Saturday, December 30, 2006

Blogging the "Meet the Bloggers" session

My meeting got out a little early, so I was able to catch the last two papers of the "Meet the Bloggers" session. Since others who were there for the whole thing will surely write about it (as will the bloggers themselves), I'll keep this to a few impressions.

Very Famous Female Blogger (I don't want to out her even by giving her blog pseudonym, but you can figure it out).

  • Connected blogging with her work in 18th-century publishing and the essay, especially The Female Tatler, possibly by a pseudonymous "Mrs. Crackenthorpe," which successfully competed for audience with the mainstream Tatler for a while and was published on alternating days with it.
  • Mentioned Habermas's "enabling fiction of the public sphere" and that we don't realize just how imperfect the public sphere is.
  • Her impressions (based on her blog survey) were that "most pseudonymous bloggers are who they say they are; if they say they are women, they are," etc.
  • Pseudonymity invites risk, but those who choose to publish pseudonymously are willing to take those risks in order to gain something greater (for early women writers, money).
  • Blogging is "a way for people who are marginal to be in the public sphere."
  • Mentioned in the Q & A about threats of "outing" a blogger: it's important to maintain the distinction between persona and writer.

    Michael Berube
  • Praised The Valve's book events: "they rock."
  • "The state of book reviewing in our discipline is terrible" because of the delays in print publication, etc.
  • Discussed two "blogspats," one that occurred when he was accused of leaving a damaging remark on a grad student's blog. Noted that he didn't know it was a grad student & thought the person was "just a guy."
  • Second "blogspat" was "Burqagate," the flap over Ann Althouse's criticism of a blogger "because she had breasts" and Amanda Marcotte's photoshopping of a burqa-clad woman. (Look it up if you want more information.)
  • Discussed the ways in which leftists sometimes denounce even those on their side for not being severe enough in their denunciations (example: denouncing the people who denounced the Democrats who were too lukewarm in their denunciations of torture).
  • Blogspats: "junior high with hyperlinks." Gives us "important lessons about how to go about choosing sides."

    My notes on the rest are too scattered to be of use (which isn't to say that these are of use at all, mind you; the good stuff is in their talks, not here.)

    The room was packed--standing room only, and this at 8:30 a.m. on the last day of the conference, which is not, shall we say, a coveted time slot. (On my way to the session, I saw several rooms with 4-5 brave souls listening to speakers.) And why wouldn't it be packed? The panelists were smart, funny, and interesting, as you'd expect. There were non-pseudonymous bloggers in the audience who talked during the Q & A and, I'm sure, other chickenhearted pseudonymous bloggers like myself, who were there to hear thoughtful talk about blogging--and, probably not incidentally, to see the stars of the blogworld.
  • Thursday, December 28, 2006

    Random Bullets of Conference

    Yes, there was a nice holiday sandwiched in there somewhere (which I might write about some time), but for about 10,000 people right now it's all MLA, all the time here in Philadelphia.

  • The weather is nice, saints be praised. At an MLA in Toronto some years back, the temperatures fell into the minus digits, which made walking between the hotels considerably less than pleasant.
  • I wish I had a camera to take pictures of the Reading Terminal Market, which is right next to the main conference hotel. It's like Pike Place Market in Seattle, an old building converted to small open shops--fish vendors (though no one throws the fish here, at least that I've seen), bakeries, and lunch counters of all sorts. If you go, here's a tip: it supposedly closes at 6, but I observed many very unhappy countermen serving us clueless MLA types at 5:30 p.m.
  • The cliche really is true: the dress code is black, black, and more black.
  • It's nice to see people greeting their friends here. On the other hand, I've never seen so many people ready to give a cool, appraising stare without either smiling or looking away once someone meets their gaze.
  • Due to other commitments, I won't get to see the "Meet the Bloggers" session on Saturday morning with Michael Berube, John Holbo, Scott Eric Kaufman, et al. but hope that others will blog about it. (I feel fairly certain that the panelists will.)
  • Secret message to panelists: When you look up from your paper and start speaking extemporaneously, time does not stand still! The clock keeps right on ticking and cutting into someone else's presentation time. Really. I wouldn't kid you about this.
  • To try to curb Meandering Speaker Syndrome, the MLA has placed timers on all the tables and blinking lights on the podium. Green means that you have 3 minutes left, Red means that your time is up, and the next step is a trap door that opens beneath the speaker's feet and drops him or her into a dungeon. All right, the MLA hasn't perfected that last step yet.
  • Friday, December 22, 2006

    An imaginary history of the MLA convention

    Time: December 26th, some time in the twentieth century. Place: A wood-paneled faculty club, somewhere on the eastern seaboard. Three male faculty members are sipping sherry and smoking pipes. We catch them in mid-conversation.

