Paper or Plastic?

I have been meaning to post here about an amusing entry on November 12, 2003 at the Household Opera blog called “A Plastic-sack view of Higher Education”. With a title like that, it perhaps isn’t surprising that The Invisible Adjunct picked up on it in a post about part-time faculty. For me, the metaphor connecting plastic grocery store bags and the decline (apparently) of higher education doesn’t work on a lot of different levels, and even the writer at Household Opera admits it is a bit of a parody and it is perhaps a signal that she is adopting her mother’s pet peeve regarding bad bagging.

After all, who is who in this metaphor? Are part-timers the plastic bag? That doesn’t seem to make much sense. Are they the baggers? Well, considering that bagging groceries is an entry-level and non-skilled job, one step above the person who gathers the carts in the parking lot, I don’t think that’s true. I suppose you could argue that plastic bags represent the demise of the golden age of neighborhood grocery stores and that this somehow ties in with the demise of more “friendly and genteel” institutions of higher education, but I don’t get that one, either.

Anyway, I do share the writer of Household Opera’s irritation with bad grocery store bagging, and I think you could argue that plastic bags helped bring about the demise of “bagging skills.” One doesn’t really “bag” in plastic bags because it isn’t as important how you stack things up in them. I tend to ask for paper for a variety of reasons, but generally, the folks working at the store, who don’t have any real “bagging skills” as it were, put stuff in the paper bags as if they were plastic, and thus the lettuce is squished by the canned tomatoes.

I don’t think this makes plastic bags “evil” or a sign of the downfall of grocery stores, though. As I understand it, plastic bags are actually better for the environment, they are cheaper, and it can make it easier to carry your groceries. It’s certainly easier to walk a few blocks and up some stairs with plastic bags.

Regardless, bad bagging is the world we live in, and I think there are only three ways around this nowadays: you can either be vigilant and dictatorial about how your groceries are bagged (“no-no-no! put the cans on the bottom! and put that bottle of wine in a paper sleeve, please!”); you can shop at “finer grocery stores” where the employees do seem to know how to bag a bit; and/or you can do it yourself. Perhaps there’s a metaphor in there about how higher education works…

What kind of social software are you?

This might be more appropriate on my unofficial blog space, but…

I found this silly little Internet quiz via Johndan’s “datacloud” site, and I thought it would be a good way to procrastinate from grading. Eerily, I believe this quiz has proven to be quite accurate. It said:

You are the blogosphere

You comment, you trackback, you Google, you technorati. You wish you blogdexed.

what kind of social software are you?

Weird, huh?

Accessibility and the WWW Resource

Kind of an interesting resource I stumbled across via Charlie Lowe’s blog called “Dive Into Accessibility,” a web resource designed to improve a web site’s “accessibility,” a term held in some high esteem to tech writers. It’s on the web at http://diveintoaccessibility.org/. It was put together by this guy named Mark Pilgrim, who is a computer programmer-type.

I haven’t looked through this site much yet, but I need to start thinking about these things more carefully because I’m teaching a new course in the winter called “Writing for the World Wide Web.” I’ve taught a version of this course before, but I am going to take a slightly different approach to the class this time around. This might seem obvious, but I am going to focus in this version of the class on “writing,” as opposed to “web page production.” Obviously, these two things are related with each other, but I guess what I’m getting at is I am not planning on spending a ton of time on the details of fancy web stuff. Just as well since I don’t do fancy web stuff, anyway. Rather, my goal is to spend more time on issues of how the web forces us to think about the conventions of writing– style issues, audience, etc., etc.

Right now, I’m planning on using a lot of web sites (like this one), and probably a couple of books, including one by Robin Williams (and someone else– she co-wrote this one) called The Non-Designers Web Design Book, or something like that, and probably a book by Jonathan and Lisa Price called Hot Text: Web Writing That Works. But I haven’t settled on anything yet; right now, I’m just trying to keep up with my fall students!

NPR and Kroc Money

NPR announced today that it received $200 million from Joan Kroc, a well-known philanthropist and the widow of Ray Kroc, who was the founder of McDonalds. You can read all about the money from the NPR web site, or by Clicking here.

Two things occurred to me about this. First, it’s kind of interesting that NPR, which is generally thought of as a fairly “liberal” news source, got this money from Ray Kroc’s widow. This is kind of strange because, as this web site says, (which is part of a database that the textbook company Houghton-Mifflin maintains called American History Database), Ray Kroc was a well-known and “ardent political conservative.” Perhaps the Krocs had some rather heated political discussions back in the day.

