Just testing

I did this about this time last year. Though then it was buried at the end of a much longer post about other things.

This is simply a bonus for any of my spring 2013 undergrads who happen to be reading this: Cut-and-paste any full entry from this blog and send it to me in an email. For every full course week left in the semester after your email lands in my inbox, I’ll add 0.5 points to your course grade. You’re free to share this information with your classmates if you so choose . . . but not on the course website. If news of this bonus ever lands there, the bonus goes away, and all previously awarded benefits will be taken away. And, perhaps needless to say, this is a one-time-only bonus for anyone who happens to collect it.

(For the curious out there, last year, out of 20 students who could have claimed this bonus, only 4 did.)

Moving time?

Once again, as happens every year about this time, the calendar has rolled over to February. Once again, as happens every year about this time, some people (usually, though not always, people of color) start doing things to commemorate Black History Month. And, once again, as happens every year about this time, skeptical souls start making quips about how it makes sense that black folks would be given the shortest, coldest month of the year to call their own.

Now the original rationales for using February as the time to honor black contributions to the US undo some of the truths to be found in all those wry jokes. The fact that a black man started the tradition — and that he picked February because it’s the month when both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born — messes a bit with the fact that February really would have been the perfect “separate but equal” month for white America to parcel out as a token gesture to black America. Perhaps more to the point, back in 1926, when the whole thing started (and when it was only a week), it’s not as if there were exactly legions of white Americans who were actively looking to find even a day of the year — much less a week or a month — to pay homage to black people. If the choice had really been white America’s back then (and perhaps even now), I’m pretty sure that there would have been no debate at all about when to pay tribute to black America, since that tribute simply would not have been forthcoming at all.

But that’s not what led me to fire up the blogging machinery tonight.

No, what occurred to me as I was reading yet another one of those “of course, we got the shortest month” commentaries was that there’s no good reason why Black History Month simply has to stay tied to February. Sure, it’s been that way for almost a century now, but it’s not as if that’s dictated by law. There are no major holidays that would need to be moved that would disrupt the rhythm of school calendars or banks. No annual BHM sale days that would destroy the economy if they were shifted to some other time of year. No government agency charged with overseeing holidays from whom permission would need to be secured. BHM isn’t the sort of tradition, after all, that exists because of any formal mandate from the proverbial Powers That Be — no more so than clearly arbitrary “holidays” like National Sushi Day or National Drink Beer Day — and it’s only “stuck” in February because that’s where it began.

To put it a different way, if we don’t like the fact that BHM is in a short, cold month, then let’s just move it. Who’s going to stop us? It would probably be pretty amusing — and telling — to watch people try to prevent such a thing from happening. I am suddenly flashing on Fox News pundits trying to claim that the very future of the nation would somehow be imperiled if black folks were given positive public recognition during any month of the year besides February.

And if we want a long, hot month, there are some pretty good choices there. The easy one to take would be August. There’s certainly no major holiday then to compete with BHM — or even a minor one. It’s got 31 days, and it’s plenty warm, so there could be lots of picnics and parades and other such festivities.

But I think the far better choice would be July, which — like August — gives us 31 steamy, sultry days to work with. But it also puts BHM and Independence Day right on top of each other. And if part of the point of BHM is to celebrate the centrality of black contributions to the nation, then when better to do that than when the nation itself is being celebrated so heartily?

A new semester . . .

. . . means not just one, but two new syllabi: one for graduate students and one for (mostly) undergraduates. (Technically, of course, these are actually updated versions of older syllabi, but there’s plenty of freshness in each of them).

And, this time around anyway, the new semester also begins with a very freshly published essay on cultural studies and history (with the shockingly off-topic title of “Cultural Studies and History”).

A long overdue separation

I got an email from the nice folks at Mitsubishi Motors today about “Important Windshield Wiper Tips.” I appreciate that Mitsubishi wants to keep me safe on the roads. Honest, I do. Though I’m not sure that they need to send me a special email full of tips to make this happen . . . especially when those “tips” actually boil down to a sales pitch to bring my Mitsubishi in to the dealer to get my wiper blades replaced.

