Loving-Kindness and Your Vagal Tone

In the online OpEd column of Friday’s New York Times, Barbara L. Fredrickson shared the results of a scientific research study which proved that the Buddhist practice of Mettā can positively influence the health of the human heart. According to Wikipedia, Mettā is the act of feeling tenderly and positively toward everyone and everything, even those that we hate; it is “associated with tonglen (cf.), whereby one breathes out (“sends”) happiness and breathes in (“receives”) suffering.”

In her OpEd, Fredrickson has a bipartite agenda. First, she shares the results of her research:

My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

The vagal tone is a subconscious process that controls one’s heart rate. I personally think that this study is a great example of how religion and social science can find some common ground. There is certainly a great deal of social value to meditation and spiritual practice–I wonder whether this and other studies will make those who disparage such practices think twice. This study also bridges a lot of ground between notions of physical health v. mental well-being.

The second part of Fredrickson’s agenda in the OpEd seems to me to be more dubious. She questions whether modern technology such as cell phones can negatively affect our social capabilities. This is the OpEd’s opening:

Can you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

As far as I can tell, nowhere in this brief OpEd does Fredrickson offer any rationale for how her study might prove that electronic devices reduce our biological capacity to connect. She uses the following inference to try to prove her point: face-to-face interaction positively influences social gene expression, therefore electronic communication diminishes our social abilities.

Where's the baby? Photo by Dan Zink.

Laptop time. Photo by Dan Zink.

I think that this is an interesting hypothesis, but I don’t think that Fredrickson’s study really goes very far in testing said hypothesis. What is needed is further study on how electronic communication affects our social capacity and the expression of what Fredrickson calls “the new field of social genomics.” I suspect that there are many socially positive as well as negative aspects of electronic communication, and that different users are affected differently. Fredrickson’s warning to mothers that they “may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression” seems a little hyperbolic to me, at least without the research to back it up. I’m left wondering whether this OpEd, while wonderful and intriguing, also favors fear-mongering over scientific subtlety.

Tearing Down the Academic Paywall

There are cracks in the great academic paywall. I’m not talking about academic article torrents, though they do exist (I will not link to them here). I’m thinking of how many humanists are cultivating online personas and attempting to bypass the paywall in a number of ways–by blogging about their research or getting permission from journals to share their articles publicly. Optimistically, this is a sign of contemporary scholars’ dedication to openness and democracy. Pessimistically, it is a sign of the pressure on the humanities to justify its existence to the public. Times are difficult when the President of the MLA appeals to CNN.com readers by insisting that “Having strong skills in another language may give you an edge when applying for a job.”

Academics’ efforts to bypass paywalls intensified following the recent suicide of programmer, Reddit co-founder, and hacktivist Aaron Swartz. JSTOR, the database whose articles Swartz allegedly tried to share freely, actually led the charge to bring down paywalls even before Swartz’s passing. In tribute to Swartz, many academics shared their previously-paywalled scholarship publicly, using the hashtag #PDFtribute (which in turn spawned pdftribute.org).

I support the ideal of open access to academic work, but I think that it is worth considering what it would mean to remove academic paywalls when most journals and databases have paid staff.


In a time when adjunctification is rampant, can we really justify de-monetizing all journals and databases? Journal contributors are unpaid to begin with, so for most academics removing paywalls translates into no monetary loss, only a gain in publicity. Yet, like it or not, academic journals, databases, and supportive software companies all make up an industry with paid staff. I personally work for an open-access journal, The Journal of Interactive Technology and PedagogyAt this juncture, our staff do not receive stipends or course release time. In an ideal world, the staff of every journal would receive some kind of support from their institution; yet, this is more likely to be possible at colleges with large endowments, meaning that the playing field could potentially be even more uneven with the removal of paywalls. Again, while I am enthusiastic about the possibilities of open-access scholarship, I also have to point out that the system of labor in the academy is already precarious, so that any new model should avoid exploitative labor practices.

Liberal education itself is broken, torn between the “the life of the mind” and the reality of stifling student debt and increased adjuntification. Fewer students are majoring in English: in 1971 7.6% of conferred degrees were in English, while in 2006 the figure was 3.7%. From a student’s point of view, at least, it seems as though the life of the mind doesn’t pay off.

Neither paywalls nor college enrollment limits can block the natural flow of ideas, especially today. Ideas are viral, they interbreed and sometimes occur spontaneously in different locations. We can see this even in the natural world when separate species independently evolve the same traits–what is known as convergent evolution. Ideas don’t really belong to anyone. They are a product of the accumulation of a variety of factors–social factors, economic factors, previous concepts/discoveries, etc. This is as true in the humanities as it is in the sciences. We often like to focus on one “genius,” one breakthrough moment, when most discoveries or inventions were many centuries and lifetimes in the making. For instance, Thomas Edison was only able to achieve so much success by outsourcing his work to others–to his “muckers.” In my opinion, in the humanities the “superstars” aren’t always the most original thinkers–often they are simply able to synthesize and express preexisting ideas in novel and exciting ways.


