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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Kevin Carey is (mostly but not entirely) wrong (again)

Last week, HuffPo published an article by Kevin Carey called “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education,” and, if that title wasn’t provocative enough, it also included these two sentences above the story/as a subtitle: “Just a few years ago, universities had a chance to make a quality education affordable to everyone. Here’s the little-known and absolutely infuriating history of what they did instead.”

The basic contours of Carey’s argument here are based on his book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. I talk about this book in a book I have coming out in fall 2019 about MOOCs and distance education, More Than a Moment. In his book and in this article, Carey makes a lot of good points, but he is just as often quite wrong– and he was/is really wrong about the potential of MOOCs to make college free and “everywhere.”

First off, some things Carey is right about.

It’s hard to disagree about college tuition being too high. Carey’s assertions as to why tuition is high and his solutions to this problem are way way off, but no sensible observer of American higher education would disagree that college is too expensive.

He’s also right that Online Program Management firms (OPMs) are potentially troubling. I think his characterization of OPMs is simplistic and he forgets that non-profit higher ed has had some complicated and fraught arrangements with for-profit enterprises for at least the last 150 years. Carey is alarmist in this article, I suppose in part because it’s HuffPo. It is true that the arrangements between OPMs and universities are often problematic. EMU’s relationship with the OPM Academic Partnerships is an example of this– and besides talking about this in the last chapter of my book, I blogged about it a while ago here,  and I take this issue up again toward the end of a presentation I gave at the Computers and Writing Conference in 2018. 

So he’s not all wrong. But Carey is spectacularly wrong in other places in this article.  I’ll focus on three of these claims.

Continue reading “Why Kevin Carey is (mostly but not entirely) wrong (again)”

Here’s why I will vote no on the EMU-AAUP’s new and not negotiated contract

(This is an extremely insider/in the weeds kind of post about the proposal in front of the EMU faculty union right now, so there’s a pretty good chance that if you are not a member of the faculty at EMU, this will only kinda/sorta make sense. My apologies for that in advance).

The EMU-AAUP sent around news that the leadership wants to agree to terms for a new contract (and this is not an extension— see below) right now, about five months before the contract ends without a single day of negotiations. The Executive Committee has approved this proposal as has the faculty Bargaining Council– the vote there was 53-1. The EMU-AAUP leadership is fast-tracking this, so there will basically be a discussion on March 25 (at a time where it would be difficult for me to go and besides, that’s my birthday) and then a rushed vote to (presumably) ratify this new contract on March 26.

So this looks like it’s a done deal.

I assume I am in the minority of faculty opposing it, but I still plan to vote “no.” Here’s why (and, IMO, more or less in this order):

This doesn’t come close to solving the problems of “equivalencies.” As I’ve blogged about and posted about on Facebook numerous times, the deal struck in the last contract regarding teaching loads (aka “equivalencies”) has been a complete clusterfuck and it has hit the English department hard. Which, by the way, was the intent: that is, former EMU-AAUP president Susan Moeller more or less admitted that a lot of the motivation behind these changes in teaching load was to “get” the English department. For me and many of my department colleagues, the main reason it was important to vote out the former leadership of the union was to have new leadership who would solve this particular problem.

As I understand it, there is disagreement among faculty about what to do with these equivalencies, and the (rumored) deal from the administration of a 3-3 load would actually increase the teaching load of a significant number of my colleagues in the sciences and the College of Business. So I get it’s a problem: it’s awfully hard at this point to negotiate a deal on workload with the administration when you can’t agree amongst yourselves what that workload should be. But look, the current EMU-AAUP leadership has had two years to do this and they haven’t made any progress.  So now what they’re proposing is a committee to study the problem– that is, the union leadership just wants to kick the can down the road.

In an email to the faculty, the EMU-AAUP Executive Committee said “Both the President and Provost have expressed a desire to find alternative models to the current workload and equivalencies. We are thus cautiously optimistic that progress can be made in this area.” Riiight… because the administration has been so willing to work with faculty on modifying the rules for equivalencies so far. It is as if members of the EC have never worked with these administrators on this before. This “cautious optimism” is naiveté.

