Pressible

WordCamp gatherings consistently deliver the latest, mindblowing innovations happening with WordPress, and I’m still processing much of what I learned when we hosted WordCampNYC this past weekend. One project I wanted to highlight from the Academic Track is Pressible, a custom theme and set of plugins developed by Patrick Carey and Eric Buth and other members of the EdLab at Columbia’s Teachers College.

The project is currently in beta, and the code isn’t ready for release, but Patrick and Eric gave us a sneak peak of how this setup can transform a WordPress network into a publishing platform tailored to the specific needs and interests of a community.

Pressible is designed to organize and feature your content in an intuitive, browsable way. That means all users have to do is post! No static pages to update, no hierarchies to create. The structure of your site emerges from the content you add–the more you post, the more sophisticated and interconnected your site becomes.

They’ve changed the name of “Categories” on their install to “Topics,” and really pushed their community members to use WordPress’s native functionality to build out a folksonomy of the content produced on the system. I can’t quite tell what kind of sitewide processes there are on the system from the outside looking in. It seems most of those paths in are located on the individual user pages, where affiliations across site are listed, but they could have something like sitewide tags running and enabling connections across content (and I just can’t see it).

A few things come to mind after looking at Pressible for a bit. Eric and Patrick have taken a different approach to using a publishing platform to build community within their institution than we have on Blogs@Baruch. We launched a really broad platform, got as many people onto it as possible from around the campus, sought to make connections via word of mouth and through building a community of practice, and then ultimately integrated BuddyPress in an effort to tie it all together. Now we’re pushing tagging to gradually build a folksonomy. But Pressible seems to structure the platform to allow folks easily to publish and ultimately to funnel what they’ve done towards community conversations.  All sites use the same theme– which is beautiful, by the way, and seems to have some built-in customizability — and it’s easy for users to publish through the front end.  Chronology is practically non-existent, and tags and topics are foregrounded in the user experience. WordPress is the base, but the branding reflects the fact that getting content up, out and connected is the main priority.

I can see how it’s fitting to a community like Teachers College to have a more focused platform like this; at Baruch, we’re trying to make connections across seemingly unrelated conversations, but at TC the goal is to amplify discussion among specialists within a single field (albeit one that engages a wide range of ideas).  One of the key terms that any CUNY who’s gone through the Writing Fellows Program has learned is “enabling constraints,” the notion that by limiting the options available to a student on a writing assignment you can help them focus more deeply and thus open up more possibilities for exploration. Pressible seems to me to embody that approach in the design of an open source publishing platform, and it’s an exciting experiment that I’m happy to follow.

On EdTech and the Digital Humanities

This post originally was published at my personal blog, Bloviate. If you wish to comment, click on the title and add to the discussion there!

Source of our power
Creative Commons License photo credit: myoldpostcards

Last Wednesday Matt Gold and Charlie Edwards invited me and a few of my favorite CUNYs to come speak to the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative, a new group at the University “aimed at building connections and community among those at CUNY who are applying digital technologies to scholarship and pedagogy in the humanities.” Matt and Charlie were especially interested in bringing CUNY educational technologists to this meeting because the relationship between edtech and the digital humanities is something that’s been assumed more than theorized: we all focus on the intersection of technology and academic work in the humanities, ergo we must be doing similar and somewhat simpatico things.

With a field that’s been as nebulous in its boundaries and definitions as the digital humanities, this stance hasn’t been particularly problematic. There has, however, been significant energy within the digital humanities over the past year devoted to self-definition. At the same time, the loose, distributed community of educational technologists working with open source publishing platforms of which I consider myself a part has congealed around a certain set of ideas. I intended my contributions to the CUNY DHI to draw some points of difference between these twined trajectories, to look upon the digital humanities through the lens of my recent experience becoming an educational technologist after completing a graduate degree in history, and ultimately to raise some questions about the tensions I see between the two realms of academic life.

In advance of the visit, we were asked to circulate some readings, and I chose Mike Neary and Joss Winn’s “The Student as Producer.” This piece contextualizes the work that I and several of my colleagues have been engaged in over these past few years. Our work as educational technologists has emerged to meet a particular nefarious challenge that Neary and Winn powerfully delineate: over the past two generations, the function of the university has been increasingly shaped in response to the forces of capital. “Since the 1980s, universities, in response to government pressure, have become more business-like and enterprising to take advantage of the ‘opportunities’ presented by the so-called global ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘information society.’” At the risk of overdrawing the picture somewhat, we see the impact of such pressures in pretty much every nook and cranny of the university: in how resources are sought and allocated, in the corporatization and professionalization of athletics, in the anxiety over assessment and accreditation, in the structure and vicissitudes of the academic labor market, in the predatory student loan and credit card industry and, not least of all, in the classroom, where structures of instruction commonly lead to students being treated as vessels into which information should be dumped en route to the job market.

Blogs@Baruch and its sister projects emerged in direct response to these conditions. Our original focus was on nurturing student-centered learning by merging WAC and WID principles with the possibilities opened up by online publishing, in making more visible the pedagogy (both successful and not) at work in our classrooms, and at supporting an alternative to the proprietary course management system that still predominates across CUNY. Blackboard is itself an embodiment of the university culture that Neary and Winn rightly find so troubling: students cycle through a system that structurally, aesthetically and rhetorically reinforces the notions that education is consumption, the faculty member is a content provider, the classroom is hierarchical, and learning is closed. Less and less though do we have to convince listeners that open source publishing platforms and the many flowers they’ve allowed to bloom can create exciting possibilities in and beyond the classroom; we can show them link after model after link after model after link.

