Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dis Interested and Dat Interested

Some folks seem in a huff about the DIY U book, both the author Anya Kamenetz and Stephen Downes, whom Kamenetz takes to task because he is a not a journalist. Kamenetz goes on to call herself an intellectual. I think she's right about Downes, but for the wrong reason, and she's wrong about being an intellectual, which makes a lot of the rest of the discussion problematic.

The canonical situation where investigative journalism clearly is necessary begins with power which is entrusted to provide a public good. Then, either through its deliberated machinations or en passant through the normal business process, power becomes aware of some damaging information. Power prefers to conceal this information to reap the benefits of the office. However, the public has a right to know, after which power must suffer the consequences. Investigative journalism is there to satisfy this public need. It doesn't always work well - we were suckered for way too long on WMD - but everyone should be able to understand the function. Insiders to power putting out information are just not credible. Think of BP's response to the disaster in the Gulf.

The problem with using this argument is not that it is wrong, but it is irrelevant. Downes is not a mouthpiece for educational power. And online learning is so distributed that looking for a concentrated power with insider information is simply misplaced.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be investigative journalism about Higher Ed. There is a basis for that in the most recent post in the Tomorrow's Professor series. The author argues that, at least within Engineering, research and teaching compete with one another rather than complement each other as is typically portrayed in those promotional videos delivered during the halftime of basketball and football games. This in itself isn't a story. One needs to push it further and argue with investigative evidence that tuition dollars are reallocated to research in a way that does not complement student learning and that this is an act of commission by high level administrators. Then one has to produce the goods to show this claim is true and not a bunch of malarkey.

It's interesting - this sort of investigative journalism doesn't seem to be happening at all, maybe because it is so hard to make the case. (My campus and university was the object of investigative journalism, but that was about an admissions scandal, which to this observer was a small potatoes issue.)

There is a different sort of journalism. I'd call it cultural anthropology for the masses. Malcolm Gladwell typifies this sort of reporting. There is no issue of concealment of information. Rather, there is some phenomenon that readers are unaware about or an explanation for the phenomenon that is unknown. This sort of journalism popularizes one or both of these. I take it that DIY U is in this category, though I've not read the book.

There is a question with this second sort of journalism whether insiders can do it too? (I'm thinking particularly of the Michael Wesch Video A Vision of Students Today. That video went viral so on the popularizing front it did a good job.) Before getting to that let me point out that there is a potential problem the other way - the so called journalist doesn't have a clue in writing the piece. When I held my Assistant CIO position and the Student Newspaper would write a piece about the Campus Learning Management System, that was always a concern. All the senior management in the IT organization got coaching from our public affairs office on how to interact with the press, just for this reason. The real problem is that you are typically talking about a complex issue that people want to investigate in a fairly short time period. So the piece ends up being superficial or missing some salient points. Indeed, that there is only one piece rather than a lengthy series is evidence that the goal is producing a published story, not muckraking. The problem isn't unique to student newspapers. It happens with the commercial press too.

This is actually an argument for insiders writing. They know what they are talking about and they are persistent. So what's the problem? Insiders may lack perspective. They also may lack objectivity. I believe the same can be said for Fox News and MSNBC. Some people might call what those stations do journalism (even if they color it yellow). I don't. I also have this rather old fashioned idea that news should be separated from editorial and only the former entails journalism. Downes makes no effort to sort his information in this way. I'm not saying he should. I'm just saying he doesn't. So I wouldn't call what he does journalism. Of course, words do have have a tendency to change their meaning over time.

There's one more point to be made. Downes writes a fair amount about himself. That is no sin. I do the same. When talking about learning everyone is a learner so not talking about their own learning would be really odd. But this has to do a number on the objectivity/subjectivity thing. The choice seems to be either to write objectively but then miss the first hand perspective entirely or give up on objectivity.

