Thoughts at the end of winter term, beginning of spring “break”

I just posted the final grades for the winter term (well, all but one– a student emailed me a corrupted file), meaning the spring “break” begins.  I say “break” like that because, like all academics, I feel compelled to be a bit defensive about how professors don’t really get the whole summer off, that it’s not like I am going to be on “vacation.”  I actually have an unusual number (for me) of projects in progress that need attention during May and June, and I will be teaching again in the summer term, which begins at the end of June.  Still, I won’t be teaching anything for the first term in at least three years, and we really will be taking an honest-to-goodness vacation in mid June.

Anyway, some thoughts on the term that was, the coming spring, and other things, in no particular order:

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Keyboarding and iPadding: A return to the Apple store?

I am typing this post on my iPad with the use of the iPad docking keyboard right now, and I wish before I had bought this I had read the reviews. The keyboard itself is fine– about the same feel as other Apple keyboards– but the problem is the dock set-up.

First off, it doesn’t fit into the dock unless I take it out of the protective rubbery case I bought for it. I suppose this isn’t a complete deal-breaker because it probably isn’t a bad idea to take the thing out of its case once in a while, but it is definitely a pain in the ass, and it is not something I’m all that crazy about doing every time I plug it in. I’m sort of surprised Apple did this.

Second, with the dock sticking out of the keyboard is a) kind of awkward, and b) kind of ugly. If it was just a keyboard, there would be a certain level of “sleekness” to it all, but the dock thing sticks out like an appendage.

Third, I’m locked/docked into portrait mode– probably not bad for most keyboarding-type things, but I think we all like flexibility.

And fourth, a bluetooth keyboard is smaller (and thus easier to carry around/on a trip), and it can actually be used for more than just the iPad (and thus is automatically twice as functional as this keyboard.

So, back to the Apple store tomorrow. Fail, Apple, fail.

A CCCC 2011 Proposal idea and Preparing for Exile

Alex had a post on his blog yesterday about academic workspaces that got me to thinking about both the CCCCs for 2011 and the impending vacating of Pray-Harrold that is about to happen. (BTW, Alex:  what’s that thing to the right of your laptop?  And why don’t you put up a poster or something in there?)

Pray-Harrold is the building where my department (English Language and Literature) is located.  It is by far the largest building on campus, seven stories of lecture halls, classrooms, and offices.  Something like 500-700 faculty and staff have offices in there, and around 10,000 students are in and out of the building every day.  This explains one of the somewhat unusual quirks of working in this department: while faculty at most universities routinely teach in different buildings, almost all of my department’s classes have been taught in Pray-Harrold for the last forty years.  I have very senior colleagues who have never taught anywhere else on campus.

Built in 1969, I believe the technical term for the current state of Pray-Harrold is “shit hole.”  Not unlike many academic buildings, especially those housing things like English, History, Philosophy, and Political Science, Pray-Harrold has been long-neglected and often complained about, and with good reason.  But now, after years and years of discussion, Pray-Harrold is finally going to be renovated, a project that will not be enough but that will be better than nothing.  I guess. But that’s a slightly different conversation.

In any event, Alex’s post and the CCCC’s call for proposals is on my mind with all this for a couple of different reasons.  Everyone who currently occupies Pray-Harrold, those hundreds of staff and faculty who have offices that they use or don’t use, are being moved from the building by the end of this month to various locations around campus for about 18 or so months.  Needless to say, this is all causing a lot of “contested space” discussions on campus.  The English department is going to be occupying about 6 floors of a dorm on campus.  The main department office (including the department printers/photocopiers) is going to be on the ground floor, which means I am not looking forward to printing much of anything. All of the teaching that used to be under one roof are going to be all over the place, and very senior colleagues (and many not so senior ones too) are already grousing about the fact that they will actually be forced to go out of doors during the Michigan winter.

