2019 was quite the year around here

I wasn’t going to do the usual “end of the year” blog post this year (kind of clichéd, isn’t it?), plus with Trump and impeachment and guns and climate change and global crisis and with the whole world feeling like it’s on fucking fire most of the time, it doesn’t exactly feel like a time to be celebrating anything– despite the admittedly good points in the big picture of things Nicholas Kristof makes in this column.

But as I was looking over my Instagram account, I was reminded that A LOT of stuff happened for me and the family this year, and most of it was good.

So, more or less in order:

After some of the typical January/February events (our annual Mardi Gras party, for example), Annette and I took our first of what would turn out to be three (well, two and a half) trips to New York and, among other things, I managed to order a cocktail brought to me on fire.

I went to the CCCCs in Pittsburgh in March— probably the most unpleasant version of that conference I’ve ever attended, frankly. My 8 am Friday morning panel– which included the completely pleasant and always interesting Alex Reid— had a total of three people at it: myself, Alex, and an audience of one, though it happened to be the also pleasant and interesting John Gallagher. So we chatted for a while, Alex and I went off to have breakfast together, and after a bit of wondering around the halls, I actually went back to my room, packed my things, and left a night early. I’m going to the CCCCs in Milwaukee this year; I’m definitely not going to the CCCCs in Spokane in 2021; and we’ll see what happens after that.

Probably the biggest bit of family news of the year– at least the first part of the biggest news– is Will graduated from the University of Michigan and various graduation hijinks were had with both sets of grandparents. Originally, Will wanted to just do the small group graduation event for his major, and that was nice in and of itself:

 

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Probably my favorite graduation weekend moment: “oh! William Krau-Z!”

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But in the end we went to the “Big House” commencement too, and I’m glad we did.

 

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Oh yeah, then we went to freakin’ China, which I blogged about here. Amazing trip, got a chance to cross some stuff off of my list, and it introduced us to Gate 1 for travel stuff.

After a summer that included many of the usual things (a Krause family get-together in a weirdo house in Wisconsin on the Minnesota border, a quick anniversary trip to Traverse City, front-yard gardening, a little golf, no more summer teaching, etc.), we packed Will up and moved him out to New Haven, Connecticut, which brings me to the second part of the biggest family news of the year: Will began a PhD program at Yale in a version of biology I don’t really understand. Needless to say, we’re incredibly proud of him. We went out to visit him in October– this was the first part of the “half” trip to New York because we flew into LaGuardia and then rented a car to drive to New Haven– and got a chance to tour around campus and the town a bit. My personal favorite highlight was the Cushing Center (aka the brain room).

But I’m getting ahead of myself: after we got Will all moved in, Annette and I went to Sweden, Norway, and Amsterdam (aka continent #2 of the year). I’m not quite sure why I didn’t blog about that trip, but the very short version: Annette had a conference in Stockholm to go to plus Annette and I both were on research fellowships this past fall, which meant neither of us had to spend time in August preparing to teach and our schedules were a lot more flexible, so we decided to make it a longer trip. After Stockholm (I had some solo tourist time there while Annette conferenced), we took a cruise along the Norway coast basically because I had heard or read someplace a long time ago that a cruise is one of the best ways to see it all. And then, because we could, we spent a week in Amsterdam in a lovely apartment at the top of the steepest stairs I have ever seen. We hung out in the apartment and read and wrote, went to lots of art museums, wandered around the groovy streets, ate good food, etc. Here’s a bunch of pictures.

Meanwhile and/or around the same time as all this, we both worked on our research projects (I’ve blogged about mine a fair amount over the year) and I also had the time to review proofs and such for More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs. I guess that too is an event from 2019 because that’s the copyright date and all, but I basically finished my work on the book back in 2018 and it’s not going to be for sale until 2020 (next week, I think), so it kind of doesn’t feel like 2019 to me. Still, my first and only single-authored book; like I said, a lot of stuff happened around here this year.

And then, after a typical Krause family combined Thanksgiving-Christmas and before a typical Wannamaker family holiday that included a visit to the beach on Christmas day, Annette and I went to Morocco (continent #3 for the year), with a stop before and after in New York. I just blogged about that a couple of weeks ago.

Inevitably, there will be less on 2020– I’m guessing fewer continents. And hopefully less Trump come November or before.

Morocco (and NYC), December 2019

“Why (and how did you) go to Morocco in December?” Well, when Annette and I found out we were getting research releases for the fall term, we knew we wanted to take a trip someplace in early December because that tends to be an inexpensive time to travel. A friend of ours had gone on a tour to Morocco and said good things, and then we found a tour through Gate 1 (the “how”) with a great price and that fit our schedule. Plus going to Morocco would mean that (counting home) we would have been to four continents this year. So off we went.

A slight tangent: while we went when we did because we didn’t have any teaching or things to worry about, I do think we could have gotten away with this trip during a regular semester if we didn’t keep blabbing about it on social media. This trip would have taken some planning while teaching, but we had regular and robust wifi and we both easily handled minor work email and similar work things. So maybe next year….

Here’s a link to a while bunch of pictures; here are some thoughts and memories:

