Farwell, Normal Park

If you had asked me last May if Annette and I were moving this year, I would have probably shrugged and said “I don’t think so, but we’ll move eventually.” I certainly didn’t think “eventually” would be now. And I also didn’t think we’d be moving out of a house built in the 1950s in a long established, funky, and all around lovely neighborhood to a newly built house in a brand new suburban subdivision blank slate of not quite yet a neighborhood.  I’m as surprised as anyone about this.

We have lived in this house in Normal Park for 25 years. When we bought it in 1999, it was a two bedroom/one bathroom house built in 1953 with a full attic which had never been finished. We thought we’d stay here until it was time for Will to go to grade school, in part because we fantasized about the perfect place in Ann Arbor, maybe in Burns Park or within walking distance of downtown. Well, we couldn’t afford anything like that, and after living here for five years, we liked the neighborhood. So we remodeled things. We redid the attic, adding a main bedroom, a full bathroom, and a loft space I use as an office area. We eventually also remodeled the kitchen and the bathrooms, along with fixing up a ton of other things. But we still thought about moving a few times, once when Will made the transition to middle school, and again six or seven years ago when Will was almost done with college. We even went to look at a house that was in Ann Arbor (albeit not close to downtown) and it was more or less in our budget. But as we talked about it, both of us felt like it just wasn’t worth the hassle of moving out of a house that we still loved. Plus we had paid off the mortgage, so why give that up?

 

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In other words, we have been thinking about moving since we moved here, actually, but things got real this summer for basically two reasons. First, it’s a hot “seller’s market” around here, and that is especially true for this neighborhood. But second and more important, we’re getting kind of old– I turned 58 this past March and Annette will turn 60 this coming November. Our parents came to visit us at different times last summer, and while they’re all fairly mobile for folks in their late 70s and early 80s, they had some challenges navigating just the stairs in and out of the house– never mind about trying to go to the second floor or the basement. That’s no a problem for us now, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a future when it will be, and that’s especially true when doing things like hauling laundry up two flights from the basement. Besides, if we don’t take the plunge to do this now, our next move will be to “the home.”

So we started looking and thinking about moving more seriously, and, long story a bit shorter, we landed on new construction in a subdivision of similar homes sort of in suburban no man’s land. It is still an Ypsilanti address but in Pittsfield Township near where Michigan Avenue and US 23 meet. The only usual places we go around town that will be further away from where we are right now is EMU, which means we won’t be able to walk to work anymore. This sub is a far cry from those fantasies of living in a more tony Ann Arbor neighborhood, but that’s just not realistic or as important as it once was for us. Besides the fact that we simply cannot afford to live in anything bigger than a two bedroom condo within walking distances of downtown, we’d still have to drive around a lot no matter where we lived. And after living here for 25 years, now we want to live more in-between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti because there’s a lot of cool stuff in Ypsi too.

 

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The new house is gonna be great. It lacks a lot of the charm and character of this house, sure, but one of the nice things about a new house is everything is, well, new. There’s a connected two car garage, a big “open concept” kitchen/dining area/living room, the laundry and the main bedroom are on the ground floor, we’ll each of a home office space, and really nice deck off the back door. I’m really looking forward to it.

But I am going to miss this neighborhood.

I never got involved in any of the neighborhood association things and I recognize my neighbors but I don’t know them. We don’t really “hang out” with any of our neighbors. But there’s a nice mix of people here, older folks (like us now!) who have been here for decades and people with little kids just starting out, far from all white people, lots of teachers, nurses, librarians, and EMU and UM professors and staff.

We live– or soon once lived– on Wallace Boulevard, which is one of the main streets through the neighborhood. Our new house is on a cul de sac that backs up to some woods, and that will be nice but in a very different way. Here there’s a steady stream of people of all sorts entertaining me as I look out the kitchen window while doing dishes or whatever– lots of people just walking or pushing strollers or riding bikes, but there’s always something new. Just the other day, I saw a group of four or five people each carrying a part of what looked like a full dining room set. A while back, I saw a grown man driving a fully motorized and adult-sized “Big Wheel” style bike/trike down the street, I presume some kind of DIY project.

