Just how offended are you by the word…

… motherfucker?

I ask because of the dust-up over Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s statement about Trump that is in the news, “we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

To back up a step: here’s a link to an article and with a five minute or so video of the event. I think this was a Move On sponsored thing and it looks like it was in some kind of bar/party room filled with supporters. It was a fiery speech all about how her progressive and activist campaign worked, and how that strategy worked for other progressive candidates– notably many women and/or POC. It looks to me like everyone in the crowd had a cell phone recording the speech in one hand and a beer in the other. It was a private party. There was ton of cheering and whooping it up and she closed with that line “we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

This matters. A LOT. It’s not like Tlaib was on the floor of the house or on Meet the Press or whatever and said “we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.” And the sentence that is getting all the attention now wasn’t even the first time she said “fuck” in that five minutes.

As far as the politics go, I am in the same camp as Nancy Pelosi and the more moderate leadership in the House: it’s not time to call for impeachment and while Pelosi said she wouldn’t have made that choice in words, she’s not going to get into the censorship business. But Tlaib is not the first member of congress to say Trump should be impeached now, and, as I heard Tlaib say on the news the other night (this is a local story because her district is parts of Detroit, Wayne county, and “downriver”), fighting for impeachment was a campaign promise. So it makes sense that Tlaib would bring up that campaign issue/promise at a party celebrating being sworn in.

Anyway, while I do not like the phrase “clutch their pearls,” I cannot think of a more accurate metaphor in the reaction to this. Never mind Fox news; This tweet from The Washington Post called Tlaib’s choice of “motherfucker” a “slur,” though the article to which it links is all about civility and the moral problems of vulgarities. The moderately liberal Detroit Free Press (well, compared to the Detroit News) published a Mitch Albom screed/editorial where he condescendingly laments Tlaib’s sinking into a “new low in a cesspool of human relations we call politics,” she is merely sinking to Trump’s lows etc. My stars, I do declare!

All of which brings me back to my original question: just how offended are you by the word “motherfucker?” I’ll take Albom at his word and agree he is personally offended at the use of such salty language. This isn’t surprising since  Albom has made his nut from schmaltzy feel-good books (Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Have a Little Faith, etc.) which end up as Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies.

Of course, I also have to think that Albom and others wouldn’t have had any real reaction to the vulgarity at all if it had been uttered at a similar campaign event by a 60-something Republican white dude.  But I’ll just leave that right there.

I mean, I take it as a given that the kinds of conservatives who think Trump is doing a great job and who think liberals are evil and anyone non-Christian is suspicious object to Tlaib calling Trump a “motherfucker,” but these people probably would have been just as upset had she called him a poopy-head. But beyond that, I have to wonder how much of this is kind of generational, kind of a lack of familiarity with a certain strand of contemporary culture.

Take some of the movies I like, for example.

I probably watch The Big Lebowski three or four times a year. It’s a movie that is both comfortingly familiar and still full of surprises, and it’s the kind of thing Annette and I will sometimes put on as “background viewing,” something on the TV while we are each putzing around on our laptops doing other things (writing a blog post, for example). In The Big Lebowski, there is some variation of word “fuck” 260 times, at least according to Wikipedia.

Also according to Wikipedia: that 260 different fucks doesn’t even put The Big Lebowski in the top 25 of the most fucks in a movie (though I don’t know how accurate this list is, and who has the time to count all those fucks?) Interestingly, there are a lot movies on this list of 135 different titles that I’ve seen and liked a great deal– The Wolf of Wall Street, Casino, Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, True Romance, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Superbad, Monster, Bad Santa, Sorry to Bother You, etc., etc.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: for Tlaib to call Trump a “motherfucker” was insulting. But I don’t know, it sure seems like the Alboms of the world think that calling someone a motherfucker (at the end of a rally-styled speech in a bar full of supporters– don’t forget the context, folks) is a whole lot worse than I do. Maybe I watch too many movies with bad words in them. Maybe Albom et al don’t watch enough of these movies.

First (perhaps only) prediction of 2019: the return/rise of blogs

You read it here first (hopefully): I think 2019 is going to bring a resurgence (well, “return” or “rise” or “comeback” might be better words) of blogging. I freely admit this is not based on evidence. It’s a hope, a gut feeling, and/or a wild-assed guess. But a lack of evidence has never stopped me before from predicting things, so there’s no reason for me to stop now.

Predicting the comeback of blogging is in part a New Year’s resolution for me to blog more, a bit of wishful thinking. I keep resolving and hoping to start working on writing projects that have nothing to do with academia– or if they do have to do with my day job, they are more commentaries on the state of things, like this piece I write last year— and blogging is a good place to try to draft and play with some of those ideas.

I’ve been thinking about this for a month or so now after reading this piece by Matt “Community College Dean” Reed, and John Warner’s follow-up. Reed is right in that blogging (certainly in academia, and I am guessing in other careers as well) has it’s problems. “[S]ome people prefer to hire folks who don’t have paper trails. I’ll just leave that there” is true, and I am guessing there are opportunities I’ve missed because of something I have posted online. I have never had any delusions about being able to “make money” from blogging, so in the sense that the first rule of writing professionally is never do it for free, this is probably a waste of time.

