My recent attempts at social media detoxing/dieting

Who hasn’t thought about ditching their social media accounts? Who hasn’t found themselves wasting way WAY too much time in some kind of nonsense online discussion? And then, in a brief moment of clarity after seemingly hours of fog, who hasn’t thought “this is starting to feel kinda toxic”?

I felt that tipping point a couple weeks ago when something happened on the WPA-L mailing list. I didn’t engage in the discussion there, but I did (rather foolishly) engage in too much of the back-channel conversation on Facebook, ultimately getting into that “why am I doing this toxic thing to myself?” kind of space.

A tangent/some unpopular thoughts about “that conversation” on WPA-L: first, I didn’t think it was so much an example of mansplaining as it was an example of what I described in my dissertation as an “immediate” rhetorical situation, the kind of miscommunication that happens in asynchronous electronic spaces (mailing lists, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) when the understanding of rhetor, audience, and message all become jumbled. I finished my dissertation on 1996, and one of the examples I have in chapter four is from a very similar (though not as gendered) discussion that went off the rails on ACW-L, a now defunct but similar listserv. But of course bringing this up as a possibility of what was going on was impossible. Besides, the conversation turned into one about mansplaining anyway. Second, I think the gender dynamics in composition/rhetoric are extremely complex. This is a field where there are more women than men, and it is a field where women occupy about the same number of positions of power as men in terms of being leaders, important scholars, high profile professors, and so forth. Third, I think the discussion environment on the WPA-L list had been turning kind of bad for a while, maybe because of the rise of other social media platforms, maybe because of something else. I generally don’t agree with the likes of Bill Maher who have complained that college campuses have become too “politically correct” and they can no longer tolerate any sort of divisive speakers or naughty comedians, but it does feel to me like there’s not a whole lot or room to stray too far from the party line on WPA-L anymore. And it also sure feels to me like the general toxicity of the Trump administration has poisoned everything, including what was a generally mild-mannered academic mailing list. We are all being constantly beaten down and made brittle from this disaster of a human who we elected (sort of) president and I am sure it will take us all years to get over this damage– if we ever can ever again feel “right” about trying to engage with people and ideas we don’t agree with. Let me put it this way: I was on WPA-L for a long time (20+ years?), and I do not think this would have happened during either the Obama administration or the Bush II administration.

Anyway, back to the toxicity: I decided I had had enough, and I needed to do something with how I’m engaging (and over-engaging) with social media.

So the first thing I did was sign off of WPA-L, after writing an email that I guess is easy to read as self-serving but I was trying to be sincere in thanking the group for all I learned over the years. Maybe I left too early, maybe I stayed too long (a lot of the backchannel discussion on Facebook consisted of people saying stuff like “oh, I got off of that shit show of a mailing list years ago”), maybe I was part of the problem and it will be better after I’m gone. Though it’s still a public list and easy enough to check in on once in a while.

Then Facebook. I thought briefly about just chucking the whole thing, but I still like it and I feel like I need to keep more than a toe in it because of friends and family, people I know at EMU and in academia, and because I teach a lot of stuff about Facebook and social media. So I went through my “friends” and I decided that my minimal standard for continued Facebook “friendship” was people who I sorta/kinda knew well enough that if I were to run into at a conference or something, I might recognize them and maybe even chat with them in a more or less friendly way. I went from about 650-700 down to about 460.

It was interesting culling that list. I don’t exactly know how the algorithms of who gets listed where on my friend list, but I think it’s people who post most frequently/recently first, and then everyone else in decreasing order of connectivity. I think a lot of my now former Facebook friends abandoned their accounts a while ago, and there were three or four folks on my list who had actually passed away in the last few years. Interestingly, I’m now noticing posts from folks who I hadn’t seen posting in a long time, again I suppose because of how the algorithms for what shows up where in my feed.

For Twitter, I’m kind of doing the opposite: I’m trying to read it a bit more, follow more people, and posting/retweeting more. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that Twitter is also kind of a cesspool, but I don’t know, it doesn’t feel quite as contentious? Maybe the brevity of the form, maybe because of who I follow or don’t follow? Maybe it’s because there are so many tweets (I’m following just over 760 tweeters/people/media sources) it feels a lot more like channel surfing than engaging in a discussion? Plus I find more of the links to things more interesting, and a friend of mind told me about realtwitter.com, which (as far as I can tell) shows you real time updates of who I’m following– that is, it apparently skips by Twitter’s rankings and ads.

And Instagram is just fun. Instagram never pisses me off. Maybe I should just be doing Instagram and nothing else.

So we’ll see if this makes things less toxic-feeling. The next step (probably) will be to try to work harder at limiting my time spent in the social media soup.

Semi-annual end of the summer/beginning of the school year resolutions: Time passes, bends, repeats

Thirty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing to teach for the first time as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. I had moved to Richmond in May 1988, shortly after I had graduated from Iowa, and that summer wasn’t exactly great. I could only find work for a few weeks with Clean Water Action, which essentially involved going door to door in various subdivisions within about an hour’s drive from downtown Richmond and asking for donations . Let’s just say the premise of the operation seemed sketchy, the money was poor, I turned out to be not very good at canvasing, and I ate a lot of Cheerios that summer– though fortunately, my old friends Troy and Lisa had actually moved to Richmond too and they fed and entertained me once in a while. In any event, some time in August that summer, I was probably in a workshop for new teaching assistants.

