Workin’ 9 to 5 (sort of) and Other Adventures of All FY Writing/All the Time!

As I blogged about earlier this year, I’m doing something this semester that I have never done as a tenure-track professor: I’m teaching a full load (three sections) of first year writing. I’ve had semesters where I’ve taught multiple sections of the same class, but I think the last time I did that was in the early 2000s where I taught two sections of a 300-level course while also having a course release to  do quasi-administrative work. As I explained earlier, my current schedule is a fluke based on the circumstances this semester and I jumped at the chance to just teach first year writing. In other words, this was my idea: I wanted to have one prep for a change of pace, and I also like to teach first year writing.

(Incidentally, when I was hired at EMU in 1998, my primary teaching assignments were an earlier version of this 300-level course and a graduate course on teaching with computers. Times and curriculums have changed and I haven’t taught that 300 level class in eight years and that grad course in at least 15 years, maybe more).

Having only one course to prepare– as opposed to three different classes– has been nice, and it’s especially nice that it’s first year composition, a course that I have literally been teaching regularly in my dreams for most of my life at this point. I’ve been able to keep all three different classes on the same schedule, so with a bit of tweaking and customization for each section, it still is one prep. And not surprisingly, one prep is easier than three.

The downsides? Well, all three of sections are f2f (as is the case with all of the first year writing courses at EMU) and all three sections are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now, I haven’t taught three f2f classes since I started teaching online for part of my load, and that was almost 20 years ago. I also haven’t taught this early for a while (my first section is at 9:30 in the morning), and I haven’t taught back-to-back sections with no break between in a long time either. So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I am in the office by 9 am and working pretty steadily until I’m done at 5 pm.

Because those days end up being nothing but teaching and preparing for teaching, I have also had to come into the office a lot more on other days during the week. I ran into an especially intense stretch in late January/early February when I had conferences with all 60 (or so) of my students– along with having a bunch of other “life” appointments and family stuff. I was on campus and mostly in my office for just about two weeks back then, and almost all day each of those days.

I realize this isn’t a work schedule most people would complain about– and I’m not complaining, at least not exactly. It’s just a very different rhythm from teaching a mix of f2f and online. The upside of teaching a mix of f2f and online is it gives me a lot more scheduling flexibility for when I do things. I do most of my online teaching while at home and in pajamas or sweats, plus I can take a break once in a while to do laundry or something else that needs to be done around the house.

But if I’m not disciplined about scheduling myself about when I do the work– planning, grading, and interacting with the class discussion boards– teaching asynchronously online can become an all day/all night thing where I’m constantly working in a not so efficient multitasking kind of way. So while teaching f2f means I’m spending a lot more time on campus, it does create at least more separation between life and work. That’s a good thing.

And I do like teaching f2f– not really more than teaching online (I like doing that too), but I like it. I like the live performance of f2f teaching and after having taught a zillion sections of first year writing, I have a refined schtick. I like putting on the show three times a day right in a row.

I’ve also been struck by the differences in these three sections. It’s not news to me that different groups of students taking the same course can have very different personalities, dynamics, and responses to readings and assignments. But teaching the same thing to three different classes (back to back to back) makes this very visible. Without getting into any details, it’s pretty clear that these different sections are not equally capable.

It does get a little boring doing the same thing three times in a row. If I’m scheduled to teach three sections of first year writing again like this, I would probably be okay with it. But I think I’d prefer two preps with an online class in the mix. Get back with me when I’m at the end of the semester to see if I feel the same way.

 

Zepbound, Month 1

A while  back, a Facebook “friend” (which is to say not so much a friend friend, but someone I know well enough from the academic world that I’ll talk with when I see him in person at a conference or something every few years) posted that he needed to lose 40 pounds and he was looking for suggestions. A lot of folks posted a lot of ideas, some of whom were also “friends” from academia who are very fit and athletic, competing in marathons and the like. All the advice boiled down to diet and exercise.

“Wait, in order to lose weight, I should eat less and exercise!?! Why, I never thought of that!” said every fat person in the world in their most sarcastic “this is just the way I talk” voice.

I wrote “Here’s what will be an unpopular suggestion: try drugs.” Which is what I’m currently doing.

Let me back up a bit:

I’m fat. I am not so fat that I need the seat belt expander on an airplane or I need to go to a special store to buy clothes, but I’m right on the edge of that level of fat. I should lose more than 40 pounds. To the extent that a Body Mass Index number matters, mine is in the high 30s. This puts me in the category of not just “obese” but on the edge of “morbidly obese.” It’s been like this for a long time.

I have of course tried many different diets and approaches, including Weight Watchers for a few years, but nothing has worked for long. For quite a while now, I’ve been completely locked into the same weight, plus or minus about 5 pounds: I’ll try something new and lose a bit, then plateau, and then gain it back. This has happened again and again and again.

So I gave up, and instead I try my best to be the healthiest fat person I can be. I go to the gym a few times a week, I try to eat mostly healthy foods (though I often fail), I stay on top of my various numbers with regular doctor visits, and I live with it. And for the most part, I’m at peace with that: I’ve been at least “overweight” since I was a kid so it’s not that big of a deal.

Still, I know I need to lose weight. After all, it is called morbid obesity.

About this time last year, I started hearing and reading things about Ozemspic, Wegovy, and similar drugs. The piece that peaked my interest most was Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker March 2023 article “Will the Ozemspic Era Change Howe We Thing About Being Fat and Being Thin?” Specifically, it was this paragraph:

The drugs mimic a hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1, which stimulates insulin production and suppresses the production of glucagon, which raises blood sugar. The body naturally releases GLP-1 after a meal, and the hormone travels to the brain, triggering the feeling of fullness. GLP-1 drugs effectively inject that sense of satiety, and also slow the rate at which food empties out of the stomach; patients generally report a freedom from cravings and an inability to overeat without becoming ill. “I’m convinced that this basically replaced a signal my body has been missing my whole life,” a commenter in a Reddit group for people using semaglutide wrote recently. “All I can say,” a member of an online group called Lose the Fat wrote, “is that it is no wonder that skinny people think heavy people have no willpower. Their brains actually do tell them to stop eating. I had no idea.”

