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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 4 Comments

Post from sabbatical-land 126 days to go: dodging the administrator bullet & those lazy professors

I say “126 days to go” based on my self-declared date of September 1 as the end of my sabbatical, but this isn’t entirely true. Technically, my sabbatical was only for the winter (what everyone else calls spring) term, and since today is the last day of finals for this term at EMU, I suppose you could say that today is the end of my sabbatical.

Anyway, on the “dodging the administrator bullet” part of things: I applied for an administrative position here at EMU, as the Director of the Faculty Development Center, and it’s been quite a trip over the last couple of weeks.  I first mentioned the possibility of this here earlier in March and over at EMUTalk when I talked about closing down that site. I’m still going to be phasing EMUTalk out because it’s too much of a time-suck and it’s too much me (and that’s what this blog is for), but this is what I had in mind when I said “I might apply for an administrator job.”

Most of this is a matter of public record (which is why I’m comfortable about blogging about this at all), but needless to say, I’m not going into too much detail about the actual search process. Let’s just say I found myself as a finalist, I thought the interview process went well, the powers that be hired Peggy Liggit (who was the interim director), and I couldn’t be more relieved.

Part of my relief has to do with the job itself– I’ll skip the details of what I mean on that point. But most of my relief has to do with what I guess I’d describe as a realization that becoming an administrator would be a bad idea for me. It was sort of a mini midlife crisis. I first applied for the position because I thought I was qualified (and the fact that I was a finalist for the job suggests that I was qualified), I thought it might be interesting, and I liked the idea of the pay raise. But as the process went on, the more I saw the negatives of giving up my freedom, the ability to work at home (or coffee shops or wherever) while wearing jeans and t-shirt, the flexibility of not having to be in an office 40 hours a week, my summers. I started to realize I was going to end up doing a whole lot less scholarship and probably no teaching and instead I was going to go to a lot of meetings. Maybe I would have felt differently if I wasn’t sabbaticalling right now and if I had been waist-deep in grading and the like. In any event, about a month after I had first applied and while the interviews were happening, I started regretting applying at all. I mean like really really regretting it.

But like I said, in the end it wasn’t to be me, I couldn’t be happier, and I’m (almost completely) sure I won’t be doing that again. Of course, I probably would have never reached that realization had I not actually applied for the job in the first place.

Anyway (and I’m not sure this is completely connected), I was thinking about my realization that it would be foolish for me to give up what I’ve got– even for a lot more money– and a couple of these laws that have been floated lately to make professors “work more” and/or to vote them out of a job. There was the “8 courses a year” proposal in North Carolina by state senator Tom McInnis — here’s a CHE article about it— which would basically mandate a 4-4 load for every professor in the state schools, including the research universities. Then there’s the proposal from State Senator Mark Chelgren in the Iowa state congress where faculty would be evaluated solely on student evaluations– a professor not meeting some threshold of performance on these evaluations would be fired– and where the five professors who scored above this minimal threshold but the lowest would be fired. CHE has an interview with this winner of a politician here.

Of course, both of these plans are bad, though I have to say that the angry backlash reported in that CHE article about the “8 courses a year” proposal is perhaps a little over the top. Sure, if you’re teaching at an R1 and are expected “book plus” and/or lots of grant writing and the like for tenure and even more for promotion, a 4-4 load is a lot. We technically teach a 4-4 load here at EMU and there are some departments where faculty do teach four courses every semester. But because of a series of what are called “course equivalencies,” most faculty teach something closer to a 3-3 load (that’s what we teach in my department), and there is course release/reassigned time for doing quasi-administrative work and the like. But the point I am trying to make here is that lots of faculty at lots of “less than” R1 institutions teach eight courses a year or more.

And the “vote them off the island” plan from Chelgren is based on an actual problem: it is pretty much impossible to get rid of bad professors who are tenured, especially over something like bad teaching. Don’t get me wrong: the vast vast majority of professors are good at what they do in large part because it takes a lot to get these positions. But every department has a few bad apples– old, tenured, dried-up apples– and it doesn’t really matter how terrible the student evaluations are. So as ill-informed as Chelgren is, I kind of see where he’s coming from.

