Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A couple-three things about standardized reading assessments

If you follow education news, you may already have seen E.D. Hirsch, Jr.,'s March 22 Op-Ed column in the New York Times. The piece, "Reading Test Dummies," makes exactly the kind of argument Hirsch's fans are by now used to: That standardized tests assessing reading skills have merit, when used appropriately. "These much maligned, fill-in-the-bubble reading tests," Hirsch writes,
are technically among the most reliable and valid tests available. The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.

Fair enough so far, right? And Hirsch goes you one further by explaining that "[f]or a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge." Not only that, but
Our current reading tests are especially unfair to disadvantaged students. The test passages may be random, but they aren’t knowledge-neutral. A child who knows about hiking in the Appalachians will have a better chance of getting the passage right; a child who doesn’t, won’t. Yet where outside of school is a disadvantaged student to pick up the implicit knowledge that is being probed on the reading tests?

If you know Hirsch, you know where this is going: Toward an argument for standardizing curriculum content, then aligning test materials to curriculum standards, because
[b]etter-defined standards in history, science, literature and the arts combined with knowledge-based reading tests would encourage the schools to conceive the whole course of study as a reading curriculum — exactly what a good knowledge-based curriculum should be. Schools would also begin to use classroom time more productively, which is important for all students and critically so for disadvantaged ones.

Hirsch ends with this zinger: "We do not need to abandon either the principle of accountability or the fill-in-the-bubble format. Rather we need to move from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to."

For the sake of expediency, let's ignore for now the fact that "teaching to the test" and "tests that are worth teaching to" are in effect the same thing. (You can put lipstick, a bubble skirt, and high heels on a pig, but....) Let's leave aside the deeper, more concerning question: Who gets to decide what those standards are, and what evidence is there that setting these standards across subject-areas would benefit disadvantaged students any more than any previous "curriculum reform" has?

In fact, no, let's not leave that question aside--not for now, not ever. Hirsch argues for curriculum standards, presumably along the lines of the Core Knowledge he promotes in his nonprofit organization. (When I say "core knowledge," you think "western canon." Core: Western. Knowledge: Canon.) It is only in this way, he believes, that we can preserve the knowledge upon which our culture was built. In fact, this is where conservative educational thinkers show their rhetorical skill: Their arguments, as Michael Apple points out, are linked to a nostalgia for the past, for a time when the questions about what to teach and how to teach it were less thorny and easier to answer--when white men ruled and everyone else got in line or fell out. Apple points to conservatives like Hirsch, Dianne Ravitch, and William Bennett,
all of whom seem to believe that progressivism is now in the dominant position in educational policy and practice and has destroyed a valued past. All of them believe that only by tightening control over curriculum and teaching (and students, of course), restoring ‘our’ lost traditions, making education more disciplined and competitive as they are certain it was in the past—only then can we have effective schools. (p. 6)

The questions about what to teach and how to teach it get increasingly difficult as participatory technologies, and the social skills and cultural competencies linked to success at using these technologies, become increasingly valuable and valued. As culture shifts toward this participatory model, it becomes increasingly clear that memorizing a canon of information is less important than having the skills to know when and how tap into that canon. The entire body of world thought is, as always, distributed across a vast set of networks; but until very recently, it was difficult or impossible for people outside of academic institutions to access very much of those networks.

(For more responses to Hirsch's op-ed, you can read letters to the editor at the New York Times Letters page.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Excuse me while I go all John Lennon on you

Over at Adbusters headquarters, the One Flag competition--a contest intended to present to the world a single flag for all--has resulted in a clear winner: This flag created by Marc Arroyo Ortiga from Berlin.




Adbusters, an organization that refers to itself as "culturejammer headquarters," has invested its resources in the argument that things might have been otherwise (despite an almost unbelievable misstep in the One Flag contest, about which more below). The description of the One Flag competition presents a nice example of how Adbusters goes about the work of imagining that otherwise world:
Design is at war with itself. We are taught that design is about finding solutions. But the success of these solutions is judged so narrowly – Did it ooze desire? Did it shift units? – that we find ourselves implicated in problems far greater than the ones we solve. The time has come for a radical shift in priorities. We are now faced with some of the most daunting global challenges in human history.

These are real targets, worthy of our problem-solving skills, ripe for our intervention. Yet those who have the vision to rise above national and political boundaries still have no symbol to rally under. We invite you to create a flag – free from language and well-worn clich├ęs – that embodies the idea of global citizenship. A symbol that triggers pride and cohesion, whether worn on a backpack, displayed on a door, or flown on a flagpole. A symbol for anyone to declare membership in a growing and vital human cooperative. We invite you to prove that design has a real role to play in the fate of our world.
(You can look at the entries of the 32 finalists here.)


Now, about that "things might have been otherwise" argument:

Julia Clarke, writing about Actor-Network Theory (or ANT), examines the question "where is anemia?" to illustrate the point that "whatever story is being told, we are reminded that ‘it might have been otherwise’." As Clarke explains,
If there are plenty of iron tablets available, ‘anaemia’ is a good diagnosis. If there’s no iron, and no good food and no way to cure worms or malaria, then there is no point in using machines to measure haemoglobin levels. Anaemia is real, our bodies need iron; it is narrated, or discursively constructed in the context of different experiences and understandings; and it is social in the sense that what it means and what we do about it is something that is moved around in the fluid spaces of bodies and social relations.

The big work of ANT is to make a theoretical shift away from the assumption that humans are the source of all action and everything around them is just tools for action. Instead, Clarke explains it thus:
The most radical claim of actor-network theory is that all of social life consists of patterned networks of people, animals, machines, texts, buildings, plants – any material entity that is brought into a network. These entities have no inherent qualities but take their form and acquire their attributes through relationships in networks with other entities. This goes beyond the idea that humans behave differently or take on different roles in different social situations, or that plants wilt when the soil is too dry or that light bulbs need electricity.... It means recognising that machines, animals, micro-chips and people, as well as identities, categories, spaces and stories, all have politics and all are implicated in power relations.

In this view, the very humanity of human beings is an effect of the networks through which we derive ‘human’ attributes in relation to other human and non-human entities.

We say that humans are by nature territorial, and that notions like nations, borders, governments and flags emerged from that essentially human trait. But it might have been otherwise, as the Adbusters winning flag suggests. We can imagine a world in which a block of cloth tossed up a pole means not "this land is claimed for the American government and is subject to its government and laws" but "the swimming pool is now open" or "mitosis has occurred" or "a block of cloth has been tossed up a pole."

