Are you teaching about climate change and education? I’m available as a guest speaker.

Are you teaching a class this fall which addresses how climate change might impact higher education?

If so, I’m available to contribute, if it makes sense for your pedagogical and curricular purposes.

Universities on Fire on a library bookshelf

Universities on Fire on a local library bookshelf.

To explain: for several years now I’ve been researching the topic of the higher education-global warming relationship.  That’s led me to create numerous blog posts, presentations, articles, and a recent book, Universities on Fire.   My hypothesis is that climate change will have a deep impact on post-secondary education, and that academics have many actions we can take to respond to – and, better yet, anticipate the unfolding crisis.  It may be the greatest challenge facing academia in the decades ahead, starting now.

So why am I interested in participating in classes?  Partly because I’m fascinated by how global warming appears in the curriculum and want to learn more (that’s part of University on Fire‘s fourth chapter).  Yet also because I find students to be more interested in the topic than their faculty and staff elders, generally speaking, and I want to connect with that energy and learn from it.  They might become the prime movers for getting colleges and universities to seriously grapple with climate change.

In a given class I can give a talk, facilitate discussion, take questions, lead a simulation game, or follow whichever pedagogical format best fits class design and goals.  As an experienced presenter and classroom teacher I can make it all work.

Logistically, I’m happy to video into a live session via Zoom, Teams, Shindig, Skype, etc. Participating asynchronously, such as through a class blog or learning management system/virtual learning environment, is also fine.  If you’re within a day’s travel from northeastern Virginia, I could visit in person.

For faculty interested in me as guest on the topic, please reach out here.

Posted in climatechange, teaching | Leave a comment

Personal downsides of 2023, or why I’m a bit quieter than usual

I fear that I’ve fallen weirdly silent at times, on this blog and elsewhere, during the past year.  Some of you may be waiting for me to reply to emails you’ve sent.  Others have pinged me via LinkedIn messages, Twitter DMs, and even snail mail, and wonder where my typically garrulous self has gone.

Alas, I have a reason for being dilatory for the past half year.  While 2023 has had some high points, like the launch of my new book and the 10th anniversary of our business, it has also been pretty awful on a personal level.

Yes, this is one of those nonprofessional, personal posts.  Feel free to skip or wait for the next post.

I can sum things up as two blows.

Nelson Case smiling happily

Not sure of the year – perhaps 1980.

The first was the death of my father in Michigan.  It wasn’t unexpected.  He was 91 and had been declining steadily for decades.  Formerly a vigorous athlete, a self-styled jock, his body gradually lost strength, tissues, and functions. Cancer took a lung, then other diseases sapped his strength and cost him the ability to lift his arms above his chest. His mobility decreased until he was restricted to a wheelchair, then surgeons amputated a leg.  Affliction after affliction gnawed and reduced him.

In May he called my brother and I from yet another hospital stay, and wished us farewell.  Not a very emotional man, as per his generation, this was a brief message, but he had clearly determined that the end was near. After that stay he entered hospice care.  My wife and I visited him there and found him splendidly well cared for, but a shattered, barely living remnant of his former self.

A week later he died.  My brother, my wife, and I traveled back to take care of things.  This meant a welter of boxing, tracking down financial details, sending items away, notifying people, and many more logistical items.  It meant and still means dealing with the emotional tearing of losing a parent.  That work sprawled over the next month, intertwining with the rest of our lives.  It still continues.

From the obituary Nelson wrote, which I amended slightly:

Nelson Case, beloved father, writer, and producer, and avid tennis player, died on June 26, 2023, at the age of 91. He died of natural causes. Mr. Case retired in 2000 after a professional career spanning 50 years, chiefly in the field of entertainment, from stage managing on Broadway and acting in Hollywood and New York, to becoming one of the premier writer/producers in the field of corporate communications for over 40 years. He is survived by his sons, Kevin Case and Bryan Alexander, his daughter-in-law, Ceredwyn, Kevin’s partner, Terri van Valkinburgh, and two grandchildren, Gwynneth and Owain Alexander.

Bryan, Kevin, Nelson

From left to right: myself, Kevin, and Nelson, during the pandemic.

I have been too busy with professional work to do the emotional work of grieving.  I know this is not good, but economic needs are paramount, at least in American culture.

Then the summer’s second blow fell, this time upon my wife, Ceredwyn.  Early this week she suddenly suffered a heart attack.

Early Monday morning chest pains appeared and worsened, then showed classic heart attack signs.  We called 911 and in a couple of minutes were surrounded by efficient, kind, and skilled EMTs, who transported her to the hospital.  Ceredwyn spent a day and night there, being tested, prodded, observed, while I stayed with her.  Tests showed that it was indeed a heart attack, as one enzyme was heightened, which is what occurs when there’s heart tissue death.  The technical term is NSTEMI, for non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction.

“Heart tissue death” is not a phrase I anticipated typing this year, especially about my splendid wife – who’s younger than me and far wiser about health than I.

Ceredwyn's hand reaching out, with pulse-ox meter and more cords running in.

That’s a pulse oximeter glowing on her fingertip. The wires below her palm lead to various spots on her body.

The next day the hospital conducted a cardiac catheterization, which astounded me as a husband and as someone who follows and thinks about technology.  The cath team inserted a probe in her right hand, then drove the thing up through an artery all the way along the inside of her arm, then across her chest and into her heart. There they found a major artery 90% blocked. The team cleaned this out then withdrew.  (I waited helplessly in her room; a kind nurse visited me to ease my dread.) Ceredwyn spent the next day recovering and being monitored, before being discharged.

