Online secondary school in Michigan; African-Americans and Internet access

It’s the mad mad MAD dash at the end of the semester (note to self: next time you’re going to be out of town for two weekends in a row and you’re trying to put together a couple of presentations for said out of town trips, AND you need to then turn one of said presentations into some kind of longer piece, make sure you plan ahead), and I’m not sure I’m going to make it. Though given that it is one way or the other soon just going to “end,” I suppose I will.

Anyway, two articles of note here via the NCTE Inbox:

First, there’s this, “Online courses aren’t just for homeschoolers anymore,” which is in The Christian Science Monitor. Talk about learning something new every day– see these three opening paragraphs:

If high school student Kelsey Speaks had taken all of her classes at her bricks-and-mortar school, she wouldn’t now be three years into her Latin studies. Since junior high, Kelsey has enrolled in eight courses in a virtual classroom through Colorado Online Learning, a state-funded program. The junior at tiny La Veta High School in southern Colorado says taking courses online is a great choice. “It’s allowed me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do,” she says.

In addition to letting her take courses (for free) that her school doesn’t offer, online learning has made her schedule flexible enough that she can captain the debate team, edit the yearbook, and do volunteer work as well. She also gets to study independently, which she enjoys.

Once considered the domain of home-schooled students, K-12 online learning is a fast-growing option for public school students in rural, urban, and suburban areas. Michigan lawmakers are likely to pass legislation soon that will require high school students to take one course online before they graduate.

The second article is “Digital Divide Closing as Blacks Turn to Internet” and in the New York Times. For the most part, it does exactly what the headline suggests: it reports on the closing of the gap between different groups (particularly African-Americans, but other minorities too) as it relates to Internet access, which I have certainly seen in my own teaching. But it also reports that this “closing of the gap” is somewhat debatable, which I have also seen in my own teaching.

Scott McCloud Rocks!

This is a belated post about the Scott McCloud presentation on campus on Monday night, late because I left for Chicago and the CCCCs first thing Tuesday. But in any event, McCloud’s spiel was great. I was hoping to link to some sort of news story about it, but I can’t find one at the Eastern Echo or the Ann Arbor paper; it might be too early for the Echo…

It was a huge crowd, pretty much a full house in the union ballroom, an interesting mix between typical EMU students/faculty and area comic geek/enthusiasts. And the crowd was part of the show, at least for me. One of my grad students (this was our “class” for the week) told me that a young person in front of him “would shoot his arms high in the air with the double devils-head ‘rock-n-roll’ hand sign every time he saw or heard something he liked.” Another grad student said something like “With all these people here, I bet it’d be tough to get a game of Dungeons and Dragons going in Ann Arbor tonight.”

McCloud’s presentation, which (of course!) involved hundreds of PowerPoint slides, was basically divided into three parts. The first was about a new book he has coming out in September, a book he’s clearly excited about, and one that sounds pretty interesting, too.

Then he talked about I guess what I would describe as his “philosophy� of comics, which is too complicated to try to explain here, but which involved (evolved out of?) a lot of his own background, which is quite interesting. McCloud’s father, who was literally a rocket scientist, was (is?) legally blind. And weirdly, McCloud lived in a neighborhood that seemed to be weirdly populated with kids who would group up to end up working as comic book artists, graphic novel writers, and children’s book illustrators.

Then he talked about his concept of the “infinite canvas� and comics, particularly about comics on the web. Essentially, McCloud talked about how the technology of print is responsible for the way that we have traditionally read comics and thought about things like panels. The cool thing with the web (not to mention high-speed access and software like flash) is that a lot of those rules can either go out the window entirely or at least be questioned in some interesting ways. And he had some super-cool examples to show too.

All in all, a great show and in interesting talk.

Pray-Harrold: the web site

As I discovered today via this comment left on my blog by the president of EMU’s student government (Bobby– just send me an email!), student government has put together a web site called “Pray-Harrold Needs YOU!”

If you’re an EMU/Michigan local, it’s worth checking out because it more or less sums up the long and on-going saga of EMU getting the money for this project. I appreciate the effort, though to be honest, this is the sort of thing that should have been done (maybe by student government, certainly by the EMU-AAUP and/or just the EMU administration) a couple of years ago. After all, it is beginning to look now like we might actually get some of the funds in this year’s budget cycle.

It does remind me though of the importance of being careful what you ask for. Pray-Harrold construction is going to be, ah, “disruptive,” to say the least. And when all is said and done, they’re really only talking about significant remodeling of the first four floors, which means the extent to which this is going to impact my department (our offices are on the sixth floor, and we teach lots of classes up there too) is debatable.

