Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Finding my place

I was the fourth generation of my mother's family to grow up on the same block in suburban Long Beach--and by "suburban" I don't mean tract homes, but rather an aggregation of abodes that I see now actually make up quite a charming and impressive neighborhood built on a traditional grid in the 1920s. We lived only a few blocks from the ocean, but the city's beaches, while indeed long, were not particularly noteworthy because the city had decades before built a jetty to serve as a breakwater. This chased the surfers, including my grandfather, down to beaches in Orange County. The city allowed the construction of palm-studded oil islands within the breakwater, and the Los Angeles river flushed--an apt verb, I assure you--into the harbor, ensuring that the beach's water quality merited an "F" grade after every storm.

It was, in short, far from my ideal place in which to grow up. By the time I made it to high school--in a magnet program in the "inner city," at Snoop Dogg's alma mater--I was tired of the schools' big iron gates, the razor wire atop the fences, the way the school buildings, thanks to the Field Act, Proposition 13, rising crime, and many years of Republican gubernatorial "leadership" that starved the schools of funds, were from the outside virtually indistinguishable from prisons.

I've told this story before. But what I haven't said is this: Growing up, I loved anyplace but where I was. And so I launched myself across the country, to a land of rolling green hills and brick buildings and deciduous trees, only to find I didn't find small-town Virginia any more interesting or less dangerous than urban Southern California.

By the time I ended up in Iowa in 1994, in my third college in three semesters in as many states, my parents had issued me an ultimatum: Make it work or move back home. Through writing poetry, through learning the history of a place, on long walks and by paying attention to the details of the sharp border where Iowa suburbs met monocultured farmland, I learned to love a place that was not, honestly, an easy place to love. The college, yes--the town and the state, not so much. There was too much sky, for one thing. And an awful lot of corn, soy, and alfalfa. Or empty, frozen, stubbled fields.

When I moved to the Sacramento Valley, in 1997 and again in 2001--with another sojourn in Iowa in between--I had already learned the lessons in loving the land. I was enrolled in a creative writing program, and in the class were people who wrote beautifully and passionately about place, including one woman who found beauty in the heat and star thistles and the raspy calls of scrub jays.

I learned, grudgingly, to tolerate the dust and heat, to find some charm in the lane of gnarled olive trees whose trunks shelter swarms of bees, the dust that coats everything, the odd grafting of English walnut onto black walnut trunks, the llamas and peacocks and zorses and camels that turned up on the patchwork of tiny ranches.

But I always thought I'd leave eventually. And I've been trying, desperately, to find a cooler, less dusty, more coastal--and yet more affordable--place to settle, but I keep getting pulled back into California, into this valley. I'm wondering if it's time to put down more than shallow roots here, to irrigate deeply, to learn to really love this place where I've now spent a decade, to accept it as home. The clock is ticking, as Lucas starts school within the next couple of years, and I don't want to move him around much after he begins to make friends.

I also have a good number of colleagues who I suspect will become lifelong friends if I let them--a rare thing, I think, in a town that is host to a second-tier university that many people see as being a place they pass through on the way to someplace more hospitable.

But oh, the rocky coast, the beaches, the coastal oaks, all the landscapes about which Robinson Jeffers wrote. . . Pelicans, seagulls, sandpipers, otters, sea lions, tidepools, sea hares, starfish! How much I want to inhale the briny breezes.

It's hard to always long for grass that is literally greener, but to find myself in this dry, brittle place that is, surprisingly, so very fertile in so many other ways. I have decisions to make, and soon. I want to settle without being settled.

What about you? Have you found your place? How did you recognize it as such?

Photo credits: Long Beach harbor, scrub jay, star thistle, strawberries for sale

Monday, June 29, 2009

On compassion and conflicting allegiances

In the end, I decided to tell the florist just that I needed two sympathy bouquets.

Had I been more specific, I would have declared, “I want one bouquet that says ‘Sorry your son just got convicted of sexual assault on a minor’ and another that says ‘Sorry your cousin just put your employer’s son in prison for life, when the employer thinks he’s innocent.’”

Yeah, it was that kind of day.

. . .

On Saturday afternoon, we returned home to find an answering machine message alerting us to news concerning a woman with whom with have a business relationship built on tremendous respect and trust; let's call her Deevyah. The voice on the machine--one of Deevyah's daughters-in-law--told us that one of Deevyah's sons--let's call him Niraj--had just been convicted of sexual assault, that there would be an article coming out in the paper the next day, that the details would be gory, and that the family believes Niraj to be innocent of all charges.

I immediately ran to the computer and searched for news of sexual assault cases in the region. Bingo: a local paper had published verbatim the district attorney's press release about the case. The details were gory: Niraj had been convicted of more than 75 felony counts, a combination of sexual assault of a minor, rape, and dissuading a witness--all against his adopted daughter, a distant relative that his American-born wife had sponsored as a visitor to the U.S.

Let me pause here to say that Deevyah is one of the most compassionate and open-hearted people I have ever met. So reading this news was heartbreaking--I knew it would be very, very hard on Deevyah.

We stopped by Deevyah's this morning, as we usually do, and chatted with "Sarah," her white American daughter-in-law (who was until recently married to one of Deevyah's other sons) who had come into town to talk with Deevyah's customers on behalf of the family. Deevyah wandered out, looking as if she had been hit by a truck and not wanting to talk with anyone. Apparently her husband hadn't spoken with anyone since last Thursday, when the verdict was announced and Niraj was taken into custody (he had been out on bail for the few years it took the case to come to trial). It was a huge shock for the family, which had been planning to celebrate a "not guilty" verdict with a big feast.