But what really bugs me about this email is that “my Mitsubishi” is no longer mine. Not by a longshot. It gave up the ghost back in 2001 or so. Mitsubishi doesn’t seem to have noticed this, however, even though I have tried — over and over and over again — to get myself removed from their email lists. But the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of those friendly emails has never worked out. This time, it simply took me to a page that demanded my name and email — without any other explanatory assistance — in ways that suggested I would actually be inviting more advertising into my inbox if I filled it out.

Normally, I’d shrug this off. But today I was feeling ornery enough to try and push this unsubscription thing through. After more than a decade and three other cars (none of which were Mitsubishis), I figured I could afford to cut my ties with the big M completely. (Side note: I have no idea if anyone actually calls Mitsubishi “the big M,” even within the company.) Trouble is, that advertising email came from a “noreply” bot and was completely devoid of other directly helpful contact information.

So I wander over to the main Mitsubishi website. Which has lots of information if I want to buy a Mitsubishi or find a Mitsubishi dealer. But nothing at all obvious for extricating myself from (or, for that matter, adding myself to) their marketing database. I look back at the Wiper Tips email and notice a link to their privacy policy. Buried deep in that page, there’s a different link that offers me the chance to escape from (or join) their advertising lists. Hooray!

Except that the page in question contains a form that doesn’t actually work. I tried loading it in multiple browsers — just in case there was something about how their site interacts with all the pop-up blockers (etc.) that I have configured in Firefox — and none of them gave me a version of the page that actually allowed you to enter your contact information. The page contains apparently usable boxes for doing so, but those boxes don’t permit ordinary mortals to input text of any sort. And so it was back to their privacy policy page . . .

. . . where there was a phone number to call if you had questions or concerns about the policy. So I called. Not surprisingly, I found myself listening to a menu of options to direct my call. A very short menu. I could press “1″ if I already had a Mitsubishi. Or “2″ if I wanted to buy one. There was no option for anything else. Waiting the silence out eventually got me an error message about needing to press a number and then cycled me back to the start of the menu. Very helpful.

So I tried pressing “0″ — a common default choice for “customer service” — which got me a new error message about how “0″ wasn’t an available option . . . but then asked me to press “1″ if I wanted customer service. Which I did.

The first thing that the very nice woman I spoke with there asked me for was my Vehicle Identification Number. I told her I didn’t have one, so she asked for my name. I gave it to her. She asked where my vehicle was registered. I told her that I didn’t have one and explained — more succinctly than I do above — that I was simply trying to get off their email list, and she was apparently my only option to do so.

She really was very nice. But she also explained to me that she needed my VIN in order to pull my records up in their database, since she couldn’t do so reliably using my email address or my name. I pointed out that I didn’t have ready access to a unique, difficult-to-memorize 17-digit number connected to a car I hadn’t laid eyes on this century. She asked for the phone number that I would have had back then — but the only old phone numbers I can recall with any accuracy at this point take me back to pre-teen childhood.

Then, surprisingly, she started describing my old car (lucky for me that Rodman isn’t a very common name) and she told me that she had changed their records to indicate that I was no longer the owner of the vehicle in question. So this story may have a happy ending — though it’s just as likely that their computer system will now inundate my with special offers to buy a new Mitsubishi, since I was clearly delighted to own my old one for 23 years . . .

Push off

[I've already forgotten where I first read this tip -- and since my efforts to backtrack to it by googling around are only helping me find dozens of seemingly independent versions of the same advice, I'm not going to worry as much as I might about a hat-tip the "original" source here. I send apologies into the ether for whomever actually deserves credit (in my world, anyway) for suggesting this idea as a productivity booster.]

The tip itself seems deceptively simple: wherever you can do so — your phone, your laptop, your tablet — turn push notifications off. Don’t think of them as helpful attention-getters. Think of them as interruptions from whatever it is that you actually need to be doing at any given time. It’s only been a few days, so I may be singing a different tune in another week or three, but I’m liking the general effect so far. Still, this has been both easier and harder than I’d imagined it would be.