In the meantime, check out the web site.

Faculty Union Wackiness

The EMU faculty union is actually a chapter of the American Association of University Professors. We’ve been associated with the AAUP since the union was organized in 1974. But apparently, there is a movement to get out of the AAUP and associate ourselves with the Michigan Education Association. And the AAUP local is obviously concerned. Today, I received a packet of materials in the snail mail from the union about why we should stay with the AAUP and why we shouldn’t get ourselves messed up in the raiding MEA union.

I realize that this stuff is probably not that interesting to people who are not at EMU, but since there are enough EMU folks who stumble across this blog once in a while, I thought I’d post a few thoughts (while I’m watching the Iowa/Wisconsin basketball game):

  • I really don’t have any idea what the EMU-AAUP people are talking about. I either haven’t received anything from the MEA or I thought it was junk mail and I threw it away. I haven’t talked to any other faculty (other than my wife) about this yet; did anybody who teaches at EMU get this stuff?
  • I think the AAUP makes a reasonably compelling case about why we don’t want to be affiliated with the MEA, which is really more of a union for K-12 teachers. But beyond that…
  • … the absolute last thing we ought to do is take a vote for something like this while we’re in the midst of contract negotiations. That’s just dumb.
  • One of the things that’s interesting here is that way WAY back, a couple years ago when I was involved more directly with the EMU-AAUP, there were rumors/off-the-record talk about moving over to the MEA. I don’t know exactly what that was all about, but the people who ended up getting thrown out of office (see this post and this post if you’re interested in a version of a recap) were pretty P.O.-ed at the AAUP national for a variety of different reasons. Anyway, I have to wonder if some of these past union folks are behind this MEA deal now.
  • Now, having said all that, I’m not entirely sure what we at EMU get by being associated with the AAUP. That’s not a call for dumping the AAUP, certainly not to join the MEA. It’s just an honest question. When I was at Southern Oregon University, there was a faculty union, but it was a self-sustaining thing. The SOU faculty weren’t assoicated with any national or state organization; they were totally local.

    I wasn’t paying much attention to these issues when I was at SOU, but the faculty union there seemed to handle things well. Why couldn’t we do that at EMU? Instead of sending our dues off to some national or state organization, why not keep it all local?

  • And of course, I once again must wonder about the faculty union in general. The leftist in me is all for the EMU-AAUP and unions in general. But when you sit in on these meetings (as I did for a few months in 2003), well, it makes you think. They say that making laws is like making sausage, an ugly and grisly process that might make you into a vegetarian, and I think that union politicing is about the same.

    Of course, I do kinda like a good bratwurst….

To EMU Elevator Users in Pray-Harrold Hall: There Are Stairs….

Here’s a typical elevator scenario in the building I work in at EMU, Pray-Harrold Hall, one I just experienced a few minutes ago:

  • I arrive and enter the building on the second floor, which I realize is confusing because the basement is actually the first floor. No one is really around, I’m with my wife (who is carrying a bunch of school stuff), I’m not in a hurry, and I’m feeling lazy, so we go to the elevators. Despite the fact that my office is on the sixth floor, I often take the stairs. A perfectly able-bodied person is also waiting in the lobby area for the elevator.
  • The elevators are very slow and often barely functioning, so after an inevitable wait, one arrives. We get on and select floors. I select 6, another person selects 7 (the top floor), another 5. Able-bodied person selects 3.
  • People who actually have a reason to use the elevator look at each other and then at able-bodied person, who has inexplicably waited several minutes for an elevator to go up one flight of stairs and subsequently slowed the rest of us down. Able-bodied person disembarks on the third floor. We discuss able-bodied person on our ride to the higher floors.

I don’t know what the deal is here, but this happens all the time. What is all the more amazing is that there are many times– between classes, for example- when the elevators are very busy and crowded and able-bodied peoples will still wait around for ten minutes or longer and then cram themselves into an already crowded elevator to go up (or even down!) a single floor.

I’m not in charge here (and I think all of us, including myself, are thankful about that), but if I were in charge, I would make a rule. Unless you are pushing around something on a cart, have an enourmous amount of stuff that would be difficult to carry up a flight of stairs, you have a valid medical excuse and/or disability:

  • You are not allowed to take the elevator up a single floor, particularly the second to the third floor.
  • You are not allowed to take the elevator down a single floor, again, particularly from the third to the second floor.
  • There are four stairwells in the building, and while it is kind of confusing that only two of these sets of stairs actually goes to the seventh floor, you should use them.

There– that is my effort this week at public service announcement and education all in one post.

