Sunday, April 25, 2010

best. live performance. ever.

I just got back from a show starring the Indigo Girls, with a special appearance by a band I'd never heard of. The group is called Girlyman, and they are drop-dead fantastic. They knocked us all absolutely dead, and it was obvious that the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, had a great deal of respect for these guys.

Here's a vid of one of their recent songs, "Young James Dean." In the live performance, they also had a drummer, JJ Jones, who added a nice kick to their sound. You might want to consider checking them out if they come to a town near you.

The Indigo Girls have a strong following in the gay community, and it was interesting to sit for all those hours inside of a room loaded with people who not only accept difference but embrace it, people around whom you know you're safe, you know you're valued, you know you're part of a group whose interests align with yours. Well, okay, that wasn't really the interesting part. The interesting part was what happened after the performance, when the Indigo Girls' fans spilled out into downtown Bloomington. My friends and I hung around, hoping to catch sight of the band when they left, and as the rest of the audience dispersed they were replaced with drunk or drinking Little500 celebrants passing by the Buskirk-Chumley Theater on their way to one bar or another. Drunk, obnoxious, loud.

If you're someone like my friends and me, you retreat a step when the scene changes like this. You tense up a little bit and start looking around at your surroundings a little more. You get in your car and lock the doors. You remember that things that lots of people take for granted--personal safety and respect for boundaries--are not givens, and that even expecting to be treated with basic human respect can be a risk that's not worth taking.

It takes the surprising experience of suddenly feeling safe to realize how rare those moments of safety and security are for people who live outside the mainstream. This fact is well worth our sadness, our outrage, and our disgust.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

what I know of love's austere and lonely offices

This is Max:

Max got sick six years ago; he was diagnosed with kidney disease and inflammatory bowel disease, which is basically like Crohn's disease for cats. Here's a list of his medications:
  • Metoclopramide (reglan), a drug to treat nausea and vomiting;
  • Metronidazole (flagyl), an antibiotic that treats diarrhea;
  • Famotidine (pepcid), to treat acid reflux;
  • Budesonide (entocort), a site-specific steroid to treat intestinal inflammation;
  • Injectable Vitamin B-12, to counteract the chronic loss of  nutrients;
  • Lactated Ringers Solution, fluids injected subcutaneously to support kidney function.

Twice a day, every day, Max gets a pile of pills. One of the medications, Flagyl, causes him to froth and vomit if it touches his tongue, so I pack it into gelatin capsules to avoid the mess.

Twice a week, every week, I inject Max with a dose of Vitamin B-12.

Twice a week, every week, I inject fluids under Max's skin. Lactated Ringer's solution is an electrolyte mixture of sodium lactate, potassium chlorate, and calcium chloride, and the fluids are designed to support cats with decreased kidney function.

Twice a day, every day, I put together a mix of prescription foods designed to strike a balance between supporting Max's kidneys and soothing his angry intestines. The ideal high fat, low protein food for one condition, see, is the exact opposite of the low fat, high protein food the other condition calls for. So I have to pay close attention and make tiny adjustments to the mixture as needed.

For six years, I've been caring for my chronically ill cat. For much of that time, my sister Laura shared in the responsibility, even though he wasn't technically her cat. (Max's secret power is the ability to get people to fall hopelessly in love with him.) Now, because Laura's in Boston and I'm in Indiana, I care for Max alone. 

There are people who argue that making the internet free and open was a mistake. There are people who believe that humans are essentially selfish, self-motivated individuals, and that the free, open model of most collaborative social media projects are misaligned to our basic human traits. Jaron Lanier, for example, has explained that an enormous mistake was the decision to make contribution to online projects like Wikipedia unpaid and often anonymous. He argues this has led, and will continue to lead, to a decline in quality of collaborative products and projects.

