Spring Pea Soup with Mint

 

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Ingredients:

One very small onion, finely diced (about 1/4 cup)

Olive oil

Quart of vegetable or chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

16 oz bag of frozen green peas

About 10-12 mint leaves, plus  leaves for garnish

Two tablespoons of minced parsley

1/3 cup sour cream, plus more for garnish (or creme fraiche)

Lemon wedges and olive oil

About & Method:

This is my interpretation of a recipe from the Culinary Institute of America cookbook Seasons in the Wine Country, a really excellent book with several recipes that are among my favorites. I’d strongly recommend it. Several years ago, we started having an informal Easter dinner with our friend Rachel, her kids, and Rachel’s partner Colin. Whenever we had it at our house, I made this soup as a first course.

The kids grew up, we missed a few dinners here and there, and Rachel and Colin moved. Then on Easter during the coronavirus pandemic, we all got together on a Zoom session and talked about all kinds of things, including this soup.

I think there are two great things about this recipe. First, it’s great looking and has a lovely intense pea and, well, green flavor. Second, it is ridiculously easy to make.

  • In a 3 quart or larger pot, heat some olive oil on medium heat and lightly sauté the onions for about 5 minutes, just to soften.
  • Add the stock, frozen peas, mint (saving some for garnish), and parsley, and then bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt and pepper.  Turn off the heat and let the soup cool for 10 or so minutes.  I think the stock matters in this recipe because there aren’t a lot of ingredients here. So if you can use homemade stock, it’s worth the extra step. The original recipe talks about using fresh peas for this, but honestly, I cannot imagine that it’d be worth it shell that many peas. If I had that many fresh peas, I’d probably just eat peas and skip the soup!
  • Blend the soup thoroughly. How you do this kind of depends on what you have and/or are willing to use to do the blending. An immersion blender works well, though see the next step: if you want to strain it, you’re going to need a second pot or something that is big enough to hold the strained soup. If you have a really good blender and want to deal with blending up hot liquid (it can be kind of a mess and a good way to get burned), you can get a really fine and smooth soup. But hey, kind of chunky and not smooth is good too.
  • Here’s the optional next step: strain the soup with a fine mesh strainer. It just depends on how smooth a soup you want. If you used a good blender, you probably don’t need to do this anyway.
  • Gently reheat the soup. When it is hot enough to serve, turn off the heat and whisk in about a third of a cup of sour cream.
  • Serve it (around a cup a person), and garnish with a bit of sour cream, mint, a splash of olive oil, and lemon wedges.

No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic

The TL;DR version: this isn’t how I thought my already online classes were going to go, and, if you’re a college teacher and the way you’re trying to cope is to stick with your original plans no matter what, stop it. No one should fail a class because of a fucking pandemic.

To continue:

Continue reading “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”

What We Learned in the “MOOC Moment” Matters Right Now

I tried to share a link to this post, which is on a web site I set up for my book More Than a Moment, but for some reason, Facebook is blocking that– though not this site. Odd. So to get this out there, I’m posting it here as well. –Steve

I received an email from Utah State University Press the other day inviting me to record a brief video to introduce More Than a Moment to the kinds of colleagues who would have otherwise seen the book on display in the press’ booth at the now cancelled CCCCs in Milwaukee. USUP is going to be hosting a “virtual booth” on their web site in an effort to get the word out about books they’ve published recently, including my own.

So that is where this is coming from. Along with recording a bit of video, I decided I’d also write about how I think what I wrote about MOOCs matters right now, when higher education is now suddenly shifting everything online.

I don’t want to oversell this here. MOOCs weren’t a result of an unprecedented global crisis, and MOOCs are not the same thing as online teaching. Plus what faculty are being asked to do right now is more akin to getting into a lifeboat than it is to actual online teaching, a point I write about in some detail here.

That said, I do think there are some lessons learned from the “MOOC Moment” that are applicable to this moment.

Continue reading “What We Learned in the “MOOC Moment” Matters Right Now”

Help! I have to suddenly teach online! What should I do?

As the number of universities (including my own) announce covid-19 plans that include requiring all classes finish out their terms online, I’m imagining an increasing number of college instructor and faculty-types doing a Google search along these lines of “how to teach a course online.”

Some of these administrators requiring this move or faculty who have avoided and/or complained about online courses might want to ask for advice from people like me who have a lot of experience teaching online, though frankly, that’s far from certain. After all, MOOC developers didn’t ask experts in online pedagogy when they launched. (Which reminds me, More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs seems like it might all of a sudden be a little more relevant right now. Take a look at the free sample that includes the introduction and first chapter and if you want the book, use the promo code KRAU at checkout and then it’s only $13.77).

In case there is someone who has been asked to suddenly stop what they’ve been doing for decades (let alone all semester) in order to shift everything online, and that person did a Google search and then landed here, I thought I’d jot down a few bits of advice based on my experiences and research about online teaching.

