Category Archives: academia

a brilliant class

At the end of this semester, i will take my qualifying exams. This will be a brutal 3 hour oral examination of all things that i know in conjunction with my dissertation proposal. ::gulp:: As a result, i was not going to take any classes this semester. But then i heard that Jean Lave was teaching an STS-minded ethnography course using 3 of the books that are on my qualifying exam. So i had to check it out.

There are ?25? people in the class, but all of the attention is on Jean – she has one of those auras where all respect flows her way. She explains that this is her 40th year teaching at University of California and she will be retiring at the end of the semester. When a dear friend (my advisor) asked her to teach an ethnography course for him, she agreed both because she loves my advisor and because she loves ethnography. She decided to teach her favorite books and to try something new. She was concerned that as graduate students, we’ve been taught to read critically – to always tear apart everything we saw. We never learned to appreciate the values of what we read, only find its flaws and how we could do better.

So, she decided that we are going to read five of her favorite ethnographies. And then we are going to read them again. And then again. We are going to watch as the books evolve through reading. We are going to learn to discuss not to destroy but to appreciate. We are going to learn to read.

Something about her presence, her way of saying all of this, her way of swearing and yet being so proper just warmed my heart. I can’t say no to this class… it’s just too good. And such good practice. And thus, i am off to read about how Intuit children learn social boundaries by being offered challenging moral questions….

Update: For those who are interested in the ethnographies, they are:

Wikipedia, academia and Seigenthaler

For the last couple of weeks, i’ve been watching the Wikipedia bru-ha-ha. As folks probably know, i got really upset a while back when folks were talking about Wikipedia being the essential collection of knowledge, meant to replace school books and other refereed knowledge containers. I still strongly believe that Wikipedia will not be that. But Jimmy Wales reminded me that Wikipedia is meant to be an encyclopedia, not a library replacement. It should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts. This convinced me and i developed a great deal of respect for the project and its intentions. Of course, i still get annoyed with Wikipedia obsessives who promote it as the panacea to all knowledge problems.

So, when i heard about Seigenthaler, i rolled my eyes. Welcome to being a public figure – people will say mean things about you on the web. None of it is guaranteed to be true – it’s the web. (Of course, my view probably stems from being a native web kid – no one likes the meannies but we’ve gotten used to it.) Wikipedia is better than most of the web because YOU CAN CHANGE IT. And if you inform them that someone is acting in a malicious way, Wikipedians will actually track it to keep it neutral. Can you even imagine Google doing that for every webpage out there? Ha ha ha ha ha. Try getting an article that is libelous removed from the Google index, like a mean-spirited blog entry. Not going to happen (unless you’re Scientology).

Seigenthaler had a very reasonable conversation with Wikipedia, telling them of the troubles. Wikipedia, in Wikipedia-form, acted immediately to remedy the situation, even volunteering to remove the history. I applauded them. And then Seigenthaler wrote a rather mean-spirited, anti-Wikipedia opinion piece in the USA Today. He went around calling for the end to Wikipedia. Uncool. I was outraged.

What pissed me off more was how the academic community pointed to this case and went “See! See! Wikipedia is terrible! We must protest it and stop it! It’s ruining our schools!” All of a sudden, i found myself defending Wikipedia to academics instead of reminding the pro-Wikipedians of its limitations in academia. I kept pointing out that they wouldn’t let students cite from encyclopedias either. I reminded folks that the answer is not to protest it, but to teach students how to read it and to understand its strengths and limitations. To actually TEACH students to interpret web material. I reminded academics that Wikipedia provides information to people who don’t have access to books and that mostly-good information is far better than none. Most importantly, i reminded academics that the vast majority of articles on Wikipedia are super solid and if they had a problem with them, they could fix them. Academics have a lot of knowledge, but all too often they forget that they are teachers and that there is great value in teaching the masses, not just the small number of students who will help their careers progress. Alas, public education has been devalued and information elitism is rampant in an age where we finally have the tools to make knowledge more accessible. Sad. (And one of the many things that is making me disillusioned with academia these days.) I found myself being the Wikipedia promoter because i found the extreme academic viewpoint to be just as egregious as the extreme Wikipedia viewpoint.

And then, as if i couldn’t be more cranky, i watched Internet Researchers take up the same anti-Wikipedia argument. I was floored. These aren’t just academics, they’re the academics who study the web. The academics who should know better. But they felt as though it was a problem that Wikipedia would allow for a man to be defamed. As the conversation progressed, someone pointed out that Wikipedia’s policies and platform supports Seigenthaler’s concern that “irresponsible vandals [can] write anything they want about anybody.” Much to my complete and utter joy, Jimmy Wales responded with a fantastic structural comparison that i felt should be surfaced from the mailing list and shared to the world at large:

Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.