Kamenetz gives us none of this. If she simply referred to herself as a reporter, that wouldn't bother me. But she says she's an intellectual too. That irks - too self-possessed for my taste. I will not read her book.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A New Path For Me

I've been letting folks know that I'll be retiring from my current position at the end of July. Thirty days hath September and thirty years have I at the U of I. The immediate reasons for retiring are the budget problems, the incentives in the separation program, and the unfortunate reality where it seems I can be most useful now to the University by not drawing a paycheck.

I'll get to the longer term reasons in a bit. First I want to note that I view this more as a change in job status than as a move to the life of leisure. I hope to teach, consult, and write - to do fruitful things and I hope continue to have a positive influence, on learning technology and elsewhere. I also hope to do a mixture of volunteer work and for pay activity. We'll see how that sorts itself out. I'm open to possibilities as they might play out, though I'll be staying in Champaign for the foreseeable future, so alternatives that require moving are not in the cards.

I wrote about the longer term reasons in this post, which has a brief review of Crazy Heart and ties themes from that movie to the more general notion that Baby Boomers are contemplating their own mortality. By coinky dink, last night I turned on the TV around 8PM and The Visitor was just starting. It's a surprisingly good film that is partially about the same theme, using that to get to the a completely different idea, that with warmth and understanding we can make deep connections across race and religion, even if the way the the world works is completely screwed up in this regard. The U.S. immigration system is depicted in this movie in a bureaucratic, uncompromising way. It is entirely blind to whether the individual is a decent person or not.

The film seemed like a personal message to me, not the least because the main character was an academic economist, who found lack of meaning in his university work. He wasn't looking for this particular issue, just wanting to find a spark of life in an otherwise going-through-the motions existence. I don't see immigration as my issue, but perhaps somehow I can work to address some of the inequities we find in education. That would be a good theme for me.

Monday, June 28, 2010

White Space

With the World Cup monopolizing attention, one might think my title is a nod to the rest of the news, perhaps the Elena Kagan hearings and the Waspish opening up of the Ivy League schools 50 years earlier, that presaged this outcome with no Protestants on the Supreme Court. Or the irony in that we seem to be deeply into counting the religion of each Justice as we conclude that it doesn't matter for deciding the cases presented to the Court.

Lanny wearing a Iowa Summer Writing Festival Hat
Actually, the title refers to something I learned last week at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. (If you squint hard at the cap in the photo you can see the insignia there.) Among my lessons were that writing teachers like to draw a lot as a way to illustrate the dynamic in the construction of the writing and in the interplay between the writer and the reader. Another lesson was to take your printed-on-hard-copy-essay, arrange the pages on the floor, then stand on a chair so that none of the text is readable, but so that the pattern the text makes on the page emerges. One extreme is for the text to be very dense on the page. The other extremes is for - you guessed it - there to be a lot of white space.

The absence of text communicates.

The idea is that while the writer is a guide, the reader has to do her fair share of the work. Good writing recognizes this role for the reader. The canonical example is the shower scene in Psycho. It is all the more frightening because Hitchcock left the really gory stuff to our own imaginations.

The question arises whether this requires a paper version of the essay or if it makes sense in a blog too. Would people read longer work online if there were suitable spacing to allow for the reader to give her contribution? And then, what stuff should the writer explicitly include and what should be left out, for the reader to fill in?

I suspect this particular post will look awkward. But might others explore the idea to find a way it works well online? Once the reader is expected to scroll to read the piece there seems little cost in putting in the white space. What of the gain?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Everyone should become a personal librarian

Going through some old family photos, I found a folder of my childhood "accomplishments" and have scanned a couple of those. Below is a "report card" from summer day camp. I was 5 years old. The line of review that says I have the potential to become a "real camper" will live in Arvan family lore. Scanning means the next generation can take a look too if they so desire. I've not done much scanning before. Now I've got some desire to learn to do this reasonably well, whatever that means

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pumas, Bulldozers, and Trashy Entertainment

Apparently, male dominance has come to an end, and none too soon. It's been such a burden keeping up the pretense. I'm glad females are now taking their rightful place on the throne, though there seems to be some disagreement as to whether the new rule will be a partnership between the sexes or if the Y chromosome will abdicate, as if it hasn't done so already. Don't be fooled by the argument that it is actually all about class and race. Pushing that contention may get you brownie points with the lefties at the universities. But really, it's all about sex. It's always been about sex. You can blame just about everything on hormonal differences.