I’ll miss what Halloween is like around here. People take Halloween decorating serious around here, and we got hundreds of trick or treaters every year, more than that when the weather was nice. I typically bought three or four giant bags of candy from Costco, and we went through all of it most years. It was a walking party for a lot of folks, young parents drinking beers while watching their kids, and the neighborhood also welcomes lots and lots of kids and parents from all over town, especially folks from apartments or neighborhoods where there aren’t a lot of other trick or treating opportunities.

And then there’s the big neighborhood yard sale, which this year is going to be June 1. It’s dozens and dozens of yard sales, some big and some small, some of them happen every year. It’s another good chance to get out and walk around the neighborhood, find some bargains, sell some old things, etc. By the way, one of the reasons why we’re staying here until the second weekend in June is so we can participate in this year’s sale– we’ve got a lot of stuff to sell!

We’re not going to have any of that in this new subdivision, at least not for a while. Then again, who knows what will happen in the time we’re there and beyond. The other day on the Normal Park Facebook Group, someone posted this image of when this neighborhood was a blank slate, farmland being turned into a subdivision:

I think this house is about where it says 22 on this map. And tickets to the World’s Fair, too!

So farewell, though not really goodbye. I’ll still come by once in a while to see how things are going.

Thinking about Bill HD: Friendship Memories, Momento Mori

My friend Bill Hart Davidson died suddenly on April 23, 2024 of a heart attack while on a run after work. He was 53. Here’s a link to the obituary.

Annette and I (along with Steve Benninghoff– unfortunately, his wife was out of town) went up to The Compound for a dinner party the Saturday before. We’ve gotten together like this many times for the last 20 years, and often, there is some kind of activity or game. This time, Bill and Leslie asked us all to put together powerpoint presentations that are funny, interesting, and/or entertaining. Mine was about our new house. It was pretty lame because I was too busy trying to finish the grading for the winter semester. Annette, similarly busy but with her book, did a presentation about why The Big Lebowski is a perfect movie (totally agree). Benninghoff talked about some genealogy research he’s been doing about his family and some lost history going back to the Civil War, a presentation that ended with a sampling of scotch. Leslie and Bill were much more prepared. Leslie had a great talk about Betty Crocker (I think she’s doing some research for another cookbook sort of project), and Bill’s bit, complete with his bass for demonstration purposes, was about the similarities and differences between beat and rhythm. He won the prize for “most likely to do a TED talk.”

A good time was had by one and all, we talked about how Annette and I will have to host the next one of these get-togethers this summer once we move into our new place, and we all went home. Then we get a call from Benninghoff Monday night; he had gotten a call from Leslie that Bill had collapsed while on a run, and he was pronounced dead the next day.

It’s a lot to process, and so this is definitely very rambling and more personal I suppose than most of what I post here, and ultimately less about Bill than it is about memory and death and friendship. FWIW.

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TALIA? This is Not the AI Grading App I Was Searching For

(My friend Bill Hart-Davidson unexpectedly died last week. At some point, I’ll write more about Bill here, probably. In the meantime, I thought I’d finish this post I started a while ago about the webinar about Instructify’s AI grading app. Bill and I had been texting/talking more about AI lately, and I wish I would have had a chance to text/talk more about this. Or anything else).

In March 2023, I wrote a blog post titled “What Would an AI Grading App Look Like?” I was inspired by what I still think is one of the best episodes of South Park I have seen in years, “Deep Learning.”  Follow this link for a detailed summary or look at my post from last year, but in the nutshell, the kids start using ChatGPT to write a paper assignment and Mr. Garrison figures out how to use ChatGPT to grade those papers. Hijinks ensue.

