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Child Hackers, 3D Guns, and a Convoluted Search for Understanding

First of all let me apologize for the lateness of this post.  I’ve got a handful of excuses, but I’ll skip them.  Before I get to this week’s topics en masse, let me address the initial reading.  The conclusion of Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It” had some great points, but I also found it to be all over the place.  This is probably because it is the conclusion of a book I haven’t read.  The crux of what I believe to be a summary of the full text meandered from a collection of thoughts on One Laptop for Child initiative, to cybersecurity, to a possible role for the University in the internet’s future, and then back to one laptop for child.  Zittrain seems to have a complicated set of feelings in relation to personal computing (what it is and what it should be) and the net that connects us.  On one hand he seems interested in positive philosophies of how a computer might be best used (making, coding, gifting piecemeal control to the most ethical of computer scientists), but he is also especially paranoid of how he sees it evolving.  His writing became confusing now and again, challenging my understanding as to whether he was behind a certain initiative of pushing against it.  My issue with Zittrain is an issue that I think most that write about networked technologies share — a projected belief that he understands what exactly the net is at its core, even if he must unflinchingly push that knowledge into abstract forms now and again to cover the fact that a comprehensive understanding of all the ins and outs, all the quiet phoenixes waiting to rise and all of the black hats plotting their schemes — these are ultimately unknowable variables.  For all the use of “techie” vocabulary, the conclusion of this book, at least, is riddled with emotion that may or may not be displaced.

 

As for the success of one laptop per child outside of this reading I would direct you to this post:

http://www.dvice.com/archives/2012/10/ethiopian-kids.php

 

Seems the kids hacked the machines pretty hardcore in 5 months.  I don’t believe the machines they received had the interface that Zittrain describes in his conclusion, I’ve been following OLPC’s progress over the past 5 to 6 years and they have definitely had a lot of problems that have only recently been ironed out.  That said, in the end, their ability to hack the machines and program them to a degree has been a success, obviously a core part of the initiative since the beginning.

 

Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about any of the assertions (and anti-assertions) Zittrain made (and unmade).  I don’t pretend to be cosmopolitan enough to wrap my head around the entire late order capitalist system of which the internet is obviously becoming more and more a shocking and pulverizing force within, and how this system effects, say, Ethiopia (where the OLPCs have recently been hacked).  But I also think that much of Zittrain’s defeatist utopianism is at worst ill-formed and at best exaggerated pockets of truth.  He creates a dichotomy consisting of the bad hackers and noble geeks/computer scientists that I can say is flawed.  The grey-hat is the hat worn most in the hacker community, just as most black and white issues are best when seen as something explicitly hazy, instead of hazily explicit.  Again, these are thoughts based on the conclusion of a book I have not read.

 

Moving onto “The internet of things” I feel like I actually might have some actual expertise in this area:

Here I am on BBC World News talking about the Espresso Book Machine:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9biVdn7AxY

 

I’d be happy to talk about how I feel about some of this stuff in class, may not want to make all of my views available on a public blog.  I no longer work for OnDemandBooks, but I have no axe to grind with the company itself.  I will say I once had a much more positive view of this coming “Internet of Things” and now I’m quite a bit more ambivalent.  On one hand I am most definitely a subscriber to the maker philosophy, and I’m much more comfortable designing objects both virtual and capable of physical manifestations in a computer mediated environment than I am with a pile of wood and a hammer, on the other God help us if I represent any kind of coming societal norm.  I have traditionally thought about those things from a selfish perspective.  I am less combative toward the technology itself, but more perturbed by the corporate systems that manipulate how, when, where such technologies are deployed.  Because of the systems that controls these technologies, we do indeed have reason to worry.  We talk about creating homes, musical instruments, artwork with this technology, but what is it that is sure to get more sales?  Just ask the good ol’ boys over at Defense Distributed.  They done printed themselves out a firearm that is going to outsell anything Modular Housing LLC and Les Paul has on the horizon: http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/05/the-first-entirely-3d-printed-handgun-is-here/

The Composition MOOC and Peer Review Based Grades

This MOOC came to my attention a month or so ago and it struck me as particularly interesting. We’d talked previously in class about the effectiveness of the MOOC and the concerns and questions it raises about best practices in teaching, but I don’t think that at that point, anyone had talked about the existence of a composition or writing-based course.

