What I did in the 2016-2017 academic year: a memo for Dean TBA

I was already planning on writing something to reflect on the 2016-17 academic year, and then two things happened. First, my department head (at the request of our interim dean) sent an email to all faculty suggesting that we individually write something up to let the new dean know what it is we’ve been up to for the past year. This request didn’t come with much context, and (as far as I know) the new dean has not yet been announced. Second, I just finished reading Julie Schumacher’s very funny and too accurate academic satire Dear Committee Members.  So this post is with a small and not as funny nod toward my department head’s/dean’s assignment and Schumacher’s book written in letters of recommendation.

From: Steven D. Krause, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

To: Dean “To Be Announced”

Re: Introducing Myself By Highlighting What I Did Last Year

Dear Dean TBA–

First, welcome to EMU (unless you are already here?)! Congratulations on your new position as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and may the gods have mercy on your soul.

My department head (really, our interim dean– who, pointedly, did not submit her own name for this position) asked faculty in the department to “showcase” accomplishments and activities from the past academic year, I suppose as a way of introduction. As I understand it, the goal is to “brag” about accomplishments and, simultaneously, demonstrate the ways in which we are worthy of resources. This strikes me as a challenge because a) if I highlight all that I accomplished without resources, then I am supporting the administration’s claim that faculty don’t require any additional resources, and b) given that you are at present only an unnamed potential, it’s difficult for me to address a specific audience. But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s take it chronologically:

On the plus-side of things, my scholarly work got off to a great start in September when I was once again invited to Naples, Italy for a conference about MOOCs held on the Isle of Capri. Goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago. In any event, I was honored to once again participate, I was able to represent for EMU, the conference helped fuel my own MOOC book project (which is under contract/underway right now), and it was a nice trip to Italy before classes got started.

In the not so good news for EMU, September also brought with it the beginning of an ugly incident of racist vandalism that continued to hang over the rest of the academic year. Students of color were (justifiably, of course) angered and frustrated, and the administration seemed at a loss to respond. Also in not such great news: my department had yet more meetings about the equivalency mess, which is a theme I’ll be returning to again and again here.

For much of October, I settled into more routine duties. In fall 2016, I taught an online version of “444: Writing for the World Wide Web” and a face-to-face version of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology,” two courses I’ve taught many times before. Both were good groups, though one thing I noticed in my section of 328 that I hadn’t seen much of previously is student interest in (dare I say demand for?) a grading “rubric” that spelled out in exacting terms exactly what was demanded of each writing assignment. When I told my students that I didn’t think a rubric was necessary or even advisable for an advanced writing course, they seemed perplexed, wondering aloud how it was even possible to have a writing assignment without points dedicated to explicit components. I am not much to complain about the “kids today” since I have been teaching long enough to know that the early 20 somethings of 1990 have a lot more in common with the early 20 somethings of 2016 than today’s students’ parents (who were the early 20 somethings of 1990) would care to admit. Still, this demand request for codified assessment at every turn seems to me to be the main legacy of “No Child Left Behind.”

I also settled into my duties as the associate director of the First Year Writing Program. (A slight tangent and in all seriousness: there is A LOT to say about the FYWP, Dean TBA, both in terms of bragging and in terms of demonstrating the need for ongoing support. But since I am transitioning out of that role this year, I’ll leave that work to others.) As the Ass. WPA, most of my work was duties as assigned, though I did launch a large survey of students in the program for the purposes of assessment (the details of the results will come later in May or June or when I get to it, though generally speaking, students do report that they think they learned a lot in our first year writing course, and that has to count for something), and I did a lot of classroom evaluations of graduate assistants. I do have a funny story from one of those observations. I had the chance to sit in on one GA’s class that began at 8 AM– one of our better GAs too. Students shuffled in and were in place by 8. Five minutes passed and no GA; students chatted and seemed a little surprised. More time passed; I asked “is so and so often late like this?” “No, never” the class responded. More time passed and I finally called so and so and, it turns out, woke so and so up. So and so was mortified. But again, this is all something to laugh about now. I came back to visit so and so’s class later, it was great, and so and so is still one of our best and brightest. And now, so and so owns a couple of alarm clocks.

And of course, I did lots of paperwork tied to the ongoing equivalency nonsense inflicted upon us by both the EMU-AAUP and the administration. Among other things, this work included writing and rewriting documents in an effort to prove to the powers that be that our courses in written communication are indeed “Writing Intensive” and attending marathon department meetings where we tried to work out the various ways equivalencies could work for all.

At least some of my time in November was spent “campaigning” (well, blogging about at least) why faculty ought to vote out the leadership of the EMU-AAUP. Dean TBA, this might not seem like official “work” or even something to “brag” about, especially if you are not from the inside at EMU. But believe me, this was a significant accomplishment. The new leadership of the union has made some stumbles, sure, but at least it’s not the jerks who were in charge. The racial vandalism problems continued— again, maybe not exactly the sort of “accomplishment” or “brag” I’m supposed to be highlighting, but something that certainly helped fuel the poor morale on campus. And the equivalency drama continued as the outgoing leadership of the EMU-AAUP and the administration agreed to end discussion about the equivalencies, even though faculty had been explicitly told that we’d have until April to sort things out and/or make our case for additional class activities that would make our classes count as “four.”

And of course there was an unfortunate presidential election.

In December 2016, I relaunched a slightly new version of the blog I ran for the EMU community for many years, now renamed EMYoutalk.org. It hasn’t been quite as busy or important a community-building tool– at least not yet. But it gives a place for people to talk about EMU things who don’t want to do so on the EMUTalk Facebook group.

