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When an Oxymoron Becomes Du Jour

Studying figures of speech can be fun. The new meme these days is “fake news.”

This is, of course, an oxymoron.

Friday, February 3rd, 2017


On Willful Ignorance

From The Chronicle:

Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the “science wars” were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known “Sokal affair” in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.

Friday, June 19th, 2015


Dissecting Higher Education in Connecticut

Given that Connecticut is loaded with Higher Education institutions and a proportional amount of experts, I cringe at the first the line of this CT Mirror article: “The Board of Regents is looking to private consultants to evaluate the duties . . . “

We can do this ourselves, thanks. Plenty of people available, folks.

Thursday, June 18th, 2015


Snowden, Congress, and other Frustrations

Watching Meet the Press is a pretty frustrating activity. The focus is always on Edward Snowden. But there are other issues. For example, there are tens of thousands of security personnel on staff at NSA and other fuzzy institutions like it. Maybe if there was nothing to leak, the problem of the “next leaker” would go away or at least be mitigated.

Maybe if Congress people got to work figuring in a public way what is and isn’t legal for NSA to be doing, rather than wasting further time on events like Benghazi and spending ubertime on electioneering, then the issue would be mitigated.

Maybe if all that money getting elected was channelled toward building more hospitals and hiring more care personnel, the VA issue would be better managed. I hear there’s a jobs problem in the US. I just don’t trust all this hand wringing about things that can be fixed with a little elbow grease and firing of the brain cells. Hm, seems simple enough to me: when there are fewer people at the checkout counter, the other checkout counter lines grow longer. The lines at city DMVs are long because there aren’t enough counters.

It’s pretty simple to see that when a body calls the doctor’s office for whatever necessity, there’s a schedule, and time is equal to space. Let’s say the doctor has ten patients per day. The next day the number doubles. Let’s say the next day, the number triples. Gee, what to do about that?

The fact of the matter is that public institutions have been run down and neglected, from schools to the VA for several decades. The potholes created this winter must be giving public officials nightmares. Identifying problems in this regard is easy.  We know the solutions, too. We just don’t want to pay for it.

 

Sunday, June 1st, 2014


My Changing Attitudes about Failure in the Classroom

Over the years my attitudes about managing classroom activity has changed. It’s a long story. It begins with my own college experience being read to by the professor or even further back being told that thinking on my own would get me into trouble in grade school. I hated school. But I loved graduate school. I thought (which was probably a mistake): why not take the things I liked and make them work at the undergraduate level.

The thing I liked about undergraduate and graduate learning was that, for the most part, I could make my own decisions: I could drink beer instead of going to class; I could go to class and drink beer; it was up to me. To me compulsory is a dirty word and my fingers still smell of the iron bars of grade school. Yes college: I could do it or not do it and take the consequences. I remember a conversation with a professor. I said, “I have to do this reading.” He stabbed me with his reading-shrunken eyeballs and said, “You don’t have to do shit.” In addition, the lively use of technology by many of my professors was an inspiring mix of theory, application, and invention. The good professors would think a lot about why something might work and then try it, even if it failed. Then they would try something else. They asked questions like: how can we make big classes feel smaller? How can we take the advantages of residential colleges and mimic these with tech?

Recently (by recent I mean the last ten years or so), I’ve altered my strategies to include more emphasis on competency-based evaluation and instruction, generic assessments, and to placing more of the burden of learning on the people in my courses. By competency-based I mean telling students that they’re not after a grade on a paper but aiming to improve thinking and skills through written revision and hard work. By generic assessment I mean going from something like this:

Read this specific article and evaluate the author’s use of evidence

to this

Evaluate an author’s use of evidence in support of an argument. Find the author on your own.

Much of the above has to do with the fact that I like to change readings a lot and I don’t want to have to rewrite every assessment I provide to students.

By placing more of the burden on students, I mean to remove what I see as artificial or un-unassessable quantities in the regular movements of the semester: what’s the proper punishment for missing a deadline, I ask myself: grade diminishment or loss of opportunity to learn something? Recall the above conversation with my professor: he meant, “It’s up to you, Bub.”

I still have deadlines, but I tell people that if they miss a paper, what they miss is the opportunity for assessment. This presents a lot of risk, risk I’ve been willing to live with. For example, years ago I stopped reading student drafts because I found it difficult to avoid what might be called robotic or automated revision. That story goes like this: Cut this, this, and this comma and here’s a little about why, and develop the idea in this paragraph with more evidence. The commas would go, simply to reappear elsewhere and in the same context, and people would simply not do the development, responding with the common, “I didn’t know what you meant.” The whole business started to feel oddly enabling. I asked: does teacher editing lead to deep learning?