Both of these proposals are also variations on the “lazy professor who gets his summers off” view of academia.  This is a view that is of course inaccurate and it tends to be held by not very educated people and also by people who are kind of envious of the lifestyle. What I mean is sure, I work a lot, but I also enjoy the freedom to do the work I want to do and I can do that work mostly wherever I want. So I guess one of the big reasons why I’m not leaving my faculty job for administrative work anytime soon is so I can continue to tick off people like McInnis and Chelgren.

Posted in Academia, Sabbatical II, The Happy Academic | 6 Comments

ASU’s edX MOOC deal: Lots of links and a few thoughts

It’s stuff like this that keeps me going and reminds me that this MOOC book project might be relevant after all. First a bunch of links:

  • From Inside Higher Ed, “MOOCs for (a Year’s) credit.” “Arizona State University, in partnership with edX, this fall will begin to offer credit-bearing massive open online courses at a fraction of the cost of either in-person or traditional online education.” … “By fall 2016, ASU anticipates it will offer enough MOOCs so that students can complete their entire freshman year online through what edX and the university are calling the Global Freshman Academy. After completing the courses, students can receive a transcript from ASU showing that they have earned enough credits at the university to transfer to a different program or institution as sophomores. Since the university stresses the MOOCs are just a new form of delivering courses it already offers, the transcripts won’t specify which type of course — in-person, online or massive online — students enrolled in to earn the credit.” Lots and lots of details about this here.
  • From the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Arizona State and edX Will Offer an Online Freshman Year, Open to All.” Here’s an interesting quote: “The courses to be offered through the Global Freshman Academy are being designed and will be taught by leading scholars at Arizona State. “These courses are developed to their rigorous standards,” Adrian Sannier, chief academic officer for EdPlus at ASU, said in the release. “Course faculty are committed to ensuring their students understand college-level material so that they can be prepared to successfully complete college.”Students who pass a final examination in a course will have the option of paying a fee of no more than $200 per credit hour to get college credit for it.”
  • Here’s the ASU official announcement and here’s edX’s announcement about the Global Freshman Academy. One thing that’s worth noting here is that this page answers the “who is this for” question by noting it is for traditional freshmen and returning students (the picture there features a man at a computer who is probably in his 40s or older) and “Educators and lifelong learners.”
  • Here’s a Washington Post article on this, “Arizona State University to offer freshman year online, for credit.” Here’s a quote on the price: “At the end [that is, end of the course], they will be able to take a proctored final exam. Those who are successful can pay tuition of up to $200 per credit toward an ASU degree. Students who complete eight classes this way can enter ASU as sophomores, according to university President Michael M. Crow. Estimated total tuition and fees for this route: a little more than $5,000. That’s about half of what in-state students are paying this year on the main campus in Tempe, Ariz., and about 20 percent of what out-of-state students pay.”
  • From The New York Times comes “Promising Full College Credit, Arizona State University Offers Online Freshman Program.”
  • There’s a kind of interesting article about Michael Crow behind the firewall of the CHE too, “The Making of a Higher-Ed Agitator.” Sounds like he has quite the “interesting” biography.
  • A few somewhat more critical pieces on all this. First, from Inside Higher Ed, “Change, but How Substantive?” A lot of this article is about the accreditation issues associated with this. It’s not to say that the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (ASU’s accreditor) isn’t going to approve this; but there are still apparently a lot of questions and concerns.
  • Second and more important, also from Inside Higher Ed (and his own “Confessions of a Community College Dean”) comes “What Problem are ASU and EdX Solving?” from Matt Reed.   Here’s a longish quote that I think gets at one of the big problems I see with this plan:

According to Carl Straumsheim’s piece in IHE, a student who enrolls in one (or more) from a specific set of MOOCs offered through edX will have the option of paying a $45 fee for identity verification, followed by a $200 per credit fee to Arizona State, to have the MOOC performance translated into academic credit by and for ASU.

