Saturday, November 27, 2010

On writing: dither and blather

Over at The Chronicle, The Shadow Scholar has been getting more than his 15 minutes of fame for cheerfully admitting that he makes a good living at writing papers--nay, theses and dissertations--for students willing to pay his prices. Everyone in the comments is shocked and outraged by his admission and his lack of ethics, but I was sort of struck with awe at this: "It's not implausible to write a 75-page paper in two days. It's just miserable. I don't need much sleep, and when I get cranking, I can churn out four or five pages an hour."

Wow. Is it possible to write 75 pages in two days?

I've concluded that there are really two parts to the actual writing process (not the editing process, which is also part of a larger writing process). These are Getting Started and Keeping At It. Keeping At It is not hard. Getting Started is misery.

When I've asked highly productive colleagues and friends how they get started, sometimes they seem confused ("What is this Getting Started of which you speak?" their expressions say) and sometimes they say, "Well, I get up and start reading things, and then I start writing." None of them mention the Dither Period, which unfortunately seems somehow essential to the Getting Started process for me.

The Dither Period is that time period when you know you should be writing but can't manage it. You sit at the desk and leap up as if you're on a hot stove. You've already cut down all distractions--no internet, no going to the store or seeing friends, no cleaning binges--so on top of everything else, the Dither Period is boring. You think about the work, read a little, wander around the house, sit down, leap up, and wander some more. Finally, you can't stand it any more and you sit down, write the word count on a pad of paper (an ignominious "0," but you have to start somewhere), set the timer for 20 or 30 or 50 minutes, and get going. Now you're in the Getting Started mode.

Actually, you're in Blather mode. You just write things down based on what you know and think, making side notes when you have to. Your quotations look like this: "Put down that quote where he says this--I think it's in X book." When the timer rings, you write down your word count, because in Blather mode, every word does count. Maybe you set little goals for yourself about how much you'll write before the next timer period. And so on.

At the end, you'll have words. They may not be what you want, or they may turn out to be all right after all. The important thing is that you've created something you can work with--a Blather fabric--that you can then cut and stitch into something worthwhile.

But 75 pages over a two-day period? I don't think that even Blather mode could produce that much.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Warm pumpkin custard (left over from the pies and baked in a dish) for dessert last night with excellent sharp cheese.
  • Pumpkin custard with sharp cheese and icy cold apple cider for breakfast.
  • Fresh thyme, dug out from under the snow, for roasting the turkey.
  • The smell of turkey roasting all day long.
  • Skyping/calling/Google videoing with various family members, and the guilt-free knowledge that we're too far away to have to navigate slippery roads or endure the warm embrace of a TSA agent to see them.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Syllabus hero

The other day over at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan said (or linked to someone who said) that laptops were becoming more scarce in classes these days. Is this true? I'm not teaching classes right now where this is an issue, so I'm curious: are we on the downside of the laptop-using curve? Are the Facebook-checking students having to delay gratification for 50 minutes until the class is over? (I know, I know--some students take notes with their laptops. Some get 8 hours of sleep a night, write their papers months in advance, call their parents every week, and spend the rest of their time studying, but can we agree that not everyone does this?)

Second question: Is this the result of teachers banning laptops?

I was thinking about this because in looking up syllabi around the web the other day, I came across a few by instructors that ought to be called syllabus heroes. Syllabus heroes are the people who make policies that make mine look timid. Their syllabi include statements like these:
  • No laptops. No exceptions.
  • Texting in class = be asked to leave.
  • Turn off your cell phone. If it rings, everyone in the class loses participation points for the day. (I made that one up, but what I saw was similar.)
  • Be disruptive in class, and everyone in the class has to take a pop quiz.
The statements make no apologies and no explanations; they just state the facts.

And banning laptops? Can we even do that? Would it hold up if someone went to the Chair or Dean and argued that we were destroying their ability to learn and will to live?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A flash of insight

Right now the secondary narrative of my life is this St. George and the Dragon relationship I'm having with the online instruction people. Hint: I am St. George in this scenario, and I really am more amused than irritated. Note: We are supposed to be able to teach these courses as we wish to teach them, so I'm not violating any principles in wanting to change things.

The Dragon has wanted meetings. I have had meetings. Lots of meetings.

The Dragon wants me to maintain the course structure as far as folder structures and so on in the labyrinthine course space. Sure. Fine. Whatever.

The Dragon wants me to change nothing about the course, including adding assignments or changing the grading plan. I disagree.

The Dragon wants me to link to nothing beyond the world of the course. Uh, that would be a big negative on that one.

The Dragon wants me to give it my materials now so that I have no control over them and cannot change them for 8 weeks. I don't even have the desk copies yet. Nope.

Now, I'm sure that the Dragon really does think it knows best and is being very helpful, but its #1 concern is that nothing change, ever. My #1 concern is to give the students the best possible online experience and education that I can give them, based on what I know from previous online teaching experiences and, oh, by the way, being a professional in the field of literary studies for a goodly amount of time.

