Happy Thanksgiving (and be careful what you say…)

My wife and son and I are on the road this Thanksgiving, returing from visiting old friends in Virginia seeing relatives on her side of the family in South Carolina. This post comes to you on a stay on the way home, from a hotel just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, the first one on the trip where free high speed Internet access was included. Pretty sweet.

Two minor thoughts. For “happy academics” like myself and my wife, Thanksgiving comes at a sort of odd time of the year. Since it involves a great deal of food shared with family and friends in a largely non-religious setting, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. Yet inevitably, my wife and I find ourselves working quite a bit during the break. This has been especially true this year for my wife, who has been busily grading and rewriting an essay for a journal while I drive. Reading and writing while riding in the car is a curious skill she’s learned over the years. It makes me queasy to just watch her. Anyway, I don’t know why, but while I have learned to make Spring Break a time to relax, Thanksgiving hardly seems like a time away from school, even when driving all over the country.

Second, as I was logging on to blogger to make this post, I came across this article about how Microsoft fired someone because of his blog. In the nutshell, this guy posted a silly little picture of a bunch of G5 computers being delivered at Microsquish headquarters. He got fired because, he was told, the picture represented a “security risk.” Blogger’s “advice” about all this is amusing because they have used this widely publicized event to tell folks about the special Blogger features you can use to avoid getting in trouble with what you write on your blog. Oddly enough, they don’t suggest that writers just use a pseudonym.

Part of my solution to this has been to create An Unofficial Blog where I occasionally post observations that I think are inappropriate for here. If you check this space out, you’ll see that I don’t feel the need to post things to this unofficial space that often.

But for the most part, I think that being able to say pretty much whatever I want is simply one of the perks of being a happy academic. At the school where I work (and I think this is true for the majority of public university and colleges in this country), it is a perfectly acceptable practice to criticize and complain about things because this simply falls into the realm of the open and free exchange of ideas critical to an academic institution. I suppose I haven’t really “pushed it” and posted something really confrontational, but I’ve posted here about the controversies surrounding the EMU President’s house and the faculty union and such, and I don’t expect to be called into anyone’s office about these observations anytime soon. If I worked at Microsoft, well…

Two Examples of Academic Humor

Let me put it to you this way: if you think these things are funny, you might be an academic…

* Here’s what kind of theorist I am:

You are Jacques Lacan! Arguably the most important
psychoanalyst since Freud, you never wrote
anything down, and the only works of yours are
transcriptions of your lectures. You are
notoriously difficult to understand, but at
least you didn’t talk about the penis as much
as other psychoanalysts. You died in 1981.

What 20th Century Theorist are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

A pretty odd fit, if you ask me.

* Here’s a link to a job search letter that is obviously a joke. If you don’t get it or you find it kind of in poor taste, a) my apologies, and b) you might not be an academic…

My iBook is Dead; Long Live my iBook G4

My trusty iBook laptop has bitten the dust– or, more accurately, has gotten to the point where it is no longer a laptop computer. The computer itself still works, but the display doesn’t. It does work hooked up to a monitor, and while that is a temporarily workable solution, it sort of defeats the purpose of having a laptop, which is something I’ve come to depend on for both my work and my fun.

Poor sick iBook…. Well, it’s a computer that served me very well for just over three years, and considering the fact that I used the computer virtually every single day during those three years and I carted the thing around with me everywhere, it’s kind of surprising to me that it was as trouble-free as long as it was. I could have gotten the thing fixed for $400 or so, but that didn’t seem like a very good investment to me. I was already planning on getting a new computer next fall, and to spend that much money on a computer where literally anything else could break at any time just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me.

So, in order to avoid a series of other computer hassles, I went out yesterday and bought the computer I am typing on right now: a new version of the 12 inch iBook I had before. Like my previous iBook, this one is on the “lower-end” of the scale for Apple laptops, but it is a dramatically better computer than my previous one (G4 processor, RW CD/DVD drive, 30 gig hard drive, wireless card, just to name a few things) and it was probably about $300 or so less than what I paid for my old iBook 3 years ago.

And with the wireless function, I can post to my blog and read my students’ email and update my web site all from a coffee shop in Ann Arbor, which is what I’m doing right now. :-)

Pick your art school professor

I stumbled across this blog entry this morning:


It is from a blog called “2blowhards.com” about some illustrations from a web site by a guy named John Leavitt, but I couldn’t find his “True Art School Tales” on his site. I assume I didn’t look hard enough. Anyway, check this out. I don’t know anything about art school, but these cartoons make a certain amount of sense to me, and in a lot of ways, you could darn near cross out the word “art” and write in “English” and get something about as accurate and funny.

