Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two takes on e-textbooks (from the Chronicle)

In the Chronicle (behind the subscription wall--sorry) this week are two articles on e-textbooks, and I have a problem with both of them.

The first one explains that teachers in an education course have had their students create a wiki instead of buying a textbook ("Is Higher Education Ready to Switch to Digital Course Materials?"), which may be a great model in education classes. But this made me come to a full stop:
Only 20 years ago, a university's reputation was in large part measured by the quality and extent of its library. Now many students have access at home to more information than even the greatest academic library contains. Not only is more information available, but our tools of access are becoming exponentially better — and those improvements are taking place constantly. Academe has yet to acknowledge how such trends are changing the educational process.

Now, I do believe strongly in the value of student-created materials like wikis, but when it came to this paragraph, the authors lost me. Say what? We don't need libraries now because we have access to "more information than even the greatest academic library contains"? Really? Really?. Again, maybe this is true for what they teach in education classes; I don't know about that and can't say. But to apply this to any kind of MLA field is, to put it politely, a whopper.

The second article is Mark Nelson's "Is Higher Education Ready to Switch to Digital Course Materials? The Cost of Textbooks Is Driving Electronic Solutions."
Each year one of the biggest debates in higher education seems to be: Is this the year that electronic textbooks take off? Many of the barriers are falling. E-reader devices are getting better. The inventory of digital content is expanding. Business models are emerging to support the needs of students, faculty members, and publishers. People are getting more comfortable with new modes of information delivery and the pervasiveness of technology in our lives. Discussions of the future of digital course materials are now more often about "when" than "if." . . . . Among the early adopters of e-textbooks are for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix, where most textbooks are delivered digitally, and all but a small fraction of students use e-books rather than print versions.

Leaving aside the "as the University of Phoenix goes, so goes the nation" idea (it's an online university; it makes sense that its books are delivered in that way, too), Nelson isn't wrong about the basic idea. I've done a little searching for e-textbooks, however, and they have a few drawbacks:
1. They're almost as expensive as the regular versions.
2. You rent them: that is, they expire after a period of time.
3. You can't mark them up easily.

Here's my counterproposal for "business model to fit the needs of students": free.
1. If you teach texts are out of copyright, you create a reading list based on Google books or Gutenberg (if there's a good text there).
2. Everybody brings a netbook or laptop to class and works from that. Better still: maybe a tablet notebook or laptop so that they can mark up .pdf files. If you require this, however, you end up with the problem of money and access to equipment, since not all students will have these. Heck, I don't have a tablet notebook, either.

The drawbacks, however, are the same as those for the e-textbooks.
1. Even if the reading is short and you've formatted it to be as tree-friendly as possible, students will not print it out.
2. Students can't mark up the text.
3. All the internet deficit disorders that we've been talking about for years will distract attention from the class discussion.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Yes, I know all about its dubious and genocidal origins, but even if it isn't called Thanksgiving, isn't it a good thing to have a day in the year that's devoted just to family and friends--not to give gifts, nor to have a religious celebration, but just to being grateful for the people you have in your life?

The turkey goes in early, and since it takes a goodly number of hours to cook, that means a lot of time to go for a long walk in the snowy drizzle outside with whoever's up for the weather.

Then, about two hours before the turkey comes out, it's like an episode of Iron Chef but with fewer flaming saute pans. I make the potatoes, stuffing (not in the turkey so that the vegetarians can eat it), applesauce, stuffed mushrooms, green beans, corn, gravy, and squash, the latter requiring me to go all Wes Craven on a butternut squash and hack away at it with a heavy Chinese cleaver.

As we eat dinner and talk, I'm grateful that just for a little while, we can close the curtains and shut out all the things that CNN and the New York Times harangue us about as often and as long as we read them. Yes, those events are important. But there's nothing to recharge a sense of hope and energy like gathering with the people you most care about, and for that, and for the time and permission that Thanksgiving gives you to do that, I'm grateful.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Open the pod bay doors, Hal. I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave

From the Chronicle: Machines Become Teachers

Computers will become better at teaching than most human professors are once artificial intelligence exceeds the abilities of people, argues Ben Goertzel, director of research at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Palo Alto, Cal., a private organization promoting Mr. Kurzweil's ideas.

