Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to survive: A public service announcement for the readers of sleeping alone

Because I'm here to serve you, today I offer you a plethora of help-sites and advice for surviving extreme accidents.

Surviving a Plane Crash: Sit in the Back

Common wisdom dictates that if your plane starts plummeting to earth, it doesn't matter where you're sitting—you're gonna be incinerated, smashed to bits, fully submerged in the ocean, perhaps eaten by sharks or crocodiles. In fact, a study of recent plane crashes suggests a high rate of survivability, as Tim Jepsen explains in the London Daily Telegraph:
[T]here were 568 plane crashes in the US between 1993 and 2000, involving a total of 53,487 passengers and crew. Of these, 51,207 – or over 90 per cent survived. Even on the 26 crashes deemed the worst, the study found that more than half the passengers and crew survived.
How to survive? Well, Jepsen writes, "you can be lucky, like the 155 passengers and crew of US Airways Flight 1549, the plane that crash-landed on New York's Hudson River, and enjoy a combination of luck, superlative flying and excellent staff training. Or you can take matters into your own hands."

First, always book your seat in the rear of the plane. A Popular Mechanics study examined all commercial jet crashes in the United States since 1971 and found that the odds of survival are far greater for passengers sitting in the back of the plane.

Aside from booking a seat in the rear, there are other things you can do to increase your odds of survival in case of disaster. The folks over at HowStuffWorks offer the following tips:
  • Identify exits and count the rows between them and your seat--that way, if the plane descends into darkness you'll be able to find your way to the exit.
  • Prepare for impact by assuming the official FAA crash position:
    extend your arms, cross your hands and place them on the seat in front of you, and then place your head against the back of your hands. Tuck your feet under your seat as far as you can. If you have no seat in front of you, bend your upper body over with your head down and wrap your arms behind your knees.
  • Wear crash-appropriate clothes: long pants, long sleeves, and closed-toe shoes. This can protect you from crash debris and, in case of survival, the elements.
  • If you're flying with your family, discuss an emergency plan, including dividing any children between responsible adults.
  • Pay attention to the preflight emergency instructions—all planes are different, and knowing the details of emergency procedures can drastically increase your odds of surviving a worst-case scenario.
If the above are too vague for you, Jepsen ponders air-crash survival strategies in greater detail, including a description of what to do during the "golden period" of escape, which he identifies as the first two minutes after impact. He also considers various conspiracy theories, including the argument from some skeptics that the established crash position is actually intended to kill you quickly and efficiently by breaking your neck and back—"a deliberate ploy, they claim, to make your death as quick and painless as possible and reduce insurance costs."

Surviving a Sky Diving Accident: Be the Right Kind of Person

On Feb. 2, Army Private Daniel Pharr, in his first-ever sky dive, survived through quick thinking when his instructor suffered a mid-air heart attack during their tandem jump. Though Pharr was a novice, he had paid attention during the instructional video and used what he had learned to direct the parachute to safe ground. This was harder than it seems, explains Ben Sherwood, the author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life:
It's not easy for a newbie sky diver to land safely, especially with a dead man strapped to his back. If he had pulled on the handles too hard, for instance, Pharr might have gone into an uncontrollable spin. And yet, when everything went wrong, Pharr somehow did everything right.
Sherwood interviewed Christian Hart, a psychologist and veteran skydiver, who believes that in time of extreme stress, people emerge as one of two kinds of personalities: Either they refuse to quit, even as the odds of surviving dwindle to just above zero; or they resign themselves to death and wait for it to happen.

So there's your tip: Be that first kind of person.

Second tip: Get really freaking lucky.

In 2005, Shayna West's parachute and reserve failed to open and she plummeted thousands of feet before landing face-first in a parking lot. Not only did she survive, but the fetus she hadn't known she was carrying survived as well. She carried the baby to term and gave birth to a healthy boy. To review: West landed on her face and presumably also on her stomach; she and the baby survived. She does appear to be the first kind of person—she explains in an interview with CBS several months after the accident and 15 facial reconstruction surgeries:
Of course, as high up as I was, I was still about 3,000 feet off the ground, I was gonna give it a try. I was doing everything I knew to do to correct the malfunction. But, ultimately, I was prepared for it to be a fatal accident.
There is no other explanation of how West could possibly have survived a fall that, logically, should have ended both her and her child.

Surviving a Zombie Invasion: Take Refuge in a Country Farmhouse

Just kidding. There is no way to survive a zombie invasion.

Surviving a Shark Attack: Don't Pee in the Ocean

Seriously. The smell of ammonia has been known to attract sharks, and when it comes to sharks, the best way to survive is to avoid them altogether. The Discovery Channel also advises avoiding defecating or vomiting in the ocean; if you really can't hold it, try to fling whatever comes out of your orifices as far from yourself as you can.

If you do spot an approaching shark, try to splash and yell and make as much noise as you can. Though this runs counter to my common sense, Discovery explains that if sharks perceive their prey to be extremely large or powerful, they're likely to look for easier hunting.

If a shark does attack, don't play dead. Fight back by punching the shark in the eyes or the gills (not the nose), the shark's most sensitive parts. If you're bitten, get out of the water as soon as you can and find a tourniquet.

National Geographic offers many more tips for avoiding and surviving shark attacks here.

Keep in mind, however, that the risk of dying of a shark attack is small—15 times smaller than the risk of dying from a falling coconut.

Surviving a Falling Coconut: Cut Down the Offending Tree

In the late 18th century, British missionary William Wyatt Gill recorded the death of a concubine to King Tetui of Mangaia, an island in the Cook Island chain, due to a falling green nut. The king immediately had the tree cut down. No further deaths due to falling nuts, green or coco, were recorded on this island.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Update: a moment of silence (and outrage) for (former) MIT employees

I was given to believe that my employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would do its best to ride out the recession with its staff intact. After all, MIT's human resources page make the argument that "MIT is a great place to work." Today, though, I received the news from a colleague working in a different department of MIT that a dozen of her coworkers had received layoff notices. These layoffs came after a department-wide meeting announcing that cuts would be made and hinting at the possibility of staffing cuts; this meeting was followed by weeks of general silence about who would be laid off, and when, and under what terms.

I had thought MIT was better than this.

Admittedly, a recent letter from MIT President Susan Hockfield does not state unequivocally that employees would be protected from layoffs; indeed, a closer look at this letter, which all employees received in their email inboxes in mid-February, actually omits altogether—glaringly, given what I know now—the issue of layoffs. Dr. Hockfield writes, under the heading of "Controlling Hiring":
To preserve flexibility, we have chosen not to impose a blanket hiring freeze across the Institute. However, we will sharply slow hiring and will reserve it for core Institute needs. Some units have already decided to suspend hiring. Going forward, all hiring that impacts the General Institute Budget will require approval by the Provost, for academic units, or the EVP, for administrative units.

In the letter, Hockfield also explains that she has graciously chosen to forgo her annual raise this year and next. (I'm sure this is a comfort to those employees whose employment will cease altogether.)

One of the greatest ethical crimes in American labor history is the code of silence around terms of employment. Before I came to MIT, one of the three (simultaneous) part-time jobs I held was as an hourly billing associate at a veterinary hospital; the official policy there forbade any discussion of wages or benefits. If you told anybody how much you made, you were subject to immediate termination. For the record, I worked for VCA South Shore Animal Hospital and my hourly pay after nearly a year and a half was $12.35, a wage that I believe was not only incongruent with the wages of many of my coworkers but also incommensurate with the service I was providing to the company and its clients. In addition, and in direct opposition to Massachusetts' law mandating employer-subsidized health care coverage for all gainfully employed state residents, VCA steadfastly refused to pay a portion of my health insurance costs, declaring that since the corporate headquarters were based out of state, the company was not legally required to abide by state mandates.

In accepting a salaried position at MIT I believed I was leaving all the insanity of that culture of silence behind; but I have found a comparable—perhaps an even more intense—protection of silence around the terms of employment at MIT. I think the secret becomes even more important to keep because while my coworkers at VCA largely expected not to make a career of reception work, my coworkers at MIT are very often in what they consider to be their life's work, in a field that matters deeply to them. This means nobody tells anybody how much they make; nobody tells anybody what kind of raise they got or failed to get; nobody tells anybody what kinds of perks they have taken or been offered to continue in their position.

In addition to the thundering silence about terms of employment, I've found an incredible bubble of silence around the issue of layoffs. Though I suspect layoffs have occurred in other departments across the Institute, I have not heard of them; indeed, I would not have heard of the layoffs in my friend's department were I not a close confidant. Of course, the power of silence is just this: You can suspect all you want, but there's no way to know to what extent your suspicions are true, accurate, or fair.

I wonder, then, if I'm right to suspect a larger trend of layoffs and low morale. I wonder if I'm right to argue that there exists a code of secrecy around pay, benefits, and terms of employment. I wonder, too, if it's time for a more public conversation about these things. I wonder if it's time to tell you how much I make, what kind of benefits I receive, and what kind of raises I've secured. True to the privacy culture, though, I'm nervous about going first.

I would love to hear your thoughts. You can comment directly to this blog or, if you prefer complete and absolutely guaranteed anonymity, you can email me at and I'll post your comments for you.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A moment of silence for Michiganders

I don't have children. I don't own a house or a car. I have little money invested in the stock market. My job is secure, though I will be leaving it this summer to begin graduate study.

On the one hand, all of this makes me feel pathetically disconnected to the social and economic structures that bind and connect us all.

On the other hand, it means the recession that has gnawed through America's economy has left me relatively unscathed.

I'm made aware, again and again, of how lucky I am by the experiences of friends and family in Michigan--the state with the highest unemployment rate and the worst future employment projections in the country. Michigan has been hit so hard because so much of the economic burden in the state has been shouldered by the floundering auto industry.

I knew things were bad in Michigan, my home state, but I didn't know how bad until I returned for a visit back in July and experienced firsthand the disconnect between the Michigan of my past and the Michigan of my family's present. Entire rows of businesses had been shuttered. Homes sat empty, abandoned months or years before and absolutely unsellable. Since then, mind-bogglingly, things have gotten even worse.

I recently came across a slideshow from the New York Times that explores the effects of the recession on Pontiac, Michigan, the home of General Motors and a city I lived in for two years as a young adult. It paints a picture of desperation: A young man, born and raised in a General-Motors family, laid off and killing time while he waits to be shipped off for a stint in the Air Force. A small restaurant whose husband-and-wife owners may have to close down and find jobs. Even the optimist, a preacher devoted to the city, has trouble keeping a hint of desperation out of his voice as he speaks about the future of Pontiac's youth.

Then there's Detroit, long-maligned but grand in its design. From a distance, far enough away that its various crises are all but undetectable, Detroit looks absolutely grand:

I pulled that photo from a website called Foreclosure Listings Nationwide: Foreclosure Listings for the Serious Buyer. "And why not move away?" my mom, a lifelong Michigander, asks. "Why would anybody want to stay here, when things are so bad?"

Friday, February 20, 2009

Iconoclasts: Nietzsche into Sunset; Eastwood into Sunset

There he goes
consistently stoic and lean, unsinging
there he goes stricken and fluid and strung
so tight each line springs from his face and down
to the floor sings gently down his face to the floor.
Now he's protecting beauty like it's thighs
spread taut against the wall, now the wall
dissolves into thighs. He respects sidewalks
and copyright law, he leans like a chimney. Now he runs
for mayor of some town that has no need: Our man
in dungarees. Our spinning fool. Our man ill at ease
below gray suits. Now he'll press in his hat
a long daisy, green tip just brushes the edge of one ear.
Our man of every hour, waiting for applause--
There were flowers once but it wasn't real, it was
to prove a point and flowers? he thought, and still does.
Our man of cheerful despair leaves marks on every page,
they meant something once but it's lost. It's all
yellow light. The town succumbs or fails, there's increase
or loss, taxes get paid, what matters. It did not begin there,
nothing began, our man of scribbled disaster wiggles
through his window, bobs over the rise and is gone.

© 2009 Jenna McWilliams

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why I like to crochet

I don't want to aggrandize a hobby, and I certainly don't want to turn odiously philosophical about it. But I do so love to crochet.

Part of the attraction is the act of making something out of nothing: To crochet means to pick up mechanically and perfectly ordered skeins of yarn, unwind them, and remake them into something perfectly ordered in a completely different way. Watching this happen, and knowing it came from the work of my two hands, is the sort of thing that must be experienced to be understood.

Too, there's the neat and ordered way that a crochet project grows. Row by row, a design emerges: Not a miracle, not the product of some barely understood phenomenon, not an aberrance, but a deliberate growth.

Then there's what is, to me, the most important part: At the end, there is a useful product—an afghan, a scarf, a pair of mittens.

Media scholar Henry Jenkins (full disclosure: Henry's my boss) has explored what he sees as contradictory, or at least contrasting, assessments of the value systems that drive our society. We live in what he has termed a convergence culture. By "convergence," he explains,
I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who would go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they wanted. Convergence is a word that manages to describe technological, industrial, cultural, and social changes, depending on who's speaking and what they think they are talking about. In the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms. Right now, convergence culture is getting defined top-down by decisions being made in corporate boardrooms and bottom-up by decisions made in teenagers' bedrooms. It is shaped by the desires of media conglomerates to expand their empires across multiple platforms and by the desires of consumers to have the media they want where they want it, when they want it, and in the format they want....

Given this phenomenon, it makes sense that, as Jenkins argues,
consumers and producers often follow different dictates, not simply because of competing economic interests, but because they have different motives, make different judgments about value, and follow different social obligations; in other words, they operate within separate and parallel economic orders.

He describes these economic orders as "commodity culture" and "the gift economy." In a commodity culture, the emphasis is on the economic value of a good, service or idea. The values of commodity culture align with the value systems of a capitalist society in which products and ideas migrate across media platforms and can consequently be marketed and controlled by producers. The gift economy, however, places an emphasis on the social value of giving: of goods, of services, of time and energy. Borrowing from Lewis Hyde's 1983 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Jenkins explains that in a gift economy,
[t]he circulation of goods is not simply symbolic of the social relations between participants; it helps to constitute them. Hyde identifies three core obligations which are shared among those who participate in a gift economy: "the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate." (p.xxi) Each of these acts help to break down boundaries between participants, reflecting a commitment to good relations and mutual welfare.

Jenkins takes up Hyde's notion of the difference between "value" and "worth," focusing on Hyde's argument that "a commodity has value... A gift has worth." Value, in this case, means the exchange rate of a good: Cash for the merchandise. Worth, on the other hand, is the extra-economic value of a good: Its emotional meaning to us.

What I like best about crocheting is that at the end, I have a product that has value within a gift economy. I can give an afghan to someone and I do delight in doing so; or, if a particular afghan has come to mean something special to me, I can keep it and stretch it across my bed. This is a case in which value and worth misalign. Typically, to make an afghan I'll buy about $50 worth of yarn, then I'll spend between 40 and 60 hours on the making. Even at minimum wage, that pushes the value of my afghan to somewhere over $350.

Even if I were to sell what I made, I certainly wouldn't sell it for $350. And I wouldn't want to, anyway. For me, a lot of the inherent worth of crocheting is that it results in gifts that have worth, both to me and to others, and are therefore worth giving.

But enough about me. Let's talk about convergence culture. The video below is Henry's keynote address to this year's Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT. It describes his take on commodity culture and the gift economy, and the struggle to reconcile the two. It's almost an hour long but completely worth the time. If you're interested in taking up crochet as a hobby, I've included a few interesting links below.

Free Crochet Patterns

These are the two sites I visit most frequently to find free patterns.
Crochet Pattern Central: A clearinghouse of free patterns available online, divided by type of project. An absolutely invaluable resource.
Lion Brand Pattern Finder: Another good resource for free patterns (though you need to create a free account before you can access pattern instructions)

Crochet Tutorials
Learn to Crochet at Lion Brand: Basic tutorial on various types of stitches and patterns.
Crochet Guild of America: Another set of tutorials, from some people who really mean it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

We win! We win! Or--wait...

This just in: In reaction to protests by its members, Facebook has reversed course on its revised terms of service agreement, returning to the prior terms of service and thereby giving up the ghost on retaining rights to user-posted material even after someone has canceled membership to the site.

This is the new model of civic engagement, a type of activism that goes largely unrecognized by political scientists, cultural theorists, and pollsters but that offers a new model of democratic participation—the struggle over ownership and definition of public spaces, both physical and virtual. It's hard to identify, harder to measure, because it's deeply integrated into the everyday activities of an entire generation whose lives, identities, and self-making increasingly extend into virtual spaces.

This is, after all, a generation whose lives are spent in public spaces developed by corporations but marketed as open, democratic spaces where youth are kings of their domains. Think Facebook or MySpace; think YouTube, Google, Hulu. So much of the sense young people make of their world comes from the information gleaned from corporate-sponsored sites; so much of the identity-building happens on sites designed both for this purpose and for a distinct profit to the site developers. It makes sense, then, that civic engagement for this generation involves not voting but negotiating the parameters for engagement in those online spaces. As Jennifer Earl and Alan Shussman argue, in a culture where corporate entities have an increasingly powerful and important role in the lives of citizens, many people "are protesting against corporations themselves in hopes of directly changing corporate policies or products."

It's a type of engagement that's not readily recognized or easily measured. As we've seen in the Facebook example, much of the activism—the work that traditionally required, at the very least, leaving the house and convening in a public center (a voting station, a canvassing headquarters, a small African country)—happens without anybody noticing, often least of all the person engaging in the activism. Facebook's abrupt decision to return to the previous terms of service policy happened because somebody noticed that Facebook had updated its terms of service. That person blogged about it; others linked to the post or wrote about it on their own blogs, which in turn got linked to by others; eventually Facebook members were posting links to the issue on Facebook—thereby using the site as a center for contestation over the site itself. In this case, the distinction between everyday activities (posting interesting links, sharing or commenting on interesting stories) and activism (using Facebook's affordances to contest a change in its capabilities) is so blurred that it would be difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.

This is what we want, right? A culture in which civic engagement is so seamlessly integrated into the everyday activities that come with being alive that it doesn't even feel like civic engagement, at least how we traditionally define it?

Chalk one up for the critical mass notion of social movement.

If, however, you prefer cynicism, you can take a look at, the site for a marketing company whose very purpose is to sell more product by leveraging the affordances of 2.0 technologies. Sadly enough, this is a downright beautiful site—the kind I'd want to spend a lot of time exploring.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dissent within the United Republic of Facebook

According to recent measurements, Facebook now has more than 175 million members and is growing by an average of 600,000 new members per day. As marketing analyst Justin Smith points out, "if Facebook were a country, it would now be the 6th most populous in the world."

Now that we're country-sized, we should really think about getting a flag and an anthem. And we should seriously consider regulating the recent trend of Facebook members posting self-absorbed notes describing in excruciating detail some of the most boring things imaginable about themselves and then—and this is the part that kills me—tagging other Facebook friends so they'll read the whole gorram thing. I'm talking to you, 25 Things About Me. To you, My Top 5 Facebook Activities. You, The Soundtrack of My Life.

I suppose it's only natural that a social media application whose users are largely young (66% are under 35) and largely middle- and upper-class would find a way to use the application's resources as a platform for talking about themselves as an end goal, not as a means for building and maintaining relationships across time and distance. Is it natural, though? Or is Facebook designed for exactly this purpose, under the guise of social networking?

Carmen Joy King argues that Facebook is actually designed to highlight and enhance self-absorption; she quit Facebook abruptly when, in a search for new quotes for her profile page, she came upon this from Aristotle:"We are what we repeatedly do." This sent her into self-reflection mode, as she explains:

I became despondent. What, then, was I? If my time was spent changing my profile picture on Facebook, thinking of a clever status update for Facebook, checking my profile again to see if anyone had commented on my page, Is this what I am? A person who re-visits her own thoughts and images for hours each day? And so what do I amount to? An egotist? A voyeur?

Fair enough. Looked at another way, though, all this focus on self-presentation isn't significantly different from the kinds of identity work young people have always done, with all resources at their disposal. It's just that no previous generation was able to do it quite so publicly, or with a resource so explicitly designed for statements about identity as, for example, the status message: "Jenna is _______."

Developmental pyschologist Erik Erikson, taking up the issue of identity formation, argued that identity is "a unity of personal and cultural identity." For him, identify formation requires active management and reorganization of ideological commitments, identifications, and affiliations. Often, for adolescents and young adults especially, this happens stormily, with rapid reshufflings of value systems before the identity work evens out and "sense of self" becomes increasingly coherent. (Remember those three days you spent as a Communist when you were a college freshman, followed by a week of anarchism and a day or two of religious fanaticism?) Facebook and similar social networking sites have the potential to kind of blow apart this trajectory, especially if current trends continue—Facebook use is increasing most rapidly among women over 55.

I don't really want to regulate Facebook, of course; I'm kind of a closet libertarian at heart. Besides, a valuable feature of Facebook's design is that I don't have to participate in other people's self-making if I don't want to. Though my Facebook friends can tag me all they want, I don't have to read what they write. And I haven't, for the most part.

In other news, I've learned how to use Facebook as a platform for directing traffic to my blog. As of the end of last week, more of my readers have been referred to sleeping alone via Facebook than via any other single referral source. I'm excited that I've found such an effective way to leverage Facebook for this purpose.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

zomg these guys are so racist

I just found out about American Renaissance Magazine, a disgusting neo-conservative platform for justifying loathsomely cretinous attitudes toward race clearinghouse for neo-conservative articles that support white supremacist beliefs. I'm finding it impossible, actually, to describe this site in a way that could be remotely considered unbiased, so I'll just let it speak for itself:
American Renaissance is a monthly magazine that has been published since 1991. It has been called “a literate, undeceived journal of race, immigration and the decline of civility.”

Well played, American Renaissance. The phrasing of this description completely conceals the fact that the praise you're quoting comes from the founder of the magazine himself, white supremacist Jared Taylor.

This site positions itself as a kind of lone voice of reason on race-related issues. A key argument championed by American Renaissance, for example, is about race and IQ:
One of the most destructive myths of modern times is that people of all races have the same average intelligence. It is widely accepted that genes account for much of the difference in intelligence between individuals, but many people still refuse to believe genes explain group differences in average intelligence. This blindness leads to futile attempts to eliminate “learning gaps” between the races and forces whites to accept the view that if blacks and Hispanics are less successful than whites, it is because of white “racism.”

I got through the site's article on Wikipedia's leftist bias before I just couldn't bear it anymore. As the article explains,
Wikipedia’s origins go back to 2000, when Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, then a pornographer, and Larry Sanger, a doctoral student in philosophy at Ohio State University, founded the online encyclopedia “Nupedia".... Some critics believe Wikipedia is a personality cult built up around Mr. Wales, but the leftist slant of the encyclopedia does not reflect his own politics. He is said to be an “objectivist,” or admirer of Ayn Rand, who opposed federal help for New Orleans after Katrina and hates gun control. He probably settled for whoever would work for free, and just lets the leftist cabal have its way. Only by dropping editorial standards could Wikipedia get a massive force of volunteer labor.

Actually, all you need to know about this execrable collection of hate-inspired diatribes magazine comes through loud and clear in the article's outrage at the Wikipedia entry on Brown v. Board of Education:
The 5,900-word article...would have readers believe it was a popular, constitutionally and scientifically grounded decision, and that its few opponents were all practitioners of “scientific racism.” It fails to mention that Kenneth Clark’s social science, which formed the basis of the court’s decision, was fraudulent or that Clark’s testimony was essentially perjury. Needless to say, the article cites no books by conservatives such as Raymond Wolters or Paul Craig Roberts that correct the liberal myth. Nor does the article mention the Harvard Law Review’s (vol. 100:817, 1987) extensive account of Solicitor General Philip Elman’s illegal, back-door collusion with Justice Felix Frankfurter to twist the court toward desegregation.

These guys must be so mad all the time. It must be downright painful to be a white supremacist these days.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Professor Is Sorry: Or, earn a degree on your iPod in just two months!

I was recently directed to the following TV commercial presented by Kaplan University:

On the one hand, I kinda love the message of this commercial. On the other hand, I want to kill the messenger. Kind of. I think.

The commercial is for Kaplan University, which bills itself as an institution of higher learning dedicated to providing innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing professional education. The site proclaims with pride:
Our programs foster student learning with opportunities to launch, enhance, or change careers in a diverse global society. The University is committed to general education, a student-centered service and support approach, and applied scholarship in a practical environment.

What you don't get from this description is the fact that Kaplan is an online university, also known in some circles as a distance learning institution and in others as a diploma mill. Through Kaplan, you can earn degrees ranging from a professional certificate to a master's degree. You can, for godsake, earn a juris doctorate through Kaplan Online.

In many important ways, of course, this is worrisome. Aside from the fact that a student could ostensibly become, say, a police officer with no field training, there's also the question of fraud. Fraud. Fraud. Fraud.

On the other hand, the rise in popularity of online universities points to a shift in how we think about expertise. While web 2.0 technologies increasingly allow us to offer expertise in a variety of areas, with or without educational credentials, the desire for evidence of expertise lingers in our collective psyches. Ultimately, we still believe that when our cat's kidneys start to fail, the single veterinarian who spent 8 years in school followed by years of field experience can provide better advice than the two thousand cat owners on a devoted forum.

There is something to be said for the apprenticeship model of learning, one in which an aspiring neurosurgeon trains under the watchful and caring eye of a senior and more experienced expert. At the same time, however, one of the enormous affordances of participatory culture is that it enables us to tap into collective knowledge and collaborate on continuing to build that knowledge. We might call this collective expertise: All of us are more expert than one of us (especially if we can get the vet to join the forum).

This doesn't mean I would trust two thousand pet owners to perform surgery on my cat, of course. Collective expertise does not always, after all, exchange at the same rate as apprenticeship, especially when the field requires a high degree of specialization and an intricate web of skills, mindsets, and practices. It does mean, though, that the meanings of "expertise" and, therefore, "credibility" have gotten just a little broader. And it means we need to reconsider what it means to be an "expert," in professional domains as well as those defined by personal and social affinities.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It already happened; nobody noticed

This is one of my favorite quotes in the universe:
"There won't be schools in the future.... I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum-- all of that. The whole system is based on a set of structural concepts that are incompatible with the presence of the computer... But this will happen only in communities of children who have access to computers on a sufficient scale."--Seymour Papert

My deep, deep sense is that Papert is right. In all significant ways, computers have exploded our established understanding of the cultural value of schools; the only problem is that administrators and policymakers don't know it yet. The issue runs deep: Given (and I believe it is a given) that school as structured is incompatible with the participatory cultures enabled by digital technologies, what sorts of structures and frameworks can replace the antiquated, industrial-era setup of the school?

It beggars the imagination to think that Papert made the above statement in 1984; 25 years later, we are awash in technologies that must have seemed to him, at best, like glints on the horizon: tools that enable communication, collaboration, and circulation of ideas and creative works. Yet the school as an institution looks very much like it did during the rock 'n' roller cola wars and the first term of the Reagan administration. Students still sit in rows, are still required to memorize facts and spit them back out in the form of standardized tests, are not encouraged--and often, not permitted--to access the information and expertise that's distributed and available across a vast range of media platforms.

Meanwhile, report after report identifies technology trends and highlights innovative new technologies, without spending a lot of time considering how these technologies may be leveraged to shift the educational landscape. As my colleague Caro Williams exclaims, "If we only talk about what's available, we aren't paying enough attention to how technology is re-situating students and people in this strange blend of real and virtual--and THAT'S where this all gets exciting!"

It's easy enough to identify trends, harder to figure out how those trends mean in the classroom. In many ways, non-school spaces (like news media, transmedia entertainment, and so on) are leading the way in terms of responding to the new affordances of new resources. Perhaps that's because the question in any production space contains a dependent clause: "What is this new trend, and how can we use it?" Oh! I know--maybe we should turn schools into for-profit spaces where funding is tied to performance! Bwahahahaha brb sobbing over NCLB

ok back

Okay, so if these technologies really are changing what education may mean in the 21st century, why haven't schools caught on? Pretty simply, because change involves risk; and because when it comes to education, the stakes are really freaking high. What parent, what educator, what researcher would risk tossing children across the gulf between what schools are and what they could--what they must--become?

Yes, a risk is involved (though not necessarily, of course, the risk of dropping kids to their deaths in a bottomless gulch; there is something to be said for hyperbole in moderation, after all). But I believe a risk is what's required, here at the end of all things.

