“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.

Boarding up Borders

IMG_0356It’s just a matter of time before there are no more Borders to visit, so while running a bunch of other errands on Saturday, I decided to take in the latest going out of business sale at one of the three stores that were in town.  I didn’t venture to Borders #1 downtown because of the Art Fair hoopla, though I am sure I will find a way to get down there before it’s closed up for good. Instead, I visited the one out by Ann Arbor-Saline Road.

I suppose like most people in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area, I have mixed feelings about the end of Borders.

When Annette and I were in our PhD programs at Bowling Green State, we came up to Ann Arbor a couple times a year to go to the U of M library, see the sights, get lost, and spend way too much money on books.  We always hit Shaman Drum, the many great used stores, and the flagship store of the then relatively small chain book store (according to this timeline piece, Borders was 21 stores in 1992).   Though if we could buy a book at either Shaman Drum or a used store instead of Borders, we would.

It’s odd that the only book stores open in downtown Ann Arbor nowadays are used ones, comic stores, or mystery shops.

Anyway, I don’t like to see anyone lose their jobs nor do I like to see book stores close, even big box ones, especially ones with such important local ties.  Borders used to support a lot of Ann Arbor/Ypsi causes.  They will be missed. That said, I am sure that there are many owners and patrons of small and local book stores experiencing more than a little Schadenfreude at all this given that it was Borders’ big box stores and rapid expansion that drove a lot of those places out of business a few years ago.

I freely admit that I’m a good example of a consumer that help push Borders over the cliff.  As I blogged about here back in 2009, shopping for books online at amazon.com et al is just too convenient and cheap, and, as I wrote about in that post, the store had become kind of a pain in the ass.  You couldn’t get any help, they didn’t have a huge stock (especially of things that are more academic and/or not pop writing), and their prices were terrible.  I guess I would be willing to put up with some of those problems to shop local, but not for the would be Starbucks of book stores, even if it was based in Ann Arbor.

Anyway, back to the going out of business sale visit on Saturday:

The store I visited was one of the “concept” stores Borders opened in 2008, which I blogged about back here then.  The short version of that post: it was clear then that they didn’t know what they hell they were doing when it came to the whole “eReader” and “internets” thing, and in hindsight, that store was as dumb as a bag of rocks.  On Saturday, there were more people there than I had pretty much ever seen at a Borders or any other book store, certainly there to make good on the “up to 40%” discount on books.  The only problem was very few books were actually discounted much at all.  The place can’t even go out of business right.  I’ll wait until the end is near and/or the prices really do drop below amazon.

I’m no business person or retail expert, but it seems to me that it is possible to run a book store and make a modest amount of money at it– not a big giant chain (though Barnes and Noble seem to be doing okay) and not a tremendous amount of money, but some.  I buy books mostly online and increasingly electronic books ala kindle, but I still hold out hope that there is a place for book stores– or at least places that sell books, music, coffee and food, have events, etc.  It’s not possible to replicate the value of the place of book stores.  So my hope is that maybe clearing out one of the big box retailers will allow some smaller book entrepreneur to come in?

But I’m still a happy academic, mostly

I have many other things I need to do (in the midst of teaching in the short spring term, minutes and notes from a meeting last week need to be written up and sent out, I have some writing about assessment I want to post here soon, etc.), but I thought I’d post briefly something I started this morning about a bummer of an article in Inside Higher Ed, “In for Nasty Weather.” It’s a long piece, but what it boils down to is the “academic life” is becoming a thing of the past as tenure disappears and as universities hire more and more adjuncts.

There is a similarly downbeat article in The Chronicle, by the way, this one titled “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges.”

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I largely agree with most of the article’s claims, and while I am generally not one of those “oh, the good old days” kind of people, I can say with some personal authority that things were “better” for me when I first came to EMU in the late 1990s, mostly because the institution still had some money to work with.  Hiring of tenure-track faculty in our department does seem to be trickier, and there’s lots of “administrative creep.”  The current political environment is obviously not that friendly to higher ed (tenure being generally under attack and so forth), there are lots of predictions of things like standardized testing in college, there are fewer tenure-track jobs, the value of “knowledge” and “education” in a wired/socially networked world is up for grabs, etc., etc.  These things are all very true and it is why I have been telling most students who ask about pursuing a PhD and an academic career that they shouldn’t.

