sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘academics’ Category

omg I just talked to Howard Rheingold

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 16, 2010

You can keep your Robert Pattinsons and Miley Cyruses and whichever other beautiful prepubescent sexy people you young people idolize these days. My idols are people like these folks:

That guy in the lower lefthand corner is Howard Rheingold, who is by just about all accounts one of the kindest, happiest, most curious, most fascinating, most colorful, and most thought-provoking media theorists around. (If you want proof, take a look at this little gem of his writing.)

Because Howard is kind and supportive of other aspiring intellectuals, I’ve had email conversations and twitter conversations and blog conversations with Howard. There’s this interesting feature of the new technologies that swell around us, see: They efface the distance–perceived and real–between our idols and our selves. If you’re patient enough and quick enough, you can use these new technologies to climb right up on the pedestals your heroes are standing on and tap them on the shoulder.

And today in a webchat I got to talk to Howard–with my voice–about crap detection, participatory culture, and pedagogy. It. Was. Awesome.

It may soon enough be the case that the structures and norms that allowed us to toss up celebrities and intellectuals as cultural heroes–well, it may soon enough be the case that those structures crumble, leaving our heroes in the rubble at our feet. I’m young enough to hope it’ll happen in my lifetime but old enough that I may not be able to fully shake the notion of the celebrity as icon. After all, I grew up alongside this:

And yes, I know that a huge chunk of Americans have never even heard of Howard Rheingold (or Lisa Delpit or Paulo Freire or Jim Gee or Henry Jenkins or Yasmin Kafai) and that these people don’t count as ‘celebrities,’ as least not in the “zomg the paparazzi are everywhere” sense. I don’t care. As Intel explains, our rock stars aren’t like your rock stars.

Posted in academia, academics, awesome, blogging, fannish, Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Jim Gee, joy | 2 Comments »

can we defend danah boyd while also wondering if there could have been a better response?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 24, 2009

file under: just about the hardest blogpost I’ve written to date


I just spent a good few hours catching up on the Web 2.0 Expo / danah boyd debacle. You know the one I’m talking about (and if you don’t, you can read about it here, here, and here).

As a quick reminder, boyd gave a keynote at the event last week and by all accounts failed fairly resoundingly, especially given her renown for fantastic presentation style. According to all in attendance (including boyd herself), she spoke too quickly, read from her notes, and struggled to get her points across. If you weren’t in attendance, a video of her presentation is below.

Issues of ethics, good behavior, and bullying aside, I’m most interested in boyd’s response to the event. On her blog, she published a reflection on the event, which alternated between clear-headed analysis of her mistakes and a resentful self-defense.

Now bear with me for a second, because I stand here in absolute defense of boyd against her critics. But I also, because as a young female academic myself I cannot afford not to, want to offer a reflection on boyd’s reflection, which to me felt somewhat overly defensive.

boyd admits that her delivery was fairly bad, but she defends herself with a host of excuses, including the following (all emphases, to highlight points of self-defense, are mine):

Because of the high profile nature of Web2.0 Expo, I decided to write a brand new talk. Personally, I love the challenge and I get bored of giving the same talk over and over and over again. Of course, the stump speech is much more fluid, much more guaranteed. But new talks force folks to think differently and guarantee that I target those who hear me talk often and those who have never seen me talk before.

A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn’t actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn’t look like I’m reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn’t going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I’ve learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn’t know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn’t get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn’t know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the “audience” was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough.

Now, normally, I get into a flow with my talks after about 2 minutes. The first two minutes are usually painfully rushed and have no rhythm as I work out my nerves, but then I start to flow. I’ve adjusted to this over the years by giving myself 2 minutes of fluff text to begin with, content that sets the stage but can be ignored. And then once I’m into a talk, I gel with the audience. But this assumes one critical thing: that I can see the audience. I’m used to audiences who are staring at their laptops, but I’m not used to being completely blinded.

All of the above points are undoubtedly true but obscure a crucial point: that even the most stellar academics just sometimes have bad days. This was a bad presentation from a stellar academic, and it should be enough to leave it at that.

The audience should have left it at that, but did not. They treated boyd’s struggle with glee, with an evil, hysterical schadenfreude. So instead of defending herself by explaining how the cards were stacked against her, boyd should have spent her time reviling the spectacularly bad behavior of the keynote audience. This behavior is exemplified through the following tweets, which were broadcast on a screen behind the podium, out of boyd’s range of vision:

This guy, whose profile names him as Doug V, was one of boyd’s most active hecklers. Other chunks of the twitter stream, in which @dugwork was a regular and active participant, included this:

and this:

Then, when the twitter feed was apparently taken off the screen by conference moderators, this:

In her blog reflection, boyd expressed anger and frustration, and rightfully so: this was bullying at its most despicable.

There’s also, as boyd herself points out, a gender dynamic to this kind of bullying. She refers to the hecklers as the tech version of 12-year-old boys with whiteboards. She asks:

what’s with the folks who think it’s cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny… if you’re 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

I parsed the archived twitter stream, tweet by tweet, and didn’t find anything in there that suggested the audience saw or was trying to treat her as a sex object, though I don’t doubt she felt completely objectified. Let me reiterate: I do not doubt that she experienced this bullying as objectifying, possibly terrifying, definitely absolutely demoralizing. I don’t doubt that I would feel exactly the same way. In fact, isn’t that the point? It didn’t even take an outright sexual comment for boyd to feel objectified, sexualized, and treated like a “fuckable object.” That’s what the best hecklers can do to even the most capable female speakers. 

