Monday, December 21, 2009

gifts for the blogger in your life

In case you're looking for some last-minute gifts for the bloggers you know, I offer the following products designed to show how much you love and value their work in that nebulous place we call the blogosphere.

T-Shirts, stickers, and mugs

I actually don't know many bloggers who would wear T-shirts advertising their blogging practices. I'd probably be more likely to wear a T-shirt that advertises my blog's URL than I would to wear any of the shirts below, but on the other hand, I'm a big fan of the last two designs.

These are, respectively, from One Horse Shy, North Shore Shirts,, and teezeria.

Mugs for bloggers, by At the risk of stereotyping: If there's one thing bloggers use, it's mugs.

Cafe Press gifts: T-shirts, stickers, and mugs. These are fairly clip art-looking, but there are some gems in the pile. There are also some clunkers, exemplified by this kid's hoodie encouraging caffeine addiction and antisocial behavior, if the imprinted message is to be believed:

Happiness is...
Your favorite pen
a great plot line,
a hot cup of coffee,
and an entire day alone.

Gift Lists from Elsewhere

Ten Great Gifts for Bloggers and New Media Moguls, by Catherine-Gail Reinhard ( I offer this link even though I think only eight of the ten gift ideas proposed in this article are actually useful for your typical blogger / new media mogul. Idea #2, a laptop hideaway, is basically a $50 paperweight since no blogger worth her salt actually chooses to or even wants to stow her laptop out of sight. Suggestion #8, typewriter jewelry, is perhaps useful for some bloggers, but others of us spend so much time stuck to a laptop that we don't have time for things like personal adornment and / or hygiene.

50 Perfect Gifts for Webophiles, Bloggers, and Internet Marketers, by SEOmozBlog. This list is fairly gadget-heavy, with several desktop toy-type items (including the Cranium Poindexter doll at right). In my experience, bloggers tend to lose / drop / break things with a fair amount of frequency, so exercise your good sense here. I do like the emphasis throughout this list on gadgets that can clean / feed / organize the typical webophile.

Gadgets for Geeks, from Skimbaco Lifestyle. This list is exactly what the title suggests: a short list of a variety of geeky gadgets, including clocks, quirky USB drives, and the Kindle.

HoMedics Shiatsu Back Massager This is a must-have for any blogger. Well, okay, it's a must-have for this blogger. I tried one of these at a local pharmacy the other day and I almost slid out of the chair. I was JUST THAT RELAXED.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

why I don't return your phone calls

First off, I don't know if this will make you feel any better, but it's not personal: I don't return anybody's phone calls.

I hate talking on the phone. Hate it. Hate it. I like you tons, and I wish we lived closer so I could see you more often. And even though I know that my unwillingness to answer the phone when you call or to return your phone calls in any reasonable space of time is a constant strain on our relationship, I can't make myself get any better at it.

Please understand that it's not personal: I don't answer anybody's phone calls. I don't return anybody's calls in a reasonable space of time.

Teh social phobia: I haz it.

I've worked hard on tackling my anxieties, and I like to think I've done fairly well for myself in this respect. If you've wondered why I'm so obsessed with social media technologies, part of the answer is that I've used them to cobble together a series of workarounds: I've developed strategies for engaging in the types of conversations I like to have while avoiding the tools and encounters that cause me the most anxiety. Among which the phone conversation is numero uno.

It was bad enough when you had a land line, and I had a land line, and everybody had a land line. But then we all got cellphones, and every aspect of voice communication got that much harder for poor little rich girls like me. I can't tell when I'm interrupting you. I can't hear or rely upon the subtle cues: variation in the tone of your voice, pauses, or breath. The social connection, so essential and so difficult for someone like me to establish in the first place, becomes even more elusive.

