegal tried to force me into buying a selfie stick. I wouldn’t have it with that, but the guy was charming and persistent. So I ended up with a picture of him and we bought a couple of cheap elephant bracelets.

Vigo, Spain: There are two problems with the cruise ship port stops. Some– like in the Azores and in Lisbon– are too short. We could have easily spent a two or three days in both of these places. Some stops, like the one in Vigo, were quite long enough– even though it was only about seven hours. We did do a little shopping and went to a place that had typical Galician-styled sea food (I had the octopus) off of a square where there was a trio playing.

A Courña, Spain: Not a whole lot here either. Apparently, the big destination is kind of near there, the end point of a famous pilgrimage across Spain. But we did have a nice time getting a bit out of the typical “old city” center and over to The Tower of Hercules. It’s a lighthouse that is around 2,000 years old– at least the original site is around 2,000 years old. I’m reminded of a joke I heard a comedian juggler told one time when he held up a hatchet: “This is the hatchet George Washington used to cut down that cherry tree. Only I’ve replaced the handle and the head of the hatchet. But it still takes up the same amount of room as the original hatchet.” Nonetheless, it was a very impressive tower and really lovely park around it with crashing waves and such. Then we had lunch at what turned out to be a sort of “fusion cuisine” place that would have fit right in to some place like New York– though this place had excellent wifi and it was something like 15 euros for a three course prix fixe meal. Service took forever, but we weren’t in a big hurry.

Le Havre, France: Our final port of call (well, before we get off the ship entirely tomorrow) was the port town of Le Havre. It’s the kind of non-tourist towns where I saw local cruise ship terminal workers wearing jackets that said “Le Havre: Gateway to Paris.” That’s because a lot of people– maybe most of the people who got off of the ship on this stop?–take one of the many tours to Paris. Given that Annette and I had been to Paris a few years ago and the trip involved a two or three hour bus ride there, not that much time in Paris itself, and then a two or three hour bus ride back, we passed on that and hung around Le Havre, which was not without its charms. The city was pretty much destroyed in World War II and the downtown part was redesigned and rebuilt by Auguste Perret (and his firm) in the late 1940s and 1950s, and it’s considered to be a particularly good example of post-war modern architecture. We went to a nice (albeit small) art museum, and then visited the very striking St. Joseph’s Church, which looks like a sky scraper or a lighthouse on the outside and sort of like a science fiction set on the inside. We had a nice (albeit large) lunch, walked around some more, got back to the ship.

There you have it.

Tomorrow, we start “part 3,” which is the post-cruise ship part, though it begins with a cruise ship sponsored tour to Stonehenge and then on to the London and then Iceland part of the trip.

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Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise, Part 1: At Sea

Loyal stevendkrause readers and/or just friends of mine might recall I went on a cruise back in 2014 where my reaction at the end of it was basically “that was mostly okay, I guess.” So why am I on a Transatlantic cruise now?

Here’s what happened: Annette’s parents regularly take a cruise back from Europe home to Florida in the fall (they go to Germany for a while every year in the late summer) in part because it is cheaper than buying an airplane ticket (though see below on that).  This is because the cruise ship companies do what are known as “respositioning cruises” where they move their ships from one part of the world to another– in this case, from the Caribbean to Europe. How much cheaper are these cruises? Well, back in late October 2016, Annette looked it up and the most inexpensive room on the ship we’re on (double-occupancy in a small, interior [e.g., windowless] room) was about $500 a person for a 15 day cruise. The stateroom we got– which has a big window, a king-sized bed, and room to move around– was more than that, but still not that expensive.

Looking toward door from windowSo Annette asked me then what I thought. “I say we go ahead and book it,” I said, which I think surprised both of us. “Here’s why. If we like this, then it’s something we can do once in a while for the next 20 or 3o years. If we don’t like this, then we’ll have 20 or 30 years to tell the story of that awful trip.”