Vote for the EMU-PDU Candidates!

I filled out my ballot for the EMU-AAUP Executive Committee elections today, voting for the PDU candidates, of course. My hope is that any of my fellow EMU faculty reading this will do the same and vote for Sally McCracken for President, Jim Vandenbosch for Vice President, Howard Bunsis for Treasurer, and Mark Higbee, Kate Mehuron, and Marty Shichtman for the three Members at-large positions. Vote also for the Constitution and Bylaws change that makes only elected members of the Executive Committee eligible to vote on the Executive Committee. For those of you not familiar with all of this but curious, check out the EMU Professors for a Democratic Union Web site, which I maintain and which contains lots of information about all this.

It’s funny, because it was just about a year ago that Susan Moeller first asked me if I’d be interested in running for a spot on the Executive Committee of the union as part of a group of people interested in reforming the way the union in general and the Executive Committee in particular worked. Somewhat naively, I ran, I won, and I got my chance to serve on the Executive Committee. It was a strange and odd time, and a rather short-lived one too since I and my fellow reformers resigned in protest about six months after taking office. Here are the last two paragraphs of the resignation letter I wrote:

The bickering, the arguments, the petty and irrelevant disputes, and the finger-pointing have been non-stop and extraordinarily stressful, and we still are not any closer to resolving the problems of our chapter. I have sat through nearly six months of Executive Committee meetings, and, for the life of me, I still do not understand why our chapter did not pay national dues for two years. Furthermore, the Executive Director, the past president, and members the past Executive Committee have never claimed any responsibility or accountability for these problems.

So, because of these and numerous other reasons, I believe being a member-at-large of the EMU-AAUP Executive Committee has become unproductive, and I believe continuing to be a member of the committee would damage my good name and my academic career. I want to thank Susan Moeller for asking me to run for this position in the first place, and I want to thank my colleagues at the AAUP for a truly eye-opening and educational experience, one I do not hope soon to repeat.

I can say without a doubt that being on this committee was the most unpleasant and bizarre experience I have had since I have become an “academic.” I found the pettiness, the craziness, and the obvious desires to hold on to power at the cost of the will of the membership startling and childish, especially considering the fact this was a group of college faculty.

At the time, I wasn’t sure if resignation was the way to go or not; ultimately, I think it was the right decision because it has brought the problems with the way things were running to the attention of all the faculty at EMU. Thus, the PDU was born, and another slate of candidates who want to reform the union. Only this group is quite a bit wiser and well organized than the slate I was on last year.

Interestingly enough, the issues are roughly the same: the fiscal responsibility of the union office (or lack thereof), the hostile tone taken by the communications officer and the like, and democratic control over the chapter. Only in some ways, these same problems are all the more pronounced because of time and because of the results of an audit of the chapter’s books. I don’t have the time and you don’t have the interest to read all the details– if you do have time and interest, visit the PDU web site, or the EMU-AAUP Web Site. The EMU-AAUP web site is really something; they published some letters from the chapter’s attorney in response to the auditors’ reports that essentially accuse this independent auditor as being “unfair” or “incompetent,” and that we should trust the EMU-AAUP office, the one that didn’t pay around $140,000 worth of dues for two years, along with everything else. Yeah, right.

Paper or Plastic?

I have been meaning to post here about an amusing entry on November 12, 2003 at the Household Opera blog called “A Plastic-sack view of Higher Education”. With a title like that, it perhaps isn’t surprising that The Invisible Adjunct picked up on it in a post about part-time faculty. For me, the metaphor connecting plastic grocery store bags and the decline (apparently) of higher education doesn’t work on a lot of different levels, and even the writer at Household Opera admits it is a bit of a parody and it is perhaps a signal that she is adopting her mother’s pet peeve regarding bad bagging.

After all, who is who in this metaphor? Are part-timers the plastic bag? That doesn’t seem to make much sense. Are they the baggers? Well, considering that bagging groceries is an entry-level and non-skilled job, one step above the person who gathers the carts in the parking lot, I don’t think that’s true. I suppose you could argue that plastic bags represent the demise of the golden age of neighborhood grocery stores and that this somehow ties in with the demise of more “friendly and genteel” institutions of higher education, but I don’t get that one, either.

Anyway, I do share the writer of Household Opera’s irritation with bad grocery store bagging, and I think you could argue that plastic bags helped bring about the demise of “bagging skills.” One doesn’t really “bag” in plastic bags because it isn’t as important how you stack things up in them. I tend to ask for paper for a variety of reasons, but generally, the folks working at the store, who don’t have any real “bagging skills” as it were, put stuff in the paper bags as if they were plastic, and thus the lettuce is squished by the canned tomatoes.