If the language about this workload committee also said EMU would roll back the rules for teaching loads to where it was before the last contract and we’re going to form a committee to try to come up with something smarter and more fair this time, then I’d be all for that.  If there was language that the goal of this committee is to get to a 3-3 load or whatever is similar and fair to all departments, I’d agree to that. If the leadership of the EMU-AAUP and the folks in the administration specifically agreed to enact some of the many previously proposed and rejected or ignored solutions my department offered to solve our load problems, then sure, I’d take that deal. If the sentence “Both parties acknowledge that participation on this Committee does not constitute negotiation over workload” wasn’t there I might be more inclined too– and what then is this committee for if not to negotiate over workload? And, of course, if we hadn’t been repeatedly and systematically screwed over by the administration on these issues for the last two years, I might feel differently. But otherwise, no.

In a masochistic kind of way, I’d like to be on this committee both to advocate for my department and to see how the sausage ends up getting made. But if history is at all instructive, this committee is going to be another clusterfuck.

Which brings me to my next point: this isn’t a contract extension. This is a new contract. A two year contract extension would mean the exact same terms as the old contract for another two years, but this new deal includes different pay raises, it includes different costs for insurance, and it includes this new committee about workload. New rules/new language = new contract.

The only reason I can figure as to why the EMU-AAUP and the administration want to call this an extension is because they want to convince (trick?) the faculty that it’s totally cool to accept this extension with no negotiations.  Which brings me to my next point:

What’s the hurry? Why not see this as an opening for negotiations rather than a way to bypass them entirely? The contract doesn’t expire until September. Bargaining council isn’t even done yet, and as far as I know there is no actual bargaining team in place. What is the urgency here?

And is this even legal? I’m no lawyer, but isn’t it bad faith negotiating and a violation of collective bargaining rules/norms for the administration to put down a “take it or leave it” offer and for the union to say yes without any counter-offer?

This is the part of this I really don’t get at all. It seems to me that a better response from the union would be to take this as a starting point for talks rather than a way to end them. Why hasn’t the EMU-AAUP said something along the lines of “Great! This is a great place to start! Here are these other issues we want to see if we can work out– workload, for example– and let’s work amicably together toward those goals with the intent to wrap up negotiations and the next contract some time in July or August.”

I will say it is probably true that the deal being presented by the administration in terms of salary, insurance, and benefits is about as good as we’re going to get. We’re probably not going to get better raises and benefits than what’s being offered, especially as the combination of demographics and bad decisions drives our enrollments lower and lower. I get it.

At the same time, taking this deal with no discussion and so quickly makes me think that the union leadership is unwilling or too scared to negotiate. Why? What is the elephant in the room that the Executive Committee of the EMU-AAUP and the administration can see that the rest of us can’t?

Like I said, I expect this new contract (not an extension) to pass. It will be a relief to not have to have a contentious negotiation– I totally agree with that– and both the union and the administration will cheerfully pat themselves on each others’ backs. But it also sets the stage for an even more shitty contract negotiation in 2022.

My prediction is that by the time the next contract negotiations come around, this workload committee will have been declared a failure. Faculty will present offers for “alternative models” for teaching workloads to the administration, all of which the administration will reject for the same reasons they’ve rejected them before. Faculty within the bargaining unit will also still not be able to agree on what is a “fair” teaching load across all units. Faculty in my department– and I presume other departments– will continue to be in a crazy situation where it is not always clear how many courses I am going to be teaching from term to term.

Further, all of the problems that EMU has right now in terms of finances will be just as bad– probably worse since we’ll be out of things we can try to sell off or outsource. Enrollment will continue to fall, and the President and the Provost will continue to be unable to do anything about it. Healthcare will be more expensive, there will be more pressure to mess with TIAA contributions, and there will be even less money for a salary increase. The one thing that we will continue spending money on is the one thing that matters to the Board of Regents, which is football.

I hope I’m wrong about all this, but I also fully expect to link to this post in a similar “I told you so” post in two years.

Let’s not throw out all “merit” because of the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal”

My goodness, people have gotten very excited about the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal” that’s involved eight universities and 45 or so kids of very very rich (and frankly not very smart) parents. Frank Bruni finds it both galling and not surprising. John Warner says its a reason to eliminate all “competition” within higher education. Many many folks on Twitter and Social Media are using this story an example of how all college admissions is a crock and based entirely on how much money you have, it’s all corrupt, burn it all down, etc., etc.

As a thought experiment, I thought I’d contemplate some ways in which merit and admission to college in this country isn’t completely broken.

