Thursday, June 25, 2009

The morning view

This is where I am. It's beautiful and relaxing, all the things you need for a good vacation.

-- Post From My iPhone

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hosting other kids

Yesterday we ended up with several extra kids around. It was a good thing all the way around, keeping the kids off the electronics for a while, participating in a couple of rounds of Monopoly, followed by a trip to the park to play tennis, picking up a couple of other kids, then to the water ice stand and back again. Two of the extras stayed with us for dinner and in fact, all night. You can't plan these things. They require letting your kids roam a bit, encouraging them to stop by friends' houses to say hello. I'm thankful we live in an area where I have no fear about their doing these kinds of things.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Black Swan

I just finished reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It is, as Kevin Drum notes, an odd book to read. The tone makes you want to not trust Taleb, and he almost tells you not to trust him, but then his ideas make some sense. He seems prescient about the current financial crisis, as his whole book suggests that financial institutions are generally blind to outlier events such as the mortgage bubble and ensuing stock market crash because they use models based on the bell curve rather than a power law. His argument is basically that black swan events, those that no one predicted, happen more often than we think, and that our models of prediction are terrible at predicting even smaller versions of these events, much less the seriously catastrophic (or conversely, seriously beneficial) ones.

Taleb has equal scorn for academics and bankers. Academics are too insular, having never been in "real" decision-making situations. Bankers are in real decision-making situations but don't think critically about those decisions. They check their brains at the door. Worse for him are bankers who use tight mathematical models from academics to predict risk.

Interestingly, when searching the blogosphere to find what others have said about the book, I mostly found commentary on Taleb's hedge fund that is based on his ideas. Some have claimed it's not doing well--because his strategy is to lose small amounts of money 90% of the time and win big 10% of the time--while others have touted its brilliance. I don't care much about applying his ideas to finance, even though that's his field. I think it's more interesting to consider the idea of the black swan, both positive and negative in more general terms. He says to be open to opportunity, to be generally open-minded about what might happen. Try as much as possible to think outside the box. People are not predictable; society as a whole is even less predictable.

I remember being a kid trying to imagine how my life would turn out--what kind of job would have, who would I marry, would I have kids, where would I live--and it always felt like this black hole. I was not, back then, one of those people who planned much past the next few days. I had friends who were already planning to be doctors or lawyers and were planning their classes and colleges based on those plans. I just figured some unexpected event might occur that could change any plan I made. I was right. Just thinking that something unexpected might occur helps you deal with it. It doesn't mean that when a good thing or a bad thing happens that it doesn't impact you. It just means that you can take it in stride. You can just start doing what you need to do to minimize the pain or take advantage of the opportunity. Rather than, as I sometimes do now, worrry about what might happen, and conjure up all the most horrible images, it makes more sense to live from day to day. It's harder than you think.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I managed a little more writing today, amid the chaos of channeling the kids' energy appropriately and the sounds of "why can't I". Today, I began thinking about and writing about the idea of expertise. Academics (an others) complain that blogs are written by non-experts and are therefore prone to promoting bad and inaccurate information. What I'm trying to reconcile in my mind is the respect I have for experts such as scientists and my skepticism toward those experts. For example, I don't like the way right-wing religious folks discount evolution or global warming or the causes of cancer. On the other hand, I don't like to be told I'm not an expert in something because I don't have the right degrees or publications or whatever. In academia, there is only one path to expertise and if you haven't taken that path (or veered from it in some way), you have no right to speak.

Enter the blogs. There are some "experts" writing blogs--hooray! And they are getting their expertise out there to a larger audience. On occasion, they have to deal with people who've made up their minds based on incomplete or incorrect data, and they often show how they come to their conclusions, revealing not just the content they have expertise in, but also the process of arriving at conclusions. And that's good for everyone. And there are blogs written by non-experts that are very, very smart. While they may not always have the deep knowledge about a subject that an expert does, they often have a very different context for what they know that is sometimes broader than an expert's knowledge. Of course, it depends on the subject. One is less likely to trust a non-expert's opinion on particle physics than on politics.

I'm reading more deeply into this issue and these are just my initial thoughts. I probably have blind spots about expertise, given my own fraught history of not being considered an expert for lack of the right credentials. But it's a fascinating topic, to be sure.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fear the Blogs

So, my project for the summer is to restart, for about the umpteenth time, a book project about facing fear and anxiety over social media tools. Thankfully, I have two wonderful colleagues, Leslie Madsen-Brooks and Barbara Sawhill helping me out. We decided to dive in after our latest presentation on the topic and have set ourselves a fairly ambitious deadline to get something written. I suggested that we start with topics and ideas that we feel most close to, which is different for all of us, and see where that takes us. Since I wrote a whole dissertation on blogs, that's where I started.