It might have been otherwise, and in this case the flag whose very image is that which means to us the exact opposite of "territory"--sky, the very opposite to us of land--won the contest because it helps us to imagine how it might have been otherwise. In fact, we might say the winning flag is not just the flag itself but the image of that block of cloth against a matching sky.

People drifting and gathering like clouds across the bright sky. No term to describe the notions of "borders," of "boundaries," no country or continent, no power exerted by the notion of "patriotism" and therefore no jingoisms, no xenophobia, no need for the complex of feelings and intentions exerted by patriotism as it currently exists in our networks of existence.

"You can't just pretend the notion of borders doesn't exist," said my British friend, talking about the expansion of the European Union. "When Poland joined the EU, immigrants flooded into the UK looking for jobs, and it's been bad for us. You can't just say, 'Right, let's get rid of the idea of countries and let everyone go where they want.'"

No, of course not. Not, anyway, in a culture where the notion of boundaries continues to exert its influence, regardless of shifts in law or approach. Not in a culture where there exists an us (the British) vs. them (the Polish, the Turks, the Greeks...). An us (America) vs. them (Mexicans, Canadians, the Middle East...).

No, of course not. But we can still try to imagine, as difficult as it is to do, how it might have been otherwise.


Ok, but here's how Adbusters kinda screwed the pooch on this one

Apparently, all of the judges of the One Flag contest were white men. For the love of pete. For the love of PETE.

This is further proof, though, of how hard it is to try to imagine how it might have been otherwise. And how important it is to keep trying.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

NYTimes headline: When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May Be Lurking

I was feeling low and out of gas when I saw the above headline in the New York Times online. My hopes were high when I clicked on it. The actual article, about celebrities whose assistants manage their Twitter accounts for them, disappointed me deeply. Here's how I wish the article had read.


When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May be Lurking


By JENNA MCWILLIAMS
Published: March 28, 2009


For centuries, stargazers have been fascinated by the sight of celestial bodies twinkling and sparkling in the night sky. At various points in scientific history, astronomers have attributed the random blinking of stars to weaknesses of human vision or the shivering movements or dimming and brightening of the stars themselves. Since the early 18th Century, however, scientists have agreed that this phenomenon is the result of earthly atmospheric gases momentarily obscuring visibility.

Now one researcher is taking issue with this stance, arguing that a definitive link has been established between the seemingly random blinkings of stars and a complicated communication system, the details of which are still being worked out.

Andreu Matthiessen, a Finnish scientist whose previous research has focused on establishing a link between astrology and string theory, mapping visible stars to projected geographical formations of the European Union, and theorizing about the possibility of building a literal stairway to heaven, has now turned his attention to twinkling stars, formally known as stellar scintillation. Isaac Newton is credited with uncovering the true cause of twinkling stars when he argued that atmospheric turbulence caused the phenomenon. In 1704, Newton wrote:

"If the Theory of making Telescopes could at length be fully brought into Practice, yet there would be certain Bounds beyond which Telescopes could not perform. For the Air through which we look upon the Stars, is in a perpetual Tremor; as may be seen by the tremulous Motion of Shadows cast from high Towers, and by the twinkling of the fix’d Stars."

Yet Matthiessen, with funding from the International Federation of Astrologo-Astronomers, has spent the last two decades of his career taking issue with this widely accepted analysis. He and forty to fifty graduate students have been tracking scintillation by stationing themselves around the world and keeping at least three pairs of steady eyes on the night sky at all times. Now Matthiessen believes he has uncovered a pattern: One that indicates the stars themselves are attempting to communicate with us via short bursts of information.

"Much like in Twitter," Matthiessen, 73, said as he printed his most recent data for a reporter. "Information always comes in no more than 150 characters." (Twitter accounts are limited, in fact, to 140 characters at a time.)

Even Matthiessen admits that the data he has collected so far is largely unintelligible; he has been unable to make sense of the information streams that get sent to him from his worldwide research network. Yet he and his lead researcher, Andrea Figuero, are convinced that once they come upon the right permutation of number-letter decoding system, the reams of research will fall into place as a long communication. Asked to speculate on what the stars may be communicating to us, both Matthiessen and Figuero were eager to volunteer their opinions.

"I don't believe in God," said Figuero, an American who abandoned graduate work in astrophysics at MIT in 2003 to work with Matthiessen, "but I believe the planets, the stars, everything that's out there, makes up a single uniform body with its own level of awareness."

"It is not what you might imagine," Matthiessen agreed. "It does not communicate like this God and does not want to."

It doesn't want to direct our actions or guide humans? Then why bother trying to communicate?

"It is human, like us," Matthiessen answered.

"Not human," Figuero interjected. "But a body of awareness...maybe.... Well, I said I don't believe in God, but what if God did exist once and the stars are like the ghost of what God was?"

"Like a ghost," Matthiessen affirmed. "And when we break this code, we will know what this God was saying to his people centuries ago."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

POW! POW! POW! It's official: I'm a Hoosier

I've just received official confirmation from Indiana University's Learning Sciences Program that I have been accepted into the doctoral program beginning Fall 2009. Among other things, the letter indicates that:

For next year, you will be working with Dr. Daniel Hickey as a research assistant. You will probably be hearing from Dr. Hickey. Feel free, however, to contact him before you come to IU to learn more about the exciting research opportunities.


I wonder who this Dr. Hickey character is. I hope he's okay to work with. And I do hope he contacts me soon. I have some questions about the field research we've been working on together for the last year and the blogposts we've been drafting together for the last month.



addendum:
Here's how it feels to be me right now. I'm the kitten, in case you were wondering. Dan, that means you're the bloodhound.

#99000

Podcast: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Fluid Text: Versions of the Law

Recently, at my day job, I emceed a colloquium featuring textual scholar and Melville specialist John Bryant and intellectual property and First Amendment expert Wendy Seltzer. Over the course of the colloquium, these amazing scholars covered Moby-Dick, Edward Said, Shepard Fairey, fan fiction, Creative Commons, YouTomb, and how they talk about plagiarism and fair use with their students. This was a fun and fascinating conversation, and well worth the listen. I'm posting John's and Wendy's bios below.

