The year that was 2011

As I look back at past blog posts from this year, it occurs to me that 2011 has been a year that has taken me further away from a lot of blogging, writing, and reading activities. And it occurs to me that I’ve done a lot of other quasi-administrative and otherwise not writing/reading/blogging things this year– being on the search for the department head for example, not to mention all of the things I mention in this post.

So while there were plenty of highlights from the last year, not as many of them seem to have made them to the blog this year.  Among those posts and events I’ll remember though:

I’m leaving stuff out, of course.  I was kind of surprised to see it, but it doesn’t look like I blogged at all about our travels through the UP to Minnesota or to Glen Arbor, for example.  But you get the idea.

I don’t usually have New Year’s resolutions since I always think of the “year” starting when school begins in August, but I do have a few resolutions I’m hoping to work on starting this January:

  • No mornings at EMU.  And as a related resolution, not be up at school quite as much.  I was there almost every day/all day this fall and, as I think about it, close to that much last winter.  A lot of that had to do with teaching an overload and “ramping up” as I was stepping into the writing program coordinator job, but now that the dust has settled, I can settle in a bit too.  I already have things on my calendar that will break this “no mornings at school” resolution, but still, a boy can try.
  • Get serious about the “immediacy” book thing.  The most satisfying writing experiences I had this past fall was practicing what I was preaching in ENGL 621 and “touching it every day,” and by “it,” I mean going back to my dissertation in an effort to revive that project into a book, something I should have done literally a decade ago.  I don’t know if I’ll get there or not, but it is worth a try.
  • School myself on HTML 5 (which I’m teaching this term) and PHP/MySQL.  We’ll see how that goes.
  • And the usual eating right/losing weight/exercise thing.  I have more thoughts on that, but I don’t want to jinx myself here, so let’s just say I have some goals and plans I’ll keep to myself for now.

On Harry Potter-land

A picture of Annette taking a pictueLet me first begin with a couple of disclaimers and/or other contextualizing moves regarding my relationship to the whole Harry Potter thing and also to theme parks generally. I like Harry Potter just fine.  I read the first three books, enjoyed them– thoroughly enjoyed the third one– but then I got bogged down in the fourth book and just stuck to the movies after that, some of which make more sense to me than others.  As for theme parks:  it’s complicated, but while I am okay with your typical shopping, shows, and some theme park rides (including motion-oriented ones), I do not enjoy roller coasters one little bit and would generally prefer to do something else.

On the other hand, I am married to a woman who developed a very popular course at EMU on Harry Potter, who has done scholarship on it, and who was even quoted in an eOnline story about the series. And while our son Will hasn’t gotten around to reading them yet, he too is a big ol’ fan of them, having had the books read to him by Annette when he was much younger.  And she is also a fan of roller coasters and he is trying to be more of a fan of them.  So given this, it was just a matter of time before we were going to be visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando on a holiday trip to the in-laws.

Here’s a link to the flickr set of pictures of the trip, most of which was to Harry Potter-land.  A few scattered thoughts about it all:

  • This is one of the “lands” in the large Universal Studios complex of “lands” that included The Simpsons-oriented “Krustyland” (fun ride, btw), a sort of Americana-land, New York-land, Hollywood-land, Marvel comics-land featuring the also fun Spiderman ride and the “no way I’m getting on that thing” Incredible Hulk roller coaster, etc.  So a lot to offer, but it was very clear where everyone was going.  We arrived at the park by 8:30 am and the line for the big HP ride was already 135 minutes long.  So we decided to take in the other things first– Jurassic Park-land, for example.  It was all a ghost town compared to Potterville.  And the rest of Universal was fun and all, but not worth it without Harry Potter.  I have to wonder why a) Warner Brothers didn’t build their own HP-themed park, and b) why Disney didn’t try to get in on that action.
  • In summary, the “Wizarding World” is a very convincing set of the town of Hogsmeade with Zonko’s and Honeydukes (“jokes” and candy, all one big store), the cafeteria-style “inn” of The Three Broomsticks, the wand shop (too much of a mob scene to even contemplate going into), a small and a large roller coaster (Will and Annette rode the smaller one), and the big enchilada, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” aka the Hogwarts ride, aka the castle.  Honestly, if it weren’t for all the damn tourists and palm trees in the distance, you’d think they’d done some of the filming there.
  • Like I said, I like Harry Potter things (and I might get back to the other books after this), but I’m not a fanatic. But I have to say one the coolest things about this place was seeing the hardcore fans interacting with it all. There were a number of kids in Hogwarts robes, for example.
  • Among the many features catering specifically to the HP fan was “butter beer,” which was available “regular” or “frozen” (like margaritas) and which sort of tasted like a super-sweet cream soda with hints of butterscotch.  They also had real beer and pretty decent food– actually, I was surprised all-around at the less than crappy food, though maybe my expectations had been pretty low.
  • As for the big ride itself:  first off, the wait was not nearly as long as advertised out front– more like an hour or 75 minutes rather than two.  Without giving anything away, it is essentially a “motion ride” with some real motion thrown in.  You’re strapped into these seats that move around in many different tilting directions to give you real motion and you watch simulated motion being projected around you. For me after the ride, there was very much a sense of “I don’t really know how they did that.”  It’s pretty intense, but not roller coaster unpleasant, and I enjoyed it, though I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been worried that my keys had fallen out of my pockets during one of the many twists and turns.
  • In a way, the wait wasn’t long enough because they take you through a series of rooms in the “castle” that show lots of very cool Harry Potter geeky things and I kind of felt like we were being rushed by them in the name of getting on the damn ride.  Oh, and it empties out into what is one of the most claustrophobic gift shops I’ve ever been in, albeit one that sells lots of neat HP geekware.
  • So definitely thumbs up.  If I were to do this again (and if they make expansions to the attraction, I assume there will be a next time), I’d do it all in one day instead of two, and I’d do whatever I could to not go right after Christmas, the busiest week of the year for these places.  The crowd got pretty intense a couple of times, but I suppose this is going to stay pretty popular and crowded for years to come.


