Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bloggers are journalists

A federal court says so. The determining factor, the court said, was not any kind of title assigned to the blogger ahead of time or the format, but the content of the writing. Booya!

Anxiety over online education

The NY Times offers an article that walks a fine line between exuberance and outright fear toward the prospect of online education. The article points out that 1 in 5 college students took a course online last fall. Traditional four-year private colleges, of course, don't really do online education. There is some fear that the surge in online education, spurred in part by Congress allowing colleges to qualify for financial aid even if less than half their courses are taught at actual campuses, will lead to more diploma mills. But most of the fear is about the loss of some kind of idyllic view of college life:
Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers wonders what will happen, should campuses go exuberantly online, to the intangibles — the late-night bull sessions, the serendipitous strolls with professors, the chance to feel one’s oats in student government? And what will one more switch to electronic conversation do to our need for intimate human connections, he asks?

I like face-to-face conversations as much as the next person, but I think there are other opportunities that online education allows that can be similar to the ones of a residential college. Why can't late-night bull sessions occur with your neighbors or spouse, for example? Or they might happen online in a chat room. Strolls with professors? Again, perhaps a virtual stroll in Second Life or maybe the prof pops his or her head into the chat room on occasion. What if taking classes online allows you to volunteer for your local political candidate or community organization? Who says that electronic conversation isn't intimate? I have more human connections online than I do in real life. Some might interpret that as a bad thing, and I think it would be if I didn't have any connections in real life. I feel the two "worlds" as it were are symbiotic. I need both.

Here's another point of resistance. The fact that in an online course, the possibility for students to learn as much from each other is increased:
They [students in an online class] point out that online postings are more reasoned and detailed than
off-the-cuff classroom observations. Students learn as much from one
another’s postings, informed by the real business world, as they do
from instructors, they say.
The dynamics are completely different in an online class. There's no professor standing at the front of the room. Just that alone is enough for many students to open up to the possibility that they have as much to offer as the professor.

I honestly don't know what the landscape is going to look like in ten years. Will schools like my slac move into online education at all? Will there be a backlash against technology that sends lots of students to colleges that focus on face to face education? If the costs of that education continue to rise at the rate they are now, I doubt this will happen. A lot of schools are pricing themselves out of range for many college students. Of course, I don't want online education to be delivered at a cost that prevents paying the faculty well or providing a good education otherwise. So there's still lots to work out in this area. But irrational fear about the loss of human contact is not going to help us wrestle with those issues.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two videos to make you (re) think information and education

First, there's this video on the Information R/evolution:

I'm in the middle of reading Everything is Miscellaneous, which I highly recommend to anyone who regularly creates, stores, uses, or interacts with information of any kind--which is almost all of us. This video in combination with the book are really hitting home. There are challenges, of course, with information being less neatly organized. But the biggest challenge is to the idea of information organization itself. We are the organizers, not some group of gatekeepers.

Then, there's this video about Today's Student.

Some very interesting information here. One thing that I thought about was the way that small liberal arts colleges really are positioned well to take advantage of information technology tools. Larger colleges and universities seem to be focused on using technology for more efficient information delivery, not for finding ways to engage students and create collaborative learning opportunities.

cross posted at ETC@BMC

Monday, October 29, 2007

Course Management and Social Software

Later this week, I'm facilitating a discussion about the relationship between course management systems and social software. In my world, where course management means Blackboard, the two don't relate together very well at all, imho. We have a third-party plugin for blogs and wikis in Blackboard, which quite a few people are using. I'd like to gather or poll these people to see if they're finding the tool useful or not. My impression is that they feel it does what it does and they don't expect much out of it. I don't know of anyone using an external blog or wiki for their courses, though I have had people do that in the past.

My thoughts are, right now, that social software is the antithesis of a CMS. It's open. It's about sharing and collaborating with a wide group of people. Social software, to me, also involves personalization to some degree. People personalize their profiles, their blogs, etc. with their own look and feel. It's a way of saying, "I'm part of a group, but I'm still unique." A CMS, even in the social software arena, is about uniformity. Everything and everyone looks the same. This is my own bias, of course. But my own bias is also that education is not about developing students to all look the same, so I think the underlying technology should enable differentiation instead of uniformity. Too often, in CMS's and other software, we force people to do the same thing, to look the same. I think it's okay if we use the same software to simplify support, but I think that software needs to allow flexibility.

