Wanted: Assistant Professor, Rhetoric and Writing with an Emphasis in Technical Communication

I thought about combining this post with one about the job market in general and the differences between fields like composition and rhetoric and other fields in “the humanities” generally. And I just heard a story on NPR about the tough market for people with PhDs in the sciences for “postdocs” looking for tenure-track jobs I thought about reflecting on here. (Just to give it away a bit: academic careers for researchers are tough with all the cuts to funding, but the silver lining does appear to be work in the private sector for these folks).

But instead, I just want to pass along the ad and information about the search we have running in my program.  The ad itself is after the break; I’m not on the committee (anyone with questions about the position should contact Derek Mueller) and I am not speaking for EMU or anyone but myself. But I just wanted to share a couple thoughts about EMU and the area:

  • EMU is a great place to work. Oh sure, we have some of the funding problems of a lot of regional and MA granting kinds of institutions, but generally speaking, the finances and leadership have been pretty stable in recent years. The economy is improving in Michigan, so I’m crossing my fingers that some of that will trickle down from the state to higher education funding. EMU has a very strong faculty union, and I think that helps the working conditions a lot. This has some cons but the pros are pretty enormous in terms of setting the terms for work (both in terms of teaching load and what it takes to get tenure and promotion) and in terms of having a way to complain about problems. Let me put it this way: when I read about crazy things happening at other similar kinds of universities around the country– sudden increases in teaching load, “furloughs,” some sketchy hirings and firings, no way to grieve a problem, etc., etc.– I always think “that ain’t gonna happen at EMU.”
  • We’ve got great and interesting students. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and there are lots of education majors. But that’s been changing at EMU for a number of years, and increasingly, students come to EMU for all sorts of different programs, including our undergraduate and MA program in written communication. I would describe EMU as “opportunity granting” in that it isn’t as selective (or as expensive) as the University of Michigan or even Michigan State, but we’re not an “open admissions” university and everything we hear from admissions suggests we’re attracting students with higher high school GPAs and test scores. We’re kind of a commuter school and a returning student school, though there are a lot of traditional students living on campus too.
  • I’ve got fantastic colleagues. There are nine of us who are coming out of a “composition and rhetoric” sensibility in terms of training and teaching. That’s a big deal. My first job years and years ago at Southern Oregon University was a problem for a bunch of different reasons, but one of the biggest problems was I was “it” as far as the comp/rhet guy. There are a lot of jobs like that out there, and let me tell ya, that’s a lonely lonely space.
  • I also think this is a great opportunity because of where we are at with both our undergraduate and graduate program in writing. We have a well-established major and MA in writing, which means that whoever we hire isn’t going to have to invent the wheel. At the same time, we also are welcoming to new ideas and contributions in all kinds of different ways.
  • We’re right next to the University of Michigan– in fact, UM’s central campus is just over five miles away from EMU. The downside to this is that EMU is pretty much always overshadowed by “Big Blue.” When you’re at a party and you meet someone who is talking about working at “the university,” they don’t mean us. But the upsides are enormous. For example, faculty at EMU have the same borrowing privileges from the UM Library system as UM faculty (which reminds me I need to take some books back). And of course it’s really easy to partake in all of the various cultural, intellectual, and sporting things that come to the area because of Michigan.
  • It’s a great area to live, particularly Ann Arbor. Can’t sugar-coat the whole winter thing and last winter was the absolute worst. People I know who have lived here 40 years can’t remember it any colder. But besides the summers being great, it’s just a nice community. Ypsilanti has its pros and cons (I live in Ypsilanti, FWIW) as a kind of funky, artsy, blue-collar, rust-belt kind of place, less a “college town” than a small city on the outskirts of Detroit and the edges of Ann Arbor. For the travel-minded, we’re conveniently closer to the Detroit Metro airport than most of Detroit. And Ann Arbor itself is, in my view, great. It’s consistently voted one of the best places to live in America and one of the best college towns. Lots of great restaurants and shops and bars, a very vibrant downtown area, lots of festivals and events, great schools, not one but two Whole Foods, yadda, yadda, yadda. Given that a lot of universities and colleges are in the middle nowhere, I feel very lucky to be here.

Okay, enough from me. If you’re interested, check out the ad.

Continue reading “Wanted: Assistant Professor, Rhetoric and Writing with an Emphasis in Technical Communication”

What and why do students and faculty (and anyone else) want to and not want to write?

