Cutting the Cable

After living for more than 20 years without cable, I was “forced” to sign on with Time Warner when I relocated to Maine. I’m exaggerating about the lack of cable: I spent years with Dish Network, and later adopted AT&T’s uVerse service when it hit my neighborhood and bundling meant a savings fo $50/month.

It’s funny, but I loved the Dish UI, and the uVerse UI was also reasonably decent. (Where Dish simply hid unsubscribed channels, uVerse gave me visual cues that showed channels I didn’t get.) TWC’s UI is just awful! They tease you by showing you the entire package of programs, and many of them are not really available without significant subscription charges. And, oddly, the entire system has a time lag in the UI – try scrolling through a channels menu and the system can’t keep up. This from a company that advertises super high speeds.  (My guess is that Dish and AT&T DL channel menus to a HDD, but TWC prefers to serve it all up over and over.

Anyway, I’ve just completed my one year “teaser” rate on the bundled TV, Phone, Internet service.  (It’s really about the only game in town, or in the woods where I live.) When I called to secure a continued discount I learned that I’d be getting the “step” rate. I get a discount over full retail pricing, but it’s less than the teaser.  This is like getting the second bag of dope at half price. Why the discount? To lock you even longer so you really feel the pain of loss (withdrawal?) should you cancel.

So we’re cutting the cable! Think cold turkey.  OK, not quite.  I’m implementing a hodgepodge setup for media.  Netflix streaming and a DVD plan, something we’ve had for nearly a decade.  I’ve spent a whopping $79 on the refurbished high end Roku box, with the bonus of a HD Netflix stream that far exceeds the quality we’ve been getting through our Wii.  And now I’m working up a set of channels on the Roku that will get us some of what we’ll lose by cutting cable. Plex is going to be an awesome way to stream our own media to the TV without putting a computer in the room. And I’m likely to subscribe to Hulu Plus to get some network programming.  For the networks, I’m toying with the OTA HD reception we can pull in from the Portland stations.  That’s a project, but I can already see it working reasonably well.We’ll end up saving about $40/month, so it will take a couple months to recoup the Roku investment. And a decent HD antenna will run me close to $100.  Of course, that’s all equipment I get to keep, unlike that cable box I rent for about $100/year.

We’ll lose Disney, and the kids do watch 2-3 of their shows pretty regularly. And Cartoon Network is a favorite for the Clone Wars animated series.  I’m working on solutions for those challenges. I’m hoping that I might use Plex, iTunes, and possibly Hulu Plus to assist here. And I don’t have a DVR solution in the mix – yet.

And we’re also talking about dropping the landline for another $30 savings.  I’m still feeling too old fashioned to be without a phone, but we’re already getting a VOIP phone setup through TWC. We don’t get the old phone system that works in power outages anyway, making the security of a landline a kind a mental fiction. There’s no reason I can’t implement a third party VOIP solution at a fraction of the TWC price, and I’ve looked into it. My real hesitation: TWC has my number and won’t allow another VOIP provider to port it out.  We’d need to get a new phone number! Local calling only is my fall back option here. Save money, but keep the phone number. Our cell plan could easily handle our national calling, particularly if mostly restricted to cell-to-cell and evening calling.

 

 

Google Docs and Composition Instruction

My handwriting is poor. For years I have joked that I can get away with this because I’m a doctor.  And I have absolutely no trouble reading my own brand of shorthand. What’s the problem? As a writing teacher, I am always commenting on my students’ texts, mostly in marginal notes on papers and in an end comment letter. I work very hard to write legibly on my students’ texts. But the fact remains that my poor handwriting always makes its way into those comments. I offer a translation “service” to my students when I hand back papers and dedicate class time to a reading of my comments before we work to put common writing challenges on the board. And over the term my students do become better interpreters of my shorthand.

Commenting on student texts has always seemed more personalized when I’m hunched over a desk with a pencil in hand, making decisions about where and when to mark the text. And space limitations of the margins help reduce the likelihood that I’ll overwhelm the student with feedback, though that’s always a real possibility.

Back around 2001, when I taught freshman writing as an asynchronous online course, I experimented with digital markup using Acrobat. I found it time consuming and clunky, and while I could write more text quite quickly – and legibly – I disliked the distance the process put between the printed page and myself.

MS Word’s comment tools and track changes have always bugged me for some reason. Perhaps it’s the ease with which one can simply “accept all changes,” effectively allowing a student to let me revise the paper. (I feel this way even though I almost never actually rephrase or rewrite a student’s sentence.) This is already a challenge in teaching revision: students often revise only those moments we mark in a text, thinking that will “fix” the paper.