Twenty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing for teaching and work at my second (and presumably final) tenure-track position at Eastern Michigan University. Annette and I left Ashland, Oregon where I had been an assistant professor for two years at Southern Oregon University. People in Ashland thought we were crazy to be moving to Michigan because Ashland and that whole area of Oregon is stunningly beautiful. But there is no way Annette would have ever gotten a tenure-track job at SOU, there are no other universities or colleges within 100 miles of there, and truth be told, SOU was (and still kind of is as I understand it) a basket case of an institution. So in the late summer of 1998, we hired a couple of dudes to do most of the loading up of a U-Haul truck we drove east for four or five days with Will (not yet a year old) in a car seat between us while we sang round after round of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to keep him from being fussy. In any event, I was probably in some kind of faculty orientation thing some time in late August, a session where I remember meeting my fellow cohort hires, Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp, and where I spent a day I will never get back being “orientated” and learning about insurance. As I understand it, the new faculty orientation has expanded  to almost a week of these meetings.

And now here we are once again with another new (school) year’s resolution(s) sort of post. Time flies and repeats and bends. I visited Richmond (and my friend Dennis Danvers) for a day back in late May and had a lovely trip down memory lane, driving by old apartments and seeing the many ways VCU’s campus has changed. Troy and Lisa (saw them back in March) are now in Brooklyn, and before that they were in Chicago for almost 20 years (with a “stop” in-between for a year in California). I hear once in a while from people who were at SOU, but not much. Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp both left EMU a long time ago. Annette (as in my wife, not Saddik) has been a tenured professor in the department for a while now, and Will is starting his senior year of college with an eye toward PhD programs.

As I’ve written about previously, EMU is in the midst of what I will charitably call “challenges,” a combination of self-inflicted dumb administrative decisions, changing regional demographics impacting enrollments, and a lot of other problems happening all over the U.S. at similar universities. This is a time at EMU where faculty who are able move on to other positions at other universities ought to seriously think about doing so, or where faculty who can’t move on should have a strategy for riding out the storm.

I am in the latter category– not that that’s a bad thing.

I mean, the grass might be greener elsewhere (or it might not be), but Annette and I both have tenured positions and we live in a lovely community. I can’t complain about that. This fall, I’m not involved in any quasi-administrative duties for the first time since 2011, and I am looking forward to being “retired” from that work to focus more on teaching. I’m especially excited about the section of first year writing I’m going to teach where I’m planning on using as Bruce McComiskey’s Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition and where students will research something in the theme(s) of post-truth and fake news. It’s the most politically charged version of the course I’ve ever taught, but at this stage of my career, I think I can handle/navigate it, and I think McComiskey makes a pretty compelling argument about how we live in a time where teaching students about this is incredibly important. So wish me luck on that front.

Scholarship-wise, I’m beginning the last stages of a book about MOOCs I’ve been working on pretty much since Invasion of the MOOCs. It’s revised title is More than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs, it’s being published by Utah State University Press/University of Colorado Press, and it should come out some time in 2019. Knocking on wooden things. I had said before that this might very well be my last “hurrah” as far as scholarly writing goes because I want to take a turn toward the more “mainstream” in terms of trying to write and publish more commentary pieces (like this one from Inside Higher Ed from March), and/or some more “popular” non-fiction or even fiction. Then again, I am also going to start putting together the paperwork/legwork for a different project that has the working (and in my head) title “Classroom Laptop Bans are Bullshit.” Plus, with what seems to be an increasing number of proclamations that blogging is “over,” this might actually be the right time to research them again. Stay tuned.

Otherwise, my new school year resolutions are similar to the ones I had last year:

  • Finish the book. Well, “finish.” There will still be production issues and copy editing and indexing and who knows what else, which is to say that the book won’t really be done until it is actually produced. But you know what I mean.
  • Go to the gym more (and generally try to diet, exercise, be healthy, blah-blah-blah).
  • Let it go/stay out of it/unplug from it/let others take it over.
  • Start enough of some new projects so that I can apply for summer and/or fall research support.
  • Blog more, which I realize is at odds with the “blogs are dead now” trend and all of that. But just like everyone else I know, I’m increasingly disillusioned with social media, and I kind of liked when I was blogging “reviews” of scholarly things I had read, in part because it often feels like there is a whole lot more attention spent on making scholarship rather than consuming it/reading it.

Three thoughts on the “Essay,” assessing, and using “robo-grading” for good

NPR had a story on Weekend Edition last week, “More States Opting to ‘Robo-Grade” Student Essays By Computer,” that got some attention from other comp/rhet folks though not as much as I thought it might. Essentially, the story is about the use of computers to “assess” (really “rate,” but I’ll get to that in a second) student writing on standardized tests. Most composition and rhetoric scholars think this software is a bad idea. I think this is not not true, though I do have three thoughts.

First, I agree with what my friend and colleague Bill Hart-Davidson writes here about essays, though this is not what most people think “essay” means. Bill draws on the classic French origins of the word, noting that an essay is supposed to be a “try,” an attempt and often a wandering one at that. Read any of the quite old classics (de Montaigne comes to mind, though I don’t know his work as well as I should) or even the more modern ones (E.B. White or Joan Didion or the very contemporary David Sedaris) and you get more of a sense of this classic meaning. Sure, these writers’ essays are organized and have a point, but they wander to them and they are presented (presumably after much revision) as if the writer was discovering their point along with the reader.

In my own teaching, I tend to use the term project to describe what I assign students to do because I think it’s a term that can include a variety of different kinds of texts (including essays) and other deliverables. I hate the far too common term paper because it suggests writing that is static, boring, routine, uninteresting, and bureaucratic. It’s policing, as in “show me your papers” when trying to pass through a boarder. No one likes completing “paperwork,” but it is one of those necessary things grown-ups have to do.