Continue reading “Help! I have to suddenly teach online! What should I do?”

A Bit of Brainstorming About Holding The CCCCs (and other academic conferences) F2F and Online

I’m not that worried about getting and dying from Covid-19 (though I don’t know, maybe I should be), but I can understand why people are concerned both for themselves and for others, and I can understand why there have been travel restrictions and school closures and all the rest. So while it’s probably too late to contain coronavirus and perhaps we’ve all already been exposed to it anyway, I do get why events are getting cancelled and why potentially sick people are self-quarantining and the like.

Which brings me to this year’s annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, scheduled to take place March 25-28: perfect timing for Covid-19 to have everything cancelled and all of us home and alone and and constantly washing our hands, and not conferencing in Milwaukee. Well, potentially; and if the conference goes on as planned, I’m still planning to go. But that’s all still a big “if.”

Now, one of the things that’s come up a lot on Facebook and Twitter and the like is the idea of “just move it online.” I’ve been saying a version of that myself, though though long before coronavirus. I know first hand that “just move it online” is not something that just happens magically, quickly, easily, and for free. But I also have some ideas on how this might work, and because it came up on Facebook (Julie Lindquist, who is chair of the conference this year, asked me to share my thoughts) because I’m procrastinating from grading, I thought I’d write about that.

The TL;DR version: the conference should have a web site and allow online participants to share links to their online presentations on that web site.

A few disclaimers. First, I don’t have much of a dog in this fight because while I’ve been going to the CCCCs off and on my entire career, it’s just not that important of an event for me any more. Second, I have systematically avoided getting involved in some kind of CCCC or NCTE service and I’m not planning on starting now. Maybe that is a mistake on my part, but it is what it is. And third, I’m not talking about doing away with the face to face conference. I think that’d be a bad idea. Rather, I’m just talking about giving people the chance to participate while not actually being their physically, and I’m talking about a way of preserving and sharing presentations beyond the moment of reading a paper and pointing at a slide show in a nearly empty room at a conference hotel.

Fourth– and this is an important one– the CCCCs can’t “just move it online” in less than three weeks. It is simply not enough time. Yeah, it sucks and it sucks a lot, and maybe participants could try to use Google Hangout on their own (see below), but I think it’s too late for the CCCCs organizers to systematically create an official online presentation mode. What I’m talking about here are ideas to think about for next year and beyond because there are lots of reasons to make academic conferences more accessible beyond a pandemic.

With that, some brainstorming/ideas: Continue reading “A Bit of Brainstorming About Holding The CCCCs (and other academic conferences) F2F and Online”

2019 was quite the year around here

I wasn’t going to do the usual “end of the year” blog post this year (kind of clichéd, isn’t it?), plus with Trump and impeachment and guns and climate change and global crisis and with the whole world feeling like it’s on fucking fire most of the time, it doesn’t exactly feel like a time to be celebrating anything– despite the admittedly good points in the big picture of things Nicholas Kristof makes in this column.

But as I was looking over my Instagram account, I was reminded that A LOT of stuff happened for me and the family this year, and most of it was good.

So, more or less in order:

After some of the typical January/February events (our annual Mardi Gras party, for example), Annette and I took our first of what would turn out to be three (well, two and a half) trips to New York and, among other things, I managed to order a cocktail brought to me on fire.

I went to the CCCCs in Pittsburgh in March— probably the most unpleasant version of that conference I’ve ever attended, frankly. My 8 am Friday morning panel– which included the completely pleasant and always interesting Alex Reid— had a total of three people at it: myself, Alex, and an audience of one, though it happened to be the also pleasant and interesting John Gallagher. So we chatted for a while, Alex and I went off to have breakfast together, and after a bit of wondering around the halls, I actually went back to my room, packed my things, and left a night early. I’m going to the CCCCs in Milwaukee this year; I’m definitely not going to the CCCCs in Spokane in 2021; and we’ll see what happens after that.

Probably the biggest bit of family news of the year– at least the first part of the biggest news– is Will graduated from the University of Michigan and various graduation hijinks were had with both sets of grandparents. Originally, Will wanted to just do the small group graduation event for his major, and that was nice in and of itself:

 

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Probably my favorite graduation weekend moment: “oh! William Krau-Z!”

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But in the end we went to the “Big House” commencement too, and I’m glad we did.

 

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Oh yeah, then we went to freakin’ China, which I blogged about here. Amazing trip, got a chance to cross some stuff off of my list, and it introduced us to Gate 1 for travel stuff.

