"maybe it's 'cuz 'cuz
we're all gonna die die"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Google Maps as madeleine

Google Maps screenshots: I used to live here
Google Maps screenshots: I used to live here
These are the low-level aerial view and the "Street View", from Google Maps, of the area around S. Wilson St. and W. 1st St., in Tempe, AZ. I lived here, in a rickety old house with holes in the floor, for a little over a year, in 1994 and 1995. Not only was there a swamp cooler instead of an air conditioner, there wasn't even a foundation; it stood on -- I kid you not -- a bunch of cinderblocks. How this is physically possible, I'm not really sure, but I am telling you what I saw. There was also a little stand of bamboo in the front that surrounded the stairs to the screened-in porch. Out back was a mesquite tree under which I put an ancient folding table, salvaged from someplace, and a chair found in the trash, and I used this as a writing spot almost every day for a year. Behind that was a seven-foot cinder-block wall, which hid the slow, slow freight trains from view. There was a little cat-door in the wall, consisting of a hole someone had sawed in the boards and a thick piece of transparent plastic nailed over it. Once when I locked myself out I actually managed to squeeze through this thing. I was thinner then. I occupied the house with a rather motley crew of college students, restaurant employees, and heroin addicts, plus a varying number of cats, several of whom died while I lived there. Periodically the landlords would come and flood the entire property with water from a garden hose in the vain hopes of creating a lawn, but the only result was that for the week that followed we would be plagued with mosquitos.

Anyhow, sort of in response to this post from Alan Levine, I idly surfed to Google Maps and had a look at the address from these two vantage points. It's unmistakable, as you surely can see for yourself: the house is gone. It's just dirt, with a couple of containers parked there. Who knows how old these photos are, but I'm guessing they're from this summer. Google Street View seems to get the expensive neighborhoods first, so maybe this area is up-and-coming. Probably a little Web research would tell me, but frankly I don't care. It reminds me of when, about a year and a half ago, my brother sent me this article, then already nine years old, about the closing of one of the shitty old biker bars I used to hang out in, a place called "Six East."

That's it. I felt sick suddenly in my gut seeing this. I don't know why. I didn't love the place. I didn't, and don't, love Arizona. I did a lot of things in that house I'm not particularly proud to remember. But it's weird turning on my computer and seeing that it's in the process of being swallowed up by condo properties, with expensive cars parked on the dirt lots instead of the ancient Subarus that seemed ubiquitous in the Phoenix suburbs in those days. It makes me me sad and angry at the same time, for no good reason. Well, good night, Arizona, and good night, everyone.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The verdict on Utterz.com

Okay, I can officially say: Utterz is amazing. It is a complete mobile blogging platform, and it's very easy and intuitive to use. Using a phone, you can post audio clips, video, photos, or text messages to their site, which, if you wish, then get cross-posted to a variety of other services. Simple. Call their number and leave a message, and it gets posted. Send a photo, video, or text via email, and it gets posted. Here are the features I especially like:

  • Combining voice and multimedia. You can call in and leave a five-minute voice message, then hang up, then send in a photo, video, or text. If you do so within ten minutes or so, your audio and multimedia posts are combined into one "Utter." This is cool. It also has the added benefit of allowing you to give real titles to your voice posts that will show up in a feed or blog (rather than just "Mobile post" or something like that). Not complicated, but it's a feature I've never seen before and it thoughtfully and simply solves an irritating problem.
  • Versatile cross-posting. You can set up any number of "connections" to external sites in your profile. Yes, this means you can set up multiple Blogger blogs; multiple LiveJournal blogs; Twitter; Facebook; Tumblr; whatever; plus several customizable Flash widgets for other sites. You can designate each connection as an "auto-posting" destination or not. When you phone in a post, you have a range of options. You can auto-post to the Utterz site and whatever connections you've designated as auto-post destinations (for me, that's Twitter -- every Utter post goes to Twitter as well). Or you can post to all your sites. Or -- and this is the feature that really makes it a complete platform, in my opinion -- you can have the phone interface read you the names of each connection you've created, one at a time, and you can choose whether to post there or not. This means I can set up Utterz connections to five different blogs plus Twitter, and every time I phone in I can post to a different one. That is handy.
What's missing?
  • An easy way to post from multiple phone numbers. I'd like to be able to phone in a post from any phone and to log in somehow using my regular mobile phone number plus a PIN. Maybe you can do this somehow already but so far I haven't figured it out. This would be great for those of us who are parsimonious about cell phone plan minutes.
  • Better on-site documentation. That's probably on its way. From the way the "connections" set-up looks, it appears there might a way to send in an Utter via email (i.e., a video, text, or photo) and include a keyword to control which connection it's posted to without needing to make a phone call at all. This would be cool, but I don't see how to do it at the moment. It might even be possible to bypass the long phone menus using simple voice shortcuts (e.g., "Where do you want to post this Utter?" "New Findings" -- rather than "Press one to post to New Findings, press two to skip").
  • Very minor: I'd like customizable posting templates. Mainly relevant for Twitter. This could be kind of like Twitterfeed's "Preface each tweet with..." option.
Anyhow ... that's my quick take. A really well-thought-out service -- it does what you want, and it does it without a lot of hassle. It's fun, besides, and there's a very cool little community that has grown up around it. I actually used Utterz to "live-blog" (if that's the right word) my ten-month-old daughter's recent surgery and recovery, since I was spending most of my time at the hospital, didn't have access to a computer, and wanted to keep the rest of the family updated on her status. I got a lot of comments and support, and then there was this ... Amazing, huh? It actually makes me feel a little guilty about not using the site more since Talia came home a week and a half ago. But now that I have a clearer sense of what it can do, I probably will be using it pretty regularly. Here's some links:
  • me on Utterz
  • sample Utter at Utterz.com
  • sample cross-posted tweet (they keep changing the format of these; this is a recent one)
  • sample video cross-post at Blogger (previous post on this blog)
  • sample photo cross-post at Blogger
  • sample video cross-post at Wordpress.com (Wordpress.com is fussy about Flash, so there's just an image-only link; maybe someday they'll add support for Utterz, though)

Just a test of cross-posting

Nothing here to see... Mobile post sent by nathan using Utterz Replies.  mp3

Verizon redirecting navigation errors to its own search service

Verizon redirecting navigation errors to its own search service, posted by Nathan Rein on 6th November, 2007.
I have Verizon FiOS (which I like) and live in southeast Pennsylvania (a little less than an hour from Philadelphia). The other day I mistyped a URL into the address bar and got a screen like the top one here instead of a browser error message. First time I'd ever seen something like that.

Chris Messina recently Twittered about this. He linked to a blog post which linked to an article that described the phenomenon. Seems like a pretty clear net neutrality violation to me. It kind of creeps me out. I guess it shouldn't come as a big surprise though.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A new finding: ambrosia

This may be the most delicious thing I've ever tasted: an Asian pear from North Star Orchard in Coatesville, PA. Normally I'm kind of a greasy-food lover, too.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Test post from Utterz.com. This is what I look like. Mobile post sent by nathan using Utterz Replies.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bacn, go away

Over the past 48 hours or so, I went through one of my periodic cleaning-out-my-inbox frenzies, and this time I decided that I had to do something about all the junk that was accumulating in order that this process not be quite so overwhelming in the future. A little background on my email habits. I don't like email much. I hate using it for personal communications. I'd much rather talk on the phone. I'm also a natural-born procrastinator and ADDer. At the same time, I have a gluttonous appetite for information, in a way that I think is probably not all that good for my mental hygiene. What this adds up to is that I tend to sign up for every newsletter, alert, and update list that sounds like it might be interesting, and then let the emails pile up and bury the stuff that I really need to see. Once a month or so I go on a tear and erase everything. I hate doing this because I always discover emails that required me to take some action, like, two weeks prior.