And here’s the part where I start to feel incredibly torn, because a huge piece of me wants to leave it at that, to stand up and start swinging at boyd’s bullies. They rose up en masse against her, in a public, cruel, and mean-spirited way. I have deep suspicions, just as boyd does, that gender played a significant role in helping the steam to build: We (us smartypantses in audiences filled with other smartypantses) are more likely to want to undermine women, especially when they dare to speak with authority, especially when they dare to present themselves as confident, competent, and infallible, especially when they dare to also seem in any way vulnerable. Seriously, you guys, stop being such enormous assholes. Stop using your misogyny as an excuse to be cruel. I’m so effing tired of you effers.

I also struggle with boyd’s blogged response to the heckling, because I worry that it plays into the very weaknesses that so many of the hecklers (and techies and academics and so on) suspect smart, confident, brash women harbor. Women are overly emotional. We whine when things don’t go our way. If people don’t play by our rules, we pick up our toys and go home.

Now, I don’t mind being critiqued,” boyd writes;

I think that being a public figure automatically involves that. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years, but there are still things that get to me. And the situation at Web2.0 Expo was one of those. Part of the problem for me is that, as a speaker, I work hard to try to create a conversation with the audience. When it’s not possible or when I do a poor job, it sucks. But it also really sucks to just be the talking head as everyone else is having a conversation literally behind your back. It makes you feel like a marionette. And frankly, if that’s what public speaking is going to be like, I’m out.

So I have a favor to ask… I am going to be giving a bunch of public speaking performances at web conferences in the next couple of months: Supernova and Le Web in December, SXSW in March, WWW in April. I will do my darndest to give new, thought-provoking talks that will leave your brain buzzing. I will try really really hard to speak slowly. But in return, please come with some respect. Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me. I’m ready and willing to listen, but I need you to be as well. And if you don’t want to listen, fine, don’t. But please don’t distract your neighbors with crude remarks. Let’s make public speaking and public listening an art form. Maybe that’s too much to ask for, but really, I need to feel like it’s worth it again.

It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not defensible that female intellectuals are held to a different standard than male intellectuals are. It’s abominable how the audience treated boyd during her keynote. And not having ever been subjected to the kind of public bullying boyd was subjected to, I don’t know how I would react given the same situation: probably with the same rage, resentment, and abject pain that boyd expresses in her post.

But the solution is not to plead to the audience to be nicer next time. The solution is to come out swinging, to come out with both barrels smoking, to storm the audience with righteous indignation, to stand up and say yes, I screwed up, and fuck you all because I’ll be back up here next year (or next month, or next week) and you’ll still be sitting down there in the audience watching me shine. Good luck with your puny little attempt at twitter fame.

boyd and I are approximately the same age, and I look to her as one model of female academic. I believe that those of us who are strong enough to take it (and early evidence suggests that boyd is indeed strong enough) have a responsibility–an ethical duty–to stand in scrappy, defiant, unapologetic opposition to the stupid, ignorant, misogynistic, did I mention ignorant?–ignorant theories about how women should act and how to take them down if they get too presumptuous, too arrogant, too cocky to fit their preconceptions.

Here’s what you say in response: not Can you please be nicer next time? but Fuck you. 

Here’s what you say: Fuck you. I’ll see you next year.

Posted in academia, academics, celebrity, conferences, danah boyd, feminism, human rights, lame, obnoxious | 11 Comments »

‘blogging is not serious writing’: Oh, re-he-he-he-heallllly?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 27, 2009

file under: you can’t be serious.

Blogging, writes Jose Quesada over at the Academic Productivity blog, is not serious writing. Quesada references Jaron Lanier’s essay,“Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” in which Lanier argues that

writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.

Far from challenging either the notion that “writing meant to last” is not “just reactive” or that blogposts are somehow just reactive and not meant to last, Quesada agrees with Lanier’s stance and adds that

[a]ll academics are painfully aware that writing well takes time, and some know that writing well is not a prerequisite for having a successful blog.

So, basically, it doesn’t pay off to painfully slowly distill ideas for a blog post. In a sense, consuming blog posts –let alone microblogging 140-character blurbs- warrants you a so-so level of refinement…. Playing to the crowd –what bloggers must do, according to Lanier- does not require incredibly solid thinking; it’s a completely different skill.

Truly, I’ve had enough of this outdated stance with respect to blogs. It’s worth pointing out that Lanier’s essay dates back to 2006eons ago, from the perspective of the social revolution. Here in 2009, blogs have come into their own as spaces for serious engagement with serious ideas. (Author update 9/27/09, 11:18 PM: Not to press too hard on this issue, but Lanier’s essay is so outdated that it refers to Wikipedia as “the Wikipedia”–not once, not twice, but twenty-one times. Just imagine the alternate universe where we talk about looking up information on the Wikipedia–akin to tweeting on the Twitter or posting a new status update on the Facebook. That would make for a very different the America, that’s for sure.)

