Your Mac Sure is Pretty…

I was surfing around in blog space this morning (which is one of the reasons why the links column on the right have changed a bit, rearranged and with some new blog links– more on that another day) and came across several blogs that had linked to this article from SF Gate: Lick Me, I’m a Macintosh Essentially, it’s a praise for Apple’s cool n’ groovy design.

I agree with everything that Mark Morford writes in the article– Macs are more pretty than PCs, Apple clearly cares about design issues more than PC makers, and I think that the design of the machines is one of the reasons that I most certainly prefer working on a Mac than on a Windows PC. But I think that Morford is being a little hard on the look of PCs. We recently bought a Dell in the Krause/Wannamaker home, ostensibly for our six year old son to play games and to learn more about computers. In reality, I’m the one who has been playing with the thing a lot– games, but also with the Windows XP and such– and I have to say, this new Dell is a slick looking machine, too. Black as a trendy NYC art gallery patron, it has a stylish flat screen monitor, buffed silver colored buttons, a gentle feeling keyboard, and slightly curved speakers. It’s not as pretty as my Mac, but it’s still pretty. And Windows XP is clearly trying to take a lesson from Apple’s OS X (I guess 10.2 now).

But like I said, I’d much rather work on my Mac, I suppose because of a “design” feature that isn’t just all looks: it works better. With OS X, my Mac doesn’t crash. Ever. Oh, and all of the software works the way its supposed to work, a “design” feature that hasn’t seemed to caught on in the Windows world.

How Mcuh Deos Seplinlg Cnout?

I’ve come across a couple of different blog and email posts lately about how we can usually make sense of words that are misspelled because of the way our brains work. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about, which is an email my father sent me (that was obviously sent to him from someone else):

Aoccdrnig to rscheearchr at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy , it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae . The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe .

Amzanig huh?

So why did we waste all of that time in school learning how to spell?

I like what Scott Rosenberg said in his blog about all this: this demonstrates why it’s hard to catch typos and it suggests that reading slowly is a dying art.

But I guess there are two other things that I find interesting. First, all of this is kind of true and kind of not true. This entry from Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey blog suggests that the “original research” on this seems to have been actually about speech. Obviously, that’s different from the written word, though it makes sense that we are easily able to read these mixed-up words because we’re smart enough to make a reasonable guess. This is slightly different than trying to interpret truly bad spelling, though. I’ve had students who were such poor spellers that it was near impossible to make a reasonable guess about what they were trying to spell.

But perhaps more important to me as a teacher and as a chronically bad speller myself is I think that these folks are misinterpreting the impact of bad spelling. Being a bad speller doesn’t mean people can’t understand you; being a bad speller makes you “look” bad. It’s like most of the other details of writing, proof-reading, minor grammar issues, word choices, and the like. Doing it right makes you look like you know what you’re doing and it makes your writing more persuasive. Doing it wrong does the opposite.

Personally, I have always believed “good spelling” to be a genetic feature that some people have and some people don’t have, kind of like the ability to roll your tongue. Use a spell checker and keep a dictionary reasonably handy.

Sam's House in the News Again

The front page story in yesterday’s Ann Arbor News was about the EMU Regents conducting their own investigation about the various rumors and reports about the spending on the new University House, better known to folks on campus here as “Sam’s House” since it is the home of EMU’s president Sam Kirkpatrick. Here’s a link to yesterday’s article, and here’s a link to an article that ran in late August about the same issue. And just to share what the administration has to say about the house controversy, here’s a link to a bad picture of the house while it was under construction (you can still get a sense of how enormous this thing is), and here’s a link to a “Q & A” about the house from the administration’s point of view.