Academics in the humanities like to pretend that their ideas are theirs. However, there is no legal basis for such a belief. Intellectual property law doesn’t protect ideas; it only protects the specific expression of an idea. As the U.S. Copyright office states, “Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.”

Now that many academics have made a public turn and are on Twitter, the dissemination, adoption, and critique of ideas within academic discourse is instantaneous and publicly visible:

In the field of English, it seems as though we are already talking and interacting in public and online spaces above (or through) the paywall. The purpose of an academic paywall isn’t to protect authors’ ideas. Rather, it’s an outgrowth of academic labor. In our push to make academic discourse and higher education more open, we also have to consider what the ramifications might be for an academic system of labor that seems to be growing more unequal.

In summary, I suppose that what I’m getting at with this post is that paywalls, tuition, and the intellectual ownership of ideas are unnatural structures that are contrary to the natural spread of ideas and which have grown out of higher education, which, as much as we hate to discuss it as such, is an industry. The new openness of scholarly communication serves to highlight this unnaturalness as well as the tensions between values such as “free thought” and “fair labor,” “ownership” and “openness,” or “prestige” and “access.”

Multimedia and Blogging in the Classroom Strategies

While I was preparing for a Multimedia and Blogging workshop, I came up with a list of strategies that professors can use to incorporate multimedia and blogging in the classroom:

1. Scaffolding:  Professors can use blog assignments to build up students’ skills in preparation for more formal assignments. As a form of low-stakes writing, blog entries can make students’ thought processes and inner debates more apparent.

2. Modeling:  When professors give students a blog or multimedia assignment, it is very helpful to model a successful example of the assignment, perhaps from a past semester.

3. Give Students Roles: Rather than treating blog comments as a free-for-all, why not give students specific roles? For instance, students could be asked to be Peer Reviewers of other students’ posts, or one student could be asked to post a Summary of topics that most often came up over a week’s worth of posts.

4. Set Expectations:  When professors give students an untraditional assignment, the expectations for fulfilling that assignment should be even clearer than those for a traditional assignment. Be clear concerning the style, tone, and format that you expect. Also, including a grading rubric can be helpful.

5. Awareness of Student Population: Professors should plan for the learning curve that they can expect from their students regarding the technologies involved in course assignments. Some students may need some individual assistance, and it would be wise not to overburden students with too many platforms in one semester. That being said, Baruch’s student population is quite tech savvy overall.

6. Learning Goals, Learning Goals, Learning Goals:  Learning goals come first, and the technology follows. Blogging and multimedia assignments must be driven by and fully integrated into the course’s purpose.

7. Use Media Repositories:  The U.S. Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and other institutions offer free and well-documented repositories of media. Working collaboratively as a class with a set group of primary sources can give students invaluable experience.

8. Ask Students to Critique and Curate Sources: An annotated bibliography can turn into a media-rich online annotated bibliography. Before students write their research papers, have them post an annotated bibliography online. If the annotated bibliography can contain popular as well as scholarly sources, then it might present a good opportunity for students to enunciate the differences between a wide variety of sources.

9. Work in a Lab Setting: Setting one or two classes aside for lab work can help you to work with students and give them feedback in real time.

10. Build a Critical Vocabulary: In-class discussions, modeling, and the online sharing of student work and the professor’s comments can all work toward building a critical vocabulary, both in terms of disciplinary knowledge and the competent critique of various types of sources.

11. Scale Your Expectations:  Dramatically switching topics (from gender issues to environmental issues, for example), assigning many untraditional assignments on top of traditional assignments, and using many different types of technology are all sure ways to frustrate and overburden students. Sometimes less is more.

As I think about the literature and composition courses that I’ve taught, these are the major mistakes that I’ve made:

1. Expecting non English majors to understand and effectively incorporate academic articles, especially without any in-depth class discussion.

2. Assigning too many small assignments.

3. Pacing the course too quickly and/or expecting to cover an unrealistic amount of content.

4. Not including enough specific guidelines on untraditional assignments.

5. Not thoroughly pretesting technology.

Those of you reading, what is a teaching mistake that you or someone you know (without naming names) has made? It may or may not involve blogging and multimedia.

Economies of Communication

We just don’t read like we used to. More often than not, I skim through books, I skim through newspaper articles, I even skim through celebrity gossip blog posts that are about 200 words long. As a doctoral student, I have more supposed leisure time than the average American. I also have access to scholarly databases and conference presentations. This means that I am privileged in the form and quantity of media I can consume. Still, I find myself moving more and more quickly through most texts. I even have the ability to record TV shows and fast forward through the commercials. Sometimes I’ve seen a show so many times that I skip through the introductions as well as the transitions that come right before or after the commercials. I wouldn’t call the above behavior a shortening of attention span. No, I think it’s actually a narrowing of focus, a kind of info expertise.

Every form of communication is positioned in an economy of attention–the 30 second elevator speech, the graphic novel, the comic strip, the 30 minute newscast. And I don’t think one can talk about economies of attention without considering the role of privilege as a multidimensional variable encompassing items such as a person’s education, leisure time, and access to various technologies. For instance, I posit that the type of media that people consume on the subway can be largely predicted by their degree of privilege. Unfortunately we do not live in a utopia where the New York Post and the New York Times share the exact same readership.

