Friday, March 26, 2010

I'm a little bit ridiculous.

I am, if you didn't already know, a little bit ridiculous about certain things. For example: When I was in my early 20s, a friend referred to me as a "kneejerk reactionary" and I immediately brought the friendship to a dead stop. That it didn't even occur to me what a caricature of myself I was being only enhances the ridiculousness.

And in the video below you can see me being ridiculous about Twitter. This clip comes from a brainstorm session populated by members of SociaLens, a new organization I'm part of whose focus is on the role of social media, communication, and community in business enterprises. The SociaLens team is a terribly smart crew, and I'm incredibly lucky to be able to have the chance to work with these guys. The rest of the team, incidentally, is made up of Christian Briggs, Kevin Makice, Jay Steele, and Matt Snyder.

I'm including the clip here because a.) I really enjoy how ridiculously serious I am about why my colleague Matt is using Twitter wrong; b.) I'm really happy about the amount of agony Kevin put himself through in deciding whether to post the video on YouTube; c.) I think the conversation that emerged below Kevin's post in response to his decision to put the video online is valuable and interesting. For example, Kevin writes:
As someone who is quite open online with myself and even my family, I found it interesting how much trepidation I felt over sharing this video. I edited down the clip I had to a smaller segment, mainly to shield the name of a participant organization mentioned later. The rest I chose to share without prior approval and only my own instincts to follow. It is possible that one of my colleagues might take issue with any aspect of this decision, from specific content to an absence of formality in posting it to YouTube. In some organizations, there is a policy-first approach to transparency, setting codes of conduct and other criteria for employees to follow. In other organizations, the understanding employees have about shared goals and risks will help inform individual decisions. Most importantly, failure is embraced as a chance to learn. I trust my peers, and I believe they trust me. Even if one of them requests for me to take down the clip, that trust will guard against relational catastrophe as we reflect together.
Kevin also writes about the importance of transparency and reflection within organizations, large and small. You could maybe take a look if you wanted.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

event announcement: Noah Iliinsky and "beautiful visualization"

If you live or work in the Bloomington, IN, area, please consider attending this upcoming conversation and workshop with information visualization expert Noah Iliinsky.

Special Event: "Practical Design of Complex Information: How to Make Lasagna Instead of Spaghetti"

Please join us for a conversation and workshop with visualization expert Noah Iliinsky this Friday, March 26, 3:30-5:00 p.m. in room 1084 of the Wright Education building at Indiana University-Bloomington.

About the speaker: Noah Iliinsky works in interface and interaction design, all from a functional and user-centered perspective. Before becoming a designer he was a programmer for several years. He is the co-editor of Beautiful Visualization: Looking at Data through the Eyes of Experts, recently released by O’Reilly Media, and a Senior Program Manager for User Interface for VMWare, a leading provider of virtualization software. You can see some of his work on his website at

If you are interested in attending the workshop and have an in-progress information visualization project you'd like to have discussed, please send it in advance of the event along with a brief (1 paragraph) description of the project to Joshua Danish at jdanish(at)

This event is open to all students, faculty, and staff and is hosted by the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University. For more information, contact Jenna McWilliams at jenmcwil(at)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

SparkCBC takes on the issue of computational literacy

As I've explained in previous blog posts, I'm a fan of incorporating computational literacy education into the formal classroom--across curricula and content areas. So I was thrilled to see Spark Radio will be tackling the issue of computational literacy in an upcoming broadcast. Spark co-producer Dan Misener explains, using the user-friendly iPad as an example:

(T)he iPad (and its little brothers, the iPhone and iPod touch) abstract much of the computer away. Apple watcher and former Spark guest John Gruber says it’s a bit like the automatic transmission in a car:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

And from the standpoint of the vast majority of computer users, this abstraction can be a good thing. It makes computing simpler, easier, friendlier. Why should I need to understand what’s going on under the hood of my computer if all I want to do is send email to my friends?...