Bloom, Iowa, and academic locales: a few thoughts

I read about Stephen Bloom’s Atlantic article about Iowa not first in InsideHigerEd but in an email my father sent around to family.  Bloom, who is a journalism professor at the University of Iowa (this will matter in a moment), wrote a piece about Iowa as a primer for people wanting to learn more about the Republican caucuses that will be happening in a couple of weeks.  I suppose he was trying to be tongue in cheek funny, but he missed. Pretty badly.  For example:

In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it’s not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby (“First they were thrashin’, now they’re CRASHIN’!”). There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen.

Now, I grew up in suburban Iowa– Cedar Falls/Waterloo, which probably has about 100,000 or so people in the area– and I lived for four years in the decidedly college town of Iowa City, IA.  This is not the country area that Bloom is presumably describing, and as this critique of Bloom points out (and there are many critiques of Bloom out there), most of Iowa isn’t this area either. “Just 6.3 percent of Iowans are ‘farm operators,’ and in the last decade Iowa’s metropolitan population grew by 9.1 percent while its rural population decreased by 7.4 percent.”

Anyway, I never went to a tractor pull in Iowa and I didn’t go to one when I lived in Bowling Green, Ohio as a PhD student, the home of the national tractor pull championships. And yes, I missed the combine demolition derby too, though I won’t comment on the boar semen remark.

Then there’s this:

But relatively few rural Iowans are employed in the business of wind energy. The bulk of jobs here are low-income ones most Iowans don’t want. Many have simply packed up and left the state (which helps keep the unemployment rate statewide low). Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Almost every sentence here is obviously not true. And in another part of his commentary that really bothers me, he even gets corn wrong.  Corn does not, as Bloom suggests,  “crackle” as it grows, and no, most of the corn planted in Iowa is not meant just for pigs; it’s meant for the many byproducts of corn (plastics, food products, syrup, paper, cardboard, ethanol, etc., etc.) that are in pretty much anything you buy in a grocery store anyplace in the western world. And if I had a dollar right now for every east coast/west coast self-satisfied Atlantic subscriber who read that passage about crackling corn and who then said to some fellow quasi-elitest bastard “Hey, guess what?  Corn crackles when it grows!” I’d have have enough money to buy all the meth in Iowa.

I came to Nate Kreuter’s “Go Native, Be Happy” after the original Bloom and his critics.  Kreuter’s take is on the problems of certain academic locales and he argues that Bloom’s problem is that he has failed to embrace the “challenges” of his college town.  Here’s a quote from that:

Do you imagine that you’ll secure a tenure-track appointment in San Francisco or New York, despite all the evidence to the contrary? If so, statistically speaking, you’re delusional. San Francisco and New York are wonderful cities, and I love to visit them, but wonderful as well are Fargo and Roanoke and Pittsburgh. Wonderful as well are the truly rural areas of the country (yes, all of them), where your college may be the largest community for very many miles around. There are a lot of great places to live in this country, and not only the metropolitan cities or quaint college towns. In some parts of the country, and depending upon your own interests and personality, you may have to work harder to find the things and people you’ll connect with, but every locale has things and people to recommend it.

