Category Archives: cultural anthropology

Enthused Tech

Yesterday, I held a WiZiQ session on the use of online tech in higher education:

Enthusing Higher Education: Getting Universities and Colleges to Play with Online Tools and Services

Slideshare

(Full multimedia recording available here)

During the session, Nellie Deutsch shared the following link:

Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers (1995)

Haven’t read Rogers’s book but it sounds like a contextually easy to understand version of ideas which have been quite clear in Boasian disciplines (cultural anthropology, folkloristics, cultural ecology…) for a while. But, in this sometimes obsessive quest for innovation, it might in fact be useful to go back to basic ideas about the social mechanisms which can be observed in the adoption of new tools and techniques. It’s in fact the thinking behind this relatively recent blogpost of mine:

Technology Adoption and Active Reading

My emphasis during the WiZiQ session was on enthusiasm. I tend to think a lot about occasions in which, thinking about possibilities afforded technology relates to people getting “psyched up.” In a way, this is exactly how I can define myself as a tech enthusiast: I get easy psyched up in the context of discussions about technology.

What’s funny is that I’m no gadget freak. I don’t care about the tool. I just love to dream up possibilities. And I sincerely think that I’m not alone. We might even guess that a similar dream-induced excitement animates true gadget freaks, who must have the latest tool. Early adopters are a big part of geek culture and, though still small, geek culture is still a niche.

Because I know I’ll keep on talking about these things on other occasions, I can “leave it at that,” for now.

RERO‘s my battle cry.

TBC

Selling Myself Long

Been attending sessions by Meri Aaron Walker about online methods to get paid for our expertise. Meri coaches teachers about those issues.

MAWSTOOLBOX.COM

There’s also a LearnHub “course”: Jumpstart Your Online Teaching Career.

Some notes, on my own thinking about monetization of expertise. Still draft-like, but RERO is my battle cry.

Some obstacles to my selling expertise:

  • My “oral personality.”
  • The position on open/free knowledge in academia and elsewhere.
  • My emphasis on friendship and personal rapport.
  • My abilities as an employee instead of a “boss.”
  • Difficulty in assessing the value of my expertise.
  • The fact that other people have the same expertise that I think I have.
  • High stakes (though this can be decreased, in some contexts).
  • My distaste for competition/competitiveness.
  • Difficulty at selling and advertising myself (despite my social capital).
  • Being a creative generalist instead of a specialist.

Despite all these obstacles, I have been thinking about selling my services online.

One reason is that I really do enjoy teaching. As I keep saying, teaching is my hobby (when I get paid, it’s to learn how to interact with other learners and to set up learning contexts).

In fact, I enjoy almost everything in teaching (the major exception being grading/evaluating). From holding office hours and lecturing to facilitating discussions and answering questions through email. Teaching, for me, is deeply satisfying and I think that learning situations which imply the role of a teacher still make a lot of sense. I also like more informal learning situations and I even try to make my courses more similar to informal teaching. But I still find specific value in a “teaching and learning” system.

Some people seem to assume that teaching a course is the same thing as “selling expertise.” My perspective on learning revolves to a large extent on the difference between teaching and “selling expertise.” One part is that I find a difference between selling a product or process and getting paid in a broader transaction which does involve exchange about knowledge but which isn’t restricted to that exchange. Another part is that I don’t see teachers as specialists imparting their wisdom to eager masses. I see knowledge as being constructed in diverse situations, including formal and informal learning. Expertise is often an obstacle in the kind of teaching I’m interested in!

Funnily enough, I don’t tend to think of expertise as something that is easily measurable or transmissible. Those who study expertise have ways to assess something which is related to “being an expert,” especially in the case of observable skills (many of those are about “playing,” actually: chess, baseball, piano…). My personal perspective on expertise tends to be broader, more fluid. Similar to experience, but with more of a conscious approach to learning.

There also seems to be a major difference between “breadth of expertise” and “topics you can teach.” You don’t necessarily need to be very efficient at some task to help someone learn to do it. In fact, in some cases, being proficient in a domain is an obstacle to teaching in that domain, since expertise is so ingrained as to be very difficult to retrieve consciously.

This is close to “do what I say, not what I do.” I even think that it can be quite effective to actually instruct people without direct experience of these instructions. Similar to consulting, actually. Some people easily disagree with this point and some people tease teachers about “doing vs. teaching.” But we teachers do have a number of ways to respond, some of them snarkier than others. And though I disagree with several parts of his attitude, I quite like this short monologue by Taylor Mali about What Teachers Make.

