Tuesday, January 30, 2007

From the Chronicle: An "expert in pedagogy" talks about blogs

From the CHE: an "expert in pedagogy"* talking about blogs:

I began to feel overloaded, too. Don't get me wrong. I love blogs. I have my RSS feeds set to a number of blogs that help me stay current on personal and professional interests. But the key difference is that I am not forced to read any of those blogs. None of them were created because of someone else's course requirement.

Frankly, the blog postings I required my students to write were just not very interesting. Those students are bright, insightful, frequently opinionated, and, as a whole, a pleasure to be around. Their blogs were not.

When I included a requirement that all students integrate at least three forms of multimedia in their blogs by the end of the semester, I envisioned creations like podcasts and Gliffy concept maps.

She goes on to add that (as everyone knows) blogs aren't inherently an interactive form for classes in the way that discussion boards might be and that the best blogs are written by people who are passionate about their subject matter.

This makes me wonder if the problem was that the focus was on the extras--the glitzy multimedia stuff--instead of on the subject matter. Of course, if this was an educational technology course, maybe writing about the media they were using was the point. Making Gliffy concept maps (whatever they are) is doubtless just as valid for education as writing essays would be in a humanities discipline.

Still, requiring that students use a technological tool when there's no compelling reason to do so except that the teacher wants you to (and we've all probably made this mistake at one point or another) could cause problems. The real trick is to make students so passionate about communicating something that can best be communicated through one of the technologies you've shown them to use (essay writing, blogs, multimedia, web pages, or whatever) that they're driven to learn it as a means rather than as an end.

*She really is; this is a quotation from the article. She has some good ideas.

FWIW, I do like to read my students' blogs. They have a definite subject matter, and the students often talk about it in interesting, smart, or funny ways. Yes, sometimes their inspiration flags--whose doesn't?--and they write a duty post or three, but not usually.

I also never expected class blogs to foster community in the same ways that discussion lists have done in my classes in the past. Although I've seen some self-important pronouncements posing as research about what is and is not a blog ("It must have a community/links/specific topics/other" or "That's not a blog; that's an online diary/journal/story forum"), the truth is that in my class, it's a blog if I say it's a blog, and it's a blog for me if it's serving the purposes of the class, regardless of what criteria it meets for others.

Part technology and part genre--is it a genre expressed through technology?--blogs resist such false dichotomies and attempts at containment. That's what makes them so messy and so interesting.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Some days, only chocolate-covered almonds will do

What kinds of days make you stop at the store for chocolate-covered almonds when you haven't had any candy in the house since Christmas?

1. Not the kind of day I had this weekend, where I finally responded to people who'd wanted copies of various conference papers and sent them.
2. Nor the happy parts of the day when a student from a class I taught a few years ago stops by, all dressed up in a suit, just to say hello and tell me how well he's doing now.
3. Nor even hearing some of the job candidates that the search committee worked so hard to choose, to interview at MLA, and to bring to campus; that's a nice part of the day, too.

No. You go out of your way to buy chocolate almonds

1. When you take a full slate of work into the office with you on a day you don't teach and instead spend it going over grad applications (and aren't done yet). I'm not complaining--it's important work--but if you're applying for a grad program, just know that your application has been thoroughly and carefully read.
2. When your work computer decides that it's done with this whole internet thing and refuses to connect at all, and you and the tech guy spend a couple of hours figuring out what could have gone wrong.

I know that all the cheery exercise and health magazines have a different cure for this ("Eat an apple!" "Take a brisk walk!"), but the almonds worked just fine. Now it's time to get to work.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Always Historicize

First, let me say this: I'm enjoying the students this semester, and several have proven themselves to be sharp readers of texts. They've also been enthusiastic about participating. What follows, then, is a comment on the kinds of things they've been taught to value rather than on them as students.

The other day in class, we were reading two works published by the same author in the same year--during a war, in fact. Since the author was writing about this war, I wrote the year on the board, noted and talked about a couple of the very famous battles that happened in this year, and concluded by briefly discussing a famous speech that had been given during this year. (It's hard to do this without telling you the speech, but trust me, you know this one by heart.)

