Understanding Vinyl

I need to warn you: I’m from the 70s.

Being from the 70s means I was born in the heyday of the vinyl era, saw its decline along with the rise and decline of 8-tracks and cassettes, the rise and decline of CDs and internet-based music, and have lived to see vinyl rise again. From my point of view, the history of music media has moved from analog (wax and vinyl) to digital (CDs, mp3s, streaming), with magnetic tape (reel to reel, 8-tracks, and cassettes) being a kind of intermediary between the two.

Vinyl has made a serious comeback that began around 2010 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As a sign of the strength of this comeback, Sony Music, for the first time since the late 1980s, will begin production of vinyl records again. The return of vinyl is usually explained in terms of sound quality (vinyl captures more than .mp3s) and in terms of album artwork. I’m not sure I completely buy the first reason: even if it is technically true, I suspect most people listen to their records on something like this:

If you’re not spending at least $1000 on components and speakers, you’re not really getting better sound out of your vinyl.

By the way, I own the one on the right. Yeah, I’m a sucker.

Now album artwork is another matter. It can be substantial, and the experience of it in a CD package or online just isn’t quite the same. But album artwork is essentially packaging. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music. That’s fine, but this second reason is also complicated by the fact that music aficionados tend to look down on colored vinyl as being a gimmick. It’s not just a matter of the best packaging winning here.

I seriously can’t wait for a new release of Dark Side of the Moon that’s advertised as the “black vinyl” edition. The gimmicks will have won the day.

I would like to suggest that part of what’s really going on is a kind of cult or aura of authenticity associated with vinyl. One component is surely nostalgic: the two low-end record players pictured above are clearly retro in design and intended to be. This aura of authenticity also privileges original pressings over new albums, much like first editions and first printings of books might be worth more than later editions or reprints.

Following first edition market logic, that’s fine, but you need to understand that none of this has anything to do with the music either. Original pressings were on thinner vinyl that’s more susceptible to warping. That 180g vinyl thing isn’t just a gimmick. They’re more durable. 70’s albums weren’t recorded on equipment that was nearly as good as today’s, and oftentimes there would be a hiss in the background: the medium was so faithful it even captured the sound of the recording equipment. A remastered, recent pressing of Dark Side of the Moon is a much better product, at least in terms of music, than a first pressing of that album from the 70s. It would combine the best of both digital and analog.

But I’d like to take this argument a step further. It’s tedious to listen to vinyl, at least compared to listening to music on your streaming service, on an iPod, or on your phone. You have to stop every half hour at the most and flip the record over. Now — and again, this is because I’m from the 70s — my parents had a great, wooden stereo console that took up about six feet of one wall in our living room. It could stack maybe six to eight records. When one finished, the next one would drop down, and the needle would queue up on the next one automatically. The turntable was on springs, so it’d just lower a bit every time the next record dropped. At one point vinyl manufacturers started manufacturing double albums so that sides 1 and 3 were on one disc and 2 and 4 on another. That way you could stack them on players like this and listen to two sides before flipping the album over.

Back in the 70s, we didn’t want to have to flip our albums over every twenty to thirty minutes. We wanted good music in our cars. We wanted to listen to music while we were running or at work without disturbing anyone. And we wanted our music without background hiss. We wanted customized playlists (hence, the mixtape, originally on cassette). We really wanted to be our own and each other’s DJs.

So this 70s’ generation, out of a real concern for music, gave the world cassette tapes, Walkmans, iPods, digital music, and then downloadable and streaming music. It gave us $100 earbuds that have a better sound than any $100 speakers ever sold since the 1960s. The limitations of vinyl were the reason for digital music to begin with. It’s not a coincidence that I grew up in Southern California and the company that gave us everything that we wanted in a digital package, the iPod, originated in Los Altos, California in the 70s, about six hours north of where I grew up. It’s not that no one thought of any of this until Apple, Inc. came along. Apple was just replicating in digital form what was already hardwired into California culture in the 70s.

