Category Archives: knowledge management

Free from Freelance

For my Happiness Anniversary, this year, I got myself a brand new job.

Ok, it was two days late and a job isn’t really a gift. But it’s the thought that counts.

We’ll see how things go, but the position (Learning Technology Advisor) is right in line with things I already enjoy doing. Such as enabling technological appropriation in learning contexts. And holding thoughtful group discussions on interesting issues. And trying out new tools. And discussing learning objects and learning objectives. All things I’d probably do, regardless of my employment status.

So the work itself is likely to be very satisfying.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a fulltime dayjob. Years. Not that I haven’t been employed fulltime during that period. I did cumulate quite a few hours of work, most years. But they were part of different jobs, contracts, contexts. Which means that very significant a part of my “bandwidth” had to do with professional development. It also meant that my status tended to fluctuate. Teaching part-time was a large part of it, but a major distinction between part-time workers and fulltime ones relates to identity, status, recognition. For instance, sharing an office with a few colleagues is quite different from having your own.

I start my new job Tuesday, so I’ll know more by then (such as the office situation). But I’m already getting different interactions with people, such as this one teacher who says that we now have good reasons to be even better friends.

What’s funny is that the onset of my 2008 Happiness Phase coincided with my shift to freelancing. Had been doing several different things before that, mostly revolving around teaching and learning. But, from that point on, I allowed myself to take on contracts as a freelancer. I was no longer a Ph.D. candidate trying to squeeze in some work opportunity in view of an academic job. I was in control of my professional life, despite all the difficulties associated with freelancing.

It was a nice run. Ebbs and flows. Had the opportunity to try out many different things, sometimes within the same period of time. Landed a part-time position at a startup/community organization where the fit wasn’t great. Struggled to find a balance between acting as my own self and looking for new opportunities at every occasion. Had slow periods which made me question things. Coped with health issues in ways which would have been impossible while working fulltime. Invested time and money in all sorts of things to improve my life as a self-employed individual…

Overall, I learnt a lot. Much of it will be useful in fulltime work.

Though the job is fulltime, it’s based on a renewable contract. When, during the job interview, the HR advisor asked me for my thoughts on this situation, my whole freelance experience was behind me. No, it’s not an issue. I’ll manage even if it’s not renewed. But I’m starting a new life.

Something else about this new life connects to 2008. It’s in a Cegep.

Cegeps are Quebec public colleges for both vocational and pre-university education. I care deeply enough about the Cegep system to defend it. More than once. It’s occasionally under attack by politicians who try to stir things up. But it’s a part of post-secondary education in Quebec which makes it unique. Having taught in diverse places, I find that it makes a significant improvement in university life here. It also enables the kinds of training and learning that  people really need, as “adulteens” (very young adults who are also “teen-aged”). In the past week, even before settling down in my new position, I got to see some impressive things happening in Cegeps. I sincerely think that cegeps are an example to follow, not an anomaly. Similar systems exist elsewhere (from “gymnasium” and “international baccalaureate” to “prep schools” and “community colleges”). But Quebec’s Cegep network is its own very specific thing, fully adapted to its own cultural and social context.

Surely, I’ll have a lot more to say about Cegeps as I work in one.

The connection to 2008 is much more personal. At the time, I was going through a difficult transition in my life. Questioning all sorts of things. Growing dissatisfied with the model for university careers (especially tenure-track professorships and what they entail). Thinking of “what I could do with my life”…

…when it suddenly hit me: I could work in a Cegep.

Can still remember the overwhelming feeling of comfort I experienced when that thought hit me. It was so obvious! So fitting! Sure, there’d be some difficulties, but nothing impossible. I was ready, then, to embark in a Cegep career.

It’s not what happened, right away. I came back to Quebec from Texas and applied to a few things in Cegeps. Was getting other contracts, including teaching contracts at Concordia (where I started teaching in 2006). Never abandoned the idea of working in a Cegep but “life had other plans”, at the time.

I did do several things which got me closer to the Cegep system. Including participations in every MoodleDay event at Dawson. And workshops with Cegep institutions. I even participated in a living lab on educational innovation with the very organization which just hired me (lab summary in French). Without really noticing it, I was preparing myself to join the Cegep World.

One obvious possibility was to add Cegep courses to my part-time teaching load or eventually becoming fulltime as a Cegep teacher. Cegep teaching has clear advantages over university teaching. Simply put, Cegep teachers are allowed to care about learning. University professors who care about pedagogical issues bump into lots of hurdles. Since I care a whole lot about teaching (and I can still do actual research without a tenured position), it sounded like the right place for me. Friends and acquaintances who work in Cegeps kept telling me things which made the fit even more obvious. Though grades do matter in Cegeps, the obsession with grades is much less of an issue in Cegeps than in universities. I care enough about this that I co-organized a public conversation on grades, back in November 2013. Of course, the Cegep population is quite different (and often younger) than the university population. Having taught in the US where people enter university or college directly from high school, I didn’t think it’d be an issue.

But teaching Cegep students directly wasn’t the only option. Having accumulated some expertise on post-secondary learning through 15 years of teaching experience, I was starting to think about being a learning advisor of some sort. This is finally happening, officially.

