Category Archives: Placeholders

Digging into the Stuff: Coursepack for Material Culture

Been doing all sorts of crazy things with the main texts I’ll be using in my SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture course.

(Not sure how well these things will appear.)

One of those things is text-/wordmining. Not only looking at cited references (who cites whom, what texts could be complementary), but also looking concordance and such (how frequently certain words appear in those texts).

Here’s an example:

Clusters of collocate terms in Material Culture coursepack.
Clusters of collocate terms in Material Culture coursepack. – Made with

(This collocate cluster tool in action here.)

Also, using all sorts of terms related to material culture, specifically:

Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture.
Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture. – Made with
List of terms related to material culture, by frequency.
List of terms related to material culture, by frequency. – Made with

Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture.
Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture. – Made with
Separate trends for words related to material culture, as found in texts for the SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture coursepack.
Separate trends for words related to material culture, as found in texts for the SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture coursepack. – Made with


Even just the “distinctive terms” of each text are interesting:

Terms differentiating coursepack texts.
Terms differentiating coursepack texts. Made with

(That corpus is found here.)

And, obviously, the obligatory word cloud…

Wordcloud of coursepack terms
Wordcloud for the Coursepack content in SOCI/ANTH 441 – Made with

See this wordcloud in action here.

Rethinking Tenure, Part VI: Sabbaticals Outside of Tenure

A response to a short University Affairs piece about sabbaticals. In a way, a followup on my previous posts about tenure.

Here goes…

Glad you were able to explain the situation in a way your friends could understand. As with many explanation, the important thing is to match it with the context. Many people have a hard time understanding what research entails, even if you describe the whole process (I’m teaching field research, these days). So it’s nice that the match happened.

Thing is, even within academia, some people seem to have misconceptions about sabbaticals, Not that they’re taken to be vacations, but they became so associated with a reward system that they seem not to have their own purpose, anymore.

I’m part-time faculty, so I don’t get sabbaticals in that same sense. And, among the many sources of bitterness among contingent faculty members is the fact that we don’t get the opportunity to apply for sabbaticals. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not bitter about my position outside of the tenure-track. And while I understand the importance of sabbaticals, I perceive them as one option among others, to make possible a certain type of academic work. Sabbaticals might even blind some people into misunderstanding their own work.

These are issues with PTR (“Promotion, Tenure, Reappointment”). In that context, the formula used to calculate rewards in the tenure system has become something more of a bureaucratic requirement, and less of a reflection of that work. The percentages themselves are often misleading, as many a professor integrates several of these activities together. When it becomes reality, the dream of cross-fertilization between teaching and research makes percentages more of an accounting exercise than an assessment of the actual work being done. Attempts at making one’s work more efficient often pushes professors to focus their teaching and service work on things which can contribute to their “research output”. And the very categorization of academic work in these three little boxes has been the object of much discussion. Academics typically want to be free to do the work they want to do and are in fact so driven by intrinsic motivation that they’re likely to work more when they’re free to decide how they spend their time.

Something I’ve noticed at institutions where research is the primary thing (for instance, at “Research I” universities in the US) is that not-insignificant number of faculty members have a tendency to publish a rather large number of very similar papers, as if publication were its own goal. At more “comprehensive” institutions (including Concordia, but also a satellite campus in a state university system in the US), it’s not uncommon for faculty members to frequently publish book-length accounts on diverse topics, even though books are often considered as not counting for PTR purposes.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the overwhelming majority of research professors “keep publishing the same article over and over again”. But there is an intriguing pattern in terms of the research focus whereby it may become more about lines in an annual report, whereas research by professors who primarily teach may be more of a “labour of love”.

In other words, while an article can certainly require a lot more work than a book, there has been a tendency for certain research-heavy professors to focus on numerical output instead of on breadth. In the process, the “dissemination” goal of publication may get lost. Not blaming these faculty members, in this. They’re caught in a very constraining system. But the effect remains that some of them may “go through the motions, because they have to” instead of developing the type of research career which is likely to benefit society as a whole.

