Tuesday, March 31, 2009

GM

I have some personal connection to GM. My father-in-law and his father were long-time employees of the company. Almost 20 years ago, my fil retired early when the division he worked for was sold off to a French company. 20 years ago, we didn't think GM was doing all that well. While most of Mr. Geeky's family drove only GM cars, we drove whatever was inexpensive. Although on occasion that turned out to be a GM car, most of the time it didn't. We saw, through riding around with various family members the kinds of cars on offer and they certainly didn't appeal to a young couple on the move. They were grandma cars. We did actually go through an SUV stage, driving two Ford Explorers (consecutively) rather than any of GM's offerings (one was a hand me down, no choice there really). And now, we're in a GM brand minivan, which, I have to say, has lasted a long time (122,000 miles and counting) and a fuel-efficient Toyota. Mr. Geeky's family's loyalty to the company only made sense for the people who actually worked for them (since they got a discount on the cars they bought). For the aunts and uncles who drove cars they may or may not have like out of a desire to "buy American" or buy within the family, it didn't make sense to me. Why not buy what you wanted or what you could afford? And, as it turned out, their loyalty didn't save the company.

Not that long ago, Mr. Geeky and I watched "Who Killed the Electric Car?," a film that describes how GM was working and actually built an electric-powered car, a car that had potential, but was eliminated from the product line after 3 years. The film makes GM look like it's in the oil industry's pocket and that's been the theory behind their resistance to increases in CAFE standards in addition to their resistance to change manufacturing procedures.

It's weird, even though I've never been a fan of the automakers as they seemed largely to be an industry in denial and out to make a quick buck at the expense of the planet, I feel a strange sense of sadness at the real possibility (probability?) that GM will go the way of the dinosaur. But the whole idea of capitalism is that the best product survives and GM is no longer making the best products across the board. Like any business that's not doing a good job, it should probably fail. Maybe what I'm feeling is the loss of so many jobs at once. Detroit and Michigan are already at the top of the unemployment list. What will happen if/when GM fails? What will all those people do? What will Michigan look like? It's a depressing and scary thought.


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Monday, March 30, 2009

xkcd on Parking


I have a lot of pet peeves that involve car-related activities. I was just complaining about this one.

Testing for Depression

Experts are now recommending that teenagers be routinely tested for depression. I think this is an excellent idea. Those of you with teenagers might know why. When your kids become teens, they stop telling you everything. Even the good-natured, non-confrontational ones. So sometimes it's hard to tell when something is really bothering them. They may be able to put on a good front for you, but inside are agonizing about a friendship gone wrong or being bullied or doing poorly in school. It's quite disconcerting as a parent to just. not. know. I know I've been one of those parents who, while sympathizing with someone's loss of a child to suicide, have also wondered how they didn't see it coming. Well, sometimes it's easy to not see it coming. Although we've been lucky to not have to deal with these kinds of mental health issues, I do like the idea that when my kids go for a physical, they might also get screened for their mental health as well. Consdering that many kids' physical health is affected by mental health through substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm practices, or suicide, it makes sense to check on mental health at the same time as physical health.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Like riding a bike

I just got back from my first bike ride in about 20 years, okay maybe 15, but still it's been more than a while. For my birthday, Mr. Geeky got me a pink Schwinn mountain bike (seen here) that I finally took out for a spin. I had forgotten how fabulous it is to feel the wind in your hair as you coast down a hill. And I'd also forgotten how hard it is to peddle back up those hills.

Day 86: First Bike RideMy first bike was also a pink Schwinn, the kind with the banana seat and basket on the front. I had tassels hanging from the handlebars and those straws you put on the spokes that clicked as the wheels went round and round. Sometimes I tied string to the handlebars as makeshift reins, converting the bike into a horse. On my bike, I ruled the world. I ran with gangs of kids zipping around the neighborhood, riding down to the creek to fish out crawdads and salamanders. We created obstacles courses in the church parking lot across the street from the creek.

When we moved to another neighborhood, I graduated to a larger bike and the whole family biked around the neighborhood. I eventually got a pink bike again in high school and rode around town with my best friend. I took that bike with me to college and rode it to work frequently, riding downtown without a helmet through the projects, where the smell of urine and alcohol mixed together in an overwhelming odor. Still, there was a certain freedom I felt riding past apartments and houses.

There's something very kid-like in riding a bike. I'm doing the best I can to remain kid-like myself.

90% Satisfied

People still constantly ask me if I'm happy with my new situation. I am, as my dissertation adviser used to say, guardedly optimistic. In terms of day-to-day life, things are pretty damn good. I do a little bit of work in all the areas I need to--teaching, business, and home life. I don't feel like a hamster on a wheel, trying to respond to email in the short term and at the same time, make mid and long-term plans. I have time to eat a leisurely lunch if I want. I can even take a bath in the middle of the day. Being able to determine when I work is, quite honestly, heavenly. I end up working about 5-8 hours a day. And I'm increasingly not really paying attention to the number of hours, but to whether what I wanted to get done on a particular day actually did get done.