I read two different education media articles the other day that both spoke to me in oddly similar ways about the reasons for (or for not) writing. First there was from IHE, “What Students Write,” which is a sort of review/essay about Dan Melzer’s book, Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. The article is good and the book sounds great. The very short version (based on just the article) is that Melzer studied over 2100 different writing assignments across the curriculum at about 100 different institutions. Not surprisingly, most of the writing assignments teachers give are shitty, mostly an exercise for students to prove to the teacher that they can repeat back in a written text (an essay, an exam, etc.) what was in the lecture and/or reading.

Melzer calls this largest category of writing assignments “student to examiner;” I would more cheekily call it “parroting,” or “Polly wants a cracker” writing. Oh, and students better repeat what the teacher said correctly. Here’s a quote:

Short-answer and essay exams made up about one-fifth of assignments in the study. Melzer said in an interview that the testing scenario makes sense, given the constraints on professors’ time. Offering multiple opportunities for feedback in a non-test scenario takes a lot more work, he said. But such opportunities are critical to writing development and lead to better student outcomes.

“There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says.

In the other corner comes this from CHE, “Anatomy of a Serial-Plagiarism Charge” about Mustapha Marrouchi, who is a postcolonial lit professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. There’s more about the case in an article behind CHE’s firewall, but the gist is that Marrouchi has apparently been plagiarising to different degrees for decades, this despite the fact that he was enough of a “big shot” in the field to get hired away from a previously high-paid spot at Louisiana State to an even sweeter gig at UNLV. What the non-firewalled piece I’m linking to here does do is highlight a number of incidents that do look kind of fishy.

So, what do these two articles/incidents say about what it is that students and teachers write and read, what they want to write and read? A few thoughts:

I like to write and always have. Writing is one of the few things I am actually good at and I can recall being rewarded for my talent as far back as grade school. I like to read too, though like a lot of my students (especially the creative writing types), I like to write more.

I write and read every day, but I still have a hard time with “assigned” writing, meaning for me not assignments from a teacher (I’m not taking any classes) but writing I am supposed to be doing for some other reason. There are at least three projects I’m procrastinating on right now to write this post instead. The same goes with reading. There are a stack of academic books and novels I am supposed to be reading right now so I can be a better person and a good intellectual, not to mention to be prepared to teach in a couple of weeks. But I am more likely to be reading the links to things on Twitter or the listicles on Facebook about which Hollywood stars began their careers as strippers.

So I guess there are some ways in which these reports of lazy writing assignments and serial plagiarism are not that surprising to me. Like everyone else in my field, I try to develop writing assignments with a clear purpose and audience beyond just writing to me as the teacher and beyond just having students prove to me they did the reading and/or were otherwise paying attention. I do think it makes a difference. I think students learn more from such assignments, I find this writing a lot more pleasant to read and grade, and I think it helps students to not plagiarize. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I also think it’s true that there’s a difference between assigning writing and teaching writing.  So when professors give the sort of stupid assignments that Melzer is writing about in his book and with no actual teaching involved, it’s no wonder that those professors are disappointed and even angry about their students’ writing.  Garbage in, garbage out.

But good assignments aren’t a cure-all. Not everyone likes to write just to write, and students frequently don’t like to write and thus resist new assignments. I gave a talk back at the CCCCs in Louisville in 2010 (a talk I should probably assign myself to revisit and rewrite into a longer essay) about using the movie RiP! A Remix Manifesto as a topic and a guiding principle for teaching first year writing.  Among many other things, I said that while it is certainly more pedagogically effective and ethical to give writing assignments that are not parroting, many of my students ultimately reverted to writing five paragraph essays. When students do this, I think it is because it is the path of least resistance (it’s always easier doing something you’ve done rather than doing something you haven’t done before), but also because students don’t trust me. Perhaps for good reason. They’ve had years of previous school writing assignments where teachers obsessed over their repeating what the book/the teacher said and where they were dinged on the grade for grammar stuff. And the whole situation is by definition not “authentic” since it is writing assigned and tied to a grade. Students are “made” to do this– at least in the sense that it’s tied to requirements for a class and a grade. Even assignments that ask students to “self-reflect” on something on their own are still assigned.