What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?

When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that “The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons”?

No, instead we acknowledge that the verb “to allow” does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not _allowing_ something just because they haven’t taken measures to _forcibly prevent it_ a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it’s particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.

I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia “allows anyone to write anything” just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting authors in cages.

All too often we blame the technology for problematic human behaviors. We fail to recognize that technology makes them more visible but the human behaviors are rooted in larger issues. In turn, we treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The solution is not to bandaid the problems by taking away or limiting the technologies, but to make the world a better place from the inside out.

I am worried about how academics are treating Wikipedia and i think that it comes from a point of naivety. Wikipedia should never be the sole source for information. It will never have the depth of original sources. It will also always contain bias because society is inherently biased, although its efforts towards neutrality are commendable. These are just realizations we must acknowledge and support. But what it does have is a huge repository of information that is the most accessible for most people. Most of the information is more accurate than found in a typical encyclopedia and yet, we value encyclopedias as a initial point of information gathering. It is also more updated, more inclusive and more in-depth. Plus, it’s searchable and in the hands of everyone with digital access (a much larger population than those with encyclopedias in their homes). It also exists in hundreds of languages and is available to populations who can’t even imagine what a library looks like. Yes, it is open. This means that people can contribute what they do know and that others who know something about that area will try to improve it. Over time, articles with a lot of attention begin to be inclusive and approximating neutral. The more people who contribute, the stronger and more valuable the resource. Boycotting Wikipedia doesn’t make it go away, but it doesn’t make it any better either.

I will be truly sad if academics don’t support the project, don’t contribute knowledge. I will be outraged if academics continue to talk about having Wikipedia eliminated as a tool for information dispersal. Sure, students shouldn’t be citing from Wikipedia instead of the primary texts they were supposed to have read. But Wikipedia is a stunning supplement to most texts and often provides pointers to other relevant material that one didn’t know existed. We should be teaching our students how to interpret the materials they get on the web, not banning them from it. We should be correcting inaccuracies that we find rather than protesting the system. We have the knowledge to be able to do this, but all too often, we’re acting like elitist children. In this way, i believe academics are more likely to lose credibility than Wikipedia.

Jimmy Wales speaking at Berkeley tomorrow

Who: Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia)
Where: School of Information, South Hall, UC-Berkeley, Room 110
When: November 3, 4-5:30

For those who love Wikipedia, i’m hosting Jimmy Wales to speak at my department tomorrow about Wikipedia’s culture. It is free and open to the public. It should be a fun talk and question/answer discussion.

somewhere in-between the ALA and Google is harmony

As far back as i can remember, i’ve found utter joy in being able to understand opposing points of view. Most of the time, this is useful in being a mediator between two warring individuals or groups; i used to wonder if should become a shrink. But, this week, i had the fortunate opportunity to hear two institutions talk past each other: American Library Association (Michael Gorman) and Google (Sergey Brin).

Let me back up… I was invited to Keynote at the ALA’s Library and Information Technology Association national conference. At first, i was befuddled – why me? And then, when i looked at the other keynotes, i knew i was in trouble. I was sandwiched between someone speaking about “how librarians can still vanquish Googlezon and win back our rightful place as the guardians of the world’s knowledge and all that is good” and Michael Gorman (the President of the ALA who upset quite a few people with his essay on “those blog people”). Oh shit. So, i prepared and delivered a call-to-arms-esque talk. By and large, i think it went over well. Some people were upset that i was critical of members of the community as an outsider; others were ecstatic that i was challenging the status quo. The biggest disagreement was over whether or not Google, as a corporate entity, can really do the same kind of work as librarians. I argued that money always biases and limits but librarians are more indebted to their funders than Google is to theirs. Still, i understand their point and frustration, which i tried to make clear in my talk and in answering questions afterwards.

After my talk, Michael Gorman of the ALA gave his keynote. OMG, i wanted to die. At some point, he started talking about the Tower of Babel and how we need to return humanity to a common language. So much of his idea of librarianship is focused on control and power. He talked about how Google returned terrible results that no one wanted because it was all so random. Librarians know how to give you value. Gah.