And yet our argument has quickly expanded beyond the classroom to engage broader questions about curricula, the social life of the University, the very way that our community members think about their experiences. Our engagement is a humanistic one in that it insistently constructs the university first and foremost as a site of inquiry and exploration, resists and complicates the concepts of deliverables and education as consumption, challenges staid structures of power, and seeks to constructively question motives and goals at every opportunity. Technology and the open web have empowered us in this endeavor, leveling the playing field in ways that give those who might imagine other trajectories within the university the means to counteract power.

I could say much more about the work we’ve been doing, where it’s succeeded, where it’s failed, and how it’s been a struggle. But the point here has been to situate our work, to historicize it in a way that brings to the fore its politics. This is something that I think the progressive edtech movement has done quite clearly, but that the digital humanities have not.

In many ways, the digital humanities is not really new. Or, that is to say, the methods and questions and processes that constitute its core are not new. Just drawing upon my own disciplinary (and professional) past, the folks at the American Social History Project have been exploring the implications of new technologies on scholarship and pedagogy for nearly thirty years, challenging orthodoxies and valorizing collaboration and innovative approaches to engaging with the past since the Kaypro II. The Center for History and New Media was founded in 1994 and together these two organizations built the first large scale efforts to digitally reimagine the past in the classroom and beyond. Randy Bass’s work out of Georgetown — which I first encountered as an undergraduate participant in the “Crossroads Project” at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s — has done much to promote the use of digital tools to remake the classroom and curricula. Additional examples in “humanities computing” are many.

What is new about the digital humanities, though, is the legitimacy, funding, and visibility that it’s found over the past few years, and those are the components that have sparked recent efforts to set some boundaries and define the field. Frankly, this process has sometimes bordered on the absurd. The recurrent presence of phrases like “big tent,” “expansive,” and “broadly conceived” give speakers a rhetorical tool set for drawing just about any academic work done with technology into the field. It gives graduate students who use technology in their research a language for demarcating their work from those who do not. This slipperiness makes formulating a critique a significant challenge, since the digital humanities resists being reduced to a single or even a handful of things. In trying to write this I’ve had a difficult time boiling my critique down to an unhedged essence. But, here goes.

The (un)structure of the digital humanities has led to a careerism and opportunism that, to the outsider, often obfuscates the genuinely pathbreaking work that’s happening around the field. It’s here where I see the biggest point of difference between educational technology and the digital humanities. Edtech is necessarily implicated in constructing the university of the future, and one of the many reasons that battle is so important is that its outcome will in fact go a long way towards determining the future of the humanities. While there is significant political content within the digital humanities — the valuing of openness, the emphasis on sharing, the location within technology of particular tools and methods for empowerment — one gets the sense that ideology is not the main thing. In other disciplines (history and educational technology being the two I’m most familiar with) political debates abound, often times propelling ideas forward. In the digital humanities you tend to see much more agreement than disagreement. While it’s well and good to be agreeable, and I far prefer people who are, we are in high-stakes times. The humanities have been and continue to be in crisis. Budgets are burning, departments are being axed, and in many places the very value of a humanistic education is not only being questioned, but boldly denied.

And yet, a tone predominates in the discourse around the digital humanities that often seems to sidestep this crisis, or miss it altogether. Part of this is no doubt attributable to the fact the the digital humanities has become so dependent upon Twitter and is thus subject to the distorting echo of the hive mind. Part of it is also contributable to the new sense of community and connectedness within the field, which has also spurred a significant amount of navel-gazing and those efforts to self-define. I admittedly suffer from enthusiasthma, but the “I’m okay, you’re okay” “RT congrats!” cliquishness that flows across my screen and predominates at DH gatherings seem to me to be a bit misaligned with the current trajectory of the humanities in higher education. DH jobs, funding, and departments are becoming more widely available while the broader humanistic project — to which universities are central — crumbles around us. Are new tenure track positions, attempts at building a canon and establishing authority, and a dozen new conferences representative of progress, or are they reentrenching and reinscribing power along traditional paths? (Yes, I realize the answer can be “both.”) And why do digital humanists seem to celebrate scholarship much more deeply and publicly than teaching and learning? These questions are at the core of my discomfort with aligning my work with the digital humanities, as much as I’ve learned and benefited from scholars at its center.

Some might ask, “well, what about #alt-ac?” I appreciate the extent to which that phrase articulates, illuminates and validates the variety of labor paths and modes that make the university function and evolve (including what I do). Yet I can’t help but feel that something might be lost by, as Jim Groom has said, “naming and reifying my alterity.” Adapting for myself the pressure to publish, travel to conferences, keep up with the canon, to constantly produce and present new research — all of the things that seem necessary to establish one’s self within the digital humanities, even as an “alt-ac” person — doesn’t really seem “alt” at all. It’s seems about exactly what I expected from a career in academia.

I realize this argument is deeply personal, perspectival and located mostly within my own struggles to navigate professional terrain. I’m not trying to shit on anyone’s work. Some of my best friends are digital humanists, I swear. But I know that I’m not the only person to feel some of the things I’ve written above. At the end of my brief, wholly unpolished presentation to the CUNY DHI last week, @mkgold tweeted “@lwaltzer argues for a more muscular, progressive version of the Digital Humanities that questions/critiques power.” I initially wasn’t comfortable with that conclusion being drawn from what I had said because I don’t feel myself enough of a DH insider to make any arguments for what its future should hold. And yet upon more reflection I do feel nurturing that ethos is and must be central to the humanities. It’s simply too important to be absent from or even unclear in any future vision of the university.