I’ve often acted as an informal advisor for people. Even during my M.Sc., I would discuss a Ph.D. student’s research in pretty much the way an advisor would. Not the advisor who focuses on logistics and rules and citation impact. But the person who challenges you to rethink a research question or brings you to think of your whole project in a completely new way. Since then, I’ve done the same thing numerous times without ever having an official title to go with it. I’d occasionally get a bit of (informal) credit for it, but I wasn’t aiming for that. I just enjoy helping people in this way.

I also became something of a mentor to some people. For instance, in  view of a pilot project at Concordia, I was able to mentor two teaching assistants who were holding classes in parallel with me. The mentoring included tips and tricks about classroom management along with deeper things on the meaning of university learning. It was still a limited scope, but it was in line with things I wanted to do.

What was even more fitting, given my new position, is that I became the “go-to person” for several things having to do with technology in learning and teaching. This all started in 2007 when, through the Spirit of Inquiry conference, I started collaborating with Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services. Created workshops, did screencasts, experimented with some solutions, answered informal questions… Without being employed directly by CTLS, I think it’s fair to say (as several people have been saying) that I was playing a key role in terms of learning technology at Concordia.

There’s a pattern, here. From diverse activities as a freelancer, I now get to merge things to be Learning Technology Advisor at Vitrine technologie-éducation.

Good times!

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Future of Learning Content

If indeed Apple plans to announce not just more affordable textbook options for students, but also more interactive, immersive ebook experiences…

Forecasting next week’s Apple education event (Dan Moren and Lex Friedman for Macworld)

I’m still in catchup mode (was sick during the break), but it’s hard to let this pass. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like to blog about: wishful thinking and speculation about education. Sometimes, my crazy predictions are fairly accurate. But my pleasure at blogging these things has little to do with the predictions game. I’m no prospectivist. I just like to build wishlists.

In this case, I’ll try to make it short. But I’m having drift-off moments just thinking about the possibilities. I do have a lot to say about this but we’ll see how things go.

Overall, I agree with the three main predictions in that MacWorld piece: Apple might come out with eBook creation tools, office software, and desktop reading solutions. I’m interested in all of these and have been thinking about the implications.

That MacWorld piece, like most media coverage of textbooks, these days, talks about the weight of physical textbooks as a major issue. It’s a common refrain and large bookbags/backpacks have symbolized a key problem with “education”. Moren and Friedman finish up with a zinger about lecturing. Also a common complaint. In fact, I’ve been on the record (for a while) about issues with lecturing. Which is where I think more reflection might help.

For one thing, alternative models to lecturing can imply more than a quip about the entertainment value of teaching. Inside the teaching world, there’s a lot of talk about the notion that teaching is a lot more than providing access to content. There’s a huge difference between reading a book and taking a class. But it sounds like this message isn’t heard and that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the role of teaching.

It’s quite likely that Apple’s announcement may make things worse.

I don’t like textbooks but I do use them. I’m not the only teacher who dislikes textbook while still using them. But I feel the need to justify myself. In fact, I’ve been on the record about this. So, in that context, I think improvements in textbooks may distract us from a bigger issue and even lead us in the wrong direction. By focusing even more on content-creation, we’re commodifying education. What’s more, we’re subsuming education to a publishing model. We all know how that’s going. What’s tragic, IMHO, is that textbook publishers themselves are going in the direction of magazines! If, ten years from now, people want to know when we went wrong with textbook publishing, it’ll probably be a good idea for them to trace back from now. In theory, magazine-style textbooks may make a lot of sense to those who perceive learning to be indissociable from content consumption. I personally consider these magazine-style textbooks to be the most egregious of aberrations because, in practice, learning is radically different from content consumption.

So… If, on Thursday, Apple ends up announcing deals with textbook publishers to make it easier for them to, say, create and distribute free ad-supported magazine-style textbooks, I’ll be going through a large range of very negative emotions. Coming out of it, I might perceive a silverlining in the fact that these things can fairly easily be subverted. I like this kind of technological subversion and it makes me quite enthusiastic.

In fact, I’ve had this thought about iAd producer (Apple’s tool for creating mobile ads). Never tried it but, when I heard about it, it sounded like something which could make it easy to produce interactive content outside of mobile advertising. I don’t think the tool itself is restricted to Apple’s iAd, but I could see how the company might use the same underlying technology to create some content-creation tool.

“But,” you say, “you just said that you think learning isn’t about content.” Quite so. I’m not saying that I think these tools should be the future of learning. But creating interactive content can be part of something wider, which does relate to learning.

The point isn’t that I don’t like content. The point is that I don’t think content should be the exclusive focus of learning. To me, allowing textbook publishers to push more magazine-style content more easily is going in the wrong direction. Allowing diverse people (including learners and teachers) to easily create interactive content might in fact be a step in the right direction. It’s nothing new, but it’s an interesting path.

In fact, despite my dislike of a content emphasis in learning, I’m quite interested in “learning objects”. In fact, I did a presentation about them during the Spirit of Inquiry conference at Concordia, a few years ago (PDF).

A neat (but Flash-based) example of a learning object was introduced to me during that same conference: Mouse Party. The production value is quite high, the learning content seems relatively high, and it’s easily accessible.

But it’s based on Flash.

Which leads me to another part of the issue: formats.