  • Once again, Gate 1 was great. Here’s a link to the trip we took to Morocco. Once again, it was a very diverse group in terms of age (but no kids on this trip), race, careers, etc., etc., though this group wasn’t as “tightly knit” as the group for our trip to China. I think that’s because it was a big group– 41 people– and also because this tour didn’t include as many group meals and activities. But again, a great deal. It’s not luxury travel, but the hotels we stayed at were solid (sort of the equivalent of Hampton Inn kinds of places), the optional things (we signed up for all of them) were all great and worth it, and the tour manager and guides were excellent– especially the tour manager and the local guide in Fes.
  • We went to Rabat (the capital of the country), Fes, Marrakesh, and Casablanca. Rabat had some cool stuff, but the heart of the tour was Fes and Marrakesh (Casablanca is mostly a business center with an international airport). The tour was technically eight days but the first and last days were flying, so really six days, plus one of those days was mostly a bus ride between Fes and Marrakesh (not ideal, but it was kind of an interesting way to see the countryside).
  • I was expecting more desert and camels and stuff like that, but that’s a different tour. This was more the central and Atlantic coastal region of the country, and the geography felt to me a lot like rural places in Northern California/Southern Oregon or Italy. Marrakesh is on the north side of part of the Atlas Mountains range (snow-capped peaks in the distance, and apparently ski resorts opened for a few months in the winter), and on the other side of the mountains is the Sahara. That’s where we would probably have ridden a camel. There’s a region in the southwest on the coast (we heard about because our guide lived there) that’s popular with Europeans in the winter, and there’s a northern region with Tangier and right across the straits to Gibraltar. But again, different trips.
  • Oh, and Morocco is a much more touristy place than China, especially Marrakesh. Heck, we even went to a casino there! It was easy to find people who spoke English, and almost everyone speaks French as well as Arabic. If we went on vacation in Spain, I’d want to include a trip to Gibraltar, Tangier, and probably the “blue city” of Chefcaouen, and depending on the options, I’d be comfortable doing those arrangements without a tour company. In contrast, there’s no way I’d go back to China without a company or some other kind of local “fixer.”
  • I don’t know if I’d call Morocco “second world” or “developing world” or what, but it’s a study in contrasts for sure. It’s a Muslim country, but it’s also an extremely moderate and tolerant country, and it had a large Jewish population at one point. Morocco didn’t give anyone up to the Nazis in World War II, though after the war, most Moroccan Jews migrated to the new state of Israel. It’s a post-colonial country that seems to maintain good relations with its colonizers. There were lots of French and Spanish influences in the food and language, not to mention a lot of French and Spanish people. It’s a “constitutional monarchy,” but I got the impression that the king of Morocco is a lot more involved in the day-to-day running of the government than say the Queen of England. It’s a country with lots of the same modern features of countries in Europe (and, unlike China, the Internet wasn’t blocked or slow), but also one where a lot of the people still live simple lives. On our drive from Fes to Marrakesh, we went by lots of big and presumably corporate farms, and we also saw lots of shepherds tending to small flocks (inevitably while on their cell phone) and farmers planting fields by tossing seeds from a bag. There was a large shopping mall near our hotel in Fes, and we went in there a couple of times to look around and to buy hotel room snacks and wine– oh, and while Morocco is an Islamic country, it does grow grapes for wine, most of the restaurants we went to served beer and wine, the hotels we stayed in had bars, and there was a liquor store in this mall. Anyway, it was a big and modern and busy shopping mall, but at least twice, I saw locals getting on the escalator in front of me in a way that suggested that this person did not go on escalators often– for all I know, ever. I mean, I don’t want to get all clichéd and suggest “the highs and lows,” “the best of times, the worst of times,” and all that, but there were a lot of things I expected and didn’t.
  • Two things I learned about Islamic (or at least Arab/North African) culture I didn’t know before. First, we saw several “blind houses,” which means they look like pretty much nothing at all on the outside (they usually have no or only a few small windows) but are quite lavishly tiled on the inside, usually with a big courtyard in the middle. This was certainly the case with the “fancy meal” we had in Marrakech at place called Lotus Privilege. Our tour guides lead the group down what looked like an alley perfect for getting mugged and we entered into an opulent courtyard with a pool and lemon trees. Second (and I guess I should have known this before), you don’t wear shoes in a Mosque, which kind of explains to me why slippers are extremely popular footwear.
  • On the last day, our guide/tour manager asked the group “what was your favorite part,” and pretty much everyone said Fes. The sites and sounds and smells of the Medina were intense, navigating down “streets” not much wider than a hallway with guys leading loaded down mules going the other direction. In the food market, the way you bought chicken was you picked out one of the live ones in the crate in the back and the guy killed and dressed it for you. And then there was the Chouara Tannery, which has been in operation for about 1,000 years, the process still about the same. The smell of the vats of pigeon shit they used to treat the leather, that was intense.
  • And then there was the haggling for stuff. I don’t particularly enjoy this kind of shopping, but I kind of got into it by the end of the trip and I did have a pretty memorable moment in a shop on the last night in Casablanca. I was looking over a box for sale for 450 Dirhams, which is about $45. I knew that was too much, so I said “200.” The sales guy fakes outrage, and says “for you my friend, 350.” “Hmm, that’s still too much,” I said, “How about 325?” “Okay, 300!” And all the other sales guys in the shop looking on to this crack up laughing. “Wait, wait! He said 300!” But I ended up giving him 325– no point in cheating the dude out of $2.50.
  • Oh, and New York: we went a day early to go see Moulin Rouge The Musical, which was great and as a bonus, Hillary Clinton was in the crowd. On the way back, our flight from Morocco got into JFK too late to get a flight home, so we decided to splurge a little bit and got a room at the TWA HotelThat was a hoot.

Still more on the “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit (or not)” project, in which I go down the tangent of note-taking

I spent most of my Thanksgiving break  back in Iowa, and along the way, I chatted with my side of the family about my faculty research fellowship project, “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” aka “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” It’s always interesting talking to my non-academic family-types about academic things like this.

“So, you’re on sabbatical right now?” Not exactly. I’m not teaching so I can spend more time on research, but I’m still expected to go to meetings and things like that. Though honestly, I’ve skipped some of that stuff too, and it’s generally okay.

“Is there some kind of expectation for what you are supposed to be researching? What happens if you don’t do it?” Well, it is a competitive process for getting these fellowships in the first place, and there’s of course an expectation that I’ll do what I proposed. And I have done that, more or less, and I will have to write a report about that soon. But the implications (consequences?) of not doing all of what I originally proposed are vague at best.

“So, you’re not really working right now?” No no no, that’s not true. I’m working quite a bit, actually. But I’m doing this work because I want to, though I’m doing this work mostly at home and often in pajamas and I have an extremely flexible schedule right now (which is why we’re going to Morocco in a few days, but that’s another story for later), so I can understand why you might ask that.

“Being a professor is kind of a weird job, isn’t it?” Yes, yes it is.

Anyway, since I last blogged about this project back in September, I’ve been a bit distracted by department politics (don’t ask) and by prepping for teaching in the Winter term, which for me involves some new twists on old courses and also a completely new prep. But the research continues.

Back in October, I put together and conducted a survey for students and faculty about their attitudes/beliefs on the use of laptops and cell phones in classes. Taking the advice I often give my grad students in situations like this, I did not reinvent the wheel and instead based this survey on similar work by Elena Neiterman and Christine Zaza who are both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and who both (I think) work in that school’s Public Health program. They published two articles right up my alley for this project: “A Mixed Blessing? Students’ and Instructors’ Perspectives about Off-Task Technology Use in the Academic Classroom” and “Does Size Matter? Instructors’ and Students’ Perceptions of Students’ Use of Technology in the Classroom.” I emailed to ask if they would be willing to share their survey questions and they generously agreed, so thanks again!

I’ll be sorting through and presenting about the results of this at the CCCCs this year and hopefully in an article (or articles) eventually. But basically, I asked for participants on social media, the WPA-L mailing list (had to briefly rejoin that!), and at EMU. I ended up with 168 respondents, 57% students and 43% instructors, most of whom aren’t at EMU. The results are in the ballpark/consistent with Neiterman and Zaza (based just on percentages– I have no idea if there’s a way to legitimately claim any kind of statistically significant comparison), though I think it’s fair to say both students and instructors in my survey are more tolerant and even embracing of laptops and cellphones in the classroom. I think that’s both because these are all smaller classes (Neiterman and Zaza found that size does indeed matter and devices are more accepted in smaller classes), and also because they’re writing classes. Besides the fact that writing classes tend to be activity-heavy and lecture-light (and laptops and cell phones are important tools for writing), I think our field is a lot more accepting of these technologies and frankly a lot more progressive in its pedagogy: not “sage on the stage” but “guide on the side,” the student-centered classroom, that sort of thing. I also was able to recruit a lot of potential interviewee subjects from this survey, though I think I’m going to hold off on putting together that part of the project for the new year.

And I’ve been thinking again about note-taking, though not so much as it relates to technology. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are two basic reasons in the scholarship for banning or limiting the use of devices– particularly laptops– in college classrooms, particularly lecture halls. One reason is about the problems of distraction and multitasking, and I do think there is some legitimacy to that. The other reason (as discussed in the widely cited Mueller and Oppenheimer study) is that it’s better to take notes by longhand than by a laptop.  I think that’s complete bullshit, so I kind of set that aside.