I guess that, thanks to Matt and Charlie’s invite and the struggle to write this post that ensued I’ve learned that I’m interested in the digital humanities only to the extent to which it helps me use technology to do the work as a humanist I’d try to do even if we had no computers. So does that mean I’m in, or out?

Audio of “Teaching With Blogs” Presentation

This past Spring I was pleased to moderate a panel at the Baruch Teaching with Technology Conference featuring three of Baruch’s most accomplished blogfessors: Mikhail Gershovich, whose Fear, Anxiety, and Paranoia course site made wide-ranging use of Blogs@Baruch; Paula Berggren, who’s done some of the most focused and interesting work on the system; and Zoe Sheehan Saldana, who’s a two-time reigning Blogfessor of the Year.

The session was well-attended and full of energy, and I think we touched on most if not all of the issues implicated in administering an online publishing platform at the College including pedagogy, resources, administration, and learning outcomes. BCTC was generous enough to record audio of the presentation and to post it to iTunes U, and it’s available below for your listening pleasure. For those of you who wonder what Blogs@Baruch is all about or just what it is I do around here, the audio below should answer some of your questions.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If you’d like to download this to your portable device for mobile edification, you can get the file here (if I link Cacophony will turn the link into an audio player): http://cac.ophony.org/audio/teachingwblogs.mp3.

Blogs@Baruch, now with BuddyPress!

I recently completed a significant upgrade to Blogs@Baruch, and I thought I’d blog my hacks and some of the thinking behind them for teh Google to index.

The goal of the upgrade was to get BuddyPress up and running, which will create additional avenues for social publishing and networking around academic interests across the College. The upgrade included two new WordPress child themes, one that uses bp-default (for the home site and all BuddyPress functionality) and one that uses TwentyTen (a new default theme).

if ( is_user_logged_in() )

Since we’re rolling BuddyPress into a system that’s been active for almost two years already, and which has more than four thousand users, I was hesitant to just automatically give everybody public profiles or to make the member list publicly visible. The following simple argument came in very handy in these cases:


<?php if ( is_user_logged_in() ) : ?>
<?php else : ?>
<?php endif; ?>			

I snaked this code through functions in a number of places:

  • in header of the BP child theme to hide the Members list (by excluding the page id for the Members page in the “else” statement)
  • in sidebar.php file of my child theme, to give logged-in users relevant quick links
  • in members/index.php of my child theme, to hide the Members directory
  • in members/single/home.php to hide individual Profile pages

I also hide the BP admin bar for logged out users (which is an option built into BP)… So if you’re a visitor to the site, BuddyPress won’t be visible to you.

Logged out:

Logged in:

This is the way we’re going to keep it for now, and I think such a structure reflects our sense of BuddyPress primarily as a tool for the community to get to know itself a little better. Rumor has it that some more granular privacy control will be coming down the pike in future versions of BuddyPress, and we’ll revisit this issue as appropriate.

bp-custom.php etc.

Every BuddyPress install should have a bp-custom.php file located in wp-content/plugins/ which houses customizations. I used this file to change the order of the tabs on Profile pages, and to insert additional menus on the BuddyPress admin bar.

One of the great challenges I’ve had is the fact that one of my good buddies and partners in pizza-eating crime has become one of the top BuddyPress/WordPress developers around, and Boone’s on my IM rolls. I’m often faced with the dilemma of taking an hour to figure something out, or bothering him and getting some code in about 3 minutes. He helped me with code for the tab order:


function change_profile_tab_order() {
	global $bp;

	$bp->bp_nav['profile']['position'] = 10;
	$bp->bp_nav['activity']['position'] = 20;
	$bp->bp_nav['blogs']['position'] = 30;
	$bp->bp_nav['friends']['position'] = 40;
	$bp->bp_nav['messages']['position'] = 50;
	$bp->bp_nav['groups']['position'] = 60;
	$bp->bp_nav['settings']['position'] = 70;
}

add_action( 'bp_setup_nav', 'change_profile_tab_order', 999 );

The additional menus in the admin bar, I figured out with help from the Codex:


function my_help_link(){
  ?>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/explanation-of-buddypress/">HELP!</a>

 <ul class="wp-admin-bar">
<li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/guide-to-buddypress/">Guide to Buddypress</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/for-blog-authors/">Support for Students</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/for-blog-administrators/">Support for Faculty</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/contact/">Contact</a></li>
  </ul>
  </li>
  <?php
}
add_action( 'bp_adminbar_menus', 'my_help_link', 14 );

function quick_links(){
  ?>
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/support/explanation-of-buddypress/">Quick Links</a>

 <ul class="wp-admin-bar">
  <li><a href="http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/about-blogsbaruch/terms-of-service/">Terms of Service</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/blsci">BLSCI</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/bctc">BCTC</a></li>
  <li><a href="http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/">Baruch College</a></li>
  </ul>
  </li>
  <?php
}


And, with Boone’s help, I made a change to my wp-config.php file so that Profile (rather than the Activity Stream) became the default component loaded when you visited a member’s page. (I located this line of code just beneath the “/* That’s all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */” comment, as it didn’t work when I put it at the end of the wp-config.php file).