To listen to the podcast, go to the link at MIT's Comparative Media Studies page (http://cms.mit.edu/news/2009/03/podcast_authorship_appropriati.php).

Pictured above, left to right: Media scholar Henry Jenkins; Jenna McWilliams, blogger and Curriculum Specialist for Project New Media Literacies; textual scholar and Melville Specialist John Bryant; and Wendy Seltzer, attorney and intellectual property and First Amendment expert.

John Bryant teaches at Hofstra University. His work explores the larger applications of the notion of fluid text to culture, and in particular identity formation in a multicultural democracy. He is a textual scholar and Melville specialist, whose works include The Fluid Text and Melville Unfolding: Sexuality, Politics, and the Versions of Typee. He is the editor, with Associate editor Wyn Kelley, of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies and of the Melville Electronic Library (MEL). He is a Co-editor of the Longman Critical Edition of Moby-Dick and is currently working on a critical biography of Melville.

Wendy Seltzer is a Fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and is a visiting professor at American University. She has taught Internet Law, Copyright, and Information Privacy at Brooklyn Law School and was a Visiting Fellow with the Oxford Internet Institute. Previously, she was a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, specializing in intellectual property and First Amendment issues. She founded and leads the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, helping Internet users to understand their rights in response to cease-and-desist threats, and to research the effects of these threats on free expression.

Wendy serves as an advisor to the Citizen Media Law Project and on the Board of Directors of the Tor Project, supporting privacy and anonymity research and technology.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

why the Hewlett Foundation should toss some cash on over

A Modest Proposal: integrating Spreadable Educational Practices into Hewlett's Open Educational Resources Initiative


Because of my interest in spreadable educational practices and in the open source movement, I've been drawn lately to the work of the Hewlett Foundation's Open Educational Resource (OER) Initiative. The goal of this initiative is, as Hewlett puts it, "making high quality educational content and tools freely available on the Web."

(Now you're going to ask me why a foundation whose money is linked to Hewlett Packard, the largest technology company in the world, would fund an initiative that seems to run counter to its profit motives. Apparently, the Hewlett Foundation, though originally established by HP co-founder William Hewlett, is run completely independent of the company--which may explain why so much of its money goes to so many amazing projects.)

The Hewlett Foundation has invested a good deal of its resources into the OER initiative, funding research into three distinct categories of OER resources (these categories come from the OER movement in general, and not from Hewlett's website, though they do apply to OER grantees):
  • Learning content: full courses, course materials, content modules, learning objects, collections, and journals.
  • Tools: Software to support the creation, delivery, use and improvement of open learning content including searching and organization of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and on-line learning communities.
  • Implementation resources: Intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design-principles, and localization of content.

A 2007 report, "A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement" (Atkins, Daniel E.; Brown, John Seely; & Hammond, Allen L.), discusses multiple resources made available through the OER Initiative and presents a logic model for the initiative itself:




The report identifies key projects that have emerged out of Hewlett's OER Initiative, including MIT's OpenCourseWare project, the Connexions Project at Rice University, open content work at Utah State University Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative, and Creative Commons and Internet Archives.

Significantly, while these and other resources discussed in the report point to a great deal of enthusiasm for the OER movement (which, by the way, extends far beyond the funding of this single initiative), the authors also point to challenges to the movement. Aaaand here those challenges are:

  • Sustainability
  • Curation and Preservation of Access
  • Object Granularity and Format Diversity
  • Intellectual Property Issues
  • Content Quality Assessment and Enhancement
  • Computing and Communication Infrastructure
  • Scale-up and Deepening Impact in Developing Countries

At the moment, I'm most interested in the first challenge, sustainability. As the report explains,

A challenge of any fixed-term, externally funded initiative is long-term sustainability by an entity other than the original investor, in this case the Hewlett Foundation. In the MIT project, bringing a course to the OCW costs approximately $25,000 per course plus maintenance and enhancement. The MIT OCW model involves professional staff taking course material in almost any form from faculty and bringing it into a uniform, professional format. This was appropriate for the rapid startup of a large-scale, pioneering project but it will not work for many other places.

May I suggest...a consideration of spreadable educational practices? While it's true that the above challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable--insofar as the work of open education focuses on fostering and helping to spread effective educational practices instead of disseminating effective instructional routines. MIT's OCW and the other Hewlett programs work from an assumption that porting, curating, and maintaining instructional materials to a central online resource is valuable. And don't get me wrong, it IS valuable. It's also quite expensive and, by the way, only partially hooked in to the general ethos of the open source movement. As I explained in a previous post, open source culture
is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.

Hewlett's work links up with the "free sharing" and "general availability of copyrighted materials" aspects, but so far it seems to be missing the link to the spirit of open source: the free, voluntary, and creative exchange of ideas and work for the purpose of helping the community. While the resources funded by Hewlett are a valuable--perhaps even essential--beginning to the work of the open education movement, the resources matter only to the extent that the practices contained within these resources can spread.

It does appear that Hewlett is headed in this direction with its current emphasis on research and development of open participatory learning environments and on teacher training. As the OER Initiative homepage argues,

The ability of users and experts to give feedback online and modify open content enables the rapid improvement, development, and adaptation of material to fit different purposes, languages, and cultures. This aspect of openness helps equalize access to high-quality and useful materials and engages users in making content changes that create efficiencies and reduce costs. Further, when students and teachers transform materials, this itself is a creative, powerful act of learning. Together, the two broad dimensions of openness give us opportunities to rethink traditional notions of where, when, and how people teach and learn, so that we can explore alternative paths to meet educational demand.

Agreed, agreed, agreed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

sleeping alone and starting out early: never intended to be required by law

...but if conservatives had their way, gays would be sleeping alone for the rest of their lives



My friend Rafi Santo posted this video on his blog last week. I'm posting it here because it breaks my heart and the rule is: If my heart's broken, your heart has to be broken too.



"Fidelity": Don't Divorce... from Courage Campaign on Vimeo.

If you want to know what to do to mend our nation's broken hearts, you can visit the homepage of the Courage Campaign, an organization working to overturn Proposition 8, the law overturning the rights of gays to marry in California.

