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Coursenotes SOCI221 – Sociology of Cyberspace, Week 5

SOCI221 –Sociology of Cyberspace

Meeting 5: October 6, 2014
From Social Dynamics to Midsemester

Social Networks

Network Graph

By Dusk Eagle CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0


  • Contributions Self-Assessement due October 13
    • Active learning
    • Rarely modified
  • Peer-ratings
  • Midterm on October 20
    • Doing sociology with Internet
    • Talk after break

Past Week

Social Dynamics

Activity: Digital Inclusion

  • Relevant factors?
  • Experiences?
  • Diversity of perspectives?

Required Texts

  • Latour, Bruno. “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-network Theorist.” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011): 796–810.
  • Kreiss, D., M. Finn, and F. Turner. “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society.” New Media & Society 13, no. 2 (October 12, 2010): 243–259. doi:10.1177/1461444810370951.


Latour, Bruno. “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-network Theorist.” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011): 796–810.

  • Network society?
  • Classical sociology?
  • Agency?

Kreiss et al.

Kreiss, D., M. Finn, and F. Turner. “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society.” New Media & Society 13, no. 2 (October 12, 2010): 243–259. doi:10.1177/1461444810370951.

  • Bureaucracy
  • Peer production vs. prosumption
  • Dialogue

Coming Up…


Activity: Network Graph

  • Make a list of ten people with whom you interact on a regular basis (friends, family, coworkers…)
  • Give an initial to each of these people.
  • Separately, list or map out the relationships between these people. Who knows whom?
  • What can you say about this social graph? Is it a dense network? Are you the only person connecting this group?
  • Post a brief thought about this graph.


  • Grade on 10 and quick explanation
  • Extra mile? Made a difference?
  • Not attendance or expected work.
  • Not really assignment.
  • May change grade if really out of whack.


  • Short answers (a sentence or two): two points each, probably four out of six
  • Open questions (a paragraph): three points each, probably four out of six
  • Apply concepts (e.g. “prosumption” on Facebook?)
  • Show you really understand: explain to somebody else
  • Broader issues, topics, concepts on doing sociology with the Internet

After Midterm

Social Inequalities

Required Texts

Van Dijk, Jan AGM. “Inequalities in the Network Society.” In Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, edited by Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior, 105–124. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Kendall, Lori. “Meaning and Identity in ‘Cyberspace’: The Performance of Gender, Class, and Race Online.” Symbolic Interaction 21, no. 2 (May 1998): 129–153. doi:10.1525/si.1998.21.2.129.

Van Dijk

Van Dijk, Jan AGM. “Inequalities in the Network Society.” In Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, edited by Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior, 105–124. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

  • Digital Democracy
  • Social Network Analysis


Kendall, Lori. “Meaning and Identity in ‘Cyberspace’: The Performance of Gender, Class, and Race Online.” Symbolic Interaction 21, no. 2 (May 1998): 129–153. doi:10.1525/si.1998.21.2.129.

SOCI/ANTH 441 Coursenotes, Week 5

Pickering WordCloud


Pickering, Lucy (2010) “Toilets, Bodies, Selves: Enacting Composting as Counterculture in Hawai’i”, Body & Society 16(4): 33–55, doi:10.1177/1357034X10383882.

Pickering as Corpus

Distinctive words

toilets (83), toilet (67), composting (31), state (31), water (29).

Selected Terms

Toilets, toilet, composting, state, bodies, water, faeces, body, waste, defecation, urine, dirt, matter, flush, urination, sewers, land, bathrooms, sewer, plumbed, urinating, soil, rejection, home, drop, critique, trees, shit, modern, homes, compost, clean, bodily, sewage, self, privacy, polluting, pee, interior, food, covered, technology, embodied, electricity, waste, tree, technologies, plumbing, plastic, outside, enacting, enacted, dirty, buckets, sites, purified, porous, pollution, plants, nitrogen, materiality, material, leaky, grow, flows, faecal, excrement, enactment, dirt, defecate, closets, cannabis, zizek, venice, unclean, shavings, porousness, pipe, pipes, permeable, organic, materials, lavatories, houses, gardening, fertilizer, excretions, excremental, environment, enactments, dug, design, defecating, contamination, closet, civilization, water-heavy, tub, supermodern, stall, squat, sprays, solid, smells, shallow, septic, selves, scoop, rejected, recycling, receptacles, porcelain, places, placedness, outfalls, outdoors, nutrients, modern’, modernity’, leakiness, lava, indoor, hand-built, growth, goods, gallon, fruit, foods, flushed, fluids, floor, fissure, farmers, exuviae, exposed, expelled, excreta, encountering, embody, drainage, dirty, digestive, defecatory, decorated, cup, crochet, covers, coffee, clean’, cleanliness, cleaned, caravans, beans, rejecting, modernity, anti-modern

Themes and Threads

  • Waste and dirt beyond Douglas
  • Matter, substance
  • Environment, nature, space, sites, location
  • Body, embodiment, enactment
  • Toilet technology
  • (Super/Hyper/Liquid)Modern state
  • Cultural diversity

Suggested Complements

  • Postcolonial Studies 5(2)
  • Gordon, B. (2003) “Embodiment, Community Building, and Aesthetic Saturation in ‘Restroom World,’ a Backstage Women’s Space” Journal of American Folklore 116(462): 444–464, DOI:10.1353/jaf.2003.0061
  • Kundera, M. (1984) The Unbearable Lightness of Being. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Žižek, S. (1997) The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso.
  • Mol, A. and J. Law (2004) ‘Embodied Action, Enacting Bodies: The Example of Hypoglycaemia’, Body & Society 10(2–3): 43–62.

Coursenotes: SOCI/ANTH 441 Week 3 (Draft)

Wordcloud for Bates 2012
Wordcloud for Bates 2012
Word trends in Bates 2012
Word trends in Bates 2012

Baglama turc manche long.jpg
Baglama turc manche long“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bates Terms

objects, material, makers, wood, construction, agency, bowl, organology, object, networks, meanings, body, golem, woods, mulberry, things, strings, museum, making, maker, fabrika, chestnut, workshop, tool, museums, matter, kinesthesis, tools, thing-power, sts, production, network, embodiment, clay, classification, atölye, articulated, workshops, trees, string, spruce, sensoriums, r-making, pinch, organograms, neighborhood, materials, latour, kinesthetics, kinesthetic, houses, homes, craft, conservatories, carving, assemblages, assemblage, agentive, actor-network, actants, tree, saz-making, saz-maker, lyra-makers, households, hardwoods, handtools, embodied, classificatory, classifications, violin-maker, tanbur-making, networksthe, music-making, maker-customer, instrument-maker, house, fruitwoods, factory, factories, embodies, classify, atölye-like, articulate, actor-networks


Material Culture


  • Appadurai
  • Gell
  • Latour
  • Vannini
  • Woodward


  • Bijker
  • Callon
  • Law
  • Miller
  • Pinch
  • Riggins
  • Straw

Music and Organology

  • Barz
  • Berliner
  • DeVale
  • Dournon
  • Hood
  • Hornbostel
  • Kartomi
  • Qureshi
  • Rice
  • Sachs


  • Melville
  • Proulx

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.