The typical semester now goes like this: students revise their own copy based on discussion and concepts worked on in class. I expect students in the research course to find copious amounts of information on topics and to study it against some fairly formulaic questions (what I call the argument framework): what’s the problem; what’s the position; what are the arguments; what’s the evidence; what are the appeals; and is it all done effectively or ineffectively by the author or authors and why? What’s your take? Students hand in their respective papers, I evaluate them and provide general ideas about improvement and expect students to revise, applying what they’ve learned. The results are still pretty raw, but those results reflect writing only the student has touched. They own them.

The general competencies are: identification, description, and evaluation/analysis.

Hypothetically, it all sounds pretty well and good. But in the last few years, students have taken the option of not turning things in for evaluation and waiting until the end of the semester to make their case, as the majority end-of-semester grade comes from final portfolios, which is meant to show the results of assessment and revision. Most of the time this makes for strange papers that show almost no improvement because very little option for improvement was made available. They’re supposed to own it all.

Consider this scenario. Student A stumbles to class most days but forgets to wake up in time for the first Chemistry exam. The teacher notes that the student failed to take the exam, hence marking a zero in the grade book. Let’s say this happens throughout the semester, grossing the student a zero in Chemistry. The teacher’s puzzled because attendance was perfect, with the exception of exam days. What’s the accurate conclusion: the student failed to demonstrate any knowledge of the subject even though they attended every session and appeared to take notes? I could give this story the most positive of outcomes: the student weeps about the goose egg but invents a new cure for disease in their basement.

Writing courses are similar. A student may participate in the day to day and then fail to turn in a paper, or not participate in the day to day and turn in nothing, or play the truant, turn in all their stuff at the end, and win the golden apple. In the first two scenarios, what they’ve failed to do is demonstrate what they’ve learned (maybe they didn’t show and neglected  their papers because they were working on a novel). In a writing course the main method for providing proof of learning is the much-loved academic, MLA-styled paper, the revised paper, and then a final proof. In a competency push, I want to be able to compare the first to the final, where evidence of learning shines through. Problem is: students are not providing me the drafts.

Time to rethink my approach.

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014


Reading Ecologies and Information Architecture

I caught Andy Fitzgerald’s last post titled Architecting the Connected World this morning. He writes:

Here (the model of down-scrolling) we can see different modes at play. The trackpad isn’t strictly symbolic, nor is it iconic. Its relationship to the action it accomplishes is inferred by our embodied understanding of the physical world. This is signification in the indexical mode.

“Embodied understanding” is the language I’ve been looking for in the context of thinking across or against digital and analogue objects. Translation: reading a NYT article in a database vs the paper NYT vs the digital NYT. Fitzgerald’s analysis has to have something to do with how teachers approach research and reading with their students. Objects can be out of their original context. Sure, a rattle snake in a boot is still dangerous. But the serpent is “out of context.”

I’ve always thought scrolling was a bad idea. Such a text is fundamentally different than a page turn or swipe text. As the scrolling habit has evolved, I’ve begun to rethink how reading on the screen and scrolling through hidden abundance just adds to more hidden abundance. The prior paragraphs slide out of field. There’s only so much one can see in the traversal, and then there’s the swipe. In Tinderbox, the writer can side-by-side the draft. He or she can write against the scroll.

It’s a different leverage to craft.

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014


Computer Savvy vs Gadget Savvy and other Booleans

Anecdotally, since the 80s, I’ve seen a rapid rise of general computer savvy in students and am now seeing a decline in computer savvy with a corresponding rise in gadget savvy students, though I’m not quite sure if that’s what I mean since I’m not really sure what computer savvy or gadget savvy actually means, in any meaningful sense.

Let me see if I can parse this out. By computer savvy I mean a general comfort and “comfort in the” interest in the workings of the machine, which I would attribute to newness or greenness of the object (not a general interest with its next iteration when that “its” becomes an annoyance). Has anyone cared about the next iteration of the stove?  In the nineties we were excited about computers for all kinds of reasons. Telephony gadgets were things you feared being clubbed with. The Walkman wasn’t a digital gadget but it was the iPhone of the 80s. In the 90s, students were still using typewriters. Before the ’00s, computers, I would argue, were “exploratory.”

