Here’s what I think grades mean; what do you think?

I’m preparing syllabi for the fall term (we don’t start until after Labor Day, happily), and I’m mulling over including the section after the break, “What do grades mean?” This isn’t coming from any specific exigence– not even my less than great course evaluations– so much as it is coming from what I guess I feel like an increasing need on my part to be as transparent as possible to my students about various things.

Most of this text is based on stuff I have sometimes included on syllabi for first year writing, the place where I’ve seen the greatest discrepancy between what does and doesn’t constitute a certain grade. I think a lot of this text is plagiarised borrowed from several other places. And I should point out that I’m not convinced that including this language will make a whole lot of difference in terms of students complaining (or not) about their grades. But it’s a try.

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What I Learned from My Crappy Student Evaluations

My teaching evaluations for this past winter (what everyone else calls spring) semester came in, and man, they were pretty bad, some of the worst (maybe the worst?) of my career. At least the worst I can remember. Jeez.

It’s probably a bad idea for me to reflect too much on them this shortly after getting them, but it does prompt me to write a couple of things about these evaluations in particular and evaluations in general. Maybe for next time I get these kinds of evaluations, maybe for others out there who are looking through some student evaluations themselves.

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My own two body experiences from both sides of the search committee table

Kelly J. Baker has a two article series at Vitae on the “two-body problem”– that is, academic couples. Part one is here; part two is here. I think it’s smart stuff, and while I don’t agree with everything she says, I feel like I can relate both as half of an academic couple and as someone who has been on hiring committees trying to figure out the coupled status of applicants. Though my own two-body experiences have been a bit different.

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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.

Posted in Funny, Internet, Teaching, Writing | Leave a comment

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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Posted in Family, Family and Friends, Travel | 2 Comments

More MOOC than I can chew: three (or four?) summer courses

Both my summer teaching and my coordinator duties are wrapping up on June 26 or so, and then I am transitioning into– well, not work. Actual summer “vacation,” more or less. The last time I had an eight week or so break with no direct obligations to EMU– that is, I wasn’t teaching and I wasn’t doing quasi-administrative work– was Spring 2010. Even when we were in Paris last summer, I was still actually working and responsible for things. I was wrapping up an online class and emailing with folks about coordinator duties for the upcoming term (thankfully we had quite robust wifi in the Paris apartment).

Anyway, as part of this break and also as part of trying to ease back into my sabbatical project of sorts, I’ve signed up for some more MOOCs.   Continue reading

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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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Posted in Computers and Writing, Golf, Scholarship, Travel | 3 Comments

A Delicious Kale Salad Recipe

Yes, you read that right: I’m posting a recipe for a very delicious/vegan/low-fat kale recipe.  Why? Because I’ve made this a couple of times for different events (including a graduation party we went to last night) and people tend to ask for the recipe. That and I’m waiting for a YouTube movie to upload in the background, a video for a class I’m teaching right now.

So if you only come here for MOOC stuff, comp/rhet stuff, or my witty academic job market banter, move along. If you want to try a kick-ass kale salad recipe, read on.

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On the MLA Task Force about PhDs: Two Things On My Experiences

The MLA released a report today, “Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014).” The CHE reported about it here, “Ph.D. Programs Should Change but Not Shrink, MLA Says,” Inside Higher Ed here, “5-Year Plan,” Alex Reid blogged about it here, “MLA, doctoral education, and the benefits of hindsight,” there’s been lots of stuff on Facebook, Twitter, and I am sure more is coming.

I’ve blogged lots of stuff before about how the problems of academic employment for PhDs in the humanities are largely about supply and demand and I don’t think anything– including the steps this report recommends– is going to do anything about that anytime soon. Some of what the MLA report recommends– for example, alternative formats for dissertations, an emphasis on technology, and an emphasis on preparing PhD students to be teachers– seem a lot like what many (most?) students in composition and rhetoric are doing right now.

But I’m not going to go there now; instead, I want to focus on two aspects of the proposal based on my own experiences as a PhD student back in the mid-1990s.

First, the issue of time toward degree. I finished my undergraduate degree in four years, mainly because I never switched majors, I got a fair amount of credit from “CLEP” tests, and I went to summer school a couple of times. I finished my MFA in creative writing in two years because it was at the time a two year program (with two years of funding) and because I was kind of burnt out on going to school and I wanted to get out. I took a break (more on that in a bit) and then I finished my PhD program in three years because that was how much funding I was guaranteed, I settled on a dissertation topic in my first year, I took summer courses, I cut a lot of corners (“a done dissertation is a good dissertation” was my mantra), Annette and I didn’t have to worry about kids and the like, and because I worked my fucking ass off, pretty much every day/all day for three solid years. So, from freshman year to PhD hooding was nine years, with a three year break in-between.

Now, I will admit my experiences are probably not typical, but this speed is not the result of me being so brilliant. Far from it; ask anyone who knows me. Rather, I finished my BA in four years and my MFA in two years in part due to good timing and luck, and I finished my PhD in three years because I was determined and worked hard. Arguably, I might have been better off taking a fourth year to work on my dissertation, but I have no complaints given how everything is turned out.

