On June 29th, Academic Ronin announced that July would be Summer Academic Writing Month. Throughout July, folks from across the globe will be keeping track of each other’s writing progress with the goal of getting things finished and out the door. I think it’s a marvelous tool because I certainly need additional motivating factors to get writing done–especially in the summer.
For my part, I have the goal of writing a book review and a chapter proposal abstract.
I have been asked to review The Southern Political Tradition by Michael Perman for the journal Southern Studies. I have a feeling that this review will be particularly difficult because it deals with political science and history and I am not trained in either field. However, like the historic Japanese rōnin, I enjoy the freedom to follow academic whims from time to time.
While working on the book review I am also putting together an abstract for a potential chapter in a book about David Foster Wallace. Here’s the call for proposals. I plan to explore Wallace’s place among his contemporary authors and his influence on more recent authors.
I had a mostly lazy June but here’s hoping that I am able to buckle down a bit in July. Feel free to follow Academic Ronin’s blog to see our progress throughout the month.
Mere minutes after composing the above tweet, I gave up writing the post and headed home for the weekend. There are a half-dozen barely begun posts in my blog queue that will likely never be written. This post almost met a similar fate, but I cannot let this one fail; the title begs to be finished.
One of my biggest failures (among many) as a composition instructor is not inspiring enough intellectual intrigue in my writing students. On the whole, I have exceptionally bright students but their writing topics don’t always reflect their abilities. While grading their last papers in December I realized that I had failed to encourage more creative work from them. During our semester together, I never told them that it was okay to try something ambitious. Instead of pushing for their best work, I subtly encouraged safe work by not modeling failure. To borrow a phrase from Brian Croxall, I need “stop worry1ng and <3 teh fail!!1!” That statement comes from the title he delivered during an 2011 MLA session called “Hacking the Profession: Academic Self-Help in an Age of Crisis,” where several Profs. Hacker discussed the problems of academia and dealing with failure. Croxall’s talk highlighted examples of failure being used productively to inspire success and I intend to do just that.
One of my biggest pedagogical failures in the fall semester was the second major writing assignment in Comp. 1. Our broad course theme was food and the assignment was so construct an informative essay related somehow to food using Storify as the platform for the essay. Despite my enthusiasm and good intentions for the assignment, it did not go over well. For one, people–not just students–are resistant to new things and adding a brand new technology on top of first year writing seemed like too much for some people. After initially modeling Storify for my classes, my patience for technology instruction ran dry. I was not as receptive to tech questions as I should have been and I left many students to figure it out on their own. Though there’s nothing wrong with leaving learning as the responsibility of students, my poor attitude got in the was of more productive teaching. While most of the Storify essays were quite good, I still failed in my pedagogical goals.
I intended to use this assignment as a means to spark creativity and move student writing outside the walls of the classroom, but I never communicated that to my students. Many were so afraid of the technology (and failure) that they felt creatively stifled. I can and will do better.
In my Comp. I classes this semester I am, again, assigning an essay written in Storify. This time, though, I plan to have fun with it. I have already told my classes on several occasions that I welcome adventurous work and all-but-promised that boundary-pushing work will be rewarded despite whatever initial setbacks they may encounter.
When has failure been a springboard for your future success?
Much has changed since my last post from last June. In these seven months I have begun a new job, moved (not far), learned much, and read too much to fairly report here.
In August I began teaching in the writing department at the University of Central Arkansas. The biggest shift from previous teaching appointments is that UCA has wholly separate writing and English departments. We’re even in separate colleges. While there is significant sharing between the English and writing departments, my colleagues and I are focused only on rhet/comp so the distance from literary studies has necessitated some adjustment. I have been fortunate to have many kind and helpful colleagues show me the way and help me adjust to the world of rhet/comp and life at UCA. Much of my reading and studying has been focused on reorienting my pedagogy away from literature to rhetoric and composition.
Beyond my department colleagues, THATCamp, twitter, and other forums have put me in contact with rhet/comp folks from across the country who are more than willing to lend a hand. Lastly, I would be ashamed if I were to neglect listing #FYCChat as a wonderful resource. Every Wednesday evening, first-year comp instructors meet on twitter to discuss the ins and outs of the gig. There you will find a wildly helpful community of experts and novices alike who never look down on a simple question and are almost too willing to help.
