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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But clearly, I digress.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, that’s why I’m writing this now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the “Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit (or not)” Project Before Corridors

This post is both notes on my research so far (for myself and anyone else who cares), and also a “teaser” for Corridors: the 2019 Great Lakes Writing and Rhetoric Conference.  I’m looking forward to this year’s event for a couple of different reasons, including the fact that I’ve never been on campus at Oakland University.

Here’s a link to my slides— nothing fancy.

Anyway: as I wrote about back in June, I am on leave right now to get started on a brand-new research project officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” but which is more informally known as the “Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit” project. I give a little more detail in that June post, but basically, I have been reading a variety of studies about the impact of devices– mostly laptops, but also cellphones– in classrooms (mostly lecture halls) and how they negatively impact students (mostly on tests). I’ve always thought these studies seemed kind of bullshitty, but I don’t know a lot of research in composition and rhetoric that refutes these arguments. So I wanted to read that scholarship and then try to do something to apply and replicate that scholarship in writing classrooms.

So far, I’ve mostly just been reading academic articles in psychology and education journals. It’s always challenging to step just a little outside my comfort zone and do some reading in a field that is not my own. If nothing else, it reminds me why it’s important to be empathetic with undergraduates who complain about reading academic articles: it’s hard to try figure out what’s going on in that Burkean parlor when pretty much all you can do is look through the window instead of being in the room. For me, that’s most evident in the descriptions of the statistics. I look at the explanations and squiggly lines of various formulas and just mutter “I’m gonna have to trust you on that.” And as a slight but important tangent: one of the reasons why we don’t do this kind of research in writing studies is because most people in the field feel the same about math and stats.

The other thing that has been quite striking for me is the assumptions in these articles on how the whole enterprise of higher education works. Almost all of these studies take it as a completely unproblematic given that education means a lecture hall with a professor delivering knowledge to students who are expected to (and who know how to) pay attention and who also are expected to (and who know how to) take notes on the content delivered by the lecturer. Success is measured by an end of the course (or end of the experiment) test. That’s that. In other words, most of this research assumes an approach to education that is more or less the opposite of what we assume in writing studies.

I have also figured out there are some important and subtle differences to the arguments about why laptops and cell phones ought to be banned (or at least limited) in classrooms. As I wrote back in June, the thing that perhaps motivated me the most to do this research is the argument that laptops ought to be banned from lecture halls because handwritten notes are “better.” This is the argument in the frequently cited Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”  I think this is complete bullshit. This is a version of the question that used to circulate in the computers and writing world, whether it was “better” for student to write by hand or to type, a question that’s been dismissed as irrelevant for a long time. But as someone who is so bad at writing things by hand, I personally resent the implication that people who have good handwriting are somehow “better.” Fortunately, I think Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson replication of that study, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014),” does an excellent job refuting this “handwriting is better” bullshit.

Then there’s the issue of “distraction” that results when students trying to do things right are disturbed/put off by other students fiddling around with their laptops or cellphones. This is the argument in Faria Sana, Tina Weston, Nicholas J. Cepeda “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” They outline a clever and complicated methodology that involved arranging students so a laptop was (or wasn’t) in their line of sight and also by having some of those students acting as “confederates” in the study by purposefully doing stuff that is distracting. One issue I have with this research is it is a little dated, having been published in 2013. Maybe it’s just me, but I think laptops in classes were a little more novel (and thus distracting) a few years ago than they are now. Regardless though, one of the concluding points these folks make is that laptops shouldn’t be banned because the benefits outweigh the problems.

There are a lot of studies focusing on the multitasking and divided attention issues: that is, devices and the things students look at on those devices distract them from the class, which again typically means paying attention to the lecture. I find the subtly different degrees of multitasking kind of interesting, and there is a long history in psychology of research about attention, distraction, and multitasking. For example, Arnold L. Glass and Mengxue Kang in “Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance” argue (among other things) that there’s a kind of delayed effect with students multitasking/dividing attention in a lecture hall setting. Students seem to be able to comprehend a lecture or whatever in the midst of their multitasking, but they don’t perform as well on tests at the end of the semester. 

Interestingly– and I have a feeling this is more because of what I haven’t read/studied yet– most of these studies I’ve seen on the multitasking/dividing attention angle don’t separate tasks like email or texting from social media apps. That’s something I want to read about/study more because it seems to me that there is a qualitative difference in how applications like Facebook and Twitter distract since these platforms are specifically designed to grab attention from other tasks.

And then there’s the category of research I wasn’t even aware was happening, and I guess I’d describe that as the different perceptions/attitudes about classroom technology. This is mostly based on surveys and interviews, and (maybe not surprising) students tend to believe the use of devices is no big deal and/or “a matter of personal autonomy,” while instructors have a more complex view. Interestingly, the recommendation a lot of these studies make is students and teachers ought to talk about this as a way of addressing the problem.