I personally try to avoid Flash as much as possible. While a large number of people have done amazing things with Flash, it’s my sincere (and humble) opinion that Flash’s time has come and gone. I do agree with Steve Jobs on this. Not out of fanboism (I’m no Apple fanboi), not because I have something against Adobe (I don’t), not because I have a vested interested in an alternative technology. I just think that mobile Flash isn’t going anywhere and that. Even on the desktop, I think Flash-free is the way to go. Never installed Flash on my desktop computer, since I bought it in July. I do run Chrome for the occasional Flash-only video. But Flash isn’t the only video format out there and I almost never come across interesting content which actually relies on something exclusive to Flash. Flash-based standalone apps (like Rdio and Machinarium) are a different issue as Flash was more of a development platform for them and they’re available as Flash-free apps on Apple’s own iOS.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s announcements had something to do with a platform for interactive content as an alternative to Adobe Flash. In fact, I’d be quite enthusiastic about that. Especially given Apple’s mobile emphasis. We might be getting further in “mobile computing for the rest of us”.

Part of this may be related to HTML5. I was quite enthusiastic when Tumult released its “Hype” HTML5-creation tool. I only used it to create an HTML5 version of my playfulness talk. But I enjoyed it and can see a lot of potential.

Especially in view of interactive content. It’s an old concept and there are many tools out there to create interactive content (from Apple’s own QuickTime to Microsoft PowerPoint). But the shift to interactive content has been slower than many people (including educational technologists) would have predicted. In other words, there’s still a lot to be done with interactive content. Especially if you think about multitouch-based mobile devices.

Which eventually brings me back to learning and teaching.

I don’t “teach naked”, I do use slides in class. In fact, my slides are mostly bullet points, something presentation specialists like to deride. Thing is, though, my slides aren’t really meant for presentation and, while they sure are “content”, I don’t really use them as such. Basically, I use them as a combination of cue cards, whiteboard, and coursenotes. Though I may sound defensive about this, I’m quite comfortable with my use of slides in the classroom.

Yet, I’ve been looking intently for other solutions.

For instance, I used to create outlines in OmniOutliner that I would then send to LaTeX to produce both slides and printable outlines (as PDFs). I’ve thought about using S5, but it doesn’t really fit in my workflow. So I end up creating Keynote files on my Mac, uploading them (as PowerPoint) before class, and using them in the classroom using my iPad. Not ideal, but rather convenient.

(Interestingly enough, the main thing I need to do today is create PowerPoint slides as ancillary material for a textbook.)

In all of these cases, the result isn’t really interactive. Sure, I could add buttons and interactive content to the slides. But the basic model is linear, not interactive. The reason I don’t feel bad about it is that my teaching is very interactive (the largest proportion of classtime is devoted to open discussions, even with 100-plus students). But I still wish I could have something more appropriate.

I have used other tools, especially whiteboarding and mindmapping ones. Basically, I elicit topics and themes from students and we discuss them in a semi-structured way. But flow remains an issue, both in terms of workflow and in terms of conversation flow.

So if Apple were to come up with tools making it easy to create interactive content, I might integrate them in my classroom work. A “killer feature” here is if interaction could be recorded during class and then uploaded as an interactive podcast (à la ProfCast).

Of course, content-creation tools might make a lot of sense outside the classroom. Not only could they help distribute the results of classroom interactions but they could help in creating learning material to be used ahead of class. These could include the aforementioned learning objects (like Mouse Party) as well as interactive quizzes (like Hot Potatoes) and even interactive textbooks (like Moglue) and educational apps (plenty of these in the App Store).

Which brings me back to textbooks, the alleged focus of this education event.

One of my main issues with textbooks, including online ones, is usability. I read pretty much everything online, including all the material for my courses (on my iPad) but I find CourseSmart and its ilk to be almost completely unusable. These online textbooks are, in my experience, much worse than scanned and OCRed versions of the same texts (in part because they don’t allow for offline access but also because they make navigation much more difficult than in GoodReader).

What I envision is an improvement over PDFs.

Part of the issue has to do with PDF itself. Despite all its benefits, Adobe’s “Portable Document Format” is the relic of a bygone era. Sure, it’s ubiquitous and can preserve formatting. It’s also easy to integrate in diverse tools. In fact, if I understand things correctly, PDF replaced Display PostScript as the basis for Quartz 2D, a core part of Mac OS X’s graphics rendering. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t be supplemented by something else.

Part of the improvement has to do with flexibility. Because of its emphasis on preserving print layouts, PDF tends to enforce print-based ideas. This is where EPUB is at a significant advantage. In a way, EPUB textbooks might be the first step away from the printed model.

From what I can gather, EPUB files are a bit like Web archives. Unlike PDFs, they can be reformatted at will, just like webpages can. In fact, iBooks and other EPUB readers (including Adobe’s, IIRC) allow for on-the-fly reformatting, which puts the reader in control of a much greater part of the reading experience. This is exactly the kind of thing publishers fail to grasp: readers, consumers, and users want more control on the experience. EPUB textbooks would thus be easier to read than PDFs.