This time, though, I created a new folder in Outlook (yes, I use Outlook) called "Unsubscribe" and put one copy of every ad, newsletter, and alert into it. Since then -- this was maybe Thursday -- I have been systematically going through that folder, finding the unsubscribe instructions in each message, and trying to get myself off the list. This turned out to be kind of an interesting experience and I thought I'd share some of my observations.

First, to my happy surprise, most of them make it pretty easy to unsubscribe these days. Most of the commercial emails now include something like a "safe unsubscribe" link, a URL with a long hashed argument, that will take you off the list with a single click. That makes the process pretty painless. Others, however, make you sign in and "manage your email preferences." That's annoying, especially since I usually couldn't remember the password, so I had to go through the process of requesting a reminder and resetting it and so forth. The toughest ones to deal with were, I think, Borders.com and Washingtonpost.com. (In the case of the latter, I'm still not actually sure I've unsubscribed.) But all in all, I'd guess that 75% of the messages could be dealt with very quickly.

The most irritating, unexpected problem to arise (and it's my own fault): over the years, I've signed up for things with four or five different addresses, and it's not always obvious from the email which address they're being sent to. I had to remember to check the headers to make sure I was unsubscribing the right address. This was especially problematic with old-fashioned listservs, since you control your subscription to those via email addresses and it takes a few minutes before the server lets you know whether your command was successful. I'd send a message like SIGNOFF POD to the list management address, then three minutes later I'd get two messages, one telling me my command had failed, the other one telling me that my address was not subscribed. You get the picture.

The lesson there is that I suppose you really need a simple "email policy" if you have multiple addresses. One address for all nonpersonal updates. I used to use different addresses based on how concerned I was about privacy -- i.e., one of several addresses that didn't suggest my name for mailing lists that I feared might sell my information, a freebie mail-forwarding service for lists that I thought might spam me. I used my work email for professional mailing lists and my Gmail account for stuff that had no professional connection. Etc. Well, not any more. I created a new address for all bacn. From now on, when I subscribe to anything (and I'll try to do it as little as possible), I'll use that. Everything sent to that address is going to get filtered so I don't see it unless I go looking for it. Probably the important principle to derive from this is: assume that every time you give your email address to a corporate entity, you'll start getting email from them in some quantity, and since you probably don't want to continue receiving those emails until you die, you'll probably want to unsubscribe someday. So think of a strategy (I'm not sure what the best strategy should be) now for making that unsubscribing process as painless as possible, or, failing that, at least avoid ways of making it more painful than it needs to be (like I have by using a welter of different addresses).

What was more interesting was that the process was really an object lesson in the "attention economy" concept. Going to one website after another to remove myself from their mailing lists brought home to me in a very concrete way how many corporations there are out there to whom I've voluntarily given some amount of personal information about my interests (as well as my demographic data). I unsubscribed from somewhere between 200 and 250 lists over the past couple days, and I think at least half were simple commercial messages.

Even odder, though, was the fact that I found it difficult, even painful. Like I said above, I'm something of a glutton when it comes to information. I behave with email updates more or less the same as I do at a cheap buffet restaurant -- I want to make sure I take one of everything, lest I inadvertently miss out on something good. I've never bought anything as a result of one of those marketing plugs from Circuit City or Babystyle or whatever, but I kind of had to steel myself to make the decision that I wouldn't even have the chance to know anymore when they were having their sales (not that I had even been reading the emails previously). This was even more true with information that I really like having at my disposal, even though I hadn't been taking advantage of it -- updates from Orion Magazine, headlines from the Washington Post, and the newsletter from the Simple Living Network (all excellent publications, in my view, but ... they were just sitting in my inbox for a month and then getting deleted). I kept having to repress this irrational fear of not knowing about something. (Luckily most of these publish feeds now, so I could placate those anxieties relatively easily.) My intuition tells me that the economics of the web plays on this fear pretty heavily. I also tend not to think that checking the box that says "notify me of promotions" for some business that I actually patronize might cost more, in terms of wasted time and energy, than it's worth.

I was also amazed to discover just how long I've been putting up with some of this stuff. Until last night, I was getting promotions at least monthly from DataViz because I am a registered user of MacLink Plus. I used that program with my old gray Powerbook, which I bought for grad school in 1995. I probably used it with my tangerine iBook, which I bought in 1999. I retired that computer four years ago and haven't used an Apple product with any regularity since then. (Nothing against Apple; I'm just broke.) I have also been getting promotions from Williams Sonoma, where I am sure I will never buy anything -- I stopped into their mall store once a few years ago and bought, for six bucks, a bunch of dishtowels that were on clearance, and when checking out I supplied my email address, and voilà.

The other thing that struck me was the vast range of uses to which we've put email, particularly authenticating identity. Almost every time I had to log in to a site to get myself off their list, it was a site where I'd created and then forgotten a password. Why bother remembering passwords when you can always just have it emailed to you? So instead of authenticating my identity via some unique piece of information in my head (password), I'm authenticating my identity as the human who uniquely has access to a particular email address. In a sense, then, my secure access to my various email addresses becomes the master authentication framework for all my other web-based identities. I guess it works O.K., but it doesn't seem like the smartest way to use email. Presumably other people have commented on this phenomenon too.

Another thing I had started using Gmail for was archiving my own content. I use a number of services that generate feeds, and I was using RSSFwd to create an automatically-updated, searchable archive of blog posts, CiteULike entries, and even del.icio.us links. Here again I decided that this was more trouble than it was worth. I have never actually used those archives for anything and they just cost time and energy to process. Sure, I could have set up filters, and maybe I still will, but I want to see if I actually want to after a few weeks.

Beyond this, there's the email-as-broadcasting model. I had created various of my own custom newsletters and newsradars using SimplyHeadlines (a great service if you don't know about it), squeet (now apparently offline), RSSFwd, R-mail, Google Alerts, and FeedBlitz. I had also signed up to get daily headlines from the Washington Post. Then there were all the listservs for things I was curious about: Christian Peacemaker teams (via mennolink.org), the National Security Archive, FICINO, the Relocalize network, A.Word.A.Day, and the Simple Living Network. Then there were the Google and Yahoo groups, the successors (in a way) to Usenet: groups for TiddlyWiki users, for patrons of the Phoenixville Farmers Market, and for Freecycle of Chester County, PA. I had also signed myself up for Google's news and web alerts for various topics, plus I was monitoring half a dozen web pages for changes using WatchThatPage (an astoundingly full-featured, reliable free service. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go check it out).

Some of this stuff I just junked. I didn't have the time to read it anyway. Everything with a feed I put in my feed reader under the tag "feeds on probation," to see if I would ever actually look at it again. I didn't figure out what to do about sites that offer email newsletters but no RSS feeds. Is there an agreed-upon best model for handling those? I've tried various mail-to-rss solutions, like Mail2RSS.org and Mailbucket, but both do peculiar things to HTML-formatted messages, and plus it seems like a hack. For the moment, I'm going to subscribe to them in my new bacn-only address, but that seems like even more of a hack.

