Getting to Japan has been a bit of a rollercoaster- applying and being accepted during a pandemic meant that we were not sure we were even going to be admitted into the country. Nothing went according to the usual schedule (which is completely understandable- it was then and still is now a whole pandemic!). Once it looked like we were actually going to get to come to Japan (visas obtained, tickets purchased, housing confirmed), I started trying to figure out the logistics of how to temporarily relocate the four of us. I found a few neat things, which I’ll assemble here in case they might be helpful to anyone else (none of these are affiliate links- I’m not that fancy).
First, do a quick health inventory of you (and your dependents, if you’re bringing any)- is everyone feeling good? Are you (all) up-to-date on well-visits, maintenance visits (glasses and/or contact lenses!) and any required inoculations? You can check the CDC’s website to see if you need any vaccinations or boosters for your destination- we decided to get Japanese Encephalitis shots (the shots available in the US are a two-shot series, and painfully expensive, but given the extensive collection of bug bites we’ve gotten in our first month, I feel pretty good about the extra insurance). I had to submit a medical clearance form for my fellowship, so I had recently had a physical, but I scheduled doctors’ and dentists’ appointments for my daughters (try to do this well in advance of your departure date, so that there’s time if anyone needs any follow ups, or say, 6 baby teeth extracted).
If you take any daily medications, check with the country you’re going to see if they are allowed, confirm the process to bring a supply with you (how much you’re allowed to bring, what documentation you need, etc.). It took me a few calls to my provider’s office and to the pharmacy to explain that yes, I want a 6 month supply and yes I know my insurance won’t cover it (I’m lucky in that my daily medication is very cheap, but if yours isn’t, it might be worth arguing with your insurance company to try to get them to cover what they should anyway!) If you find that you are not able to bring a sufficient amount for your stay, make a plan early for how you will obtain a local prescription (many countries, including Japan, will not fill foreign prescriptions) and a local supply, so you don’t run out. For Japan, the Ministry of Health’s website was extremely helpful- there are forms you need to fill out to bring in prescriptions or medical devices, as you will require a Yunyu Kakunin-sho. (My experience of this was very positive- they provided samples so I could fill out the form correctly, and I received the import certificate in two days, but your mileage may vary, so again, start early.
I made a list of all of our recurring bills to confirm what was already set to automatically be billed and paid electronically, and what was not (I also manage my mom’s bill payments, so I did hers as well). This not only helped me make sure everything would be covered and gave me time to sort out the bills that can’t be automated (our electric bill can’t be paid online, but luckily we live in a a very Stars Hollow-esque little village with its own power company, and Patty at village hall assured me we’d be fine with an estimated prepayment), but also helped me spot some areas where I could save (switching our ISPs to “vacation mode” was a significant savings for us). If you’ll be gone a long time, you might consider cancelling services (Internet, water, electric, etc) but double-check if there are reconnection fees so you can see if it’s worth it for you.
Speaking of bills, we had to figure out what to do about our mail. We don’t really get anything important in mail, but we have a small apartment mailbox that was definitely not going to be able to hold 5 months’ worth, and we worried about the possibility that we might miss something important. We thought about asking a friend to empty our mailbox periodically or forwarding our mail to a family member (and in fact, I forwarded my mother’s mail to my sister using a temporary vacation address forward) but 5 months is a big request. As she often has, Dr. Patricia Stapleton had a great idea that was super helpful- she suggested a virtual mail service might be a good solution. 6 weeks in, and Virtual Post Mail has been pretty good- we pay a small monthly fee, they scan the fronts of all of the mail we get, and we can request to have them open and scan anything that looks important (mail is shredded after 30 days, unless you request it to be shipped somewhere). The set up is a bit of a process- you have to set up forwarding through the USPS, and submit a notarized form to VPM authorizing them to open your mail, so plan for a few days. You also need to set up forwarding for each name (my husband and I have different last names, so I had to do two forms, and two forwards, and since I forgot to do one for the hyphenated names of our daughters, they’ve had a few cards returned to family members as undeliverable).
But overall, it’s working pretty well, and we won’t come home to 5 months of mail to sort, which will be very nice. And it means that when my husband received a jury duty summons, he was able to reply promptly (hilarious that he hasn’t gotten one in ten years, and then as soon as we land here, he gets one).
Far more important to our daily lives than snail mail, we had to figure out phones. I knew we’d need service in Japan, as I wanted to make sure our cell phones could work for maps, translating, and communicating with each other. I also knew I wanted unlimited data, as that’s what we are used to in the US (it’s a luxury, and I know I’m very privileged to have it). Our US cell phone carrier offered a very expensive roaming package we could use, but it wouldn’t be a Japanese number, so it would be useless as a phone number in Japan and also very expensive. Japanese SIM cards are a little challenging- usually, you need a Japanese address and bank account to get one, and contracts are often for 1 year or more, but I did find one company that would work very well for our needs (specifically: reasonable price and unlimited data). Mobal will ship you a SIM card in the US or have them waiting for you for pickup at the airport in Japan when you arrive. The monthly service for our two phones with unlimited data is about the same as what we were paying in the US, so it seemed like a good deal to us. Fair warning, if you want the SIM delivered to you, you will need to have them sent to an address on your government-issued identification, so plan ahead for shipping time (and time to pick up the package from where it gets sent if that’s not where you currently are). We brought our SIMs with us to Japan, installed them using in-flight WiFi, and were fully operational upon landing (which saved us time in the extensive quarantine-monitoring-sign-up-process).
