Big Brother or Autonomy and Respect?

Today in the NYT, there appeared two opinion pieces on education reform, The High Cost of Low Teacher Salary and A New Measure for Classroom Quality. They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in how they propose to improve schools. The first hopes to treat teachers with respect while the second looks to instal Big Brother type measures of a teacher’s effectiveness. Seeing as how it’s May 1, and thus your monthly allotment of 20 free NYT articles has reset, I really encourage you to read both of these important opinion pieces. 

“The Hight Cost of Low Teacher Salary” points out that when war goes wrong, we don’t blame the soldiers, we blame the policy and strategy makers. In teaching, we do the opposite. Reading “A New Measure for Classroom Quality,” we see this attitude in action. The author argues that we should video tape (digitally record?) all teachers and measure how much time the teacher spends on and how closely they follow the prescribed curriculum. The assumption is, once again, that it’s how the teachers teach, not what they teach, that matters. No question if the curriculum developed by politicians, businessmen, and administrators is even worth teaching. 
“A New Measure” also makes classrooms sound miserable. Children should be seen and not heard, and teachers should read from a script. No variation, no deviation, no fun. Now, I’m not saying that learning should always be a joyful experience; it’s hard work. But, this type of learning suits one kind of student and one kind of teacher. This is not the modern reality of the classroom. 
But it shows the fundamental disrespect that teachers receive in this day and age, or at least a fundamental misunderstanding of what teachers do. Not to mention the inherence dangers that come from the recording of what goes on in the classroom, both for the teachers and the students. How can we expect students and teachers to take risks and challenge each other intellectually if we know that what we are saying is being recorded to potentially be used against them later?
Oh, yeah, while critical thinking is on the curriculum, it isn’t really what policy and curriculum makers are looking for from students. If it was, then we wouldn’t be reading op-eds about monitoring a teacher’s every move in the classroom, and we’d have already done what is being recommended in the first piece.

Real-World Experience, Teaching Contingently, and Academia

In my last post, I examined how the stereotype of the cloistered academic is wrong-headed and patently false. I also dealt (albeit briefly) with the idea that students need to eschew such low interests as monetary compensation in the name of “experience” and “application character building.” The post has generated a lot of discussion, both on the post and on Twitter. It would seem that a lot of us out there are sick and tired of our students and the public at large assuming what they do about our professional lives and history.

But I wonder how much of that is a result of our own doing. We are told, repeatedly, not to include any sort of non-academic (or tenuously academic) positions in our job applications. We also need to police our non-academic interests (be it past paid employment or current interests and hobbies) lest we appear unfocused or lacking the dedication necessary to make it as an academic. Never mind that for most of us who are off the tenure track, the second job is a necessity and our hobbies and interests get sidelined because of a lack of time and resources. So when, as an academic, we appear single-minded or narrowly focused in our pursuits, professional or otherwise, we need to take some blame. That’s why I encouraged my colleagues on Twitter (and do so again here) to write their own non-academic professional narratives.

Because it also will help break the notion that we have no idea what we’re doing in the classroom when it comes to teaching students the skills they need in order to secure employment or the accusation that we don’t understand how hard it is out there. Ask the 75% of faculty who aren’t on the tenure track, or any public sector university employee who hasn’t had a raise in years, they’ll tell you they know how hard it is out there. Perhaps this is the reason why we find it so frustrating when our students appear disinterested, disengaged, or just plain lazy in our classes; we know how hard it is out there, and we know that if they keep doing what they’re doing, a BA isn’t going to save them from unemployment.

But back to my first point. Is one of the reasons our students are so skeptical of us is because they don’t understand that we know what it is like, and that the skills (hard or soft) that we are trying to teach them will not only help them succeed in college, but in their future employment? I might not be on the cutting edge of technology, but I do know that learning how to write and communicate well in a variety of circumstances isn’t just a college skill, it’s a life skill. There are very few people out there who can speak to the soft skill of adapting than the writing instructor, often trained in a different field and “forced” out of necessity to teach writing, not to mention having to adapt to the constantly shifting reality of the students we teach.