For the moment, I continue to subscribe to a number of fairly high-volume email lists from H-Net and other professional groups. I filter them into their own mailboxes and, to be honest, hardly ever read them. But for the most part, I expect to get a tiny fraction of the email that I used to get. I hope. Now, I suppose, we'll see if all these unsubscribe requests actually "took." As I was writing this entry, I got an ad from Circuit City, which I thought I'd unsubscribed from. I guess I'll try again. I also got a message from one of my mailing lists in my inbox, when I thought I'd set up a filter to divert all that stuff to my bacn box. I guess I'm not done yet. But I hope soon to have an inbox blissfully free of "earn more miles" schemes, Amazon.com new product announcements, weekend car rental deals, "free" VistaPrint offers, BlogCatalog notices, "free shipping when you spend ten thousand dollars" at this or that online retailer, etc. Wish me luck.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Neo-ugly photography revisited

My obsession with taking photos with my cameraphone over the dashboard of my car while driving (at risk to my life) has waned somewhat, but every once in a while I still get one that turns out interesting with a little post-processing.
PA-29 heading south from Collegeville

Sunday, September 09, 2007

"The East Wind Sighs," Li Shang-Yin, 9th c. CE

The East wind sighs, the fine rains come:

Beyond the pool of water-lilies, the noise of faint thunder.

A gold toad gnaws the lock. Open it. Burn the incense.

A tiger of jade pulls the rope. Draw from the well and escape.

Chia's daughter peeped through the screen when Han the clerk was young.

The goddess of the river left her pillow for the great Prince of Wei.

Never let your heart open with the spring flowers:

One inch of love is an inch of ashes.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Cartoons on evolution, ca. 1930

"Paths of Righteousness?" (cartoon, 1929, from "Evolution")
Discovered this on Clipmarks. Richard Dawkins recently posted it on his blog. A lot of interesting images here, potentially useful for teaching.

Postscript on Twitter file-sharing hack

I got this email from Box.net support today:

Thank you for your message.
Tags are used to sort the files in your account; this helps you to search files pretty quickly from your account. We do not support sharing files using tags so although it might have worked, it may no longer. We will let you know if we support this feature in the near future.
Please feel free to get back to us for any further assistance.
The Box.net team
This means that the trick I described in the previous post for using a Box.net tag to share your files on Twitter (using tag-based sharing and Twitterfeed) is officially unsupported by Box. Give it a shot, but be aware that it may quit working at any moment. You can still use folders for the same purpose, though -- it's easy to make a folder public, and public folders have RSS feeds. But using tags is oh so much more 2.0, you know?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Two fun Twitter hacks: voice-to-text tweets and file-sharing

I love Twitter. Dave Winer wrote that "Twitter is a coral reef, and Pownce is just a shipwreck." For aspiring non-tech-inclined geeks like me, Twitter offers endless possibilities for just messing around with stuff for no reason at all. Here are my latest two ideas. Maybe someone will actually read this (unlikely, but who knows) and find them useful (probably even unlikelier).

First, the voice-to-text tweeting. There's one way to do this that works, another way that doesn't, and neither is perfect. First, the easy way, the one that works. Open an account on Jott, then check out the new (?) "Jott links" feature. (I just discovered this today, and their blog seems to suggest that it is, indeed, quite new.) Give Jott your Twitter credentials. Then you can phone Jott, say "Twitter" when asked you you want to send your Jott message to, and speak your tweet. ("Speak your tweet" -- has a kind of a ring to it, doesn't it?) Jott will transcribe your message and post it to Twitter within a few minutes at most. I find their transcription is, well, not perfect, but pretty impressive, especially given that the times I'm most likely to use such a service I'm usually talking on a cell phone in a noisy environment (plus I have a very low-voiced, muttering way of talking). Anyhow, you'll get a tweet that looks like this:
Jott Links and Twitter - results screenshot

The problem with this is that if your transcribed text goes over the 140-character limit, it seems to be just gone, and in fact i think the limit is lower because Jott adds "powered by http://jott.com" to the end of each tweet. For this reason it occurred to me you might do the following. Go to Twittermail and enter your Twitter login credentials. You'll get back a long, convoluted-looking email address. Any text you send to this address will be Twittered. The nice feature of Twittermail is that if you send more than 140 characters, they'll archive it for you and insert a link into your tweet, with a result that looks like this:
twittermail tweet screenshot
If you click on the tinyurl link, you'll see this:
twittermail screenshot
So, take that Twittermail email address and add it to your Jott contacts. Then, instead of Jotting to "Twitter," you can Jott to "Twittermail," and it'll send your whole email to that address, and whatever goes over the 140-character limit will get archived.

Well, it doesn't work, because the email that gets sent ends up looking like this:
What a Jott email looks like
Not exactly a text-only email, you see. Apparently this simply overwhelms Twittermail. When I tried it, nothing ever got posted to Twitter.

So, if Jott would provide an option to send mail to certain contacts as text-only, wouldn't that be great? Jott, are you listening?

The other thing I came up with is to use Twitter as a file-sharing platform. Here's a sample tweet:
shared file tweet screenshot
This is pretty simple but requires several steps. First, open a Box.net account. They have decent free ones available. Upload the file you want to share. Tag it "post:twitter" or whatever. Then, you need to enable public sharing (i.e., publishing) for that tag. The only way I could figure out to do this -- it's a pain -- is by going into my display preferences, and asking to be shown the "old" file view (or by logging in and going to the URL www.box.net/browse#mybox). This view displays a column of tags down the left-hand side of the screen. You can then click on the pulldown menu next to the tag you want to publish and select "Share." It'll give you a page URL and as feed URL. Copy the feed URL. It will look like this: http://www.box.net/shared/t_iupej4pkc1/rss.xml Replace the word "shared" with "public." Really. Then you'll have a working feed URL. I'm guessing tag-based sharing isn't really supported by Box any more since their redesign, but this seems to work anyhow. Try it. http://www.box.net/public/t_iupej4pkc1/rss.xml Paste this feed into Twitterfeed and there you go. Anything you upload to Box.net and tag with post:twitter will automatically get published to your twitter stream. Eat your heart out, Pownce.

These instructions are pretty telegraphic; if you need clarification, let me know (comment or twitter or email or whatever).

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

bell hooks talks to Diane Rehm, WAMU-FM, January, 2000

Cover of bell hooks, "All About Love"
I grew up in DC listening to Diane Rehm on WAMU. I forgot how great she was. (Don't get me started on Terri Gross.) And, this is the first time I've ever actually heard bell hooks speak. She was being interviewed after publication of her book, All About Love. The interview is almost an hour and can also be downloaded from hooks's website. bell hooks is astonishing. The level of vulnerability and honesty, combined with uncompromising analytical rigor -- an absolute refusal to believe that her suffering is ever just about her own individual fate, her insistance that some historical meaning can be wrung from every experience -- that's what I want to achieve for myself, and I hope that my students can see its value as well. The interview runs 51 minutes and the file is 24 MB.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Interesting conversation at Bavatuesdays: education, rights, and universality

Over at Jim Groom's bavatuesdays blog, there's an interesting conversation going on about the question of whether or not education should be considered a basic human right. (D'Arcy Norman has also weighed in. This is in reference to an online course, "Introduction to Open Education," by David Wiley.) Groom's instinctive response (I'm guessing about the "instinctive" part, of course -- I suppose I'm projecting) is to slap quotation marks on "right" and "education" and to remind us that framing the question in this way reinscribes a whole cluster of modern Western assumptions about the relationship between the individual and the state which are impossible to universalize (and indeed the effort to universalize them may even be harmful, though that's a whole other conversation). Speaking as a historian, I agree wholeheartedly. The notion that you can take two highly contingent, constructed categories -- "right" and "education" -- and then ask whether one fits into the category defined by the former, in some kind of ahistorical, absolute sense -- well, it just raises all my Foucauldian hackles.

