Archive for September, 2013

September 2013 Fargo Archive Pages

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

September 30

  • Civic literacy blog
    • It’s nice to see that the Center for Civic Literacy at our cousin campus in Indy, the alarmingly named Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis or IUPUI, has a blog underway on civic literacy, a topic they phrase as a worthy question in an early posting: What exactly do American citizens need to know in order to be effective citizens? Another good entry talks about the difference between raising up young people who take satisfaction in volunteering for community service and those who have the skills and motivation to contribute as active citizens in the political process. [My own memory of school is that the first was addressed and the second for the most part was not.] It’s good to see faculty and staff at a public university raising these questions as part of their work.

September 29

  • Spoilers? What spoilers?
    • A small sign of public-spiritedness: it was difficult to get a sense of what was happening in the final episode of Breaking Bad in real time by following the #BreakingBad hashtag on Twitter. Most people were showing great restraint here in the eastern time zone, knowing how many fans were waiting patiently west of here. Well done. I had to read the episode account on Wikipedia to discover what went down.

September 28

  • Stalking the wild di Suvero
    • South Bend has a sculpture called “The Keepers of the Fire” mounted on a platform in the river. It was created by Mark di Suvero in 1980, and he has since placed orange steel sculptures in cities all across North America. This one has sections that move in the wind, and a mirrored surface that I never took much notice of until recently, when a student mentioned that it sometimes reflected the light of the spillway of the low-water dam. She made it sound rather magical, the light playing in the arc of mirror there. I have made a couple of trips to see if I could be there at the right time, in the right light conditions, to see the reflections come alive in the mirror. Twice today I stopped by–it’s just a few minutes from our house–once in bright light and once when the sculpture was in shadow. Both times it was turned away from the spillway, so the mirror was reflecting the calmer waters above the dam. The first time I could see very pale reflections working across the mirror, almost invisible, like the palest edges of a natural gas flame, almost completely without color. The second time the water was dark and mostly still, and the mirror was largely dark as a result, but one edge sparkled between dark and light very steadily. It wasn’t like a flame so much as a mirror, though–the bright light was much more magical than the shade, even though the shade was easier to see. Tomorrow, I hope to have another chance or two in bright light, maybe even facing the spillway if the wind is right. I am persuaded now that there is more to see. The orange structural steel, beams and curves, parts turning slowly, and the arc of mirror catching the light of the moment and holding it there–I like the sculpture more and more.
    • [The Flickr image excerpt by Andrea Wiggins. In this image the mirror, the only part that is not orange, faces away from the photographer.]

September 27

  • The survivor’s lament (Beowulf, lines 2247-2266)
    • You hold the treasures of princes now, earth,
    • now that princes’ hands hold nothing.
    • They took those prizes first from you,
    • before the anguish of battle gripped them.
    • Death took everyone who knew
    • the joys of our people’s great hall.
    • They’ve all left this life.
    • No one carries the sword now,
    • no one polishes the feasting cup.
    • They’ve all gone off somewhere.
    • Now the stout helmet of finely-hammered gold
    • falls to you, the polishers who
    • should shine the war mask sleep.
    • The mail coat that endured battle
    • among the breaking of shields
    • and the bite of swords
    • rusts on a corpse.
    • Its chains won’t ring out
    • while a war-prince rides
    • with heroes beside him.
    • There’ll be no joy from the harp,
    • no hand touching the sweet strings,
    • no hawk flying from beam to beam
    • across the people’s great hall,
    • no swift mare stamping
    • on the courtyard stones.
    • Death has pointed
    • many peoples on their way.
    • Translated from Old English by K.S.

September 26

  • Literacy big and small
    • The article said “mediate” and maybe that’s okay, but I’m looking for more ordinary words to make it clear to myself. The “it” here is literacy. Literacy, small, is the ability to decode the words and send out your own messages and be understood. Literacy, big, is the ability to think it through, not just the message but the context, the implications, the stakes for you and others, the way it does or does not line up with what you know of the world, and the ability to speak back, to push back if need be, to use words to be a player in the world, not just a listener and a reader. The article said literacy, big, was the ability to mediate between yourself and the big world around you. So “mediate” is okay but it has no urgency, no presence, as a word. It holds a good idea at arm’s length when we really need to look it in the eye. But that’s the way specialists tend to talk–in jargon, to their colleagues–when if their field is worth a damn there are people who wish that they would speak with them.

September 25

  • Blogging graffiti-style
    • There is a surprising opening move in an old article by Kenneth Burke where he criticized the book reviews people were writing about a new English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. No, the reviewers weren’t praising the book, they were slamming it, Burke said. But it was how they were doing it that was the problem. They were dropping a few true but easy criticisms and leaving readers no smarter at the end than they were at the start. He called this vandalism–essentially high-class graffiti–and said that it “[contributes] more to our gratification than to our enlightenment.”
    • For Burke, it’s lazy just to tag even this vile book with a few critical slogans and move on. Sure, the book is racist, for example, but spraying that word in large letters across the front of it doesn’t help us figure out how that racism worked so thoroughly as to lead to millions of deaths. There is a mechanism, a vile philosophy, a set of practical political tools, a psychological foundation of human desires and weaknesses all at work here, a body of slogans and imagery, etc., and the accurate word racism does not illuminate this complexity. The writer pats himself on the back; the ready applauds; but the brain shuts down.
    • The chance for understanding requires specificity. When we read a blog post or an editorial or a tweet, the phrases may turn essentially to graffiti–simple phrases repeated in frustration or outrage or self-assurance rather than the specificity of the subject starting to unfold. It’s a question we should be in the habit of asking ourselves: when so-and-so announcer or columnist or blogger gets on a soapbox about this or that topic, are we smarter at the end or have we mainly been tagged with graffiti?
    • And here is the Burke paragraph.

