Saturday, December 31, 2011

Taking stock at year's end

All around the blogosphere, there are fabulous and funny roundups at this year's end. If I take stock the way I do after a class is over, what do I want to see more of or less of in 2012?
1. More acceptance and fewer regrets. By nature I can't make decisions, and when I do, I second-guess myself for literally decades. What if I'd done X or said no to Y? What if I hadn't resigned from Z task? Logic doesn't enter into it, and reflecting on the decisions just leads to pits of regret regardless of the reality that my decision may have been the right one. This year, I said no to more invitations and felt all right about it. That's progress.

2. More recognition of the fact that writing may be easy, but thinking is hard. I'm paraphrasing something profacero once said about writing being easy, because while certain kinds of writing are a real pleasure, others are tough. I'm thinking of some pieces I wrote that were based on archival materials, and the writing of them was just a joy--like writing a narrative--whereas what I've been wrestling with this year are ideas that reconceive some important things in my research area, and in that wrestling match, the ideas got the better of me more than once. I haven't written as much this year, but I've thought my way through some things that should prove fruitful (they'd better!) in 2012.

3. More attention to things I can do something about, and less attention to things I can't. Example of where attention matters: I lost about ten pounds just by paying attention to whether I was really hungry when I ate something. Example of where it doesn't: Watching the contest of political candidates vying for attention by appealing to the lowest common denominator of stupidity in the American public. Paying attention to what people call themselves or profess to be when their actions are what count.

What else? High hopes for more exercise, more writing, more energy, more good spirits-- and wishing the same to everyone else on New Year's Eve!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The holiday was lovely. Family, here and on the phone from distant places. People playing the piano.

Looking out the window at that blue light in the atmosphere that comes just after dusk, when the only thing you can see clearly is the white snow and the shape of the trees.

And cookies. I can usually take them or leave them alone, but there's a kind of Christmas sugar cookies with confectioner's sugar glaze that are basically like crack to me. Fortunately, I ate up the rest and thought about Oscar Wilde's "the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it." Oh, Oscar. If you only knew.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Soothing things

What we want is . . . soothing things. Cookies. Maybe some more cookies. Maybe some tea, quiet music, and sitting by the fire.

Maybe to wander around the books on our shelves, take one down that has nothing to do with projects at hand, and read just for the fun of it.

From Mark Twain (culled from various essays and speeches):
  • "Always obey your parents, when they are present."
  • "Yes, one of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it. There is only one thing certain about it, you are certain there is going to be plenty of weather--a perfectly grand review; but you can never tell which end of the procession is going to move first. . . . The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing. When it strikes a thing, it doesn't leave enough of that thing behind for you to tell whether--well, you'd think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there."
  • "That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse."
  • "If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick."
  • [On the last words of great men.] "Now there was Daniel Webster. Nobody could tell him anything. He was not afraid. He could do something neat when the time came. And how did it turn out? Why, his will had to be fixed over; and then all his relations came, and first one thing and then another interfered, till at last he only had a chance to say 'I still live,' and up he went. Of course, he didn't still live, because he died--and so he might as well have kept his last words to himself as to have gone and made such a failure of it as that."
  • "I have been a correct speller, always; but it is a low accomplishment and not a thing to be vain of. Why should one take pride in spelling a word rightly when he knows he is spelling it wrongly? . . . .Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't."
  • "The fact is, as the poet has said, we are all fools. The difference is simply in the degree. The mercury in some of the fool-thermometers stands at ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, and so on; in some it gets up to seventy-five; in some it soars to ninety-nine. I never examine mine, --take no interest in it."

Do you have more suggestions for soothing things at this time of the year?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Random bullets of preparing for the holidays

  • The nice thing about this time of year is that you can give in to your impulses to do the most soothing activity on earth: baking.
  • I know that administrators and support staff are still in the office, but grades are in (hooray!) and I am not. Do you really think I'm going to work on task force/committee/other service things this week? No? Then why do you keep sending me things? I'm guessing it's the "tennis ball school of time management": you lob it to my desk so it's off your desk.
  • After all these years, I actually associate listening to holiday music with working on papers for MLA. How sick is that?
  • The "buy local" thing is going pretty well, but I would like to give retailers once piece of advice: if you are any store that does not cater to children, playing Alvin and the Chipmunks as holiday music is a surefire way to send adults scurrying for the exits whether they've bought their virtuous local goods or not.
  • About buying local: yes, some things cost more than on Amazon. I just bought fewer things this year. It's not about things.
  • Technology brings us many gifts this time of year, including this one: If you are going to MLA and are not yet anxious about it, just check out anything on Twitter with an MLA hashtag. I guarantee you will start to fret and hyperventilate--or is that just me and is everyone else excited about it?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Automated learning: MITx and online certificates

Update: Dean Dad has some of the same questions about who is going to pay for all this: Http://
According to an article at The Chronicle, "MIT Will Offer Certificates to Outside Students Who Take Its Online Courses." , MIT is going to start offering certificates to--well, the headline tells you about it.

In one way, this is a positive step toward making learning, especially in technical subjects, available to more people, people who couldn't attend/be accepted into/afford MIT. They'll earn the certificates in this way: "They'll watch videos, answer questions, practice exercises, visit online labs, and take quizzes and tests. They'll also connect with others working on the material." As open courses, these could be hugely popular: 94,000 people enrolled in just one course (yes, one course) offered by Stanford last fall. The course will be as rigorous as a regular course, we're told. These are MOOC courses.

As always, the sticking point is assessment: how will the learning in the course be evaluated, and by whom?

Short answer: "It's unclear exactly how the assessment will work."

Longer answer: Technology and teaching assistants will be our saviors.
But how much will outside individuals get to interact with MIT professors? That's unclear.

One way to promote such contact will be software that handles many questions, said Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

"Through voting and other mechanisms, you can create a funnel of requests so that the requests that come off the funnel at the very top can actually be answered by MIT professors and MIT TA's," he said. "A large number of questions at the lower parts of the funnel can actually be answered by other learners who may be slightly ahead."

MIT faculty members have also developed technology that can automatically grade essays. Other technologies that could come into play here include automatic transcription, online tutors, and crowdsourced grading.

This sounds as though it might work in technical fields, where I'm assuming you have some fixed, highly complex content that has to be mastered. I don't have enough content knowledge about those fields to say. It has an advantage in that we're all used to using online forums, responding, and rating good answers highly. It's satisfying to help someone online, and this model would take advantage of that knowledge.

But automated essay grading? Crowdsourced grading and the pointlessness of writing essays at all have already made their way into the conversation. Possibly MIT is thinking of anonymous grading along the lines of "the grading factory" or of outsourcing grading as business school professors are doing. Certainly some science instructors are enthusiastic about programs like SAGrader.

An essay grading program may not have the emotional kick of having a student come up at the end of the semester to thank you for helping her improve her writing, as happened to me and other bloggers recently, but MIT seems to say that the efficiency tradeoff is worth more than the emotional connection.

And if teaching assistants and adjunct tutors are the solution: does the profession really need to find MORE ways to exploit TA's and adjuncts? I'm guessing that only an Einstein in training is going to make it to the top of the question pyramid that MIT describes and that overworked and underpaid temporary faculty are going to do the bulk of it, without ever getting the satisfaction of having seeing individual students improve, unless they have a better memory for 94,000 names than I do.

I'm not saying this isn't the wave of the future; it might be. I'm not saying this can't work; for technical fields, it might. I don't know enough to say.

But if it's the wave of the future, why is MIT so careful to "distance" this "brand" from its own brand of education?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thinking about next time at semester's end

As I'm getting ready to post grades (now all in--yay!), I look at the Excel spreadsheet and it talks to me.
  • Why, oh, why, didn't student X show up more and, you know, make an effort? S/he should have been an A student.
  • Next time, don't be so tenderhearted in marking their first papers.
  • Really, you made that assignment worth THAT much?
  • Next time, arrange the semester so that you're not giving up writing for grading for the last three weeks of it.
And now it's time to get back to writing, which fell off hugely once I stopped doing the 750words thing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't be evil, Amazon, and abandon your scorched-earth policy

You've probably seen this already, but if you haven't, go read Richard Russo's "Amazon's Jungle Logic" at the NYTimes:

In a new low in shopping promotions, Amazon is giving shoppers a discount if they go into a brick-and-mortar store, compare prices on an item using some price-compare app, and then buy the thing on Amazon.

