Recipe: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Ingredients:

Sauce:

About a tablespoon of minced garlic

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

28 oz (a “big can”) of crushed tomatoes

16 oz (a “small can,” or if you want more sauce, another “big can”) of diced tomatoes

About a good tablespoon worth of your favorite Italian Seasoning

About a teaspoon of grated nutmeg (optional, of course)

Salt and pepper to taste, maybe a 1/2 tsp of each  (go easy on the salt because you’ll be adding the meatballs)

A half cup or so of wine, beef stock, or water (optional)

Meatballs

1/2 pound lean ground beef

1/2 pound ground turkey thigh or ground pork

Between a 1/2 and a full cup of bread crumbs

About a good tablespoon worth of your favorite Italian Seasoning

About a 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese

A handful of finely chopped parsley and/or basil (if you’ve got it)

A teaspoon of grated nutmeg (again, optional)

3 or 4 tablespoons of milk or cream to bind it all together

Salt and pepper to taste, maybe a 1/2 tsp of each (the cheese adds a fair amount of saltiness, so just a bit)

Cooked spaghetti or a similar pasta

This is a meal I make all the time and one where I never have to look up any of the ingredients or steps in the process, so why is it worthy of a recipe? And what if it’s something so common that it’s just another thing “everybody” makes? Who needs a recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or for a hamburger? And since I can look up pretty much any recipe for anything nowadays, why write any of this down? I mean, it’s not like there aren’t already a zillion spaghetti and meatball recipes on the internets. What’s the point of any of this?

Didn’t mean for this to turn dark like that. Anyway…

When my wife wants a comforting and homey dinner, this is it. I make this at least once every two weeks, sometimes more often than that. This recipe with a salad and maybe some garlic toast or whatever can serve four people, though this is what I make for me and Annette, and the leftovers are good for lunch for a couple of days. This is one of those things where you can do from start to finish in about an hour and it’ll be good, but it’ll be better if you let the sauce cook on the back of the stove for closer to two hours. Obviously, there are a million variations.

Instructions:

  • Start the sauce. Put a large sauce pan on a not yet lit stove burner. Add two or three tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of chopped garlic. Turn the burner on to medium, and give it a stir once in a while for three to five minutes. The idea here is to infuse a little garlic-flavor into the oil and what will be the sauce, but without really browning the garlic.
  • When the garlic starts to just barely simmer, add the tomatoes. Purists might say you should only use whole tomatoes canned in Italy or whatever. I do tend to buy not the cheapest canned tomatoes, but I don’t usually have the time or interest to hand crush them. So I tend to use one “big can” of crushed tomatoes, and one “small can” of diced tomatoes. Sometimes I want more sauce and I’ll use two “big cans” of tomatoes.
  • Add the Italian seasoning, nutmeg, and a touch of salt and pepper and bring it up to a simmer. It won’t taste right until it simmers at least 20 or so minutes while you make the meatballs, but do taste it as you go. I also suggest going easy on the salt at the beginning because once it simmers and cooks down for a while and once you get the meatballs and cheese and stuff involved, it’ll get more salty. Simmer that sauce for a minimum of about 45 minutes, and for pretty much as long as you want. You’ll simmer it some more after you add the meatballs.
  • While the sauce simmers, make the meatballs. Dump the ground meats into a large bowl. I always use at least half ground lean beef, and then half of either ground turkey thigh or ground pork. Either way, I do think the different meats do add a flavor you don’t get with just one variety– the same is true with meatloaf. Add the Italian seasoning, a bit of salt and pepper, parmesan cheese, and (if you’re using) fresh chopped parsley and/or basil and grated nutmeg. Then start with about a half cup of breadcrumbs– and either use some you’ve made yourself from leftover bread (and of course you should make your own breadcrumbs with your leftover bread simply by cutting it up in chunks, toasting it a bit, and then running it through the food processor), or just some normal/plain supermarket breadcrumbs. I wouldn’t use panko here–save that for the fried foods. And finally, start with about a quarter cup of milk or cream and mix in more if necessary.
  • With your previously washed and sparkly clean hands (and if you haven’t washed your hands yet in this process, what’s wrong with you?), roll up those sleeves and get mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. If the mixture is too sticky, add some more breadcrumbs– but be careful because no one likes meatballs (or meatloaf or crab cakes either) that have too much breading. I make them a little bigger than a golf ball, and I usually get 13 or 15 meatballs out of this mix. You can make them bigger or smaller of course, and adjust the cooking time accordingly.
  • You could pan-fry them, but I cook my meatballs in the oven because it’s a lot less mess. Put the meatballs on a sheet pan and broil them so they get a little browned on each side– about 3 minutes a side (I flip them over halfway through)– or until they feel like they’re starting to cook through. They don’t have to be done because they will cook in the sauce for a while. If you want, you can deglaze the sheet pan with a little red wine or beef stock and add that to the sauce.
  • Put the meatballs into the sauce and turn it down so it is barely or not quite a simmer. The meatballs should be cooked through in about the amount of time it takes to heat up a big pot of water and to cook the pasta, but I like to let the meatballs slow simmer in the sauce for 30 or 40 minutes.
  • Cook the pasta according to the directions. I of course like spaghetti with my meatballs, but any pasta will do. Put the pasta into bowls, top the pasta with sauce and the desired number of meatballs (usually 3 or 4), and grate on lots and lots of good parmesan cheese.

 

 

On Leaving Academe & “Dead Wood” vs. “Old Growth” (or farewell, W. Pannapacker)

I met William Pannapacker in 2014 at the HASTAC/digital humanities conference at Michigan State, at a reception if I remember right. We only talked for a few minutes, exchanging stories of blogging from the “old days” and some of his columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education when he wrote under the name Thomas H. Benton, which always struck me as sounding less like a pseudonym than his actual name of Pannapacker. So after a seven or so year break, I was happy to see what I assume will be his last column, “On Why I’m Leaving Academe.”

It’s surprising he’s opting out because Pannapacker has a sweet gig. Besides being a tenured full professor, he has been an administrator since 2020, the “Senior Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Programs and Initiatives” at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  Pannapacker explanations for leaving academia are similar to those who have written similar columns in recent years. He writes about the demise of the humanities, the changing demographics that have contributed to falling enrollments everywhere (and that’s even more true at very small and private liberal arts colleges with a explicit religious mission, like Hope College), and the difficulties of being able to just “keep up” with the field. Etc.

As usual, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with him throughout this essay, but I wanted to write a bit about his perceptions that he’s part of “the problem” as a senior and tenured professor. He writes:

At this point in my career, at age 53, the costs of employing me are becoming greater than what I am likely to contribute. I am an impediment to solvency, diversity, and innovation for my institution. Tenure could keep me in this position until my 80s, while most new doctoral graduates went jobless. Tenure should not have become a lifetime appointment for a shrinking percentage of the profession subsidized by everyone else.

It’s not fair. And it is rife with professional hazards for those who receive it. Administrators talk about “dead wood,” and professors talk about “golden handcuffs.” If you’re an aging professor, like me, why not choose to set yourself free to explore more-challenging possibilities?

As I wrote about last month regarding EMU’s faculty buyout offer, I can relate to the midlife crisis fantasy of leaving academia for a different career, though after I thought about it for fifteen minutes, I concluded that’d be a terrible idea. The only other “careers” I’m interested in at this point are lottery winner and/or retiree, and the last thing I want to do is “explore more-challenging possibilities.” Though I bet Pannapacker didn’t take this leap without having a new job already lined up. Perhaps he is going to end up in some sort of humanities/arts grant writing position in his newly adopted city of Chicago. Good for him if that’s the case.