September 24

  • The part for the whole
    • Maybe this is a follow-up from yesterday, the true story of the street preachers and the street theater protestors yelling at each other in Berkeley in 1974.
    • There is a cousin to metaphor and simile, a type of figurative language called synecdoche. It’s a fast way of indicating something big by mentioning only a part of the thing. When it’s done well, the reader gets the big picture from the little piece.
    • “The hand that signed the paper felled the city.” Well, of course it didn’t really. The tyrant signed the order, the army he had assembled over the years carried out the order, but in context the sweeping power of the tyrant leaps out of the synecdoche. The part brings to mind the whole.
    • It has seemed to me that synecdoche is the key to empathy and ethics. At some point in life a person realizes, “I don’t really know what the other person has suffered. Try as I might, I can’t really walk a mile in another person’s shoes.” Once you know that you only partially understand what another person has gone through, you can practice empathy and try to imagine the unseen part. From the part you can look for the whole. A person begins to see it as an ethical obligation to try.
    • But it’s really good to add the insight that synecdoche may imply: you only have partial knowledge. It says to me: I should be modest in my claims about the suffering of others because I only see the part, not the whole. My knowledge is not going to get larger than that. I should speak moderately when it has become clear to me that my knowledge is incomplete. And to the degree that knowledge of my fellow humans always resembles synecdoche, it is always incomplete.
    • And “And yet” will surely follow. A discussion of times one must speak boldly….

September 23

  • A fable (though true)
    • Visiting Berkeley, in 1974, one spring afternoon as the crowds passed up and down Sproul Plaza, I stopped to watch the confrontation between a couple of street preachers and two or three guys who had brought along a large papier-mâché cow nearly as tall as they were. On one side the preachers with Bibles in their hands were threatening damnation and calling people to the Lord, and beside them the young men were inviting people to kneel and pray to their cow. They drove the preachers crazy, all the more so when they said that the cow had been made from pages of Bibles torn from the hands of street preachers. Their sacrilege was deeply intentional and the preachers were outraged. The crowd was fascinated by the conflict, but nobody stopped to attend to either of their calls–nobody stepped up to be saved and nobody knelt down to pray, street-theater-style, to the cow. Off in the distance I could hear a hot dog vendor, one of those people who worked the job so long that he developed a song-like patter, calling out to the crowd. People were lining up for his wares. I remember thinking: His calling out is musical, and sells.

September 22

  • Writing that doesn’t want to conclude
    • Some kinds of writing are stamped with a badge of authority–the king wrote it, say, or the head of the research lab confirmed it, or the writer’s last book won the Pulitzer. Other kinds of writing operate in a space that has been cleared of competing voices, so pieces seem to have authority because of the silence around them. But some kinds of writing come with a little card that says, “This is my best understanding, right now, at the moment.” No external claim of authority, but rather: “Take it or leave it, reader, here is what I have for you today. I’m thinking on my feet. I hope it’s good, sure, but it’s yours for the using now.”
    • A different dynamic forms in writing without claims of authority, both at the writer’s desk and in a reading and writing community. In 2005, Jay Rosen described the results for both writer and community, I believe, when solo and shared inquiry trump claims of authority:
      • Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they’re opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out, re-building it around new stuff. Come to some conclusions? Put them in your weblog, man, but just remember: it doesn’t want to conclude.
    • This won’t stop someone from replying with something dumb or hurtful, but it leaves the door open for conversation. It’s hopeful and realistic about the ways insights build and accumulate when conditions are right. Dogma, by comparison, is pleased with itself and considers its thinking work to be done. [That’s one style of talk radio, for example.]
      • The image above spells out “blog” in semaphore.

September 21

  • Readers write part of the paper
    • The Guardian gives away a nice Jack Wolfskin backpack each week for the best contribution to the reader-generated GuardianWitness Been There travel site. For example, the recent call for 100-word entries on this outdoor walking theme:
      • The UK’s countryside is beautiful for a walk or hike any time of the year, but in autumn, with its dazzling colours and delicate sharpness in the air, there are some trails that really prevail. Where’s your favourite hike to embrace the changing seasons?
    • The principle could hardly be any simpler: Guardian readers know their countryside and can create useful content. All a paper has to do is encourage readers to share in the writing and make those new writers look good with proper design, photography, and editing (as needed). Here is a tempting reader contribution to an earlier call for posts on microbreweries:
      • Beerwolf Books, Falmouth, Cornwall
      • Approaching Beerwolf feels like you’ve stumbled on a secret: it’s up an easy-to-miss alleyway between chain stores, in a beautiful 18th-century building on Bells Court. Through the door, there’s a staircase and a view of shelves of books. So it is a bookshop. Then there’s the smell of beer and the sound of chatter. So it is a pub. There are several cask ales and an interesting range of bottled beer, not only from Cornish breweries.
    • I’d stop by that establishment, and I’d keep reading a local paper that got readers involved that way.