In response to this tendency that I and other consumers of media have to skim text or to fast forward through TV shows, media has further economized itself. On Reddit, for instance, there is an abbreviation–TL;DR. Fittingly, TL;DR is shorthand for “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” Often, at the end of a paragraph-long Reddit post, the poster will put TL;DR and write a line summarizing the post for those who couldn’t be bothered to read it:

There is also a section on Reddit that is called TL;DR. This section is used to summarize an entire day of Reddit posts in one line of text. Somewhere between November 13, 2009, when this section first appeared, and July 15, 2006, which was the opening day of Twitter, I guess the whole internet realized that most everything was just too wordy.

Ironically, though, I still can bury myself in a book, but it has to be a book that is hard to put down. From what I’ve personally heard and read, literary agents are increasingly looking for page-turners, for the truly “immersive” and “accessible” read. No longer can books get away with too much exposition, no longer can they afford to let you walk leisurely down the road with Jude the Obscure, observing his thoughts about earthworms. Now the characters have to grab you, throw you in a car trunk, and drive off with you to Mozambique.

I wonder, though, how such pressures to economize the delivery of information might affect academia. Academic discourse has always been a discourse of privilege…even, I suppose, when some of the recipients of Phds are living on food stamps. Now that forms of communication are potentially economizing themselves, does academic discourse appear even more distant, more unrealistic? Is academic discourse guilty of alienating larger and larger swaths of the population? What might be the consequences of such alienation?

Recent years have already witnessed an increased diversity in the forms, or, one might say, the economies of academic writing. These diverse forms include summarizing one’s thesis in a single tweet, academic blog posts, the traditional academic article, word visualizations of conference speeches, and everything in between. In this negotiation of form one might wonder whether a real balance can be achieved between efficiency and the maintenance of academic rigor and integrity. Are there some cases in which an academic  argument can only be introduced in 30 pages or more?

TL;DR: Communication is economizing itself. How will academic discourse adapt?

The Icelandic Revolution: Why Didn’t I Hear About It?

We are living in an age where regular people really make the news. There’s CNN’s iReports, but I’m hypothesizing that the sharing of news items by people on social media often results in mainstream news outlets picking up a story that they might have otherwise overlooked. Even if the mainstream media doesn’t pick up news stories, there are alternative news outlets that are willing to do the job. These alternative outlets in turn can inform people about stories that they wouldn’t hear about elsewhere. Then these stories are shared on social media and the cycle begins again. Sometimes the stories found by alternative news outlets are just too big to ignore, with WikiLeaks, for example, spurring mainstream news stories. I’m always amazed at the variety of news sources that my Facebook friends post.

I think that this proliferation of news sources is a wonderful thing. Of course, unfortunately, the internet isn’t a public sphere; one in five Americans are offline and will never see this post or this or this. Yet, still, I think that the mainstream media’s picking up of stories via social media and alternative outlets also spreads to television and local news.

I began thinking about the spread of news via mainstream and untraditional sources when I saw this on a friend’s Facebook wall:

No news from Iceland… why?
How come we hear everything that happens in Egypt but no news about what’s happening in Iceland:

In Iceland, the people has made the government resign, the primary banks have been nationalized, it was decided to not pay the debt that these created with Great Britain and Holland due to their bad financial politics and a public assembly has been created to rewrite the constitution.
And all of this in a peaceful way.
A whole revolution against the powers that have created the current crisis. This is why there hasn’t been any publicity during the last two years: What would happen if the rest of the EU citizens took this as an example? What would happen if the US citizens took this as an example.
This is a summary of the facts:
2008. The main bank of the country is nationalized.
The Krona, the currency of Iceland devaluates and the stock market stops.
The country is in bankruptcy
2008. The citizens protest in front of parliament and manage to get new elections that make the resignation of the prime minister and his whole government.
The country is in bad economic situation.
A law proposes paying back the debt to Great Britain and Holland through the payment of 3,500 million euros, which will be paid by the people of Iceland monthly during the next 15 years, with a 5.5% interest.
2010. The people go out in the streets and demand a referendum. In January 2010 the president denies the approval and announces a popular meeting.
In March the referendum and the denial of payment is voted in by 93%. Meanwhile the government has initiated an investigation to bring to justice those responsible for the crisis, and many high level executives and bankers are arrested. The Interpol dictates an order that make all the implicated parties leave the country.
In this crisis an assembly is elected to rewrite a new Constitution which can include the lessons learned from this, and which will substitute the current one (a copy of the Danish Constitution).
25 citizens are chosen, with no political affiliation, out of the 522 candidates. For candidacy all that was needed was to be an adult and have the support of 30 people. The constitutional assembly starts in February of 2011 to present the ‘carta magna’ from the recommendations given by the different assemblies happening throughout the country. It must be approved by the current Parliament and by the one constituted through the next legislative elections.
So in summary of the Icelandic revolution:
-resignation of the whole government
-nationalization of the bank.
-referendum so that the people can decide over the economic decisions.
-incarcerating the responsible parties
-rewriting of the constitution by its people

Have we been informed of this through the media?
Has any political program in radio or TV commented on this?
The Icelandic people have been able to show that there is a way to beat the system and has given a democracy lesson to the world

From my own experience online, I actually have to agree somewhat that the mainstream media didn’t really give much intense coverage of the Icelandic revolution. I personally wasn’t really aware of this whole saga–all I had really seen were headlines on Iceland’s financial crisis and all I’d really heard were rumblings in conversation about Iceland’s financial problems. But a revolution? No, I feel like I missed that story.