This really really hit home for me. I remember talking about constantly feeling hungry in Weight Watcher meetings, but the only solution offered was willpower. For me, that works for a day or two, tops– thus my being stuck at my current weight for over a decade.

So when I went to see my doctor for a check-up and routine tests last spring, I said I’d like to give one of these Ozemspic-like drugs a try. Here I need to acknowledge the privilege and good luck I have in this situation. First, my doctor, who had never brought up weight loss in previous visits, said that she thought I’d be a good candidate for one of these drugs. When you look at the discussion forums about weight loss drugs, it’s easy to find someone talking about having a doctor who refused to prescribe anything. Second, I have very good health insurance through my employer that covers these drugs, with a $25 a month co-pay. There’s no way I’d pay out of pocket for this stuff because it costs around $1000 a month.

She put me on Saxenda, which is less effective than Wegovy and some of the other drugs out last year, but she said it was more available at pharmacies. Ozemspic was not an option because I’m not diabetic and she wasn’t willing to do that kind of off-label prescription– plus Ozemspic was (and I believe still is) in short supply. So after a couple of months of unfortunate events and delays (it’s a long story), I started Saxenda in late July. I was on it for about five weeks and I lost about six pounds– and then the supply dried up.

I went back to my doctor who was apologetic about the shortages, which are largely the result of the drug companies not being prepared for the enormous demand. She said that I must be disappointed, but actually, not really. Oh sure, I wish I could have continued on the meds because it was clearly working. I lost weight because I wasn’t hungry all the time, and thus I did not need to eat as much to feel full.

So for me, that experience on Saxenda was proof of concept. This shit might work for me– eventually, once the supply came back.

All through the fall and into December, I kept trying to find either Saxenda or Wegovy with no luck. Meanwhile in the fall/early winter, another one of these medications was approved by the FDA for weight loss, Zepbound. This one, which (IMO) has the best name, is similar to Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Mounjaro, and the research I’ve seen so far suggests it’s the most effective weight loss drug like this on the market so far. On average, people on this stuff lose around 22% of their body weight within 16 months. Do the math on your weight– that’s a lot.  This perhaps explains why Zepbound is being projected to be the best selling prescription drug of all time.

Anyway, I happened to be in Costco in early January and I asked at the pharmacy if they had Wegovy or Zepbound in stock. I didn’t think they would (and they didn’t have Wegovy), but it turned out they were having no problems getting Zepbound. So I started it on January 7, and, without going into all of the details (maybe I’ll get into that in the future), so far, so good. I’m at the end of week 4 and I’ve lost about seven and a half pounds– not bad for about 30 days. I just do not feel hungry and I also don’t need to eat as much to feel full.  Plus I have now already secured another two months supply, which means I have enough to (hopefully) see some significant results.

One of the folks on that Facebook post I mentioned responded to my comment about “try drugs” by saying something like “Sure, but then you have to stay on those drugs the rest of your life.” First off, check back with me in a year or two on that. The likelihood of regaining weight is somewhat debatable, and there are maintenance levels of these drugs as well. Second, we’re just at the beginning of these medications. There are a dozen similar meds being developed, and that’s going to eventually bring down the costs and make them easier to take (potentially not as an injectable, for example). And third, the same is also true with the meds I take (along with zillions of other people, of course) for cholesterol and blood pressure– or meds for diabetes, which I am trying to avoid. The first thing my doctors told me before I started meds for blood pressure and cholesterol was “diet and exercise,” but they still prescribed drugs. And of course taking Zepbound might mean that I’ll eventually be able to get off of the other meds.

So we’ll see what happens.

 

Starting 2024 With All First Year Writing/All the Time!

This coming winter term (what every other university calls spring term), I’m going to be doing something I have never done in my career as a tenure-track professor. I’m going to be teaching first year composition and only first year composition.  It’ll be quite a change.

When I came to EMU in 1998, my office was right next to a very senior colleague, Bob Kraft. Bob, who retired from EMU in 2004 and who passed away in December 2022, came back to the department to teach after having been in some administrative positions for quite a while. His office was right next to mine and we chatted with each other often about teaching, EMU politics, and other regular faculty chit-chat. He was a good guy; used to call me “Steve-O!”

Bob taught the same three courses every semester: three sections of a 300-level course called Professional Writing. It was a class he was involved in developing back in the early 1980s and I believe he assigned a course pack that had the complete course in it– and I mean everything: all the readings, in-class worksheets, the assignments, rubrics, you name it. Back in those days and before a university shift to “Writing Intensive” courses within majors, this was a class that was a “restricted elective” in lots of different majors, and we offered plenty of sections of it and similar classes. (In retrospect, the shift away from courses like this one to a “writing in the disciplines” approach/philosophy was perhaps a mistake both because of the way these classes have subsequently been taught in different disciplines and because it dramatically reduced the credit hour production in the English department– but all this is a different topic).

Anyway, Bob essentially did exactly the same thing three times a semester every semester, the same discussions, the same assignments, and the same kinds of papers to grade. Nothing– or almost nothing– changed. I’m pretty sure the only prep Bob had to do was change the dates on the course schedule.

I thought “Jesus, that’d be so boring! I’d go crazy with that schedule.” I mean, he obviously liked the arrangement and I have every reason to believe it was a good class and all, but the idea of teaching the same class the same way every semester for years just gave me hives. Of course, I was quite literally in the opposite place in my career: rather than trying to make the transition into retirement, I was an almost freshly-minted PhD who was more than eager to develop and teach new classes and do new things.

For my first 20 years at EMU (give or take), my work load was a mix of advanced undergraduate writing classes, a graduate course almost every semester, and various quasi-administrative duties. I occasionally have had semesters where I taught two sections of the same course, but most semesters, I taught three different courses– or two different ones plus quasi-admin stuff. I rarely taught first year composition during the regular school year (though I taught it in the summer for extra money while our son Will was still at home) because I was needed to teach the advanced undergrad and MA-level writing classes we had. And this was all a good thing: I got to teach a lot of different courses, I got a chance to do things like help direct the first year writing program or to coordinate our major and grad program, and I had the opportunity to work closely with a lot of MA students who have gone on to successful careers of their own.

