September 15, 2013

Does Anything Make Us Happy? Categories, Listings, Platforms

Filed under: facebook,writing — jrice @ 7:32 am

I finished the fast yesterday, went online, and discovered numerous colleagues from across the country upset over the latest MLA categorization of our field.  Apparently, not being categorized or listed in a specific way upsets us. It connotes a lack of disciplinary and professional recognition of value. In turn, we feel insulted.

Of course, such lacks are apparent everywhere, not just in an umbrella organization’s decision or ideological impulse to emphasize one thing over another. At any moment one or another of our organizations releases some update or shift in policy or outlook, we are bound to be upset. Taxonomies, after all, can comfort, and if altered or not expanded to our tastes, they upset.

My kids are not upset on a weekend morning when they get to watch cartoons. They show no beef with television programming categorized as “kids” (The Mighty Jungle, Sarah and Duck, The Cat in the Hat, etc.). As they did such watching this morning, I spent a few minutes on my iPad reading about how Facebook supposedly makes us unhappy, and I suppose, upset. One grouping of findings suggests that

the more time people spent browsing the site, as opposed to actively creating content and engaging with it, the more envious they felt.

This envy supposedly comes from wanting what others have, resentment, and I suppose, jealousy.

We want to learn about other people and have others learn about us—but through that very learning process we may start to resent both others’ lives and the image of ourselves that we feel we need to continuously maintain.

One might take an MLA classification that places our field in an insignificant status bracket (even when we have more job opportunities than other fields) as an example of one of these feelings. We “resent” the status afforded to literature (though, it seems, many within literary studies are expressing similar thoughts about the categorization process as well) as it is opposed to our own image of ourselves. Or we can say that our own reaction, in a field that still won’t grant us the ethos or category we desire, too, as an example of Facebook envy or being unhappy. People, we might think, are learning the wrong thing about us.

Does a list or platform make us happy or unhappy? Do books do as such? Do movies? A platform may have agency, but can its agency be so universal as to make us feel one thing or another all the time? Not likely. Take this short film on Facebook usage, Noah, profiled by The New Yorker as well. Does Facebook create the jealousy and petty feelings that cause a teenager to wrongly accuse his girlfriend of cheating and thus leads to their breakup, or is this merely a familiar narrative of young love applied to Facebook? In that sense, the platform merely allows for narrative repetition in the way all platforms do (songs, movies, novels, poems). Teenage break-up is not a new narrative (and neither, of course, is disciplinary categorization). The platform doesn’t create the narrative, but once it is used to retell the narrative of immaturity and relationships, it extends the story to include new kinds of moments since the overall network (the story) has been altered to include a new actor or set of actors (Facebook, instant messaging. Chatroulette). Facebook can’t make the characters unhappy; the narrative structure did not that long ago.

There is no doubt that our (whatever that means) overall relationships to social media platforms such as Facebook are complex. On the one hand, these relationships grant us access to otherwise unknown information (news, images, personal items, people’s ideas, links, archival moments, etc). Access to data, it seems, is problematic. If such access makes us unhappy, then, we might think that we prefer to not know rather than to know. After all, the boy in Noah ends up knowing “too much” to the extent that he makes a mistake in judgment (such is the weekly plot structure of Sons of Anarchy as well….). If everyone in our generalized Modern Language Association field knows that rhetoric and composition is not an elevated or unique category among the various specializations (or that it has specific subcategories that are equally important), then we feel unhappy at this accessible data. People, we think, do not fully know our relationship to the overall field. We are more important to the field than the category makes us out to be, we think. Of course, everyone likely feels that way when status is reduced to taxonomy. And because we have granted so much agency to the umbrella organization – as studies often grant to platforms like Facebook – our feelings are intense.

The New Yorker cites a University of Missouri grad student researcher as saying, ““Facebook may be a threat to relationships that are not fully matured.” Academic relationships, as a whole, can suffer from such immaturity, whether online or offline. At Wayne State, I felt slighted that I was not listed in the department’s categorization of faculty who specialize in media studies – despite having written about media and technology. Coming to Kentucky, I felt elevated that my taxonomy of “endowed professor” suddenly enhanced my overall disciplinary status. My emotional response to both categories can be considered as the result of an immature relationship. Neither, though, has to do with Facebook or other social media. They have to do with me. Whatever networks I enter into – networks that include the very nonhuman actors called “pride” or “status” or “rank” or other items – I engage with them in various ways as to produce envy, jealousy, happiness, unhappiness or other responses. A departmental categorization of speciality doesn’t make me unhappy on its own. It does so via the other forces I engage with at that moment. In the moment I currently am in professionally, I’m not sure I’d give a shit about either category. Neither position (How dare they! I don’t care!) is necessarily better than the other. They are simply the result of my engagements at specific moments.

The New Yorker piece concludes by noting that “when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.” I suppose that is true of any given moment. McLuhan’s emphasis on involvement may not have been a statement regarding being happy (i.e., if I am involved, I am happy or satisfied), but it can reflect the ways participation plays the major role in any relationship moment. A MOOC student who feels disengaged – much as a student in a lecture hall – responds in a negative way. An academic who feels disengaged from a list responds in a negative way. A fan of a product who speaks with the product’s makers or representatives via an online platform responds in negative and positive ways. Friends who can share personal and professional moments via an online platform respond in negative (I want that too!) and positive (good for her/him!) ways as well.  Like the narrative of teenage love gone awry, this story, too, is not novel.


August 28, 2013

Who We Talk To When We Talk Online

Filed under: facebook,socialmedia,writing — jrice @ 8:39 am

A department sends an announcement to undergraduates via Facebook or Twitter. Who actually hears the announcement?