Well, about a month ago and at a time when I was up to my eyeballs in grading, I saw a webinar presentation from Instructify about their AI product called TALIA. The title of the webinar was “How To Save Dozens of Hours Grading Essays Using AI.” I missed the live event, but I watched the recording– and you can too, if you want— or at least you could when I started writing this. Much more about it after the break, but the tl;dr version is this AI grading tool is not the one I am looking for (not surprisingly), and I think it would be a good idea for these tech startups to include people with actual experience with teaching writing on their development teams.

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Bomb Threat

It is “that time” of the semester, which is made all the much worse by it also being “that time” of the school year, mid-April. Everyone on campus– students of course, but also faculty and staff and administrators and everyone else– is peak stressed out because this is the time where everything is due. We’re all late. My students are late finishing stuff they were supposed to finish a couple weeks ago, and for me that means I’m late on finishing reading/commenting on/grading all of those things they haven’t quite finished. We are mutually late. And just to make the vibe around it all that much more spooky, there’s the remaining mojo of Monday’s eclipse.

So sure, let’s through a stupid bomb threat into the mix.

This entry from “EMU Today” (EMU’s public relations site) provides a timeline, and this story from The Detroit News is a good summary of the event.  I was in my office during all this, slowly climbing Grading Mountain (the summit is visible, the end is near, and yet the distance to that summit is further away than I had hoped) and responding to earlier student emails about missing class because of “stress” and such. Then I started getting messages from EMU’s emergency alert system. “Emergency reported in Wise, Buell, Putnam (these are dorms). Please evacuate the building immediately.” This was followed a few minutes later by a similar message about clearing several other dorms and an update that said it was a bomb threat.

EMU set up an emergency alert system a few years ago as part of a response to the rise in school and college campus shootings and violence happening around the country. They rolled this out at about the same time the campus security folks started holding workshops about how to properly shelter in place. I believe yesterday’s bomb threat was the first time this system was used for a threat like this. Previously, the only alerts I think I have received from this system (besides regular system tests) had to do with the weather, messages about campus being closed because of a snowstorm. It is also worth mentioning that this time, the alert system didn’t just send everyone a text. It also sent emails and robocalls, which means all the devices were all lit up in a few different ways.

Our son Will (who lives in Connecticut) texted me and Annette because, for whatever reason, he’s signed up to get these EMU emergency messages and he was concerned. Annette, who wasn’t on campus, wasn’t sure what was going on. When EMU alerted a few minutes after the evacuation posts that it was a bomb threat, I knew it had to be a hoax. I knew (well, I assumed) this in part because I have a good view of several of these dorms from my office, and it wasn’t like I was seeing cops and firefighters rushing into those buildings. Mostly what I saw were students hanging around outside the dorm looking at their phones.

I also thought immediately it was a hoax because 99.9999% of the time, bomb threats are hoaxes. One of the few colleagues of mine who was around the offices at the same time as me poked his head in my door and asked if I was going to still have class. “Well, yeah,” I said, “no one has said classes are cancelled.”

Rather than spending another hour or so prepping for my two afternoon classes and at least making a tiny bit more of a dent on all the grading as I had planned, I instead spent the time responding to student emails and then sending out group emails to my afternoon classes that yes indeed, we were meeting because EMU had not cancelled classes. Some were genuinely confused, wondering if we were still having class because the alerts did not make that clear. Some emailed me about the logistics of it all, basically “I don’t know if I can make it because I need to get back into my dorm room to get my stuff first,” or whatever. Some were freaked out about the whole thing, that they didn’t feel safe on campus, there was no way they were coming to class, etc. “Well, EMU has not cancelled classes, so we will be meeting,” I wrote back. And a couple of student seemed to sense this might be the excuse to skip they were hoping for.

About an hour after it all started and before my 2 pm class, we got another alert (or rather, three more alerts simultaneously) that the three dorms that had been named in the initial bomb threat had been inspected and declared clear. The other dorms had been evacuated as a precaution. At about 2:15, I got an email from the dean (forwarded to faculty by the department head) that no, classes were not cancelled.

Before my 2 pm class was over, EMU alerts sent a final message (again, three ways) to announce all was clear. But of course a lot of students were still freaked out– and for good reason, I guess. I talked with one student after my last class and after it was over who said he was nervous about spending the night in his dorm room, and I kind of understand that. But at the same time, maybe there was never anything to be afraid of?

