Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips

Last week, I was in Naples and Capri, Italy to attend the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference. My brief talk/presentation/position statement (everyone just gave small talks) was more or less called “A Small View of MOOCs: A Limited Look at the Recent Past and Likely Future of MOOCs at the Edges of Higher Education in the United States,” and that link takes you to a Google Doc version of my talk– the slides and the script I more or less followed. Here are links to my tourism pictures of Naples, Anacapri, and Pompeii on Flickr.

After the break, I go into way more detail than necessary about the conference and the trip. Read on if you’re interested, though a lot of it is really me writing/thinking out loud for myself, which is often the case on my blog, right?

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What’s the difference between HASTAC and CWCON? Organization and a web site

I went to the HASTAC conference this week/weekend instead of the Computers and Writing conference (also this week/weekend) mostly because of geography. HASTAC was at Michigan State, which is about an hour drive from my house. Computers and Writing (let’s call it CWCON for the rest of this post) was at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which is in the middle of freakin’ nowhere in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which is a small town a little more than an hour drive from Minneapolis. I also have some bad memories from the job market about UW-Stout, but hey, those are my own problems, and I’m pretty sure that all of the folks associated with those problems are long gone.

Anyway, I’ve been to CWCON about every other year or so (give or take) since 1994, so my guiding question for much of this conference was how would I compare HASTAC to CWCON? The short answer is they are very similar: that is, there was little going on at HASTAC that would have been out of place at CWCON, and vice versa. Both are about the intersections of the digital (e.g., “computer stuff,” technology, emerging media, etc.) and the humanities, though “humanities” probably includes more disciplines at HASTAC, whereas at CWCON, most participants identify in some fashion with composition and rhetoric.

Granted, my HASTAC experience was skewed because I attended panels that were writing studies-oriented (more on that after the jump), but I didn’t see much of anything on the program that would have been completely out of place at CWCON.  HASTAC had about as much about pedagogy on the program as I’ve seen before at CWCON. Both of the keynotes I saw were ones that would be welcome at CWCON, particularly the second one by rootoftwo (I missed the third, unfortunately). Both conferences were about the same size, mid-300s or so. Both are organizations that have been promoted and propelled by prominent women scholars in the field– Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher for CWCON, and Cathy Davidson for HASTAC.

So, what was different? There were more grad students and younger folks at HASTAC, but (I was told) that is mostly because the conference and its origins are more grad student-focused. CWCON is arguably a little more geeky and “fun,” with things like bowling night and karaoke and the like, though maybe there was some of that stuff at HASTAC and I just didn’t know about it. I think there is housing in the dorms at HASTAC, though I stayed at the very affordable and convenient Kellogg Center. And of course I know more people who go to CWCON.

But at the end of the day, I think the most significant difference between these two groups boil down to organization and a web site.

Computers and Writing, as I have complained about before, has neither. It is a loosely formed neo-socialist anarchist collective committee organized under the umbrella of the CCCCs (which itself is technically a group organized under the umbrella of NCTE) that meets at the CCCCs mainly to figure out where the next conference is going to be– and often enough, deciding on where the next conference is going to be is tricky. The web site,, is mostly non-functional.

The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (aka HASTAC) is an organized community that has an executive board, a steering committee, council of advisors, a staff (at least of sorts), lots of related groups, affiliated organizations, and (of course) a web site. According to the web site, HASTAC is an “alliance of nearly 13,000,” though I don’t quite know what that means. Before she introduced the first keynote of the conference on Thursday, Cathy Davidson took a moment to talk about the upcoming revisions to the HASTAC web site, which she claimed was the oldest (and I think most active?) “social media” web site for academics. I might be getting some of that wording wrong, but it was something along those lines.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. I mean, “bigger” is not automatically “better.” So what if HASTAC has 13,000 in their “alliance,” if “Digital Humanities” is the term of art (in the sense that the National Endowment for the Humanities has an Office of Digital Humanities and not an Office of Computers and Writing), if CWCON remains the small conference of a sub-specialization within composition and rhetoric, a discipline that many also view (and the MLA wishes this were the case) as a sub-field of “English?” What do we care? In thinking about this post, I revisited some of the discussion on tech-rhet last year about the decay of the web site. Back then, I stirred the pot/rattled the cage a bit by suggesting that a) maybe we need an actual organization, and b) maybe we need a robust web site. Both of those ideas were more or less poo-poo-ed, in part because I think a lot of people like the way things are. CWCON has always been a “non-organization” organization that has had a groovy and rebellious feel to it, and I mean all that as a positive. And given that the conference has now been put on 31 times (I think?), it’s hard to dispute the success of this approach.