But I wonder, is the same attitude towards computers dangerous? Does oversimplifying technology –removing necessary complexity — have a downside? By making technology simple, easy, and convenient, do we risk a generation of people who can’t tell the difference between this blog post and the Facebook login page?

As I ponder this, I’m a bit torn. The technology populist in me wants to say, “Of course, make computers easy! What’s wrong with making computers as simple and friendly as possible?”

But another (geekier, snobbier) part of me wants to say, “Yes, computers are hard, and that can be a good thing. I don’t want to use technology designed for the lowest common denominator.”

The question this Spark show hopes to tackle is this:

If I don’t understand how to use my computer, whose fault is it? Is it my fault for not wanting to read manuals or spend time learning a new technology? Or is it the fault of the designers and engineers who build the technology we use?

You can weigh in on the discussion at the Spark blog, then listen in live or or download the podcast of the show; information on broadcast times and podcast download is available here.

Here's my take on this issue, which I've also posted as a comment on the Spark blog:

This is a thorny issue, because easier interfaces help to drop the barriers to participation, but on the other hand this shift means we give up some degree of empowerment to make decisions about which sorts of interfaces, and by extension which sorts of technologies, work best for our specific needs. Indeed, the crafting and marketing of products like the iPad is deeply, deeply political, and the embedded politics that lead to the tools we use is not readily evident to those without a degree of computational literacy. And enormous swaths of the computer-using public are lacking in this area.

On the other hand, computational literacy is very much like other forms of literacy: reading, writing, mathematical literacy, and so on. We don't blame the math-illiterate learner who has never been exposed to mathematics education, or whose math education was lacking in significant ways. This is the exact case with computational literacy education: It's nearly nonexistent in formal classrooms, and has become the nearly exclusive domain of those with the luxury of access to computational technologies outside of school. In some ways, then, perhaps we get the technologies we deserve.

Monday, March 22, 2010

as goes Detroit...

file under: if you're not mad, you're not paying attention.

I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it's hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I've been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.

This is not the Michigan I remember. It's not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it's worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It's not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it's neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors' signs.

Recession in Detroit doesn't only look like this:

 It also looks like this:

And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:

The word "decimated" literally means "reduced by ten percent." Decimated, therefore, doesn't begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.

Because it's not just the economy that's imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district's Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That's over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.

Detroit isn't the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it's the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it's going to hell these days even faster than ever.

You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn't know before: It's not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.

But let's say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they're told to do--working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it--still find themselves realizing they'll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child's college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.

Let's say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry's feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we're all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don't have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.

It's shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?

Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday's historic vote mandating health care for all. It's a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.

And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake "good" for "good enough."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

tubby fingers and serious cheeks

There's a lot that makes me mad, but there's one thing that makes me consistently happy: My niece Morgan, who's seven months old. Below is a video of her eating her afternoon snack, which is Cheerios.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

on sexism and gender performance: it's the bathrobes that's outrageous?

There's a nice little conversation going over at really? law? about masculinity, gender performance, law school, and competition.

The post, which was written by my sister Laura McWilliams in observance of International Women's Day, describes her experience as a female law student. As she explains, her male classmates are the ones who shout her down, who silence her; she writes:
I can’t say for certain that this is about gender, but I can say that I’ve often been dismissed, insulted, or shouted down by men, but only once, since I started this thing, by a woman. Not every man has acted this way, but nearly every person who has acted this way has been a man.
She does add, however, that she hasn't thought much about how men perform gender, and specifically about "the anxiety that comes with being a man and proving one's manhood":
I always separated in my mind the competition between men and women and the competition between men and men. One was about domination; the other was about bonding. Now I’m thinking that I was nowhere near right. The two are more mixed up than that. I’ve only recently begun trying to synthesize the two.

