The Not-So-Nimble Case of Higher Education


Several of my past essays grouse about higher education not being particularly nimble places despite administrators who implore faculty to be more so while they themselves are anything but nimble. My own workplace is warming to the idea the institution is not as nimble as we would like. My hopes are some administrators are awakening the realization the true hindrance to our lack of dexterity lies both within themselves and their peers. While an individual faculty person can “flip a classroom” or engage students with real problem-oriented assignments a university must itself inspire a complete culture of creative thinking and innovation, not simply using sole faculty in specific departments as examples of “See, look what Professor X is doing! Isn’t that spectacular?”

Colleges and universities across the United States were seen both as sources of innovative thought and sites of infectious social liberalization. Examples are easy to find, from UC-Berkeley on the West Coast, Kent State in the Midwest, to Columbia University in New York, university and colleges across the United States were loathed by many as disruptive to U.S. culture, promulgating ideas of free love, Socialism, peace (or anti-war), Civil Rights, and other ideas which some people felt threatened the very fabric of the U.S.

UCB Bear-smCurrently, I would argue universities and colleges are not the liberating influencers they once were. I feel comfortable saying this in part because U.S. society has become more liberal, has become more accepting of people, more nuanced in their approaches to societal concerns. U.S. society has become more tolerate of the LGBTQ community, has over-come some aspects of racism, such as interracial dating and marriage.

No doubt the U.S. has more changes to make, but we have come a long way. We haven’t seen 100 years yet since women were allowed to vote. Many Conservatives would like to prevent even more people from voting. But, to be Conservative, by definition, means “resistant to change.” So, those of us who would prefer Humanity to stop judging people should not be surprised by those people among us unable to tolerate change. Some human brains are simply not wired to adopt change.

People who hold conservative viewpoints can be found anywhere and higher education is no different. Administrators who once stood in front students and goaded them into adopting new ways of thinking, and being open and receptive to new ideas, and to think about different approaches to problem-solving, go through some type of Kafka-esque transformation, construct a bureaucratic trench, and then impose the same myopic perspective their proselytize to their students to eliminate from their own lives.

I don’t get it. I have an allergy to logical inconsistencies.

OK, enough soap-boxing.

In this post, I am releasing into the “wild” a proposal for an internal internship program. I think all universities need an internal internship program. The changing demographics of the United States mandate changing some of our mindsets and protocols to meet the needs of students. For instance, adult unmarried students with children may desire an internship yet don’t have the required support system to leave their children behind for 8-, 10-, or 12-weeks to engage in distant internship. Why should these students be denied the opportunity to gain experience simply because of their life circumstance? Why should working for a university office be any different from working for some distant employer?

Granted, I do see the benefit of relocating for an internship. I also see the benefit of doing Study Abroad. However, an adult back in school may have already work experience and/or life experience which satisfies part of the rationale behind internships. Secondly, the experience gained in working for a university IT department, research center, Student Affairs, Publications, or some other office on a college campus is potentially no different if we simply reframe our vision of other offices on campus as “clients.”

My generic draft proposal: DraftProposal_Generic_Internships2014-2015_v2 (Word document)

I have found some universities already support internal internship programs. Morehead State University (KY) is one example. Western Kentucky University is another. I’m sure these programs exist at many different colleges and universities. Not at mine; not yet.

I’m trying to get administrators to support this program. I’ve met heavy resistance, actually, from administrators. Mostly because I didn’t follow the chain of bureaucracy. I didn’t want the proposal to get trashed which has happened to other ideas of mine. I made sure the people who read my proposal drafts were also those who were able to get the proposal read by the president’s office.

In addition to the internship program universities should support, I have a few other ideas which I have written posts about.

Higher Education is Anything But Nimble Basically, some thoughts about thinking which does not work to the advantage of faculty, staff, or students, thinking which impairs or detracts from student engagement.

Building Consensus for an Idea Lab I’m a firm believer all universities need a forum and a makerspace to encourage students from all disciplines to work together on projects. No one can honestly say where new ideas will come from. I’ve run across too many presumptive administrators in higher education who state, “Our students will never …” or “Our students will always …” and that person automatically loses credibility in my eyes.

Promote Innovation in Higher Education Using a StudentStore I cannot take credit for this idea. Wallace Patterson, Education Account Manager for Makerbot, and I were riffing back and forth on the phone one day and we hit on this idea. Look, why should art students or horticultural students or whatever organization get a “One Day Only Sale to Support Our Organization?” Why can’t something like this exist for both individual students and for organizations? And, why can’t a university support a student-run retail store / gift shop showcasing student work? Would not parents of current students, current students, potential students, and alumni like to see how their education investment is paying-off? When a student ambassador can walk parents, and students and donors and alumni through a space and say, “This place is managed, staff, and stocked with items produced here on campus by our students. They gain management and business experience, plus have a place in which to sell the fruits of their ideas. We want to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship, and this store is only one component of making sure our graduates leave our school ready to hit the ground running.”

Using Social Media to Promote Your Department, College, and University I don’t have this essay posted. I thought I did. Evidently, the draft exists only in my brain. In essence, the idea is this: all departments, colleges, and campus offices need to have some sort of social media presence. I frequently visit the Social Media page at the University of Victoria (Canada). In my opinion, they have “best practices” for higher education social media presence. Their home page has a nice social media widget at the bottom 1/3rd of the page. They have reorganized their page some but from the bottom of the front page one can access all social media at UVic. Now, if you are following along to this point, thanks, but notice how UVic has their campus social media organized. This is brilliant. Easy-to-access, easy to locate pertinent social media sites for each office and department. The person managing social media for UVic knows what they are doing. Now, in case you say, “Big deal,” it is a big deal. Parents, grandparents, legal guardian, current students, alumni, and potential students all use social media. Social media are no longer a luxury, an interesting side-bar activity one does when a break from the routine. Social media are expected, is anticipated, by everyone. Social media is proactive; social media managers “push out” information and actively try to engage people. A webpage or website is not proactive; if anything it is a passive response requiring someone to visit your webpage or website. Social media, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest pushes out content (in some cases, special configuration is necessary, but still.) Returning to a previous comment, we cannot presume to know the minds of people. We can make some really ignorant choices presuming knowledge. Social media basically is like a broadcast tower, “Whoever can here me, here is what I have to say.” Then, interested parties either tune-in or tune-out. But, the receiver gets to make that choice. The dangerous presumption is one shutting down communication because of a particular bias someone has no interest in your message. Or, equally worse, the presumption someone will seek to find your passive message hiding within the maelstrom of all of the active messages being broadcast. My hypothesis is: always broadcast, always be active about broadcasting and leave the decision to listen or not to the audience. While the immediate audience may not have an interest, they may know of others who do, and again by the power of social media the reach of your message extends beyond the range of the initial message. It just makes sense to me, yet I have failed consistently this year to get my point across to administrators who simply refuse to acknowledge the potential of managing positive messages conveyed through social media. Ta da!

Ok – to all who read my admittedly rambling discourse, and my occasional hyperbole, I really appreciate you taking the time to consider my posts, especially when so many good sites exist.

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PAX

The Geography of a Comic Book


Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, published “The World Is Flat” in 2005. Since the book hit the streets people have been citing evidence the world is not so much as flat as Friedman argues. I’m not reviewing Friedman’s book here; I’ve read it, it’s thought-provoking. In some ways I agree; in other ways his argument simply doesn’t stand up to deep scrutiny. There are still too many big economic players, reservoirs of wealth and deserts of poverty, and uneven parity in educational and cultural affairs.

Having said all of that, there are some cool examples of a flatter world. I happened onto one of these experiences at my local comic book store. G’s Comics is my local comic store. “G” is great about having functions at his place, from hosting Magic tournaments, Free Comic Book Day, and Halloween ComicFest. On occasion, G hosts comic book writers, illustrators, inkers, and other creative talent.

The third week of September, G hosted a couple of comic book artists and writers. Tommy Patterson lives in western Kentucky and provides art and illustrations for comic book tie-in for George R. R. Martin’s “The Game of Thrones.” If you enjoy HBO’s The Game of Thrones, you might enjoy the comic books. I have picked up a few comics myself, having read a couple of the books, and found myself enjoying the books more after reading the comics. The art really manifests and augments the story.

Jay Leisten lives in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region. His newest effort is The Death of Wolverine for Marvel. Outside of Spider-man and Captain America, Marvel’s Wolverine has become one of the most popular comic book superheroes to grace the silver screen. Leisten, like Patterson, has an extensive comic illustration resume, providing art for many popular Marvel books, including Uncanny X-Men, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk.

I’ve collected comic books for as long as I can remember. My oldest book is a tattered copy of an old Golden Key comic of Star Trek. “Back in the day” comic book publishers existed in one place – New York City. Other cities may have supported a few itinerate publishers but for serious comic book work, one had to eke out a living in New York. As a geographer, I look for patterns, for changing relationships, for changing connections. I knew comic book creation and publication was becoming more distributed, more dispersed. But I wanted to know from the artist stand point just how dispersed the publication of a comic book had become. I figured I would take advantage of the presence of G’s guests and see what I could learn. My findings were pretty cool.

Gone are the days of having to live in New York City to build a comic book. It may help; however, it will not prevent someone with a serious yen for building a comic book if he or she does not live in NYC. In chatting with Jay, I discovered one of the writers he works with lives in Nova Scotia, Canada. Nova Scotia is the second smallest Canadian province, and while it may seem far north to those of us in the American South, is half way between the Equator and the North Pole.

The writer develops the story idea, the story arc, and fleshes out the details, providing some pointers on layout, detailing what goes on each page. The writer then passes these details along to the Penciler. Pencilers take the writers text, plot, and story vision and translate these notions onto paper, usually in pencil but not necessarily. The penciler Jay works with lives in Austin, Texas.

Inkers then take the pencil artwork and firm up the line work, adding contrast, enhancing details, and essentially framing the art. I’m not a professional artist so forgive me for my lack of terminology. I’m hoping Tommy or Jay might read this and help me set the record straight and improve my content on this post, as they do such brilliant work I’d like more people to realize the depth and breadth of the comic book industry. Jay, who lives in Louisville, KY, working as an Inker, performs these enhancements before passing his work on to the Colorist.

Once the inker is finished the Colorist takes over. The colorist adds the approved colors to all of the graphic elements. For “The Death of Wolverine” the colorist lives in Florida. I don’t have a specific town or city, and I think most of us can find Florida on a map.

