Tuesday, April 30, 2013

NY Times: MOOC Press Release or Reporting? You decide.

At the New York Times, we learn more about "the future of education." Hint: It's not live instructors in live classrooms.

And on Wednesday, San Jose State announced that next fall, it will pay a licensing fee to offer three to five more blended edX courses, probably including Harvard’s “Ancient Greek Heroes” and Berkeley’s “Artificial Intelligence.” And over the summer, it will train 11 other California State campuses to use the blended M.I.T. circuits course.  
Dr. Qayoumi favors the blended model for upper-level courses, but fully online courses like Udacity’s for lower-level classes, which could be expanded to serve many more students at low cost. Traditional teaching will be disappearing in five to seven years, he predicts, as more professors come to realize that lectures are not the best route to student engagement, and cash-strapped universities continue to seek cheaper instruction.
Comment: Never enough money for instructors; always enough money for licensing content from a private provider.

But students will have access to live tutors in Mountain View :
The online mentors work in shifts at Udacity’s offices in nearby Mountain View, Calif., waiting at their laptops for the “bing” that signals a question, and answering immediately.
Comment: Mountain View for now, until it's cheaper to outsource them to another country. I predict they'll be outsourced within 3-5 years, just as accounting firms, software companies, radiology practices, and other professional firms have moved their basic reading/preparing/customer service tasks to India. Remember, this is a for-profit business, not an educational institution.

Near the end, an acknowledgment, of sorts, that some naysayers are trying to rain on the parade:

Any wholesale online expansion raises the specter of professors being laid off, turned into glorified teaching assistants or relegated to second-tier status, with only academic stars giving the lectures. Indeed, the faculty unions at all three California higher education systems oppose the legislation requiring credit for MOOCs for students shut out of on-campus classes. The state, they say, should restore state financing for public universities, rather than turning to unaccredited private vendors.
Rhetorical sleight of hand #1: Is there any part of the "specter" that isn't a real threat? Yet calling it a "specter" pokes fun at those possibilities as irrational fears instead of what is an actual business plan--star professors, glorified tutors, and all of it.

Sleight of hand #2: There are those professorial thugs, the "faculty unions,"  again, wanting to restore state financing instead of, I don't know, giving the money to for-profit companies and dismantling the university system into the bargain. Translation: "they" want to cost you, the reader, money in the form of hard-earned tax dollars, and they don't care about those poor "shut out" students, as "we" do.

Sleight of hand #3: "They say" that, do "they"? See that rhetorical move? The MOOC cheerleaders in the article are the right-thinking people who believe that "students come first," the implicit "we as readers," unlike the union thugs, the "they."

But who cares, right?

And if short videos and embedded quizzes with instant feedback can improve student outcomes, why should professors go on writing and delivering their own lectures?
Sleight of hand #4:  "Delivering their own lectures"--as if this is the sum total of teaching. First of all, WHO LECTURES IN THAT WAY any more (in the humanities, anyway)?  Second, this confirms that the business model is to break the profession of teaching into discrete tasks, assign one superstar, outsource the grading and tutoring to drones, and boom, you're done.

Now the extra credit question:

Are MOOC providers going to hire their own graduates--for they will have graduates, now that they have accreditation? I keep asking this, and I keep being deafened by the silence.

And an extra credit comment (h/t to Jonathan Rees)  and also a link to a prior post:

Percentage of MOOC professors who think that students completing a MOOC should not receive credit at their institution: 72%.  




Monday, April 29, 2013

Writing Inspiration: William James, Epic Procrastinator


Oh, William James, you speak for all of us.  He should have written a book called Seven Slothful Habits of Highly Effective People.

From Slate
He was hardly alone in this. William James was another chronic procrastinator. He told one of his classes, “I know a person who will poke the fire, set chairs straight, pick dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation—simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests."
The only reason he's poking the fire is that the internet had not yet been invented and there was no way to watch Henri the cat. (Or *cough* no way to surf Slate and write a clip-heavy blog post.)

Then again, there's the Spanish Inquisition of motivators: "Our chief weapon is surprise--surprise and fear."  

Obviously, procrastination can be productive in its own way.The Stanford philosophy professor John Perry is a proponent of structured procrastination, or avoiding doing your most important tasks by dealing with less pressing (but still worthwhile) items lower on your to-do list.
That's one approach. But I think many artists needed to procrastinate simply to ratchet up the pressure, whipping themselves into a state of near panic that, while bad for the nerves, is pretty good for the work. The playwright Tom Stoppard has noted that the only thing that really gets him to write is fear—he has to get “frightened enough to discipline myself to the typewriter for successive bouts.”