Complicating factors:

1) The young woman, now age 26, who accused Niraj of assault is a cousin of Priya, Deevyah's assistant manager.

2) Priya doesn't believe her cousin's accusations. Priya is in a bind, caught between her allegiances to her employer Deevyah, to whom she is distantly related, and her family. But her loyalty is clearly to Deevyah and Niraj. She, too, was a zombie this morning, expressing her opinion that her cousin had brought deep shame to Deevyah's family here and in their native country.

3) Some of the evidence, most notably a recorded phone call between Niraj and his adopted daughter, was partly in Niraj's and the daughter's native tongue. Apparently this call was where Niraj implicated himself. Only one translation of this call was entered into evidence, and Deevyah's family believes the call was poorly translated, leaving open, for example, whether Niraj was saying things like "you f**cked me after age 18" or "you've screwed me over since you turned 18."

4) Regardless of what happened between Niraj and her, the daughter has gone through hell, too. Apparently at one time she went back to her home country, where she was detained (imprisoned?) for two years because one of Niraj's relatives contested the truthfulness of some information on her passport. So that sucks.

5) The daughter was the first girl in the family to be brought to the U.S. via such sponsorship--traditionally boys were the favored sex. This could indicate that Niraj and his wife are progressive, that he's a predator, or neither of these.

6) Niraj wanted his daughter to adhere to all the virtues expected of women in their native country, and particularly he wanted her to preserve her virginity. Alas, he enrolled her at an American high school and college. She was raised in a village without running water, in extreme poverty, so she very much appreciated all the freedom and resources available to her in the U.S., and apparently she took advantage of these opportunities, for good and ill.

7) According to the family, the accusations started when the daughter was nearly flunking out of college, at which point Niraj pulled his funding of her education and said she needed to return to her native country.

8) Police found child pornography on Niraj's computer.

* * *

Do you see where I'm conflicted? The feminist (and pragmatist) in me naturally wants to side with the accusing woman. The part of me who sees Deevyah as a trusted adviser wants desperately to believe Deevyah's family's faith in Niraj isn't misplaced. I've never met Niraj, but I will say his 15-month-old son is adorable, and the family tells me his wife is pregnant.

The cultural studies Ph.D. in me (the one with a designated emphasis in feminist theory) wants to hole up in the courthouse archives, dissecting the evidence in light of cultural and gendered mores and cross-cultural misunderstandings.

* * *

I met a friend for lunch in one of the five Thai restaurants in our modest downtown. The heat on our walk was nearing unbearable, but I barely noticed it as we walked from campus to the edge of downtown, ensconced as I was in sharing all the details I had gleaned from the newspaper web site, Priya, Deevyah, Sarah, and the comments online from jurors who had served in the case as well as from Niraj's defenders.

My friend had just come from teaching her women's studies course, in which they had been discussing the interplay of patriarchy, cultural difference, misogyny, victimhood, and justice. Clearly the young woman's story follows a classic narrative of a naïve young immigrant woman preyed upon once she arrives in the U.S., and we discussed the plausibility, nay likelihood, of this scenario. In part because she's my friend and wanted to make me feel OK with my confusion, and in part because she was genuinely confused as well, she admitted she was flummoxed, not only in terms of which evidence seemed most convincing or damning, but also in terms of what disciplinary, theoretical, and cultural filters might help us best understand what the hell is going on.

* * *

In the afternoon, I dropped by Deevyah's again with two bouquets of flowers, one for her and one for Priya, along with cards saying I hope they find peace in this difficult time--and included an additional reminder that Priya shouldn't be too hard on herself just because she's related to the accuser/victim.

Priya thanked me for the bouquet and wandered into the back of the shop to retrieve Deevyah, who gingerly stepped out into the light, looking as if she had aged 15 years over the weekend. She could barely speak, but she said--half asking me, half telling me--that she wanted to offer the flowers up to the gods. (Deevyah, who is Hindu, knows that I'm not a believer, but is always inviting me--which I understand is a big honor--to meet her spiritual leader when she hosts him in her home twice a year. The most recent invitation came on Wednesday, the day before the verdict was read. With hindsight, I wish I had been able to attend this time.)

I said of course she should offer them to the gods.

My prayers, or rather the deep, troubling thoughts that pass for prayers, are with Deevyah and her family tonight.

Photo credit: White lotus flower by Matthias Ott, used under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sturm und Drang

This had to be one of the crappier days of the year. I don't have much energy to blog now, but here's the news from today and the past week:

- I didn't get the job heading the new museum learning institute in San Diego. I found this out within 24 hours of interviewing, which is nice in some ways, but it would be nice to have run with the delusion for a while that my interview went better than that. That said, I did make the final four of 160 applicants. I'm trying to focus on that.

- Mr. Trillwing needs spinal surgery eventually. We're trying to stave it off for as long as possible, but he has the spine of a much, much older man. We're talking arthritis, degeneration, some nasty scoliosis. We saw the x-rays and MRI today, and it was a pretty depressing experience. Mr. Trillwing is worried he'll never be able to be a full father to Lucas because he's won't be as physically active with Lucas as he'd like to be. There is some good news, though: if he exercises more, Mr. Trillwing will possibly reduce the pain and help push a series of cascading spinal surgeries as far into the future as we can.

