And one more thing about football: location matters

This is sort of a “PS” to the post I had the other day about EMU on HBO Sports:

The joint report issued by the Faculty Senate, the EMU-AAUP, and EMU Student Government is getting some ripples of attention in the mainstream media. I don’t know what the chances are that these efforts succeed, that EMU really does drop football entirely and instead joins a non-football conference like the Horizon League (if they would have us, I have no idea how that works), but I like that the fight is underway.

There was a good article in the Detroit Free Press by David Jesse, “EMU in the market for new league for football?” I wanted to specifically highlight this quote from the EMU-AAUP’s Howard Bunsis:

“Culturally and geographically, EMU football will simply never succeed from an attendance and financial standpoint… It is a losing proposition — always has been, and always will be. We hardly raise any money for football, and our attendance is the lowest in the country. Some of you believe that we are close to succeeding, if we just throw more money at the situation. This proposition is insane.

Another way of putting it: we live in the shadow of Big Blue.

Culturally, EMU is not entirely a “commuter campus” (because there are a lot of people who live on campus or within about five miles of it), but we definitely have a lot of students who drive in from one of the various Detroit suburbs and then go home. We also have a lot of students (maybe the majority? I’m not sure) from working-class backgrounds who are working too many hours to pay the bills. Go to any “service industry” kind of place in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area and I’m betting that at least 25% of the people working there are students at EMU. And we also have a lot of non-traditional students, 25+ year-olds with families and kids and the like. None of these people have time for or interest in football.

Geographically, we’re around seven miles from the University of Michigan’s campus, and if you are a college football fan– even one attending EMU– there’s a better chance you will root for the Wolverines rather than for the Emus Eagles. After all, the Wolverines are one of the most successful football programs in the history of the sport, period. Why wouldn’t you root for them? (Unless you went to Iowa as an undergraduate, but I digress).

Just to give you an example of what I mean: my son is finishing up his freshman year at the University of Michigan. He could have bought student section tickets for football before school started, but he has very little interest in sports so he passed. And yet he ended up buying tickets to a couple of the early games this last fall (when tickets are comparatively easy to get), and he’s likely to get season tickets next year. Why? “Because that’s what everyone does,” he said, “everyone” meaning all of the people he has been hanging out with in his dorm.

The culture at Michigan is essentially the opposite of EMU. You’re an “outsider” oddball if you take no interest in things like football there. Even very very casual fans like my son get swept up in the excitement of it all. Plus the students who attend the University of Michigan are the most traditional of traditional college students: 18-22 year olds from upper-middle class/wealthy backgrounds who are all living very near to campus and who generally have a lot of free-time on their hands.

The point is it’s not just that EMU can’t compete in the MAC; it can’t compete in the neighborhood.

Update: Just to give you an idea about how seriously the administration and the Board of Regents is taking the recommendation of this report from the faculty and the students, here’s a copy of an open letter to the EMU community:

Open letter to the Eastern Michigan University
campus community, alumni, friends and supporters

In the past several days, there has been considerable media coverage of reports that indicate that Eastern Michigan University is considering eliminating football, or reducing support for football by dropping down to a lower division of the NCAA and by dropping out of the Mid-American Conference. These reports are not based on any solid factual information. We have absolutely no plans to eliminate football or move into any other division or conference.

We are pleased to be a member of an outstanding conference, the Mid-American Conference, where all of our sports and our talented student athletes have the opportunity to compete at the highest levels with neighboring institutions in the Midwest. Any headlines or claims that Eastern is considering dropping football, or reducing our support of the program in any way, are false.

We are 100 percent supportive of our current Athletics administration, particularly Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Heather Lyke. She has assembled an outstanding support team and we already have seen positive results in terms of continuing Eastern’s championship traditions in a number of our sports, as well as in many new initiatives to increase revenues. As an example, year-to-date, fundraising has increased by nearly $430,000.

Two-and-a-half years ago, she hired an outstanding football coach in Chris Creighton. Now entering his third year and with the majority of the team now made up of his recruits, we believe the best is ahead in terms of on the field and academic performance. We believe very strongly in Coach Creighton and his efforts to rebuild the program.