These new computer teachers will have more patience than any human lecturer, and they will be able to offer every student individual attention — which sure beats a 500-person lecture course.

Sure, one-on-one human teaching will always exceed a computer-student experience, Mr. Goertzel acknowledges, but what college undergraduate gets a personal tutor these days?

(In answer to the last question: maybe students who go to the Writing Center or Math Center on campus?)

The article has some ideas that don't seem applicable to an MLA discipline (virtual research assistants?) but that may be useful in the sciences. You'll be shocked to learn, too, that the Internet has made research easier and that Google is really, really awesome.

On the other hand, the "computers will replace teachers" argument given here, like a lot of the many, many articles written about this since the early 1980s, relies on the either/or fallacy: either an impersonal 500-person lecture hall or a personal, albeit virtual, tutor. There's no mention of a discussion-based class, no mention of the human interaction that takes a class to unexpected places and makes it memorable.

I think the real question here is what is meant by "teaching." A long time ago, the idea was "computers will replace teachers because we can sit students in front of terminals and make them practice verb tense endings until their eyes bleed." Drill and kill, it was called. That was individual attention, but not in a good way. Does "teaching" mean having the infinite patience to impart a piece of information until the student gets it? That seems to be the model being proposed in the article.

Computers have already transformed the way we teach (no duh), but more for their communications functions than anything else. I think the real transformation will probably be more like a "questing together" model, something like World of Warcraft or some other game seems to be. I don't play it but have read about it, and it seems to me to be closer to what happens in a class than the "patient tutor drilling students" model.

So who's with me for a quest to find Hester's missing A? We'll have to get by Chillingworth first, but if we group together, we can cast some spells, knock him out with his own potions, and make it in time to save Dimmesdale.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A dialogue of self and soul

with apologies to Yeats

Self (editor): "Those paragraphs have to be trimmed. They're upsetting the whole balance of the piece."

Soul (writer, whining): "But those took me hours over the course of 4 days! I etched them on glass with a diamond!"

Self: "Sorry, but they have to go."

Soul: "Do you know what this does to my word count during InaDWriMo, or do you just not care ?"

Self: "Nope--don't care. Write a new paragraph. Get your mind off these."

Soul: "I think I need some chocolate first."

Self: "You ate it all at lunchtime."

Soul: "I really need to do the dishes, and the laundry needs to be folded."

Self: "Sit still and write."

Soul: "You know, the bathtub grout hasn't had a thorough cleaning lately."

Self: "Sit still and write."

Soul: "How about a blog post? That will warm me up for writing."

Self, who has been looking away: "Hey! Get back here!"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What we talk about when we talk about conferences (to undergrads)

Female Science Professor has a great take on what our students think when we're not in the classroom: "Perhaps now there is one less student who thinks that when professors are not teaching, if only for a day or week or two, they must be on vacation or, at the very least, in a state of suspended animation in their professor pod, waiting to be re-activated just in time to put on their professor suit and head to class via the secret professor tunnels."

If I thought of my professors at all as an undergraduate (and I usually didn't), this wouldn't have been too far afield, and I'm assuming things haven't changed that much except that I hope students today are less clueless than I was. I did get a glimpse of this attitude one time when student stopped dead in his tracks as he saw me going into a local fish market: "You shop HERE?" he gasped.

Students have their own lives and their own personal dramas, and I've never thought that they would be terribly interested in ours, nor should they be. Students and professors are in the classroom on shared ground--our interest in literature or writing--and there's never enough time to discuss those, let alone personal lives. (All right, if you want to be cynical about it, we're there for another shared purpose: their need for 3 credits and my need to provide those credits. I prefer the former explanation.)

But if you're absent from a classroom, they do see it as a vacation, or so I've gathered from comments over the years, just as everyone outside academe assumes we spend the summer lying in the hammock with a cold glass of lemonade. So now I do explain what conferences are and why we need to go to them. There's the exchange of knowledge, of course, and learning about new scholarship and all that. Sometimes I tell them what I'm working on, but briefly, since their attention span will run out waaayyy before my enthusiasm about talking about my project will. I figure that the classroom ought to be about the subject matter, the students, and--a distant third--me, in that order, and any time spent talking about my work is time that isn't being spent on the first two parts of that equation.