There are new technologies whose designs make remote social connections easier to establish (cf. Skype, Google Video). I hope that some day these technologies will become the norm for all of us, overtaking the cellphone (my guardian, my executioner.) I also harbor a secret hope that if cellphones really are here to stay, I'll eventually cultivate the type of persona that makes people say, Oh, well, that's just Jenna--brilliant but eccentric. She refuses to talk on the phone! So we use other technologies to communicate with her. (It hasn't happened yet, but here's hoping for success in the new decade.) Until then, I hope you can understand that I love you but hate the technology.

Oh, and I sent you a package. It should arrive in the next day or two. You can text or email or tweet me when you get it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

on lurkers, geeks, and pasty white men

I'm reading a fascinating new piece by Kate Crawford called "Following you: disciplines of listening in social media." Crawford, an Associate Professor in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, suggests that we rethink our discourse around lurkers and less active participants in online affinity spaces; actually, she suggests we get away from that term "lurking," since "this term has hampered our understanding of online spaces, and...the concept of listening offers more open and critically productive ground."

Crawford points to a glorification of "voice" as the highest form of online participation. She is gently critical of "this privileging of voice, and particularly voice-as-democratic-participation," which dominates research and writing about online activity. She explains:
In Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn's Democracy and New Media, the authors argue that the Internet 'is politically important because it expands the range of voices that can be heard in a national debate, ensuring that no one voice can speak with unquestioned authority.' This 'speaking truth to power' model is a prominent feature of much media and cultural studies analysis, but it has limited the recognition of the variety and reach of the practices of listening online. Listening has not been given sufficient consideration as a significant practice of intimacy, connection, obligation and participation online; instead, it has often been considered as contributing little value to online communities, if not acting as an active drain on their growth.

By my lights, Crawford is both right and a little bit wrong. There is a strange trend among new media researchers to privilege those who speak loudest and carry the biggest sticks; we often hold up "geeking out," as Mimi Ito and her colleagues describe it in their recent book on youth and new media, as the gold standard of online participation. But geeking out is characterized by single-minded obsession, deep immersion into a hobby or pastime, often at the expense of other pursuits. The archetypal "geek" is often the pasty white man toiling in the dead of night in front of some terminal or circuit board or technology. In a recent post on animals' use of tools, HASTAC co-founded Cathy Davidson remarks on the recent discovery that certain types of octopus use coconut shells as tools. The post is called "Only Humans Use Tools (O, and Octopi Too)," and Davidson explains that the title is intentionally ironic:
Many, many animals--maybe even all of them, in fact--use tools if only humans could "see" that they do. We see tools very anthrocentrically in the same way that we hear animal "language." Unless the animals translate it for us, we don't believe it exists.

I think the same is true when it comes to talking about "geeking out." Because pasty white men have traditionally dominated geek culture, at least in America, their practices became the standard by which we measure all geeks. If it doesn't look like a geek, walk like a geek, or quack like a geek, then we argue that it's not a geek--unless geeks who don't fit the geek stereotype translate for us, we don't believe they exist either.

In this sense, Crawford's effort to re-position the lurker as a listener whose participation in online spaces is essential to the success of those spaces is both important and useful. (And by the way, this paper identifies three categories of listening: background listening, delegated listening, and reciprocal listening; and the work she does to discuss these categories offers nice strategies for reframing different approaches to listening.) But on the other hand...if you spend your entire life listening and never 'speaking truth to power,' then what's the point of listening at all?

The work of making cultural meaning, after all, depends on collaboration. It depends on the power of speech, the power of communication, and the willingness to take a stand when it matters. It may be perfectly legitimate to be a Twitter user who listens in but never tweets, but the hope is that this sort of Twitter user will feel empowered to speak up in another space somewhere else. Henry Jenkins says this about participatory culture:

Not all members must contribute, but all must feel free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.
Lurking--or, if you prefer, listening--is certainly a legitimate form of participation. But if a person never moves beyond listening and begins to 'speak' (and keep in mind that 'speaking' may take a variety of forms in this strange and wacky era we call The New Media Age), then that person isn't engaging fully with the affordances of the technologies she is engaged with. Often, of course, the geeks--the ones that we readily recognize, and readily cede the floor to--drown out the voices of other types of participants. This is a problem we need to set about solving. But the solution is not to argue that listening is valid in the same ways and to the same power as is making your ideas heard.