So, back to sabbaticals… One reason they function in context may be that they allow a sort of “reset”. They bring research back to its roots in deep curiosity and passion for knowledge. Sure, much of it has to do with the time needed to conduct a research project. In field research, it’s obvious that extended field trips are qualitatively different from short stints in the field. In many situations, it is in fact impossible for a scholar to accomplish her work while teaching in even the shortest and least time-consuming of contexts. You simply cannot be in two places at the same time.
But I sincerely think (based on diverse contacts with colleague) that much of the effect felt subjectively by researchers during sabbaticals has more to do with putting things in their proper perspective. During these extended periods of time devoted to their research work, researchers are allowing themselves to explore. While they do have a responsibility to bring back something rather impressive from their time spent away from their more quotidian departmental lives, this pressure is somewhat more indirect, and is less likely to constrain them to “think in the short term”. Chances are relatively high that, during her sabbatical, a given scholar will have an epiphany, will make an life-changing discovery, will go through an actual shift in paradigm, or will cause a sudden leap in scholarship. Any of these things depends on a large amount of work but, mostly, they require a lot of freedom. And freedom is almost the “currency of academia”.

Which brings me back to my own situation outside of the tenure system.
While tenure (and sabbaticals which depend on it) may be associated with academic freedom, there are other ways to be free in academic contexts. One approach which is rarely discussed is to act more as a “free agent” and less as “departmental property”. Belonging to an academic department brings many benefits but it can also be quite constraining. On the opposite end, “contract teaching” can sound extremely constraining but also brings about its own type of freedom. While a tenured professor who goes on sabbatical may accomplish impressive work because she’s free to do so, contingent academic workers are also contributing important work because they are free to work outside of departmental routine. It may well be that, taken on its own, the work of a given adjunct may be much less impressive than that of any full professor. But, in aggregate, contingent academic labour allows for a different type of contribution to knowledge and social change. The same can be said about many non-academics, of course. Several of them could take advantage of a sabbatical, once in a while. In fact, I’ve done a bit of work for a foundation (Carold Institute) which provides for something like a sabbatical for non-academics in the form of a fellowship in support of leaders in community organizations and in diverse spheres of voluntary action.

The fact that sabbaticals are restricted to tenured faculty members isn’t just a matter of rewards and privilege. It’s also about putting research work in its proper context.

Required Readings for SOCI 221: Sociology of Cyberspace

Partly as a way to test a plugin, but also as a post that I might reuse in the future…

Weekly Schedule

[bibshow file= format=apa]

Week Date Texts
1 September 12
2 September 19 Christian[bibcite key=christian2011], Berman[bibcite key=berman2001turing]
3 September 26 Sassen[bibcite key=sassen2002itech], Perkins[bibcite key=perkins2011internet]
4 October 3 Beer[bibcite key=beer2007sociology], MW Bell[bibcite key=bell2008virtual]
(Thanksgiving: No Class, October 10)
6 October 17 Kelty[bibcite key=kelty2008reformers], Cool[bibcite key=cool2008change]
Midterm (October 24)
8 October 31 Silver[bibcite key=silver2000looking], D. Bell[bibcite key=bell2002]
9 November 7 Palfrey[bibcite key=palfrey2010], Prensky[bibcite key=prensky2001horizon], Tapscott[bibcite key=tapscott2009]
10 November 14 Bennett[bibcite key=bennett2008debate], Selwyn[bibcite key=selwyn2009myth]
11 November 21 Rheingold[bibcite key=rheingold2003smart], Surowiecki[bibcite key=surowiecki2004wisdom], Hunt[bibcite key=hunt2010]
12 November 28 Warschauer[bibcite key=warschauer2004], Halford[bibcite key=halford2010inequality]
13 December 5 Westermann[bibcite key=westermann2011discussion], Hindman[bibcite key=hindman2010myth]
14 December 6 Kendall[bibcite key=kendall2002], Hofmann[bibcite key=hofmann2011cmc]



Alphabetical List

[bibtex file= format=apachap]

Infiltrating Academia with BuddyPress?

[This is truly a placeholder. I did a session at WordCamp Montréal and have been using this post to share slides and other relevant information.]

BuddyPress, the social network based on WordPress, is becoming more and more common in academic environments where it is used for organization, communication and learning. In this discussion we will go beyond the practical and into the human side of things to consider what effects social software might be having in the world of academia. Can we use our tools to get people to think differently? Does the use of open tools help bring openness to the context where they are used? Are BuddyPress and WordPress the best tools for the job? This talk will take the form of a guided discussion including the entire audience.

