A #cwcon 2014 in Pullman recap

I had an educational/fun time at the Computers and Writing Conference last week in Pullman, and I promise I’ll get to that after the jump. But let me get some complaining out of the way first.

I still wish that there was something more of an “organization” behind the annual Computers and Writing Conference, something more akin to the ATTW or RSA or CPTSC or whatever– not necessarily as structured and rigid as giant organizations like NCTE or the CCCC, but something more than the current non-structured affiliation (sorta/kinda) with a standing committee of the CCCCs which lacks an electing process, term limits, and (IMO) transparency. I’ve already voiced these complaints on mailing lists like tech-rhet– and by the way, my complaining a few months ago surfaced at this conference in the form of a few people saying to me stuff like “I’m glad someone finally said something” and a few others obviously avoided me. But maybe more organization isn’t necessary since there are other more organized groups out there. Anyway, got that off my chest. Again.

I still wish C&W would be held in an accessible location more than once every four or five years. Last year it was Frostburg, Maryland; this year, Pullman; next year (and of course we didn’t know the conference was going to happen at all until a few weeks ago), it’s going to be at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, which is just over an hour’s drive away from Minneapolis.  Not so distant past locations for the conference include Muncie, Indiana; Lubbock, Texas; and Normal, Illinois. Maybe for 2016, we need to go really remote, like Guam. (Actually, that might be kinda cool, Guam….)

I am still feeling a little “conferenced out” in general, and I only went to two this year– this one and the CCCCs in March. This complaint is not about Computers and Writing; it’s about the place where I am personally and professionally with academic conferences. Sure, I can and do learn a lot from attending conference sessions (see below) and a conference presentation does count on my C.V. for something, even if only five or so people come to my session (also see below). But with my meager travel budget (this jaunt to Pullman was completely out of pocket for me since I spent my money going to the CCCCs) and with other scholarly venues to present my scholarship (e.g., here, journals, more local events, etc.), I think I really need to rethink and to cut way back on the whole conference thing.

(Of course, I say that and then I do something different. There’s a pretty decent chance that I’ll go to at least three conferences next year, though two of them would be in Michigan).

Alright, enough whining. C&W 2014 in Pullman was pretty cool.

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A Delicious Kale Salad Recipe

Yes, you read that right: I’m posting a recipe for a very delicious/vegan/low-fat kale recipe.  Why? Because I’ve made this a couple of times for different events (including a graduation party we went to last night) and people tend to ask for the recipe. That and I’m waiting for a YouTube movie to upload in the background, a video for a class I’m teaching right now.

So if you only come here for MOOC stuff, comp/rhet stuff, or my witty academic job market banter, move along. If you want to try a kick-ass kale salad recipe, read on.

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On the MLA Task Force about PhDs: Two Things On My Experiences

The MLA released a report today, “Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014).” The CHE reported about it here, “Ph.D. Programs Should Change but Not Shrink, MLA Says,” Inside Higher Ed here, “5-Year Plan,” Alex Reid blogged about it here, “MLA, doctoral education, and the benefits of hindsight,” there’s been lots of stuff on Facebook, Twitter, and I am sure more is coming.

I’ve blogged lots of stuff before about how the problems of academic employment for PhDs in the humanities are largely about supply and demand and I don’t think anything– including the steps this report recommends– is going to do anything about that anytime soon. Some of what the MLA report recommends– for example, alternative formats for dissertations, an emphasis on technology, and an emphasis on preparing PhD students to be teachers– seem a lot like what many (most?) students in composition and rhetoric are doing right now.

But I’m not going to go there now; instead, I want to focus on two aspects of the proposal based on my own experiences as a PhD student back in the mid-1990s.

First, the issue of time toward degree. I finished my undergraduate degree in four years, mainly because I never switched majors, I got a fair amount of credit from “CLEP” tests, and I went to summer school a couple of times. I finished my MFA in creative writing in two years because it was at the time a two year program (with two years of funding) and because I was kind of burnt out on going to school and I wanted to get out. I took a break (more on that in a bit) and then I finished my PhD program in three years because that was how much funding I was guaranteed, I settled on a dissertation topic in my first year, I took summer courses, I cut a lot of corners (“a done dissertation is a good dissertation” was my mantra), Annette and I didn’t have to worry about kids and the like, and because I worked my fucking ass off, pretty much every day/all day for three solid years. So, from freshman year to PhD hooding was nine years, with a three year break in-between.

Now, I will admit my experiences are probably not typical, but this speed is not the result of me being so brilliant. Far from it; ask anyone who knows me. Rather, I finished my BA in four years and my MFA in two years in part due to good timing and luck, and I finished my PhD in three years because I was determined and worked hard. Arguably, I might have been better off taking a fourth year to work on my dissertation, but I have no complaints given how everything is turned out.