- The beloved, much respected, and wise director of our teaching center retires in less than a week. He's been a fabulous ally and mentor, and we're all going to miss him. Today we met with the person who will direct the center for the next three years, too, which reminded us that the current director's departure is imminent. It doesn't matter who the next director is--at this point I'd be depressed even if Parker Palmer himself walked into the room as our new supervisor.

- Along with all staff making more than $46,000/year at my institution, I'm taking an 8 percent pay cut, plus furlough days, starting August 1. (Staff under $46,000 will take a 4 percent cut. I know someone who makes about $46,500, which really sucks.) We'll also need to contribute an additional 2 percent to our retirement accounts--which the university had been generously paying for us for several years. So I'll be taking home a check that is 10 percent smaller than usual for at least the next year.

So, it's going to be a frustrating summer here. I need to do some more reflecting to figure out where to go from here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

While the cat's away. . .

This is what happens when I leave my boys home alone:

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Academic freedom endangered again

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Members of the University of California, Davis Academic Senate (mostly tenured and tenure-track faculty) recently received an e-mail that contained this warning:

According to recent court rulings, your speech and behavior in job-related duties as a public employee rather than a private citizen have no First Amendment protection. This means that disciplinary action may be taken against you (including dismissal) for statements you make in the course of your employment. Any activity performed on the job falls within this purview. [... W]e recommend that you expect that your speech and behavior outside of your field of scholarship is absolutely not protected by the First Amendment.

Further, university policies on academic freedom only protect speech and behavior in your area of demonstrated academic scholarship. Do not expect that university policies give you a right to speak and act freely in your job duties on campus outside of your scholarship. [...] Our employment culture at UC Davis has been supportive of transparency and freedom, but it may not be a right.

Full disclosure: I'm a (staff, not faculty) employee of UC Davis, but I would be writing about this issue even if I weren't. In addition, let me make clear to any UC or UC Davis administrators out there: I'm not writing this as part of my duties as an employee at UC Davis--an important caveat in the context of this article.

For fascinating background on the court cases that led to the UC Davis memo, definitely check out Michael Bérubé's post at Crooked Timber and UC Davis Professor Eric Rauchway's post at The Edge of the American West, as well as the large number of comments at each post. Both posts offer a legal history memo, tracing its contents back to two cases: Garcetti v. Ceballos and Hong v.Grant. You can read a quick round-up of the issues from Marc Bousquet, but I highly recommend the Bérubé and Rauchway posts. Really, they're required reading on the subject.

Here's my question as an occasional lecturer at UC Davis and an adjunct professor elsewhere: If faculty have neither First Amendment nor academic freedom protections outside their areas of "demonstrated academic scholarship," how do we draw the borders of that scholarship? For example, I consider myself a scholar within the very broad (inter)disciplines of American studies and museum studies. But my peer-reviewed publishing has been limited to the history of women in American institutions of natural history, as well as a couple of academic book reviews. If dissertating or publishing are to be used as demonstrations of scholarship--and those traditionally are the ways academia has defined someone's areas of research--then my teaching largely falls outside my areas of demonstrated scholarship. Which means I have neither First Amendment rights nor academic freedom in my classroom--even though American universities are supposed to be preserves of intellectual thought, and even though I live in one of the more left-leaning states in the country. How does one teach undergraduate and graduate students if expressing evenly mildly controversial opinions becomes a threat to employment?

As is too often the case, I found it difficult to locate women bloggers commenting on this issue of academic freedom in the university context, and particularly as it relates to Hong or Garcetti. That said, the women who are writing about it are saying really interesting and important things.

Helen Norton at First Amendment Law Prof Blog points us to an article (PDF) by Judith Areen on "the interests that justify constitutional protection for academic speech, addressing faculty speech on governance issues as well as speech related to research and teaching." Areen argues that the scope of academic freedom should extend beyond a faculty member's narrow band of scholarly production. Here's an excerpt from her article:

[C]ontrary to common understanding, academic
freedom is about much more than faculty speech—more than simply the university professor’s analog to the citizen’s right of free speech. Rather, academic freedom is central to the functioning and governance of colleges and universities. Louis Menand recognized this broader role when he called academic freedom a “key legitimating
concept” of academic life, one that explains a wide array of issues from why departments have the authority to hire and fire their own members to why the football coach is not allowed to influence the quarterback’s grade in a course. Academic freedom, properly understood, has what I will call a “governance dimension.” It is not only about faculty research and teaching; it is also about the freedom of faculties to govern their institutions in a way that accords with academic values whether they are approving the curriculum, hiring faculty, or establishing graduation requirements for students.

Katharine Mangan writes at The Chronicle of Higher Education about how one administrator losing her court case as a whistleblower "could have a chilling effect on free speech and make it harder for university lawyers and officials to do their jobs."

Back in 2006, LizardBreath of Unfogged provided a dissection of Garcetti. Looking at the Supreme Court decision, she concludes,

Souter contemplates that speech by government employees in the course of their duties should only be protected only insofar as it meets a high standard of responsibility and consists of "comment on official dishonesty, deliberately unconstitutional action, other serious wrongdoing, or threats to health and safety"; Breyer believes that even that standard would unworkably deprive state employers of control over their employees, and suggests that the First Amendment should protect such speech only where "professional and special constitutional obligations are both present". Either of those standards, still, either: (1) ends up protecting employees whose duties consist of speech from management action even where they are wrong or incompetent in what they have said, which seems absurd, or (2) ends up extending First Amendment protection to speech only when a court considers the speech correct or valuable, substituting the court's opinion on how to perform the employee's duties for the employer's, which seems, likewise, absurd.