September 20

  • Sorry, no links
    • The campus has a new newsletter, two pages, attractive design, nicely written, with an informative selection of news and views, and even a Twitter #hashtag for stirring up conversation about the contents. It comes as a two-page pdf file via the campus bulletin board, a format that is probably fine for a sizable audience. But no web links, nothing you can click on, even the little articles that you know stand in for a bigger article on the university site. For example, a Nobel laureate is giving a talk in a couple of weeks. Now that’s worth a link, but there are no links, and as far as I can tell the pdf’s content does not live elsewhere in a more web-smart format, like a blog. I would link to it but there is nothing to link to. I would click links to read more but there’s no links to click. I would occasionally throw a few readers over to the newsletter on Twitter, Facebook, and the blog, but no can do. So, there you go. Wanna go hear the Nobel laureate talk? Go find the web page–it’s out there somewhere.

September 19

  • Blogging in an expert society
    • We owe a great debt to experts. They got us to the moon before our enemies; they saved my father’s life in the ICU years ago; they made this truly beautiful machine I am typing on right now; they cured the common cold. [Well, not that last one.] Our debt to experts is profound.
    • By contrast, bloggers cast a ridiculous figure in a society shaped so cunningly by experts. Who are these typists with their stray thoughts and their hopeless, rambling plans? Their informal little essays almost instantly forgotten, their links rotting and, soon enough, cobwebs decorating their servers. Who do these bloggers think they are fooling?
    • But expertise can rob us of a little of ourselves:
      • When we use only the lens provided by a profession, there are some things about our fellow human beings we will never know.
      • When we are guided only by expertly-framed policy, we will from time to time stomp on the souls of other people.
      • When we speak only in the words of expertise, some people will believe that we are also quietly saying, “Be quiet and listen. An expert is speaking. It’s time for you to shut up.”
    • At least there are certain mistakes that bloggers don’t often make:
      • They usually don’t pull rank. They usually don’t insist that a problem can be solved only by a certain kind of expert or talked about only in one kind of language.
      • They tend to think that people’s experience has something to offer. They assume that tradition or dogma should be challenged by people reflecting on their experiences.
      • They get riled up, but down deep they like to hear more voices, not fewer. They want their turn to speak, not the only turn. They get really impatient, but down deep they want democracy.
    • So: we bloggers aren’t entirely serious. That is our weakness and our strength. We aren’t systematic. That helps free us from the ethical failings of expertise. We have no authority and we can’t make people listen. That means that the people who turn our way are free people, making their own choices. Those are very cool people to have as friends. No money changes hands, just ideas and experiences. Nobody pulls rank. And on a good day, interesting things get said and sometimes they ripple out into the world. In an expert society, bloggers give me hope.

September 18

  • Generosity of the web: Chess department
    • I noticed the generosity of the digital age even in my earliest days reading email lists, when I had a phone modem in our cinder block apartment on the Rutgers campus in Piscataway, New Jersey. The modem’s speed was 200 words per month or something similar, but still there were people in my field all across North America trading ideas every day. It was a bookish, trivia-loving crowd, admittedly, and I signed off one list in despair after most of the crew spent several days remembering every pop song that used spelling in its title or lyrics: “Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E became final today….” D-O-Z-E-N-S of these songs came to the minds of the assembly that week.
    • But on my main list there were these elders in the field who would show up day after day and share resources and answer questions and point people in the direction of previous studies or mention who someone should email or call to collaborate on a project. The generosity was mild-mannered, anything but pushy, and somewhere between tireless and infinite on the stamina scale. Younger folks would be working on a problem in the field, and this handful of elders would just simply help out. Every day.
    • When I started blogging, in 2003, I quickly ran into communities of bloggers who had the same ethic. Librarian-bloggers, for sure, and educators interested in making the web work for the good of students, for example. And occasionally I’d see the same thing in the land of various pastimes and hobbies, such as chess.
    • And the bedrock generosity of some folks online continues today. I ran across the YouTube chess feed of Mato Jelic, a teacher who has given the world over 800 short videos celebrating and unpacking the brilliance of the games of great masters. He shows the board, the moves of a particular game, and some alternate variations, all the while talking casually about chess tactics. Even with my over-the-hill chess brain I can feel neurons being nudged into fresh alignments when I watch one of Mato’s videos. And you have not trouble spotting his love for the game.
    • People talk more about spam and the cruelty of the web, but this other strand is also everywhere, in abundance, and has been for years.

September 17

  • Adequate mental health care
    • People come up to me in parking lots and compliment our bumper sticker. I have to agree with them. I’m grateful to the friend who created the design and had a big pile of them printed. The bumper sticker says:
    • “I Wish Adequate Mental Health Care Was as Easy to Get as a Gun.”