After a summer that included many of the usual things (a Krause family get-together in a weirdo house in Wisconsin on the Minnesota border, a quick anniversary trip to Traverse City, front-yard gardening, a little golf, no more summer teaching, etc.), we packed Will up and moved him out to New Haven, Connecticut, which brings me to the second part of the biggest family news of the year: Will began a PhD program at Yale in a version of biology I don’t really understand. Needless to say, we’re incredibly proud of him. We went out to visit him in October– this was the first part of the “half” trip to New York because we flew into LaGuardia and then rented a car to drive to New Haven– and got a chance to tour around campus and the town a bit. My personal favorite highlight was the Cushing Center (aka the brain room).

But I’m getting ahead of myself: after we got Will all moved in, Annette and I went to Sweden, Norway, and Amsterdam (aka continent #2 of the year). I’m not quite sure why I didn’t blog about that trip, but the very short version: Annette had a conference in Stockholm to go to plus Annette and I both were on research fellowships this past fall, which meant neither of us had to spend time in August preparing to teach and our schedules were a lot more flexible, so we decided to make it a longer trip. After Stockholm (I had some solo tourist time there while Annette conferenced), we took a cruise along the Norway coast basically because I had heard or read someplace a long time ago that a cruise is one of the best ways to see it all. And then, because we could, we spent a week in Amsterdam in a lovely apartment at the top of the steepest stairs I have ever seen. We hung out in the apartment and read and wrote, went to lots of art museums, wandered around the groovy streets, ate good food, etc. Here’s a bunch of pictures.

Meanwhile and/or around the same time as all this, we both worked on our research projects (I’ve blogged about mine a fair amount over the year) and I also had the time to review proofs and such for More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs. I guess that too is an event from 2019 because that’s the copyright date and all, but I basically finished my work on the book back in 2018 and it’s not going to be for sale until 2020 (next week, I think), so it kind of doesn’t feel like 2019 to me. Still, my first and only single-authored book; like I said, a lot of stuff happened around here this year.

And then, after a typical Krause family combined Thanksgiving-Christmas and before a typical Wannamaker family holiday that included a visit to the beach on Christmas day, Annette and I went to Morocco (continent #3 for the year), with a stop before and after in New York. I just blogged about that a couple of weeks ago.

Inevitably, there will be less on 2020– I’m guessing fewer continents. And hopefully less Trump come November or before.

Morocco (and NYC), December 2019

“Why (and how did you) go to Morocco in December?” Well, when Annette and I found out we were getting research releases for the fall term, we knew we wanted to take a trip someplace in early December because that tends to be an inexpensive time to travel. A friend of ours had gone on a tour to Morocco and said good things, and then we found a tour through Gate 1 (the “how”) with a great price and that fit our schedule. Plus going to Morocco would mean that (counting home) we would have been to four continents this year. So off we went.

A slight tangent: while we went when we did because we didn’t have any teaching or things to worry about, I do think we could have gotten away with this trip during a regular semester if we didn’t keep blabbing about it on social media. This trip would have taken some planning while teaching, but we had regular and robust wifi and we both easily handled minor work email and similar work things. So maybe next year….

Here’s a link to a while bunch of pictures; here are some thoughts and memories:

  • Once again, Gate 1 was great. Here’s a link to the trip we took to Morocco. Once again, it was a very diverse group in terms of age (but no kids on this trip), race, careers, etc., etc., though this group wasn’t as “tightly knit” as the group for our trip to China. I think that’s because it was a big group– 41 people– and also because this tour didn’t include as many group meals and activities. But again, a great deal. It’s not luxury travel, but the hotels we stayed at were solid (sort of the equivalent of Hampton Inn kinds of places), the optional things (we signed up for all of them) were all great and worth it, and the tour manager and guides were excellent– especially the tour manager and the local guide in Fes.
  • We went to Rabat (the capital of the country), Fes, Marrakesh, and Casablanca. Rabat had some cool stuff, but the heart of the tour was Fes and Marrakesh (Casablanca is mostly a business center with an international airport). The tour was technically eight days but the first and last days were flying, so really six days, plus one of those days was mostly a bus ride between Fes and Marrakesh (not ideal, but it was kind of an interesting way to see the countryside).
  • I was expecting more desert and camels and stuff like that, but that’s a different tour. This was more the central and Atlantic coastal region of the country, and the geography felt to me a lot like rural places in Northern California/Southern Oregon or Italy. Marrakesh is on the north side of part of the Atlas Mountains range (snow-capped peaks in the distance, and apparently ski resorts opened for a few months in the winter), and on the other side of the mountains is the Sahara. That’s where we would probably have ridden a camel. There’s a region in the southwest on the coast (we heard about because our guide lived there) that’s popular with Europeans in the winter, and there’s a northern region with Tangier and right across the straits to Gibraltar. But again, different trips.
  • Oh, and Morocco is a much more touristy place than China, especially Marrakesh. Heck, we even went to a casino there! It was easy to find people who spoke English, and almost everyone speaks French as well as Arabic. If we went on vacation in Spain, I’d want to include a trip to Gibraltar, Tangier, and probably the “blue city” of Chefcaouen, and depending on the options, I’d be comfortable doing those arrangements without a tour company. In contrast, there’s no way I’d go back to China without a company or some other kind of local “fixer.”
  • I don’t know if I’d call Morocco “second world” or “developing world” or what, but it’s a study in contrasts for sure. It’s a Muslim country, but it’s also an extremely moderate and tolerant country, and it had a large Jewish population at one point. Morocco didn’t give anyone up to the Nazis in World War II, though after the war, most Moroccan Jews migrated to the new state of Israel. It’s a post-colonial country that seems to maintain good relations with its colonizers. There were lots of French and Spanish influences in the food and language, not to mention a lot of French and Spanish people. It’s a “constitutional monarchy,” but I got the impression that the king of Morocco is a lot more involved in the day-to-day running of the government than say the Queen of England. It’s a country with lots of the same modern features of countries in Europe (and, unlike China, the Internet wasn’t blocked or slow), but also one where a lot of the people still live simple lives. On our drive from Fes to Marrakesh, we went by lots of big and presumably corporate farms, and we also saw lots of shepherds tending to small flocks (inevitably while on their cell phone) and farmers planting fields by tossing seeds from a bag. There was a large shopping mall near our hotel in Fes, and we went in there a couple of times to look around and to buy hotel room snacks and wine– oh, and while Morocco is an Islamic country, it does grow grapes for wine, most of the restaurants we went to served beer and wine, the hotels we stayed in had bars, and there was a liquor store in this mall. Anyway, it was a big and modern and busy shopping mall, but at least twice, I saw locals getting on the escalator in front of me in a way that suggested that this person did not go on escalators often– for all I know, ever. I mean, I don’t want to get all clichéd and suggest “the highs and lows,” “the best of times, the worst of times,” and all that, but there were a lot of things I expected and didn’t.
  • Two things I learned about Islamic (or at least Arab/North African) culture I didn’t know before. First, we saw several “blind houses,” which means they look like pretty much nothing at all on the outside (they usually have no or only a few small windows) but are quite lavishly tiled on the inside, usually with a big courtyard in the middle. This was certainly the case with the “fancy meal” we had in Marrakech at place called Lotus Privilege. Our tour guides lead the group down what looked like an alley perfect for getting mugged and we entered into an opulent courtyard with a pool and lemon trees. Second (and I guess I should have known this before), you don’t wear shoes in a Mosque, which kind of explains to me why slippers are extremely popular footwear.
  • On the last day, our guide/tour manager asked the group “what was your favorite part,” and pretty much everyone said Fes. The sites and sounds and smells of the Medina were intense, navigating down “streets” not much wider than a hallway with guys leading loaded down mules going the other direction. In the food market, the way you bought chicken was you picked out one of the live ones in the crate in the back and the guy killed and dressed it for you. And then there was the Chouara Tannery, which has been in operation for about 1,000 years, the process still about the same. The smell of the vats of pigeon shit they used to treat the leather, that was intense.
  • And then there was the haggling for stuff. I don’t particularly enjoy this kind of shopping, but I kind of got into it by the end of the trip and I did have a pretty memorable moment in a shop on the last night in Casablanca. I was looking over a box for sale for 450 Dirhams, which is about $45. I knew that was too much, so I said “200.” The sales guy fakes outrage, and says “for you my friend, 350.” “Hmm, that’s still too much,” I said, “How about 325?” “Okay, 300!” And all the other sales guys in the shop looking on to this crack up laughing. “Wait, wait! He said 300!” But I ended up giving him 325– no point in cheating the dude out of $2.50.
  • Oh, and New York: we went a day early to go see Moulin Rouge The Musical, which was great and as a bonus, Hillary Clinton was in the crowd. On the way back, our flight from Morocco got into JFK too late to get a flight home, so we decided to splurge a little bit and got a room at the TWA HotelThat was a hoot.

Still more on the “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit (or not)” project, in which I go down the tangent of note-taking

I spent most of my Thanksgiving break  back in Iowa, and along the way, I chatted with my side of the family about my faculty research fellowship project, “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” aka “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” It’s always interesting talking to my non-academic family-types about academic things like this.

“So, you’re on sabbatical right now?” Not exactly. I’m not teaching so I can spend more time on research, but I’m still expected to go to meetings and things like that. Though honestly, I’ve skipped some of that stuff too, and it’s generally okay.

“Is there some kind of expectation for what you are supposed to be researching? What happens if you don’t do it?” Well, it is a competitive process for getting these fellowships in the first place, and there’s of course an expectation that I’ll do what I proposed. And I have done that, more or less, and I will have to write a report about that soon. But the implications (consequences?) of not doing all of what I originally proposed are vague at best.