Or, that same student could take an actual course, online or onsite, from a community college. It would cost less, and would have an actual instructor provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course. The credits would transfer anywhere, not just to ASU. Tuition at Maricopa — the community college local to Phoenix — is $84 per credit, as opposed to $200 for the MOOC. Even in the higher-tuition Northeast, we come in well below $200 per credit. And community colleges run full slates of general education courses.

Even better, taking the course with a community college offers access to online tutoring, library resources, and other student supports that have been “unbundled” from the MOOC.

ASU is pointing out that a student doesn’t need to pass through the ASU admissions process to take a MOOC. That’s true, as far as it goes, but community colleges are also open-admission, and have been for decades.

I’m just not sure which problem they think they’re solving.

Anyway, just a few very brief thoughts on this:

First off, I think that Matt Reed is absolutely and positively right. While it’s kind of cool that students don’t have to pay for their classes until after they take them, $200 a credit isn’t really that cheap for these kinds of credits because community colleges are typically cheaper and provide better support for students.

A closely related issue here: MOOCs have a long way to go to prove that they actually “work” as well as face to face classes and smaller, more interactive online courses.  Udacity’s failed experiment at San Jose State doesn’t bode well here. So this program is likely to have lots and lots of students who start these courses but not that many who pay for the credits, either because they don’t need/want the credits (see below) or because they simply don’t finish the course.

Second is recent and not so recent history is not on the side of this sort of initiative. When “traditional” online programs/courses came on the scene in the late 1990s or so, the idea was that a place like EMU could offer a degree program and attract students from Alaska or wherever. Well, mostly what has happened is online courses and online programs have attracted more or less local students: that is, the online classes I teach are mostly full of students who are taking face to face classes at EMU as well.  Sure, there are some institutions that have had success at attracting students from other parts of the country and world– and ASU is one of the places that has been successful at that too.  But generally speaking, students take courses online from institutions where they take face to face courses.

Third, I think MOOC providers are focusing on the wrong thing and the wrong audience. As I blogged about just before this post, students pick colleges first based on academics, second on job prospects,  and then (roughly tied for third/fourth/fifth place) on scholarship opportunities, cost of attendance, and social activities. And as I’ve also blogged about before, all the data suggests that most MOOC takers/students already have a college degree, don’t need or want the credit, and are taking the course for personal enrichment/”edutainment.”

Like I said, maybe all this program needs to do to be successful is to attract some students who would have otherwise tried to go to ASU anyway. Maybe it will be successful as a PR move, too: some students take some ASU MOOCs, have good experiences, and decide to enroll there for real. But for MOOCs to really represent a “sea change” in higher education, it seems to me they need to address the top motivating factors for students’ choices about what school to attend and not just costs.

Posted in MOOCs, Sabbatical II, Scholarship | 8 Comments

A few “why is college so expensive” links (and my own theories on that)

One of the clear motivations behind MOOCs (not to mention earlier distance ed technologies like correspondence courses, radio and television courses, and traditional online courses) is to do something about the costs of (and also access to) college. So naturally, I’ve been interested in the series of articles and blog posts that have come out lately speculating about why college is so expensive. I suppose most of this is in response to Paul Campos’ New York Times piece “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” though as I mentioned in my last post, affordability and access is also at the heart of the motivation to Kevin Carey’s “University of Everywhere,” too. So more than I originally intended to write on this, and a lot of this is sort of MOOC book prewriting, too (at least that’s what I’m telling myself):

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Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Sabbatical II, Scholarship | 2 Comments

An initial response to Carey’s “The End of College” (or college costs don’t matter)

I’ve read about half of Kevin Carey’s The End of College and I’ve seen lots of the critiques of it in the education media, particularly in Inside Higher Ed.  There’s this, this (which has a pretty decent bullet-point summary of the book), this (which is probably too polite), and this piece by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab.  That Watters/Goldrick-Rab piece is probably my favorite because it is so biting and so extensively cited, though Kim thought it a little too “biting.” I commented on that article already. In any event, while my own reading of Carey is a “work in progress,” I thought I’d share two thoughts for now.