Winter 2017 (Dean TBA, we don’t have “spring semester” here at EMU; it’s winter, because it really is winter well into March in Southeast Michigan) began with lots of activity. Teaching-wise, I taught another section of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology” (this time online) and a face-to-face section of “354: Critical Digital Literacies.” 354 made at the absolute last minute– I was literally emailing my department head over Christmas break to find out if I should prepare to teach the class or not– and it turned out to be an interesting class with a very chummy and small group of students. Among other things, they developed their own regular rotation for who brings snacks.

Also in January: I was busy as a committee member for a search we were conducting for someone to (more or less) replace me as the Ass. WPA (we were able to make an offer to our top candidate, too!), busy writing up the documentation for my “salary adjustment” promotion (to the mythical rank of über-Professor or fuller-Professor), the reward ultimately being a pretty decent raise come Fall 2017.

And again, the equivalency nonsense continued, though much of the time spent in the Winter 2017 amounted to asking about the status of paperwork we thought we had completed months ago and also to asking various administrators to explain how it was they were planning on adding threes and fours together and get to twelve.

I will admit that during much of February 2017, I was immersed in depression and outrage at the turn in our national politics and the rise of Michigan’s own Besty “Grizzly Bear” DeVos as the US Secretary of Education. I do believe though that’s when I did the wrapping up/finishing touches on a chapter I have forthcoming in a collection edited by Liz Losh called MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education that’s been in the works for a while (it will come out in August 2017). And I’m sure we had some kind of mind-numbing meeting about what to do about course equivalencies.

The main highlight of March was the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting (this year in Portland, Oregon), which meant I missed that month’s department meeting in which faculty discussed once again what we could not possibly know because of the many unknowns of the course equivalencies that are going to be forced upon us. In theory.

Really, March was just a bridge to the cruelest month in academia, April. So much always happens then, and this year was no different. There were the celebrations (including the last Celebration of Student Writing I am likely to have much of an organizational hand in [and since most of the logistics were handled by the very able Joe Montgomery and Laura Kovick, I didn’t have to do much]), the wrapping up of grades, the last minute and impossible administrative requests, and one of the craziest last of the year department meetings I’ve attended in my 18 years at EMU (perhaps it is best to leave out the details).

But to end on two positive notes. First, I’m not teaching this summer, which means, Dean TBA, I hope you forgive me if I don’t get back to you on your feedback on this report until August or September. Second, I was awarded a Faculty Research Fellowship for fall 2017. It does raise questions and complexities about my duties as coordinator since the equivalency mess (have I mentioned the equivalencies issue yet?) does not clarify things like “reassigned time” to do quasi-administrative work. As I have said to my colleagues and my department head, we will “muddle through” for Fall 2017 and beyond, though if the equivalency stuff doesn’t get sorted out soon, our department head is going to have to take on a lot of the details handled by the many folks in our department currently on some kind of reassigned time. But I am looking forward to more concentrated time to spend on finishing my book about MOOCs before too many people forget that MOOCs were a “thing.”

There you have it, much more detail than you could possibly imagine, Dean TBA. In Dickensian terms, the 2016-2017 school year was the best of times, the worst of times: good students as always and lots of other pleasures, but quite frankly, I think morale remains low thanks to unsolved (and swept away) problems of racist incidents on campus and the unsolvable mystery of how the equivalencies will change the way things work at EMU– if they change things at all or even go into effect. What “interesting times” to come into your position!

Again, best of luck with/I’m sorry about your new Deandom.

Yours,

Steven D. Krause

Professor of far too many details about what happened last year.

Posted in Academia, EMU, Scholarship, Teaching | Leave a comment

That horrible and strange article about writing by John G. Maguire

I have some time on my hands right now. I am completely done with the 2016-17 school year, I am not teaching this summer (and thus not contractually obligated to do much of anything until late August), I won’t be teaching this fall because of a research fellowship, I’m trying to work on finishing a book about MOOCs, and, just to top it all off, I am currently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and thus don’t really have that much to do). So I have some things I can/want to write about right now. But I’ll start with this really horrible and strange article about writing instruction from The Washington Post.

“Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help” is a post/article from WaPo’s “Answer Sheet,” which is essentially their education “beat” page. The byline is Valerie Strauss, but it’s really a post by John G. Maguire, who describes himself as a “man obsessed with clear writing” who has been teaching writing in one form or another at a bunch of different places over the years. He has no training or scholarship in writing pedagogy, and, as far as I can tell from his resume, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor. Maguire is the author of a textbook called “College Writing Guide” and a champion of a method he seems to believe he invented called “Readable Writing.”

Frankly, there is not really much of anything in Maguire’s article that is accurate. There’s the uncritical citation of the book Academically Adrift, a study with some clear methodological shortcomings; there’s the claim that first year writing courses are about all matter of things but not writing sentences. There’s a quote from someone named Phillip Mink about how the college writing profession has stopped teaching style, which comes as a bit of surprise to me since I’ve been teaching a class specifically about style (albeit at the 300 level) for going on 20 years now at EMU. There’s this unsupported claim that students don’t know how to write sentences, and so the solution to making first year students into “readable writers” is to teach them how to write sentences, presumably at the expense of everything else.

