A few random thoughts on Cecil, @bittman, and chickens

I got into a mini-debate on the Twitters with @TrabiMechanic this morning about an article Mark Bittman wrote for Vox, “Eating Chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion.”  So I thought I’d write a blog post with a few more details and/or random thoughts about all this, and I thought I’d do it in the form of a blog post since, you know, 140 characters isn’t very much.

I’ll start off by quoting from the first couple paragraphs of Bittman:

If the outcry over the killing of Cecil the lion tells us anything, it’s that people are capable of genuine moral outrage at the needless killing of animals. And good for them. Animals are conscious beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain, and we have an obligation to make their lives as good as possible.

But in a given year, the typical American will cause the death of 30 land animals, and 28 chickens, by eating meat. And these animals aren’t just killed, they effectively live lives of constant torture and suffering — not directly at the hands of the people who eat them, but at the hands of the meat producers who sell them.

And then it goes on from there to talk about the evils of factory farming generally, etc.

Okay, a few thoughts as they occur to me:

  • That Vox article that is linked to in the Bittman piece, “Cecil the lion: The killing that’s enraged the internet, explained” gives a pretty good run-down of what happened and the debate around it, including (apparently) the debate as to whether or not regulated big game hunting is potentially a useful tool in the conservation of these animals. I don’t know enough about conservation to weigh in on that debate, though I heard a joke on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show that has a ring of truthiness to me that went sort of like this: If the number of a certain species in the wild does not exceed the number of seats in a large sports arena– say at least 50,000– then you shouldn’t be able to hunt it.
  • Two other rules of thumb: first, it’s probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that has a name, and it’s also probably a bad idea to hunt an animal that is (as described in that Vox article) sort of a beloved mascot. Maybe trophy hunter dentist Walter James Palmer didn’t know about all that, but I’ll bet his guides knew which lion he was shooting. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment.
  • Not that I have a problem with hunting generally– you know, deer, ducks, fishing, other things that people commonly kill for both sport and food. I eat meat so while I don’t think a whole lot of people in this country hunt only for food (for example, while the people I know who hunt deer typically have the animal butchered and made into tasty sausage and the like, I know that a lot of the reason they hunt is because “it’s fun”), I feel like it’s a little “holier than thou” for me to condemn hunters while I’m eating a porterhouse steak.
  • Speaking of eating meat:

Which is to say that not only do I eat meat, I also follow a lot of Mark Bittman’s recipes– which obviously include a variety of meats, including chicken. Granted, Bittman has also advocated pretty strongly for a “vegan before 6” sort of diet, which (when I can and when I’m paying attention) I try to follow as much as I can. Maybe more vegetarian before 6 than vegan, and hey, I just had some leftover chicken parmesan for lunch today, but still. And really, Bittman’s main complaint is factory farming, which is a legitimate problem that is hard for the average middle American consumer to avoid in any food product, including vegetables.

  • All of which is to say that I think the claim that eating chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion is specious at best. There are lots of things morally worse than killing Cecil the lion– to reference Godwin’s law for a moment, let me suggest that actions of the Nazis generally and Hitler in particular– and I think the connection between big game hunting and eating chicken is pretty non-existent. We could more easily talk about how this incident illustrates the problems of ongoing colonialism in Africa, about eco-tourism run amok, and about American/rich white guy privilege. And we could also talk a bit more about the demographics of the people on the Internets who are as or more upset about the killing of this lion than the murder of far too many African-Americans by police recently: that is, is it moral for people to be as or more outraged at the killing of this lion than Michael Brown?
  • Rhetorically, I find this an interesting exigency because of how it has been spread via social media and the like. For me, a lot of this has to do with rhetorical situation and my (long long ago) dissertation project on Immediacy, but it’s more than that too. I’m reading (and maybe teaching some of) Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which tells the story of several folks who have been shamed in different ways on social media. One of the more (in)famous stories is of Justine Sacco, who made a bad and insensitive joke on Twitter– “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”– and who was so ferociously attacked on social media that she really did pretty much have her life ruined. As far as I can tell, Ronson’s argument is that in the age of the internet, when such a public shaming can spread like a meme and frequently go way too far, there should be some kind of space or opportunity to forgive people for one bad mistake. Mostly, I agree with that, though there’s a big difference between Sacco and Palmer is that while she might have been stupid and insensitive, he might have broken the law, which is why Zimbabwe wants him back.
  • Anyway, if anything good comes out of this, I hope it’s more awareness that these two unrelated things, big game hunting and factory farmed chickens, are kinda bad.