Here's the insight that caused me to put the sword away and stop instigating contact: I have the power to change things in the course space without asking anyone about it. I'm not going to violate any meaningful rules or principles (folder structure), but if I change something and they don't like it, they're going to have to come to me about the issue.

This is a whole different dragon-slaying contest from what I was doing, which was explaining what I wanted to do and then having them respond, "But that would change an assignment, wouldn't it?"

I just got contacted for yet another introductory meeting but was warned by the Dragon representative that ze was very busy and zir time was limited. With my new insight, I replied that I would only be available on a certain date during a 3-hour block of time for a meeting and cheerily concluded that ze should let me know if ze wanted to schedule a meeting.

Insight! It's a wonderful thing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Two links in defense of the humanities

Michael Berube, over at Crooked Timber, dismantles the idea that the humanities have been declining as a major:

And Gregory A. Petsko, at Genome Biology, responds to SUNY Albany's purge of its language departments by providing an eloquent defense of the humanities from a scientist's perspective. A sample:
But universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I'll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world's number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn't - well, I'm sure you get the picture.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Random bullets of gray November

  • Here's a question: if the monograph is in trouble, dying, hard to publish, etc., then why does seemingly every presenter at a conference have a new book either just out or just coming out (or, in a bid to make the audience truly envious, both)?
  • I think we ought to have an award patch for our blog sidebars that says something like "I survived my meeting with the Center for Teaching Awesomeness/Course Management System Gurus." These are often a requirement for getting access to modify the course no matter how much you've done in online in the past, so I kept my words to a minimum and my temper under wraps. On the 30th or so time I was told emphatically not to do something that usually works well because it would mess up their system of teaching for future people teaching the course, I finally said, "I don't really care about who teaches the course after me. Can't you just archive the course as it is now and put that one back in for the next person?" Archiving a course goes back to about 1999 in Blackboard if not earlier, so I think they could manage it. They said they'd look into it.*
  • Why is it that budgets for Centers for Teaching Awesomeness never get cut, but budgets for paying fine teachers are being cut all over the place?
  • I also plan to start a movement for the Abolition of Mayonnaise on Fast Food Sandwiches as a Default Option. Because of commuting and what's available, I have to eat at one of these places on some days and always order "no mayonnaise," something that gets ignored about half the time. When did mayonnaise become de rigueur on burgers,* anyway, and does anyone really need it who couldn't ask for it? (I told you these were random bullets.)
*Edited to add: An online course in which I am not permitted to add ANY external links seems to miss the point of online education, don't you think?

(** at least those with lettuce and tomatoes, which seem to trigger a mayonnaise auto-response.)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Online learning: the rock star tour

Over at The Chronicle, there's a special section on Online Learning. Some of the writers are all about "education should be free! cheap!"--but you'll have to take my word for it. Most of the section is behind the subscription wall. (Cue ironic Colbertian raising of one eyebrow here.)

A lot of it is stuff that bloggers have been talking about for a long time: don't use a technology unless there's a pedagogical reason for it. Lots of information is available online. Prepping and teaching an online course takes longer. These are all good ideas, and the articles are good, but you get the drift.

But I was fascinated by the commentary by Dalton Conley, vice provost and dean of the social sciences and a professor of sociology at New York University, who is out to sell a book (also not free). His piece is "Steal This Education: Abbie Hoffman said a revolutionary's first duty was to get away with it. Now you can." It's the old Abbie Hoffman "steal this book" argument, although I'm surprised he didn't bring up Matt Damon's speech in Good Will Hunting that says the same thing.

After Conley rehearses the same old, same old about how no one ever changes a lecture in 10 years and how useless it is to lecture in front of a class, he has this to say:
By freeing me from standing before 200 students to teach "Introduction to Sociology" each fall, the new project will allow me to spend some time at our study-abroad site in Florence for a weeklong workshop, then visit our Abu Dhabi campus, and perhaps stop at NYU in Shanghai for a third workshop before heading back to my curates in New York.
In short, it's online learning as a rock star tour.

Now what I want to know is this:
1. Does he have a concert rider that prohibits green M&Ms and specifies a pool table backstage at every concert?
2. Who grades all those papers?
3. "Curates"? What is he, the Pope?
4. Who pays for all that travel? NYU must be a rare, blessed island of academe with no money troubles.

More seriously, think about it this way: if teachers are indeed like rock stars where short bursts of impersonal attention will suffice, then maybe he's right. After all, wouldn't that put education on the model of listening to music at home and then going to the occasional concert? Why do people go to concerts, anyway, if they can get the music at home? Isn't it to share an experience? Doesn't the fact that the person is in the room make any difference?

But what if you're one of those students in a large lecture that wants to walk down the stairs and speak to him after class? Do you then say "Wow, I can't wait to ask him this question when he's here on April 25?" Or do you just email him and get a curatorial reply?


[Edited to add: If you're going to do online education and build the university's brand, this would be a good way to do it, I guess. I just took exception to the idea that it was necessarily a better way than being there in person.]