I often wonder why more writing instructors don’t become entrepreneurs, as we have huge skill set and survival techniques well-suited to the volatile role of running your own business. But, then again, I’m still here, teaching Freshmen how to write. My next post for the University of Venus deals with my growing dissatisfaction with being off the tenure-track (look for it, coming soon!), and perhaps the sting is even worse when I consider that I am looked down upon by all comers: the university because I am “only” an instructor and the public at large because I am an out-of-touch professor. I belong in both worlds, but am accepted by neither.

That’s a depressing way to end my day.

Dilettante, Generalist, or Unfocused? Teaching and Research Tensions

Conference season is upon us academics. I’ll be going back to Sherbrooke in a few weeks to present a piece of my dissertation, investigating how a translator and editor worked together to produce a collection of translated poems. I just presented last weekend on Dany Laferrière’s practice of rewriting his novels, specifically looking at the transformation of La chair du maitre into Vers le Sud. This summer, I’m working an essay on how Nalo Hopkinson uses the female body in her speculative fiction. 

Oh, and I teach writing. 
I’ve recently become more acutely aware of how my “research output” reflects my image of a scholar (both a teacher and researcher). Should I be moving more towards presenting and publishing on teaching writing, as that is where my professional career seems to be heading? Should I try to find more English authors to study and write about as I teach English? Can I indulge my growing interest in digital humanities, with the limited resources at my disposal (time and money)?
The question of resources is not a trivial one. I do not have a great deal of travel support, and it is expensive to fly anywhere from where I currently live. I teach a 5/4 course load, all of which are writing intensive. I had to cancel going to THATCamp, an experience I had been particularly looking forward to, because it was hard to justify the expense. My past training, publications, and current teaching don’t scream digital humanities; why do I need to change directions, yet again?
I get bored very easily, and I like to have lots of ball up in the air, mentally. When I get burnt out from writing about the middle-aged menopausal body as magical, I can move to how and why an author rewrites his life story. And then, if I can focus on either of those topics, I can comb through the new thoughts related to my dissertation in an effort to change it into a book. And then, on a break, I revise and refine my writing courses.
When I was hired for my (brief) tenure-track position, it was as a generalist, a role I felt well-suited for. Intro to lit or world lit? A PhD in comparative literature certainly prepares you for that. Postcolonial? Got it. Immigrant writing? Got it. Minority? Got it. Popular? Got it. Teaching experience, especially with non-traditional student populations? Yup, got that, too. While looking for my first tenure-track job, I was most successful with the generalist jobs I had applied for. I can imagine that my research and interests were either too diverse (or, too focused on one or two authors) for a more specialized position. 
There is a thread that connects all of my interests, however, and that’s the process and results of writing. If it be translating, rewriting, or imagining, it seems to always come back to writing.  Even my MA thesis, concerned with magical dystopias, is essentially about books that are making clear arguments about the (possible) future. How do we shape and reshape ourselves and the world around us through language? I suppose this is what we are all doing in literature, but I wonder how many of us would describe what we do in such general terms? We are often sent the message in academia that our research and teaching be hyper-specialized, or at least unique. I know that what I am doing is unique, but perhaps I haven’t stuck with any one subject long enough to become hyper-specialized, and thus well-known, in order to become a “successful” academic.
I expressed my thoughts and apprehensions on a recent post on Dr. Davis’ Teaching College English blog. Her thoughtful response:

I figure, I may never be “the” expert on a field, but I can have multiple important contributions to a number of disparate studies.

This, ultimately, is what I aspire to. I might never be an expert in any one area (although I’ll wager there are few other academics who have devoted as much time and mental energy on Dany Laferriere as I have), I want to and can have multiple contributions in a lot of different areas. It might not ultimately benefit my career, but I’m doing what I love. For that, I am grateful, even if I do look a bit like the academic equivalent of a flake.

