Four (and a half?) thoughts on “social media” and academics– about Kansas and generally

Happy New Year! And I’m going to start off blogging in 2014 with something I meant to blog about a few weeks ago, a little bit about the “social media” and the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy against it.

I’m assuming most people who are reading this are familiar with what I’m talking about, but just in case: as reported here in the Lawrence (Kansas) World Journal, the state’s Board of Regents passed a policy where employees of the state’s universities can be fired for inappropriate use of social media. This apparently is the result of some tweets a journalism professor named David Guth had back in September about the shootings at the Navy Yard facility in DC.  The tweet that sent the Kansas board over the edge (apparently) was “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

I’ve got four (or so) thoughts/points I thought I’d share, but before I do, it seems to me like I ought to bracket all of this with a simple rhetorical question: What the hell is wrong with Kansas?  I mean, it isn’t just the board of regents that is a bunch of right-wingers, as this Rolling Stone piece from last June points out.

Anyway, more or less in this order:

First, for more and ongoing information on this, go read Phillip Nel’s blog, “Nine Kinds of Pie.” Specifically, you might want to check out this collection of links, which he says he’s going to keep updating. Nel is a professor at Kansas State who has been blogging about lots of stuff for a long time.  Good stuff.  And because he’s a Children’s Lit professor/scholar, Annette knows him.  Small world.

Second, this policy is so stupid it’s irrelevant. Probably. What I’m getting at is this is just so ridiculous and ill-conceived by a board who obviously doesn’t know how these things work that I just have a hard time believing that anyone working at a university in Kansas is actually going to get fired for a tweet. How exactly does this get enforced? Who’s going to be screening the tweets and facebook updates and blog posts of thousands of different employees? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would hold up in court, and it also seems to me like it would be pretty easy to circumvent in a variety of different ways– posting to social media anonymously, for example.

In a way, this all reminds me a bit of a rule/policy that was (supposedly) in place in Oregon when I was teaching at Southern Oregon University. As I understood it, faculty were not allowed to express a political viewpoint, meaning (basically?) it was against the rules for a faculty person to campaign for one political candidate or another. But the details about what this really meant were never clear to me. I suppose it would be against the rules to spend time in my classes explaining to students why they had to vote for so-and-so (which I wouldn’t do anyway), but it wasn’t clear to me if I was going to be violating this policy if I hung a campaign poster in my office or if I wore a campaign button while teaching or if I parked my car with a campaign bumper sticker on it in the faculty lot. When I asked people about this policy, they inevitably just rolled their eyes. And while I was only there for a couple of years, it seemed like a largely ignored policy to me.

Probably though. I think this “policy” will go away and this article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education implies that the board is rethinking things a bit. But like I said, Kansas is a pretty nutty state, and I for one wouldn’t want to be the professor in the Kansas system who is the “test case” for this rule.

Third, social media can be a good thing for universities, too. EMUTalk.org is a good example of that. This is more or less my “hobby” blog about EMU, though I always make it clear that this has nothing to do with my day job and it has no official connection with EMU.  I’ve been running the site for about seven years now, and while the number of hits varies quite a bit and it isn’t as high as it once was, I’m still getting on average about 10,000 hits there a month. A lot of it is critical/negative about EMU of course, but a lot of it is also positive and I think the site serves as a good source for unofficial news and campus gossip.

I also know that official folks at EMU feel the same way. I’ve met lots of them and I even get fairly regular “press release” kinds of information to post on the site from the PR folks.  And interestingly enough, no administrator-type at EMU has ever a) said anything negative to me about the site and/or b) suggested I ought to shut the site down/not publish something “or else.” I mean, I was never worried about my job because I’m a tenured full professor at a place with a strong faculty union that is not in Kansas, but I have to say that I am surprised that I haven’t received any blowback from the site.  Which brings me to my next point:

Fourth, there are consequences to all kinds of speech, and everyone– perhaps especially academics– ought to think before they tweet/post/otherwise share online.  I’m specifically not going to refer to a certain writer/blogger I reference in different ways in my two previous posts, though that’s an example of what I’m getting at. No speech is ever completely “free” and in normal face-to-face settings or in scholarship, and I think everyone understands that. If I say the wrong thing in a meeting with my department head or my colleagues, there are going to be some bad feelings and other repercussions. If I present/publish something in an academic setting that lots of other academics think is wrong, then these people will think less of me and my ideas.

But while we understand this in face to face/conventional settings, it seems like a lot of academics forget that these same rules apply online as well. There’s a false sense of intimacy created by social media: we feel like we are only posting on Facebook to our friends or to our Twitter followers, and it can feel like no one is really reading what we write. In many cases, that’s true– a lot of social media/the blogosphere goes unread or unnoticed– but anything posted online can also turn out to be awfully difficult to take back. Many years ago, educators worried about students posting things on social media that would come back to haunt them later. Now it seems like the educators are forgetting that the same is true with them.

So I’m not saying that a certain not to be named in this post rage-filled blogger/tweeter doesn’t have the right to write/post whatever she wants, and I’m not saying that David Guth didn’t have the right to post that tweet. I’m just saying that every speech act has consequences both wanted and unwanted, intended and not.