EPUB is the basis for Apple’s iBooks and iBookstore and people seem to be assuming that Thursday’s announcement will be about iBooks. Makes sense and it’d be nice to see an improvement over iBooks. For one thing, it could support EPUB 3. There are conversion tools but, AFAICT, iBooks is stuck with EPUB 2.0. An advantage there is that EPUBs can possibly include scripts and interactivity. Which could make things quite interesting.

Interactive formats abound. In fact, PDFs can include some interactivity. But, as mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of room for improvement in interactive content. In part, creation tools could be “democratized”.

Which gets me thinking about recent discussions over the fate of HyperCard. While I understand John Gruber’s longstanding position, I find room for HyperCard-like tools. Like some others, I even had some hopes for ATX-based TileStack (an attempt to bring HyperCard stacks back to life, online). And I could see some HyperCard thinking in an alternative to both Flash and PDF.

“Huh?”, you ask?

Well, yes. It may sound strange but there’s something about HyperCard which could make sense in the longer term. Especially if we get away from the print model behind PDFs and the interaction model behind Flash. And learning objects might be the ideal context for this.

Part of this is about hyperlinking.  It’s no secret that HyperCard was among HTML precursors. As the part of HTML which we just take for granted, hyperlinking is among the most undervalued features of online content. Sure, we understand the value of sharing links on social networking systems. And there’s a lot to be said about bookmarking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about social bookmarking and I have a wishlist about sharing tools, somewhere. But I’m thinking about something much more basic: hyperlinking is one of the major differences between online and offline wriiting.

Think about the differences between, say, a Wikibook and a printed textbook. My guess is that most people would focus on the writing style, tone, copy-editing, breadth, reviewing process, etc. All of these are relevant. In fact, my sociology classes came up with variations on these as disadvantages of the Wikibook over printed textbooks. Prior to classroom discussion about these differences, however, I mentioned several advantages of the Wikibook:

  • Cover bases
  • Straightforward
  • Open Access
  • Editable
  • Linked

(Strangely enough, embedded content from iWork.com isn’t available and I can’t log into my iWork.com account. Maybe it has to do with Thursday’s announcement?)

That list of advantages is one I’ve been using since I started to use this Wikibook… excerpt for the last one. And this is one which hit me, recently, as being more important than the others.

So, in class, I talked about the value of links and it’s been on my mind quite a bit. Especially in view of textbooks. And critical thinking.

See, academic (and semi-academic) writing is based on references, citations, quotes. English-speaking academics are likely to be the people in the world of publishing who cite the most profusely. It’s not rare for a single paragraph of academic writing in English to contain ten citations or more, often stringed in parentheses (Smith 1999, 2005a, 2005b; Smith and Wesson 1943, 2010). And I’m not talking about Proust-style paragraphs either. I’m convinced that, with some quick searches, I could come up with a paragraph of academic writing which has less “narrative content” than citation.

Textbooks aren’t the most egregious example of what I’d consider over-citing. But they do rely on citations quite a bit. As I work more specifically on textbook content, I notice even more clearly the importance of citations. In fact, in my head, I started distinguishing some patterns in textbook content. For instance, there are sections which mostly contain direct explanations of key concepts while other sections focus on personal anecdotes from the authors or extended quotes from two sides of the debate. But one of the most obvious sections are summaries from key texts.

For instance (hypothetical example):

As Nora Smith explained in her 1968 study Coming Up with Something to Say, the concept of interpretation has a basis in cognition.

Smith (1968: 23) argued that Pierce’s interpretant had nothing to do with theatre.

These citations are less conspicuous than they’d be in peer-reviewed journals. But they’re a central part of textbook writing. One of their functions should be to allow readers (undergraduate students, mostly) to learn more about a topic. So, when a student wants to know more about Nora Smith’s reading of Pierce, she “just” have to locate Smith’s book, go to the right page, scan the text for the read for the name “Pierce”, and read the relevant paragraph. Nothing to it.

Compare this to, say, a blogpost. I only cite one text, here. But it’s linked instead of being merely cited. So readers can quickly know more about the context for what I’m discussing before going to the library.

Better yet, this other blogpost of mine is typical of what I’ve been calling a linkfest, a post containing a large number of links. Had I put citations instead of links, the “narrative” content of this post would be much less than the citations. Basically, the content was a list of contextualized links. Much textbook content is just like that.

In my experience, online textbooks are citation-heavy and take almost no benefit from linking. Oh, sure, some publisher may replace citations with links. But the result would still not be the same as writing meant for online reading because ex post facto link additions are quite different from link-enhanced writing. I’m not talking about technological determinism, here. I’m talking about appropriate tool use. Online texts can be quite different from printed ones and writing for an online context could benefit greatly from this difference.

In other words, I care less about what tools publishers are likely to use to create online textbooks than about a shift in the practice of online textbooks.

