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

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.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Fleck.com: easy web annotations

I can see this service having a lot of educational uses. What's missing: tagging, public member pages, RSS feeds (that seems crucial to me; I'd like a feed of my Fleck permalinks, and without a member page I can't even scrape my own); ideally an optional pipe to del.icio.us would be useful too.
clipped from fleck.com
Fleck the Web:
  << Go
Add a note to any page, then send it to your friends or use it in your blog. [example!]    
Find our what other people have said about Fleck.com or read our blog.

 blog it

Using Flickr to post images to Twitter

Using Flickr to post images to Twitter
Here's how I post images from my cameraphone to Twitter.

1.) What you'll need: accounts at Flickr and Twitter, to begin with.
2.) In Flickr, choose a tag by which to associate photos to Twitter. I went with post:twitter. You can also choose to have all your Flickr photos sent to Twitter, in which case you skip this.
3.) Tag your photo with the tag you've chosen.
4.) Go to the page for that tag. Do this by clicking the tag name on the right-hand side of the Flickr photo page.
5.) Grab the feed URL for that tag. Do this by right-clicking on the orange RSS icon in the lower left corner of the page, and then select "Copy link location" or "Copy shortcut."
6.) Go to Twitterfeed and set up an account. Follow the on-screen instructions to "create a new twitterfeed."
7.) Once you're at the screen shown above, enter your Twitter credentials and paste the feed URL you just copied into the field labelled "RSS feed URL."
8.) Adjust the other options as desired. To my mind it makes most sense for each tweet to include the title and description as well as the tinyurl link (as above) but that is optional.

Now you're all set up. If you want one of your Flickr photos to go to Twitter, just tag it "post:twitter" or whatever you've chosen.

If you want to post a photo from your cameraphone to Twitter, do this:
10.) Make sure you have the "post by email" address corresponding to your account in your phone's address book. If you don't know this address, this link (if you're logged in) should tell you.
11.) From your phone, send a photo to this address. The subject line of your email or MMS should include: (a) first, the title you want the photo to have, and (b) after the title, a space, then the word "tags", a colon, and then your chosen Twitter tag. In my case, the subject line of the email would look like this: My clever photo title tags:post:twitter. If you want a description for the photo, include that as the body of the message. You can also include the "tags: post:twitter" code in the body of the message if you like, but it must be on a line by itself. Here's Flickr help on the same issue.
12.) That's it. Follow all these steps, and you should see a tweet posted to your account shortly that looks something like the following: New photo post: My clever photo title. Nathan Rein posted a photo... http://tinyurl.com/123abc or whatever.

Here's an example of one of my tweets. Here's another.

The reason I posted this is because I am following Dave Winer's project to feed Flickr photos to Twitter, and it seems you could approximate the same result using these tools. He is giving out ten invites as of this afternoon. His relevant blog posts are here and here, and the Twittergram page for the new service is here. Now, I'm not a technical wizard, so it's quite likely I am missing some key component here, but what does his project do that Twitterfeed can't do? I'm guessing it's quicker and more reliable. Anything else?

Yahoo! Pipe for stripping extra text out of Flickr feeds
I built a simple Yahoo! Pipe to strip the extra boilerplate text out of the feed ("Nathan Rein posted a photo..."). To use it, go here, enter your Flickr identity and tag information, and run the pipe. Then click the "subscribe" button and grab the feed URL. Proceed with Twitterfeed as described above.

A sample tweet using this pipe is here.