Student Blogging and Web Usability Links

‘Twas the morning before Christmas, and in my parents’ house in Iowa, I was awoken by the sound of tiny pre-schooler feet running around downstairs at 5:30 in the morning. Oh well, so it gives me a chance to use my parents’ computer, which has a cable modem connection, to do a little “Writing for the World Wide Web” surfing.

Two interesting links:

* This link from the education-themed “Weblogg-ed” about how blogging does or doesn’t work for students in classrooms. It is a post that raises a lot of good questions, has a lot of good links, and ties into an article I have under consideration right now at a publication out there in computer and composition-land.

* This link is from Jakob Nielsen’s site and it lists what he sees as the “top 10 mistakes” of 2003. I have sort of mixed feelings about Nielsen’s work. On the one hand, I think he is a lot of good ideas about making web sites more readable and usable. On the other hand, his web sites seems kind of boring to me.

Darkness and the Computer Community

For a couple years now, I’ve been subscribed to The Humanist Discussion Group, which isn’t a “free-for-all” email list discussion common in the composition community, but rather, it is a filtered forum that is as much about announcements of various sorts than it is about discussion. I don’t follow more than half of what is posted there, but what I do find interesting I find very interesting.

In any event, the forum’s editor, Willard McCarty of King’s College in London, posted a fairly personal message today about the Winter Solstice, which is today, and also the simultaneously “private” and “public” nature of the scholarly life. You should sign up to the list and read the whole thing. As a computers and writing person, I was most struck by this part of it:

Some here will remember when we were told that computers would lead to the massive isolation of individuals from each other, everyone in front of a screen, no one face-to-face. Then people began to wonder why computer labs were so popular among those who had their own machines. Now people like Terry Winograd are telling us not only that computers are about communicating rather than alphanumeric crunching but that the metaphor of the “interface” (that which is between a person and his or her machine) is all wrong, that it should be replaced by another, the “habitat” (“From Computing Machinery to Interaction Design”, in Peter Denning and Robert Metcalfe, eds., Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Years of Computing, Springer-Verlag, 1997, 149-162, online at I suppose one could argue in the manner of Geoffrey Nunberg that our party-animal nature, long constricted by professional modes of communication, is now allowed its rampant freedom — that although we were highly social lone scholars before, now we are even more so.

Amen to that. Lights in the darkness.

School's Out! (Well, for a couple weeks…)

I posted my last set of grades this evening for the Fall term and I now have the sweet taste of completion on my tongue. At least for a short while. We start up again with classes here at EMU on January 5, far too short of a break if you ask me. Of course, the good news is we are done with the Winter 2004 semester before the end of April.

My goals over the holiday break (besides giving and receiving Christmas day gifties and traveling to Iowa to see family) are to get my classes for Winter prepared and to potentially figure out how to use movable Type for this blog space. I’ve started to figure it out for my unofficial blog space, but I would like to run this blog on the same server that I run my home page on, which is a Mac running OS 10.3, and there are some kinks to work out first.

Anyway, I will briefly bask in the glow of my free time…

The "House Audit" is in, but the story isn't over

The EMU board of regents commissioned an audit of the controversial presidential house project at EMU, and the results are in. You can read all about it in the Ann Arbor News and other recent stories about the house by visiting the web site The story reports that the audit found that there wasn’t anything illegal about the way that the house was paid for and built, and Kirkpatrick and Incarnati (the chair of the board of regents) are more or less using this as a reason to say that this should end the discussion.

Hardly. In my mind, the issue was never the legality of how the house was being built– I mean, I didn’t think that Kirkpatrick et al took kickbacks or whatever. Though it is worth noting that the audit apparently makes it clear that there were some notable “irregularities” about how funds were shifted around different university accounts to pay for things like the landscaping.

No, I think that the issue is the same as it was a couple of years ago: the President’s house, the building of which Kirkpatrick put into motion the minute he came to campus four years ago, is excessive, especially in light of the budget cuts that have hit EMU and other public universities in recent years. While the faculty ranks shrink, EMU is hiring more administrators and more part-time teachers. While the majority of EMU students and faculty have to work in inadequate and unpleasant academic buildings, the President and Mrs. Kirkpatrick live in a 10,000 square foot palace. Is it any wonder why morale around campus is not exactly at an all-time high?

Happy Graduation, Fall 2003

My department head came to my name on the “Faculty who Haven’t Gone to Commencement Recently to Represent the Department” list and told me it was my turn this winter. Actually, it really is about time– I’ve been here five years and this is the first ceremony I’ve attended– and when all is said and done, it was kind of fun. I got to dress up in a funny academic costume (just a rental and not one of the fancy ones that some folks have), I got to listen to an okay speaker (Kevin Klose, who runs NPR), and I got to see the students right as they came down the ramp after getting their diplomas. It was interesting, because you could really see in some of their eyes the extent to which it was a defining moment in their lives. Or not.

Best story of the afternoon: there was a guy who graduated this term who was 83 years old. He actually started college in the late 30s, and had been taking classes at night at EMU since the late 60s.

