Learning from the Blogosphere

I’ve repeatedly waxed rhapsodic here about the potential of Web 2.0 to change the way we think, learn, and engage the world. A lot of this hope evolves out of the potential it offers for collective thinking and learning. An example of such potential realized is at the center of the US Attorneys scandal.

Talking Points Memo, a weblog operated by three men out of a small office in Chelsea, has pushed the story since early January. They’ve produced original reporting, but have also depended a great deal upon the participation of their readership in tracing the contours of the scandal. Here’s a piece from the LA Times that details TPM’s process.

TPM’s work has employed collectivized information gathering and sifting. After noticing that several US Attorneys were being replaced late last year, TPM’s editors deputized their readership and asked them to send relevant clips from local newspapers. TPM aggregated the clips, revealing a pattern of politically-motivated firings. Two weeks ago the Department of Justice released more than 3000 documents related to the purge. TPM asked its readership–most of whom had been following the story for two months–to sift through the documents and discuss their findings online. The staff followed the threads to identify which documents to highlight, and built a timeline of significant events and players in the scandal. TPM has owned this story, out of a combination of editorial leadership and reader participation.

The big media outlets who originally paid little mind to this story are now on top of it, thanks in part to TPM’s muckraking. In this process, the editor/reporters there have modeled some ideas that I think are central to the integration of technology into teaching at the college level:

  1. By empowering their readers to contribute, they’ve magnified the impact and worth of their enterprise.
  2. By funneling the flow of information through their own expertise, they’ve shaped the potential chaos of many voices into purposeful and concrete journalism
  3. By identifying themselves as journalists who work through a blog rather than bloggers who do journalism, they’ve influenced their field without letting the power and newness of the medium overwhelm their mission

Each of these points has a corollary in technological pedagogy. Technology at its best can augment what happens in the classroom, sharpening lessons, expanding fields of discussion, and magnifying student engagement with the materials under consideration. The teacher’s role in this process is central, and the employment of technology should be in support of a firmly defined pedagogical goal. Finally, just as good journalism is good journalism whether in print or on screen, effective teaching is effective teaching whatever the medium. The core rules of the disciplines still should dictate how technology is and is not used. This last point is important to revisit time and again because the power of the medium threatens at times to overwhelm the content that’s explored through it. TPM shows us that with a firm goal and high standards, it needn’t.

The Sound of One Hand Blogging

If you meet the Buddha on the road, blog him. Take a look at this short but sweet treatise on the Zen of blogging entitled Zen and the Art of Remarkable Blogging at Copyblogger. It’s writing tips from the Buddha himself. Here’s a taste:

Buddhists believe that suffering begins with our perception that we are separate and distinct from the rest of reality. In other words, our own egos make us miserable.

In blogging, the publisher / reader mindset can also cause you unnecessary pain. The key to successful blogging is an alignment of interests between writer and reader. It’s that sweet spot where what’s good for your readers matches what’s good for you.

Don’t focus on having a great blog. Focus on producing a blog that’s great for your readers.

Useful stuff.

Save the Internet: Net Neutrality & What It Means (for educators)

I like to think of myself as a somewhat semi-informed person, but apparently I’ve been in the dark about the issue of net neutrality and how Big Business is threatening the way we use and navigate the internet.

I learned that the United States has fallen behind in internet speed–we’re worse than 10th place when it comes to delivering content. All the marvels and miracles of the internet, such as conferencing with medical specialists and virtual classrooms, require fiber-optic internet connections, which phone companies promised to build in the 1990s and never did.

Now these very same phone companies want to charge internet sites a fee that determines how quickly their pages load. This means that if your blogging site can’t afford the fee, your site may never load. In the same way that the channels on TV and radio and cable are owned by a handful of corporations, so too might the internet be owned by a few corporations, thus censoring free speech and commerce.

The work that we do as educators is already so pushed into the margins of commercial America. How much more invisible will a non-neutral net cause us to be? I can see helpful sites, such as the OWL at Purdue, the Dante Project, or our very own cac.ophony getting pushed into the “slow lane” of a non-neutral internet. These phone companies are, I kid you not, trying to convince us that the internet has “lanes of traffic.”

