I’m going to take this as a back-handed compliment

Via Digital Digs, I came across this article in The Nation, “Professing Literature in 2008,” which is about the 20th anniversary of the Gerald Graff book Professing Literature and which laments the sorry state of English departments. At least from the point of view of a literature professor.

Here’s a long quote, one I find especially interesting as one of those comp/rhet specialists:

There’s no better way to take the profession’s temperature, it seems to me, than by scanning the Modern Language Association Job Information List, the quarterly catalog of faculty openings in American English departments. If you want to know where an institution is at, take a look at what it wants. The most striking fact about this year’s list is that the lion’s share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the “service” component of an English department’s role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you’ve got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge.

That’s more than half the list, and we still haven’t gotten to any, well, literature. When we do, we find that the largest share of what’s left, nearly a third, is in American literature.

Yes indeed– can you imagine English being something beyond literature?

Well, three brief thoughts on this:

  • In the early 1990s, I went into a PhD program in composition and rhetoric and not literature for a bunch of different reasons, but one of them was what I already knew about the job market as a relative outsider. I vividly recall a lunch I had with my dissertation director in about October 1995 about the job market where I was expressing my anxieties and concerns. She waved a spoon at me and didn’t even look up from her soup and said “you’ll be fine.” When I asked more about this, she just pointed out to me that people in my field had been in demand since the mid 1970s and that no one who graduated from my program had not gotten a tenure-track job. In other words, the “new” rise of these wacky and marginal fields like composition and rhetoric is not, um, new.
  • It would be tempting to dismiss the author of this article, William Deresiewicz, as some old fogey who can be excused a bit for being out of touch with contemporary trends in English studies. But interestingly, as his homepage indicates, Deresiewicz is only 10 years out of his PhD program. You’d think that someone like that would be a tad more up to date on trends in his field. Sadly, I don’t think that Deresiewicz is really all that unusual among my colleagues in fields like British literature.
  • This seems to me to be another reason as to why we’re seeing a rise of “Writing” departments across the country, and why I think that the free-standing writing department– one that includes first year composition, undergraduate majors, and graduate programs– will be the norm by the end of my career.

To be followed by “Academic Program Review: The Musical”

From Inside Higher Ed from last week, “Tenure, the Movie,” which aims to be a movie about the tenure process. Some people smarter than me and/or ones interested in taking this more seriously comment in the piece. I presume this will be a comedy, and I am smelling straight to video….

Recap of Friday’s plagiarism talks

I went to a spiel/mini-symposium/keynote speech deal over at the University of Michigan on Friday that was kind of a recap of a conference they had there about plagiarism last year, and also a celebration for the book Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. An interesting afternoon, and as an aside, it is one of those things that makes me think about living in the long shadow cast by the University of Michigan. Most people (including some of the out-of-towners who were at this thing) are surprised to learn that EMU is only about 10 miles away from U of M, though, as my visit to the pristine and beautiful Angell Hall reminded me for the millionth time, U of M and EMU are worlds apart. But the upside of living right next to U of M is events like this come up every once in a while, not to mention all the other cool stuff in Ann Arbor and on campus, the libraries, etc., etc.

Anyway, the speeches were from Linda “on the home team” Adler-Kassner, Rebecca Moore Howard, and Chris Anson. The three of them have a chapter is in this book, too. Linda AK’s talk was about Turnitin.com and she pointed out something that I guess is kind of obvious once you start looking but something I had not thought of before: just about everything you see about plagiarism in the popular press seems to come from these people at Turnitin.com. That’s kind of like everything about the overblown dangers of drinking and driving coming out from Budweiser or something. It’s a nasty business to be sure, but you’ve got to hand it to John Barrie and these other people: they’ve been incredibly able to convince folks that a) plagiarism is this horrific plague on the educational process, and b)Turnitin.com is the solution. And they’ve done all this with essentially no expertise on the matter.

Rebecca Howard’s talk was mostly about a research project she’s working on called “The Engaged Reading Project,” which is a fairly complicated and detailed analysis of how students are using/misusing sources. One of the things she pointed out as part of her talk was some of the ways in which Turnitin.com doesn’t work when it comes to “catching” things less than 40-some-odd characters, and what Turnitin really is is a “copy detection” system, which is not the same thing as plagiarism. I appreciated this because while all of the ethical and other problems with plagiarism detection schemes are of course important, it frankly annoys me to no end that these people are making millions of dollars off of a product that fosters bad teaching and, just to top it off, it doesn’t really work that well.