And then, today, Sergey Brin of Google appeared in my Search class as a surprise guest (webcast will be posted). I realized i had never heard him talk except for when i was working for the company and then, he could say whatever he wanted. In public, he was clearly trying to negotiate what he was and was not allowed to say. He made quite a few in the audience twitch over their response to China. Still, i understand (although don’t always agree with) the stance that some in China is better than none. He really rattled some feathers though with his response to the semantic web, tagging and librarianship. He took the techno-centric point of view that is so Google. Tagging inverts the relationship between man and machine. Tagging is only of interest and valuable if machines do it. Technology is just as good as experts and it’s a waste of the expert’s time to bother trying. (A good quote from this section was “Experiments like Esperanto have failed.”) One of my professors was really outraged by all of this – i thought his head was going to blow off. God it was painful. Will Google ever understand that culture has value? I guess not so long as technodeterminism is profitable. Gah.

So in less than a week, i got to see the most stubborn and power-hungry sides of two institutions who see no value in the other. And yet, so many of those in the trenches want to build bridges because we know that there are important lessons to learn. Yet, there are issues of prestige, power and money. The Google boys would definitely rather re-invent the field than learn from the librarians. The old skool librarians would rather stick to their ways than acknowledge that there are reasons why search companies have reached the mainstream. I understand where both side is coming from but their stubbornness and lack of foresight is excruciating. I find myself wanting to shake them both.

Somewhere in-between the ALA and Google there is harmony, but i wonder if they’ll ever be able to find it. Right now, i’m so thankful to be at a school of information that revels in the possibilities of technology and a search company that understands the culture has value. If i had to deal with the top of the pyramid at either the ALA or Google, i’d want to shoot myself on a daily basis. Instead, i want to circumvent both in order to innovate.

why culture matters even in math class

A friend of mine recently decided to quit his tech job and become a high school math teacher (a move that still has my jaw on the floor in awe). He’s been tracking the tough lessons of being a new teacher on a blog. This morning, he posted about why culture matters and his experience has had me smiling all day. For those who are link shy, i’ll summarize:

Homework question: “While in France last summer I bought a hat for 25.50. A friend bought a similar hat for 5 in the United States. What’s going on here? Explain completely.”

Expected answer: “something about different currencies and exchange rates. This question comes in the context of problems about length and area, so the importance of units in measurement is being emphasized.”

Student answer: “Two possibilities: 1, the hat your friend bought was fake. It said similar not same. 2, you got ripped off in France because your [sic] a tourist.”

ROFL! I just want to reach out and hug his student – that just rocks.

upcoming conferences

I will be attending various conferences this fall/winter and i thought i’d share in case you want to join me.

  • Podcasting Symposium (Duke, September 27-28) – talking on performance and podcasting
  • ALA | LITA National Forum (San Jose, October 1) – keynote on blogging
  • Web2.0 (San Francisco, October 5) – attending for one day
  • State of Play (New York, October 7-8) – attending
  • 4S (Pasadena, October 20-22) – speaking on Fakesters and moderating on new media
  • AAA (D.C., November 29-December 3) – speaking on blogging
  • HICSS (Hawaii, January 4-7) – speaking on Friendster
  • AAAS (St. Louis, February 16-20) – speaking on youth culture

Also, a paper that i co-wrote with Jeff Heer will be present at InfoVis (Minneapolis, October 23-25) but Jeff will be doing the presenting.

issues in quotation and citation

I know that i should love human subjects boards, but i have to admit that they are my least favorite aspect of doing research. My biggest complaint is that they do not understand the dynamics of doing research online. Thus, i’ve spent far too much time discussing what it means to be an ethical researcher of online material. One issue that always emerges concerns citations. As a researcher, you are required to respect the confidentiality of your subjects always. Yet, when you are quoting online material, you can easily throw the quote into Google and find the original source, revealing the person behind the quote (or at least their handle).

While this topic is frequently discussed in conversations about ethical research, it is clearly not a lesson that everyone has learned. In The New Nanny Diaries Are Online, the author thinks that she is being discrete, referencing her nanny anonymously. By throwing the quotes into Google, you can find the nanny’s blog. This is particularly interesting because it gives the nanny a chance to respond in her own words.

This is an interesting dynamic and one that i’m curious about in the context of research. What would it mean if subjects of research could respond to the analysis of their practices? Historically, anthropologists did not make their analyses available to subjects because it was assumed that the subjects could not understand the analysis. Personally, i’ve always been of the mindset that publications should be explicitly made available to all subjects. Yet, i have taken the elitist position that i know more and while i should listen to disagreements, i should still publish what i wrote if i still believe it after the disagreements. What would it mean to bring the subject more actively into the conversation, letting them out themselves as they see fit? What if the subjects want to be referenced explicitly so that they _can_ refute my claims?