Academics have embraced the platform in a variety of ways. Media scholar Henry Jenkins uses his blog for presentation and exchange of serious ideas. Over at the Tiger Beatdown, Sady Doyle takes on the outrages of a deeply sexist society with a playful tone (she explains her blog is about “ladybusiness”) that only heightens her deeply effective expression of rage. HASTAC co-founder and Duke University professor Cathy Davidson uses her blog to work through key issues (social media, literacy practices, academia) in an informal, inviting, colloquial tone. Though I’ve only offered three examples, academics are in fact embracing the weblog in their own interesting ways by the dozens–by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands.

Quesada argues that “blogging will do nothing in an academic CV.” I couldn’t disagree more. While it may be true that blogposts don’t yet count as “serious” academic discourse on par with publication in peer reviewed journals, not having a blog is increasingly a glaring omission, especially for academics who are or should be focused on the role of social media within their discipline (which is to say just about every academic).

Career advancement issues aside, Quesada seems to be arguing that producing thoughtful, intellectually challenging blogposts is not a productive enterprise for academics–that if they choose to blog, they should use it to reach a popular audience instead of using it to present deeper intellectual work. “What I think could work,” he writes,

is a hybrid between a focused paper (that nobody would read other than a close circle of scientists) and a blog post that ‘plays to the masses’ and tries hard to capture attention at the cost of rigor and polish.

(Shut up! the blogger in me wants to holler. At the cost of rigor and polish? Do you even read any academic blogs? *cough* *sputter* ::regains composure::)

One of the most significant obstacles to intellectual progress is the difficulty of getting interesting but new or untested ideas circulated among other thinkers–academics and non-academics alike. This is especially true for young academics (like me!) who have an awful lot to say but neither the credentials nor the years of research to back up their ideas. My work in maintaining a blog–and using it to present ideas that I think are both rigorous and fairly well polished–allows me to not only offer up my thoughts for examination by thinkers whose opinions matter to me, but also to refine, build on, or dismiss ideas based on input from others. (I got Ted Castronova to comment on my blog!) Further, when other academics whose work I admire keep a blog, I have the opportunity to weigh in on and perhaps contribute to their ideas. (I get to comment on Henry Jenkins’ blog!)

In short, academic blogs drop the barriers to participation in productive, valuable and meaningful ways–and the more seriously academics take this platform, the more likely it is that blogs will increase in significance (and, incidentally, upping the odds that blogging will come to mean something on an academic CV).

We would do well to remember that academic productivity is about much more than finding ways to get your work done efficiently. It’s also about being a productive member of a larger community of thinkers and researchers, all of whom benefit from the wider circulation of more ideas, from more people, in more participatory ways.

Posted in academia, academics, blogging, collective intelligence, distributed cognition, Henry Jenkins, participatory culture, writing | 25 Comments »

putting some trust in "those little bastards"

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 21, 2009

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, H. William Rice has posted a thoughtful opinion piece titled “Don’t Shrug Off Student Evaluations.” (The piece is locked to nonsubscribers; because I’m all about open access, I will helpfully link you to a free version here.)

Rice, a long time higher education faculty member, describes a pair of colleagues who took distinctly negative approaches to the notion of students evaluating their professors: One, whom Rice describes as “an elderly faculty member,” explained to Rice that he saw student evaluations as

“an absolute violation of academic freedom,” while jabbing a trembling, crooked finger in my face with a swordlike flourish. “No one has the right to come in my classroom,” he said. (I assume he allowed the students in.)

The other colleague, whom Rice calls “Professor X,” confided in Rice that he read his students’ evaluations before submitting final grades. Professor X had received nearly universally negative reviews and wanted Rice’s advice on whether he should lower students’ grades “to show ‘those little bastards’.”

Rice, of course, takes the more contemplative path by arguing that student evaluations have an important place in academia because they offer educators insight into how well they’re doing their job, where they can improve, and in what areas they continue to succeed. He writes:

Sure, student evaluations have their limits. They should never be the only means of evaluating faculty members, and they should never be used to snoop on professors who deal with controversial subjects in their classes. Yes, administrators have been guilty of misusing them. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and faculty members who actually want to become better teachers—and who believe that good teaching skills are not bequeathed to them in perpetuity with the awarding of a Ph.D.—should read them over and over again.

Professor X’s great objection to student evaluations was one I frequently hear: “The student does not know the subject, so how can he or she judge my teaching?”

True, students’ perspectives are limited. But so are professors’. A professor cannot know what it is like to be 20 in an age of text messages, Facebook, and YouTube, and to be forced to endure lectures from someone who does not inhabit their socially networked world. I’m not suggesting that faculty members necessarily use that technology in their teaching, only that the point of view of those who do use it might be valuable.

As a former college instructor, I can attest to the deep value of student evaluations, though the danger of misinterpretation is always present. Often, we think about student ratings as a kind of popularity contest for educators–in some ways, I think, rightly so. After all, it’s fairly easy to get high marks from lots of students: Just be friendly, funny, and a soft grader. It helps to make interesting use of new media resources.

Because so much of the student evaluation process hinges on faculty popularity, it’s easy to overlook the much more important questions that only students can answer: Did the professor change the way you thought about the subject? Did you leave the class a better thinker than when you went in? Can you apply what you’ve learned to real-world contexts?

