The CCCCs in Houston just wrapped up, and since I’ve posted recaps of my experiences with the conference for at least a dozen years ago, I figure I had better post something again, even if it was mostly for myself.
Honestly, I wasn’t going to go.
The CCCCs in Houston just wrapped up, and since I’ve posted recaps of my experiences with the conference for at least a dozen years ago, I figure I had better post something again, even if it was mostly for myself.
Honestly, I wasn’t going to go.
It bothers me, and it doesn’t bother me.
It bothers me because 50 does seems a point of no return in terms of getting older, of leaving behind what was possible, of death. I generally agree that the main definition of “older” seems to be pegged at about ten years older than you are right now: that is, to 20-year-olds, 30 seems old, and so forth. My parents and in-laws are both in their mid-70s, and I hear both of them mentioning “old” people who are in their 80s. But there is no denying the oldness and general adultness that is 50. When I first started teaching at the college level as a graduate student, I was 22— far too young. Because of EMU’s tenure system, I was promoted to full professor by 40, also pretty young. But no one is going to confuse me any longer for being too young for pretty much anything I do from here on out, except for the highly unlikely event that I’m nominated as a new justice on the Supreme Court.
I have to leave behind the reality that there are things I can never be or never do. Not that I ever was in great physical condition (I mean I’m healthy, but I’ve never been athletic), but my chances at this stage of becoming particularly good at anything like golf or running are slim. I doubt I’ll ever pick up an instrument. I’ll keep writing and I might even manage to turn back to fiction and other creative work, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to pay all the bills as a writer, part of the naive dream/plan I had 30 or so years ago. There are many places I will never go, there are many things I will never do.
And yeah, death. People dying in their 50s or 60s is too young (Garry Shandling just dropped dead of a heart attack in his mid 60s), but it is also not outside the statistical realm of when it is people end. I heard some place that everyone should take a moment every day and just acknowledge to themselves that yes, I’m going to die. I don’t know what that means really— that is, I assume that the experience of being dead is an impossible to comprehend nothingness like the experience of what the world was like before being born— but I do know that’s going to happen. And in acknowledging that, I think the point is to recognize the value and urgency of every day and to simultaneously recognize the insignificance of it all. I really like the Beatles song off of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of George’s I believe, “Within You Without You,” especially the chorus:
Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you
On the up-side: I’m in a pretty good spot in my life right now, certainly better than I was for a lot of my 20s. I’m still very happily married to Annette and I’m incredibly proud of my son. I’m not the healthiest 50 year old within a 10 mile radius, I’m not the unhealthiest 50 year old, so I’ll take it. I’m quite happy with my work, and, without blowing myself up too much about it all, I feel like my career as an academic has been reasonably successful, too. I often return to something my colleague and friend Derek Mueller said off-hand one day (I’m not even sure how much he remembers this), which is that academic fame is an oxymoron, and I’m not (and will not likely become) a “big name” in my field. But I’m happy with where I’m at. We talk about moving all the time, but I’m still pretty happy with our house and neighborhood and how we’re living. We have enough money to pretty much do what we want (not that we want to do anything terribly extravagant), which is of course a huge difference between now and when I was 20-something or 30-something.
So yeah, it doesn’t bother me. Now it’s just a question of worrying about really getting old when I turn 60.
… though sure, there are a lot things about Hillary that do bug me. Long story-short, sometimes her and Bill’s careers seem a little too much like House of Cards, or vice-versa. She does seem a little too cozy with Wall Street, and I do wonder about why she’d run her own email server for personal emails instead of just getting a gmail account. So yeah, I understand my fellow Democrat (and even Republican) friends on all this.
… because at the end of the day she is the most qualified in terms of previous experience and a pragmatic record of getting shit done. I realize that in this election cycle, my support for a candidate with demonstrable “insider” experience makes me an “outlier,” but so be it.