Then there’s my cynical connection of assigned writing (bad assignments in particular) to Mustapha Marrouchi. I don’t know anything about him or his scholarly work beyond what I read in The Chronicle. But based on that reading, here’s a guy who has had quite the successful academic career by publishing convoluted literary and cultural theory liberally sprinkled with plagiarised and otherwise paraphrased quotes. He’s been doing this for years, and while he has apparently sort of/kind of been called on this before, he’s only just getting into serious trouble for this now. How did this happen and how did he get away with it that long? Is it possible that so few readers– academic or otherwise– read  Marrouchi’s work that no one really noticed it as a serious problem for more than 20 years? Did no one care?

And why did Marrouchi do this anyway? As the examples in that CHE piece make clear, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot for Marrouchi to cite his sources, to write “as Terry Eagleton put it” or whatever. Was he as a writer just too lazy to cite his sources? Was much of Marrouchi’s scholarship the equivalent of the five paragraph drudgery assigned to him by academia so that he could get another line on his CV? What’s going on here?

I guess this gets me back to the question about what and why does anyone write anything. But I don’t really know the answer to my questions, not even for myself as a writer.  All I can say is do the best that you can with writing assignments, hoping for the best but understanding the inherent limitations of the rhetorical situation that is Education generally. Make all writing as engaging and as new and as thoughtful as possible.  Don’t make students do dumb assignments just so they can do dumb assignments that get some grade. Don’t write dumb and/or plagiarized scholarship just so you can write scholarship.

When is it okay to make fun of grammar?

Remember Weird Al? Yeah, me neither. Well, no– that’s not true. Of course I “remember” Weird Al from lots of different parodies over the years, all the way back to “My Bologna” to “Like a Surgeon” to his latest releases that have come out this past week. It’s just that I don’t find myself thinking about Weird Al one way or the other– except when he pops up in the media once in a while, like now.

WA has a new album out and one his parody songs is called “Word Crimes:”

Sung to the tune of “Blurred Lines,” it’s a series common “grammar nerd” criticisms that are ridiculously picky (it is a parody, of course) and that rhyme in funny ways. As someone who appreciates word humor, I thought it was funny and I didn’t think much more about it. Ha ha.

And then the hating/backlash began.

There was Forrest Wickman’s Slate article,”Weird Al Is Tired of Your “Word Crimes” in New Video,” which goes into equally silly detail in out pet-peeving WA’s pet peeves. A more pointed critique came from Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty here, “Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” Video.” She is not amused:

Perhaps the most troubling thing for me is seeing teachers who say they are going to use this in class because kids will find it funny and it will make them care about grammar. The entire ending of the video is putting down people who have trouble writing. The video says it’s OK to call people who can’t spell morons, droolers, spastics, and mouth breathers. Really, you’re going to use an educational tool that tells your struggling kids that they’re stupid? It just blows my mind that any teacher would think that’s OK.

It’s also hard for me to separate my feelings about this video from my feelings about his 2010 grammar videos that reinforce simplistic ideas, such as one in which he goes off about signs that read drive slow being wrong. The problem is that slow can be used as something called a flat adverb. The sign isn’t wrong, but drive slow is one of those things that people who don’t bother looking things up love to rant about. Those videos were extremely popular, so I imagine at least a few people told him that he got it wrong, but his comments from the NPR video suggest to me that he didn’t take the time to listen to those people and figure it out—that he still thinks he was making those signs better. If, as he says, “correcting people’s grammar is kind of a big deal” for him, then with the kind of power he has, I expect him to get things right.

The bottom line is that I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.

In my Facebook world of comp/rhet folks, there seems to be a fair number of people in the Grammar Girl camp, finding WA’s song offensive– it’s not funny to make fun of people who can’t spell, it’s not funny to make fun of people who can’t write, we don’t need to be calling bad writers dumb, etc., etc., etc.

First off, I’m not going to “mansplain” anyone about the definition of parody. That’s a recipe for disaster. Though one fun fact: here’s the second link I found on Google searching for parody. That WA is everywhere right now.

But in a tradition that includes  a “modest proposal” to eat the children of the poor and more recently a runaway hit Broadway musical that skewers Mormonism with lots of filthy and hilarious songs, it seems kind of strange to me for people to get bent out of shape over “Word Crimes.” Even for a Weird Al video, this is pretty tame stuff.  Where were these people with arguably more offensive WA parodies like the racially charged “White and Nerdy” (fun fact– this video has Key and Peele in it!), or the food/fat-hating “Eat It” and “Fat?”