Oh, and I’m not saying I’m in favor of all of these consequences. Guth probably went too far in wishing ill upon the children of the NRA and “damning” them, but I understand his emotion and anger and his academic right to speech. I certainly don’t think this means he should get fired and I don’t think it justifies the Kansas policy.

The other example of Twitter and its consequences in the news right now is the Justine Sacco incident and this tweet:

And this post by someone who “was a communications executive for IAC, the parent company of a range of tech products such as Vimeo, CollegeHumor, and Dictionary.com.” You’d figure she wouldn’t forget the reach of social media!

Sacco was fired before her flight to Africa landed, and given who she worked for and what she did, that’s not that surprising. Though the online mob that wanted to kill and/or rape her was obviously out of line, that too is an example of unintended consequences. As I wrote about in my dissertation what seems like a million years ago now, the “immediacy” of rhetoric mediated in electronic environments can simultaneously be intimate and explosive.

Posted in Academia, Blogging about blogging, Social Networks, The Happy Academic | Leave a comment

As long as I have your attention: one more addendum on the state of the job market and decreasing tenure-track jobs in “the humanities”

Boy, mention Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman in a post about a fight on the Chronicle of Higher Education site and the hits just pile up! All of this and some tweets from Elizabeth “@badcoverversion” Keenan about trends in higher ed and non-tenure-track hiring and a whole bunch of tweets from Schuman this morning! Follow the link/follow Schuman to get the whole story, but here’s a screen-shot of those Schuman tweets:

A lot of what Schuman and her various followers are talking about is the job market in higher education, the tenure-track “haves” versus the non-tenure-track “have nots.” I get that. As I mentioned before, I have had survivor’s guilt in the past and I think it’s always a shame when anyone doesn’t get what they want/think they’ve earned/think they deserve. In my experience, a lot of people start PhD programs with wildly rosy world views about love of the field but by the end, after all the work and jumping through all the hoops, they want a freakin’ job. I understand that.  And I’m certainly not going to defend “the system” overall, in part because a lot of it is obviously not defensible, but also because there is no one “the system,” as I am attempting to detail here. Anyway, that’s what is motivating this addendum on my take on the job market– that and some procrastination from other things.

I think there’s reasonably clear evidence that there has been a decline in the number of tenure-track jobs in universities, especially in some areas like Literature, foreign languages, Classics, Philosophy, usually lumped together in the media as “the Humanities.”  This trend has been going on in U.S. higher education for at least 30 years and, on a macro-level, it is depressing and distressing. I think it’s become increasingly depressing/distressing in the last couple of years because of the attention higher ed has received about student loan debt, about things like MOOCs, about decreases in state funding, about “assessment,” etc., etc.

That said, I think there are a lot of subtle things about the world of non-tenure-track work in universities that complicate the narrative of “winners” and “losers,” of the “haves” and have nots.” All of what I’m saying here is anecdotal or based on my observations, so your results may vary of course. More or less in chronological order:

  • After I finished my MFA in 1990, I was an adjunct until I started my PhD program in 1993. But I was always a part-time adjunct, just teaching a section or two of first year writing at night while I had a “real job” as a temp and then as a PR Rep/Tech Writer for a now defunct state agency in Richmond, Virginia. I knew people who did the full-time/part-time/”road scholar” thing back then, but I always thought that was a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. It’s still a bad way to approach the world of part-time teaching,  I advise anyone I can to not do that, and I think anyone who does do this in the hopes of cobbling together work that will somehow lead to a tenure-track position is kidding themselves.
  • When I was in my PhD program between 1993 and 1996, I saw firsthand the strange irony of Comp/Rhet as a field. I knew plenty of PhD students in literature and American Culture Studies who thought it was foolish to study Comp/Rhet because all you’d end up doing is teaching freshman composition. But PhD students in Comp/Rhet were getting tenure-track jobs teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing and doing quasi-administrative work, and while most of us went into the field because we actually liked FYComp, we didn’t get much of a chance to teach it because we were assigned to other things. On the other hand, a lot of those folks who really wanted nothing to do with FYComp ended up teaching part-time or in non-tenure-track positions where a lot of the teaching load was/is– you guessed it!– FYComp. Like I said, it’s a strange and ironic field.
  • I started my first tenure-track job at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon in 1996. Ashland is a stunningly beautiful town about 14 miles from the California border. People used to come through town and stop in the English department office to drop off a CV and to plead for any kind of part-time teaching because they would do anything to be in Ashland. There were folks who had been teaching part-time at SOU for decades because they just could not fathom living anywhere else. When Annette and Will and I moved from there to southeast Michigan because of much better future job prospects (Annette was never going to get anything but part-time work there and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my position), people thought we were insane.  Anyway, my point here is a lot of people end up as part-timers/non-tenure-track faculty because they decide to put other “lifestyle” changes ahead of an academic career. So be it.
  • I’ve been at Eastern Michigan University since 1998. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and still has an enormous number of students who want to be K-12 teachers and administrators. It’s an “opportunity-granting” institution that has always had a bit of an identity problem because it’s less than 10 miles away from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My department– English Language and Literature– has had between 45 and 50 faculty for at least 45 years, which is to say that I don’t think we’ve really seen much of a decline of faculty lines in the department. But I have seen two trends that might make it seem that the department has gotten smaller. First, up until about 30 years ago, 30 or more of the faculty in the department were specialists in literature; nowadays, that number is about 17 (depending on how you count it). This is because there are now more faculty who are specialists in other fields within English Studies– Comp/Rhet, Children’s Lit, Linguistics, and Creative Writing– and also because our department has the unusual arrangement of including journalism and public relations.  Second, the nature of tenure-track work has really changed at EMU (and I think everywhere else) in that a lot of faculty are also quasi-administrators. This has always been the case in Comp/Rhet with WPA work, but I think it has become even more wide-spread.
  • The definition of “part-timer,” “adjunct,” “non-tenure-track faculty,” “lecturer,” (etc., etc., etc.) is a lot more complicated than the discussion I’ve read from some of these critiques from Schuman and others. Twitter “discussions” can be pretty ham-handed because of the 140 characters thing, but I haven’t read things a lot more subtle on Schuman’s blog either.
  • As the very useful Adjunct Project makes clear, there are of course part-time teaching positions (aka “adjunct”) where people get paid per course. According to the site, EMU pays “English” part-timers (that’s almost exclusively FYComp) $3375 per class, Washtenaw Community College pays around $2500, and U of M pays between $5500-$7985 for “English” (I’m not sure, but this might actually be in Literature) and $7500 for the Sweetland Center for Writing (tutoring and probably also FYComp– again, that’s just a guess). So even what it means in terms of money (and presumably qualifications) to be part-time at 3 institutions less than 10 miles apart from each other varies tremendously.
  • Then there are also full-time/lecturer/non-tenure-track positions at all of these places. We have them at EMU, and they’re unionized (as are the part-timers at EMU, actually), the pay is so-so, they get benefits, and they are more or less permanent jobs. I know there are similar positions at Wayne State because we have some recent MA graduates working in them. As I understand it, the University of Michigan has several layers of non-tenure-track positions. I know a couple of people reasonably well who have positions there that might as well be on the tenure-track. My point is simply this: it’s much more complicated than “either/or,” it’s much more complicated than “haves/have nots.”
  • So, to sum up and to respond to Schuman’s tweets above there in reverse order:
    • If you never assumed you were going to “beat the odds,” then why all the rage now that you have indeed not “beat the odds?”
    • The Comp/Rhet “bubble” isn’t a bubble; it’s simply about supply and demand. I think the market is tighter now than it was a few years ago because of the “Great Recession” and because there are perhaps too many PhD programs in the field, but it is still a field where people find jobs.
    • The reason why “the Humanities” thing bothers me so is because it just simplifies a more complex problem. I expect MSM to do that, but I find it depressing when people who I would assume know better do that. But no need to bow to Comp/Rhet; just acknowledge that there is no field called “the Humanities” and speak in more specific terms like German, like American Literature, etc.
    • No doubt you have to be devoted to the field to study it, to dissertate about it, to continue to engage in scholarship about it, and to teach it. I’m not arguing that people ought get into Comp/Rhet just for “the job.” But what I am saying is that anyone pursuing graduate work in a field which they love but also a field in which there are no jobs is setting themselves up for the rage and disappointment you have. This is one of the main reasons why I didn’t get into a creative writing PhD after my MFA: I knew the job(s) wouldn’t be there and I doubted my abilities and my talent.
    • And by the way, it seems to me that PhD programs in fields like German are perpetuating a sick and inhumane system by taking on students even as foreign language departments are closing down. If you want to address people who really could do something to “change the system,” talk to them.
    • It’s hard to pin down exactly the “systematic problems that made the field bad” and I’m not trying to ignore them. But short of a paradigm shift regarding funding for higher ed in the U.S. and an equally huge shift in what higher education is for– education/democracy rather than training/”a job”– I don’t see a solution.  Other than closing down some PhD programs in fields that are no longer in demand.
    • I find it strange that someone who so often takes on such an aggressive and angry voice in her writing about all kinds of things and in all kinds of places thinks I’ve been smug, full of scorn, and conducting a personal attack. Sorry you feel that way.
Posted in Academia, Blogs, The Happy Academic | 3 Comments

In which I needlessly weigh in on academic searches and “the humanities”

I’m not entirely sure why I feel compelled to post about this, but here’s a meandering response to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman that started with “Naming and Shaming: UC-Riverside English Gives Candidates 5 Days’ Notice,” continued with a response from Claire “Tenured Radical” Potter with “Job Market Rage Redux,” followed by many other posts by Schuman (too many to link to/summarize) responding in various ways, along with this post from Chuck “Dirigible Humanities” Rybak and this post from A Post-Academic in NYC about how there is no academic “profession” (about which I am reminded of a problematic argument from Baudrillard about how The Gulf War Did Not Take Place). Anyway, a few thoughts.