The above post brought up a lot of questions for me. They include “Wow, how did I not see more stories about this?” “How did I miss this story?” “Why wasn’t it as closely covered as Middle Eastern revolutions?”

I looked around online and tried to recreate the story. What I found interesting was that the most complete source on what happened in Iceland seemed to be Wikipedia articles, the sources of which were mostly Icelandic news sources. While there was coverage, not just of the financial crisis but of Iceland’s political upheavals, in mainstream US media–this video on Iceland’s “crowdsourced Constitution,” an article where the Icelandic president talks about social media transforming democracy, a short article on the trial of Iceland’s former PM–I found most US articles to be lacking in context, and they didn’t refer to any sort of revolution, when in fact, in my understanding, what occurred was the ousting of the ruling party, the reorganizing of the financial system, and the public rewriting of the constitution–actions resulting from public protests and which I think should be granted the term “revolution.”

I think that the news media failed here–they failed to piece various events together, they failed in terms of framing and interpreting these events. For me, I think this reveals how much power we consumers of news really give our news outlets–we expect them to provide us with the proper contextual information, we expect them to angle the story, essentially to spoonfeed it to us.

Is this uneven coverage of the Icelandic revolution a conspiracy? No, I don’t think so. I think that the Facebook post is wrong–we also aren’t hearing about everything that is happening in Egypt. I don’t know what date the post originated on, but at this point, the mainstream U.S. news media isn’t focused on Egypt, even though Tahrir Square is still full.

Despite the obsession with Brangelina’s upcoming nuptials, I don’t think the American news media is entirely solipsistic. Rather, I think it is just intellectually limited and short-sighted. The story of the Icelandic revolution was complex–it didn’t fit that neatly into a short news cycle, and maybe it was difficult to discern as being a “revolution” considering the protests were linked to the financial crisis and the president himself didn’t resign. What we have is a conspiracy of ignorance. Of course, one could also play devil’s advocate and congratulate the media for not “manufacturing” a revolution out of a series of events. Personally, though, whether one wants to call it a revolution or an upheaval, I still think what happened in Iceland was poorly framed by the U.S. news media. The more we become aware of the limitations of the mainstream media, the more we can take it upon ourselves to supplement its blind spots.

2008 Icelandic Protests

The Aftermath of Kony 2012, or How the Internet Rejected a Simple Message

The internet has bred a culture of skepticism that pushes back against all of the sourceless bits of information that get distributed online. And then, even if a source is cited, internet users will question that source’s motives. Sometimes this questioning is extreme. Recently an enormous study came out indicating that those who eat red or processed meat on a daily basis have higher incidences of cancer and death. To me, this was a no brainer, a confirmation of other studies on red meat consumption. I read about the study first on MSNBC, where I was shocked by how many internet users scoffed at the findings in comments like the following:

I’m sorry but the tone of this article just REEKS of agenda, specifically the veggie/peta agenda. The message is get them used to rejecting RED meat and then go after them and GET them to quit eating all meat. We’ll use the health excuse since the moral outrage hasn’t/isn’t working.

So it’s all a vegetarian conspiracy. Nice work! Pass the tofurkey. But really, that was an extreme example, but so many of the comments basically derided the study without having much concrete knowledge about how it was conducted. While I find skepticism refreshing, I also think that this type of skepticism is just another form of ignorance. It rejects scientific findings without really engaging with the scientific process. Of course, MSNBC doesn’t have the space to inform its readers about the exact process of the study, and not all of its readers are versed in research methods–these limitations almost render the article useless, just there to spoonfeed information. So is internet skepticism healthy or dangerous? Just like different sources of information, skepticism can run the gamut.

Here, to contrast with the above example, is in my opinion an example of healthy skepticism. A woman whose family is from Uganda is suspicious of the Kony 2012 video:

She brings up some good points:  Kony isn’t a current concern to Ugandans, only 30% of Invisible Children’s donations go to Uganda, there are many other pressing issues in the world, and there are concerns about increased militarization.

But then, if we dismiss Invisible Children, aren’t we partly just giving in to cold cynicism, like the hipster barista meme?

I guess my feelings about Kony 2012 are ambivalent. For one thing, like the woman above, I question why so much money needs to go into making videos, posters, and stickers–is it really okay that the main goal of a charity is to produce flashy media? Doesn’t it become a gimmick? Also, the exact intentions of the video are suspect–it seems to move rather uncomfortably around the fact that it is advocating violence.