But around six or seven years ago, the department (the entire university, actually) started to change and I started to change as well. Our enrollments have fallen across the board, but especially for upper-level undergraduate and MA level courses, which means instead of a grad course every semester, I tend to teach one a school year, along with fewer advanced undergrad writing classes, and now I teach first year writing every semester. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about this arrangement is the students I work with in first year composition are different from the students I work with on their MA projects– but they’re really not that different, in the big picture of things.

And of course, as I move closer to thinking about retirement myself, Bob’s teaching arrangement seems like a better and better idea. So, scheduling circumstances being what they are, when it became clear I’d have a chance to just teach three sections of first year comp this coming winter, I took it.

We’ll see what happens. I’m looking forward to greatly reducing my prep time because this is the only course I’m teaching this semester (just three times), and also because first year writing is something I’ve taught and thought about A LOT. I’m also looking forward to experimenting with requiring students to use ChatGPT and other AI tools to at least brainstorm and copy-edit– maybe more. What I’m not looking forward to is kind of just repeating the same thing three times in a row each day I teach. Along these lines, I am not looking forward to teaching three classes all on the same days (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and all face to face. I haven’t done that in a long time (possibly never) because I’ve either taught two and been on reassigned time, or I have taught at least a third of my load online. And I’m also worried about keeping all three of these classes in synch. If one group falls behind for some reason, it’ll mess up my plans (this is perhaps inevitable).

What I’m not as worried about is all the essays I’ll have to read and grade. I’m well-aware that the biggest part of the work for anyone teaching first year writing is all the reading and commenting and grading student work, and I’ve figured out a lot over the years about how to do it. Of course, I might be kidding myself with this one….

My Cassoulet

I’m trying to write down some of my favorite recipes that are from magazine clippings or old recipe cards and stuff– too easy to lose. This one comes from a very old Cooking Light magazine, though I’ve tweaked it a bit too. It’s a lighter and easier version of the classic cassoulet, but it’s still a hearty meal and a bit of a project to make. This freezes great, too.

Ingredients

1 pound dried white beans (Great Northern, ideally)

3 thick slices of bacon, diced

3 pounds of boneless pork loin (not something like pork butt because it’s too fatty, and not pork tenderloin because it’s too lean), cut into .5 to 1 inch pieces

1 smoked sausage ring (like kielbasa, could be pork or a mix of meats), cut into .5 to 1 inch pieces

2 1/2 cups onion (one very big onion), chopped

A couple pieces of celery, chopped

1 big carrot, chopped in about 1/4 inch pieces

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

One red pepper, chopped in about 1/4 inch pieces (not strictly necessary, but it gives it a nice color to the final dish)

A couple tablespoons of tomato paste

1 14.5 ounce can of chicken stock/broth (Or around 2 cups homemade stock)

1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon dry thyme (or Herb de Provence blend)

Salt and pepper to taste

About 1/3 cup water

About 1/2 cup white wine

About 2 cups fresh bread crumbs

About 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Steps:

  • Soak the beans overnight. The next day, drain, rinse, cover in water, and bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer, and cook until done, about an hour or so. Set aside. You can do this several hours in advance.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees.
  • Set out a bowl large enough to hold all of the meats. Put a large Dutch oven on medium heat and slowly cook bacon to render the fat. When it’s crispy, remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon and put it in that large bowl. Be sure to leave behind plenty of the bacon fat.
  • Turn up the heat just a bit. In batches, brown the pork loin. You probably won’t need to add any more fat, but have some olive oil nearby just in case. As the pieces brown, remove them and put them in the big bowl.
  • Once the pork loin is browned, add the sausage to the now empty pan. These sausages are already cooked, so all you are trying to do is to brown the sausage a bit. You should end up with some nice brown bits in the bottom of the pot. As it finishes, add the sausage to the big bowl.
  • In the now empty pot, add all of the vegetables: the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and red pepper. Add a bit of salt to help the veg lose some of its liquid which will then deglaze the brown bits from the pan. Cook and stir occasionally for 5 or 10 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste and stir thoroughly to mix with the vegetables and to cook the paste a bit. Add the chicken stock and canned tomatoes, stir, and bring it to a simmer.
  • Add back to the pot all of the meats and the beans, stirring to thoroughly combine. Bring it back to a simmer, and add a bit of water– but no more than about a 1/3 of a cup because the other ingredients will release more moisture as it cooks.
  • Put on a lid and put it in the oven, covered. Check it after about an hour, and if it has released a lot of liquid, take off the lid and put it back into the oven.
  • While this cooks, mix together fresh breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese in a bowl and set aside.
  • Take the cassoulet in progress out of the oven, and scoop out a little more than a cup of the beans and vegetables and put it the container for an immersion blender. Try not to get any of the meat in there, but don’t worry about it a few pieces. Blend the whole thing up and then stir this back into stew.
  • Stir in about a half cup of white wine and taste it to adjust the seasoning– it will probably need some salt and pepper.
  • Cover the top of the cassoulet with the breadcrumb and cheese mixture. Turn the oven up to 325, and return the pot to the oven, uncovered, for about 45 minutes or until golden brown on top.
  • Let the cassoulet cool for about 15 minutes before serving.

 

 

Hot Chancellor Porn! (or, another interesting test of free speech, academic freedom and tenure)

There have been many stories in the last day or so about UW-LaCrosse’s chancellor, Joe Gow, and his wife Carmen Wilson (she had an unpaid position), and how they were fired after the Wisconsin system regents learned of their enthusiasm for sharing homemade porn online. I think this one from The New York Times sums things up well:  “University Chancellor Fired After Making Pornographic Videos With His Wife.” Here’s a longish quote:

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. [Joe] Gow and Ms. [Carmen] Wilson said that they believe they were fired over the videos, which included sex scenes together and with others under the username Sexy Happy Couple. Both said they felt it was wrong for the university to punish them over the videos, arguing that doing so infringes on their free speech rights.