In the nutshell, one of Kirkpatrick’s fist actions when he came to EMU was to insist that the university build a new president’s house that would be more appropriate for entertaining and fund raising. I was in the old president’s house once when I came to EMU, and Kirkpatrick’s argument does make a certain amount of sense. It was indeed a dated, small, old house, probably fine for a normal family in the 1950s, but not the sort of thing that looks very “presidential,” even for the president of EMU. But instead of making a modest upgrade, Kirkpatrick decided to go “big time” and built a house/facility that is 10,000 square feet and is probably one of the biggest, grandest, and (in my opinion) ugliest houses in the county. It’s a monstrosity built on a plot of land that faces a Walgreens and an auto supply store on Washtenaw Avenue, which is one of the main drags for fast food places and such through Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. Sure, it’s near the EMU Convocation Center and football stadium, which was the reasoning for putting it over there instead of closer to campus in the first place. But despite what the official university documents say, it’s probably more accurate to describe the Convocation Center and football stadium as being around the corner and out of view from the house. Right off the front yard are the back ends of Walgreens and the Washtenaw strip.

The current controversy is about how the house was paid for and how much it cost. Kirkpatrick et al have always said that the house was paid for NOT with tuition, but with donations from individuals and corporations. But this is a bit of a dodge since money that comes from these sorts of sources could just as easily gone into the endowment or some other operating fund. In other words, even if the actual dollars didn’t come from tuition or state appropriations, the money that was used to pay for the house obviously could have been used to pay for other things– faculty, books, etc. And even if the administration wants to argue that the donors specifically said that they wanted the money to go to the house, clearly Kirkpatrick and the rest of the administration made an argument to donors that they needed the money for the new presidential mansion and not for other things.

The potentially more problematic charge for Kirkpatrick is the different reports about the final cost of the project. The administration said that it cost about $3.5 million; rumors abound that it is closer to twice that amount. I don’t really know who to believe, but one rumor was that the house cost $3.5 million, but the extensive landscaping and other things around the house cost another $1.5 million (give or take), and those expenses came not from these donations but the university operating funds. Like I said, I don’t know if these rumors or true or not; just what I’ve heard.

If nothing else, Sam’s house and the controversy around it seems to me to be the most obvious of a series of examples of what must be Kirkpatrick’s “vision” for EMU, and it strikes me as a remarkably destructive vision. While tenure-track faculty numbers have decreased, administrative lines have increased. EMU is still attracting lots of students despite tuition hikes, and to teach the additional classes, the administration has hired more and more part-time and non-tenure-track full-time faculty. Plans to refurbish woefully inadequate academic buildings like the one I teach in have been put on hold because of funding issues, and yet we’re moving full-steam ahead to build a new student union that no one on campus really seems to want. And just to add insult to injury, the plan for the old student union is to convert most of it into administrative office space.

Well, I wish the regents luck. I hope they do a real audit, I hope they hire an outside firm, and for once, I hope that the rumors of how things have been going turn out to be false. One way or the other though, I know the entire EMU community will be following this story closely…

The University, Inc.

An interesting article in the Saturday September 6, 2003 New York Times called The Academic Industrial Complex. It covers old territory about how the “commercial” and “business” world is creeping into the “academic” world; or, perhaps a bit more accurately, it discusses how the academic world is becoming more like a business. The interesting and useful thing about this essay to me is that it cites a bunch of recent books that discuss the issue from both sides of the coin. And at the beginning of the semester, it’s always a good discussion to have.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of acknowledging the commercial/business values and purposes of what we do in academia. The fact of the matter is our students are coming to universities for both philosophical and ethical versions and for capitalistic ones. This seems okay to me because it seems in line with the reasons for all but independently wealthy faculty for working at universities: it’s a noble and ethical profession, and it pays the bills.

What does bother me though is when university administrators try to focus their efforts on how to make money, when they try to put the emphasis on “profit centers” in the university. Maybe the book store or the fast food places in the student union can work like that, and maybe there are some departments (in business or the sciences, for example) able to attract grant money in a way that makes them profitable, but obviously most academic departments (like English) can’t make money in this sense and still continue to do what we do.

