A F2F Writing Class Can’t Work With Students Six Feet Apart, and ADA Has NOTHING to Do With COVID

EMU’s leadership had a virtual “town hall” meeting this morning about plans for fall 2020. While the presentations from the administration folks went on (the president, the provost, the department head for nursing who was on the public health committee, and the CFO I believe), faculty were invited to submit questions in writing that would be taken up after the presentations were completed. Judging from the parallel discussion that was happening on Facebook, a lot of faculty had the same question I have had for a while now: can I preemptively opt into changing a course now scheduled as f2f to an online format? Provost Rhonda Longworth’s answer to this question was not reassuring to me. To sum up:

  • If a faculty member doesn’t want to teach on campus, they need to go through the ADA process to demonstrate an underlying medical condition or disability (which, the more I think about it, is the wrong standard, as I’ll get to below here).
  • The administration’s guess/estimate is there are only enough large classrooms or other spaces (like ballrooms) to accommodate somewhere between 12% and 35% of classes to be offered f2f. This strikes me as an alarmingly large range for this estimate. In any event, Longworth said we don’t know how many classes we will hold on campus until we have clearer data on how many classes we can hold on campus, and she hopes to have that data by the end of the month.
  • And then this (which is pretty close to a direct quote from Longworth): “I can’t make a promise that every instructor can request to teach online. The goal is to balance what faculty can teach online effectively, and then go from there. I think everyone can have the format they want, but I can’t guarantee that.”

On the one hand, it’s easy to interpret this statement as meaning that most classes in the fall will probably be online. This seems especially true with any class with more than about 25 students simply because we do not have that many rooms where more than 25 people can all be sitting six feet apart. On the other hand, Longworth specifically said she might not be able to honor requests for faculty to teach online, I believe in part because of  my previous blog post on EMU’s “bait and switch” marketing campaign. The administration has advertised the promise of f2f offerings and the provost just said she could not promise that all faculty who want to teach online will be able to do so.

It is very likely that any class with more than 40 students will be online. But there are also a lot of classes like the ones I teach where the cap is around 25 students, and my fear (heightened by this town hall meeting) is the way that the administration will sorta/kinda fulfill its promise of f2f offerings is to insist these classes are held on campus, and probably in lecture halls designed for 100 or more students.

Currently, I’m scheduled this fall to teach three classes. Two were scheduled as online offerings long before the pandemic. The third class, called “Digital Writing,” was scheduled to be f2f. The cap on that class is 25, and realistically, it probably won’t get above about 15 students. Back in April or early May, I asked my department head to move that f2f class online because it seemed pretty inevitable to me that this was where this was all heading anyway and I’d just as soon teach it online. The response I got was (basically) that was no longer possible because students were starting to register for the f2f version– unless I wanted to contact all those students and get them to agree to it being online. About 2 weeks ago, I once again asked if I could have this class moved online. That time, the response was “probably but not yet, let’s wait a bit. This class is going to end up online so there’s no need to do the paperwork.” Well, after today’s town hall where the provost very clearly said there was no guarantee that requests to teach online would be honored and that requests like that had to be made through the ADA process, I decided to email my department head again.

Here’s an excerpt of that email (I have left out four of the six reasons I gave for wanting my class moved online because most of those other four reasons are kind of specific to this particular class):

“The first and most important reason (and I am only now bringing this up after I started to think how I would teach this class f2f if I had to) is pedagogical. I don’t think it’s possible to teach an effective f2f writing class that requires everyone to stay 6 feet apart. Like most other people who teach writing, my classes depend A LOT on small group work. Students do small group discussions about readings and what-not, they do small group work frequently for peer review, and in this class, I generally make the last project (which involves writing, story-boarding, recording, and editing a public service announcement-styled short video) collaborative. These activities will not work if students have to sit 6 feet apart. Students would literally have to shout at each other, could not share a computer screen, etc., etc. In contrast, I know from previous experience these activities will work fine online through a combination of asynchronous discussions and synchronous video conferences with either Zoom or Google meetings. ”

and then a bit later:

“And yes, I am concerned for my own health and the health of my wife because of what strikes me as being asked to take an unnecessary risk.

“The standard EMU (and lots of other universities) has decided to follow is to require faculty who don’t want to teach on campus to seek an ADA exemption. That strikes me as extremely problematic because while it is true that most of the deaths from Covid have been older folks with some kind of preexisting condition, there have also been MANY examples where perfectly healthy and otherwise able-bodied people have been infected, faced serious illness, and even died. I’ve read several articles like this one from the June 8, 2020 NYTimes where they surveyed a large group of epidemiologists and asked them when they would feel comfortable resuming various activities during this pandemic, and the range of responses provided here suggest that even the experts are in a moment of “it depends” and/or “we don’t really know.”  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/08/upshot/when-epidemiologists-will-do-everyday-things-coronavirus.html

“From what I can tell (from what I’ve read, listened to on the radio, seen on TV, etc., etc.), a lot of these choices are inherently personal. I am not too worried about walking around outside without a mask, going to a store with a mask (especially if that store limits the number of people inside, requires others to wear masks, if it’s easy enough to create distance, and you aren’t just hanging out in that store), ordering take-out, etc. I’d be okay with going to a restaurant if I was seated outside, though I haven’t done that yet. I played golf once and it was fine, though my partner and I did opt for our own carts. I had my hair cut last week, and it felt safe to me. My wife and I have had people over to sit around six feet apart in the backyard. And so forth. The point I’m trying to make here is I am not someone who has (IMO) overreacted and not left their homes more than a handful of times and only when absolutely positively necessary. I do not have an illogical fear that the virus is just waiting to get me.