But it seems to me that there's another, perhaps "softer" way of reading the question, too. It sort of depends on whether you think of bell hooks or Sister Mary Elephant when you think of education. It's also possible to think of a "right to education" from a more subjective perspective, as more or less equivalent to, say, "a right of equal access to the socially-stewarded means by which one achieves majority, dignity, and the status of a full participant in one's community." Paolo Friere might argue that conventional, formal, institutionalized education, which in many modern settings is actually the means by which a human person is transformed into a subject of the state, actually works against this goal, which is fundamentally emancipatory, transformative, and even revolutionary. Ivan Illich, in Deschooling Society (1973) wrote:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value.
That other great educational theorist of our time, Pink Floyd, would probably agree. In this sense, you might even argue that people ought to have a right not to be educated if they don't want to be. As Peter Elbow remarked, teaching should only be performed with consenting adults. After all, you can't "mandate" transformation, dignity, or full personhood. You can try to make the means to those ends as widely distributed and as easily available as possible, but that's ultimately a subversive activity. Not to mention that experience suggests it is also easily co-opted. But that doesn't mean it's not important.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

How to write a blog post, for my students

I just posted a short piece on my teaching blog on how to write a blog post, for my incoming students (especially those in my first-year liberal studies seminar) this semester. It's not really a how-to; it's just some general principles about what a blog entry should be (i.e., open-ended, honest, questioning, and invested in its subject). Anyhow, if you're interested, it's there...

Why I don't bother with MySpace any more

What I saw in my MySpace inbox today:
Why I don't use Myspace
But of course I'm enough of a sucker that you can still friend me if you want. You'll have more luck finding me via Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Flickr photoset: South Bend gun buyback

Sawed-off Shotgun, posted by VanderbergPhotography.com on 12th June, 2006.
A person let us photograph his sawed off shotgun before he took it in to a gun buyback held in South Bend, Indiana. He received $50 in gift certificates for her shotgun. And was not prosecuted. Even though the mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun is a felony.

A small but interesting photoset.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bibliography on reflective, critical teaching praxis

The Wabash Center, located at Wabash College in Indiana, is a Lilly Endowment-funded institute promoting reflective and critical practice in the pedagogy of religious studies and theology. They sponsor intensive, nationally competitive teaching workshops each summer. Several participants in one of these workshops put this bibliography together. The clip below shows just a few of the works they list; many more are at the source.

TEACHING BIBLIOGRAPHY Charles Foster and Kimberleigh Buchanan Mary Boys and Kathleen Tacchavia May 1997

I. Teaching Theory/ Philosophy of Teaching
Borrowman, Merle L., ed. (1965). Teacher Education in America: A Documentary History. New York: Teachers College Press.
In addition to Borrowman's excellent historical review, this collection has some "gems": e.g., Josiah Royce ("Is There a Science of Education?") and John Dewey ("The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education").
Boud, David, Rosemary Keogh and David Walker, eds. (1985). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page, and New York: Nichols.
After the editors present a model for the necessary reflective process that transforms experience into learning, the book's remaining contributors focus on various aspects of the reflection/learning process.
(1990). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
blog it

Twittergrams + Podlinez = computer-free micropodcasting? Not quite

Podlinez is a free service which allows you to assign a phone number to a podcast feed (presumably audio only). Once you've set it up, anyone can dial the phone number associated with the feed and hear the latest audio post. I just ran my Twittergram feed through Podlinez (link) and added the Podlinez phone number to the "Title" text on Dave Winer's Twittergram-by-phone page. So, now, when I call in a post, Twitter contacts see:
Twitter screenshot: Twittergram, "Phone post (call 718-977-5949)"
In theory, this means that if you subscribe to my tweets via SMS updates, this message will arrive as a text message on your phone, and you'll be able to hear my audio update simply by calling that phone number. And, in fact, it works, but with a pretty crippling limitation, bad enough that I'll have to take that phone number back out of the standard text. Podlinez, which is built for a very different sort of service, apparently doesn't poll for feed updates very often. It took about 55 minutes before my audio message could actually be heard at that number. Until then, Podlinez was still playing my previous audio update, which was about two weeks old. I suppose I could change the text to read "Phone post (call 718-977-5949 after 1 hour)", but that'd be silly. The point of Twitter is immediacy and speed.

Well, it was an interesting idea.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Student comments: what makes discussion work

Comments from one of my students on what makes an effective discussion.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The semester begins tomorrow

This afternoon, I watched the minivans and SUVs pulling up to the college and disgorging their cargo of young college students-to-be, both eager and not-so-eager, along with the accoutrements, which in addition to the scores and scores of familiar milk-crates now include DVD players, window air conditioning units, and microwaves, all wrapped up in cardboard boxes and masses of packing tape. I watched this with the usual mixture of nervousness and excitement. The beginning of a new semester, for me, always means the chance to try again and maybe hit a little closer to the mark. I don't lose sleep the night before classes begin, not any more. But I still feel a little nervous every time I walk into a classroom, and the first day always seems like a momentous occasion; I tend to think, rightly or wrongly, that it will set the tone for the experiences of the next fifteen weeks. Not to mention that it'll affect my tenure bid, which is coming up, really, in just a matter of weeks now.

Book Cover
So here's a bit of inspiration to carry into the classroom, for myself and for any other teachers who might be reading this. It'll be familiar to many, but it's new to me. It's long; bear with me.
The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere. Neither Freire's work nor feminist pedagogy examined the notion of pleasure in the classroom. The idea that learning should be exciting, sometimes even "fun," was the subject of critical discussion by educators writing about pedagogical practices in grade schools, and sometimes even high schools. But there seemed to be no interest among either traditional or radical educators in discussing the role of excitement in higher education. Excitement in higher education was viewed as potentially disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness assumed to be essential to the learning process. To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress. Not only did it require movement beyond accepted boundaries, but excitement could not be generated without a full recognition of the fact that there could never be an absolute set agenda governing teaching practices.... But excitement about ideas was not sufficient to create an exciting learning process. As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another's voices, in recognizing one another's presence. Since the vast majority of students learn through conservative, traditional educational practice and concern themselves only with the presence of the professor, any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone's presence is acknowledged." (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom [NY: Routledge, 1994], pp. 7f.)
I'm now reading bell hooks for the first time and finding her work really powerful. Here's something else from the book, something that hooks quotes:
Diversity that somehow constitutes itself as a harmonious ensemble of benign cultural spheres is a conservative and liberal model of multiculturalism that, in my mind, deserves to be jettisoned because, when we try to make culture and undisturbed space of harmony and agreement where social relations exist within cultural forms of uninterrupted accords we subscribe to a form of social amnesia in which we forget that all knowledge is forged in histories that are played out in the field of social antagonisms. (Qtd. in hooks, p. 31; from Peter McLaren, "Critical Multiculturalism and Democratic Schooling," International Journal of Educational Reform 1/4 [Oct. 1992]: 392-405).

Book Cover
This intersects in kind of peculiar ways with a couple other things I've been thinking about. First, I've been reading Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences, which is certainly the best book on learning-centered pedagogy that I've read (with the possible exception of Walvoord and Anderson's Effective Grading, from which Fink draws considerable inspiration). This has been pushing me to think in more concrete terms about moving away from the old "content" model of learning and towards a model based around -- what? -- skills, competencies, or perhaps better, values. Old news, I know, but still, like many of the lessons about learning-centered pedagogy, it's one of those ideas that sounds great but is very difficult to put into practice effectively. I won't quote at length from Fink's work (though if you're interested you can get a taste of his thinking at SignificantLearning.org, or you can see some handouts that the BYU instructional support people have developed based on his ideas here). Fink encourages instructors to think about "caring" as a key dimension of learning, in multiple senses of the word: as a professor, you're teaching students to care about things they might previously not have cared about, but you also inevitably have to draw on the energy that students bring to the material via the things they already care about. This suggests that learning must be social and must have some firm anchor in a moral community in order to be truly effective and potentially life-changing. I think hooks would agree.