Learning Objection

Context is key

Been thinking about learning. Nothing new there. What’s somewhat new is context. Context is complex, which is part of the reason I love contextuality so much.

In this case, the immediate context is “the holidays”, and more specifically, a time when I feel free to explore some things about which I deeply care. Hence, learning.

The broader context is that I applied for a position, back in late September. I’m still confident that I should eventually get this position (as, in all honesty and humbleness/humility, I know I’m the ideal person for the job), but the process is quite long and, according to people involved, effortful. Which means I’m in a sort of liminal state.

The position is for an education specialist in charge of an online learning portal affiliated with museums and other heritage institutions. Part of the work has to do with managing online resources meant for use in (formal) learning contexts. This material comes from museums and heritage societies and consists of (heritage) objects, lessons, and collections. Those who know EdTech can understand these items as “learning objects”, with all associated benefits and disadvantages.

Rethinking Learning Material

So I went back to the Learning Object (LO) literature (PDF). A bit messy and dusty, but I find quite a bit of value, in there. While I understand objections education and EdTech specialists have had as to the LO concept itself, I’m interested in work which has been done under the LO banner. The concept has lost much of its currency in some specialist contexts, but a specialist may still find inspiration in work which surrounded it.

I first learnt about LOs during the Spirit of Inquiry conference, back in 2007. That conference opened a “whole new world”, for me. I participated because it was hosted by my (still-current) learning institution and I tend to participate in all sorts of learning- and teaching-related activities, whenever I can. My own presentation (slidecast) was directly connected to what I later came to know as LOs. My basic idea was that learning material which could be shared online had some important benefits. Namely, this material can be free (as in speech), open, and flexible.

What I had in mind was quite simple. And I perceive this simplicity as a strength. I was talking about the kind of material that we, teachers, create anyway, regardless of other uses. You know, things like syllabi, handouts, bibliographies, quiz questions, study guides, lecture notes… Stuff which is sometimes taken to be “the content” of our work, but tends to merely be support for our teaching efforts. Some of us already share these with students and colleagues, whether or not we wish to protect them as our “intellectual property” (quiz questions don’t qualify, apparently). Other people guard them fiercely, often claiming that these things are the bulk of their “work”. Though I understand and respect the sentiment, I strongly feel that this stance devalues the rest of what we do namely, y’know, teaching.

But I digress.

Getting into Learning Objects

I was presenting “learning objects” without calling them as such. I was talking about “learning material” as anything which can be used in (or created through) learning contexts. I was unaware of conversations on LOs which had been happening for years (PDF), in the specialized field of “those who talk about education”. And when I first heard about LOs, I had a sort of driftoff moment, which I often have with learning content.

It happened during that same conference. Pierre-Julien Guay and Vitrine technologie éducation did a presentation on LOs and Learning Objects Repositories (LORs) called: The Tools of Online Learning: Learning Objects and Repositories. I was taken by the Mouse Party one, finding it both fun and effective (though I’m not often taken by these whiz-bang proof-of-concept multimedia features). More importantly, I was dreaming about possibilities afforded LO creation tools. Guay claimed that some of these could be created quite effortlessly, or so I remember. Certainly, Mouse Party took a lot of time, planning, and effort to successfully come out as a finished product with high production value. But VTÉ was able to help teachers create diverse LOs which would have plenty of benefits.

As it turns out, I have recently reconnected with Guay and should collaborate with LaboVTÉ in the near future. My memory of that Spirit of Inquiry talk is likely embellishing the truth. But that’s what happens with inspiration moments. I was imagining new possibilities for material to be used by learners. It made me quite enthusiastic. And it’s been among my dreams ever since.

Managing Learning Material

Since that time, I shifted my roles around quite significantly. Though I still give courses at Concordia, I’ve also become a freelance researcher and took a turn toward more extensive roles as an education specialist/consultant. Part of it was thanks to Spirit of Inquiry which paired me with John Bentley, an EdTech specialist and former producer who works at Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS). John, who became a good friend in the intervening years, was the one who made the introduction to my SoI session. Before we got started, he demonstrated some interest in my work and, after the session, enjoined me to do things with CTLS. Since that time, John and I have been doing workshops and other activities with CTLS, mostly focused on education uses of social media and other so-called “Web 2.0” services and tools. John also did a screencast (currently offline, it seems) with me on the same topic, and we’ve done a type of community management work, trying to help members of the Concordia community appropriate social media.

I haven’t really been creating or managing LOs at Concordia, but I did extensive work on online learning portals. Last summer, for instance, I created mockups of my ideal “learning management system” for the fun of it. These mockups were put to use in my application to an education specialist position.

More importantly, other parts of my work have been devoted to things related to LOs, at least in the simplified version I favour. For instance, I created ancillary material to accompany a textbook I had been using. With that material, I tried to push the publisher to release that material under a new model, in line with my Free, Open, Flexible idea. As community manager (“Web Guru” was the official title) for an academic organization, I created web spaces to share learning, research, and teaching material. I was particularly enthusiastic about a syllabus repository I created, partly because that work enabled me to learn a lot. But that database has yet to be used by the association’s members, an all-too-frequent occurrence when such things are designed based on intention. On the other hand, teachers have quickly appropriated a blog I had quickly created for them and populated it with useful resources. As is also frequent, innovative usage made a simple tool surprinsingly powerful. These experiences taught me valuable lessons which I have been transferring to other contexts.

One such context is my work with a community organization specialized in technological appropriation. I started that work before creating my syllabus database. But there have been multiple turning points in my roles there, and cross-fertilization with my work for the academic association has started happening during the last few years. For instance, the community organization’s own “learning resources”, designed by a specialized instructor, have partly given way to collaboration between people in the field.

I belong to the field. Not exclusively, of course. I actually enjoy armchair work, on occasion. Especially if it’s exploratory. And I’m Lévi-Straussian enough to enjoy tinkering with theoretical work. At heart, I’m both a fieldworker and a theory bricoleur. I thrive on both field and theory, on the ground and in the minds.