On the other hand, most of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in academia as a writer and scholar connect to blogging. Writing here about MOOCs was why I got invited to speak about MOOCs at some cool conferences here and in Italy, why I was able to co-edit a reasonably successful collection of essays about MOOCs, and ultimately why I have a book coming out this year (knocking on wooden things) about MOOCs. My “greatest hit” of academic publishing (take both “greatest” and “hit” with a significant grain of salt) is still “When blogging goes bad,” an article that obviously wouldn’t have been possible without, well, blogging.

So there are very good reasons to try to go back to blogging more. Warner pointed out that the “freedom” to write what you want on a blog is the kind of freedom where you have nothing left to lose, and that is certainly the case for me. I mean, at this point of my life/career, I’m pretty much stuck situated at EMU– unless something strange and unforeseen happens, which, as the last couple of years in the Trump era et al have demonstrated time and time again, I suppose is unpredictably possible. All of which is to say that unless I write/do something quite foolish (also unpredictably possible, of course), I don’t see anything but an upside for me blogging.

But I think it goes beyond just me.

Social media feels kind of tippy-pointish to me right now. I increasingly have friends who have either opted out of social media entirely or who are now a lot more careful about how they dose on it. I cannot go two or three days without stumbling across some kind of article about the evilness of Facebook, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon.

I’m kind of hoping for a blogging comeback sort of like what’s going on with vinyl records or independent bookstores. Yes, the vast majority of us are still listening to music on our devices and not that old-timey turntable. (Slight tangent: this might also be the year where I see if that old turntable in the basement still works). Yes, most of us are still buying a lot of our books from Amazon– if we’re buying and reading books at all. (Another slight tangent: I really ought to read more non-work books this coming year). But with the collapse of the big-box stores and a customer return/preference for actual print books, independent stores are proving to be modestly sustainable.

So yeah, it’s a niche. Maybe a small one. But hey, small worlds are still worlds.

 

 

The year that was 2018 (according to Instagram)

‘Tis the season for thinking back on the year that was 2018. In looking back over my blog, I was surprised I wrote as much as I did last year. I posted a whole lot more on social media of course. I don’t think it’s worth the effort to look back at Facebook and Twitter both because there is too much there. But I found looking back at my 2018 Instagram posts kind of fun.

 

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Working windows.

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 Here’s a sort of an “action shot” of me working on the MOOC book manuscript, probably shortly before I sent the manuscript for review to Utah State University Press. I had kind of forgotten about how I spent a fair amount of 2018 working on this off and on, actually. But long story short: the book, which is now titled More than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs, should come out some time in 2019, though I have no idea when. Stay tuned for more on that in the coming new year I am sure.

 

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Neon Museum. Awesome!

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Annette and I had a nice winter break trip to Las Vegas and one of the highlights for sure was the Neon Museum. As far as I can tell, most people I know think that Vegas is kind of a level of hell, but we think it’s fun– for about four nights/three days every few years. February was a pretty good time to go too.

 

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I baked a lot of bread again this past year. I’ve been making sourdoughs from a starter that’s been “living” in my fridge since about April 2017. I thought I kind of screwed up and killed off my starter at one point over the summer, but, as they say in Frankenstein, IT IS ALIVE!

 

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Alas, this was the last year my friend and colleague Derek Mueller was at EMU before moving on to the Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange grassy fields of Virginia Tech. Happily, Chalice still is my local friend and colleague who sometimes comes to my office to eat candy and chips.

 

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Fuzzy, lonely Trump supporter.

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For “birthmonth” in 2018, Annette and I went to New York City for a long weekend. We did lots of fun stuff– saw Spongebob Squarepants the Musical (surprisingly good), went to see the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum with friends Troy and Lisa, and we also marched in/went to a gun control rally, one of the March for Our Lives pro-gun control rallies. It was an inspiring and even festive event– and I am pretty sure we walked about 10 miles that day. Here’s a photo while marching of one of the Trump people in front of one of the Trump buildings. Sad.

 

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Andy Warhol’s Amegia desktop computer circa mid 1980’s.

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I ended up for a weekend in Pittsburgh in April and, among other things, went to the Andy Warhol museum. Who knew Warhol was an Amegia fan?

 

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Found a few of morels growing in the backyard in May, and after perhaps too much research (because after all, who wants to end up dead or sick from some weird mushroom thing they found in their backyard?), I cooked these up in a little butter and Annette and Will and I ate them. Holy-moly, they were spectacular. Hope they come back this spring.

 

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The Computers and Writing Conference last year was at George Mason University. Bill HD and Steve Benninghoff and I drove out and stayed in the dorms– with (among many other people) Doug Walls. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with CWCON in the next couple of years. I won’t be able to go to it at all in 2019 (probably) even though it’s going to be at MSU because of some family plans, and I don’t know how confident I am that there will be one of these conferences in 2020. Stay tuned.