Now she’s at home, resting and recovering.  We’re exploring changes to her diet and exercise, which is complicated and at times either galling or contradictory.  She’s also on a stack of medications, and here follow two observations about American health care:

  1. One of the drugs cost nearly $400 US after insurance had done its thing.  Thankfully a local pharmacist spent an hour doing high level bureaucratic finagling to reduce this, but just think of what this might have meant.  I’m shameless in advocating for my family and have other advantages (age, education, extroversion, race, gender, etc) and I shudder to think about how people have to deal with this financially.  Think of how much this might have cost to someone without insurance, or whose policy didn’t do anything to help.
  2. At no point until the medication did we make a rational economic choice. We did not, for example, cost out different ambulance services or sift through evaluations of hospitals. Instead we grabbed what was nearest and fast. Yet our medical system is predicated on patients and caregivers as rational economic actors.

Ceredwyn is still processing all of this. Physically, she’s still in some pain and her arms are seriously bruised at at least ten points where medical staff tried (and sometimes succeeded) in getting entrance to her veins.  Mentally she’s processing the trauma of a sudden, near death experience.  That particular artery  being blocked is nicknamed The Widowmaker (perhaps a widowermaker, to be more precise or pedantic) and it’s a radical, fundamental thing to nearly be killed by it.

Ceredwyn arm after heart catheterization 2023 August

Ceredwyn’s arm after the catheter invasion.  Note the hand being dark; that’s due to the tourniquet above.

My wife, my father: I can’t describe how much their respective suffering horrified and enraged me. There is so much going on here – my adoration of professionals who provided them with fine, compassionate care; endless frustration at bureaucratic strata we’re forced to tunnel through; the difficult in expressing any of this as a GenX male in American culture.  My futurist mind kept generating scenarios and outcomes from the most optimistic to the most direly pessimistic.  The planning and strategic part of my mind ceaselessly worked, developing workarounds for problems and setting priorities in careful echelons.

I want to say more, but as you might expect from the preceding, I feel awkward as hell writing this much. So I’m behind schedule and will be so for a while, as the fall semester bursts into life starting Monday (yeah) and I struggle to catch up with everything that fell by the wayside this awful year.

Please, everyone: take care of yourselves and each other.  Be safe.


Posted in personal | 74 Comments

What I’m doing with social media now

Greetings from a pleasant early August, at least in terms of weather. I’m back home in the Washington DC area and the heat wave has moved on.  It’s still very warm (84 degrees F) and humid, but not so beastly as it was a couple of weeks ago.

I have a stack of analytical and even polemical posts in the pipeline, but today wanted to offer one of my irregular posts about my digital habits.  The reason is that in one particular area things have become chaotic, and I thought I could:

  1. pin down my practice at this moment in time, at least for my own records, but also as a documentary sample of social media use in August 2023
  2. elicit feedback and suggestions
  3. stir some conversation on the topic

The topic is social media, broadly construed. 2023 has pushed the technology and its user behavior into all kinds of directions, between Elon Musk’s demolition of Twitter (I still can’t write or say “X”), the boom and bust of a supposed Mastodon succession, the emergence of new platforms (Threads, Bluesky), and whatever is happening to Facebook as Meta gives up on its Metaverse.  Not to mention the impact of generative AI.

For my own practice, I make decisions based on several factors, mostly balancing research interests and professional productivity.

Here’s what I’m doing now.  Links if you’re like to connect:

Traditional social media

Twitter/”X” Since the service first launched during the failure of a web-based podcast project (oh yes) I’ve used Twitter extensively, primarily for professional purposes. I share what my research turns up and try to get feedback on it, while learning from the people I follow.  I’ve been a long-time event live tweeter and also studied how people use it for storytelling. I’ve also taught people how to use it in various ways over the years.

On the desktop, I rely on Tweetdeck, where I have a bunch of searches and lists running, all regularly tweaked and tuned.

Tweetdeck sample 2023 August 6

About 20% of my Tweetdeck span.

When I can’t use my laptops or desktops I fall back on the mobile app.  The mobile app is also how I do most of my photo posting, since I either take photos with my phone or send photos from my camera there.

Since Musk purchased Twitter the one change I’ve experienced (besides the name and having to buy verification for how extensively I use it) is some decline in users and activity, due to some number of people cutting down activity or leaving.  The volume of Twitter-bashing has gone up, and is now much more political in content, but I’ve been used to that since the start.

I haven’t found a platform that replaces or succeeds Twitter yet.

LinkedIn This is purely professional for me.  No fun posts, no cat pics. I never post anything there natively; instead, I share links and observations that I’ve found or made.  Conversation isn’t very high in volume, but does tend to be nicely focused – i.e., little chaff.

People do use the heck out of LinkedIn for professional contacting.  I’ve seen a lot of people offer their LinkedIn profile page as their main URL.  I get a lot of connection requests… but little conversation follows.

What I don’t do, and should, is make a point of checking the LinkedIn news feed regularly.

Facebook This is both successful and frustrating.   Successful in that I communicate with an awful lot of people here, and a wild range of folks to boot, from elementary school friends to scholars around the world.  There’s a lot of conversation, especially when I avoid Facebook’s tricks to decrement posts, like sharing URLs. And yet Facebook’s algorithm apparently thinks my most interesting content is nothing to do with my work. Academic and futures posts reliably vanish from my network’s ken, while posts about just about anything else – cats, food, practical technology questions, politics, movies – receive far more attention.

So why use it at all?  To begin with, a lot of my Facebook connections use that as their main social media site, and I’d lose them by exiting. For another, Facebook groups can actually be useful. I appreciate a bunch: one on the Reacting to the Past educational game, another on general higher ed, one on instructional design, etc.  For a third reason: some academics contact me there with professional questions and opportunities.