    Professor A: "I had a devil of a time getting out of the house too, Fred. Why, the children wanted me to play with them again today! What is it with this time of the year?"

    Professor B: "My wife wanted me to stay at home, too--something about a holiday being family time. Don't they know I need to Think Deep Thoughts?"

    Professor C: "And I'm even worse off. My wife hasn't had time to fact-check the citations for my latest article, and she hasn't typed a scrap of manuscript for me since this whole thing began!"*

    Silence. Puffing of pipes and sipping of sherry.

    Professor A: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could get away and talk to each other about something that mattered, like scholarship, instead of being at home with the family?"

    Professor B: "That's a great idea! We could stay away until all the mess was cleaned up and return just in time for New Year's Eve."

    Professor C: "We could meet in New York, or maybe sometimes in Chicago, for those on the West Coast. We're already in the Modern Language Association; how about holding that meeting right after Christmas? We're all free then."

    Professor A: "It would get us out of the house."

    Professor B: "No more messy family time!"

    Professor C: "It's a good thing that no women would be going to this convention. Why, their heads would explode, if they had to get ready for Christmas AND get ready for MLA."**

    All: "A woman at the convention? Hahahahahahaha!"

    And that, dear friends, explains why many of us will be getting up at the crack of dawn to fly to distant cities in about a week.

    Updated from the comments:
    (from Anonymous)

    Sally: Now WTF am I going to do with my kids on Jan 4 when they should be in school and I have to go to the New Improved Women Friendly MLA??


    **********

    *Seriously. I heard a grad director say once that it was good for grad students and faculty members to be married, so their wives could type their papers for them.
    **Seriously. Why do you think I'm writing this at 4:30 a.m.?

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    Technology in teaching

    The Chronicle has an interesting discussion with Henry Jenkins of MIT about using technology in teaching.

    Extracts (with comments):

    1. [Jenkins talks about] blogs as a way of sharing insights and experiences teaching -- as part of the process of mentorship within a department. Most of us spend far too little time talking with our colleagues about our roles as teachers and younger faculty are often starved for advice from senior members of their department but don't know how to ask. If a department created some blog or wiki that allowed for people to trade positive or negative teaching experiences -- everything from dumb things student wrote on tests to innovative ideas about classroom activities -- I think this would create a context for support for pedagogy within departments. Of course, the same can be done through fields.
    Earlier, Jenkins had repeated the usual thing about those scairdy-cat faculty (I'm paraphrasing his idea) who won't use technology because they see themselves as lone operators who don't like to ask for help.

    That aside, a wiki isn't entirely a bad idea, but does anyone think that people will truly open up, under their own names and in writing addressed to their colleagues about bad teaching experiences? How long would it be before students would be checking such a wiki to see Professor Blooper's Greatest Hits? How long would it take for the university to shut down such a forum on the grounds of FERPA and student privacy where quoting from papers is concerned? Also, every forum or discussion list I've ever seen (including the ones at CHE) where teachers relieved stress by posting student bloopers has had a few posters saying something along the lines of "this is not worthy of us as Educators."

    Also, isn't he missing the point? Isn't talking honestly about teaching what a lot of us (anonymous bloggers) do? It seems to me that a version of this community already exists, although he doesn't seem to know it.