We want to collectively reiterate that any notion, suggestion, or headline that in any way suggests Eastern is considering eliminating football or moving into another conference or division, is absolutely false. We will remain proud members of the Mid-American Conference football family for a long, long time.

Sincerely,

Interim President Donald Loppnow
President-Elect James Smith
Mike Morris, Chair, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Mary Treder Lang, Vice Chair, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Michael Hawks, Chair, Athletic Affairs Committee, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Dennis Beagen, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Michelle Crumm, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Beth Fitzsimmons, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
James Stapleton, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
James Webb, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP, Ypsi-Arbor | Leave a comment

EMU is the poster child for spending on college sports out of control on HBO Real Sports Ep 229: “College Costs”


Once again, EMU is is the poster child for out of control spending in sports, this time on the HBO show Real Sports in a story reported by a guy named John Frankel. Eastern comes out looking pretty bad, and in reality, I think the actual situation right now is even worse.

While the trailer suggests this is mainly about Eastern, the episode is at least as much (if not more) about Rutgers in New Jersey. They’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars right now in order to buy their way into contention in the Big Ten (which, logically, is now 14 universities). In the last 12 years (at least according to the guy they interview in the show), Rutgers has lost over $300 million on college sports. Making matters all the worse is Rutgers has spent a ton of money on coaches that they’ve had to fire and buy out. Though one thing Rutgers potentially has going for it is since they are the enormous flagship university for the state of New Jersey, they might be able to pay off a lot of that debt thanks to alumni and just being a part of the Big Ten.

And they also talk to the president of Paul Quinn College, Michael Sorrell, and how they gave up on football. I think Sorrell makes great arguments and I love the fact that they turned their football field into a small farm/enormous garden to grow food for campus, but given that Paul Quinn College has under 300 students, I think the comparison between it and Rutgers and EMU is pretty thin.

Those problems with this report aside, it does captures a lot of what is going on at EMU and what has been going on here for years. HBO interviewed EMU professor and EMU-AAUP former president/former treasurer (I’m actually not sure what his role in the union is right now) Howard Bunsis. According to Frankel (and I guess Howard), EMU has lost $52 million in athletics in the last two years. “For all the spending, Eastern Michigan has not had a winning football season in 20 years. It’s lone claim to fame? It draws the smallest attendance of any team in all of top tier division one football. Yet this year, the team outfitted the team in three different helmets and three different uniforms, and paid its coach more than anyone else on campus.”

They did an interview/feature of a student named Kelly Adams, someone they described as a “non-traditional student,” which is of course a pretty typical student at EMU. I’m not sure she added a lot to the discussion other than to put a name and a face with what I think is a pretty typical student at EMU.

And Frankel interviewed Interim President Donald Loppnow, and his answers were pretty, um, bad. Frankel asked about Ramone Williams, the EMU student who was in the news in late 2015/early 2016 because he was homeless, living more or less in campus buildings and in his car. Loppnow said something like “a lot of our students have difficult circumstances.” Then Frankel asked about the EMU Food Pantry that has opened up– I think just this last semester. It went like this:

“And how much funding does Eastern Michigan provide for the food pantry?”  Frankel asked.

“At this point it’s strictly through donations, but we’re looking at building it into ongoing service.” Loppnow said.

“So that’s zero.”

“I wish that we could do a lot lot more to address these needs.”

“But you’ve got the money, you’re just spending it in a place that isn’t helping those in need.”

“I understand what you’re saying” said a visibly uncomfortable Loppnow. “It’s part of the overall debate, and frankly, we will be funding these areas that you indicated.”

Mark Maynard has a good post here where he quotes from a long news story where EMU Regent Jim Stapleton claimed that the board was looking at “everything,” including football. The Freep has a story here with the predictable “not planning on cutting athletics but all option are on the table,” but at the same time maintaining the idea that participating in division one athletics is an “investment” by the university. MLive followed with a story of its own and the usual hater of all things EMU comments.

But here’s what all these stories are leaving out and why I’d argue this situation is even worse:

EMU is in the midst of a budget crisis. It’s been a rumor for a long time and was the subject of an email from none other than Interim President Loppnow earlier this week where he announced that there wouldn’t be across the board but “strategic” budget cuts across all units.