Nonetheless, for most people including most writing teachers–  the term “essay” and “paper” are synonymous. The original meaning of essay has been replaced by the school meaning of essay (or paper– same thing).  Thus we have the five paragraph form, or even this comparably enlightened advice from the Bow Valley College Library and Learning Commons, one of the first links that came up in a simple Google search. It’s a list (five steps, too!) for creating an essay (or paper) driven by a thesis and research.  For most college students, papers (or essays) are training for white collar careers to learn how to complete required office paperwork.

Second, while it is true that robo-grading standardized tests does not help anyone learn how to write, the most visible aspect of writing pedagogy to people who have no expertise in teaching (beyond experience as a student, of course) is not the teaching but the assessment. So in that sense, it’s not surprising this article focuses on assessment at the expense of teaching.

Besides, composition and rhetoric as a field is very into assessment, sometimes (IMO) at the expense of teaching and learning about writing. Much of the work of Writing Program Administration and scholarship in the field is tied to assessment– and a lot (most?) comp/rhet specialists end up involved in WPA work at some point in their careers. WPAs have to consider large-scale assessment issues to measure outcomes across many different sections of first year writing, and they usually have to mentor instructors on small-scale assessment– that is, how to grade and comment all these student essays papers in a way that is both useful to students and that does not take an enormous amount of time.  There is a ton of scholarship on assessment– how to do it, what works or doesn’t, the pros and cons of portfolios, etc. There are books and journals and conferences devoted to assessment. Plenty of comp/rhet types have had very good careers as assessment specialists. Our field loves this stuff.

Don’t get me wrong– I think assessment is important, too. There is stuff to be learned (and to be shown to administrators) from these large scale program assessments, and while the grades we give to students aren’t always an accurate measure of what they learned or how well they can write, grades are critical to making the system of higher education work. Plus students themselves are too often a major part of the problem of over-assessing. I am not one to speak about the “kids today” because I’ve been teaching long enough to know students now are not a whole lot different than they were 30 years ago. But one thing I’ve noticed in recent years– I think because of “No Child Left Behind” and similar efforts– is the extent to which students nowadays seem puzzled about embarking on almost any writing assignment without a detailed rubric to follow.

But again, assessing writing is not the same thing as fostering an environment where students can learn more about writing, and it certainly is not how writing worth reading is created. I have never read an essay which mattered to me written by someone closely following the guidance of a typical  assignment rubric. It’s really easy as a teacher to forget that, especially while trying to make the wheels of a class continue to turn smoothly with the help of tools like rubrics. As a teacher, I have to remind myself about that all the time.

The third thing: as long as writing teachers believe more in essays than in papers and as long as they are more concerned with creating learning opportunities rather than sites for assessment, “robo-grader” technology of the soft described in this NPR story are kind of irrelevant– and it might even be helpful.

I blogged about this several years ago here as well, but it needs to be emphasized again: this software is actually pretty limited. As I understand it, software like this can rate/grade the response to a specific essay question– “in what ways did the cinematic techniques of Citizen Kane revolutionize the way we watch and understand movies today”– but it is not very good at more qualitative questions– “did you think Citizen Kane was a good movie?”– and it is not very good at all at rating/grading pieces of writing with almost no constraints, as in “what’s your favorite movie?”

Furthermore, as the NPR story points out, this software can be tricked. Les Perleman has been demonstrating for years how these robo-graders can be fooled, though I have to say I am a lot more impressed with the ingenuity shown by some students in Utah who found ways to “game” the system: “One year… a student who wrote a whole page of the letter “b” ended up with a good score. Other students have figured out that they could do well writing one really good paragraph and just copying that four times to make a five-paragraph essay that scores well. Others have pulled one over on the computer by padding their essays with long quotes from the text they’re supposed to analyze, or from the question they’re supposed to answer.” The raters keep “tweaking” the code to present these tricks, but of course, students will keep trying new tricks.

I have to say I have some sympathy with one of the arguments made in this article that if a student is smart enough to trick the software, then maybe they deserve a high rating anyway. We are living in an age in which it is an increasingly important and useful skill for humans to write texts in a way that can be “understood” both by other people and machines– or maybe just machines. So maybe mastering the robo-grader is worth something, even if it isn’t exactly what most of us mean by “writing.”

Anyway, my point is it really should not be difficult at all for composition and rhetoric folks to push back against the use of tools like this in writing classes because robo-graders can’t replicate what human teachers and students can do as readers: to be an actual audience. In that sense, this technology is not really all that much different than stuff like spell-checkers and grammar-checkers I have been doing this work long enough to know that there were plenty of writing teachers who thought those tools were the beginning of the end, too.

Or, another way of putting it: I think the kind of teaching (and teachers) that can be replaced by software like this is pretty bad teaching.

The Problem of Refusing Service to Bad People: A Not Completely Right Teaching Analogy

Two wrongs don’t make a right. I’m against all policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” even when “your kind” are bad people. And like the education industry, I think one of the challenges of the hospitality industry is an obligation to serve everyone– up until they give you a good reason to not serve them.

Most of my students either lean kind of left (thanks to youth and many of them are coming from working class backgrounds in Southeast Michigan) or they are kind of apolitical, so this problem is more hypothetical for me than real. But if a student signed up for my class and it became obvious that he (and it would almost certainly be a he) was all about “Make America Great Again” and whatever, it would be a huge problem if I told him “look, you need to drop because I refuse to teach you, read your writing, or give you a passing grade no matter what you do.” I’d probably get in a lot of trouble and it would just be, you know, “wrong.”

