How to respond when a non-academic wants to talk about how you “don’t have to work in the summer”

I’ve been meaning to write something about summer work in academia along the lines of what Alex Reid did back in mid-April. But I hadn’t gotten around to it until now (and this post took me over a week to write, off and on), I suppose because I was on a vacation for three weeks in May, right after the Winter term ended at EMU. That’s not meant to be ironic or anything in terms of a post about “work” in the summer; it’s just the way it is.

Alex was initially responding to an article in CHE (now behind a firewall but I think I recall at least skimming it) called “Making Summer Work” that was offering advice to academics about how to make their summers “more productive.” Alex’s points are all spot-on, about how it’s weird that professors are characterized by the rest of the world as having cushy/lazy jobs as it is– and you don’t work in the summer!– but how professors themselves focus on the intensity of the 60+ hour work week and how it just keeps going and going and going in the summer too. It’s a losing battle; “[n]o one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their ‘summers off’ productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.”

I can relate to all of this. Back when I was in graduate school and when I was just starting down the tenure-track, my mother (or some other well-intended but not academic-type) would say something like “it must be nice to have such a long summer vacation like that” and I’d go on a tirade about how there was no such thing as time off in academia!

Now I’m a lot more likely to say something like “Why yes; yes, it is nice,” or “Yes, though I don’t get paid to work in the summer.” Though it’s still complicated.

For starters,  I used to teach (e.g. “work”) in the summers. I didn’t teach two summers ago because I was on sabbatical, but other than that, this summer is the first since I came to EMU in 1998 where I am not teaching and thus contractually not obligated to do anything. Summer school here is divided into two 7.5 week terms, and I usually taught two courses during one of those terms– or sometimes three courses, one in one term and two in another. The reason I taught in the summer is simple: money. EMU pays faculty 10% of their base salary per summer course. You don’t need to know my salary to know that being able to make 20% of my base salary for teaching two courses in a little less than two months is a good deal.

I’m not teaching this summer for two reasons. First, summer teaching at EMU– at least in my department, but I think this is broadly true across the university– has almost entirely dried up. Second, I’ve gotten to the place financially where I can afford to not teach/work for EMU for the summer. I mean, I’m not saying I’m never going to teach in the summer again because never is a very long time and I still like money. But I’m not planning on it.

Then there is the definition of “work.” I work all the time (including in the summer and while on vacation) doing stuff like planning classes, meeting with students, reading academic things, and writing academic presentations/articles/books/blog posts because I’m a professor and it’s my job, but also because this is work I enjoy and it brings me a great deal of personal satisfaction and meaning. It’s not the kind of “work” that Tim Ferriss has in mind in trying to avoid in the 4 Hour Work Week, the kind of work one does only for the paycheck.

So all those caveats and qualifications aside, yes, I do not have to work in the summers. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I don’t get paid to work in the summer when I’m not teaching, so I only do “the work” I want to do. This summer, I’m working (too slowly) on my MOOC book, I am reading things that might be interesting for future projects, I’m meeting with students about their MA projects, I went (briefly) to the Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay this past week, and I might even agree to go to a meeting or two. “Work” I won’t be doing includes program review/assessment documents, attending official department committee meetings (there aren’t any in the summer because I’m far from the only one who won’t do that), doing writing program administrator stuff, responding to irrelevant paperwork requests, holding specific office hours, and so forth.

The “contractual obligated” part of things with the EMU faculty union is taken quite seriously around here. I was in a discussion on Facebook with someone at another institution about all this and this person insisted that faculty should think of themselves as year-round employees no matter what. I understand that perspective, but that is not part of the local culture. I had a colleague a few years ago (this person has since retired) who left at the end of the winter term, did not come back until the fall term, and was completely absent in the summer. This person had an auto-reply on their email that said “email me back in the fall.” I was on a university-wide committee several years ago and whatever administrator wanted this committee to meet in June. The only way that faculty on that committee would agree to that meeting was to be paid a couple hundred dollars each to show up– and by the way, that was clearly a waste of money since nothing got done at that meeting anyway.

Besides, my base pay really is for eight months of work a year. I’m not complaining about my salary, but I also know that if I was an administrator and working 12 months a year, I’d be making much more money than I’m making now. The same is true if I had a “real job,” too. As an academic, I already do too much work for free; that doesn’t need to include the summer.

Anyway, to sum-up:

  • If you’re a graduate student or tenure-seeking/relatively new faculty member, you legit probably don’t have your “summers off,” at least not entirely. You’re probably doing something like writing a thesis or a dissertation or something to help your tenure case, and perhaps teaching as well. Work at this stage of your career is a mix of pleasure and pain, and it’s undeniably harder to explain to non-academics how you actually do have to work in the summer. Try “yeah, but if I don’t finish my thesis/dissertation/homework, I won’t be able to graduate next year;” that might work. But try to take at least some time “off,” even if that only means reading academic stuff while sitting in a park someplace once in a while.
  • If you’re newly tenured and a non-academic tells you “it must be nice to have your summer off,” reply “hey, I’ve been working my ass off for the last 10 years finishing my PhD and then getting a tenure-track job and then getting tenure. So yeah, it is nice having a summer off finally!” Seriously, take some time off. Do those home repairs/remodeling you’ve been putting off until you got tenure. And/or go on a trip, take up golf, etc.
  • If you’re an established academic-type, tenured and promoted and such, and you’re still working 16 hour + days, including in the summer: why? Why are you doing that? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the work, but no one is going to think any less of you for giving your garden some attention. Except for those non-academic-types who think you never work; just tell those people that having summer off is really nice, thank you very much.
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Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise Part 3: London & Reykjavik

Twenty-one days, which is as long as I’ve been away from home in as long as I can remember. A great trip– including parts one and two— and now I’m ready to be back home, at least for a couple of weeks. Once again, here are pictures on Flickr, the complete album (more or less– I haven’t added all of the pictures Annette took yet), and here are links to the parts one and two blog posts.