That left me with the question of what to do about our US cell phone service. It wouldn’t work in Japan, so I was inclined to cancel it and save the money, but my husband argued that we’d lose our numbers (which we’ve had for a very long time). A week before we were supposed to leave, I happened to see a tweet from Anna Meier about porting a US cell phone number to google voice, and decided to try it. The process was a little confusing (I had to call and get an account number from my carrier) but ultimately it worked, and for a one-time $20 fee for each number, anyone who calls or texts us on our US numbers rings through to us via the Google Voice app on our cell phones here. This has saved my bacon several times- since Google Voice works on WiFi, while we were at the airport waiting to get checked in, our doctor’s office was able to call me at the number they have on file for me when they were trying to fix the clerical mistake they made on our COVID testing form. My husband has been able to call our daughters’ school in New York, and get calls back from them when needed without needing to ask them to set up a Skype or Zoom. We’ve gotten two-factor authorization texts from our American accounts without a problem. And when we get back to the US, we can port our numbers back to a new cell carrier with ease, since we still have the numbers.
Finally, think about what is very important to you that would be hard to get where you are going, and prioritize getting extra and bringing it with you. That might be a specific lotion, toothpaste, or in our case, a folding piano, a bike pedal exerciser, and new shoes for everyone- we don’t have a car here, and are walking/taking mass transit everywhere, so I wanted everyone to have backup shoes. This was especially important for my husband, whose size 14s are hard enough to come by in the US- I did not want to find out how to find them in Japan, where the usual maximum size in stores is 10. On a completely related note, a small luggage scale is a worthwhile investment- you can use it to make sure you avoid fees both going and coming back.
This week, I wrapped up week 2 of teaching in Kyoto, which is also our second week out of quarantine. Living in a new country and trying to get along in a language that is not my first has been exciting, challenging, and tiring, even with the help of technology and the kind understanding of my students and pretty much everyone I have interacted with. I have a considerable amount of worry and fear (of failure, of being rude) even for something as simple as getting lunch in the campus cafeteria; on the flip side, the joy and pride I feel when I am able to accomplish simple tasks in Japanese (buy groceries, pick up baseball tickets, successfully obtaining a ridiculously delicious lunch in the campus cafeteria) is almost immeasurable.
In this sense, I feel like I’m getting the tiniest taste of what so many of my CUNY students experience- as of 2019, 29% of KBCC students reported speaking a language other than English at home, and 35% of KBCC students were foreign-born (though it is important to note that this data doesn’t disaggregate between recent immigrants and those that have been living in the US for a long time). If it’s nerve-wracking or tiring for me, even with all of the considerable benefits I have here as a tenured professor on a Fulbright fellowship (stable employment and a comfortable, reliable income), how exhausting must living in a country that does not speak your first language, while pursuing a whole college degree in a language that is not your first, be for students who lack those privileges? This is yet another fact that I knew intellectually before I came to Kyoto, and tried to plan for in my classes (this is one of the many “stressors/challenges” students might face that make me favor flexible due dates and letting students choose between a variety of assignment options according to their interests), but the sympathy vs. empathy thing continues to teach this old dog new tricks.
This week, I tried incorporating some basic Japanese words for specific terms (state, anarchy, sovereignty, civil liberties, etc) into my slides- as a way of connecting to students who might have trouble following all of the discussion in class. Students seemed to appreciate it, even though I had to preface with “I’m sure these translations aren’t quite right.” The student reactions made me think that it might be a useful thing to do back at KBCC. Unlike at Doshisha, however, I cannot readily assume the language of a majority of my students at Kingsborough. But that actually might be inspiration for a new assignment option when I go home. I already share my slides with my students, and I have been offering a big “translate a chapter” option (but I’ve encouraged students not to take it on during the pandemic, and no one has so far). Maybe fewer points for translating some words on slides might be worthwhile to students to do, and helpful to future students?
Final observation for this week, once again, I learned how awesome blogs are for students to get comfortable with their writing, and for getting to know students and their interests more than I would in just class discussion. Blogs (and less formal writing) definitely hasn’t come naturally to me, but even I can’t argue with the results. Because my students this semester are not CUNY students, they don’t have the option of setting up CUNY Academic Commons logins/sites, so I gave them the option of setting up a blog on the platform of their choice, or just setting up a google doc that is set to “Public- anyone with the link can comment.” (yes, I know this is not technically a proper blog, but it is a way for students to quickly and easily create their own space for sharing their writing with our class, so it’s blog enough for me). Some students have made their own WIX or Blogger sites, but many are choosing the google docs option, and it’s working well so far. I like the idea that students retain complete control of their own work, and can include several layers of anonymization if they choose (using only their given/first name, or even using a pseudonym if they prefer, as long as they tell me who they are); they also retain complete control to delete their work at the end of the class if they so choose. I will definitely be including this as a day 1 option for my KBCC students when I go back. I had already been offering this option for students who had fallen behind or struggled to make a site (because of time or device challenges), but I’ll offer it from the start from now on. And because I’ve so appreciated the “sample forms” available at many of the places I’ve had to deal with (the municipal ward office, the bank, campus IT), I made a quick visual guide for how to set up a google doc for sharing as a faux blog, which I can reuse back at home.
