Friday, May 30, 2008

Generation Alphabet

I'm getting all my good ideas from Dean Dad lately. Yesterday he writes about golf serving as a generational boundary. The comments are especially good and I'd recommend reading this one from Eyebrows McGee. He gets at some of the complexities behind Dean Dad's discomfort with "Of course, there'll be golf." It's about jobs, economics, and generations.

I'm a Gen X'er myself, though I've been called on to speak about the Millennials time and again and many of my behaviors fit more with that generation than my own. In theory, this makes sense since some people put the Gen X birth dates slightly before my own. Maybe I'm a Gen Y. I don't know. I feel less and less young every year. I sense that there are many academic bloggers about my age, many of whom have written about their pain and sometimes final triumph in the academic world. We were all told in the 80s that a whole bunch of faculty will retire, enrollments will soar, and faculty jobs will be plentiful. We all know how that turned out. So I think there's a certain amount of general frustration with how the academic job market turned out. It affects administrators as well, as Dean Dad and his commenters point out. In some places, there just isn't a group of faculty that can be groomed for those upper level positions. When over half a department is made up of contingent faculty, there just isn't as much to choose from.

I'm experiencing much the same thing on the staff side. There's not as much of a generation gap in that we have a few managers actually younger than me (okay, 2), but many are 10-15 or more years older--not old enough to retire. I suspect this pattern persists across other institutions as well. Someone who gets stuck or "blocked," as one commenter at DD's put it, has to look for employment elsewhere. In the corporate world, this may simply mean going to the company across town. In academe, not so much. There may not be another college nearby, or if there is, there may not be a job that fits your skills. It's not that this doesn't happen to some corporate types, but it's less common and, there are often better incentives to move when you're a corporate manager--not just moving costs, but sometimes bonuses and housing allowances. Academe doesn't make it easy to pull up stakes.

I'll also say that I possess the "typical" restlessness of Gen X. We like change. We're frustrated when people are slow to change, especially the baby boomers, who claimed they were going to change the world and then just settled in to play golf. We are the first generation to be less well-off than our parents (that's true for me though not true for Mr. Geeky). People made us promises that dissipated into the thin air. That's not to say that things are just horrible, but that perhaps the previous generation was a little too optimistic and too self-satisfied. I think, actually, that my generation and even the generations younger than me are a little more realistic and grounded. How's that for broad, sweeping generalizations?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Academe and kids

Dean Dad comments on the IHE article from yesterday about studies showing that academics have fewer kids than other professionals. Dean Dad asks specifically how we make this work. Honestly, it's gotten easier as the kids have gotten older, but it's still hard. I especially feel guilty that I can't be here when my kids get home from school to help them with their homework. I have taken a flexible schedule myself to be here a couple of days a week to meet my older son after school, but it still doesn't feel like enough and there have been more than a few times when I've stayed over to finish something. The school schedule doesn't help parents in any profession. I've discussed this many times before. I really wish the school schedule meshed better with the work schedule. It would go a long way to help many parents. It doesn't do much for those doing shift work, but often those parents juggle anyway.

Something no one brought up was the fact that most academics find themselves far, far away from family, making it impossible to rely on them for childcare, especially for conference trips that are often a necessary part of the job. I see many of the friends in the neighborhood who have kids have family nearby. We went to grad school near my inlaws and I remember when Mr. Geeky went on the market, they did not understand why he didn't just apply to his grad school or to another school nearby. They didn't get that a) most people don't get to work at a school where they went and b) you apply for jobs that are open. And the market's just weird, anyway.

I'm actually grateful I'm not a lawyer or a doctor. I have one of each in my family. And while the doctor is on for a few days in a row and then off a few days in a row, he often can't set his schedule (he works in an ER). He has to get people to fill in in order to take the vacation he wants to. If he needed to take care of a kid suddenly, he couldn't just call in sick as easily as I might. My father, a lawyer who worked for himself, went in early and came home late while I was growing up. He seemed largely absent, which he says he now regrets. We kid him now about how he used to say at the dinner table "time is money." We'd roll our eyes and tell him he'd lapsed into lawyerspeak and to get over himself.