“It’s not what we’re about in higher ed, to censor people,” Ms. Wilson said. She added that the videos are only available to those who are looking for such content. “If they seek it out, they’re free to do so,” she said.

Mr. Gow, 63, said he and his wife, 56, have made videos together for years but had decided recently to make them publicly available on porn websites and had been pleased by the response. They said they never mentioned the university or their jobs in the videos, several of which have racked up hundreds of thousands of views. The couple also has made a series of videos in which they cook meals with porn actors and then have sex.

“We have that show, ‘Sexy Healthy Cooking,’ where we interview performers and really humanize them in ways that you wouldn’t get in their other work,” Mr. Gow said. “It’s an interesting process, and the people that we work with are completely professional, and very great to work with.”

Now, not that I’m suggesting that anyone actually do this– not at all! not for a second!— but if one were to, hypothetically, google “Sexy Happy Couple” or “Sexy Healthy Cooking,” one just might get a sense of what Gow and Wilson are talking about. Or if someone went to a fairly well known and provocative website that has a name that rhymes with “corn tub” and do a search there, that someone might even get a more detailed view for free.

Gow and Wilson are correct: their videos have nothing to do with their work, and  you have to actively seek out their “cooking demonstrations.” It’s different from what happened with EMU’s former associate provost, Michael Tew, who was convicted for driving around Dearborn in a Jeep Wrangler while naked and whacking off, all with the windows and sunroof open. Tew was charged and convicted of indecent exposure– and imagine being stuck in traffic next to that guy. In contrast, you do have to go looking for these videos, and I agree that whatever happens between consulting adults and a salad spinner in the privacy of their own home is their own business.

Anyway, Gow and Wilson were both removed from their positions– though Gow is on a paid administrative leave and Wilson had some kind of “special assistant” position and was never a paid employee anyway. Gow and Wilson are arguing that they were fired for exercising their rights to free speech. In an interview published in USA Today (perhaps not surprisingly, neither of them have been shy about telling their story), Gow said “he decided to test that commitment [to free speech] since he had planned to leave the chancellorship soon anyway. ‘I felt a little bit more open about ”let’s raise these free speech issues and see how the board responds,” and now we know,’ he said.”

Like most college chancellors/presidents, Gow was also a tenured professor– in the Communications department. So what Gow was planning on doing was to return to the faculty, presumably to teach. And to be clear: Gow was fired as chancellor, but they couldn’t fire him from the faculty because he has tenure. At least not yet– the UW system regents has hired a law firm to figure out if they can strip him of tenure and kick him out for good.

It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out.

Typically (and I’m assuming this is the case with the UW system), tenured faculty are the only ones who have this kind of job security as it relates to free speech in the name of academic freedom. Tenured professors like me are happy to remind anyone and everyone of the importance of this kind of academic freedom for all kinds of reasons, but especially to foster the pursuit for knowledge. People don’t make new discoveries, write new plays, paint new things, or experiment with new ideas if they are afraid they’ll get fired or in trouble for saying the wrong thing. But I think it’s also important to remember that these protections do not exist unconditionally for anyone else on campus.

Students can be punished in all kinds of ways for speech acts, and Gow’s and Wilson’s case might very well be an example of that. If a bunch of students were filming porn in the dorms and they got caught, they might very well be expelled. Staff and administrators don’t have the same level of job security, and that is especially true with administrators.

Administrators can have a “real life” outside of the job, of course. They can have an active online presence, have a homemade YouTube cooking show, maybe even be in a band (as Gow and Wilson were, apparently). But unlike faculty, administrators are “at will” employees. They risk their jobs when they publicly criticize the university, or when they do anything else that might be considered, well, freaky. That’s why EMU’s Michael Tew was relieved of his duties as associate provost, and it’s also why Gow didn’t make his lifestyle public before he was ready to step down from the job.

But firing him completely, that’s different. Unlike EMU’s naked driving enthusiast, Gow and Wilson didn’t do anything illegal. I’m not especially interested in watching their show, but that’s obviously a speech act that deserves protection. So no, I don’t think Gow should be removed from his faculty position, and I think this is a clear example of why tenure matters.

Should Gow and Wilson been allowed to stay in their leadership positions? I honestly don’t know.

One of the questions I’ve always had about academic freedom is why are tenured professors the only ones on college campuses who have this? After all, students, staff, and administrators are all people who are (in theory) pursuing knowledge in one form or another. Why don’t they have the same level of freedom to say what they want? And what’s wrong if the guy in charge of the university and his wife post (and sell) porn videos online that no one at that university ever has to look at?

But on the other hand, it does create an awkward situation. I don’t think I’m a prude and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with porn that is consensual and that doesn’t involve minors. But it might be kind of weird to work with or take a class from either of these two now, especially if you did that google search I warned you not to do.

At the end of the day, I predict there will be some kind of “negotiated” settlement. I think that’s what happened with Tew at EMU. He was immediately removed as the associate provost, but as I understand it, he actually wasn’t fired entirely but instead returned to his faculty position– sort of. He never actually taught a class or anything; I believe he went on leave and he was allowed to retire.

My guess is that after this story is no longer in the news cycle, Gow and Wilson will make some kind of deal that will allow them to more gracefully exit the institution and retire, which would give them more time to devote to their hobbies anyway. A win-win situation, perhaps?

The Year That Was 2023

Last year was, in a lot of ways, A LOT. I was originally going to make this just a post about only “life” stuff, but I decided to make some mentions to work stuff/AI stuff too. And it is one of those posts no one other than me is going to probably read, but whatever.

Okay, let’s see:

The AI stuff for me actually began in late 2022 when I was teaching a class where I included an AI assignment and I wrote a blog post called “AI Can Save Writing by Killing ‘The College Essay.'” That post got (what is for me) a lot of hits, over 4,000 since this time last year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the reason why I keep blogging (at least once in a while) is that when a blog post hits like this, it gets my writing into circulation with an interested audience better than anything I do. Real scholarly publications don’t even come close.  Most of my blog posts remain mostly unread– and most of the scholarly things I’ve published or presented are in the same boat. But every once in a while, one hits like this one.