When I first started encountering this argument, about three years into my effort to manage Max's chronic illnesses, I found it preposterous--just simply ridiculous. I wondered what kind of person could actually believe that humans are guided by selfishness. Our species is driven by the strangest of motivators, making us deeply irrational an awful lot of the time. We do an awful lot of things for love, and not for money; we act in chronically selfless ways an awful lot of the time. I'm not talking about the big acts of selflessness--the martyrdom, the dedication to causes or social movements, the sacrifice of personal needs for a greater good. I'm talking about the smaller acts of empathy that guide our everyday practices. These are the behaviors that get obscured, because they're too small, too out of sight, for us to notice in any sort of systematic way. They're obscured in analyses of online communities, too.

And a lot of the time, because they're so small, because they're so inherent to our daily operation as humans, these acts of empathy go unnoticed even by the people who commit them. They're not moving, they're not touching, not in isolation. We wouldn't even know how to identify them or add them up, not for a single person and not for us all. And anyway, these moments are so often overshadowed by bigger moments of tragedy, cruelty, sacrifice, and love that we focus on those instead.

Which is how it probably should be. But let's not forget that the life of human beings is guided by the smaller acts too, by the moments and methods that fill up our hours and days. And let's not forget that those moments and methods are made up of kindness, love, and generosity an awful lot of the time.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Transgender Basics, via NYC's Gender Identity Project

"It is so painful to live a lie...and it's so freeing to be true to yourself. And we should be applauded for that. We should not be persecuted for that, we should not be discriminated against and denied services, housing, jobs, for that. We should be celebrated, and we should be valorized."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

short-sighted and socially destructive: Ning to cut free services

Lord knows I'm not a huge fan of Ning, the social networking tool that allows users to create and manage online networks. I find the design bulky and fairly counterintuitive, and modifying a network to meet your group's needs is extremely challenging, and Ning has made it extremely difficult or impossible for users to control, modify, or move network content. Despite the popularity of Ning's free, ad-supported social networks among K-16 educators, the ads that go along with the free service have tended toward the racy or age-inappropriate.

But given the Ning trifecta--it's free, getting students signed up is fast and fairly easy, and lots of teachers are using it--I've been working with Ning with researchers and teachers for the last two years. So the recent news that Ning will be switching to paid-only membership is obnoxious for two reasons.

The first reason is the obvious: I don't want to pay--and I don't want the teachers who use Ning to have to pay, either. One of the neat things about Ning is the ability to build multiple social networks--maybe a separate one for each class, or a new one each semester, or even multiple networks for a single group of students. In the future, each network will require a monthly payment, which means that most teachers who do decide to pay will stick to a much smaller number of networks. This means they'll probably erase content and delete members, starting fresh each time. The enormous professional development potential of having persistent networks filled with content, conversations, and student work suddenly disappears.

Which brings me to my second point: That anyone who's currently using Ning's free services will be forced to either pay for an upgrade or move all of their material off of Ning. This is tough for teachers who have layers upon layers of material posted on various Ning sites, and it's incredibly problematic for any researcher who's working with Ning's free resources. If we decide to leave Ning for another free network, we'll have to figure out some systematic way of capturing every single thing that currently lives on Ning, lest it disappear forever.

Ning's decision to phase out free services amounts to a paywall, pure and simple. Instead of putting limits on information, as paywalls for news services do, this paywall puts limits on participation. In many ways, this is potentially far worse, far more disruptive and destructive, far more short-sighted than any information paywall could be.

If Ning was smart, it would think a little more creatively about payment structures. What about offering unlimited access to all members of a school district, for a set fee paid at the district level? What about offering an educator account that provides unlimited network creation for a set (and much lower) fee? What about improving the services Ning provides to make it feel like you'd be getting what you paid for?

More information on Ning's decision to go paid-only will be released tomorrow. For now, I'm working up a list of free social networking tools for use by educators. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Update, 4/15/10, 6:48 p.m.: Never one to sit on the sidelines in the first place, Alec Couros has spearheaded a gigantic, collaborative googledoc called "Alternatives to Ning." As of this update, the doc keeps crashing because of the number of collaborators trying to help build this thing (the last time I got into it, I was one of 303 collaborators), so if it doesn't load right away, keep trying.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

clinging to lampposts: a video remix project

A few weeks ago, as my colleague Christian Briggs and I were creating our poetry presentation for Ignite Bloomington, I got myself inspired by creating this remix project of some key figures in the literature and media studies movements.