On the other hand, if folks associated with CWCON want to be taken seriously by academics outside of that community, I think it matters a great deal.

A big theme amongst the CWCON crowd in recent years (and I include myself in this) has been being miffed/angered/hurt/etc. about how scholars in the “Digital Humanities” have ignored the decades of work we’ve done in comp/rhet generally, particularly folks who identify with CWCON. Cheryl Ball wrote a pointed editorial in Kairos about this (though she was taking on the PMLA more specifically), and I believe in her keynote at this year’s CWCON (I wasn’t there, just judging from Twitter), she again expressed frustration about how comp/rhet scholars doing DH work (CWCON, Kairos, etc.) are ignored, how “we” have been doing this work for a lot longer and better, and so forth.

I share that frustration, believe me. But at the end of the day, the CWCON community can’t have it both ways. It can’t be both a free-wheeling, non-organized “happening” of a group and be miffed/angered/hurt/etc. when the rest of academia interested in DH either doesn’t know we exist or ignores us because we’re not organized and visible to anyone outside of the group.

All of which is to say I have three general take-aways from HASTAC:

  • HASTAC was good, I would go again, and I am generally interested in seeking out/attending other DH conferences with the confidence that yes indeed, the kinds of things I might propose for CWCON would probably be welcome in the realm of DH. The one caveat to that is my general resistance to academic conferences of all sorts, but that’s another issue.
  • HASTAC could learn a lot from CWCON, sure, but CWCON could learn a lot from HASTAC too. I don’t know how much of this was the MSU location and how much of it was HASTAC generally, but I liked the presentation formats and I also thought they had some creative ways for getting people to know each other, like “sign-ups” for particular restaurants to go to as a group.
  • I’m not interested in starting an organization (that takes way too much work and isn’t something I can do alone), but I’m thinking very seriously about creating a web site that could be what I’d like to see be, a repository for comp/rhet things relevant to DH things, and vice-versa. I found out that is actually available, but that would be a little too snarky, and besides, I think the move should be to make connections with the DH community. So I thought maybe or maybe something like (where I mean “writing studies”). If you have any ideas and/or thoughts on pitching in (I mean to write– I’ll fund it out of my own pocket, at least for a year), let me know.

More specifically about what I did at HASTAC after the jump:

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CCCC 15 in Tampa Recap

Just like last year, my CCCCs was again fairly MOOC-centric and included the usual suspects. My thoughts/recollections on the few days there:

  • Unfortunately, I am likely to remember this CCCCs years from now as the one where there was a horrible accident right outside the conference hotel and convention center. The short version is a driver somehow lost control of his car, jumped the curb on the street that ran between the hotel and the convention center, and hit three pedestrians, killing one of them and seriously injuring the other two. I didn’t see it– I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel trying to get caught up on a few email/Facebook things– but a lot of people at the conference did see it and I’m told it was horrifying.  One person I talked to who was right there when it happened said she was busy writing an angry email on her cell phone (something didn’t get done right and she was mad, that’s all you really need to know), and when the accident happened, she felt this strange everything frozen in place and time sensation, and then she deleted that email before sending it since it didn’t seem that important anymore.
  • I was on the fence about going to the conference at all this year because I’m on sabbatical right now (did I mention I was on sabbatical?), and because I wasn’t that crazy about going to Florida generally. I am not a “Florida fan,” so to speak. Annette’s parents have lived in Naples for about 16 years now and we go down there pretty much every year at Christmas (including this past Christmas). That’s plenty of Florida for me. But as far as I can tell, most people were thrilled to be down there, and my colleague and University of South Florida alum Kate Pantelides was really REALLY thrilled to be visiting Tampa again.
  • I had a chance to get to talk with/have dinner with my newest EMU colleague at the conference, Chalice Randazzo, who will be joining us from Texas Tech. I wasn’t on the search committee, so I actually talked with her more at the conference than when she was here for the interview. And it’s always nice when colleagues in the field come up to you in the lobby of the hotel and say stuff like “you made a great hire,” especially when I didn’t have much to do with it.
  • Every CCCCs, there are people who I just never see and there other people who I inexplicably see everywhere. This year, the “saw everywhere” person was Stuart Selber. Don’t ask me why. I also hung out with/caught up with the usual suspects, some folks I see all the time (like Benninghoff and Bill HD), some folks I see about once a year (Nick Carbone, Heidi Estrem, Linda Adler-Kassner), and some I see somewhere in-between (Doug Walls, Mike McLeod).
  • The three most memorable panel-type things I saw were the Ohio State folks’ roundtable session on their MOOC, part of a session by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Anne Wysocki called “Blow It the Fuck Up: Composition After Writing,” a presentation I thought was provocative (though it’s easier said than done and I think there’s a lot to value by being aligned with a specific position), and the Ignite sessions that were on Friday night. There needs to be more of these Ignite kinds of things– short (five minute), provocative speeches that take place in a more social interaction– there was an intermission and cocktails.
  • My session and my talk went fine. The other folks on the panel all gave good talks that I wouldn’t mind returning to as I get back into the MOOC work this coming week. The only downside was we had a somewhat overeager chair who aggressively timed the presentations and flagged me for running out of time, which surprised me because I timed my talk to be 18 minutes. Turns out that our chair was assuming a 15 minute time limit. Hmm.
  • And lots and lots of great conversations with folks outside the sessions. Honestly, that’s the biggest reason for going to the CCCCs for me at this point. It’s always nice to meet people you kind of “know” from Facebook or Twitter or the WPA-L and put a face with a name, and it’s always nice when people say nice things to me about stuff I post or about the MOOC book or whatever (I assume that anyone who would have said mean things just avoided me). It did get hard to keep answering the “how’s your sabbatical going?” question after a while, though interestingly enough, when I expressed my mixed feelings about it all to people who had previously had sabbaticals, they tended to say “yeah, I know what you mean.”
  • The “extracurricular” activities were pretty decent. The bar at the conference hotel was too expensive, but it was nice sitting on that patio. The annual Bedford-St. Martin’s party was at the Florida Aquarium, which was very cool as a venue, though there was almost no food– not a big deal for me, but this was not the kind of party I recall as a grad student where you could go and more or less piece together a complete (and free) meal. I ended up for dinner after that party at a place called Cevíche that probably was my favorite food experience of the whole conference– though I had a couple pretty good meals. I was also a part of a pretty amusing food fail. Long story short, it turns out that the very popular Bern’s Steakhouse doesn’t appreciate it when you show up thirty minutes late for your reservation for three with five people. So we ended up at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, which was also a very Tampa thing.
  • So all in all, I’m glad I decided to go and I felt a pretty good kick-start on the sabbatical. Now I’ll have to contemplate next year’s conference. Once again, I feel mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I’m not even remotely crazy about going to the location– Houston– and, as I say every year, the last thing I need on my CV is another conference presentation. On the other hand, my former colleague and friend Linda Adler-Kassner is the program chair and it is pretty much the only conference I’m even contemplating, so….

Thoughts On Cruising

And by cruising, I do not mean an illicit sexual activity, nor do I mean the sort of thing that high school kids used to do in their cars up and down University Avenue in Cedar Falls when I was a teenager. Rather, I mean cruising as in aboard a ship at sea– specifically, a cruise aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line Getaway.

Here is a link to a set of pictures on Flickr.

This cruise was a gift to Annette and me (and Will, too) from Annette’s parents, Bill and Irmgard, to celebrate our 20th anniversary and their 50th. It was a generous and thoughtful gift, though I have to say that taking a cruise wasn’t exactly on my list of things I needed to do before I died. I’m glad I had the experience; it just never occurred to me as something I would ever do.

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A #cwcon 2014 in Pullman recap

I had an educational/fun time at the Computers and Writing Conference last week in Pullman, and I promise I’ll get to that after the jump. But let me get some complaining out of the way first.

I still wish that there was something more of an “organization” behind the annual Computers and Writing Conference, something more akin to the ATTW or RSA or CPTSC or whatever– not necessarily as structured and rigid as giant organizations like NCTE or the CCCC, but something more than the current non-structured affiliation (sorta/kinda) with a standing committee of the CCCCs which lacks an electing process, term limits, and (IMO) transparency. I’ve already voiced these complaints on mailing lists like tech-rhet– and by the way, my complaining a few months ago surfaced at this conference in the form of a few people saying to me stuff like “I’m glad someone finally said something” and a few others obviously avoided me. But maybe more organization isn’t necessary since there are other more organized groups out there. Anyway, got that off my chest. Again.

I still wish C&W would be held in an accessible location more than once every four or five years. Last year it was Frostburg, Maryland; this year, Pullman; next year (and of course we didn’t know the conference was going to happen at all until a few weeks ago), it’s going to be at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, which is just over an hour’s drive away from Minneapolis.  Not so distant past locations for the conference include Muncie, Indiana; Lubbock, Texas; and Normal, Illinois. Maybe for 2016, we need to go really remote, like Guam. (Actually, that might be kinda cool, Guam….)

