Saturday, July 16, 2005

On Warts, Farts, and Gaffes

Most anyone who is into educational technology tends to be forward looking and forward looking people tend to be idealistic and optimistic. The focus is on the upside potential and on what might be. This is a good and necessary thing because it motivates experimentation and trying new things. But it may make the educational technologists less credible in the eyes of others, including the faculty they are supporting (and encouraging to take next steps).

Partly for that reason and partly as I've written in earlier posts about becoming comfortable living inside my own skin, I'm interested in the uglier parts, the "warts" so to speak. The recent posts on large class instruction provide an example. Some other posts about why I'm ok with software provided by the market (when everyone else seems to be talking about open source) give additional examples.

A couple of evenings ago after a long day I watched parts of Good Will Hunting. That movie has been on TV too much and may have lost some of its power as a consequence. But it is a good one to veg out with and does make some interesting points. One of the key scenes is when the psychiatrist Sean, played by Robin Williams, finally earns the trust of Will, played by Matt Damon. Sean does this by talking about his deceased wife, she farted while she slept, and that was ice breaker. It was the mundane and personal, not the profound and universal, that did the trick. Sometimes I think we in educational technology try too hard to show what we know and that inadvertently ends up being off putting to the instructors we support. Maybe we should spend some time talking about our screw ups, not for self-flagellation, just to bring the conversation down a couple of notches and to make it personal.

Now I'm going to be cranky. That's happening more frequently, but most of the time I don't express it in writing. This past week or so, I've gone to Wikipedia several times to look things up. Earlier in the week I checked out an econ idea, efficiency wages. The entry was not bad. Then I check out another econ idea, the hold-up problem. The entry was more spartan and the sole reference was to a book by Luis Cabral. I know Luis and I like him, we even have a short paper together with a former student of mine, Vasco Santos. But Cabral is not the right reference for the hold-up problem. Oliver Williamson needs to be cited. I mentally noted that and then forgot about it for a few days.

This morning I looked up the word "gaffe." The entry in Wikipedia got me mad. I learned that word when I had a subscription to The New Republic, perhaps twenty years ago. The critical idea, as I recall, is that some politico makes an error by speaking the truth. The Wikipedia entry didn't include the truth part and seemed to equate gaffe with blooper. That really bothered me. I went to and looked up gaffe. I got the same bad definition. Aarghh!! So who is the authority writing these pearls of wisdom? I went back to Wikipedia and added a sentence to the definition. (I didn't log in but was able to do this.) The change was duly recorded and attributed to my IP address (which is meaningless since I'm at home and the ISP uses DHCP). Is this a way to build an encyclopedia? Or is this a way to get near and far approximations thereof? What if I hadn't known the word gaffe from an earlier period in my life? Would I then have accepted the definition Wikipedia offered up? There are some people who believe that usage rules. Perhaps. But spreading misinformation and turning that into usage should not. If this is what community software produces, count me out.

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