It’s been easier insofar as I don’t actively miss most of the “real time” notifications I’d been used to. For example, I’ve recently discovered Letterpress, which is a delightfully addictive word/strategy game (iDevices only, I’m afraid) . . . but I also don’t really need an addictive game sucking up my time and attention. And, before I turned its push notifications off, it was easy to find myself pulled into it at random moments, just because the little chime on my phone went off to let me know that it was now my turn to play again. I haven’t given the game up, mind you. But now it gets relegated to those moments when I’m between tasks, and I actively seek it out.

It’s been harder, though, since I’m starting to discover just how many apps, programs, and so on I had set (or, just as often, were set by default) to grab my attention whenever something “important” happened. Several times already, I have thought I’d managed to turn off all the things I thought I needed to turn off . . . only to suddenly hear a beep or a chime or a buzzer from something I’d forgotten about. Slowly, though, I think I’m chasing all these stray notifications down.

To be sure, there are a few push notifications I haven’t quite managed to let go of completely. Email and text messages are the big ones . . . though I’m trying to find ways to screen those more productively. I get a lot of email (managing a sizable listserv will do that), but precious little of it is actually so time-sensitive that I need to deal with it within seconds (or even hours) of its arrival. What I need to do is to figure out a set of filters that will trigger the relevant chimes and tones when important email comes through, while letting the rest of it pile up so that I can deal with it when I’m done dealing with other, more immediately pressing tasks.

(Oh, and yes, of course, your email messages are always going to get filtered through as “Vitally Important.” No, no. Sorry. Not you. I meant the reader two screens to your left. Yes, you. Your messages will never get the silent treatment from me.)

XXII 2.0

I was born and (mostly) raised in Washington, D.C. So I’m a lifelong fan of the team with the most offensive name in all of sports. I won’t wear the gear, but I will still pull for the burgundy-and-gold every week during (US) football season, in good seasons and bad . . . and this season has turned out to be a pretty damned good one. But it’s not over yet.

I’m also enough of a geek to participate in a friendly pick-’em pool every season. I’ve got a system (it’s highly proprietary, so don’t ask) that was right a respectable 61.1% of the time, and that brought me to a very close third place finish this year (one pick out of second place, and two out of first). And that system tells me that the NFL playoffs will shape up as follows.

Wild-card weekend:
Houston over Cincinnati
Minnesota over Green Bay
Indianapolis over Baltimore
Washington over Seattle

Divisional-round weekend
Minnesota over Atlanta
Denver over Indianapolis
Washington over San Francisco
New England over Houston

Conference championships
Washington over Minnesota
Denver over New England

Super Bowl
Washington over Denver

As I write these words, the nice folks at Football Outsiders (one of my fave NFL-centric sites) figure that this particular matchup — which would reprise the 42-10 beatdown that Washington handed Denver in Super Bowl XXII — is only about 2.8% likely, but I’m not phased by those odds. After all, seven weeks ago, when they were 3-6, that’s about what my team’s chances were of merely making the playoffs. And they’ve done alright since then. With much more to come.

Name that status: The rules

If you’re my Facebook friend, you have probably noticed that I don’t use some of the site’s main features in the way that they were intended to be used. And while it’s been a while since I’ve toyed with Facebook’s check-ins, for several years I’ve held pretty steady to my routine of using my status updates as an ongoing game of “Name That Tune.” Barring major life or world events that seem too big to ignore, my status updates are always song lyrics, and an unusually eclectic spread of my friends will chime in with their guesses as to what song I’m quoting. What you probably didn’t know, even if you have been following those status-lyrics closely, is that there are extensive rules to that game. And the time has come, gentle readers, for me to share those rules with you.

To be clear, these are almost entirely rules for me. For folks who are playing along at home, there’s really only one rule: no cheating. If you can identify a lyric on your own, that’s cool. But if you need to start dropping my statuses into search engines to figure things out, that’s verboten. Still, even that rule is only enforced by my friends’ personal senses of honor. Once, I think, I suspected someone was Googling their way to correct guess after correct guess after guess, even across a diverse spread of genres and historical moments. But otherwise, I’ve simply assumed that everyone knows that the game isn’t really any fun (or much of a challenge) if you’re just firing up Google every time I change my status.

