A holiday exculpation for Facebook

One might wonder, after all, what all these comments and quips on FB amount to? What lasting impact do they have? Ah, but then one walks through the stacks of an old library or sees unending lists of films (available on Netflix, etc.) that never made it. Everything crumbles to dust eventually, so the wish for immortality via the production of cultural objects is hopeless--and narcissistic, to boot.

To share a photo or make a remark that generates a discussion (or just a "like") may be enough--the right level of ambition for most human utterances. Like a candle at dinner or a warm fire, they create a temporary glow but one which is real--and really shared. A toast, then, to our friends and our "friends": may your holiday be filled with wit, wisdom, and cheer from far and near!


Six Warnings to Keep in Mind While Envisioning Education's Online Future

At my school, fellow professors and deans been studying the MOOC and online learning trend--we call it "disruptive" technology. And we're strategizing about it. But some of us are not thinking that it is the apocalypse many predict. But we're thinking hard about what it might be.

For my part, I think many of the articles we've read in the press about the "end of the university" say more about what it takes to be a journalist these days than what is actually portended by MOOC's etc. One must write sentences like this: "In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it." [http://the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1352] This kind of journalism wailed that cassette tapes would destroy record albums, then said DVD's would end movie theaters, etc. Those aren't perfect analogies, but what is true is that new technologies always seem to erase from journalists' conscious attention all the qualities in the older technology (or social practice) that are *not* present in the new technology.

Ok, enough ranting about journalists. Below is a kind of  "whoa there" meditation I wrote for university types worried about coming trends. It doesn’t dismiss the changes, but it emphasizes what will likely remain valuable in the face of change. I have changed my actual univerity’s name to “MyU” to make it generic.

Six Warnings to Keep in Mind While Envisioning Education's Online Future 
(besides ”wear clean underwear because you never know when you’ll be in an accident”)
December 16, 2012

Socrates said he knew “nothing” — except that he did not know. But he knew enough to implore  his fellow citizens to justify what they claimed to know and sought to teach them a way to investigate when they didn’t. Socrates was well enough loved and respected that his ideas live on today; he was also hated enough for Athen’s powerful to put him to death. 

This is all just my pedantic way of lowering your expectations about how specific a “vision” I want to lay out for you in the next few minutes. Instead, what I’ll do is state what I take to be significant principles and warnings for MyU to keep in mind as it imagines the road ahead.

Here they are, in brief:
  1. 1. “Be yourself” (Authenticity)
  2. 2. “There’s no place like home.” (Location)
  3. 3. “Be nice to your kids--they’re going to take care of you when you’re old.” (Loyalty)
  4. 4. “Beware of Magic Beans” (and news reports of magic beans) (Autonomy)
  5. 5. “Fight the Good fight.” (Citizenship)
  6. 6. “Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.” (Pluralism)
“Be yourself” (Authenticity)
The struggle to define our “brand” will tempt us to look at how others are doing things. This is helpful, but can be dangerous. Our assets are real and specific to MyU; we must not lose sight of them as we envision our ideal and future self. No one likes a phony.

“There’s no place like home.” (Location)
One way to “be ourselves” is to remain mindful of MyU’s prominence as local-regional force. While we explore for new (and possibly distant) resources, we shouldn’t second guess the durability of our local mission. 

MyU has been forged into a hardy alloy extending to a variety of audiences: local-metro/regional/national and international. The first two are our greatest strength — and will continue to be. People continue to move to my city, continue to want to work here, and our knowledge economy is growing. However we use technology to extend our “brand,” we must not harm our efficacy in providing an education for local people. As one of my colleagues put it, "We have naturally developed into a place somewhat different than our sister institutions” because we can provide “flexible, cross pollinated, hands-on degrees in an urban environment."

Let me sharpen my point just a little. Marshall McLuhan predicted that a “global village” would be the result of television. This has not happened. While millions of people are in greater contact than before, and there’s a generally more cosmopolitan awareness, the importance of face-to-face experience—of meaningful local and regional interactions—has increased.

