My CCCCs 2022

Here’s a follow-up (of sorts) on my CCCCs 2022 experiences– minus the complaining, critiques, and ideas on how it could have been better. Oh, I have some thoughts, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone is particularly interested in those thoughts. So I’ll keep that to myself and instead focus on the good things, more or less.

When the CCCCs went online for 2022 and I was put in the “on demand” sessions, my travel plans changed. Instead of going to Chicago on my own to enjoy conferencing, my wife and I decided to rent a house on a place called Seabrook Island in South Carolina near Charleston. We both wanted to get out of Michigan to someplace at least kind of warm, and the timing on the rental and other things was such that we were on the road for all the live sessions, so I missed out on all of that. But I did take advantage of looking at some of the other on demand sessions to see what was there.

Now, I have never been a particularly devout conference attendee. Even at the beginning of my career attending that first CCCCs in 1995 in Washington, DC, when everything was new to me, I was not the kind of person who got up at dawn for the WPA breakfast or even for the 9 am keynote address, the kind of conference goer who would then attend panels until the end of the day. More typical for me is to go to about two or three other panels (besides my own, of course), depending on what’s interesting and, especially at this point of my life, depending on where it is. I usually spend the rest of the time basically hanging out. Had I actually gone to Chicago, I probably would have spent at least half a day doing tourist stuff, for example.

The other thing that has always been true about the CCCCs is even though there are probably over 1000 presentations, the theme of the conference and the chair who puts it together definitely shapes what folks end up presenting about. Sometimes that means there are fewer presentations that connect to my own interests in writing and technology– and as of late, that specifically has been about teaching online. That was the case this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think the theme(s) of identity, race, and gender invoked in the call are completely legitimate and important topics of concern, and I’m interested them both as a scholar and just as a human being. But at the same time, that’s not the “work” I do, if that makes sense.

That said, there’s always a bit of something for everyone. Plus the one (and only, IMO) advantage of the on demand format is the materials are still accessible through the CCCCs conference portal. So while enjoying some so-so weather in a beach house, I spent some time poking around the online program.

First off, for most of the links below to work, you have to be registered for and signed into the CCCCs portal, which is here:

https://app.forj.ai/en?t=/tradeshow/index&page=lobby&id=1639160915376

If you never registered for the conference at all, you won’t be able to access the sessions, though the program of on-demand sessions is available to anyone here. As I understand it, the portal will remain open/accessible for the month of March (though I’m not positive about that). Second, the search feature for the portal is… let’s just say “limited.” There’s no connection between the portal and the conference on-demand program, so you have to look through the program and then do a separate search of the portal opened in a different browser tab. The search engine doesn’t work at all if you include any punctuation, and for the most part, it only returns results when you enter in a few words and not an entire title. My experience has been it seems to work best if you enter in the first three words of the session title. Again, I’m not going to complain….

So obviously, the first thing I found/went to was my own panel:

OD-301 Researching Communication in Practice

There’s not much there. One of the risks of proposing an individual paper for the CCCCs rather than as part of a panel or round table discussion is how you get grouped with other individual submissions. Sometimes, this all ends up working out really well, and sometimes, it doesn’t. This was in the category of “doesn’t.” Plus it looks to me like three out of the other five other people on the program for this session essentially bailed out and didn’t post anything.

Of course, my presentation materials are all available here as Google documents, slides, and a YouTube video.

To find other things I was interested in, I did a search for the key terms “distance” (as in distance education– zero results) and “online,” which had 54 results. A lot of those sessions– a surprising amount to me, actually– involved online writing centers, both in terms of adopting to Covid but also in terms of shifting more work in writing centers to online spaces. Interesting, but not quite what I was looking for.

So these are the sessions I dug into a bit more and I’ll probably be going back to them in the next weeks as I keep working on my “online and the new normal” research:

OD-45 So that just happened…Where does OWI go from here?: Access, Enrollment, and Relevance

Really nice talk that sums up some of the history and talks in broad ways about some of the experiences of teaching online in Covid. Of course, I’m also always partial to presentations that agree with what I’m finding in my own research, and this talk definitely does that.

OD-211 Access and Community in Online Learning– specifically, Ashley Barry, University of New Hampshire, “Inequities in Digital Literacies and Innovations in Writing Pedagogies during COVID-19 Learning.”