“At the same time, everything I’ve read/heard/seen suggests that being in an enclosed space with others for an extended period of time is still risky, which means I am personally not willing to do things like go to see a performance of some sort, go to the movies, go to a religious service (which wasn’t exactly on my to-do list anyway, but you get the idea), attend a f2f department meeting (I hope we keep doing those on Zoom anyway), go to a casino, or go to a sporting event. I think being in a classroom with 20 or so students for an extended period of time falls into this category of risk. Even in normal times, it’s pretty common for me to catch a cold or something from my proximity to students; I’d rather not risk it with Covid.

“Now, I would probably feel differently about this if I either hadn’t taught a lot online over the last dozen or so years, or if I taught in a subject where f2f interaction was essential. It’s not my expertise of course, but I don’t know how you teach online stuff like a chemistry lab, a ceramics class, an acting class, a dance class, etc. But that clearly isn’t the case here. I have lots of experience teaching online, and writing (and I’d argue ‘English’ in general) is a subject that does work well in an online format. I mean, I’m already teaching two writing classes online, and this class– called DIGITAL WRITING– lends itself to the online format. So the only reason I can think of as to why this class should NOT be online in the current situation is because the administration is requiring that we run at least some classes f2f, and a small class like this one might allow the folks in Welch to honestly claim they did indeed offer ‘plenty’ of f2f offerings as promised. That’s not a very good reason for me.”

We’ll see what happens next.

Higher Ed’s Reopening Plans Have Gone From “Wishful Thinking” to “Bait and Switch”

The tl;dr version: universities are running a “bait and switch” marketing strategy for fall 2020. Plan for online courses because it’s the only option that makes any sense, and it’s time that university administrators admit that.

Back in late April/early May, about a month after all of higher education got into the online lifeboats to salvage the term and at around the same time when, predictably, faculty and students with zero prior experience with online learning declared that the last month proved online courses were just “the worst,” we started seeing major universities announcing their plans to be open for f2f classes in fall 2020. I blogged a bit about it here. Purdue’s Mitch Daniels had a series of eyebrow raising ideas about how things could work in the fall, and while I disagreed then (and I do now) with Brown’s Christina Paxson’s reasons for reopening, at least she was honest: universities need the money.

Other universities soon followed, and, with the notable exception of California State University’s announcement that they were planning on primarily online courses for fall 2020, the pattern has been the same: universities are planning to be back in the fall with f2f classes and students in the dorms. EMU released its own statement along these lines both as ads on regional television and with this extended YouTube video.

All of these plans were short on details and long on emotions (not to mention carefully worded hedges), and they reminded me of what people say after a hurricane or a tornado. It’s a weather news cliché at this point. There’s the video footage of the storm hitting, the stock photo/video of the beautiful home or popular seaside restaurant as it was before, and then the after the storm ruins with a tearful family or owner proclaiming “We will rebuild!”

Hey, I get it. The first response to the hurricane destroying your business or a pandemic destroying your school year is to fight back, to at least pretend to have a little hope and optimism. The first thing you say to someone laying on the pavement and clinging to life after a car accident or a heart attack is “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to make it!” even when (especially when) you know that’s not true.

As we got into May, university presidents and officials began describing their plans for reopening, and it became clear these “plans” were not much more than “wishful thinking.” For me (and pretty much everyone else I know who actually teaches college classes), the plans just raised more questions. How are you going to have f2f classes that are physically distanced? As it is right now, my university is reluctant to run any class that is less than 3/4ths enrolled because (or so we are told) we can’t afford that; so how is a class purposefully kept at half capacity possibly going to work? Where are you going to put these classes, anyway? Where is the money going to come from to pay for mandatory testing, for everyone or randomly? What about these antibody tests– are they going to get more accurate? Or are we just giving up on testing entirely? What is the plan when (not if, when) students, faculty, and/or staff get sick and need to be quarantined? Is EMU going to just send those people home, and thus endanger the sick folks’ relatives and friends? How are we going to require everyone to wear masks while on campus? Given that the classroom buildings are barely cleaned now, how is the university possibly going to clean them even once a day (never mind between classes)? Who thinks teaching behind a plexiglass shield is a good idea? What if I as an employee am not willing to sign a document that says I won’t consider the university liable if I get sick, am hospitalized, or even die from Covid-19? And so forth.

Now and just within the last week or so, it feels like we’re entering into new phase. We have gone from “hope and optimism” and “wishful thinking” to a situation where it is clear these plans for a robust number of f2f offerings this fall just aren’t going to work. Here are a few simple examples of things I’ve seen recently, articles and commentaries that are getting a lot more pointed in questioning university administrator’s plans and motivations:

  • To help pay for its (always strange and unrealistic) plans for reopening, Purdue is asking for donations specifically to pay for things like face masks, hand sanitizer, virus tests, and plexiglass shields, and they’re doing this with a campaign (here’s a link to the web site for it) that has the feel of one of those “feed the children” or “save the stray dogs” ads– “just one dollar a day can make such a difference,” etc.
  • IHE published an opinion piece by Lia Paradis (a history professor at Slippery Rock) called “A Day in the Life This Fall (Faculty Edition),” which describes the many ways the administration’s plans for reopening can and will go wrong.
  • From sociology professor Deborah J. Cohan in Psychology Today comes “Pandemic U,” where (among other smart things) she says it’s “profoundly revealing” that after years of universities encouraging students and faculty into online classes they are now insisting on face-to-face classes in the midst of a pandemic. “In and of itself, this rich irony should cause us to question motives. It is nothing short of institutional gaslighting.”
  • In a New York Times Op-ed with one of the clearest headlines I’ve seen in a while, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy,” psychology professor Laurence Steinberg draws from his expertise to explain something every person who actually teaches college has known forever: 18-24 year olds engage in a lot of risky behaviors and do not follow rules like staying six feet apart, wear masks in public places, etc.
  • And from Forbes, where economist Andrew Zimbalist and Donna A. Lopiano ask the rhetorical question “Has Higher Education Lost Its Mind?”  Specifically, has college sports lost its mind as we are already seeing the craziness of preparing for the all important football season while players increasingly become infected with Covid-19.