What the EMU administration hasn’t been talking about is this current budget crisis is essentially a self-inflicted wound. It’s not a result of cuts from the state– that funding I believe has been fairly stable or slightly rising for few years– but rather the result of everyone on the Board of Regents and in Welch Hall believing the unrealistic projections in terms of enrollment and tuition dollars that were being presented by President Susan Martin and Provost Kim Schatzel. Well, now these two– both of whom come out of business backgrounds, mind you– are long gone: Martin retired, and Schatzel wrapped up her term as provost/interim president in December and is now the president at Towson University in Maryland.

So, what we’re looking at here is a financial crisis that is the result of bad management by the university’s top leaders and negligent oversight by the board. Maybe this latest of many stories about money pit that is athletics at EMU will truly make the powers that be take a “hard look” at the football team and such. More likely, the new president and the BoR will double-down on football, and we’ll be cutting past bone in academics yet again in the name of looking at “everything” and making “strategic” cuts.

And do not even get me started on the DID crap! (Though I’ll be blogging about once the dust there has settled…)

Update:

There was a joint report issued by the EMU Faculty Senate, the EMU-AAUP, and EMU Student Government about the budget woes at EMU and the ridiculousness of EMU athletic spending. I uploaded it as a slideshare.net document here. Lots of charts and graphs, and the recommendation is EMU ought to get out of the MAC and join the Horizon league which doesn’t require us to be in football.

 

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP | 4 Comments

#4C16 Recap, deep in the something of Texas

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.

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

Expanding on a Twitter Talk with @saragoldrickrab

Social media platforms like Twitter are useful for all sorts of things, including making connections with scholars/writers “out there” in academia and beyond. But these platforms aren’t very useful to host/sponsor a more thoughtful discussion about some complicated topic. Twitter is particularly bad at this.

This is why I thought it’d be useful (at least for myself) to create a blog post responding to the 25 or so Tweets I received from @saragoldrickrab last night (and another eight or so this afternoon).

And just to be clear: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Goldrick-Rab. She’s a rock-star academic who writes lots of smart stuff about education policy (I blogged here about a piece she wrote with Audrey Watters about Kevin Carey’s book), and I also blogged previously about a “Twitter storm” she was in back in July. So I’m not writing this as some effort to “mansplain” anything to her or anyone else; I’m trying to parse this out a bit more for myself and anyone else who might be interested.

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Posted in Academia, Social Networks, The Happy Academic | 1 Comment

50

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.

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In the Primary on Tuesday in Michigan, I’ll Probably Vote for Hillary…

… 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.

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About that slide show at the University of Houston on how to be a professor and avoid being killed: a few miscellaneous thoughts

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:

Slide15

So, several thoughts, more or less in this order:

  • I am very much against these kinds of concealed weapon laws and the rampant arming of America and my hope is that there will be a swing in the U.S. Supreme Court (RIP, Scalia) and in federal and state legislatures in the next few years and some level of sanity can return. I have no problem with people having guns to hunt or shoot targets or whatever, and I guess you can get a gun to protect yourself if you want (though I think there is a lot of evidence out there as to why that’s a bad idea). I think there are reasonable lines to be drawn in terms of licensing gun owners, restricting automatic weapons, concealed weapons, etc. Sadly, nothing is going to change for at least the next few (5? 10?) years.
  • Frankly, the biggest concern I have about these kinds of rules allowing more guns on campuses is for students. As Casey Boyle pointed out on Facebook the other day, dumb accidents are bound to happen– as it is, half of our students are carrying around cracked up smart phones they dropped; imagine the number of students shooting themselves or others because they drop their damn gun. And don’t even get me started on the dorms and student apartments because it doesn’t take a gun safety expert to see that adding guns into the mix for young twenty-somethings who are drinking/smoking weed/whatever else (did you know college kids did these things?) is not a great idea. As it is, there’s a shooting pretty much every weekend at some college campus in this country, usually at some late night off-campus party. This isn’t going to help.
  • And I think that the argument that people with concealed weapons could stop the “crazy shooter” from killing is goofy. I didn’t attend this session (it was a scheduling thing for me), but there was an “active shooter” training for my department not so long ago, and as I understand it, one of the things that happened was someone burst into the meeting unannounced with a gun (obviously fake) and demonstrated just how impossible it would be for anyone but Jason Bourne to save themselves or anyone else against someone who has the element of surprise and a loaded gun. So I don’t know if this new law is going to lead to more shootings, but I sure as heck know it isn’t going to stop many/any.