I ask the question not as a critique of my program or any program’s usage of social media to distribute news or announcements but out of curiosity regarding audience, the ways we create audience (recall Ong’s the audience is a fiction) and the ways audiences respond or do not respond to various messages online. I ask the question after watching my program use Facebook to distribute announcements even though we have no major or minor and our Facebook page has only 292 likes, many of whom are not undergraduate students but colleagues from across the country who either support our efforts at UK (thus, they like us) or are interested in the work we are doing (the like allows them to follow our online activity).

Do students see our announcements, I wondered? Do we know they are reading what we share? And are our 292 likes an anomaly, a small number regarding institutional likes since we are not yet a department and we don’t have majors or minors. After all, the University of Kentucky has 365,000 likes. Surely, we can nab a percentage of that number when we are a department and are able to build the major.

Yet, the English Department, a department that has a considerable number of majors, only has 283 likes. That number could be shaped by faculty less interested in social media than an emerging department with “digital studies” in its name. That number could also be shaped by an object of study not completely intertwined with digital media (at least at UK). Communication, after all, has 712 likes. Some of the work done in the Communication school involves digital media (they objected to our usage of “media” in our name based on this point). And yet, 712 is a small fraction of 365,000.

What is a like anyway? For writers like Paul Adams, the like shapes the relationship. It acknowledges that I – the person who likes – has or wants some form of a relationship with the thing I liked. If I like Stone Brewing’s Facebook page, I assume that means I like Stone Brewing’s products and I want to be informed about any change or development regarding their products. If I want an undergraduate to like my program’s Facebook page, I am asking the student to be in a relationship with my program’s work or object of study beyond the simple statement “I am majoring in that study” or “I have taken classes in that study.” When I was an undergraduate student studying English, I have to admit, I did not enjoy such a relationship with my department. This is not because there was no such thing as social media then but rather because I saw myself merely taking classes, doing well, and then moving on. I did not have that kind of identity (professional or professional oriented) to care about English as something to have a greater relationship with. As I surveyed UK departments’ Facebook pages, I noticed that many, like our own department to be, had likes under 300. I wonder, then, if most students merely don’t care about having a relationship with the department that will grant them a degree the way they may care about our other kinds of online relationships – those based on commerce, entertainment, or some other idea.

The answer, particularly with all the recent fuss about the VMA awards and news coverage, would appear to be yes; students, like most people, prefer relationships with entertainment over education. I don’t, however, want to yield to the easy answer just yet. I don’t want to because the question of audience and building audience is more complex than merely “give the people what they want.” To stay with the Stone example for a minute, when Greg Koch started promoting Stone’s IPA and Pale Ale in the business’ early days, the “people” did not want – or it was believed that they did not want – bitter beer. Want was something, it seems, to be created, not accommodated. And, of course, that is how most innovations work. If there appears to be no audience, build one (like the famous Sprite ad declares with its focus on products over the movie). When Brian McNely came to UK and did a job talk, he dismissed the overall usage of Twitter for broadcasting  - as opposed to fostering relationships. And yet, when most academic departments, at first glance, take to social media, they only broadcast. They are trying to accommodate want before building want. We believe someone wants us before we show them why to want us.

I asked on Facebook what one’s department or program’s Facebook likes were. I received a few responses, and mostly they reflect what I noticed at UK. Somewhere in the 300 figure.

There is no causality here – meaning, low numbers do not reflect an inability to connect or distribute information to an undergraduate audience. Departments may simply not care about Facebook as a potential connector with students. And there is no evidence of creepy treehouse here either, though we assume that they don’t want to eat where they shit (metaphorically speaking). Nor is there evidence that undergraduate students don’t use Facebook. In the residential hall program I co-direct, the Facebook presence is very active (though it is a Group, and not a page, thus suggesting another form of Facebook interaction outside of the like). We can generational generalize, but such generalizations often come up short with scrutiny, much as ethnic ones do.

One of Paul Adams’ other points regarding the like is that it fosters permission marketing. By liking someone or something, I am conceding permission for that like to be further shared (and thus, generate more likes and more of an audience). This is an idea not too far off of Malcolm Gladwell’s Connector theory (which Adams critiques because of Gladwell’s emphasis on well known people) in which certain people are connectors, sharing information and ideas to other people. If I like X, and if some people who know me see I like X, they may show interest in X as well. I, then, am a Connector or I am facilitating permission marketing. I am not paid for liking X. But I may benefit from others liking X if X grows and develops in a way to bring me more pleasure. Such is how craft beer works regarding blogs and online beer forums and reviews.

It seems we need some form of permission marketing for our department/program Facebook page if we are to actually communicate with students. That is, announcements should still be distributed via Twitter or Facebook, but if the audience is not really there – or not there in the numbers we need to be effective in such distribution – we need to create content that will foster identification and relationships that, in turn, generate permission marketing. Some may calls this building memes or going viral, or Tony Sampson may critique such work via his explanation of contagion theory where he finds distaste with the supposed models of capitalism. Not exactly. The content does not have to be picked up by thousands. It has to be liked. Via the like, the relationship can be built beyond “take these classes,” “we’re the best major out there,” “study this,” or other forms of broadcast media that, for the most part, lack content or the ability to generate a relationship. I took English classes and did well as an undergraduate. I did not have a relationship with the department. My want was not fostered.  I like Stone not because Stone says: BUY OUR BEER. A want, and granted a want bigger than Stone, pushes me toward their online presence.

This is not a critique of WRD, my program, or any program for that matter. Nor is this a solution. This is more of an inquiry into the nature of relationship building which is the heart of social media audience creation and the various strategies we employ to create relationships (hey, rhetoric!). Not really news, of course. Industries revolve around such questions. Studying the performances of various identities might help us here. We might discover the importance of personality (dynamic figures that generate interest), content (material beyond information), humor (often a plus), news (what we are good at already), image (WRD is doing this on Instagram already), and interaction. And, of course, time.