On Monday, I was at a social event with some folks I hadn't seen in quite a while (hey, to any of you reading this!) and they, of course, asked how things are going. I told them that I'd just returned from a conference where I'd given a presentation. They asked, on what?, expecting me to say on something to do with technology in education. I said fear. They did a double take. I explained that my colleagues and I had decided that the underlying reason for much of the resistence to social software was fear. They said, oh, and I thought it was because I didn't want to share my personal life with the world. I corrected them briefly that we weren't talking about fear of setting up your Facebook profile, but of using social software in teaching and research, which can be done in a private setting or with other kinds of parameters that reduce exposure. We're talking about using these tools professionally, in learning, not to talk about what kind of pajamas we're wearing.

Only 9% of the population has created a blog, so I don't expect creating and maintaining a blog to appeal to everyone, but just as very few students continue writing or doing math or thinking about sociology after they leave college, the experience of blogging can have lasting effects. I'm sure that students exposed to sociology look at the world differently than they would have otherwise. But, given the small number of people who do blog, I decided to start by writing about reading blogs. My husband has been a consumer of blogs since the dawn of Slashdot and he reads only a handful of blogs regularly, and he *loves* them. When he spouts off about something he read on a blog and starts making connections, I tell him he needs to get his own blog, and he agrees, but then he never does it. There are many more like him.

When I gave my talk at University of Mary Washington, it was reading of blogs I started with first. When I described my argument to my husband, explaining that I wanted to dispel the myth that all blogs were stupid, he said that would be simple, just have them read Tim Burke or Janet Stemwedel and you're done. Of course, the problem is, that even showing them these blogs isn't always enough to dispel their disdain for blogs. Those are outliers, they say. The rest are rubbish. And I wanted to take the argument a bit further. I wanted to say, hey, blogs are just as good as some peer reviewed material. Heresy! And I think they are in many cases for many situations, even within academe. At the very least, we can surely say that peer review is not above reproach. (See Janet's blog for stories of cheating and tragedy in peer review.)

So I shouted out to my twitter faculty friends a question about whether they allow their students to read blogs. I got some funny responses about how much power faculty have to "allow" their students to do anything. So I rephrased it to ask if they'd let their students use blogs in academic work. Faculty on Twitter are necessarily more open to social media than many others, and so I got the expected answers. Many, in fact, required their students to read blogs, and many encouraged it, and used blogs as a way of teaching digital literacy and critical thinking skills. Which is what I usually say to the skeptics, and now I can point to actual real live faculty who use blogs in just that way.

Journalists are afraid that blogs are going to put them out of business and I started thinking, wondering, whether faculty had that fear as well. Despite my saying that blogs can be just as good as peer reviewed material, I think that unlike journalism, the audience for the two media are different people. And, I think, that students don't actually read many blogs. But the faculty who do resist, the ones who ban not just blog reading, but using the Wikipedia, they seem to not trust their students to be able to make good judgements, and rather than teaching them how to, they keep them away from "bad" material. But what else might be at work there? That seems somehow too simple. Any skeptical faculty out there, or any people who work with skeptical faculty who have thoughts?
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Last day

Today is the final day of school. Although I wrote a while back about managing my (and my kids') time without the benefit of school or camps, I definitely want to allow for a *lot* of down time. We all need it. The house is kind of a disaster after my absence coupled with a crazy schedule in said absence, but I'm not going to panic; I'm not going to induce my kids to child labor. Not today. Today, like yesterday, we will poke at the dishes and the laundry, but we might play soccer or Mario Kart or tennis (real tennis). There are new shoes and shorts to buy. There are things to learn about maybe. There's just being together.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The future of education

I've just returned from a lovely trip to Monterey, CA to attend the New Media Consortium's summer conference. It was, all told, a good experience, about which I will write more later. At most education conferences, especially those that have a technology component, talk often centers around what the future holds for education and what role technology will play in that future. As I am reading The Black Swan at the moment, the best thing we can say is that we don't know. On the other hand not knowing does not mean not being prepared. It means being prepared for even the weirdest outcome. Laura pointed to several articles and blogs addressing what she calls a potential higher ed bubble. I'm leary of arguments that suggest that technology can save education entirely, but I'm equally skeptical of positions that suggest that technology will kill education (at least of the traditional kind).