Anyway, my point is this:  there is absolutely nothing the MLA as an organization or PhD programs can do to make students finish more quickly.  The sad truth is there are really only two reasons why students take too long to finish their PhDs. One is the job market in various fields is so shitty that there’s no point in finishing quickly– or for that matter, finishing at all. I don’t think the MLA report addresses this issue in any way.

The second reason is a little more abstract, but I saw it again and again as a PhD student and I see it now: a certain not insignificant percentage of students in PhD programs do not have the ability to “get it done” in any timeframe, not three years, not five years, not 100 years. Period. It’s not that these folks aren’t smart– that is usually the least of their problems; it’s just that they are incapable of sitting down and just finishing. Some folks have shitty and sabotaging advisors. Some are unreasonable perfectionists and feel like they need to read everything on their topic before they can begin to write. Some of these folks have some kind of mental block/depression/anxiety/illness/or other problem that essentially causes a breakdown. Some are just lazy, though that’s something they probably don’t see in themselves. The road to hell is paved with all kinds of ABD students trying to get one more chapter done.

In terms of the issue of “alt-ac” careers, as in “broaden career paths” and “validate diverse career outcomes:” this is silly.

I don’t teach in a PhD-granting program, but if I did and a potential student came to me and said “I’m thinking of getting a PhD in English so I can pursue a career in writing government grants or advocacy in the arts world or writing technical documentation or (insert non-academic job here),” I’d say “you are in the wrong program because the only reason you’d get this kind of degree is because you want to pursue an academic career, ideally as a professor.” At best, the alt-ac path for PhDs in English is a “plan B” for those who can’t get an academic job.

But beyond that, the vast majority of academics just don’t know anything about careers beyond academia. I had a “real” job once upon a time. Between 1990 and 1993, I did temp office work and I had a “real” white-collar job where my title was “public relations representative” but what I really did was more or less tech writing and desktop publishing. I haven’t had a job outside of academia in over 20 years, and as far as I can tell, my experience is unusual in that most of my colleagues have had zero employment experience outside of academia: that is, most of the folks I work with went from their undergraduate program to their graduate program with perhaps a few stops at service jobs along the way. They don’t know anything about the “alt-ac” track.

As Steve Newman said on Facebook, “Do we have any dependable data that the skills we teach in doctoral programs transfer to this variegated range of careers? If not, we had better see if there is any and if that doesn’t pan out then 98% of the tt faculty in English, myself included, need to take 3 year sabbaticals to acquire the knowledge and skills to train grad students properly for alt-ac. ” I don’t know Newman, but I think he’s spot-on. Ask a tenured or near-tenured professor about whatever it is that they specialize in and be prepared for a long long answer; ask this person about how to get a job of any sort outside of academia, prepare for a lot of silence.

Posted in The Happy Academic | 5 Comments

Academic Freedom/Speech and Its Consequences

Lately, I’ve been reading/skimming some interesting higher ed news stories about academic freedom/academic free speech. A lot of my reading has been about the crazy stuff going on in Kansas and that state’s Board of Regents’ rules that try to rein in the use of social media by faculty and everyone else. The go-to place for news on this, IMO, is Philip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel.  For example:

But it’s not just Kansas, of course. Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman has a piece in Slate Free to Be a Jerk” where she applauds the court victory of Mike Adams, a UNC-Wilmington professor who argued successfully that he was denied promotion to full professor based on his views. A quote:

[...]Adams’ application for promotion to full professor in 2006 was allegedly denied on the basis of his public engagement. Despite my distaste for Adams’ dumb ideas about feminism, diversity, and homosexuality, I’m glad that Adams sued the university, and am delighted that last month he won, in an important ruling that (for now) preserves a vestige of academic freedom in this country.

For although I find his views as repugnant as many found the anti-NRA tweet of University of Kansas professor Don Guth (whose kerfuffle resulted in one of the most restrictive social-media policies in all of academia), Adams’ spirited public engagement should have helped, rather than hindered, his bid. There’s precious little academic freedom left (what with fewer than 10 percent of American professors currently enjoying tenure)—but it sure as hell should include the freedom to be a schmuck.

Then there’s the whole series of craziness at the University of Saskatchewan that (as I understand it– I haven’t been following this one that closely) came about when the Provost fired Professor and adminstrator-type Robert Buckingham and had security escort him off of campus because Buckingham spoke out against a reform/reorganization plan. That apparently backfired. Badly. As recapped in The StarPhoenix article “University of Saskatchewan president Ilene Busch-Vishniac fired,” Buckingham was rehired, the Provost “resigned” (it seems to be a classic “did he fall or was he pushed” scenario), and then, as the headline suggests, the president was sacked.