Here I draw from Ken Bain’s excellent text, “what the best college teachers do.” He writes about an experiment conducted by Arizona State University physicists in the early 1980s. They examined whether introductory physics courses changed the way students thought about motion. Most students came in with an intuitive set of theories about how the world works; most of these theories aligned with what the physicists called “a cross between Aristotelian and 24th-century impetus ideas.” The goal of the course was to introduce students to Newtonian physics, which was in many ways directly oppositional to the Aristotelian approach. Given that most undergraduates went in “thinking like Aristotle,” did they leave “thinking like Newton”?

Bain writes:

Did the course change student thinking? Not really. After the term was over, the two physicists…discovered that the course had made comparatively small changes in the way students thought. Even many “A” students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton. They had memorized formulae and learned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.

….Researchers have found that…some people make A’s by learning to “plug and chug” memorizing formulae, sticking numbers in the right equation or the right vocabulary into a paper, but understanding little. When the class is over, they quickly forget much fo what they have “learned.”…Even when learners have acquired some conceptual understanding of a discipline or field, they are often unable to link that knowledge to real-world situations or problem-solving contexts.

Of course, there’s no way to use end-of-semester student evaluations to gauge what kind of long-term impact on learning an instructor has had. Aside from the too-short time scale, there are the real pressures on students to perform, achieve, succeed–and, strange as it may seem, the only way they can definitively prove they’ve done this is through their grade point average. This means that evaluations are nearly inextricably linked to students’ perceived achievement in the class; linked, that is, to what they think will be their final grade.

This isn’t to say that student evaluations don’t have a place in higher education: I firmly believe that they do, if for no other reason than to boot the universally bad instructors who either don’t care about or aren’t capable of teaching effectively and to toss the best instructors a little closer to the tenure finish line.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the good-teacher continuum, which means that if we want to find out whether we’ve had an impact on students’ thinking, we may need to supplement student evaluations with some evaluations of our own.

Here’s one thing we might try: A set of surveys, administered at the beginning of the class and again at the end, that zero in on the key conceptual frameworks of the course’s domain. While in introductory physics the key issue may be “how students think about motion,” in geometry it may be “how students think about shapes.” In English, my field of choice, it may be something like “how students think about effective written communications.” You start there, think about the key issues that shape your conceptual framework, and design a set of questions that can gauge students’ intuitive answers (at the beginning of the course) and informed answers (at the end of the course). The nice added benefit of doing this sort of thing is that it forces you to think about and articulate your foundational approach to the subject matter–useful for any educator, no matter how expert.

Indeed, the goal for all educators, no matter what discipline, no matter what the age of their students, should be to help all learners move, even a little, toward how real practitioners in the subject area engage with the world.

And let’s try to put a little more faith in our students: “Those little bastards” may care more about grades than we’d like, but they also tend to recognize real, effective teaching when they encounter it. They may not, as one of Rice’s straw men explained, be expert enough about the subject area to teach the class, but they’re certainly experts in learning–they’ve been doing it their whole lives. Let’s trust that, given the right questions, they’ll offer up the answers we need in order to improve our teaching practices.

Posted in academia, academics, education, pedagogy, teaching | 3 Comments »

what is learning (in new media)?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 9, 2009

Alert blogtrollers may have seen multiple posts recently with titles identical to the one accompanying this post–that’s because we’ve been asked by learning scientist and new media researcher Kylie Peppler to address this very concern. The question–what is learning in new media?–is too broad for anyone to address within the context of a single blogpost, but if we all set to work, we might get that turkey stripped down to its bones by the end of the night.

My chunk of the turkey is time.

When I joined Twitter, I lurked for months and months without tweeting a thing. When I finally did join the community as a good, earnest citizen, I started out slowly and picked up speed as I learned to negotiate the community’s norms and embrace the valued practices of the space. Now, a year and a half later, I can communicate fairly clearly the spoken and tacit norms of the Twitterspace.

I did the same thing with Facebook, Wikipedia, and blogging–looking around for months before joining the community. By doing so, by taking the time to consider the space I was entering, I was able to reflect on others’ practices before offering up my own. I read thousands of blogs before starting my own. I worked with friends to learn how to edit Wikipedia. And I was coerced by another friend to join Facebook; the rest was up to me.

I recently spent some time working with Scratch, a simple visual programming language designed for young learners. As the site explains,

Scratch is designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills. As they create and share Scratch projects, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.

I’ve designed exactly two projects in Scratch; the first was about a year ago, when a colleague spent the morning helping me work up a little thing I call Jimmy Eats World.

To play this project, click the green flag in the upper right.

I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t make the flying hippo actually disappear at the end of the project, and if I wanted to I could open up the program and make it so. Or I could turn the main sprite, the walking cat, into a hammerhead shark announcing my blog’s url.

I could do that if I wanted to, because I am a highly resourceful independent learner who has the passion and the time to devote to projects like this. I find them personally and epistemologically meaningful–I feel enriched, and I feel that the time I devote to these kinds of projects makes me a better, more useful and proficient blogger and educational researcher.