He’s right about the “golden handcuffs” of tenure in the sense that it is almost impossible for senior tenured faculty like me and Pannapacker to move on to a different university even if we’re willing to give up tenure and take a big pay cut. There are just not a lot of senior level faculty positions offered in any given year, and I couldn’t get a job as an assistant professor in my field someplace else because the hiring committee would think “Why would this guy apply for this job? There must be something wrong with him.” I know this is the case because I’ve been on several hiring committees and that’s what has happened with candidates like that every single time.

But I also think a lot of what Pannapacker is saying here is wrong.

First off, saying he’s stepping out of academia and thus improving the lives of graduate students and supporting the good work of the institution is the kind of virtue-signaling few of us can afford. We all have bills to pay. Second, there’s a BIG difference between a professor in their 50s who is perhaps disengaging a bit and someone who is in their 70s or 80s who should have retired long ago. My students remind me every moment that being in my fifties means I’m old, but c’mon, not that old. Besides, the era of automatically replacing a retired/leaving tenured professor with a new tenure-seeking professor ended about 20 years ago. If Hope hires anyone to replace Pannapacker, it’s most likely going to be a non-tenure-track or part-time job– not exactly coveted positions.

Then there’s the “dead wood” thing. I like to describe myself as beginning the dead wood/no longer giving any fucks stage of my career, but I’m of course mostly kidding. As I mention in my previous post (and as I’ve “vague-booked” on Facebook and elsewhere), I’m making a point of opting out of situations and meetings to avoid the toxicity that flows freely amongst some of my colleagues. But all that really means is I’m skipping a lot of meetings and I’m not putting my name in to be on any sorts of committees. Since I spent years doing that work, I kind of feel like I’m getting out of the way to give some of my other colleagues a chance to do these service and quasi-administrative things. I’m still active as a scholar and still taking teaching seriously, so I guess I’m less dead wood than I am an “old growth” tree of some sort– nothing like a Sequoia, but like some kind of scraggly shrub that somehow is still there after decades of forest fires and floods. So sure, there’s a difference in the amount of work I’m willing and able to do now versus when I was in my 30s or 40s, but that doesn’t mean I should be put on an iceberg and shoved out to sea.

I think the real definition of a dead wood professor is someone who is so checked out they are a burden and they drag down everyone else around them. The example that immediately comes to mind for me is a guy here who was finally forced into retirement a couple years ago. I will skip the details, but trust me: anyone reading this who has been a professor in my department in the last 20 years knows exactly who I’m talking about.

Now that’s dead wood, and I’d argue that the correlation between age and being dead wood is fuzzy. People are more likely to become a detached burden on their colleagues and students after they’ve been on the job for 20+ years, but correlation is not causation. I’ve met and worked with people who are as active and involved well into their 70s, and I have met and worked with people who started “dying” in their thirties the moment after they got tenure.

Or maybe Pannapacker is taking this satirical advice from McSweeney’s too seriously:

Retirement is not about money or age but the annihilation of any sense of purpose and meaning in your professional life. Once you accept this, you will quickly see how retirement really is for you. And we have greatly streamlined the process. To retire, all you need to do is find a quiet corner of a building (but not mine!) and say, out loud, in a determined voice, “I retire and release the university from all current and future financial obligations!” Being already in your head, I will hear you very clearly. Then you can let out a small whimper and crumple to the ground in a heap of deflated good intentions.

In any event, good luck in Chicago and beyond, William! Back here in academe, I’ll keep the lights on for you– at least for another 10 years or so.

Is it August Again?

It’s another August, which means a shift into thinking about the new school year and shifting back into “working.” After some of the events of this summer, after some of the challenges of the 2020-21 school year, after EMU offered faculty a buyout deal I briefly considered, and after the faculty agreed to terms of a very mediocre contract extension, I think I’m getting close to ready for fall and my research fellowship in winter 2022.

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph.

I haven’t taught in the summer for five years now, mainly because my wife and I have gotten to a point where we can afford it. I used to be quite a bit more defensive about having so much free-time in the summer, but I have gotten to an age and to a point in my career where I feel like I’ve earned the break. So yeah, I’ve done a bit of work this summer, but mostly not. We went to Vegas and up north, we’ve had some fun slowly emerging into a post vaccinated world (restaurants! movies! shopping!), we’ve had some life challenges I’m certainly not going to write about here, and we’ve had a lot of chances to admire our lovely gardens and yard. So sure, it hasn’t been all great and I grow increasingly annoyed about Covid and dumb-assed unvaccinated people, but overall not too bad. Better than last year, that’s for sure.

The 2020-21 school year was obviously a challenge for everyone everywhere (oh yeah, COVID!), but what I’m thinking about here are the local circumstances and departmental politics and how it impacted me. I had a conflict with an asshole of a colleague, and when I tried to find a satisfactory resolution to this dispute by working through my department head, the university’s director of academic human resources, and with the administrator of the faculty union, nothing happened. All of these people said that when it comes to conflicts between individual faculty members, there are no rules. That was pretty much a last straw moment for me. I’m not sure how this is going to play out over the next year or two, but I believe it’s fair to say that I’ve officially entered the “do not give any fucks”/dead wood stage of my career.

So when EMU announced a buyout plan and I was eligible for it, I did some pondering. The deal is two years of salary (paid out over those two years) plus 18 months or health care coverage. Alas, it isn’t right for me. If I was 10 or so years younger and the circumstances were like they are right now, I might have considered it, especially if I had a better sense about what I would want to do for a job/career outside of academia. If I were 10 years older and thus fully eligible for retirement, I would have taken this deal in a heartbeat. But at 55? Too old to start something new, too young to retire.

In a Facebook discussion recently, another faculty member at EMU said he “pitied me” for “having to work at a place I hate,” for not having “the courage to leave with even a generous buyout offer,” and that I had “plenty of career options” and if I hated it here so much, then I should just go get a new job at a better university. I think the person who said these things is clueless. Besides, I don’t hate EMU. The university has disappointed, angered, confused, and frustrated me over the years in many different ways, but so what? All employers– certainly all universities!– disappoint and frustrate employees at some point, and that is even more true for old-timers like me. But I’ve never hated the place.

And who else is going to pay me as much money as I make to only work about 8 months out of the year and mostly while at home? I still like to teach, so given that I have to do something to pay the bills, teaching is a pretty good option. Obviously, I still like to write a lot, and if I could do nothing but write whatever and whenever I want, that’s what I would do– and it’s what I plan to do in retirement, too. So sure, I would retire now if I could afford it, but that doesn’t mean I hate my job.

What puzzles me is the number of colleagues I have who are at retirement age– that is in their mid-60s or in many cases quite a bit older– and who have plenty of money but who are not taking this buyout offer. To each their own of course, but I think a lot of these folks don’t want to retire quite yet because they aren’t sure what they would do with themselves. I have no such worries. Besides not teaching in the summer for a while, I’ve also been lucky over the last seven years or so to have had a sabbatical and a couple of semesters off of teaching (“Faculty Research Fellowship”), and that’s made it possible for me to publish Invasion of the MOOCs, More Than a Moment, and a variety of other things. It’s also given me the chance to essentially have a series of “practice” retirements. So personally, I’m ready for the real thing.