The last excursion we took from the ship was to Stonehenge in part because if you’re going to be in southern England (our last port of call was Southampton), you’ve got to go to Stonehenge, but also because the cruise excursion included a trip to the airport. Kind of crappy weather, but well worth it. It looks exactly like you think it looks, though there were a few surprises. First, it was a bit smaller than I thought it would be and there was a surprisingly busy road only a few hundred yards away from it. Second, Stonehenge is actually part of a much larger site that includes burial mounds and such. Third, the very nice visitor’s center has robust wifi and a cool little museum that even includes a Spinal Tap record.

From there, we went to the airport and where we were picked up by some old friends (mostly of Annette’s) who have lived in (well, near) London for at least 15 years, maybe more. We spent the night at their place, catching up on things, meeting their daughter and some friends, and learning some basic pub culture about how one buys drinks.

The next day, we made our way to our hotel via bus and tube, which was no easy task with four large suitcases and lots of stairs. (As a slight tangent: if I take a trip like this again, I think I’d like to seek a compromise in terms of packing to stay put on a cruise ship versus packing to be on the move). Our hotel was right on Leicester Square, which felt a lot like a small version of Times Square in New York: there was a “TKTS” discount musical/play ticket kiosk, an M&M store, throngs of people and street performers, etc. In fact, if I had to sum up my overall impressions of London in a sentence, I’d say it’s a lot like Manhattan, only not laid out in a grid pattern (making getting lost really easy to do) and a lot older. After getting to the hotel, we didn’t have much time to do tourist stuff, though the National Gallery was right there so we went to look at some fine art for a while.

Our first full day in London involved a lot of walking, like almost 10 miles according to my Fitbit app. Went to the British Museum, then wandered around a lot, went to the Tower Bridge, wandered around some more, and then (because it was included in the “London Pass” tickets thing we bought before the trip), we went to this thing called the “London Bridge Experience.” Essentially, it’s a haunted house. Annette thought it was great; me, not so much.

We were a little bit more organized on our second full day in London (though just a bit more organized). Part of this London Pass thing was a “hop on/hop off” tourist bus, which is kind of goofy but also a good way to at least drive by more stuff (and not surprisingly, we really didn’t see enough of London in the time we were there because we just weren’t there long enough). Highlights included a visit to the reconstruction of the Globe theater, the Tate Modern right next door, the Tower of London, more walking around, and then we ended out tourism with a very long ride on the bus where we drove by lots of stuff to see if we ever go back.

Then to Reykjavik, Iceland. Why you ask? First off, Icelandair has pretty cheap transatlantic flights, though their flights usually stop in Iceland. But one of their features is you can take a several day layover (I think up to seven?) at no additional cost, which means that if you are flying Icelandair, stopping for a day or two in Iceland is pretty easy. Second, we stopped their for a few hours on our honeymoon many many years ago and we always thought it’d be a cool place to visit again. And it was cool (both in the sense of it being “groovy” and also kind of cold, like in the 40s and windy), but (not surprisingly) a lot has changed in 23 years.

When we stopped there back in 1994, what we were assuming was we were going to have four or so hours to sit around the airport (which is about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik). Instead, we were given– for free, mind you– a bus tour of the area around the lava fields near the airport that included a stop at an indoor salmon farm and also a stop at this place called “The Blue Lagoon,” which, Wikipedia tells me, is essentially the water run-off from an electric power generator fueled by geothermal heat. Locals started bathing in the waters back in the early 1980s, and in 1992, they built a facility to open up the waters to anyone who wanted to go. When we went way back when, we could have rented swimsuits and tried the waters ourselves, but that seemed kind of weird. So we just kind of hung out for a while, got back on the bus, and flew home.

Now the Blue Lagoon is a posh spa/resort you have to book weeks in advance. The cheapest entry is over $55 a person– and that’s just basic entry to the place. There are no free bus rides out to there anymore, and now it looks like it’s a pretty big complex with all sorts of fancy restaurants, spa treatments, a fancy hotel, and so forth. Like I said, it seems like a lot has changed.

Anyway, after the frenetic pace of London (and really just the whole trip), we were both ready for just a day of chilling out/hanging out in Reykjavik. The day we got there, CNBC posted this advice on “How to vacation in one of the most expensive countries on earth for only $50 a day” (spoiler alert: the advice is don’t eat or drink out and do things that are free like walk around), advice we of course didn’t follow. Reykjavik (at least the downtown/touristy part) is easily the most expensive place I’ve ever been in terms of eating and drinking. There was a stand next to our hotel selling hot dogs for $12; a burger was going for about $20; cocktails were over $20 each; and so forth. On the plus-side of it all, tips and taxes are included in the price and it was all excellent, so….

Three highlights (besides just walking around, shopping, gawking at stuff): The first night there, we stumbled across Lebowski Bar, which is a The Big Lebowski-themed bar complete with a drink menu that included over 20 variations on a White Russian. First thing the second day, we went to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja church (an elevator ride, happily) and had some tremendous views; and we also visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is small museum of various animal penises in jars (several variety of whales, for example) and various phallic objects, including the Ypsilanti Water Tower. A little piece (or big piece?) of home right here in Iceland– so proud.

So quite the adventure. Would I do it again? Probably, now that I know a lot more about what I’m getting myself into. And probably not again this summer.