"I'm a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community. There are so many qualities that make up a human being... by the time I get through with all the things that I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant."
--Paul Newman

Monday, March 23, 2009

What open source can teach us about spreadability

I've been working recently with my sensei, Dan Hickey, and my mentor and partner in crime, Michelle Honeyford, on a series of blogposts about “spreadable educational practices.” The concept draws from the work of Henry Jenkins (full disclosure: he's my boss) in a white paper for the Convergence Culture Consortium entitled "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead." This white paper, serialized and published on Henry's blog, contrasts the notions of sticky media (think of sites that pull you in and keep you there, "Godfather"-style: Amazon, eBay) and spreadable media (media that you want to forward on to friends—think Kittens, Inspired by Kittens; think the T-Mobile Dance at Liverpool Train Station).

In taking up this idea and applying it to the field of education, we've considered what makes practices spread within a classroom and between teachers. We contrast what we call Spreadable Educational Practices (SEPs) with Disseminated Instructional Routines (DIRs)--material developed by institutions and delivered, intact, and intended to be unpacked and presented intact to a class. DIRs are intended to be "sticky" in the sense that the organizations that develop and disseminate them--often the same organizations that make the standardized tests mandated by legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act--intend to pull teachers in and hold on to them by making these instructional routines effectively mandatory for success on the Big Tests. Spreadable educational practices, on the other hand, are practices that lead to success in the classroom--and, by extension, on those silly mandated tests--and are designed to spread to other classrooms, given the mechanisms to allow this kind of spread. We argue that considering what makes a practice spreadable and the means by which it spreads will result in a shift in how we think about education. You can read more about why Jenkins et al. believe spreadability is a more useful notion than terms like “viral media” or memes here; you can read our first two posts taking up the notion of spreadability here and here. (And if you’re interested in a brief summary of the conversation between those blogs, you can read the summaries of these posts at sleeping alone and starting out early here and here.)

There's lots to say about the difference between SEPs and the more traditional notion of "practices that travel", and lots more to say about spreadability in general; I'll leave it to Henry and to the posts Dan, Michelle, and I are generating over at Project New Media Literacies to get that done. In this post, I want to focus on a consideration of the similarities and differences between the spreadability model and the open source movement.

Though I've written some on this blog about the open source software movement, this is in fact only a small part of the open source movement writ large. As Wikipedia explains,
Open source culture is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.


On the surface, this definition seems to align with the description of Jenkins et al. of the position of consumers in a participatory culture:

Consumers, both individually and collectively, exert agency in the spreadability model: they are not impregnated with media messages; they select material that matters to them from the much broader array of media content on offer. They do not simply pass along static content; they transform the content so that it better serves their own social and expressive needs. Content does not remain in fixed borders but rather it circulates in unpredicted and often unpredictible directions, not the product of top-down design but rather of a multitude of local decisions made by autonomous agents negotiating their way through diverse cultural spaces.

Consumers do not simply consume; they recommend content they like to their friends who recommend it to their friends who recommend it on down the line. They do not simply "buy" cultural goods; they "buy into" a cultural economy which respects and rewards their participation. Nothing spreads widely in the new digital economy unless it engages and serves the interests of both consumers and producers. Otherwise, the circulation gets blocked by one side or the other, either through corporations constructing road blocks (legal or technical) upon its spread or through consumers refusing to circulate content which fails to serve their interests. Nothing generates value in this new digital economy unless the transaction is seen as meaningful to all involved.


Importantly, the spreadability model emphasizes the tension between media consumers and media producers--a tension described by Jenkins et al. as the conflict between a commodity culture and a gift economy. Though you can read more about these notions in the C3 white paper, briefly: Gift economy is the phenomenon of building social structures and social capital around the giving and receiving of gifts, whereas commodity culture considers the cash value of all goods and services.

As Jenkins et al. rightly point out, in a culture where commodity culture and the gift economy collide (they give the example of the language of "file sharing" vs. "software piracy"),
[f]ocusing on...spreadability may thus offer us some tentative first steps towards renegotiating the social contract between media producers and consumers in a way which may be seen as legitimate and mutually rewarding to all involved.

In general, despite the relatively obvious conflicting interests of these two value systems, both define themselves in terms of “success”: A successful gift is one the giver values, and it therefore “buys” you cultural capital. A successful commodity is one the buyer wants, and is therefore willing to spend money on. The notion of "spreadability" relies on an assumption that content spreads when it is of value to a community--that is, when a person thinks other people like her will enjoy a certain link, commercial, song, product, and so on. Producers of content are hard at work analyzing that inscrutable kernel of a thing that makes it valuable.


This is a fantastic way of thinking through the issues tied to sticky and spreadable media, but not quite so applicable to the open source ethos where, as Clay Shirky explains, you get "failure for free." Indeed, OSS is premised on the foundational need for failure in order to arrive at success. (For more on the "failure for free" model, you can either read Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody OR you can read a previous post on sleeping alone, "What open source can teach us about failure.")

Additionally, in the OSS movement spreadability matters very little or not at all, because--and this is essential--there is no money to be made, and therefore no conflict between producers and consumers. In fact, as Shirky explains, the most successful OSS product of all time, Linux, succeeded precisely because its key developer, Linus Torvalds, made it clear from the beginning that he did not intend to make money off of the result.

Shirky writes:
What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial. For any given piece of software, the question, "Do the people who like it take care of each other?" turns out to be a better predictor of success than "What's the business model?"

In the OSS model, there is effectively no distinction between producer and consumer: We are all always already both, at least potentially. It means, not to stick too closely to Shirky (but I will), that “the category of ‘consumer’ is now a temporary behavior rather than a permanent identity.”

Okay, so what does this mean for education? My answer: I don't know yet. But think about the possibilities: What if we could change the question from "Will this help our students succeed in school (read: help our students do well on the crazy standardized tests that stand at the gates of every school)?" to something like "Do the people (students, learners, researchers) involved in this learning environment help each other to participate in the practice of knowledge-building?"

I hate Microsoft (but I kinda like its ad campaigns)

I encountered this pure, shameless propaganda for a new Microsoft product funny commercial over at Talent imitates, genius steals.




The blog's author, Faris Yakob, does a fantastic job of zeroing right in on what's going on with this commercial. As he explains, "The cool thing about being this huge gray corporation is that every time you don't act like it, it's awesome."

It's true: If a company makes awesome commercials, we'll overlook or forget that, for example, Microsoft's abysmal environmental record secured its position at the second from the bottom in Greenpeace's Greener Electronics Guide.