Speaking of which: I’m very much looking forward to having been awarded another FRF for winter 2022, which means that after this fall semester, I’ll be mostly free to do what I want from mid-December 2021 to mid-August 2022.

Oh yeah, two last things to unpack from that first paragraph: once again, the faculty union and administration agreed to kick the contract down the road again for another year, though there are some changes that might (maybe? sort of?) completely undo the equivalency nonsense and restore some order to teaching loads.  But this is only a one year deal, so who knows how this will ultimately work out.

And teaching: I have a selection of “the usual” this fall. My most challenging prep is a class I haven’t taught since 2018, “Writing for the Web,” and my version of the class three years ago was getting a little out of date back then. I’m making some changes to the other two/gen ed writing classes I’m teaching, but these are more ready to go.

I’m also once again going to be teaching entirely online. Way back in January or February of 2021, faculty in my department were asked if we had a preference for the fall 2021 term, to teach on campus or online. I basically said I’ll do either, though I also pointed out that it’d be a whole lot easier to schedule classes for f2f and then convert them to online if necessary than it would be to do the other way around. But given the fact that I’d just as soon stay away from both the assholes and Covid, another semester of all online isn’t such a bad idea….

Las Vegas, (slightly) before and (not quite) after Covid

Annette and I went to Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, the sixth time in the last 20 years. The last time we went was in late February 2020; it was the last normal thing we did before sheltering in place. So it made a certain amount of poetic sense that the first big trip we took after being fully vaccinated was back to Vegas.

That, and we got a really good deal on the flight and hotel.

Most of the people we know are lefty humanities intellectual academic types who think Las Vegas is “gross,” but we like it– at least in three or so night doses every couple of years. We do like to gamble (Annette more than me), but neither of us plays any table games or poker– just the slots– and most of the time, gambling is something we do before or after we do something else. I can’t imagine how anyone goes to Las Vegas and does not gamble at least a little bit, but the main attraction of Las Vegas for me is the spectacle of it all. I like fancy celebrity (okay, overhyped for the tourists) restaurants, and we’ve had good luck in the past seeking out/stumbling into more local kinds of places. I like the goofy faux glamor of the big resorts and even kind of like (in smaller doses) the grit and grime of the “real” Las Vegas downtown. We like the shows– we’ve seen Blue Man Group, Penn and Teller, a few of the Cirque Du Soleil shows, and also lounge acts (when we stumble upon them) and smaller burlesque/cabaret variety shows. And of course the people watching in Las Vegas is the best because there are complete weirdos everywhere: rich people with dubious plastic surgery, homeless people hustling change, fat midwesterners (me!) stopping right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to just gawk, 20-somethings with tattoos they will regret, bros and the female equivalent wandering around in packs and probably imagining themselves in a Las Vegas-set movie.

Las Vegas is everything that is wrong and right with the advanced capitalist state. It is a waste of resources, a city that is totally unnecessary and made what it is now by a history of organized crime and greed. There’s a lot of walking sad stories. I haven’t seen Leaving Las Vegas in a long time, but as I remember it, it’s clearly not that far-fetched of a story. But there is also something for almost everyone and at almost every price point, from villas with butlers for thousands and thousands of dollars a night, to sketchy rooms at an off the strip motel for $25. Super rich and successful people from Los Angeles on an impromptu visit walk up and down the strip at 1 am and play slots right right next to the next to janitors from Montana that saved for years for the trip, and it’s oftentimes hard to tell them apart. So maybe Las Vegas is a level of hell, but at least we’re all in it together.

Anyway, right after we scheduled our second dose, we wanted to make May travel plans. Las Vegas was an easy choice because of the (sort of) bookend experience of before and after Covid, and also because of the prices. I should point out there is no fucking way we would have done ANY of this without being fully vaccinated. I mean, we didn’t go to any restaurant during covid, indoors or out. Also, the idea that Las Vegas has been open since last summer (albeit with restrictions) kind of freaks me out. I’ll come back to this point.

Last February, we stayed at the Wynn because of a game Annette played on her phone for literally months where she got enough points (or whatever) to pay for the room for a night or two. This time, we got a fountain-view room at the Bellagio because we’ve always wanted to stay there and the price was right. And then– long story short– we ended up being upgraded to an enormous penthouse suite which was, well, sweet. Last year, we rented a car so we could get off of the strip a couple of times, including a trip out to Red Rock Canyon, downtown, and to The Mob Museum. And as a bit of unsolicited advice to those who might think of going to Las Vegas: if you think you’re liable to need more than one Uber or cab per day, or if you are planning on doing any tourism off of the strip, renting a car is the way to go. Also, Red Rock Canyon and The Mob Museum are both completely awesome.

This time, we kept it simple because we thought it wise during pandemic-y times to not plan too much, and also because this was our sixth trip– and the third one since 2018. We kind of had already done stuff we wanted to do off the strip, at least for a while. So we took a cab to and from the airport, and otherwise stuck close to the hotel. During the day, we spent a lot of time enjoying our ridiculous suite and also hanging around the fantastic pool area. We didn’t have any particularly fancy food experiences because a lot of those restaurants were closed on the days we were there– Monday night through Thursday morning– and it was too late to get a reservation at one of the few fancy places that were open. We didn’t see any of the big shows because none of them had restarted yet, though we did go see Absinthe, which was a modern take on burlesque: a couple of SUPER dirty insult comics, a number of acrobatic and strength acts of the sort you might recognize form America’s Got Talent, and several dancers, both men and women, and featuring a stripper who started out in a gorilla suit. If you are okay with extreme potty mouth and breasts with pasties, I’d recommend it.

And of course, there was the before and after Covid. Back in February 2020, the pandemic was something that was almost done in Asia and raging in Italy; the idea that it would come to the U.S. was still a bit abstract, at least for me. Back then, I saw some people wearing masks, though they were mostly Asian and I just saw it as being overly cautious and a cultural thing (it’s not so odd to see people wearing face masks in more “normal times” in places like China and Japan). And keep in mind that this was when the official advice was masks weren’t necessary and to just wash your hands.

This time, there were masks and distancing and other Covid protocols pretty much everywhere, and I was surprised by the extent to which people played along. Oh, I’m not saying compliance was perfect. There were lots of chin diapers and noses hanging out, and not a lot of distancing while waiting in lines for things or walking around crowded casinos or sidewalks. But given that there are a lot of parts of the country where you rarely see people making any effort at all, I thought the compliance was pretty good, and that was especially true in casinos. If the choice is follow the rules or get kicked out, people follow the rules.

On the day we left, the CDC changed the guidelines about masks so that anyone fully vaccinated didn’t need to wear one anymore, inside or out. I noticed that the Bellagio’s web site now says “fully vaccinated guests do not need to wear masks,” though I don’t think there’s any system in place to verify that. I suppose we will all see if the rule changes result in an uptick in covid among the unvaccinated going maskless, though there hasn’t been any sign of that yet anywhere. And really, even though Las Vegas and all of its casinos have been open (albeit with severe limits) for quite a while now, Covid has been less serious there than in Michigan and metro Detroit. I’m not sure if anyone quite understands why, though it’s a lot easier to be outside in southern Nevada in the winter months and the ventilation in casinos has always been good (which is why you don’t smell as much cigarette smoke in those places as you might think). So maybe going to Vegas was at least as safe as staying home?