I’m not saying that EMU overreacted because, obviously, all it takes is that 0.0001% chance where bombs go off simultaneously in the dorms like in the end of Fight Club. Not unlike a fire alarm going off in the dorms in the middle of the night (a regular occurance, I’m told), everyone knows (or at least assumes) is because of some jackass. But you still have to evacuate, you still have to call the fire department, etc.

The whole thing pisses me off. At least it was a hoax and it wasn’t a shooter, something that is always always somewhere on everyone’s minds nowadays. At least no one was hurt beyond being freaked out for a while. And at least there are only about two weeks before the end of the semester.

Once Again, the Problem is Not AI (a Response to Justus’ and Janos’ “Assessment of Student Learning is Broken”)

I most certainly do not have the time to be writing this  because it’s the height of the “assessment season” (e.g., grading) for several different assignments my students have been working on for a while now. That’s why posting this took me a while– I wrote it during breaks in a week-long grading marathon. In other words, I have better things to do right now. But I find myself needing to write a bit in response to Zach Justus and Nik Janos’ Inside Higher Ed piece “Assessment of Student Learning is Broken,” and I figured I might as well make it into a blog entry. I don’t want to be a jerk about any of this and I’m just Justus and Janos are swell guys and everything, but this op-ed bothered me a lot.

Justus and Janos are both professors at Chico State in California; Justus is a professor in Communications and is the director of the faculty development program there, and Janos is in sociology. They begin their op-ed about AI “breaking” assessment quite briskly:

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) has broken higher education assessment. This has implications from the classroom to institutional accreditation. We are advocating for a one-year pause on assessment requirements from institutions and accreditation bodies. We should divert the time we would normally spend on assessment toward a reevaluation of how to measure student learning. This could also be the start of a conversation about what students need to learn in this new age.

I hadn’t thought a lot about how AI might figure into institutional accreditation, so I kept reading. And that’s where I first began to wonder about the argument they’re making, because very quickly, they seem to equate institutional assessment with assessment in individual classes (grading). Specifically, most of this piece is about the problems caused by AI (supposedly) of a very specific assignment in a very specific sociology class.

I have no direct experience with institutional assessment, but as part of the Writing Program Administration work I’ve dipped into a few times over the years, I have some experience with program assessment. In those kind of assessments, we’re looking at the forest rather than the individual trees. For example, maybe as part of a program assessment, the WPAs might want to consider the average grades of all sections of first year writing. That sort of measure could tell us stuff about the overall pass rate and grade distribution across sections, and so on.  But that data can’t tell you much about grades for specific students or the practices of a specific instructor. As far as I can tell, institutional assessments are similar “big picture” evaluations.

Justus and Janos see it differently, I guess:

“Take an introductory writing class as an example. One instructor may not have an AI policy, another may have a “ban” in place and be using AI detection software, a third may love the technology and be requiring students to use it. These varied policies make the aggregated data as evidence of student learning worthless.”

Yes, different teachers across many different sections of the same introductory writing class take different approaches to teaching writing, including with (or without) AI. That’s because individual instructors are, well, individuals– plus each group of students is different as well. Some of Justus and Janos’ reaction to these differences probably have to do with their disciplinary presumptions about “data”: if it’s not uniform and if it not something that can be quantified, then it is, as they say, “worthless.” Of course in writing studies, we have no problem with much more fuzzy and qualitative data. So from my point of view, as long as the instructors are more or less following the same outcomes/curriculum, I don’t see the problem.

But like I said, Justus and Janos aren’t talking about institutional assessment. Rather, they devote most of this piece to a very specific assignment. Janos teaches a sociology class that has an institutional writing competency requirement for the major. The class has students “writing frequently” with a variety of assignments for “nonacademic audiences,” like “letters-to-the-editor, … encyclopedia articles, and mock speeches to a city council” meeting. Justus and Janos say “Many of these assignments help students practice writing to show general proficiency in grammar, syntax and style.” That may or may not be true, but it’s not at all clear how this was assigned or what sort of feedback students received. .