Over the years, researchers have sometimes exaggerated these differences and described the particular talents of women in crude gender stereotypes: women as more empathetic, as better consensus-seekers and better lateral thinkers; women as bringing a superior moral sensibility to bear on a cutthroat business world. In the '90s, this field of feminist business theory seemed to be forcing the point. But after the latest financial crisis, these ideas have more resonance. Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and levelheaded.

Yes, we fifty somethings are terribly emotional, even more so after having gone from alpha to omega. Of course, we've taken too much risk. We wanted to hit the big payday before we met the grim reaper – what a foolish concept. Now we're all sniveling whiners.

What is to become of us? No cougar will take us as her boy-toy. Will she simply plow us under, instead? Perish the thought. Maybe we can supply her with some other entertainment. Some gay repartee might do the trick. William Powell in The Thin Man to her Myrna Loy? Everyone loves a tippler. Or possibly the worldly philosophy of Groucho Marx, just to show it really was Margaret Dumont who pulled the strings? Or for pure silliness, what about Tommy Smothers?

Alas, we're not that funny. Looks like it's going to be mud wrestling.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Congruence of Incongruities

Of the Yiddishe Kop I am genetically disposed,
Though now we're told it's only an old wives tale,
Which makes it all the more likely I have one.

Saturday evening we rented Crazy Heart on Pay Per View. The younger son bailed on it after only a few minutes. The older one gave up a little while later. My wife fell asleep in the middle though she did wake up to see the end. Naturally, I was drawn in by it. I thought it was a great picture and surely will watch it again later this week. A fading country music star looks to find his own humanity on the way to hitting rock bottom. He is redeemed by his songwriting talent and the realization that his drinking is the root of his own evil, a narcissism that has made him quite sick and disgusted with himself.

Yesterday (Sunday) the New York Times had an odd piece on the homepage. Mickey Kaus, the blogger nee political columnist, is running for Senate in the California Democratic Primary. The seat is currently held by Barbara Boxer. Kaus' chance of winning the primary is little to none. His is a protest candidacy to raise the issues he deems important, which seemingly belong outside the Democratic Party. On immigration and unions he appears to be a Republican and those are his big issues.

Nowadays, we learn about ourselves listening to NPR, this review of Iron Man 2 a revelation. We Baby Boomers are getting older and contemplating our own mortality. The Media has figured this out and has decided there is profit in feeding us pieces that reflect ourselves and where we are in the life cycle. For the most part it is not fear of death that captures the Baby Boomer's attention. We're not yet old enough for that. Rather it is our relevance and whether what we do matters. Apparently, we feel we should matter more than we actually do, our talent and intelligence seemingly an entitlement that our work will be of consequence, yet only to find that mattering is outside our control. All that is within our grasp is our own efforts.

In the opening scene of Crazy Heart our protagonist is seen pouring a jar of liquid that might very well be urine onto the parking lot outside the bowling alley where he is to perform later that evening. The scene happens fairly quickly and might go entirely unnoticed but for a variety of later scenes in the movie where he is at least half lying down on a bed, perhaps with his guitar or a drink on his belly, and his belt is undone. Evidently, he is having bladder problems, an entirely unspoken theme of the film.

Life for the aging Boomer is full of indignities, some of the biological kind. We need to relieve this pain, either provide a distraction or find something that gives pleasure. Drink can do both, in moderation. Yet the decline feels like a full frontal assault. A moderate response is insufficient to counteract it. So we overindulge, creating a negative spiral. Once the fall is in full motion it can't stop till bottom is hit. The fall doesn't damage the talent. But it kills everything else that matters.

We're told that Kaus' blog had 40,000 readers. Apparently that wasn't enough for him. He needed to raise his visibility, in his own eyes. Mattering is a very odd concept. Mattering according to whom? What will happen to Kaus after the primary? Does he go back to being a blogger?