Which brings me back to LOs. I understand their issues, at theoretical and practical levels. But I still find them “useful to think with” (remaining in the Lévi-Strauss vein). What inspires me with LOs isn’t that neat demos can be made, though I understand the artistic value of creating neat things for their own sake. What I find most useful with LOs is that material could be remixed, tweaked, repurposed, reappropriated, made meaningful in new ways. The process of taking somebody else’s material and “running with it” is a complex one. It isn’t mere reuse like code libraries or LEGO blocks. It’s something closer to Jakobsonian translation: messy, hairy, difficult to explain.


The syllabus example is a useful one, I think. It’s common courtesy to share syllabi and it can even be part of an institutional practice. At my department, a (hard) copy of each syllabus is kept in a three-ring binder for colleagues to consult. In a way, it gives insiders a leg up when applying for new courses as, for part-timers, such applications require submission of a draft syllabus. The main idea, though, is that someone else’s syllabus can serve as inspiration. A syllabus, even one of our own, can’t simply be reused. At the very least, dates need to be changed. In some cases, adapting a syllabus can be quite effortful, almost as much as creating one from scratch. Yet the benefit of having other sources is that the effort revolves around improving from a base, not creating something completely new and untested. Going a step further, I’ve done collaborative syllabi in the past, deciding course topics with learners. Quite freeing and it contributes to increased engagement in the course material. If the syllabus is to be a contract between learners and teachers, why not negotiate that contract? There are ways to make the process quite seamless.

During my SoI session, I said I hadn’t meant anyone who was unwilling to share their syllabi. During workshops since then, I’ve met colleagues who wanted to closely guard their syllabi. Again, I understand the sentiment and I respect this attitude. If they build everything from scratch and perceive their courses as individual creations, they’re not benefitting from other people’s work and have no reason to share their work.

Many of us are in a different situation. We get a lot of inputs in building courses. To an extent, constructing a learning experience can be a collaborative experience between a large number of people, including past and current students, as well as administrators, colleagues at other institutions, scholarly authors, and even publishers.

Speaking of publishers, they could play a more active role in helping learners and teachers. As with any “content”-based industry, their relevance can shift quickly. There’s plenty of content to go around, much of it available at no cost or purpose-created by learners and teachers. Providing services to learners and teachers would be an entirely different matter than selling access to “content”. Though the principle applies to monographs and journal publishers as well, the situation is especially tricky with textbooks which have become a sore point in learning contexts. Not just in their rising costs, but in their continued rigidity in a fluid world. Sure, some of them allow people to mix and match chapters from different books or select specific chapters from a single book. They also provide ancillary material (including useful exercises), typically free of charge, as a way to sell their wares. There’s a whole lot more they could do to “service the educational market”. Something as simple as community management for people using the same material would go a long way to shield them from obsolescence. Creators have been finding new ways to keep their work relevant while working with a wider community. Publishers seem stuck in the same mode of operation which put journalism in jeopardy during the past several years.

There can be a strong connection between new roles for publishers and the promise of learning objects. In some cases, LOs are distributed by publishers. In other cases, publishers are “disintermediated” as LO creators provide their work for direct access by learners and teachers. Depending on how we define LOs, textbook chapters could qualify as a special type within a broader classification.

Textbook Chapters

The notion of a chapter is so ingrained that I haven’t heard much discussion of its arbitrariness. Some textbooks are organized in chapters following a weekly format. Others make more sense as course modules and some textbooks are divided in a more modular fashion, often as chapter sections. Textbooks’ range in granularity is as troublesome as with LO granularity. Though they’re typically the smallest units, modules remain relatively broad. This breadth, which makes sense in a linear model, makes textbook material difficult to adapt to other contexts. While textbook writing styles tend to be neutral, textbook chapters maintain their sources’ imprimatur. Since textbooks published by conventional entities are rarely, if ever, available in easily repurposed formats, chapters can hardly be remixed, tweaked, or adapted. Just like syllabi and most other LOs, textbook chapters and modules can’t really be “reused”. Unlike LEGO blocks (but like chia pet pottery and seed crystals), these chapters can’t really be used to make something different from the cathedrals on their covers.

Reuse is a chimera. (Hat tip: Tony Hursh)

Even LEGO blocks have strong limitations as they can’t be matched to other blocks, merged, or reshaped. Sure, LEGO blocks do offer limitless possibilities and, as Hodgins had it (Doc), they satisfy the needs of both people who wish to follow straightforward instructions and those who prefer exploring (I’m mostly in the latter camp and only spent a small amount of time with LEGO blocks in their original configuration). That type of flexibility is inspiring. It’s still quite limited.

The type of flexibility I have in mind is closer to the blank canvas or sheet of paper. The analogy with the human faculty for language might be apt, as natural languages are rule-based yet open the widest possible range of ideas to be processed or shared.

Language and Flexibility

Which leads me to another digression. (Feel free to skip, as it’s convoluted. Consider yourselves warned.)

Linguistic diversity brings richness to language use, both between languages and within a single language. At the same time, any linguistic variety can convey any thought, from any other linguistic variety. Contrary to prescriptivists’ claims, languages can also be used freely and gain tremendous beauty from their messiness. From speech sounds to discourse and from words to utterances, languages’ “building blocks” have diverse levels of granularity. In fact, languages can differ quite a bit in this sense. Yet all these “building blocks” can be retooled, retold, repurposed, recombined, recreated, remixed, reappropriated, reinterpreted. Unlike LEGO blocks and chia pet pottery, languages’ objects aren’t “designed”. Unlike seed crystals, languages’ objects don’t follow a straightforward causal structure.

Notice that I’m talking about natural languages, not artificial ones. Some artificial languages may have several of the same features, and could also serve much of the same needs. But I’m specifically not talking about programming languages, which are quite far from natural languages, especially when it comes to the type of flexibility I have in mind. Computer languages are fully designed and they have strict limits. In fact, Turing-completeness is probably the most appropriate description of the range of possibilities afforded programming in general. Features of specific computer languages can bring them richness but these languages’ affordances mostly have to do with efficiency, efficacy, and convenience. Almost famously, computer languages can only be mixed and mashed in very specific ways. Code in one language may make a call to some item in another language, under specific circumstances. But the freedom with which human languages can borrow from each other is unmatched by computer languages.

Notice also that I’m not merely talking about words. Speech isn’t merely about stringing lexemes together. The packaging and parsing of utterances is much more complex than that, which is part of the reason Chomsky has had such a lasting influence on linguistics. In addition, there’s a whole lot more to language than syntactic structures, something Chomsky is only starting to realize now, near the end of a long and illustrious career. Language has a complex relationship with culture, cognition, and context which cannot be deduced from the structure of sentences.