  • Whenever anyone in either the mainstream or the “education” media says “humanities,” they do not actually mean “the humanities” in the sense of including disciplines/fields like Art, Political Science, History, Gender Studies, Communication, etc., and they certainly don’t mean Composition/Writing and Rhetoric Studies. What folks writing about the “crisis in the Humanities” (or more specifically, the job market in “the Humanities”) mean is Literature– English mostly, but (as is the case with Schuman) other modern languages like German, French, Italian, etc. This is an important distinction. I can’t speak with any expertise about what it’s like to get an academic job in History or Poli Sci or whatever, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the academic job market in Comp/Rhet is a completely different animal than the job market in Literature.
  • The job market in Literature (and here I am speaking of English specifically, but I feel relatively confident in guessing it’s like this in other modern languages as well) has been shitty for a long long time.  When I graduated from college in 1988, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I was torn between getting into an MA/PhD program in literature or an MFA in fiction writing. I ended up in an MFA program because of the opportunity/assistantship at Virginia Commonwealth and because my GRE scores in literature were horrible. In that program, I was exposed to this field I’d never even really heard of as an undergraduate called “Composition and Rhetoric” that I thought was interesting in a variety of different ways. And besides that, I had figured out by about 1990 or so that the job market in literature was just too bad/too risky for my tastes. So I started a PhD program in Comp/Rhet in 1993.My point here is this was 20 years ago. TWENTY. And for those who were really paying attention to these things, the fact is tenure-track jobs in literature have been increasingly harder to come by since the 1960s.
  • So when folks like Schuman or Post-Academic in NYC or others express “rage” about the terribleness of the job market in literature, I have to wonder what it was they thought they were getting themselves into when they started down the PhD in literature path in the first place. I mean, I had (and I guess continue to have) a lot of “survivor’s guilt” because I’ve been able to land a couple of tenure-track jobs, mainly because I’m in a field that is considerably more employable than lit. But at the same time, I think a lot of their anger– and Schuman is angry, no doubt about it– comes from this realization that they didn’t beat the odds, that they fooled themselves (and/or allowed themselves to be fooled) into believing that they were somehow immune from the job market laws of supply and demand.
  • I think Schuman is right in her complaint (which I link to above) that is is bad form for the UC Riverside people to give their candidates only five days notice for the MLA interviews.  (Though way back in 1996 when I was on the job market for the first time, I had several interviews set up with less notice than that.) I think Potter is right regarding her analysis of the rage from Schuman et al. But what I think odd is the lack of questioning of the basic process, the face to face MLA interview. In the last seven or so years, I’ve chaired three searches and been on a couple of others, and we did the screening via phone conference calls (that was like five or so years ago) or via Skype.These late 20th century technologies (especially Skype) make the face to face screening interview at a centralized conference like MLA as ridiculous as asking candidates to arrive at the cotillion in a horse-drawn carriage. There are downsides of course, just like there are downsides to talking to people on the phone rather than in person. But we saved a ton of time, a ton of money (both on our side and on the candidate’s side), it’s dramatically more comfortable and pleasant, and we’ve been able to conduct successful interviews. No MLA, no thank you.
  • Most academic searches take about a full year and in many cases because of delays and asking more than once, several years. In my experience, dealing with “Academic Human Resources” (aka, the “wonks” outside of academic departments) can be ridiculously Dilbert-like and difficult to predict or control. I could go on, but my point is this: I have no idea what was going on at UC Riverside, but I guarantee you that no one on that committee said “Hey, let’s mess with folks and only give them five days notice.  That’ll be fun!” So for Schuman and her commentators to suggest they’re doing this on purpose for some reason is some combination of stupid and naive.
Posted in The Happy Academic | 20 Comments

The end of the semester and a response to “The End of the College Essay”

A lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Sure, everyone understands the pressures students are under, but non-academic-types might be surprised by the extent to which faculty are swamped and otherwise stressed out this time of year. Everything is due and then there’s all that grading.  I was at a department XMas function last night, and there was many a weary colleague taking a break from the final climb up Grading-Grading and More Grady-Grading Mountain.

Actually, it surprises me how much grading and work so many of my colleagues seem to leave until the bitter end of the term.

The writing classes I teach don’t have finals and I learned a long time ago to assign essays so that students get my feedback (and have a sense of their grade) long before the very end and to save finals week for revisions.  That’s pretty much what happened in my Writing for the World Wide Web class this term: I finished all the grading for that last night and they have until Tuesday to revise things if they want.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #1: Overall, the class turned out pretty good and in some interesting ways. This is the first time I’ve taught WWWW in person and not online in several years, and I have to say it’s as strange of a shift for me to go from online back to a face to face class as it was when I made the shift in this class to the online space a few years ago. That was one struggle. The other was the last couple times I’ve taught the class it was in the 7.5 week summer format. The short semester can make the whole experience feel overwhelming for students and for me, but when I took the 7.5 week class and expanded it to the regular 15 week semester, it felt positively airy and even underwhelming.

I was also a lot less of a “hard ass” in this class for some reason, and I can’t really say why. Part of it was because it was a small and chummy group, a lot of it had to do with the fact that the class was face to face. I routinely get the worse student evaluations for online teaching and I think that’s pretty common for everyone who teaches both f2f and online.