This week, I had nerves like I haven’t had in years- back to school nerves! I’ll be teaching four classes at Doshisha University this semester. The course load is very similar to what I’m used to at home (the Fulbright representative I met in 2019 had said they were looking to expand their outreach to community college faculty for exactly this reason- we are very comfortable teaching a lot!). In some ways, Doshisha is very different from my usual campus- it’s an elite private university, as opposed to my public community college, so I’m teaching 2 graduate seminars as well as 2 introductory level undergraduate classes, which I don’t often get to do at home (but boy do I love when I can). Japanese universities in general, and Doshisha specifically, still tend towards the “professor lectures/high stakes midterm and final exams” model. Between Doshisha’s status as a private (expensive by Japanese standards) institution and location in Japan, a rich country with a very high standard of living, the parts of my teaching approach that evolved to attempt to address basic needs insecurity are not really necessary here.*
Yet, I am hopeful that the pedagogy I have been developing at CUNY will actually transfer quite well. For one, a lot of the changes I’ve made to my classes, inspired by a pedagogy of care, of starting from a position of trusting students, and of adopting more open educational practices are beneficial not just to students facing basic needs security, but also to students who have complex lives (other courses, caring responsibilities, stress, disabilities, etc.) and need to be able to personalize their learning. My Doshisha students might have been able to afford expensive American government textbooks, but they would have been blocked from easily using digital tools to translate that textbook (either because it was a paper book, or because of digital rights management from the publisher). The openly licensed materials I am using this semester are available for free, are customized to our course, and are easier to plug in to whatever tools students may find helpful (digital translators, screen readers, etc).
One of the great joys of teaching at CUNY is the diversity in my classes each semester- the varied perspectives and experiences of students make every class a new adventure. KCC has almost two hundred languages represented on campus among its student body, so I am very used to teaching students who are taking college classes in their second (or third, or fourth) language. At KCC, I keep a full CUNY Academic Commons site for each of my classes with all of the information for the course, readings, and slides available for students to review as and when they need to, and I’ve done the same for my Doshisha classes (special thanks to the CUNY Academic Commons for being the absolute best!!!) At KCC, I always incorporate in-class free-writing and small group discussions to build community and get students comfortable talking in class (or on their blogs), and I have been experimenting with Google Docs more and more as collaborative spaces to record our class thoughts. These techniques have already been helpful in getting my Doshisha students comfortable talking (and stopping me from talking so much!). Because most of the students are fluent in Japanese, I am encouraging them to do their in-class writing and small group discussions in whatever language (or combination of languages) that they are most comfortable in. I asked students in my introduction to American Government class to share everything they knew or had heard about American Government to a Google Doc, which we will revisit throughout the semester. I won’t share their responses because it’s not my work, but believe me when I say we’re going to have a great time.
I am a little afraid going forward that I might default to lecturing- as a high school theatre geek, and graduate of two decades of Catholic school, talking at a room comes very easily to me and it tends to be what I do if I get nervous. I’m going to try to plan some discreet activities for each class session to prevent that default from poking out too much.
But really, it was just SO good to get back in a classroom, live with students, and to feel safe doing it!!!** I am so excited for Week 2!!!
* There are likely more unhoused CUNY students (on the 2018 CUNY #RealCollege Survey, 3% of respondents self-identified as homeless) than there are unhoused people in all of Japan (2020’s count was 3,992).
** There is no way I would feel safe about teaching in Brooklyn this semester and then returning to my still-too-young-to-be-vaccinated children, but the safety precautions and infection numbers here are exponentially better.
I’ve only been here a few weeks, and the first two weeks were spent in strict quarantine, but already I can say, Japan is awesome. Japan is awesome in and of itself, but as a comparative politics person, the differing policy decisions between Japan and the US are so very striking! Since they’re both high income countries who have money to spend, it’s a matter of priorities- what does each country choose to spend money on? First impressions:
- COVID is taken seriously here. The 2 week quarantine was not fun, and less so because we could not get a hotel room large enough for our family to stay together, so after 18 months of constant togetherness, I was alone in a hotel room for 14 days. But I was safe, and knew my family was safe, and that we were contributing to keeping the entire country safe. We were video-called several times per day to verify our health and location. Entry requirements to the US amount to “you need a negative test to get on the plane, let’s hope you’re not sick, smell you later.” So far, everyone masks everywhere here, and it’s not a question or a big deal at all. This is, to say the least, very different from the current status in the US, where a small but vocal minority prefers horse medication to a safe and free vaccination. I tried to explain horse medicine, anti-mask protests, and vaccine avoidance to my students, who thought they must be misunderstanding the English words I was using. But no, I reassured them, it doesn’t sound absolutely banana-pants because of a translation problem, it sounds bonkers because it is.
