Writers Having to Work for A Living, a #firstworldproblems

The Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times includes a couple of essays in the “Bookends” section under the collective headline Do Grants, Professorships and Other Forms of Institutional Support Help Writers but Hurt Writing? Siddhartha Deb (who I think is a professor at The New School) laments bitterly how creative writing/artist like Deb are increasingly expected take on the duties and responsibilities for being a professor:

Unless teaching at one of a few select places, writers are increasingly required, apart from their teaching duties, to attend meetings, serve on committees and be on email 24/7. They are also expected, in an era when students are customers, the university a brand and everything a matter of opinion, often to put aside whatever knowledge and expertise they might have acquired in order to assuage the varying sensibilities of their customers. Otherwise, as in the case of the poetry professor in Wisconsin attacked for teaching material with L.G.B.T. content, one might be taken to court in order for an F to be changed to an A.

In the second short essay, Benjamin Moser (who has been a translator and a columnist or editor at Harpers and The New York Review of Books, just to name a few places) also laments bitterly how “writing” doesn’t pay. He writes “Many writers enjoy teaching or journalism or translation or editing, but many do these jobs because it’s hard to survive on writing alone. Money clearly communicates the still-prevailing attitude: that writing is not a real job.” Moser goes on to suggest, basically, that society ought to simply pay writers (again, of the capital L “Literature” variety):

But literature is not made by society. It is made by individuals who, like anyone else, have bills to pay. Those whose job it is to enunciate other values often find themselves punished for the attempt, though we all need those values: Nobody wants to live in a world whose only measures are financial.

So does the world owe writers a living? We have grown so used to subordinating everything to money that the question seems absurd. But it is easy to imagine a society in which art — like health care and education, care of the poor and the elderly — is a public good: in which we delight in work and workman both.

Oh, boo-hoo. Two writers who have careers and jobs that most other writers would literally kill a sibling to obtain are complaining that it is a shame they have to labor to support themselves, despite the fact that they are artists, God-Damn It! Boo-hoo-hoo.

Coincidentally, the next piece I came across on the NYTimes web site while looking for the link to this piece was this column by Tracie McMillan, “Who Do We Think of as Poor?” McMillian begins with an anecdote about how when she was working on a book– ironically enough about poverty!– she went on food stamps to make ends meet.

In any event: yes, “creative” writers (more on “creative” in a moment) are not and never have been paid just for making art. If robots automate so much of the workforce that a basic income becomes a thing in advanced capitalist states, then that might mean there would be lots of people who could afford to do whatever they wanted, including make art. Short of that, the basic challenge of artists has been balancing a way to make art and pay the bills.

Maybe it would be a good idea to pay all artists to make art. On the plus-side, there might be a lot more happiness in the world if more people were spending their time making art. On the down-side, I am sure the world would have a lot more shitty art. Regardless, pretty much every novelist or poet that you can think of either had a day job, was an academic (which is also a day job, though a somewhat odd one), was independently wealthy, or had a patron of some sort. I’m reading a book about Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises right now and it’s pretty clear that in the early years, Papa sponged off of his first wife’s trust fund.

But I guess this pair of essays irritates me for at least two other reasons. First, one of the most annoying academic colleagues out there is the one who treats the position as patronage instead of as a real job. At the kind of university where I work, we need faculty members who are going to participate fully in the job, which does indeed mean meetings, advising, grading, paperwork, and all of the other real job stuff of being a professor. So while I understand the appeal of a job where your responsibilities are basically to do whatever you want, I can speak from experience that it’s kind of a pain in the ass for the rest of us to deal with these folks.

And for the record: all of my current colleagues who teach creative writing are fully engaged and involved faculty members, so I don’t have any of those folks in mind at all. But I have had (still have?) colleagues who take this approach and not all of them have been (are?) in creative writing.

Second, these two essays assume a narrow and frustrating definition of “writer,” an attitude that persists even among some of my students who are majoring in Written Communication. Journalists, editors, and translators are all writers. Social media writers/editors, content managers, technical documentation specialists, advertising copy editors, and so on are all writers. And I’d argue that if you are any good at teaching rhetoric and composition courses, you’re also a writer– or you had better be someone who seems themselves as a writer.

Maybe the problematic term here is “creative,” which in English departments means writing in the form of poetry, fiction, and drama. Separating creative from other kinds of writing  suggests what the rest of us practice and teach is not creative, which is clearly unfair. A better term might be “art” writing in the sense that writing a novel or a poem is more about making something to be appreciated, as opposed to writing that attempts to do things or persuade an audience. But that distinction doesn’t work either since of course art also is always trying to persuade and do things, and there are plenty of examples of writing that became literature only after readers and scholars decided to call it literature.

Regardless, anyone who has a guest column in The New York Times and who has received support for their writing as academics or from grants and then whines about how the need to work hurts their writing has got a whole lot of #firstworldproblems.

Please excuse this post that is not entirely about the death of another grandparent

Earlier this week, a little attempt at humor appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece by Shannon Reed called “To My Student, on the Death of Her Grand­moth­er(s).” Over 300 comments later (as of this morning, at least), it’s a column that just keeps giving and giving, as a failure, a morphing rhetorical situation, and as a teachable moment. I wasn’t going to write or think about it any more (I actually have a blog post in progress about MOOC stuff!), but I’m having a hard time just away. So…

Told in the form of a satirical/humorous email or letter reply to a student asking for some sort of excuse because of the death yet another grandmother, this time during finals, Reed (or some persona of Reed) expresses sympathy and then offers a long and exhaustive list of things the student will need to do for Reed to “buy” the excuse. Terms of the deal include a videotape of the eulogy from the funeral, agreement that the student dress in black for a semester, and agreeing to remain chaste for a year.

Ha-ha.

Comment hijinks ensued. I didn’t read them all of course, but I did skim many. Almost immediately (and maybe this is the first comment?), there was “You’d think this was a lot less funny if your grandmother, with whom you were close, suddenly passed during finals week, as mine did my sophomore year.” There were many other references to personal experiences with deaths of loved ones while in college with no or little awareness that this was supposed to be a joke, as in “My mom died the Friday before finals, and all my teachers treated me with sympathy and kindness.This teacher, if this ever really happened, should be fired.” Then there were comments that seemed to go even further down the bureaucracy/procedure hole (again, as if this was real). There was this one in response to the previous comment, “Isn’t that pretty harsh? Would you like to be judged by the same standard?” and this bizarrely detailed comment on how FERPA plays into all this– though it is nice to see that this writer believes this was written as satire (though not very good satire). There were dozens and dozens of comments where the commenter thought this was a good moment to share their unique take on dealing with excuses like dead grandparents, dozens and dozens of comments about how Reed is an awful person, and even a few who tried to point out it was all a joke. Ha-ha.