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Our Transatlantic Cruise Part 2: Ports of Call

The cruise part of this trip is almost over and still a mixed bag for me. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s not; sometimes the food is good, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the weather has been good, other times not so much.

Anyway, we just finished our next to last port of call for this trip. Our last stop is tomorrow in Southampton, England, and from there, we’ll head into “part 3” of the transatlantic trip, the way back through London and then Iceland.

I’m uploading photo highlights to this Flickr album as we go and I’ll keep uploading pictures there, too. But a brief run-down of the stops:

The Azores: specifically, around Ponta Delgada (which is the main city of the islands, which are a part of Portugal) on the island of São Miguel. Cruise ships always offer multiple options for port tours and excursions, and they can sometimes get pretty pricy for something that’s easy to do yourself. We decided to take one of these tours for the Azores, we took one of these tours and it was totally worth it. We got on to a bus, stopped first at a small pineapple growing operation (apparently, they grow a lot of pineapple here, mostly for the European market, but this place looked way too small to be anything other than a stop for the tourists), then drove out to see the stunningly beautiful Caldeira do Alferes or “crater lakes.” Then more beautiful vistas and views, a lovely park, and then lunch which included an order of some shellfish favored by the locals, Limpets. The other big thing about the Azores is dairy: there were cows kind of wandering around everywhere, and apparently, most of Portugal’s dairy comes from these islands. Great cheese, too.

Basically, as our tour guide put it, the Azores is kind of like what would happen if Hawaii and Ireland had a baby: you have a lot of lush green and steep hills/mountains, but the weather seems more misty and cool. It would be a fantastic place to go for at least a few days to hike and take in more of the views, and as far as I can tell, the place hasn’t really been “discovered” by tourists yet. And it was cheap, too.

Lisbon, Portugal: Stunningly beautiful old town area. And hilly— I think we walked up the equivalent of about 500 flights of stairs. Did some shopping (though I made the mistake of not buying something that I liked when I saw it because I never did see something like it again), saw lots and lots of cool street art/graffiti, had a nice lunch, walked up to São Jorge Castle, walked around some more. Two little memories for me at least: first, I took what I think is at least so far the best picture of my trip, this shot of a guy taking pictures of a young woman posing in front of a cool tile art/mosaic on the street. Second, while in a square overlooking something beautiful, a dude from Senegal tried to force me into buying a selfie stick. I wouldn’t have it with that, but the guy was charming and persistent. So I ended up with a picture of him and we bought a couple of cheap elephant bracelets.

Vigo, Spain: There are two problems with the cruise ship port stops. Some– like in the Azores and in Lisbon– are too short. We could have easily spent a two or three days in both of these places. Some stops, like the one in Vigo, were quite long enough– even though it was only about seven hours. We did do a little shopping and went to a place that had typical Galician-styled sea food (I had the octopus) off of a square where there was a trio playing.

A Courña, Spain: Not a whole lot here either. Apparently, the big destination is kind of near there, the end point of a famous pilgrimage across Spain. But we did have a nice time getting a bit out of the typical “old city” center and over to The Tower of Hercules. It’s a lighthouse that is around 2,000 years old– at least the original site is around 2,000 years old. I’m reminded of a joke I heard a comedian juggler told one time when he held up a hatchet: “This is the hatchet George Washington used to cut down that cherry tree. Only I’ve replaced the handle and the head of the hatchet. But it still takes up the same amount of room as the original hatchet.” Nonetheless, it was a very impressive tower and really lovely park around it with crashing waves and such. Then we had lunch at what turned out to be a sort of “fusion cuisine” place that would have fit right in to some place like New York– though this place had excellent wifi and it was something like 15 euros for a three course prix fixe meal. Service took forever, but we weren’t in a big hurry.

Le Havre, France: Our final port of call (well, before we get off the ship entirely tomorrow) was the port town of Le Havre. It’s the kind of non-tourist towns where I saw local cruise ship terminal workers wearing jackets that said “Le Havre: Gateway to Paris.” That’s because a lot of people– maybe most of the people who got off of the ship on this stop?–take one of the many tours to Paris. Given that Annette and I had been to Paris a few years ago and the trip involved a two or three hour bus ride there, not that much time in Paris itself, and then a two or three hour bus ride back, we passed on that and hung around Le Havre, which was not without its charms. The city was pretty much destroyed in World War II and the downtown part was redesigned and rebuilt by Auguste Perret (and his firm) in the late 1940s and 1950s, and it’s considered to be a particularly good example of post-war modern architecture. We went to a nice (albeit small) art museum, and then visited the very striking St. Joseph’s Church, which looks like a sky scraper or a lighthouse on the outside and sort of like a science fiction set on the inside. We had a nice (albeit large) lunch, walked around some more, got back to the ship.

There you have it.

Tomorrow, we start “part 3,” which is the post-cruise ship part, though it begins with a cruise ship sponsored tour to Stonehenge and then on to the London and then Iceland part of the trip.

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Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise, Part 1: At Sea

Loyal stevendkrause readers and/or just friends of mine might recall I went on a cruise back in 2014 where my reaction at the end of it was basically “that was mostly okay, I guess.” So why am I on a Transatlantic cruise now?

Here’s what happened: Annette’s parents regularly take a cruise back from Europe home to Florida in the fall (they go to Germany for a while every year in the late summer) in part because it is cheaper than buying an airplane ticket (though see below on that).  This is because the cruise ship companies do what are known as “respositioning cruises” where they move their ships from one part of the world to another– in this case, from the Caribbean to Europe. How much cheaper are these cruises? Well, back in late October 2016, Annette looked it up and the most inexpensive room on the ship we’re on (double-occupancy in a small, interior [e.g., windowless] room) was about $500 a person for a 15 day cruise. The stateroom we got– which has a big window, a king-sized bed, and room to move around– was more than that, but still not that expensive.