For more information on net neutrality and how it affects us, please go to Save the Internet.com.

Aristotle and PowerPoint

I just came across an interesting article by Cliff Atkinson in the March 1, 2005 issue of Executive Travel. In “Beyond Bullet Points: How to unlock the story buried in your PowerPoint,” Atkinson describes an important point of convergence between the Humanities and the Business World.

The problem with bullet points and slide headings, says Atkinson, is that they typically do nothing more than establish dry, lifeless categories of information. What is usually missing is a story, something “juicy, coherent and full of life.” Hence, “some of the world’s largest organizations have adopted the word ‘story’ as their new mantra for corporate communictions.”

Atkinson cites Aristotle in his definition of “story”: it should include “action, a plot, central characters,” and even “visual effects.” He adds that classical notions of rhetorical persuasion should also play a part in the formulation of presentations. PowerPoint slides should thus articulate a story, an old-fashioned narrative incorporating ancient ideas of how to be persuasive.

Some interesting food for thought, I think, for those of us engaged in both Humanities and Business education in institutions like Baruch.

The Universe of English: A Freshman English Program

In the previous post, I have talked about the Freshman Year Composition Task Force that I am working with. In an attempt to keep notes of my thoughts on this project, I am going to write on some of the programs that I am familiar with as a former member. I hope that this might be of interest to not only the members of the Task Force but also to anyone who is interested in this topic. I will start with a Freshman English Program in a Japanese university. Although it is basically an ESL program (hence not focusing on writing necessarily), it might be a good example of a very controlled Freshman program.

In 1993, the Freshman English workgroup at College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Tokyo launched a new freshman English program, which requires all instructors of the English courses in the liberal arts school (freshman and sophomore years) to use one single textbook (called the Universe of English), which consists of readings in popular culture, sciences, history, literature, etc., accompanied by audio-visual materials and exercises that have been prepared by the staff of the workgroup. This was a groundbreaking move, because this means that more than 7000 students of the same year take the same content course. The program turned out to be a great success and the textbook, the Universe of English , was published for purchase for general public and made a bestseller.

A large part of the success comes from the fact that it achieved a very high level of control and consistency in terms of the course content and evaluation through all sections (several dozens) of the English class. The progam started a year after my year and I know how things used to be; everyone taught a different English class, and by everyone I mean dozens of instructors. Nobody knew what everyone else was teaching, and usually the textbook was something that the professor was interested in and was usually some literary work that they publish as a textbook. If you hit a professor who is actually into teaching ESL, you might get something more practical and fun (such as watching movies), but that was rare. The grading scheme was also very obscure, somewhat consequently; you might hit a demanding professor and get a bad grade, while in other sections everyone might just get an A. So this new program achieved a new sense of fairness and clarity among students and instructors. Also, from an instructor’s standpoint (I also taught this for a year), preparation for this new class is extremely easy. Every week I was given a videotape to play in a class, plus an exercise worksheet to use in class. All I had to do is to do the reading and explain the hard part to the students. That was it.

However, there have been drawbacks. As the discussion on the school’s official website (sorry, there is no English version) admits, the class can become really monotone and boring as a result of too much control; as an instructor, I found that not spending too much time preparing, especially for the readings that weren’t so interesting, resulted in monotone teaching. Also, because there is only one textbook per course (that thousands of students are all taking), it was so easy for someone to start selling a cheatbook for the textbook, which you can purchase for cheap to use when you skip a class. So for the end of the semester exam, I got a lot of students -I mean a lot- who never showed up to a class and got over 80% on the final exam. Astonishing.

The school has recently replaced the textbook and revised the way to supplement this reading-heavy class by requiring all freshmen to take another course, which they can choose from comprehension (reading) and presenting (oral or written), to enhance other aspects of ESL. They also have a support system in managing this course by hiring English-speaking international students to hold a discussion group for students to sign up to talk about the materials.

Even though they have some issues to work on, this program is a good example of actually achieving a drastic change and a high level of control across the sections of the course.

Who’s Mad?