So, that’s what I “know” so far. Where I’m going next, I think:

  • I think the first tangible (not just reading) research part of this project is going to be to design a survey of both faculty and instructors– probably just for first year writing, but maybe beyond that– about their attitudes on using these devices. If I dig a bit, I might be able to use some of the same questions that come up in the research I’ve read.
  • We’ll see what kind of feedback/participation I get from those surveys, but my hope is also to use a survey as a way of recruiting some instructors to participate in something a little more case study/observational in the winter term, maybe even trying to replicate some of the “experimental” research on note taking in a small class setting. That would happen in Winter 2020.
  • I need to keep reading, especially about the ways in which social media specifically functions here. It’s one thing for a student (or really anyone) to be bored in a badly run lecture hall and thus allowing themselves to drift into checking their messages, email, working on homework for other classes, checking sports, etc. I think it’s a different thing for a student/any user to feel the need to check Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever.
  • I can see a need to dive more deeply into thinking/writing about the ways in which this research circulates in MSM and then back into the classroom. As I wrote in my proposal and back in June, I think there are a lot of studies– done with lecture hall students in very specific experimental settings– that get badly translated into MSM articles about why people should put their laptops and cell phones away in classrooms or meetings.  Those MSM articles get read by well-meaning faculty who then apply the MSM’s misunderstanding of the original study as a justification for banning devices even though the original research doesn’t support that. Oh, and perhaps not surprising, but the tendency of the vast majority of the MSM pieces I’ve seen on tech bans is basically reinforcing the very worn theme of “the problem with the kids today.”
  • I also wonder about this attitude difference and maybe students have a point: maybe these technologies are a matter of personal autonomy and personal choice. This was an idea put into my head while chatting about all this with Derek Mueller over not very good Chinese food this summer, and I still haven’t thought it through yet, but if students have a right to their own language use in writing classrooms, do they also have a right to their own technology use? When and when not?
  • And even though this is kind of where I began this project (so I guess I’m once again showing my bias here), a lot of the solution that motivates faculty to ban laptops and devices from their classrooms in the first place really comes back to better pedagogy. Teaching students how to take notes with a laptop immediately comes to mind. I’m also reading (slowly but surly) James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Teaching right now, and there’s a clear connection to his advice and this project too. So much of the complaints about students being distracted by their devices really comes back to bad teaching.

I predicted the demise of ASU’s Global Freshman Academy MOOC four years ago

From Inside Higher Ed comes “Arizona State Moves On From Global Freshman Academy.”  ASU and edX are “pivoting” away from the GFA and they give a variety of dubious reasons as to why. The real reason– which I first predicted back in April 2015 and which I unpack here a bit– is because nobody wanted it.  (To be fair, I was far from the only person who predicted this outcome).

But just to back up: the GFA rolled out in 2015 as a novel approach to MOOCs. Students could register for and complete a MOOC for free, and if they completed the work and paid a $45 processing/identity verification fee, they could then could have their work evaluated and/or sit for a test. Then, assuming the student passed, they could pay $200 per credit to ASU for transferrable academic credit. The goal was to roll this program out so that by 2016, students (they were expecting several thousand) could take their entire freshman year through this program and enroll at ASU as a sophomore– or transfer those credits someplace else.

Long story short, it didn’t work. Not at all. Here’s a quote from this most recent article:

Of 373,000 people who enrolled, only 8,090 completed a course with a grade of C or better, just over 2 percent of all students enrolled. Around 1,750 students (0.47 percent) paid to receive college credit for completing a course, and fewer than 150 students (0.028 percent) went on to pursue a full degree at ASU.

Anyone paying attention saw this coming. In December 2015, IHE ran “Less than 1%,” which was about how less than one percent of those eligible paid the identity/processing fee, and even less than that actually paid for credit. In 2016 at the Conference for College Composition and Communication in Houston, I went to a panel about the GFA and first year writing, and when I asked about enrollments back then, the presenters (all folks who were teaching in the MOOC and enthusiastic about it) kind of dodged the question. For my book, More than a Moment, I tried to contact someone at GFA in 2017 to find out if the enrollment numbers had changed; they never got back to me, which I took as meaning “no, the enrollments were still extremely low.”

Now, this latest article says ASU is trying to pivot toward a program called “Earned Admission” which “allows students to earn credit toward their freshman year at low cost.” ASU says the shift toward this “Earned Admission” program is working.  A quote:

The Earned Admission pathway allows any person over 22 years old to gain admission to ASU if they complete four courses and earn a 2.75 GPA.

“At this point, the combined number of students who’ve earned admission to the university, including employees from Starbucks and other corporate partners, is around 400 students,” said [Philip Regier, university dean for educational initiatives at ASU and CEO of the university’s central enterprise unit EdPlus].

So far the students who have taken courses through Earned Admission have demonstrated much greater motivation than those who studied through Global Freshman Academy, said Regier.

“We’ve learned that students need to have some skin in the game,” he said.