Time, the friend of the highly resourceful learner, is the enemy of teaching. Time: There’s never enough and even if there were, it couldn’t be spent on tinkering. There’s content to cover, and not just in the name of high stakes tests. A teacher’s job–one made ever more challenging by the social revolution–is to equip learners with the knowledge, proficiencies, and dispositions that will suit them well for future learning. There comes a time when the teacher must say, It’s time to stop with Scratch and start on something else.

Which is a deep shame, because it’s the tinkering, the ability to immerse oneself in participatory media or a learning platform, that fosters a real fluency with the space.

This is a key feature of what it means to learn in new media: the choice to engage with certain tools, to join up with certain affinity spaces, beyond the time required by schools. Clay Shirky writes that the days are gone when we could expect to do things only for money; we’re in an era when the greatest innovations emerge not for money but for love.

If learning in new media takes time, passion, and some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, then on its surface school seems to run anathema to a new media education. In fact, it may be that engagement with participatory practices is exactly what schools need at a time when they are struggling to remain relevant to the real world needs, experiences, and expertises into which learners will ultimately emerge.

Posted in academia, academics, blogging, Clay Shirky, creativity, education, Facebook, graduate school, MIT, new media, Ph.D., schools, shark attack, social revolution | 10 Comments »

why I am a technological determinist

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 26, 2009

I’m fascinated by danah boyd’s recent post intended for the New Media Consortium’s upcoming Symposium for the Future. In her post, she cautions new media theorists to avoid what she labels “technological determinism.” She explains:

Rejecting technological determinism should be a mantra in our professional conversations. It’s really easy to get in the habit of seeing a new shiny piece of technology and just assume that we can dump it into an educational setting and !voila! miracles will happen. Yet, we also know that the field of dreams is merely that, a dream. Dumping laptops into a classroom does no good if a teacher doesn’t know how to leverage the technology for educational purposes. Building virtual worlds serves no educational purpose without curricula that connects a lesson plan with the affordances of the technology. Without educators, technology in the classroom is useless.

boyd’s point is well taken, though I’d be hard pressed to find a single new media scholar who embraces the kind of technological determinism she describes in the above passage. There may have been a time when the “if we build it, they will come” mindset was commonplace, but virtually no serious thinker I have encountered, either in person or in text, actually believes that new media technologies can or should offer quick fixes to society’s ills.

The problem, as I see it, is a two-part one. The first issue is one of terminology: Increasingly, we talk about “technology” as this set of tools, platforms, and communication devices that have emerged from the rise of the internet. This is useful insofar as it allows new media thinkers to converge as members of a field (typically labeled something like digital media and learning or the like), but it does so at the expense of the deep, complicated and deeply intertwined history of technologies and what we call “human progress.” In truth, social media platforms are an extension of communications technologies that reach back to the beginning of human development–before computers, television, motion pictures, radio, before word processing equipment, to telegraphs, typewriters, Morse code, pencils, paper, the printing press…all the way back to the very first communication technology, language itself.

“Technology” is not a monolith, and there is a distinct danger in presenting it as such, as boyd does in her final paragraph:

As we talk about the wonderfulness of technology, please keep in mind the complexities involved. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is not a panacea. It cannot solve all societal ills just by its mere existence. To have relevance and power, it must be leveraged by people to meet needs. This requires all of us to push past what we hope might happen and focus on introducing technology in a context that makes sense.

The second problem is a rhetorical one. New media theorists have found themselves engaged in a mutually antagonistic dance with those who prefer to focus on what they see as the negative cultural effects of digital technologies. For better or worse, people engaged directly in this dance find themselves coming down more firmly than they might otherwise in one of these camps and, because the best defense is a good offense, staking out a more strident position than they might take in private or among more like-minded thinkers. Thus, those who dislike Twitter feign disdain, repulsion, or fear and are labeled (or label themselves) luddites; and those who like Twitter find themselves arguing for its astronomical revolutionary potential and are labeled (or label themselves) uncritical utopianists.

In fact, media theorists have been targets of the “technological determinism” accusation for so long that they refuse to acknowledge that technologies actually can and often do determine practice. Homeric verse took the structure it did because the cadences were easy for pre-literate poets and orators to remember. The sentences of Hemingway, Faulkner, and many of their literary contemporaries shortened up because they needed to be sent by telegraph–leading to a key characteristic of the Modernist movement. The emergence of wikis (especially, let’s face it, Wikipedia) has led to a change in how we think about information, encyclopedias, knowledge, and expertise.

A more accurate–but more complex and therefore more fraught–way to think about the relationship between humans and their technologies is that each acts on the other: We design technologies that help us to communicate, which in turn impact how we communicate, and when, and why, and with whom. Then we design new technologies to meet our changing communications needs.

Again, virtually no media theorist that I know of would really disagree with this characterization of our relationship to technologies–yet say it too loudly in mixed company, and you’re likely to get slapped with the technological determinism label. I say this as someone who has been accused more than once, and in my view wrongly, of technological determinism.

