Category Archives: Learning

WordPress as Content Directory: Getting Somewhere

{I tend to ramble a bit. If you just want a step-by-step tutorial, you can skip to here.}

Woohoo!

I feel like I’ve reached a milestone in a project I’ve had in mind, ever since I learnt about Custom Post Types in WordPress 3.0: Using WordPress as a content directory.

The concept may not be so obvious to anyone else, but it’s very clear to me. And probably much clearer for anyone who has any level of WordPress skills (I’m still a kind of WP newbie).

Basically, I’d like to set something up through WordPress to make it easy to create, review, and publish entries in content databases. WordPress is now a Content Management System and the type of “content management” I’d like to enable has to do with something of a directory system.

Why WordPress? Almost glad you asked.

These days, several of the projects on which I work revolve around WordPress. By pure coincidence. Or because WordPress is “teh awsum.” No idea how representative my sample is. But I got to work on WordPress for (among other things): an academic association, an adult learners’ week, an institute for citizenship and social change, and some of my own learning-related projects.

There are people out there arguing about the relative value of WordPress and other Content Management Systems. Sometimes, WordPress may fall short of people’s expectations. Sometimes, the pro-WordPress rhetoric is strong enough to sound like fanboism. But the matter goes beyond marketshare, opinions, and preferences.

In my case, WordPress just happens to be a rather central part of my life, these days. To me, it’s both a question of WordPress being “the right tool for the job” and the work I end up doing being appropriate for WordPress treatment. More than a simple causality (“I use WordPress because of the projects I do” or “I do these projects because I use WordPress”), it’s a complex interaction which involves diverse tools, my skillset, my social networks, and my interests.

Of course, WordPress isn’t perfect nor is it ideal for every situation. There are cases in which it might make much more sense to use another tool (Twitter, TikiWiki, Facebook, Moodle, Tumblr, Drupal..). And there are several things I wish WordPress did more elegantly (such as integrating all dimensions in a single tool). But I frequently end up with WordPress.

Here are some things I like about WordPress:

This last one is where the choice of WordPress for content directories starts making the most sense. Not only is it easy for me to use and build on WordPress but the learning curves are such that it’s easy for me to teach WordPress to others.

A nice example is the post editing interface (same in the software and service). It’s powerful, flexible, and robust, but it’s also very easy to use. It takes a few minutes to learn and is quite sufficient to do a lot of work.

This is exactly where I’m getting to the core idea for my content directories.

I emailed the following description to the digital content editor for the academic organization for which I want to create such content directories:

You know the post editing interface? What if instead of editing posts, someone could edit other types of contents, like syllabi, calls for papers, and teaching resources? What if fields were pretty much like the form I had created for [a committee]? What if submissions could be made by people with a specific role? What if submissions could then be reviewed by other people, with another role? What if display of these items were standardised?

Not exactly sure how clear my vision was in her head, but it’s very clear for me. And it came from different things I’ve seen about custom post types in WordPress 3.0.

For instance, the following post has been quite inspiring:

I almost had a drift-off moment.

But I wasn’t able to wrap my head around all the necessary elements. I perused and read a number of things about custom post types, I tried a few things. But I always got stuck at some point.

Recently, a valuable piece of the puzzle was provided by Kyle Jones (whose blog I follow because of his work on WordPress/BuddyPress in learning, a focus I share).

Setting up a Staff Directory using WordPress Custom Post Types and Plugins | The Corkboard.

As I discussed in the comments to this post, it contained almost everything I needed to make this work. But the two problems Jones mentioned were major hurdles, for me.

After reading that post, though, I decided to investigate further. I eventually got some material which helped me a bit, but it still wasn’t sufficient. Until tonight, I kept running into obstacles which made the process quite difficult.

Then, while trying to solve a problem I was having with Jones’s code, I stumbled upon the following:

Rock-Solid WordPress 3.0 Themes using Custom Post Types | Blancer.com Tutorials and projects.

This post was useful enough that I created a shortlink for it, so I could have it on my iPad and follow along: http://bit.ly/RockSolidCustomWP

By itself, it might not have been sufficient for me to really understand the whole process. And, following that tutorial, I replaced the first bits of code with use of the neat plugins mentioned by Jones in his own tutorial: More Types, More Taxonomies, and More Fields.

I played with this a few times but I can now provide an actual tutorial. I’m now doing the whole thing “from scratch” and will write down all steps.

This is with the WordPress 3.0 blogging software installed on a Bluehost account. (The WordPress.com blogging service doesn’t support custom post types.) I use the default Twenty Ten theme as a parent theme.

Since I use WordPress Multisite, I’m creating a new test blog (in Super Admin->Sites, “Add New”). Of course, this wasn’t required, but it helps me make sure the process is reproducible.

Since I already installed the three “More Plugins” (but they’re not “network activated”) I go in the Plugins menu to activate each of them.

I can now create the new “Product” type, based on that Blancer tutorial. To do so, I go to the “More Types” Settings menu, I click on “Add New Post Type,” and I fill in the following information: post type names (singular and plural) and the thumbnail feature. Other options are set by default.

I also set the “Permalink base” in Advanced settings. Not sure it’s required but it seems to make sense.

I click on the “Save” button at the bottom of the page (forgot to do this, the last time).

I then go to the “More Fields” settings menu to create a custom box for the post editing interface.

I add the box title and change the “Use with post types” options (no use in having this in posts).

(Didn’t forget to click “save,” this time!)

I can now add the “Price” field. To do so, I need to click on the “Edit” link next to the “Product Options” box I just created and add click “Add New Field.”

I add the “Field title” and “Custom field key”:

I set the “Field type” to Number.

I also set the slug for this field.

I then go to the “More Taxonomies” settings menu to add a new product classification.

I click “Add New Taxonomy,” and fill in taxonomy names, allow permalinks, add slug, and show tag cloud.

I also specify that this taxonomy is only used for the “Product” type.

(Save!)

Now, the rest is more directly taken from the Blancer tutorial. But instead of copy-paste, I added the files directly to a Twenty Ten child theme. The files are available in this archive.

Here’s the style.css code:

/*
Theme Name: Product Directory
Theme URI: http://enkerli.com/
Description: A product directory child theme based on Kyle Jones, Blancer, and Twenty Ten
Author: Alexandre Enkerli
Version: 0.1
Template: twentyten
*/

@import url("../twentyten/style.css");

The code for functions.php:

<!--?php /**  * ProductDir functions and definitions  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Directory  * @since Product Directory 0.1  */ /*Custom Columns*/ add_filter("manage_edit-product_columns", "prod_edit_columns"); add_action("manage_posts_custom_column",  "prod_custom_columns"); function prod_edit_columns($columns){ 		$columns = array( 			"cb" =--> "<input type="\&quot;checkbox\&quot;" />",
			"title" => "Product Title",
			"description" => "Description",
			"price" => "Price",
			"catalog" => "Catalog",
		);

		return $columns;
}

function prod_custom_columns($column){
		global $post;
		switch ($column)
		{
			case "description":
				the_excerpt();
				break;
			case "price":
				$custom = get_post_custom();
				echo $custom["price"][0];
				break;
			case "catalog":
				echo get_the_term_list($post->ID, 'catalog', '', ', ','');
				break;
		}
}
?>

And the code in single-product.php:

<!--?php /**  * Template Name: Product - Single  * The Template for displaying all single products.  *  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Dir  * @since Product Directory 1.0  */ get_header(); ?-->
<div id="container">
<div id="content">
<!--?php the_post(); ?-->

<!--?php 	$custom = get_post_custom($post--->ID);
	$price = "$". $custom["price"][0];

?>
<div id="post-<?php the_ID(); ?><br />">>
<h1 class="entry-title"><!--?php the_title(); ?--> - <!--?=$price?--></h1>
<div class="entry-meta">
<div class="entry-content">
<div style="width: 30%; float: left;">
			<!--?php the_post_thumbnail( array(100,100) ); ?-->
			<!--?php the_content(); ?--></div>
<div style="width: 10%; float: right;">
			Price
<!--?=$price?--></div>
</div>
</div>
</div>
<!-- #content --></div>
<!-- #container -->

<!--?php get_footer(); ?-->

That’s it!

Well, almost..

One thing is that I have to activate my new child theme.

So, I go to the “Themes” Super Admin menu and enable the Product Directory theme (this step isn’t needed with single-site WordPress).

I then activate the theme in Appearance->Themes (in my case, on the second page).

One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that the permalink structure may not work if I don’t go and “nudge it.” So I go to the “Permalinks” Settings menu:

And I click on “Save Changes” without changing anything. (I know, it’s counterintuitive. And it’s even possible that it could work without this step. But I spent enough time scratching my head about this one that I find it important.)

Now, I’m done. I can create new product posts by clicking on the “Add New” Products menu.

I can then fill in the product details, using the main WYSIWYG box as a description, the “price” field as a price, the “featured image” as the product image, and a taxonomy as a classification (by clicking “Add new” for any tag I want to add, and choosing a parent for some of them).

Now, in the product management interface (available in Products->Products), I can see the proper columns.

Here’s what the product page looks like:

And I’ve accomplished my mission.

The whole process can be achieved rather quickly, once you know what you’re doing. As I’ve been told (by the ever-so-helpful Justin Tadlock of Theme Hybrid fame, among other things), it’s important to get the data down first. While I agree with the statement and its implications, I needed to understand how to build these things from start to finish.

In fact, getting the data right is made relatively easy by my background as an ethnographer with a strong interest in cognitive anthropology, ethnosemantics, folk taxonomies (aka “folksonomies“), ethnography of communication, and ethnoscience. In other words, “getting the data” is part of my expertise.

The more technical aspects, however, were a bit difficult. I understood most of the principles and I could trace several puzzle pieces, but there’s a fair deal I didn’t know or hadn’t done myself. Putting together bits and pieces from diverse tutorials and posts didn’t work so well because it wasn’t always clear what went where or what had to remain unchanged in the code. I struggled with many details such as the fact that Kyle Jones’s code for custom columns wasn’t working first because it was incorrectly copied, then because I was using it on a post type which was “officially” based on pages (instead of posts). Having forgotten the part about “touching” the Permalinks settings, I was unable to get a satisfying output using Jones’s explanations (the fact that he doesn’t use titles didn’t really help me, in this specific case). So it was much harder for me to figure out how to do this than it now is for me to build content directories.

I still have some technical issues to face. Some which are near essential, such as a way to create archive templates for custom post types. Other issues have to do with features I’d like my content directories to have, such as clearly defined roles (the “More Plugins” support roles, but I still need to find out how to define them in WordPress). Yet other issues are likely to come up as I start building content directories, install them in specific contexts, teach people how to use them, observe how they’re being used and, most importantly, get feedback about their use.

But I’m past a certain point in my self-learning journey. I’ve built my confidence (an important but often dismissed component of gaining expertise and experience). I found proper resources. I understood what components were minimally necessary or required. I succeeded in implementing the system and testing it. And I’ve written enough about the whole process that things are even clearer for me.

And, who knows, I may get feedback, questions, or advice..


Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”


No Office Export in Keynote/Numbers for iPad?

To be honest, I’m getting even more excited about the iPad. Not that we get that much more info about it, but:

For one thing, the Pages for iPad webpage is explicitly stating Word support:

Attach them to an email as Pages files for Mac, Microsoft Word files, or PDF documents.

Maybe this is because Steve Jobs himself promised it to Walt Mossberg?
Thing is, the equivalent pages about Keynote for iPad and about Numbers for iPad aren’t so explicit:

The presentations you create in Keynote on your iPad can be exported as Keynote files for Mac or PDF documents

and…

To share your work, export your spreadsheet as a Numbers file for Mac or PDF document

Not a huge issue, but it seems strange that Apple would have such an “export to Microsoft Office” feature on only one of the three “iWork for iPad” apps. Now, the differences in the way exports are described may not mean that Keynote won’t be able to export to Microsoft PowerPoint or that Numbers won’t be able to export to Microsoft Excel. After all, these texts may have been written at different times. But it does sound like PowerPoint and Excel will be import-only, on the iPad.

Which, again, may not be that big an issue. Maybe iWork.com will work well enough for people’s needs. And some other cloud-based tools do support Keynote. (Though Google Docs and Zoho Show don’t.)

The reason I care is simple: I do share most of my presentation files. Either to students (as resources on Moodle) or to whole wide world (through Slideshare). My desktop outliner of choice, OmniOutliner, exports to Keynote and Microsoft Word. My ideal workflow would be to send, in parallel, presentation files to Keynote for display while on stage and to PowerPoint for sharing. The Word version could also be useful for sharing.

Speaking of presenting “slides” on stage, I’m also hoping that the “iPad Dock Connector to VGA Adapter” will support “presenter mode” at some point (though it doesn’t seem to be the case, right now). I also dream of a way to control an iPad presentation with some kind of remote. In fact, it’s not too hard to imagine it as an iPod touch app (maybe made by Appiction, down in ATX).

To be clear: my “presentation files” aren’t really about presenting so much as they are a way to package and organize items. Yes, I use bullet points. No, I don’t try to make the presentation sexy. My presentation files are acting like cue cards and like whiteboard snapshots. During a class, I use the “slides” as a way to keep track of where I planned the discussion to go. I can skip around, but it’s easier for me to get at least some students focused on what’s important (the actual depth of the discussion) because they know the structure (as “slides”) will be available online. Since I also podcast my lectures, it means that they can go back to all the material.

I also use “slides” to capture things we build in class, such as lists of themes from the readings or potential exam questions.  Again, the “whiteboard” idea. I don’t typically do the same thing during a one-time talk (say, at an unconference). But I still want to share my “slides,” at some point.

So, in all of these situations, I need a file format for “slides.” I really wish there were a format which could work directly out of the browser and could be converted back and forth with other formats (especially Keynote, OpenOffice, and PowerPoint). I don’t need anything fancy. I don’t even care about transitions, animations, or even inserting pictures. But, despite some friends’ attempts at making me use open solutions, I end up having to use presentation files.

Unfortunately, at this point, PowerPoint is the de facto standard for presentation files. So I need it, somehow. Not that I really need PowerPoint itself. But it’s still the only format I can use to share “slides.”

So, if Keynote for iPad doesn’t export directly to PowerPoint, it means that I’ll have to find another way to make my workflow fit.

Ah, well…


Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.


I Hate Books

In a way, this is a followup to a discussion happening on Facebook after something I posted (available publicly on Twitter): “(Alexandre) wishes physical books a quick and painfree death. / aime la connaissance.”

As I expected, the reactions I received were from friends who are aghast: how dare I dismiss physical books? Don’t I know no shame?

Apparently, no, not in this case.

And while I posted it as a quip, it’s the result of a rather long reflection. It’s not that I’m suddenly anti-books. It’s that I stopped buying several of the “pro-book” arguments a while ago.

Sure, sure. Books are the textbook case of technlogy which needs no improvement. eBooks can’t replace the experience of doing this or that with a book. But that’s what folkloristics defines as a functional shift. Like woven baskets which became objects of nostalgia, books are being maintained as the model for a very specific attitude toward knowledge construction based on monolithic authored texts vetted by gatekeepers and sold as access to information.

An important point, here, is that I’m not really thinking about fiction. I used to read two novel-length works a week (collections of short stories, plays…), for a period of about 10 years (ages 13 to 23). So, during that period, I probably read about 1,000 novels, ranging from Proust’s Recherche to Baricco’s Novecentoand the five books of Rabelais’s Pantagruel series. This was after having read a fair deal of adolescent and young adult fiction. By today’s standards, I might be considered fairly well-read.

My life has changed a lot, since that time. I didn’t exactly stop reading fiction but my move through graduate school eventually shifted my reading time from fiction to academic texts. And I started writing more and more, online and offline.
In the same time, the Web had also been making me shift from pointed longform texts to copious amounts of shortform text. Much more polyvocal than what Bakhtin himself would have imagined.