I'd love to hear my reader's thoughts about this. Do any of you use social software in conjunction with a CMS? Successfully? Do any of you use social software within a CMS? Just social software? Why? If you haven't used social software (blogs, wikis, facebook, etc.) in your teaching, why not? I'll post notes or maybe even the whole presentation after it's done.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Educause 2007: Some first thoughts

I haven't had time to completely debrief my brain about Educause 2007. A lot happened there and I had a lot of really compelling conversations. I ran into this post on HASTAC about the conference, which starts to get at some of what I'm thinking as well. The last few sentences/questions are at the heart of what many of us are trying to figure out:

And are my pals in Academic Technology ceding too much ground as they
institutionalize via CMS's and server virtualization tools and custom
database design? Or is this where they step aside and provide support
to a vision articulated elsewhere? Workshops and training can provide
software savvy, but what does it mean to be a 21st century knowledge
producer? Who decides and what do we teach? Before Academic Technology
becames so institutionalized, way back in 90s a decade ago, we hoped to
think we were part of the revolution. Does maturity = reform, not
The answer to the first question is yes. I think that there is great tension currently in many computing departments between the need to become an enterprise operation vs. the need to remain agile and flexible. It's easier to go enterprise than to try to figure out what people really need and meet those needs. The idea is if you're meeting the needs of the majority, then everything is a ok. I'm understand the idea behind the second question about stepping aside, but I kind of bristle at it because I think the underlying subtext is that an academic technologist cannot be a part of the vision. In fact, I think both the questions have an us vs. them quality to them--a quality that was quite tangible at the conference. I think we really need to get to a point where academic technologists and faculty are on the same team and thinking together about the possibilities for 21st century knowledge. In fact, there was a great session about these issues, which I hope the facilitator will blog soon. I, too, have lots to say about this complex issue. Consider this a first volley.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dismissing Open Source

This happens all the time. People mention a few software packages, in whatever realm, and don't mention the ones that are the biggest competition--the open source ones. Yes, some open source software has such a low adoption rate that it hardly seems worth mentioning, but in the CMS area, Sakai and Moodle have both cornered a pretty significant market. Sakai is used at big universities like Michigan, Indiana and Berkeley. That's hardly something to sneeze at.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Networks and Academic Research

The Chronicle reports today on a newly created Humanities Research Network. The site has been developed by the already existing Social Science Research Network. I'm not sure yet what I think of these kinds of sites. On the one hand, it's obviously a good thing to have access to papers that one might not otherwise have access to. On the other, I have this feeling that many people doing cutting-edge research already do this informally. They have a blog, post works in progress to that or another web site, and they're connected via various social software apps to many other researchers. I vaguely knew about the SSRN, so I poked around the site for a little bit. It didn't exactly knock my socks off. It's certainly not very Web 2.0. And, according to the CHE article, there will be some gatekeeping, with volunteers making sure that the uploaded papers are scholarly. The academy is so obsessed with the gatekeeping thing. But the site seems popular and maybe these networks are necessary. But it still strikes me as somewhat behind the times. Let me explain why.

RSS has changed the way I get information. I can quickly scan hundreds of blogs and other feeds and see what might be important. It really makes finding and reading information more efficient. But many journals don't have RSS feeds, so I have to go to the site and keep checking to see if something new has happened. Even journals in a technical field don't have RSS feeds. How crazy is that? These networks are also still functioning on email subscriptions rather than RSS. Maybe many people don't want to use RSS, but those of us that do should at least get the option. I really think RSS can form a backbone for research networks. It can help scholars connect and keep up with important work in the field. Currently, what we have is fragmented network. If people would move themselves into the 21st century, we could mend that, but until then, we'll be wasting all our time digging around looking for information.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Appropriate Use of Institutional Tech Resources

On Friday, I linked to this Chronicle article about using institutional email and other tech resources appropriately on my other blog. I didn't comment on it at the time. Then Mr. Geeky sent me a comment via email in which he called the author a "stupid bean counter." He ranted for a bit and then said perhaps he was slipping into the curmudgeon zone. And now Kathleen has commented in somewhat the same vein (though less curmudgeonly). I completely understand Mr. Geeky and Kathleen's point, which is essentially, these are our accounts, leave us alone. But let me offer the flip side.