More Thoughts on the Standardization of Higher Education

My post on the standardization of higher education from earlier this week was a hit, so to speak, driving traffic and stimulating some interesting discussions on Twitter. I’ve decide to address some of these concerns and continue venting on what I think is going to be the undoing of higher education in this country.

I received two tweets (one from @qui_oui and another from @rwpickard) about how a certain degree of standardization is necessary for transfer and the like. Look, I’m all for standards. We should all have a clear idea of what a 100, 200, 300, or 400 level class should contain within a discipline (how much to read, write, and the level of ideas/concepts expressed). I also understand that in other disciplines, you need to know a certain set of skills or concepts before moving on to the next level; I completely understand that Cal I has to come before Cal II, and that there has to be some standards in order for a student to make progress in their education. But, these standards would seem to grow organically from disciplinary requirements. Sometimes they are imposed by professional organizations, but often in the name of safety; I’m glad that my nurse has a standard set of skills that are required of her before being accredited.

It’s when we get into the “softer” disciplines, like English, where I live, that things get dicey. I have written already about my experience teaching an upper-division Modern Literature course. I appreciated the fact that, within a set of clear guidelines (400-level class on English literature written during what is known as the Modernist period), I had the freedom to teach the texts that I wanted to using the approaches that I thought would work best. I was able to “create” arches, comparisons, contrasts, and evolutions with the works we studied. Modern literature is a huge field (much like any field in English) and each professor will teach the course differently, according to their biases and expertise, but also based on the make-up of the student body and institutional culture. What works in a Modern Literature course at Yale won’t necessarily work in a Modern Literature course at Regional State U. But we can safely assume that given the guidelines and descriptions, a student coming out of an upper-division Modern Literature course should be able to do a certain set of things, from identify the major authors and features of the movement, as well as write a lengthy, in-depth research essay on a work from that period. How we get there will vary wildly.

And it should. Some may point to my characterization of the class as a disaster as a reason why we need more, not less, standardization. The argument goes that I was not to be trusted with coming up with the class, and instead I should have been given the syllabus and reading list to teach in a prescribed way (hey, just give me the script while you’re at it). I say that my failure is an indication that the institution needs to invest in professors, not temp workers, to teach class. If the administration continues to undermine and devalue what goes on in the classroom, no amount of standardization and accountability measures are going to improve student learning. Saying that we should teach all students the same things in the same way, all in the name of accessibility, is not the answer.

Which brings me to the next point of contention. Faculty, then, should then take it upon themselves to develop the accountability measures. We do already; it’s called the syllabus and grading. Apparently, that’s not good enough anymore. But is that the faculty’s fault or the fault of an administration that continually undermines the classroom experience (and professor’s authority) in the classroom? I just came across this essay about how we, the faculty, are increasingly pressured to let learning slide in the name of “customer service”:

Faculty members were being asked to be responsible for students instead of creating a system within the classroom that makes the students responsible for themselves.

This is what I am talking about when I say that the administration often don’t support what professors and instructors are trying to do in the classroom, but then blame us when learning doesn’t happen. Students are seen as tuition machines, and we are told they are to be retained, at all costs. When a student isn’t happy, we hear about it and need to adapt to keep the customer satisfied.

I say, get our backs, get out of our way, and let’s see what happens.

Money is being invested everywhere on campus except in front of the classroom, illustrated by increasing class sizes, the increase in online education, and the over-use of adjunct faculty. Students get the message; the professors (and learning) are the least important component on campus.

And even when faculty are involved in developing the accountability measures, it is usually because they are being required to do so and have to follow narrow guidelines with the demand for very prescriptive (and arbitrary) outcomes, in order to feed the data machine. Yes, cosmetically, faculty came up with the measures, but our hands are tied, impacting the results. Rather than having measures and standards that are organic to a given discipline, we have data driven measures that give us stats, but little else.

