Wednesday, June 30, 2010

entering graduate school, quitting utopia

I just spent several hours revising my curriculum vitae, which I can't imagine is very interesting to you. I do want to share with you my revised research statement. When I looked at the statement I wrote about 10 months ago, I found it embarrassingly utopian and a little bit silly. Also, it didn't really say anything.

Here's that version of my research statement:
My interests lie at the intersection of media studies and education. I'm fascinated by the promises inherent in the emergence of new valued participatory practices and cultures, and specifically on the potential of these to transform how we think about and approach teaching and learning. I'm also deeply obsessed with the Free/Open Source Software Movement, the movement toward open education, and what I've started to refer to as the social revolution: A deep, cultural shift in values and practices that enables us to rethink issues of social justice and the ethics of participation.

Ridiculous, right?

Here's the new version:
Research as activism: All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore conduct research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community's interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to serve.

The community I serve: I work in the service of working class learners, on whose backs our education system has been built. While ongoing efforts toward “educational equity” sprung from honest and honorable impulses, the dominant conversation about equity promotes ideals that too often fail to serve the needs of working class kids. It’s also premised on a lie: That anyone who works hard enough can escape even the most desperate of economic conditions. We might call this the “bootstrapping myth.” If it really was true that anyone who works hard enough (i.e., anyone who pulls herself up by her own bootstraps) can achieve academic and therefore economic success, then it would also be true that everyone could, in theory, achieve academic and economic success. But if this were true, we would no longer have a working class, would no longer have people to work in the service industry or take jobs in manual labor. Our economy cannot operate without a working class; if working class kids started matching the grades and test scores of the middle and upper class kids, we’d simply adjust accordingly.

I accept but do not embrace this reality, and I therefore want to work in the service of learning communities for whom mainstream markers of academic success are either unrealistic or inapplicable. I wonder: How can we make a college education a possibility for every student while also preparing every student for trajectories that may not include a college degree? How can we empower working class learners to confront the Great Lie of the bootstrapping myth, and how can we help them to make informed, meaningful, and satisfying decisions about their educations, their careers, and their lives? How can we educate working class kids in their own best interests?

My research focus: I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion by Schwartz & Arena (2009) that assessment is a normative endeavor. What we decide to assess, and the strategies we employ in order to assess it, become our belief systems about the nature of learning and about what is worth teaching. I’m interested in developing alternative assessment systems and frameworks that can make explicit an educational approach that empowers, values, and supports working class kids. Currently, my focus is on developing assessments that support learning gains on traditional educational benchmarks while also making it possible to make claims about students’ preparation for future learning contexts and about their proficiencies in areas not measured by traditional assessments.
Now we're cooking with gas!

I guess now that I've revised my research statement,  all I need to do is wait for a Reputable Research Institution to call me for advice and pay me for my thoughts. I'll just be over here waiting for my phone to ring.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

paintball sonnet

You realize right away that if it didn’t hurt we wouldn’t call it fun.
“Fun”: horseshoed knots skimming slim skin, the harder your muscles
the tighter, the brighter the bruise. Cartoon pops
paint like blood bombs but tastes like those silicon beads that come
in vitamins that you’re not supposed to eat. All for the chance to _________.

So much sweat your facemask fogs on its smooth trip down your face.
I shot my boss right in the nuts: that was fun. Sort of. I felt kind of bad.
All for a reason to say now do you get why boys go to war? If it didn’t hurt
we wouldn’t call it fun but if they didn’t give us facemasks and rules and referees
we also wouldn’t call it fun: We’d call it that horrible game. Anyway. I got hit square
in the breast and it hurt. I awoke the next day with a headache for the ages.
That part about the paint’s taste? I made it up: I really don’t remember.
Advil cut the headache some.
I took pictures of my bruises and sent them to my friends.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

you don't need to be that tough

Here's a commercial that ran in Norway. The text at the end reads:

You don't need to be that tough.
Helpline for gay youth / We guarantee we'll answer.