I guess this is good, but it’s probably not surprising that older “adult” students who want a traditional degree from ASU who are then told “take this program, and you can get in” indeed have some motivational “skin in the game.”  But honestly, this seems like a lame explanation as to why the GFA failed, and it also seems to me this program is addressing problems with the admissions process which have nothing to do with MOOCs or any other delivery method.

I can also say there was nothing special or particularly good about these GFA courses. I write about this in some detail in the book, but I attempted their “College Algebra and Problem Solving” MOOC and failed at it miserably.

In any event,  this latest news about the demise of the GFA proves is that a lot of the points I’m trying to make in More than a Moment are still basically true (which again, maybe this means this book is still relevant):

  • MOOCs are not at all new but are following in the tradition of innovation in distanced ed, from correspondence to TV/radio courses to “traditional” online courses. Had MOOC providers studied this history a bit, they would have realized that the primary audience for these kinds of alternative delivery opportunities has always been non-traditional students (older people with some or no previous college who now wanted to take a class or two) and people who already had an undergraduate degree and who are either seeking another educational experience (a “certificate,” a “nanodegree,” whatever) that might help them advance in a job, or they are seeking “edutainment.”
  • The big for-profit MOOC providers had little prior experience in distance education and all came out of super-elite institutions. They thought they had “invented” online teaching and seemed completely unaware that there are hundreds of “opportunity-granting” universities (like EMU) and community colleges and the like who had lots of experience in online pedagogy and who had been doing this work successfully for a long time. This is extremely true with this GFA initiative because (as Matt Reed pointed out when this program was first announced), $200 per credit for an ASU gen ed class isn’t worth it, especially when a student can take a similarly transferrable gen ed course– and with an actual human instructor!– at a community college for half the price.
  • MOOC providers were trying to sell traditional college students (late teens/early 20-somethings, along with their families) an experience that they didn’t want. We’ve known for a long time now that traditional students are not trying deciding on a higher education experience based on picking the cheapest option available. Rather, traditional college students pick their colleges based on a combination of “the best” school they could get into (in terms of academics, overall reputation, and the track record of graduates getting good jobs), the social life of the university, and then costs. The analogy I give in the book is MOOC providers were trying to sell super-cheap fast food when most of the customers in this market want the best full service meal they can afford.
  • While content scales, education does not– at least it doesn’t scale well enough and in most classes, particularly classes where there is a lot of interaction between participants (first year writing immediately comes to mind) or where the students need extra help. I can tell you from personal experience (and I describe this in some detail in my book) that the GFA MOOC in remedial algebra wasn’t a whole lot more than an interesting textbook. And again, if all it took to learn something was content– like a textbook– then organized education at all levels would have disappeared hundreds of years ago with the rise of print.
  • MOOC providers (and most pro-MOOC pundits) severely underestimated the established breadth and depth of higher education. Education entrepreneurs are constantly telling us  higher education is ripe for the same kind of “disruption” that has happened in other content-heavy “industries” like journalism. But given the long history of most universities in the US and the world, a better comparison would be with institutions like the Catholic church. Further, the minimum “certification” that’s long been necessary for entry into most middle-class/upper-middle-class careers in the U.S. has been a bachelors degree from a recognized university– and the “better” the university, the more valuable the degree. So no amount of free courses or nano-degrees or certificates or whatever else MOOC providers could offer were going to convince students it was a worthwhile option to the bachelors degree, regardless of the price (even free!)

But like I said, I go into a whole lot more detail on all this in More than a Moment.

 

 

Outlier is a good reason why my book will still relevant

One of the challenges of having a book about MOOCs coming out in Fall 2019– More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs is it’s easy to write it all off as being “over.” It’s certainly a fear I had when finishing this book, especially compared to the book on MOOCs I co-edited, Invasion of the MOOCs, which came out  in 2014. That was only a year after there was honest to goodness fear big corporate MOOCs would replace gen ed college courses, and not so long after serious people predicted the end of higher education as we know it. Now that fear has passed, so who cares about MOOCs?

And then something like Outlier comes along. No, it’s not a MOOC, but the similarities are kind of obvious.

As Inside Higher Ed reported in “Online Education Start-Up, Backed by Research University Credit,” yet another Silicon Valley education entrepreneur start-up promises to disrupt higher education with high quality online courses. Here’s a long quote from the beginning of the IHE article:

Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass, whose cinema-quality how-to courses from celebrity experts like Serena Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Margaret Atwood have been taken by many thousands of Americans, has turned his sights to the for-credit market with his new company, Outlier.org.

The company aims to market its courses mostly to would-be community college students and others seeking to transfer into selective universities.

The modest boast on its home page: “The World’s Best Online Education.”

“Why don’t we have a great online university — something we all know and love and see as both amazingly high quality and extremely affordable?” he says in an interview. “That’s what we’re trying to build.”

Rasmussen et al are focusing on two common general education courses, introductions to psychology and calculus. I find the reasoning behind the calculus course emphasis interesting:  a lot of people who need to take calculus fail it– Rasmussen estimates it as a “billion dollar” a year loss in tuition spent. Outlier’s approach is to build a better experience with the kind of classy and high-end video that has made MasterClass a hit.

