Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences

Lately, I’ve been reading/skimming some interesting higher ed news stories about academic freedom/academic free speech. A lot of my reading has been about the crazy stuff going on in Kansas and that state’s Board of Regents’ rules that try to rein in the use of social media by faculty and everyone else. The go-to place for news on this, IMO, is Philip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel.  For example:

But it’s not just Kansas, of course. Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman has a piece in Slate Free to Be a Jerk” where she applauds the court victory of Mike Adams, a UNC-Wilmington professor who argued successfully that he was denied promotion to full professor based on his views. A quote:

[…]Adams’ application for promotion to full professor in 2006 was allegedly denied on the basis of his public engagement. Despite my distaste for Adams’ dumb ideas about feminism, diversity, and homosexuality, I’m glad that Adams sued the university, and am delighted that last month he won, in an important ruling that (for now) preserves a vestige of academic freedom in this country.

For although I find his views as repugnant as many found the anti-NRA tweet of University of Kansas professor Don Guth (whose kerfuffle resulted in one of the most restrictive social-media policies in all of academia), Adams’ spirited public engagement should have helped, rather than hindered, his bid. There’s precious little academic freedom left (what with fewer than 10 percent of American professors currently enjoying tenure)—but it sure as hell should include the freedom to be a schmuck.

Then there’s the whole series of craziness at the University of Saskatchewan that (as I understand it– I haven’t been following this one that closely) came about when the Provost fired Professor and adminstrator-type Robert Buckingham and had security escort him off of campus because Buckingham spoke out against a reform/reorganization plan. That apparently backfired. Badly. As recapped in The StarPhoenix article “University of Saskatchewan president Ilene Busch-Vishniac fired,” Buckingham was rehired, the Provost “resigned” (it seems to be a classic “did he fall or was he pushed” scenario), and then, as the headline suggests, the president was sacked.

Of course I am all about academic freedom and academic free speech. Of course of course of course. Nel is completely right in all of his criticism of the Kansas Board of Regents and the ridiculousness of their policy. I don’t know enough of the details about the Adams case or the mess up in Canada, but of course I’m in support of the wronged and fired here, and by the way, I’m encouraged by the developments in North Carolina and Canada because it is evidence that academic freedom is winning out in the end. Hopefully that will be the result in Kansas as well.

That said, it seems to me there are a few things we need to remember about the reality of such thought police policies and the limits of free speech, even for academics.

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Three things that could (maybe) change the academic job market in small, medium, and large ways

I’m still procrastinating on getting ready for the start of the winter term (we call it winter and not spring here– and for good reason– and it starts next week), and for whatever reason, I can’t quite let go of trying to respond to the kind of rage about the terrible academic job market I talked about a couple posts ago. I’m not sure why; maybe because it’s just rage and complaining without any suggestion for a solution. Ask these folks who are complaining about the unfairness of the job market/tenure “what do you want?” and the main answer seems to be “a job that leads to tenure;” in other words, they want to become part of the problem as they see it. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, in thinking this all over while I continue to be (quasi) snowed-in and before I get started actually working on things for next week, I thought I’d write about three things that aren’t solutions but what might be tangible things academia really could do that could help make the academic job market a little more humane in the short, medium, and longer term. You will note that none of these ideas are “increase government funding of higher education so we can hire more faculty;” I think that’s a pretty futile project, though the folks at the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education do have some interesting ideas. And you will also note that I am not suggesting something abstract like “make ‘the Humanities’ matter to students and others” either.

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Four (and a half?) thoughts on “social media” and academics– about Kansas and generally

Happy New Year! And I’m going to start off blogging in 2014 with something I meant to blog about a few weeks ago, a little bit about the “social media” and the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy against it.

I’m assuming most people who are reading this are familiar with what I’m talking about, but just in case: as reported here in the Lawrence (Kansas) World Journal, the state’s Board of Regents passed a policy where employees of the state’s universities can be fired for inappropriate use of social media. This apparently is the result of some tweets a journalism professor named David Guth had back in September about the shootings at the Navy Yard facility in DC.  The tweet that sent the Kansas board over the edge (apparently) was “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

I’ve got four (or so) thoughts/points I thought I’d share, but before I do, it seems to me like I ought to bracket all of this with a simple rhetorical question: What the hell is wrong with Kansas?  I mean, it isn’t just the board of regents that is a bunch of right-wingers, as this Rolling Stone piece from last June points out.