Oh, and then there’s this blog response that for me walks that line between being completely legitimate and “holier than thou,” To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s).

First off, I think this is a fine example of how the medium alters the situation such that the rhetor completely loses control. The place where the audience takes all of this is far far away from the writer’s original intent. That’s not unique in web-based forums like this, but a) it remains for me one of the defining characteristics of “digital” rhetorics/immediate rhetorical situations, and b) this particular example seems pretty extreme.

Closely related is the fact that this is the audience disconnect with the genre. The Chronicle of Higher Education does not usually publish humor (or attempts at humor); rather, it usually publishes earnest pieces about the state of affairs in higher education. The subject matter here– venting about students and their “lame” excuses– is the sort of thing that usually comes packaged in CHE as some kind of commentary about the state of the “kids today” and/or advice for faculty. It is not McSweeney’s, which, if this had actually been funny, would have been a better venue. I think this explains why so many of the responses to Reed’s piece are so earnest.

Anyway, I think this article and the backlash around it is a good “teachable moment.” If I were still working with Graduate Assistants teaching for the first time, I might share this with them. In my view, it’s always bad form to complain about students in public (albeit online) places and publications. Oh sure, students can be incredibly frustrating and anyone who has been teaching for a while has all kinds of stories like this one. But those stories are the sort of thing that ought to stay in the office (or the bar) among fellow instructors. And especially never make fun of hypothetically dead grandmas.

As for what to do about these kinds of excuses, I’m not sure this is the best advice in the world but this is what I do:

I started teaching as a Graduate Assistant in 1988 at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in those days, the university had a rule that basically said that if a student missed more than something like three weeks of class in a term, that student couldn’t get a passing grade regardless of the reason why the student missed that much class. At EMU, the institutional language for this is a lot more convoluted and squishy, but basically, it says a student can’t fail only because of a lack of attendance. So, in a sort of combination of my past practice and what’s going on now, I usually have an attendance policy that allows students to miss up to two weeks of a course for any reason, but then there’s a heavy penalty where students lose the participation part of the grade (which is usually worth at least 25% of the overall grade). So if they miss a lot of class for any reason, the student generally (see below) cannot pass.

In other words, there are no “excused absences” for anything because (as I usually say to students on the first day of class) I don’t want to be put into a position where I have to ask for and then speculate about the validity of a death certificate, and I don’t need to dig into the details about how close you were to your now dead uncle or grandmother or whoever. I lay this policy out in pretty strict and stark terms on the first day of the semester since it is always easier to lighten up on rules later on (and it is absolutely impossible as a teacher to start the semester with no rules for things like attendance and then impose them later on), and also because it’s fair warning to students about how things are going to go. I’ve had students who showed up the first day and, faced with an attendance policy where missing more than two weeks of a class means they probably can’t pass, have raised their hands and tell me that they have to be gone for two weeks (for work, for a family trip, for a sporting event, whatever) and if I think that is going to be a problem. Yes, I say, yes it is.

(For what it’s worth, I have a similar though more complicated “attendance” policy for online classes as well. I’ll spare the details for now, but students just “disappear” from online classes all the time).

I have lots of reasons for this approach, but the bottom line is if learning is going to be a social and interactive enterprise that requires participation and presence, then you can’t do these things if you’re gone. Students often think of these rules as being “unfair” and “restrictive” or whatever, but the fact of the matter is attendance policies are usually for students’ own good. Attendance policy or not, show me a student who has missed too many classes and I’ll show you a student who is likely to fail the class for missed work anyway.

Though as I said a few paragraphs ago, this is generally my attendance policy. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I do realize that students are indeed people and, like the rest of us, shit does sometimes happen. Plus after doing this for almost 30 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out the real and fake dead grandmas– at least I think I have. In any event, I’ve had good students over the years who missed more than two weeks of class because life/shit has clearly happened to them and we’re able to work it out pretty much on a case by case basis.

The more troubling cases for me are the students who have completely legitimate reasons for missing class who bend over backwards to not miss class. A completely made-up and extreme example: “My mother was shot in a drive-by shooting last night and I’m the oldest kid so I have to deal with all the details of the funeral and the house and everything. Is it okay if I miss class Wednesday? I promise I’ll be back Monday.” In those situations, I will often offer my sympathies, of course excuse them from class, and remind them that school is school and it is not necessarily life. You can take this class later, but you have to deal with all of the complexities of life as they happen.

How to respond when a non-academic wants to talk about how you “don’t have to work in the summer”

I’ve been meaning to write something about summer work in academia along the lines of what Alex Reid did back in mid-April. But I hadn’t gotten around to it until now (and this post took me over a week to write, off and on), I suppose because I was on a vacation for three weeks in May, right after the Winter term ended at EMU. That’s not meant to be ironic or anything in terms of a post about “work” in the summer; it’s just the way it is.

Alex was initially responding to an article in CHE (now behind a firewall but I think I recall at least skimming it) called “Making Summer Work” that was offering advice to academics about how to make their summers “more productive.” Alex’s points are all spot-on, about how it’s weird that professors are characterized by the rest of the world as having cushy/lazy jobs as it is– and you don’t work in the summer!– but how professors themselves focus on the intensity of the 60+ hour work week and how it just keeps going and going and going in the summer too. It’s a losing battle; “[n]o one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their ‘summers off’ productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.”

I can relate to all of this. Back when I was in graduate school and when I was just starting down the tenure-track, my mother (or some other well-intended but not academic-type) would say something like “it must be nice to have such a long summer vacation like that” and I’d go on a tirade about how there was no such thing as time off in academia!

Now I’m a lot more likely to say something like “Why yes; yes, it is nice,” or “Yes, though I don’t get paid to work in the summer.” Though it’s still complicated.