Another reason I might “sell my expertise” is that I genuinely enjoy sharing my expertise. I usually provide it for free, but I can possibly relate to the value argument. I don’t feel so tied to social systems based on market economy (socialist, capitalist, communist…) but I have to make do.

Another link to “selling expertise” is more disciplinary. As an ethnographer, I enjoy being a “cultural translator.” of sorts. And, in some cases, my expertise in some domains is more of a translation from specialized speech into laypeople’s terms. I’m actually not very efficient at translating utterances from one language to another. But my habit of navigating between different “worlds” makes it possible for me to bridge gaps, cross bridges, serve as mediator, explain something fairly “esoteric” to an outsider. Close to popularization.

So, I’ve been thinking about what can be paid in such contexts which give prominence to expertise. Tutoring, homework help, consulting, coaching, advice, recommendation, writing, communicating, producing content…

And, finally, I’ve been thinking about my domains of expertise. As a “Jack of All Trades,” I can list a lot of those. My level of expertise varies greatly between them and I’m clearly a “Master of None.” In fact, some of them are merely from personal experience or even anecdotal evidence. Some are skills I’ve been told I have. But I’d still feel comfortable helping others with all of them.

I’m funny that way.

Domains of  Expertise

French

  • Conversation
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Culture
  • Literature
  • Regional diversity
  • Chanson appreciation

Bamanan (Bambara)

  • Greetings
  • Conversation

Social sciences

  • Ethnographic disciplines
  • Ethnographic field research
  • Cultural anthropology
  • Linguistic anthropology
  • Symbolic anthropology
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Folkloristics

Semiotics

Language studies

  • Language description
  • Social dimensions of language
  • Language change
  • Field methods

Education

  • Critical thinking
  • Lifelong learning
  • Higher education
  • Graduate school
  • Graduate advising
  • Academia
  • Humanities
  • Social sciences
  • Engaging students
  • Getting students to talk
  • Online teaching
  • Online tools for teaching

Course Management Systems (Learning Management Systems)

  • Oncourse
  • Sakai
  • WebCT
  • Blackboard
  • Moodle

Social networks

  • Network ethnography
  • Network analysis
  • Influence management

Web platforms

  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Ning
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Jaiku
  • YouTube
  • Flickr

Music

  • Cultural dimensions of music
  • Social dimensions of music
  • Musicking
  • Musical diversity
  • Musical exploration
  • Classical saxophone
  • Basic music theory
  • Musical acoustics
  • Globalisation
  • Business models for music
  • Sound analysis
  • Sound recording

Beer

  • Homebrewing
  • Brewing techniques
  • Recipe formulation
  • Finding ingredients
  • Appreciation
  • Craft beer culture
  • Brewing trends
  • Beer styles
  • Brewing software

Coffee

  • Homeroasting
  • Moka pot brewing
  • Espresso appreciation
  • Coffee fundamentals
  • Global coffee trade

Social media

Blogging

  • Diverse uses of blogging
  • Writing tricks
  • Workflow
  • Blogging platforms

Podcasts

  • Advantages of podcasts
  • Podcasts in teaching
  • Filming
  • Finding podcasts
  • Embedding content

Technology

  • Trends
  • Geek culture
  • Equipment
  • Beta testing
  • Troubleshooting Mac OS X

Online Life

Communities

  • Mailing-lists
  • Generating discussions
  • Entering communities
  • Building a sense of community
  • Diverse types of communities
  • Community dynamics
  • Online communities

Food

  • Enjoying food
  • Cooking
  • Baking
  • Vinaigrette
  • Pizza dough
  • Bread

Places

  • Montreal, Qc
  • Lausanne, VD
  • Bamako, ML
  • Bloomington, IN
  • Moncton, NB
  • Austin, TX
  • South Bend, IN
  • Fredericton, NB
  • Northampton, MA

Pedestrianism

  • Carfree living
  • Public transportation
  • Pedestrian-friendly places

Tools I Use

  • PDAs
  • iPod
  • iTunes
  • WordPress.com
  • Skype
  • Del.icio.us
  • Diigo
  • Blogger (Blogspot)
  • Mac OS X
  • Firefox
  • Flock
  • Internet Explorer
  • Safari
  • Gmail
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Maps
  • Zotero
  • Endnote
  • RefWorks
  • Zoho Show
  • Wikipedia
  • iPod touch
  • SMS
  • Outlining
  • PowerPoint
  • Slideshare
  • Praat
  • Audacity
  • Nero Express
  • Productivity software

Effective Web searches

Socialization

  • Social capital
  • Entering the field
  • Creating rapport
  • Event participation
  • Event hosting