  • Access to education at any level has never been universally fair, and people who are wealthy have always had better access to education. I’m not just talking in the U.S. and I’m not just talking about the last 20 or 50 years. I mean it has never been fair anywhere, it has been that way for thousands of years, and it has been that way everywhere. Sure, there is better access to higher education in some other places in the world, notably European countries with a Democratic-Socialist tradition of funding education as a societal good. Though it is also worth pointing out that in most of these countries, students are “tracked” into a path that leads to either trade school or university in the American equivalent of high school. There isn’t much of a tradition in these places of community colleges or open admission universities.
  • I’m not saying this inequity is justified (it’s not) and I’m not saying we should do what we can to eliminate it (we should). I’m just saying it’s not at all new. The rich have always gotten richer. And as long as we’re talking about access and inequity issues relative to history: don’t forget that 100 years ago in this country, lots and lots of public universities in this country did not admit women or people of color.
  • The details of this particular scandal are pretty gross. The details about the daughter of Lori “Aunt Becky” Laughlin are particularly icky. Olivia Jade doesn’t seem particularly interested in being in college,  though she does seem to like to hang out on a yacht in the Bahamas with one of her friends who happens to be the child of a billionaire who happens to be chair of USC’s Board of Trustees.
  • But paradoxically, the fact that this small group of super rich people (about 50) felt compelled to break the law to get to get their kids (about 45 total) into some selective universities is evidence that the admissions systems mostly works. This is the exception that proves the rule.
  • Let’s also not forget that there are few “selective” institutions in this country. That’s what makes them “selective,” and thus not the way that most of higher education works. In his excellent book A Perfect Mess, David Labaree says of the 4700 or so institutions that count as “higher education” in this country, there are only 191 that are “selective” to the point where they accept less than half of the students that apply. So again, the eight universities involved in this scandal (and more specifically the rogue-operating people at these places and especially the University of Southern California) are outliers.
  • I cannot imagine any scenario where anyone would pay a bribe of any amount to get into EMU, but let’s think for a moment about the idea of rich people giving huge donations to get rich kids into the right college. Let’s take the example of Jared Kushner’s father paying Harvard $2.5 million to let him in. On the one hand, that’s unethical, slimy, and maybe not illegal but still wrong. Especially when we’re talking about a place like Harvard, this is just the rich getting richer. But at least that donation to the university does end up benefiting other students, at least indirectly. And I have to say: if someone offered to donate $1 million to EMU on the condition that all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were automatically admitted to the university, I sure hope we’d take that deal.
  • But yes, people who have resources have a significant advantage in accessing higher education, and that problem is made all the more acute in this country with the dumb way we fund K-12 schooling, mostly with local property taxes. I do not think this is fair either, and it is also why real estate in communities that are known for its good schools costs more– and vice versa. It’s also probably the easiest and most common way for families with modest means to improve the chances for their children to get into a good college: move to a town with good public schools.
  • I live in Ypsilanti, a town with so-so public schools. For reasons too complicated to go into here, my wife and I sent our only child to an expensive private school in Ann Arbor. We did this because education (not surprisingly) is a high priority for us, and we were fortunate/lucky enough to be able to afford it (barely) because of our jobs, because of some help from our families, and because we only have one child. I do feel a tinge of guilt once in a while regarding this decision, but besides the fact that it has turned out well, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable for any parent to try to do the best they can for their children’s education– as long as it’s legal.
  • This kind of access to private schooling was new to me (I went to some Catholic grade schools but mostly public schools), and it revealed a lot about how even a modest amount of wealth can dramatically change the game. The private school we sent our child to had shockingly small classes, highly professional faculty, a progressive curriculum not bogged down by an overemphasis on testing, and extra-curricular experiences for all students regardless of abilities. This school carefully groomed students for elite higher education from sixth grade on, and by the time actually applying to college rolls around, the level of support in terms of writing entrance essays, taking exams, contemplating different schools, meeting with recruiters– it’s all a completely different world.
  • I also saw the extreme anxiety these affluent parents had about making sure their kids got into an elite college. I’ll never forget this event my wife and I went to for parents of kids who would be applying to college the following year. It was a “Q&A” session put on by the college admissions advisors. Among other things, they talked about the need for test prep, for working carefully through those essays, about strategies for taking the SAT multiple times, and about how it was important to apply to eight to twelve schools to get admitted to the right one. All of these rich and super-earnest parents were just so tense, and I just sat there thinking of my own experience of taking the ACT once and applying to exactly one state university which didn’t require anything beyond a simple application. Like I said, a different world.
  • Which, to circle back to this specific cheating scandal, makes this situation all the more bizarre and what I still do not understand. With all of the advantages these rich people have, why did they have to so brazenly break the law to get their kids into modestly elite colleges? I’ve heard the argument before that folks like Lori Laughlin didn’t know any better because she didn’t go to college herself. I don’t believe that at all, but besides that, most of the parents involved with this were business executives, and I presume most of those people had college degrees. Or maybe they cheated their way into college in a similar fashion?
  • Last but not least: if universities eliminated measures of merit as a way of deciding who to admit– that is get rid of all test scores, grades, application essays, whatever else– how would universities decide? We should continue to strive to make the process more fair of course, but shouldn’t the process be based at least in part on merit in the form of grades, test scores, extracurriculars, etc.?