Anyway, more or less in this order:

First, for more and ongoing information on this, go read Phillip Nel’s blog, “Nine Kinds of Pie.” Specifically, you might want to check out this collection of links, which he says he’s going to keep updating. Nel is a professor at Kansas State who has been blogging about lots of stuff for a long time.  Good stuff.  And because he’s a Children’s Lit professor/scholar, Annette knows him.  Small world.

Second, this policy is so stupid it’s irrelevant. Probably. What I’m getting at is this is just so ridiculous and ill-conceived by a board who obviously doesn’t know how these things work that I just have a hard time believing that anyone working at a university in Kansas is actually going to get fired for a tweet. How exactly does this get enforced? Who’s going to be screening the tweets and facebook updates and blog posts of thousands of different employees? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would hold up in court, and it also seems to me like it would be pretty easy to circumvent in a variety of different ways– posting to social media anonymously, for example.

In a way, this all reminds me a bit of a rule/policy that was (supposedly) in place in Oregon when I was teaching at Southern Oregon University. As I understood it, faculty were not allowed to express a political viewpoint, meaning (basically?) it was against the rules for a faculty person to campaign for one political candidate or another. But the details about what this really meant were never clear to me. I suppose it would be against the rules to spend time in my classes explaining to students why they had to vote for so-and-so (which I wouldn’t do anyway), but it wasn’t clear to me if I was going to be violating this policy if I hung a campaign poster in my office or if I wore a campaign button while teaching or if I parked my car with a campaign bumper sticker on it in the faculty lot. When I asked people about this policy, they inevitably just rolled their eyes. And while I was only there for a couple of years, it seemed like a largely ignored policy to me.

Probably though. I think this “policy” will go away and this article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education implies that the board is rethinking things a bit. But like I said, Kansas is a pretty nutty state, and I for one wouldn’t want to be the professor in the Kansas system who is the “test case” for this rule.

Third, social media can be a good thing for universities, too. is a good example of that. This is more or less my “hobby” blog about EMU, though I always make it clear that this has nothing to do with my day job and it has no official connection with EMU.  I’ve been running the site for about seven years now, and while the number of hits varies quite a bit and it isn’t as high as it once was, I’m still getting on average about 10,000 hits there a month. A lot of it is critical/negative about EMU of course, but a lot of it is also positive and I think the site serves as a good source for unofficial news and campus gossip.

I also know that official folks at EMU feel the same way. I’ve met lots of them and I even get fairly regular “press release” kinds of information to post on the site from the PR folks.  And interestingly enough, no administrator-type at EMU has ever a) said anything negative to me about the site and/or b) suggested I ought to shut the site down/not publish something “or else.” I mean, I was never worried about my job because I’m a tenured full professor at a place with a strong faculty union that is not in Kansas, but I have to say that I am surprised that I haven’t received any blowback from the site.  Which brings me to my next point:

Fourth, there are consequences to all kinds of speech, and everyone– perhaps especially academics– ought to think before they tweet/post/otherwise share online.  I’m specifically not going to refer to a certain writer/blogger I reference in different ways in my two previous posts, though that’s an example of what I’m getting at. No speech is ever completely “free” and in normal face-to-face settings or in scholarship, and I think everyone understands that. If I say the wrong thing in a meeting with my department head or my colleagues, there are going to be some bad feelings and other repercussions. If I present/publish something in an academic setting that lots of other academics think is wrong, then these people will think less of me and my ideas.

But while we understand this in face to face/conventional settings, it seems like a lot of academics forget that these same rules apply online as well. There’s a false sense of intimacy created by social media: we feel like we are only posting on Facebook to our friends or to our Twitter followers, and it can feel like no one is really reading what we write. In many cases, that’s true– a lot of social media/the blogosphere goes unread or unnoticed– but anything posted online can also turn out to be awfully difficult to take back. Many years ago, educators worried about students posting things on social media that would come back to haunt them later. Now it seems like the educators are forgetting that the same is true with them.

So I’m not saying that a certain not to be named in this post rage-filled blogger/tweeter doesn’t have the right to write/post whatever she wants, and I’m not saying that David Guth didn’t have the right to post that tweet. I’m just saying that every speech act has consequences both wanted and unwanted, intended and not.