But honestly, I’m not convinced I’m right about this analogy.

Look, I get it. I think these people are deplorable too. I completely sympathize with the owners and staff of the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve Sarah Hucklebee Sanders and her people– because by all accounts (including from Sanders in her official government tweet) this wasn’t a situation of a group being “thrown out” so much as it was about the owner politely asking the group to leave and the group politely doing so. I don’t fault the owner for this, and if I had been in their situation, I might very well have done the same thing. I am okay with the public protests that have greeted these public figures when they’ve done stuff like go out to dinner or to the movies or whatever because they are horrible people doing horrible things and when they go into public, the public is allowed to express their feelings. That’s protest, and protest is never “polite,” and I think there’s a difference between people protesting outside the restaurant versus proprietors of a restaurant protesting. I’m a little less okay when the protest actually goes into the restaurant or movie theater, but still. Anyway, like I said, I get it.

And I’m not that interested in “civility” per se, though I think the “yeah, well, Republicans have done all kinds of uncivil things too like a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, so they deserve it” argument strikes me as a version of “I know you are, but what am I?” For me,  this isn’t so much “Us good liberal people should continue to be civil” but rather “Us good liberal people should try to not be stupid.” The conservative hypocrisy here is thick. But while the self-righteous feelings that come from refusing awful people like this service or yelling at them is satisfying in the moment, it’s ultimately kind of gross.

Plus there’s the bigger picture politics. These public shamings are like pouring gasoline on the Trumpster fire and they do nothing to change minds. Just the opposite. This is all part of the Trump chaos/bully playbook. The bully taunts his victim into doing something stupid, essentially “What are you gonna do? Wanna hit me? Huh? I dare you! Go ahead, hit me!” The victim lose their temper, hits the bully, the bully has the green light to be a bigger bully (because hey, who’s the victim here now), and that’s how the Democrats manage to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in 2018. 

Plus plus this all seems to me to be just another example of how Trump is starting to make liberals crazy and turn on each other.  I’ve seen signs of this on social media with left-leaning folks being driven slowly insane by a never-ending news cycle dominated by a never-ending series of stories that are some version of “this affront against decency is completely unprecedented” and/or “Trump is going to kill us all.” I read Amy Siskind’s Weekly List.  I think Trent Reznor is right when he noted “the disregard for decency and truth and civility is what’s really disheartening. It feels like a country that celebrates stupidity is really taking it up a notch.” At the same time, there are just too many liberals trying to out-liberal each other, trying to create unnecessary distance amongst themselves over issues with which we fundamentally agree. I write these posts mostly for myself and the tens of others who read them, but there might be a few left-leaning folks reading this right now who think that I’m wrong because what I’m writing here doesn’t fall into the “party line,” so to speak.

And increasingly, I think that Trump et al are gleefully rubbing their hands together as these liberals argue with liberals and cackling “Just as we planned. It is all so easy…”

Anyway, all I’m saying is I think people on the left side of the spectrum– everyone from pretty middle of the road and old-school Democrats to “Bernie Bros” to folks on the more radical left– need to find ways to push back against the Trump administration while not taking the bait. That shit didn’t help Hillary in 2016 (though why and how she lost is a much more complicated matter of course), and it ain’t going to help the Democrats in 2018 or 2020. And that shit gets super real when things happen like Anthony Kennedy retires and you start to realize that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is freakin’ 85!

But back to where I started. Two wrongs don’t make a right, I’m against policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” and one of the challenges of both the hospitality and education industries is there’s an obligation to serve everyone who comes into the dining room/classroom. But also like I said, I’m not sure I even agree with myself about this.

For one thing, I don’t think it’s illegal to refuse service to someone because of their politics or who they work for, though I honestly do not know where the legal line is. It’s illegal (I presume) to refuse service to a person because of their race, but it is legal (I presume) to refuse service to that same person because you believe they are a shitty person. When it comes to teaching, I don’t know exactly if it’s illegal for me to kick a student out of my class before it even begins based on their politics or their boss or even their race, but it is certainly “wrong,” it would probably get me in trouble with EMU (there are limits as to what even a tenured professor can get away with), and it might get me on some sort of “liberal watch” right wing web site.

Hospitality businesses have other ways to refuse service– dress codes immediately come to mind– and it’s also reasonable for these kinds of businesses to ask people to leave if they start behaving badly. I have thrown students out of my classes for bad behavior, though not often and I’ve never taught someplace where there is some kind of dress code (and there have been some controversial stories recently about what can go spectacularly wrong with dress codes in college courses).

Then again, I might be wrong about this.

I wish we lived in a time where we didn’t have to deal with any of this nonsense.

Veering out of my lane into the immigration crisis (with Geraldo)

Lawrence Lessig had a good post the other day about the zero tolerance on immigration policy of the Trump administration. Lessig said he generally tries to “stay in my lane” in terms of what he blogs about/writes about: that is, Lessig’s area of expertise and interest is focused nowadays on “fixing democracy” with issues like campaign finance reform, and also issues having to do with copyright in the age of the internet (he founded Creative Commons, for example). But “the child separation policy crosses the line for me.”

I can relate to this. I am all over the place in what I post on platforms like Facebook and Twitter (maybe I shouldn’t be), but generally speaking, my blogging is about academia, MOOCs, writing, rhetoric, scholarship, and EMU, along with entries about my “life” that are mostly about food, travel, and gardening. Sure, there are a few posts over the last couple of years about politics and other things, but mostly I stay in my realms of expertise.

