Big Data(s), Small World(s)

This perhaps should be two different posts, but since I don’t have that much time, I’m going to suggest some kind of connection(s) here.  Maybe they’ll connect, maybe not.

For 516 this semester (this week, actually), we’re reading Jessie Moore et al’s “Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies,” coming out in the future (!) March 2016 issue of Computers and Composition. It’s a large survey that’s been going on (on and off) for a few years of over 1,300 students at a bunch of different colleges and universities about their use of “composing technologies,” which includes some of the usual things– paper, pencils, word processors– some things kind of in-between– email and blogs, for example–and some things that aren’t often considered as writing tools in writing courses, things like Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones.

The short version of their results is while a lot of what they found is not surprising (students still use paper and pencils a lot, they mostly write alone, etc.), a lot of it is interesting and unexpected– for example, the heavy use of cell phones. Further, writing pedagogy isn’t really keeping up in that we don’t do enough to integrate new technologies into school writing, “how classroom instruction can better prepare students to write effectively with these technologies when they use them for self-sponsored genres, and whether any kind of transfer occurs when students use these composing technologies to write for academic and self-sponsored purposes (10).” Though I suppose that kind of depends a bit on over-generalizing classroom instruction perhaps.

The other big data that I thought was pretty interesting as of late– really big data– was the Open Syllabus Project. There was an article about all this in The New York Times and Aaron Barlow has an interesting post about this where he digs in a little deeper into the syallabi for courses in “English.” Among many other things, Aaron notes:

The first thing that jumps out is that Allan Bloom has little to worry about. Most of the works on the list were considered ‘canonical’ even before the rise of Feminist Studies, African-American Studies and that shibboleth ‘politically correct.’  Only seven of the works aren’t by Dead White Men and only four are by African-Americans.

I haven’t had much time to play around with this database yet, but I had a sort of similar conclusion by looking just briefly at the “Open Syllabus Explorer” interface. Here are the “top ten” books assigned across all courses:

1
The Elements of Style
Strunk, William, 1869-1946
2
Republic
Plato
3
The Communist Manifesto
Marx, Karl, 1818-1883
4
Biology
Campbell, Neil A., 1946
5
Frankenstein
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851
6
Ethics
Aristotle
7
Leviathan
Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679
8
The Prince
Machiavelli, Niccolò, 1469-1527
9
Oedipus
Sophocles
10
Hamlet
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616

The thing I find most striking here– and frankly, most bizarre– is that this “top ten” is probably pretty close to the “top ten” list of 30+ years ago when I started college, and it probably isn’t too far off to the “top ten” list when my father was in college 55 or so years ago. So, at least at first blush, the reason why people grumble about how higher education resists change is because data like this suggests that higher education resists change.

Of course, the problem with both of these chunks of “big data” are the specifics of the sources and samples. While the Moore et al study is impressive for a field where there just aren’t a lot of big studies, they have some problems that they acknowledge in terms of sampling of race. Further, almost all of the students in this study were first year students (and I have to think that juniors/seniors/graduate students would have somewhat different answers to writing genres that matter to them), and the institutions were pretty much limited to the places where Moore and her co-authors worked. I haven’t poked too far into the methodologies for the Open Syllabus Project yet, but what they say is the project “leverages a collection of over 1 million syllabi collected from university and departmental websites.” That’s pretty impressive in all kinds of different ways; however, as anyone in academia knows, one of the most consistently inaccurate places to find data about what happens in academia are departmental websites.

The other lesson I take away from both of these studies involving big data is why it’s still important to triangulate this data with smaller studies and exploration. For example, there’s this bit of puzzlement from the Moore et al study:

More surprisingly, students also report using blog technologies for e-mail, writing academic papers, texting, commenting on status messages or posts, writing research papers, and taking lecture notes. In spite of the academic-oriented genres in this list, students predominantly used blog technologies for entertainment or personal fulfillment. Again, we’re left asking what “e-mail” means to students when they see themselves doing it with blog technologies. Exploring this flexible use of genre terms would help inform the field’s understanding of how students are using the composing technologies available to them for all the writing they complete in their daily lives. (10)

It’s an interesting problem/question. If had to make a wild guess, I’d say that for at least a small percentage of respondents, “email” is an almost generic term for “Internet stuff.” But again, that’s just a guess. If there was a way to do some kind of focus group or case study with some of the folks who filled out the survey in the first place, there might be a better answer.