The guarded part has to do with money. Right now, I have the part-time teaching gig that brings in a tiny, tiny income, but it's something and it's something stable. We haven't completely adjusted budget-wise to the loss of my higher income. In theory, we should be fine. In practice, shit happens. Car repair, taxes, unexpected kid expenses. We have less of a buffer for those in our income. We have savings to draw on, but ideally, we'd leave that alone.

Part of what I do every day is look for work. I have emailed people and I'm working on ways to get business for myself, but it's slow work, especially when you don't have much of a budget. I'm pretty flexible at this point about what I'll do. Consulting has a kind of high-minded sound to it, and certainly I would love to serve as the adviser on a big technology project or be the inspirational speaker at a campus retreat. But, I'm also willing to get my hands dirty and do some of the grunt work that's often necessary for any educational technology project. And, I've done things that are not that related to my business plan just for the money and the experience. And, honestly, the variety is good for me. I like looking at the big picture and getting involved in the details (maybe not at the same time, though). Sometimes it's nice to be able to work on the innards of a blog site rather than think about blogs more abstractly. To me, the two are related, but it's a difference between what parts of your brain you use.

I believe eventually, I will find business and that I'll start getting paid, and I'm not freaking out over the fact that I don't have a steady paycheck (yet!). I'm enjoying what I'm doing, what I get to think about every day so that the money doesn't much matter. My satisfaction level would certainly rise to near 100% if I had more steady income, but I think 90% is pretty damn good for now.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sexting as Child Pornography?

Update: Ars Technica has a good rundown of the history of the case.

The NY Times reports this morning that several students are suing the D.A. after he insisted that the teens attend a "10-hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence." Classes like these are usually intended for sex offenders, not for teenagers exploring the boundaries of their sexuality. There are several issues here to contend with. First, there's the issue of teenagers participating in risky behavior by sending each other nude photos. Is this the school's business to handle or the D.A.'s? In most of these cases, I imagine that the teens have some expectation that only the person they send the photo to is going to see the photo. However, what seems to be happening is that the phones are being confiscated and then "searched" by teachers or principals, which, to me, is a violation of privacy. In fact, ACLU attorneys representing the families in this case, have suggested that it's a violation of the Fourth Amendment. I believe that parents probably have the right to view the photos on a kid's phone (after all, they're probably paying for it), but the school?

Sending a kid to a pornography and sexual violence class would do more harm than good, I think. Are they going to see certain kinds of images in this class? What exactly would they talk about? It just seems like the wrong solution for the problem. Chris Dawson suggests digital safety classes:
Alternatively, is this more of a public health concern? In general, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. Too many kids are incredibly cavalier about sexting, along with the sorts of photos and comments they post on social networking sites. Educational programs aimed at safety in the digital age have as much merit as drug and alcohol awareness programs, sex education, and even fire safety.
Okay, maybe. But they've proven that those drug and alcohol programs don't work in the same way that abstinence programs don't work. I'm not sure, exactly, what would work, but it does seem like there needs to be some education here, and not just for the kids. Parents need to know what their kids are doing with their cell phones, online in Facebook or MySpace or elsewhere. They need to understand the same way that their kids do, that these images can last forever, that when they go to apply for a job someday, this nude photo may show up in a search. Too many parents throw up their hands when it comes to technology. So, if schools are going to offer classes, they need to have some for the parents, too. And maybe, it's a matter, too, of helping them understand what should be private. That is, maybe explain to them how to manage an intimate relationship.

The kids in this case were 13, and the photos were taken at a slumber party, probably a sleep-deprived, silliness-inspired prank that's resulted in some serious consequences. But there are other cases where it wasn't a prank, where girlfriends and boyfriends are exchanging photos in part as an expression of affection, testing the boundaries, inspired by raging hormones. We're probably not going to stop these activities entirely, but we should be aware of them and talk to our kids about why they're problematic.
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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Opting in and onramping