- It’s very safe here. Young-children-ride-the-subway-alone safe. Walk-around-alone-at-night-as-a-woman safe. When I told a colleague at Doshisha that my daughter said, “The schools here probably don’t have lockdown drills” he assumed I was talking about COVID lockdowns. Because the idea of school shootings with high capacity weapons is inconceivable here- you can’t buy that kind of stuff (or practically any guns) here (meanwhile, Texas has approved permitless carry for handguns, and while legislation has been introduced at the federal level to close the gun show loophole where unlicensed dealers can sell weapons to anyone without a background check, it’s unlikely to pass any time soon). Japanese students practice for earthquakes (in schools which their governments have worked to make safer from quakes) while their American counterparts practice for school shootings (which have been drastically reduced in many other countries, while the US chooses again and again not to prioritize the safety of children).
- Mass Transit! Japan’s train system is, in my opinion, worthy of all of the hype it receives. So far, we’ve travelled by bullet train, subway, light rail, and bus. Transit is plentiful, clean, and reasonably priced, with a very simple IC card system that works with an easy tap on many different companies/lines (and at vending machines and convenience stores- my associates feel very grown up having their own quasi-debit card). Bicycle, train, and bus travel is further incentivized by significant road tolls to encourage people to think many times before driving long distances. So, pretty much the opposite of the US in every possible way when it comes to transit. Again, the US could do any number of things to improve and expand its mass transit infrastructure, it just . . . hasn’t.
Academically, I knew all of these things before we arrived (in fact, they are big reasons why I applied for this specific fellowship!), but experiencing them directly adds a depth to that knowledge that just reading and thinking about it from New York did not. I do realize I have only just arrived, and have much to learn and study about, so I’m not drawing any final conclusions. But it is so very interesting, and I’m grateful for the experience.
7 years ago, someone set several fires in the biggest hotel in Washington DC, causing a very difficult night for many political scientists, who had gathered for the annual meeting/end-of-summer-nerdfest of the American Political Science Association (APSA). I have long suspected APSA was the worst- a holiday weekend, right before school started in my neck of the woods, often overlapping with religious holidays for some folks- a terrible time to get away. It was always extremely hot, always very expensive (and never enough funding), and the coffee shops were always too crowded. Wars, hurricanes, and labor disputes have disrupted annual meetings before, and then someone started setting fires.
The APSA fire was not fun, but it was actually not the worst part of my weekend. When I finally made it home late the next day, I got the call that my dad died. Totally unrelated to the fire, hundreds of miles away, and yet these two events are forever connected for me. On the bright side, I had a full travel bag of summer season professional dark clothes already packed, so I was ready to hit the road again and do the whole “bury my dad thing” without any extra packing needed. On the less bright side, everything else. I can’t disassociate the two events. And since, as a tenure-track junior faculty member, I had to try to do APSA, I’ve been really weird at a bunch of them. If we’ve met at APSA, trust me when I say I’m usually not that weird (I’m still very, very strange, just not quite that weird).
In 2019, APSA returned to the scene of the crime, holding its meeting in DC again. I booked a room at the hotel that did not go on fire, had a panic attack in the Wardman Park exhibition hall (the last time I ever talked to my dad was when I called to tell my parents that a publisher was interested in my book proposal, and he yelled hello from the other room while I talked to my mom), and decided that probably going forward, APSA was not for me. I’d rather spend the money and time doing a writing retreat (okay, checking into a hotel with some awesome friends and writing during the day while taking breaks for fun, food, swimming in the pool, and hate-watching various HGTV-style shows- but what really is a writing retreat anyway?).
Ironically, 2020 decided that in person conferences were not for anyone, at least for a while. And APSA has finally moved the annual meeting later in the fall, so I won’t say I’ll never go again. I do miss the chance to connect with scholars and friends, see interesting research, and get inspired by my fellow political science nerds. But APSA is the reason I didn’t submit anything for this year; when I forced myself back to the exhibition hall before my last session in 2019 (to try to form new associations/work through my feelings) I chatted with a very nice lady from Fulbright about how they had a teaching-specific fellowship and had been trying to expand their outreach to scholars at community colleges. I think my dad would be proud (though if he were alive, the idea that I’m taking his granddaughters to a different continent would probably not be his favorite thing).
In two weeks, I’ll pack up my partner, kids, and many electronic devices to spend 5 months in Kyoto Japan as a Fulbright lecturer at Doshisha University. This has been a long time coming, and I’m still not entirely sure it will all happen (it definitely should, and hopefully will, but it’s 2021, after 2020, so my fingers will stay crossed until we land in Tokyo!). We’ve begun our required daily temperature checks and recording, scheduled the specific COVID test required, and obtained enough Switch and iPad games to (hopefully) get us through the two week hotel quarantine. I’ve also been finalizing my syllabi.