Second, I hope that NPR uses this money in part to reduce the costs of its programming, which in turn would make it easier for stations like my local NPR affiliate to operate. Essentially, I hope that NPR uses the money to take the franchise business model that Kroc created with McDonalds and turn it on its head.

The Demise of Cursive: So What?

By way of the NCTE INBOX service, here’s a feature story about how cursive-style handwriting isn’t being taught much anymore, at least in the Detroit area. As the article laments, “Taught for more than 300 years in the U.S., cursive writing has a storied past. But in schools across southeast Michigan, fancy writing has been reduced to an independent study, an “as-we-have-time” course in second or third grade. Papers written in cursive may be required in later grades, but with legibility spotty, computer printouts often are accepted instead.”

I have a hard time getting too terribly sad by this. For one thing, I hated being taught cursive and “proper writing” and all of that. I’m left-handed, which means that I had to figure out how to do all of the various pen-holding techniques backwards, and I still managed to drag my fat little hand through my ugly little letters. In the fourth grade, I actually failed handwriting. Maybe that’s the real reason I became a writer and a writing teacher.

Anyway, another reason I have a hard time getting too sad about the loss of old-fashioned cursive is it seems to be being replaced by something that matters. When the reporter asked a group of second graders “whether they would rather spend time learning cursive or computers, computers had the second-graders’ hearts. Hands down. “

The article tries to suggest that these kids just want to have fun and not buckle-down and take the time to learn a fine cursive hand. But I think these second graders are a lot smarter than that. I think these kids already realize that knowing how to effectively use a computer is going to be a lot more important for their future than learning how to write pretty.

Steve the Happy Academic, addendum to Part I: "They Like Me, They Really Like Me!"

Well no, not really.

I was a bit surprised when I surfed by the Invisible Adjunct blog yesterday to discover that she had already posted about my blog, and then somewhat surprised again that her post about my blog generated a fair amount of discussion. You can read all about it by clicking here.

The fact that a lot of folks at Invisible Adjunct weren’t exactly willing to share in my academic happiness didn’t surprise me. For one thing, as I had said in my original post, these folks have a point. But more importantly, many people who follow the Invisible Adjunct blog are seeking a community of like-minded folks who share their complaints and laments about the academic world. Complain and lament with a group, and there is a problem with “the system;” complain and lament alone, and there is a problem with you.

No, what really surprised me is that anyone actually read my blog in the first place. I mean, I know that there are several bloggers who link to my blog (many of the people I link to link to me), and I know from my own blog surfing, it’s easy to wonder into a new blog space. This is one of the appeals of blogs to me: it reminds me of the very old days of the web, where the pleasure was just surfing about. Still, I mainly see my blog as a space to post things that are of interest to me and maybe a few others, links to sites I want to go back to later, thoughts on teaching and the academic life. Sure, it’s a public space, and I want others to read it, but it still always surprises me that anyone else actually does.

Who Says Citation Isn't Fun?

Here’s a link to a great article that was in the New Yorker I’ve been meaning to post for a while:

http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/?031006crbo_books1

Called “End Matter” and by Louis Menand, it’s a review of the new Chicago Manual of Style, but it’s really an essay about the whole business of “style,” particularly citation. I like this sentence from the end of the essay a lot: “The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it.”

Steve the Happy Academic, Part I

I’ve been spending some time lately surfing through sites like The Invisible Adjunct, academicgame, and Household Opera, among other web sites. Most of these are linked through the very excellent Invisible Adjunct site. In various ways, much of what these bloggers write about is the sorry state of the academic life. You can probably guess what the “Invisible Adjunct’s” story is (or at least part of the story); the writer of “Household Opera” is a PhD student who is contemplating leaving academia, and the writer(s) at “academicgame” just seem, well, pissed.

These (and others along these lines) blogs are interesting to read because they make good points and observations about academia in the news, they have good links, and they are generally well-written. And it’s not as if what many of these blogs are saying isn’t true or at least potentially true– more often than not, I agree with what I see in these spaces. But at the same time, these blogs bother me. For one thing, they too often move far too quickly from what I read as legitimate complaints to “whining”– and let me say that “whining” is a word I’m not comfortable with here, but it’s the only one I can come up with. I guess what I’m saying is they are telling a part of a story, one that, logically speaking, can only be a part of the story.