And I’m particularly sensitive to the news from the Open Syllabus Project that the top book assigned is Strunk and White, which is a book my students and I are reading right now! Now, I have a feeling that my approach to this book in a course called “Writing, Style, and Technology” is a little different than the approach of most faculty teaching this book. While I want my students to benefit from S&W’s advice (and really, they do have some good advice in there), I mostly am trying to get my students to read against the text, to try to dig into and question what’s going on here. It’s difficult for a lot of my students to do this, but I try.

Anyway, the point is the Open Syllabus Project (and the project of the Moore et al piece, for that matter) is good at presenting some really interesting observations, ones that I would have never guessed, such as the popularity of The Elements of Style. But this kind of big data doesn’t answer the smaller question of “why?”

Trying to reboot the blogging thing, a bit

A new semester is upon us here at EMU, and that (along with new year resolutions) has me rethinking about blogging again.

In terms of teaching, I’m returning to some blogging assignments. I’m teaching an online version of the undergraduate course “Writing, Style, and Technology,” a course I used to teach A LOT– like four or five sections a year sometimes– but now, for a bunch of different reasons, a course I haven’t taught in about three years. I use blogs in this class more or less as a notebook and pretty much the same way I described it here in my article “When Blogging Goes Bad,” which came out in Kairos almost a dozen years ago and it is still my “greatest hit” in terms of an individually written piece of scholarship. This assignment isn’t a “write whatever you want” sort of space; rather, it’s really just using a blog format/tool to collect and share a series of short (and assigned) writing prompts. It’s sort of like the old “keep a notebook” assignment, but without the hassle of paper and also the added feature that students can read (and comment on) each others’ entries.

For my graduate course, Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice, I’m giving a reboot to a blog assignment that is also kind of/sort of what I was describing back in “When Blogging Goes Bad.” I’m trying to get students to use a blog again as a sort of “writer’s notebook” to “reflect on readings and activities, to make connections to other research, and to give you a space to think about the final short writing assignment for the term.” And just to set up some clear criteria up from the get-go, I’m asking students to post at least 12 times during the term (a little less than once a week) and to comment on other blogs from classmates at least six times.

I’m doing this for my grad class mainly because I think blogging has been a practice that has been important to me for whatever limited successes I’ve had as a scholar. Facebook and Twitter and all of that are fine and they make sharing links pretty easy, but neither of these platforms makes it easy to search previous posts for links and references of various sorts– I assume that’s on purpose.  A blog is a much better notebook sort of space for me to keep notes/observations and just keep track of these kinds of links, at least in terms of scholarship. My blog is easily searchable, and I’m using previous entries quite a bit in the ongoing MOOC book project and in other things. Oh, and as an aside: this is why I still use delicious too, though yeah, I’m not that crazy about the way delicious works (or doesn’t work) anymore.

Beyond that, I have had tangible benefits from blogging in that some of my blogging (particularly about EMU and particularly about MOOCs as of late) have lead to some of the most important scholarly and writerly projects of my career. I don’t get a ton of readers here– I get around 2,000 views a month, which is a fraction of what a “popular” blog gets– but I am fairly confident in saying that in an average month, I get more “views” of content here than I have get of all of my published (and supposedly worthy) scholarship in a year– maybe every 10 years. And it seems to me that if you’re a writer (and scholars are writers), you want to share your writing with others. You want and need an audience. I know a lot of scholars and writers who seem hesitant about sharing their writing too early or in a format like a blog, but sometimes I think that goes too far (and if you’re a writer who doesn’t like the idea of other people reading your writing…), and for me, I’d rather share work in progress that helps me think and that others might find interesting. Thus the blogging.

Of course, if I’m going to give an assignment that asks my graduate students to write and read each others’ blogs about once a week, I probably need to up my blog writing game myself a bit this semester/this year. Thus this post.