For starters,  I used to teach (e.g. “work”) in the summers. I didn’t teach two summers ago because I was on sabbatical, but other than that, this summer is the first since I came to EMU in 1998 where I am not teaching and thus contractually not obligated to do anything. Summer school here is divided into two 7.5 week terms, and I usually taught two courses during one of those terms– or sometimes three courses, one in one term and two in another. The reason I taught in the summer is simple: money. EMU pays faculty 10% of their base salary per summer course. You don’t need to know my salary to know that being able to make 20% of my base salary for teaching two courses in a little less than two months is a good deal.

I’m not teaching this summer for two reasons. First, summer teaching at EMU– at least in my department, but I think this is broadly true across the university– has almost entirely dried up. Second, I’ve gotten to the place financially where I can afford to not teach/work for EMU for the summer. I mean, I’m not saying I’m never going to teach in the summer again because never is a very long time and I still like money. But I’m not planning on it.

Then there is the definition of “work.” I work all the time (including in the summer and while on vacation) doing stuff like planning classes, meeting with students, reading academic things, and writing academic presentations/articles/books/blog posts because I’m a professor and it’s my job, but also because this is work I enjoy and it brings me a great deal of personal satisfaction and meaning. It’s not the kind of “work” that Tim Ferriss has in mind in trying to avoid in the 4 Hour Work Week, the kind of work one does only for the paycheck.

So all those caveats and qualifications aside, yes, I do not have to work in the summers. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I don’t get paid to work in the summer when I’m not teaching, so I only do “the work” I want to do. This summer, I’m working (too slowly) on my MOOC book, I am reading things that might be interesting for future projects, I’m meeting with students about their MA projects, I went (briefly) to the Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay this past week, and I might even agree to go to a meeting or two. “Work” I won’t be doing includes program review/assessment documents, attending official department committee meetings (there aren’t any in the summer because I’m far from the only one who won’t do that), doing writing program administrator stuff, responding to irrelevant paperwork requests, holding specific office hours, and so forth.

The “contractual obligated” part of things with the EMU faculty union is taken quite seriously around here. I was in a discussion on Facebook with someone at another institution about all this and this person insisted that faculty should think of themselves as year-round employees no matter what. I understand that perspective, but that is not part of the local culture. I had a colleague a few years ago (this person has since retired) who left at the end of the winter term, did not come back until the fall term, and was completely absent in the summer. This person had an auto-reply on their email that said “email me back in the fall.” I was on a university-wide committee several years ago and whatever administrator wanted this committee to meet in June. The only way that faculty on that committee would agree to that meeting was to be paid a couple hundred dollars each to show up– and by the way, that was clearly a waste of money since nothing got done at that meeting anyway.

Besides, my base pay really is for eight months of work a year. I’m not complaining about my salary, but I also know that if I was an administrator and working 12 months a year, I’d be making much more money than I’m making now. The same is true if I had a “real job,” too. As an academic, I already do too much work for free; that doesn’t need to include the summer.

Anyway, to sum-up:

  • If you’re a graduate student or tenure-seeking/relatively new faculty member, you legit probably don’t have your “summers off,” at least not entirely. You’re probably doing something like writing a thesis or a dissertation or something to help your tenure case, and perhaps teaching as well. Work at this stage of your career is a mix of pleasure and pain, and it’s undeniably harder to explain to non-academics how you actually do have to work in the summer. Try “yeah, but if I don’t finish my thesis/dissertation/homework, I won’t be able to graduate next year;” that might work. But try to take at least some time “off,” even if that only means reading academic stuff while sitting in a park someplace once in a while.
  • If you’re newly tenured and a non-academic tells you “it must be nice to have your summer off,” reply “hey, I’ve been working my ass off for the last 10 years finishing my PhD and then getting a tenure-track job and then getting tenure. So yeah, it is nice having a summer off finally!” Seriously, take some time off. Do those home repairs/remodeling you’ve been putting off until you got tenure. And/or go on a trip, take up golf, etc.
  • If you’re an established academic-type, tenured and promoted and such, and you’re still working 16 hour + days, including in the summer: why? Why are you doing that? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the work, but no one is going to think any less of you for giving your garden some attention. Except for those non-academic-types who think you never work; just tell those people that having summer off is really nice, thank you very much.

What I did in the 2016-2017 academic year: a memo for Dean TBA

I was already planning on writing something to reflect on the 2016-17 academic year, and then two things happened. First, my department head (at the request of our interim dean) sent an email to all faculty suggesting that we individually write something up to let the new dean know what it is we’ve been up to for the past year. This request didn’t come with much context, and (as far as I know) the new dean has not yet been announced. Second, I just finished reading Julie Schumacher’s very funny and too accurate academic satire Dear Committee Members.  So this post is with a small and not as funny nod toward my department head’s/dean’s assignment and Schumacher’s book written in letters of recommendation.

From: Steven D. Krause, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

To: Dean “To Be Announced”

Re: Introducing Myself By Highlighting What I Did Last Year

Dear Dean TBA–

First, welcome to EMU (unless you are already here?)! Congratulations on your new position as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and may the gods have mercy on your soul.

My department head (really, our interim dean– who, pointedly, did not submit her own name for this position) asked faculty in the department to “showcase” accomplishments and activities from the past academic year, I suppose as a way of introduction. As I understand it, the goal is to “brag” about accomplishments and, simultaneously, demonstrate the ways in which we are worthy of resources. This strikes me as a challenge because a) if I highlight all that I accomplished without resources, then I am supporting the administration’s claim that faculty don’t require any additional resources, and b) given that you are at present only an unnamed potential, it’s difficult for me to address a specific audience. But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s take it chronologically:

On the plus-side of things, my scholarly work got off to a great start in September when I was once again invited to Naples, Italy for a conference about MOOCs held on the Isle of Capri. Goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago. In any event, I was honored to once again participate, I was able to represent for EMU, the conference helped fuel my own MOOC book project (which is under contract/underway right now), and it was a nice trip to Italy before classes got started.

In the not so good news for EMU, September also brought with it the beginning of an ugly incident of racist vandalism that continued to hang over the rest of the academic year. Students of color were (justifiably, of course) angered and frustrated, and the administration seemed at a loss to respond. Also in not such great news: my department had yet more meetings about the equivalency mess, which is a theme I’ll be returning to again and again here.