So, if Apple comes out with content-creation tools on Thursday (which sounds likely), here are some of my wishes:

  • Use of open standards like HTML5 and EPUB (possibly a combination of the two).
  • Completely cross-platform (should go without saying, but Apple’s track record isn’t that great, here).
  • Open Access.
  • Link library.
  • Voice support.
  • Mobile creation tools as powerful as desktop ones (more like GarageBand than like iWork).
  • HyperCard-style emphasis on hyperlinked structures (à la “mini-site” instead of web archives).
  • Focus on rich interaction (possibly based on the SproutCore web framework).
  • Replacement for iWeb (which is being killed along with MobileMe).
  • Ease creation of lecturecasts.
  • Deep integration with iTunes U.
  • Combination of document (à la Pages or Word), presentation (à la Keynote or PowerPoint), and standalone apps (à la The Elements or even Myst).
  • Full support for course management systems.
  • Integration of textbook material and ancillary material (including study guides, instructor manuals, testbanks, presentation files, interactive quizzes, glossaries, lesson plans, coursenotes, etc.).
  • Outlining support (more like OmniOutliner or even like OneNote than like Keynote or Pages).
  • Mindmapping support (unlikely, but would be cool).
  • Whiteboard support (both in-class and online).
  • Collaboration features (à la Adobe Connect).
  • Support for iCloud (almost a given, but it opens up interesting possibilities).
  • iWork integration (sounds likely, but still in my wishlist).
  • Embeddable content (à la iWork.com).
  • Stability, ease of use, and low-cost (i.e., not Adobe Flash or Acrobat).
  • Better support than Apple currently provides for podcast production and publishing.
  • More publisher support than for iBooks.
  • Geared toward normal users, including learners and educators.

The last three are probably where the problem lies. It’s likely that Apple has courted textbook publishers and may have convinced them that they should up their game with online textbooks. It’s clear to me that publishers risk to fall into oblivion if they don’t wake up to the potential of learning content. But I sure hope the announcement goes beyond an agreement with publishers.

Rumour has it that part of the announcement might have to do with bypassing state certification processes, in the US. That would be a big headline-grabber because the issue of state certification is something of wedge issue. Could be interesting, especially if it means free textbooks (though I sure hope they won’t be ad-supported). But that’s much less interesting than what could be done with learning content.

User-generated content” may be one of the core improvements in recent computing history, much of which is relevant for teaching. As fellow anthro Mike Wesch has said:

We’ll  need to rethink a few things…

And Wesch sure has been thinking about learning.

Problem is, publishers and “user-generated content” don’t go well together. I’m guessing that it’s part of the reason for Apple’s insufficient support for “user-generated content”. For better or worse, Apple primarily perceives its users as consumers. In some cases, Apple sides with consumers to make publishers change their tune. In other cases, it seems to be conspiring with publishers against consumers. But in most cases, Apple fails to see its core users as content producers. In the “collective mind of Apple”, the “quality content” that people should care about is produced by professionals. What normal users do isn’t really “content”. iTunes U isn’t an exception, those of us who give lectures aren’t Apple’s core users (even though the education market as a whole has traditionally being an important part of Apple’s business). The fact that Apple courts us underlines the notion that we, teachers and publishers (i.e. non-students), are the ones creating the content. In other words, Apple supports the old model of publishing along with the old model of education. Of course, they’re far from alone in this obsolete mindframe. But they happen to have several of the tools which could be useful in rethinking education.

Thursday’s events is likely to focus on textbooks. But much more is needed to shift the balance between publishers and learners. Including a major evolution in podcasting.

Podcasting is especially relevant, here. I’ve often thought about what Apple could do to enhance podcasting for learning. Way beyond iTunes U. Into something much more interactive. And I don’t just mean “interactive content” which can be manipulated seamless using multitouch gestures. I’m thinking about the back-and-forth of learning and teaching, the conversational model of interactivity which clearly distinguishes courses from mere content.

Syllabus Display Screenshot

Using WordPress as a Syllabus Database: Learning is Fun

(More screenshots in a previous post on this blog.)

Worked on a WordPress project all night, the night before last. Was able to put together a preliminary version of a syllabus database that I’ve been meaning to build for an academic association with which I’m working.

There are some remaining bugs to solve but, I must say, I’m rather pleased with the results so far. In fact, I’ve been able to solve the most obvious bugs rather quickly, last night.

More importantly, I’ve learnt a lot. And I think I can build a lot of things on top of that learning experience.

Part of the inspiration comes from Kyle Jones’s blogpost about a “staff directory”. In addition, Justin Tadlock has had a large (and positive) impact on my learning process, either through his WordPress-related blogposts about custom post types and his work on the Hybrid Theme (especially through the amazing support forums). Not to mention WordCamp Montrealofficial documentationplugin pagestutorials, and a lot of forum- and blogposts about diverse things surrounding WordPress (including CSS).

I got a lot of indirect help and I wouldn’t have been able to go very far in my project without that help. But, basically, it’s been a learning experience for me as an individual. I’m sure more skilled people would have been able to whip this up in no time.

Thing is, it’s been fun. Close to Csíkszentmihályi’s notion of “flow”. (Philippe’s a friend of mine who did research on flow and videogames. He’s the one who first introduced me to “flow”, in this sense.)

So, how did I achieve this? Well, through both plugins and theme files.

To create this database, I’ve originally been using three plugins from More Plugins: More Fields, More Taxonomies, and More Types. Had also done so in my previous attempt at a content database. At the time, these plugins helped me in several ways. But, with the current WordPress release (3.2.1), the current versions of these plugins (2.0.5.2, 1.0.1, and 1.1.1b1, respectively) are a bit buggy.

In fact, I ended up coding my custom taxonomies “from scratch”, after running into apparent problems with the More Taxonomies plugin. Eventually did the same thing with my “Syllabus” post type, replacing More Types. Wasn’t very difficult and it solved some rather tricky bugs.

