New Job, New Teaching

The beginning of term is just around the corner and I am really excited to begin my new job at Fordham where I am starting as Associate Professor in Digital Technology and Emerging Media. My teaching this semester is one of the reasons for my excitement as I will be offering two courses: One is the Introduction to the Digital Technology and Emerging Media major (syllabus here) and the other is the endlessly thrilling Digital Cultures (syllabus here)

 

Aside from this cool teaching I get to work at Fordham, a university that is ridiculously gorgeous with open spaces and classical buildings in New York.

On Academic Productivity

How are some people so very productive in academia? I guess most of us will have a pet theory or too. This post from orgtheory.net has a nice list of productive behavior. Lists like this are worth saving an revisiting so thats a good a reason as any to post it here:

  • Team work: Almost every star I’ve asked works in large groups. If you look at the CV’s, they have tons of co-authors.
  • Division of Labor: A lot of them have told me that they are very good at assigning tasks. One of them told me he *never* does fund raising. He works with another prof who in a medical school who has access to funds.
  • Shamelessness: Most academics sulk over rejections. These folks don’t. Soon as a paper gets rejected, they send it out ASAP.
  • Recognizing diminishing marginal returns: A paper will improve between first and second drafts. These folks understand that obsession over the 2oth and 21st version is pointless.
  • Attitude: Sounds corny, but every single one of these folks has an amazing forward looking attitude. They love what they do and they see the future as bright.
  • Minimizing junk work: Some probably shirk teaching or admin work, but what I have observed is that they are ruthlessly efficient. They reuse course materials, borrow syllabi, and use teaching to deepen their knowledge of a topic.
  • Recognizing the randomness of reviews: Most people complain about the randomness of reviewers. The star publishers draw the logical conclusion. If you can get random negatives, you get random positives.So just keep submitting until it you randomly pull positive reviews.

Bottom line: Sure, some people are geniuses, but a lot of productive people simply very good at time management and they don’t let the little things get to them.

The part about junk work is the part I take most issue with. I get that shirking teaching and admin free’s up more time for writing but it also does create a bad sense of faculty and collaboration. It also means that other faculty have to take up the slack. I don’t mean that admin should become or take over your life but that’s a far distance from shirking.

James Paul Gee’s Advice to Academics

Academia is full of horror stories and advice. But this is awesome. This is James Paul Gee’s “Ramblings of an old academic: Unconfident advice for end-times academics”. It’s very much worth reading the whole thing but if you don’t then at least check out his advice:

So I have no real advice that you should take without a massive grain of salt. But here it is any way:

1. Your job as an academic is to have ideas and to put them together with other people’s ideas to make better ones with potential for real impact. This mission precedes thoughts of gain, publication, or fame.

2. Keep one foot in your college or university activities and one foot outside in a related but different activities that create fruitful and sometimes unexpected synergies.

3. Do not worry over much about protecting your ideas. Let them out in the world early and often so they can get tested and promiscuously mate with other people’s ideas. If someone steals one of your ideas and you were only going to have one good one anyway, then you would not have had a good career anyway—you have to have good ideas over the long haul.

4. Try to develop “taste”, that is, good judgment about which ideas, yours or other people’s, are tasty, deep, and have “legs” for impact into the future, even if at first they seem like weak fledglings. Champion tasty ideas even if others are skeptical and even if they are not your ideas.

5. Pick your political battles carefully. Academic politics and committees damage our minds, bodies, and souls. Pick only the battles really worth fighting for and fight them and them alone. How do you know which these are? They are the ones that when you really think about it are worth taking real risks of damage to yourself and your career for. They are the ones where winning means making the world a better place.

6. Good ideas often come from unexpected experiences, ones we are tempted not to follow up on because they might lead us away from our “field”. Every book I have written was caused by following up a lead that at first seemed marginal and strange from the perspective of how I or others construed my “field”. One example: I wrote a book on video games because my then six-year-old turned me onto them. While I was writing the book in 2001-2002 the whole idea seemed silly if I thought about it too much. I had Walter Mitty dreams of getting invited to the prestigious Game Developers Conference and creating a whole new field. None of this was likely to happen given that I was totally and utterly unknown in the world of games and given, too, at that time, no one much saw video games as relevant to literacy studies and vice-versa. But both things did happen.

