Monday, December 31, 2012

Checking in as 2012 checks out

I'm checking in to read everyone's great New Year's posts (too many to link fully; see the sidebar).  Some are looking at the year in media and culture (TR, Madwoman with a Laptop, Culture Industry), while others are doing more of a roundup of their year (What Now, Bardiac, Dr. Crazy--and Z and Dr. Koshary say it with music).

Despite the holidays, it's been quiet here now, and peaceful, in part because of getting away from Facebook and Twitter. As good as Twitter may be for some things (read this! follow this link! participate in this conversation! pay attention!), you could spend your life on it and never catch your breath or regain your focus. Like the rest of the Internet, it commands your attention until you think it's your oxygen.

The whole frenzy will all start up again in a couple days with MLA, and then with classes right after that. But right now, sitting here and looking out at the snow with a glass of red wine and a sleeping cat beside me, the quiet sounds pretty good right now.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Short holiday hiatus

I'm going to try a short internet hiatus except for the writing I need to get done (hello, MLA!).  Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that the new MLA dates are much better in terms of being  stressed out over Christmas? I still need to get things done, but not having get up before the crack of dawn for a 12-hour travel day on the day after Christmas is a big improvement. Thanks, MLA!

Happy holidays, everyone!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Random soothing questions

  • If you live in a part of the world (as I do) where a significant number of older men have white beards, do children think they are seeing Santa Claus in street clothes?
  • True or false: one of the benefits of sending Christmas cookies to relatives who don't bake (or don't bake any more) is that, if they don't like the cookies they don't have to eat them and you'll never know. 
  • Has it struck anyone yet that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, especially in Sherlock, are really . . . Spock and Bones from Star Trek, without any integrated personality character such as James Tiberius Kirk?
  • Speaking of Sherlock, was it a deliberate choice to make Benedict Cumberbatch resemble a Mr. Darcy-like hero with that Regency-style coat flapping in the wind as he strides along? 
  • Do you find it heartening, as I do, when you go out shopping and see people being kind to one another--chatting with the food sample ladies at Costco, talking with cashiers, and generally behaving as though we all should get along?
  • Has anyone ever found some television show or movie that they actually wanted to watch for free on Amazon Prime? 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Wrecked, solitary, here"

Sadness and rage at those terrible events in Connecticut. Why, again, do all the deer hunters need assault rifles? Why does Mike Huckabee call himself a Christian when he is obviously filled with hate?

I am thinking of the children, teachers, and parents. I can only follow Bardiac's lead and post this.

I FELT a funeral in my brain,
  And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
  That sense was breaking through.
And when they all were seated,        5
  A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
  My mind was going numb.
And then I heard them lift a box,
  And creak across my soul        10
With those same boots of lead, again.
  Then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell,
  And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,        15
  Wrecked, solitary, here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Signs of progress in discussing literature

**Content note:  post mentions sexual assault scenes in literature.**

After reading the post over at nicoleandmaggie's and seeing the word "creeper," I got to thinking about a difference in discussing literature back in the day and now.  "Creeper" wasn't a word that was used back then, nor was "rapey," not just because those words weren't invented yet, or because creepers didn't exist, but because the concept of whether a male character should behave this way seemed to be absolutely out of bounds in a literary discussion.

Literary discussion was all about being objective, and a character wasn't a person but a literary construct, and we weren't supposed to make moral judgments, and OMG Death of the Author and all of that.  While it was okay to discuss whether the character's twin forehead cowlicks had phallic/Satanic/symbolic overtones, his actions weren't really open to question.

Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves.  See, she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then, emotionally speaking, but I know a party line when I hear one and after one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.

When we talked about novels this semester, though, my students would have none of it.  Yes, we talked about characters as literary constructs and about symbolism, but then someone would say, "Character Z is a total creeper" or "Why is he being so rapey in this scene?" And then we would talk about why Z is a creeper and how that affects the scene and why he shouldn't behave that way.

I don't think M. H. Abrams is going to include "creeper" or "rapey" in his Glossary of Literary Terms, but that's not the point. Talking about those ideas is not "moralizing," as it used to be called.  I think it's a sign that feminism and the awareness it raises about these issues is working.

Friday, December 07, 2012

"I'm going to miss this class"

Not as in "I'm going to miss this class, and did we do anything important, and can I have extra credit because my brother's girlfriend's roommate had to go to the airport and my car broke down on the way" but as in having students after the class linger and say this: "I'm going to miss this class and our discussions."

I'm going to miss it, too. I have had good experiences in teaching online courses, but I wonder how much of this semester's students' reaction is due to our being an "embodied class"  as Historiann's Baa Ram U calls it, where we looked at each other when we talked about the literature. I could see their faces, and if they were confused or enthusiastic about a point, I could call on that person or shift gears so that they could speak up.  What's the opposite--a disembodied class? But we all have bodies and lives, don't we, unless we're teaching at Northeast University for the Undead, so don't we need to recognize that their faces tell a story, too?

Figure 1. Undine makes a dramatic point.
In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) tells Joe Gillis (William Holden), "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" In an embodied classroom, you can have dialogue and faces. Maybe someone can promote what we used to call "classes" and now call "embodied classes" by saying that there is "synergistic value added" (or whatever buzzwords business prefers this year) because as an added bonus, you get faces along with your discussion.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The "get it done" grading system

It's the grading season right now, and we are pretty much all grading. Flavia just wrote a great post about this, and I'd agree: Grading can be satisfying if you just resolve to, well, "git 'er done."

The way I've graded for a few years goes like this:
1. Gather what you need to grade: papers, books for checking citations, etc.
2. Get yourself a "cool tool" or two. For me, it means this:
  •  Filling up pens with an interesting color of ink (green, purple) for the paper versions.
  •  Download e-versions to grade electronically on the iPad (iAnnotate has improved exponentially lately!).
  • Or, if it's early in the semester where I'm still giving lots of explanations about things, open up the file of auto-text or cut-and-paste entries so that I can use those for routine things and spend more time really writing comments about the content.
[Update, because Flavia asked in the comments: students have the choice of turning in a paper version OR an electronic version, so the "cool tool" I use depends on what they gave me.] Now, these are not Hammacher-Schlemmer cool tools, but they are what pass for cool tools with me. They may seem frivolous, but they aren't.  They make grading exciting (yes, they do), and they make you want to get started.

3. Write down the students' last names in some kind of order. I mix it up so that I don't read the same students' papers first or last every time.  This serves two purposes: (1) you can't avoid a student's paper and (2) you get to cross the names off the list.  If you are at all the "cross it off the list is very satisfying" kind of person, this really helps.

4. Get a timer and figure out how long you're going to allot for each paper.  You may need to adjust the time after the first few, but if you've been teaching for a lot of years, you should have a pretty good idea of how long they should take you. If you're tempted to take longer, ask yourself this: "Is the student going to benefit from this additional comment or correction?" Sometimes it's "yes," but often the answer is "no," and you have to move on.

5. Build in some breaks or changes in activity. Flavia recommends taking a break every 6 papers, and that sounds good. I also change it up by grading X number of electronic versions and then X number of paper versions. A change may not be as good as a rest, but it helps.

I have colleagues who prefer the "10 a day, every day" system, and if that works for them, that's great.  Since I am an ace procrastinator, what this meant was that I would spend a couple of hours dreading grading, a couple of hours grading, and then a few hours trying to settle down to writing or reading because my mind was still back with the papers.  Where grading is concerned, I'm a monotasker and definitely not a multitasker.

