I should do this more in my own blogging…

From the “By the Book” interviewer with writer/blogger Maria Popova:

Do your blog posts grow out of whatever you happen to be reading at the time? Or do you pick books specifically with Brain Pickings in mind?

I don’t see my website as a separate entity or any sort of media outlet — it is the record and reflection of my inner life, my discourse with ideas and questions through literature, my extended marginalia. It is a “blog” in the proper sense — a “web log,” part commonplace book and part ledger of a life. Nothing on it is composed for an audience. I write about what I read, and I read to process what I dwell in, mentally and emotionally. The wondrous thing about being human — the beauty and banality of it — is that we all tend to dwell in the same handful of elemental struggles, joys and sorrows, which is why a book one person writes may help another process her own life a century later, and why a “blog” by a solitary stranger may speak to many other solitary dwellers across time and space.

First (perhaps only) prediction of 2019: the return/rise of blogs

You read it here first (hopefully): I think 2019 is going to bring a resurgence (well, “return” or “rise” or “comeback” might be better words) of blogging. I freely admit this is not based on evidence. It’s a hope, a gut feeling, and/or a wild-assed guess. But a lack of evidence has never stopped me before from predicting things, so there’s no reason for me to stop now.

Predicting the comeback of blogging is in part a New Year’s resolution for me to blog more, a bit of wishful thinking. I keep resolving and hoping to start working on writing projects that have nothing to do with academia– or if they do have to do with my day job, they are more commentaries on the state of things, like this piece I write last year— and blogging is a good place to try to draft and play with some of those ideas.

I’ve been thinking about this for a month or so now after reading this piece by Matt “Community College Dean” Reed, and John Warner’s follow-up. Reed is right in that blogging (certainly in academia, and I am guessing in other careers as well) has it’s problems. “[S]ome people prefer to hire folks who don’t have paper trails. I’ll just leave that there” is true, and I am guessing there are opportunities I’ve missed because of something I have posted online. I have never had any delusions about being able to “make money” from blogging, so in the sense that the first rule of writing professionally is never do it for free, this is probably a waste of time.

On the other hand, most of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in academia as a writer and scholar connect to blogging. Writing here about MOOCs was why I got invited to speak about MOOCs at some cool conferences here and in Italy, why I was able to co-edit a reasonably successful collection of essays about MOOCs, and ultimately why I have a book coming out this year (knocking on wooden things) about MOOCs. My “greatest hit” of academic publishing (take both “greatest” and “hit” with a significant grain of salt) is still “When blogging goes bad,” an article that obviously wouldn’t have been possible without, well, blogging.

So there are very good reasons to try to go back to blogging more. Warner pointed out that the “freedom” to write what you want on a blog is the kind of freedom where you have nothing left to lose, and that is certainly the case for me. I mean, at this point of my life/career, I’m pretty much stuck situated at EMU– unless something strange and unforeseen happens, which, as the last couple of years in the Trump era et al have demonstrated time and time again, I suppose is unpredictably possible. All of which is to say that unless I write/do something quite foolish (also unpredictably possible, of course), I don’t see anything but an upside for me blogging.

But I think it goes beyond just me.

Social media feels kind of tippy-pointish to me right now. I increasingly have friends who have either opted out of social media entirely or who are now a lot more careful about how they dose on it. I cannot go two or three days without stumbling across some kind of article about the evilness of Facebook, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon.

I’m kind of hoping for a blogging comeback sort of like what’s going on with vinyl records or independent bookstores. Yes, the vast majority of us are still listening to music on our devices and not that old-timey turntable. (Slight tangent: this might also be the year where I see if that old turntable in the basement still works). Yes, most of us are still buying a lot of our books from Amazon– if we’re buying and reading books at all. (Another slight tangent: I really ought to read more non-work books this coming year). But with the collapse of the big-box stores and a customer return/preference for actual print books, independent stores are proving to be modestly sustainable.

So yeah, it’s a niche. Maybe a small one. But hey, small worlds are still worlds.



Where have all the bloggers gone?

Like I said last week, I’m committed to rebooting the whole blogging thing, both as related to my teaching and just my, well, blogging. So one of my errands was to clean up my RSS feeds to the blogs that I am/was following on Feedly. As far as I know, it’s the only decent-ish RSS feed reading site/tool out there, at least the only one that’s free. After I heard from Alan Levine in the comments here about Pinboard, I’m wondering if there is something else. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but even though Pinboard isn’t free, $11 a year seems like a good deal for a pretty robust service.