 /** Sets BP Nav to load Profile first */
define( 'BP_DEFAULT_COMPONENT', 'profile' );

These changes are intended to prioritize Profiles. We want our users to share information about themselves and to use Boone’s Custom Profile Filters to connect with others at the College with similar interests. While the CUNY Academic Commons, for which that plugin was written, hopes to connect CUNYs across campuses, we want do this on a more local scale. When all of our incoming students get their Blogs@Baruch accounts next week, they will be asked to fill out their profiles and to begin exploring.

New Default Theme

I also used the upgrade opportunity to create a new default theme for sites created on Blogs@Baruch, a child of TwentyTen which features some Baruch College and CUNY branding/linking and altered css. Aided by this tutorial, I swapped out the built-in header images that ship with TwentyTen for images taken from Baruch College’s library of photographs. Here’s the code for that, placed into the theme’s functions.php file:


define( 'HEADER_IMAGE', get_bloginfo('stylesheet_directory') .'/images/headers/baruchcollege.jpg' );

add_action( 'after_setup_theme', 'blogsatbaruch_setup' );
function blogsatbaruch_setup(){

/* Add additional default headers: All Photos are from Baruch College Visual Standards Library: http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/visualstandards/photos.htm */

	$blogsatbaruch_dir =	get_bloginfo('stylesheet_directory');
	register_default_headers( array (
		'Baruch' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/baruchcollege.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/baruchcollege-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Baruch College', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Elevators' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/elevators.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/elevators-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Elevators', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Reading' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/reading.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/reading-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Reading', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Streetsign' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/streetsign.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/streetsign-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Street Sign', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Turnstiles' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/turnstiles.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/turnstiles-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Turnstiles', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'VC View' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/vcview.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/vcview-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'View from VC', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),
		'Windows' => array (
			'url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/windows.jpg",
			'thumbnail_url' => "$blogsatbaruch_dir/images/headers/windows-thumbnail.jpg",
			'description' => __( 'Windows', 'blogsatbaruch' )
		),

	));
}

function remove_twenty_ten_headers(){
	unregister_default_headers( array(
		'berries',
		'cherryblossom',
		'concave',
		'fern',
		'forestfloor',
		'inkwell',
		'path' ,
		'sunset')
	);
}

add_action( 'after_setup_theme', 'remove_twenty_ten_headers', 11 );

And here’s what it looks like:

This new theme is sharper than what previously loaded, and TwentyTen is customizable enough that I think a lot of our users will just keep it as their primary theme.

Bye Bye Userthemes

Finally, I’ve done away Userthemes on Blogs@Baruch. The last two WP upgrades have required hacks to keep the plugin only half-working (I’ve never been able to turn off Userthemes on blogs… once you go Userthemes you’ll never go back!). It’s such an important part of what we do on the system that I wanted to cease relying on such an unstable plugin. Instead, with Tom Harbison’s help, we copied all of our custom themes into the theme library and renamed their folders to the site id for which they were intended. We didn’t activate these themes site wide, but rather went one by one through the blogs, editing the template, stylesheet, and theme settings for each. Not the perfect solution, but it feels more stable than relying on Userthemes.

Those are the hacks that I remember. I’m sure there are a few that I missed.

If you’d like to take a look at the child themes, here they are: Blogs at Baruch BP (child of bp-default) and Blogs at Baruch (child of TwentyTen).

The Path to Blogs@Baruch

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” - Don Williams, Jr.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane™

Jim Groom and Brian Lamb recently asked me and some of my fellow CUNYs to reflect on how we’ve “designed or conceptualized” the publishing platforms we oversee, with a focus on the role of networked collaboration in public higher education. The question is a big one, and it spurred me to think about the roots of my work as an educational technologist, an #alt-ac that emerged for me rather incidentally out of the work I was doing while training to become a historian at the CUNY Graduate Center, and which has led to Blogs@Baruch.

See, a myth is out there that one day the Reverend Jim Groom wandered into the University of Mary Washington from the wilds and revolutionized open source university-based personal publishing when he launched UMWBlogs in 2007. But this is only part of the story. Jim cut his teeth as an educational technologist in the same accidental way I did; we were both graduate students preparing for traditional academic careers. Our paths converged in 2004 when we met as Instructional Technology Fellows at the CUNY Honors College (which is now the Macaulay Honors College). I had already worked for four years at the New Media Lab, with the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, building Virtual New York City, and had taught history at Baruch. My work with ASHP taught me much about collaboration and the power and necessity of networks when doing new kinds of intellectual work in a discipline, and my teaching at Baruch had introduced me to the challenges and rewards of teaching at a public institution with an incredibly diverse and unique student body. Even before doing work as an instructional technologist, then, I had learned the catalytic value of connective networks and the pedagogical rewards of working in a “non-traditional” classroom setting.

As ITFs (a group of graduate students who are now overseen by the great Joseph Ugoretz, who unfortunately came on-board after Jim and I had moved on) our job was to work with faculty members who were teaching in the College’s core curriculum to make smart use of the laptops every student was given by integrating technology into pedagogy and cross-campus events. As Fellows, we met every couple of weeks to discuss our work and share ideas, and while many Fellows saw these meetings as a burdensome distraction from their much more important doctoral work, I always saw in them an opportunity to think collaboratively through methods and pedagogies that were in circulation but were not very present throughout much of CUNY. Those exchanges with Jim, Zach Davis, Jeff Drouin, Wendy Williams, Emily Pugh and others were very much the foundation of the work I’m now doing. They helped shape my sense that teaching with technology was about exploring and embracing new possibilities rather than reinforcing existing structures. They showed me that there was as much to learn from breaking down and reflecting upon the processes by which we produce knowledge as there was in using technology to engage deeply with content. They sharpened my understanding of experiential learning, and got me to focus more on nurturing sustained engagement than meeting the heavy coverage that’s always expected of teachers of history. They also taught me that doing this kind of work while in constant conversation with others is really the only way to do it, for if you’re doing it right you should be raising more questions than you’re answering. Many spaces in higher education — especially those that revolve around making sense and use of new technologies — would benefit from increased dialogue, reflection, and collaboration. Being part of a network that exists within and beyond our home institutions foregrounds those qualities in our work.