All of this by itself would make the cult of vinyl authenticity look a bit dumb except for two things:

First, the album artwork really is a lot cooler on a vinyl album. But I’m saying this as someone from the 70s. My friend Tony and I had this conversation about album artwork back in the 80s. He’s a great bass player and professional sound mixer, so he’s all about the music. He asked me back then what we lost by switching to CDs. I said, “The album artwork.” I’m a visual guy in part. He got what I was saying, but he just shrugged his shoulders. It really was all about the music for him, so he wanted it all on CDs.

Next, vinyl gives us our privacy back. No one is tracking your listening preferences to better serve you. No one needs to know what you even purchased, much less what you’re listening to between the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.

This close tracking of our listening preferences has changed the face of top 40 music. Digital, downloadable, and streaming music have so narrowly defined and targeted specific markets that top 40 music is for the most part nothing but the generic listening preferences of the largest cross-section of US consumers: a banal carousel of 90s’ style R&B, rap, and hip-hop, plus “country” that now sounds like 90s’ pop (except for Dolly Parton — I love you, never die — and “Americana”). New and interesting music is for the most part relegated to indie labels or niche markets, and rock and roll seems to be dying so badly that guitar sales are dropping. A lot of the most interesting music out there is, interestingly, varieties of heavy metal.

But I think vinyl sales tell us that this isn’t the whole story, and used records are coming back along with the increase in new vinyl sales. I think our listening preferences are more complex than the Billboard Top 100 would lead us to believe.

At least I hope so. So I’m taking some hope in the resurgence in vinyl. I don’t think Justin Bieber is the top target market for new vinyl sales.

Understanding Advising

Since we’re close to graduation again, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about what faculty advising can and should do, and what it cannot do.

Faculty advising should. . .

  • Listen to the student’s own long and short term goals, and/or ask leading questions to help the student figure them out.
  • Recommend a variety of paths to the student to reach those goals.
  • Be honest, informed, and realistic about these different paths.
    • For example, right now, Ph.D. study in the humanities and law school are difficult paths. There are far too many graduates for jobs that require these degrees. There are caveats, of course: some institutions have high job placement rates, and if you can get through with low or no debt the risk is low, etc.
  • Provide materials to the student to help the student make better informed decisions.
  • Engage in advising with the student’s best interests in mind.

Faculty advising is not

  • Obligated to validate all of the student’s goals or ideas. If a student is really committed to Ph.D. study or law school, for example, the advisor should still inform the student of the realities of these programs of study, not tell the student what he or she wants to hear. Being honest about the realities of a path may be discouraging to the student, but the student still needs that information to make an informed decision.
  • Obligated to lie to the student about their demonstrated abilities so far in their educational careers.
  • Anything other than advising: it gives the students facts about the field, the market, and educational options, but it doesn’t make students’ decisions for them.
  • Intended to benefit the student’s educational institution above the student. Every B.A. program would love to say 90% of their graduates were accepted for Ph.D. study, but that doesn’t mean that 90% of their graduates should be pursuing Ph.D. study.
  • Anything other than a supplement to the student’s own decision-making process. It is not supposed to, or is able to, take the place of the student’s own decision making.

If you’re a student, you should know that your decisions are ultimately your own. You make them and then you live with the consequences. Because these are ultimately your decisions, you should be aggressive in pursuing information that will help you make the most informed decisions possible. Get everything that you can from your advisor and then seek out other information as well. Listen to your advisors, even if you disagree with them, rather than demand to be told certain things.

You should also think generally about what you most want. Do you mainly want to make a living? Or do you mainly want to perform fulfilling work? Are you willing to make a bit less money to be more fulfilled in the kind of work that you do?

There are no right answers to these questions. Some people pursue work in high-paying fields and then burn out and make expensive mid-career shifts to more fulfilling fields. Some people pursue fulfillment but have a hard time making a decent living. Ideally, of course, we would all work in fulfilling jobs that pay well, whether we work as employees, own our own businesses, or do creative, freelance work.