And, these are likely notes towards a piece on response and online interactions.

August 6, 2013

Funding the University

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 1:21 pm

Neo-liberalism? Reality check? What is the language to use in the current university situation of financial instability?

Once, the states subsidized university education. Now, the states don’t want to, or don’t want to at any significant level. There is no shortage of critique regarding the current situation, but there are few solutions. And when an idea comes into being (no matter how young the idea is – for example, MOOCs), the response can be to shut down the idea immediately without any real knowledge regarding what the idea is about. Or, the idea is shut down the idea via the rhetoric of romanticism (face to face education narratives are among the most romantic…’s InsideHigherEd piece shares that romanticism).

How to finance what was never meant to need additional finance outside of tuition and subsidy?

1. Cut. Cut programs. Cut majors. Cut expensive faculty lines. Create a cheaper product, but cut. Not ideal, of course.

2. Invent. Create products that can be licensed and sold. In the Humanities, this is a bit of a problem since we are not inventors of material things (though, we tried last year to start such an endeavor via an NEH grant; we did not get the grant).

3. Raise tuition. Limited in effect since it also causes some students to search out cheaper alternatives.

4. Charge students for more services. This has become the norm. When we need to pay for something, we add more fees and charges. Students are being asked to pay for more, if not all, of their education. Taxpayers want out of this business. No politician loses an election for cutting education funding. Quite the opposite: politicians lose elections over questions of who can get married or how much money the prison system receives. Not education.

Can we imagine a day when tuition only pays for the classroom experience? Students already pay for the gym, sporting events, and some other services. Will they have to pay to use the library? Or the commons area? Or even the remedial or support options initially designed for retention? I don’t find it too difficult to imagine such a future.

Will or should students, for instance, pay for the Writing Center? As a writing professor, I find this to be an immediate issue. Writing Centers, so often deemed important, often receive minimal funding and attention. At Wayne State, for instance, the chair of the department did not want a tenure line faculty member running the Writing Center; it was run by a rotating team of graduate students. At Kentucky, our Writing Center is also not run by a tenure line faculty member. Few centers are, despite their importance.  And ours has been asked to rethink some of its expenses, including the usage of MA students as tutors, an expense that offers little return outside of tutoring. These MA students do not teach courses that can provide revenue; they, in effect, provide a free service. But they cost a great deal since the MA students are on fellowships. I understand why they should but cut from the tutoring they currently do.

MA students aside – I have no objection to a totally undergraduate peer tutoring model – how could the Writing Center generate revenue instead of being a free service? Is its model the gym or the current library? That is, should it require additional payment for usage or stay free?

What if, let’s say, the Writing Center charged for its services. Imagine this scenario: students registering for their classes, and in particular, their first semester, receive a pamphlet describing the Writing Center’s services and options. The pamphlet also reminds students – and their parents – that most students, particularly in the early part of university education, need additional help in chemistry, math,and writing. The Writing Center provides such help in one of these vital areas. All areas of education and work, after all, require writing. To succeed, students often will need writing help beyond the two semesters spent in required writing classes.

But to use the Writing Center, students need to pay $10 a visit. Or, if they check the appropriate box on registration after reading about the Writing Center, they can receive unlimited visits for $30. Of course, we don’t want them to pay $10 a visit. We want the $30 unlimited. If 1,000 of 4,000 incoming freshmen take the $30 option, the Writing Center will now have $30,000 for the Fall semester. If they sign up again, the amount doubles. Can the Writing Center handle 1,000 students in a semester with unlimited access? I don’t know. Our Writing Center has never provided information regarding usage. My guess is that the average student would use the Writing Center 5-7 times a semester. That may translate to 100 students per day. But I may be wrong. I’m guessing. I would need the data to know more. I also see the gym model extended here. Gyms enroll people on unlimited plans knowing that the customers will not attend in an unlimited way – and many will hardly show up at all. But I want parents to know that this vital service can be used by the student  for the entire semester for far less than one meal on the town in Lexington. I want the parents to see how cheap this deal is. $60 a year is a pretty good deal for extra help. Private tutoring alone, over a year, would cost far more than $60. Not all 1,000 may show up in a given semester. But we need 1,000 – and their parents – to see $30 as a minor, additional expense, and one that is very valuable for the cost.

Would our Writing Center benefit by an additional, annual $60,000 over its current, allocated budget? I’d think so. Would this be a popular decision with students who are already over-taxed? Maybe not. Don’t know. Would the university support the charge? Don’t know either. My experience in various institutions is that calls to self-fund are also, at times, countered by fears that Regents, legislatures, or parents will reject the new idea. Thus, as we are pressured to self-fund, we are also constrained by political fears. Those fears may, in fact, be justified. But, then, what is the solution? We have one, limited audience to charge additional fees to: the students. We have 25,000 of them. Without new financial models, like I propose here, then the calls to self-fund should dry up. But they don’t. Obviously, I’m thinking of a persuasive moment, rather than a fulfilled moment. That’s what I do or a living: imagine how to persuade.

Or do you think this model is merely another offshoot of that bad, bad word “neoliberalism”? I’m a realist more than an ideologue. We could just as easily let certain services go away in the name of ideology.  The ideological position would be: writing support  is meant to be free. Of course, ideology is what gets writing centers into trouble in the first place. The same occurs with online education each time “face to face” is the response to an idea. Another, and likely worthwhile discussion, might be: what would happen without remedial or student support setups like writing centers? MOOCs could be a part of that discussion, but then again, so would  be the negative , or even ideological, responses.


July 27, 2013

Do Whatchaya Like

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:36 pm

The basis of much of social media is the like.