7. The “game” of life is nine innings, to use another sports metaphor. Never give up if you are behind. Play out all the innings and quit only when the fat lady sings. (Sorry again for, continuing the sports metaphor that might now be seen as insensitive to over-weight people.)

8. In my life I have never worried that I was paid less or was less well known than other people. I have only asked myself if I am happy with what I have and acted to get more if and only if I wasn’t, not because other people had more. This has worked well, at least for me. I now know, having worked in education, that it is called a “mastery orientation” (competing with yourself and judging yourself by your own efforts and progress) and not an “achievement orientation” (competing to beat others and judging yourself by how you stand in relationship to others).

9. In my life, I have never cared whether I got the expected rewards others did at the same time as them or before them. I have always been a slow developer and arrived to each party, or stage of development a bit later than others. It seems only to have meant I got to savor some of the benefits later when others were already leaving the party.

10. The world is a mess. We need to at least put a finger in the collapsing dike until someone else can come up with a big idea to replace the whole thing. People will ask you how being an academic allowed you to do any real good in the world. Be sure that at the least your finger is in the dike and then tell them that’s the good you did. That is all I was and am able to do. I have just tried to put my finger in the dike. As I get older I have the fantasy that what will replace the breaking dike and stem the flood is just a wall of people side by side with their fingers in the wall. Standing there, all together, getting wet, but holding the flood at bay, they will come to realize that it is not true that individuals cannot do anything in the face of big challenges. They can put a finger in the dike and yell for others to join them. They may well come to realize then that that wall of fingers in the dike is the big idea we were all waiting for. An idea no one had but everyone contributed to. An odd picture, but the one I end with.

Ramblings of an old academic: Unconfident advice for end-times academics (PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297675768_Ramblings_of_an_old_academic_Unconfident_advice_for_end-times_academics.

 

Broken Academia

There are many ways to break academia. I just came across this section in an article that reminded me of the problems we face

Besides, the biggest threats to academic freedom these days aren’t coming from government. They’re coming as conditions attached to funding from billionaires and big corporations that’s increasing as public funding drops.

When the Charles Koch Foundation pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University’s economics department, for example, itstipulated that a Koch-appointed advisory committee would select professors and undertake annual evaluations.  The Koch brothers now fund 350 programs at over 250 colleges and universities across America. You can bet that funding doesn’t underwrite research on inequality and environmental justice.

Yupp, that’s whats going to happen, unless we are careful, when we sell ourselves to large corporations.

Nobody Cites Your Work: Notes from a lecture

Yesterday I was invited to give a talk at the Drexel University Library and in a fit of hubris I decided to attack a problem that many of us in academia face: how to interact with society, engage your students, get your papers read, not become an “empty” entertainer, while avoiding burnout and staying happy… The actual title to the talk was slightly less ambitious but maybe a bit of a downer: “Nobody cites your work: copyright licensing and public engagement”

These are questions which have long been close to my heart but it was great to be given the opportunity to be able to share my thoughts about what we should or could be doing about this. The presentation began with me explaining that there will be no easy answer to all the questions I pose but that we as a community of academics must continue to raise awareness in these issues in order not to be overcome with them. So the talk would really present some issues, solutions, and a critique.

The issues I wanted to address were interaction, students, being ignored, and edutainment.

Interaction: The was a response to the recent critique by Nicholas Kristof Academics, We need you! in which he wrote

“If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

and the article by Joshua Rothman Why is academic writing so academic? in which he wrote

“Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds”

There have been much written about these two articles and suffice to say that there is a perception problem when the hoards of engaged and enthusiastic academics that I know and work with are being portrayed as dated, distant, and disinterested. I’ve written more on this earlier here and the links are rewarding.  The difference between perception and reality is what makes this a real problem.