Anyway, one of the key parts of this class is a series of assignments about:

“a foundational concept in sociology called the sociological imagination (SI), developed by C. Wright Mills. The concept helps people think sociologically by recognizing that what we think of as personal troubles, say being homeless, are really social problems, i.e., homelessness.”

It’s not clear to me what students read and study to learn about SI, but it’s a concept that’s been around for a long time– Mills wrote about it in a book in the 1950s. So not surprisingly, there is A LOT of information about this available online, and presumably that has been the case for years.

Students read about SI and as part of their study, they “are asked to provide, in their own words and without quotes, a definition of the SI.” To help do this, students do activities like “role play” to they are talking to friends or family about a social problem such as homelessness. “Lastly,” (to quote at length one last time):

…students must craft a script of 75 words or fewer that defines the SI and uses it to shed light on the social problem. The script has to be written in everyday language, be set in a gathering of friends or family, use and define the concept, and make one point about the topic.

Generative AI, like ChatGPT, has broken assessment of student learning in an assignment like this. ChatGPT can meet or exceed students’ outcomes in mere seconds. Before fall 2022 and the release of ChatGPT, students struggled to define the sociological imagination, so a key response was to copy and paste boilerplate feedback to a majority of the students with further discussion in class. This spring, in a section of 27 students, 26 nailed the definition perfectly. There is no way to know whether students used ChatGPT, but the outcomes were strikingly different between the pre- and post-AI era.

Hmm. Okay, I have questions.

  • You mean to tell me that the key deliverable/artifact that students produce in this class to demonstrate that they’ve met a university-mandated gen ed writing requirement is a 75 word or fewer passage? That’s it? Really. Really? I am certainly not saying that being able to produce a lot of text should not be the main factor for demonstrating “writing competency,” but this seems more than weird and hard to believe.
  • Is there any instructional apparatus for this assignment at all? In other words, do students have to produce drafts of this script? Are there any sort of in-class work with the role-play that’s documented in some way? Any reflection on the process? Anything?
  • I have no idea what the reading assignments and lectures were for this assignment, so I could very well be missing a key concept with SI. But I feel like I could have copied and pasted together a pretty good script just based on some Google searching around– if I was inclined to cheat in the first place. So given that, why are Justus and Janos confident that students hadn’t been cheating before Fall 2022?
  • The passage about the “before Fall 2022” approach to teaching this writing assignment says a lot. It sounds like there’s no actual discussion of what students wrote, and the main instructions to students back then was to follow “boilerplate feedback.” So, in assessing this assignment, was Janos evaluating the unique choices students made in crafting their SI scripts? Or rather, was he evaluating these SI scripts for the “right answer” he provided in the readings or lectures?
  • And as Justus and Janos note, there is no good way to know for certain if a student handed in something made in part or in whole by AI, so why are they assuming that all of those students who got the “right answer” with their SI scripts were cheating?

So, Justus and Janos conclude, because now instructors are evaluating “some combination of student/AI work,” it is simply impossible to make any assessment for institutional accreditation. Their solution is “we should have a one-year pause wherein no assessment is expected or will be received.” What kinds of assessments are they talking about? Why only a year pause? None of this is clear.

Clearly, the problem here is not institutional assessment or the role of AI; the problem is the writing assignment. The solutions are also obvious.

First, there’s the teaching writing versus assigning it.  I have blogged a lot about this in the last couple years (notably here), but teaching writing means a series of assignments where students need to “show their work.” That seems extremely doable with this particular assignment, too. Sure, it would require more actual instruction and evaluation than “boilerplate feedback,” but this seems like a small class (27 students), so that doesn’t seem that big of a deal.

Second, if you have an assignment in anything that can successfully be completed with a simple prompt into ChatGPT (as in “write a 75 word script explaining SI in everyday language”), then that’s definitely now a bad assignment. That’s the real “garbage in, garbage out” issue here.