The success of the vaccine and the beginning of a return to what life was like before the pandemic is great, but I do have to wonder what would have happened if there was no vaccine and we were going to have to live with face masks and distancing and the risk of dying from this stupid disease indefinitely. How long would I have stayed out of restaurants, movie theaters, casinos? At what point would even the cautious like me said “I don’t care anymore, I’m just going to go to Vegas and take my chances?” At what point would those of us following the rules and the science have thrown that all out and joined the reckless and the deniers and just did what we wanted? Tens of thousands of people die needlessly every year in this country from guns because we have almost no restrictions on them and we’ve gotten pretty used to that being just the way things are. At what point with the pandemic would we have all kind of just accepted it and went back to doing what we did before?

Mostly, Covid is Boring

Lockdown started on March 11, but I think the last day I had that was close to “normal” last year was on March 13– naturally, a Friday. I got a haircut at Arcade Barbers, which was crowded with waiting and largely maskless customers. The state closed down barbershops and hair salons until at least May a day or two later. I went to Meijer, trying to stock up (shortages had already begun on weird things, though we always have plenty of toilet paper), saw a few masks and kept my social distance. Will was back home for his spring break, though he cut his trip short because the University of Michigan sent all of their students home (and so he didn’t have any old friends to hang around with), and also because he was worried about potential travel restrictions as the number of cases and deaths climbed.

But at the time, it didn’t seem like this would last that long. The predictions that we’d all be back to normal by Easter seemed a little optimistic to me at the time, but I didn’t think this would last through summer. We had planned on going on a cruise with Annette’s parents in May and then on a trip out to Seattle in June. Those things started to seem less likely to happen after other academic conferences cancelled, and especially after the NBA and the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament canceled. Maybe this would last longer than we thought, but hey, we’d still all be getting together again at Thanksgiving and Christmas. How could this last that long?

So, here we are. It’s mostly boring.

My family (near and extended) are physically healthy. Annette and I have been careful, and our biology PhD student son is careful and gets tested all the time. At least one of my sisters (and probably two of them) and several college-aged nieces and nephews had mild cases of Covid. My parents, clearly in the demographic most at risk for hospitalization or death, did more going to restaurants and socializing with friends and traveling than I would have preferred, but they’re fine and now vaccinated.

The impact of all of this on my mental health has been more significant, and that was especially true in late May and early June. There was (and is) the anxiety about a mysterious disease where the outcomes range from you never know you have it to death. It’s also of course been everything else– George Floyd’s murder, the insanity of the Trump administration, the election, the closing of everything, the many cancelled plans. I’m better than I was and working on getting better still, and Biden’s win and Democrats being able to (kind of) take control of the Senate definitely helped.

As far as my work and finances go, Covid has not been a problem; if anything, it’s been a slight positive because I feel like the new research I’ve been trying to get off the ground this year about teaching online will have some relevance for the next few years and beyond. Granted, Annette and I are dependent on EMU’s finances and future and higher education was in a difficult state before all this, so there’s definitely still time for us to feel some pain. The faculty contract is up for renegotiation this summer and that could be bad. Or, given that part of Biden’s Covid bill is some money for higher ed, it could be fine.  And of course, because this is not my first online teaching rodeo, moving everything online hasn’t been too hard for me– certainly not relative to a lot of my colleagues, that’s for sure.

As far as I can tell, all of my family and friends are in the same boat: that is, Covid has forced us all to work remotely, which isn’t always easy obviously, and there has been plenty of complaining about all that on social media, much of it justified. But the fact that my family, friends, and I are complaining about this and not complaining about being laid off is clearly a mark of privilege. This past weekend, The New York Times published this interesting and helpful series of infographics to demonstrate how unfair and uneven life has been during Covid. Reading over this data and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve never felt more white and well-off.

I have experienced some of the darker parts of Covid tangentially through some of my students. I’ve written about this a few times before, notably in what has become the most popular post on my blog in the last few years, “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic.” Many of my students have had relatives die from Covid, have had Covid themselves, have lost jobs, have had to move (in some cases these moves have been to completely different states) because they lost their homes/apartments. I always have students who have mental health issues, but those numbers have increased a lot. I try to help as much as I can (that’s kind of what that blog post was about) and it’s not enough. The disparity between many of my students’ Covid experiences and my own both amplify my guilt regarding my privilege and simultaneously make me feel very lucky indeed.

So while my life has changed since before Covid, it hasn’t actually changed radically or even become that much “worse,” if that makes sense. We haven’t eaten at any restaurant, inside or out, in over a year. No going out to see movies, shows, festivals, events. No gym– I try to make up for it by walking in the neighborhood and doing some exercise in the basement. Instead of grocery shopping several times a week to just pick up what we need for the next day or two, I try to keep it to once a week. We’ve been able to travel a bit to a couple of VRBO rentals for a few nights, but that’s mostly been about going from keeping to ourselves at home to keeping to ourselves at a vacation home with some nice views and a hot tub. I talk to my parents once a week, and it’s been mostly the same phone call every time: after an exchange of news regarding Covid and the vaccine (I avoid discussing “everything else” with them), we tell each other what we haven’t been doing lately, which is usually “nothing.”

Mostly, Covid is boring, and it’s a bad boring. Boring can be useful; think of the romance of the artist alone in their studio or in front of their keyboard or whatever with no worldly distractions, bored, ready for inspiration to strike. I’ve found myself writing in a lot in boring times in the past. The problem with this boringness is it was happening during a terrifying time. I remember posting on Twitter something like “for those of you who are too young to remember what it was like right after 9/11, it was like this,” and at least for me, that meant it was impossible to get it out of my head, impossible not to watch the horrific images on cable news, just impossible to not be constantly thinking of it all. Plus everyone I know who had to shift everything to working at home and online were completely overwhelmed and swamped.

Being bored, terrified, and depressed at the same time is not a good way to get things done or to be creative.

But it’s getting better, and it has been getting better for a while now. Trump and his crazies are still out there, but lurking in the shadows– for now. Going out and about doesn’t worry me much (at least around here) because people wear masks and keep their distance, and it turns out we probably never needed to wash our groceries in the first place. The number of cases are starting to fall steadily, the vaccines are rolling out. Annette and I will almost certainly be vaccinated by the end of this month. I’m looking forward to starting to do some of the little normal things soon– go to a restaurant, see a movie in a theater, hang around a coffee shop. I suspect it will be more difficult to reflect on the date when everything went back to normal (or “close enough” to normal) than it has been to remember the date when this all started, but it does feel like it’s coming soon.

Three Brief Thoughts About K-12 Schooling During Covid (spoiler alert: they never “closed”)

There have been a lot news stories and commentaries about the public demanding we “reopen” schools. Most of these stories irritate me tremendously; I have three thoughts.

K-12 schools never closed. Period.

I realize that the phrase “reopen the schools” really means going back to normal, face to face instruction, and who doesn’t want everything to go back to normal? But c’mon, K-12 school teachers, staff, and administrators have been busting their fucking asses trying to make schooling work online and with hybrid arrangements and all that. Actually closing the schools would have meant just that: lock the doors, turn out the lights, everyone go home. Instead, there are K-12 teachers literally risking their lives trying to make school work.