One of the comments Mr. Geeky made was that email was essentially free, so what are you complaining about. Email is not free. Even if you use an open source solution as we do now, there are costs for the server, for the staff to support the server, for the staff to train and support people using various clients, and even for the electricity to run the server. However, some of us have been saying for a while now that email is becoming like a utility. Would you complain about someone having a personal conversation while using the heating/cooling/lighting that the college pays for? Not on the basis of the cost of those utilities. What you're really complaining about is the time that that conversation is taking away from work or they that conversation prevents you from working because it's loud or whatever. So, I think to some extent, the author is using the costs of providing these tech services as an excuse for dealing with a completely different issue.

Another issue Olson mentions is installing non-university software on a university computer. Olson puts the issue of software installs in an odd context. He says:

[M]any faculty members attempt to install their own software on machines assigned to them, arguing that they will use the software primarily to
conduct official business.

Campus information-technology departments don't see it that way. They
are charged with serving the tech needs of faculty and staff members,
but they are also obligated to report infractions by those users. That
conflict often creates an unnecessarily adversarial relationship
between the two.
Umm, not really. I don't know anyone in my department who serves as the software police. Now, I do know that if we see obvious conflicts, we might make suggestions about removing certain software. The real issue for most of us has nothing to do with possible system conflicts but with expectations of support. I've had people ask me how to use x piece of random software they bought at Best Buy and that's just annoying.

Some people do cause a significant amount of difficulty in regard to using equipment, accounts, and other resources for personal use. Is it fair, for example, for someone to store gigabytes of their music files on the college server when space is at a premium? If someone uses physical equipment--laptops, computers, hard drives--and doesn't treat them carefully, allowing, for example, their young children to play with it, is that problematic, especially if it means that the college must buy another computer for them more often than they have to buy ones for other people? Is it fair to make someone spend an inordinate amount of time working with you to install or use software that you're using for something personal? This last item the author mentions. When a request for help clearly regards something for personal use, I steer clear and say no, but I've been blindsided before. I've had people ask for help installing home DSL, setting up iPods (for personal use), working with various software to be used to create a home movie, family Christmas card, poster for an event. Because most faculty have such blended lives, working both at home and on site and not drawing clear lines between the two, they often don't realize that most staff do draw clear lines and don't, for example, check email after they go home for the day. I and my colleagues have all had the experience of coming in on a Monday morning to find email or voice mail or both sent on, say, Saturday morning asking for something to be done by first thing Monday morning. Probably a few of those requests have not been related to their work.

Both Mr. Geeky and Kathleen are tech savvy folks. They know their way around the web and a computer. They can install software without help and they don't install crazy toolbars and cursor crap--or worse--that might infect their computers. In fact, they are Linux and Mac users, respectively, and even if they did accidentally install something crazy, it wouldn't hurt their computers. Both have been on the net long enough to know how to behave themselves on listservs.

Sadly, they are the exception, not the rule. Olson does go over the top, especially for those of us at private institutions, where, honestly I've never seen anyone send something personal or offensive to the mailing lists. But he does provide some food for thought. On the other hand, if we all wanted to bean count . . . I think somebody owes me some vacation time.

ETA: If this is a bit incoherent, it's because I've slept for 5 hours and I wrote this between flights.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Victim of Sucess, or Meta (to the power of x) Blogging

Kathleen had a post a couple of days ago that resonated with me. I, too, have been thinking about what blogging here is doing for me. Like Kathleen, I do think it's still important to me, but currently misguided. She says this of her own blogging:
When I started, it was all about a need for immediate communication: I
had all these small thoughts leftover from having just completed the
book manuscript, and needed to get myself back into active conversation
with other scholars after the isolation of grinding through such a long
project. Lately, however, it seems like what I’ve been communicating
has devolved into little more than rants and P.R., either complaining
about being too busy or announcing the results of what I’ve been busy
doing. And this dynamic doesn’t feel like it’s working anymore.
I, too, started blogging because I felt isolated. I craved connection to the more scholarly side of my academic world, a connection that was missing in my interactions with people at my institution where I was viewed primarily as "the help." I found that connection and more. From a personal perspective, I've met many, many wonderful people, some of whom I've had the great pleasure to meet in person. They've added a richness to my life that I never expected. From a professional standpoint, this blog has done more for me than I ever could have imagined. It lead to a renewed interest in writing pedagogy which lead to a dissertation and Ph.D. I've done numerous presentations and talks, written articles, and have been consulted for advice at many institutions. Among some people, I'm actually considered an expert on social software. That boggles my mind and humbles me, since I am connected to and know so many people, primarily through this blog, who know so much more and do so much more to forward scholarship in this area.

Like Kathleen, I've watched my readership first plateau and then start to decline. Blogging never was completely about the audience, but it always was a little about the audience. At the very least, it's a good indicator that your writing is losing its appeal. What Kathleen said about making her blogging serve a bigger project, about the need "to make the blog part of the process, rather than something that’s working against the work I need to do" really struck home with me. As the school year started, I had been thinking about this, about trying to focus the blog a little more, to use it as a space to think about what I've read, to try to make connections between ideas. Basically, I want to step it up a notch. I really think I can do that and still keep within the general parameters of the blog. After all, I still think of this blog as a place to put stuff that has no other place, but I think I want that stuff to be a little more thoughtful and I want some of that stuff to have the potential to develop into bigger and better stuff. After all, that's how I gained my original success. I expanded on what I'd done here. At some point, I quit expanding and thinking expansively and just went through the motions. The thing is, having just come off of writing two articles about blogging, I still love blogging and social networking and whatever else this crazy Internet is going to throw at us in the future. I'm not tired of it yet. I still have more to say and much, much more to read and think about. So watch this space. It could get interesting around here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

RBOC: Utter Exhaustion Edition

I was inspired by AAYOR.

  • I woke up twice last night. Once, I decided that it was not a good idea to not be wearing my night guard, so I got up, brushed my teeth and the guard and went back to bed. Mr. Geeky had gotten up some time before that because he just couldn't sleep. Then, Geeky Girl came down sometime in the wee hours, sniffling and upset because her nose was stuffy and she had run out of tissues. So she got in bed with us, of course. So, I didn't sleep well.
  • I *still* have not finished writing two pieces that I have been working on for what seems like forever. I just cannot seem to squeeze enough time in during any given day to work on it. So I work for 1/2 - hour and that's just not enough. I'm taking time off tomorrow to finish. They really are close.
  • I also have a talk to prepare that I have not started on. I've got ideas in my head, but I can't focus them yet. Ugh.
  • I'll be at 3 conferences next week. Two one-day conferences followed by a 4-day conference. Thus, why I need to get the writing done.
  • The house, falling apart. Like AAYOR, there's laundry everywhere, stacks of books and papers and mail. I can't take it, but I'm too exhausted in the evenings to touch it.
  • I've been watching Kid Nation. It's a pretty good show.
  • I'm looking forward to The Office tonight. Yes, I know, I should write instead of staring at the tv, but I'm not a machine okay? And the brain, she does not function past about 8 p.m., especially not after the beer/martini/glass of wine I've had to de-stress post work.
  • Calgon, take me away.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Broad and deep knowledge

I consider myself someone who has a pretty broad knowledge base. By virtue of changing my undergraduate major 8 times and changing my dissertation topic and then going into a technology field related to education, I know a fair amount about a lot of different things. But I also know a lot in a few areas. One of the reasons I was leery of pursuing a purely academic career was the seeming requirement to focus on one narrow area of study. Certainly I know faculty who function this way. They know their area, usually a fairly narrow one, and very little else. Oh, sure, they can contextualize their area, say 19th century diaries, in a broader context of all diaries and of all literature. They know influences and antecedents. In smaller schools, faculty are more likely to have to venture out of their area in order to teach classes in related areas.

But I'm still often surprised by people who don't venture much beyond their disciplines. They don't care how history relates to science or vice versa. And forget popular culture. They don't watch tv or listen to the radio. They don't know that their students were obsessed with "The O.C." and were sad to see it go. "Lost" is what they are when they venture into the wrong neighborhood. They know more about things that happened 50 years ago than what's going on now. This isn't all faculty, of course. I've run into many who share with me a general curiosity that extends to many areas, including popular culture. And I'm no cultural maven myself. I never really liked Lost and my tastes in tv lean toward reality shows, The Daily Show, and The Simpsons, not exactly the intellectual or coolest of fare. I don't have a craving for mysteries the way many of my faculty friends do nor do I stick to reading "the classics." I like nonfiction related to my field and in areas I used to study but no longer research--economics, history, cognitive science.

I can appreciate faculty who lament that students have no sense of history or context, no understanding of the complex world around them. But I also think that faculty should appreciate that some students understand their complex world in different ways than they do. Social networking, for example, complicates relationships and identity for students in ways that most of us never had to contend with as young people. TV shows and movies are often more complex commentaries on culture than the shows and movies we watched at their age was. A broad knowledge can provide students with even more ways to contextualize their experiences, but we shouldn't dismiss certain ways of looking at the world just because it's not our discipline. Disciplines can inform each other, always have, though we're not always aware of it.

I can't imagine not having a broad knowledge, not understanding science at all because it's so different from English as a discipline or dismissing popular culture because it's not "intellectual" enough. That seems, oddly, a shallow way of approaching the world.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A truly geeky mom

I would love to have this conversation with my kids' schools. Only mine would be about their crappy web sites.

Frustrating Graduate Students

I was going to write about the Chronicle article on frustrating grad students, but I was alternating between writing two articles and playing Civilization. Besides, New Kid did a stellar job. I couldn't possibly top her.

I just want to throw in a few of my own comments, as a recent graduate student who had a lot of obstacles to success. New Kid mentioned that grad school often creates a culture the prevents students from being completely honest with their advisers. Are you really going to tell your adviser that you're enjoying your research, but when you're done, you think you might want to settle down and make apple pies or, god forbid, get a corporate job that has nothing to do with your work? I'm thinking that's not going to go over well.

I think I was pretty honest with both of my advisers. The person I wasn't honest with was myself. I should have followed my interests instead of following what I thought the market would be interested and what people told me I was good at. I liked and respected my first adviser very much and at first, I was interested in my topic, but my interest was not great enough to sustain a dissertation, much less a research agenda later on. I couldn't get myself motivated enough to think about original ways into my topic. Throw in a relocation halfway across the country, two kids and a spouse on the tenure track and well, regular readers know how that turned out.

I'm sure I was frustrating in many ways. But life gets in the way and grad school isn't really a culture that tolerates life events, pangs of doubt, and feelings of inferiority. So it's hard to come clean about all of that and get the advice you need and deserve.

Both Gradgrand and some of New Kid's commenters point out not just frustrating grad students, but unprofessional ones. Many of those may indeed put one off of advising, but it seems unfair to let the truly bad apples affect the ones who may, in fact, be pears.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What do you want your institution to look like?

I'm taking part in a series of conversations we're having entitled "Risk-Taking in the Academy." Our institution is going through a change in leadership. We have a new provost. We're searching for a new president. So, the idea was to have some discussions about what that might mean for us in the context of taking risks. There have been three of these and they are attended by a variety of people--plenty of faculty, but also staff from many different areas.

Yesterday's conversation was about two different models for an institution--the pyramid and the flock. We discussed the characteristics of both models and basically tried to draw analogies between the two models and an institution. Some pretty obvious characteristics were mentioned for each. For the pyramid, hierarchy, solidity, impenetrable. For the flock, fluid, adaptable. Although I definitely bristled against the idea of a pyramid serving as the model for our institution, I didn't think the flock worked perfectly either.

At one point, while we were comparing the models and elaborating on how the applied or didn't to our institution, a faculty member described how he imagined the pyramid model. He said he imagined he was in one of those boxes that made up the pyramid, running around doing his own thing, not able to move from one box to another but perfectly content because he didn't have to worry about what was going on in the other boxes. I said I didn't want to be in his pyramid. If I can't move around more than that, I'll be completely frustrated. Afterwards, we talked about this more and he said that he can go into his classroom and just do his thing and not have to think about institutional goals or even what and how the person in the next room is teaching. Someone pointed out that his teaching is in the service of the institutional goals so whether he's thinking about that or not, it's part of what he does. I told him to try being a staff member sometime. We can't not think about institutional goals. That's kind of all we do. We have to think about internal and external pressures on us to change. I explained that simultaneously I have to look at trends in technology and determine how they're going to affect the institution and respond to internal pressures to add services or keep services. And that it's a very complex dance that way. And he said, yeah, you don't have a classroom where you can be protected from that.

The whole conversation, both the discussion as a whole and the brief side conversation I had at the end were really fascinating and they certainly revealed to me a lot about how people position themselves within an institution and what they think an institution should be for them. I think these conversations can go a long way in helping people to understand where different people are coming from, what they think their role is within the institution.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Airport experiences

Bryan blogs that his airport restaurant wiki got picked up by Aviation week: Infocult: Information, Culture, Policy, Education: Airport restaurant wiki gets blogged by Aviation Week

I never seem to have enough time to eat when I'm in an airport, so I haven't been able to contribute to his wiki. In fact, most often I have an extra tight connection that causes my luggage to get lost. Bryan has been witness to one of these incidents. My last tight connection, however, was altogether different. I was flying United and was connecting in Chicago from Denver. We were late getting out of Denver because the original plane broke down and we had to take a different plane. We were kept informed the whole time. Once I got to Chicago, I bolted from the plane, since I had only 5 minutes until takeoff time. As I was searching for the screen with departure information, I heard myself paged over the loudspeaker, telling me to report to the gate immediately. I ran. At the end of the hall, a United clerk was standing there, and he said, "Are you Laura?" Yes, I panted. He sent me on my way. When we got to Philly, I went to baggage claim, fully expecting to walk away empty handed. But after about 10 minutes, my bag appeared. I honestly think that's a first.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

350 to 35

I reduced my inbox by a magnitude. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted. Let the productivity and calm begin!

My time disappeared

Although my life is much less hectic than it was a year ago, I still seem to have every hour filled. The only reason I'm writing this now is because I'm waiting for someone to show up for a meeting. I think that's not going to happen and I have another meeting in 1/2 hour. Yesterday, I had exactly 2.5 non-meeting work hours. Today, I only have 2 hours. When I get home, I collapse. My TMJ is back again after being pretty much fine for months. It was still there, but not painful. Now it's painful again. It hurts to eat.

In addition to having little time at work to do actual work, I have work-related, but not exactly work specific deadlines looming. These are good things--articles, book chapters, presentations--all related to my work, but which I have no time to work on at work. Those non-meeting work hours get eaten up with email and phone calls and people stopping by to ask questions. I'm unsure if any amount of extra efficiency would really help me here. I just need more hours in a day.

Tomorrow after work, I'm going to have a massage. I don't feel that stressed despite the work load, but I know that's why the TMJ has returned. I just can't seem to relax on my own. No amount of deep breathing or bad reality tv is helping. I need someone else to help me let go.

The kind of frustrating thing about all of this is I'm in a moment where I don't feel like I'm accomplishing anything. I feel like I'm spinning my wheels instead of moving forward and that's driving me crazy. I have motivation, but no momentum. I just wish I could feel like I was on top of everything, just for a little while.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Free the Internet

I'm in the airport, waiting for a flight to Denver. By the time you read this, of course, I'll be in Denver. Because I can't access the Internet in the air and I have to pay an outrageous amount for it in the airport. I used Google Gears to download my feeds, which is mostly useful since most of my feeds are full feeds. But if I want to hop on for 15 minutes to download some things to read on my 4-hour flight, I can't. Wouldn't it be nice if you could pay by the minute or something? The pricing structures for most airports/hotels/etc. are daily rates, usually around 10 bucks for 24 hours. I'm usually in an airport for less than an hour so it doesn't make sense to pay for a full day. And it's much more efficient to download some items to read offline than to read everything online. We used to do that in the days of dialup, but now not so much. Wireless and broadband are ubiquitous and mostly inexpensive (as a subscriber) so we just stay online all the time. But there are still these situations where momentary access would be useful. And honestly, in some cases, it might save money, energy and time.

Oh, I know I could have one of those wireless cards offered by the telecoms, but they're pretty pricey too. Most don't have a "pay-as-you-go" feature and require you to sign up for a plan at around $30/month. Considering I'm not in this situation that often, it doesn't make sense to pay for something I'd use 2-3 times a year. Most of these products are geared toward the frequent traveler or business person not the casual user. It's a shame. They're missing out on a few bucks from me and I'm looking around at several hundred people who would probably have chipped in a buck or two to do a quick email check or check the weather at their destination. If you want to go in on a business plan with me, call. No email, of course cause I'm off the grid.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Teaching, Scholarship, Service on the Staff Side

On Friday, I had the great pleasure of having lunch with Martha Burtis. It was a rare opportunity to talk to someone doing similar things and having similar challenges and dreams. I've been thinking about a lot of what we talked about. Yesterday as I was walking across campus, I was thinking about my favorite topic--the faculty-staff divide. I was thinking about what I do, comparing it to my colleagues' work and to faculty work and I had a flash of thought. Martha had said that she thinks of what she and her team does as R&D. I've thought that about myself and I've even been told that a lot of my work is considered R&D. If I were a faculty member, I'd be in pretty good shape. But I'm not. If a staff member's work were divided in similar ways to a faculty member's, most would list service as being nearly 100% of their job. That's what's valued on the staff side of things.

For most positions, teaching and scholarship don't exist. And yet there are a few positions where they do, and I started to think about how work might be divided differently for some people. What if service were only 60% of the job and the other 40% were divided between teaching and scholarship, both defined broadly. Teaching could be sessions on best practices for using certain software or discussions about copyright and its effect on curriculum and research. In some cases, it might mean teaching a class of students (as I do). Those classes could be credit courses or non-credit ones. Scholarship could be of the more traditional variety of writing articles for peer-review or it could be researching emerging trends and presenting a report for the campus. It could be developing new software. Service, too, might be expanded. Instead of its traditional definition on the staff side of supporting faculty and students, it could entail serving on committees (departmental or college-wide) so that one gets credit for spending time in meetings and working toward larger goals as well as day-to-day support.

Though it makes sense to look at the traditional academic breakdown of work, one could also turn to corporations such as Google, where workers are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on their own projects. What if that were encouraged of staff and what if it were rewarded? I think that would help retention a great deal. The academic market just can't pay what someone is really worth. There are other benefits to working at an educational institution, but sometimes the work load gets to a breaking point and the benefits no longer seem worth it. If you're a creative, smart person (which a lot of staff are; that's why they're there in the first place), then you're motivated by getting to show off your creativity and smarts, which you don't get to do if you're only doing service--grunt work kind of service like showing people what buttons to press, making copies, answering the phone, etc. Add the opportunity to work on a pet project that might get used by the institution and you're likely to keep people around. Some people pursue this anyway, even if it's not written into policy, but if they're not rewarded for that and if, in fact, they're punished for taking away time from service, they too may leave.

It seems that such a structure would benefit the institution. Higher retention levels, some good ideas put into the institution, happy employees. IHE today has an article about shifting scholarship into new areas, many of which make sense for staff people. They say it's about time that faculty got out of the 19th century and I think the same should be true for staff. It might go a long way to getting rid of the upstairs/downstairs culture that exists at many colleges and universities.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Clean exploitation?

There's a good discussion brewing at 11D and Megan McArdle about whether we middle and upper-class people should feel guilty about hiring help to clean our houses. We have a cleaning woman. We've had the same cleaning woman for 6 years. I suspect we're her cheapest clients. The first time she came to our apartment, she looked around and said, "Yeah, you need help." And we'd cleaned up before she came over.

One of the main reasons we hired a cleaning woman is articulated nicely by one of 11D's commenters:
I sense that, in hiring a cleaning lady, I'm not really buying back my own time as much as I'm avoiding a HUGE, life-long argument with my husband about him actually doing his share.
Honestly, I suck at housekeeping. I hate it. I have a kind of ideal desire for a clean house, but lose motivation very quickly. And since I've had kids, I'm mostly just overwhelmed by the complete mess they leave in their wake. Mr. Geeky feels much the same way, but has even less time to devote to housekeeping. We were honestly having the same argument over and over about who should do what and we were keeping score and all that crap. And it wasn't fun and even though we couldn't really afford it, we hired a housekeeper to end that argument. We still have it every once in a while, but we don't live in squalor for at least a few days every week.

In the comments to both posts, some commenters are really talking about cleaning services as opposed to hiring an individual. One commenter at Megan's, for example, claims that we hire people to do things for us when they are better or more efficient than we are.
But a cleaning lady does not perform the function any better than you or I could. They are not faster, and if they are, it is often to the detriment of the quality of the work. In other words, you pay them because your opportunity cost is greater than the savings you would accumulate by not paying these people. . . .