Book Cover
I've also been reading Robert Inchausti's The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People. Inchausti introduces a category he calls the "postmodern plebian" (the phrase is pretty barbaric to my ear, but whatever), and he uses as examples MLK, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He is very invested in the category of the "postmodern" and the novel sort of relation to history it implies: whereas for the modern (I can't help but think of Stephan Dedalus) history is "a monster" (he quotes Milan Kundera to this effect) that threatens to destroy the individual or that forces the individual into a kind of atomistic cultural amnesia, the "postmodern plebian" sees history as, indeed, tyrannically oppressive -- but also a sort of worthy adversary to be combated with the weapons of a historically grounded moral tradition. Each of the "plebians" he mentions enacts a practice rather than grounding a theory, but the practice in question is rooted in transcendent notions of justice -- opening the possibility of a bridge between the essential and the existential.

Along with all this, I've also been gradually working on an essay on a peculiar course I taught a year ago. The course was pretty much conceived around the idea that my students and I would simply venture out into the wide world of religious otherness and try to make some sort of sense of what we saw together. In teaching it, I really walked away from any real claim to authority I might be able to make as a professor. I abdicated. I refused even to grade my students' work; I made them do it themselves. I think they may have thought I was crazy. Now, in thinking back on the events of that semester, I've figured one thing out. I'm not the greatest teacher. I readily admit that. In fact, I could go on for pages about my failings -- that's sort of a personality defect of mine. (In fact, I did go on for at least a paragraph in an earlier draft of this post, but I decided it didn't really add much to the point I was trying to sketch out.) In other words, there are things I can't do in the classroom -- things I simply can't succeed in teaching my students because of who I am and what my limitations are. But there are other limitations in place as well, limitations that have to do with our conceptualization of religion itself. I have gradually come to think that there's an aporetic element at work in the discipline of religious studies itself. Just look at the Euthyphro. There comes a point -- sometimes very early on in one's studies, sometimes after a lot of prolonged and intense digging -- when one throws up one's hands and says, "I am never going to be able to make sense of this." The trick is to recognize that moment and not to fight it, but also not to give up on the whole project when it comes. We need to teach, or perhaps better, to learn a kind of scholarly quietness in the face of the infinite, wild variety of human cultural practices. There are more things in heaven and earth, et cetera. The other problem, for someone like me anyhow, is that I can't use that as an excuse for my own limitations as a teacher. When my students walk for the first time into a Hindu ceremony, I want them to feel, briefly, the awkwardness and alienation that comes from seeing something that makes no sense. Of course, on the other hand, ideally, I also want them to walk in knowing as much as is practically possible about Hindu community, practice and thought. I don't know how to bring these things together effectively. What I don't want, and what I think is easy to let happen, is for students to have a bullet-pointed list of ideas and to translate what they see in that temple too rapidly into abstract, rationally-comprehensible ideas they've learned from a textbook or some reference source. That kind of thinking about religion lets us off the hook too easily. It makes it too tempting to avoid sitting with the raw, unnerving discomfort of sheer difference and outsiderness and unfamiliarity. Until you've really let that feeling sink in, I think -- and here I'm going to hazard one of those blanket statements that I usually try to stay away from, and which I'll no doubt come to regret -- I think you have no business believing you have answers to questions about other people's religious lives. In other words, if you haven't really felt in your gut the pathetic inadequacy of your own efforts to translate alien experience into familiar, comfortable conceptual categories, then you run the risk of falling into the old philosophia perennialis trap, describing all religious practice in the modern Western language of universalism, liberalism, rationalism and spirituality. If you have felt it, on the other hand, you're much less likely to succumb to the scholarly hubris of thinking that religion is basically a matter of beliefs and concepts. This aporia -- and again, I'm thinking of the Euthyphro -- is humbling and disorienting, but ultimately pregnant and salutary, I think.

I have to go to bed. So much for not losing sleep the night before classes start. But I had to get this off my chest. What ties it all together is the common thread of caring instead of knowing, and of grieving as a form of caring. We can't help seeking to understand, but in that search we have the potential to hurt ourselves and others, even as we bring some undoubted benefit into the world. I don't think that's just some kind of Faust-style romanticism. I think what hooks, Fink, Inchausti, and the various problems I ran up against in teaching that course all have in common is the idea that knowing -- at least, the kind that matters -- has to happen in a way that's embodied, social, and laced with emotion and danger.

Book Cover
There's something else, too. I've also been reading Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, mainly because it seemed for a week or two in the middle of the summer that a number of people I respected were talking about it. That's anotherblog post, though, despite the fact that I think my reactions to Kohn are related to these themes. Kohn's subtitle is "Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason," and I think his unquestioning linkage between "love" and "reason" is what rubs me the wrong way about his thought. For the most part, I agree with much of what he says, which amounts to respecting your kids, even if they're little, and taking their thoughts, feelings, and wishes just as seriously as you would take your own -- which is actually a fairly radical idea. However, he believes that the way to put this into practice is, in part, to engage in reasoned dialogue with your children in pretty much all circumstances, and I think this is wrong. I think there are times when, for a parent, reason and love are at odds with one another, and that love should win; that conveying to your child the expectation that they understand you, your feelings, or the feelings or experiences of a third party is unfair and burdensome.

I'm going to leave it there for now.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Teaching with technology in the humanities: a few links

As I've begun to poke around for successful examples of using social web technology in higher education, especially in the context of teaching humanities courses, I've collected a few links from my Twitter contacts, various feeds, and comments on this blog. If anyone else would like to see them, they are here. I intend to continue adding to this list, and so there's a feed for this page here. I guess I should move all these into a del.icio.us tagspace but I don't want to take the twenty minutes it'll require.

This page was made using Jetpak, which is a handy Firefox extension that lets you build simple webpages by dragging links, images, and text snippets into a box in your browser sidebar. The feed is built using Feed43.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Bleetzork post: second postscript

If I was humbled before, now I'm embarrassed. Gardner Campbell has now commented on my "Bleetzork" post and chided me -- graciously and gently, but correctly -- for taking a superficial and dismissive tone with regard to subjects I basically know nothing about, and I can't help but agree with everything he said. Read it for yourself. Again, I'm sort of stunned that anyone read my random little post in the first place. I guess that's just naïvety, really. (As Martin Lindner once said in a long-ago Twitter post, "web 2.0 rule: always more people listening than one thinks" -- or something like that; I'm quoting from memory here.) I was trying to express my personal frustrations in a way that was clever, ironic, witty and honestly self-deprecating at the same time, and I guess my tone misfired fairly badly. My apologies to Campbell and anyone else I might have offended. The way I intended the post to read, the criticisms and frustration in that post were ultimately aimed at myself. They stemmed primarily from my own inability to figure out what is behind the apparent success of others and reproduce it. The point is, I think that a lot of the conversation that goes on online is oblique, complex, and multilayered, and there is more to it than meets the eye -- much of this complexity doesn't necessarily show up on the surface. As a result, outsiders cannot easily get what's valuable about it. As I think Groom was pointing out, you have to stick around for quite some time -- I'm guessing here, not having experienced it myself -- before the medium's power to cultivate conversation and foster intellectual synergies becomes evident.

The other thing I was thinking about is that in my own, limited, idiosyncratic, ADD-warped experience, blogging as a medium has some serious drawbacks. With its apparatus of links, snippets of microcontent, and truncated feeds, I find that for me blogging encourages a particular type of quick, spontaneous, off-the-cuff writing and reading. It reminds me of the sort of writing I used to do back in the ancient days when people kept in touch via letter. For me, a blog entry is like a letter. When I write -- or, I should say, wrote -- letters, I tend to allow myself to wander along a chain of associations in ways I wouldn't if I were writing a conference paper or journal submission. I revise them, but only lightly; to me, immediacy and spontaneity are part of the appeal of letters, and the same goes for blogs. As a result, when I read a blog post, I typically invest less time and energy than if I were reading a scholarly paper. There are so many of them, and they tend to be so allusive and elliptical. I skim through them in feedreaders. I click links and forget where I came from. I get interrupted and don't come back. If the posts are long, I get tired of looking at the screen and start fidgeting with the mouse. As a result, I have a hard time dealing with heavy, deep, demanding ideas in blog format. For me, that's one of the consequences of the physical medium itself. (On the other hand, the multimedia genre-experiments that some people have recently put online -- I'm thinking of Levine's "Fifty ways to tell a story" project, or the Slideshare narrative in Ganley's bgexperiments blog -- I find tremendously provocative and engaging.)