As a slight tangent: I’ve been teaching writing and/or writing for a long time now, and I think when people (like this guy, like professors in other departments, etc.) say “students can’t write good sentences or good paragraphs,” that’s not quite what they mean.  By the time they get to college, the vast majority of students can indeed write grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, though not necessarily particularly “good” sentences and paragraphs. So when people like Maguire or whoever say “students can’t write,” I think we need to parse that out and ask for some more details.

Anyway, there’s a lot of appropriate outrage and frustration on Facebook, on the WPA mailing list, probably on some blogs, etc., and also in the comments on the article itself. I’ll just add three other things to the discussion:

  • It is incredibly annoying that Main Stream Media routinely runs these sorts of pieces written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, Maguire has taught writing for a long time, and expertise in teaching writing is a bit more fuzzy than expertise in something like cancer research. Still, would it really be that hard for WaPo and similar publications to stop and think about the qualifications of someone like Maguire to speak in such sweeping terms about teaching writing? And can you imagine a newspaper publishing a thought piece on the shitty state of journalism written by someone without any demonstrable expertise in journalism (other than reading it?)
  • At the end of the day, what Maguire is really trying to do here is sell his textbook. So really, what the WaPo did for him is run an advertisement in the form of an op-ed piece. I hope they charged Maguire appropriately.
  • In earlier drafts of my failed textbook project The Process of Research Writing, I actually made reference to The Karate Kid for reasons similar to Maguire. I think a good way to teach lots of things (like research writing) is to try to break it down into smaller parts, exercises to be practiced before attempting to do the whole thing at once. This is what textbooks generally do, but my references to The Karate Kid fell flat because (surprise, surprise!) students nowadays don’t necessarily know a movie that was made 15 or more years before they were born.
Posted in Academia, Scholarship, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 3 Comments

Bruni should visit and write about the other 99%

There have been a number of articles/commentaries lately about the delicate and precious and “PC” state of today’s college students, mostly written by people who haven’t spent time on a college campus since they graduated 20 or 30 or more years ago. For the most part, these critiques haven’t phased me much, in part because one of the historic constants in critiques about education is the terrible state of “today’s students,” whether that “today” is in 2017, 1917, or 517 BC. As an aside and a nice round-up column that refutes many of these critiques, I’ll refer you to John Warner’s “On Political Correctness as the New Campus ‘Religion'” in Inside Higher Ed. Spoiler alert: Warner is spot-on when he points out that “Political Correctness” is not the “religion” on “today’s” (and yesterday’s) college campuses; rather, it’s sports.

But for some reason, I found this piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” particularly irritating.

Bruni is ostensibly writing about a protest that got out of hand at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, author of the book The Bell Curve and a racist the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white nationalist,” came to campus to have a “debate.” I’m not going to rehash the specifics of that event because those accounts are easily found elsewhere by Googling “Charles Murray Middlebury” and in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with Bruni: campuses should be a place to foster pointed debate about uncomfortable issues, no doubt about it.

Though I do disagree with one observation Bruni makes in passing about the specifics of this incident: “A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it.” First off (and I’ve seen this same point made elsewhere), the idea that “any student group” can automatically invite anyone they want to an official campus event is nuts. Of course the administration should do some basic vetting of campus speakers, especially if the college/university is paying for it and/or hosting the speaker as an official event. Second, if a college is going to allow someone who has been labeled by a credible advocacy group as a “white nationalist” to come to your extremely liberal campus to speak, then that college might want to prepare with additional security and the like.

But what Bruni really is complaining about is the so called “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of all college students. You know, the kids today.

The internal logic of this piece irritates me. For example, in his second and third paragraphs, he writes:

Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.

They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.

Well golly, aren’t you really describing the middle-aged to senior-citizens amongst us who have caused the polarization of politics in this country for the last couple of decades? Isn’t this the demographic that has a dangerous inability to compromise, fueled and exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and then the alt-right and now Trump? Honestly, can you really say with a straight face that the “kids today” ought to be “reacquainted” with the ability to see the world from different perspectives– even perspectives that are potentially offensive– relative to the generation in charge right now?!

Then later on, Bruni quotes from the CNN commentator Van Jones (who, as an important tangent that perhaps speaks to Jones’ judgement, is the same guy who lost all credibility with me when he said “Trump became president” during a speech in which Trump’s main accomplishment was he was able to sound like a normal human for an hour). Jones said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

Okay, but (setting the violence at the Murray event aside), isn’t this exactly what the students/participants at that event did? They were confronted with some hateful ideals and they dealt with it. Wouldn’t just sitting there and listening politely been a sort of passivity that seems at odds with that?

But I guess the part that just gets me the most is this paragraph:

Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.

Please.

Why is it that whenever the MSM wants to make sweeping generalizations about higher education, they always seize upon things that happen at the most elite and exclusive institutions in the country? Why are all of the examples of students generally being “coddled” drawn from colleges and universities that cater to the 1%?

Consider the statistics from The New York Times on the economic diversity of students at Middlebury versus where I work, Eastern Michigan University. The median family income at Middlebury is $244,300 a year, which is fourth highest among all 65 “elite colleges.” The median family income at Eastern is $75,800, which is 204th among all 377 “selective public colleges.” Our students are closer to the students Sara Goldrick-Rab describes in this article I happened across today on Twitter, “Student Aid Perspectives: The Case for Expanding Emergency Aid.” Among other things, Goldrick-Rab cites a study of “70 community colleges in 24 states (which) revealed that 33 percent of those students had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger, and 14 percent were homeless.” I don’t think our numbers at EMU are as high as reported in that study, but I do know we have students who are homeless and we have students who rely on the EMU food pantry.

