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 ‘lame’ Category

short-sighted and socially destructive: Ning to cut free services

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 15, 2010

Lord knows I’m not a huge fan of Ning, the social networking tool that allows users to create and manage online networks. I find the design bulky and fairly counterintuitive, and modifying a network to meet your group’s needs is extremely challenging, and Ning has made it extremely difficult or impossible for users to control, modify, or move network content. Despite the popularity of Ning’s free, ad-supported social networks among K-16 educators, the ads that go along with the free service have tended toward the racy or age-inappropriate.

But given the Ning trifecta–it’s free, getting students signed up is fast and fairly easy, and lots of teachers are using it–I’ve been working with Ning with researchers and teachers for the last two years. So the recent news that Ning will be switching to paid-only membership is obnoxious for two reasons.

The first reason is the obvious: I don’t want to pay–and I don’t want the teachers who use Ning to have to pay, either. One of the neat things about Ning is the ability to build multiple social networks–maybe a separate one for each class, or a new one each semester, or even multiple networks for a single group of students. In the future, each network will require a monthly payment, which means that most teachers who do decide to pay will stick to a much smaller number of networks. This means they’ll probably erase content and delete members, starting fresh each time. The enormous professional development potential of having persistent networks filled with content, conversations, and student work suddenly disappears.

Which brings me to my second point: That anyone who’s currently using Ning’s free services will be forced to either pay for an upgrade or move all of their material off of Ning. This is tough for teachers who have layers upon layers of material posted on various Ning sites, and it’s incredibly problematic for any researcher who’s working with Ning’s free resources. If we decide to leave Ning for another free network, we’ll have to figure out some systematic way of capturing every single thing that currently lives on Ning, lest it disappear forever.

Ning’s decision to phase out free services amounts to a paywall, pure and simple. Instead of putting limits on information, as paywalls for news services do, this paywall puts limits on participation. In many ways, this is potentially far worse, far more disruptive and destructive, far more short-sighted than any information paywall could be.

If Ning was smart, it would think a little more creatively about payment structures. What about offering unlimited access to all members of a school district, for a set fee paid at the district level? What about offering an educator account that provides unlimited network creation for a set (and much lower) fee? What about improving the services Ning provides to make it feel like you’d be getting what you paid for?

More information on Ning’s decision to go paid-only will be released tomorrow. For now, I’m working up a list of free social networking tools for use by educators. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Update, 4/15/10, 6:48 p.m.: Never one to sit on the sidelines in the first place, Alec Couros has spearheaded a gigantic, collaborative googledoc called “Alternatives to Ning.” As of this update, the doc keeps crashing because of the number of collaborators trying to help build this thing (the last time I got into it, I was one of 303 collaborators), so if it doesn’t load right away, keep trying.

Posted in education, lame, schools, social media, teaching, technologies | Leave a Comment »

an infographic that gets up in the fast food industry’s grill

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 13, 2010

If you don’t know how disgusting fast food restaurants are, the infographic below will explain. If you do know how disgusting fast food restaurants are, the infographic below is a good reminder.

I’m interested in checking out the veracity of the information below and I’ve designed a short, anonymous survey to start this. Would you mind taking a few minutes to answer seven short questions?

Click here to take my fast food habits survey.

Everything You Need to Know About Fast Food
Via: Online Schools
(reposted at Lean Mean Roomie Machine)

Now will you take my survey? It’s short (only 7 questions) and easy. Click here to take the survey.

Posted in fast food, lame, obnoxious | 1 Comment »

devising a model for technology in education: my version of writer’s block

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 2, 2010



I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.*
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

If you (a) know me, (b) follow me on Twitter or a similar social network, or (c) read my blog, you know that being at a loss for something to say just doesn’t happen to me. (On the one hand, this makes me perfectly suited to social media, blogging, and academia; on the other hand, it means I’ll mouth off about the social revolution in nearly any social situation.)