Microsoft appears to be banking on the "coolness" strategy to make us forget their unofficial corporate mantra: Embrace, Extend, Extinguish. And, in fact, to forget the host of criticisms leveled at Microsoft for unethical, unfair, or even outright criminal business practices.

In a previous post, I outed myself as a fan of the Open Source Software (OSS) movement, a movement that appeals to my secret libertarian streak. The open source movement also happens to make neat commercial campaigns.




Now, here's the issue that the OSS movement has yet to overcome: I am fully convinced, yet I continue to use Microsoft products in my daily life. It's easier, after all, than figuring out the details of installing, say, Linux on my laptop. It's easier to use Microsoft Word for my word processing needs, even though OpenOffice, as its homepage explains,

is the leading open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more. It is available in many languages and works on all common computers. It stores all your data in an international open standard format and can also read and write files from other common office software packages. It can be downloaded and used completely free of charge for any purpose.

Easy, compatible, open source, free. Yet I'm not using it. The dangerous entropy of apathy, my friends, is the issue that the OSS movement has yet to overcome.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

OKAY already--I was WRONG

The recession will be hard on higher education. There, I said it.

I argued here that the recession might actually benefit academia and, specifically, scholarly research. I wrote:

[I]t'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.


That was February 10. On February 24, I wrote about the decision of my employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to half-secretly move toward layoffs across departments and across the institute.

On March 4, I tried to look on the bright side but basically admitted I'd changed my mind: That the recession would, in effect, "limit the contributions of the many and call instead for the contributions of the necessary."

Bad for education, bad for research.

Now today I was forwarded this New York Times article that highlights the effects of the recession on state colleges—institution that rely on dwindling government funding. The article focuses in on the plight of Arizona State University, which has eliminated over 500 jobs, closed dozens of programs, capped enrollment and announced required unpaid furlough days for all employees. "While Arizona State's economic problems have been particularly dramatic," explains the article,

layoffs and salary freezes are becoming common at public universities across the nation; the University of Florida recently eliminated 430 faculty and staff positions, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, laid off about 100 employees, and the University of Vermont froze some administrative staff salaries, left open 22 faculty positions and laid off 16 workers.


Interestingly, while state colleges are feeling squeezed by the recession, the economic downturn has at the same time led to an increase in applications to these self-same state schools.

Okay, so applications to state schools are up while programs, faculty, and facilities are down. Here's what's going to happen:

  • Schools will be forced to reject otherwise fully qualified applicants, sending perfectly capable young thinkers and workers into a depressingly tiny job market.

  • Students who are accepted to state schools will, at the schools hit hardest by budget cuts, receive an education that will be considered substandard when measured against the criteria of even a year ago. They will have fewer course options and fewer career paths to choose from (though I imagine the opportunities for unpaid internships will skyrocket).

  • After years of work to break down the educational barrier between the Haves and the Have-nots, the expensive, elite private schools—the Harvards, the Yales, the Stanfords—will once again increasingly cater to the wealthy and the privileged--those whose families can continue to sponsor an elite education and the cultural capital that comes with it.


As Tevye would say, there is no other hand.


Friday, March 20, 2009

I'll put in a plug for McDonald's if that's what it takes to get you to watch this commercial

Because I can't bear the weight of knowing that the best commercial in the world exists and that you might not know about it, I'm sharing it with you here:

Erupting undersea volcano near Tonga


You guys, this is too amazing for words.

From Boston.com, where you can see a series of still images:

Scientists sailed out to have a closer look at the eruptions of an undersea volcano off the coast of Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean today. Tonga's head geologist, Kelepi Mafi, said there was no apparent danger to residents of Nuku'alofa and others living on the main island of Tongatapu. Officials also said it may be related to a quake with a magnitude of 4.4 which struck last March 13 around 35 kilometers from the capital at a depth of nearly 150 kilometres.


And here's a video of the event from Reuters:

And speaking of people who have no lessons to teach us...

California corrections officials have released a new photo of Charles Manson, who is now—can you believe it— 74 years young.

Age has tempered the visual intensity of the man, whose 1968 mug shot (one year prior to the mass murders that officially elevated the Manson Family from "wacky commune" to "insane murderous cult") quickly emerged as the canonical representation of one of the most terrifying cult leaders in American history.

Most terrifying and also, by the way, completely insane. As the LA Times so succinctly explains it,

Manson and other members of his so-called family were convicted of killing actress Sharon Tate and six other people during a bloody rampage in the Los Angeles area during two August nights in 1969. Prosecutors said that Manson and his followers were trying to incite a race war that he believed was prophesied in the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter."


If you're not yet convinced, you might watch the short clip embedded below.




An interesting question about Charles Manson is the extent to which the personality he presents to the world is actually more of an intentional performance than an authentic self-representation. Manson has applied, and been denied, for parole eleven times, most recently in 2007—and he often uses these hearings as a platform for more ranting, in effect extending his newsworthiness through the decades. Here's what he said after being denied parole in 1997:
I accept this decision. That's cool. What I'd like for you to do in your own minds personally, everybody that has a personal mind of their own, could possibly consider that the longer that you let this conviction stand, and this little Helter Skelter scheme of the District Attorney to give his particular reality over into the play, that's going to be the reality that they're perpetuating. That's not the reality that I'm perpetuating. I'm not saying that I wasn't involved. I'm saying that I did not break man's law nor did I break God's law. Consider that in the judgments that you have for yourselves. Good day. Thank you.


In addition to never once publicly showing remorse for his actions, Manson rarely even presents himself in a subdued, calm manner when a moment for oration presents itself. And actually, this might be the only lesson worth considering here: That people like Manson bring into question the degree to which the "self" we present to the world can ever truly be considered "authentic." (You can read a blogpost I published about this very topic over at the blog of my day job, Project New Media Literacies, here.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I feel like I've been punk'd.

If you've been following the news, you know that Austrian freakmeister Josef Fritzl is currently on trial for imprisoning his daughter in a secret room in his basement for 24 years. Aaaaand if you've been following this story, you know that he did more than just imprison her.

No lessons to be learned from this story, of course—it would be like trying to extract key principles of motherhood from the actions of Grendel's mother. Mainly, I wanted to direct your attention to a piece I recently stumbled upon at Orato.com. The piece, a personal essay called "I knew Josef Fritzl," was penned by one Bernice Dainty (photo at left).