Posted in Scholarship | 2 Comments

I am not sure what Kevin Carey is imagining here….

I started this on Sunday night while a bunch of folks were at my house playing a very very involved board game called Civilization. I did not play along. It is a long story, but the short version is I instead cooked what turned out to be a pretty good and more elaborate than I was planning dinner, and when it comes to playing games generally, I really have to be in the right mood and with the right game. I like game theory a lot more than actual games.

Anyway, late in the night while they were playing (the game went on for about 10 hours and still hadn’t finished), I got around to reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” I came to it via a commentary from a response Cathy Davidson had on HASTAC, “Universities are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Cary and NYT,”  and also on Facebook.

Carey opens with the story of an athletic scandal at UNC where student athletes were taking classes that were technically legitimate classes but where the lack of recognizable requirements (like not having to attend) helped the less scholarly of student athletes to stay eligible for sports. It seems to me that stories like this cheating scandal pop up every few years, but that’s a problem of college sports and not “college” generally, and probably a different post. Then Carey writes:

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

Let’s try to walk through that logic for a moment:

  • Big-time college sports tempt coaches, students, and even sympathetic professors/fans to create “in-house credit mills.”
  • While most colleges (presumably) don’t have a lot of this kind of problem, the design, value, and operation of most other colleges are “no different” from the school where these fake courses happened.
  • Therefore (I guess?), colleges/universities are “not coherent” when it comes to consistency, standards, classroom excellence, and influencing teaching and learning practices.

So for me, part of this is “well, duh,” that there is cheating in big-time college athletics. Obviously. As Davidson points out in her post, what Carey’s example demonstrates is a problem with college sports rather than college. But why would Carey (or anyone else) think that from this example it logically follows that the colleges across the board have no consistency/standards/oversight when it comes to teaching and learning practices? I know op-ed commentators are fond of the hasty generalization fallacy, but this seems a bit of a reach even for Carey.

Having read Carey’s book The End of College (and one of these days, I’ll blog a more extensive review of that), I think I know where he’s trying to go here. In his book, one of the main problems Carey has with higher education are the damn professors because professors are too independent, too lazy, too focused on their research, too indifferent to teaching, too petty, etc. So in Carey’s view, there’s no coherence or standards in higher education– that’s why it’s an illusion– in large part because professors get away with doing whatever it is they want to do. More on that in a moment.

But at the same time, Carey argues here that the college experience doesn’t vary much between schools. Carey wants to make this argument because one of the other points he hammers on in The End of College is that college rankings are way out of control. He cites Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, authors of How College Affects Students, which appears to be a giant and long-standing study on the question of (duh) how college affects students.  Carey writes:

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

And a little later:

 People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

If it’s true that at the level of big data that there isn’t much difference between different four year colleges– that is, you put all the undergraduate students attending “traditional” universities that grant bachelors degrees and those students come out statistically close to the same– then that means that there actually is a lot of consistency and coherence in higher education. And broadly speaking, I think this is true: that is, I believe that the experiences that EMU graduates have in terms of personal growth, subject knowledge, and academic skills are similar to those of University of Michigan graduates (though of course, individual results vary quite a bit). In other words, because the best available research suggests that there is a lot consistency, coherence, and statistical similarity between between different universities, there is no need for the mandated standardization and regulation Carey implies is necessary to make the college a less “illusionary.” Indeed, it isn’t an illusion at all.

But I want to dwell on that second paragraph I quote here because it demonstrates the problems I see with Carey’s “logic” generally. He begins with a claim that I think most people in higher education would actually agree with, that most people learn a lot in college regardless of what college they attend. Then he slips into a claim that the differences that exist within higher ed are a result of the “autonomy” and “academic freedom” of individual professors, and those professors are not “guided by a shared sense of educational excellence” at all. Rather, these damn individual professors are all just a bunch selfish entrepreneurs who bitch and complain about parking. Jeesh.