So posting about immigration policy and what the U.S. should do about this mess is going way outside my lane, and doing it while referencing a series of tweets from Geraldo Rivera is way WAY outside my lane. But I thought it was a worthwhile thought/blog experiment because (pretty much like every other American) I have opinions about all this, and also because I wanted to demonstrate how much I actually agree on this with a Fox News celebrity “journalist” who is (IMO) kind of a nutjob overall. And if Geraldo and I can mostly agree, then surly there is room for compromise and discussion on the problems of immigration in this country.

Before I get to Geraldo’s tweets:

  • The Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy is torture, full stop.
  • If I had my way, I’d let in a lot more people into this country. Congress should pass the Dream Act, there ought to be a path to citizenship (or at least legal status) for the 10 or 12 million undocumented people living in the U.S., there ought to be some kind of visiting worker program, and while I do not know how many immigrants we let in from other countries around the world, I am sure that number needs to be higher. Or what Brett Stephens said here: the U.S. really needs more immigrants as the population ages, as rural areas empty out all over the country, and as the demand for labor– particularly entry-level/low skill labor– increases.
  • Sure, we need to have boarders to be a country and we need to have some sense of security around those boarders. Then again, we don’t have any security around state boarders and that seems to work out fine, and within the European Union, crossing the boarder between different countries is usually pretty trivial.
  • It sure seems to me like a lot of Trump et al’s efforts at cracking down on immigration is just fear of brown people. If there was some kind of crisis going on in Northern Europe or Russia akin to what’s going on right now in Central America (which is why a lot of these people are trying to get to the U.S. in the first place), Trump and his ilk would be holding “welcome to America” parades.

Okay, on To Geraldo Rivera’s tweets:

Yes on all of the above.

The issue of more housing (family and otherwise) and immigration judges, social workers, and lawyers to help resolve cases where people are seeking asylum is perhaps a more conservative position compared to most of my liberal friends who might argue that’s just putting these people into “camps.” But the system dubbed “catch and release” that encourages people to disappear into the underground of America doesn’t seem like a great idea either. So I think housing these folks for a while is okay if we can figure out a way to hold both immigrants and asylum seekers (and their families, of course) in a humane and supportive way until the legal stuff gets figured out, assuming it can be figured out reasonably quickly (which is why we need more judges and lawyers and social workers and help from NGOs involved).

Well, three out of four here, Gerry.

The border wall is just dumb. It would cost way too much money, take too much time to build, it would cause a ton of environmental damage, and it’d be too easy to get around (ever hear of a ladder?) I honestly think that Trump wants a wall because China has a wall and he thinks it’d be cool if in 100 years people up in space look down on the earth circling below and they’re able to point out both the Wall of China and Trump’s Wall.

But everything else Geraldo is suggesting here is true. We need to do the opposite of picking fights with Mexico– and now Canada and those tricky Canadians coming into this country to smuggle back shoes!— and that “Marshall Plan” idea for Central America is really important too. Most of the people trying to get into the U.S. nowadays aren’t Mexicans just hoping to earn a better living. Most of these people are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and they are literally running for their lives. I don’t know all the details of the problems there and I am sure individuals have slightly different reasons for trying to get out. But It only takes a teeny-weeny bit of empathy to imagine that the situation must be pretty shitty. I mean, how bad would it have to be for you to grab what you (and your kids) could carry and then just start walking for 1400 miles to the U.S. boarder, hoping for the best?

Instead of spending $25+billion on a wall that wouldn’t work anyway, we should be trying to do what we can to aid and support the countries these folks are trying to escape so they stop coming here.

He kind of lost track of his numbering system here, but generally speaking, sure, this seems about right.

Absolutely, though there are two issues here that aren’t exactly points of disagreement so much as they are explanations as to why too many Americans are against this idea. There’s a lot of fear and racism that has to be overcome before far too many Americans are willing to remember what we “share” with our southern neighbors, and I presume that our southern neighbors who have been treated like shit by the U.S. for decades might feel the same way. And while I agree we should welcome foreign college students here, the “maybe they’ll invent (the) next google” line I am sure makes too many Americans afraid that that means “THEN THEY’LL TAKE OUR JOBS!”

Finally:

Well, we might have to agree to disagree with that shining city on the hill/beacon of hope/hugging the flag bullshit, but the general picture is about right.

So look: immigration is a hard issue and our system for dealing with it in this country has been a mess for decades. Even Trump is right about that. And there are some major points of disagreement that are going to be hard to resolve– particularly the call for a wall and the not so subtle racism behind all this. But if a liberal like me can agree with 11 out of 12 Geraldo points, well, isn’t the solution to this problem possible?

Who Reads Academic Writing? Who Reads Anything?

I’ve been sprucing up stevendkrause.com lately, mainly because I’ve got some free time during the summer recess and because it’s a distraction from working on “the MOOC book,” aka MOOCs in Context, which I am hoping will be out in print (and maybe out electronically?) about a year from now. It’s been interesting talking to some non-academic-types about this book. A couple of times folks have asked “Who do you think is going to read this?” As far as I can tell, no one has intended any malice with this question; it’s honest curiosity. I typically have answered “Mostly people interested in MOOCs or distance education, I’d guess. Other academics. So I’d guess a few hundred people in the world, maybe a bit more than that.”

Non-academics who know enough about the role of publishing in tenure and promotion in higher education and who also know that I’m a full professor unlikely to take another job at this point of my career sometimes then ask “Well, then why bother?” It’s a question I take seriously. We’ve all heard before that most academic writing never actually is read, even by other academics. It is one of the reasons why I want to try to return to writing some fiction, why I’d like to write more commentaries like this one I published in Inside Higher Ed a while ago,  and why I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at some “popular” non-fiction writing.