Here’s a link to her video in the CCCCs site, and here’s a Google Slides link. At some point, I think I might have to send this PhD student at New Hampshire an email because it seems like Barry’s dissertation research is similar to what I am (kinda/sorta) trying to do with own research about teaching online during Covid. She is working with a team of researchers from across the disciplines on what is likely a more robust albeit local study than mine, but again, with some similar kind of conclusions.

OD-295 Prospects for Online Writing Instruction after the Pandemic Lockdown— specifically, Alexander Evans, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, “Only Out of Necessity: The Future of Online Developmental FirstYear Writing Courses in Post-Pandemic Society.”

Here’s a link to his video and his slides (which I think are accessible outside of the CCCCs portal). What I liked about Evans’ talk is it is coming from someone very new to teaching at the college level in general, new to community college work, and (I think) new to online teaching as well. A lot of this is about what I see as the wonkiness of what happens (as I think is not uncommon at a lot of community colleges for classes like developmental writing) where instructors more or less get handed a fully designed course and are told “teach this.” I would find that incredibly difficult, and part of Evans’ argument here is if his institution is really going to give people access to higher education, then they need to offer this class in an online format– and not just during the pandemic.

So that was pretty much my CCCCs experience for 2022. I’m not sure when (or if) I’ll be back.

 

 

CCCCs 2022 (part 1?)

Here is a link (bit.ly/krause4c22) to my “on demand” presentation materials for this year’s annual Conference for College Composition and Communication. It’s a “talk” called “When ‘You’ Cannot be ‘Here:’ What Shifting Teaching Online Teaches Us About Access, Diversity, Inclusion, and Opportunity.” As I wrote in the abstract/description of my session:

My presentation is about a research project I began during the 2020-21 school year titled “Online Teaching and the ‘New Normal.” After discussing broadly some assumptions about online teaching, I discuss my survey of instructors teaching online during Covid, particularly the choice to teach synchronously versus asynchronously. I end by returning to the question of my subtitle.

I am saying this is “part 1?” because I might or might not write a recap post about the whole experience. On the one hand, I have a lot of thoughts about how this is going so far, how the online experience could have been better. On the other hand (and I’ve already learned this directly and indirectly on social media), the folks at NCTE generally seem pretty stressed out and overwhelmed and everything else, and it kind of feels like any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise, will be taken as piling on. I don’t want to do that.

I’m also not sure there will be a part 2 because I’m not sure how much conferencing I’ll actually be able to do. When the conference went all online, my travel plans changed. Now I’m going to be be on the road during most of live or previously recorded sessions, so most of my engagement will have to to be in the on demand space. Though hopefully, there will be some recordings of events available for a while, things like Anita Hill’s keynote speech.

The thing I’ll mention for now is my reasons for sharing my materials in the online/on demand format outside the walled garden of the conference website itself. I found out that I was assigned to present in the “on demand” format of the conference– if I do write a part 2 to this post, I’ll come back to that decision process then. In any event, the instructions the CCCCs provided asked presenters to upload materials– PDFS, PPT slides, videos, etc.– to the server space for the conference. I emailed “ccccevents” and asked if that was a requirement. This was their response:

We do suggest that you load materials directly into the platform through the Speaker Ready Room for content security purposes (once anyone has the link outside of the platform, they could share it with anyone). However, if you really don’t want to do that, you could upload a PDF or a PPT slide that directs attendees to the link with your materials.

The “Speaker Ready Room” is just want they call the portal page for uploading stuff. The phrase I puzzled over was “content security purposes” and trying to prevent the possibility that anyone anywhere could share a link to my presentation materials. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that kind of the point of scholarship? That we present materials (presentations, articles, keynote speeches, whatever) in the hopes that those ideas and thoughts and arguments are made available to (potential) readers who are anyone and anywhere?

I’ve been posting web-based versions of conference talks for a long time now– sometimes as blog posts, as videos, as Google Slides with notes, etc. I do it mainly because it’s easy for me to do, I believe in as much open access to scholarship as possible, and I’m trying to give some kind of life to this work that is beyond 15 minutes of me talking to (typically) less than a dozen people. I wouldn’t say any of my self-published conference materials have made much difference in the scholarly trajectory of the field, but I can tell from some of the tracking stats that these web-based versions of talks get many more times the number of “hits” than the size of the audience at the conference itself. Of course, that does not really mean that the 60 or 100 or so people who clicked on a link to a slide deck are nearly as engaged of an audience as the 10 people (plus other presenters) who were actually sitting in the room when I read my script, followed by a discussion. But it’s better than not making it available at all.