September 16

  • Manologues
    • The videos are out, a little rough around the edges but you can get the idea. Men from the community writing stories that they might otherwise never tell, submitting them anonymously to the reader’s theater group, where they are shaped into an evening’s performance. This was the first year but it will become a tradition here, as it follows on a longtime women’s Michiana Monologues series with the same structure. The results, in both cases, are funny, thought-provoking, moving, and, in spite of how deep a person’s woes can sometimes be, affirming. Things about men’s lives right here, right now, get said that otherwise would simmer on for who knows how many years in silence. Proceeds from both the men’s and women’s shows go to local anti-violence and family justice centers–just beautiful.
    • Here is an example from the Manologues show, at 9:05 of the first video. Later in life a man recalls how as a child he could see his father struggling and eventually being swept under by his demons, while he as a boy felt keenly both powerful love and powerlessness.
    • So: Part 1 and Part 2 of the 2013 performance. Their website, where they tell the production’s full story and where writers can submit work later in the year for the 2014 production.
    • But don’t miss the joyful finale!

September 15

  • Or not
    • News that gets out stays out? I thought the title of my last post was clever, but since I hit “Publish” I have wondered if it is only partially true. I think, for example, of the urge to speak indicated by graffiti in any American city. In South Bend a huge gallery of art underneath one of the river bridges was painted over a couple of years ago, and as far as I can tell no record remains online. I was fond of one image particularly, a huge ant peeking over a wall almost exactly as the playfully drawn Kilroy did in World War II-era “Kilroy was here” graffiti.
    • My favorite South Bend street image probably lasted only a few days. It was a blue man with his mouth sealed by an X of tape above the slogan, “Where is your voice?” It looked like it was a stencil and spray paint job and it was centered on a really prime section of wall on the downtown river walk, almost exactly as a painting would be hung in the galleries immediately across the river in the South Bend Museum of Art. If it was a stencil job, then maybe it will appear again someday, who knows. The city painted over it very neatly–they don’t always bother to make a reclaimed wall look good, by the way.
    • Here and on Twitter I’m very interested in voices that are heard or silenced, news that gets out, or not. Images that are seen or obscured. The structures of society that influence who is heard, and the impact of these inequalities on our democracy and our quality of life.

September 14

  • News that gets out stays out
    • The Chinese national arts censors asked film director Jia Zhangke to make surprisingly few changes to his new film, “A Touch of Sin,” even though it tells embarrassing stories about contemporary China. Why? According to reporter Edward Wong‘s NY Times article, the answer involves social media’s ability to make events part of the public record.
    • In spite of state oversight, Jia’s new film tell stories of individuals grappling with troubling political, economic, and social conditions:
      • “In these few years, because of the speed of China’s transformation, I have become very interested in history,†Mr. Jia said. “And I have also become interested in China’s societal problems, its economic problems, its political problems. So I feel now with ‘A Touch of Sin,’ it’s not just an issue of individual emotions, but it is also an expression of the state of the entire nation…. Reform has brought about many problems…. Prominent among these are the problem of social inequality and problems such as distribution of income.â€
    • Now Jia is telling the stories of individuals lashing out violently against the conditions of their lives, which could easily have tempted the state censors to react more firmly than they did, in the interests of good national publicity. Jia has become just the kind of artist a country touchy about the control of image and information would censor. But social media was already playing a public role.
    • Thanks to “the world of Twitter-like microblogs, which many Chinese have been reading in recent years to get the unvarnished daily news and opinions that are all but absent from the state-run news media,” the four interwoven stories in this movie, and other stories like them, were already part of the public record. This fact, the director suggests, protected his film from strong censorship. The kind of stories he was telling had already broken out:
      • The news articles on which the film was based had already made the rounds on microblogs. The narratives had entered the public consciousness in a way that might never have happened 10 or even five years ago, before the Internet became such a social force in China.
    • But even though the news was out, Jia points out that these violent episodes are not well understood there “because society has never had a widespread discussion of the problem.” Here a distinction is made between the attention that is drawn and paid via social media and the kinds of discussions that form a national consensus and then shape policy. As an artist, he heard the evidence and witness of the microblogs and Internet news feeds, but still saw the nation in a state of emergency requiring a response: “Certain things need to be said, and need to be said directly, clearly, to as large, and as activated, a Chinese audience as possible.†Because social media attuned people to the crisis, but could not resolve the crisis, it was a necessary but not sufficient tool for Chinese society facing its problems. Other arts and other institutions need to be healthy and active in order to work the issues further.
    • Edward Wong’s article helps us understand more exactly the nature of social media–not a replacement for other forms of media and other institutions but a necessary widening of a society’s toolkit. A way of preparing the ground for more focused national conversations and a way of keeping the pressure on. The chatter on a Twitter or Weibo can swell into political awareness but the working out of a national consensus about action probably cannot be completed there. Great social decisions are not, so far, anyway, made on Twitter.
    • It might be interesting to think more, too, about why Jia told these stories in a familiar martial arts genre–perhaps audiences can empathize and understand challenging material more readily through the lens of a familiar kind of story? I don’t know.
    • [“Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China,” NY Times, 9/14/13]