Why is self-expression not enough? Why do we need adoration too? Art can be found in the decline in man, much less so in his salvation.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

A giant has passed

Stan had a strong influence on many of us, including me. I wrote about my relationship with Stan in the middle of this book chapter entitled, Homage to Jerry Uhl.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Can Technology Let Us Return To The Childhood Joy Of Reading?

For learning to write criticism, Anthony Lewis makes for a very good role model, with his most recent piece in the New York review A Supreme Difference an excellent example. In that essay Lewis reviews two books, one a biography of current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the other a portrayal of outgoing Justice John Paul Stevens. Lewis, a liberal icon when he was a columnist for the New York Times, would seem to have a strong prior disposition against Scalia, who is noted as a strict conservative. How can Lewis render a fair verdict on Scalia, when their views on issues across the board are so distinct and everyone who reads this piece knows that to be the case? Lewis finds a way.

Lewis criticizes Scalia but also praises him for his prescience.

But Scalia remains the most interesting of the conservatives, the most provocative. He does not hesitate to be sarcastic, even contemptuous, about his colleagues when he disagrees with them. When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor disappointed him in 1989 by not providing the fifth vote to overrule the abortion decision Roe v. Wade, he wrote in dissent that her rationale "cannot be taken seriously."

When, a few months earlier, the Court upheld the post-Watergate statute allowing the appointment of independent counsels to investigate executive branch wrongdoing, Scalia was the lone dissenter. He saw the law as an infringement on the president's power to control the executive and said that it created a new branch of government, "a sort of junior-varsity Congress." His language seemed shrill, but Kenneth Starr's out-of-control impeachment investigation of President Clinton a decade later proved Scalia's doubts prophetic.

Lewis also covers Scalia strong points – his high intelligence, his charm with fellow judges outside the workings of the Court, even those with whom he disagrees vehemently, and his capability to make literary references as allusions to a high minded ethical view of the world while using that as a way to contrast with his own sense of the work of the lawyer, who must deal with the nitty-gritty and frequently ugly side of human interaction. Lewis does this for balance and fullness. The emphasis of Scalia's strong points also helps Lewis pose a puzzle. How can somebody with these strengths nevertheless remain an unrepentant ideologue, an adherent of Original Intent? Lewis implicitly argues that this adherence to ideology served to block an evolution of Scalia's views based on his experiences on the Court.

Having made these points, Lewis then continues with a critique of Scalia but only in contrast, by glowing about Stevens, a Ford appointee. (Scalia was a Reagan appointee.) Stevens is essentially non-ideological and hence inherently it has been much harder to see how Stevens would decide any one particular case. Stevens' core judicial precept seems to be a strong distrust of the concentration of power. His apparent movement to the left as he has gotten older is explained by Lewis as resistance to the power of the Court itself, and the apparent willingness of the right wing Justices (not just Scalia, indeed mainly Chief Justice Roberts) to pursue an aggressive political agenda. In Stevens, Lewis sees a Justice whose point of view has evolved and grown. Thus, while there are only two of the Justices really considered in this piece, Lewis makes the case that such evolution in view is fitting and natural. In praise of Stevens, Lewis raises his sternest criticism of Scalia.

While I'm no fan of original intent and balk at many of the conservative positions – The ruling that blocked the ban on political spending by corporations being the latest example – I wonder if Lewis is too harsh on Scalia. I have now finished all but the Diaries section of Between the Devil and the Dragon and have read the start of the Diaries as well. Hoffer was a philosopher with street smarts and lots of experiential knowledge of the ordinary man. I thought much of the book profound and would make for a great reading for anyone, but especially for college students. Yet at the start of the Diaries section Hoffer explains that he began the Diaries because he felt he was turning into a dullard and he was looking for a way to rekindle his imagination and get his juices flowing. Hoffer's idea was to write each day and thereby capture his fleeting thoughts, enabling the good ones to flourish.