Scared to try new things, going for it anyway
Getting ready for my courses has already been eye opening. As a tenured, and now full professor, I have a degree of security and freedom in my job that is unimaginable for most in academia at the moment (given that as much as 75% of college faculty are off the tenure track, and that the conditions for contingent labor are abysmal). I have spent the last several years, both before and during COVID, experimenting with open educational practices in my classroom, making major changes- moving from a traditional textbook to an OER, to an OER that I have edited and customized, to working with students to (slowly!) write a chapter. I’ve moved from strict attendance and exam policies to self-grading and choose-your-own-adventure. I’ve been so happy with all of these changes, and part of the reason for that is that I haven’t had to fear them. Sure, I’ve been worried that things won’t work as planned (and some have been spectacular failures/in need of major revisions), but because of my full-time and then tenure protections, I haven’t had to fear for my job. Now, as I prepare to be a lecturer at a new university, in a different country, in a system that may be very different from the one I know, I’m feeling all sorts of self-doubt: “Can I do this? Should I do this? Is this appropriate? What if the students hate it? What if it doesn’t work? What will my colleagues think?” And while I’m forging ahead anyway with choose your own adventure and flexible due dates (Brandle’s gonna Brandle, after all), I want to remember this feeling. As part of my open education work, I’ve gotten to give a few pedagogy sessions, and while I always include the usual disclaimers of “find what works for you” and “contingent faculty will have different pressures and time available,” actually feeling (a tiny bit, though not actually) contingent for the first time in many years is a visceral reminder I want to hold on to- most faculty workers do not have the kind of job security that I do, and any training or planning that is not based on this fundamental fact is not worth anyone’s time.
Nervous about language, happy about digital affordances of OER for translation
Teaching in a classroom where a multitude of languages is spoken is very normal to me – #CUNYProud – and the ethnic, racial, national, and linguistic diversity on my campus is actually one of my favorite parts of teaching at my home campus. I teach mostly American government, but I’m an International Relations and Comparative Politics person at my core, so when everyone brings their different perspective and knowledge of other government systems into the class, we get to make Intro to American very comparative, which is more interesting for all of us. Students have also shown me ways that they make their course materials easier to access- closed captions that come in different languages for videos, web translators for digital materials, etc, and this is yet one more reason to love OER- since the materials I use are born digital and free to access, I don’t have to worry whether they’ll be DRM-ed in a different country- I’m free to share and redistribute them anywhere! And my students have easier access to use the materials in a way that works best for them. At Doshisha, I will be teaching in English, but the primary language of instruction for most students is Japanese (though Japanese is not necessarily the first language of all Doshisha students). So in choosing readings, I’m looking especially for materials (such as UN treaties and government constitutions) that have Japanese translations already prepared, and including those along with the English versions.
Stoked to plan new classes
For the last 8 years, I’ve been privileged to teach at a community college, which means all first and second year courses. And I LOVE it- I know my content very well by this point, and I have the time to experiment with improving my pedagogy, because I’m not dealing with new preps all of the time. But it is really nice to do other things sometimes and in addition to teaching my constant companion, Introduction to American Government and my once-a-semester treat, Introduction to International Relations, I’ll be teaching two new (to me) upper level courses that I proposed- a human rights seminar using an explicit comparison between Japanese and American interpretations/policies of international human rights frameworks, and Geeking Out- Special Topics in Political Science through sci-fi/fantasy films- The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I didn’t find any syllabi on exactly these courses (though definite shout out to Bethany Barratt’s The Politics of Harry Potter and Ruane and James’ International Relations of Middle Earth, and to the CUNY library system, who had e-copies of both books, since I’ve already turned off our mail delivery) so I’ll share my syllabi once I’ve finalized the readings.
LOVING the CUNY Academic Commons
The nice people at CUNY Academic Commons are very open to CUNY faculty, staff, and students using the Commons in lots of ways, so I’m creating my course websites on it. This means I can have an open site up and running before the start of class. And I don’t have to get signed in to whatever LMS Doshisha uses just to have a home for my class; in my adjuncting days, that could sometimes take weeks, and who wants to wait that long to have a home for your class?
I’m hoping to blog through the experience, so I can reflect on what is likely to be one heck of an adventure: temporarily moving my family to a new continent, to a country I have never been to, to teach somewhere completely new and different, still in a pandemic. So watch this space if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.
I’m not a numerologist by any means, but halves and the number 8 are really hitting me these days, giving me some rather Proustian vibes. In April, I hit a big milestone birthday which is a multiple of 8, and June contains the 16th anniversary of marrying this guy; we’ve been more than friends for exactly half of our lives now, which is wild- half of our lives before we were an us, half (and hopefully lots more to come) as a team. I’ve just finished my 8th semester as a tenure track/tenured professor. In the spirit of 9 months in/9months out photos, I realized I’m now equidistant from graduating from my PhD in spring of 2013 as I was at graduation from my start in the fall of 2005- 8 years in, 8 years out.