Kony 2012 is a bit of a paradox because the same qualities that encouraged its viral spread also created skepticism and a number of backlashes. VICE, which is in the vanguard of independent gonzo journalism, threw one of the earliest punches. The Ugandan PM might have just issued a final blow.

I’m convinced by this that the internet isn’t just a soup of information and misinformation–it can also serve as a kind of information vetting system. Instead of testing students on the reliability of different online sources, it might make sense to approach the internet as a place where knowledge is continually constructed and deconstructed. Often we hear about the bad side of the internet–that Google is making us stupid, short-circuiting our thinking process. However, I think the whole Kony phenomenon should make us a bit optimistic. Maybe the internet isn’t just a place where things go viral; it can also be a place where simple messages are complicated, where difficult and complex views are weighed against easy answers.

What are the Principles of Communication Across the Curriculum?

The philosophy of Writing Across the Curriculum is well-established. Key concepts include writing to learn, scaffolding assignments, low stakes v. high stakes writing, and addressing high-level issues before low-level issues. I think that the principles of Communication Across the Curriculum are not as clearly laid out–perhaps because communication encompasses written, oral, and electronic forms, and is thus harder to essentialize into pedagogical concepts. CAC is the child of WAC, but at the same time CAC incorporates WAC.

I don’t think that WAC principles can be translated into CAC principles, though there is a great overlap. However, it is an interesting idea to consider what “low stakes speaking” or “speaking to learn” might mean.

I wonder whether the practical guidelines for speaking and electronic communication simply take precedence over the notion of a teaching philosophy for CAC. There are so many guides out there on public speaking, many of which offer excellent pointers for students. Actually, one of my favorite pieces on public speaking is Michael Ellsberg’s dissection of what makes Bill Clinton so much more charismatic than Bush in this debate:

I also like Tim Ferriss’ no-nonsense discussion of how to prepare for public speaking (the short answer is it takes a lot of work to do it right).

But aside from classic tips on public speaking, what are the pedagogical principles of CAC? What kind of guidelines should teachers go by? When I was teaching, I often assigned presentations, but I generally didn’t give my students the time or space in class to practice.

I’d like to challenge anyone reading this to respond with a suggested principle or two for CAC. These should be pedagogical concepts, as opposed to mere “tips” on speaking, writing, or electronic communication. Here are my ideas:

1. Students should be asked to speak in a variety of modes–giving prepared answers to discussion questions, creatively responding to an immediate question, or giving a formal presentation.

2. Preparation should be emphasized as a part of oral presentations, and if possible should be incorporated into the grade. For example, time might be given in class for students to practice presenting in small groups, grading one another based on a set rubric.

3. Students should be given assignments that ask them to address a variety of audiences from a variety of mediums.

4. Models of effective communication should be given to students and discussed in class. Strategies for addressing common problems, such as anxiety surrounding speaking or writing, should also be presented and discussed.

5. Electronic tools should be utilized in the service of best communication practices. For example, blogs can be used for low or medium-stakes writing, and software such as GoogleDocs and wikis can be used to improve collaborative efforts.

Coming up with CAC-specific principles makes me realize that in many classrooms there are a number of  different and perhaps contradictory elements in play. WAC believes in “writing to learn,” but then, Writing in the Disciplines teaches that students must “learn to write” in the form and language of their disciplines. Similarly, students need to be able to discern the difference between CAC and CID…communicating across the disciplines and communicating in the disciplines. This makes me think that number 6 on my list should be “Specify the communicative norms of each discipline.”


The Academic Call to Code and the Networked Self

A few months ago, Cathy N. Davidson wrote a blog post on HASTAC in which she argues that all schoolchildren should be taught computer programming in order to achieve a “basic computational literacy.” She laments the lack of demographic diversity in programmers and wonders “What could our world look like if it were being designed by a more egalitarian, publicly educated cadre of citizens, whose literacies were a right not a privilege mastered in expensive higher education, at the end of a process that tends to weed out those of lower income?”

USC Phd student Alex Leavitt followed her proposal by inviting other academics to make 2012 their “Year of Code.” Numerous people across the twitterverse are also participating in Codeacademy.com‘s #codeyear.

Davidson and Leavitt’s calls to code, both of which espouse a leftist politics of democratic or Do It Yourself coding, make me reflect on the different values that are currently competing in the software programming and academic spheres; proprietary models v. open access/open source models. In particular, the academic debate about open access to academic knowledge recently reared its head in Congress, when in December of 2011 the Research Works Act, an act that would block mandates of public access to federally-funded research, was introduced to the House of Representatives. This act is likely a response to recent moves on the part of the Obama administration toward better access to scientific publications (see the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 and the subsequent Request for Information on Public Access to Digital Data and Scientific Publications). While the Research Works Act will probably not pass, it speaks to the conflict inside and outside academia between privileging information and disseminating information, between profit and public interest.