“So, you’re not really working right now?” No no no, that’s not true. I’m working quite a bit, actually. But I’m doing this work because I want to, though I’m doing this work mostly at home and often in pajamas and I have an extremely flexible schedule right now (which is why we’re going to Morocco in a few days, but that’s another story for later), so I can understand why you might ask that.

“Being a professor is kind of a weird job, isn’t it?” Yes, yes it is.

Anyway, since I last blogged about this project back in September, I’ve been a bit distracted by department politics (don’t ask) and by prepping for teaching in the Winter term, which for me involves some new twists on old courses and also a completely new prep. But the research continues.

Back in October, I put together and conducted a survey for students and faculty about their attitudes/beliefs on the use of laptops and cell phones in classes. Taking the advice I often give my grad students in situations like this, I did not reinvent the wheel and instead based this survey on similar work by Elena Neiterman and Christine Zaza who are both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and who both (I think) work in that school’s Public Health program. They published two articles right up my alley for this project: “A Mixed Blessing? Students’ and Instructors’ Perspectives about Off-Task Technology Use in the Academic Classroom” and “Does Size Matter? Instructors’ and Students’ Perceptions of Students’ Use of Technology in the Classroom.” I emailed to ask if they would be willing to share their survey questions and they generously agreed, so thanks again!

I’ll be sorting through and presenting about the results of this at the CCCCs this year and hopefully in an article (or articles) eventually. But basically, I asked for participants on social media, the WPA-L mailing list (had to briefly rejoin that!), and at EMU. I ended up with 168 respondents, 57% students and 43% instructors, most of whom aren’t at EMU. The results are in the ballpark/consistent with Neiterman and Zaza (based just on percentages– I have no idea if there’s a way to legitimately claim any kind of statistically significant comparison), though I think it’s fair to say both students and instructors in my survey are more tolerant and even embracing of laptops and cellphones in the classroom. I think that’s both because these are all smaller classes (Neiterman and Zaza found that size does indeed matter and devices are more accepted in smaller classes), and also because they’re writing classes. Besides the fact that writing classes tend to be activity-heavy and lecture-light (and laptops and cell phones are important tools for writing), I think our field is a lot more accepting of these technologies and frankly a lot more progressive in its pedagogy: not “sage on the stage” but “guide on the side,” the student-centered classroom, that sort of thing. I also was able to recruit a lot of potential interviewee subjects from this survey, though I think I’m going to hold off on putting together that part of the project for the new year.

And I’ve been thinking again about note-taking, though not so much as it relates to technology. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are two basic reasons in the scholarship for banning or limiting the use of devices– particularly laptops– in college classrooms, particularly lecture halls. One reason is about the problems of distraction and multitasking, and I do think there is some legitimacy to that. The other reason (as discussed in the widely cited Mueller and Oppenheimer study) is that it’s better to take notes by longhand than by a laptop.  I think that’s complete bullshit, so I kind of set that aside.

But now I’m starting rethink/reconsider the significance of note-taking again because of the presidential impeachment hearings. Those hearings were a series of poised, intelligent, and dedicated diplomats and career federal professionals explaining how Trump essentially tried to blackmail the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden. One of the key things that made these people so credible was their continued reference to taking detailed notes where they witnessed this impeachable behavior. In contrast, EU ambassador Gordon “The Problem” Sondland seemed oddly proud that he’s never been a note-taker. As a result, a lot of Sondland’s testimony included him saying stuff like “I don’t remember the details because I don’t take notes, but if it was in that person’s notes, I have no reason to doubt it.” I thought this detail (and other things about his testimony) made Sondland look simultaneously like an extremely credible witness to events and also like a complete boob.

Anyway, this made me wonder: exactly is the definition of “good note-taking?” How do we know someone takes good (or bad) notes, and what’s the protocol for teaching/training people to take good notes?

The taking notes by hand versus on a laptop claim is shaky and (IMO) quite effectively refuted by the Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson study, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).” But while that study does poke at the concept of note-taking a bit (for example, they have one group of participants not take notes at all and just closely pay attention to the TED talk lecture), everything else I’ve read seems to just take note-taking as a given. There’s broad consensus in the psych/education scholarship that taking notes is an effective way to recall information later on, be it for a test or testimony before Congress, and there also seems to be consensus that trying to write everything down is a bad note-taking strategy. But I have yet to read anything about a method or criteria for evaluating the quality of notes, nor have I read anything about a pedagogy or a protocol for teaching people how to take good notes.

I find that odd. I mean, if the basic claim that Mueller and Oppenheimer (and similar studies) are trying to make is that students take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, and if the basic claim that Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson (and similar studies) are tying to make is students don’t take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, shouldn’t there be at least some minimal definition of “better notes?” Without that definition, can we really say that study participants who scored higher on the test measuring success did so because they took “better notes” rather than some other factor (e.g., they were smarter, they paid better attention, they had more knowledge about the subject of the lecture before the test, etc., etc.)?