But there are many other hands. Continue reading “But I’m still a happy academic, mostly”

Tim Feriss’ 4 hour workweek and “outsourcing” to get to the $10K college degree: what could go wrong?

This morning, I stumbled across a “guest blog” at University of Venus (part of Inside Higher Ed) by Terrance Bradford-Muhammad titled “Creating a Degree for 10K.” Apparently, Texas Governor Rick Perryhas issued the “challenge” to his states’ universities to create a $10K college degree, one that included tuition and books.  Right after that, Perry issued a “challenge” to Texas cattlemen to produce a steer with steaks that taste like unicorn and that poop cherry jelly beans.

I jest, of course.  A $10K degree is ridiculous.

But Bradford-Muhammad takes on the challenge and suggests that maybe the way to get to that $10K degree is by following the outsourcing techniques suggested by none other than Tim “The Four Hour Workweek” Feriss.  Here’s a long quote to give you an idea what I mean:

In Timothy Feriss’ 4 Hour Workweek, he discusses the idea of “Automation,” meaning building a sustainable and automatic stream of income. It includes several techniques like drop-shipping, Google Adwords and Adsense, and outsourcing, all techniques a university could use (Timothy Feriss: Outsourcing Life). In some cases it has already begun.

The private (for-profit) sector residence life program I worked for was outsourced to a third party housing provider that leased land from a university. The company built and maintained the buildings, operating the program with its own employees. This cost the state nothing and, instead, put money in the state’s pockets (if a state can have such things).

Still not a believer? Think of this. Drop shipping is a product delivery method where the seller accepts payment for an order, but the customer receives the product directly from the manufacturer. In these arrangements, the retailer is the middleman between the manufacturer and the customer (Wise Geek). Think of online universities and of the professors who teach part-time from their homes. The state could rid itself of “brick and mortar” classrooms and arrange a teaching contract between the professor and the students, allowing the professor to decide where, when and how learning would take place. Cost to the state? Nothing.

By the way, Bradford-Muhammad is a PhD student in “student affairs” at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  Not sure how that studying is going there, frankly.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Feriss’ system is foolproof and sound, so simple that all you have to do is describe it and it works.  It’s not that Feriss does not have any good points– I’ve written about some of them before— but I think it’s going to take a wee bit more than referencing a chapter in a pop self-help book to make it so.  But still.  Also, let’s just assume that a) the compensation for this kind of work was comparable to what professors earn now, and b) all of the other key trappings of the “real job” aspect of things– minor details like insurance and retirement plans– could be addressed.  Two more mondo-huge assumptions, but again, let’s just go with it.

On the one hand, this system would be pretty sweet:  “the university” then becomes more or less a broker matching up students to instructors, and the students/instructors work out the details.  In fact, in a broad sort of way, this is what is happening now in the realm of teaching part-time and online:  you pick up an online class here and an online class there, and through that, the instructor cobbles together some version of a paycheck.  Hypothetically, someone who either  negotiated a higher salary than the usual per-class rate or someone who was willing to take on a ridiculous number of classes could make some very good money.

But Bradford-Muhammad is forgetting one critical thing about the way universities operate.  At least two-thirds of my time as a tenured professor is spent on things other than teaching.  Besides teaching (and by “teaching,” I mean assigning things, leading discussions, creating assignments, and the tons of reading/grading I do associated with specific courses, all of which I am doing online currently), I have lots of responsibilities involving things like meetings that make the “business” of the department go ’round; I advise students about degree programs or particular classes; and I work with my colleagues on developing and changing curriculum.  And by the way, these other “not teaching” things today occupied more of my time than the teaching things yet again today.

Oh, and I didn’t mention any assessment or program review work, also stuff we need to do nowadays in part to satisfy people like Rick Perry who are demanding accountability in public educators.  That’s not an unreasonable demand, even if the the process of institutional assessment/program review is often pretty goofy.  But it is also not a cheap demand to satisfy.