New and old thoughts on the challenges of fycomp and/or “why students can’t write” through the lens of John Warner

John “Just Visiting” Warner had a very good column/blog entry at Inside Higher Ed the other day called “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc…) Papers.” It’s a smart piece; here’s how it starts:

Occasionally, one hears grumbling from faculty who assign writing in their courses about the apparent lack of preparation of students to successfully execute those assignments. They wonder what’s happening in the general education writing courses when so many students seem to arrive in without the skills necessary to succeed at college-level writing, particularly research-based analytical work.

As an instructor of first-year writing it can be hard not to take these things personally.

I do my best to help students succeed for the future writing occasions they’ll confront in college and beyond, but the truth is, I cannot properly prepare them for what’s coming.

And then from there, Warner goes on to a list that I’ll build on in a moment/after the break.

Warner’s piece really struck a cord with me for a variety of different reasons, most of them timing around the end of the semester and what-not. This isn’t new territory for anyone involved in first year composition– certainly not for folks who have some kind of quasi-administrative connection to writing programs– and, personally, I long ago stopped taking these things personally. The first time some professor from outside of writing studies (though not always from outside English or even the field of writing studies, frankly) or some administrator confronts you with “hey, how come students come out of that first year writing program you teach in (and/or run) can’t even write a decent sentence?!” you get angry and/or you kind of get that whole deer in headlights freeze. The 200th time you get some version of this question/confrontation, you just kind of smile and sigh.

Warner’s article here is basically a list– a good one, and one that I thought was worthy of embellishing, at least for my own purposes. After all, I’m finishing up this semester as the associate director of the first year writing program and while Derek Mueller is on sabbatical in the winter, I’ll be in the director’s chair. I might need this post in the near future. Maybe others will find my expansions on Warner’s points interesting and useful as well.

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Trigger Warnings Triggering Memories of Teaching From Long Ago

A different kind of Trigger…

There are two articles making the rounds about trigger warnings of late. There’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. And there’s (at least one) response to it, “The Trigger Warning Myth” in New Republic and by Aaron R. Hanion. By “trigger warning,” both articles are talking about the warning given to an audience (students) to a text, movie, or whatever else that might have disturbing content.  While doing a quick search for a definition of trigger warning to quote, I also found out that the AAUP’s position on this is that trigger warnings are a threat to academic free speech. In any event, Lukianoff and Haidt thinks trigger warnings are an example of how we’re coddling the “kids today,” Hanion thinks that’s a myth.

It’s a complicated issue and I think critics like Lukianoff and Haidt have a point. Law students calling the use of the word “violation” a microagression doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of studying law. But I tend to side with Hanion’s view and that most of what Lukianoff and Haidt write are wrong, and as I understand trigger warnings, I think they have the exact opposite effect of censorship, contrary to the AAUP’s position on this. Hanion writes:

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

And a bit later, this longer passage:

While a miniscule number of colleges and universities have gone so far as to codify trigger warnings for professors, most trigger warnings exist as a pedagogical choice that professors make in situations over which we exercise considerable control. (And have existed as such for much longer than the present debate suggests: While “trigger warning” was not part of my vocabulary as an undergraduate, introductory comments like “we’re going to spend some time today on lynching images, so prepare yourselves for graphic and difficult material” were indeed.)

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one,” for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class,” meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.

Most of my teaching nowadays at the undergraduate level doesn’t merit trigger warnings (“just to let you all know: today we’re going to be talking about HTML and CSS” or “Hang on everyone, because today we’re going to talk about how writing is actually a technology”). But I’ve used the kinds of benign warnings that Hanion talks about with some controversial readings and activities in the past (and I’m likely to do that again this fall since I’m going to have students spending a little time with Yik Yak), though I didn’t call them “trigger warnings;” no one did until recently.

If anything, the current argument seems to parallel the debate about “political correctness” way back when, and more or less, the politics are the same in that the more conservative view is that trigger warnings/political correctness are silly. I think both trigger warnings and political correctness can be silly, but it also seems to me that they are also both gestures toward both civility and empathy with an audience. In other words, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

But thinking about this a bit more the other day triggered a teaching memory for me. It was when I was at Southern Oregon and in 1997 or so. It was a specific time where I didn’t give enough warning and where the shit kind of hit the fan. I didn’t get into any actual trouble with an administrator of some sort, but I did have students leaving class in tears. It was a time where maybe more of a warning would have helped, or maybe it was an example of how trigger warnings can only do so much.

