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?

Will Richmond and Monument Avenue be next?

I lived in Richmond, Virginia from 1988 to 1993, while I was in the MFA program in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and then while working at a “real job” for a few years before I entered the PhD program rhetoric and writing at Bowling Green State. I didn’t go to Charlottesville much and I don’t know anything more than what has been reported about the terrorism from various “White Power” groups this past weekend. The catalyst for the KKK/Nazi/etc. violence was  supposedly the removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee, though I’ve also heard commentators say that issue was merely an excuse for the Robert Spencers and David Dukes of the U.S. to bring their hate shows to what is otherwise a pretty left-leaning college town. Doesn’t hurt that Trump seems OK with these kinds of folks being part of their base.

Anyway, with all this talk of the removal of statues of Confederate “Heroes,” I have to assume that one of the next hot-spots is going to be in Richmond along Monument Avenue. Apparently, a “Confederate heritage organization” has asked for a permit to march around the Robert E. Lee statue there on September 16.

Let me back up a bit:

Growing up in Iowa, the Civil War, the Confederacy, and issues of race in general were mostly absent. The Civil War was a topic that was covered somewhere in Junior High history class and that was about it. The town I grew up in, Cedar Falls, was (and I think still pretty much is) very very white. I graduated from high school in 1984 from a school that I had about 1200 students, and I can remember exactly one black kid. This is not to say there were no African-Americans in the area– it’s just that they all lived in Waterloo, which was the larger and much more gritty factory town that Cedar Falls bordered. But Iowa as a whole is very white, and people of color in the state make up a disproportionally large percentage of poor and working class people.

When I decided to go to VCU and move to Richmond, I thought I was moving to the East Coast. After all, Richmond is only about a two and a half hour drive to DC. Little did I know that I was actually moving to “The South,” and (just to give you a sense of how clueless I was) I was moving to the capitol of the Confederate States of America no less!

Richmond oozes with the sort of history that was foreign to my midwestern and suburban upbringing. The joke always was “they fought all around here.” I remember going on a tour of the state capitol building when my parents were visiting and the tour guide pointing out that the statehouse had been both the capitol of the state of Virginia and also of the country of the Confederate States of America, and that we did not in fact fight a Civil War but rather it was The War Between the States. A lovely place to visit in Richmond is Hollywood Cemetery, which is the final resting place of Jefferson Davis and hundreds (thousands?) of Confederate soldiers buried near the Monument of the Confederate War Dead. The grave markers are stone squares stamped “CSA.” There is a ton of stuff like this in and around Richmond. They really did fight all around there.

The other big change for me was demographic. I moved from a town (Iowa City) that was about 80% white to a city four times as populous that was about 40% white and over 50% African-American. A “cultural shift,” to say the least. But while people of color also made up a disproportionate percentage of poor and working class people, there was (and still is) a large African-American middle class population in Richmond, not to mention the fact that the city council and mayor’s office has had an African-American majority for some time.

Monument Avenue is a wide and long boulevard that runs from near the VCU campus to the west, beyond the city limits and near to the University of Richmond. The most famous part is in a historic neighborhood called “The Fan District.” This ten or twelve or so block section of Monument is lined with enormous multimillion dollar mansions and (as wikipedia puts it) “punctuated by statues memorializing Virginian Confederate participants of the Civil War Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, as well as Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and international tennis star.”

For the five years I was in Richmond, I lived in many different apartments within walking distance of this section of Monument Avenue. The statues on Monument vary in size and grandeur (the Robert E. Lee statue is 60 feet tall, including the pedestal) and I used to know all sorts of details about what it meant that different statues faced different ways and different horses had their feet up or not. Taken as a whole, the statues and the houses and churches that line Monument are stately, grand, and– well, “monumental.” I didn’t think a lot about how the statues honored the oppressive leaders of the oppressive and racist Confederacy– mostly because I just didn’t think a lot about such things at all back then. Rather, Monument Avenue was to me a good example of the strange contrasts and close proximity of things in “the big city,” because while Monument Avenue itself was home to the stately mansions paid for with old money, Grace Street (just a block away) used to be known for prostitution, drugs, drunks, and crime. I knew a couple of different people who were mugged within a block or two of Monument Avenue.

Though there was one time early in my years in Richmond where race and monuments met. Back in the late 1980s, the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday was just being adopted by all the states, and in Virginia during my first winter there in 1989, they celebrated “Lee Jackson King” day. Because I was an idiot, my thought was that there must have been some civil rights activists named “Lee” and “Jackson” that Virginia decided to honor along with King, or maybe even just one guy, the civil rights activist “Lee Jackson.” While wondering about this when out and about on my first “Lee Jackson King” day and I happened to see Confederate reenactment guys marching around the Lee statue. Aaahhh I said to myself.