First, I am both bothered and puzzled by the attention Carey’s book is getting. I’m bothered because this book seems to be getting way WAY too much attention, and I’m puzzled by this because it seems to me the point he is making about “The University of Everywhere” is basically the same that the “Year of the MOOCs” bandwagon was making in 2012. If all this were new, I guess it might make sense; that it’s not new at all and it’s still getting great PR confuses me.

I referenced Carey’s book (well, indirectly because I ran out of time during the presentation)  at the CCCCs, and I suspect I’ll be quoting from him if I ever get this MOOC book/sabbatical project together (knocking on wooden things). I see him figuring into the last chapter where I am imagining the future of MOOCs and whatever comes next, and the seemingly never-ending quest to make education cheaper by making it more “efficient” and by further distancing teachers from students and/or bypassing the teachers altogether. Here’s a long quote from my CCCCs talk that I didn’t get to read that gives you an idea about where I’m coming from about why I’m confused by the attention:

I think Carey is wrong in lots of different ways. I think he’s right that higher education spends too much money on football and fancy campuses, and there is no doubt that higher education costs too much money. But his assumption about the research/teaching balance being out of whack and the inability of professors to teach is at best an exaggeration. Carey talks about runaway costs, but as far as I can tell, he says little about how expenses have been driven up by rising administrator salaries and increased bureaucratic demands on everyone from outside stakeholders (assessment!). Further, he seems to think that the content that would be delivered electronically in the University of Everywhere is free as in “free beer,” that that work just magically happens.

But the reason why Carey’s argument matters is the same reason why the MOOC business got traction a few years ago: Carey is playing off the popular (and largely uninformed) view of college, that it’s far too expensive because professors don’t do anything to teach and they are getting paid too much to do something that appears to most people outside of academia to not actually be a job. Write a book about how higher ed needs to be reformed by improving government funding, eliminating administrative bloat,  and by streamlining extracurriculars gets zero discussion and it sells 200 copies [and as an aside: I am afraid this is the book I am writing]. Write a book about how higher ed ought be run like Google and it gets covered by the New York Times and Fresh Air and lots of other places and it sells thousands. So even though the future of Carey’s “University of Everywhere” seems like an even more “risky business,” it’s similar to MOOCs in that we need to engage in the conversation.

The second (and more important and counter-intuitive) thing is about the “college costs too much” argument. Much of Carey’s book argues college as we know it needs to be completely retooled because it costs too much money, which is of course the conventional wisdom from most about higher education (including me). This is a rational observation. But here’s the thing: it seems to me most would be students and their parents don’t actually care that much about the costs.  It certainly isn’t driving most decisions students make about where to go to college.

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Posted in Blogs, MOOCs, Reading, Sabbatical II | 6 Comments