But now I’m starting rethink/reconsider the significance of note-taking again because of the presidential impeachment hearings. Those hearings were a series of poised, intelligent, and dedicated diplomats and career federal professionals explaining how Trump essentially tried to blackmail the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden. One of the key things that made these people so credible was their continued reference to taking detailed notes where they witnessed this impeachable behavior. In contrast, EU ambassador Gordon “The Problem” Sondland seemed oddly proud that he’s never been a note-taker. As a result, a lot of Sondland’s testimony included him saying stuff like “I don’t remember the details because I don’t take notes, but if it was in that person’s notes, I have no reason to doubt it.” I thought this detail (and other things about his testimony) made Sondland look simultaneously like an extremely credible witness to events and also like a complete boob.

Anyway, this made me wonder: exactly is the definition of “good note-taking?” How do we know someone takes good (or bad) notes, and what’s the protocol for teaching/training people to take good notes?

The taking notes by hand versus on a laptop claim is shaky and (IMO) quite effectively refuted by the Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson study, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).” But while that study does poke at the concept of note-taking a bit (for example, they have one group of participants not take notes at all and just closely pay attention to the TED talk lecture), everything else I’ve read seems to just take note-taking as a given. There’s broad consensus in the psych/education scholarship that taking notes is an effective way to recall information later on, be it for a test or testimony before Congress, and there also seems to be consensus that trying to write everything down is a bad note-taking strategy. But I have yet to read anything about a method or criteria for evaluating the quality of notes, nor have I read anything about a pedagogy or a protocol for teaching people how to take good notes.

I find that odd. I mean, if the basic claim that Mueller and Oppenheimer (and similar studies) are trying to make is that students take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, and if the basic claim that Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson (and similar studies) are tying to make is students don’t take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, shouldn’t there be at least some minimal definition of “better notes?” Without that definition, can we really say that study participants who scored higher on the test measuring success did so because they took “better notes” rather than some other factor (e.g., they were smarter, they paid better attention, they had more knowledge about the subject of the lecture before the test, etc., etc.)?

I posted about this on Facebook and tagged a few friends I have who work for the federal government, asking if there was any particular official protocol or procedure for taking notes; the answers I got back were kind of vague. On the way back home at one point, Annette and I got to talking about how we were taught to take notes. I don’t remember any sort of instruction in school, though Annette said she remembered a teacher who actually collected and I guess graded student notes. There are of course some resources out there– here’s what looks like a helpful collection of links and ideas from the blog Cult of Pedagogy— but most of these strategies seem more geared for a tutoring or learning center setting. Plus a pedagogy for teaching note taking strategies is not the same thing as research, and it certainly is not the same thing as a method for measuring the effectiveness of notes.

But clearly, I digress.

So my plan for what’s next is to do even more reading (I’m working my way back through the works cited of a couple of the key articles I’ve been working with so far), some sifting through/writing about the results, and eventually some interviews, probably via email. And maybe I’ll take up as a related project more on this question of note-taking methods. But first, there’s Morocco and next semester.

It’s been an interesting research fellowship semester for me. I’ve been quite fortunate in that in the last five years I’ve had two research fellowships and a one semester sabbatical. Those previous releases from teaching involved the specific project of my book about MOOCs, More Than A Moment (on sale now!), and thus had very specific goals/outcomes. My sabbatical was mostly about conducting interviews and securing a book contract; my last FRF was all about finishing the book.

In contrast, this project/semester was much less guided, a lot more “wondering” (I think blog posts like this one demonstrate that). It’s been a surprisingly useful time for me as a scholar, especially at a time in my career and following the intensity of getting the MOOC book done where I was feeling pretty “done” with scholarship. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to EMU for the opportunity, and I hope these keep funding these fellowships, too.

 

Learning how to write is like learning how to roast a chicken. And vice-versa

I tried a new way to roast a chicken the other night, closely resembling this “Herbed Faux-tisserie Chicken and Potatoes” recipe from Bon Appétit. I’ve roasted a chicken with one recipe or another hundreds of times, but experimenting with a different recipe got me thinking about how learning to cook a simple meal suitable for sharing with others is like learning how to write. And vice-versa.

First, both are things that can be learned and/or taught. I think a lot of people– particularly people who don’t think they can cook or write– believe you either “have it” or you don’t. I’ve met lots of struggling students who have convinced themselves of this about writing, and I’ve also met a lot of creative writing types (from my MFA days long ago and into the present) who ought to know better but still believe this in a particularly naive way.

I believe everyone who manages to get themselves admitted to a college or university can learn from (the typically required) writing classes how to write better and also how to write well enough to express themselves to readers in college classes and beyond. I also believe that everyone with access to some basic tools– I’m thinking here of pots and pans, a rudimentary kitchen, pantry items, not to mention the food itself– can learn how to cook a meal they could serve to others.  Learning how to both write and cook might be more difficult for some people than others and the level of success different writers and cooks can reach will vary (and I’ll come back to this point), but that’s not the same thing as believing some  people “just can’t” cook or write.

Second, I think people who doubt their potential as cooks or writers make things more complicated than necessary, mainly because they just want to skip to the meal or completed essay. Trust the process, take your time, and go through the steps. If an inexperienced writer (and I’m thinking here of students in a class like first year writing) starts with something relatively simple and does the pre-writing, the research, the drafting, the peer review, all the stuff we do and talk about in contemporary writing classes, then they will be able to successfully complete that essay. If an inexperienced cook starts with something relatively simple– say roasting a chicken– and follows a well-written recipe and/or some of the many cooking tutorials on YouTube, then they will be able to roast that chicken.

Third, both writing and cooking take practice and self-reflection in order to improve. This seems logical enough since this is how we improve at almost anything– sports or dancing or painting or writing or cooking. But one of the longstanding challenges in writing pedagogy is “transference,” which is the idea that what a student learns in a first year writing class helps that student in other writing classes and situations.  Long and complex story short, the research suggests  this doesn’t work as well as you might think, possibly because students too often treat their required composition course as just another hoop, and possibly because teachers have to do more to make all this visible to students. Whether or not it gets taken up by students or conveyed by teachers, the goal of any college course (writing and otherwise) is to get better at something.

In my experience, the way this works with food is when you’re first trying to learn how to roast a chicken, you do it for yourself (or close family and/or roommates who basically have the choice to eat what you cook or to not eat anything at all), and you make note of what you would do differently the next time you try to roast that chicken. Next time, I’ll cook it longer or shorter or with more salt or to a different temperature or whatever. A lot of my recipes have notes I’ve added for next time. Then the next time, you make different adjustments; repeat, make different adjustments; and before you know it, you can roast a chicken confidently enough to invite over guests for a dinner party.  Also, the trial and error approach to following a recipe for chicken helps informs other recipes and foods so you can serve those guests some mashed potatoes and green beans with that chicken, maybe even a little gravy.

Both writing and cooking involve skills and practices which build on each other and that then allow you to both improve on those basic skills and also to develop more advanced skills and practices. It was not easy for me to truss a chicken the first time I did it; now it’s no big deal. Writing a good short summary of a piece of an article and incorporating that into a short critique is very hard for a lot of first year writing students. But keep practicing it becomes second nature. I routinely have students in my first year writing class who gasp when I tell them the first essay assignment should be around five pages because they never wrote anything that long in high school. By the end of the semester, it’s no big deal.