But for weeks now, I’ve been trying to devise a model to represent the role of computational technologies in education. And for weeks, I’ve been failing miserably. Here’s the closest I’ve come:

As you can see, this model is incomplete. I was in the middle of drawing an arrow from that word “technology” to something else when I realized that this model would never, ever do. So I tried to approach modelling from other perspectives. I tried backing my way in, by thinking of technologies metaphorically; I’ve tried presenting technology integration in the form of a decision tree. Which is fine, except that these don’t really work as models.

And I have to come up with a model. I do. Though I don’t often mention this, I’m not actually only a blogger. In real life, I’m a graduate student in Indiana University’s Learning Sciences Program. Because I believe in the value of public intellectual discourse, I’ve chosen to present as much of my coursework as possible on my blog or through other public, persistent and searchable communications platforms.

I will, at some future point, discuss the challenges and benefits of living up to this decision. For now, you guys, I just need to come up with a goddam model that I can live with.

I tried thinking of technologies as sleeping policemen; or, in other words, as objects that mediate our thoughts and actions and that have both intended and unintended consequences. This was a reaction to a set of readings including a chunk of Bonnie Nardi’s and Vicki O’Day’s 1999 book, Information Ecology: Using Technology with Heart; a Burbules & Callister piece from the same year, “The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education”; and Stahl & Hesse’s 2009 piece, “Practice perspectives in CSCL.” The theme of these writings was: We need to problematize dominant narratives about the role of technologies in education. Burbules & Callister categorize these narratives as follows:

  • computer as panacea (“New technologies will solve everything!”)
  • computer as [neutral] tool (“Technologies have no purpose built into them, and can be used for good or evil!”)
  • computer as [nonneutral] tool (the authors call this “(a) slightly more sophisticated variant” on the “computer as tool perspective”)
  • balanced approach to computer technologies (neither panacea nor tool, but resources with intended and unintended social consequences)

Nardi & O’Day, who basically agree with the categories identified above, argue for the more nuanced approach that they believe emerges when we think of technologies as ecologies, a term which they explain is

intended to evoke an image of biological ecologies with their complex dynamics and diverse species and opportunistic niches for growth. Our purpose in using the ecology metaphor is to foster thought and discussion, to stimulate conversations for action…. [T]he ecology metaphor provides a distinctive, powerful set of organizing properties around which to have conversations. The ecological metaphor suggests several key properties of many environments
in which technology is used.

Which is all fine and dandy, except the argument that precedes and follows the above quote is so tainted by mistrust and despair over the effects of new technologies that it’s hard to imagine that even Nardi and O’Day themselves can believe they’ve presented a balanced analysis. Reading their description of techno-ecologies is kind of like reading a book about prairie dog ecologies prefaced by a sentence like “Jesus Christ I hate those freaking prairie dogs.”

So the description of technologies as sleeping policemen was an effort to step back and describe, with as much detachment as possible for an admitted technorevolutionary like me, the role of technologies in mediating human activity.

But the metaphor doesn’t really have much by way of practical use. What am I going to do, take that model into the classroom and say, well, here’s why your kids aren’t using blogs–as you can see (::points to picture of speed bump::), kids are just driving around the speed bump instead of slowing down….?

This became clear as I jumped into a consideration of so-called “intelligent tutors,” which I described briefly in a previous post. Or, well, the speed bump metaphor might work, but only if we can come up with some agreed-upon end point and also set agreed-upon rules like speed limits and driving routes. But the problem is that even though we might think we all agree on the goals of education, there’s actually tons of discord, both spoken and unspoken. We can’t even all agree that what’s sitting in the middle of that road is actually a speedbump and not, for example, a stop sign. Or a launch ramp.

The Cognitive Tutors described by Kenneth Koedinger and Albert Corbett are a nice example of this. Researchers who embrace these types of learning tools see them as gateways to content mastery. But if you believe, as I do, that the content students are required to master is too often slanted in favor of members of dominant groups and against the typically underprivileged, underserved, and underheard members of our society, then Cognitive Tutors start to look less like gateways and more like gatekeepers. Even the tutoring tools that lead to demonstrable gains on standard assessments, well…ya gotta believe in the tests in order to believe in the gains, right?