It’s too early to say which way this story will turn out– maybe a bit of both– but for “part 1,” just the at sea part, I’d say take the plane.

There’s not a lot to say about being at sea. It was kind of boring. We ate, drank, gambled, read, watched stuff on my laptop, took in some cheesy shows, repeat.

Very quickly, we figured out that the average age of passengers on this cruise is at least 65. That makes sense– who has time to take a cruise across the Atlantic in May?– but it is a bit jarring. At this point in my life, I am used to being one of the older people in the room, especially in a classroom. While there are a fair number of people about our age and younger, it often feels a bit like visiting an assisted living facility. Many of my fellow cruisers shuffle by slowly or have canes or walkers or wheelchairs or little scooters.

Speaking of which: I’m not really a fan of the genre, but this could be a great setting for a zombie story. It would start out seemingly normal, but very soon, once people started falling ill, it would be clear that many of the passengers were turning into the undead. A number of ways to twist the plot: first, is that shuffling old man a zombie or just an old man? How to tell? Second, since there are no firearms on board and not a lot of other handy weapons, how would you stop the zombies? Clobber them with a deck chair? Push them overboard?

Yep, the OceanMost of the other passengers– both American and not (a lot of British on this ship, which is not surprising since that’s where we end up)– seem like the kind of people who voted for Trump or Brexit. So other than small-talk, we tend to keep to ourselves. Chatting with the waiters and bartenders is more interesting. Most of them are in their 20s or so and from all over the place– Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, a lot from India and Indonesia. They’re all charming and polite and either have excellent English or are trying to get a better command of English by chatting it up with the guests. I don’t think these folks make a lot of money by American standards (or Western European standards, for that matter), but, as this article argues, it’s kind of relative– plus they get free room and board, which means this is the kind of job where you can bank much of what you earn.

StevewithpineappleSpeaking of what the service crew earns: everything has a large “service fee” or an 18% tip associated with it. So, an $8 glass of wine and a $10 cocktail (and crazy drinks like one put in a pineapple are more than that) really ends up costing a bit over $21. On the one hand, it’s the main source of income for the waiters and what-not, so there’s no reason to be cheap about it. On the other hand, these fees and taxes and tips mean that ridiculously low price for the cheap rooms is a bit of a myth, especially since a week at sea tends to make drinking seem like a good idea.

IMG_7156And then there is the “at sea” part of things. First it was smooth; then it was six foot waves; then nine; then, about halfway across fifteen to twenty foot swells. Everyone was wobbling around and grabbing on to whatever, and there were barf bags posted on the stairwells. The wind on deck made it difficult to walk. I didn’t feel sick or nauseous, though I take some of the seasickness pills they were passing out. Mostly, the rough seas irritated me.

One big thing that definitely turned out to be a good idea was the wifi package. It was $12 or $13 extra a day for each of us, but worth every penny. We’ve been able to keep in touch with Will, follow the news and social media and the like, and we were able to stream stuff on Hulu and Netflix– so we’re all caught up on The Handmaids Tale.

But “part 2,” ports of call, will get a bit more interesting I suspect. We’ve already been to one, the Azores, which was quite beautiful. More on that later.

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What I did in the 2016-2017 academic year: a memo for Dean TBA

I was already planning on writing something to reflect on the 2016-17 academic year, and then two things happened. First, my department head (at the request of our interim dean) sent an email to all faculty suggesting that we individually write something up to let the new dean know what it is we’ve been up to for the past year. This request didn’t come with much context, and (as far as I know) the new dean has not yet been announced. Second, I just finished reading Julie Schumacher’s very funny and too accurate academic satire Dear Committee Members.  So this post is with a small and not as funny nod toward my department head’s/dean’s assignment and Schumacher’s book written in letters of recommendation.

From: Steven D. Krause, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

To: Dean “To Be Announced”

Re: Introducing Myself By Highlighting What I Did Last Year

Dear Dean TBA–

First, welcome to EMU (unless you are already here?)! Congratulations on your new position as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and may the gods have mercy on your soul.