Facebook likes.

Google + signs.

Tweet favorites.

We express likes everywhere. Ours is a rhetoric of pleasure. Whereas critique often feels like the endless search for displeasure (“I dislike this representation, viewpoint, ideology, position, statement, reading, etc.), the like suggests pleasure (I offer expression without critique).  Liking is a form of social branding. By liking something, I am advertising it to others. I like your post. Now everyone I know on the platform sees the post. I like this product. Now everyone I know sees this product. Early on, the concept of the like was trivialized by some. Others, like Facebook’s Paul Adams, have triumphed the concept of the like. While some of us would love to dislike some of the things we read on social media platforms such as Facebook, the sites are driven more by affinity than by disagreement. The like countered the flame war. Sites like Facebook need the like option. Participants want to be liked. As  topical or so called controversial items are reported or linked to, participants typically want confirmation that their views are legitimate. A like offers a sense of legitimacy: I agree with you; you are correct; let’s lament or celebrate together. If you post your beliefs, and there is no response, do the beliefs lose public legitimacy? Data = attention. Attention, eyeballs, is the basis of media currency.

The Oatmeal’s advice for generating likes includes “write an epic story involving cage-fighting nuns and tanks.” UNICEF says Facebook likes won’t save children’s lives. I’m not sure which status update I’ve written has received the most likes. Recently, a photograph shared via Instgram of my kids standing in the entrance way to Three Floyds received 15 likes. The status update where I miswrote “duck” on my phone did generate 13 comments, but only a few likes. That embarrassing update where the effort to be liked (“look at this amazing meal I just spent money on”) sounded more like sex was served received only 8 more comments than my “Banned from Assessment” post did on this blog. That blog post  received more attention on Facebook than any other Yellow Dog post I’ve shared on the site. Yet, it only received 4 shares and 19 likes. 19 people like what I said. I can live with that number.  It offers just enough self-legitimacy to satisfy.

It’s not easy liking and disliking. Facebook, at times, feels like an endless parade of dislikes. Each offered link is a cultural or political complaint; a strongly shared dislike that is meant to generate likes (“how awful!”). I contribute to this environment by often pointing out what I dislike about coverage in The Chronicle of Higher Education or campus policies. The pro and con hype that has, for the last year, surrounded MOOCs, too, is built on the concept of liking. This type of liking is not done by clicking on a button, but instead by spreading hyperbole. Forces against online education point out how much they dislike MOOCs (no face to face learning, the corporatization of the university, neoliberalism at work). Those who promote online education point out how much they like MOOCs (promise of democratic education, overturning hegemony of the university, access). The conversations are, indeed, reduced to likes or dislikes. Once San Jose State announced its premature exit from its MOOC program, the dislikes switched to likes.

Roland Barthes reduced discourse, at times, to likes and dislikes. His long lists of banal likes included salad, the Marx Brothers, ball point pens, and ice cold beer. Barthes is the early Facebook user. He likes. Would Barthes like MOOCs? Would Barthes click like on a sponsored Toyota Facebook or Degree deodorant page?  Of course, one does not have to like something to be interested in it. I do not like nor dislike MOOCs. I am, however, interested in the efforts to salvage university finances, to develop digital education, and to discuss pedagogy in general.  I don’t like live music, fast food, or the beach. I like my Toyota Rav. I don’t dislike the Ford Explorer (even if I don’t own one). I don’t like Miller Lite. I do like Prairie Artisan Ales. I like cantaloup  My wife does not.  I like to write. I like Bikram yoga. I don’t like baseball. Some have suggested that my writing a book about social media and craft beer is the triumph of university promotion.  Finally, as a full professor, the narrative goes, I can write about what I want and what I like. Actually, I always have written about what I like. Writing expresses interest. My writing is about what I like even when I engage in argument or express concern about some issue. I can write about problems in academia and still like academia. Academics, what I do for a living, is what interests me.

By posting to Facebook or Instagram, as well, I am expressing interest, it seems. The photographs I share on Instgram, for instance,  must indicate interest. Here is my interest. I’m sharing it with you. My kids. I’m interested in them. I share them. Beers I drink. I’m interested in them. I share them. If anything, then, social media is an unselfish culture. It is a culture of sharing. In that sense, it is also a return to the culture of advertisements of myself, the initial web presence feeling that accompanied homepages, or even the media based feeling McLuhan identified in the mid ’60s and Mailer took advantage of.

The like, we might say then, is merely an extension of ourselves.


My son. I like him.

My son. I like him.

June 25, 2013

What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 7:58 am

Since I received a few more readers than normal on my last post, I thought I’d write about another issue regarding the university. This one, no doubt, will get little attention, though it does have to with rhetoric. We can’t all have back to back big time posts, can we?

Previously, I alluded to the cliche responses we often receive in the university via official letter, personal email, or mass mailing. Typically, this response is something along the lines of  ”We value the work you are doing,” “I thank you for your creativity and willingness to work for us,”  or “Thank you for your efforts and commitment as we move forward in the midst of exciting times full of change and opportunity.” Sometimes these closings are used within heated debates. Sometimes they are used in updates. Sometimes they are used in moments of crisis. Sometimes they are merely the conclusion to an otherwise meaningless correspondence  These responses are meant to project the image of cordiality. The workplace should be a cordial place. In that case, we should end our correspondences with “thank yous” for all of the “hard work” being done.