I'd love to be talked out of this position -- I'm uncomfortable with the company I'm keeping.

Be sure to check out the comments on her post for some interesting opinions.

At Socialist Worker, Dana Cloud considers several cases of faculty whose academic freedom was challenged by conservative activists. She explains the activists' motivations:

From the 1964 free speech movement to today's anti-occupation organizations, campuses have always been places where struggles for justice break out. This potential might explain why, losing ground in politics and the economy, the right seeks to maintain its grip on outspoken faculty and students.

For breaking news on constraints placed on academic freedom, check out the blog of the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB. For a more in-depth examination of the issues, view the videos or listen to the audio from the In Defense of Academic Freedom conference held at the University of Chicago in 2007.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Liveblogging another New Media Conference session: Five Minutes of Fame

Again, I'm liveblogging. What follows are summaries of rapid-fire, 5-minute-long presentations on projects. Reflection to follow.

Note: The featured bloggers have a giant podium blocking the screen, so these are going to be harder to evaluate/comment on.

Browyn Stuckey, Building a Community Out of Online Professional Development

Quest Atlantis. Mashup for Quest Atlantis Teacher Community. It's a virtual world environment with a game structure for curriculum delivery. Built on the ActiveWorlds platform. It's now approaching 600 quests and 100 different missions that children accomplish as part of the game structure. (Note: I'm not a gamer, so I'm not sure what that means. . .) A socially responsible game: emphasizes learning, playing, and helping. Involves face-to-face and online teacher training and professional development. Emphasizes ideas of embodied cognition. Teacher professional development occurs both through facilitated sessions and through missions in the virtual world. A mashup of events, activities, and sources across many platforms to meet teachers where they already live online--e.g. Facebook, Slideshare, YouTube.

Jackie Gerstein, Creative Web Tools For and By Kids

Creative Web Tools wikis. Students take on the role of stewardship of their own experiences. Students created animated introductions with their own voices to preview their own projects. Students pick their topics and get a wiki page. They use Doppel Me, Moblyng slide shows, Wordle. Students set their own learning goals, evaluate the tools' utility for other students. Free tools: Image Chef, Tux Paint and Doink, Wordle, Newspaper Generator, Animoto, PicLits, Tikatok Books, Dipity Timeline. Students like to create polls and tests using MyStudiyo.

Virginia Kuhn, Documentary is the New Black: Filmic Textbooks in the 21st Century Classroom

Students who are not cinema students even though they are located in the school of cinematic arts. Students take four years of classes with them, culminates in a multimedia thesis product in any discipline. The inaugural cohort finished their thesis projects last year. Students needed some facility with the tools, but also in creating a large-scale research project. She created IML340: The Praxis of New Media. Very lucky to have a lot of production staff. So there was a project ongoing: Iraqi Doctors on the Front Lines of Medicine, and they combined it with IML340 to create the Iraqi Doctors Project. Web site. Implications for large-scale public literacy. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television -- Jerry Mander, 1978 -- argued for books over television. With emergent technologies these days, we have time to go back and look and stop--which we couldn't in 1978. New collab with Brave New Films.

Marie Carianna and Derek Toten, Good! Bien! Ütz! Maya Language Learning from Guatemala to Tulane

Since the 1980s: six-week Kaqchikel Maya language and culture immersion course. Toten is speaking like an auctioneer--I can't keep up. Application is in a CD-ROM and online form. Have finished two units thus far. Within each topic, students initially see just the dialogue part of each lesson, and then they see the activities. Text captioning in Kaqchikel can be turned on or off. Lesson text available in Spanish or English. Online only: student can record their own utterances and compare with speakers'. The production happened over five trips to Guatemala during the summers. Post-production and application design in spring and fall. They hope to have the whole thing online by 2011. Two pedagogy specalists, two production folks. Use high-def cameras, lots of lights, microphones. A whole big production. Very careful with audio because it's for language learning.

Li Zhu and Michael Beahan, Dartmouth College, Jones Media Center: How do I. . .?

A multimedia center in the library. Beahan is director; Li Zhu ("Julie") is a year-long intern and graduate student. Many faculty were unaware that the media center offers more than DVDs and free scanning. So Julie put together a multimedia promo video to market their services to faculty, as well as an instructional video, tutorials, and even recorded their workshops for future use. The instructional video camera helps keep media center staff from getting burned out on answering the questions again and again. Instructional videos are no longer than 90 seconds. Videos are on the Jones Media Center website, on YouTube, and on the library's Facebook page.

Kate Borowske, Hamline University, Library on a Stick and On the Air

Borowske is a librarian and works with a low-residency MFA program in writing (?) for children and young adults. Three-pronged approach: toolbar, online workshops, recorded workshops. Toolbar allows them to search the resources they most frequently use--e.g. university or state databases, ebooks, literary criticism, journal literature. Conduit: Makes it easy to create toolbars. Series of four online workshops via Elluminate Live. Designed content around the toolbar. She wanted to show them all the resources, but have them anchored in the toolbar so they were easier to remember. Then she recorded the Elluminate sessions.

