Sunday, April 22, 2012

Can a blog have an identity crisis?

Dr. Crazy's recent posts about the changing nature of her blog and whether it has jumped the shark inspired a whole lot of people, bloggers and anons, to come out of the woodwork and say "No, it hasn't, and we're glad you're here."

In the comments, though, a lot of bloggers who've been doing it for a while, including Flavia, profgrrrl, Historiann, New Kid, Notorious PhD, and itsprobablyphdme added  that they'd had the same feeling (and so did I). Our lives have changed, and the reasons we started blogging have probably changed, too, so why are we still doing this, and for whom? Historiann noted that everyone hits a wall from time to time.

I wonder if blogs that have been around for a few years, including this one, are thinking about these issues even if the bloggers didn't mention it over at Dr. Crazy's. In addition to the ones mentioned above, what about you,  Roxie?  Dame EleanorHeu MihiDr. ViragoBardiacADMnicoleandmaggie? Dr. Kosharyprofacero? Sisyphus?

Horace and Inktopia have already closed up shop recently, citing similar reasons.

For me, this is partly due to irritation: I'm sick of being lectured by those for whom the issues of tech in education are shiny new ideas. They want to Instruct me in new things like Twitter or how to use computers in the classroom, when I wrote about what they were saying years ago.

I've thought about this a lot recently and have considered going the "lightly pseudonymous" route of Roxie or Historiann or possibly moving and blogging under my real name.

But then I'd have to find evidence for all the claims I make on here instead of relying on personal stories (like vacuuming the cat). I'd have to pretend that idiotic ideas are good ones until I can find data to the contrary.

I would miss reporting on the details of my little writing triumphs and frustrations. I would miss the voice that I have here, which is not my professional voice. And I would have to be responsible and stop snarking about things like "let's kill all the libraries."

So is there such a thing as a blog identity crisis? Your thoughts?

Friday, April 20, 2012

On lectures: "I do not think that word means what you think it means"

Over at Hacked Education, there's another familiar "new! revolutionary!" idea about how the consummate evil known as "the lecture" can be banished to its rightful place in the netherworld of teaching:
It’ll mean that the university classroom can be “flipped” – with lectures pre-recorded and assigned as homework. Koller, who’s been flipping her classroom since well before Khan Academy popularized the term, says that universities have been reluctant to add “active learning” opportunities at expense of covering “the curriculum” via lecture.
I feel like my own recorded lecture here, or maybe I've just been writing this blog too long. To recap:

(1) "reluctant to add active learning"--seriously? And who defines "active learning"?

(2) "flipping the classroom" by assigning students to listen to an hour of lecture before they come to class: does that really happen? Do they listen or do they blow it off and then have the instructor repeat everything in class?

(3) and "cover the curriculum"? "Coverage" is a shunned term at Northern Clime, and I think we have to put 25 cents in a swear jar every time we use it.

How the haters define a lecture: recording an hour of cr@p that is a waste of time for students to learn all at once, when they could spend 10 hours "discovering" the principles for themselves outside of class because they would of course put in the 10 hours, since all students put in 3 hours for every hour of class time, just as the Education Fairy has always said they do.

How I define a lecture: an interesting talk (not an hour but maybe 20 minutes) on the subject that is intensely interactive, with student hands shooting up because they have questions and want to know more  as you talk.

You tell a story that weaves together concepts in an effective way, and, judging by their faces and reactions, you know what to emphasize, what to repeat, and what to leave for another time.  You can lecture on the same subject, but you never give the same lecture. Recording it would not be the same, since you tailor the lecture to the students.

A lecture puts everyone on the same page and in a similar frame of mind for the class activities that follow it. It demands participation. It asks questions. It engages students.  And they hear each others' questions, for isn't that why we're meeting in a classroom in the first place?

Food for thought: Have you ever had a student evaluation say "more and more group work, please, but no lectures"?

To quote Inigo Montoya, "I do not think that word means what you think it means." One of us is wrong, and frankly, I don't care if the educrats think it's me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Robot grading

The interwebs are in an uproar over the latest annual software competition for machine-scoring essays.

See, for example, Jonathan Rees's take on this, the column at Inside Higher Ed, or Marc Bousquet's column, which has a beautiful explanation of a lit review that I want to stencil on the hands of all students:
That literature review in many circumstances will be comprehensive rather than merely representative. It functions as a warrant of originality in both professional and funding decisions (“We spent $5-million to study changes in two proteins that no other cancer researcher has studied,” or “No one else has satisfactorily explained Melville’s obsession with whale genitalia”). It offers a kind of professional bona fides (“I know what I’m talking about”). It maps the contribution in relation to other scholars. It describes the kind of contribution being made by the author.