From my end, though, things are slightly more complicated.

  • I do my best never to repeat a song. Every so often, I screw this up. But I keep a running file of used songs/lyrics to try and avoid duplication. That same running file also contains long lists of lyrics that are still waiting their turn to be used.
  • The lyrics I quote never contain major words from the actual title. I also try not to be too obvious with the lyrics I actually choose, though what counts as “too obvious” is also a difficult thing to guess in advance. I do my best to pick songs that I expect more than a handful of people would know, but I’m often surprised by how quickly some of my (ostensibly) tricky efforts gets recognized, and by how lyrics that strike me as low-hanging fruit nonetheless flummox people left and right.
  • I try very heard not to use lyrics that appear in multiple songs. This is much easier said than done of course, since there are lots of songs I have never heard, and every so often, someone will swear that I’m quoting (for example) some obscure Gladys Knight tune that I’ve never heard of that just happens to use the same lyrics I’ve quoted. But I don’t aim for deliberate confusion of this sort.
  • This game began back when Facebook statuses were still set up (and mostly used) in such a way that your actual status was the back end of a sentence that began with your name: e.g., “Gil Rodman doesn’t trust you anymore” (which, incidentally, is Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddamn”). And I’ve stuck by that formulation, even as both Facebook and popular custom has moved away from it. One of the major consequences this has for status-lyrics is that I will sometimes make minor alterations to verbs and pronouns so as to fit this shift to the third-person singular. Otherwise, I leave the lyrics unchanged.
  • Statuses stay “live” until someone correctly identifies the tune in a comment. Typically, people do this with some other lyric of the same song, though I don’t get all Jeopardy-fussy about this sort of thing. If I can tell that you know the song I’m quoting, I’ll tip my hat your way, and move on to the next lyric. If 72 hours have passed and no one has IDed some lyric, I’ll post the answer and move on.
  • The bit you probably didn’t know, unless you’ve been paying exceptionally close attention (only one person I know of has figured this out on their own): lyrics are posted in alphabetical order by song title. My original plan was to do one status for each letter of the alphabet, and then cycle back around again to A every time we got done with Z. Not surprisingly, though, some letters (I, L, S, T) offer a lot more opportunities than others (J, Q, X, Z), and so I started letting some of those letters get multiple turns during any given pass through the alphabet. Right now, a little less than half the alphabet is “on vacation,” and so a typical sequence now may look something like ABBCDGHIIIJLMPRSSTW.

Admittedly, all this inside information will be of limited value if you want to play the game yourself. Knowing that the most recently used (and unguessed) lyric (as I type these words anyway) was from “I Got Rhythm” will tell you that the current tune’s title is probably going to begin with an I or a J . . . but that clue will only get you so far, eh?

How to plagiarize well (tips for my undergraduates)

Ideally, of course, this tip could be summed up in four simple words: Just Don’t Do It.

But you know that already. The syllabus tells you not to do so. Pretty much every instructor you’ve ever had since high school has told you not to do so. And yet, in spite of all that, you may someday find yourself in what we might call the Triple-P Problem: you’ve Procrastinated, and now you’re Panicking, so you turn to Plagiarism and hope against hope that I will somehow fail to notice that the words I’m reading aren’t your own. The odds are pretty good, however, that such hope is misplaced, since the same procrastination problem that has put you in this particular pickle also means that you don’t have time to cover your tracks especially well. So I’m going to share a few basic tips with you — all based upon actual mistakes that your predecessors in my classes have made over the years — so that you don’t follow in their footsteps and wind up with a bright, shiny F on your transcript.