Apparently, I missed the memo. I wasn't supposed to quit my job; I was supposed to be rejoining the workforce. Last week, Judith Warner wrote about the media frenzy of covering the opt-outers having to return to work and give up their 9 a.m. yoga classes. There was actually a Blogging Heads conversation between Rebecca Traister and Emily Bazelon that started with a discussion of the wives of Wall Streeters who were disappointed that their lives weren't living up to their expectations. Both Warner and these two women point out that at the lower end of the income scale, the pain is worse and the cooperation between the spouses is greater. As Warner says of working class women's spouses:
But their husbands, very often, are holding their own at home just fine. For while the stereotype has long been that working class men won’t do “women’s work,” Coontz said, the truth is that in recent years they’ve had a better track record than the most high-income men in sharing domestic duties. Twenty percent of these men, in fact, actually do more housework and child care now than their wives. “These people have been doing it for some time and they’re much more ideologically committed to doing it,” she said. “I think your worst offenders” (dirty coffee mug-wise), “are in that top 5 percent.”
That rings true with my own experience in a working-class/middle-class neighborhood where I routinely see men at the grocery store, at parent-teacher meetings, at the soccer field (we have soccer dads too!), and doing their fair share around the house. The Bloggingheads conversation ends with hoping for more equity in the home, but also points out that there's still a huge pay gap between men and women, which families are going to feel even more of if it's the woman in the workforce and not the man. Hello? When is the excuse that the man has to support a family and therefore needs a bigger salary going to be shot down. Warner also points out that the focus on the wealthy's problems takes away attention from the problems of the majority, problems that need to be addressed:
There’s a deeper reason, too: paying attention only to the – real or perceived – “choices” and travails of the top 5 percent hides the experiences of all the rest. And this means that the needs of all the rest never quite rise to the surface of our national debate or emerge at the top of our political priorities.
One can't help but see a connection between this and the greater debate over bonuses and protecting banks from collapsing. Think about how AIG bonuses are being treated and how the banks are being treated compared to the UAW and the automakers (hat tip to rzklkng).

Yesterday, I listened to this show segment from NPR's Tell Me More, where several returning to work mothers told their stories of how and why they returned to work. Not all of them fit the label Economommies (bleh, what an insulting term). One mother, for example, had always determined that when all of her kids were school age, she herself would return to school. The story didn't really add much to the conversation, in my opinion. Sure, it shows how adjustments need to be made, how the spouses and the kids have to contribute more to household work, but this, to me, is an old story.

The Time story (linked to above), on the other hand, is a little more interesting and a little more creepy at the same time. On the one hand, it highlights many businesses that have cropped up that seek to help women onramp back to work by matching them with jobs that have flexible hours and/or providing training and networking opportunities. What shocks me is how out of it some women are in terms of technical and other skills. Even though I'm currently off-ramped, there's no way I'm letting my skills deteriorate. I didn't when I was home before and I won't do it again. I always want to be able to jump back in whenever I need to.
________

When I was reading the article, I was actually thinking about the middle school PTO committee meeting I went to the other day. Working with the PTO or other volunteer organizations is one way to keep up your skills if you do it well. The thing that happens to some women when they're at home moms is that they get into a comfortable groove of hanging out with certain people and doing certain things. The same people always seem to be running the PTO, for example. They not only do PTO together, but they go to the same church, eat at the same restaurants, and their kids are on the same soccer team. Everone and everything is always familiar and they think that it's like this for everyone. So, when a new person shows up at their meeting, they don't think to introduce everyone. Also, they don't think that people's time is valuable and they don't have an agenda for the meeting. Both of these skills (and non-technical ones at that) are ones that one learns in a business environment. A meeting that could have taken an hour at most turned into an almost two-hour nightmare. I'm also participating in an after-school activity at my daughter's elementary school that is equally disorganized. Also, no introductions at that meeting either. Ugh. Obviously, these women (and they were all women) are smart and capable, but if they were to take these events a little more seriously, a little more professionally, they'd really up the quality of them and be able to chalk this up as good experience should they need it on the job market one day. If they did that, I'd write them a Linked-In recommendation or a paper one to help them out.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: The Fear Crew

I've been thinking about this for the last few days. Unfortunately, my interest in technology has puttered along without much inspiration from women. I learned fairly early on to rely mostly on myself. And a lot of the people who helped me along the way were actually men, my husband primary among them. I thought about writing about my friend Lisa Meeden, who is an inspiring woman in CS, but when we first met, I wasn't yet interested in technology. I also thought about writing about my first real boss, Jennifer Hart, who encouraged me in many ways, but she is mostly a business person. I also thought about Kathy Sierra, whose work has always inspired me, but I wanted someone I actually knew.

So I decided to write about the four women, dubbed the Women of Fear, the Fearless Women, the Fear Crew, after we gave a presentation on Fear 2.0 at ELI in 2008. The women are Leslie Madsen-Brooks, Barbara Ganley, Barbara Sawhill, and Martha Burtis. I first met BG, BS, and Leslie at BlogHer 2006. BG, BS and I gave a talk on Edublogging. We were kind of oddballs among the mommy bloggers and the sex bloggers and the bloggers who wanted to monetize their blogs. But I was so thrilled to meet other women who were as passionate about technology in education as I was. It was exciting to meet people who didn't think my ideas were crazy and who were fearless about pursuing what they believed in. Now Barbara G. is out of school, pursuing a completely different path. Her ability to strike out on her own in part inspired me to do something different.

Then I met Martha at Faculty Academy in May 2007. I had seen the buzz about Faculty Academy in the blogosphere in 2006 and I knew I wanted to go. Invited by Steve Greenlaw to be on a panel, I made the short trip down and was inspired by all the amazing work the technologists and faculty were doing to incorporate technology into the curriculum. Much of that work was being done under Martha's leadership. Martha continues to inspire with her thoughtful consideration of the role of technology in teaching and learning.