The pressures that academics feel and especially the discrimination felt by many women is real and of a slightly different kind than that of doctors or lawyers. Some of the pressure is self-inflicted, a feeling that one wants to not just do okay, but do really well. But much comes from the tenure guidelines or course schedules, etc. Institutions could go a long way to alleviate some of those pressures by reducing some tenure guidelines or course loads--for everyone. Does every humanities department at every type of institution really need to requie a book for tenure? I've often said that maybe people could focus on what they're good at instead of all having to do the exact.same.thing. Maybe you have a research star who doesn't teach as well, but she's balanced out with a teaching star who doesn't do as much research. Because as I said in an earlier post, we all work too much. Life balance is good. Fine if there are a couple of stars who want all the rewards. The rest of the crowd may just want to be home in time for dinner.

Truthfully, no one tells you how hard and how much work it's going to be to raise kids or to have a successful career. Doing both is not impossible, but it means giving some things up. I don't have my kids in a million activities mainly because I don't have time to cart them around. So maybe they won't get into Harvard. I also don't have a lot of extracurricular activities myself. Most of my "hobbies" are related to my work. I don't have time to exercise. But I think we're reasonably balanced--at least for now.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Gaming and writing

Even though I've only been playing WoW for a few months, I've been engaged in many other games since the advent of Pong (so for a long time). Once I jumped into the field of writing, I've long thought of games as text (in the same way that films and tv shows are text). But Liz Losh points out something I knew, but didn't quite register until now--that no one in the writing field has really addressed gaming and writing as connected or written about games in the same way that films or tv has been written about. Douglas Eyman, someone I've long kept an eye on even from my position somewhat outside of the rhet/comp field, is starting a group for researchers interested gaming's connections to rhetoric and composition called "Digital Games/Digital Rhetoric: A Consortium of Scholars in Games and Writing Studies." That's a research group I feel like I'd be welcomed into.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Doing what my calendar tells me to do

One of the things I've been wrestling with this week is figuring out a way to mark off some time for everything I want and need to do--and still feel like I can kick back with a beer on the weekends. Some of this work will have to wait until I return on Tuesday because I've refused to look at work email or the work calendar this whole week. I've already started thinking about what I need to get done next week. And I'm trying not to think about it. Looking at work stuff would just open the floodgates.

A while back, I put all kinds of things on my calendar--recycling schedule, workout schedule, cleaning schedule--and it didn't take long before I ignored them. The recycling schedule has actually changed but I haven't entered it into the calendar yet. I'm one of those people who will mentally say, "Okay, I'm going to do x until 11, and then take a break, then work on x until 2." Sometimes I actually mark that on the calendar. What I want to do when I return to work is do more marking off of the calendar and then, I need to actually do what it says. The problem is, more so at work than at home, is that it's easy to be distracted and to get sucked into crises that crop up. I need a way to manage access to me and my expertise. I know that sounds odd, but it's true. So, for accountability's sake, here's some things I want to work on:
  1. Hone my process for checking email and the ticket system. Ideally, I'd like to connect the two, but from what I understand the email notification part of the ticket system is somewhat broken. I want to get away from checking email all. the. time. And I need to check the ticket system more frequently. My thoughts are that email should get checked three times a day while the ticket system can be checked once a day, perhaps an hour or so before the day is over. I might want to put these on the calendar and/or set an alarm to notify me.
  2. Schedule time for the review process. In the GTD system, this is what gets most neglected. I was trying to do this on Fridays, but I think Mondays are better. That way, I can scan the week's calendar, scheduling things as necessary.
  3. Schedule time for getting the little things done. I often have a list of things that take 5-10 minutes each. I often tackle these when my brain is fried, but they sometimes pile up when I don't take the time to do this. I don't need time every day, but maybe every other day.
  4. Figure out if there are things other people can do. I'm constantly trying to figure out if certain tasks should really be done by someone else, not necessarily because I don't want to do them, but because the task would get done faster by someone else. For exLinkample, the help desk manages the simplest of Blackboard issues: logging in, how to upload a document, etc. In theory, this frees me up to work with people on larger issues such as course design. But I think there's more support like this that I can and should find.
  5. The bottom line is, I need to do what my lists and calendars tell me to do. If I'm going to put effort into planning my time, so that, in theory, I'll be more productive and have more free time, then I need to follow my plans.
  6. Finally, I need to be more zen about the stuff that comes in and find a way to explain calmly to people why stuff can't happen right. this. minute. This is going to be the hardest part I think, both for me and for others.
Actually, I'm thinking that this resource might help me work my system better. Other tips and suggestions most welcome.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The 40-hour work week