I remember the specific ITF meeting in Spring 2005 where Jim shared a maps project he had done on WordPress with a class at Hunter College, and excitedly riffed on the pedagogical possibilities of self-publishing on the open web. It wasn’t until that Summer when I started to play with WordPress on my own that I saw what had gotten him so excited. I’ve mused before that the edtech revolution started not in the classroom, but in the baby blogosphere. In February 2005, Zach Davis and his wife launched a blog (using Movable Type, if I recall correctly) about their young daughter; in March 2005, Jim and Mikhail Gershovich launched blogs to document the lives of their young sons; I followed suit a couple of months later with my own baby blog. I can’t speak for the other blogfathers, but in my case blogging about my child served multiple purposes: it was a needed distraction from my dissertation research that also pleased far-away grandparents; it spurred me to explore presenting a wide range of media online; and it lulled me into my first tentative steps towards real hacking. I knew HTML and CSS and had built sites using Dreamweaver and Fireworks and Flash, but I was no hacker and was never much interested in code. But by blogging and making movies and art about my child I came to see more clearly the power of the lowered barriers to self-publishing provided by a software like WordPress. And that I was doing this in concert with other like-minded academic geek dads made me feel as though my efforts were part of some larger trajectory.

By Fall 2005, I was ready to roll WordPress into my support for courses. I had worked for two years with a faculty member, Roz Bernstein, whose pedagogy was proto-edupunk in that she always required her students, after studying a particular art form, to produce work of their own in that form. We had previously done a project where students crafted PowerPoint presentations inspired by the movie Capturing the Friedmans about their own families, and the students had come up with some fantastic creative work (work that I still use today to challenge arguments that there’s no such thing as a good PowerPoint). So when her students were studying collage, they were tasked with making collages of their own and to write about their creations. We scanned the collages and shared them along with the notes via a WordPress blog. This process opened up second and third layers of dialogue, as students commented on each others’ work asynchronously and then reflected upon the process in classroom discussions (including a memorable discussion of what was gained and loss by the process of digitization). I’ve often said that Baruch students are among the most interesting college students in the world, and none of them realize this. Their stories are so rich and varied that assignments which urge them to mine their pasts to find the raw materials with which to create and reflect are invariably rewarding. Maker assignments done here that encourage students to bring what they already know to what they’re learning are successful time and time again.

After a few additional projects at the Honors College I joined the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute in 2006 as a CUNY Writing Fellow. Mikhail, the Director of the Institute (who I had first learned of through his baby blog), wanted to bolster support for “computer-mediated instruction,” and had talked me into leaving the Honors College. The opportunity to see what could be accomplished with these tools in a non-honors setting appealed to me, as did the opportunity to get experience with WAC/WID theory. Finally, I was interested in seeing if we could expand support for open-source applications at the College. Mikhail gave me the freedom to develop some faculty development initiatives around teaching with blogs, and we ultimately supported 10-12 different course blogs per semester (on single installations of WordPress) between Fall 2006 and Spring 2008. We worked with English, Law, Sociology, Anthropology, and Journalism course, and we did everything from small, project-based assignments, to research paper scaffolding, to collaborative research using a wiki, to creating a news blog of student reporting about New York. And I started blogging about my work at Cac.ophony.org.

Those two years of work as a Writing Fellow, while I was finishing my dissertation, really drove home the extent to which we were working on something that was new to our campus and University, something that was needed because it connected the intellectual/academic work that students were doing in school with the digital literacy that they were developing only outside of the curriculum, and which they would need wherever their careers took them. I continued to stay in touch with Jim and learned from the way he distilled his network through a political and pedagogical prism to which I was sympathetic, a perspective which had in-part been forged by professional experiences at CUNY supporting teaching, learning, and scholarship with technology. I followed with great interest as his experimentation led to UMWBlogs, and discussed with Mikhail the opportunity to systematize and scale up what we had been doing up until then only on a piecemeal basis.

Blogs@Baruch evolved out of these discussions, and has very much depended upon the interplay between a broader network of teachers, learners and scholars out on the interwebs and the unique community we continue to engage with at Baruch College. A significant part of my job is to mediate this interplay, to bring ideas and inspiration mined from my expanding network and to try find a place for them within the curriculum at Baruch, and to then to share back my reflections on the results. We’re getting ready to roll BuddyPress out on Blogs@Baruch this Fall. Our goal in doing so is to congeal a platform that already has more than 4000 users into an academic publishing network. We hope doing this will make more explicit the fundamental fact that what’s happening on small corners of our system is connected both to other developments around this school and around CUNY, and also to a broader community within higher education of people finding their footing on the open web, and using that footing to launch themselves forward. Baruch students and faculty have much to learn from these connections, and also much to give.