Overly deterministic or not, however, I agree with boyd that technologies do not offer a panacea. More importantly, she argues against the use of terms like “digital natives” and, presumably, its complement, “digital immigrants.” These are easy terms that let us off the hook: people under 30 get something that people over 30 will never understand, and there’s nothing you can do about this divide. As boyd explains,

Just because many of today’s youth are growing up in a society dripping with technology does not mean that they inherently know how to use it. They don’t. Most of you have a better sense of how to get information from Google than the average youth. Most of you know how to navigate privacy settings of a social media tool better than the average teen. Understanding technology requires learning. Sure, there are countless youth engaged in informal learning every day when they go online. But what about all of the youth who lack access? Or who live in a community where learning how to use technology is not valued? Or who tries to engage alone? There’s an ever-increasing participation gap emerging between the haves and the have-nots. What distinguishes the groups is not just a question of access, although that is an issue; it’s also a question of community and education and opportunities for exploration. Youth learn through active participation, but phrases like “digital natives” obscure the considerable learning that occurs to enable some youth to be technologically fluent while others fail to engage.

The key question on the minds of researchers in digital media and learning is not (or should not be) how we can get computers in the hands of every student but how we can support participation in the valued practices, mindsets, and skillsets that go along with a networked, digital society. To get this question answered right requires an ability to engage in the complex, thorny, and socially charged issues that boyd and others have identified in their research and writings. It requires development of a common language within the broad digital media and learning community and an ability to communicate that language to the vast range of stakeholders who are paying attention to what we say and how we say it.


Related posts by other writers:

danah boyd: Some thoughts on technophilia
Kevin Kelly: Technophilia

Posted in academics, collective intelligence, danah boyd, education, new media, participatory culture, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, Twitter | 1 Comment »

on picking a dissertation topic

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 10, 2009

I remember learning about the higher education credentialing system for the first time from my mom. I was pretty young–maybe five or six–and she was trying to explain what the phrases “bachelor’s degree” and “master’s degree” meant.

…and if they’re really smart, she added, some people even become doctors.

“But to get their doctorate, they have to write a paper that’s about something that nobody’s ever written about.”

I wondered: How do they know that they have a topic that nobody’s ever written about?

Her answer: “There’s a book with the titles of all the dissertations ever written. When it’s time to pick a paper topic, they look through the book to make sure they have a title that nobody’s ever used before.”

I remember thinking at that time how boring and time-consuming it would be to have to read every single title of every paper ever written. Now I think, if only it were that easy.

I do hope they’re working on putting that book online, and that it gets uploaded in time for my dissertation proposal. I’d hate to have to walk into an actual library–they smell funny and the graphics aren’t that good.

Posted in academia, academics, graduate school, Ph.D. | Leave a Comment »

opening up scholarship: generosity among grinches

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 5, 2009

why academic research and open exchange of ideas are like that bottle of raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing you’ve had in the back of your fridge since last summer

The folks over at Good Magazine are tossing up a series of blogposts under the heading “We Like to Share.”

The articles are actually a series of interviews with creative types in a variety of fields who share one characteristic: they believe that sharing of ideas and content is valuable and important. The edited interviews are being posted by Eric Steuer, the Creative Director of Creative Commons–a project which, though I admittedly don’t fully understand it, I find deeply ethical and innovative with respect to offering new approaches to sharing and community.

So far, two posts have gone up, the first with Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and the former online strategist for the Obama presidential campaign, and the second with Flickr founder Caterina Fake. Talking about how much we’ve changed in our attitudes toward sharing, Fake explains that

[i]f you go online today you will see stories about Obama sharing his private Flickr photos. So this is how far the world has come: our president is sharing photos of his life and experiences with the rest of the world, online. Our acceptance of public sharing has evolved a lot over the course of the past 15 years. And as people became increasingly comfortable sharing with each other—and the world—that lead to things that we didn’t even anticipate: the smart mob phenomenon, people cracking crimes, participatory media, subverting oppressive governments. We didn’t know these things were going to happen when we created the website, but that one decision—to make things public and sharable—had significant consequences.

Hughes’ interview is less overtly about sharing as we typically think of the term, but he points out that the Obama campaign was successful because it focused on offering useful communications tools that lowered barriers to access and then

getting out of the way of the grassroots supporters and organizers who were already out there making technology the most efficient vehicle possible for them to be able to organize. That was a huge emphasis of our program: with people all over the place online—Facebook, MySpace, and a lot of other different networks—we worked hard to make sure anyone who was energized by the campaign and inspired by Barack Obama could share that enthusiasm with their friends, get involved, and do tangible things to help us get closer to victory. The Obama campaign was in many ways a good end to the grassroots energy that was out there.

Both interviews, for as far as they go, offer interesting insights into how sharing is approached by innovators within their respective spheres. But though these posts present their subjects as bold in their embrace of sharing and community, their ideas about what sharing means and how it matters are woefully…limited. Fake uses the Obama example to point out how far we’ve come; but really, does Obama’s decision to make public photos of his adorable family mean much more than that he knows how to maintain his image as the handsome, open President who loves his family almost to a fault? I don’t imagine we’d be very surprised to learn that Obama’s advisors counseled him to make these photos widely available.

Indeed, the Flickr approach, in general, is this: These photos are mine and I will let you see them, but you have to give them back when you’re done. It’s a version of sharing, yes, but only along the lines of the sharing we learned to do as children.