Men’s interactions are about performance–right?–in a way that’s different from how women perform. Men are constantly proving their gender, while women are forced to try to prove–I don’t know, their lack of gender?
The post has received several comments from male readers, and the set of comments by someone who calls himself "passer by" were especially interesting to me. He begins by arguing that women are far more competitive than men are:

I’d challenge the notion that males are more aggressive that females. And I have given it more than a passing thought. Both are more than capable of aggression, at equal levels.

Competitive? I’d say your (sic) wrong, sorry. Both men and women are competitive, but men more often acknowledge when they loose (sic), and let it go on the spot. Maybe with a bit of rude behavior, but that’s it. Women tend to find a way to bring it back around, go after revenge, and throw some vengeance in to boot.
This writer argues that women are more competitive, more vicious in their gossip, and more "catty"; in fact, he writes,

Cats are both masculine and feminine, but how many men do you know that are “catty?” How many men gossip in a way that undermine the credibility and reputation of women, or other men? Far more women tend to expend energy on such things.

Over the course of a multi-comment exchange between Laura and this commenter, she gently suggests that the "cattiness" label is part of how women are disempowered, then follows him as he changes the subject to sports, stereotyping of all men based on how a minority behave, and biological differences that he believes prove that men and women are just different--they just are. He writes:

Yes, environment plays a huge role. But any 8 year old can tell you boys and girls are born different, and anyone who has forgotten that fact hasn’t looked in their pants in far to long. To try to “discover” there are biological differences is a hysterical concept to me. It’s not news that sexual organs are the only distinguishable differences, so are hair patterns, hormones, and emergence differences that are apparent. To think that this doesn’t affect mood, attitude, aggression, and ultimately social perception is just naive.
Laura's willingness to engage with this commenter, and to consider his arguments thoughtfully and carefully, led to a lengthy and perhaps productive conversation about gender. But I was struck by how hard Laura seems to have had to work to make this happen. The notion that "cattiness" is an apt term for women but not for men is just...well, it's blatant sexism, is what it is. And the commenter argues that sports are to blame for turning men competitive, but somehow overlooks the inherent sexism in the fact that society "encourage(s) boys to play sports more than girls."

Yet, by letting these comments pass, Laura makes it possible for the commenter to post an interesting argument: that all men get blamed for the sexist behavior of "a small minority"--in his view, maybe 20% of all men.

Which is a powerful point that's well worth discussing. I'm not willing to go so far as to agree that sexism is only evident in 20 percent of all men, but it's clear that not all men engage in sexist behavior, and that not all men who do engage in sexist behavior do so all the time.

The problem, really, is this: Even if less than 20 percent of all men engaged in sexist behavior, we still live in a culture that not only encourages but rewards that kind of behavior. Which means that this "small minority" has a distinct advantage when it comes to not only sports but education, work, and access to advancement opportunities.

Women and men alike should be outraged by this. It means that women and men alike are being forced to play a game that, all things being equal, they would probably choose not to play; it means that the rules of the game are being set by a small subset of our culture; it means that if you, male or female, choose to opt out, you're setting yourself up to walk a rockier path than you might otherwise take.

Sam Seaborn: Where'd you get the bathrobe?
Carol Fitzpatrick: The gym.
Sam: There are bathrobes at the gym?
Claudia Jean 'C.J.' Cregg: In the women's locker room.
Sam: But not the men's.
C.J.: Yeah.
Sam: Now, that's outrageous. There's a thousand men working here and 50 women.
C.J.: Yeah, and it's the bathrobes that's outrageous.
From  "The West Wing: Bartlet's Third State of the Union (#2.13)" (2001)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

a poem John Ashbery wrote


Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, "mugwump
of the final hour," lest an agenda—horrors!—be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It's breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.

And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who's to say we weren't provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it's not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That's how we get around obstacles.

Lifted from Poetry Daily.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Marilyn Musgrave tries to quash health care reform

Former U.S. Rep Marilyn Musgrave is the kind of politician I was born to hate.