Oh, and I’m not saying I’m in favor of all of these consequences. Guth probably went too far in wishing ill upon the children of the NRA and “damning” them, but I understand his emotion and anger and his academic right to speech. I certainly don’t think this means he should get fired and I don’t think it justifies the Kansas policy.

The other example of Twitter and its consequences in the news right now is the Justine Sacco incident and this tweet:

And this post by someone who “was a communications executive for IAC, the parent company of a range of tech products such as Vimeo, CollegeHumor, and” You’d figure she wouldn’t forget the reach of social media!

Sacco was fired before her flight to Africa landed, and given who she worked for and what she did, that’s not that surprising. Though the online mob that wanted to kill and/or rape her was obviously out of line, that too is an example of unintended consequences. As I wrote about in my dissertation what seems like a million years ago now, the “immediacy” of rhetoric mediated in electronic environments can simultaneously be intimate and explosive.

Presidential Footnote

The other day via the trackback notifications here, I learned that MLA President (or I guess now past President?) Michael Bérubé mentioned one of my previous blog post in his recent 2013 Presidential Address, though he doesn’t quote me per se. Hey, I’ll take whatever attention I can get.

I agree with just about everything Bérubé says until the last four paragraphs of his speech– that’s where he mentions me, and I’ll get to that in a moment. The rest of the speech seems kind of melancholy though.  Don’t get me wrong– it’s well-written (albeit a bit wandering) and thoughtful and smart; it just seems like kind of a bummer. He speaks about the often repeated problem of graduate students in English literature falling out of love of reading and the difficulties of persuading anyone outside of “the humanities” to agree that “the humanities” is worth something, etc.  He writes “Time and and again this year, I have asked myself: how did we get ourselves into this?” with this being the reality that folks like those at the Modern Language Association have to now lobby business and government to convince them what they do matters.  Of course, fields like composition and rhetoric have always had to justify themselves to other stakeholders, but that’s another matter.

He also speaks at different points about the Adjunct Project web site, which was/is an interesting crowd-sourced project started by Josh Boldt which shares information on literally thousands of adjunct (e.g. part-time) teaching positions in lots of different fields. It started more or less as a Google spreadsheet and it has become a site/service sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education.  I’m not sure what to make of that. I suspect that the CHE can do a better job hosting this and far be it from me to suggest Boldt shouldn’t get something from CHE as a blogger and/or organizer, but it does feel odd that this grass roots effort has been taken over by something that’s more corporate.

Anyway, I get mentioned near the end of Bérubé’s speech:

Early this year I witnessed a particularly debilitating example of how this works. In response to the publicity generated by Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project, a rhetoric and composition specialist replied that it was odd for the MLA to be promoting wage recommendations for contingent faculty members, because we have never been all that interested in the teaching of writing. It seemed to me at the time a complete non sequitur, because our wage recommendations don’t stipulate what anyone might be teaching in any realm of language or literature.

That’s me! That’s me!

But to be clear, I wasn’t criticizing Boldt’s project at all. Rather, as I think my February blog post makes clear, I was responding to a post that Bérubé made on Crooked Timber— really, I was responding to a response to a comment that Bérubé made to my comment on that post (if that’s confusing enough).  In his post, Bérubé was talking about all the stuff that MLA was going to be doing in 2012 in the name of adjunct labor and he mentioned Boldt.  And while I think the MLA effort is problematic for a bunch of different reasons, I think Boldt’s project makes sense, which is probably one of the reasons why it has caught on a lot more than the MLA’s efforts.

Anyway, as I said back then, it is admirable that MLA has decided to give the issue of adjunct labor attention, but these issues have been a major topic of concern amongst the CCCCs crowd for decades. And the reason why the CCCCs crowd has been talking about all of this for so long is because most of the adjunct labor in English departments teaches first year writing.

Bérubé goes on:

We simply think that everyone in the business should be paid a minimum of $6,920 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course. Our critics have derided this as hopelessly unrealistic, and this critic was no exception; he said we might as well wish for ponies while we were at it. When I replied that I didn’t see what any of this had to do with the teaching of writing, I was reminded that introductory writing courses fall on the extreme end of the low-wage spectrum, and that the MLA has historically ignored those courses, which is one reason why the National Council of Teachers of English was founded. I granted the point, of course, but could not refrain from noting that the NCTE was founded in 1911, and that perhaps, in the interest of better working conditions for all our colleagues, it would be best to bury that century-old hatchet.