(I’ve also been shifting from French to English, during that time. But that’s almost another story. Or it’s another part of the story which can reamin in the backdrop without being addressed directly at this point. Ask, if you’re curious.)
The increase in my writing activity is, itself, a shift in the way I think, act, talk… and get feedback. See, the fact that I talk and write a lot, in a variety of circumstances, also means that I get a lot of people to play along. There’s still a risk of groupthink, in specific contexts, but one couldn’t say I keep getting things from the same perspective. In fact, the very Facebook conversation which sparked this blogpost is an example, as the people responding there come from relatively distant backgrounds (though there are similarities) and were not specifically queried about this. Their reactions have a very specific value, to me. Sure, it comes in the form of writing. But it’s giving me even more of something I used to find in writing: insight. The stuff you can’t get through Google.

So, back to books.

I dislike physical books. I wish I didn’t have to use them to read what I want to read. I do have a much easier time with short reading sessions on a computer screen that what would turn into rather long periods of time holding a book in my hands.

Physical books just don’t do it for me, anymore. The printing press is, like, soooo 1454!

Yes, books had “a good run.” No, nothing replaces them. That’s not the way it works. Movies didn’t replace theater, television didn’t replace radio, automobiles didn’t replace horses, photographs didn’t replace paintings, books didn’t replace orality. In fact, the technology itself doesn’t do much by itself. But social contexts recontextualize tools. If we take technology to be the set of both tools and the knowledge surrounding it, technology mostly goes through social processes, since tool repertoires and corresponding knowledge mostly shift in social contexts, not in their mere existence. Gutenberg’s Bible was a “game-changer” for social, as well as technical reasons.

And I do insist on orality. Journalists and other “communication is transmission of information” followers of Shannon&Weaver tend to portray writing as the annihilation of orality. How long after the invention of writing did Homer transfer an oral tradition to the writing media? Didn’t Albert Lord show the vitality of the epic well into the 20th Century? Isn’t a lot of our knowledge constructed through oral means? Is Internet writing that far, conceptually, from orality? Is literacy a simple on/off switch?

Not only did I maintain an interest in orality through the most book-focused moments of my life but I probably care more about orality now than I ever did. So I simply cannot accept the idea that books have simply replaced the human voice. It doesn’t add up.

My guess is that books won’t simply disappear either. There should still be a use for “coffee table books” and books as gifts or collectables. Records haven’t disappeared completely and CDs still have a few more days in dedicated stores. But, in general, we’re moving away from the “support medium” for “content” and more toward actual knowledge management in socially significant contexts.

In these contexts, books often make little sense. Reading books is passive while these contexts are about (hyper-)/(inter-)active.

Case in point (and the reason I felt compelled to post that Facebook/Twitter quip)…
I hear about a “just released” French book during a Swiss podcast. Of course, it’s taken a while to write and publish. So, by the time I heard about it, there was no way to participate in the construction of knowledge which led to it. It was already “set in stone” as an “opus.”

Looked for it at diverse bookstores. One bookstore could eventually order it. It’d take weeks and be quite costly (for something I’m mostly curious about, not depending on for something really important).

I eventually find it in the catalogue at BANQ. I reserve it. It wasn’t on the shelves, yet, so I had to wait until it was. It took from November to February. I eventually get a message that I have a couple of days to pick up my reservation but I wasn’t able to go. So it went back on the “just released” shelves. I had the full call number but books in that section aren’t in their call number sequence. I spent several minutes looking back and forth between eight shelves to eventually find out that there were four more shelves in the “humanities and social sciences” section. The book I was looking was on one of those shelves.

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

In the metro, I browse through it. Given my academic reflex, I look for the back matter first. No bibliography, no index, a ToC with rather obscure titles (at random: «Taylor toujours à l’œuvre»/”Taylor still at work,” which I’m assuming to be a reference to continuing taylorism). The book is written by two separate dudes but there’s no clear indication of who wrote what. There’s a preface (by somebody else) but no “acknowledgments” section, so it’s hard to see who’s in their network. Footnotes include full URLs to rather broad sites as well as “discussion with <an author’s name>.” The back cover starts off with references to French popular culture (including something about “RER D,” which would be difficult to search). Information about both authors fits in less than 40 words (including a list of publication titles).

The book itself is fairly large print, ways almost a pound (422g, to be exact) for 327 pages (including front and back matter). Each page seems to be about 50 characters per line, about 30 lines per page. So, about half a million characters or 3500 tweets (including spaces). At 5+1 characters per word, about 80,000 words (I have a 7500-words blogpost, written in an afternoon). At about 250 words per minute, about five hours of reading. This book is listed at 19€ (about 27CAD).
There’s no direct way to do any “postprocessing” with the text: no speech synthesis for visually impaired, concordance analysis, no machine translation, even a simple search for occurences of “Sarkozy” is impossible. Not to mention sharing quotes with students or annotating in an easy-to-retrieve fashion (à la Diigo).

Like any book, it’s impossible to read in the dark and I actually have a hard time to find a spot where I can read with appropriate lighting.

Flipping through the book, I get the impression that there’s some valuable things to spark discussions, but there’s also a whole lot of redundancy with frequent discussions on the topic (the Future of Journalism, or #FoJ, as a matter of fact). My guesstimate is that, out of 5 hours of reading, I’d get at most 20 pieces of insight that I’d have exactly no way to find elsewhere. Comparable books to which I listened as audiobooks, recently, had much less. In other words, I’d have at most 20 tweets worth of things to say from the book. Almost a 200:1 compression.
Direct discussion with the authors could produce much more insight. The radio interviews with these authors already contained a few insight hints, which predisposed me to look for more. But, so many months later, without the streams of thought which animated me at the time, I end up with something much less valuable than what I wanted to get, back in November.

Bottomline: Books aren’t necessarily “broken” as a tool. They just don’t fit my life, anymore.


Why I Need an iPad

I’m one of those who feel the iPad is the right tool for the job.

This is mostly meant as a reply to this blogthread. But it’s also more generally about my personal reaction to Apple’s iPad announcement.

Some background.

I’m an ethnographer and a teacher. I read a fair deal, write a lot of notes, and work in a variety of contexts. These days, I tend to spend a good amount of time in cafés and other public places where I like to work without being too isolated. I also commute using public transit, listen to lots of podcast, and create my own. I’m also very aural.

I’ve used a number of PDAs, over the years, from a Newton MessagePad 130 (1997) to a variety of PalmOS devices (until 2008). In fact, some people readily associated me with PDA use.

As soon as I learnt about the iPod touch, I needed one. As soon as I’ve heard about the SafariPad, I wanted one. I’ve been an intense ‘touch user since the iPhone OS 2.0 release and I’m a happy camper.

(A major reason I never bought an iPhone, apart from price, is that it requires a contract.)

In my experience, the ‘touch is the most appropriate device for all sorts of activities which are either part of an other activity (reading during a commute) or are simply too short in duration to constitute an actual “computer session.” You don’t “sit down to work at your ‘touch” the way you might sit in front of a laptop or desktop screen. This works great for “looking up stufff” or “checking email.” It also makes a lot of sense during commutes in crowded buses or metros.

In those cases, the iPod touch is almost ideal. Ubiquitous access to Internet would be nice, but that’s not a deal-breaker. Alternative text-input methods would help in some cases, but I do end up being about as fast on my ‘touch as I was with Graffiti on PalmOS.

For other tasks, I have a Mac mini. Sure, it’s limited. But it does the job. In fact, I have no intention of switching for another desktop and I even have an eMachines collecting dust (it’s too noisy to make a good server).

What I miss, though, is a laptop. I used an iBook G3 for several years and loved it. For a little while later, I was able to share a MacBook with somebody else and it was a wonderful experience. I even got to play with the OLPC XO for a few weeks. That one was not so pleasant an experience but it did give me a taste for netbooks. And it made me think about other types of iPhone-like devices. Especially in educational contexts. (As I mentioned, I’m a teacher)

I’ve been laptop-less for a while, now. And though my ‘touch replaces it in many contexts, there are still times when I’d really need a laptop. And these have to do with what I might call “mobile sessions.”

For instance: liveblogging a conference or meeting. I’ve used my ‘touch for this very purpose on a good number of occasions. But it gets rather uncomfortable, after a while, and it’s not very fast. A laptop is better for this, with a keyboard and a larger form factor. But the iPad will be even better because of lower risks of RSI. A related example: just imagine TweetDeck on iPad.

Possibly my favourite example of a context in which the iPad will be ideal: presentations. Even before learning about the prospect of getting iWork on a tablet, presentations were a context in which I really missed a laptop.

Sure, in most cases, these days, there’s a computer (usually a desktop running XP) hooked to a projector. You just need to download your presentation file from Slideshare, show it from Prezi, or transfer it through USB. No biggie.

But it’s not the extra steps which change everything. It’s the uncertainty. Even if it’s often unfounded, I usually get worried that something might just not work, along the way. The slides might not show the same way as you see it because something is missing on that computer or that computer is simply using a different version of the presentation software. In fact, that software is typically Microsoft PowerPoint which, while convenient, fits much less in my workflow than does Apple Keynote.

The other big thing about presentations is the “presenter mode,” allowing you to get more content than (or different content from) what the audience sees. In most contexts where I’ve used someone else’s computer to do a presentation, the projector was mirroring the computer’s screen, not using it as a different space. PowerPoint has this convenient “presenter view” but very rarely did I see it as an available option on “the computer in the room.” I wish I could use my ‘touch to drive presentations, which I could do if I installed software on that “computer in the room.” But it’s not something that is likely to happen, in most cases.

A MacBook solves all of these problems. and it’s an obvious use for laptops. But how, then, is the iPad better? Basically because of interface. Switching slides on a laptop isn’t hard, but it’s more awkward than we realize. Even before watching the demo of Keynote on the iPad, I could simply imagine the actual pleasure of flipping through slides using a touch interface. The fit is “natural.”

I sincerely think that Keynote on the iPad will change a number of things, for me. Including the way I teach.

Then, there’s reading.

Now, I’m not one of those people who just can’t read on a computer screen. In fact, I even grade assignments directly from the screen. But I must admit that online reading hasn’t been ideal, for me. I’ve read full books as PDF files or dedicated formats on PalmOS, but it wasn’t so much fun, in terms of the reading process. And I’ve used my ‘touch to read things through Stanza or ReadItLater. But it doesn’t work so well for longer reading sessions. Even in terms of holding the ‘touch, it’s not so obvious. And, what’s funny, even a laptop isn’t that ideal, for me, as a reading device. In a sense, this is when the keyboard “gets in the way.”

Sure, I could get a Kindle. I’m not a big fan of dedicated devices and, at least on paper, I find the Kindle a bit limited for my needs. Especially in terms of sources. I’d like to be able to use documents in a variety of formats and put them in a reading list, for extended reading sessions. No, not “curled up in bed.” But maybe lying down in a sofa without external lighting. Given my experience with the ‘touch, the iPad is very likely the ideal device for this.

Then, there’s the overall “multi-touch device” thing. People have already been quite creative with the small touchscreen on iPhones and ‘touches, I can just imagine what may be done with a larger screen. Lots has been said about differences in “screen real estate” in laptop or desktop screens. We all know it can make a big difference in terms of what you can display at the same time. In some cases, two screens isn’t even a luxury, for instance when you code and display a page at the same time (LaTeX, CSS…). Certainly, the same qualitative difference applies to multitouch devices. Probably even more so, since the display is also used for input. What Han found missing in the iPhone’s multitouch was the ability to use both hands. With the iPad, Han’s vision is finding its space.

Oh, sure, the iPad is very restricted. For instance, it’s easy to imagine how much more useful it’d be if it did support multitasking with third-party apps. And a front-facing camera is something I was expecting in the first iPhone. It would just make so much sense that a friend seems very disappointed by this lack of videoconferencing potential. But we’re probably talking about predetermined expectations, here. We’re comparing the iPad with something we had in mind.

Then, there’s the issue of the competition. Tablets have been released and some multitouch tablets have recently been announced. What makes the iPad better than these? Well, we could all get in the same OS wars as have been happening with laptops and desktops. In my case, the investment in applications, files, and expertise that I have made in a Mac ecosystem rendered my XP years relatively uncomfortable and me appreciate returning to the Mac. My iPod touch fits right in that context. Oh, sure, I could use it with a Windows machine, which is in fact what I did for the first several months. But the relationship between the iPhone OS and Mac OS X is such that using devices in those two systems is much more efficient, in terms of my own workflow, than I could get while using XP and iPhone OS. There are some technical dimensions to this, such as the integration between iCal and the iPhone OS Calendar, or even the filesystem. But I’m actually thinking more about the cognitive dimensions of recognizing some of the same interface elements. “Look and feel” isn’t just about shiny and “purty.” It’s about interactions between a human brain, a complex sensorimotor apparatus, and a machine. Things go more quickly when you don’t have to think too much about where some tools are, as you’re working.

So my reasons for wanting an iPad aren’t about being dazzled by a revolutionary device. They are about the right tool for the job.


Installing BuddyPress on a Webhost

[Jump here for more technical details.]

A few months ago, I installed BuddyPress on my Mac to try it out. It was a bit of an involved process, so I documented it:

WordPress MU, BuddyPress, and bbPress on Local Machine « Disparate.

More recently, I decided to get a webhost. Both to run some tests and, eventually, to build something useful. BuddyPress seems like a good way to go at it, especially since it’s improved a lot, in the past several months.

In fact, the installation process is much simpler, now, and I ran into some difficulties because I was following my own instructions (though adapting the process to my webhost). So a new blogpost may be in order. My previous one was very (possibly too) detailed. This one is much simpler, technically.

One thing to make clear is that BuddyPress is a set of plugins meant for WordPress µ (“WordPress MU,” “WPMU,” “WPµ”), the multi-user version of the WordPress blogging platform. BP is meant as a way to make WPµ more “social,” with such useful features as flexible profiles, user-to-user relationships, and forums (through bbPress, yet another one of those independent projects based on WordPress).

While BuddyPress depends on WPµ and does follow a blogging logic, I’m thinking about it as a social platform. Once I build it into something practical, I’ll probably use the blogging features but, in a way, it’s more of a tool to engage people in online social activities. BuddyPress probably doesn’t work as a way to “build a community” from scratch. But I think it can be quite useful as a way to engage members of an existing community, even if this engagement follows a blogger’s version of a Pareto distribution (which, hopefully, is dissociated from elitist principles).

But I digress, of course. This blogpost is more about the practical issue of adding a BuddyPress installation to a webhost.

Webhosts have come a long way, recently. Especially in terms of shared webhosting focused on LAMP (or PHP/MySQL, more specifically) for blogs and content-management. I don’t have any data on this, but it seems to me that a lot of people these days are relying on third-party webhosts instead of relying on their own servers when they want to build on their own blogging and content-management platforms. Of course, there’s a lot more people who prefer to use preexisting blog and content-management systems. For instance, it seems that there are more bloggers on WordPress.com than on other WordPress installations. And WP.com blogs probably represent a small number of people in comparison to the number of people who visit these blogs. So, in a way, those who run their own WordPress installations are a minority in the group of active WordPress bloggers which, itself, is a minority of blog visitors. Again, let’s hope this “power distribution” not a basis for elite theory!

Yes, another digression. I did tell you to skip, if you wanted the technical details!

I became part of the “self-hosted WordPress” community through a project on which I started work during the summer. It’s a website for an academic organization and I’m acting as the organization’s “Web Guru” (no, I didn’t choose the title). The site was already based on WordPress but I was rebuilding much of it in collaboration with the then-current “Digital Content Editor.” Through this project, I got to learn a lot about WordPress, themes, PHP, CSS, etc. And it was my first experience using a cPanel- (and Fantastico-)enabled webhost (BlueHost, at the time). It’s also how I decided to install WordPress on my local machine and did some amount of work from that machine.