Looking toward door from windowSo Annette asked me then what I thought. “I say we go ahead and book it,” I said, which I think surprised both of us. “Here’s why. If we like this, then it’s something we can do once in a while for the next 20 or 3o years. If we don’t like this, then we’ll have 20 or 30 years to tell the story of that awful trip.”

It’s too early to say which way this story will turn out– maybe a bit of both– but for “part 1,” just the at sea part, I’d say take the plane.

There’s not a lot to say about being at sea. It was kind of boring. We ate, drank, gambled, read, watched stuff on my laptop, took in some cheesy shows, repeat.

Very quickly, we figured out that the average age of passengers on this cruise is at least 65. That makes sense– who has time to take a cruise across the Atlantic in May?– but it is a bit jarring. At this point in my life, I am used to being one of the older people in the room, especially in a classroom. While there are a fair number of people about our age and younger, it often feels a bit like visiting an assisted living facility. Many of my fellow cruisers shuffle by slowly or have canes or walkers or wheelchairs or little scooters.

Speaking of which: I’m not really a fan of the genre, but this could be a great setting for a zombie story. It would start out seemingly normal, but very soon, once people started falling ill, it would be clear that many of the passengers were turning into the undead. A number of ways to twist the plot: first, is that shuffling old man a zombie or just an old man? How to tell? Second, since there are no firearms on board and not a lot of other handy weapons, how would you stop the zombies? Clobber them with a deck chair? Push them overboard?

Yep, the OceanMost of the other passengers– both American and not (a lot of British on this ship, which is not surprising since that’s where we end up)– seem like the kind of people who voted for Trump or Brexit. So other than small-talk, we tend to keep to ourselves. Chatting with the waiters and bartenders is more interesting. Most of them are in their 20s or so and from all over the place– Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, a lot from India and Indonesia. They’re all charming and polite and either have excellent English or are trying to get a better command of English by chatting it up with the guests. I don’t think these folks make a lot of money by American standards (or Western European standards, for that matter), but, as this article argues, it’s kind of relative– plus they get free room and board, which means this is the kind of job where you can bank much of what you earn.

StevewithpineappleSpeaking of what the service crew earns: everything has a large “service fee” or an 18% tip associated with it. So, an $8 glass of wine and a $10 cocktail (and crazy drinks like one put in a pineapple are more than that) really ends up costing a bit over $21. On the one hand, it’s the main source of income for the waiters and what-not, so there’s no reason to be cheap about it. On the other hand, these fees and taxes and tips mean that ridiculously low price for the cheap rooms is a bit of a myth, especially since a week at sea tends to make drinking seem like a good idea.

IMG_7156And then there is the “at sea” part of things. First it was smooth; then it was six foot waves; then nine; then, about halfway across fifteen to twenty foot swells. Everyone was wobbling around and grabbing on to whatever, and there were barf bags posted on the stairwells. The wind on deck made it difficult to walk. I didn’t feel sick or nauseous, though I take some of the seasickness pills they were passing out. Mostly, the rough seas irritated me.

One big thing that definitely turned out to be a good idea was the wifi package. It was $12 or $13 extra a day for each of us, but worth every penny. We’ve been able to keep in touch with Will, follow the news and social media and the like, and we were able to stream stuff on Hulu and Netflix– so we’re all caught up on The Handmaids Tale.

But “part 2,” ports of call, will get a bit more interesting I suspect. We’ve already been to one, the Azores, which was quite beautiful. More on that later.

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What I did in the 2016-2017 academic year: a memo for Dean TBA

I was already planning on writing something to reflect on the 2016-17 academic year, and then two things happened. First, my department head (at the request of our interim dean) sent an email to all faculty suggesting that we individually write something up to let the new dean know what it is we’ve been up to for the past year. This request didn’t come with much context, and (as far as I know) the new dean has not yet been announced. Second, I just finished reading Julie Schumacher’s very funny and too accurate academic satire Dear Committee Members.  So this post is with a small and not as funny nod toward my department head’s/dean’s assignment and Schumacher’s book written in letters of recommendation.

From: Steven D. Krause, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

To: Dean “To Be Announced”

Re: Introducing Myself By Highlighting What I Did Last Year

Dear Dean TBA–

First, welcome to EMU (unless you are already here?)! Congratulations on your new position as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and may the gods have mercy on your soul.

My department head (really, our interim dean– who, pointedly, did not submit her own name for this position) asked faculty in the department to “showcase” accomplishments and activities from the past academic year, I suppose as a way of introduction. As I understand it, the goal is to “brag” about accomplishments and, simultaneously, demonstrate the ways in which we are worthy of resources. This strikes me as a challenge because a) if I highlight all that I accomplished without resources, then I am supporting the administration’s claim that faculty don’t require any additional resources, and b) given that you are at present only an unnamed potential, it’s difficult for me to address a specific audience. But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s take it chronologically:

On the plus-side of things, my scholarly work got off to a great start in September when I was once again invited to Naples, Italy for a conference about MOOCs held on the Isle of Capri. Goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago. In any event, I was honored to once again participate, I was able to represent for EMU, the conference helped fuel my own MOOC book project (which is under contract/underway right now), and it was a nice trip to Italy before classes got started.

In the not so good news for EMU, September also brought with it the beginning of an ugly incident of racist vandalism that continued to hang over the rest of the academic year. Students of color were (justifiably, of course) angered and frustrated, and the administration seemed at a loss to respond. Also in not such great news: my department had yet more meetings about the equivalency mess, which is a theme I’ll be returning to again and again here.