My school office is not unlike Alex’s, at least in how its used. I have posters, pictures, toys, and other various bric-a-brac, including a four foot inflatable Scream doll, but I do most of my work at home or in coffee shops; like Alex, my main use for my school office is to meet with students.   I do have colleagues who do actually use their offices as “an office,” and I have one colleague who will go unnamed who has an office that has an unreasonable amount of paper and books and just junk.  How to describe it… well, if I had kept every scrap of paper and/or book I read or wrote over the last 22 years, from the time I started as a graduate assistant to now, every student draft and test and quiz, every chunk of my dissertation with revision comments, every stupid memo and strategic planning and/or outcome report, everything, then I might have an office that looks a bit like this person’s office.

The contentiousness of space isn’t limited to those of us who are going to be in exile, either.  The Pray-Harrold remodeling is going to disrupt the entire campus, and there already have been “turf war” squabbles among different divisions/colleges who don’t want to let the unwashed Pray-Harrold masses into their buildings to teach or (God forbid!) to have offices.  Computer lab teaching spaces are going to be sketchy at best, and we’ve already run into some problems of classes being scheduled in closets.

So yeah, contested spaces.

I’m not entirely sure how this will (or really if it will) play out as a CCCCs proposal yet, in part because it would be a proposal about what is to come next year, always a potentially difficult to sketch out this far in advance.  We’ll see; I’m mulling it over in my own head and with some of my colleagues here.

As far as the office in exile and beyond goes: stay tuned, but I think working (sort of) in the dorms might be okay for a year or so.  Since there is no air-conditioning, the spring/summer terms in there will be pretty intolerable.  On the other hand, it’ll be closer to the EMU Student Center than Pray-Harrold, and since these dorm rooms are suites, the bathroom comforts ought to be pretty nice.  It’s hard to know what will come next when we move back after the construction, but I am thinking very much about a set-up without a desk and with some comfy furniture, a shelf or two, and a table, a space more conducive for how I use the place as it is now.

BlackCT and Social Media

There’s a blurb article in Inside Higher Ed that kind struck me, mainly because I’m starting to work on an article/chapter about using WordPress as a content(learning) management system, “Blackboard to Unveil New Learning Suite.” Here’s a quote, with my emphasis added:

Blackboard plans to announce today the release of a new version of its widely used e-learning suite, with an emphasis on incorporating social networking tools such as wikis, YouTube, Flickr, and Slideshare. “We provided a very intuitive process to search for and add content from YouTube, Flickr and Slideshare to a course without ever having to leave the LMS,” said Stacey Fontenot, a Blackboard vice president, in an e-mail.

So, why is this a plus? What is the problem with having students experience the internets the way that they experience it in every other way? As far as I can tell, the answer is teacherly control, surveillance, and grading. I don’t completely dismiss the value of such things, but is it really a selling point to anyone who uses stuff like Blackboard that you never have to leave the comfort/control of the course shell?

iPad “killer apps” for Academics (maybe)

Okay, one more iPad post, and then on with my regular (not necessarily relevant) postings.

Being an iPad expert (as I have owned one for an entire week now), I’m still pretty darn happy and impressed with it. So far, it’s mostly for me what it has been billed as:  a great “experience” for reading/consuming text, audio, and video.  It is not (for the zillionth time) a computer, though for me, it is something like a netbook.  I realize that this wouldn’t be true for everyone, especially non-Apple computer people, but since the rest of my computers are Apples, the iPad syncs and “just works,” which wouldn’t be the case if I was working with some kind of Windoze netbook.

Typing is an issue, but that’s the case with netbooks too, right?  For me, I can touch-type well enough on the iPad when it’s landscape mode, but if I’m going to type anything longer than a couple paragraphs or an email response (or this blog post), then I’m going to use a real computer.  I might break down and eventually buy a keyboard for the iPad, but that would kind of defeat the purpose of the lean simplicity of the iPad.

And it doesn’t strike me as particularly “magical” either, though given the fondness for fantasy and science fiction in my household, perhaps my standards and definitions of “magical” are different than Steve Jobs.  All the things the iPad does best– stuff like IMDB, Yahoo Entertainment, Netflix, various weather and newspaper apps, photos, music, videos, etc.– are all great, but not really beneficial for my job as a writing professor.  Safari is okay (very quick, but, as the entire world knows, no Flash) and email is great, but neither are reasons to get an iPad.