Musgrave built her career out of an anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-empathy and anti-compassion platform. Before she was soundly trounced by Democrat Betsy Markey in 2008, Musgrave was featured on multiple worst-politicians lists. This profile in Rolling Stone explains that

Musgrave does not believe in the separation of church and state. She entered politics in 1990, running for her local school board on a crusade to end sex education as part of the curriculum. By the time her tenure was over, the schools taught "abstinence only" -- and offending passages in health textbooks had been blacked out. During her eight years in the Colorado legislature, Musgrave continued her moralizing, overcoming two vetoes by the governor to pass a state ban on gay marriage.

Once in Congress, Musgrave introduced a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage -- which she calls "the most important issue that we face today" -- nearly a year before a Massachusetts court approved civil unions. "She doesn't like the idea of one gay person," says Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "So obviously the idea of two of us hanging out makes her very unhappy." For her opposition to gay marriage -- as well as her push to legalize concealed weapons -- Musgrave received an endorsement from the KKK in May.

Let me emphasize: Marilyn Musgrave was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Did I mention that she was thumped by Betsy Markey in 2008? Upon her loss, Musgrave disappeared from sight, never officially conceding the election, never congratulating her opponent, never answering reporters' requests for comment about her loss.

Now Musgrave has resurfaced as the Director of a project called "Votes Have Consequences," an effort by the Susan B. Anthony List to scare politicians out of voting to fund reproductive health care services. Specifically, this group is trying to scare politicians out of voting for any health care bill that covers a range of procedures including abortion. Here's how 700 Club-affiliated blogger Dave Brody explains it:

The Susan B. Anthony List will be targeting certain members of Congress who are out of step with their district on the life issue. No specific Congressmen have been identified yet but the group plans to launch an aggressive TV, Radio and print campaign against them very soon. They don’t want to wait until 2010. They believe the issue needs to be addressed right away because pro-life groups have all too often taken a back seat approach to getting involved early in congressional races.

Priorities, folks. Let's talk about priorities.

Nearly 46 million Americans are living without health insurance. About 8 million of those uninsured are children. And each year, 45,000 Americans die for lack of health insurance. Even if you're a cold, cruel, apathetic person who doesn't care about the human toll of our crumbling health care system, you can appreciate the financial drain of dealing with so many uninsured citizens. If you're uninsured, you avoid expensive doctor visits. You don't get physicals. You don't deal with health issues when they first emerge, and if they get bad enough that you need medical care, you wait until you can't delay any longer and then you take yourself to an emergency room. At this point, more care--more expensive care--is generally warranted.

When it comes to our health care system, we're in full-on crisis mode. That's why the effort of Musgrave and her ridiculously named Susan B. Anthony List to quash any reform simply out-Herods Herod.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blog for International Women's Day: A call to end 'horizontal violence'

This blog post is part of the call from Gender Across Borders for blog posts written in response to the theme of this year's International Women's Day.

About a month ago, I posted a review of And Then Came Lola, a film that ran as part of my city's LGBTQ film festival.

In my review, I criticized what I saw as a heteronormative portrayal of lesbian sexuality: to wit, the more traditionally feminine a character was, the more heroic she was; and any character who stood outside of traditional notions of femininity was either a bad guy or played for laughs. I expressed concern that in treating sexual desire as the exclusive right of the traditionally beautiful, this film reinforces negative stereotypes of lesbians and of women more broadly.

Well. As you might imagine (and as I might have expected), I received lots of responses to this post, including a disproportionate number of personal attacks delivered in comments below the review and in personal emails. It was suggested that maybe I have a problem with lesbians, that maybe my own prejudices are clouding my judgment, that maybe I take myself too seriously. In fact, more commenters wanted to talk about what was wrong with me than about the content of my review--about whether I had a point worth discussing.