For much of October, I settled into more routine duties. In fall 2016, I taught an online version of “444: Writing for the World Wide Web” and a face-to-face version of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology,” two courses I’ve taught many times before. Both were good groups, though one thing I noticed in my section of 328 that I hadn’t seen much of previously is student interest in (dare I say demand for?) a grading “rubric” that spelled out in exacting terms exactly what was demanded of each writing assignment. When I told my students that I didn’t think a rubric was necessary or even advisable for an advanced writing course, they seemed perplexed, wondering aloud how it was even possible to have a writing assignment without points dedicated to explicit components. I am not much to complain about the “kids today” since I have been teaching long enough to know that the early 20 somethings of 1990 have a lot more in common with the early 20 somethings of 2016 than today’s students’ parents (who were the early 20 somethings of 1990) would care to admit. Still, this demand request for codified assessment at every turn seems to me to be the main legacy of “No Child Left Behind.”

I also settled into my duties as the associate director of the First Year Writing Program. (A slight tangent and in all seriousness: there is A LOT to say about the FYWP, Dean TBA, both in terms of bragging and in terms of demonstrating the need for ongoing support. But since I am transitioning out of that role this year, I’ll leave that work to others.) As the Ass. WPA, most of my work was duties as assigned, though I did launch a large survey of students in the program for the purposes of assessment (the details of the results will come later in May or June or when I get to it, though generally speaking, students do report that they think they learned a lot in our first year writing course, and that has to count for something), and I did a lot of classroom evaluations of graduate assistants. I do have a funny story from one of those observations. I had the chance to sit in on one GA’s class that began at 8 AM– one of our better GAs too. Students shuffled in and were in place by 8. Five minutes passed and no GA; students chatted and seemed a little surprised. More time passed; I asked “is so and so often late like this?” “No, never” the class responded. More time passed and I finally called so and so and, it turns out, woke so and so up. So and so was mortified. But again, this is all something to laugh about now. I came back to visit so and so’s class later, it was great, and so and so is still one of our best and brightest. And now, so and so owns a couple of alarm clocks.

And of course, I did lots of paperwork tied to the ongoing equivalency nonsense inflicted upon us by both the EMU-AAUP and the administration. Among other things, this work included writing and rewriting documents in an effort to prove to the powers that be that our courses in written communication are indeed “Writing Intensive” and attending marathon department meetings where we tried to work out the various ways equivalencies could work for all.

At least some of my time in November was spent “campaigning” (well, blogging about at least) why faculty ought to vote out the leadership of the EMU-AAUP. Dean TBA, this might not seem like official “work” or even something to “brag” about, especially if you are not from the inside at EMU. But believe me, this was a significant accomplishment. The new leadership of the union has made some stumbles, sure, but at least it’s not the jerks who were in charge. The racial vandalism problems continued— again, maybe not exactly the sort of “accomplishment” or “brag” I’m supposed to be highlighting, but something that certainly helped fuel the poor morale on campus. And the equivalency drama continued as the outgoing leadership of the EMU-AAUP and the administration agreed to end discussion about the equivalencies, even though faculty had been explicitly told that we’d have until April to sort things out and/or make our case for additional class activities that would make our classes count as “four.”

And of course there was an unfortunate presidential election.

In December 2016, I relaunched a slightly new version of the blog I ran for the EMU community for many years, now renamed EMYoutalk.org. It hasn’t been quite as busy or important a community-building tool– at least not yet. But it gives a place for people to talk about EMU things who don’t want to do so on the EMUTalk Facebook group.

Winter 2017 (Dean TBA, we don’t have “spring semester” here at EMU; it’s winter, because it really is winter well into March in Southeast Michigan) began with lots of activity. Teaching-wise, I taught another section of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology” (this time online) and a face-to-face section of “354: Critical Digital Literacies.” 354 made at the absolute last minute– I was literally emailing my department head over Christmas break to find out if I should prepare to teach the class or not– and it turned out to be an interesting class with a very chummy and small group of students. Among other things, they developed their own regular rotation for who brings snacks.

Also in January: I was busy as a committee member for a search we were conducting for someone to (more or less) replace me as the Ass. WPA (we were able to make an offer to our top candidate, too!), busy writing up the documentation for my “salary adjustment” promotion (to the mythical rank of über-Professor or fuller-Professor), the reward ultimately being a pretty decent raise come Fall 2017.

And again, the equivalency nonsense continued, though much of the time spent in the Winter 2017 amounted to asking about the status of paperwork we thought we had completed months ago and also to asking various administrators to explain how it was they were planning on adding threes and fours together and get to twelve.

I will admit that during much of February 2017, I was immersed in depression and outrage at the turn in our national politics and the rise of Michigan’s own Besty “Grizzly Bear” DeVos as the US Secretary of Education. I do believe though that’s when I did the wrapping up/finishing touches on a chapter I have forthcoming in a collection edited by Liz Losh called MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education that’s been in the works for a while (it will come out in August 2017). And I’m sure we had some kind of mind-numbing meeting about what to do about course equivalencies.

The main highlight of March was the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting (this year in Portland, Oregon), which meant I missed that month’s department meeting in which faculty discussed once again what we could not possibly know because of the many unknowns of the course equivalencies that are going to be forced upon us. In theory.

Really, March was just a bridge to the cruelest month in academia, April. So much always happens then, and this year was no different. There were the celebrations (including the last Celebration of Student Writing I am likely to have much of an organizational hand in [and since most of the logistics were handled by the very able Joe Montgomery and Laura Kovick, I didn’t have to do much]), the wrapping up of grades, the last minute and impossible administrative requests, and one of the craziest last of the year department meetings I’ve attended in my 18 years at EMU (perhaps it is best to leave out the details).