And not so much as a trigger warning as a spoiler alert about the rest of this post: after the jump, I give away some key plot/synopsis details about the movies Scream (the first one, from 1996) and a Belgian film released in the U. S. in 1993 under the name Man Bites Dog (the French name was C’est arrivé près de chez vous, which I guess translates basically as It Happened in Your Neighborhood).

Continue reading “Trigger Warnings Triggering Memories of Teaching From Long Ago”

I am not sure what Kevin Carey is imagining here….

I started this on Sunday night while a bunch of folks were at my house playing a very very involved board game called Civilization. I did not play along. It is a long story, but the short version is I instead cooked what turned out to be a pretty good and more elaborate than I was planning dinner, and when it comes to playing games generally, I really have to be in the right mood and with the right game. I like game theory a lot more than actual games.

Anyway, late in the night while they were playing (the game went on for about 10 hours and still hadn’t finished), I got around to reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” I came to it via a commentary from a response Cathy Davidson had on HASTAC, “Universities are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Cary and NYT,”  and also on Facebook.

Carey opens with the story of an athletic scandal at UNC where student athletes were taking classes that were technically legitimate classes but where the lack of recognizable requirements (like not having to attend) helped the less scholarly of student athletes to stay eligible for sports. It seems to me that stories like this cheating scandal pop up every few years, but that’s a problem of college sports and not “college” generally, and probably a different post. Then Carey writes:

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

Let’s try to walk through that logic for a moment:

  • Big-time college sports tempt coaches, students, and even sympathetic professors/fans to create “in-house credit mills.”
  • While most colleges (presumably) don’t have a lot of this kind of problem, the design, value, and operation of most other colleges are “no different” from the school where these fake courses happened.
  • Therefore (I guess?), colleges/universities are “not coherent” when it comes to consistency, standards, classroom excellence, and influencing teaching and learning practices.

So for me, part of this is “well, duh,” that there is cheating in big-time college athletics. Obviously. As Davidson points out in her post, what Carey’s example demonstrates is a problem with college sports rather than college. But why would Carey (or anyone else) think that from this example it logically follows that the colleges across the board have no consistency/standards/oversight when it comes to teaching and learning practices? I know op-ed commentators are fond of the hasty generalization fallacy, but this seems a bit of a reach even for Carey.

Having read Carey’s book The End of College (and one of these days, I’ll blog a more extensive review of that), I think I know where he’s trying to go here. In his book, one of the main problems Carey has with higher education are the damn professors because professors are too independent, too lazy, too focused on their research, too indifferent to teaching, too petty, etc. So in Carey’s view, there’s no coherence or standards in higher education– that’s why it’s an illusion– in large part because professors get away with doing whatever it is they want to do. More on that in a moment.

But at the same time, Carey argues here that the college experience doesn’t vary much between schools. Carey wants to make this argument because one of the other points he hammers on in The End of College is that college rankings are way out of control. He cites Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, authors of How College Affects Students, which appears to be a giant and long-standing study on the question of (duh) how college affects students.  Carey writes:

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

And a little later:

 People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

If it’s true that at the level of big data that there isn’t much difference between different four year colleges– that is, you put all the undergraduate students attending “traditional” universities that grant bachelors degrees and those students come out statistically close to the same– then that means that there actually is a lot of consistency and coherence in higher education. And broadly speaking, I think this is true: that is, I believe that the experiences that EMU graduates have in terms of personal growth, subject knowledge, and academic skills are similar to those of University of Michigan graduates (though of course, individual results vary quite a bit). In other words, because the best available research suggests that there is a lot consistency, coherence, and statistical similarity between between different universities, there is no need for the mandated standardization and regulation Carey implies is necessary to make the college a less “illusionary.” Indeed, it isn’t an illusion at all.