Like I said, I didn’t think about this stuff a whole lot back then. I certainly think about it more now.

What’s next for Monument Avenue? There was a pretty good article that summed things up in Richmond’s weekly Style magazine, “Is Monument Avenue Set in Stone?” back in April. As this article points out, this has been an on-again/off-again issue for a while now. According to this article (also from Style), “Mayor Stoney Announces a Commission on Monument Avenue Statues.” Stoney’s position (at least based on this article published in late June 2017) seems to be that while the statues are bad and the commission ought to recommend ways of “adding context and correcting alternative facts,” moving the statues is not something “on the table.” Just last week (and before the tragedy in Charlottesville over the weekend), the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article about the first and apparently out of control meeting of the Monument Avenue Commission, “‘It’s theater of the absurd’: Monument Avenue Commission’s first public hearing borders on chaotic.”  If I could, I’d link to my friend Dennis Danvers’ post on Facebook about this because I agree with his argument– “It’s time to haul away the many Confederate monuments that litter the Commonwealth”– but as the comments suggest, this opinion is far from universal.

Anyway, I don’t know what should happen next with Monument Avenue. The statues should probably be taken down and replaced, but those are decisions that are going to have to be made by Richmonders and Virginians. I do worry that whatever happens on September 16 along Monument Avenue will more than simply intensify the debate though. Here’s hoping it’s not a repeat of this past weekend.

How to respond when a non-academic wants to talk about how you “don’t have to work in the summer”

I’ve been meaning to write something about summer work in academia along the lines of what Alex Reid did back in mid-April. But I hadn’t gotten around to it until now (and this post took me over a week to write, off and on), I suppose because I was on a vacation for three weeks in May, right after the Winter term ended at EMU. That’s not meant to be ironic or anything in terms of a post about “work” in the summer; it’s just the way it is.

Alex was initially responding to an article in CHE (now behind a firewall but I think I recall at least skimming it) called “Making Summer Work” that was offering advice to academics about how to make their summers “more productive.” Alex’s points are all spot-on, about how it’s weird that professors are characterized by the rest of the world as having cushy/lazy jobs as it is– and you don’t work in the summer!– but how professors themselves focus on the intensity of the 60+ hour work week and how it just keeps going and going and going in the summer too. It’s a losing battle; “[n]o one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their ‘summers off’ productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.”

I can relate to all of this. Back when I was in graduate school and when I was just starting down the tenure-track, my mother (or some other well-intended but not academic-type) would say something like “it must be nice to have such a long summer vacation like that” and I’d go on a tirade about how there was no such thing as time off in academia!

Now I’m a lot more likely to say something like “Why yes; yes, it is nice,” or “Yes, though I don’t get paid to work in the summer.” Though it’s still complicated.

For starters,  I used to teach (e.g. “work”) in the summers. I didn’t teach two summers ago because I was on sabbatical, but other than that, this summer is the first since I came to EMU in 1998 where I am not teaching and thus contractually not obligated to do anything. Summer school here is divided into two 7.5 week terms, and I usually taught two courses during one of those terms– or sometimes three courses, one in one term and two in another. The reason I taught in the summer is simple: money. EMU pays faculty 10% of their base salary per summer course. You don’t need to know my salary to know that being able to make 20% of my base salary for teaching two courses in a little less than two months is a good deal.

I’m not teaching this summer for two reasons. First, summer teaching at EMU– at least in my department, but I think this is broadly true across the university– has almost entirely dried up. Second, I’ve gotten to the place financially where I can afford to not teach/work for EMU for the summer. I mean, I’m not saying I’m never going to teach in the summer again because never is a very long time and I still like money. But I’m not planning on it.

Then there is the definition of “work.” I work all the time (including in the summer and while on vacation) doing stuff like planning classes, meeting with students, reading academic things, and writing academic presentations/articles/books/blog posts because I’m a professor and it’s my job, but also because this is work I enjoy and it brings me a great deal of personal satisfaction and meaning. It’s not the kind of “work” that Tim Ferriss has in mind in trying to avoid in the 4 Hour Work Week, the kind of work one does only for the paycheck.