Of course I am all about academic freedom and academic free speech. Of course of course of course. Nel is completely right in all of his criticism of the Kansas Board of Regents and the ridiculousness of their policy. I don’t know enough of the details about the Adams case or the mess up in Canada, but of course I’m in support of the wronged and fired here, and by the way, I’m encouraged by the developments in North Carolina and Canada because it is evidence that academic freedom is winning out in the end. Hopefully that will be the result in Kansas as well.

That said, it seems to me there are a few things we need to remember about the reality of such thought police policies and the limits of free speech, even for academics.

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If you can’t beat ‘em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues

A few days ago, Marc Bousquet posted on Facebook a link to “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The false promise of the digital humanities” by Adam Kirsch and published in the New Republic.  Kirsch obviously doesn’t think highly of digital humanities and technology at the expense of the feel and smell of paper and the old-fashioned magic of old-fashioned reading, and Bousquet obviously didn’t think much of Kirsch’s critique. Bousquet posted on Facebook about the Kirsch article twice for some reason; to quote (can I quote Facebook like this?)

Technology Is Taking Over English  http://t.co/d21kSd5opr Ahistorical & stupid cuz comes from a lit-dh discourse bypassing rhet-comp. Duh.”

and

“DH added strawberries to breakfast cereal! The era of breakfast cereal is over! Moral panic in lit makes it to TNR: http://t.co/d21kSd5opr

I agree with Bousquet: Kirsch’s piece is wrong, but it’s more than that.  I think it is in places almost perfectly, exquisitely wrong. To me, it’s like a rhetorical question that falls flat on its face because of Kirsch’s many assumptions about the problems of the digital and the purity of the humanities. And this made me realize something: it’s time for me to admit that I’m actually a digital humanities scholar/teacher and have been all along. It’s time for me to put aside petty arguments and differences (I’ll get to that below) and jump on that bandwagon. Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, Scholarship | 3 Comments

The road to hell is paved with unbought stuffed MOOCs (and other pre-sabbatical thoughts)

I’ve been re-reading The Sun Also Rises lately as my just before sleep reading, so hopefully some Hemingway folks will understand my reference. Anyway, I find myself with some MOOCs not taken regrets and some MOOC plans that might be more unbought stuffed toys.

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Posted in Life, MOOCs, Sabbatical Lite, Scholarship, The Happy Academic | 1 Comment

Don’t Panic and Bring a Towel

I’ve got at least two other blog posts in mind to write (not to mention lots of end of the semester/school year stuff), but I thought I’d try to write something this morning about Marc Bousquet’s CHE commentary “The Moral Panic In Literary Studies.”  To very briefly summarize: Bousquet notes a fairly long-standing and well-documented demand for folks with PhDs in comp/rhet relative to those with PhDs in literature and how “many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a ‘moral panic’ in defense of traditional literary studies.” Bousquet also goes on to praise composition and rhetoric generally as a field of study and one where its graduates are employable. A long quote:

That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.

Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication. Comp-rhet scholarship and teaching have revived English studies, not diminished it. Programs featuring advanced writing and digital-publication curricula have soaring enrollments, often rescuing undergraduate and graduate English programs from extinction. Over the border in South Carolina, Clemson University has an active, interdisciplinary, but English-studies-based graduate program in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Its job-placement record: 100 percent.

Aaron Barlow has a post here about this essay too, as does Alex Reid right here. I agree with both of them heartily and would encourage you to go to read them. A few brief additional thoughts:

  • I don’t know if I would necessarily use the word “panic” among my colleagues in literature at a place like EMU, an institution different than the “tier one” category of research/ivy league schools I think Bousquet has in mind. What I sense is more of a frustration with the general state of things.  The challenges a lot of my friends and colleagues in literature have is the call to “justify” themselves in terms of things like more hires and support. They tend to use the same kind of slippery commonplaces for saving “The Humanities.”  By the way, the machine generated twitter account “Save Humanities” is interesting reading in a similar context.
  • In contrast, comp/rhet as a field generally is better positioned to respond to these constant calls in higher education for justifying our existence, for accountability to “stakeholders” and taxpayers, for assessment data, etc., etc. The field has always worked at justifying its legitimacy– especially to the folks in literature who have tended to be higher up in the pecking order and who have traditionally thought of comp/rhet as a “lesser” field, one (in the words of Bousquet) that is populated with  “dullards not good enough to read poetry, … lowbrow opportunists, or—worse— … saintly philanthropists who ‘should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing.'”  What I think has happened is that the decades of explaining to colleagues why we weren’t all dullards or saints has served as good practice for making the case about the value of the field to to deans, provosts, and others who make decisions nowadays about things like faculty lines.