Anyway, it’d be nice if drop-shipping and outsourcing could work in this setting.  If it weren’t for the fact that most of the cost of higher education has nothing to do with the teaching.

Incidentally, in my more grumpy academic moments, I’ve wondered about the finances of this kind of approach on a personal level: that is, how many courses would I have to teach in the shady world of proprietary and/or online universities to get to the break-even point relative to my current salary and benefits?  Twice as many courses a year?  Would the trade-off of not having to deal with any of the non-teaching stuff make it worth it?

And say, what if I followed Feriss’ advice and outsourced some of my own grading and other paperwork in the process?  Can a part-time instructor hire a subcontractor?  Hmmm… that’s just crazy enough to work….

The kids today and the internets

This is mostly a reminder post for 516 for winter 2012 (I assume I’ll be teaching it then) and some reading(s) I might want to add about participatory culture and digital natives, and it’s in my mind now because I literally came across both of these things almost at the same time while looking for other things.

First, there’s the book Born Digital, which looks like a much smarter version of the whole “digital natives” argument than Pensky.  Along these lines is the web site/group Youth and Media.

Second, Clay Spinuzzi posted on his blog a useful review of Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century By Henry Jenkins with Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice J. Robison, useful not only for his comments but also for the link to the book.  Thanks Clay, and go read some more Jenkins– good stuff.

Scholarly reading blogging interlude: CCC, what’s with the “posters?”

Once again, I’m in that “completely swamped” territory of work stuff, this time more because of grading/assessment project I’ve nicknamed the Googledocs Gradinator 2011 v1.1-1.2.  I’ll probably post about that soon– maybe yet this weekend as I finish up the first batch of grades/comments on projects for English 328.  And I am actually in the process of reading things; right now, it’s Marilyn Cooper’s excellent essay in the most recent issue of College Composition and Communication on “agency,” a concept that proved to be quite thought-provoking in English 505 last fall.  This is an essay that will probably find its way into that class the next time I teach it, and I really will be blogging about that some time next week.

But for the time-being:  CCCs, what’s the deal with these “posters?”

I think this began a few issues ago with one about “the rhetorical situation” (complete with obligatory triangle), and the most recent ones are for “Literacy/Literacies” (December 2010) and “Genre” (February 2011).  Of course, they aren’t posters at all, but rather one page pieces with some kind of graphic element (for “Genre,” it is a word cloud, which strikes me as a sort of odd choice, almost the use of a genre to define “Genre”), and “Literacy/Literacies” was accompanied by an image of the book cover from the 1917 textbook English Composition as a Social Problem. (?????)

As barest of bare bones summaries, I guess they are okay, but honestly, I can’t see giving either one of these to students as some sort of introductory piece to students.  Maybe– maybe— they would be useful if my non-academic Mom asked me something like “dear, I read that people in your field are interested in ‘genre;’ what is that?” but how big of an audience is that, really?  My reading of the validity of all of these posters to date has been “well, sort of,” not because they are not well written and inaccurate, but because they are attempting to define God terms that are too slippery for a less than 500 word summary.

So honestly, does anyone out there have a sense of the purpose of these things?

And in more link catching up news

Again, in no particular order– just things I want to keep track of that I have left open in my browser for a while now:

  • “Reading in a Whole New Way,” which is a very readable/accessible piece about how technology has altered the sense of “book,” from Smithsonian.com. And this is a link to the article itself, where there is worry about the iPad.
  • Speaking of which:  “Revisualizing Composition:  Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students” is a WIDE whitepaper/study about the way that students use writing technologies to write in different aspects of their lives.  There’s a lot here, but I was struck by the idea that students write as often for “personal fulfillment” (with Facebook, texting, etc.) than for school.
  • “Nine Important Trends in the Evolution of Digital Textbooks and E-learning Content,” from something called “xplana.”  I think these trends are debatable at best, but I like things that speculate about the future of publishing, especially when they are horribly wrong.
  • I really liked this cbd post “Taking Notes,” and I wanted to keep a link– a note?– of it for future reference.  Lots of good stuff here.
  • To be honest, I don’t know if this is worth passing on, but I will anyway:  From Inside Higher Ed, “An Adjunct’s Novel,” which in some ways seems amusing but in many ways seems rather predictable to me.
  • Here’s a link to an iPhone app I might try out later, something called the Sleep Cycle alarm clock. Though the whole thing seems a bit problematic to me.  First off, I set an alarm for a particular time not because it is the “best time” for me to necessarily wake up, but because it is the time that I logistically need to wake up to go on with my day.  Second, I don’t get how this app could possibly work, and I guess what bothers me most is that the reviews suggest that it does indeed work.
  • I might get this book called The Whuffie Factor:  Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business because it does sound pretty interesting.  But to be honest, between stuff I’m reading for school and for fun right now, this is going to have to go down the list a bit. Still, for the Kindle (iPad, of course) edition, it might be worth it for the next time I’m on a plane.
  • What’s the point of an iPad?  How might it be used in the “real world?”  Here’s a link from Apple to tell us. I’ve pulled my iPad out a couple of times in my first year composition class and what I think is interesting is that my students in that class seem pretty dismissive of its usefulness.  So much for “digital natives” understanding this stuff so much better.
  • Speaking (again and again!) of the iPad:  I recently won an iShine give-away from PadGadget by being early enough on Twitter to retreat an article from the site PadGadget.  Here’s a review of the iShine, which I mostly agree with.  I prefer to have my iPad in its Apple case because it’s easier to prop it up and such, but the iShine bag is handy and easy too.
  • Finally, this is something I really ought to do with my laptop:  from Lifehacker comes “Starting from Scratch:  A Step-by-Step Guide to Reinstalling Your OS.”

Apple (apparently) thinks books and apps are two different things

A friend of mine sent me a link to this article on the blog/web side Dvice, “You shouldn’t care about Apple easing up on Flash apps.” My friend (and the folks at Dvice) are mostly interested in some of the ways in which Apple is not really easing up on Flash and also some of the kind of snarky language from Apple about their guidelines, much of which I agree with– they don’t need any more fart apps, for example.  Here’s a link to an endgadget article on all this.

But the last paragraph in the Dvice post is kind of interesting to me:

Our favorite: “We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.”

It can get complicated indeed.  For example, what if you wanted to create a book that was critical of a particular religion– the Catholics for child abuse, the Scientologists for being kind of goofy, whatever– and you decided that words in a row were not enough, and you wanted to create a more interactive text, something with audio and video, something that could be manipulated more by the reader.  Unless I’m missing something, that means by definition that you’re creating something that is not an iBook or a Kindle book.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m not completely against Apple’s desire to filter and censor some materials it wants to sell.  Every retailer does that, though with Apple’s monopoly of selling stuff for their devices, perhaps they should be willing to be more open-minded and inclusive.  What I am questioning though is this passage’s easy definition of a book.  Seems to me that Apple already sells a lot of apps that are really books and that are evidence enough about the fuzziness of the boundaries between “book” and “app.”

A few miscellaneous thoughts on eReading and annotating

I have in mind a few more blog posts over the next few days about the end of the summer term/beginning of my 13th school year at EMU, but I’ll start this morning with some of the things/links/thoughts I’ve come across lately about publishing, reading, and writing.  Most of these have been left open in my browser for well over a week, and it’s time to clear them out.  And the clean the desk and then the kitchen.

First, there’s this helpful info-graphic, I believe from Newsweek:

Click on it to read it more clearly. Much more after the jump.

Continue reading “A few miscellaneous thoughts on eReading and annotating”

WIRED, you’re dead to me

And it’s not because of all the stupid “The Web is Dead” stuff, either– though I guess that’s part of it.  No, I am thinking of the still not complete saga of how WIRED screwed me out of my iPad application, which began back in early July and which still continues.  This has been a lot to go through for a five dollar app.  Anyway, after the jump, most of the story, but the moral of the story here is crappy customer service is a bad thing.

Continue reading “WIRED, you’re dead to me”