Kelly Train, our Chief Steward, recently shared an essay by Herb Childress on the predicament of adjuncts in American universities: “This is How You Kill a Profession.” The content and tone are exactly what you’d expect from such a title.
However I recommend you read the essay if you haven’t already, if for no other reason than to commiserate on the lure of the academic life, its promises and disappointments. The essay is an excerpt from The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, and the book seems to have struck a nerve. You’ll find a long review in the most recent issue of The New Yorker that contrasts the reflections of a privileged former president of NYU with Childress’s quasi memoir. It is Childress’s story that takes up the bulk of the review, and whose message supplies its conclusion.
Though Hearing Ourselves Think: Cognitive Research in the College Writing Classroom was published in 1993, I think the book has much to offer today. Ann Penrose and her co-authors present findings on the ways various students process information when struggling to analyze texts and writing situations. Observational research (documented as transcribed recordings of students’ reflections) complements discussions of theory and practice.
As dry as that may sound, the content provides a fascinating insight into what different students are thinking when they wrestle with similar writing problems to the ones we design for our classes. Chapters 8 and 9 cover audience analysis. Chapter 1 explains the rationale for the cognitive approach. Here’s the link to the eBook version in the Ryerson library.
Two Canadian academics, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber,have written a book,The Slow Professor, explaining how we can reduce the frantic pace and multi-layered commitments of today’s universities and still maintain standards. Though the authors write from the perspective of those with tenure, they advocate for changing our academic culture so that everyone in it can have time to reflect.
Here are two reviews of the book, if your busy schedule doesn’t allow you time to read the whole thing!
If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to read the powerful speech given by Kevin Birmingham on the occasion of his Truman Capote Award. His essay, “The Great Shame of Our Profession,” was reprinted in The Chronicle of Higher Education last February, and now in Arts and Letters Daily. In fact, our union provided a link earlier this year. Needless to say, there was some pushback by tenured faculty who didn’t take kindly to the implication that they needed to be part of the solution.
In a fascinating article, “Art by Algorithm,” Ed Finn, Founding Director of the Center for Imagination and Science at Arizona State University, ponders how machines support as well as challenge human creativity. To dispel any fears that the author might be urging his readers to surrender to the inevitable dominance of artificial intelligence, I reproduce the closing paragraph below:
The remarkable precipice we stand beside now is one where our tools are, in a transformative way, just as plastic as we are. Our algorithmic systems are watching us, learning from us, just as we learn from them, creating the possibility for a complex dance of intention, anticipation, creativity and emergence based on individual people, algorithms, and the social and technical structures that bracket them all. This is terrifying and breathtaking all at once, and it’s [as] artists that we need most of all to make sense of a future in which our collaborators are strange mirror machines of ourselves. Aesthetics has always been the unforgiving terrain where we assess pragmatic reality according to the impossible standards of the world as we wish it would be. Computation is a parallel project, grounded in the impossible beauty of abstract mathematics and symbolic systems. As they come together, we need to remain the creators, and not the creations, of our beautiful machines.
I attended a number of Canadian Communication Association sessions at Congress and thought you might be interested in a summary of the keynote address by Tarleton Gillespie.
Here is the bio provided by the association:
Tarleton Gillespie is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, an affiliated associate professor in Cornell’s Department of Communication and Department of Information Science, a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, co-founder of the blog Culture Digitally, the author of Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture (MIT, 2007) and a co-editor of Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (MIT, 2014). His next book (Yale University Press, forthcoming, spring 2018) examines how the governance of content and behavior by social media platforms has broader implications for freedom of expression and the character of public discourse.
His lecture distilled his current research on the quiet content moderation conducted by a complex hierarchy of checkers–paid and “volunteer”–by Twitter, Facebook and Google. Using Facebook’s removal of the famous image from the napalming of Vietnam as an illustrative case, he explained how censorship decisions based on algorithmic triggers and personal bias can determine what is culturally acceptable, often without our knowing it.
At this time of year, with mountains of assignments to mark and job applications to face, it’s natural to feel snarly. Soon the union will be surveying us about our working conditions and hopes for the new contract, and at that point we can channel our frustrations productively.
Still, it’s difficult to deal with the work ahead of us this month and beyond, if we keep awareness of the drawbacks of our situation at the top of our minds, so at this point I offer a few happy thoughts about what is good about our jobs here at Procom in an effort to make this time of year a little easier…
It’s rare to find a workplace where your colleagues are a pleasure to know. We’re a fun, mutually supportive, committed, innovative group, and it’s easy to take for granted that we go to work without feeling stressed about one another.
Unpretentious, Creative, Energetic Students
The above traits distinguish Ryerson students from other university students I’ve taught. On average, I don’t think our cohort sizes us up for worthiness or tries cynically to impress us in order to garner a better mark. Most are quite adept team members who try sincerely to produce quality work.