Final approval of the book occurs at Marvel’s home in New York City. All of the creative editors examine the book and hopefully provide the go-ahead for publishing. I would encourage the reader to scrutinize this map, zoom-in, really. Notice how many other important places pop-up. Sony Music headquarters is nearby, at Madison and 55th. Toshiba America is almost across the street from Marvel Entertainment. DC Comics is just to the north off of Broadway.

Even NASDAQ is just to the south. Notice how many corporations are nestled together in Manhattan? In geography, the clustering of these cooperative and competitive economies we call a “technopole.”

Technopoles are sort of great places to live and work, that is if you like being around creative people, working on cool projects, and engaged in doing innovative and smart projects. Like attracts like. Technopoles are breeding grounds for fantastic ideas, for driving innovation, and foster people of all ages and backgrounds to become entrepreneurs. Manhattan is to New York what Silicon Valley is to San Francisco and the world, really.

For publishing, we return to Kentucky. Cool, huh? I know! Right here in the state I currently live some of my favorite comics are published. Currently, Marvel contracts with a publisher in Versailles, Kentucky for the publishing of its titles.

I don’t want to give the impression the creation of a comic book follows a simple work-flow: Writer -> Penciler -> Artist -> Colorist -> Lettering -> Draft to Marvel -> Printing -> Distribution to G’s Comics in Murray, Kentucky. The talents involved in bringing a story to life may live in different places yet they certainly collaborate with each other often. Jay said he often works with artists in Spain and Brazil. Team members may get together at a convenient location, say Florida or New York City, on occasion. But, far more common is for them to share files using Google Drive or Dropbox. Creative meetings then take place using Skype.

Many new (or old) comic book publishers do not call New York City home. Boom! Studios is located in Los Angeles. OK, so L.A. is almost New York as far as talent, innovation, entrepreneurship is concerned. IDW Publishing is located in San Diego, CA. Dynamite Publishing is found in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. But these publishers are on the coasts, located in fairly popular regions. Aren’t there any publishers in the Midwest, for instance? As a matter of fact, Avatar Press resides in Rantoul, Illinois. Avatar Press is an independent comic book publisher and home to Max Brooks (“World War Z”) and Garth Ennis (“Crossed”).

The next time you visit your local comic book store contemplate the comic book your holding in your hand. In your hands rests ideas, thoughts, and creative content representative of people not holed-up in a New York City office. No, the writer may live in a cottage in Nova Scotia, or maybe in rural Spain. The penciler may live in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The inker may live in Tampa, Florida. The colorist may live in Austin, Texas. They feed ideas back-and-forth to each other using Google Drive and hash out details via Skype. The publisher makes these ideas manifest by sending the content as a PDF file to a printer in Versailles, Kentucky. I haven’t even covered the origins of the inks, the paper; the geography of the raw materials. Hopefully, we can see comics are an example of geography at work, the leveling of the global economic playing field.

The world is not entirely “flat” as Thomas Friedman argues. Creative and innovative people find ways to navigate the hills and valleys of the world to bring their ideas to life, though.

PAX.

Education May Be Its Own Worst Enemy


“Your objectives are harshing my mellow, man.”

I talk to a lot of people. People who knew me in high school would be surprised by this. I barely uttered a sentence throughout high school, never participated in any social events. I would speak with my teachers, but my peers – not so much. But, I was paying attention. I lived by the adage, “If you have nothing good to say, then don’t say anything.” The corollary of the adage also guided me: “Better to keep your ignorance a mystery, than to reveal your ignorance by speaking.”

People who know me today know that to ask me a question means to set aside several minutes. Or, to engage me in a hallway or in my office means to attire one’s self in a conversational flak jacket.

Sometimes, my conversations don’t go well. I decided some time ago the only way for me to overcome my own ignorance meant to engage people in conversation, to ask questions, to interview, to probe. I know to some people I come across as badgering. When I ask a question, I’m very passionate about getting an answer directly related to my line of questioning. Some people might think of my inquiry as interrogation. In fact, I think some have said, “Why are you interrogating me?” To which I respond, “I need to know if you have the information I need. If you do, I want that knowledge, to learn from you. If you don’t have the knowledge, I need to move on to someone who does. No offense.”

Over the past month, I’ve had a series of interesting conversations with individuals who are heavily invested in the discipline of Education. To a person, they all share a peculiar trait. Based on this trait and how current education appears to be infused with this trait, I have to say, I’m really concerned with the philosophies and strategies infusing current education philosophies. To me, these strategies seem nearly at odds with the intent of education, almost counterproductive.

The only way I know to effectively communicate my concern is to provide a couple anecdotes. Bear with me; I cannot promise you will agree with me but perhaps you understand the concern.

A month ago, as classes were beginning, I ran across an administrator in the local College of Education, “Ed.” I began my pitch about encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in high school by introducing students to 3D printing, 3D scanning, and code camps. His reply was this:

“Well, you can’t just go out and buy a 3D printer. You have to have a plan. Thought has to be put into this. There have to be clearly defined objectives, goals identified. You’ve got to produce a plan; these printers are too expensive to simply buy one without having a plan.”

Also about a month or so ago, I attended my semester-opening collegiate meeting. In a nutshell, we were challenged to be “nimble” in thought, in teaching, in outreach; then when offered new ways and current ways of presenting outreach, we retreat to the mean, retreat to the status quo. Here is how that discussion went.

During the collegiate meeting, our dean ran through the list of faculty accomplishments, accolades, awards, grants, etc. These distinctions came on the heels of the college being challenged by the dean to think about new ways of outreach, to be “nimble.” When he said, “nimble,” he had me. He is right, I thought. The university needs to be nimble. He is speaking my language.

I manage the social media for two areas in my college. In my cursory analysis of academic based social media outreach of my university, how we “push out” academic news to the world, I found three accounts were primarily responsible for all the content. Two of those accounts are the ones I manage; the third account is based in our library. When the dean challenged us to be nimble and being the self-appointed social media manager for two areas in my college, I took out my new Samsung Galaxy S5 and emailed the dean’s secretary while he read aloud from the list of accomplished.

“Betsy [not her real name], email me that list of awards and stuff. I want to push out all that info via my social media accounts. Thanks!”

Later that Friday afternoon I received a phone call from Betsy. “The dean says, Thanks, but no thanks.”

“What?! Look, we need to push out good details like this. People need to be aware of what our university is doing. Evidently, I need to come talk to him. Put me on his calendar for next week, please.” The following Monday I was added to the dean’s afternoon schedule.

I brought my laptop to the Monday afternoon meeting. I could not simply debate or argue; I had to demonstrate. I had to show. I given many talks on using social media in a positive way. Personally, I do not have a Facebook account. I did, years ago. But, getting involved in the morass of people’s lives I do not find interesting. Additionally, the shear amount of insipidly stupid details was damaging my mental health. I became a heavy Twitter user, though. I made a conscious decision to follow other users who were mostly positive, who posted good content, and who I felt I had something I could learn about. When I did this, social media for me changed.

I created Facebook pages for my areas and associated Twitter accounts. I linked the accounts so I could post from Twitter and have my comments appear in Facebook. Doing this, I could glean good content from Twitter from my excellent collection of Twitter influencers, like ESRI, USGS, faculty from across the country, and other organizations. I use the social media accounts to keep in touch with students over academic breaks, to inform them about internships, scholarships, grants, funding opportunities, continuing education opportunities like those available from MOOCs, and I give away free stuff like cups, mugs, t-shirts.

The response I get back is pretty positive. Students have told me that without my efforts, they would not have known about MOOC courses, might have registered for the wrong courses, like seeing what is going on in their field, and have received internships based on information I’ve posted. Part of says, “If I’ve made a positive difference in one student’s academic career, then this work is worth the effort.”

In my meeting, I outlined all of these details for the dean. I explained the impact I was having with in my own areas. I provided some anecdotes how my own contacts have grown and my own knowledge as an educator has evolved by following good people on Twitter. I detailed the serious issues our university is currently experiencing with siloing and claim-staking. Siloing and claim-staking are incredibly detrimental to academics and anything hurting academics directly impacts and damages students education by interfering with cross-pollenization of ideas and builds barriers against the fundamental premise of higher education: holistic learning. I showed the dean my own Twitter account plus the accounts of the areas I manage. I use HootSuite to manage my social media, and have several Twitter feeds organized by hashtags applicable to my university. I filter for university-specific hashtags so I can monitor the type of information being driven and who is doing the promoting.

In the end, none of this made any impact on my dean. In essence, his response distilled to two points. First, he and his family had bad experiences on Facebook. “How can you control what people say about you?” he inquired. I’m sure I looked at him with an expression mixed with equal parts of confusion and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me. Secondly, his sentiments were that each department and each faculty person should be responsible for their own self-promotion. “I think each area and faculty person needs to handle these details in their own way,” he stated. “And, it’s not fair to those faculty who don’t get the recognition,” he added.

I countered; “As a college we need organization and management to provide a unified front, to showcase the talent and efforts our faculty have and the work they are engaged in. As a form of outreach, we need to use social media to reach any and all potential students in our service region. We need to use social media to reach out to other faculty at other institutions to share our efforts and build networks. We need to let parents, and current students, and potential students, and alumni what our colleagues are engaged in. Furthermore, we cannot worry about faculty who get upset about not getting attention. ESPN doesn’t interview the entire team; they interview the coach, the quarterback, the wide receiver, and running back, and maybe a guy who had a good game. Also, that is a problem we want to have. We fix that problem by saying, I’m sorry you’re upset; we will do a better job of pushing out content, and we will get your message out. Thanks for letting us know you are paying attention and letting us know this is effort is important to you.”

The dean then proffered the idea of desiring a better website. “We need a better set of website management tools for building better content,” he said. I agreed. “But that is a passive activity. People have to want to visit our website. Building a website is a passive action, predicated upon a “If we build it, they will come” fallacy. Not necessarily. We still need to actively engage our community, our service region. You never know who is listening, a teacher, a principal, a research at another university, a parent, an uncle or aunt. They see our promoted content via Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest. Our resources are recognized, mentioned to others. People then choose to visit our website. We have to engage them, though. It’s my belief we can’t merely build a new site and expect people to hit our site.”

None of this had any impact. I left the meeting making no progress, made no headway. We agreed to disagree. What I thought was acceptable as a “good idea” and an effective way of engaging people in our region was dismissed.

A week ago, a colleague and I had a meeting with another colleague of mine in biology. NSF has a nice funding opportunity with an rapidly approaching deadline. Our biology colleague is well-versed in the language required for NSF grant documents. She knows what they like to read. Essentially, “inquiry-based learning” language must run throughout all documents. Problem is, no one seems to be able to adequately detail what “inquiry-based learning” is. IBL eludes description but evidently reviewers at NSF know what it isn’t. After an hour-and-half we had made little progress. We aren’t stupid people.

usdaWe met again this morning. NSF does not consider Agriculture a STEM related discipline. (Source: Congressional Research Service) I adamantly protest this exclusion. Not including agriculture simply reveals the hubristic bias of NSF as to what qualifies as a STEM field and what does not. Sociology and psychology are included, as well as economics, and economics began as a field of philosophy. How can agriculture be omitted, a discipline which includes many fields steeped in STEM, and economics be included, a discipline was part of philosophy? The US Department of Agriculture is one of the chief developers of environmental policy, affecting farming, forestry, and our food-production industries. How is agriculture not STEM?  The logical inconsistency of this derails my mind.

Recently, I attend a GIS conference in my state. I was encouraged to attend and be part of a panel discussion. “Best Practices in…” is a common conference session title, and our panel discussion was entitled “Best Practices in Enterprise GIS in Higher Education.” Prior to the panel discussion I was assigned to, the morning began with an intriguing session, “Best Practices in Using GIS in K-12 Education.” A another faculty person and I are very interested in increasing geospatial education in our university’s service region. However, we work in higher education and have no idea how ESRI’s state-wide license agreement for K-12 works. I thought, “What better way to find out how the K-12 state-wide license works than to attend this session, ask, and find out. Someone will likely know. Then, I’ll know, and be able to pass this info along to interested parties. Brilliant!”

Yeah, well, not so much. In fact, I pissed off a presenter so much she didn’t stick around to give her presentation. Here we go.

The session had two speakers from a state university. The fellow is the current director of the state geography group and the administrator of the K-12 state-wide contract. After he and his partner gave their presentation, I asked if we could step back and go back to the very beginning. “Your presentation assumes everyone in the schools already has access to the software. I’ll be working with teachers who have zero knowledge of this software; I need to know how they get access to the software. Who at the state would I talk to? Or, are there already designated people within each school district I need to contact?”

The speaker said, “Oh, great question. I love this question when I hear it. Yeah, so, let me see if I can explain this.”

At that time a woman stands up. Susan is the next speaker. She is from another state university attached and is the next featured speaker. She states, “I’m scheduled to go next. I can answer this. Let me explain how this works.” The last two presenters then smile and differ to her. “First, your students need a problem. When they figure out their problem they need a goal and some objectives, and then you help them figure out their problem. Once they have fully defined the problem, you can introduce them to the mapping software. Then once they use the software to analyze the problem, they can get the community involved.”

She paused and the gentleman from the first presentation looked at me. “Does this answer your question?”

“I don’t even know what she said! No, not really. I need to know who handles the software. Who at the state do I need to talk to so when I walk into a school and talk to a principal I can help them figure out how to get started.”

“I just told you,” Susan retorted. “You have to start with a problem. Then, you have to figure out what your goals and objectives are going to be.”

“I don’t need to know about goals and objectives. I know about those. I need to know how I get the software, who do I talk to?” I said.

“If you would listen to what I am telling you, you would know how to do that.” At this point, Susan is obviously flustered, red-faced, and beginning to mutter. “I don’t know what you’re asking. You don’t make any sense. If listened to what I said, you’d know. You aren’t processing this right. I don’t know what else to say.”

“How about answering a direct question?” But, at this point she is collecting all of stuff, putting her materials into her satchel, as she mutters. The moderator, whom I know, began patting the air, like he was trying to keep the crowd pacified. “Hey, Michael, Michael, Michael, hang I on. I know how you can be.” The fellow from the first presentation then offered, “Michael, why don’t we go into more detail after the session is over. I can show you what I’m doing at the schools I’m working with.” I said, “OK, cool.”

While the moderator tried to assert some control, I ignored him and directed my attention to the KGA director since he seemed interested in actually answering my concerns. I noticed that Susan had sat down and was glaring at me. While the KGA director was speaking to me, I returned Susan’s look. That exchange didn’t last long; she gathered up all of her stuff and stormed off to another nearby table. The moderator went over and tried to soothe her, but she ended up leaving and never giving her full presentation.
It was sort of funny. My question wasn’t even directed at her but she hopped up and started blabbing some bullshit about Common Core, and goals and objectives, and utter nonsense which had zero to do with my question. What she was reciting, I have come to discover, is a recognized form of English in education circles. This new English form is called “EdSpeak,” which I refer to as “EdBabble.”

EdBabble is made up of real English words, organized in such a way they seem to make sense, but when analyzed make no sense. For example: “See, we first need to present students with a problem. Then, we mentor them through an inquiry-based processed of discovery established by an initial set of goals. The goals are coupled to definite learning objectives guiding the student through a holistic journey of discovery resulting in an interpretation of information which can be shared with a community of self-directed learners.”

“The hell did you just say?? Look, I just need to show my students how to use a calculator and work them through how to convert Celsius temperatures to Fahrenheit.”

After this session debacle lunch was served. The first presenter sat to my left and we conducted a postmortem on the morning’s sessions. He related a failed grant of his own. Grants are extremely tedious to write and organize. He spent considerable time detailing goals and objectives and getting faculty from other departments on-board to help support the grant. The grant was not awarded and he was disappointed. However, another education agency in his town picked up his grant, re-wrote using IBL “EdSpeak,” engaged some of the same faculty from the previous grant. The grant was funded.

GIS in K12 Education

Finally, many anecdotal stories are hitting the news regarding techniques being taught in schools for performing simple multiplication, for figuring out percentages, and for learning how to round numbers. Kids come home confused, can’t remember the technique once at home, can’t communicate the technique to parents or guardians. Even with instructions parents can’t follow the logic of what I can only describe a bizarre teaching techniques.

Current education pedagogy does not support rote memorization. No memorization of multiplication tables; kids have to follow some maze of instructions to multiply 5 x 7. Rounding a number requires the use of number line.

I don’t know what is going on. I can only guess and speculate. The problems are not limited to K-12 but rise into Higher Education. I had issues in elementary school; I had problems with subtraction. I couldn’t. If the question was “100 – 99 = ?” I would sit there and my head would get hot, I’d sweat, maybe drool, or sneeze. But, I worked, and worked, and practiced, and stayed after school, and did all the extra work, and found other books in my local library. Eventually, the next time I saw “100 – 99″ I still sweat and drooled but I sweat less and drooled less and gained more confidence from all my practice.

We all memorized multiplication tables. We practiced with flash cards, we worked practice sheets, and filled out empty grids of multiplication tables. And I have to say those efforts worked.

When I think about it, with our early 20th century educational techniques, what were we, our global society able to accomplish? Well, the United States put men on the Moon. We developed rocket power. We developed atomic and nuclear power. The Internet itself was built. We went from mechanical numeric computing machines to desktop computers. Voyager 1 and 2 are now in deep space. A fleet of space shuttles have come and gone.

The Human Race has accomplished a-maz-ing stuff with simple approaches to education and learning, made radical changes to our global societies and cultures using proven teaching methods.

Where is this movement coming from making education so needlessly complicated? Why are intelligent people being sucked into what seems to me to be a morass of circular logic and education babble? Who benefits from designing all of these bizarre pedagogical methods imposed upon teachers who are at loss to explain these methods adequately to kids, to other adults, and may not really understand themselves?

Addressing the anecdotes above: No, you do not need a “mission statement” to buy a 3D printer. In fact, part of says “this makes no sense.” I’m not going to draw detailed flow-charts and determine best practices before I buy a hammer or any other tool. I’m going to take to hammer owners. I’m going to check out hammers at Lowe’s. I’m going to try to borrow a few and see how they feel, how they balance. The, I’ll buy one. I’ll practice hammering nails, and pullings nails. Then, I’ll think about building something. But, I’m not going to create some detailed plan, with goals, objectives, and outcomes. Not initially.

I don’t see how anyone can develop goals, objectives, and learning outcomes without having some fundamental knowledge of how something works, without having some experience first. 3D printers can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. Buy one; give it to faculty. See what they can do with it. Let students use it. See what they can do with it. See how they react and how their imaginations are affected. Once one gains appreciation for how technology can be introduced, THEN, then develop some goals and objectives and outcomes.

With my GIS conference and the person who got upset with me, she was obviously locked into a mindset and had a pre-arranged script she did not want to deviate from. A person with a Ph.D in Education, who sells herself as an educational consultant, can’t listen to a simple question, refuses to answer a direct question, and throws a tantrum when pulled off script. How does any of that advance education, promote knowledge, and recognize “here is someone who sounds passionate about helping and wants to have some contact information.”

When a higher education administrator encourages his faculty to be “nimble,” then the response should be to consider new ideas. Using social media to reach new students, to maintain contact with current students and keep them informed using social media is a good idea, and to reach out to alumni via social media is a good idea. Initiating contact with other academic schools and organizations can lead to grant cooperation, exchange of research work and ideas, exchange of data and technology. Initiating contact with both private and public entities could lead to internships, employment, grants or scholarships. Yet, I’m faced with nimble in words and not action and the continuation of the status quo.

When I say “education may be its own worst enemy” I mean we really are. Institutions fight amongst themselves. Internally, colleges and departments bicker and fight over domains and stake claims. Administrators who claim to want innovation and creative thinking really only want those from certain people, or don’t really want them at all. Funding agencies require a special form of English involving the use of a lot of big words, commas, cute pictures of kids using computers, and self-referential logic.

Much like the Christian minister who preaches about living a life without sin then being arrested for trying to hire a guy to kill his wife so he can later marry the parishioner with whom he has been having an affair with for the last 2 years, Education is full of hypocrasy.

PAX

Book Reviews: The Bigend Trilogy, by William Gibson


Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), Zero History (2010); by William Gibson. Penguin Books. Unless otherwise stated, my reviews are without compensation (no review copies, no fees, entirely from my own pocket.)

I’m going to get right to the chase and talk about geography. Then, I’ll take a stab at reviewing these books, “Pattern Recognition,” “Spook Country,” and “Zero History.” I call these, “The Bigend Trilogy,” as Hubertus Bigend is a prominent character in all three novels. The novels also reminds me of, “The Millenium Trilogy,” written by the late Steig Larsson.

Keeping Google or Bing Maps handy while reading Gibson’s trilogy of books is a good idea. His characters hop on planes, fly from New York City, to Atlanta, Georgia, to Paris, France, to Heathrow (London), and many points in between. Gibson must love geography as every page names some place; Los Angeles, Vancouver, or a person is referred to as “Russian,” or “Italian,” or Japanese.” Gibson has an eye for details. Not simply colors and materials, but the geography associated with styles.

Hollis Henry pulls on a pair of Japanese jeans.

An Italian girl brought her a pot of coffee…

Bigend paws back the Crimean lapels of his suit.

The Tunisian waitress went away.

Milgrim looks into the face of a smiling American girl, ethnically Chinese.

Infused within nearly every page is a smorgasbord of geography, sights, ethnicities, smells, and languages. People pay attention to ethnicity and culture, assign rank and value, origins, and contemplate raw materials, sourcing, design, and lineage of products. Gibson peels back the curtain of today’s cultural tastes and trends. In doing so, he exposes the currency of being on the bleeding edge of trends, the new, the hot, the now, to identify the next consumer product to spread like an infection among socialites, elites of highly developed countries.

In order to find these products, coolhunters are hired, people who are “sensitive” to emerging trends. Some coolhunters are sensitive to certain colors, having what can only be described as an allergic reaction. Some coolhunters have reactions to fabrics, to fragrances, some to technology, some to apparel. These coolhunters cover the world looking for the next big thing, and the hunt for highly-prized cool trends evolves into conspiracy, corporate espionage, and murder.

In Zero History, the Odeon Hotel becomes the stage for action early in the novel. (p129) Gibson uses real locations and real places to enrich his story-telling.

Later, on the way to a meet, Hollis and Milgrim have a driver who cautiously takes them on a circuitous route around downtown Paris, in hopes to confound the GPS tracker one or both of them might have embedded on their person.

During the driver to the meet, Hollis and Milgrim separate. Milgrim exits the cab to proceed with his plan to determine who is following him around Paris. Milgrim steps onto Boulevard Haussman to “disappear,” to draw attention to himself by disabling the GPS device in his cellphone.

Later, we find Milgrim on Rue Git-le-Coeur, waiting and walking toward the river Seine. Tea shops, an African shop stocked with folk art and fetishes. Milgrim stops in a camera shop and buys a Chinese card-reader from a “pleasant Persian man” wearing a natty gray cardigan. He stops and gazes into a “magical-looking” bookshop. He reaches the bank of the Seine as a light rain begins.


It is here, on the margins of the Latin Quarter, Milgrim sees the flying penguin, a silent, silvery drone swimming through the air as if an illusion.

Years ago, I played a video game called, The Getaway. The Getaway boasted a mapped environment borrowed from London city streets. The game mechanics allowed the player to drive around a detailed 16 square kilometer region of London (wikipedia) and engage in a few nefarious and illegal activities, a la Grand Theft Auto. These games were cutting edge at the time, setting the stage for today’s shooters incorporating real mapped geographies of places. The Getaway was one of the few games I found interesting in that a real road map of London would have been really helpful for navigating streets and eluding the other bad guys, the police, and whoever might be trying to hunt down my character.

To say Gibson incorporates geography into his novels is like saying humans incorporate oxygen into our lungs. Geography is essential to Gibson’s characters, to his novels, to the central message of his plots, the over-arching driving force preternatural force, the Midichlorians of Lucasian films.

Gibson writes about popular culture. The superficial nature of popular culture and the depth of the roots of culture. The stakes and importance many people place on cultural tropes and memes, to the extent of killing to be the first. The first to expose or reveal the new thing. To have this new thing.

When I first sat down to write this review, I felt like my tone would be scathing. I didn’t really care one way or the other about the characters, plot, the premise of Pattern Recognition or any of the later novels. I was bothered by felling this way as his earlier novels I recommend without hesitation. But, William Gibson’s reputation pushed me to read the second novel, Spook Country. Sheer momentum carried me through Zero History. Years ago, I read Mona Lisa Overdrive and Neuromancer. Great, intriguing, insightful and compelling books, those. Those books firmly placed him as a progenitor of cyberpunk. In spite of his past excellent endeavors, I simply didn’t find these stories very compelling. Interesting, yes; fascinating, not really. Just not my cup-of-tea, really.

Perhaps the boredom of reading these stories stems from me, honestly. I think about how technology infuses our society, its history, where it is now, how it is evolving, and how it might evolve frequently. I daydream a lot. So, when I read these stories I don’t see much I haven’t already thought about, I don’t see surprises. I do feel a certain amount of vindication I am not the only one who envisions the … current history, for lack of a better term, of the conditions detailed in this trilogy. And, yet, what draws me away from being interested is the focus on trends, on labels, on designers, on logos, and consumerism.

A person who finds mass-marketing, mass media, corporate branding and logos, styles, and trends fascinating, then, by all means, you nearly have no choice but to read this trilogy. I’m pretty sure some college and universities might require this collection of Gibson novels as mandatory reading to their Organizational Communication majors or their Public Relations majors. If not, they should. One message abundantly clear the importance of “trend awareness.”

The military and law enforcement trains people for “situational awareness,” always being on alert to changing circumstances, be aware, be awake, pay attention, watch people, watch crowds, where are people moving to, where are people moving away from, who is in front of you, who is around you, who has your “back.” Gibson basically takes this same philosophy and applies it to cultural tropes and trends. “Where did this fabric come from? Who makes it? How is it made? Who owns the rights? Does anyone own the rights?” and so on.  The first to jump controls the message, controls the trend, controls the rights and privileges, controls the market. And in establishing control, controls the consumer, more or less.
Others may find these works more enjoyable than I. Gibson has a unique writing style; he offers few clues to who is speaking, changes voice and perspective, on occasion. A nimble reader will adapt but the style may be off-putting to those used to more traditional writing styles.

I’m glad to have read the series; Gibson is no doubt a talented author, worthy of his many accolades. The infusion of geography did enhance my appreciation of his books. If struck by the curiosity of what mechanisms lie behind how certain brands and logos can pervade society, you should take on this trilogy. You might enjoy them.

Check out William Gibson’s Amazon page for more details about the author and his books.

Pax.

 

 

 

Higher Education Is Anything But Nimble


I need to state this at the onset of this post, otherwise I may be accused of being a supporter of “running education like a business,” but I am not supporting the notion of running any educational system as a business.

But.

We, and by we I mean those of us in education, cannot on the one hand argue for more efficiency, more flexibility, more adaptability in education and ignore some fundamental principles of business in the other hand.

We cannot request our faculty and staff to submit ideas, concerns, or suggestions to help improve the quality of a student’s educational experience, then cling to the status quo of “that’s just how it’s done.”

We cannot implore to faculty and staff we need to be “nimble” and “open to new and disruptive ideas and technologies,” yet use pedantic arguments and faulty logic to deny use of new and disruptive ideas to improve education.

Ok, technically, we can do all of those things. All the above happened to me this week. Nothing prevents anyone from saying one thing and doing another. I expect administrators to be introspective, thoughtful, and wise, not completely immune to making logically inconsistent statements and requests. No one is immune. But, highly educated people when faced with their logically broken thinking should replace that thinking with new thinking, not cling to the Ways of Old from Days of Yore.

Education should be nimble, right? We become exposed to new information, new data, new insights, and then we update our knowledge with this new knowledge, and our thought-process update with all of these new details. Going to college is like getting Microsoft Updates, in a sense; we are downloading new mental apps into our processing units, new drivers, patches, and fixes, and hopefully, when we wake up the next morning, our biological operating systems have been updated with new and improved ways of doing things.

Am I wrong?

Education should be as nimble as any good business, really. Education should grasp and adopt new technology. Education should adopt, test, evaluate new teaching styles, new delivery methods, new learning methods, in other words, Pedagogy should be nimble.

I am often approached by students who ask, “When was the last time Dr. Crayola updated his notes?” Or, “When I had this course  10 years ago Dr. Quicksand was using that Powerpoint presentation. Do faculty not have to update their lectures?”

I’ve taught at colleges and universities since 1993. Preparing for a course is extremely time-consuming. Many of my peers work on their courses during the day, evenings, and weekends. These diligent folks are not only preparing Powerpoints but also educating themselves about topics. Faculty knowledge varies; our knowledge runs a spectrum from little to no knowledge of a topic, to near-complete encyclopedic knowledge of a topic.

Some topics require constant vigilance. Technology course must change and update all the time. I say “must” but because everything is grounded on the vagaries of a faculty person, change is not always coming.

Guido van Rossum Parent of Python

For example, Python programming has become a very popular programming language. Python is a popular scripting language used by many popular software packages. ESRI’s ArcGIS actually ships with Python 2.7. The open source statistics package, R, uses Python as its scripting language. Yet, when I search for Python programming at my university, I find no specific course. When I search our community college system, many of the community college implemented specific Python programming courses as early as 2012. Most are implementing Python programming as a stand-alone course this year (2014.) However, we do offer two specific ADA programming courses and a FORTRAN course.

I can understand FORTRAN being taught, sort of. FORTRAN, like Pascal, are both languages which serve an important community – high performance computing (HPC), like those environments in and around super-computers. But that is an esoteric community, a valuable one, for sure, but a fairly small one.

ADA also serves an important but esoteric community. Air traffic control systems are programmed in ADA. Many military applications controlling missile and rocket systems use ADA. Flight control systems for the Boeing 777 were written in ADA.

I can see FORTRAN being taught at Rank 1 research universities with a supercomputer on premises. Or, at least access to a supercomputer. I can see ADA being taught at Embry-Riddle, schools with aviation or aeronautical engineering programs. I’m not sure I see the immediate applicability of FORTRAN or ADA at a small regional university with neither a supercomputer nor aeronautical engineering program. I can see SQL, Python, PHP, and a few other languages being important.

Sorry for verbosity, but sometimes college and universities teach topics they want to teach rather than what the regional businesses and employers need. Colleges and universities succumb to hubris.

Furthermore, colleges and universities LOVE bureaucracy. “We need a course proposal. The course proposal needs to be reviewed by the New Course Committee. The New Course Committee will review the proposal and forward to the Curriculum Committee. The Curriculum Committee will forward their review to the Provost’s academic review committee. The Academic Review committee will pass along their recommendations to the Provost. The Provost will review their findings and forward a recommendation to the university President. If the university president signs the proposal, the proposal will be forwarded to the state’s Council on Higher Education. The CHE will pass the proposal to their New Course Committee. The New Course Committee will forward their recommendation to the Curriculum Committee…”

How is that nimble?

Colleges and universities are ripe for disruption as I argued in a previous post. Some parts of bureaucracy are a necessary evil. But, like businesses and corporations, colleges and universities need the leadership to be nimble, to be free to adapt, to change, to learn – perhaps even in real-time, to changes in demographics, to business and industry, to new knowledge.

We cannot argue for “innovation and entrepreneurship” and “out of the box-thinking” from our students while we cling to legacies of methods and mindsets literally centuries old.

We cannot argue for “innovation and entrepreneurship” and “out of the box-thinking”from our students while teaching from notes a decade old.

We cannot argue for “innovation and entrepreneurship” and “out of the box-thinking” from our students while refusing to embrace technologies designed specifically to enhance those qualities.

Funny; I am the first to admit I frequently say, “no.” Students walk into my office, ask a question, and my most common response is, “No.” But, my goal is not to shut them down. My goal is to engage them in a debate as to why they need to do what they want to do. I want to hear their reasoning, their thought processes, their goals, and their outcomes. A “yes” does not get me that information. I want to play Devil’s Advocate and see what they understand. Then, when I see if they become disheartened, I stop and then I take on their argument. Usually, students have good ideas but haven’t thought about all the details, or may be unaware of how things work and have built their idea on a false set of assumptions. Then, we work out the details. My initial “no” then evolves into a qualified “yes.”

I’m not saying this is the best routine, but pragmatically, I find it works most of the time. Maybe not truly nimble, but inside of an hour, progress is made and everyone can move forward.

Colleges and universities require an ecosystem allowing for nimble adoption of new ideas. Anything else is damaging, really.

Business and corporations expect failure. Researchers, individuals, learn from failure. “That experiment failed. But we learned oil and water don’t mix well at room temperature.” We learn from failure.

Colleges and universities, like businesses and corporations, need to embrace failure, learn, adapt, and try again. The conversations I had this week were all founded upon fear and failure. Fear of what people will say, think, or do. Failure to understand technology, failure to trust, failure to even try – TO EVEN TRY.

A college and university with a failure to try, and a fear of what people will do, say, or think.

We, those of us in education, can cling to our bureaucracy, our safety net, our same shit, different day of our collection of Powerpoint notes, our fear of technology, and our failure to recognize changes.

Colleges and university administrators can tell us to “be nimble.”

Perhaps my issue is my really my own. My father took me to leadership conferences ever summer. Zig Ziglar, Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, Col. Oliver North, and a bunch of others. Sitting in Kemper Arena, Kansas City, or Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, listening to recognized leaders in their fields divulge their secrets. Honestly, I was bored to tears. Then. Then, I was bored. Today, I recall the enthusiasm those people had for their life, their job, and their experiences. I recently read, “Without Their Permission,” by Alexis Ohanian, founder of reddit. I’m reading, “The Lean Startup,” by Eric Ries. Move quickly, react quickly, adapt quickly, pay attention to your customers, know your customers. These are common themes. And these themes conflict with the current state of some institutions of Higher Learning.

I recently ran across a fellow. During our conversation, he said, “It’s better to wait and get permission than to move and do something that won’t be approved.” I said, “Hmm. No. It’s better to move, and act, and do something. Show people your idea works or could work. You aren’t acting maliciously, so you are not deliberately setting out to damage anyone. And, as the occasion arises, then apologize. Otherwise, you won’t get anywhere; or, someone else will be more nimble out maneuver you.” He looked at me like I was destined for jail, maybe out on bond.

I ran across another administrator the other day. He said, “You can’t just go out and buy a 3D printer without having a plan.” I said, “I don’t want to argue the point, but, yes, you can. Anyone can go out and pay $900 for a 3D printer and start showing kids how to use it. No plan necessary.” Now, I did go on to explain we did have a plan, an intended use. But, we never needed to involve the bureaucrats. We simply acted, bought, setup, configured, and printed.

Printrbot Simple

One of my peers, acting on his own, took his Printrbot Simple to his daughter’s elementary class for a “show-and-tell.” He allowed them to use it, demonstrating how it worked, and printed some items. That is being nimble. That is doing. That is acting.

Many examples around the United States of people who simply act for the benefit of others with positive results, especially in Make and Maker and DIY.

Who is the real customer for Higher Education? I would submit it is not the student. No, the student is not the “customer.” The student is the product. Business and industry and society are the customers. Higher Education needs to re-learn this important lesson.

Don’t expect us to take the “be nimble” request seriously when nothing else about education is nimble and admins won’t practice what they preach.

 

Higher Education is Ripe for Deconstruction


Higher education has some problems, the cost of college being only one concern. Our global model of higher education has served us well for a century or so but the time is upon us for those in higher education leadership to step back and deconstruct education.

I walk around my campus and talk to people. My job as a GIS Manager/Programmer and ESRI Higher Education Contract Representative for my campus puts me at the crossroads to meet various people, from interesting backgrounds, working in departments and offices trying to accomplish different tasks.

Sometimes, I travel to nearby public schools, other universities or community colleges. Going to a conference or a meeting exposes me further to different ideas. I also subscribe to a variety of newsletters which cover pedagogy in higher education, technology in higher education, leadership topics in higher education. I try to stay aware of what is going on in my discipline, and the greater university community.

Taking all of this in, plus the disruption of online education, I’m thinking higher education should be considering deconstruction. Regardless of how one feels about online education, whether one class at a regional university or a MOOC, higher education is ripe for some serious disruption. Here is what I mean, and bear with me, as I’ve got to build to my point.

Education is a subset of learning. Learning happens all the time, every day, and encompasses all forms of knowledge transfer, from touching a stove to learn about burns and blisters and heat transfer, to sitting a brick-and-mortar classroom listening to a lecture on the Warsaw Pact. Education is the formalized approached to learning, with textbooks, and exams, and Powerpoint, with grades, and transcripts and portfolios. But, how did we get here?

Reading some history paints an interesting picture. As with any argument, I’m going to begin with the Greeks. Look at the biographies of any Greek scholar. Examine their interests and skills. Eratosthenes, the father of geography, calculated the circumference of the Earth, developed a means of communicating the passage of time, so people could talk about “when” some event occurred. He worked on prime numbers, created maps, and wrote. Plato also studied math, writing, philosophy, and gymnastics.

I don’t want to give an extended treatise here, so let me provide a couple more anecdotes. Carl Linnaeus (18th C.)[link], the father of the modern naming system in biology, and a founder of the discipline of ecology, was interested in botany, zoology, and later became a physician. While traveling throughout Europe, he developed classification schemes for animals, plants, and minerals – making him a geologist, too. James Hutton (18th C.) was a Scot and is considered the father of modern geology. [link] Hutton’s interest was not limited to rocks, though. He also was a chemist, studied medicine, and was a farmer. Together with David Hume and Adam Smith, Hutton was an important part of the “Scottish Enlightenment.” He, Hume, Smith, along with John Playfair, Joseph Black, and Erasmus Darwin would establish the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The idea I want to argue is people who were fascinated by the natural world gravitated towards others who also shared a similar fascination. Some universities and colleges did specialize in certain areas, like medicine, or astronomy, but by and large, students could attend a college and be exposed to the lectures of well-traveled, well-read, and well-educated instructors who were experts in a variety of fields, at least for the time. These student could drift from one lecture to another, from one instructor/lecturer to another, and learn from a wide variety of experiences.

Education was more like learning as I established by definition earlier, broad and holistic in nature with little bureaucracy and regimentation. Transcripts, letters, diplomas were hit-or-miss. Students and teachers were recognized by reputation, how well they communicated, how well they were able to convince the common people, and perhaps, how well they could read.

Education, like any other organism, evolved over time. Education organized, either by intrinsic design or by exogenous forces, into college and universities which have come to specialize in discipline-specific areas. Think about Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard, Johns Hopkins; I know the list is not exhaustive but you get the idea. Engineering, for example, brings to mind Stanford, MIT, Purdue. I’m sure I missed a few.

Today, schools have become specialized, to a degree. Young adults scrutinize reports published by U.S. News regarding, “The Best Colleges for {insert field or discipline here}.” For some, people look for, “The Top 100 Best Value Universities.”

Within schools, though, even more organization and compartmentalization has occurred. In prior years, even centuries, a student could float among philosophy, botany, or math lectures as a breadth of experience and knowledge was truly valued. Today, student must engage separately the “school of agriculture,” or the “college of science,” or  the “college of business” as if these are green beans, potatoes and gravy, and Salisbury steak which cannot touch lest the dinner be ruined.

The compartmentalization I refer to is euphemistically called, “stovepipes,” or “educational silos.” Students do not understand why they have to take a humanities course about Western Civilization, plus read a book by Jane Austin, then sit through a lecture on plate tectonics. Even some in education have lost touch with our educational ancestry, and argue for the elimination of general education requirements.

I hit upon the notion recently – and I admit, I may be late to the party – general  education, a liberal education is not a bad idea for a simple reason.

Professors are not hired to “tell” or “recite” information, really. Professors are hired to coach the uneducated among us through a process of discovery and formal education, under the umbrella of learning. We – professors, adjuncts, lecturers, we cannot ultimately prepare a student for the unknown. The idea of transferring a person 100% knowledge to make them successful is impossible. All we can do to prepare students for success is to expose uneducated or under-educated people to a variety of experiences in an intellectually safe yet challenging environment in hopes the academic hurdles we throw at them will adequately prepare them to handle what the non-academic world will throw at them.

The question, “I don’t understand why I have to learn about Western Civilization,” actually has some good responses, and one I would like to supply goes something like:

I don’t know what you will be faced with in the world you have selected to make a career in. We, faculty, have to expose you to a variety of experiences, history, culture, language, etc. This is not a vocation school, simply challenged with teaching you a skill. We are charged with helping you become a better thinker, more contemplative, more thoughtful, and have a better set of experiences to draw from than 70% of the U.S. population, and most of the world, actually.

However, what seems to be happening is universities are collapsing towards the mission of community colleges while community colleges are expanding their mission towards regional universities. Coupled with these realignments, internal changes within universities are further isolating colleges and departments as each stake out academic territories, promote reducing academic hours yet want their courses to replace the general education courses offered by other colleges and departments.

Let me see if I can clean this up by offering a few anecdotes. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of required writing courses from 2 (6 hours) to 1 (3 hours). Each department is then charged with developing more writing assignments to account for the lack of writing instruction. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of hours required for Humanities by at least 3 hours. My workplace has also reduced the number of hours required for most bachelor’s degrees, from 128 to about 120.

The effect I see occurring is singular: reducing the exposure of the uninformed, undereducated, and possibly ignorant to ideas of problem-solving, ways of thinking, and philosophies which have the potential of being life-altering. By reducing a student’s interaction across disciplines, they miss out by not being exposed to computer science, political science, history, literature, geography, biology, and all of the realms those disciplines touch. The result is learning is moving away from the roots of being holistic and into an insular realm where few people will be able to think creatively, to think not just “outside the box” but “destroy the box” and approach problems with new perspectives, new energies, and a reinvigorated vision.

Twenty-first century thinking, no; 21st century society must be one where people draw from many disciplines and experiences. I’m not suggesting people must be experts in a multitude of areas. What I am suggesting is to be aware of these disciplines and to be open and receptive to seeking out solutions beyond one’s own experience. Computer scientists must seek out biologists; biologists must seek out engineers; engineers must seek out mathematicians. Actually, everyone should seek out a mathematician – and this coming from a geographer.

Higher education, by definition, and specifically universities, must fight against those who would drag higher education into mediocrity. Those in higher education must encourage multidisciplinary efforts that refuse to build barricades against other disciplines and departments. Nothing is gained, and must is lost, by refusing to acknowledge, accept, or be dismissive of the work of other disciplines, no matter what personal attitudes might be.

How can a professor ignore the field of criminology based solely on one’s own perception? I mean, yes, technically a person can be an irrational actor and choose to be ultimately dismissive of a field or discipline. Sociology and psychology fight this battle frequently, as does geography. “You aren’t a real science because you just borrow from all the others.” The problem with this thinking is it wrong. Period. And, by wrongfully dismissing disciplines, a person, i.e. professors, wall themselves off from the potential benefits to themselves and to their students, and no one benefits from such myopia.

Learning must occur in an open, free, and safe environment, and be encourage by those unafraid to say, “I don’t know but let’s find out.” Worshipping our own hubris is essentially a means of becoming not only stagnant but is a path to becoming irrelevant. Higher education must work on preserving primary mission; to share, encourage, and promote learning across disciplines and certainly across personalities.

Low-Cost Higher Education Should Be A Federal Government Priority


Some general musings about college and university costs and financial aid concerns.

President Obama is issued comments on June 9th regarding the cost of Higher Education, and since my following and readership is almost equal to his, I determined I should also release my own statements. {humor}

The costs of Higher Education have risen to public scrutiny not because the actual costs have increased drastically, but because state and federal government financial support, in essence the subsidy to higher education, has been dramatically reduced. In Kentucky, for example, higher education funding has been cut about 25% since 2008 (kypolicy.org.) The reduced funding, the reduction in higher education subsidy, requires public universities to engage in essentially two activities: cutting budgets and increasing tuition and fees.

Budget cuts reduce the ability to repair, replace, or enhance laboratory equipment, computers, and other essential components required by programs. Budget cuts reduce or eliminate maintenance of buildings and necessary infrastructure, such as improving energy savings by replacing worn windows, replacing power grids, and networking infrastructure. Budget cuts limit cost-of-living increases, merit pay, and limit the health care subsidy colleges and universities provide to employees which buffers the impact of rising health care costs. Budget cuts effectively reduce the overall competitiveness of programs, departments, colleges, and universities in hiring desired new faculty, and reduce the attractiveness of work environments to current faculty and staff. If spending is cut “all the way to the bone,” how does the university grow and adapt to rapidly changing technologies and modes of learning?

President Obama would like to offer ways to tie payback of student loans to earnings. For instance, reports indicate student loan payments should be no higher than 10% of income. Some reports suggest that this might become a de facto forgiveness of student loans. After 20 years, the student loan is forgiven under the current Obama plan. If the former student works in public service or for a non-profit, the forgiveness occurs at 10 years. (nprEd)

I would really like the citizens of the United States to consider either free or high-subsidized higher education. Much of the developed world, much of Europe, Japan, and Korea, subsidize the education of their citizens. Many countries, like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom consider education to be a basic human right, and those sentiments extend into higher education.

For some reason, the United States supports Defense and Homeland Security far more than Education. Outside of September 11th, which was a terrorist attack, the United States hasn’t suffered any foreign military attack on its soil since … ever. Even the War with Mexico took place in Mexico. Some might suggest, “Well, the Battle of the Alamo,” was on U.S. soil. Actually, no it wasn’t. The Battle of the Alamo was part of the Texan Revolution, when colonists were rebelling against the Mexican government, their actual government. The Texas War of Independence resulted in the Republic of Texas, a wholly separate North American political entity, not part of the United States. (Mexican-American War; History.com)

The United States, at the federal level, supports Defense 10:1 over Education. Another way of thinking about this is for every dollar given to Defense, the federal government provides a dime to Education. Honestly, this ratio seems disturbing to me.

The concerns over student loan debt and repayment are legitimate concerns, but unfortunate concerns due to our American society entrenched in the misbegotten belief higher education results in the idealization of socialism, communism, or at best, liberalism. Furthermore, the notion “I don’t want my taxes to go to support a factory which does nothing but create Godless Liberals,” is a false analysis of higher education and yet remains a fairly common trope among the rural and unsophisticated  populace.

Specifically, my concerns relate to a number of issues. First, I’m bothered by for-profit universities being the primary destination of education grants, and the primary source of student loan defaults. For-profit universities lead the pack of student loan default rates. The two-year default rate was 13.6%, the three-year default rate was 21.8% for for-profit universities compared to 9.6% and 13% for public schools. (2013; ed.gov) For-profit universities also led the way with Federal Pell Grants awarded. Seven of the top ten Pell Grant colleges and universities are for-profit schools, with University of Phoenix leading this pack. Other members of this collection of schools include Ashford University, Kaplan University, DeVry University, and Everest University.

The University of Phoenix leads all universities with 259,998 Pell Grant recipients, amounting to about $945 million dollars in federal government financial aid given to a for-profit university. Now, I did a little figuring, downloading data provided by Ed.Gov. (Distribution of Federal Pell Grant by Institution, 2011-2012) I simply sorted the data from high to low based on number of recipients. I then summed the amount of federal Pell Grant dollars awarded. The seven for-profit universities received almost $2 billion dollars ($1.909B) in Pell Grant assistance.

$2 billion dollars of federal aid for education given to for-profit colleges. Wow.

Then, couple this with the other fact that for-profit universities are responsible for about 31% of student loan originators, and almost 50% of student loan defaults, and the data seems to indicate for-profit universities have gained access to and misused tax dollars really meant for public institutions. The HomeRoom blog of Ed.gov details how people need to do a better job of protecting themselves from the predatory practices of some for-profit colleges and universities. (“Protecting Americans from Predatory and Poor-Performing Career Training Programs,” HomeRoom; Ed.gov)

$2 billion dollars does not sound like much. However, when some states, like Kentucky, have experienced significant cuts in higher education over the last 7-8 years, those dollars might have been better spent in public education (they way they were meant to be spent) and not used for supporting for-profit colleges and universities.

In other words, why should taxpayer dollars be awarded to for-profit universities to the detriment of public colleges and universities, especially in light of the poor performance of student loans provided to students attending for-profit universities?

A few thoughts.

First, federal tax dollars should not be used to subsidize education at for-profit universities. If people want to attend a for-profit university, then use some other means. Private colleges and universities should also not be major beneficiaries of public dollars. Again, these are my thoughts, and given a good argument, I might be swayed. Public dollars should stay with public institutions.

Second, and really the entire premise of this post, is I truly believe higher education in the United States should be highly subsidized for people wanting to attend college, or free, in the case of First-time graduates who have no immediate family members with a college education, and free for those truly economically disadvantaged.

The general U.S. population needs to re-evaluate their attitudes towards education. Education is the cornerstone of society. Education is fundamental to employment; business and industry is completely reliant upon an educated workforce. Our society, overall, has reached its current level of achievements on the backs of engineers, chemists, physicists, and educated others, especially teachers. Specifically, our form of government, from local towns and cities, to our Congress, needs to support an educated electorate. The United States cannot afford thinking we can have white-collar wages with blue-collar effort. That sort of myopic focus will doom us to regressive economics, place us in direct competition with growing economies like India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Brazil, and we cannot afford to match ourselves against those economies, as a country. Some areas of the country may be able to compete, such as Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but the United States must have a vision similar to that of Japan or Germany. The United States cannot be a world economic leader by competing against low-wage labor countries.

The United States could afford to double spending on education, from about $60 billion to $120 billion per year. Simply take funding from the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. The 2015 Defense budget request for the United States was $495 billion, not including allotments for Iraq and Afghanistan. Overseas operations in Iraq and Afghanistan adds $89 billion.

Put another way, doubling federal spending on education reduces our spending on defense by about 10%.

Am I the only one bothered by this?

I cannot help but think that regardless of how Congress talks about supporting education, few, if any Congresspeople, have actually made their votes and bills congruent with their speech. If the globe were invaded by Alien Accountants, I cannot help but think these aliens would automatically consider the United States an aggressor and war-like state based solely on the unbalance ratio of education spending versus military spending.

The cost of higher education is not escalating simply because the costs of education are escalating. No; the costs of higher education are escalating because state governments and Congress simply cut education and revealed the levels at which education has been subsidized. State and Federal legislators have simply reduced the subsidy and pushed the burden of the costs onto families and students. Legislators have also been manipulated to allow for-profit universities to use and misuse our tax dollars, allowing yet another financial fraud to be perpetrated upon decent people looking to make their lives better, and in doing so, make our society better.

What say you?

Pax.

Book Review: Blow Fly, by Patricia Cornwell


Blow Fly, by Patricia Cornwell. Berkeley Press. Penguin Books. 2003. Paperback. $10.

I’m not going to pull any punches with this book review. I did not like this novel. Not only did I not like this novel, I didn’t like the characters, either. “Red Mist” was very good. I liked “Port Mortuary.” I usually give an author 2 books to draw me in. I gave Patricia four books, as I also read and somewhat enjoyed “Point of Origin.” I’m not sure I will read more.

Every character, from Kay Scarpetta, her daughter Lucy, her love interest, Marino – all of them, these are the most humorless characters I’ve run across in years of reading crime fiction. Blow Fly was painful to read, not simply due to the graphic nature of the crimes, but the humorless drama between all of the main characters made reading the novel a humorless endeavor.

The larger problem is these characters never seem to be at ease with each other, across all of Cornwell’s novels. No humor, little to no compassion, few light-hearted moments; I’ve rarely experienced novels with so many characters with such sullen and angry personalities throughout a series of novels. No circumstances in real life lack such humor and I’m not sure why Cornwell is presenting her characters as such pessimistic, one-dimensional people, especially Kay Scarpetta. Kay, Lucy, and Pete come across as simply pissed-off, angry people. And, I’m simply not liking any of them.

Blow Fly features a serial killer preparing for his execution while his brother hides out in a Louisiana swamp, also serial killing young women. Neither of these fine fellows are in any way interesting, either. They clearly both deserve to die. The imprisoned serial killer brother escapes in as ludicrous a scene as I can imagine. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a murderer escaping from prison while literally walking down the hallway to his own execution. I’m pretty sure, with the possible exception of some “Expendables”-style or “Ocean’s 11″-inspired scheme, aiding in a prisoner escape during an execution is impossible.

“What happened?! Where is James Larry Bruce?” Because all serial killers have three first names.
“Uhhmm. He escaped,” says Guard 1, sheepishly.
“He got the jump us! We weren’t expecting him to put up a fight in the hallway!” Guard 2 cries.
“So, he jumps you two, plus the State Police, runs through the media, the family of the victims, the protesters against criminal punishment, and the one homeless guy, and escapes?”
“YES! We don’t believe it, either! Man, that guy was good.”

The events above I contrived and are not Cornwell’s, merely a satire of the events leading to the escape of a fellow on his way to receive his lethal injection.

Ugh. Not a good book. In Cornwell’s defense, because I’m uncomfortable saying this book sucks, Blow Fly was one of her first books. The latter books appear to get a little better, the personalities more “normal,” and the plots less full of improbable circumstances. If I had read this book first, I may never have reached for a second, though, based on the jaundiced nature of the characters.

Let’s talk some geography. Chapter 8 begins with a good description of downtown Baton Rouge. The capital of Louisiana is in Baton Rouge, both the new capitol building and the old capitol building. In the opening paragraph, the Parish Coroner, Dr. Sam Lanier, is looking west from an office window, casting his gaze across a portion of the Mississippi River. He sees the former state capitol, the USS Kidd destroyer (the novel says, “battleship,” but the website and the National Park Service both state, “destroyer”), and the Old Mississippi Bridge. Additionally, we are reminded of the assassination of Huey Long on those capitol steps.


Later, Chapter 112, Lucy and Marino head out in a Bell 407 helicopter to search for the encampment of the escaped serial killer, his brother, and this brother’s nutty girlfriend.

Quoting from page 494:

This is a time when the GPS will be of no value, nor will any other navigation instruments. A flight chart isn’t going to be of much use, either, so she spreads open a Baton Rouge map on her lap and runs her finger southeast, along Route 408, also known as Hooper Rd.

“Where we’re going is off the map,” she says into her mike. “Lake Maurepas. We keep going in this direction, towards New Orleans, and hopefully don’t end up at Lake Pontchartrain. We’re not going that far, but if we do, we’ve overflown Lake Maurepas, and Blind River and Dutch Bayou. I don’t think that will happen.”

There really is a place described in the novel. Some authors will take literary license and make up a place within a place. Lee Child does this frequently, creating towns where none exist, or fictional military bases, etc., to advance his story. I’m not being critical; I’m simply stating some authors use real places. Others don’t.

To contrast, James Lee Burke, author of the Dave Robicheaux series, and one of my favorite authors, sets many of his novels in the very same geography as Blow Fly. His characters drive between Baton Rouge, Hammond, New Orleans, to Lafayette. Bayou Teche is as much a character in JLB’s novels as any person.

Looking for geography in literature isn’t very hard. The technology of the Internet, though, can help bring these stories even more to life. Sharing these locations with students can help encourage them to pay attention to the environment, and perhaps be inspired to think about their neighborhood, their town, their city, their rural life from a different perspective, perhaps.

But, don’t take my word for it; you may like her book. She does write well. I like the forensic science, when she gets around to examining a body. Cornwell, no doubt, has an eye for detail, for examination, and for deducing cause and effect. I wish there were more of those traits expressed, and less animosity and drama among her primary primary characters. Conflict is good and drives a story but there has to be a balance.

Thanks for reading my review.

Building Consensus for an Idea Lab


I spend a considerable amount of class time each semester advocating “geography is a holistic discipline, infused in all things and in almost every action or choice made, and not merely by people but by all organisms. Geography is inescapable.”

The problem with my perspective is many other disciplines could be argued to have the degree of infusion, mathematics, chemistry, and physics, for example. I retort, “geography is the first science, being people were first interested in their surroundings. Quantification and analysis of environments would come a little later.” Knowledge of geography most likely preceded language. Etching maps in the earth with a stick can accomplish much were no common language exists.

Being a geographer, I am exposed to numerous other fields, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, graphics arts and design, economics, history, and political science, to name only a few. Being exposed to numerous fields and disciplines does not make me an expert in those area, but it does afford me some common ground when I need to interact with others in those fields. It’s nice being able to talk to a biologists about their spatial problem in their language and help them think about the spatial components of their research.

And therein lies the premise of my efforts to establish a campus Idea Lab. I’m not calling effort, “Idea Lab,” though. I prefer, “RacerWerks,” or “RacerWorxs” or something to that effect. In my in years of working and collaborating and being exposed to a bunch of other educated people, working in various disciplines, I am frequently struck with one persistent thought: How can <discipline_group_1> be unaware of the research and project of <discipline_group_2>? For example, “Why don’t the biologist know that the engineering students are building sensors systems for monitoring water characteristics?”

Sometimes, this is simply, in the words of Led Zeppelin, a “communication break-down.” Departments within the same college, unless individuals make an effort to explore what others are doing, remain uninformed about projects and research. In my opinion, this is really bad for a variety of reasons.

Geography is inescapable.

The fundamental mission of every college and university is the education of young adults. Colleges and universities promote their unique schools and colleges and departments, selling students on the idea they will be instructed how to be critical thinkers, how they will engage in “multidisciplinary research and education,” and how they will learn and grow. Yet, students then told to “choose a major” and are then boxed into a specific field. “Here are your classes you need to take. If you are persistent and motivated, you might get done in 3-1/2 years.”

In a way, the act of choosing a major field breaks the fundamental principle of every college and university. By being boxed-in, students are almost guaranteed to develop a myopic focus related to their chosen field. Then, as they progress through their education career and into a professional career, attitudes about their field becoming calcified, ossified, resistant to new, different, and potentially better ways of doing things. And this is what Education, in general, has to fight against.

To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

Touring campus for many years, introducing myself as the ESRI Campus Site License Administrator, promoting the GIS software, talking to people how the software can benefit them, and their students, has brought me vis-a-vis with many bright, interesting, cool, and energetic people. But, they all seem to share the common trait of not even seeing how geography applies in their field. “You are a geographer. You know that, right?” And, they look back at me as if I’ve just said, “You are a Smurf. You know that, right?” Then, I have to explain to them how they are demonstrating to their students the importance of understanding spatial relationships, and maps are important tools in building that knowledge. Then, depending on the person, I either get (A) “Wow, I never thought of that before. Maybe I need you to talk to my class. Would you be willing to do that? Or, (B) their face goes blank to dark to glowering, a look much like what those in the Roman Catholic church may have exhibited when Copernicus mentioned, “Hey, the Earth travels around the Sun, not the other way around!” and, then the meeting ends. Then, they avoid even looking at me at campus events, the cafeteria, as if I now have intimate knowledge of a profound secret they’ve been holding onto. Don’t worry, I won’t out you as a “closet geographer.” Yeesh.

Those invested in Education must fight to prevent their students from developing myopic attitudes which might result in later resistance in finding betters way outside their field of solving problems.

So, I guess I want to out everyone as a “geographer” and help people get over themselves, and their allegiances to whatever they feel like they must have an allegiance to, education-wise. To learn, a person has to be willing to explore outside their comfort zone. A biologist needs to know something about GPS, needs to know environmental geography, perhaps geology. A biologist needs to know something about databases, about SQL, and maybe something about programming. And, all of this is tied into geography and can be mapped.

To prevent students from developing entrenched biases – perhaps a better way to phrase this would be to say, “To encourage students to draw experience and knowledge from other fields” – we have to show them how it this is done. The “Major/Minor” model is a dated model. Perhaps I’ll leave that for another topic. To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

And this is what my idea of RacerWerks will try to address.

Below, is a draft agenda for an upcoming meeting. I have invited numerous people from across campus to join me at a local cafe/deli to layout the idea, determine interest, develop some consensus and support. Then, I’ll continue the effort at various levels throughout my university.

I invite any helpful comments, insights, suggestions, or recommendations.

“RacerWerks*”

(*tentative title)

A STEM-based collaborative community of educators and students to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at the University, the local community, and the service region.