Leslie has always been somewhat reserved compared to the Barbaras, at least in my mind, but when I think about all she's done and is doing, I'm constantly amazed. She works in a Teaching and Learning Center, blogs in two different blogs, teaches two (I think) classes, plus takes care of a 3-year-old and a husband. She writes inspiring posts about the nature of academe, the role of technology in education, and the struggle of women to balance work and life and make it in fields where they're not always welcome.

These women are a touchstone for me, people who push me to do my best, to see things differently, to not be content with the status quo. They constantly push how we think about technology in our lives, struggling against all kinds of tensions. I often reach out to one or all of them when I'm frustrated with something or have a good idea I want to test or just need someone to listen. It might be good to have "famous" heroines one can hold up as inspiration, but I prefer the everyday type of heroine, those that inspire daily.
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Monday, March 23, 2009

Testing

Last week and this week, my kids are taking the state tests. My son had 4 days of testing this week, while my daughter had 3 last week and has 3 more this week. That's a lot of time for testing. And they've both said that, in the weeks leading up to the tests, the teachers did lots of drills and practice sessions for the tests. E.D. Hirsch points out that some of this prep may not really be helpful. I've long disliked these standardized tests. My kids always ace them so it's not that they're not doing well, but I also know that there are probably plenty of other reasonably intelligent kids who don't do well, perhaps for some of the content reasons that Hirsch mentions. It's also frustrating, of course, that so much time that could be spent on other things is spent on preparing for the tests and then taking the tests. How many more chapters of Social Studies materials could you get through during that time?

I also had a parent-teacher conference last week for Geeky Girl. I appreciate it when the teacher not only explains how my kid is doing, but also explains the philosophy of the curriculum. They send out books that explain this stuff, but I never read it. I know, I know. I should. Although I understand the focus on Math, Reading, and Writing, I can't help but be disappointed by the lack of time spent on Social Studies and Science. It seems to me that the 3 R's could easily be taught through a curriculum that deals with current events, history, culture, and science. Why not kill two birds with one stone?

I think what strikes me about the curriculum across the board is its lack of imagination. I know there are individual teachers who are very creative about how they teach, but in general, even at our excellent schools, the curriculum seems to get dispensed in a lock-step fashion. That seems to occur through middle school, though high school looks significantly better from what I've seen so far. Of course, by then, many kids have learned to dislike school and learning and so perhaps can't take advantage or appreciate the creativity and opportunity presented to them.

I'm just a parent of a couple of smart kids, standing on the outside, getting these tiny glimpses into the school life of my kids, and although I'm not horrified, I'm definitely not thrilled by what I'm seeing.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Working Hours

Laura asked last week, I think, how many hours we work. There were a lot of responses to that that indicated people worked 50-60 hours a week. In some cases, I was thinking, when the heck do you sleep? Although I feel like I could do more every week, I like to keep my work, including housework, below 40 hours a week. I need downtime and sleep. I find I'm much more productive if I get plenty of that. I have 3 jobs right now--teaching, consulting, and mothering. For some reason, this week, I've kept pretty good track of my hours. On teaching this week, I've spent a little over 15 hours. I suspect I'll be around 18 by the end of the day. Consulting work has gotten the short end of the stick, with only about 7 hours. And then there's the mothering work, which is really hard to measure. Geeky Girl had a half-day yesterday, so that meant about 5 hours spent intermittently entertaining. Granted, I could probably have worked during that time, but I opted to take a break and get some housework done. I also made dinner every night this week for about 4 hours of work. And I did some laundry, taking about another 4 hours of time. I also attended a PTO meeting that lasted 2 hours. So that's 15 hours of housework combined with 18 hours of teaching, 7 hours of consulting for a total of 40 hours. I'm not counting in any of this the work that gets done on the weekend, nor the basic reading of materials I do for class--over break, I read two novels and watched a movie in preparation for class.

There's a real tension I think between the immediate needs and deadlines and the long term work that needs to be done. Consulting, right now, is a longer term prospect with no immediate deadlines for projects, so it's easy to push it to the back burner. But the marking of papers, the prepping for class, that has to get done. I can't show up for class without having read the material or planned a discussion around it. Feeding the family is also important and immediate. It's really hard to balance all of that and sometimes hard to justify spending time on longer term needs. I think my ideal would be for the balance to be shifted so that it's more like a 12/12/12 even split. I realize that once the semester ends, there won't be class-related work and the work will need to readjust again. It's funny to me though how I still feel like there's so much to do, so much I'm not getting done during the day even though I put in 40 hours a week.

Practical Knowledge

Laura at 11D and Tim at Easily Distracted both posted about the more down-to-earth knowledge they feel young people (and we, really) should have. The comments at both posts also add a lot of ideas to the conversation.