Students: Many of our students are as young as 18 years old. This means that they were 8 years old when Facebook emerged. They have been online, using technology, and being shaped by digital technology for all of their lives. In order to communicate meaningfully to them we must be prepared to both demand that they struggle but simultaneously understand that they are shaped by the environment. A quote by Missy Cummings puts this into perspective (BBC The Why Factor: Boredom):

“We’d be lucky today if they had a 20-30 minute attention span, now its more like 5-10, because if their minds wander they immediately go to another information seeking routine like their cell phones… Like it or not this is the new norm.“

Yes of course we can be upset about this development. But more importantly we must accept this development to be part of the reality of teaching today.

Being ignored:This is the incredibly disheartening realization that lies at the heart of academic publishing. Lokman I Meho The Rise and Rise of Citation Analysis

“It is a sobering fact that some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited. Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.”

Between the amount of time academics spend on unsuccessful grant applications and creating articles which are unread it is difficult not to throw ones arms up in the air and scream in frustration.

Edutainment: This is the unreasonable expectation that learning should be fun. Of course learning can be fun. But actually learning the basics of something is a challenge and the pride one feels after mastering something comes as a result of the effort it takes. If it’s all fun then maybe it’s not really effort? The problem that education should be fun is partly caused by the snappy lectures presented in short pithy formats like the TED’s. The TED isn’t about basic education. It’s about small ideas with personal experiences and easy to swallow segments. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language, programming or the finer details of procurement law in TED talks! Unfortunately the talks have sometimes been presented as the future of education. For more on TED’s negative effects and sources to its critics see The Cult of TED harms lectures.

Following a presentation of the issues I wanted to address some of the solutions being put forward social media, open access, and licensing. These were presented with the understanding that taken as general one-size-fits-all solutions they are not particularly usable. The reason for presenting this set of “solutions” was also to enable the discussion on the shallow critics which have been particularly vocal in a couple of articles in The Scholarly Kitchen. First there was CC-BY, Copyright, and Stolen Advocacy and then there was Does Creative Commons Make Sense? these articles were critiqued in the comments but they still stand as a voices of criticism. In particular the latter article attempts to argue that CC is unimportant because copyright law exists. Sad statement, a rebuttal could fill several books… oh, wait it they already exist.

As a slight aside, as I couldn’t resist pointing it out, the existence of law does not in itself protect the individual. I told the audience of the situation where Lawerence Lessig (copyright professor and activist and founder of CC) was sued for posting a lecture online. He argued fair use and eventually won his case. But would many professors have the knowledge, tenacity and support to fight in cases such as these?

Following this I presented a quick intro to Creative Commons licensing including a small description into the progression from version 1 to the current version 4 of the licenses. Then I moved on the lecture to the analysis. Does social media and lowering barriers work and if so how and how much?

The material I presented was a mix of cases with the efficiency of open access and open content licensing in making material available to larger groups of people. These systems also have the ability to make material available to groups who would not have access through the channels we as academics take for granted. When I came to the discussion on whether or not open access helps I used this article Open Access increases citation? A brief overview of two reports

Two different methods and two different results. Which one is more accurate? It is hard to determine. Open Access is not a panacea for all problems. It does not automatically increase the level of citations. But, without doubt, it helps when it comes to getting more visibility, which obviously is of a great advantage for the articles and their authors. There are other factors in play which shape the level of citations for specific paper; for example the Impact Factor of journal,  promotion efforts of publisher and author himself, the chosen subject and field of research, as well as an extended reference list at the end of a research paper. All these factors may have impact on citations level. But all in all, almost all studies into this subject confirm –  direct or indirect –  positive impact of Open Access on level of citations.

The result of everything? Lowering barriers helps academics, social media can increase range. All must be used with knowledge and caution in order not to become worthless and we need to be knowledgeable about our realities in order to carry out a well informed discussion. Now, find your comfort level & share your work!