Because we got married the summer before I started grad school, the first octade (octet?) of our marriage was linked to and defined by me being in graduate school in many ways, with the second being defined by my hustling and trying to get established in my profession (which felt a lot like catching up, since I only started my “real” job at 32). At many points, it’s felt like a big gamble- it would be great if it worked, but it doesn’t for so many folks (Allison Harbin called it a pyramid scheme, #accurate), and we wouldn’t know whether it would for a long while. In the meanwhile, there were diapers to change, classes to teach, papers to write, and all of the highs and lows of life if you’re lucky, which I have very much been.
8 years is the longest I’ve been anywhere professionally- having earned tenure last year, it feels good to know that I’ve got a professional home, that I’m getting established enough at to help make some small changes. This is the bookend/echo of the joyful feeling of getting a tenure-track position while finishing my PhD, which felt amazing after 8 years of adjuncting and stitching 1-year fellowships together. And I’ve just found out that I have been promoted to Full Professor, which is flip-flapping wild. So our gamble paid off.
Every so often, I feel like a complete fraud. I’ve published (much!!!) less than many of my colleagues at other institutions. When I do manage to publish, my methods and research topics are not considered prestigious. But with age comes a little wisdom: meritocracy is a myth, and comparison is the thief of joy. I am proud of my work, and that (plus my paycheck and health benefits) is more than enough. I really love teaching and my students, and with a little more luck, I’ll get to do that for a very long time. I’ve found ways to thrive in the corner I’ve carved out in my very specific context, and been really, really lucky. More than that, I’m really excited for what the next octet brings- tenure and promotion are an immense privilege, which I intend to use to improve my institution, for students and for colleagues. I’m beyond excited to see what the next 8 years will bring, starting with sabbatical- a Fulbright to teach at Doshisha University, and time to finish my next book (which has been languishing for way, way too long).
There are probably 800 people who I need to thank, as none of the last 8 years would have been possible without the support of my family, colleagues, co-authors, friends, collaborators, and twitter folks, and this post has already gotten too long. So then I’ll spend the next 8 years trying to thank those folks, and trying to be that person for the next round coming up the lane.
So, this past semester, I had the great privilege of teaching a class in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Digital Humanities MA Program. Not only that, but I got to design the whole thing, from top to bottom, with no example or prior syllabus to go on. It was my first time teaching at the graduate level, developing a seminar, and teaching a class about teaching or OER- lots of firsts.
We decided as a group that our class website and discussions would be a walled garden, just for us, so I won’t tell you about how A-MAZ-ING these students were or the awesome work they did. If they ever choose to share it publicly, I’ll be first in line to amplify, but that day may never come, and that’s okay. I was incredibly privileged to see such awesome work develop, and for that I will be forever grateful to the students and to the DH Program for having me. You can, however, see (and copy/adapt) the syllabus here if you’re interested.
When I got the gig, I was extremely nervous, having never taught a grad class, and having been out of graduate school for quite some time. The last time I took a formal class on teaching was during the first George W. Bush administration; the class covered none of what I know and value about teaching now and none of the educational technologies I regularly use existed then (with the notable exception of Blackboard, which worked then about the same as it does now, which is to say, worked-ish).
Given that it was a graduate class with a much smaller size than I am used to, I took it as a chance to really put my open pedagogy where my mouth was. I planned readings for most of the weeks, but left three as TBD, which we voted on as a class. We co-created our own loose “rules of the game” document, for what our expectations for class behavior and interactions should be. The final project was completely open and each student developed their own, leading to more interesting and creative work than I could ever have planned out myself.
As a class on OER, it seemed only right to have all of the readings be open. There was so much good stuff to consider that I actually put too much on the syllabus. Spring 2021 was very much still a pandemic semester- still meeting only by zoom and not online by choice, still everyone stressed by the ongoing pandemic, etc. Exhaustion and burn out came up frequently in our discussions, and I tried to lighten the reading load as much as possible (I failed in several places, but luckily my students were able to tell me that I needed to scale it back. The “suggested readings” section for each week is my new favorite spot- all of the things that we should read, if we could read, but we can’t, so come back to it when you can if you like. It is a bit funny to me that having too much reading became an issue, as not finding enough reading or the right reading was my primary worry as I designed the syllabus- classic first-time-with-a-new-prep stuff, which I responded to with the equally classic assign-way-too-much-reading.
In a future semester, I would move up multimedia OER, and add a “Convert-A-Thing (Course/Assignment/Module) to OER” workshop where we work hands-on together to do OER, as a bit of doing-OER would have clarified a lot of the reading-and-talking-about-OER work we did. I should also add more podcasts to the possible readings/viewings/listenings- there are so many good ones! The focus on text-based materials really shows my own biases (I have a thing about talk radio and podcasts- I may be the only academic you’ve ever met who doesn’t listen to NPR. This is all probably linked to a childhood of involuntary exposure to blaring sports talk radio, but I digress).