So all those caveats and qualifications aside, yes, I do not have to work in the summers. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I don’t get paid to work in the summer when I’m not teaching, so I only do “the work” I want to do. This summer, I’m working (too slowly) on my MOOC book, I am reading things that might be interesting for future projects, I’m meeting with students about their MA projects, I went (briefly) to the Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay this past week, and I might even agree to go to a meeting or two. “Work” I won’t be doing includes program review/assessment documents, attending official department committee meetings (there aren’t any in the summer because I’m far from the only one who won’t do that), doing writing program administrator stuff, responding to irrelevant paperwork requests, holding specific office hours, and so forth.

The “contractual obligated” part of things with the EMU faculty union is taken quite seriously around here. I was in a discussion on Facebook with someone at another institution about all this and this person insisted that faculty should think of themselves as year-round employees no matter what. I understand that perspective, but that is not part of the local culture. I had a colleague a few years ago (this person has since retired) who left at the end of the winter term, did not come back until the fall term, and was completely absent in the summer. This person had an auto-reply on their email that said “email me back in the fall.” I was on a university-wide committee several years ago and whatever administrator wanted this committee to meet in June. The only way that faculty on that committee would agree to that meeting was to be paid a couple hundred dollars each to show up– and by the way, that was clearly a waste of money since nothing got done at that meeting anyway.

Besides, my base pay really is for eight months of work a year. I’m not complaining about my salary, but I also know that if I was an administrator and working 12 months a year, I’d be making much more money than I’m making now. The same is true if I had a “real job,” too. As an academic, I already do too much work for free; that doesn’t need to include the summer.

Anyway, to sum-up:

  • If you’re a graduate student or tenure-seeking/relatively new faculty member, you legit probably don’t have your “summers off,” at least not entirely. You’re probably doing something like writing a thesis or a dissertation or something to help your tenure case, and perhaps teaching as well. Work at this stage of your career is a mix of pleasure and pain, and it’s undeniably harder to explain to non-academics how you actually do have to work in the summer. Try “yeah, but if I don’t finish my thesis/dissertation/homework, I won’t be able to graduate next year;” that might work. But try to take at least some time “off,” even if that only means reading academic stuff while sitting in a park someplace once in a while.
  • If you’re newly tenured and a non-academic tells you “it must be nice to have your summer off,” reply “hey, I’ve been working my ass off for the last 10 years finishing my PhD and then getting a tenure-track job and then getting tenure. So yeah, it is nice having a summer off finally!” Seriously, take some time off. Do those home repairs/remodeling you’ve been putting off until you got tenure. And/or go on a trip, take up golf, etc.
  • If you’re an established academic-type, tenured and promoted and such, and you’re still working 16 hour + days, including in the summer: why? Why are you doing that? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the work, but no one is going to think any less of you for giving your garden some attention. Except for those non-academic-types who think you never work; just tell those people that having summer off is really nice, thank you very much.

Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise Part 3: London & Reykjavik

Twenty-one days, which is as long as I’ve been away from home in as long as I can remember. A great trip– including parts one and two— and now I’m ready to be back home, at least for a couple of weeks. Once again, here are pictures on Flickr, the complete album (more or less– I haven’t added all of the pictures Annette took yet), and here are links to the parts one and two blog posts.

The last excursion we took from the ship was to Stonehenge in part because if you’re going to be in southern England (our last port of call was Southampton), you’ve got to go to Stonehenge, but also because the cruise excursion included a trip to the airport. Kind of crappy weather, but well worth it. It looks exactly like you think it looks, though there were a few surprises. First, it was a bit smaller than I thought it would be and there was a surprisingly busy road only a few hundred yards away from it. Second, Stonehenge is actually part of a much larger site that includes burial mounds and such. Third, the very nice visitor’s center has robust wifi and a cool little museum that even includes a Spinal Tap record.

From there, we went to the airport and where we were picked up by some old friends (mostly of Annette’s) who have lived in (well, near) London for at least 15 years, maybe more. We spent the night at their place, catching up on things, meeting their daughter and some friends, and learning some basic pub culture about how one buys drinks.

The next day, we made our way to our hotel via bus and tube, which was no easy task with four large suitcases and lots of stairs. (As a slight tangent: if I take a trip like this again, I think I’d like to seek a compromise in terms of packing to stay put on a cruise ship versus packing to be on the move). Our hotel was right on Leicester Square, which felt a lot like a small version of Times Square in New York: there was a “TKTS” discount musical/play ticket kiosk, an M&M store, throngs of people and street performers, etc. In fact, if I had to sum up my overall impressions of London in a sentence, I’d say it’s a lot like Manhattan, only not laid out in a grid pattern (making getting lost really easy to do) and a lot older. After getting to the hotel, we didn’t have much time to do tourist stuff, though the National Gallery was right there so we went to look at some fine art for a while.