Anyway, this was the first time I had gone through my Feedly account– who I was following, how I had grouped these feeds– in probably four or five years. It was interesting to see how many blogs were no longer active, some not active since 2013 or earlier. But these ended blogs weren’t analogous to a place trapped in a historic moment by something like a volcano– Pompeii immediately comes to mind— because those people obviously saw what was coming. The plaster casts of their remains show them curled up in fetal positions in the face of falling ash and rock and fire. Rather, most of these blogs were left in place as if nothing odd at all had happened, as if they weren’t really ended at all. Most of these blogs’ most “recent” post was nothing new or dramatic– that is, there weren’t a lot of “farewell” messages.  Most of these blogs were like that apartment in Paris discovered untouched for decades, not so much abandoned in the sense that a sinking ship is abandoned; they were just “left.”

Back in 2009, I gave a presentation at the Computers and Writing Conference about blog “endings” and the research I was trying to conduct back then. One of these days, maybe I’ll go back to that project and at least make it something to put up here. It was difficult to find people who had admitted that they had quit blogging, even with bloggers who hadn’t posted anything in over a year. But I did track down a few people who served as “case studies” for my purposes back then. I basically concluded that my case studies had stopped blogging because of what I described as a “natural decay” of the rhetorical situation (a combination of the purpose coming to an end or a sense that there was almost no audience interested), or the complete opposite problem where the blogger was acutely concerned about audience. Actually, the example I recall was of a female academic blogger who quit because she had pretty good evidence that one of her male colleagues was quasi-stalking her via her blog.

In any event, the fall of some of the old blogs I followed was striking to me, and it makes me think that I need to seek out some new blogs to follow, too.

An initial response to Carey’s “The End of College” (or college costs don’t matter)

I’ve read about half of Kevin Carey’s The End of College and I’ve seen lots of the critiques of it in the education media, particularly in Inside Higher Ed.  There’s this, this (which has a pretty decent bullet-point summary of the book), this (which is probably too polite), and this piece by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab.  That Watters/Goldrick-Rab piece is probably my favorite because it is so biting and so extensively cited, though Kim thought it a little too “biting.” I commented on that article already. In any event, while my own reading of Carey is a “work in progress,” I thought I’d share two thoughts for now.

First, I am both bothered and puzzled by the attention Carey’s book is getting. I’m bothered because this book seems to be getting way WAY too much attention, and I’m puzzled by this because it seems to me the point he is making about “The University of Everywhere” is basically the same that the “Year of the MOOCs” bandwagon was making in 2012. If all this were new, I guess it might make sense; that it’s not new at all and it’s still getting great PR confuses me.

I referenced Carey’s book (well, indirectly because I ran out of time during the presentation)  at the CCCCs, and I suspect I’ll be quoting from him if I ever get this MOOC book/sabbatical project together (knocking on wooden things). I see him figuring into the last chapter where I am imagining the future of MOOCs and whatever comes next, and the seemingly never-ending quest to make education cheaper by making it more “efficient” and by further distancing teachers from students and/or bypassing the teachers altogether. Here’s a long quote from my CCCCs talk that I didn’t get to read that gives you an idea about where I’m coming from about why I’m confused by the attention:

I think Carey is wrong in lots of different ways. I think he’s right that higher education spends too much money on football and fancy campuses, and there is no doubt that higher education costs too much money. But his assumption about the research/teaching balance being out of whack and the inability of professors to teach is at best an exaggeration. Carey talks about runaway costs, but as far as I can tell, he says little about how expenses have been driven up by rising administrator salaries and increased bureaucratic demands on everyone from outside stakeholders (assessment!). Further, he seems to think that the content that would be delivered electronically in the University of Everywhere is free as in “free beer,” that that work just magically happens.