Typically actual academic writers attempt to partly resolve an active debate between others, or answer a question that hasn’t been asked yet, what I describe to my students as “addressing either a bright spot of conflict in the map of the discourse, or a blank spot that’s been under explored.”
Bousquet's larger point is that if we want meaningful writing, we need to give meaningful assignments that matter to the students and make them feel as though they're part of a larger discourse community (agreed!).

But the best point I saw was the essay (in the comments section at IHE) that the machine graded as a "6" (perfect score). It makes no sense, but its grammatical structures are correct, and it must have hit some algorithmic high points for vocabulary and use of proper nouns. Sample quotation: "Teaching assistants are paid an excessive amount of money. The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents." (I can't wait for this to be picked up and asserted as fact by certain higher ed-bashing news networks, by the way.)

A few thoughts:

1. If drill-and-kill grammar software never taught students how to make subjects and verbs agree, will the canned responses that the essay software have any better luck in helping students to write better?

2. A central tenet of writing pedagogy over the past 20+ years has been that writing is not so much a way of writing down what you think as it is a way of finding out what you think, especially through multiple drafts. That's something that most writers would say is true, too. Will students have a chance to find out what they think if they can write nonsense sentences and get a 6?

3. Where's the grading software that is going to spend half an hour going over an essay with a student as you sit face to face at a desk or on Skype, helping the student to understand how to work through an argument, sharpen the analysis, or even write a clear topic sentence?

4. This is the scary part: Will students write to the software and make everything correct but not bother to think about what they're really saying, if an absence of thought and fact garners them as much credit as actual thinking and supported arguments?

The perfect educational circuit of the future: student signs up for a MOOC course, interacts with other students for points toward a badge, consumes podcast lectures, takes online quizzes, and writes a content-free research paper graded by essay software that gives it a perfect score.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Still not an academic post: random bullets of Mad Men

After a hardworking but very discouraging week, I just don't want to think about academics. Here instead are some observations on this season of Mad Men. If you haven't seen it--spoilers ahead. If you're looking for a more academic blog post--look away, look away.

  • Many internet words have been spilled on the issue of Don's birthday as celebrated with Megan's sexy song versus Don's actual birthday, with the consensus being that Dick Whitman is six months older than Don Draper. Say what? In an earlier season, when Don goes to the doctor and promises to cut down on smoking, the doctor tells him that he looks pretty young for a 45-year-old man (the real Don Draper's age). It emerges later in the episode that Dick Whitman is actually 36, and in the Korea flashbacks, the actor playing the real DD was older than Jon Hamm/Dick Whitman. In this season, has Don/Dick settled on his own real age (40) but the real Don's month and day of birth?
  • Not one but two lovely moments of name-forgetting and remembering: neither Don nor Megan can remember the name of Ken Cosgrove's wife, and when Ken calls her by name, Megan blurts out "Cynthia" a few seconds later. There's another moment, though: when everyone at the dinner party is talking about the UTexas shootings, someone says that the shooter's name was "Charles Whitmore." "Whitman," Don corrects him quietly, and given that that's his real name and we saw him kill someone in a fever dream last week, he should know.
  • Here is a question of vital importance: at what point did Dick/Don the "whorechild" and his mother come to the Whitman household? Last night he alluded to being raised in a brothel, yet every time we saw a flashback, he was on the family farm.
  • Did anyone else think that the monstrous maple entertainment center--"Seven feet long! Wilt Chamberlain could fit in there!" Pete says proudly--when put in the center of the frame looked exactly like a coffin? Poor Pete, entombed in suburbia.
  • Pete cranks down on the water valve, thinking that tightening down on the pressure will cure the problem--until it sprays out of control. Only Don knows how much tension should be applied and how to fix natural forces like water effectively (and look great while doing it, as anything that caused him to shed that jacket would have). I think we have a Symbolic Objects winner, ladies and gentlemen.
  • After seeing Don humiliate himself so thoroughly last season, it was nice to see Don the Superman reemerge not once but twice: fixing the sink and declining the services of the brothel. All this AND wearing the hideous jacket that Megan wants him to wear: he really is a changed man, at least temporarily.
  • Show of hands: who else wants to hear some of Ken Cosgrove's science fiction, which sounds to my inexpert ears perfectly pitched to the kind of scifi being published in the mid-1960s? Who else felt like writing after seeing him propped up in bed writing after what's her name Cynthia had gone to sleep?
  • Historiann has a post (Mitt Romney, or Don Draper?) with clips, and in them, Don Draper looks like a baby compared to how he looks now. The presidency doesn't age a person nearly as fast as being in advertising, it seems.
Anything else?