Cordiality is always welcome. And these closures to a correspondence indicate cordiality. But, as is often the case, these closures also indicate  something else. In its repetition, the gesture is meant to silence or close off. To close. To shut down. When the closing occurs, the recipient is signaled to stop writing or not respond at all. The gesture is also issued as if the person receiving the message might actually think: “WOW. This person sending the message really values me! Thus, I will disregard all the problems we’re having and continue to work really hard!” Instead, we might think that the opposite is the case. The “we value you” closing, for many of us, actually means the opposite. It often means:

  1. Shut up
  2. You are not smart enough to realize I am telling you to shut up
  3. I am not that interested in any response you may have
  4. You are not smart enough to realize that I am not that interested in any response you may have

In this way, the cordial closing to correspondence is not cordial at all. It’s an insult.

I might also say that I have been the recipient of plenty of these “we value the work you are doing” email closings. I receive such closings because, and this should not surprise, I have no problem calling out problematic ideas. I also have no problem engaging in academic conversation. This is, after all, the business we are in. And as a rhetoric and writing person, I’m also in the argument and discourse business. When I respond to some correspondence, and the initiator of that correspondence quickly realizes she/he doesn’t want to correspond, I would prefer a basic “sincerely” or a humble “best” (though, I am not a fan of “cheers!”). But instead of receiving this normal phatic markers of a concluding discussion, I am reminded that I am valuable. Value is our new phatic ending.

Thank you for saying that I am valuable. In the Humanities, this rhetorical gesture is compounded by a continued claim that we are the gatekeepers of critical thinking. If that were, indeed, the case, then it might be obvious to those who send such messages that us Humanities types will engage quickly in critical thinking, acknowledge the statement for what it is (a call to not have a conversation), and then be pissed off (you actually don’t think I’m valuable!). This might be true except I often receive emails with these closings from fellow members of the Humanities. The sender may not be hitting that critical thinking switch on his/her own end. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

We are supposed to good at communication. Writing is about communication, after all. And if there is such a think as critical thinking, one would guess that the ability to navigate and participate in communicative moments might be a part of the often triumphed and valued concept. One complaint often leveled at first year students – such as Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times cry of support for the English major  - is that undergraduate students “can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax.” If that is, indeed, the writing impulse of the hungry for critical thought 18 year olds we encounter in the classroom during their first or second semester of higher education, what to make of the professional PhDs who feel the need to remind us repeatedly – in its own jaron and ventriloquistic syntax – that we are so valuable?

At some point, email became a vehicle of fear in the university, and that fear reduced actual discussion to phatic discussion whose basis is in cliches and ventriloquistic syntax. Whereas email was a prime medium for distance communication when I started in 1996,  today it is the place where university conversations go to die. Email spats on departmental listservs led not to further argumentation and engagement (the agora became flame wars to some), but to silence. The English department here does not even have a listserv (supposedly because of heated online discussion). Our program does, but we have been reminded more than once not to use it (these reminders come at the very moment discussion gets heated). Supposedly, the very first email sent included instructions on how to use the @ sign. The @ sign, as we know now, indicates the person one wants to communicate with. With generic, cliche closings proclaiming immense value to the department, university or the world, we might as well remove the @ sign from our correspondences. An email with such a closing could be directed to anyone on a listserv where no one should send an email.

Homogeneity and silence are our new keywords of work.  We want a homogenous attitude (SHUT UP/ YOU’RE VALUABLE), and we want quiet so that the administration can do its work without advice or suggestion.  Thus, we discover by email that the university entered into a relationship with Coursera without going through faculty senate or undergraduate council. Thus, the director of a program hides from the program’s members for a year that she/he is stepping down, announcing it only three weeks before the term ends. Thus, a fiscal crises hides the spending going on elsewhere, a lesson I learned as a low level administrator in my previous position.

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

We have email, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, blogs, and an overwhelming urge to silence. When I arrived at the university, an internal document circulated that basically advised faculty not to use social media (it did so via all the warnings associated with social media). In an age of making information available, we’re told not to make information available.

All this demonstrates irony in an emerging department – still program – whose focus is communicating ideas in writing, and via new media.

Thus, the Office of Assessment is angry with me because, in a communicative moment of assessment response, I wrote that the speeches under assessment were “boring.” In a homogenous, rhetorical ecology, “boring” has no place. It does not demonstrate value (as the cliche correspondence does). It is argumentative (“I challenge the teaching of audience in this situation”). It is unacceptable (“Our task is not to question the level of interest a speech delivers”). It doesn’t conform (“You are making trouble by using this language”). The communicative moment fails, but the response is to shut down any further efforts (“Please don’t let him do another assessment for us”).

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

The citation from Cool Hand Luke actually concludes with the line “some men you just can’t reach.”  The valuable closing is a confirmation of that belief. If you don’t agree with me, I can’t reach you, thus, I will shut down the conversation. Of course, it is not just Luke who is stubborn in the film’s narrative. So is the institution. Even if long blog posts or responses to emails appears to be an act of stubbornness  these gestures are no match for the institutional stubbornness of “you are valuable” closings. My understanding is that the university just spent $90,000 on a pre-college Chemistry preparation course on Coursera that won’t generate any revenue, and the university can’t even guarantee that high school students taking the course will enroll in our university. This decision was made without faculty input. Who is stubborn? “You are valuable” is not only stubborn, it is agressive.  It is an attack on the supposed diversity and critical thinking we continue to champion as what we contribute to education and broad, far reaching conversations.

Most people’s favorite scene (or memorable scene)  from Cool Hand Luke is the egg eating scene. We identify with this scene not only because of the projection of stubbornness (Luke will eat those fifty eggs in an hour if it kills him), but because it doesn’t shut Luke up.  It pauses Luke, it makes him feel sick, it puts him out of commission for a bit. A decision to not listen to faculty about online education is a little like that. So is a “you are so valuable to us” email closing. We do shut up. For a bit. But we mostly recognize the pause as a pause. Yes, thank you. We are valuable. Very, very valuable. Now, shut up.