Naïvely, I thought that the plugins’ export function would actually create that code, so I’d be able to put it in my own files and get rid of that plugin. But it’s not the case. Doh! Unfortunately, the support forums don’t seem so helpful either, with many questions left unanswered. So I wouldn’t really recommend these plugins apart from their pedagogical value.

The plugins were useful in helping me get around some “conceptual” issues, but it seems safer and more practical to code things from scratch, at least with taxonomies and custom post types. For “custom metaboxes”, I’m not sure I’ll have as easy a time replacing More Fields as I did replacing More Taxonomies and More Types. (More Fields helps create custom fields in the post editing interface.)

Besides the More Plugins, I’m only using two other plugins: Jonathan Christopher’s Attachments and the very versatile google doc embedder (gde) by Kevin Davis.

Attachments provides an easy way to attach files to a post and, importantly, its plugin page provides usable notes about implementation which greatly helped me in my learning process. I think I could code in some of that plugin’s functionality, now that I get a better idea of how WordPress attachments work. But it seems not to be too buggy so I’ll probably keep it.

As its name does not imply, gde can embed any file from a rather large array of file types: Adobe Reader (PDF), Microsoft Office (doc/docx, ppt/pptx/pps, xsl/xslx), and iWork Pages, along with multipage image files (tiff, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, SVG, EPS/PS…). The file format support comes from Google Docs Viewer (hence the plugin name).

In fact, I just realized that GDV supports zip and RAR archives. Had heard (from Gina Trapani) of that archive support in Gmail but didn’t realize it applied to GDV. Tried displaying a zip file through gde, last night, and it didn’t work. Posted something about this on the plugin’s forum and “k3davis” already fixed this, mentioning me in the 2.2 release notes.

Allowing the display of archives might be very useful, in this case. It’s fairly easily to get people to put files in a zip archive and upload it. In fact, several mail clients do all of this automatically, so there’s probably a way to get documents through emailed zip files and display the content along with the syllabus.

So, a cool plugin became cooler.

Syllabus Database (archive)

GDE Error: Unable to load profile settings

As it so happens, gde is already installed on the academic site for which I’m building this very same syllabus database. In that case, I’ve been using gde to embed PDF files (for instance, in this page providing web enhancements page for an article in the association’s journal). So I knew it could be useful in terms of displaying course outlines and such, within individual pages of the syllabus database.

What I wasn’t sure I could do is programmatically embed files added to a syllabus page. In other words, I knew I could display these files using some shortcode on appropriate files’ URLs (including those of attached files). What I wasn’t sure how to do (and had a hard time figuring out) is how to send these URLs from a field in the database: I knew how to manually enter the code, but I didn’t know how to automatically display the results of the code when a link is entered in the right place.

The reason this matters is that I would like “normal human beings” (i.e., noncoders and, mostly, nongeeks) to enter the relevant information for their syllabi. One of WordPress’s advantages is the fact that, despite its power, it’s very easy to get nongeeks to do neat things with it. I’d like the syllabus database to be this type of neat thing.

The Attachmentsplugin helps, but still isn’t completely ideal. It does allow for drag-and-drop upload and it does provide a minimalist interface for attaching uploaded files to blogposts.

First Attach Button (Screenshot)
Screenshot of First “Attach” Button

In the first case, it’s just a matter of clicking the Attach button and dropping a file in the appropriate field. In the second case, it’s a matter of clicking another Attachbutton.

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)
Screenshot of the Second “Attach” Button

The problem is between these two Attach buttons.

File Uploaded Screenshot
Screenshot of the Uploaded File

The part of the process between uploading the file and finding the Attach button takes several nonobvious  steps. After the file has been uploaded, the most obvious buttons are Insert into Post and Save all changes, neither of which sounds particularly useful in this context. But Save all changes is the one which should be clicked.

To get to the second Attach button, I first need to go to the Media Library a second time. Recently uploaded images are showing.

Images Only Screenshot
Screenshot of the Media Library Only Showing Images

For other types of files, I then click All Types, which shows a reverse chronological list of all recently uploaded files (older files can be found through the Search Media field). I then click on the Show link associated with a given file (most likely, the most recent upload, which is the first in the list).

Second Attach Button (Screenshot)
Screenshot of the second “Attach” Button

Then, finally, the final Attach button shows up.

Clicking it, the file is attached to the current post, which was the reason behind the whole process. Thanks to both gde and Attachments, that file is then displayed along with the rest of the syllabus entry.

It only takes a matter of seconds to minutes, to attach a file (depending on filesize, connection speed, etc.). Not that long. And the media library can be very useful in many ways. But I just imagine myself explaining the process to instructors and other people submitting syllabi for inclusion the the database.

Far from ideal.

A much easier process is the one of adding files by pasting a file URL in a field. Which is exactly what I’ve added as a possibility for a syllabus’s main document (say, the PDF version of the syllabus).

Course Data Screenshot
Screenshot of the Course Data Box

Passing that URL to gde, I can automatically display the document in the document page, as I’m doing with attachments from the media library.  The problem with this, obviously, is that it requires a public URL for the document. The very same “media library” can be used to upload documents. In fact, copying the URL from an uploaded file is easier than finding the “Attach” button as explained previously. But it makes the upload a separate process on the main site. A process which can be taught fairly easily, but a process which isn’t immediately obvious.