That’s not to say we’re all “winning.” Far from it. But if faculty lines are at least one indicator of perceived value and legitimacy within higher education, it’s hard not to agree with Bousquet’s basic point.

  • And this is not just about “young and emerging” scholars versus “the old guard,” in my opinion. I’ve seen plenty of younger/young-ish folks who are dismissive of the new and the digital and of comp/rhet and who long for the days when we could require Milton, and I’ve seen plenty of older/near retirement folks who are still seeking the bleeding edge and who talk about the digital work they’d be taking on if they were starting in the field now.
  • The rise and increased legitimacy of comp/rhet may indeed be “reviving English studies,” but simultaneously, it is leading to different institutional structures like free-standing writing departments.
  • It’s interesting for me to think about this recent Bousquet commentary relative to Ann Larson’s blog post/commentary “Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead.”  In Larson’s long and problematic essay ( I responded to in my post “Not Dead Yet”), Larson argues comp/rhet as a field is actually the problem because (among other things) it’s a field predicated on managing adjunct labor. One of the key thinkers she supports in her position is none other than the previous decade’s Bousquet:

The neoliberal transformation of the university into a corporation staffed by an increasingly precarious class of workers leads us to Marc Bousquet. In How The University Works, he argued that Composition as a discipline has had a particular role in processing under-employed degree holders, those he called the “actual shit of the system—being churned inexorably toward the outside.” Writing programs that employ low-wage teachers are often headed by directors with Composition credentials. In many departments, Compositionists help design and assess writing curricula that are then deployed by part-time teachers in the classroom. Thus, as Bousquet wrote, Composition’s intellectual work has helped to legitimate “the practice of deploying a revolving labor force of graduate employees and other contingent teachers to teach writing.”

Bousquet’s critique of Composition, which he first published in the early 2000s, inspired impassioned rebuttals from some who accused him of looking down on writing teachers and scholars from his perch as a cultural critic.  Joseph Harris wrote that Bousquet, like most faculty in English departments, treated Composition as the “instrumentalist Other of literature.” In JACPeggy O’Neil argued that Bousquet was letting tenured faculty in literary studies off the hook for their “ongoing prejudices against Composition” and that he had failed to recognize that “labor issues are intimately connected disciplinary concerns.”

Now, Bousquet’s critique from way back when (as I understand it at least) is also one that comes from within the field itself: after all, that essay that Larson cites was originally published in JAC and Bousquet is certainly not the first scholar in the field to discuss the labor problems with first year writing and the like.  I just have to wonder what he thought about being cited that way by Larson and what Larson thinks about this more recent commentary.

 

Posted in Academia, Scholarship, The Happy Academic, Writing | 6 Comments

Thoughts on “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor”

I’ve watched “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor” twice now today, even though I don’t have anywhere close to enough time to be doing that– and I don’t have time to write this post, either. But I kind of can’t help myself, I suppose….

Anyway on the positive side:

  • It’s probably the most heart-felt and honest discussion about the problems of adjunct/contingent/non-tenure-track faculty teaching writing in college I’ve ever seen.  The movie features both adjuncts and tenure-track faculty from all over the country  who are interested in these labor issues. Though it’s only about teaching first year writing– I’ll come back to that in the “not so positive side” of things– the things these folks are talking about here are raw and real.  Not a lot of punches held back.
  • I talk to a lot of MA students (or would-be MA students) who tell me that they’re interested in our program in Written Communication because they are hoping to teach first year writing at a community college and they figure they’ll get started with part-time work and take it from there. I try to explain why that isn’t the best of plans, but I think they often think I’m just being a pessimist. This video ought to be required viewing for these people.
  • There are a lot of good ideas toward the end of the movie to help with the “adjunct problem,” most of which has to do with (basically) reimagining how it is we hire people to teach courses like first year writing. What we try to do at EMU with lecturer positions is sort of an example, but it’s worth getting to the end to hear some of those smart ideas.
  • This is the clearest argument I’ve seen in a long long time in support of the “abolitionist” school of thought regarding first year writing alá Sharon Crowley and others. In brief, that position is higher education should eliminate the “universal” requirement for first year writing because the labor conditions necessary to teach so many sections of fycomp are blatantly unethical. (Often included in the abolitionist argument is the claim that first year writing is of limited pedagogical value, but I’m not going to go there for now.) So instead of making every first year student take fycomp, simply staff as many as you can with GAs, tenure-track faculty, and teaching but non-tenure-track faculty (albeit inevitably “second tier” faculty, which is its own problem) who have adequate training, who are treated more fairly, etc., etc. If that means at a place like EMU we’re only able to offer 25 sections of first year writing instead of 100, so be it.