So I’m back to this:

A “model,” explains Wikipedia,

is a simplified abstract view of the complex reality. A scientific model represents empirical objects, phenomena, and physical processes in a logical way. Attempts to formalize the principles of the empirical sciences, use an interpretation to model reality, in the same way logicians axiomatize the principles of logic. The aim of these attempts is to construct a formal system for which reality is the only interpretation. The world is an interpretation (or model) of these sciences, only insofar as these sciences are true….

Modelling refers to the process of generating a model as a conceptual representation of some phenomenon. Typically a model will refer only to some aspects of the phenomenon in question, and two models of the same phenomenon may be essentially different, that is in which the difference is more than just a simple renaming. This may be due to differing requirements of the model’s end users or to conceptual or aesthetic differences by the modellers and decisions made during the modelling process. Aesthetic considerations that may influence the structure of a model might be the modeller’s preference for a reduced ontology, preferences regarding probabilistic models vis-a-vis deterministic ones, discrete vs continuous time etc. For this reason users of a model need to understand the model’s original purpose and the assumptions of its validity.

I’m back at the original, simple, incomplete model because I’m not ready to stand in defense of any truth claims that a more complete model might make. Even this incomplete version, though, helps me to start articulating the characteristics of any model representing the role of computational technologies in education. I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

Ok, so what do you think?

*Note: I’m kinda rethinking this one. It reads a little too deterministic to me now, a mere hour or so after I wrote it.

Posted in academia, education, graduate school, lame, obnoxious, patent pending, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, teaching, technologies | Leave a Comment »

on ageism, sexism, and bad behavior: what we can learn from Dave Winer

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 11, 2010

Over at scripting.com, ageism is becoming an issue for Dave Winer.

Here’s how it went down, in Winer’s own words:

Earlier today I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR and heard an interview with Keli Goff from the Huffington Post. The interview started with an explanation that linked Reid’s embarassing words (about Obama’s race) to his age. She went out on a limb, way too far, although later in the interview she walked it back a bit.

This led to an afternoon of heated exchanges on Twitter. Lots of nasty stuff was said about people of my age, most of them untrue. What troubles me is that there is no general acceptance for insults based on race, religion or gender, but age-based insults have no taboo.

Dave Winer got attacked on Twitter today, no doubt about it. But what Winer doesn’t point out here is that he gave as good as he got: He came out absolutely swinging, excoriating Groff and smacking back at anyone who disagreed with him, insulted him, or–and you can imagine the temptation was just too great for some of Winer’s followers–notified him that he’s too old to know what he’s talking about. Here’s a clip of Winer’s twitter feed:

More than one person responded to Winer with some version of this:

I have to admit, it’s kinda tough to disagree with @miniver.

Before I go on, I want to cop to my own bad behavior with respect to ageism: In the past, and on this very blog, I have offered up Rupert Murdoch as “further proof of why old people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates.” That was blatant ageism, pure and simple, and it was wrong, and it’s not okay, even when used as a rhetorical device. (In retrospect, I should have offered up Rupert Murdoch as further proof of why hopelessly avaricious people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates.) I am sorry. I promise to try harder from here on out to avoid such wrong-headed attitudes and discriminatory language.

Now then.

In some ways, ageism is similar to sexism in that it’s brutally apparent to those who are the victims of it, even if others (non-victims) don’t see how a person might take offense. (I imagine, but don’t know for sure, that the same comparison could be made to other forms of prejudice–I’m just sticking with what I know best here and leaving the rest to others who know better than I.) People who react with anger to sexism, as to ageism, are treated like they just have their panties on a little too tight. “It’s just a fact that women are better at raising children.” “It’s just a fact that older people don’t understand the digital revolution.” Both disempower the target. Both are destabilizing. And both are treated as socially acceptable in lots of situations where everyone should know better. (By the way, here’s the mp3 of the Talk of the Nation conversation–Winer’s right to take issue with what’s clearly blatant ageism.)