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Almost spring and almost semester's end

Bardiac has it right: this time of year, we are all busy going to more receptions than Queen Elizabeth in garden party season. We are grading papers and meeting with students as though we all were MOOC superprofessors who had to meet with students and grade. This time of year can make people act out, as with a recent email fusillade that was addressed to, but wasn't really directed at, me per se but at others who had annoyed the person.

It's the time of year when I overheard a student (or student-aged person) say this in Starbucks the other day: "Yeah, and I'll teach them 'Columbus sailed the ocean blue' in whenever it was." She was not kidding, and the fellow student nodded in agreement.

But it will soon be over, and now it's spring, for real. I see flowers, and they're not surrounded by snow.  When I walk, I can smell the trees flowering and the fresh pine chips or mulch that people put around their bushes.  Further out, I can smell that odd combination of pine trees and pine needles and dust that only occurs when there's a dry patch (a few days without rain) in the summertime. I can hear the birds even when the windows are closed.

And so when I went out for a walk/run today, I deliberately put the fusillade and a couple of other recent irritations out of my mind and began to think about that loveliest of topics, the writing house.

At a professional gathering recently, I talked to someone who had visited a famous author who had a writing house on the lawn in back of his/her house. Of course I said "Tell me more." It wasn't large, I learned, maybe about 8 x 8' or 10 x 10', more of a shed than a Michael Pollan-style house. It had rough shelves, and a chair, and lots of books, and electricity. It sounded wonderful, and on my walk I starting trying to figure out if I could actually save up and get one, or at least a garden shed that would be a writing shed in disguise--more George Bernard Shaw writing hut than Dickens's writing chalet.

I don't know why this particular fantasy of having a writing house, which is about as likely as unicorn dropping by to spirit me off to Narnia, is so persistent. Maybe it's the idea that you can walk to the end of the garden and let the rest of it disappear for a while. With the academic world and the end of the semester pressing in, it's a whole lot more pleasant to think about than anything else.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Life after tenure

Dr. Crazy has written about life after tenure, and nicoleandmaggie would like more people to chime in, so here goes--in bullet points for easy Saturday reading:

  • To be honest, life after tenure is a lot like life before tenure, except with a lot more service. I was working hard before, and I'm working hard now. The level of work didn't change except that I was expected to do more service and serve on more committees after tenure.
  • I was happy to get tenure and didn't feel let down, as many people writing at The Chronicle apparently did. On the other hand, I try very hard not to think myself into a Peggy Lee song, because that could easily take over my life. 
  • Like Flavia, I still fund most of my research and conference travel myself. I have never taken a vacation that did not involve visiting family or gone to an exciting place that wasn't related to conference travel. That sounds sadder than it is--I've gone to some good conferences in fun places--but that's the reality of an academic life. It's like K-12 teachers spending their own money on school supplies, only writ large.  If you don't want to do extra teaching or whatever to spend money on your career instead of on yourself, academe might not be for you. 
  • I did not take the advice of some senior colleagues*, who said that they never read another teaching evaluation again after getting the tenure letter. Nor did I follow the advice of colleagues and online folks who said "now you can get a hobby." Honestly, most of the hobby-like things I can think of to do (except for riding bikes/running, etc.) aren't as much fun as the research I do. Do reading history (popular histories like Drew Gilpin Faust, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Daniel Howe, Simon Schama, etc.) and blogging count as hobbies? If so, I've got two. 
  • The biggest difference was that I realized that yes, it would be possible to hunker down and stay at associate professor forever, but that I chose not to do so. Technically, I do not have to work these long weeks or spend money on conferences instead of vacations. There'd be a hit to performance evaluations, but in an environment with no raises for years on end, what's the incentive to keep working hard?  Personal pride, that's what, and the sense that you want to keep teaching better, writing better, and making a difference. 
*I've read about this on the interwebs, not any place I've worked in a long time, I hasten to add.

Updated to add: For a scientist's view, check out http://mineralphys.blogspot.com/2013/04/life-before-tenure-versus-life-after.html

Monday, April 15, 2013

Writing inspiration: thinking more like a writer

I was thinking the other day about two writing posts: Sisyphus's post about Dr. Seuss's hats and one by Natalie Houston over at Profhacker about thinking like a creator (no link; I already spent 15 minutes too many fighting with the Chronicle's search feature and not finding it). In the last six months or so, I have started to think more like a writer.

By "think like a writer" I don't mean someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who clearly must write 3-5,000 words a day, or the cool folk who get published at McSweeney's, or the writers on the sidebar. I don't know what their thoughts are.  In interviews they tell us a little about what their processes are but not necessarily how they conceive of themselves as writers.