For much of October, I settled into more routine duties. In fall 2016, I taught an online version of “444: Writing for the World Wide Web” and a face-to-face version of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology,” two courses I’ve taught many times before. Both were good groups, though one thing I noticed in my section of 328 that I hadn’t seen much of previously is student interest in (dare I say demand for?) a grading “rubric” that spelled out in exacting terms exactly what was demanded of each writing assignment. When I told my students that I didn’t think a rubric was necessary or even advisable for an advanced writing course, they seemed perplexed, wondering aloud how it was even possible to have a writing assignment without points dedicated to explicit components. I am not much to complain about the “kids today” since I have been teaching long enough to know that the early 20 somethings of 1990 have a lot more in common with the early 20 somethings of 2016 than today’s students’ parents (who were the early 20 somethings of 1990) would care to admit. Still, this demand request for codified assessment at every turn seems to me to be the main legacy of “No Child Left Behind.”

I also settled into my duties as the associate director of the First Year Writing Program. (A slight tangent and in all seriousness: there is A LOT to say about the FYWP, Dean TBA, both in terms of bragging and in terms of demonstrating the need for ongoing support. But since I am transitioning out of that role this year, I’ll leave that work to others.) As the Ass. WPA, most of my work was duties as assigned, though I did launch a large survey of students in the program for the purposes of assessment (the details of the results will come later in May or June or when I get to it, though generally speaking, students do report that they think they learned a lot in our first year writing course, and that has to count for something), and I did a lot of classroom evaluations of graduate assistants. I do have a funny story from one of those observations. I had the chance to sit in on one GA’s class that began at 8 AM– one of our better GAs too. Students shuffled in and were in place by 8. Five minutes passed and no GA; students chatted and seemed a little surprised. More time passed; I asked “is so and so often late like this?” “No, never” the class responded. More time passed and I finally called so and so and, it turns out, woke so and so up. So and so was mortified. But again, this is all something to laugh about now. I came back to visit so and so’s class later, it was great, and so and so is still one of our best and brightest. And now, so and so owns a couple of alarm clocks.

And of course, I did lots of paperwork tied to the ongoing equivalency nonsense inflicted upon us by both the EMU-AAUP and the administration. Among other things, this work included writing and rewriting documents in an effort to prove to the powers that be that our courses in written communication are indeed “Writing Intensive” and attending marathon department meetings where we tried to work out the various ways equivalencies could work for all.

At least some of my time in November was spent “campaigning” (well, blogging about at least) why faculty ought to vote out the leadership of the EMU-AAUP. Dean TBA, this might not seem like official “work” or even something to “brag” about, especially if you are not from the inside at EMU. But believe me, this was a significant accomplishment. The new leadership of the union has made some stumbles, sure, but at least it’s not the jerks who were in charge. The racial vandalism problems continued— again, maybe not exactly the sort of “accomplishment” or “brag” I’m supposed to be highlighting, but something that certainly helped fuel the poor morale on campus. And the equivalency drama continued as the outgoing leadership of the EMU-AAUP and the administration agreed to end discussion about the equivalencies, even though faculty had been explicitly told that we’d have until April to sort things out and/or make our case for additional class activities that would make our classes count as “four.”

And of course there was an unfortunate presidential election.

In December 2016, I relaunched a slightly new version of the blog I ran for the EMU community for many years, now renamed EMYoutalk.org. It hasn’t been quite as busy or important a community-building tool– at least not yet. But it gives a place for people to talk about EMU things who don’t want to do so on the EMUTalk Facebook group.

Winter 2017 (Dean TBA, we don’t have “spring semester” here at EMU; it’s winter, because it really is winter well into March in Southeast Michigan) began with lots of activity. Teaching-wise, I taught another section of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology” (this time online) and a face-to-face section of “354: Critical Digital Literacies.” 354 made at the absolute last minute– I was literally emailing my department head over Christmas break to find out if I should prepare to teach the class or not– and it turned out to be an interesting class with a very chummy and small group of students. Among other things, they developed their own regular rotation for who brings snacks.

Also in January: I was busy as a committee member for a search we were conducting for someone to (more or less) replace me as the Ass. WPA (we were able to make an offer to our top candidate, too!), busy writing up the documentation for my “salary adjustment” promotion (to the mythical rank of über-Professor or fuller-Professor), the reward ultimately being a pretty decent raise come Fall 2017.

And again, the equivalency nonsense continued, though much of the time spent in the Winter 2017 amounted to asking about the status of paperwork we thought we had completed months ago and also to asking various administrators to explain how it was they were planning on adding threes and fours together and get to twelve.

I will admit that during much of February 2017, I was immersed in depression and outrage at the turn in our national politics and the rise of Michigan’s own Besty “Grizzly Bear” DeVos as the US Secretary of Education. I do believe though that’s when I did the wrapping up/finishing touches on a chapter I have forthcoming in a collection edited by Liz Losh called MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education that’s been in the works for a while (it will come out in August 2017). And I’m sure we had some kind of mind-numbing meeting about what to do about course equivalencies.

The main highlight of March was the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting (this year in Portland, Oregon), which meant I missed that month’s department meeting in which faculty discussed once again what we could not possibly know because of the many unknowns of the course equivalencies that are going to be forced upon us. In theory.

Really, March was just a bridge to the cruelest month in academia, April. So much always happens then, and this year was no different. There were the celebrations (including the last Celebration of Student Writing I am likely to have much of an organizational hand in [and since most of the logistics were handled by the very able Joe Montgomery and Laura Kovick, I didn’t have to do much]), the wrapping up of grades, the last minute and impossible administrative requests, and one of the craziest last of the year department meetings I’ve attended in my 18 years at EMU (perhaps it is best to leave out the details).

But to end on two positive notes. First, I’m not teaching this summer, which means, Dean TBA, I hope you forgive me if I don’t get back to you on your feedback on this report until August or September. Second, I was awarded a Faculty Research Fellowship for fall 2017. It does raise questions and complexities about my duties as coordinator since the equivalency mess (have I mentioned the equivalencies issue yet?) does not clarify things like “reassigned time” to do quasi-administrative work. As I have said to my colleagues and my department head, we will “muddle through” for Fall 2017 and beyond, though if the equivalency stuff doesn’t get sorted out soon, our department head is going to have to take on a lot of the details handled by the many folks in our department currently on some kind of reassigned time. But I am looking forward to more concentrated time to spend on finishing my book about MOOCs before too many people forget that MOOCs were a “thing.”