Slouching Towards BuddyPress

planet of the apes

Creative Commons License photo credit: waferboard

I’m preparing to roll BuddyPress out on Blogs@Baruch later this month, and I’ve grown a little concerned about the implications of doing so. I thought I’d write up some of my concerns and see if the Internets has anything wise to say about them.

Our goal in using BuddyPress is to try to draw out and congeal an academic publishing network out of the various work that’s being done across the system. We hope to give students a platform to track their work over their careers at the College, to make connections with students with similar interests, and to cultivate a profile in a space they’re somewhat familiar with that we can support and that they can build as they desire. But I’m anxious about a few things.

First, we already have more than four thousand users on Blogs@Baruch, and the vast majority of those accounts were created for course-based blogging. I’m uneasy about turning on profile pages for users who never used the system for that purpose, without their knowledge. My current plan is to send an email out to all users when we turn on BP with instructions about granular control of profile pages. But, as far as I know, that control can only be so granular: with BuddyPress Profile Privacy you can set privacy on a field-by-field basis, but you can’t lock a whole profile page down. I’m hoping Jeff Sayre’s Privacy Component, which apparently is nearing a second beta, can help solve this problem. We’ll be registering incoming first year students for Freshman Seminar and instructing them on how to use the system beginning in August, and we’ll keep Profile pages set to “open” for new users from that point forward (we’ll be updating our woeful Terms of Service as well).  I think it might make sense though to lock-down already existing accounts and outreach to those users with details about BuddyPress’s purpose and instructions on how to manage their profile privacy. I’m uncertain about this, though, both the ethics and how I’d manage this technically.

Second, I’d like for the primary engine of Blogs@Baruch to continue to be course-based blogging. BuddyPress, however, elevates the social networking function to equivalence with the blogging functionality of a WP-MS installation. We’re not building ePortfolios like our friends at Macaulay and don’t have the resources to closely support the development of profiles on a system as big as ours. And I certainly want to avoid the creepy treehouse factor, which is an issue with incoming Freshman.  I just want students to use BuddyPress@Baruch to connect with each other around interests and academic work. So there are a few spots where I’d like to make some choices or changes that could nurture that understanding; for instance, I don’t think I’ll have a link to the members directory from the front page (but have it publicly accessible via internal links); I’ll hide the BuddyPress admin bar for logged out users; and, I’d like to hack BuddyPress so that upon log in, instead of landing at the front page of the home blog, users land at the Dashboard for their primary blog. Any other ideas?

Third, I have to revisit our registration process. In most classes, we use DDImportUsers to bulk register new users. Our most technologically capable faculty members can handle the intimidating two-step of a “self-registration” and the addition of Andre Malan’s “Add User to Blog” widget. Now, with BuddyPress functionality turned on, registration can become more complicated and require more information, which is fine for self-registering users but potentially problematic for those who are bulk-added. The bulk process also only creates new accounts, which I’ve been struggling with for some time; existing users need to be added to new sites individually, and to do so you need both a username and an email address (if I had my druthers, the DDImportUsers plugin would be able to check a list of newusernames|newemailaddress against the user_email field in the wp_users table and if a email address exists, add the user with that address to the individual site… and then to go on to register all the new users).

As the system grows, this is becoming a bigger problem since every semester a higher percentage of Baruch students have accounts on the system and find their way into new classes that use it. In an older version of WPMu you were able to add users to individual blogs simply with an email address, which was preferable because the cross-referencing is a pain. But that pain is balanced on the other side by the agita that would be caused if nervous first-time blogfessors are made to manage a multi-step registration process. In the past, I’ve taken the pain on in exchange for the benefit of drawing more users onto the system, and it’s been a good trade. I’m not sure yet how BuddyPress fits into this equation and how it will impact my overarching goal of easing the registration process, but wanted to get the issue out there. In the long term we’re looking at LDAP integration, but we’re not there yet. One solution is BP Group Blogs; but that creates additional steps in the registration process and we still want to make things as sleek and streamlined as possible.

These are my concerns for now, and I’m sure there’ll be more to come… any feedback, questions, and exchanges from out there in the wild are welcome and greatly appreciated.

What a Difference…

My little girl finished kindergarten today.

Here she was on her first day:

And here she is today:

The difference in her face is striking to me; it’s like a year of school has swapped out her babyness and replaced it with, I don’t know… wisdom? Knowing? I mean, yes, she’s like 15% older than when we took the first picture… but she looks like she’s aged.

I have a mixture of emotions about her experience and her school and the place we’ve chosen to call home. And she can be incredibly difficult for her mother and myself to deal with to such an extent that I quiver when I think about what awaits us in her teenage years. But I’m unequivocally proud of what a good, eager and curious learner she is, and more than anything in my life I love watching that take shape. The other day she said to her mom, “isn’t it kind of sad when you finish a book?”  I can’t think of another phrase I’d more wish my six year-old to say.

I Love David Simon, But…

David Simon can’t seem to open his mouth without revealing what a prick he is, and how proud he is of his eminent prickitude. Let’s stipulate that he’s made brilliant television, and to a certain extent I agree with the words of Steve Brier: “I abide arrogance in people who have something to be arrogant about.” I proselytize about The Wire to no end, and I’ll follow his career and devour everything he does.

But he’s got two obnoxious beefs that run through his work that I’d like to highlight: he hates New York and he has disdain for people who watch television. Of course these statements are overdrawn, but only because Simon overdrew them first himself. Here’s a clip from a talk he gave a couple of years ago at Eugene Lang College at the New School:

There is no city more vain about its position in popular culture, more indifferent to other realities, more self-absorbed than New York City…. You guys think you know urban America, you don’t know shit anymore.

Granted this is a rant and certain allowances must be made for imprecise language, but it’s still surprising to see someone who has done some of the most humanistic work in contemporary culture speak of a city as though it itself has the uniquely human qualities of vanity, indifference, and self-absorption, and then to proceed to correlate the development of these qualities with the extent of crime and suffering currently in the city. If he were to argue that New Yorkers were exceedingly provincial, I’d agree with him. If he were to argue that the national media is New York-centric, and that this is because of all the money that flows through Manhattan, and that this reality informs stories that do and do not get funded and told, he’d get no argument from me. But that’s not what he’s arguing in the clip above, or in this excerpt from an interview he did with Alan Sepinwall comparing New Yorkers’ reaction in the aftermath of 9/11 to the perspective of New Orleanians after Katrina:

Although who isn’t self-absorbed when their town has a near-death experience? Were New Yorkers not talking about 9/11 for years afterwards? Was it not a subject of intense discussion and self-awareness? Did New Yorkers not sound to outsiders self-absorbed and preachy when they spoke of 9/11? The sense of entitlement that New Yorkers feel and that they’re not willing to grant to someone else who’s had a life-changing experience is really remarkable. But that’s the nature of empathy: it only goes so far.

Simon starts this bit off sympathetic to those whose city has been through trauma, but can’t help himself from throwing a dig in against “New Yorkers” and their “sense of entitlement.” Fact is, the vast majority of New Yorkers I know who were here on 9/11 wanted immediately to find ways to both remember what happened on that day and get on with the normalcy of their lives. Thought it’s an unscientific claim, I’d bet that as much of all that “never forget” stuff came from outside the city as from the city’s citizens; New York has no singular claim on 9/11 fetishism. Simon seems to be arguing that New York’s location at the center of American economic and cultural power not only crowd out other stories but also delegitimize to a certain extent the stories and voices that do come out of the city. This perspective flattens and ignores the extent to which human and social conflict propels this city forward just like it does any other city, and it does absolutely nothing to help bring stories from other locales to light (perhaps besides fuel Simon’s considerable intellectual fire).

Simon’s beef about New York in Treme flows in-part from his sense that New Orleans didn’t get the national love that New York did after Katrina, and this argument filters into the perspectives of Creighton “Fuck You You Fucking Fucks” Bernettte and Davis “This Can’t Happen in New York” McAlary as well as the intense parochialism exhibited by many of the characters on the show. It also leads to groan-inducing expository lines like the one delivered by Annie’s friend in Episode 9 of Treme when Annie leaves Sonny, her boyfriend and musical partner: “Fucking is fucking, but music? That’s personal.” In New Orleans, such a perspective is to be celebrated because the music, food and culture are wonderful and bohemian and largely uncapitalized, the city’s people have been shat upon for generations by government and corporations, and not many people outside the city “get it.” In New Orleans, other rules prevail. In New York, if you’re a New Orleans-bred trumpeter like Delmond Lambreaux, you seem like a turkey paralyzed by an Oedipal complex if you explore music beyond that which is at your roots.

Simon is even more disdainful of television watchers than he is of New Yorkers. He begins his interview with Alan Sepinwall, who has been among the best chroniclers of both The Wire and Treme, by insulting him. Sepinwall asked Simon what he was hoping to accomplish with the flashback scene that occurs in the season finale of Treme, and Simon snaps “it’s kind of self-evident, isn’t it?” before defending the choice from a critique that the interviewer doesn’t level. Simon adds:

So it’s kind of frustrating, for people trying to blog the show each week like yourself, people trying to comment on it or to anticipate the storyline, to debate the filmmaker’s choices. But it’s a no-win situation. We wouldn’t want to have people not discussing the show, but at the same time, you can’t take the discussion seriously until everyone gets to the end. At the end, people can reflect on what they’ve seen, and whether it added up…. I’ve come to realize that the only commentary I can take seriously are people who react to what’s on screen and how that reflects on the reality they know. That’s the only biofeedback that matters to me.. All the feedback of, “I wish the show would be this, I wish the show would be more of this, I wish this character had less to do, I wish this character had more to do,” that’s of no use. It’s of no use because we’ve already finished production, but on a more philosophical level, it’s of no use. Choices have been made based on the last half hour of film. Every season of ‘The Wire’ built to the last half hour, to the endings. This is my seventh time of having the initial reaction to our storylines be, “I don’t understand where they’re going. Why do they have this? This doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t like this character.” If you go back and watch the first episode of any season of “The Wire,” or the first episode of “Treme” or “Generation Kill,” knowing the ending, the choices will be entirely reasonable as a first chapter of something that is novelistic. If you experience it only as something that’s an episodic entity unto itself, I can’t answer that, because I don’t really think about that. I’m not irate about it, I just can’t take it seriously.

So, this is effectively a rant against the consideration as episodes of blocks of television that are constructed and presented as unique entities once a week, with beginning and ending credits, and an assertion that you really can’t say much of value about the arc of a season or a series or a character until you first see all that the “filmmakers” have to say. That’s just idiotic, and flies directly in the face of Simon’s own claims that the art he produces will not allow fundamental human truths to be distorted by the restrictions of form.