As I wrote last week, and as Tim Burke wrote, cost pressures are going to cause many colleges to make some difficult decisions. Students who might have once considered an elite liberal arts college may not be able to even get in as need-blind admissions go away. Or they won't consider it at all. Colleges will have to find ways to make their brand affordable to a larger population by cutting significantly--programs, staff, etc. Those are tough decisions to make, and they often have significant effects on the future of the college. There's no way of knowing what those effects are.

I have this strange feeling that education is changing right before our eyes, but like a blurry picture, we can't see what it's changing into yet. As students make their desires and needs known through selection, we will see how the industry responds.
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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

College Rankings

Inside Higher Ed, among other sources, has been reporting on several incidents of institutions gaming the US News and World Report ranking system. No one should be surprised, today's report says, especially when the stakes are so high. These incidents dovetail nicely with my own recent thoughts about college expectations for my kids. My brother-in-law is visiting this week and we took a stroll around campus while Mr. Geeky was in a meeting. He asked how much it cost to go to fancy pants liberal arts college. The total price tag, with room and board, is about $50k. He wanted to know why the hell it cost so much and what makes going to a place that costs that much so much better than a state school. For the record, he has 4 kids to get through school (10 years from now), with a huge amount of overlap, so cost is going to be a huge factor, as it is for many parents.

One key reason people want to go to expensive schools, of course, are all the intangible benefits: the connections you make, the name recognition, etc. I agree that the cost seems way out of sync, but it also gets you some tangible benefits as well. At an exclusive SLAC, you won't have a class larger than 40 or 50 people (and those are the lecture classes). Most classes will have 15 or so people. That means your opportunities for engaging in class discussion, for the teacher knowing you and keeping an eye on your progress are vastly increased. Your faculty will be from "better" schools (they cost more as a result, though their pay is still less than other professionals). The faculty will also be more available for one-on-one consultation and in theory, will also be more focused on teaching and learning rather than research (though this is debatable). Even at schools like Harvard and Yale, one could argue that having the opportunity to work with the great minds of our time is a privilege worth paying for.*

So here's the thing, yes, state schools can be just fine for many people. Mr. Geeky attended state school and went on to get a Ph.D. from said state school and ended up teaching at a presitigous liberal arts college. There are thousands of success stories like that. But it's also true that some students would be lost in a large state school population and would not only not thrive, but might even fail. I knew that of myself after visiting a large state school I was considering. Not only did I not check out any of the classes (because my hosts were skipping classes), but I spent the entire time there really drunk. I figured I would spend 4 years drunk if I went there.

Rankings don't tell you that. They might help you begin to make a list, but there are many other factors to consider. Location, demographics, class size, curriculum, general philosophy. Going to a school ranked below the top 25 isn't going to ruin your life. It might not catapult you into that fabulous political career, but it will probably allow you a pretty good life.

*Of course, with many of those great minds' lectures and course materials being made freely available, one can forgo the expense of Harvard and simply take advantage of the free offerings while attending state school.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Managing the Summer

This is the last full week of school. Next week will probably be a complete wash with only a day and a half. I'm sure that time will be used for parties and cleaning out desks and lockers. For the first time since I've been a parent, I'm staring down a summer where both the kids and I have a lot of free time. We also have, thanks to said free time, quite a few trips planned. No longer do I have to account for my vacation time, so I'm taking advantage of it. We're heading to the beach twice and Mr. Geeky and I just found out that we'll be going to Paris in early July.

But, I still want to accomplish something myself this summer. There is work to find, a potential book to write, and who knows what else will come up. Also, I want to establish some better habits in my kids and not let them languish all summer. At the same time, I don't want to be too regimented. After all, you don't get this kind of relaxed schedule for much of your life. So I've decided on a few things. They will both be practicing their instruments every day. We will spend time outside. Both kids want to play tennis and soccer. And we'll likely visit the pool. I also want to fit in some school stuff, which I have a feeling they won't like much, but I think it will be good for both of them not to atrophy too much.

How do the rest of you manage the summer? I'd love to hear your ideas.