I have played around with Keynote and Pages a bit, and while there’s some potential, I have to say I’ve been a little disappointed.  On the plus-side (as I wrote about with this post earlier), both Keynote and Pages demonstrate that the iPad is indeed a device with which a user can make content.  But the problem with both apps is that they don’t quite synch with my desktop versions of the software– different fonts, not all the effects and builds work, etc. Plus there are the previously mentioned keyboarding issues. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it does mean that if I take only my iPad to a conference or something instead of a laptop, I’ll have to make some adjustments.  Again, not a reason to get an iPad, at least not yet.

All that said, I do think there are so far two (or three, depending on how you look at it) potential “killer apps” for the iPad:  PDF annotation and books, both iBooks/Kindles, and “books” that are really applications on their own.  Too long of a ramble/review after the jump.

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Anybody who says that the iPad is the end of user-generated content or the internet does not know what they are talking about

Emily posted a link to an NPR story from yesterday I missed, “Apple’s iPad: The End of the Internet as We Know It?” Here’s a tease quote:

On its Web site, Apple boasts that the iPad makes you “feel like you are actually holding the Web right in the palm of your hand.”

Paul Sweeting, an analyst with GigaOM, sees it differently. “With the iPad,” he says, “you have the anti-Internet in your hands.”

Please.  Buy a clue.

Oddly, the review on GigaOM’s web site of the iPad seems pretty positive to me, so I’m not sure where this Sweeting guy is coming from, other than he gives good sound-bite and NPR took the bait.  In any event, as an iPad expert (for I have had one now for going on four days), let me point out some obvious things:

  • The iPad is not a computer. It is not a substitute for a desktop or laptop computer anymore than an iPhone or an iTouch are substitutes.  It might be a substitute for a netbook for some users, but that’s a debatable point.  This is not to say that you can’t do a bunch of computer things on an iPhone or iTouch (email, listen to music, surf the web to an extent, play with/use apps, etc.), and it is also true that I think that the iPad generally handles these tasks better than its smaller ancestors.  But no one should think that they can get an iPad instead of a computer.  That’s just dumb.
  • No one is stopping you from uploading your own music and videos to the iPad. Again, just as is the case with the iPhone and iTouch, you can put whatever music, podcasts, or movies that iTunes can handle on the thing, and that includes stuff ripped from other sources.  Like everyone else in America, I have music on my computer that I did not pay for (most of it is stuff I checked out from the library) and I have a few videos that I ripped with the help of Handbrake.  I transferred them to the iPad, played them, and the Apple police have yet to knock on my door.  And of course, if you create the music or video content yourself, you can play that on the iPad too.
  • No one is stopping you from making and distributing your own ePubs that are then readable on the iPad. And while I haven’t done this yet, there are a number of pretty easy to use conversion tools out there that will take that novel that has been rejected by every publisher out there and turn it from a .doc file into a .epb file.  From there, you can just slap it up on the web at your own site or use one of the various distribution networks for such things and completely bypass the Apple store.  Users can download your ePub, import it into iTunes, upload it to their iPad.  Done.
  • The iPad has some pretty cool apps for actually making content as it is. Pages and Keynote are both pretty slick, and when it comes to layout, the touchpad might make it easier for novice artists like me to move around images and stuff by just touching them instead of dragging them with a mouse.  Plus I’ve got Brushes (a paint program that I wish I was more talented to use better), Draw (simple drawing program), iAnnotate PDF, Dragon Dictation (though I don’t know how well that one works yet), and Whiteboard.

Honestly, I do not get what the haters are getting at.  It ain’t the end of anything; at best, the iPad is the beginning of something else.

The iPad, the first 30 or so hours

So, I went ahead and did it: I got an iPad. Here’s the scoop so far:

I’ve been interested in some kind of tablet/electronic textbook sort of tool for a long time, so when the long-rumored and poorly named Apple iPad finally appeared, warts and all, I was intrigued, but I wasn’t that crazy about ordering one before I actual saw one/touched one. Then I started seeing more and more hype, more and more cool apps. I think the one that really changed my mind was Netflix– I don’t know, but that just seemed like something I had to have, and I regretted not pre-ordering.