I've been reading Sarah Vowell's Wordy Shipmates and she says she's urban and she really doesn't want to know how to survive in the wilderness the way the Puritans did.

I know quite a bit of practical knowledge that's been quite useful to me: typing, foundational computer skills, cooking, changing a car tire, gardening (even though I'm not good at it, I know the basics), basic home repair, dealing with bee stings.

I also have some knowledge, thanks to a Red Cross babysitting course and other sources that I haven't had to use yet: CPR, how to use a tourniquet, what to do when someone ingests poisonous substances, building a fire without matches.

My kids both said that they thought learning to play an instrument was important. Which I thought was interesting since it seems so very impractical in many ways. They've both learned to play an instrument, so they must have thought it was important.

There are things I don't know, like canning and storing food, that I'd like to know, and things I don't know well enough, like financial management, that I wish I knew more about. I've learned quite a bit about what it takes to set up a small business (something that make's Tim's list), but it's been trial by fire to say the least. I took a personal financial management class in college that was really useful, but now I find knowing how to budget and actually disciplining yourself to stick to a budget are two completely different things.

I would add to Laura's list directed primarily at young women to seriously use and learn about technology. I can't tell you how many women I see who shy away from even the basics of knowing how to save files or upload them to the web or the difference between an operating system and a software program. You don't need to learn programming, but I think a lack of knowledge about computer basics is going to relegate you to jobs that don't pay very well. Even if you do do something like start your own bake shop, you're gonna need to manage payroll and invoices, maybe create your own bakehouse blog, so technology is important everywhere.

What are your practical knowledge triumphs and gaps?
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Economic Fiascos

Like everyone else, I've been outraged by the AIG bonus story. The more I read about it, the more angry I get. As I commented over at 11D, I used to work on a bonus structure. I know what a bonus is for and it's not for failure. In our scheme, you got a bonus if you personally had good sales, but you got significantly more if the company did well overall. This eliminated much of the competition and we were inclined to help each other out. And I'm not the only one who's worked under such conditions--waitresses and salespeople of all stripes function under a compensation plan that rewards better service and hard work more than it does poor service and less work. So it makes no sense to most people that people get rewarded for failure, either their own or the company's. There were certainly times when I personally did very well, but the compay didn't and so my bonus reflected that (an additional company bonus was on the order of 5-10 times what an individual bonus was--usually something like $50 or $100 compared to $500; we weren't getting millions).

Tim Burke writes quite cogently about the backlash against the outrage, registering a complaint similar to the one I'm making above--that is, that one is in line for bonuses because one takes certain risks that when they pay off, monetary awards accrue and when they don't, too bad so sad. He makes two other arguments, one against the idea that we're too far removed to be able to judge and so we should just be quiet and one against the idea that these guys are jumping ship for greener pastures (to mix my metaphors). The gall of, in this case conservatives, arguing that we should just let the professionals do their jobs, strikes me as paternalistic at best and to me, goes against the idea of a democracy. Hello. We own most of AIG. We have a right to make complaints. Anyone who thinks otherwise wants a different kind of government.

And I agree with Tim that many of these former employees must not look too good to future employers. I'm thinking that their ability to find a job at all is difficult. Although I also think the financial industry tends to have a short memory to go with their shortsightedness, so that in 6 months or a year, these people will be right back in it, bonus structure in tact.

I don't know that I want a witch hunt whereby the names of these people are plastered all over the newspapers and the Internet, but I do think there should be more accountability than just subtracting the bonus amounts from our latest loan to AIG. Part of me thinks that we shouldn't loan them anything, just let them fail. Then there will be no arguing about bonuses. The articles below have more, including the little tidbit that the bonuses now amount to $450 million. Yippee.


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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Birthday Gratefulness

I had an excellent birthday yesterday, despite having to go in to work. I had a fun and interesting meeting with my co-teacher, where we hammered out plans for this week and discussed our thinking for the last few weeks of class. Sitting in my office, I was thrilled to see so many birthday wishes coming through on Facebook from so many corners of my life, from old high school and college friends to blog friends to former work colleagues. In class itself, the whole class sang Happy Birthday followed by my co-teacher's singing of a different birthday song and then we all had candy. After class, another professor happened by and gave us cupcakes in honor of National Women's Day. When I got home, Mr. Geeky surprised me with a bike. And not just any bike either, but a pink Schwinn mountain bike. I feel like a kid again!

As we get older, I think we no longer want to commemorate our birthdays as it's just a reminder, as Mr. Geeky once said to Geeky Boy, that "we're one step closer to death." But it is nice to have a day just for you, where friends and family wish you well. I'm grateful to have such wonderful friends and family and for my continued health and happiness. As my father and I were saying last night on the phone, sometimes you just have to remember how good you have it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

SXSW Edupunk Panel

Edupunk: Open Source Education ~ Stephen's Web ~ by Stephen Downes

Stephen links to the audio for the SXSW panel on Edupunk with Stephen, Jim Groom, Barbara Ganley and Gardner Campbell. It's a really fascinating conversation that explores the role of higher education institutions in the future, the differences between institutional vs. personal learning, and generally what learning and education might mean as society moves forward.