What arrests their attention when I talk about conferences, however, is the practical side of things. We sit in small, stuffy rooms from 8 until 5 every day, listening to people read papers to us, even when the weather is nice outside. In short, during the span of a conference, we're doing some of what they do every day, except that we take turns in teaching others. It doesn't sound like a vacation, although I tell them that we do enjoy this, but by that time, I'll bet they think the professor pod option sounds mighty fine by comparison.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I must be a shapeshifter

In the perfect storm of uselessness meeting the other day, one of my colleagues called me by the wrong name. Twice.

I had asked our administrative assistant to send me a form, and she did send it to the right address--but addressed me by the wrong name.

I kind of like this new Zelig-like ability to disappear into the woodwork. This means I can skip the next meeting and pretend that I was there all along.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A perfect storm of uselessness

It's a crunch time of the semester. Deadlines are due, and some are overdue. Writing is going slowly, and it can't go anywhere at all on a teaching day. What better time to hold a meeting, then?

Let's say that the meeting is about our favorite fake discipline, underwater basketweaving, and you are responsible for the department of scuba masks. At the meeting--the long, long meeting--all of the information is directed toward underwater basketweaving. You are called on (by the wrong name) and asked one question about scuba masks. The rest of the time, you're inundated with information about underwater basketweaving, none of which you need to know except insofar as you're interested in the subject; it has little bearing on what you need to do, and your part has little bearing on it. Best of all, another meeting about underwater basketweaving is scheduled. It was . . . well, insert the title of the post here.

On the other hand, even though I'm feeling stressed out by deadlines, I love going to class and teaching and talking to my students. Some mornings, after waking up far too early worrying about the writing and what's going to happen with budget cuts, I get into class and it all goes away. So a secret message to my students: even though you're tired and ready for a break--thanks.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Too tired for bullets (no academic content)

Some deadly sins.

Pride: A student came by the other day and stood in the doorway. "What are you teaching next semester?" she asked. "I was just talking with Stu Dent, and we agreed that your class last year was the best class we've ever taken at Northern Clime University." This totally made my day.

Envy: Every time someone like Malcolm Gladwell or some other prolific author publishes another book, I think about the etching-words-with-a-diamond on glass project that is still going slowly and wonder how he does it.

Gluttony: Guittard Milk Chocolate Chips are good straight out of the bag. There's no need to waste them by putting them in cookies.

Sloth: See the etching-with-a-diamond project. This has to be laziness.

Anger: I think I've got that one covered.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Random bullets of gray November

  • Update on the rude people thing: kill them with kindness and professionalism. They will go away and stop bothering you. Excellent!
  • Apparently the "kill them with kindness" school also works with campus-wide committees. I expressed my willingness to meet on days when I'm not usually on campus and have never heard from the scheduler again, not even after I sent a follow-up email.
  • We need a name for a new kind of competition: the ecovirtue-fest. Haven't you heard people doing this lately? Example:
    1. "I don't use harsh dishwasher detergent with phosphates.
    2. "I don't even use the dishwasher."
    3. "I scrub all my dishes by hand with organic plant matter and water I've dragged from the creek, and then I put it on the garden."
    Apply to all other controversies (CF lightbulbs, disposable diapers, television watching and having cable), and you've got yourself a deathmatch.
  • If I wrote everything at the snail's pace at which I'm writing during this month of InDaWriMoInaDWriMo, my next book manuscript would be ready in about 2023. It's about as fast as etching the words on glass with a diamond.
  • When you get a journal acceptance and the readers' reports are complimentary, do you read the reports over three or four times just to savor them? I do the same thing when I get criticism, just to be sure that I understand what's being asked, so why not do so when the report is good?
  • If a friend or someone from the media contacts you with a question that might require a little research, why does that question become immediately and completely more fascinating than anything you're currently writing?
  • I like seeing the full moon, but I would like it not to be the major light in the sky when I leave in the morning and the major light in the sky when I drive home at night. Wasn't there a day in there, somewhere?