As we celebrate International Women's Day with the theme "equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all," I want to call for progress within the communities that comprise the women's rights movement. We know that one highly effective strategy for doing away with a political point that threatens the status quo is to twist it into a question of personal character: She's just a man-hater. He's just a pedophile. She's a hypocrite, a bitch, a traitor. We know this strategy is effective because it's been used against us time and again. Yet we're still so likely to pull out exactly this strategy if a member of our community says something we don't agree with or don't want to hear.

In lots of ways, it's not really our fault. This is a divide-and-conquer tactic built right into the fabric of our culture to maintain the subtle balances of power. It's also a tactic that has, for many members of minority groups, been highly effective in helping them to gain a voice, position, power. If you're not an official member of the dominant group (which in America is largely comprised of middle- and upper-class, educated white men) you can always cozy up to the dominant group by acting in ways that show whose side you're on. This is why we hear that women are so often each other's worst enemies: If you're a smart, ambitious, driven woman you can lessen the threat you pose to the status quo by helping to smack down other smart, ambitious, driven women.

But, wow, talk about trading off long-term change for short-term rewards. The Brazilian revolutionary Paulo Freire calls this "horizontal violence": oppressed peoples "striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons." If you want a seat at the table, it may very well be faster and less painful to ingratiate yourself instead of shoving your way in; but on the other hand, you have no power to keep yourself at the table once you get there. If the dominant group ever decides you're not docile or pretty or respectful or interesting enough, they can pull the table away.

On International Women's Day, I'm calling for more attention to the long revolution, for more attention to the difficult and complicated work of building a movement based on solidarity, mutual respect and support, and making room for a variety of voices, interests, and needs. I'm calling for more attention to the ways in which we hurt each other, diminish the voices of our comrades, use any power we gain individually as a weapon against others who would like a little bit of power too.

I'm not calling for an end to disagreement or conflict within the movement toward equality; disagreement is useful, and conflict is inevitable. But I am calling for more introspection, for more thought put into why and how and where we disagree, into why and how and where we try to silence each other in the exact ways we find so despicable when it comes from outsiders to our communities and movements. I'm calling for all of us to examine our own behavior, our own attitudes, our own understandable struggles with power, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves and about others who have joined with us to fight for progress and equality. I'm calling for more public generosity and private compassion. I'm calling for it from myself most of all, starting now and henceforth; but I do hope that you'll join me.

Update: My sister Laura, a law student in Boston, wrote a response to this post that addresses the gender politics of law school. You can read her breathtaking examination of her experience here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blog for International Women's Day

Monday, March 8, 2010, is International Women's Day, and Gender Across Borders is helping to get the word out by asking people to blog on this year's theme: “Equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all.”

Find out more at Gender Across Borders. Sign up to blog for IWD here.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I take it back about Daniel Tosh.

I have, on this very blog, previously lauded the comedic genius of Daniel Tosh. Specifically, I have tried to encourage my readers to watch his Comedy Central show, Tosh.0.

I don't know if I've changed or the show has, but I recently decided to boycott Tosh.0 because of its disturbing tendency toward humiliating vulnerable people and groups. Tosh's genre of comedy focuses on exploiting cultural stereotypes for humor and societal critique, and if this is your chosen genre you have to be aware of the fine line between humor and bullying.

Tosh has become a bully. He picks on traditionally marginalized populations, including ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, and the LGBT community. Which isn't in itself offensive--except that he does it in such a way that these people's words and actions are twisted and used against them as weapons of ridicule and humiliation. Then, to deepen the humiliation, these moments are compiled and broadcast in a show whose very design is intended to silence the people who are the targets of ridicule: in the format of a tightly edited program featuring only the views of Daniel Tosh and his crew. Even when Tosh invites guests on his show, producers make editing decisions clearly designed to humiliate the guests in every way possible.

If this were a stand-up show, audience members could respond, could heckle or boo or applaud: They could have a voice. Even a TV program can find creative ways to toe the humor-bullying line and avoid silencing the targets of its ridicule. Part of what I thought was so fantastic about Tosh.0 in its first season, for example, was that Tosh was as likely to ridicule himself as he was to ridicule others. This is one strategy for diffusing the power differential inherent in giving one person a broadcast platform through which to humiliate other people. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart ridicules politicians but also bring them on as guests, treating them with respect and deference.