I could go on, but the point is this: Bruni et al are literally making a generalization about college students today based on the 1 %. That’s dumb.

If Bruni et al really wanted to see if we were facing a dramatic “wake-up call” because of the demands students are making and ideological conformity gone too far, then they’d show up at a place like Eastern once in a while and look around. Oh sure, we have elements of what Bruni is getting at on our campus, but it’s not exactly “the norm” nor is it particularly new. We’ve had some protests on campus this year too, some as a result of Trump’s elections, but most as the result of a racist graffiti incident that happened in fall 2016 (I’ve blogged about that here and also over at EMYoutalk.org here). The student-led protests have not been without controversy, but for whatever reason, they aren’t “the problem” these commentators have with campus climates.

The truth of the matter is many of our students are not particularly “young” (we have a lot of returning students at EMU, so it’s common for me to see a twenty or more year range for even a small class), and we don’t have a lot of students who are likely to be the “future leaders” of a Middlebury or what-have-you. We have a lot of students who are up to their eyeballs in debt who are are working a couple of jobs, trying to have some version of a family life, and going to school full-time. When you come from a family where the median income is what it is, you don’t have a lot of time to be coddled and you don’t have the safety net of Mumsy and Paw-Paw to finance your lifestyle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone making sweeping generalizations about higher education in this country nowadays actually had some connection with average/in-the-trenches/middle-to-working class universities and colleges?

Posted in Academia, Politics, The Happy Academic | 1 Comment

Pre-CCCCs 2017

I’m heading to Portland, Oregon next week for the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication. My involvement this year is kind of in the “alternative” category of things. On Wednesday, I’ll be participating in the Research Network Forum for the first time. On Thursday, I’ll be participating in the Digital Praxis Poster sessions and I just finished creating the stuff I’ll have for my bit, “The Semester of Social Media Project.”

It’s a pretty straight-forward “show and tell” about an assignment I give in Writing for the World Wide Web where I ask students to “inhabit” some different social media platforms and to write about it. It’s not the fanciest of slideshows– maybe its even a little too simple to share in something called a “Digital Poster Session”– but my hope is that someone finds it kind of interesting and useful.

Posted in Computers and Writing, Scholarship, Teaching | Leave a comment

A few brief thoughts on high school, locker room showers, and transgender

On NPR’s “Morning Edition” this morning, I listened to this, “Ex-NC Gov Pat McCrory Offers His Take On Transgender Rights.”  NPR was talking to McCrory because he was the governor who oversaw the North Carolina “Bathroom Bill.”  McCrory basically said that the reason why this law was important was because of some variation of the dangers of the locker room. If you didn’t have a law like this, McCrory said again and again, how are boys going to feel with a girl who now thinks they are a boy in the same bathroom? What’s to stop a boy from saying he is a girl so he can shower in the girl’s locker room? When will the chaos end?

Obviously, all of McCrory’s fears are complete bullshit and along the lines of the argument about what would happen if we didn’t define marriage as between a man and a woman (“why, people might end up marrying their dogs or their cars!”). What this is really about is a lack of acceptance of difference, a lack of tolerance, some kind of overly rigorous religious code, bigotry, hatred, and/or just general ignorance.

However, this story this morning did bring back memories for me of high school and showers. I never– and I mean never– took a shower at my high school. Not once.

Now, that was over 30 years ago, and I really have no idea if my experiences/memories are typical or not. I have no idea what the common practice is nowadays. Also keep in mind I was very much the opposite of a jock–debate, extemporaneous speaking, and the student newspaper were my jams– which is to say I never had some kind of coach telling me and my teammates to “hit the showers.”

My high school back then had a gym class option where you could take a special before school started version that met several days a week (maybe every day? I don’t remember) for a lot less than the full term. This meant I didn’t have to have a gym class in the middle and I could take real classes instead– and also as a senior, I think I was done with classes by about lunchtime. The before school gym class was full of fellow nerds like me, and like the rest of these folks, we all just changed out of our gym clothes into regular clothes and went to class. It’s not like we worked up some kind of vigorous sweat playing dodgeball or whatever for an hour.

And nowadays, do they even make kids go to gym class?

I still am not all that comfortable with my own nakedness in quasi-public situations. In college the showers had curtains, so it meant bathrobe on in my room, to the shower room, close curtain, take off bathrobe, shower, and repeat in reverse. The gym I go to has a nice locker room and has showers with glass doors, so for those very rare times where I get cleaned up after a workout (mostly I come home afterwards), I’ll wrap up in a big towel and be sure to close the door.

I don’t think I’m alone in this behavior. Again, I don’t use the locker room at the gym a lot so my sample size is limited, but in my experience, almost all of the men in there follow a similar routine of covering up, turning away, and trying to keep the “parts” as private as possible. Though I will say that I have seen some men in the locker room who seem a little too comfortable with their bodies and nakedness, just strutting around in a pair of flip-flops and arguing loudly about sports.  Often, this proudly naked-type is an old dude who probably should grab a towel.

Anyway, my point is this: I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like to identify as a gender other than my own or to be transitioning in some way from female to male (or vice-versa). But I have to think that the vast majority of transgender teens have at least some of the same insecurities and nervousness about their own bodies as the cisgender teens. The scenarios of locker rooms gone wild that McCrory is trying to “protect” us from just does not square with any experience I’ve ever had. Though again, I wasn’t in a sport that required me to “shower up,” and for all I know, McCrory is that too proud to be naked older dude.