A good class, but there are a few “back to basics” moves I think I’m going to make the next time I teach it, probably this summer (or “summer 1″ or really spring). Codecademy is great, but it’s not enough HTML/CSS, so I will probably be going back to one of the various big “how to make web sites” books like the Head First series so students really have to puzzle through the code a bit more; I’ll probably have a unit where we’re working specifically with a WYSIWYG app (though not Dreamweaver– too expensive and too much) to make some sites, and some more about modifying/using a CMS like WordPress (which is really the only one I sorta/kinda know). Along the way, I’ll probably keep the “Semester of Social Media” assignment because I think that’s been pretty effective, though I’ll probably retire Shirky and some of the other reading. /tangent

In grad classes that involve a lot of reading, I usually have a final to keep everyone honest.  I typically make some kind of essay/writing assignment due at the last class meeting, I distribute a take-home final at that last meeting, and while I’m waiting to collect their finals, I read/comment on/grade whatever they handed in. I collect the finals and power through them in one reading session, and I’m usually done with grading by the middle of the day after they are due.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #2: That’s what I’m doing/procrastinating about with this blog post right now, reading essays from my graduate students in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology class. An interesting group. The class started pretty much full with about 13 students in it (the cap on our graduate courses is 15) but it quickly dropped down to 8, with 7 finishing solid. I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.

In any event, it’s an online class, something that is not completely without controversy. I don’t want to spend too much time defending the merits of an online graduate course now, but I will note that the class web site has over 1500 comments on it.  If I very conservatively average those comments as being 50 words apiece, that’s about 75,000 words, or the equivalent of a decent-sized book manuscript. That’s a lot of writing about rhetoric from a small group of students to accomplish in less than 15 weeks, and if one of the marks of success of any writing class– from freshman comp to PhD seminars– is that students write a lot, then it seems to me a format that requires students to write for all interactions can be successful.

The next time I teach this, it will probably be face to face (we try to alternate that with some of these courses) and I will probably try to include for the second part of the term a book-length work. This term, I was thinking about assigning Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, but I chickened out because a) I haven’t finished reading it myself, and b) what I have read (I’m through the lengthy intro and first chapter) is quite good but potentially too much for my MA students. I did assign the introduction though and that went over fairly well. So maybe it’d be worth spending more time with the whole book? Or another very current book on rhetoric and (even indirectly) “science/technology?” /tangent2

Anyway, this all brings me indirectly to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman’s Slate piece “The End of the College Essay.” It’s an intentionally and intensely angry/attention seeking (and in that sense, quite successful) piece about student papers. Schuman’s (unsubstantiated) assumption is that students hate writing them and that she hates reading them (certainly a more substantiated claim). Here’s a typical paragraph:

Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

and this:

When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”

Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

Read the rest of it if you want more of this kind of thing, a lot of hate on students, a lot of hate on the work, etc., etc.

First off, this is what I mean about how a lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Having read some of pan kisses kafka, I think this is generally Schuman’s writing voice/shtick, and I hope it is an affectation and she isn’t really this “on the edge.” But when the end is here/near and people like Schuman (especially part-timers teaching too many classes at too many different places) are staring at a big stack of papers that represent all they have and haven’t accomplished as a teacher this semester and that stack is all that is between them and their meager holiday vacation, well, sometimes people lose their shit and throw open the window and shout at the world “fuck all of this!!!” And by the way, if you don’t want to read Schuman’s essay, “fuck all of this!!!” is a pretty accurate summary of it, in my opinion.

So in that sense, I feel her pain but it is just part of the job. I can only offer these previous thoughts and advice on grading. I’d especially recommend the timer because if you’re spending 15 hours reading final projects, you’re spending too much time, unless you have 120 students, in which case you have too many students.

Second, congratulations to Schuman for “discovering” what I think has been the conventional wisdom among composition and rhetoric scholars for decades: writing is a process and assigning “research papers” with no discussion of audience or purpose, no discussion or support for process, and no opportunity for feedback from readers is a waste of time. It’s lazy teaching that invites lazy student responses.

And personally, I hate the word “paper.” Besides the fact that I haven’t collected the physical, pulp-based substance called paper from students in at least a decade, to me the word “paper” in this context has the connotation of bureaucracy (as in “doing paperwork”) or policing (as in “show me your papers”). I much prefer the term “essay” because of its connotations of “try,” or the term “project” because there is hopefully not just one single document but rather a series of assignments and steps along the way that lead to some final presentation or essay.

Anyway, her blog post “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy” (which should be “My Un-Paper Pedagogy” but she, like most, clumsily assume that “paper” and “essay” mean the same thing) crudely sums up the conventional wisdom that I have learned and practiced as a teacher and a comp/rhet specialist for the past 25 years:  assignments with clear audiences and purposes, focused class peer review workshops, one-on-one conferences to talk about drafts in process, etc., etc. Better late than never, I guess.

And third, Schuman really seems to hate her students. That’s bad for them, but it’s also really bad for her. She ought to stop that.

Okay, on to finish my semester and that pesky MOOC book….

Posted in Blogs, Teaching, The Happy Academic, Writing | 11 Comments

Thurn’s “fall” and other MOOC notes of late

Not only am I racing to the end of the semester right now; I’m also racing to the end of the “MOOC book,” Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Online Open Courses. With any luck, I’ll be able to blog about the release date soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to write up a post that is sort of/kind of notes for MOOC things I’m reading and planning on writing about soon.

First off, the “big news” about MOOCs lately is the fall of Sebastian Thrun. This CHE piece covers most of it with links, “Academics to Udacity Founder: Told Ya.” The upshot of it is there’s a lot of academic schadenfreude being savored over Thrun’s admission that MOOCs don’t work like he had hoped. For Invasion of the MOOCs, I’m going to write a brief afterword that tries to touch on some of the things that have happened since this project first got started and a lot of these essays were originally written. In brief, I think the lesson about Thrun is more complicated than “told ya.”