Though I am not a constructionist, I do find that I can find great personal meaning by engaging with new technologies that allow me to work with, reflect on, and making public both wonderful and powerful ideas.

Here, I'm working with scraps of contemporary popular culture, which I've lined up in a way that I hope calls into question how we think about social movements, information circulation, and tools for communication.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

an infographic that gets up in the fast food industry's grill

If you don't know how disgusting fast food restaurants are, the infographic below will explain. If you do know how disgusting fast food restaurants are, the infographic below is a good reminder.

I'm interested in checking out the veracity of the information below and I've designed a short, anonymous survey to start this. Would you mind taking a few minutes to answer seven short questions?

Click here to take my fast food habits survey.

Everything You Need to Know About Fast Food
Via: Online Schools
(reposted at Lean Mean Roomie Machine)

Now will you take my survey? It's short (only 7 questions) and easy. Click here to take the survey.

Monday, April 12, 2010

my mom gets on CNN

I recently published a post about my mom, Janet McWilliams, who has been fighting an excessively high water bill and has had a great deal of trouble getting local officials to respond to her attempts to communicate about the bill. After months of trying to communicate with township officials about her bill, she got tired of getting stonewalled and turned to local news media.

A letter to the editor of the local newspaper led to an article in the same newspaper, which led to a television interview with local news affiliate WDIV, which led to distribution across multiple national networks, including MSNBC and CNN. The video below ran on local stations, and clips from this video have been running on CNN's Headline News for the last two days.

Despite the media attention, my mom hasn't heard a thing from her local officials, who were also apparently contacted by the various media outlets and were not available for comment. I've also contacted several local and state officials about the issue and haven't heard back. I'll let you know if anyone does manage to get a response from those folks, but don't hold your breath.

For now, enjoy my mom's moment in the sun!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

how to make like an ally

You read Sady Doyle's blog Tiger Beatdown, right? Everybody reads Sady Doyle's blog Tiger Beatdown. If you've never been to this site, may I suggest you leave my blog immediately in order to immerse yourself in the glory and ladyrage that is Tiger Beatdown? Here, I'll even do something I never ever do: I'll give you a link to her blog that takes you directly away from my blog and deposits you at her blog, which if you haven't read her blog is actually where you belong anyway.

Today I want to direct your attention to the most recent Tiger Beatdown post, which is about feminist allies and offers a nice description, in the person of one Freddie de Boer, of how not to be an ally. Freddie, it appears, is Sady Doyle's enemy in the worst way: He explains that, as a feminist man, he's tired of being silenced by feminist women who purport to have more right to speak about sexism than he does!

Well, Sady gives ol' Freddie a glorious smackdown, which I'm sure he has already interpreted as yet another example of why we shouldn't let ladies speak their minds. In the middle of her smackdown, Sady offers up what I consider to be most excellent advice for anybody who wants to serve as an ally to a marginalized group. I'm going to include an abridged version of her advice below, though this should in no way hinder your intention to read the entire post in its gorgeous entirety.

Sady writes:
A common phrase, which just about every ally has ever heard or been instructed to heed, is, “if it’s not about you, don’t make it about you.” That is: If someone is describing a gross, oppressive behavior that some people in your privileged group engage in, then there is no reason to get defensive unless you personally engage in that behavior, in which case you need to stop complaining about your hurt feelings and focus on how quickly and completely you can cut that shit out. And rushing to the defense of people who do engage in the oppressive behavior, even if you don’t engage in it, is not acceptable, because you’re showing solidarity with your privilege, rather than with the people who are being hurt or oppressed. There is no better way to announce that you seriously don’t care about racism than to leap to the defense of some racist-ass people and ask people of color to stop talking about them in such a critical tone, for example.
To illustrate what the ally behavior Sady describes above actually looks like on the ground, I want to tell a story about my friend Adam, in whom I recently--and unexpectedly--found an ally.

I have a history of being a woman, and I also have a history of being involved in romantic relationships with women. I talk about the first thing all. the. effing. time. I haven't done much talking about the second thing, though I'm proud to announce that I'm getting better at talking about it.