For being a supposedly “dead” platform, I get serious use out of it.  And speaking of Zuckerberg –

Instagram This is probably my most frustrating platform these days.  For some time now I’ve been teaching myself (and learning from very generous friends) photography. I like to share my best results, especially so I can get feedback: validation of what works, suggestions for how to improve. I also like to document some things: my work, my travels, my vegan cooking.

So I post to Insta fairly regularly, yet this activity doesn’t get much traction. Each post usually nets a handful of notices and very little feedback.

I’m thinking of rebooting my Instapractice, but am not sure how, or if it’s worthwhile, as I may have been doing it wrong long enough to depress that account.  I *could* do all vegan all the time, perhaps by expanding to include images of ingredients, cookbooks, etc.  I know there’s an audience for it. I just haven’t connected.

I’d like to emphasize the future of higher education – my work – instead, but that’s harder to do. A lot of what I do doesn’t really work in square photos. Articles and books I write don’t get much of a response.  The Insta desktop experience isn’t great, and I’m not sure about thumbing out the equivalent of blog posts there. Perhaps there is a higher ed community there and I just haven’t found it.

I’m open to suggestions.

Dix Hills library aisle

My most popular pic on Flicks, according to stats, and one of my favorites: an aisle from my childhood library.

Flickr is in some ways a better experience for my photos.  It’s a far more satisfying desktop experience. The amount of stuff you can do with images is far richer. I love that it’s web native. In fact, one of my main Flickr uses is searching Creative Commons style for photos to use in presentations and videos. I love having multiple choices here, plus the ease of posting a URL as credit.

And yet Flickr’s user base seems to have fallen since they missed the mobile boat. I rarely get much in the way of on-platform action, although it’s gratifying when people in other venues use my visual work.

Emerging social media

Threads I’ve been using this for a few weeks, and don’t have a feel for it yet.  I post and read, but it seems scattered.  I really with it had a desktop/web client.

Bluesky Just got on (they’re very size limited) and am exploring.  Haven’t had an extended conversation there yet.

Mastodon I’ve been trying this for years, going between different accounts and many servers, and I think I’ve settled into one combination at last.  Conversations are high quality, albeit small in scale.

I don’t have time to issue my full critique of Mastodon here, but a few notes: it’s still awkward, especially the inter-server issues. Some users are very helpful, which is badly needed, since onboarding is a pain.  So much depends on the identity and administration of a given server.

Remember Web 2.0?

Ah, back in the 21st century’s first decade some of us spoke of web 2.0, a successor to the 1990s’ web, once that was more social, cocreative, with lots of microcontent and more. It was the glory days of blogging, wikis, and RSS.  (In fact, perhaps the most popular article I ever wrote was one I authored with the excellent Alan Levine, on web 2.0 storytelling.)

I persist with some of those historical platforms:

The blog I’ve run many blogs over the years, and keep writing at this one.  I’ve praised it before, so here I’ll just mention that it’s a delight to write here.  It’s also a key part of my professional work, a place to share ideas, host conversation, and develop concepts over time.

Medium I’ve been using this site for a few years.  Usually I share blog posts there, which takes some significant formatting, because Medium’s import engine kept failing, and so I have to manually fix bad quotations and embeds.

On the one hand I enjoy the clean look and feel of articles on the site.  On the other, there’s very little material about colleges and universities, and not much discussion.

I’ve thought of writing more stuff there, natively, to push discussion on higher ed.

I actually managed to monetize Medium, although the results are paltry, a few pennies an article.

RSS reader – this remains central to my workflow.  I follow a bunch of feeds, organized by categories: libraries, futurists, progressive politics, clients, etc. Inoreader is what I use, as it’s reliable and clear.

When social media and email blur

We can define social media in narrow terms, to focus on recent social platforms. I like to include email on this, partly from my historical sense, and because email just won’t die.  In fact, it’s central to a lot of digital practice.

What do I do with email, besides pursue the Sisyphean task of trying to get the number of emails in my inbox down below four digits?   Mostly I maintain a series of email announcement lists about various projects, notably the Future Trends Forum.  Thousands of people are on those lists.

Recently I launched a Substack about AI and the future of higher education.  Substack is interesting here, in that it’s amphibious.  On the one hand it’s a classic email newsletter, while on the other it has all kinds of web 2.0 and social media affordances: comments, sharing, liking, and so on.

I’m also thinking about setting up a discussion list on the topic of how the climate crisis and higher education intersect.

Rich media as social media

Another angle of the social media definition question is which media we include.  Usually it’s simple text (posts, comments) and images, plus the ability to embed audio and video files.  I’d got a bit further and include platforms focused on audio and video.

For video, YouTube looms largest to me.  I post some stuff to Vimeo for my Patreon supporters, but YouTube remains the giant. There I share mostly Future Trends Forum videos, plus whatever else I can make. I hope to do more.

For audio, I’m a big podcasting fan.  I’ve been a guest on many programs and have been planning on launching my own for a few years.  (It’s always a question of time.) I’m a daily listener; my current podcatcher is the Google Podcasts app on my Android phone.

Social media I’m not using

Here I’ll take up the fairly expansive definition I’ve been developing in this post.

Slack – I’m not sure what lands me in the no-Slacking community.  Partly it’s the “oh ye gods, another app to worry about” problem, as I mostly live in web browsers. Partly I need to be actively involved in a project or team with a lot of Slack going on, and I haven’t been for a while.

