A Thaumaturgical Compendium http://alex.halavais.net Things that interest me. Tue, 27 Apr 2021 17:04:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 12644277 Advice to starting profs http://alex.halavais.net/advice-to-starting-profs/ http://alex.halavais.net/advice-to-starting-profs/#respond Mon, 26 Apr 2021 18:08:06 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=20610 Someone on Reddit was nervous about starting as a new professor at a new school and in a new city. Here is my idiosyncratic advice:

  • In the first few months, you’ll probably get quite a few invites from people for a coffee/beer. Obviously, take them up on this. But once that academic tradition is done, it’s easy to be kind of left on your own. You’ll need to make an effort to find likeminded people and get together on the regular.
  • I’ve never done this, but the new academic faculty who seem to be happy have formed informal support groups among the other new faculty. These don’t need to be in your field / department / unit. At least then you know you aren’t the only one feeling like you are on Mars, and often those in this cohort will find resources that are super useful locally at the university or in the city. If your university does some kind of an intake workshop at the university level, this is a good chance to find these folks, but otherwise just start looking for new starts and do that coffee/beer thing. This is easier if you are in a large department/school that has done a lot of recent hiring, since you may have a group of folks in cognate fields.
  • Make friends with the department admin staff. Doesn’t have to be social, going out bowling friends, but bend over backwards to be nice to them. Often they get the brunt of institutional pressures without a lot of recognition for this. And they know how things actually work. If you don’t pretend you know what you’re doing, and you don’t assume it’s their job to help you, but instead actually go out of your way to be nice and even help them out if it’s something you can do, it will be to your benefit. One such person actually saved my career at one point of political intrigue. So, you know, be nice to everyone, but especially the lead staff people.
  • Make friends outside of your unit. It’s kind of crazy to assume that the people in your own small department are going to be the ones you are most simpatico with. Some of the people I was most interested in talking to were always in some far-flung department other than my own, and sometimes I missed these folks by being focused on what was happening in my unit. If you engage in some form of university level service, it may be one way to run into these folks.
  • Be thinking about your next job. No one will tell you this and it’s not something I would tell my own new hires. And consider where this advice is coming from: someone who has switched TT jobs twice. Of course, you should understand the explicit expectations for tenure, but I have always looked to what will make me look good on an application to another university or outside of academia. Since you need external reviews anyway, it’s basically the same thing as moving toward tenure, and if you actually can move it opens up your possibilities quite a bit if this university–or academia as a whole–isn’t a great fit. I was already doing this in grad school, and so continuing as faculty wasn’t that much of a change for me. And when the university did a major restructuring a couple of years before tenure, it bothered me less than some, since I knew I could likely jump ship and get a good position elsewhere.
  • Don’t worry, be happy. Honestly, it’s an adventure. The academic life front-loads so much of this with sunk costs in terms of getting the doctorate and a research portfolio before even landing your first job, if you are so lucky. Those sunk costs make people worry too much about screwing up instead of having fun with what they have. You wouldn’t have been hired if they didn’t think you could do the job. Mostly, keep doing what you’ve already been doing. Mentoring is what you’ve already done with colleagues as a grad student. Your research is likely already on a trajectory for tenure: just keep building a research agenda and producing solid work. And add to this a bit of fun. Remember why you started all this and don’t put off that odd project until post-tenure. Be bold.
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Kids’ Carnival http://alex.halavais.net/kids-carnival/ http://alex.halavais.net/kids-carnival/#respond Wed, 10 Mar 2021 20:46:34 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=20546 I ‘ve been away from blogging long enough that I forgot we didn’t do comments any more. Otherwise, this would merely be a comment on the teaser to his new book Henry Jenkins recently posted. He is looking at the ways in which authority plays out in children’s literature, and how it reflects the values of the parents who buy them, and the culture in which they are bringing up children. He draws on Mary Poppins as an example.

And yes, the choice of a Nanny is laid out in stark terms, but Poppins is also part of what seems to be a much broader trend in children’s books (and now movies), the inversion of power: kids being kids without the pesky interference of grown-ups. It is extraordinarily difficult to escape this theme. Indeed, from the film side, what is particularly striking about Mary Poppins as a film is that while they may have a neglectful parent, at least he’s not dead. Disney seems to be fascinated by orphaning children–way better to off them then to deal with the complex power relationships, perhaps?

And you don’t really get away from the dead or absent parents. Maybe it is attributable to the success of Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking or Ronia, but it’s hard to name a book that doesn’t abscond with the parents early on, leaving children to find them (Artemis Fowl) or–in the case of orphans (like Hugo or Harry Potter or Nobody Owens, or… well… all the rest)–their replacement. In Poppins, as Jenkins notes, the specification is more explicit, but the motivation of many of these stories is to describe the role of the parent in their absence.

I think Jenkins is arguing in part that these are intended to appeal to parents, who buy the books. I suppose that is true to a certain extent, but it does not explain why parents buy books in which there are no parents, or where the parents are dullards. I was thrilled by the books for young children by Andrea Beaty, and when we found Iggy Peck architect, not long after my first son was born, it was just the kind of story I wanted to tell him: a story about a young person defying expectations, understanding the power of his own imagination and creativity, even when the teachers and parents might not. It was a story of defying authority.

That’s Pippi, too, of course. Lindgren says in an interview she isn’t sure why she made Pippi so strong. (I think we might guess, as she wrote it while injured, at some of the reasons, but that’s a dangerous game.) She does suggest that publishers were concerned about promoting a book with a willful and strong leading character. There are a couple of possibilities here.

One, and I suspect the simplest, is that we don’t know how to write good parents. It isn’t easy to do. Many people see their own kids or themselves as kids as the heroes in their own minds and their own stories. Too many of us as parents and authors see ourselves in George Banks, the father in Mary Poppins.

But I suspect, that these books are also intended as a funhouse mirror, a sneaky way of establishing what parents should and shouldn’t be by their absence. What better way to show parents what they should be than to get rid of them? And what happens when these parents get out of the way? Kids always end up demonstrating that they are self-sufficient, capable, creative leaders. (That doesn’t map well to outcomes for those who lose their parents, who often have difficulty finding that stride.) These kids may not need or want a ward, but they do want a home: they want people who love and accept them, who are proud of them and cherish them. The parents many of us wish we saw in ourselves.

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Pandemic: The Return http://alex.halavais.net/pandemic-the-return/ http://alex.halavais.net/pandemic-the-return/#respond Wed, 10 Mar 2021 19:03:37 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=20536

We are coming up on one year of near complete isolation. While “conservative” has never been an adjective I would use for our family, in this instance we have been. We saw little reason to risk our health unnecessarily, and knew that removing ourselves as a node from the network also increased the survivabilityin some small wayof those around us. And a large part of that has been the lack of certainty: a year in, and with three vaccines in circulation, we still don’t fully understand the way in which COVID-19 affects the body.

This is particularly true of children. There seems to be a broad consensus that kids are slightly less likely to contract the disease caused by the virus in circulation, and far less likely to have serious symptoms or die from it. There have been a number of concerns that, for example, mutations might change this equation. And there are the scary stories of long-haul COVID among young teens. This uncertainty makes me reluctant to expose my kids unnecessarily.

Luckily, the kids’ school, Phoenix Modern, has been enormously responsive and thoughtful in their approach. They have made space for kids throughout whose parents could not keep them home, and also for parents like us who pulled our kids home early on in the pandemic. They have rapidly adapted to online learning, and made more than the best out of a bad situation. I can say pretty confidently that there is no “achievement gap” for my own kids, and I suspect the same is true of their classmates. That is a testament to teachers and administrators who put the overall health and well-being of the students and the community first.

And things have been looking up. Despite a blip over the last week or two, new cases have been on a downward trend in AZ. The main indicator I’ve been tracking over the year is a 7-day mean of new infections in Arizona. The below represents just a couple weeks shy of the full year. As you can see, we are roughly where we were at the start of the school year. And there are two pretty distinct waves of infection in Arizona. It would be reasonable to expect future waves as well. The giant question mark is what effect vaccinations might have on this.

Thanks to Governor Ducey’s approach to trusting his gut and his donors over any kind of evidence, public schools (including charters like ours) are required to restart in-person instruction next week. Our school had planned a hybrid return for after spring break in mid-April, and given the trends, that seemed like a reasonable plan. Unfortunately, the governor seems set on unreasonable plans, which has already cost thousands of Arizonans their lives. Not only is there a return to schools, but a simultaneous opening of gyms, restaurants, and bars at full capacity. This will almost certainly prolong the high infection rate.

Our kids won’t be going back next week. We already set criteria for return, based in part on guidelines established by the AZ Department of Health last October (PDF). These include:

  • Seven-day average new infections in the state under 750 and declining.
  • Positivity rate under 7% in the state.
  • Both Jamie and I vaccinated.

When we pulled the kids out of school this time last year, I had the pessimistic view that they would likely be out for the 2020 calendar year, and we would reassess at that point. Obviously, no one was going back to school after winter break this year. I have friends who now are saying they won’t start their kids back to school until Spring of ’22. While I understand the pessimism, after multiple setbacks, these vaccines appear to be effective, and while they won’t knock out the pandemic on their own, and I am deeply concerned we won’t get vaccination rates high enough to damp down stupid behaviors, I suspect we will meet our “family metrics” before the end of April.

I remain concerned about the long-term effects of contracting COVID, particularly for kids. If we knew what those effects were, and how frequently they appeared, we could make a bet based on the odds. It is so much harder to make that bet when you don’t know those odds and when you are gambling with the future of your children. But I know that I am not going to trust Ducey to make that choice for me, and that I am going to do my best to make these decisions based on the best available metrics and data.

In the meantime, I’m going to have to start teaching my kids how to be in public again. They’ll need actual clothes (not just PJs), and will have to learn to sit in chairs. Wish me luck.

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Pandemic Planning Document http://alex.halavais.net/pandemic-planning-document/ http://alex.halavais.net/pandemic-planning-document/#respond Thu, 21 May 2020 22:35:17 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=20374 Planning for anything right now is folly. I’m not even sure what I am doing today, or tomorrow, let alone this summer. Fall seems endlessly far away, and 2021 too far to contemplate. But I am a planner. Everyone seems to be looking to peers to figure out what to do: How are you even living? Here in Arizona, many of those peers are blythely assuming that the pandemic is done, and it’s time to return to business as usual. Others want to minimize the deaths caused by the epidemic here in the US, and are thinking about what kinds of mitigations are possible and are reasonable to help both themselves and their communities.

The Threat

It’s been a creeping phenomenon. In March, folks said “it’s only 20 people dead in the whole of the US, stop freaking out” These days they say “it’s only 90K dead, stop freaking out.” Most projections see us at 150K dead by August. Many look at our current mortality and note that we are doubling the number of US lives lost during the entirety of the Vietnam conflict. Others note we are still well shy of the number who died in WWII. Others quite correctly remind us that the number of deaths are still nowhere near the number who will die this year of heart disease or cancer. It’s hard to come to grips with the numbers. And frankly, death isn’t the only metric here. Those who are hit hard have a very long road to recovery. I won’t talk about the economic damage, not because I don’t care, but because I suspect that it was a bubble that was bound to burst anyway, and while COVID-19 is clearly the proximate cause, the issues run much deeper. But I also know that the economic downturn is likely to affect far more people than the infection will.

I am older but not old. But I have multiple comorbidities. So, if I contract the infection, my chances of dying are relatively high: If I had to guess, around one in ten. (By comparison, my odds of dying over the next year at my age by all causes float around one in 200.)

That means, from a purely personal perspective, I’m going to err on the side of one of those phrases we hear a lot of: “an abundance of caution.” And unfortunately, that extends to my family, since if I isolate, my sole chance of contracting is via my spouse or children.

It appears that the major threats to contracting the virus are via droplets, and that the main way of getting infected is being in close proximity (i.e. breathing the same air) of an infected person, especially over an extended period of time. The best summary of risks I’ve seen is this write-up by Erin Bromage. If you read just one thing, it should be that.

There remain a lot of question marks that frankly are going to take some time to answer, everything from the degree to which fomite transmission is something to worry about, to the timeline for the development of better therapies, to the eventual possibility of a vaccine. On the other hand, we get new information every day.

What this means is what follows is a very conservative approach. It probably won’t work for most or all, and it will likely be moderated as we learn more and circumstances change. But here is my plan as of late May.

(Also, I should state here that we are very aware of the privileges we have: in terms of space, in terms of being–for now–employed with comfortable incomes. We have done small things to help those who we normally work with to provide some level of continuity in their own income. And we are trying to provide for the community in other ways as well. We realize this is having far more far-reaching effects for most people out there, and so I offer this with that in mind, and not as a recommendation or any indication beyond what it is we are doing.)


Isolate. The answer for summer is easy: continuing to isolate as we have been. That means me and the kids home 24/7. It’s too hot at this point really to even do the “meet neighbors on the lawn” or “walk around the neighborhood.” We’ll get out back into the pool–and are figuring out some things around mosquito abatement to make sure we can use our yard more than we have been–but our limits are our curtilage. To whatever extent possible, we’ll try not to have anyone else in the house. That assumes I can do the currently needed repair on our dryer and a small air conditioner, which may be asking a lot.

Cleaning. We are doing our best to keep the house clean. That’s always a battle, but more now. We wash our hands a lot. We hit touch points with clorox wipes twice a day. And yes, we installed a washlet toilet seat like a lot of people did. We had one before that didn’t work very well, and went with a Toto this time. The kids were used to them from our trip to Japan, and came home wanting one, and the timing was right.

Work. For me, this differs little from what a normal summer would look like: staying home and trying to get work done. The big changes are for my family. My spouse would prefer not working from home, but for at least the early part of the summer she will continue to do so. She may then end up doing shifts at work, where she has a private office. We’ll put a HEPA air filter in there, and see if there are other ways of limiting exposure.

Summer school. We’ve set up “the lab”–a studio space for the kids that is a classroom, workspace, etc. Each have their own computer now, and they have been finishing out the year doing distance education with their class. This transition has been far smoother than we might have expected. At present, they are signed up for several summer schools, learning to shoot movies in Minecraft, an architecture camp offered by Taliesin, and arts and music summer camps. If anything, they may have more summer camps than last summer. We had purchased some used ebook readers (Kobos) for them to use as well, and have been moving books on there for them to read.

Kid socializing. This is the one that has been the trickiest. Early on, the kids set up their own Minecraft server that they spend a lot of time on with friends. The youngest started opening up a Zoom window (rather than using one of the other talk servers) while playing, as it was something they were already using for stuff. Now, they frequently will just leave a Zoom room open while friends drift in and out during the day. I’ve been surprised by how well this seems to work, and it has assuaged a little of my concerns about socializing. Summer will make that a little trickier, and there are concerns over security, but so far so good.

They also have seen extended family via Zoom more in the last few months than in the last few years before that. That’s no stand-in for face-to-face, any more than it is for friends, and we had grandparents and others planning to visit right before we went to stay-at-home. But it is something.

Supplies. My spouse is our runner: once a week she hits the Costco, the supermarket, and the farmers’ market. She wears a mask, removes her clothes and showers when she gets back. We rinse things that need refrigerated, and leave some in the garage to “age” for a bit before using. Likewise, packages from Amazon, etc., sit in our entryway for a bit before opened up. This is almost certainly overkill, and given what we know about threats, we may ease up on this a bit moving forward. We haven’t done grocery delivery, in part because I think our runner needs to get out of the house a bit.

Hair & Makeup. This is obviously not an issue for me: my folicular lack is a bonus here. The kids are also getting cuts by their parental units out back. So far, spouse’s hairdresser (who comes to town from California periodically to cut and color local clients) has been supplying touch-ups for color. We’ve talked about it, and I think she is going to try for a back-yard cut and color sometime later in the summer, depending on heat. Both she and my spouse will mask up. There is obvious risk entailed here, but it’s limited and one of those small things that might just have to happen.

I’ve long wanted to up my skills as a manicurist. Spouse uses dipping powders for her nails, and although it can be slightly tricky to get hold of the supplies right now, we have her color and the other stuff. I’ll need to pick out what I want for myself for practice. I’ve never worn nail polish, and I’d normally just go for a clear nail or french manicure, but since I need to get the dipping powders down, I’m thinking maybe this one.

Medical. Luckily, we’ve been incident-free, but for now we are either doing telemedicine where possible, or delaying regular care. It means one of my kids is slightly behind on a vaccine (because the doctor stupidly wouldn’t do the poke a week before the recommended age when we went in for the last visit). And I regularly get bloodwork done that I’ve put on hold. Would love to be able to do the draws myself, but that doesn’t look like it’s in the cards, and for now, spending time in a room with sick people isn’t worth the risk. And we’ve delayed dental cleanings. But eventually we’ll end up having to see a doctor or dentist, for everyday stuff if not emergent stuff.

Gym and dojo. Because we are in Arizona, both our gym and the kids judo dojo are open again. To me, this is crazy: breathing hard in close quarters with other people is just asking for contagion. But we are clearly in the minority on this one. Our gym does a zoom workout. They were doing it each morning, and now they are down to three times a week. This seems to be working for us for now. It may be that we will put the gym membership on hold now that they have a more regular income (and are not serving us as directly), but we’ll hold off for a bit there. Also looking at adding an online krav maga program for the family.

The kids are working out with us in the mornings, and they have started doing turns on a treadmill as well. And they’ll be in the pool a bit. It’s hard to do outdoor activities in the summer in Phoenix anyway, but we’ll try to find other ways for all of us to get a bit more fit over the summer. I’m probably working out more now than I have over the last several years, and trying to gradually increase this. The more morbid way of thinking about this is prehabilitation: getting my heart and lungs in better shape for recovering if I have to. But more generally, it’s something I’ve needed to do for a while, and a project I should be able to do as well at home as anywhere. Think of it as a prisoner workout. (Heck, maybe I’ll even give myself a tattoo at some point.) My hope is that by the time it’s safe for the kids to get back into a judo dojo, I will be ready to get back too.

Food. Pre-pandemic, we would eat out or carry-out most days. We would eat at home, but it was usually only once or twice a week. Like many, we are doing a lot of cooking and baking at home right now. We haven’t even done carry-out since the pandemic started. We wanted to support local restaurants, but it seemed a risk to have potentially infected people preparing our food. This is one of the things we may revisit over the summer. We have food that we buy at the market that has been prepared by human beings and is not cooked–deli meats, salsa, etc. So the step there to having it prepared for carry-out or delivery is a small one, and we may need to think about whether this is one area where we might make some changes later in the summer or in the fall.

Trying to actually get a garden started, since that will fix everything, but we haven’t had luck with that in the past. In addition to our outside plot, we will again be playing with hydroponics, indoors, where we can control the elements a bit better.

We try to do rotating backlog of food for two weeks. We have a freezer chest, and until recently had a second fridge (a leftover from the previous owners in the garage). Unfortunately the latter works only when it feels like it, which means it’s fine for keeping drinks cold but is unreliable. I have a little dorm fridge I’d gotten for my office but now lives in the garage as well. I’ll try to repair the second fridge, or we may need to look at getting a replacement for the fall.


Especially as we move into August and September, it seems likely that there will be more opening up in general, and more demands. Everything I have seen from people who know about this stuff suggests that there will be a very good chance of a resurgence of the pandemic in the fall, and that it could potentially be much more widespread than it is right now. We may be setting ourselves up, globally, for a really hard hit. (Or we may prepare for a resurgence that never happens, but it seems like epidemiologists are putting bets on one happening.) Surveillance will be important here, and I’ll keep an environmental scan in place, but I will be surprised if we have any kind of infrastructure for early warning. I had hoped that the high temperatures in Phoenix would mean we could watch for outbreaks on the east coast for some forewarning, but it looks like (probably thanks to travel patterns) we aren’t necessarily any earlier or later for things like flu.

Work. I suspect my spouse’s work will have greater expectations of people coming in, so we will need to think about ways of protecting her at work, and among new contexts. There is some tension here in that there needs to be some give-and-take between my desire for safety and her ability to do her work without it impeding her career. Much of the world is going to open up more rapidly than I am ready for, but she will be necessarily drawn into that.

My employer, Arizona State University, insists that the university will be back in classrooms in the fall. My plan is to continue as I have during the summer: teaching online, attending university meetings online, doing everything–online. I suspect other members of faculty will be as cautious as I am, and that there will be accomodations made for some distancing.

And although I am a tenured professor, both my spouse and I are anticipating pay cuts, perhaps significant. I’m looking retrain in areas where I already have some skills to make sure that they are current, in the unlikely case that I’ll have to market myself as a non-professor. And if that doesn’t come to pass, I need more skills anyway. I may step back into consulting a bit as well.

School. This is perhaps the number one topic of discussion among parents right now. No one knows what is going to happen with school. My kids will be staying home, unless something significant changes over the summer. Their current school is a charter, and so they are guided by the requirements of the superintendent of schools. If public schools are open, they have no choice. Moreover, their charter does not allow for distance education. Ideally, some number of the kids in the school will be similarly planning to stay home, and the school can find a way to accommodate that by doing something similar to what they are doing now.

If not, we will likely see a continuation of what we do during the summer: homeschooling. This is something we were already planning on doing six months ago, before we found their current school, which has been awesome for them. So as a backup, we will do a patchwork of online learning and projects that I lead them through: meeting two or three times a day and sending them off to complete projects in-between. We will likely work through this as a give-and-take and find ways to make it work.

If I go this route, I may actually do some group-led project work and teaching. I’ve been thinking about opening up an astronaut-training school for kids: organizing all of our activities around the eventuality that they may want to move to the moon or Mars someday. It may be that I start doing this in the fall, and have it lead to in-person schooling if we get there. I’ve been looking at the requirements for starting a distance charter…

Prepping. The irony for me is that Arizona may not be Utah, but we should have been fairly well set for shelter-in-place. When we were looking for a new house, there were a few that were family compounds or had bomb shelters. No one anticipated that those who are most likely to prep were also most likely to be in desperate need of a manicure. Nonetheless, we’ll need to think about what it would look like if we had to shelter in place and if Phoenix in October is like New York in April–or much worse. That means replenishing our supplies, and shifting our two-week window to four or six weeks. And yes, that means we will build a small stockpile of TP and bleach and flour–not to hoard, but to prepare–purchasing in small amounts as they become available more widely, in preparation for a potential set of runs in mid-fall.

We will continue doing Rona DiY–making our house more liveable. I may try to trench out a fiber line so we can get more bandwidth. We’ll make sure we have better ways of keeping things clean, tidy, and safe. We’ll still decorate for Halloween, even if it looks like the Pirate Party is off. And one of our projects is making us home-rigged PAPRs, so we can appear in public as paranoid as we are in private.


It is difficult to imagine the world in 2021. I am co-chairing a minitrack on digital methods at HICSS in Hawaii January, and we have just heard that they plan to go forward. I am disappointed to be missing AoIR, which was scheduled for Dublin in October, and as long as we are not mid-pandemic, I fully plan to go to Hawaii. (The Venetian is currently booking free rooms for educators, so we may try a car trip in December if things are looking ronaless.) I’m not as confident as some are that we will be out of the woods in the fall. But I am hopeful that we will be in new territory at some point in 2021, even if not at the beginning.

Nonetheless, I hope all the summer and fall prep will move us toward being prepped for this moving forward. We are also relaunching our masters program in Critical Data Studies (the MA in Social Tech/CDS), which will be offered with “attendance flexibility” not just because of COVID-19, but because there will be another pandemic, and there will be new reasons for learning at a distance beyond that, which may or may not fit with existing “distance” approaches. I don’t think I’ve ever been a “leader” in the online learning space, but I think “innovator” or “experimenter” is fair. And so I will spend some time thinking about what hybrid and flexible spaces mean here: playing more with online and telepresence tech to see what mixes and recipes work.

I also don’t think of myself as a pessimist, but I generally like a challenge. This is that. At some point, I may just have to toss in with everyone else, and my mitigations will abate, and I’ll live with the likelihood that a virus is a more likely way for me to die than heart disease or cancer. And I’ll be OK with that in 2021. Just not yet…

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No Time, No Space http://alex.halavais.net/no-time-no-space/ http://alex.halavais.net/no-time-no-space/#respond Tue, 19 May 2020 06:17:42 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=20361 Daily Schedule

I am trying to write about stuff, with some help from friends in the onlines. I was just going to keep this private, but then I remembered “Hey, I have a blog!”

No Time

I keep coming back to the Tim Ferris book, the Four Hour Workweek, and the idea that if you didn’t have structural demands on your time, how would you use it. Some of this hits at the end of any semester, but even before the semester was done my days seemed unmoored.

I also think of the ways in which we think about the beginning and the end of time. It’s hard to think of time “starting,” but from my limited understanding of the big bang, that is the claim. Because time is just a measurement of movement or of speed. Stuck here in my chair, occasionally moving to my kitchen or my bed, means that things paradoxically seem to move much more quickly.

Coming to the end of the day with nothing much accomplished isn’t exactly a new thing, of course. I manage, thanks to a preternatural ability to procrastinate, to get little done most days. But now it seems as though it is instantaneous. The days starts, the day ends, where does it go.

That’s not exactly true. There are beats, like a faint and fading heartbeat of a hibernating bear, the steady drum replaced by the 8:30 workout on zoom, by the kids’ morning meeting with their teacher and class, by lunch. Because lunch is now on my calendar. That wasn’t ever the case before.

When we first isolated I thought the best thing for the kids was structure. I know from Instagram and Facebook I wasn’t the only parent with this idea. Lots of colorful calendars were shared. I tried to replicate the kids school calendar somewhat, and since we had yet to set up individual computers for the two of them, we needed to set up a bit of time sharing for the things they needed to do for school. But we quickly moved to task orientation: they needed to finish a few small things each day, after which they could spend time on Minecraft or playing with Lego, or, before it got too hot, outside.

I feel as though I have all the time in the world (I could invent Calculus!) and none at all.

And I feel guilty. I feel guilty for not using this time well. I feel guilty for enjoying much of the time with my family. I feel guilty for being of decent physical health, of having a job, of having a large and comfortable home. I feel guilty because in many ways this is what I always dreamt of–though it is twisted in the ways that dreams always come true in fairy tales. And the final twist seems to be I am doing a shit job living out my dream.

No Place

It’s not entirely true that I’ve got nothing done. Lots of small projects around the house are slowly being accomplished. Disaster areas are being cleaned out. The whole family pitched in to refinish the floors in two rooms early on in this thing. But there is this weird sense of wanting to nest at the same time as wanting to connect. And that connection makes things in some sense spread out and worse.

I mean, it is great that we are doing big family Zooms. It’s only possible because we have so much less scheduled time, so it can happen that my family can meet up across nine time zones. And I’ve talked to my extended family more in the last two months than probably in the previous two years.

And this thing I am doing now is that kind of an outreach, though I’m not yet sure what it looks like or what I am supposed to be doing with it.

Again, it was part of my dream that when in isolation I could roll into some kind of salon. I wanted to do it in my home anyway: a monthly salon where we invited interesting people to have conversations on interesting themes over dinner. But all that interestingness comes at the cost of a lot of logistical leg work. So, early on, I thought: we’ll Zoom.

This was in the time before 8 hour zoom meetings. It was before everything was Zoom. My kids have now taken to opening up a Zoom room so they can chat and see each other while playing Minecraft. Early on I offered a Mumble server or Discord: no, Zoom was the technology everyone was using for school, so it was easy. I am naturally concerned about my children becoming feral. I mean, my wife and I are hardly wolves, but a year of no contact with other kids the same age could turn them into… well, into what many fear most… it could turn them into me.

Instead, they seem to be adapting quite nicely to the idea of calling up their friends on a screen and chatting while they are playing games. It’s a natural extension of their working patterns from school. As a result, although I worry about losing a few more of those rare time beats during the summer, it seems like they have shaped this liquid place out of the kitchen tables and other computers of their friends across the city and beyond.

I, on the other hand, feel like I need to go more extreme. I feel like I should let go of artificial deadlines. I feel like I should cut out social media and online interactions. But that urge is like the urge to jump off a boat into open water. I’m not sure how much I’ll like it when I get there.

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How to Succeed in Grad School http://alex.halavais.net/how-to-succeed-in-grad-school/ http://alex.halavais.net/how-to-succeed-in-grad-school/#respond Tue, 09 Aug 2016 22:59:15 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=19852 howtosucceed

In about 10 minutes I am headed to orient our small group of incoming MA in Social Technologies grad students. I figure this is a chance to get down verbally with the young folk and give them some advice for succeeding in grad school.

1. Have a plan (A and B)

It’s true, many people enter graduate school by default. They aren’t quite sure what they are going to do with a grad degree that they aren’t without. But humans are goal oriented. You need a goal that you are working toward. It doesn’t matter what that goal is, or if you have to have a new goal (you will), only that you have a place you are moving toward. Like sharks, a grad student without a target is dead in the water. Don’t expect, as with undergrad, for the conveyor belt to just keep turning and plop you out on the other side. This isn’t a holding pattern.

Our program has dual ends: it is intended both for those interested in an academic research career and for those interested in a more traditional career path. You should prepare for both. Even if the academic side isn’t your thing, now is the time to engage in that. Even if you are very sure you don’t want to go into business, you should prepare to. You should dedicate your time to both Plan A and Plan B, and ideally to work that will allow you to build toward both.

Relatedly, from day 1, you should be putting together an “idea file” or “dream book” that you can draw on for your degree thesis project.

2. Say “yes.”

One of the pieces of advice that you hear a lot of in grad school is “you don’t have to do everything.” There are so many things that come along that have absolutely nothing to do with your own coursework or research, that it is tempting to tunnel. In my experience students who say yes to opportunities and try for things that they may never get have a far more rewarding graduate experience.

Someone interesting coming to campus? Go. Someone doing a research symposium on a topic you have only a passing interest in? Go.

For goodness sake, go and talk to your faculty. Set up a time just to get together and chat about their and your research. Make an excuse to meet with them.

Apply for things you know you cannot get. It isn’t wasted effort. It’s good to get accustomed to rejection, and to realize that you have 0% chance of getting something you don’t apply for. And please do apply for money. Get someone else to pay for your school.

Volunteer to help. Yes, you don’t have time. But look for projects (with other students, with faculty, within the community) where you can have a positive effect. There’s no better way to find your passion.

3. Brand yourself.

Yes, the terminology here is icky. But you should be “that person.” People should know what you do. That means, minimally, you should tie your work together in a public way. But it also means you should have a short statement that relates to your goal(s) (see #1), and you should talk publicly about it in as many venues as you can and at every opportunity. You want to open up the possibility that when someone says “Oh, you have a question about blockchain?” someone in the room will say “Fiona is all about that.”

Part of this is also networking on the network. You should seek out opportunities to get to know people who are interesting and who might be able to help you. The fact is, you probably don’t know who can help you, and so it is a good idea to meet as many people with shared interests as possible. This is a big university, and a bigger city. Swim outside the local pool.

4. Own your time

When I started grad school, I had a great mentor (Gerald Baldasty) who told us something that should be obvious: break your day into segments–15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour if you must–and accomplish something in each of these. The single most significant point of failure I have seen for grad students is those who think grad school is about showing up to the seminar and nothing more. Showing up really is important, but without the work that happens outside of it, it ends up not mattering.

He also reminded me that grad school only lasts for a few years, but that the people you love can be a lifetime relationship. Make sure you keep your priorities straight. It’s important that grad school is prioritized, but your family is more important. It may be the only thing that keeps you relatively sane through this process.

What did I miss? What advice would you give to a new grad student?

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Dreaming of Fake Tokyo http://alex.halavais.net/dreaming-of-fake-tokyo/ http://alex.halavais.net/dreaming-of-fake-tokyo/#respond Wed, 06 Jan 2016 18:09:01 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=19741 Harajuku-Christmas_2
Some people remember their dreams and they seem to be somehow cohesive narratives. This happens only extremely rarely for me. Instead, I have recurring half-remembered people, buildings, events and especially places.

Many of these dreamed places map strangely to real places. There is dream version of Tokyo, an amalgam of an imagined Tokyo and the surrounding peninsula. What? Tokyo’s not (exactly) on a peninsula? It is in my dream. And there’s a toy store that has a secret door in one of the rooms on the fourth floor and is in an ersatz Victorian townhouse. And there is a town, where I used to live, and its popular shrine and tightly packed central district and 1960s-era train station. And two stops down is a centuries-old temple overlooking a beach (not exactly like this), with a parking lot full of tour busses.

None of these things really exist. At least I don’t think so. They might. They certainly could. They are the most extreme version of nostalgia–remembrances of things that don’t quite exist. They are probably disjoint compilations of real memories. I’m pretty certain there are elements of Harajuku in the imagined toy store, bits of La Foret, along with the best toy store ever, the Red Balloon in Georgetown. It all goes with my misremembered Japanese, which I can sometimes manage to halfway speak in the dream.

And I’ve already written about my deeply held conviction that a dreamed advertisement in the Yomiuri for dirigible captains to serve the Sultanate of Brunei for ferry service to Hong Kong and Osaka was a real thing.

I suspect some of this may be that the first and second times I spent time in Japan we didn’t have these fancy GPS enabled maps in our pockets. Especially the first time, when I only had a week or two in Tokyo proper, my internal map was close to the subway map. But then that’s still true of NYC, and I lived there for a half-dozen years.

I shouldn’t suggest that Fake Tokyo (and really Fake Japan, since on occasion, I’ll make it over the mountains to the south-west shore… of a Honshu that is oriented like a jelly bean, directly north-south) is the only recurring region in my dreams. There is fake Germany-Turkey-Spain, which I tend to navigate by trains and a dented rental VW Fox. There is an Nonexistent Tiny South Asian Archipelago that probably map to my imagination of what Lombok is like (if I hadn’t been sick and missed the ferry from Bali) crossed with my short visit to Fiji, with a little Hawaii, Aruba, and Santa Catalina thrown in for good measure.

Last night did include a very short stop in Fake Tokyo, at Imagined Favorite Restaurant. There are definite elements of real Japanese restaurants in here. That includes our Real Favorite Restaurant–now gone, but used to be around the corner from City Hall in Odawara, run by a couple whose son was a professional sumo fighter, and who always brought out their homemade pickles when I walked through the door. But this was mixed with elements of two little places I had only visited once each: an amazing little tempura place (Takasebune) on a Gion side street, with a withered, nearly toothless and scowling cook serving up the best red miso soup I’d ever had; mixed with a joint in the middle of Ikebukuro (might have been Ichiran, but probably just gone) with a bunch of construction workers on break literally pressing into my back while I struggled to quickly down a delicious but too-hot bowl of ramen. These and others make up the Imagined Favorite Restaurant of Fake Tokyo, and often contribute to the inevitability of being late for my departing flight. (Tokyo Airport is just on the edge of the city in Fake Tokyo.)

But most of it took place in a small New England town (a cross between my time teaching in Connecticut and time living in Jersey as a kid?–and a whole lot of movies?), with a small Marriott at the edge of town and a tourist trade for quaintness. Yeah, that could be anywhere. There is a ramshackle old house that sells curios and mostly junk, run by a stoner and a recluse, each of whom live upstairs, who hired me as a teenager to try to sort and price things. A better metaphor for my memory palace can’t be found. After digging to the back this time, I find a parka I wore in the 6th grade, complete with aging lift tickets (1), and a control arm from my old 1984 Porsche 944 (2). I tended to keep old broken parts of that car in the hope that someday they could make for good decor–I’m sure that’s part of next year’s Restoration Hardware catalog.

Anyway, I could only spend a little time here, since I had to get to the hotel, which was near where I was hosting a conference (3). I was wheeling in a cart with an extra projector, when I someone named Erika P* (4), who looks like an old acquaintance named Andrea (5), asks me if I can find her presentation slides–she’s sure she emailed them to me and her session is about to start. I do know who she is, right? (I don’t.) She’s not the famous P* who wrote that article in 1955, you know! I pull out my laptop to search and she notes my phone is ringing. I say “just let them leave a message and I’ll get to it as soon as we’re done” but it keeps ringing and ringing and ringing. Eventually it managed to wake me up, but today was a rushed, late morning.

As these things happen, it’s not until I write all of this down that I start to form some connections:

(1) I wore a parka for the first time in several years for a quick day-trip up to Flagstaff last week when my brother was in town. Although it didn’t have any lift tickets (and neither would have my 6th grade parka! I didn’t really ski much until I was a teen), my brother brought snow suit hand-me-downs for the kids, which did have old lift-tickets on them. While the jacket in the dream was a blue puffer parka from when I was a kid, I have no doubt it was triggered by the strange sensation of wearing something other than shorts and sandals for a change.

(2) I did a lot of work on that 944, which I sold a quarter-century ago, but in this case the connection is pretty easy: my Christmas gift to myself this year was the unexpected expense of new bushings for my current car.

(3) Yes, the IR16 nightmares continue. I thought I’d left them far behind, but I have to do an annual report now for a remarkably unproductive year. And so the time sink of IR16, which I perhaps unfairly blame for a lot of that lack of productivity, has once again reared its head.

(4) I don’t know anyone by that name combination (a reasonably common Portuguese & Spanish surname), but I have had several students with that surname, and there was one person at IR16 with it (though I’m fairly certain I didn’t meet her), so I am leaving it out lest people think I am dreaming of them. And according to Google Scholar, P* (1955) could only be an article on the nutritious content of Cassava, which I am confident I’ve never read.

(5) I haven’t met Andrea in more than two decades, but I know why she came to mind. On that trip up to Flag, my brother and I briefly discussed our admiration and generally good experiences with park rangers in the US (who tend to be more engaging than their Italian counterparts), and I recalled Andrea, who had spend more than a year in a fairly remote part of the national parks in, as I recall, Oregon. So, she may have come to mind again because of what’s happening there.

Don’t worry, this will be my last dream-journal for a long, long time.

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My Christmas (To Do) List http://alex.halavais.net/my-christmas-to-do-list/ http://alex.halavais.net/my-christmas-to-do-list/#respond Wed, 18 Nov 2015 00:15:29 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=19722 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.

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A Fond FAoIRwell http://alex.halavais.net/a-fond-faoirwell/ http://alex.halavais.net/a-fond-faoirwell/#comments Sun, 25 Oct 2015 23:48:45 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=19711 CSHq7GeUcAAVb6F
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 http://alex.halavais.net/the-gated-academy/ http://alex.halavais.net/the-gated-academy/#respond Mon, 05 Oct 2015 18:48:33 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=19698 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.

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Why I Stay http://alex.halavais.net/why-i-stay/ http://alex.halavais.net/why-i-stay/#comments Sat, 12 Sep 2015 05:42:28 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=19668 2ad3283

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.

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Back to the Blog, Quitting Everything Else http://alex.halavais.net/back-to-the-blog-quitting-everything-else/ http://alex.halavais.net/back-to-the-blog-quitting-everything-else/#comments Sun, 14 Jun 2015 03:54:56 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=19560 failure-is-an-opportunity

And I’m back. The time away for me has been enlightening, and has led me to think a bit about how the shift more generally from personal blogs to other platforms (like Facebook and Instagram) has changed our social media discourse. I’ll write more on that soon, but this is a more personal post about changing my practices on social media and in life.

I find myself as always at a crossroads. I like being a professor–sure, more some days than others, but generally I like the autonomy it provides. And receiving tenure should have provided me with even more of an ability to do the kinds of things I really like doing without having to worry much about what a promotion and tenure board would really like to see. The funny thing is that–sometimes to the consternation of my colleagues–I didn’t care much about that pre-tenure. Now, it seems like I am paralyzed by often doing things I think I should be doing instead of just doing the fun stuff I went into academia for in the first place. In other words, I’ve started caring way too much about what other people think, I suspect.


Along the way, I’ve also been joined by two young sons, who have their own demands on my time, and doing fun stuff more and more often means doing fun stuff with them. I am in some ways in awe of other researchers who are able to do it all–spend time with their family and remain focussed enough to produce influential bodies of research. I’ve decided I need to give up.

So, I’m going into semi-retirement, or taking a semi-sabbatical, or something. I’m kind of blowing up my “to do” list. I have a few things I’m going to write up, and turn to writing a new edition of my search engines book and some other stuff–but no more deadlines or timelines. I’ll finish stuff, and I’ll look to publish it.

And I’ll teach and worry a lot less about programs and departments and administration generally. I’m happily handing over my duties as interim grad director for our new MA in Social Technologies program to the amazing Greg Wise. I have stepped down as lead for the undergrad sociology and political science programs. After IR16, I am leaving the executive committee of the Association of Internet Researchers for the first time in more than a dozen years. While I haven’t done a spectacular job at any of those things, I like to think the contributions mattered. But they also took a lot of time.

While I am open to going up for full professor at some point, I’m going to be trying an experiment. First, I’m only going to do projects that I am really in love with and that I can foresee remaining relatively in love with until completed. That means saying “no” to a lot of projects that sound exciting, or that I am flattered to be asked to do, but that will ultimately feel like a chore. It also means I’m going to step back a bit from conferences. While I enjoy them, they are too often a large bite of time and money that seem to have limited returns. I’ve already been tapering these off, and often only attend one or two a year. I will certainly make exceptions, particularly for small meetings and workshops that seem like they have a real impact, or to give larger talks about my work.

Second, I’m going to chart my time, and limit myself to actually working 40 hour weeks, with very rare exceptions. That’s a bit crazy, but I want to prioritize spending time with my sons while they still want to spend time with me. I also want to make sure that work is actually productive. I will do a bit of cross-over–especially bits on learning with technology and the like will benefit from my unwilling test subjects. So there will be a bit of bleed-over. But I hope to really limit myself to those 40 hours for all of the things that are not “leisure.” Of course, this is cheating a bit, since I’ve just noted that a large portion of those 40 hours will be doing things I’m actually excited about: so not so much “work.”

I also hope that some part of that will be moving toward knowledge in areas where I am a novice. I’ve had free tuition to take courses at three universities over the last fifteen years, and haven’t really taken advantage of that. Nor have I taken the time to seriously engage in self-study toward new skills. I want to do that.

I’m also going to return to blogging and Twitter, and try to do a lot more in the open. That means previewing a lot of my writing here at the blog, and getting back to Twitter. I think it was awesome when Liz and I wrote a (sadly, unsuccessful) NSF proposal in public. I fully recognize that blogging is now dead–and as I said, I’ll be writing a bit about that. But it seems somehow appropriate that I blogged before it was cool, and now get to when it feels somehow anachronistic.

I thought about doing a redesign here at the blog. The theme isn’t really to my liking–it was never intended to actually be my theme. But I think at this stage that is yak-shaving. Instead, I’m just going to make sure that some part of those 40 hours each week is dedicated to putting words on screen here. Welcome to Web 4.0, which looks a lot like Web 2.0.

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Dear Blog http://alex.halavais.net/dear-blog/ http://alex.halavais.net/dear-blog/#respond Mon, 17 Feb 2014 19:27:13 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=8592 It’s been a good run, but I’m breaking up with you. We just haven’t had enough time for each other in the last few years. There’s the kids, and sexy young things like Twitter and Facebook. We’ll always have the memories, and I’ll make sure your links don’t rot, but I think it’s time we face facts and move on.

Really it doesn’t mean that things are over, just that they need to change. And frankly those changes may take some time, because you aren’t a priority. Let me give you an idea of some things to expect.

First, let’s talk about looks. You look like this largely by accident. I developed this theme as a teaching object for one of my courses, showing students how to use their new HTML and CSS skills to theme a blog. I don’t love it and not just because the footer is mismatched (a simple tiling issue I haven’t had time to deal with in the last, oh, five years.) Many of the choices here had a didactic rather than design reason. Those icons? Made them for a quick lesson on image sprites. Frankly, my design cue more naturally would be Daring Fireball. Keep it simple.

Actually, Medium has largely done what I would do. Some of you may recognize those side-notes–I had them in an earlier iteration of the blog, when I was on a Tufte fanboy kick. I also experimented with tweet-comments. It’s still a little too busy for me, but it’s close.

Second, I tend to be a bit more diffuse in where I write things. I used to tweet on this blog, before there was a Twitter. I didn’t really do anything with Facebook. Now, I split things up more by length than by audience. Twitter for the very short or mobile. Facebook for the largely in-between (and a slightly less public audience, though generally the posts are world-viewable), and then here for longer form. And, I guess, journal articles and the like. I think this becomes an aggregator for all that, slurping up my tweets, posts to FB, Pinterest pins, YouTube videos, and everything else, and slapping them together locally.

There may also be a more cloistered space–perhaps a separate blog–that will be for friends and family and sharing pics and the like. I’m a little sick of Flickr, and FB isn’t a great place for hi-res photo archiving or sharing. It may be I go for one of the OS photo archiving systems for that–I haven’t really decided.

Third, I need to do a better job of putting forward my scholarly and professional side, once I discover it. At a minimum, that means collecting self-archived preprints and the like in an easily grokked space.

So, this probably won’t happen this week or this month. But it will happen, someday. Until then, blog, just chill.

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Massifying Higher Learning http://alex.halavais.net/massifying-higher-learning/ http://alex.halavais.net/massifying-higher-learning/#comments Mon, 18 Nov 2013 20:28:43 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=4891 Mooc?
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few years, you know that there has been a massive change in education recently. Sure, some of the hyperbole has abated, but there are a lot of people who are still thinking about how a single person might teach more than a classroom. In some cases, they have extended their voice to such a degree that it reaches out to thousands or tens of thousands of people.

Of course, there are issues here. For one thing, this kind of education is mostly one-way. Yes, there are ways of feeding back. A lucky student might be able to grab a sliver of the teacher’s attention, but generally, it’s about the passing of knowledge from one-to-many. Also, students in many cases get together in groups and discuss the work–building on one another’s knowledge. But this isn’t the same as the circle around the sage, the guided conversation that has gone on as long as we have had schools.

Transforming teaching from the kind of conversational learning community that is–at least ideally–found in the university classroom to this sort of massive version is more than just switching media. It means that the teacher has to shift the structure and format of her work. In many cases, this means moving to text, but it also means framing the work more didactically, shaping ideas into units and subunits that can be consumed in little bites.

And this can be amazingly advantageous to many students; students who can’t necessarily get into a classroom each week because of the expense of tuition, because they have full-time jobs and maybe families. Yes, this could potentially be a less rich form of learning than a classroom, but it can reach people who might otherwise never get at that education. It can be provided relatively cheaply, and often for free.

Now some of these are absolute crap. No, check that, I would argue that most are absolute crap. And some have called for their elimination because of that–and a return to more traditional forms of face-to-face learning. The response is natural, and especially when presented with some of these weak examples, it’s clear why they might want to do away with them altogether.

But here’s the key. Many of those who engage in this massified version of learning find their way into the more traditional classroom, or maybe even new forms of learning communities we haven’t even thought of. In other words, although this new form may replace some of the traditional classroom learning, every indication is that there are opportunities for synergy between traditional forms of learning and leveraging new media. There have been calls to move away from massification of learning, and as a person who is interested in networked approaches, I find sympathies with this. But I think a much more reasonable approach is to ask how we can continue to combine these largely “broadcast” models to help enhance what we do in the traditional face-to-face classroom.

So, I say, let’s keep up with this book-writing thing. It might turn out to actually be worthwhile.

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Open Access Sting http://alex.halavais.net/open-access-sting/ http://alex.halavais.net/open-access-sting/#comments Fri, 04 Oct 2013 21:04:11 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3836 PhD Comics
There is article published in Science today that details a pentest of open access science journals, and finds that they admitted a ridiculous fake article. I was amused to see a range of results scroll by on Facebook today, but surprised a bit at their interpretation of the article. Without naming names…

Of Course Open Access Journals Suck

As a science journalist, the author should recognize that “suckage” is not an absolute: the measurement can only be evaluated in contrast to other measurements. From the write-up in Science, I gather that the acceptance rate shows that many open access journals have very poor (or non-existent) peer review mechanisms, despite advertising to the contrary. You can conclude from this that they are poor forms of scholarly communication, as the author rightfully does.

But this is a condemnation of open access journals only because he limited his submissions to open access journals. In the “coda” of the article, he places this criticism in the mouth of biologist David Roos, noting that there isn’t any reason to believe that a similar level of incompetence or fraud wouldn’t be found in subscription journals. But the author then defends this with a non-response: there are so many more open access journals!

This is true enough, and I do expect you find more fraud in open access journals. But why are we left to speculate, when the same test could have been done with “traditional” publishers just as easily?

It’s Because of the Money

I’ve seen the inference elsewhere in reporting on the study that the reason you find more fraud in open access (again, a conclusion that couldn’t be reached by this approach), is that they prey on authors and have no reason to defend the journal’s reputation, since it doesn’t actually have to sell.

This is a bit strange to me. I mean, I engage in lots of services (my doctor, my lawyer) that are, effectively “author pays.” Yes, especially in medicine, there are discussions about whether that is ideal, but it certainly doesn’t mean that there is less fraud than if they were selling their services as outcomes to, for example, employers. What this argument essentially says is that librarians, sometimes with fairly limited subject matter expertise, are better at assessing journals than researchers are. While I might actually agree with that, I can certainly see arguments on either side.

I haven’t published in a “gold” (author pays) journal, though I have published and prefer open access journals. Would I pay for publication? Absolutely. If, for example, Science accepted a paper from me and told me I would need to pay a grand to have it published, I’d pony that up very quickly. For a journal I’d never heard of? Very unlikely. In other words, author-pays makes me a more careful consumer of the journal I seek for publication.

Some of this also falls at the feet of those doing reviews for tenure. If any old publication venue counts, then authors have no reason to seek out venues in which their work will be read, criticized, and cited. Frankly, if someone comes up for tenure with conference papers or journal articles in venues I don’t know, it requires more than a passing examination of these. While I don’t like “whitelists” for tenure (in part because they often artificially constrain the range of publishing venues–that is, they are not long enough), it would address some of this.

Finally, one could argue that Science, as a subscription-paid journal, has a vested interest in reducing the move to open access, and this might color their objectivity on this topic. I don’t argue that: I just think this was a case where the evidence doesn’t clearly imply the conclusion.

Paging Sokal

Finally, a few people saw this as come-uppance for Alan Sokal, who famously published a paper in Social Text that was likewise nonsense. Without getting into the details of what often riles people on both sides, I actually think there is a problem with calling what happens in science journals and philosophical journals “peer review” and not recognizing some of the significant epistemological differences. But even beyond this, it’s apples and oranges. Had Science published something in a top science journal, we would be looking at something else.

The problem is that this article and Sokal’s attempt both take fairly modest findings and blow them out of proportion. If anything, both show that peer review is a flawed process, easily tricked. Is this a surprising outcome? I can think of very few academics who hold peer review to be anything other than “better than nothing”–and quite a few who think it doesn’t even rise to that faint level of praise. So, this tells us what we already knew: substandard work gets published all the time.

To Conclude

I don’t want to completely discount work like this. I think what it shows, though, is that we are in desperate need of transparency. When an editorial board lists editors, there should be an easy way to find out if they really are on board (a clearinghouse of editorial boards?). We should have something akin to RealName certifications of editors as non-fake people. And we should train our students to more carefully evaluate journals.

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Garage Universities http://alex.halavais.net/garage-universities/ http://alex.halavais.net/garage-universities/#comments Thu, 26 Sep 2013 04:45:24 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3779 hpgarage-320
I am wary of playing too much into the Silicon Valley myth, and nothing can be more central to that myth than the garage start-up. Nonetheless, the idea of a “university start-up” seems almost unfathomable, outside the less-than-interesting world of for-profit universities. I may want to buy a Tesla (automobile start-ups probably pre-date the Silicon Valley garage), but do I really want to invest in a four-year degree as the first cohort?

Reputation matters for a Tesla, but I do end up with a decent chunk of steel (and plastic aluminum). And yes, I’m buying some kind of caché: I have a Tesla and must therefore be cool by extension. With the university degree, that’s all I get. I get to say “I am a college graduate” or “I am an ASU graduate” or “I am a Stanford graduate” or “I went to school in Boston.” In other words, I give up a good chunk of cash, and four years of my life, and get certified. People know that I was good enough to get into Harvard, so I must be good enough to work for them.

Yes, I hear you saying university is more than that. It’s about social networks. It’s about socializing people into a particular class. It’s about organizing your time and behaving at some minimally professional level. And maybe it’s even about learning a little along the way. But that’s not how people choose their universities, even if they could. Yes, many do come to ASU because of its reputation as a party school, but usually they also want it to provide at least some indication of future ability to pay school loans. (And ASU happens to do pretty well in that regard.)

Because of this, you are unlikely to buy into a degree from Hyundai university. It might be cheaper than the Princeton sheepskin, it might even be a much better bang for the buck, but when you are buying brand, you can’t afford to take chances. And that means it is much harder for Hyundai U to even compete with Mercedes U–it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The barriers to entry for “real” schools are incredibly high. And a lot of that has to do with the size of required investment. (I think you could make similar arguments about the difficulty of making progress on residential building for the same reason.)

Unbundling and Garage Universities

One way to address this is to unbundle the things that the university does. I’ve written about this before on several occasions. A few years ago I gave an Ignite talk at DML on the topic of Garage Universities–but few people were interested. (Ironically, they preferred the talk I didn’t plan.) The basic argument was that the linchpin that held together the university bundle was the credential: the certification of the 4-year degree. Pull that out and things fall apart.

The university structure falling apart is a scary thing to many people, but I remain convinced that many of the best parts of the university will not only survive, but thrive. I also think, at least in the US case, that what really needs innovation is schooling in K-12, but in many ways that’s harder to crack. In that realm, though, you have seen new opportunities for start-up schools, and starting a private school–because they tend to be relatively local and limited in scale–is pretty easy.

What happens when you have a new system that allows for the agglomeration of smaller learning “chunks”–a kind of rolling up of degrees through the earning of smaller certificates. Among other things, it means starting a “small school” of higher education becomes much easier. I don’t have the time, money, or risk-taking behavior to start a new university, but I could start a program, and I could definitely start a course or series of courses.

Small courses and series already exist, of course. I can go to the Learning Annex and improve my understanding of Tarot, for example. But these courses exist on the fringes and are not in any way interoperable with university credits. Of course, there are very real economic reasons for universities not to accept credit not earned at the university. At one level at least, it means that tuition dollars are going to someone else. But it also costs money to evaluate outside credit and decide what “counts.” Articulation agreements make that a little easier, but they are time consuming and difficult to manage.

Coin of the Realm

A unified set of standards around certifying learning would not change this immediately, but it would cut down in the overhead of accepting, verifying, and sharing credentials. A good set of badging structures constitutes an innovation infrastructure.

Certainly, this doesn’t save anyone from the hard part: designing exciting and effective learning environments. Or even for the slightly less difficult task of figuring out how to pay for it. Just as a number of technologies made selling online easier–eBay, Paypal, Etsy, Square–a microcredential infrastructure makes it easier to experiment. At present, it seems like MOOCs are the experiment du jour, but there are other forms of experimentation possible, both within institutions and outside institutions.


The question everyone seems to be asking is what the tipping point might be for such an infrastructure. I am a fan of the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure, in part because, unlike the examples in ecommerce I mention above, it is not controlled by a single entity. There is no guarantee that it will happen, but if it does, it needs to happen at a large scale, and it needs to happen where people already are.

That means places like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, at least as a start. Ideally–and this is where it gets tricky–it means that it happens the same way across these platforms, and no one tries to own it. There is a promising mention of the Mozilla OBI in Reid Hoffman’s “Disrupting the Diploma” post. But on the other hand, there seems to be an effort to try to bottle badges up, keep them at home, all the better to monetize them. I suspect strongly that–like for blogging–the future of badges rests on understanding the sharing process.

We need to understand better the mechanisms of why people might post a badge and what they get out of it when they do. And that means more than private sharing or putting it on a personal portfolio, it means understanding how badges pass into the open, participatory worlds of social media.

It also means understanding how microcertifications relate to other forms of marking achievement and experience, both quantified and more informal. A number of systems exist for marking “karma” or check-ins. A better feeling for the range of ways in which experience is shared, appreciated, and recorded.

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Twentieth Anniversary http://alex.halavais.net/twentieth-anniversary/ http://alex.halavais.net/twentieth-anniversary/#comments Thu, 27 Jun 2013 07:43:48 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3489 fuji2sm
Twenty years ago today, Jamie and I were married. This picture, taken some time after we were married, probably deserves some explanation. A group of us had discovered that “Sometime’s Funky Street Cafe” (a place down the street from the 500 Rakan Gyokuhoji Temple that seemed to be run by teenagers) carried Red Stripe Beer, and made a night of drinking a lot of it. Having closed down the place, our mötley crüe had three options: go to John Festa’s, the depressing expat hangout downtown; move the celebration to one of our flats, whispering to avoid scandalizing the neighbors; or climb Mount Fuji. The answer seemed obvious enough, so we dropped by a liquor store to buy a giant bottle of sake to open at the peak (the owner was kind enough to sell us a six pack of tiny bottles instead) and hopped the last train and bus to Fuji-san. This photo is probably by 8th station, by which time we were all pretty sober, now determined to reach the summit by dawn. And no, I wasn’t a Tri-Delt; my debonair wife had lent me a sweatshirt since I at some point in the evening decided to do this in a T-shirt.

I think it would have been impossible for us to even begin to guess how our lives would play out over the next twenty years. We are both very different people today than when this photo was taken and I mean much more than the fact that I would be physically unrecognizable to my 21-year-old self. We have become ourselves in ways that I think we are both more happy about than not. Of course, everybody changes, and sometimes that means they grow apart, and that is fine. But that has not been the case for us. At this point in our lives, we’ve been married longer than we haven’t. So much of who I am is indistinguishable from my relationship with my spouse that I cannot imagine being myself without her.

When we got married, our promise was that we would challenge each other to become better people. I don’t know how well I’ve kept that promise to Jamie, but all of those things I am most proud of in myself I owe to her influence. Most people questioned my decision to ask Jamie to marry me when we were both so young. (And many thanks to those of you who either didn’t question it, or didn’t voice those questions.) I will now tell a story that I have never told anyone, including Jamie.

Several months before I asked her to marry me, I had a nightmare. I was 40, but that wasn’t the nightmare. I was back in Southern California, having lived a daring life of intrigue, on leave as a young ambassador to a far off land. I hopped off my motorcycle at a stylish restaurant. When I was seated, I caught the eye of someone who looked familiar: Jamie. After a brief career on the stage, she had opened a series of popular restaurants. We were both successful in our careers, dashingly good looking, and had found our paths through life. And the moment our eyes met, we knew what we had lost. Twenty years we could have been together, and we had at some point thrown that away for what was behind the curtain. I woke up with a rock in the pit of my stomach. The easy thing is to not realize what is right there, right now. To believe that it can’t last.

A few nights ago, we watched O, Brother Where Art Thou, since both boys like that old-timey sound and we had conveniently forgotten about a couple of scenes (Klan rally, frog murder) that would need a bit of explanation. At the beginning of the movie, the analog of Tiresias tells the Soggy Bottom Boys that they will find a treasure, but not the one they seek. The blind seer rides through town at the conclusion, just as the protagonist passes with his newly reunited family. I was explaining to Jasper the meaning that the (not always subtle) Coen Brothers were imparting, and found myself in tears. Here was my treasure, Jamie and our two sons, and I am the luckiest man in the world. All because I asked, and she said yes.

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Reheeling http://alex.halavais.net/reheeling/ http://alex.halavais.net/reheeling/#respond Thu, 20 Jun 2013 18:26:37 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3465 fusion
There lived on Actinuria a young inventor by the name of Pyron, who learned to pull wires out of platinum so thin, you could make nets with them for catching clouds. Pyron invented the wire telegraph, and then he pulled the wire out so fine, it wasn’t there, and in this fashion he obtained the wireless. Hope entered the hearts of the inhabitants of Actinuria, for they thought it would now be possible to establish a conspiracy. But the cunning Archithorius monitored their conversations, holding in each of his six hundred hands a platinum conductor, whereby he knew what his subjects were saying, and at the first mention of the word “revolt” or “coup” he instantly dispatched ball lightening, which reduced the conspirators to a flaming puddle.

Pyron decided to outwit the wicked ruler. When he spoke to his friends, instead of “rebelling” he said “reheeling,” instead of “insurrection”–“instep,” and in this way he planned the overthrow. Archithorius meanwhile was puzzled why his subjects had taken such a sudden interest in shoe repair, for he did not know that when they said “thread the laces,” by this they meant “run him through and through,” and boots too tight signified his tyranny.

– Stanislaw Lem, “Uranium Earpieces,” 1972, published in Mortal Engines, Michael Kandel (trans.)

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Getting Glass http://alex.halavais.net/getting-glass/ http://alex.halavais.net/getting-glass/#respond Wed, 17 Apr 2013 20:35:38 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3428 gglass

Google selected me as one of (the many) Google “Glass Explorers”, thanks to a tweet I sent saying how I would use Google Glass, namely:

What this means is that I will, presumably over the next few months, be offered the opportunity to buy Google Glass before most other people get to. Yay! But it is not all good news. I get to do this only if I shell out $1,500 and head out to L.A. to pick them up.

Fifteen hundred dollars is a lot of money. I’d be willing to spend a sizable amount of money for what I think Glass is. Indeed, although $1,500 is on the outside of that range, if it did all I wanted it too, I might still be tempted. But it is an awful lot of money. And that’s before the trip to L.A.

To be clear, the decision is mostly “sooner or later.” I’ve wanted something very like Glass for a very long time. At least since I first read Neuromancer, and probably well before that. So the real question is whether it’s worth the premium and risk to be a “Glass Explorer.”

As with all such decisions, I tend to make two lists: for and against.


  • I get to play with a new toy first, and show it off. Have to admit, I’m not a big “gadget for the sake of gadgets” guy. I don’t really care what conclusions others draw relating to my personal technology: either whether I am a cool early adopter or a “glasshole.” I use tech that works for me. So, this kind of “check me out I got it first” doesn’t really appeal to me. I guess the caveat there is that I would like the opportunity to provide the first reviews of the thing.
  • I get to do simple apps: This is actually a big one. I’m not a big programmer, and I don’t have a lot of slack time this year for extra projects, but I would love to create tools for lecturing, for control, for class management, and the like. And given one of the languages they support for app programming is Python–the one I’m most comfortable in–I can see creating some cool apps for this thing. But… well, see the con column.
  • I could begin integrating it now, and have a better feel for whether I think it will be mass adopted, and what social impacts it might have. I am, at heart, a futurist. I think some people who do social science hope to explain. I am interested in this, but my primary focus is being able to anticipate (“predict” is too strong) social changes and find ways to help shape them. Glass may be this, or it may not, but having hands on early on will help me to figure that out.


  • Early adopter tax. There is a lot of speculation as to what these things will cost when they are available widely, and when that will be. The only official indication so far is “something less than $1,500.” I suspect they will need to be much less than that if they are to be successful, and while there are those throwing around numbers in the hundreds, I suspect that price point will be right around $1,000, perhaps a bit higher. That means you are paying a $500 premium to be a beta tester, and shouldering a bit of risk in doing so.
  • Still don’t know its weak points. Now that they are actually getting shipped to developers and “thought leaders,” we might start to hear about where they don’t quite measure up. Right now, all we get is the PR machine. That’s great, but I don’t like putting my own money toward something that Google says is great. I actually like most of what Google produces, but “trust but verify” would make me much more comfortable. In particular, I already suspect it has two big downvotes for me. First, I sincerely hope it can support a bluetooth keyboard. I don’t want to talk to my glasses. Ideally, I want an awesome belt- or forearm-mounted keyboard–maybe even a gesture aware keyboard (a la Swype) or a chording keyboard. Or maybe a hand-mounted pointer. If it can’t support these kinds of things, it’s too expensive. (There is talk of a forearm-mounted pad, but not a lot of details.)
  • Strangleware. My Android isn’t rooted, but one of the reasons I like it is that it *could* be. Right now, it looks like Glass can only run apps in the cloud, and in this case, it sounds like it is limited to the Google cloud. This has two effects. First, it means it is harder for the street to find new uses for Glass–the uses will be fairly prescribed by Google. That’s a model that is not particularly appealing to me. Second, developers cannot charge for Glass apps. I can’t imagine this is an effective strategy for Google, but I know from a more immediate perspective that while I am excited to experiment with apps (see above) for research and learning, I also know I won’t be able to recoup my $1,500 by selling whatever I develop. Now, if you can get direct access to Glass from your phone (and this would also address the keyboard issue), that may be another matter.
  • No resale. I guess I could hedge this a bit if I knew I could eBay the device if I found it wasn’t for me. But if the developer models are any indication, you aren’t permitted to resell. You are out the $1,500 with no chance of recovering this.

I will keep an open mind, and check out reviews as they start to trickle in from developers, as well as reading the terms & conditions, but right now, I am leaning to giving up my invite and waiting with the other plebes for broad availability. And maybe spending less on a video enabled quadracopter or a nice Mindstorms set instead.

Or, someone at Google will read this, and send me a dozen of the things as part of a grant to share with grad students so we can do some awesome research in the fall. But, you know, I’m not holding my breath. (I do hope they are doing this for someone though, if not me. If Google is interested in education, they should be making these connections.)

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Empty Endorsements http://alex.halavais.net/empty-endorsements/ http://alex.halavais.net/empty-endorsements/#comments Fri, 05 Apr 2013 19:51:35 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3417 end-smallIt seems like every day, I get another message from LinkedIn that someone has endorsed me. I suppose my first reaction is a short burst of pride or happiness. It’s hard not to feel this when someone says you are good at something. Then the resentment takes over. Because LinkedIn endorsements are meaningless. At best, they are a craven attempt to get you coming back to the site.

That’s not to say endorsements are generally meaningless, although, for reasons I’ll discuss below, even the full text endorsements on LinkedIn have a systematic problem. But the basic issue here is: who are these people and are they qualified to judge?

I Like You as an X

As a friend noted upon receiving an endorsement in a field she has had only marginal experience with, and the endorser knew nothing about: “how can it possibly make sense for someone to endorse me for something I know nothing about? He might just as well endorse me for operating a crane :).” It is because endorsements are merely proxies for an expression of trust. There are no criteria for endorsement, nor anything beyond the binary “skilled or not.”

And it seems the interface is designed to encourage endorsements, with one recent implementation letting you do mass endorsement of a set of skills. The truth is, even with close colleagues, I have only a passing knowledge of, say, many of my LinkedIn connections’ teaching abilities. Some of them have been my students, and so they probably can say with some authority that I have the skill “teaching” but even then, are they saying I am a “good” teacher, a “great” teacher, or just that I am a “minimally acceptable” teacher.

Paging Mauss

One of the root issues of the new endorsement system is one it shared with the old endorsement process: implicit reciprocity. There was nothing built into the old system that provided this, but there was certainly the feeling that if you endorsed someone, they should endorse you back.

Perhaps this is in some general sense true of such textual endorsements in the real world, but if so, the connection is very tenuous. If I write a letter of recommendation for a student, I don’t expect her to write one back for me–not immediately at least, and probably not at all. Likewise, if I write a short endorsement for a consultant, for use in getting new clients, I have no expectation of a similar endorsement back. But on LinkedIn, it seems that one endorsement directly begets another. I suppose you could analyze this and see how many one-way endorsements there are, but I suspect there aren’t very many. I now generally don’t endorse people with textual statements, unless they specifically ask, because I don’t want it to look like I am attempting to get endorsements back. And, just to make this more complicated, if they don’t endorse me back, I wonder what this means.

This reciprocity is made even more extreme in the case of the new endorsements. When I get an email, and follow it to linked in, it prompts me: “Now it’s your turn.”


The idea of turn-taking is deeply ingrained in our social lives. Someone has done us a turn, and now we are expected to reciprocate. And just to make matters easier, I can by-pass all this messy “thinking” and just endorse-’em-all.

Brand Will Eat Itself

It’s not clear why LinkedIn would do something like this: increasing traffic at the cost of making their system laughable. Yes, I suppose they could just quietly kill off the project, but I suspect that a lot of people would be hopping mad if their hundreds of meaningless endorsements suddenly were no longer featured on their page.

Imagine an alternative LinkedIn–one that included elements of a portfolio, and asked for you to assess the work presented, or indicate the basis of your endorsement. Not just a collection of mutual back-scratchers (I’m forgoing the more obvious metaphor as this is a family blog), but a space in which people could say something real about their colleagues and their competencies. I suspect such a network would blow LinkedIn off the map.

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The Perfect Hotel Room http://alex.halavais.net/the-perfect-hotel-room/ http://alex.halavais.net/the-perfect-hotel-room/#comments Mon, 18 Mar 2013 09:47:31 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3406 jules2I‘ve spent enough time in hotel rooms over the last few years that I have a pretty good idea of what the ideal room would be like. My ideal is probably different from many others, but I suspect it isn’t that different.

In order of importance:

Clean: I mean really clean. I’ve been in too many mid-range “nice” hotels with hair on the bathroom door. In the room where I am writing now, there is a fairly wide assortment of black hairs on the ceiling of the bathroom. I get it–it’s hard for many people to reach; get a stool!

Frankly a lot of this has to do with looking clean. Hotels choose materials that are supposed to wear well and not need replaced. However, many of these get funky pretty fast. I generally prefer things like hard floors and less textured walls not because they are comfortable, but because they give the impression of being clean. Likewise, modern furniture isn’t always my favorite, but it often seems cleaner.

Some people, I guess, find peeling wallpaper and worn carpets charming. I do not. Part of being clean is being relatively new, or at least “like” new.

Bed & Linens: I loved the Bed Wars. My current room has the Sheraton bed, which rocks. The linens are a little rough, but generally, this bed is way more comfortable than mine at home. Given these rooms are mostly for sleeping, this is really important. I don’t care if the other furniture is sparse or cheap, as long as the bed is good.

People: Every staff person I see should be the friendliest person I’ve met today. Honestly, a hotel that falls short on a lot of these other things will be saved by the right people behind the front desk. It’s not that I don’t care that you have had a long day, or that you are not thrilled to be working the late shift–I genuinely do. But part of your job is to believe that I am the best thing that has happened to you today, and to make me believe it too.

Dark and Quiet: Why, oh why, do hotels install blackout curtains that don’t close completely. I want a black room. And I want it as silent as a tomb. I know there is only so much you can do about this once a place is built, but given that I lived in an apartment in a pre-war building where you couldn’t hear the neighbors, I don’t know why that’s impossible for hotels. Even with this, you should provide ear plugs and a eye mask in every room. (I bring my own.)

Shower Pressure. I want insane amounts of hot water at a moment’s notice. And I don’t want the curtain touching me. (I’d prefer there were no curtain.) And I want a high shower head. I like the rain shower heads in the ceiling, but the only hotels where I’ve encountered those, I think, are in Europe.

Location / transportation: Of course, location, location, location. But especially in cities with good public transportation infrastructure, I love being across the street from a subway stop, and easy access from the airport. If I have to park, I want to park myself (I hate valets) in a garage under the hotel. I also love hotels that are across from a market, and an easy walk to a wide range of restaurants.

No Waiting: I should be checked in no more than 3 minutes, and out instantaneously. Even if you are friendly, I don’t want to wait. I want to get showered and get some sleep.

No Tipping: Unfortunately, much of the world is picking up the US tipping culture. I would happily pay more for a room where they payed their staff a salary that did not require tips and instituted a no tipping policy. It’s not going to happen, I know.

Usable Fridge: In the room I’m in, there is a fridge with minibar stuff. They charge you $25 if you empty it and put your own stuff in. They charge you $25 to rent a fridge. It’s not about my comfort and convenience, it’s about how much discomfort you want to inflict for those unwilling to pay. The principle of the thing annoys me. I know there are people who pull stuff from the mini bar. If it were only marginally more expensive than the market downstairs, I would too. But I’m not paying $0.25 an oz for Perrier. And given what I’m paying a night, you could buy me a fridge and send it home with me.

Water. Speaking of which: on a $200 room, you can afford to provide a 1l bottle of purified water. Hell, bottle it yourself, I don’t care. At this one, they want $3 for that 1l bottle. They do give you the tiniest bottle of water you’ve ever seen for free. Do not capitalize on my dehydration!

Net. You would think, given how often this is raised, one of the large chains would really leverage free WiFi. A number of the mid-range and economy hotels do. I want WiFi in my room. I rarely touch the TV, and although I’ve ordered movies for the kids at some point, I don’t think I have for myself in at least five years. I don’t need a phone. But I need net. The hotel I’m writing this in has basic net for $13 a day and higher speed for more. Interesting idea, but make the basic free, and you’re getting somewhere.

Light. I hate anemic lighting, and despise fluorescents that buzz or whine.

Ninja maids: I want my room made up within seconds after I leave it. At the very least, when I’m away for four hours, I shouldn’t come back to a dirty room.

Design: I love hotels that have taken design seriously, and don’t look like every other hotel I’ve been to. Again, the Europeans do way better on this account in my experience. I get that people feel more comfortable with a design they’ve seen before, but I would rather a bit of funkiness. And when in doubt, add water features and greenery.

Note that there are a bunch of things I really don’t care about. I don’t need a fancy lobby; they’re sometimes fine, but I’ll go hang out in the lobby of some other hotel if I need one. I don’t need a giant room: as long as I can move comfortably–especially in the bathroom–I’m fine. Unless it’s a resort, I don’t really care about the pool or gym. And as long as there are good restaurants around or attached, I don’t need a hotel restaurant. I’d far prefer they give me some local delivery options than having to rely on room service, generally. (Though if you are going to do room service, be sure to offer Eggs Benedict with real Hollandaise!)

I realize that hotels have to cater to different kinds of guests, as well as to individual differences. But if you follow the above guidelines, at least I’ll have some places to stay.

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Undo It Yourself (U.i.Y.) http://alex.halavais.net/undo-it-yourself-u-i-y/ http://alex.halavais.net/undo-it-yourself-u-i-y/#respond Sat, 16 Mar 2013 01:41:44 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3395 disThere is a TV show called (in the US) Junkyard Wars. The premise of the show is simple enough: two teams meet in a junkyard and are assigned to build something: a trebuchet, a crane, or some other device. I think we can assume that the collection of stuff is, let us say, “semi-random.” I don’t know whether they start with a real junkyard and just make sure to seed it with useful bits, or they start with useful bits and cover it in random crap, or what, but I just cannot assume that they do this in a real, random scrapyard. The challenge is to make the most of the stuff at hand, and to create something that will work for the purposes of the challenge.

I was thinking about this during the Digital Medial and Learning conference in Chicago this week, and especially during the session titled Make, Do, Engage. The whole conference has a double set of themes. The official theme has to do with civic culture, and my favorite sessions this year have talked about new forms of activism and ways of encouraging social justice. But there is also a focus (including a pre-conference) on making stuff. Panelists spoke about ways students subvert game construction, the idea of jugaad, and thoughts about hacking-based media literacies. There seemed to be an interweaving here between building “stuff” (technology) and building government, and learning. This nexus (learning, politics, and making) was very present at the conference, and hits directly on my specific intersection of interests, so it has been an especially engaging conference for me this year.

In particular, the question is how to lead people to be more willing to engage in hacking, and how to create environments and ecosystems that encourage hacking of the environment. Rafi Santo talked a bit about the “emergence” of the hashtag as an example of Twitter’s relative hackability when compared with Facebook. (The evolution of features of Twitter is something I write about in a short chapter in the upcoming volume Twitter and Society.) Chris Hoadley also talked about the absence of any sort of state support for physical infrastructure led people to have to engage in their own hacks. This recalled for me a point made by Ethan Zuckerman about Occupy Sandy as being an interesting example of collective action that had a very real impact.

At one point Ingrid Erickson mentioned that she had been talking with Rafi about “do it together” technologies–making the hacking process more social. But part of me is much more interested in infrastructure for creativity–forcing people to work together. No one would wish Sandy on any group, but that particular pressure, and the vacuum of institutional support, led to a Temporary Autonomous Government of sorts that stepped in and did stuff because it needed to be done. I also recalled danah boyd mentioning earlier something that anyone who has ever taught in a grad program knows full well: placing a group in a difficult or impossible situation is a good way to quickly build an esprit de corps and bring together those who would otherwise not necessarily choose to collaborate. With all of these ideas mixing around, I wonder if we need a new aesthetic of “undoing it yourself.”

Yes, I suppose that could be what jailbreaking a phone is about, or you might associate this with frame-breaking or other forms of sabotage. But I am thinking of something a bit more pre-constructive.

I went to a lot of schools as a kid; more than one built on one or another piece of the Montessori model. At one, there was a pile of wood, a hammer, and some nails. It wasn’t in a classroom, as I recall, it was down at the end of a hall. If I asked, they would let me go mess with it. It was dangerous: I managed to hammer my thumb with some consistency. And I would be very surprised if they had an outcome in mind; or even if I did. I think I made a model boat. I don’t think anyone would have guessed it was a model boat unless I had told them.

In a more structured setting, piles of Lego bricks might want to look like what is on the cover of the box. And I am sure there are kids who manage–at least once–to achieve the vehicles or castles shown there. But that’s not why you play with Lego. Some part of me really rebels against the new Lego world, with the huge proliferations of specialized pieces. But the truth is that as a kid the specialized pieces were the interesting bits, not the bare blocks. The core 8×2 were there almost as a glue to keep the fun bits together.

Especially in the postmodern world we celebrate the bricoleur, we recognize hybridized work and kludges as interesting and useful, but far less thought is put into where that stuff comes from. Disassembly precedes assembly. I’m interested in what it means to be an effective disassembler, to unmake environments. There is space for scaffolding only once you’ve actually torn down the walls.

I think we need an Undo-it-Yourself movement. People who individually loosen bolts and disconnect wires. Who destroy mindfully. Those who leave junk in your way, knowing that you might see yourself in it. Our world is ripe for decomposition. New ideas about how we shape our built environment and our society are not born out of the ashes of the past, but out of the bits and pieces that are no longer attached the way the Designer intended.

I am not advocating chaos. I’m not suggesting that we should start an evil organization that turns every screw we encounter twice anti-clockwise. Perhaps what I am suggesting is something somewhere between the kit and the junkyard. Something with possibilities we know and we don’t know. Disassemblies of things for playing with.

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The Badges of Oz http://alex.halavais.net/ozbadge/ http://alex.halavais.net/ozbadge/#comments Fri, 15 Mar 2013 19:21:23 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3386 ybrAlmost a year ago I wrote a post about being a “skeptical evangelist” when it comes to the uses of badges in learning. This was spurred, in large part, by a workshop run by Mitch Resnick at DML2012 that was critical of the focus on badges. This year Resnick was back, as part of a panel, and the designated “chief worrier.” Then, as now, I find nothing to disagree with in his skepticism.

To provide what is perhaps too brief a gloss on Mitch Resnick’s critique, he is concerned that the badges come to replace the authentic learning experiences. He illustrated this by relaying a story about hiking the Appalachian trail, and having people talk about “peaking”–hitting as many peaks as possible in a given day. This misses the reason for doing the hike in the first place. He worries–as Alfie Kohn did about gold stars–that badges will be used to motivate students. He showed a short conversation between Salmon Kahn and Bill Gates in which they joke about how badges shape kids’ motivations. I am really glad that Resnick raises (and keeps raising) these issues. When badges end up replacing learning, rather than enhancing it, we are producing an anti-learning technology. We need to not be creating a technology of motivation, but one that provides recognition, authentic assessment, and an effective alternative to traditional credentials and learning records.

Which brings us to Oz, and a charlatan wizard from Kansas. You may not remember this, but when Dorothy and her friends show up to get their hearts and minds, the wizard instead awards them with badges. To go back to the source:

“I think you are a very bad man,” said Dorothy.

“Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man, but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”

“Can’t you give me brains?” asked the Scarecrow.

“You don’t need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

“That may all be true,” said the Scarecrow, “but I shall be very unhappy unless you give me brains.”

The false Wizard looked at him carefully.

“Well,” he said with a sigh, “I’m not much of a magician, as I said; but if you will come to me tomorrow morning, I will stuff your head with brains. I cannot tell you how to use them, however; you must find that out for yourself.”

“Oh, thank you–thank you!” cried the Scarecrow. “I’ll find a way to use them, never fear!”

“But how about my courage?” asked the Lion anxiously.

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

“Perhaps I have, but I’m scared just the same,” said the Lion. “I shall really be very unhappy unless you give me the sort of courage that makes one forget he is afraid.”

“Very well, I will give you that sort of courage tomorrow,” replied Oz.

“How about my heart?” asked the Tin Woodman.

“Why, as for that,” answered Oz, “I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.”

“That must be a matter of opinion,” said the Tin Woodman. “For my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me the heart.”

“Very well,” answered Oz meekly. “Come to me tomorrow and you shall have a heart. I have played Wizard for so many years that I may as well continue the part a little longer.”

In the end, he gives them tokens in the book which the three companions take to be real. But in the movie, these mere tokens are replaced by their modern equivalents: the diploma, a testimonial, and a purple heart.

Now, as someone who sees badges as useful and helpful, it may seem odd to raise this as an example. After all, the Wizard keeps his eyes wide open about the value of things like military badges or diplomas. He has no illusions about the ways in which these things are abused in the strange world of “Kansas.” And, as I said, he is a faker.

On the other hand, the Wizard’s actions are about recognizing the achievements of the three. The viewer, of course, knows that the three already have demonstrated their desired abilities, through their journey along the YBR, and their experience meeting with a significant challenge. They have already achieved more than they themselves knew. Badges represent recognition, and as those in the badge community who like the game mechanics metaphor (I don’t) say “leveling up.” In this case, the badges are being used not just to let the world know about the protagonists’ achievements and experience, but also to open their eyes to their own accomplishments–to mark that learning as important.

There will continue to be a tension between motivation–stepping up to meet others’ achievement–and recognizing the achievements of learners. It’s an important tension, and I think there needs to be a significant amount of focus on how we can effectively walk that line. How can we avoid the worst kinds of badging?

I don’t have a good answer to that, but I have two suggestions:

First, the evidence behind the badge should not–cannot–be ignored. Right now the “evidence link” is optional for the OBI. I am happy it is there at all, but I wish that it were required. Of course, it’s wide open–that “evidence” could just be a score on a quiz. But there is the potential for backing badges with authentic assessment. I would love for badges to essentially be pointers to portfolios.

Second, I think it’s vital that learners be involved in the creation of badges. People often drag out the apocryphal quote from Napoleon about soldiers giving their lives for bits of ribbon. There is a significant danger that the future of badges will be dictated by the state (at whatever level) or standardized curricula. I think it is important to keep badging weird. One of the best ways to do that, and to undermine the colonization of badging by commercial interests and authoritative educational institutions is to makes sure the tools to create and issue badges are widely available and dead simple to use.

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Seminar WordPress Stack http://alex.halavais.net/seminar-wordpress-stack/ http://alex.halavais.net/seminar-wordpress-stack/#respond Mon, 07 Jan 2013 19:16:38 +0000 http://alex.halavais.net/?p=3350 wordpress_pluginsIn setting up another CommentPress site for teaching this semester, I realized that I’ve evolved a set of plugins I like to use each semester, and it might be helpful to let others know about them. I’ll post later about how I use these.

There are lots of other things I would like to try, including BuddyPress, but this is a simple one-time site that works well for the seminar style of discussion.

For your stacking pleasure, here are the plugins currently on my course site, copy and pasted with their existing descriptions from my plug-in page, along with a short explanation in italics of why I have it installed. I’ve also left out Jetpack and the other plugins that are installed by default.

CommentPress Core

CommentPress allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text. You can use it to annotate, gloss, workshop, debate and more!

I’ve been using CommentPress for a while now. Others seem to like digress.it, but after being stung with an error early on, I largely abandoned it. I experimented with an install this semester before deciding to stay with CommentPress, which is even better with some recent improvements. I like being able to do my course readings and lectures as WordPress Pages, keeping the Posts for a running a course blog. (I usually change the default setup so that the blog goes back to the front page.)

Comment Rating

Allows visitors to rate comments in a Like vs. Dislike fashion with clickable images. Poorly-rated & highly-rated comments can be displayed differently. This plugin is simple and light-weight. Configure it at Settings → Comment Rating.

I wanted a way for students to indicate agreement or appreciation without posting “+1” or “I agree!”

Comment Reply Notification

When a reply is made to a comment the user has left on the blog, an e-mail shall be sent to the user to notify him of the reply. This will allow the users to follow up the comment and expand the conversation if desired. 评论回复通知插件, 当评论被回复时会email通知评论的作者.

So the major issue with CommentPress is that comments don’t show up in temporal order, and it’s hard to see if someone has commented on what you have said. The new “activity” tab helps, but I also want to make sure people can get bugged via email.

Email Users

Allows the site editors to send an e-mail to the blog users. Credits to Catalin Ionescu who gave me some ideas for the plugin and has made a similar plugin. Bug reports and corrections by Cyril Crua, Pokey and Mike Walsh.

I already have this function on my university system for students who are actually for-credit students, but since I like to open my classes, this lets me email everyone in the course.

My Page Order

My Page Order allows you to set the order of pages through a drag and drop interface. The default method of setting the order page by page is extremely clumsy, especially with a large number of pages.

Like it says… This makes it easier to arrange the order of pages into the order I want for the course.

Peter’s Login Redirect

Redirect users to different locations after logging in. Define a set of rules for specific users, user with specific roles, users with specific capabilities, and a blanket rule for all other users. This is all managed in Settings > Login/logout redirects.

As noted below, I make everyone using the site register. The downside of this, is that it forces them to the Dashboard. Especially for students unfamiliar with blogging, this can lead to rapid freaking out.

Registered Users Only

Redirects all non-logged in users to your login form. Make sure to disable registration if you want your blog truely private.

I don’t disable registration until a week or two after the semester begins. Everyone signs up for an account, and the blog is protected. I sometimes make fair use of copyrighted materials, but that doesn’t mean I want to republish to the entire world and get myself in hot water. So, we need to put a front door on things.

Subscribe to Comments Reloaded

Subscribe to Comments Reloaded is a robust plugin that enables commenters to sign up for e-mail notifications. It includes a full-featured subscription manager that your commenters can use to unsubscribe to certain posts or suspend all notifications.

Seem like overload with the above plugin for notifications? Yeah, it probably is. But I want participants to know when people want to talk.


Manages your WordPress database. Allows you to optimize database, repair database, backup database, restore database, delete backup database , drop/empty tables and run selected queries. Supports automatic scheduling of backing up, optimizing and repairing of database.

Unless you are lucky enough to have your campus IT folks backing you up, disaster is on your plate. You think it’s bad when your blog goes down? Imagine what happens when your class explodes. I back up the file system, then have this email me a copy of DB so that I won’t lose comments, etc., in case of a complete meltdown/lost host/hacked site/alien invasion/etc.


Enable you to display how many users are online on your WordPress site.

As I said, I want to build in more in the way of awareness. That probably means bringing in BuddyPress, and the variety of plugins that allows. For now, this just lets users know that they are not on the site alone. (Though they often are.)

Comment Leaderboard

I haven’t bothered to wrap the below snippet into a plug-in, since I didn’t expect a lot of people would need it. For now, if you are interested, you can drop it right into the top of your Theme Functions (functions.php):

This creates a new widget on the dashboard that lists all the users on the site, along with the number of comments they have made, the total upvotes the user has received, and the score of their highest upvoted comment.

function wpmods_dashboard_widget() {
  global $wpdb;
  $where = 'WHERE comment_approved = 1 AND user_id <> 0';
  $comment_counts = (array) $wpdb->get_results("
    SELECT user_id, COUNT( * ) AS total, 
    SUM(comment_karma) AS karmasum, 
    MAX(comment_karma) AS karmamax
    FROM {$wpdb->comments}
    GROUP BY user_id
    ", object);
  echo '<table><tr>
        <td>Total Comments</td>
        <td>Total Karma</td>
        <td>Peak Karma</td></tr>';
  foreach ( $comment_counts as $count ) {
    $user = get_userdata($count->user_id);
    echo '<tr><td>' . $user->display_name . 
     '</td><td align="center">' . $count->total . 
     '</td><td align="center">' . $count->karmasum . 
     '</td><td align="center">' . $count->karmamax.
  echo '';

function wpmods_add_dashboard_widget() {
    'Comment Count', 
    'wpmods_dashboard_widget' );

  'wpmods_add_dashboard_widget' );

Let me know if there is another plug-in I should try!

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