Our first full day in London involved a lot of walking, like almost 10 miles according to my Fitbit app. Went to the British Museum, then wandered around a lot, went to the Tower Bridge, wandered around some more, and then (because it was included in the “London Pass” tickets thing we bought before the trip), we went to this thing called the “London Bridge Experience.” Essentially, it’s a haunted house. Annette thought it was great; me, not so much.

We were a little bit more organized on our second full day in London (though just a bit more organized). Part of this London Pass thing was a “hop on/hop off” tourist bus, which is kind of goofy but also a good way to at least drive by more stuff (and not surprisingly, we really didn’t see enough of London in the time we were there because we just weren’t there long enough). Highlights included a visit to the reconstruction of the Globe theater, the Tate Modern right next door, the Tower of London, more walking around, and then we ended out tourism with a very long ride on the bus where we drove by lots of stuff to see if we ever go back.

Then to Reykjavik, Iceland. Why you ask? First off, Icelandair has pretty cheap transatlantic flights, though their flights usually stop in Iceland. But one of their features is you can take a several day layover (I think up to seven?) at no additional cost, which means that if you are flying Icelandair, stopping for a day or two in Iceland is pretty easy. Second, we stopped their for a few hours on our honeymoon many many years ago and we always thought it’d be a cool place to visit again. And it was cool (both in the sense of it being “groovy” and also kind of cold, like in the 40s and windy), but (not surprisingly) a lot has changed in 23 years.

When we stopped there back in 1994, what we were assuming was we were going to have four or so hours to sit around the airport (which is about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik). Instead, we were given– for free, mind you– a bus tour of the area around the lava fields near the airport that included a stop at an indoor salmon farm and also a stop at this place called “The Blue Lagoon,” which, Wikipedia tells me, is essentially the water run-off from an electric power generator fueled by geothermal heat. Locals started bathing in the waters back in the early 1980s, and in 1992, they built a facility to open up the waters to anyone who wanted to go. When we went way back when, we could have rented swimsuits and tried the waters ourselves, but that seemed kind of weird. So we just kind of hung out for a while, got back on the bus, and flew home.

Now the Blue Lagoon is a posh spa/resort you have to book weeks in advance. The cheapest entry is over $55 a person– and that’s just basic entry to the place. There are no free bus rides out to there anymore, and now it looks like it’s a pretty big complex with all sorts of fancy restaurants, spa treatments, a fancy hotel, and so forth. Like I said, it seems like a lot has changed.

Anyway, after the frenetic pace of London (and really just the whole trip), we were both ready for just a day of chilling out/hanging out in Reykjavik. The day we got there, CNBC posted this advice on “How to vacation in one of the most expensive countries on earth for only $50 a day” (spoiler alert: the advice is don’t eat or drink out and do things that are free like walk around), advice we of course didn’t follow. Reykjavik (at least the downtown/touristy part) is easily the most expensive place I’ve ever been in terms of eating and drinking. There was a stand next to our hotel selling hot dogs for $12; a burger was going for about $20; cocktails were over $20 each; and so forth. On the plus-side of it all, tips and taxes are included in the price and it was all excellent, so….

Three highlights (besides just walking around, shopping, gawking at stuff): The first night there, we stumbled across Lebowski Bar, which is a The Big Lebowski-themed bar complete with a drink menu that included over 20 variations on a White Russian. First thing the second day, we went to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja church (an elevator ride, happily) and had some tremendous views; and we also visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is small museum of various animal penises in jars (several variety of whales, for example) and various phallic objects, including the Ypsilanti Water Tower. A little piece (or big piece?) of home right here in Iceland– so proud.

So quite the adventure. Would I do it again? Probably, now that I know a lot more about what I’m getting myself into. And probably not again this summer.

Our Transatlantic Cruise Part 2: Ports of Call

The cruise part of this trip is almost over and still a mixed bag for me. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s not; sometimes the food is good, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the weather has been good, other times not so much.

Anyway, we just finished our next to last port of call for this trip. Our last stop is tomorrow in Southampton, England, and from there, we’ll head into “part 3” of the transatlantic trip, the way back through London and then Iceland.

I’m uploading photo highlights to this Flickr album as we go and I’ll keep uploading pictures there, too. But a brief run-down of the stops:

The Azores: specifically, around Ponta Delgada (which is the main city of the islands, which are a part of Portugal) on the island of São Miguel. Cruise ships always offer multiple options for port tours and excursions, and they can sometimes get pretty pricy for something that’s easy to do yourself. We decided to take one of these tours for the Azores, we took one of these tours and it was totally worth it. We got on to a bus, stopped first at a small pineapple growing operation (apparently, they grow a lot of pineapple here, mostly for the European market, but this place looked way too small to be anything other than a stop for the tourists), then drove out to see the stunningly beautiful Caldeira do Alferes or “crater lakes.” Then more beautiful vistas and views, a lovely park, and then lunch which included an order of some shellfish favored by the locals, Limpets. The other big thing about the Azores is dairy: there were cows kind of wandering around everywhere, and apparently, most of Portugal’s dairy comes from these islands. Great cheese, too.