Larry Johnson, The NMC's Hakone (TM) Project: New Life for Second Life

Hakone, Japan is where NMC was born at an Apple forum in 1992. People would fly to Japan, write up their experiences on the way home, and send them out a couple weeks later. Johnson read from one such story which predicted the convergence of telecommunications and computing, and predicted that multimedia productions would once be available on compact disc. At the meeting, Apple announced it would launch the Newton. NMC has built a virtual forum that is a reflection of Hakone.

Paul Iwancio, Aaron Weidele, and William Shewbridge, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Taking Digital Stories on the Road

Wanted to commemorate the Meyerhoff Scholars program's 20th anniversary. Program promotes the participation of underrepresented people in science. Captured 60 stories during the two-day anniversary symposium by using a story booth they created. Black backdrop, chair, lights, video. Scouted locations ahead of time--a classroom, a coat closet, etc. Tried to negotiate the quietest locations possible. Bought a backdrop from a theatrical supply company. Scheduled the interviews--had a sign-up sheet. Had undergraduates currently in the Meyerhoff program conduct the interviews with alumni. When students weren't available, they had interviewees interview each other in pairs or groups of three. Distribution: Meyerhoff website, DVD (have distributed thousands of copies), YouTube. Future projects: homecoming, campus retreat, UMBC heritage project, department oral histories.

Morgan Reid, University of British Columbia, Talking to Our Computers? Transcribing Interview at 2:!!

Needed to transcribe data to text for qualitative analysis. Transcription services were too expensive for the amount of data he had. Check out "Voice Wreckognition" demo on Youtube--existing software was bad. Get high quality recording. Don't work from a live feed. 99% accuracy or better--no spelling mistakes, just an occasional incorrect word. Software: MacSpeech Dictate. Necessary: Express Scribe, any text editor, Dictate 1.2.1, good audio quality in data file, good quality microphone, really good audio isolation for listening. Nice demo!

Jared Bendis, Case Western Reserve University, Teaching the Elephant to Walk Itself: Self-Generating Pachyderm

Another rapid-fire speaker. Digital Case is an initiative of The Kelvin Smith Library. Digital library is an archive of collections, research, historical library materials, any intellectual output of the institution. Also meant to do dissemination, but almost no user interface--a common problem with digital archives. Decided to try to make a user interface with Pachyderm. 1. Log into your account. 2. Upload your assets. 3. Author your screens. 4. Publish your Pachyderm. More Advanced: integrate existing database assets into Pachyderm--museums can do this. Decided to use Pachyderm as an output standard instead of an authoring platform. Query a database, and the results are jpg, xml, and Pachyderm files. Authorship is in the curation of the collection--making a good database makes a good thing. Demo uses beta Pachyderm 2.1. No uploading to Pachyderm--generated from a database. What's next? Design new rule systems to be able to play with the database.

Liveblog: Marco Torres at the New Media Consortium conference

This morning I'm live blogging a talk by Marco Torres called "It's Not about Clicking and Dragging! It's Not about Blogging, Podcasting, Web 2.0'in." Again, as with the Kathy Sierra talk (see previous post), I'll be taking notes and reporting during the talk, and I'll be adding notes later.

Torres starts with a demo. Rule 1: Randomly hit black keys and you can't mess up, as long as you stay with a rhythm. He does this using a small keyboard in GarageBand.

The area of media we talk least about is music. He said he was in Australia recently, and 80 percent of the (independent?) films he saw had copyright violations with their music.

(He plays some notes.)

Torres takes a very mathematical approach to teaching, meaning he prefers the GarageBand keyboard view instead of the musical staff view.

Torres uses an oscilloscope on his iPhone to see the waves of notes to demonstrate dissonance. He plays a perfect fourth ("That's Free Willy!) and then the half-step interval of Jaws. One says "Climb aboard, I'll take you there." The other says "Swim away NOW!"

Torres created a really nice demo on Garageband, mixing grand piano, orchestral strings, and Mexican guitarron, then switching these out with with some Chinese zither and Chinese erhu violin. He then adds some beats, copies the earlier grand piano track, moves it up an octave and switches it to Chinese guitar and adds some hip-hop beats. It sounds pretty awesome as the opening soundtrack for a movie. Impressive! I'll definitely have to play around with GarageBand later.

Torres's mother was an accomplished photographer. He talks about how difficult photography, especially large-format photography, used to be, and yet how cool it felt to actually create something. Photography became very important to Torres.

Another important part of his past is two uncles who creates some of the worst movies every to come out of Mexico--movies about Mexican wrestlers solving the world's problems, incuding vampires and drug cartels.

In movie making, the people involved often have no idea what the other people working on the film are doing. He began to think about the value of a story, especially in education. Stories make stuff have a purpose, rather than making stuff the purpose.

Visuals are powerful. People tend to remember powerful events in images--the Kennedy assassination, Rodney King beating, Challenger explosion, etc. In talking with teachers, he's never had anyone remember something powerful in terms of something they read--it was always in terms of sensory data--what they saw, what they heard.

Torres asked students (age 14-16) what they need to receive, create, produce, and broadcast information. Principals are influential in what students can receive, create, produce, and broadcast in schools. But when the average principal (average age late 40s to early 50s) was in school, there were far fewer ways to receive, create, produce, and broadcast information. Are we limiting our students to pen and paper when there are so many more rich channels?

Torres cites times in his life when he knew the content and context of the subject he was presenting really well, but he was nervous or uncomfortable with their delivery.

We let IT people write policy in education. They often determine which technologies teachers will use and to which technologies students will have access.