In my opinion, this commercial, which the creator has said was developed as part of an advertising competition, sort of fails. Its target audience, gay youth, are supposed to feel affinity with that kid, right? But though the commercial attempts to convince us otherwise, the kid's behavior isn't brave--it's kinda stupid. First of all, whether the other boy is straight or not, he's clearly into the girl sitting next to him. Even if this is the Most Progressive School Dance in the History of Western Culture, asking someone to dance when he's clearly into someone else is just begging for public rejection. And given the purpose of the commercial, we can assume this isn't the Most Progressive School Dance in the History of Western Culture--it's the kind of school dance we're all familiar with, the kind at which asking someone of the same gender to dance is an act of extreme bravery, even if that kid isn't already sitting with someone else.

And what makes this an act of extreme bravery? Well, the fact that it's insanely risky to publicly present yourself as gay. And what makes it risky? The fact that, according to this commercial at least, straight kids are not to be trusted--they're dangerous. And coming out to the straight kids is the stupid kind of bravery, at least according to this commercial.

So the messages of this commercial include:
  • If you're a gay adolescent, coming out to your classmates is extremely brave but kind of stupid and also unnecessary.
  • If you're a gay adolescent struggling with coming out, it's better to talk about it privately with people who promise they won't reject you than it is to talk about it openly with your (straight) classmates, who will probably reject you.
  • If you're a gay adolescent, the straight kids you go to school with are dangerous for you.
  • Coming out is brave but also dangerous, and before you do something stupid you should talk to us about how to do it right.
  • If you're a gay adolescent, your impulses about how to perform your orientation are probably wrong, and we can tell you how to perform your sexual orientation appropriately.
Imagine you're a 12-year-old boy struggling with coming out. You see this commercial where a boy with whom you're supposed to identify not only behaves really stupidly but then also gets his actions judged by the very people who say they want to help him. "You don't have to be that tough"--translation: Call us--we can tell you the right way to come out.

Queer kids deal with enough judgment from their families, their friends, their classmates, their culture--they don't need more people telling them how they should behave, and they certainly don't need a support agency for gay youth telling them whether they're behaving appropriately.

Friday, June 18, 2010

MIT quits open-source Kuali project

What happened: Recently, MIT announced it would discontinue partnership with the Kuali foundation on an open-source project called Kuali Student. This came, according to an official press release, after extensive discussions with board members and people and groups directly involved in developing this student-administration software.

What the press release didn't say is why MIT made this decision. It seems likely that the decision was financial. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, MIT is the second higher education institution in the last several months to pull out of Kuali Student; Florida State University withdrew in February due to budget cuts.

Why it matters: MIT has been a strong and vocal supporter of openness in higher education and research. During my employ at the Institute, administrators officially adopted an open access policy which was designed to support the widest possible circulation of ideas, projects, and research generated by MIT-affiliated researchers. MIT has embraced the open education movement, investing copious time, energy, and dollars into its OpenCourseWare project.

If MIT's decision to withdraw from Kuali Student is primarily a cost-cutting measure--and again, we don't know for sure if this is the rationale--this does not bode well for open education. It's all too easy to treat the idea of openness as a luxury worth pursuing during times of plenty and simple to abandon during times of famine. But the openness movement, in all its iterations (software, hardware, education, access, and so on), is not a luxury. It's a necessity. Transparency problems are part of what got us into this mess in the first place, especially in higher education where access to high-quality learning is still sequestered off behind a series of wrought-iron gates that cost too much--too much time, too much money, too much sacrifice--for many of our learners to be willing or able to gain entry.

We are no longer in an era where we can afford to make powerful, empowering education available only to the few. Indeed, one can easily argue that it's not openness but opacity that is the luxury.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

omg I just talked to Howard Rheingold

You can keep your Robert Pattinsons and Miley Cyruses and whichever other beautiful prepubescent sexy people you young people idolize these days. My idols are people like these folks:

That guy in the lower lefthand corner is Howard Rheingold, who is by just about all accounts one of the kindest, happiest, most curious, most fascinating, most colorful, and most thought-provoking media theorists around. (If you want proof, take a look at this little gem of his writing.)