I was out with a group of friends a few nights ago and decided to talk about it. Specifically, I decided to talk about my tendency to judge people who affiliate with organizations that make it their business to try to keep gay people as unhappy and unable to live freely and without risk of personal or psychological harm as possible. (I do not accept ignorance or political apathy as an excuse, in case you were wondering.) Uproar ensued around the table, which was filled with people who to my knowledge did not have any history of dating people of the same gender. Everybody wanted to weigh in on whether I was right or wrong to judge others. Everybody wanted to weigh in on whether I was being closed minded. Which was fine with me, really. These guys are my friends, and they seem to like me an awful lot, and I wasn't mad or upset or anything. I was interested in learning how each of my friends (some of whom belong to their own marginalized--or even doubly marginalized--groups) understood the notion of marginalization. I was intensely interested in fighting about this issue for as long as they were willing to fight.

But Adam, who I believe to be a straight white man, did something I didn't expect: He acted as my ally. He participated in the conversation, but he mainly did so to help me to clarify my stance and open up space for me to speak. He did this so gracefully and so intelligently that I assumed he agreed with me but only later realized I actually don't know his opinion on my stance toward people who affiliate with anti-gay organizations. I don't think he ever weighed in.

Adam is a classmate, and he's near the end of his graduate career. In class, he's kinda pushy and extremely talkative; he tends to dominate discussions and it's sometimes hard to get a word in. But on the other hand, he knows an awful lot about his field and has a lot to say about it.

So I know Adam can dominate a conversation, which means that in Friday night's discussion, he chose to stand back in order to give me more room to speak.

This is Adam:

Adam knows a thing or two about how to listen. Adam is an ally. I didn't thank him on Friday night, so Adam, consider this my thanks.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

how to penalize good citizens

In case you're wondering how a little guy like me ended up so mouthy, I want to show you the remnants of a fight my mom had with city officials in her local community.

My mom, Janet McWilliams, recently discovered that the toilet in an unfinished area of her basement had a slow leak. She got it fixed right away, but because the plumbing is tucked off in a little-used corner of her house, the toilet had already been running--refilling and refilling and refilling--for several weeks straight. The result: Instead of her usual $40 monthly water bill, she received a bill for $1,274.07.

My mom lives in metro Detroit, an area hit hard by the recession. Houses stand empty in her neighborhood. Schools are getting shut down. Unemployment has ripped through the region. My mom has suffered right alongside everyone else. So she was hoping for a little help from the people who are in a position to offer it. She was hoping for some understanding, for some way to work out a less painful cost for her mistake.

She went through the appropriate channels. She called the township. In January, she sent a letter appealing her case to the township supervisor, to the treasurer, to others. She didn't hear a thing for months. In March, she called to find out the status of her request and was told that nobody knew where her letter even was. Call back when the treasurer is here. Call back when the supervisor is here. Call back, call back, call back.

In late March, my mom was finally informed that while the township would accept payment in monthly installations and waive late fees, there would be no forgiveness of even a portion of her water bill. Keep in mind that my mom has been a resident of the township for almost 15 years. She owns her home, free and clear, and has never been late on a single utility payment in all that time. She pays her taxes. She votes. She is a faithful subscriber to the local newspaper, even though I've explained to her that print media platforms are not viable.

Keep in mind, too, that my mom's house is surrounded by properties for which the township is not recouping a penny on utility usage, because the houses stand empty, the former owners gone. At a time like this, you'd think municipalities would be looking for ways to support their remaining residents. You'd think they'd be looking for ways to help residents keep their heads above water. You'd think they'd be looking for ways to cultivate positive relationships with community members.

Yet at least on the face of it, it doesn't look like Redford Township officials are interested in doing any of those things. After my mom exhausted every channel, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Redford Observer explaining her frustration. Out of that came an article, which you can read here.

In the article, my mom says that she found the township's decision not to budge "rational." I disagree. Sticking to tradition, sticking to a set of rules that may well work fine in times of prosperity without paying any attention to the fact that things have changed, treating residents like interchangeable units instead of like the valuable, important assets they actually are--that's deeply irrational. It's that kind of short-sighted thinking that got us into this economic mess in the first place.