Though actually, Arthur G. Jago recently published a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education that has an interesting take on this claim, “Can It Really Be True That Half of Academic Papers Are Never Read?”  It’s an accessible read that I’m thinking of assigning for first year writing in the fall. All of us are guilty of assuming certain “truthy” sounding claims without any actual evidence, and Jago traces in detail one of the most common of those claims in academia: “At least one study found that the average academic article is read by about 10 people, and half of these articles are never read at all.” That specific sentence came from another CHE op-ed piece published recently and it does sound truthy to me. Jago doggedly traces the origins of this– what study is being referenced here– and while he does turn up a number of studies that kind of make this argument, Jago concludes we will probably never find the “bibliographic equivalent of ‘patient zero.'”

The more you poke at this question about how often is the scholarship academics create actually read by anyone, the more difficult an answer becomes. For example, what does “read” mean? The easiest way to quantify this in terms of scholarship is related to citation, but a) just because someone cites something doesn’t mean they have “read” it completely or with a great level of care, and b) just because something hasn’t been cited doesn’t mean it’s been read.

Certainly putting scholarship online means it reaches more readers, especially if we apply a liberal definition of “read” to include “clicked on a link.” I’ve been linking to versions of conference presentation notes/scripts/slides on the online version of my online CV for a while now and when I compare the number of people who were actually present at these presentations with the number of clicks my materials get, it’s not even close. I’ve had my dissertation up online since 1996, and it’s received thousands of hits over the years and its being cited a few times. That’s more attention than I am sure the bound version has received in 22 years. (Note to self: I ought to take a road trip to BGSU one of these days to see if I can find it in the library). But of course a click does not translate into a reading.

The other thing that occurs to me is what’s the evidence that academic articles and books are read any less frequently than any other kind of article or book? I remember seeing a speech given by Lee Smith probably close to 30 years ago in Richmond (Lee was my MFA thesis advisor) where she quoted a statistic (perhaps an equally unverified and truthy claim, but still) that the average number of books read per year by Americans was zero since the vast majority of Americans simply do not read books at all. I knew some people just starting out as fiction writers way back when who had books coming out with major New York publishers and the press run was only going to be like 1,000 copies. As far as I can tell the trade book publishing business model is essentially the same as venture capital investing in the tech industry: publishers “bet” on hundreds of different authors hoping that one or two pay off with successful books. The rest? Well, thats what reminder stores are for.

Which is to say two things, I guess:

  • The main problem with academic publishing isn’t exactly that “nobody” reads it. Rather, the main problem with academic publishing is there are too many academics who only write and publish because they have to in order to get tenured and promoted.
  • While I’d love my MOOC book (and any other book I might end up writing) to sell a zillion copies to make me rich and admired and famous and all of that, the reality is that’s not a particularly good reason to write. So for me to keep doing this kind of thing the answer to the “why bother” question has to be “because I want to.”

Two Thoughts on “Volunteer Faculty”

It must be after the end of the school year because why else would I have the time and/or motivation to write not one but two blog posts in less than one week! In any event:

Just the other day, an associate dean of some sort at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale sent around an email to department heads (available in full in a variety of places, including here on the blog School of Doubt and also via “The Professor is In” Karen Kelsky’s Facebook page) floating the idea of “voluntary” adjuncts to help do some various kinds of academic work for free. Supposedly, this came from the SIUC alumni association, and the renewable “zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments” to do stuff like:

…service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

I have to say my first reaction to this was “this must be a joke and/or hoax,” because it kind of had the markers of “fake news:” an outlandish story that is also very easy for people to believe, especially people who are already upset about the decrease in tenure-track positions and the rise of increasingly bad part-time adjunct positions. But it was/is real, though, as SIUC tries to clarify here, it’s an experiment not meant to replace teaching faculty and all that.

Needless to say, the response from academics who actually have to get paid to do work was not positive. I think John Warner exaggerates more than a tad when he suggests that we should mark April 24, 2018 as “the day public higher education was lost,” but I get his point. The mere suggestion that the work that faculty (both on and off the tenure track) do can be done as well by eager volunteers was enough to piss a lot of academic-types off, and with some justification. I do this work because I love it, but I’m not a volunteer.

So, toward that end (especially for readers who have already read and thought about these SIUC statements and reactions like Warner’s), I thought I’d offer two somewhat related thoughts:

First here’s an overly optimistic, generous, and forgiving reading of this call for “0% adjuncts”  (and I freely admit this is probably too optimistic, generous, and forgiving). Maybe what the SIUC administration was trying to do was to systematize a way for qualified alumni to “give back” to SIUC, and to do so in a fashion that gives these alum credit for their volunteering. So, let’s say that I had a PhD from SIUC and for whatever reason, I was interested in/being recruited to be on a couple of dissertation committees for current students. I guess if I was a 0% adjunct faculty member, I could then do that. Maybe?

Now, I don’t really know why SIUC needs to go through this rig-a-ma-roll. I mean, I’ve been a reader on a dissertation for another university and I didn’t have to do any kind of appointment gymnastics; maybe it’s different at SIUC. Maybe there are some alumni in some departments who perceive this as perhaps helping them in their current positions and/or to find better positions. But again, I don’t really know.