Basically, as our tour guide put it, the Azores is kind of like what would happen if Hawaii and Ireland had a baby: you have a lot of lush green and steep hills/mountains, but the weather seems more misty and cool. It would be a fantastic place to go for at least a few days to hike and take in more of the views, and as far as I can tell, the place hasn’t really been “discovered” by tourists yet. And it was cheap, too.

Lisbon, Portugal: Stunningly beautiful old town area. And hilly— I think we walked up the equivalent of about 500 flights of stairs. Did some shopping (though I made the mistake of not buying something that I liked when I saw it because I never did see something like it again), saw lots and lots of cool street art/graffiti, had a nice lunch, walked up to São Jorge Castle, walked around some more. Two little memories for me at least: first, I took what I think is at least so far the best picture of my trip, this shot of a guy taking pictures of a young woman posing in front of a cool tile art/mosaic on the street. Second, while in a square overlooking something beautiful, a dude from Senegal tried to force me into buying a selfie stick. I wouldn’t have it with that, but the guy was charming and persistent. So I ended up with a picture of him and we bought a couple of cheap elephant bracelets.

Vigo, Spain: There are two problems with the cruise ship port stops. Some– like in the Azores and in Lisbon– are too short. We could have easily spent a two or three days in both of these places. Some stops, like the one in Vigo, were quite long enough– even though it was only about seven hours. We did do a little shopping and went to a place that had typical Galician-styled sea food (I had the octopus) off of a square where there was a trio playing.

A Courña, Spain: Not a whole lot here either. Apparently, the big destination is kind of near there, the end point of a famous pilgrimage across Spain. But we did have a nice time getting a bit out of the typical “old city” center and over to The Tower of Hercules. It’s a lighthouse that is around 2,000 years old– at least the original site is around 2,000 years old. I’m reminded of a joke I heard a comedian juggler told one time when he held up a hatchet: “This is the hatchet George Washington used to cut down that cherry tree. Only I’ve replaced the handle and the head of the hatchet. But it still takes up the same amount of room as the original hatchet.” Nonetheless, it was a very impressive tower and really lovely park around it with crashing waves and such. Then we had lunch at what turned out to be a sort of “fusion cuisine” place that would have fit right in to some place like New York– though this place had excellent wifi and it was something like 15 euros for a three course prix fixe meal. Service took forever, but we weren’t in a big hurry.

Le Havre, France: Our final port of call (well, before we get off the ship entirely tomorrow) was the port town of Le Havre. It’s the kind of non-tourist towns where I saw local cruise ship terminal workers wearing jackets that said “Le Havre: Gateway to Paris.” That’s because a lot of people– maybe most of the people who got off of the ship on this stop?–take one of the many tours to Paris. Given that Annette and I had been to Paris a few years ago and the trip involved a two or three hour bus ride there, not that much time in Paris itself, and then a two or three hour bus ride back, we passed on that and hung around Le Havre, which was not without its charms. The city was pretty much destroyed in World War II and the downtown part was redesigned and rebuilt by Auguste Perret (and his firm) in the late 1940s and 1950s, and it’s considered to be a particularly good example of post-war modern architecture. We went to a nice (albeit small) art museum, and then visited the very striking St. Joseph’s Church, which looks like a sky scraper or a lighthouse on the outside and sort of like a science fiction set on the inside. We had a nice (albeit large) lunch, walked around some more, got back to the ship.

There you have it.

Tomorrow, we start “part 3,” which is the post-cruise ship part, though it begins with a cruise ship sponsored tour to Stonehenge and then on to the London and then Iceland part of the trip.

Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise, Part 1: At Sea

Loyal stevendkrause readers and/or just friends of mine might recall I went on a cruise back in 2014 where my reaction at the end of it was basically “that was mostly okay, I guess.” So why am I on a Transatlantic cruise now?