Leslie has a great post up about academics and 40-hour weeks. There's no mention of Larry Summers, but I hear echoes of him in some of the posts she references. There's a little bit of "you have to work more than 40 hours to be competitive" and "the kinds of jobs where 40 hours is all that's required are 'lesser'". Here's a quote that exemplifies that:
Between the two of us and another labmate, we couldn't come up with a single job that only requires 40 hours a week that any of us would find intellectually satisfying and would want to have.
Leslie points out that she works only 40 hours. Heck, I only work 35. Working 40 is overtime for me. My job is intellectually satisfying.

I think it's fine and dandy if you want to work a million hours a week. I happen to think there's more to life than work. I can't tell if the author of the quote feels that those who choose jobs that are only 40 hour work weeks are "not as good" as those who choose to work more. There are slackers everywhere, some in jobs where the standard is to work more and some where the standard is to work a strict 40 hour week. I know I've had crap jobs where people don't do their work--Homer Simpson anyone? But I've also seen people who always, always, always work over because they have nothing else they're obligated to do--no family, no hobbies, nothing. It might make the rest of the us look bad, which kind of pisses me off. Someone else in Leslie's post mentioned this problem of getting done with their work and then just kind having to sit there and put in the face time. I've had jobs like that. I learned to make up work.

The thing is, I think we'd all be better off using more of our leisure time. Honestly, I'm a million times more productive after a day of completely slacking. I need to clear my head. I can't think about work all the time. I'm on vacation this week and I've spent a few hours a day doing "work"--reading for a class I'm teaching next spring, reading for my book project, sketching out plans for other projects. I've futzed around the rest of the time--going shopping, playing games, doing a little housework, going to the farmer's market. There is a nagging feeling that I'm not getting enough done, but I'm ignoring it. I'm reminding myself that slow and steady progress is okay and that all work and no play doesn't just make Laura a dull girl, but is also unhealthy.

I guess I'd just like to see a culture where people are encouraged to work at their own pace (within certain parameters, of course). Especially for so-called knowledge workers, I think this would make sense. Some would work lots very quickly; others would work at a slower pace. I think I'd just like to see us get away from the idea that it's a zero-sum game and that we're all competing with each other for some kind of brass ring. Maybe that's the vacation talking, I don't know. What do you all think?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I can haz grammar, plz

On the same day as a report comes out that educators should harness txting to teach kids to write comes this post about how awful writing is on the Internet. Admittedly, some of the text quote in that second article is pretty difficult to understand. I suspect that the most difficult one is from a non-native speaker translating txt language from his/her own tongue to English and it obviously didn't go well. For me, correct grammar and punctuation serve a few different purposes. One, they really are needed sometimes to convey meaning. As Eats, Shoots, and Leaves demonstrates, a comma in the wrong place can indeed change the meaning of a sentence. Two, they are used at different levels to present oneself in a particular way. I would hate to run this blog through a grammar checker. Although I am good at recognizing grammar problems in others, I tend to commit quite a few myself, usually when I'm writing a complex sentence like this one. Who knows if that last sentence is grammatically correct? Who cares? It makes sense, right?