Belated Blog Post #2: Parking Problems at EMU

When job candidates for different positions come to campus, my standard “tell all” statement is this: I like working at EMU quite a bit, but I really get annoyed with the building I work in (Pray-Harrold) and I also get really annoyed with the parking situation.

Parking is a common problem at just about every college or university, but it’s a big deal here because EMU is fundamentally a commuter school. I don’t know what the statistics really are, but I’ll bet about two-thirds of our students drive five or more miles to get to school (which is quite a bit different from that liberal arts school in Ann Arbor), and some of these students drive a heck of a lot farther than five miles. The same goes for the faculty. My wife and I are somewhat unique in our department in that we can walk to school, though the fact of the matter is we often don’t (too much stuff to carry back and forth, bad weather often makes walking unpleasant, neither one of us walks when we teach at night, etc.)

So, you’d think that there would be a fair amount of attention to the plight of commuters, or rather, of parkers. Sadly, not enough. Part of the problem is there just are not enough parking spaces. But in my opinion, the bigger problem is that there is not enough parking enforcement.

Broken parking gate

Here’s a photograph of part of what I mean. For some reason, it is near routine for the gates at the enterance to various parking lots to either be broken like this or to be raised entirely. And just to make the obvious even more obvious: if the gate is broken or otherwise doesn’t work and if this happens all the time, then that more or less defeats the purpose for having a gated parking lot in the first place. I took this picture with my cell phone last Tuesday; the gate was still broken on Friday, and I would bet a month’s salary that it will be broken when I go into work today.

There’s also the problem of a serious lack of enforcement, and everyone knows that this is a problem. It’s fairly common for students and others to park illegally in the faculty/staff lot that is near the building where I work. I understand why students do this, but if I had done this at my undergraduate institution (and actually, I didn’t have a car as an undergrad), I would have certainly have been towed away.

It’s worth noting that if EMU really wants to enforce parking, they can. For example, faculty and staff can buy a parking spot. I’m not sure how much money it is, though I do know it’s hundreds of dollars and there is a fairly long waiting list to get a spot. As far as I can tell, one would pity the fool who parks illegally in one of these golden ticket spots.

Now, one of the things that’s potentially interesting about all of this is that one of the issues (supposedly) on the table for the next faculty union contract talks has to do with parking. Essentially, faculty don’t pay for their own parking right now– or rather, faculty receive parking as part of their current benefits package. As I understand it, the administration wants to start charging faculty what they charge students– I believe $75 a semester, though it might be less– for faculty/staff spots.

We’ll see if that actually comes to pass; I have my doubts. But if the administration is successful in charging faculty for parking, then:

  • I’d rather pay a few hundred dollars a year to guarantee that I have a spot;
  • They’d better fix the gates; and/or
  • A lot more faculty (including me) will just walk.

Organizing in the new year

In my new quasi-administrative role as the writing program coordinator, I’ve had to do something that I don’t ever remember having to do before: I’m keeping a calendar.

Oh sure, I’ve sort of kept a calendar/schedule in the past with things like iCal or the Yahoo calendar set-up, both of which email reminders of things. But to be honest, I never felt compelled to keep one of those old-fashioned paper calendars, mainly because I couldn’t see hauling it around with me and also because my week-to-week schedule just didn’t used to be that busy. I mean, I have always had meetings to go to and such, but basically I could just keep it all in my head. As the writing program coordinator, I’ve got more meetings, advising, etc., etc. So I decided it was time to be a grown-up.

My colleagues have been somewhat surprised and amused at my seemingly newly-found anal-retentive tendencies. But the truth of the matter is that my flaky/ laid-back/ non-planned/seemingly easy-going manner has always been pretty much an act. When I have to, I can be as tightly-wound as any other academic.

Anyway, I actually have kind of enjoyed calendar-keeping. I have one where I can organize a month at a time, and I have to say it’s kind of satisfying to see what I’m doing for weeks at a time. It’s kind of, ah, fun. I should have started keeping a calendar a long time ago, even if I didn’t have anything to put on it in the first place.

And, now that I’m in an organizing mood, I’m playing around with the so-called “Hipster PDA.” The creation of Merlin “43 Folders” Mann, the Hipster PDA is really a bunch of index cards clipped together in some fashion and it’s used to keep notes and such. Amazing. And yet, despite its simplicity, there are a ton of different web sitesand links and variations on the original “design” out there.

So far, I’ve just been using my index cards to keep track of attendance in my two face-to-face classes and as a way of keeping track of “to do” lists. And I have to say that if nothing else, it’s very convenient having some index cards to jot things on.