Because Howard is kind and supportive of other aspiring intellectuals, I've had email conversations and twitter conversations and blog conversations with Howard. There's this interesting feature of the new technologies that swell around us, see: They efface the distance--perceived and real--between our idols and our selves. If you're patient enough and quick enough, you can use these new technologies to climb right up on the pedestals your heroes are standing on and tap them on the shoulder.

And today in a webchat I got to talk to Howard--with my voice--about crap detection, participatory culture, and pedagogy. It. Was. Awesome.

It may soon enough be the case that the structures and norms that allowed us to toss up celebrities and intellectuals as cultural heroes--well, it may soon enough be the case that those structures crumble, leaving our heroes in the rubble at our feet. I'm young enough to hope it'll happen in my lifetime but old enough that I may not be able to fully shake the notion of the celebrity as icon. After all, I grew up alongside this:

And yes, I know that a huge chunk of Americans have never even heard of Howard Rheingold (or Lisa Delpit or Paulo Freire or Jim Gee or Henry Jenkins or Yasmin Kafai) and that these people don't count as 'celebrities,' as least not in the "zomg the paparazzi are everywhere" sense. I don't care. As Intel explains, our rock stars aren't like your rock stars.

how I kicked the email monkey off my back

I receive about 100 emails a day, which from what I can tell is typical for youngish, tech-based professionals like me. Also typical is my struggle to manage my email inbox. Like a lot of people, I spent more time wringing my hands over how full my inbox was or studiously avoiding dealing with my email or doing email-filter acrobatics than I did actually responding to email.

No longer, I tell you! My PLN has come through for me once again!

After a long weekend away from my email, my higher-than-average email stress levels led me to call out in anguish for help:

I got lots of helpful advice, but the most helpful of all came from my Twitter pal Matt Thomas, who directed me to Gina Trapani's solution: Control your email inbox with three folders.

I spent a few hours yesterday implementing this solution, with one important result: I got my inbox down to zero for the first time in literally years. As anyone in similar straits can imagine, the sight of an empty inbox left me feeling gloriously unburdened and a little giddy.

Who knows if it'll last? But just in case it does--and just in case Trapani's strategy can help someone else deal with inbox overload--I'm passing the news along.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

how Jim Gee and I soothe our guilty consciences

In the video below of a presentation to the Education Writers Association 2010 Annual Conference, Jim Gee says this about how to introduce innovative ideas into education:
There's a choice of strategies here.... One strategy is: Let's take our innovations to the center of the school system and spread them as fast and quickly as we can. People believe that this current school system as it is will just co-opt those innovations and make them ... just better ways to do the old thing. Another strategy is: Let's make these innovative learning and assessment tools and put them at the margins, in places that will tolerate innovation, and then show it works. Now if you think about it, in technology outside of schools, going to the margins first and then to the center--that's always been the way innovation happens. The only place we've ever tried to keep putting the new thing right in the center at once is in schooling, and it's never worked. What i would love to see is that we hive of some of the (Race to the Top) money for a national center that would trial these new assessments, show they work in places that tolerate innovation, and then spread them there, just the way you would want if we have to keep coal and oil--let's at least have something trying out new forms of energy, so that we're ready for these markets but also we can prove they work. if we don't do that, we're just gonna get a better mousetrap.

I absolutely agree with the sentiments in the quote above, except for the BP oil spill. Let's say there's some innovative energy research going on in the margins, ready to prove it works and to take over where coal and oil left off. That's fantastic, and it doesn't do a single goddamned thing to help the birds, the fish, the sea mammals, the tourist industry, the ecosystem, the fisheries, and the human residents of the Gulf Coast. Those are simply casualties, not a single thing we can do to help them now no matter what awesome innovative fuel source we finally embrace, no matter how much more quickly we may embrace a cleaner fuel source as a result. Even if tomorrow's birds are safe from Big Oil, today's birds are drowning right in front of us.