On a world-affairs scale, that may not amount to much evil, but on an everyday-consumer-life scale, that's evil. It's even ratcheting up a notch the ethically dubious practice endorsed by staid old and usually not corrupt Consumer Reports of test-driving a car or checking out consumer electronics at your local dealer and then ordering it online to save money.

Here's a tip: those brick-and-mortar stores don't exist as free showrooms for online businesses, although would like to think they do. If we keep using them that way, pretty soon those free showrooms won't exist, especially in the book world. You won't stumble on books or find a gift by looking around a store filled with books, because there won't be one near you.

I still do buy from, especially when it's some book of lit crit that no indy bookseller would have or when sending a gift that would mean an hour in line at the post office. But I turned the tables on Amazon by printing out the "wish lists" of gift recipients. I plan to head down to the friendly independent bookseller with those lists later this week--and I won't be doing so with any Amazon Judas app in tow.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

To comment or not to comment? That is the question.

I'm grading the last set of papers and am doing this on the iPad for entertainment purposes (mine). I'm wondering what the rest of you do about the following: Do you write comments on their final papers?

Anti-comment reasons:
  • A lot of people say that they don't actually write comments on the final papers since the students won't look at anything except the grades. If the students want to know the reasons, they should come in next semester and ask.
  • Students don't have another possibility to improve in the class, so there's really no point.
  • Students won't see the papers. (While this is true of dead-tree papers, it doesn't apply for electronically uploaded ones, which the students will see via the CMS.)

    Pro-comment reasons:
  • Since I always write the comments, I'm not sure if this is the case, but I'd think that writing comments would forestall email complaints and questions, especially from Very Concerned Students.*
  • There's no way, with the numbers of papers I grade, that I would remember the exact rationale for a particular grade months later, and although my grading standards are consistent enough that I could replicate them in an individual case, I don't want to sit there like a deer in the headlights while going over the paper with the student.

    Your thoughts?

    *Very Concerned Students = those who have told you repeatedly that they intend to, nay, WILL, get an A in the course, whether or not their touchingly high levels of self-esteem match their actual skills and make this a realistic possibility. Such students are hypothetical; I don't have any this semester.
  • Wednesday, December 07, 2011

    The Magic 8-Ball approach to student questions

    "When will you give us back our papers?"

    When they are graded.

    "Will you give them back to us at the next class?"

    Cannot predict now.

    "What did you think of my paper in particular?"

    Ask again later.

    "Will we get them back before the final?"

    All signs point to yes.

    "Can I email you multiple times asking you 'what if?' scenarios about my grade and following up with demands for more calculations on your part?"

    My reply is no.

    "Will you be annoyed if I try to engage you in such an email exchange?"

    Most likely.

    "Can I ask you for an exact accounting of my grade after class when you are trying to get out of the room before the next class?"

    Don't count on it.

    "Am I going to pass this class if I don't make it to the final?"

    Better not tell you now.

    Saturday, December 03, 2011

    End of semester syndrome

    I think I have end of semester syndrome. Now, I am not a doctor, although I play one for 16 weeks each semester, but here are the symptoms:

    • A version of what Ms. Mentor calls October--"exploding head month"--in which although you've been working diligently since August, you realize that you have not accomplished nearly enough, and in your mind that becomes "nothing at all," and your head explodes with the knowledge of what you still have to do.
    • Also causing your head to explode: the realization that a whole bunch of deadlines, including MLA presentations, are zooming toward you at the speed of light.
    • A twinge of envy: assuming that all your colleagues have accomplished far more than you have in the past semester--have written more, have taught more exciting classes, and have generally outpaced you in every way.
    • Happiness that classes will soon be over. No more prep! No more grading! No more writing new assignments! No more figuring out how to teach yet one more brand-new story!
    • Sadness that classes will soon be over. You've worked really hard, and you've been with these students for all these weeks, and you're confident that at least some of them have learned something, and it's now all ending. In some way, you know you will miss the familiar routine of going in to teach them, and you will probably miss seeing some of them, too.
    • A sinking feeling upon realizing that you now have to get ready to do the whole thing all over again in the spring. You have to think about courses you've never taught before, and dream up assignments, and carry everyone along on your back with your enthusiasm until their enthusiasm for the class catches fire, assuming that it does.
    • And did I mention getting ready for the holidays?

    Symptoms may also include soundtracks. Here is the soundtrack that accompanies my particular End of Semester Syndrome; yours may vary:
    Am I the only patient with ESS? What are your symptoms?

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011

    No outrage, no deep thoughts--just writing

    I know it seems all tech tips and web-o-matic writing inspiration (but it does work) around here lately. The thing is, I've been spending time on the Big Project, and to do that, I have to talk to myself.

    Talking to myself is taking the form of a research journal or writing journal in which I argue with myself--"Do you want to put in that part? Why not?"--that sort of thing. I write it out, and then I answer my objections, and then eventually I go away and write. A few bullets of this week:
  • After stuffing one already published piece into this new material I'm writing, I figured out that one chapter really needed to be two. No more stuffing, and a more coherent chapter--or at least I hope so.
  • My own NaNoWriMo this month was to try to get on every day and write something. Sometimes I'd spend all day editing and rewriting, but when evening came, I started itching to get to that clean expanse of the site and type something. If you don't write, you can't edit and make what you wrote better, and even if what came out was repetitious, it worked: the repeated version was usually better and made the editing task easier the next day.
  • Writing this way made me realize again that writing is discovery. If I was writing in the research journal file or at, I kept thinking of things as I wrote. I know--that's an old saw about writing, but it hadn't been working as well lately.
  • The problem with writing is that academics have to read before they can write: we can't spin webs like a spider unless we have the material already packed away somewhere from someone else's words. Unlike creative writers, we're spiders with a backpack of that kind of material, and once the backpack is empty, we have to fill it back up again no matter how much we might want to write.
  • I was so committed to this that I graded all the papers, tests, etc. at the very beginning of Thanksgiving break--I even felt like doing it then--so that I wouldn't have to think about grading or classes for the whole break.

    This isn't the most exciting post, but I didn't want you think this was becoming Pogue's Posts over here.
  • Thursday, November 24, 2011

    Happy Thanksgiving! (and an iMessage tech tip)

    Giving thanks for better weather, family on the way, and a reasonably stress-free day so far. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

    And the tech tip: if you have an iPhone, iPad, etc. and have been trying to use iMessage (free text messaging among Apple products) without success (like thousands of other frustrated users), try adding as a DNS server number.

    To do this:

    1. Go to Settings -> Wi-Fi -> (name of your network) and click on the blue arrow. When the screen showing the details of your network opens up, look at the line that says DNS.

    2. You will see one or more numbers that look like this: 89.87.61 (or whatever). You might have one or more than one sequence of numbers like this.

    3. Add a comma to the last number and type in and exit the screen. Example: 123.333.33, 89.87.61,

    Some sites say to erase the old DNS numbers, but I just added this one ( to the string that was there, and now iMessage works.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    Francis Ford Coppola on writing

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The question I wanted to ask is, actually, if you could talk about your writing process, your habit, sort of what's a daily writing day like for you.

    COPPOLA: Well, the thing about writing is if you really try, if you do it every day, and you put in your time, you get better. I don't know if there's a - I think with acting that's possible, too, but writing is something that if you really plug away at it, you can get better.

    The important thing is: A, choose the time that's good for you. For me, it's early morning because I wake up, and I'm fresh, and I sit in my place. I look out the window, and I have coffee, and no one's gotten up yet or called me or hurt my feelings.


    COPPOLA: It's very important that your feelings are very, sort of, just stable. You know, you don't want to have a heartache when you're trying to go fly on some adventure of writing. At any rate, it's very important for the young writer to, when you finish the six, seven, eight pages, to turn them over and don't look at them again, because I believe there is a hormone that is injected in the blood of the young writer that makes him hate everything he has just written.