The same is true of the picture Hughes paints of a campaign that successfully leveraged social networking technologies. The Obama campaign’s decision to use participatory technologies was a calculated move: Everybody knows that a.) More young, wired and tech-savvy people supported Obama than McCain; and b.) those supporters required a little extra outreach in order to line up at the polls on election day. You can bet that if Republicans outnumbered Democrats on Facebook, you can bet Obama’s managers would have been a little less quick to embrace these barrier-dropping communication tools.

What we’re not seeing so far among these innovators is an innovative approach to sharing–one that opens up copyright-able and patent-able and, therefore, economically valuable ideas and content to the larger community.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of my obsession with open education and open access. In particular, educational researchers–even those who embrace open educational resources–struggle with the prospect of making their work available to other interested researchers.

This makes sense to anyone who’s undertaken ed research–prestige, funding, and plum faculty positions (what little there is of any of these things) are secured through the generation of innovative, unique scholarship and ideas, and ideas made readily available are ideas made readily stealable. As a fairly new addition to the field, even I have been a victim of intellectual property theft. It’s enough to give a person pause, even if, like me, you’re on open education like Joss Whedon on strong, feminist-type leading ladies.

But, come on, we all know there’s no point to hiding good research from the public. As Kevin Smith writes in a recent blogpost on a San Jose State University professor who accused a student of copyright violation for posting assigned work online,

[t]here are many reasons to share scholarship, and very few reasons to keep it secret. Scholarship that is not shared has very little value, and the default position for scholars at all levels ought to be as much openness as is possible. There are a few situations in which it is appropriate to withhold scholarship from public view, but they should be carefully defined and circumscribed. After all, the point of our institutions is to increase public knowledge and to put learning at the service of society. And there are several ways in which scholars benefit personally by sharing their work widely.

Smith is right, of course, and the only real issue is figuring out strategies for getting everybody on board with the pro-sharing approach to scholarship. The “I made this and you can see it but you have to give it back when you’re done” model is nice in theory but, in practice, limits innovation and progress in educational research. A more useful approach might be along the lines of: “I made this and you can feel free to appropriate the parts that are valuable to you, but please make sure you credit my work as your source material.” This is a key principle at the core of the open education approach and of what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls “spreadability.”

The problem is that there are enough academics who subscribe to the “share your toys but take them back when you’re done playing” approach to research that anybody who embraces the free-appropriation model of scholarship ends up getting every toy stolen and has to go home with an empty bag. This is why the open education movement holds so much promise for all of academia: Adherents to the core values of open education agree that while we may not have a common vocabulary for the practice of sharing scholarship, we absolutely need to work to develop one. For all my criticisms of the OpenCourseWare projects at MIT and elsewhere, one essential aspect of this work is that it opens up a space to talk about how to share materials, and why, and when, and in what context. The content of these projects may be conservative, but the approach is wildly radical.

Posted in academia, academics, collective intelligence, Henry Jenkins, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source, President Obama, spreadability | 2 Comments »

Let’s rethink OpenCourseWare

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 29, 2009

You can’t knock down the gates around higher education by putting up virtual borders instead.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I’m on the open source movement like Daniel Tosh on videos of people puking.

Which is why I engage with MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative as if I were trying to embody the very definition of insanity itself. This time, I’ve gotten my dander up over the promise and disappointment of an awesomely titled course, Research Topics in Architecture: Citizen-Centered Design of Open Governance Systems. Here’s the description from the course’s syllabus:

Imagine if networked computers and other devices could unleash full democratic real-time participation in official decisions by all stakeholders. To date, member-led debate and decision-making has always been subject to physical limits in space, time and numbers of participants. Current technologies and business practices can allow architects and planners to break through the traditional constraints to member involvement in the agoras of our public and private institutions. The implications for corporate transparency and accountability, as well as for more responsive government are provocative.

In this seminar, students will design and perfect a digital environment to house the activities of large-scale organizations of people making bottom-up decisions, such as with citizen-government affairs, voting corporate shareholders or voting members of global non-profits and labor unions. A working Open Source prototype created last semester will be used as the starting point, featuring collaborative filtering and electronic agent technology pioneered at the Media Lab. This course focuses on development of online spaces as part of an interdependent human environment, including physical architectures, mapped work processes and social/political dimensions.

Perfect, right? And not only that, but I keep going back to the noble origins of OCW and wanting the tool to live up to its promise. As the site proclaims,

In 1999, MIT Faculty considered how to use the Internet in pursuit of MIT’s mission—to advance knowledge and educate students—and in 2000 proposed OCW. MIT published the first proof-of-concept site in 2002, containing 50 courses. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines. Going forward, the OCW team is updating existing courses and adding new content and services to the site.

It’s an expensive–according to the site, it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to upload materials from a single course–but laudable effort, ideally suited to highly resourceful learners looking for ways to supplement their formal or informal learning.

Again and again I return to OCW. Again and again I’m disappointed by how hostile OCW materials are to even the most dedicated, passionate learner. The materials are easy to download and unzip but difficult to unpack: They’re so dense, and so decontextualized in their current format, that they’re nearly nonsensical.