I don’t think this is true for most college students these days. Computers are things people just have. I don’t see a lot of students “exploring” the possibilities. In the recent years, I’ve observed platform cliches (people still argue Redmond vs Cupertino and now vs Mountain View)  but the chatter’s all old hash and you can hear the hinges creaking.

Still, things are changing fast and I don’t really know what to expect when I say, “Send it to me through email.” Not a lot of  “savvy” that maybe one doc might not work if sent through mode of transfer. The proliferation of “types” is driving me crazy. I cringe when a student sends me something with the extension .pages, and wonder when I get one that says .odt (hm, I know when someone’s using open source but isn’t worrying about the information contained in the dialogue or context box dropdowns). In other words, thinking about “what one sends” matters. But what people hear when I say “through email” is “okay, my doc is the same as yours, so, I’ll send my .pages doc or ‘whatever I’m saving.'” But I wonder if people are thinking about the object they’re actually saving. One way of thinking about this is the “personal cloud”: drag it to my public file, but then I have to worry about what’s being dragged in.

I have students who text during class. They have their phone on the desk and periodically tap a message out. And then get one back. It’s amusing to think about this activity. It doesn’t get me anywhere to judge the behavior, but it is curious to think about what sort of compulsivity to which this points. I tell students we need those things to look up information. When you want to evaluate data it’s good to have the real numbers from the CDC or the FBI. Computing devices, wifi enabled, are fantastic for that.

Which finally gets me to the reason why I started this post: the recent news about the NSA and the iPhone, about which I’m holding a certain amount of skepticism. I need someone to tell me how this actually works. And thus the problem: how does one search for a piece of software on the iPhone or the iPad. How does one know, and manipulate, specifically, “all” the software on their gadget?

This story, true or false, tells me something about the relationship people have had with computers and the technical relationship they’ve developed with the iPhone.  This is the “decline of the computer savvy” narrative. My conclusion or observations here may, of course, be true or false.

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014


How to Write a RSA Press Release and Other Sidetracks

It’s that time for the habit of the semester roundup and some thinking about what I’ve learned. But first a bit about how news stories tend to follow a path that might look like a mole’s tunnel. Not sure why. This goes to the NSA and the more recent issues with RSA, what we might call the “back door” story or the “purposeful vulnerability” story or the “How did this happen in the first place” story. Here’s what I mean about the mole’s tunnel. Tomorrow the story will turned nuanced. The stories will become the “well, it was sort of the back window not really a back door” or “vulnerability but with invulnerable characteristics just to make sure it still worked” or “well it just sorta happened by chance and we feel awful about it, and that you can believe, and this finger I’m wagging at your face proves it” stories. And so forth.

I’m reading this Guardian article at the moment titled “Security Company RSA Denies Knowingly Installing  NSA ‘back door.'” And then the subtitle, which acts as a thinner mustache: “Denial follows allegations that pioneering company made NSA algorithm its default in return for payment” (italics mine).  If the Guardian is accurately representing the verbs here, then I’m reminded of how I used language like this as a kid to slap accusations away. “Okay, sure I ate all the peanuts, but I didn’t know they were the last ones.” “Okay, I broke the plate, but I swear I didn’t know that I would drop it and didn’t think that the water on my hands would be so slippery.” It’s the “I didn’t know I was doing it” excuse that always works because it appeals to both an epistemological bias and a prevalent but often suppressed ability in people to trust in facts and discernible evidence. Since we really can’t know that RSA hadn’t known that they were actually doing something even though they were doing it goes to the question, “Hey, did you know you were just now talking to yourself?”

But it gets even sillier. Here’s the first paragraph of the article: “The security company RSA has denied that it knowingly weakened the encryption it used in its products as part of a secret contract with the US’s National Security Agency.” There’s little congruence between the title and this first paragraph: “knowingly installing” and knowingly weakening.” Indeed, the first paragraph is much better. It gives that nuance we all so love. Now RSA denies “it knowingly weakened the encryption …” Think about that. I’ve tried to tighten things up, tidy things, or make something thinner, but I’ve never actually verbed any of that “unknowingly.” I intended to make my bed. I’ve even tried to write some encryption myself. Consider this fiction:

He cracked his knuckles but before he could start, Larry said, “Put a J there in that as an extra expression.”

He said, “Duh, okay.”

Larry said to himself, “Ha, ha. He doesn’t know that that  J will open the back door. He He.”