But the local installation wasn’t an ideal solution for two reasons: a) I had to be in front of that local machine to work on this project; and b) it was much harder to show the results to the person with whom I was collaborating.

So, in the Fall, I decided to get my own staging server. After a few quick searches, I decided HostGator, partly because it was available on a monthly basis. Since this staging server was meant as a temporary solution, HG was close to ideal. It was easy to set up as a PayPal “subscription,” wasn’t that expensive (9$/month), had adequate support, and included everything that I needed at that point to install a current version of WordPress and play with theme files (after importing content from the original site). I’m really glad I made that decision because it made a number of things easier, including working from different computers, and sending links to get feedback.

While monthly HostGator fees were reasonable, it was still a more expensive proposition than what I had in mind for a longer-term solution. So, recently, a few weeks after releasing the new version of the organization’s website, I decided to cancel my HostGator subscription. A decision I made without any regret or bad feeling. HostGator was good to me. It’s just that I didn’t have any reason to keep that account or to do anything major with the domain name I was using on HG.

Though only a few weeks elapsed since I canceled that account, I didn’t immediately set out to transition to a new webhost. I didn’t go from HostGator to another webhost.

But having my own webhost still remained at the back of my mind as something which might be useful. For instance, while not really making a staging server necessary, a new phase in the academic website project brought up a sandboxing idea. Also, I went to a “WordPress Montreal” meeting and got to think about further WordPress development/deployment, including using BuddyPress for my own needs (both as my own project and as a way to build my own knowledge of the platform) instead of it being part of an organization’s project. I was also thinking about other interesting platforms which necessitate a webhost.

(More on these other platforms at a later point in time. Bottom line is, I’m happy with the prospects.)

So I wanted a new webhost. I set out to do some comparison shopping, as I’m wont to do. In my (allegedly limited) experience, finding the ideal webhost is particularly difficult. For one thing, search results are cluttered with a variety of “unuseful” things such as rants, advertising, and limited comparisons. And it’s actually not that easy to give a new webhost a try. For one thing, these hosting companies don’t necessarily have the most liberal refund policies you could imagine. And, switching a domain name between different hosts and registrars is a complicated process through which a name may remain “hostage.” Had I realized what was involved, I might have used a domain name to which I have no attachment or actually eschewed the whole domain transition and just try the webhost without a dedicated domain name.

Doh!
Live and learn. I sure do. Loving almost every minute of it.

At any rate, I had a relatively hard time finding my webhost.

I really didn’t need “bells and whistles.” For instance, all the AdSense, shopping cart, and other business-oriented features which seem to be publicized by most webhosting companies have no interest, to me.

I didn’t even care so much about absolute degree of reliability or speed. What I’m to do with this host is fairly basic stuff. The core idea is to use my own host to bypass some limitations. For instance, WordPress.com doesn’t allow for plugins yet most of the WordPress fun has to do with plugins.

I did want an “unlimited” host, as much as possible. Not because expect to have huge resource needs but I just didn’t want to have to monitor bandwidth.

I thought that my needs would be basic enough that any cPanel-enabled webhost would fit. As much as I could see, I needed FTP access to something which had PHP 5 and MySQL 5. I expected to install things myself, without use of the webhost’s scripts but I also thought the host would have some useful scripts. Although I had already registered the domain I wanted to use (through Name.com), I thought it might be useful to have a free domain in the webhosting package. Not that domain names are expensive, it’s more of a matter of convenience in terms of payment or setup.

I ended up with FatCow. But, honestly, I’d probably go with a different host if I were to start over (which I may do with another project).

I paid 88$ for two years of “unlimited” hosting, which is quite reasonable. And, on paper, FatCow has everything I need (and I bunch of things I don’t need). The missing parts aren’t anything major but have to do with minor annoyances. In other words, no real deal-breaker, here. But there’s a few things I wish I had realized before I committed on FatCow with a domain name I actually want to use.

Something which was almost a deal-breaker for me is the fact that FatCow requires payment for any additional subdomain. And these aren’t cheap: the minimum is 5$/month for five subdomains, up to 25$/month for unlimited subdomains! Even at a “regular” price of 88$/year for the basic webhosting plan, the “unlimited subdomains” feature (included in some webhosting plans elsewhere) is more than three times more expensive than the core plan.

As I don’t absolutely need extra subdomains, this is mostly a minor irritant. But it’s one reason I’ll probably be using another webhost for other projects.

Other issues with FatCow are probably not enough to motivate a switch.

For instance, the PHP version installed on FatCow (5.2.1) is a few minor releases behind the one needed by some interesting web applications. No biggie, especially if PHP is updated in a relatively reasonable timeframe. But still makes for a slight frustration.

The MySQL version seems recent enough, but it uses non-standard tools to manage it, which makes for some confusion. Attempting to create some MySQL databases with obvious names (say “wordpress”) fails because the database allegedly exists (even though it doesn’t show up in the MySQL administration). In the same vein, the URL of the MySQL is <username>.fatcowmysql.com instead of localhost as most installers seem to expect. Easy to handle once you realize it, but it makes for some confusion.

In terms of Fantastico-like simplified installation of webapps, FatCow uses InstallCentral, which looks like it might be its own Fantastico replacement. InstallCentral is decent enough as an installation tool and FatCow does provide for some of the most popular blog and CMS platforms. But, in some cases, the application version installed by FatCow is old enough (2005!)  that it requires multiple upgrades to get to a current version. Compared to other installation tools, FatCow’s InstallCentral doesn’t seem really efficient at keeping track of installed and released versions.

Something which is partly a neat feature and partly a potential issue is the way FatCow handles Apache-related security. This isn’t something which is so clear to me, so I might be wrong.

Accounts on both BlueHost and HostGator include a public_html directory where all sorts of things go, especially if they’re related to publicly-accessible content. This directory serves as the website’s root, so one expects content to be available there. The “index.html” or “index.php” file in this directory serves as the website’s frontpage. It’s fairly obvious, but it does require that one would understand a few things about webservers. FatCow doesn’t seem to create a public_html directory in a user’s server space. Or, more accurately, it seems that the root directory (aka ‘/’) is in fact public_html. In this sense, a user doesn’t have to think about which directory to use to share things on the Web. But it also means that some higher-level directories aren’t available. I’ve already run into some issues with this and I’ll probably be looking for a workaround. I’m assuming there’s one. But it’s sometimes easier to use generally-applicable advice than to find a custom solution.

Further, in terms of access control… It seems that webapps typically make use of diverse directories and .htaccess files to manage some forms of access controls. Unix-style file permissions are also involved but the kind of access needed for a web app is somewhat different from the “User/Group/All” of Unix filesystems. AFAICT, FatCow does support those .htaccess files. But it has its own tools for building them. That can be a neat feature, as it makes it easier, for instance, to password-protect some directories. But it could also be the source of some confusion.

There are other issues I have with FatCow, but it’s probably enough for now.

So… On to the installation process… 😉

It only takes a few minutes and is rather straightforward. This is the most verbose version of that process you could imagine…

Surprised? 😎

Disclaimer: I’m mostly documenting how I did it and there are some things about which I’m unclear. So it may not work for you. If it doesn’t, I may be able to help but I provide no guarantee that I will. I’m an anthropologist, not a Web development expert.

As always, YMMV.

A few instructions here are specific to FatCow, but the general process is probably valid on other hosts.

I’m presenting things in a sequence which should make sense. I used a slightly different order myself, but I think this one should still work. (If it doesn’t, drop me a comment!)

In these instructions, straight quotes (“”) are used to isolate elements from the rest of the text. They shouldn’t be typed or pasted.

I use “example.com” to refer to the domain on which the installation is done. In my case, it’s the domain name I transfered to FatCow from another registrar but it could probably be done without a dedicated domain (in which case it would be “<username>.fatcow.com” where “<username>” is your FatCow username).

I started with creating a MySQL database for WordPress MU. FatCow does have phpMyAdmin but the default tool in the cPanel is labeled “Manage MySQL.” It’s slightly easier to use for creating new databases than phpMyAdmin because it creates the database and initial user (with confirmed password) in a single, easy-to-understand dialog box.

So I created that new database, user, and password, noting down this information. Since that password appears in clear text at some point and can easily be changed through the same interface, I used one which was easy to remember but wasn’t one I use elsewhere.
Then, I dowloaded the following files to my local machine in order to upload them to my FatCow server space. The upload can be done through either FTP or FatCow’s FileManager. I tend to prefer FTP (via CyberDuck on the Mac or FileZilla on PC). But the FileManager does allow for easy uploads.
(Wish it could be more direct, using the HTTP links directly instead of downloading to upload. But I haven’t found a way to do it through either FTP or the FileManager.)
At any rate, here are the four files I transfered to my FatCow space, using .zip when there’s a choice (the .tar.gz “tarball” versions also work but require a couple of extra steps).
  1. WordPress MU (wordpress-mu-2.9.1.1.zip, in my case)
  2. Buddymatic (buddymatic.0.9.6.3.1.zip, in my case)
  3. EarlyMorning (only one version, it seems)
  4. EarlyMorning-BP (only one version, it seems)

Only the WordPress MU archive is needed to install BuddyPress. The last three files are needed for EarlyMorning, a BuddyPress theme that I found particularly neat. It’s perfectly possible to install BuddyPress without this specific theme. (Although, doing so, you need to install a BuddyPress-compatible theme, if only by moving some folders to make the default theme available, as I explained in point 15 in that previous tutorial.) Buddymatic itself is a theme framework which includes some child themes, so you don’t need to install EarlyMorning. But installing it is easy enough that I’m adding instructions related to that theme.

These files can be uploaded anywhere in my FatCow space. I uploaded them to a kind of test/upload directory, just to make it clear, for me.

A major FatCow idiosyncrasy is its FileManager (actually called “FileManager Beta” in the documentation but showing up as “FileManager” in the cPanel). From my experience with both BlueHost and HostGator (two well-known webhosting companies), I can say that FC’s FileManager is quite limited. One thing it doesn’t do is uncompress archives. So I have to resort to the “Archive Gateway,” which is surprisingly slow and cumbersome.

At any rate, I used that Archive Gateway to uncompress the four files. WordPress µ first (in the root directory or “/”), then both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning in “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes” (you can chose the output directory for zip and tar files), and finally EarlyMorning-BP (anywhere, individual files are moved later). To uncompress each file, select it in the dropdown menu (it can be located in any subdirectory, Archive Gateway looks everywhere), add the output directory in the appropriate field in the case of Buddymatic or EarlyMorning, and press “Extract/Uncompress”. Wait to see a message (in green) at the top of the window saying that the file has been uncompressed successfully.

Then, in the FileManager, the contents of the EarlyMorning-BP directory have to be moved to “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning”. (Thought they could be uncompressed there directly, but it created an extra folder.) To move those files in the FileManager, I browse to that earlymorning-bp directory, click on the checkbox to select all, click on the “Move” button (fourth from right, marked with a blue folder), and add the output path: /wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning

These files are tweaks to make the EarlyMorning theme work with BuddyPress.

Then, I had to change two files, through the FileManager (it could also be done with an FTP client).

One change is to EarlyMorning’s style.css:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning/style.css

There, “Template: thematic” has to be changed to “Template: buddymatic” (so, “the” should be changed to “buddy”).

That change is needed because the EarlyMorning theme is a child theme of the “Thematic” WordPress parent theme. Buddymatic is a BuddyPress-savvy version of Thematic and this changes the child-parent relation from Thematic to Buddymatic.

The other change is in the Buddymatic “extensions”:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/buddymatic/library/extensions/buddypress_extensions.php

There, on line 39, “$bp->root_domain” should be changed to “bp_root_domain()”.

This change is needed because of something I’d consider a bug but that a commenter on another blog was kind enough to troubleshoot. Without this modification, the login button in BuddyPress wasn’t working because it was going to the website’s root (example.com/wp-login.php) instead of the WPµ installation (example.com/wordpress-mu/wp-login.php). I was quite happy to find this workaround but I’m not completely clear on the reason it works.

Then, something I did which might not be needed is to rename the “wordpress-mu” directory. Without that change, the BuddyPress installation would sit at “example.com/wordpress-mu,” which seems a bit cryptic for users. In my mind, “example.com/<name>,” where “<name>” is something meaningful like “social” or “community” works well enough for my needs. Because FatCow charges for subdomains, the “<name>.example.com” option would be costly.

(Of course, WPµ and BuddyPress could be installed in the site’s root and the frontpage for “example.com” could be the BuddyPress frontpage. But since I think of BuddyPress as an add-on to a more complete site, it seems better to have it as a level lower in the site’s hierarchy.)

With all of this done, the actual WPµ installation process can begin.

The first thing is to browse to that directory in which WPµ resides, either “example.com/wordpress-mu” or “example.com/<name>” with the “<name>” you chose. You’re then presented with the WordPress µ Installation screen.

Since FatCow charges for subdomains, it’s important to choose the following option: “Sub-directories (like example.com/blog1).” It’s actually by selecting the other option that I realized that FatCow restricted subdomains.

The Database Name, username and password are the ones you created initially with Manage MySQL. If you forgot that password, you can actually change it with that same tool.

An important FatCow-specific point, here, is that “Database Host” should be “<username>.fatcowmysql.com” (where “<username>” is your FatCow username). In my experience, other webhosts use “localhost” and WPµ defaults to that.

You’re asked to give a name to your blog. In a way, though, if you think of BuddyPress as more of a platform than a blogging system, that name should be rather general. As you’re installing “WordPress Multi-User,” you’ll be able to create many blogs with more specific names, if you want. But the name you’re entering here is for BuddyPress as a whole. As with <name> in “example.com/<name>” (instead of “example.com/wordpress-mu”), it’s a matter of personal opinion.

Something I noticed with the EarlyMorning theme is that it’s a good idea to keep the main blog’s name relatively short. I used thirteen characters and it seemed to fit quite well.

Once you’re done filling in this page, WPµ is installed in a flash. You’re then presented with some information about your installation. It’s probably a good idea to note down some of that information, including the full paths to your installation and the administrator’s password.

But the first thing you should do, as soon as you log in with “admin” as username and the password provided, is probably to the change that administrator password. (In fact, it seems that a frequent advice in the WordPress community is to create a new administrator user account, with a different username than “admin,” and delete the “admin” account. Given some security issues with WordPress in the past, it seems like a good piece of advice. But I won’t describe it here. I did do it in my installation and it’s quite easy to do in WPµ.

Then, you should probably enable plugins here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-options.php#menu

(From what I understand, it might be possible to install BuddyPress without enabling plugins, since you’re logged in as the administrator, but it still makes sense to enable them and it happens to be what I did.)

You can also change a few other options, but these can be set at another point.

One option which is probably useful, is this one:

Allow new registrations Disabled
Enabled. Blogs and user accounts can be created.
Only user account can be created.

Obviously, it’s not necessary. But in the interest of opening up the BuddyPress to the wider world without worrying too much about a proliferation of blogs, it might make sense. You may end up with some fake user accounts, but that shouldn’t be a difficult problem to solve.

Now comes the installation of the BuddyPress plugin itself. You can do so by going here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/plugin-install.php

And do a search for “BuddyPress” as a term. The plugin you want was authored by “The BuddyPress Community.” (In my case, version 1.1.3.) Click the “Install” link to bring up the installation dialog, then click “Install Now” to actually install the plugin.

Once the install is done, click the “Activate” link to complete the basic BuddyPress installation.