I guess ultimately the thinking behind my post was about something a little different from what actually made it into the text. It's not that I think the idea of social web technologies in the classroom is not valuable. I know it is; and I know people have been using these technologies with great demonstrated success. The problem is me. Fundamentally, I find teaching tremendously difficult. Temperamentally, I don't think I'm all that well suited for it, and while I try my best to let others be the judge of this, I generally don't think I'm particularly good at it either. I keep plugging away at it because I believe it's valuable, and because I care -- I honestly want to do better. I embraced the promise of the Web as a teaching tool a couple of years ago when I participated in a seminar run by NITLE -- the seminar was exciting and fun, and it made a very deep and lasting impression on me. But the Web has, frankly, not transformed my teaching, and I was probably very wrong to think that it could. For me -- and I don't mean to imply that this was true of anyone else, but it certainly is for me -- the temptation became very strong to try to substitute technological gimmickry for the rigorous thinking about my own discipline and teaching that I was very reluctant to do. The temptation would not have been so strong if the potential for transformation hadn't been so enormous and so apparent. Personally -- and I stress again that this is just me I'm talking about -- I'd rather bookmark ten interesting news stories and set up an RSS feed to pipe them to a blog sidebar than do the hard thinking to figure out exactly what pedagogical purpose could be served by a careful analysis of one of those stories.

I draw several tentative conclusions from this, and I stress "tentative" -- I want to come back to this discussion in the future. First, simply put, I like making things, and I don't do it enough. One of the reasons I like fooling around with the design of webpages is because it speaks to the side of me that is interested in craft and in aesthetics. I derive immense pleasure out of getting things to work right and look just so. Cobbling together a Yahoo pipe to tweak the content of one of my RSS feeds and have it pop up in a blog sidebar, formatted just right, is very satisfying; it reminds me of the feeling I used to get as a kid putting together Lego models. And as an academic, I have very few opportunities to indulge -- or, perhaps a better would would be "honor" -- this side of my personality. Maybe that just indicates a lack of balance in my life. It seems that I can only permit myself to fool with stuff that way if I can justify the time spent, in some kind of roundabout way, by postulating a connection to teaching. Maybe I should just allow myself a certain amount of time to mess around with Web technologies -- who can deny that it's fun? -- without trying to cram it uncomfortably into some kind of professional activity, given that I've never really been able to make a good fit between the two.

The obverse of this is that, in the social and professional world I inhabit, this stuff is totally alien. The IT folks at my institution are stretched very thin -- my impression is, they're too busy showing people how to archive their Blackboard courses, show their PowerPoints on a projector, and run the poster printer to think much about the teaching potential of the social web. My professional organization only recently started conducting the majority of its business via email and web. And my closest colleagues here are not particularly interested in what I'm doing either. Their reactions range from benign, amused skepticism at my nerdiness through "Ivan Tribble"-style aversion to anything that requires too much technical expertise or experimentation (remember Tribble's scornful mockery of "Professor Turbo Geek"?). As a result, whenever I'm messing around with innovative technology, just to see what it can do and what happens if I try to put it to work, most of the people I associate on a day-to-day basis think I'm wasting time. (I mean, even when I tip them off to genuinely useful web tools, the response is often: "Boy, you must spend an awful lot of time online!") And colleagues' reactions are nothing next to the contempt of many of my students, who have already seen plenty of educational gadgetry come and go. Thus, to allay my own guilt and everyone else's suspicions, I find myself insisting, sometimes almost disingenuously, that there's an immediate, foreseeable, quantifiable pedagogical payoff.

I have to wind this up and do some grunt work, but I want to post this, so I'll just add a couple more things and leave it at that, hopefully to be addressed again in the future. I want to apologize again for implying a dismissive or hostile attitude toward the work of the folks at UMW and elsewhere, people whose work I've been following for some time and whom I have a great deal of respect for. What frustrates me is this. First of all, I have a powerful tendency to avoid doing the hard conceptual and creative work of teaching. Correspondingly, I inevitably tend to look for quick, effortless solutions. At my institution, probably like everywhere else, we're constantly having technology rammed down our throats in the abstract with very little guidance about its use in concrete terms. For a while (these rules have changed now, thank God) we even had to justify proposals for new faculty hires in all departments by showing, among other things, for how the new position would augment and take advantage of information-technology innovation. This sort of environment sends highly mixed messages to faculty. Techology is important, teaching is important, but trying to think critically about how they interact -- it's hard to find a serious forum for that (again, I mean here, locally, not online). This feeds my own natural inclination to spend too much of my limited time developing a superficial mastery of new, eye-catching technology (and making sure the administration knows about it) and, on the other hand, to give short shrift to developing reflective, critical assessments of the way I'm actually putting that technology to use. I find this to be particularly true in the case where there is relatively little formal guidance available to faculty -- whose time and energy is limited -- who want to develop responsible assessment models for using novel pedagogical strategies and techniques, whether they're founded on innovative technology or not.

To sum it up: I think what I was originally complaining about in that first post was not about critiquing what anyone else is doing, but rather about feeling lost -- simultaneously left out of the social aspects of Web 2.0, on the one hand, and left behind by the explosion of exciting technological developments. Until I actually get my head straight about what I'm trying to teach, and manage to state to my own satisfaction what exactly it is that I want my students to get out of my classes, all the technology in the world won't help me teach better. Technology can't support my goals if I don't know what they are. Similarly, dialogue and conversation are no good to me if I can't figure out anything substantive to say. I probably shouldn't be admitting to feeling this way publicly; after all, I come up for tenure this year. Anyhow ... my point is really about my reaction to all this innovation going on in the educational world that I seem unable to replicate or take advantage of because there are still some crucial gaps in the foundation of what I'm doing. It all looks so compelling, so exciting, so -- dare I say -- fun. But so far my attempts to exploit these new ideas and techniques have foundered on a fundamental failure to articulate objectives and goals. Which is very hard to do.

Two other things from Campbell's comment that I want to highlight, because I think he corrected me in important ways. First, design matters. My comment about "fooling with" a course website instead of really thinking hard about it implied otherwise. But in fact Campbell's point makes perfect sense. I have no qualms about spending a long time thinking about the layout of, say, a paper handout I give to my students and how the physical artifact will support or alter their thinking. Again, I would say that I think what I was really thinking about was not a bogus design-versus-content dichotomy but, once again, the superficial-versus-profound dichotomy. For example: I remember once realizing that it was eleven p.m. and I had just spent an hour trying out different the font sizes for the tags in the del.icio.us feed display in my blog sidebar. This would have been fine, except that what I had actually sat down to do was write a blog post for the students about what had happened in class that day, and I was using the excuse of "working on the site" to avoid thinking about something that I really needed to think about. Thinking about design wasn't in itself the problem, but the desire to avoid thinking about something else was. Maybe I'm unusual in this respect, but as I've said, I find that kind of temptation or distraction to be a real problem sometimes.

Another point from Campbell's comment referred to my suggestion that online conversations are often so oblique as to exclude outsiders. In the event, he notes, outsiders do periodically get drawn into the conversation, so empirically that is simply not a fair characterization. Again, he's right, and he points out, not quite in so many words, that Jim Groom's immediate and extraordinarily thoughtful response to my post is in itself a refutation of my implied claim about the vacuousness of online discourse. All I can say to that is, that's an important point, Campbell is right, and my gripes were pretty stupid.