Finally, there are limits to teaching and not everyone can succeed at becoming a “great” writer or cook. Never say never of course, but I do not think there is much chance my cooking or recipes will ever be compared to the likes of Julia Childs or Thomas Keller, nor do I think my writing is going to be assigned reading for generations to come. I don’t like words like “gifted” or “genius” because people aren’t better at things because of something magical. But for the top 1% of writers/cooks/athletes/actors/etc., there is something. At the same time, it’s also extremely clear that the top 1% of writers/cooks/whatever get to that level through hard work and obsession. It’s a feedback loop.

So for example: it’d be silly to describe myself as a “gifted” writer, but I am good at it and I have always had a knack for it.  I’ve been praised for my writing since I was in grade school (though I did fail handwriting, but that’s another story) and it isn’t surprising to me that I’ve ended up in this profession and I’m still writing. That praise and reward motivates me to continue to like writing and to work to improve at it. I spend a lot of time revising and changing and obsessing and otherwise fiddling around with things I write (I have revised this post about a dozen or more times since I started it a week ago).

In any event, even if I have some kind of “gift,” it ends up being just one part of a chicken vs. egg argument. Being praised for being a good writer motivates me to write more; writing more improves my writing and earns me praise as I get better. A knack alone is not enough for anything, including writing or cooking.

Oh, and for what it’s worth: I thought that recipe was just okay. I liked the idea of the rotisserie-like spice rub and I can see doing that again, maybe putting it on a few hours or the day before. But cooking at 300 degrees (instead of starting it at say 425 and then dropping it back to 350 after about 20 minutes) meant not a while lot of browning and kind of rubbery skin.

A post about an admittedly not thought out idea: very low-bar access

The other day, I came across this post on Twitter from Derek Krissoff, who is the director of the West Virginia University Press:

I replied to Derek’s Tweet “Really good point and reminds me of a blog post I’ve been pondering for a long time on not ‘Open Access’ but something like ‘Very Low Bar Access,'” and he replied to my reply “Thanks, and I’d love to see a post along those lines. It’s always seemed to me access is best approached as a continuum instead of a binary.” (By the way, click on that embedded Twitter link and you’ll see there are lots of interesting replies to his post).

So, that’s why I’m writing this now.

Let me say three things at the outset: first, while I think I have some expertise and experience in this area, I’m not a scholar studying copyright or Open Educational Resources” (OER) or similar things. Second, this should in no way be interpreted as me saying bad things about Parlor Press or Utah State University Press. Both publishers have been delightful to work with and I’d recommend them to any academic looking for a home for a manuscript– albeit different kinds of homes. And third, my basic idea here is so simple it perhaps already exists in academic publishing and I just don’t know better, and I know this exists outside of academia with the many different self-publishing options out there.

Here’s my simple idea: instead of making OER/open-sourced publications completely free and open to anyone (or any ‘bot) with an internet connection, why not publish materials for a low cost, say somewhere between $3 and $5?

The goal is not to come up with a way for writers and publishers to “make money” exactly, though I am not against people being paid for their work nor am I against publishers and other entities being compensated for the costs of distributing “free” books. Rather, the idea is to make access easy for likely interested readers while maintaining a modest amount of control as to how a text travels and is repurposed on the internet.

I’ve been kicking this idea around ever since the book I co-edited Invasion of the MOOCs was published in 2014.  My co-editor (Charlie Lowe) and I wanted to simultaneously publish the collection in traditional print and as a free PDF, both because we believed (still do, I think) in the principles of open access academic publishing and because we frankly thought it would sell books. We also knew the force behind Parlor Press, David Blakesley (this Amazon author page has the most extensive bio, so that’s why I’m linking to that), was committed to the concept of OER and alternatives to “traditional” publishing– which is one of the reasons he started Parlor Press in the first place.

It’s also important to recognize that Invasion of the MOOCs was a quasi-DYI project. Among other things, I (along with the co-authors) managed most of the editing work of the book, and Charlie managed most of the production aspects of the book, paying a modest price for the cover art and doing the typesetting and indexing himself thanks to his knowledge of Adobe’s InDesign. In other words, the up-front costs of producing this book from Parlor Press’ point of view were small, so there was little to lose in making it available for free.

Besides being about a timely topic when it came out, I think distributing it free electronically helped sell the print version of the book. I don’t know exactly how many copies it has sold, but I know it has ended up in libraries all over the world. I’m pretty sure a lot (if not most) of the people/libraries who went ahead and bought the print book did so after checking out the free PDF. So giving away the book did help, well, sell books.

But in hindsight, I think there were two problems with the “completely free” download approach. First, when a publisher/writer puts something like a PDF up on the web for any person or any web crawling ‘bot to download, they get a skewed perspective on readership. Like I said, Invasion of the MOOCs has been downloaded thousands of times– which is great, since I can now say I edited a book that’s been downloaded thousands of times (aren’t you impressed?) But the vast majority of those downloads just sat on a user’s hard drive and then ended up in the (electronic) trash after never being read at all. (Full disclosure: I have done this many times). I don’t know if this is irony or what, but it’s worth pointing out this is exactly what happened with MOOCs: tens of thousands of would-be students signed up and then never once returned to the course.

Second and more important, putting the PDF up there as a free download means the publisher/writer loses control over how the text is redistributed. I still have a “Google alert” that sends me an email whenever it comes across a new reference to Invasion of the MOOCs on the web, and most of the alerts I have gotten over the years are harmless enough. The book gets redistributed by other OER sites, linked to on bookmarking sites like Pinterest, and embedded into SlideShare slide shows.

But sometimes the re-publishing/redistribution goes beyond the harmless and odd. I’ve gotten Google alerts to the book linked to/embedded in web sites like this page from Ebook Unlimited, which (as far as I can tell) is a very sketchy site where you can sigh up for a “free trial” to their book service.  In the last couple years, most of the Google alert notices I’ve received are links to broken links,  paper mill sites, “congratulations you won” pop-up/virus sites,  and similarly weirdo sites decidedly not about the book I edited or anything about MOOCs (despite what the Google alert says).

In contrast, the book I have coming out very soon called More Than A Moment, is being published by Utah State University Press and will not be available for a free download– at least not for a while.  On the positive side of things, working with USUP (which is an imprint of University Press of Colorado) means this book has had a more thorough (and traditional) editorial review, and the copyediting, indexing, and typesetting/jacket design have all been done by professionals. On the downside, a lack of a free to download version will mean this book will probably end up having fewer readers (thus less reach and fewer sales), and, as is the case with most academic books, I’ve had to pay for some of the production costs with grant money from EMU and/or out of my own pocket.

These two choices put writers/publishers in academia in a no-win situation. Open access publishing is a great idea, but besides the fact that nothing is “free” in the sense of having no financial costs associated with it (even maintaining a web site for distributing open access texts costs some money), it becomes problematic when a free text is repurposed by a bad actor to sell a bad service or to get users to click on a bad link. Traditional print publishing costs money and necessarily means fewer potential readers. At the same time, the money spent on publishing these more traditional print publications does show up in a “better” product, and it does offer a bit more reasonable control of the book. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I do not expect to see a Google alert for the More than a Moment MOOC book lead me to a web site where clicking on the link will sign me up for some service I don’t want or download a virus.

So this is where I think “very low-bar access” publishing could split the difference between the “completely free and online” and the “completely not free and in print” options in academic publishing. Let’s say publishers charged as small of a fee as possible for downloading a PDF of the book. I don’t know exactly how much, but to pay the costs for running a web site capable of selling PDFs in the first place and for the publisher/writer to make at least a little bit of money for their labor, I’d guess around $3 to $5.