You now have a working installation of BuddyPress but the BuddyPress-savvy EarlyMorning isn’t enabled. So you need to go to “example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-themes.php” to enable both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning. You should then go to “example.com/<name>/wp-admin/themes.php” to activate the EarlyMorning theme.

Something which tripped me up because it’s now much easier than before is that forums (provided through bbPress) are now, literally, a one-click install. If you go here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/admin.php?page=bb-forums-setup

You can set up a new bbPress install (“Set up a new bbPress installation”) and everything will work wonderfully in terms of having forums fully integrated in BuddyPress. It’s so seamless that I wasn’t completely sure it had worked.

Besides this, I’d advise that you set up a few widgets for the BuddyPress frontpage. You do so through an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/widgets.php

I especially advise you to add the Twitter RSS widget because it seems to me to fit right in. If I’m not mistaken, the EarlyMorning theme contains specific elements to make this widget look good.

After that, you can just have fun with your new BuddyPress installation. The first thing I did was to register a new user. To do so, I logged out of my admin account,  and clicked on the Sign Up button. Since I “allow new registrations,” it’s a very simple process. In fact, this is one place where I think that BuddyPress shines. Something I didn’t explain is that you can add a series of fields for that registration and the user profile which goes with it.

The whole process really shouldn’t take very long. In fact, the longest parts have probably to do with waiting for Archive Gateway.

The rest is “merely” to get people involved in your BuddyPress installation. It can happen relatively easily, if you already have a group of people trying to do things together online. But it can be much more complicated than any software installation process… 😉


Groupthink in Action

An interesting situation which, I would argue, is representative of Groupthink.

As a brief summary of the situation: a subgroup within a larger group is discussing the possibility of changing the larger group’s structure. In that larger group, similar discussions have been quite frequent, in the past. In effect, the smaller group is moving toward enacting a decision based on perceived consensus as to “the way to go.”

No bad intention on anyone’s part and the situation is far from tragic. But my clear impression is that groupthink is involved. I belong to the larger group but I feel little vested interest in what might happen with it.

An important point about this situation is that the smaller group seems to be acting as if the decision had already been made, after careful consideration. Through the history of the larger group, prior discussions on the same topic have been frequent. Through these discussions, clear consensus has never been reached. At the same time, some options have been gaining some momentum in the recent past, mostly based (in my observation) on accumulated frustration with the status quo and some reflection on the effectiveness of activities done by subgroups within the larger group. Members of that larger group (including participants in the smaller group) are quite weary of rehashing the same issues and the “rallying cry” within the subgroup has to do with “moving on.” Within the smaller group, prior discussions are described as if they had been enough to explore all the options. Weariness through the group as a whole seems to create a sense of urgency even though the group as a whole could hardly be described as being involved in time-critical activities.

Nothing personal about anyone involved and it’s possible that I’m off on this one. Where some of those involved would probably disagree is in terms of the current stage in the decision making process (i.e., they may see themselves as having gone through the process of making the primary decision, the rest is a matter of detail). I actually feel strange talking about this situation because it may seem like I’m doing the group a disservice. The reason I think it isn’t the case is that I have already voiced my concerns about groupthink to those who are involved in the smaller group. The reason I feel the urge to blog about this situation is that, as a social scientist, I take it as my duty to look at issues such as group dynamics. Simply put, I started thinking about it as a kind of “case study.”

Yes, I’m a social science geek. And proud of it, too!

Thing is, I have a hard time not noticing a rather clear groupthink pattern. Especially when I think about a few points in Janis‘s description of groupthink.

.

Antecedent Conditions Symptoms Decisions Affected

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Insulation of the group Illusion of invulnerability Incomplete survey of alternatives

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High group cohesiveness Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group Incomplete survey of objectives

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Directive leadership Collective rationalization of group’s decisions Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

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Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

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Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms Poor information search

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High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s) Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect) Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

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Direct pressure on dissenters to conform Failure to work out contingency plans

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Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

.

A PDF version, with some key issues highlighted.

Point by point…

Observable

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

Insulation of the group

A small subgroup was created based on (relatively informal) prior expression of opinion in favour of some broad changes in the structure of the larger group.

Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures

Methodical procedures about assessing the situation are either put aside or explicitly rejected.
Those methodical procedures which are accepted have to do with implementing the group’s primary decision, not with the decision making process.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect)

Agreement is stated as a fact, possibly based on private conversations outside of the small group.

Direct pressure on dissenters to conform

A call to look at alternatives is constructed as a dissenting voice.
Pressure to conform is couched in terms of “moving on.”

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Incomplete survey of alternatives

Apart from the status quo, no alternative has been discussed.
When one alternative model is proposed, it’s reduced to a “side” in opposition to the assessed consensus.

Incomplete survey of objectives

Broad objectives are assumed to be common, left undiscussed.
Discussion of objectives is pushed back as being irrelevant at this stage.

Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

Comments about possible risks (including the danger of affecting the dynamics of the existing broader group) are left undiscussed or dismissed as “par for the course.”

Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

Any alternative is conceived as having been tried in the past with the strong implication that it isn’t wort revisiting.

Poor information search

Information collected concerns ways to make sure that the primary option considered will work.

Failure to work out contingency plans

Comments about the possible failure of the plan, and effects on the wider group are met with “so be it.”

Less Obvious

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

High group cohesiveness

The smaller group is highly cohesive but so is the broader group.

Directive leadership

Several members of the smaller group are taking positions of leadership, but there’s no direct coercion from that leadership.

Positions of authority are assessed, in a subtle way, but this authority is somewhat indirect.

Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology

As with cohesiveness, homogeneity of social background can be used to describe the broader group as well as the smaller one.

High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s)

External “threats” are mostly subtle but there’s a clear notion that the primary option considered may be met with some opposition by a proportion of the larger group.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of invulnerability

While “invulnerability” would be an exaggeration, there’s a clear sense that members of the smaller group have a strong position within the larger group.

Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group

Discussions don’t necessarily have a moral undertone, but the smaller group’s goals seem self-evident in the context or, at least, not really worth careful discussion.

Collective rationalization of group’s decisions

Since attempts to discuss the group’s assumed consensus are labelled as coming from a dissenting voice, the group’s primary decision is reified through countering individual points made about this decision.

Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents

The smaller group’s primary “outgroup” is in fact the broader group, described in rather simple terms, not a distinct group of people.
The assumption is that, within the larger group, positions about the core issue are already set.

Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms

Self-censorship is particularly hard to observe or assess but the group’s dynamics tends to construct criticism as “nitpicking,” making it difficult to share comments.

Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

As with leadership, the process of shielding the smaller group from negative information is mostly organic, not located in a single individual.
Because the smaller group is already set apart from the larger group, protection from external information is built into the system, to an extent.

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

Information brought into the discussion is treated as either reinforcing the group’s alleged consensus or taken to be easy to counter.
Examples from cases showing clear similarities are dismissed (“we have no interest in knowing what others have done”) and distant cases are used to demonstrate that the approach is sound (“there are groups in other contexts which work, so we can use the same approach”).


War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.


Speculating on Apple’s Touch Strategy

This is mere speculation on my part, based on some rumours.

I’m quite sure that Apple will come up with a video-enabled iPod touch on September 9, along with iTunes 9 (which should have a few new “social networking” features). This part is pretty clear from most rumour sites.

AppleInsider | Sources: Apple to unveil new iPod lineup on September 9.

Progressively, Apple will be adopting a new approach to marketing its touch devices. Away from the “poorperson’s iPhone” and into the “tiny but capable computer” domain. Because the 9/9 event is supposed to be about music, one might guess that there will be a cool new feature or two relating to music. Maybe lyrics display, karaoke mode, or whatever else. Something which will simultaneously be added to the iPhone but would remind people that the iPod touch is part of the iPod family. Apple has already been marketing the iPod touch as a gaming platform, so it’s not a radical shift. But I’d say the strategy is to make Apple’s touch devices increasingly more attractive, without cannibalizing sales in the MacBook family.

Now, I really don’t expect Apple to even announce the so-called “Tablet Mac” in September. I’m not even that convinced that the other devices Apple is preparing for expansion of its touch devices lineup will be that close to the “tablet” idea. But it seems rather clear, to me, that Apple should eventually come up with other devices in this category. Many rumours point to the same basic notion, that Apple is getting something together which will have a bigger touchscreen than the iPhone or iPod touch. But it’s hard to tell how this device will fit, in the grand scheme of things.

It’s rather obvious that it won’t be a rebirth of the eMate the same way that the iPod touch wasn’t a rebirth of the MessagePad. But it would make some sense for Apple to target some educational/learning markets, again, with an easy-to-use device. And I’m not just saying this because the rumoured “Tablet Mac” makes me think about the XOXO. Besides, the iPod touch is already being marketed to educational markets through the yearly “Back to school” program which (surprise!) ends on the day before the September press conference.

I’ve been using an iPod touch (1st Generation) for more than a year, now, and I’ve been loving almost every minute of it. Most of the time, I don’t feel the need for a laptop, though I occasionally wish I could buy a cheap one, just for some longer writing sessions in cafés. In fact, a friend recently posted information about some Dell Latitude D600 laptops going for a very low price. That’d be enough for me at this point. Really, my iPod touch suffices for a lot of things.

Sadly, my iPod touch seems to have died, recently, after catching some moisture. If I can’t revive it and if the 2nd Generation iPod touch I bought through Kijiji never materializes, I might end up buying a 3rd Generation iPod touch on September 9, right before I start teaching again. If I can get my hands on a working iPod touch at a good price before that, I may save the money in preparation for an early 2010 release of a new touch device from Apple.

Not that I’m not looking at alternatives. But I’d rather use a device which shares enough with the iPod touch that I could migrate easily, synchronize with iTunes, and keep what I got from the App Store.

There’s a number of things I’d like to get from a new touch device. First among them is a better text entry/input method. Some of the others could be third-party apps and services. For instance, a full-featured sharing app. Or true podcast synchronization with media annotation support (à la Revver or Soundcloud). Or an elaborate, fully-integrated logbook with timestamps, Twitter support, and outlining. Or even a high-quality reference/bibliography manager (think RefWorks/Zotero/Endnote). But getting text into such a device without a hardware keyboard is the main challenge. I keep thinking about all sorts of methods, including MessagEase and Dasher as well as continuous speech recognition (dictation). Apple’s surely thinking about those issues. After all, they have some handwriting recognition systems that they aren’t really putting to any significant use.

Something else which would be quite useful is support for videoconferencing. Before the iPhone came out, I thought Apple may be coming out with iChat Mobile. Though a friend announced the iPhone to me by making reference to this, the position of the camera at the back of the device and the fact that the original iPhone’s camera only supported still pictures (with the official firmware) made this dream die out, for me. But a “Tablet Mac” with an iSight-like camera and some form of iChat would make a lot of sense, as a communication device. Especially since iChat already supports such things as screen-sharing and slides. Besides, if Apple does indeed move in the direction of some social networking features, a touch device with an expanded Address Book could take a whole new dimension through just a few small tweaks.

This last part I’m not so optimistic about. Apple may know that social networking is important, at this point in the game, but it seems to approach it with about the same heart as it approached online services with eWorld, .Mac, and MobileMe. Of course, they have the tools needed to make online services work in a “social networking” context. But it’s possible that their vision is clouded by their corporate culture and some remnants of the NIH problem.

Ah, well…


Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…


Teaching Models: A Response on “Teaching Naked”

Teaching Anthropology: Teaching Naked: Another one of those nothing new here movements.

[Had to split my response into several comments because of Blogger’s character limit. Thought I might as well post it here.]

Thanks for the ping. No problem about the way you do it. In fact, feel free to use my name. I use “Informal Ethnographer” accounts for social media stuff having to do with ethnographic disciplines, but this is more about pedagogy.

The main thing I noticed about this piece is that the author transforms an interesting and potentially insightful story about problems facing a large number of academic institutions “going forward” into one of those sterile debates about the causal relationships between technology and learning.

Apart from all those things we’ve discussed about teaching method (including the fact that I still use the boring PPT-lecture on occasion), there’s a lot of room for discussion about the “educational industry” not getting a hint from the recording and journalism industries. Because we’re academics, it’s great to deconstruct the technological determinism embedded in many of these discussions. But there’s also something rather pressing in terms of social change: the World in which we live is significantly different from the one in which we were born, when it comes to information. It relates to “information technology” but it goes way beyond tools.

And this is where I talk about surfing the wave instead of fighting it (or building windmills instead of shelters).

As I said elsewhere, I’ve only been teaching for ten years. When I started, in Fall 1999 at Indiana University Bloomington, it was both a baptism by fire and a culture shock. Many teachers complain about a “sense of entitlement” they get from their students, or about the consumer-based approach in academic institutions. There’s a number of discussion about average class size or students-to-teacher ratio. Some talk about a so-called “me generation.” Others moan about the fact that students bring laptops in class or that teachers are forced to use tools that they don’t want to use.

These are really not recent problems. However, they are different problems from the ones for which I was prepared.

I’d still say that they affect some institutions more than others (typically: prestigious universities in the United States). But they’re spreading throughout higher education.

Bowen perceives a specific problem: campus-based universities face competition from inexpensive and even free material online. As a dean, he wants to focus on the added value of campus experience, with a focus on the classroom as a context for discussion. It seems that he was hired precisely as an agent of change, just like some “mercurial CEOs” are hired when a corporation is in trouble.

The plan is relatively creative. Not so much in the restrictions on PPT use, but on the overall approach to differentiate his institution. It’s a marketing ploy, not a PR one.

As for the specifics of people’s concepts of “lecturing”… It seems that the mainstream notion about lecture is for a linear presentation with little or no interaction possible. Other teaching methods may involve some “lecturing,” but it seems that the core notion people are discussing is really this soliloquy mode of the teacher exposing ideas without input from the audience. One way to put it is that it’s a genre of performance, like a “stand-up” or an opera.

As a subgenre, “PowerPoint lectures” may deserve special consideration. As we all know, it’s quite possible to use PPT in ways which are creative, engaging, fun, deep, etc. But there are many <a href=”http://www.jstor.org/pss/674535″>keys</a&gt; to the “PowerPoint lecture” frame. One is the use of some kind of  “visual aid.” Another is the use of different slides as key timeposts in the performance. Or we could think about the fact that control over the actual PPT file strengthens the role differentiation between “lecturer” and “audience.” Not to mention the fact that it’s quite difficult to use PPT slides when everyone is in a circle.

So, yes, I’m giving some credence to the notion that PPT is a significant part of the lecturing model people are discussing <em>ad nauseam</em>.

Much of these discussions may relate to the perception that this performance genre (what I would call “straight lecture” or «cours magistral») is dominant, at institutions of higher education. The preponderance of a given teaching style across a wide array of institutions, disciplines, and “levels” would merit careful assessment, but the perception is there. “People” (the general population of the United States, the <em>Chronicle</em>’s readership, English-speakers…?) get the impression that what teachers do is mostly: stand in front of a class to talk by themselves for significant amounts of time with, maybe, a few questions thrown in at the end. Some people say that such “lectures” may not be incredibly effective. But the notion is still there. You may call this a “straw man,” but it’s been built a while ago.

Now… There are many ways to go from this whole concept of “straight lecturing.” One is the so-called “switcharound”: you go from lecturing (as a mode) to discussion or to group activities (as distinct modes). The notion, there, is apparently about the fact that “studies have shown” that, at this point in time, English-speaking students in the United States can’t concentrate for more than 20 minutes at the time. Or some such.

I reacted quite strongly when I heard this. For several reasons, including my personal experience of paying attention during class meetings lasting seven hours or more, some of which involving very limited interaction. I also reacted because I found the 50 minute period very constraining. And I always react to the “studies have shown” stance, that I find deeply problematic at an epistemological level. Is this really how we gain knowledge?