Computer Use

  • Note-taking
  • Working with RSS feeds
  • Basic programing concepts
  • Data manipulations

Research Methods

  • Open-ended interviewing
  • Qualitative data analysis

Personal

  • Hedonism
  • Public speaking
  • GERD
  • Strabismus
  • Moving
  • Cultural awareness

The Geek Niche (Draft)

As explained before, I am not a “visual” thinker. Unlike some other people, I don’t draw witty charts all the time. However, I do occasionally think visually. In this case, I do “see” Venn diagrams and other cutesy graphics. What I’m seeing is the proportion of “geeks” in the world. And, to be honest, it’s relatively clear for me. I may be completely off, but I still see it clearly.

Of course, much of it is about specifying what we mean by “geek.” Which isn’t easy for someone used to looking at culture’s near-chaotic intricacy and intricacies. At this point, I’m reluctant to define too clearly what I mean by “geek” because some people (self-professed geeks, especially) are such quick nitpickers that anything I say about the term is countered by more authorized definitions. I even expect comments to this blog entry to focus on how inaccurate my perception of geeks is, regardless of any other point I make.

Ah, well…

My intention isn’t to stereotype a group of people. And I don’t want to generalize. I just try to describe a specific situation which I find very interesting. In and of itself, the term “geek” carries a lot of baggage, much of which is problematic for anyone who is trying to understand an important part of the world in which we all live. But the term is remarkably useful as a way to package an ethos, a style, a perspective, an approach, a worldview, a personality type. Among those who could be called “geeks” are very diverse people. There might not even a single set of criteria to define who should legitimately be called a “geek.” But “geekness” is now a reference for some actions, behaviors, markets, and even language varieties. Describing “geeks” as a group makes some sense, even if some people get very sensitive about the ways geeks are described.

For the record, I don’t really consider myself a geek. At the same time, I do enjoy geekness and I consider myself geek-friendly. It’s just that I’m not an actual insider to the geek coterie.

Thinking demographically has some advantages in terms of simplification. Simple is reassuring, especially in geek culture. So, looking at geek demographics on a broad scale…

First, the upper demographic limit for geekery. At the extreme, the Whole Wide World. What’s geeky about The World?

Number of things, actually. Especially in terms of some key technologies. Those technologies some people call “the tech world.” Consumer electronics, digital gadgets, computers…

An obvious tech factor for the upper limit of geekness is the ‘Net. The Internet is now mainstream. Not that everyone, everywhere truly lives online but the ‘Net is having a tremendous impact on the world as a whole. And Internet penetration is shaping up, in diverse parts of the world. This type of effect goes well with a certain type of “low-level geekness.” Along with widespread online communication, a certain approach to the world has become more prominent. A techno-enthusiastic and troubleshooting approach I often associate with engineering. Not that all engineers uses this type of approach or that everyone who uses this type of approach is an engineer. But, in my mind, it’s an “engineering worldview” similar to an updated set of mechanistic metaphors.

Another obvious example of widespread geek-friendly technology is the cellphone. Obvious because extremely widespread (apparently, close to half of the human population of the planet is cellphoned). Yet, cellphones are the geekiest technology item available. What makes them geeky, in my eyes, is the way they’re embedded in a specific social dynamic emphasizing efficiency, mobility, and “always-on connectivity” along with work/life, group/individual, and public/private dichotomies.

The world’s geekiness can also be observed through other lenses, more concerned with the politic and the social drive of human behavior. Meritocracies, relatively non-judgemental ethics, post-national democracies, neo-liberal libertarianism, neo-Darwinian progress-mindedness, networked identities… Figures on populations “affected” by these geeky dimensions of socio-political life are hard to come by and it’s difficult to tell apart these elements from simple “Westernization.” But it’s easy to conceive of a geeky version of the world in which all of these elements are linked. In a way, it’s as if the world were dominated by geekdom.

Which brings me to the lower demographic limit for geekiness: How many “true geeks” are there? What’ are the figures for the “alpha geek” population?

My honest guesstimate? Five to ten million worldwide, concentrated in a relatively small number of urban areas in North America and Eurasia. I base this range on a number of hunches I got throughout the years. In fact, my impression is that there are about two million people in (or “oriented toward”) the United States who come close enough to the geek stereotype to qualify as “alpha geeks.” Haven’t looked at academic literature on the subject but judging from numbers of early adopters in “geeky tech,” looking at FLOSS movements, thinking about desktop Linux, listening to the “tech news” I don’t think this figure is so far off. On top of these U.S. geeks are “worldwide geeks” who are much harder to count. Especially since geekness itself is a culture-specific concept. But, for some reason, I get the impression that those outside the United States who would be prototypical geeks number something like five million people, plus or minus two million.