As Davidson points out in her post, if we’ve learned anything from the “No Child Left Behind” nonsense forced on to K-12 in this country, the absolute last thing we need is more regulation to curtail individual approaches to teaching, autonomy, and academic freedom. As she writes, “We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.”

But beyond that, who are these “professors?” Depending on how you define permanent work and the “tenure track” in higher education, at least 70% (maybe more) of the folks doing the teaching aren’t professors at all; rather, they are graduate students, part-timers, and full-time instructors who might enjoy job security through renewable contracts (or not– some full-timers are on contracts that are not renewable after 3-5 years). These folks are not professors in that they are not usually required to do the research and service/administrative work of professors (that’s certainly the case at EMU), and, for better or worse, they don’t enjoy the level of autonomy and academic freedom of professors. Take our first year writing program, for example, one that is similar to a lot of first year writing programs in that almost everyone teaching classes in it are not professors (full disclosure: I’m the interim associate director of that program right now). We have specific outcomes we expect everyone teaching the class to get their students to meet, and we have a curriculum that offers teachers options but only within the expectations of the course. We wouldn’t hire (or rehire) folks who weren’t willing or able to teach within those expectations. I can’t claim that this level of “programming” and “control” exists across the board in other disciplines, but I’m certain it isn’t “anything goes” for most of the non-professors doing most of the teaching in universities nowadays.

Further, Carey’s assumption about the level of autonomy professors (as in the 30% or so of us who are on the tenure-track) have in their teaching is wrong too. Davidson wrote a LONG comment on her own blog post outlining the steps that are pretty typical for getting a new course approved at a university, a process that more or less squares with my experiences here at EMU. The same kind of bureaucracy is in place for degree programs and any significant change to a course or a degree program. I wish I worked in the environment Carey imagines for me.

I guess what bothers me the most about Carey’s views here and in other places, notably in The End of College, is the amount of airtime it gets in places in the mainstream media like The New York Times. He purposefully sets up the most visible part of higher education– professors– as the sole problem, conveniently skipping past the bloated administrations and edu-entrepreneurs that are profiting the most from out of control tuition. He is a self-described education policy wonk who (surprise, surprise!) thinks that the problems in higher education can be solved with more strident and controlling policies and regulations.   He’s tapping into the lizard brain general public “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sentiment that always exists since things are always getting worse, and he does this by making sweeping generalizations that have truthiness to them but that are demonstrably wrong. The problem is it’s very difficult to change people’s lizard brain minds with actual logic and evidence.

Though Carey is right about one thing: the complaint that unites all of academia has to do with parking.

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 20 Comments

A short vacation post about academics on Twitter, @saragoldrickrab, and what our students don’t know

I’m on a vacation/family trip right now, and even while “away,” I tend to get up early and I’m currently enjoying a bit of peace and quiet. Almost all of the other 17 or so people sharing this giant vacation house are still asleep. So I thought I’d take a little time– just a little– to offer a few more thoughts about the Twitter conversation I had this morning. And let me apologize up front for not having all the details of this particular dust-up, for typing quickly (and thus with typos and bad sentences), etc.:

The latest installment of academics gone wild and/or “getting in trouble” on Twitter comes from CHE, “U. of Wisconsin Professor’s Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.” Seems fitting since I actually am in Wisconsin right now. Anyway, the “naughty” tweeter in question is Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in Education Policy. Here’s a quote from the article:

To several students who had tweeted their excitement about enrolling at Madison under the hashtag #FutureBadgers, Ms. Goldrick-Rab sent a link to an op-ed essay from the Journal Sentinel criticizing the removal of tenure protection from state statutes. Here are some of the responses she got:

Here CHE includes some response Tweets– here’s a link to that— where basically some not so informed college kids respond “ha ha we don’t care” and other nonsense. This was like a month ago. Then the College Republicans got involved a month later, in part because Goldrick-Rab kept on going and tweeted “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it’s terrifying.” This caused more outrage, more attacks on Goldrick-Rab on Twitter, and condemnation of Goldrick-Rab from both the UW Chancellor and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate.

And then, like I said, I stumbled into a spirited and pleasant Twitter conversation about some of this this morning.