In hiring or electing representatives to act on our behalf (and let's never forget that this is exactly the role that local officials are intended to play), we expect them to act in good faith, with all due honesty and fairness. We expect them to try to avoid bureaucracy and to avoid behaving like bureaucrats when whenever possible.

And though I think we've lowered our expectations some after too many disappointments, it's time we started expecting our local officials to behave with empathy and to treat the system of rules and regulations as what they are: guidelines designed to support, not to penalize, good citizens.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

why I am not a constructionist

and why you should expect more from my model for integrating technologies into the classroom

I recently showed some colleagues my developing model for integrating computational technologies into the classroom. "This is," one person said, "a really nice constructionist model for classroom instruction."

Which is great, except that I'm not a constructionist.

Now, don't be offended. I'll tell you what I told my colleague when she asked, appalled, "What's wrong with constructionists?"

Nothing's wrong with constructionists. I just don't happen to be one.

a brief history lesson
Let's start with some history. Constructionism came into being because two of the greatest minds we've had so far converged when Jean Piaget, known far and wee as the father of constructivism, invited Seymour Papert to come work in his lab. Papert later took a faculty position at MIT, where he developed the Logo programming language, wrote Mindstorms, one of his canonical books, and laid the groundwork for the development of constructionism.

Here's a key distinction to memorize: While constructivism is a theory of learning, constructionism is both a learning theory and an approach to instruction. Here's how the kickass constructionist researcher Yasmin Kafai describes the relationship between these terms:

Constructionism is not constructivism, as Piaget never intended his theory of knowledge development to be a theory of learning and teaching.... Constructionism always has acknowledged its allegiance to Piagetian theory but it is not identical to it. Where constructivism places a primacy on the development of individual and isolated knowledge structures, constructionism focuses on the connected nature of knowledge with its personal and social dimensions.

Papert himself said this:
Constructionism--the N Word as opposed to the V word--shares constructivism's connotation to learning as building knowledge structures irrespective of the circumstances of learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity whether it's a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.

Examples of constructionist learning environments include the well known and widespread Computer Clubhouse program, One Laptop Per Child, and learning environments built around visual programming tools like Scratch and NetLogo.

why I am not a constructionist
Constructionism is really neat, and some of the academics I respect most--Kafai, Kylie Peppler, Mitch Resnick, Idit Harel, for example--conduct their work from a constructionist perspective. A couple of things I like about the constructionist approach is its emphasis on "objects to think with" and some theorists' work differentiating between wonderful ideas and powerful ideas.

Constructionist instruction is a highly effective approach for lots of kids, most notably for kids who haven't experienced success in traditional classroom settings. But as Melissa Gresalfi has said more than once, people gravitate to various learning theories when they decide that other theories can't explain what they're seeing. Constructionism focuses on how a learning community can support individual learners' development, which places the community secondary to the individual. I tend to wonder more about how contexts support knowledge production and how contexts lead to judgments about what counts as knowledge and success. If it's true, for example, that marginalized kids are more likely to find success with tools like Scratch, then what matters to me is not what Scratch offers those kids that traditional schooling doesn't, but what types of knowledge production the constructionist context offers that aren't offered by the other learning contexts that fill up those kids' days. I don't care so much about what kids know about programming; I'm far more interested in the sorts of participation structures made possible by Scratch and other constructionist tools.

If you were wondering, I'm into situativity theory and its creepy younger cousin, Actor-Network Theory. So what I'm thinking about now is what sorts of participation structures might be developed around a context that looks very much like the diagram below. Specifically, I'm wondering: What sorts of participation structures can support increasingly knowledgeable participation in a range of contexts that integrate computation as a key area of expertise?