I’ve been watching a lot of cable news lately (I mean, there’s been a lot of news, and I’m a fifty-something white man so of course I watch a lot of cable news), and it’s pretty standard to end a show with some kind of uplifting or inspiring story of perseverance in these “difficult times.” Whenever these stories feature teachers, I cringe. There was the story about the older woman who has been teaching third grade for 30 or 40 years, but this teacher is so dedicated and so great that she’s teaching via Zoom from her hospital bed while she’s dying from Covid. Or maybe it’s the one about a teacher who is doing house calls and checking in on each of his high school students by figuring out where they live, driving around town, and showing up to chat with them while appropriately socially distanced on the front lawn. My guess is that that this guy doesn’t have 125 or more students, which is typical for most of the people I know who teach high school.

I’m supposed to admire these teachers for their dedication and their great example of going way above and beyond what’s required. But what I see instead are completely unrealistic and unsustainable expectations we’re putting on these people. I mean, do real estate agents or bankers keep doing the paperwork and serving their clients while on oxygen in the ICU? Do we restaurant cooks spend their own money on food to cook and then drive around and deliver that food to their customers for free? Mainstream media loves these super hero teacher stories, and then parents see these stories and think it’s totally okay to expect their kid’s teacher to do the same far beyond the job description activities. Simultaneously, teaching as a profession and the teachers’ unions are getting bashed all the time. It’s no wonder that fewer people are going into this work.

Which brings me to my next point:

It’s not online courses, and it’s not only students.

All the teaching I’ve done online and all the research I’ve done about distance education tells me that it can definitely work, but there are clearly circumstances and settings where it works better. Online classes work best when students have some experience and maturity at being students, which is why (IMO) having advanced undergraduate or graduate classes online is much more effective than having classes like first year writing and other “gen ed” classes online. I think a lot (but certainly not all) high school and middle school students can do okay with online classes, but I have no idea how anyone expects a third grader to succeed online when that student is still trying to figure out how to just read and write in the first place.

So obviously online courses are difficult to pull off in K-12 schools, particularly for elementary school. For example, elementary school-aged kids typically do not have their own computer and a quiet place in the family home to do school work. So yeah, I can imagine the online classroom experience for the fifth grader who has to share a laptop with a sister and/or a parent and who has to do all of their work sitting at the kitchen table with said sister/parents and who are all working off of the personal hotspot wifi network on Mom’s iPhone, yeah, I can imagine that’s not going great.

But look, it’s not all about school  being online. It’s mostly about “everything else.”

By “everything else,” I don’t just mean this mysterious disease that has emerged like we’re in a dopey science fiction movie and forced all of us to change almost everything we do in our day to day lives. I don’t just mean the protests that are the result of long-simmering racial injustice and that came to the forefront this past summer. I don’t just mean the enormous number of people out of work and struggling to find food. I don’t just mean the completely fucked up politics we’ve had during the Trump presidency, cumulating in the “Big Lie” of a stolen election and the first violent transition of presidential power in our country’s history. I mean all of this as part of “everything else,” but not just this.

I also mean that for a lot (most?) kids, just being home all the time–even in the best of times– is horrible. I’m not just talking about families where there is abuse, though those are obviously the absolute worst situations. I’m also talking about perfectly normal children– particularly teens. It’s been a while since I was that age (though not that long since I had a teenager in the house), and I grew up in a completely supportive and loving household. But like most normal teenagers, the absolutely last thing I wanted to do back then was hang around with my parents or sisters for any longer than necessary because I was 15.

So what I’m saying is when I see stories on cable news about how children are struggling with their schooling, are feeling stressed, and find themselves depressed, I keep thinking two things. Number one, the main cause of these problems is not school being online. It’s “everything else,” and there is A LOT of everything else. If there had been no pandemic, no BLM movement, no economic collapse, no Trump administration, etc. etc.–and if the only issue was high schools shifted their classes online for some reason, then there would be no story here.

Two, whenever I read or see on the news these stories about how students are more depressed and stressed out than ever, my reaction is who isn’t?! Join the fucking club! I’ve seen a whole lot of student meltdowns this year and I’ve done what I can to try to help students through all this. But look, we’re all stressed and depressed– at least to some extent– and we’re all struggling. So yeah, open the schools to help the depressed and stressed students, sure; just remember that that elementary school teacher who has been working her ass off to teach those kids has a ton of the same problems of her own.

Finally:

If folks want to have f2f classes in K-12 schools again, vaccinate.

The CDC has said that K-12 schools can have f2f classes again even if teachers and staff aren’t vaccinated, and there are other studies out there that suggest the rate of transmission in K-12 schools tend to be lower than in the community in general. Now, I’m a “follow the science” kind of person when it comes to all things Covid. But if I were an elementary/secondary school teacher– especially a high school teacher– I’d be very skeptical about all this. And honestly, given that every teacher in the world has had to deal with administrator’s telling them stuff that turned out to be completely wrong, why should teachers trust the experts now?

The bottom line is parents (and students and a lot of teachers too) who want schools to have f2f classes need to prioritize doing the things to contain Covid that can make that happen, and we as a country need to prioritize vaccinating K-12 teachers and staff. Ya’ll can’t yell and scream about schools not being open for f2f classes and then complain about masks and insist that restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, and all of these other high Covid risk places are open for business as usual.

So let’s concentrate first on vaccinations and everything else first.

Clayton Eshleman, 1935-2021

My friend Clayton Eshleman died last week. He was 85 and I knew he had been in declining health for some time.

Clayton was an enormously successful and prolific poet, translator, writer, editor, and most of that is captured on the Wikipedia page about him. He published hundreds of chapbooks and books of his own poetry, a couple dozen translations, a couple more dozen books of prose and other writings, the best of which (IMO) is probably Juniper Fuseand lots of collections and anthologies of previously published works. He won a ton of prizes and recognitions, he and his wife Caryl were editors of a couple of important literary magazines, Caterpillar  and then Sulphur, he published other peoples’ books and chapbooks in different venues, and people have written books about him too. Like I said, that’s all there on Wikipedia.

We were only kind of colleagues because I started at EMU in 1998 and he retired from EMU in 2003, and while I do have an MFA in Fiction Writing, my PhD and work at EMU has been in composition and rhetoric. So our paths really didn’t cross much professionally. I did know he was a “presence” in the department, so to speak, the kind of senior colleague/older professor/important writer who was quite capable of striking fear in students and younger faculty– probably a few older faculty too. He was challenging, difficult, practiced radical honesty far too often, etc. But I really have no memories of him in any sort of committees or other work things at EMU.

Mostly, our relationship was about food, wine, and web sites.

As far as I can tell from looking at some old journals/calendars of mine, the first time I interacted or talked with Clayton in any detail was at the 2001 department Christmas party, and I am sure we mainly talked about cooking. Somehow, he floated the idea that we should have a dinner party where I bring a dish or two and he makes a dish or two. I thought he was just trying to be nice after we’d each had a few glasses of wine, but several months later in spring 2002, that’s what we did at Clayton and Caryl’s house. I want to say it was close to twenty people over there total.

For many years after that, Annette and I would get together with Clayton and Caryl for dinner, usually a couple of times a year, usually at their house. Looking back at it now, I realize that while I was back then already a pretty decent cook, Clayton and Caryl introduced both Annette and me to a different level of sophistication with food. The meals he served weren’t showy or gimmicks of any sort– just really good and classic food, usually with a turn toward the French. He had a fantastic dish of rabbit stuffed with prunes. I think the first time I had duck confit ever was at Clayton’s house.