Hm. Once again, I'm all over the place. I didn't think when I started writing this that I'd end up here. But I do think this is, for me, one of the fundamental issues: my own tendency to be distracted by my fascination with craft, design, and technique from the harder underlying questions. That tendency, I think, is reinforced by the physical medium of online communication itself.

As to the theme of "failure," which happens to be one of my favorite things to talk about, especially in relation to humanistic scholarship on religion ... more on that some other time. If you've made it this far, why then, you're a trooper; thanks for bearing with me.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Test post via IMified (take three)

I'm posting this using the <a href="http://imified.com">IMified</a> post-to-Blogger widget. If it works, cool, though I don't know if it really makes remote posting easier than just using SMS or email. I also think Trillian's autoformatting is going to break my link. We'll see!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Using the web

The exchanges of the last few days got me thinking about the question of personal information flow. I read things, I think about them, I do things with those ideas, and then I pass them along to others. (Often I do this in the hope that there'll be some return on that investment of time, but not always. Sometimes it's just for the hell of it. For example, I don't really think anyone's ever going to see most of my Flickr photos.)

Reflecting on this, I started to realize that I've put all these various pipes in place to route content from one place to another -- a tag for posting Flickr images to Twitter, various tags for posting bookmarks to Facebook, tags for importing Clipmarks content into Tumblr. I have a hard time keeping track of it all, and I also spend an inordinate amount of time fooling with settings in MySyndicaat and Yahoo! Pipes to make it all work the way I want.

I haven't got anything profound to say on the topic, but I decided to try sketching out a diagram of the various "boxes" I use for "content." I'll probably make a lot of changes to this in the days to come, unless I get distracted and decide to do something else instead. Keep in mind -- this looks a little like a flowchart, but that's not what it is. It's really just some visual brainstorming notes. The various pieces aren't conceptually parallel to one another and the connections are just thrown in for illustration; it's not comprehensive or even particularly coherent...

Update. The more I think about this, the more complicated that bottom box gets.

The "Bleetzork Ziddlebutt" post: a postscript

I'm humbled. Twelve hours after posting, there were already had two very thoughtful -- and one very extensive -- responses to my goofiness. If I needed proof that the blogging world is intellectually alive, well, there it is. Jim Groom's comment in particular has some ideas that I need to think over. If you're reading this now, and you found my remarks in last night's post to be on point, you should read his response. I asked to be corrected, and indeed I have been. Groom makes several crucial points in his response, and I will give an executive summary here of what struck me most on first reading:

  • Conversations in the blogosphere are asynchronous, long-term and ongoing. You have to stick around for a while to understand what's going on. This is an important point to remember, partly because computer technology always brings with it an illusion of instantaneousness.
  • As Groom put it (attributing the idea to Campbell), "you find people at the other end of [a] blog, not necessarily scholarship."
  • WordPress can serve as "a flexible, distributed learning environment that will provide students with a rich archive of their work over the course of four years (along with the conversations, comments, trackbacks, etc.) if not a lifetime." Presumably this is true, though perhaps to a lesser extent, of related technologies. When I read this I suddenly began to appreciate how exciting and powerful this idea could be from a pedagogical standpoint: what if you did everything on a single platform? What sorts of synergies might develop within an individual student's body of work -- never mind for a moment the potential for community-building?
  • Finally, Groom included a little batch of links to people actually working with social web technology in real courses. This is something I badly need to see at work. Up to this point, I've been sort of snatching random ideas out of the air based on what sounds neat to me, but I have no idea of what really works and what doesn't.
There's a lot more to Groom's comment than this, but that's what stood out for me on first reading. Again, though, you should read it for yourself. Thanks, Jim and Bryan, for getting back to me so fast. I really appreciate it.

I should add as a disclaimer that for the past couple of weeks I've been struggling with a draft of an article I plan to submit to Teaching Theology and Religion, in which I reflect on various failures and disappointments I've encountered in attempting to incorporate several different types of pedagogical innovation and risk-taking into my teaching, mostly having nothing to do with technology. I won't go into it here, but about a year ago, I taught a course whose primary purpose was to get students out of the classroom and into "the field," i.e., get them talking to real religious folks in real religious settings. Being a sixteenth-century historian myself, I didn't have much training in this type of thing, and -- not that surprisingly in retrospect -- it turned out to be harder to make it happen than I had thought. In the process I tried to involve blogging and wikis as a strategy for encouraging students to think about the constructedness and the social rootedness of human knowing. And, well, it didn't work out too well. But that's another story for another time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Twittergram: Out watching the Perseids

Twittergram, August 12, 1 a.m.
Just spent half an hour sitting outside, watching the shooting stars. That's something I couldn't do if the wife & kids weren't out of town -- if the kids were here, I'd be asleep by now. I think it's the first time I actually made a point of watching a meteor shower. I think I saw about ten or eleven. Pretty good, given the light pollution and the obstructions, not to mention the distractions (mosquitoes and a bat that wouldn't leave me alone for a while). Skies were clear. Nice. While I was out there I phoned in this Twittergram (Dave Winer's Twitter-based "micropodcasting" service). Pretty cool.

No audio? Try this link.

My name is Bleetzork Ziddlebutt: conversations, the web, and teaching

Not long ago, I discovered Alan Levine's blog. Levine works in instructional technology, is connected with the New Media Consortium, and I believe he's the creator of -- or at least was somehow involved in the creation of -- the venerable and versatile Feed2JS service at Maricopa Community College. I'm not sure what got me curious about reading his blog -- maybe Bryan Alexander linked to it or something.

Anyhow. Brace yourself. This post is basically an extended, personal gripe about Web 2.0 and the social web. I have two complaints, and let me say right out that for the most part I have my tongue planted firmly in my cheek here, like the man says. However, I think this has some ramifications for the way technology is used in education, and I get to that at the very end of the post. Basically, I'm trying here to reflect a little bit on my own encounters with the technology of the social web (okay, "Web 2.0"), on the way it seems to have affected me, and what I think this might mean in the context of my own teaching praxis.

Okay. So, the first complaint. If Web 2.0 is all about this big social thing, it's, like, all one big conversation, then why doesn't anyone want to talk to me? I mean, I realize hardly ever say much of anything, but ... doesn't the magic of the web just automatically make conversations simply flower forth? Maybe not. Or maybe I'm just not that interesting! This point crystallized for me after I read Levine's post on "Facebook fatigue" and by extension social networking fatigue. In it, Levine complained that he was being overwhelmed by friend requests on Facebook, Twitter, and who knows where else. "No, Bleetzork Ziddlebutt," he wrote, "I do not want to be your friend." Well, ahem, Bleetzork Ziddlebutt -- that would be me, I guess. I was the source of one tiny piece of that deluge, having recently begun following Levine on Twitter and -- after posting a comment on one of his Flickr images -- added him as a Flickr contact. Well, to make a short story short, Levine didn't reciprocate. (He did, however, respond to my comment and then post a Twitter update with the link I tipped him off about, so I know he at least read what I'd said...) Now, I'm a big kid. Uh, my feelings aren't, like, hurt or anything. I swear. (Maybe just a little.) But hey, look, I'm a college professor. I'm a smart guy. I have a Ph.D. from Harvard. Why wouldn't people flock to be my friend, even if I never post a single interesting piece of content?