Rasmussen had a kind of amusing promo video, which I tweeted last week:

Anyway, besides all of the other reasons why I don’t think this is going to work (buy my book in fall 2019 for more details), three other thoughts:

  • The partnership between Outlier and the University of Pittsburgh for a pilot of their calculus class seems remarkably similar to the failed experiment between Udacity and San Jose State in 2013. It’s not clear to me why either Outlier or Pitt thinks this is going to turn out differently.
  • There are many complex reasons why a lot of students fail calculus (or lots of similar classes), but I am very confident in asserting that the production values of the course materials have little to do with it. No one ever said “Jeez, if there had only been more professionally produced videos in my calculus class I would have passed.” Don’t get me wrong– I do think there is value to taking advantage of the affordances of the media in online courses of all sorts, and I write about that in my book. A lot of the early MOOCs I took, studied, and wrote about were (and still are, I might add) just talking head videos and slide shows. But good video is not a substitute for a solid curriculum and an actual human to work with students– particularly those students (like me) who do not get complex math.
  • There is a significant difference between the kind of Masterclass “Edutainment” courses Rasmussen et al have produced and a course like calculus– and since I teach another one of these courses that a lot of college students struggle with and/or love to hate (first year composition and rhetoric), I feel like I know of what I speak.

Masterclass is edutainment, with a strong emphasis on the entertainment part. They have classes in magic with Penn and Teller, acting with Natalie Portman, comedy with Steve Martin, filmmaking form Spike Lee or Ron Howard, writing with Neil Gaiman or Joyce Carol Oates or Aaron Sorkin and many others, cooking from just about every famous celebrity chef you could think of, etc., etc. Those all sound like fun! As an avid home cook, looking through the cooking class offerings even makes me want to sign up for a series of videos from someone like Thomas Keller! Beats the hell out of what’s on FoodTV nowadays.

On the other hand, no one— not even people who are good at it– ever said “I think it’d be a lot of fun to sign up for an online calculus class,” and “famous calculus teacher” is an oxymoron (as is the case with “famous freshman composition teacher” I might add).

And again in terms of the argument I’m trying to make in my book: MOOCs are/were not “new”. They were the continuation of a history of distance education experiments dating back at least 140 or so years. Some element of these experiments (particularly correspondence and online courses) have been incorporated into the mainstream of higher education, and some of these experiments (radio and television courses) have faded away. The innovators behind these approaches– and I include Rasmussen in this group too– all seem to be motived by a sincere desire to extend the opportunity for access to higher education to otherwise disenfranchised students, and simultaneously, by the desire to make a buck.

So hey, maybe Outliers will break this pattern with a better mousetrap. Somehow I doubt it though.

Finally finished “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance;” it was okay

I just finished reading Robert Prisig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (and I don’t think anyone deserves this since I’m talking about a book originally published in the early 1970s, but spoilers ahead). I have been reading it off and on for about four years, though I’ve been trying to read it in some ways for around 32 years. It has me thinking now about reading generally, and also about my career as a writing and rhetoric teacher.

I read for pleasure quite differently than I read professionally. For one thing, because my work involves almost nothing else but reading, I don’t read that much for fun anymore– much in the same way I assume most professional cooks don’t cook that much for fun anymore. That’s been the case for me ever since I started my doctoral studies. While in the midst of that program, everything I read was for school– I bet I read less than five books for fun in the three years I was doing coursework and dissertating. Nowadays (and this has been the case with me for decades), I’m much more likely to spend my leisure time watching television or movies. I try to read a bit before I go to bed, but it’s usually for only 15 or 20 minutes and it isn’t close to every night. Spending less time pleasure reading means a quick-paced mystery or pop-paperback I used to rip through in a week as an undergraduate or MFA student now might take me two months. A much more dense book (like this one) might take two or three or many more years.

Though I should note a few things in my defense as a book nerd and reading enthusiast. First, I’m talking about actual words on the page here, usually on paper but sometimes on a device. I listen to books often (along with podcasts) when I’m at the gym, walking to and from work, out and about running errands, and so forth. Second, I tend to read multiple books like this at the same time. I think I have about four novels and two nonfiction books on my night stand and/or in my kindle right now. Third, I read for fun more when traveling, over holiday breaks, while on “lay on the beach” vacations, that sort of thing. I used to read a lot on planes, but less so now since flying nowadays usually includes on-demand movies and television.

I first heard about Prisig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as an undergraduate. A good friend told me his high school debate coach gave his graduating seniors a copy of the book as a keepsake– more on that in a moment. I bought it around 1986 or ’87 (my copy has clearly required a little repair over the years) and I attempted to read it a couple of times. It went poorly. I think I got about 100 pages into it in the early 1990s. I thought it was boring. One of the things I decided about pleasure reading a long long time ago is I have no problem with not finishing a book if I don’t have to– and I have to say I have given up on finishing a lot more books than I’ve actually finished. Life is too short.