Crawford's piece, along with others she references in her article, helps us to rethink how we describe listeners as participants in online spaces. The next step, in my opinion, is to find a way to empower them to speak when they feel they have something to say. Alongside this goal is the deep imperative to find ways of recognizing speech acts and other forms of communication that don't fit the archetypes and stereotypes that too often direct our thinking about these sorts of issues.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

response from Mark Bauerlein: on The Dumbest Generation

I recently received an email communication from Mark Bauerlein in response to my recent critique of his book, the Dumbest Generation.

I asked, and Bauerlein gave me permission, to post his response to my blog. Here it is, in its entirety:

Astonishing, Jenna, that you quote Liz Losh, who actually takes one disgruntled student's comments on RateMyProfessors as evidence from which to generalize about my teaching.

If you have found any factual or logical errors in Dumbest Generation, I'll be happy to concede them. After all, we want every harsh judgment in the book to be proven wrong.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

you heard it there first: the best reviews of Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation

If you've read even a post or two from this blog, you know that I'm going to fiercely oppose the main theories guiding Bauerlein's 2008 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

In a precise exercise in ridiculousness, Bauerlein's book is loaded up with sweeping claims like the following:
[M]ost young Americans possess little of the knowledge that makes for an informed citizen, and too few of them master the skills needed to negotiate an information-heavyt, communication-based society and economy. Furthermore, they avoid the resources and media that might enlighten them and boost their talents....
[Y]oung people do not understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the political process, they lack the knowledge necessary for effective self-government, and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.

If that's what Bauerlein's selling, I don't want any.

I am, thanks be to god, not alone in my disgust at Bauerlein's dance of intellectual superiority. Many others have attacked his book and its tenets with grace, aplomb, and gusto. I give you a list of Reviews That Have Me Nodding My Head In Vigorous Agreement.

I begin with a smart and sassy Newsweek review by Sharon Begley and Jeneen Interlandi, who accuse Bauerlein of coming late to the party:
Really, don't we all know by now that finding examples of teens' and twentysomethings' ignorance is like shooting fish in a barrel?... From evidence such as a decline in adult literacy (40 percent of high-school grads had it in 1992; only 31 percent did in 2003) and a rise in geographic cluelessness (47 percent of the grads in 1950 could name the largest lake in North America, compared with 38 percent in 2002), for instance, Bauerlein concludes that "no cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments."