This sense that as we mature we tend to become dull seems quite realistic to me, as I've been feeling the same sort of thing for quite a while. I wonder if most thoughtful minds experience a similar sensation, when caught in midstream between youth and senility. Adherence to ideology may then be a way to ensure intellectual productivity, once trust in personal creativity no longer seems warranted. If this is true then Stevens is indeed to be much admired, but then too he plays the role of exception. Further, as life expectancy continues to rise, it makes one wonder that much more about the wisdom of giving Justices unlimited terms.

What of the rest of us, who had no instinct to find ideology when we were younger and who likely would find an embrace of ideology in middle age too alien to seem a realistic possibility? Is there another alternative? For me, the "cure" seems to be an increased nostalgia and a redirection of efforts to discover again the intellectual joys of childhood, among which reading was paramount. I wonder if many of us would benefit from openly recalling our initial experiences with reading on without a parent present. Here are mine in a nutshell.

The basement was my place for reading. We had an overstuffed chair there that needed to be reupholstered. It was comfortable and sitting in it provided a sense of being securely encased. That sensation seems very important to me. This sort of reading is done away from others, not so much to keep them out but rather to keep me from entering their worlds. Snug as a bug lets the reader enter the world of the book unencumbered. My first experience this way must have been Charlotte's Web followed by Stuart Little. From there, my reading took flight. I probably did a fair amount of reading in the bedroom too. It was the natural activity before going to sleep. But I shared the bedroom with my brother. The little alcove I made for myself in the basement was mine alone.

The notion that reading is not just a solitary activity but that it is also an insulated one makes for an interesting dilemma. How, with the heightened interconnectivity in which we now live, do we create this sense of isolation? Posed this way the Nicholas Carr piece, Is Google Making Us Stupid, can be seen as an argument that we can't or that it is very hard to do, at least for those of us who are not luddites. But I think that Carr's argument is not quite right. There is technology that greatly assists with providing the requisite insulation. That technology is the earphone.

Music, particularly familiar music that now serves to comfort us rather than challenge us, provides a very good cocoon. I'm not talking about the music you occasionally hear blaring out of a car window, with the driver either oblivious to the impression he is making or, on the contrary, wanting to draw attention to himself, the raucous noise his form of self-expression. Instead I mean music of our own choice that while we might go to hear it performed live, in which case it will demand our complete attention, can also provide pleasure though listened to in a much more autonomous manner, where our focus is elsewhere, namely on our reading. It was this idea that motivated me to make a mockumentary (my first) called Kindle-iPod: Duel or Duet, a poor man's version of a Michael Wesch video. Alas, mine never came close to going viral, although it did serve to mark some earlier thinking about the ideas in this post, and in the process of making the video I learned enough that I could have students do something similar as class projects.

There is, however, a conceptual problem with the vision I articulated in that video. The duet quite likely will turn into a trio, with the various instruments not playing nice with each other. Unless you leave the smartphone behind, it has a tendency to take over, making for an unhappy trinity. This is why that on my PC at home, where I have the Kindle reader installed and iTunes too, I can't really achieve an immersive reading experience, once in a while perhaps, but not on a consistent basis. For this reason, the Kindle is most valuable to me when my Blackberry is out of sight. Not being a very disciplined sort of fellow, I let my compulsion to check email override the desire to get lost in the reading. In order to go back to childhood, I have to get past the consequences of that compulsion.

This is where I was till about 3 weeks ago, when I got my iPad. I've been testing it out and trying to get acclimated to it and I believe now I have enough experience with it to give my assessment. However, I'd like to avoid being redundant and just yesterday I read this review of the iPad by Sue Halpern. So here I'll content myself with discussing things she either glosses over or omits entirely.

Much of what I want to read these days are essays, those found mainly in the better magazines, though the Internet being what it is, interesting stuff can show up anywhere. A good bit of this is freely available stuff, and the browser therefore becomes the right tool as a reader. On that score Safari is reasonably good and especially that a quick double tap on the screen enlarges the font so even someone with bifocals like me can enjoy the reading experience. Scrolling is just as good as turning a page, maybe even better, and using your fingers to scroll is fun. It is visually appealing the way the iPad has done this where the text decelerates after the scrolling motion has been completed. I've been reading more magazine pieces online since I've gotten the iPad perhaps for this very reason.

