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Not your grandparents’ technology…

May 1, 2012

We’re at a phase in history where we still speak of “technology” and the effect “it” is having on us and our culture. And everybody seems to share some vague idea of just what this “technology” is and how to be excited/alarmed/confused/hyperbolic/apathetic/joyous/etc. about it.

And yet, I’m pretty sure the “technology” we talk about today typically no longer includes gramophones, or Xerox machines, or Velcro, or refrigerators, or the telegraph.

So I wonder: in this moment in time, what makes something “technology”? Is “technology” that which elicits strong emotional reactions? Forces us to reflect on novelty and continuity? Amuses us? Helps us to see the contingencies of our current moment? Seduces us with new opportunities? Or something else entirely?

Facebook–a friend?

April 10, 2012

I’m not a huge fan of birthdays–especially my own. They’re kind of a hassle. But this time around, it was beautifully low-key. And, much to my surprised, I found it was enhanced by my old (usually pretty onerous) friend Facebook. I actually really loved watching wall posts trickle in–first from Turkey and Germany, then from some night-owl friends in the States, then finally from the (small but loyal) masses of admirers I have scattered across the country. It was fun to go about my day, with the occasional little red “notification bubble” popping in my browser or on my iPod to let me know someone was giving some lovin’.

And if anyone wants to counter that Facebook messages are “less meaningful” than a good old fashioned card in the mail, I’d say: maybe, but it doesn’t matter. I know that, when I’m composing a birthday post for someone, I’m at least holding them in my mind for a few seconds out of my busy day, and thinking back to a time when there was less distance between us. And that’s simple, and good, and can reach farther and extend to a broader spectrum of friends and acquaintances than cards can. And I like the idea of people doing the same for me on my birthday. So thanks, Facebook and friends, for a low-key birthday!

State Fair

March 30, 2012

Took the shuttle over to the St. Paul campus this morning (which, for those who don’t know the campus well, is right next to the State Fair grounds). Along the way, I couldn’t help but think of all the times during my childhood when my parents would refer to a place as being “near the fair grounds”. Someone’s house, maybe, or a business would be “near the fair grounds”. And for me, this was such an obvious impossibility. Nothing could be near the fair grounds. The State Fair was so magical–such a clear anomaly against all the rest of the grown-up world–that there was no way it could even be on this planet, let alone next to a regular, workaday house or business.

But you know what? It turns out there is stuff near the fair grounds.

Google thinks I’m a boy!

February 22, 2012

Given all the shakeup in the discussion on Internet privacy these days, I decided to take some time to click through Google’s new privacy policies. I logged into my university e-mail account (a university-hosted Google apps setup), opened up the overview of Google’s privacy Policies & Principles, and started clicking around. Imagine my surprise when I discovered…Google thinks I’m a boy! Or better: it’s classified me under the demographics “Age: 25-35” and “Gender: Male” for advertising purposes. The proof:

Even more shocking, though: Google thinks I like basketball! I am stunned. I have never been to a basketball game in my life. (Well, except for the one time when I was in the high school pep band and was forced to go play cymbals on “The Star Spangled Banner”.) How could Google’s algorithms be so shockingly misinformed? Or is it me? Have I been behaving in a manner recently that would suggest I actually like basketball?

I’m at a loss here. Do I go in now and correct it, only to discover that it has me liking hockey by next week? Or worse–horse racing?! Or do I keep up the ruse and just let it label me whatever the hell it wants to?

Whatever, Google. You don’t know me. Srsly. Back off.

Because I could not stop…

February 15, 2012

I found out yesterday that my grandma (my mom’s mom) died, and that we’ll be heading down to Iowa this weekend for a funeral. I’ve been through grandparents’ deaths before, but this is my last grandparent to die, which feels more finite somehow. It’s got me thinking about a few things…

  • Rarely do I get to see my parents in their role as children. The death of a grandparent is one of those rare occasions. And it feels scary. And it also feels important.
  • Rarely in our society do we actively allow ourselves to pause. We hardly ever fight for our right to recenter and create some space. Death, though, seems to be one of those things that we still have a little respect for. Perhaps not as much as in other parts of the globe, but people in my little part of America still do seem to step aside and give death some room. (I always think about bereavement fares on airlines here, for example.) And I’m convinced we’d be a pretty sick society if this weren’t the case. Although I wonder: if we gave death a little more room in our day-to-day lives, would we maybe also be clearing a little more space for life?
  • I listened to a podcast recently that got me excited about the power of mourning, and rituals in mourning. Check out Moth Radio Hour 401, Segment 2 . It’s a good story.

Empire of (Dis)Illusion

December 27, 2011

I just finished up a pretty depressing book, am pretty down on America at the moment, and could use a little positive visioning. I know things are going down the tubes. I know our economy is tanking. I know we’re getting dumber in some ways (although perhaps smarter in others?). I know I probably won’t have any Medicare in my old age. It’s the beginning of February, and it hasn’t dipped below freezing for more than a week running this winter. I get it.

But I’m getting really sick of doomsday prophecies, without some kind of positive counter-image I can grasp onto. Because I think media doom and gloom freaks people out and turns us into deer-in-headlights, just waiting to be mowed over by whatever crushing societal/governmental/economic force is barreling at us. People need positive images that compel us in new directions. (And I’m also starting to suspect that visual images may be more compelling than print-based imagery these days…)

Fortunately, I also happen to have discovered a home remedy for a case of “America Blues”: Norman Rockwell. More specifically, Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series. Makes me want a little more for our nation than all the ambient fear and negativity that’s been floating around.