I glanced over it again last night, after our discussion on peer review in the classroom and how to structure effective peer reviews– modeling, the amount of time given to sections of papers, whether students should be paired or put in groups, and so forth. The FAQ section states that this MOOC goes as far as to give peer reviewers the authority of being the only feedback they will receive on their writing and the basis of the grade in the course (and presumably, the verification of completion necessary to receive the Statement of Accomplishment).

I feel like this not only complicates the model of the MOOC, with peer review based assessment and composition as a topic, but also assumes a lot about peer review. Is it even remotely possible that several hours of lectures on MOOCs could make a peer so effective that their feedback is the basis of the grade? Online peer review has been immensely more complicated than in class review for my students this semester; coordinating emails and communication has been challenging and it becomes near impossible when students withdraw from the course or don’t “show” for a week when a peer review is expected. When peer review is online AND the basis for assessment of performance throughout a class AND the completion rate of these courses is so low, is there any way that this can possibly work? Or is this just an experiment in (a potentially colossal) teaching/education failure?

Rejecting Perfectionism/Failing Better

I’m trying to figure out how all these readings fit together and it seems like the theme is maybe less “failure” than it is a caution against over-simplification. In an effort to smooth out ideas or projects and make them seem coherent we often lose the complexity that makes them meaningful. I see these readings as cautions against trying to do work that is too perfect, which for a lot of people (myself included) is pretty similar to a fear of failure.

In The Aesthetics of Failure Cattelan tackles “the paralyzing fear of disgrace” and “the impossibility of doing something” that results from letting your imagination about what others might think of your finished product get in the way of your attempt to produce anything at all. This is familiar to me. It is the kind of perfectionism that leads to procrastination. It is why I have so many incompletes on my transcript. Similarly, in “the Rise of Worse is Better” Gabriel warns us against trying to do something exactly right the first time around. Put something out there to get people interested, and once people are hooked, take time to improve it. There is no point in producing something brilliant if you don’t even have an audience. Both of these pieces seem like lessons for grad students as we try to navigate our relationship to the publics many of us hope to reach. The lessons I take away are: trust in your ability to say worthwhile things publicly, and don’t wait the full seven years it will take you to produce a dissertation to “put things out there”.

How do these lessons apply to what we’re doing in this class? To pedagogy? As the semester closes, these pieces read as gentle reminders to stop talking about our projects and just do them. And these readings suggest that in trying to pull together an innovative project, it will be necessary for us to make some mistakes along the way. It is hard to remember that it is ok to make mistakes in teaching because it feels so high-stakes (I do think that as an adjunct without training I’ve made more mistakes than I needed to). This week’s content suggests that those mistakes are necessary.

In Scott Berkun’s hour-long lecture “The Myth of Innovation” his lesson, I think, is that a lot of breakthroughs we imagine in retrospect to have been isolated strokes of genius were actually preceded by many many failures. History’s great innovators tried and failed for years before they made their breakthroughs. They were persistent and bold, they tried many different things, that is why they succeeded, also historical conditions must be right, and economic conditions must be right, and innovation will just happen if you give your employees space to innovate, and if you need to make them obsolete by inventing brilliant machines that replace their bodies make sure you let them know sensitively, get them on side first. Wait, what? Nevermind. Buy that guy’s book. (But seriously – I’m going to leave most of that lecture be because there is too much crazy self-help management BS in it that I can’t even handle thinking about it. Lets just generously take his point that innovation requires failure, and move on).