First off, I stand by my “might as well wish for a pony” analogy as both accurate and funny enough to be included in an MLA speech. I think everyone should be paid as fairly as possible (adjuncts included), but this kind of money simply does not square with the “supply and demand” functions of the market. It would be nice if this weren’t the case, but that’s the reality of the matter. And simply wishing that everyone was paid $7000 a section is sort of like, well, you know….

Second, as came up in that February 2012 blog post in my original post and the comments, what I would like MLA (and NCTE, for that matter) to do is try to address the problem by encouraging writing departments to change their hiring practices and by speaking more specifically to would-be part-timers.  First year writing programs ought to hire part-time instructors who have training and experience in composition and rhetoric, not literature PhDs who taught some comp while they were graduate students. My colleagues in literature maintain this practice in hiring part-timers to teach literature; why shouldn’t we do the same?

And by speaking more specifically to would-be part-timers, I mean we should do more to persuade those “road warrior” instructors that teaching part-time at several different institutions is a bad bad idea. So many adjuncts are exploited because they allow themselves to be exploited. Part-time teaching should be for people who only want to/need to work part time and not for folks who were unable   to get full-time work teaching in the first place.

As for the burying of the hatchet: it isn’t as simple as that. Bérubé writes this in his next paragraph:

But of course the point remains that although the object of this association is to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects, as our constitution says, we have generally been understood to be more interested in literature than in language. Many of our colleagues in rhetoric and writing don’t see the MLA as their organization, and neither do many creative writers. There is no natural reason for this; we should be reading our mission broadly and inclusively.

First off, I think Bérubé is severely over-estimating the “broad and inclusive” appeal of the MLA convention to those who are concerned with language but who do not study literature. There are many reasons I haven’t been back to the MLA convention in a dozen or so years, but one reason is because the last time I looked there was literally nothing I was interested in attending, and this out of hundreds of sessions. The last time I looked, there were maybe a 15 sessions having to do with composition and rhetoric and maybe a half-dozen on technical writing; everything else was one flavor or another of literature. Which is fine, by the way– there aren’t a lot of lit sessions at the CCCCs either– but don’t claim that MLA is a “broad and inclusive” conference when it demonstrably is not.

Though I might give it another try in January 2014 because it’s in Chicago and because I am told there has been a lot more about “digital humanities” lately, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Second, I think Bérubé (and a lot of other people in literature) are not understanding that composition and rhetoric folks and writing studies folks are increasingly moving away from “English” and “literature” departments. This has been going on for a long time in terms of the nature of what we think is worthy of study, the methodologies we use to study things, and increasingly, even the departments we are in.

In a way, literature and comp/rhet are sort of like a dysfunctional couple that has grown apart and then sort of broken up. Only the break-up was never officially announced and literature, who was the one in the relationship who was clearly in charge and made all the decisions, is now is in denial that there’s anything really that wrong.  At the same time, comp/rhet is on to other things and seeing other people.

“60,000 Times Question,” or the power of making shit up

I’m not sure where, but I can easily imagine this coming back into some teaching in the near future:  I came across this today via Stephen Downes’ web site, but the original question comes from this post from Alan Levine.  The brief version is that supposedly the 3M Corporation did research that concluded people process visual information 60,000 times faster than text.  But even though this is frequently cited on the internets in many different places, neither Levine or Downes can find any of the details behind this claim.

Levine posted an update on his search for an answer to the 60,000 times question that makes for interesting reading.  The short version is the search continues and the 60,000 times claim is more truthiness than true.

Boldly (or foolishly) going where I haven’t gone before: HTML5

I’m teaching Writing for the World Wide Web right now, a course I’ve taught about once (sometimes twice) a year since I developed it back around 1999/2000.  There’s always been a coding component to the course, and despite the changes in web publishing that have taken place over the last decade or so, I still firmly believe students in this writing course should have to get in there with HTML and CSS, even with things like wordpress and social networks where coding is really unnecessary.