And the thing is, many online communities accept poor grammar and spelling. They are often about conveying information and as long the information is conveyed relatively clearly, it's all good. I don't see people in the WoW forums yelling (most of the time) about someone's spelling or grammar. Here would be an interesting study (maybe it's already been done): let's see if those who use correct spelling and grammar get more respect in forums. I'm guessing that spelling and grammar count less than valuable information.

Sure, I cringe on occasion during chats or when reading forums, but I recognize that as my own sensibility. It may well be that language is evolving and some of the grammatical forms we see in chat and txting will become part of our language. It is, as I believe came out earlier this week, a complex grammar in and of itself. I can haz grammar, ne1?

So let's lay off the grammar police and focus on thinking and analyzing and synthesizing. It may be that people will need good grammar to really do these things well, or they may not, and we should be open to that possibility.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Multiple Channels

Multiple FA Channels
Originally uploaded by lorda.
During ELI, Intellagirl showed a WoW screen filled with lots of information and proclaimed that this is what many of your students are used to--viewing multiple channels at once. This picture is from my computer during Barbara Sawhill's talk at Faculty Academy. I have the Ustream page and Twitter up. There's a chat going on in Ustream and there are comments being made in Twitter both from local attendees and from far-flung friends. In fact, a question came through the Ustream chat during the Q&A, which I think was a perfect example of how these multiple channels can enhance each other.

Even though I'm 40, to me this is normal as well. What's different about this kind of multiple channel view as opposed to what one sees on Bloomberg or CNN is that it's different channels pertaining to the same thing. Half the time on CNN, the crawl is about sports while the talking heads are discussing politics. I find that confusing sometimes. But I have been known to be tending to email and IM'ing at the same time.

I don't always multitask like this and sometimes I do need to shut down Twitter and IM and focus on things, but I think too many people are dismissive of "the kids today" who do more than one thing at a time. It could be that they're just paying attention to multiple channels related to the same task or topic, i.e. they could be chatting with a friend about a paper while writing and searching databases for more information. It think we need to help people figure out when the multiple channels make sense and when they might be distracting.

Monday, May 19, 2008

On Being Intellectual

The whole concept of intellectual has been a mainstay of my life since at least my sophomore year in college. Before that, I didn't really think about it much, caught as I was in the tug-of-war between being popular and being smart. In high school, I abandoned my studies to drink and date, but while I was drinking, I engaged in the kinds of conversations one could only characterize as intellectual. The meaning of life and the existence of God were common topics. It wasn't until college, however, that the concept began to take on real meaning for me. I began to believe that I didn't measure up to true intellectuals. I wasn't smart enough, serious enough or deeply thoughtful enough to really be intellectual. Sadly, there were people in my life who told me these things. I have no idea which came first.

In the last couples of weeks, the concept of "public intellectual" has been raised a number of times. First, Anne Dalke brought this up in her discussion about why she uses public blogs in her courses. At Faculty Academy this past week, the concept became something of a theme, weaving its way through many panels and discussions. Finally, in catching up on blogs over the weekend, I ran into this article, mentioned by Tim Burke, where the author entreats academics to get involved with the "real world." For me, the quote that really hit home was this:
To become university-based public scholars, young people may well have to put their ambition into cold storage for a decade and a half. Go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals and in university presses, give papers at professional conferences to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, you can take up the applied work that appealed to you in the first place.
There are two issues that this raises for me, one is that it implies (perhaps correctly) that the only space for an intellectual to truly work is in a university as a faculty member. There's no space outside of that realm. The second is the whole tenure process. Why, oh why does this process essentially keep people from doing important work until they're through the process. It's what has always scared me away from pursuing this career track.

Wikipedia actually has a decent article on the intellectual. It provides this initial definition: "An intellectual is one who tries to use his or her intellect to work, study, reflect, speculate, or ask and answer questions about a wide variety of different ideas." According to this definition, there's certainly room for someone outside of academe to be intellectual. The problem is that outside of academe, intellectualism isn't much valued. (I'm sure there are exceptions to this, by the way.)