Out of the 1,000 or so graduates, I only recognized two students of mine. There must have been more than that, and I am sure there are some students who graduated but who didn’t go to commencement. Well, if you were there and I didn’t see you, congrats; and if you weren’t there and you are about to graduate, good luck to you, too.

What does a University President have to do to get fired?

I noticed in The Chronicle of Higher Education today that the faculty senate at Auburn University have taken a “no confidence” vote of the president. Since I don’t subscribe to The Chronicle’s online news service, I did a google search and came up with the web site, which is all about why William Walker, the president of Auburn U, needs to go. I of course don’t know any of the details, but from this site, the two big things that have gotten Walker in trouble are managing to get Auburn on probation with its accreditation body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and he had some shady dealings with trying to hire Bobby Petrino as the football coach. I get the impression from the web site and the articles linked to from the web site that the thing that really has people mad there is the football coach deal and some other corrupt practices involving the board of regents.

I wonder how a $5 + million dollar house would figure into this situation?

Googlebombing and a "Miserable Failure"

In the “you learn something every day” and “stuff to remember for teaching Writing for the World Wide Web” departments:

There was a discussion on one of the mailing lists I’m on about this phenomenon called “Googlebombing.” If you go to Google, type in “miserable failure,” and then hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button, you’ll get this page, the official biography of George W. Bush. Go ahead and try it. I’ll wait.

How does this happen? Well, this article from the International Herald Tribune explains how if enough people link to something on the web with a particular phrase, it rises to the top of the Google search engine. So, as the result of the grass roots efforts of a blogger named George Johnston who has a blog called Old Fashioned Patriot, enough people linked to Bush’s biography with the phrase “miserable failure” on their page and Google reacts.

There are some obvious political implications to all this (and I happen to agree with the linkage between “miserable failure” and GW Bush), but I am more fascinated by the complex rhetorical dimensions of all this, about how an audience can define terms in a way that, generally, is reserved exclusively for a very few people. In other words, a larger group working together can literally change the terms of discussion. Pretty interesting.

More than three reasons why the five paragraph essay is bad

From Household Opera comes this good discussion about the five paragraph essay. For anyone invested in composition and rhetoric theory and practice, this isn’t exactly a news flash, but this discussion and the many links Amanda has here suggests to me that it is becoming the conventional wisdom for all kinds of folks outside of composition studies, too.

My favorite critique of the five paragraph essay is in Jasper Neel’s book Plato, Derrida, and Writing; he argues the five paragraph essay comes from Plato’s notions of the way rhetoric and arguments work, and Neel convincingly explains why the five paragraph essay is “anti-writing.” A very worthwhile read.

In my own mind, learning how to write a five paragraph essay is the same as learning how to fill out a form. Filling out a form is obviously not the same as writing, though people do need to learn how to fill out forms, and the five paragraph essay does have its uses. For example, the five paragraph form works well for any sort of timed writing like an essay test. But the five paragraph form becomes a problem for students when they learn it is the only tool they will ever need to write anything, sort of like using a hammer to bake a pie.

Yet, as easy as it is to note how wrong the five paragraph essay is, we do see its form in all sorts of different kinds of writing and settings. Ultimately, it is an embodiment of the “holy trinity”– a beginning and an end, sure, but also a division of everything into three mysterious parts, a father, a son, a holy spirit/ghost. This division of three is everywhere– small, medium, large, etc. And most dissertations (including mine) are divided into… five chapters…

Should you go to graduate school? Good recent article and discussion

Via The Invisible Adjunct comes this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education,“Ignoring Good Advice.” The article is part of a very good resource for information on the academic job market, CHE’s Chronicle Careers pages.

In the nutshell, the article is a humorous and fictionalized account of the advice a student received from her professors about getting a PhD in literature. The article is funny largely because it’s true, of course: getting a PhD in anything, to borrow a phrase from our current administration, is a long, hard slog, and the odds against those studying literature are extremely high. I’ll give my take on all this in the near future with the third installment of my series of “Happy Academic” postings regarding PhD studies.

There is an interesting discussion of this article on the IA blog– here is a link to it. First off, despite the fact that the advice our would-be PhD seeker receives is “don’t do it,” the author indicates that she is “undeterred” and is planning on entering into a PhD studies. Second, a lot of the commentary on the IA blog linked here suggests that the participants claim they didn’t know how hard grad school would be or how bad the job market in various fields are and so forth, and they now regret having gone to grad school in the first place.

In a way, I think that the “undeterred” writer of this CHE article who is planning on going into a PhD program in literature despite the warnings and the folks on IA who are either ABD or with a PhD and unemployed are essentially the same person. That is, like the writer who is going to get a PhD despite the advice against it, the people on IA who said they were never warned really were warned and they are either forgetting that they were warned or they are repressing it. When I was thinking about PhD studies in the early 1990s, I received many warnings against pursuing work in literature. Sure, there weren’t blogs back then, but the difficulties of the job market then were not a secret to anyone who was willing to do an iota of research, just as it isn’t a secret now that the academic jobs in literature are few and far between.