It's the struggle of our society, and one that John Dewey pointed to back at the end of the 19th century, when he proposed development of a laboratory school where educators could try out new approaches to teaching and learning. In setting forth a series of arguments about new ways to think about knowing and cognition, he conceded that
[i]t is... comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect—in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time.... There is no answer in advance to such questions as these. Tradition does not give it because tradition is founded upon a radically different psychology. Mere reasoning cannot give it because it is a question of fact. It is only by trying that such things can be found out. To refuse to try, to stick blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.

Long revolution, indeed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

If you're reading this, you're my public

I'm obsessed with my new blog. I spend hours devising tactics for directing traffic to it, then I pore over the results over at Google Analytics, where, for example, I can learn that on the first day in the existence of sleeping alone and starting out early, my site had 16 unique visitors and a total of 33 visits (I assume that the 17 extra visits all came from me). I'm aiming upward, upward, upward, and directing my energies toward herding the cats my way.

Why do I care? I mean, other than for the obvious reason that if I've spent all this time carefully and lovingly crafting a blogpost I want people to read it? The short answer is that social media makes us consider, and target, our intended audience in more complex ways.

New media guru Howard Rheingold has written about the participatory potential of blogging, explaining that "[b]ecause the public sphere depends on free communication and discussion of ideas, it changes when it scales—as soon as your political entity grows larger than the number of citizens you can fit into a modest town hall, this vital marketplace for political ideas can be influenced by changes in communications technology."

As bloggers are well aware, the potential is enormous for scaled-up communication via digital technology--but in a real sense, the true potential is never fully realized. It can't be: Among the constraints and affordances of new media technology is the fact that it enables nearly anyone to become a mediamaker. Cutting through the noise, reaching all members of one's potential public, is possible in theory but futile in practice. We don't any of us live anymore in a world where we can expect the person living, working, or studying next to us to have read the same news stories as we have, even though we all have increased access to the news.

That doesn't mean we can't try; and, in fact, Rheingold and others point to the "generative" power of public voice in a new media context. He writes:

In one sense, public voice can be characterized not just as active, but as generative—a public is brought into being in a sense by the act of addressing some text in some medium to it. Michael Warner has argued that any particular public (as distinguished from “the public”) comes into being only when it is addressed by a media text, rather than existing a priori—“it exists by virtue of being addressed.” By writing a blog post about an issue, a blogger brings together people whose only common interest is the issue addressed, bringing about “a relation among strangers” that would probably not otherwise exist. Creating a wiki about a local issue has the potential to precipitate a public that can inform itself, stage debates, even organize collective action.

So far on this blog, I've published a poem, written about boobies, spoken to my hope for the future of academia, and, now, pleaded for readers. I'm not yet sure who my public is; not yet sure what type of action I'm interested in engaging my public in, other than alerting them to my take on some things that have attracted my attention.

I wonder if I'll experience this blogging thing like I experienced teaching when I was new to the profession. Often, especially in my first few semesters, I would bluster into the classroom with some vague idea of what I wanted to do, what I wanted to teach; it was only after the class was over that I was able to work out what I was doing and how well I'd done it. I'd go back in the next day armed with just that tiny bit of extra awareness and confidence, which led to increased awareness and confidence, and so on.

For now, I'll just settle for readers. Please read my blog. You can also comment on it if you like.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Plan B for the grad school set

Colloquial wisdom says that during economic recessions, more people turn to graduate school as a way out of the battle over fewer and less savory jobs. It's not clear whether this is actually happening during our current downturn; some reports show applications on the rise, while others suggest decreased interest in accumulating debt or losing out on years of earning potential.

For those who pursue graduate school--and especially doctoral study--in the hopes of one day securing an academic or research position in their field, the question hinges more on what effect the current downturn is having and will continue to have on the academic environment. The news, grim as it is, isn't all bad.

First, it's no surprise to anybody that universities have been trending away from tenure-track positions for years. Recent studies show that up to 70 percent of faculty at public and private universities are either adjunct instructors or non-tenure track full-timers, and this was before the recession led to faculty hiring freezes at major colleges and universities nationwide.

It's still too early to tell what long-term impact this will have on academia, though even in times of plenty there are more superbly qualified newly minted academics than there are available positions. Institutional reaction to the recession is likely to widen the disparity. As William Pannapacker, an Associate English professor at Hope College, explains,
Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.

May the Fates forgive and protect me for saying this, but it's possible a more "austere" academic environment will have a positive impact, if not on emerging academics, then on the pursuit of scholarly research and the progress of Big Ideas. Academics who want a secure place in the ivory tower will increasingly need to rely on their ability to network and, more importantly, collaborate with other researchers. They will need--and want--to provide regular evidence of valuable scholarly work, and they may work to present themselves as innovators and crafters of important work. It's even possible that the days of the ivory tower are over, for good, for real this time.