The learner is more than a recipient of information.

A student's preferred receptive and productive modalities may not be the same. You can be an auditory learner/receiver and a visual or kinesthetic producer.

We have easy access to information that it used to be difficult to access (he cites the iPhone app CongressPlus).

Torres asked the social studies teachers at a school what makes them an expert. After listening to each of them speak in turn, he asked if he could learn all the information they knew by using Google.

Story: Torres was listening to people debate whether Jeremiah Wright hated white people. Torres downloaded Wright's talk, hooked up a splitter to his earbuds, gave each women a pair of earbuds, and let them listen to the talk. One of the women later turned around and said, "Remind me never to debate anyone with an iPhone."

Ask 9th to 12th graders what they think of school, and the overwhelming answer is "boring."

Torres cites Alton Brown (of Good Eats) as someone who does a really good job at reaching this group. The develops the math, science, and history behind something, and he delivers it with emotional impact. Torres asked Brown's people how they develop a show, and they said, "Oh, we do it just like you educators do." And Torres sighed and said uneasily, "Yeah, sure we do."

(Graph coming soon. (Note to self--red, blue, and yellow))

Mythbusters is also about watching people learn. They're not teaching; they're learning. That makes a huge difference. Ninth graders want to see the process, not just the results.

The learning part is easy. The thing that gets in the way is schooling.

The demand for skills has changed. Schooling gets in the way of developing the higher cognitive skills. Schooling is linear; learning is networked.

Games today, like Call of Duty, can take a kid 30 minutes to explain. Torres: "It didn't take me 20 minutes to explain Frogger.

Fans have changed how Lost has been written. With DVR technology, online forums, wikis, interactive maps, blogs, etc., the viewers are able to analyze the show very carefully. People are debating each other in their native--and different--languages (e.g. Dutch vs. Spanish). Lost is really difficult to explain to a nonviewer. Fans are participants and learners.

Can we get this same kind of learning environment in the classroom and at schools? Lost's writers aren't having curriculum meetings.

When today's principals and educators were growing up, Gilligan's Island was a pretty typical show, and the kind of testing is similar: "Was there a scientist on board?" "True or False: Maryanne and Ginger were best friends." Lost viewers don't care about these kinds of questions.

Torres tells a story of one of his students, David, who was pulled out of school at age 11 by his father to play in cantinas in Mexico for additional income. David is back in school and can play five instruments and sing. Torres: "David, you're your own mariachi band." Torres called on David to provide soundtracks for documentaries and films he was making. David remade the Star Wars songs--after watching the movies for the first time--as mariachi songs. Torres played some clips--they're awesome. (Just imagine the Star Wars march, the Cantina song, or the Imperial March as played by a mariachi band--it's terrific.)

Torres: If I had given David just the option of text or numbers--that wasn't his medium. That's not how he produced information. In fact, David wasn't even allowed to play in the high school orchestra because he didn't play the music the music director. John Williams send the hand score from the original Star Wars film to David, saying he liked David's version the best. After hearing him play, George Lucas even hired David.

Torres's links:
Challenge-Based Learning
Flick School
student films

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Live blogging: Kathy Sierra, Cognitive Seduction

I'm here at the New Media Consortium Conference in Monterey, CA, and I've been tapped to be a featured blogger--which means I get the big room's only access to power and Ethernet, as well as a seat at a table in front of the front row. My fellow featured bloggers are Gardner Campbell and Chris Lott, so be sure to check out their blogs, too.

I'll be live blogging this session initially, and then going back to add some reflection and notes, so if you're reading this Thursday morning, please check back in the afternoon or evening for updates.

Pop Quiz: Which is better: (A) "This company kicks ass" or (B) "This product kicks ass." For example, is a better predictor of success someone raving about an author or a book?

We're having an argument here at the table as to which is correct. We're thinking she may go for (C) a cult of personality or voice.

Ah! I'm correct! Secret answer (C) is correct: "I kick ass!"

This definitely makes sense in the context of courses and professors and universities. When debating whether or not to take a course, students seem to talk most about who is teaching the class.

How can companies elicit first-person language, and create experiences that cause first-person language to happen? It's all about the USER kicking ass.

Next question: What did (do) you want to be really, really good at?

For me: hoo boy, that's a tough one. Maybe being a novelist? Following through on playing the French horn? The consensus at this table is: music. I'm apparently sitting between two aspiring electric guitarists. (Men!)

Question: how can you help people be their best at whatever it is they want to be or do? Sierra calls this "The High-Res User Experience." She throws out the idea of tossing out the marketing department in favor of educators. (Hear, hear!)

Half Dome: she sees a big rock. Her husband, a rock climber, sees handholds. Sierra sees death.

Jazz: Experienced listeners hear more notes.

In programming language, Sierra's wine expertise is one bit: red or white.

Being better is better.

No one is passionate about things they suck at.

The point of software development is to move people from inability to ability relatively quickly. Need to move users to a steeper learning curve--but not necessarily with making it feel harder. (Great graph--photo (hopefully) coming later this evening.)

But it's not about the tools we build. It's about what our tools let them do. Not understanding that is reflected in things like technical manuals. Markting materials before people buy a camera are slick, glossy, beautiful, communicative. The manuals (after they buy the camera) is plain, dull, black and white, confusing. Marketing materials: Taking killer photos. Manual: About the camera.

People want to take awesome photos, not learn to use the camera. So, let's help them get really good at something.

