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Hello Goodbye

June 16, 2015, 6:40 pm

Today I want to officially announce the end of one era at this blog and the beginning of a new one. Beginning Fall 2015 (I don’t know the exact date), the Chronicle of Higher Education will no longer be hosting Casting Out Nines. The article you are reading now is the last one I will be posting at this URL. Instead, my writing will be going in a bunch of different directions; and Casting Out Nines will live on, at a different location and with some stylistic changes you might enjoy.

Now that I’ve dropped that bombshell, let me go into detail.

I’ve been blogging for almost 11 years now in various venues. Casting Out Nines was started in December 2006 (here’s the very first post, if you’re curious) as a blog dedicated to discussions on math, technology, and education and the interactions between these. CO9s was something I did in my spare time, for my own amusement, and done in the digitial equivalent of my garage for over four years before the Chronicle, out of nowhere, contacted me about joining this new network of academic blogs they were creating. They weren’t going to pay me (boo!) but they would host the blog and handle all of the back-end technical stuff (yay!) and by the way, it would probably increase my traffic by two orders of magnitude (wait, what?). I signed on, and the Chronicle-era Casting Out Nines – version 2, let’s call it – launched in August 2011.

It’s been a wild ride since then, in which I’ve invited the bottomeless scorn of Khan Academy apologists, hammered out my philosophy of the flipped classroom, pissed off a bunch of people about lecture, and unilaterally stopped using points for grades and lived to tell about it. And I’ve encountered many awesome people online and in real life through the blog whose work and ideas have deepened my own significantly.

The Chronicle contacted me earlier in the spring to inform me they want to move in a different direction regarding faculty contributions. Their Vitae website is really taking off (I like to think that the blog network had something to do with that), while at the same time, three of the original six network blogs had gone dormant. So the blog network will be shuttered this fall. All the blogs currently there will remain in a searchable archive. But no new posts. In fact two of the three active blogs – Tenured Radical and Ubiquitous Librarian – have announced they are shutting down for good, in order to focus on other writing projects.

As for me? Honestly I had grown a little tired of blogging lately. And like Tenured Radical and Ubiquitous Librarian, I could certainly use the time and space freed up by putting Casting Out Nines out to pasture. Some of you know that back in October 2014, I announced a change in direction at CO9s and during this time I strongly considered ending the blog. Between October and spring, I had even thought: I’ll keep this going, but if the Chronicle ever kicks me out of the network, I’ll just shut the thing down. And so here we are. (They’re not kicking me out, but same difference.)

But the more I thought about it, blogging is still in the mix for me professionally. The reason I started blogging at all, way back in 2004 using the long-since-defunct blog brightmystery, was that my head was full of ideas and like Harry Potter’s pensieve, I needed something to draw them out. I need a space to throw out unedited, half-baked ideas and have people who are smarter than I am tell me what’s good and what isn’t. In 2004 and 2006, I was at a college where it was, frankly, very lonely to be a person with a lot of ideas. I am no longer at this institution, but I still need the company. And that’s what this blog is for. Hence I’m keeping it around, until such time as I think it’s no longer needed.

So now let me mention a few things about Casting Out Nines, version 3.

First of all it is at a new location: http://rtalbert.org/blog. And in fact I am wasting no time switching over: the first post, on specifications grading and academic rigor, is up and waiting for you right now.

You may be thinking, Why isn’t the title in the URL? Two reasons. First, after giving telling people to go to http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines for five years, I’m sick of long URLs. Second, I am making a conscious effort to associate Casting Out Nines more closely with my overall professional online presence. I set up this new website http://rtalbert.org as a one-stop shop for people interested in my teaching, research, service, and speaking/consulting work. Especially the latter, since thanks to the exposure CO9s has provided me, I’ve been able to maintain a steady schedule of workshops and speaking engagements. It made sense to put CO9s as a subdomain of that site and more clearly associate it with my name. (I think they call this “branding”.)

Second, I am setting up the new CO9s using a technical platform called Jekyll and which is hosted through GitHub Pages. It’s a platform that really stresses simplicity and minimalism. Posts are done just by writing plain Markdown files in a generic text editor, that are saved to a particular directory. It’s dead simple, and the simplicity will help me to write more. Also, it will be easier to do certain things that are hard or impossible using the Chronicle’s WordPress installation. For example, math notation using MathJax and syntax-highlighted code using Pygments are trivial.