 

AGENDA

Purpose of “RacerWerks”(in no particular order)

  1. to promote education and research of current and emerging technologies, such as Arduino, RaspberryPi, GPS/GIS, Python, MakerBot, Linux, drones and other unmanned sensor systems (USS);
  2. to engage current of future students interested in developing experience in 21st century STEM technologies;
  3. to offer local K-20 educators opportunities to leverage current or develop new skills to implement Common Core Science Standards (CCSS);
  4. to identify a cohort of interested parties and leverage the current knowledge base with the purpose of pursuing grants, contracts, and other funding sources;
  5. to improve and expand the current knowledge base of University with regards to emerging technologies;
  6. to remain competitive among our benchmark universities, some of whom have already implemented or are in the process of developing “MakerLab”-style campus resources;
  7. to engage faculty & staff and encourage a multidisciplinary environment representing many fields, disciplines, and experiences for mentoring, supervising, reviewing, consulting, and analysing projects;
  8. to provide non-science students an opportunity to expand skill sets in emerging technologies;
  9. to collaborate with local business and industries;
  10. to foster local innovation opportunities;
  11. to augment skills and experience of current and future students;
  12. to develop and maintain a pool of skilled local talent to assist with grants and contracts requiring experience in new emerging technologies;
  13. to ensure and foster communication of research interests, current or potential projects;
  14. to anticipate, identify, and address emerging technologies as they become economically feasible;
  15. to assist the University in solving in-house technology concerns, rather than having to contract with non-local 3rd-party entities;
  16. Monies leave the University.
  17. Quality dubious
  18. Faculty, staff, and student removed from using current knowledge, experience; students removed from developing necessary employment skills.

Background

  1. Emerging technologies are rapidly gaining ground within many communities.
  2. Georgia Tech recently created a student-run “MakerLab,” open 24hrs during the week;
  3. University of Louisville recently received a sizeable NSF grant for creating a local “MakerLab;”
  4. Many DIY-ers (do-it-yourself) are developing “gadgets” w/real & tangible benefits;
  5. Emerging technologies are very low-cost ($35-$100 for RPi & Arduino, >$1200 for a 3D printer);
  6. Emerging technologies are useful in real applications, drones, unmanned sensor systems (unmanned aerial systems, unmanned ground/terrestrial systems, unmanned aquatic systems);
  7. Emerging technologies are being employed in non-STEM disciplines, i.e. graphic arts/design, political science;
  8. Many towns and cities have their own “MakerLabs,” or “CreationStudios,” allowing people of all skills to come, learn, explore, and enhance skills;
  9. to coordinate / communicate university-wide STEM efforts;
  10. to identify needs related to training, education, skill sets and knowledge, or interest;
  11. to create a comprehensive STEM-based planned to improve knowledge base
  12. To create and maintain collaborative efforts across disciplines
  13. improve communication among different areas on campus, to plan or address emerging technologies. In other words, does anyone outside Telecommunications Systems Management know what TSM is doing? Or, Graphic Arts/Design? Or, IET?
  14. to engage other disciplines outside traditional science
  15. to encourage collaboration among university units to share knowledge, experience;
  16. Purpose of this Meeting
  17. To identify interested faculty & staff (later, students);
  18. To identify concerns or other related issues associated with this proposal;
  19. What areas, ideas, or issues has the agenda missed?

Comments / Feedback

Book Review: Without Their Permission, by Alexis Ohanian


Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, by Alexis Ohanian. Hatchette Books. Hardback. (c)2013. $27.

For those in the “know,” Alexis Ohanian needs no introduction. Alexis, together with Steve Huffman, built reddit, the “front page of the Internet.” Sitting in their living room, using nothing but laptops, two fellows, undergraduates at the University of Virginia, created one of the world’s most popular Internet destinations.

For those unfamiliar with reddit and Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, spend some time with reddit. Myself, I created a reddit account long ago, yet recently never put much thought into using reddit. Used wisely, like Twitter, reddit is a valuable resource for learning and networking with other creative and thoughtful people. reddit is a good resource for sharing and learning more details about current events, current trends in technology, software, apps, science, all sorts of interesting topics. reddit is not simply for discovering the newest Grumpy Cat meme. If you have a question about drones, about Ruby, about programming, about Arduino or RaspberryPi, about 3D printing or scanning, get on reddit and add to the conversation.

Alexis overcame his “Sue”-like name, (Johnny Cash reference) to become one of the most vocal advocates for Internet freedom, innovation, and entrepreneurialism in the United States. Recently, Alexis was in the news supporting Net Neutrality and encouraging people to pay more attention to proposed rules changes by the FCC. (TechCrunch, April 2014) What most people don’t seem to get is with every conglomerate merger, with every FCC rules change, the Internet becomes narrower and narrower. Picture a canal with ships and boats moving through, first come, first serve, small commercial ships, pleasure craft, all the way up to the huge cargo ships. Now, the owners of the supercargo ships don’t feel like they should have to share the canal with everyone else and would like to control, i.e. prioritize, the movement of ships through the canal. Big ships will always take precedence over small ships, to the point small ships, and small boat owners may never see the other side, may never reach their market.

OK, I agree my analogy is an oversimplification, but in a nutshell, the imagery isn’t too bad, really. Think of Net Neutrality as rich guys trying to buy their way to the water fountain. Then, they get to control who gets to drink.

See, at no time in human history have so many people had access to so much for so little to do so much with. A person in Afghanistan can sell rugs using a cellphone to a person wanting Afghan rugs in Germany. A kid sitting in a dorm room can build a website to connect his college friends, two guys can program a search engine in their apartment and change the way the world looks at information, and two guys can build the “front page to the Internet,” using two laptops, beer, and pizza.

The Internet does allow an individual to make a difference

Anyone today, with enough drive, desire, determination, can create something and go from unknown to known in a matter of months. One of my new favorite podcasts, The New Disruptors, is all about creative, innovative people doing things they love. In Episode 68, “See You in the Funny Webpages with Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder,” listeners are treated to anecdotes about young people doing something they like, creating cartoons and comic strips, and leveraging the power of the Internet to build their audience.

All of the episodes I’ve listened to are insightful, thought-provoking, and driven by details, humor, and a meaningful candor any person wishing to branch out on their own should take to heart. But, this episode was especially interesting, as comic strips, and the history of comic strips was the topic. Besides a new documentary revealing the backgrounds of many of the most famous comic strips, “Stripped,” (website), the hosts and guests discuss several people who advanced their drawing pastime into a lucrative ventures.

All of this is part of the message of Ohanian’s book, Without Their Permission. You don’t need anyone’s permissions to be successful, to strike out on your own and do something worthwhile. Whether a person is interested in developing a charity to support a cause, such as providing assistance to the people of Joplin, Missouri in the aftermath of a deadly tornado, to crowd-funding classroom projects in under-funded school districts using DonorsChoose.org, anyone has the power to build, create, develop on the Internet.

The world is not “flat” as Thomas Friedman has sometimes advocated. Not really. The Internet is not exactly flat, either; not with countries like China censoring much of the world’s Internet traffic for local consumption while building their own competing Chinese internet, including social networking platforms and Amazon competitor. Russia avoids the flat internet by attempting to do the same thing, shutting down journalism, speech, Internet access and essentially commerce in what they claim is American hegemony of the Internet. While Russian claims of U.S. hegemony of the Internet may be true, the world is much better off with more internet freedom than less, as both China and Russia advocate.

The Internet does allow an individual to make a difference and that scares the bejeezus out of multinational corporations, like Time-Warner, ATT, DirecTV, and Oracle.

Alexis’ states, “Ideas are worthless.” (91) I don’t disagree with his sentiment, I would only add my own amendment: “without execution.” Having an idea is worthless if the idea dies, if it evaporates, if the idea is never executed. Everything we have today has roots in an idea, but our stuff exists today because someone or some group took the idea and transitioned the idea into something.

Alexis’ book should be read by anyone thinking about venturing out on their own. Readers will be treated to many inspiring stories and personal anecdotes related to his and Steve’s first forays into the internet and application development business. While not a step-by-step guide on getting your idea started, Alexis’ offers many tips and personal observations on how to focus your energy. Ignore the competition, pay attention to people, the users, and don’t hate the haters. My favorite bit of advice is one I tell anyone who will listen, though.

Surround yourself with people who give a damn about what they do. A corollary to this rule is to surround yourself with thoughtful, creative people who have a desire to do more, to achieve something. In other words, surrounds yourself with people who have goals, dreams, visions, and couple those attributes with good, solid skills. Having a party to celebrate something good is fine, but being indulgent in drugs, drama, and the nonsense of sordid pursuits is nothing but draining and does not move society forward.

Surround yourself with people who give a damn about what they do

I loaded a question for Alexis Ohanian, who stopped by the university I work for, being the invited keynote speaker for a regional high school competition, The Next Big Thing. I asked Alexis what he thought about the rising tide of anti-intellectualism coming from one political party. As a follow-up, I asked if he could speak about the value of his own college experience. Part of the anti-intellectualism movement uses the false notion a college degree is not necessary to be successful, citing Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, among others as evidence. Thankfully, Alexis indulged me and my concern, clearly pointing out two important facts. First, both he and Steve Huffman graduated from the University of Virginia. Secondly, and what I argue is most important, the higher education experience brought Alexis and Steve together, a happenstance, no doubt, yet building a team resulting in their mutual success within 9 months of graduating (both became multimillionaires within a year of graduation). United States colleges and universities are breeding grounds for innovation and entrepreneurialism unlike any other in the world.

I bought two copies of Alexis’ book, Without Their Permission. One signed copy I kept for myself; I need motivation, on occasion. One signed copy I gave away to a student in my department in hopes she will find inspiration to do something with her ideas.

I recommend Alexis Ohanian’s book, Without Their Permission (#WTPBook) to anyone needing a push to get started, to any young person wanting a revealing look inside how a couple people take an idea from concept to realized endeavor. A high school kid will get as much from this book as any retired person, bored from a daily routine and looking to reach out and engage with the world.

Did I find the book personally inspiring? Sure. For a couple years, my director and I have been attempting to push our university to become more innovative, more receptive to new ideas, technologies, modes of learning, and encouraging a greater sense of holistic learning. All learning is holistic in nature, really; good faculty and staff illuminate through what I refer to as “good coaching” the interconnections of our environment. One of higher educations greatest weaknesses is college and departmental stove-piping, stake-claiming, and territory-grabbing of topics, fields, disciplines, and information. While students experience great depth of learning, the breadth of learning is constricted when students are not exposed to the economics, history, geography, or mathematics involved in a subject.

Recently, we initiated a venture, “RacerWerx,” an attempt to bring together people of varied skills on our campus to create a holistic STEM learning environment. Faculty from education, biology, engineering, graphic arts and design, and computer programming, for instance, have signed on to support this effort. But, as with any project, I still must push, to reach out, to educate, to promote this idea, as many people, despite being in higher education, are simply sclerotic in thinking. And learning, like business, must be adaptive.

So, give a damn and go do something Without Their Permission!

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