Another advantage is that for me, there's a norming process that goes on so that I can grade more consistently from paper to paper, since the overall features of the whole set and its issues are in my head somewhere.

Grading still takes longer than I think it ought to, given this system, but the end result is what Flavia talks about: once it's done, it is done, and you don't have to think about it any more until the next set. That's incredibly satisfying.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Writers' tech: trying out Scrivener

As the latest step in either true procrastination tactics or an attempt to get a handle on the whole manuscript and where the latest piece fits, I started moving chapters into Scrivener yesterday. I had tried before but had given up the lengthy tutorial because hey, the Internet has destroyed my attention span just as it has everyone else's. There was a 10-minute video at the site that gave me the basics, though, so with that I marched ahead.

What had made me buy it in the first place was the cult-like devotion that Scrivener users seem to have for the program, and who doesn't need another cult to join? Seriously, though, there were two main reasons for finally trying it:

  1. I can put the chapters along the side, one folder per chapter, and break it down from there, so I can really see what sections I've got and what I still have to write. 
  2. A corkboard with index cards on the screen! How cool is that? I can't figure out yet how to get the corkboard to look like the screenshot, but breaking the chapters down so that each main topic in one gets a section (and an index card) looks like a good plan.
A highly productive colleague who's writing a book right now has index cards of various colors on her walls as an organizational tool.  I tried that, but there were problems: I spent more time rearranging the cards than Martha Stewart would give to a wall display of antique plates, and, once I was on my feet, it was too easy to wander away from the computer in search of distractions. "Apply seat of pants to seat of chair" is still good writing advice, even if I can read things standing up or even walking on the treadmill. 

There are all sorts of other features I haven't figured out yet-- how to use the Research folder, for example.  Although my desk has a "mind-map" quality to it, with things spatially arranged for what I'm using now--the air-traffic controller model--I've never been able to use official mind mapping or brainstorming or whatever they're calling it this year. On the screen, there has to be a linear order, and what I'm hoping Scrivener can give me is a way to visualize the order even for things that are out of sight. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Just an average day: in praise of student interaction

Yesterday was just an average day, and yet it was a good day, too. It was our first day back after Thanksgiving, and there was some small talk before class about how odd it felt to be back.

I made a little joke as I handed out the course evals, and they smiled. You can't comfortably share a space with a group of people for 15 weeks without liking them, and the wrinkles we had early on have been worked out by now. "Well, you can come back in; we've finished shredding you," the student said when he came out to get me after the evals were done, but he smiled and was obviously kidding. Like Sally Field, I hope they "liked me, really liked me," but all I can say for sure is that we are more comfortable with each other.

This may be because they are more comfortable with assuming responsibility for their own learning. This semester I've encouraged more student responsibility than I've done before. Students have researched and presented on things I'd usually lecture on. They've led discussions and asked their classmates questions. They're more comfortable using the board, presenting, working in groups, and saying what they think.

Did we "cover" everything? Maybe yes and maybe no. But did their work take the class in other directions, and did they learn a lot from that? I learned things, and I hope they know that they did, too.

More of them are talking to me after class or in my office about their projects, about what they want to do, or about random things that relate to works we've studied that they'd like to share. Yes, it means a lot of grading, but I'm looking forward to seeing their final projects. (You can tell from this sanguine tone that I haven't been inundated yet.)

Soon it'll be grading time, and it'll be over with, and there'll be the post-semester letdown, which makes absolutely no sense logically but is there nonetheless. Then you get to do the whole thing all over again.

I feel as though I've complained and ranted so much that I just wanted to celebrate what we all take for granted sometimes: nice human interaction with students and a good day.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Last MOOC post until 2013

I promise: no more Cassandra-like questionings of MOOC cheerleading until 2013.  Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk has got that covered anyway, and he's actually taking a MOOC class, so his points are more legit than mine.

This piece of MOOC cheerleading--"The End of Higher Education as We Know It?" with an implied "Yesssss! Go, Team!" at the end of it-- is from TheStreet.  It's just as uncritical and glittery as the rest, although you'd think that a publication that thinks it's based in economic reality would ask a few questions.  Here are some excerpts, with a few comments from me:
The economic problem with college, as Shirky notes, is that it's labor-intensive and does not scale. You can push down salaries to an extent [and God knows we've tried], but it still takes a lot of people, many buildings and a lot of land to produce even a mediocre college education. What makes an elite education is the unique talent of its faculty [but not, apparently, the quality of its research, its labs, or the ability to learn from other smart, highly motivated students in person], which can't be discounted because demand for it is so high.

What Udacity does is spread that limited talent across to the broadest possible audience, while doing away with those other costs. [Because developing courses, creating infrastructure, and other costs are nonexistent.] Everything else can be done through one-on-one tutoring. [Paid for by whom? Provided by whom, once local universities are gone?] Standardize on the best courseware, with the best lecturers , and use the Internet to deliver that to the widest possible audience. [See? Easy-peasy once you redefine education as the best courseware and brand-name lecturers.] 
Again, there may be value in MOOCs, and that value may even lie in the quality of education they provide--but nobody's asking the questions. With that, and with apologies to Alexander Pope, I'll shut up about this until the New Year:

Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All MOOCness is but Art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood,
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever MOOCs, is right

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A milestone, of sorts, and the gamification of writing

I keep seeing articles about the gamification of learning or of working, which translates into getting people to do things for rewards such as those in video games--the gold stars of childhood writ large and within a game context.  I believe in that idea, because who didn't want to win a gold star instead of a red one?

That's one of the things that MOOCs and other types of badges-based learning get right. There's a feeling of satisfaction in doing something right and seeing it there on the screen: getting all the answers right in an online quiz that you take for fun, for example, or seeing if you can beat your high score and earn some free rice for another country.

I've been thinking about this, because has a badge system.  My badges haven't changed since I started using it in September 2011, so I usually paid no attention to them, but yesterday two new ones popped up: one for writing 5 days in a row, and the other for writing 100,000 words since I started with the site.

100,000 words? That gave me pause. They weren't all great words or even finished text; if they were, this book would be done. Some were just notes on texts for the book or research brainstorming, but they were all words related to this book project, and the computer had counted them, and now I had a badge to prove it.

Did it motivate me? You bet.  This is one sort of motivation (badges); other sites like give you cute pictures (positive reinforcement) and some, like, terrify you with loud noises if you stop writing (negative reinforcement). The reinforcement is intrinsically meaningless, since you're imposing it on yourself with the aid of technology, and yet it works.

I wonder if we could gamify the teaching of writing in the same way.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Writing Inspiration and Positive Thoughts: Tony Kushner on Writing

From the Fresh Air Interview
DAVIES: I read that when you wrote the screenplay, you gathered just the right fountain pens and notebooks. Is this true? What's the role of that?
 KUSHNER: I write everything with fountain pens. I don't know why. I've done it since I was bar mitzvahed. I was given a fountain pen, a Parker fountain pen, and I loved it, and I've never liked writing anything with pencils or ball-points. I just can't stand it. I love - fountain pens have a very expressive line. When you're upset, and you're writing really, really hard, it gets thicker and darker, and when you're tentative, it's thinner and more spidery, and, you know...
 DAVIES: So it wasn't putting you in the 19th century, you didn't don a wig or anything?