I am still feeling a little “conferenced out” in general, and I only went to two this year– this one and the CCCCs in March. This complaint is not about Computers and Writing; it’s about the place where I am personally and professionally with academic conferences. Sure, I can and do learn a lot from attending conference sessions (see below) and a conference presentation does count on my C.V. for something, even if only five or so people come to my session (also see below). But with my meager travel budget (this jaunt to Pullman was completely out of pocket for me since I spent my money going to the CCCCs) and with other scholarly venues to present my scholarship (e.g., here, journals, more local events, etc.), I think I really need to rethink and to cut way back on the whole conference thing.

(Of course, I say that and then I do something different. There’s a pretty decent chance that I’ll go to at least three conferences next year, though two of them would be in Michigan).

Alright, enough whining. C&W 2014 in Pullman was pretty cool.

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Miscellaneous Thoughts on Paris

Annette and Will and I came back home from Paris yesterday, which means I am uncertain as to what time it is right now. My clock (when I started this) says 5:50 AM, six hours behind where I was yesterday morning. My body thinks it is somewhere in-between. So before I get back to work (there is this whole pesky “job” thing that is going to start demanding a lot more attention) and to the gym, a series of miscellaneous observations about our trip.

  • We stayed in a fantastic apartment right next to the Lamarck-Caulaincourt metro stop which is very near Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre. It was two bedrooms with a small kitchen, a large living room area, and rock-solid wifi. There were plenty of grocery stores, cafes, bread stores, etc. within about a block. There was no air conditioning, but we didn’t have hot weather, and when we opened the windows and the doors, it was positively windy. Honestly, I have to get pretty nit-picky to complain about it. If we ever do this trip again we’ll for sure try to stay here, and I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone.
  • We took the Paris Metro everywhere; in fact, Will and I took a taxi to the airport and we all took a taxi back to the airport when we left, and that was it. The metro system was very easy and reminded me a lot of getting around DC. Though if I go to Paris again anytime soon, I would probably try out the bus system. I hear that too is pretty easy, and it has the added advantage of having a view.
  • One of my main fears concerns about the trip was my complete ignorance of French. You’ve heard the stories before about this, about the French peoples’ ‘tude regarding people who don’t speak French, etc., etc. This wasn’t an issue. The scariest lack of French problem was in the taxi from the apartment because the driver got lost, but with my iPhone (thanks, Google maps!) and some pointing, it all worked out. Everyone else we dealt with spoke at least some English, some quite a bit.
  • I was also worried about the famous French/Parisian rudeness. Also not a problem. Oh sure, wait staff doesn’t hover or try to form a “personal relationship” like the do in the U.S. (as in “Hi!! how you doin’?!?! Welcome to T.G.I.Fridays where we believe in a fun and happy time! My name is Staci and I am so happy to be waiting on you! Can I interest you in any of our fantastic deep fried appetizers?!?”) But our politeness and patience was always warmly returned. I think the best way to avoid the problems of the language barrier and rudeness is don’t be an asshole American and all will be well. And for what it’s worth, we did see a few groups of asshole Americans.
  • In many ways, Paris reminded me of New York and Washington, D.C.: a diverse and international population, very touristy, and lots of monuments and museums. Also a surprising (to me) number of beggars and street people of various sorts, and a lot of graffiti. There were lots of warnings about pickpockets, but I didn’t see anything that made me worried. I’ve been a lot more concerned about my safety at times in Detroit or Chicago. About the same costs for meals, not counting some of the more specifically French efforts at sticking it to the tourists– a lot of places charged for tap water, for example.
  • Needless to say, we saw many of the usual sites.  We went to the Eiffel Tower, though we don’t go up it because waiting in line for several hours for a view not as good as the one we had from climbing to the top of Sacre-Coeur didn’t seem like a good idea. We of course went to the Louvre, which is quite impressive indeed. Of course we kind of saw the Mona Lisa, but given the crowds and the way it’s displayed, it would not surprise me at all if it turned out that what we saw was a duplicate. No way as impressive as Dave in Florence. We toured Notre Dame, took a Seine Cruise, went to Versailles (which I liked better than Annette and Will, though I would agree that there was better stuff we did), the Orsay (probably my favorite in terms of the kind of art I like), and the Pompidou (which had some art that was quite cool and some art that was quite silly). I think our favorite museum was the Rodin Museum because it wasn’t crowded and it had lovely grounds.
  • And we ate and ate and ate and ate and ate and ate. We ate at one fancy restaurant and one really good bistro recommended by Clayton, but for the most part, we just ate at cafes and bistros that were all quite good. Every morning, I went out for baguette and croissant that were always fantastic. I feel a little withdrawal this morning. Being a vegetarian in France would be challenging and I think vegans would starve.

Speaking of all that eating, it is now time for the gym and a return to reality.