The disadvantage of this is (obviously) any amount of money charged is going to be more than “free,” and it is also going to require a would-be reader to pass through an additional step to pay before downloading the text. That’s going to cut down on downloads A LOT. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that if someone bothers to fill out the necessary online form and plunks down $5, there’s a pretty good chance that person is going to at least take a look at it. And honestly, 25-100 readers/book skimmers is worth more to me than 5,000 people who just download the PDF. It’s especially worth it if this low-bar access proves to be too much for the dubious redirect sites, virus makers, and paper mill sites.

I suppose another disadvantage of this model is if someone can download a PDF version of an academic book for $5 to avoid spending $20-30 (or, in some cases, a lot more than that) for the paper version, then that means the publisher will sell less paper books. That is entirely possible. The opposite is also possible though: the reader spends $5 on the PDF, finds the book useful/interesting, and then that reader opts to buy the print book. I do this often enough, especially with texts I want/need for teaching and scholarship.

So, there you have it, very low-bar access. It’s an idea– maybe not a particularly original one, maybe even not a viable one. But it’s an idea.

More on the “Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit (or not)” Project Before Corridors

This post is both notes on my research so far (for myself and anyone else who cares), and also a “teaser” for Corridors: the 2019 Great Lakes Writing and Rhetoric Conference.  I’m looking forward to this year’s event for a couple of different reasons, including the fact that I’ve never been on campus at Oakland University.

Here’s a link to my slides— nothing fancy.

Anyway: as I wrote about back in June, I am on leave right now to get started on a brand-new research project officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” but which is more informally known as the “Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit” project. I give a little more detail in that June post, but basically, I have been reading a variety of studies about the impact of devices– mostly laptops, but also cellphones– in classrooms (mostly lecture halls) and how they negatively impact students (mostly on tests). I’ve always thought these studies seemed kind of bullshitty, but I don’t know a lot of research in composition and rhetoric that refutes these arguments. So I wanted to read that scholarship and then try to do something to apply and replicate that scholarship in writing classrooms.

So far, I’ve mostly just been reading academic articles in psychology and education journals. It’s always challenging to step just a little outside my comfort zone and do some reading in a field that is not my own. If nothing else, it reminds me why it’s important to be empathetic with undergraduates who complain about reading academic articles: it’s hard to try figure out what’s going on in that Burkean parlor when pretty much all you can do is look through the window instead of being in the room. For me, that’s most evident in the descriptions of the statistics. I look at the explanations and squiggly lines of various formulas and just mutter “I’m gonna have to trust you on that.” And as a slight but important tangent: one of the reasons why we don’t do this kind of research in writing studies is because most people in the field feel the same about math and stats.

The other thing that has been quite striking for me is the assumptions in these articles on how the whole enterprise of higher education works. Almost all of these studies take it as a completely unproblematic given that education means a lecture hall with a professor delivering knowledge to students who are expected to (and who know how to) pay attention and who also are expected to (and who know how to) take notes on the content delivered by the lecturer. Success is measured by an end of the course (or end of the experiment) test. That’s that. In other words, most of this research assumes an approach to education that is more or less the opposite of what we assume in writing studies.

I have also figured out there are some important and subtle differences to the arguments about why laptops and cell phones ought to be banned (or at least limited) in classrooms. As I wrote back in June, the thing that perhaps motivated me the most to do this research is the argument that laptops ought to be banned from lecture halls because handwritten notes are “better.” This is the argument in the frequently cited Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”  I think this is complete bullshit. This is a version of the question that used to circulate in the computers and writing world, whether it was “better” for student to write by hand or to type, a question that’s been dismissed as irrelevant for a long time. But as someone who is so bad at writing things by hand, I personally resent the implication that people who have good handwriting are somehow “better.” Fortunately, I think Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson replication of that study, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014),” does an excellent job refuting this “handwriting is better” bullshit.

Then there’s the issue of “distraction” that results when students trying to do things right are disturbed/put off by other students fiddling around with their laptops or cellphones. This is the argument in Faria Sana, Tina Weston, Nicholas J. Cepeda “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” They outline a clever and complicated methodology that involved arranging students so a laptop was (or wasn’t) in their line of sight and also by having some of those students acting as “confederates” in the study by purposefully doing stuff that is distracting. One issue I have with this research is it is a little dated, having been published in 2013. Maybe it’s just me, but I think laptops in classes were a little more novel (and thus distracting) a few years ago than they are now. Regardless though, one of the concluding points these folks make is that laptops shouldn’t be banned because the benefits outweigh the problems.

There are a lot of studies focusing on the multitasking and divided attention issues: that is, devices and the things students look at on those devices distract them from the class, which again typically means paying attention to the lecture. I find the subtly different degrees of multitasking kind of interesting, and there is a long history in psychology of research about attention, distraction, and multitasking. For example, Arnold L. Glass and Mengxue Kang in “Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance” argue (among other things) that there’s a kind of delayed effect with students multitasking/dividing attention in a lecture hall setting. Students seem to be able to comprehend a lecture or whatever in the midst of their multitasking, but they don’t perform as well on tests at the end of the semester. 

Interestingly– and I have a feeling this is more because of what I haven’t read/studied yet– most of these studies I’ve seen on the multitasking/dividing attention angle don’t separate tasks like email or texting from social media apps. That’s something I want to read about/study more because it seems to me that there is a qualitative difference in how applications like Facebook and Twitter distract since these platforms are specifically designed to grab attention from other tasks.

And then there’s the category of research I wasn’t even aware was happening, and I guess I’d describe that as the different perceptions/attitudes about classroom technology. This is mostly based on surveys and interviews, and (maybe not surprising) students tend to believe the use of devices is no big deal and/or “a matter of personal autonomy,” while instructors have a more complex view. Interestingly, the recommendation a lot of these studies make is students and teachers ought to talk about this as a way of addressing the problem.

So, that’s what I “know” so far. Where I’m going next, I think:

  • I think the first tangible (not just reading) research part of this project is going to be to design a survey of both faculty and instructors– probably just for first year writing, but maybe beyond that– about their attitudes on using these devices. If I dig a bit, I might be able to use some of the same questions that come up in the research I’ve read.
  • We’ll see what kind of feedback/participation I get from those surveys, but my hope is also to use a survey as a way of recruiting some instructors to participate in something a little more case study/observational in the winter term, maybe even trying to replicate some of the “experimental” research on note taking in a small class setting. That would happen in Winter 2020.
  • I need to keep reading, especially about the ways in which social media specifically functions here. It’s one thing for a student (or really anyone) to be bored in a badly run lecture hall and thus allowing themselves to drift into checking their messages, email, working on homework for other classes, checking sports, etc. I think it’s a different thing for a student/any user to feel the need to check Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever.
  • I can see a need to dive more deeply into thinking/writing about the ways in which this research circulates in MSM and then back into the classroom. As I wrote in my proposal and back in June, I think there are a lot of studies– done with lecture hall students in very specific experimental settings– that get badly translated into MSM articles about why people should put their laptops and cell phones away in classrooms or meetings.  Those MSM articles get read by well-meaning faculty who then apply the MSM’s misunderstanding of the original study as a justification for banning devices even though the original research doesn’t support that. Oh, and perhaps not surprising, but the tendency of the vast majority of the MSM pieces I’ve seen on tech bans is basically reinforcing the very worn theme of “the problem with the kids today.”
  • I also wonder about this attitude difference and maybe students have a point: maybe these technologies are a matter of personal autonomy and personal choice. This was an idea put into my head while chatting about all this with Derek Mueller over not very good Chinese food this summer, and I still haven’t thought it through yet, but if students have a right to their own language use in writing classrooms, do they also have a right to their own technology use? When and when not?
  • And even though this is kind of where I began this project (so I guess I’m once again showing my bias here), a lot of the solution that motivates faculty to ban laptops and devices from their classrooms in the first place really comes back to better pedagogy. Teaching students how to take notes with a laptop immediately comes to mind. I’m also reading (slowly but surly) James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Teaching right now, and there’s a clear connection to his advice and this project too. So much of the complaints about students being distracted by their devices really comes back to bad teaching.