I posted about this on Facebook and tagged a few friends I have who work for the federal government, asking if there was any particular official protocol or procedure for taking notes; the answers I got back were kind of vague. On the way back home at one point, Annette and I got to talking about how we were taught to take notes. I don’t remember any sort of instruction in school, though Annette said she remembered a teacher who actually collected and I guess graded student notes. There are of course some resources out there– here’s what looks like a helpful collection of links and ideas from the blog Cult of Pedagogy— but most of these strategies seem more geared for a tutoring or learning center setting. Plus a pedagogy for teaching note taking strategies is not the same thing as research, and it certainly is not the same thing as a method for measuring the effectiveness of notes.

But clearly, I digress.

So my plan for what’s next is to do even more reading (I’m working my way back through the works cited of a couple of the key articles I’ve been working with so far), some sifting through/writing about the results, and eventually some interviews, probably via email. And maybe I’ll take up as a related project more on this question of note-taking methods. But first, there’s Morocco and next semester.

It’s been an interesting research fellowship semester for me. I’ve been quite fortunate in that in the last five years I’ve had two research fellowships and a one semester sabbatical. Those previous releases from teaching involved the specific project of my book about MOOCs, More Than A Moment (on sale now!), and thus had very specific goals/outcomes. My sabbatical was mostly about conducting interviews and securing a book contract; my last FRF was all about finishing the book.

In contrast, this project/semester was much less guided, a lot more “wondering” (I think blog posts like this one demonstrate that). It’s been a surprisingly useful time for me as a scholar, especially at a time in my career and following the intensity of getting the MOOC book done where I was feeling pretty “done” with scholarship. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to EMU for the opportunity, and I hope these keep funding these fellowships, too.

 

Learning how to write is like learning how to roast a chicken. And vice-versa

I tried a new way to roast a chicken the other night, closely resembling this “Herbed Faux-tisserie Chicken and Potatoes” recipe from Bon Appétit. I’ve roasted a chicken with one recipe or another hundreds of times, but experimenting with a different recipe got me thinking about how learning to cook a simple meal suitable for sharing with others is like learning how to write. And vice-versa.

First, both are things that can be learned and/or taught. I think a lot of people– particularly people who don’t think they can cook or write– believe you either “have it” or you don’t. I’ve met lots of struggling students who have convinced themselves of this about writing, and I’ve also met a lot of creative writing types (from my MFA days long ago and into the present) who ought to know better but still believe this in a particularly naive way.

I believe everyone who manages to get themselves admitted to a college or university can learn from (the typically required) writing classes how to write better and also how to write well enough to express themselves to readers in college classes and beyond. I also believe that everyone with access to some basic tools– I’m thinking here of pots and pans, a rudimentary kitchen, pantry items, not to mention the food itself– can learn how to cook a meal they could serve to others.  Learning how to both write and cook might be more difficult for some people than others and the level of success different writers and cooks can reach will vary (and I’ll come back to this point), but that’s not the same thing as believing some  people “just can’t” cook or write.

Second, I think people who doubt their potential as cooks or writers make things more complicated than necessary, mainly because they just want to skip to the meal or completed essay. Trust the process, take your time, and go through the steps. If an inexperienced writer (and I’m thinking here of students in a class like first year writing) starts with something relatively simple and does the pre-writing, the research, the drafting, the peer review, all the stuff we do and talk about in contemporary writing classes, then they will be able to successfully complete that essay. If an inexperienced cook starts with something relatively simple– say roasting a chicken– and follows a well-written recipe and/or some of the many cooking tutorials on YouTube, then they will be able to roast that chicken.

Third, both writing and cooking take practice and self-reflection in order to improve. This seems logical enough since this is how we improve at almost anything– sports or dancing or painting or writing or cooking. But one of the longstanding challenges in writing pedagogy is “transference,” which is the idea that what a student learns in a first year writing class helps that student in other writing classes and situations.  Long and complex story short, the research suggests  this doesn’t work as well as you might think, possibly because students too often treat their required composition course as just another hoop, and possibly because teachers have to do more to make all this visible to students. Whether or not it gets taken up by students or conveyed by teachers, the goal of any college course (writing and otherwise) is to get better at something.

In my experience, the way this works with food is when you’re first trying to learn how to roast a chicken, you do it for yourself (or close family and/or roommates who basically have the choice to eat what you cook or to not eat anything at all), and you make note of what you would do differently the next time you try to roast that chicken. Next time, I’ll cook it longer or shorter or with more salt or to a different temperature or whatever. A lot of my recipes have notes I’ve added for next time. Then the next time, you make different adjustments; repeat, make different adjustments; and before you know it, you can roast a chicken confidently enough to invite over guests for a dinner party.  Also, the trial and error approach to following a recipe for chicken helps informs other recipes and foods so you can serve those guests some mashed potatoes and green beans with that chicken, maybe even a little gravy.