Monday, April 09, 2012

If I were a rich (wo)man

Nicole and Maggie have a good post that is wonderful food for fantasy if you're tired of thinking about academe: What would you do if you didn't have to have a job?

I think I would be like the old joke about farmers:

Man from the state lottery to a farmer in the field: "You've just won a million dollars!  What are you going to do now?"
Farmer takes off his hat, scratches his head, and looks around the field: "Just keep farming till it's gone, I guess."

What I probably wouldn't do: buy a new house, a new car, or a trip to Disney World.

What would I do?

1. Pay off debts of all kinds.  Give some money to charity.
2. Buy myself out of teaching so that I can spend more time writing. I love to teach, but I could use a sabbatical.
3. Hire a research assistant.
4. Do all the travel I want to do. Go to archives. Never fill out another expense report again.
5. Get a 4G network plan for the iPad.
6. Travel somewhere that is not related to visiting family, going to conferences, or research. You know, like a vacation. I hear that people do that sometimes, but all my travel has been related to one of the above. First up: London.
7. And build a writing house.

Or, if I'm really rich: endow the Undine Chair of Spectacular Knowledge and make myself the first recipient. Do you really think that any university would refuse such an offer if enough cash were dangled before it?

I don't think I'd quit my job, but as the Undine Chair of Spectacular Knowledge, I'd be able to do more of what I love to do.

What would you do?

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Venn diagram of student musical knowledge

Profacero's post about "You Are My Sunshine"  made me think about "traditional American songs"--you know, the kind you learn in elementary school or through Wee Sing or maybe from your family.  

I asked my students about this the other day. Did they have to learn songs like "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" and "The Erie Canal" and "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? How about "America, the Beautiful" and all its verses, including the amazingly myopic verse about "Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears"? Or Woody Guthrie's smart answer to it, "This Land is Your Land?" Or, yes, "Dixie," since that came up in a work we were reading? 

A few did, and most didn't.  Songs they know: "Amazing Grace" and maybe "This Land is Your Land."  Songs they don't: apparently a lot of the above, though a few knew them. 

It doesn't really matter, of course, although it's helpful if these songs come up in what we're reading. Mostly I'm just curious. I know a lot of old songs, including a few that my family sang that I've never heard anywhere else, so I don't expect them to know what I know. 

And they know a lot that I don't know. They all have different musical backgrounds, different interests, different kinds of expertise, some of which is a lot more advanced and useful than mine. 

I'd like someone to do one of those questionnaires about this, the kind that they do at the beginning of every school year--you know, the one that says that for first year students, vampire movie sequels have always been the hottest thing at the box office, or that they are too young to remember 9/11.

Sometimes I feel like an explorer trying to map out what they know so I can then find those intersecting points with what I know and make a connection or get them to see an allusion. It's a Venn diagram of what I can refer to in class with a reasonable expectation of being understood. 

Monday, April 02, 2012


Inside Higher Ed tells me that today is a #dayofhighered, which seems to mean writing a post about what we do all day, given that highly paid corporate types think we are all slackers.

Well, let's see. It varies from day to day, but it goes something like this:

Teaching day:
Get up at 5-6 a.m., get ready for work, and drive to campus. Think about current project and vow to write ideas down when you get to campus.
Get to campus. Fail to write down ideas.
Answer email throughout the day.
Prep class, meet with students, teach.
Schedule and plan committee meetings.
Prep some more.
12:00 Lunch at desk.
Teach some more (and repeat).
Read student drafts and write responses.
Attend committee meetings.
Answer email.
Look at Twitter. Become frantic wondering how all these people find time to write given that they are at conferences every week and tweeting every 20 minutes.
Attend presentation.
Fill out questionnaires and other random paperwork required by the administration.
Home at 7-8 p.m. Talk with family.
After that: Write if possible. Read books for class unless I fall asleep first.

Non-teaching day:
Get up at 5-6 a.m. Put on sweats and go to desk after breakfast.
Work on reading and writing.
Let cats in. Let cats out.
Write committee reports.
Let cats in. Let cats out.
Answer email.
12:00 lunch
Read books and articles for class.
Review manuscripts or grade papers.
Try to get out of the house while it is still daylight for a run/walk.
Cook dinner. Convince cats that they are not getting any part of the fish that you are cooking.
Talk to family.
After that: Write for a while when "second wind" kicks in at after 9 p.m., if it does, or read for class.

Weekend days: as above, with no teaching and lots of excitement along the lines of grocery shopping and picking up dry cleaning.

I'll bet your days are just as exciting, fellow slackers.