So, is it ever okay to parody and/or make fun of bad writing, grammar, and students? Are these even more off-limits than fatness, religion, and eating babies?

Don’t get me wrong– I don’t think it would be fair to make fun of/mock particular students in public, which is where sites like Shit My Students Write more or less crosses a line. There is at least the illusion that these are “real” quotes from “real” students– though I think that the realness here is debatable. Though some of the stuff on that site is pretty funny.

Of course I don’t think a prescriptive/pet peeve approach to grammar is write for teaching at any level and I’ve never done that. Of course it’s not useful to call students dumb or accuse them of committing “word crimes” or whatever. Of course.

But bad writing is funny and fair game for parody, and you know what? there are “word crimes” of various sorts. We see them every day in bad apostrophes or stupid exclamation points or “unnecessary” quotation “marks” or even passive aggressive notes.  My experience has been that these kinds of “word crimes” are ones that students at all levels recognize and they’re often actually an entry into a less picky discussion into what constitutes correctness and the rhetorical/persuasive impact of effective or ineffective grammar.

So lighten up, people. But don’t get me started on that bastard’s mocking of the Amish.

Don’t Panic and Bring a Towel

I’ve got at least two other blog posts in mind to write (not to mention lots of end of the semester/school year stuff), but I thought I’d try to write something this morning about Marc Bousquet’s CHE commentary “The Moral Panic In Literary Studies.”  To very briefly summarize: Bousquet notes a fairly long-standing and well-documented demand for folks with PhDs in comp/rhet relative to those with PhDs in literature and how “many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a ‘moral panic’ in defense of traditional literary studies.” Bousquet also goes on to praise composition and rhetoric generally as a field of study and one where its graduates are employable. A long quote:

That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.

Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication. Comp-rhet scholarship and teaching have revived English studies, not diminished it. Programs featuring advanced writing and digital-publication curricula have soaring enrollments, often rescuing undergraduate and graduate English programs from extinction. Over the border in South Carolina, Clemson University has an active, interdisciplinary, but English-studies-based graduate program in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Its job-placement record: 100 percent.

Aaron Barlow has a post here about this essay too, as does Alex Reid right here. I agree with both of them heartily and would encourage you to go to read them. A few brief additional thoughts:

  • I don’t know if I would necessarily use the word “panic” among my colleagues in literature at a place like EMU, an institution different than the “tier one” category of research/ivy league schools I think Bousquet has in mind. What I sense is more of a frustration with the general state of things.  The challenges a lot of my friends and colleagues in literature have is the call to “justify” themselves in terms of things like more hires and support. They tend to use the same kind of slippery commonplaces for saving “The Humanities.”  By the way, the machine generated twitter account “Save Humanities” is interesting reading in a similar context.
  • In contrast, comp/rhet as a field generally is better positioned to respond to these constant calls in higher education for justifying our existence, for accountability to “stakeholders” and taxpayers, for assessment data, etc., etc. The field has always worked at justifying its legitimacy– especially to the folks in literature who have tended to be higher up in the pecking order and who have traditionally thought of comp/rhet as a “lesser” field, one (in the words of Bousquet) that is populated with  “dullards not good enough to read poetry, … lowbrow opportunists, or—worse— … saintly philanthropists who ‘should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing.'”  What I think has happened is that the decades of explaining to colleagues why we weren’t all dullards or saints has served as good practice for making the case about the value of the field to to deans, provosts, and others who make decisions nowadays about things like faculty lines.

That’s not to say we’re all “winning.” Far from it. But if faculty lines are at least one indicator of perceived value and legitimacy within higher education, it’s hard not to agree with Bousquet’s basic point.

  • And this is not just about “young and emerging” scholars versus “the old guard,” in my opinion. I’ve seen plenty of younger/young-ish folks who are dismissive of the new and the digital and of comp/rhet and who long for the days when we could require Milton, and I’ve seen plenty of older/near retirement folks who are still seeking the bleeding edge and who talk about the digital work they’d be taking on if they were starting in the field now.
  • The rise and increased legitimacy of comp/rhet may indeed be “reviving English studies,” but simultaneously, it is leading to different institutional structures like free-standing writing departments.
  • It’s interesting for me to think about this recent Bousquet commentary relative to Ann Larson’s blog post/commentary “Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead.”  In Larson’s long and problematic essay ( I responded to in my post “Not Dead Yet”), Larson argues comp/rhet as a field is actually the problem because (among other things) it’s a field predicated on managing adjunct labor. One of the key thinkers she supports in her position is none other than the previous decade’s Bousquet:

The neoliberal transformation of the university into a corporation staffed by an increasingly precarious class of workers leads us to Marc Bousquet. In How The University Works, he argued that Composition as a discipline has had a particular role in processing under-employed degree holders, those he called the “actual shit of the system—being churned inexorably toward the outside.” Writing programs that employ low-wage teachers are often headed by directors with Composition credentials. In many departments, Compositionists help design and assess writing curricula that are then deployed by part-time teachers in the classroom. Thus, as Bousquet wrote, Composition’s intellectual work has helped to legitimate “the practice of deploying a revolving labor force of graduate employees and other contingent teachers to teach writing.”

Bousquet’s critique of Composition, which he first published in the early 2000s, inspired impassioned rebuttals from some who accused him of looking down on writing teachers and scholars from his perch as a cultural critic.  Joseph Harris wrote that Bousquet, like most faculty in English departments, treated Composition as the “instrumentalist Other of literature.” In JACPeggy O’Neil argued that Bousquet was letting tenured faculty in literary studies off the hook for their “ongoing prejudices against Composition” and that he had failed to recognize that “labor issues are intimately connected disciplinary concerns.”

Now, Bousquet’s critique from way back when (as I understand it at least) is also one that comes from within the field itself: after all, that essay that Larson cites was originally published in JAC and Bousquet is certainly not the first scholar in the field to discuss the labor problems with first year writing and the like.  I just have to wonder what he thought about being cited that way by Larson and what Larson thinks about this more recent commentary.

 

A few random thoughts on the VCU MFA reunion

"Borrowed" from Pam Gerhardt-- pamelagerhardt.com
“Borrowed” from Pam Gerhardt– pamelagerhardt.com

This coming weekend is the 30th anniversary reunion for Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program in creative writing. Originally, I thought I was going, but delays in information about the schedule of events, conflicting life events and obligations, and this pesky day job that makes getting to and from Richmond on a weekend in the middle of the term ultimately are all preventing it.

And actually as I think about it right now, that’s been the story of my life regarding reunions. I missed my 20th high school reunion because I was in Hawaii. I’m missing this one because of the above, but oddly and for unrelated reasons, I’ll be in New Orleans. Maybe I don’t actually like reunions but I am not willing to admit it. Maybe I want to lock the past in the past. There is something to be said for that.

I started in the MFA program in 1988 in large part because Greg Donovan, the director of the program then and I think the director of it now, called me up and offered me a graduate assistantship. I recall being rather coy and full of myself, saying something about mulling over other offers– which I had, sort of. I had been admitted to a couple of other programs but without funding. Greg said something like “Well, it’s not worth it to go into a lot of debt to get a degree in creative writing” and I was signed up.

At 22, I was the youngest person in the program at the time I was there– maybe up to that point. I always thought this gave me certain advantages because if I did something good, people would say “yes, and he’s only 22!” whereas if I did something bad, people would say “well, he’s only 22.”

I don’t want to romanticize it all now– there were a lot of “bad times” of various kinds and flavors, mostly of the sort that I think to happen to any 20-something graduate student living far from home– but I mostly hold on to the good. I think it says something that I’m on much better “Facebook-like” friend relations with people from my MFA program than I am with people from my PhD program. Oh, Annette and I still have some good friends from Bowling Green days, but the PhD was rather “intense” (to put it mildly) and didn’t exactly foster social bonds that well. I don’t like this word, but there was a lot more “camaraderie” in the MFA program, maybe because we were helping each other try to be artists, maybe because a short story or essay workshop class can seem a lot like group therapy. Maybe I feel that way now just because I was so much younger and way WAY more naive.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and when I get a chance to advise students now about whether or not to go into a creative writing program, I always say that it’s a great opportunity just as long as you realize that it doesn’t inherently translate into a job after you finish. You won’t find a lot of ads on Craigslist or Monster.com that say “MFA in fiction writing required,” with the exception of jobs actually teaching creative writing, and those positions are few and far between. What I got out of it was the luxury and privilege of being with a group of other people who all cared passionately about their writing. In a lot of ways, it didn’t even matter a whole lot if that writing was any good or not.