    And so just don't read it. And then when you finally have done it over the, you know, 30 days or how many days so that your stack of pages is in the 80s or something, then - and you feel you have it at some completion, then sit down and read it, and you'll find that your reaction will be very different because you will have a little distance.

    And you realize that the first 10 pages that you would have just torn up and rewritten, which is to say never go back. If you don't read it, you're not going back and rewriting anything at first, because you don't know yet. And maybe you're just going to cut those 10 pages out, and they're not even going to be in it. So you would have been rewriting something that's not even in the piece.

    So give yourself that chance to put together the, you know, 80, 90 pages of a draft and then read it very, at a - you know, in a nice little ceremony, where you're comfortable, and you read it and make good notes on it, what you liked, what touched you, what moved you, what's a possible way, and then you go about on a rewrite.

    And I'll rewrite a script a trillion times. So rewriting is just the middle name of writing.

    [Note: Coppola wrote the script for Patton, for which he won an Oscar, when he was 24 years old.]

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    A "keep your chin up" post, comfort food edition

    If you read the news, it's easy to get discouraged. On the national side of things, this means one party trying to "Kill the Poor" and heap benefits on the rich beyond all reason, with some candidates so venal that they make Richard Nixon look good. On the university side, it means the events at Penn State and the police attack on students at U C Davis. Last year was the 40th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State. I hope we're not headed back in that direction.

    So, to keep my chin up, and yours, I'm going to offer you some comfort food: a recipe for cranberry-apple cobbler (or apple brown betty, apple crisp, or apple crumble--name varies regionally).

    1. First, get out your apple corer, if you have one (they are fabulous devices) and peel and core about 5-6 reasonably tart apples: McIntosh, Cortland, Honey Crisp, Wealthy, Northern Spy, or Granny Smith. Use all the same kind of apple, though; the cobbler will taste better. If you use sweeter varieties than these, use some lemon juice put the juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon in the recipe, depending on the sweetness of the apples.

    Cut the cored and sliced apples in quarters so that the slices are small.

    2. Preheat the oven to about 400 degrees and get out a pan, the size you'd use for brownies or a one-layer cake--about 8 x 11." Butter the pan.

    3. Put the apples in the pan along with about a cup of fresh cranberries. Combine 1 c. sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon in a bowl and pour it over the apples and cranberries. Toss this together with the fruit so everything is coated with the cinnamon-sugar mixture.

    4. In another bowl, cut together with a pastry cutter or knives: 1 stick (i.e., 1/2 cup) of butter, 2/3 c. brown sugar, 2/3 c. rolled oats, 1/3 c. flour.

    5. Spread this crumble mixture over the top of the apples and bake for about 35 minutes, until the fruit bubbles along the sides and the top is browned.

    This is good served warm with ice cream and also just by itself.

    There, don't you feel better now? It sure helped me.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011

    Deep silliness at the Chronicle: banning all but ebooks

    Just in time for a little Thanksgiving levity, The Chronicle publishes an article so deeply silly that it'll do your heart good: "In the 21st-Century University, Let's Ban (Paper) Books". The credits line lists some books that the author has written, including one on our old friend the "digital native," but I'm having a hard time believing that he's ever read any.

    First of all, the "digital natives" will have to be "weaned" off physical books, because . . . well, because otherwise how will this guy make any money? they won't be being all modern and 21st century and such. I always thought if technology made life easier, students would use it, because they're rational beings. But if they use physical books because books serve their purposes better? Now, that's just wicked stubborn, and those books have to be taken away, like pacifiers, for their own good.

    Leaving aside the issue of paper versus e-form, what about content? Don't worry:
    Much of what students need to study is already in the public domain and can easily, in instances where it hasn't already been done, be converted to electronic form. Most contemporary works exist electronically, as do a huge number of historical books and documents. This would be an incentive to scan more of them.
    So copyright is no problem? These books are free? "Much" is in the public domain? Well, all right, then! Just point me to the planet where this is true, please.

    What about our books? No worries there, either: "Professors would have a limited time in which to convert their personal libraries to all-digital formats, using student helpers who would also record the professors' marginal notes." I love this--"limited time." What happens then? Does Oskar Werner come in and incinerate the rest after the "limited time"? Has this person ever worked at a university where even getting the TPS reports in on time is a major challenge and subject to faculty complaints? Oh, and who's paying for all these student helpers and scanning? Universities in the grip of, in Roxie's phrase, "Excellence Without Money"?

    Just in case you haven't got the point yet, there's a rousing scolding waiting for you in the conclusion:
    The idea of having one's own personal library of physical books, so useful in earlier times, is no longer worth passing on to our students. ...Academics, researchers, and particularly teachers need to move to the tools of the future. Artifacts belong in museums, not in our institutions of higher learning.
    I could tell you what I'd write on a student paper that used (1) sweeping generalizations, (2) illogical leaps of reasoning, (3) irrational and pointless abuse of a perfectly reasonable technology--paper--as "old" and useless, and (4) a complete lack of evidence for the conclusions, but I guess I'd better get busy scanning my notes while I still can.

    Saturday, November 12, 2011

    Cast a cold eye

    While I admire what Historiann's doing with her roundup of "What's the matter with higher education?" posts in response to Anthony Grafton's piece, I just don't have anything useful to contribute and so will look forward to the posts. Roxie, Notorious Ph.D., Dr. Crazy, and others already have some great posts up in response, and there'll be more.

    My short take would be that it's a resources divide: being starved of money is forcing public and private universities to face compromising either their educational mission or their existence as an institution. It's a mirroring of the gap between the 99% and the 1% all over again. I'm especially struck by this:
    Americans, as Malcolm Harris recently pointed out, now owe almost a trillion dollars in student loans, more than they owe in credit card debt. Student debt, he explained, “is an exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits.” The burden is distributed by the reverse of the Matthew principle: to him who hath not, no one gives anything.
    . As one student with $200,000 in student debt put it in the New York Times not long ago, it's like graduating with a house on your back, but a house that you can't live in. If you marry, you saddle the person you love with this debt. You put your life on hold to pay it back, which may be never on the wages you can earn. There's something profoundly wrong with this system.

    So. In other news, and to push down the previous post, today's the day I cast a cold eye on all I've written so far on the big project to see where everything is going, if it is indeed going at all. When I started this post, that's what I thought I was casting the cold eye on, but now I see it's not the only thing that needs scrutiny.

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    Short link post on Penn State news

    Update 11.22.11:Huffington Post today reports that the mother of Victim 1 (see story below) was dissuaded from reporting by

    The principal of the school, Karen Probst, a woman.
    The school counselor, also a woman.

    Mother 1 wanted to call the police immediately, and that's when she was given the "Mr. Heart of Gold" speech. By the principal. And the counselor. Two women.

    It's not about gender here. Protecting power is about protecting power.

    I am horrified, like everyone else, about the sexual abuse news from Penn State. And can we PLEASE stop calling it a "sex scandal"? "Scandal" implies some sort of delicious gossip about celebrities; this is just horrifying. And "sex" implies consent. This was not "sex" with consent but the rape of children. Go read these powerful posts right now:
    One message is pretty clear, and it's an old message: Power consolidates and protects itself, even at the risk of missing a heinous crime; and those who want to challenge that culture are dissuaded from doing so, sometimes forcefully and sometimes by a more subtle degree of intimidation. Buried deep in one article about the courageous boy and his mother who came forward is this:
    Increasingly worried about the boy's behavior, including his reaction to the phone calls from Sandusky, Gillum said the victim's mother asked school officials to help identify the problem. Gillum said the boy eventually told a school official that "there was an issue" with Sandusky, although the boy declined to elaborate.Gillum said a school official relayed the information to the boy's mother in a meeting.

    The official, who Gillum declined to identify, then reminded the mother of Sandusky's solid reputation in the community. The psychologist said the official characterized Sandusky as having "a heart of gold."

    The mother told the psychologist that the official advised her to think about the situation for a few days before taking any action.