Anyway, most of what Howard did was talk about how her research is trying to approach the problem from the opposite direction, to find out what it is that students are doing with their sources, etc. I think a lot of what she was talking about is that students who are misusing sources and doing a sort of “patch writing” are just not that engaged in the reading and the assignment. So in that sense, plagiarism (but not really plagiarism, more like not using sources well and/or not according to the rules) really is a learning problem and not a policing problem.

Chris Anson talked about a couple of examples of plagiarism– or not really plagiarism so much as “borrowed writing”– that occur all the time in the “real world.” One was in the Army, where it is (apparently) common for officers to copy each others’ memos without attribution in order to relay a message to the troops. Mike at vitia had a series of posts which start here about this in November that sort of address this kind of thing. But for me the more interesting example was when he was talking about how there’s all this language on the web that people “borrow” from each other all the time. The example Anson had that stuck with me was the kind of language that a number of different web sites use about how to drive in the snow and ice. For example, if you do a Google search for these two sentences–

Use your brakes cautiously. Abrupt braking can cause brake lock-up and cause you to lose steering control.

— (as I did if you follow the link), you’ll see lots of web sites use either the exact language or something pretty close to it in describing icy driving. Now, is this plagiarism? Hell if I know. I mean, it seems to me there are only so many ways you can uniquely word something like “use your brakes cautiously,” which maybe gets into some territory about what counts as “common knowledge” of something that doesn’t need to be cited, or some kind of language that cannot be copyrighted or owned per se, like most recipes.

At the end of the day, and I think this was Linda’s main point, “plagiarism” is a problem that really is a stand-in for lots of other problems and fears we have about the (mis)education of youth. Plagiarism is a hot topic again as a result of technology, but is it actually a “problem” because students can so easily just “copy and paste” stuff from the web, or is it really a problem because this technology throws such an enormous wrench into concepts of ownership, knowledge, access, collaboration, connections, etc. It’d be interesting to find out if there were previous plagiarism scares with the development of previous technologies, like the dangers of the typewriter making writing so much easier to copy.

Anyway, great and thoughtful stuff. I bought the book and I hope to use it a bit next year when I teach about plagiarism again in 516.

Self Publishing with Word Clay

I found this via a Facebook ad: Word Clay, a self publishing service with a pretty snazzy-looking interface. And I like the name, Word Clay.

Of course, vanity press er, self published books are worth pretty much diddly-squat in academia and such, but this site and my recent trip to the new Borders (which features a sort of self publishing station in the techno-geek area) makes me wonder: has some marketing study decided that self publishing is the next big thing in the age of the Internets?

Turnitin’s less than cool tactics (and another reason to read those notes sent home from school)

From the blog Framed comes this entry, “Don’t Turnitin: Annotated Bibliography:”

Late last year, the company (Turnitin) attempted to induce high school students–minors, mostly–to assent to a new and draconian user agreement by clicking through a document that appeared when one logged in to Turnitin. Turnitin attempted to induce students to agree to its terms without even notifying the school district or the parents of children in the school. This step caused the school to temporarily suspend the service.

Now, however, the school has sent home a form for parents to sign authorizing their children to click through and assent to the Turnitin contract. Unfortunately, the school did not tell parents anything about the content of the agreement they were supposed to authorize their children to assent to.

The blogger in question, James Trumm, also includes a handy bibliography that sums up the problems of Turnitin. But these tactics are pretty dang low if you ask me.

Remembering Joseph Williams

I heard via the WPA-L mailing list that Joseph Williams, the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (and a series of textbooks based on this) passed away over the weekend. In never knew the man, but the book is one I’ve been using for a number of years in English 328, the undergraduate course I teach very frequently here. It’s just an excellent book, probably the best academic book I know about how to “write well” in an academic/clear/correct sort of way. Besides just offering really solid advice, I like it because it’s not even remotely simple and because it runs circles around Strunk and White’s famous little book. And that was his purpose, too. Right there on page one, Williams begins with a less than veiled dig at S&W’s “do and don’t” list of a book:

This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to “Omit Needless Words” or “Be Clear.” Telling me to “Be clear” is like telling me to “Hit the ball squarely.” I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.