Posted in Life, Politics | Leave a comment

Responding to DeVos at CPAC: Oh, if it were only that easy….

Among other things, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at the Conservative Political Action Conference the other day:

Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students?

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

As Secretary, I don’t think the Department of Education in Washington should have more power over your decisions than you do. I took this job because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.

Ugh, I wish.

If my students did say what I told them to say and think what I told them to think, then teaching would be incredibly easy. Education generally would be a non-issue, just pour knowledge in. Do you remember that scene in The Matrix where Trinity calls and instantly gets a program on how to fly a helicopter? Man, I wish that’s how teaching worked. Reality is far different. Heck, I have students who don’t bother to read the syllabus, who don’t follow basic instructions on assignments, don’t do the reading, don’t show up to class. How am I supposed to just tell them what to say or think?!

Actually, that previous paragraph isn’t true. I wouldn’t want to tell my students what to say or think, and I don’t know any teacher at any level– certainly not at the college level– who would want to do that, regardless of that teacher’s/professor’s party politics. Part of a college education is to try to get students to learn how to think for themselves. (And yes, professors and higher education as an industry tend to vote for Democrats, but it’s a lot more complicated than assuming we all think the same thing and that there are no conservatives amongst us).

This is not to say that everything is fair game, that I’m all about students (or anyone else) saying and thinking whatever they want. Climate change is a real thing. Black lives really do matter, and there are good reasons to support that movement. We should base the arguments and claims we make in academic essays (and really, in the world in general) on research and reason and not “gut feelings.” CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets that report things you don’t agree with are not “Fake News.” None of these statements should be controversial, though I suppose each is now in dispute with a group like CPAC and in the era of President Donald Trump, who has only been president for a little over a month but it already feels perfectly reasonable to describe these times and his presidency as “an era.”

I do tell students what to think in the sense that there are indeed facts that are based on conclusive evidence that cannot be dismissed by wishing them away or conspiracy theories or baseless assertions. Attendance numbers at Trump’s inauguration really were much lower than they have been for the last two inaugurations for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton really did receive millions more votes than Trump did, there really were not millions of illegal voters, and Trump  really did not win the largest Electoral College victory in recent memory.

Fortunately for me, none of this is that controversial because where I teach, most of my students already know and believe this. Clinton won the county where I live (home to both Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan) by like 25 or more points, and the vast majority of the students at EMU lean politically left. That is, to the extent that they have time for any party politics at all– so many of my students are spending so much time working a couple of different jobs and dealing with life generally while going to school, I think there’s a significant percentage of them who cannot afford the “luxury” of partisan politics and protest. But yes, my students at EMU do not require a lot of elaborate and devious left-wing brainwashing to get them to question the way things are going with Trump et al. As far as I know, faculty weren’t really involved in organizing the “not my president” protests that popped up after the election, and it’s not like I made my students go to the various womens’ marches the day after the inauguration either.

And no, none of these students are getting paid or getting extra credit in my classes.

Posted in Academia, Politics, Teaching | 2 Comments

Testing the Difference Between “Fake News” and “Unsubstantiated Reports” with Provenance and Plausibility

I’ve been thinking a lot about “fake news” versus “alleged” or “unsubstantiated reports” lately– heck, anyone who has been paying any attention to last week’s news about Donald Tump has surly been thinking about this too. And it’s not just Trump labeling BuzzFeed and CNN as sources for “Fake News;” it’s other “news” people like Chuck Todd and the mainstream/traditional media across the board— at least that’s how they responded to the claims about Trump in Russia when they first broke. Within twenty-four hours of that initial story, even the New York Times was reporting on it.

Trump is going to label anything that doesn’t support him as “fake news” or coming from “losers” or being “sad” or whatever, and maybe BuzzFeed shouldn’t have published something that was as “unsubstantiated” as the stuff that was in this report. The journalism ethics here are complicated, though I have to say I think the MSM response has less to do with the question of when is proper to publish something and more to do with the “icky” factor of the alleged “golden shower” shows. BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith has been pretty smart about responding to the criticism– here’s a link to an interview he did on CNN. And once again, Teen Vogue has had excellent reporting/thought pieces on Trump, as in this piece “So You Read That Scandalous Report About Donald Trump and Russia– Now What?”

Anyway, in writing now about this, I’m not that interested in the ethical question of whether or not BuzzFeed should have published this in the first place. I’m more interested in playing around with/thinking about what sorts of strategies and processes can any of us use in evaluating these kinds of stories, and not just between something that is “fake” versus something that is “true,” but also between something that is “fake” versus something that is “alleged” or “unsubstantiated.” I think these are two different things and need to be treated differently: that is, something that is “fake” does not necessarily equal something that is “unsubstantiated,” and vice-versa. And as a rhetorician who has been influenced by a lot of postmodern/post-structural theories, this is also important to me because I kind of feel we’ve painted ourselves into a corner by the ways we have tended to academically approach “Truth.”

A simple example: in recent years, I’ve been very fond of showing a video called “In Defense of Rhetoric” that was put together by graduate students in Professional Communication at Clemson University in 2011. I think it does a very good job of explaining the basics of rhetoric for an audience who has only heard of the negative connotations– as in “that’s just empty rhetoric,” or (as an example from the video) the “art of bullshit.” But I have to say that this semester, in light of everything that has happened with the election and what seems to be a rise of a “post-truth era,” I did wince a bit when, at about the 10 minute mark in discussing “Epistemic Rhetoric,” the faculty interviewed here talk about how reality itself is constructed by rhetoric, about how everything we decide is based on judging between claims. I agree with this in theory, but the problem is this approach to reality is part of what’s enabling “Fake News” in the first place. It certainly has enabled Trump and his supporters to dismiss a story he doesn’t like as “fake” because if reality is based simply on how I see it being constructed rhetorically or on simply competing claims, why do we have to choose the same thing?