In short, the message “we will be open this fall” is now just a “bait and switch” marketing strategy, and it’s been that way for a while. Would-be and returning students said back in May that they would be less likely to start or return to college in the fall if they had to take classes online. Universities in turn said “oh, don’t worry, we’re going to have f2f classes,” albeit with a ton of hedges and qualifiers that I am guessing most students and their families ignored. That’s the bait. Once students are “locked in” for the fall term and it is too late for them to change their plans, universities will start announcing that despite their best efforts, they just aren’t going to be able to offer many (any?) f2f classes after all– darn it!– and if students want to go to college in fall 2020, they’re going to have to take their classes online. That’s the switch.

Bait and switch is usually described as a scam, though it’s such a common marketing strategy nowadays I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. What else would you call these “Black Friday” deep discount sales on giant flat screen TVs? Adding the phrase “while they last” doesn’t make it less of a bait. Regardless, it certainly isn’t an ethical practice.

I have no way of knowing for sure if this was the plan my university’s administration had all along or if it has just kind of evolved into this. And to be completely fair, maybe there will be some kind of Covid-19 miracle before the start of fall, or maybe in the next two months, these crazy, fantasy, delusional plans for successfully holding f2f classes really will come together and it’ll all be great. But I’ve also seen administrators at EMU (and elsewhere) do some pretty shady and dubious shit in the past, so it wouldn’t surprise me much if this bait and switch was part of the plan all along.

Either way, it does appear to be a marketing strategy that has worked– at least so far. According to this article in Inside Higher Ed, enrollments in public research and regional universities for the fall are not much different than they were last year. EMU was specifically mentioned in this article. “Eastern Michigan University, like many regional publics, does not use the May 1 (or this year June 1) deadline day to reply to an admissions offer. Currently, the university is down 8.4 percent on new students for the fall, but it has two more registration dates in June to close that. The university is also offering students who want them a single room.” And frankly, that drop in enrollments isn’t necessarily tied to Covid-19 at all since our enrollments have been falling for a while, mostly because of the demographics of the state and the upper midwest.

At this point, I don’t really care if this was the administration’s intention all along or if this was just a strategy they stumbled into; I just want them to tell everyone the truth about what is becoming patently obvious with classes this fall term. If it’s a class that can be online, it will be online. If it’s a class that can’t be online (say some kind of chemistry or biology lab, a ceramics class that requires a kiln, a class about welding, etc.), it is either going be held under strict limitations to maximize safety, or it’s not going to be held at all. I want my university to tell this truth because it is the ethical thing to do, and because faculty who are going to teach these classes and students who are going to take these classes need to start making plans.

Be honest for a change of pace.

Seriously though, why would anyone LIKE teaching online?

Don’t get me wrong– online courses have their problems.

Lots of courses/subjects wouldn’t work well exclusively online: my go-to examples of these include science lab courses, ceramics classes that involve a kiln, welding, hair dressing, and any sort of training in how to do surgery, along with a new example someone gave the other day: scuba diving.  Online courses take more time to develop and they take more time to teach– at least initially. A lot of students (and faculty too) struggle with the self-discipline and self-scheduling it takes to do a class online. At the beginning of the term, I always remind my students that taking a class online is a bit like buying a membership to a gym open 24 hours a day: sure, it means you have a ton more flexibility to go workout whenever you want, but you still have to have the self-motivation to go. A lot of students (and probably even more faculty) simply hate that much time in front of a computer screen. And for better or worse, a lot of students and faculty just do not want to do something different from what they’ve been doing for a long time because change is hard, scary, time-consuming, unknown, etc., etc.

Plus there is the value of the whole “traditional (elite) college experience” that includes all the stuff that happens that is not part of coursework and classes, though as I blogged about here, it’s important to remember that’s not the only way to go to college. Also, I’m really only talking about higher education and online instruction; I think there are a ton of reasons why exclusively online teaching is not a great idea for most secondary school students, and why it’s probably unworkable for elementary school students.

All that said, I actually do like teaching online as well as I like teaching face to face– though for different reasons. So now that summer is here (albeit the shelter in place version) and I have a lot more free time, I thought I’d write a bit about why.

Continue reading “Seriously though, why would anyone LIKE teaching online?”

The Elite “College Experience” is Not Compatible with Covid-19

There are two different but related stories about higher ed and Covid-19 right now, both of which speak to the stark differences within the hierarchy of universities and online teaching. And spoiler alert: students and faculty elite universities do not like online courses one little bit.

I think this article sums it up for the lawsuits being filed by some students against their universities: From ABC News, “College students clamor for tuition refunds after coronavirus shutters campuses.” The complaints basically boil down to two things: demanding refunds for fees paid on things students can no longer use (dorms, meal plans, lab fees, etc.); demanding their money back for tuition for classes that were forced to go online. It is worth noting these are class action lawsuits being ginned up by some law firms who appear to specialize in these kinds of class action things.

Then there are the calls from university presidents to get back to campus. There was Purdue President Mitch Daniel’s plans for getting Purdue back on campus in the fall, which (as reported in USA Today here) includes a vague goal of separating folks based on age, with the goal of “keeping the university’s younger population separate from older demographic groups that are more at risk from the virus. ‘Literally, our students pose a far greater danger to others than the virus poses to them,’ he wrote.” Also this weekend is an op-ed in the New York Times “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It,” by Christina Paxson. Paxson is the President of Brown University and an economist by training. Among other things, she wrote:

As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. This is especially true for lower-income students who may not have reliable internet access or private spaces in which to study. If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.