Have a look at the paintings here .

Graduate Review & Improvement Project (GRIP) meeting

November 30, 2011

I attended a meeting of the Graduate Review and Improvement Project (GRIP) today and wanted to throw up a quick reflection here.  This discussion is still nascent, but I’m posting a quick summary and my reaction to try to get the word out.  If you’re a CEHD (and particularly PsTL) student, I’d love to hear some feedback so I can better represent our views as this discussion progresses.

The context:

The OLPD department in our College has been working on developing a process to evaluate and improve its graduate programs.  They’ve been trying different strategies–surveys, regular meetings for grad students, “town hall” meetings with a broader community, etc.  From what I gathered, the goal is to put evaluation and program improvement closer to the departments, students, and faculty whom it affects, rather than let it get stuck at a higher institutional level that can be less accessible and more nebulous for students and faculty.  Now, they’re calling together representatives from the various departments so they can share what they’ve been doing and invite a College-wide discussion on how we can work on improving our graduate programs.  We met today–a mix of faculty and students from each department across the College–to discuss ways to evaluate and improve our graduate programs.

Concerns/questions that came up:

  • There was a lot of concern (expressed by both faculty and students) about the power differential that exists between students and faculty.  A key question:  How do we make sure that we’re getting “the real picture” in student feedback, and not just creating avenues where students may feel constrained or intimidated from speaking their mind?
  • There was a lot of discussion about a set of metrics that has been created at the University level to try to flesh out what it means to be a “quality” Ph.D. program.  These metrics may be used in some form to guide funding decisions for programs, although the details of this process are still unclear to me.  You can have a look at the metrics here.  If you want some context, I believe these metrics were created by the Enrollment Management Subcommittee at the Provost’s office, and speak to point #4 on page 10 of this document.  In our discussion today, there was some concern about how to respond to and incorporate these metrics in our own College improvement processes.
  • The topic of advising came up, and the central role that advising plays in the graduate student experience.  OLPD has been working on a list of expectations for graduate advisors, and the Institute of Child Development (?) has established the expectation that advisors meet with their advisees at least once a month.  The key question:  How do we establish norms and expectations for advisors so that faculty and students know what to expect and what to demand?  How do we create a culture that is responsive to students and what they need to succeed?
  • Faculty expressed concern about the kinds of demands they are forced to juggle and trade-offs they are forced to make (ex: spending more time on advising vs. working on their own research).  Having a realistic understanding of the resources it takes to be a good advisor, researcher, etc. seems crucial to improving both student and faculty experience.
  • The COGS Survey came up as a potential source of good information on graduate students’ experiences.  We also discussed creating a repository for survey tools, policy documents, etc. that CEHD departments can draw from when evaluating their graduate programs.

My reaction:

I, like most in the meeting, was concerned about some of the metrics the Enrollment Management Subcommittee has developed.  When defining a “quality Ph.D. program”, I would like to see metrics that take faculty members’ teaching/advising efforts into account.  And, at a land grant institution, I would also like to see metrics that value service to the Minnesota community.  I worry about metrics that are overly quantitative, such as number of grants, publications, citations, time to degree, rankings, etc.  I feel that these kinds of numbers obscure contributions that are powerful but not easily quantifiable.  They also set up a kind of one-size-fits-all “game” that may make us misallocate resources in ways that are not necessarily efficient, or beneficial to students and academic innovation.  I also believe that these numbers can be sloppy to collect (even as they purport to be “clean” and “unbiased”).  I would like to find out more about if/how these metrics are being used to allocate funding across the University.

I also have a suspicion that a key lurking variable behind any graduate program’s success is the quality of advising (which I believe, at the grad level, is essentially coterminous with “teaching” and “mentoring”).  It is that exciting and powerful “meeting of the minds” that goes on inside and outside of the classroom.  Advising has primacy–it is where the whole hoopla of grants, publications, citations, and conference proposals is born.  Graduate students don’t need course content as much as they need a sound support structure and sound relationships with mentors and peers.  And faculty mentors need the time and resources to offer this to graduate students.  The bad news: this defies–or at least problematizes–“the bottom line”.  You can’t cut corners on this.  And if you do, quality will suffer.  If we can articulate principles of good advising, give faculty the resources to focus time and energy on advising, and empower students to expect and demand quality advising relationships, that’s a huge step towards graduate program improvement, in my mind.

In thinking about this, we would also be wise to expand our scope to nourish not just faculty-to-student advising, but student-to-student mentoring and community.  We should also remember that promising a solid support community–and then delivering on these promises–also sells well with prospective grad students.  So, the bottom line is: pulling advising and community onto center stage can simultaneously advance our success in other metrics (publications, grants, citations, time to degree, etc.).  Let’s figure out where the horse is here, and let it pull the cart.

But mine is just one voice, so…

My questions:

  • What am I missing?  Any graduate students out there want to weigh in on this?
  • Is advising actually as central as I think it is to quality graduate education?  Or is there something else to focus on?
  • How do we feel about online/distance education programs?  What makes a “quality” distance education grad program?

Feel free to comment below, or shoot me an e-mail at linkx109@umn.edu .