The Metaverse – I’ve been studying, researching, teaching about, and working on this subject since the 1980s, but I’m not currently part of any social virtual world. Mostly it’s time and a lack of audience.

Tiktok – I have been bouncing off of this one for a while, mostly because I really want to control my feeds. I don’t like giving up my incoming content to a black box.  It reminds me of the broadcast tv I grew up with in the 1970s and offends my well practiced RSS habits. Plus I prefer content that has some time to breathe and make an argument.

I’m open to being able to make Tiktok work for me, at least until the United States prohibits me from doing so.

A note on practice

During the day I regularly check my social media feeds.  Inoreader I read first, followed by a sequence: Twitter, Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, and Threads. That’s to check up on various topics while also getting a kind of pulse for the world.Facebook comes later, as it feels different: less news oriented, more checking on people.

When I want to share stuff… it depends on its source and nature. Often I’ll share a thought or a lightly amended link to a source in line with my research interests, and there I run it across each platform, lightly edited for context (@-ing someone who’s on one platform but not another, adding alt text for Mastodon, etc). So I’ll post it to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Mastodon if I’m at my desktop or laptop machines; Instagram, Bluesky, and Threads if on my phone.  Remember my goals of sharing information, learning, and sparking conversations.

In contrast, when I’ve created something, I try to blog it first of all, because I’m a blogging diehard, because I own this blog, because it’s on the open web, and because people can index and comment on it.  Then I spread the word across as many venues as possible, hopefully including an image, and always with a link. Sometimes I make something not on the blog – video (YouTube primarily) or Substack, or something hosted by another entity (interview, article) – and then follow my blog-based habit of sharing it across platforms.

Back to old social media: I also email people based on their interests, reaching out to them about something I did or found. Sometimes that’s just habit, as when I remember a certain person is interested in a certain copyright issue, say.  Otherwise I check a spreadsheet of friendly folks, their interests noted, and ping them.  Again, the idea here is to spark conversation.

…and that’s all for August 2023. Today I’m not going to forecast where these habits and platforms might be headed.  Instead I just wanted to document a moment in time, a snapshot of technology practices.

Please feel free to share your own in comments.  I’d also like to hear your recommendations.

Posted in technology | 5 Comments

Envisioning and planning for climate change in higher education

This morning I’m speaking to the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP)’s conference in Cleveland, Ohio.  My topic: higher education in the climate crisis.

I’m not sure if a recording will be available, nor if anyone will live-tweet it, but I did want to share my notes here, along with my potentially cryptic slidestack:

(Why share this here?  First, to follow my open practice. Second, so people actually in the live SCUP audience don’t have to worry about taking photos  of slides, wanting printouts, etc.)

This is a somewhat usual talk for me.  Not the topic – you all know I’ve been working on higher ed and climate change for years – but because the audience was pleasantly surprising.  Unlike most academics I’ve followed and listened to, SCUP folks (campus planners, architects, designers) are already deeply thinking about what global warming might mean for academic institutions, and are planning and acting accordingly.  So I’ve adjusted my presentation according to what I’ve heard in sessions and hallway conversations.

I also added a long term component to the talk, looking out 40 years.  I touch on different ways climate change might play out, based on IPCC scenarios, and long term trends in academic culture. (Universities on Fire actually looks to the year 2100.)

SCUP asked me to list learning outcomes for the session, and here are the ones I offered:

Discuss the implications for academic research and teaching as well as how institutions might change plans if global warming becomes better or worse than projected.

Consider how the campus’s physical environment changes, from creating new buildings and renovating current ones to generating local power, rethinking grounds, changing food service, and revolutionizing transportation, and more.

Discuss the ways campus-community relations can develop for good or ill in an era of escalating climate crises and what opportunities it presents for all parties.

Consider the role higher education plays in the world as civilization rethinks its fundamental operations and purpose.

This is my first time at an in-person SCUP session, and I like it a lot.  People are thoughtful, practical, optimistic, yet realistic.  They are also very friendly and supportive. I’m grateful to SCUP for hosting me.

Posted in climatechange, presentations and talks | Leave a comment

What are campuses doing about AI this fall semester?

NB: I’ve updated this post several times with more examples, mostly recently 7/25/2023.

As fall classes draw nigh, I wonder (among other things) what colleges and universities are doing to do about generative AI.

I haven’t seen many completed institutional policies.  I’ve been looking around and asking on social media, and it seems like either most of academia isn’t taking such a formal step, or is working quietly, behind the scenes.  Rebecca Mayglo offered one example of the former:


I think many campuses are going through what Karl Aho describes:

We’ve got a study group working on advising the provost about policy/guidelines. We don’t have one in place yet.

The University of Arizona has several working groups, according to Nicole Hennig.

Others haven’t reached that formal organization yet, operating still in study mode, as Jim McGensy observes:

Marc Watkins thinks a lack of general AI literacy means institutions can’t develop policies yet:

Watkins later added: “It feels like we’re eons away from accepted practice in edu.”

Some institutions are trying to boost AI knowledge on campus.  Auburn University launched a Teaching with AI online class for its faculty and staff. The University of Mississippi has conducted a summer class on AI.  The University of Arizona’s library published a libguide on “AI Literacy in the Age of ChatGPT” plus a Student Guide to ChatGPT.