Oh, but while I’m at it, I should also mention that women are exposed to sexism throughout their lives, so they’re used to it and develop strategies for coping with it as it happens and afterward. But ageism is perhaps as startling and frustrating as it is for the simple reason that its victims are experiencing a prejudice that’s entirely new to them. Of course, women who are the targets of ageism get hit with the double-disempowerment that comes with not only being female but being an old (read: asexual and therefore irrelevant) female. I can’t imagine how the prejudice gets compounded when the target of ageism is nonwhite, nonstraight, or otherwise out of the mainstream.

Winer self-identifies as white and he’s presumably straight (though a significant web presence has insinuated that he is, among other things, gay–about which more in a second), which perhaps explains his extreme outrage at the ageism directed straight at him today. (I agree with Anil Dash, who offered Winer this advice via Twitter:

@davewiner The way you are saying what you’re saying is undoing the argument you’re trying to make. Take a deep breath, come back in a bit.)

If you’ve rarely, or never, experienced the prick of arbitrary bigotry, then the first prick stings perhaps all the more deeply, scalds all the more powerfully. I still remember my first encounter with sexism, when my fourth grade teacher told me I couldn’t climb the playground swingsets to unwind the swings because I was a girl. It never gets less galling. It’s just that we do our best to get better at responding, in word and in deed. The fourth grade me, surprised, gave in and went inside. The 32-year-old me, by contrast, might climb the swingset anyway, in direct defiance of her teacher. (The 32-year-old me may, incidentally, actually be worse at getting what she wants.)

There’s a side note to this story, an interesting one: Dave Winer apparently carries a reputation for bad behavior in online communities. I didn’t know this until this evening, when I started researching Winer’s backstory for this post. I started following him on Twitter because of his status as a pioneer in weblogging, and until today knew next to nothing else about him. But here’s a sample of what I learned about how Winer responds to criticism:

  • Software developer and writer Mark Pilgrim decries Winer’s propensity for personal attacks against those who criticize his work (here’s What’s your Winer number? an algorithm for determining how your experience of Winer’s verbal abuse compares to the experiences of the hordes of others who have fallen victim to it, and here’s a post where Pilgrim makes public Winer’s response to the Winer number post–take a look at Winer’s comments below the post).
  • Here’s Matthew Ingram on Winer’s response to public criticism of a post Winer wrote called “Why Facebook Sucks.” When Stowe Boyd disagreed with Winer’s post, Ingram writes, Winer apparently called Boyd “a creep” and “an idiot.”
  • Here’s Jason Calacanis, who names Winer as a friend but still offers his experience of “getting Winered” during a public presentation.

The list goes on. The ridiculous “gay” insinuation–well, that sort of bad behavior is what people resort to when they feel people in positions of power are acting in violation of the public trust–when they see arrogance, pettiness and rudeness from someone who has no reason to act so poorly.

There are at least two lessons to draw from the Winer / ageism story: First, that the worn grooves of prejudice and discrimination are so, so easy for humans, flawed as we are, to fall into, and that it is our responsibility to guard against taking that easy path; and second, that bad behavior in communities of practice is still not okay, no matter who you are. The difference these days, of course, is that reputation not only precedes you but follows behind you like a little yipping terrier. It’s getting harder and harder to walk into a room you’ve never entered without everyone noticing the constant bark of that little dog.

Posted in bigotry, celebrity, feminism, gender politics, lame, politics, racism | 3 Comments »

the sleeping alone review of films: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 4, 2010

Originally posted at <a href="http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com/2010/01/sleeping-alone-review-of-films-curious.html&quot; target="_blank"http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

summary: Just cut out the middle man and watch Forrest Gump instead.

It’s a strange but true fact that I’m far more likely to post a review of a film I didn’t like than I am to post one of a film I enjoyed. There are, she protests, lots of reasons for this, but that’s a blogpost for another day. Right now I just want to tell you why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is such a bad, bad movie.