Friday, June 05, 2009


Today is Geeky Boy's birthday. He's 14 and about to go into high school. He's had a very up and down year and I think he's looking forward to a new environment and new things. I've had a very up and down year as his parent. I feel certain at times that I'm just doing it wrong. But we still muddle through pretty well. Geeky Boy is a generous soul, very forgiving and kind, though I think being that way weighs on him at times, especially when he's the one getting hurt. I'm proud of that quality in him though. He's a great kid in so many ways, smart, athletic, sensitive. I worry pretty constantly, though. In part, I know what a minefield my own teenage years were, and I hope he has fewer mines than I did. In part, it's just that I know I have so much less control over his life now than I did 5 years ago. And that feels really weird to me.

Geeky Girl turns 10 on Sunday. Double-digit midget she calls herself. She, too, is a great kid, though very different from Geeky Boy. While he is quiet and reserved mostly, she is bold and enthusiastic. When she was younger, we used to tell her to use her inside voice all the time. She had what we called a "stadium voice." She seems to not be afraid of anything. Most of the time, she exudes confidence, though she has moments where she's unsure of herself.

If someone had told me 14 years ago that I'd be as proud, anxious, excited and terrified about being a parent as I am now, I wouldn't have believed them. This has been an interesting journey, and in some ways, what's been interesting about it is how much it's becoming their journey and not mine. I'm trying to get used to that.



Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Being a bad parent

Laura at 11D writes about bad mothering. I read the Belkin post she refers to, where she suggests that we may be approaching a time of less overparenting. I also read what I think are the beginnings of a longer piece by her on this issue (it just didn't seem finished to me). Yesterday, we went to Geeky Girl's violin recital where we experienced a cringeful moment of recognizing that our kid did not perform as well as many of the kids--because we don't push her to practice. We are not bad parents by the definition given by Kai in the comments to Laura's post. Our kids eat three good meals a day. They're clothed well. We make sure they get to school on time and get their homework done (most of the time). They're invovled in sports and music. But compared to some other parents, we don't push them very much. We do limit computer time and tv time, but we don't say, take them to the library all the time to make sure they have books to read or enroll them in private lessons or take them on field trips for the purpose of learning something.

I'm becoming acutely aware of how little we've pushed our kids as Geeky Boy approaches high school. Both of our kids are smart. We don't have to explain homework to them and they ace state tests, but they often lack motivation. In elementary school and middle school, this doesn't matter too much. But I'm afraid that some bad habits have set in. I'm keenly aware of the competition to get into college and I worry that if Geeky Boy lets things slide too much, there will be no college for him. And although I tell myself that I don't care where he goes to school, the reality is that I want him to go somewhere good, somewhere that will give him opportunities and advantages that maybe I didn't have.

Sometimes I feel embarrassed that my kids aren't pursuing interesting hobbies on their own. Although they both play instruments, they don't show a whole lot of interest in becoming really good at them. They both play sports and are pretty good at them, but they're not always out in the back yard kicking a ball around or practicing head shots. They've shown little interest in art or writing. Back in my childhood, of course, this would be no big deal, but now, it seems if your kid doesn't stand out in some way, you're made to feel as if you've failed as a parent. Intellectually, I know this isn't true, but I feel it emotionally more often than I'd like.

There are many things I'm proud of my kids for. Geeky Boy is really smart and he actually talks to us about current events, about philosophical issues, and shares things he's discovered on the Internet (some hilarious, some fascinating). He's also very empathetic and I bet he's becoming a good friend to other people. He's funny and charming, at ease with both kids and adults. Geeky Girl is filled with confidence, something I hope she holds on to as she moves in middle school soon. She's good at math and science and prefers those subjects to reading. She does do some writing of stories at times and I hope she continues to. For now, she seems unconcerned about her appearance, preferring comfortable clothes to stylish ones. I enjoy being around her and she seems to still enjoy being around me.

I feel that both my kids are at the core good kids and I know that I'm doing my best to provide a supportive environment for them to develop in. I guess the overparenting movement has made me have the nagging thought, "Am I doing enough?"

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Women's Right to Life

Over three years ago, I wrote this post on Blogging for Choice day, explaining that when I was 16 years old, I had an abortion. That act, as painful and troubling as it was, gave me the life I have today.