All this surely sounds specious. In fact, I’m so not a quant dude, I really don’t care about the exact figure. But my feeling, here, is that this ultra-geeky population is probably comparable to a large metropolitan area.

Of course, geeks are dispersed throughout the world. Though there are “geek meccas” like Bangalore and the San Francisco Bay Area, geeks are often modern cosmopolitans. They are typically not “of a place” and they navigate through technology institutions rather than through native locales. Thanks to telecommuting, some geeks adopt a glocal lifestyle making connections outside of their local spheres yet constructing local realities, at least in their minds. In some cases, übergeeks are resolute loners who consciously try to avoid being tied to local circles.

Thanks in part to the “tech industry” connections of geek society, geek-friendly regions compete with one another on the world stage.

Scattered geeks have an impact on local communities and this impact can be disproportionately large in comparison to the size of the geek population.

Started this post last week, after listening to Leo Laporte’s  TWiT “netcast.” 

The TWiT Netcast Network with Leo Laporte

 …

I wanted to finish this post but never got a round tuit. I wanted to connect this post with a few things about the connection between “geek culture” in the computer/tech industry and the “craft beer” and “coffee geek” movements. There was also the obvious personal connection to the subject. I’m now a decent ethnographic insider-outsider to geek culture. Despite (thanks to) the fact that, as a comment-spammer was just saying, I’m such a n00b.

Not to mention that I wanted to expand upon JoCo‘s career, attitude, and character (discussed during the TWiT podcast). And that was before I learned that JoCo himself was coming to Austin during but not through the expensive South by Southwest film/music/interactive festivals.

If I don’t stop myself, I even get the urge to talk about the politics of geek groups, especially in terms of idealism

This thoughtful blogpost questioning the usefulness of the TED conference makes me want to push the “publish” button, even though this post isn’t ready. My comments about TED aren’t too dissimilar to many of the things which have appeared in the past couple of days. But I was going to focus on the groupthink, post-Weberian neo-liberalism, Well/Wired/GBN links, techy humanitarianism, etc.

 

Ah, well… 

Guess I should just RERO it and hope for the best. Maybe I’ll be able to leave those topics behind. RSN

TBC

Only in Austin: P. Terry's Burger Stand

“Only in America” has become something of an expression, in the United States, to talk about things which are possibly only found in this country. As a cultural anthropologist, I can’t help but question the validity of those claims of “American exceptionalism” when I hear them. As a non-citizen, I tend to perceive those claims as rather nationalistic in tone.

But it’s all good.

And it can be fun to apply the same concept to Austin, as it’s a rather unique city. Austinites have almost a patriotic attachment to their city. It might even come from the fact that most of them come from elsewhere… 😉

As the name implies, P. Terry’s Burger Stand is a small hamburger restaurant. Had seen it before (it’s in my neighborhood) but didn’t really know what it was. Noticed that the Austin Chronicle’s readers poll had the place listed as Best Fast Food for 2007. Became intrigued, browsed their site

As it turns out, they’re “Anti-Fast Food” and the owner opened the place after reading Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. They use “ethical” meat, get fresh produce every day, pay their employees decent wages, and seem to genuinely care about things besides profit. They play a bit of “Austin humor” in the fact that their vegetarian burgers are on the “South Austin Addition” part of their menu.

Had “The Double” as a combo, with iced tea as the drink. It didn’t really take longer than at a fast food to get the food ready. The tea was rather good (and unsweetened iced tea is one of the things I like about living in the South). The fries were nice, somewhere between typical fast food fries and genuine Belgian fries. Hadn’t noticed that the double was a cheeseburger (I don’t like processed cheese) but it was rather good as burgers come.

Things which surprise me for such a “high-minded” place:

  • The burger tastes almost exactly like a generic burger from a mainstream chain. Same type of sauce, iceberg lettuce, bun… Not that it’s a bad thing as it probably makes it easier to reach the “mainstream consumers.” But I somehow expected something which would be very unique in taste. Maybe not like La Paryse or even like Frite Alors. But at least like BellePro.
  • It’s mostly a drive-thru. As a compulsive pedestrian, I can’t help but associate drive-thrus with consumer culture, conspicuous consumption, etc. Not as “Anti-Fast Food” as a sit-in burger joint.
  • They use as much wrapping material as any fast food chain location would. It does make sense for a drive-thru to wrap the food but, since I ate on premises, I thought they might have used a reusable tray or something vaguely “ecological” like that.
  • In the “pleasant surprise” category: their food is very decently priced. Especially when compared to the average meal in this city. I also mean to imply that the portions are rather big, which does make their pricing even more impressive but also goes with the whole “American fast food” model.