Time and resources are also a factor. Often, it is an already over-worked tenure-track faculty member (or committee of tenure-track faculty members) who is tasked with coming up with the measures. Those measures are then imposed on even more precariously positioned instructors and adjuncts, who are already burdened with the demands of teaching intensive introductory courses to larger and larger numbers of students. But none of that comes into the minds of the administrators requiring the extra work from their instructional staff (tenure-track and contingent). There’s no course release, no reduction in class sizes, nothing. Something has to give, and it is either dropping other elements from the syllabus or devising the “easiest” measures to implement.

There’s a win-win situation for student learning outcomes.

The Standardization of Higher Education = #FAIL

I was at an institutionally-mandated get-together for those instructors who taught the various developmental classes (math, reading, writing) at our institution a few weeks ago. We were hearing about the educational technology the math department was using to get students up to college readiness when the instructor presenting told us a disturbing little anecdote about how she caught a cheater last semester. “It was just like Big Brother!” she exclaimed excitedly. Ugh.

Now, I’ve already voiced my thoughts about our over-reliance on ed tech as the savior of education, but this statement made me think about one of the unintended (or intended) consequences of the move to standardize higher education, heavily facilitated by educational technology: the constant monitoring of all activity of both instructor and student. If we can standardize and record every instance of learning in a student’s academic career, then we can certainly pinpoint where learning failed, exactly which teacher or advisor is responsible for derailing a student’s career.

The more we standardize, the more we continue to infantilize our students and undermine our faculty. We are basically telling students that they aren’t responsible enough to learn and professors can’t be trusted to teach. Think about that for a second. Students can’t learn, and we can’t teach, so you need to be constantly monitored to make sure that these things happen.

How does this move towards standardization and assessment actually help students? What happens when institutions and accrediting boards rigidly dictate when and where learning happens in higher education? When instead of facilitating “informal” moments of learning, the university is required/requiring rigid reporting/return on investment data on campus talks, meeting spaces, and optional (but really mandatory) activities? Or that students (and eventually instructors/professors) measure success exclusively through test scores?

How do we teach and learn through experience, experiment, trial and error, and failures when Big Brother is always watching us? Does $44 billion really buy the Federal government the right to dictate to us how and what we teach, or how and when students can learn? As I put in the comments of Mary Churchill’s post “Can We Afford to Play,”

As we discover with young kids, we can spend all the money we want, but at the end of the day, all they want to play with is the empty cardboard box. I think the same thing goes for higher education, especially on the side of the professors. If professors didn’t have to worry as much about constant accountability measures, measurable outcomes, and reporting, we might be more likely to relax along with the students. If more people in front of the classroom had job security and more time, they may be more invested in the students outside of the classroom. If it didn’t feel like Big Brother was constantly monitoring all of us, we might relax, let loose, and really, really, learn.

At a certain point, the institution needs to get out of the way and just let learning happen. I have been critical of the type of “leisure” that takes place on (or rather off) campus, but is this behavior a result of the high states, high pressure environment we’ve created on campus? Most faculty and students can’t wait to get off campus at the end of the day; why is that? Universities have invested billions in creating “spaces” for students, faculty, and sometimes even community. Some have been very successful, but I wonder how many of them developed organically, and how many of them were responses to accreditation board requirements (having gone through two at two different universities, this is an important component for any re-accreditation)?

We may end up passing whatever tests they put in front of us, delivering more mandated content in increasingly rigid ways, but at the end of the day, we have failed.

Reasons Why I Blog: An Examination

It’s been a year since I’ve started blogging. It seems like as good a time as any to look back over the year and reflect on how blogging has changed me. 

Yes, you read that right, it has changed me. I am more engaged, more reflective, and, perhaps, more militant, in my own small way. I don’t just read about issues on higher education, I think about them in order to write about them here. When I teach (or, more accurately, after I teach), I am forced to reflect a little more carefully about what I am doing and why, because I need something to write about.