And third, one of the things that AI has made me realize is if an instructor has an assignment in a class– and I mean any assignment in any class– which can be successfully completed without having any experience or connection to that instructor or the class, then that’s a bad assignment. Again, that seems like an extremely easy to address with the assignment that Justus and Janos describe. They’d have to make changes to the assignment and assessment, of course, but doesn’t that make more sense than trying to argue that we should completely revamp the institutional accreditation process?

Oh-Oh-Oh, Oprah! (and Zepbound, Month 2)

Before I get to Oprah (and I intended that headline be sung to the tune of “Oh-oh-oh, Ozempic!”): my second month on Zepbound has been disappointing. In the first month, I lost a little over seven pounds on the “starter” dose of 2.5 mg weekly. Like all the other similar weight loss injectables on the market, the dose increases (with Zepbound, every month) until you reach the maximum dose (in this case 15 mg). So given that I lost about seven pounds with the lowest dose of this stuff, I assumed I’d continue to lose at about the same rate.

Well, not so much; instead, I stalled. My weight jumped around a bit so that at one point this past month, I was down another two pounds (for a total of nine), then I ended up gaining a pound or two, then losing again, etc. A month later, I’m where I was after month one. This is a bummer, especially since there are are lots of people in Reddit forums and the like posting about losing 20 pounds in the first month or two. Of course, besides the fact that the anonymous posts in discussion boards aren’t exactly peer reviewed, it seems like a lot of the people claiming these huge losses also have a lot more weight to lose.

But there is some good news. For one thing, I’ve got a long ways to go to get to the maximum dose– or whatever dose I land on as being the right dose. In the discussions, a lot of people talk about staying on a lower dose than longer, and that’s especially true for folks who have had a hard time with the side effects. Plus I’ve stalled but not bounced back up to where I started, which was what usually happens when I try to just “diet and exercise.” So I’m looking forward to see what happens when I ramp up from 5 mg to 7.5 mg.

Anyway, about Oprah:

As was reported in numerous sources the other day, O and Weight Watchers have decided to part ways. The New York Times (like this story) and similar outlets reported this was an “amicable” split. “‘Her decision was not the result of any disagreement with the company on any matter relating to the company’s operations, policies or practices,’ WeightWatchers said in the filing.” Also, she’s not profiting from selling her stock: “The company said in the statement that Ms. Winfrey would donate the value of her holdings in WeightWatchers to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington in part to ‘eliminate any perceived conflict of interest around her taking weight loss medications.'” In other words, the story that both Oprah and Weight Watchers want to tell is this is just one of those things, we’re all happy about this, let’s let bygones be bygones, etc.

This could all very well be true. But it doesn’t take much picking at this to make me think this isn’t the whole story.

I have some personal experience with Weight Watchers, believe it or not. I can’t remember exactly when this was (maybe the late 2000s? the early 2010s?), but for about three or four years, I was a dues-paying member. I joined up with Annette, who, maybe 35 years ago and before we met, was on Weight Watchers and successfully reached her goal weight– which is to say it did work for her, at least at one point. The whole premise and purpose of Weight Watchers back then was quite straight-forward: eat less and maybe kinda/sorta exercise. The support meetings were mostly people talking about the challenges of dieting, along with celebrating the successes that some folks had, and perhaps a little shaming for the folks who weren’t as successful. For me, it didn’t work because success on Weight Watchers (at least back then) hinged on fastidiously keeping track of everything you ate with a system of points, and I’m just too lazy to do that. I’m pretty sure that when I stopped going to meetings, I was at the same weight as when I started.