We all also need to understand that the ability to do work that is both fulfilling and very profitable is dependent upon many arbitrary factors. At the least, it is dependent upon the random intersections of what this society chooses to reward financially, your own abilities, and your own interests. Just don’t mistake profitability for inherent value: scientific or engineering work generates patents and/or high end products (like bridges, tanks, and computers), so produces a lot of money, and there aren’t enough people around with math skills at that high a level, so the employee pool is small.

Someone who produces something that can be packaged and sold at high volume can also make a lot of money: one hit single can pay a lot. But while small employee pools, high end products, and mass produced products drive up the profitability of a line of work, an engineer or singer is not inherently more valuable, socially, than a middle school math or music teacher. You can’t have engineers and singers without math and music teachers. If we lost every pro basketball player in the world, the world wouldn’t be that bad off–maybe it’d even be better off in some ways. But if we lost all of our music and math teachers, that would be a long term disaster for the human race.

What might that ideal spot of wage earning and job fulfillment look like for you? No advisor can answer that question. No one can tell you what you want. Advising can only point you in a direction that leads you to your goals, so no advising will be better than your own knowledge of your own goals. Think about them.

Using Turnitin.com: Pros and Cons

I recently had an interesting and productive discussion on Twitter with some of my colleagues about the use of turnitin.com, and since I’ve been a turnitin.com user for about ten years now, the discussion prompted me to think again about my use of this educational technology and to make explicit, at least to myself, my reasons for using it.

I also think this discussion is important to higher education in general in that turnitin.com is one of many vendors associated with the higher education industry, and it’s a significant one. As of the time of this writing, it boasts being used by 15,000 educational institutions and thirty million students on the front page of its website. Turnitin.com, like many other vendors, provides products or services designed to support higher education in a number of ways (not all are directly related to instruction), and they all work on a for-profit model.

Since higher education is for the most part non-profit, sometimes these partnerships can be uneasy, sometimes exploitative, sometimes at cross-purposes for student service, but also sometimes beneficial to varying degrees. Some vendors provide excellent products. So if a university chooses to use a vendor to serve its students in any way, it needs to pay close attention to its own reasons for doing so, to the quality of that service, and to how much reliance on this vendor actually benefits students and instructors.

First, a bit of discussion about how turnitin.com works. Turnitin.com is a web-based “student paper processing service” that runs externally to a college or university website. Colleges or universities who use this service have to contact the service to receive a customized quote, so there aren’t any solid figures on how much the service costs. Financial Times, however, estimated in 2012 that it costs about $2.00 per student per year. Other articles have since indicated significant price increases over the last couple of years, so let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that the service now typically costs $4.00 per student per year. I do not know how much it costs my own institution, and I suspect institutions sign non-disclosure agreements about their specific costs, so if I did know its actual cost I probably would not be allowed to report it.

Turnitin.com can now be integrated with learning management systems (LMS) such as Moodle so that it will appear to be fully integrated into the online component of any student’s course. Despite that appearance, however, it’s still an off-site service. When it is fully integrated into an LMS, students just click on a link and upload their papers. When it is used off-site, instructors have to log in to the service, create a course, create a course-specific password, and then either share that password with their students or upload a list of student email addresses to enroll students in their specific course.

What happens once a student’s paper is uploaded? The instructor can use the service for a number of purposes:

  1. Plagiarism detection. Turnitin.com was originally created for this purpose. When a student’s paper is uploaded to the turnitin.com website, the student’s paper is saved in a repository with other student papers and compared to all other student papers in that repository. It is also compared to journals, periodicals, publications, and to readily accessible material on the internet.
    1. What does it do when it makes this comparison? It generates an “Originality Report” score in the form of a percentage of material on the student’s paper that matches other sources. Matching text is highlighted in different colors by source. Links back to the original sources are also provided.
    2. What it does not do: tell instructors if the student plagiarized. Remember, we are allowed to quote other people’s works. How we signal those quotations determines whether or not we’re plagiarizing, so a match by itself is not plagiarism. Determinations about plagiarism are always made by the instructor, not the service
    3. Is plagiarism checking optional? Yes. It’s possible to use the service and opt out of storing student papers, and to opt out of checking them against any specific type of source (such as the repository of student papers, the internet, and publications).
    4. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore small matches, such as three words or fewer, and they can set the number. I always ask it to do this.
    5. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore the paper’s bibliography, which will always come up with matches when a bunch of students are writing about the same material from the same texts. I set this up too.