I am more connected to the larger community of academics. I write, people read, share, and respond. I know I have not only an audience, but a community of people who read and who I read. We have conversations, and maybe one day will meet face-to-face. Until then, I know more people than I ever did as a traditional academic.

And I know I am having an impact. I figured that between the four institutions I have taught at, I have reached approximately 1100 students (keep in mind, while I was doing my PhD, I only had one class; my other experiences were closer to full-time, but with writing intensive classes with lower caps). At least that many people have read my top post, How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless, especially considering that it was featured on both Inside Higher Education and Ed Leader News. Imagine my delight to find out that no less a figure than Henry Adams of The Academic Bait and Switch  fame on the Chronicle and that he linked to my post in the comments of another Chronicle piece (which I can’t find right now). More people than I have ever taught have read that one post. More people than who have seen me speak at a conference. More people than who have read any of my academic essays.

But it is all of the people I have met outside of academia, those who are passionate about topics, rejecting the status quo of education at all levels, caring deeply about meaningful change. For me, blogging has opened my eyes to the world outside of academia. Does that sound like a sheltered academic statement? Indeed, it is. There is a degree of willful ignorance that an academic needs to have in order to survive the demands of living the academic life in higher education. The best thing that has ever happened to me is that I was unemployed for a time; I was forced to see thing differently and to do things differently. I saw others letting go and being successful, and it has empowered me let go.

Blogging has also, admittedly, fueled the more negative aspects of my personality, manifesting itself specifically as an obsessions with my blog’s stats. Lurking deep beneath my desire to be an academic is a need for validation, and the stats are one way that I can feel that sense of validation now that I am off the tenure-track. I see sites that do better than I do; College Misery gets the same amount of traffic a week as I do a month, if I’m lucky. Then again, misery loves company, and I’m not sure what thoughtful writing on the current state of higher education as well as teaching attracts. Less hits, apparently. Which is also depressing.

Wait, I’m celebrating here. I’m not perfect, and I still have some things I need to work on.

I’d really like to thank a few people: Mary Churchill who has been so supportive and inspiring me with her great work at University of Venus and Old School/New School; @ToughLoveForX who I have no idea how I “met”, but I am amazed at how connected this retired printer is, especially in the world of education; @comPOSTIONblog for founding #FYCchat with me; Worst Prof Ever for just generally kicking ass and doing and saying all the things I’m still not quite ready to; and all of the people who have come here, read my posts, commented, followed me on Twitter, shared my writing, and encouraged me to keep writing.

My goal for the next year? Get big enough to attract trolls. 🙂 I’m only half-joking.

The Emperor Has No Clothes (And No Shame)

We all (should) know the tale of the King who was taken by a sweet-talking tailor, convinced that the “clothes” he was wearing were invisible and magical and valuable. When the King goes out to show off his new suit (aka his Birthday Suit) the only person in the crowd who has the courage to say what everyone else knows to be true (or because he doesn’t know any better) is a child. There are lots of morals to be taken from this tale, but I think we all need to think about how we, as academics, play the role of the silent crowd in our own tale of the decline of higher education.

I am far from the only one who has pointed at the naked Kind and declared him to have no clothes. We’ve had videos, long series of essays, shorter missives (and another), and entire blogs all devoted to exposing the fact higher education is not what we think it is, especially as idealistic graduate students, indebted but proud parents, and even professors and administrators. I think that as we keep splitting finer and finer hairs when it comes to our roles, we no longer are able to see the forest for the trees; perhaps for most of us, we just see a naked foot or a flash of genitalia, but nothing to get too worked up over. Besides, it’s the life of the mind!