This isn’t to underplay efforts under way. The American University of Armenia added a note about AI in their cheating policy:

6.4.2.        Cheating. Cheating includes but is not limited to:     using or referring to notes, books, devices or other sources of information, including advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, such as ChatGPT, in completing an Academic Evaluation or Assignment, when such use has not been expressly allowed by the faculty member who is conducting the examination;

Hosftra University on Long Island did a similar amendment to their syllabus policies:

Hofstra University places high value upon educating students about academic integrity. At the same time, the University will not tolerate dishonesty, and it will not offer the privileges of the community to the repeat offender. The academic community assumes that work of any kind–whether a research paper, a critical essay, a homework assignment, a test or quiz, a computer program, or a creative assignment in any medium–is done, entirely and without unauthorized assistance, by the individual(s) whose name(s) it bears. Use of generative artificial intelligence tools (e.g. Chat GPT) must be consistent with the instructor’s stated course policy. Unless indicated otherwise in the instructions for a specific assignment, the use of Chat GPT or similar artificial intelligence tools for work submitted in this course constitutes the receiving of “unauthorized assistance for academic work”, and is a violation of the Hofstra University Honor Code. Students bear the ultimate responsibility for implementing the principles of academic integrity. [emphases added]

Montclair State University updated their plagiarism policies in May:

Information taken from generative AI, such as ChatGPT, must be cited, otherwise it will be defined as plagiarism. Best practice for some disciplines may be to find the same information elsewhere for a complete citation.

Zurich’s University for Applied Sciences (ZHAW) issued two German-language policies earlier this year.  One is, as far as my bad German and Google Translate allows, a blog post offering guidelines for teaching.  Another is a more extensive look at AI for assessment.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has issued not policy but guidelines, rather than a policy.  According to Ted Underwood Jamie A. Nelson played a major role in shaping them.  Also,

We have a task force, and guidelines. I think guidance has been pretty good, and appropriately flexible. Flexibility is needed for the reasons Marc outlines. We’re all feeling our way here and appropriate policies for intro/adv courses may be different.

College Unbound is doing a fascinating and possibly unusual effort on this score, going through an iterative policy and practice development process including students. (thanks to Lance Eaton). Kwantlen Polytechnic University is developing policies and has shared some guidance.

There are other moves campuses can make concerning AI and classes.  Amanda Sturgill names two: modifying career support for graduates, and one program (mass communication) working within that profession.

At my school, we are thinking about the effects on life/profession after college. So are parts of mass communication education’s professional organization.

Then things come down to individual classes and instructors, and what they decide to do. Lance Eaton has set up a terrific Google Doc of classroom policies, which display a lot of creativity.

Some institutions are setting up professional development resources and opportunities. For example, The Ohio State University has posted one helpful webpage.  (thanks to Terry Bradley)

There’s got to be more going on out there, just not eliciting much of a buzz.

So this is a plea for help, a call for pointers.  Have you seen any campuses working on policies or other big decisions about AI and fall classes?

We can use this post as a place to share examples.  If they grow, I can set up a Google Doc.

(thanks to Perry Share, Exhaust Fumes, Mark Watkins, Cerstin Mahlow, and Brent Anders; thanks also to commentators on this post Alan Levine and Nicole Hennig)

Posted in automation | 8 Comments

The Deluge: notes on a leading climate fiction novel

How might we imagine the unfolding climate crisis through the creative arts?

Markley's The Deluge cover: cloudy skies with a sharp black tearI’ve been studying climate fiction (please don’t say “cli-fi”) for several years now, and wanted to share some notes on what strikes me as a leading example.

The Deluge is one of the most impressive examples of climate fiction I’ve read so far. It’s an epic, using dozens of characters across decades of time to sketch out how humanity might respond to global warming, and the damage the crisis could inflict.

It’s a social novel, using a broad canvas to address a topic, and I think it mostly succeeds in that strategy. Markley offers us one charismatic climate activist, her boyfriend, a desperately poor young man, a series of politicians, a bitter climate scientist, an autistic modeler, an eco-terrorist, and that’s just the most prominent people.  This gives us multiple points of view on a society in the throes of a complex crisis.

Alongside these characters there are a lot of ideas in the novel, both in terms of understanding climate change and in seeking to adapt to or mitigate global warming, much like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future. I’m fond of the proposed “shock collar” law (166) which would fine fossil fuel companies for not entirely decarbonizing, then transfer that money directly to citizens, a bit like the Alaskan dividend.

The plot is complex, but I can sum it up by saying it involves multiple people and organizations trying to grapple with climate change in various ways, as the crisis worsens.

I enjoyed the book’s style. Much of it is in the service of setting up dialog, but there is a tendency towards some nice prose:

…he looked up to see the ridge of Griffith Park glowing a pitch-dark amber…
Many of the homes in the hills were ablaze, as if the fire was picking and choosing, executing at random like a bored king. (365)

The title is well chosen. Obviously it points to literal rising tides, which occur in the story.  It appears in name only to describe rising climate activism, as far as I can tell. (503)  And I think there’s an echo of Louis XIV since much of the plot turns on the operations of state power, against rising chaos.

Also at a formal level, Markley also has fun with page layout. The terrorist cell meetings appear with sidebars unfolding some background points.  Some chapters end with a dos-Passos-like rush or collage of news items, giving micro-takes on various developments, a bit like the novel in miniature.

(I do want to speak to the novel’s conclusion, and therefore must hide things behind spoiler warnings. Scroll down after the big photo for that.)

Is The Deluge the great climate fiction novel? It’s certainly in the top tier, alongside Ministry for the Future. Yet like that book, flaws irk me.

For one, the novel is very America-centric, like the Apple tv series Extrapolations, which isn’t entirely a bad move, given the nation’s importance in causing global warming and potential to address it. Yet it leads to some poverty tourism. There’s an open call for the US to use its imperial powers to corral other nations into climate action as a form of realpolitick. (742) And while Europe makes something of an appearance, China is almost completely invisible, and when it appears, does so with scant detail. Given that nation’s enormous impact on the world now, especially on climate issues, this makes the book myopic.

I did have issues with one main character, Ashir al-Hasan, who is somewhere on the autism spectrum. I confess to struggling to grasp the current state of psychological analysis on autism and failing miserably to understand the politics around it, so I don’t feel comfortable assessing the portrayal. al-Hasan comes across as brilliant yet very flawed, and I can’t tell if those flaws are the results of Markley accurately modeling an autistic mind, or botching the portrait. Some of al-Hasan’s behavior matches my limited understanding: impatience with small talk, cutting into conversations obliquely, obsessive mastery of certain intellectual fields. Others mystify. He writes “memos” for Senators and Representatives that read like novels, and include big chunks of unneeded personal detail (cf 214ff). Is this something currently part of the spectrum? He commits once act of hideous cruelty and I don’t know what to make of it – a flawed character, or someone hung up on a single idea so that it overrides all else? Again, I can’t tell if this is the author trying to do the spectrum right, or just getting it badly wrong.

Another character has a weird hole. The climate scientist who analyzes clathrates is someone who begins the novel, and we follow him throughout. Something terrible happens to him, a major plot point and instance of worldbuilding, yet it seems to have had no impact on him as a person. (Cf a belated, almost apologetic note on 802) Which is… strange.

There are some minor world-building points which jarred. For example, I don’t think Anders Breivik will become Norway’s prime minister.  I can appreciate that as a grim bit of satire, but that doesn’t jibe with the novel otherwise.

Those bits aside, I strongly recommend the book. It’s a huge one, nearly 900 pages, but it will carry you all the way.  It combined a rising sense of urgency about the crisis with mostly convincing portraits of humans taking action. It’s a major contribution to climate fiction.

Now for the spoilers:

A huge amount of water pouring across several boundaries.

While the heroes manage to pass American legislation at last, it is a triumphant moment.  But the law has been watered down. And two different characters – with professional knowledge – reflect that the world is going to get worse, badly worse.

This horror has no conclusion. It will not end in my daughter’s lifetime or even the lifetime of any descendent she can hope to love. She will know no other future outside this claustrophobic emergency, this coffin we are now pounding on the lid of. She will know death and pain with unthinkable intimacy and likely become inured to the suffering pouring forth from every region of the world in order to keep going. No matter what ideologies arise, what myths we embrace, what technologies we invent, what dreams we offer, this crisis is effectively our eternity.
…I imagine her asking me someday with the hot fury of a teenager’s clarity, Was it worth it? Was a raped and murdered world worth it for a few decades of excess? How did you let this happen? You all knew. Everyone knew. (874)

The last chapter shies away from this terrifying perspective, fleeing into the novel’s past to recollect a sweet, romantic moment in nature, but the bell has been tolled. The age of progress is over, despite the good work we see in the plot. Decline and horror lie ahead.

I’m honestly not sure if most readers took this away from the end, or if I’m just too close to the topic.

(cover image from Goodreads, where I posted an earlier version of this review; deluge image by Lars Dugaiczyk)

Posted in book club, climatechange, reviews | 3 Comments

American views on higher education worsen, again

Just a quick post, as I’m on the road:

Americans now view higher education less favorably than we used to.

That’s the finding of a new Gallup poll.  Gallup has run this poll several times in recent history, and the results show a depressing downward curve. The number of people who view academia very positively has been declining.

Americans’ confidence in higher education has fallen to 36%, sharply lower than in two prior readings in 2015 (57%) and 2018 (48%).

Gallup American attitudes to higher ed to 2023

“Some” is growing, which is better than it could have been.

I am also concerned by how these attitudes break down by groups, including political party, age, gender, and educational attainment.  The decline occurred across every one, albeit to different degrees:

Gallup American attitudes to higher ed to 2023_by party age gender

(The numbers are for “% of U.S. adults with ‘a great deal’ or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education”. I couldn’t fit that legend into a screengrab.)

As you can see, Republicans, men, people over 55, and and those without a college degree are the most skeptical.  Democrats, women, people under 35, and folks with postgraduate degrees are the most favorable.

This decrease in attitude may shape various aspects of academic-community relationships.  Governmental funding (city, county, state, federal) comes to mind, especially as those entities juggle multiple funding demands. Declining faith in higher ed might discourage some would-be students from applying to study.  This development might also point the way to more attacks on the academy.

Yet we should place this poll in one context. Gallup asked people about their attitudes towards a range of institutions, and those results indicate widespread skepticism about all kinds of them:

Gallup American attitudes to various institutions 2023 July

I have many thoughts here – note the high positions of military and police – but wanted to locate higher ed on the list, because we look pretty good, compared to the rest.  Ahead of public K-12 and tech companies, to say nothing of big business and Congress.   So for academia, it could be worse!

There’s so much going on here, from the dread of student debt to right-wing politics to connections with general economic anxiety. but I need to stop now.  Over to you all for your thoughts.

Posted in higher education, politics | 6 Comments

The hottest days on record have been this week

“It was getting hotter.”

-Kim Stanley Robinson,
Ministry for the Future (2020),
opening line

Greetings from early, very hot July here in the eastern United States.

My apologies for not blogging much the past few weeks, but things have been chaotic here.  My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. My father died in Michigan at 91.  A series of professional projects grew in size and complexity.

And around all of this wildfire smoke spread, and then the temperature rose.  This week the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer project tracked the hottest global temperatures on record:

world temperature 2023 July 6_Main Reanalyzer

As always, I turn to the climate crisis’ essential bard, Bill McKibben:

Monday July 3 was the hottest day anyone had ever measured on planet earth. True, our system for measuring the global average temperature—a network of weather stations, ocean buoys, and satellites—only dates back to 1979, but that means that at a bare minimum it was the hottest day a large majority of the earth’s population had ever been alive to witness. And in truth, we have good proxy records—things like ice cores and tree rings—that take that record far back in time. 

Put another way:

The best estimate of climate scientists is that Monday was the hottest day since sometime in the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago, right about the time that other scientists think humans etched the first symbols onto bone and started wearing shells as decorations. [emphases in original]

My wife and I were spending a couple of days on Virginia Beach as this historical heat spike struck, and felt it keenly.  We felt like the spaceship crew in that classic Ray Bradbury story, soaring too close to the sun.

Virginia Beach sunny morning 2023 July

In the morning, looking out to the eastern sea, my camera trying to cope with the furious sun.

What does this all mean for the future?

I hope that these blazing temperatures convince more people – voters, CEOs, policymakers, consumers – to take climate change more seriously.  We are racing ahead into worse territory, and perhaps cracking heat records will inspire a more forward-looking attitude.

At the same time, I worry that when the temperatures fall again, as they will, and when the smoke recedes, that so will climate from our mental horizons. Climate deniers are quick to pounce on any stray bit of environmental news which complicates simplistic pictures of global warming, and they will chortle when, say, September’s temperatures drop below records for a few days.  More importantly, so many people are now so concerned with so many other issues that they can let this one slip, perhaps filed under “environmental stuff” or “nice to think about, but not necessary today.”

What does this mean for higher education?

I’m already on record as advising colleges and universities to prepare for excessive heat, with all that means.  One immediate action is to create or expand already existing cooling shelters on campus, as well as opening them to the off-campus community, and also pointing academics to community support.  Steadily (if unevenly!) rising temperatures may cause us to rethink schedules – perhaps eliminating summer in-person classes and events.

Unfortunately there is more complexity to the issue. A campus may have provided sufficient cooling for its denizens. That might not assist people living off-campus, from students to staff and faculty, any of whom might not have sufficient air conditioning, especially people who are medically more vulnerable to high temperatures.  Additionally, even if we assume an academic community that’s entirely protected from heat, air conditioning may fail as the local grid strains to cool everyone else under the same temperature.  Recall that the technologies involved – air conditioning units, local power supplies, the power grid in a region, how it connects with other regions – may not all be up to spec, given how unappealing infrastructure investment remains.

Consider this in terms of institutional choices. Should a campus effectively restrict its physical operations for one, two, or three summer months, closing up classrooms and residence halls, focusing resources on maintaining buildings worked by professionals on twelve month contracts requiring them to be on site throughout?  More ambitiously, should campuses in the hottest times shut down completely and shift operations online?

Don’t forget how expensive electrical bills might become when trying to apply cooling to a fiercely heated site.  How can a financially struggling campus choose where and how much to cool? They will have to balance cooling needs against everything else, which means all kinds of comparisons are available. “Did we air condition empty buildings last summer instead of replacing a retiring physicist?”  “Do we have to choose between comfort/safety and decent computer upgrades?”  And so on.

All of the above concerns the physical footprint of an institution.  As always, I remind readers to recall that higher education engages the climate crisis across several other domains.

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

Research: to what extent will excessive heat slow, stymie, or damage scholarship? Think about materials – archives, sites, biomes, equipment – which might not be available above a certain absolute or wet bulb (heat plus humidity) temperature.  Will heat crises slow research agendas? At the same time, will relevant faculty be able to research these crises, perhaps with students as collaborators?

Which brings us to teaching. If a campus is safe, how many students will be pulled towards family elsewhere who are suffering? How will the experience of living through a heat crisis form a student’s attitude towards studying the climate crisis in general? Or, turned around, to what extent can we teach a very immediate heat emergency as an example of a broader curriculum?

In another domain, how does a heat crisis impact academic-community relations?  I’ve already mentioned the possibility of town-gown cooperation on cooling shelters.  Of course, that collaboration can turn to its reverse as either academics or non-academics resent the other for how it handles, or is perceived to handle, the crisis.  To what extent can a financially stressed college open its doors to the community?  How can a county or city justify diverting resources to an academic population sometimes deemed to be privileged? Further, how many faculty, staff, and students can essay the public intellectual role, sharing their academic learning with the broader world to explain, illustrate, or agitate?

Let’s return to the Robinson and McKibben quotes cited above. They remind us that these heat alerts will keep coming and will get worse. This is not a blip. We all need to bear this in mind, make plans, and take steps accordingly.  Things will get hotter.

I’ll pause for now, because this is already a post longer than I planned on, and also because you, dear reader, may already be thinking of other implications. Please do share those thoughts in comments.  Above all: be safe.

Posted in climatechange, personal | 3 Comments

AI, higher education, and the future: launching a Substack

What might new developments in artificial intelligence mean for higher education?

I’ve been exploring this topic for years, and now would like to announce a new project about it.  I’m launching a Substack newsletter, AI and Academia, with the goal of focusing my AI work in one spot. Plus I get to try out Substack.

From my AI Substack first post: me wearing a suit and sunglasses, bringing a briefcase

Here’s the first, introductory post.

So why take this particular step?  Why use Substack, which has various issues?

Several reasons.  First, I’d like to have a dedicated spot for my AI and education research, and this seems to fit that need neatly.  The subject is deep enough and potentially important enough to have its own home, rather than being a strand within a larger site.  (I have been working on a resource website, too. Will announce when it is decent, unless something makes it redundant.)