Not only did RSA not “knowingly weaken the encryption” but they deny doing it knowingly AND as a “secret contract” with the NSA. In the first paragraph, the “as part of a” elbow acts like a conjunction in an unwritten compound sentence. We deny “knowingly doing something” AND we deny “knowingly doing something as part of a secret contract.” As every good obfuscator knows, ANDs make for future denials. Consider this part where Charles Arthur quotes from a RSA blog post

RSA initially declined to respond to the reports. But in a blogpost on its site posted Sunday, the company now says: “Recent press coverage has asserted that RSA entered into a ‘secret contract’ with the NSA to incorporate a known flawed random number generator into its BSAFE encryption libraries. We categorically deny this allegation.”

In terms of the  AND theory of obfuscation, this is grandiloquence. We “deny that we entered into a secret contract to incorporate a known flawed [something]”  Very good writing, I would say. The reporters one flaw here is the use of the word “now says” which would imply a change of heart or alteration.

In all seriousness, knowing what people did or what they were thinking is always hard. Of course it is. I would submit that the solution is pretty simple and it goes according to the deux ex machina formulation in storytelling. Some powerful person or force, maybe the American president, tells the NSA: “That’s it, stop storing Ersinghaus’s data.” Believe me it ain’t all that interesting.

Monday, December 23rd, 2013


Inaugural Post: 2013

I’ve been away from this weblog for a time, thinking, changing course, working through. A new novel’s coming. A new year, with lots of exploring. New reference points. Those to thank, you know who you are. In any event, I’ve been reading lots of local, Simsbury history. Prepping for courses, with a mindfulness for ecology.

Vibert’s book has renewed my interest in the kinds of history and storytelling that makes better sense than general overviews. The day to day experience, for example, of people just after the initial push-out from Windsor Connecticut into the pine territories of northern Connecticut for tar and pitch to serve the naval concerns of England is a robust knowledge and wisdom. I’d love more mining into this subject. The social network is not new.

Monday, January 21st, 2013


The Question of Public Service and Public Education or Burn the Federalist

James Madison’s letter to W. T. Berry (1822) is interesting reading into some of thinking about the significance of public education. I’ve been reading a lot of historical documents recently given subjects of the day to grab some context, especially given the woes of public education in places like Chicago, where money keeps getting in the way of solutions. I’m still waiting for the “bailout” of the states in the same vein as the “bailout of the banks.”

It’s in this context that I fail to see the significance of some journalistic responses to Obama’s convention speech as “not all that great,” the theme of which focused in high points on the relevance of public service. Did the speech have to be fantastic? Barack Obama has already proven that he can give fantastic speeches. The narrative: Let’s wait for Obama’s fantastic speech, and somehow this will fix everything. This was exactly NOT the point of the speech (which was the genius of the speech). For the president to swoop in and solve all the ills of the world was exactly the opposite message. One commenter I heard on TV said that his speech was probably the 4th best. No standard was provided. Some people are supposed to have an opinion on the “waves.” We’re supposed to be smart enough to understand this.

Madison writes

But, besides the consideration when the higher Seminaries belong to a plan of general education, that it is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expence for the education of his children, it is certain that every Class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every Country its truest and most durable celebrity.

And further on (anticipating the moieties perhaps created by standardized tests), he writes

But why should it be necessary in this case, to distinguish the Society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of Academies, Colleges, and Universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in Governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry, and from the laws of inheritance, and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendants; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.

If we’re worried about money, then we should be assured by the question of all kinds of potential properties, even if teachers will be willing to forgo that prosperity in the short term for some for of pension in the future. Our country is of a size Madison could not probably have imagined. This does’t mean we shouldn’t weigh potential inflation (code for “state bailouts and give the teachers, the cops, and the fire people the raise they need”) against some sort of greater good in the name of public service.

Or we could say this: you know, we just can’t afford it. Then burn the Federalist and all Madison’s letters.

Lots of people will disagree with this:

Hire all the teachers, cops, firefighters you need and pay them the wage they need
Fund the research
Provide the loans
Change the rules around forming unions
Invest in that transit project
“Foster the useful arts”
Let anyone who wants in in
Leave peoples’ morality alone
Build those space ships (I love space x, but I also like my cordless drill)
Fine, support as much as the military wants, but let’s be reasonable
Get the banks back to banking
Speculation tax
Write your own list
But pay for it, if you know what I mean.

Friday, September 7th, 2012