KUSHNER: No, no, I keep notebooks, and I write in - I find it, you know, I'm 56 years old, and I find it easier to write when I'm first pulling things together, with a pen and paper. The computer, the noise of the computer feels like impatience. It's sort of the sound of impatience to me. And I like having a paper trail of what I've crossed out because sometimes I go back and realize that I shouldn't have done that. It's just a more natural way for me to write. I'm sure I'm, you know, of the last generation that will ever say anything like that.
And some other positive thoughts for the end of the semester:

  • Instead of thinking how much you haven't gotten done with only a few weeks left, think about what you have gotten done.  Among other things, you can answer our former president's immortal question "Is our children learning?" with "yes, they are." 
  • Even if the weather is bad, a short walk in the fresh air, even if it's just around the block, will help.
  • It's a time of year when you may feel that you don't have a lot of choices, but you really do.
    • For example, in most meals, there's something you really want to eat (food excitement!) and the rest of it is just food-because-it's-there. Eat the food excitement first--for me this is usually salad, which I love--and refrigerate the rest. Eat it later if you're hungry. Or not.
    • If something makes you unhappy, like checking Facebook, stop checking it even if everyone is pressuring you to do otherwise. 
  • Stop and think about what you're doing before you do it. You may have to check email, but you don't have to do so as a reflexive move first thing in the morning; you can choose not to check it on the weekends and the world will still exist. I think of it this way: why choose to take on someone else's thoughts and problems before you've had a chance to think about your own? 

Happy non-shopping day!

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all and a happy non-shopping day today.  In addition to NOT shopping today, I'm going to try to get out to Small Business Saturday tomorrow and support local stores. Yes, I hate to shop. Yes, I know that this is something being supported by American Express, and yes, I know Consumerism is Bad yadda yadda yadda, but at least it's in the right direction and AmEx deserves some props for it, don't you think?

My desire to support local businesses is inspired by Amazon's evil Judas action last year about turning stores into shopping showrooms and local shoppers into unpaid agents in its quest for world domination so that it can undercut the prices online. I have heard that some people even do this in independent clothing stores: try on clothes and then write down the information so that they can get the clothes online for cheaper.  It's legal, but it's unethical. I'd say it would serve these people right when there are no more stores because they've driven them out of business, but that would be an expensive "I told you so" for the rest of us, since the stores would have to cease to exist for that to happen.

Yes, it's more inconvenient, not to mention expensive, to pay shipping rates and stand in line at the post office for stuff you buy locally, but here's the thing: If we don't support local independent stores, who's going to?

And since this is a MOOC-free post, any parallels you see between this and previous questions raised about MOOCs on this blog are purely coincidental. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why can't they read the book in my mind?

Alfred Hitchcock, who began as an art director and had a famously visual approach to filmmaking, used to plan his movies and storyboard them elaborately well before production.  He didn't direct the actors, per se; most of them reported that he said nothing to them about their performances. When they'd ask him about it, he'd say something along the lines of "you're doing fine.  If you weren't doing it right, I'd tell you."

Indeed, on the set, according to Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius, sometimes they'd look over after a take and see him with his eyes closed.  Sometimes it was clear that he had actually fallen asleep during the take, which can't have been reassuring for actors who wanted a little feedback.  Apparently Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and the others who worked with him more than a few times got used to it.

He wasn't bored by their performance. He was bored by the process, because he saw the film so clearly in his mind that it was as if he'd already seen it before.

If you have vivid dreams, you've probably had a similar experience: your brain has programmed the movements and voices of actors, scenes, and basic filmmaking shots, and sometimes you might dream a whole film as if you're watching it. Your brain's got the best CGI equipment around, and a dream is the ideal place to roll that film.

That's where this chapter I'm working on now is in my mind.  It's there in glorious Technicolor and stereophonic sound but buried in my mind. When I try to bring it out in actual words, though, I get overwhelmingly sleepy and disinclined to write.  And when I do write, the result is more like Roundhay Garden Scene than Vertigo. It would be great if I could just publish the book in my mind instead of writing it.
But Hitchcock had to go to the set every day and be paid fabulous amounts of money to create art. I have to get back to writing every day for no money to create something that might make a contribution in some way. The key denominator there is the "work on it every day" part, and that's what counts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MOOConomics and the health care model

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Paul Fain reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding $3 million in new MOOC-related grants.  The idea is that MOOCs with credit attached can replace gen ed courses, thus rendering efficiencies in granting degrees.

Well, maybe, if you leave aside the quality of the education, which seems to be a complete non-issue with those promoting MOOCs, and if you don't think about the other functions of the university. I'm thinking of the economics of the whole thing.

Think about the Affordable Care Act.  The reason given for mandatory signup is that if signing up for health care is voluntary, only the very sickest will sign up for care; healthy people will avoid signing up until they are sick.  That's the principle behind all forms of insurance. The risk and costs are spread across a large population to improve affordability.

Now think about a community college or university with high-cost programs like lab sciences, engineering, or nursing courses--any courses that require intensive training and expensive equipment. Right now, the gen ed courses help to support those courses.  Take away the gen ed courses and the other kinds of support that they provide for the university and leave behind the expensive hands-on lab courses--in Obamacare terms, exempt the healthy people and permit the most expensive patients to join the plan when they feel like it.  How much will tuition, and financial aid, have to rise to cover the costs imposed by the missing gen ed revenue?

I would like to see some analyses that take this into account, but first someone will have to brush away all the confetti made of dollar bills being thrown at MOOCs and look seriously at the implications these proposals.

[Edited to add: Another of my posts on this issue; a post at edwired that does consult the experts.]

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Random discoveries and questions from the week

  • Biggest discovery: that if you have a can of Starbucks Hot Cocoa mix that you haven't been using since you developed a lactose intolerance, you can mix it with just hot water and it is even better than it is with milk. 
  • Second biggest discovery: hearing from a colleague that students really love a class that I have been working very hard at this semester but had worried about.
  • From Vanity Fair, that the New York Public Library has sent/is sending the rest of its books to a storage area in New Jersey "where they would join the two million of the library's books that are already there.  In theory, any book could be retrieved and sent to New York within 24 hours.  A day isn't much if you are working on a two-year research project.  But if you are a student or a visiting scholar who has saved up to come to New York to do research on books you can find only at the New York Public Library, the delay can be critical" (185).  Yes, it could be critical indeed.  
  • That it takes 6.59 minutes for my ancient Vista-based laptop (which I need to use for a specific program for a university function) to boot up and find the wireless but that it has only 7 minutes of battery life if it is not plugged in. For 1 second, it's "Yes! The screen at last!" followed by "Click--battery death." 
  • That I have been totally spoiled by the open-the-lid-and-type speed of the MacBookPro. 
  • That spending 14 hours plus transit time on campus teaching and in meetings makes me fall exhausted into bed where I dream of . .  . teaching and being in meetings.
  • That if your brain is in some sense a production line for writing, the writing part (Production) can't get done until the reading part (Raw Materials) is available.
  • That thinking about a new course and new texts to teach is an enjoyable distraction from thinking about a current course or your writing. 
  • That it's possible to think about adding new texts to a course you've taught before--an online course--until you see all the pages and pages of material, links, and questions you wrote the last time and realize that you would be a total crazy person to reinvent this particular wheel, especially when you realize, after reviewing student feedback, that they really liked the course the way it is. 
  • If a library or archive had a fantastic online archive with great, close scans of the material you needed to see and there was no doubt about the readability of the online text, would you still feel that you needed to go to the archive?
  • Would you think that people might doubt your conclusions if you did so? 
  • Is there a solid reason for reducing the value of results or conclusions based on an online scan of a text, or is it more about "too easy--you have to earn the research results by going to an archive"?
  • Are the answers different for historians and literary scholars? 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


You know how sometimes you're watching tennis or driving in a car and you move as if your body english would change the outcome because you want so badly for a certain thing to happen?