He is a little late to this party, of course. The old have been wringing their hands about the young's cultural wastelands and ignorance of history at least since admirers of Sophocles and Aeschylus bemoaned the popularity of Aristophanes ("The Frogs," for Zeussakes?!) as leading to the end of (Greek) civilization as they knew it. The Civil War generation was aghast at the lurid dime novels of the late 1800s. Victorian scholars considered Dickens, that plot-loving, sentimental ("A Christmas Carol") favorite, a lightweight compared with other authors of the time. Civilization, and culture high and low, survived it all. Can it survive a generation's ignorance of history? For those born from 1980 to 1997, Bauerlein lamented to us, "there is no memory of the past, just like when the Khmer Rouge said 'this is day zero.' Historical memory is essential to a free people. If you don't know which rights are protected in the First Amendment, how can you think critically about rights in the U.S.?" Fair enough, but we suspect that if young people don't know the Bill of Rights or the import of old COLORED ENTRANCE signs—and they absolutely should—it reflects not stupidity but a failure of the school system and of society (which is run by grown-ups) to require them to know it. Drawing on our own historical memory also compels us to note that philosopher George Santayana, too, despaired of a generation's historical ignorance, warning that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That was in 1905.
Liz Losh, in a review titled Dumbest and Dumber, agrees with the above assertion that though Bauerlein would have us believe otherwise, the complaints of an emerging unprecedented era of ignorance are not new or particularly well founded; and besides, she adds,
how can you hate people under thirty with this much dripping bile and still work as a competent and professional faculty member? How would it be possible to teach your classes with this much misanthropy aimed at people of your students' ages? With this much contempt taking place in inner monologues that are so well-rehearsed, how can you not communicate it to the student seeking help on the other side of your desk? Well, based on his ratemyprofessor standings, it looks like he's an easier instructor than I am, ironically. So much for defending high standards of achievement for students.
Over at BlogCritics, Kevin Eagan acknowledges that some of the trends identified by Bauerlein are "disturbing" but wonders about the extent to which The Dumbest Generation offers only the evidence that fits the thesis. "Bauerlein seems to think things are different because the Internet has only given teens one more way to escape adult life," Eagen writes.
And to a certain extent, he's right; the Internet is not used by teens to further their intellectual pursuits, at least, not in the way educators would like. But as with all new technologies, the Internet is currently going through a teething stage, and it's too early to say if our new digital lives will mean the next generation will forever ignore civil discourse and become apathetic toward art and history as adults.... Bauerlein's approach reveals a one-sided argument, one that forgets that art is created on the fringes of society and that young people rarely get involved in these pursuits since, after all, they're too busy trying to impress their friends.

This last point, by the way, is also a lynchphin of Losh's position with respect to Bauerlein's argument. She finishes her post with this video, which she identifies as a "dizzying spectacle of racial and sexual stereotypes, romantic melodrama, consumerism, instant gratification, and commodity fetishism emptied of its destructive social directives and turned into a clever musical soup that is danceable and evocative of guilty nostalgias and heterogeneous pleasures that Bauerlein would have us condemn."

Writing in the LA Times, Lee Drutman agrees that Bauerlein is an alarmist whose call to arms against the rising tide of ignorant youth "seems at once overblown...and also yesterday's news"; but Drutman also offers that "amid the sometimes annoyingly frantic warning bells that ding throughout 'The Dumbest Generation,' there are also some keen insights into how the new digital world really is changing the way young people engage with information and the obstacles they face in integrating any of it meaningfully. These are insights that educators, parents and other adults ignore at their peril."

Is Drutman right to find some kernel of useful information in the collection of histrionics that Bauerlein calls a "book"? Well, sure. It's probably not exactly good that young people don't like to read books. At the same time, however, we would do well to approach the gathering data from a somewhat more nuanced approach. Young people aren't spending their free time reading books; so what are they doing? They're not spending their free time learning about historical events; so what kind of history piques their interest? They don't know a whole lot about Constitutional law, the Supreme Court, or local politics; so how do you explain youth turnout in the 2008 Presidential election?

While I disagree with just about every argument Bauerlein makes,  I do agree--in principle, anyway--with Bauerlein's assertion that awareness of history and involvement in traditional political models are down, way way down. But unlike Bauerlein, I see no reason to cry into my imported beer over this. I believe that a new model of civic engagement is emerging, one that our current tests, surveys, and evaluative measures cannot yet identify or account for. The new civics is an everyday civics, one that may or may not include involvement in local, or state, or national politics; it's a kind of just-in-time civic engagement that emerges out of an immediate need. In the just-in-time model, knowing what (names, dates, definitions) is far less important than knowing how (how to access names, dates, definitions, when that type of information becomes relevant and necessary). Who cares if you can name every sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice if you're able to locate and verify a list of current Justices in ten seconds flat?

If you want to justify a conviction that young people are stupid, boring, and lazy, then you look to tests that measure knowing what. If you believe, as I do, that today's young people are as smart, fascinating, and engaged as any previous generation, then you start figuring out ways to measure knowing how.

