Back to the Blog, Quitting Everything Else


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

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

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.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Open Access Sting

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.

Posted in Research | 2 Comments
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