What, one might wonder, might code coming from within the academy, produced, as Davidson envisions, by an educated public, look like? And, in terms of student grades or professional tenure, how would it be evaluated?

It is an interesting exercise to compare Google and Facebook with academia. Google and Facebook are widely successful because they are a contradiction–they are free to the public and friendly to the non-expert, yet their code is secret and they make money from said public through ads.  They are open but closed, profit-making but free. American academia, on the other hand, makes its “secrets” available, but only to those who pay large amounts of money and who strive to become experts.

Traditional academic tenure and evaluation is alien to the kind of collaborative (and proprietary) code farming that Google encourages. How could a tenure committee evaluate one coder out of a team of hundreds? Even with a trail of changes made by each individual, it would be almost impossible to separate that person’s work from that of others. Of course, not all coding is done collaboratively, but I would argue that most large scale projects with major impact are. As more examples of academic coding emerge, the tenure process will hopefully adjust to accommodate new modes of authorship in the digital age.

One high-profile academic seems frightened at the prospect of academia’s descent into the digital. Stanley Fish calls “‘blog’” “an ugly word” for its impermanence.  As someone who wants his critical insights to be “decisive” and “all [his],” Fish dislikes thinking of himself as a blogger–a figure who seems so interconnected with everything around him that he ceases to exist. Fish is disturbed by this possible loss of identity and “linearity,” by the web’s tendency to move “into a multi-directional experience in which voices (and images) enter, interact and proliferate in ways that decenter the authority of the author who becomes just another participant.” Poor Stanley Fish experiences this every time he opens his browser.

Fish goes on to quote Kathleen Fitzpatrick as affirming this death of the author:  “all of the texts published in a network environment will become multi-author by virtue of their interpenetration with the writings of others.”

I would argue that coding and other digital forms of authorship do often invoke this sense of the networked self to an even greater extent than traditional scholarship. In part that is probably because online social networks allow scholars to continually mix and concentrate their ideas with the ideas of others. Seeing one’s own voice as just one tweet in a tsunami of tweets can be a bit humbling. But then again, when people band together and find like ground, their accomplishments can be even grander than what one can do alone. There is a happy medium that can be found between solo pursuits and selfless proprietary software. I am optimistic to note that a vast amount of software developed through academic institutions is open access and open source, including as Sakai, Weka, and Stanford NLP software.


What is Communication Across the Curriculum Today? (Part 3 of 3)

This post is the final of three posts looking at the development of Communication Across the Curriculum. In Part 1 I discussed the rise of Communication Courses and charted the long term trends of publications on the topic. In Part 2 I looked at the motives and aims behind the creation of Communication Courses, the trends in how they were discussed over a number of decades, and how the Communication Across the Curriculum movement emerged.

Today I would like to look at common threads in articles on CAC during the late 1980s, the 1990s, and the first decade of the 2000s. I also want to discuss current questions or concerns that have emerged in articles in the past few years.

The emphasis on how Communication Across the Curriculum (CAC) courses might prepare students for corporate jobs continued through the 1980s:

The importance of the development of oral communication abilities has been documented in a number of sources. Studies of graduates, employers, and corporate executives have revealed, for example, that skills in problem solving, communication, and interpersonal relations are most valued in high tech corporations….One way of assisting students in developing oral communication competencies is the required speech communication course, and another way is to integrate communication skills into content area courses. (Hay 1)

Communication Across the Curriculum at Baruch is certainly part of this lineage of CAC programs which emphasize communication as a business skill. However, since Baruch’s Communication Intensive Courses are in Theater and other humanities departments, they represent more than just communication for business. Depending on the class and the instructor, the emphasis might be communication as effective performance, communication as the transmission of cultural understanding, or communication as a means of displaying academic knowledge. For a rich background on the development of Communication Intensive Courses at Baruch, this 2008 Change article is required reading (Warner).

The 1990s witnessed a surge of articles on the assessment of Communication Across the Curriculum courses (Cronin and Grice) as well as on the applications of new technologies (Reiss, Selfe, and Young). Email, the web, and presentation software helped to increase the relevance of CAC and CIC. This seems fitting, since (as I showed in my last post) the original idea of Communication Courses came out of training in the use of communication technologies such as the typewriter.

Despite the spread of CAC and CIC, the basic Communication Course still exists within Communication Departments Across the country, though of course it has evolved through the decades (Morreale, Worley, and Hugenberg). Alongside the notion of Writing in the Disciplines, discipline specific definitions of communication have spread through Communication in the Disciplines movements (Dannels and Gaffney).

The first decade of this century witnessed articles demanding an even greater standardization of CAC, even while acknowledging that standards of communication are developing within each discipline as much as without (Dannels and Gaffney). Articles in this decade appear to be just as likely to survey the field of CAC as they are to pose discipline-specific (CID) questions (Hyavarinen et al.). Many writers also focus on questions of practical pedagogy (Dannels, Gaffney, and Martin).

The question, then, is what is CAC today? One of the issues that CAC faces is how to balance general communication practices with discipline specific standards (Garside). New communication platforms will likely also stimulate scholarly inquiry.