So, a few thoughts in not a very precise order:

  • The general public doesn’t understand tenure or the difference between what it means to be a professor, an associate professor, an assistant professor, a non-tenure-track professor/instructor/lecturer, part-timer, or a graduate assistant, all of which is to say that the general public does not understand why all these professors in Wisconsin are in such a tizzy about weakening tenure. So it is not at all surprising to me that some 18 year old young people “stoked” about being admitted to UW think it is uncool for sara to kill their buzz with some sort of newspaper article, man. Because even though Goldrick-Rab is completely right, academics in Wisconsin (really, everywhere) have A LOT more work to do to explain to our students and the public at large how this all works and why this matters. A lot more work.

Most of what academics take as “common knowledge” about how higher ed works is a mystery to the rest of the world. I can recall times where some of these issues have come up informally in class discussions over the years– sometimes during faculty union contract negotiations– and I’ve taken five minutes to explain to a room full of juniors and seniors some of the basics of higher ed hierarchies, not only about faculty but also administrators. For most of my students– juniors and seniors,  mind you!– this is all new information. So again, while Goldrick-Rab is completely right, she made the faulty assumption that her audience of stoked would-be freshmen would actually understand her references to this op-ed.

  • The second mistake I think Goldrick-Rab made is the comparison to Hitler, and actually, as a general rule of thumb, I think any argument that makes a comparison to Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. to a contemporary figure– as in “Scott Walker is like Hitler”– is lazy and it’s going to cause trouble. This “x is like Hitler” trope shows up so much on Twitter because it’s shorthand and you only have 140 characters. The problem is it’s not accurate– I am no fan of Scott Walker, but I don’t think he’s likely to wage an aggressive war of domination in Europe and a systematic extermination of the Jews– and it can be taken way out of context by a group like College Republicans, who are already probably sensitive enough to informally being compared to Nazis. Anyway, my first piece of advice to any would-be academic Twitter-er: no Hitler comparisons.
  • Two other bits of advice to would-be academic Tweeters (and this is a bit of a tangent, but it came up in my Twitter conversation this morning) I’ll mention. First, Twitter is a terrible place to try to discuss anything that is at all complex or controversial, and yet academics try to use it for that purpose all the time. This is why (IMO) online spaces like blogs are still relevant and useful: instead of trying to convey all this on Twitter, I just shared a link to this. Maybe not as many people will read all of my rant here, but I am less likely to be misunderstood and/or taken out of context.

Second, academics (and anyone else, for that matter) who take to Twitter to express strong (and controversial) beliefs can’t get too upset when they are held accountable in some fashion for expressing those beliefs, especially when those beliefs actually take more than 140 characters (sans Hitler references) to convey. Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for academic free speech and I’m not suggesting that Goldrick-Rab or Steven Salaita or any other academic ought to be fired over Tweets. I’m just saying that if an academic (or anyone else) posts provocative stuff on Twitter, they shouldn’t be too surprised if a) it offends people and/or b) the message gets passed around and gets out of the writer’s control in a hurry.

  • Having said all that, I think the executive committee of the University of Wisconsin faculty senate are behaving like a bunch of wimpy knuckleheads. First off, Goldrick-Rab didn’t tell those young people not to come to UW; she referred them to an op-ed piece in Milwaukee’s mainstream newspaper about the impact of Walker’s budget cuts and rollbacks/changes to tenure. These really are things that the faculty ought to be telling would-be students; keeping them in the dark doesn’t do the students any good and it kind of indirectly supports Walker et al’s decisions. Second, what the hell is the point of faculty senate if it isn’t going to defend the faculty’s right to speak? I’m sure there are some details I’m missing here, but as reported in CHE, these people are throwing one of their own ranks under the bus. That’s appalling.
Posted in Academia, Social Networks, The Happy Academic | 15 Comments

EMU-AAUP contract negotiations and an eye on the future

By the way, this is a post I’m writing for both stevendkrause.com and for EMUTalk.org and it’s the kind of thing I’ll keep posting on stevendkrause.com once the sun that is EMUTalk.org sinks below the horizon for good in September or so.

