sleeping alone and starting out early

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Archive for the ‘joy’ Category

when the internet implants childhood memories

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 1, 2010

Here’s my beautiful niece Morgan playing in her grandma’s backyard:

I spend an awful lot of time wondering what it’s going to be like for Morgan, growing up surrounded by a digital footprint that already includes more photos and videos of her than her mother and aunts had of their entire childhood. They say that our brains aren’t very good at knowing the difference between something that happened “in real life” and something that happened “in media.” I have some childhood “memories” that I know were implanted through family stories; but knowing I don’t actually remember these events doesn’t make the memories any less vivid.

And those memories–‘authentically’ remembered or not–make up the fabric of my identity, so that it doesn’t matter how the memories got there. I imagine the same will be true of Morgan, except to an exponentially greater extent, since huge chunks of her life will be indelibly imprinted on that greatest of collective memory tools, the internet.

Lord knows how differently she and other members of her generation will remember their childhood. For anyone over 30, the terrain of childhood feels fleeting, tough to pin down, and dependent on the memories of people who loved you and paid careful attention to what you were doing. For lots of people under 30, the memory of childhood will no longer be so intergenerationally woven. It will exist independent of family, friends, and collaborators in experience. It will even exist from a neutral, third-person perspective: the perspective of a detached observer (the camera) capturing a scene. When our memories feel like movies, when we feel like we’re watching ourselves experience something instead of being inside of the experience ourselves, how does that change how we see ourselves within the world?

I’m not necessarily worried; I’m just wondering.

People tell me to stop wondering about these sorts of things. A lot of the people who tell me this are parents of young children, and this probably means that my biggest mistake is in bringing this issue up all the time to people who just want to post videos of their kids to YouTube. And I’ll admit that I don’t want my sister to stop capturing my niece’s every milestone. Another phenomenon of the 21st century is increased mobility paired up with increasingly cheap and ubiquitous tools to keep in touch with the people whose lives have touched ours.

Posted in beauty, joy, Morgan DeGeer | Leave a Comment »

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 »

things I’m trying to do this summer

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2010

  • Cut down on my caffeine consumption
  • Wash my dishes before bed each night
  • Step away from my digital communication devices from time to time
  • Read more novels

I believe that it practically doesn’t matter what changes you decide to make, as long as they help you become more reflective about how you live your life. I’m not a spiritual person, which is to say that I don’t have religion and don’t feel a need to get some, but I do believe in the holiness of the moving body. I do believe that moments of total presence in one’s life are rare and sacred and therefore are to be pursued with all one’s might.

So little things–not letting dirty dishes stack up, reminding myself how to sit still and silent, re-learning the natural rhythms of my body and brain–can be tools in the pursuit of those sacred moments.

Posted in Eddie Izzard, joy | Leave a Comment »

event announcement: Noah Iliinsky and "beautiful visualization"

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 24, 2010

If you live or work in the Bloomington, IN, area, please consider attending this upcoming conversation and workshop with information visualization expert Noah Iliinsky.

Special Event: “Practical Design of Complex Information: How to Make Lasagna Instead of Spaghetti”

Please join us for a conversation and workshop with visualization expert Noah Iliinsky this Friday, March 26, 3:30-5:00 p.m. in room 1084 of the Wright Education building at Indiana University-Bloomington.

About the speaker: Noah Iliinsky works in interface and interaction design, all from a functional and user-centered perspective. Before becoming a designer he was a programmer for several years. He is the co-editor of Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts, recently released by O’Reilly Media, and a Senior Program Manager for User Interface for VMWare, a leading provider of virtualization software. You can see some of his work on his website at

If you are interested in attending the workshop and have an in-progress information visualization project you’d like to have discussed, please send it in advance of the event along with a brief (1 paragraph) description of the project to Joshua Danish at jdanish(at)

This event is open to all students, faculty, and staff and is hosted by the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University. For more information, contact Jenna McWilliams at jenmcwil(at)

Posted in awesome, beauty, creativity, joy | 1 Comment »

tubby fingers and serious cheeks

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 20, 2010

There’s a lot that makes me mad, but there’s one thing that makes me consistently happy: My niece Morgan, who’s seven months old. Below is a video of her eating her afternoon snack, which is Cheerios.

Posted in awesome, beauty, joy | Leave a Comment »

a poem John Ashbery wrote

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 11, 2010


Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, “mugwump
of the final hour,” lest an agenda—horrors!—be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It’s breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.

And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who’s to say we weren’t provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.

Lifted from Poetry Daily.