While I greatly enjoyed the experience of teaching and learning with graduate students, I want to reiterate that I do not believe that graduate students are any smarter or better than community college students; they’re just different, and benefit from a different approach, as they’ve had more experience in academia than the first and second year students it is my usual joy to learn with. Having a class that was ⅓ of my usual section was arguably a much bigger difference than the level of the class- it’s amazing how much easier it is to build community with 10-14 people than it is with 30 or 45, especially online. Moving forward, I’ll definitely be fighting to decrease class sizes on my home campus. Many of the things that made teaching this grad class fun- treating my students like adults with complex lives, valuing the interesting perspectives and experiences they bring to the class, making space for students to do the thinking and talking in class and out of it, allowing students to choice the work that is most useful to them- are all things I’ve been trying to incorporate in my introductory level classes. The grad class experience was a nice reminder to keep going and do more.
On the fifth day of #OEWeek, I have a present for you!
But first, a very long story about how I came to be in possession of this present. 2 years ago, I saw a demo of this amazing platform for scholarly publishing, CUNY Manifold. And of course, I wanted to play with it right away because it looked amazing, and had really inspiring projects on it, but I hit little stumbling blocks that stopped me. Mainly, the one thing Manifold can’t ingest is PDFs, which are the one thing the books I use in my classes come in. Although that’s not really what stopped me- that was a relatively minor technical problem that I could have worked around, if my perpetual procrastination and permanent last-minute Sallyness did not always have me leaving class prep until the last minute. However, with the announcement that Openstax would be releasing Google Docs versions of their textbooks, and the switch to emergency distance learning due to COVID-19 that left me seeking ways to streamline the work for my students while increasing the possible ways for students to interact with our materials, I decided that I would finally sit down and get my POL 51 class materials set up on Manifold for the Spring 2021 semester (KCC has a very late start, which is also the reason I don’t usually plan any events for Open Education Week- it’s either the first week of classes or the last week before the first week of classes, and either way, faculty are not in the space to attend events at that time!)
So just in time for the end of Open Education Week, I am very proud to announce the launch of my American Government textbook on Manifold!!! I love this project, even though it is very much a rough start. The platform is extremely easy to use, and the documentation and help available are top-notch. The most time-intensive work was document preparation (not Manifold’s fault at all)- I had to stitch together individual chapter segments, and copy the alt-text descriptions from the online version of the book over, as the google docs provided did not have them. I even ended up doing the slightly-more-complicated-but-not-actually-that-hard YAML ingestion, so I could have individual chapters as links, and it really wasn’t that hard!! (I may have rejoiced loudly when I got it to work, but that says more about my limited coding skills than the difficulty of the platform). And now I have a very cool, streamlined, just-what-I-want book that is easy for students to access. I can’t wait for students to start using it! Some things I’m really excited about:
- I set up a private annotation group, so my class can share marginalia and hopefully get a little asynchronous discussion going on the text itself. This is available to anyone else who wants to use this too (even outside of CUNY)
- I can integrate additional resources, like the Crash Course American Government series I really like, right into the text where it is relevant. Previously, I linked the chapter and the videos to an outline on my syllabus, but now they’re right next to each other. (okay, so I’ve only go through Chapter 2, but it will all be finished soon!)
- I cut out the stuff that made the chapters seem extra long, but added them as resource cubes- Chapter Summary and Key Terms are now at the front of the chapter (which is how I tell my pressed-for-time students to use the book anyway)
- Manifold makes it very easy to share multiple versions of the text. While I hope many students will read the book online and annotate in our group, I know from past research and experience that some students will face bandwidth challenges, or prefer to print out their readings, so I stitched up a pdf of all of the chapters that students can download once and read offline.
I am extremely grateful to the nice folks at Openstax who sent me all of the chapters I requested. I even got extra lucky when I accidentally requested one I don’t usually use (the bureaucracy) instead of one I do (domestic policy). In going over the two chapters, I decided to keep the bureaucracy chapter, because I liked it more than I remember, and to use domestic policy as the basis for a new open pedagogy assignment/project/experiment- “Can you write a chapter in 2 sentences?” as I don’t love the way the topic is covered in the book, and I want to see what we as a class come up with.
I feel very full-circle at this moment, since the first open education project I did (before I knew what an OER was) was a (very bad) attempt at a book for American Government (How bad was it? I wrote an article about how bad it was). This one is SOOO much better and I couldn’t be happier about how OER have developed over time or about the progress I have made as an instructor.
But none of that is a present. The present is saving you the time of requesting and alt-texting these chapters from Openstax- download all of the word files here! You can download the files sent by openstax (individual chapter sections, without alt-text on images) or the chapters and supplementary pieces I stitched together, renumbered, and alt-texted. I can imagine lots of different ways to use these files- translation, editing, who knows what? So if you do use them, drop me line or a tweet, please! Also if you have any thoughts about my Manifold project, I’d love to hear them too- it is very much a work in progress.
What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Scholarly Publishing, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Work Towards Open Access
My graduate training in scholarly publishing consisted of “You should publish stuff. It should be peer-reviewed.” Not exactly a full training in scholarly communication. Considering that doing and publishing scholarly research accounts for roughly one-third of my job responsibilities as a tenured associate professor, I wish they had spent more time on it, and maybe you already know about this (in which case, feel free to stop reading). But if you’ve never stopped to think about how the journal publishing sausage gets made, you may find this useful.