There you have it, much more detail than you could possibly imagine, Dean TBA. In Dickensian terms, the 2016-2017 school year was the best of times, the worst of times: good students as always and lots of other pleasures, but quite frankly, I think morale remains low thanks to unsolved (and swept away) problems of racist incidents on campus and the unsolvable mystery of how the equivalencies will change the way things work at EMU– if they change things at all or even go into effect. What “interesting times” to come into your position!

Again, best of luck with/I’m sorry about your new Deandom.

Yours,

Steven D. Krause

Professor of far too many details about what happened last year.

That horrible and strange article about writing by John G. Maguire

I have some time on my hands right now. I am completely done with the 2016-17 school year, I am not teaching this summer (and thus not contractually obligated to do much of anything until late August), I won’t be teaching this fall because of a research fellowship, I’m trying to work on finishing a book about MOOCs, and, just to top it all off, I am currently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and thus don’t really have that much to do). So I have some things I can/want to write about right now. But I’ll start with this really horrible and strange article about writing instruction from The Washington Post.

“Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help” is a post/article from WaPo’s “Answer Sheet,” which is essentially their education “beat” page. The byline is Valerie Strauss, but it’s really a post by John G. Maguire, who describes himself as a “man obsessed with clear writing” who has been teaching writing in one form or another at a bunch of different places over the years. He has no training or scholarship in writing pedagogy, and, as far as I can tell from his resume, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor. Maguire is the author of a textbook called “College Writing Guide” and a champion of a method he seems to believe he invented called “Readable Writing.”

Frankly, there is not really much of anything in Maguire’s article that is accurate. There’s the uncritical citation of the book Academically Adrift, a study with some clear methodological shortcomings; there’s the claim that first year writing courses are about all matter of things but not writing sentences. There’s a quote from someone named Phillip Mink about how the college writing profession has stopped teaching style, which comes as a bit of surprise to me since I’ve been teaching a class specifically about style (albeit at the 300 level) for going on 20 years now at EMU. There’s this unsupported claim that students don’t know how to write sentences, and so the solution to making first year students into “readable writers” is to teach them how to write sentences, presumably at the expense of everything else.

As a slight tangent: I’ve been teaching writing and/or writing for a long time now, and I think when people (like this guy, like professors in other departments, etc.) say “students can’t write good sentences or good paragraphs,” that’s not quite what they mean.  By the time they get to college, the vast majority of students can indeed write grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, though not necessarily particularly “good” sentences and paragraphs. So when people like Maguire or whoever say “students can’t write,” I think we need to parse that out and ask for some more details.

Anyway, there’s a lot of appropriate outrage and frustration on Facebook, on the WPA mailing list, probably on some blogs, etc., and also in the comments on the article itself. I’ll just add three other things to the discussion:

  • It is incredibly annoying that Main Stream Media routinely runs these sorts of pieces written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, Maguire has taught writing for a long time, and expertise in teaching writing is a bit more fuzzy than expertise in something like cancer research. Still, would it really be that hard for WaPo and similar publications to stop and think about the qualifications of someone like Maguire to speak in such sweeping terms about teaching writing? And can you imagine a newspaper publishing a thought piece on the shitty state of journalism written by someone without any demonstrable expertise in journalism (other than reading it?)
  • At the end of the day, what Maguire is really trying to do here is sell his textbook. So really, what the WaPo did for him is run an advertisement in the form of an op-ed piece. I hope they charged Maguire appropriately.
  • In earlier drafts of my failed textbook project The Process of Research Writing, I actually made reference to The Karate Kid for reasons similar to Maguire. I think a good way to teach lots of things (like research writing) is to try to break it down into smaller parts, exercises to be practiced before attempting to do the whole thing at once. This is what textbooks generally do, but my references to The Karate Kid fell flat because (surprise, surprise!) students nowadays don’t necessarily know a movie that was made 15 or more years before they were born.

Bruni should visit and write about the other 99%

There have been a number of articles/commentaries lately about the delicate and precious and “PC” state of today’s college students, mostly written by people who haven’t spent time on a college campus since they graduated 20 or 30 or more years ago. For the most part, these critiques haven’t phased me much, in part because one of the historic constants in critiques about education is the terrible state of “today’s students,” whether that “today” is in 2017, 1917, or 517 BC. As an aside and a nice round-up column that refutes many of these critiques, I’ll refer you to John Warner’s “On Political Correctness as the New Campus ‘Religion'” in Inside Higher Ed. Spoiler alert: Warner is spot-on when he points out that “Political Correctness” is not the “religion” on “today’s” (and yesterday’s) college campuses; rather, it’s sports.

But for some reason, I found this piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” particularly irritating.

Bruni is ostensibly writing about a protest that got out of hand at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, author of the book The Bell Curve and a racist the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white nationalist,” came to campus to have a “debate.” I’m not going to rehash the specifics of that event because those accounts are easily found elsewhere by Googling “Charles Murray Middlebury” and in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with Bruni: campuses should be a place to foster pointed debate about uncomfortable issues, no doubt about it.

Though I do disagree with one observation Bruni makes in passing about the specifics of this incident: “A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it.” First off (and I’ve seen this same point made elsewhere), the idea that “any student group” can automatically invite anyone they want to an official campus event is nuts. Of course the administration should do some basic vetting of campus speakers, especially if the college/university is paying for it and/or hosting the speaker as an official event. Second, if a college is going to allow someone who has been labeled by a credible advocacy group as a “white nationalist” to come to your extremely liberal campus to speak, then that college might want to prepare with additional security and the like.

But what Bruni really is complaining about is the so called “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of all college students. You know, the kids today.

The internal logic of this piece irritates me. For example, in his second and third paragraphs, he writes:

Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.

They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.

Well golly, aren’t you really describing the middle-aged to senior-citizens amongst us who have caused the polarization of politics in this country for the last couple of decades? Isn’t this the demographic that has a dangerous inability to compromise, fueled and exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and then the alt-right and now Trump? Honestly, can you really say with a straight face that the “kids today” ought to be “reacquainted” with the ability to see the world from different perspectives– even perspectives that are potentially offensive– relative to the generation in charge right now?!