  • Don’t plagiarize from the course readings. The odds are pretty good that I’ve done the course readings myself. You can, in fact, pretty much count on it. Which makes the odds pretty good that when I read long passages from those same readings in your paper, I will recognize them and know exactly where they came from. If you’re going to steal someone else’s words and try and pass them off as your own, it would be wise to steer clear of sources that you know that I have read myself. [Bonus sub-tip: If you're foolish enough to steal from readings on our syllabus, at least pick one that we haven't specifically focused on as an example of a pathetically weak, unsupported argument.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that I’m likely to be familiar with. Obviously, this is much trickier than avoiding stuff on the syllabus, since you don’t know what other books and articles I might recognize. But if your paper happens to contain some unusual turn of phrase that (a) will be widely recognized by scholars in the field as a key concept in an oft-cited work, and (b) isn’t a phrase that an average person is likely to have come up with independently, then you run a high risk of getting caught. [Bonus sub-tip: Don't give your paper the same title as a famous book on your subject.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that are too far afield. This would seem to contradict my previous tip, but it’s important to strike a proper balance here. If you’re relying on a source that is too far removed from the actual subject at hand, it will almost certainly jump out at me as unusual (at best) or suspicious (at worst). You need to find a comfortable middle zone between “too close” and “too far” that won’t raise either of my eyebrows. [Bonus sub-tip: In my classes anyway, stick to readings from humanities disciplines. When your paper on contemporary mass media (of the non-digital variety) is filled with technical jargon from computer science, I see red flags right away.]
  • Don’t simply cut-and-paste your borrowed prose. I know. It’s quick. It’s easy. It saves you lots of time, and time is precisely what you don’t have lots of. But it also makes it very easy to spot the bits of your paper that have been lifted from elsewhere, especially if you don’t bother to adjust your fonts so that everything matches neatly. [Bonus sub-tip: When copying from an online source, take extra care to do something about any hyperlinks you're bringing along for the ride. When small phrases show up in your paper underlined and in blue ink, it's extraordinarily easy for me to know what to Google so I can find your original source.]
  • Don’t use prose that doesn’t sound anything like the way you actually speak or write. If you are prone to uttering simple, short, declarative statements, a paper filled with elaborate, flowery, multi-claused sentences is probably not going to be convincing. It’s also wise to steer clear of borrowing from sources that use lots of specialized jargon that you don’t understand, since I’m not likely to believe that you actually wrote that sentence about “the precession of simulacra” yourself if you haven’t been prone to saying such things out loud in class already. [Bonus sub-tip: If you don't know how to use semi-colons correctly, don't use prose from other people that employs them extensively.]
  • Don’t submit a paper that you haven’t actually read. Again, I know that actually reading what you turn in will slow the process down, and you simply don’t have a lot of time to spare. But this is a very important step. If I suspect (but cannot prove) that you have turned in a plagiarized paper, the first thing I will ask you is if you can tell me about your thought/work process in writing the paper . . . and if you haven’t read the stuff you’ve handed in as yours, then the game is up. [Bonus sub-tip: If you've been crafty enough to have someone else write your paper for you, it's extra important for you to read what they've written before I do . . . especially if your ghost writer has spelled your name wrong on the cover page.]

If you’ve actually followed all the steps above, then there’s a halfway decent chance that I may actually believe that what you’ve handed me is something you have written yourself. Congratulations! Of course, at this point, the odds are also still pretty good that what you’ve handed in doesn’t fit the assignment well enough to earn a respectable grade. And you’ve done as much work (and maybe even more) trying to cover your tracks as you would have had to do in order to write the paper yourself. But now you may squeak by with a D instead of an F. So it’s all been worthwhile, yes?

It takes Q to Django?

[Wasn't it roughly this time last year when I said I was going to be better about blogging in 2012? Oh, yeah. It was. Hmm. Well, let's try this again. Maybe it'll stick this time.]

I rang out the old year yesterday by taking in Django Unchained, the latest from ultra-violence-loving director Quentin Tarantino. I’m still processing the experience, so these are merely some quick, fragmentary reflections. Ask me again tomorrow, and maybe they’ll have shifted. Also, there may be a few spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the film, and you want to do so without knowing too much more, then you may not want to read past the first bullet point.