But I digress…

Another way to avoid “straight lectures” is to make lecturing itself more interactive. Many people have been doing this for a while. Chances are, it was done by a number of people during the 19th Century, as the “modern classroom” was invented. It can be remarkably effective and it seems to be quite underrated. An important thing to note: it’s significantly different from what people have in mind, when they talk about “lecturing.” In fact, in a workshop I attended, the simple fact that a teacher was moving around the classroom as he was teaching has been used as an example of an alternative to lecturing. Seems to me that most teachers do something like this. But it’s useful to think about the implications of using such “alternative methods.” Personally, though I frequently think about those methods and I certainly respect those who use them, I don’t tend to focus so much on this. I do use “alternative lecturing methods” like these, on occasion but, when I lecture, I tend to adopt the classical approach.

Common alternatives to lecturing, mentioned in the CHE piece, include “seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions,” These all tend to be quite difficult to do in the… “lecture” hall. Even with smaller classes, a large room may be an obstacle. Though it’s not impossible to have, say, group discussions in an auditorium, few of us really end up doing it on a regular basis. I’m “guilty” of that: I have much less small-group discussions in rooms in which desks can’t be moved.

As for seminars, it’s clearly my favourite teaching mode/method and I tend to extend the concept too much. Though I tend to be critical of those rigid “factors” like class size, I keep bumping into a limit to seminar size and I run into major hurdles when I try to get more than 25 students working in a seminar mode.

We could also talk about distance education as an alternative to lecturing, though much of it has tended to be lecture-based. Distance education is interesting in many respects. While it’s really not new, it seems like it has been expanding a lot in the fairly recent past. Regardless of the number of people getting degrees through distance learning, it mostly seems that the concept has become much more accepted by the general population (in English-speaking contexts, at least) and some programmes in distance learning seem to be getting more “cred” than ever before. I don’t want to overstate this expansion but it’s interesting to think about the possible connections with social change. Telecommuting, students working full-time, combining studying with childcare, homestudy, rising tuition costs, customer-based approaches to education, the “me generation,” the ease of transmitting complex data online, etc.

Even when distance learners have to watch lectures, distance education can be conceived as an alternative to the “straight lecture.” Practical details such as scheduling aren’t insignificant, but there are more profound implications to the fact that lectures aren’t “delivered in a lecture hall.” To go back to the performance genre, there’s a difference between a drama piece and a movie. Both can be good, but they have very different implications.

My implication with distance learning has to do with online learning. Last summer, I began teaching sociology to nursing students in Texas. From Montreal. I had been thinking about online teaching for a while and I’ve always had an online component to my courses. But last year was the first time I was able to teach a course without ever meeting those students.

My impression is that the rise of online education was the main thing Bowen had in mind. He clearly seems to think that this rise will only continue and that it may threaten campus-based institutions if they don’t do anything about it. The part which is surprising about his approach is that he actually advocates blended learning. Though we may disagree with Bowen on several points, it’d be difficult to compare him to an ostrich.

All of these approaches and methods have been known for a while. They all have their own advantages and they all help raise different issues. But they’ve been tested rather extensively by generation upon generation of teachers.

The focus, today, seems to be on a new set of approaches. Most of them have direct ties to well-established teaching models like seminars and distance education. So, they’re not really “new.” Yet they combine different things in such a way that they clearly require experimentation. We can hail them as “the future” or dismiss them as “trendy,” but they still afford some consideration as avenues for experimentation.

Many of them can be subsumed under the umbrella term “blended learning.” That term can mean different things to different people and some use it as a kind of buzzword. Analytically, it’s still a useful term.

Nellie Muller Deutsch is among those people who are currently doing PhD research on blended learning. We’ve had a number of discussions through diverse online groups devoted to learning and teaching. It’s possible that my thinking has been influenced by Nellie, but I was already interested in those topics long before interacting with her.

“Blended learning” implies some combinaison of classroom and online interactions between learners and teachers. The specific degree of “blending” varies a lot between contexts, but the basic concept remains. One might even argue that any educational context is blended, nowadays, since most teachers end up responding to at least “a few emails” (!) every semester. But the extensible concept of the “blended campus” easily goes beyond those direct exchanges.

What does this have to do with lectures? A lot, actually. Especially for those who have in mind a “monolithic” model for lecture-based courses, often forgetting (as many students do!) the role of office hours and other activities outside of the classroom.

Just as it’s possible but difficult to do a seminar in a lecture hall, it’s possible but difficult to do “straight lecture” in blended learning. Those professors and adjuncts who want to have as little interactions with students as possible may end up complaining about the amount of email they receive. In a sense, they’re “victims” of the move to a blended environment. One of the most convincing ideas I’ve heard in a teaching workshop was about moving email exchanges with individual students to forums, so that everyone can more effectively manage the channels of communication. Remarkably simple and compatible with many teaching styles. And a very reasonable use of online tools.

Bowen was advocating a very specific model for blended learning: students work with required readings on their own (presumably, using coursepacks and textbooks), read/watch/listen to lecture material online, and convene in the classroom to work with the material. His technique for making sure that students don’t “skip class” (which seems important in the United States, for some reason) is to give multiple-choice quizzes. Apart from justifying presence on campus (in the competition with distance learning), Bowen’s main point is about spending as much face-to-face time as possible in discussions. It’s not really an alternative to lectures if there are lectures online, but it’s a clear shift in focus from the “straight lecture” model. Fairly creative and it’s certainly worth some experimentation. But it’s only one among many possible approaches.

At least for the past few years, I’ve been posting material online both after and ahead of class meetings. I did notice a slight decrease in attendance, but that tends to matter very little for me. I also notice that many students tend to be more reluctant to go online to do things for my courses than one would expect from most of the discussions at an abstract level. But it’s still giving me a lot, including in terms of not having to rehash the same material over and over again (and again, <em>ad nauseam</em>).

I wouldn’t really call my approach “blended learning” because, in most of my upper-level courses at least, there’s still fairly little interaction happening online. But I do my part to experiment with diverse methods and approaches.

So…

None of this is meant to be about evaluating different approaches to teaching. I’m really not saying that my approach is better than anybody else’s. But I will say that it’s an appropriate fit with my perspective on learning as well as with my activities outside of the classroom. In other words, it’s not because I’m a geek that I expect anybody else to become a geek. I do, however, ask others to accept me as a geek.

And, Pamthropologist, you provided on my blog some context for several of the comments you’ve been making about lecturing. I certainly respect you and I think I understand what’s going on. In fact, I get the impression that you’re very effective at teaching anthropology and I wish your award-winning blog entry also carried an award for teaching. The one thing I find most useful, in all of this, is that you do discuss those issues. IMHO, the most important thing isn’t to find what the best model is but to discuss learning and teaching in a thoughtful manner so that everyone gets a voice. The fact that one of the most recent comments on your blog comes from a student in the Philippines speaks volumes about your openness.


Actively Reading: “Teach Naked” sans PowerPoint

Some Diigo comments on a Chronicle piece on moving lectures out of the classroom. (Or, if you ask the piece’s author and some commenters, on PowerPoint as a source of boredom.)

I’d like to transform some of my own comments in a standalone blog entry, especially given the discussions Pamthropologist and I have been having through comments on her blog and mine. (And I just noticed Pamthropologist had written her own blogpost about this piece…) As I’m preparing for the Fall semester, I tend to think a lot about learning and teaching but I also get a bit less time.

Semi-disclaimer: John Bentley, instructional developer and programme coordinator at Concordia’s CTLS pointed me to this piece. John used to work for the Open University and the BBC. Together, John and I are currently developing a series of workshops on the use of online tools in learning and teaching. We’ve been discussing numerous dimensions of the connection between learning, teaching, and online tools. Our current focus is on creating communities of learners. One thing that I find especially neat about this collaboration is that our perspectives and spheres of expertise are quite different. Makes for interesting and thoughtful discussions.

‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers From Classrooms – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education