So how do we evaluate these claims of “Fake” versus “alleged,” and how should the press report the “unsubstantiated,” if they should report it at all?  This is what I am getting at with this idea of the tests of “provenance” and “plausibility.” By provenance, I mean an understanding of the origin of the story. I’m thinking here in particular of the way that term is used in the art and antique world to help determine authenticity and value. An antique that is accompanied with documentation that traces the history of an object is a whole lot more valuable than the same object without that documentation, and forging those documents is always a problem. (As a tangent here, I’m reminded of the novel The Goldfinch). By plausibility, I mean the potential that a story might be true based on the other things we know about the story, such as the people and places involved, when it supposedly happened, and so forth. I think I mean something here like ethos, but I think it is beyond just the individuals or even beyond the available evidence. Plausibility for me doesn’t mean whether or not something is (T)rue, but more along the lines of the odds that it’s (T)rue.

A sense of provenance and plausibility probably exists on a spectrum of “truthiness” I’ll call Fiction and (T)rue, and here I am mostly thinking of part of what Derek Mueller and I talked about the other day and/or the way that Bruno Latour talks about “black boxes” in Science in Action. I am far from a Latour scholar/expert so this reading might be a bit off, but basically, Latour points out that new discoveries/theories in science always depend on previously made discoveries/theories that are now presumed to be “(T)rue”– not in a “Platonic ideal across all space and time” notion of “Truth,” but in a “we’ve done this experiment a lot and gotten similar results so now presume it is a fact” sort of (T)rue. Geneticist are not running the experiments to determine the structure of DNA anymore because that is now just (T)rue and tucked away into a “black box”– which is to say there could be something we learn about DNA later that changes that and thus reopens that discussion.

To tease this all out, let’s compare the “fake” news that has been dubbed “Pizzagate” versus what I think is an “unsubstantiated” story about intelligence the Russians have about Trump.

“Pizzagate” was a conspiracy theory which claimed members of the Democratic Party– lead by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta– were running an elaborate human trafficking and pedophile sex ring housed in the basement of a a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong (apparently, you can play table tennis while eating pizza).  Snopes.com has an extensive entry about the controversy here, and the Washington Post also published this article tracing the origins of this story here, too. In my mind, this is about as extreme of an example of “fake” as it gets, but I think it’s an especially important example in at least two ways. First, the story spread through social media via ‘bots along with other conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Millions of people (and machines) reposted/retweeted this. Second, this story had real life and potentially very dangerous consequences since a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch, convinced the story was true, showed up at the pizza place with an AR-15 ready to free the children. Here’s a story from Mother Jones about Welch.

The allegations released by BuzzFeed about Trump were contained in a document supposedly a part of an intelligence report/briefing about stuff the Russians have on Trump to potentially blackmail or otherwise compromise him. Here’s a link to the original BuzzFeed story that contains the entire report. As a slight tangent: much of the sensationalism has to do with the practice of “urolagnia,” which is sexual excitement associated with urine. I’ll admit, I find the idea of “golden showers” both gross and, as it has been reported, darkly funny. But a) this is far from the most unusual “kink” out there, and b) hey, if it’s between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, who am I to criticize anyone’s sex life? What is frankly more troubling in these allegations are the other things that the Russians supposedly have on Trump in terms of real estate deals, grooming Trump as an “asset” to Russian intelligence, and the communications between Trump’s campaign and the Russians during the election cycle.

So, how do these stories stack up in terms of “provenance” and “plausibility?”

The provenance of both stories have already been explored and reported in some detail and the difference between these two examples are quite clear. Pizzagate emerges as a combination of pure fiction and rumors; in contrast, the allegations about Trump and the Russians was part of an intelligence dossier that has apparently been in the hands of a variety of folks (including journalists) for months. This is not to say that the allegations against Trump are accurate or even close to (T)rue; however, we know a lot about the origins of this story.

The plausibility of these two stories is also quite stark. As even Edgar Welch discovered once on the scene at Comet Ping Pong, it’s just not possible because of the building itself– never mind the craziness of the rest of the details. On the other hand, the allegations of Trump’s behavior in Russia strike me as completely plausible– although it probably didn’t actually happen. After all, Trump really did make a trip to Moscow when this is said to have happened (this was during the “Miss Universe” pageant). Further, we already know that Trump has made some cameo appearances in Playboy videos,  has bragged about grabbing women by “the pussy,” and, as reported just this morninghe is being sued by a former Apprentice contestant for sexual harassment and defamation. Obviously, these past activities don’t prove the allegations of his behavior in Moscow; however, I do think these past activities do help explain the plausibility of these allegations.

In my mind, this test of provenance and plausibility also works if we change the actors in these stories. I think it is implausible that Trump and Kellyanne Conway were running a pedophile sex ring out of a pizzeria pretty much for the same reasons it was implausible for Clinton and Podesta. But I think the plausibility changes a bit with the Russian allegations, particularly the specifics of the “golden shower” show. I think these allegations brought against politicians like Hilary Clinton, Obama, or either of the Bushes would be dismissed as just not plausible. However, would we be as quick to dismiss this kind of story if it were about Bill Clinton?