So, here's the thing. Anne and other faculty who are using blogs and other social tools to teach are trying to create the next generation of intellectuals within or without academe. And those of us out here blogging, I think, are trying to be public intellectuals of a sort. The problem is, we need to work to change the institutions that we work in and we need to work to create a more intellectual environment for everyone. I think people really are tired of the media glossing over everything or turning everything into a shouting match. But they don't know how to work their way out of it. People assume that the other path is dense, jargon-filled prose, but it doesn't have to be. It could be a rich conversation that allows everyone a way in. Increasingly, I feel that this is my role, to bridge the gap between the public and academe. And I guess that makes me an intellectual after all.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What I've Learned from Playing WoW

I know it's been forever since I've blogged and the title is some indication of where I've been, but not all. Last week was a busy week in the Geeky household. I traveled. Mr. Geeky traveled. I'm taking a week off this week, so there were lots of loose ends to tie up. I'm using this next week to do a serious GTD-style review of my household stuff, which feels largely out of control at this point. I'll also be doing some reading and thinking for my upcoming Gender and Technology course (suggestions welcome!), working on an article, and working on a book proposal. We'll see where I get.

So, the list of what I've learned from WoW, which I've been thinking about for a while now.

What I've learned about myself:
  • I like having concrete goals.
  • I enjoy being part of a team, but I almost equally enjoy working alone.
  • I'm reluctant to take a leadership role in a completely new situation. As I'm learning more about how the game works, this is less true as I can rely on my experience in similar situations to get through.
  • I like helping others, even if there's no direct reward for doing so.
  • I'm willing to do boring tasks in order to be successful.
  • I probably should have become a sociologist.
What I've learned about others or society in general:
  • Some people are just mean and selfish and stupid and there's nothing you can say or do to change that. It's best to avoid them or reduce their impact on the situation.
  • Gaming is one of the few social arenas where there's some age diversity and there's a lot to learn from that. For example, I was in a dungeon with a kid whom I'd place (on hearing his voice) at around 11 and another kid (based on his text msgs) at around 16 or so. The 16-year old was annoyed that the 11 year old was running around trying everything. He sent me a private message saying he was leaving cause this guy was being stupid. I told him that that's just the way 11 year olds are and that he doesn't know any better unless you tell him. In general I've found that older people learn patience with younger people and how to take more risks and younger people learn to be less selfish, overly confident, and rash. I find interesting examples of what different age groups learn from each other all the time.
  • Communication is important.
  • People are mostly generous.
  • People can form real friendships in virtual worlds.
  • People behave in game much as they would in real life.
There's probably more, but I think part of my addiction to the game is not just about the fun of the game itself, but what it's revealing to me about my fellow human beings and myself. I find it fascinating. There'll be more blogging this week, I'm sure, as I have a number of posts stored up in my head.

Friday, May 09, 2008

It's about the students, stupid

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I've been following the development and progress of this schools via its principal, Chris Lehmann's blog. I'm not a K-12 educator, but I like to frequently remind myself and others, that the students currently going through K-12 will eventually be our students and their expectations of higher education will be shaped by their K-12 experience. What I saw and heard in SLA is very different from what I've seen in my own kids' suburban schools and even here at this small liberal arts college. The classrooms are active. The students all have laptops and are working in groups on projects--everything from writing up abstracts for science fair projects to creating documentaries for a history class. Even in classes where there was a teacher at the front of the room, the students were participating, being asked to participate, to ask questions, to answer questions, to think in different ways.

One of the teachers I met, Zac Chase, discussed several projects he'd done with his students that got them to engage with both reading material and with the real world, to make those connections between school and life that keep students seeing the point of this whole education thing. He had students read Their Eyes Were Watching God and, focusing on the theme of sacrifice, asked them to interview someone who had made sacrifices and create a "This American Life" like production. Many of them blew him and his students away (hopefully they'll be public soon). Another project he did was the "Change the World Project," where the kids picked a real-world problem to solve. Through this project, the kids learn research methods, writing skills, and more. And that more part says a lot, because often, the teachers and kids both are surprised by what they learn.