First off, I think students certainly ought to get a refund for housing, meal plans, lab fees, and all of those things– and I think most universities are doing something like that. But with tuition, we start to get into a more murky territory.

Granted, a class that shifted into the online lifeboat to finish the term is not the same as it would have been if it had stayed face to face all year. But if the goal was to complete the courses and thus grant students credit for their course work so they could continue to make progress on their degrees or to graduate, there weren’t a lot of other alternatives. In fact, it seems to me a very fair response from universities to these lawsuits would be something along the lines of “Here’s a refund for your tuition, but you aren’t going to get any credit for those courses.” Somehow I don’t think that’s what these students and their lawyers have in mind.

As far as Daniels and Paxson go: I think everyone is hoping that universities open in the fall, though as I’ve heard repeatedly from various talking head experts on cable news, the virus is driving the timeline and no one knows what the conditions will be in September. If we’re still in a world where we’re supposed to stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, and generally distance ourselves from each other, then the re-opening is going to be partial at best. And the idea that we can separate younger students from older faculty (will faculty be teaching behind a plexiglass barrier? will they be zooming in to classrooms filled with students?) is kind of goofy.

But I think these complaints and plans really highlight three long-standing realities in higher education in this country right now.

First, students/faculty/presidents/etc. at elite universities have very different assumptions about what “the college experience” means, at least compared to the rest of us. For elite universities and/or colleges and universities that cater to upper-middle-class and above 18-22 year olds, taking classes is just not what it’s all about. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of academics at elite institutions is extremely high and that’s still the main reason why these students attend these schools. But it’s also a whole lifestyle of dorms or near campus apartments, sporting events, frats and sororities and clubs, parties, beautiful buildings and campuses, etc.

We have all of those things at EMU too, and for a lot of the students we have in that 18-22 year old demographic, those things are important. But most of our students come from the sort of backgrounds where they do not assume all these things are that necessary, at least not compared to the students at the University of Michigan just across town. Frankly, a lot of our students are a lot more involved in the campus life in Ann Arbor than they are at EMU.

Most of my students– some of the 18-22 year olds, almost all of the older students– don’t have time for these extras because they are working. And I don’t mean “working” the way a lot of the students at UM work, with a part-time job to make some beer money and maybe help out with the expenses mostly being covered by the parents. No, I mean working to pay for living: rent, cars, mortgages, kids, etc.

Look, I get it. I was exactly like these elite university students when I was in college at the University of Iowa, and my wife was more or less a student like this at Virginia Tech. Our son was one of these students at the University of Michigan. If online classes were a thing in my day, I might have taken one– and I did actually take a correspondence course to earn enough credits to graduate, a story I tell in my book More Than a Moment.  For all of us, our undergraduate days were important life-shaping times because of the whole “college life” experience. But this is not the only way to go to college, and to suggest otherwise is a good example of unchecked or unnoticed privilege.

This leads to my second point: elite universities don’t like online classes because they are not the college experience (see above) and they still believe online classes are for poor people. That quote from Paxson is disingenuous because she must certainly know the students most likely to take online courses are indeed lower-income students. Why? Because students with less money and more grown-up obligations come to places like EMU, or they attend a completely online university, maybe even one of the mega-universities (Southern New Hampshire, for example) that have been doing high quality online education for years and years.

And online education works. We’ve done research on this for years. In general, the data suggests any college course which a) is routinely taught in a large lecture hall format or taught as a small (less than 40, but ideally about 20) group discussion; b) is primarily based on reading, discussion, writing, quizzes, and tests, and c) does not involve any special equipment (e.g., a chemistry lab, a kiln, a potter’s wheel, a welding torch, etc.) or that requires hands-on practice (e.g., medical procedures, cosmetology or barbering, engine repair, etc.) can be taught online just as effectively as it can be taught face to face. I do realize there are a lot of important college courses that fall into the “c” category of things and can’t be offered exclusively online. I do not think I’d be comfortable undergoing surgery by a physician who trained exclusively online. But thought-out and carefully planned online courses work in the majority of subjects and college classrooms.

Plus most college students– certainly those who attend community colleges and regional universities like EMU– have been taking classes online for a long time. Roughly speaking, almost a third of U.S. college students have taken at least one online course. About 15-20% of college students are taking courses exclusively online, and these online courses and programs are no longer just the products of sketchy for-profits.

But the perception is still there, particularly among the elites, that online courses are for “not real” and/or for poor people. It reminds me a bit of what was going in in the realm of MOOCs a few years ago: all these elite universities were developing these MOOCs they were hoping to somehow monetize by getting students to pay for credit to transfer to another college. But these same institutions were very clear that they would not accept MOOC credit for their students: that is, the University of Michigan is completely fine with students from say EMU paying for their MOOCs and then having that class count as transfer credit, but there was no way UM was going to accept MOOC credit, even when the MOOC was developed and taught by the same faculty teaching the face to face version of the UM course.

Last but not least, Higher Education is going to need a bigger bail-out and some kind of government intervention to change the funding model. This is an issue I am certain Daniels, Paxson, and (at least some of the) students suing would probably agree about. Costs in higher education have been driven up for decades for lots of reasons, but what that means now is so-called public universities have the same business model as private universities. EMU is in the same boat as Brown because most of our revenue comes from tuition, and, as Paxson put it, the loss in tuition revenue this fall, “…only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic. It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.”

And in the medium to long term, I think we need to get to a place where public universities receive most of their funding from the government, and we need to really get over the idea that higher education is defined by the “college experience” of the elites and flagships. The feds and the states (and ultimately tax payers) are going to have to step up and fund higher education so that tuition can be reduced.

But more funding from government will (and should) come with restrictions on how that money is spent, and a lot of the money we waste in higher education in this country– sports, luxurious dorms and recreation facilities, and so forth– are what the elites and flagships out there see as part of the college experience. And that is a problem for the Browns and Purdues of the world: why would a student pay whatever it costs to go to Brown to take online classes (even temporarily) if that student could take a similar online class from a regional university or community college for significantly less money?