The story begins like this:
The first time I met Josef was when my friends Teresa and Esme and I had to collect chalet keys from his home. Looking back I suppose he was a bit odd, but I just put it down to the language barrier. I only know how to say a few things in Austrian, which I learnt during my first visit there.

He looked well-kempt. His hair wasn't all like a grey cloud like it is now. However, his trousers had no belt, but instead a length of cord. I can't help wondering about what he used the rope for now.
Despite her acquaintance with Fritzl, Ms. Dainty is apparently as confused as the rest of us by Fritzl's actions and feels great empathy for Fritzl's family who, she suspects,
will not find the answers to the question of why he did it. Maybe Josef will be the only person to know that now, but I think maybe he doesn't know himself. I would almost like to talk to Josef one more time, but I think it would be too hard. I can't help but feel sick and scared when I think of all this now.

Now, just to give you a sense of my experience of this story, the above section of "I knew Josef Fritzl," is part way down the first of two pages—but already I'm looking at the site address. I'm looking for indications of a fake email address or "no photo available." Some clue, anyway, to whatever joke is being played. And I haven't even gotten to page two, where she asserts that
Josef obviously has serious problems with his emotions, and I think he could not show his affection in the normal way. I would like to see him realise what he has done is wrong, and for him to use his experience to help others who have similar desires to control them. I do not want to see any more men raping their family in dungeons in the news!

Now I'm thinking: This is so subtle as to qualify as brilliant, à la Jean Teasdale of "A Room of Jean's Own" fame. Except with good ol' Jean, you always kinda know the joke's on her. Bernice Dainty, then, is Jean Teasdale dry, with a twist of strawberry.

But no.

Wikipedia tells me that Orato.com "is an international news Web site that showcases first person accounts from the protagonists and witnesses of events." Not only that, but
It was recognized as one of the top 12 news websites in the world by the 2008 Webby Awards, called the Oscars of the Internet by The New York Times, receiving approximately 10,000 visits per day, up to 55,000, from a mostly American demographic.

and
Anybody can post a story at Orato as long as it is a demonstrably true story that follows Orato’s guidelines.

You guys, I'm pretty sure this site is for real.

Perfect. Now I have to deal with the fact that at least one human out there thinks it's perfectly legitimate to say something like: "I would like to see him realise what he has done is wrong, and for him to use his experience to help others who have similar desires to control them. I do not want to see any more men raping their family in dungeons in the news!"

I, too, hope he works for change, by starting up a rehabilitation group for all two other men in the history of the world who have fathered seven children over a period of decades via their imprisoned daughters.

Ahem. Please excuse me. Bernice Dainty makes me hyperbolic.

Please note that I'm not making light of the situation of Fritzl case itself—it goes without saying that his daughter has suffered a monstrosity the depths of which go far beyond human comprehension. I'm only saying: Bernice Dainty, plz to stick to your day job. The rest of us will hope that your day job involves neither writing nor a particular capacity for insight.

In the comments section attached to Ms. Dainty's piece, a handful of readers alternately attack and support Bernice Dainty, mainly focusing on a paragraph in which she explains that her friend Teresa claimed that Fritzl had sexually harrassed her, but
[w]e did not believe her because she is a bit of an attention seeker and also overweight. We could not see why he would single her out for sexual attention. Usually the men give more attention to me and the other gal pals, so we thought she was trying to make us jealous. We should have listened to her though.

I can see why readers might target this section of her essay, but as far as I'm concerned, the weirdness of this paragraph is the most minor of her sins. The most grievous error she commits is the slow, inexorable murder of both subtlety and complexity. And neither subtlety nor complexity uttered a single peep while it was happening. That is simply not their way.

I can only hope that while Orato may be authentic enough in its purposes, Bernice Dainty is not. I can only hope I've been tricked. (Please god let her be a sockpuppet.) If you possess knowledge about Orato, Josef Fritzl, or Bernice Dainty, please send it my way.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Educational philosophies, in up to 20 words

Here's mine:

Schools are not benign. Kids learn to be what they're labeled relative to other students. Then they bear that out.


What's yours? The only rule is this: No more than 20 words.

"The Man in the Attic," by Steven Millhauser

At exactly midnight by his strapless watch, Haverstraw puts down his No. 2 hexagonal yellow pencil beside his spiral-bound notebook, which he leaves open on the desk, and leans back in his chair. For a moment he feels dizzy, and grips the edge of the desk; it is hot in the attic room, and the air feels stale and close, despite the twenty-year-old rattling window fan that is supposed to draw the hot air out and somehow leave coolness in its wake. The attic room, lined with bookshelves, is above the second floor of the house, where his mother has her bedroom. Haverstraw's bedroom is also on the second floor, but he prefers to sleep in the old guestbed in the attic study. The mattress sags, his feet stick over the end, and the room is poorly heated in winter, but Haverstraw does not seek comfort. Haverstraw is thirty-nine years old and lives with his sixty-six-year-old mother. For the last nine years he has been at work on an immense project, an experiment in memory, which will justify him. Tonight the writing has gone well, or at least not badly, though perhaps his ideas have carried him a little astray; he has the sudden sense that the whole project is astray, his whole life astray, but the thought is so terrifying that he quickly suppresses it. He must get out and walk in the night. His waking hours are divided into three segments: from one in the afternoon to six at night he gets through the day, from seven to midnight he writes, and from midnight to five in the morning he gets through the night. He sleeps from five in the morning to one in the afternoon. Dinner with his mother is from six to seven—always. His work will justify him. People will understand. He will be redeemed. Remember old Haverstraw? Guy who lived in the attic? Well! Seems that he. Turns out he. Haverstraw needs to get outside and walk. He turns off the bent-neck standing lamp, pushes back his chair—an old kitchen chair with a pillow on the seat—and stands up, wondering whether his little attacks of dizziness are something he ought to worry about. After all, he's a man almost forty, a man stuck in a bog. His back hurts. His eyes burn. His life hurts. He will be justified. He picks up his watch without a strap and thrusts it into his pocket. Haverstraw crosses the room, switches off the overhead light, and makes his way through the unfinished part of the attic, filled with the abandoned games of his adolescence, the stuffed animals of his childhood. He never throws anything out. Somewhere in a shoebox are all the little prizes from the cereal boxes of thirty years ago, still in their transparent crinkly plastic wrappers. In a drawer of the old dresser sit piles of old bubblegum cards no one has ever heard of: science-fiction cards, movie-star cards, fire-engine cards. He still has his old patrol-boy badge on its white strap, his old paper targets full of BB holes. He ought to clear out all this junk, but it would be like throwing away his childhood. Haverstraw tiptoes down the wooden steps of the attic and makes his way in the dark along the second-floor hall, past his sleeping mother—he can hear her breathing—and down the carpeted stairs. On the dark landing he passes a black, invisible picture: Hokusai's Great Wave. In his mind he sees vividly the little yellow boats, the little white heads, the towering waves that frightened him as a child, and far away the wave-like top of Mount Fuji. He continues down the carpeted stairs to the front hall. From a hook on the wobbly clothestree he removes his blue nylon windbreaker. He opens the front door quietly, for his mother is a light sleeper. When he steps outside he sees, high up in the dark blue sky, the big white summer moon. His heart lifts. The night will forgive him.