There is the flip slide issue of this from the publisher's perspective. At the moment, though I'm not sure why, magazines that one can subscribe to on the Kindle cannot be exported to Kindle readers on other devices, such as the iPad. It is unclear to me whether that is an Amazon thing, a Publisher thing, or a mixture between the two. Some publishers will develop iPad specific apps. Currently the New York Times has a couple of those, though I would say they are wimpy. I can get the full paper through the browser, so why would I use the app? And with the fixed cost of developing such an app and the business risk that another platform (say by Google) might soon be the preferred vehicle and the development might not transfer at all to the next environment, wouldn't it be more prudent, especially for smaller publishers, to simply publish on the Web?

Once the browser is viewed as a legit candidate as a reader, the iPad starts to look quite different from the Kindle. When not downloading something from the Amazon store, I would turn off the network connectivity for the Kindle to increase the time between recharges. In contrast, the iPad is meant to be always connected. It is a network device, not just a reader. It is very slick in how it handles connectivity but as a consequence there is the very real issue of how long it will go without having to recharge it. This is the main area where the iPad is distinct from a laptop (and I believe what is driving the debate about Flash video). The iPad can go more than twice as long as a laptop between recharging. It's good for a full day of use. This is how it is most like a phone. And it is therefore intriguing whether it can be the sole portable device, with Skype perhaps in lieu of the phone.

Let me return to the question of whether the urge to check email interferes with immersion. It does, but so what? If you have the iPad with you sometimes you'll use it as a reader, other times as a phone. You'll do more reading that way, at least that's been my experience so far. So, I mostly like it a lot.

There can be a frustration with it however, especially if you think of it as a laptop substitute. One does other things with browsers than to use them as readers. The iPad version of Safari doesn't do pop-up windows. It doesn't do Java (which has gotten essentially no press while the Flash conflict has gotten a ton of press). So there are a bunch of apps that are off limits. And it doesn't do tabbed browsing either. The history function is not bad, but I'd still prefer to have several browser windows opened at once. There is also that as a voice input device (there is a decent microphone) it's non-trivial to get the audio elsewhere for re-use. I have to get it to my PC and then process it there before I can upload it for podcast. So as a production device, it is a bit clunky.

Here is one last point on the iPad as a reader. For the last year or two I've found myself at the end of the day preferring to watch TV than to read. My eyes get tired and for the most part there is less mental effort from watching the tube. So far I've watched only one TV show on the iPad. I downloaded the very first episode of 24, which was freely available in iTunes. The viewing experience was quite excellent. I downloaded it direct and it took quite a while to download. Also, I don't yet have the urge to use the iPad as a TV substitute. But that day may be coming soon. Reading may seem to be making a rebound with the big boost in demand for eReaders. But I'd be cautious on that one. Secretly many of us readers are also TV junkies. So if there is a new series that is as good as West Wing, watch out. Childhood was a great place for learning and personal growth. Yet there was also I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan's Island. Sometimes one can be too nostalgic.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Are screen shots and voice recordings in the typical student's arsenal?

When you have a new toy you play with it. That's what I've been doing with my iPad. Yesterday I put on the Kindle software - very nice except the periodicals don't come through, only the books.

Today I've tried Evernote. On the PC, I'd rather use Posterous, which does everything Evernote does and more. But on the iPad, getting the audio recordings out has proved a bit of a trick. Images are doable as email attachments but audio either is impossible or can be done but file size is limited or needs some special sync tool as in the case of iTalk. So Evernote seems like a cool alternative, though the voice quality is not quite as good.

Will students use these sort of apps in a rich way? It doesn't seem that they will do so of their own accord. Last fall when I had students blog it was a struggle just to get them to put in links into their posts. Yet when they did multimedia projects, they were quite expert with image use (at least most were) but in ordinary function they ignored images or only very rarely used them.

I wonder how many students know about Jing or about Audacity.