Yes! Obama body english worked!

And yes for various initiatives and candidates!

And thank you to Historiann and others who were in swing states and not in lefty blue states and waiting in voting lines to make a difference!

I still remember back in 2008 thinking (because I think in cliches) that our long national political nightmare was over, the one where every morning I wondered just how much damage was being done to the country by the people, the deciders, in charge of it.

Now we can have four more years of falling sleep without worrying about that.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Voting on books

We're watching the election returns, in part to see if Wolf Blitzer actually goes up in flames as a result of excessive excitement, but I held a little poll today about ebooks and textbooks.

One of the classes has an inexpensive coursepack of public domain texts and a number of separate books (no big textbook), but some of the readings I left online rather than including them in the coursepack.  It's a good-sized class for a humanities discipline.

Today I asked them this: "We're told that people under 25 would rather read things online than in paper form. What do you think? Would you rather read X online, or would you have preferred to have it in the course pack?"  Result: 80% voted for coursepack over reading online.  Reasons:
  • Too hard to mark up stuff on a computer.  You have to click, open a text box, maybe click some more to highlight something, etc.  Working with paper is just easier.
  • Hard to find specific spots. 
  • We skip too much when we read on a screen because that's what we're used to from Facebook. 
  • "I just like paper."
The 20% mostly had systems in place for marking things up in downloaded texts, but they didn't have as much to say as the majority.  

And now I have to watch John King wave his arms and work his magic with the fancy maps. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012

WaPo: Things to learn from MOOC pedagogy

Today's MOOC cheerleader is The Washington Post, which crows that the MOOC offers "Elite Education for the Masses!"  The ! is mine, but it might as well be WaPo's, given the tenor of the article.

Some things I learned:
  • Lectures are bad, according to educrat pedagogy of the last decade, and classrooms must be flipped to eliminate them . . . unless the course is a MOOC.  Then lectures are good because they are delivered by "world-class faculty" at "elite institutions."
  • Multiple-choice quizzes are bad, according to educrat pedagogy . . . unless they are inserted into the lecture in a MOOC. Then they are good because they "promote student engagement" and "enhance learning." 
  • A MOOC helps to build the brand, a key purpose of education since its beginnings.
  •  Dropping the name of a MOOC sponsored by an Ivy is okay because attending a MOOC is just like attending an Ivy. Jonathan Rees has a post about Ivy schools (A shares) and Ivy MOOCs (B shares) that seems a little closer to what will happen, but WaPo didn't interview him. 
  • And some people really do find teaching and participating in MOOCs worthwhile.  I'm not being sarcastic about that, and it is inspiring to think that people feel that way, even if they show no interest in the long-term effects of MOOCification. 
This part struck me as sort of sad:
“The real question is, if you start to get very good online MOOCs, why do you need a university?” said Joseph A. Burns, dean of faculty at Cornell University. “And what does an Ivy League university bring to the table? What do you give to students that they can’t get sitting at home and eating potato chips?” The campus ideal, he said, “of a teacher and five students crowded around their feet on a sunny lawn or something like that — that’s gone."
Really? Gone for good, even at Cornell? You're the dean of faculty and you can't articulate what value added Cornell the institution brings to the table as long as its lectures are recorded and put online for free? I can tell you one thing: once there's no more faculty, there won't be a need for a dean of what's not there.

I'd also argue that the "students sitting outside" for class, which I see plenty of at Northern Clime when the weather is nice, isn't something that we ought to give up so easily. Granted, it's not shiny, like an online discussion board or auto-graded quiz in a MOOC, but it signals a different kind of student engagement, one that has a track record of encouraging real learning.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Decision fatigue

Dame Eleanor has a fascinating post and links to good articles about something called "decision fatigue." Put simply, researchers have found that your willpower goes down, as does your ability to make good decisions, when you've had to make a series of decisions over the course of a day.  You'll do anything to make it stop, including compromising in ways that you don't want to do or refusing to make any decision at all. The effect is magnified if your brain is starved of glucose: it needs that energy for willpower, which is in keeping with what other brain researchers found earlier this year.

In personal terms, this makes a stunning amount of sense. All those chirpy self-help fillers in magazines and web sites urge us to "Try something different! Break up your routine! Take a new route home from work! Brush your teeth in a different direction!" as a route to creativity. But if you've ever tried those strategies, you realize that they're only for leisure times when you have no work to do, because they are exhausting.

Think about it.  When you have to shop at a different grocery store, everything is in a different place and finding what you want among innumerable brands is tiring. Unless you have the fashion gene, which I do not, shopping for clothes is exhausting.  Controlled novelty--going to the farmer's market or an art gallery--can be stimulating and get the creative juices flowing, but what allows creativity to survive on a daily basis is the certainty of a physical routine that lets your mind go free. Thoreau had this one right: "Simplify, simplify." So did William James on the value of habit. One person's controlled novelty might be another person's occasion for decision fatigue, but the principle is still there.

The recent Vanity Fair article on President Obama indicated that he's cut his wardrobe down to blue suits and gray suits, or something like that, so that he can cut down on the time spent deciding.  Good call, Mr. President. Don't we do the same kinds of thing when we buy the same pair of pants or sweater in a couple of colors, just so we don't have to go to the department store again for a couple of years (or is that just my strategy)?

According to the researcher quoted in the New York Times article above,  "people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions."

In other words, a regular routine isn't limiting to creativity. It's freeing because it conserves your energy to make the important decisions related to your creative life.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

#AcWriMo, #NaNoWriMo -- it all spells "writing"

George Williams at the Chronicle marks the start of Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo, from the old NaNoWriMo that some of us have done in previous years. Here are the rules:

  1. Set yourself some crazy goals.
  2. Publicly declare your participation and goals.
  3. Draft a strategy.
  4. Discuss what you’re doing.
  5. Don’t slack off.
  6. Publicly declare your results.
This may help me meet the goals at Dame Eleanor's (after not checking in last week).
So here goes:

1 & 2. Crazy goals and public participation. How much writing is possible, especially if you're teaching and having to research some of the things you're writing about? NaNoWriMo's goal used to be 50,000-80,000 words for the month, which may work for fiction writers  but not for academics.

A thousand words a day would be nice, but there are some more of those 14-hour days coming up when that wouldn't be possible.

I'm going with this one: write every day.  I actually did write every day except for one day in September. If you're kind, please don't ask me about October. Crazy goal: finish this chapter by mid-month (part is already drafted) and get a good way into the next one.

3. Draft a strategy. Since October was such a morass of travel, grading, and service, here's the strategy for this month:

  • keeps me honest, which is how I was able to keep to this in September,  so that will be one strategy.  
  • Writing by hand in a book that I keep with me all the time now, as suggested by Flavia, is another. 
  • Writing first thing in the morning, before "anyone gets up" or "can hurt your feelings," as Francis Ford Coppola suggests, is another. 
  • Strict Pomodoro (for Chrome) helps, too. 
More global strategies:
  • Reverse the order of braintime so that the writing, not the classes, is getting the bulk of the time. 
  • Recognize that the temptation to gild lilies in the classroom is a sign of the brain trying to avoid writing. 
  • Especially don't waste early morning creative time with thinking about classes several days hence.
4-6. Discuss what you're doing, don't slack off, and publicly declare your results.  