Anyway, my point is this:  there is absolutely nothing the MLA as an organization or PhD programs can do to make students finish more quickly.  The sad truth is there are really only two reasons why students take too long to finish their PhDs. One is the job market in various fields is so shitty that there’s no point in finishing quickly– or for that matter, finishing at all. I don’t think the MLA report addresses this issue in any way.

The second reason is a little more abstract, but I saw it again and again as a PhD student and I see it now: a certain not insignificant percentage of students in PhD programs do not have the ability to “get it done” in any timeframe, not three years, not five years, not 100 years. Period. It’s not that these folks aren’t smart– that is usually the least of their problems; it’s just that they are incapable of sitting down and just finishing. Some folks have shitty and sabotaging advisors. Some are unreasonable perfectionists and feel like they need to read everything on their topic before they can begin to write. Some of these folks have some kind of mental block/depression/anxiety/illness/or other problem that essentially causes a breakdown. Some are just lazy, though that’s something they probably don’t see in themselves. The road to hell is paved with all kinds of ABD students trying to get one more chapter done.

In terms of the issue of “alt-ac” careers, as in “broaden career paths” and “validate diverse career outcomes:” this is silly.

I don’t teach in a PhD-granting program, but if I did and a potential student came to me and said “I’m thinking of getting a PhD in English so I can pursue a career in writing government grants or advocacy in the arts world or writing technical documentation or (insert non-academic job here),” I’d say “you are in the wrong program because the only reason you’d get this kind of degree is because you want to pursue an academic career, ideally as a professor.” At best, the alt-ac path for PhDs in English is a “plan B” for those who can’t get an academic job.

But beyond that, the vast majority of academics just don’t know anything about careers beyond academia. I had a “real” job once upon a time. Between 1990 and 1993, I did temp office work and I had a “real” white-collar job where my title was “public relations representative” but what I really did was more or less tech writing and desktop publishing. I haven’t had a job outside of academia in over 20 years, and as far as I can tell, my experience is unusual in that most of my colleagues have had zero employment experience outside of academia: that is, most of the folks I work with went from their undergraduate program to their graduate program with perhaps a few stops at service jobs along the way. They don’t know anything about the “alt-ac” track.

As Steve Newman said on Facebook, “Do we have any dependable data that the skills we teach in doctoral programs transfer to this variegated range of careers? If not, we had better see if there is any and if that doesn’t pan out then 98% of the tt faculty in English, myself included, need to take 3 year sabbaticals to acquire the knowledge and skills to train grad students properly for alt-ac. ” I don’t know Newman, but I think he’s spot-on. Ask a tenured or near-tenured professor about whatever it is that they specialize in and be prepared for a long long answer; ask this person about how to get a job of any sort outside of academia, prepare for a lot of silence.

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Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences

Lately, I’ve been reading/skimming some interesting higher ed news stories about academic freedom/academic free speech. A lot of my reading has been about the crazy stuff going on in Kansas and that state’s Board of Regents’ rules that try to rein in the use of social media by faculty and everyone else. The go-to place for news on this, IMO, is Philip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel.  For example:

But it’s not just Kansas, of course. Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman has a piece in Slate Free to Be a Jerk” where she applauds the court victory of Mike Adams, a UNC-Wilmington professor who argued successfully that he was denied promotion to full professor based on his views. A quote:

[…]Adams’ application for promotion to full professor in 2006 was allegedly denied on the basis of his public engagement. Despite my distaste for Adams’ dumb ideas about feminism, diversity, and homosexuality, I’m glad that Adams sued the university, and am delighted that last month he won, in an important ruling that (for now) preserves a vestige of academic freedom in this country.

For although I find his views as repugnant as many found the anti-NRA tweet of University of Kansas professor Don Guth (whose kerfuffle resulted in one of the most restrictive social-media policies in all of academia), Adams’ spirited public engagement should have helped, rather than hindered, his bid. There’s precious little academic freedom left (what with fewer than 10 percent of American professors currently enjoying tenure)—but it sure as hell should include the freedom to be a schmuck.

Then there’s the whole series of craziness at the University of Saskatchewan that (as I understand it– I haven’t been following this one that closely) came about when the Provost fired Professor and adminstrator-type Robert Buckingham and had security escort him off of campus because Buckingham spoke out against a reform/reorganization plan. That apparently backfired. Badly. As recapped in The StarPhoenix article “University of Saskatchewan president Ilene Busch-Vishniac fired,” Buckingham was rehired, the Provost “resigned” (it seems to be a classic “did he fall or was he pushed” scenario), and then, as the headline suggests, the president was sacked.

Of course I am all about academic freedom and academic free speech. Of course of course of course. Nel is completely right in all of his criticism of the Kansas Board of Regents and the ridiculousness of their policy. I don’t know enough of the details about the Adams case or the mess up in Canada, but of course I’m in support of the wronged and fired here, and by the way, I’m encouraged by the developments in North Carolina and Canada because it is evidence that academic freedom is winning out in the end. Hopefully that will be the result in Kansas as well.

That said, it seems to me there are a few things we need to remember about the reality of such thought police policies and the limits of free speech, even for academics.

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