I predicted the demise of ASU’s Global Freshman Academy MOOC four years ago

From Inside Higher Ed comes “Arizona State Moves On From Global Freshman Academy.”  ASU and edX are “pivoting” away from the GFA and they give a variety of dubious reasons as to why. The real reason– which I first predicted back in April 2015 and which I unpack here a bit– is because nobody wanted it.  (To be fair, I was far from the only person who predicted this outcome).

But just to back up: the GFA rolled out in 2015 as a novel approach to MOOCs. Students could register for and complete a MOOC for free, and if they completed the work and paid a $45 processing/identity verification fee, they could then could have their work evaluated and/or sit for a test. Then, assuming the student passed, they could pay $200 per credit to ASU for transferrable academic credit. The goal was to roll this program out so that by 2016, students (they were expecting several thousand) could take their entire freshman year through this program and enroll at ASU as a sophomore– or transfer those credits someplace else.

Long story short, it didn’t work. Not at all. Here’s a quote from this most recent article:

Of 373,000 people who enrolled, only 8,090 completed a course with a grade of C or better, just over 2 percent of all students enrolled. Around 1,750 students (0.47 percent) paid to receive college credit for completing a course, and fewer than 150 students (0.028 percent) went on to pursue a full degree at ASU.

Anyone paying attention saw this coming. In December 2015, IHE ran “Less than 1%,” which was about how less than one percent of those eligible paid the identity/processing fee, and even less than that actually paid for credit. In 2016 at the Conference for College Composition and Communication in Houston, I went to a panel about the GFA and first year writing, and when I asked about enrollments back then, the presenters (all folks who were teaching in the MOOC and enthusiastic about it) kind of dodged the question. For my book, More than a Moment, I tried to contact someone at GFA in 2017 to find out if the enrollment numbers had changed; they never got back to me, which I took as meaning “no, the enrollments were still extremely low.”

Now, this latest article says ASU is trying to pivot toward a program called “Earned Admission” which “allows students to earn credit toward their freshman year at low cost.” ASU says the shift toward this “Earned Admission” program is working.  A quote:

The Earned Admission pathway allows any person over 22 years old to gain admission to ASU if they complete four courses and earn a 2.75 GPA.

“At this point, the combined number of students who’ve earned admission to the university, including employees from Starbucks and other corporate partners, is around 400 students,” said [Philip Regier, university dean for educational initiatives at ASU and CEO of the university’s central enterprise unit EdPlus].

So far the students who have taken courses through Earned Admission have demonstrated much greater motivation than those who studied through Global Freshman Academy, said Regier.

“We’ve learned that students need to have some skin in the game,” he said.

I guess this is good, but it’s probably not surprising that older “adult” students who want a traditional degree from ASU who are then told “take this program, and you can get in” indeed have some motivational “skin in the game.”  But honestly, this seems like a lame explanation as to why the GFA failed, and it also seems to me this program is addressing problems with the admissions process which have nothing to do with MOOCs or any other delivery method.

I can also say there was nothing special or particularly good about these GFA courses. I write about this in some detail in the book, but I attempted their “College Algebra and Problem Solving” MOOC and failed at it miserably.

In any event,  this latest news about the demise of the GFA proves is that a lot of the points I’m trying to make in More than a Moment are still basically true (which again, maybe this means this book is still relevant):

  • MOOCs are not at all new but are following in the tradition of innovation in distanced ed, from correspondence to TV/radio courses to “traditional” online courses. Had MOOC providers studied this history a bit, they would have realized that the primary audience for these kinds of alternative delivery opportunities has always been non-traditional students (older people with some or no previous college who now wanted to take a class or two) and people who already had an undergraduate degree and who are either seeking another educational experience (a “certificate,” a “nanodegree,” whatever) that might help them advance in a job, or they are seeking “edutainment.”
  • The big for-profit MOOC providers had little prior experience in distance education and all came out of super-elite institutions. They thought they had “invented” online teaching and seemed completely unaware that there are hundreds of “opportunity-granting” universities (like EMU) and community colleges and the like who had lots of experience in online pedagogy and who had been doing this work successfully for a long time. This is extremely true with this GFA initiative because (as Matt Reed pointed out when this program was first announced), $200 per credit for an ASU gen ed class isn’t worth it, especially when a student can take a similarly transferrable gen ed course– and with an actual human instructor!– at a community college for half the price.
  • MOOC providers were trying to sell traditional college students (late teens/early 20-somethings, along with their families) an experience that they didn’t want. We’ve known for a long time now that traditional students are not trying deciding on a higher education experience based on picking the cheapest option available. Rather, traditional college students pick their colleges based on a combination of “the best” school they could get into (in terms of academics, overall reputation, and the track record of graduates getting good jobs), the social life of the university, and then costs. The analogy I give in the book is MOOC providers were trying to sell super-cheap fast food when most of the customers in this market want the best full service meal they can afford.
  • While content scales, education does not– at least it doesn’t scale well enough and in most classes, particularly classes where there is a lot of interaction between participants (first year writing immediately comes to mind) or where the students need extra help. I can tell you from personal experience (and I describe this in some detail in my book) that the GFA MOOC in remedial algebra wasn’t a whole lot more than an interesting textbook. And again, if all it took to learn something was content– like a textbook– then organized education at all levels would have disappeared hundreds of years ago with the rise of print.
  • MOOC providers (and most pro-MOOC pundits) severely underestimated the established breadth and depth of higher education. Education entrepreneurs are constantly telling us  higher education is ripe for the same kind of “disruption” that has happened in other content-heavy “industries” like journalism. But given the long history of most universities in the US and the world, a better comparison would be with institutions like the Catholic church. Further, the minimum “certification” that’s long been necessary for entry into most middle-class/upper-middle-class careers in the U.S. has been a bachelors degree from a recognized university– and the “better” the university, the more valuable the degree. So no amount of free courses or nano-degrees or certificates or whatever else MOOC providers could offer were going to convince students it was a worthwhile option to the bachelors degree, regardless of the price (even free!)

But like I said, I go into a whole lot more detail on all this in More than a Moment.

 

 

Outlier is a good reason why my book will still relevant

One of the challenges of having a book about MOOCs coming out in Fall 2019– More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs is it’s easy to write it all off as being “over.” It’s certainly a fear I had when finishing this book, especially compared to the book on MOOCs I co-edited, Invasion of the MOOCs, which came out  in 2014. That was only a year after there was honest to goodness fear big corporate MOOCs would replace gen ed college courses, and not so long after serious people predicted the end of higher education as we know it. Now that fear has passed, so who cares about MOOCs?

And then something like Outlier comes along. No, it’s not a MOOC, but the similarities are kind of obvious.