I didn’t blog at all in January– though I posted a lot of links to stuff I had been reading about AI– and I was busy getting what were three different courses prepped and running. I taught our MA research methods class using Johnny Saldaña’s The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers as the main text, in part because at this stage, I was also still trying to figure out how to code and analyze the hundreds of pages of transcripts from faculty interviews about their experiences teaching online during Covid. I think the book was overkill for both my students and my purposes as a researcher, to be honest. I taught a 300-level research writing course that where I decided to use Try This: Research Methods for Writers by Jennifer Clary-Lemon, Derek Mueller, and Kate Pantelidies. It’s an interesting textbook which focuses mostly on primary research (rather than secondary– aka, look stuff up in the library and online). I thought that class was so-so as well, not because of the book (which I would definitely use again, and I hope I get the chance to teach this class again, maybe next year) but because of some of the things I did or didn’t do in the class.

And for my section of first year writing, I did something I haven’t done since I was an MFA student: I actually assigned a book, a real (not a text) book for students to read. I have no objections to the program textbook; I just wanted to try something I haven’t done in a long long time. I had students read Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention– and How to Think Deeply Again, and I also assigned parts of my own textbook and a number of essays from Writing Spaces. I wrote a bit about this as a part of this post from last May; basically, students did their research projects about something that Hari talked about in his book. It’s the kind of thing I can get away with after teaching this for most of my life and I don’t need to rely on the textbook, if that makes sense. I did the same thing for my section of first year writing this past fall, and I’m planning on doing it again (times three, and probably for the last time) this coming term. Setting aside the specifics of Hari’s book, I do think there is something to be said for assigning a mainstream non-fiction trade book like this. It sets the theme of the research students will be doing (I never allow students to do research about whatever they want for a ton of different reasons), and it also provides an example of how to use a variety of different kinds of research to make an argument. More on a lot of this later, I’m sure.

Nothing too exciting that I can remember about last January or most of February– just weather, snow and ice respectively. The end of February/beginning of March though was a lot more interesting with our trip to Los Angeles. I think both Annette and I were kind of prepared to not like it much, but I got to say we had a really good time. Yeah, it’s a lot of driving around and WAY too expensive, but I get why people want to live out there. Highlights included the TMZ tour, watching a taping of Jeopardy!, and a couple nights at The Comedy Store (it wasn’t part of the plan, but we stayed at a hotel across the street– lots of fun). Not so much a highlight was an extra day and a half trapped at a hotel by LAX because of bad weather in Detroit.

We had a fun birthday/birthmonth for me dinner at Freya in Detroit in late March, the semester wrapped up, and I had the chance to talk to folks at Hope College about AI stuff in late April. As I blogged about then, that’s a prime example as to why I still blog: someone at Hope read that blog post I wrote back in December 2023, liked it, and invited me to do a talk, which was pretty cool. They would have done it over Zoom, but I actually wanted to make a little trip out of it; Annette came along and we did a little Holland tourism including taking a picture of a windmill.

May brought a good crop of asparagus, and June was the beginning of a fair amount of travel for both of us. We went “up north,” as they say, at a rental on Big Glen Lake. Did some hiking around, ate some fancy food, and saw a good friend rocking out– a pretty typical stay for us up there.  We came home after a week, and a few days later, Annette went out to a conference in Seattle. A couple days after she got back I went to the Computers and Writing Conference at UC Davis– a good conference, I thought. And then, about a week after that, Annette and I went on a Gate 1 tour that went from Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Split, Piltvice Lakes National Park, a bit of Opatija, the Postojna Caves, the super pretty tourist town Bled (which featured some silly dancing on the second night), the capitol of Slovenia, Ljubljana, a brief but nice stop in Trieste, and then Venice: one day with Gate 1 and two more on our own. It was a great trip–though super-busy, and super hot: quite literally, our trip through southern Europe corresponded with the hottest weather ever recorded on Earth– at least up until that point.

Oh yeah, we came home with Covid, too! I am positive we caught it while actually on the tour bus. There was a couple we chatted with a couple times and such who were both feeling like shit– a bad cold, maybe a flu, they thought– but I know I was sick before I got on the plane for back home. I think Annette was too, but it hit her a little later. We were (and are again! just got a booster back in October or so) all vaxxed up, so I like to think that helped it all be not that big of a deal. Actually, I know many MANY more people who had Covid this last year than I did during the worst of the pandemic.

More summer came, we had visits from both my parents and Annette’s, I made a somewhat impromptu road trip to Iowa in late August to get together with “the originals”– that is, just my parents and sisters without all the spouses and kids, and then the school year started up. As I blogged about in September, this is the first time I can remember since entering my PhD program that I did not have some kind of “scholarly project” cooking up in one stage or another. I’m not really working on anything right now (though I did have a couple of different things come out last year, in addition to my talk at CWCON). The break has been good, though I have a feeling I’m going start doing at least a bit more research/scholarship about teaching with AI this coming year.

I got a chance to give another AI and teaching talk (or lead a discussion/workshop, depending on what you want to call it), this time via Zoom and as part of a faculty development event at Washtenaw Community College. I blogged about that too, and my sense from this event was that most faculty have figured out how to deal with AI. Funny what a difference a year makes with this.

Also for the first time ever, EMU had a “Fall Break” in October. A lot of universities have started doing this actually, I think as a result of a lot more attention on college campuses post-covid in helping students with a little “self-care.” So we went to New York, met up with Will, hung around with our old friend Annette Saddik, saw Sweeney Todd, met up with Troy and Lisa, and generally spent way too much money on fun things.