But to end on two positive notes. First, I’m not teaching this summer, which means, Dean TBA, I hope you forgive me if I don’t get back to you on your feedback on this report until August or September. Second, I was awarded a Faculty Research Fellowship for fall 2017. It does raise questions and complexities about my duties as coordinator since the equivalency mess (have I mentioned the equivalencies issue yet?) does not clarify things like “reassigned time” to do quasi-administrative work. As I have said to my colleagues and my department head, we will “muddle through” for Fall 2017 and beyond, though if the equivalency stuff doesn’t get sorted out soon, our department head is going to have to take on a lot of the details handled by the many folks in our department currently on some kind of reassigned time. But I am looking forward to more concentrated time to spend on finishing my book about MOOCs before too many people forget that MOOCs were a “thing.”

There you have it, much more detail than you could possibly imagine, Dean TBA. In Dickensian terms, the 2016-2017 school year was the best of times, the worst of times: good students as always and lots of other pleasures, but quite frankly, I think morale remains low thanks to unsolved (and swept away) problems of racist incidents on campus and the unsolvable mystery of how the equivalencies will change the way things work at EMU– if they change things at all or even go into effect. What “interesting times” to come into your position!

Again, best of luck with/I’m sorry about your new Deandom.

Yours,

Steven D. Krause

Professor of far too many details about what happened last year.

Posted in Academia, EMU, Scholarship, Teaching | Leave a comment

That horrible and strange article about writing by John G. Maguire

I have some time on my hands right now. I am completely done with the 2016-17 school year, I am not teaching this summer (and thus not contractually obligated to do much of anything until late August), I won’t be teaching this fall because of a research fellowship, I’m trying to work on finishing a book about MOOCs, and, just to top it all off, I am currently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and thus don’t really have that much to do). So I have some things I can/want to write about right now. But I’ll start with this really horrible and strange article about writing instruction from The Washington Post.

“Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help” is a post/article from WaPo’s “Answer Sheet,” which is essentially their education “beat” page. The byline is Valerie Strauss, but it’s really a post by John G. Maguire, who describes himself as a “man obsessed with clear writing” who has been teaching writing in one form or another at a bunch of different places over the years. He has no training or scholarship in writing pedagogy, and, as far as I can tell from his resume, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor. Maguire is the author of a textbook called “College Writing Guide” and a champion of a method he seems to believe he invented called “Readable Writing.”

Frankly, there is not really much of anything in Maguire’s article that is accurate. There’s the uncritical citation of the book Academically Adrift, a study with some clear methodological shortcomings; there’s the claim that first year writing courses are about all matter of things but not writing sentences. There’s a quote from someone named Phillip Mink about how the college writing profession has stopped teaching style, which comes as a bit of surprise to me since I’ve been teaching a class specifically about style (albeit at the 300 level) for going on 20 years now at EMU. There’s this unsupported claim that students don’t know how to write sentences, and so the solution to making first year students into “readable writers” is to teach them how to write sentences, presumably at the expense of everything else.

As a slight tangent: I’ve been teaching writing and/or writing for a long time now, and I think when people (like this guy, like professors in other departments, etc.) say “students can’t write good sentences or good paragraphs,” that’s not quite what they mean.  By the time they get to college, the vast majority of students can indeed write grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, though not necessarily particularly “good” sentences and paragraphs. So when people like Maguire or whoever say “students can’t write,” I think we need to parse that out and ask for some more details.

Anyway, there’s a lot of appropriate outrage and frustration on Facebook, on the WPA mailing list, probably on some blogs, etc., and also in the comments on the article itself. I’ll just add three other things to the discussion:

  • It is incredibly annoying that Main Stream Media routinely runs these sorts of pieces written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, Maguire has taught writing for a long time, and expertise in teaching writing is a bit more fuzzy than expertise in something like cancer research. Still, would it really be that hard for WaPo and similar publications to stop and think about the qualifications of someone like Maguire to speak in such sweeping terms about teaching writing? And can you imagine a newspaper publishing a thought piece on the shitty state of journalism written by someone without any demonstrable expertise in journalism (other than reading it?)
  • At the end of the day, what Maguire is really trying to do here is sell his textbook. So really, what the WaPo did for him is run an advertisement in the form of an op-ed piece. I hope they charged Maguire appropriately.
  • In earlier drafts of my failed textbook project The Process of Research Writing, I actually made reference to The Karate Kid for reasons similar to Maguire. I think a good way to teach lots of things (like research writing) is to try to break it down into smaller parts, exercises to be practiced before attempting to do the whole thing at once. This is what textbooks generally do, but my references to The Karate Kid fell flat because (surprise, surprise!) students nowadays don’t necessarily know a movie that was made 15 or more years before they were born.
Posted in Academia, Scholarship, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 3 Comments

Bruni should visit and write about the other 99%

There have been a number of articles/commentaries lately about the delicate and precious and “PC” state of today’s college students, mostly written by people who haven’t spent time on a college campus since they graduated 20 or 30 or more years ago. For the most part, these critiques haven’t phased me much, in part because one of the historic constants in critiques about education is the terrible state of “today’s students,” whether that “today” is in 2017, 1917, or 517 BC. As an aside and a nice round-up column that refutes many of these critiques, I’ll refer you to John Warner’s “On Political Correctness as the New Campus ‘Religion'” in Inside Higher Ed. Spoiler alert: Warner is spot-on when he points out that “Political Correctness” is not the “religion” on “today’s” (and yesterday’s) college campuses; rather, it’s sports.

But for some reason, I found this piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” particularly irritating.

