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.

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.

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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.

 

Actors, Videos, Robots, and More MOOC Reading Round-up

It’s been a pretty busy and productive time in MOOC-land. I’m simultaneously working on three different “parts” of the MOOCs In Context project with the hopes of having enough to seriously start seeing if there’s a publisher interested in whatever this will end up being. I’ve got a chapter coming out sometime in the near future (yet this year?) in a collection edited by Liz Losh about MOOCs, and I’ve got some other MOOC scholarship news on my mind I’m not quite ready to announce to the whole world yet. And my garden is completely in. So it’s been a good sabbatical, one that will end sooner than I had originally planned– but that’s another post. Anyway, more of this post after the jump.

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“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson

I’ve blogged about “the Digital Humanities” several times before. Back in 2012, I took some offense at the MLA’s “discovery” of “digital scholarship” because they essentially ignored the work of anyone other than literature scholars– in other words, comp/rhet folks who do things with technology need not apply. Cheryl Ball had an editorial comment in Kairos back then I thought was pretty accurate– though it’s also worth noting in the very same issue of Kairos, Ball also praised the MLA conference for its many “digital humanities” presentations.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had a post here called “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues,” in which I was responding to a critique by Adam Kirsch that Marc Bousquet had written about. Here’s a long quote from myself that I think is all the more relevant now:

I’ve had my issues with the DH movement in the past, especially as it’s been discussed by folks in the MLA– see here and especially here.  I have often thought that a lot of the scholars in digital humanities are really literary period folks trying to make themselves somehow “marketable,” and I’ve seen a lot of DH projects that don’t seem to be a whole lot more complicated than putting stuff up on the web. And I guess I resent and/or am annoyed with the rise of digital humanities in the same way I have to assume the folks who first thought up MOOCs (I’m thinking of the Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the world) way before Coursera and Udacity and EdX came along are annoyed with the rise of MOOCs now. All the stuff that DH-ers talk about as new has been going on in the “computers and writing”/”computers and composition” world for decades and for these folks to come along now and to coin these new terms for old practices– well, it feels like a whole bunch of work of others has been ignored and/or ripped off in this move.

But like I said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The “computers and writing” world– especially vis a vis its conference and lack of any sort of unifying “organization”– seems to me to be fragmenting and/or drifting into nothingness at the same time that DH is strengthening to the point of eliciting backlash pieces in a middle-brow publication like the New Republic. Plenty of comp/rhet folk have already made the transition, at least in part. Cheryl Ball has been doing DH stuff at MLA lately and had an NEH startup grant on multimedia publication editing; Alex Reid has had a foot in this for a few years now; Collin Brooke taught what was probably a fantastic course this past spring/winter, “Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities;” and Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo are editing a book of essays that will come out in the fall (I think) called Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. There’s an obvious trend here.

And this year, I’m going to HASTAC instead of the C&W conference (though this mostly has to do with the geographic reality that HASTAC is being hosted just up the road from me at Michigan State University) and I’ll be serving as the moderator/host of a roundtable session about what the computers and writing crowd can contribute to the DH movement.

In other words, I went into reading Jim and Bill’s edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities with a realization/understanding that “Digital Humanities” has more or less become the accepted term of art for everyone outside of computers and writing, and if the C&W crowd wants to have any interdisciplinary connection/relevance to the rest of academia, then we’re going to have to make connections with these DH people. In the nutshell, that’s what I think Jim and Bill’s book is about. (BTW and “full disclosure,” as they say: Jim and Bill are both friends of mine, particularly Bill, who I’ve known from courses taken together, conferences, project collaborations, dinners, golf outings, etc., etc., etc. for about 23 or so years).

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An initial response to Carey’s “The End of College” (or college costs don’t matter)

I’ve read about half of Kevin Carey’s The End of College and I’ve seen lots of the critiques of it in the education media, particularly in Inside Higher Ed.  There’s this, this (which has a pretty decent bullet-point summary of the book), this (which is probably too polite), and this piece by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab.  That Watters/Goldrick-Rab piece is probably my favorite because it is so biting and so extensively cited, though Kim thought it a little too “biting.” I commented on that article already. In any event, while my own reading of Carey is a “work in progress,” I thought I’d share two thoughts for now.

First, I am both bothered and puzzled by the attention Carey’s book is getting. I’m bothered because this book seems to be getting way WAY too much attention, and I’m puzzled by this because it seems to me the point he is making about “The University of Everywhere” is basically the same that the “Year of the MOOCs” bandwagon was making in 2012. If all this were new, I guess it might make sense; that it’s not new at all and it’s still getting great PR confuses me.