Here’s what happened: Annette’s parents regularly take a cruise back from Europe home to Florida in the fall (they go to Germany for a while every year in the late summer) in part because it is cheaper than buying an airplane ticket (though see below on that).  This is because the cruise ship companies do what are known as “respositioning cruises” where they move their ships from one part of the world to another– in this case, from the Caribbean to Europe. How much cheaper are these cruises? Well, back in late October 2016, Annette looked it up and the most inexpensive room on the ship we’re on (double-occupancy in a small, interior [e.g., windowless] room) was about $500 a person for a 15 day cruise. The stateroom we got– which has a big window, a king-sized bed, and room to move around– was more than that, but still not that expensive.

Looking toward door from windowSo Annette asked me then what I thought. “I say we go ahead and book it,” I said, which I think surprised both of us. “Here’s why. If we like this, then it’s something we can do once in a while for the next 20 or 3o years. If we don’t like this, then we’ll have 20 or 30 years to tell the story of that awful trip.”

It’s too early to say which way this story will turn out– maybe a bit of both– but for “part 1,” just the at sea part, I’d say take the plane.

There’s not a lot to say about being at sea. It was kind of boring. We ate, drank, gambled, read, watched stuff on my laptop, took in some cheesy shows, repeat.

Very quickly, we figured out that the average age of passengers on this cruise is at least 65. That makes sense– who has time to take a cruise across the Atlantic in May?– but it is a bit jarring. At this point in my life, I am used to being one of the older people in the room, especially in a classroom. While there are a fair number of people about our age and younger, it often feels a bit like visiting an assisted living facility. Many of my fellow cruisers shuffle by slowly or have canes or walkers or wheelchairs or little scooters.

Speaking of which: I’m not really a fan of the genre, but this could be a great setting for a zombie story. It would start out seemingly normal, but very soon, once people started falling ill, it would be clear that many of the passengers were turning into the undead. A number of ways to twist the plot: first, is that shuffling old man a zombie or just an old man? How to tell? Second, since there are no firearms on board and not a lot of other handy weapons, how would you stop the zombies? Clobber them with a deck chair? Push them overboard?

Yep, the OceanMost of the other passengers– both American and not (a lot of British on this ship, which is not surprising since that’s where we end up)– seem like the kind of people who voted for Trump or Brexit. So other than small-talk, we tend to keep to ourselves. Chatting with the waiters and bartenders is more interesting. Most of them are in their 20s or so and from all over the place– Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, a lot from India and Indonesia. They’re all charming and polite and either have excellent English or are trying to get a better command of English by chatting it up with the guests. I don’t think these folks make a lot of money by American standards (or Western European standards, for that matter), but, as this article argues, it’s kind of relative– plus they get free room and board, which means this is the kind of job where you can bank much of what you earn.

StevewithpineappleSpeaking of what the service crew earns: everything has a large “service fee” or an 18% tip associated with it. So, an $8 glass of wine and a $10 cocktail (and crazy drinks like one put in a pineapple are more than that) really ends up costing a bit over $21. On the one hand, it’s the main source of income for the waiters and what-not, so there’s no reason to be cheap about it. On the other hand, these fees and taxes and tips mean that ridiculously low price for the cheap rooms is a bit of a myth, especially since a week at sea tends to make drinking seem like a good idea.

IMG_7156And then there is the “at sea” part of things. First it was smooth; then it was six foot waves; then nine; then, about halfway across fifteen to twenty foot swells. Everyone was wobbling around and grabbing on to whatever, and there were barf bags posted on the stairwells. The wind on deck made it difficult to walk. I didn’t feel sick or nauseous, though I take some of the seasickness pills they were passing out. Mostly, the rough seas irritated me.

One big thing that definitely turned out to be a good idea was the wifi package. It was $12 or $13 extra a day for each of us, but worth every penny. We’ve been able to keep in touch with Will, follow the news and social media and the like, and we were able to stream stuff on Hulu and Netflix– so we’re all caught up on The Handmaids Tale.

But “part 2,” ports of call, will get a bit more interesting I suspect. We’ve already been to one, the Azores, which was quite beautiful. More on that later.

A less than complete recap/blog post about #cwcon 2016

I was in Rochester, New York last weekend for the annual Computers and Writing Conference at St. John Fisher College. This was not my first rodeo. I think I have about 20 different presentations at probably about 12 different meetings, maybe more. I have a love/hate relationship with the conference. C&W will always have a place in my heart because it was the first conference where I ever presented– back in 1994– and maybe because of that (and also because I’ve always thought of it as the conference that most closely aligns with my research and teaching interests), I have found the whole thing kind of frustrating in recent years.

A better and more complete (albeit more chaotic) way to get a sense of what happened this year is to go to Twitter and search for #cwcon. I tried to make a Storify of all the tweets, but the limit is 1000, so I only was able to get tweets from Sunday and some of Saturday. If I get around to it, maybe I’ll make another Storify or two– unless there’s a better/easier way to capture all those tweets.