I do not regret my education on most days. But some days, the really bad days, I remember that ignorance can sometimes be bliss. Wouldn’t I love for my faith, and really, my only faith, in an institution that I love so much to return? For many of us, the university is our secular church, the place that we turn to for stability, security, justice, and answers. But our faiths are eroding, the cracks and inconsistencies are showing, and the corruption is seeping through. Too many of us hold our noses and keep returning day after day for service, because if we don’t, what is left? Perhaps a weak or corrupt faith is better than no faith at all? Is this why we keep talking around the problem or burying our heads in the sand?

Or, maybe we’re in awe of the King, able to walk around naked without a care in the world. When we discuss the economic realities of doing a PhD in the humanities, most prospective students think either a) it won’t happen to them or b) it won’t matter to them. When you’re in your early twenties and all of your friends are broke and working for little to no money, grad school life doesn’t seem that bad. Nor is it easy to see yourself ten years later, when your friends are all making more money than you are with less debt and are getting on with their lives. The life of the mind is, indeed, an excellent and noble life, but is that really all you want for yours? The King running around completely naked is a sign for us all that it is possible, no matter how shameless or corrupt (but who cares, he’s in power!) and if we just leave it alone, maybe someday we can run around naked as well.

What perhaps scares me the most, however, is not that we are afraid to say that the Emperor has no clothes, it’s that we truly don’t believe it will make any difference. The emperor has no shame, and we don’t have any interest or motivation in instilling some in him. It’s as if when the child points and says the King is naked, we collectively shrug, pat him on the head, and tell him that if the King wants to believe that he is indeed wearing an expensive, magical outfit, then we’re just going to humor him as long as he leaves us alone. Besides, it won’t make any difference anyway. 
We are the ones who should be feeling shame. We know the truth and we refuse to do anything about it.

Talking about the Economic Realities for a PhD in the Humanities

I am depressed. I am feeling this way for a few reasons. The first is from a conversation I had with a student yesterday. I mentioned in class, while we were talking about education and personal economic benefit, that anyone who was considering doing a PhD in the humanities should come see me ASAP. At the end of class, there was a student. She wanted to go to a large private university in California where she could do a joint program where she would be working towards a law degree and a PhD in history. Her ultimate goal was to get into entertainment law, “but I could become a professor making $100k if I end up in a crappy firm.” 

WHAT? Who told you that? A professor I know. She could see that I was…disturbed by the news that a professor had told her that a) you can make $100K as a history professor and b) then didn’t reveal that this eventuality was the exception rather than the rule. I told her that while I had no doubt that that professor made $100k, it wasn’t the reality for most PhDs in history (just as the professors at our college). And, you will probably have to live in a place like this (small town) if you want a tenure-track job. You will find yourself 10 extra years behind your peers in terms of career advancement and most certainly more in debt. Chances are, you’ll be adjuncting for a long time before even securing a tenure-track job, if you don’t give up first.
If you want to become an entertainment lawyer, then focus on that and become the best entertainment lawyer you can be. Don’t distract yourself with a PhD. 
Students from my next class had begun to file in. Many of them heard our discussion, where I frankly and honestly described my own situation (in my 30’s, just starting to pay off my debt, no TT job, no pay raise anytime soon, I live here, etc). One of them is planning on going into education and didn’t want to hear about my economic situation. Don’t worry, I told him, you’ll make more money than I ever will, with better benefits and more job security. But you have a PhD, he exclaimed. I sighed audibly. Yes, I said, I know. Why did you do it, he then asked. 
Because I did love the research. I knew what my PhD dissertation was going to be on while I was still finishing my BA. I also wanted the intellectual challenge; I’m not going to lie, I felt like I hadn’t really pushed or challenged myself when I was done my BA. Part of it was my own fault, but part of it was that most of my classes really didn’t challenge me. At the time, that suited me just fine, but when I was finishing up, I asked myself, is this it? So I went to grad school. And I did get the elusive tenure-track job but keeping it meant sacrificing my family. 
And now I make less than a high school teacher who has less education and less debt. Reason number two.
The next reason is that I am not alone. I had my first “girls’ night out” in a long, long time last night. All of the women were either tenured or on the tenure-track at the same university where I work. And they had the exact same difficulty making ends meet as my family does. We all are a part of duel income homes, but they only had one kid each, as opposed to my two. I know they make more money than I do. I know they are paying half as much as I do for child care (our kids all go to the same preschool). And yet, we all got boneless wings, not because we particularly wanted them, but because it was boneless wing night and thus cheap. 
At first, it was comforting to know that I am not alone in my financial struggles. We were able to commiserate about our students, our kids, our husbands, and everything in between. But when the buzz had worn off, I was faced with the sobering reality that the tenure-track job doesn’t really solve anything, at least financially. I guess part of me was still deluded, believing that even though I have given up on the tenure-track job, it could maybe ease some of the financial burden.  
Apparently not.
So to all you professors who are still telling students that they can earn $100k being a history professor, please stop, or at least give your starry-eyed students all of the information. To my younger self, please rethink the importance of being intellectually challenged (even though you’d never trade your husband and kids for anything). And, to all of my colleagues out there who struggle financially even though we hit the proverbial lottery of getting a tenure-track job, you are not alone. As depressing as that is for the health of our profession and the institution that we (once) loved.