Working at the margins of education is a fantastic way to innovate and offer useful evidence that innovations work. I fully support this approach--but not at the expense of the kids who exist at the center of our education system today. Yes, the school system can and does and maybe always will co-opt any innovation we try to introduce. But that doesn't excuse us from trying anyway. That doesn't give us license to give up on today's children, even if it keeps tomorrow's children safe.

And of course this isn't what Jim Gee wants to do, anyway. But the Jim Gees of the world who urge us to work at the margin live in symbiosis with the Jenna McWilliamses of the world who believe we must also work from the center, where--ironically--the most marginalized kids in education commonly reside. I can't innovate as much as I'd like from the center, maybe I can't help tomorrow's marginalized kids as much as I'd like either.  And Jim Gee can't help today's marginalized kids as much as he'd probably like from the edges. So we need each other, if for nothing else than to assuage our guilty consciences for being unable to do more of what we know must be done.

I should probably also note that Jim Gee is one of my absolute all-time heroes, so I hope he's not mad at me for this post.

This video also stars Daniel Schwartz, who I believe is one of the smartest guys thinking about assessment and learning these days. I had the great luck to attend an assessment working group with him and a big crew of assessment-focused researchers, and I was amazed and blown away by just about everything he said.

In a recent publication, Choice-Based Assessments in a Digital Age (.pdf), Schwartz and his co-author Dylan Arena make this argument:

Educational assessment is a normative endeavor: The ideal assessment both reflects and reinforces educational goals that society deems valuable. A fundamental goal of education is to prepare students to act independently in the world—which is to say, to make good choices. It follows that an ideal assessment would measure how well we are preparing students to do so.

I can't remember when I've agreed more emphatically with the introductory sentence of a scholarly article about education.

Here's the video, which is well worth a watch.

things I'm trying to do this summer

  • Cut down on my caffeine consumption
  • Wash my dishes before bed each night
  • Step away from my digital communication devices from time to time
  • Read more novels

I believe that it practically doesn't matter what changes you decide to make, as long as they help you become more reflective about how you live your life. I'm not a spiritual person, which is to say that I don't have religion and don't feel a need to get some, but I do believe in the holiness of the moving body. I do believe that moments of total presence in one's life are rare and sacred and therefore are to be pursued with all one's might.

So little things--not letting dirty dishes stack up, reminding myself how to sit still and silent, re-learning the natural rhythms of my body and brain--can be tools in the pursuit of those sacred moments.

Friday, June 4, 2010

a poem by Khaled Mattawa

Khaled Mattawa

The trick is that you're willing to help them.
The rule is to sound like you're doing them a favor.

The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.

The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.

The trick is that you're providing a service.
The rule is to keep the conversation going.

The rule is their parents were foolish,
their children are greedy or insane.

The rule is to make them feel they've come too late.
The trick is that you're willing to make exceptions.

The rule is to assume their parents abused them.
The trick is to sound like the one teacher they loved.

And when they say "too much,"
give them a plan.

And when they say "anger" or "rage" or "love,"
say "give me an example."

The rule is everyone is a gypsy now.
Everyone is searching for his tribe.

The rule is you don't care if they ever find it.
The trick is that they feel they can.

Read this poem at

Thursday, June 3, 2010

on learning how to STFU

I argue with people. A lot. Sometimes I raise my voice and shake my fists while I'm arguing. I say inflammatory things and I swear a lot. Often, I'm told, I seem very, very angry while I'm arguing. This is usually because I am very, very angry.

I get mad because there's a lot to get mad about. I argue because certain issues matter to me. And I say inflammatory things sometimes because I'm impulsive, and I'm impulsive because the things that make me mad pop up spontaneously and unexpectedly. If you're not mad, after all, then maybe you haven't been paying attention.

I'm also a woman, by the way, and one who was successfully inculcated into a cultural belief system that prefers its women to STFU. Good job, patriarchy: You did your job well. I want people to like me. I don't like making waves. And I hate making people mad.