But the reason why Carey’s argument matters is the same reason why the MOOC business got traction a few years ago: Carey is playing off the popular (and largely uninformed) view of college, that it’s far too expensive because professors don’t do anything to teach and they are getting paid too much to do something that appears to most people outside of academia to not actually be a job. Write a book about how higher ed needs to be reformed by improving government funding, eliminating administrative bloat,  and by streamlining extracurriculars gets zero discussion and it sells 200 copies [and as an aside: I am afraid this is the book I am writing]. Write a book about how higher ed ought be run like Google and it gets covered by the New York Times and Fresh Air and lots of other places and it sells thousands. So even though the future of Carey’s “University of Everywhere” seems like an even more “risky business,” it’s similar to MOOCs in that we need to engage in the conversation.

The second (and more important and counter-intuitive) thing is about the “college costs too much” argument. Much of Carey’s book argues college as we know it needs to be completely retooled because it costs too much money, which is of course the conventional wisdom from most about higher education (including me). This is a rational observation. But here’s the thing: it seems to me most would be students and their parents don’t actually care that much about the costs.  It certainly isn’t driving most decisions students make about where to go to college.

Continue reading “An initial response to Carey’s “The End of College” (or college costs don’t matter)”

(At least one of) The reason(s) I decided to go into composition and rhetoric: the creative writing edition

I read two pieces about the logistics of supporting one’s self as a writer yesterday and this morning– or maybe a better way of putting it is how it’s almost impossible to support one’s self as a poet or fiction writer. (Note that one can make a good living as a writer if you include in that definition the things we train our students to do: technical writing, editing, documentation, content management, social media work, web site development, writing teacher, etc, etc.  But that’s not the kind of “writer” either of these pieces is really talking about. I suppose I could parse out the problem of limiting the definition of writer to “someone who makes art,” but that’s another post for another time).

The first is an essay  “‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from” by Ann Bauer and in Salon It’s an essay about how Bauer’s life as a writer is possible because her husband’s job pays the bills, and it’s also Bauer’s critique of the many writers who come from a similar space of privilege and do not either realize and/or acknowledge how that privilege allowed them to become a successful writer.

The second is a blog post at Gin and Tacos, which is really a rejoinder to Bauer’s essay, called “Dirty Little Secrets.”  Here, “Ed” (the guy behind Gin and Tacos, who is a semi-anonymous Political Science professor in the midwest) compares the unspoken financial independence of many writers to the unspoken use of steroids by body builders, especially those posing on the covers of various muscle magazines.  Among other things, Ed writes,

“The difference between the award-winning author … and some waitress trying to write a novel around the sixty hours she works every week to stay afloat might be talent. Or it might be the luxury of sitting around and devoting 8 hours per day to writing while someone else pays the rent. That might have something to do with it.”

I see both of their points, but I don’t think the fact that almost all but the most popular of pop writers need to pay the bills with some combination of a day job, a sponsor, and an inheritance is that big of a “secret.” And I certainly never thought the body builders in those magazines were so pumped up all as a result of clean living.

I learned concretely about the money issues (or lack thereof) for creative writers while in my MFA program back in the late 1980s. I had a few classmates who seemed to have come from the sort of privilege Bauer describes, but most of my fellow classmates (like me) lacked trust funds, and it became clear quickly that despite our hopes and dreams, we weren’t going to make money from our little stories and poems.

I remember one guy– he actually wasn’t a graduate of my program but he was around as a part-time instructor– who had published a first novel that had been considered quite successful. I believe it helped him land his part-time teaching gig. The publisher only printed a few hundred copies of his book. Another guy who was in the MFA program at the same time as me had published an “award winning” novel a few years before he even started attending classes and earned his degree. He was quite full of himself; I believe he went on after the MFA program to have a series of temp office jobs.  There’s another woman who I sorta/kinda know (she was in my program a few years after me) who seems to be a lot like Bauer: she writes and publishes novels and can afford to do so because of her husband– and it might help that she lives in Europe, too. And of course the faculty teaching us in the program also obviously needed a “day job.”

In fact, I know of only two people from my MFA days who have enjoyed what I think most people would call some popular and financial success primarily as a writer. One is still a good friend and while he made a fair amount of money from a novel years ago and he still technically makes much of his living from his novels and short stories, he also teaches part-time and he lives as frugal as anyone ever. Another is Sheri Reynolds, and while I would bet that she could “just write” if she wanted to, she’s also a professor at Old Dominion University. (By the way, both of these people are super-great folks and super-talented writers).