How and What Do We Keep (and What Do We Lose) in the Digital Age?

My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn’t a successful reading session if she hadn’t marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters. 

I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way “drowning” in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn’t need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.

I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I’m not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn’t find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (, and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn’t have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).

Thank goodness for Twitter.

An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I’ve worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I’m excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren’t necessarily looking for.

I also lament the potential loss of future archival materials because we no longer write physical letters; I know that gmail now archives EVERYTHING, but my old university email addresses did not; I’ve lost poems, important and meaningful letters, and fantastic conversations because I didn’t realize that my emails weren’t being automatically archived on the server. As I’ve already written about, I save everything I can when it comes to my informal writing; losing these emails actually bother me. I don’t think that they’ll be worth anything to any future scholar, but how many future subjects of interest’s letters have been lost because they didn’t realize that they messages weren’t automatically archived?

We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.

Digitally, I’ve lost my wedding pictures when my husband’s computer’s hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don’t actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn’t have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.

Then again, I’ve had my “office” broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.

As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.  

Guest Post: A Different Kind Of Trailing Spouse

This is my first guest post here at CollegeReadyWriting! This is by Heather Scarano (@HeatherScarano on Twitter), a wife, mother, professor, and wife of a college baseball coach. She blogs over at I like her writing, and as a fellow trailing spouse, I wanted to share the similar and yet different kinds of challenges she faces. 
There is something about the fragrance of February that I love.  A walk outside this time of year invigorates the body and encourages the soul. The freshness in the air and the smell of moist earth and wet grass are glad reminders that Spring is near. But there is something else about February that makes me happy: it marks the beginning of baseball season. 
As a college baseball coach’s wife, I look forward to February, when at last the hours, months, even years of preparation are tested in nine-inning contests of skill, speed and strategy. 
Being a coach’s wife has its benefits. I have front-row seats at the games, which I enjoy watching with my two young sons.  Each new season I am introduced to a new group of guys and have the privilege of getting to know them and their families.  I also travel to tournaments and tag along on Spring break trips to warmer, beachier places. 
Whenever our family has moved to a new college or university, we’ve found instant friendships within the institution’s athletic department.  And we have never suffered from being unknown in a new community. 
But being the wife of a coach isn’t eternally pleasant.  We move a lot.  And to places I’d frankly rather not be.  Baseball coaches and their families do not live only in sunny places like Florida, Texas or Southern California.  They live in the rural Midwest, too. 
And now that I am working at the same college as my husband, as a coordinator of a writing center and instructor of developmental English, I’m learning that the label “coach’s wife” isn’t always useful.
It is one thing when you’re not working in higher education to brush off a comment like, “So, have you always been a cleat chaser?” as immature and unenlightened, but it’s an entirely different thing when you are facing these stereotypes while at the same time trying to establish credibility in your first year of teaching.