      How does this part of the service work? Spotty, but not bad overall. There are problems with false or irrelevant matches fairly regularly. These can be caused by the use of block quotes, as the service seems to look for quotation marks to exclude matches, by the use of long titles (more than three words), and sometimes even by the student’s own header information. If a student puts an incorrect space between a quotation mark and quoted material, the quotation might be read as a match. Overall, it’s very important that the instructor not just read the originality report score, but actually read the student paper before making a determination about plagiarism.

      It also provides the unexpected benefit of telling instructors how much of the student’s paper is quoted, which can be useful pedagogically as well.

  2. Providing feedback on student papers. This is the reason why I use the service, which can perform the following tasks. Take note, though, that some of these services are only available through the external website, not the LMS embedded version:
    1. Allow instructors to provide voice comments.
    2. Allow instructors to provide their own custom comments on the student paper in the form of little bubbles. Students mouse over the bubbles to see instructor comments.
    3. Allow instructors to pre-set paper comments and drag and drop them onto the student’s paper. The service comes with three or four dozen preset comments, and instructors can create their own as well.
    4. Allow instructors to set up any number of rubrics and score and grade the paper using this rubric.
    5. Link instructor comments to rubric measures. When you do this, the rubric will show the number of instructor comments linked to each rubric point.
    6. Allow instructors to provide long text feedback.
    7. Allow instructors to set up peer review assignments — students submitting a peer reviewed assignment will have their paper emailed to two peers, have two of their peers’ papers emailed to them, and they will be able to leave comments on their peers’ papers just like their instructor.
    8. Keep the student grade book.
    9. Keep a course blog.
    10. Allow access for teaching assistants to grade papers.
    11. Built-in grammar checker. Every time I’ve used it, it sucked, but it’s still there.
    12. Download feedback and originality reports in the form of .pdf files.
  3. What are the drawbacks to this service? Here’s where we get into the details of my Twitter discussion. Some of these points have also been raised in other discussions of turnitin.com around the web.
    1. The service creates the impression that students aren’t to be trusted.
      1. This concern is legitimate, but I think it varies by institution. I have seen places where high premiums were placed on student course evaluations, and as a result many instructors got into the habit of looking the other way at plagiarism. These very dysfunctional institutions worked on an implicit agreement between students and teachers in which teachers looked the other way at cheating and students gave these teachers stellar course evaluations in return (a situation which by itself justifies the tenure system, as this institution did not have tenure). Some students at this institution plagiarized on every paper and then just rewrote it when they got caught — which means that since they were only made to do the work initially assigned, they always came out “ahead” by plagiarizing in the sense of getting a grade for a course without doing any real work. This is an environment devoted to breeding criminals, and its students are stealing from themselves with the institution’s help.
      2. But what about better institutions? Even there, some students will plagiarize, but I think instructor dialog with students about the service is very important. I really do use it primarily for grading. I’m teaching a 5000/400 level English course right now in which I can honestly say I have no fear of a single student plagiarizing: I trust each one, personally, that much. But I still use the service because of all of its feedback functions, and I tried to let my students know that. I prefer it to Google docs or directly emailed Word files.
    2. The service makes instructors grade to the comments. This concern is about instructors only looking for items defined by pre-written comments rather than truly providing individualized feedback based on student need. I think this concern is 100% legitimate, and anyone who chooses to use the service needs to watch out for letting the service take over his or her feedback on student papers. Now that I’ve had this idea planted, I’m going to watch myself grade.
    3. The service exploits students. The argument here is that the service has value only because students are contributing papers to it, and then the service charges students to use it (through their institutions, of course — once the institution pays for a subscription, instructors and students use it for no additional charge).
      1. Defining “exploitation” as uncompensated or under-compensated labor, I think this argument doesn’t quite work for the following reasons:
        1. Student papers typically have no economic value apart from the service except to be sold to other students (so a dishonest one). The service itself therefore creates the economic value of student papers for the service, so it’s hard to say that students are being ripped off.
        2. If a student’s paper does have monetary value (e.g., can be sold for payment by the student for publication), the service does not prevent students from realizing that value. Turnitin.com doesn’t own student work. Publish away. Get rich.
        3. The service provides value to student users in the form of a permanent, informal copyright on their work: once a student uploads a paper to the service from a turnitin.com account linked to their own email address, the student’s work is protected as their own. I uploaded my dissertation to turnitin.com for this very reason.
        4. Uploading student papers to turnitin.com’s repository is optional, as is plagiarism detection, therefore there’s no necessary link between using the service and uploading a student’s paper to the repository.
        5. The service provides many useful tools apart from plagiarism detection.
        6. The service provides a service in exchange for pay, so it isn’t exploiting students. If we reject this argument, we also have to affirm that teachers are exploiting students by taking a salary for their work. Since everyone deserves to be paid for their work, this service is non-exploitative.
        7. The service only costs students a very small amount: maybe $2.00 to $4.00 a year. If we’re really worried about student exploitation, maybe we should look at sports programs instead.
        8. Students don’t have a choice about use of the service. Yeah…so? They don’t have a choice about writing papers, getting graded, showing up for class, etc. What matters is whether or not these required activities benefit the student. What matters most of all is explaining to students the benefits of required activities. All of them