Posted in beauty, creativity, John Ashbery, joy, language, poetry, spring, writing | Leave a Comment »

One year and 235 posts later…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 9, 2010

Today is the one-year anniversary of the establishment of this blog. I count my decision to start this blog, and after that decision the decisions to cultivate it, populate it, and spread the word about it as the most significant aspect of my developing identify as an academic.

And I don’t mean “academic” in the stuffy, yes-quite kind of way, either. I mean that the decision to start this blog–a decision that came suddenly, without much by way of any warning–was a decision to speak. It was a decision to move from “Yes, that’s something I care about, and I wish there was something I could do about it” to “Yes, I care about that, and here’s what I think about it and here’s what I’m doing to change things.”

I love blogging. It has opened doors for me. It has allowed me to say things I wouldn’t have otherwise had the space to say, to people I want to hear those things. And if I sometimes go a little overboard on extolling the virtues of blogging, it’s only because I hope for everyone to experience a similar falling away of the weights and chains that for so long kept me close to the earth.

I have a dim memory of the person I was before–a much smaller, much timider person who was horrified at the prospect of taking up too much space or too much of your time. I know that version of me is killed for good, and I’m glad for it. I hope that all of you have the chance, at least once, to experience this kind of total transformation. I hope you get the chance to experience the power of some tool, some network, some community, some practice, online or off, to change your life and trajectory and goals and plans for good.

Posted in awesome, blogging, joy | Leave a Comment »

you have to watch this vlogpost

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 27, 2009

file under: world’s most awesome 16-hour vlog project

This link to pure awesomeness comes to you courtesy of my buddies, Jeffrey Kaplan and David Phelps. If you care about literacy or the learning sciences, you will die of joy.

Posted in awesome, creativity, graduate school, joy, learning sciences, literacy, poetry | 1 Comment »

some stuff I like

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 14, 2009

Lest I open myself up to accusations of being that kind of graduate student (or, for that matter, this kind of graduate student), I want to point out that I don’t hate everything, despite evidence to the contrary. Below, in no particular order, is a list of five awesome things that I’ve encountered so far as a graduate student at Indiana University.

1. The opening page of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America. Open up to the preface of this excellent new text by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, and you read this epigram:

I have not even intended to judge whether this social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous of disastrous for mankind. I have acknowledged that this revolution is already accomplished or about to be so and I have chosen among those people who have experienced its effects the one in which its development has been the most comprehensive and peaceful, in order that I may make out clearly its natural consequences and the means of turning it to men’s advantage. I confess that in America I have seen more than America itself; I have looked there for an image of the essence of democracy, its limitations, its personality, its prejudices its passions; my wish has been to know it if only to realize at least what we have to fear or hope from it. (de Tocqueville, pp. 23-24)

The alignment with de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of democracy in early America, is significant. The drive of the Collins & Halverson text, as with many new texts focusing on the social revolution, is to identify and describe, without making a judgment of value gained or lost, a fundamental shift in the large-scale and day-to-day operations of a culture. The authors hope to observe and describe, not to judge, and if Collins and Halverson tend at times to follow de Tocqueville’s lead in revealing their underlying attitudes toward this revolution (about which more later), the effort to approach the ongoing cultural shift toward participatory practices and cultures is valuable and necessary.

2. Early September in south central Indiana. Here in Bloomington, it’s been 72 degrees and sunny for about a million days in a row, and at night the church clock’s quarter-hour chimes slide through my open window. If I could only get my neighbors to close up their beer-pong table on Saturday nights, I’d be able to listen to the chimes and the crickets all weekend long.

3. Seymour Papert. I liked him already for explaining back in 1984 that he believed the computer would blow up the school, but now I’m grooving on him for his foundational work on constructionism. In attempting to define this movement, he explains the challenges of describing someyhing that is based on the premise of learning-through-making:

[I]t would be particularly oxymoronic to convey the idea of constructionism through a definition since, after all, constructionism boils down to demanding that everything be understood by being constructed. The joke is relevant to the problem, for the more we share the less improbable it is that our self-constructed constructions should converge. And I have learned to take as a sign of relevantly common intellectual culture and preferences the penchant for playing with self-referentially recursive situations: the snake eating its tail, the man hoisting himself by his own bootstraps, and the liar contradicting himself by saying he’s a liar. Experience shows that people who relate to that kind of thing often play in similar ways. And in some domains those who play alike think alike. Those who like to play with images of structures emerging from their own chaos, lifting themselves by their own bootstraps, are very likely predisposed to constructionism.

Because the work of educational research is often grim, sometimes excruciatingly so, Papert’s sense of play and delight in his work is not only refreshing but very deeply necessary.