Flexible Work Conditions
Many people who work in conventional offices would kill for the flexibility we have: two study breaks and staggered schedules. Not only do we have the freedom to do most of our work when we choose, we can also weave freelance or other employment into our schedule without penalty.
Despite the strictures of multi-section courses, we still can put our own stamp on our classrooms and approach teaching as we see fit. Many of our courses also compel us to draw on our creative impulses and so realize some of the aptitudes and interests that drew us to higher education.
Of course it’s not ideal to try to do our jobs in shared offices or one big room with dividers. However, the rooms aren’t old and depressing or housed in a building with questionable air quality (think VIC). We also have new computers and software and access to a Cloud system.
Rewards of Working at Ryerson University
We are no longer working at “Rye High.” Ryerson is a diverse and striving place which hasn’t stagnated because of complacency. It’s still possible to feel a part of the forward motion of the institution even as a sessional. We contribute to curricula, conference presentations and, in Procom’s case, the vision of the School.
Additional benefits are access to free courses and tuition for family members, new facilities, opportunities for collaboration with faculty in other programs and quick access to the subway.
Pay and Benefits
Granted, we work hard for what we earn. Nevertheless, because we are unionized, we can hope to gradually move toward a comfortable salary and some job security. The benefits package is also better than for many other organizations.
Our executive has managed to secure a measure of job security for 60 members and is working hard to increase that number. This isn’t a union that goes through the motions. I’ve seen senior members handle the delicate relationship with management with skill, and we’d be in a very different situation if we didn’t have CUPE bargaining for our rights
As a superstitious person and habitual contrarian, I have to end with “knock on wood.” Still, I think we can take comfort in the consolations of our jobs in April, 2017.
Some of you may already be aware of Duolingo, the free language-learning program. I’m currently learning Turkish with it. Since I’m not involved in any of the gamified courses at Procom, Duolingo has helped me understand, from the user’s perspective, how this particular mode of delivery works. One effective service is the reminder bot, which badgers students every day to keep up. This disembodied pesterer throws the responsibility for learning squarely on the student without the presence of an easily dismissed human educator.
Duolingo has another relevance to our discipline, particularly on the topic of participatory culture and crowdsourced content. In a 2011 TED talk, Luis von Ahn, the computer scientist behind Duolingo, explains how his first project, CAPTCHA, was used to digitize unreadable texts through crowdsourcing. He then explains how Duolingo uses massive-scale online collaboration to translate Wikipedia entries into multiple languages. Apparently we unpaid translator/learners somehow help to keep the whole project afloat.
Academia.edu is a social media platform allowing academics to post papers and other academic information in a mission to share and accelerate research dissemination. Launched in 2008, it has grown to over 47-million users, with over 2-million research interests, and over 17-million posted papers. The platform allows users to post abstracts or papers, as well as follow academics of interest to their area of research. Each month, Academia.edu attracts over 36-million unique visitors, and a recent study by PLOS ONE indicated that papers posted on the site garner a 69% increase in citations over five years. Researchers can search by a scholar’s name, article title, or subject area to find work most pertinent to their interests. The site also maintains a blog, and a job board.
The platform allows users to monitor analytics for their profiles and individual papers, making it clear which papers are generating the most interest. Academia.edu has been reported on, generally positively, in popular journals including Nature, Wired, The Washington Post, The Economist, Fortune, Bloomberg, Forbes, and Scientific American. One concern about posting research material online is the prospect of copyright infringement. Academia.edu has a clear copyright statement, threatening to disable or terminate user accounts of repeat offenders; however, the onus is on the researcher whose intellectual property has been infringed upon to report such violations. In 2013, academic press Elsevier demanded that Academia.edu remove over 2800 article authors had posted, citing copyright violation. Another potential concern is that because researchers post their own papers, they may not have received peer review.
Although I’ve had an account with Academia.edu since 2011, with a modest 38 followers, I’ve been cautious about uploading much content. My conference abstracts are there, but not the full papers. I uploaded a book chapter several years after hard copy publication, and once it was contractually permissible. Occasionally, people have requested copies of full papers, and I’ve always asked why they want them.
I appreciate the site’s analytics, which allow me to see which of my posted conference abstracts are garnering the most interest, and might be worth developing into longer papers. It’s also fun to review which countries are popping up. Apparently, I have a global academic reach! Although the majority of views have been Canadian or American, I’ve also had several hits from the UK and Australia, as well as numerous countries in Europe and Asia—and even one from Vatican City! Although Academia.edu is sometimes compared with LinkedIn, I’ve found it more useful than my (now defunct) LinkedIn account. Unlike on Facebook, you won’t find any cute cat pictures, but Academia.edu is a simple and viable way to share research and see who’s doing what.