#4C19 Conference Prelude/Presentation

Here’s a link to my upcoming presentation at the Conference for College Composition and Communication, “Performing the Role of ‘Teacher’ in Online Writing Courses (or It’s All About Affordances).” It’s online at http://bit.ly/Krause4C19

I made this slideshow version for two related reasons. First, since I’m presenting as part of an 8:00 AM on Friday panel– a time slot with 45 sessions, many featuring folks who I would personally like to hear talk– I am kind of assuming it’s going to be an “intimate” gathering. Second, this is my solution to the accessibility challenge: anyone who needs to/wants to read this should be able to access this Google Slides show.

We’ll see how the conference goes.

Recipe: Mediterranean (-ish) Fish Stew/Soup

 

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Mediterranean-ish fish stew.

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Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • Four ounces or so smoked pork chorizo sausage (basically one link from a four-pack of sausages)
  • One small fennel bulb, diced (about 2/3rds of a cup)
  • One small onion, diced (about 2/3rds of a cup)
  • Two cloves garlic, minced
  • Half a cup of white wine
  • One 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes
  • One 12 ounce bottle of clam juice
  • Teaspoon of dried thyme
  • Half a cup to a cup of vegetable stock, fish stock, or water (optional)
  • 12 ounces of firm white fish like cod
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Juice of about half a lemon (plus wedges for garnish)
  • Half a cup of chopped Italian parsley

This is a simple stew/soup that is largely based on a recipe from an America’s Test Kitchen “cooking for two” magazine/recipe collection. I’m a fan of America’s Test Kitchen shows and cook books. The recipes are simple, interestingly written, and (unlike so many cook books) they “work.”

An interesting tangent here I learned in Googling America’s Test Kitchen: I wasn’t quite sure what the deal was with Christopher Kimball who used to be the face/host of the PBS show, until he showed up on Milk Street. I guess I had kind of assumed that Milk Street was a spin-off of the America’s Test Kitchen series since they are basically the same show but with different hosts. Little did I know that the split between Kimball and his former employer was an ugly one where ATK argues Kimball ripped off the whole concept for his own show (and magazine and cookbooks and web site). Hard to argue with that. There is what I believe is an ongoing lawsuit about all this.  Go figure.

Anyway, there’s obviously a lot of variations to this kind of stew/soup. I have cooked similar recipes with a lot more vegetables (and no sausage) and different flavor profiles, everything from a more spicy/Creole vibe to Asian. I don’t know if this is “Mediterranean” so much as vaguely Portuguese or Spanish, but whatever. I wouldn’t recommend omitting the sausage (chicken chorizo would probably be okay) because that’s what gives this soup/stew its unique flavor; so if sausage/meat isn’t your thing, I’d suggest a different recipe, or I try messing with this one with different spices. Clam juice was a new ingredient to me for this recipe– and honestly, I was suspicious because it sounds kind of gross to use the juice that clams were soaking in– but it does add just a hint of pleasant ocean fishiness to the finished dish. I use cod, but I can easily imagine other kinds of fish and/or shrimp. Note this recipe serves two, or provides one person leftovers the next day. I am certain it could be doubled or tripled with no serious problems. Last but not least, I think of this as a stew/soup because I prefer it a little more on the “soup-side” of things– which is why the addition of stock or water is optional.