Audio Recording

(Apologies for the poor sound quality. It was recorded directly from the mixing board used in the PA system, but I wasn’t able to set the recording in the way I should have.)

Audio Recording from my WordCamp Session

Infiltrating Academia with BuddyPress audio




Me, Myself, and I

Key People in the BuddyPress-Edu Sphere

From LMS to BuddyPress to ScholarPress

Scholarly Writing?

University’s Future?


Key BuddyPress Features for Education and Academia

  • Blogging
    • Low-stakes writing
    • Peer-feedback
  • Hosted Microblogging
    • P2
    • Link Sharing
    • À la StatusNet/Tumblr
    • Rich/Media-Enhanced
  • Forums
    • bbPress
    • Peer-Learning
    • Constructivist strategies
  • Groups
    • Teamwork
  • Podcasting
  • Social network
    • Latent function of formal education
    • Social networking for career and life
    • Profiles
    • Mentions
    • DMs
    • Contacts
  • Teaching tools
    • Syllabus
    • Schedule
    • Assignments
    • Bibliography
    • Anciliary material


  • Openness
  • Control
  • Walled garden
  • Ownership
  • Beyond institution
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Personal Learning Network

Owning Your Words

Seems like I’m coming late to this discussion, but author Michael Erard (FoaF of mine) is helping me catch up:

Plagiarism, the Meme Michael Erard – Home.

Part of that conversation was sparked by a piece Erard wrote in 2002 and published a few weeks ago:

Cheater Cheater by Michael Erard – The Morning News.

According to the author, that piece generated some strong reactions, including some apparently-visceral ones. (I try to avoid these, as much as possible.)

More recently, the New York Times published the following:

Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age –

[Sidenote: I have a problem with journalism (not with journalists, just with their work). As may surprise some people, the NYT appears to me to be part of that problem, not of its solution. And this piece by Trip Gabriel reminds me of diverse things I dislike about journalism. Not that Gabriel’s work is bad or that he’s a bad journalist. But I find in this piece a representation of something problematic with journalism that would take me too long to articulate here. Still, there’s some interesting insight in this piece.]

One thing I find useful in this NYT article is the admission that there might be different approaches to plagiarism and academic integrity. This is something which is discussed among teachers, but it’s the first time I see it in MSM. The very idea that we can expand the conversation about these issues is quite refreshing. Eventually, it might even help us hash out some of these issues in a less visceral and even dispassionate fashion. But I’m not holding my breath on this one.

Another thing I find useful in that “blurred lines” piece is a small set of quotes from fellow ethnographer Susan D. Blum. (Though I was apparently living in South Bend, IN when Dr. Blum became Kellogg fellow for international studies, I don’t recall meeting her.) What Blum says is not only anthropologically relevant but resonates strongly with things I’ve noticed, My summary from these short quotes: values surrounding plagiarism are best understood in a context in which individual ownership of ideas is emphasized; there might be a shift in these values through a much broader cultural change. If I hear Blum correctly, she isn’t taking the usual “techno-determinism” route (“it all happened because of this strange newfangled thing they call the Interwebs”), nor does she assign the causal relationship the other way around (“a shift to a more anonymous culture made it possible for the Internet to expand, in the last twenty years”). Instead, she’s describing a broad phenomenon, based on an understanding of some historical developments of so-called “Western” culture.

Seems to me that Jacques Attali would have fascinating things to say about this. Part of this impression is based on his work on the political economy of music which, in my mind, prefigured what has since been known as the “Napster Revolution.” But I also recall a (French) tv show about plagiarism in which he had some fascinating things to say about the developments of what RMS admonished us not to call “intellectual property.”

I have a lot more to say about all of this, including my own experience with a cheating student and diverse things about Erard’s work on this. But I got to leave. So it’s just a teaser, at this point.

Rethinking Tenure, Part IV: Labour Issues

Previous Parts in this Series:

Part of the reason I’ve decided to revisit this issue is that the first parts of this series seem to be getting just a bit of traction. As we say in French: «il faut battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud» (“Strike while the iron is hot.” meaning that we should take advantage of the momentum we get).

Specifically, Vanessa Vaile over at New Faculty Majority has posted a short but enthusiastic comment on the first parts of this series. As I thrive on feedback (at least, in social media and in teaching), it gave me the push to do a follow up.