Here are the slides I used:

 

Fat shaming and discrimination in academia

This is important, Christina Fisanick’s article Fat Professors feel compelled to overperform should be read by everyone in academia. Mostly because academia is supposed to be this place without this kind of discrimination.
In our culture, obesity equals moral and intellectual laziness. Fat professors feel compelled to overperform. I’ve felt the need to make the fat invisible and be even more excellent at my teaching duties. I’ve wanted people to look at my mind and not at my body. But I realize that my body is important in the classroom—I can use it as a tool—so I no longer try to flatten myself.
I believe there is fat discrimination in academia, but there’s no hard evidence. The numbers of obese faculty are low. The problem is that society believes the university is above all that. Many people think that muscles and beauty don’t matter here, but we are a mirror of our culture at large. People bring their attitudes about obesity to the classroom. They think that if you’re fat you’re lazy, that you’re not going to want to participate in the committee work. These stereotypes play on people’s thinking when they’re making hiring decisions.
It’s not that I didn’t know that there was many forms of discrimination in academia – despite its lofty ideals – it’s just the shallowness of discrimination offends me. The last time fat-shaming in academia reared its idiotic head was in the incredibly shallow, simple-minded, and shallow tweet of NYU professor Geoffrey Miller:
obese-PhD-croppedFor fucks sake! Really Geoff? How dumb are you really. Firstly the fact that fat people have will power does not need to be proved. Just look around you. Second of all, you should know that this view is discriminatory, fat-shaming, rude and borderline illegal. He later “apologized” with the enigmatic words that his own tween did not reflect his “views, values, or standards”
article-2335177-1A20BCA5000005DC-700_634x286Really Geoff? This is the strangest disclaimer (after the fact) I have ever read. I dislike the whole “Tweets are my own” “RT does not mean endorsement” culture but to actually state that your tweets do not reflect your own ideas seems just nuts. So yes, I know that he probably reacted to save his arrogant ass but as apologies go this is pretty insincere.
If we are supposed to be intelligent humans working to advance science this whole fat-shaming must stop. Now.

Should we just accept plagiarism?

When my mother attempted to teach us manners as a children she would strictly enforce the no-elbows-on-the-table rule. But when we would question her elbows on the table she would reply that she was old enough to know it was wrong. This is a bit how I feel about the news that Zygmunt Bauman has plagiarized texts. From websites no less!

His accuser, Peter Walsh, a University of Cambridge PhD student, said the websites are at times mentioned in passing as sources, but Professor Bauman does not make clear, through quotation marks or indented text, that he is directly reproducing material.

The Times Higher Education article is interesting in that it demonstrates the sensitivity and care it takes for a PhD student to accuse someone of Bauman’s status. Another academic in the article both says that students would have been failed for doing this but everyone is prepared to give Bauman a chance to explain himself. “He suggested that Professor Bauman’s apparent indifference was the result of “generational differences”.”

The list of venerable established scholars who have been caught plagiarizing is surprisingly long. Recently Jane Goodall blamed “chaotic note-taking” for her plagiarism. The sad thing is that I have heard this excuse from students caught plagiarizing. Being caught seems relatively inevitable in a digital age and the excuses everyone uses are equally sad.

Bauman and Goodall are old enough to know plagiarism is wrong. But does this excuse his plagiarism or make it worse? The question we could ask ourselves is plagiarism as well as the no-elbows-on-the-table rule an anachronistic remnant and we should just ignore these rules since everyone is doing it (not just the kids)?

 

The quote above is from a Slate article The End of the college Essay. The photo is by Kristina Alexanderson and its called Plagiarism. The fun part is that the photo on Vader’s screen is my photo Reaching for my morning fix. Christina uses the photo to discuss what plagiarism is and how a Creative Commons license can help in situations such as this.

Not a disinterested mind in sight

Joshua Rothman published an article in the New Yorker: Why is Academic Writing so Academic? as this article follows on the heels of the vaguely infamous piece in the Times by Nicholas Kristof “Professors, We Need You!” I was wondering if the whole thing should be seen as an exercise in trolling. In particular when I came across the interesting sentence:

“Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds”

Disinterested? Really? Most academics can be called many things but disinterested is not one. I agree with Peter Medawar‘s (Pluto’s Republic, p. 116). description of scientists:

Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.

It is not really possible to define scientists in any easy way. But all scientists are interested in their work, most are passionate, some are obsessive. There are famous arguments and grudge matches in academia to prove the level of intensity scientists feel toward each other. There are levels of passion for theories and objects studied that border on love.

Our published prose strives to be exact and specific but dry language should not be confused with lack of emotion – and definitely not be seen as disinterest.

Why Academics Blog

In the wonderful way that social media works an article in the Guardian from December last year became popular in my twitter feed again last week. The article was about the reasons for academic blogging and explained, with some empirical backing that blogging among academics is less about public outreach and more like some form of international faculty lounge.

The article is interesting but takes as its starting point that academic blogging was done for public outreach and failed. But the idea of an academic using social media for public outreach is only a small part of what social media (and blogs) is for. Only famous academics can start a blog or launch a twitter account and instantly receive feedback in the form of comments, questions, compliments and hate mail. Most of us are silently ignored.* Let me be clear. I have been nicely and widely ignored since February 2005. Surely if I was looking for public outreach I would have stopped by now?

People (academics are people too) use social media for a wide variety of reasons (for old posts about why I blog see here, here & here). This means that the rewards for typing texts into various blog software cannot simply be all about public outreach.

Public outreach is important and a perfectly good reason for blogging. But if the whole system is to become measured as valuable or worthless in relation to outreach or impact factors then something important will be lost. For me, and I suspect based on conversations with blogging colleagues, public outreach is a by-product of academic blogging.

 

 

 

 

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* By ignored I mean that most posts do not get comments and very very rarely are discussions sparked from the blog posts.

Punishing the public academic

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very good op-ed in the Sunday New York Times called Professors, We Need You! The text argued that academics were becoming less relevant in the public sphere. Kristof identifies two important, and closely related, realities as to why this may be so. First in the creation of academics:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

and then in the work environment:

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

While I agree with both I feel they both address, and simultaneously miss, the most important detail. The arguments could be seen as the way it is among a tight-knit group with a specialized interest and vocabulary. This could be doctors, lawyers or fly fishermen… all more or less unintelligible to the outsider.

But what is especially problematic with the academic system is the way in which work is rewarded. Public communication and social engagement are often praised to varying degrees but when it comes down to promotion, tenure, ranking or anything that controls the future of the individual academic – they don’t count.

In academia participating in a public debate is a hobby that does not benefit your situation at work. In the worst case something that an academic states in a public forum in order to bring her knowledge to the public can harm the individuals chances within academia. As an academic I will not be criticized for writing yet another obscure article – it’s expected and will count towards a promotion or other reward.

However, as an academic, if I participate in a public discussion and say something that is vague or simplistic I will be criticized from within academia. And if I say nothing wrong but appear in the public debate too much I will be seen as lacking in a serious mindset, chasing publicity and being shallow – and be criticized both from within and outside academia.

So when Kristof ends with his appeal for us not to “cloister yourselves like medieval monks” part of me agrees, despite the fact that this is not the advice I would give to a young Ph.D. student.

Addition 17 Feb: After writing this text a fascinating article appeared in The Telegraph which really serves as a sad example John Yudkin: the man who tried to warn us about sugar A British professor’s 1972 book about the dangers of sugar is now seen as prophetic. So why did it lead to the end of his career?

The article is fascinating on many levels. The problem of sugar is important but for the purposes of the academic participation discussion this longish quote shows the harm it could entail:

“Yudkin always maintained his equanimity, but Keys was a real a——-, who stooped to name-calling and character assassination,” says Lustig, speaking from New York, where he’s just recorded yet another television interview.

The British Sugar Bureau put out a press release dismissing Yudkin’s claims as “emotional assertions” and the World Sugar Research Organisation described his book as “science fiction”. When Yudkin sued, it printed a mealy-mouthed retraction, concluding: “Professor Yudkin recognises that we do not agree with [his] views and accepts that we are entitled to express our disagreement.”

Yudkin was “uninvited” to international conferences. Others he organised were cancelled at the last minute, after pressure from sponsors, including, on one occasion, Coca-Cola. When he did contribute, papers he gave attacking sugar were omitted from publications. The British Nutrition Foundation, one of whose sponsors was Tate & Lyle, never invited anyone from Yudkin’s internationally acclaimed department to sit on its committees. Even Queen Elizabeth College reneged on a promise to allow the professor to use its research facilities when he retired in 1970 (to write Pure, White and Deadly). Only after a letter from Yudkin’s solicitor was he offered a small room in a separate building.

How many academics could both have the energy and the interest to fight something like this?