Strange. For all I’ve done to embrace emergent digital writing technologies over the last dozen years, I have resisted what is perhaps the most basic tool the writing teacher might adopt in working with student texts. Until now.

Enter Google Docs

I feel like a luddite for not getting serious with Google Docs. My institution uses Google Apps for Education, effectively putting all of my students on the Google network. This is quite exciting for a number of reasons that go way beyond Docs. But that’s another story.

Students write their papers directly into a Doc they create on their account, copy-paste a text document from their computer into a Doc, or upload a text doc to Docs. Once they have the paper appropriately formatted (double-spaced, block quotes, page numbers, etc.), they “share” the document with me. I comment on the document and they get immediate feedback.

It’s a bit like MS Office, making it less than beautiful, only I don’t need to have the files on my machine or worry about file compatibility. (Until this term, I regularly received attachments in .pages, .doc, .docx, .txt, .odt, and even – yes – .wpd formats.) I have four different word processing programs on my computer so that I can handle this variety!

I do have an issue with “shared” documents and marking texts. The real-time nature of Docs means that my comments show up immediately. I prefer to distribute final, marked papers at the same time, particularly since it can take several days to work through a (virtual) stack of papers. The workaround I’m using involves copying the shared document, pasting it into a new document I own, and making my comments. I can then share the comments to each student at roughly the same time.

Peer Review

More important than the way this tool enables me to comment on texts is its potential in the peer review process.  My approach to peer review has always involved in-class reading and discussion of student texts. Everyone brings multiple copies, small groups do read-arounds and discuss each text in the group, and I sit in on groups to offer guidance and encouragement.

New this term, I’m putting the reading of drafts onto homework, with the class period reserved for discussion of the ideas and suggestions for revision. Students share their draft Doc with designated peers; commenting happens on the Doc.

I can quickly and easily see the character of the students’ comments, flag and echo some of the best comments by peers, and add my own to the mix. Gone are the days when I would have to collect 3 copies of a draft to see the “layers” of peer feedback on a student’s text, or rely on some other elaborate, paper-heavy mechanism to evaluate the peer review in my classes.

I do worry that the marked document may overwhelm novice writers who can easily become overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback on a single document. (It would be very, very cool if the author could choose to view one set of comments or another.)

Problem – MS Office is Inescapable

In terms of workflow, I have found that the current version of Docs is very limiting when one wants to print comments. Print your Doc and the comments get stripped out before printing. Docs has a full portfolio of export/download options (.doc, .pdf, .html, and more). But only .doc preserves the comments though the export. Frankly, this stinks to high heaven!

Here’s the workflow:

  1. Open Doc with comments that you want to print to bring to class, perhaps to reduce laptop multi-tasking during peer review.
  2. Download .doc file to computer. Open in Word, Pages, Open Office, or another editor. Print.
  3. Bring to class.

This approach isn’t too cumbersome if you’re only printing one Doc. Now multiply the process by 20, 40, 60 to hand back papers with comments.

The writing teacher has already spent 15-30 minutes marking each text. Putting two steps between “desire to print” and “actual print” seems ridiculous. And I’m not sure what technical hurdle would prevent comments from printing. I’m sure Google will address this in some upcoming update.

In an online or hybrid/blended writing course, I can see Docs as a wonderful tool. Printed text becomes irrelevant in an online environment.

 

The Innovative University

Christensen, Clayton, M., and Henry J. Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

I should have read The Innovative University  last year. It is a book that seems to have penetrated fairly deeply into higher education management circles after the authors’ central concepts of “disruptive innovation” and institutional “DNA” found an audience in the larger business world.

I should have read The Innovative University just so that I could better understand some of the ideas behind administrators’ thinking these days. The incentive to read the book came this past month in the form of an invitation by the provost to join a discussion of the text and the possible implications for the future of my own university.

I find little to argue with in the authors’ complaints about the hazards of attempting to transplant the “Harvard DNA” into colleges and universities that lack the resources, selectivity, and star power of a Harvard. And who but a member of a dying breed of nostalgic professors could claim that the tremors that currently rock higher education are just noise that will have little impact on his or her institution. Online education, careful consideration of the teaching-service-scholarship mix, and redefinitions of scholarship itself are clearly on the table for almost any college or university. And The Innovative University offers some food for thought in these areas. As always, I remain ready to engage with colleagues on just these issues.

But I found The Innovative University lacking a certain scholarly treatment of the issues. Early on, the authors claim that they will use “DNA” as a metaphor, and such a move is innocent enough.  One can employ metaphor to great effect.  But, of course, one can also push a metaphor so far that that it is no longer suitable. This, it seems to me, is where The Innovative University runs with its metaphor of DNA.