There are lots of things wrong with the academic world and higher education, no doubt about it. And yet, even with all of the problems, I still am quite satisfied to be in academia. I am, as the title of this post suggests, “a Happy Academic.” Why? Well, at the risk of sounding like I’m gloating and/or just trying to “put on a happy face,” here’s a short list:

  • I had a “real job” once. I don’t know all the life stories of the “not so happy” academics who run some of the blogs I mentioned, but I have noticed in my own mixings with fellow academic-types that there is a difference between those who went “straight through” from the BA to the PhD, and those who interrupted their studies along the line. I took three years off between my MFA (in creative writing) and my PhD program; during that time, I was an “office temp” and then ultimately a “PR Rep” for a state agency in Richmond, Virginia. The details of the work I did aren’t important for my purposes here, but these experiences put me smack-dab in the middle of the “real world” (well, as it existed in the early 90’s): felt-lined cubicles, dress codes, strict hours, mind-numbing tasks, pointy-haired bosses, etc., etc. Dilbert-land. It wasn’t horrible, but it also wasn’t for me. Further, whenever I get it into my head to complain about the academic life, I quickly recall the alternatives. This always cheers me up.
  • I never tried to make a living as an adjunct. I was an adjunct way back when; during this “working in the real world” time, I worked 8-5 in an office and then I taught one or two night class sections of freshman composition. I did this for two reasons. First, I needed the extra money. But second and more important, it kept my foot in the academic world just enough for me to decide that I wanted to jump back into it full-time.

    But for me, being an adjunct college teacher was never my main source of employment, and I didn’t have any sense that being an adjunct would somehow lead to a full-time and permanent teaching job. I’ll save this for another time, but I think that those folks who are trying to piece together a full-time teaching experience by picking up a few sections at several different schools are making a mistake.

  • I studied and thought about “the market” before I started my PhD. I went into composition in rhetoric because I genuinely like teaching writing, particularly writing to students in classes like first year composition and other “advanced writing” research sort of classes– this as opposed to creative writing. But I also went into composition and rhetoric because of the laws of supply and demand that I thought were patently obvious when I began PhD studies 10 years ago and which I think are still obvious today: there remains a relatively high demand for people who study composition and rhetoric (particularly for people who study things like technical writing, computers, and/or English education) and a relatively low supply of people interested in pursuing PhDs in composition and rhetoric. Conversely, there is a relatively low demand for people who study literature (though this varies quite a bit in terms of period, genre, critical focus, and so forth), and a relatively high supply of people interested in pursuing PhDs in literature. It has been this way for 30 years, give or take, and there is every reason to believe that this trend is going to continue.

    I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t follow their dreams or that you shouldn’t study literature and that literature isn’t important or what-have-you, nor am I trying to suggest that people should go into fields like composition and rhetoric just to get an academic job. What I am saying is this: Way back when, I found myself torn between going to get a PhD in literature, in creative writing, and composition and rhetoric. I love all of these things. But I knew, because of supply and demand market forces, my chances were better if I focused on composition and rhetoric. Simple as that.

  • I’m interested in both teaching and scholarship. This is especially important to be a happy academic who teaches English at a “middle of the road” college or university in this country since professors are more or less expected to do both. I’ve met a number of unhappy academics who were almost completely invested in their scholarship, who saw their teaching as an unwelcome burden. That’s not good. And conversely, I’ve met a few unhappy academics who just want to teach their classes, go home, and not bother to keep up with the scholarship. I think most happy academics have found some sort of balance between the two.
  • I realize that when all is said and done, being an academic is a job– nothing more, and nothing less. This is a hard one for me to articulate, and I don’t mean to diminish the nature of the academic job. I think it’s a different sort of job than working in an office or something like that for a lot of different reasons. Being an academic is more of a “calling” than working as a PR Rep for a state agency (at least it was for me). One of the definite perks of a faculty job is you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of when and where you work, though one of the definite drawbacks of this arrangement is it feels like you’re always working. And I also think that being a college teacher– even a part-time or non-tenure-track faculty member– affords you a level of autonomy and freedom that people who work in Dilbert-land can’t even imagine.

    In other words, it’s a good job. However, having said all that, it still is ultimately just a job, one that comes with all of the hassles, petty politics, paperwork, and irritations that anyone who has job has to put up with. I like what I do, but I don’t do this “for fun.” I’m not independently wealthy; I do this for money so I can live and provide for my family, the same reason why most of the other people in our society have jobs.

    I think what sometimes happen is academic-types become disappointed in the academic life when they start to think that being a college professor is somehow something different than being an employee. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe they are imagining academia as feudal system and being a professor is like being a prince or princess. Maybe they have in mind a television show professor. Maybe they have in mind some abstract memory of a professor they had i
    n college who seemed to have risen to the level of a minor deity. But for whatever reason, I think sometimes folks are disappointed by the reality of it all. There are good days, there are bad days; there are rumors and office politics and backstabbing; there are office parties and water cooler talks. My job is different from a “normal” job in many ways, and it is just like a “normal” job in many ways. Because, ultimately, it is a job.

