Thursday, October 29, 2009

Here's how academic presses could make my life more convenient.

I've heard recommendations, here and there, that professors assign more academic monographs to help sustain the academic publishing market. That's well and good for graduate classes, although I'm a little amused by the idea that the faltering academic publishing market is going to be saved by the flowing coffers of graduate students. And sure, maybe you could assign a monograph or two in an advanced undergraduate course -- I remember people doing that at my undergraduate institution.

But my existing need is not for a way to assign more monographs to students. Monographs are easy and, compared to science textbooks (or a Kindle loaded with e-books), cheap. It's also pretty easy to assign many journal articles, thanks to Project Muse and JSTOR -- you can just link from the course web site.

It's book chapters that are annoying to assign. They always mean time spent copying and/or scanning, and the end result is a poor-quality facsimile.

I would like it if all the university presses got together and offered high-quality pdfs* of individual book chapters for sale (cheap), iTunes-style. I say this not because it would save the academic publishing market but because it would make my life more convenient. I could assign a chapter from a book, the students would pay $.99 (or whatever), the publisher would see a tiny amount of money, and students get a readable, easy-to-access copy. I am sure there are big holes in this plan that would make it unprofitable for publishers. I don't know if everybody wins in this scenario, but I sure do.

*I know that a lot of people would say that pdfs are a mere vestige of print culture and should be done away with as the universe moves toward a dynamic e-book model. To me, the fact that pdfs are a vestige of print culture is precisely the advantage. You can print them, and then read them! On paper! They display correctly every time! Pdfs are the mp3s of text.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some miscellany

I'm in the midst of a bunch of things right now. Here are a few of them:

1. I just heard about Yale's Modernism Lab. Very cool -- looks like a great teaching tool, and I love how well it cross-references.

Also, hopefully it will become a quick reference for undergraduates. I was dismayed recently to find some students citing Wikipedia chapter and verse on modernism -- dismayed because they seemed to have failed to note the big disclaimer that the Wikipedia nerds had very responsibly put at the top of the page:

"This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject."

So true.

2. Even cooler is Kathleen Fitzpatrick's new book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, which, as you might expect, is about the prospects of academic writing in the information age. Refreshingly, it's not a mournful elegy for a lost golden age of print, nor a hopped-up celebration of all things internetz, but rather a smart and critical look at the current state of print and online publishing.

Particularly intriguing are Fitzpatrick's thoughts about how to implement meaningful open peer review and open access academic publishing. Although the book is forthcoming, in print, from NYU Press, Fitzpatrick is also trying out open commenting using CommentPress and as part of her ongoing open access/open peer review project Media Commons. I highly recommend checking the book out, and commenting.

3. I'm also reading seminar papers for the upcoming MSA.

4. I'm reading some work by Moon Duchin on the role of repugnance in analytic philosophy. Very interesting stuff.

5. As usual, I'll keep mum about my ongoing research, but let me just say that Margaret Mead is fascinating.
I have a blog. Huh.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Part of our DNA

UCB Professor Emeritus Oliver Williamson just won a Nobel prize in economics. Chancellor Birgeneau's email to the campus community on the topic ended thus:
Earlier this morning, at a press conference, Professor Williamson was asked what this prize meant for Berkeley, given the difficult budgetary challenges that we are facing. Commenting on Berkeley's commitment to excellence across the length and breadth of the campus and its palpable energy for creating a richly collaborative intellectual environment, Professor Williamson replied that our campus is incredibly resilient, that it has faced many challenges in the last 50 years, and that with all the good will and resources on our campus, he was confident that we would survive this crisis. He emphasized that it was the duty of all of us to work together and of our legislature in Sacramento to support the university and not to squander this precious resource. In a tribute to his colleagues and to the many graduate students whom he has taught and mentored, Professor Williamson modestly indicated that "some wonderful people are coming along and there are more prospects for Nobels ahead."

I thank Professor Williamson for his insightful remarks and for reminding us not to become too discouraged by short-term challenges. Today's Nobel Prize is clear evidence that Berkeley's excellence is recognized around the world. It is a part of our DNA that will not be changed and will be preserved for future generations.

Part of our DNA?

It's a metaphor, of course, but a metaphor for what? Our material constitution?

We've cut both teaching and hiring, so I'm going to guess that's not it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Simultaneity in online teaching

I've meant to post for weeks about my online teaching experience, and I've never really gotten to it, in part because it's connected to a lot of larger issues that I've been considering.