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They Say It's Your Birthday

So I'm 41. I survived a year of being 40. Now I guess I have to say I'm in my 40s. It's been an interesting year. I voluntarily quit my job during a time when many people are being laid off, at an age when many people are looking for their next move up the career ladder. My new adventures have barely begun, and I'm looking forward to what's going to happen with them. I'd say I'm still adjusting to life without a steady job, but the good thing is that I can adjust. I can shift as I need to. Life is definitely more flexible than it was before.

Sadly, today Spring Break ends. Normally my birthday falls sometime during spring break. This year, it marks the end of it. As you can tell by the lack of blogging, I did take some time off. I did some work though, preparing for the coming weeks of class, a little grading, and some work on the business side of my life. I had planned to do much more work, but after spending a good chunk of Tuesday working, I decided, screw this, it's spring break! And I think that was the thing to do. Now, I'm ready to jump back in (mostly), and I have a list of things to get done this week. Here's to another interesting year!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Rise of Online Social Networks

Social computingImage by lorda via Flickr

Bryan Alexander points to a Nielsen report that shows that social network sites and blogs have now outstripped email in popularity. The biggest increase has been in the 35-49 age group (hey! that's my age group). I think there are obvious reasons for this. First, is that this age group is likely to have teenagers who use online tools to connect with their friends. Those kids parents have signed up for Facebook or other sites to keep tabs on their kids. Or just to understand what it is that their kids are doing. Second, many of the initial adopters of these tools are now in jobs, working alongside their 30 and 40 something colleagues and encouraging them to use blogs or social networking tools for professional development.

Anecdotally, I'm seeing this increase too. I wrote before about being found in Facebook by high school and college friends (who are obviously in my age group), and being a little uncomfortable with that. Last night I was at Course Selection Night for new high school students (yikes! I have a kid going to high school!), and the PTSA handed out flyers indicating that they were on Facebook. I was actually happy about that and I'll probably friend them soon. Yesterday, I was able to update my contact information and list my preferred volunteer activities via an online tool called PTO manager and I mentioned earlier that the elementary school used an online potluck site to coordinate a big event that required food donations. I was also able to find out more about the budget of the Middle School PTO through the online site because they posted the minutes.

In part, this has been spurred locally by a new mandate from the school district that they will not provide access to the student database for the PTO. In the past, materials were sent home via the students and/or were mailed and emailed by allowing the PTO access to mailing and email addresses. Well, no more. And so the PTO had to get creative about how to gather that information for themselves and how to reach out to parents. I think some of this new interest in online communication is spurred too by a younger group of parents. The parents of my daughter's friends are often younger than me since their oldest is my daughter's age. As these parents begin to volunteer, they're more familiar with social networking than their older peers.

Interestingly, I was sitting behind some moms last night who thought that Facebook was a silly idea for the PTSA and didn't want to get an account. As one mom said, "Whoever I want to see, I see. I don't need to use Facebook for that." Over the last 6 years that we've lived here, I've increasingly become aware of how many people grew up here. They have deep roots and have established connections over the years and don't need these tools to maintain them or build new ones. They don't socialize that way. But some of us do. Some of us are maintaining old friendships through blogging, twittering, and FB. Some of us are trying to find new connections through those same tools. And I'm glad to see some of the local organizations recognizing that there's more than one way to connect with people.



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Monday, March 09, 2009

Money Can Buy Happiness

Gretchen Rubin has been writing a series of posts that outline 10 happiness myths. Today's is Money Can't Buy Happiness. She argues that it can. As people are losing their jobs or seeing salary cuts and experiencing depression as a result, it seems obvious that money does buy some happiness. I agree. When we were young and poor, one or both of us in grad school, we were constantly running into situations involving money that made us unhappy. It was not fun to juggle bills, to put off much-needed car repairs, or eat meals made up of whatever canned goods are left in the cabinet. I can remember days of going to the mall just to have something to do and being thoroughly depressed because I couldn't buy so much as a cup of coffee.

We're way past that now, and boy, am I glad. Having enough money to buy the essentials and pay the bills on time is a blessing. But, we have taken steps backwards financially over the years. Moving here was one such step, and my recent decision to quit was another. Both decisions, despite the financial setbacks, were made to make one of us happier. And I'd say that both decisions were good ones. We may have to think a bit more about purchases, budget a little more carefully, plan longer into the future for even small things, but all in all, the stress of having to do that is minor compared to the stress of working in a job that no longer appealed and that took me away from my family more than I wanted it to.