[Edited because I am terrible at acronyms.]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day

In remembrance. An illustration from Kipling's story "The Gardener" (1925).

Monday, November 10, 2008


If you use Blogrolling, you know it's undergone a catastrophic FAIL recently. I've been shifting the blogroll to the one on Blogger, but the Blogrolling one just disappeared before I could transfer everyone over. I'll be working on it, but for now, apologies to those who disappeared.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

WWOD? Lessons from Obama

This week's Newsweek is all about the election, and as I read about our new president-elect (it's still exciting to think about this!), I realized that the behavior of Obama on the campaign trail could provide some good lessons to take away, especially about anger management.

Rudeness makes me angry, and I've been angry a lot lately, though for professional reasons that anger hasn't been directed at the people being rude. Nor has it been directed at my family, although they've heard a lot about the situations that are causing the anger (and causing me to *poof* blog posts). The problem is that anger is also a kind of drug. The adrenaline reaction is just there, and you spend far too much time thinking about what you'd say, and "what if X says thus and so," and being sure that you're being fair to the person who has annoyed you, and all that. It interrupts writing time, for sure.

But look at our future 44th president. He doesn't seem to waste time with anger.

  • "Obama's debate coach, Michale Sheehan, a veteran of many campaign psychodramas over the years, was struck by the senator's calmness. The candidate was always in control of his feelings. During one afternoon prep session, Obama begged off. 'I'm a little tired and a little cranky,' he told a roomful of aides. 'I'm going to my room for a half hour and I'll be in better shape to work with'" (104). First lesson: I've been working a little too long and too hard (but not on writing) lately, and I can recognize those signs of fatigue, so maybe, using the WWOD? method, I can chill out and take some time rather than trying to get back to everyone immediately.
  • "In debate prep, Obama's advisers repeatedly instructed him: Do not get personal. Stay calm and in control. . . . 'Command and control: we told him, 'Write it down on your pad when you go in,'" said Joel Benenson, a pollster who was on the debate-prep team" (103). Second lesson: Command and control. Write it down. And implicitly: don't get backed into a corner where you will say something that will haunt you later.
  • "Obama himself floated coolly over the whole flap[Geffen's support for Obama instead of Hillary] , telling a reporter, 'It's not clear to me why I should apologizing for someone else's remarks . . . that doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign'" (47). Lesson three: Focus. Choose your battles. Save your words for where it counts.
  • And there's another example that I can't find right now where something goes wrong and Obama says, in essence, let it go; we have bigger things to worry about. Lesson four: let it go.
  • Finally, there's a scene when Obama gets the nomination and starts joking with Michelle: "Obama . . . let loose his inner nerd. 'The lithium crystals! Beam me up, Scotty!'" (74). Lesson five: Don't let go of the inner nerd and the playfulness that goes with it.
So thanks, President-elect Obama, for the new mantra.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Administrative skills

*poof* Sorry. This one seemed just too grumpy. I guess I am disappointed that Obama can't start right now.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

Both sides of writing

Some days, you get up, you turn off the internet (except for 2 1-hour periods for necessary work emails), and you sit at your desk from 7-3, with a break for lunch. You're working on "it's like pulling teeth" article.

You think a lot. Your brain is working really hard. You alternately think you're really onto something and that you're just spinning your wheels.

Your word count barely moves. You end up with maybe 250 words all day, along with a lot of revisions. (It says something, doesn't it, when your junk file for the piece is as long as the piece itself?)

Then you hear the doorbell ring, and you see the U.S. Mail truck driving past. You check the mail, and you get the copies of a journal that you're in.

You sit down and read the article again, the one that feels as though it was written in the distant past by someone else. You look at your name at the top of the page.

Okay, you think. Article in print was once an "it's like pulling teeth" article itself, and here it is. Maybe I can do this after all.

[Edited to add: Guess what? The news sites and poll sites stayed the same, even if I had the internet off. Turns out I didn't need to check them obsessively after all.

Oh, and one more thing: VOTE.]