Anyway, a recap from my POV:

  • Bill Hart-Davidson and I drove there together. Bill and I have known each other since 1993 (he was on that panel with me at C&W in Columbia, Missouri back in 1994, and he claimed on this trip that Cindy Selfe either chaired our session or was in the audience, I can’t remember which) and we both like to talk a lot, so there and back was pretty much seven straight hours of the Bill and Steve talk show. It’s a good thing no one else was with us.
  • We got there Wednesday late in the afternoon and played a quick nine holes with Nick Carbone before meeting up with a bunch of Ride2CW and conference goers at a lovely place called Tap & Mallet.
  • Bill and I stayed in the dorms at St. John Fisher. Dorms are a staple of #cwcon, but this is the first time I’ve actually stayed in them mainly because ew, dorms. But given that the hotels for the conference were almost 10 miles away and St. John Fisher is small private college, we both opted for the calculated risk that these dorms would be okay. And that risk paid off, too. The only things missing from the room were a television and, oddly, a garbage can.
  • Bill ran a workshop Thursday, so I ended up hanging out with Doug Walls (soon to be faculty at NC State, congrats to him) for a lot of the day and then working on school stuff back in the garbage can-less dorm.
  • Had kind of a weird Friday morning because I woke up for no reason at 5 am or so, went back to sleep thinking that I’d wake up at 8-ish and I ended up sleeping until 10 am. So, with the morning of the first day of presentations thoroughly trashed, I went to the George Eastman Museum instead. Pretty cool, actually.
  • Friday afternoon, I saw some presentations– a good one from Alex Reid, and an interesting/odd session from some folks at East Carolina called “Object-Oriented Research Methods and Methodologies for Open, Participatory Learning” which was not at all what I was expecting. It ended up mostly being about using fortune tellers/cootie catchers as a sort of heuristic for writing research. Showed up a little late for a panel where Bradley Dilger and crew were talking about the Corpus & Repository of Writing project. Interestingly, there were a number of talks/presentations/workshops on methods for capturing and/or mining a lot of “big data” in writing– well, big for our field at least. What I didn’t see much of was what all this mining and corpus-building gets us. Maybe the results will come eventually.
  • Went to the banquet/awards/Grabill keynote. More on the awards thing in a moment, but to kick off the after-eating festivities, there was a tribute video to Cindy and Dickie Selfe who are retiring this year. The set-up for the banquet made watching the video pretty impossible, but it’s on YouTube and it’s definitely worth a watch. Both of them have been such giants in the field, and it really is a lovely send-off/tribute.
  • Jeff Grabill gave a good talk– it’s right here, actually. I think he thought that he was being more confrontational than he actual was, but that’s another story. Alex Reid has a good blog post about this and one of the other key things going this year at the conference, which has to do with what I think I would describe as a sort of question of naming and identity.
  • Speaking of which: my session was on Saturday morning. My presentation was about correspondence schools and how they foreshadow and/or set the groundwork for MOOCs. It was okay, I guess. It was a sort of mash-up version of a part of the first chapter/section of this book I’ve been working on for far too long (which is also one of the reasons why I’m not going to post it here for now) and I think it’s good stuff, but it wasn’t really that dynamic of a presentation. I ended up being paired up with Will Hochman, and his approach was much more of an interactive brainstorming session on trying to come up with a new name for the conference. I don’t know if we “solved” the problem or not, but it was a fun discussion. Lauren Rae Hall and she created a cool little conference name generator based on stuff we talked about.
  • Walls made me skip the lunch keynote to get pizza (twisted my arm, I tell you!) and then I went to the town hall session where Bill was on the panel. Alex Reid blogged a bit about this (and other things) in this post; while I suppose it was interesting, it was another example of a session that is advertised/intended as one where there is going to be a lot of audience discussion and where, after the many people on the panel all said their bits, we were pretty much out of time. And then we drove home.

So it was all good. Well done, St. John Fisher people! Though I can’t end this without beating the drum on three reoccurring themes for me, the hate dislike/grumpy side of me with #cwcon:

First, I think the work at reconsidering the name of the conference is perhaps symptomatic of the state of affairs with the general theme of the conference. “Computers and Writing” is a bit anachronistic since the definition of both “computers” and “writing” have been evolving, but it wouldn’t be the first name of an organization that seems out of date with what it is– the “Big Ten” with its 14 teams immediately comes to mind. So maybe the identity issues about the name of the conference have more to do with the fact that the subject of the conference is no longer a comparatively marginalized sub-discipline within composition and rhetoric.