Anyway, I don’t know how useful it is to think of fake news versus allegations versus real news this way, as on the spectrum of fiction and (T)ruth, as being about measuring provenance and plausibility. I’m not sure how necessary this is either given that there are lots of schemes and advice out there for testing the “truthiness” of news of all sorts, particularly as it manifests in social media. I do know one thing: we’re all going to have to get a hell of a lot better at thinking about and describing the differences between the fake, the alleged, and the real.

Posted in Academia, Internet, Politics, Social Networks, Teaching, Writing | Leave a comment

Trying to end on a positive note

I’m not one to usually think like this, but 2016 has been a pretty shitty year by almost any measure. It’s been shitty on several different levels– the world and the country, but it’s also been a shitty year at EMU and I’ve had some shitty things happen in my own life (which I won’t get into now). Shitty shitty shitty.

But I’m determined to end on a positive “always look on the bright side of life” note here. So here are some things that happened for me that were good.

  • I got the chance to participate in some interesting, cool, and difficult to explain and categorize consulting/curriculum development things with the NICERC which took me to places like Louisiana and Arkansas and where I got to meet/work with some cool people. (Dwelling on the negative would involve wondering about the future of this program, and I’m not going there).
  • In honor of my 50th birthday (which is neither good nor bad, really), Annette and I had a great trip to New York City. We went in February, which turns out to be a pretty cheap time to go, saw many fun and wondrous things, ate ridiculously expensive food, some fantastic pizza, and hung around with great friends.
  • I got the chance to do an invited talk at Creighton University to talk about MOOCs, which gave me a chance to catch up with Bob Whipple and also a chance to hang around Omaha for a day (which is neither a good thing or a bad thing, really).
  • I wasn’t going to go to the CCCCs this year in Houston, but Annette and I had a good time. Speaking of somewhat unplanned but still good conference travel: Computers and Writing was a pretty good time too. And even though this was the year I said to myself and others that I was getting kind of sick of going to conferences, I still ended up going to three in the winter/spring terms, and I helped run the latest version of the WIDE-EMU this last fall.
  • The three of us had a long spring trip/experiment “up North” in May, spending two weeks in a condo on working vacation in Glen Arbor. I’m not sure I would spend that long up there again that early in the season, but we got in some good hikes, some good work, some good food.
  • Annette was President of the Children’s Literature Association last year, which for me meant a long weekend in Columbus during the conference staying in a fancy-pants suite. That was fun.
  • Did lots of the usual stuff over the summer with friends and the like, too: did the Dexter-Ann Arbor “run,” did a fun “amazing race” thing with Steve and Michelle that was a fund-raiser for a local cancer support group, played some golf, had some picnics, went to the July 4 parade in Ypsilanti, my parents visited, Annette’s parents visited, etc.
  • Annette and I went to see Cyndi Lauper (of all people!) and Annette and Will and I went to see Louis CK at Joe Louis Arena. Both were good; Lauper was a bit of a trip down memory lane (though she was touring in support of a country album she had made), and Louis CK was great though the arena-sized space is probably not right for stand-up.
  • Right before the fall term began and hours after we moved Will into the dorms, Annette and I went to Italy. I was invited back to this conference about MOOCs at the University of Naples, an conference I went to in 2015 that I thought was a once in a lifetime kind of thing. And then it happened again. It was a fantastic trip.
  • And Will is doing great at the University of Michigan. In April, we went to see a poster session of him presenting on science stuff; he worked in his lab doing science stuff all summer and through now; and he is still doing even more science stuff. Yes, that’s vague, but it is just a little less than what I understand it to be. He is a much MUCH better student than I ever was.
  • I don’t know if this is good news exactly, but in October, we had the not to be forgotten incident of a chipmunk in our house.
  • And last but not least, I have a contract to write/finish a book about MOOCs. I don’t want to jinx it by saying any more than that.

So yeah, it’s been a shitty year, but there was some good stuff too. Now it’s time to brace ourselves for 2017…

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Why are academics so “liberal?”

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an interview a few days ago with Charles C. Camosy called “The Case for Trading Identity Politics for ‘Intellectual Humility,'” which more or less came about as a result of Camosy’s Washington Post “PostEverything” column “Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch.”  In brief, Camosy, who is conservative and a a professor of theology at Fordham University, argues that academics are too liberal and out of touch to understand why anyone would have voted for Donald Trump. Further, if academia doesn’t change it’s ways, the situation is only going to get worse.

In the CHE piece (sorry, behind a firewall), he argues that we need more “diversity” in terms of the liberal/conservative spectrum:

I don’t mean a quota coming down from the administration or anything like that. But for instance, in my own department, we looked around and didn’t see a lot of people of color. So we said, We ought to make an effort in hiring to have more diversity. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind — for departments to look around and say, Well, how much intellectual diversity do we have? Do we have even one conservative?

I don’t even like the liberal-conservative binary. I just want a person who really doesn’t have the views of the rest of us, who challenges us, who forces us to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different, who forces our students to take a moment to listen to someone who’s different.

He goes on:

One reason why racial justice was such an important issue in this election was because colleges and universities started that conversation, and it filtered down to the rest of the culture. That was a very good thing. So if we also make a commitment to other kinds of diversity, that will also filter down to the rest of the culture. We won’t see such enclaves of people over here — millions and millions of people — thinking something so diametrically opposed to people over there.