  • Not to be too snarky but… I can’t help but feel this is typical journalism. Take a complex issue, get a diverse array of comments on it, boil it down to an overly simplistic point about some polarizing question (PPT: is it evil?). Tadaa! You got an article and you’ve discouraged critical thinking.Sorry. I’m bad. I really shouldn’t go there.But I guess I’m disappointed in myself. When I first watched the video interview, I was reacting fairly strongly against Bowen. After reading (very actively!) the whole piece, I now realize that Jeff Young is the one who set the whole thing up.The problem with this is that I should know better. Right?Well, ok, I wasn’t that adamantly opposed to Bowen. I didn’t shout at my computer screen or anything. But watching the video interview again, after reading the piece, I notice that I interpret as much more open a discussion than the setup made it sound like. In other words, I went from thinking that Bowen was imposing a radical view on members of his faculty to hearing Bowen proposing ideas about ways to cope with social changes surrounding university education.The statement about most on-campus lectures being bad is rather bold, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard and it’s a reasonable comment to make in such a context. The stronger statement against PPT is actually weakened by Bowen himself in two ways: he explicitly talks about using PPT online and he frames his comment in comparison with podcasts. It then sounds like his problem isn’t with PPT itself. It’s with the use of PPT in the classroom by comparison to both podcasts and PPTs online. He may be wrong about the relative merits of podcasts, online “presentations,” and classroom lectures using PPT. But his opinion is much less radical than what I originally thought.Still, there’s room for much broader discussion of what classroom lectures and PPT presentations imply in teaching. Young’s piece and several Diigo comments on it focus on the value of PPT either in the abstract or through appropriate use. But there’s a lot more ground to cover, including such apparently simple issues as the effort needed to create compelling “presentation content” or students’ (and future employers’) expectations about PPT presentations.
  • Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool.
    • damn you got there first! comment by dean groom
    • I think the more important point that’s being made by the article – is something that many of us in edtech world realised very quickly – that being able to teach well is a prerequisite to being able to effectively and creatively engage technology to help others learn…Powerpoint is probably the most obvious target because oif its ubiquity – but I suspect that there will also be a backlash when the masses start adopting other technologies… they’ll be misused just as effectively as PPT is.When we can assume that all university lecturers/tutors are effective teachers then the argument will be moot… until then we’ll continue to see death by powerpoint and powerpointlessness…I’m a drama teacher and love the idea of active rooms filled with proactive engaged learners… and if we have proactive engaged learners we can more effectively deploy technology in the mix…The world of teaching and learning is far from perfect and expectations seem to be geared towards a paradigm that says : “professors should tell me every last thing I need to know in order to get good grades and if students sat still and shut up long enough they might just learn something useful.”I even had one “lecturer” recently tell me “I’m a subject specialist, why do I need to know about pedagogy?” – sadly he was serious. comment by Kim FLINTOFF
    • On the subject specialist uninterested in pedagogy…It’s not an uncommon perspective, in university teaching. In fact, it might be more common among French-speakers, as most of those I’ve heard say something like this were French-speakers.I reacted quite negatively when I first heard some statement about university teachers not needing pedagogy. Don’t they care about learning?But… Isn’t there a point to be made about “non-pedagogy?”Not trying to be contrarian, here. Not playing devil’s advocate. Nor am I going on the kind of “anti-anti” PoMo mode which seems not to fit too well in English-speaking communities. I’m just thinking about teacher-less learning. And a relativist’s attitude to not judge before I know more. After all, can we safely assume that courses given by someone with such a reluctant attitude to learning pedagogy are inherently bad?There are even some people out there who take constructivism and constructionism to such an extreme that they’d say teachers aren’t needed. To an extent, the OLPC project has been going in that direction. “Students will teach themselves. We don’t need to train teachers or to engage with them in building this project.”There’s also a lot of discussion about learning outside of formal institutions. Including “on-the-job training” but also all sorts of learning strategies which don’t rely on the teacher/student (mentee, apprentice, pupil…) hierarchy. For instance, actual learning occurs in a large set of online activities. Enthusiastic people learn about things that passion them by reading about the subject, participating in online discussions, presenting their work for feedback, etc. Oftentimes, there is a hierarchy in terms of prestige, but it’s mostly negotiated through actions and not set in advance. More like “achieved status” than “ascribed status” (to use a convenient distinction from SOC101 courses). As this kind of training not infrequently leads to interesting careers, we’d be remiss to ignore the trend.Speaking of trends… It’s quite clear that many universities tend toward a more consumer-based approach. Students register and pay tuition to get “credentials” (good grades and impressive degrees). The notion that they might be there to do the actual learning is going by the wayside. In some professional contexts, people are quite explicit about how little they learnt in classrooms. It makes for difficult teaching contexts (especially at prestigious universities in the US), but it’s also something with which people learn to cope.My personal attitude is that “learning happens despite teachers.” I still think teachers make a difference, that we should learn about learners and learning, that pedagogy matters a whole lot. In fact, I’m passionate about pedagogy and I do what I can to improve my teaching.Yet the bottomline is: do people learn? If they do, does it matter what pedagogical training the teacher has? This isn’t a rhetorical question. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal
  • PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.
    • Can somebody post links to especially good PowerPoint files? comment by Bill Chapman
    • I don’t think this is really about PPT, but more about blind use of technology. It’s not the software to blame but the user.Also if you’re looking for great PPT examples, check out slideshare.net comment by Dean Shareski
    • Looking forward to reading what their criteria are for boredom.And the exact justification they give for lectures needing not to be boring.Or if they discuss the broad implications of lecturing, as opposed to the many other teaching methods that we use.Now, to be honest, I do use PPT in class. In fact, my PPT slides are the very example of what many people would consider boring: text outlines transformed into bullet points. Usually black on white, without images.But, overall, students seem to find me engaging. In student evaluations, I do get the occasional comment about the course being boring, but that’s also about the book and the nature of what we discuss.I upload these PPT files to Slideshare before going to class. In seminars, I use the PPT file to outline some topics, themes, and questions brought up by students and I upload the updated file after class.The PPT files on Slideshare are embedded into Moodle and serve as “course notes,” in conjunction with the audio recordings from the class meetings. These slides may include material which wasn’t covered in class.During “lecture,” I often spend extend periods of time discussing things with the class as a whole, leaving a slide up as a reminder of the general topic. Going from a bullet point to an extended discussion has the benefit of providing context for the discussion. When I started teaching, several students were saying that I’m “disorganized.” I still get a few comments like that but they’re much less frequent. And I still go on tangents, based on interactions with the group.Once in a while, I refrain from using PPT altogether. Which can lead to interesting challenges, in part because of student expectations and the fact that the screen becomes an indicator that “teaching is going on.”Perhaps a more important point: I try to lecture as little as possible. My upper-level courses are rapidly transformed into seminars. Even in large classes, the last class meetings of the semester involve just a few minutes of lecturing.This may all sound like a justification for my teaching method. But it’s also a reaction to the frequent discussions about PPT as evil. I do hate PPT, but I still use it.If only Google Wave could be released soon, we could use it to replace PPT. Wikis and microblogging tools are good and well, but they’re not as efficient in terms of real-time collaboration on complex material. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions
  • In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.
    • Does it follow so directly? It’s quite easy to integrate technology with “seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • better than many older classroom technologies, like slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies
    • Which seems to support a form of technological determinism or, at least, a notion of a somewhat consistent improvement in the use of tools, if not in the tools themselves. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • But technology has hardly revolutionized the classroom experience for most college students, despite millions of dollars in investment and early predictions that going digital would force professors to rethink their lectures and would herald a pedagogical renaissance.
    • If so, then it’s only because profs aren’t bringing social technologies into their classrooms. Does the author of this article understand what’s current in ed tech? comment by Shelly Blake-Plock
    • the problem here is that in higher education, student satisfaction drives a service mentality – and students WANT summised PPTs and the want PODCASTS. Spoooon feeeeeed me – for I am paying. comment by dean groom
    • A rather broad statement which might be difficult to support with evidence.If we look at “classroom experience” in different contexts, we do notice large differences. Not necessarily in a positive sense. Technology is an integral part of all sorts of changes happening in, around, and away from the classroom.It would be quite different if that sentence said: “But institutional programs based on the adoption of specific tools in the classroom have hardly revolutionized…” It’s still early to assess the effectiveness of these programs, especially if we think about lifelong learning and about ongoing social changes related to technology use. But the statement would make more sense if it were more directly tied to specific programs instead of being a blanket critique of “technology” (left undefined). comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • dream of shaking up college instruction
    • One of the most interesting parts of the interview with Bowen has to do with the notion that this isn’t, in fact, about following a dream. It’s about remaining relevant in a changing world. There’s a lot about Bowen’s perspective which sounds quite strange, to me. But the notion that universities should “wake up and smell the coffee” is something I wish were the object of more discussion in academic circles. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Here’s the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.
    • Great points, here. Let’s wish more students were involved in this conversation. It’s not just “about” them.One thing we should probably not forget about student populations is that they’re diverse. Chances are, some students in Meadows are delighted by the discussion focus. Others may be puzzled. It’s likely an adaptation for most of them. And it doesn’t sound like they were ever consulted about those changes. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • lecture model is pretty comfortable
    • And, though many of us are quick to criticize it, it’s difficult to avoid in the current systems of formal education in which we work. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • cool gadgets
    • The easiest way to dismiss the social role of technology is to call tools “gadgets.” But are these tools really just gadgets? In fact, some tools which are put to good use really aren’t that cool or even new. Are we discussing them enough? Are we aware of how they fit in the grand scheme of things?An obvious example would be cellphones. Some administrators and teachers perceive them as a nuisance. Rather few people talk about educational opportunities with cellphones, even though they already are used by people in different parts of the World to empower themselves and to learn. Negroponte has explicltly dimissed the educational potential of cellphones but the World isn’t waiting for approval from designers. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • seasoned performer,
    • There’s a larger point to be about performance in teaching. Including through a reference to Dick Bauman’s “Verbal Art as Performance” or other dimensions of Performance Theory.There’s also a more “mundane” point about a kind of conflict in universities between academic material and performance. In French-speaking universities, at least, it’s not uncommon to hear teachers talk about the necessity to be a “performer” as something of a distraction in teaching. Are teachers in front of the class to entertain students or is the classroom an environment in which to think and learn about difficult concepts? The consumer approach to universities, pushed in part by administrators who run universities like businesses, tends to emphasize the “entertainment paradigm,” hence the whole “boredom” issue.Having said all of this, Bowen’s own attitude goes beyond this simplistic “entertainment paradigm.” In fact, it sounds like he’s specifically not advocating for lectures to become a series of TEDtalks. Judging from the interview, it sounds like he might say that TEDtalk-style presentation should be put online and classroom-time should be devoted to analyzing those presentations.I do consider myself a performer, as I’ve been playing saxophone in a rather broad range of circumstances, from outdoor stages at festivals to concert halls. And my experience as a performer does influence the way I teach large classes. At the same time, it probably makes more salient the distinction between teaching and performing. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The goateed administrator sported a suit jacket over a dark T-shirt
    • Though I’d be the first one to say that context is key, I fail to see what Bowen’s clothes contribute to the discussion. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • philosophical argument about the best way to engage students, he grounded it
  • information delivery common in today’s classroom lectures should be recorded and delivered to students as podcasts or online videos before class sessions
    • Fully agreed. Especially if we throw other things in the mix such as journal articles and collaboratively-created learning material. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • short online multiple-choice tests.
    • I don’t think he’s using the mc tests with an essessment focus rather an engagement focus – noit necessarily the most sophisticated but done playfully and creatively it can be a good first step to getting reluctatnt students to engage in first instance… comment by Kim FLINTOFF
    • I would also “defend” the use of MCTs in this context. Especially if the stakes are relatively low, the questions are well-crafted, and students do end up engaging.Like PPT, MCTs have some advantages, including because of student expectations.But, of course, it’s rather funny to hear Bowen talk about shaking things up and find out that he uses such tools. Still, the fact that these tests are online (and, one would think, taken outside of class time) goes well with Bowen’s main point about class time vs. tech-enabled work outside of class. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Introduce issues of debate within the discipline and get the students to weigh in based on the knowledge they have from those lecture podcasts, Mr. Bowen says.
    • This wouldn’t be too difficult to do in social sciences and there are scenarios in which it would work wonderfully for lab sciences (if we think of “debate” as something similar to “discussion” sections in scientific articles).At the same time, some people do react negatively to such approaches based not on discipline but on “responsibilities of the university.” Some people even talk about responsibilities toward students’ parents! comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • But if the student believes they can contribute, they’re a whole lot more motivated to enter the discourse, and to enter the discipline.
    • Sounds a bit like some of the “higher” positions in William Perry’s scheme. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • don’t be boring
    • Is boredom induced exclusively by the teacher? Can a student bored during a class meeting still be motivated and engaged in the material at another point? Should we apply the same principle to the readings we assign? Is there a way to efficiently assess the “boredom factor” of an academic article? How can we convince academic publishers that fighting boredom isn’t necessarily done through the addition of pretty pictures? comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • you need a Ph.D. to figure it out
    • While I agree that these panels are difficult to use and could afford a redesign, the joke about needing a PhD sounds a bit strange in context. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • plug in their laptops
    • There’s something of a more general move toward getting people to use their own computers in the workplace. In fact, classroom computers are often so restricted as to be quite cumbersome to use in teaching. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • allow students to work in groups more easily
    • Not a bad idea. A good number of classrooms are structured in a way that makes it very hard to get students to do group work. Of course, it’s possible to do group work in any setting, but it’s remarkable how some of these seemingly trivial matters as the type of desk used can be enough to discourage some teachers from using certain teaching strategies. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The classroom computers were old and needed an upgrade when Mr. Bowen arrived, so ditching them instead saved money.
    • Getting into the core of the issue. The reason it’s so important to think about “new ways” to do things isn’t necessarily that “old ways” weren’t conducive to learning. It’s because there are increased pressures on the system and some seem to perceive that cost-cutting and competition from online learning, making the issue so pressing. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • eliminate one staff position for a technician
    • Sounds sad, especially since support staff is already undervalued. But, at the same time, it does sound like relatively rational cost-cutting. One would just wish that they replaced that position with, say, teaching support. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • gave every professor a laptop
    • Again, this is a rather common practise outside of universities. Knowing how several colleagues think, this may also function as a way to “keep them happy.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • support so they could create their own podcasts and videos.
    • This is where the tech support position which was cut could be useful. Recording and podcasting aren’t difficult to set up or do. But it’s an area where support can mean more than answering questions about which button to press. In fact, podcasting projects are an ideal context for collaboration between tech, teach, and research. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • lugging their laptops to class,
    • It can be an issue, especially if there wasn’t a choice in the type of laptop which could be used. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • She’s made podcasts for her course on “Critical Scholarship in Communication” that feature interviews she recorded with experts in the field.
    • One cool thing about these podcasting projects is that people can build upon them, one semester after the other. Interviews with practitioners do help provide a multiplicity of voices. And, yes, getting students to produce their own content is often a good way to go, especially if the topic is somehow related to the activity. Getting students in applied communication to create material does sound appropriate. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • they come in actually much more informed
    • Sounds effective. Especially since Bowen’s approach seems to be oriented toward pre-class preparation. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • if they had been assigned a reading.
    • There’s a lot to be said about this. One reason this method may be more efficient than reading assignments could have to do with the particularities of written language, especially the very formal style of those texts we often assign as readings. Not that students shouldn’t read, of course! But there’s a case to be made for some readings being replaced by oral sources, especially those which have to do with people’s experience in a field. Reading primary source material, integrating some reference texts, and using oral material can all be part of an appropriate set of learning strategies. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • created podcast lectures
    • An advantage of such “lecturecasts,” “profcasts,” and “slidecasts” is that they’re relatively easy to build and can be tightly structured. It’s not the end-all of learning material, but it’s a better substitute for classroom lectures than one might think.Still, there’s room for improvement in the technology itself. For instance, it’d be nice to have Revver-style comments in the timeline. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • shows movie clips from his laptop
    • This one is slightly surprising because one would expect that these clips could easily be shown, online, ahead of class. It might have to do with the chilling effect of copyright regulation or Heffernan’s strategy of getting “fresh” feedback. There would have been good questions to ask Heffernan in preparation for this piece. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • “Strangely enough, the people who are most resistant to this model are the students, who are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test,” says Mr. Heffernan. “Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we’re going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom in precisely the way José wants to do it.”
    • This interpretation sounds a tiny bit lopsided. After all, aren’t there students who were already quite active and engaged in the “old system” who have expressed some resistance to the “new system?” Sounds likely to me. But maybe my students are different.One fascinating thing is the level of agreement, among teachers, about the necessity to have students who aren’t passive. I certainly share this opinion but there are teachers in this World who actually do prefer students who are somewhat passive and… “obedient.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The same sequence of events
    • That part is quite significant: Bowen was already a reformer and already had gone through the process. In this case, he sounds more like one of those CEOs who are hired to save a company from a difficult situation. He originally sounded more like someone who wanted to impose specific views about teaching. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • ‘I paid for a college education and you’re not going to lecture?'”
    • A fairly common reaction, in certain contexts. A combination of the infamous “sense of entitlement,” the “customer-based approach to universities,” and student expectations about the way university teaching is supposed to go.One version I’ve had in student evaluations is that the student felt like s/he was hearing too much from other students instead of from me. It did pain me, because of the disconnect between what I was trying to do and that student’s notion of what university courses are supposed to bring her/him. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • PowerPoint lecture
    • As a commenter to my blog was saying about lectures in general, some of us (myself included) have been building a straw man. We may have negative attitudes toward certain teaching strategies, including some lecturing techniques. But that shouldn’t prevent us from discussing a wide array of teaching and learning strategies.In this case, it’s remarkable that despite the radical nature of Bowen’s reform, we learn that there are teachers who record PPT-based presentations. It then sounds like the issue isn’t so much about using PPT as it is about what is done in the classroom as opposed to what is done during the rest of the week.Boring or not, PPT lectures, even some which aren’t directly meant to engage students, can still find their place in the “teaching toolbox.” A dogmatic anti-PPT stance (such as the one displayed by this journalist) is unlikely to foster conversations about tools and learning. Based on the fact that teachers are in fact doing PPT lectures to be used outside the classroom, one ends up seeing Bowen’s perspective as much more open than that of the Chronicle’s editorial staff. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Sandi Mann, the British researcher who led the recent study on student attitudes toward teaching, argues that boredom has serious implications in an educational setting.
    • Unsurprising perspective. Wonder if it had any impact on Mann’s research results. Makes the research sound more oriented than one might hope. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • according to some studies
  • low-cost online alternatives to the traditional campus experience
    • This could have been the core issue discussed in an article about Bowen. Especially if we are to have a thoughtful conversation about the state of higher education in a changing context. Justification for high tuition fees, the latent functions of “college life,” the likely outcome of “competing with free,” the value of the complete learning experience as opposed to the value of information transmission… comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • give away videos
    • This is the “competing with free” part, to which record companies have been oblivious for so long but which makes OCW appear like quite a forward-looking proposition. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • colleges must make sure their in-person teaching really is superior to those alternatives
    • It’s both a free-market argument, which goes so well with the customer-based approach to learning, and a plea to consider learning in a broader way than the mere transmission of information from authoritative source to passive mass. An old saw, for sure, but one which surprisingly hasn’t been heard by everyone. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • add value
    • This might be appropriate language to convince trustees. At some institutions, this might be more important than getting students’ or teachers’ approval. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • not being online
    • Although, they do have an online presence. The arguments used have more to do with blended learning than with exclusively face-to-face methods. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • might need to stay a low-tech zone to survive.
    • Rubbish there is no reason to dumb down learning; and he obviously is not teaching 2500 students at one time. PPT is not the problem here, and this really is a collection of facile arguements that are not ironically substantiated. Lowering his overhead does not increase student learning – wheres the evidence? comment by dean groom
    • Come to think of it, it sounds like the argument was made more forcefully by Young than by Bowen himself. Bowen is certainly quite vocal but the “need… to survive” sounds a tad bit stronger than Bowen’s project.What’s funny is that the video made Bowen sound almost opinionated. The article makes Young sound like he has his own axe to grind comment by Alexandre Enkerli

Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.


Quest for Expertise

Will at Work Learning: People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?.

This post was mentioned on the mailing-list for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE-L).

In that post, Will Thalheimer traces back a well-known claim about learning to shoddy citations. While it doesn’t invalidate the base claim (that people tend to retain more information through certain cognitive processes), Thalheimer does a good job of showing how a graph which has frequently been seen in educational fields was based on faulty interpretation of work by prominent scholars, mixed with some results from other sources.

Quite interesting. IMHO, demystification and critical thinking are among the most important things we can do in academia. In fact, through training in folkloristics, I have become quite accustomed to this specific type of debunking.

I have in mind a somewhat similar claim that I’m currently trying to trace. Preliminary searches seem to imply that citations of original statements have a similar hyperbolic effect on the status of this claim.

The claim is what a type of “rule of thumb” in cognitive science. A generic version could be stated in the following way:

It takes ten years or 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field.

The claim is a rather famous one from cognitive science. I’ve heard it uttered by colleagues with a background in cognitive science. In 2006, I first heard about such a claim from Philip E. Ross, on an episode of Scientific American‘s Science Talk podcast to discuss his article on expertise. I later read a similar claim in Daniel Levitin’s 2006 This Is Your Brain On Music. The clearest statement I could find back in Levitin’s book is the following (p. 193):

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.

More recently, during a keynote speech he was giving as part of his latest book tour, I heard a similar claim from presenter extraordinaire Malcolm Gladwell. AFAICT, this claim runs at the centre of Gladwell’s recent book: Outliers: The Story of Success. In fact, it seems that Gladwell uses the same quote from Levitin, on page 40 of Outliers (I just found that out).

I would like to pinpoint the origin for the claim. Contrary to Thalheimer’s debunking, I don’t expect that my search will show that the claim is inaccurate. But I do suspect that the “rule of thumb” versions may be a bit misled. I already notice that most people who set up such claims are doing so without direct reference to the primary literature. This latter comment isn’t damning: in informal contexts, constant referal to primary sources can be extremely cumbersome. But it could still be useful to clear up the issue. Who made this original claim?

I’ve tried a few things already but it’s not working so well. I’m collecting a lot of references, to both online and printed material. Apart from Levitin’s book and a few online comments, I haven’t yet read the material. Eventually, I’d probably like to find a good reference on the cognitive basis for expertise which puts this “rule of thumb” in context and provides more elaborate data on different things which can be done during that extensive “time on task” (including possible skill transfer).

But I should proceed somewhat methodically. This blogpost is but a preliminary step in this process.

Since Philip E. Ross is the first person on record I heard talk about this claim, a logical first step for me is to look through this SciAm article. Doing some text searches on the printable version of his piece, I find a few interesting things including the following (on page 4 of the standard version):

Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Apart from the ten thousand (10,000) hours part of the claim, this is about as clear a statement as I’m looking for. The “Simon” in question is Herbert A. Simon, who did research on chess at the Department of Psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University with colleague William G. Chase.  So I dig for diverse combinations of “Herbert Simon,” “ten(10)-year rule,” “William Chase,” “expert(ise),” and/or “chess.” I eventually find two primary texts by those two authors, both from 1973: (Chase and Simon, 1973a) and (Chase and Simon, 1973b).