But I want to dwell on that second paragraph I quote here because it demonstrates the problems I see with Carey’s “logic” generally. He begins with a claim that I think most people in higher education would actually agree with, that most people learn a lot in college regardless of what college they attend. Then he slips into a claim that the differences that exist within higher ed are a result of the “autonomy” and “academic freedom” of individual professors, and those professors are not “guided by a shared sense of educational excellence” at all. Rather, these damn individual professors are all just a bunch selfish entrepreneurs who bitch and complain about parking. Jeesh.

As Davidson points out in her post, if we’ve learned anything from the “No Child Left Behind” nonsense forced on to K-12 in this country, the absolute last thing we need is more regulation to curtail individual approaches to teaching, autonomy, and academic freedom. As she writes, “We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.”

But beyond that, who are these “professors?” Depending on how you define permanent work and the “tenure track” in higher education, at least 70% (maybe more) of the folks doing the teaching aren’t professors at all; rather, they are graduate students, part-timers, and full-time instructors who might enjoy job security through renewable contracts (or not– some full-timers are on contracts that are not renewable after 3-5 years). These folks are not professors in that they are not usually required to do the research and service/administrative work of professors (that’s certainly the case at EMU), and, for better or worse, they don’t enjoy the level of autonomy and academic freedom of professors. Take our first year writing program, for example, one that is similar to a lot of first year writing programs in that almost everyone teaching classes in it are not professors (full disclosure: I’m the interim associate director of that program right now). We have specific outcomes we expect everyone teaching the class to get their students to meet, and we have a curriculum that offers teachers options but only within the expectations of the course. We wouldn’t hire (or rehire) folks who weren’t willing or able to teach within those expectations. I can’t claim that this level of “programming” and “control” exists across the board in other disciplines, but I’m certain it isn’t “anything goes” for most of the non-professors doing most of the teaching in universities nowadays.

Further, Carey’s assumption about the level of autonomy professors (as in the 30% or so of us who are on the tenure-track) have in their teaching is wrong too. Davidson wrote a LONG comment on her own blog post outlining the steps that are pretty typical for getting a new course approved at a university, a process that more or less squares with my experiences here at EMU. The same kind of bureaucracy is in place for degree programs and any significant change to a course or a degree program. I wish I worked in the environment Carey imagines for me.

I guess what bothers me the most about Carey’s views here and in other places, notably in The End of College, is the amount of airtime it gets in places in the mainstream media like The New York Times. He purposefully sets up the most visible part of higher education– professors– as the sole problem, conveniently skipping past the bloated administrations and edu-entrepreneurs that are profiting the most from out of control tuition. He is a self-described education policy wonk who (surprise, surprise!) thinks that the problems in higher education can be solved with more strident and controlling policies and regulations.   He’s tapping into the lizard brain general public “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sentiment that always exists since things are always getting worse, and he does this by making sweeping generalizations that have truthiness to them but that are demonstrably wrong. The problem is it’s very difficult to change people’s lizard brain minds with actual logic and evidence.

Though Carey is right about one thing: the complaint that unites all of academia has to do with parking.

“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson

I’ve blogged about “the Digital Humanities” several times before. Back in 2012, I took some offense at the MLA’s “discovery” of “digital scholarship” because they essentially ignored the work of anyone other than literature scholars– in other words, comp/rhet folks who do things with technology need not apply. Cheryl Ball had an editorial comment in Kairos back then I thought was pretty accurate– though it’s also worth noting in the very same issue of Kairos, Ball also praised the MLA conference for its many “digital humanities” presentations.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had a post here called “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues,” in which I was responding to a critique by Adam Kirsch that Marc Bousquet had written about. Here’s a long quote from myself that I think is all the more relevant now:

I’ve had my issues with the DH movement in the past, especially as it’s been discussed by folks in the MLA– see here and especially here.  I have often thought that a lot of the scholars in digital humanities are really literary period folks trying to make themselves somehow “marketable,” and I’ve seen a lot of DH projects that don’t seem to be a whole lot more complicated than putting stuff up on the web. And I guess I resent and/or am annoyed with the rise of digital humanities in the same way I have to assume the folks who first thought up MOOCs (I’m thinking of the Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the world) way before Coursera and Udacity and EdX came along are annoyed with the rise of MOOCs now. All the stuff that DH-ers talk about as new has been going on in the “computers and writing”/”computers and composition” world for decades and for these folks to come along now and to coin these new terms for old practices– well, it feels like a whole bunch of work of others has been ignored and/or ripped off in this move.