On a quiz the other day (because I believe that quizzes, like short writings, can sharpen reading skills), I asked them, as a bonus, to name the speech and the year in which it was given.

One person got the right answer. One.

Some were off by a few years, and some were off by centuries.

I'm not talking about the War of Jenkin's Ear here; this was a major war in which their own country was involved. (This isn't to say that the War of Jenkin's Ear wasn't a major war to those involved.) And I had written it on the board five days before this.

To do them credit, there were laughs and groans from the class when we talked about the answer. Since another reason I give quizzes and short writings is to spark the class's interest in the ensuing discussion, and also since it was just a bonus question, this date did its work even if they hadn't known it before.

I'm not a stickler for dates usually, but I do believe that having some knowledge of the context is important, even if, and especially if, that context is contested. I don't want to turn them into little Thomas Gradgrinds, but I think that the "big concepts/no details" push in some educational circles may be doing students a disservice.

In this class I try to do both: to teach students broader frames of reference (theoretical, historical, cultural, etc.) for understanding the literature that they read and to show them how the details of their readings contribute to those frames.

And I don't teach Fredric Jameson in this course, but somehow, his phrase from The Political Unconscious seemed apt for a title.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Random Bullets of . . .Snow?

  • It has snowed here in a major way (I will try to post pictures), and while this is child's play compared to the snow that happens in Snowstorm City and points west and north, having this much snow and having it last is both a novelty and a welcome change from those 0 degree (-18 for Canadian readers) days last week. The downside? All the trees look so pretty with snow-laden branches that I have a totally uninvited and unwanted smarmy 1950s version of "Winter Wonderland" running in my head.
  • I helped a friend to move out of an apartment yesterday.
  • This gets my vote for the most Not Helpful factoid of the weekend: in the course of writing on an author, I learn that she kept dual typewriters so that she could work on two novels at once, turning out something like 7,000 words at a time. That means A DAY. This makes me feel incredibly lame, or--wait, maybe I'm an "artiste" like Oscar Wilde, who said that a day's work for him was taking a comma out of a poem in the morning and putting it back in in the afternoon.
  • The cats hate the snow. Here are their thought processes, as best I can reconstruct them:

    I open the back door. They stand there, sniffing the air.

    Cat 1: "She is playing a practical joke on us, right? What has she done with the good weather?"

    Cat 2: "Maybe the other door will have better weather. Let's wait till she closes this door and beg to be let out the front door."

    Cat 1: "Didn't we try that five minutes ago?"

    Cat 2: "Maybe she has relented and made the cold go away this time."
  • Thursday, January 18, 2007

    More on "Academic Blogging," etc.

    Via Planned Obsolescence: an Inside Higher Ed column by Scott McLemee on the blogging session and Scott Eric Kaufmann's paper. It also includes links to Kaufman's and Holbo's talks. One issue that's discussed is one that has made the rounds of blog discussions before: the seeming tendency of pseudonymous blogs to be written by people who feel (or are) marginalized by academic culture--grad students, women, and people of color. (FWIW, there are also some comments about "whiny" women bloggers, but that's another story.)

    Easily Distracted also discusses the "academic blogging" versus "academics who blog" issue:
    In terms of my recent musings about the limits and lifespan of my own commitment to blogging, I find that it’s impossible for me to stay clearly on one side or the other of “academic blog” versus “academic who blogs”. . . . There’s just something in me, maybe a masculine something, that balks at excessive self-exploration in this online format, or that sets the “too much information” bar at a fairly restrictive point.

    This, and Michael Berube's closing down of his blog, made me think. These are genuine questions, not an attempt to criticize those I've quoted here.

  • How much information is too much information? What kind of information wouldn't you post on a blog?
  • Does an academic blog have a natural starting and ending point?
  • And, to oversimplify one of the messages that seems to be coming through, are "academic bloggers" (often those who perform as, or are, male and write under their own names) all about the display--scholarship by another means, as another way to impress the masses and climb the academic ladder--and "academics who blog" (often those who perform as, or are, female) all about continuing community and supporting each other in all those trivial, TMI details?