“Be nice to your kids--they’re going to take care of you when you’re old.” (Loyalty)

Investment in location creates genuine bonds of loyalty. Education that is collaborative and humane (focused on issues central to being a “person” and not just an “employee”) creates bonds of loyalty and, somewhat ironically, longterm financial support. We must develop a vision that thinks through how to care about our students; put another way, striving for “student success” means striving to make “care” the central virtue of education. Reflect for a moment about the teachers who have inspired you. Your loyalty was inspired by the method and sensitivity of that teacher, not by the information delivered. If our university wants to cultivate an alumni community, we must enhance the experience of people who come to campus. We mustn’t dilute the message that care is core to who we are and what we do.

“Beware of Magic Beans” (and news reports of magic beans) (Autonomy)
Don’t be ruled by your tools. As imagine our future, we must remain aware that we are surrounded by a relentless “siren song” of technology. New products (and an industry of “news” about those products) trumpet the arrival of “revolutionary technologies” every single day. Neil Postman, an NYU educator and philosopher of technology sized up our culture as a “technopoly”. For Postman,

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. (Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York, Vintage Books, pp. 71-72.)
In a technopoly, a surplus of information is generated by technology. This constitutes a problem, which technologist propose to solve with more technology. Society’s habituation to the patterns generated by information technology (problem-solution-problem) results in a historically radical shift in direction and purpose for society and individuals. We move away from, in Albert Borgmann’s phrase, "focal things and practices" toward a device paradigm. (Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. University of Chicago Press, 1984.)

These philosophers are articulating common sense. We know it is often true that “more is less” and “less is more,” especially when you keep your eye on what’s genuinely valuable in the long term. Note that we typically never hear this from technology’s greatest proponents, because they have a financial incentive which prevents them from telling  you “less is more.” (The cost of technology driven healthcare in the US is a case study on this point.) Note, too, that the PR value of technology isn’t lost on many administrators. They know that a picture of a beautiful new technology lab is much sexier than sinking investment money into people, where it remains, for PR purposes, largely invisible.

“Fight the Good fight.” (Citizenship)

We are a “public university”: of the people, by the people, for the people. We must not give up making the “public good” argument. After all, what we do is a public good, and unless the university is merely another business or a job training institute we will lose our mission (and our brand). We must  keep educating people about this.

Yes, it is difficult to come up with a marketing campaign to highlight this function. But I think this is a question of strategizing our advocacy for the longterm. Our challenge is: how can we make the case for the public good of education in a technology-rich democracy? As we make a case for more democracy, we can adapt technology to suit our ends, rather than adapting our ends to suit technology. (Horse first, then cart!)

“Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.” (Pluralism)

The functions of a university are threefold: to collect data (information), organize it purposefully (knowledge), and to debate and formulate the best ends (wisdom). None of these functions need connote an “ivory tower.” Indeed, in a modern democratic and scientific institution like a university, it’s essential that we establish a dynamic relationship with multiple, wider communities to generate all three. Research and practice can only thrive in an ecology that engages the wider public.


The last point I want to make is a simple one: we cannot become just another middleman, and that’s what we become when we see ourselves as mere purveyors of information or vocational necessities. As Udacity’s co-founder (and Stanford alum) David Stavens conceded “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” he says. “There’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” (“College Is Dead. Long Live College! Can a new breed of online megacourses finally offer a college education to more people for less money?” By Amanda Ripley, New America Foundation; October 18, 2012 | TIME Magazine)

I think Stavens is wrong about this--you don’t have to be one of the “top 50 schools.” You have to be known in your region as a “top” place and you have to keep your costs down. We’re already there--and now the challenge is to strengthen our position and build outwards.