The fact is Thrun dramatically over-promised the potential of MOOCs, either out of a huckster’s desire for headlines, pure hubris, naiveté about what it takes to teach at risk students online, or (most likely) some combination of all of the above. But that just means that Thrun was wrong about what he thought (or hoped) would be the use of MOOCs; that doesn’t mean MOOCs are automatically now useless. After all, when personal computers were first being contemplated back in the 1970s, folks thought that one of the main reasons why people would want a home computer was to replace boxes of recipe cards. Frequently the original purpose of a technology turns out to be flat-out wrong– and of course the original MOOC folks would have never made such ridiculous promises anyway.

Speaking of which: Audrey Watters has a handy article here, “Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013: MOOCs and Anti-MOOCs.” It includes a nice “history” of the past year, a ton of links, some great quotes, etc. I thought this was useful:

Barely a week has gone by this year without some MOOC-related news. Much like last year, massive open online courses have dominated ed-tech conversations.

But if 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” For what it’s worth,Gartner pegged MOOCs at the peak back in July, while the Horizon Report says they’re still on the horizon. Nevertheless the head of edX appeared on the Colbert Report this year, and the word “MOOC” entered the Oxford Online Dictionary – so whether you think those are indications of peak or trough or both or neither, it seems the idea of free online university education has hit the mainstream.

Besides being smart, that just gives you a taste of the links/connections to other MOOC articles out there. Good stuff.

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at this yet, but the MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) “is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a set of investments intended to explore the potential of MOOCs to extend access to postsecondary credentials through more personalized, more affordable pathways.” I do know that they sponsored a conference this past weekend. Jim Groom has a blog post about it here (via Stephen Downes) and Inside Higher Ed has an article here called “Confirming the MOOC Myth.” Judging by the comments and some of what Downes had to say about a study from the University of Pennsylvania that found that there’s not a lot of engagement in MOOCs (shocking!), sounds like there are a lot of different views of the still moving future of MOOCs.

Finally (and also a link from Stephen Downes’ site) comes “MOOCs: the C***** word is the problem!” by Donald Clark. His basic point is that the problem with MOOCs is the notion that it’s a “course” and it ought to be thought more about content. This is more or less what my contribution to Invasion of the MOOCs is about, and I know mine is not the only piece in that book that makes a similar argument. So Clark is in good company, I suppose.

Posted in MOOCs | 2 Comments

Being a professor is like having a white collar job

Being a professor is like being a rodeo clown.

Being in academia is like being in a frat.

Being a professor is like being first mate on a pirate ship in the 18th century.

Being in academia is like working in a coal mine.

Being a professor is like being a lumberjack.

Being in academe is like being in a drug gang.

Being a professor is like being a survivor on The Walking Dead.

All of these claims are stupid. Two of these claims have been advanced in actual publications in the last week or so to describe what it is “like” to be in academia, I presume for the shock value of the analogy. (If you don’t already know, you’ll have to keep reading after the break.)

Well, let me tell you the truth, folks, and hold on to your hats: being a professor is sort of like having a white collar job, and being in academia is sort of like being in academia. If you are an academic yourself, you already know what I mean. If you aren’t and/or you’re curious about what I mean, read on.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Blogs, The Happy Academic | 4 Comments

Why faculty unions and strikes are unpleasant but necessary in higher education (an open letter to Alexander Coward)

Dear Alexander

You don’t know me and I don’t know you beyond your now viral email that I saw via Facebook, and I don’t know all the details of the striking actions taking place right now in the University of California system. From what I can gather from news accounts like this one and this one, the graduate student union and the service workers union went on a one day strike/labor action to bring attention to what I can only assume is some sort of ongoing and stalled labor negotiation.

Anyway, you sent out a long email to students where you a) said you’d be covering the classes of some striking graduate students, and b) where you go into great and poetic detail about the greatness of UC Berkeley students, about the triumph of technology, and as to why the ideals of Education trumps all.  For example, you wrote:

In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think.

and:

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.

That is why I am not canceling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.

Somehow, your email “went viral,” and I suppose I’m adding to that with this post.

I think your intentions were noble– that is, I believe you when you say you weren’t trying to make a statement against the strike so much as you were trying to make a statement about Education. Now, I agree with the response of folks like Amanda Armstrong who points out in this article that students are  paying their own way through college with the help of parents (if they have the money) and zillions in student loans, and in fact “society” at large opted out of higher education a couple decades ago. And while I frankly think your email is naive and/or an example of self-serving martyrdom where you’re taking away the moral high ground from these disenfranchised grad student instructors, I am willing to believe that wasn’t your intention.

But I kind of get the impression that you don’t really know what’s going on here in terms of unions and higher education. So let me share some thoughts.

First off, if this was really a one day labor action/strike in California, it seems to me  it would have been better to encourage your students to participate in the protest, which would have helped your students to encounter the “education you get in everything you do” -type of Education you wrote about. That probably would have had a longer-lasting impression on their lives than another math class. After all, these UC labor groups supported the student rallies against the steep hike in tuition 2011; seems to me this could have been a chance to continue that lesson.