June 20, 2013

Banned From Assessment

Filed under: assessment,writing — jrice @ 12:21 pm

Yesterday, I found out I had been banned from participating in any further assessments conducted by the Office of Assessment at my university. The reason for this decree, it seems, stems from my only participation - about a month or so ago – in an assessment of our first year sequence. I was assigned to watch and respond to video taped speeches performed in the first year sequence. I suppose I did myself no good when – in the norming session – I actually spoke from experience and said that the example we were working on was fine since “that’s about what I’d expect from a first year student in her first semester of college.”

“Well,” said the assessment person leading the session, “we don’t know that it’s her first semester.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do. I direct the residential college, and that student is giving a speech in one of our classrooms in the dorm.  That class took place last Fall. Therefore, she’s in her first semester.”

From then on, it was trouble. Basically, the assessment being performed failed in ways all of these assessments do:

  1. The assessment terms for evaluation are too generic. I’m recalling from memory, but the list of categories we were supposed to rate video taped speeches by included terms like: Really good, Good, Somewhat Good. Not Good (or some language like this). These are meaningless terms for assessment.
  2. There is no context. Course goals. Syllabi. Assignments. Student majors. Time of day. Readings that informed the speech. Etc. None of this was presented. We watched speeches without context..
  3. Evaluators. Some of us were faculty. A lot of those present were graduate students. This will irk and bother the graduate students, of course, but there are degrees of experience present in the room. These degrees cannot be ignored. If I wrote “so boring” in the comments section of the assessment (which, by the way, was not required of us to do – I volunteered that information), then this comment is very important because it comes from a 17 year veteran who has run three writing programs. If I write “so boring,” that statement is a vital piece of the network (ah, that word again) because I am engaging with the speech in a way the graduate student may not be. “So boring” as well is a statement about audience reception. The assessment team, for whatever reason, was not interested in this point even though the course, writing and speech, is all about audience. I’m not sure exactly what they were assessing. I’ll return to this point. The other issue is expectation. A graduate student – for whatever reason – may think that a first year student, when doing research, needs to read professional journals. A professional – for whatever reason – may more easily recognize that the journals (audience) are not written for first year students. Assessing a student for not using a professional journal is quite silly. This assessment team seemed to think it was a valid point (not sure where the team did their graduate work at….). My counter statement to this point did not earn me brownie points in the norming session. The graduate students present shook their heads in disbelief that I could actually believe a first year student doesn’t need to read the journal that I – a professor – reads.
  4. Background. An extension of previous point. The assessment crew was bothered that I may not have watched every 35 minute speech (some done as group speeches) from start to finish. I don’t need to. After 17 years, and after seeing countless amounts of speeches and reading countless amounts of writings that take five points on a cliche topic and regurgitate them (“how to solve gun control,” for instance), I don’t need to watch 35 minutes. I can see the whole picture very quickly, quickly enough to come to the very simplistic conclusion (what was asked of me) of “Good.” The fact that I can do that, and a graduate student maybe can’t is important. I have enough exposure to commonplaces to recognize them quickly. I am very familiar with this genre of student performance. Doing that does not “invalidate” the results as the assessment team seems to believe. If fact, it provides valuable information. I also have enough exposure and experience with this kind of first year work to know that the “solve a community problem” task many speeches responded to is not a real exercise. Students with no knowledge of horse breeding, for instance, cannot solve the horse industry’s problems (whatever they may be) regarding breeding. The students don’t know anything about horse breeding. People in the industry do. This is silly and not worth a “Good” or “Really Good” label. I can quickly surmise that students are repeated a handful of generic ideas.
  5. Reason for assessment. As I wrote in my Computers and Composition essay published a few years ago, “Networked Assessment,” many assessments – particularly those run by Offices of Assessment, but also those run by composition programs – are not actually run to assess. Assessment should mean the process of learning. These assessments, instead, are run by individuals with limited knowledge of assessment whose purpose is to present value: “See, we are doing a good job.” Value is also important for reasons beyond the actual student work (justification of presence or budget, appeal to authority outside of the university, demonstration of record keeping, etc.).  To show that value, one does not need to spend thousands of dollars on evaluators. One can merely present some grades, some overviews, etc. But this, what we did in the two rooms a month or so ago, was not assessment as learning. The assessment team did not even acknowledge the goals of this assessment. That I brought this point up on their feedback form, of course, bothered them greatly. They let my wife know that I wasn’t nice. Sorry to hurt your feelings, Office of Assessment  by acknowledging that you were not actually doing an assessment.
  6. Networks. This assessment team has the most basic knowledge of assessment, one that does not recognize the complexity of networks. The evaluators - with different degrees of experience – are part of that network. The courses – divided up among Communication and WRD courses – are part of that network. The syllabi. The time slots for the courses. The money we were paid to evaluate these speeches. The form we filled in via Blackboard.  The norming session.  The other work students did in the courses (never brought up). The ideological differences between Communication and Rhetoric and Composition.  Textbook choice. Writing and speeches students do or give outside of class. And so much more. We need to see as many actors as possible. And “Good” or “Really good” doesn’t show us what occurred. We need descriptions. “So boring” is one description (though, with space and desire – another actor – I could have offered a more complete description). There is no assessment without a tracing of the networks.