Are you in?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Vote vote vote

First of all, I hope all in the Sandy states are safe and well.

If you haven't voted already and you're in an early voting state, go and do it.
If you're in a regular-voting state, figure out how you're going to get there and make a plan to vote.
If you are female, you have had this right for less than 100 years (it boggles the mind), so you ought to do it for the foremothers.

It does make a difference, especially in this close election year, and if you are in an in-person voting state, you get to see the election ladies and feel good about participating in something that helps us all.

Of course I have opinions, lots of opinions, about how you should vote, but you don't need to hear them. What you need to do is vote.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The news from Amherst

[Trigger warning for sexual assault accounts at the links and phrases below.]

The New York Times story on the dismissal of a rape survivor's story at Amherst and of the institutional response is horrifying. Most horrifying is the attempt to gaslight the victim into questioning what she saw, felt, experienced, and had (in the institution's mind) the audacity to report. 

She was asked "Are you sure it was rape?" and told she couldn't change rooms despite feeling unsafe.  She was told not to seek justice, since it would be pointless. She was sent away and institutionalized for a time. 

While the responses she and others received from friends are terrible, the ones from the institution are worse.  The former try to mitigate a terrible reality, but the latter--from administrators who should know better--try to convince her that nothing ever happened, that the real problem is her response to being assaulted and wanting to see something done about it, presumably to insulate the institution from any liability or responsibility for what happened. 

We have all read about this sort of response for too many years--of victims forced to sit in "mediation sessions" with the rapist on campuses, of military survivors of rape labeled with a mental illness and discharged from the service without benefits rather than having the rape dealt with as an assault, which this case disturbingly brought to mind.

A cynical person would conclude that the institutions are only concerned when issues of liability or publicity are brought into the picture, but I think it's more complicated than that: there needs to be immediate change not just in the rhetoric of dealing with assault but in campus culture and methods of response, including the increasing involvement of professionals. Amherst president Dr. Biddy Martin has said that this must stop and she seems to mean business:
But in her first year here, after hearing from students, she made several changes, like having trained investigators look into those cases, revising the student handbook, and hiring a nationally known consultant, Gina M. Smith, to review and revise Amherst’s approach. She . . . released a statement that had neither the defensiveness nor the bland wait-and-see that are common to institutional responses, declaring that things “must change, and change immediately.” She made more administrative changes, and said in an interview in her office on Thursday that she is inclined to make more still, like having experts — rather than shifting panels of professors and students — adjudicate complaints.
Let's hope that this kind of proactive response spreads, and let's demand it at our institutions. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

TIME leads the cheering for MOOCs

"And the heavens parted, and behold, the MOOC descended from heaven and revolutionized education"--no, wait. That's not a quotation but only the tone of the author's puffy opinion piece, this week's feature article in Time.  Here is the shorter version, so you can decide whether to read it yourself.

A sample "fact": "Online classes were not, generally speaking, very good. To this day, most are dry, uninspired affairs, consisting of a patchwork of online readings, written Q&As and low-budget lecture videos" (35).

Hey, there, Ms. Author: do you have any source for that, or are we just playing straw man bingo here? Straw man bingo, you say? Okey-dokey then.  Just checking. I thought Time fancied itself a news magazine, but whatevs.

Amid the glow of the piece--the physics MOOC at Udacity was so awesome!--a piece so fulsome that I thought glitter was going to spring off the page, I did learn this tidbit from Udacity's co-founder David Stavens: "I think the top 50 schools are probably safe.  There's a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live in side the bubble, is wonderful" (41). Gee, you think?

And when Author visits the University of the District of Columbia, she sees the other kind of school that is "safe": "very selective--and very unselective--colleges will continue to survive" (41).

The rest of us? Well, we're pretty much --- oh, go ahead and supply the word yourself: obsolete. Jonathan Rees has been warning us about this, in more elegant language, for months now.

And there's more! Here's the takeaway: "Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will help strip away all the distractions of higher education--the brand, the price and the facilities--and remind all of us that education is about learning" (41). You don't say!  About learning? Really? Not about sports teams and the facilities that universities keep building in a desperate arms race for students? Not about creating a community of people who can learn together? Not about the connections to community, alumni, businesses, and place that can help a lot of students through internships and jobs? Not about research--for who'll do the research when professors at the Top 50 are teaching all the courses in the country? I read this and wondered idly how many graduates of the Top 50 got jobs in part through their connections, people they knew from their university experience, extra research they did by working with a professor, a project they did that an employer saw--no, that surely doesn't have an effect on a person's career. At all.

Well, since I have actual students who sent in actual papers to be graded, I have to sign off now.  Given the pace of the cheerleading, I guess I should be grateful that we still have classes and the opportunity to connect with students, since apparently that whole model is going the way of the dodo.

Can reading prevent psychopathy?

From a fascinating and disturbing article in The Chronicle, it appears that the answer is maybe, kinda, sorta yes.
With the aid of fMRI, Zacks and his co-authors peered deep inside the brains of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self. Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went out of the house into the street") were associated with increased activity in regions of the temporal lobes involved in spatial orientation and perception, while changes in the objects that a character interacted with (e.g., "picked up a pencil") produced a similar increase in a region of the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Most important, however, changes in a character's goal elicited increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex, damage to which results in impaired knowledge of the order and structure of planned, intentional action. 
Imagining, it would seem, really does make it so. Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we "mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative," according to one of the researchers, Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses. 
Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, "The Dreams of Readers," "more alert to the inner lives of others." We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn't.
Combined with other recent brain research on deep reading,  maybe we have a new sort of argument to make to those who want to gut the humanities in favor of science.  That won't help with the people who hate all knowledge and learning as belonging to "snobs," but it's a start.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Random bullets of this week

  • There was a lot of time spent this week, and very little of it belonged to me, though I had to be there. If you're an academic, you probably know that feeling. 
  • Hearing more about requirements for promotion to full professor was interesting: all involved research productivity, and none involved warming a chair at various meetings and burning a whole writing day to do so. Collegiality and showing up may be important, but it doesn't count as research productivity.  
  • Ditto for writing committee reports, creating new assignments, and preparing for class.
  • Ditto for teaching, especially when you have one class that is . . . challenging . . . in the seeming lack of interest in some members on occasion to read and participate in class discussions.
  • But part of this is my own fault for not looking at my own work every day. Except for the days when I got up at 5 a.m. and didn't get home until 9:45 that night, I could have done something, even if it was just reading the chapter over again. 
  • And there were some good conversations with colleagues whom I rarely see, so that goes on the plus side of the ledger. And a good, sanity-restoring lunch with a colleague from another institution.
So this week's goal at Dame Eleanor's is really to do better than I did this week. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writing inspiration: Hilary Mantel

From The New Yorker: 

When she wakes in the morning, she likes to start writing right away, before she speaks, because whatever remnants sleep has left are the gift her brain has given her for the day. Her dream life is important to the balance of her mind: it’s the place where she experiences disorder. Her dreams are archetypal, mythological, enormous, full of pageantry—there are knights and monsters. She has been to the crusades in her dreams more than once. 
When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions. She tried this for the first time when she was writing “The Giant, O’Brien”: the giant came in, but, before sitting down in the chair, he bent down and tested it, to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, she never got any further, because she was so excited that she punched the air and shouted “Yes!” But from then on she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.
In the last months of writing a book, as the end comes in sight, she becomes possessed. She doesn’t go anywhere, or talk about anything other than the book. She stops only to eat. Her sleep and work hours become erratic: often she will wake up at three in the morning, write for several hours, and then go back to bed. She becomes more and more anxious: it feels to her like stage fright, unnaturally and intolerably prolonged, as though at last she were spinning all her plates at once, darting about from one to the other and terrified of making a mistake because she knows that if one plate spins off balance they will all come crashing down.
Read more