WIDE-EMU 2012: A Few Misc. Thoughts

WIDE-EMU 2012 (or is it WIDE-EMU 2?) happened Saturday at Michigan State and it all seemed to go off without a hitch, more or less.  There might be more later, but I thought I’d  write a down a few thoughts before I forget now.

  • This is the second version of the conference we ran successfully last year at EMU, and for me, I guess there are two related reasons why I think what we’re doing is important and valuable. First, there are not enough small, local, and low-stakes kind of conferences happening in the field, at least not in Michigan. I had a couple of folks from smaller colleges come up to me today and thank me (well, me and Derek and Bill too, of course) for doing this. Second, the WIDE-EMU is a “proof of concept” of the idea that if a conference remains small, if you can get a free space (in this case, classroom space at MSU), if most of the amenities (e.g., food, printed programs, other swag) are cut out, and if everyone embraces a little DIY spirit, and if you use tools like Google Sites and a few “borrowed” photocopies in the department– if you can do all that, then it’s really not that hard to run this kind of conference for free. And increasingly, I’m interested in conferences like this one: small and inexpensive.
  • My conference day started out helping people get started, registered, name-tagged, etc. I actually forgot a name tag, which is kind of bad since I’m one of the people who has preached the “bring your own name tag” message loudest. Anyway, after things got going, I wandered around and stuck my head in a couple of different sessions and I ended up staying for Becky Morrison’s and James Davis’ make/talk, which had become a sort of “let’s chat about our topic” since there were only four of us. I thought it was a great conversation.
  • Next, I went to Karl Stolley’s workshop on github– here’s a link to the materials.The good thing about it was I kind of feel like I want to learn something more about github (which is basically a place to share versions of open source code in a way that controls versions of that code) for all kinds of reasons and Karl knows plenty about it. The bad thing is/was I spent like 45 minutes trying install the necessary software and tools only to find that my stupid EMU computer is set up in such a way that I don’t have control to the root directory. (Note to self: erase EMU computer and start over on my own as soon as I have time).
  • Bill HD and Karl had had a little Twitter argument earlier in the week over the role coding should have amongst rhetoric/writing people; Karl obviously thinks “yes” and Bill had a blog post here more or less arguing “no,” or perhaps more accurately, “not so much.” I think both of them are right and wrong in that I don’t have the time/expertise/inclination to spend as much time with coding things as Karl would; on the other hand, I also don’t have programmers handy the way Bill does, so I have to do a little DIY if I’m going to get anything done. Besides, I think learning a little code– or even learning about code– goes a long way.
  • Anyway, after that was Bump Halbritter’s plenary talk “Teaching/Learning/Knowing Writing as Symbolic Action,” which was pretty good. I recorded it with my EMU’s new video camera and I’m trying to get it ready for YouTube on my other computer as I type this, so it should be available soon. Hopefully it turned out decent. His talk was largely about his forthcoming book, Mics, Cameras, Symbolic Action: Audio-Visual Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, which I’m looking forward to reading for my own multimedia writing classes.
  • Lunch was kind of a bust: the original plan was to get everyone to go to this food court area that was supposed to have a variety of options, but the only thing open was a very busy Subway. So there was more dispersal to different parts than I would personally have preferred. Bill and Derek and I ended up going back to the conference building and ordering Jimmy Johns, keeping Derek’s streak alive.
  • I went to an afternoon session on “Robots” lead by Bill and Mike McLeod. It mainly focused on a neat little tool called If This Then That and other stuff involving APIs. Again, I go back to coding versus not coding: on the one hand, some of this stuff is too difficult for me to wrap my head around, as I wrote about here in foolishly trying to teach HTML5 coding last winter. I feel like a lot of the programming/coding required to do cool Web 2.0+ things are beyond my level of expertise. On the other hand, I am constantly reminded that a little coding and experimentation goes a long way, and it is better to know something about these kinds of things than it is to know nothing.
  • I shared my session with Geoff Carter, who introduced an interesting assignment in interrogating/considering videos in writing courses and Michael Salvo, who kinda summed up the conference and Geoff’s and my presentation.

Here’s a video recording of my talk:

I think it turned out okay; it occurs to me now that this is the first quasi-scholarly presentation/thing about MOOCs I’ve done that I can legitimately put on my CV since I jumped on that MOOC wagon earlier in the summer. I am certain there will be more of that soon.

  • Then it was on to the #beerrhetorics, which was a chance to relax, eat, drink, and talk to good friends/colleagues from around the midwest who came into town for this year’s festivities. Good times, and I was the proud program coordinator/mentor as a number of folks spoke highly of the EMU grad students who presented this year. Well done!

Assuming I can get the movie of Bump’s talk to work (and I just got an error trying to import it– oh-oh), I’ll be posting that soon too.