I also disagreed with much of what was in Tufte’s piece The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, but hopefully disagreements with that piece can lead to productive discussion. I think Tufte’s Provocative Piece about PowerPoint raises important questions, Particularly in the context of thinking about  Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. In the illustration accompanying the article Tufte suggests that slideshare software like PowerPoint is Stalinist. Within PP, there is only one way to do things. Tufte insists that PP is reductionist, presenter-oriented, preoccupied with form instead of content. Does it have to be that way, one might ask? Tufte says yes: PP is inherently these things. Tufte’s case studies include a powerpoint presentation given to NASA employees that so simplified information that it essentially caused an aerospace disaster; and a powerpoint re-telling of the Gettysburg Address. Both of these things seem like straw men to me. Like, OBVIOUSLY incredibly detailed aerospace problems should not be communicated via bullet form. Nor would most people trying to make inspirational speeches likely turn to PP. In both these cases the problem seems to be to be the context in which PP is chosen, not PP itself.

Why do I find myself defending PowerPoint? In the class I taught last term the “smart classroom” was down for the first half of the semester so I conducted the lecture-part of class time using my voice, my carefully constructed narratives, and occasional blackboard drawings. When the smart classroom was fixed, I started putting up slides while I delivered lectures. On the slides were carefully constructed bullet points that were the essence of the lesson, the central point I wanted my students to take away. The engagement and understanding of my students (as represented by the quality of classroom discussion following the lecture) went way up. This makes me wonder: does a simplification of material using PowerPoint necessarily exclude the possibility of a nuanced understanding of material? Can boiling a concept down to a set of bullets actually act as a complement (an anchor?) in the context of a more complex picture being painted? It is really hard to boil a complex concept down to a few key bullet points, but if it can be done well it can be powerful and productive, in my opinion. Like trying to figure out what your thesis statement is before you set out to write a paper.

I think part of this has to do with learning styles. I have trouble listening to something unless I am also at the same time either looking at something else, or doing something else. When I doodle, I do so because it keeps me focused on what I’m listening to. When someone has powerpoint slides accompanying their talk, looking at them helps me to focus on (and therefore connect to) what it is they’re saying. I just recently realized that not everybody listens in this way. Nonetheless, it seems worth noting that Tufte’s idea that we need to “just talk about” ideas in order to capture their nuance doesn’t jive with MY experience.

However, this raises the question – does the visual accompaniment/enhancement to our speaking have to appear in PP form? While engagement and interaction could be achieved with a well-thought out PP presentation, should we use PP? Tufte insists that PP is so limited in the way it allows us to present information – linearly, superficially, passively. Prezi seems to offer solutions to this by allowing us to present ideas in non-sequential patterns. Is Prezi inherently better? Why is it so dizzying?

Is form really that important? Or does it just distract us from the more important discussions about content? How does this discussion about PowerPoint relate to the over-arching question about “failing better”?

Open

I’m not really aware of any open-access journals in sociology, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any. Indeed, DOAJ lists 160 open-access sociology journals. My lack of awareness stems instead from how rarely I find myself locked outside of paid access journals. Typically I have access through the GC, and if not I can usually find a copy somewhere on the internet. While gaining access would certainly be harder without a university affiliation, quite frankly if I was no longer in the academy I’m not sure how much time I would be spending reading academic texts. What makes the tragic possible jail sentence in the Aaron Swartz case particularly absurd is how few of those texts would have probably been read or even noticed by non-academic readers. For me then, more interesting than regularly old journals that have turned themselves open access are those online journals that have taken up the new possibilities the internet provides to display information and provocation. One example of this is Lateral, the relatively new online journal of the Cultural Studies Association. Lateral is designed to be a “place of experimentation in the range of material forms so that the knowing, feeling, sensibility we ascribe to the cultural can find an elastic and sustainable outlet for expression.” Thus we find lots of text but also maps, games, sound and lots of pictures and interactive graphics. Perhaps the innovative design of Lateral makes it more challenging to cite (what’s the ASA format of a “mash-up” on an interactive website?), and certainly it is harder for students to quickly skim in order to find more sources to pad their papers, but what it loses in ease of use I think it more than makes up for in pushing academics to do work that is perhaps actually interesting enough for things like “open-access” to even matter.

transient as the news

I typically come to journal articles through JSTOR or emailed PDFs, the consequence being that I have not (yet?) developed a sense of familiarity nor a particular relationship with any single academic journal.  In some ways this resembles the way Napster changed the experience of listening to music in my late days of high school.  No longer were songs associated as parts of an album or handcrafted mixtape, but presented singularly, with their historical or cultural context somehow more effaced.  When such a significant amount of music became instantaneously available, the experience of consuming recorded music lost its time-specificity, or that indescribable memory sense (nostalgia?) that develops when one listens to particular music at particular moments of time. It flattened. Maybe it was more an effect of age rather than technological change, but it’s around that time that music started feeling like one more thing to keep up with rather than an engagement that could be moving.  Exhausting rather than replenishing.