why I'm mentioning this now
My thinking about this is informed of late by what I consider to be some highly problematic thinking about equity issues in technology in education. A 2001 literature review by Volman & vanEck focuses on how we might just rearrange the classroom some to make girls feel more comfortable with computers. For example, they write that

to date, research has not produced unequivocal recommendations for classroom practice. Some researchers found that girls do better in small groups of girls; some researchers argue in favor of such groups on theoretical grounds (Siann & MacLeod, 1986, Scotland; Kirkup, 1992, United Kingdom). Others show that girls perform better in mixed groups (Kutnick, 1997, United Kingdom) or that girls benefit more than boys do from working together (Littleton et al., 1992, United Kingdom). Other student characteristics such as competence and experience in performing the task seem in any case to be equally important, both in primary and secondary education. An explanation for girls’ achieving better results in mixed pairs is that they have more opportunity to spend time with the often-more-experienced boys. The question, however, is whether this solution has negative side effects. It may all too easily confirm the image that girls are less competent when it comes to computers. Another solution may be that working in segregated groups compensates for the differences in experience. Tolmie and Howe (1993, Scotland, secondary education) argue strongly for working in small mixed groups because of the differences they identified between the approaches taken by groups of girls and groups of boys in solving a problems.

For the love of pete, the issue is not whether girls feel more comfortable working in small groups or mixed groups or pairs or individually; the issue is why in the hell we have learning environments that allow for these permutations to matter to girls' access to learning with technologies.

Also, just for the record, the gender-equity issue in video gaming cannot be resolved just by building "girl versions" of video games, no matter what Volman and vanEck believe. They write:

Littleton, Light, Joiner, Messer, and Barnes (1992, United Kingdom, primary education) found that gender differences in performance in a computer game disappeared when the masculine stereotyping in that game was reduced. In a follow-up study they investigated the performance of girls and boys in two variations of an adventure game (Joiner, Messer, Littleton, & Light, 1996). Two versions of the game were developed, a “male” version with pirates and a “female” version with princesses. The structure of both versions of the game was identical. Girls scored lower than boys in both versions of the game, even when computer experience was taken into account; but girls scored higher in the version they preferred, usually that with the princesses.

I don't think that the researchers cited by Volman and vanEck intended their work to be interpreted this way, but this is exactly the trouble you get into when you start talking about computational technologies in education: People think the tool, or the slight modification of it, is the breakthrough, when the breakthrough is in how we shift instructional approaches through integration of the tool--along with a set of technical skills and practices--for classroom instruction.

Looking at my developing model, I can see that I'm in danger of leading people to the same interpretation: Just put this stuff in your classroom and everything else will work itself out. This is what happens when you frontload the tool when you really mean to frontload the practices surrounding that tool that matter to you.

This is the next step in the process for me: Thinking about which practices I hope to foster and support through my classroom model and deploying various technologies for that purpose. I'll keep you posted on what develops.

One last note
I've included here a discussion about why I'm not a constructionist along with a discussion of gender equity issues in education, but I don't at all want anybody to take this as a critique of constructionism. I declare again: Nothing's wrong with constructionism. I just don't happen to be a constructionist. Also, I think a lot of really good constructionist researchers have done some really, really good work on gender equity issues in computing, and I'm just thrilled up the wazoo about that and hope they can find ways to convince people to stop misinterpreting constructionism in problematic ways.

References, in case you're a nerd
Joiner, R., Messer, D., Littleton, K., & Light, P. (1996). Gender, computer experience and computer-based problem solving. Computers and Education, 26(1/2), 179–187.
Kafai, Y. B. (2006). Constructivism. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 35-46). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Kirkup, G. (1992). The social construction of computers. In G. Kirkup and L. Keller (Eds.), Inventing women: Science, gender and technology (pp. 267–281). Oxford: Polity Press.
Kutnick, P. (1997). Computer-based problem-solving: The effects of group composition and social skills on a cognitive, joint action task. Educational Research, 39(2), 135–147.
Littleton, K., Light, P., Joiner, R., Messer, D., & Barnes, P. (1992). Pairing and gender effects in computer based learning. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 7(4), 1–14.
Papert, S., & Harel, I. (1991). Situating Constructionism. In Papert & Harel, Constructionism. Ablex Publishing Corporation. Available online at
Siann, G., & MacLeod, H. (1986). Computers and children of primary school age: Issues and questions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 2, 133–144.
Tolmie, A., & Howe, C. (1993). Gender and dialogue in secondary school physics. Gender and Education, 5(2), 191–210
Volman, M., & van Eck, E. (2001). Gender Equity and Information Technology in Education: The Second Decade. [10.3102/00346543071004613]. Review of Educational Research, 71(4), 613-634.

my model, in case you were wondering

Sunday, April 4, 2010

thoughts on creative writing, MFA programs, and the social beat

I recently participated in a local event called Ignite Bloomington, where my co-presenter, Christian Briggs, and I performed a poem we called "the social beat."