The first (1973a) is an article from Cognitive Psychology 4(1): 55-81, available for download on ScienceDirect (toll access). Through text searches for obvious words like “hour*,” “year*,” “time,” or even “ten,” it seems that this article doesn’t include any specific statement about the amount of time required to become an expert. The quote which appears to be the most relevant is the following:

Behind this perceptual analysis, as with all skills (cf., Fitts & Posner, 1967), lies an extensive cognitive apparatus amassed through years of constant practice.

While it does relate to the notion that there’s a cognitive basis to practise, the statement is generic enough to be far from the “rule of thumb.”

The second Chase and Simon reference (1973b) is a chapter entitled “The Mind’s Eye in Chess” (pp. 215-281) in the proceedings of the Eighth Carnegie Symposium on Cognition as edited by William Chase and published by Academic Press under the title Visual Information Processing. I borrowed a copy of those proceedings from Concordia and have been scanning that chapter visually for some statements about the “time on task.” Though that symposium occurred in 1972 (before the first Chase and Simon reference was published), the proceedings were apparently published after the issue of Cognitive Psychology since the authors mention that article for background information.

I do find some interesting quotes, but nothing that specific:

By a rough estimate, the amount of time each player has spent playing chess, studying chess, and otherwise staring at chess positions is perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours for the Master; 1,000 to 5,000 hours for the Class A player; and less than 100 horus for the beginner. (Chase and Simon 1973b: 219)

or:

The organization of the Master’s elaborate repertoire of information takes thousands of hours to build up, and the same is true of any skilled task (e.g., football, music). That is why practice is the major independent variable in the acquisition of skill. (Chase and Simon 1973b: 279, emphasis in the original, last sentences in the text)

Maybe I haven’t scanned these texts properly but those quotes I find seem to imply that Simon hadn’t really devised his “10-year rule” in a clear, numeric version.

I could probably dig for more Herbert Simon wisdom. Before looking (however cursorily) at those 1973 texts, I was using Herbert Simon as a key figure in the origin of that “rule of thumb.” To back up those statements, I should probably dig deeper in the Herbert Simon archives. But that might require more work than is necessary and it might be useful to dig through other sources.

In my personal case, the other main written source for this “rule of thumb” is Dan Levitin. So, using online versions of his book, I look for comments about expertise. (I do own a copy of the book and I’m assuming the Index contains page numbers for references on expertise. But online searches are more efficient and possibly more thorough on specific keywords.) That’s how I found the statement, quoted above. I’m sure it’s the one which was sticking in my head and, as I found out tonight, it’s the one Gladwell used in his first statement on expertise in Outliers.

So, where did Levitin get this? I could possibly ask him (we’ve been in touch and he happens to be local) but looking for those references might require work on his part. A preliminary step would be to look through Levitin’s published references for Your Brain On Music.

Though Levitin is a McGill professor, Your Brain On Music doesn’t follow the typical practise in English-speaking academia of ladling copious citations onto any claim, even the most truistic statements. Nothing strange in this difference in citation practise.  After all, as Levitin explains in his Bibliographic Notes:

This book was written for the non-specialist and not for my colleagues, and so I have tried to simplify topics without oversimplifying them.

In this context, academic-style citation-fests would make the book too heavy. Levitin does, however, provide those “Bibliographic Notes” at the end of his book and on the website for the same book. In the Bibliographic Notes of that site, Levitin adds a statement I find quite interesting in my quest for “sources of claims”:

Because I wrote this book for the general reader, I want to emphasize that there are no new ideas presented in this book, no ideas that have not already been presented in scientific and scholarly journals as listed below.

So, it sounds like going through those references is a good strategy to locate at least solid references on that specific “10,000 hour” claim. Among relevant references on the cognitive basis of expertise (in Chapter 7), I notice the following texts which might include specific statements about the “time on task” to become an expert. (An advantage of the Web version of these bibliographic notes is that Levitin provides some comments on most references; I put Levitin’s comments in parentheses.)

  • Chi, Michelene T.H., Robert Glaser, and Marshall J. Farr, eds. 1988. The Nature of Expertise. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (Psychological studies of expertise, including chess players)
  • Ericsson, K. A., and J. Smith, eds. 1991. Toward a General Theory of Expertise: prospects and limits. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Psychological studies of expertise, including chess players)
  • Hayes, J. R. 1985. Three problems in teaching general skills. In Thinking and Learning Skills: Research and Open Questions, edited by S. F. Chipman, J. W. Segal and R. Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. (Source for the study of Mozart’s early works not being highly regarded, and refutation that Mozart didn’t need 10,000 hours like everyone else to become an expert.)
  • Howe, M. J. A., J. W. Davidson, and J. A. Sloboda. 1998. Innate talents: Reality or myth? Behavioral & Brain Sciences 21 (3):399-442. (One of my favorite articles, although I don’t agree with everything in it; an overview of the “talent is a myth” viewpoint.)
  • Sloboda, J. A. 1991. Musical expertise. In Toward a general theory of expertise, edited by K. A. Ericcson (sic) and J. Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Overview of issues and findings in musical expertise literature)

I have yet to read any of those references. I did borrow Ericsson and Smith when I first heard about Levitin’s approach to talent and expertise (probably through a radio and/or podcast appearance). But I had put the issue of expertise on the back-burner. It was always at the back of my mind and I did blog about it, back then. But it took Gladwell’s talk to wake me up. What’s funny, though, is that the “time on task” statements in (Ericsson and Smith,  1991) seem to lead back to (Chase and Simon, 1973b).

At this point, I get the impression that the “it takes a decade and/or 10,000 hours to become an expert”:

  • was originally proposed as a vague hypothesis a while ago (the year 1899 comes up);
  • became an object of some consideration by cognitive psychologists at the end of the 1960s;
  • became more widely accepted in the 1970s;
  • was tested by Benjamin Bloom and others in the 1980s;
  • was precised by Ericsson and others in the late 1980s;
  • gained general popularity in the mid-2000s;
  • is being further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in late 2008.

Of course, I’ll have to do a fair bit of digging and reading to verify any of this, but it sounds like the broad timeline makes some sense. One thing, though, is that it doesn’t really seem that anybody had the intention of spelling it out as a “rule” or “law” in such a format as is being carried around. If I’m wrong, I’m especially surprised that a clear formulation isn’t easier to find.

As an aside, of sorts… Some people seem to associate the claim with Gladwell, at this point. Not very surprsing, given the popularity of his books, the effectiveness of his public presentations, the current context of his book tour, and the reluctance of the general public to dig any deeper than the latest source.

The problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem that Gladwell himself has done anything to “set the record straight.” He does quote Levitin in Outliers, but I heard him reply to questions and comments as if the research behind the “ten years or ten thousand hours” claim had some association with him. From a popular author like Gladwell, it’s not that awkward. But these situations are perfect opportunities for popularizers like Gladwell to get a broader public interested in academia. As Gladwell allegedly cares about “educational success” (as measured on a linear scale), I would have expected more transparency.

Ah, well…

So, I have some work to do on all of this. It will have to wait but this placeholder might be helpful. In fact, I’ll use it to collect some links.

 

Some relevant blogposts of mine on talent, expertise, effort, and Levitin.

And a whole bunch of weblinks to help me in my future searches (I have yet to really delve in any of this).


Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading


Student Engagement: The Gym Analogy (Updated: Credited)

Heard about this recently and probably heard it before. It’s striking me more now than before, for some reason.

[Update: I heard about this analogy through Peace Studies scholar Laurie Lamoureux Scholes (part-time faculty and doctoral candidate in Religion at Concordia University). Lamoureux Scholes’s colleague John Bilodeau is the intermediate source for this analogy and may have seen it on the RateYourStudents blog. There’s nothing like giving credit where credit is due and I’m enough of a folklorist to care about transmission. Besides, the original RYS gym-themed blog entry can be quite useful.]

Those of us who teach at universities and colleges (especially in North America and especially among English-speakers, I would guess) have encountered this “sense of entitlement” which has such deep implications in the ways some students perceive learning. Some students feel and say that, since they (or their parents) pay large sums for their post-secondary education, they are entitled to a “special treatment” which often involves the idea of getting high grades with little effort.

In my experience, this sense of entitlement correlates positively with the prestige of the institution. Part of this has to do with tuition fees required by those universities and colleges. But there’s also the notion that, since they were admitted to a program at such a selective school, they must be the “cream of the crop” and therefore should be treated with deference. Similarly, “traditional students” (18-25) are in my experience more likely to display a sense of entitlement than “non-traditional students” (older than 25) who have very specific reasons to attend a college or university.

The main statements used by students in relation to their sense of entitlement usually have some connection to tuition fees perceived to transform teaching into a hired service, regardless of other factors. “My parents pay a lot of money for your salary so I’m allowed to get what I want.” (Of course, those students may not realize that a tiny fraction of tuition fees actually goes in the pocket of the instructor, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the parents can easily afford that amount paid in tuitions but the statements are the same. In other cases, the statements come from the notion that parents have “worked very hard to put me in school.” The results, in terms of entitlement, are quite similar.

Simply put, those students who feel a strong sense of entitlement tend to “be there for the degree” while most other students are “there to learn.”

Personally, I tend to assume students want to learn and I value student engagement in learning processes very highly. As a result, I often have a harder time working with students with a sense of entitlement. I can adapt myself to work with them if I assess their positions early on (preferably, before the beginning of a semester) but it requires a good deal of effort for me to teach in a context in which the sense of entitlement is “endemic.” In other words, “I can handle a few entitled students” if I know in advance what to expect but I find it demotivating to teach a group of students who “are only there for the degree.”

A large part of my own position has to do with the types of courses I have been teaching (anthropology, folkloristics, and sociology) and my teaching philosophy also “gets in the way.” My main goal is a constructivist one: create an appropriate environment, with students, in which learning can happen efficiently. I’m rarely (if ever) trying to “cram ideas into students’ heads,” though I do understand the value of that type of teaching in some circumstances. I occasionally try to train students for a task but my courses have rarely been meant to be vocational in that sense (I could certainly do vocational training, in which case I would adapt my methods).

So, the gym analogy. At this point, I find it’s quite fitting as an answer to the “my parents paid for this course so I should get a high grade.”

Tuition fees are similar to gym membership: regardless of the amount you pay, you can only expect results if you make the effort.

Simple and effective.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. I think the “effort” emphasis is more fitting in physical training than in intellectual and conceptual training. But, thankfully, the analogy does not imply that students should “get grades for effort” more than athletes assume effort is sufficient to improve their physical skills.

One thing I like about this analogy is that it can easily resonate with a large category of students who are, in fact, the “gym type.” Sounds irrelevant but the analogy is precisely the type of thing which might stick in the head of those students who care about physical training (even if they react negatively at first) and many “entitled students” have a near Greek/German attitude toward their bodies. In fact, some of the students with the strongest sense of entitlement are high-profile athletes: some of them sound like they expect to have minions to take exams for them!

An important advantage of the gym analogy, in a North American context, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. While not always selfish, the sense of entitlement is self-centred by definition. Given the North American tendency toward independence training and a strong focus on individual achievement in North American academic institutions, the “individualist” character of the sense of entitlement shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, those “entitled students” are unlikely to respond very positively to notions of solidarity, group learning, or even “team effort.”

Beyond individual responsibility, the gym analogy can help emphasise individual goals, especially in comparison to team sports. In North America, team sports play a very significant role in popular culture and the distinction between a gym and a sports team can resonate in a large conceptual field. The gym is the locale for individual achievement while the sports team (which could be the basis of another analogy) is focused on group achievement.

My simplest definition of a team is as “a task-oriented group.” Some models of group development (especially Tuckman’s catchy “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing“) are best suited in relation to teams. Task-based groups connect directly with the Calvinistic ideology of progress (in a Weberian perspective), but they also embed a “community-building” notion which is often absent from the “social Darwinism” of some capital-driven discourse. In other words, a team sports analogy could have some of the same advantages as the gym analogy (such as a sense of active engagement) with the added benefit of bringing into focus the social aspects of learning.

Teamwork skills are highly valued in the North American workplace. In learning contexts, “teamwork” often takes a buzzword quality. The implicit notion seems to be that the natural tendency for individuals to work against everybody else but that teams, as unnatural as they may seem, are necessary for the survival of broad institutions (such as the typical workplace). In other words, “learning how to work well in teams” sounds like a struggle against “human nature.” This implicit perspective relates to the emphasis on “individual achievement” and “independence training” represented effectively in the gym analogy.

So, to come back to that gym analogy…

In a gym, everyone is expected to set her or his own goals, often with the advice of a trainer. The notion is that this selection of goals is completely free of outside influence save for “natural” goals related to general health. In this context, losing weight is an obvious goal (the correlation between body mass and health being taken as a given) but it is still chosen by the individual. “You can only succeed if you set yourself to succeed” seems to be a common way to put it. Since this conception is “inscribed in the mind” of some students, it may be a convenient tool to emphasise learning strategies: “you can only learn if you set yourself to learn.” Sounds overly simple, but it may well work. Especially if we move beyond the idea some students have that they’re so “smart” that they “don’t need to learn.”

What it can imply in terms of teaching is quite interesting. An instructor takes on the role of a personal trainer. Like a sports team’s coach, a trainer is “listened to” and “obeyed.” There might be a notion of hierarchy involved (at least in terms of skills: the trainer needs to impress), but the main notion is that of division of labour. Personally, I could readily see myself taking on the “personal trainer” role in a learning context, despite the disadvantages of customer-based approaches to learning. One benefit of the trainer role is that what students (or their parents) pay for is a service, not “learning as a commodity.”

Much of this reminds me of Alex Golub’s blogpost on “Factory, Lab, Guild, Studio” notions to be used in describing academic departments. Using Golub’s blogpost as inspiration, I blogged about departments, Samba schools, and the Medici Effect. In the meantime, my understanding of learning has deepened but still follows similar lines. And I still love the “Samba school” concept. I can now add the gym and the sports teams to my analogical apparatus to use in describing my teaching to students or anybody else.

Hopefully, any of these analogies can be used to help students engage themselves in the learning process.

That’s all I can wish for.


Blogging Academe

LibriVox founder and Montreal geek Hugh McGuire recently posted a blog entry in which he gave a series of nine arguments for academics to blog:

Why Academics Should Blog

Hugh’s post reminded me of one of my favourite blogposts by an academic, a pointed defence of blogging by Mark Liberman, of Language Log fame.
Raising standards –by lowering them

While I do agree with Hugh’s points, I would like to reframe and rephrase them.

Clearly, I’m enthusiastic about blogging. Not that I think every academic should, needs to, ought to blog. But I do see clear benefits of blogging in academic contexts.

Academics do a number of different things, from search committees to academic advising. Here, I focus on three main dimensions of an academic’s life: research, teaching, and community outreach. Other items in a professor’s job description may benefit from blogging but these three main components tend to be rather prominent in terms of PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment). What’s more, blogging can help integrate these dimensions of academic life in a single set of activities.

Impact

In relation to scholarship, the term “impact” often refers to the measurable effects of a scholar’s publication through a specific field. “Citation impact,” for instance, refers to the number of times a given journal article has been cited by other scholars. This kind of measurement is directly linked to Google’s PageRank algorithm which is used to assess the relevance of their search results. The very concept of “citation impact” relates very directly to the “publish or perish” system which, I would argue, does more to increase stress levels among full-time academic than to enhance scholarship. As such, it may need some rethinking. What does “citation impact” really measure? Is the most frequently cited text on a given subject necessarily the most relevant? Isn’t there a clustering effect, with some small groups of well-known scholars citing one another without paying attention to whatever else may happen in their field, especially in other languages?

An advantage of blogging is that this type of impact is easy to monitor. Most blogging platforms have specific features for “statistics,” which let bloggers see which of their posts have been visited (“hit”) most frequently. More sophisticated analysis is available on some blogging platforms, especially on paid ones. These are meant to help bloggers monetize their blogs through advertising. But the same features can be quite useful to an academic who wants to see which blog entries seem to attract the most traffic.