My department head (really, our interim dean– who, pointedly, did not submit her own name for this position) asked faculty in the department to “showcase” accomplishments and activities from the past academic year, I suppose as a way of introduction. As I understand it, the goal is to “brag” about accomplishments and, simultaneously, demonstrate the ways in which we are worthy of resources. This strikes me as a challenge because a) if I highlight all that I accomplished without resources, then I am supporting the administration’s claim that faculty don’t require any additional resources, and b) given that you are at present only an unnamed potential, it’s difficult for me to address a specific audience. But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s take it chronologically:

On the plus-side of things, my scholarly work got off to a great start in September when I was once again invited to Naples, Italy for a conference about MOOCs held on the Isle of Capri. Goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago. In any event, I was honored to once again participate, I was able to represent for EMU, the conference helped fuel my own MOOC book project (which is under contract/underway right now), and it was a nice trip to Italy before classes got started.

In the not so good news for EMU, September also brought with it the beginning of an ugly incident of racist vandalism that continued to hang over the rest of the academic year. Students of color were (justifiably, of course) angered and frustrated, and the administration seemed at a loss to respond. Also in not such great news: my department had yet more meetings about the equivalency mess, which is a theme I’ll be returning to again and again here.

For much of October, I settled into more routine duties. In fall 2016, I taught an online version of “444: Writing for the World Wide Web” and a face-to-face version of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology,” two courses I’ve taught many times before. Both were good groups, though one thing I noticed in my section of 328 that I hadn’t seen much of previously is student interest in (dare I say demand for?) a grading “rubric” that spelled out in exacting terms exactly what was demanded of each writing assignment. When I told my students that I didn’t think a rubric was necessary or even advisable for an advanced writing course, they seemed perplexed, wondering aloud how it was even possible to have a writing assignment without points dedicated to explicit components. I am not much to complain about the “kids today” since I have been teaching long enough to know that the early 20 somethings of 1990 have a lot more in common with the early 20 somethings of 2016 than today’s students’ parents (who were the early 20 somethings of 1990) would care to admit. Still, this demand request for codified assessment at every turn seems to me to be the main legacy of “No Child Left Behind.”

I also settled into my duties as the associate director of the First Year Writing Program. (A slight tangent and in all seriousness: there is A LOT to say about the FYWP, Dean TBA, both in terms of bragging and in terms of demonstrating the need for ongoing support. But since I am transitioning out of that role this year, I’ll leave that work to others.) As the Ass. WPA, most of my work was duties as assigned, though I did launch a large survey of students in the program for the purposes of assessment (the details of the results will come later in May or June or when I get to it, though generally speaking, students do report that they think they learned a lot in our first year writing course, and that has to count for something), and I did a lot of classroom evaluations of graduate assistants. I do have a funny story from one of those observations. I had the chance to sit in on one GA’s class that began at 8 AM– one of our better GAs too. Students shuffled in and were in place by 8. Five minutes passed and no GA; students chatted and seemed a little surprised. More time passed; I asked “is so and so often late like this?” “No, never” the class responded. More time passed and I finally called so and so and, it turns out, woke so and so up. So and so was mortified. But again, this is all something to laugh about now. I came back to visit so and so’s class later, it was great, and so and so is still one of our best and brightest. And now, so and so owns a couple of alarm clocks.

And of course, I did lots of paperwork tied to the ongoing equivalency nonsense inflicted upon us by both the EMU-AAUP and the administration. Among other things, this work included writing and rewriting documents in an effort to prove to the powers that be that our courses in written communication are indeed “Writing Intensive” and attending marathon department meetings where we tried to work out the various ways equivalencies could work for all.