    2. [Jenkins on low bandwidth issues]The MIT environment is very rich in bandwidth but every summer I spend time in the woods in the North Georgia mountain on dial up. I am always frustrated by the shift in how long it takes to do even simple operations and how many of the things I do easily in Cambridge are impossible to do in Clayton, Georgia. This is something that researchers in this area have not spent nearly enough time reflecting upon. It is frankly a blind spot in a lot of the research initiatives that involve new media for schools. I think any assignment needs to start from a realistic understanding of what it is going to be hard for students to do and what it is easy for them to do. One has to factor in the realistic constraints students face in designing activities. And one has to also know -- and inform them -- about resources on campus where they might be able to get faster connections or more expanded bandwidth. I am not sure there's any magic formula there.
    I'm glad he mentioned this problem, which has been talked about since, what, 1988 or so when people really started using technology in teaching. Those designing (and those funding) the next new shiny thing that's going to transform teaching technology put it into the report somewhere and it's promptly forgotten when funding time comes around. Even common technologies aren't responsive to this; has anyone tried Blackboard or WebCT on a dialup lately? Apparently we aren't any closer to solving this problem than we were in 1988, but at least it's still mentioned as a problem.
    3. [About teachers who are annoyed with students who use laptops in the classroom]: In some of our Intro to Media Studies classes, professors have asked TAs to do real time blogging during the lecture, throwing out links to web sites which are relevant to the content being covered. This way if students are multitasking, they may be reinforcing what is being taught rather than being pulled in a separate direction. After all, this is a generation that is used to absorbing information from multiple sources at the same time and often learns multimodally -- that is, by taking in the same information through multiple sensory inputs. So build on that.
    First of all, this may be excellent advice--for a lecture. For a discussion class? Not so much. In my experience, when the laptop screen goes up, the urge to participate goes down. I had two students this semester who were good at participation--until they began to bring their laptops to class. Don't get me wrong; they're welcome to bring laptops if they want to. But in a discussion-based class, attention to the screen leads to "discussions" like this:

    "Why might the heroine have said this to the hero, Student?"

    (Looks up from screen): "What?"

    "Why might the heroine have said this to the hero, Student?"

    "Umm. I'm not sure."

    I did take both of them aside and said something like this: "Look, bring the laptop if you want, but you haven't been discussing the works along with the class; this could affect your participation grade."

    Second, haven't recent studies shown that this much-vaunted "multitasking" learning is a crock? Students think they're paying attention to everything, but they're not. Certain law schools, as reported in the CHE, have banned laptops or shut off wireless access in the classroom for this reason.

    Do laptops really "enhance the classroom experience" as Jenkins says they can?

    Friday, December 15, 2006

    Lost weekdays

    After a hard drive crash, even if you're lucky and have backed stuff up, it'll still take a few hours to load back all the software and documents.

    I've spent the last few days doing this, and most of the documents are there. Since Endnote 9 decided to go from having a single file for everything to having the file that you work in plus a data file, however, there's twice as much that can go wrong. Apparently the backup I did saved the file I work in but NOT the data file, without which the other file is useless. I found a backup copy . . . from June.

    So the joys of semester's end: trying to reconstruct a database of 250+ entries for a deadline-driven project, one that includes some notes. Some notes are in Word and thus have been saved; others have not.

    There's a moral in this ("save everything, all the time"), which I thought I'd done with an automatic backup system.

    Just because there's a moral in this, though, doesn't mean that I want to hear it right now.

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    Can't win them all

    Yesterday, as I was collecting the final exams for one of the classes, ArticulateGuy* came up to the desk. "You wanted us to answer three questions on this part but just write one of the essays, right?" he asked.

    ArticulateGuy has completed all the requirements for the course except one, and it's a big one. He hasn't turned in a single paper. Not one.

    Now, as a concerned teacher, I do send a reminder e-mail (a mass e-mail saying "I haven't received X") if I don't get a paper from someone. Just one e-mail: my secret motto is "I'm a mom, but I'm not YOUR mom." However, last week I'd had this exchange with ArticulateGuy.

    "ArticulateGuy, I didn't receive a paper from you this week."

    "I know. I'm a bad student."

    It'd be nice to get to the bottom of THAT statement, but I had another class in 5 minutes, so here's what I said:

    "You're smart, and you have good things to say in class. Get the paper in to me."

    Yesterday, I mentioned it to him again as he was making sure that he'd followed all the directions on the exam. "Look, ArticulateGuy, you can't pass the class if you don't turn in the papers. I'll be turning in grades before Friday, so you have a chance if you can get something in to me. I don't want to nag (ha!), but I just wanted to let you know."

    This breaks my "I'm not your mom" rule, but I couldn't help it. I hate to see them crash and burn like this.

    I'm holding out hope, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for his paper.

    *with apologies to ArticulateDad for stealing part of his pseudonym.