And who knows? I’m on sabbatical next winter (the story of that is another post I’m mulling over), and it might be time for me to take up foolish things again, things like making something up.

Get your copy of “Invasion of the MOOCs” Today!

book-cover-800 Well, it’s finally and officially here: Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, edited by me and Charlie Lowe, is out, available for sale and as a free PDF download. Parlor Press is selling the paperback for $30 and the hardback for $60, so if you download the free version and you like what you see and want to give Parlor Press publisher David Blakesley some props for supporting open access publishing and innovative methods for distributing scholarly discussions, go and buy a copy.

Oh, and if you do download it and/or buy it and like what you see, give us some positive feedback on amazon.com, too.

This has been an interesting process, to say the least.

A little less than a year ago, at the CCCCs in Las Vegas, when MOOCs were at their peak in the MSM and working their way into the conversation at the conferences (ATTW along with the CCCCs), I was chatting with Dave and Charlie at the Parlor Press booth in the CCCCs book area about the idea of this collection, and about trying to get something out rather quickly since MOOCs were (and are!) such a fast-moving target. Much longer story short, here’s this collection.

To put this together, we contacted folks who we knew were already doing interesting thinking and writing about MOOCs– mostly in comp/rhet, but a few folks beyond that tribe– and asked for relatively short essays, hopefully with an audience beyond fellow writing teachers in mind. Then we tried something that, to the best of my knowledge, was new. The traditional process for collections like this is proposals are solicited by editors (either the way we did it– asking people directly– or via a public call), the editors decide what to take on, writers write drafts, editors (sometimes reviewers, too) review and give suggestions, writers revise and editors edit, and then you have an edited collection. This can take a long time, obviously, and as a writer (and not previously an editor), I have found this sometimes frustrating because I didn’t necessarily know what was going on with not only my essay but my essay in relation to the others in the collection.

So partly as a way to save time and also as a way of fostering some interaction/ collaboration between contributors, Charlie and I divided everyone up into peer review groups– not a whole lot different than what’s commonly done in a first year writing class– and we asked everyone to work together to make these essays better. We did all this with shared Google docs, which meant that all the contributors could see the comments from others and could also see contributions beyond their peer group. I sort of “directed” things by commenting on all the drafts and sometimes pointing different folks to essays outside of their peer groups they might find interesting.  So in this process, writers revised after this peer review process, and then Charlie and I edited, etc.

I’m of course biased about this, but I think this worked fairly well. It wasn’t perfect for all kinds of different reasons obviously, but I felt like the original intention here of getting contributors more involved in the process worked. I don’t know if I’ll be doing an edited collection anytime again real soon, but if I do, I’ll certainly do something like this.

But now that it’s done, take a look!

Coming soon/by the CCCCs: Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses

I am happy to report that the book of essays that Charlie Lowe and I have been editing is that much closer to being out. It’s called Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, it’s being published by Parlor Press, and it ought to be available at the CCCCs.

This collection was imagined/conceived less than a year ago, at the CCCCs in Las Vegas, and I like to think it takes a slightly different take on MOOCs, at least different from what I’ve seen in the educational press, MSM, and the blogosphere. These are not essays from administrators, entrepreneurs, and/or pundits who have little to no experience teaching (online or elsewhere) and who haven’t been a student in any sense since their days as an undergraduate. Rather, the contributors here have all been involved in MOOCs as critical observers, students, and MOOC professors. This is not a collection of essays written squarely around the theme of “MOOCs will be the end of us all” or “MOOCs will be the grand savior of higher education. Rather, these essays examine, reflect, and (even though I kind of want to avoid this word) problematize the simple polemic of MOOCs.

It’s a fairly “comp/rhet”-centric collection since that’s the field/discipline that Charlie and I know, though we also have been able to draw some contributors from a few other fields as well. We were also lucky enough to have contributions from faculty who developed, taught, and otherwise oversaw some MOOCs in the last year or so: The E-Learning and Digital Cultures course from the University of Edinburgh, English Composition I: Achieving Expertise from Duke University, Writing II: Rhetorical Composing from Ohio State University, First-Year Composition 2.0 from Georgia Tech, and  Michigan State University’s Writing MOOC.

I’ve included the Table of Contents after the break:

Continue reading “Coming soon/by the CCCCs: Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among other things, a Latour MOOC?