CCCC 15 in Tampa Recap

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

  • Unfortunately, I am likely to remember this CCCCs years from now as the one where there was a horrible accident right outside the conference hotel and convention center. The short version is a driver somehow lost control of his car, jumped the curb on the street that ran between the hotel and the convention center, and hit three pedestrians, killing one of them and seriously injuring the other two. I didn’t see it– I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel trying to get caught up on a few email/Facebook things– but a lot of people at the conference did see it and I’m told it was horrifying.  One person I talked to who was right there when it happened said she was busy writing an angry email on her cell phone (something didn’t get done right and she was mad, that’s all you really need to know), and when the accident happened, she felt this strange everything frozen in place and time sensation, and then she deleted that email before sending it since it didn’t seem that important anymore.
  • I was on the fence about going to the conference at all this year because I’m on sabbatical right now (did I mention I was on sabbatical?), and because I wasn’t that crazy about going to Florida generally. I am not a “Florida fan,” so to speak. Annette’s parents have lived in Naples for about 16 years now and we go down there pretty much every year at Christmas (including this past Christmas). That’s plenty of Florida for me. But as far as I can tell, most people were thrilled to be down there, and my colleague and University of South Florida alum Kate Pantelides was really REALLY thrilled to be visiting Tampa again.
  • I had a chance to get to talk with/have dinner with my newest EMU colleague at the conference, Chalice Randazzo, who will be joining us from Texas Tech. I wasn’t on the search committee, so I actually talked with her more at the conference than when she was here for the interview. And it’s always nice when colleagues in the field come up to you in the lobby of the hotel and say stuff like “you made a great hire,” especially when I didn’t have much to do with it.
  • Every CCCCs, there are people who I just never see and there other people who I inexplicably see everywhere. This year, the “saw everywhere” person was Stuart Selber. Don’t ask me why. I also hung out with/caught up with the usual suspects, some folks I see all the time (like Benninghoff and Bill HD), some folks I see about once a year (Nick Carbone, Heidi Estrem, Linda Adler-Kassner), and some I see somewhere in-between (Doug Walls, Mike McLeod).
  • The three most memorable panel-type things I saw were the Ohio State folks’ roundtable session on their MOOC, part of a session by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Anne Wysocki called “Blow It the Fuck Up: Composition After Writing,” a presentation I thought was provocative (though it’s easier said than done and I think there’s a lot to value by being aligned with a specific position), and the Ignite sessions that were on Friday night. There needs to be more of these Ignite kinds of things– short (five minute), provocative speeches that take place in a more social interaction– there was an intermission and cocktails.
  • My session and my talk went fine. The other folks on the panel all gave good talks that I wouldn’t mind returning to as I get back into the MOOC work this coming week. The only downside was we had a somewhat overeager chair who aggressively timed the presentations and flagged me for running out of time, which surprised me because I timed my talk to be 18 minutes. Turns out that our chair was assuming a 15 minute time limit. Hmm.
  • And lots and lots of great conversations with folks outside the sessions. Honestly, that’s the biggest reason for going to the CCCCs for me at this point. It’s always nice to meet people you kind of “know” from Facebook or Twitter or the WPA-L and put a face with a name, and it’s always nice when people say nice things to me about stuff I post or about the MOOC book or whatever (I assume that anyone who would have said mean things just avoided me). It did get hard to keep answering the “how’s your sabbatical going?” question after a while, though interestingly enough, when I expressed my mixed feelings about it all to people who had previously had sabbaticals, they tended to say “yeah, I know what you mean.”
  • The “extracurricular” activities were pretty decent. The bar at the conference hotel was too expensive, but it was nice sitting on that patio. The annual Bedford-St. Martin’s party was at the Florida Aquarium, which was very cool as a venue, though there was almost no food– not a big deal for me, but this was not the kind of party I recall as a grad student where you could go and more or less piece together a complete (and free) meal. I ended up for dinner after that party at a place called Cevíche that probably was my favorite food experience of the whole conference– though I had a couple pretty good meals. I was also a part of a pretty amusing food fail. Long story short, it turns out that the very popular Bern’s Steakhouse doesn’t appreciate it when you show up thirty minutes late for your reservation for three with five people. So we ended up at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, which was also a very Tampa thing.
  • So all in all, I’m glad I decided to go and I felt a pretty good kick-start on the sabbatical. Now I’ll have to contemplate next year’s conference. Once again, I feel mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I’m not even remotely crazy about going to the location– Houston– and, as I say every year, the last thing I need on my CV is another conference presentation. On the other hand, my former colleague and friend Linda Adler-Kassner is the program chair and it is pretty much the only conference I’m even contemplating, so….
Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Sabbatical II, Scholarship, Travel | 1 Comment

My CCCCs 2015 Presentation

Here’s a link to the presentation I’ll be giving at the Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting next week in Tampa, Florida. My talk is called “Risky Business: The Difficult to See, Always Moving, Fast and Fuzzy Future of Corporate-Sponsored Massive Online Open Courses.” My session is G.10, which is at 9:30 in the morning on March 20, and it looks like we’re in “Grand Ballroom I, Level Two,” whatever that means.