Oh yeah, in October, we put down money on a new house– a brand-new house that’s being built right now in a subdivision in Pittsfield Township sort of between where we are now and Saline. On the one hand, this might look like a surprising turn of events. We had talked about moving before and also about moving into a condo or something for a while.  But a couple years ago, I would have never guessed we would be building a new house that pretty much looks like all the other new houses in new a suburban development (it was a cornfield two years ago) kind of on the outskirts of things. On the other hand, once we started really thinking about it, this started making sense. We like our house and neighborhood A LOT, but there’s a number of things (mostly minor) that need to be fixed or upgraded around here, and there are other things we want (like a bigger kitchen and a more “open concept” living room/dining room area) that we can’t do here. And say what you want about a cookie-cutter house, this place has the layout and the newness we want. Plus the way the housing market is around here nowadays, there just isn’t much on the market. So new house it is. Stay tuned on that one.

Anyway, one of the things we’re really going to miss around here when we move, for sure, including Halloween— not expecting any trick or treaters in the new sub.  Once again, my side of the family did a combined Thanksgiving/Christmas thing (which did include some cookie decorating), and of course a lot of family fun stuff. The semester wrapped, the school year ended, and (more or less), here we are.

Like I said a lot.

I’m Still Dreaming of an AI Grading Agent (and a bunch of AI things about teaching and writing)

I’m in the thick of the fall semester and I’ve been too busy to think/read/write much about AI for a while. Honestly, I’m too busy to be writing this right now, but I’ve also got a bucket full of AI tabs open on my browser, so I thought I’d do a bit of a procrastination and “round up” post.

In my own classes, students seem to be either leery of or unimpressed with AI. I’ve encouraged my more advanced students to experiment with/play around with AI to help with the assignments, but absent me requiring them to do something with AI, they don’t seem too interested. I’ve talked to my first year writing students about using AI to brainstorm and to revise (and to be careful about trusting what the AI presents as “facts”), but again, they don’t seem interested. I have had at least one (and perhaps more than that) student who tried to use AI to cheat, but it was easy to spot. As I have said before, I think most students want to do the work themselves and to actually learn something, and the students who are inclined to cheat with AI (or just a Google search) are far from criminal geniuses.

That said, there is this report, “GenAI in Higher Education: Fall 2023 Update Time for Class Study,” which was research done by a consulting firm called Tyton Partners and sponsored by Turnitin. I haven’t had a chance to read beyond the executive summary, but they claim half of students are “regular users” of generative AI, though their use is “relatively unsophisticated.” Well, unless a lot of my students are not telling me the truth about using AIs, this isn’t my impression. Of course, they might be using AI stuff more for other classes.

Here’s a very local story about how AI is being used in at least one K-12 school district: “‘AI is here.’ Ypsilanti schools weigh integrity, ethics of new technology,” from MLive. Interestingly, a lot of what this story is about is how teachers are using AI to develop assignments, and also to do some things like helping students who don’t necessarily speak English as their native language:

Serving the roughly 30% of [Ypsilanti Community Schools] students who can speak a language other than English, the English Learner Department has found multiple ways to bring AI into the classroom, including helping teachers develop multilingual explanations of core concepts discussed in the curriculum — and save time doing it.

“A lot of that time saving allows us to focus more on giving that important feedback that allows students to grow an be aware of their progress and their learning,” [Teacher Connor] Laporte said.

Laporte uses an example of a Spanish-speaking intern who improved a vocabulary test by double-checking the translations and using ChatGPT to add more vocabulary words and exercises. Another intern then used ChatGPT to make a French version of the same worksheet.

A lot of the theme of this article is about how teachers have moved beyond being terrified of AI ruining everything to becoming a tool to work with in teaching. That’s happening in lots of places and lots of ways; for example, as Inside Higher Ed noted, “Art Schools Get Creative Tackling AI.” It’s a long piece with a somewhat similar theme: not necessarily embracing AI, but also recognizing the need to work with it.

MLA apparently now has “rules” for how to cite AI. I guess maybe it isn’t the end of the essay then, huh? Of course, that doesn’t mean that a lot of writers are going to be happy about AI.  This one is from a while ago, but in The Atlantic back in September, Alex Reisner wrote about “These 183,000 Books are Fueling the Biggest Fight in Publishing and Tech.” Reisner had written earlier about how Meta’s AI systems were being trained on a collection of more than 191,000 books that were often used without permission. The article has a search feature so you can see if your book(s) were a part of that collection. For what it’s worth, my book and co-edited collection about MOOCs did not make the cut.

Several famous people/famous writers are now involved in various lawsuits where the writers are suing the AI companies for using their work without permission to train (“teach?”) the AIs. There’s a part of me that is more than sympathetic to these lawsuits. After all, I never thought it was fair that companies like Turnitin can use student writing without permission as part of its database for detecting plagiarism. Arguably, this is similar.

But on the other hand, OpenAI et al didn’t “copy” passages from Sarah Silverman or Margaret Atwood or my friend Dennis Danvers (he’s in that database!) and then try to present that work as something the AI wrote. Rather, they trained (taught?) the AI by having the program “read” these books. Isn’t that just how learning works? I mean, everything I’ve ever written has been been influenced in direct and indirect ways by other texts I’ve read (or watched, listened to, seen, etc). Other than scale (because I sure as heck have not read 183,000 books), what’s the difference between me “training” by reading the work of others and the AI doing this?

Of course, even with all of this training and the continual tweaking of the software, AIs still have the problem of making shit up. Cade Metz wrote in The New York Times “Chatbots May ‘Hallucinate’ More Often Than Many Realize.” Among other things, the article is about a new start-up called Vectara that is trying to estimate just how often AIs “hallucinate,” and (to leap ahead a bit) they estimated that different AIs hallucinate at different rates ranging from 3% to 27% of the time. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Because these chatbots can respond to almost any request in an unlimited number of ways, there is no way of definitively determining how often they hallucinate. “You would have to look at all of the world’s information,” said Simon Hughes, the Vectara researcher who led the project.

Dr. Hughes and his team asked these systems to perform a single, straightforward task that is readily verified: Summarize news articles. Even then, the chatbots persistently invented information.