Notice, finally, that my emphasis is on spoken language but the same principles apply to sign languages and to the encoding of speech into text.

Natural human languages are among the most flexible things we have at our disposal.

A funny thing happens with languages, despite this flexibility. They don’t typically provoke anxiety the way a blank page might, with some people. Or a blank score. Or a blank canvas. Much of the reason may have to do with the role of language in early development of human beings. Maybe infants do feel anxiety when given their native languages (L1). But “not knowing what to say” isn’t much of an issue for people learning a second language (L2), as far as I can tell. A wide open field of possibilities can be overwhelming, but language causes other feelings, including being overwhelmed by the amount of learning necessary to achieve in L2 what comes “naturally” in L1.

Finding Inspiration in Learning Objects

I’m not really trying to find yet another analogy to discuss learning objects. Analogies quickly outlive their usefulness.

I’m merely trying to think about inspiration.

I find languages inspiring, partly because of my background in semiotics and linguistic anthropology. This flexibility I’m describing is part of that inspiration.

Inspiration is indeed a keyword in this context. Inspiration can be much more productive than reuse. It also requires more work or, poetically put, “perspiration”. Which might be the reason why instructional designers and administrators have put so much emphasis on reuse, in discussing learning objects. Reuse is a chimera. Inspiration, though much harder to formalize, is a constant reality.

A cool thing about inspiration is that, like learning, it’s a subjective experience. And, like learning, its objects can be anything. Someone may find the foul smell of a backalley inspiring while another may be inspired by the voice of a loved one. Still like learning, inspiration gets new ideas in the mind of a person, whether or not these thoughts exist in other people’s minds. Contrary to innovation, learning and inspiration aren’t necessarily about things which are novel or useful for society as a whole. One person’s epiphanies need not be measured by external standards.

Going back to syllabi and textbook chapters, inspiration makes a whole lot more sense than reuse. You can’t reuse a syllabus but you can use it as inspiration. A textbook chapter can be too restrictive, but its content may be inspiring. Same thing with all sorts of content, from lecturecasts to interactive demos.

Creating a new textbook chapter from scratch requires a lot of work. Building learning material using disparate “objects” can ease the process, and inspiration can serve as a guiding principle, additive synthesis instead of recording. In my experience, a lot of things are built up this way, even when the process ends up sounding like a completely independent, top-down approach.

Other processes are possible, closer to substractive synthesis. Some complicated objects may be taken apart and then rebuilt. Some complex objects may be tweaked, analysed, or repurposed. In fact, the computer world which served as inspiration for learning objects is full of these. Sure, coders use code libraries on a routine basis. Some objects and classes may also be reused, in object-oriented languages. All nice and well, though not that inspiring, IMHO. What made it possible for computing, networked communication, and object-oriented programming so powerful is something much simpler and taken for granted: copying.

Copy Rite (of Passage)


Most if not all programmers do a lot of their work from an existing codebase. Maybe Carmack doesn’t do it that way. He’s the exception, not the norm. Whether it’s a full app or a small code snippet, a code recipe or an embed code, the copy/paste gesture (or some variant thereof) is fundamental to a lot of programming.

I Am Not a Coder (…and I Don’t Play one on the Interwebs)

One reason I think about this copy/paste gesture in programming is because I’ve been delving into computer code, again (at units point, I’m focusing on App Inventor, Blockly, Python, Ruby on Rails, LiveCode, JavaScript, and Processing). I first did a bit of BASIC as a preteen on a ViC–20, then learnt very little LOGO in high school, played with some HyperCard/HyperScript and AppleScript as a late teen, learnt some shell and C as a young adult, to eventually dabble in HTML, Perl, LaTex, XML, and PHP over the last fifteen years. Through all of this, I’ve never become an actual coder but I did create a few productive things. I’m obviously no authority on coding techniques but I do get quite a few things out of hearing coders discuss their craft.

I’m inspired by/to code

The ability to reproduce something so seamlessly, on a computer, means that coders can create completely new things by combining and modifying existing things. Branching or forking a software project has become an important practice in the Github world, but starting from existing code happens at other levels. Changing one line of code can occasionally have a deep impact on a computer program. Mixing in bits and pieces of code from diverse sources can be enough to create completely new software. This extremely simple process is one of the most important preliminary conditions for Free/Libre Open Source Software development. Without the ability to copy code (say because everything is on punchcards), the history of computing and the (semi-official) history of the Internet would be quite different.

Not just for coders. Almost anything people do with computers, nowadays, rely on copying. Text editing is a useful example, as a major difference between a typewriter (even a sophisticated one) and a computer (however rudimentary) is the ability to work on preexisting material. Memory has been added to typewriters at some point in its late history. But, unless I’m mistaken, text editing pretty much started with the ability to process existing text. It may be difficult for us to imagine how it was when people had to rewrite or retype text to modify it. Something as commonplace today as fixing a typo or shifting paragraphs would have required very powerful a typewriter and would only be possible to do if the text remained in memory. It’s actually something I think about on a fairly regular basis, as changes in writing and changes in technology could be connected, in complex ways.

As those who debate filesharing know full well, sending a file is a form of copying. There might be legal and even ethical issues involved in a few key cases, but the act of sharing information is, after all, the very basis of the Internet. From RFCs (Requests for Comments) to “viral videos”, the Internet is really “just” a system to send chunks of information around. The size of these chunks and the content of what is transmitted may matter a lot from a technical standpoint. Yet the same (extremely basic) principle applies to anything done online.

Something like this can be said about learning objects. Sure, their granularity may matter a lot, from a technical standpoint. So does the context in which they are used. People may argue until they’re blue in the face as to what should really constitute a real, genuine, authentic, standards-approved LO. I even care about such discussions. But I also find it very useful and inspiring to go back to first principles.

Back to First Principles

I’m interested in any object which can be used or created in learning contexts.

I find the copying of these objects fascinating. From the convenience of building upon material we’ve created in the past to finding inspiration in something we find or collaborating on a shared project, what we do with learning material can be awe-inspiring.

This post is mostly about learning objects. The title refers in part to “objections” people have had with regards to the LO concept. David Wiley, who’s been associated with a rather enthusiastic approach to LOs, has also discussed their “difficulties” (PDF) which could also represent significant objections. I share these objections, when it comes to the most elaborate conceptions of LOs. Rethinking learning material needs not be restricted by the debates on LOs. So, in a way, I object to the focus on objections, though I agree with their content.