I referenced Carey’s book (well, indirectly because I ran out of time during the presentation)  at the CCCCs, and I suspect I’ll be quoting from him if I ever get this MOOC book/sabbatical project together (knocking on wooden things). I see him figuring into the last chapter where I am imagining the future of MOOCs and whatever comes next, and the seemingly never-ending quest to make education cheaper by making it more “efficient” and by further distancing teachers from students and/or bypassing the teachers altogether. Here’s a long quote from my CCCCs talk that I didn’t get to read that gives you an idea about where I’m coming from about why I’m confused by the attention:

I think Carey is wrong in lots of different ways. I think he’s right that higher education spends too much money on football and fancy campuses, and there is no doubt that higher education costs too much money. But his assumption about the research/teaching balance being out of whack and the inability of professors to teach is at best an exaggeration. Carey talks about runaway costs, but as far as I can tell, he says little about how expenses have been driven up by rising administrator salaries and increased bureaucratic demands on everyone from outside stakeholders (assessment!). Further, he seems to think that the content that would be delivered electronically in the University of Everywhere is free as in “free beer,” that that work just magically happens.

But the reason why Carey’s argument matters is the same reason why the MOOC business got traction a few years ago: Carey is playing off the popular (and largely uninformed) view of college, that it’s far too expensive because professors don’t do anything to teach and they are getting paid too much to do something that appears to most people outside of academia to not actually be a job. Write a book about how higher ed needs to be reformed by improving government funding, eliminating administrative bloat,  and by streamlining extracurriculars gets zero discussion and it sells 200 copies [and as an aside: I am afraid this is the book I am writing]. Write a book about how higher ed ought be run like Google and it gets covered by the New York Times and Fresh Air and lots of other places and it sells thousands. So even though the future of Carey’s “University of Everywhere” seems like an even more “risky business,” it’s similar to MOOCs in that we need to engage in the conversation.

The second (and more important and counter-intuitive) thing is about the “college costs too much” argument. Much of Carey’s book argues college as we know it needs to be completely retooled because it costs too much money, which is of course the conventional wisdom from most about higher education (including me). This is a rational observation. But here’s the thing: it seems to me most would be students and their parents don’t actually care that much about the costs.  It certainly isn’t driving most decisions students make about where to go to college.

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“Jay Speaks” to “The Intercept:” A few miscellaneous thoughts

If you were a fan of the recent podcast Serial, you really need to read the three part series “Jay Speaks,” a three part interview with the Jay in the Serial show, Jay Wilds, conducted by Natasha Vargas-Cooper in The Intercept. The link I have there is actually to part 3 of the interview, but if you scroll to the bottom, you can get links to parts on and two.

If you haven’t heard Serial, this is likely to not make a lot of sense. But of course, I did listen to Serial and I thought was incredibly compelling, probably the first of its kind of long form journalism in the form of a podcast and as a story that evolved as it was reported, largely as a result of particularly active listeners, for better and worse. And this piece is mostly the “for worse” angle of things: basically, Jay feels like he was demonized by Sarah Koenig, which is the main reason why he’s talking to Vargas-Cooper.

A few thoughts:

Continue reading ““Jay Speaks” to “The Intercept:” A few miscellaneous thoughts”

When it comes to Education and Technology, “Efficiency” is not the point

One of my goals (one of many, far too many, goals) during the sabbatical is to post more here– probably still mostly about higher ed and MOOCs, but hopefully other stuff too. I think it would be a good idea to shift back away from Facebook and Twitter. Don’t ask me why I think that’s a good idea right now; it just seems like it is.

This seems a good place to start: from U.S. News and World Report (which I think is just a web site nowadays) comes “Professors Grow Weary of Idea That Technology Can Save Higher Ed,” with the subheadline “Some say bringing high technology to higher ed makes it less, not more, efficient.”  As a slight tangent: the author of this article is something called “The Hechinger Report,” which “is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based at Teachers CollegeColumbia University” that apparently generates a lot of articles about education that get poured right into a lot of mainstream publications.

Anyway, a quote:

Universities and colleges are marketing themselves to tech-savvy teenagers while promising higher productivity and financial savings. They will pour $10.4 billion into education technology this year, according to the Center for Digital Education, from computers to in-class gadgets such as digital projectors and wireless “clickers” that let students answer questions electronically.

But professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.

The assumed purpose of technology (e.g., computer stuff, basically) in this article is efficiency, and some version of that word/theme appears at least a dozen times in this 1,000 or word so piece. And– surprise, surprise!– it turns out that computer stuff doesn’t make education more efficient.

First off, duh.