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Conference tips no one ever tells you

You all know the usual conference tips: read your paper aloud to yourself, time it, etc. Here are a few conference tips that don't get mentioned enough. 
  • Pack some granola bars or crackers. Seriously. There will be early sessions and slow elevators, when riding down 30 floors to the inevitable Starbucks, waiting in line there, and riding back up to your floor (or finding a seat at said Starbucks) won't get you to an 8:00 session on time.  Unless you can afford the $15 bowl of room-service oatmeal to be delivered to you for breakfast, a granola bar or whatever will stave off enough hunger so that you can get something after the early session. 
  • Drink water--a LOT of water.  When you're talking to people, running around all day, and drinking tea or coffee, it's easier to get dehydrated, especially in the dry air of hotel rooms.  Restaurant food, and especially grab-it-to-go food, can be more salty than the food you usually eat. You might not feel thirsty, but that feeling of sleepiness or distractedness in sessions can be due to being dehydrated. Drinking water will help keep your energy up. 
  • When you get to the conference hotel, walk around to orient yourself. I know: this is obvious, but it's easy to forget if you've had a long trip already. Where are the restaurants? Where's a quick place to grab a sandwich? Is there a drugstore or little grocery store handy to get fruit or snacks? What about a bookstore? 
  • Look up at the hotel's exterior shape and facade: what street is it on? what's distinctive about it, so if you get lost a few blocks away you can look up and see it?
  • If you always end up tinkering with your paper and need to print a copy, does the hotel have a business center, and what are its charges? (Most do, but some in smaller places don't.) If not, is there a copy shop or FedEx close by? 
  • The Q & A at the end of the session is often a great discussion (even though sometimes people want to Hold Forth), and if you rush out after the last paper, you'll miss it. It's a great way to have a conversation, or at least to be in the conversation, with others who are interested in your subject matter. Even if you don't want to ask a question, you'll probably learn something interesting. 
  • If you liked someone's paper, say so, either after the session or when you see the person later. 
  • If you are presenting, try to listen to the others who are in your session or at least to seem to listen. If you pull out your cell phone and check it or keep typing on your laptop at the front of the room, even if you're just looking something up or tweeting, it signals inattention and might be unnerving to the person who's speaking. 
  • Talk to people and go to events, even if you're not a natural extrovert. There are all kinds of conference small talk you can engage in to introduce yourself, from something specific about a paper or an author ("I'm interested in what you had to say about X") to more general introductory topics ("What are you working on now?") to the conference itself to general things about travel, food, and places to eat. Unless your name is Bill Clinton, you might feel a little strange about going into a reception and talking to people you don't know, but that's part of what conferences are for.  
  • Bring your professional cards, if you have them. I know: it's old school, we're living in a digital age, and all that, but I still see a surprising number of people exchanging cards at conferences. It's still easier to exchange cards than to write down someone's email address when you're rushing to another session or straining to hear them over the din of a reception. 
Any other tips? 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

This is your brain on Jane Austen.

No time for a real post, but this story from NPR is some food for thought. A researcher who noticed that she could get so absorbed in a book that "the house could burn down" around her wondered whether the brain processed information differently with this kind of absorbed reading instead of casual reading (with Twitter, cell phone, internet, Facebook leaping into the reader's consciousness every few minutes). She teamed up with neuroscientists to test her hypothesis, and guess what she found?

"Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects," she said, "because everyone was going to be doing the same thing, right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways."

Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading.

But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: "What's been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading." 
Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.
So the next time you hear about multitasking while reading being just the same as reading deeply, you can say, with authority, "No. No, it's not."  Jane Austen will thank you for it.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Tweeting conference sessions: it's not all about the tweets

The recent kerfuffle about twittergate asks some questions that have come up at Chez Undine and other blogs after the 2011 MLA Conference:

  • Is it rude to tweet someone's remarks at a conference? [I don't think so.]
  •  If so, is that because of the content of the tweets or the distraction of having someone sitting there tapping away while the presenter is talking? [Distraction.]
  • Is there an expectation of privacy at a conference session? [Hmmm. Yes and no, but read the comments, such as Mark Sample's, at IHE.] 
Kathleen Fitzpatrick weighs in with some sensible advice: respect the speaker's preferences, but do tweet if possible, being careful to distinguish your ideas from the speaker's words.

This is all sound advice, but it misses something that those who are upset about tweeting (and I'm not, for the record) don't see. After watching this phenomenon at a few rounds of conferences over the past couple of years, where some sessions were tweeted and some not, I can tell the upset presenters this:  having someone tweet your session is a compliment, since only the sessions that tweeters consider to be cool or interesting will be tweeted at all.  It's like being a musician and having a non-satiric Weird Al Yankovic pick your song to record. 

That was hugely apparent at the last MLA, when during some sessions several tweeters would come in and sit at the back tables reserved for them while at other sessions those tables sat empty except for the discarded water glasses of a previous session.  

There's an interesting dynamic at work, I think: genuine curiosity about certain subjects makes people want to tweet those panels, but in watching the tweets and the tweeters, I also sensed an air of reclaiming the conference and reconfiguring it in a different way, establishing an alternative hierarchy to the more traditional groups of old-guard scholars  and creating a community through tweets.

I could be entirely wrong about this, but focusing on the act of tweeting may be looking too narrowly at the subject. There's a complex culture of tweeting behavior at conferences that would make a great study for some sociologist or anthropologist. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Creativity: the best time to do everything

In "Your Body's Best Time to Do Everything," The Wall Street Journal provides a little pop psych that I can believe in, more or less.

  • 8 a.m. Write upbeat tweets. [No thanks.]
  • 9 a.m. High energy and clarity; have difficult talks now. [No thanks. Use that energy ]
  • 10 a.m. Do cognitive work. Working memory and concentration tend to peak mid-morning. [Good writing time!] 
  • 2 p.m. Take a short nap. Sleepiness hits its peak. [Don't we wish we could all do this?]
  • 4 p.m. Do physical work. Eye-hand coordination rises in late afternoon.
  • 5 p.m. Work out. Muscle strength and flexibility rises later in the day. 
  • 9 p.m. Work creatively. People's freshest, most original thinking may occur at non-peak times of the day, which for most people is evening. Fatigue may lower inhibitions and open the mind to offbeat ideas and solutions. [Finally a research finding that confirms what I've experienced for years.]
Here's a writing inspiration post from Inside Higher Ed

Friday, September 28, 2012

You want to ask me again?

  • If the papers were posted, you would see them posted. 
  • If they are not posted, they are not posted.
  • If I said I would let you know by email when they are ready, I will let you know by email when they are ready.
  • If you email me about the papers, what I think about is the guy in the pickup truck who roars up behind my car when I'm already going a safe amount over the speed limit: it will not make me go any faster, and it will not improve my mood.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Using iAnnotate with JStor, Project Muse, and downloaded .pdf files

For those who've been frustrated (as I have) by iAnnotate's quirky refusal to sync files that you download into it directly.