Then later on, Bruni quotes from the CNN commentator Van Jones (who, as an important tangent that perhaps speaks to Jones’ judgement, is the same guy who lost all credibility with me when he said “Trump became president” during a speech in which Trump’s main accomplishment was he was able to sound like a normal human for an hour). Jones said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

Okay, but (setting the violence at the Murray event aside), isn’t this exactly what the students/participants at that event did? They were confronted with some hateful ideals and they dealt with it. Wouldn’t just sitting there and listening politely been a sort of passivity that seems at odds with that?

But I guess the part that just gets me the most is this paragraph:

Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.

Please.

Why is it that whenever the MSM wants to make sweeping generalizations about higher education, they always seize upon things that happen at the most elite and exclusive institutions in the country? Why are all of the examples of students generally being “coddled” drawn from colleges and universities that cater to the 1%?

Consider the statistics from The New York Times on the economic diversity of students at Middlebury versus where I work, Eastern Michigan University. The median family income at Middlebury is $244,300 a year, which is fourth highest among all 65 “elite colleges.” The median family income at Eastern is $75,800, which is 204th among all 377 “selective public colleges.” Our students are closer to the students Sara Goldrick-Rab describes in this article I happened across today on Twitter, “Student Aid Perspectives: The Case for Expanding Emergency Aid.” Among other things, Goldrick-Rab cites a study of “70 community colleges in 24 states (which) revealed that 33 percent of those students had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger, and 14 percent were homeless.” I don’t think our numbers at EMU are as high as reported in that study, but I do know we have students who are homeless and we have students who rely on the EMU food pantry.

I could go on, but the point is this: Bruni et al are literally making a generalization about college students today based on the 1 %. That’s dumb.

If Bruni et al really wanted to see if we were facing a dramatic “wake-up call” because of the demands students are making and ideological conformity gone too far, then they’d show up at a place like Eastern once in a while and look around. Oh sure, we have elements of what Bruni is getting at on our campus, but it’s not exactly “the norm” nor is it particularly new. We’ve had some protests on campus this year too, some as a result of Trump’s elections, but most as the result of a racist graffiti incident that happened in fall 2016 (I’ve blogged about that here and also over at EMYoutalk.org here). The student-led protests have not been without controversy, but for whatever reason, they aren’t “the problem” these commentators have with campus climates.

The truth of the matter is many of our students are not particularly “young” (we have a lot of returning students at EMU, so it’s common for me to see a twenty or more year range for even a small class), and we don’t have a lot of students who are likely to be the “future leaders” of a Middlebury or what-have-you. We have a lot of students who are up to their eyeballs in debt who are are working a couple of jobs, trying to have some version of a family life, and going to school full-time. When you come from a family where the median income is what it is, you don’t have a lot of time to be coddled and you don’t have the safety net of Mumsy and Paw-Paw to finance your lifestyle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone making sweeping generalizations about higher education in this country nowadays actually had some connection with average/in-the-trenches/middle-to-working class universities and colleges?

Responding to DeVos at CPAC: Oh, if it were only that easy….

Among other things, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at the Conservative Political Action Conference the other day:

Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students?

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

As Secretary, I don’t think the Department of Education in Washington should have more power over your decisions than you do. I took this job because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.

Ugh, I wish.

If my students did say what I told them to say and think what I told them to think, then teaching would be incredibly easy. Education generally would be a non-issue, just pour knowledge in. Do you remember that scene in The Matrix where Trinity calls and instantly gets a program on how to fly a helicopter? Man, I wish that’s how teaching worked. Reality is far different. Heck, I have students who don’t bother to read the syllabus, who don’t follow basic instructions on assignments, don’t do the reading, don’t show up to class. How am I supposed to just tell them what to say or think?!

Actually, that previous paragraph isn’t true. I wouldn’t want to tell my students what to say or think, and I don’t know any teacher at any level– certainly not at the college level– who would want to do that, regardless of that teacher’s/professor’s party politics. Part of a college education is to try to get students to learn how to think for themselves. (And yes, professors and higher education as an industry tend to vote for Democrats, but it’s a lot more complicated than assuming we all think the same thing and that there are no conservatives amongst us).

This is not to say that everything is fair game, that I’m all about students (or anyone else) saying and thinking whatever they want. Climate change is a real thing. Black lives really do matter, and there are good reasons to support that movement. We should base the arguments and claims we make in academic essays (and really, in the world in general) on research and reason and not “gut feelings.” CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets that report things you don’t agree with are not “Fake News.” None of these statements should be controversial, though I suppose each is now in dispute with a group like CPAC and in the era of President Donald Trump, who has only been president for a little over a month but it already feels perfectly reasonable to describe these times and his presidency as “an era.”

I do tell students what to think in the sense that there are indeed facts that are based on conclusive evidence that cannot be dismissed by wishing them away or conspiracy theories or baseless assertions. Attendance numbers at Trump’s inauguration really were much lower than they have been for the last two inaugurations for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton really did receive millions more votes than Trump did, there really were not millions of illegal voters, and Trump  really did not win the largest Electoral College victory in recent memory.

Fortunately for me, none of this is that controversial because where I teach, most of my students already know and believe this. Clinton won the county where I live (home to both Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan) by like 25 or more points, and the vast majority of the students at EMU lean politically left. That is, to the extent that they have time for any party politics at all– so many of my students are spending so much time working a couple of different jobs and dealing with life generally while going to school, I think there’s a significant percentage of them who cannot afford the “luxury” of partisan politics and protest. But yes, my students at EMU do not require a lot of elaborate and devious left-wing brainwashing to get them to question the way things are going with Trump et al. As far as I know, faculty weren’t really involved in organizing the “not my president” protests that popped up after the election, and it’s not like I made my students go to the various womens’ marches the day after the inauguration either.

And no, none of these students are getting paid or getting extra credit in my classes.

Testing the Difference Between “Fake News” and “Unsubstantiated Reports” with Provenance and Plausibility

I’ve been thinking a lot about “fake news” versus “alleged” or “unsubstantiated reports” lately– heck, anyone who has been paying any attention to last week’s news about Donald Tump has surly been thinking about this too. And it’s not just Trump labeling BuzzFeed and CNN as sources for “Fake News;” it’s other “news” people like Chuck Todd and the mainstream/traditional media across the board— at least that’s how they responded to the claims about Trump in Russia when they first broke. Within twenty-four hours of that initial story, even the New York Times was reporting on it.