As I’ve explored OER and open educational practices, I have been very fortunate to learn a bit about scholarly publishing models, and frankly, they’re a big-time scam. Or, if we wish to be social scientists about it, publishers of academic journals exhibit significant rent-seeking behavior: they seek to substantially increase their wealth without adding substantially to the value of the product or service they offer. Researchers, often funded by the public through grants or institutional support, do research, which they publish in scholarly journals for free (they also provide free labor as reviewers for journals). The scholarly journals are run by a few large publishing companies, five of which are responsible for half of all scholarly journal articles published in a given year. These companies run the journals, publish the articles which they got for free, and then charge libraries and the public exorbitant subscription fees (often in the form of “big deal” bundled databases) for access to the research articles, even if the articles were publicly-funded. Some institutions and funders have caught on to the irrationality of this system- locking up knowledge behind prohibitive paywalls seems wrong, holds back science, and cheats the public, who often has paid to support the research.
The movement towards Open Access is meant to remedy several of these problems. The NIH, the EU, and major research funders have begun to require grant outputs to be published openly (and include funds in grants for paying APCs). Faced with losing their source of free articles, publishers adapted, and were suddenly eager to offer open access options- they merely ask for authors to cover the cost of production that would have been covered by the fees they would have charged for access to the article: thus was the Article Publishing Charges (APC) born. APCs vary by company and journal, and are often upwards of $2,500. This reminds me of when traditional textbook publishers initially decried the quality and rigor of OER course materials, then suddenly switched to offering “inclusive access” courses that sneak course material charges into students’ fees without their knowledge or consent. In both cases, this isn’t surprising- profit seekers are going to seek profit.
The APC is How Much???
And they seeking it big-time. Nature Springer made waves with their announcement of going completely open, but as Dr. Julie Novkov pointed out this morning on Twitter, the devil is in the details: Nature Springer will charge APCs around $10,000 per article (with lower fees for scholars from lower income countries). And APCs are only one part of the equation- for previously published research, or research where scholars don’t have the funding for large APCs, much excellent research remains behind paywalls, which should more accurately be called pay-forts or pay-nuclear armaments, as the prices are far more prohibitive than a mere wall. The costs of library journal subscriptions rise steadily, while state and federal investment in higher education continues to fall. The COVID-19 pandemic is a dual crisis for library budgets- emergency moves to distance learning drastically increase the demand for electronic resources, while the economic impact on colleges and universities wreaks’ havoc on these institutions’ budgets.
So What Do We Do?
I need to point out that it is my institutional and geographic privilege that allowed me to remain ignorant of these problems for so long. As a researcher based in the US, database subscription rates are indexed to my country’s institutions budgetary level; in countries with smaller GDPs, open access fees are wildly out of sync with institutional and individual budgets, even when discounts are offered. Scholars in countries with lower GDPs are much more aware of the costs of publishing open journal articles. So it seems only right that I use that institutional and geographic privilege to work towards more equitable open access. Your position and privilege (full-time vs. adjunct, tenure-track vs. late career) will determine what you are able to do- but you likely can do something. I’m particularly talking to my tenured and promoted colleagues, who often have the most institutional power- they sit on the committees that write and decide on tenure and promotion guidelines and they help set the expectations in their departments and with their graduate students.
Scholars at all levels should learn more about Open Access- there is much more information than I’ve put here, and much better written, by people who know this stuff far better than I do (this article is a great start). Reach out to the scholarly communications librarian at your institution- they can inform you about what initiatives are already in place at your institution and point you towards resources for your own learning. Librarians are brilliant and amazing in general, and open librarians are extra awesome. Then get involved- share the information you’ve found with your colleagues who are not familiar with this rent-seeking behavior. Help dispel myths on your campus (no, not all OA journals are predatory, no APCs are not pay-to-publish). Publish openly if you can, preferably at truly open journals which don’t charge massive fees.
What if, like the UC system, more institutions banded together to reduce the fees charged by scholarly publishers, both at the APC end and at the subscription end? Many institutions are working on ways to make their scholars’ work more openly available, through institutional repositories and negotiations directly with publishers (here is information on the approach at Harvard, MIT, and the Europen Union Institute). The Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies (ROARMAP) maintains a database of hundreds of policies from funders and research organizations, including 834 universities/research institutions, so there are plenty of models to follow for those institutions who wish to explore their options.
More radically, what if we stop thinking about how to reform the existing journals and their profit-seeking corporate managers, and look at creating new journals? It seems like the services corporate journals provide (for which they charge exorbitant subscription fees) are the online review management systems, copyediting, and printing- what if scholars and their institutions decide to take over those responsibilities and start their own truly OA journals? It’s not the lark it sounds like- many truly OA journals already exist, and models could be adapted and innovated from. Yes, it would cost money and/or resources, but those could be creatively managed or repurposed as well? We’ve already largely moved past physical copies of journals, so printing expenses are negligible. Universities have websites- could they not spare server space for journals? Instead of contracting out copyediting, what if institutions funded graduate students as copy editors? Which would then give students experience in running open access journals- positive externalities! What if professional associations took back management of their journals and/or absorbed the cost of running them?