I find myself here indirectly agreeing with Bloom in theory but Kreuter in practice.  What I mean is this: there is no doubt that a lot of great colleges are in kind of shitty towns.  I earned my PhD at Bowling Green State University, which was a great school but in the remarkably icky town of Bowling Green, Ohio.  There are lots of places like this, great schools in less than great towns. So while it is true that there are plenty of “wonderful” places not on either coast (and I think Fargo, Roanoke, and Pittsburgh would all be fine places to live and work), there are places in this country I am simply unwilling to live, and some places where I do not think the locale does have recommendable characteristics.

But Bloom’s whining about the problems of Iowa and (indirectly) the academic locale of Iowa City proves he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Iowa City is a nice town, a great town, actually.  I can’t speak with a lot of authority here since I moved away from there almost 24 years ago and I know that downtown isn’t quite as vibrant as it once was because of malls and suburban sprawl, but basically, Iowa City is both a classic college town and a cultural oasis in terms of restaurants, shopping, movies, etc.  Bowling Green it ain’t, which makes the Bloom piece all the more puzzling.

Incidentally, my father sent me another editorial from the Waterloo Courier, “U of I president disagrees with Bloom’s observations.” It recounts the widely circulated rejection of Bloom’s points by current U of Iowa president Sally Mason.  And then the editorial ends with this:

Bloom is on one year of leave from Iowa as he teaches at the University of Michigan.

Considering that, we would also be interested to see what Mary Sue Coleman has to say about the article. Coleman, the University of Iowa president from 1995-2002, is now at the helm at Michigan.

Perhaps she might have a stake as well.

If exaggerations and stereotypes – and we believe some inaccuracies – about Iowans are what Bloom comes up with after two full decades of living in this state, who knows what an article titled “Observations from Just 1 Year of Michigan Life,” could entail.

I do wonder if Coleman will weigh in on this….


Misc. reflections on the close of Fall 2011

In no particular order (other than as they came to me while I was typing):

  • I did a lot this semester.   A LOT.  I am teaching an extra class, which was in some ways a good idea and many ways not.  Two of my classes were basically new, one brand “never been taught before by anyone” new and the other one might as well be new. I was a reviewer (although not an attendee) at HASTAC 2011— well, unless you count going out with folks I knew who were here.  I wrote up one (maybe two?  I can’t remember) external tenure reviews.  I started a blog on iPads (for a month) and did a talk about it.  I did the finishing touches and signed off on a book chapter (though note to self, I have more to do on that, it turns out).  I’m chairing a search.  I have (unwittingly and unintentionally) annoyed people.  And this is the stuff I’m just willing to mention in a list.
  • Oh, I helped run a conference that went really well.  More on that soon enough I am sure– we are very late in generating a summary report on all that.  Oh, and we moved back into Pray-Harrold, which had its own set of issues (though it’s mostly a lot nicer than it was before).  And just as part of my every day work, I’m still the program coordinator, which means paperwork, advising, running meetings, scheduling, etc.
  • In any event, I mention all of this stuff in those two previous bullet points to remind myself that there’s a reason why I am feeling a little overwhelmed/overworked right now, and I need to try to remember this as something to studiously avoid in the winter 2012 term.
  • For the most part, my students do not seem to like Google Docs much– or rather, I don’t think they like handing things in for me to comment on/evaluate with Google Docs.  I like it because I can see a history of what changes have been made, but as far as I can tell, many of my students don’t like it because they can’t control the formatting in a way that they’re used to doing.  Or maybe they just don’t like it (well, many, not all) because it’s doing something different from what they’re used to with MS Word.
  • I think the point in time where my English 354 class started to “come together” was with the last assignment.  In fact, when/if I teach this class again, I think I’ll start with this assignment first in order to establish the need in a class like this for students to “play” with the tools and try to re-think and re-visualize the way they use things like word processors.  I mentioned this to students yesterday and they thought this was a good idea too.  And while I’m on the topic, I think an online version of this class would be a good idea….
  • I don’t think I was at my best in English 328 this semester, and I kind of feel like the general sentiment is that this is a course in need of a major overhaul.  That’s a faculty group project coming up this winter.
  • I haven’t seen class evaluations and I haven’t yet read their projects or the take-home final, but I’ve heard indirectly good things and I’ve had pretty good feelings about the way that English 621 went.  Honestly, at this stage, I don’t think I will do a whole lot different in that class when I teach it next fall though a lot of what was great about it this semester was a group of students who will (hopefully soon) be getting on with finishing up their degrees and on with their post-EMU lives.
  • I am very much looking forward to next term where I am not teaching an overload and where I am teaching online and in a hybrid format.  Oh, I’ll still be busy and coming into work plenty for meetings and advising and the like, but I am quite certain I will not be around as much as I was this term.  And while I would like to spend my time right now planning for next term and getting on with some other projects, I need to first worry about actually ending this term.  So back to that.