The downside of this is you have to be careful what you wish for. If students didn’t have to take first year writing at a place like EMU, fewer students would obviously take the class, and that would have an impact on department credit hour production, which in turn would have implications beyond the adjunct problem in fycomp. That credit hour production from the required sections of first year writing helps to offset the lower enrollment in other upper-level courses and it also helps us justify tenure-track hires. Further, a lot of the adjuncts complaining now about the injustices of their current employment would simply be out of the classroom entirely.

And this brings me to some of the not so positive sides of this movie:

  • This isn’t about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in “Higher Education” generally; this is specifically and exclusively about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in first year writing. I can understand why this is the case– the folks who made this movie were adjunct first year writing teachers– but to me it’s a striking weakness of this project.  Why didn’t they talk to adjuncts in other fields? How hard would it have been to have done that? It suggests that the long-standing argument about the adjunctification of higher education generally might indeed be mostly limited to first year writing, and if that’s the case, then the solution of abolishing the requirement is all the more appealing.
  • It’s difficult for me as a tenured professor to know how I’m supposed to situate myself as an audience to this piece. This is the case with a lot of this genre. A lot of the commentary from adjuncts in the movie is angry and even hostile to tenure-track faculty– or it at least puts me on the defensive– with repeated claims that contingent faculty are “just as good” as tenure-track faculty, that the jobs are no different, that the conditions are arbitrary, and so forth.  Besides the fact that that isn’t true– that is, the jobs are different in a myriad of ways and tenure-track faculty tend to have more degrees, experience teaching, etc– it’s difficult for me to grab on to how I’m supposed to react to this. “We don’t like your privilege, but what many/most of us want is a tenure-track job.” “We don’t like how you are abusing us, but we want you to help us.” It’s a strange space to be in. If I’m sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help; if I’m not sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help.
  • I thought that a lot of the folks interviewed for this were oddly naive and otherwise unaware of how “the system” works regarding adjunct labor. What I mean is while I think their critiques of what’s wrong with the adjunctification of higher education are spot-on (and again, that’s what’s good about this movie), I find it surprising that they didn’t seem to know this when they started down the adjunct path.  For example, a couple of folks seemed disappointed that their part-time teaching job has turned out to not be a way to wiggle into a tenure-track position. And along these lines a lot of these folks (maybe most of them?) seemed to be trying to make the adjunct life work by stringing together gigs at two or three different places, something that is a recipe for bad teaching and grumpy teachers. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been blogging about this for a long time, maybe it’s because I’ve always told adjuncts that this is not a way to get a tenure-track job and this is not a way to make a full-time income, and maybe it’s because of my comfy job security in a tough market. It just seems a lot of these people should have known better. Which leads me to my next point:
  • There is no doubt that “the system” exploits adjuncts. They do it because (as someone says in the movie) administrators are “addicted” to cheap labor, and administrators are playing off of the “do it for the love” of the job (and not the pay or the security or whatever) that just about everyone who teaches has. The folks in this video clearly feel exploited, and one of the things that also comes up somewhat indirectly is the extent to which  exploited adjuncts are women. That said, I think these folks are allowing themselves to be exploited. Miya Tokumitsu has an absolutely brilliant essay about this here, “In the Name of Love” that was originally published in Jacobin, so I’ll just point there for the time being.
  • Because here’s the thing: I can understand the frustration and sadness that comes from being stuck in this exploited position especially after you have a dream or a calling for this work and you’re not successful at it. I was in an MFA program; I am familiar with the “failed dreams” of would-be novelists. But these folks all have advanced degrees and undoubtably could remake themselves into gainfully employed people outside of academia. They aren’t “trapped” the same way that exploited workers are in other lines of work– migrant workers, the fast food worker without a high school diploma, and so forth. Universities are exploiting folks by offering them jobs at shitty wages, no doubt about that. But folks are allowing themselves to be exploited by agreeing to take those jobs. Universities aren’t going to stop exploiting adjuncts until would-be adjuncts stop  agreeing to being exploited.
Posted in Academia, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 4 Comments

A few random thoughts on the VCU MFA reunion

"Borrowed" from Pam Gerhardt-- pamelagerhardt.com

“Borrowed” from Pam Gerhardt– pamelagerhardt.com

This coming weekend is the 30th anniversary reunion for Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program in creative writing. Originally, I thought I was going, but delays in information about the schedule of events, conflicting life events and obligations, and this pesky day job that makes getting to and from Richmond on a weekend in the middle of the term ultimately are all preventing it.

And actually as I think about it right now, that’s been the story of my life regarding reunions. I missed my 20th high school reunion because I was in Hawaii. I’m missing this one because of the above, but oddly and for unrelated reasons, I’ll be in New Orleans. Maybe I don’t actually like reunions but I am not willing to admit it. Maybe I want to lock the past in the past. There is something to be said for that.