On the Failure Engendered When Students Are Encouraged to Provide Live Public Tweet During Lecture

Regarding: http://www.personal.psu.edu/cpl2/blogs/TheLongRoad/2012/11/twitter-community-and-the-firs.html

Commentary: Interesting experiment. Being a professor myself, I have come to look at the situation this way: it's become a commonality that students need to feel engaged in order to pay attention. But they need to be engaged in a certain way--one where they actively listen but also pause to absorb and reflect, perhaps even prelinguistically, upon what they've heard. (Think about how we listen to a symphony: we don't become a music critic after the first 10 measures; we take what we've heard and let it *be* there--in our RAM, if you will--and that makes listening to the next 10 measures different and cumulative.)

When students are invited to tweet/comment at a sentence by sentence pace, they are engaged, but in a way that obviates the kinds of pauses above. Effectively, they are actively distracted. There's a chemical basis for this: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/why-were-all-addicted-texts-twitter-and-google One of the things I take myself as "teaching" students is a different way of paying attention than is trained by our device-centric culture. The "longform" approach to attention. Also called "thinking"!

I do see there as being ways to use Twitter to enhance the lecture, something perhaps even a bit less active than what you originally intended. Perhaps telling students they could use Twitter to compose 3 tweets during the lecture, a selection of which would be presented during Q and A, later.  That way, they'd be careful about how often they broke attention without feeling "shut down". It would be a kind of lottery.

Anyway, since I've never tried this, take it for what it's worth. I appreciate Chris Long's sharing his experience and for taking risks.


Romney: I will whack PBS

To paraphrase Romney in debate #1: "I like you, Jim, and I like Big Bird. But you're both going down."


Walking and the Development of Children's Autonomy

September 11, 2012

Autonomy of movement. Growing up in  Wading River, I walked almost everywhere. To friends’ houses; to the beach; to explore; at Halloween. I wasn’t driven everywhere and there were no play dates. My parents had a rough idea of where I was at any given time, but only a rough one. 

I’ve been trying to remember what such autonomy of movement did for me as a kid and what the lack of such autonomy has had on my own children. I’m sure that the ability to go places without adult intervention--to choose the path I’d take, whether I’d investigate this or that on the way, had a big impact on me. Not only the self-reliance to get from  point A to point B, but the ever-present imaginative requirements of how--and when--to get there.

Wading River

(photos: Wading River, NY: map of where I walked, growing up including, at right, the old "Lilco" path which we would walk from Wading River to Shoreham (and beyond, sometimes).

Walking places seems like the most minor of things, and in some ways I feel like an old-timer crowing about the virtues of pumping one’s own water at the village well, but the more I pack my kids into the car to go half a mile to their friend’s house, the more I wonder: what are they losing as I make an offering, once again, to the gods of Risk?


I  honestly believe Ohio was stolen in 2004.  And this year, there's a full court press--with many different tactics at work. Voting roll purges, limited access to polls in Democratic leaning counties, photo ID requirements with not enough time for local governments to comply--it's quite a list. And all to prevent "voter fraud" which is manifestly unproven is not demonstrably false. And I've not even mentioned the role of ALEC or Citizens United's funding in these things. Are we witnessing a permanent strategy by the GOP to win by any "banana republic" tactics necessary? And is it the smart thing for Dems to just file lawsuits and/or wring their hands? Protests seem to be starting--methinks the peoples wants their vote to count.

Great charts on voter suppression: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/voter-id-laws-charts-maps
General issue: http://thehill.com/opinion/columnists/karen-finney/230805-ending-voter-suppression
Florida: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/08/15/691171/rick-scott-administration-new-voter-purge-florida/
Ohio http://www.harpers.org/archive/2005/08/0080696
PA: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/the-93-year-old-face-of-pennsylvania-voter-id/2012/08/16/ed4b3b06-e7d8-11e1-9739-eef99c5fb285_blog.html


Kingly Incompetence Polling Dead Even?