September 13

  • Fast food follies
    • So there I was, betraying my principles, contradicting my religion . . . well, maybe just disobeying my doctor’s orders, walking into a fast food restaurant. I’d been running errands, and I needed a quick lunch. I thought maybe a fish sandwich and some fries would go down easy. I tossed my dietary scruples aside and walked up to the counter, where a pleasant, clean-cut young man in a tan shirt offered to take my order. I mentioned the fish sandwich and the fries, and I thought maybe they could throw in a medium cola and a cheeseburger, just to round things out. The total did some major damage to a $10 bill.
    • I saw my sandwiches make their way up the cooking line. A woman in a blue shirt walked over to the bin where sandwiches awaited their fate. As she did, she raised her right arm, tilted her head down, and quickly and quietly coughed, just once, into her hand. Now I was really interested. I watched her read my order from the big screen, then grab both my sandwiches from the bin and slide them into a brightly-colored paper bag. She dropped in the order of fries, folded the bag closed, and turned and handed my fresh, tasty lunch to the young man at the register. Now I faced a dilemma. Should I make a bit of a scene? I reached back for a combination of good manners and self-assertiveness, and I said to him,
    • “Just before she filled my bag there, she coughed into her hand. So I was thinking maybe we should do this whole thing over.†He turned to his co-worker and said, “The customer said you coughed into your hand and he’d like a fresh order of food.â€
    • She blandly asserted her innocence, then told the cook to remake the order. The young man put the first bag of food under the counter, and everyone waited. I watched with renewed interest as a lovely new fish sandwich, hidden from germy danger in its box, made its way slowly toward the woman in blue. I caught the eye of the young man and started rubbing my hands together in the air – the universal sign for handwashing. “Maybe it’s time for her to go wash up,†I said. The poor guy turned to his co-worker and, using all the politeness his mother had taught him, said, “The customer thinks you should go wash your hands.â€
    • She disappeared into the back of the kitchen for a minute or two, and soon the young man handed me a fresh bag of food. A few days later, in a friendly way, I told the story to one of the managers. She coughed into her hand, I said. So then she went to wash her hands, the manager asked, cheerfully. No, I said, she assembled my bag of food. So then she went to wash her hands, the manager asked, hopefully. No, I said. I requested a new bag of food. So then she went to wash her hands, the manager asked, faltering just a little. No, I said. Everyone waited for new food to be cooked, and I suggested that she go wash her hands. So then she went to wash her hands, the manager asked one last time, always looking for the good in people. Yes, I said, then she went to wash her hands.
    • You’d think I would have savored my lunch that day – those sandwiches so freshly prepared, my little victory over bad manners so fresh in mind, myself so thoroughly in the right that nobody could say a word against me. But no. For who cannot identify with that employee? Who has not taken a shortcut or skipped a procedure or overlooked a little personal failure? It could as easily have been me sliding sandwiches into the bag with my germy hands. For as my mother tried to teach me long ago, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. [Source]

September 12

  • Our fading Do Not Call law
    • The regional public radio station gives me four minutes of air time every seven weeks to talk about quality of life here in the area. A few years ago I wrote about Indiana’s Do Not Call law, which for a time was among the strictest in the country. The law made for a huge reduction in the number of unsolicited sales phone calls most of us received at our homes.
    • But now the calls are coming back–more often, and more companies, though some of them may be the same companies using the same methods in difference industries. Credit cards and home security systems have been most common.
    • I managed once, a few years ago, to record one of the calls in which the person I was speaking to said that it was not against the law to call because he was representing the federal government. It was a gutsy, I-don’t-give-a-damn performance on his part. I wrote the Indiana attorney general’s office to let them know that I had this recording, but got no answer.
    • So I told the whole story on the public radio, and I sent that along to the attorney general, and now that they saw I was actually reaching a wide audience they answered me. So it goes.
    • Now there is a different attorney general and I’ve written to ask for an update on the issue. I told them I might be getting some coverage in the media up front this time, so we’ll see if they reply. I’ll report back later. Until then, would you like a free home security system? Cause I know a company that will be in your area later this week installing these fine systems for people just like you.
    • Want to read more? Here’s the first of my radio pieces, in which all my elected officials in Washington blew me off until they knew I had access to public radio. And here, in the second of the radio pieces, at 3:30 in the audio, the lying son of a gun credit card salesman tells me over the phone that he works for the federal government. And the office of the attorney general is too busy to reply to my query until they hear that I have media access.

September 11

  • Aids to invention
    • Poets like rhyme not just because it’s part of their tradition or because it makes their poems easy to remember or because it helps give a musical effect to the lines or because it links the meaning of two words or because it can be witty. All true, but there is this other thing. Rhyme is an aid to invention. The poet says, essentially, I am going to force myself to think about possible words for the next line that I would probably have never considered. For the sake of rhyme, I am going to try out language in this draft that I would never have bothered with. And sometimes, as a result something fresh and surprising happens.
    • And that means that, for poets, rhyme is an aid to invention. As a starting blogger, back in 2003, I used pMachine software, which included a calendar in the sidebar highlighting each day of the month whether there was a posting. The blue highlights were clickable links and the purpose was to draw readers further into the site, but I loved to see the weeks fill up, without, if possible, missing any days. The challenge of daily writing all by itself was an aid to invention. The discipline of at least trying, of looking around for topics, of reading other writers and seeing if there was something I could contribute to their conversation. The image of the calendar as a reminder of my aspiration to write daily. The truth that along with the weak entries daily writing captured good things that would otherwise never have been written at all, possibly never even been thought about. So the calendar visible on the page, the habit and aspiration of daily writing, the not-so-intimidating format of a blog post, the appeal of having a real audience–all these things help make blogging itself, and a good blogging tool, into aids to invention. Bravo.