I started in the MFA program in 1988 in large part because Greg Donovan, the director of the program then and I think the director of it now, called me up and offered me a graduate assistantship. I recall being rather coy and full of myself, saying something about mulling over other offers– which I had, sort of. I had been admitted to a couple of other programs but without funding. Greg said something like “Well, it’s not worth it to go into a lot of debt to get a degree in creative writing” and I was signed up.

At 22, I was the youngest person in the program at the time I was there– maybe up to that point. I always thought this gave me certain advantages because if I did something good, people would say “yes, and he’s only 22!” whereas if I did something bad, people would say “well, he’s only 22.”

I don’t want to romanticize it all now– there were a lot of “bad times” of various kinds and flavors, mostly of the sort that I think to happen to any 20-something graduate student living far from home– but I mostly hold on to the good. I think it says something that I’m on much better “Facebook-like” friend relations with people from my MFA program than I am with people from my PhD program. Oh, Annette and I still have some good friends from Bowling Green days, but the PhD was rather “intense” (to put it mildly) and didn’t exactly foster social bonds that well. I don’t like this word, but there was a lot more “camaraderie” in the MFA program, maybe because we were helping each other try to be artists, maybe because a short story or essay workshop class can seem a lot like group therapy. Maybe I feel that way now just because I was so much younger and way WAY more naive.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and when I get a chance to advise students now about whether or not to go into a creative writing program, I always say that it’s a great opportunity just as long as you realize that it doesn’t inherently translate into a job after you finish. You won’t find a lot of ads on Craigslist or Monster.com that say “MFA in fiction writing required,” with the exception of jobs actually teaching creative writing, and those positions are few and far between. What I got out of it was the luxury and privilege of being with a group of other people who all cared passionately about their writing. In a lot of ways, it didn’t even matter a whole lot if that writing was any good or not.

And who knows? I’m on sabbatical next winter (the story of that is another post I’m mulling over), and it might be time for me to take up foolish things again, things like making something up.

Posted in Friends, Fun, Life, Writing | Leave a comment

CCCC 14 in Indianapolis Recap

A recap of (for me) a very MOOC-centric CCCCs, more or less in this order and/or with some recall help from my Twitter feed as notes:

  • Indianapolis is about a four hour drive from Ypsilanti, so even though I wasn’t all that excited about going there specifically (or unexcited– Indianapolis strikes me as being the quintessentially average midwestern city), it’s nice being close enough to drive. That won’t be the case for a few more years– Pittsburgh will be in 2019.
  • I wasn’t very diligent about making hotel arrangements early because I sort of figured I could find a cheaper hotel near the conference hotel a month or so in advance.  No dice– nothing was available Tuesday night and all of the downtown hotels were about the same price, I guess because of other conventions/events going on, including an enormous middle school/high school girls volleyball tournament. Luckily, my friend, colleague and much better planner Derek Mueller made a reservation at the conference hotel and I was able to room with him.
  • Unlucky for me though, I had to leave early Wednesday morning to be on a roundtable discussion about MOOCs that was part of the Council of Basic Writing Pre-Conference Workshop.  Made it with about 40 minutes to spare. A good chat and I got a chance to reconnect with MOOC book contributors Jeff Grabill and Ben McCorkle, and I also got a chance to briefly participate with an interest group at the CCCCs that is largely foreign to me.
  • Spent some time playing with the Twitter stream #4C14 and posted this picture of a tweet of a previous tweet of me taking a picture of the Twitter stream screen. Perhaps its best not to think about that too much.
  • The JW Marriott was a pretty swanky-nice place and one of what seemed like 5 Marriott hotel products within a five block radius, but wifi in the room was $15 extra, so I spent a fair amount of time Wednesday afternoon (before going off to functions like the Purdue party) in the lobby with the laptop, catching up– always catching up….
  • Thursday was my main busy day. I started off by doing something I haven’t done in a while: I attended one of these publisher focus group things where they are simultaneously seeking advice and trying to sell you a product. I don’t want to be too specific least I violate some clause in my agreement to participate (though I don’t remember signing anything like that), but it was about an online/portal product. What I was more struck by than anything else was the variety of different kinds of institutions and approaches to things like first year writing represented. It’s a problem for publishers for sure. I mean, courses like “Biology 101″ are pretty much taught the same way everywhere, so it’s relatively easily for publishers to produce textbooks that satisfy a broad audience. On the other hand, the dozen (or so) people at this focus group thing represented a dozen or so different approaches to “freshmen comp,” and some of the differences were pretty striking.
  • Jim Ridolfo and I had a nice moment in the Parlor Press booth. Here’s a picture I took of him taking a picture of his book The Available Means of Persuasion; here’s a picture he took of me doing the same with Invasion of the MOOCs.
  • I went to a session called “Composition MOOCs and Pedagogy by the Thousands:  Reflections on Four Open Education Innovations” that featured Joe Moxley and Rebecca Burnett, and also comp/rhet teachers and MOOC book contributors Karen Head, Kay Halasek, and Denise Comer.  A good talk, and some of the takeaways for me:
    • Running MOOCs is very labor-intensive, involving lots and lots of people who all have to be involved in changes/revisions (“it takes a team”), lots of hours of time developing them, etc., etc. Kay described the model as “not sustainable” in terms of labor and time (this seemed to be the sentiment of others too), which seems to me to be obviously at odds with those who see MOOCs as part of the “solution” to the cost problems of higher education.
    • There were a lot of interesting questions/discussion coming out of this group about why students sign up for MOOCs in the first place and just what exactly MOOCs are for.  Everyone on the panel was quick to say they didn’t think their MOOCs should be for credit at their institutions and they implied they shouldn’t be for credit anywhere else. Of course, that’s not what a lot of administrators and legislators are thinking.
    • On the up-side, these folks all had good things to say about the interactions with students from around the world. On the downside, lots and lots and lots of problems with Coursera; stalkers; unintended consequences for students in other countries (Karen told an interesting story about some of the problems female students in Iran faced through these assignments and peer review); FERPA.
    • I tried to ask a question but it didn’t come out very well, but basically, a lot of what they were all talking about to me just suggested a further disconnect between some of the intentions of MOOCs and what has actually resulted. What I mean is I think the ideal audience for all of these writing MOOCs has been introductory college students around the world– a fairly broad audience that isn’t just made up of American 18-year-olds, but that assumes students who are just beginning higher education. Instead, what we’ve generally seen that a high percentage of MOOC students already have a degree, have no interest in the course for credit, and are taking the course for “edutainment.” Anyway, I don’t think I asked my question that well, but I also don’t think the answer was as clear as it could have been.
  • Then it was time for the session I organized, “MOOCing Back to School: A Roundtable of Professors as Students in Massive Online Open Courses.” I thought it went okay; unfortunately, Alex Reid couldn’t make it, but he did blog about what he would have said here. I thought Liz Losh’s opening statement was pretty interesting because I think it was a preview of her forthcoming book The War on Learning. For what it’s worth, here’s a link to my opener. I think the real value of the discussion was during the Q&A, and I guess the thing I remember now was it occurred to me during the session how our reactions as MOOC students was a lot more mixed than the reactions/presentations about MOOCs from teachers in the previous session. It makes me wonder: what would it be like to bring a group of actual first year composition students to the CCCCs and have them talk about their experiences in the class? Where would there be overlap and discrepancies from the teachers’ experiences?
  • After that, it was a book signing/meet-n-greet sort of thing in the Parlor Press booth for Invasion of the MOOCs. It was cool, though kind of weird too.  I actually did sign two books, one for a friend and one for a very nervous grad student, which was both kind of flattering and a little strange. But it was nice meeting some of the contributors and just generally kind of hanging around and getting some good vibes about the book project.
  • Then I went to a session organized by Derek, “Polymorphic Frames of Pre-Tenure WPAs.” I missed the first couple of speakers, but they all did these short “ignite” styled presentations and put them on YouTube, so follow that link and you can get a pretty good flavor.  I thought it was a pretty good and spirited discussion, though it also made me feel old because I interviewed at least four of the people on that panel. Thursday night was the annual Bedford-St.Martin’s party (always a hit, especially with the grad students looking for free food and drink) and then some dinner with Benninghoff, Bill, and one of Bill’s old grad students.
  • Friday was quite a bit more low-key. I spent a fair amount of time working in the lobby bar (always catching up and online teaching never sleeps), which was actually a kind of good way to socialize– folks would come by and chat with me, I’d work some more, etc. I went to the Committee on Computers in Composition and Communication (or the “7Cs”) which I kind of had to go to after stirring the pot about the conference on the tech-rhet mailing list. And I had a fantastic night out with my friends Karen and John Mauk. We went to a place called Harry and Izzy’s Steakhouse, which is the “sister restaurant” of St. Elmo’s Steakhouse. Besides steak (obviously), both of these places are known for some pretty dramatically sinus-clearing cocktail sauce with their shrimp cocktail. Great stuff.

So a good conference for me, one of the best CCCCs I’ve had in memory. I guess a lot of it has to do with the book– I got a lot of positive vibes/shout-outs for it and it’s kind of cool to have people coming up to you and saying they’re going to buy it or they’ve downloaded it or are looking forward to it or what-have-you. And I also got a lot to think about in terms of the sabbatical project on MOOCs– or potential project. More on that later.