Anyway, we’ll see how this turns out.

Actually, in-person learning is the “gold standard”

As someone who has been teaching online and researching distance education for a while now, I find the current enthusiasm about the format a bit weird. For example, take this piece from Inside Higher Ed on January 6, “Rhetorical War Over Online Versus In-Person Instruction.” Here are the opening two paragraphs:

Kenneth W. Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University, posted a letter on the university website late last month telling students and faculty members that the Boston institution intended to open as planned for the spring semester because “in-person learning remains the gold standard.”

The statement, which was not caveated in any way, struck many in education circles as strikingly unnuanced, especially for a chancellor whose institution offers a robust catalog of online courses. Henderson is not Northeastern’s top administrator, and while at most institutions the chancellor is the top person, in a new structure implemented by Northeastern, Henderson is a cabinet member.

The writer, Suzanne Smalley, goes back and forth between the desirability of the in-person college experience and the efficacy of online classes. She brings up many of the usual examples and quotes many smart experts, though I ultimately think she emphasized the advantages of the online format.

What a difference a global pandemic can make, huh?

By “gold standard,” I think Henderson means that the f2f experience is widely acknowledged as the best and most desirable approach for late teen/early 20-somethings (aka, “traditional” students) for going to college. It is the point of comparison for most people regarding the effectiveness of online courses, as in “online courses are just as effective as f2f ones.” This doesn’t mean folks defending the effectiveness of online instruction are wrong– and I’ll come back to that point in a moment– but I am at a loss who would be “struck” by such an “unnuanced” statement. All of the most prestigious, well-known, and selective universities in the U.S. are residential experiences and they hold the vast majority of their courses f2f. These are the universities that most students want to attend, which is why these kinds of universities are more selective about who they allow to attend. That’s just a fact.

Henderson said in-person learning rather than in-person courses represents the gold standard, and that’s important. I think he’s trying to include everything that happens for students in addition to courses. He’s making the connection between learning and the broader college life experience that includes living on or near campus, parties/the Greek system/other social activities, sports, getting into semi-supervised sex/drugs/rock-n-roll trouble, and so forth. But this doesn’t have a lot to do with the mode of delivery of courses.

This is not to say that everyone who goes to college has access to or even wants this “gold standard.” At EMU, we have traditionally aged/right out of high school students looking for the full college life experience with dorms and off-campus apartments and sports and campus activities and all that. But the majority of our students– including the ones in the dorms– are coming to EMU in part because they couldn’t afford the full-on college life experience at Michigan or MSU, or because they didn’t want to move too far away from home. Plus we have a lot of “non-traditional” students, folks who tend to be past their early twenties and who have grown-up responsibilities (jobs, spouses, kids, mortgages, etc.) that are not compatible to the college life experience. It’s kind of hard to go to all the games and parties if you’re a full-time student working two jobs to help pay the bills for school and your new baby.

It’s clear that online courses/programs can be just as effective as f2f courses/programs under the right circumstances, assuming that “effective” means students demonstrate the same level of learning in both formats. But as Van Davis, who is the “service design and strategy officer for Every Learner Everywhere,” is quoted as saying in this article, “The gold standard isn’t the modality. The gold standard has to do with the level of interaction that students are able to have with each other, and that students are able to have with the content, and that students are able to have with instructors.” I agree, and there are plenty of f2f courses with almost no interaction, unless you count some prof lecturing at a captive audience for 50 minutes at a time as “interaction.”

But I also think online courses/programs are most effective for students who have the maturity and discipline to interact effectively online, and in my experience, that means upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. There’s also the issue of what I’d describe as the aesthetics of the experience. I personally “like” teaching classes online, but lots of my colleagues and my students definitely prefer the f2f experience, and a year and a half of teaching all online has shown me that I would prefer to teach a mix of f2f and online classes. Maybe the real “gold standard” here is the flexibility for both teachers and students to engage in a course in the format that best suits their own needs.

Ultimately, it’s like a lot of things we’ve learned during Covid and and how to make do online. We can have a family game night or small party with friends via Zoom, but it’d sure be nice if we could do that more often in person. We can hold large academic conferences online and we should continue to offer some online participation as an option (and I had a long blog post about this before the CCCCs got cancelled in 2020 that I think is relevant here) more or less for the same reason why we teach courses online: to give access to people who otherwise can’t come to the f2f conference. But it’d be sure nice if the 2022 CCCC’s was still going to happen f2f. We can have department meetings via Zoom, but– well actually, that last one is an example where I prefer the distance.