For the record, I am not a cleat chaser.  Joe and I met during his last semester of his fifth year of college, and we did not go to school together.  The only baseball I ever saw Joe play was as an outfielder for the church softball team.  While we were dating and newly married, he worked as a landscaper, limo driver, newspaper delivery boy and Starbucks barista.  I never imagined he’d be a college baseball coach. 
I’ve also had to deal with people who suspect or infer that I am in my current position – that I got my job — because of my husband.  Maybe I ought to get around to hanging up that diploma of mine.
I’m discovering that there are other challenges as well.  For example, what do I do when two baseball players in my introduction to composition course do not complete their first writing assignment?  Do I tell their coach, who will undoubtedly chew them out, or do I handle it on my own?
One night last week, at the end of a long day and after the kids were in bed, Joe and I were sitting together on the couch.  I was venting my frustrations about the lack of motivation I was beginning to see in some of my students.  Without thinking about the possible consequences, I mentioned to Joe that his baseball players were two of several students who did not hand in the paragraph that I’d assigned.
Encouraging academic achievement and cultivating attitudes of respect are priorities for my husband.  I should’ve known what would happen next.
Later the following day Joe told me, “I buried those guys.  I embarrassed them in front of the entire team.  I asked them if they thought they should be on scholarship if they can’t complete simple assignments.”
Oops.  I wasn’t trying to get my students in trouble.  Now I felt like a tattletale.  
There are other issues I will need to figure out, too.
With the first home doubleheader of the season just days away, I’m wondering what to do if one of my baseball-player students hits a homerun, or makes a diving play at third base?
Do I stand up, yell and slap my little boys high-five, as I normally would?   Or, would it be better for me to tone it down a bit – stay seated, clap quietly and smile?  How do I transition from teacher, to coach’s wife, and back to teacher again while still maintaining boundaries and some semblance of respectability? 
Or, what if one of my students sees me in my yoga pants, or chasing my wild, two-and-a-half-year old up and down the hallways of the hotel when we are in Florida next month on Spring Break?  Will he still be able to take me seriously at 8 a.m. the next time we have class?
Despite these conundrums, I am enjoying my new career in academia.  It is not the career I envisioned for myself (I was thinking more along the lines of award-winning international journalist, read: Christiane Amanpour) but now that I’m here, I think I’m finding my niche.
Joe is in his seventh year working with college students, and I am now beginning to share his passion for these burgeoning adults.  The college years are a brief but transformative time, and as their tutor and mentor, I have a big role to play in my students’ personal development.
As an English instructor, my job is extremely meaningful.  What could be more valuable than helping students become better communicators, especially in this socially-networked, hyper-communicative world in which we now live?
I could also see my role developing into a faculty advocate for student-athletes.  What many academics fail to see, I fear, is that student-athletes may be some of the most disciplined, hard-working students of all.  The average college student does not get up for 6 a.m. workouts or spend hours in the afternoon at the gym or on the field for practice.  When the other students are at home for the semester break, at the beach for spring break, or in their beds on a snow day – the student-athletes are on campus, practicing or playing games. 
I have a mission, and it is not at all different from my husband’s — to help develop young adults into responsible, respectful, capable human beings.  Our goals are the same, though admittedly we use different means (and tactics) to get there.
Still, there is one thing that we can always agree on: February is an awesome month.  Just like the scents of the season, the sounds are hopeful, too — the trickle of melting snow dripping from roof gutters and sloshing down streets, and the cheerful songs of returning robins and sparrows as they titter in the trees. Add to these the ping of a metal bat connecting with a leather-covered, cork ball, and the thump of an 88 MPH fastball meeting the catcher’s mitt, and the ambiance of approaching Spring is complete.