(Based on Alex Halavais)

“bloggers need not apply”: maintaining status quo in academia

In the questions, Ehud asked about the state of social software in the academy. It can probably be summed up as paranoia vs. panacea. Of course, this applies to social software with or without the academy involved. Research into how social software is being used is very raw, very new. It’s hard to give meaningful reports because, mostly, people are just experimenting, not researching. That said, it’s great to see the personal experimentation because it’s the first step to research.

All the same, social software paranoia is definitely hitting the press. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay entitled Bloggers Need Not Apply. Anonymously, a humanities professor from the Midwest discusses how blogs were received during the hiring process. I agree with him in parts, but i think that his argument fails.

The reason that your blog matters is because it is part of your “brand” and you get an online identity by writing to mailing lists, writing blogs, commenting on things, etc. And yes, it’s disturbing that we’re moving to a culture of individual brands but that’s always been true in academia. In academia, your brand is this aggregate of your eccentricities and expertise. I do think that you can soil your brand in any public or semi-public environment. This is why you put on a particular face during conferences, at dinner with like minds, etc. Certain institutions have more tolerance for eccentricities than others. My guess is that the Midwest humanities department has virtually none. But find me a prof at MIT that is not quirky as hell. In fact, i think that “normals” would be upsetting there. Academia does not have one consistent personality trait and potential faculty have to find an institution where they match, not just in terms of research, but in terms of personality and passions. In turn, quirky students seek out quirky places and quirky research happens at quirky places.

There is no doubt that all faculty searches include a Google search. Hell, i searched all applicants during mine, not just the narrowed candidates. One of the things i hear most frequently about our new hire is how disturbing it is that he doesn’t have a web presence. Something must be wrong, right? Everything that we could find about him online was accidental, not controlled. Abstracts from conferences, posts to academic Yahoo Groups, etc. You worry about people like this, particularly in the more technical realms.

I feel badly for the students at the authors’ university. Any institution that expects people to stifle their quirks is oppressive in many ways. Of course, it’s probably good that faculty find out that they could not get along with a person before they are brought on campus – saves both groups the headache. But i worry about institutions that point blank exclude anyone who doesn’t spend their lives trying to suppress quirks – institutional identities should emerge as the aggregate of the quirks, not the suppression of them. Homogeneity is not what students need and certainly not what knowledge production needs.

I do wonder how my blog will be received when i apply for faculty positions. Or how my tendency to dress up in bright colors, dread my hair and talk with my hands will be seen. But seriously, if i start wearing suits, remove all piercings and pretend not to know what Burning Man is, i might make it past a faculty hire, but would i ever make it past tenure? Of course a “fuck you, like me for who i am attitude” is not necessarily the most attractive thing either. And besides, i’m definitely past my most rebellious anti-establishment days. What it comes down to is that i have to believe that some of the meritocracy of academia is partially there, even if not entirely. I have to believe that if i do good work, my eccentricities will be less problematic, just as the stupid things that i said on Usenet in the early 90s are less visible in my digital performance thanks to my verbose tendencies.

But seriously, what’s the point of telling a bunch of potential academics that they need to be homogenous, unquirky and unlikely to rock the boat? I’d bet that “Ivan Tribble” is trying to protect current PhDs, but he’s also supporting the status quo. Herein lies the greatest tension to the future of academia – be proud of the quirks and fight or go for status quo to be tolerated.

Update: Some amazing folks have commented on this article and others need to read what they’ve said:

Definitely read other academics who think this is utter bullshit and are cranky with the Chronicle for printing such foolish paranoia.

16 hours

16 hours…. grading finals took 16 hours solid without breaks. As i imagined, some of it was utterly inspiring. One student created a question that showed how new media could be used to deconstruct new media (and its professors and GSIs). It totally took us to task and we loved it. Others showed new ways of combining work in this field that i had never considered. Of course, there were a few problems that broke my heart.

One thing that surprised me was how much pass/fail affects both group dynamics and students’ attitudes. I took most of my classes pass/fail at Brown since i actively despise grades. Yet, it never affected my participation in a classroom. I never expected that i would simply pass by existing. I could never imagine screwing over a group of other students. Of course, i suspect that i got mostly As in P/F classes. I still worked my ass off. Much to my chagrin, i don’t think that attitude is shared. My co-teacher (who only had P/F at his undergrad) and i were stunned at our anti-P/F attitude following this process. Both of us valued it immensely but it really wrecked a few things in our class.