I finally climbed aboard the Benjamin Button bandwagon in the dead week between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Since I’m not all that into wistful, you-can-do-it love stories, I was mainly motivated by a desire to see how the filmmakers dealt with the movie’s main conceit: A protagonist who ages backward, Mearth-style.

To the film’s credit, it refuses to shy away from the most potentially ridiculous aspects of this conceit. It’s as brazen in pointing an old-man-baby at the camera as it is in presenting, near the end of the film, a literally baby-faced old man. It does appear that we’re getting better at artificially aging people, too: Benjamin, played with consistent age-appropriate physicality by Brad Pitt, never once looks like a young, handsome man coated in plastic, which is what we’ve come to expect from any prematurely aged actors after decades of bad special effects. When the 20-something (but 60-ish-looking) Benjamin has an affair with a 40-something woman, he is depicted pitch-perfectly as a thin-haired, disheveled and declining man whose smile belies a boyish inner youth. The affair, and those that follow with comparatively younger women, seem to flow naturally from the radiance, youth, and energy that shine from Benjamin’s eyes and smile, if not his skin.

If you set aside the special effects, though, there isn’t much left. The plot is assembled around so many layers of unnecessary meta-story that the resulting mass of MacGuffins end up feeling like a combination of pointless distractions and the unfortunate side effects of a poorly adapted novel. There’s an ancient lady dying in a hospital as a major hurricane threatens its landfall. There’s the woman’s prodigal daughter, who has apparently returned home at the last minute to say her goodbyes. There’s a blind clockmaker, white, who marries a black Creole woman and whose only son is killed in a far-off war, and who therefore decides to build a clock that runs backward. He gives a short speech about wanting to turn time backwards, then he disappears, god knows why. There’s the black woman who raises Benjamin as her son, and who spends her entire working life employed at a retirement home, god knows why. And there’s a diary, penned by Benjamin Button, which is introduced as his Last Will and Testament. God knows why.

Now: organize all of the above details in order of novelty and interest, then cross off all but the two or three most boring and clichéd and you end up with the only details that actually end up mattering. Then, on top of the hot mess that presents itself as plot, there’s a lengthy and confusing mini-story wherein Benjamin travels by tugboat to Russia, meets a British woman whose husband is a spy, kind of falls in love with the woman and, it appears, carries on a kind of tepid affair of indeterminate length that ends for a vague set of reasons. The sole purpose of this entire intermission appears to be to shoehorn Tilda Swinton into the cast. Which, fair enough. But as my mom put it, It’s…kind of a long movie as it is.

So there you have it: Cool-ish special effects; confusing, slow, overcomplicated and irritatingly intricate plot. Add one more negative: In this film, people are treated as nameless diversions, as things that happen to people to advance the story. Early in the movie, an elderly resident of the old people’s home tells Benjamin “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?”

Not only is the quote itself inane–love is deepened and refined by the inevitability of loss, but saying we’re meant to lose people so we may know how much we love them is putting the cart miles before the horse–but the movie doesn’t even care to try to bear this limp aphorism out. Characters come and go, flowing through Benjamin’s life like a river, and it’s never clear that the loss of any one of them is any more painful to him than the loss of any other. In fact, Benjamin seems to actively avoid developing deep relationships with people, and at a crucial moment he even walks away from someone he loves instead of having to deal with loss. Indeed, Benjamin himself muses that “It’s funny how sometimes the people we remember the least make the greatest impression on us.” In what universe could that even be possible?

This is a movie that wants it both ways: It wants us to believe that our lives are characterized by the people we love deeply, and it wants us to believe that our lives are characterized by how they are shaped by the people who flow across our paths like buffeting wind–all of them different and finally the same, not a one distinct from any other.