So that’s about it. About this time last week, I remember thinking (and maybe even saying to Derek) I don’t see any reason to do this again, it’s a lot of work, I’ve got so many other things to do, blah-blah-blah, etc. And now after just wrapping it up, I’m already thinking about what we could do the same or differently when we do this next year. So the WIDE-EMU just might be rising again in 2013.


On Harry Potter-land

A picture of Annette taking a pictueLet me first begin with a couple of disclaimers and/or other contextualizing moves regarding my relationship to the whole Harry Potter thing and also to theme parks generally. I like Harry Potter just fine.  I read the first three books, enjoyed them– thoroughly enjoyed the third one– but then I got bogged down in the fourth book and just stuck to the movies after that, some of which make more sense to me than others.  As for theme parks:  it’s complicated, but while I am okay with your typical shopping, shows, and some theme park rides (including motion-oriented ones), I do not enjoy roller coasters one little bit and would generally prefer to do something else.

On the other hand, I am married to a woman who developed a very popular course at EMU on Harry Potter, who has done scholarship on it, and who was even quoted in an eOnline story about the series. And while our son Will hasn’t gotten around to reading them yet, he too is a big ol’ fan of them, having had the books read to him by Annette when he was much younger.  And she is also a fan of roller coasters and he is trying to be more of a fan of them.  So given this, it was just a matter of time before we were going to be visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando on a holiday trip to the in-laws.

Here’s a link to the flickr set of pictures of the trip, most of which was to Harry Potter-land.  A few scattered thoughts about it all:

  • This is one of the “lands” in the large Universal Studios complex of “lands” that included The Simpsons-oriented “Krustyland” (fun ride, btw), a sort of Americana-land, New York-land, Hollywood-land, Marvel comics-land featuring the also fun Spiderman ride and the “no way I’m getting on that thing” Incredible Hulk roller coaster, etc.  So a lot to offer, but it was very clear where everyone was going.  We arrived at the park by 8:30 am and the line for the big HP ride was already 135 minutes long.  So we decided to take in the other things first– Jurassic Park-land, for example.  It was all a ghost town compared to Potterville.  And the rest of Universal was fun and all, but not worth it without Harry Potter.  I have to wonder why a) Warner Brothers didn’t build their own HP-themed park, and b) why Disney didn’t try to get in on that action.
  • In summary, the “Wizarding World” is a very convincing set of the town of Hogsmeade with Zonko’s and Honeydukes (“jokes” and candy, all one big store), the cafeteria-style “inn” of The Three Broomsticks, the wand shop (too much of a mob scene to even contemplate going into), a small and a large roller coaster (Will and Annette rode the smaller one), and the big enchilada, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” aka the Hogwarts ride, aka the castle.  Honestly, if it weren’t for all the damn tourists and palm trees in the distance, you’d think they’d done some of the filming there.
  • Like I said, I like Harry Potter things (and I might get back to the other books after this), but I’m not a fanatic. But I have to say one the coolest things about this place was seeing the hardcore fans interacting with it all. There were a number of kids in Hogwarts robes, for example.
  • Among the many features catering specifically to the HP fan was “butter beer,” which was available “regular” or “frozen” (like margaritas) and which sort of tasted like a super-sweet cream soda with hints of butterscotch.  They also had real beer and pretty decent food– actually, I was surprised all-around at the less than crappy food, though maybe my expectations had been pretty low.
  • As for the big ride itself:  first off, the wait was not nearly as long as advertised out front– more like an hour or 75 minutes rather than two.  Without giving anything away, it is essentially a “motion ride” with some real motion thrown in.  You’re strapped into these seats that move around in many different tilting directions to give you real motion and you watch simulated motion being projected around you. For me after the ride, there was very much a sense of “I don’t really know how they did that.”  It’s pretty intense, but not roller coaster unpleasant, and I enjoyed it, though I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been worried that my keys had fallen out of my pockets during one of the many twists and turns.
  • In a way, the wait wasn’t long enough because they take you through a series of rooms in the “castle” that show lots of very cool Harry Potter geeky things and I kind of felt like we were being rushed by them in the name of getting on the damn ride.  Oh, and it empties out into what is one of the most claustrophobic gift shops I’ve ever been in, albeit one that sells lots of neat HP geekware.
  • So definitely thumbs up.  If I were to do this again (and if they make expansions to the attraction, I assume there will be a next time), I’d do it all in one day instead of two, and I’d do whatever I could to not go right after Christmas, the busiest week of the year for these places.  The crowd got pretty intense a couple of times, but I suppose this is going to stay pretty popular and crowded for years to come.