September 10

  • Johns Hopkins and academic blogging
    • In helping to tease the Johns Hopkins faculty censorship story into public view, longtime academic blogger Jay Rosen beautifully, at lightning speed, and just in passing, sketches what should be a seamless bond between traditional faculty duties and blogging:
      • In commenting critically on a subject he is expert in, and taking an independent stance that asks hard questions and puts the responsibility where it belongs, Matthew Green is doing exactly what a university faculty member is supposed to be doing. By putting his thoughts in a blog post that anyone can read and link to, he is contributing to a vital public debate, which is exactly what universities need to be doing more often.
    • The reward system for most faculty ignores or devalues this public role. This institutional structure famously tempts faculty to turn inward toward a small and narrow audience made up of only disciplinary peers. As a result, they (we) serve our communities less well and in time come to deserve the ivory tower stereotypes that are applied to us.
    • Of course there is more. Writing for a wide, thoughtful, general audience involves academics in a more layered exchange of ideas and information than we would otherwise see. We academics get smarter when we listen to more people. This is one of the normal experiences of web publishing that most academics never bump into.
    • A later stage in the Hopkins story here.

September 9

  • Slow learner
    • It’s true, I’m a slow learner. I want to read what my old friends, neighbors, and colleagues post on social media, and I set the Sort button on Facebook to “Most Recent” and not to “Top Stories”–which I don’t know the meaning of, anyway. Then I seem to get the most recent posts from friends and neighbors and colleagues. Seem to. Then a few days pass and I notice that FB has changed the setting over to “Top Stories” without asking. I change it back. A few days pass, FB changes it back again. Sometimes I complain but there’s nobody to complain to, nobody at FB who would ever read the posting. And tonight, FB changed the setting back a second time in a single day. I’m a slow learner but I’m starting to get the picture:
      • There’s nobody to complain to. They don’t care and they don’t listen. It’s their playground and they make all the rules and we don’t get to know what the rules are anyway. Thanks, Facebook.

September 8

  • Young people, reflecting
    • The Corner Office interview in the NY Times almost always has good advice for young people in the final question or two. Today Adam Bryant asks Daniel Lubetzky what he would tell graduating seniors, but the answer, I think, should reach younger college students, too. He recommends turning off the gadgets and making time for introspection, for thinking about your values and evaluating your efforts:
      • The most important is to make sure that you talk to yourself, that you think hard about what’s important to you and gives you meaning. When I was 19 and walking between classes, I didn’t have a phone, so my brain would take me in different directions. And it’s so healthy and important to be thinking, “Oh, I could have done that better.†Or, “What about this idea?†But nowadays, we’re on our iPhones all the time, and you don’t have time to talk with yourself, to analyze.
    • I imagine that most college students don’t have anyone sharing this kind of good advice, but Adam Bryant gives it away for free a couple of times a week in his interviews. I often start by reading the final few questions.

September 7

  • Passivity? You’re soaking in it!
    • Here is one good reading of what’s at stake in our passive, consumer society today, by Kurt Spellmeyer:
      • If culture is where we live, so to speak, if it gives form to our values and extends them into the future, then the promise of democracy remains unrealized so long as most of us are uninvolved in the making of culture itself. (Arts of Living 7)
    • My quick read, maybe unfair, maybe too gloomy, is that the average university course focuses on replicating expertise within the limits of a single discipline, not on tools for creativity or collaboration, and usually not on interdisciplinary tools either. My quick read is that the university does not entirely support consumer culture but it does not really take it on either, not in its teaching methods. A course reading or lecture might offer an intellectual critique of consumer culture, but the medium by which this message is communicated is still a problem.
      • Passivity? You’re soaking in it! [Just ask Madge.]

September 6

  • While freedom slowly broadens
    • On March 5, 1946, someone, presumably Frank McCluer, the president of Westminster College, introduced President Harry Truman, who then quickly introduced former prime minister Winston Churchill, who went on to give the “Sinews of Peace” speech famous for the phrase “iron curtain” that sharply defined the conflict between Soviet-dominated countries and western European countries after World War II. It was a big day in Missouri higher education and in world political thought. But not remembered: McCluer’s brief introduction (audio: 2:03-2:37) described a long history in which:
      • …freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent.
    • McCluer’s phrase helps me think about how democracy works. It is true that elections steer the great, heavy, slow-turning ship of state a little bit, one way or another, and some elections are decisive. But those precedents are another matter. They often come at the end of long periods of activism and debate, and they define one political concept or another newly or more decisively, and their definitions endure. They guide us for years ahead, and if McCluer was correct, they are the markers of freedom’s progress over the centuries.
    • The role of citizens in an election: at the least, it is to vote. The role of a citizen in setting a new precedent that redefines and broadens freedom: activism. The difference is huge, isn’t it? [More ideas from that introduction about the role of higher education in bringing decisive ideas to the wider community.]

September 5

  • Outlining Syria
    • Daniel Bentley is setting a great example at his Worknotes site, using the Fargo outliner to capture, organize, link to, and annotate resources addressing our possible Syrian military strike. Each day’s entry includes several standard categories–a recent day included eighteen entries sorted into six categories. The annotations, usually two or three lines long, are specific enough to help a reader decide whether to click the link, and the fact that they can be hidden and revealed adds a layer of practicality to the page. You could do all this without an outliner tool, but you’d be making work for yourself and your readers to do so.