Afterwards, Chris and I talked a little about education, the changes that need to happen, and whether or not the model that SLA espouses will spread and whether there will be pressure on higher ed as a result. What Chris said was a bit depressing, but rang true to me. He said that the higher up the food chain, you go, the less it's about the students. So, for example, he said that if you ask an elementary school teacher what they do, they say they teach 5th grade or whatever, the kids are very present. By the time you get to high school, teachers often say they teach physics, when really, they should say, I teach kids physics. The kids are the object, not the content. When you get to college, content becomes king. At R1's, it's really not about the kids. Teaching is foisted onto lower class labor. And that's a real shame. And, further, Chris added, he saw little incentive for higher ed to change. And, deep in my heart, I knew it was true. Sure, there are lots of individuals trying to effect change, really focusing on the students, making teaching their primary focus, but it's not enough to turn the aircraft carrier that is higher ed. Each institution is an equally large boat. So, really, it might be more like getting a huge formation of battleships to make a 90 degree turn. Not easy.

But still, I have to say I'm inspired by our students and I was inspired by the SLA students. There's such potential there for change--for changing the world. As Chris said himself in a blog post, the kids are alright; it's the grownups who are getting in the way.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Twitter is my new information source

I've already blogged recently the ways in which Twitter has enhanced my ability to connect to people and collaborate with them. Today I bring you a story of Twitter bringing me news before CNN or anyone else could. Yesterday, I was clearing out my inbox, when Barbara S. sent me a direct Twitter message informing me that the U of R was under lockdown and that I should pay attention to Jim Groom's tweets. Well, several of my Twitter friends are at the U of R, so glancing at my feed, I realized there was a play by play of the whole situation. I sent my well wishes and continued to follow the action.

The whole incident was written up in the Chronicle's Wired Campus Blog, a fact I found out via Twitter. This happens to me all. the. time. I really do get good information from Twitter, links to products, links to research, quick answers to questions. It really is a cool tool.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mommy blogging

Via 11D and Bitch, Ph.D., other erstwhile "mommy" bloggers, I learned that Dooce apparently let one fly last week. She criticized the critics of mommy blogging, those who say it's egotistical and that the kids are going to resent the moms for doing it. For me, this was the money quote:
This is the glorification of your childhood, and even more than that this is a community of women coming together to make each other feel less alone. You are a part of this movement, you and all of the other kids whose mothers are sitting at home right now writing tirelessly about their experiences as mothers, the love and frustration and madness of it all. And I think one day you will look at all of this and pump your fist in the air.
I first turned to the Internet because I was at home alone with my young son. Blogs didn't really exist in 1996, but I joined Parent Soup, a website for parents, and got involved in the IRC chats they held on various topics. It was a lifesaver in so many ways. I found out I wasn't alone, that not everyone was thrilled to be at home with their kids (as many of the local moms I'd met were), and I got support and advice on everything from playdates to poop.

I don't consider myself a mommy blogger even though I have "Mom" in the title of my blog. When I write about being a mom, it's usually tied to political and economic issues. But I don't knock any of the mommy bloggers for what they do when they write about their kids' lives. I applaud them. Their writing is quite good, well beyond what I could write. And I think it's a political statement of its own. It really is going to be hard to ignore the hard work of mothers when it's all going to be written down for the world to see. Maybe that's what has the critics on edge. Having to acknowledge invisible work is painful for those who rely on it to move their careers forward.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Opening up the classroom to learning

I think I can safely say that most, if not all, faculty go into a classroom with the idea that their students will learn something. Many spend a lot of trying to guarantee that learning will happen. They think long and hard about what students should learn and the process by which they should learn the material. There's no guarantee, of course, that students will learn, and I know that when confronted with students who haven't gotten as much out of a class as professors might have hoped, they are often deeply disappointed. Year after year of this might lead to resignation and bitterness. You see this, sometimes, in the cranky comments on IHE articles or Chronicle forums. You know the ones that complain how the students can't read or write or tie their shoes. (Dr. Crazy has an excellent post debunking many of these complaints--highly recommended reading.)

