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?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A clip post on writing: Jennifer Egan and Michael Agger

Two quick clips on writing.

Jennifer Egan, via ia Perfect from Now On:
The second thing is, I feel like getting in the habit of it is huge. I guess that was my one accomplishment of those two years [with the first failed novel]— making it a routine is a gigantic part of it.
One corollary of that— and this is probably the most important thing for me— is being willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows.

And this, from Michael Agger's "How to Write Faster" at Slate:
The infamously productive Trollope, who used customized paper! "He had a note pad that had been indexed to indicate intervals of 250 words," William F. Buckley told the Paris Review. "He would force himself to write 250 words per 15 minutes. Now, if at the end of 15 minutes he hadn't reached one of those little marks on his page, he would write faster." Buckley himself was a legend of speed—writing a complete book review in crosstown cabs and the like.
. . .
Ann Chenoweth and John Hayes (2001) found that sentences are generated in a burst-pause-evaluate, burst-pause-evaluate pattern, with more experienced writers producing longer word bursts. . . . One also finds dreadful confirmation of one's worst habits: "Binge writing—hypomanic, euphoric marathon sessions to meet unrealistic deadlines—is generally counterproductive and potentially a source of depression and blocking," sums up the work of Robert Boice. One strategy: Try to limit your working hours, write at a set time each day, and try your best not to emotionally flip out or check email every 20 seconds. This is called "engineering" your environment.
. . .
Like many writers, I take a lot of notes before I compose a first draft. The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don't look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.
Alas, the cognitive literature offers no easy solutions. The same formula appears: "Self-regulation through daily writing, brief work sessions, realistic deadlines, and maintaining low emotional arousal."

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Assigning and grading essays this year? How old school of you.

As I begin to think about assignments for the semester, I find myself torn between the tried and true--assignments I've given before--and fancy new possibilities. Just in time to help, "Professors Cede Grading Power to Outsiders—Even Computers" at the Chronicle describes a couple of models of teaching wherein you assign essays but never grade them yourself, and Cathy Davidson at the New York Times questions whether we need essays at all.

The first is the model of online-only Western Governors University (there's no possessive apostrophe in that name, which may be a sign all in itself). WGU assigns students to a faculty mentor and "[n]o letter grades are given—students either pass or fail each task. Officials say a pass in a Western Governors course amounts to a B at a traditional university." All the grading is done by a cohort of adjunct professors, who never see the students and thus aren't swayed by issues of how hard the student worked or other external factors. It sounds like a no-classes version of the AP exam or maybe a CLEP exam.

This model of splitting instruction and assessment into two different areas is actually one that most of us are familiar with: exit exams, portfolio assessment, and programs like the first-year writing program at Texas Tech all use a form of this model, and as in those examples, the instructors participate in norming sessions to ensure consistency. Since the exam is everything in this model, what happens to all the pressure for instructors to evaluate students in multiple ways?

The second model gave me pause: using a program called SAGrader to grade the students' essays and give feedback on them. I remember seeing programs like this touted a few years ago, and they were easily fooled by both the bombastic say-nothing five-paragraph essay ("Weather is very important in this our world today") and the "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" variety of nonsense sentences. Here is what gave me the most pause:
When she announced to her class that software would automatically grade the essay tests, many students were wary. "The students said, I'm being graded by a robot?" she remembers. "I said, Anybody who doesn't get a 100, I will look at a machine, and I will see if the machine made a mistake."
So a perfect score--not just an A, but a perfect score--is the default grade for these essays? I went to the site, and apparently the model there is that students submit essays until they are perfect in some terms or other, though I'm not sure that creativity and critical thinking are part of those terms.

The third model is Cathy Davidson's in Now You See It. In "Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade" at the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan quotes Davidson as suggesting that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not within ourselves or in our underlings but in our assignments:
What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?”
If we assigned tweets, blog posts, and wikis instead of essays--and quit teaching old-fashioned writers like Thomas Pynchon--we'd be doing everyone a favor, including our students, she concludes, because we're trying to prepare them for jobs that won't exist in the future instead of the 65% of all jobs that haven't been invented yet. Incidentally, in the comments to the article, I learned that some students are using an easier way to read online: Visual-Syntactic Text Formatting, which sets up a sentence to look like a poem.

There's something attractive about having students experiment with different forms of writing, but speaking as someone who has taught or used with students a lot of technologies only to see them fall by the wayside, I'm not sure but what she's missing the point. (Example: do you still teach them or have to teach them how to write HTML in Notepad? How to observe listserv etiquette? How to write an email address? I didn't think so.)

But technology aside, can't each of these forms teach something different? Is there something inherently better about a 144-word message or a 600-word blogpost than a short research paper where you have to synthesize, group, and critique ideas, adding some of your own?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Research World: On archives and concentration

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was a little ambivalent about this trip to the archives; I had too much to do, and so on--all work that I was supposed to be doing and never actually completing. What I hadn't counted on is the magical powers of concentration that research libraries somehow beam in to the heads of those in their research rooms.

Think about it. You leave a very hot, humid space outdoors, where you're trying to figure out all the basic daily life in a new space (How do I get back to where I live? When does the bus come? How do I get my key/print documents/get some tea/do laundry?) and are consequently feeling frazzled.

Then you go into a cool, quiet research room where you know what you're supposed to be doing. Even though there's wireless internet in the room, you barely notice it except to look up something related to the archival materials you're reading. You don't fidget, and you don't think about the other writing you're supposed to be doing. You work your way through the folders, reading, taking pictures with your newly silent camera, transcribing, and otherwise doing the work you know you're there to do.

You're in Author space. Everything you do for 7-8 hours in that room relates to Author. You start making connections just because of the sheer volume of Author time you're putting in. Even when you walk somewhere for lunch and the heat hits you as you leave the building, your brain is still working on Author questions.

Best of all, you feel capable of making judgments now that you couldn't when you first started to look at the papers. You recognize not only Author's handwriting but that of various associates, so you can tell who is writing what. You get to know the issues that the letter writers are talking about, even if they're using some shorthand way of alluding to them.

Even outside the reading room, you don't want to let the world intrude except for some escapist reading or a little Netflix. You ignore the news and various crises in education; you stop looking at Facebook and Twitter. All of it seems too noisy and stressful if you're in Research World.

I'd like to bottle Essence of Research World and take it back home with me.