On the other hand….

  • Let’s keep in mind that the fear that the UH faculty senate is responding to with these slides is not new with this law. This list of school shootings in the  U.S. on Wikipedia says that the first school shooting in this country was in 1764. (This list lumps K-12 schools and higher ed schools into the same category.) Obviously, the number of shootings and their accompanying deaths and injuries has been increasing, and those increases have been pretty dramatic in recent years.
  • Guns are really only the most dramatic problem faculty face from potentially dangerous students. The last EMU-AAUP contract has some language on “Student Conduct” because there were a number of incidents of students harassing faculty (typically male students and female faculty). As I wrote about in the old EMUTalk days here, there was a case at EMU where it took the administration six weeks to remove a disruptive student from a particular case, and there was at least one story that I heard about a faculty member who had a restraining order out against a student and that student was in her class and the university was slow to do anything about it.
  • The point is these threats are a) not new, and b) not limited to guns. Again, I think this new law in Texas is alarming for all kinds of different reasons, and I certainly would not be happy if the same thing were happening in Michigan (and for all I know, it will be happening in Michigan sooner than later). I’m just saying that working in schools have always had this element of danger because schools are “soft targets” filled with a lot of vulnerable people. Back in 2013, I blogged about a ridiculous article that claimed professors had the “least stressful” job. One of the categories of stressors in this article was “meeting the public,” and as I wrote back then, the people who think professors have it made because they only work with students forget the fact that students are “the public.” And to quote myself: “Every professor/ lecturer/ adjunct/ graduate assistant I know can tell you several hair-curling stories about dealing with students/the public who were insulting, mean, weepy, drunk, scary, crazy, potential violent, lazy, rude, and/or all of the above. Honestly, working with the public/students is often the best and the worst part of the job, and it is definitely one of the sources of stress in my life.”
  • Taking guns out of the equation, those first three bullet points (no pun intended) on that slide are actually not bad advice. I blogged last August in sympathetic terms about trigger warnings, and there’s something to be said for that here. Teachers should be “sensitive” when discussing sensitive topics. I don’t know about “dropping certain topics from your curriculum,” but if you’re teaching something that is going to get students so angry that it might incite violence, well, maybe that ought to be re-thought. I’m very much for challenging students’ thinking and assumptions about the world, but that’s different than trying to create conflict.
  • Most faculty already do some flavor of the last three bullet points. I don’t give students my phone number or my home address, and while I’ll meet grad students I know at a coffee shop near campus or this near-campus hangout called The Corner, I generally limit my face to face access to students (outside of the classroom or my office) to some place on campus like the student center. I try to meet students by appointment as often as necessary– not really for safety reasons but because it’s more convenient for everyone. When I meet with students in my office, I always leave the door open, though that’s more about avoiding the appearance of  sexual harassment or some other false student charge against me. (And by the way, I’ve never had any sort of charge like that from a student, but I’ve always felt like it’s best to meet with students in a semi-public space. Better safe than sorry).
  • Frankly, this slide bothers me more:

Slide13

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?

  • And then finally, the gallows humor/practical parts of me says that maybe this is another reason why it’s worth it to teach more online.
Posted in Academia, EMU, Teaching | 1 Comment

So, what do we know about EMU’s new president, James M. Smith?

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.

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP | 2 Comments

A few thoughts on a side trip to the Clinton Presidential Library

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:

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Big Data(s), Small World(s)

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:

1
The Elements of Style
Strunk, William, 1869-1946
2
Republic
Plato
3
The Communist Manifesto
Marx, Karl, 1818-1883
4
Biology
Campbell, Neil A., 1946
5
Frankenstein
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851
6
Ethics
Aristotle
7
Leviathan
Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679
8
The Prince
Machiavelli, Niccolò, 1469-1527
9
Oedipus
Sophocles
10
Hamlet
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?”

Posted in Academia, Digital Humanities, Scholarship Review, Teaching | 1 Comment