Excerpted from Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser. Copyright © 1999 by Steven Millhauser. Printed online at http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1199/millhauser/excerpt.html.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The recession and how to enjoy it

As a service to the readers of sleeping alone and starting out early, I've gathered up a handful of how-to articles and sites offering strategies for riding out these economic hard times. You will find these resources below.

If you're still gainfully employed

  • Find creative ways to earn mad money.
  • Even if you've had to tighten your belt, writes Liora Hess over at lifehack.org, you need to set aside some cash for fun. Hess offers five ways to garner some extra cash—and none of these include stupid tips like tossing your change into a bowl at the end of every day. Her tips include entering the codes on your Coke product bottle caps at mycokerewards.com and completing surveys for cash.

  • Spend your time on hobbies that will pay off.
  • Instead of heading out for dinner and a movie on a Saturday night, you might, for example, engage in home-improvement activities that will end up saving you money. Forbes.com offers a list of the best home improvements to make in a recession--assuming, of course, you have a couple thousand dollars handy to get started.

    Esquire helpfully offers five recession-proof hobbies. (As the article explains, "Having fun on a budget is simply a matter of thinking outside the box. And if all else fails—porn. Always porn.")

    Here's hobby number one:

    Write a Song


    What you need: Pen, paper, banjo, working knowledge of testicles.
    Cost-benefit: High. For centuries, men who were down on their luck have turned to song writing—men like Socrates and Eddie Vedder, using the power of music to convey their message of hope. The words are free; the emotional release is priceless.
    Fun factor:
    8/10. Talk about a good time. Not only are you helping others by writing a song increasing awareness for testicular cancer, but it also works as a marketable jingle that can be sold to a media conglomerate for boatloads of cash to help you out of your fiscal straights. Plus a testicular exam done right can turn into a real party.


  • Do not read the Internet.
  • Articles like this one will only make you unnecessarily squeamish, and you can't afford a deep-tissue massage or therapy right now.


    If you've lost your job

  • Build jellyfish aquariums,
  • like Alex Andon, 24, did after getting laid off. Tired of looking for nonexistent employment opportunities, Andon started building jellyfish aquariums and has so far sold three—one for $25,000—and is currently turning his attention to building desktop aquariums for the workplace.

    The keyword here is "forced entrepreneurship," explains Mark V. Cannice, executive director of the entrepreneurship program at the University of San Francisco, in this New York Times article.
    “If there is a silver lining, the large-scale downsizing from major companies will release a lot of new entrepreneurial talent and ideas — scientists, engineers, business folks now looking to do other things,” Mr. Cannice said. “It’s a Darwinian unleashing of talent into the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

    (If you do decide to go the jellyfish aquarium route, you can find helpful advice on how to avoid liquefying your jellyfish here.)

  • Avoid money-making advice from websites that make flagrant use of the caps lock key.
  • For example:
    CONSUMERS will always need to buy GOODS and SERVICES, but now you have the opportunity to EARN MONEY by helping the consumer find the smart buy that they are searching for. Great idea, right?

    The INTERNET is recession proof. Now you can tap into the MOST POWERFUL MONEY MAKING TOOL in the world.

    * Want to earn EXTRA MONEY?

    * Want to REDUCE your DEBT and INCREASE your SAVINGS?

    * Want to REPLACE your CURRENT INCOME?

    * Want to LEARN NEW SKILLS to boost your resume?

    * Want to work PART TIME or FULL TIME?

    It's all up to you. BUT DON'T PANIC. All you need is the proper guidance to learn the BEST WAY TO MAKE MONEY DURING A RECESSION.

  • Take comfort in the fact that it's less stressful to have lost your job than to have to worry about losing it.


  • If you're unemployed and homeless, or about to lose your home

  • Spend your savings on a recreational vehicle.
  • This is a new trend and one that makes sense. If you do choose to become a "fulltimer" (as people who live in RVs full time call themselves), you'll need to decide whether to purchase a motor home or trailer. The benefits and drawbacks of each are significant; you can read more on this from people who've made this decision here and here.

  • Read the survival guide to homelessness.
  • This site offers useful advice on how to make it on the streets. In addition, the author of this blog is angry. He explains that "There are laws against being homeless. Let me say that one more time. There are laws against being homeless."

In his profile, the author writes:
You have a right to live. You have a right to be. You have these rights regardless of money, health, social status, or class. You have these rights, man, woman, or child. These rights can never be taken away from you, they can only be infringed. When someone violates your rights, remember, it is not your fault.

You were wronged.

Speaking of which....

If you're a human being

Get mad.
If you're not already mad at the hubris, mismanagement, and stupidity that led to the current economic crisis, it may help to read the following articles:

February 28, 2008:Bush claims no recession for US.

"There is no question the economy has slowed down. I don't think we're headed into a recession, but there is no question we are in a slowdown."



April 23, 2008: US not in recession: President George Bush.

"We're not in a recession. But there's no question we're in a slowdown. And, yes, people are concerned about it, obviously."



December 5, 2008: Bush Acknowledges Recession, Automakers' Troubles: Bush uses 'recession' for first time, says some automakers 'may not survive'.

"Our economy is in a recession," Bush said flatly, speaking to reporters on the South Lawn only hours after the release of a government report showing the biggest month of job losses in 34 years. "This is in large part because of severe problems in our housing, credit and financial markets, which have resulted in significant job losses."