At least some of my time in November was spent “campaigning” (well, blogging about at least) why faculty ought to vote out the leadership of the EMU-AAUP. Dean TBA, this might not seem like official “work” or even something to “brag” about, especially if you are not from the inside at EMU. But believe me, this was a significant accomplishment. The new leadership of the union has made some stumbles, sure, but at least it’s not the jerks who were in charge. The racial vandalism problems continued— again, maybe not exactly the sort of “accomplishment” or “brag” I’m supposed to be highlighting, but something that certainly helped fuel the poor morale on campus. And the equivalency drama continued as the outgoing leadership of the EMU-AAUP and the administration agreed to end discussion about the equivalencies, even though faculty had been explicitly told that we’d have until April to sort things out and/or make our case for additional class activities that would make our classes count as “four.”

And of course there was an unfortunate presidential election.

In December 2016, I relaunched a slightly new version of the blog I ran for the EMU community for many years, now renamed EMYoutalk.org. It hasn’t been quite as busy or important a community-building tool– at least not yet. But it gives a place for people to talk about EMU things who don’t want to do so on the EMUTalk Facebook group.

Winter 2017 (Dean TBA, we don’t have “spring semester” here at EMU; it’s winter, because it really is winter well into March in Southeast Michigan) began with lots of activity. Teaching-wise, I taught another section of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology” (this time online) and a face-to-face section of “354: Critical Digital Literacies.” 354 made at the absolute last minute– I was literally emailing my department head over Christmas break to find out if I should prepare to teach the class or not– and it turned out to be an interesting class with a very chummy and small group of students. Among other things, they developed their own regular rotation for who brings snacks.

Also in January: I was busy as a committee member for a search we were conducting for someone to (more or less) replace me as the Ass. WPA (we were able to make an offer to our top candidate, too!), busy writing up the documentation for my “salary adjustment” promotion (to the mythical rank of über-Professor or fuller-Professor), the reward ultimately being a pretty decent raise come Fall 2017.

And again, the equivalency nonsense continued, though much of the time spent in the Winter 2017 amounted to asking about the status of paperwork we thought we had completed months ago and also to asking various administrators to explain how it was they were planning on adding threes and fours together and get to twelve.

I will admit that during much of February 2017, I was immersed in depression and outrage at the turn in our national politics and the rise of Michigan’s own Besty “Grizzly Bear” DeVos as the US Secretary of Education. I do believe though that’s when I did the wrapping up/finishing touches on a chapter I have forthcoming in a collection edited by Liz Losh called MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education that’s been in the works for a while (it will come out in August 2017). And I’m sure we had some kind of mind-numbing meeting about what to do about course equivalencies.

The main highlight of March was the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting (this year in Portland, Oregon), which meant I missed that month’s department meeting in which faculty discussed once again what we could not possibly know because of the many unknowns of the course equivalencies that are going to be forced upon us. In theory.

Really, March was just a bridge to the cruelest month in academia, April. So much always happens then, and this year was no different. There were the celebrations (including the last Celebration of Student Writing I am likely to have much of an organizational hand in [and since most of the logistics were handled by the very able Joe Montgomery and Laura Kovick, I didn’t have to do much]), the wrapping up of grades, the last minute and impossible administrative requests, and one of the craziest last of the year department meetings I’ve attended in my 18 years at EMU (perhaps it is best to leave out the details).

But to end on two positive notes. First, I’m not teaching this summer, which means, Dean TBA, I hope you forgive me if I don’t get back to you on your feedback on this report until August or September. Second, I was awarded a Faculty Research Fellowship for fall 2017. It does raise questions and complexities about my duties as coordinator since the equivalency mess (have I mentioned the equivalencies issue yet?) does not clarify things like “reassigned time” to do quasi-administrative work. As I have said to my colleagues and my department head, we will “muddle through” for Fall 2017 and beyond, though if the equivalency stuff doesn’t get sorted out soon, our department head is going to have to take on a lot of the details handled by the many folks in our department currently on some kind of reassigned time. But I am looking forward to more concentrated time to spend on finishing my book about MOOCs before too many people forget that MOOCs were a “thing.”