That’s my overview of the service. I intend to keep using it for many of the reasons described above. But I want to emphasize — we should use it deliberately, carefully, and consciously. It is not perfect. The bottom line is that turnitin.com is just a computer system, and computer systems don’t know how to read. They don’t understand meaning or context. Only instructors can do that. As a result, it’s a supplement to an instructor’s work and care with student papers, not a replacement for instructor care and attention.

Any comments? I’d love to hear from you.

Poetry at Millsaps Today

Earlier today, Millsaps College had scheduled the Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine to visit campus and read her poetry. She’s the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and unfortunately her flight was snowed in, so she couldn’t make it. In her place, three local poets and authors — and one undergraduate sociology student — read from her poetry and discussed it. The topic of race came up quite a bit, of course, as it is a central concern of Rankine’s poetry, but one point that came out about Rankine’s poetry is that it didn’t offer any solutions to the problems of race. One of the worst of these problems is how we tend to be intractably identified with a series of racial characteristics that seem to define our behaviors for others even before we act. Her poetry seems to hope that if these problems with race are presented clearly enough that others could eventually discover solutions.

Her Jamaican origins got me thinking about Caribbean history and, by extension, postcolonial theory. One of the central problems with Caribbean identity is that it is hard to define: for the most part, any original islanders have long since been gone, so that island populations tend to be a mix of Africans, Indians (from India), Native Americans, and a variety of Europeans. Compounding the problem is the fact that few, if any, islands have a single European identity. Islands tended to change hands among the British, French, Spanish, and other European nations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century as treaty concessions.

So the question left with Caribbean nations — once they cut loose of the last European country to have colonized them — is, “Who are we?” They are too distanced from their African heritage to claim that as their own, and they are not just African anyhow. They seldom have a single European language or background, and if they did, it would be oppressive, so why keep that?

One solution that has come up, however, is the idea of hybridity. History has left most Caribbean nations a diverse mix of a variety of European, African, and Indian influences. They have been left by history a hybrid of many cultures and languages, and once they realized that, they realized they could form a new cultural and national identity out of that hybridity.