We were planning on having Bill and Leslie HD down for dinner iPad talk Saturday (Leslie wanted one big-time too), and I figured I would take my chances at the Apple store. I wasn’t willing to wait in line, so the plan was to go by about 10 am and see what I could do. I figured I would at least be able to order one. Well, Leslie called before that, said she was at a Best Buy and she could buy one for me if I wanted it. Oh yes, I wanted, I wanted.

I went to the Apple store anyway, and truth be told, I think I could have gotten one. They had quite an orderly set-up: people who were going to buy got in line in a designated area, and everyone else was free to browse/monkey with the demo models. I would be surprised if getting them on Monday or Tuesday of this week at the store will be a problem.

I’m not going to bother to rehash all the various reviews, praises, and condemnations that have come out over the iPad, but I will offer a few scattered impressions after having one for just over a day now:

  • It is super-duper zippy with everything, browsing, email, the apps, etc. Surprisingly fast.
  • The lack of flash thing isn’t that big of a deal to me, though I don’t regularly use a lot of super-intense flash kinds of sites, either. And I don’t care that much about not being able to run multiple apps at the same time. And I don’t care that it doesn’t have a camera or a phone because I have an iPhone already. Which leads me to the next point:
  • It is definitely not a substitute for a laptop and it isn’t quite a netbook either. It really is like a giant iTouch, and I mean that as a good thing. The capabilities it has over an iTouch are nice, and the size of the display makes a huge (no pun intended) difference.
  • The apps that are not iPad ready are fine to me, and for some of them, the bigger buttons is kind of a plus, like those over-sized remote controls they sell for old people. Kinda nice. Of the iPad native apps I’ve played with so far, I really like IMDB, the NPR app, the weather bug app, and the USA Today app (and I don’t usually read that paper).
  • As for the well-publicized iBook reader: I think it’s totally sweet, especially when I combine it with the iPad version of Kindle. But what I really REALLY like is that there is already the app I was really wanting, something that would allow me to take notes on PDFs. It’s called iAnnotatePDFs, and it’s a perfect example of how the size of the screen matters because this would be completely unworkable on the iPhone. It’s far from a perfect app, but it I’ll do what I need it to do, and considering the fact that the iPad has only been on the market for a day, it’s a pretty good start.
  • Last but not least: the long life of the battery is no joke, and the keyboard issue is not that big of a deal to me. I wrote this on the virtual keyboard in landscape mode, and for me, I can basically touch-type on it. I might get a separate keyboard eventually, but I’m in hurry.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go back and play around with this thing….

What blogging has become (sorta)

I came across this passage in this article about “The Rising Stars of Gossip Blogs” on

The lines between “reporter” and “blogger,” “gossip” and “news” have blurred almost beyond distinction. No longer is blogging something that marginalized editorial wannabes do from home, in a bathrobe, because they haven’t found a “real” job. Blogging now is a career path in its own right, offering visibility, influence and an actual paycheck. As more gossip action in a variety of fields moves online, young writers who might have hungrily chased an editorial assistant job at Condé Nast a few years ago now move to New York with the dream of making it as a blogger — either launching their own blog into the big time, à la Perez Hilton, or getting snapped up by a prominent blog network like Gawker Media or MediaBistro.

I don’t care about the gossip blogging thing per se (though I have never had a problem with gossip rags or gossip TV like Entertainment Tonight or TMZ), but this quote for me reminds me once again of my long-dormant but maybe still viable project, Blogs as Writerly Spaces.  First off, what I see this quote more or less dismisses or gets beyond the “blogging is a genre” definitions that carried the day in the earliest days of blogging– I’m thinking of Rebecca Blood’s book among other things, not to mention the early criticisms of MSM who derided bloggers as “diarists.”  Blogging is most easily and usefully defined as a form with certain technical and editorial characteristics.

Second, this points quite directly to part of the idea of “writerly” that I want to explore, that blogging as a practice is “writerly” in the theoretical sense that Barthes and others have talked about, but also “writerly” in the more market-driven/capitalistic sense that it might actually pay off and help develop, nurture, or otherwise support a career as a writer.

Now, if I could just get off my butt and do a little writing….