But like I said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The “computers and writing” world– especially vis a vis its conference and lack of any sort of unifying “organization”– seems to me to be fragmenting and/or drifting into nothingness at the same time that DH is strengthening to the point of eliciting backlash pieces in a middle-brow publication like the New Republic. Plenty of comp/rhet folk have already made the transition, at least in part. Cheryl Ball has been doing DH stuff at MLA lately and had an NEH startup grant on multimedia publication editing; Alex Reid has had a foot in this for a few years now; Collin Brooke taught what was probably a fantastic course this past spring/winter, “Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities;” and Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo are editing a book of essays that will come out in the fall (I think) called Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. There’s an obvious trend here.

And this year, I’m going to HASTAC instead of the C&W conference (though this mostly has to do with the geographic reality that HASTAC is being hosted just up the road from me at Michigan State University) and I’ll be serving as the moderator/host of a roundtable session about what the computers and writing crowd can contribute to the DH movement.

In other words, I went into reading Jim and Bill’s edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities with a realization/understanding that “Digital Humanities” has more or less become the accepted term of art for everyone outside of computers and writing, and if the C&W crowd wants to have any interdisciplinary connection/relevance to the rest of academia, then we’re going to have to make connections with these DH people. In the nutshell, that’s what I think Jim and Bill’s book is about. (BTW and “full disclosure,” as they say: Jim and Bill are both friends of mine, particularly Bill, who I’ve known from courses taken together, conferences, project collaborations, dinners, golf outings, etc., etc., etc. for about 23 or so years).

Continue reading ““Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson”

Where Bauerlein Sorta/Kinda Has a Point: Office Hours and “Tutoring”

Mark Bauerlein’s latest piece in the New York Times, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” is too much of a troll to take too seriously. He’s just complaining about the “kids today” in college and how they are all so much more interested in careers and so not interested in sitting at the feet of master professors in order to build a personal philosophy of life, the universe, and everything.

For a more direct response to the problems of Bauerlein’s take on things, I direct you to two very smart blog posts.

I especially appreciate Gannon’s critique because he is highlighting one of the problems I see with a lot of the writing about MOOCs and/or the future of higher education– people like Kevin Carey in The End of College, and also like David Noble in his critique of what I would describe as “traditional online courses,” Digital Diploma Mills.

Without going into a lot of detail now, I think Bauerlein, Carey, Noble, etc. are assuming as “the norm” that every other institution deviates from in one fashion or another is a big flagship state university or a famous Ivy league school– you know, the kinds of places that show up in the “top 20 universities in the world” lists. The fact of the matter is though that by definition, the vast vast VAST majority of community colleges, colleges, and universities are not “elite,” and the students and faculty at these places are similar but not the same as the students/faculty you find at elite institutions.

So while Bauerlein and Carey both assume that professors are “pointless” and not needed because they don’t teach much and/or are self-consumed with their research, Gannon goes to great length to explain the extremes of teaching and student involvement at the school where he works, Grand View University (he cheekily describes it as the Harvard of East Des Moines), where the teachings loads are high and the hands-on work with the small student body is extreme.

Anyway, go read those blog posts– smart stuff and I agree with both of them. But I wanted to take a slightly different view with Bauerlein’s essay and take up two things he brings up, more or less indirectly, that have to do with face to face interactions.