But for now, a straight report: I thought it went quite well. We used the chat function in UCB's online course management system, BSpace, so it was basically a 1990s-style chat room. (Do chat rooms still exist? -- versus, say, group chat on Skype?)

The topic of discussion was a classic article on composition pedagogy by Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, "The Novice as Expert." I love it because it invites students to think critically about their own positions as composition students. It allows students to take what Sommers and Saltz argue is a necessary step on the road to mature writing: to take experiences and concerns that are personal and abstract them. Consequently, the students took the discussion personally in the best possible way: it was at once theoretical and applicable.

Occasionally people indulged in pronouncements about how writing should be taught (fire away, folks, but that paper's still due on Friday), but they mostly stayed on task. This was lucky, because of one feature of the online chat that I hadn't quite anticipated was the proliferation of independent conversations. The chat software enforces a linearity that promotes simultaneity.

Here's what I mean by that: in a classroom, you're engaged in speech, and speech is bound in time. If two people talk at the same time, neither will be heard properly. Students have to restrain themselves, or in some rare cases I have to restrain them, so that discussion can proceed in an orderly and audible fashion. I know I've sat on an idea in many a class, frustrated in the knowledge that by the time so-and-so stopped talking, the moment, and the idea, would have passed, and I would never get to say my piece.

This is not an issue in an online chat, because the software enforces linearity for you. You can stop listening/reading, because you can just scroll back up and catch up when you're done thinking about whatever you're thinking about. You can blurt out your idea when you have it, because the software makes it physically impossible to interrupt. The linearity of the conversation stream, which is enforced by the software, means that students are freed from time's winged chariot in composing and responding to comments. Simultaneity becomes an option for them, because the software will render the many different thoughts and conversations going on in a linear sequence on their behalf.

The result was that there were a lot of simultaneous (and vigorous) conversations going on at once, to which everyone was privy. It was difficult to change topics (as I needed to do so we could talk about their upcoming assignment) because several students were selectively paying attention to, and participating in, certain conversations.

I'd like to follow this up with the aforementioned connections, but I think it would be better for me to go grade some papers. I'll dump some names for now, and with any luck I'll get back to the topic sooner or later. Some names: Cathy Davidson, Larry Eigner, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hillary Gravendyk, Jonathan Crary, Walter Benjamin.

By the way, regarding emoticons: it turned out that I was the primary perpetrator of smiley faces. It's much more difficult to soften a "that was incorrect" in text, I find, than face to face. So corrections and disagreements often came with smiley faces from me. I think it's important for the teacher to be aware of the chilling effects of her apparent displeasure, and in a classroom it's easy for intellectual issues to get confused with personal ones (e.g., students' common misconception that a low grade reflects a teacher's personal dislike rather than the quality of the work). Consequently, I'm okay with using goofy emoticons from time to time to defuse any misperception of disapproval.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

[My write-up of a recent poetry reading is now up on the department blog. I might add that I had the pleasure of speaking with Anne Tardos and Maurice Scully after the reading; they were both lovely.]

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The UC Index

Data and graphs compiled by environmental engineers at UCD:

Percentage change in number of UC senior managers, 1997-2007: +118.
Percentage change in number of UC faculty: +24.
Percentage change in UC student enrollment, 1997-2007: +39.
Percentage change in UC undergraduate education fee: +103.
Percentage change in 2009-10 UC budget due to decrease in state support: -3.
Percentage change in proposed student fees in Spring 2010: +30.
Ratio of UC faculty/senior management in 1993: 2.5.
Ratio of UC faculty/senior management in 2009: 1.
Estimated annual added cost of the excess UC senior managers: $791,981,440.
Number of California resident UC students whose educational fee could be supported by that sum: 126,000.
Ratio of student fee revenue/General Fund revenue in 1997: 0.28.
Ratio in 2008: 0.53.
Ratio in 2008 if the cost of excess management were removed: 0.29.
Cost of increased UC senior management compensation in 2009: $9 million.
President Yudof's view of UC's budget problems: "There are always crises...[but] it will all work out."
Yudof's 2008-9 compensation: $828,000.
Chancellor Katehi's salary: $400,000.
President Obama's salary: $400,000.
Yudof's response to a question about faculty furloughs: "[B]eing president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening."

University of California Statistical Summary of Students and Staff, Fall 2007