4. Week 7 of Kylie Peppler’s class, Learning in New Media.
The readings for that week look like this:

Literacies as Multiple and Situated

Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981/1988). Unpackaging Literacy. In E.R. Kingten, B. Kroll, and M. Rose (Eds.) Perspectives on literacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 57-70.
Scribner, S. (1984). Literacy in Three Metaphors. American Journal of Education 93, 6-21.

The New Literacy Studies
Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2003). New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 3-49.
The New London Group (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1).

Multimodal Literacy
Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. New York: Routledge, 35-60.

For me, one of the most fantastic features of graduate school has been its promise to help me situate the various, undisciplined readings I’ve gathered up into respective schools of thought: to sort my knowledge, fill in the blanks, and build a backbone into my education.

5. The yellowjacket nest just outside my bedroom window. jk jk jk I actually hate the yellowjacket nest just outside my bedroom window. If they don’t cut it out, I’m going to smack those yellowjackets down on my blog and with this can of Raid I have sitting right here.

Posted in academia, awesome, graduate school, joy, Ph.D. | 1 Comment »

luddites hate jetskis

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 18, 2009

Today my sister and I almost missed the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince because she misread her watch. I don’t wear a watch, see, and she wears an old-fashioned analog wristwatch so it was her job to keep track of time.

As our timekeepers get increasingly digital, it appears, we have a tendency toward being less capable of quickly interpreting analog time markers. So at 1:00, she thought her watch said noon. She caught her error five minutes before the show was scheduled to start and thanks to our ability to bustle when required and theaters’ tendency to start movies much later than scheduled, we got there with enough spare time for me to get my popcorn and for my sister to settle her smuggled-in candy on her lap before the previews started rolling.

The argument that relying on technologies makes us dumber is not a new one; Plato kinda started it by opposing writing because he believed that it would

introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have came to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

It was downhill from there, of course; and it may be that we hit bottom, at least in terms of networked technologies, with Nicholas Carr’s June/July 2008 Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

In considering the changes to his own orientation toward text (he’s less able to read lengthy articles or books; he gets fidgety when he tries to focus on one text for an extended period of time), he writes:

The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

In fact, in drafting this post I zipped along the surface of multiple different texts, from Plato’s Phaedrus to Carr’s piece on Google to Jamais Cascio’s response piece in this month’s Atlantic, “Get Smarter.” (It argues that technologies and pharmacology can help boost our intelligence.) I may not know what swims beneath the surface of any of these pieces, but I am familiar enough with all of them to use my spare cognitive energy and time to craft a blogpost that links the three. And I did it by typing (without watching the keys) at a rate of approximately 100 words per minute. I employed some basic html code, some of which I know by heart and some of which I keep on an electronic clipboard. I was able to publish it immediately, to the delight or dismay or general apathy of my intended reading public. I could (and, if you’re reading this, probably did) direct traffic to this post via Twitter, Facebook, or any number of other blogs.

God knows I could have spent the time reading Plato’s Phaedrus in its entirety, and I’m not disputing that I would have been enriched by the experience. But you can’t argue that what I did with my time instead (synthesizing, devising an argument, increasing familiarity with html basics, crafting the argument with an intended public in mind, then circulating it among that intended audience) was not an enriching experience.

Back to the jet ski metaphor: Comedian and philosopher Daniel Tosh argues that it’s impossible not to be unhappy on a jetski. “You ever seen a sad person on a waverunner? Have you? Seriously, have you?…Try to frown on a waverunner.”

Watch the clip till the end. He talks about how people smile as they hit the pier–and they hit the pier because you’re supposed to hit the gas to turn–“it goes against natural instinct,” he says. Well, maybe at first, but once you get the hang of it, I imagine you learn how to use the gas in ways that keep you from hitting the pier. It’s just that most of us hit the pier once and once is enough: we stick to dry land, which is safer but far less fun.

Okay, I’ll confess: This entire post is really just a plug for Daniel Tosh’s amazing new show, Tosh.0. It airs Thursdays at 10:00 P.M. ET (9:00 Pacific) on Comedy Central, and it may be the funniest half-hour show I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Even so, it might get canceled because of low viewership. Please just give it a try. I guarantee you’ll laugh out loud at least once or your money back.

Tosh.0 Thurs, 10pm / 9c
Motorcycle Granny
Daniel Tosh Miss Teen South Carolina Demi Moore Picture

Posted in collective intelligence, creativity, culture, distributed cognition, humor, joy, movies, television, Twitter | Leave a Comment »