Professors, time management, and summering

There’s some trouble brewing in Texas about how faculty are spending their time in their cushy jobs, as this Chronicle of Higher Education piece explains, “Efforts to Measure Faculty Workload Don’t Add Up.”  It’s behind the firewall, but basically, it rehashes a lot of the problems that have been around for years about measuring faculty work time.  This discussion is also covered a bit in “Texas Coalitions Spar Over Scholars’ Time, Research, Pay.” And basically, critics of the Texas system are saying that faculty don’t teach enough, don’t work with enough students, don’t work enough in general, etc.

People who don’t really know what the job is about tend to think that a professor who teaches three classes a term basically works about 15 hours a week:  those classes plus office hours, and that’s about it.  The problem is that the people who don’t now better also tend to be the people who ultimately control budgets:  regents, legislators, voters, etc.  Professors, of course, dispute this, arguing that no-no-no, they work more like 100 hours a week because working as a professor is much MUCH more than teaching classes.  A lot of this is reflected in the “What I Do With My Time: Pamela S. Gossin,” which is a diary of her work in the course of a week at the University of Texas at Dallas.

I’m not going to go into great detail explaining why this notion of “lazy professors” is wrong because a) if you are reading my blog on a regular basis, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve read that here before, b) there are a lot of other places to read about this in more thoughtful ways, and c) anything I say here as a professor will sound defensive anyway.  I have a “reverse ethos” problem.  I’ll just note that for the most part, I agree with the defenses that professor-types make about the amount of work they do, and, whenever I contemplate it, I am always surprised how much of my work really has nothing to do with teaching and even scholarship.  There’s a lot of paperwork shuffling and meetings and such in this job.

I think one of the biggest problems professors have is that we have a lot more in common with people who work out of their homes and/or who are “telecommuters” than people who work in normal white collar settings, even though we’re most visible to people when we are actually teaching and/or on campus.  This is different from K-12 teachers (who are generally at the school all day long, even when they aren’t teaching), and this does vary from university to university and even among faculty in my department.  I once applied for a job at a university where the administrator-type interviewing me said he expected all faculty to be on campus five days a week, and at least one of my colleagues actually uses his school office to work.  And with my department moving back into a newly remodeled building this fall, maybe working in the office will become an increasing trend.

The idea that most professors work outside of their classrooms, labs, and dingy university offices doesn’t register with the popular imagination and/or “as seen on TV” image of professors, and it is also out of sync with most student interactions with professors.  I will run into students in the “real world” once in a while, and it is always a little odd– particularly with undergraduates– when they spot me in a restaurant or on the street or wait on my in Target while I’m buying toilet paper.  It clearly doesn’t fit their assumptions about me (“I thought he only existed on campus”).

The other problem that lots of professors have– myself and Pamela Gossin included– is time management and/or the leaky borders between “work” and “life.”  Here’s a passage from Gossin’s diary:

7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Answered e-mail and coordinated summer research project, a digital-humanities project. Prepared for a forthcoming conference and read reports on a Texas bill that would allow concealed handguns on state-college campuses. Also read new information about the university’s retirement plan.

9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Watched a television special about John Muir for her class in nature writing: “I needed to watch it so I would know if their extra credit was valid.”

10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Sent e-mails and did more preparation for summer research. Made contact with a research assistant she hoped to hire.

Now, I totally relate, understand, and resemble this work schedule.  But part of the problem that I have (maybe Gossin has this problem too, maybe other academics out there can relate) is I am not good at limiting my email usage.  Not. At. All.  And every efficiency/productivity guide out there will tell you that if you want to get things done, you need to ration/limit the time spent on email.  As with most efficiency advice, this is perhaps a good intention rather than something that can realistically be put into practice, but still.

This diary also demonstrates the fuzzy definition of “work” in academia.  I get what Gossin is saying here about watching that John Muir show:  it is work, but my guess is that she might have watched it anyway.  There’s lots of reading, web surfing, writing (is this entry work?  maybe?) I do that is in that in-between space, which is not surprising because I like what I do.  But generally, people (especially Texas bean counters who want professors to account for all their time) define “work” as “something you would otherwise not be doing if it wasn’t for the job and/or the money.”  So I would bet that if some Texas efficiency wonk sat down with Gossin and looked at that entry about watching the show on John Muir, that wonk would say “that ain’t work.”  And that wonk would be kind of right, kind of wrong.

And then there is summer.  My extended family– who are all college graduates but who are also not academics– have learned by now that the best way to get an earful from either me or Annette is to say something about how it must be great to have so much “summer vacation.”   That’s not vacation, buster– that’s time for the work! the writing, the scholarship, the research, the clawing and fighting to get tenure and then promotion and then beyond– work work work work!