Jeez, the blogging here has slowed down. I’ve been busy enough over at my hobby/community service blog, but the main reason I’ve been so slow in any blogging here I think has been kind swamped with things like the MOOC book collection of essays, an article I wrote about MOOCs that will hopefully be coming out soon, a proposal/roundtable for Computers and Writing, a sabbatical proposal, etc., etc., etc. Nutty busy time.

But I have kind of a stockpile of links about MOOCs and related topics here, so I thought I’d do a little blogging between other writing/grading/paperwork/laundry/etc.

Before the break, I’ve got to start with two upcoming MOOCs that I am certain I’m going to take. The first is one by Bruno Latour called Scientific Humanities. I shit you not. I would embed the video of Latour charmingly introducing the course here, but I can’t so go check it out on the site. The course starts January 20, 2014, runs until March 15, and it will be in English.  It looks like it will mostly be a series of lectures from Latour targeted at more of an “undergraduate” audience, but the syllabus of the course also promises Latour will be commenting on student blogs and “participation in public debates.” Go figure.

By the way, here’s a YouTube video from something called “LifeDailyNews” where the first four or so minutes is about French MOOCs offered through something called “FUN,” which stands for France Université Numérique. It pretty much sums but MOOCs generally– nothing really new, but in French (with a translation):

The other course I’m planning on taking is Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” Based on this Inside Higher Ed article, it looks like the goal is to mix this Coursera course up with some of the stuff going on with HASTAC and other folks at a bunch of other universities, and it looks like it’s going to be an academic “blockbuster” that will “question the rules” about higher education in broad and sweeping language. Or something like that. Here’s a quote from the Coursera course intro:

Welcome!  This course is designed for anyone concerned with the best ways of learning and thriving in the world we live in now.  It’s for students, teachers, professors, researchers, administrators, policy makers, business leaders, job counselors and recruiters, parents, and lifelong learners around the globe.  The full,  whimsical name of the class is: “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future.”  That subtitle is inspired by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who has said that “all education is vocational” in the sense that it is our job, as educators, to help train people for the vocation of leading better lives.

Are we fulfilling that educational objective, from kindergarten to professional school?  Or are we training students with the methods, philosophy, and metrics designed for the Fordist era of the Model T?  Since 1993, when scientists made the Internet widely available, our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture, and our entertainments have changed tremendously.  Far too little has changed inside our educational institutions, in the US and internationally, to prepare us for the demands, problems, restrictions, obstacles,  responsibilities, and possibilities of living in the world we inhabit outside of school.  This course addresses one key question:  How can we all, together, work to redesign higher education for our future… not for someone else’s past?

Like I said, I’m signing up and I’m curious about this both because of the connection to the history of “alternative” methods for delivering education, because of the connections to technology, and also because it’s a MOOC. But I have to say these two paragraphs sound pretty puffy to me. More links/thoughts after the break.

Continue reading “Among other things, a Latour MOOC?”

Commonplaces for “The End of the Humanities”

By commonplace, I am thinking in terms it as one of the progymnasmata, which (as Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee discuss it in various editions of Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students) were the structured exercises in classical rhetoric pedagogy. To quote Crowley (this is from the first edition) quoting Erasmus, here are some commonplaces that students would “amplify” or “elaborate” on as rhetorical exercise:

  • It matters what company you keep.
  • The safest course is to believe no one.
  • War is pleasant to those who have not experienced it.
  • The best provision for old age is learning.

This is a fuzzy definition for me; I’m not sure I see the difference between a commonplace, a cliché, and a genre marker, other than the connotations– that is, commonplaces and genre markers are more noble than clichés.  In any event, I’m using the term commonplace because on Facebook the other day, Daniel Smith pointed to the NYTimes op-ed “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” by Verlyn Klinkenborg with the comment “At what point does a commonplace become a genre?” And then, later that same day, via (I think?) John Walter, I came across Michael Bérubé on Facebook taking on a remarkably similar NYTimes op-ed “The Humanist Vocation” by David Brooks. So I thought it might be an interesting writing exercise to try to begin to tease out some of the key commonplaces/genre markers/clichés of the “End of the Humanities” piece.  I see it as a public service; it will make it easier for future writers to keep up with the demand for such pieces in the mainstream media.

So, what does it take to amplify and elaborate on the commonplace “The humanities are in decline”?   Here’s a list/comparison to get started:

Continue reading “Commonplaces for “The End of the Humanities””