For some reason, I picked it up again about four years ago and decided to make an effort to get through it this time. Off and on, I read it along with a few other for fun books, some of which are still on my nightstand. I took Zen with me on the transatlantic cruise we took in 2017 (I’ve used this card housekeeping left in our room as a bookmark for the last couple years), to China this May, and to many other points in-between. It was a good “I can’t get to sleep so I think I’ll read a bit” book because after about five pages, I’m usually out.

Which is to say I still think the book is kind of boring– or at least difficult reading of the sort I don’t tend to do for fun. It has its moments of course, but it is less a spiritual/zen-like father-son cross country motorcycle trip and more a quasi-philosophic meandering on the book’s subtitle, “An Inquiry Into Values” (specifically “Quality”), and also about the narrator (a cross between Pirsig himself, a fictional version of Pirsig, and/or of the alter-ego Phaedrus) who is in a bad marriage, has a bad relationship with his son, and who is trying to recover from a breakdown that landed him in a psych ward.

It’s also a book I suspect a lot of people encounter at the wrong time in their lives and for the wrong reasons. Going back to when I first heard of this book: what kind of message is a teacher/debate coach sending to his students by giving them this? It seems to say a lot about the teacher to me. And judging from the reactions I saw when I posted about finishing my reading on Facebook, a lot of people first either read (or were assigned and didn’t actually read) Zen for a high school or college class of some sort. To me, that’s the classic teacherly mistake of assigning a reading because you really really love it but your students don’t and have absolutely no way of relating to it at all. A lot of people also said they read it in a rhetoric class, which kind of makes a bit more sense, though using this book as way into say Aristotle or Plato or the dialog Phaedrus seems kind of like assigning a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in an advanced psychology class about motivation.

I think I finally finished it this time because (besides the book’s qualities as a sedative) there was enough for me to now relate to– not the specifics of the narrator’s personal problems, but more his work as a college teacher. A little less than halfway through, there’s this passage:

This is the cynical/”when I’m not having a great day” interpretation of where I work and the nature of my job at “teaching college.” So I can relate, sort of.

What emerges as the book continues is the narrator is some level of faculty member (I don’t think this is made clear, but I’d guess he’s an adjunct) teaching some creative writing but a lot of what sounds like first year composition and rhetoric. There are several passages where we learn more about Phaderus’ approaches to teaching rhetoric and writing, most of which strike me as kinda bad teaching. But there are also a number of moments where Pirsig captures the frustration of the work quite well. For example:

I don’t think there’s anyone in my field who doesn’t recognize this misinterpretation of rhetoric and the purpose of first year writing (and similar courses) assigned to the course by academics in other disciplines. So I get it.

But beyond all that, I’d call the book “okay.” It was worth reading, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it exactly. I’m glad I can check it off some nonexistent list of things to read before I die, I guess. Maybe I’ll put another one of those “important” books almost no one has actually finished on my nightstand and start that next– maybe after I finish what I picked up again last night, the Obama Biden mystery Hope Never Dies.

Classroom Tech Bans Are Bullshit (or are they?): My next/current project

I was away from work stuff this past May– too busy with Will’s graduation from U of M followed quickly by China, plus I’m not teaching or involved in any quasi-administrative work this summer. As I have written about before,  I am no longer apologetic for taking the summer off, so mostly that’s what I’ve been doing. But now I need to get back to “the work–” at least a leisurely summer schedule of “the work.”

Along with waiting for the next step in the MOOC book (proofreading and indexing, for example), I’m also getting started on a new project. The proposal I submitted for funding (I have a “faculty research fellowship” for the fall term, which means I’m not teaching though I’m still supposed to do service and go to meetings and such) is officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies.” Unofficially, it’s called “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” 

To paraphrase: there have been a lot of studies (mostly in Education and/or Psychology) on the student use of mobile devices in learning settings (mostly lecture halls– more on that in a moment). Broadly speaking, most of these studies have concluded these technologies are bad because students take worse notes than they would with just paper and pen, and these tools make it difficult for students to pay attention.  Many of these studies have been picked up in mainstream media articles, and the conclusions of these studies are inevitably simplified with headlines like “Students are Better Off Without a Laptop In the Classroom.”

I think there are couple of different problems with this– beyond the fact that MSM misinterprets academic studies all the time. First, these simplifications trickle back into academia when those faculty who do not want these devices in their classrooms use these articles to support laptop/mobile device bans. Second, the methodologies and assumptions behind these studies are very different from the methodologies and assumptions in writing studies. We tend to study writing– particularly pedagogy– with observational, non-experimental, and mixed-method research designs, things like case studies, ethnographies, interviews, observations, etc., and also with text-based work that actually looks at what a writer did.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that those of us in Composition and Rhetoric generally and in the “subfield/specialization” of Computers and Writing (or Digital Humanities, or whatever we’re calling this nowadays) think tech bans are bad pedagogy. At the same time, I’m not aware of any scholarship that directly challenges the premise of the Education/Psychology scholarship calling for bans or restrictions on laptops and mobile devices in classrooms. There is scholarship that’s more descriptive about how students use technologies in their writing process, though not necessarily in classrooms– I’m thinking of the essay by Jessie Moore and a ton of other people called “Revisualizing Composition” and the chapter by Brian McNely and Christa Teston “Tactical and Strategic: Qualitative approaches to the digital humanities” (in Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo’s collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities.) But I’m not aware of any study that researches why it is better (or worse) for students to use things like laptops and cell phones while actually in the midst of a writing class.