Second, I think you’re missing the point about why labor organizes into unions– everything from farm workers to baseball players to graduate students to automobile factory workers to pilots to college professors– and why those groups sometimes need to go on strike. In an ideal world, unions wouldn’t be necessary. Of course, in an ideal world we also wouldn’t need things like insurance, the police, or the fire department. And of course, we do not live in an ideal world.

I’ve been in the faculty union here at EMU since I’ve been here, 15 years now. I’ve been on strike three times–once for just a few hours, once (shortly after I got here) for a few days, and, in an especially ugly strike in 2006, for about two weeks. A long long story short, my feelings about the union are complex. There are all kinds of things the union does or doesn’t do that frustrates me and makes me feel like the union is at odds with the Educational ideals of higher education. But on the whole, I think the union is a good thing for faculty and for students. It defines the conditions of work and tenure at EMU, and since EMU is not a tier-one, elite institution like UC-Berkeley or U of Michigan or other non-unionized fancy-pants kind of university, I can’t imagine what it would be like here without a union.

Actually, I take that back– I can imagine it because I’ve seen what has happened at regional/opportunity-granting universities like EMU without unions: sudden decisions about class sizes and teaching loads with no faculty input, “furloughs,” inexplicable denial of tenure and elimination of tenure entirely, steep increases in the use of part-time instructors, on and on. We’ve had a lot of  “challenges” at EMU over the last few years to be sure, but we have’t faced these problems, and I think that’s largely because of the faculty and other labor unions on campus.

Which brings me back to the ideals of Education, the very ones you are professing, Alexander.

I think you would agree that for students to get the most out of the educational experience offered in a university, they need teachers. We can all learn things on our own of course, but education has never been about the mere delivery of content and knowledge. If it were, professors would have been replaced by textbooks centuries ago. And I also assume you would agree that the best educational experiences involve great students and great teachers, be those teachers graduate assistants, lecturers, tenure-seeking professors, etc. Now, the vast majority of people teaching in universities do it for the love of learning and the ideals of Education as a good in and of itself. But that’s not the only reason. Being a college professor/lecturer/graduate assistant is a job, and the people who perform that job are no different than anyone else in the labor force: they expect to be compensated fairly. And when professors/lecturers/ GAs don’t feel like they are being compensated fairly– when they feel like they aren’t able to uphold the ideals of the profession because of the pragmatic need and right to good wages, work conditions, insurance, and the like– they sometimes have to take action.

Alexander, I wish it didn’t have to be like this. I wish I could inhabit the ideal world you want for yourself and for your students, where values like Education didn’t have to be sullied by things like paychecks, insurance co-pays, and TIAA-CREF retirement benefits. But alas, it is what it is. Participating in the Educational Enterprise is indeed noble, and I am certain that the striking GAs would agree with you. But it’s also a job that feeds, houses, and clothes all of us, including you.

So I would suggest that your idealism about Education has forced you to overlook the realities faced by educators, and, as unintentional as it might have been, I think your lesson to students is exactly the wrong one.

Best,

–Steve

Posted in The Happy Academic, The Strike of 2006 | 12 Comments

Among other things, a Latour MOOC?

Jeez, the blogging here has slowed down. I’ve been busy enough over at my hobby/community service blog, but the main reason I’ve been so slow in any blogging here I think has been kind swamped with things like the MOOC book collection of essays, an article I wrote about MOOCs that will hopefully be coming out soon, a proposal/roundtable for Computers and Writing, a sabbatical proposal, etc., etc., etc. Nutty busy time.

But I have kind of a stockpile of links about MOOCs and related topics here, so I thought I’d do a little blogging between other writing/grading/paperwork/laundry/etc.

Before the break, I’ve got to start with two upcoming MOOCs that I am certain I’m going to take. The first is one by Bruno Latour called Scientific Humanities. I shit you not. I would embed the video of Latour charmingly introducing the course here, but I can’t so go check it out on the site. The course starts January 20, 2014, runs until March 15, and it will be in English.  It looks like it will mostly be a series of lectures from Latour targeted at more of an “undergraduate” audience, but the syllabus of the course also promises Latour will be commenting on student blogs and “participation in public debates.” Go figure.

By the way, here’s a YouTube video from something called “LifeDailyNews” where the first four or so minutes is about French MOOCs offered through something called “FUN,” which stands for France Université Numérique. It pretty much sums but MOOCs generally– nothing really new, but in French (with a translation):

The other course I’m planning on taking is Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” Based on this Inside Higher Ed article, it looks like the goal is to mix this Coursera course up with some of the stuff going on with HASTAC and other folks at a bunch of other universities, and it looks like it’s going to be an academic “blockbuster” that will “question the rules” about higher education in broad and sweeping language. Or something like that. Here’s a quote from the Coursera course intro:

Welcome!  This course is designed for anyone concerned with the best ways of learning and thriving in the world we live in now.  It’s for students, teachers, professors, researchers, administrators, policy makers, business leaders, job counselors and recruiters, parents, and lifelong learners around the globe.  The full,  whimsical name of the class is: “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future.”  That subtitle is inspired by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who has said that “all education is vocational” in the sense that it is our job, as educators, to help train people for the vocation of leading better lives.