As Gretchen suggests, even though money may be a bit tighter than usual, I still spend money on little things that improve my life. I'm not a regular coffee shop patron, but every once in a while, I like to sit down with a latte and a muffin. I like bubble bath and magazines and books. Those are all things I could give up if I had to, but they're also things that make me pretty happy with just a small investment of cash. And, of course, there are things that don't cost money that make me pretty happy, too. But sometimes, a few bucks will buy a little joy.

Supposed to

I'm supposed to be grading right now, but I'm not, mostly because I need at least one more cup of coffee before I can tackle that. I am a slow grader. I can only manage 3 or 4 papers at once before I start to pull my hair out. It's not that the papers are bad; many of them are quite good. It's that the energy it takes for me to come up with the right comments that will be supportive of what's good, redirect what needs improvement, and offer advice for the next paper is huge.

I was also supposed to go to a school board meeting on Thursday and make a podcast on Friday. Both canceled due to child illness. When my kids were little, I knew to plan for unexpected things to happen that might disrupt the best laid plans. In grad school, I started papers weeks in advance, just in case my progress was disrupted by a sick kid that wouldn't let me leave their side. And this did indeed happen once in a while. But I've gotten complacent in recent years, as my kids have gotten older, and so even if they do get sick, they're content to lie on the couch and watch tv, with just a few check-ins from mom, and some food and medicine every once in a while.

It doesn't help that all of my "supposed tos" are now self imposed. I could put off looking at the papers all week and torture myself by doing them all at once at the end. But I know I can't. The podcast is kind of a marketing tool for a business I can't really dedicate a huge amount of time for until summer. Eventually, this will need to be a more regular event. And, of course, it's my own need to be involved that led me to want to attend the board meeting. I have no idea if this will or will not be useful, which makes me less motivated to make the effort to attend.

I'm also supposed to be exercising, but the last round of grading, plus a trip for a conference, left me little time for that. And now, of course, I'm thinking about putting a bathing suit on in June and it makes me fearful. I shouldn't care. I really shouldn't, but I do.

I don't like all these supposed tos. Some of them--like the podcast--are easy to frame as "get to". The fact that I can, if I want to, spend the time to make a podcast is a freedom most people don't have. I can even do that with the grading. How many people get to teach college level classes at a place like my SLAC? But some supposed tos come from external pressures to be a certain way, to look a certain way, etc. Those supposed tos I'm trying to get rid of. What supposed tos would you like to purge?

Friday, March 06, 2009

My Students are Teh Awesome

I don't often like to write about students here because, well, many of them read my blog and it's not that I'd say bad things, but what I say might get misinterpreted. But I think when I see such good work coming out of them, I feel compelled to say something. We asked our students to comment on our blog about what they've learned in the class so far. We did this verbally in class a few weeks ago and we decided to do it via blog this time. Guinevere's question at the end of here comment really struck me:
I’m still wondering how we take this out of the classroom and into the non-academic arenas. I really appreciated Rebecca’s post suggesting we attempt to balance our discussions of labels between the abstract and the concrete. I think we can definitely work to relate our discussions back to how we go forward in our daily lives. I began the semester contemplating how personal this journey would be for me. The first part of the class certainly was, but I feel now that we’ve moved into a very analytical, attempting-to-be-objective, super-academic approach to our discussions. That isn’t necessarily the worst thing we could be doing, but I’d like to revitalize my own efforts to connect more personally with our discussions, get a little messy and be subjective, and figure out how to relate academia to non-academia. It would be nice in our class discussions, large and small, if we occasionally took a step back and said “OK, what does this mean when we walk out of here at 4 pm?”
I like the push not to compartmentalize what's going on in class, to realize that it can have implications outside of the classroom. But, of course, we haven't discussed how to do that. I wonder, though, if we can think about what we could do. For example, the last collection of panels the students participated in had them presenting on a number of professions, both historical and contemporary, where the gender balance is skewed one way or another. Further, we discovered that pay rates in even the female-dominated professions were lower for women than for men. Can we do something about that? Or on a smaller scale, are there individual choices or actions we could take that would have a collective effect? It seems worth considering taking the class directly into the world in some way. I always assume that students take what they've learned and apply it however they see fit in their lives, but why not apply it sooner?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Real PTA Moms Respond

Jackie at A Patchwork Life responds to the PTA debate, as a mom volunteering in a lower income school. I think that the parents who responded to Elizabeth's post that I linked to yesterday tend to be in higher income school districts, where the tax base is such that they probably could fully fund the school if there were the political will to do so, and so there's a frustration with the PTA fund raising efforts because they seem unnecessary or are creating further inequities between school districts.

The comments on Jackie's post provide a completely different perspective on PTA efforts and should be a reminder that there are huge differences across school districts.