On the one hand, because Annette and I are so much younger than them (Clayton was five years older than my father), a lot of these affairs felt stiff and formal. If the evening’s events were to begin at say 6:30 pm, you were there at 6:30 pm– and whenever we had a party and invited them, they were always the first to arrive. The Eshleman’s house was an eclectic and eccentric space, and I often felt like a little kid just staring at all the stuff: all the paintings from notable artists they actually knew, an enormous wall of books in a case that filled half the living room, some preposterously giant decorative wine glasses on top of the sideboard in the dining room, an inflatable pterodactyl hanging from the ceiling. They had a teeny-tiny powder room tucked under the stairs, the kind of space where it took some careful maneuvering to use the toilet. The walls were completely covered with decades worth of snapshots of Clayton, Caryl, and all sorts of various friends usually sitting at large tables covered with empty bottles of wine: pictures from France, from New York, from trips to the caves he wrote about in Juniper Fuse and where he used to lead tours of classes studying the ice age paintings. So these dinners were often strange and intimidating affairs.

But mostly these dinners were fun and we kept going back because Clayton and Caryl both had such fantastic stories of decades of life as wholly committed to art and poetry and writing. I think my favorite Clayton story was the one he told about essentially stalking Allen Ginseberg in the early 1960s (or possibly late 1950s) in New York City. I never quite understood how that happened– did he just look him up in the phonebook?– but Clayton said he found him and he knocked on Ginsberg’s door and asked him to tell Clayton about poetry. Ginsberg said he would if Clayton bought him a hamburger, and so they had hamburgers and talked about poetry.

When Juniper Fuse was published in 2003, I volunteered to set up a web site for him. I did it as a friend, but also for some additional experience in making web sites– I teach this stuff so I need to stay up with the technology. Clayton did “pay me” in a matter with bottles of very good wine I would have never bought for myself and by taking me out to lunch once in a while. We went different places over the years, but we tended to always circle back to a Mexican place in Ypsilanti near campus, La Fiesta. The food was pretty good (it frankly isn’t as good as it used to be, unfortunately), but I think he liked it most because the owner would always dote on Clayton when he came in. We gossiped about EMU academic politics, about whatever events, and about the web site and what new things he wanted to put on it– new books, new chapbooks, another interview someplace, a series of readings in New York or wherever. One of the really extraordinary things about Clayton’s productivity as a writer is it actually increased after he retired; I think he wrote something like another 20 books in his last 20 years.

Annette and I did go out to some restaurants with Clayton and Caryl, but it was very tricky to find a place in Ann Arbor that satisfied them. Some of Clayton’s favorite restaurants didn’t strike me as very good– there was a Chinese place he was fond of in Ann Arbor I remember as mediocre, and it closed down years ago now. The last place I remember going with them that they liked a great deal was Mani Osteria, which is probably my favorite place still open in Ann Arbor. But even though he was a harsh critic and demanding customer, most of his restaurant recommendations were correct. On one trip through Chicago, we had a splurge of a meal at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo which Clayton had recommended– he liked going to it when he had a visiting teaching gig in Chicago. Still haven’t made it to The French Laundry, but I learned from him about Thomas Keller’s cookbooks and his other more affordable restaurants like Bouchon. When Annette and Will and I went to Paris for about 10 days for a sort of working vacation, Clayton suggested some reasonably priced but more upscale bistro kinds of places that were fantastic.

In the last five or six years, we saw each other less frequently. I think Clayton’s energy and enthusiasm for making elaborate meals had understandably declined as he got into his eighties. As I got better as a cook, I would sometimes bring him some of the molé I had been trying to make (based on a Rick Bayless recipe), and he always seemed happy for those gifts. We talked less about what to put on the web site because Clayton wasn’t writing as much or giving as many readings as he had a few years before, but he still had good stories up until the last time I had lunch with him, which I think was about a year and a half ago.

So rest in peace, Clayton. You were a difficult, interesting, sometimes angry, eccentric, brilliant, and often a surprisingly kind friend.

Recipe: Coq au Vin Blanc in an Instantpot

 

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Ingredients:

An Instant Pot (though see below)

4 ounces of roughly chopped bacon

8 ounces of mushrooms– I like a variety, but whatever you like/can get

2 or so tablespoons of butter and/or olive oil

2 to 4 chicken thighs (depending on how big they are, with the skin and the bone)

2 chicken breasts (with skin and the bone, or just more chicken thighs)

Salt and pepper to taste

8 ounces of carrots– baby carrots are easy, or roughly chopped

4 good-sized shallots, peeled and cut in half or quarters

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 tablespoon (or so) of either dried thyme or herb de Provence seasoning

2 cups of drinkable dry white wine (or red– see below)

2 or so more tablespoons of butter

1 tablespoon of flour

Mashed potatoes or cooked egg noodles

1 or 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

I’m trying to write more recipes on my blog this year for basically two reasons. First, I’m trying to write up the recipes for things I make all the time in one place so I don’t have to keep digging through different books and web sites and stuff. Think of it as a public and electronic version of the box of index cards that used to be in pretty much every amateur home cook’s kitchen back in the old days. Second, I think it’s kind of fun to write recipes. Not exactly sure why, but it is. And hey, if others find these things helpful or interesting or whatever, that’s great.

This is a recipe closely based on Bon Appetit’s recipe on their web site, though of course there are a zillion different ways to do some version of this classic French “chicken cooked/braised in wine.” One of the things I like about this is I make this in an Instant Pot, though to be honest, I’m not sure this is really the best use of that (admittedly gimmicky) appliance. It doesn’t really cook that long in an oven anyway.

The other reason I like this recipe and most of the other chicken recipes I plan to post is I can actually get my wife and son, both of whom do not like chicken, to eat it. Personally, I don’t understand this. I love chicken and could easily eat it in its many forms several times a week; Annette and Will, not so much. But they both tend to be okay with dishes like this that are braised/stewed/slow cooked like this– or, in this case, pressure-cooked.

Instructions:

  • Put the chopped bacon in a large nonstick skillet, on medium-low heat, slowly brown the bacon to get it crispy and to render out the fat. You could do this all in the Instant Pot on the sauté setting, but I think that setting is kind of wonky and it’s harder to control the temperature than the stovetop. Then again, cooking this first in a skillet and then putting it in the Instant Pot does mean digging out and dirtying up another pan, so your call.
  • When the bacon is done crisping up, scoop it out with a slotted spoon and leave behind the bacon fat. Put about half the bacon aside to finish the dish and the rest of the bacon into the Instant Pot container (or, if you decided to sauté in the Instant Pot, put it all in a large bowl big enough to hold all the ingredients). A lot of these recipes also say to drain all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat, but I’ve never understood why you’d do that. Add up to 2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil and let it melt and get bubbly.
  • For the mushrooms: first, clean them up. Supposedly you’re not supposed to wash mushrooms, but even before Alton Brown and some other food nerds disproved this, I’ve always put them in a colander of some sort, given them a good rinse, and dried them off with paper towels, which also wipes away any dirt or grit. I like to use a nice mix of mushrooms for this, but whatever you want to use and/or can get will work fine. Cut them up into about quarters or bite-sized pieces. Get those prepped mushrooms into the sizzling butter and bacon fat and sauté for a few minutes on medium heat, just until the mushrooms get a bit browned in places. Put them in the waiting Instant Pot insert (or your big bowl) along with the bacon.
  • Liberally salt and pepper the chicken and brown it over medium or so heat. You’re not trying to cook the chicken through– just browning it– so don’t worry about it not being done. But you also don’t want to just skip this step because the browned chicken will help make a delicious sauce and the mix of bacon fat, chicken fat, and butter– well, that’s just delicious. This takes about 10-15 minutes. If your pan isn’t big enough, you’ll need to do this in batches. Put the browned chicken into the Instant Pot container.
  • Add the carrots and shallots to the hot pan, stir, and season with salt and pepper. You’re just trying to get a bit of color on them and to scrape up/soak up some of the stuff stuck to the pan. Toss in the chopped garlic and herb de Provenance or thyme for just a minute or so and then pour in two cups of dry white wine. Let that cook just a few minutes, just to reduce it and cook off some of the alcohol a bit. As the saying goes, you should only cook with wine you’d be willing to drink, though for me, that means about a $5 bottle of wine and when it’s for drinking and not cooking, I spend more than that. I use white wine somewhat because of the taste, but also the color. Coq au vin is more traditionally made with red wine, but that turns everything kind of a muddy purple color, and I think that looks kind of gross.put all of this into the Instant Pot insert or the big bowl where you’ve been putting everything else.
  • Arrange the chicken and mushrooms in the Instant Pot insert so it’s spread out even and add the vegetables and wine. Set the Instant Pot to pressure cook on high for 15 minutes. Let it the natural release happen for about 10 minutes, then release and unseal the pot.
  • There are two things to do while that’s cooking and cooling a bit. First, put the flour and the butter in a little bowl and squish it together with your fingers or a fork. Second, cook either masked potatoes or egg noodles to be a base for your dish. I suppose this is optional, but c’mon, with the sauce and everything, why would you skip this?
  • Once it’s cooled off enough to handle the chicken, start plating by beginning with the potatoes or egg noodles. Using a slotted spoon to leave behind as much of the sauce as possible, arrange the vegetables and chicken on top of the potatoes or noodles.
  • Put the Instant Pot insert back in and turn on the sauté option. As the sauce comes up to heat, add in that flour/butter mixture and whisk it in. Keep mixing until it has thickened up a bit, about 3 minutes tops. Top each serving with the sauce, sprinkle on some of the parsley and reserved bacon, and eat it.

If you don’t have an Instant Pot: Well, you might want to start with a new recipe, but here’s what I’d suggest. Preheat the oven to 250. Instead of using a skillet, use a Dutch oven or similar deep pot that can old everything. Cook everything in steps int the Dutch oven. Once you have everything in the pot and things are simmering a bit on the stove, put on the lid and put it in the oven for about 45 minutes. Check it and of course make sure your chicken is cooked all the way through (160 degrees). Put the pot on the stovetop, plate the potatoes or noodles and the chicken and vegetables just like before, heat up the sauce and whisk in flour/butter mixture.

What didn’t suck about 2020?

I usually write a post at the end of the year to kind of sum up highlights of the previous year (particularly highlights from blogging and social media posts), mostly as a reminder to myself of how things went. You know, like all these “the year that was” articles in MSM. And I had started here recapping all the ways that Covid disrupted everything and how it all sucked and all of that, and then I thought: who needs more of that? I am quite sure I’ll remember all the ways that 2020 was a disaster for the planet and for the country for the rest of my life, and I’m also sure I’ll get the chance to re-remember in movies and books and television shows for some time to come. I’m quite sure I’ll remember the ways 2020 hurt me and my family personally, and those are things I’d rather not go into in a blog post. Not now anyway.

So instead, I thought I’d take a bit of time to write about/meditate about what didn’t suck about 2020, about what I still managed to do that was good, about what I learned about myself. Part exercise in living in the moment/mindfulness (which I think is mostly a bullshit way of looking at the world, but I’ll play along), part needing to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Here it goes (in the order it occurred to me):

I’m grateful I didn’t have any close friends or family members who became seriously ill or worse from Covid (knocking on wooden things). Annette and I both thought we might have had it several different times (who hasn’t wondered if that cold or cough was something worse?) and we’ve been tested a couple of times as well, but so far, so good. Same with Will, though he gets tested about weekly because of the stuff he’s doing at Yale. I have some more extended family members and friends who have had it, some with barely any symptoms and others who felt it like a hard flu. Given some of the terrible stories I’ve heard from some of my students, I am grateful and feel lucky about this.

I’m happy my day-to-day life and work carried on mostly the same. Don’t get me wrong– this has all been much different and it’s hard. I have been in my EMU office three times since mid-March. I haven’t been to a restaurant at all since things locked down– not even outdoor dining– and I have been to a coffee shop/beer garden kind of place exactly once when I met Derek for a beer at Cultivate Coffee and Tap House and then we sat a picnic table distance apart in the outside area on a lovely day back in September. I used to go to the gym at least four days a week and then often went shopping for whatever I was planning on cooking for that night, and I haven’t done any of that since mid-March. No movies, no shows, no museums, none of that. I go to the grocery store or places like Meijer about twice a week, and I make a point of trying to get outside to walk around a bit. That’s about it.

But the thing is I was already mostly working from home and mostly teaching online before Covid. Ironically, I spent a lot of January trying to make more use of my EMU office, which has kind of been a failed New Year’s resolution for a few years now. The short version: I keep thinking I need to draw a firmer line between my “life” and my “work,” this despite the fact that I’ve spent the last 30 years working from home and coffee shops with few boundaries (physical, intellectual, emotional, etc.) between life and work. Plus I have a very nice office that seems wasted with me not using it for much of anything beyond office hours and storing junk. So once again in January, I was trying to work more from my office, and once again, I had given up on working more at EMU by mid February. All of which is a long way of saying shifting to working at home and teaching online wasn’t exactly a big lift for me.

And of course, let’s not forget the basics: Annette, Will, and I all still have jobs, insurance, money in the bank, etc. Speaking of which:

Annette, Will, and I all are very lucky to be able to comfortably shelter in place/just stay home. Will started his PhD program in Cellular Molecular Biology at Yale in Fall 2019 and he had (continues to have) a nice (albeit student-y nice) apartment in New Haven, and since his work mostly shifted to working on qualifying exam/pre-dissertation portion of things, he was fine. With Will out of our modest three bedroom house (and this has been the case since he was living on campus at Michigan), there is plenty of room for Annette to do her thing in her work space/library downstairs and me to do mine in my hard to beat office/study/man cave area upstairs. Which is to say we just had each other, mostly: no pets, no really little kids, no school-aged kids, or none of the other things (many much worse than this of course) that made staying close to home challenging. Sure, having more people around means, well, having more people around, so there’s an advantage there. But let’s just say I think that having all three of us here would have made for a very difficult year.

Despite it all, we did get to travel a bit. We mostly got our travel jollies out in 2019 with trips that took us to three different continents (not counting North America), and we did have a couple trips we were going to go on in 2020 canceled. But we weren’t completely at home in 2020. We went to Las Vegas at the end of February, one of the nicest trips we’ve taken there. We had a room that was basically free at the Wynn (long story), saw some shows, did some gambling, stumbled across a Banksy exhibit in a shopping mall, and went to Red Rocks. Covid was just starting to leak into everything, though we didn’t think a lot about it then. I do remember seeing some people in masks (mostly Asian tourists, so I honestly didn’t think much about it), and I also did make a point of getting up to wash my hands about every hour while playing slots.