 

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Will and Annette ahead on the way down the climbing dune.

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Made the often enough trip “up north” in the summer, which of course was lovely as always….

 

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Annette and I made a point last summer of trying to make more trips into Detroit to do stuff, including a trip to the Hitsville, USA museum. I like all those Motown artists and songs, but I’m not really much of a fan, but I have to say the museum and tour was great.

 

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Will moved back into the dorms as a Resident Assistant for one more year– he’s set to graduate in May and then off to graduate school. Again, stay tuned.

 

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arch rock terror selfie

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Annette and I took a September trip to Mackinac Island to take advantage of one of these “discount” (still too expensive) deals at The Grand Hotel, and we lucked out with legitimately nice weather too. Not quite sure what this photo says about us though.

 

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My father’s little “man cave” Xmas tree.

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Pretty much the same patio view I had last year too.

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And finally, we once again are still in the midst of our typical too much travel over the Xmas break. Had a “quick trip” to Iowa for my side of the family (though I don’t know how accurate it is to call a three day trip that involves around 20 hours in a car particularly “quick”) and then down to Florida for Annette’s side of things, and here I am with almost exactly the same view I had about a year ago.

So that is pretty much that. I left out a lot because honestly, while I think 2018 had a lot of good stuff about it, there was also a lot of shitty stuff about it too. Here’s hoping 2019 has more (or at least as much) good and less bad.

The Don Rickels approach to campus security

Earlier this week, there were a couple of news stories out about the faculty union at Oakland University (which is about an hour north of here in Rochester Hills, Michigan) buying and distributing hockey pucks to faculty, staff, and students as a defense against an on-campus shooter. I learned about this at nine or ten Thursday night, after a long day and while I was thinking about going to bed. Being a little sleepy and fuzzy-headed, I assumed this was some kind of joke. But no, this is very real.

Then I thought “well, this surly must have been the bone-headed idea of some administrator or campus security person or both.” Nope. The Oakland University faculty union’s executive committee took part in an on-campus active shooter training session, and part of that training is about throwing stuff at a would-be shooter. The Oakland University Chief of Police mentioned hockey pucks as an example.

“We thought ‘yeah, that is something that we can do,'” [Tom Discenna, president of the American Association of University Professors] said. “We can make these available at least to our members and a fair number of students as well.”

So far, the union has spent $2,500 on an initial batch of pucks. Each costs 94 cents to make and they are printed with the union’s logo, Discenna said. They are being distributed for free.

The union began passing out the pucks on Nov. 9. So far, 800 faculty members have them, and another 1,700 are expected to go to students. The university’s student congress has ordered an additional 1,000, he said.

I posted about this on the EMUTalk Facebook group and I was surprised by the number of people who thought this wasn’t a bad idea.  I mean, on the one hand, I suppose this is true: a hockey puck is a good size for throwing and it could definitely do some damage if it connected. (The OU Chief of Police also suggested billiard balls.) A friend/colleague of mine who went through an active shooter training at his synagogue told me that experience made him understand the importance of thinking about strategies for what to do, including fighting back as a last resort. So okay, I guess.

On the other hand, c’mon, really? Have we been so beaten down by the every week or so stories about active shooters that all we do now is shrug and think if I every find ourselves in such a terrible situation, I sure hope I have a nice heavy object to throw? Are we that far away from some version of sensible gun control laws that passing out hockey pucks seems like a pretty solid idea? Thoughts, prayers, pucks? WTF?

I don’t know if this makes things better or worse, but deeply buried in these stories is this:

Separately, the union is hoping the pucks can help bolster a fundraising campaign for interior door locks for university classrooms. Each one has an identification number for voluntary donations to the campaign. The union and student congress each have contributed $5,000 toward that initiative.

That’s the real story– or at least it should be. I’ve never been on campus at Oakland University, but assuming it’s like ever other college campus I’ve been on (including the one where I work), the vast majority of the classrooms do not have doors that can lock, certainly not with the turn of a deadbolt from the inside of the room. And let me tell ya: if there is an active shooter on campus while I’m teaching, the first thing I want is not something hard and dangerous to throw. The first thing I want is a freakin’ lock.

So really, this story about hockey pucks as a defensive distraction against a classroom shooter is actually a clever distraction from the real issue. Universities are not doing enough to make their campuses safe. They certainly aren’t investing in locking doors. If Oakland University (or any university for that matter) was actually serious about making its campus more secure, it’d spend less time promoting the Don Rickels defense and more time on something that might actually work, like a locked door that keeps the shooter on the outside.

Oh yeah, and sensible gun control laws, but I know that’s a fantasy.

 

My recent attempts at social media detoxing/dieting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, I might be wrong about this.

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

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

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

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

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

Before I get to Geraldo’s tweets:

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

Okay, on To Geraldo Rivera’s tweets:

Yes on all of the above.

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

Well, three out of four here, Gerry.

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

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

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

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

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

Finally:

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

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

Who Reads Academic Writing? Who Reads Anything?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is to say two things, I guess:

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