That’s a big part of my work as an academic ethicist: to show that these kinds of us-versus-them, right-versus-left, life-versus-choice binaries are too simplistic. People are much more complicated and interesting than identity politics allows us to imagine.

Fair enough, though as I’ll get to eventually, I’m not so sure that that last point about upsetting simple binaries is a position that would resonate with most conservatives.

Anyway, in the Washington Post piece published right after the election, Camosy is more blunt. He argues:

The most important divide in this election was not between whites and non-whites. It was between those who are often referred to as “educated” voters and those who are described as “working class” voters.

The reality is that six in 10 Americans do not have a college degree, and they elected Donald Trump.College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump. This is an indictment of the monolithic, insulated political culture in the vast majority our colleges and universities.

He goes on:

Higher education in the United States, after all, is woefully monolithic in its range of worldviews. In 2014, some 60 percent of college professors identified as either “liberal” or “far-left,” an increase from 42 percent identifying as such in 1990. And while liberal college professors outnumber conservatives5-to-1, conservatives are considerably more common within the general public. The world of academia is, therefore, different in terms of political temperature than the rest of society, and what is common knowledge and conventional wisdom among America’s campus dwellers can’t be taken for granted outside the campus gates.

I disagree with most (though not all) of this, and before I get to the real point here, why are academics so liberal (or are they so liberal?), I think there are three important things to always keep in mind about the outcome of the presidential election:

  • Clinton’s campaign did not spend enough time in working class/blue collar places in the midwest, and arguably, she forgot the James Carville prime directive of “it’s the economy, stupid.” Hindsight is 20-20, though as this New York Times piece from the day after the election points out, there were forces within Clinton’s campaign– including Bill!– who argued that she should be spending some time courting these voters and not concentrating on urban areas. And yesterday the New York Times had this piece recapping a “debate” between aides to the two presidential campaigns where Kellyanne Conway said “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for the white working-class voters? How about it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about they had nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message?” I hate to say it, but I think she has a point. But the point here is that Clinton’s loss is as much about her campaign mistakes as it was with any dissatisfaction from working class voters.
  • The exit polling data suggests that yes, level of education was an indicator of who voted for who– 51% of high school or less and 52% of some college or associate degree voters went with Trump. But it also shows that 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump (compared to 45% for Clinton), 67% of white college graduates without a degree voted for Trump, and 75% of of nonwhite voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. There’s a bunch of other data to sort through here too, but the point I’m trying to make is for Camosy (or anyone else) to suggest that race was not as an “important divide” in this election than education is just plain wrong.
  • Always always remember and never ever forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and by what seems to be a large margin. Yes, Trump won with the electoral college, and yes, this seems good evidence that the most significant divide in this country right now is between urban and rural areas, a divide characterized as much by race and income levels as it is by education– not to mention basic geography. Also remember that the margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin combined  was under 80,000 out of like 12 million votes (Phillip Bump has a commentary/analysis about this in the Washington Post here), which isn’t exactly an overwhelming mandate even in these rustbelt states. And yes, I agree the Democratic party as an organization is in disarray and needs to think a lot harder about how to appeal both to voters who are interested in “identity issues” and to voters interested in “economic populism” (and as a slight tangent, here I’m thinking of this post from Freddie deBoer, someone I often don’t agree with but I think he’s right here).

However, people who voted for Clinton (and all the “liberal values” she represents) and/or against Trump are still in the majority in this country. That doesn’t mean much when it comes to Trump’s cabinet appointees or the frightening policies he might be proposing and it probably means even less if your a Muslim in a particularly red part of the country, but it does mean a lot in terms of how the citizenry can respond. The man who will be president didn’t actually “win” because a significant majority of eligible American voters either didn’t vote at all (which in my book is even worse than voting for Trump) or they voted for Clinton, and of those who did vote for Trump, I have to assume that there is some difficult to determine but still healthy percentage who didn’t so much vote for Trump as they voted against Clinton, and/or who voted for Trump as a protest. That’s depressing, that the winner didn’t really “win,” but it also means that those of us who voted for Clinton are far from alone. Or let me put it this way: the first presidential candidate I voted for was Walter Mondale. That was an entirely different kind of loss.

But I digress. Why are academics so “liberal?” Continue reading

Posted in Scholarship, The Happy Academic | 1 Comment

Why I’m voting for a Coalition for a New EMU-AAUP

While the national election is over (though of course the fight in many ways has just begun), there’s a very local election here at EMU that’s still going on. The election for members of the Executive Committee of the EMU-AAUP, which is the union that represents the faculty, is currently underway (the deadline for voting is November 21 at 5 pm).  Making it all the more interesting this year is it’s actually an election with a choice (I believe in the last couple of cycles, the leaders of the union were unopposed), and it’s an important one because of events on campus.

I’m voting for the “Coalition for a New EMU-AAUP:” Judy Kullberg for President; Ken Rusiniak for Vice President; and Mahmud Rahman, Charles Cunningham, and Tricia McTague for at large members of the Executive Committee (EC). I have a lot of respect for what Susan Moeller and Howard Bunsis and the rest of the incumbents have done with the EMU-AAUP over the years, but I also think it’s time for a change. I think the Coalition for a New EMU-AAUP people can bring that change.

This post gets a little wonky for anyone who is not at EMU– maybe for anyone who is not on faculty at EMU. So for any non-locals who decide to read on here, sorry about that in advance.

Continue reading

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP | 1 Comment