I don’t think this makes plastic bags “evil” or a sign of the downfall of grocery stores, though. As I understand it, plastic bags are actually better for the environment, they are cheaper, and it can make it easier to carry your groceries. It’s certainly easier to walk a few blocks and up some stairs with plastic bags.

Regardless, bad bagging is the world we live in, and I think there are only three ways around this nowadays: you can either be vigilant and dictatorial about how your groceries are bagged (“no-no-no! put the cans on the bottom! and put that bottle of wine in a paper sleeve, please!”); you can shop at “finer grocery stores” where the employees do seem to know how to bag a bit; and/or you can do it yourself. Perhaps there’s a metaphor in there about how higher education works…

What kind of social software are you?

This might be more appropriate on my unofficial blog space, but…

I found this silly little Internet quiz via Johndan’s “datacloud” site, and I thought it would be a good way to procrastinate from grading. Eerily, I believe this quiz has proven to be quite accurate. It said:

You are the blogosphere

You comment, you trackback, you Google, you technorati. You wish you blogdexed.

what kind of social software are you?

Weird, huh?

Accessibility and the WWW Resource

Kind of an interesting resource I stumbled across via Charlie Lowe’s blog called “Dive Into Accessibility,” a web resource designed to improve a web site’s “accessibility,” a term held in some high esteem to tech writers. It’s on the web at http://diveintoaccessibility.org/. It was put together by this guy named Mark Pilgrim, who is a computer programmer-type.

I haven’t looked through this site much yet, but I need to start thinking about these things more carefully because I’m teaching a new course in the winter called “Writing for the World Wide Web.” I’ve taught a version of this course before, but I am going to take a slightly different approach to the class this time around. This might seem obvious, but I am going to focus in this version of the class on “writing,” as opposed to “web page production.” Obviously, these two things are related with each other, but I guess what I’m getting at is I am not planning on spending a ton of time on the details of fancy web stuff. Just as well since I don’t do fancy web stuff, anyway. Rather, my goal is to spend more time on issues of how the web forces us to think about the conventions of writing– style issues, audience, etc., etc.

Right now, I’m planning on using a lot of web sites (like this one), and probably a couple of books, including one by Robin Williams (and someone else– she co-wrote this one) called The Non-Designers Web Design Book, or something like that, and probably a book by Jonathan and Lisa Price called Hot Text: Web Writing That Works. But I haven’t settled on anything yet; right now, I’m just trying to keep up with my fall students!

NPR and Kroc Money

NPR announced today that it received $200 million from Joan Kroc, a well-known philanthropist and the widow of Ray Kroc, who was the founder of McDonalds. You can read all about the money from the NPR web site, or by Clicking here.

Two things occurred to me about this. First, it’s kind of interesting that NPR, which is generally thought of as a fairly “liberal” news source, got this money from Ray Kroc’s widow. This is kind of strange because, as this web site says, (which is part of a database that the textbook company Houghton-Mifflin maintains called American History Database), Ray Kroc was a well-known and “ardent political conservative.” Perhaps the Krocs had some rather heated political discussions back in the day.

Second, I hope that NPR uses this money in part to reduce the costs of its programming, which in turn would make it easier for stations like my local NPR affiliate to operate. Essentially, I hope that NPR uses the money to take the franchise business model that Kroc created with McDonalds and turn it on its head.

The Demise of Cursive: So What?

By way of the NCTE INBOX service, here’s a feature story about how cursive-style handwriting isn’t being taught much anymore, at least in the Detroit area. As the article laments, “Taught for more than 300 years in the U.S., cursive writing has a storied past. But in schools across southeast Michigan, fancy writing has been reduced to an independent study, an “as-we-have-time” course in second or third grade. Papers written in cursive may be required in later grades, but with legibility spotty, computer printouts often are accepted instead.”

I have a hard time getting too terribly sad by this. For one thing, I hated being taught cursive and “proper writing” and all of that. I’m left-handed, which means that I had to figure out how to do all of the various pen-holding techniques backwards, and I still managed to drag my fat little hand through my ugly little letters. In the fourth grade, I actually failed handwriting. Maybe that’s the real reason I became a writer and a writing teacher.

Anyway, another reason I have a hard time getting too sad about the loss of old-fashioned cursive is it seems to be being replaced by something that matters. When the reporter asked a group of second graders “whether they would rather spend time learning cursive or computers, computers had the second-graders’ hearts. Hands down. “

The article tries to suggest that these kids just want to have fun and not buckle-down and take the time to learn a fine cursive hand. But I think these second graders are a lot smarter than that. I think these kids already realize that knowing how to effectively use a computer is going to be a lot more important for their future than learning how to write pretty.