Steps:

  • Use a large enough and heavy-bottomed pot to cook this– I use a small Dutch oven. Heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the diced chorizo, onion, and fennel for five or ten minutes until it’s softened and a bit browned. I find this is a lot easier to do if you have everything cut up ahead of time before you get started.  For the chorizo, I just use the garden-variety links available nowadays at most grocery stores– pre-cooked and smoked. Dicing up a fennel bulb for the first time can be a little tricky, but basically, you want to core the bulb and cut off all the top stuff. Martha Stewart has a nice demo video of how to do this here.
  •  Taste and add some salt and pepper.
  • Add the minced garlic and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Stir in the half a cup of wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to get any of those good tasty bits in there.
  • Stir in the tomatoes, clam juice, and thyme, and taste it again, adjusting the salt and pepper to your tastes. Bring it up to a simmer. If you want it more soup-like, add more stock or water; if you want it more stew-like, add just enough stock or water so it doesn’t dry out.
  • Cook the base/broth 15 or so minutes. This is also a great “make ahead” kind of dish because you can do all of this up to this point, turn it off, and just leave it covered on the stove for an hour or so until you’re ready for the seafood.
  • While the soup cooks, dice up the fish and chop the parsley. Also, the lemon: juice half of it and cut up the other half into wedges to serve with the stew/soup.
  • When everyone is ready to eat, add the lemon juice from the half a lemon, half the parsley, and the diced fish. Give it all a stir and cook for about 10 or 12 minutes on medium-low heat. It doesn’t take much to cook fish in a broth like this and you don’t want to overdue it.
  • Serve with parsley to garnish and lemon wedges on the side. A simple salad and nice crusty bread is a good side, too.

Actually, Higher Ed is Not That Similar to the Newspaper Industry

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education weekly feature “The Edge,” usually written by Goldie Blumenstyk but this time written by Scott Carlson, is about the “warnings” higher education should heed from what happened with the journalism business. It’s called “What Higher Ed Can Learn From the Newspaper Industry.” Carlson writes:

Newspapers are generally for-profit enterprises; colleges in most cases are not. But the parallels between journalism and academe are striking: We both deal in knowledge and have public service at our core. We have legacy institutions (Harvard, The New York Times) and upstarts (Coursera, Vice Media). Smart, intractable, and often underpaid people — professors and reporters — form the foundation of our industries, taking complex or specialized information and breaking it down for an audience. For many of those people, their academic or journalistic professions are all they ever imagined doing with their lives. To watch their industries crumble is a source of great heartache.

That first point– for-profit versus not-for-profit– is an important difference between journalism and higher ed that unfortunately gets left behind in the rest of the essay. But there are of course other important comparisons. Both journalists and professors tend to think of their mission as a “higher calling” and one that doesn’t necessarily square with everyone else’s views on the purposes of journalism or higher ed. Quoting Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, Carlson writes academics think of themselves as discovering and distributing knowledge, when people just want the credential and a job. “We pin our value,” Littau says, “on things that I don’t think the audience is thinking about.” Carlson also cites a CHE report on “Mega Universities” (tl;dr yet)– places like Southern New Hampshire, Liberty University, and Arizona State University– which threaten traditional universities as their enrollments grow to 100,000 or so students, mostly because of aggressive marketing and robust online programs. And so forth.

This is all something I touch on in my book More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of Massive Open Online Courses, which will (crossing fingers) come out from Utah State University Press in the fall. I think part of what Carlson and (indirectly) Littau is talking about is true. The higher ed “business” is definitely going through a rough time that is comparable to the rough times in journalism and mass media generally. Technology is changing the way both education and journalism are “delivered,” and colleges and universities– particularly the less prestigious ones like EMU– need to innovate in terms of delivery and programs to keep the doors open.  But for me, that’s about where the comparison ends.

I think there were two things that permanently transformed journalism, neither of which has a clear comparison to what’s going on in higher ed. First off, there’s Craig’s List, which I do not think gets enough credit (or blame) for disrupting one of the main sources of income for newspapers, the classifieds. Newspapers– particularly local ones– made a tremendous amount of money from classified ads back in the day. All of those $20 or so a week ads for selling your car or renting an apartment added up. Second, the rapid rise of social media, Google news, and similar forums dramatically changed the way people found, read, and expected to receive news for free.