Instead, it's more like this:

  • I need or want to work on this project every single day and will neglect other things (hello, student writing! hi there, department reports!) to give it room in my head. In other words, even if I'm staring at a screen or leafing through a book or seemingly not doing much, it's still writing, and it doesn't mean that I should stop and do something that someone else wants me to do.
  • I have gotten back on the wagon with 750words.com, Scrivener, and all the rest and am now on another streak after travel knocked me off the one I had going before.
  • I have trained myself to think about the project first thing every morning and try to get some words down right away. If it's in your head in the morning, it stays in there for the rest of the day, even if you're folding laundry, and you can often get good ideas that way.
  • Same holds true for not wanting to start: if I force myself to start taking notes or revising and editing what I wrote previously, new ideas start emerging and I can't wait to get to the real writing.  That's the consequence of writing every day for a long period, I think. 
  • When I see a writer on Colbert or Stewart, I am no longer filled just with mild envy--"she's published another book"--but with an immediate rejoinder--"and so will you, if you get your act together and finish this one, which is this close to being done." 
  • When I read a bad book not related to work and think, as I did a few weeks ago, "I could have knocked this one out in a weekend" (and trust me, so could any blogger), I think "well, why don't you try, when you're done with this one?" This is, I recall, how James Fenimore Cooper wound up writing the Leatherstocking tales after someone raved about Jane Austen, so maybe there's hope. 
  • It seems there's an in-the-book zone, when everything I hear seems part of some larger connectedness that can tell me something about the book. Yes, this is how Area 51 and JFK conspiracy theorists get started, but it's pretty benign if it's about your own writing, isn't it? 
  • Other issues that would usually occupy some brain space (MOOCs, jobs, undermining humanities, gender issues, and all the rest) are getting shunted aside in a major way right now because I just want to write. 
And I just want to be done, even if Stephen Colbert's bookers aren't going to call me any time soon. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

At The Chronicle: Anne Trubek on quitting after tenure

A long time ago, I read Sara Davidson's Loose Change, a memoir of the 1960s. What I was supposed to learn from it, I think, was about the excitement of radical movements during those years and feminist empowerment--consciousness-raising circles and all that.

What I actually took away was that people in those days could quit, drop out, or do any damned thing they felt like doing, and there would be someone or something to pick them up afterwards: plentiful jobs, more jobs than there were applicants, seemingly;  a network that would allow the main character, with just a phone call from one of her parents, to go to Europe and work as a translator in Italy; and a generous system of social service benefits that wouldn't let them fall into poverty.  They could change the world--or at least the upper-middle-class white women in the book could--because the world was going to support them financially no matter what they did.  I realize that that's probably not true, but it has a truthiness to it and seems true, given what Davidson describes.

I don't think I really envy that generation, but I did think about it when I read Anne Trubek's  "Giving Up Tenure? Who Does That?"  over at the Chronicle. Trubek's article is cheerful and upbeat, and she gives a lot of examples of people who've given up tenure and are the happier for it.

Trubek is right: people should be able to give up tenure and do something else, if they want to. I love my job and wouldn't quit, but I don't get the "Academia is a Holy Calling" idea where you're a failure if  you want to go into another line of work--or, more self-righteously still, owe it to all those not hired to stick it out even if you're miserable, as one of the commenters suggested. A tenure-track job is work, not a life.

And it's an  increasingly unattainable one, given the job market, as William Pannapacker and others, including the Slate columnist, have pointed out.  There's a prevailing idea or myth in every single one most* of the articles about this (and it appears in the Slate column): the job market in these stories always peaks just before the author went on the market and crashes spectacularly just as she looked for a job.  But if you look at the MLA's numbers, it's been bad since the 1970s, with a couple of blips upward, and that doesn't even include the crash dive it took in 2008. And as Jonathan Rees points out, MOOCs aren't going to make the situation better.

My point, I guess, is that giving people grief for quitting tenure, like giving them grief for taking a non-academic job, is head-shakingly misguided. This isn't Sara Davidson's 1960s, when safety nets abounded. People who take those risks ought to be applauded for their courage, not excoriated for Abandoning the Sacred Banner of Academe.

Your thoughts?

[Updated to add: I just read Historiann's post, which presents the other, darker side of the 1960s coin.)
*See William Pannapacker's comment in the comments section.


Sunday, April 07, 2013

Tech talk: essay commenting software--do you use it?

In reading the comments about the automated grading software EdX is now promoting, I learned about a few new essay commenting software programs--not for automated grading, but programs to help with inserting comments.

I've written before about Markin (which I tried a few years ago but don't use any more) and about using autotext in Word, which I do. Autotext lets me explain things like apostrophes without extra typing so that I can spend more time on the substantive comments. My comments are customized to what I've seen students do and contain explanations that I've written myself. Also: it's free.

I usually use Word for earlier papers (so that I can insert explanations) and iAnnotate on the iPad for the later ones in a course.

Disclaimer: yes, I know about the research that says that commenting on grammatical features doesn't do any good, but if you comment on comma splices, etc., do you use these programs? This isn't a political post; I'm just curious. I don't use any of the following programs but wonder whether others do.


Your thoughts?
  • If you use them, are they worth it?
  •  Do they help student writing? 
  • Do they make grading the essays easier?
  • What program do you use that's not listed here? 

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Cry Wolf

Over at Profhacker, the solution to a mystery:
On January 25, 2013, I began tweeting about what was supposed to be a routine commuter flight from Washington-Dulles International to my home in Charlotte, North Carolina. My tweets grew increasingly frantic though, as I began detailing an emerging,mysterious disaster. Over the course of the next few days I continued this narrative, which eventually wound up with my interrogation at the hands of a strange foreign agent. And finally, after four days of such tweets, following the release of a murky video to my family, my Twitter account disappeared. Poof! I was gone. 
Of course, the whole story was made up.
I had seen some of the early messages on Twitter, and I had been worried--worried enough, anyway, to check various news sites to see if there was other news confirming this, and worried enough to mention it to Spouse. Since I don't know the person in real life and didn't see other confirmation, I concluded that others, whom the writer did know, would take care of it. I still wondered about it, though.

Stupid me. I was worried about a person, another human being whom I thought might be in danger, not realizing that I was part of a War of the Worlds-type  prank. People aren't accountable on the internet. I was stupid for worrying that something bad was unfolding, even though all of us have seen plenty of bad things unfolding on the internet with early intimations being posted to social media.

The writer is now outraged that other people have picked up on this story: some who were, like me, worried, took it upon themselves to find out what really happened; others have hacked into his account and continued it. It's all apparently a form of performance art.

But it made me think.
  • Does each new form of media bring with it a kind of credibility on the part of the medium--or, if you prefer, a stupid naiveté or credulity on the part of its readers-- until their trust is violated by enough Onion-style news or pranks?
  • How long does it take before you read everything in a new medium as just more faux news on the internet? 
Something about this story bothers me, but aside from learning valuable lessons (1. Ignore Twitter. 2. Ignore Twitter. 3. Ignore Twitter), I can't quite figure out what it is.

Your thoughts?  [Edited to add: I had taken this down but a comment on the other post convinced me to put it back--thanks, Stacey!] 

Edited to add: here's a link to the #OccupyMLA hoax, otherwise known as more pranksters wasting the time and patience of everyone on a serious issue so that tweets about genuine injustices will be ignored next time when people believe it's a hoax: http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/occupying-mla/45357

All three of these hoaxers dressed it up in theory-speak and tried to spackle it  over with pretensions to doing something useful, but this is the same juvenile mindset that makes 11-year-old boys put firecrackers in mailboxes every 4th of July.  I don't see why we should either excuse it or trust the perpetrators.

Random paragraphs of internet controversies

1. The "Mrs. Degree" controversy:  You can read a reasoned approach to this at Historiann's. As I understand it, a woman who went to Princeton and is now getting divorced regrets that she didn't marry someone from her cohort there and urges young women not to repeat her mistake. 

Yes, this does sound like advice from 1953. I have more faith in young women, though, than that they'll heed this advice, first because they're sensible, and secondly because who ever heard of a college sophomore who wasn't the smartest person on the planet, much smarter than any Woman of a Certain Age?

Seriously, though, this is disheartening. 

2. They've perfected the automated university.  
a. First, you eliminate the professors, or "content providers" (h/t Jonathan Rees):http://chronicle.com/article/Under-California-Bill/138235/

b. Then you get grading software, which is much better than any professor except a SuperMOOC one. Here's the best part: 
Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools. “Often they come from very prestigious institutions where, in fact, they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could,” Dr. Shermis said. “There seems to be a lack of appreciation of what is actually going on in the real world." 
See how that works? The hierarchy of quality goes like this

  1. Prestigious institutions. 
  2. Grading software. 
  3. All other institutions (the "real world" where the "level of pedagogy" is by implication not so hot). 

c. What's missing? Essay-writing software for the students so that they won't have to write the essays that no one will read.