Along with the new job, we moved to a different location in Little Rock in December. Things are shaping up nicely around here.
Now that I’m more settled into my teaching, I must write here more. I have notes for several posts floating around, now to write them.
I attended THATCamp Prime at George Mason University last weekend and my mind is still a little tired. If you’re unfamiliar, please visit the main THATCamp site for more information. In brief, THATCamps are digital humanities unconferences that give all the good of traditional conferences and nix the endless PowerPoint presentations, sage on stage moments, and insane costs. In the weeks preceding our gathering, participants wrote proposal posts on the blog and the first hour of the unconference was spent voting on sessions and cramming as much as possible into a schedule.
After some time to reflect on the weekend, I’m here to report on what happened and what I learned.
The unconference began on Friday with a Bootcamp that functioned as group workshops to improve technical skills. There were three tracks for Bootcampers: Brass Tacks Track, Hack Track, and Map Track. Having experienced much of what was being taught in the Brass Tacks Track at THATCamp SE, I elected to attend the Hack Track. Though much of it was slightly over my head, I still gleaned plenty of skills and information to keep me busy learning and practicing new things for months on end.
The first session I attended was Intro to HTML5 and CSS3 facilitated by Jeremy Boggs. The gist of this session is that HTML5 (or just HTML) and CSS3 are the new web standards and they simplify some of the previous standards. For example, instead of the long and (for me) unmemorizable beginning HTML code, the new standards require a simple <!DOCTYPE html>. This session was incredibly informative and quite helpful as I continue my journey to better understand coding and web design. Check out Amanda Visconti’s excellent write-up of the session for more details.
Soon after finishing up with the first session, we were back at it in Amanda French’s session on Finding and Modifying WordPress Themes. I use a WordPress build for all my course websites and blogs so knowing better how to customize that experience will be valuable going forward. We learned the relatively simple process of taking the necessary code of a previously constructed theme and making a child theme that won’t be changed when the developer updates the theme.
Before lunch we were treated to a live recording of Digital Campus where they discussed, among other things, the ongoing lawsuit against Georgia State University.
The last BootCamp session I attended covered uses of the Zotero API and was led by Faolan Cheslack-Postava who is a member of the Zotero team. Having not read the descriptions well, I didn’t see that the skill level for this session was advanced and that knowledge of PHP was necessary to get the most out of it. Because of that, much of the information given was well over my head but I still found it fascinating. We learned that Zotero “eats its own dog food” so everything that can be done with its website and Firefox extension can be done through the API. The introduction to APIs piqued my interest and before fall classes begin, I hope to piece together a tool that will possibly connect Zotero with Ifttt.
At the unconference proper, there were far too many good sessions offered at the same time that I couldn’t get all the goodness I wanted to take in, but there was plenty to be had. The first sessions I attended was called Intro to Hacking and facilitated by Patrick Murray-John. There, we dug into Greasemonkey scripts and hacked into the code a bit. Patrick gave us enough of an introduction to get started then we set off playing. We initially toyed with a script that puts the hover caption of XKCD comics beneath the comic strip then moved on to a script that manipulates the Camper’s page of our THATCamp blog. Here one of the results:
Perhaps the honey badger played too big a role in my THATCamp experience.
As you can see, we didn’t make any monumental changes but I feel equipped with the skills to dig in further and learn what I need to build my own scripts, or at least manipulate the scripts of others to do what I need to do.
After lunch and some fantastic Dork Shorts I attended a session on Hacking Grad School with the creators of the Gradhacker blog followed by a session on greater diversity and accessibility in the digital humanities. In the latter session, we discussed what it would take to include more underrepresented groups into THATCamps and DH in general. For me, one of the most exciting takeaways from this session was the creation of a DH Diversity Working Group that has and will come up with creative ways to advertise what we’re doing to groups that have not participated in similar experiences (community college faculty, historically black colleges, etc.). If you are interested in participating, please sign up here to play along.