I’m no biologist, but my sense is that DNA changes through random mutation and combination in reproduction. Its expression in phenotype or perceived traits has something to do with dominant and recessive traits. Many elements of DNA have little or no impact on the functioning of an organism (or a species). Some weaken the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce, to be sure, while others may offer the organism a competitive advantage in the quest for survival, a mate, and offspring. This kind of change is generally understood to be very slow, particularly for more complex organisms. (And, of course, an organization is not an organism.)

And this is a problem. If it’s DNA that explains the “evolution” of Harvard University and efforts to replicate or transplant that DNA that are getting so many schools in trouble, why is the book chock full of decisions made by specific individuals responding to particular challenges/circumstances?  One doesn’t will a change in DNA, unless one is a sort of deity who can go into an organism and perform miracles. Hmm. University presidents as nearly omnipotent beings capable of shaping DNA.

In a sense, perhaps the authors’ use of DNA to describe what sociologists and students of organizational behavior might call an organization’s culture or its institutions is actually a vehicle for signaling to leaders that they stand in this God-like position: “Yes, your university does have DNA.  It’s important to ‘know’ that DNA so that you can mold and shape it to respond to perceived market forces. Institutional make-up is hard wired (DNA), and yet transformational leaders of the sort who move Harvard and other universities are powerful enough to change it.”

That kind of power is generally seen as the province of Mother Nature, God, or natural selection. While this isn’t the central message of The Innovative University, it may help explain why the ideas of disruptive innovation and organizational DNA are so appealing to CEOs, presidents, and others in positions of power and influence.

Changing an organization is so hard because it’s encoded in the DNA of an institution. But the true leader is able to see the DNA and manipulate it to enable the organization to adapt in ways that make it better suited to its environment. Heady stuff, indeed!

Rat Rod Ride – 1971 Iverson Road Runner

1971 Iverson Road Runner

Over the weekend I picked up a complete, original 1971 Iverson Road Runner, a classic rat rod bike style that brought me right back to my childhood days on a banana seat Schwinn my dad repainted and named “The Streaker.”

This Maine barn find is the coolest thing. Stickers on the double-crown fork give it the look of a sprung front suspension. Ape hanger bars are each mounted in their own posts, affording maximum flexibility in positioning the bars. The chainguard is in great shape, and both fenders are solid, original, and nearly perfect.

Sure there’s rust all over the chromed bars, the rims, and even the chainring. And the foam in the seat is, well, nonexistent. But the seat has no tears in it and the tires held air when we got it home and pumped them up for a test ride.

Why did I get this thing? Over a couple weeks, I had been eyeballing it beside a barn during my commute. It looked like it was going to the trash, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Jess could tell that it pained me to see it out in the weather. When I saw the homeowner outside, I pulled over, made some inquiries, and loaded up the bike (and one more that isn’t nearly as cool).

I’m not sure what I want to do with the bike.  It’s an excellent resto candidate since it is, quite literally, complete. But I almost think it’s just more fun the way it is. For now, it’s just really cool to see my own kids taking a spin on the kind of bike I rode back in the day.

Oh, the Price? Free!

 

Jammin’ in Maine

This summer we finally made the move to Maine. After a year of weekly 500-mile commutes, we threw in the towel on selling the house, rented it out and made the move up to Maine. It’s a wonderful thing!

One of the first things our daughter Emma wanted to do was make jam with the berries growing all around the property. She and I collected about a half gallon of black raspberries one morning. The next morning we got up early and started cooking. Amazingly delicious stuff!

Then Will wanted to do the same thing with the wild Maine blueberries around the house. Those are harder to collect because they’re so small, but the jam he and I made is just as tasty

What a simple, yet pleasant experience. Walk around the yard with a bucket, pluck ripe fruit, boil it down and add sugar, seal it in jars, and spread on a good toast.

We’re about done on the blueberries since the season is almost over. But the raspberries look like they’ll be ripening for a couple more weeks. Perhaps another batch is in order. And we’ll need it since the kids insist that we mail a bunch out to family.

Yard Sale Lemonade Stand

After waiting all summer to sell our house so we could hold a yard sale, we decided to have the sale even though the house hasn’t sold. Emma came up with the idea of a lemonade stand, and she added iced tea to the menu. She sat out front all day selling lemonade to people who came to the yard sale, to the mailman, and to passers by. I think she made almost $20 over about 6 hours. (That’s more than I made in 6 hours when I started flipping burgers at 16!)

At the end of the day, I pulled out my phone and shot some video of the kids pitching lemonade. Today I pulled the video off my phone, imported it into iMovie, added a filter to give it an old movie look, and put a piece of the video on my Youtube account.

[Video deleted at Emma’s request – February 22, 2013]

You’ll notice that Emma isn’t offering more than unpaid internships at her stand! Too bad for her brothers.