django poster

  • Spike Lee has done a curious two-step around the film. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to talk about it publicly. On the other hand, he’s made very public statements claiming that film is “disrespectful to [his] ancestors.” More problematically, he’s done so while also saying that he has no intention of seeing the film. Lee, of course, isn’t obligated to see any film he doesn’t want to see. Nor is he obligated to like (or respect) either Tarantino or his films. At the same time, it’s a bit disheartening to see him condemn the film so thoroughly without having seen it — not the least because Lee’s been on the receiving end of plenty of that sort of blind, knee-jerk condemnation himself. And Lee has wandered into some exceptionally murky waters himself with respect to ugly representations of black people on the big screen (cf. Bamboozled — which, to be clear, is a pretty brilliant piece of work . . . but Lee’s deliberately over-the-top depiction of blackface minstrelsy produced its own fair share of squirming audiences.) To be sure, I can respect Lee’s desire not to see the film. But there’s a big difference between saying, “I don’t really like Tarantino’s films, so I have no need to see this one” and slapping this particular film down unseen because of its content and tone.
  • Now if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Tarantino’s movies because they’re too violent, too bloody, or too gruesome, then you won’t like Django any better. The body count here is high (and not just because, at 165 minutes, there’s lots of time to pile up the corpses), and few (if any) of the deaths are exactly “clean.” That said, the film dives deep into the heart of chattel slavery in the US . . . and that was an extraordinarily violent practice. Enough so that, even though Tarantino could have ramped the violence up without being historically inaccurate, he toned it down so that audiences could not be too traumatized to cheer the movie’s final denouement. Let that sink in for a second. A Quentin Tarantino movie (of all things!) is softer than the actual historical violence associated with slavery in this country. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might be tempted to think that this “kinder, gentler” vision of slavery only justifies Lee’s refusal to see the film. But since I have seen the film, I can assure you that it does absolutely nothing to make slavery look like a benevolent institution.
  • I’ve seen a handful of bloggers and critics who’ve criticized the movie for what it doesn’t do in terms of portraying racial solidarity between blacks or in terms of presenting even some tiny gesture towards collective rebellion. And there’s some truth to be found there. Django is not a selfless martyr, abandoning the path to freedom and wandering into certain death because he can’t bear to leave his brothers and sisters behind him in chains. Nor is he a new Nat Turner, helping to lead the fieldhands into open rebellion against white supremacy. His mission is purely personal (though not entirely selfish), and he is never distracted from it by even a moment of sympathetic solidarity for the obvious suffering of other black folk around him. But, you know, that’s okay by me. At least for now. Hollywood isn’t exactly overflowing with movies where the central characters are black and where pervasive, systemic, institutional racism is the primary target that must be destroyed. Of course, Django doesn’t take down the entire system, but Tarantino also doesn’t let us get away with thinking that that system was fundamentally a Good Thing that happened to be ruined by a tiny handful of wicked souls. What Django gives us is a vision of racism as a cancer that permeates the entirety of US society, top to bottom, and that’s an extraordinarily rare thing for Hollywood to do, even in an historical setting. I can live with Django, the fictional man, getting to live out his personal revenge fantasy and ride off into the night with his one true love . . . because Django, the movie, doesn’t let audiences pretend that slavery was really just some sort of pleasant Gone With the Wind costume drama after all.

Hackable syllabus 2.0

Over winter break, I did something that most of my peers would — rightly — describe as insane. I took a course that I had just finished teaching, which I was scheduled to teach again this semester, and I more or less redesigned it from the ground up. The normal thing to do, of course, would have been to take my fall syllabus, change all the dates, and be done with it. Maybe if I were feeling especially ambitious — or if I knew something had bombed abysmally — I’d have swapped out a reading or two. But even for someone (like me) who rarely teaches any course precisely the same way twice, this was an extreme overhaul: i.e., the sort of thing I might do if the gap between the two versions of the course was a few years. While I used the same required text, that only kept the first two weeks or so of readings intact. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a completely new course.

tt_4291.jpgSo why the radical renovation? There are probably many reasons (and my dubious grip on sanity may still be one of them), but one of the biggest is that the fall version of the course was the latest in a long line of “experiments” I’ve undertaken with what I call a “hackable syllabus” . . . and it seemed to me that the main pedagogical goals I’d been trying to achieve had never actually come to fruition, and so the time had come to rethink the nature of that experiment.