This is the best time of the year. Spring is in the air, and so is madness. March Madness, that is.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I am a college basketball fanatic, though many in the academy (and my family) probably think I should be more than ashamed. For hoops nuts like me, the past week of conference tournaments has been mere prologue to the main event. This is a week in which I must work conscientiously Monday to Wednesday to make up for the distractions brought by the first days of the tourney, Thursday and Friday. No matter how hard I try to be responsible, buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas will inevitably wind their way into my consciousness and push to the side any sense of duty. I’m not alone. American productivity won’t be aided by the emergence of March Madness on Demand, an online viewing tool that rescues diasporic fan-bases from the frustrations of CBS’s regional programming while threatening to undermine bottom lines everywhere. Every one of the games in the first three rounds is available for online viewing, for free. CBS advertises the service as for those “stuck in a cubicle” during daytime games, and the video player even features a “Boss Button” which you can click to immediately transform your desktop into an Excel spreadsheet. No kidding.

As irrelevant as all of this may seem to the regular goings on here at Cacophony, there is a link… there are many, many links, actually, and you can follow them to learn everything you want to know about college hoops and the tourney, and to research selections for your bracket challenges (the FBI has estimated that more than $2.5 billion changes hands in NCAA office pool betting).Fans of college basketball, like many people who invest ridiculous amounts of time in their passions, have firmly ensconced themselves in the blogosphere. College hoops bloggers range from the sabermetricians who focus on statistical analysis to the homers who obsess publicly about their teams. Many blogs offer predictions for the tourney, others aggregate the day’s hoops news and etceterata. One offers a petition that argues CBS should fire their obnoxious and analytically-underwhelming color analyst, Billy Packer. A site I read every day combines many of these approaches: Big Ten Wonk is run by an Illinois fan/American History PhD/stats-maven who offers 7-day a week blogging during tournament time under the heading “A Wonkalypse Now.” He regularly works Hegel and the Frankfurt School into his analysis. If I remember correctly, the Frankfurt School last appeared in the tournament as a 16-seed in 1989, and almost knocked off UCLA.

Beyond justifying how I’ve spent a lot of my time over the past few days (and months), this post is meant to show one example of how the blogosphere and Web 2.0 have welcomed and nurtured a cacophony of voices around a topic. In the process, they have changed how people relate to to the world of college hoops. The blogs above and the gazillion online college hoops forums have allowed passionate fans to express themselves, engage and connect with others, and learn more about the game they love. The pulse, flavor, and core issues of college basketball are accessible in a trip through these blogs. March Madness was around well-before these developments; they’ve just made it madder.

Speech Accent Archive at George Mason University

Oh the wonders of the web. Linguist Steven Weinberger of George Mason University administers and maintains the wholly impressive Speech Accent Archive, a collection of recordings of native speakers of a myriad different languages (currently 210) reading the same passage in English:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

Here are some examples from native speakers of Georgian, Urdu, Norwegian, and Tamil.

There are currently 661 samples and more are added regularly. Many of them include phonetic transcriptions of the recording and are annotated with phonological generalizations, general rules that help to describe a given speaker’s accent. Samples also include biographical data on the speakers, including age, sex, place of birth, age when they started learning English, the learning method, and a number of other interesting facts.

The interface is very easy to use and there are a number of ways to browse through the archive including by language and region. The search function is quite powerful as well. Seasoned linguists and dabblers alike can spend lots and lots of time on this site. Take a look. (Thanks to Jim of bavatuesdays for the tip.)

Faculty Development Workshops: Think Small, Dig Deeper

Last week Diana and I ran our first faculty development workshop of the semester. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was on helping students develop thesis statements. We both are pretty content with the turnout as well as the level of engagement. We found it especially helpful to keep the content of the workshop limited to a few major points and as many hands-on exercises as possible. In a workshop last semester we were so eager to give as much information about high-stakes writing as we could that we ended up overwhelming our participants a little. This time we decided to focus on one very specific but important issue (thesis statements) and go into more depth with it. First, we presented the faculty with examples of good and weak thesis statements and asked them to formulate essay questions that would generate each example. Then, we worked with their existing assignments by asking them what would be a good thesis statement that they would like to read in students’ papers and how they can revise their questions to generate that statement. We were all quite engaged in the exercises and even had fun.