No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic

The TL;DR version: this isn’t how I thought my already online classes were going to go, and, if you’re a college teacher and the way you’re trying to cope is to stick with your original plans no matter what, stop it. No one should fail a class because of a fucking pandemic.

To continue:

Continue reading “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”

Learning how to write is like learning how to roast a chicken. And vice-versa

I tried a new way to roast a chicken the other night, closely resembling this “Herbed Faux-tisserie Chicken and Potatoes” recipe from Bon Appétit. I’ve roasted a chicken with one recipe or another hundreds of times, but experimenting with a different recipe got me thinking about how learning to cook a simple meal suitable for sharing with others is like learning how to write. And vice-versa.

First, both are things that can be learned and/or taught. I think a lot of people– particularly people who don’t think they can cook or write– believe you either “have it” or you don’t. I’ve met lots of struggling students who have convinced themselves of this about writing, and I’ve also met a lot of creative writing types (from my MFA days long ago and into the present) who ought to know better but still believe this in a particularly naive way.

I believe everyone who manages to get themselves admitted to a college or university can learn from (the typically required) writing classes how to write better and also how to write well enough to express themselves to readers in college classes and beyond. I also believe that everyone with access to some basic tools– I’m thinking here of pots and pans, a rudimentary kitchen, pantry items, not to mention the food itself– can learn how to cook a meal they could serve to others.  Learning how to both write and cook might be more difficult for some people than others and the level of success different writers and cooks can reach will vary (and I’ll come back to this point), but that’s not the same thing as believing some  people “just can’t” cook or write.

Second, I think people who doubt their potential as cooks or writers make things more complicated than necessary, mainly because they just want to skip to the meal or completed essay. Trust the process, take your time, and go through the steps. If an inexperienced writer (and I’m thinking here of students in a class like first year writing) starts with something relatively simple and does the pre-writing, the research, the drafting, the peer review, all the stuff we do and talk about in contemporary writing classes, then they will be able to successfully complete that essay. If an inexperienced cook starts with something relatively simple– say roasting a chicken– and follows a well-written recipe and/or some of the many cooking tutorials on YouTube, then they will be able to roast that chicken.

Third, both writing and cooking take practice and self-reflection in order to improve. This seems logical enough since this is how we improve at almost anything– sports or dancing or painting or writing or cooking. But one of the longstanding challenges in writing pedagogy is “transference,” which is the idea that what a student learns in a first year writing class helps that student in other writing classes and situations.  Long and complex story short, the research suggests  this doesn’t work as well as you might think, possibly because students too often treat their required composition course as just another hoop, and possibly because teachers have to do more to make all this visible to students. Whether or not it gets taken up by students or conveyed by teachers, the goal of any college course (writing and otherwise) is to get better at something.

In my experience, the way this works with food is when you’re first trying to learn how to roast a chicken, you do it for yourself (or close family and/or roommates who basically have the choice to eat what you cook or to not eat anything at all), and you make note of what you would do differently the next time you try to roast that chicken. Next time, I’ll cook it longer or shorter or with more salt or to a different temperature or whatever. A lot of my recipes have notes I’ve added for next time. Then the next time, you make different adjustments; repeat, make different adjustments; and before you know it, you can roast a chicken confidently enough to invite over guests for a dinner party.  Also, the trial and error approach to following a recipe for chicken helps informs other recipes and foods so you can serve those guests some mashed potatoes and green beans with that chicken, maybe even a little gravy.

Both writing and cooking involve skills and practices which build on each other and that then allow you to both improve on those basic skills and also to develop more advanced skills and practices. It was not easy for me to truss a chicken the first time I did it; now it’s no big deal. Writing a good short summary of a piece of an article and incorporating that into a short critique is very hard for a lot of first year writing students. But keep practicing it becomes second nature. I routinely have students in my first year writing class who gasp when I tell them the first essay assignment should be around five pages because they never wrote anything that long in high school. By the end of the semester, it’s no big deal.

Finally, there are limits to teaching and not everyone can succeed at becoming a “great” writer or cook. Never say never of course, but I do not think there is much chance my cooking or recipes will ever be compared to the likes of Julia Childs or Thomas Keller, nor do I think my writing is going to be assigned reading for generations to come. I don’t like words like “gifted” or “genius” because people aren’t better at things because of something magical. But for the top 1% of writers/cooks/athletes/actors/etc., there is something. At the same time, it’s also extremely clear that the top 1% of writers/cooks/whatever get to that level through hard work and obsession. It’s a feedback loop.

So for example: it’d be silly to describe myself as a “gifted” writer, but I am good at it and I have always had a knack for it.  I’ve been praised for my writing since I was in grade school (though I did fail handwriting, but that’s another story) and it isn’t surprising to me that I’ve ended up in this profession and I’m still writing. That praise and reward motivates me to continue to like writing and to work to improve at it. I spend a lot of time revising and changing and obsessing and otherwise fiddling around with things I write (I have revised this post about a dozen or more times since I started it a week ago).

In any event, even if I have some kind of “gift,” it ends up being just one part of a chicken vs. egg argument. Being praised for being a good writer motivates me to write more; writing more improves my writing and earns me praise as I get better. A knack alone is not enough for anything, including writing or cooking.

Oh, and for what it’s worth: I thought that recipe was just okay. I liked the idea of the rotisserie-like spice rub and I can see doing that again, maybe putting it on a few hours or the day before. But cooking at 300 degrees (instead of starting it at say 425 and then dropping it back to 350 after about 20 minutes) meant not a while lot of browning and kind of rubbery skin.