I'm thinking about what this means not just for students, but to museum visitors. Museum visitors want to have an enjoyable experience and maybe learning something. Museum exhibits have learning objectives. Where do the two meet?

Mind and brain are in epic battle. Mind is civilized, brain is primal.

Brain is filtering everything that comes at it, trying to decide what gets through. Answer: not much. Brain is devoted to not writing things to long-term memory. We need to work against that.

Example: Students studying, cramming--they don't retain much, even when they're motivated to learn.

So what does the brain pay attention to? Chemistry--that which it feels. So if we can evoke a feeling, the brain thinks it must be important. Reading textbooks is an emotional flatline.

The brain pays attention to weird things. (Example: fortune cookie that says "You will die a horrible death.") We look at faces, at bodies in a moment of thrill or excitement (e.g. watching extreme sports), cute animals (no one in this room awwww'd at the photo of the baby, but at least half the room awwww'd at the photo of a puppy).

Our brains are tuned to look at things and say, "Look, that's not resolved." There are so many cheap tricks to get people to pay attention to say what's the story.

There are lots of things the brain doesn't care about. The smiley, happy, computer-using person holding a tablet PC: "Yeah, not so much," says the brain. Same thing with photos of teachers standing in front of a screen.

Brain doesn't care about code. So it's important to visualize. So put a face with a code. Wake up the brain, increase attention and memory, but then you risk it being about the wrong thing: e.g., that face looks exactly like my ex-girlfriend.

So. . . Provoke with designs, including ones that might be painful and nauseating (Sierra uses an example of a UML diagram for programmers).

Conversation beats formal lecture and tone. Collaborative learning is far more effective in problem-solving.

Important: Talk to the brain, not the mind.

Example: Trick the brain: code is like a tiger.

10 ways to help users kick ass.

1. Focus on what the USER does, not what YOU do. (Technical writers write a book focusing on the quality of the book. To make the great technical book, however, might mean putting in a lot of topics that aren't serving the user. Focus instead on the user experience rather than on every little thing the product does. Someone needs to kick ass as a result of this. Don't build a better [x], build a better [user of x]. Not how do we build a better camera--how do we build a better photographer,

Again, thinking about the museum visitor. Here, it would be "Don't build a better museum. Build a better visitor." But that isn't specific enough. I know how to improve museum experiences, offline and on, but I'm not sure how to make a better visitor. It's similar, I suppose, to helping students learn to ask good questions.

2. Give then superpowers, quickly. The company Electric Rain's mission: The "user must do something cool within 30 minutes."

3. Make them smarter. What makes you feel smarter? Technical field folks say brain training, brain games, puzzles--but they only help a little. Aerobic exercise actually improves the brain's exercise more. Stand up and stand on one leg: You just got smarter.

We tried this: academics and technologists are an unbalanced bunch. Time to market balance boards to these users?

Improving your balance helps you get smarter because your brain is using extra cycles trying to keep you balanced. Your brain lets other things get by its filter as a result. Any kind of learning materials and experience should focus on patching cognitive leaks.

4. Don't focus on [X], rather ask what [X] is a subset of. What is the cooler thing that your product helps your user do--meaning cooler than what your competition does?

In an age of university budget cuts, I've been thinking about which departments and units will survive. Unfortunately, there's now not just the usual competition for campus funds between, for a hypothetical example, technocultural studies programs and sustainable ag programs. Which young program will (should) survive, if budget priorities are such that small programs must be cut? It may come down to how much cooler your products or services to students are than other departments or units.

Our teaching center, for example, is under the same vice provost as the internship and career center, two honors programs, summer sessions, and more. When budget cuts get deep enough that units need to be eliminated, what evidence can we provide that the teaching center's programs are cooler? Yes, we have stats on users, but documenting cultural change on campus is harder--how have we enriched undergraduate and faculty life in different (and better) ways than our (usually sister, now competitor) units?

5. Shrink the 10,000 hours it takes to really master something. There are ways to shrink that. Two ways: learn the patterns and shorten the duration. Help your users figure out the patterns. Help users do their 10,000 hours in a shorter period of time. Learn do do knowledge acquisition and representation. Bruce Wilcox is a really substantial player in the artificial intelligence world. He didn't know how to play the game of Go. No computers can beat even a marginally good Go player. But Bruce Wilcox decided to make a software program for Go. So he went out to interview Go players. In the process of doing so, he became a master Go player in record time--because he was looking for rules he could represent in software. So how can we extract those bit of knowledge?

Always be practicing. Sierra wants to practice without wearing out her horses. So she took a dressage saddle and now uses it as her office chair. She had to build a custom desk to match its height. . .

(BTW, I heart dressage. Haven't done it for years--too busy with a 3-year-old--but it's a really excellent form of exercise.)

So: create a culture of practice. We expect musicians and dancers and athletes to practice. In certain domains, we expect that of course they'll practice--doing something that is meant for nothing other than practice. But software developers don't have a culture of just practicing. (Do college faculty?)

After 1-2 years, experience is a poor predictor of performance/expertise. (10 years vs. 1 year repeated 10 times) Tiger Woods pop quiz: ow much practice time on his strengths versus weaknesses: 80% practicing his strengths. Offer exercises, games, contests, tutorials that support deliberate practice of the Right Things.

For example, with the horses, if you want to improve one of their gaits, you don't simply canter a lot--because you build in bad muscle memory. So you change gaits frequently, and it's a miracle--the change that needs to happens, happens.