Bruni is ostensibly writing about a protest that got out of hand at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, author of the book The Bell Curve and a racist the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white nationalist,” came to campus to have a “debate.” I’m not going to rehash the specifics of that event because those accounts are easily found elsewhere by Googling “Charles Murray Middlebury” and in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with Bruni: campuses should be a place to foster pointed debate about uncomfortable issues, no doubt about it.

Though I do disagree with one observation Bruni makes in passing about the specifics of this incident: “A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it.” First off (and I’ve seen this same point made elsewhere), the idea that “any student group” can automatically invite anyone they want to an official campus event is nuts. Of course the administration should do some basic vetting of campus speakers, especially if the college/university is paying for it and/or hosting the speaker as an official event. Second, if a college is going to allow someone who has been labeled by a credible advocacy group as a “white nationalist” to come to your extremely liberal campus to speak, then that college might want to prepare with additional security and the like.

But what Bruni really is complaining about is the so called “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of all college students. You know, the kids today.

The internal logic of this piece irritates me. For example, in his second and third paragraphs, he writes:

Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.

They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.

Well golly, aren’t you really describing the middle-aged to senior-citizens amongst us who have caused the polarization of politics in this country for the last couple of decades? Isn’t this the demographic that has a dangerous inability to compromise, fueled and exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and then the alt-right and now Trump? Honestly, can you really say with a straight face that the “kids today” ought to be “reacquainted” with the ability to see the world from different perspectives– even perspectives that are potentially offensive– relative to the generation in charge right now?!

Then later on, Bruni quotes from the CNN commentator Van Jones (who, as an important tangent that perhaps speaks to Jones’ judgement, is the same guy who lost all credibility with me when he said “Trump became president” during a speech in which Trump’s main accomplishment was he was able to sound like a normal human for an hour). Jones said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

Okay, but (setting the violence at the Murray event aside), isn’t this exactly what the students/participants at that event did? They were confronted with some hateful ideals and they dealt with it. Wouldn’t just sitting there and listening politely been a sort of passivity that seems at odds with that?

But I guess the part that just gets me the most is this paragraph:

Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.

Please.

Why is it that whenever the MSM wants to make sweeping generalizations about higher education, they always seize upon things that happen at the most elite and exclusive institutions in the country? Why are all of the examples of students generally being “coddled” drawn from colleges and universities that cater to the 1%?

Consider the statistics from The New York Times on the economic diversity of students at Middlebury versus where I work, Eastern Michigan University. The median family income at Middlebury is $244,300 a year, which is fourth highest among all 65 “elite colleges.” The median family income at Eastern is $75,800, which is 204th among all 377 “selective public colleges.” Our students are closer to the students Sara Goldrick-Rab describes in this article I happened across today on Twitter, “Student Aid Perspectives: The Case for Expanding Emergency Aid.” Among other things, Goldrick-Rab cites a study of “70 community colleges in 24 states (which) revealed that 33 percent of those students had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger, and 14 percent were homeless.” I don’t think our numbers at EMU are as high as reported in that study, but I do know we have students who are homeless and we have students who rely on the EMU food pantry.

I could go on, but the point is this: Bruni et al are literally making a generalization about college students today based on the 1 %. That’s dumb.

If Bruni et al really wanted to see if we were facing a dramatic “wake-up call” because of the demands students are making and ideological conformity gone too far, then they’d show up at a place like Eastern once in a while and look around. Oh sure, we have elements of what Bruni is getting at on our campus, but it’s not exactly “the norm” nor is it particularly new. We’ve had some protests on campus this year too, some as a result of Trump’s elections, but most as the result of a racist graffiti incident that happened in fall 2016 (I’ve blogged about that here and also over at EMYoutalk.org here). The student-led protests have not been without controversy, but for whatever reason, they aren’t “the problem” these commentators have with campus climates.

The truth of the matter is many of our students are not particularly “young” (we have a lot of returning students at EMU, so it’s common for me to see a twenty or more year range for even a small class), and we don’t have a lot of students who are likely to be the “future leaders” of a Middlebury or what-have-you. We have a lot of students who are up to their eyeballs in debt who are are working a couple of jobs, trying to have some version of a family life, and going to school full-time. When you come from a family where the median income is what it is, you don’t have a lot of time to be coddled and you don’t have the safety net of Mumsy and Paw-Paw to finance your lifestyle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone making sweeping generalizations about higher education in this country nowadays actually had some connection with average/in-the-trenches/middle-to-working class universities and colleges?

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

Pre-CCCCs 2017

I’m heading to Portland, Oregon next week for the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication. My involvement this year is kind of in the “alternative” category of things. On Wednesday, I’ll be participating in the Research Network Forum for the first time. On Thursday, I’ll be participating in the Digital Praxis Poster sessions and I just finished creating the stuff I’ll have for my bit, “The Semester of Social Media Project.”

It’s a pretty straight-forward “show and tell” about an assignment I give in Writing for the World Wide Web where I ask students to “inhabit” some different social media platforms and to write about it. It’s not the fanciest of slideshows– maybe its even a little too simple to share in something called a “Digital Poster Session”– but my hope is that someone finds it kind of interesting and useful.

Posted in Computers and Writing, Scholarship, Teaching | Leave a comment

A few brief thoughts on high school, locker room showers, and transgender

On NPR’s “Morning Edition” this morning, I listened to this, “Ex-NC Gov Pat McCrory Offers His Take On Transgender Rights.”  NPR was talking to McCrory because he was the governor who oversaw the North Carolina “Bathroom Bill.”  McCrory basically said that the reason why this law was important was because of some variation of the dangers of the locker room. If you didn’t have a law like this, McCrory said again and again, how are boys going to feel with a girl who now thinks they are a boy in the same bathroom? What’s to stop a boy from saying he is a girl so he can shower in the girl’s locker room? When will the chaos end?