Oh, Snap! Right freakin’ on, Prof. Williams, right on.

And that’s just what he does in 200 rich (and admittedly sometimes difficult) pages, wrapping up in a “grammar” chapter where, to explain supposedly “incorrect” uses of English (e.g., never begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” use “between” with two, “among” with more, split infinitives, etc.), he uses examples from other grammar books and the like where they break the rules. Right on again.

Anyway, I don’t know a whole lot about the man beyond this (and a few other) books and a few posts to the WPA-L mailing list. But if his attitude and wit is anywhere close to what it is in this book, I’ll bet he was a fun guy to know. He apparently died in his sleep from (as of yet) unknown causes, which I think is the way that most of us would like to go out of this world. So Joe, rest in peace, and thanks for helping out both me and my students (or is that my students and I?) learn a lot more about writing, style, clarity, and grace.

Just what are those Wikipedia people talking about?

Alex Halavais and Derek Lackaff have an article out that seems relevant in light of recent comments and recent teaching: “An Analysis of Topical Coverage in Wikipedia.” Here’s the abstract:

Many have questioned the reliability and accuracy of Wikipedia. Here a different issue, but one closely related: how broad is the coverage of Wikipedia? Differences in the interests and attention of Wikipedia’s editors mean that some areas, in the traditional sciences, for example, are better covered than others. Two approaches to measuring this coverage are presented. The first maps the distribution of topics on Wikipedia to the distribution of books published. The second compares the distribution of topics in three established, field-specific academic encyclopedias to the articles found in Wikipedia. Unlike the top-down construction of traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia’s topical coverage is driven by the interests of its users, and as a result, the reliability and completeness of Wikipedia is likely to be different depending on the subject-area of the article.

This sounds pretty good albeit not that surprising.

Isn’t “Open Source” academic publishing kind of a moot point?

As I finish up sorting through my RSS feed, I have to note posts from Alex, Jeff, and (via Jeff) Anne regarding Dana Boyd’s call for academics to boycott closed/”locked down” journals. It’s all kind of interesting in an, um, academic way; but is this dust-up really all that relevant?

Boyd seems to be kinda steamed because her article in the journal Convergence is not just “out there” on the Internets for one and all to grab for free/as an open source document. Without getting into the pros and cons of all this (though I think I agree with the general sentiment of folks I link to above, that while open source is a good idea, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to boycott journals that haven’t gone that route), I guess I am just having a hard time getting too excited one way or the other about this. Yes, I can’t get Boyd’s article directly from the Internets. But we also have this old-timey academic technology called “the library,” and from there, I am sure I will be able to access this article, either electronically or, if EMU doesn’t subscribe to Convergence, via inter-library loan. The last time I got an article via interlibrary loan, they emailed it to me as a PDF. So while this might not be as open and as easy if it were “just there” on the web and while the EMU library probably doesn’t do this for people coming in off the street (though they might, actually), it’s still pretty quick and open and accessible if you ask me.

One of the things that most of these (kind of, but not really) closed access journals get you is paper, and paper, as I discuss in this section of version 2.0 of my article “Where Do I List This on My CV?” can matter. Granted, these closed (but again, not really) journals don’t have the reach of stuff that’s just up on the ‘net; on the other hand, paper doesn’t just disappear, which is something I experienced with the first version of this piece.

Besides, if Boyd (or anyone else) wants to put up an academic article that they wrote up on the web, well, go ahead. Anne makes a point of saying that she has written this into contracts for things that she’s published. That’s probably the legal and proper way of doing things, but I don’t think that’s even necessary. As I wrote in this article (also in the section I quote above), plenty of scholars in my field just put things up on the web– Carolyn Miller, Michael Day, most of the people in my blogroll, etc. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I intend to make links to PDF versions of stuff I published that came out in closed journals available under the “Scholarship/CV” tab. If some academic publisher wants to email me and tell me to take it down, then I will. But really, is that going to happen?