Second, (to expand a bit on that first point), one of the main problems I always have with these kinds of articles is the assumed definition of technology. Instead of defining technology as any sort of tool like pens or paper or chalkboards or even literacy itself (Ong), technology is “anything that doesn’t seem normal to us, particularly computers stuff:” that is, “clickers,” “gadgets,” “digital projectors,” etc. Things that were recently “technology” often become quickly naturalized so they no longer qualify as “gadget” or “new-fangled”– email and cell phones, for example. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect any definition of technology to be any more nuanced than that, but it’s still frustrating.

Third, (also expanding on my “duh”), efficiency is not the point. Modern computer technologies allow teachers and students to do things differently now than they did things five or ten or twenty or however many years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) make things more efficient. Take online courses in the broadest sense. Anyone who has taught or taken an online class knows that the advantage of the technology is it alters the time and space of a traditional “classroom:” you can be in class from wherever you can get a decent internet connection and you can engage in the class on your own schedule (more or less, and assuming the class is asynchronous). But online courses are a fairly inefficient way to convey information and to interact with each other. In a face to face class, we can all discuss a reading or an assignment in one time and place; in an online class, not so much. Often, this inefficiency shifts to the instructor– that is, it takes a lot more time to teach an online class than it does to teach a face to face one– and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of faculty have no interest in teaching online.

This ongoing quest for efficiency and cost savings (generally by employing fewer teachers and/or by having bigger classes) drives MOOCs and other online experiments, just as it was the motivation behind correspondence schools in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the first wave of online courses a decade or so ago. For students (and parents of students), seeking efficiency makes sense. Over Christmas at my parents in Iowa, the conversation with the brothers-in-laws turned to the cost of higher education (one of them is preparing to send a kid to college next year), and this desire for efficiency came up. It wasn’t the right place or time to explain what I see as the actual reasons for the costs of higher ed (administrative costs, assessment, athletics, student amenities, and a sharp decline in state subsidies), but I did try to point out that education is an inherently inefficient enterprise, sort of like a string quartet (e.g., Baumol’s cost disease).  Education generally– teaching in particular– doesn’t scale the same way that content does. Efficiency is not the point.

I’m not sure I was very persuasive, and as a parent who is also looking down the barrel of paying tuition for our son next year, I share a lot of my brother-my-law’s feelings on this.

“MOOCs” by Jonathan Haber: a review and more sabbatical anxiety

The main anxiety I have about my sabbatical project on MOOCs is the quickly approaching irrelevance of this work thanks to the passing of time and already published/in the pipeline books. I could see this working against me in two different and competing ways.

The first is that the quick rise and fall of MOOCs might mean that the “window of opportunity” to get a book-length manuscript published is closing quickly. I’m glad Charlie Lowe and I were able to strike when we were able to strike with Invasion of the MOOCsbut now I worry that it’s simply too late for another MOOC book.

At the same time, I’m worried that too many others have leapt out in front of me in the rush to publish on MOOCs. There are already about a dozen legitimate, academic or quasi-academic books out there on MOOCs (though a lot of what I’ve read has been pretty superficial and more in the vein of “how to succeed in MOOCs” rather than anything approaching critique or analysis.) I know at least one (maybe two or three?) other people in my field who are on sabbaticals now or soon and who said they were going to be working on MOOC projects of their own, amazon.com is already listing just shy of a half-dozen academic-ish books with “MOOC” in the titles that will be published in 2015, and I know of at least one other edited collection on the horizon about MOOCs. So by the time I have something to share with a publisher in August 2015 or so, the publisher is liable to say “that’s so 2014.”

(But I have to acknowledge that I am over-dramatizing this anxiety right now; the fact of the matter is I won’t get my sabbatical revoked if this project doesn’t pan out, I might end up shifting direction with my sabbatical anyway, etc., etc.).

So this is what has been on my mind as I was reading MOOCs by Jonathan Haber.

 

Continue reading ““MOOCs” by Jonathan Haber: a review and more sabbatical anxiety”

What and why do students and faculty (and anyone else) want to and not want to write?

I read two different education media articles the other day that both spoke to me in oddly similar ways about the reasons for (or for not) writing. First there was from IHE, “What Students Write,” which is a sort of review/essay about Dan Melzer’s book, Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. The article is good and the book sounds great. The very short version (based on just the article) is that Melzer studied over 2100 different writing assignments across the curriculum at about 100 different institutions. Not surprisingly, most of the writing assignments teachers give are shitty, mostly an exercise for students to prove to the teacher that they can repeat back in a written text (an essay, an exam, etc.) what was in the lecture and/or reading.

Melzer calls this largest category of writing assignments “student to examiner;” I would more cheekily call it “parroting,” or “Polly wants a cracker” writing. Oh, and students better repeat what the teacher said correctly. Here’s a quote:

Short-answer and essay exams made up about one-fifth of assignments in the study. Melzer said in an interview that the testing scenario makes sense, given the constraints on professors’ time. Offering multiple opportunities for feedback in a non-test scenario takes a lot more work, he said. But such opportunities are critical to writing development and lead to better student outcomes.