The secret to avoiding graduate school debt Carey and Dempster don’t want to talk about…

This morning, I read a discussion between Kevin Carey and Doug Dempster in Inside Higher Ed, “Debating the Value of Arts (and Other) Degree Programs.” Carey is a journalist/writer specializing in issues of higher education, and Dempster is the former dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. They were discussing an article Carey wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in August called “The Great Masters Degree Swindle.” I haven’t read that original article, but given this conversation, the gist of it is pretty clear. There are a lot of graduate programs, particularly in “the arts” and “the humanities,” which are popular but which also are expensive and have a low return on investment. Carey spent time in that article talking about a very expensive graduate program in film studies at Columbia University and he names some other fairly exotic and expensive graduate programs in things like acupuncture and Positive Psychology (whatever that is). But I’m sure he also means graduate programs in things like creative writing, music of various sorts, acting, painting, etc., etc., degrees where there are  few chances of earning a decent living.

Carey and Dempster both agree the arts and similar pursuits are valuable in all sorts of different ways, though also both questioned the extent to which someone who wants to try their hand at filmmaking or acting or journalism needs to go to graduate school. Both talk about and around the problem of the rising costs of higher education generally, though neither of them have any solutions to any of this. And neither of them discussed the wisdom of going to graduate school in fields like this at all, nor do they discuss PhD programs– so I’ll put a pin in that for now.

But I was surprised neither of them brought up the obvious solution to the problem of paying for graduate school– or at least the obvious way for graduate students in many fields to greatly reduce the amount of debt. This solution has been around in the U.S. for at least 60 years, long before I started my MFA program in fiction writing in 1988, and it’s the way that everyone I know who is now in academia in some way got started in the profession.

It’s called a “Graduate Assistantship.”

When I applied to MFA programs in the late 1980s, I didn’t know much about graduate assistantships and I didn’t think much about how I would pay for graduate school. I just applied to what I thought were some of the best creative writing programs in the country and where I thought I might be able to get in. One of the places I applied– kind of on a whim– was Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Virginia. I got in, and Greg Donovan (who is still a professor at VCU and who was at the time the director of the MFA program) called me on the phone. “Steve,” he said, “I’m calling you to let you know we want to admit you to the program, and we also want to offer you a graduate assistantship.” He made this call to everyone who was offered an assistantship.

So, cocky young person that I was, I said this was exciting but I also had been admitted to some other really strong programs, I’d have to think about the pros and cons of it all, etc. etc. etc. Greg listened patiently and said “Those are all good points and also good programs, Steve. But listen, it’s not worth going into that much debt for a degree in creative writing.”

That sealed the deal for me, and the rest (as they say) is history.

The details of graduate assistantships vary a lot, but generally, “GAs” (sometimes called something like “Teaching Assistants” or TAs or “Research Assistants” or RAs) are competitive positions where universities pay graduate students a pathetically small amount of money and free or nearly free tuition to attend graduate school. In exchange, GAs perform some sort of labor, generally related to their studies. In English departments (and that usually includes creative writing), that means labor like teaching first year composition and sometimes introductory literature courses, assisting professors in teaching (especially large lecture hall courses), tutoring in a writing center, or working as an editorial assistant for a journal of some sort. I think there are analogous teaching/tutoring/editing positions in most of the humanities. In most of the sciences, GAs tend to work with/for professors in labs.

As far as I can tell, there are very few opportunities for graduate assistantships in fields where the potential earnings are higher– disciplines like medicine, business, law, and so forth. But for most of the fields these two are discussing, GA positions are more common. Even with the meager resources we have at EMU and even with our modest graduate school reputation, we still offer a number of GA positions in our department and across the university.

Furthermore, these positions offer the kind of workplace experience that Carey says (and Dempster kind of says this too) is something these outrageously expensive graduate programs lack. Everyone I know who has a career in higher education– including in staff positions like advising– got their start as a graduate assistant. Again, these folks don’t discuss PhD programs at all nor do they discuss the challenges of getting a faculty position of any sort (and so I won’t go into that either), but I’ve been a part of a lot of faculty searches over the years, and there is no way we would ever hire anyone for a faculty position who had not had experience as a GA.