Edublog Awards 2009: and the nominees are...

Below are my nominations for the 2009 Edublog Awards. If you're interested in submitting your own nominations for this year's awards, you'll need to act fast. The deadlines start rolling in this week:
  • Nominations: Close Tuesday 8 December
  • Voting: Ends Wednesday 16 December
  • Award Ceremony: Friday 18 December
Click here for more information about the awards and nomination process.

...and the nominees are:
First, “open” is a continuous, not binary, construct. A door can be wide open, completely shut, or open part way. So can a window. So can a faucet. So can your eyes. Our commonsense, every day experience teaches us that “open” is continuous. Anyone who will argue that “open” is a binary construct is forced to admit that a door cracked open one centimeter is just as open as a door standing wide open, because their conception of the term has no nuance. Alternately, they may adopt an artificial definition, in which a door opened 20 cm or more is considered open, while a door opened 19 cm is not considered open. But this is unsatisfactory as well.
Wiley has since addressed the question of openness in a systematic, deliberate, and useful way; but I consider this post more influential than even the ideas it gave rise to because it so clearly delineated the problem and so clearly demonstrated (in the tone of the post and in the comments below) the emotional tension underlying this issue.
  • Best teacher blog: Kevin's Meandering Mind, a blog maintained by Kevin Hodgson, a 6th grade teacher, National Writing Project teacher-consutant, creative writer, and author. It's absolutely essential reading for anybody interested in questions about how we might teach the "new" writing.
  • Best educational use of video / visual: viz.: Visual Rhetoric -- visual culture -- pedagogy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the Bloomington Herald-Times doesn't get this 'social networking' thing.

I'm pretty sure the Herald-Times of Bloomington, IN, is a sub-par paper with a short-sighted business model.

I say I'm "pretty sure" because the Herald-Times has developed two strategies that prevent me from knowing for certain: a paywall that keeps me from looking into whether the quality and content merit the paywall; and an apparent "no comment" policy with respect to the paywall, circulation numbers, and long-term subscription strategies.

How do they ignore people? Let me count the ways.

I learned about the "no comment" strategy after several weeks of seeking response from the paper. I went about seeking this response in a deliberate way: First, I challenged the paper through Twitter, by posting links to reports and articles about other papers' efforts to make newspapers available for cheap or free to Bloomington college students; by linking to free versions of the walled-off stories posted via the paper's Twitter account; and by stating my case, 140 characters at a time, for the paywall to be dropped. I ended each tweet with this challenge:
what say you, @theheraldtimes?

Next, I published a blog post about the issue in which I argued that not only was the paywall a short-sighted business model, but also that the paper was misusing Twitter by linking followers to content for which they would be required to pay. I wrote:

[M]y first request to the Herald-Times is this: Be nice or leave. Either stop spamming us, or lock your Twitter account to all but paid subscribers to the paper. Twitter is not the place to hustle subscriptions.

My second request is this: Tear down the goddamned paywall. The Herald-Times is, for all intents and purposes, the only local newsdaily (though I'll offer alternative news sources below). This means it certainly can but absolutely should not erect a paywall for web content. The need to make local news available for free becomes more urgent when you consider the demographics of Bloomington. It's the home of Indiana University, a college town whose median age is 23 (.pdf).

I ended the post with this:
what say you, @theheraldtimes?


I circulated a link to the post on Twitter. "what say you, @theheraldtimes?" I asked each time I linked to it. @theheraldtimes had nothing to say.

So I emailed the managing editor, Andrea Murray, and the publisher, Mayer Maloney, requesting comment. My request was forwarded to another member of the Herald-Times staff, who ultimately informed me that the only person who would serve as the official spokesperson on this issue was Maloney himself. Clearly, then, Maloney's approach to his role as the official spokesperson is silence.