    "She was angry," Gillum said. "She was upset about that and felt that she was being dissuaded" from taking action. The mother did not respond to a request for an interview.
    She felt she was being dissuaded because she was being dissuaded. The message there was clear: "He has power; you have none. He is important; you and your son are not. Are you sure that you want to bring down the @#$%^storm of misery that reporting is going to bring with it? Because, trust me, it's going to hurt you more than it's going to hurt Mr. Heart of Gold."
    It's all part of the culture of silence that allows predators to continue their activities.

    Saturday, November 05, 2011

    Grading Papers on the iPad Redux

    (Go here for the original post.)

    Here's an update, part experiential and part technical. The technical part is here because I hate it when people rhapsodize about doing something on the iPad that you know from experience is tricky to do and then don't tell you how it's done.

    The experience: grading on the iPad now doesn't take longer (or much longer), and it's fun. [Update: It now doesn't take any longer, although it would if I were including long explanations of errors as is possible with autotext.]

    Experience update

    1. I invested in a wireless keyboard, which makes the whole typing on the iPad thing much easier and with many fewer typos.
    2. I like reading the papers on the iPad. It seems to be easier to get a sense of the big picture of the paper, since the .pdf conversion usually changes double space to single space.
    3. I didn't time the papers this time, as I did before, but the cumbersome features that made the process longer last March have largely been eliminated.

    1. There's still no Autotext feature. That means that students have to rely on their handbooks or other aids to look up what may be wrong with a sentence, since I am certainly not going to type out 5 sentences on what a comma splice is every time they write one. On the other hand, we've already talked about these things in class and this isn't their first paper, so perhaps it won't be a problem.
    2. There's still a few more transfer/downloading/renaming steps than if I were using Word.


    Importing the papers

    First of all, it's not necessary to change the papers (which are usually in Word or some variation) to .pdf using a third-party program. iAnnotate will do that if you open them correctly.

    Do NOT try to open them directly in iAnnotate unless they're already in .pdf format; they won't show up.

    1. Open Dropbox. Go to the folder where you've stored the student papers.
    2. Touch (click on) the paper to open it. It'll show up in the Dropbox window, but tell it to "Open in" iAnnotate. Click on the box with the arrow in the upper right-hand corner to do this. You may have to scroll down to see iAnnotate as an option when the menu for this box opens up.
    3. iAnnotate will convert the file to .pdf and then open it.

    Marking Up the Papers

    Second, write your comments using iAnnotate's commenting features. I don't draw freehand lines and circles, since it's slower for me than just inserting comments, but it's possible to do that.

    Update: In addition to using the commenting features, I now mark directly on the .pdf with a stylus. I don't do much with the stylus--circle a few words, add a "good point" in the margins--but the paper looks a little more as though it has been touched with human hands if there's handwriting on it. It's also a more immediate and "natural" way to respond it you're used to writing on paper.

    1. To insert a comment, tap on the pencil icon at the side of the screen and tap on Note. You'll then have two choices: Note and Typewriter. Choose Note.
    2. Type your comments in the Note space just as you would do with the Word comment feature. [Thanks to Stacey for bringing that up.] It works exactly the same.
    3. Click on the minus sign to close the note when you're finished typing.
    4. I used to use Typewriter for a final comment, but it shows up as a big black oblong with no text in some readers (like Adobe Acrobat). The Notes, on the other hand, seem to show up fine in Adobe, which is probably what most students have installed.

    The Notes will show up in most desktop readers (including Adobe and Preview for Mac) and in iAnnotate but not in Goodreader, NoteTaker, CloudReaders, and other readers for the iPad. You can also "flatten" the annotations so that they'll be more readable. If you "flatten" the annotations, they will show up as a numbered list of comments at the bottom of the page instead of a pop-up message that shows up when students mouse over the comment.

    Return the papers

    Third, either re-upload the paper to Dropbox or email it to the student. You can email it by clicking on the box, which is on the left side.

    But what if you want to re-upload it to Dropbox so that you can later upload the papers to a CMS? This is not an intuitive move in iAnnotate.
    • File cabinet icon? No.
    • Upload arrow? No. It will tell you that the file has been uploaded to Dropbox, but the file doesn't upload.
    You would never guess this one (or at least I couldn't after many attempts), but here's what I found from drilling down on the iAnnotate support site:

    1. Click on the file folder-like tab at the top of the document (the Document Context Menu).
    2. Click on Share.
    3. Click on Upload.
    4. Now you'll see your Dropbox account. Click on it and your file will upload.
    5. Note: It will probably upload to the iAnnotate folder rather than to the folder from which you downloaded it.

    You'll still be stuck with the same filename, since the Gods of Apple Products have an insane prejudice against a Save As feature, but at least you'll have them all where you can rename them and upload them to your CMS or whatever.

    Wednesday, November 02, 2011

    Questions that don't need an answer

    • "Hey, Professor Lastname, can I write my paper on this very specific topic using two books that are not only not in our course but not from the same century or country as the literature we're studying?"
    • Do you think that this student just might have an already-written paper from another course that ze wants to turn in for this assignment?
    • "I don't have your papers to turn back to you today; I haven't graded them." Student: "Yes, but have you had a chance to look at mine?"

    Saturday, October 29, 2011

    The banking model of course prep: in person and online

    One of my courses is new this semester, so despite all the advice that people have been getting (see Profacero's post, for example, or the comments in the Another Damned Notorious Writing Group threads) about not spending any time on course prep but saving time for writing, unless you want to go into a classroom with egg on your face, you have to do something.

    This is the reason for spending a writing day the other day dreaming up assignments and exercises for this and the other courses. The downside: losing a day of writing. The upside: now these things are done, and I don't plan to revisit them. If you've taught for years, you know what works and what doesn't, and if you make a mistake and write a bad part of an assignment, you adjust your expectations and fix it the next time.

    What keeps me going, though, is the back-of-the-mind metaphor that now that I've done this course once, I never have to do it again. It's in the bank, so to speak. Realistically, a course is never really done; you think of what could be done differently or better the next time you teach it. Still, you don't have to invent every single thing from scratch, the way you do with a new course, and it's unlikely that you'll need to (although I would) share materials with others who teach the course in later semesters. It becomes your course, and you are identified with it--for this moment, anyway--whether it succeeds or it doesn't.

    In an online course, you're still working with a banking model, but the push from higher-ups is different. In effect, if the course has been taught by someone else before, there's a strong pressure for you not to change anything--assignments, readings, syllabus--and to use what has been done before. Instead of making deposits, you're supposed to withdraw from the account that someone else has established.

    Now, in theory, this would be a huge timesaver, since you don't have to put all that time into creating new assignments and could spend it on writing. But if you are stubbornly perverse about teaching your own material, as I am, and if you see ways to improve the course, as I did, you ignore the pressure and design the course the way you want it. The difference is that this time, you're banking the course not on your own computer but on the university's server, and if you don't keep extra copies of the materials on your own computer, all your work could be lost if everyone else doesn't want to teach your course the way you designed it (and why should they?). You've banked it, but you don't own it. If it stays, it's not really associated with you as a teacher, and it can disappear.

    We don't really "own" courses, of course, and all that banking imagery just makes the loss of time for other work easier to justify. It's just a different feeling. In one, I'm putting aside material that I can draw on later, and it has my name on it. In the other, I'm developing material anonymously for a collective pool of materials. Both have their advantages, but I'm struck by how different they seem.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    The no-laptops-in-class experiment, a midterm report

    Like a lot of teachers, for years I've had some students whose faces I've never seen although I stand in front of them (or, during group work, beside them) several times a week for 16 weeks. Why? Because their faces are buried behind a laptop screen, and if I call on them unexpectedly--and it's always unexpectedly, because they rarely seem aware of what's going on in class and never raise their hands--the shocked look they give is so universal that it doesn't give me a sense of their personalities.

    This semester, emboldened by all the "laptops are a distraction" editorials by faculty AND students that Margaret Soltan keeps posting, I banned them (along with cell phones, etc.). Just did it. Put it in the syllabus and everything, along with the requisite proviso about exceptions.

    One big general exception is that if there's scheduled group work, everyone can bring a laptop (or cell phone, or whatever) and use it to look things up, and everyone seems to do this who wants to. If they don't have a laptop, they can use mine up at the front of the room to look things up.