#4C19 Conference Prelude/Presentation

Here’s a link to my upcoming presentation at the Conference for College Composition and Communication, “Performing the Role of ‘Teacher’ in Online Writing Courses (or It’s All About Affordances).” It’s online at http://bit.ly/Krause4C19

I made this slideshow version for two related reasons. First, since I’m presenting as part of an 8:00 AM on Friday panel– a time slot with 45 sessions, many featuring folks who I would personally like to hear talk– I am kind of assuming it’s going to be an “intimate” gathering. Second, this is my solution to the accessibility challenge: anyone who needs to/wants to read this should be able to access this Google Slides show.

We’ll see how the conference goes.

Three thoughts on the “Essay,” assessing, and using “robo-grading” for good

NPR had a story on Weekend Edition last week, “More States Opting to ‘Robo-Grade” Student Essays By Computer,” that got some attention from other comp/rhet folks though not as much as I thought it might. Essentially, the story is about the use of computers to “assess” (really “rate,” but I’ll get to that in a second) student writing on standardized tests. Most composition and rhetoric scholars think this software is a bad idea. I think this is not not true, though I do have three thoughts.

First, I agree with what my friend and colleague Bill Hart-Davidson writes here about essays, though this is not what most people think “essay” means. Bill draws on the classic French origins of the word, noting that an essay is supposed to be a “try,” an attempt and often a wandering one at that. Read any of the quite old classics (de Montaigne comes to mind, though I don’t know his work as well as I should) or even the more modern ones (E.B. White or Joan Didion or the very contemporary David Sedaris) and you get more of a sense of this classic meaning. Sure, these writers’ essays are organized and have a point, but they wander to them and they are presented (presumably after much revision) as if the writer was discovering their point along with the reader.

In my own teaching, I tend to use the term project to describe what I assign students to do because I think it’s a term that can include a variety of different kinds of texts (including essays) and other deliverables. I hate the far too common term paper because it suggests writing that is static, boring, routine, uninteresting, and bureaucratic. It’s policing, as in “show me your papers” when trying to pass through a boarder. No one likes completing “paperwork,” but it is one of those necessary things grown-ups have to do.

Nonetheless, for most people including most writing teachers–  the term “essay” and “paper” are synonymous. The original meaning of essay has been replaced by the school meaning of essay (or paper– same thing).  Thus we have the five paragraph form, or even this comparably enlightened advice from the Bow Valley College Library and Learning Commons, one of the first links that came up in a simple Google search. It’s a list (five steps, too!) for creating an essay (or paper) driven by a thesis and research.  For most college students, papers (or essays) are training for white collar careers to learn how to complete required office paperwork.

Second, while it is true that robo-grading standardized tests does not help anyone learn how to write, the most visible aspect of writing pedagogy to people who have no expertise in teaching (beyond experience as a student, of course) is not the teaching but the assessment. So in that sense, it’s not surprising this article focuses on assessment at the expense of teaching.

Besides, composition and rhetoric as a field is very into assessment, sometimes (IMO) at the expense of teaching and learning about writing. Much of the work of Writing Program Administration and scholarship in the field is tied to assessment– and a lot (most?) comp/rhet specialists end up involved in WPA work at some point in their careers. WPAs have to consider large-scale assessment issues to measure outcomes across many different sections of first year writing, and they usually have to mentor instructors on small-scale assessment– that is, how to grade and comment all these student essays papers in a way that is both useful to students and that does not take an enormous amount of time.  There is a ton of scholarship on assessment– how to do it, what works or doesn’t, the pros and cons of portfolios, etc. There are books and journals and conferences devoted to assessment. Plenty of comp/rhet types have had very good careers as assessment specialists. Our field loves this stuff.

Don’t get me wrong– I think assessment is important, too. There is stuff to be learned (and to be shown to administrators) from these large scale program assessments, and while the grades we give to students aren’t always an accurate measure of what they learned or how well they can write, grades are critical to making the system of higher education work. Plus students themselves are too often a major part of the problem of over-assessing. I am not one to speak about the “kids today” because I’ve been teaching long enough to know students now are not a whole lot different than they were 30 years ago. But one thing I’ve noticed in recent years– I think because of “No Child Left Behind” and similar efforts– is the extent to which students nowadays seem puzzled about embarking on almost any writing assignment without a detailed rubric to follow.

But again, assessing writing is not the same thing as fostering an environment where students can learn more about writing, and it certainly is not how writing worth reading is created. I have never read an essay which mattered to me written by someone closely following the guidance of a typical  assignment rubric. It’s really easy as a teacher to forget that, especially while trying to make the wheels of a class continue to turn smoothly with the help of tools like rubrics. As a teacher, I have to remind myself about that all the time.

The third thing: as long as writing teachers believe more in essays than in papers and as long as they are more concerned with creating learning opportunities rather than sites for assessment, “robo-grader” technology of the soft described in this NPR story are kind of irrelevant– and it might even be helpful.

I blogged about this several years ago here as well, but it needs to be emphasized again: this software is actually pretty limited. As I understand it, software like this can rate/grade the response to a specific essay question– “in what ways did the cinematic techniques of Citizen Kane revolutionize the way we watch and understand movies today”– but it is not very good at more qualitative questions– “did you think Citizen Kane was a good movie?”– and it is not very good at all at rating/grading pieces of writing with almost no constraints, as in “what’s your favorite movie?”

Furthermore, as the NPR story points out, this software can be tricked. Les Perleman has been demonstrating for years how these robo-graders can be fooled, though I have to say I am a lot more impressed with the ingenuity shown by some students in Utah who found ways to “game” the system: “One year… a student who wrote a whole page of the letter “b” ended up with a good score. Other students have figured out that they could do well writing one really good paragraph and just copying that four times to make a five-paragraph essay that scores well. Others have pulled one over on the computer by padding their essays with long quotes from the text they’re supposed to analyze, or from the question they’re supposed to answer.” The raters keep “tweaking” the code to present these tricks, but of course, students will keep trying new tricks.