When I stand back and look at the incompetence of the Romney campaign's messaging, his pathetic struggle to defeat the troglodytic primary contenders (Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich, et al.), his obvious and unapologetic membership and policy push for the top .1%, and his undisguised "Etch-a-Sketch" flip-floppery--when I stand back and look at all that, it simply *beggars belief* that this race is even close. And yet it is. WTF, America? WTF!


Technology, Education, and the Chalkboard: Braking Technology before Technology Breaks Learning

I've been thinking a bit more about Mark Edmundson’s piece in the NYT: "The Trouble With Online Education" 

Some have jumped on Edmundson for too-quickly painting technology with the same broad brush and then flushing the whole lot down the toilet. But I think what he’s offering is not a standard “proof” against technology; rather, it is a “cry of conscience.” That kind of statement requires a different form of understanding, and it’s questionable as to whether those besotted with technophilia can demonstrate the capacity for such understanding.

We have a problem that transcends both the university and learning technology, which is the way what counts as "culture" has come to be mixed up with the means provided by technology. The issue can still be largely framed in McLuhan’s problematic--the “medium has become the message”--but what this problematic means to us requires us to spell it out, wrestle with it, debate it. We start to spell it out by admitting that we are increasingly a device culture; we arrange our lives and our devices (and our corn-syrup-based-foods!) to provide us with quick responses which quickly die away. As a colleague would put it, we want our dopamine fix, engendered by every next move on the video game, every next tweet.  (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20545602 has some nice data on dopamine and video games) 

This cultural preoccupation with devices, with technology, is part of a larger deterioration of meaning, what Nick Carr calls "the shallows" or what Albert Borgmann calls a disregard for “focal things and practices.”  And when universities become businesses, and become consumer-driven, they seek to give students what they want, immediately, and that gives profit-motivated administrators and presidents what they want, immediately. How’s the bottom line? Good? Well, then all is right at the U. In this narrow utilitarian dystopia, “efficiency is maximized”: students get their dopamine and bottom-line-watchers get their dopamine (and a pat on the back from the business magnates on the Board of Regents and the Chamber of Commerce). But this scenario misdescribes what universities are supposed to be doing. Universities are dedicated to a much deeper set of human purposes over much longer time frames; they're devoted to knowledge and the genuine growth of individuals. They’re meant to produce citizens capable healing ills which are not just economic and creating goods on which no price tag can be affixed.

Technology need not frustrate these goals, but we need to be very careful in how we go about it. What does “being careful” mean?  It means at least the following: when the larger culture seems confused about why kids should go to college at all (especially in an economy that's not supporting their loans or creating jobs for them) it's doubly confusing as to what technology is supposed to be doing. Technology helps us be more effective and efficient--but for what larger end? Technology cannot supply the ends, but in a culture turning away from ends-thinking, both technologists and consumers mistakenly think that technology can supply the ends--or at least make us more efficient while we’re getting around to talking about ends. But this is a blunder because every new enthusiasm about technology is also, in part, a choice to divide our attention away away from hard thinking about values, ends. 
Those iPads and magic Google glasses and electric cars are awfully shiny and cool. Distractingly cool. Conversation stalls because the implicit promise of every new iteration is this: “The future is here now, so why waste time debating about it?” In short, we’re “conquered by cool,” to re-purpose a Thomas Frank book title, and we’re too addicted to notice that our mouths are agape, brains spinning frictionlessly. 

Do I hate Powerpoint? No. Am I a Luddite? No. Whence the chalk-board? There may yet be a place for chalkboards, some of the time. I love my iPad. I love the web. I love chalkboards, too. Why? Because sometimes I don't know what to say and I need a silent, blank, board to start with; sometimes I don't want content foisted upon me all at once. Sometimes, I like to not worry about connectivity and battery life. 