    So far, so good. Some impressions:
    • Class participation seems to be better in all the classes. At the very least there aren't 3-5 people permanently checked out of class, as there used to be when laptops were allowed.
    • It cuts down considerably on the Laptop Two-Step of calling on someone:
    "Stu Dent, what did this quotation mean?"
    (Startled Stu Dent) "What?"
    "What did this quotation mean?"
    "What quotation? What page are we on?" and so on.
    • I can catch their eyes before I call on them by name, so they can get ready and not embarrass themselves by seeming clueless.
    • Even if they zone out, they come back more quickly than they used to with laptops.
    • If they're doodling or taking notes, it's a lot easier for them to break away from doing that and look up to answer a question.
    • Of course, they could kill me on evaluations for not allowing their digital native selves to flourish in a wireless and connected environment, but I'm more interested in what they're learning, which seems to be (as gauged anecdatally by discussion and quizzes) more than in previous iterations of the class.
    Yes, I could have done all that "incorporating Twitter" and being constantly fact-checked by students that a lot of edutech people advocate, but that might be better for large lecture classes. If it's a discussion, I want students to discuss. Is that unreasonable?

    The thing is, I know it's hard to break away from a computer screen. It's hard for me, and, to judge by the people I see shopping at Zappos, checking email, and looking up the speaker's quotations on Wikipedia during conference presentations at MLA, it's hard for other people, too. I figure that for three hours a week in class, we can all look at each other and talk about literature without a digital intermediary. It's not too much to ask.

    Sunday, October 23, 2011

    Facebook and scholarly communities: a minor rant

    I am on Facebook. On Twitter. On Google Plus. I know I'm in a minority on this, but I hate having to check them for work-related things. There are two reasons for this, one personal and one ideological.

    The personal one is that when people post calls for papers and invitations for professional events, those places end up being just one more X#$%& place that I have to go to in case there's an announcement. It's not enough to check your email and the official site and the CFP at U Penn and Google Reader and any random blogs that the organization might be running. Oh, no. Now you have to click on the cheery "Follow us on Twitter! Like our page on Facebook!" links. If you find Facebook not only a distraction but kind of depressing (I know, this isn't a universal reaction), you just might be the kind of person who doesn't want to be forced to go there to get professional news.

    The more important reason is ideological, and it's a two-parter.
    • First, who has time to keep track of all this? When do all those posters have time to write anything of substance?
    • Second, I'm uneasy about how much this gets into "closed web" territory. Right now, most things are announced in multiple venues, so even if you are a Facebook grump and don't log in much, you will still get the message. (I leave Twitter out of this because in looking at my Twitter stream, I realize that if you're not posting 4-6 times a day at a minimum and linking to "must-read" articles in each tweet, you're not really "on" Twitter.) But sooner or later, people are going to get tired of posting everything to 6-7 venues just to be sure that everyone gets it. They're going to post to the place where the people are, and that will be Facebook and Twitter. And if you're not on there, or, more important, following/liking/friends with the right individuals on there, you won't get the message. And that ought to be giving us pause, even if we're fans of social media.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    Books as benevolent zombies

    If you follow the links from More or Less Bunk's question "How do you skim an e-book" (my answer: you can't, and I own a bunch of them), you'll find a whole lot of articles on libraries getting rid of books. This is not a new event, of course, but it was a little chilling to read (at The Chronicle) that "It is no longer appropriate to treat most print resources as protected objects, or the college library as a museum for books," in part because the sight of too many books just frightens our little chicken-hearted students to death by being too "daunting." Books are not just dead but scary. They're zombies.

    Huh? Are we talking about the same students who thrive on vampire, zombie, and torture porn movies and bloody video games? They're daunted by a stack of books? Seriously? And if they're "daunted," isn't it our job to show them how to get over it?

    In my classroom, we're doing more library work than ever before, and the students seem to be really engaged by it. Maybe I'm fortunate that Northern Clime's librarians enjoy showing the library to students. By "showing" I don't mean forcing students to sit passively in a room watching as a librarian conducts Boolean searches and drones on for an hour that seems like a year. No, I mean getting them into the stacks to look at and leaf through the books. Some librarians like to say that e-books are the future, but really, bound books are the great undead, springing back to life in the hands of readers.

    Let's take some zombie-age books as an example. Librarians like the one at the Chronicle say that books after 1850 aren't rare (although some seem to be doing their level best to make them so), and some say that Google Books makes getting these books less of a problem.

    Well, let's see. This week I needed to read a reasonably obscure novel from 1870. Yep, Google books had it, or part of it: only every other page had been scanned. Descending into the entombed depths of the library, I found a copy of the original novel, from 1870, along with a number of other first editions on the shelves by this author. If this library were following the "books scare students" model of dubious library best practices, these would've been gone a long time ago. Instead, they were right there, waiting for someone to bring them back to life.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Do digital natives crave digital books?

    We all know the drill: our students love their computers, what with being digital natives and all, so we need to invest heavily in ebooks. Over at IHE, Barbara Fister bravely looks at this particular flavor of heavily-promoted Kool-Aid and discovers something a little different:
    This is fresh in my mind because I just attended an interesting day-long virtual conference on ebooks in libraries. In fact, I was a panelist for a session on marketing ebooks to students in academic libraries. Sadly, what I had to say probably wasn’t what the audience came for. Our students aren’t interested in ebooks . . . . I don’t know what students make of all this, but one thing that Project Information Literacy discovered in their latest study is that students are not as excited about gadgetry and electronic sources as we tend to assume. When project teams interviewed 560 undergraduates studying in libraries at ten institutions, they found students were keeping it simple. Most of them had only one or two electronic devices with them: a phone and a laptop. Most of them were focused on getting an assignment done or were studying for a class. Most of them had only a couple of webpages open in a browser, and they weren’t the same websites; they were browsing all over the place. (emphasis added)
    This reminds me of the big push to use Facebook in classes a few years back. The thinking was that since students live in Facebookland, they would love love love to have their teachers in there friending them and pushing class-related posts at them in their out-of-class spare time. From articles I've read, students were not exactly thrilled about this togetherness concept dreamed up by dewy-eyed teachers. They understood that a social space was a social space and a learning space was a learning space, and they were okay with having boundaries between the two.

    The connection I'm seeing is this: students may live in computerland, as we do, and they certainly communicate with us in that way, but that doesn't mean that they use computers as we do nor should they necessarily want or need to.

    We can lead these horses to water, but we ought to stop trying to make them drink--that is, turn them into mini versions of us. Instead of force-feeding them our notions of what they should want based on starry-eyed notions of what "digital natives" do, why don't we pay attention to what they actually want? Sure, we need to expand their horizons beyond enotes and Wikipedia, but we can do that in ways that meet them halfway.

    Actually--and this is another heretical thought--I'm starting to wonder if the students use the physical library more than we do. A little anecdata: I was at our library today, as I am most weeks, and it was full of students studying in groups. Once again I was the only faculty-age person there except for a librarian here and there. I know--this proves nothing. Still, I wonder if the atmosphere of the books has at least something to do with it.

    Friday, October 07, 2011

    Ever hear of MOOC?

    MOOC? It means "Massive Open Online Course," and I read about it in the comments over at the Chronicle--because I don't have time to sit through a long fanboy podcast when I'm supposed to be working, although apparently writing a blog post is just fine, time-wise.