September 4

  • Of use in the world
    • It’s fun to make up a statistic. Here goes. Right around 96.5 % of all school work carried out in the United States this year will be thrown away after it has been completed.* Sure, you might come up with a different number–after all, students make cool stuff worth keeping in art classes, for example. But most of the rest is tossed away at the end. It’s a test, really, in which we say to students:
      • How long are you willing to carry on doing things you would never in your right mind choose for yourself to do? If your answer is “a long time,” then you’re the one we want. You’re just our kind of young worker.
    • But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Find an out-of-print document that tells part of the history of your town, say, a pre-1923 text with no copyright problems attached, and work up a small custom-published print-on-demand edition of it with your students. Study the context, the main players, the key terms. Gloss difficult references. Write an introduction together that helps a reader make good use of the text. Proofread it like crazy. Hold a public reading. Get your students into the newspaper with their project. Have a companion website. Blog the whole process. With the students, finish up by writing a guide to how to carry out this kind of project. Etc.
      • For example, in the history museum here is a log book of all trading post sales made in the earliest days of this settlement. How cool is that? I don’t know, I’ve never seen it. It’s fragile and not on display for the public and it has never been published. Correct me if I’m wrong, but people would love to have access to it, yes?
    • Next year, have the new students update the little volume and then make another. Send your students on their way with 21st century publishing skills and a clear memory of a time when they made something in school that was of use in the world.
    • * * * * *
    • *Just to make sure I’m being clear: I made up the number, for fun. But it’s more or less correct, isn’t it?

September 3

  • Tech for democracy
    • I subscribed to a daily email for a member of Parliament, to see how They Work For You gets the word out for British citizens who want to keep their elected officials accountable. I picked one I knew from past episodes of Murdoch scandal news, Tom Watson. Now I receive a daily email from the site, very nicely set up. Their motto is: Keeping tabs on the UK’s parliaments & assemblies.
    • This morning there is an email, for example, letting me know exactly what Watson said in Parliament yesterday. A link in the email takes me to this page, right down the page to where Watson asks a question of the Secretary of State, who replies in the following paragraph.
    • In the right margin, several options present themselves. I can write a blog post linking to Watson’s single speech or to his speech in the context of the ongoing debate. I can see where this debate appears in the Hansard, which is the rough equivalent of our Congressional Record. Readers who are logged in can add annotations to the speech, providing context or rebuttal or informative links–that’s pretty nice. Some key terms in the speeches are set up as links to informative pages of various kinds.
    • And each speaker’s name links to a page devoted to information about his or her record of public service. On Tom Watson’s page, like the others, you find an astounding assembly of information. Voting and committee records, profiles on journalism sites, financial records, key issues for this figure, some statistical data, ways to communicate with the person, social media sites, and more. Also, on each of these individual pages there is an invitation to sign up for the daily emails covering the Parliamentary speeches and votes of that person.
    • That’s a very nice example of Tech for Democracy, isn’t it? Correct me if I’m wrong, but here in the United States we don’t have any tracking of elected officials as good as this in place, do we?
    • PS. On 9/3 I wrote both Indiana Senators through their web submission sites about this excellent tool now in use overseas, and the two websites returned form email messages within the hour, both promising a proper reply sometime soon. Just now, on 9/10, a second form email has arrived from our Democratic senator, caste as a reply but not mentioning the particular thing I wrote about in any way.

September 2

  • Students, against their will
    • So I was thinking about students who resist their schooling and, by chance, while wandering around in the essays of Samuel Johnson and a book about him, I came across this:
      • Men may be convinced, but they cannot be pleased, against their will. (Life of Congreve, II, 217)
    • We teachers may very well overpower our resistant students for a time — some of our colleagues may do little else, I suppose. But each student still chooses an attitude toward our coercions, and in the long run, based on our own experience as students, shouldn’t we suspect that the coerced will wise up and make their own decisions? When students assent to a teacher’s coercion, isn’t it little more than a way of saying, “Yes, you have the power today”?
    • But, to return to a phrase from another post, if the work we’re doing together seems to make a difference, then a student might assent not to a teacher’s power but to the value of the work. The student would be saying, in effect, “I accept this this project as my own.” When you can rise in the morning and say that about the heart of your day, life is probably pretty good, yes? [Source]