There's something about the simple self-reliance which a chalkboard calls for--it's like taking a walk with no iPod. Just me and my thoughts and the chance encounters with nature and other people. Existential confrontations with being, not with "content." And typically something really cool emerges from these "low tech" encounters that could not happen with more technology present. We are forced to pause for longer than we've become comfortable pausing, but the extra wait pulls us out of our habits (for speed, visual flash, dopamine) and we wind up creating something about which we can say, "That's mine. I made that." And what we’re making, after all, is us. We are becoming human.


Finding a Path Away from Violence

Carl Fredrik Reutersw√§rd sculpture “Non Violence” 1985 Malm√∂

Re: Aurora, CO shooting, 20 July 2012

Ok, I've got to stop reading about this shooting. I'm afraid to say that while gun laws can help, we have a deep, deep addiction to violence--you can see it in our deep love of football, boxing, violent heroes and our *total unwillingness* to take responsibility for the tens even hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by military action overseas. Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, drone strikes all over the place--the list could go on. Do we have hearings? Do we want to know who were the children and parents and innocents lost forever? Do we want to put our leaders in jail for the crimes they've committed? No, actually. Dick Cheney is raising money for Romney, Condi Rice is prancing about, Rumsfeld is living large, and George Bush is building his Orwellian history library. Unless we are willing to really commit to a change in habits, in how we teach about the nature of conflict and the moral ways to resolve conflict, we will never solve the problem of violence.


Are Tattoos Evidence of Essentialism?

Are Tattoos Evidence of Essentialism?

I went to a Rockies baseball game recently; walking around, I felt as if I had stumbled into a tattoo convention. They were (are) everywhere. And this got me to wondering: what does this act of self-expression say about the underlying view of human nature?

There are two kinds of reactions people give me when I ask about their tattoos. One is pride that they chose a design (or words) which capture who they are and expect to always be. The other is regret (sometimes more than mild) that they got the tattoo--it bespeaks either a rash choice or an earlier understanding of themselves which they now have outgrown. (It's like looking at your marginalia on a Herman Hesse book that you read in high school. "Wow." "So true." "Meditation=Truth." You get the idea.) Both point--perhaps--to a motivating philosophical urge behind the choice for a tattoo which denies (consciously or unconsciously) the reality of change. The tattoo is a gesture at expressing and declaring one's essence, once and for all. Change of mind (about aesthetics, sentiment, etc.) and change of physical state (the effects of weight gain or loss, wrinkles, etc.) are implicitly denied by the act.

If this is all wrong, then my question has to be: If you got a tattoo and did not expect it to always speak a truth, why did you get it? Did you intend to remove it or do you have a "second act" explanation for what it means?


Did We Do Anything In The Classes I Missed?

Frequently students who miss a bunch of class assure me they've "kept up with the readings" and wonder "if they've missed anything." Since my classes are humanities classes, they're discussion and inquiry-based. So, I finally wrote a longer reply explaining what it means to miss philosophy classes. Here it is:

Dear Student-who-has-missed-many-classes:

Regarding the work you need to make up, I don’t suppose there's much I need you to do. The class is really about the activity of philosophy. It's about the conversation and critical thinking, together. Our readings are typically short and the exams are pretty straightforward. Most of what happens in a class of mine happens in class.

Imagine for a moment that you joined the tennis team, and then you missed a bunch of practices. The question “Did I miss anything?” is, in a way, absurd because what you missed is the experience of playing tennis and getting better at tennis. You've missed interaction with others and the growth that comes from that. You've not been playing tennis; thus, you've missed everything.

In short, what you have missed in our class has been the experience of discussing philosophy and getting better at thinking philosophically. It's not a question of information or “content”. It's a question of what the class is really meant to do for your education. 

So the simple answer to your question is “no”-- there is no work to make up, and I simply need documentation to make sure the attendance part of your grade doesn't suffer.  The longer answer your question is that you’ve basically been missing the most important part of the class, though it's not one which, for this class, will have a significant impact on your grade. 

I guess it all comes down to what is ultimately important to you beyond the grade.