EMU screwed by State Again– and Don't Just Blame Kirkpatrick

Back in August, I posted an entry here about EMU raising tuition, in part to start to raise money for refurbishing Pray-Harrold. I noted then that EMU Prez John Fallon said on WEMU radio that incoming freshman would certainly see the results of their tuition dollars. Then, just a couple weeks ago, I posted here about how the current (as of then) plan for remodeling the building literally leaves out almost half of the building.

And now, just to send EMU a big fat “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year– NOT” sort of message, the state has basically said “no” to money to remodel Pray-Harrold. Here’s a long quote from the Ann Arbor News article on this:

The capital outlay budget signed last week by Gov. Jennifer Granholm commits $198 million to be raised through the sale of bonds in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It funds construction and renovation projects for 17 universities, but EMU won’t be among them.

Earlier this year, the Legislature indicated it would not provide $28 million in state funding to renovate the 1969 Pray-Harrold classroom building at EMU, and that project is not in the budget signed by Granholm.

Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, D-South Lyon, whose district includes the university, said EMU is still being punished by the Legislature for the 2003 controversy over the University House.

Championed by former EMU President Samuel Kirkpatrick, the 10,000-square-foot house, completed in 2003, is a combination meeting space and residence for EMU’s president. It cost $5.3 million to build the house and landscape the eight-acre site. A 2004 state audit found that EMU inappropriately drew from general funds for the project.

“I think it’s time for us to put the University House behind us and recognize there is a tremendous need on the campus for the renovation and upgrade of the Pray-Harrold building,” Smith said. The building needs safety and technological updates, she said.

EMU officials could not be reached for comment this morning.

And let me just highlight that one sentence that really sticks out for me here: “It (the capital outlay budget, that is) funds construction and renovation projects for 17 universities, but EMU won’t be among them.” SEVENTEEN other schools in the state got money, including U of M (yeah, they needed the cash) and Washtenaw Community College, and EMU gets jack squat. Jeesh.

Now, I sort of agree with Alma Smith. Kirkpatrick screwed us and screwed us good, and it is probably true that the Republican-dominated legislature is still mad about this whole house deal. And it probably doesn’t help matters that EMU tends to draw students from parts of the state that vote Democratic.

But let’s be clear here: Kirkpatrick has been out of the picture for two years now. We’ve got a new president who is fond of saying that we shouldn’t be looking in the rear-view mirror, and, while Incarnati is still on the board of regents, he’s not chair anymore.

So it seems to me that most of the blame for not getting at least some funding from the state has to be laid at the feet of the current administration. These were the people who put together the proposal for the money for Pray-Harrold and Mark-Jefferson in the first place. As I recall it, there was one vote against the plan by someone on the board of regents because there was concern that there was no “plan B” if the state turned EMU down. Turns out that one person was the smart one.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how Fallon et al spin this. I sure as hell hope he doesn’t play the Kirkpatrick blame-game.

… And That's a Wrap!

I just finished (literally, just finished) posting the last of my grades for the term, which means that I am indeed finished with this term. I do want to send an email out to my online students (the ones who I just finished figuring final grades for) to let them know I’m done, that they can take down their web sites if they want, etc.

It’s been kind of a mixed bag of a semester in many different ways for me, but overall, pretty good. I think the online class was most interesting to me because of what went right and what went wrong, and also because of what happened that fits into some other projects I’m working on, most notably a CCCCs presentation on the use of audio in teaching. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a topic that seems to be moving faster than I can cope with it. When I proposed the idea for a CCCCs presentation, it seemed fresh and new to me. Back in October, I started to have my doubts. And now that “podcast” is the word of the year, I’m guessing that if anyone actually shows up to my presentation, they will look at me and say “oh ma gawd, that is like so last April.”

Anyway, I thought that the audio element of my online class was fairly successful and I’m looking forward to figuring out how to do some honest-to-goodness (albeit fairly low-fi, tech wise) podcasting next term. I’m also going to be taking over as the EMU writing program coordinator, which means I’ll be kind of the leader (to the extent that anyone can “lead” tenure-track faculty) of our undergrad majors in professional and technical writing, and our MA programs in teaching of writing and technical communication. Oddly, because of some other things not worth explaining now, I will also be teaching more (though making a little extra money, too). I bought a copy of a SAMS Teach Yourself PHP, MySQL and Apache book I intend to browse while hanging with the family this weekend– I’ll probably have to look at it beyond that, too. I’m looking forward with moving beyond the damned textbook project, though I will probably be starting a new category on my blog specifically to vent bitch reflect on my textbook writing experiences.

But hey, this is all next year. I might post between now and then; I might not. Hope finals et al wrap up well for others out there, too.