I then went on, similarly, to add a bunch of the other Web 2.0-in-the-classroom people as contacts in various web incarnations -- Barbara Ganley (Twitter and Flickr), Gardner Campbell (Twitter), and Jim Groom (Twitter), to name a couple. Groom, for reasons I cannot fathom, not only permitted me to follow his private Twitter updates but apparently is now following me as well, which, of course, greatly flatters my vanity, since Groom is something of a celebrity in this small field. The other two didn't respond -- not that I particularly expected them to, and, certainly, not that they were under any obligation to do so. (Bryan Alexander, on the other hand, who's a prince among men, has dealt with me several times in person, so he couldn't easily avoid friending me, like it or not.) In the meantime I continue to use Twitter, posting several updates a day (sometimes many more), usually extraordinarily inane. (In the most recent one, I bitched about having a stomachache and how Windows Movie Maker crashed.) I also continue to post photos to Flickr, though less in the last couple of weeks, and those are also very idiosyncratic: they're all either screenshots of stuff I think is interesting, photos of my kids, or peculiarly distorted cameraphone pictures of the area near where I live. I don't blog, not to speak of, basically because it's too damn much work, except for occasionally posting about my two lovely children, and even that's pretty much only for the benefit of the grandparents and other relatives.

Anyhow, what's struck me as I've observed this process is that most of the conversations on Twitter seem to be between people who know each other, or who are connected in one way or another, via real life already. This is pretty much true for me too. I've got fifty people following my updates on Twitter (the vast majority of whom are either robots or bulk-friend-adding types), but the only ones I regularly exchange substantive messages with are my brother, my next-door neighbor, two of my students (this one and this one, both of whom are smarter and harder-working than me), and, occasionally (she tends to ignore me most of the time) a rather breathtakingly brilliant poet, a former student of mine, who I turned on to Twitter some time back (at the time she thought it sounded ridiculous, I think, but now she's discovered some astonishingly creative ways to use it and has built up a significant fanbase; unlike almost all the other Twitter users I follow, her posts pretty much always have substance). For the record, there are thus far precisely two people on Twitter that I've actually exchanged messages with whom I've never met in meatspace.

I suspect that what's true of Twitter is also true, though maybe to a lesser extent, on most of the other "2.0"-style social Web environments -- blogs, Flickr, etc. Take Flickr. Some time back I added a woman who calls herself "~Kell~" (cute, huh) as a contact, I think because I saw her photos on another site I was using a lot at the time, Blipfoto (I've since abandoned Blipfoto out of a lack of time). Almost every day she posts attractive, cheery pictures of herself and her children, or occasionally something like a flower. (Recently -- I haven't been following too closely -- her grandmother got sick, so ~Kell~ posted some arty sepia-toned portraits of her, and even a hospital interior or two.) Every day her cheery photo posts get a dozen or so cheery replies, along the lines of, "You're great, Kell, love the pics!," or, on bad days, "Hang in there, Kell, we're rooting for you!" I'm not criticizing or being snarky here, I'm just pointing out that that's about as deep as it usually gets. My point is: much of the time, these aren't really "conversations" happening out there in cyberspace, they're more like nice people just touching base with each other. And indeed, that can be a very nice, civilized, friendly thing.

When I read the Twitter updates from Levine, Groom, Campbell, and Ganley, as well as a few others, I'm also struck by the same in-group quality. These are people who know each other, talking to one another as if they were at a private party. And why not? One of the things I find fascinating about Twitter is that when you post an update, it's like you're standing in a very large room full of all sorts of people, all talking about different things. Someone may hear you and answer you, and of course if your friends are there in the room, they're more likely to be listening. Potentially, someone who's not your friend might hear you, think what you're saying is interesting, and start listening along to your conversations. That's pretty much my situation -- I've been doing a lot of eavesdropping. It's interesting, but as I say, I'm struck by the semi-private, elliptical nature of many of the conversations. They're full of inside jokes and incomprehensible references (the "fake Reverend Jim"?).

So, why is this important? I guess it has to do with a growing sense on my part that this is really what the technology of the social web is for -- or, at least, that's what it does best: it supports and reinforces preexisting real-life relationships. And, more to the point for me, I wonder what this implies for those who are seeking to establish new, technologically-mediated forms of connectedness and community in an educational context. One of Alan Levine's longer recent posts was about the annual Faculty Academy at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. I believe he wrote it as he was waiting for his plane out of town. In it, Levine said, basically, how wonderful the event was and how happy he was to have been there, and he gave a quick rundown of the participants and events. Many of the other participants responded in kind in the comments, thanking Levine for his post and for his contributions to the event. The whole thing seemed quite heartfelt and sincere. However, as an outsider reading the post and the comments, it was completely impossible to get any sense of what good the work of the Faculty Academy actually is. Teaching was mentioned, but only in very oblique, allusive ways, and there was never a mention of a specific course or an actual learning activity. The post was all about collaboration, innovation, team spirit, "new ways" of thinking, and the attraction of cool technology.

Now, I'm not trying to criticize Levine, or his work, by any means. It might sound as though I'm accusing him of superficiality, and I admit that that was probably my first reaction on reading the post. But it wasn't superficial. That wouldn't be a fair criticism. It was a blog entry, and I want to use it as an example of something I think is fairly common in this context. The post wasn't intended to be a meticulous critical evaluation, or even a thorough description, of Faculty Academy, and he was explicit about that. It was more in the vein of a personal journal entry. He was simply jotting down his highly enthusiastic reactions to the event while it was still fresh in his mind. But isn't that what blogging's mostly about? It's supposed to focus on informal, relaxed, off-the-cuff reactions to things. I guess it made me wonder what the real value of Web 2.0 technologies for education actually is. Levine is a great exemplar of the use of those technologies, but in his actual practice -- at least, inasmuch as it is exposed to the view of outsiders like myself -- the kind of critical reflectiveness that we want to model for our students doesn't really show up, the way it presumably would in an offline setting.

I don't mean to pick on him here. Indeed, I have more or less the same reaction to all the other people I've named, too. I'm excited by the educational possibilities of all this technology, and the "ethos" behind Web 2.0-style development is closely in accord with my ideas about what teaching ought to be: open, distributed, transparent, and social. I guess this post is mostly born out of my own disappointment at how things have gone so far. I've built blogs and wikis for my classes, but I don't really know how to use them. Students seem to think it's cool, too, but it's not clear precisely how anyone in my classes is benefiting from their use. In fact, they end up seeming more like a fun distraction. What is fundamentally clear to me, in particular, is that the seemingly transformative promise of Web technologies for teaching has not been borne out in practice, at least not in my practice, nor have I been able to see it clearly documented anywhere else. And God damn it, I really wanted it all to work. But so far, I don't see that it has. I see lots of potential, but not a lot of results, at least not yet, and not in a form I can recognize. Am I wrong about this? I hope so -- I really want to be corrected!

This post has meandered quite a ways from my initial half-serious complaining about how all the smart people on Twitter don't want to follow my updates. I do think there's a connection, though. The problem is that Web 2.0 technologies threaten to substitute a kind of superficial, marketplace-style sociability for real exchange. Actually, that's not true. The technology doesn't really have that much to do with it. Substantive, thoughtful exchange is always difficult. It's hard work. The web doesn't "threaten" that. What it does do, though, and I think this is the real problem, is this. It seems to promise to make those things easy, even though we know that's not the case. By holding out that silent promise, it threatens to make us forget how real human connections are forged --- over time and through lots of hard work -- and that they're usually a matter of embodiment as well. The "new" internet offers an endlessly fascinating world of connections and discoveries, but it's now easier than ever before to get lost ooh-ing and aah-ing at the shiny, fun toys and to think that they, themselves, are substitutes for the processes that they are actually intended to facilitate. I know that's happened to me, over and over again. I'd much rather fool with the design of a course website than actually think about what that website's supposed to do for the students. It's easier.

In fact, in a way, I'm probably doing that right now. I better go. Bye.