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.

Here's a Post Just To Let You Know Nothing Is New

I’m just busy-busy-busy-busy with school and everything else. I’ve been putting together conference proposals for the 2004 Computers and Writing Conference, which is going to be my one and only conference this year because it’s going to be in Hawaii– lotsa fun, lotsa money. I’ve been working on a web site for a recently retired poet here at EMU, Clayton Eshleman, and I continue to update the web site for the group EMU Professors for a Democratic Union. Plus there’s my teaching, my textbook project, my other writing, my life in general. Busy-busy-busy.

But I felt compelled to post something here, even if it was something that didn’t really say anything because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do on a blog, right?

It’s funny, but a lot of the blogs I read once in a while are written by people who post something every day. I’m at a loss as to how they have time to do it and also that they actually have anything interesting to say on a daily basis. I certainly don’t. As is obvious from this post.

Anyway, just in case you’ve come across this blog and wondered where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to…

…But Just in Case You're Following My Faculty Union Stories…

In what has to be one of the most “in your face” snubs by the remaining members of my union’s non-functional Executive Committee to date, they’ve changed the date of the October chapter meeting from the 17th to the 31st, this despite the fact that we actually voted on the date for the meeting at the September chapter meeting. It’s such an obvious attempt to stall any hope of progress or change, such an obvious effort to cling to power despite the fact that a significant majority of faculty want to most certainly change the way things are done.

Check out this letter from the EMU-AAUP lawyer trying to argue (basically) that really, the faculty don’t have much say at all in the way things in its union are run, that it’s all pretty much the Executive Committee’s call. It’s par for the course for these people– you can check out the union web site here, if you’d like.

I’m all for unions, and I think the fact that EMU has an active faculty union that protects our rights and ensures that procedures for tenure and promotion are fair is a good thing. But anyone who thinks that unions aren’t easy prey for the corrupt or the power-hungry haven’t seen how the show has been run lately with my union. I hope that the PDU, the group I’ve been working with (here’s our web site) to effect change in our union, is successful so we can finally get on to running a union that really is most interested in the faculty. If not– well, I don’t know what will happen…

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.