    To say, as the Chronicle diplomatically does, that MOOC courses "poses challenges to traditional education models" is putting it mildly. I clicked through to the courses linked in the article and comments and learned this:
    • MOOC courses are offered to up to 10,000 students at a time.
    • You can learn something, or not, and participate, or not, and do the readings, or not. (Okay, so this the way some students approach a traditional course.)
    • You don't get credit for the course, as far as I can tell. I've looked extensively at the materials for several sites and couldn't find a mention of it. I don't think it costs anything to take a MOOC course, but again, I couldn't find out from the sites.
    • The content for these courses seems to be people talking about social media or education through social media, so in a way, the course is more or less a performance of the subject matter.
    • People who are experts in the content area come in and curate parts or lead discussions of their content area, so you have social media people talking to people who are accessing the course using social media. Students end up practicing what they are talking about.
    • I can't judge the subject matter, since I never took an education course, but it is a very different content base from what we're dealing with in literature, history, psychology, or traditional disciplines in the sciences. The Mother of all MOOCs has modules on "collective learning," "connecting our learning," "learning in times of abundance," "triangulating our learning," and so on.
    Here are my questions:
    • I learn a lot from the experts when I go on a site like every so often. I don't get credit for going there, but there are many people contributing to a knowledge base. Do discussion forums on specific topics count as a MOOC, or does the subject matter have to be education?
    • How would this work for a subject in which there is specific, rigorous content on which students need to be evaluated?
    • How would students respond if you tell them, "Hey, kids, here's a swell course for you to take. You'll learn as much as you want to learn and spend a lot of time doing it, but you won't get any college credit for it"?
    • According to trusty Wikipedia, the principles of MOOC are to (1) gather information; (2) remix content; (3) repurpose the content; and (4) feed it forward. This is presented as revolutionary, but how is this different from what we have students do in class every single day?
    • I'm reminded of the "reinventing the educratic wheel" post at Historiann's where some university thinks it has invented something new in promoting class discussion and group work instead of the dusty old lectures that it thinks rule college courses and that, like the "Paul is dead" legend, get dragged out every month or so as a dead horse to beat.
    • See also "The University of Wherever" at the NYTimes, linked from More or Less Bunk.
    I think what we're really talking about is the issue of credentialing for learning, and MOOC opens up a lot of opportunities and excitement in subjects where credit is not necessary. Do we need to have a credit-based system for certifying that students learn a particular thing? In civil engineering, maybe yes, because otherwise bridges will fall down. I want to fly in an airplane with a pilot who has been tested and has the proper credentials, not someone who drops in to participate in (or maybe not) flight training online with 10,000 other people.

    On the other hand, for learning about how social media works in education, maybe yes and maybe no. Maybe the learning and application is in itself the important part and the credentials aren't needed, although if that's so, why are experts named for each module?

    Steve Jobs

    I heard about Steve Jobs's death on all academics' primary information source, NPR, as I was driving home, and, like everyone else was saddened by it. (See the tribute at Roxie's World.)

    This won't be news to any of you, of course, but he did fundamentally change the way we communicate with each other. I'm thinking not just of the consumer electronics Apple pioneered under his watch but also of the difference he made in teaching. Back in the olden days, teaching with computers meant standing in a computer lab and teaching rows of students sitting at dumb terminals as they stared at a blinking amber cursor on a monochrome screen and tried to figure out what Function and Control keys were. Today, we teach students whom only draconian measures can separate from their iPhones and computers for the length of a literature class. I'm thinking of all the things we used to have to teach students about technology (FTP! Floppy disks! C:\ prompt! Save your file!) that are now either obsolete thanks to Steve Jobs or handled in an elegant, intuitive way.

    As his Stanford commencement speech shows, he was an idealist as well as a perfectionist, and he was passionate about his work and encouraged others to be so as well. I never knew the man, of course, except through his products and the press coverage that erupted every time he walked out his front door, but he will be missed.

    [See also the posts by Historiann and Tenured Radical, both of whom make good and less rose-colored points than I do. Oh, and let us not forget The Onion, via Dr. Koshary.]

    Wednesday, October 05, 2011

    A writing post at the Chronicle

    Rachel Toor looked into my brain, I swear, to write "What Looks Like Productivity" over at The Chronicle. A sample:
    We keep busy. There are conferences at which to give papers, articles to be crafted from those papers, chapters to be contributed to someone else's book. When you're faced with a project that seems overwhelming, like writing a book, those discrete tasks can look appealing. How long, you ask yourself, could it take to write a paper? An article won't take long, right? And then your procrastination projects are subject to the same delays as the thing you're avoiding.
    She did inspire me--that, and the lesson from doing the exciting writing the other night. I realized that what I'd been doing was editing and more editing on a section I've already worked on for too long, with a mounting dread about writing about--well, let's say I am an authority on birdwhistles and have written a lot about them over the past couple of years. The section I was working on demanded that I go back and say something fresh about them, and I was dreading it.

    I decided to let that part go for now and have moved on to dinosaur vocalizations, and, with the aid of my Tomato Master and my Wordmaster, I'm excited about writing again. One's the personal trainer and the other the Stairmaster of my writing right now. They're telling me time's up, so I have to get back to work, and what a refreshing phrase that turns out to be when you're excited about what you're doing.

    Monday, October 03, 2011

    Renegade writing

    I've been reading Clio Bluestocking's posts on writing with mingled envy and excitement about the process--envy (in a good way) because she's writing so much and excitement because the other day, for the first time in a long time, I worked on a piece of writing that was interesting and exciting to me.

    Mostly what I've been doing is editing and writing stuff for others: editing my own work, responding to others' work, and doing service work that I'm committed to doing. What it reminded me of was this: you can, and I did, spend 16 hours on something (a report, say), and no one will notice it or say anything about it, unless it doesn't get done. You can spend 5 hours responding to something (and I did), and what you'll hear by return email is, "Fine. Now how about this other task?"

    If it's what you signed up to do, you put in the hours, and you mark them on Google Calendar so you can see the real number of hours that it takes. You vow to remember this when someone contacts you about another piece of work that's a distraction, the kind of thing you deludedly think won't take much time but always does, and you vow not to commit to this kind of work until you're willing to put in the hours it really takes. I've already turned down 2 such tasks this week.

    No wonder working on that piece of writing felt like such a guilty pleasure. Reading things I hadn't read before as well as some I had, making connections, putting it together and writing the words on paper, staying up well into the night when it was just me and the ideas and the cool night air coming in through the window--I had forgotten how that felt, writing about something that I cared about and that I wasn't responsible to anyone else for writing.

    I'm going to hold that feeling in mind as I turn to grading and, yes, more duty-writing.

    Friday, September 30, 2011


    • For the first time in many years, there are actually jobs in my field. I don't want to move, and I probably won't apply, but a lot of them seem to read like this "Wanted: Undine Specialty 1 with possible subfield in Undine Specialties 2 and 3." It's tempting.
    • Some day, I am going to stand up in a faculty meeting and say, "This is not a karaoke bar. You cannot just stand up and hold forth to no particular purpose with all of us as your captive audience. If you're going to do that, at least buy us a round."
    • A few months ago, I was talking with someone (let's call hir Fatuous Fool) in Undine Specialty 2 who'd been in the field for, oh, 20 minutes or so, and FF said, "Of course X isn't really a Specialty 2 project at all." "Really? Why?" I asked. "How would you define Specialty 2?" "Um, er, um," replied FF, after which I dropped it. I wish now that I had pursued it a little further and been a little less gracious, because really, who made FF the deity of Specialty 2? Well, maybe taking the high road was all for the best.
    • I am tempted to rant further about reinventing the educratic wheel--"No more dreary lectures with our new ed-u-matic professor software!"--but fortunately Historiann has done it for me.

    Saturday, September 24, 2011

    Touching books

    In one of my classes this semester, the students (some of them) seem happier to watch and listen than to speak up and participate. It's as though all those crazy antics I'm performing at the front of the class--you know, asking questions--are less real to them than the PowerPoints I use to show pictures and key terms when I lecture. We've done groups, presentations, reading aloud, and lots of other things. I think they're coming around.

    The other day, I was introducing an author, and I had them come up to the front of the class. It's not small class, but they all gathered around.

    "You know, when you read from our anthology, it's easy to lose sight of the context," I began. "I'll bet you think that Famous Author lives in this anthology."

    She's clearly lost it this time, their eyes said. How could an author live in a book?

    Then I pulled out some books and some copies of the magazines in which FA had published. They passed them around and I talked about the kinds of places where FA had published, how authors usually published with the same publishing house over a period of time, and all that. I asked them to look at the jokes and drawings and what they noticed about the magazines.

    They seemed interested and stayed that way even when we moved on to the next part of the class. How could you be indifferent to an author when you've held the actual publication in which FA published all those decades ago? At the very least, they don't think that FA lives in an anthology any more, and they have a pretty good sense of the kind of literary house in which s/he does live.

    Saturday, September 17, 2011

    Writers' little helpers

    Some technological, some not.