The design of the background images, the development of the poem, and the planning of the performance were all completed collaboratively; this was by far the most collaborative creative project I've ever been involved in. I say that as a graduate of an MFA program who spent three years doing almost nothing but creative work. I say that as someone who intentionally moved away from what I'm coming to see as the antiquated approach to writing that pervades creative writing programs around the country.

I write more now, and more creatively, and with more enthusiasm, than I ever did during my days as a 'poet.' In part, this is because the primary type of writing I do these days is far more public and persistent, and more closely linked to issues that matter deeply to me, than was the writing I did as a creative writing major. But the writing I do nowadays is also more aligned with my ethos: These days, I embrace openness, collaboration, and collective knowledge-building; and producing, circulating, and building upon others' ideas online meets these interests nicely. In fact, this "writing publicly for a networked public" thing meets my needs like gangbusters.

Creative writing, at least in the MFA-program sense of the term, never did meet my needs or interests. It felt too far out of my control. We more or less buy the idea of the "muse"--call it flow if you want, call it the zone, call it whatever you want, but what it means is that we embrace this strange idea that the greatest works emerge when you can set your conscious mind a little bit to the side and let your unconscious break through to the surface. It had to happen in silence. It had to happen alone. And you couldn't control it. You could only control the circumstances that make it more likely to happen.

Sure, fine. We need people to make those great brilliant works by betting on the muse. But that way of thinking about writing is just not for me--it never has been. I'm more into the "how do you get to Carnegie Hall" approach to writing, which is why blogging, and the attendant potential readership, appeals so much to me.

And when it comes to creative writing, I'm kinda into this "collaboration" thing. Coordinating the partnership is tricky and time-consuming, but if you find the right partner you end up standing on each other's shoulders, finishing with something better than any one of you could have written on their own. One thing I know for sure is that the work that came out of my collaboration with Christian is better, stronger, more powerful than anything I could have come up with on my own. I'm proud of this work, maybe prouder than I was of any poem I wrote on my own, and I'm proud to include the poem and a video of our performance of it below.

the social beat
Jenna McWilliams & Christian Briggs

let’s walk it backwards:
when a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
looks out at you and smiles
you think something has begun
but that’s not a smile
it’s a grimace it’s a sneer
you’ve got that camera around your face and a 21st century leer

but it’s a circle, a cycle, a snake that eats its tail
explosion, says mcluhan, split the instrument from the wail
and now we’re walking that split backwards to where the hammer meets the nail
to where the language meets its speaker and the face removes its veil

is this a flat world?
a kind world?
a world framed as a game?
what’s the win state?
who’s losing?
should we send it all up in flames?
and with every change we fight for does it all just stay the same?

in 1984 papert blew up the school or said computers would
{they didn’t
or if they did, they hid it}
it’s a long revolution
a slow evolution
characterized by dilution and diffusion
and confusion
sometimes, but joy too, and profusion, collusion and elocution
and hope, and motion, and implosion
of space and time and multiple uses
we lifted our tech and it calmly spoke through us.

implosion: the same plane with the same name moves us and rushes us and smooshes us together
that long walkway is us walking away from the everyday pulleys and gears of our years
we climb onto the tech we climb into the sky
we can collaborate now we can elaborate now we can fly

it’s gonna crash
the school becomes a skull
its planks and its floorboards and its chalkboards and its front doors flash past us like shrapnel
as we dash past with laptops
the floor’s falling in and we have them building backdrops and stage props in woodshop.