It's perhaps unfair to pin everything on George W. Bush, especially since if we've learned anything about him, it's that he's too ignorant about economic complexities to lay claim to masterminding anything. (Here's an article from Slate.com in which Bush describes how to react "when your economy is kind of ooching along.") Besides, there are others to blame, as Jon Stewart makes clear in his conversation with Jim Cramer, which is embedded below, just in case you've been comatose for the last week or haven't been checking your email.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Good news for anyone who loves bad news

Changes to the application process for law school might mean...absolutely nothing.

Hey, good news for future lawyers of America: A research group out of UC Berkeley's law school has come up with a new test that they say can predict lawyerly potential better than the LSAT. Well, okay, this is only good news if you believe the entrance requirements, and not law schools themselves, are the problem. But more on that in a few.

The study's lead authors, Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck, started from the belief that the Law School Admissions Test (known by most as the LSAT and by some as "that fucking test") was neither an accurate predictor of future performance nor a fair means of identifying potential lawyers. Part of the problem, they argued, is that admissions committees rely too heavily on LSAT scores and grades—as they explain, "[t]o admit primarily on the basis of LSAT test scores and grades to a professional field that has great importance to our society, seemed short-sighted."

The study began by identifying the key traits that make up a good lawyer; they listed 26 characteristics in eight categories.

1. Intellectual & Cognitive
  • Analysis and Reasoning
  • Creativity/Innovation
  • Problem Solving
  • Practical Judgment
2. Research & Information Gathering
  • Researching the Law
  • Fact Finding
  • Questioning and Interviewing
3. Communications
  • Influencing and Advocating
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
4. Planning and Organizing
  • Strategic Planning
  • Organizing and Managing One’s Own Work
  • Organizing and Managing Others (Staff/Colleagues)
5. Conflict Resolution
  • Negotiation Skills
  • Able to See the World Through the Eyes of Others
6. Client & Business Relations - Entrepreneurship
  • Networking and Business Development
  • Providing Advice & Counsel & Building Relationships with Clients
7. Working with Others
  • Developing Relationships within the Legal Profession
  • Evaluation, Development, and Mentoring
8. Character
  • Passion and Engagement
  • Diligence
  • Integrity/Honesty
  • Stress Management
  • Community Involvement and Service
  • Self-Development


No surprise here, right? But they took it a step farther and developed tests that they argue can measure applicants' strength in the above categories. They administered their tests to practicing lawyers and compared results to the the lawyers' LSAT scores, and found that
while LSAT scores, for example, “were not particularly useful” in predicting lawyer effectiveness, the new, alternative test results were — although the new test was no better at predicting how well participants would do in law school. Unlike the LSAT, the new test did not produce a gap in scores among different racial or ethnic groups.

On the one hand, this is good news for anyone in the law profession who believes the net used to catch future lawyers is too small and has too many holes in it. On the other hand, another test? Seriously?

The law profession, at its best, is intended to uphold the basic structures of our society: To protect its citizens, to support its government and its economic infrastructure (and to hold these in check when necessary), to stand for the wealthy and indigent alike. A standardized test—even one that measures empathy instead of analytical skills—will never be able to assess with any accuracy an applicant's disposition toward justice, morality, and ethics. If we really want to identify applicant potential, we should discard, not tinker with, the current admissions process. There should be interviews. There should be role-playing activities. There should be deep interactions with candidates before anybody is admitted to any law school, ever.

Of course, this approach can only work if we assume that law school itself is not designed, at its foundation, to churn out new lawyers just like the old lawyers. And we can't assume that. A friend of mine who is at the tail end of her law school experience explained to me that she decided to pursue a law degree because she believed in the universal nature of justice, ethics, and the law. But in law school, she quickly learned, success comes by learning to play the game.

Part of the game, as linguist and educational theorist Jim Gee explains, is learning the Discourse of law school. Citing the ethnographic work of Michele Minnis, he explains that
In the typical law school, instruction in the first year involves total immersion in the course material. Teachers do not lecture in class, rather they engage in adversarial interactions with students patterned after those of judge and lawyer in appellate courtrooms. The dominant instructional approach is the "case method." This method consists in discussing and comparing appellate opinions through a question-and-answer routine sometimes called "Socratic dialogue."


Before each class, Gee explains, students are expected to write briefs summarizing multiple appellate opinions; when called upon in class, they must be prepared to articulate (often under pressure) the contents of their briefs. Here's where it gets tricky, because
[t]o write a competent brief the student has to be able to read the text being briefed in much the same way as the professor does.... Students are not taught these reading skills—the ones necessary to be able to write briefs—directly. Briefs are not, for instance, turned in to the professor; they are written for the students' own use in class.... One of the basic assumptions of law school is that if students are not told overtly what to do and how to proceed, this will spur them on essentially to teach themselves. Minnis argues that this assumption does not, however, work equally well for everyone. Many students from minority or otherwise non-mainstream backgrounds fail in law school.


My friend the law student is not failing; in fact, she's doing quite well. But in order to succeed, she had to swallow down what amounted to intense, unrelenting sexism. This applies not only to treatment by professors and other students but also to how case law is dissected. In many ways, she's had to just put her head down and let it happen. There is no way to get through the experience otherwise.

"Every female law student I know," she said to me, "has had the experience of saying something, getting told she was wrong, then hearing a male student say exactly what she said and get praised by the professor for it."

We can assume this experience extends beyond gender into ethnicity, sexual orientation, and worldviews in general. The purpose of all of this is to create lawyers who replicate the lawyers that came before them. Who decides what, for example, comprises the "integrity / honesty" identified in the Berkeley list above? Welcome to the new law profession, same as the old law profession.

And we haven't even broached the subject of the Bar exam, which is used in much the same way as the LSAT, but with higher stakes: This is the last opportunity to ensure that a new lawyer aligns with the values and belief systems supported by the law school system. To pass the Bar, you have to speak Lawyer--you have to have internalized the Discourse of law school and, by extension, the law profession. There's no room here for alternative approaches to law, to ethics, to justice.

"They have too much at stake," my friend said when I asked her about the possibility of getting rid of or at least changing the Bar exam. "You have to understand that the lawyers who are in charge of these things went through the whole process, and they think, 'I got through it, so you have to too.'

"Not only that," she added, "but the high-up lawyers are there because they support the status quo. They have no stake in thinking outside of it."
 

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