Simon acknowledges in the interview that there is space for criticism and discussion of his work, yet he repeatedly detours any question Sepinwall asks about arc and plot and characters and choices that might lead to some reflection and introspection about human nature into rants about how most viewers and critics are brainwashed by tv so deeply that we don’t really know how to watch a show like this:

I don’t mind if a character is selfish or insecure. I just don’t need all my characters to be winning. And in the same way that people often miscalculate or fail to acknowledge the equivocation between high-stakes and plot itself, I think people generally mistake their dislike of a character as poor acting.

Simon has, over the years, become ever more certain that he knows The Truth and that there’s a pretty good chance that you and I do not. Much like Creighton Bernette, who we see once in the classroom and learn immediately that he is a pretty crappy teacher, Simon is much more interested in polemic than in dialogue. His polemics are smart, interesting, entertaining and often right-on. But they’re also becoming gradually more obnoxious in how they proclaim Simon’s single perspective and urinate upon all others. This approach informed some of the fifth season of The Wire, which centered around a fairly simplistic and nostalgic rant about the demise of newspapers. And it’s present periodically in Treme, a show I love, but one whose perspective is represented by a title that doesn’t sport an accent mark even though it’s sometimes spelled with one.  If you don’t know how to pronounce Treme and aren’t sufficiently motivated to get it right, what you think doesn’t really matter.

Where the Control At?

Jabulani Ball

Creative Commons License photo credit: Eustaquio Santimano

Right up there with the complaints about the vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup has been tsuris about the Adidas “Jabulani” ball, which was made specifically for this event. Every four years goalies complain about the new World Cup match balls, which have consistently been made to fly faster and to swerve more severely. Glen Levy quotes Cote D’Ivoire coach Sven-Goran Erikkson as saying FIFA should heed the concerns of keepers and field players, yet Levy ultimately concludes that the concern is nothing: the low scoring is due to playing at altitude and to overly-defensive strategies.

I’m not so sure. The ball seems to be affecting offensive play more significantly than defensive play. From the opening match the ball looked to me as though it was coming upon players more quickly than they expected, and that passes were outpacing recipients more than what I’m used to seeing in the football I watch. Goalies were concerned that shots taken from distance would dip and dive and move about unpredictably; but few shots from outside the box even seem to be finding the target.

I decided to crunch some numbers to see if there was any data to support what I thought I was seeing with my eyes. I’m no Nate Silver, though I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I compared selected ball control stats from the first sixteen games of this year’s Cup with those from the sixteen matches in 2009’s Confederation’s Cup.

The results were pretty striking:

Total Passes Completed
2009: 73.7%
2010: 70.5%

Short Passes Completed
2009: 74.8%
2010: 73.6%

Medium Passes Completed
2009: 77.7%
2010: 77.4%

Long Passes Completed
2009: 61%
2010: 47.6%

Crosses Completed
2009: 34.3%
2010: 18.8%

Corners Completed
2009: 62.5%
2010: 40.6%

And, I also looked at shooting and scoring in 2009 and 2010.

Shots on Target
2009: 40.7%
2010: 34.2%

Shots Wide
2009: 42.2%
2010: 47.2%

Goals
2009: 43
2010: 27

In every one of these categories, control of the ball has been more fleeting in 2010 than 2009. Specifically, you can see that long passes, crosses, and corners have been the most severely impacted plays, sporting the largest differentials from last year to this.

All 32 of the games considered were played in South Africa, so the altitude question is neutralized. I supposed that strategic differences between a 32 team tournament and an 8 team tournament could have some impact on these numbers, as might the pressure of playing in the World Cup. I’m nowhere near equipped to integrate these allowances into my analysis. Now, everyone plays with the same ball, so I don’t think there are any questions about whether or not this situation is “fair.” But what’s above certainly combines with what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes to lead me to conclude that the Jabulani is having a negative impact on the ability of field players to control the ball.

Viva los Vuvuzelas*

When I was a youth soccer player growing up in Lansing, Michigan we used to regularly play against Eaton Rapids, a farming town about 20 miles outside the urban center. These were always tough games, mostly because the boys from Eaton Rapids were big and strong. Their squads were like little versions of the German national team, and this feeling was reinforced by the occasional racist taunts they hurled at our teams, which featured black and Latino players (and one Jew, me, who was often confused for a Puerto Rican).

But one of the most annoying things about playing Eaton Rapids was that their fans always brought these goddamn cowbells to the games, and would bang them throughout the match. I hated those cowbells, which came to mind this weekend amidst the furor against the vuvezelas that have blared and bleated throughout the first few days of the World Cup.  They’ve caused such an uproar that World Cup organizers were considering banning them from matches.

Vuvuzela

Creative Commons License photo credit: markhillary

Any soccer fan who watched the Confederation’s Cup last year or who has watched South American soccer in the past 30 years will already be familiar with this noise, and discussions about whether or not they should be banned from the Cup have been going on for a year. My feelings? Get over it. I’d much rather the Black Eyed Peas and, especially, Bono and R. Kelly be banned from the Cup; the vuvuzelas are less annoying, and at least they have character and impart a local feeling to the goings on.  Who knows, maybe they even give African and South American squads that are used to hearing them an advantage, which I’m all for given that this is the first World Cup in Africa. That they give idiotic American cretins another thing to whine about also seems an argument in their favor, doesn’t it?

If it annoys you, turn your sound down, go to a bar, or simply watch more matches. I’ve acclimated myself to them already, much more so than I ever did those goddamn Eaton Rapids cowbells.

Jason Gay offers an even heartier defense of the vuvezela here.

* Yes, I realize that “vuvezela” is not Spanish, but the alliteration was too alluring.

** PS.