Almost everyone else I’m vaguely aware of from my MFA days has gone on to something else besides creative writing. Judging from Facebook, a lot of my MFA peers have gone on to private sector jobs of various flavors, work with nonprofits, teaching/working in high schools, teaching college (mostly as a non-tenure-track person, but there are a few folks I know who went on to tenure-track gigs in creative writing), or on to PhD programs and, in a few cases, tenure-track jobs in other fields (like me).

So the fact that creative writers cannot live off of their writing is not much of a secret, and knowing that explains, more or less, why I went into a comp/rhet program when I did way back when. I was (and am still) risk adverse and not fond of insecure employment, so the idea of taking a series of shit jobs so I could try to “make it” just wasn’t a reasonable plan to me. And besides all that, I wasn’t sure then (still am not sure now) I had the talent to do it.

As I have written about before, I decided to go into composition and rhetoric because I knew I wanted to stay in academia (especially after I attempted to have a real job), and I knew there were jobs out there in comp/rhet.  But I also think that comp/rhet is a field that complements, complicates, and expands what I learned about writing in my MFA program. That has and hasn’t turned out to be the case. Yes, I have been able to apply a lot of what I learned as an MFA student as a writing scholar, particularly the importance of habit and craft. But no, I haven’t been able to successfully make the mental shift to move from writing scholarship to writing art. Though one of the reasons why I’m writing so much about this right now is that’s one of the goals during the sabbatical, to return to fiction for the first time in about 20 years. Wish me luck.

Anyway, to get back to Bauer and Ed at Gin and Tacos: the next time you go to a reading given by someone who has published a “well-regarded” book but not one that has been riding the top of the New York Times best seller list for at least half a year, assume that person has some combination of other work and/or other wealth. And the next time you look at one of those muscle magazines, remember that’s the steroids and the HGH talking.

As long as I have your attention: one more addendum on the state of the job market and decreasing tenure-track jobs in “the humanities”

Boy, mention Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman in a post about a fight on the Chronicle of Higher Education site and the hits just pile up! All of this and some tweets from Elizabeth “@badcoverversion” Keenan about trends in higher ed and non-tenure-track hiring and a whole bunch of tweets from Schuman this morning! Follow the link/follow Schuman to get the whole story, but here’s a screen-shot of those Schuman tweets:

A lot of what Schuman and her various followers are talking about is the job market in higher education, the tenure-track “haves” versus the non-tenure-track “have nots.” I get that. As I mentioned before, I have had survivor’s guilt in the past and I think it’s always a shame when anyone doesn’t get what they want/think they’ve earned/think they deserve. In my experience, a lot of people start PhD programs with wildly rosy world views about love of the field but by the end, after all the work and jumping through all the hoops, they want a freakin’ job. I understand that.  And I’m certainly not going to defend “the system” overall, in part because a lot of it is obviously not defensible, but also because there is no one “the system,” as I am attempting to detail here. Anyway, that’s what is motivating this addendum on my take on the job market– that and some procrastination from other things.

I think there’s reasonably clear evidence that there has been a decline in the number of tenure-track jobs in universities, especially in some areas like Literature, foreign languages, Classics, Philosophy, usually lumped together in the media as “the Humanities.”  This trend has been going on in U.S. higher education for at least 30 years and, on a macro-level, it is depressing and distressing. I think it’s become increasingly depressing/distressing in the last couple of years because of the attention higher ed has received about student loan debt, about things like MOOCs, about decreases in state funding, about “assessment,” etc., etc.

That said, I think there are a lot of subtle things about the world of non-tenure-track work in universities that complicate the narrative of “winners” and “losers,” of the “haves” and have nots.” All of what I’m saying here is anecdotal or based on my observations, so your results may vary of course. More or less in chronological order:

  • After I finished my MFA in 1990, I was an adjunct until I started my PhD program in 1993. But I was always a part-time adjunct, just teaching a section or two of first year writing at night while I had a “real job” as a temp and then as a PR Rep/Tech Writer for a now defunct state agency in Richmond, Virginia. I knew people who did the full-time/part-time/”road scholar” thing back then, but I always thought that was a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. It’s still a bad way to approach the world of part-time teaching,  I advise anyone I can to not do that, and I think anyone who does do this in the hopes of cobbling together work that will somehow lead to a tenure-track position is kidding themselves.
  • When I was in my PhD program between 1993 and 1996, I saw firsthand the strange irony of Comp/Rhet as a field. I knew plenty of PhD students in literature and American Culture Studies who thought it was foolish to study Comp/Rhet because all you’d end up doing is teaching freshman composition. But PhD students in Comp/Rhet were getting tenure-track jobs teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing and doing quasi-administrative work, and while most of us went into the field because we actually liked FYComp, we didn’t get much of a chance to teach it because we were assigned to other things. On the other hand, a lot of those folks who really wanted nothing to do with FYComp ended up teaching part-time or in non-tenure-track positions where a lot of the teaching load was/is– you guessed it!– FYComp. Like I said, it’s a strange and ironic field.
  • I started my first tenure-track job at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon in 1996. Ashland is a stunningly beautiful town about 14 miles from the California border. People used to come through town and stop in the English department office to drop off a CV and to plead for any kind of part-time teaching because they would do anything to be in Ashland. There were folks who had been teaching part-time at SOU for decades because they just could not fathom living anywhere else. When Annette and Will and I moved from there to southeast Michigan because of much better future job prospects (Annette was never going to get anything but part-time work there and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my position), people thought we were insane.  Anyway, my point here is a lot of people end up as part-timers/non-tenure-track faculty because they decide to put other “lifestyle” changes ahead of an academic career. So be it.
  • I’ve been at Eastern Michigan University since 1998. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and still has an enormous number of students who want to be K-12 teachers and administrators. It’s an “opportunity-granting” institution that has always had a bit of an identity problem because it’s less than 10 miles away from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My department– English Language and Literature– has had between 45 and 50 faculty for at least 45 years, which is to say that I don’t think we’ve really seen much of a decline of faculty lines in the department. But I have seen two trends that might make it seem that the department has gotten smaller. First, up until about 30 years ago, 30 or more of the faculty in the department were specialists in literature; nowadays, that number is about 17 (depending on how you count it). This is because there are now more faculty who are specialists in other fields within English Studies– Comp/Rhet, Children’s Lit, Linguistics, and Creative Writing– and also because our department has the unusual arrangement of including journalism and public relations.  Second, the nature of tenure-track work has really changed at EMU (and I think everywhere else) in that a lot of faculty are also quasi-administrators. This has always been the case in Comp/Rhet with WPA work, but I think it has become even more wide-spread.
  • The definition of “part-timer,” “adjunct,” “non-tenure-track faculty,” “lecturer,” (etc., etc., etc.) is a lot more complicated than the discussion I’ve read from some of these critiques from Schuman and others. Twitter “discussions” can be pretty ham-handed because of the 140 characters thing, but I haven’t read things a lot more subtle on Schuman’s blog either.
  • As the very useful Adjunct Project makes clear, there are of course part-time teaching positions (aka “adjunct”) where people get paid per course. According to the site, EMU pays “English” part-timers (that’s almost exclusively FYComp) $3375 per class, Washtenaw Community College pays around $2500, and U of M pays between $5500-$7985 for “English” (I’m not sure, but this might actually be in Literature) and $7500 for the Sweetland Center for Writing (tutoring and probably also FYComp– again, that’s just a guess). So even what it means in terms of money (and presumably qualifications) to be part-time at 3 institutions less than 10 miles apart from each other varies tremendously.
  • Then there are also full-time/lecturer/non-tenure-track positions at all of these places. We have them at EMU, and they’re unionized (as are the part-timers at EMU, actually), the pay is so-so, they get benefits, and they are more or less permanent jobs. I know there are similar positions at Wayne State because we have some recent MA graduates working in them. As I understand it, the University of Michigan has several layers of non-tenure-track positions. I know a couple of people reasonably well who have positions there that might as well be on the tenure-track. My point is simply this: it’s much more complicated than “either/or,” it’s much more complicated than “haves/have nots.”
  • So, to sum up and to respond to Schuman’s tweets above there in reverse order:
    • If you never assumed you were going to “beat the odds,” then why all the rage now that you have indeed not “beat the odds?”
    • The Comp/Rhet “bubble” isn’t a bubble; it’s simply about supply and demand. I think the market is tighter now than it was a few years ago because of the “Great Recession” and because there are perhaps too many PhD programs in the field, but it is still a field where people find jobs.
    • The reason why “the Humanities” thing bothers me so is because it just simplifies a more complex problem. I expect MSM to do that, but I find it depressing when people who I would assume know better do that. But no need to bow to Comp/Rhet; just acknowledge that there is no field called “the Humanities” and speak in more specific terms like German, like American Literature, etc.
    • No doubt you have to be devoted to the field to study it, to dissertate about it, to continue to engage in scholarship about it, and to teach it. I’m not arguing that people ought get into Comp/Rhet just for “the job.” But what I am saying is that anyone pursuing graduate work in a field which they love but also a field in which there are no jobs is setting themselves up for the rage and disappointment you have. This is one of the main reasons why I didn’t get into a creative writing PhD after my MFA: I knew the job(s) wouldn’t be there and I doubted my abilities and my talent.
    • And by the way, it seems to me that PhD programs in fields like German are perpetuating a sick and inhumane system by taking on students even as foreign language departments are closing down. If you want to address people who really could do something to “change the system,” talk to them.
    • It’s hard to pin down exactly the “systematic problems that made the field bad” and I’m not trying to ignore them. But short of a paradigm shift regarding funding for higher ed in the U.S. and an equally huge shift in what higher education is for– education/democracy rather than training/”a job”– I don’t see a solution.  Other than closing down some PhD programs in fields that are no longer in demand.
    • I find it strange that someone who so often takes on such an aggressive and angry voice in her writing about all kinds of things and in all kinds of places thinks I’ve been smug, full of scorn, and conducting a personal attack. Sorry you feel that way.