I have to say I have some sympathy with one of the arguments made in this article that if a student is smart enough to trick the software, then maybe they deserve a high rating anyway. We are living in an age in which it is an increasingly important and useful skill for humans to write texts in a way that can be “understood” both by other people and machines– or maybe just machines. So maybe mastering the robo-grader is worth something, even if it isn’t exactly what most of us mean by “writing.”

Anyway, my point is it really should not be difficult at all for composition and rhetoric folks to push back against the use of tools like this in writing classes because robo-graders can’t replicate what human teachers and students can do as readers: to be an actual audience. In that sense, this technology is not really all that much different than stuff like spell-checkers and grammar-checkers I have been doing this work long enough to know that there were plenty of writing teachers who thought those tools were the beginning of the end, too.

Or, another way of putting it: I think the kind of teaching (and teachers) that can be replaced by software like this is pretty bad teaching.

The Problem of Refusing Service to Bad People: A Not Completely Right Teaching Analogy

Two wrongs don’t make a right. I’m against all policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” even when “your kind” are bad people. And like the education industry, I think one of the challenges of the hospitality industry is an obligation to serve everyone– up until they give you a good reason to not serve them.

Most of my students either lean kind of left (thanks to youth and many of them are coming from working class backgrounds in Southeast Michigan) or they are kind of apolitical, so this problem is more hypothetical for me than real. But if a student signed up for my class and it became obvious that he (and it would almost certainly be a he) was all about “Make America Great Again” and whatever, it would be a huge problem if I told him “look, you need to drop because I refuse to teach you, read your writing, or give you a passing grade no matter what you do.” I’d probably get in a lot of trouble and it would just be, you know, “wrong.”

But honestly, I’m not convinced I’m right about this analogy.

Look, I get it. I think these people are deplorable too. I completely sympathize with the owners and staff of the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve Sarah Hucklebee Sanders and her people– because by all accounts (including from Sanders in her official government tweet) this wasn’t a situation of a group being “thrown out” so much as it was about the owner politely asking the group to leave and the group politely doing so. I don’t fault the owner for this, and if I had been in their situation, I might very well have done the same thing. I am okay with the public protests that have greeted these public figures when they’ve done stuff like go out to dinner or to the movies or whatever because they are horrible people doing horrible things and when they go into public, the public is allowed to express their feelings. That’s protest, and protest is never “polite,” and I think there’s a difference between people protesting outside the restaurant versus proprietors of a restaurant protesting. I’m a little less okay when the protest actually goes into the restaurant or movie theater, but still. Anyway, like I said, I get it.

And I’m not that interested in “civility” per se, though I think the “yeah, well, Republicans have done all kinds of uncivil things too like a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, so they deserve it” argument strikes me as a version of “I know you are, but what am I?” For me,  this isn’t so much “Us good liberal people should continue to be civil” but rather “Us good liberal people should try to not be stupid.” The conservative hypocrisy here is thick. But while the self-righteous feelings that come from refusing awful people like this service or yelling at them is satisfying in the moment, it’s ultimately kind of gross.

Plus there’s the bigger picture politics. These public shamings are like pouring gasoline on the Trumpster fire and they do nothing to change minds. Just the opposite. This is all part of the Trump chaos/bully playbook. The bully taunts his victim into doing something stupid, essentially “What are you gonna do? Wanna hit me? Huh? I dare you! Go ahead, hit me!” The victim lose their temper, hits the bully, the bully has the green light to be a bigger bully (because hey, who’s the victim here now), and that’s how the Democrats manage to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in 2018. 

Plus plus this all seems to me to be just another example of how Trump is starting to make liberals crazy and turn on each other.  I’ve seen signs of this on social media with left-leaning folks being driven slowly insane by a never-ending news cycle dominated by a never-ending series of stories that are some version of “this affront against decency is completely unprecedented” and/or “Trump is going to kill us all.” I read Amy Siskind’s Weekly List.  I think Trent Reznor is right when he noted “the disregard for decency and truth and civility is what’s really disheartening. It feels like a country that celebrates stupidity is really taking it up a notch.” At the same time, there are just too many liberals trying to out-liberal each other, trying to create unnecessary distance amongst themselves over issues with which we fundamentally agree. I write these posts mostly for myself and the tens of others who read them, but there might be a few left-leaning folks reading this right now who think that I’m wrong because what I’m writing here doesn’t fall into the “party line,” so to speak.

And increasingly, I think that Trump et al are gleefully rubbing their hands together as these liberals argue with liberals and cackling “Just as we planned. It is all so easy…”

Anyway, all I’m saying is I think people on the left side of the spectrum– everyone from pretty middle of the road and old-school Democrats to “Bernie Bros” to folks on the more radical left– need to find ways to push back against the Trump administration while not taking the bait. That shit didn’t help Hillary in 2016 (though why and how she lost is a much more complicated matter of course), and it ain’t going to help the Democrats in 2018 or 2020. And that shit gets super real when things happen like Anthony Kennedy retires and you start to realize that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is freakin’ 85!

But back to where I started. Two wrongs don’t make a right, I’m against policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” and one of the challenges of both the hospitality and education industries is there’s an obligation to serve everyone who comes into the dining room/classroom. But also like I said, I’m not sure I even agree with myself about this.

For one thing, I don’t think it’s illegal to refuse service to someone because of their politics or who they work for, though I honestly do not know where the legal line is. It’s illegal (I presume) to refuse service to a person because of their race, but it is legal (I presume) to refuse service to that same person because you believe they are a shitty person. When it comes to teaching, I don’t know exactly if it’s illegal for me to kick a student out of my class before it even begins based on their politics or their boss or even their race, but it is certainly “wrong,” it would probably get me in trouble with EMU (there are limits as to what even a tenured professor can get away with), and it might get me on some sort of “liberal watch” right wing web site.