Both writing and cooking involve skills and practices which build on each other and that then allow you to both improve on those basic skills and also to develop more advanced skills and practices. It was not easy for me to truss a chicken the first time I did it; now it’s no big deal. Writing a good short summary of a piece of an article and incorporating that into a short critique is very hard for a lot of first year writing students. But keep practicing it becomes second nature. I routinely have students in my first year writing class who gasp when I tell them the first essay assignment should be around five pages because they never wrote anything that long in high school. By the end of the semester, it’s no big deal.

Finally, there are limits to teaching and not everyone can succeed at becoming a “great” writer or cook. Never say never of course, but I do not think there is much chance my cooking or recipes will ever be compared to the likes of Julia Childs or Thomas Keller, nor do I think my writing is going to be assigned reading for generations to come. I don’t like words like “gifted” or “genius” because people aren’t better at things because of something magical. But for the top 1% of writers/cooks/athletes/actors/etc., there is something. At the same time, it’s also extremely clear that the top 1% of writers/cooks/whatever get to that level through hard work and obsession. It’s a feedback loop.

So for example: it’d be silly to describe myself as a “gifted” writer, but I am good at it and I have always had a knack for it.  I’ve been praised for my writing since I was in grade school (though I did fail handwriting, but that’s another story) and it isn’t surprising to me that I’ve ended up in this profession and I’m still writing. That praise and reward motivates me to continue to like writing and to work to improve at it. I spend a lot of time revising and changing and obsessing and otherwise fiddling around with things I write (I have revised this post about a dozen or more times since I started it a week ago).

In any event, even if I have some kind of “gift,” it ends up being just one part of a chicken vs. egg argument. Being praised for being a good writer motivates me to write more; writing more improves my writing and earns me praise as I get better. A knack alone is not enough for anything, including writing or cooking.

Oh, and for what it’s worth: I thought that recipe was just okay. I liked the idea of the rotisserie-like spice rub and I can see doing that again, maybe putting it on a few hours or the day before. But cooking at 300 degrees (instead of starting it at say 425 and then dropping it back to 350 after about 20 minutes) meant not a while lot of browning and kind of rubbery skin.

A post about an admittedly not thought out idea: very low-bar access

The other day, I came across this post on Twitter from Derek Krissoff, who is the director of the West Virginia University Press:

I replied to Derek’s Tweet “Really good point and reminds me of a blog post I’ve been pondering for a long time on not ‘Open Access’ but something like ‘Very Low Bar Access,'” and he replied to my reply “Thanks, and I’d love to see a post along those lines. It’s always seemed to me access is best approached as a continuum instead of a binary.” (By the way, click on that embedded Twitter link and you’ll see there are lots of interesting replies to his post).

So, that’s why I’m writing this now.

Let me say three things at the outset: first, while I think I have some expertise and experience in this area, I’m not a scholar studying copyright or Open Educational Resources” (OER) or similar things. Second, this should in no way be interpreted as me saying bad things about Parlor Press or Utah State University Press. Both publishers have been delightful to work with and I’d recommend them to any academic looking for a home for a manuscript– albeit different kinds of homes. And third, my basic idea here is so simple it perhaps already exists in academic publishing and I just don’t know better, and I know this exists outside of academia with the many different self-publishing options out there.

Here’s my simple idea: instead of making OER/open-sourced publications completely free and open to anyone (or any ‘bot) with an internet connection, why not publish materials for a low cost, say somewhere between $3 and $5?

The goal is not to come up with a way for writers and publishers to “make money” exactly, though I am not against people being paid for their work nor am I against publishers and other entities being compensated for the costs of distributing “free” books. Rather, the idea is to make access easy for likely interested readers while maintaining a modest amount of control as to how a text travels and is repurposed on the internet.

I’ve been kicking this idea around ever since the book I co-edited Invasion of the MOOCs was published in 2014.  My co-editor (Charlie Lowe) and I wanted to simultaneously publish the collection in traditional print and as a free PDF, both because we believed (still do, I think) in the principles of open access academic publishing and because we frankly thought it would sell books. We also knew the force behind Parlor Press, David Blakesley (this Amazon author page has the most extensive bio, so that’s why I’m linking to that), was committed to the concept of OER and alternatives to “traditional” publishing– which is one of the reasons he started Parlor Press in the first place.