Comedy is hard. Every comedic act is an act of creativity; it's the creativity, the cleverness, that action or phrase that subverts our expectations, that surprises us and makes us laugh. We also laugh, sometimes, at crude, vulgar, and sometimes even cruel actions. This is why so many comedians mistake vulgarity and cruelty for cleverness, even though they're so often worlds apart.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Letter from a Bloomington high school student to the students of Aurora Alternative High School

Today, the Bloomington Herald-Times published a guest column written by Victoria Ison, a student at Bloomington High School North. The column is framed as a letter to students at Aurora Alternative High School, which is slated for closure at the end of this school year as a money-saving measure.

This piece, like almost all of the Herald-Times' content, is not available to the general public, as the paper has made the foolish decision to erect a paywall. Yet another lesson to learn from the ongoing issue of budget cuts across the MCCSC school system is that more access to information is better than less access, and in times like these, the Herald-Times' paywall begins to look increasingly obstructive. Forcing people to pay to access information about issues that directly affect them is a barrier to civic engagement, plain and simple, and the Herald-Times should be ashamed of itself.

On a related note, I've decided to run the entire text of Victoria Ison's letter below.

Please be aware that Ison is a high school student and that this column addresses a difficult and emotionally charged issue. On the Herald-Times site, several readers posted what I consider to be cruel and hurtful comments in response to Ison's post, and I'm not going to let that happen here. Whatever you think of her columnn, Ison should be commended for her honesty and willingness to present her ideas on a complicated debate.

Opinion: Aurora students impress a student who doesn’t know them
March 3, 2010

To the students of Aurora Alternative High School:

We’re pretty much the same ages, you and I. I don’t really know any of you, but that’s not uncommon; there are thousands of youth in this community, after all. If you went to North, I might know you. Or I might not. There are a lot of kids.

But now, I need you to forgive me.

You see, before the budget crisis — or at least, before the public was aware of the budget crisis — I didn’t think about you very much. Hardly at all, actually.

Sure, I saw articles in the newspaper at times. You were involved with Martin Luther King Jr. Day volunteer activities. You stuffed a bus and wrapped gifts for Fairview kids. Your Facebook page popped up in my Newsfeed.

But I didn’t become a fan. You were far away — if not in miles, in accessibility. My everyday life was a blur: home and school and back again. You never crossed my mind. Then I saw the name of your school on the proposed list of our district’s budget cuts. And still, I gave it just a passing glance.

It wasn’t until the Tuesday night board meeting that I thought any more about you. I was sitting there with my teacher/mother, listening to the public comments and half-heartedly taking U.S. history notes. Occasionally, I would look up and look around, noticing the appearances of the various impassioned speakers.

I was surprised to see you there. I was surprised by some of your hats, your earrings, your fashion statements. I was most surprised to see your tears.

Some of you got up and spoke. Eloquently. Emotionally. It was so evident that you were fighting for something you believed in, something you needed.

You talked about being “broken,” about being hurt. You talked about needing an escape, wanting to run away. You talked about having to attend any other high school — including my very own North — with measures of overwhelming dread.

I didn’t want to listen to you.

I didn’t want to see your pain and have to admit my ignorance. I didn’t want to have to struggle to try not to judge you.

Because I was. I was sitting confidently in my seat, wearing my track team sweatshirt, doing homework for a class that I have an A grade and a zillion friends in, judging you.

And I am sorry.

I am sorry for being self-absorbed into oblivion, for not noticing your pain or having empathy for your problems. Before you spoke, I didn’t realize that high school could be such a terrible kind of place. I didn’t realize that teenagers — people my own age — could feel hopeless like you said you did. I am sorry for anything I’ve done to make North such a hard place to be.