In the same way, I consume articles without much more than a general sense of how the article stands in relation to the rest of the issue’s content nor why it appeared at that moment in that journal.   The relationship that I might have had with a journal, I have with JSTOR.   The role of content-selection typically played by editors of a certain journal is now replaced by the suggestions of peers, course assignments and my own abilities to imagine and sort out what might of interest to me in the infinite-seeming sea of articles.  It’s impersonal, disorienting and sublime and on bad days, makes intellectual consumption feel as transient as the news . For better or worse, it exaggerates my interdisciplinary tendencies and makes it almost impossible to create a coherent sense of what exactly it is that I’m studying and how exactly I’d like to add to that tradition in some sort of consistent, focused way.

But another consequence of my relationship with JSTOR as a graduate student with access to much of its content, is that my appreciation for open access journals at this moment is mostly theoretical rather than practical.  As a student, I have still not yet experienced any significant limitations to access, and so, practical experience has not driven me to seek out open access journals or keep tabs on what traditional journals are considering.

And so, receiving a hint from Ashley Dawson’s article, I checked out the Open Humanities Press (a collective of 14 open access journals with a sort of critical theory bent).   Their listed goals are:

  • Advocate Open Access in the Humanities
  • Foster Community
  • Promote Intellectual Diversity
  • Improve the Experience of Academic Publishing
  • Explore New Forms of Scholarly Collaboration

All great goals! I even clicked around and found some articles I’d actually like to read (who wouldn’t want to take a look at “Nihilism, Nature, and the Collapse of the Cosmos”?).   But inherent in any sort of excitement about the potential of new-ish media ventures is the sense of despair at yet more content to somehow filter. I think this problem relates to their second goal of “fostering community,” for it’s community, that can, in many ways filter the endless possibility of content into a meaningful, focused and engaged conversation.  As much as the capabilities of the web create potential for new forms of community, its frictionless and infinite (-seeming) space also makes it hard for enough people to engage long enough in one place for a community to actually form.  The question, then, to me, about how to make the open access journal more than just more Internet noise is the question of how to build community around such publications.  The answer, I think, lies as much offline as on.

Socjournal

I’m not sure how many sociology journals are online. I found this one through searching google for “online sociology journal.” It was the 9th item in the search, so that seems to be evidence that they are rather rare. This is what they say about their mission:
“Founded January 28th, 2010, the Socjournal is a new media journal intended to offer sociologists a window into the world of new media communications. Recognizing that traditional scholarly publication in traditional scholarly journals is limited, slow, and isolated (i.e. sociological research remains hidden behind an academic wall that is impenetrable to most people), the Socjournal aims to bring sociology to the world by providing blog space, regular columns, and academic reports designed to popularize and disseminate the fascinating world of sociological research.”
As this blurb states, this journal started online, and as far as I can tell it is completely open access. This journal is intended to popularize sociology. In their submissions section they have many tips on how to write for this journal. Here is an interesting tip:
“If your paper has an “abstract” and an “introduction” and maybe a “discussion” and a “methodology” section, use it for toilet paper. Papers like that are designed to turn readers off and obscure what you have to say behind a rhetorical wall of pompous and overcomplicated verbiage. The goal here is communication and not obfuscation or ego aggrandizement.”
The submissions are also supposed to be 2-6 pages long. So this isn’t an academic journal. Here is a snippet from the first article on the site:

“Common as it has been for humans to segregate their societies on the basis of barely perceptible racial and ethnic distinctions, has there ever been a dog park that discriminated on the basis of fur color? EX: No black dogs allowed!?Judging from the human infatuation with canines of every size, shape and color–not to mention zoos, conservatories, and pet stores stocked with every imaginable critter–it is safe to conclude that humans are perhaps the world’s most enthusiastic supporters of, with one caveat, genetic diversity. Of course, that one caveat is highly consequential. Remarkable as the human enthusiasm for diversity may be among non-human species, among our own species, humans tend to deplore diversity. That is, to put it mildly, a rich irony.”
This seems like a pretty interesting line of reasoning. What is lost in this journal, it seems to me, is the credentials. I’m willing to guess that writing for this journal is not seen as quite as impressive as getting published in a more standard academic journal. I’m not privy to the debates about sociological rigor, but I can speculate that there aren’t enough citations, numbers, and jargon in these articles to be considered rigorous academic work. This, of course, is the whole point of the journal, to popularize insights that get muddied in the process of turning interesting ideas into sociology. It seems to me that these kinds of formats will become more popular in the future.

Linguistics Journals

Progressive as Linguistics sometimes thinks it is – it’s still rather formal.  All of the major journals are online, but none are open-access, and all are double-blind peer reviewed, and EXTREMELY expensive (which is funny since linguists are supposed to study language – a freely available object of study).  Note: I’ve only looked at American Journals – there are lots of European journals, a couple Canadian, but they follow a different kind of linguistics (Chomskian vs. non-Chomskian) , and the African journals are split between open databases and closed publications – somehow following the American model.

Anyhow, there is one open access American (Chomskian) journal, Snippets.

Snippets is an open-access, online journal with a 3-6 month turn around for publication.  Snippets isn’t exactly for full length articles – it’s for what linguists call a SQUIB.  SQUIBs are very elaborate footnotes, thoughts, interesting points that contradict the theory or should be investigated with respect to the theory as “the theory” is being developed today.  It’s interesting if only because the biggest collection of open-access material in Linguistics is actually the questions – not the solutions.

The best, most fun linguistics resource, though, is Language Log.  This is where many Lingusitics teachers take examples from because it’s not exactly formal and too often turns towards grammar (which is NOT language as defined by linguistics – grammar and punctuation are a social construction quite separate from human language), but is fun and interesting observations about language.

 

Journal Research

I have to admit that almost every journal article I’ve read since about 2008 has been from an online source, save for a handful I have accessed as a selection from a later collection of articles published in book form. Going back through my Zotero citations, I have equal parts Open Access Journals and journals I access through Mina Rees. This is acutally a huge score for the Open Access side of the table, because there are far fewer of these journals, however the ability of editorial teams to control the distribution of content I think makes for easier exploration, even when you have high level access to databases like JSTOR.

An Open Access Journal I read more than I cite (Because I read it regularly (because it isn’t a pain to open the link)) has to be “Game Studies: The International Journal of Video Game Research.” The Journal’s super-minimalist and clean interface makes it a really nice, in-depth read, even in this brave new world of RSS feeds and Twitter lists filling academic dashboards. The articles are styled with HTML and CSS instead of a deeply embedded collections of PDF files.

I can link to an article very easily like this: Adapting the Principles of Ludology to the Method of Video Game Content Analysis

With proprietary journals I only have the patience to peruse through one article at a time.  It is such a headache to move onto other portions of a full journal within the locked-up databases that I tend to print a PDF and move back to scholar search queries.  It can also be a pain to share articles between collaborators:

The best I can do when linking this Oxford Journals’ SCREEN article is this: ‘Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me’: Peep Show, sitcom, and the surveillance society

By clicking the Oxford Link you may or may not be able to read this entire article. Even though as a student at CUNY you have access to it, if you don’t pull it up through the proper channels you may not initially realize you have access to it at all. When accessing through Google Scholar and clicking through several login screens I was able to open the page. When making an attempt at opening the page without going through the CUNY proxy, I was unable to even access a login screen that would take my CUNY information.