And then I realized the United States is a hybrid nation as well. And more personally, that I am a hybrid person. I grew up in a brand new Southern Californian subdivision alongside Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, African-American, Puerto Rican, and mixed-race families. One couple was a Chinese man married to an African-American woman. Now when I say these families were Scottish, etc., I don’t mean really American with some Scottish background in the distant past. As Puerto Ricans we were all citizens of the United States from the start, but my mother grew up in Puerto Rico, as did my father’s mother, and Puerto Rico is very different culturally from the rest of the United States. Everyone else my age was first generation: first generation Scottish, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, etc. Their parents had moved to the US from those countries. My Chinese friend’s father didn’t even speak English yet.

So what is my culture? So Cal suburban? Yes, but a pretty diverse one, with many different languages, habits, and foods. But there’s more to it than that. I started thinking about Black culture and how much it made up my environment, and I realized that Black culture was a part of me. Among the hybridity that I experienced personally was a Black cultural identity. That was part of it too.

And while I realize this notion of hybridity is not an all-encompassing solution, I think it does present one possibility: every Black person in the United States can look at every white person in the United States and say, “My culture helped form who you are. It formed your history, your literature, your music, your art, your drama, your film, your sports, your science, your engineering. That means, like it or not, you’re part black. It’s not just that, as an American, I am part of your society. It’s that, as an American, you are part of mine.”

How might that change the terms of the discussion?

An Open Letter to President Trump

Dear President Trump:

In this letter, I’m going to presume to give you advice about how to make the adjustment to being President. It’s important to me because, like it or not, your decisions affect the world, including the world immediately around me. I was at first hesitant to write this letter because I don’t know anything about being President, but then I realized. . . neither do you. On that equal footing, then, here goes.

I understand that you’re used to running businesses. You’re used to being either the owner or an owner of some business or another. As such, you’re probably used to seeing your employees as generally dispensable entities whose primary existence is to benefit you. (It’s not that I think all business owners think that way. I just think you’re one of those that do.) Because everyone’s pay is dependent upon your profit, you’re used to seeing your own personal wealth as equivalent to everyone else’s sustenance, and you expect everyone else to see it that way too. And since you’re the owner, you think that your mistakes are yours to make, not anyone else’s to correct, because you stand the most to lose from them, and as the owner you assume that you know your business best of all anyhow. And either way, if you don’t like someone, or if they’re not working out, you can fire them. After all, it is you that they are working for.

I would like to suggest that none of that experience really applies to your current position as President. As President, you’re not the owner or the boss of anything, and in fact you’re not supposed to be that — with the exception of personal effects and private property. See, the nation, the government, the economy, and everything that you use related to that — everything that you’re surrounded with on a daily basis — none of it belongs to you. At most it belongs to the Office of the President and, by extension, to the American people, but the really big things actually belong to everyone and no one. We all own this system to the extent that we’re engaged in it, but none of us owns it to any significant degree.

In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite: it doesn’t belong to you. You belong to it. You belong to the government now. You belong to the people around you. You belong to everyone who works for you, to everyone who voted for you, and most importantly, even to everyone who voted against you. They are your boss. You are not theirs. You cannot fire the American people, but we can fire you. The point here is that you’re no longer the boss. You’re an employee. And a very special kind of employee: a servant. In your position, that is the highest kind of employee. No one is required to cater to you. In fact, what you’re going to be faced with is a seemingly incorrigible mass of people who seem to work hard against their own interests, often refuse to act as they should, and quite often act instead in self-defeating ways. And all the while, they still expect you to work for them and be happy about it.

Yes, it’s a horrible job, but you wanted it,  you accepted it, and now you’re in it, so you need to understand it. Your job as President is bigger than you, more important than you, and — we all know it, even if you won’t admit it — far beyond you.

So what I suggest you do now is this:

  1. Quit lying so much.
  2. Quit expecting validation. Related to this, tell your surrogates to show some respect.
  3. Accept responsibility for the hostility you’ve created and the divisions you’ve caused.
  4. Apologize for the horrible things you’ve said and done.
  5. Shut up.
  6. Listen.

This is just my advice. Of course, I don’t know anything. But I know that one thing: that I don’t know anything. That’s traditionally a very good place to start.