As a slight and related tangent though, faculty do end up working for “0%” on a lot of different things. People who do review work for journals generally do not get paid for that labor, and people who review books before publication don’t usually get paid very much (if at all). I’ve been paid before to do tenure reviews, and I have agreed to do one this summer for free as a favor. So extending the invitation for this kind of volunteer work to alumni serving on various committees is perhaps a misplaced reading of the next logical step.

Also related (and overly generous and forgiving on my part): perhaps the goal here is to go back to the work adjunct faculty are supposed to be doing. I think in an ideal world, all adjunct faculty in all fields would be professionally active in whatever they do and they would teach a course or two at a university mostly as a way of “giving back” to the profession and the institution. I have a friend of mine who has been a journalist for several decades and he teaches a bit part-time about reporting, and I think this is his view of the value of this work. I am imagining a scenario where a doctor or a lawyer or a similar professional teaches a course at the university, again to give back and to share their “real world” expertise.

Of course, this is not what most adjuncts are now.

Second, I am reminded of the advice I have heard about freelancing: never work for free. I’ve never made any real money freelance writing (though one of my goals in the next few years is to try to make as much money freelancing as I used to make teaching in the summer; we’ll see what happens). But one of the main pieces of advice I’ve read/heard from freelancers is you should not ever agree to work for free. Here’s a long piece about by Yasmin Nair from a few years ago, pointing out that some big organizations (like HuffPo) only pay (at least some) of their freelancers with “exposure.” Maybe that’s useful if you’re just starting out or if you have a message you want to get out to the world; but otherwise, it’s not worth it. And it’s especially not worth writing for free for entities/publications that make money in part by not paying for content.

Now, I think this is easier said than done in a couple of different ways. For one thing and as I already mentioned, academics do a lot of work not necessarily “for free” but for little or no compensation. If we stopped doing not directly (or poorly) compensated work like writing articles, writing books, giving conference presentations, reviewing for journals, editing journals with minimal resources, reviewing tenure cases, sitting on dissertation committees, and so forth– the wheels of the academic machine would grind to a halt.

For another thing, what am I doing right now? I’m not getting paid for this. It’s worth it to me because I write in this space to get stuff out of my head and (potentially) out to interested readers, and there have been many things I have been able to do– some of which even paid me!– as a result of the writing I do here. The same goes for the book I’m working on right now: I’m never going to make any real money from it– at least not directly. But besides personal satisfaction and another item to put into my (already full) tenure and promotion basket, maybe this work will lead to some other opportunities, some of which might actually translate to compensation or even money.

So I’m not saying that there are no reasons to work “for free” in academia, and the line between working for free and not is a lot more fuzzy than whether or not a check is in the mail for that work. Nor am I suggesting that this ham-fisted proposal for 0% adjuncts ought to be read as just “normal business” because it is clearly not that. But I am saying that the conditions and practices of academics doing work for free (or at least not for money) was not invented by this odd email.

What’s even more sad is I am quite sure that there are SIUC alumni with terminal degrees who are so desperate to do something– anything!– to find some way into an academic position, and that includes signing up to be a 0% adjunct.

Miscellaneous End of School Year Blog Post

I haven’t been writing here much lately (obviously). A lot of it has been I’ve been busy. A lot of it has been because I’ve had nothing I wanted to say– at least not here. A lot of it has been intensity of the school year.

The year started before the fall semester with me meditating over the realization (as the result of a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for ten years) that I’m both getting old and I’m in all likelihood “stuck” at EMU. Also before fall got going, my former department head cancelled a graduate class in the writing program I was coordinating without bothering to tell me. Then this same department head took a different administrative position at EMU, further kicking up the mess of naming an interim department head, someone who is doing a decent enough job but who might also be “interim” for years and years. The faculty union and EMU administration continue to be embattled over various arguments, and, without going too deep into the weeds, I ended up to once again spending too much time trying to argue for courses counting as four credits rather than three, and increasingly, this all feels like it’s all going to shake out in a year or two so that we’re more or less still teaching a 3-3 schedule, which means that all of the arguing about this for the last two or three years will have just been a giant waste of time. My colleague and friend, Derek Mueller, is taking a new job at Virginia Tech, a career move that probably makes sense for him, but a move that will certainly leave a hole for those of us who remain, a hole that will probably take years to fill. More or less out of nowhere, the EMU administration announced in January budget cuts and staff layoffs, including of one of my department’s secretaries, a woman who had been at EMU for around 20 years. The administration also cut a few sports to save money, though there is some debate as to whether or not those savings will be realized, and, of course, the big sports remain untouched. Meanwhile, EMU hired a couple more assistant football coaches, presumably entry-level sports coaching positions that pay more than I make after 20 years and after a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for the last decade. Oh, and EMU also sold its parking rights to a company with weird agreements in a variety of states, and the money that EMU has earned from this deal (I guess around $50 million?) is likely to be used in large part as collateral to borrow even more money to build sports facilities. I wasn’t teaching in the fall (more on that in a second) and I began the winter term of teaching more ill-prepared than I have been since I came to EMU, and it was unnerving to say the least. The department politics of the semester more or less concluded in another last crazy meeting of the school year, and my school year concluded without any summer teaching– a class I was scheduled to teach (which I am certain would have run) was cancelled before it could be offered.