I personally am interested in the ethics and human purposes of communication, but these questions are generally not addressed by authors writing about CAC; I imagine this is because moral or ethical questions are seen as disconnected from “objective” standards of communication. However, looking at our Cacophony posts from this semester, it seems as though we are continually returning to questions of how communication relates to power dynamics and identity. I wonder whether these are questions that are being asked by CAC participants in other parts of the US.

Zucotti Park, October 2011. Source: emilydickinsonridesabmx‘s Flikr photostream

Works Cited

Cronin, Michael W. and George L. Grice. “Oral Communication across the Curriculum:  Designing, Implementing, and Assessing a University-Wide Program.” 77th Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association. Atlanta, GA. Oct. 31-Nov. 3 1991. Conference Report.

Dannels, Deanna P., and Amy L. Housley Gaffney. “Communication Across The Curriculum And In The Disciplines: A Call For Scholarly Cross-Curricular Advocacy.” Communication Education 58.1 (2009): 124-153. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Dannels, Deanna P., Amy L. Housley Gaffney, and Kelly Norris Martin. “Students’ Talk About The Climate Of Feedback Interventions In The Critique.” Communication Education 60.1 (2011): 95-114. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Garside, Colleen. “Seeing The Forest Through The Trees: A Challenge Facing Communication Across The Curriculum Programs.” Communication Education 51.1 (2002): 51. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Hay, Ellen A. “Communication across the Curriculum.” 73rd Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association. Boston, MA. 5-8 November 1987. Conference Presentation.

Hyavarinen, Marja-Leena, Paavo Tanskanen, Nina Katajavuori, and Pekka Isotalus. “A Method For Teaching Communication In Pharmacy In Authentic Work Situations.” Communication Education 59.2 (2010): 124-145. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Morreale, Sherwyn P., David W. Worley, and Barbara Hugenberg. “The Basic Communication Course At Two- And Four-Year U.S. Colleges And Universities: Study VIII-The 40Th Anniversary.” Communication Education 59.4 (2010): 405-430. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Reiss, Donna, Dickie Selfe, and Art Young, Eds. Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum. ERIC Database. Urbana, IL:  National Council of Teachers, 1998. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

Warner, Fara. “Improving Communication is Everyone’s Responsibility.” Change Nov. 2008. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

The Genealogy of Communication Courses and CAC (Part 2 of 3)

This is a continuation of my earlier post in which I try to trace the evolution of communication courses.

As I wrote previously, the idea of the communication course first arose in the mid 1940s when WWII veterans flooded colleges on the GI Bill:

The Communication course sprang out of the demands of the armed services during World War II for faster and more practical instruction in the language arts than was being given by existing sources. Such courses in the language arts, according to the armed services, were unrealistic, ineffective, and too slow. Language, from the armed services’ point of view, should be studied as an instrument for communicating ideas in a social system. (Malmstrom 21)

In other words, college communication courses extended military training in communication even after the war was done. Thomas F. Dunn also makes this argument when he states that “During the Second World War, the term communication came into widespread use, largely from the impetus given by the special needs of war trainees whose preparation for receiving and giving military commands, making reports on activities, and directly operations both orally and in writing were not adequately provided by the traditional college training” (31).

Take a minute to look at this 1944 training video on how women can be most productive when using typewriters for the military. The first minute is hilarious, but then, if you’re really interested, you can skip past the history of typewriters to minute 5 where the instruction in how to sit begins:


Early communication courses both served the practical need for expertise in everyday “reading, writing, speaking, and listening” and the desire to ensure the spread of American democracy, or as Malmstrom puts it, “keeping democracy dominant” (23). They could be in a variety of disciplines, as long as the four modes of communication were the focus and were evaluated as ends unto themselves (Malmstrom 22). However, the idea that there should be a systematic emphasis on communication across the entire college curriculum didn’t really emerge until the 1980s.

By 1959, communication courses had diverged in a number of different directions:  “Some courses [centered] themselves around personal awareness and personality development as a means to better expression, others around the media of mass communication, others around the structure of language, and still others around semantics or general semantics” (Dean 80).

As I mentioned in my last post, articles discussing communication courses thin out in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

However, an interest in communication courses returned in the early and mid 1970s, although the emphases were slightly different, falling on questions about how to teach communication to students of diverse backgrounds (such as in Diana Corley’s “An Interracial Communication Course for the Community College”), how to evaluate speeches (such as in Sara Latham Stelzner’s “Selected Approaches to Speech Communication Evaluation”), and how to communicate in business (such as P.H. Hewing’s “A Practical Plan for Teaching Oral Communication in the Business Communication Course”). While the notion of business communication had been around since the early 1940s, articles on that topic really exploded in the second half of the 1970s.

In the early 1980s articles referencing communication courses continued the business communication trend and also highlighted multicultural or intercultural communication (such as in Richard Fiordo’s “The Soft-Spoken Way vs. the Outspoken Way:  A Bicultural Approach to Teaching Speech Communication to Native People in Alberta”). In 1985, an article whose title today seems a bit quaint appeared:  Leon W. Couch and Charles V. Shaffer’s “Development of a Computer Communications Course Plus Laboratory.”