The faculty union, the EMU-AAUP, is in the midst of contract negotiations this summer, and so far, so good. I have no detailed or inside knowledge about what’s going on, but I have chatted with a few colleagues who “know better,” and this is what has happened so far (at least according to the EMU-AAUP web site):

  • There is nothing particularly contentious on either side of the table right now. Probably the biggest fight is going to be over administration’s contribution to TIAA-CREF because the administration changed the way this works for new administrators coming to EMU so that it is a noticeably worse deal than it is right now. It’s more complicated than that, but I guess what it boils down to is the administration wants to pay less for retirement than they do right now, and the faculty obviously don’t like that idea.
  • Apparently, faculty at EMU have fallen behind our peers in terms of salaries and such, and given that the finances and enrollments at EMU are generally pretty solid, we will probably see a decent enough raise both in terms of a flat percentage and also in terms of the “bump” between assistant and associate and associate and full. Of course, the union continues to want to negotiate these raises as a flat percentage, which benefits the highest paid faculty at EMU. It is no wonder that the leadership of the EMU-AAUP has been dominated by faculty in the College of Business and the College of Technology, at least that’s pretty much been the case since I’ve been here.
  • There will almost certainly be some kind adjustment in health insurance, though that’s just an educated guess based on the fact that there has been some kind adjustment on health insurance with every contract I’ve seen.
  • The EMU-AAUP site has a blog of sorts where they have been posting updates to the contract negotiations so far, and things seem to be going smoothly. It’s early of course, and they always start with the less contentious stuff, but it looks like there will be some kind of new language/rules on student conduct, there are some changes to the way contracts work for tenure-seeking faculty that makes things a little easier, and there’s going to be some kind of “electronic dossier system” that will end the ridiculous stacks of binders and such that faculty submit for tenure and promotion and the like.

So while I wouldn’t want to predict too much, I’m not too worried about this contract cycle. I’m frankly a lot more worried about what happens next.

The next contract will be the first under Michigan’s change to a “right to work” state, which means that workers in a bargaining unit (in this case the faculty) have the right to “freeload:” that is, the union will continue to represent all faculty for the purposes of negotiations and for grievances, including faculty who decide to not pay their union dues. If enough faculty opt out of paying the dues, the union will be weaker and eventually it could go away.

Just to make matters worse (as reported in Inside Higher Ed here, “Threat to Faculty Unions”), there’s a case that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to hear next year that could further weaken public sector unions. I’m not sure it would make matters worse in Michigan or not because the IHE article makes it sound that if the court decides that a forced “fair share” fee to a union is unconstitutional, then all states would become “right to work” states.

Either way, the future is worrying. Up until this point, the union hasn’t really had to do much in the way of convincing faculty that the union was a “good idea” because everyone had to pay their dues regardless of how they felt about it. Now if the union doesn’t pay close enough attention to the faculty as a whole, they will risk losing members.

I don’t think there is going to be a bunch of faculty who abandon the union anytime soon, especially in the current unpredictable climate higher education is in, and, as I have said many times before, I am all for the union. At the same time, I think the EMU-AAUP has to make some subtle changes in how it does things.

First, it needs to continue to be responsive to the constituency generally and not just to those who are loudest. A really subtle example of what I mean: the EMU-AAUP opened contract negotiation season with this video that depicts the “battle” that as about to come as akin to one of good versus evil and with all of the drama and special effects of a summer blockbuster. Now, I get that this is a parody and it’s supposed to “fire up” the base and all of that. But a lot (most?) faculty don’t see the administration strictly as the “them” that the “us” is fighting, and the “we’re here to battle” is not exactly a tone to take at the start of what can hopefully become a mutually beneficial negotiating process.

And along these lines, I think the union has to be a little more careful in some of its communication and sometimes knee-jerk responses. A good example of this for me personally is the whole Yik Yak mess: if the EMU-AAUP had held on to its initial position of banning Yik Yak on campus (they seemed to have backed off on that), I probably would have opted out of union dues as a matter of public protest. It’s easy for me to imagine lots of other scenarios where the union leadership does something that ticks off enough people to cost them a lot in dues.

Second, I think the EMU-AAUP needs to do more to emphasize the positive, and there really is a lot of positive with the union. They need better PR and better communication. They’re starting to do that with the revamped web site (though I think there are a lot of clunky elements to the new design), but I think it needs to go further than that. Rather than assuming that all faculty see the obvious benefits to the union, the EMU-AAUP needs to sell itself a bit better than it has done in the past.

Like I said, I don’t think faculty are going to leave the union anytime soon. The one percent or so of salary that faculty pay in dues is definitely worth it to me (though one thing the EMU-AAUP might do– if this is possible– is to have more of a sliding scale on dues that is tied to salary and/or rank, which would make the incentive for lower paid faculty to skip out on dues even less– just a thought). At the same time, the future of the EMU-AAUP and of academic unions generally seems murky to me.

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP | 1 Comment

Post from sabbatical-land “less than zero” days to go: a few random thoughts and unsolicited advice

When I first started a “days to go” countdown in blog posts about being on sabbatical, I pegged the end of my sabbatical as being September 1 because I was off during the winter 2015 term and not teaching this summer. Well, a couple of things happened. First off, I never was completely “away” and I’ve really felt that lately this month with the “CyberDiscovery” camps both at Louisiana Tech the first week in June and here at EMU starting this past Monday. But second and more important, I am taking on some quasi-administrative work as the associate director of the first year writing program starting this July– and really, I’ve already started getting a few emails about all this I have to address here and there. So even though it isn’t a ton of work and responsibility (yet), it’s still not “on leave.”

The party sabbatical is over. Time to get back to work. But before I do, a few random thoughts and advice, mostly to myself.

Continue reading

Posted in Sabbatical II | 3 Comments

Seven Observations About Why Tenure is not “All That”

There’s been a lot of talk in the social networks I travel about tenure lately because of the mess in Wisconsin. For example, there are these two pieces from the New York Times, “Unions Subdued, Scott Walker Turns to Tenure at Wisconsin Colleges” and “Tenure Firmly in Place, but Colleges Grow Wary of Lasting Commitments.” Both of these articles only mention in passing the real crisis, IMO, that of the enormous budget cuts that Walker et al are forcing in the UW system.

Also, I don’t think either of these articles makes it clear that the system in Wisconsin is also unique in that tenure was specifically protected by state law– that’s what Walker managed to change. Ultimately, I suspect there will still be a system of tenure within the UW system that is more akin to the way tenure works in other states. But because of all of the emphasis on tenure, I also have a feeling that Walker et al will be able to cram through these budget cuts without a lot of pushback.

In any event, all of this has had me thinking about tenure in general and also how it has impacted me specifically. Perhaps my seven observations are all kind of obvious to other academics, but I thought I’d write them down anyway. But before I get to these points, let me offer two very important caveats/disclaimers/preferences/whatever:

  • I am for tenure. I don’t think it’s a perfect system (obviously), but I think it’s better than the alternatives. And of course, I’ve been tenured at EMU since 2002 and a full professor since 2007, and I’m not giving up tenure anytime soon.
  • I think the stuff going on in Wisconsin is insane. I worry tremendously for my colleagues and the students in the UW system, and I also worry about some of what’s happening there spreading to other states. I mean, I never thought Michigan would follow Wisconsin’s lead as a “right to work” state, but that’s exactly what happened a few years ago. I sure as hell hope that Walker’s moves in higher education don’t catch on.

Okay, my seven (or so) observations: Continue reading

Posted in Academia, EMU, The Happy Academic | 10 Comments

These hyperboles about the slow change in education make me want to eat my shoes while jumping off of a bridge, literally

My own effort at hyperbole with my post title here….

From The Wall Street Journal comes “Daphne Koller on the Future of Online Education,” It’s a pretty non-news/routine interview of Koller talking about MOOCs and Coursera, though one interesting little bit I hadn’t heard before is Coursera is planning on rolling out a MOOC MBA program. That makes a certain amount of sense, but that is also a far cry from the days where she was giving TED talks about bringing higher education to the slums of South Africa.

Anyway, what got me here was the opening paragraph:

“If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am,” says Daphne Koller, co-founder of the online-education company Coursera. The same couldn’t be said for agriculture, manufacturing and health care, she notes.

If I were to read this paragraph charitably, I’d say Koller was being hyperbolic: that is, she knew this was an untrue exaggeration meant to draw attention to her argument. The problem with that reading though is this “nothing has changed until now” trope has been invoked far too many times by her and by EdX’s Anant Agarwal and by Peter Norvig, and I’m sure by others too. It has crossed from hyperbole to “truthiness” in the sense that if you repeat something often enough, you start to convince yourself (and hopefully others) that it is actually true.

No, I think Koller et al have drunk their own kool-aid.  When Koller says nothing has changed in education for 300 years– until now!— I think she believes this to be literally the case. Think what you want about MOOCs (and my own feelings about them are much more complicated than they are “good” or “bad”), but this “nothing has changed ever in education” claim drives me crazy. So, let’s parse this out a bit: what would the professor from 300 years ago think if they were plopped into today’s classroom? Continue reading

Posted in Academia, MOOCs | 16 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Academia, Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, MOOCs, Travel | 18 Comments

Actors, Videos, Robots, and More MOOC Reading Round-up

It’s been a pretty busy and productive time in MOOC-land. I’m simultaneously working on three different “parts” of the MOOCs In Context project with the hopes of having enough to seriously start seeing if there’s a publisher interested in whatever this will end up being. I’ve got a chapter coming out sometime in the near future (yet this year?) in a collection edited by Liz Losh about MOOCs, and I’ve got some other MOOC scholarship news on my mind I’m not quite ready to announce to the whole world yet. And my garden is completely in. So it’s been a good sabbatical, one that will end sooner than I had originally planned– but that’s another post. Anyway, more of this post after the jump.

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Posted in MOOCs, Reading, Sabbatical II, Writing | Leave a comment

“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson

I’ve blogged about “the Digital Humanities” several times before. Back in 2012, I took some offense at the MLA’s “discovery” of “digital scholarship” because they essentially ignored the work of anyone other than literature scholars– in other words, comp/rhet folks who do things with technology need not apply. Cheryl Ball had an editorial comment in Kairos back then I thought was pretty accurate– though it’s also worth noting in the very same issue of Kairos, Ball also praised the MLA conference for its many “digital humanities” presentations.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had a post here called “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues,” in which I was responding to a critique by Adam Kirsch that Marc Bousquet had written about. Here’s a long quote from myself that I think is all the more relevant now:

I’ve had my issues with the DH movement in the past, especially as it’s been discussed by folks in the MLA– see here and especially here.  I have often thought that a lot of the scholars in digital humanities are really literary period folks trying to make themselves somehow “marketable,” and I’ve seen a lot of DH projects that don’t seem to be a whole lot more complicated than putting stuff up on the web. And I guess I resent and/or am annoyed with the rise of digital humanities in the same way I have to assume the folks who first thought up MOOCs (I’m thinking of the Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the world) way before Coursera and Udacity and EdX came along are annoyed with the rise of MOOCs now. All the stuff that DH-ers talk about as new has been going on in the “computers and writing”/”computers and composition” world for decades and for these folks to come along now and to coin these new terms for old practices– well, it feels like a whole bunch of work of others has been ignored and/or ripped off in this move.

But like I said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The “computers and writing” world– especially vis a vis its conference and lack of any sort of unifying “organization”– seems to me to be fragmenting and/or drifting into nothingness at the same time that DH is strengthening to the point of eliciting backlash pieces in a middle-brow publication like the New Republic. Plenty of comp/rhet folk have already made the transition, at least in part. Cheryl Ball has been doing DH stuff at MLA lately and had an NEH startup grant on multimedia publication editing; Alex Reid has had a foot in this for a few years now; Collin Brooke taught what was probably a fantastic course this past spring/winter, “Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities;” and Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo are editing a book of essays that will come out in the fall (I think) called Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. There’s an obvious trend here.

And this year, I’m going to HASTAC instead of the C&W conference (though this mostly has to do with the geographic reality that HASTAC is being hosted just up the road from me at Michigan State University) and I’ll be serving as the moderator/host of a roundtable session about what the computers and writing crowd can contribute to the DH movement.

In other words, I went into reading Jim and Bill’s edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities with a realization/understanding that “Digital Humanities” has more or less become the accepted term of art for everyone outside of computers and writing, and if the C&W crowd wants to have any interdisciplinary connection/relevance to the rest of academia, then we’re going to have to make connections with these DH people. In the nutshell, that’s what I think Jim and Bill’s book is about. (BTW and “full disclosure,” as they say: Jim and Bill are both friends of mine, particularly Bill, who I’ve known from courses taken together, conferences, project collaborations, dinners, golf outings, etc., etc., etc. for about 23 or so years).

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Posted in Academia, Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, Reading, Sabbatical II, Scholarship Review, Teaching, Technology | 1 Comment