Hey, we have all in a pinch used a service or function that we may have objections to. But I know my fiancé and I go out of our way to not use the cleaning services because they are nothing but exploitive businesses, and thus, you the customer are an extension of that very model.
I read Nickeled and Dimed. I know Merry Maids and its ilk pay minimum wage and no insurance, etc. That's why I hired an independent contractor who works for herself. She sets her own fees. I also happen to know that she has health insurance through her husband's job and that the money she earns from cleaning houses is going to pay for her kids' college education. I'm really okay with that if she is. I don't think she would have put the ad in the paper if she weren't. And if she wants to quit, that's okay with me too. And if I let her go, I know she will find another client quickly in this market.

It's true that they may be housecleaners their whole lives, but they may not be either. Laura explains in her post that some of her guilt comes from this issue to which some people said, "What about bussers at restaurants?" She responds in a comment:
House cleaners are different from people who bus tables in a restaurant. The table bussers have the opportunity to move up the ranks of restaurant workers to waiters to maitre d's. They progressively work up to fancier restaurants where they make more money and have more job satisfaction.
Not that I've seen. We must dine in different restaurants. I was a waitress for years and bussers and dishwashers almost never moved up the ranks. A dishwasher might move to bussing and a busser might move to being bar back or get better shifts and more tips, but I never saw a busser become a waiter. I have no idea if that's what they wanted to do and so were thwarted in their goals. It's just what I've observed. In the restaurants I've worked in, bartending is the top of the ladder (aside from management) and that's where the good tips are. Like housekeeping, bussing and dishwashing is largely invisible work done by the less educated.

There's also some talk about what class we are really in. A while back, when the NYTimes printed that series on class, I was shocked to find myself in the top 5%. I've never considered myself rich, because I think we're shown so many images of the truly rich (and I drive by their houses every day) that I just assumed I was somewhere just above the midpoint. That gap between the top 1% and top 5% is huge.

The whole conversation is really interesting on many levels.

Culture and Exercise

From Thursday to Sunday, we were one busy family. On Thursday night, Mr. Geeky and I went to see Regina Spektor in concert. She was amazing. I only knew a few of her songs, so almost everything was new to me. What amazed me the most was that it was just her on stage. She played piano, percussion and a little guitar. Mostly it was just her voice and whatever instrument she was playing. As Mr. Geeky said, he thought is was one of the best concerts he's ever been to. It helped that we were only 6 rows back.

I was in the same row at the same venue for Iron and Wine on Friday. And I have to say, I was really disappointed. Their new album came out only on the 25th, so naturally, very few people had heard it. They played almost entirely from that album and only about 3 or 4 (that I could tell) familiar songs. In addition, Sam played almost entirely with his back to the audience. The music was nice, but without seeing him, it just kind of annoyed me. I felt like he (the whole band really) was playing for themselves and not for us. They basically had no stage presence. I've seen them before and I didn't really feel that way the last time. Now, I'm not sure I'll go see them again.

Saturday was soccerpalooza. We had to go for pictures at 7:55. Game at 9:00. Pictures for Geeky Girl at 8:55, game at 10:30. It was an exercise in parental juggling. After soccerpalooza, I decided to get in my exercise for the day by gardening. I did some much needed weeding and pruning, planted some new flowers and some bulbs. So far, I'm happy with the results. I had decided that on the weekends, I was going to try to get exercise in by doing some kind of activity, preferably with the family. No one wanted to garden with me. According to this web site, I burned 540 calories. Woo hoo!

Sunday, I had promised Geeky Girl I'd take her ice skating. Yes, ice skating. She watched Ice Princess on the Disney Channel and gotten it into her head that she wanted to go ice skating. So we went to the nearby rink and skated for about an hour. It was pretty fun. And it burned 374 calories to boot. :) Later, I finished up some gardening and then the whole family went to play tennis. On a calorie-burning scale, that was the best activity, plus it was the most fun.

In addition to the weekend activities, I walked almost two miles a day throughout week, except for Friday. I'm going to take today off since I did so much over the weekend, but I'll be back walking tomorrow. I don't know if this is helping or not in my goal to a) lose my dissertation weight or b) to be more fit. But it feels pretty good so far.