Obviously, all of McCrory’s fears are complete bullshit and along the lines of the argument about what would happen if we didn’t define marriage as between a man and a woman (“why, people might end up marrying their dogs or their cars!”). What this is really about is a lack of acceptance of difference, a lack of tolerance, some kind of overly rigorous religious code, bigotry, hatred, and/or just general ignorance.

However, this story this morning did bring back memories for me of high school and showers. I never– and I mean never– took a shower at my high school. Not once.

Now, that was over 30 years ago, and I really have no idea if my experiences/memories are typical or not. I have no idea what the common practice is nowadays. Also keep in mind I was very much the opposite of a jock–debate, extemporaneous speaking, and the student newspaper were my jams– which is to say I never had some kind of coach telling me and my teammates to “hit the showers.”

My high school back then had a gym class option where you could take a special before school started version that met several days a week (maybe every day? I don’t remember) for a lot less than the full term. This meant I didn’t have to have a gym class in the middle and I could take real classes instead– and also as a senior, I think I was done with classes by about lunchtime. The before school gym class was full of fellow nerds like me, and like the rest of these folks, we all just changed out of our gym clothes into regular clothes and went to class. It’s not like we worked up some kind of vigorous sweat playing dodgeball or whatever for an hour.

And nowadays, do they even make kids go to gym class?

I still am not all that comfortable with my own nakedness in quasi-public situations. In college the showers had curtains, so it meant bathrobe on in my room, to the shower room, close curtain, take off bathrobe, shower, and repeat in reverse. The gym I go to has a nice locker room and has showers with glass doors, so for those very rare times where I get cleaned up after a workout (mostly I come home afterwards), I’ll wrap up in a big towel and be sure to close the door.

I don’t think I’m alone in this behavior. Again, I don’t use the locker room at the gym a lot so my sample size is limited, but in my experience, almost all of the men in there follow a similar routine of covering up, turning away, and trying to keep the “parts” as private as possible. Though I will say that I have seen some men in the locker room who seem a little too comfortable with their bodies and nakedness, just strutting around in a pair of flip-flops and arguing loudly about sports.  Often, this proudly naked-type is an old dude who probably should grab a towel.

Anyway, my point is this: I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like to identify as a gender other than my own or to be transitioning in some way from female to male (or vice-versa). But I have to think that the vast majority of transgender teens have at least some of the same insecurities and nervousness about their own bodies as the cisgender teens. The scenarios of locker rooms gone wild that McCrory is trying to “protect” us from just does not square with any experience I’ve ever had. Though again, I wasn’t in a sport that required me to “shower up,” and for all I know, McCrory is that too proud to be naked older dude.

Posted in Life, Politics | Leave a comment

Responding to DeVos at CPAC: Oh, if it were only that easy….

Among other things, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at the Conservative Political Action Conference the other day:

Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students?

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

As Secretary, I don’t think the Department of Education in Washington should have more power over your decisions than you do. I took this job because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.

Ugh, I wish.

If my students did say what I told them to say and think what I told them to think, then teaching would be incredibly easy. Education generally would be a non-issue, just pour knowledge in. Do you remember that scene in The Matrix where Trinity calls and instantly gets a program on how to fly a helicopter? Man, I wish that’s how teaching worked. Reality is far different. Heck, I have students who don’t bother to read the syllabus, who don’t follow basic instructions on assignments, don’t do the reading, don’t show up to class. How am I supposed to just tell them what to say or think?!

Actually, that previous paragraph isn’t true. I wouldn’t want to tell my students what to say or think, and I don’t know any teacher at any level– certainly not at the college level– who would want to do that, regardless of that teacher’s/professor’s party politics. Part of a college education is to try to get students to learn how to think for themselves. (And yes, professors and higher education as an industry tend to vote for Democrats, but it’s a lot more complicated than assuming we all think the same thing and that there are no conservatives amongst us).

This is not to say that everything is fair game, that I’m all about students (or anyone else) saying and thinking whatever they want. Climate change is a real thing. Black lives really do matter, and there are good reasons to support that movement. We should base the arguments and claims we make in academic essays (and really, in the world in general) on research and reason and not “gut feelings.” CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets that report things you don’t agree with are not “Fake News.” None of these statements should be controversial, though I suppose each is now in dispute with a group like CPAC and in the era of President Donald Trump, who has only been president for a little over a month but it already feels perfectly reasonable to describe these times and his presidency as “an era.”

I do tell students what to think in the sense that there are indeed facts that are based on conclusive evidence that cannot be dismissed by wishing them away or conspiracy theories or baseless assertions. Attendance numbers at Trump’s inauguration really were much lower than they have been for the last two inaugurations for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton really did receive millions more votes than Trump did, there really were not millions of illegal voters, and Trump  really did not win the largest Electoral College victory in recent memory.

Fortunately for me, none of this is that controversial because where I teach, most of my students already know and believe this. Clinton won the county where I live (home to both Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan) by like 25 or more points, and the vast majority of the students at EMU lean politically left. That is, to the extent that they have time for any party politics at all– so many of my students are spending so much time working a couple of different jobs and dealing with life generally while going to school, I think there’s a significant percentage of them who cannot afford the “luxury” of partisan politics and protest. But yes, my students at EMU do not require a lot of elaborate and devious left-wing brainwashing to get them to question the way things are going with Trump et al. As far as I know, faculty weren’t really involved in organizing the “not my president” protests that popped up after the election, and it’s not like I made my students go to the various womens’ marches the day after the inauguration either.

And no, none of these students are getting paid or getting extra credit in my classes.

Posted in Academia, Politics, Teaching | 2 Comments