Now, GA positions are far from a perfect solution. For starters, this does nothing to deal with the debt from undergraduate studies– that’s a whole different problem. The pay (“stipend”) can be ridiculously low and the positions can be very exploitive, which is why there are a number of institutions where GAs have unionized. The free or dramatically reduced tuition GAs get is usually worth much more than what GAs actually see in a paycheck, and that pay is also typically not enough to live on. That is especially true at underfunded universities like EMU. Most of our graduate assistants still end up borrowing at least some money and/or working part-time outside of the university. But the alternative is to pay all the costs of graduate school out of pocket, and that is obviously a worse situation.

The other potential problem with GA positions is because they are competitive, not everyone can get one. Then again, maybe if you’re an aspiring actor or journalist or painter or whatever and you want to go to graduate school but you are unable to find a university willing to fund at least part of the bills in exchange for labor that will also give you some valuable workplace experience, well, then maybe you should rethink those plans.

Anyway, it’s not that Carey and Dempster are wrong in their discussion, but I’m just surprised that they present going to graduate school anywhere and for pretty much anything as being only possible if students pay for everything themselves. That’s simply not true, and it is especially not true for a lot of the degree programs in fields where the ROI is more suspect.

What’s missing from the new University of Austin? (Hint: everything but disgruntled academics)

Twitter was all afire with news of the forming of The University of Austin by a group of right-leaning academics, pundits and gadflies, primarily led by Bari Weiss. Here’s a link to the announcement, written by who will be the new “university’s” president, Pano Kanelos, a post titled “We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We’re Starting a New One,” which was published on Weiss’ substack site “Common Sense.”

It’s an easy story to make fun of because all the people involved in this new “university” have found themselves criticized or canceled for one reason or another, and the announcement’s tone is classic “I am taking my ball and going elsewhere” pout (more on that below). What makes this even  more amusing is the University of Austin happens to be located in the same city as another well-established university. Somehow, I expect a lawsuit of some sort that will result in either a name change or a move to a new city.

When I first heard this story, I tweeted and compared these plans to MOOCs, and I thought about the book I published two years ago, More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs. The book is for sale of course, and it is also available in its entirety on JSTOR here. Unfortunately, the book was published just as Massive Open Online Courses were no longer a threat to traditional higher education and after MOOCs morphed into a series of training courses and “edutainment” (think MasterClass). Fortunately, my book is actually about the history of efforts and failures to “disrupt” higher education.

In my book, I argue that MOOCs were not an unprecedented innovation in distance education, but rather a continuation of previous innovations like more “traditional” online courses and programs that began getting traction in the 1990s, along with correspondence courses and programs from the early 20th/late 19th centuries. Since the demise of MOOCs (and since my book was published), there have been several other lukewarm at best attempts to change everything about higher education. There was the launched and now largely failed Global Freshman Academy part of Arizona State’s enormous online presence. Frank Bruni wrote last year about Minerva University as an alternative for going to college online during the pandemic, but as far as I can tell, Minerva remains an eccentric school of about 1000 students.  There was Outlier, which was pitched as a better version of MOOCs, and while it still appears to be around, they seem a long ways away from “disrupting” higher education as we know it. And so forth.

But as I read and re-read and thought about Kanelos’ announcement, I realized there actually is something different. The University of Austin is trying to create an entirely new kind of “higher education,” one completely devoid of students, courses, degrees, and research, and one sustained entirely by the presence of cancelled faculty and disgruntled quasi-intellectuals. Kanelos is not the first academic to imagine how much better the university life would be without students, but he may very well be the first one to actually write this down and announce it to the world.

More details than perhaps you want after the break.

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Continue reading “What’s missing from the new University of Austin? (Hint: everything but disgruntled academics)”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it August Again?

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

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What didn’t suck about 2020?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bit more background:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why I’m (Still) Teaching Online

I pitched this piece to Inside Higher Ed and even started writing it, but they turned it down. Oh well. So I’m posting it here as a blog entry instead.

About a week after Christopher Schaberg’s op-ed “Why I Won’t Teach Online” was published, Inside Higher Ed also published my intentionally playful response “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To).” This was in March 2018, two brief years and a lifetime ago, back in an era where we actually had a choice about teaching online or face to face, and back when that choice wasn’t a matter of personal safety and public health. How times change. Now he has written again, this time a piece called “Why I’m Teaching Online.” This time, we agree more than we did before, though not entirely. 