There could be some changes along the way, but this is probably pretty much how I’ll roll. Why post it here now? Two basic reasons. First, I think this is the best way to make the presentation available to people in the name of accessibility– the CCCCs has a nice little video about this here. I haven’t had a lot of people in my audience over the years who have had some kind of disability where they have requested a transcript or what-have-you, but it has happened, and this is a lot easier than me handing out a paper document.

Second, there’s so much going on at the CCCCs and this session is at the relatively early time of 9:30, which means that lots of people who might be interested in this aren’t going to come to the panel. And on a closely related point: every presentation I’ve posted online has received many MANY more visits than there were actual at the presentation. I’ve already mentioned this on this site, but I’ll mention it again: I gave a talk at the Cultural Rhetorics Conference on October 31 last year. It was a nice little conference up at Michigan State, and for a whole bunch of reasons (including time of day and other things on the program), my panel had about six people in the audience. No big deal, that happens, and we still had a nice discussion.  But I am quite sure that at least ten times that many people have at least looked at the blog post that has the script and slides from that presentation.

Does that mean that we should just skip the conference thing and throw all this stuff up online? Of course not. But it does mean that I think we ought to take more advantage of the affordances of the face to face space of conferences like the CCCCs– conversation, networking, socializing, collaborating, etc.– and use spaces like this one to publish content that can be accessed before, during, and after the actual face to face event.

Anyway, read away (or not).

Posted in MOOCs, Scholarship, Writing | 1 Comment

Post from sabbatical-land 180 days to go: three miscellany items

Colleagues and friends routinely ask me if I’m “enjoying” my sabbatical. It ebbs and flows.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m getting lots done. The research and reading and writing goes on with the “MOOCs in context” project; I’m starting to line up interviews with MOOC instructors, which will make up a lot of the third section of whatever this turns out to be (let’s remain optimistic and call it a “book”). I turned in a revised draft of a chapter for a collection on MOOCs, and I have the beginnings of my CCCCs presentation. So I kind of feel like if I didn’t accomplish anything else between now and September 1 (assuming these interviews go off without a hitch), I think I would have satisfied the unspoken agreement of scholarly productivity during this time away.

At other times, I feel like I’m not really doing anything. These feelings are slightly more mixed. Sometimes, my feelings about not getting enough done are cavalier, a sort of “screw it, I earned this break” feeling. More often, my fallen Catholic guilt kicks in. And at still other times, because I really am away from teaching and the rest of the day job (the quasi-administrative duties, the appointments, the hanging around and socializing in the office, even the busy-work), I’m bored. I get things done when I’m busy; when I have too much free time, I pick up a potentially unhealthy SimCity habit.

So yes, I’m enjoying my sabbatical. Except when I’m not.

But this post is really about three miscellaneous things I have wanted to blog about for a while and things I can imagine writing about more later, but that I don’t have that much time or interest right now. So better to get something down rather than let the moment pass entirely.

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Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Sabbatical II | 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Computers and Writing, Sabbatical II, Teaching, Writing for the WWW | 1 Comment

(At least one of) The reason(s) I decided to go into composition and rhetoric: the creative writing edition

I read two pieces about the logistics of supporting one’s self as a writer yesterday and this morning– or maybe a better way of putting it is how it’s almost impossible to support one’s self as a poet or fiction writer. (Note that one can make a good living as a writer if you include in that definition the things we train our students to do: technical writing, editing, documentation, content management, social media work, web site development, writing teacher, etc, etc.  But that’s not the kind of “writer” either of these pieces is really talking about. I suppose I could parse out the problem of limiting the definition of writer to “someone who makes art,” but that’s another post for another time).

The first is an essay  “‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from” by Ann Bauer and in Salon It’s an essay about how Bauer’s life as a writer is possible because her husband’s job pays the bills, and it’s also Bauer’s critique of the many writers who come from a similar space of privilege and do not either realize and/or acknowledge how that privilege allowed them to become a successful writer.