To get .pdf files from JStor, Project Muse, or another database into iAnnotate:

1. If you're on an iPad: Go into Project Muse, JStor, or whatever. Bring up the article in .pdf
2. Touch the upper right corner to get to the Open In buttons. DO NOT press Open in iAnnotate. If you do, you'll mark up the text for nothing, since iAnnotate won't save or sync it. Instead, press Open In and choose Dropbox.
3. Choose the destination in Dropbox and save it.
4. Once it's saved in Dropbox, select the file. it will open in the Dropbox window.
5. Click on the little arrow that's in the corner. Your options will be Print or Open in. Select Open In and choose iAnnotate.
6. Now that it's been loaded from Dropbox, you can mark up the article and the annotations will sync properly.

To get .doc and .docx files to convert and sync properly: 
Short version: you can't do this any more.

 It used to be that you could download a .doc or .docx file from Dropbox, convert it to a .pdf using iAnnotate, mark it up, and re-upload it to Dropbox using the tab at the top of the document.

Now, all you can do is mark it up and admire it on your iPad, because there's no way to upload the converted file.

There is a workaround: 1. do all of the above. 2. email the converted file to yourself. 3. save it in Dropbox. Why make us do the three extra steps, though?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Writing Inspiration: Ta-Nehisi Coates

This struck me as good writing inspiration material: Ta-Nehisi Coates on why he doesn't spend as much time gaming any more: 

Writing has, increasingly, taken up residence in the space where I used to put fandom. Even nonfiction writing, for me, requires an act of imagination because I am always thinking of ways to afflict the reader with some of what I feel. I'm not simply trying to afflict him/her logically, but also emotionally. The writing must emote. To do that I employ the same imagination I once put into the nasty poison-spewing green dragon (or was she blue? red?) from the Isle of Dread, and redirect to (attempted) acts of literature. 

Popular culture in the classroom

Bardiac and Jennifer Finney Boylan, in a guest post at Tenured Radical, recently wrote about the cultural references they share (or don't share) with younger colleagues (Bardiac) and students (Boylan).  Boylan says that the last piece of common ground seems to be Harry Potter, which is probably about right, and that she'd watch SNL but that the host is Seth McFarlane, and she doesn't know who that is. I do know, but primarily because of listening to Fresh Air, which is for non-cool people like myself the place where we find out what's going on in the culture.

Except for a few television shows (Arrested Development, and that's an old one to them), I don't think my students and I share many cultural references beyond Santa Claus and current internet memes.  I know from asking them that Mad Men and Downton Abbey aren't on their radar screens--as why would they be?--but then again Futurama and Family Guy are only dimly on mine. Music years are like double-dog years to them: a song from 2010 that I heard and liked would be approximately 14 years old in cultural time, so I don't even try with music.

The places where we find common ground are those that you can't help knowing about even if you've never read or seen them: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, usually Star Wars, and maybe Star Trek in all its variations.  But since my interests lie much more in the popular culture that's way back in the past even for me and far more so for them, I'm happy to learn from them what they choose to tell me about what cultural touchstones they share, and I try to find analogies from the past that might help.  They seem to enjoy educating me, and the feeling is mutual.

How do you bridge the culture gap?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Can MOOC's sell textbooks? King Gillette and the Razor Blade

Jennifer Howard's article "Can MOOC's Help Sell Textbooks?" raises some interesting issues, to wit: if  MOOC's are supposed to be gloriously free for everyone, is it even ethical to require a textbook? A snippet, with some pieces removed: 
But online courses do have recommended-reading lists, and enrollments in the tens of thousands. If even a small percentage of those online students buy books, the sales could add up to a nice boost for a textbook. 
"We are actively tracking the development of MOOC's and believe they do represent a promising market for university-press titles," said Ellen W. Faran, director of the MIT Press. 
Online-course providers continue to draw the line at required reading, and instructors—including those with books to sell—have abided by such guidelines, at least so far. 
"We do strongly urge instructors not to require any textbooks that cost money, since we want the courses to remain accessible even to students that cannot afford to purchase a textbook, including the many that don't even have a credit card," said Ms. Koller, of Coursera, in an e-mail interview.
So it does seem to be profitable to have a MOOC that recommends or requires a book, since "strongly urge" does not mean "prohibit." That's assuming that the student chooses to pay for the printed version instead of reading the book online at  (or, if it's not there, probably illegally uploaded to a web site). I'm assuming a worst-case scenario here, in which textbooks are required.

But isn't this the same issue as an instructor requiring students to buy the book that ze has written, multiplied by 40,000 instead of 40? The common wisdom on that, which I've gleaned through conversations with others and lurking on the Chronicle's forums, is that if you require a book through which you receive a financial benefit, even if it's the key textbook on the subject, you're supposed to remit the royalties to the students, donate them to a student fund, or otherwise ensure that you don't profit from having the power to require students to purchase the book. How does that work when you have 40,000 or 100,000 students in other countries? One principled professor (can't recall his name) got the publisher to agree to distribute his textbook for free to his Coursera students, but that apparently isn't the norm.

This does answer one question I've had about MOOC's: how will they make money? Here's an analogy. The story goes that King Gillette,* when he was trying to get men to adopt the safety razor rather than the straight razor, decided to give away the razors and charge for the razor blades.  Because they couldn't use the razor without the blades, he'd have them as customers for life, so it was worth taking a loss on the razor to sell a man blades for the next 50 years.  Printer manufacturers do the same thing today: they all but give away the printer and charge a hefty fee for the printer ink cartridges. I wonder if the maker of those machines that use those little coffee pods that are so fashionable now uses the same model, but I haven't looked.

So you lose money on the course, because it's free, but you make money back on the peripherals: you charge for the exam that students take for certification, for textbooks, and, I'm betting in time, for access to the bulletin boards through which the discussion is conducted, since that is already a model being used in traditional universities.

And say you're an elite university: let's call it MegaBucks U. You're the only kind that will have the status to offer MOOC courses while other universities, until they're forced out of business, will be pressured to accept MOOC credits.  You'll make money on the tests, which you'll write and contract out for someone else to deliver; on the textbooks, from your university press; and from the increased visibility and good press that MegaBucks will receive by making "the world's knowledge available to millions" or whatever catch phrase is being bandied about this week.

And you still won't allow MegaBucks U's students to take a MOOC course for credit, because that would be very wrong and dilute the brand.

Again, I ask you: what am I missing here?

*Wikipedia says he wasn't the first to do it, but he's the most iconic figure, so I'm sticking to the analogy.

Edited to add: I am not categorically opposed to any of this, but I really want to see these questions answered. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Midweek RBOC

  • Drive home, change clothes to go for walk/run. Lie down just for a second and fall asleep instantly. Yeah, getting up at 5 to write but then staying up till 11:30 to prep classes will do that to you. 
  • I've been writing in a notebook after rediscovering it and realizing it was easier to read that in some ways than to leaf through all the pages of the research notebook as computer files.  It was also sort of fun to see what I was doing 3-4 years ago at this time--working through ideas, failing at keeping up a Boice chart, and all that. 
  • Get a Life has some good strategies, and, as she says, things go better when you plan. Falling dead asleep instead of getting at the evening's work was not part of the plan.
  • For the first time I've heard people referring non-ironically to "protecting my time," as in "protecting Fridays" or "keeping my Fridays for research days." They're unapologetic about it, and now, so am I.  "I'm not available" is about all I say, but it does the trick. Our new chair seems to support this perspective, too, which helps. 
  • My goal is not to get Rhett Butler back, but after today's crash into sleep, I'm repeating to myself, "tomorrow is another day." 