The end of the semester and a response to “The End of the College Essay”

A lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Sure, everyone understands the pressures students are under, but non-academic-types might be surprised by the extent to which faculty are swamped and otherwise stressed out this time of year. Everything is due and then there’s all that grading.  I was at a department XMas function last night, and there was many a weary colleague taking a break from the final climb up Grading-Grading and More Grady-Grading Mountain.

Actually, it surprises me how much grading and work so many of my colleagues seem to leave until the bitter end of the term.

The writing classes I teach don’t have finals and I learned a long time ago to assign essays so that students get my feedback (and have a sense of their grade) long before the very end and to save finals week for revisions.  That’s pretty much what happened in my Writing for the World Wide Web class this term: I finished all the grading for that last night and they have until Tuesday to revise things if they want.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #1: Overall, the class turned out pretty good and in some interesting ways. This is the first time I’ve taught WWWW in person and not online in several years, and I have to say it’s as strange of a shift for me to go from online back to a face to face class as it was when I made the shift in this class to the online space a few years ago. That was one struggle. The other was the last couple times I’ve taught the class it was in the 7.5 week summer format. The short semester can make the whole experience feel overwhelming for students and for me, but when I took the 7.5 week class and expanded it to the regular 15 week semester, it felt positively airy and even underwhelming.

I was also a lot less of a “hard ass” in this class for some reason, and I can’t really say why. Part of it was because it was a small and chummy group, a lot of it had to do with the fact that the class was face to face. I routinely get the worse student evaluations for online teaching and I think that’s pretty common for everyone who teaches both f2f and online.

A good class, but there are a few “back to basics” moves I think I’m going to make the next time I teach it, probably this summer (or “summer 1” or really spring). Codecademy is great, but it’s not enough HTML/CSS, so I will probably be going back to one of the various big “how to make web sites” books like the Head First series so students really have to puzzle through the code a bit more; I’ll probably have a unit where we’re working specifically with a WYSIWYG app (though not Dreamweaver– too expensive and too much) to make some sites, and some more about modifying/using a CMS like WordPress (which is really the only one I sorta/kinda know). Along the way, I’ll probably keep the “Semester of Social Media” assignment because I think that’s been pretty effective, though I’ll probably retire Shirky and some of the other reading. /tangent

In grad classes that involve a lot of reading, I usually have a final to keep everyone honest.  I typically make some kind of essay/writing assignment due at the last class meeting, I distribute a take-home final at that last meeting, and while I’m waiting to collect their finals, I read/comment on/grade whatever they handed in. I collect the finals and power through them in one reading session, and I’m usually done with grading by the middle of the day after they are due.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #2: That’s what I’m doing/procrastinating about with this blog post right now, reading essays from my graduate students in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology class. An interesting group. The class started pretty much full with about 13 students in it (the cap on our graduate courses is 15) but it quickly dropped down to 8, with 7 finishing solid. I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.