The architecture course is a case in point. While I’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect class for the likes of me, the materials, though organized according to the course schedule and packaged with lecture notes, handouts, and supplemental readings, are simply too much to make head or tail of. Here, for example, are the class notes from week 1, “slashdot as example”:

Class Notes

  1. Slashdot.org – Karma – six levels – terrible, bad, neutral, positive, good, excellent
  2. Self-Organizing
  3. Fiction (Jeremy) – similar point system
  4. Pathfinder (Stylianos)
  5. Shock Experiment – Anonymity
  6. Slackdot – takes time to penetrate – no ‘design’ (‘blurb’ upon ‘blurb’)
  7. Legibility should be more important
  8. Hard to read – squint eyes
  9. Only get ‘tip of the iceberg’
  10. Graphic way of searching for info – rhizome.org (starry night)
  11. The Brain EKP – Enterprise Knowledge Platform
  12. Spider Map – Irish PM interface – drag and drop
  13. How things get ‘about the iceberg’ – organized on screen – very different
  14. Slashdot – every user is not equal – ‘superusers’ have more input – antidemocratic
  15. Mediation – 3rd party neutral – resolution among themselves.
  16. Arbitration – 3rd party neutral – arbitrator rules based on evidence.
  17. EBay- used same technology to resolve dispute
  18. High reputation, good feedback – typically did nothing wrong – past performance
  19. Filters – like minded people (ie ACLU) or only hi-karma people
  20. Maybe have user-defined (voted for things you also want)
  21. To what extent are user comments and actions transparent?
  22. Is real identity necessary?

Next Week:

How to preserve minority rights – mediation – therapeutic circles!

Debate Notes:
#2
What do you mean by project based experience?
Really there is 2 proposals – eliminate GRE, use project-based evaluation
Other criteria still valid.

I’m sure this makes perfect sense to the student who was able to sit in on that week’s lecture, but it’s all but useless without that guidance. Though I’m sure the readings and other assignments clarify nicely, it’s up to me to locate the texts, read them alone, and figure out the link to the key ideas of the course. This is only slightly better, and perhaps a good deal more time-consuming, than if I were to simply email the instructor with a request for reading recommendations.

The resources aren’t completely useless, of course; the reading list saves me the time and energy of having to locate, contact, and wait to hear back from the instructor. I imagine, too, that OCW is an invaluable resource for higher ed faculty and administrators as they approach course planning. Used right, this kind of resource could help us make enormous strides toward leveling the higher education playing field.

But I’m not sure what using it right might look like. Should all universities compare their course offerings and reading materials to that offered by MIT faculty? Should all students pick an accompanying OCW course to complement their chosen field of study? Or should we ignore the content and emulate the approach: Making all course materials at all universities available to anybody who wants to access them?

Perhaps, as a colleague pointed out, it’s not fair to use a course from 2002 as proof of OCW’s failings. After all, as she explained, 2002 was too early to judge anything by today’s criteria: “In 2002,” she said, “the New York Times was still charging for content.”

Fair enough. But more recent courses appear similarly information-dense and context-sparse. All I’m saying (and I’ve said it before, here on this blog) is that while the impetus behind OCW is grand and noble, it doesn’t seem like anybody’s getting their $10,000 to $15,000 worth. It seems much more valuable–not to mention cheaper and more readily accessible–to capture one or two key lectures per semester, surround those lectures with related readings designed by the lecturer for the OCW context, and link learners to a cluster of resources available through other open educational resources, online networks, and offline texts. This seems much more closely aligned to the spirit of the open educational movement, an effort that hopes to break down archaic and arbitrary geological, achievement-oriented, and class-defined gaps in participation.

Okay, now I’m just repeating myself.

Posted in academia, academics, distributed cognition, education, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source | 7 Comments »

headline: Hillary Kolos brings the awesome. Awesomeness ensues.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 31, 2009

One of my favorite young media scholars is Hillary Kolos, a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. Because I have had the great, great luck to get to work with her over the last year as part of my day job, I’ve had the joy of watching her blossom as a thinker, writer, and media scholar.

Recently, Hillary had a personal essay posted to Henry Jenkins’s blog. The piece, “Bouncing Off the Walls: Playing with Teen Identity”, focuses on her experience with gender and identity play through a consideration of how she decorated the walls of her bedroom as an adolescent. The piece is a gem. One tantalizing snippet:

As a teen, I used many resources to play with new identities. Fashion ads served as inspiration. My walls were a place to exhibit them. I did also, on occasion, leave my room where I had other experiences that helped shape the woman I am today. But having a space of my own to play and then reflect was very important to my process of identity formation. What seemed like goofing off at the time was actually a process of exploring who I thought I was at the time, as well as who I thought I should be.

My experience in my room is one of countless examples of how teens use their available resources to explore potential identities through play. This kind of play can happen in private, but often young people use media to capture their experiments and share them with others. In this way, they can gauge reactions and refine their performances. I used my walls to reach a limited audience, but today teens can easily reach millions of people online and receive feedback instantly on how they represent themselves. It will be interesting to see the new possibilities, as well as the new concerns, that emerge as teens use new resources to play with their identities online.

You can find the rest on Henry’s blog here. As I mention in the title of this post, the piece is filled with awesome and well worth the read.

Posted in academics, awesome, creativity, feminism, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, joy, MIT, new media, Project New Media Literacies | Leave a Comment »