So it’s been bad, one of the worse school years of my career, the hardest I can recall since my first year on the tenure-track way back when. On the other hand:

I was on a Faculty Research Fellowship in the fall, an award from EMU that bought me out of teaching. While I used (donated?) too much of my time back to EMU to do the quasi-administrative work of being program coordinator, I did “finish” a draft of a book manuscript about MOOCs (another reason I haven’t been writing as much here in the last year). The reviews came back earlier than expected, and while they did not recommend immediate publication without any changes (I assume that never happens), they did recommend publishing and they made constructive suggestions for the revisions I’m working on right now. Liz Losh’s edited collection on MOOCs came out in fall and I have a chapter in it. I quickly wrote and published a little commentary piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To),” which even includes a staged photo of me “teaching” “online” while wearing my bathrobe. The only downside to that piece is IHE has still not paid me, nor have they ever specified how much they’re going to pay me. Hmm. Despite a chaotic start, my teaching turned out well enough, I think. I tried to pull off an experiment of a collaborative writing assignment in the online version of Writing for the Web that ultimately (I think, at least) turned out to be not entirely successful but kind of interesting. Among other things, it resulted in this collection of readings and annotations from my students about social media. It is rough rough work, but I did learn a lot about what to do (or not do) the next time I try an assignment like this, and there is a lot here that will be useful for teaching next year. And as an important tangent: one of the things that’s really nice about being an increasingly old fart a senior and seasoned professor is I can try assignments like this and not really have to worry about what the student evaluations might mean to someone or my Rate My Professor ratings or whatever. I can get away with making things “break,” I can be a lot more honest with students now than when I started, and I also know better how to fix things when they break. So I have that going for me.

And just like that, I’m officially done with EMU things until late August (though of course I’m not really done). I would prefer to be teaching starting in May because, well, money. But I have to admit I do like the free time.

The first job (really, the only job) for the next month or so is to finish the revisions on the MOOC book, though I should probably say “finish.” I was talking with my father a couple weekends ago about nothing in particular and I mentioned I needed to finish my book, and he said “didn’t you say you finished that back in December?” I realized that yes, I had finished a draft, but now there is “finished” the revisions, and there will almost certainly be another stage of “finished” after the reviews on the revisions come back that will involve copyediting and Chicago Style (shudder) and indexing and…. Anyway, it really won’t be finished finished until it comes out in print, and that could be a while.

But once that gets off my desk, then I want to turn to other things. I had been saying for a long time that this MOOC book is the last scholarly bit of writing that I might ever do because I want to try to pivot to writing more “popular” things that people might actually read (commentaries on stuff I know about but for the mainstream press, maybe something pitched to a more popular audience, maybe something like the work Steven Johnson has done for years) and/or fiction (which I am under no illusions will find much of an audience) and/or more blogging. Derek and I were just talking about this the other day, that maybe it’s time to go back. Maybe blogging again– as opposed to just posting stuff on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other platform– is like the internet version of a new interest in vinyl.

Some things I haven’t heard reported (yet) about arming teachers and professors

Of course arming teachers is a terrible idea. This is mainly a crazy plan focused on K-12 schools, but there have been shootings on university campuses and talk of arming faculty-types too. So here are a few random thoughts I haven’t seen reported/discussed elsewhere yet I thought I’d share:

  • Here I thought being an academic was the least stressful job there is precisely because they didn’t have the life and death stresses of people who really do need to carry a weapon for their work, jobs like cops and soldiers. Oh, and as if there weren’t enough other reasons why young people are deciding that going into K-12 teaching is a bad idea.
  • There were a few stories after the Parkland shooting of teachers and other “grown ups” fleeing the scene ahead of students, and these stories had a bit of a whiff of “look at those cowards.” I have no idea what I would do in a shooter situation and I hope to never find out, but I have a lot of sympathy for those fleeing teachers. I love and care for my students, but not so much that I’m willing to “take a bullet” for them.
  • It is easy to imagine the headlines in a world with armed teachers. “Professor/Teacher Accidentally shots self (or co-worker or student).” “Armed Teacher Surprised and Attacked by Angry Student; 10 killed.” “Angry Professor Snaps, Shoots Administrator.” And so forth.
  • And the lawsuits, my God, the lawsuits! Suppose a legally armed teacher– one who is encouraged or even required to carry a concealed weapon by her school or university– were to accidentally shoot an innocent student. Suppose an armed teacher or professor fails in protecting bystanders from a shooting, either because he tried to use their gun and missed or shot a student, or because he just ran for cover like a sane person would. Who is suing who?
  • Is this all some sort of long-con plan by the educational technology industry, maybe with some help from some social media start-ups? I mean, one “solution” to the dangers that exist at schools and universities from guns and other violence is online courses, and when everything is online, why do we need those pesky teachers and professors? Does Academic Partnerships have any connection with the NRA?
  •  I don’t think Trump’s “plan” (which I guess he says wasn’t really his plan either) to train teachers to shoot would-be attackers is going anywhere. While the energy and passion we’re seeing in the media from high school students speaking up for sensible gun control laws gives me some optimism, I don’t think that’s going anywhere either– at least not until it’s time to vote, and we all have a way of forgetting these shootings that only make the news when they get into double-digits.
  • But if faculty were encouraged or required to be armed and if there was an increased expectation that the work of educators includes the kinds of duties assigned to cops or soldiers, then I’m out. I’m all for making the university a “safe space,” but I am not willing to risk my life to do that.

So, how hard do I actually work?

The answer for anyone in a”tl; dr” mood: when I was in my PhD program, I probably worked 60 or 70 or more hours a week, which is why I was able to finish my doctorate in three years. When I was tenure-seeking and then associate, I probably worked more like 50 hours a week and a lot in the summer. Now that I am full and fuller/uber, it’s more like 40 hours a week (with a lot of multitasking and a lot of work at home) and a lot more time off in the summer.

Here’s the more complicated version prompted by a recent article in The Atlantic, “How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?”

Continue reading “So, how hard do I actually work?”