Learning Object…ives

(Warning: Another potentially convoluted digression. This one is quick, though.)

My title also comes from learning objectives, an entirely different issue but one which also gives me some inspiration. In this case, I tend to be on the “con” side. Not that I find no value in spelling out clear learning objectives in formal educational contexts. Simply, I find that learning objectives may have some unwanted consequences, when it comes to learning in a broader sense.

Again, learning is, in a deep sense, a subjective experience. Sure, a number of people try to measure learning objectively. But learning is still, broadly speaking, about a subject’s mind making new neural connections. The output of one person’s learning process may be identical to somebody else’s output, but that output isn’t the same thing as learning. Learning objectives emphasize this output.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this and decided to put it in this post is that Google sent me to a blogpost on learning objectives as I was exploring discussions of learning objects. I can readily relate to that blogpost and was pleased to find, in the comments, a thoughtful and insightful discussion which helped me think about learning objectives in a somewhat new way. A follow up post was also useful, in getting some of my ideas in a more specific form.

Alex on Learning

Part of my reactions have to do with the ways I tend to think about learning. Much of the emphasis is on formal, directed, goal-oriented, measurable learning. There’s a whole industry on this type of thing. My own personal branch of constructivism is concerned with all forms of learning, including potentially disruptive “learning experiences” and all sorts of learning processes which cannot be controlled by teachers, instructors, administrators, or education specialists. I care deeply about agency and I hope learning can serve to deepen and/or expand people’s “spheres of agency” (hat tip Kristian Gareau). I care more about this possibility than about fulfilling requirements. After all:

My role in life is help people accomplish their own goals, regardless of what I think of these goals.

All told, my thinking on learning (and on technology) is deepening. Whether or not I get the position I covet, this is very positive an outcome.

ATT8: Alternatives to Textbooks

[It’s potentially dangerous for me to blog about this since I have many ideas on the topic. But thinking about teaching is something I enjoy so these “tidbits” are almost a release…]

I use textbooks in two of my courses: introductory sociology and introductory cultural anthropology. More accurately, I still use textbooks. But I do want to switch away from textbooks in these courses.

In some contexts, such as a discussion of the usefulness of textbooks in anthropology, I’m almost defensive in my description of the role textbooks play in my teaching. It’s a sign of ambivalence, of course. But the fact that I still use textbooks shows that something weighs in their favour, Despite being problematic, textbooks still seem useful to me and I have yet to find an alternative.

But I think a solution is finally on the horizon. It’s a bit difficult to explain and may seem farfetched or even crazy, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. So it may be the right time to put it in writing.

A few words about how I use and choose textbooks…

I perceive textbooks as shared resources, rallying points, conversation starters. study guides, “lecture notes”, and sources for examples. Textbooks aren’t ideal for any of this, but they’re rather unique in fulfilling all of these functions.

Textbooks are also expected to be part of at least some courses. The two main introductory courses I teach are of that type. If I were not to use textbooks at all, I’d have to propose something else.

Which leads me to thinking about existing alternatives to textbooks…

A relatively uncommon practice, but one I’ve experienced as a student, is for instructors to teach from extensive coursenotes, without making use of shared texts. In such a case, the “content” is “delivered” in the classroom. Without being common practice, it wasn’t unknown at Université de Montréal, where I did my B.Sc. in anthro (back in the early 1990s). I suspect that this approach was somewhat common in French-speaking contexts a while before that. It avoids all problems associated with textbooks, but it has none of the advantages textbooks have. In fact, because it puts so much emphasis on the “sage on the stage” model, it’s incompatible with my teaching philosophy.

Apart from my main “intros”, all of my courses are built on “coursepacks”. A coursepack is a custom package of primary texts which weren’t originally connected to one another. I like this approach in any course and have been thinking about ways to shift my intros to something of a coursepack model.

The traditional coursepack model is to send a bunch of texts to a third-party service which will make all the necessary enquiries to ensure copyright compliance and then print coursepacks to be sold at the bookstore. At Concordia, the university bookstore currently handles the whole process. Eastman Systems used to do it. In both cases, the process requires a lot of lead time. It’s thus more flexible than the textbook model but remains quite constraining. As I do most of my reading online, it’s actually far from ideal. But it’s an interesting alternative to publishers’ textbooks.

I have yet to find a way to use coursepacks in my main “intros”. I know some colleagues do it and I could invest time in such a solution. But the convenience of traditional textbooks still seems to me to outweigh the costs of the textbook model. (Yes, this is where I get defensive.)

In some contexts, I was able to use a model which was an alternative to traditional coursepacks, using online reserve instead. In those situations, I could select texts during the semester and have them on online reserve quickly after that. It was close to an ideal model, especially paired with the collaborative syllabus. But it requires three things which I don’t currently have: reasonable copyright laws, access to a service dealing with copyright compliance, and efficient electronic reserve. I can get somewhat close to this approach at Concordia, but some pieces are still missing.

It’s also possible to use “readers”, which are midway between coursepacks and textbooks since they contain primary texts but those are edited together and published like textbooks. I haven’t used readers. To me, they have some of the advantages coursepacks have (multiple voices, intellectual depth) but also most of the disadvantages of textbooks, including a lack of flexibility and all the issues associated with commercial publishing.

Of course, there are people who simply post files online without worrying about legal implications. This is obviously a non-solution, as failure to comply with copyright laws, however arcane these laws may be, can have dire consequences on learning institutions.

Which leads me to the first key issue I identify with textbooks: “the content industry”. As I said two years ago:

If your only business is “content,” now might be a good time to think about diversifying.

(My approach to “content” has long been the basis for diverse discussions, including one which got me cited by tycho garen in such august company as John Gruber and Merlin Mann. Incidentally, I’ve been listening to a number of 5by5 podcasts, including those by Mann and Gruber. Textbooks have been a topic of discussion in those podcasts and part of my thinking may have shifted because of them.)

Got lots to say about content, which is part of the reason why I was worried this post may become overwhelming. But I’ll summarize the situation as much as I can.

For the past ten to fifteen years, an increasing number of people have been made aware of problems with “content-based models”, especially in terms of “publishing”. The context for this increased awareness is the expansion of the Internet. But the process started much earlier, with the transformation of information into “content”, consolidation in diverse industries, and what scholars have long been calling “postmodernism”. As you might notice, I’m specifically not saying that one of these things caused any of the others. But I see connections between all of them. They “go together well”.