So, now I am banned. I place this punishment (?) in the broader spectrum of university work that – while it preaches diversity and critical thinking – is quite homogenous in its responses and approaches and reluctant to listen to anything other than what it already thinks. This observation  - for the two or three of you reading – will not sound new. You probably already think that. Instead of my response to this observation being the cliche “neoliberal,” “corporate university” or some other catchword critique typically uttered,  I only offer up the sadness of this work we sometimes do. It is, indeed, sad at times. Maybe that’s not such a new point as well. “Directors” care more about the title in front of their name than actually doing work. They can sign an email “We greatly value the work you are doing” in a cliche closing, but only because they lack the courage to say what they really think or to engage in real discussion.  Assessment teams waste thousands of dollars to write a report that they already know the answer to. Discussion on specialized topics – like the current fascination with MOOCs – often does not involve the people who research and write about technology, education, or related areas. This is what causes sadness. You can’t really argue with the Office of Assessment. There is nothing to argue for or against. They have their gig and when they hold these little sessions, it is only to re-enforce their own presence in this network called the university; they are not looking to trace out networks in student work.  And the frustration that may result from this recognition that little will change no matter what I write or say – a frustration based on professional desire (i.e., I am invested in what I do for a living) – can quickly become a Charlie Brown shrug of the shoulders sigh of sadness. What is to be done? Likely nothing.  I’m tired of trying to kick that football.

I am banned. I accept this banishment. My $250 payday for watching the speeches was more like $100 after taxes. I think I made about $15 an hour. Speeches about gun control and abortion will go on with or without me.  Somewhere, at some $1,000 or $2,000 reception supported by campus catering bad pastries and stale coffee,  a member of this or another assessment team will accept an award for “Outstanding Service.” Faculty will be dressed nicely; lots of ties will be worn. Faculty, sipping on Yellow Tail wine, will either be “glad this semester is over” or “ready for Spring Break!” Lots of applause will occur. Nothing will have been “assessed” in the meaning of learning or trying to learn the complexities of student learning, composing, visual/written/oral communication, or even banality (topic selection). But many will clap and the award will make someone feel good about how they discovered that first year students giving speeches on topics as varied as horse breeding and gun control are, for the most part, “Pretty Good.”



June 3, 2013

Narratives of Assumption: MOOCs and the end/beginning

Filed under: MOOC,networks,writing — jrice @ 8:52 am

For some time now, there has been no shortage of MOOC narratives in academia that revolve around a common theme of dread and gloom. MOOCs, such stories tell us, will destroy labor, face to face learning, education, and so on. I’ve saved many of these conversations here. In these saved conversations, the discursive patterns are striking: we repeat each other’s claims over and over. In less  then a year, we’ve been told our future as educators is over. MOOCs will destroy this and that.

Now, of course, we are seeing the flip side of that narrative. For as finicky as pro-technology narratives may be (MOOCs will make educational universal; MOOCs will solve the universities’ financial problems), the anti-technology narratives are just as finicky.

Does this story by Alex Usher mark the finicky switch among MOOC opposers? As Usher tells us:

Remember when Coursera – the world’s largest purveyor of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – was going to disrupt higher education, and put hundreds if not thousands of public institutions out of business? I know it’s hard to cast your mind back all of eighteen months, but try.

Actually don’t.  Because it’s all over. Yesterday, Coursera did a weird strategy about-face by announcing that, rather than competing with public colleges, it’s going to start competing with Blackboard instead.

So, because Coursera – or anyone for that matter – did not change the world in one year (based on the narratives surrounding Coursera that predicted such change or failure), then, no change will ever occur. “And so the revolution ends with a whimper, not with a roar,” Usher concludes.

Or as Lee Corso might say: Not so fast there, my friend.

Not so fast, not because Coursera or EdX will be revolutionary; not so fast because ONLY ONE YEAR HAS PASSED. Nobody knows what the end result of massive open online courses will be. Instead, we make assumptions. To date, we have focused largely on the assumptions our campus presidents and regents make when they make deals with Coursera (what appear to be largely uninformed deals) in the hopes of increasing revenue and dealing with a lack of space for required coursework. When those assumptions go public, we – the educators – feel left out of the conversation and become angry (as I do as well). The story is being told without our input, we feel. We feel that because we have certain assumptions as well regarding online education (the importance of face to face teaching, small class sizes, proper compensation for teaching, proper pedagogical goals, etc).

Assumptions are our most powerful rhetorical tool in the age of constant, public, online commentary – from TV pundits to academics getting every political crisis wrong, to consumers analyzing markets of the products they enjoy, to education predictions to sports guessing (Where is Dwight Howard going now….) to any subject you are interested in. We assume. We assume all the time. We’ve always made assumptions, of course, but, as we know, social media amplifies our assumptions  Thus, Usher knows no more about the future of online education than anyone else. He translates a Coursera move to expand its clientele list and product base into a prediction of the revolution’s whimper.

The other important issue occurring here is the question of speed. Speed may not always end in the disaster (or it may) but it does make our assumptions all that more impatient.  That Coursera has not changed the world in a year makes Usher and others impatient. Of course, a restaurant may take years to turn a profit. Facebook supposedly turned a profit in year five. Instagram is bought on the assumption it, too, will be monetized at some point (just not now).

Narratives of assumption can dominate even the narratives of fact or concern. It would be much more productive to trace the existing networks of activity as they grow (the  network we might call “online education” continues to grow as new actors become engaged with). But that would be more work than merely telling a story of failure or even of success. Such “purist” narratives (in the Latourian sense) are always made up stories. Convincing to audiences who expect the narrative? Yes, of course. If you want to hear the failure narrative after only one year, you will love Usher’ s proclamation. But if you are really interested in how this network develops, then you will need to read other narratives (and write other narratives), one not so simplistic in its approach.

May 20, 2013

Job Search Narratives

Filed under: networks,profession,writing — jrice @ 9:19 am

The Chronicle ran a piece today called “The Long Odds of the Faculty Job Search.” Two narratives are told – a search for a creative writing position at Ohio and a search for a linguist at Florida.