In any event, it’s an online class, something that is not completely without controversy. I don’t want to spend too much time defending the merits of an online graduate course now, but I will note that the class web site has over 1500 comments on it.  If I very conservatively average those comments as being 50 words apiece, that’s about 75,000 words, or the equivalent of a decent-sized book manuscript. That’s a lot of writing about rhetoric from a small group of students to accomplish in less than 15 weeks, and if one of the marks of success of any writing class– from freshman comp to PhD seminars– is that students write a lot, then it seems to me a format that requires students to write for all interactions can be successful.

The next time I teach this, it will probably be face to face (we try to alternate that with some of these courses) and I will probably try to include for the second part of the term a book-length work. This term, I was thinking about assigning Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, but I chickened out because a) I haven’t finished reading it myself, and b) what I have read (I’m through the lengthy intro and first chapter) is quite good but potentially too much for my MA students. I did assign the introduction though and that went over fairly well. So maybe it’d be worth spending more time with the whole book? Or another very current book on rhetoric and (even indirectly) “science/technology?” /tangent2

Anyway, this all brings me indirectly to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman’s Slate piece “The End of the College Essay.” It’s an intentionally and intensely angry/attention seeking (and in that sense, quite successful) piece about student papers. Schuman’s (unsubstantiated) assumption is that students hate writing them and that she hates reading them (certainly a more substantiated claim). Here’s a typical paragraph:

Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

and this:

When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”

Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

Read the rest of it if you want more of this kind of thing, a lot of hate on students, a lot of hate on the work, etc., etc.

First off, this is what I mean about how a lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Having read some of pan kisses kafka, I think this is generally Schuman’s writing voice/shtick, and I hope it is an affectation and she isn’t really this “on the edge.” But when the end is here/near and people like Schuman (especially part-timers teaching too many classes at too many different places) are staring at a big stack of papers that represent all they have and haven’t accomplished as a teacher this semester and that stack is all that is between them and their meager holiday vacation, well, sometimes people lose their shit and throw open the window and shout at the world “fuck all of this!!!” And by the way, if you don’t want to read Schuman’s essay, “fuck all of this!!!” is a pretty accurate summary of it, in my opinion.

So in that sense, I feel her pain but it is just part of the job. I can only offer these previous thoughts and advice on grading. I’d especially recommend the timer because if you’re spending 15 hours reading final projects, you’re spending too much time, unless you have 120 students, in which case you have too many students.

Second, congratulations to Schuman for “discovering” what I think has been the conventional wisdom among composition and rhetoric scholars for decades: writing is a process and assigning “research papers” with no discussion of audience or purpose, no discussion or support for process, and no opportunity for feedback from readers is a waste of time. It’s lazy teaching that invites lazy student responses.

And personally, I hate the word “paper.” Besides the fact that I haven’t collected the physical, pulp-based substance called paper from students in at least a decade, to me the word “paper” in this context has the connotation of bureaucracy (as in “doing paperwork”) or policing (as in “show me your papers”). I much prefer the term “essay” because of its connotations of “try,” or the term “project” because there is hopefully not just one single document but rather a series of assignments and steps along the way that lead to some final presentation or essay.

Anyway, her blog post “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy” (which should be “My Un-Paper Pedagogy” but she, like most, clumsily assume that “paper” and “essay” mean the same thing) crudely sums up the conventional wisdom that I have learned and practiced as a teacher and a comp/rhet specialist for the past 25 years:  assignments with clear audiences and purposes, focused class peer review workshops, one-on-one conferences to talk about drafts in process, etc., etc. Better late than never, I guess.

And third, Schuman really seems to hate her students. That’s bad for them, but it’s also really bad for her. She ought to stop that.

Okay, on to finish my semester and that pesky MOOC book….

Being a professor is like having a white collar job

Being a professor is like being a rodeo clown.

Being in academia is like being in a frat.

Being a professor is like being first mate on a pirate ship in the 18th century.

Being in academia is like working in a coal mine.

Being a professor is like being a lumberjack.

Being in academe is like being in a drug gang.

Being a professor is like being a survivor on The Walking Dead.

All of these claims are stupid. Two of these claims have been advanced in actual publications in the last week or so to describe what it is “like” to be in academia, I presume for the shock value of the analogy. (If you don’t already know, you’ll have to keep reading after the break.)