The first well-known case of a “content industry” having some difficulty is the one involving music labels, the so-called “Music Industry”. At the very end of the 20th Century, the “Napster Revolution” associated with trading of audio files was a turning point for music labels and the business model on which they relied. Some might say that it was quickly over. And there are many points of continuity in the “political economy of music”. But the current state of music-related business is clearly in a “post-” phase: it’s significantly different from what it was twenty years ago. I wrote extensively about this on a blog which is currently offline. I happen to think that this turning point in the way musical “content” is distributed is the early model of turning points happening elsewhere.

Subsequent “content industries” going through major transformations include films, video games, journalism, and books (possibly in that order, with significant overlap). In each of these cases (including music), “intellectual property” has been used as a core concept in discussions surrounding the “content shift”. I’ve had (and still have) a lot of things to say about any of these. But I’m focusing on textbooks which, I’d argue, are just now going through a major shift.

Most of the problems associated with textbooks have to do with the content model. What textbook publishers do is quite elaborate and rather complex (from dealing with authors and editing texts to obtaining media usage rights and coaxing people into “adopting” textbooks). But their main business model is based on selling access to content. That model isn’t obsolete and some publishers can survive for a little while longer. But it’s clearly not forward looking.

Access to content can take many forms, many of which incur no cost to the person accessing such content. Typically, “content access” and the business model behind the creation of this content are disconnected.

Borrowing books from a public library is a key form of “content access”, and it’s typically paid by taxes. Watching television advertisement can be described as access to content, paid by advertisers. Even glancing at someone’s “freesheet” in the métro is “accessing content”, and it’s also paid by advertisers. Open Access journals, YouTube, WordPress/Moodle/Joomla/Sakai/Drupal, CraigslistKhan Academy, Wikipedia, and iTunes U all focus on “access to content” but their business models clearly separate production costs from access costs (with the result that access to content is often “free as in beer”). Even a café conversation can be conceived as “content access” and it’s associated with no direct cost in money. (Interestingly, the UnivCafé model does involve some financial costs, which are covered partly by Concordia University’s School of Extended Learning, and partly by donations. I’ve been on the record about my interest in this model.)

The “elephant in the room” is “online piracy”, which contains in its name the notion that it’s illicit or illegitimate access to content. Those who pirate content online typically don’t pay directly for that same content (though, according to some peer-sharing enthusiasts, these same users may be more likely than others to spend money online, including for “content”).

Of course, all of these things are much more than “content access” and reducing all of them to the same model should eventually show the absurdity of said models to those who aren’t in the “content industry”. “Access to content” isn’t really a business model. Were publishers able to get past the “content access” model, we may finally get an improvement over textbooks.

Call me naïve, but I think the shift is finally happening.

Part of it is through the slow transition from physical textbooks for electronic ones.

Which makes this blogpost into a followup to a post I wrote just before Apple’s iBooks Author announcement. In that previous post, I tried to talk about “learning content” in as general a way as possible, making as explicit as possible the notion that “content” is but a small part of learning. It encapsulated something about which I’ve been adamant: those of us who are interested in learning and teaching should not focus so much on content.

But I’ve been so “obsessed” with this issue that I haven’t been heeding my own advice. I keep talking about content despite the fact that I care a whole lot more about learning.

And my focus on content is part of what prevented me from thinking further than textbooks. As I kept going back to those problems with textbooks which are associated with content (cost, medium, distribution, usage rights, rigidity…), I was missing a core point  about textbooks: they intrude on, encroach upon, interfere with, and disrupt the relationships between learners and teachers. Their existence is a form of «ingérence».

See, my teaching philosophy is based on constructivism. Though I still lecture, I’m looking at alternative teaching models, which may put me at odds with some colleagues. I eventually found a way to use textbooks which makes sense to me. Point is, I care more about “building a context in which learning happens” than about “transmission of content”.

My class meetings now have the following structure…

Students come prepared, having worked with some textual material and, in the case of introductory sociology, taken a reading quiz about the class material (teamwork exercises serve part of the same role in my introductory anthropology). So, at the beginning of the class period, we go through a kind of collective Q&A session during which the class comes up with both questions and (partial) answers. Though I often end up providing extended answers to some questions, I try to engage the whole class in the process. In the two sections of introductory sociology with which I work, this semester, many questions are the outcome of reading quizzes. Taking those quizzes, students often find out that they may not have fully understood some core concept or aren’t yet able to apply a given perspective. That Q&A section of each class meeting often takes more than half of the classroom time. As it’s the one part which most directly depends on face-to-face interactions with the whole class, it makes a lot of sense that it’d be the core part of classroom interaction.

Another proportion of class time is devoted to “tangents” which connect the material with diverse issues. These discussions are especially useful for learners who reached the “upper” positions in “William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development”. At the same time, they might be less appropriate for students who (still) focus on “what’s the right answer that I need to remember for the exam”. In prior semesters, these tangents took a very significant portion of the class time. The shift from these discussions to Q&A is probably the most significant change in my teaching, this semester. Perhaps due to this shift, online forums in this course have become much more active than they ever were in the past. Parenthetical discussions work quite well online and I’m convinced that they do accomplish a lot in terms of the “higher domains” in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

During the last (and often shortest) portion of each class meeting, I go on “lecturing mode” to prepare students for the material which is coming up. In other words, I spend twenty minutes to half an hour at the end of each class period trying to get students started with a new topic. While my lectures are relatively “classic” in format (in fact, I feel the need to work on this structure, as I often end up running against the clock, at that point), they are mostly oriented toward giving learners their first exposure to some ideas, concepts, and issues. As a compulsive outliners, I base my “lecture mode” on slides with bullet points. But what I may say in relation to these bullet points varies quite a bit. At times, I will teach students concept definitions which are meant to help them understand the material (these are relatively rare and almost choreographed, with artificial pauses)  During “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” moments, I even hint at potentially tricky quiz questions. Otherwise, much of the lecture section is a restructuring of the material in a way which makes sense to me. This is where my outlining is probably the most obvious.

As you might notice, my class meetings devote little time to summary of textbook content. Even those short sections when I restructure that content, emphasis is on the connections between ideas, not with the “content”.

Having used several different textbooks in my teaching, I have a lot of “content” in my mind. In fact, some of the “bullet points” I present in class are carried over from prior teaching experiences which may have relatively little to do with the material for this one course. While I’ll never go to the “text-less teacher-driven content delivery model” I described about my UdeM past, I often muse about teaching without textbooks.