Continue reading “Where Bauerlein Sorta/Kinda Has a Point: Office Hours and “Tutoring””

Post from sabbatical-land 202 days to go: a tangent thought about the need (or lack thereof?) for teaching code in web writing courses

I have been doing some reading and writing that is more directly tied to my MOOC sabbatical project than this post, honest. Lately, I’ve been reading and writing about correspondence schools and how they were influenced by the 19th century Chautauqua Institute and movement. I’ll spare you the details for what I am assuming are obvious reasons, but here’s a fun fact of doing this kind of research nowadays. Part of what I needed/wanted to hunt down was a sort of infamous quote from William Rainey Harper, who was the first president of the University of Chicago and an early proponent of correspondence schools. He predicted that the day was coming where most students would take courses via the mail. Anyway, he has a longish part about his thoughts on the pros and cons of correspondence/distance education in an 1885 book by John Heyl Vincent called The Chautauqua Movement, which, conveniently enough, is available in its entirety via Google Books. Who says the Internets isn’t good for anything?

Where was I? Oh yes, speaking of the Internets:

In the fall, I’m liable to be teaching a class I’ve taught several times before, Writing for the World Wide Web, and I’m on the cusp of thinking that this might be the first time I teach that class where I only spend a minimal amount of time with HTML and CSS. Maybe just the Codecademy course on HTML & CSS; maybe not even that much.

I think the thing that has kind of pushed me over the edge on this is Jeff Bridges’ web site. Or more specifically, squarespace and their Super Bowl ad. That’s a service that’s perhaps a little more about selling stuff than we tend to talk about in Writing for the Web, but as far as I can tell, it’s a drag n’ drop kind of app for setting up a site. Then there’s wix. It’s a little wonky, but it is all drag-n-drop stuff and it took me about 3 minutes to make this free page. (Sure, it makes really ugly code, but it does work, mostly). Of course, there’s wordpress, which is something I introduce to students as it is, and it was the option of choice discussed in this Vitae piece “How to Build a Website in 5 Steps.” I’m sure there are a lot of other options there for this kind of thing.

Back in the old days, the WYSIWYG options for HTML/CSS editing were poor– and I would include everything from the versions of Dreamweaver I’ve seen all the way back to the editor that came with one of the early versions of Netscape. I remember as early as about 1997 there were folks in the computers and writing world who were saying there was no point in wading into coding. But while those early WYSIWYG tools were helpful, they were glitchy and unreliable, meaning they were more like “what you see is what you get a lot of the time but not all the time,” and if you didn’t know enough about coding to figure out what was going wrong, you were pretty much screwed. As a teacher, I learned pretty quickly it was more time-consuming to not teach students HTML building blocks because when they tried to make a web site with one of these apps with no clue about the code underneath, they would get stuck and I’d have spend a lot more time helping them get unstuck. In any event, I taught code back then because writing web pages required writing code. These weren’t two different functions/jobs, much in the same way that printers a few hundred years ago directly employed writers and were themselves the publishers and book sellers.

That was then and this is now. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with wix or squarespace, but they both seem easy and robust enough for a beyond basic site. It’s useful to understand some of the basics of HTML/CSS coding stuff for WordPress of course, but it’s not critical. So if the goal of a class like Writing for the Web is to have students present/study content on the web in some rhetorically meaningful way, then spending time on code just isn’t as important as it used to be. If the goal of a class like this is to also professionalize students to work “in the field,” coding might be a bit more important, but maybe not.  Any kind of entity or company that would employ someone as a technical/professional writer (broadly speaking) probably would also employ a full-time IT person who deals with the technicalities of the coding of the web site. And of course, that IT person is probably working with a lot of other stuff that I’ve heard of but don’t understand– Python (which reminds me: I should check into my Coursera course on that today), Ruby on Rails, PHP, etc., etc.

Writing for the Web as a class has always been a class that has included elements of a computer programming class (not to mention a graphic design class and an audio-video production class), but it seems to me that the space between the coding/programming that makes the modern web work and the content delivered on the web has widened. And while it is arguably a good idea for anyone who is interested in going into anything that smacks of content development nowadays to take some basic programming classes, the course I teach focuses more on the content.

As I teach it at least, the course has moved more toward social media issues, web style, usability, and the decisions writers have to make to re-present “words in a row” essays into web sites. I still teach a large HTML/CSS component in the class, and I’m beginning to think that the time spent on that isn’t worth it anymore. Or maybe it’s a different class: that is, maybe there is a need for a “coding for writing majors” kind of course where the focus really is on working through all the exercises at Codecademy.

Something more I’ll have to think about in around 200 days.