The second is a blog post at Gin and Tacos, which is really a rejoinder to Bauer’s essay, called “Dirty Little Secrets.”  Here, “Ed” (the guy behind Gin and Tacos, who is a semi-anonymous Political Science professor in the midwest) compares the unspoken financial independence of many writers to the unspoken use of steroids by body builders, especially those posing on the covers of various muscle magazines.  Among other things, Ed writes,

“The difference between the award-winning author … and some waitress trying to write a novel around the sixty hours she works every week to stay afloat might be talent. Or it might be the luxury of sitting around and devoting 8 hours per day to writing while someone else pays the rent. That might have something to do with it.”

I see both of their points, but I don’t think the fact that almost all but the most popular of pop writers need to pay the bills with some combination of a day job, a sponsor, and an inheritance is that big of a “secret.” And I certainly never thought the body builders in those magazines were so pumped up all as a result of clean living.

I learned concretely about the money issues (or lack thereof) for creative writers while in my MFA program back in the late 1980s. I had a few classmates who seemed to have come from the sort of privilege Bauer describes, but most of my fellow classmates (like me) lacked trust funds, and it became clear quickly that despite our hopes and dreams, we weren’t going to make money from our little stories and poems.

I remember one guy– he actually wasn’t a graduate of my program but he was around as a part-time instructor– who had published a first novel that had been considered quite successful. I believe it helped him land his part-time teaching gig. The publisher only printed a few hundred copies of his book. Another guy who was in the MFA program at the same time as me had published an “award winning” novel a few years before he even started attending classes and earned his degree. He was quite full of himself; I believe he went on after the MFA program to have a series of temp office jobs.  There’s another woman who I sorta/kinda know (she was in my program a few years after me) who seems to be a lot like Bauer: she writes and publishes novels and can afford to do so because of her husband– and it might help that she lives in Europe, too. And of course the faculty teaching us in the program also obviously needed a “day job.”

In fact, I know of only two people from my MFA days who have enjoyed what I think most people would call some popular and financial success primarily as a writer. One is still a good friend and while he made a fair amount of money from a novel years ago and he still technically makes much of his living from his novels and short stories, he also teaches part-time and he lives as frugal as anyone ever. Another is Sheri Reynolds, and while I would bet that she could “just write” if she wanted to, she’s also a professor at Old Dominion University. (By the way, both of these people are super-great folks and super-talented writers).

Almost everyone else I’m vaguely aware of from my MFA days has gone on to something else besides creative writing. Judging from Facebook, a lot of my MFA peers have gone on to private sector jobs of various flavors, work with nonprofits, teaching/working in high schools, teaching college (mostly as a non-tenure-track person, but there are a few folks I know who went on to tenure-track gigs in creative writing), or on to PhD programs and, in a few cases, tenure-track jobs in other fields (like me).

So the fact that creative writers cannot live off of their writing is not much of a secret, and knowing that explains, more or less, why I went into a comp/rhet program when I did way back when. I was (and am still) risk adverse and not fond of insecure employment, so the idea of taking a series of shit jobs so I could try to “make it” just wasn’t a reasonable plan to me. And besides all that, I wasn’t sure then (still am not sure now) I had the talent to do it.

As I have written about before, I decided to go into composition and rhetoric because I knew I wanted to stay in academia (especially after I attempted to have a real job), and I knew there were jobs out there in comp/rhet.  But I also think that comp/rhet is a field that complements, complicates, and expands what I learned about writing in my MFA program. That has and hasn’t turned out to be the case. Yes, I have been able to apply a lot of what I learned as an MFA student as a writing scholar, particularly the importance of habit and craft. But no, I haven’t been able to successfully make the mental shift to move from writing scholarship to writing art. Though one of the reasons why I’m writing so much about this right now is that’s one of the goals during the sabbatical, to return to fiction for the first time in about 20 years. Wish me luck.

Anyway, to get back to Bauer and Ed at Gin and Tacos: the next time you go to a reading given by someone who has published a “well-regarded” book but not one that has been riding the top of the New York Times best seller list for at least half a year, assume that person has some combination of other work and/or other wealth. And the next time you look at one of those muscle magazines, remember that’s the steroids and the HGH talking.

Posted in Blogs, Sabbatical II, Scholarship, Writing | 1 Comment