“We gave the system 10 to 20 facts and asked for a summary of those facts,” said Amr Awadallah, the chief executive of Vectara and a former Google executive. “That the system can still introduce errors is a fundamental problem.”

If I’m understanding this correctly, this means that even when you give the AI a fairly small data-set to analyze (10-20 “facts”), the AI still makes shit up with things not a part of that data-set. That’s a problem.

But it still might not stop me from trying to develop some kind of ChatGPT/AI-based grading tool, and that might be about to get a lot easier. (BTW, talk about burying the lede after that headline!)  OpenAI announced something they’re calling (very confusingly) “GPTs,” which (according to this article by Devin Coldewey in TechCrunch) is “a way for anyone to build their own version of the popular conversational AI system. Not only can you make your own GPT for fun or productivity, but you’ll soon be able to publish it on a marketplace they call the GPT Store — and maybe even make a little cash in the process.”

Needless to say, my first thought was could I use this to make an AI Grading tool? And do I have the technical skills?

As far as I can tell from OpenAI’s announcement about this,  GPTs require upgrading to their $20 a month package and it’s just getting started– the GPT store is rolling out later this month, for example.  Kevin Roose of The New York Times has a thoughtful and detailed article about the dangers and potentials of these things, “Personalized A.I. Agents Are Here. Is the World Ready for Them?” User-created agents will very soon be able to automate responses to questions (that OpenAI announcement has examples like a “Creative Writing Coach,” a “Tech Advisor” for trouble-shooting things, and a “Game Time” advisor that can explain the rules of card and board games. Roose writes a fair amount about how this technology could also be used by customer service or human resource offices, and to handle things like responding to emails or updating schedules. Plus none of this requires any actual programming skills, so I am imagining something like “If This Then That” but much more powerful.

AI agents might also be made to do evil things, which has a lot of security people worried for obvious reasons. Though I don’t think these agents are going to be to powerful enough to do anything too terrible; actually, I don’t think these agents will have the capabilities to make the AI grading app I want, at least not yet. Roose got early access to the OpenAI project, and his article has a couple of examples of how he played around with it:

The first custom bot I made was “Day Care Helper,” a tool for responding to questions about my son’s day care. As the sleep-deprived parent of a toddler, I’m always forgetting details — whether we can send a snack with peanuts or not, whether day care is open or closed for certain holidays — and looking everything up in the parent handbook is a pain.

So I uploaded the parent handbook to OpenAI’s GPT creator tool, and in a matter of seconds, I had a chatbot that I could use to easily look up the answers to my questions. It worked impressively well, especially after I changed its instructions to clarify that it was supposed to respond using only information from the handbook, and not make up an answer to questions the handbook didn’t address.

That sounds pretty cool, and I bet I could create an AI agent capable of writing an summative end-comment on a student essay based on a detailed grading rubric I feed into the machine. But that’s a long way from doing the kind of marginal commenting on student essays that responds to particular sentences, phrases, and paragraphs. I want an AI agent/grading tool that can “read” a piece of student writing that is more like how I would read and comment on a piece of student writing, and that  limited to a rubric.

But this is getting a lot closer to being potentially useful– not a substitute for me actually reading and evaluating student writing, but as a tool to make it easier to do. Right now, the free version of ChatGPT does a good job of revising away grammar and style mistakes and errors, so maybe instead of me making marginal comments on a draft about these issues, students can first try using the AI to help them do this kind of low-level revision before they turn it in. That, combined with a detailed end comment from the AI might, actually work well. I’m not quite sure if this would actually save me any time since it seems like setting up the AI to do this would take a lot of time, and I have a feeling I’d have to set up the AI agent for every unique assignment. Plus, and in addition to the time it would take to set up, this would cost me $20 a month.

Maybe for next semester….

So, What About AI Now? (A talk and an update)

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk/lead a discussion called “So, What About AI Now?” That’s a link to my slides. The talk/discussion was for a faculty development program at Washtenaw Community College, a program organized by my friend, colleague, and former student, Hava Levitt-Phillips.

I covered some of the territory I’ve been writing about here for a while now and I thought both the talk and discussion went well. I think most of the people at this thing (it was over Zoom, so it was a little hard to read the room) had seen enough stories like this one on 60 Minutes the other night: Artificial Intelligence is going to at least be as transformative of a technology as “the internet,” and there is not a zero percent chance that it could end civilization as we know it. All of which is to say we probably need to put the dangers of a few college kids using AI (badly) to cheat on poorly designed assignments into perspective.

I also talked about how we really need to question some of the more dubious claims in the MSM about the powers of AI, such as the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past summer, “GPT-4 Can Already Pass Freshman Year at Harvard.”  I blogged about that nonsense a couple months ago here, but the gist of what I wrote there is that all of these claims of AI being able to pass all these tests and freshman year at Harvard (etc.) are wrong. Besides the fact that the way a lot of these tests are run make the claims bogus (and that is definitely the case with this CHE piece), students in our classes still need to show up– and I mean that for both f2f and online courses.

And as we talked about at this session, if a teacher gives students some kind of assignment (an essay, an exam, whatever) that can be successfully completed without ever attending class, then that’s a bad assignment.

So the sense that I got from this group– folks teaching right now the kinds of classes where (according to a lot of the nonsense that’s been in MSM for months) the cheating with ChatGPT et al was going to just make it impossible to assign writing anymore, not in college and not in high school— is it hasn’t been that big of a deal. Sure, a few folks talked about students who tried to cheat with AI who were easily caught, but for the most part it hadn’t been much of a problem. The faculty in this group seemed more interested in trying to figure out a way to make use of AI in their teaching than they were in cheating.

I’m not trying to suggest there’s no reason to worry about what AI means for the future of… well, everything, including education. Any of us who are “knowledge workers”– that is, teachers, professors, lawyers, scientists, doctors, accountants, etc. etc.– needs to pay attention to AI because there’s no question this shit is going to change the way we do our jobs. But my sense from this group (and just the general vibe I get on campus and in social media) is that the freak-out about AI is over, which is good.