When I first learned and started teaching this stuff back in the mid-1990s, you could make analogies between making web pages and the early days of printing:  that is, the first printers made the books, wrote the books (or printed previously written books like the Bible), and sold the books, all pretty much out of the same shop.  Back in the day, working in “web publishing” meant you wrote copy and you wrote code, and you probably did some other computer server stuff too.  I don’t think that’s as true anymore, at least based on what I see in ads and what students out on the job market tell me.

That said, I think a “working knowledge” of HTML and CSS is still pretty important even for that tech/pro writer who is only going to be writing copy that goes into a CMS or that someone else codes/deals with.  I had a student a few years ago in this class who had (still does, actually) a “real job” as a tech writer and she told me that after my class, she was able to have completely different and more productive conversations with the person who actually deals with the company’s web site.  So even if this student doesn’t do a whole lot more with HTML and CSS herself, I feel like my mission has been accomplished.

Now, I’ve always had a bit of a “learning along with my students” approach to code.  One of my first publications was “Teachers Learning (Not Teaching) HTML With Students: An Experimental Lesson Plan for Introducing Web Authoring Into Writing Classes.” The title is basically what it’s about:  instead of “teaching” coding to students– which suggests and/or requires a certain level of expertise that is above and beyond the students’ knowledge– why not try to learn how to do HTML along with students?  I called this an “experimental lesson plan” because back then, I really did know more about HTML coding than the vast majority of my students.  But I kind of put myself in this position of learning along with my students when I first started messing with CSS.  In fact, I was a “leader” in a workshop on CSS (along with people who knew what they were doing, Bill Hart-Davidson and Steve Benninghoff) where I knew nothing about CSS, and it was a good year or two of teaching Writing for the WWW after that before I finally got a working knowledge of CSS under my belt.  Anyway, all this is to say that I have had plenty of these “let’s learn this together” kinds of experiences in this and other classes, and generally, I think it works out.

So with that in mind, I decided to give this HTML5 thing a whirl in my class, even though I knew nothing about it before the term began.  We’re using Head First HTML5 Programming, which builds off of the book Head First HTML with CSS and XHTML.  I like the approach that Eric Freeman and Elisabeth Robson take in explaining HTML and CSS in that book and it seems like they do a pretty decent job of picking out the highlights of what’s most important to understand and what you need to know.  So I am willing to trust them when it comes to them explaining the basics of HTML5.  And this brings me to a disturbing realization that is settling in as I try to learn with/teach my students this:  I’m not sure I understand HTML5, and I’m not convinced I ever will.

I’ve always thought it was kind of silly when people claimed that HTML and CSS were “programming languages” because, well, they’re not– or, without going too deeply into the definition of “programming” (let alone “language”), HTML is just not that complicated, and CSS is only just a little more complicated.  It certainly is not learning a new language. In contrast, HTML5 is essentially javascript, and that my friends, that is a computer language, and thus there is a reason why this book is called HTML Programming.

I am barely ahead of my students in the book as I write this post (and no, I didn’t read the book before I assigned it, something I do all the time, believe it or not), and I have two reactions so far.  First, this is waaaaay over my head, though since many of my students are better at and more practiced in mathematical equations than me (the last math class I took was in 1984, and I learned the other day that my high school freshmen-level son has now eclipsed my math skills based on his coursework), they might have a better handle on this.  We’ll see.  Second, I am not yet convinced that this is something that needs to be in a class about writing for the web, for while I think a working knowledge of HTML and CSS is pretty important for understanding how content online works and it is definitely a “writerly” activity, it seems to me that HTML5 so far is so much more programming-oriented.  From what I’ve learned so far, I don’t think I need to know HTML5 to successfully write web-based content in the same way I don’t need to know how my transmission works to drive my car.

Mind you, it’s interesting, much in the same way that it might be interesting to take a class in transmission repair.  I’m just not sure it’s necessary for me and my students to know, and I don’t think I’ve ever put myself so far out there on teaching “learning” something along with my students.

A late start to birthmonth/link round-up

It’s been a pretty busy and confusing couple of weeks around here for me. Besides some work stuff I’m not going to go into in any detail right now (and this even showed up on twitter), I also have been kind of thrown off by Will’s winter break followed by our winter break, both of which weren’t really “breaks” because it was just work work work.  Plus I made the mistake of assigning some HTML5 projects in Writing for the World Wide Web— a mistake because I don’t really know anything about HTML5.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here and I’ve got lots of links that have been piling up, so I thought I’d blog about those a bit tonight.  So in no particular order:

8 tools to make your web site for free  Mostly graphic editing things, but pretty nice list.