Academic job search narratives – at least in the Humanities – are attractive for what they might reveal: the secrets for success. When I was a graduate student, I was very interested in these narratives; I believed that they would show me how to get a job. There really are no secrets, of course. One must prepare (build a CV), write a dissertation that is part of a larger conversation (so others will be interested), attend conferences as a grad student (start to build audience and show you are in the field) and meet people (network with those who might later know you when you apply).

This is the preparation. Many people don’t prepare. For the prepared, which we can assume includes a significant number of applicants described in the two Chronicle narratives, then comes the network. The network brings together the human (committee) and non-human (CV, letters of recommendation, previous experience, dissertation topic, school one applies to, etc) actors. When people say the job search is a “crap shoot” or “lottery,” I assume that they are talking about the network. The network is neither; it is merely the moment where actors come together and the result of this coming together is a job offer. The actors can come together, really like the candidate, and still not make an offer. Or the actors may come together, not make an offer because they weren’t satisfied with the network that formed, and the candidate can still be great. With the humans, it is extremely difficult to predict what will occur. In searches I’ve chaired or been a member of, we sometimes agree, we sometimes don’t. As a candidate, I was accepted or passed over by the humans for all kinds of reasons, some of which I still don’t understand today. We can’t really control the humans. We can’t control the non-humans either, but we can interact with them differently.

I offer my own brief narratives as example.

  • 2001. I am graduating from the University of Florida. I have more interviews than anyone else from my program. I have publications. I have a textbook about to be published. I know people. I ran conferences as a graduate student. I also have a year left of funding if things don’t work out. I don’t get an offer until almost the end of the hiring season, as WPA at The University of Detroit Mercy. A small Jesuit liberal arts university is not my first choice. But it’s what I get. One non-human, my interviewing skills, has failed me. I obviously don’t interview well. The year of funding left is a non-human actor in this network that does not influence my return to graduate school. I take the job and its very low “take it or leave it” offer. The funding affects me in that I know I could return, but the poor performance after so many interviews has more effect in this network: Who is to say I will do better the following year? I also already know someone at UDM.
  • 2003. Over an informal dinner, the chair of Wayne State asks me to apply to their opening. I don’t. I’m not sure I want to stay in Detroit, though I know I want to leave UDM at some point. When the job is not filled, and it is re-opened in the Spring, I do apply. As probably the only candidate, I get the job and its much higher salary. The actors – an unfilled job (a job unfilled, actually, after several tries) and already being in Detroit play a role as much as my background and CV. So does that dinner. It returns to the conversation during the campus visit.  I also already know someone at Wayne.
  • 2007. When we can’t get spousal hires at Wayne State or Penn State, we go on the market, and I get an offer at the University of Missouri. Two actors – beyond my book about to come out and my CV – play a role (as far as I can tell). I’ve been a WPA previously (the position included being the WPA), and the first person the job is offered to turns it down. In the logic of the university, paying an extra few thousand in salary is not the same as hiring someone’s partner. That is, our hiring costs Missouri more than the extra few thousand the first person wanted, but our hiring does not affect salary compression. The WPA position at UDM is an actor here.  It plays a role. I also already know someone at Missouri.
  • 2011. When we are asked to apply to The University of Kentucky (we are not on the market), one actor plays an important role (as far as I can tell) beyond my CV and books. When I was WPA of the composition program at Missouri, a talk on was held by the IT educational group, ET@MO. I don’t care about Turnitin, and as composition director, would never allow it to be used program-wise. But, as composition director, I felt I should attend and hear what the group was saying. No one else attended. The Vice Provost showed up and saw me there, and he heard some comments I offered. When the Campus Writing Program position opened up at Missouri (a better paying position than composition director with much better amenities), he remembered me. That WAC position of a million dollar program, an actor in this network, played a role when we negotiated our acceptance at Kentucky.

I only touch upon a few actors here: people I knew, positions held and accepted, space (Detroit also was an actor), attending a talk no one else attended, a dinner. I gave a talk a couple months ago, and a graduate student picked me up to take me to the airport the next day. He apologized for not coming to the talk. “I had a lot of papers to grade.” The talk took about an hour and a half. That hour and a half could eventually be an actor in a network the graduate student may later enter. Or not. I feel comfortable, though, saying that the paper grading will not be a significant actor later.

Of course, one does not know. The one actor I always return to is that Turnitin talk. If I hadn’t gone, would I have been WAC director? Would I have received a level of ethos that would later have to be addressed in a future job negotiation where an endowed professor position was put on the table (would I, as only Associate Professor have received that offer)? I don’t know.

My advice regarding the job narrative is something like: gather all the actors into your network that you can.You have no idea how they will interact later on, but if you have no actors (no dinners, no conference discussions, no attending talks by people whose work is or is not in your field, no whatever), you likely have nothing. I watch a lot of graduate students (at Wayne, at Missouri, and even here at Kentucky in our brief, not totally involved time), have nothing. They go on the market without any networks to enter and be a part of, and are angry when the results are not positive. Grading papers as excuse to not interact with someone? Not a valuable actor later on. Driving someone to the airport? A good actor, but interacting in a more scholarly way by attending the talk (how do people give talks? how do they present themselves? what do they talk about? can I engage with that person afterward?), a better actor.

When I was a graduate student at our main conference, I asked a question at a fairly well known scholar’s talk on a textbook he was co-writing. My question was a critique – I wanted to know why something hadn’t been included. The scholar responded, and we talked afterward (I told him my name). A month or so later, I was asked to review the textbook for the publisher. The network provided me a little money for the review (good for a graduate student!). In 2001, I interviewed at the scholar’s university, and he was on the committee. We knew each other. I didn’t get the job, but I know that my question was an actor in this network. Even without the job, I still think the actor was important. Networks aren’t good or bad things. They don’t guarantee success or failure. They are our interactions. If we have no interactions, we don’t have much of a career and often, we don’t have a chance to start a career in this profession.

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