Well, I have a confession to make.  It really ain’t all that bad.

Oh sure, it is true for many academics that the space between winter and fall is time to write and research, and I have a couple of scholarly projects on the back of the stove right now.  While it is technically possible for faculty at EMU to completely check out (we’re on an 8 month contract here, more or less) for the entire spring and summer terms, realistically, there are still meetings, students to advise, paperwork to be done, etc.  And then there’s spring/summer teaching.  We can’t really afford to not teach at least one of the 7.5 week terms (the pay is essentially overtime), so that’s obviously work.

But even with all of that, I can’t really complain.  We’ll be doing some traveling soon, I finished today (while procrastinating and writing this post) my painting work on the back part of the house, I play a little golf, etc.  There is time off, and in a few years– when Will is through Greenhills and onto college (it’ll be sooner than we think)– I am sure that Annette and I will take advantage of all four of those months.

Though oddly, I get antsy for work.  I’ll probably spending some time planning one of my classes for the fall after I post this….

#cccc11 recap

This is kind of scattered because I started it over a cup of coffee Monday morning and finished it Wednesday morning before meeting meeting meeting/grading grading grading.  I’m super DUPER busy with wrapping up the winter term.  The last day of classes was yesterday, and I’ve got at least four stacks of things I need to/want to assign grades to by the end of the day a week ago.  I know.

But before I get to more detail than you want to know, I thought I’d make four general comments:

  • Partly in response to Derek and Alex and Kyle and I am sure others:  I’m not particularly grumpy about the quality (or not) of the panels or anything else at this year’s conference.  Yeah, the hotel was too expensive, but that’s why I didn’t stay at the conference hotel.  Yeah, there was no decent wifi and I think that should indeed be addressed, but most major conference hotels have the same problem and I always plan ahead and assume I won’t have decent wifi anyway.  Yeah, I kept running into the same people, but I kind of like that and I always have the odd experience of running into the same people at a particular year of the CCCC and not others– for example, last year I ran into Brian McNely everywhere, but this year, I didn’t see him once.  Etc., etc. I think I preferred the Louisville location to Atlanta for a variety of reasons (though I had a lot of fun in Georgia), but Atlanta was a lot more reasonably priced than New York or San Francisco.  And I don’t want to be too critical because….
  • … I don’t want to get involved.  While I do have some complaints about how the CCCC and the NCTE do business in all sorts of ways (its conferences and a lack of willingness to offer alternative formatted presentations like poster sessions, its publications and its confusion about the paperless publishing world, its view of what an organization is and how it ought to fund itself, its dumb as a bag of rocks view of anything resembling the internets, etc., etc.), I feel like I more or less give up my right to complain too loudly when I am unwilling to do anything about it by getting involved in the organizations’ governance.  I’m not willing to run for the Executive Committee of the CCCC or anything else involving the NCTE.  I thought about it at one point, but it just isn’t the sort of administrative/service work that interests me– at least not now.  So if I’m not willing to pitch and and “make a difference,” so to speak, then I can’t complain too much about the people who are willing to do that.
  • I don’t know if the conference has changed that much or not, but I know I’ve changed.  The first CCCC I went to was (I think?) in 1995, and I attended and presented at the conference pretty consistently through about 2005 or so.  When I was a graduate student and first starting my career down the tenure-track, listening to what people had to say at the CCCC was part of my education and presenting at the conference was real scholarship.  But this year wasn’t my first rodeo, and I’m all tenured/promoted -out.  I still learn some things from panels; but mostly, it’s variations on things I’ve heard before, simply by virtue of the fact that I’ve been around long enough to have heard a lot of stuff before.  I still propose to the CCCC so I can get on the program (and thus some funding for the trip), but I need another CCCC presentation on my CV like another hole in the head.  So sure, the conference isn’t as “new” and as “exciting” as it once was; but neither am I.
  • Having said that, I do think there’s more that the CCCC could do to reorganize itself (more like– dare I say it?– MLA by having subject areas organize panels instead of assuming that we’re all there to talk about freshman comp in some variety; have a wider variety of presentation-types; have published proceedings; etc.); and, in an era in which I can communicate with like-minded scholars all over the world via email and the blogosphere and I can publish a media-rich version of my presentation for free, I think the fundamental purpose of the “academic conference” has to be questioned.  Why do we spend the time and resources to do this anymore?  The answer to me is not panels; it’s being in meet/meat -space with other scholars in the field.

The biggest thing I get out of the CCCC at this point is the incidental contact.  So, along with the actual and direct activities, here’s more or less the order of things as I remember it:

Continue reading “#cccc11 recap”