I agree with Schaberg that teaching as many university classes online this semester as possible (and probably next semester as well) is the right thing to do for both personal and public safety. College campuses are joining nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants as prime spots for spreading the virus. (I will leave it to readers to contemplate what these places all have in common with each other.) My university has tried to provide a safe campus experience during the time of covid, but the need for everyone to stay six feet apart from each other means we do not have enough classrooms and other large spaces to hold more than about 20% of our classes face-to-face. 

Almost all of the classes EMU is holding on campus now are ones that would be difficult to hold online, courses that depend on special equipment or that are very hands-on (pottery immediately comes to mind). While almost everyone here is happy with this arrangement (including those like Schaberg who two years ago never thought they’d be doing this), I do have a few colleagues who grumble about how this is all completely overblown, that covid is no worse than the flu, and it will fade away in no time soon. This just goes to show you that not all academics are in favor of science and data, but I digress.

I also agree with Schaberg that shifting from the f2f to the online classroom is a great learning opportunity for faculty to rethink their approach to teaching– and this is especially true for those of us who have found ourselves doing the same thing not necessarily because it is still “the best” and most current approach, but because it “works,” at least well enough. It isn’t easy to adapt to the affordances of online teaching, but it can be revitalizing since it requires a new perspective on an old practice. And it’s not just about learning new ways to teach online: a lot of the activities I first tried online have found their way into the courses I teach face to face.

But there are two places (really, one and a half) where we disagree. Schaberg says that the current moment also gives us a chance to introduce new technologies into our teaching. “We have the tools; let’s use them.” Well, sorta. 

The examples that Schaberg cites here are Google Docs, “drawing reading materials from the web,” and email. If these technologies are actually new to Schaberg, well, welcome to 2005. And yes, this is also a good time for faculty to learn more about your institution’s Learning Management System (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) But I’ve also heard a lot of stories about teachers trying to use new and shiny online toys and tools less because it helps their teaching but more because it is new and shiny. It reminds me of the Monty Python bit about the machine that goes ping.

My pet peeve example of this is the use of video– particularly live video. I blogged about this earlier and also recently published a short article about it here, but the short version is a lot of faculty new to online teaching are overusing applications like Zoom. I think the appeal of Zoom (and similar synchronous video tools) is that it is a technology that appears to replicate the traditional teacher-centered classroom: teachers talk, students sit and listen, occasionally interrupting with questions. There are even “breakout rooms” to put students in discussion groups once in a while. 

In practice, Zoom is a mixed bag at best. It certainly has its uses for conferences and occasional larger group meetings, and we are learning more about other successes through a lot of trial and error.  But it’s difficult and oddly exhausting to stay engaged in a Zoom class, and don’t get me started on the issues of privacy and surveillance it and related technologies raise. Streaming video also requires the kind of decent computer and robust wifi access that a lot of my students just don’t have. No, I think Zoom is a great example of how sometimes the more simple and established technology and approaches to online teaching are still the best: asynchronous course designs that rely on students working through problem sets, using discussion boards to talk about readings and activities, collaboration with tools like Google Docs, and so forth. 

Finally, Schaberg says all of this is temporary: “We’ll be back in the classroom eventually– even if it’s a changed classroom, with newfound sensitivity to virus transmission, shared space and personal hygiene.” Sorry, but this ain’t temporary. Not even close.

Restaurants, theaters, bars, international travel, cruise ships, salad bars, and so much more are going to be different experiences when they fully come back– if they are able to fully come back at all. We will all continue to hold a lot more work meetings and routine visits with doctors via video conferencing tools. Many who were forced to work from home will never regularly return to the office, and some will take advantage of that freedom to live not where they have to but where they want to. On and on and on.

So yes, there will come a point where students and teachers will once again meet in physical classrooms in real time. But there will also be a lot more fully online classes, and these classes will become a part of the normal offerings at the kinds of elite and exclusive universities that have long resisted online teaching before Covid. And even most face to face classes will not be entirely face to face. Instead, teaching and learning after the Covid crisis will increasingly be “hybrid:” that is, a mix of some face to face meetings with asynchronous discussion and assignments, along with some synchronous video conferencing, particularly with individual students and small group work.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong. One of the many things I’ve learned from 2020 is don’t become too comfortable in assumptions about the future. One of the curious features of the 1918 pandemic was that once it was over, people the world over seemed to put it all behind them to the point where it was mostly forgotten–until something similar happened again this year. Though this moment feels to me like less of a memory we will suppress and more like a tipping point that will impact almost everything for decades.