Third, this move is coming in the context of a few other major writing projects that I am doing now or will be starting soon, and CO9s serves among other things to help me rehearse and clarify thoughts from those projects, namely:

  • The Chronicle, as part of the process of utilizing faculty contributions in different ways, will be folding me into the writing staff of Wired Campus, where starting this fall I will be a regular contributor. I am giddy with excitement about this because I’ve been a Wired Campus reader for a long time. It also makes a lot of sense because the majority of CO9s traffic for the last year or so has come from those times when Wired Campus linked to one of my posts.
  • Starting very soon I will begin writing a book on flipped learning in the university classroom. This is one of the goals I set for myself back in October. I’ve been communicating with a publisher on this for a few months, and right now the publication agreement is on my desk to sign and return. Once I get started, I’ll be working toward a completion deadline of September 2016. I want this book to contain all the stuff that I’ve written about flipped learning throughout the last few years and to be a definitive resource for all university faculty using, or thinking about using, flipped learning.
  • I’m also involved in a couple of SoTL research projects right now that are not yet at the writing phase but will be over the next few months.

So yeah, lots of writing, and CO9s will serve those projects in different ways as I proceed.

Fourth and finally, this change gives me the opportunity to make some stylistic changes in my writing. I’d like to get CO9s back to its pre-Chronicle roots, where it was a little more independently minded, a little more Millenium Falcon and a little less Starship Enterprise. I’m thinking more frequent posts, shorter in length and more targeted in scope, as opposed to some of the epic deep-dive posts I’ve indulged engaged in. Also it would be awesome to get back to a comment section that was a real community, rather than the contentious dumpster fire it too often turned out to be here at the Chronicle. I will have complete control over the Disqus comments (and the ability to blacklist, promote, etc. comments at will) at the new place to make sure that happens.

Two more things and then I’m done.

First: This new platform is not perfect. There are some things that normal blogs do that Jekyll blogs just don’t. For example, there is no tagging system for posts, so that if you see a post tagged with, say, specs grading and you like it, you click on the tag and see all posts with that tag. I’ve been trying to get this to work for three weeks, and no dice; there are workarounds but the programming gods seem displeased with me for some reason. Also there are some funky things happening with the comment system; working with inline images is strangely hard; and so on. Just keep in mind it’s a new backend system and there will be some glitches for a while. My goal has been to get everything needed to put text, math, and code on the web to work; everything else is optional.

Second and finally: So many people to thank for the last four years here at the Chronicle.

  • Xarissa Holdaway was my initial contact who helped shepherd me into the Chronicle’s system; she’s gone on to become a professional journalist in NYC working with Charlie Rose, among others. She was and is awesome.
  • There is an army of technical people at the Chronicle as well who have made this happen. They are also awesome.
  • I’m thankful as well to my colleagues at Grand Valley State University (including such luminaries as Jonathan Hodge, David Coffey, John Golden, Matt Boelkins, and David Austin – did I mention working here is like being in the Avengers?) who have encouraged me, challenged me, given me feedback on everything, including my posts.
  • I’m indebted to Fred Antczak, my Dean at GVSU, who sees that blogging (when done properly) can and should be considered a form of scholarship right up there with traditional research. His encouragement and recognition have meant so much to this still-not-tenured-yet faculty member. I always assume Fred is reading my posts. Keeps me out of trouble.
  • Anybody who reads this blog knows that not all of the readers and commenters are worth following. For some reason Chronicle blogs, not just CO9s, tend to attract just those sorts of jaded, bitter academicians who have nothing to offer except their own jaded bitterness, who illustrate perfectly why higher ed has such a huge PR problem. I have no thanks for them.
  • But for all the other readers and commenters: You’re the lifeblood of Casting Out Nines, and I deeply appreciate your attention and time. I can’t think of how many times I’ve gotten tired or discouraged and figured I was done with blogging, only to find an email in my inbox from a person who found something useful in my work and wrote to thank me; or bumping into a person at a conference who had a question about a post. It’s baffling to me that people actually read this stuff, but apparently they do. Please keep reading, discussing, dissenting.
  • My students at GVSU are amazing, and I thank them for letting me experiment on them. They are so smart, mentally tough, resourceful, industrious. And just good people. What a pleasure it is to work with you (and not against you).
  • Two people who deserve special credit are T.J. Hitchman and Vince Knight because they answered a whole lot of really dumb questions over the last six weeks about Jekyll. Vince is still trying to help me get the Google+ icon to show up right in the blog footer, which is stupid, but Vince is a generous guy. We need more generosity in higher ed.
  • Last but not least my wife and three kids. My whole professional life is one big feedback loop, like an ecosystem. Although blogging rarely intrudes on my family life, it leads to things like traveling once a month to give a talk or a workshop, which does have a personal cost. I am truly thankful to have a supportive family who bears with me while I go to all these different places to talk about things like the flipped classroom. It’s so bizarre that this happens, but it does.

So that’s it. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you at http://rtalbert.org/blog.

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