Take that with a significant grain of salt. I was on a roundtable about the “end” of computers and writing in 2001 and we’re still chugging along. But that video honoring Cindy and Dickie Selfe featured some other senior members in the C&W community remembering the “old days” of the 1980s and even early 90s (really not that long ago, relatively speaking) when anyone in an English department working with a computer was considered a “freak.” Scholarship and teaching about technology and materiality (not to mention “multimodality” which often enough implies computers) might not be at the center of the field, but it’s not on the “lunatic fringes” of it anymore either. That’s good– it means folks like the Selfes were “right”– but it also makes #cwcon a little less “special.” I can go to the CCCCs and see lots of the same kinds of presentations I saw this last weekend, not to mention HASTAC.

Second, I really wish there was a way to hold this conference more regularly some place easy to get to. Rochester wasn’t bad (though still a regional airport), but in recent years, #cwcon has been in Menomonie, Wisconsin; Pullman, Washington; and Frostburg, Maryland. And next year, it’s going to be Findlay, Ohio, which is good for me because that’s only 90 miles away but not exactly easy for anyone planning on not driving there.

And third, there’s still the lack of basic infrastructure. As Bill and I discussed in our 14+ hours of car time, HASTAC specifically and Digital Humanities generally have their own organizational problems, but at least there are web sites and organizations out there. We’re a committee buried in a large subset (CCCCs) of an even larger organization (NCTE), and as far as a web site goes, um, no, not so much. During the many awards, I tweeted that it sure would be nice if there was a page of winners of various things posted somewhere. Someone who will remain nameless said it was all they could do to not tweet back something snarky about “where.”

If I get the time or energy to track that info down, I’ll post it here or somewhere else….

“Up North” Vacation Haikus

We went to Glen Arbor
Stayed in a Homestead condo,
on Sleeping Bear Bay.

The condo (view from the lake)

Empty Beach With Annette

Off-season, we had
the complex and the beach to
ourselves. It was odd.

Cool, mostly sunny,
but so buggy with midges.
That is off-season.

Work station in Glen Arbor
Working outside meant
buggy gnatty midge bugs all
over my laptop.

Midges live two days
mating in grey swarms alight,
flying up my nose.

Sunset

View of Sleeping Bear Bay

Spooky view

Still, it is lovely,
the bay view always shifting,
shining, orange, blue, grey.

Empire Bluff Trail Selfie

We hiked the Bay View
Trail, Empire Bluffs, Cotton-
wood, Leelanau State Park Trails

How long were these hikes?
We don’t know, but none of the
markers were correct.

For example:

The sign said two miles
Three miles in, we discovered
It was more like five.

Amical and Chicken Pot Pie

blu Duck Confit No. 6534

Excellent eating:
Art’s, Amical, La Bécasse,
and, as always, Blu.

But with the condo
kitchen, we ate mostly at
home. Keeping it real.

It was beautiful
just hanging around the house,
watching Netflix, etc.

Annette Puzzles 1
An OCD dream
An Edward Gorey puzzle
with a thousand frogs.

Annette and I worked,
lots of writing and school stuff.
Class planning and more.

Will didn’t have work.
School was over, he was bored,
Played lots of video games.

Piles of work await
Naptime lures like siren song,
Behind but rested.

(Links to the Flickr set, and thanks to Annette for her haiku contributions).

A few thoughts on a side trip to the Clinton Presidential Library

I was in Arkansas this past weekend for a meeting/work session/subject area consulting event that’s part of a program sponsored by the NICERC— it’s a long story, but it’s been an interesting opportunity for me to participate in something that is both actually interdisciplinary (as in like people from radically different fields than mine) and that is very STEM-oriented.

Anyway, after lots of work including a half-day on Sunday and before my flight back home Monday, I went to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. I took a few pictures; a few random thoughts:

Continue reading “A few thoughts on a side trip to the Clinton Presidential Library”

Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips

Last week, I was in Naples and Capri, Italy to attend the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference. My brief talk/presentation/position statement (everyone just gave small talks) was more or less called “A Small View of MOOCs: A Limited Look at the Recent Past and Likely Future of MOOCs at the Edges of Higher Education in the United States,” and that link takes you to a Google Doc version of my talk– the slides and the script I more or less followed. Here are links to my tourism pictures of Naples, Anacapri, and Pompeii on Flickr.

After the break, I go into way more detail than necessary about the conference and the trip. Read on if you’re interested, though a lot of it is really me writing/thinking out loud for myself, which is often the case on my blog, right?

Continue reading “Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips”