The Traffic Jam Known as Higher Education

Over my vacation, I read Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. I picked this book up because Mr. Geeky and I got into an argument about driving in traffic. Specifically, he did not like the way I was driving in traffic on I95. This, as well as issues around map reading, is our main argument these days. I’ve learned to read while he drives so I don’t notice.

Anyway, I hadn’t taken any books with me to the beach, so I popped into a local bookstore and picked up whatever struck my fancy. This was the perfect book to read after navigating 95. It also had some insights into my own work. I know what you’re thinking–you learned something about educational technology in a book about traffic? But it’s true. You see you might think that traffic is about cars and roads and tolls and signs, but it’s not. It’s about people. People make traffic. A couple of key insights in the book are that a) people don’t really cooperate much while driving; they’re in it for themselves and b) even if they want to cooperate, they don’t know exactly how.

The first insight was the one I found most interesting for my purposes, although the second was also fruitful. When we’re driving, we’re focused on getting from point A to point B. We’re in our cars. We can’t easily make eye contact with each other to signal, for example, that you’d like to squeeze into that space just in front of you if you don’t mind. As Vanderbilt puts it in a nice interview posted on the Amazon site:

people are more likely to cooperate with one another when they can make eye contact. When we don’t have it, when we become anonymous, we not only lose some of that impulse towards cooperation, we seem to become susceptible to all kinds of behavior we might not otherwise engage in. In most driving situations, of course, we lose eye contact, and have to make do with our rather limited vocabulary of traffic signals.

What does this have to do with higher education, especially technology and higher education? Most of my communication occurs via email or over the phone and not face-to-face. This allows both me and the person I’m communicating with to feel like we can be a little ruder than we might otherwise. I might get defensive about my time. They might get defensive about theirs. We both dig in our heels and no work gets done. Also, miscommunication can happen. I might think someone is asking for one thing, but they’re really asking for another and vice versa. But also, I think, there’s a lack of “signage” or “vocabulary.” While I continue to live in the world of the academic–understanding tenure, trying to understand faculty work flows, areas of research and more–I feel that faculty often don’t understand my world, both its vocabulary and its context. It’s as if my signs are in Japanese with no English translation available. So how to fix this? In traffic, I’m afraid, there’s not much chance of providing more eye contact, but that’s easy in my world. It’s more time-consuming to visit people in their offices, to try to catch people around campus, but I think the payoff is better. As for the “lost in translation” problem, obviously I can do some translating in face-to-face situations, but I can also continue to provide information to help people navigate in my world.

Speaking of anonymity, Vanderbilt also covers the the issue of road rage, which he theorizes has to do with a general increase in narcissism:

[Psychologists] find, as time goes on, more people are willing to say things like “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Traffic is filled with people who think that roads belong only to them — it’s “MySpace” — that being inside the car absolves them from any obligation to anyone else. People are glad to tell you that their child is a middle school honor student — as if anyone cared! — but they deem it less important to tell you what they’re going to do in traffic.

I’d say this is a general tug-of-war we all experience, but which may be prolific in higher ed. That is, we feel a sense of our selves as important, as perhaps more important than anyone else and so pursue a path that benefits primarily ourselves versus feeling a sense of our selves as part of a larger whole, as contributing to the greater good in some way and so pursue a path that benefits others. In traffic, this tug-of-war may play out by first, cutting people off, driving too fast, etc. When feeling more magnanimous, we might allow a car in front of us, keep a safer distance between us and the car in front of us, or generally drive more slowly. In higher ed, I see two things happen. One, there are plenty of people walking around with a lot of ego (I’m not necessarily saying I’m not one of these people). These people are the equivalent of the overly aggressive driver. Two, there’s the definition of the larger whole to which someone might contribute. As a staff member, I’m more likely to see that larger whole as the institution or perhaps a collection of similar institutions. A faculty member might see the larger whole as their field and not as the institution. Students, I think, are focused primarily on themselves although many of them contribute to a larger whole that’s even bigger than the institution–politics, fighting poverty, improving inner city schools, etc. There’s a conflict then, not only between individuals as egotistical or not, but also between those who are genuinely trying to do good things about what those good things are.

There’s a lot more that I could say about the relationship between traffic behavior and the behavior I see every day, both from myself and from my faculty, but I’ll spare you the details. But think about these few things:

  • When you’re driving, it’s hard to tell how well you’re doing. There’s very little feedback and most people are worse drivers than they think they are. In many areas of higher education, there’s also a lack of good feedback. In driving, one can be made aware of how good a driver one is by installing some simple monitoring equipment. I suspect that monitoring is not something that higher ed will embrace quickly.
  • Doing something that benefits others rather than doing something that just benefits you actually makes the whole system better, including for you!
  • We are more distracted than we think we are.

The Cult of the Amateur

Andrew Keen’s new book is meant to be controversial. He said he wasn’t even aiming for a balanced look at Web 2.0. I knew this going in, so I expected to disagree with him much of the time. And I did. But I didn’t disagree with everything. I do think there are some problems that need to be addressed. The problems are complicated: the issue of anonymity, copyright, spam, credibility, and the disappearance of traditional media. We can’t simply dismiss all of Web 2.0 as trash simply because there are serious and legitimate issues that need to be addressed.

One of the serious flaws I see in the book is Keen’s lack of hard data to back up much of what he says. There are sometimes examples–news reports mostly–but there’s no real evidence that, for example, people are hoodwinked by advertising posing as sincere blog posts or video diaries. He states that “We’re never sure if what we read or see is what it seems” (79). That’s true of anything and if the Internet helps people be a little more skeptical and critical of what they see, hear and read, then it’s not all bad.

Keen is worried not just that our culture is degrading as a result of amateur work posted on the web, but that the past purveyors of culture–newspapers, magazines, tv–are losing money and laying people off. He bemoans the loss of music stores, for example. Is it sad that Tower Records no longer exists? Yes, certainly, but could Tower Records have come up with a way to stay in business? Quite possibly. Instead of blaming the record stores and the music industry for failing to come up with a new business model in the age of the Internet, Keen blames the illegal downloads on the downfall of the stores and the industry. Certainly, illegal downloading is partly to blame, but did the music industry drop prices on CDs or open up more virtual store fronts? No to the first, and too late to the second.

He takes on the movie industry as well, warning that it may suffer the fate of the music industry. Has the movie industry learned anything from the music industry? A little. Movies are offered for download from Amazon, Netflicks and via many DVR players for $3.99 as a “rental.” One can buy digital versions of movies for as little as $10, but most are $14.99. When going to a movie costs $9-$10 per person, many people will opt to watch most movies at home, especially if they have a nice, new big screen HD TV, which more and more people do. Making movies available for download is smart. What’s not smart? Keeping ticket concession prices so high that most people think it’s not worth a trip out. Does Keen mention this? No. He mentions that Disney is losing money. Has Disney made a really good film lately? Hmm, must be the Internet’s fault.

The newspaper industry, too, is losing out to the Internet. At least here, Keen mentions that cable news has had some effect. Keen rightly points out that, for the moment, online ad revenue has not kept pace with print ad revenue even though a paper like the New York Times has over 40 million online readers. This is a real problem, but I don’t think it can be blamed on the amateurs on the Internet. It seems more a function of trying to replicate a print model on the web and maybe they need to get more creative than that.

Perhaps my favorite over the top criticism is how the Internet is ruining our children–in multiple ways. First, “Web 2.0 technology is . . . creating a generation of plagiarists and copyright thieves with little respect for intellectual property. . . . Our kids are downloading and using this stolen property to cheat their way through school and university. . . ” I don’t deny that plagiarism and copyright violation problems have increased since Google became popular. However, the problem, as usual, isn’t the Internet itself, but the fact that many teachers, professors, and parents treat it like the forbidden fruit instead of discussing these very issues. Instead of saying “don’t use the Internet for research,” we need to be having a serious discussion about what kind of research can be done on the web and how to treat sources with respect. The blog culture–at least the one I’m involved in–is very respectful of their sources. We need to encourage students to treat any source the way they’d treat an academic paper.

The other way that the Internet is harming our children is exposing them to a virtual Las Vegas–gambling, sex, etc. This is a tired, tired argument. The percentage of children who fall prey to an online predator is so small. A recent report that I can’t find right now showed that children (usually teens) who get involved with an online predator are often participating in other risky behavior, online and off. It’s so bad, Keen warns, that we’re in a virtual war: “Parents must man the front lines in the battle to protect children from the evils lurking on the Web 2.0.”

I don’t think the Web 2.0 world is some kind of utopia. I do think, as a society, we need to wrestle with many of the issues that Keen raises, but I think we need to do so in a much more thoughtful way than Keen does. Keen essentially runs around saying “The sky is falling.” It’s hard to take him seriously when he resorts to that kind of argument. I don’t have answers to the issues of illegal downloading, anonymous flaming, lying, or porn. But the answer certainly isn’t to run away. I think we need to face these issues head on and talk about them and come up with some real solutions. I’m not seeing anyone out there doing that right now. The RIAA upped its pursuit of illegal downloaders. Most newspapers still haven’t quite figured out what to do online. Anonymous trolls still roam around the web unleashing their scorn everywhere. Schools block sites like MySpace and filter searches. Even though I find Keen’s book distasteful, at least he reminds me that most people are ignoring the very real problems of our Web 2.0 world and that we need to start talking about these things.

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Security and Online Games

I’ve mentioned my ex-boyfriend Gary McGraw, now good friend, a couple of times before. He’s an important figure in the software and Internet security world. He gives lots of talks and writes lots of books, most of which I only have a passing interest in as someone who uses the Internet and software. His latest book, however, is one I’m actually going to read. It’s called Exploiting Online Games and it’s all about how people cheat and hack in online games. Although I’m not a huge online gamer, when I have time, it’s something I really enjoy. My son, Geeky Boy, is already hacking his way through several online games as is his little sister, Geeky Girl. And of course, I have several students who are avid gamers, both online and off. Online gaming and virtual worlds are becoming a big thing in education as well, so their security (or lack thereof) is an important issue for many of us.

I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but I’ve seen the table of contents and bits of text here and there. The book covers how cheating in games works with enough details (it appears) to do it yourself, how money is made, legal issues, the problem with bugs, and a bit about how to protect yourself. Most of the book covers cheating and hacking, so if you’re interested in hacking around a game, it looks like you’ll get a sophisticated how-to lesson. Gary has posted the preface to the book on his on blog, which will give you a better idea of what the book is about. It’s supposed to be out today, but Amazon is still saying pre-order, so maybe it goes online at 9 a.m. or something. When I get my copy, I’ll post a more thorough review.

The Feminine Mistake

Some of you may have read about or seen interviews with Leslie Bennetts, the author of The Feminine Mistake, a book that discusses the issue of women who choose to stay at home. In her book, she says that staying at home is the mistake. I first saw Bennetts on The Today Show while we were traveling and I was incensed not by Bennetts, but by the interview tactics of Ann Curry and the framing that The Today Show did of the whole issue. Basically, they preceded the interview with teasers and a montage that made it seem as if they were about to, once again, make working moms feel guilty for working. So I was surprised when Bennetts book basically supported the idea of mothers going back to work. Ann Curry kept trying to get Bennetts to admit that the decision mothers make to return to work or not is difficult. Methinks she doth protest too much. Really, watch the video.

Apparently, Bennetts has been hearing lots of serious disagreement from stay at home moms. In a post from March 31 at The Huffington Post, she expresses her disappointment at the rancor these women are expressing, especially without ever having read the book. I, too, haven’t read the book, so I won’t comment on it yet. I have read The Price of Motherhood, another book that details the financial impact on women who stay at home. That book made me mad, not because it was anti-sahm, but because I felt the wool had pulled over my eyes and I’d been sold a bill of goods about the wonders of staying at home. Bennetts goal in writing the book is similar to Crittendon’s:

Naively, I assumed that once women were offered more accurate information, they would be eager to get it. After all, women aren’t stupid; it’s true that they’ve been deserting the labor force in record numbers, but surely the problem was just that unfortunate information gap. Wouldn’t they want to protect their own interests by educating themselves about the dangers that lie ahead — and to plan accordingly?

The thing is, I don’t think women decide to stay at home based on a clear analysis of the facts other than to determine that the family can afford for her to do so. I think most women decide to stay at home for emotional and personal reasons. They feel a real need to be with their children. They feel it’s the “right” thing to do. They are unable to find good childcare. Etc. I don’t think most of us make any decision by clearly analyzing the facts. If we did, I think the world would be a very different place. I also think, and Bennetts says this in her interview with Ann Curry, that the media (conceived very broadly to include most of what we read and see) plays a role in convincing women that staying at home is the “right” thing to do, that it’s wonderful and that children will suffer if we aren’t at home. Many, many of my friends are or have been stay at home parents. I wouldn’t want to deny them that choice and as I’ve said a number of times here, what I think should happen is for the workplace to be a more family friendly environment. There needs to be more part-time options, more of a sense that it’s okay for people to put their family first (and themselves!) when they need to. I remember Laura at 11D wrote a long time ago that sometimes work sucks and why should be push women to participate in the drudgery that most jobs really are.

I’m looking forward to reading the book and I’ll say more once I have.

Naked Conversations: A Review

Naked Conversations, by Shel Israel and Robert Scoble was not a good book. I wanted to like this book. I like blogging. I think businesses should open up to the idea of blogging. I’m interested in what’s going on in business blogging. But this book didn’t really add anything to the conversation. Instead it offers some examples of both good and bad business blogging and pretty much standard caveats about how to handle blogging.

Perhaps the reason I didn’t like this book is because I am not its target audience. The audience seems to be business leaders, ceo’s, pr and marketing people and mostly people who don’t really understand what blogging is. Since I know what blogging is and how it’s changed a lot of what I do, I obviously didn’t need the information the book provides. So maybe someone who’s clueless about blogging might get more out of it. However, I also didn’t find the book very well written. First of all, it has two authors but it tries to have a single voice. In a book that’s supposed to be about conversations, it’s ironic that it has no sense of conversation. In trying to have a single voice, it has no voice. At the beginning of the book, the authors reference Cluetrain Manifesto, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. CM also has multiple authors. Rather than trying to mesh the voices together into something monolithic, each author gets a voice. I think NC would have benefited greatly from this approach. I want to hear Shel and Robert, not “The Author.”

The best section of the book is the “Doing it Right” section. Here there’s a list of ways to blog effectively. The suggestions offer here make sense but won’t be new to anyone who’s been blogging.

If you’re in business and want to blog, rather than reading this book, I’d suggest just reading a bunch of blogs and getting a sense of blogging that way. If you want to understand the foundation upon which the idea of business blogging is built, read Cluetrain Manifesto instead. It’s a better read and more effectively conveys the change that the Internet has had on business.

Most of the reviews at Amazon are positive, but here’s one that echoes my own thoughts:

“This book falls in the category “airport literature”, i.e. written for managers who like to be updated on topics and lingo.”

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Book Review: The Kite Runner

A few weeks ago, as I was shopping for Christmas presents on Amazon, I looked at my wish list and my recommendation list and lamented that I hadn’t had time to read for pleasure. Now that I’m not teaching, working full time and writing a dissertation, I can finally get back to reading. I thought I’d read what Amazon recommends and see if they’re doing a good job of picking books for me.

The first book they recommended was The Kite Runner. So far, I’d say they’re one for one. This was a good book. The characters and the story hooked me almost immediately. The story begins in pre-war Afganistan when the narrator is a young boy of about 9. I was fascinated by the setting, knowing nothing of Afganistan before the Taliban took over. How accurate the descriptions were, I don’t know, but they were certainly compelling. The narrator, Amir, is the son of an influential and wealthy father. His best friend is the son of his father’s servant, a Hazara named Hassan. Their friendship, however, is conflicted (at least in Amir’s mind) by the difference in their status. This relationship is the anchor of the story. It is the conflict the narrator can’t let go, even after he leaves Afganistan. The relationship is also a touchstone in many ways of the relationship Amir has with his father.

The narrator ages more than twenty years during the course of the book, and I was impressed by the way he seemed the same boy we met at the beginning of the book and also a completely different person who had been through two wars and a gruelling move to America. Also impressive were the descriptions of Afganistan during the reign of the Taliban when Amir returns to take care of some business of his father’s (so as not to spoil the whole book for you). Amir remembers the tranquil Afganistan of his youth and seeing so much destruction and violence is heartbreaking. As a reader, I, too, felt the sadness of seeing something that was described so beautifully at the beginning of the book completely destroyed.

My only problem with the book, really, was the resolution. It’s not that I didn’t like the way it ended, but it was painful getting there. There were so many mini-conflicts at the end, I felt like I was in a bad action movie at times. The conflicts make sense, but I think at least one or two could have been left out and the ending still would have worked.

I would recommend the book wholeheartedly. It’s a good read. You won’t be disappointed with the story or the writing.

Geeky Book Recommendations

My brain is too filled with stuff like audience and discourse communities and emergence to be of much use, but I thought in the spirit of winter solstice and the free time that many of us might be looking foward to, I’d recommend some geeky type books that you can read yourself and/or purchase for geeks and non-geeks alike. Oh, and go vote for me and Phantom and everyone else in the Weblog Awards. I’ve given up hope of winning, but it’s fun to vote anyway.

Geeky Books for Everyone!

  • Six Degrees of Separation–a good introduction to network theory. We actually used this book in a freshman writing class.
  • Linked–another network theory book, but specific to the Internet. I liked this so much I’ve read it twice and am using it in my dissertation.
  • Emergence–I’m in the middle of this one and I like it so far.
  • Everything Bad is Good for You–Another Steven Johnson book. I like the message of this book. It makes me feel better about my Internet habits.
  • The Search–a book all about search. There were parts of this that I didn’t like, but it’s still fascinating.
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto–one of my favorite geeky books. There are a couple of other books that are similar to this that I’d love to read–maybe over the break.
  • The Tipping Point–I have read this one twice two.

I think that’s it for now. One thing I’d like to do in the new year is to read a book a week the way Elizabeth does.

In case you’re wondering, I did this after I’d worked on my dissertation for two hours.