As I was watching the coverage and reading the blogs about George Tiller's death, I felt not just sad for Tiller's family, but sad for our country. I'm really tired of the hate-mongering that ends in tragedies like Tiller's death. We have let that rhetoric control the debate for far too long. We need to quiet the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. They are inciting people to hold this hate inside and act on it. I've never been to a Pro-Choice Rally where hate or violence is advocated or even spoken of. Abortion is not a pleasant experience. It's certainly not pleasant to think about, even for those of us who want them to remain legal. And yet, the hate mongers on the right not only want abortions to end, but they want to teach abstinence-only in the schools. They want to deny that human beings have sex and that the result of that is often pregnancy, but that through the miracle of science, we can prevent that result. Pfizer is offering free Viagra if you've lost your job. Do you see them offering free birth control? Some insurance companies won't even pay for birth control. Don't you think having another baby when you've lost your job might be more of problem than not being able to get an erection?

Women around the country may now be fearful of obtaining care that is their right to have legally. Their lives might be literally at risk and certainly, their lives might not be filled with the kind of opportunities they could have without an unwanted child. Already, according to reports I've seen, in over 85% of the counties in the US do not have access to abortion services. In many places, doctors and clinics are not even allowed to tell women where they can obtain an abortion. We're talking about health care here, people. Since when would it be okay for a doctor to say, well, I can't perform this surgery and I can't tell you who in the area can. You'll just have to figure that out on your own. There are states where there's only one clinic in the whole state where abortions are performed. There are more states with waiting periods, meaning two trips and two days off work for women seeking services.

Why do we let this happen in our country? There are a lot of people who are calling this terrorism and who are blaming the hatemongers on Fox News and talk radio and on the blogs. Sure, I blame them. But I blame us as well, for letting it happen, for not standing up to these people, for not standing behind practitioners who are just doing their job, for not speaking out if you've had an abortion, putting a human face on that action which makes it harder for people to rail against it. I am writing my senators and congressman today. If I could I'd go to the vigil in Love Park in Philadelphia today at 5:30. Women have a right to life. Let's truly support that in whatever way we can.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Living with risk

Both Mr. Geeky and I had trouble sleeping. I stayed up playing WoW, which was fun, but as usual, I was a bit wound up afterward. Mr. Geeky was stressing a bit over a workshop he was having to lead today on writing abstracts. I started laughing because I used to run that very workshop. Lucky for him, I kept all my materials on Google docs. It made me think of all the little ways my presence might be missed at the college. They still have not replaced me, and I doubt they will for a very long time. I don't really miss it.

In my attempt to get to sleep last night, I started reading Leslie Bennetts' The Feminine Mistake. That probably made things worse. In reading the preface, I began to realize that her position comes largely out of her own experience of hearing about her grandmother's desitute situation caused by her grandfather leaving and her grandmother refusing to either work or remarry (a refusal caused in part by the mores of the day, but also, it seems, by some stubbornness). Unlike her grandmother, her mother worked her whole life, but took time out here and there to deal with family issues. So, she argues that her mother lost out on much-needed income by doing that.

Her other stories of friends whose husbands left them don't sound at all like the women I know. After all, Bennetts lives in either Manhatten or a tony New York suburb, where it takes a significant income to maintain even a modest lifestyle, and the women she describes are not living a modest lifestyle. So, yes, I might even say it's not too smart to rely on a single income to maintain an extravagant lifestyle, but most of the women I know who've left the job market have done so by cutting back on many expenses and deliberately living within their means. They clip coupons and shop around for the best prices. Vacations are trips to visit family. They drive inexpensive cars that they drive into the ground. Their clothes come from Old Navy and Target, not J. Crew or Ann Taylor. While they may have their kids in music lessons or put them into summer camp, they do so through careful budgeting.

In my adventures of volunteering and trying to create more community-based connections, I've run into not one, but two women who have Ph.D.'s and who are not employed in their fields. Both were scientists and one is now an academic staff member, the other a SAHM. SAHM's around here are actually a rare breed. Most of the women I have run into are nurses or work part-time in some way to allow for flexibility. I know a few men who have flexible jobs. Although I may end up a SAHM, I am hoping that the consulting works out or I find a flexible job in the future. And it irks me a bit that Bennetts would assume I'm not being smart. I know the risk I'm taking. I hope Mr. Geeky doesn't run off with a sexy computer scientist and leave me to care for the kids. If he does, then I'll figure it out, probably move to an area with a lower cost of living, and find a job doing pretty much anything just to pay the bills. Yeah, I've thought about it, mostly in those moments when Mr. Geeky is running late from a meeting and I immediately think he's dead on the side of the road. I may be optimistic, but unlike the women Bennetts describes, I'm no Pollyanna. I've considered the worst cast scenario and have decided I can live with it.