Ungrouping Groups, pros and cons (and other reflections on Fall 2014 teaching)

Normally at this time of year, during the holidaze on some family visit (now at the inlaws and later at my side of the family), I’m finishing the planning for the next semester’s classes and reflecting a bit on the semester that has just been. But since I’ll be sabbaticalling in winter term, now I’m just reflecting, and in particular not assigning a collaborative project in either of my classes.

(This is mostly interesting to me and for “future Steve” to read when he actually has to start thinking about the fall 2015 term. But just in case anyone else is interested, I thought I’d put it all here).

Continue reading “Ungrouping Groups, pros and cons (and other reflections on Fall 2014 teaching)”

Enough with the “no laptops in classrooms” already

There has been a rash of “turn off the laptop” articles in various places in the educational media, but I think what has pushed me over the edge and motivated this post is Clay Shirky’s “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away” on Medium. In the nutshell, Shirky went to the no laptop camp because (he says) students can’t multitask and students are too easily distracted by the technology, particularly with the constant alerts from things like Facebook.

Enough already.

First off, while I am no expert regarding multitasking, it seems to me that there are a lot of different layers to multitasking (or perhaps it would make more sense to say attention on task) and most of us perform some level of multitasking all the time.  Consider driving. I think it’s always a bad idea to be texting while actually moving in traffic because, yes, that’s too much multitasking for most people. But how about texting or checking email or social media while at a long light? I do it all the time. Or how about talking on the phone? For me, it’s easy to talk on the phone while driving if I am using headphones or if I’m driving a familiar route in normal conditions. When I’m driving an unfamiliar route in bad weather or in heavy traffic, not so much.

Second, distraction and not paying a lot of attention in class isn’t exactly new. When I was in high school, I sat in the back of the room in that chemistry class I was required to take and I read paperbacks “hidden” under the table. Students used to pass these things called “notes” on paper. Students did and still do whisper at each other in distracting ways. As both a college student and as a college teacher (certainly as a GA way back when), I’ve been with/had students who were distracted by and multitasking with magazines, newspapers, other people, with napping, etc., etc.

I agree with Shirky and some of the articles he cites that what’s interesting and different about contemporary electronic devices generally and social media in particular is that these are designed to distract us, to break our concentration. I routinely experience the sort of instant and satisfying gratification suggested in the abstract of this article. But to suggest that teachers/professors can solve this attention problem by asking students to temporarily turn off their laptops and pay attention to the sage on the stage strikes me as both naive and egotistical.

So here are three tips for Clay and other would-be haters for how to mentally adjust to the inevitability of laptops in their classrooms.

Number one, stop lecturing so much. When professors take the “stand and deliver” approach to “teaching,” the laptops come out. And why shouldn’t they? In an era where anyone can easily record a video and/or audio of a lecture that can be “consumed” by students on their own time, why should they sit and pay attention to you droning on?

I realize this is easy for me to say since I teach small classes with 25 of fewer students, but there are lots of ways to break up the talking head in a large lecture hall class too. Break students into groups to ask them to discuss the reading. Ask students to take a moment to write about a question or a reading and then ask them to respond.  Require your students to discuss and respond. Use the time in class to actually do work with the laptops (individually and collaboratively) to do things. Just stop thinking that teaching means standing there and talking at them.

Number two, be more interesting. If as a teacher (or really, just a speaker) you are noticing a large percentage of students not paying attention and turning to laptops or cell phones or magazines or napping, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being boring. I notice this in my own teaching all the time: when my students and I are interested in a conversation or an activity, the laptops stay closed. When I start to drone on or it otherwise starts getting boring, I see the checks on Facebook or Twitter or ESPN Sports or whatever. I use that as a cue to change up the discussion, to get more interesting.

Number three, “Let it Go.” Because here’s the thing: there’s really nothing professors can do (at least in the settings where I teach) to completely eliminate these kinds of distractions and multitasking and generally dumb stuff that students sometimes do. Students are humans and humans are easily distracted. So instead of spending so much time demanding perfect attention, just acknowledge that most of us can get a lot done with a laptop open. If you as the teacher are not the center of the universe, it’ll be okay.