Hospitality businesses have other ways to refuse service– dress codes immediately come to mind– and it’s also reasonable for these kinds of businesses to ask people to leave if they start behaving badly. I have thrown students out of my classes for bad behavior, though not often and I’ve never taught someplace where there is some kind of dress code (and there have been some controversial stories recently about what can go spectacularly wrong with dress codes in college courses).

Then again, I might be wrong about this.

I wish we lived in a time where we didn’t have to deal with any of this nonsense.

Miscellaneous End of School Year Blog Post

I haven’t been writing here much lately (obviously). A lot of it has been I’ve been busy. A lot of it has been because I’ve had nothing I wanted to say– at least not here. A lot of it has been intensity of the school year.

The year started before the fall semester with me meditating over the realization (as the result of a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for ten years) that I’m both getting old and I’m in all likelihood “stuck” at EMU. Also before fall got going, my former department head cancelled a graduate class in the writing program I was coordinating without bothering to tell me. Then this same department head took a different administrative position at EMU, further kicking up the mess of naming an interim department head, someone who is doing a decent enough job but who might also be “interim” for years and years. The faculty union and EMU administration continue to be embattled over various arguments, and, without going too deep into the weeds, I ended up to once again spending too much time trying to argue for courses counting as four credits rather than three, and increasingly, this all feels like it’s all going to shake out in a year or two so that we’re more or less still teaching a 3-3 schedule, which means that all of the arguing about this for the last two or three years will have just been a giant waste of time. My colleague and friend, Derek Mueller, is taking a new job at Virginia Tech, a career move that probably makes sense for him, but a move that will certainly leave a hole for those of us who remain, a hole that will probably take years to fill. More or less out of nowhere, the EMU administration announced in January budget cuts and staff layoffs, including of one of my department’s secretaries, a woman who had been at EMU for around 20 years. The administration also cut a few sports to save money, though there is some debate as to whether or not those savings will be realized, and, of course, the big sports remain untouched. Meanwhile, EMU hired a couple more assistant football coaches, presumably entry-level sports coaching positions that pay more than I make after 20 years and after a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for the last decade. Oh, and EMU also sold its parking rights to a company with weird agreements in a variety of states, and the money that EMU has earned from this deal (I guess around $50 million?) is likely to be used in large part as collateral to borrow even more money to build sports facilities. I wasn’t teaching in the fall (more on that in a second) and I began the winter term of teaching more ill-prepared than I have been since I came to EMU, and it was unnerving to say the least. The department politics of the semester more or less concluded in another last crazy meeting of the school year, and my school year concluded without any summer teaching– a class I was scheduled to teach (which I am certain would have run) was cancelled before it could be offered.

So it’s been bad, one of the worse school years of my career, the hardest I can recall since my first year on the tenure-track way back when. On the other hand:

I was on a Faculty Research Fellowship in the fall, an award from EMU that bought me out of teaching. While I used (donated?) too much of my time back to EMU to do the quasi-administrative work of being program coordinator, I did “finish” a draft of a book manuscript about MOOCs (another reason I haven’t been writing as much here in the last year). The reviews came back earlier than expected, and while they did not recommend immediate publication without any changes (I assume that never happens), they did recommend publishing and they made constructive suggestions for the revisions I’m working on right now. Liz Losh’s edited collection on MOOCs came out in fall and I have a chapter in it. I quickly wrote and published a little commentary piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To),” which even includes a staged photo of me “teaching” “online” while wearing my bathrobe. The only downside to that piece is IHE has still not paid me, nor have they ever specified how much they’re going to pay me. Hmm. Despite a chaotic start, my teaching turned out well enough, I think. I tried to pull off an experiment of a collaborative writing assignment in the online version of Writing for the Web that ultimately (I think, at least) turned out to be not entirely successful but kind of interesting. Among other things, it resulted in this collection of readings and annotations from my students about social media. It is rough rough work, but I did learn a lot about what to do (or not do) the next time I try an assignment like this, and there is a lot here that will be useful for teaching next year. And as an important tangent: one of the things that’s really nice about being an increasingly old fart a senior and seasoned professor is I can try assignments like this and not really have to worry about what the student evaluations might mean to someone or my Rate My Professor ratings or whatever. I can get away with making things “break,” I can be a lot more honest with students now than when I started, and I also know better how to fix things when they break. So I have that going for me.

And just like that, I’m officially done with EMU things until late August (though of course I’m not really done). I would prefer to be teaching starting in May because, well, money. But I have to admit I do like the free time.

The first job (really, the only job) for the next month or so is to finish the revisions on the MOOC book, though I should probably say “finish.” I was talking with my father a couple weekends ago about nothing in particular and I mentioned I needed to finish my book, and he said “didn’t you say you finished that back in December?” I realized that yes, I had finished a draft, but now there is “finished” the revisions, and there will almost certainly be another stage of “finished” after the reviews on the revisions come back that will involve copyediting and Chicago Style (shudder) and indexing and…. Anyway, it really won’t be finished finished until it comes out in print, and that could be a while.

But once that gets off my desk, then I want to turn to other things. I had been saying for a long time that this MOOC book is the last scholarly bit of writing that I might ever do because I want to try to pivot to writing more “popular” things that people might actually read (commentaries on stuff I know about but for the mainstream press, maybe something pitched to a more popular audience, maybe something like the work Steven Johnson has done for years) and/or fiction (which I am under no illusions will find much of an audience) and/or more blogging. Derek and I were just talking about this the other day, that maybe it’s time to go back. Maybe blogging again– as opposed to just posting stuff on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other platform– is like the internet version of a new interest in vinyl.