In the end, though, Benjamin Button‘s biggest crime is that it tries too hard to be Forrest Gump. But Gump did it better: neater special effects, tighter plot, better character development. And lest Forrest be accused of treating people like nameless diversions, I offer the following: Forrest’s excuse was his IQ. And besides, no matter how Forrest thought of the people who flowed through his life, there was always, for him, Jenny. We love Forrest, we root for him, because he loves Jenny, he pines for Jenny, he comes up with ways to pass the time until he can see Jenny again. Benjamin has Daisy, who this film would very much like to convince us is the deep and lasting, abiding love of his life. But at the risk of spoiling the movie, she’s really not. She’s another diversion, another way to pass the time, another thing that happens to Benjamin. We’re supposed to believe that Benjamin is the hero of the story, but in fact Daisy proves herself to be strong, resilient, flawed but kind. In other words, she’s complex and layered, like all good movie heroes should be. Benjamin is flat and shiny, kind of like…a button, I suppose.

Daisy might very well be more of a hero than Jenny, but Benjamin is no Forrest. And this film, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, is not Oscar material.

Posted in lame, movies | Leave a Comment »

why I don’t return your phone calls

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on December 19, 2009

First off, I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but it’s not personal: I don’t return anybody‘s phone calls.

I hate talking on the phone. Hate it. Hate it. I like you tons, and I wish we lived closer so I could see you more often. And even though I know that my unwillingness to answer the phone when you call or to return your phone calls in any reasonable space of time is a constant strain on our relationship, I can’t make myself get any better at it.

Please understand that it’s not personal: I don’t answer anybody’s phone calls. I don’t return anybody’s calls in a reasonable space of time.

Teh social phobia: I haz it.

I’ve worked hard on tackling my anxieties, and I like to think I’ve done fairly well for myself in this respect. If you’ve wondered why I’m so obsessed with social media technologies, part of the answer is that I’ve used them to cobble together a series of workarounds: I’ve developed strategies for engaging in the types of conversations I like to have while avoiding the tools and encounters that cause me the most anxiety. Among which the phone conversation is numero uno.

It was bad enough when you had a land line, and I had a land line, and everybody had a land line. But then we all got cellphones, and every aspect of voice communication got that much harder for poor little rich girls like me. I can’t tell when I’m interrupting you. I can’t hear or rely upon the subtle cues: variation in the tone of your voice, pauses, or breath. The social connection, so essential and so difficult for someone like me to establish in the first place, becomes even more elusive.

There are new technologies whose designs make remote social connections easier to establish (cf. Skype, Google Video). I hope that some day these technologies will become the norm for all of us, overtaking the cellphone (my guardian, my executioner.) I also harbor a secret hope that if cellphones really are here to stay, I’ll eventually cultivate the type of persona that makes people say, Oh, well, that’s just Jenna–brilliant but eccentric. She refuses to talk on the phone! So we use other technologies to communicate with her. (It hasn’t happened yet, but here’s hoping for success in the new decade.) Until then, I hope you can understand that I love you but hate the technology.

Oh, and I sent you a package. It should arrive in the next day or two. You can text or email or tweet me when you get it.

Posted in lame, social media | 5 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 »

tattooed academics signal the decline of western civilization!

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 14, 2009

file under: time for the old guard to die out

I am alarmed by the elitism exhibited in a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on scholars, tattoos, and piercings. The article, “The Candidate and His Earring” by Dennis M. Barden, frets over the future of academia–not because of a decline in access to or quality of post-graduate education, but because kids these days are getting their ears pierced.

Barden tells the story of a presidential search in which he participated. He writes:

I had interviewed a terrific candidate via videoconference and touted him to the search committee—successfully, as it turned out, because they agreed to interview him in person. That conversation went exceptionally well. The candidate truly was outstanding in comportment and credentials, and he was recognized as such by the search committee.

I, on the other hand, was taken aback. The institution I was serving had a reputation for being a fairly conservative place—Midwestern, faith-based, dedicated to its traditions. As soon as the candidate left the room, I stood to address the search committee with what might only be described as a frightening combination of bemusement and real concern. “I want you all to know that on video I could not see the earring!” Happily, the room erupted in laughter. My candidate had the tiniest little diamond stud in his ear. I truly hadn’t noticed it at all until he sat down next to me; some committee members at the other end of the table couldn’t even see it. It was there, though, and it was discussed.