6. Make your product (or docs) reflect their feelings

If we want people to have a better RTFM, we need to give them a better FM. Help and FAQs are not helpful because they are written for the intellectually curious, who would like to know a little more. Users are actually really frustrated.

"Letting them off the hook" is the killer app. Don't let them feel like idiots.

How you make them feel about themselves drives how they feel about YOU. (Think: students.)

7. Create a culture of support.

Hero's journey: Needs helpful sidekicks and mentor.

Look at user community. Look at terms of service from Javaranch: "be nice." Militarily enforced.

Biggest problem for communities: How do you get them to answer and ask questions? Sierra will always think about communities as groups where people get together for learning and support, not as places where people just hang out for fun.

First rule: No dumb questions. People have to feel comfortable asking questions. It's too easy to say "Duh, search the archives of this forum." Same thing in classroom: The prof already covered that, do the reading, etc.

More important rule: No dumb answers. It could just mean having a couple of documents very visible: here's how to answer a question. Get people to consider what it means to really answer a question. In a community, the faster you convert people from askers to answerers, the faster that community is going to grow. (Same thing in classroom--but getting students to learn to ask questions can be tough.)

8. Do not insist on "inclusivity." Because passionate users talk differently--they have jargon and shorthand. It's nice not to have to explain everything--conversations get richer faster.

Measuring community success. Success = more users thinking fast.

9. Make the right thing easy, wrong thing difficult. Horse trainer's advice. Not always easy to implement. For example, for getting fit: treadmill gathering cobwebs. It's not in the corner because you don't use it; you don't use it because it's in the corner. Make it so that you'll literally trip over it if you don't use it.

10. Total immersion jams. 16 hours over two days vs. 16 hours over two months. Frequency matters. Especially important for creativity breakthroughts. Example: Ad Lib from the Game Development Society. So they get together and write entire games over the weekend instead of going through the typical extended development process. The games must be finished over the weekend--even if it's crappy. An add-on: the developers must share the CDs they listened to as they were designing the game.

Quote from 48-hour film jam site: "The surest way to guarantee nothing interesting happens is to assume you know exactly how to do it."

Closing thought: Be brave.

Update: A day later, I'm still thinking about Sierra's talk, and I'm stuck on one piece: In what ways are college students "users"? Part of me is uncomfortable with the idea of students as users--after all, if we're not careful, "users" = "consumers," and it seems that in much of Sierra's talk the two merged. I prefer not to think of students as consumers, but rather as participants. In that sense, Sierra's consideration of growing user participation and expertise on online forums like JavaRanch is closer to what I want to accomplish in the classroom.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Age 34

I turned 34 a week ago, and passing into the second 2/3 of (very optimistically) 100 years has made me more reflective than usual. I used to be a deeply introspective person, but then I entered a Ph.D. program, got married, and had a child. Now I work 150% time during the school year, 100% during the summer. Which means: Lots of distractions.

I also used to think of myself as a writer, whereas now I think of myself as a blogger. There are bloggers who elevate blogging to an art, to writing. I'd like to be a writer again, someone who's thoughtful and more in touch with--more aware of--her authentic self, whomever she may be.

As regular readers know, I've been casting about for a different situation. (In a nutshell: I love my job, not sure of how well its future and mine intersect.) Later this month, I have a job interview to be director of a new, large, and relatively well-funded nonprofit learning institute, and the more I prepare for the marathon, 1.5-day interview, the more I realize I would probably be quite good at that job and would really enjoy the challenge. But is it right for me? Am I right for the folks down there? Only time, and a damn good interview, will tell.

At the same time, I'm increasingly being asked to take leadership responsibilities on the campus where I work in the teaching center. There's the "accessibility czar" position I've been all but offered that would actually allow me to move into even more of a leadership--but not necessarily bureaucratic--role on campus. And today someone told me she'd like to nominate me to be chair of the campus committee on the status of women at the university. I doubt I'll get that position--after all, I've missed most of the meetings (and will miss this month's) because I've been off conferencing--but it's nice to be thought of as a candidate.

Still, while I'm always looking for opportunities, I'm already feeling too busy. I love spending time with Lucas and Fang, but I need more time to reflect, to read, to think, to write, to be whomever I am when I'm not always writing reports or reading master's theses.

Summer is a good time to recommit to these pursuits, and so I will. . .as soon as I get these last two master's theses read. I have several dozen books on deck, and have already finished a couple of novels I'd recommend--the fascinating The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie and the quiet The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (trans. Alison Anderson). Next up: The BLDG BLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh of the fabulous BLDGBLOG. (What? You don't read BLDGBLOG? Come on--you like cool pictures, don't you? And urban futurism?)

Expect more posts of substance soon--especially since I've been asked (and am honored) to be a featured blogger at the upcoming New Media Consortium summer conference. Interested in reading more about the conference? Check out the also-featured blogs of the esteemed company I'll be keeping: Gardner Campbell, director of the Baylor Academy for Teaching and Learning and Chris Lott, a "disruptive technologist" (I kid you not--that's his title) at the University of Alaska. Also attending the conference--and as usual my partners in crime for an un-presentation on [insert whatever it is we end up talking about here]--are Barbara Sawhill from Oberlin's language lab and Laura Blankenship, formerly of Bryn Mawr and now the founder of Emerging Technologies Consulting. I'm looking forward to a couple days spent in the company of a few hundred people who really care about teaching and learning with technology.