Well, let me tell you the truth, folks, and hold on to your hats: being a professor is sort of like having a white collar job, and being in academia is sort of like being in academia. If you are an academic yourself, you already know what I mean. If you aren’t and/or you’re curious about what I mean, read on.

Continue reading “Being a professor is like having a white collar job”

Udacity joins Pearson in skipping this whole pesky “education” thing (and more complaining about MOOCs)

A couple months ago, I had a post here about how I see “education” working as a combination of learning, teaching, and credentialing.  In that post, I pointed out that ventures like Coursera are at this point PR vehicles for the elite universities because they are offering “courses” to the masses but they would never actually accept these courses as credit at said elite universities– in other words, there’s no way the University of Michigan is going to accept a certificate or badge of completion as credit toward one of its degrees, even if students pay for the privilege.  However, as I also pointed out in that post, that doesn’t mean less elite institutions like Ivy Tech aren’t willing to count these things.

Well, now Udacity is doing the same thing.  To quote from their blog:

Today, we’re excited to announce a partnership with Pearson VUE, a worldwide provider of testing services. Students may still complete a Udacity class on our website as they always have. And now, students wishing to pursue our official credential and be part of our job placement program should also take an additional final exam in a Pearson testing center. There are over 4000 centers in more than 170 countries.

I came across this news via George Siemens’ elearnspace.  Siemens, who is a Canadian researcher/teacher about technology in education and who has been a pioneer of Massive Online Open Courses, is critical of this move.  He sees Udacity as essentially “selling out:”

Udacity is recognized as an innovative model of learning in the future, but, in order to gain legitimacy, decides that a connection to the established testing system is more important than blazing a new trail. This connection serves to reinforce the existing educational model rather than to continue the path of creating a new one. As Udacity creates similar connections to other education companies and organization, it quickly becomes apparent that the network being created is one of validation and lockin, rather than innovation and a new vision for learning. You can’t do much innovation if your point of departure is blocked by existing testing and assessment models.

True enough, but I guess I’m more cynical than that.  I see Udacity as merely “buying in:”  that is, I think the unspoken goal of Udacity, Coursera, and other comparable projects has always been to leverage the assessment industry and generate “cheap credit” that might be applicable at less picky colleges and universities.

Now, I do appreciate the fact that entities like Udacity do extend some opportunity to education to the rest of the world and that comes across in Udacity’s press release.  Still, if you follow the money, I don’t think Udacity and Pearson are in this to extend opportunity to people in Sri Lanka.  No, I think the goal of these entities is to compete in the higher education market in the U.S., Canada, and maybe some of Europe, and specifically, to compete with the “lower half” of that market:  for-profit universities, community colleges, and (probably) opportunity-granting regional universities and colleges.

Incidentally, Siemens also has a really good post on his (and his colleagues) vision(s) of MOOCs, one that I would argue is at odds with corporate model that is all the rage as of late.  Go read it, but basically, Siemens’ vision of a MOOC strikes me as about community and connection, with an emphasis on student-centered learning and on the value of making things and student contributions to the learning process, as opposed to the “sage on a stage knowledge delivered from the elite leaders to the unwashed masses” model of the Coursera/EdX/Udacity/et al of the world.

I still don’t think MOOCs are the future of education, at least on this continent and as long as the credential of the college degree is so important.  Or let me put it this way:  I will believe in the viability of MOOCs and open education when that young person applying for an entry-level job in the Federal government or for the Bank of America or “insert your major employer here” with a “non-degree” series of badges and certificates from various free/low-price online entities wins that position over a young person with a bachelors degree from a traditional university.

That said, I’m all for the MOOC model that Siemens is talking about.  I don’t know if they are educational per se, but they are certainly great opportunities for learning and teaching, and maybe someday we can figure out a way to make them legitimately “count” for something.

I can’t believe this is the first post of the New Year…

…but it is:

This morning, I came across a site that I am sure my wife will enjoy and that I am probably going to have to add to my RSS Feed reader: I give you Hello Kitty Hell. The story this guy has is that he’s living in a “Hello Kitty Hell” because his wife collects the stuff. But frankly, I think anyone who maintains a blog about this for a couple of years has got to have a bit of HK fetish himself. Funny stuff.