Are we fulfilling that educational objective, from kindergarten to professional school?  Or are we training students with the methods, philosophy, and metrics designed for the Fordist era of the Model T?  Since 1993, when scientists made the Internet widely available, our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture, and our entertainments have changed tremendously.  Far too little has changed inside our educational institutions, in the US and internationally, to prepare us for the demands, problems, restrictions, obstacles,  responsibilities, and possibilities of living in the world we inhabit outside of school.  This course addresses one key question:  How can we all, together, work to redesign higher education for our future… not for someone else’s past?

Like I said, I’m signing up and I’m curious about this both because of the connection to the history of “alternative” methods for delivering education, because of the connections to technology, and also because it’s a MOOC. But I have to say these two paragraphs sound pretty puffy to me. More links/thoughts after the break.

Continue reading

Posted in MOOCs, Writing | 2 Comments

WIDE-EMU 13 is in the books

Well, we did it again: Bill, Derek, and I organized and hosted WIDE-EMU 13, the third in a row for the free unconference (sort of) we thought up in a long car drive as much as a dare as it was an effort to test the concept of what would it be like to hold a free conference.  Do a search on twitter for #wideemu to get a taste of the tweets, or take a look at this Storify put together by Laura Gonzales.

This year was a little different from the previous two. It was a little smaller than it had been the previous two years, maybe around more like 30 or 40 folks rather than 50 to 70. I think there was a bit of “I’ve done that already” by previous participants and a few schedule conflicts for a few other folks, though it also seems like there has been an uptick in similar small and local conferences within about 100 miles from here. It was also different this time in that we didn’t have a keynote speaker and decided to go with a longer lunch.

But you know what? Totally solid presentations and I think the 90 minute lunch really helped facilitate some nice discussion over a nice meal with new and old friends in the field, and for me, that’s the main point of the WIDE-EMU in the first place. And the longer lunch also gave me an excuse to have the Mr. Peanut burger at The Wurst Bar.

Some highlights for me:

  • I bounced around a bit during the first session just to make sure that everyone was situated and the like, but I  checked in on Phill Cameron’s work with the game “Tales of the Arabian Nights” as a collaborative way to develop narratives and mostly sat in on the session featuring EMU MA program alum (and now faculty at Saginaw Valley) Scott Kowalewski and current EMU folk Elisabeth Däumer, Doug Baker, and Andre Peltier.
  • For Session B, I sat in a talk about pedagogy and multimedia, again Doug Baker and two of our recent MA grads, Theresa Dark and Vicki McNiff, and what I thought was a really provoking and interestingly timed presentation from James Schrimer. Speaking if multimedia: one of the best things I learned yesterday was about an online video editing platform called wevideo that is likely to play a big role in my multimedia writing class in the winter– looks very cool.
  • After a hardy Mr. Peanut burger, I was torn between a panel that I think would have been a lot of fun– “The Best Thing I Ever Taught”– and the one I attended where Meredith Garcia from U of M talked about the fan culture around the podcast Night Vale (and why is it that artists make art like this available for free in the first place) and MA alum and PhD student at U of Louisville Jessica Winck talking about the ownership problems (well, and just the ethical problems too) of teachers posting stuff at the kind of icky site Shit My Students Write.
  • After a last session (I attended one where the all three speakers– Don Unger, Steven Engel, and Kim Lacey– all had interestingly different and related things to say about “peers”), it was time for a stop at The Corner Brewery, and again more sitting down and talking with each other about scholarship, about the field, about brewing beer, about just about anything.  All great stuff.

So, what happens next? Hard to say. Since we’ve done this three times now, it’s not a huge amount of work for us to put this thing on. I mean, between the three of us, I suspect we spent around 30 or so hours on logistics– so it’s not like it’s nothing, but it was a lot easier to do the third time than it was the first.

Still, we’re going to have to do a little re-evaluating about the fourth one of these things. I think the most likely scenario is that we’ll go to every other year or maybe every year and a half to mix up the seasons a bit. I’d like to see us get some other people involved as the leaders/organizers of all this and to see what they’d do with it. So we’ll see.

 

Posted in Academia, EMU, The Happy Academic | 11 Comments

So much MOOC news, so little time

Dang, it’s been a crazy beginning of the semester around here lately. No posts in all of September (what??) and I’ve been trying to write this post for literally a couple of weeks!

Besides all of the usual school things, there’s the upcoming WIDE-EMU 13 (more on that soon, though come on down on October 12 if you can). I’m also still working on editing a late but soon to be great edited collection of essays about MOOCs– some great contributions from people who have thought about MOOCs, taught MOOCs, and taken MOOCs. Stay tuned. We’re getting close to done.

Along with Judy Arzt, Liz Losh, Alex Reid, Jane Lasarenko, and Drew Lowe, I’m on the program for the CCCCs in Indianapolis on a roundtable called “MOOCing Back to School: A Roundtable of Professors as Students in Massive Online Open Courses” and I’m also participating in Wednesday workshop where I’m talking about MOOCs.

But wait– that’s not all the MOOC-iness. I’m also planning/hoping on putting together a proposal for a sabbatical or a research release for next year about– you know it– MOOCs, specifically something that would contextualize the quick rise and constantly moving future of MOOCs with the first generation of online classes and previous teaching technologies like television, radio, the postal system, etc. Again, stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s a whole bunch of MOOC links that are potentially interesting to me for some of these current and upcoming projects (and others might find some of them interesting too). Continue reading

Posted in MOOCs, Scholarship | 1 Comment