What I've experienced over the last few days, however, is the exact opposite of the complaints the cranks make. It's the idea that sometimes, maybe lots of times, students learn more than we expect they will and learn things we didn't expect them to. And they do so because the focus is on learning, not teaching. In the examples I saw today in a panel I organized on teaching with technology, that learning was made visible through technology and was facilitated to some extent through technology, but I don't think technology is really the point. The point was that shift in focus that the technology allowed, but perhaps could have been accomplished another way.

Anne Dalke, for example, has been teaching online for years and said some things today that really resonated with me. She talked about treating students as budding public intellectuals who are learning how to present their work in a public forum which just happens to be online. She talked about not just encouraging interactions between her students but also bringing in alums and others so that the community of learners is broader than just the classroom. She also talked about not grading them, but having a conversation with them about their ideas, something another teacher I know does also. To me, Anne was treating her students like colleagues, perhaps in an apprentice phase, but still more than children who need to be spoonfed content.

Before that, Wil Franklin and Neal Williams from the biology department showed off their students' plant blogs. Although these were behind a password in Blackboard, the students really got into them. They set very few guidelines for the blogs except that they needed to use appropriate scientific language. For example, they couldn't just say that their plants were sprouting little hair thingies, they had to find the scientific terms for these, terms that Wil and Neal did not provide. They made the students look them up--which they did, mostly through Wikipedia according to Wil. I thought this was a great way to teach not just the scientific concepts, but also the process of finding information. They wondered as we segued into Anne's discussion, whether they might have opened the blogs up to the public. They ended up inviting people in from another school to comment on the blogs and thought that might have been a valuable learning experience to formalize that relationship.

In both of these cases, I think that the faculty had thought a great deal about what might work, but they also had a lot of surprises about what the students did and they were flexible enough to go with the flow and allow the students to do what they needed and wanted in order to get the most out of the class. I also think there was a real recognition of the value of working in public in some way, that real learning can take place by connecting with others, be they alums interested in the topic or experts working in the field, they saw a value in opening up the classroom, not for those outside the classroom, but for their own students. Also, there was a real connection between what the students and faculty were doing online and what happened in the class. Blog and forum posts became jumping off points for discussion in class and discussion continued online sometimes after class.

I've also had several conversations with students that have been inspiring, where they are thinking about this cyberworld they find themselves immersed in and they're starting to wonder what it means and how their education is or isn't engaging this world. As I told one student, these are the things that keep me up at night.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Nice People Shouldn't Finish Last

I consider myself a nice person (mostly). I have my occasional moments, but generally, I feel that I'm a good citizen of the world in terms of sympathizing/empathizing and wanting to help my fellow human beings. Mostly that's localized in that I tend to help people I know rather than strangers on the street, but I've done that too.
This morning, I bumped into this article about how the students who are entering our top colleges are just not that nice. And yet, these are the students who will become (our not so nice) leaders. Mostly, the author points out it's not just that these students aren't nice, but also hypocritical:
sometimes some of these students will denounce world hunger but be unfriendly to the homeless. They will debate environmental policy but never offer to take out the trash. They will believe vehemently in many causes but roll their eyes when reminded to be humble, to be generous and to "do what is right."
I can say that I haven't seen this behavior in students at my institution, but sometimes in the faculty. They denounce class divisions, for example, but treat the housekeeper who cleans their office like a second-class citizen. I'm just saying . . .

I think it sucks that nice people finish last--as the saying goes--because I think the world could use more of them in leadership positions. Being nice doesn't mean that you have to always, always do nice things. Sometimes, you have to fire people, say unpleasant things to people, or do something that might hurt someone. But the idea is that you do so for the greater good and that greater good isn't yourself. It's an ideal or an institution or whatever you've put your faith in. There's integrity in what you do that follows certain principles. I don't see this, as the author points out, in many of our current leaders and politicians. And what message is that sending to the rest of us? That this is how you get ahead--lie, cheat, and steal? Frankly, I don't want to live in that kind of world.