Overall, a nice experience. And I do perceive something “typically Austin” about the place. It’s both very clearly connected with mainstream U.S. culture and just a bit on the quirky side of things. Noticed the same balance at the Book People bookstore and at the Magnolia Café diner (“Sorry, we’re open”). Not to mention all the coffeeshops like the Flipnotics Coffeespace from where I’m sending this blog entry.

News, Anthropology, Polygamy

This is one for which I need help.

Is there a serious debate, in the U.S., on the issue of polygamy?

Don’t really have access to U.S. television news. Been getting information through many other methods (many of them online). But this one is about television news in the U.S. and it could be interesting.

The latest Borowitz Report (Andy Borowitz’s spoofs, called “shockers”) is about polygamy:

CNN Switches to All-Polygamy Format

One thing about the Borowitz Report is that it often brings my attention to something in the actual news. Then, it’s easy for me to look it up on diverse news services and to dig up more details by going to diverse sources. Because it’s a spoof, the Borowitz Report doesn’t impose its conclusions on me. And it’s usually timely enough that it’s possible for me to read the deeper analysis instead of being caught up in all the knee-jerk reactions.

But, in this case, it’s about television news and mainstream media. My guess is that CNN ran a few stories on Warren Jeffs and such. And there are obviously some entrenched opinions on both sides. But given the fact that kinship systems, including marriage practises, are among the core areas of cultural anthropology, are there people (anthropologists and non-anthropologists) who are discussing polygamy in a broad way? In fact, are people talking about marriage in diverse contexts? Isn’t there anyone talking about the social basis of marriage?

For some reason, in the U.S., many people seem to assume that marriage has to do mostly with love, sexuality, or religion. And people there often think of polygamy as a way for a man to have sexual intercourse with many women. Perhaps because of Hugh Heffner’s life story. But isn’t Warren Beatty proof that you don’t need to be married to have sexual relationships with many different women?

Because of this association of marriage with sexuality, it’s often difficult to get people to discuss the social issues associated with polygyny and other kinship systems. For instance, the actual power afforded women in a polygynous household. Or the economic basis of marriage systems.
The debate over polygamy has been brewing for a while here in Canada and probably in the U.S. (where it’s connected with religion). But I’ve yet to see a serious attempt to discuss it in a thoughtful fashion.

Can anyone prove me wrong?

Thanks.

Getting My Fix

It’s that time of year. Leaves aren’t even falling but classes have started at most academic institutions. Problem is, for me, didn’t get courses to teach this semester. Grrr!
And this is where teaching is “addictive.” No, not like drugs, gambling, WoW, or even pornography. But like Clodhoppers. It just feels right. Or it’s the hype… 😉

Ah, that rush you get from teaching!

Those who haven’t taught can’t really know how it feels. In fact, it’s quite possible that some people who do teach are not feeling it. But once you do feel it, you just want more. Despite all the obstacles. And we all know there’s a lot of obstacles in a teacher’s path! From abuse to social stigma, from grading to excuses… None of it matters. You may tell yourself that you just need one more class to teach, one is never enough.

To make matters worse, every class is different. You think that the next one will be so troublesome that you will run away from teaching but that’s exactly the time when you’re getting the ideal class and you forget all of your resolutions about avoiding the downward spiral of teaching.

Next thing you know, you want to bring a soapbox to the street and teach perfect strangers about the benefits of ethnography or the cultural significance of food. But it doesn’t even stop there. You take a look back at material you prepared for previous semesters and you want to expand them to serve as a basis for “open-source” textbooks. Or you look at your roster for a future semester in awe at the diversity of the student body: from accountancy through women’s studies, from exercise science through biochemistry, from film studies through human relations. And that’s when it becomes really tricky. You can just imagine how fun it’ll be to teach them about uxorilocality, tribes, and friendship. You can almost hear their objections to issues of globalization and ethnicity. You want to reach out to them and prepare reading material to get them started before you even meet. So you go online to your course management system and look at its newest features (if you’re lucky and are using an exceedingly good system like Moodle, Claroline, or Sakai instead of an evil system like Bl*ckb**rd or W*bCT).

What’s worse, you start blogging about the joys of teaching. At night. With no other purpose than getting your fix.

Ah, well…