Next one is on responding to students’ writing. Any suggestions?

Academic Integrity & Grades

At the Academic Integrity Conference at Baruch College on Friday, March 9, I attended a session called “Student Top Ten.” The goal of this session was to come up with a “top ten” of ways that students can “move the academic culture on their campus towards a culture that values integrity.” (This wording was taken from the conference program). The session’s participants included administrators from the CUNY system, a librarian, faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students from both Baruch and the Graduate Center.

Our attempts to come up with a “Student Top Ten” seemed to center on grading and what faculty could do to ensure that students weren’t being graded unfairly. There was also much talk about what faculty could do to help students discuss their grades with students more openly.

To dismiss any talk of grading while thinking of academic integrity, I asked why students are not valuing learning for learning’s sake, but the discussion circled back to grading. Perhaps it was my idyllic undergraduate years, spent amid the Blue Ridge mountains and lilac and dogwood trees, studying philosophy and liberal arts, that fostered a false sense of how others view learning. I always thought of learning as discovery, risk-taking, and creative thinking, but it seems as if some think of it as gaining an unfair advantage or finding ways to ensure an “A” in the class.

When I taught composition, I would always remind my students that grades were never assigned, but rather they were earned. I would be happy to talk to them about their strengths and weaknesses, but I would never discuss grades.

Grading, it seems, isn’t going to be done away with, at least not in the CUNY system. Given this, what might be some items to include in a Student Top Ten? How can we talk about academic integrity without circling back to grading?

Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day!

It’s a bit off-topic for this blog, but I think it’s an important holiday, and it’s somewhat related to communication, because this is one of those holidays, the discourse around which has been changing through the years. Since I’m most familiar with the Russian discourse around this holiday, this is what I will mostly talk about.

Although this holiday is international by nature, as the name suggests, it is celebrated differently in some parts of the world, and it is barely celebrated at all in others. It is actually quite interesting to see how the discourse around this holiday has changed since its inception.

It was Clara Tsetkin, a famous German politician and women’s rights activist who, in 1910, at the International Conference of Women Socialists in Copenhagen, proposed celebrating the International Women’s day. At first this day was marked only in a few European countries, mostly by rallies that demanded the right of women to vote, to work, to receive professional training, and to be treated equally on the job. The holiday started being recognized in more and more countries, and in some, like Russia, it even became an official day off. In Russia, after the Revolution, it also took an additional role of diverting people from celebrating religious holidays like Shrovetide that had been celebrated around the same time of year. Later, probably during the so-called ‘period of stagnation’ (1970s – early 1980s), when the official propaganda was aimed at convincing the people that there were no problems left in the country, and everyone was treated equally and fairly, this holiday was slowly transformed into a combination of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day in the USSR. Men presented women with flowers and gifts, and it became in a way a celebration of spring, beauty and femininity. So, as you can see, the original idea was turned upside down. Then, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, some of the former republics have dropped this holiday altogether, lest it remind their people about their Soviet past. And recently, from what I hear, many women in Russia have been rebuking the idea of the International Women’s Day, but not because its original idea has been abandoned, but because… it designates only one day per year when women should be appreciated.

In the meanwhile, in 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations began celebrating 8 March as International Women’s Day. In adopting its resolution on the observance of Women’s Day, the General Assembly cited two reasons: to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security. So, the UN took the original idea and added its twist to it, stressing the idea of international peace. The UN has been supporting a large number of programs and events related to women’s rights in different countries.
Nowadays the urgency and passion of the original idea seems to have been subdued, and, sadly, in most countries all the media does is simply state that this is the International Women’s Day, but nothing else really happens.
Now, I won’t tell you what my favorite reincarnation of this holiday would be, but I think it deserves to be celebrated. Since the nature of this holiday has been so volatile, maybe it could become a holiday with an open meaning, in which women can be celebrated in different ways, depending on your beliefs.