But I'm also doing my damnedest to kill that part of me that wants to be seen as cute and polite and deferential and modest. I've written before about the challenges of choosing this path; over in that blog post, I wrote this:

If you're a woman and you want to be heard, especially in academia, you have to knock on every door, announce your presence to everyone, and holler your qualifications at everyone in earshot. And if you do it right, people will hate you.

I've been thinking recently about the extent to which "doing it right" leads to silencing of other people or groups of people. I'm such an enormous loudmouth that I suspect that, for example, my presence in an argument means other women in the room are less likely to be heard. When I speak to my experience of prejudice or oppression, I always run the risk of silencing someone whose experience is different from mine. I understand oppression from the perspective of a queer woman, but as a white, thin, able-bodied queer woman I often speak from within the tower of privilege that comes with these features.

So how do I balance my desire to kill the deference I was enculturated to embrace while still knowing when and how to STFU and let others speak?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

This I Believe: informed citizenship and informed citizenry

Here's an inalienable right for you: the right to informed citizenship.

Citizenship, the informed kind, has two distinct angles to it. The first is the personal: We, all of us, have an absolutely inalienable right to the information that allows us to act in a civic and socially responsible way, and Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The second is the social: We, all of us, have an absolutely inalienable right to live in a society populated by informed citizens. We have a right to live among an informed citizenry, and any policy, law, or practice that restricts this right exists in opposition to a free and functional democracy.

In America, we embrace the right to informed citizenship; or, more accurately, we shout our support of informed citizenship up to the very rafters. Then we give Big Business a million incendiary devices to burn down that house.

There are explosives, like the recent SCOTUS decision knocking down campaign finance laws and giving corporate lobbyists unfettered access to our legislative and executive branches (and, by extension, the judicial branch as well).

Then there's the kindling, the petrol, the oxygen that keeps the fire blazing. Among the most powerful of these is the news paywall, which sequesters off information to which citizens have an absolute right. In theory, paywalls are no different from their precursors, subscription fees and newsstand prices. But two things have changed--our model of citizenship, and our access to circulated information--since those pre-internet days.

For example: In 1990-1991, during the first Gulf War, news was circulated fairly evenly across multiple platforms. An American who didn't want to pay for a newspaper could still gather information through television and radio. She could walk into a library and read the news for free. Certainly this wasn't a utopian ideal of a free press on every street corner, but the news that enabled a citizen to act was available through multiple outlets.

Today, the speed and reach of internet news sources make them by far the dominant news circulation platform. Indeed, the speed and reach of internet news are part of why a new model of citizenship is emerging. If there was ever a time when it was possible to measure civic engagement by looking at voter turnout on Election Day, that time is long past. Today's civically engaged citizen is the one who is aware of Facebook's abominable approach to privacy and has made decisions about how (or whether) to use Facebook as a result of this knowledge. Today's informed citizen may not know how many electoral votes are needed for a candidate to win the presidency, but she knows how to find that information when necessary. She votes on Election Day, sure, but she also votes with her feet and her eyeballs and her fingertips, constantly making informed decisions about how to parcel out her energy and time, when to dance along with corporate and political influences and when to resist, when to leave the dance floor entirely.

Paywalls make it harder for an informed citizen to stay informed, which in turn restricts my right to live among an informed citizenry. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the news that sticks is the news that spreads--via blogs, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and news aggregating sites like Boingboing. News that's stuck behind a paywall is news that can't spread and is therefore news that dies.

And that's not all: I believe that news paywalls are likely to have long-term effects on citizenship, as well, since I agree with James Seddon's point in his recent Wired article that young people who grow up without unfettered access to local news are likely to grow up without a sense of social and civic connection to their communities.

I recognize that the current business model for print journalism isn't working. I recognize that newspapers need to do something if they want to try to save their jobs. But in America, the eight-year reign of Baby Bush notwithstanding, we don't let business interests trump fundamental human rights.

I'm rooting for newspapers, I really am. I hope they survive this challenge. But news paywalls are in direct opposition to our fundamental right to informed citizenship, and my message to the print media folks is this: Find another way.

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