they’re gonna fall
explode in on themselves, the freight and the chaos
beams buckling, roof knuckling under the weight
as crowds spill like kindling into the street
meeting each other again flinting and squinting again in the sun {ignite}

it’s all going under
it’s all yellow light slanting sideways across shining faces
it’s thunder
it’s traces of ozone it’s acres of blight
as we push back the night as it grinds to a crawl as the old ladies watch and wonder
they’re gonna go under

but the story’s not finished
they’re gonna defend
they’ll never give in. they learned how to stand in an age of their father’s machine.
they’re clean.
so they defend. and they default. and they defer
to the icon and its policies and its politics and its poetry
we automate the manual. now our hands are clean on the path to hell

cue eye roll.
we know how to build, we can do it again. so we build.
and we machinate. and we slap down machines to palliate the children
we fill them as if they were containers.
it’s heinous.
it took two days for those green machines to fill up with guess what? porn.

we’ve had millennia now of dissemination, maybe it’s time to change the story
to disovulation: one perfect idea at a time, sent out into the world
then we’ll let you guys fight over who gets to claim it.
or blame it.
millennia now of the Churchills the Hitlers the Gateses the Jobses the Spitfires and Messerschmittses and Habermas and Hobbeses

like a girl
in a field
face shielded from the sun
is still inside the lines
where something has begun

it’s the circle, the cycle, the snake has caught its tail
the explosion’s moving backward though the timid first will fail

the tots will test it, resisting with a poke, a prod, a post
the slightest and the smallest seem the most benign of rabble
filling up the tubes with what will mostly seem a babble
to defenders of the past

now they’re teens
on the street
the lines are giving way
babble turned to business
as the structures start to sway
but still defenders are within this
scene, clutching for the days….
that will no longer be..

you see…

the teens have grown and jumped the lines
we’re not walled in and not walled out
nor confined by any doubt
instead we clamber for the time
when all that’s in will all be out
a coalescing of the minds
whose synaptastics speed the time

technology will take its place
a toy a tool connecting us
aiding a collective us
crushing in both time and space
freeing up the play in us

we are those girls
in our fields
faces turned toward every one
collectively reflecting on the
thing that has begun
or is it ending as it rends us?
the scream igniting as it mends us?
unbends us and upends us:
a lick of flame, a bonfire, night brought shrieking to the sun
a slow sermon whispered softly:
there is much that must be done.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Time Lords walk among us

There are, it appears, Time Lords living among us.

According to this recent New Scientist article, up to 2 percent of the population is gifted with what's called "time-space synaesthesia," or the ability to see time as a spatial construct.

Here's how the article describes this gift:

"In general, these individuals perceive months of the year in circular shapes, usually just as an image inside their mind's eye," says David Brang of the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

"These calendars occur in almost any possible shape, and many of the synaesthetes actually experience the calendar projected out into the real world."

One of Brang's subjects was able to see the year as a circular ring surrounding her body. The "ring" rotated clockwise throughout the year so that the current month was always inside her chest with the previous month right in front of her chest.
For reasons I can't understand, this article was accompanied by a photo of Matt Smith, the actor who will be portraying the 11th iteration of The Doctor, when it's clear that a more accurate summary of this research would be accompanied by a photo of the real doctor, played by David Tennant.

There's also no word yet on whether time-space synaesthetes are capable of absorbing radiation and expelling it through their shoe, outsmarting the Slitheen, the Daleks, and the Cybermen, or showing us all a better way to live our lives.

Doctor Who fanvid by seduff.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

help me collect information on Twitter lurkers

I've gotten interested lately in the role of lurkers within the Twitter social network. I recently posted this tweet:

Though I wasn't specifically soliciting feedback on this issue, I received lots of responses from Twitter users who wanted to talk about how and why they user Twitter. These are, keep in mind, people who self-identify as lurkers--yet they responded to me through Twitter.

Clearly, this is something people want to talk about.

So I'm interested in finding out more.

I've created a short survey, intended to gather some basic information about the use of Twitter by people who consider themselves lurkers or light users of Twitter, and I'd also be thrilled to hear any thoughts you have on the phenomenon of lurking in Twitter or other online social networks, either through the survey or in comments to this post. I'll post the results of the survey to this blog. The survey is available here.


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