I sent a final request, informing the paper that I wanted to publish a follow-up post exploring approaches to gaining readership in a college town where, presumably, the future readers of newspapers are gaining their sea legs (or not, depending on the approach to gaining readers). You can guess, I bet, what kind of response I received to my request for comment.

Why ignoring angry social media users is a really bad idea
Since my multiple requests for comment have been met with stony silence, I can only guess at the paper's reasoning based on context clues. First, Maloney has made it clear on numerous occasions (presumably in interviews with people he considers "real" journalists) that he sees the paper's paywall as a roaring success (here, here). I don't see it that way--as I wrote in my previous post on this issue, I see paywalls as a short-term solution to a deeper, longer term problem that's actually worsened by paywalls. It's like dealing with burst plumbing by putting down paper towels to clean up the water.

I suspect, too, that Maloney doesn't see me as a big enough fish to waste his time on. After all, I'm just an obnoxious pup with a strangely titled blog that reaches maybe a few hundred people a day.

It's true: I am an obnoxious pup with a strangely titled blog that reaches maybe a few hundred people a day. I am also a member of a key demographic for the future of the Herald-Times: 12-99-year-olds who are comfortable broadcasting their opinions, supporting those opinions with evidence, and circulating those opinions to several hundred to several thousand people. (My blog had just over 2,000 unique visitors in November.) As we know, after all, opinions are made through loose association and vague understanding of issues. All it takes, sometimes, is a handful of angry tweets, maybe a quick skim of a blogpost, for a small group of people to decide how they feel about an issue or product. This is word-of-mouth marketing on steroids; only this time, it's the consumers, not the marketers, who decide what the message will be.

I'll use my experience as an example. Though my tweets and blog post never garnered a response from the Herald-Times, it did generate responses from several other members of my social networks, all of whom offered some version of this:
the H-T is a terrible paper with pretty shoddy business practices. Here's a list of some alternative news sources.

It shouldn't be news to anybody that with print media in its precarious state, the last thing a newspaper needs is for the above message to circulate across social networks. But this is exactly what's happening with respect to the Herald-Times. It doesn't help that the paper uses its Twitter feed not to contribute to the larger knowledge-building work of that platform but to direct people to content they have to pay for to access. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: This is against the very spirit of Twitter. It is unethical, inappropriate and unwanted.

The Herald-Times is building a bad name for itself for many reasons, which would be bad enough if it could counter this reputation by making it clear that the paper offered really solid local news reporting. But here's the thing about erecting a paywall around your content: People have to be given a good reason to pay. I imagine (I can't know for sure, since I'm swimming in this sea of silence) that publisher Maloney takes his subscription numbers and continued ad revenue as proof that people value what his paper has to offer. I counter that his subscription numbers and ad revenues, whatever they are, are only the product of a single key fact: that the Herald-Times is for all intents and purposes the only game in town.

But the game is changing. Yesterday, newspapers could assume they filled an important community function; today, newspapers have to prove (to readers and advertisers) that they fill an important community function. There is still a sizable chunk of the population who will continue to subscribe to print media outlets, but young people--especially those who have grown up surrounded by free information and take for granted that they shouldn't have to pay for what they can get for free--young people have to be given a reason to subscribe. They have to be shown the value of local reporting, of community newspapers. They have to be shown that their local paper fits into their understanding of what "community" means.

In sum:
  • The paywall will contribute to the demise of the local newspaper, because it will produce a generation of young adults who have no interest in following local news. 
  • Misuse of online social networks such as Twitter only makes the problem worse, because it turns off entire groups of potential readers.
  • Ignoring angry social media users is a really bad idea because they have the tools to articulate their opinions, the platform for circulating their opinions and, often, the wherewithal to use the tools and platforms to do exactly this.
  • The old model--that one unhappy customer tells ten people--is out the window. The average Twitter user has 126 followers. The average Facebook user has 130 friends, and MySpace users average around 180.

What say you, @theheraldtimes?

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