I am sorry for fitting in and forgetting you.

I need to make it up to you, and I need you to tell me how. Your school is going to be inside my school’s building next year. If you want to be left alone, I’ll understand. But know I’ll still be thinking about you, wondering about you, rooting for you. You’ve impressed me with your passion, humbled me with your tears. There’s no forgetting you now.

And if you’re willing, well, our schools are going to be much closer now. And we’re pretty much the same ages, you and I. We should be friends.

Victoria Ison is a junior at Bloomington High School North and a former biweekly correspondent for The Herald-Times “In School” section. She can be reached at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

notes from the {computational} revolution

As part of an ongoing effort to design a model for integrating computational technologies into the formal classroom, I have turned my focus to computational literacy. My current model already has a space for considering computational literacy, so in this post I want to spend some time exploring my definition of computational literacy. This includes a discussion of the key features of computational literacy and how these features might be taught. The models I've created are included at the end of this post.

I started learning to play the flute at age 8. I kept it up for 10 years. At age 15, I took a typing class and surprised myself by how easily I mastered the QWERTY system. At my fastest (in my early 20's, when I was a reporter), I could type more than 160 words per minute. I'm a fan of languages, studied French from high school all the way through a master's-level class, picked up enough German during a 2-week visit to Austria to order my food, ask for directions, and hold a basic conversation with a native Austrian. I studied computer science for about a minute in college --I hated it, I was no good at it--but I've taken to html, CSS, and other simple programming languages that support my ongoing efforts at web-based social revolution. I don't understand, though I wish I did, the inner workings of computer hardware. I don't understand the difference between Newtonian and pre-Newtonian physics, though I know the pre-Newtonian stuff is naive and kinda wrong. I build web pages for fun, mainly relying on templates but recently branching off into my own web design. Fairly soon, in fact, I will be leaving Blogspot behind in order to build a brand new website to my exact specifications. I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with an emphasis in poetry.

I don't understand physics. I don't like most programming languages. I play the flute and like to tinker with language. I'm a fast typist but a slow web designer. I am a computational thinker.

Computational literacy is like all true categories of literacy: a cluster of practices whose meaning emerges as the learner deploys those practices in increasingly knowledgeable, increasingly socially valuable ways.

And increasingly, computational literacy is both part of and separate from other clusters of literacy practices. Computational proficiencies are similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label "new media literacies," and they're similar to but distinct from those proficiencies we label, for lack of a better phrase, "traditional literacies." They're often but not always, and not fully, aligned with the "hacker mentality": an attitude that treats nearly everything as potentially bendable to the user's will.

Like all other forms of literacy, computational literacy can be taught--though not if we treat it, as Jeanette Wing does in her 2008 treatise "Computational thinking and thinking about computing," as a set of abstractions. Wing writes that "the nuts and bolts in computational thinking are defining abstractions, working with multiple layers of abstraction and understanding the relationships among the different layers. Abstractions are the ‘mental’ tools of computing."

You don't have to be much of a hacker to know that Wing misses something essential here. It may be that the language of a program is abstract, and that programming is dealing in abstractions, but only in the sense that letters, words, and sentences are abstractions leading to language. Even fairly young children develop an innate sense of grammar and know when a speech act violates the rules.

This is to say that the elements of language may very well be abstract communicative units, but native speakers develop a concrete mastery over their language nonetheless. (Though this mastery is often belied by our near absolute inability to articulate a single grammar rule.)

Teaching in support of computational literacy
My focus is on the English / Language Arts classroom, or what I've lately been calling the "literacy sciences" classroom. In describing the categories below, then, I've included a few ideas about how these aspects of computational literacy might be fostered in the secondary literacy sciences classroom.

I believe that computational literacy is comprised of the following sets of proficiencies:

Programming skill: This may include proficiency with one or more programming languages; or it may include creativity with language (the primary programming language of our culture); or it may include mathematical or scientific know-how.