The Building Blues (or, Yet Another Reasons to Teach and Take Online Classes)

There’s a discussion going on right now on the Tech-Rhet mailing list started by Bradley Bleck, who was looking for ideas for the “ideal” technology-friendly academic building. I don’t know all the details, but they are apparently in the planning stages at Spokane Falls Community College (where Bradley teaches) for a new and (hopefully) state-of-the-art building. Bradley said they are planning completition for 2011, so the challenge will be to not equip the place with things that seem like a good idea now but then quickly become obsolete. For example, when EMU built Halle Library, they spent a lot of money on ethernet cables and ports. They turned on a wireless network and turned off the wires about two years after the building opened.

Anyway, good for the folks at Spokane Falls CC. But I have to say that it makes me feel all the more worse about the situation here.

Now, don’t get me wrong– EMU is a great place to work. I believe in the mission and purpose of the university (though it is shifting all the time), I think we have great and interesting students, and I have incredible colleagues. Plus EMU is in a really interesting part of the country: close enough to Detroit to get access to “big city” activities, and right next to Ann Arbor, which means even easier access to one of the coolest college towns in the country. It really is a fantastic gig and I’m really happy to be here.

But (there’s always a but)….

I think there are two seemingly chronic and closely related problems with my job as a faculty member in the English department. First, parking is a pain in the ass, mostly because of the many commuting students at EMU but also because there just isn’t enough parking near the building I work in for all the faculty and staff who work there and in nearby buildings. But parking, that’s another post.

Second, the building where I work, Pray-Harrold, is one of the worse academic buildings I have ever been in, and it is by far one of the most unpleasant buildings where I’ve had an office. Built in an era in which the thinking was “bigger is better,” the seven-story behemoth has 75 classrooms and lots of offices and is still far too small for the thousands of people who use it every day. It was built in 1969, long before these new-fangled computer things, and the result is it is woefully ill-prepared for anything beyond chalkboard technologies. And beyond all that, the place is just generally falling apart.

Earlier in the semester, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of Pray-Harrold because the new president came in saying this was an important priority and because the Board of Regents approved a tuition hike that would be used specifically to help pay for remodeling Pray-Harrold. But the Provost and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences came to a department meeting earlier this week, just when the discussion about the ideal building came up on Tech-Rhet, and, without going into unnecessary detail, this visit put a damper on all that. For one thing, it looks like the money EMU was hoping to get from the state is simply not going to materialize.

For another, even if we do get at least most of the money we’re asking for, it sounds like they are literally going to do a half-assed job by focusing on the first four floors of the building. Now, it is true that this is where most of the classrooms in the building are located and it is probably where most of the remodeling needs to take place. However, there are plenty of classrooms on the other three floors, and the top three floors of the building are also where the faculty offices (including mine) are located.

Interestingly enough, the Dean’s office is on the fourth floor. Oh, and it’s also worth mentioning that, as far as I can tell, the administration has not asked for any input on Pray-Harrold reconstrcution from any faculty members.

In short, they were hoping to spend $50-60 million dollars on remodeling, but it looks like we’ll have significantly less than that to work with. But even if they could spend that much money on remodeling, it would certainly not help enough. So while the discussion on Tech-Rhet about ideal building configuration wish lists rages on (wireless networks, plenty of outlets, projectors, sensible lighting, moveable furniture, comfortable chairs, etc., etc., etc.), we’re stuck, and, unless something really unexpected happens, it looks to me that I’ll be working in Pray-Harrold in the current configuration for pretty much the rest of my career.

And I’m left with two thoughts. First, because the reality is EMU is unlikely to do the right thing about Pray-Harrold, my wish list is a bit more modest. Here’s what I want:

  • Furniture that isn’t broken and/or that is not as old as the average student’s parents.
  • Lighting, wall coverings, paint and decor that looks a bit less like a prison.
  • Windows that open. Or, in the case of my office and many of the classrooms, any window at all.
  • Floors that actually get swept and mopped once in a while.
  • Elevators that routinely work instead of the other way around (though I must say that my “marching up and down the stairs” exercise routine has been good for my calves).
  • Bathrooms that don’t routinely have standing water on the floor.
  • Some version of a heating/cooling system that actually maintains a normal temperature and that does not seem to have been designed by a climate schizophrenic (it is not at all uncommon to have a 20 or 30 degree temperature shift between rooms on the same floor).
  • An electrical outlet that doesn’t come up out of the middle of the freakin’ floor (which it does in my office).

Second, this is yet another reason why teaching online makes good sense for both teachers and students at EMU.