Second, I’m curious about how Substack newsletter facilitate conversations.  Those of you who know my work know that I’m focused on getting discussions going.  How will readers use this email and web-posted transmissions as prompts?  Will the Notes function actually work?  I hope to add this platform to my decades-long exploration of online communication.

Third, I’d like to see if the Substack economic model will help sustain my work on the topic.  Researching AI and forecasting its academic implications is a major enterprise, and one I don’t currently have any support for, as an independent.  Learning desktop AI packages, keeping up with an explosively fast field, tracking instances and impacts across global higher education, and more – this takes a significant amount of time plus computational costs.  Maybe the Substack model can support me doing the work.  I’m tinkering with it as an experiment.

I’ll continue sharing AI research in other venues, like the Future Trends Forum (three sessions are in the pipeline now!), presentations, workshops, and classes. Depending on how things go, I might do more.

In the meantime, check out AI and Academia and see what you think!

(photo taken by human being Alan Levine way back in 2007; titles automatically generated by Substack software, I think)

Posted in About, automation | 1 Comment

Academia and the climate crisis: snapshots from June, 2023

How might colleges and universities respond to climate change?

I’d like to share several recent stories in this post.  They range from enrollment and academic politics to insurance company behavior.

One caveat: this is just three stories from an enormously complex and huge topic. While we can deduce something from what follows, please don’t read them as dispositive.

ITEM: students at a series of Virginia universities are pressuring administrations to divest from fossil fuel businesses.  Such pressure has taken the form of student government resolutions, student journalism, and petitions, plus demonstrations and political theater:

At the University of Richmond, students in the Green UR group met with university Chief Operating Officer David Hale in February and conducted a march around campus in March…

University of Richmond students march with banner reading end-fossil-finance_Chronicle 2023 June

members of [Virginia Commonwealth University]’s Green Action! this April delivered a divestment petition to President Michael Rao’s office that was placed on a model planet in a casket. The petition also asked the university to provide greater transparency on where investments are going and release data about the school’s carbon emissions.

So far, it seems to still be early days, as “only the University of Virginia has responded to student pressure by altering its investments.”  You can see samples of resistance in this statement:

“You want to balance what you’re doing for students today versus what [you’re doing for] students for tomorrow,” said Bruce MacDonald, chief investment officer for VCU Investment Management Company. “How can we do it so we’re not hurting people today and just favoring people tomorrow? But we also don’t want to kill everybody tomorrow.”

I see these Virginia drives as part of a nationwide, rising current of student (and some faculty and staff) interests in campus divestment as part of growing concern about the climate crisis.

ITEM: another major insurance company is changing its offerings in response to climate change.  The American International Group “is now set to curb home-insurance sales for affluent customers in around 200 ZIP codes across the US.”  Those regions include states dangerously exposed to sea level rise, but also those likely to be hit by high temperatures and desertification: “New York, Delaware, Florida, Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.”

Note how the Insurance Journal describes this move.  It’s hardly a green or left wing outfit, and yet read their analysis:

the AIG move stands out, both because of the broadness of its reach — touching states that are not normally considered in the high-risk pool — and what that breadth says about the years to come. A warming world means rising waters, stronger storms, more wildfires and more places experiencing extreme weather and natural disasters. Anyone in a high-risk area, whether the woods of New Jersey or the floodplains of Illinois, could see their access to insurance affected.

Remember, the insurance industry bases its every move on data.  This story is not exception:

Insurance experts say the industry’s reaction tracks. Natural-disaster losses from 2020-2022 in the US caused a record $275 billion in insured damages, according to the American Property and Casualty Insurance Association. Those figures, combined with the impact of high inflation on replacement costs, have insurers scrutinizing vulnerabilities beyond traditional regions of risk.

AIG’s move is not the first.  As I’ve been noting, other insurance companies have already been reducing their exposure to climate risks by cutting back offerings.

Unity Environmental University sealITEM: a small Maine college switched from in-person teaching to mostly online, and its environmental curriculum drew a massive enrollment increaseUnity Environmental University (Unity College, until recently) now teaches 95% of its students online, with more than 7000 of them, as compared to just 771 a decade ago.

Note how Unity’s upward spike compares to the situations of its geographic neighbors:

Unity’s hard online pivot comes as numerous small, private colleges across the U.S. are struggling. Looking at Unity’s neighbors in the Northeast—which have traditionally focused on residential experiences, as Unity previously did—many colleges have closed due to declining enrollment. And amid difficult economic headwinds, experts expect more colleges to close in the future.

What can we take away from these stories?

Broadly, we’re seeing rising interest in addressing global warming.  The insurance company decision really strikes me, as AIG is a very conservative company by nature and reputation.  At a smaller n the Virginia and Unity stories point to growing interest – among students, and those faculty and staff willing to support them.

The Unity story fascinates me.  It’s one college out of 4,000, and an outlier in many ways: super-tiny to start with, in Maine (unusually underpopulated, white, rural compared to the rest of the USA), and apparently capable of flipping from almost entirely in-person to almost entirely online. Yet it’s one datapoint in favor of an argument I’ve been making for a while: if you build more climate classes, they (the students) will likely come.

Politics: review the range of Virginia divestment tactics. That sketches out various ways academics might press for climate action.  Watch for more.

Insurance: has any college or university experienced anything like this so far?  That is, has any insurance provider refused to cover your campus when it lies in these high risk zones?  Or, instead of cutting you off, increased costs and/or reduced coverage?

If you’re interested in this topic – and if you work in or near academia, you should be – check out my recent book all about it, Universities on Fire.

Posted in climatechange | 2 Comments