I have nothing against making money; I don’t even have anything against a responsible and enlightened version of capitalism. But not everything of value is going to make a buck.

School Days, School Daze

The semester at EMU started on Wednesday, but the first day of teaching for me was yesterday, September 4. The first day of school is always a somewhat strained and awkward, that uncomfortable situation where you meet someone who you are going to have to “deal with” for the next 15 weeks, one way or the other. So far, so good– I think I’ve got three pretty good classes this semester.

Of course the big talk on campus these first few days is the failing performance of my.emich.edu For anyone who might be reading this from someplace not at EMU: last year, they began implementing a “portal” system at EMU called “my.emich,” also known by its commercial name, “campus pipeline.” Essentially, it’s a software package that intergrates just about any Internet-based application that you would want to use regardless fo what you do at EMU– email, of course, but also anything having to do with scheduling (for students), calendar functions, grading, other teaching things (for faculty), managing nearly anything on campus (for staff). Well, that system has essentially crashed and crashed hard– sometimes it will work for a few minutes, and then it will stop working. And then it will come back for a bit and then it will stop.

I have no idea what’s wrong, and so far, no one in Informational and Communication Technology seems to be talking about it in any detail either. Maybe they don’t know what’s wrong. But if I didn’t know better, I would say that the problem had to do with the tech folks dramatically underestimating the level of useage. It is behaving like what happens with web sites or other types of sites when they get too many hits. If that’s the problem, that’s a pretty amateurish problem, especially since they spent something like $27 million on all of this stuff.

Just how widespread is plagiarism, anyway?

There was an article by Kelly Heyboer of the Newhouse News Service in the Ann Arbor News August 28, 2003 (page A4) about trends in plagiarism, with an alarming headline that “Poll: Nearly 40% of college students admit to copying text off Internet.” This article (and there are similar ones out there, of course) cites a survey from Donald McCabe of 18,000 anonymous students, and the article says the study reached conclusions like:

* “Thirty-eight percent of undergraduates say they engaged in one or more instances of “cut-and-paste” plagiarism in the past year.”

and…

* “Forty percent of undergraduates admitted to lifting parts of books and other written sources for their papers.”

Pretty alarming stuff. But is it really that bad? Even this article notes that the “Researchers are careful not to blame the Internet for the cheating rate. If students did not have computers, they would find some other way to cheat, McCabe said.”

Another curious feature of this article is that it doesn’t provide very clear information about this McCabe study– as in when it took place, where the results were published, and so forth. When I tried to do a quick search for it on the Internet, I turned up empty. So in a curious way, it’s arguable that this article about plagiarism is a form of, well, plagiarism.

I just don’t think plagiarism is as big of a deal as a lot of professors seem to think it is; at least it hasn’t been as big of a deal for me. First off, even the McCabe study (if read from a different point of view) suggests that the trends in plagiarism have been pretty steady for at least 30 years– this according to this module I found for ideas about teaching basic writing written by a couple of folks I know and/or work with.

Second, there are even some folks who suggest that the occurrences plagiarism is actually declining. This article from the free part of the The Chronicle of Higher Education argues (basically) that online plagiarism isn’t as wide spread as been reported and “hyped” in the media.

Third and most important to me, plagiarism can be prevented or reduced easily enough by making assignments that are difficult to plagiarize. I mean, if an instructor gives a lazy writing assignment like “write an essay about Shakespeare,” they are most certainly going to get a lazy student cutting and pasting something from the Internet. If, on the other hand, an instructor gives an assignment that demands some evidence of pre-writing and examples of citations and if the assignment is tailored to the specific demands of the class, then plagiarism becomes just about as much work as actually doing the work. And when all is said and done, I think students would rather do their own work.