The experiment in question originally grew out of a summer grad seminar on “Communication and Critical Pedagogy” that I taught towards the end of my time at USF. In the midst of one of those seminar discussions, when we were talking about the need to give students a significant measure of control over their own education, I decided that my previous efforts to do such a thing had been too superficial — e.g., letting students select from a pre-determined menu of assignments, or giving them flexible due dates for papers — and that I needed to embrace this philosophy more fully. Coincidentally, for reasons I can neither recall nor explain, sometime that same summer I also heard about a game called Nomic. I’ve still never actually played the game, but its fundamental nature — it’s essentially a meta-game, where you play the game by changing the rules of the game as you go along — struck me as something that could fit very nicely with my newfound desire to turn as much of a course over to my students as I possibly could. And so the hackable syllabus was born . . .

On its surface, the hackable syllabus looks incredibly complex — which is probably necessary, but also probably one of its major flaws. In practice, it’s much simpler than it appears to be: students can propose changes to almost any and every rule on the syllabus (including the reading list, due dates, and the graded assignments), the class as a whole discusses and votes on proposals, and proposals that are voted into place become part of the course rules. Most of the apparent complexity lies in setting up a fair and reliable mechanism by which the rules can actually be changed. The actual process varied slightly from one version of the syllabus to another, but the underlying core — propose rule changes, discuss them, vote on them — was still pretty simple . . . yet, time after time, students routinely got hung up on the mechanism in countless different ways, and never, ever really took control of the syllabus at the level I had hoped they might.

To be sure, they had good incentives to do so. Every hackable syllabus contained deliberately cruel and unreasonable rules that students needed to locate and vote out of existence, lest said “bad rules” come into play. And every successful rule change resulted in the authors of said change earning an extra point tacked onto their final course grades. Still, over seven different courses, each with slightly different versions of the hackable syllabus, a consistent pattern emerged: students would eliminate all the bad rules (though, typically, they would only do so after a false start or three), they would tweak some extraordinarily minor aspect of the grading policy (e.g., eliminating penalties for late arrivals and early departures), and they’d be done. No one ever tried to change the reading list. No one ever proposed a different sort of graded assignment be added to the menu of options. Once they’d freed themselves of the need to bring impossible-to-find yoga mats to class (and so on), they were perfectly content to leave the core of the course — i.e., what they had to read and write — up to me.

Of course, this “failure” was never really my students’ fault. At some crucial level, I always knew that, and probably should have done something about it sooner. If nothing else, by the time students wound up in one of my hackable syllabus courses, they had all experienced 15-20 years of education where they had routinely been handed a set of readings and assignments on Day One, and that was that. So of course they never raced to revise the reading list or to envision new assignments: never having been asked to do such a thing before, the odds that they would suddenly take such an initiative were slim to none.

So that radical rewrite of my fall syllabus was all about finding ways to encourage this semester’s batch of students to help build our reading list. (Encouraging them to craft new types of assignments is a goal that will have to wait for some future course. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.) I gave them a syllabus where the first month’s worth of readings was all lined up. After that, each week has a theme and one starter reading in place . . . and it’s up to them to come up with enough other readings (or videos, or audios, as they see fit) to bring us up to ~100 pages/week (or its audio-visual equivalent). There are collective sticks for falling short of that page-count target, and individual carrots for helping to reach it.

And, so far anyway, it seems to be working. We’re currently two weeks deep into the land of “Student-Provided Readings” and the group has hit the target both times, and put some worthy material on the table for us to read and watch and discuss. We’ll see how it goes for the next ten weeks or so but, to this point, I’m feeling pretty good about that “insane” decision.

[Bonus for any of my spring 2012 undergrads who happen to be reading this: Cut-and-paste any full entry from this blog and send it to me in an email. For every full course week left in the semester after your email lands in my inbox, I'll add 0.5 points to your course grade and shrink your Take-Home Final by 50 words and 0.5 points. You're free to share this information with your classmates if you so choose . . . but not on the course website. If news of this bonus ever lands there, the bonus goes away, and all previously awarded benefits will be taken away. P.S.: Perhaps needless to say, this is a one-time-only bonus for anyone who happens to collect it.]

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