My Christmas (To Do) List

check-markWhenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by my “to do” list I get the impulse to make it public, because by doing so, I somehow bracket it and make it feel less overwhelming. This is my “work” to-dos. I have family coming for the holidays, there’s a lot that needs to happen around the house (we are considering selling and finding a place with more space and less commute), and some long-delayed major dental work that needs to be done, but you really don’t care about that. And I’ve left off all the exciting things like committee work, advising, writing letters of reference for people, refereeing, etc.

Honestly, you probably don’t care about any of this, but I’m putting it out there because (a) you might care, and might actually want to be involved in some way and (b) nobody really reads this blog any more so it’s not too self involved to do this. I guess I could always make my To Do list entirely public–but I suspect that would increase rather than decrease my stress. I’ll put that project on a back burner for now.

1. Funding Proposal. Trying to put together a proposal to the NSF for extending the work on BadgePost, applying it to peer-certification of social science methodology expertise. This is a bit of a last-minute push, but I’m hoping to throw it together pretty quickly. Two of the people I asked to serve on the advisory committee are applying to the same solicitation, so my suspicion are odds are pretty low here, but it’s worth a try, at least. Also Co-PI on a different proposal with a colleague.

2. Book Proposal. I’ve been saying I’m writing this book, All Seeing for years, but haven’t actually proposed it to a press. I need to do that before Christmas, and getting the book in some kind of drafty state will be the major project of the first part of 2016.

3. Talk at Harvard. If you are in chilly Cambridge in late January, I’ll be giving a short talk and a discussion with Alison Head about social search, looking especially at the potential for tracing search patterns in a more discoverable way.

4. Article: Death of the Blogosphere. I’ve proposed a chapter that looks at what the blogosphere meant, and what influence it had, and how it might stand as a counter-example to “platformed” social media.

5. Article: Badgifying Linked-In. I have been sitting on survey data that shows what people think when you swap badges in for LinkedIn skills. I really need to write it up, but–to be honest–it’s one of those things that doesn’t quite fit anywhere. I have a potential target journal, but it’s way outside of my normal submission space. At least it might provide interesting reviews. Hard to get excited about this one for some reason.

6. Course: Technology & Collaboration. This is a new course for our new masters program. I actually have a syllabus for it, but it was for the course proposal, and it is kind of horrible. This week, I need to get a new syllabus in working order so people know whether they want to take it. It’s online, which means it has to be more structured that my usual approach, and the hope is that students will have early drafts of Real Research™ by the end of the semester.

7. Course: Sex Online. I’m really hoping I can fall back a lot on what is already “in the can” for this course, though I have a long list of updates I need to make to it, and because FB killed my private group last year, I have to figure out whether to go with Reddit or Slack for discussion.

Projects on Hold

1. International Communication Association. I really wanted to get more than one thing in. I have a great panel on peer-veillance and IoT in, with a great group of people, but ICA is always a crapshoot. I’ve only had one (maybe 2) things ever rejected, but I thought they were my best work. And the worst thing I ever submitted got an award. So, waiting to hear on reviews. This is a long haul (Fukuoka), but if accepted, I will try to see if anyone in Japan wants me to give a talk (or potentially in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.). And there looks to be a fun post-conf on Human-Machine communication, which is of interest to me.

2. Mapping StackOverflow Achievement Sequences. Did some work with Hazel Kwon on figuring out how to make sense of the order in which people achieve certain badges on Stack Overflow. It was kind of a sticky analysis question, but we finally worked out something, and I think I even ran the analysis. But something came up, and it’s fell off my radar. Now I have to figure out if I took good enough notes to be able to recover it or if I have to re-do a lot of thinking and work on it. Probably won’t touch it until the new year.

Posted in Research, Teaching | Leave a comment

A Fond FAoIRwell

Last weekend was #ir16), and it really was the last of its kind, given the name change for the conference next year. It also spelled the end of my time on the Executive Committee. At IR5, Steve Jones took me aside in Chicago (I thought I was in trouble!) to ask if I would take over for Jeremy Hunsinger as the “web guy” on the executive committee. That means that my stretch on the exec ran just over a decade, including a stint as president and–most recently–as both the local and program chair of the Association’s Phoenix conference. So, while others may be suffering Post-Con Depression (PCD), I’m feeling a set of intense feelings of separation that extend beyond hosting the conference here in Phoenix.

After all, I’ve been involved in both the day-to-day work of the organization and helping to chart its course for many years. Taking on organizing a conference after having already served as president suggests how little eagerness I had for letting go of the organization. Many people talk about AoIR being kind of their “academic family,” but that is often tied to the annual conference. For me, there wasn’t a week that went by that I wasn’t working on one or another project to help AoIR, and there were more weeks than I can count when that was all I was able to work on. Given that kind of investment, it’s really hard to let go. I am still a member (through next June–I just checked!), and I am vaguely a part of the “jedi ghosts” of previous AoIR presidents (Steve Jones, Nancy Baym, Matthew Allen, Charles Ess, Mia Consalvo, and–as of last week–Lori Kendall). But it’s strange to be coming out of the back end of that experience.

On the other hand, it provides a profound sense of relief. I’m passionate about networking people together to do great things, and that’s one of the reasons I jumped on board for AoIR (as well as helping out with DML and helping get three graduate programs off the ground), but that has ended up being a large part of what I’ve done as an academic. It’s meant far less time than I would like to pursue my research. And my tenure on the committee has been an adventure–what may seem like a fairly placid affair from the outside often includes contentious decisions (e.g., moving the conference from Thailand to Korea), and a whole lot of ongoing work. As I look back on my more recent tenure, I think I was on the dissenting side of quite a few votes, and sometimes alone there. (No doubt, several of the continuing Exec members are breathing a sigh of relief in seeing me leave!) Finally, I’m confident that the Association is in great hands. I don’t know that it has ever had such a vibrant group of dedicated and bright faculty and students, and I expect that few would be able to do as good a job at navigating the organization through its difficult teenage years.

So, yes, I’m sad that I get to watch this only from the sidelines. But, as I mentioned to some folks on the committee, forgetting is sometimes healthy. AoIR is no longer the only game in town when it comes to scholarly organizations and conferences dedicated to understanding the social and cultural implications of networked technologies–it needs to find its place in that ecosystem. And some of its decisions have been based on a strong culture that too easily does things because it’s the way they’ve always been done. But AoIR is a unique organization with a special place in my heart. I will, along with my fellow AoIR members, be eagerly watching to see where its next chapter takes it.

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The Gated Academy

gates_bigI was walking past the gates on my campus this morning and noticed them in a way I hadn’t before. Like at many universities, they are symbolic, and intended to represent the opening up of knowledge and–particularly for our campus, which serves a large number of first-generation university students–of opportunity. But today, I wondered about what it meant for safety.

Honestly, for many who live in areas that are dangerous, the university campus feels like a refuge. It can be a place apart, a space that has different values from your everyday existence, an accepting space. That’s what many of us try to provide, even for those who initially feel like they might not belong here. One of the things that always struck me as strange about living in New York City (among many others) was that you generally had to produce ID to get through the gates into a university building. This was especially true of the libraries. So, if I went to visit someone at Columbia, or Fordham, or New School, I had to first get past the bored security guard. This experience was very different from the college campuses where I had gone to school. It always felt like the space of the campus was one bordered by affinities, not by walls: if you wanted to learn or engage in conversation, you were welcome, regardless of whether you paid tuition.

Today, after what has happened in Oregon (not to mention earlier incidents), I cannot be the only one feeling like stepping onto a campus is a risk. Like it might be nice if those gates were more than notional. Like it would be nice to be locked down as a precaution. Of course, doing so would not help us. I mean, my son’s grade school does this. I don’t pretend it represents any kind of real protection. Anyone who wants to can still get in. But there is another key difference. It’s pretty unlikely that a first grader is going to be an “active shooter” (though, unfortunately, not beyond imagining).

It’s not the outside world that is the perpetrator here–the threat comes from within. No matter how high the fence, we invite students here. We open our arms to those people who have recently been vilified as “threats.” You remove mental distress, substance abuse, financial strains, family struggles, and all of the other (non-literal) triggers, and we would have no student body left, nor faculty to teach them. You put a metal detector at each door, a fence around the campus, and gates that are intended to keep people out, and they will do just that to much of the population.

About a third of households in Arizona have a firearm. Despite the national view of this state as the west’s answer to Florida, this is actually only slightly above the national average. Most of the people who own those guns are sane, relatively sensible people. They approve of background checks, they want to see that guns don’t get into the wrong hands. They are also woefully under-educated.

We need to reform gun regulation in the US, but to do that we need to be talking to the third of households that own guns. This morning on the radio I heard someone suggest that 100 million people own guns and they are not going to give them up, no matter what. This seems extremely unlikely to me. I suspect that a large portion of them would be willing to give their guns up willingly, even happily, if they understood that they were safer by doing so. That requires two things.

The first is finding a way to let them know that by getting rid of their guns today, they will make their family safer. This is a hard sell for many, since it feels contrary to what they think. There is something deeply satisfying about holding the means of another’s death in your hands. It’s the kind of confidence that a lot of training in the martial arts can give. But you can get it a let more cheaply at Walmart. It may be illusory, but it’s important that those who wish to reduce gun violence understand what people with a gun in their hands feel–which is a sense that in the worst case, they have a card to play to protect themselves and their family. So, the first thing that needs to be done is to make clear that that very real feeling is a lie.

Secondly, we need to make people feel safer in their persons and their possessions. This is really hard to do. Some people live in very difficult areas, where crime is something they face every day. Others have allowed themselves to be convinced of mean world scenarios that are extreme: either there will be a revolution in which the rich will lose their homes and their lives, or that revolution will come from the top, and the government will force them to give up their hard-earned wealth. I know people who are stockpiling weapons for either highly unlikely eventuality. We talk about the need to address mental health: figuring out a way around self-delusion and paranoia is a key step in addressing the gun culture in the US.

Posted in Policy & Politics | Leave a comment

Why I Stay


In recent months a number of people have written about quitting academia. A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed indicates that this represents a particular genre of academic Dear John letters: “Quit Lit.” It could easily be imagined that this means that people are leaving the professoriate in droves, but there is little evidence of that. They are beginning to leave less quietly.

That’s probably a good thing. Certainly, they may be accused of sour grapes, and it is easier to attribute their criticisms to cognitive dissonance than it might be when you hear the same criticisms from those who continue to teach. But it would be short-sighted to dismiss them out of hand, as this essay seems to. But that piece does end with a useful suggestion: the writing of “staypieces.”

Unfortunately, I think most people stay in academia for some of the reasons many people go to graduate school: to escape the alternative. I was certainly initially in that camp. A year in a cubicle and a suit was as much a spur for me to go to graduate school as was my thirst for knowledge. But that is not why I stay.

ABQ: Always Be Quitting

This morning I had coffee with a doctoral student and we started talking about the life of an academic. She came from the corporate world for the greener pastures of academia. She’s had conversations with faculty and students who see the corporate world as a Mecca of predictability, salaries, and benefits. Of course, neither side of the hill is all that grassy.

A decade ago, I left the University at Buffalo, just ahead of news that the college in which I was teaching was on the chopping block. Naturally, I wasn’t alone in jumping ship. I noted in a blog post that I had submitted my last grades at Buffalo, and many assumed I was quitting academia, rather than just moving to another university. I wasn’t, but not because I was dedicated to the endeavor. My Plan B, my BATNA, has always been in play.

When I was in grad school, I had a Plan B. When I got my first job, the Plan B was always there, along with C and D. Today, were ASU to suffer the coup de grace the state seems intent on delivering, it would be a huge disappointment. And I would go to my Plan B. I’ve suffered far worse set-backs, and I will again. The pessimist in me requires that I be prepared for imminent disaster, and that preparation provides me with a great deal of comfort.

So when a former chair took me aside after a faculty meeting and told me I shouldn’t ruffle the feathers of senior faculty until after I had secured tenure, I could tell him honestly (though perhaps not calmly) that I wouldn’t want tenure in a place that made not ruffling feathers a requirement of the non-tenured. I said it because it was true.

Now, with the seeming security of tenure, I’m in the same position. I make accommodations, of course. But generally, if tomorrow I was told that I no longer could research what I want, write what I want, build what I want, or teach what I want, I could walk away from the job and do something else that required less compromise.

The trick is, at least for me, being a professor strikes a balance between security and freedom that is difficult to find elsewhere. It also provides me an opportunity to change lives in a way that would be difficult in many other places.

Changing the System From Within

When I was still a grad student, I vividly remember a conversation with two of my fellow TAs. I was railing against the way in which we taught and how universities work. One said I sounded like an anarchist. (And he said it like it was a bad thing!) Another asked why, given my antipathy toward institutionalized education, I was on the professorial track. I had a lame answer—one that I’ve heard many others use—I wanted to change the system from within.

Of course, institutional capture is always looming. I find myself working in a university structure that—sometimes in spite of the rhetoric often associated with ASU—is Byzantine, bureaucratic, and technocratic. I face the same kinds of fears many academics do: Am I doing enough? Am I making the kinds of choices I should? Am I making use of the freedom and security that the university job provides?

I think now the greatest challenge to changing the system from within is changing the system within. Graduate education is the feeder for a kind of strong culture that is far more binding than the gears of bureaucracy are. Make no mistake: the greatest obstacle to a revolution in higher education is the faculty.

Job Requirements vs. Reputational Income

Part of the problem with the freedom and security of faculty positions is that people so rarely take advantage of them. We may complain about the lack of remuneration offered by work in the Academy, but that lack is balanced against relative job security and autonomy. But who collects on those fully?

There are certain things you need to do to earn tenure at a Research I institution. They almost never involve creative teaching, taking on administrative roles, or community service. I’ve done all those things because I wanted to; because the university let me. Except in the rarest of cases, we do this to ourselves.


Getting tenure is hard, to be sure, but most people seem to be determined to make it harder than it is. As Nagpal noted in The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life, treating the tenure-track job as a 7-year job, rather than the start of a life-long commitment to a single institution, makes it a much more interesting proposition. I would love to see universities desperately trying to retain their tenure-track faculty, who are fielding a range of other possibilities at that stage of their careers. Unfortunately, most have burrowed their way into the self-imposed anthill of Academia.

Most of us want open access scholarship, but we publish in commercial journals. Most of us want to just do research. In the social sciences, that very often does not require funding. But we pursue it because it is perceived (or actually) needed for either social capital within the university or for extracting resources for our students. In practice, many of the stressors that lead to 60-80 hour work weeks are self-imposed. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you love for 60 hours a week, but we delude ourselves into thinking that a citation count, a funding goal, or perfect teaching evaluations are somehow required by our jobs. In most cases they are not. Many, in an effort to do everything well, find themselves in a circuit of time-consuming mediocrity.

If these needs are not directly and obviously dictated by the university (and I recognize that in some cases they are, but I think this is often the exception), where are they coming from? Mostly from our peers and a structure of competition for attention and reputation that we willingly engage in. This isn’t Hunger Games. The creation of a dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all academic structure is certainly encouraged by the policies of many of today’s universities, often with the aid of state legislatures in the US. But it’s all too often one we make ourselves.

The Joyful Professor

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

As I said, I don’t think I can claim to be all that different from the rest. I’ve played into the game as much as anyone else has. And now, in the mid-point of my three-decade-long mid-life crisis, I recognize a lot of wasted effort on things I did not love and could not change. I dream of winning the lottery and starting my own shade-tree school or university. In the meantime, I can do the same, quietly, from within.

It takes a lot to get rid of a tenured faculty member. I am staying a professor, at least today. I’m not going to get rich doing it, but I get paid plenty. I also have the freedom to do the things I want to do. If I don’t do those things, that is no one’s fault but my own. I don’t want to increase my h-index. Things being what they are, I don’t expect I’ll ever catch up to the leaders in the field when it comes to publications or citations. I don’t want perfect student or peer-teaching reviews. If someone wants to give me grant money, I’ll take it, but I’m not going to waste time writing grants with little chance of being funded just to support a university that needs it to offset the lack of public funding. That’s not what I signed up for.

If I don’t use the freedom that makes academia so attractive to so many people, that’s not the fault of the institution. And I strongly suspect that if more people had that attitude, the institution would be a much better one.

The Hagakure, which lays out much of the “way of the samurai,” gives clear advice on this front:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.

We enter into something of a contract as a faculty member: we trade income for autonomy and security. If we do not use the latter, we enter a fool’s bargain. This is why I stay, and why being ready to quit is an important part of staying.

Posted in General, Teaching | 3 Comments
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