At the same time, there will be a new crew of public intellectuals and entrepreneurs built out of those who choose (or, all right, are forced) to leave academia; these people, we can hope, may find ways to parlay their research into innovative and useful products across a variety of disciplines.

There is, of course, a real danger that this need for academics to present themselves as creative and resourceful--and able to produce--could lead to a corporate mindset across research environments; that researchers would be pushed even harder to produce results instead of ideas; that instead of risking their careers with a shift in focus or research interests they stick with the more familiar path. During times of recession, however--and this recession in particular--there is a sense that the CEO mindset isn't working. A real sentiment exists that whatever we did to keep America on top for so long, led by production-oriented CEOs in almost every corporate domain, led to our economic downfall.

The political climate does seem prepared to support a pro-intellectual move. I was recently discussing the inauguration of President Obama with a friend from the UK who came to America after completing his own doctoral work at Oxford University. "It's going to take years," he said, "to undo the damage Bush did to your country. You can see the effect he had on businesses, on almost every area.

"But this is the 'new America'," he continued, trailing off as he looked off into the distance. The new America! I think he's right, though I suppose only time will tell.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gearing up for Operation Feel Your Boobies

I’ve just learned about a breast cancer awareness organization called “Feel Your Boobies.” As the name probably suggests, the target demographic of this group is young women. Here’s what you learn by visiting their website:
Feel Your Boobies® is a breast cancer awareness non-profit organization whose mission is to utilize unexpected and unconventional methods to remind young women, to "feel their boobies."
I learned about Feel Your Boobies through Facebook, when a friend joined the cause online. The upside, I guess, of using the name is that it piques interest; while I normally pay little attention to similar notifications, I did notice this one. I checked out the Facebook group, then I went to the website. Then I started writing.

I gotta say, I'm not a fan of the name, however positive the effects. After all, isn't the fetishizing and sexualizing of female body parts a piece of the problem? Let’s face it: We’re really freaking immature when it comes to talking about breasts. Culturally, we treat them as dangerous; unless they're on display as sex objects, we don’t want to see them at all (for more on this, google “breastfeeding in public”). We’ve imbued the breast with so much sexual power that serious cultural conversation about diseases and dangers is difficult, at best, to carry on. It was only through great struggle and the loss of many great women to breast cancer (and, I suspect, a parallel rising awareness of the dangers of prostate cancer) that we got to the point where we could begin having frank discussions about tactics for diagnosis and prevention.

That’s why calling a campaign “Feel Your Boobies” doesn’t quite work for me. I get the point, I really do--kind of a 'reclaiming,' a 'taking back,’ a clever usage of the language of the target audience. The organization and its name may even have some impact, raising awareness among young women and perhaps leading to some early diagnoses (the site provides some testimonials to this effect). I do wonder, though, what the longer-term effects may be. No matter how “postfeminist” we believe our society to be, the reality is that we’re walking around in a heteronormative culture designed through a partriarchal lens. We continue to agree to think and talk about the world in male-friendly ways. On the one hand, “Feel Your Boobies” may make men (and lots of women, I’m sure) productively uncomfortable: Sexualizing breast self-exams, increasing awareness through the promotion of a kind of autoerotic call to action. On the other hand, the name seems to perpetuate the kind of socio-sexual power breasts have in our society. “All hail the great Breast,” right?

I’d rather see us take the sex out of self-exams. I’d rather see us work to divorce breast cancer research and breast cancer awareness from the cult of the breast. My sense is that Feel Your Boobies may increase awareness—and that’s good—while continuing to worship at the altar of the breast—and that’s not so good.

About sleeping alone and starting out early

Scientific Breakthrough

The snow whipped around so fast last night
it outashed ash. A dry stew shuttled over
rough-edged brick and rattled the window
until this morning dark rain tamped it
and all the riot down to the ground.

There were long grassy evenings but the light
slants blue lately and my only strategy
entails sleeping alone and starting out early.
My hands are red nested birds for now
and preliminary tests indicate only that I may
be fine. Soon noses will tumble out
on rumpled leashes and then and then and then.

They will never find their task
completed. They will never name it.

They have pressed too hard on the hood
and then paced indifferently away.
They have stepped wrong
against someone's ankle,

snapping it twice. (The eaves
lean gracelessly toward the road,
revealing too much.) They want
to learn the meaning of each gesture.

They live elevated lives. They live
elevated lives. They adhere to a list.

In the park, a legion of ancient
women sprint shouting and
splashing for the slide. They screech
and crumple across a hidden swath
of ice, thin hair ribboning across gray
snow and mud, primary mittens
clutching for branch or hand.
A tinny wail lifts across the surface
and slides over the rise.

Someone has volunteered
to recall every bird and try again.
What happens next does not depend.

© 2009 Jenna McWilliams

All content on this blog has been relocated to my new website, making edible playdough is hegemonic. Please visit and update your bookmarks!