    First the not-technological:
    • First of all, the Another Damned Notorious Writing Group. It really did help to feel as though I needed to accomplish something and check in on Friday.
    • Also, the ADNWG inspires bloggers to write about writing, as posts by its cofounders and also Sisyphus, Dr. Crazy, Dr. Virago, Dame Eleanor, and all the comments on the ADNWG posts attest.
    • Opposite day. I think I've posted before that my natural time to write is in the evening, by which I mean that I have better concentration and interest then, and I can write more in 2 hours in the evening than in 4 hours during the day. Given every piece of advice on writing ever published, I've been trying very hard to do the "get up in the morning and write" thing, but yesterday I just gave up, did fun class-prep work all day, cruised around on the internet a little, and in the evening finally made the suckitude meter budge in the right direction on this get-it-out-the-door article that I have to finish. I wrote a bunch and can now see the end in sight.
    The technological ones:
    • Pomodoro. I finally broke down and bought Pomodoro instead of using my regular timer. Somehow, having its alien voice tell me to get started has helped, as has the game-type quality of having it enter the time spent automatically on my calendar.
    • Google Calendar. It truly did make a difference when I actually wrote in "Write" as an appointment on writing days. It's all a Jedi mind trick, like the timers, but really, what isn't?
    • 750words. It doesn't work for the kinds of editing and rewriting I was doing yesterday, but for generating text that you can then cut into shape, it works well.
    • Freedom. Freedom cuts you off from the Internet for a period of time that you specify. The Windows version I tried didn't work, although whether that was due to Freedom or the general haplessness of Vista, I'm not sure. It works well with a Mac but--important--not if you are also running Pomodoro.
    • Excel. I know I've posted before about a spreadsheet I keep (on the advice of Boice & Silvia) listing word counts for the day & a brief description of what I did. I recently opened a new workbook page and started keeping track just of the time I started with the beginning and ending word counts. I used to do this on paper, but except for planning and editing, I haven't felt like writing much on paper lately, and this works.
    I do realize these are all toys to keep me entertained while I get to work, little shiny technological carrots, so to speak, but if they work, they work. I'm saving learning about Scrivener, which I own but can't figure out yet, for the next big writing push.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Small post on writing

    With all due respect to Profacero, Dame Eleanor, Dr. Virago, and Jonathan at Prose Doctor, writing is not either* neither easy or fun right now. I'm still finishing up a promised piece that I thought I could get done before Notorious/ADM's writing challenge--the one I listed so confidently last Friday--but it isn't happening despite many long hours of working on it this week (and the week before that, and the week before that, and so on).

    It's sucking up vast quantities of time that I'm supposed to be putting to other things. It's slow work, and it's harder work than it ought to be. Some parts are pretty good, some are okay, and some are bad but getting better. Instead of a word count meter, maybe I should put in a suckitude meter and measure the gradual progress in the right direction that way.

    But it will get better, and it will get done.

    *"Neither." Sheesh. See what I mean about the words not working?

    Friday, September 09, 2011

    Hacking the Academy: Transformative? Feasible?

    The shorter version of the free, crowdsourced book Hacking the Academy is now online (via Profhacker) at this site: I've been reading through the "Hacking Scholarship" part.

    The whole essay or series of essays, if it's not too old-school a term to refer to them that way, is exciting; you can feel the energy that went into this project. It's also exciting to see put together in one place ideas that have been out on the blogosphere for some time. Here are some excerpts, with comments and questions:
    • "Say no, when asked to undertake peer-review work on a book or article manuscript that has been submitted for publication by a for-profit publisher or a journal under the control of a commercial publisher." (Jason Baird Jackson)
    Cathy Davidson and other eminences may be able to get away with this, but if your university, like most, counts productivity in ways that engage with traditional publishing, this Bartleby "I would prefer not to" idea may not work.
    • "The idea that knowledge is a product, which can be delivered in an analog vehicle needs to be questioned. What the network shows us, is that many of our views of information were/are based on librocentric biases." (David Parry)
    True, and again, something that's exciting and potentially liberating, although I confess to being librocentric (a librophiliac?). I don't know about this "knowledge as product in an analog vehicle," though. Haven't we been talking about alternative ways to exchange/preserve/present knowledge for at least the last 20 years or roughly the Internet age? That's how long I've heard about it, at any rate.
    • "In a world where the primary tools for finding new scholarship are tagged, social databases like Delicious and LibraryThing, the most efficient form of journal interface with the world might be a for journals to scrap their websites and become collective, tagging entities." (Jo Guldi) Guldi goes on to suggest a "wikification" that would allow a journal article to be crowdsource-reviewed for a year and to disappear if the author didn't make it a stronger article as a result.
    Again, another interesting idea. Here the "survival of the fittest" ethos usually considered to be the province of official peer reviewers is crowdsourced--still Darwinian, in that a few will survive but many perish, but more democratic, maybe. Someone else suggested that reviews will still be "invited," so there will still be a hierarchy.

    Meanwhile, the article dangles in the wind for a year, and if it is deemed insufficiently improved (by whom?) it disappears and the now publicly humiliated author . . . does what? Takes it off his or her cv, if it was on there to begin with? At what point does it count as "published," if we will still even have that category of evaluation?
    • "But the key point is that we need to take back our publications from the market-based economy, and to reorient scholarly communication within the gift economy that best enables our work to thrive. We are, after all, already doing the labor for free—the labor of research, the labor of writing, the labor of editing—as a means of contributing to the advancement of the collective knowledge in our fields." (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)
    Can I get a big "amen"?
    • "But, as Cathy Davidson has noted, 'the database is not the scholarship. The book or the article that results from it is the scholarship.'” (Mills Kelly)
    True--and yet what about the work that goes into establishing, curating, and mounting a database for use, not to mention the technical details? Kelly says, rightly, that it's not considered scholarship if it doesn't make an argument. Isn't the selection of texts and choice of access media a form of argument or at least an intellectual labor?

    More to the point: Kelly never says this and never puts it in this way, but I'm uncomfortable with what could be seen as a distinction between worker bees who create the database and the "real scholars" who use it. Don't we value editions? Why should a database be less valued? Tom Scheinfeldt provides an answer for this:
  • At the very least, we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later.

  • Anyway, even if you don't agree with all of it, it's an exciting way to think about the possibilities of scholarship, so go read it.

    Your thoughts?

    Tuesday, September 06, 2011

    Monty Python wisdom

    Sometimes it happens: didn't sleep well, woke up early, went back to sleep and had a bad teaching dream (they showed up in a room I hadn't been told about), and so on.

    So in the rich tradition of interior monologues, as I was preparing to leave for the day, one part of my brain said, "I don't feel like teaching today."

    Up pipes a John Cleese voice from the "Dead Parrot" sketch. You know the part where Palin tells Cleese, "Beautiful plumage, the Norwegian blue" and Cleese answers "The plumage don't enter into it. It's stone dead"?

    Yes, a John Cleese voice popped up inside my head and said, "Your wanting to teach don't enter into it."

    I laughed, got in the car, taught all day, and had good classes. It's true: when they're expecting you to show up, your momentary thought that you might not feel like it don't enter into it.

    (Link to the sketch: Dead Parrot Sketch)

    Thursday, September 01, 2011

    Where have all the bloggers gone?

    Gone to the Chronicle, every one--well, two of them anyway: Tenured Radical and now Lesboprof. The Chronicle is not what you'd call enthusiastic about casual pseudonymous passers-by leaving comments (you need a Chronicle identity), so I won't be able to wish Lesboprof well in her new digs as I'd wanted to.

    Inktopia? Gone to Scientopia (at least for a guest post).

    Dr. Isis? Gone to her own domain:

    Comradde PhysioProffe? Gone to a group blog:

    I know there've always been group blogs, and this is only a few instances, but I'm wondering if we're seeing some kind of consolidation wave taking place. This is good in one way because the Chronicle and other sites are recognizing the power of blogs, but on the other hand, the integration of blogs/Twitter/Facebook that sites are aiming for makes that cloak of pseudonymity even thinner than before.