English 317 at U of M (aka "How to be Gay") Makes Right Wingers Freak Out

I swear, I’m not making this up:

As reported in the Ann Arbor News on August 21, 2003, Michigan state representative Jack Hoogendyk has put forth a bill in the legislature which would amend the state constitution requiring “public universities each year to submit class lists to the Legislature with detailed descriptions,” allow the legislature to stop the “teaching of any class at a publicly funded university,” and to allow the legislature to deny funding to universities that ignore this rule. What has brought about Hoogendyk’s wrath? Well, according to the Ann Arbor News, there is a list of courses, including those offered at EMU; but the real course that has Hoogendyk upset is called “How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation.”

Obviously, there are all kinds of basic “freedom of speech” problems with this legislation. Hoogendyk’s plans are extreme, facisitic, and dictatorial. Anyone who believes in any sense of academic freedom needs to take this assult seriously and needs to vigorously fight such laws. As the Provost at U of M put it, academic freedom has been central to development of universities and we need to protect “the bedrock foundation of the free and open exchange of ideas.”

But beyond this basic response, Hoogendyk’s fight against this “gay course” strikes me as being pretty goofy. First off, one of the things that surprised me is that when I did a search for this story with Google’s news search, all of the hits I got (except for an article in something called Gay Financial Network) were from very conservative sources. It has to make me wonder what is it about homosexuality that works people on the right wing so much? What are they afraid of?

Second, obviously a lot of the controversy has to do with the title of the course. The professor teaching the course was unavailable for comment this summer, but he said in a previous story about the course (he got himself in the news a couple years ago for the same reasons) that the “initiation” of the course title isn’t to encourage people to become gay, but rather to talk about what it means to be gay. Really, it sounds like the course isn’t that different from a lot being offered across the country nowadays. Some of the material that students read/discuss includes things like Oscar Wilde, various movies and music, and such. I’m sure they’ll be watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Pretty routine stuff, really.

So what I’m saying is the professor teaching this course is trying to be intentionally provocative and even irritating to the right wing and attract attention to the course. I don’t know how I feel about that, frankly. I guess whenever you teach a course and you are trying to get students to take it, you need to title the course in a way that makes it sound interesting, perhaps even more interesting than it really is. But I also have to wonder if it is really necessary to give a course a title that is intentionally going to piss people off.

But the third thing is this: don’t legislators think, just for about fifteen minutes or so, before they go through the process and use valuable resources to propose such stupid laws? Is Hoogendyk so unfamilar with the way that universities and colleges work that he thinks it would even be possible to review such courses? The Ann Arbor News said there are 2,000 undergrad courses at the U of M. I believe there are 10 public universities in Michigan, so we’re talking about (give or take) 10,000 different courses. How could the legislature possibly review these courses? And I can tell you as a professor that some times (too many times, frankly), you don’t really know where a course is going to go until after the course is underway. So, what would they do about that? What would they do about one of my mundanely titled courses that turns controversial after a group of students decides to to a project on gay marriage or whatever.

Think about the logisitics of this for a few more minutes and it will make your head numb.

EMU PDU Web Site Up and Running

EMU’s Professors for a Democratic Union is a grass roots group of faculty at EMU that came about after the group of us resigned from our chapter’s union’s executive committee. I wrote about this a bit in my “old” official blog, but in the nutshell, I was elected as a member-at-large as part of a “slate” of candidates to change the way the union is run. We couldn’t do it and we were in danger of being taken down with the irresponsible folks running things, so we decided we’d better get out while we could.

Ultimately, the result was this group, which now has a web site at http://www.emu-pdu.org. We’re organizing with a policy platform, we’re putting forward a new slate of candidates (and this time, we’re going to run enough candidates to make sure we win this thing), and we’re pursing legal action as necessary. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the EMU faculty union web site isn’t working right now and hasn’t been for a couple of days.

Back from Black(out)

I posted a message about what the blackout of 2003 meant to me on my unofficial blog space, in case someone who comes across this space is actually interested. Interestingly, my office server, krause.emich.edu, only went down while the power was out. On the other hand, the university supported servers, including the one that host this site, were down until about 36 hours after the power came back on in Ypsilanti. Hmmm…