The top 10 ways to create digital magazines A nice list of resources here.  It’s kind of interesting:  about a year ago, I got involved in a mobile computing initiative here at EMU that has kinda floundered a bit.  My proposal/interest in this as to learn more about software for producing documents (books, magazines, etc.) that are intended to be read on the iPad.  A year ago, I didn’t know a whole lot about the options.  But now, besides these choices, I’m working on converting my  failed textbook project into an iPad book with iBooks Author.  I’m looking forward to investigating these software options, too.  It’s interesting what a year makes in iPad-land.

Top 10 pro tips and tools for budding web developers and designers.  A lot of “top” whatever numbers in this update.  I like this one if for no other reason one of the tips is get educated.

100 Mac Apps to Rule Them All.  Sure, you don’t need most of these, but it’s a cool list.

The QWERTY Effect:  How Typing May Shape the Meaning of Words.  Nice article, really a good one for 354, Critical Digital Literacies.

From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.  Actually, this is a review of this book by a blogger at

Ebooks:  The Giant Disruption.  Nice article about the pros and not so much of eBooks.  This is another topic I can see figuring into 354 the next time I teach it, and maybe 516, too.


Blogs vs. Research Papers vs. NYTimes vs. Cathy Davidson

Cathy Davidson of Duke and HASTAC fame is one smart cookie and last week she had this interesting post/response to this New York Times article, “Blogs Vs. Term Papers” by Matt Ritchtel.  I came across this one kind of backwards, via Davidson first, though it works as well IMO to read her first and Ritchtel second as it would to work it in the original order.  It’s interesting stuff as much because of the reporting and response on display here as much as the subject matter itself, so I’d encourage to read both of those on your own first.  The order is up to you.

A few thoughts in response (to the response or the original?):

  • I completely understand Davidson’s take on being misquoted at best and misrepresented at worse in Ritchtel’s article.  I’ve been interviewed by reporters for different things over the last decade or so 2 or 3 times and I have learned to be extremely careful about what I say.  Because let’s face it:  Ritchtel knew the story he wanted to tell and then he went out and found people to talk to confirm that story and when they didn’t, he told his story anyway.  I don’t think that this was a “I’m just going to observe the world and report the truth” sort of piece, and I frankly think true “reporting” is rather rare in journalism nowadays.  Feel free to call me cynical.
  • Having said that, while Davidson might be misquoted and feel used and abused here, Ritchtel does come around to talk about the problem of the false dichotomy of blogs versus term papers.  Sort of.  He writes:

    “As Professor [Andrea] Lunsford illustrates, choosing to educate using either blogs or term papers is something of a false opposition. Teachers can use both. And blogs, a platform that seems to encourage rambling exercises in personal expression, can also be well crafted and meticulously researched. At the same time, the debate is not a false one: while some educators fear that informal communication styles are increasing duress on traditional training, others find the actual paper fundamentally anachronistic.”

    I’ll get to some of the problems there about his definition of blogs as “rambling exercises” in a second.

  • Davidson tells a compelling story of giving up on research paper writing assignments in her first year composition class at Michigan State back in the 1980s. Instead, her student wrote resumes and letters of application and she turned her class into what she describes as a mini employment agency of sorts.  She also says she got in trouble for this.  I don’t disagree with this approach entirely, but what Davidson has done here (and I suspect she realizes this but doesn’t weigh in on the matter) is stumble into one of the long-standing and unsettled arguments about the purpose of first year composition:  is it for students to write “for life” and beyond the classroom, or is it to write “for school” and for upcoming classes in these students’ academic experiences?  The simple answer is both, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to abandon research and academic writing entirely.  Maybe her students were able to get some kind of job for the summer, but how’d they do writing research-oriented essays in their other classes in the next year or two?  Oh, and as someone who has been a WPA off and on a few times, I have a lot of sympathy with the person who had to tell Davidson to get with the program.
  • There is no debate between “research papers or blogs” much in the same way there is no debate between peanut butter and jelly, and everybody– even Richtel sort of– admits that.  But what exactly do these people mean by “blog?”  Richtel suggests that the definition of blog is based on content– the blog as genre approach– but even that’s inconsistent because while he says blogs can “also be well crafted and researched,” he suggests it is more often a form that is “rambling,” focused on personal response, and anarchistic.  Davidson more positively characterizes the genre blogging/blog writing as context specific, urgent, compelling, and interactive.