So, my proposal is to spend this fall (or so) developing a study that would attempt to do this– not exactly a replication of one or more of the experimentally-driven studies done about devices and their impact on note taking, retention, and distraction, but a study that is designed to examine similar questions in writing courses using methodologies more appropriate for studying writing. For this summer and fall, my plan is to read up on the studies that have been done so far (particularly in Education and Psych), use those to design a study that’s more qualitative and observational, and recruit subjects and deal with the IRB paperwork. I’ll begin some version of a study in earnest beginning in the winter term, January 2020.

I have no idea how this is going to work out.

For one thing, I feel like I have a lot of reading to do. I think I’m right about the lack of good scholarship within the computers and writing world about this, but maybe not. As I typed that sentence in fact, I recalled a distant memory of a book Mike Palmquist, Kate Kiefer, Jake Hartvigsen, and Barbara Godlew wrote called Transitions: Teaching Writing in Computer-Supported and Traditional Classrooms. It’s been a long time since I read that (it was written in 1998), but I recall it as being a comparison between writing classes taught in a computer lab and not. Beyond reading in my own field of course, I am slowly making my way through these studies in Education and Psych, which present their own kinds of problems. For example, my math ignorance means I have to slip into  “I’m just going to have to trust you on that one” mode in the discussions about statistical significance.

One article I came across and read (thanks to this post from the Tattooed Prof, Kevin Gannon) was “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).” As the title suggests, this study by Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson replicates a 2014 (which is kind of the “gold standard” in the ban laptops genre) study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” The gist of these two articles is all in the titles: Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conclusions were that it was much better to take notes by hand, while Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson’s conclusions were not so much. Interestingly enough, the more recent study also questioned the premise of the value of note taking generally since one of their control groups didn’t take notes and did about as well on the post-test of the study.

Reading these two studies has been a quite useful way for me to start this work. Maybe I should have already known this, but there are actually two fundamentally different issues at stake with these classroom tech bans (setting aside assumptions about the lecture hall format and the value of taking notes as a way of learning).  Mueller and Oppenheimer claimed with their study handwriting was simply “better.” That’s a claim that I have always thought was complete and utter bullshit, and it’s one that I think was debunked a long time ago. Way back in the 1990s when I first got into this work, there were serious people in English and in writing studies pondering what was “better,” a writing class equipped with computers or not, students writing by hand or on computers. We don’t ask that question anymore because it doesn’t really matter which is “better;” writers use computers to write and that’s that. Happily, I think Morehead, Dunlowsky, and Rawson counter Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study rather persuasively. It’s worth noting that so far, MSM hasn’t quite gotten the word out on this.

But the other major argument for classroom tech bans– which neither of these studies addresses– is about distraction, and that’s where the “or are they?” part of my post title comes from. I still have a lot more reading to do on this (see above!), but it’s clear to me that the distraction issue deserves more attention since social media applications are specifically designed to distract and demand attention from their users. They’re like slot machines, and it’s clear that “the kids today” are not the only ones easily taken in. When I sit in the back of the room during a faculty meeting and I glance at the screens of my colleagues’ laptops in front of me, it’s pretty typical to see Facebook or Twitter or Instagram open, along with a window for checking email, grading papers– or, on rare occasion, taking notes.

Anyway, it’s a start. And if you’ve read this far and you’ve got any ideas on more research/reading or how to design a study into this, feel free to comment or email or what-have-you.

China, 2019

Back in the fall as Will was beginning his senior year at the University of Michigan, we told him that his big graduation gift was going to be a trip. He got to pick where we were going to go– and the way Annette and I figured it, this was a gift for us too. Our assumption was Will would pick some place in Europe. Then he said “How about China?”