In July, we went “up north,” staying at a really cool cabin on Glen Lake– well, not on Glen Lake because that’s pretty much all multimillion dollar homes, but across the road from Old Settlers Park, which meant we kinda/sorta got a lake view. We didn’t get out to any of the fancy restaurants up there (a number of them were closed anyway) and we didn’t get into Traverse City or do a whole lot of shopping, but we did get to do some hiking, we looked at a lot of trees and nature, we got to see some friends who live up there, and we did a lot of relaxing and hanging out.

And then in September, we took a road trip to Maggie Valley, North Carolina to spend a four-day weekend with Annette’s parents– they rented a house there. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to making the trip (the driving, during the midst of the school term, an area of the country that isn’t really my cup of tea, etc., etc.), but it was a nice change of scenery, and it’s certainly not a trip I would have been willing to make with the current crazy spikes in Covid.

We watched A LOT of movies, and a lot of kind of weird and/or old ones too. I generally write down the movies we watch (I keep a list as part of my journal), and I think we saw about 170 of them last year. In normal times, we watch a lot of movies, but 170 or so is, well, A LOT. Mind you, that includes multiple viewing of some comforting favorites (The Big Lebowski, Dirty Dancing, A Knight’s Tale, Star Wars), rewatching of a lot of movies we’d seen before, and a few new ones too– got to see Parasite in the theater before Covid and again at home on demand during Covid, too. But it also included a lot of odd/weird/old movies, including True Storiesthe almost 5 hour long Until the End of the World, Killer Klowns from Outer Spacethe Sean Connery sci-fi flick ZardozFoodfight! (which is perhaps the worst animated movie of all time), the fantastic Forbidden Planet, Vincent Price’s Theater of Blood, Eating Raul, the fantastic musical Golddiggers of 1933 and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent thriller The Lodger. And more than that too, of course, not to mention a lot of other shows– The Queen’s Gambit, working our way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

Oddly enough, a pretty good year for me in terms of scholarly activity.  For me– which is to say it isn’t a lot compared to really prolific and famous scholars, but it’s plenty for me.

What will probably be my one and only single-authored book (at least in terms of academic writing) More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs came out in January– actually, it was already available in December 2019, but it has a 2020 copyright date. Kind of a bittersweet moment because I think the book was published too long after MOOCs and of course Covid didn’t help, but still, it’s done. And it did get at least one good review, too.

But beyond that, I once again was reminded that the weird thing about blogging is it is very much like writing the proverbial message in a bottle: every once in a while, someone somewhere picks up that bottle on the beach, reads what’s inside, and reaches out to find the writer. Startled and confused by the number of faculty who have decided to teach online synchronously with Zoom, I wrote a blog post, “‘Synch Video is Bad,’ perhaps a new research project?” Not a lot of people read it, really (I think my most popular post of this past year was “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”), but the right people read it– namely, someone at Media & Learning, which is a Belgian group promoting “the use of media as a way to enhance innovation and creativity in teaching and learning across all levels of education in Europe.” They invited me to submit a version of my post as a newsletter article, and also invited me to participate in a panel discussion for a conference they had in November (all via Zoom, of course). And this is all motivating me to kick off a new research project about teaching online during the 2020-21 school year– see this post here to see what I mean and maybe take my survey.

So like I said, kind of small potatoes in the general scheme of academia and scholarship, but I don’t often get to add a short publication and an invited presentation to my CV just as a result of a blog post.

And last but not least, Biden won and a cure is coming. Last but far from least, imperfect and incomplete as of this writing for sure because who knows what craziness Trump and the Republicans are going to attempt before January 20, and we’ll likely see another 100,000 or more deaths in this country before the vaccine is widely distributed. But still, it could be much, much worse. Developing a vaccine so quickly was far from a foregone conclusion back in April and May, and if Trump and his administration had done an even half-assed job in dealing with the virus back in the spring, I’m pretty sure he would have won a second term. So yeah, I’m thankful that what is a terrible time now and what will probably be a terrible time for a few more months at least is not being made more terrible by another four years of Trump.

So let’s hope that 2021 continues on that path.

Kicking off a new research project: “Online Teaching and the New Normal”

I’ve been working very slowly but surly on putting together a survey to kick off a new project I’m currently calling “Online Teaching and the New Normal.” I just posted a page about it here, and I’m trying to get the word out via social media. If you come across this post and can help me out by either taking the survey or forwarding it on to other folks teaching college classes online during the 2020-21 school year, I’d appreciate it.

A bit more background:

As I wrote about back in early September, I have put aside the project I was working on last year, “Investigating Classroom Technology bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” aka “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” In the midst of a pandemic and during a school year in which an unprecedented number of instructors/students have no choice but to move the entire school year online, it just seemed to me like some kind of discussion about whether or not students should be allowed to use laptops in classrooms had quickly become irrelevant. Or at least it feels pretty irrelevant right now.

Anyway, in early September and after an enormous percentage of college classes went online for the entire semester (at EMU, it’s about 90%, and I think there are a lot of universities like EMU are somewhere in that range), I was surprised and rather confused at how many college faculty decided to go with synchronous video (aka Zoom) as the primary mode of delivery. As I wrote about there, it just does not make sense to me to teach an online class in that format.

Online classes have been delivered mostly asynchronously because the goal of distance education going all the way back to the Chautauqua movement, home study and early correspondence courses in the late 19th century has always been to extend access to higher education to students who can’t attend college face to face for some reason. Courses that meet at specific times in specific places restricts that access. Also, until relatively recently, live video conferencing software (like Zoom) hasn’t been that accessible to students– and it is still a problem for anyone with sketchy wifi or crappy computers, but that’s another story.

The current moment is different because we’re moving courses online for students who otherwise would prefer to attend classes on campus and face to face, which means the scheduling flexibility component isn’t as important. A lot of institutions are requiring faculty to teach their now online classes synchronously, I suppose because of the demands (or perceived demands) of students and their families, but I also know that a lot of faculty had the choice and went with synchronous Zoom instruction on their own. But a someone who has been teaching online and researching it for years, this still does not make sense to me. Teaching online classes synchronously doesn’t take advantage of the affordances of the format; I wrote about this here and I even gave an invited talk/presentation about it for a virtual conference in Europe in November.

However, these previous assumptions could very well be wrong. And right now, the tragedy of Covid-19 is giving folks interested in researching best practices for teaching online a unique opportunity. Thus my efforts so far with this survey. As I tell my students in my first year research writing classes, the reason we do research is to test the assumptions we have, particularly those assumptions that are based on incomplete and debatable evidence.

I have no idea how this is going to turn out, and while I’ve only been asking for people to fill this out for a few days, it’s been challenging to get folks to participate. A lot of it has to do with the timing (I think most of us teaching college classes are concentrating on getting done for the term so we can get to the holiday break, which makes yet another survey about something a lot less appealing), though I am also trying to get these folks to participate in a survey (and potentially an interview) about something that they perhaps would rather not talk about. I plan on leaving the survey open at least through the end of the 2020-21 school year, so there’s still time.

And of course, if you’ve read this far and you are teaching a college class online and in the U.S., why not take a few minutes to complete this survey yourself? https://forms.gle/FQSjWRcVXim6BVoq7