  • I’ve been lucky.Sure, I have worked hard to get here and I continue to work hard, but it would be foolish for me to not acknowledge that a lot of my happiness as an academic is simply dumb luck and good fortune. While my first academic job wasn’t a good one (for reasons I’ll perhaps go into another day), I have not had to live in an unpleasant place since graduate school, one of the things that makes many academics unhappy. As an aside though, I do feel like I “paid my dues” in terms of living in a nasty part of the country since I did my PhD studies at Bowling Green State University. BGSU was a great school, but wow, was Bowling Green, OH ever an ugly stinky place to live.

    I’m happily married to a brilliant woman who is a full-time lecturer in the department where I work, and we have a great kid– in other words, I’ve managed to have a good family life, something that many unhappy academics have not been able to do because of job pressures or other reasons. My current employer, Eastern Michigan University has plenty of problems– perhaps you’ve read some of my musings here about our president’s controversial new house and the screwed-up nature of the faculty union. But in the grand scheme of things, the school is a good employer and the department I work is great. I like what I teach, I’ve been lucky enough to fall into some good scholarly opportunities, etc., etc.

    I don’t think good luck is ever entirely “good luck;” but I know plenty of people who have worked as hard as I have who have not been as lucky. Again, I’m not trying to gloat here; just trying to acknowledge why I’m happy.

Well, that’s that. I’ve worked on this rant for a few days now, and I have wondered for a while if I should post this. Oddly, it might be more popular and socially acceptable for me to post something about how unhappy I am. But I’m not, so this will have to do for now.

Interesting Article on "Writing the Living Web"

Here’s a link to an article I stumbled across while surfing the web called “10 Tips on Writing the Living Web: A List Apart.” It’s in what looks like a potentially cool web journal about the web called A List Apart and it was written by well-known hypertext guy Mark Bernstein. Interesting reading.

A funny story about all this though: I actually met Mark Bernstein and Michael Joyce and a couple other “big names” in early hypertext theory/writing probably 10 years ago at a seminar/workshop about hypertext and Eastgate Systems. It was held in Ann Arbor, and a colleague of mine from Bowling Green State (John Clark) and I got some sort of huge discount to participate in this one day deal that was targeted to teachers and others interested in writing with hypertext in general and their software, StorySpace. They’re still selling it– it’s available through the Eastgate Systems web site.

Anyway, it was an interesting and educational and obviously memorable time, but at one point in the afternoon, when we were doing a hands-on workshop on using Story Space, either me or John asked about this “new-fangled” thing called the World Wide Web and HTML. I don’t remember exactly what Bernstein and Joyce said, but they weren’t crazy about us bringing the topic up, and I think it’s fair to say that they would still argue that the web isn’t real hypertext. Oh well, maybe they’re right. But it works for me, and I think what Bernstein says about effective writing on the web works pretty well, too.

A Few Highlights of This Morning's Blog Reading

First off, you should support your local public radio; in my case, that’s WEMU, the “news/jazz/blues” station here on EMU’s campus in lovely Ypsilanti, MI. Though, truth be told, I also listen to Michigan Public Radio (which is an all talk format) and to WDET in Detroit. In any event, I give my money to WEMU, about $100 a year, and you should, too.

Having said that, I really dislike pledge drive time, which is what’s going on now. The result has been that I’ve reading a lot more in blog space for the last couple of days. A couple of quick highlights that seem more or less appropriate here:

* A good entry from Teaching Writing in an Online World about a CQ Researcher devoted to plagiarism. I might find a way to make this a piece of assigned reading the next time I teach fy comp, or maybe for my grad classes about computers and the teaching of writing. The address for this PDF file is http://library.cqpress.com/images/cqres/pdfs/color/cqr20030919C.pdf

* From Wired News Rants and Raves, there’s this item about iTunes being available for Windows. The problem, as the writer points out, Apple wants people who are using MS Windows, with it’s dramatically huge security problems, to turn off things like firewall software to download songs. That ain’t gonna happen; maybe these people should get a Mac.

* The Humanmetrics Site which includes a sort of Jungian version of a Myers-Briggs test, along with a bunch of other kind of fun personality tests. Use with caution. I came across this after reading Clancy “Culture Cat” Ratliff’s blog.