Trump is going to label anything that doesn’t support him as “fake news” or coming from “losers” or being “sad” or whatever, and maybe BuzzFeed shouldn’t have published something that was as “unsubstantiated” as the stuff that was in this report. The journalism ethics here are complicated, though I have to say I think the MSM response has less to do with the question of when is proper to publish something and more to do with the “icky” factor of the alleged “golden shower” shows. BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith has been pretty smart about responding to the criticism– here’s a link to an interview he did on CNN. And once again, Teen Vogue has had excellent reporting/thought pieces on Trump, as in this piece “So You Read That Scandalous Report About Donald Trump and Russia– Now What?”

Anyway, in writing now about this, I’m not that interested in the ethical question of whether or not BuzzFeed should have published this in the first place. I’m more interested in playing around with/thinking about what sorts of strategies and processes can any of us use in evaluating these kinds of stories, and not just between something that is “fake” versus something that is “true,” but also between something that is “fake” versus something that is “alleged” or “unsubstantiated.” I think these are two different things and need to be treated differently: that is, something that is “fake” does not necessarily equal something that is “unsubstantiated,” and vice-versa. And as a rhetorician who has been influenced by a lot of postmodern/post-structural theories, this is also important to me because I kind of feel we’ve painted ourselves into a corner by the ways we have tended to academically approach “Truth.”

A simple example: in recent years, I’ve been very fond of showing a video called “In Defense of Rhetoric” that was put together by graduate students in Professional Communication at Clemson University in 2011. I think it does a very good job of explaining the basics of rhetoric for an audience who has only heard of the negative connotations– as in “that’s just empty rhetoric,” or (as an example from the video) the “art of bullshit.” But I have to say that this semester, in light of everything that has happened with the election and what seems to be a rise of a “post-truth era,” I did wince a bit when, at about the 10 minute mark in discussing “Epistemic Rhetoric,” the faculty interviewed here talk about how reality itself is constructed by rhetoric, about how everything we decide is based on judging between claims. I agree with this in theory, but the problem is this approach to reality is part of what’s enabling “Fake News” in the first place. It certainly has enabled Trump and his supporters to dismiss a story he doesn’t like as “fake” because if reality is based simply on how I see it being constructed rhetorically or on simply competing claims, why do we have to choose the same thing?

So how do we evaluate these claims of “Fake” versus “alleged,” and how should the press report the “unsubstantiated,” if they should report it at all?  This is what I am getting at with this idea of the tests of “provenance” and “plausibility.” By provenance, I mean an understanding of the origin of the story. I’m thinking here in particular of the way that term is used in the art and antique world to help determine authenticity and value. An antique that is accompanied with documentation that traces the history of an object is a whole lot more valuable than the same object without that documentation, and forging those documents is always a problem. (As a tangent here, I’m reminded of the novel The Goldfinch). By plausibility, I mean the potential that a story might be true based on the other things we know about the story, such as the people and places involved, when it supposedly happened, and so forth. I think I mean something here like ethos, but I think it is beyond just the individuals or even beyond the available evidence. Plausibility for me doesn’t mean whether or not something is (T)rue, but more along the lines of the odds that it’s (T)rue.

A sense of provenance and plausibility probably exists on a spectrum of “truthiness” I’ll call Fiction and (T)rue, and here I am mostly thinking of part of what Derek Mueller and I talked about the other day and/or the way that Bruno Latour talks about “black boxes” in Science in Action. I am far from a Latour scholar/expert so this reading might be a bit off, but basically, Latour points out that new discoveries/theories in science always depend on previously made discoveries/theories that are now presumed to be “(T)rue”– not in a “Platonic ideal across all space and time” notion of “Truth,” but in a “we’ve done this experiment a lot and gotten similar results so now presume it is a fact” sort of (T)rue. Geneticist are not running the experiments to determine the structure of DNA anymore because that is now just (T)rue and tucked away into a “black box”– which is to say there could be something we learn about DNA later that changes that and thus reopens that discussion.

To tease this all out, let’s compare the “fake” news that has been dubbed “Pizzagate” versus what I think is an “unsubstantiated” story about intelligence the Russians have about Trump.

“Pizzagate” was a conspiracy theory which claimed members of the Democratic Party– lead by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta– were running an elaborate human trafficking and pedophile sex ring housed in the basement of a a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong (apparently, you can play table tennis while eating pizza).  Snopes.com has an extensive entry about the controversy here, and the Washington Post also published this article tracing the origins of this story here, too. In my mind, this is about as extreme of an example of “fake” as it gets, but I think it’s an especially important example in at least two ways. First, the story spread through social media via ‘bots along with other conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Millions of people (and machines) reposted/retweeted this. Second, this story had real life and potentially very dangerous consequences since a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch, convinced the story was true, showed up at the pizza place with an AR-15 ready to free the children. Here’s a story from Mother Jones about Welch.

The allegations released by BuzzFeed about Trump were contained in a document supposedly a part of an intelligence report/briefing about stuff the Russians have on Trump to potentially blackmail or otherwise compromise him. Here’s a link to the original BuzzFeed story that contains the entire report. As a slight tangent: much of the sensationalism has to do with the practice of “urolagnia,” which is sexual excitement associated with urine. I’ll admit, I find the idea of “golden showers” both gross and, as it has been reported, darkly funny. But a) this is far from the most unusual “kink” out there, and b) hey, if it’s between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, who am I to criticize anyone’s sex life? What is frankly more troubling in these allegations are the other things that the Russians supposedly have on Trump in terms of real estate deals, grooming Trump as an “asset” to Russian intelligence, and the communications between Trump’s campaign and the Russians during the election cycle.

So, how do these stories stack up in terms of “provenance” and “plausibility?”

The provenance of both stories have already been explored and reported in some detail and the difference between these two examples are quite clear. Pizzagate emerges as a combination of pure fiction and rumors; in contrast, the allegations about Trump and the Russians was part of an intelligence dossier that has apparently been in the hands of a variety of folks (including journalists) for months. This is not to say that the allegations against Trump are accurate or even close to (T)rue; however, we know a lot about the origins of this story.