“There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says.

In the other corner comes this from CHE, “Anatomy of a Serial-Plagiarism Charge” about Mustapha Marrouchi, who is a postcolonial lit professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. There’s more about the case in an article behind CHE’s firewall, but the gist is that Marrouchi has apparently been plagiarising to different degrees for decades, this despite the fact that he was enough of a “big shot” in the field to get hired away from a previously high-paid spot at Louisiana State to an even sweeter gig at UNLV. What the non-firewalled piece I’m linking to here does do is highlight a number of incidents that do look kind of fishy.

So, what do these two articles/incidents say about what it is that students and teachers write and read, what they want to write and read? A few thoughts:

I like to write and always have. Writing is one of the few things I am actually good at and I can recall being rewarded for my talent as far back as grade school. I like to read too, though like a lot of my students (especially the creative writing types), I like to write more.

I write and read every day, but I still have a hard time with “assigned” writing, meaning for me not assignments from a teacher (I’m not taking any classes) but writing I am supposed to be doing for some other reason. There are at least three projects I’m procrastinating on right now to write this post instead. The same goes with reading. There are a stack of academic books and novels I am supposed to be reading right now so I can be a better person and a good intellectual, not to mention to be prepared to teach in a couple of weeks. But I am more likely to be reading the links to things on Twitter or the listicles on Facebook about which Hollywood stars began their careers as strippers.

So I guess there are some ways in which these reports of lazy writing assignments and serial plagiarism are not that surprising to me. Like everyone else in my field, I try to develop writing assignments with a clear purpose and audience beyond just writing to me as the teacher and beyond just having students prove to me they did the reading and/or were otherwise paying attention. I do think it makes a difference. I think students learn more from such assignments, I find this writing a lot more pleasant to read and grade, and I think it helps students to not plagiarize. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I also think it’s true that there’s a difference between assigning writing and teaching writing.  So when professors give the sort of stupid assignments that Melzer is writing about in his book and with no actual teaching involved, it’s no wonder that those professors are disappointed and even angry about their students’ writing.  Garbage in, garbage out.

But good assignments aren’t a cure-all. Not everyone likes to write just to write, and students frequently don’t like to write and thus resist new assignments. I gave a talk back at the CCCCs in Louisville in 2010 (a talk I should probably assign myself to revisit and rewrite into a longer essay) about using the movie RiP! A Remix Manifesto as a topic and a guiding principle for teaching first year writing.  Among many other things, I said that while it is certainly more pedagogically effective and ethical to give writing assignments that are not parroting, many of my students ultimately reverted to writing five paragraph essays. When students do this, I think it is because it is the path of least resistance (it’s always easier doing something you’ve done rather than doing something you haven’t done before), but also because students don’t trust me. Perhaps for good reason. They’ve had years of previous school writing assignments where teachers obsessed over their repeating what the book/the teacher said and where they were dinged on the grade for grammar stuff. And the whole situation is by definition not “authentic” since it is writing assigned and tied to a grade. Students are “made” to do this– at least in the sense that it’s tied to requirements for a class and a grade. Even assignments that ask students to “self-reflect” on something on their own are still assigned.

Then there’s my cynical connection of assigned writing (bad assignments in particular) to Mustapha Marrouchi. I don’t know anything about him or his scholarly work beyond what I read in The Chronicle. But based on that reading, here’s a guy who has had quite the successful academic career by publishing convoluted literary and cultural theory liberally sprinkled with plagiarised and otherwise paraphrased quotes. He’s been doing this for years, and while he has apparently sort of/kind of been called on this before, he’s only just getting into serious trouble for this now. How did this happen and how did he get away with it that long? Is it possible that so few readers– academic or otherwise– read  Marrouchi’s work that no one really noticed it as a serious problem for more than 20 years? Did no one care?

And why did Marrouchi do this anyway? As the examples in that CHE piece make clear, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot for Marrouchi to cite his sources, to write “as Terry Eagleton put it” or whatever. Was he as a writer just too lazy to cite his sources? Was much of Marrouchi’s scholarship the equivalent of the five paragraph drudgery assigned to him by academia so that he could get another line on his CV? What’s going on here?

I guess this gets me back to the question about what and why does anyone write anything. But I don’t really know the answer to my questions, not even for myself as a writer.  All I can say is do the best that you can with writing assignments, hoping for the best but understanding the inherent limitations of the rhetorical situation that is Education generally. Make all writing as engaging and as new and as thoughtful as possible.  Don’t make students do dumb assignments just so they can do dumb assignments that get some grade. Don’t write dumb and/or plagiarized scholarship just so you can write scholarship.