    Maybe the "thin pseudonym" people like Historiann and the moms at Roxie's Place have the right idea. Yet when I tried blogging a little bit under my own name, I hedged so much about everything that the posts were worthless (and I took the blog down almost immediately).

    For better or worse, this feels like a real voice in ways that my real voice did not. How's that for a conundrum?

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011

    Dear Mr. Gates: Brick and mortar colleges need love, too

    Dear Mr. Gates,

    The Chronicle reported today that in a time of huge cutbacks and givebacks for brick and mortar state universities, where students learn by talking to one another and their teachers face to face, you have given $4.5 million to Western Governors University:
    Western Governors University, the online institution emphasizing competency-based learning, has received $4.5-million to support its recent expansions into Texas, Indiana, and Washington State.
    What's that you say? You support online-only educational ventures even if brick-and-mortar state universities, which are really, really hurting in this economy as states claw back money already allocated, have existing and well-established online learning programs?

    Then why did you give the money for this, which is definitely not online-only?
    The money, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be used to open brick-and-mortar offices, to market the university to prospective students, and to finance any future expansion in other states.
    So let me get this straight: at a time when universities, including one to which you have been generous in the past, have taken percentage cuts in the double digits to their budgets once or twice a year for the past several years, you have decided to fund a new bricks-and-mortar building and to pay for marketing this (now not so much online-only) university? And you're going to give it money to compete with the definitely hurting state universities?

    Does this mean that your company is going to hire more graduates from online-only universities and stop maximizing its use of H1B visas for those who went to brick-and-mortar universities elsewhere?

    Anyway, at least you are interested in investing in education, even if we don't see eye to eye on how your money should be spent.

    Love and kisses,


    Friday, August 26, 2011

    Soundings: Uncoverage and mosaic coverage

    Like Dame Eleanor and Dr. Crazy, I'm tired but pleased after the first week of classes. I've also been thinking about the recent post at Profhacker on "uncoverage" as opposed to "coverage."

    I've heard arguments against the coverage model many times, and the "uncoverage" model does sound attractive. Take, for example, the "mom and apple pie" idea implied by this sentence: "Taken together, depth and breadth mean moving away from the prepackaged observations and readily digestible interpretations that go hand-in-hand with coverage." Who could argue with getting away from "prepackaged observations" and the rest? It's like shooting arrows into the much-maligned five-paragraph essay.

    Logically, however, this presupposes that either (1) you as a teacher are teaching these preconceived ideas by rote to a bunch of parrots or (2) the students need to be disabused of these rigid ideas since they already know them. I think the situation is more complicated than that.

    The thing is, students don't necessarily know this stuff. They don't always have preconceptions that need to be shaken up about, say, what a metaphor is or what Romantic poetry might be, because some of them will never have heard of it to begin with. They can't tell obvious points from nonobvious ones, or logically sound points from crazy ones, because they don't have the frame of reference necessary to make those judgments. In short, they can't question a conventional idea and rebel against it if they don't know it exists in the first place.

    That's where the idea of "soundings" comes into play. What we're doing, especially for the first few weeks, is taking soundings into the depths of their knowledge. What have they heard about the Romantics? What do they know about Dickens? It's only by uncovering what they do know that we can address what they don't know.

    Maybe they have some good ideas, or maybe they have some misconceptions, or maybe they have limited conceptions, or maybe they have some combination of all these. What we need to do is provide a mosaic of "uncoverage" with enough "coverage" so that they can put the pieces together themselves.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011

    Random bullets of back to school

    • It just wouldn't be a syllabus, would it, without a mistake on it? I don't mean a typo (which there mercifully weren't any of), but a mistake as in put the wrong date and so on. Perfection is an insult to the academic gods. That's my defense, and I'm sticking to it.
    • If they are half as excited as I am to start the new semester, we're all good.
    • I have to keep reminding myself that in the total scheme of things, the administration does not give the tiniest damn* about the many, many hours I put into creating a course, nor to teaching it, prepping for it, or grading the papers for it, although of course they would say otherwise, and that this in turn makes absolutely no difference to the way I approach teaching. It does not prevent me from spending too much time (and, to an extent, having fun) prepping for the courses. Part of why we all get incensed about the "lazy professor" nutcase rhetoric out there now is that it is hard, demanding, and absorbing work that we do because we're committed to it and want to do it well. Go ask Matt Damon if you don't believe me.
    • Anybody who says teaching isn't (or can't be) absorbing intellectual work is a fool. There, I've said it.
    • Reader, I banned them--electronic devices, I mean, a la the airplane speech, although I didn't actually give that speech. We'll be using them at some times during the classes, but let's see if that creates a mass exodus from any of the classes.
    • Now back to course prep.
    (*as in all administrations would like teaching to be done well, but what they reward in terms of tenure and promotions isn't primarily teaching.)

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    A nice moment and a tech tip

    Today I did something I don't do often enough: I went to each of the rooms where I'm scheduled to teach and checked to see if I could get the technology to work with my computer.

    Since it was a Friday afternoon and school hasn't started yet, no one was in the classrooms. They were cool and dark until I switched on the lights, and the rooms had those freshly waxed floors that are never as clean as they are at the beginning of the semester. There's also that feeling of mild outlawry in walking into an empty classroom and taking charge of it, knowing that if anyone challenged me I'd just tell them I was a professor and they'd go away.

    This was a geektastic little tour, too, because I figured out how to get everything to work--the computer, the iPad, doc camera, projector, and even sound, which is sometimes a dicey proposition. I tried PowerPoint, web pages, Keynote, and Youtube, playing "Trouble in River City" from The Music Man in all three of the rooms and wandering to the back to see what students would see from various angles.

    Here is the nice moment: as I was in the largest of the rooms (before playing the YouTube clips), students kept wandering in singly or in pairs. They'd walk around a bit, look at the desks, and then leave. Some of them talked to me a little: "Hi, are you a professor? I'm just checking out the room before classes start." It was good to see students doing that, and it reminded me that we were both doing the same thing, in a way--trying to get acclimated to the space a little before classes start.

    Here is the tech tip, as passed along to me by the Apple geniuses: some time in the spring of 2010, a MacOS upgrade made all the power settings on the laptop default to California power-saving standards, which sounds all eco-worthy and green except that if you were projecting video of any sort, the video on the screen at the front of the room was so dark that students couldn't see it, even if the laptop was plugged in. The same automatic darkening occurred when students would present their work and embed a video clip. I knew something had happened and figured out that it was probably somebody's idea of a feature rather than a bug, but it was maddening because there was no cure for it.

    The Apple genius told me that it was a common problem and that this is the way to fix it: go to the battery icon (Energy Saver Preferences), and change the settings from "Better Battery Life" to "Higher Performance" under "Power Adapter." You will have to restart and log in again (not just log in again), but that should fix the settings temporarily. The settings will revert to "Better Battery Life" even if the computer isn't running on battery, so you will have to repeat the process if you shut down the computer.

    This fix seemed to work today, so let's hope that it works if I show video in class this year. The last time, students tried to watch a movie that looked like Godfather II seen through goggles filled with dark coffee, and even their young eyes couldn't make out the murky doings on the screen.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Wishes (resolutions?) for the new academic year

    I'm taking break from planning classes that start almost immediately to think about this year. What do I want to happen?
    • Less time spent in faculty meetings where we might as well pass around the Festivus pole. You know what I'm talking about: the ritual airing of grievances, feats of strength (power struggles between individuals), and so on. Not all meetings are like this, but let's make none of them like this. (I'm not talking about raising legitimate problems but re-discussing past issues.)
    • This goes double for meetings in which people submit things for discussion and don't show up to discuss them.
    • Triple for those who make a lengthy point in an already overly long meeting, stand up, say "I have to leave now," and then walk out the door, leaving the rest of us holding the Festivus pole.
    • Spend more time on writing early in the morning during writing days.
    • Spend less time being irritated and tempted to fire off annoyed emails. I don't often send them, but the irritation is distracting. Twain said "When angry, count four; when very angry, swear." Both are better than writing angry emails in your head when you're supposed to be writing.
    • Say no to pointless service obligations, the kind where I'm basically there to warm a bench rather than to play the game. I've done plenty of service, and it's time to get my other work done instead.
    What are your resolutions?