As a partial step in that direction, I started using a Wikibook in introductory sociology, a few years ago. It’s somewhat fragmentary as a textbook so I also use a printed textbook (recently switched from OUP’s “critical” Knuttila to Pearon’s “contested” Hale). However, were I to expand the Wikibook, I may be able to teach without a traditional textbook. If I succeed in doing so and colleagues start following suit, textbook publishers may run into deeper problems than they currently imagine. And it has very little to do with “piracy”, as the “content” used in my courses would be completely legitimate and licit, licensed through Creative Commons or taken from the Public Domain.

What’s more, I could easily complement the “textual content” with all sorts of things, including “interactive material”, collaborative activities, and open discussions. Almost any website could allow for this and I have most of the infrastructure in place to make it doable.

The only thing I’m missing is a bit of “content”. Not much, as the Wikibook is fairly extensive. But enough to make this experience of learning in this environment a clear improvement over textbooks. With just a bit of grant- or fellowship-style funding to devote some person-hours on such a project, it’d be easy to produce most of that content, including a large part of the job which is usually done by publishers.

There are many projects like this, going on. In my mind, it’s only a question of time before publishers are required to pivot their business model.

What I’ve been thinking about is, obviously, a shift away from the “content access” model. I kept thinking that publishers should transform into a service bringing together people who use the same content. Instead of “selling access to textbooks as content” (and offering some services as a way to force people into “adopting” their textbooks), publishers could be paid for services which are truly added value over that content. If access to content were free of charge, a lot could be done around that content. During a recent crisis with journalism, a lot of things have been said about curation and advertising. While advertising models are antithetical to the learning models most of us have in mind, something close to curation makes a lot of sense in learning and teaching. What I have in mind has less to do with “recommendation engines” than with “localization”. The idea, here, is closer to “citizen journalism” than to HuffPo. The added twist is that some people would be paid to adapt the “content” (including “ancillary material”) to specific contexts.

And this is where the hard work and added value can be found. It’s not that difficult to “produce content”, especially if we think about what we do as lecturers or the “content” created by students. As some of my students just created an elaborate study guide to prepare for my midterm (and claimed that it was easy to do), I have a neat example of how effortlessly that may happen.

What takes more effort, though, is creating appropriate material, such as exam questions related out of a classroom discussion, moderating a forum, or editing a text to make it understandable by outsiders. It would make sense to pay people to do some of these things. In some cases, the amounts paid for all sorts of learning-related services could be as much, if not more, as what is currently paid by students for textbooks. Sure, it requires some creativity to make the business model work. But that’s the reason people like Clay Christensen and Horace Dediu are around. True disruption in the market doesn’t happen by merely extending the current business models.

Most of this has been on my mind for quite a while. And though I spent some time explaining it, I still went rather quickly about it.

What has just hit me is the part about learner-teacher relationships. With all the talk about “student engagement”, we may forget the “intermediation effect” textbooks (and standardized examinations!) have had on the relationship between students and teachers. By moving away from textbooks, we can “disintermediate education”.

I had a sort of epiphany while reviewing a textbook manuscript. A significant part of the problem I had with that manuscript is that it was a “voice from nowhere, talking to ‘my’ students”. Not that I’m protecting of my students. But I was imagining a situation in which we were using this text as “content” for a course. As I imagined this, I grew increasingly concerned about the effect such a text could have on the most interesting things happening in my classes. My guess is that a large number of teachers have had an experience of “battling with a text” (because it’s confusing, misleading, inaccurate, inappropriate, outdated, boring, or flat out offensive). Beyond the frustration of being unable to modify the text to be more appropriate is the broader issue that teaching shouldn’t be about transmitting somebody else’s dogma. Especially not university teaching.

Fortunately, I can now choose which textbook I adopt. And I might soon elect not to use any textbook.


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]

ATT7: Prewrite

I have this simple policy: you submit something at least one week in advance in one of my courses, I give you feedback so that you can improve this assignment and submit it again by the due time.

Here’s how I’m stating it in my syllabi, this semester:

Extra credit will not be given in this class. However, if you submit a written assignment at least one week in advance of its due date, I will be able to provide you with feedback on your assignment and allow you to rewrite it based on this feedback. Rewriting an assignment does not guarantee a better grade but should enhance your learning process and might allow you to improve your grade.

In class, I often do contextualize it in the “no extra credit” frame. And I spend some time explaining how it works in my teaching philosophy, including the comparison with my approach to marking and grading.

The feedback I give on “prewrites” is usually very elaborate. One reason I’m posting this is that I sent feedback on a few prewrites. In the case of one 3000 word assignment, my feedback was 1700 words. (This blogpost contains 654 words.) In the case of some short assignment submission (say, 300 words or less), I’m sure I’ve sent feedback which was actually longer than the assignment itself.

I call it a “prewrite” because, in my head at least, it seems to conjure appropriate connotations. It’s fairly idiosyncratic a policy, at least the way I spell it out, but I know colleagues do very similar things.

One peculiarity of my “prewrite” policy is that it’s very dissimilar to the way I grade assignments.

Because, when I grade assignments for a course, I actually give very short feedback. For several reasons, I don’t annotate every page. I basically summarize my comments in a “holistic” fashion (after all, I’m an ethnographer). That “holistic feedback” tends to be mostly positive. I emphasize the high points of the assignment. [dramatic-rendition]”Oh, I see that you emphasized this one point from the material. That’s a good start as it can lead you to talk about these other things we’ve been discussing…”[/dramatic-rendition]. My actual comments are frequently more subtle and they’re not passive-aggressive (at least, not in the way I intend or perceive them), but they seem to have the intended effect: let students know what was appropriate and help them find ways to improve, either in the next assignment, in the rest of their academic careers, or even during the rest of their lives.

I do the same thing for any kind of grade apart from that given on exam answers. It can be on a final paper, on a self-assessed grade for contributions (yes, I do grade contributions), on a project plan, etc. I even use the abbreviated marks described previously on open answers to exam questions, but without this more “textual” feedback.

To a limited extent, I might scale up this feedback on assignments when I perceive some extra effort may have been made or when I feel that my evaluation requires some justification. But, overall, the type of feedback I give on an assignment which wasn’t a prewrite will might be around three or four sentences. Of course, I’m always ready to provide more feedback. Still, from what I’ve seen, extended feedback is rarely request. Even when students ask for additional comments, sometimes in a rather confrontational manner, the extra feedback I give them isn’t necessarily appreciated or even understood in the most appropriate frame of mind. Which might give you some idea why my “normal” feedback is so limited. (Additional reasons provided upon request.. 😉 )

But this blogpost wasn’t meant to be about “normal” feedback. It’s about prewrites and what they can do.