    Saturday, December 09, 2006

    How far we've come

    From a New York Times article on Helen Vendler (free registration required):

    Back in the States, Vendler enrolled in 12 English courses in a single year at Boston University so as to qualify for graduate school at Harvard. In her first week there in 1956, the chairman of the English department told her, “We don’t want any women here.” (Years later, he apologized.) Another professor, the renowned Americanist Perry Miller, considered Vendler his finest student and published one of her course papers, but denied her admission to his Melville seminar. “The men come over in my house and they sit around and drink and we talk. I wouldn’t talk like I wanted to if there was a woman there,” she recalled him explaining.

    Food for thought.

    Friday, December 08, 2006

    Last day

    Ferule and Fescue asks "Do you perorate?" on the last day of class. Well, sort of--but at the wrong time, the beginning of the class.

    In the fiction class, I use the excuse of going over the exam guide for the final as a way to sum up themes, make connections, and say a few things about the works. The conversation that followed was what was most valuable, though. I'd asked them questions along these lines:

    1. What work or works did you enjoy the most? Why?
    2. What work did you think was the most significant? Why?
    3. What work in this period would you like to see replace one of the current offerings (if you'd like to see this)? Why?

    It was an interesting discussion, and the answers to the first question varied widely; most answered Big Famous Novel for the second one, but there were some surprises there, too. We got to talk about the ways in which the works fit together, why I'd included some works instead of some others, the limitations imposed by a 15-week semester (if long novel A is included, it's hard to include long novel B without drastic cuts elsewhere), and so on. Almost as an afterthought, a few months ago I'd included one assignment to find current cultural references on Big Famous Novel and we'd discussed them in class; a student yesterday commented that she'd enjoyed it when we talked more about current cultural parallels with the novels, as we'd done with BFN and another book.

    In the other class, I also did a "this is what the course has taught you" at the beginning before continuing the regular class discussion.

    So, in short: their voices, not mine, were the last things that they heard. There are no Professor Kingsfield applause lines in that way of wrapping up a class, but I'm satisfied.

    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Waiting for the third shoe to drop

  • I've lost my checkbook. (Why do I carry one, anyway, instead of just relying on cards?) I put a "stop payment" on all the remaining checks and have searched my car and all the places it could be as well as called a few places where I've been--no luck.
  • I turned on my one-year-and-one-week-old computer today to see a message that a hard drive was failing. (I thought I just had one, but the Intel RAID controller lists two.) I clicked on the button that said "Advanced information" and saw this: "Status: error occurred." Thanks, I knew that already. How about some information about the error?
  • Let's hope that these things don't go in threes.

    Updated to add this:

    The hard drive is officially toast. At least it let me back up most of my important documents. Most are on my laptop in various forms as well. I picture maniacal laughter at Sony headquarters: "Ha! She thought it would last beyond the warranty period, and it did--a whole week beyond the warranty."

    I took it to the national chain with the tech guys in red shirts, since they'd been had been pretty good in previous computer meltdowns. The tech guys had been turned into real Salesmen since I'd last taken equipment in to be fixed.

    "Here's our basic and intermediate service," the guy in a Santa hat explained, "but for only $259 you can get our special 'Peace of Mind' service."

    "What might that be?"

    "Well, we will back up your data [I'd already explained that I had backed it up to a flash drive and an external hard drive] and will load any two pieces of software that you already own onto your computer, if you drive home and get the disks. So much more convenient, and then you can enjoy your time with friends and family, ma'am."

    "So that's $80 more than the intermediate service just to load two pieces of software onto the computer?"

    "Oh, but we back up your data, too, so you have peace of mind. Just think of all the time you can spend with your family! Most of our customers just love the extra service!"

    Can you guess that I declined?
  • Saturday, December 02, 2006

    You may be a college professor if . . .

  • you are genuinely excited about finding a way to drop quiz grades in an Excel gradesheet.
  • you spend Saturday afternoon grading instead of getting out in the pale light that passes for sunlight before the sun sets at 3:30 p.m.
  • you spend time wondering if Flighty McSpacecadet, a good but erratic student, will actually turn in a project that he owes you.
  • people around you are talking about some "holiday" that happens at this time of year but all you're doing is bracing yourself for finals and MLA.
  • you've bought your sole decoration for said holiday (a wreath) and it's been sitting on your porch for a week waiting for when you have a spare 5 minutes to hang it up.
  • you decide that shoveling off the back deck so that the cats won't get their feet cold is an activity preferable to grading even one more paper.

    Any others?