… and I like Bernie Sanders too. If Bernie gets the nomination, I have no problem with that. I really don’t think there are many Democrats who are going to use the word “begrudgingly” in describing their support for the party’s nominee even if it isn’t their choice, which of course is not the case going on with the clown car called the Republican party. I think that Sanders running such a serious and robust campaign has made Clinton better, and if she gets the nomination, I hope she gets Sanders to do something big in the general election, maybe even as the VP. Or vice-versa.
… though I am tempted to vote in the Republican primary. I don’t understand exactly how this works, but as I understand it, Michiganders only need to be registered to vote– they can chose which primary they vote in (though I think you can only vote in one primary) regardless of party preferences. If I did vote in the Republican primary, it wouldn’t be for Trump as a way of performing a little bit of “sabotage” or whatever. No, I’d vote for John Kasich. He’s kind of a jerky conservative guy too, but he’s the only adult in the room over there, and Trump scares the hell out of me.
.., and at the end of the day, I suspect that Clinton will clinch the nomination well before the convention, Sanders will gracefully concede, the Democrats will be unusually united because the prospect of President Trump is so disturbing, and Clinton will be the first woman president. But I sure wouldn’t want to take any of that for granted, that is for dang sure.
Texas passed a law last year that makes it legal to carry concealed weapons on college campuses in that state. The University of Houston faculty senate put together a controversial slide show offering some debatable and/or dubious advice that became a story in Inside Higher Ed, the AAUP blog, local Mark Maynard’s blog, and lots of other places. Here’s a link to the actual PowerPoint slide show, but the slide everyone is talking about is this one:
So, several thoughts, more or less in this order:
On the other hand….
Really? you want me to take a poll of my students on this? Isn’t that liable to call out the one who has the concealed weapon? Isn’t that more likely to piss people off?
The super-duper secret search is over and with much surprise and little notice, the EMU powers that be/Board of Regents announced a new president on Friday, James M. Smith. Of course, by “super-duper secret search,” I mean the (IMO, bad) decision by the board to do a not at all open search and to use the same head hunting firm the University of Iowa used to hire its current controversial president J. Bruce Harreld, a business wonk with no notable academic experience and who recently suggested that unprepared teachers ought to be shot. And of course, this was also a search where the faculty senate and the EMU-AAUP made the (IMO, bad) decision to not participate in the search process based on some sort of high road principle involving taking one’s ball and going home that I still don’t quite understand.
But that’s all over now, and it looks like the main fear most of my colleagues and I had, that this super-secret would result in a president who had negligible academic experience or was clearly a political/crony hack or whatever, it looks like that hasn’t happened.
So who exactly is this James Smith guy?
Well, “James Smith” is a pretty tough name to Google (one of my colleagues suggested that might have been one of the reasons why the board picked him), so a search like “‘James M. Smith'” controversy” is pretty useless. The same cannot be said about a search like “‘John Fallon’ controversy” now, though it’s worth remembering my searching about Fallon back in 2005 didn’t turn up anything either.
As far as I can tell, the basic bio EMU has provided is about right. Smith is president of Northern State University in South Dakota, which I will admit does sound like a made-up name for a university (a “northern” in “South” Dakota? Really?) and he’s been there since 2009. Northern is like Eastern in that it seems to be a regional university that comes out of the normal school tradition, though it’s a lot smaller, like 3600 or so students. Smith has been looking to move on for at least a couple years; he was a finalist in the presidential search at Murray State in March 2014. Before Northern, he was Vice President for “Economic Development” at Bowling Green State; before that, he was dean of BGSU’s Firelands College; before that, he had various administrator/professor gigs at Indiana-South Bend and Texas A&M; and before that, he got a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Miami (Ohio); and even before that, he was apparently an elementary school teacher and principal. In short, the board definitely did not hire someone from outside of academia.
I think there are two potentially interesting issues that could come up between now and when Smith officially takes over in July. First off, EMU-AAUP President Susan Moeller sent an email out to faculty the other day saying that they “are researching whether the contract violates the terms of our union contract regarding tenure and rank.” The union and the administration have been wrestling for several years (or so it seems) over the ways that administrators who are also tenure-track faculty get promoted and such while in administrative roles, and it was a bit of a controversy last year when for a couple of administrative positions (including one I applied for) the search committee brought in candidates from outside who would have to be tenured into a home department. In at least one case that I know of, the department said they wouldn’t give that person tenure.
I suspect at the end of the day, the Board will get its way. But this really has been an issue in recent years in that I can think of at least four (probably more) folks who were hired in as an administrator who subsequently (and in most cases, rather quickly) crashed and burned and then had to resort to a position as a tenured professor, and that has often enough caused some trouble. We don’t just hand out tenure like it’s a forgone conclusion, even at a place like EMU where the requirements for tenure and promotion are modest. So to just automatically give Smith tenure— especially given he was hired in secret with zero involvement from the faculty in the department where he’d be tenured– well, that’s more than just a paperwork formality.
The second thing I wonder about is Smith’s wife, Connie Ruhl-Smith. As far as I can tell, she too is an academic interested in academic leadership, and she seems to be a reasonably active scholar. What is her role at EMU going to be? According this 2011 article, at Northern State she was the “director of special initiatives;” is that going to happen at EMU? How would EMU’s policies about employing relatives figure in? I guess we’ll see this as it evolves.
But on the whole, it looks to me like Smith is a pretty good hire. The scary thing about any kind of hiring is you never really know how it’s going to work out until it’s too late to undo it all, but I’m cautiously optimistic that EMU’s new president will probably work out.
I was in Arkansas this past weekend for a meeting/work session/subject area consulting event that’s part of a program sponsored by the NICERC— it’s a long story, but it’s been an interesting opportunity for me to participate in something that is both actually interdisciplinary (as in like people from radically different fields than mine) and that is very STEM-oriented.
Anyway, after lots of work including a half-day on Sunday and before my flight back home Monday, I went to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. I took a few pictures; a few random thoughts:
This perhaps should be two different posts, but since I don’t have that much time, I’m going to suggest some kind of connection(s) here. Maybe they’ll connect, maybe not.
For 516 this semester (this week, actually), we’re reading Jessie Moore et al’s “Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies,” coming out in the future (!) March 2016 issue of Computers and Composition. It’s a large survey that’s been going on (on and off) for a few years of over 1,300 students at a bunch of different colleges and universities about their use of “composing technologies,” which includes some of the usual things– paper, pencils, word processors– some things kind of in-between– email and blogs, for example–and some things that aren’t often considered as writing tools in writing courses, things like Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones.
The short version of their results is while a lot of what they found is not surprising (students still use paper and pencils a lot, they mostly write alone, etc.), a lot of it is interesting and unexpected– for example, the heavy use of cell phones. Further, writing pedagogy isn’t really keeping up in that we don’t do enough to integrate new technologies into school writing, “how classroom instruction can better prepare students to write effectively with these technologies when they use them for self-sponsored genres, and whether any kind of transfer occurs when students use these composing technologies to write for academic and self-sponsored purposes (10).” Though I suppose that kind of depends a bit on over-generalizing classroom instruction perhaps.
The other big data that I thought was pretty interesting as of late– really big data– was the Open Syllabus Project. There was an article about all this in The New York Times and Aaron Barlow has an interesting post about this where he digs in a little deeper into the syallabi for courses in “English.” Among many other things, Aaron notes:
The first thing that jumps out is that Allan Bloom has little to worry about. Most of the works on the list were considered ‘canonical’ even before the rise of Feminist Studies, African-American Studies and that shibboleth ‘politically correct.’ Only seven of the works aren’t by Dead White Men and only four are by African-Americans.
I haven’t had much time to play around with this database yet, but I had a sort of similar conclusion by looking just briefly at the “Open Syllabus Explorer” interface. Here are the “top ten” books assigned across all courses:
The Elements of Style
Strunk, William, 1869-1946
The Communist Manifesto
Marx, Karl, 1818-1883
Campbell, Neil A., 1946
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851
Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679
Machiavelli, Niccolò, 1469-1527
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616
The thing I find most striking here– and frankly, most bizarre– is that this “top ten” is probably pretty close to the “top ten” list of 30+ years ago when I started college, and it probably isn’t too far off to the “top ten” list when my father was in college 55 or so years ago. So, at least at first blush, the reason why people grumble about how higher education resists change is because data like this suggests that higher education resists change.
Of course, the problem with both of these chunks of “big data” are the specifics of the sources and samples. While the Moore et al study is impressive for a field where there just aren’t a lot of big studies, they have some problems that they acknowledge in terms of sampling of race. Further, almost all of the students in this study were first year students (and I have to think that juniors/seniors/graduate students would have somewhat different answers to writing genres that matter to them), and the institutions were pretty much limited to the places where Moore and her co-authors worked. I haven’t poked too far into the methodologies for the Open Syllabus Project yet, but what they say is the project “leverages a collection of over 1 million syllabi collected from university and departmental websites.” That’s pretty impressive in all kinds of different ways; however, as anyone in academia knows, one of the most consistently inaccurate places to find data about what happens in academia are departmental websites.
The other lesson I take away from both of these studies involving big data is why it’s still important to triangulate this data with smaller studies and exploration. For example, there’s this bit of puzzlement from the Moore et al study:
More surprisingly, students also report using blog technologies for e-mail, writing academic papers, texting, commenting on status messages or posts, writing research papers, and taking lecture notes. In spite of the academic-oriented genres in this list, students predominantly used blog technologies for entertainment or personal fulfillment. Again, we’re left asking what “e-mail” means to students when they see themselves doing it with blog technologies. Exploring this flexible use of genre terms would help inform the field’s understanding of how students are using the composing technologies available to them for all the writing they complete in their daily lives. (10)
It’s an interesting problem/question. If had to make a wild guess, I’d say that for at least a small percentage of respondents, “email” is an almost generic term for “Internet stuff.” But again, that’s just a guess. If there was a way to do some kind of focus group or case study with some of the folks who filled out the survey in the first place, there might be a better answer.
And I’m particularly sensitive to the news from the Open Syllabus Project that the top book assigned is Strunk and White, which is a book my students and I are reading right now! Now, I have a feeling that my approach to this book in a course called “Writing, Style, and Technology” is a little different than the approach of most faculty teaching this book. While I want my students to benefit from S&W’s advice (and really, they do have some good advice in there), I mostly am trying to get my students to read against the text, to try to dig into and question what’s going on here. It’s difficult for a lot of my students to do this, but I try.
Anyway, the point is the Open Syllabus Project (and the project of the Moore et al piece, for that matter) is good at presenting some really interesting observations, ones that I would have never guessed, such as the popularity of The Elements of Style. But this kind of big data doesn’t answer the smaller question of “why?”
Like I said last week, I’m committed to rebooting the whole blogging thing, both as related to my teaching and just my, well, blogging. So one of my errands was to clean up my RSS feeds to the blogs that I am/was following on Feedly. As far as I know, it’s the only decent-ish RSS feed reading site/tool out there, at least the only one that’s free. After I heard from Alan Levine in the comments here about Pinboard, I’m wondering if there is something else. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but even though Pinboard isn’t free, $11 a year seems like a good deal for a pretty robust service.
Anyway, this was the first time I had gone through my Feedly account– who I was following, how I had grouped these feeds– in probably four or five years. It was interesting to see how many blogs were no longer active, some not active since 2013 or earlier. But these ended blogs weren’t analogous to a place trapped in a historic moment by something like a volcano– Pompeii immediately comes to mind— because those people obviously saw what was coming. The plaster casts of their remains show them curled up in fetal positions in the face of falling ash and rock and fire. Rather, most of these blogs were left in place as if nothing odd at all had happened, as if they weren’t really ended at all. Most of these blogs’ most “recent” post was nothing new or dramatic– that is, there weren’t a lot of “farewell” messages. Most of these blogs were like that apartment in Paris discovered untouched for decades, not so much abandoned in the sense that a sinking ship is abandoned; they were just “left.”
Back in 2009, I gave a presentation at the Computers and Writing Conference about blog “endings” and the research I was trying to conduct back then. One of these days, maybe I’ll go back to that project and at least make it something to put up here. It was difficult to find people who had admitted that they had quit blogging, even with bloggers who hadn’t posted anything in over a year. But I did track down a few people who served as “case studies” for my purposes back then. I basically concluded that my case studies had stopped blogging because of what I described as a “natural decay” of the rhetorical situation (a combination of the purpose coming to an end or a sense that there was almost no audience interested), or the complete opposite problem where the blogger was acutely concerned about audience. Actually, the example I recall was of a female academic blogger who quit because she had pretty good evidence that one of her male colleagues was quasi-stalking her via her blog.
In any event, the fall of some of the old blogs I followed was striking to me, and it makes me think that I need to seek out some new blogs to follow, too.
A new semester is upon us here at EMU, and that (along with new year resolutions) has me rethinking about blogging again.
In terms of teaching, I’m returning to some blogging assignments. I’m teaching an online version of the undergraduate course “Writing, Style, and Technology,” a course I used to teach A LOT– like four or five sections a year sometimes– but now, for a bunch of different reasons, a course I haven’t taught in about three years. I use blogs in this class more or less as a notebook and pretty much the same way I described it here in my article “When Blogging Goes Bad,” which came out in Kairos almost a dozen years ago and it is still my “greatest hit” in terms of an individually written piece of scholarship. This assignment isn’t a “write whatever you want” sort of space; rather, it’s really just using a blog format/tool to collect and share a series of short (and assigned) writing prompts. It’s sort of like the old “keep a notebook” assignment, but without the hassle of paper and also the added feature that students can read (and comment on) each others’ entries.
For my graduate course, Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice, I’m giving a reboot to a blog assignment that is also kind of/sort of what I was describing back in “When Blogging Goes Bad.” I’m trying to get students to use a blog again as a sort of “writer’s notebook” to “reflect on readings and activities, to make connections to other research, and to give you a space to think about the final short writing assignment for the term.” And just to set up some clear criteria up from the get-go, I’m asking students to post at least 12 times during the term (a little less than once a week) and to comment on other blogs from classmates at least six times.
I’m doing this for my grad class mainly because I think blogging has been a practice that has been important to me for whatever limited successes I’ve had as a scholar. Facebook and Twitter and all of that are fine and they make sharing links pretty easy, but neither of these platforms makes it easy to search previous posts for links and references of various sorts– I assume that’s on purpose. A blog is a much better notebook sort of space for me to keep notes/observations and just keep track of these kinds of links, at least in terms of scholarship. My blog is easily searchable, and I’m using previous entries quite a bit in the ongoing MOOC book project and in other things. Oh, and as an aside: this is why I still use delicious too, though yeah, I’m not that crazy about the way delicious works (or doesn’t work) anymore.
Beyond that, I have had tangible benefits from blogging in that some of my blogging (particularly about EMU and particularly about MOOCs as of late) have lead to some of the most important scholarly and writerly projects of my career. I don’t get a ton of readers here– I get around 2,000 views a month, which is a fraction of what a “popular” blog gets– but I am fairly confident in saying that in an average month, I get more “views” of content here than I have get of all of my published (and supposedly worthy) scholarship in a year– maybe every 10 years. And it seems to me that if you’re a writer (and scholars are writers), you want to share your writing with others. You want and need an audience. I know a lot of scholars and writers who seem hesitant about sharing their writing too early or in a format like a blog, but sometimes I think that goes too far (and if you’re a writer who doesn’t like the idea of other people reading your writing…), and for me, I’d rather share work in progress that helps me think and that others might find interesting. Thus the blogging.
Of course, if I’m going to give an assignment that asks my graduate students to write and read each others’ blogs about once a week, I probably need to up my blog writing game myself a bit this semester/this year. Thus this post.