I have had experience at both ends of the school spectrum. I attended a school as a child where something like 85% of the students received free or reduced lunch. I'm sure they had to scrape for basic resources and that fund raising was an important part of that. At the other end, the first elementary school we were in here in PA was the richest in the area and the district actively competed with area private schools and was very up front about that competition. I went to PTA meetings there and volunteered in the classroom. Worst. Experience. Ever. I realize that that experience is not typical but it kind of scarred me. I mean the women who volunteered dressed for it, wearing pearls and diamonds and their best label outfits. I had on a t-shirt and jeans. One woman spent the entire time talking about famous graduates of her exclusive all-women's high school. Ugh.


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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

PTA fundraising

There's a very interesting discussion going on at Half-Changed World about what the PTA funds and whether it creates inequities or not. As I said over there, I have no idea what our PTA pays for at either the elementary or middle school. In fact, I'm planning to attend the school board meeting and the PTA meeting in the coming weeks, so maybe I'll have more to say then.

Here's the thing. I am not involved very much in either of my children's schools. This is because I worked full-time, their schools were a 15-20 minute drive away, which meant if I wanted to volunteer for something, I was going to have to use a couple of hours of precious personal time. I'm trying to remedy that now that my hours are flexible. I've volunteered to help with an after school Shakespeare Club at the elementary school and I'll see what I can do at the middle school after the PTA meeting next week.

One commenter notes the phenomenon of the PTA mom clique, and I've certainly felt that from time to time. At my younger child's old elementary school, for example, there was a very well established PTA, with moms who'd been serving for years and who all knew each other quite well. Trying to participate was hard because I wasn't part of the in crowd. The new elementary school isn't like that as far as I can tell, mainly, I think, because more of the moms work and so there's more coming and going as those moms have time to participate.

One other improvement I've noticed is the increased use of technology for getting parents involved. I signed up to make a dish for a potluck next week because they used a cool potluck web site to solicit donations. It was easy for me to see what they needed people to make. I could pick something and voila, I was done. Also, there's more communication by email, etc. It would be nice to have more connecting via technology, like setting up a Facebook or Ning, so that parents can connect outside of participating in events.

Earlier this week, I listened in on the Parents as Partners webcast, which was really interesting. For a while I thought I was the only parent, but someone chimed in that they were helping get parents connected via various social networking tools. They were getting a little pushback from the school, but were working through that. The hardest thing is figuring out how to get connected to the school in a real way, where you feel like you know what their educational goals are and that you can have a voice in shaping those goals. I've been mostly focused on shaping my own kids' goals and am finding that at times, they're not in sync with the school and I don't know what to do about that. I'm not sure how much being involved in the PTA would help that. Certianly, the webcast indicated that this kind of connection was the goal in many schools and it wasn't all about the PTA.

It's a complicated thing, sending your kids off to school and feeling like you don't know what's going on there. It's taking a lot of work, but I hope to feel less in the dark by the end of the school year.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Clickers!

A number of posts have commented on the Chronicle article and the NPR story on clickers. I really don't like clickers. I recognize that there are certain classes, mostly large lecture classes, where they seem necessary. Buy why do they seem necessary? Because there's a recognition that students don't always learn well in those settings and so the clickers are used to determine if the students are learning and if they're not, in theory, to go over material again or differently so that they do learn. So rather than deal with the root of the problem, they throw technology at it. This is the worst use of technology in education and unfortunately, it's the most common.

Bugeja adds in a comment to Soltan's post linked to above the following:

Cost is the issue. No research to my knowledge documents any learning benefit according to empirical analysis–in this case, raising hands as opposed to clicking keypads in those hands.

Here’s my point:

Unless we stop underwriting any benefit, especially without the above analysis, technology–which promised to democratize academe–will continue to corporatize it, at the expense of the Humanities, I’m afraid.
In the article, he suggests that the idea for investing in clickers came from a few faculty who'd been pitched the technology along with textbooks by publishers. The IT department was simply commissioned to implement the technology after the fact and very little analysis of the costs or benefits was done by either faculty or the IT department. I wonder how many other "educational technologies" came about this way. There's often an assumption by faculty that the IT department or Teaching Centers cram technology down their throats. But I wonder if it's not really the case that a few faculty started agitating for something. Where did the idea for CMS's come from? But really, no matter where it comes from, I agree that before investing in anything, technology or otherwise, one should do the cost-benefit analysis. I had to do this just to purchase a printer in the corporate world. One would think that in academe, which are supposed to be non-profits, that such analysis would be even more important.
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When Tech Goes Mainstream

I remember when blogs finally got on CNN's radar. They had blog pundits. They dedicated a portion of a show to blogs, with a blog correspondent. They looked really stupid because none of them had actually read blogs much less written one, so they didn't really get them. They're slightly better about that now, but they've hopped onto Twitter. Here's Jon Stewart on the "new" phenomenon:



It's funny, of course, but just like the media did with blogs, makes Twitter seem a revolution of some kind. There's no right way to use it, of course, but as with blogs, the focus seems to be on its most mundane purposes and not about how it can be used to connect with people or to get information. A year from now, I'm guessing they'll have moved on to some other tool as their latest fetish, and maybe they'll leave Twitter alone.