It’s also important to recognize that Invasion of the MOOCs was a quasi-DYI project. Among other things, I (along with the co-authors) managed most of the editing work of the book, and Charlie managed most of the production aspects of the book, paying a modest price for the cover art and doing the typesetting and indexing himself thanks to his knowledge of Adobe’s InDesign. In other words, the up-front costs of producing this book from Parlor Press’ point of view were small, so there was little to lose in making it available for free.

Besides being about a timely topic when it came out, I think distributing it free electronically helped sell the print version of the book. I don’t know exactly how many copies it has sold, but I know it has ended up in libraries all over the world. I’m pretty sure a lot (if not most) of the people/libraries who went ahead and bought the print book did so after checking out the free PDF. So giving away the book did help, well, sell books.

But in hindsight, I think there were two problems with the “completely free” download approach. First, when a publisher/writer puts something like a PDF up on the web for any person or any web crawling ‘bot to download, they get a skewed perspective on readership. Like I said, Invasion of the MOOCs has been downloaded thousands of times– which is great, since I can now say I edited a book that’s been downloaded thousands of times (aren’t you impressed?) But the vast majority of those downloads just sat on a user’s hard drive and then ended up in the (electronic) trash after never being read at all. (Full disclosure: I have done this many times). I don’t know if this is irony or what, but it’s worth pointing out this is exactly what happened with MOOCs: tens of thousands of would-be students signed up and then never once returned to the course.

Second and more important, putting the PDF up there as a free download means the publisher/writer loses control over how the text is redistributed. I still have a “Google alert” that sends me an email whenever it comes across a new reference to Invasion of the MOOCs on the web, and most of the alerts I have gotten over the years are harmless enough. The book gets redistributed by other OER sites, linked to on bookmarking sites like Pinterest, and embedded into SlideShare slide shows.

But sometimes the re-publishing/redistribution goes beyond the harmless and odd. I’ve gotten Google alerts to the book linked to/embedded in web sites like this page from Ebook Unlimited, which (as far as I can tell) is a very sketchy site where you can sigh up for a “free trial” to their book service.  In the last couple years, most of the Google alert notices I’ve received are links to broken links,  paper mill sites, “congratulations you won” pop-up/virus sites,  and similarly weirdo sites decidedly not about the book I edited or anything about MOOCs (despite what the Google alert says).

In contrast, the book I have coming out very soon called More Than A Moment, is being published by Utah State University Press and will not be available for a free download– at least not for a while.  On the positive side of things, working with USUP (which is an imprint of University Press of Colorado) means this book has had a more thorough (and traditional) editorial review, and the copyediting, indexing, and typesetting/jacket design have all been done by professionals. On the downside, a lack of a free to download version will mean this book will probably end up having fewer readers (thus less reach and fewer sales), and, as is the case with most academic books, I’ve had to pay for some of the production costs with grant money from EMU and/or out of my own pocket.

These two choices put writers/publishers in academia in a no-win situation. Open access publishing is a great idea, but besides the fact that nothing is “free” in the sense of having no financial costs associated with it (even maintaining a web site for distributing open access texts costs some money), it becomes problematic when a free text is repurposed by a bad actor to sell a bad service or to get users to click on a bad link. Traditional print publishing costs money and necessarily means fewer potential readers. At the same time, the money spent on publishing these more traditional print publications does show up in a “better” product, and it does offer a bit more reasonable control of the book. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I do not expect to see a Google alert for the More than a Moment MOOC book lead me to a web site where clicking on the link will sign me up for some service I don’t want or download a virus.

So this is where I think “very low-bar access” publishing could split the difference between the “completely free and online” and the “completely not free and in print” options in academic publishing. Let’s say publishers charged as small of a fee as possible for downloading a PDF of the book. I don’t know exactly how much, but to pay the costs for running a web site capable of selling PDFs in the first place and for the publisher/writer to make at least a little bit of money for their labor, I’d guess around $3 to $5.

The disadvantage of this is (obviously) any amount of money charged is going to be more than “free,” and it is also going to require a would-be reader to pass through an additional step to pay before downloading the text. That’s going to cut down on downloads A LOT. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that if someone bothers to fill out the necessary online form and plunks down $5, there’s a pretty good chance that person is going to at least take a look at it. And honestly, 25-100 readers/book skimmers is worth more to me than 5,000 people who just download the PDF. It’s especially worth it if this low-bar access proves to be too much for the dubious redirect sites, virus makers, and paper mill sites.

I suppose another disadvantage of this model is if someone can download a PDF version of an academic book for $5 to avoid spending $20-30 (or, in some cases, a lot more than that) for the paper version, then that means the publisher will sell less paper books. That is entirely possible. The opposite is also possible though: the reader spends $5 on the PDF, finds the book useful/interesting, and then that reader opts to buy the print book. I do this often enough, especially with texts I want/need for teaching and scholarship.

So, there you have it, very low-bar access. It’s an idea– maybe not a particularly original one, maybe even not a viable one. But it’s an idea.