Saturday, September 15, 2012's new plan is experimenting with off-line retailing, including brick-and-mortar stores and a locker pickup service for people who can't be at home when the UPS or FedEx truck rolls around.

Instead of shipping to your house, Amazon will ship to the locker.  It will also charge an extra $2-3 for the privilege of picking up your stuff, although if the lockers are located inside stores, the store owner may choose to eat the cost to get more customers into the store.

It'll be cheaper for Amazon to deliver to a locker, and "Amazon could entice customers to use the service by offering discounts or freebies, such as same-day delivery at no extra charge, Harvey said."

Let's review:

  • To buy from a traditional bookstore: Drive to bookstore, browse, pay for book (including sales tax), and take book home for instant reading.
  • To buy from this future iteration of Amazon: Go online, browse, pay for book (including sales tax), pay for shipping unless you have Amazon Prime. Wait a few hours or a few days, drive to pickup center, pay pickup center charge, take book home for reading. 
  • Or as above, with an extra charge for shipping this to your house, because a "discount" for picking something up at a locker center translates into an extra charge for what's now free if you have Amazon Prime: shipping to your house.
I can see how this would work for unusual or hard-to find items, but for most books? How is Amazon's plan more convenient? I'm not seeing it, unless you're ordering an academic book or something that you might otherwise buy at Madio Mack if they hadn't irritated you beyond belief in your previous contact with them. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Weekly roundup of academic issues

  • I'm late in posting about the CSU "expiry date" ad (now changed), but Dr. Crazy and Historiann and Sisyphus and now Timothy Burke have weighed in on the unfairness of it all. 
    • I don't have anything to add to this one, because you've all addressed it so well.
  • On MOOCS, Indyanna over at Historiann's place quotes from Tamar Lewin's piece: 

    Isn’t that amazing? At my school the Political Science department couldn’t develop a course on non-governmental organizations, nor could Physics and Astronomy decide to teach about superstring theory without jumping through a year’s worth of committee and senate hoops to persuade every cook and baker and horse-shoer who happened to hold faculty status anywhere that the change was not going to affect somebody else’s enrollments, or cause somebody’s external accreditor to question the credentials of their majors. But U-dacity can just slide onto a campus with a “proctored test” and kaboom, the credit hours will be rolled onto the transcripts.
Isn't this true, and doesn't it say just about everything about MOOC cheerleading? And, by the way, proctored and created by whom? Who creates those tests?  Who vets the tests, since the faculty doesn't get to vet the course and the university is not going to bother vetting it? How do faculty members know that they're valid or equivalent to a course? Or doesn't the faculty's consent to courses matter if it's a MOOC?

  • A mostly-civil discussion about whether David Perlmutter was right to urge candidates to take jobs even in locations that are outside their comfort zone (comfort zone = New York, Boston, Chicago, or Berkeley). Alexandra Lord replies, nope, that's bad advice: better a non-academic career in a place that you love. This fits in with a piece last fall, where "Emma Thornton" didn't like the weather at her "Fine Southern University" and gave up her tenure-track job to be an adjunct in England. 

  • Can't both of these options (academic job in a place you don't know and non-academic job where you want to live) be valid options? Why is there such animus and snark and defensiveness about one choice or the other? It's true that if you give up a t-t academic job, you may well never get another one (see bullet point #1), but that doesn't mean that you won't have a happy life outside academe, if you're living where you want to live.  Isn't the main thing finding work that will support you and your family, and, if possible, satisfying work? Academe isn't the only place where that can happen. 

    The thing is, as everyone has said many times, is that as an academic you don't usually get to have both: close proximity to family or major cities or whatever is important to you and a tenure-track job.  Knowing this, why are both camps on this issue so defensive? It's  "my intensity of commitment to academe beats your lack of intensity" versus "well, I care about my family/the arts/living a full life and you don't." Why does each feel so judged by the other? 

    In an old novel one time, I read a quotation that went something like this: "Are the people telling you how to think and act going to help you in any way? No? Then why do you care what they think?" 

    [Update: See also The Professor is In for her take on this.] 

    Saturday, September 08, 2012

    I-journalism, a rant

    From nicoleandmaggie comes this link and nicoleandmaggie's comments on it:
    This post from Wil Wheaton reminded me why NPR annoyed me this morning.  They had some commentator come on to say that Obama’s speech failed because she didn’t think it was as good as Michelle Obama’s or Clinton’s.  Even if that’s true (and I think the speeches were all good but they were focused on different aspects of the message), I wasn’t aware that Obama was running against Clinton and Michelle Obama.  I thought he was running against Romney. 
    Wheaton (at the link) goes on to call out whatever fool listed things you could do in the time taken by Clinton's speech to say "Because reading 12 pages of Proust is so much more important than understanding how badly the GOP has **** the country" and goes on from there.

     Absolutely right, n&m and Wil Wheaton! The persistent I-journalism and snarkiness that made me give up entirely on NEWSWEEK and a lot of other "real" media outlets (cough *TIME*cough) fails to notice that in its obsession with being "relatable," mainstream journalism is losing track of the big picture. It doesn't report; it opines. It doesn't analyze; it gives lists like the stupidly precious one that Wheaton cites.

    Articles begin with four paragraphs of how the person discovered the issue or how it relates to hir life or, better yet, makes hir feel. The article continues with opinion, mentions the subject of the story, and ends with a catchy snapper of an ending that says nothing. When I hear or read "My journey began" or "I recall as a child" or some such thing, I say to myself "who cares what you think?" and turn the page or the NPR dial. (What I actually say is "Who gives a -- what you think?" but this is a family blog.)

    Opinions are cheap, and, like feelings,  I've got 'em, and so do you. If you don't know more than I do about something--and although there are well-informed journalists, sometimes it's clear that they don't have a clue--then spare me your opinion.

     I didn't realize how bad this had gotten or how much I wanted actual, you know, facts and context until I started to read THE ECONOMIST, which despite its political bent actually provides information beginning with the first paragraph. Bill Clinton's speech gave that kind of information, too.

     Why can't we have information instead of "Why Clinton won over Obama in the media" or "5 Ways Michele Obama Gets Fabulous Arms" or "How Random Person feels about an issue that he's never give five minutes worth of thought to" or "Random stupid quotation from a politician" or "Click through this slide show to see 10 political scandals"?

    Why does the media turn every issue  into some kind of gladiator sport with winners and losers?

    Why does an episode of THE DAILY SHOW contain more information in 22 minutes than an hour of cable news?

     I know: I'm not providing facts here, either. But this is a blog, not a news outlet, and I am not a journalist. To the journalists out there: we are hungry for this stuff, which is why we liked the Big Dog's speech. How about it?

    Wednesday, September 05, 2012

    New year, new start, new energy

    It's a time of new energy, and not just from taking a few minutes out to watch the Big Dog's inspiring nomination speech this evening.

    Even things that take time are energizing.

    We have some new administrators at Northern Clime, and there's a sense of hope and change. People are energized at meetings, and more gets accomplished at them since there's a clear direction.

    I volunteered for some committees and am--yes--excited about serving on them. Part of the reason for this is that I get to talk to colleagues about things I care about, and finding opportunities to talk to people is a pleasure after a summer of talking to the cats.

    I'm excited about the new course I'm teaching despite the extra time and reading that it takes, and I'm working on innovative ways to refresh and enliven the courses I've already taught.

    Dame Eleanor's writing group is energizing lots of us, myself included.

    And talk about energizing: the  Madwoman with a Laptop has a fabulous theory workbook plan for students that will make you rethink what you want to do for spring semester.