“That’s too expensive,” I said, but it turned out that wasn’t true. So off we went. Here’s a link to a gallery of photos and videos I took, along with descriptions. These cover most of the grandeur and spectacle of our trip, and there was plenty of it. A few other highlights/thoughts:

  • We booked this trip through Gate 1 Travel; here’s a link to the specific trip we took. We’ve never taken an organized tour like this before– actually, we have actively avoided these kinds of things. But we decided to do it this time because Annette’s parents had had very good luck with Gate 1, because the price was impossible to beat, and most importantly, we figured China might be a whole lot more challenging to travel in than, say, France. More power to folks who do it themselves (I have a friend who recently did this), but we were not up to that.
  • I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Gate 1– great guides, great itinerary, and fantastic price. Without getting into all the details on that here, I think if we had tried to do this on our own it would have cost us at least twice as much– probably a lot more than that. They took care of all the hotel reservations (and they were all nice hotels), porting the luggage, driving us around, feeding us, trouble-shooting every single little thing– everything. Let me tell ya, this was an organized tour, and as far as I could tell from the guides who talked about their jobs, Gate 1 seems to be a good company to work for. Most of the people in our group had been on other Gate 1 tours before this one– one guy had been on eight trips with them. I am sure that we’ll use them again when/if we go to a place like India or Viet Nam. So two big thumbs up.
  • That said, there are some inherent limitations of a guided group tour like this. Obviously, we had to deal with a group of strangers for the duration of the tour and there are many ways in which that could have gone wrong. Luckily, our fellow travelers were all pleasant people and from surprisingly diverse backgrounds in terms of age, income levels, race, etc. The only other folks who were academic-y were a couple of community college instructors. We all naturally steered away from politics and religion and other potentially controversial issues, and we instead talked a lot about what we all had in common, which was an affinity for travel. There were only a couple of times where I had to bite my tongue a bit, though it is not at all difficult to imagine how “that guy” could have made the whole thing unpleasant for all of us.
  • The other problem was the tight schedule/itinerary of the group. As was made clear in the orientation session on the first day, this was a tour and not really a vacation, meaning there wasn’t any opportunities for sleeping in or lingering someplace longer than planned. This is not the way we usually travel. There were a few times where I would have preferred more time in a museum and spent less time shopping (and vice-versa), and Annette and Will (who both tend to sleep more than I do) were usually completely beat and ready for bed by 9 pm. The meals were all planned and arranged by the tour, and while all good not exactly haute cuisine, and beverages were limited mostly to either a can of a Coke or Sprite or a bottle of beer– and all the beer I had in China was extremely light, more like a Michelob Ultra than an actual “beer.” I would have preferred some more adventurous food and at least some decent wine, but I completely understand why that wasn’t an option. I mean, I would have been more than willing to take the Andrew Zimmerman/Anthony Bourdain route to trying anything and everything, but that wouldn’t be the case with most of the rest of the group. And from Gate 1’s perspective in terms of “tour management,” it made a lot of sense to limit the booze.
  • Speaking of dining: the food was good and surprisingly familiar. Almost all of our meals were served family style with a dozen people at a table sharing about as many different dishes, most of which were basically the same kinds of things you’d get in a good Chinese restaurant in the US. The guides picked the food, and I am certain they selected dishes that were both not too weird and not too spicy for the tourists, but all of these restaurants were local places and had plenty of Chinese folks were eating there too. The main difference in most of the food I had compared to what I could get here is there it was a lot more oily, less sweet, and more fried.
  • Besides weak and watery beer, they did occasionally serve some pretty bad red and white wine, a sweet and funky fermented rice wine, and a clear liquor called Baijiu which the wait staff called “fire water” and which tasted a lot like moonshine. They served in tiny glasses that were maybe about half a shot– seemed appropriate. Maybe it was because of the nature of the tour we took, but I didn’t sense a big drinking culture in China overall. I didn’t see a lot of bars.
  • I also was surprised to not see as much smoking as I was anticipating. All the things I had read before this trip said the Chinese smoke a lot and everywhere, but the laws have recently changed in China making smoking in most public places against the law, so I only smelled cigarette smoke a few times. That might not be the case in less touristy areas or smaller towns though.
  • I don’t know if I I was surprised about this or not, but for the most part, the Chinese do not speak English even though it is a compulsory part of schooling. I’m no expert about this, but I suspect this is the case mostly for the same reasons why most Americans don’t speak a foreign language: China is huge and so the need to have a working familiarity with different languages is minimal. Besides that, English and Chinese are vastly different languages. I mean, I don’t speak or read French or Italian or Spanish, but the letters are familiar enough that I can sometimes make a guess as to what’s on a sign or a menu. Chinese characters are a complete mystery to me, as is the spoken language. The tonal differences of words is staggering. Our tour guide told us about how nearly identical the words were for “mother,” “horse,” and “curse.” And the language translator apps for Chinese to English are all pretty much garbage. So sure, I was fine the few times where I had to communicate by pointing and nodding and everyone I encountered was super friendly, but beyond that, I was completely helpless.
  • China is an authoritarian state– not so repressive as North Korea or communist Eastern Europe in the old days or what-have-you, and as far as I could tell, this wasn’t much of a problem for the Chinese. We saw lots of people enthusiastically lining up outside Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to his preserved body, and our guide told us that the typical Chinese tourist to Beijing sees this as a must visit, sort of like Americans visiting monuments or the Capitol in Washington, D.C. We spent some time in a public park in Xian where hundreds of Chinese gathered every day to sing patriotic songs about the Chinese Red Army and what-not, not unlike Americans’ affinity for songs like “The Star Spangled Banner” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Incidentally, when our tour group showed up to this musical group in the park, we were warmly welcomed and the band struck up a rousing rendition of what I am guessing was one of the few Western songs they knew, “Jingle Bells.”
  • But yeah, China is still an authoritarian state. Most of the internet sites I take for granted (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are blocked by the Chinese, though easily circumvented with VPN software. Before we got to Tiananmen Square, our guide told us there were some questions about politics he wouldn’t be able to answer there because there were many undercover security agents who might overhear him. All the hotels had versions of CNN International and BBC World Service that seemed heavily censored, though oddly, one hotel had HBO. Most of the hotel TV was made up of channels operated by the state, and most of that programming seemed to be extremely non-political– sports, musical performances, nature shows, that sort of thing. Our guide told us about one popular official news show that was on every morning for 30 minutes. The first 10 or so minutes were about the successes of President/Chairman Xi; the second ten or so minutes were about various improvements around the country; and the last third or so were focused on bad news in the rest of the world. There were surveillance cameras everywhere, and we all had to submit to facial scanning at the airports.
  • I think the most extreme example of how the authoritarian nature of things manifests itself in China happened to us at the airport in Xian. We were scheduled to fly from there to Shanghai at around noon and to then have most of a free afternoon in Shanghai. Instead, our flight was delayed about five hours– not because of weather or a mechanical or computer snafu, but because (at least according to our guide) the Chinese Air Force was conducting some kind of exercise and had closed the air space to passenger air travel. This delayed dozens of flights. I mean, if the U.S. military delayed a single flight here because of some kind of exercise, people would have gone nuts and it would have been the lead story on the news for a week. In China, it seemed like everyone at the airport just greeted it with a shrug.
  • There were a lot of times China kind of reminded me of scenes out of Blade Runner. Remember that scene where Decker is sitting at the counter of some kind of greasy bar or diner with grimy chaos all around him while he tries to eat a bowl of noodles? There’s a lot of that kind of thing in China. Remember the huge LED signs advertising Coke or whatever, and the constant smoggy haze? There’s a lot of that kind of thing in China. I was constantly seeing things completely familiar (after all, what in our day to day lives isn’t made in China?) and completely foreign all right next to each other. It’s a country extremely proud of its ancient history and traditions and superstitions and, simultaneously, it’s a country bent on modernization at light speed. I do not know how or for how long free market capitalism can flourish within the parameters of a dictatorial government intent on squashing the free exchange of ideas, but it seems to be working for the time-being.
  • Our Visas are good for 10 years, so maybe we’ll go back. I know a few folks who have had teaching gigs in China over the years, and if something like that came up for a month or so in the summer, I’d think about it. Gate 1 (and other companies) have other tours, and China is a big country. So who knows?