Like I said, I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I do know it was before 2015. That’s when Oprah bought a 10% stake in what was already becoming a less profitable company. Her investment got her a seat on the board, and she became the primary public face/spokesperson for the company. That’s also when Weight Watchers started to rebrand itself as the more abstract WW. Instead of being all in on limiting calories, WW tried to pivot become a more “body positivity/acceptance” and healthy lifestyle kind of enterprise. They focused a lot more on exercise, a new line of WW cook books and new recipes (remember cauliflower crust pizza?) and food products, and more emphasis on apps for tracking food and online discussions, and a lot less emphasis on f2f meetings. For a while, this seemed to help the company. According to this May 2018 article in Money, Oprah’s $43.5 million investment ballooned quickly to more than $400 million. Sometime in 2018, she sold $110 million worth of her stock, and she also donated to her charitable foundation another $22.6 million from stock.

There’s nothing wrong with someone making a lot of money from what turned out to be a smart investment, so kudos to Oprah, at least back in 2018. But after reaching a high price mark of $101 a share in June 2018, the stock fell to $17.70 a share in April 2019. WW shares bounced up and down like a yo-yo dieter for a few years until falling even further by 2022. The day after Oprah announced she and WW were parting ways, the stock was $3.30 a share. In other words, that donation to eliminate any “perceived conflict of interest around her taking weight loss medications” is just a tax write-off.

Oprah has also significantly changed her story about weight loss medications. Back in September 2023, Oprah hosted a panel discussion for Oprah Daily (which is a subscription-based website of all things O) called “The Life You Want Class: The State of Weight.” It featured Oprah and a panel of experts on obesity and weight loss, and for the most part, the emphasis was on characterizing obesity as a disease, not about “willpower” per say, and also on body acceptance. But as People reported back then, when the discussion turned to Ozempic and similar drugs, Oprah was resistant:

“Shouldn’t we all just be more accepting of whatever body you choose to be in? That should be your choice,” Winfrey said during the panel. “Even when I first started hearing about the weight loss drugs, at the same time I was going through knee surgery, and I felt, ‘I’ve got to do this on my own.’ Because if I take the drug, that’s the easy way out.'”

In the same discussion, Oprah went on to explain that when she had surgery on both of her knees, she specifically decided against using any weight loss drugs, instead sticking to diet and a lot of hiking as exercise. It’s worth noting that as soon as Oprah said the drugs were the “easy way out,” the other panel members jumped in to emphasize that we need to think of obesity as a disease, it’s not about willpower, and so forth.

Still, the “mixed messages” from Oprah was problematic, particularly in terms of Weight Watchers’ (oops, I mean WW’s) efforts to get into the semaglutide and tirzepatide business themselves. As this little video snippet from Yahoo! finance makes clear, the only positive moment in Weight Watcher’s stock price in the previous year was the announcement that they were going to start offering these meds along with diet, exercise, and lifestyle. So for the company’s most famous stake holder, board member, spokesperson, and (for many WW customers) most inspirational persona to be skeptical of these new drugs was not the company line.

The other thing is Oprah was pretty explicit at this event that she had not herself taken Ozempic or similar drugs. As recent as early November, the “secret” to Oprah’s latest weight loss was being reported as being about following the WW diet and exercise. But by December, Oprah admitted she had been using these meds, but she still has not said what drug she’s been taking and when she started taking these drugs, and she describes the meds as weight “management” (rather than a weight loss) tool.

I have no doubt that Oprah did lose a lot of weight with the dieting and exercise she did after her knee surgeries a couple years ago. But I also have to think that she started whatever drug she’s on earlier than November– maybe even while she was claiming that taking a drug was the easy way out. In the stories back in December— when she first revealed she had been taking meds– she spoke about how she had “released the shame about it.” I suppose that means the shame of being overweight in the first place, but I also wonder if she was “releasing shame” about lying about being on these drugs.

I suppose Oprah had to bail on WW in part because of the story of her own weight gains and losses– an aspect of her celebrity image she’s cultivated for decades. After resisting them, Oprah seems to now recognize that these drugs do make a difference that simply cannot be matched by diet and exercise alone. That’s a pretty big shift from the story she’s been selling with WW as the weight loss plan where you can eat what you want and not being on a diet, including eating lots of bread.

But ultimately, business is business. Oprah cashed out of WW a long time ago, and at this stage, she’s leaving a sinking ship.

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.