September 1

  • Blogging as dwarvish cryptography
    • Elrond, the elf master of the Last Homely House, in The Hobbit, reads a mysterious treasure map made by dwarves, at first using the light of the room and then moonlight, letting the beams shine through from the back of the map. Along with the runish letters visible to anyone there are moon-letters, which can only be read by the light of the same shape moon and in the same season as when the letters were first written. (On 53 in the Del Rey paperback.)
    • The best scripters could easily create a blog whose posts were only available in the same stage of moon as when they were written. That would make a curious web site, something like waiting for some rare flower to bloom, as it does, once a decade for one hour in the dead of night.
    • In a sense the deep archive of an old site like Scripting News is a collection of moon-letters — the old messages vanish (in part because of their large number and in part because their context is lost) and all we see are the posts visible to the naked eye, today’s or this week’s. True, there is a search engine, but there are thousands of messages you will never find because you don’t know how to call them up, unless you are the sort of scholar who gives up his life to run his fingers over the traces of someone else’s life.
    • Blogs, then, as dwarvish cryptography, with no masterful Elrond waiting at the Last Homely House to read the words, to replenish the saddlebags with food, to fill us with hope and good wishes, before we set out on a dark quest. That’s why I think some bloggers should mine their archives and write a book. [Source]
  • Why I give reading quizzes
    • I sent this note via the online course software to my undergraduate class just now. If you see a way to improve on this approach, I’d be pleased to hear.
      • Class members, this is a quick reminder that we will sometimes have a reading quiz at the start of class. You know from past experience how much better a course is when people have done the reading ahead of time and given it some thought, and that is what a quiz might ask you about: basic details that a careful reader will have noticed, along with an opportunity to show that you have thought about the reading–maybe connected it in your mind to previous readings, previous class conversations, or things you know from other classes and readings or from life experience. All of those are great ways to prepare to contribute well to class discussion.
      • Because that kind of serious homework preparation hugely changes the quality of a college course, I ask you to do it. In my experience, the conversations are deeper and many more people speak up, and both of those things are great to see. If you have suggestions about other ways to strengthen the preparation for class and the class discussions themselves, please let me know. I look forward to our conversations.
    • I also usually ask undergraduates to evaluate their preparation and participation from time to time during the semester.
  • What students love
    • The book group had been meeting every other Tuesday for several weeks, and many good ideas about the campus came up for discussion along the way. But I sat up and took note when a colleague said this:
      • Students love it when faculty ‘own up’ to not knowing something. (R. duC)
    • I connected this sentence immediately to another thought I had been carrying around for a few weeks, something spoken by a teacher to a group of students:
      • I don’t know how you will apply this [thing we are studying] in your life. (Source lost)
    • Seen together, the two sentences help teachers remember why students aspire to be the center of their own learning. It’s respectful for us to help them do so, and important, too, since they become the users of the knowledge that is passed down and reshaped for new times and invented wholesale along the way. And between the respect and the potency of knowledge that they get to work with, students become energized as learners. You remember whenever you’ve witnessed such a thing in your own school.
    • Too often, however, we behave as though we know down deep that we must eventually pass along the cultural heritage, the tools and habits of mind and bodies of information that is our common property, but we don’t want to let it quite out of our hands just yet:
      • No, you can have this stuff later. You know, it’s the good stuff, so we can’t let you try it out just yet. While you’re waiting, could you memorize this other stuff here for a quiz? [Source]
  • Silencing the natural stakeholders
    • That’s the move you want to make if you are at ease with your authority and judgment and see no reason to share power. One of the clearest expressions of this problem I’ve seen came from Celina Su (@CelinaSu) in a brief NY Times letter in 2009. Talking about school reform, she spoke of the deep knowledge held by students, who “simmered with complex analyses of the ways in which school conditions prevented them from learning.” Occasionally, students rise up and demand a seat at the table when their schools are being discussed, but how often are they invited naturally, without pressure? The powerful are almost always comfortable keeping hold of the controls. Su’s writing about this problem continues. My fuller reaction to her 2009 letter went this way:
    • Silencing the stakeholders. One way to make clear the power of social media is to identify the thing that is broken without it. Clay Shirky, I’m guessing, might speak about creating the opportunity to coordinate a group that can’t easily act in concert, or to call to the microphone a group that usually can’t speak on its own behalf. I noticed in a 5/11/09 letter to the NY Times from Celina Su a classic circumstance where a group is ordinarily silenced even when they are central figures in a social structure.
    • Su is responding to a David Books column that sets up a particular school as a model for reform. He concludes one thing about the meaning of the example the school provides, and Su asks him to slow down and reconsider a wider body of evidence. She talks about listening to the students themselves, who are in one way the most expert of anyone involved in the schools. Midway through the letter, Su says:
      • It’s startling that urban youth remain hypervisible symbols of the “culture of failure†but are never quoted as the ultimate stakeholders in education policy debates.
      • Once we get numbers [indicating success] like those Mr. Brooks trumpets, we need to ask the students themselves about the causal links. The students my colleagues and I spoke with simmered with complex analyses of the ways in which school conditions prevented them from learning.
    • There is the classic social structure that can be challenged by enlightened practices among bureaucrats or careful work by researchers or by grass-roots organizing or by engaging with social media: “…never quoted…the ultimate stakeholders…simmered with complex analyses of the ways in which school conditions prevented them from learning.”
    • Silenced. Knowledge ignored. Activity toward goals thwarted. Then what? Rage? Alienation? Indifference? Cynicism? And so forth.
    • I recall having been invited to help review my own high school’s programs when I was 16 or so, and in many ways this was the most powerful part of my education in those years. It was a chance to speak on something that mattered and that was close to my experience. It was a challenge for me to formulate useful ideas about the swirl of experience, too. It felt respectful to have been asked and to have been given a seat at the table, along with some of my classmates. It felt great, and I learned a lot. In other areas, those years were pretty standard times of alienation and waiting for life to open up.
    • The school’s review created a structure for engagement, just as social media do now for some people. Su’s letter clarifies the circumstances that mark the problem, all too common, and hint at some different kinds of solution.