Ten personal books: a bibliophilic glance

I’ve received multiple versions of the following request on Facebook this month:

“In your status, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They do not have to be the “right” books, or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Tag 10 reader (friends) including me …so I can see your list.”

In response I came up with ten books, started to post… then held back.  The titles seemed to beg explanation, and the result was too long to fit a Facebook update.  So I present the list here.

Caveats: please recall that this is an affective, not analytical list.  I didn’t select them to impress, nor to outline major books in my current professional life.  I infer that the list should include books from childhood, so the result really is autobiographical, almost confessional.

War of the Worlds, illustrated by Edward Gorey1. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, illustrated by Edward Gorey.   This was one of the first novels I ever read, circa fourth grade, and it terrified me.  Partly that’s due to the subject matter, and partly due to the gorgeous, creepy Gorey artwork.  In fact, the book scared me so much I hid it in a closet and tried to forget the whole thing.  Since it was a library book, it then became my first seriously overdue book.

I read some other science fiction in elementary school, including Jules Verne.  They all opened my mind to science fictional possibilities.  But WotW did all of that, and also haunted me.  I had bad dreams about the tripods off and on over the years.  And when I ran into the very same edition two decades later, across the counter of a used book store, it still spooked me.

It went on to become a family favorite.  My wife and children listen to the Jeff Wayne musical version.  My son rereads the book, and we created a game of the Martian invasion of Britain.

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The shock of the old: the triumph of tv ads

When looking into the future, it’s vital to remember the persistence of the past.  I was reminded of this maxim while reading and listening to an NPR interview with a major political advertising player, Neil Oxman.  Despite the appearance of new technologies and demographic shifts, the leading political campaign expense is for a quite old and often awful medium: tv ads.  They are also the most decisive part of a campaign strategy.

"The Shock of the Old"Let me break this down.  To begin with, Oxman is very clear that tv ads are a retro thing.  There’s nothing new about their content, to begin with.  Far from it: “nothing is original after the 1950s in political advertising – or ’60s, I should say.”  So today’s major campaign ads are creatures from two or three generations ago.

Which makes sense, given the major audience for tv ads: people who came of age then.

[I]n America today, the greatest predictor of …  if somebody’s going to vote is how old they are, which is why in presidential campaigns you get 25 or 30 million more people vote than in the nonpresidential – because people under 30 just don’t come out in these bi-elections. And older people watch TV.

And that generation of older Americans maintains old-fashioned media habits, much as Pew and others have shown us:

They’re much more passive about how they get their information. They sit in front of the television. They don’t flick away from commercials. They watch TV.

Why does this matter?  Because that tv-ad-targeted group is now the decisive element in the American electorate.  And because tv ads are now the leading expense for American political campaigns:

television is still, in most campaigns, the largest single expenditure you’ll see in that campaign whether somebody runs for mayor of a big city, congress, governor, senator, or president – maybe not president.

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What “I want to have a conversation” really means

bored with the conversationA popular phrase uttered by policymakers, administrators, and activists is “I want to have a conversation about…”  Many big topics can fit with these words, apparently, from racism to classism to higher education and the rise of robots.  Sometimes the desired conversation is national in scale, or just institutional.

There’s something wrong with the way this phrase plays out in reality, however.  Conversations either fail to materialize or simply carry on in much the same way.  The topic they address continues in its path, undisturbed.  So why do leaders and public figures keep relying on that rhetorical gambit?

Perhaps “I want to have a conversation…”  is a code phrase, standing for something else.  Those in the know automatically suss out its real meaning, while the rest of us get to guess at a translation.

As a public service, I’d like to offer some translations.

When someone in the limelight says “I want to have a conversation about [x],” they really mean:

  1. “I don’t want to do anything about this topic, in reality.”  A smokescreen for inaction.
  2. “A conversation is happening somewhere, but I don’t like it.”
  3. “A conversation is happening somewhere, and I want to take some credit for it after the fact.”
  4. “There might be a conversation occurring on social media, but I [disdain/don't understand/can't be bothered to engage with] social media.”
  5. “I and my staff haven’t decided on a stance about this topic, so we’d like to buy some time while you all thrash things out.”

This one might be the most important:

  • “I want everyone else to have a conversation because I don’t want to spend any money on this.”

Have you seen these translations in practice?  Are there any other meanings we’ve missed?

 (photo by clearlyambiguous)

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A fine hoax of attitudes towards adjuncts in the Chronicle

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERACongratulations to the Chronicle of Higher Education for running a very convincing hoax. They recently published a “letter to the editor”, entitled “Is That Whining Adjunct Someone We Want Teaching Our Young?” It’s a terrific attempt to mimic the attitude of academics who deeply, thoroughly disdain adjuncts.

The spoof has many fine qualities:

  • Intergenerational attitude.  The “author” cites her many years of experience and implicit age (“I have had full-time employment with benefits both inside and outside working in academia for over 30 years”), in order to set up an unfavorable contrast with younger adjuncts (“we do live in a new world where every child is special”, “society has raised a bunch of entitled young adults who claim to be victimized”, “our new generation of graduates”).  Adjuncts’ youth matters a great deal here, since it lets the author speak from greater experience, wisdom, and hierarchical position. Intergenerational conflict within academia hasn’t broken out into the open yet, so this “letter” does a fine job of unearthing it.
  • Total lack of historical, social, and political context.  There isn’t any sense of the recent and drastic decline in tenure-track positions, and the massive increase of adjunct hires. The author doesn’t mention research institutions’ persistent overproduction of new PhDs into a terrible market. Instead the writer reduces the adjunct issue to personal stories, or exalts it to a cosmic level: “Perhaps the position is filled, or the tumblers in the universe just didn’t fall into the right place for you.”  “Sometimes we fail to achieve happiness no matter what our line of work or income is.”
  • Personal attack.  Adjuncts are adjuncts because they are terrible academics:  “maybe you aren’t aware that you are annoying your colleagues with your opinions about everything, at every meeting, and at every event. Perhaps your full-time colleagues wouldn’t select you for full-time work because you are not likable. Perhaps you have a reputation for mediocrity, or you don’t fully engage your students.”

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Returning to optimism

This week I received two doses of idealism, which made me realize I’d sunk into something like pessimism of late.  As a result I’m more optimistic about the future, despite everything.

The first jolt came from a tv interviewer, who was asking me to imagine the world of teaching and learning twenty years from now.  Boston came up in this discussion, accidentally, as we first spoke by cell phones as I drove to and from that city, and then when the tv channel’s film crew traveled to my house along the exact same route.

After I laid out a grim vision of the powerful forces keeping education from changing (you know the drill: economics, professional development, public and private bureaucracies, etc), the interviewer gently, very gently asked me to be idealistic.  Don’t be handicapped by what you think is most likely to occur, she said (and I paraphrase), but say more about what could happen if we make the right decisions.

Regis College towerThat floored me, and makes me want to apologize to you, dear readers.  I have been emphasizing the glass half empty, like campuses closing and performing the queen sacrifice. I’ve been spending too much time with macroeconomics, getting bogged down in the grim news about America’s employment and income data. I’ve had to do this, because these things are real, and we need to think them through.  But following these inquiries in depth, I lost sight of human capacity and agency.

The second jolt came from Regis College, where I led a one-day digital storytelling workshop.  After struggling through Boston’s hellish traffic and roads I staggered onto campus, to be met by… a group of passionate, thoughtful, and creative faculty and staff.  They were ready to start the new academic year, and were raring to dive in.  Storytelling and its digital manifestations lit their imaginations.  I left the day inspired and invigorated.  (That’s a fine stone tower on the Regis campus above)  I even navigated my way north from the Boston zone in happiness.  Yes, happiness in Boston at rush hour, that’s how far the day totally turned around my mind. Continue reading

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Closing a college

An American college is getting ready to shut down.  Lebanon College (New Hampshire) replaced its website with a simple announcement:

Lebanon College Website

Gone are all menus and links, from what I can make out.

Lebanon College faces problems familiar to many other campuses, including queen sacrifice schools.  According to its president,

“Without a substantive increase in enrollment across the board and particularly in the areas of our allied health programs and certificates, we feel this is the first step towards closing Lebanon College”

Which looks like this in practice:

In a news release, Arthur Gardiner, the chairman of the college’s board of trustees, said that while the board had “looked forward expectantly to a big jump in enrollment this fall,” the numbers didn’t pan out, and fewer than half of the anticipated enrollees signed up.

Note this recent move: “removing under-enrolled degrees from the program”.  We’ve seen that elsewhere.

If Lebanon draws – drew – students primarily from New England, this region’s demographic decline helps explain why that college couldn’t get enough students.

This may be a very small college in a remote part of the United States, but these economic problems are widespread.  Let’s hope such terminal solutions don’t also become popular.

(thanks to Robert Maguire for the pointer)



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On education racing the machines

Pew Internet logoHow is education responding to new technologies of automation?  I’m quoted on this in a new Pew Internet report.

“The education system is not well positioned to transform itself to help shape graduates who can ‘race against the machines.’ Not in time, and not at scale. Autodidacts will do well, as they always have done, but the broad masses of people are being prepared for the wrong economy.”

Let me unpack that a little.

If we want to consider the intersection between future automation and education, we need to choose a model of how that kind of technology will shape society.

automated factoryPerhaps automation will have a moderate impact on American (and global*) life, with some types jobs being replaced, leaving the rest unwarped.  In that case schools at all levels need to respond.  That probably means, first,  de-emphasizing curricula aimed at those replaced jobs and expanding technology programs.  Second, schools will have to look carefully for emerging needs made possible by automation: new types of employment, new ways of living and thinking.

Or maybe automation will have a deeper impact.  Imagine a larger number of jobs being replaced, including blue- and white-collar ones.  In this situation schools have to rethink most of what they do, as they prepare students for a very different world.  Said world could be a sweet one where many people have lots of time for leisure and self-actualization.  Or that world could be awful, with mass unemployment wrecking family income and self-worth.

Perhaps this means a labor market dominated by classically “feminine” skills, including relationship development, careful communication, and emotional work.  Or jobs will rapidly appear, development, then disappear, requiring continuous retraining and deep, lifelong learning.  Or schools will have to prepare graduates for a life of little work, much reflection, and self-revision.

Utopia or dystopia, it wouldn’t make sense for K-12 and higher education to teach for the 1990s (which is, at best, our current target). (Here are several related scenarios)

But at present American education is only slowly, slowly turning to regard these possible futures.  Powerful forces keep us anchored in the present (if that): commitment to public standards, formulated years ago; generational bias from older faculty and administrators; a lack of foresight capacity.  We can’t figure out how to win girls and young women to technology-related classes.  We don’t teach a lot of computer science in K-12. We need to rethink our future, and soon.

*I wrote “American” because most discussions of U.S. education remain very US-centric.  We need to stop this, but that’s for another post.

(automated factory photo by Steve Jurvetson)

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