    I’ve written and presented about all this in many other places, but I think the short answer is blogging is perhaps best understood as a publishing platform much in the same way that paper books are (maybe were) platforms, and what one publishes in both depends a lot on your purposes, intending audience, etc.  It seems pretty clear to me that Davidson is not asking her students to blog about whatever they want– personal and anarchistic writing is likely not encouraged.  That’s great, but it seems to me they don’t really agree on what blogging even is.
  • Davidson points out that she’s working with an exceptional group of students at Duke, young people who I think likely fall into that top 1% in all kinds of ways and who are eager to take what sounds like a pretty cool class, “This is Your Brain on the Internet.”  I’d like to suggest that this is what makes her students’ writing compelling, not blogging per se.  To paraphrase myself from “When Blogging Goes Bad” for a moment, just because you give students the opportunity to write in a powerful and public space like a blog doesn’t mean they will automatically write.  Students (and everyone else, I suppose) needs a reason to write, be that reason personal or an assignment in a class.  I’ve assigned blog writing in many different ways in classes where I was probably not as compelling an instructor as Davidson and where the students were significantly less motivated and/or academically inclined, and I can assure you that the  platform/genre of blogging did not magically translate into success.
  • Finally, Davidson will get no argument from me or most contemporary comp/rhet scholars that there isn’t much point to assigning traditional research papers, meaning the “go out and write a research paper” assignment with no discussion of audience, purpose, apparatus for supporting process, etc.  This might be the difference between teaching composition now and teaching it 30 years ago.  But I am increasingly convinced that the reason why students write more effectively with new web tools (blogs, wikis, Google docs, and before that, web 1.0 web sites, newsgroups, and before that, MOOs/MUDs, email mailing lists, etc.) is largely the novelty of it all.  And blogs can certainly can become stale busywork when students get assigned blogs again and again and when they are used poorly.  In fact, at this point, the most novel thing a good teacher like Davidson might be able to do is to restrict students to writing a paper-based five paragraph essay.  Heck, require it to be typed with a typewriter– it’d be a history lesson for students.

The year that was 2011

As I look back at past blog posts from this year, it occurs to me that 2011 has been a year that has taken me further away from a lot of blogging, writing, and reading activities. And it occurs to me that I’ve done a lot of other quasi-administrative and otherwise not writing/reading/blogging things this year– being on the search for the department head for example, not to mention all of the things I mention in this post.

So while there were plenty of highlights from the last year, not as many of them seem to have made them to the blog this year.  Among those posts and events I’ll remember though:

I’m leaving stuff out, of course.  I was kind of surprised to see it, but it doesn’t look like I blogged at all about our travels through the UP to Minnesota or to Glen Arbor, for example.  But you get the idea.

I don’t usually have New Year’s resolutions since I always think of the “year” starting when school begins in August, but I do have a few resolutions I’m hoping to work on starting this January:

  • No mornings at EMU.  And as a related resolution, not be up at school quite as much.  I was there almost every day/all day this fall and, as I think about it, close to that much last winter.  A lot of that had to do with teaching an overload and “ramping up” as I was stepping into the writing program coordinator job, but now that the dust has settled, I can settle in a bit too.  I already have things on my calendar that will break this “no mornings at school” resolution, but still, a boy can try.
  • Get serious about the “immediacy” book thing.  The most satisfying writing experiences I had this past fall was practicing what I was preaching in ENGL 621 and “touching it every day,” and by “it,” I mean going back to my dissertation in an effort to revive that project into a book, something I should have done literally a decade ago.  I don’t know if I’ll get there or not, but it is worth a try.
  • School myself on HTML 5 (which I’m teaching this term) and PHP/MySQL.  We’ll see how that goes.
  • And the usual eating right/losing weight/exercise thing.  I have more thoughts on that, but I don’t want to jinx myself here, so let’s just say I have some goals and plans I’ll keep to myself for now.