There you have it, much more detail than you could possibly imagine, Dean TBA. In Dickensian terms, the 2016-2017 school year was the best of times, the worst of times: good students as always and lots of other pleasures, but quite frankly, I think morale remains low thanks to unsolved (and swept away) problems of racist incidents on campus and the unsolvable mystery of how the equivalencies will change the way things work at EMU– if they change things at all or even go into effect. What “interesting times” to come into your position!

Again, best of luck with/I’m sorry about your new Deandom.

Yours,

Steven D. Krause

Professor of far too many details about what happened last year.

Posted in Academia, EMU, Scholarship, Teaching | Leave a comment

That horrible and strange article about writing by John G. Maguire

I have some time on my hands right now. I am completely done with the 2016-17 school year, I am not teaching this summer (and thus not contractually obligated to do much of anything until late August), I won’t be teaching this fall because of a research fellowship, I’m trying to work on finishing a book about MOOCs, and, just to top it all off, I am currently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and thus don’t really have that much to do). So I have some things I can/want to write about right now. But I’ll start with this really horrible and strange article about writing instruction from The Washington Post.

“Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help” is a post/article from WaPo’s “Answer Sheet,” which is essentially their education “beat” page. The byline is Valerie Strauss, but it’s really a post by John G. Maguire, who describes himself as a “man obsessed with clear writing” who has been teaching writing in one form or another at a bunch of different places over the years. He has no training or scholarship in writing pedagogy, and, as far as I can tell from his resume, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor. Maguire is the author of a textbook called “College Writing Guide” and a champion of a method he seems to believe he invented called “Readable Writing.”

Frankly, there is not really much of anything in Maguire’s article that is accurate. There’s the uncritical citation of the book Academically Adrift, a study with some clear methodological shortcomings; there’s the claim that first year writing courses are about all matter of things but not writing sentences. There’s a quote from someone named Phillip Mink about how the college writing profession has stopped teaching style, which comes as a bit of surprise to me since I’ve been teaching a class specifically about style (albeit at the 300 level) for going on 20 years now at EMU. There’s this unsupported claim that students don’t know how to write sentences, and so the solution to making first year students into “readable writers” is to teach them how to write sentences, presumably at the expense of everything else.

As a slight tangent: I’ve been teaching writing and/or writing for a long time now, and I think when people (like this guy, like professors in other departments, etc.) say “students can’t write good sentences or good paragraphs,” that’s not quite what they mean.  By the time they get to college, the vast majority of students can indeed write grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, though not necessarily particularly “good” sentences and paragraphs. So when people like Maguire or whoever say “students can’t write,” I think we need to parse that out and ask for some more details.

Anyway, there’s a lot of appropriate outrage and frustration on Facebook, on the WPA mailing list, probably on some blogs, etc., and also in the comments on the article itself. I’ll just add three other things to the discussion:

  • It is incredibly annoying that Main Stream Media routinely runs these sorts of pieces written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, Maguire has taught writing for a long time, and expertise in teaching writing is a bit more fuzzy than expertise in something like cancer research. Still, would it really be that hard for WaPo and similar publications to stop and think about the qualifications of someone like Maguire to speak in such sweeping terms about teaching writing? And can you imagine a newspaper publishing a thought piece on the shitty state of journalism written by someone without any demonstrable expertise in journalism (other than reading it?)
  • At the end of the day, what Maguire is really trying to do here is sell his textbook. So really, what the WaPo did for him is run an advertisement in the form of an op-ed piece. I hope they charged Maguire appropriately.
  • In earlier drafts of my failed textbook project The Process of Research Writing, I actually made reference to The Karate Kid for reasons similar to Maguire. I think a good way to teach lots of things (like research writing) is to try to break it down into smaller parts, exercises to be practiced before attempting to do the whole thing at once. This is what textbooks generally do, but my references to The Karate Kid fell flat because (surprise, surprise!) students nowadays don’t necessarily know a movie that was made 15 or more years before they were born.
Posted in Academia, Scholarship, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 3 Comments