The candidate was hired, Barden tells us, and “the earring is no longer an issue now that my onetime candidate is well ensconced in that presidency.”

What’s alarming about this story is that the earring was ever an issue in the first place. Barden also frets over tattoos (far more damaging, he suggests, to one’s career than the less ‘permanent’ earring) and The Decline of Proper English as evidenced by young people’s fluency with text messaging language and slang. “Never before,” Barden writes,

have we been so bombarded by images and sounds, so instant, so clear, so pervasive, so permanent. People can change their words, but some of their personal expressions are there forever. Tattoos are only one example; pictures on social-networking sites are even more pernicious, potentially.

Twenty years from now, will search committees be deciding how seriously to take that picture from the ’10s with the then-underage presidential candidate brandishing a joint and displaying his posterior to the admiring throng? Or will there be so much of that out there that it is just expected? And how will that presidential candidate be conducting himself on the day that decision is made? Will he be speaking anything that we recognize today as standard English?

Barden is not, thank god, an academic. His online profile explains that he spent 20 years in academic administration before joining Witt/Kieffer, “an executive-search firm that specializes in searches for academic and administrative leaders in academe, health care, and nonprofit organizations.” While he cannot be forgiven for this outdated and prejudiced take on the role of personal appearance on academic hiring decisions, he can be largely dismissed.

And that’s exactly what anybody who cares about gathering up the best scholarly minds in any field should do. The notion that “respectable” academics should be free of adornments like tattoos and excess piercings (presumably he thinks ear piercings for women is just fine, though he worries when his daughter pierces her nose) is an outdated relic of the days when intellectual prowess was assumed to be the exclusive province of the middle and upper class.

We can look at the cultural history of tattoos as one nice example. Because of tattoos’ association with tribal rites, Christianity had to smoosh down tattooing practices along with pagan religious practices in order to complete their conquest of non-Christian peoples. When tattoos made their comeback in America, they were filtered ‘up’ through working class or minority groups. Tattoos, associated with convicts, bikers, and gang members, were increasingly embraced by middle and upper class adolescents and young adults as forms of rebellion against the values of their home communities. Increasingly, tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body adornment have been accepted as legitimate forms of personal expression.

But a significant subset of the population continues to adhere to the notion that the increasing popularity of tattoos and piercings signal the Decline of Civilization As We Know It. They’re quick to link tattoos to broken English–evidenced in Barden’s concern that in future decades candidates may speak in something we no longer recognize as “standard English.”

A couple-three things about this attitude:

1. The anti-body adornment stance is an attempt at gatekeeping. Academia has historically been very good at ensuring its survival as an institution populated by richwhiteguys and scholars who embrace the richwhiteguy ethos. Rejecting a qualified candidate because her appearance sets her apart from this ethos is loathsome at best and, at worst, a direct violation of anti-discrimination policies.

2. Lots of powerful academics have tattoos and / or piercings. At least two male faculty members in my program (Learning Sciences @ Indiana University) bear the mark of a formerly pierced ear, and here’s Sasha Barab, who comes complete with no less than two pierced ears:

At least one of these guys also has a tattoo. Also:

Need I go on? Because I could. But instead, I guess I’ll move on to point 3:

3. I’m getting a tattoo. On my wrist. Where Barden and the entire world–including faculty hiring committees–will be able to see it. I decided on the tattoo, and the location, months ago, and now I’m just working on gathering up the money and the courage to get it done. And here’s the thing: Any school that would reject me based on body adornment is a school I wouldn’t want to affiliate myself with anyway.

Besides, with any luck, the Dennis Bardens of the world are on their way out of positions of authority. It’s time we replaced them with people who can see clearly the underlying power structures whose existence depends on making value judgments based on physical appearance, and whose power relies on excluding people who might challenge the very existence of those underlying structures.

Posted in bigotry, culture, lame | 10 Comments »