Addendum: As I mentioned originally, I went to the 7Cs meeting on Friday afternoon at the conference, mostly because I kind of felt like I had to after “stirring the pot” a bit on the tech-rhet mailing list. Someone on Facebook wondered why I didn’t talk more about that 7Cs experience, so I thought I’d add more– a slightly edited version of my email response on tech-rhet.

I did attend the open meeting part of the 7Cs (or 8Cs– whose counting?) and I’m glad I did for a number of reasons. First, I think the last time I went to something like this was when there was C&W-type SIG event way back when. I can’t recall ever going to one of these meetings nor reading any sort of minutes/results/communication from this group, and I have to blame myself for that. Granted, I think that the information about the committee is a little opaque and hard to find (more on that in a second), but it’s my own fault that I didn’t know how this committee works. After going, I realize that there is more of a structure there than I thought.

Second, it didn’t take me long at this meeting to see the point of this arrangement.  Now, a big part of me still would like to see some entity/organization/association/whatever completely independent of NCTE or the CCCCs. I think there lots of good reasons why it would be a good thing to create some distance between this community and NCTE/CCCC and I think there is some “street cred” that comes with being an independent group. But I also see why doing that would be challenging (just getting something like that off the ground would take a tremendous amount of work and I sure as heck am not volunteering to do *that*), and it probably isn’t necessary if the primary charge of such a group would be limited to running the C&W conference. I think Dickie Selfe put it really well in the open part of the meaning (to paraphrase, I hope accurately): the advantage of the current arrangement with this 7Cs committee is the board/oversight organization for the C&W conference can remain light, nimble, and comparatively informal, while simultaneously having the backing and official affiliation with a giant, stationary, formal, and
well-recognized group like the NCTE/CCCCs.

Having said that, I have two gentle observations/gentle suggestions for improving communication and transparency (and I made these at the meeting on Friday, too):

*  I think there needs to be a 7Cs meeting/report/presence at the C&W conference– even if such an open meeting might be only sparsely attended– for a number of reasons. For starters, that would make the connection between the 7Cs committee and C&W explicit. A closely related point is the overlap between the CCCCs and C&W is perhaps not quite as clear as it once was: that is, lots of people go to C&W and not the CCCCs and vice-versa. I assume if someone wants to be a member of an official CCCC committee (like the 7Cs), one has to be a member of NCTE/CCCC; so that means under the current structure that if someone wanted to get involved in the group that oversees the C&W conference (and that would include hosting the conference), they’d have to get involved in the CCCCs too. So I guess what I’m getting at is if the 7Cs is going to continue to be the “organizing structure” of the C&W conference, then it ought to be physically present at the conference to make the connection more clear and to give folks who aren’t going to get involved in NCTE/CCCC a chance to be a part of the organizational structure of C&W.

*  I think there needs to be some more robust communication about what the committee is doing, both in terms of getting the word out on future conference sites (and how to propose for future sites) and also in terms of the other activities this group has been involved in over the years. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the entire NCTE site sucks, and so the presence at http://www.ncte.org/cccc/committees/7cs is not enough and it isn’t completely up to date. The other web site associated with the group– http://computersandwriting.org/ –seems like a good idea to me, but I don’t think it’s that well utilized and is probably ripe for a re-haul/refresh/re-visioning for the group. Simply put, the best way to break down that “insider/outsider” dichotomy is to make more information about what’s going on on the inside to outsiders. The web is good for that.

By the way, while I am certainly not volunteering to start a whole new organization, I have indicated to Doug Eyman that I’d be willing to serve on the 7Cs committee and let me also publicly volunteer to take on a revamping/restarting of computersandwriting.org I’m willing to get that going, assuming that there are others out there who would be willing to pitch in a bit too.

As for the non-profit status: as far as I can tell from my modest search of legalzoom.com, it’d cost about a $1K, which is a lot more than I thought but which also doesn’t seem completely out of the question. Of course, I also wonder now if we aren’t already in this category vis a vis NCTE: that is, since we’re already associated with a big huge organization that has already established itself as an official 501(c)(3), why couldn’t people make donations to C&W and then deposit it into some kind of account at NCTE specifically earmarked for the 7Cs? And it also strikes me that filing the paperwork for becoming a 501(c)(3) is the sort of thing that a university or a lawyery friend of the group might be able to do pro-bono, maybe? And really, maybe it’s unnecessary if all the group needs is some kind of bank account that can serve as “seed money” for the next conference, as a place for donations, etc. We’re not talking about tens of thousands of dollars here.

Anyway, an interesting and informative meeting and I feel better about the extent to which the annual conference actually is “organized.” Looking forward to C&W in Pullman and also to what could be an interesting announcement about C&W in 2015.

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, The Happy Academic | 5 Comments