But beyond that, there are a number of ways in which the “business”/institution of higher ed is quite different from journalism. These are things that I talk about in more detail in the book in relation to MOOCs, but I think it applies to the comparison to journalism as well.

First off, while content “scales,” education and assessment do not– at least not all the time, and not well enough. Certainly higher education has A LOT of content– research, textbooks, tests, writing assignments, etc. But if education was primarily about “delivering” “content” to an interested audience, then the need for schooling– particularly in higher education– would have started its decline with the development of literacy. The real value of higher education comes from the interaction between students and teachers (face to face or online), the assessment of students and their work by experts, and the credentialing of those courses which lead to a recognized college degree. That credential matters a lot. I think Littau is right in that too often, faculty think that our value is the abstract life of the mind, in “discovering and distributing knowledge.” Nonetheless, even if this is what faculty tend to favor and emphasize, we all know students wouldn’t come to universities for the life of the mind and knowledge alone. They certainly wouldn’t pay for it if the credential wasn’t worth something.

Second, I think people who make this comparison to journalism (or who thought MOOCs were going to take down institutional higher education) underestimate the depth and breadth of higher education. In my book, I quote David Labaree (who quotes someone else) about a claim that there are around 85 institutions in the western world  established by 1520 that continue to exist in similar (albeit evolved) ways today. These institutions include the Roman Catholic Church, a few parliaments, and about 70 universities. All of the top 25 universities in the world (as ranked by Times Higher Education) are at least 100 years old, and many much older– Oxford and Cambridge were founded around 1200, Harvard 1636, and comparable “new kids” Stanford and Cal Tech in the 1890s. Lots of universities in the U.S. were founded in the 1800s, including the one where I teach. So why, if higher education is so bad at innovating and if it is an industry “ripe” for disruption or failure, why are so many universities so old?

And then there’s the breadth issue. There are around 4,700 institutions of higher learning in the US– especially if you include all the proprietary schools, cosmetology schools, and the like. That’s almost four times as many newspapers as are published now, and it’s probably more than were published in the 1940s, before the rise of TV and then the Internet.

Third, while most people seeking news don’t like to pay for it, almost all would-be college students (and their families) are more than willing to pay. In the book, I go into some detail about how the cost of attendance has never been the deciding factor new students cite for why they decided to attend a particular college. While COA has always mattered and it matters more now to students than it did in my generation, students still value the quality of the institution and the success of an institution’s graduates more. This is why MOOC providers could not interest traditional undergraduates in taking their courses: even when the costs of taking a MOOC for transferable college credit is dramatically less than taking a course at a more traditional community college or college or university, students didn’t take the MOOC courses in part because the credential wasn’t “worth it.”

Which brings me to my last point for now: as is still the case with MOOCs, the students interested in attending these “mega universities” and other online providers are not the same as the ones interested in attending more traditional colleges and universities. Rather, most (probably a majority) of the students attending places like Southern New Hampshire or Liberty are older students who are coming back to finish their bachelors degree, or they’re starting college later in life, or they’re people who already have an undergraduate degree and they’re now seeking an additional credential or certification. And again, there has always been a lot of “non-traditional” students seeking education or training outside of “traditional” and institutionalized higher education. In the 1920s and 30s, when correspondence schools started to take off in a major way, there were many many more students enrolled in those courses than there were enrolled in institutional higher ed, and a lot of those students were the same kind of non-traditional student interested in MOOCs and online mega-universities now.

The threat of MOOCs disrupting higher education as we know it has largely passed, but more people are enrolled in MOOCs in 2019 than there were at the height of the “year of the MOOC” in 2012. I quote Cathy Davidson’s claim that in 2016, Coursera alone had 25 million students start at least one course on its platform, which is about four million more students enrolled in traditional colleges and universities in the US. My point is the threats to higher education that Carlson and others have identified are not at all new and not actually “threats.”

Don’t get me wrong– there are definite problems in higher education. As has been the case in the U.S. for at least the last 150 years, there will be institutions that will struggle and that will close or merge with others. Regional and opportunity-granting universities– like the one where I work– will continue to face a lot of challenges, things like even further reduced public funding and falling enrollment. Higher education will continue to change. What it means to “go to college” in the 22nd century is likely to be quite different– much in the same way that going to college in the 19th century was quite different from it is now.

But no, higher education is not as similar to the newspaper business. It certainly isn’t as similar as many journalists like to believe.