Simply put, I love it when I get to give feedback on a prewrite. To me, it means that the student is taking an actual interest in the learning process. Sure, the prospect of potentially increasing her/his grade is likely the main motivation. Sure, in some cases, students get “more than they bargained for.” They thought it was a way to get their grade raised automatically by virtue of submitting the assignment ahead of time. (These students probably have a rather big surprise when they receive my feedback, especially since I can then be brutally honest as to what could have been done. Not that implementing changes based on my feedback is likely to take a lot of time. But those students who seem to misunderstand my prewrite policy as an easy way to increase their grades are also those who make no change whatsoever to their assignments.)

Still, most students who submit prewrites are actually looking for feedback and are taking an active part in the learning process.

Whatever reasons a student has in mind submitting a prewrite, the effect is the same. Whether it’s based on a misinterpretation or on a genuine desire to enhance her/his learning experience, as long as the student reads my feedback, s/he ends up focusing on the work instead of on getting the highest grade in the most effortless manner (or on ensuring s/he gets the grade s/he thinks s/he deserve as an “entitled” student). Even if it were just for this, I’d be happy to get these prewrites.

But there’s more. Not only “a lot more” but something qualitatively more significant.

The feedback I give clearly has an impact on the work being done. It’s all good and well to get students to take an active part in the learning process. Some would even take this for granted. But there’s something about providing “extended feedback which is likely to be taken into consideration” which is worth more than any amount of time I’m able to spend on it.

See, by providing this kind of effect, I’m often able to help students achieve something special. It’s not about me, but it relates to my work. And there’s little more satisfying than this kind of work. “Teaching moments” in the classroom come close or even reach the same level of satisfaction. But that’s because the same basic idea is at stake: in the classroom as on paper (or online), you’re helping create something. And this something is often more than students thought they were able to create.

This is one of the situations in which I perceive myself as a sherpa. And I specifically think about Tenzing Norgay.

(As an anthropologist, I take solace in the fact that Norgay is credited, along with Hillary, as being one of the two human beings who first set foot at the top of Mount Everest. Given the structure of the world in the mid-twentieth Century, I wouldn’t expect Norgay to have received praises. In fact, mountaineering is specifically a domain in which credit may be given to people in a rather arbitrary way. But, at least if the version of the story I’ve heard about is accurate, the fact that Tenzing Norgay can be celebrated means a lot to me. It also makes me think of those cinematographers who accompany people during great feats. The fact that they get to those same spots carrying a lot of equipment often makes me wonder if they’re not the real heroes. But I digress especially far since I don’t want this to be about heroism..)

Of course, I don’t compare myself to Tenzing Norgay. But I find inspiration in what he accomplished. He not only accomplished a great feat himself (something I don’t see myself capable of) but he enabled somebody else’s great feat (something I perceive very highly).

With students who are “at the top of their game,” serving as a sherpa can be very satisfying because the results can reveal intellectual prowess. But, even though it means “improving something which was already good,” it’s relatively easy to do because these students have stimulation, motivation, and possibly drive, not to mention mad sk1||z.

The situation at the other extreme can be as satisfying but it’s also more “touching” and less impressive. You get a student whose “game,” for whatever reason, isn’t at the very top. Someone who probably wouldn’t get a very high grade in the course if it weren’t for your help. And, despite your help, this student may not achieve the type of proficiency that your grading scheme puts at the top. Yet this student improves her/his work through concerted effort with you. In other words, you’re not helping Hillary climb Mount Everest. But it’s a bit as if you were helping a paralympian climb the Matterhorn. Sure, other people have been there. In fact, some people set records on doing it quickly. In my mind, though, at least in terms of “overcoming some preconceived notions of what can be done,” what you’re helping someone do is more significant than setting a new world record.

As is often the case when I think about teaching, I get to reminisce about my father’s career as a high school teacher for students with learning disabilities. On numerous occasions, my father was able to help students get over significant hurdles. One occasion I remember quite vividly is when he helped a well-motivated student complete three years in one. Part of the reason I remember this is that I was present during some study sessions my father did with that student. I vaguely remember her, but I can say that this is an occasion for me to be proud of my father. And it surely had a large impact on my perception of teaching.

But what probably had a deeper impact and is more impressive in so many ways is something I rarely discuss: my mother’s career. For most of her working life, including while she was working on the more administrative side of things, my mother was an occupational therapist helping adults and children suffering from MR. [Having a hard time with the English term. The French «déficience intellectuelle» seems to me more appropriate..]

Many of the people with whom my mother worked had Down Syndrome. Probably more than the physical handicap to which I alluded, in the “paralympian climing the Matterhorn” idea, Down Syndrome sets a very strict limit to what the person can or cannot do. While we’ve all heard cases of “physical disabilities” being overcome to the extent that the person may accomplish feats a “normally able” person is unlikely to accomplish, Down Syndrome may prevent some rather normal tasks from ever being undertaken. This description of Down Syndrome may be wholly inaccurate, as I’m not an expert in the field (unlike my mother who has been spending the past few weeks among Swiss mountains, including the Matterhorn). And I certainly don’t want to understate the challenges facing those with physical disabilities. But my limited experience with Down Syndrome adults and children left in me a lasting impression. Close to helplessness. Making rather mundane tasks into monumental achievements.

It takes more than courage and determination to overcome significant hurdles such as a mental or physical handicap. Whatever the case may be, the inspiration to not take for granted some of the simplest things in life runs deep.

Of course, the students who take my courses in a university setting are as far as you could get from suffering from MR. Though there have been differences in terms of specific accomplishments, it doesn’t escape me that people who go to universities represent but a fraction of society as a whole and that, in a certain sense, the distinction implied bears some relationship to possessing intelligence which is often ranked much higher than average. [My perspective on intelligence isn’t one which puts people on a linear scale, so I’m hard-pressed to find a way to express this which makes sense in my mind and addresses some common perceptions about university students.]

The part of my mother’s career which most directly inspires my teaching, with the sherpa analogy in mind, is precisely that ability isn’t a given and that there isn’t a direct correlation between assumed ability and potential achievement.

It might be one reason behind my rather strong negative reactions to the infamous “sense of entitlement” perceived on some campuses (“campi” is allegedly frowned upon). Comparing a university student’s achievements to those of someone with Down Syndrome may seem exceedingly strange (and even, given social stigma on MR, very insulting). Using extreme examples about mental abilities to show the importance of intellectual humility and intellectual honesty is very tricky. But if it helps people become more thoughtful about the specificity of university work, the risk is worth it.

I’ve already been on long tangents and I should probably cut this up in two or more posts. But I need to go.