Vanessa mentions the COCAL conference, a meeting about “contingent academic labour.” Now, to be honest, while I knew it was happening in Quebec City this summer (during a meeting of Concordia’s part-time faculty union, our president had discussed it), I hadn’t really looked into it. Not that I’m not interested in the issue, but I’m not into formal conferences, anymore.

And (he says sheepishly), I’m worried that my position might not be well-received among (opinion) leaders in this movement. It’s one thing to post my thoughts on these issues and potentially debate them, in writing or face-to-face. It’s quite another to be directly confronted for a significant period of time by what might be a number of vocal activists of what I’ve described as “career part-timers.”  I’m all for thoughtful debates and I can stand up and discuss these things publicly. But I do have an issue when things quickly become heated. I may be way off, here, but in my (admittedly limited) experience with groups of “career part-timers,” the heat source has usually not been too far away, when members of these groups meet.

Now, let me stress that I’m not dismissing anything that any kind of part-timer, “career” or otherwise, does. I certainly understand the concerns with precarity and working conditions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been well-represented by strong unions at a number of places where I’ve thought and I do want to involve myself in some activities related to the responsibilities and rights of “contingent academic workers.” I just happen to think that the core issue isn’t so much with part-time work by itself (though I really wish we’d think about alternate models, including long-term contracts). Put bluntly, I’d say that the whole academic system could afford some rethinking. Which could have a huge impact on those who are currently part of the “contingent academic labour force” and those who will be member of the “academic labour” (contingent or not) in the future.

While this long preface has to do with part-timers, I’m really thinking about tenure. Not that tenure should necessarily disappear. But we might as well put some things in perspective. This is what this series is about. Not the defence of one group of people against another (I’d side with learners, if I were allowed to do so). Not a proposal to save academia in its current form. Not even a recipe for building the replacement to the current academia. Just some thoughts about things we may be taking for granted.

So…. I have been thinking about labour issues as I was writing the previous parts in this series. I didn’t mention these labour issues that frequently, but they influence much of what I say about tenure.

“In today’s job world” (at least, what I know of it), academic tenure seems quite unusual a system. Almost anomalous. As mentioned elsewhere, it’s similar to some employment in the public sector, especially in terms of “job security.” But academic tenure is it’s own thing. It’s “kind of special.”

Part of it has to do with prestige. Not only that “university[ref]Partly because, in Quebec, colleges are a separate programme between high school and university, I use “university” for just about any institution of higher education, including some which are called “college.” So, a professor at Bridgewater State College or Tufts College is a “university professor,” in the way I describe things.[/ref] professor” is among the professions with the highest social status in a number of social contexts (between dentist and architect, according to Davis et al. 2007). But there’s a gap between any other kind of academic work (graduate student, senior researcher, etc.) and the prestige associated with a university professor.

More so than a number of other professional groups, the group represented by university professors is often perceived as a select club. At least in the sense that membership doesn’t follow a similar set of guidelines as that of, say, lawyers or engineers. In that sense, other professions have more of a guild system while “academic tenure” is more similar to a club.

(It should be noted that multiple efforts are being made to make this “club” more open to representatives of a number of socially marginalized groups. I don’t mean to say that “the faculty club is still an old boys’ club” since I don’t have data on this. But, even in this case, the process seems quite specific to academic tenure. Sure, complaints about discriminatory hiring may refer to similar rules whether they concern administrators or professors. But it still seems, to me, that the way complaints and claims are discussed shifts, when it’s about academic tenure. )

The contrast between academic tenure and other professional systems seems especially obvious, to me, when thinking about the fact that university professors aren’t specifically trained to be university professors. Oh, sure, they’re trained in their disciplines and may even have some background in pedagogy. Some contexts even have mentoring programes. But there isn’t that clear a path to academic tenure. Many people who want to become university professors end up knowing about the process as they go along, often by talking with other academics. But even some advanced graduate students (including some PhD graduates) seem to be in the dark as to many aspects of academia. They’re expected to learn on their own much of what the job is about (i.e., committee work, advising, grant proposals, etc.). Many high-profile professions have very formal vocational training which makes the kind of preparation new faculty get sound less than minimal.