As Inside Higher Ed reported in “Online Education Start-Up, Backed by Research University Credit,” yet another Silicon Valley education entrepreneur start-up promises to disrupt higher education with high quality online courses. Here’s a long quote from the beginning of the IHE article:

Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass, whose cinema-quality how-to courses from celebrity experts like Serena Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Margaret Atwood have been taken by many thousands of Americans, has turned his sights to the for-credit market with his new company, Outlier.org.

The company aims to market its courses mostly to would-be community college students and others seeking to transfer into selective universities.

The modest boast on its home page: “The World’s Best Online Education.”

“Why don’t we have a great online university — something we all know and love and see as both amazingly high quality and extremely affordable?” he says in an interview. “That’s what we’re trying to build.”

Rasmussen et al are focusing on two common general education courses, introductions to psychology and calculus. I find the reasoning behind the calculus course emphasis interesting:  a lot of people who need to take calculus fail it– Rasmussen estimates it as a “billion dollar” a year loss in tuition spent. Outlier’s approach is to build a better experience with the kind of classy and high-end video that has made MasterClass a hit.

Rasmussen had a kind of amusing promo video, which I tweeted last week:

Anyway, besides all of the other reasons why I don’t think this is going to work (buy my book in fall 2019 for more details), three other thoughts:

  • The partnership between Outlier and the University of Pittsburgh for a pilot of their calculus class seems remarkably similar to the failed experiment between Udacity and San Jose State in 2013. It’s not clear to me why either Outlier or Pitt thinks this is going to turn out differently.
  • There are many complex reasons why a lot of students fail calculus (or lots of similar classes), but I am very confident in asserting that the production values of the course materials have little to do with it. No one ever said “Jeez, if there had only been more professionally produced videos in my calculus class I would have passed.” Don’t get me wrong– I do think there is value to taking advantage of the affordances of the media in online courses of all sorts, and I write about that in my book. A lot of the early MOOCs I took, studied, and wrote about were (and still are, I might add) just talking head videos and slide shows. But good video is not a substitute for a solid curriculum and an actual human to work with students– particularly those students (like me) who do not get complex math.
  • There is a significant difference between the kind of Masterclass “Edutainment” courses Rasmussen et al have produced and a course like calculus– and since I teach another one of these courses that a lot of college students struggle with and/or love to hate (first year composition and rhetoric), I feel like I know of what I speak.

Masterclass is edutainment, with a strong emphasis on the entertainment part. They have classes in magic with Penn and Teller, acting with Natalie Portman, comedy with Steve Martin, filmmaking form Spike Lee or Ron Howard, writing with Neil Gaiman or Joyce Carol Oates or Aaron Sorkin and many others, cooking from just about every famous celebrity chef you could think of, etc., etc. Those all sound like fun! As an avid home cook, looking through the cooking class offerings even makes me want to sign up for a series of videos from someone like Thomas Keller! Beats the hell out of what’s on FoodTV nowadays.

On the other hand, no one— not even people who are good at it– ever said “I think it’d be a lot of fun to sign up for an online calculus class,” and “famous calculus teacher” is an oxymoron (as is the case with “famous freshman composition teacher” I might add).

And again in terms of the argument I’m trying to make in my book: MOOCs are/were not “new”. They were the continuation of a history of distance education experiments dating back at least 140 or so years. Some element of these experiments (particularly correspondence and online courses) have been incorporated into the mainstream of higher education, and some of these experiments (radio and television courses) have faded away. The innovators behind these approaches– and I include Rasmussen in this group too– all seem to be motived by a sincere desire to extend the opportunity for access to higher education to otherwise disenfranchised students, and simultaneously, by the desire to make a buck.

So hey, maybe Outliers will break this pattern with a better mousetrap. Somehow I doubt it though.

Finally finished “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance;” it was okay

I just finished reading Robert Prisig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (and I don’t think anyone deserves this since I’m talking about a book originally published in the early 1970s, but spoilers ahead). I have been reading it off and on for about four years, though I’ve been trying to read it in some ways for around 32 years. It has me thinking now about reading generally, and also about my career as a writing and rhetoric teacher.

I read for pleasure quite differently than I read professionally. For one thing, because my work involves almost nothing else but reading, I don’t read that much for fun anymore– much in the same way I assume most professional cooks don’t cook that much for fun anymore. That’s been the case for me ever since I started my doctoral studies. While in the midst of that program, everything I read was for school– I bet I read less than five books for fun in the three years I was doing coursework and dissertating. Nowadays (and this has been the case with me for decades), I’m much more likely to spend my leisure time watching television or movies. I try to read a bit before I go to bed, but it’s usually for only 15 or 20 minutes and it isn’t close to every night. Spending less time pleasure reading means a quick-paced mystery or pop-paperback I used to rip through in a week as an undergraduate or MFA student now might take me two months. A much more dense book (like this one) might take two or three or many more years.

Though I should note a few things in my defense as a book nerd and reading enthusiast. First, I’m talking about actual words on the page here, usually on paper but sometimes on a device. I listen to books often (along with podcasts) when I’m at the gym, walking to and from work, out and about running errands, and so forth. Second, I tend to read multiple books like this at the same time. I think I have about four novels and two nonfiction books on my night stand and/or in my kindle right now. Third, I read for fun more when traveling, over holiday breaks, while on “lay on the beach” vacations, that sort of thing. I used to read a lot on planes, but less so now since flying nowadays usually includes on-demand movies and television.

I first heard about Prisig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as an undergraduate. A good friend told me his high school debate coach gave his graduating seniors a copy of the book as a keepsake– more on that in a moment. I bought it around 1986 or ’87 (my copy has clearly required a little repair over the years) and I attempted to read it a couple of times. It went poorly. I think I got about 100 pages into it in the early 1990s. I thought it was boring. One of the things I decided about pleasure reading a long long time ago is I have no problem with not finishing a book if I don’t have to– and I have to say I have given up on finishing a lot more books than I’ve actually finished. Life is too short.

For some reason, I picked it up again about four years ago and decided to make an effort to get through it this time. Off and on, I read it along with a few other for fun books, some of which are still on my nightstand. I took Zen with me on the transatlantic cruise we took in 2017 (I’ve used this card housekeeping left in our room as a bookmark for the last couple years), to China this May, and to many other points in-between. It was a good “I can’t get to sleep so I think I’ll read a bit” book because after about five pages, I’m usually out.

Which is to say I still think the book is kind of boring– or at least difficult reading of the sort I don’t tend to do for fun. It has its moments of course, but it is less a spiritual/zen-like father-son cross country motorcycle trip and more a quasi-philosophic meandering on the book’s subtitle, “An Inquiry Into Values” (specifically “Quality”), and also about the narrator (a cross between Pirsig himself, a fictional version of Pirsig, and/or of the alter-ego Phaedrus) who is in a bad marriage, has a bad relationship with his son, and who is trying to recover from a breakdown that landed him in a psych ward.

It’s also a book I suspect a lot of people encounter at the wrong time in their lives and for the wrong reasons. Going back to when I first heard of this book: what kind of message is a teacher/debate coach sending to his students by giving them this? It seems to say a lot about the teacher to me. And judging from the reactions I saw when I posted about finishing my reading on Facebook, a lot of people first either read (or were assigned and didn’t actually read) Zen for a high school or college class of some sort. To me, that’s the classic teacherly mistake of assigning a reading because you really really love it but your students don’t and have absolutely no way of relating to it at all. A lot of people also said they read it in a rhetoric class, which kind of makes a bit more sense, though using this book as way into say Aristotle or Plato or the dialog Phaedrus seems kind of like assigning a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in an advanced psychology class about motivation.