What to teach: Basic web design can help to foster some foundational programming skills. Students might start a blog or, working within a closed social network like Ning, build personal profile pages complete with modified color templates and extra widgets. For many, the notion that what users see gets controlled by a kind of puppet master can be both surprising and empowering.

Technical expertise: Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel might refer to this category as "the technical stuff." One feature of new media, for example, is its modularity--the ease with which we can copy, remix, and move media elements. Technical ability includes facility with the tools that allow for this kind of work, as well as ease with unfamiliar interfaces and comfort with just-in-time learning.

What to teach: I'll never forget hearing games and education expert Katie Salen talk about the approach her Quest2Learn school takes toward computer literacy. She wondered why we have computer classes where kids learn how to use word processing, spreadsheet, and similar programs instead of folding that instruction into authentic learning experiences. "Why not teach kids how to use Word in the context of having to write something for their English class?" she asked. And she's right. Of course, this means that English teachers will need to start developing more technical know-how--we're long past the days when facility with Microsoft Word was a sufficient condition for effective writing, even in the English classroom. Let's start having students use email programs, work with social networks, do some basic image and video editing with the programs that come standard on most newer computer systems.

Hand-eye coordination: Another feature of new technologies is that they often stretch across the virtual and the physical. I busted laptop screens and frayed charging cables until I learned to work with the physical affordances of computing technologies; I'm graced with excellent typing skills; these make any task that requires text generation between 20 and 40 percent easier than they would be for the typist of a more average speed.

What to teach: Typing is of course an important skill, though many kids build up their dexterity through text messaging. I'm going to argue for the practice of building things in the English classroom. There is, for example, the brilliant piece of rhetoric embodied in this recent OkGo music video:

You can't tell me that the building of that enormous mousetrap didn't foster not only increased hand-eye coordination but a deeper sense of space and rhetoric, as well. We may not have the tools for building a better mousetrap in the typical classroom, but the building of small sets for video productions, the designing of costumes and backdrops and other visuals, can help support increased motor confidence in learners.

Visual literacy: Lev Manovich explains the visual basis for all digital media, and even goes so far as to explain that even the very letters and numbers we see on our computer screens have been converted into binary code, then converted back into visual representations so that we can easily make sense of the information. This brings a new imperative to visual literacy. Previously, visual literacy was treated as the ability to think critically about advertising, television, and films; today, we add a near-limitless number of visual media formats in addition to our new roles as producers of visual media in addition to our role as consumers.

What to teach: Visual rhetoric is a growing field. Many teachers are already incorporating video projects, website design, and other forms of visual rhetoric into their classrooms, and we can look to them for advice on how to proceed in this area.

Tolerance for tinkering: Pastimes like crocheting, woodworking, and gardening took up time but didn't necessarily take up all of our attention. When we weren't counting or focusing on a particularly difficult maneuver, we could talk or watch TV or sing a song. Coding doesn't allow for this split of attention. Neither does building a digital scrapbook or designing a webpage or building a virtual model. At best we can devote all of our attention for a time to the code, then shift our full attention away, then shift our full attention back again. Mimi Ito and her colleagues talk about "geeking out," and part of geeking out is hours passed immersed in one activity or another, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. As a culture, we haven't really had much tolerance for geeking out, though that's starting to change. What we need now is to build up a tolerance for geeking out in our learners. There are those who argue that we lost something when young people stopped reading books--that those children lost the ability to immerse themselves in an entire world. It's possible that what's been lost in the decline of books can be compensated for through the emergence of computational thinking--of geeking out.

What to teach: Immersive, lengthy projects. We might consider trying to turn the classroom into a structured workshop space, much as fine arts programs balance studio time with critique. We're already halfway there with peer review and collaborative activities; if we can just shift the focus away from critique and toward construction of powerful projects, we can easily build a tinkering-tolerant learning community.

I'm not saying it's easy to support computational literacy in the formal classroom. What I am saying is that it's necessary.


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