I might make use of a DropBox account for just this kind of situation. It’s also a separate process, but it’s one which may be easier for some people.

In the end, I’ll have to see with users what makes the most sense for them.

In the past, I’ve used plugins like  Contact Form 7 (CF7), by Takayuki Miyoshi, and Fast Secure Contact Form (FSCF)  by Mike Challis to try and implement something similar. A major advantage is that they allow for submissions by users who aren’t logged in. This might be a dealmaking feature for either FSCF or CF7, as I don’t necessarily want to create accounts for everyone who might submit a syllabus. Had issues with user registration, in the past. Like attachments, onboarding remains an issue for a lot of people. Also, thanks to yet other plugins like Michael Simpson’s Contact Form to Database (CFDB), it should be possible to make form submissions into pending items in the syllabus database. I’ll be looking into this.

Another solution might be Gravity Forms. Unlike the plugins I’ve mentioned so far, it’s a commercial product. But it sounds like it might offer some rather neat features which may make syllabus submission a much more interesting process. However, it’s meant for a very different use case, which has more to do with “lead data management” and other business-focused usage. I could innovate through its use. But there might be more appropriate solutions.

As is often the case with WordPress, the “There’s a plugin for that” motto can lead to innovation.  Even documenting the process (by blogging it) can be a source of neat ideas.

A set of ideas I’ve had, for this syllabus database, came from looking into the Pods CMS Framework for WordPress. Had heard about Pods CMS through the WordCast Conversations podcast. For several reasons, it sent me on an idea spree and, for days, I was taking copious notes about what could be done. Not only about this syllabus database but about a full “learning object repository” built on top of WordPress. The reason I want to use WordPress is that, not only am I a “fanboi” of Automattic (the organization behind WordPress) but I readily plead guilty to using WordPress as a Golden Hammer. There are multiple ways to build a learning object repository. (Somehow, I’m convinced that some of my Web developing friends that Ruby on Rails is the ideal solution.) But I’ve got many of my more interesting ideas through looking into Pods CMS, a framework for WordPress and I don’t know the first thing about RoR.

Overall, Pods CMS sounds like a neat approach. Its pros and cons make it sound like an interesting alternative to WordPress’s custom post types for certain projects, as well as a significant shift from the main ways WordPress is used. During WordCamp Montreal, people I asked about it were wary of Pods. I eventually thought I would wait for version 2.0 to come out before investing significant effort in it.

In the meantime, what I’ve built is a useful base knowledge of how to use WordPress as a content database.

Can’t wait to finish adding features and fixing bugs, so I can release it to the academic organization. I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.

Even if they don’t ever use it, I’ve gained a lot of practical insight into how to do such things. It may be obvious to others but it does wonders to my satisfaction levels.

I’m truly in flow!

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian
Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It's one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it's completely fallacious, it's still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.

I Hate Books

In a way, this is a followup to a discussion happening on Facebook after something I posted (available publicly on Twitter): “(Alexandre) wishes physical books a quick and painfree death. / aime la connaissance.”

As I expected, the reactions I received were from friends who are aghast: how dare I dismiss physical books? Don’t I know no shame?

Apparently, no, not in this case.

And while I posted it as a quip, it’s the result of a rather long reflection. It’s not that I’m suddenly anti-books. It’s that I stopped buying several of the “pro-book” arguments a while ago.

Sure, sure. Books are the textbook case of technlogy which needs no improvement. eBooks can’t replace the experience of doing this or that with a book. But that’s what folkloristics defines as a functional shift. Like woven baskets which became objects of nostalgia, books are being maintained as the model for a very specific attitude toward knowledge construction based on monolithic authored texts vetted by gatekeepers and sold as access to information.

An important point, here, is that I’m not really thinking about fiction. I used to read two novel-length works a week (collections of short stories, plays…), for a period of about 10 years (ages 13 to 23). So, during that period, I probably read about 1,000 novels, ranging from Proust’s Recherche to Baricco’s Novecentoand the five books of Rabelais’s Pantagruel series. This was after having read a fair deal of adolescent and young adult fiction. By today’s standards, I might be considered fairly well-read.

My life has changed a lot, since that time. I didn’t exactly stop reading fiction but my move through graduate school eventually shifted my reading time from fiction to academic texts. And I started writing more and more, online and offline.
In the same time, the Web had also been making me shift from pointed longform texts to copious amounts of shortform text. Much more polyvocal than what Bakhtin himself would have imagined.

(I’ve also been shifting from French to English, during that time. But that’s almost another story. Or it’s another part of the story which can reamin in the backdrop without being addressed directly at this point. Ask, if you’re curious.)
The increase in my writing activity is, itself, a shift in the way I think, act, talk… and get feedback. See, the fact that I talk and write a lot, in a variety of circumstances, also means that I get a lot of people to play along. There’s still a risk of groupthink, in specific contexts, but one couldn’t say I keep getting things from the same perspective. In fact, the very Facebook conversation which sparked this blogpost is an example, as the people responding there come from relatively distant backgrounds (though there are similarities) and were not specifically queried about this. Their reactions have a very specific value, to me. Sure, it comes in the form of writing. But it’s giving me even more of something I used to find in writing: insight. The stuff you can’t get through Google.

So, back to books.

I dislike physical books. I wish I didn’t have to use them to read what I want to read. I do have a much easier time with short reading sessions on a computer screen that what would turn into rather long periods of time holding a book in my hands.

Physical books just don’t do it for me, anymore. The printing press is, like, soooo 1454!

Yes, books had “a good run.” No, nothing replaces them. That’s not the way it works. Movies didn’t replace theater, television didn’t replace radio, automobiles didn’t replace horses, photographs didn’t replace paintings, books didn’t replace orality. In fact, the technology itself doesn’t do much by itself. But social contexts recontextualize tools. If we take technology to be the set of both tools and the knowledge surrounding it, technology mostly goes through social processes, since tool repertoires and corresponding knowledge mostly shift in social contexts, not in their mere existence. Gutenberg’s Bible was a “game-changer” for social, as well as technical reasons.

And I do insist on orality. Journalists and other “communication is transmission of information” followers of Shannon&Weaver tend to portray writing as the annihilation of orality. How long after the invention of writing did Homer transfer an oral tradition to the writing media? Didn’t Albert Lord show the vitality of the epic well into the 20th Century? Isn’t a lot of our knowledge constructed through oral means? Is Internet writing that far, conceptually, from orality? Is literacy a simple on/off switch?

Not only did I maintain an interest in orality through the most book-focused moments of my life but I probably care more about orality now than I ever did. So I simply cannot accept the idea that books have simply replaced the human voice. It doesn’t add up.

My guess is that books won’t simply disappear either. There should still be a use for “coffee table books” and books as gifts or collectables. Records haven’t disappeared completely and CDs still have a few more days in dedicated stores. But, in general, we’re moving away from the “support medium” for “content” and more toward actual knowledge management in socially significant contexts.

In these contexts, books often make little sense. Reading books is passive while these contexts are about (hyper-)/(inter-)active.

Case in point (and the reason I felt compelled to post that Facebook/Twitter quip)…
I hear about a “just released” French book during a Swiss podcast. Of course, it’s taken a while to write and publish. So, by the time I heard about it, there was no way to participate in the construction of knowledge which led to it. It was already “set in stone” as an “opus.”

Looked for it at diverse bookstores. One bookstore could eventually order it. It’d take weeks and be quite costly (for something I’m mostly curious about, not depending on for something really important).

I eventually find it in the catalogue at BANQ. I reserve it. It wasn’t on the shelves, yet, so I had to wait until it was. It took from November to February. I eventually get a message that I have a couple of days to pick up my reservation but I wasn’t able to go. So it went back on the “just released” shelves. I had the full call number but books in that section aren’t in their call number sequence. I spent several minutes looking back and forth between eight shelves to eventually find out that there were four more shelves in the “humanities and social sciences” section. The book I was looking was on one of those shelves.

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

In the metro, I browse through it. Given my academic reflex, I look for the back matter first. No bibliography, no index, a ToC with rather obscure titles (at random: «Taylor toujours à l’œuvre»/”Taylor still at work,” which I’m assuming to be a reference to continuing taylorism). The book is written by two separate dudes but there’s no clear indication of who wrote what. There’s a preface (by somebody else) but no “acknowledgments” section, so it’s hard to see who’s in their network. Footnotes include full URLs to rather broad sites as well as “discussion with <an author’s name>.” The back cover starts off with references to French popular culture (including something about “RER D,” which would be difficult to search). Information about both authors fits in less than 40 words (including a list of publication titles).

The book itself is fairly large print, ways almost a pound (422g, to be exact) for 327 pages (including front and back matter). Each page seems to be about 50 characters per line, about 30 lines per page. So, about half a million characters or 3500 tweets (including spaces). At 5+1 characters per word, about 80,000 words (I have a 7500-words blogpost, written in an afternoon). At about 250 words per minute, about five hours of reading. This book is listed at 19€ (about 27CAD).
There’s no direct way to do any “postprocessing” with the text: no speech synthesis for visually impaired, concordance analysis, no machine translation, even a simple search for occurences of “Sarkozy” is impossible. Not to mention sharing quotes with students or annotating in an easy-to-retrieve fashion (à la Diigo).

Like any book, it’s impossible to read in the dark and I actually have a hard time to find a spot where I can read with appropriate lighting.

Flipping through the book, I get the impression that there’s some valuable things to spark discussions, but there’s also a whole lot of redundancy with frequent discussions on the topic (the Future of Journalism, or #FoJ, as a matter of fact). My guesstimate is that, out of 5 hours of reading, I’d get at most 20 pieces of insight that I’d have exactly no way to find elsewhere. Comparable books to which I listened as audiobooks, recently, had much less. In other words, I’d have at most 20 tweets worth of things to say from the book. Almost a 200:1 compression.
Direct discussion with the authors could produce much more insight. The radio interviews with these authors already contained a few insight hints, which predisposed me to look for more. But, so many months later, without the streams of thought which animated me at the time, I end up with something much less valuable than what I wanted to get, back in November.

Bottomline: Books aren’t necessarily “broken” as a tool. They just don’t fit my life, anymore.