During the last session of the day, Jeremy Boggs led a session on building a WordPress theme from the ground up. It was a wildly helpful session that introduced the surprisingly intuitive PHP library for WordPress. This was a late addition to the schedule, but Jeremy said that he so detests the poor coding behind many WordPress themes that he wanted us to start making our own.
On Sunday, the first session covered documentation and what goes into good instructions. There was a nice dialogue between coders and typical users and we were able to hash out some of the difference that keep us from speaking the same language. The biggest problem seems to be that developers often do not see much advantage to well-written documentation. For small projects, good documentation can take just as long as the actual coding so there is little incentive on the front end. Instead, we reached the conclusion that a good solution is to provide bare-bones documentation and make it clear that the developer welcomes questions and problems. That way, he/she can write documentation on an as-needed basis instead of spending hours and hours on problems that may not arise. Another excellent solution–especially good for academics–is to view documentation as an aspect of teaching.
The final session was on Building a Better Backchannel and it, of course, had a robust backchannel. Mark Sample proposed the session and has recently written a Profhacker post about the session. Though we reached few conclusions, most of us agreed that conferences in general can do a better job of promoting a healthy backchannel. Whether because they fear tweckling or are simply unaware of its potential, too many major academic conferences do not have a robust backchannel where attendees can become participants. The value of the backchannel was demonstrated during our session as THATCampers in other sessions were able to tweet-in questions to our session while still participating in their session.
On the whole, this THATCamp experience was much more hack-based than the last one I attended. More than anything, the skills I learned/dabbled in during this THATCamp piquéd my interest to learn more and grow in my DH abilities. I have already begun reading through HTML5: Up and Running based on Jeremy Boggs’ recommendation.
Lastly, I must say thank you to CHNM, The Mellon Foundation, and The Kress Foundation for awarding me a travel fellowship to attend THATCamp Prime this year. I look forward to taking the knowledge and skills gained during the BootCamp back my colleagues in and around Little Rock, AR and, I hope, connecting with a group of DH-minded people to improve my scholarship and teaching.
During my brief hiatus from teaching (the month of May), I have spent a considerable portion of my time catching up on the happenings of higher education across the country. Unfortunately, the news hasn’t much changed over the past several years. Universities are facing increasingly difficult economic circumstances, journal subscriptions are increasingly expensive, and institutes of higher education are increasingly relying on contingent faculty to teach the majority of their courses.
In response to these trying circumstances, a group of academics and administrators representing many institutions from 21 states met in January 2011 to hash out a response. The result is the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. The CFHE has been written up in many places (including ProfHacker) and the campaign’s principles speak for themselves:
Higher Education in the 21st Century must be inclusive; it should be available to and affordable for all who can benefit from and want a college education.
The curriculum for a quality 21st Century higher education must be broad and diverse.
Quality higher education in the 21st Century will require a sufficient investment in excellent faculty who have the academic freedom, terms of employment, and institutional support needed to do state-of-the-art professional work.
Quality higher education in the 21st century should incorporate technology in ways that expand opportunity and maintain quality.
Quality education in the 21st Century will require the pursuit of real efficiencies and the avoidance of false economies.
Quality higher education in the 21st Century will require substantially more public investment over current levels.
Quality higher education in the 21st century cannot be measured by a standardized, simplistic set of metrics.
In a related(ish) manner, the Modern Language Association is attempting to pass a resolution in support of educational funding for all American students–regardless of their native state. Here is the exact language of the resolution:
Whereas the United States Senate refused to vote on the DREAM Act, which would have granted eligible undocumented students paths to citizenship and tuition assistance, be it resolved that the MLA supports the efforts of undocumented students seeking paths to legal status by attending institutions of higher education.
If you are an MLA member, please do vote on this important resolution. Along with the DREAM Act resolution, you can vote for a new by-law that would stipulate that every MLA resolution would need a majority vote to pass as well as at least 10% of the membership to participate in the vote.
Lastly, the Joe and Rike Mansueto Library at UChicago is leading us one step closer to the singularity. Look at the video linked here.