Many sources claim that the Writing Across the Curriculum movement rose in the early 1980s (this includes the Purdue OWL website). This is indeed when most articles on WAC were published, but technically, the term was first used in 1965 with the Writing Across the Curriculum Project at the University of London and the earliest articles referencing the movement in America were published in the late 1970s (Steinfatt 461). But, throwing another wrench in the works, in Charles Bazerman, Joseph Little, and Lisa Bethel’s Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum the movement is traced back through the 1970s and then ever further back to 1931, when Alvin C. Enrich presented the findings of a late 1920s study conducted at the University of Minnesota:

Essays collected from 54 freshmen both before and after completing their freshman composition course at Minnesota were reviewed using one of several popular essay rating scales. The conclusions drawn from Eurich’s scholarly research report were that extended habits of written expression cannot be influenced in such a short time… (13-14)

The idea of more comprehensive writing instruction over a student’s entire time at college was proposed in 1931 but was then pushed off for another four decades.

Based on my research, however, WAC and CAC share a startling common ancestor. Both WAC and CAC in American colleges can be traced to a 1969-1970 Writing Across the Curriculum faculty seminar “led by Barbara Walvoord” at Central College (Bazerman, Little, and Bethel 26). This was the earliest WAC seminar in the US, and the philosophy of CAC grew alongside Central’s WAC program as it evolved in the 1970s. As far as I can tell, the seminal paper which discusses communication across the curriculum is Charles V. Roberts’ “Communication Education Throughout the University:  An Alternative to the One-Shot Inoculation Approach,” which was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Eastern Communication Association in April of 1983. Roberts, who is from Central College, lays the groundwork of a CAC philosophy and discusses how it emerged alongside Central’s WAC program. He claims that one or two communication courses are not enough to make students into expert communicators (3-4); rather than forcing students to take more communication courses, the “responsibility for helping students speak, listen, write, and read more effectively” should be “diffused across the academic community” (4). He then claims that Central College is the first to systematically require a communication emphasis across multiple disciplines rather than simply within the Communication Department; he discusses how this developed at Central over the 1970s, beginning with a writing “laboratory” in 1972 and evolving into faculty training in communication evaluation in 1979 (4-5).

Steinfatt mentions two reasons for the growing emphasis in the late 1970s and early 1980s for robust instruction in communication skills:  the first is the National Endowment for the Arts‘ 1983 report entitled “A Nation at Risk” which proclaims that the nation is facing an erosion of educational standards (460). WAC also arose largely in response to this report. The second reason is “the opinion of many corporate executives, expressed in university surveys, in casual conversation with university faculty and administrators, and in grants and bequests, that the number one problem of college students entering the work force, both for the organization and for students’ chances of advancement, is that college graduates ‘can’t communicate’” (460).

In summary, the ways in which communication courses were discussed and theorized shifted with the pedagogical concerns of each decade. In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was an increased interest in communication for business. Both WAC and CAC in America were born in Central College. WAC evolved first, beginning in 1969, and CAC was added on during the 1970s.

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles, Joseph Little, and Lisa Bethel. Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. West Lafeyette, IN:  2005. Web. 10 November 2011.

Corley, Diana. “An Interracial Communication Course for the Community College.” Communication in Education 24.3 (1975):  237-241.

Couch, Leon W. and Charles V. Shaffer. “Development of a Computer Communications Course Plus Laboratory.” CoED 5.3 (1985):  14-19. Web. 10 November 2011.

Dean, Howard H. “The Communication Course:  A Ten-Year Perspective.” College Composition and Communication 10.2 (1959):  80-85. JSTOR. Web. 10 November 2011.

Dunn, Thomas F. “The Principles and Practice of the Communication Course.” College Composition and Communication 6.1 (1955):  31-38. JSTOR. Web. 10 November 2011.

Fiordo, Richard. “The Soft-Spoken Way vs. the Outspoken Way:  A Bicultural Approach to Teaching Speech Communication to Native People in Alberta.” Journal of American Indian Education 24.3 (1985):  35-48. Web. 10 November 2011.

Hewing, P.H. “A Practical Plan for Teaching Oral Communication in the Business Communication Course.” Business Communication Quarterly 40.4 (1977):  9-11. SAGE Communication and Media Studies backfile Collection. Web. 10 November 2011.

Malmstrom, Jean. “The Communication Course.” College Composition and Communication 7.1 (1956):  21-24. JSTOR. Web. 10 November 2011.

Roberts, Charles V. Communication Education Throughout the University: an Alternative to the One-Shot Inoculation Approach. , 1983:  1-16. Web. ERIC Database. 11 November 2011.

Steinfatt, Thomas M. “Communication Across the Curriculum.” Communication Quarterly. 34.4 (1986): 460-70. Print.

Stelzner, Sara Latham. “Selected Approaches to Speech Communication Evaluation.” Speech Teacher 24.2 (1975):  127-23. JSTOR. Web. 10 November 2011.