    That's disconcerting.
  • Wednesday, January 17, 2007

    Blogrolling.com and the singing frog

  • Blogrolling.com hates us. At least it hates most of us; it seems to like jo(e) and Making Light, but otherwise it hasn't indicated any blog as being updated in well over a month--until today. A short while ago, it said that all the blogs on the blogroll were updated, and now . . . nothing. It's like the old Warner Brothers cartoon "One Froggy Evening," in which the frog refuses to sing if anyone looks at him.

    This wouldn't be important except that one of my feeble New Year's resolutions was to stop using Bloglines and only look at the blogs from the blogroll as a sort of reward for getting some item (reading, writing) crossed off my list at the end of the day. Oh, well.

  • Please tell me this is not entirely germ-phobic: I got on the elliptical machine today at the gym and, after listening to the woman on the elliptical machine next to mine hacking, wheezing, and coughing, I got off and went over to the treadmill instead.
  • Monday, January 15, 2007

    The Academic Job Market

    Thomas Hart Benton at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the academic job market:

    When will there be stern talks about closing down all the marginal and bloated graduate programs that have created a reserve army of the academic unemployed? In effect, the MLA report asks lower-ranked departments to realize their proper station and accept that they should not be making faculty members write two books for tenure while teaching eight courses a year.

    But there's no reason departments should accept that reduced status. They don't have to. Plenty of English Ph.D.'s are only too happy to meet whatever standard the departments care to set.

    . . . . . .

    Better advice: Do not go to graduate school in the humanities in the first place — not unless you are independently wealthy or, for some reason, you don't mind the strong possibility that six or more years of hard work and lost opportunity will come to nothing but competing at a disadvantage against new college graduates for entry-level jobs.

    These are sensible questions, but they might as well be rhetorical ones. A few comments:
  • "Stern talks" about closing marginal programs, which have been around for at least twenty years, are like talks about unilateral disarmament: "We need fewer Ph.D.'s and ought to shut down some programs." "All right. How about if you shut yours down?"
  • And as long as the arms race metaphor is on the table: the same holds true for the MLA recommendation about changing standards for tenure. Most university administrations seem to spend time setting standards to compete not just with their peers but with those ranked (in whatever fashion) above them. If it's good enough for Harvard or Next-Best U, goes the thinking, it's good enough for us; never mind that we've cut the library budget, raised teaching loads, and eliminated support for faculty research. Since the MLA issued this report--and indeed, since Stephen Greenblatt's call for this some years back--I've been waiting for news of universities taking this recommendation. I'm still waiting.
  • As long as it's a bragging point to send students on to Ph.D. programs--and as long as deans and universities make that a measure of success in annual reviews--this won't stop. We try to talk to students about this, but few people get any thanks for talking students out of going to graduate school.
  • Friday, January 12, 2007

    '"Academic blogging" versus "academics who blog"

    Scott Eric Kaufman at Acephalous writes about the distinction between "academic blogging" and "academics who blog":
    The distinction between "academics who blog" and "academic blogs" ought to be insisted upon. . . . Careerists like myself may unwittingly pressure "academics who blog" into thinking their blogs must be more than mere blogs to justify their existence.

    Although I think he means well, there's kind of masterstroke here: all at once he (1) elevates "academic blogging" above "academics who blog" (although with a "not that there's anything wrong with that" statement, he says that he has underestimated blogs that "deal with the minutiae of academic life"--"mere blogs") and (2) places himself in the second category, the one with the power to make bloggers quit because they can't be in category 2.

    What fascinates me about this idea--and I don't think he's wrong about the ways in which academic blogs are characterized--is the unholy speed with which the academic blogosphere seems to be scrambling to create an alternative hierarchy that could end up being just as rigid as the old one. The mechanisms of establishing caste may be different from the nametag-gazing dance at MLA and other networks of privilege, but the result will be the same.