I think I finally finished it this time because (besides the book’s qualities as a sedative) there was enough for me to now relate to– not the specifics of the narrator’s personal problems, but more his work as a college teacher. A little less than halfway through, there’s this passage:

This is the cynical/”when I’m not having a great day” interpretation of where I work and the nature of my job at “teaching college.” So I can relate, sort of.

What emerges as the book continues is the narrator is some level of faculty member (I don’t think this is made clear, but I’d guess he’s an adjunct) teaching some creative writing but a lot of what sounds like first year composition and rhetoric. There are several passages where we learn more about Phaderus’ approaches to teaching rhetoric and writing, most of which strike me as kinda bad teaching. But there are also a number of moments where Pirsig captures the frustration of the work quite well. For example:

I don’t think there’s anyone in my field who doesn’t recognize this misinterpretation of rhetoric and the purpose of first year writing (and similar courses) assigned to the course by academics in other disciplines. So I get it.

But beyond all that, I’d call the book “okay.” It was worth reading, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it exactly. I’m glad I can check it off some nonexistent list of things to read before I die, I guess. Maybe I’ll put another one of those “important” books almost no one has actually finished on my nightstand and start that next– maybe after I finish what I picked up again last night, the Obama Biden mystery Hope Never Dies.

Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit (or are they?): My next/current project

I was away from work stuff this past May– too busy with Will’s graduation from U of M followed quickly by China, plus I’m not teaching or involved in any quasi-administrative work this summer. As I have written about before,  I am no longer apologetic for taking the summer off, so mostly that’s what I’ve been doing. But now I need to get back to “the work–” at least a leisurely summer schedule of “the work.”

Along with waiting for the next step in the MOOC book (proofreading and indexing, for example), I’m also getting started on a new project. The proposal I submitted for funding (I have a “faculty research fellowship” for the fall term, which means I’m not teaching though I’m still supposed to do service and go to meetings and such) is officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies.” Unofficially, it’s called “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” 

To paraphrase: there have been a lot of studies (mostly in Education and/or Psychology) on the student use of mobile devices in learning settings (mostly lecture halls– more on that in a moment). Broadly speaking, most of these studies have concluded these technologies are bad because students take worse notes than they would with just paper and pen, and these tools make it difficult for students to pay attention.  Many of these studies have been picked up in mainstream media articles, and the conclusions of these studies are inevitably simplified with headlines like “Students are Better Off Without a Laptop In the Classroom.”

I think there are couple of different problems with this– beyond the fact that MSM misinterprets academic studies all the time. First, these simplifications trickle back into academia when those faculty who do not want these devices in their classrooms use these articles to support laptop/mobile device bans. Second, the methodologies and assumptions behind these studies are very different from the methodologies and assumptions in writing studies. We tend to study writing– particularly pedagogy– with observational, non-experimental, and mixed-method research designs, things like case studies, ethnographies, interviews, observations, etc., and also with text-based work that actually looks at what a writer did.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that those of us in Composition and Rhetoric generally and in the “subfield/specialization” of Computers and Writing (or Digital Humanities, or whatever we’re calling this nowadays) think tech bans are bad pedagogy. At the same time, I’m not aware of any scholarship that directly challenges the premise of the Education/Psychology scholarship calling for bans or restrictions on laptops and mobile devices in classrooms. There is scholarship that’s more descriptive about how students use technologies in their writing process, though not necessarily in classrooms– I’m thinking of the essay by Jessie Moore and a ton of other people called “Revisualizing Composition” and the chapter by Brian McNely and Christa Teston “Tactical and Strategic: Qualitative approaches to the digital humanities” (in Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo’s collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities.) But I’m not aware of any study that researches why it is better (or worse) for students to use things like laptops and cell phones while actually in the midst of a writing class.

So, my proposal is to spend this fall (or so) developing a study that would attempt to do this– not exactly a replication of one or more of the experimentally-driven studies done about devices and their impact on note taking, retention, and distraction, but a study that is designed to examine similar questions in writing courses using methodologies more appropriate for studying writing. For this summer and fall, my plan is to read up on the studies that have been done so far (particularly in Education and Psych), use those to design a study that’s more qualitative and observational, and recruit subjects and deal with the IRB paperwork. I’ll begin some version of a study in earnest beginning in the winter term, January 2020.

I have no idea how this is going to work out.

For one thing, I feel like I have a lot of reading to do. I think I’m right about the lack of good scholarship within the computers and writing world about this, but maybe not. As I typed that sentence in fact, I recalled a distant memory of a book Mike Palmquist, Kate Kiefer, Jake Hartvigsen, and Barbara Godlew wrote called Transitions: Teaching Writing in Computer-Supported and Traditional Classrooms. It’s been a long time since I read that (it was written in 1998), but I recall it as being a comparison between writing classes taught in a computer lab and not. Beyond reading in my own field of course, I am slowly making my way through these studies in Education and Psych, which present their own kinds of problems. For example, my math ignorance means I have to slip into  “I’m just going to have to trust you on that one” mode in the discussions about statistical significance.

One article I came across and read (thanks to this post from the Tattooed Prof, Kevin Gannon) was “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).” As the title suggests, this study by Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson replicates a 2014 (which is kind of the “gold standard” in the ban laptops genre) study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” The gist of these two articles is all in the titles: Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conclusions were that it was much better to take notes by hand, while Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson’s conclusions were not so much. Interestingly enough, the more recent study also questioned the premise of the value of note taking generally since one of their control groups didn’t take notes and did about as well on the post-test of the study.

Reading these two studies has been a quite useful way for me to start this work. Maybe I should have already known this, but there are actually two fundamentally different issues at stake with these classroom tech bans (setting aside assumptions about the lecture hall format and the value of taking notes as a way of learning).  Mueller and Oppenheimer claimed with their study handwriting was simply “better.” That’s a claim that I have always thought was complete and utter bullshit, and it’s one that I think was debunked a long time ago. Way back in the 1990s when I first got into this work, there were serious people in English and in writing studies pondering what was “better,” a writing class equipped with computers or not, students writing by hand or on computers. We don’t ask that question anymore because it doesn’t really matter which is “better;” writers use computers to write and that’s that. Happily, I think Morehead, Dunlowsky, and Rawson counter Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study rather persuasively. It’s worth noting that so far, MSM hasn’t quite gotten the word out on this.

But the other major argument for classroom tech bans– which neither of these studies addresses– is about distraction, and that’s where the “or are they?” part of my post title comes from. I still have a lot more reading to do on this (see above!), but it’s clear to me that the distraction issue deserves more attention since social media applications are specifically designed to distract and demand attention from their users. They’re like slot machines, and it’s clear that “the kids today” are not the only ones easily taken in. When I sit in the back of the room during a faculty meeting and I glance at the screens of my colleagues’ laptops in front of me, it’s pretty typical to see Facebook or Twitter or Instagram open, along with a window for checking email, grading papers– or, on rare occasion, taking notes.

Anyway, it’s a start. And if you’ve read this far and you’ve got any ideas on more research/reading or how to design a study into this, feel free to comment or email or what-have-you.