The plausibility of these two stories is also quite stark. As even Edgar Welch discovered once on the scene at Comet Ping Pong, it’s just not possible because of the building itself– never mind the craziness of the rest of the details. On the other hand, the allegations of Trump’s behavior in Russia strike me as completely plausible– although it probably didn’t actually happen. After all, Trump really did make a trip to Moscow when this is said to have happened (this was during the “Miss Universe” pageant). Further, we already know that Trump has made some cameo appearances in Playboy videos,  has bragged about grabbing women by “the pussy,” and, as reported just this morninghe is being sued by a former Apprentice contestant for sexual harassment and defamation. Obviously, these past activities don’t prove the allegations of his behavior in Moscow; however, I do think these past activities do help explain the plausibility of these allegations.

In my mind, this test of provenance and plausibility also works if we change the actors in these stories. I think it is implausible that Trump and Kellyanne Conway were running a pedophile sex ring out of a pizzeria pretty much for the same reasons it was implausible for Clinton and Podesta. But I think the plausibility changes a bit with the Russian allegations, particularly the specifics of the “golden shower” show. I think these allegations brought against politicians like Hilary Clinton, Obama, or either of the Bushes would be dismissed as just not plausible. However, would we be as quick to dismiss this kind of story if it were about Bill Clinton?

Anyway, I don’t know how useful it is to think of fake news versus allegations versus real news this way, as on the spectrum of fiction and (T)ruth, as being about measuring provenance and plausibility. I’m not sure how necessary this is either given that there are lots of schemes and advice out there for testing the “truthiness” of news of all sorts, particularly as it manifests in social media. I do know one thing: we’re all going to have to get a hell of a lot better at thinking about and describing the differences between the fake, the alleged, and the real.

Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)

I am writing this (or I at least started writing this) post while flying back from Italy where I was at the second conference I have attended in Anacapri in the last two years, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” sponsored by Federica Weblearning at the Universitá di Napoli Federico II (here’s a PDF of the program).  I of course didn’t have to do this on the plane, but a) because it’s the first day of classes, including for my online one, I thought it was worth it to to pay the money and do some teaching/worky-work stuff over the Atlantic and b) I wanted to do my best to stay as awake as possible to adjust to the time difference once we get home (more or less mission accomplished on that one).

Once again, I wondered why I was invited in the first place (pretty much the same reason as before, the Invasion of the MOOCs book and also because I was there last year), and once again I was one of only a few Americans (though also once again there were a few Canadians and folks from South America, too), and this time, I think I might very well have been the only “teaching classes on a regular basis” kind of professor.  Everyone else was some version of administrator, entrepreneur, policy analyst, researcher, and/or educational tech person. Originally, there had been some people on the program from Africa and India, but it didn’t work out for them to be there for one reason or another.

Here’s a link to my presentation (slides incorporated into the Google Doc that was more or less my script– the live version was a little different of course). A general recap of what happened after the break:

Continue reading “Once again, the “International MOOC Colloquium: The MOOC Identity” (a conference recap)”

Trigger Warning Repeats With Added Herky and Flexner

I had collected/seen/read a bunch of recent pieces about “trigger warnings,” particularly the dust-up about the lack of such warnings at the University of Chicago. In response to that:

I could go on, but you get the idea. Anyway, I was going to write up some pithy little response but then I realized that I already had, and almost exactly one year ago. So, is the angst for and against trigger warnings the new signal of the coming fall college semester? Is it to accompany and/or replace the always problematic Beloit College mindset list? (Slight tangent: one of the truisms missing from this year’s list is the fact that students in the class of 2020 have never known a time where there wasn’t this shot-from-the-hip list of assumptions about what new college students are like.)

My take on trigger warnings hasn’t really changed– they aren’t that big of a deal, they arguably expand academic freedom in that they are a way for faculty to not censor content because students “have been warned,” and, as the example I share from my own teaching going on 20 years ago makes clear, these warnings are not always heeded. But I will share two new items for this year’s edition.

First, “Iowa professor: Herky the Hawk ought to smile more.”  “Herky” is the name of the mascot for the University of Iowa, the Hawkeyes, which sort of/kind of has origins as a nickname for the state but which I’ve frankly always thought of more as a made-up kind of name for a bird rather than anything having to do with geography or Native Americans. Anyway, to quote from the Iowa City Press-Citizen on the dangers of the grimacing Herky:

“I believe incoming students should be met with welcoming, nurturing, calm, accepting and happy messages,” Resmiye Oral, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UI, wrote recently in an email to UI athletic department officials. “And our campus community is doing a great job in that regard when it comes to words. However, Herky’s angry, to say the least, faces conveying an invitation to aggressivity and even violence are not compatible with the verbal messages that we try to convey to and instill in our students and campus community.”

Hard to say how “Herky-gate” is going to turn out, but it’s worth noting for now that a) this concern over the threats of a sports mascot come not from students seeking coddling but from a faculty member who seeks to coddle, and b) the UI faculty senate has declined to pick up the issue as part of their ongoing work on ensuring that the “university climate is one that is safe, inclusive, and supportive.”

Second, a trip in the wayback machine to trigger warnings circa 1930. As part of my ongoing MOOC research– specifically the historical part that looks at the parallels between MOOCs and correspondence study in the early 20th century– I came across the writing of Abraham Flexner in his 1930 book Universities: American, English, German.  Flexner’s crankiness about “the kids today” way back when is both amusing and enlightening as to how “the present” college youth have always been horrible. Here’s a favorite passage:

Surely the Dean of Columbia College knows American college youth. “I am convinced,” he has recently said, “that the youth of college age at the present time are as immature morally and as crude socially as they are undeveloped intellectually.” In part this is true because, the high school having coddled them, the college continues the coddling process. Every jerk and shock must be eliminated; the students must be “oriented”; they must be “advised” as to what to “take”; they must be vocationally guided. How is it possible to educate persons who will never be permitted to burn their fingers, who must be dexterously and expensively housed, first as freshmen, then as upperclassmen, so as to make the right sort of social connections and to establish the right sort of social relationships, who are protected against risk as they should be protected against plague, and who, even though “they work their way through,” have no conception of the effort required to develop intellectual sinew?

Heh. Maybe the trigger warning haters ought to time travel to the 1920s and straighten those kids out; maybe that would help fix the kids today.