    I hope not.

    [Updated to add]

    Also, the power hierarchy Scott mentions (I hope he won't mind my using his first name; I did see him at the MLA panel, though I wasn't able to hear his paper) creates an automatic divide between anonymous and named bloggers. Since talking about theory, research, and so on would out most of us if anyone really cared to investigate, switching to an academic blog would mean coming out and being held accountable in the ways that Dr. Crazy discussed in her post of a few days ago.

    It can be stimulating to read the discussions of theory at The Valve, Scott's blog, and other sites, but sometimes, especially if you've been toiling in the fields of reading academic criticism all day long, what you long for is a diversion. The best diversion might just be the lovely prose--fresh, funny, and with a dash of occasional snark--to be found on a lot of those "mere blogs."

    Thursday, January 11, 2007

    First week

    Not much to report; it's the first week of classes, and the syllabi for the classes *did* get done, my usual fears to the contrary.

    For one of the classes, I'm in a retro-classroom. I don't really mind. The university prides itself on its technology (as which university nowadays does not?), but this one has a tiny television monitor (instead of a projector) at the end of a long, narrow room, which means that the students can see nothing that I project, as they were quick to tell me. It also has some kind of super-ventilation unit close by, so I have to speak up since it's a little like teaching inside a vacuum cleaner.

    The students seem good-natured about these limitations; in fact, it was a student who told me that I'd probably need to speak up since the acoustics were not great, since she'd had a class in there before. And if they really need to see a web page, well, I'll do as I did today and invite them all up to the front of the class and gather around the campfire, so to speak.

    Back to transparencies, then, and let's party like it's 1995!

    Monday, January 08, 2007

    On Writing

    The only way to write is to live in it (the writing).

    Or maybe more correctly: The only way I can write is to live in it.

    This wouldn't have been my favorite way of phrasing it, but when I woke up this morning after 3 hours' sleep with this phrase going through my head, it seemed only fair to write it down.

    I finally finished a big project that's been hanging over my head for too long, and although I talked to my family this past week, I didn't want to do anything else until I'd finished. Once you're past the stage of agonizing procrastination, writer's block, and the boredom of sitting in front of a screen with nothing to say, you don't want to risk all that by doing something crazy like, say, eating or letting the cat in when he's scratching the screen on the window to shreds. You just want to write.

    Now, I realize that this is not the way that professional writers do it, and it isn't the Boice Way. This is the way of the Great Satan that Boice warns against, in fact. I *want* to do the "write a little every day" thing, but that's a kind of multitasking. I haven't yet been able to turn my brain on and off that way ("10:14--continue to work on manuscript; 10:15: stop writing and prepare class"). I'll keep trying, but for now?

    It's all there in the first line.

    Friday, January 05, 2007

    Post MLA

    While everyone else has been writing terrific post-MLA posts, after getting back late on New Year's Eve I've been trying to get the writing done that (surprise, surprise) did not write itself while I was away* and also to get ready for the semester, which starts on Monday.

    The reflections on blogging, the scholarly worth of blogging, even name tags--all that's been covered well on other blogs, so here is something resolutely trivial: cards.

    One of the few perqs academics in full-time jobs get (besides free books and the ability to spend vacation time and money going to conferences) is a set of professional cards with name, department, etc. , and yet in years of going to conferences, I've noticed an odd reluctance to use them, except by publishers in the book exhibit. (An exception: Dr. Crazy mentioned taking a card so that she could pass along someone's name to a colleague.) I have even heard people apologizing for having cards ("My department got these for me--don't know why I carry them"). Writing something down on a scrap of paper that you've scrounged from your conference notes seems much more the norm.

    Is it that people don't carry cards? Is it that they believe it's presumptuous or pompous to give someone a card? Does it make academics feel too much like salespeople? Or are the odd apologies I've seen atypical?

    Do we even have an established etiquette for giving out our cards?

    See, I told you it was trivial.

    * I lied. I also took a day off and did nothing except watch old movies.