 

Victorian Literature Journals

Several of the major print journals in my field now offer online versions, including Victorian Studies (Indiana UP), Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP), and Victorian Periodicals Review (John Hopkins UP). These journals are all restricted access, the online versions being a way for the press to earn money by charging institutions to make the content available through their electronic library databases. I remember reading something in Core I about how university presses rely on this income scheme because for the most part they lack institutional funding, so the restricted access to the online versions of these journals is not surprising.

The Journal of Victorian Culture took its publication digital in a noteworthy, though not an open-access, way. Instead of offering digital editions of its print issues, the Journal of Victorian Culture launched an online supplement to the print publication. JVC Online bills itself as an “interactive site for debate and comment on topics arising from and related to the Journal of Victorian Culture.” So the site isn’t really about access to the journal’s content, you can only read snippets about articles, descriptions that are likely included for the purpose of encouraging print subscriptions (users are not really given enough access to be able to “debate and comment on topics arising from and related to” the content otherwise). The interactive intent of JVC Online, opening up the content of the journal to discussion and review by the public, presumes that users of the site would also be readers of (paying subscribers to) the print issue.

One open-access, online-only publication in my field is Victorian Network. This journal is “dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.” Can Victorian Network‘s support of publication opportunities for graduate students be connected to its online format? In a print journal, each article accepted means reducing the available space for other articles in the issue. However because an e-journal doesn’t share this spatial constraint, it’s editors may be more willing to accept articles that offer unconventional new takes on primary sources, the kinds of articles that print publications may deem a too risky use of space and that young scholars are perhaps most likely to write. I certainly don’t know of a print journal in my field that expressly devotes itself to publishing graduate student work. Each issue of Victorian Network is guest-edited by an established scholar in the field, while the articles accepted for publication are peer-reviewed by doctoral students (with final input from the guest editor). I wonder about the practice of peer review by doctoral students. Is it the result of established scholars being unwilling to volunteer their time as reviewers for this kind of publication (one they wouldn’t be publishing in themselves)? Although Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed publication, does a student-led review process mean a publication in this journal has less weight with hiring committees? Undoubtedly, grant funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council has everything to do with the journal’s ability to offer its content open access, so I also wonder if the use of doctoral students in the review process was helpful to getting that grant funding. . .

Another open-access, online journal is Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net (RaVoN) which has funding from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The e-journal is peer-reviewed by experts in the respective fields and 35 percent of submissions are accepted (not sure if this is high/low/average?). RaVoN’s “About” page doesn’t offer a high-minded mission statement for itself as an open-access initiative, but I am very interested in a sister publishing initiative to the e-journal started by one of its editors, Dino Felluga. BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History, 1775-1925, a site “intertwined” with RaVoN, is “an experiment in a new form of publication.” BRANCH promises to offer “a compilation of over 300 articles from some of the best critics writing on the period today,” amassing a peer-reviewed, copy-edited collection of resources on Victorian history and culture that goes beyond the Wikipedia model in both academic reliability and scholarly rigor. BRANCH’s open-access philosophy is clearly outlined: “Using only free, open-source tools (WordPress and the Mellon-funded SIMILE timeline), BRANCH seeks to push the bounds of scholarly endeavor while staying true to our scholarly values, and all without investment from either a commercial provider or even a scholarly press.” It is exciting to see how open-access ideals might be put to real effect to unhinge scholarship from the commercial constraints of the publishing industry. The proof of concept for BRANCH was supported by grant money borrowed from RaVoN and institutional research funds; now, the developer plans to seek more significant grant funding. For now, BRANCH is only accepting solicited contributions for publication, however the site will be opened up to unsolicited submissions in 2015. Despite being peer-reviewed, I don’t expect that a contribution to BRANCH—because the intended audience of the site is students and a non-academic public—would be given the same consideration by hiring committees as a publication in a scholarly journal. However, the site has published 100 articles as of this February (with 300 total promised by solicited contributors), so when BRANCH starts accepting open submissions in 2015, junior scholars in the field may find that the foundation of “expert” research that has accrued paves the way for this kind of venue to be accepted by hiring and promotion committees as a legitimate form of scholarly publication. While I know this probably isn’t exciting to the rest of you since you aren’t Victorianists, I wonder if this is a new model for publication that could work for other fields and disciplines?