One last thing though:  just the other day (long after this talk), I saw what I believe to be my first case of a student trying to cheat with ChatGPT– sort of. I don’t want to go into too many details since this is a student in one of my classes right now. But basically, this student (who is struggling quite a bit) turned in a piece of writing that was first and foremost not the assignment I gave, and it also just happened this person used ChatGPT to generate a lot of the text. So as we met to talk about what the actual assignment was and how this student needed to do it again, etc., I also started asking about what they turned in.

“Did you actually write this?” I asked. “This kind of seems like ChatGPT or something.”

“Well, I did use it for some of it, yes.”

“But you didn’t actually read this book ChatGPT is citing here, did you?”

“Well, no…”

And so forth.  Once again, a good reminder that students who resort to cheating with things like AI are far from criminal masterminds.

Fennel Salad

This is a very simple salad recipe my son Will asked about so I though I’d write it down for him here. What’s nice about this (besides being tasty and pretty easy to do) is it travels really well, so it makes it a good thing to bring over for a dinner party or a pot luck or something.

This is also very VERY adjustable, so I’m not bothering to put down too much in terms of measurements here.

Ingredients:

Fennel bulb(s). Sometimes I see this called “anise” in the produce section. I generally think one big fennel bulb is enough for four servings, but more is not bad. Be sure to keep the pretty and tasty fronds!

Lemon juice, fresh of course. For a one bulb salad, I’ll use the whole lemon.

Good olive oil.

Good and freshly grated parmesan cheese–don’t get the pre-shredded stuff.

Salt and Pepper to taste

Italian flat leaf parsley (optional)

Balsamic vinegar glaze (optional)

Procedure:

  • Prepare the fennel. To do that, cut off the fronds (though save the tops for garnish) so you’re just left with the bulb itself. Cut it in half so you slice through the middle of the core, which isn’t edible. Then cut out the core, being careful to keep the layers of fennel together. This is also when you would discard any brown or nasty parts on the outside layer of fennel.
  • If you have a mandolin slicer (good for you!), slice the fennel thinly; I usually go with a 1/16th inch setting on mine. If you don’t have a mandolin slicer or you’re just too lazy to get it out, no problem: just slice it as thin as you can with a sharp knife. Pile the fennel up into a salad bowl.
  • Chop up the reserved fennel fronds (and parsley if you’re using it), add about half of it to the fennel in the salad bowl and then give it a toss.
  • In a small jar with a lid or plastic storage container, add the juice of the lemon, a bit more than an equal amount of olive oil, and a dash of salt and pepper. Put on the lid and shake it, and then give it a taste to adjust. If you’re going to eat it right away (or within about 30 minutes or so), you can add the dressing to the fennel and toss; if you’re taking that salad someplace, keep the dressing in the container and take it with you.
  • Finely grate parmesan cheese. This is to taste of course, but for a one bulb salad, I will use a microplane grater (so the cheese is very thin) and grate up about a cup worth of cheese. If you’re not going anywhere, go ahead and grate the cheese right into the salad bowl; if you are traveling, put that cheese into a plastic baggy or similar container.
  • Toss the salad together. It’s delicious right away, but it will hold up well tossed up for at least an hour, longer if you put it in the fridge. When I’m feeling “fancy,” I’ll add a little garnish of balsamic vinegar glaze too because it is tasty and looks nice.

A Belated “Beginning of the School Year” Post: Just Teaching

I don’t always write a “beginning of the school year” post and when I do, it’s usually before school starts, some time in August, and not at the end of the second week of classes. But here we are, at what seasonally always feels to me a lot more like the start of the new year than January.

This is the start of my 25th year at EMU. This summer, I selected another one of those goofy “thanks for your service” gifts they give out in five year increments. Five years ago, I picked out a pretty nice casserole dish; this time, I picked out a globe, one which lights up.

I wrote a new school year post like this was in 2021, and back then, I (briefly) contemplated the faculty buyout offer. “Briefly” because as appealing as it was at the time to leave my job behind, there’s just no way I could afford it and I’m not interested in starting some kind of different career. But here in 2023, I’m feeling good about getting back to work. Maybe it’s because I had a busy summer with lots of travel, some house guests, and a touch of Covid. After all of that, it’s just nice to have a change of pace and get back to a job. Or maybe it’s because (despite my recent case) we really are “past” Covid in the sense that EMU (like everywhere else) is no longer going through measures like social distancing, check-ins noting you’re negative, vax cards, free testing, etc. etc. This is not to say Covid is “over” of course because it’s still important for people to get vaxxed and to test.  And while I know the people I see all the time who are continuing to wear masks everywhere think lowering our defenses to Covid is foolish and it is true that cases right now are ticking up, the reality is Covid has become something more or less like the flu: it can potentially kill you, sure, but it is also one of those things we have to live with.

Normally in these kinds of new school year posts, I mention various plans and resolutions for the upcoming year. I have a few personal and not unusual ones– lose weight, exercise more, read more, and so on– but I don’t have any goals that relates to work. I’m not involved in any demanding committees or other service things, and I’d kind of like to keep it that way. I’m also not in the midst of any scholarly projects, and I can’t remember the last time that was the case. And interestingly (at least for me), I don’t know if I’ll be doing another scholarly project at this point. Oh, I will go to conferences that are in places I want to visit, and I’ll keep blogging about AI and other academic-like things I find interesting. That’s a sort of scholarship, I suppose. I’d like to write more commentaries for outlets like IHE or CHE, maybe also something more MSM. But writing or editing another book or article? Meh.

(Note that this could all change on a dime.)

So that leaves teaching as my only focus as far as “the work” goes. I suppose that isn’t that unusual since even when I’ve got a lot going on in terms of scholarly projects and service obligations, teaching is still the bulk of my job. I’ll have plenty to do this semester because I’ve got three different classes (with three different preps), and one of them is a new class I’m sort of/kind of making up as I go.

Still, it feels a little different. I’ve always said that if being a professor just involved teaching my classes– that is, no real service or scholarly obligations– then that wouldn’t be too hard of a job. I guess I’ll get to test that this term.