Closer to “citation impact” is the fact that links to a given post are visible within that post through the ping and trackback systems. If another blogger links to this very blogpost, a link to that second blogger’s post will appear under mine as a link. In other words, a blogpost can embed future references.

In terms of teaching, thinking about impact through blogging can also have interesting effects. If students are blogging, they can cite and link to diverse items and these connections can serve as a representation of the constructive character of learning. But even if students don’t blog, a teacher blogging course-related material can increase the visibility of that course. In some cases, this visibility may lead to inter-institutional collaboration or increased enrollment.

Transparency

While secrecy may be essential in some academic projects, most academics tend to adopt a favourable attitude toward transparency. Academia is about sharing information and spreading knowledge, not about protecting information or about limiting knowledge to a select few.

Bloggers typically value transparency.

There are several ethical issues which relate to transparency. Some ethical principles prevent transparency (for instance, most research projects involving “human subjects” require anonymity). But academic ethics typically go with increased transparency on the part of the researcher. For instance, informed consent by a “human subject” requires complete disclosure of how the data will be used and protected. There are usually requirements for the primary investigator to be reachable during the research project.

Transparency is also valuable in teaching. While some things should probably remain secret (say, answers to exam questions), easy access to a number of documents makes a lot of sense in learning contexts.

Public Intellectuals

It seems that the term “intellectual” gained currency as a label for individuals engaged in public debates. While public engagement has taken a different type of significance, over the years, but the responsibility for intellectuals to communicate publicly is still a matter of interest.

Through blogging, anyone can engage in public debate, discourse, or dialogue.

Reciprocity

Scholars working with “human subjects” often think about reciprocity. While remuneration may be the primary mode of retribution for participation in a research project, a broader concept of reciprocity is often at stake. Those who participated in the project usually have a “right to know” about the results of that study. Even when it isn’t the case and the results of the study remain secret, the asymmetry of human subjects revealing something about themselves to scholars who reveal nothing seems to clash with fundamental principles in contemporary academia.

Reciprocity in teaching can lead directly to some important constructivist principles. The roles of learners and teachers, while not completely interchangeable, are reciprocal. A teacher may learn and a learner may teach.

Playing with Concepts

Blogging makes it easy to try concepts out. More than “thinking out loud,” the type of blogging activity I’m thinking about can serve as a way to “put ideas on paper” (without actual paper) and eventually get feedback on those ideas.

In my experience, microblogging (Identi.ca, Twitter…) has been more efficient than extended blogging in terms of getting conceptual feedback. In fact, social networks (Facebook, more specifically) have been even more conducive to hashing out concepts.

Many academics do hash concepts out with students, especially with graduate students. The advantage is that students are likely to understand concepts quickly as they already share some of the same references as the academic who is playing with those concepts. There’s already a context for mutual understanding. The disadvantage is that a classroom context is fairly narrow to really try out the implications of a concept.

A method I like to use is to use fairly catchy phrases and leave concepts fairly raw, at first. I then try the same concept in diverse contexts, on my blogs or off.

The main example I have in mind is the “social butterfly effect.” It may sound silly at first but I find it can be a basis for discussion, especially if it spreads a bit.

A subpoint, here, is that this method allows for “gauging interest” in new concepts and it can often lead one in completely new directions. By blogging about concepts, an academic can tell if this concept has a chance to stick in a broad frame (outside the Ivory Tower) and may be given insight from outside disciplines.

Playing with Writing

This one probably applies more to “junior academics” (including students) but it can also work with established academics who enjoy diversifying their writing styles. Simply put: blogwriting is writing practise.

A common idea, in cognitive research on expertise, is that it takes about ten thousand hours to become an expert. For better or worse, academics are experts at writing. And we gain that expertise through practise. In this context, it’s easy to see blogging as a “writing exercise.” At least, that would be a perspective to which I can relate.

My impression is that writing skills are most efficiently acquired through practise. The type of practise I have in mind is “low-stakes,” in the sense that the outcomes of a writing exercise are relatively inconsequential. The basis for this perspective is that self-consciousness, inhibition, and self-censorship tend to get in the way of fluid writing. High-stakes writing (such as graded assignments) can make a lot of sense at several stages in the learning process, but overemphasis on evaluating someone’s writing skills will likely stress out the writer more than make her/him motivated to write.

This impression is to a large extent personal. I readily notice that when I get too self-conscious about my own writing (self-unconscious, even), my writing becomes much less fluid. In fact, because writing about writing tends to make one self-conscious, my writing this post is much less efficient than my usual writing sessions.

In my mind, there’s a cognitive basis to this form of low-stakes, casual writing. As with language acquisition, learning occurs whether or not we’re corrected. According to most research in language acquisition, children acquire their native languages through exposure, not through a formal learning process. My guess is that the same apply to writing.

In some ways, this is a defence of drafts. “Draft out your ideas without overthinking what might be wrong about your writing.” Useful advice, at least in my experience. The further point is to do something with those drafts, the basis for the RERO principle: “release your text in the wild, even if it may not correspond to your standards.” Every text is a work in progress. Especially in a context where you’re likely to get feedback (i.e., blogging). Trial and error, with a feedback mechanism. In my experience, feedback on writing tends to be given in a thoughtful and subtle fashion while feedback on ideas can be quite harsh.

The notion of writing styles is relevant, here. Some of Hugh’s arguments about the need for blogging in academia revolve around the notion that “academics are bad writers.” My position is that academics are expert writers but that academic writing is a very specific beast. Hugh’s writing standards might clash with typical writing habits among academics (which often include neologisms and convoluted metaphors). Are Hugh’s standards appropriate in terms of academic writing? Possibly, but why then are academic texts rating so low on writing standards after having been reviewed by peers and heavily edited? The relativist’s answer is, to me, much more convincing: academic texts are typically judged through standards which are context-specific. Judging academic writing with outside standards is like judging French writing with English standards (or judging prose through the standards of classic poetry).

Still, there’s something to be said about readability. Especially when these texts are to be used outside academia. Much academic writing is meant to remain within the walls of the Ivory Tower yet most academic disciplines benefit from some interaction with “the general public.” Though it may not be taught in universities and colleges, the skill of writing for a broader public is quite valuable. In fact, it may easily be transferable to teaching, especially if students come from other disciplines. Furthermore, writing outside one’s discipline is required in any type of interdisciplinary context, including project proposals for funding agencies.

No specific writing style is implied in blogging. A blogger can use whatever style she/he chooses for her/his posts. At the same time, blogging tends to encourage writing which is broadly readable and makes regular use of hyperlinks to connect to further information. In my opinion, this type of writing is a quite appropriate one in which academics can extend their skills.

“Public Review”

Much of the preceding connects with peer review, which was the basis of Mark Liberman’s post.

In academia’s recent history, “peer reviewed publications” have become the hallmark of scholarly writing. Yet, as Steve McIntyre claims, the current state of academic peer review may not be as efficient at ensuring scholarly quality as its proponents claim it to be. As opposed to financial auditing, for instance, peer review implies very limited assessment based on data. And I would add that the very notion of “peer” could be assessed more carefully in such a context.

Overall, peer review seems to be relatively inefficient as a “reality check.” This might sound like a bold claim and I should provide data to support it. But I mostly want to provoke some thought as to what the peer review process really implies. This is not about reinventing the wheel but it is about making sure we question assumptions about the process.

Blogging implies public scrutiny. This directly relates to transparency, discussed above. But there is also the notion of giving the public the chance to engage with the outcomes of academic research. Sure, the general public sounds like a dangerous place to propose some ideas (especially if they have to do with health or national security). But we may give some thought to Linus’s law and think about the value of “crowdsourcing” academic falsification.

Food for Thought

There’s a lot more I want to add but I should heed my call to RERO. Otherwise, this post will remain in my draft posts for an indefinite period of time, gathering dust and not allowing any timely discussion. Perhaps more than at any other point, I would be grateful for any thoughtful comment about academic blogging.

In fact, I will post this blog entry “as is,” without careful proofreading. Hopefully, it will be the start of a discussion.

I will “send you off” with a few links related to blogging in academic contexts, followed by Hugh’s list of arguments.

Links on Academic Blogging

(With an Anthropological emphasis)

Hugh’s List

  1. You need to improve your writing
  2. Some of your ideas are dumb
  3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
  4. Blogging expands your readership
  5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
  6. Blogging is Reputation
  7. Linking is better than footnotes
  8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist
  9. What have journals done for you lately?

Google for Educational Contexts

Interesting wishlist, over at tbarrett’s classroom ICT blog.

11 Google Apps Improvements for the Classroom | ICT in my Classroom.

In a way, Google is in a unique position in terms of creating the optimal set of classroom tools. And Google teams have an interest in educational projects (as made clear by Google for Educators, Google Summer of Code, Google Apps for schools…).
What seems to be missing is integration. Maybe Google is taking its time before integrating all of its services and apps. After all, the integration of Google Notebook and Google Bookmarks was fairly recent (and we can easily imagine a further integration with Google Reader). But some of us are a bit impatient. Or too enthusiastic about tools.

Because I just skimmed through the Google Chrome comicbook, I get to think that, maybe, Google is getting ready to integrate its tools in a neat way. Not specifically meant for schools but, in the end, an integrated Google platform can be developed into an education-specific set of applications.
After all, apart from Google Scholar, we’re talking about pretty much the same tools as those used outside of educational contexts.

What tools am I personally thinking about? Almost everything Google does or has done could be useful in educational contexts. From Google Apps (which includes Google Docs, Gmail, Google Sites, GTalk, Gcal…) to Google Books and Google Scholar or even Google Earth, Google Translate, and Google Maps. Not to mention OpenSocial, YouTube, Android, Blogger, Sketchup, Lively

Not that Google’s versions of all of these tools and services are inherently more appropriate for education than those developed outside of Google. But it’s clear that Google has an edge in terms of its technology portfolio. Can’t we just imagine a new kind of Learning Management System leveraging all the neat Google technologies and using a social networking model?

Educational contexts do have some specific requirements. Despite Google’s love affair with “openness,” schools typically require protection for different types of data. Some would also say that Google’s usual advertisement-supported model may be inappropriate for learning environments. So it might be a sign that Google does understand school-focused requirements that Google Apps are ad-free for students, faculty, and staff.

Ok, I’m thinking out loud. But isn’t this what wishlists are about?


Finally! A Drinking Age Debate

This may be more significant than people seem to assume: university and college administrators in the United States are discussing the potential effects of reverting the drinking age back to the age of maturity in their country (18 years-old). This Amethyst Initiative (blog), which was launched last month, may represent a turning point in not only alcohol policy but campus life in the United States.

This “story” has started to go around recently. And it happens to be one I care about. Read about this on Tuesday, while doing some random browsing.

College presidents seek drinking age debate – Life- msnbc.com.

And it’s coming back as a source of jokes:

College Presidents Rethinking Drinking Age | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Though I may be a big fan of humour, I really hope that people can also take this issue seriously. For some reason, people in the United States tend to react to alcohol-related discussions with (possibly uneasy) humour. Fair enough, but there’s clearly a need for dispassionate, thoughtful, and serious discussion about the effects of current laws or the potential effects of new laws.

I have a lot of things to say about the issue but I’lll try to RERO it.

Now, obviously, the media coverage is typical “wedge issue” journalism. Which might well be working. In a way, I don’t care so much about the outcome of this journalistic coverage.

What I do care about, though, is that people may start discussing the social implications of alcohol prohibitions. It’s a much larger issue than the legal drinking age in the United States. I sincerely hope that it will be addressed, thanks in part to these administrators at well-known academic institutions.

Possibly the best person to talk about this is Indiana University’s Ruth Engs, professor of Applied Health Science. Engs has written extensively on the health effects of alcohol, with a special emphasis on the negative effects of the raised legal drinking age in the United States. She also has fascinating things to say about cultural dimensions of alcohol consumption, which happens to be a topic that I have been exploring on my own.

According to Engs, discussion of responsible drinking are quite rare in public events related to alcohol research in the United States. I personally get the impression that responsible drinking has become a taboo subject in those contexts. I certainly noticed this while living (as full-time faculty) on a “dry campus.”

It’s no secret that I care about responsible drinking. Part of this might have to do with the Éduc’alcool message which has been engrained in Quebeckers over the years: «la modération a bien meilleur goût» (“responsible drinking is more tasteful”). My strong impression is that at least some of those who wish for the drinking age in the United States to remain high share the opinion that, for adults, responsible drinking is more appropriate than binge drinking. They may think that any type of alcohol consumption has negative effects, but it’d be quite surprising if they actually preferred binge drinking over responsible drinking.

Where we seem to disagree is on the most effective strategies to reach the goal of responsible drinking among adults. IMHO, there is at the very least strong anecdotal evidence to show that increasing legal drinking age does very little to encourage responsible drinking. Unfortunately, with issues such as these, there’s a strong tendency for advocates of any position to dig for data supporting their claims. Stephen Jay Gould called this “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” I may care strongly about the issue but I’m not really taking sides. After all, we’re talking about a country in which I’ve lived but in which I don’t have citizenship.

Let’s call a spade a “spade.” What’s at stake here is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was pushed by the MADD lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). With all due respect to people involved in MADD and similar anti-alcohol advocacy groups, I have strong reservations as to some of their actions.

As a group, MADD is a “textbook example” of what sociologist Howard Becker has called “moral entrepreneurs.” In the United States, these moral entrepreneurs seem to be linked to what Ruth Engs calls clean living movements. What’s funny is that, though these movements may be linked to puritanism, Puritans themselves did use alcohol in their diet. So much so that the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock partly because of beer.

There’s a lot to say about this. From diverse perspectives. For instance, libertarians surely have interesting points about the NMDAA’s effects on state laws. Health researchers may talk about the difficulty of alcoholism prevention when responsible drinking is left undiscussed. Teetotalers and Muslims may see this as an opportunity to encourage complete abstinence from drinking. Road safety specialists may have important points to make about diverse ways to prevent drunk driving. Law researchers may warn us about the dangers to the legal system inherent to laws which are systematically broken by the majority of the population. Border officers may have some interesting data as to the “alcohol tourism” related to college drinking. University and college students clearly have diverse approaches to the subject, contrary to what the media coverage (especially the visuals used) seem to indicate.

My own perspective is quite specific. As a very responsible drinker. As a Quebecker of recent European origin. As a compulsive pedestrian. As an ethnographer interested in craft beer culture in North America. As a homebrewer. And, more importantly, as a university instructor who, like Barrett Seaman, has noticed widely different situations on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Simply put, it seems quite likely that widespread binge drinking on university campuses has originated on U.S. campuses since 1984 and that the trend is currently spilling over to affect some campuses outside of the United States. College binge drinking is not a global problem. Nor is it a problem entirely specific to the United States. But the influence of U.S. college and university campus culture in other parts of the world often comes with binge drinking.

Apart from the fact that I find binge drinking to be extremely detrimental to physical and mental health, my observation is about campus life in general. AFAICT, on university and college campuses where alcohol consumption by a significant proportion of the student population is illegal, illicit alcohol consumption pushes younger students outside of the broader campus life. This self-segregation makes for a very uncomfortable learning and teaching context. In other words, the fact that students hide in fraternity houses or off-campus locations to binge drink may have the same socialization effects as regular campus life elsewhere on the planet, but the isolation of these people is a net loss in terms of generating an academic environment which is nurturing and tolerant.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the legal drinking age in the United States needs, of necessity,  be brought back to 18 years-old as it was in several States until fairly recently. I’m not even saying that States should necessarily be allowed to set their own drinking age laws. I simply wish for this debate on legal drinking age to happen. Actually, I hope that there will be real, thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Really, it’s the tasteful thing to do.