Don’t want a manicured front lawn? Perhaps you should move

 

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A week or so ago, I came across this New York Times Sunday column, “I’m Done Mowing My Lawn” by Ronda Kaysen. It’s a pretty good “pushing back against convention” piece and why obsessing over lawns is bad for all kinds of different reasons. I nodded along as I finally got around to reading it today. Then I got to this paragraph:

Every summer, I imagine a different landscape, one that I do not have to mow. My sunny front lawn would be a great place to grow a vegetable garden: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and maybe some chard. But if my dandelions raise eyebrows, imagine the reaction I would get to a raised garden bed just a few feet from the sidewalk.

Seven years ago, we decided to tear up about half of our front yard to plant flowers and vegetables. It wasn’t because I had some kind of problem with a lawn; if anything, I am a product of my upbringing in suburbia and my admiration of well-manicured golf courses. We did it mainly because we were tired of seeing the front yard– the only part of our lot that gets full sun all day long– go to waste. I remember at the time hearing a few stories of affluent Detroit suburbs where growing vegetables in the front yard was some kind of code violation, and I also remember my mother worrying it would be tacky.

It’s never been a problem. At all. If anything, it’s been a great opportunity to informally chat with neighbors walking by while Annette and I are out their weeding or something. People always compliment us. Little kids look for the dragon Annette put out there and sometimes pick cherry tomatoes. It’s a cheery exchange, which I think also says a lot about my neighborhood, too.

This year’s version of the garden is going to be a bit more modest because of a busy summer. The ideal/generally agreed upon time when we’re safe from frost is the week after Mother’s Day, but we’ll be gone that week (China, of all places– more on that later I am sure). Plus we have some other travel plans and getting Will ready for the next post-UM steps in his life. So this year, I’m keeping it to a few tomatoes, some pole beans (along with some creeping flowers that I think might not make it), kale, and sunflowers. I planted a flat of marigolds with the (probably misguided) thought that maybe it’ll deter the critters a bit. After we get back, I’ll plant some basil, maybe some other things, some more flowers. perhaps some more herbs.

We were thinking about a move to Ann Arbor in the next year or two; we decided last summer to not do that for a variety of different reasons, and one of those reasons is I don’t think I’d want to move to a neighborhood where it was against the rules to plant a few tomatoes and such in the front yard.