As a way to protect professionals, tenure also seems quite unusual. Nurses, architects, and surgeons all have orders, professional associations, or other groups to protect members. Such groups are often tied to a national or other state entity of some kind (in Quebec, for instance, these “orders” tend to be provincial). Tenure is given by a specific institution and is tied to appointment in a given “unit” (an academic department, faculty, or programme). There might be rules in terms of synchronizing different institutions’ tenure systems, like there are “transfer credits” and “course equivalencies” for learners. But, if there are, these rules don’t seem to widely known. For, say, surveyors and physicians, it might be very difficult if not impossible to work across national boundaries, but their associations protect them regardless of their place of employment. For university professors, it might actually be very easy to teach in a completely different part of the World but, unless I’m mistaken, there isn’t any “universal” protection going from one institution to the next.

All this to say that “university professor” is quite unlike some other professions.

Part of this may have to do with the fact that academic work isn’t really considered a professional career in the same sense as is dentistry, accounting, or psychiatry. In a way, it’s more like a “calling” like priesthood or a function of a person’s perceived skills, like some conceptions of art. In some people’s minds, the goals of academia are so lofty that, surely, these professional matters are either secondary to “true academic work” or even irrelevant to university professors. Not that faculty members don’t discuss these things at faculty meetings. But there’s a clear separation between “what the work is about” and all matters of professional issues.

Which brings me to unions. In few discussions of tenure is there an explicit notion that what tenure provides is what a union is supposed to provide. Tenure is too unlike union representation to be considered in the same context. Yet much talk about the importance of tenure revolves around things which are, “come to think og it,” pretty much what people in other lines of work consider to be labour issues, managed through unions, management structures, executive boards, and the like.

In my experience. teachers’ unions are typically quite active and quite powerful. But my experience might be unusual and/or biased.

Part of the potential bias can be attributed to the fact that I grew up in Quebec which is rather union-friendly and had a number of strikes by teachers (as well as by students). The two unions for “contingent academic labour” by which I’ve been represented in Quebec have gone on strike during the past few years (and both have eventually won some key points). In addition, my father spent most of his career as a special education teacher in a high school and what I saw from unions protecting teachers in Quebec was quite impressive to the kid that I was when some key events happened. So I might overestimate the power of unions.

The key notion, though, is that there’s a union-based way to deal with a number of labour issues affecting teachers at many levels, including higher education.

Many (but not all) university professors are unionized. In some cases, these unions are able to offer professors a lot of protection. Probably not as much as the tenure system, but often more than for many other jobs and professions.

As far as I can tell, union protection to university professors is quite effective in dealing with cases of undue firing. There are plenty of edge cases but it actually doesn’t sound like non-tenured but unionized “academic labour” is less protected than most other lines of work. And we’ve probably all heard of cases where tenured professors have been overprotected to the extent that it caused serious problems.

I insist so much on this because the refrain to the song about tenure is “academic freedom.” The notion is that, without tenure, professors wouldn’t have this very special type of freedom that only tenured professors get. Now, I do understand part of the difference between “academic freedom” and more general forms of freedom, including that associated with the set of responsibilities and rights given to people protected by a strong union. But that difference is often left unexplained.

In fact, several people have told me that tenure protects them from being fired from something they might say in class. It’s an interesting issue in its own right but it’s also one which may call for other solutions. Because it’s basically a labour issue. Besides that, though, it raises the question of exactly how free university professors really are. In my experience, people on the tenure-track clearly don’t seem very free at all (it’s almost like an overextended probation period). And, from the outside as well as from direct discussions with “insiders,” even tenured faculty don’t seem that free to work the way they would like.

Which is why I started with “contingent academic labour” (part-time and contract-based university teaching). While, as a context, “contingent academic labour” relates to limited job security (still, much more than that of your typical freelancer), there’s also a very clear freedom involved when you can decide to take or refuse courses, when you’re allowed to work elsewhere at the same time, and where the official “burden” you get is that of building and teaching courses. While it’s not the “carefree” lifestyle of the so-called “Bohemian,” it’s still closer to my personal ideal of freedom than requirements placed on most tenure-track or even a lot of tenured faculty.

So, in summary, tenure seems to be an unusual and probably not that effective a way to deal with professional and labour issues. And it’s probably not that straight a path to genuine freedom.