As many of you know, I have long been experimenting with how to use twitter effectively in academic contexts. Many are skeptical of twitter's ability to add substantive value to academic conversations because of its character constraints and its culture of snark and attempted witticisms.
So, over the past few months I have sought to cultivate a different culture of academic community through interactive lectures in which I've live tweeted my own presentations at the University of San Francisco, the Catholic University of America and Newman University. Those experiments taught me how important it is to model the sort of twitter behavior that is capable of enriching academic conversations rather than impoverishing them.
Last week when Wesleyan University President Michael Roth visited Penn State, I took notes on the talk via Twitter and curated them on Storify. It was a good way to remind myself of some salient points of the lecture and to share the important ideas Roth presented about the value of the liberal arts with a wider audience.
This week, however, I thought I would try to take collaborative public notes during the annual meeting of the Ancient Philosophy Society at Notre Dame University. Happily, my colleague @AdrielTrott was willing to join me in the endeavor and we were able to live tweet a number of the papers at the conference.
Here is the Storify I created for it:
As you can see, we do seem to have been able to add value to some conversations. During the Alasdair MacIntyre talk, for example, MacIntyre recommended a book the title of which many missed. However, because I heard the reference and knew the book, I was quickly able to tweet out a link. For me, the power of collaborative public note taking lies in the possibility that something important to you might evoke as response from someone that leads ultimately to a new insightful conversation. I can see the threads of a few conversations here that might be pursued further in the future.
Generally speaking, when Philosophy tries to go public, it takes one of two approaches. Either it seeks to articulate philosophical ideas in popular terms and through popular media - an approach adopted by the Stone in the New York Times, or it seeks to orient itself toward the "practical" by engaging in a variety of "applied" studies: business ethics, environmental philosophy, etc.
While these two strategies have value and merit, the practice of public philosophy the Public Philosophy Journal (PPJ) seeks to embody involves more than addressing the public or pursuing the practical implications of philosophical theories.
Rather, the sort of public philosophy the PPJ will seek to practice is a collaborative activity in which philosophers engage dialogically with activists, professionals, scientists, policy-makers, and affected parties whose work and lives are bound up with issues of public concern. Public philosophy is thus not limited to questions concerning the practical applicability of theoretical problems, rather it is informed by the recognition that all theoretical problems are ultimately rooted in questions of wide public interest.
Philosophy has, from its earliest beginnings, always been publicly engaged. Drawing on this long tradition, the PPJ will facilitate the ability for philosophers to play a role as actual agents of change, and not only as commentators or critics.
This conception of public philosophy certainly includes many practitioners in diverse areas of applied philosophy. But there are also many practitioners in these areas who do not see themselves as engaging directly with issues of public concern or who are not interested in trying to make their work matter to wider audiences. So public philosophy, as practiced by the PPJ, includes the interests and work of a large and diverse group of philosophers, some of whom may be associated with various practical areas of philosophy.
Conceived of in this way, the vision of public philosophy the PPJ will champion is not so much a subfield of the discipline as it is a way of putting the discipline into practice.
The PPJ is informed by a commitment to the idea that philosophically trained thinkers have an important role to play in addressing issues that concern all members of the general public. We believe our discourse is most responsive to the needs of that public when it is inclusive of a variety of disciplinary perspectives and when it is not subordinated to ends that are shared by only a particular segment of the population.
Accordingly, there is an important connection between the way we conceive of the practice of public philosophy and our choice of technological means for curating, reviving, cultivating, and publishing content for the PPJ. This is part of what sets the PPJ apart from other academic journals more generally, and it is what makes it unique in the discipline of philosophy.
[Practicing the art of collaborative writing, this post is the result of the combined efforts of Mark Fisher (@mdfphilpsu), Kyle Whyte (@Whyte_KP) and Christopher Long (@cplong).]
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Because the Public Philosophy Journal depends for its success on a community of collaborators, we embed the form below for those interested in helping curate content for the journal.
If, as Michael Bérubé suggested today in his Chronicle of Higher Education article "The Humanities, Unraveled," the situation in the humanities is "a seamless garment of crisis: If you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels," then stitching in any one area just may save the garment as a whole.
By the end of the article, Bérubé is worried that departments will be "eliminated in the next strategic plan" if they take up in earnest the Alternative Academic career (#AltAc) challenge by empowering their graduate students to cultivate a wider range of abilities that would enable them to pursue career paths other than those along the tenure track.
The crisis is real, as is the concern about elimination; but the rhetoric of crisis can stymie creativity at the very moment when we need to be most imaginative. Happily, those of us with disciplinary backgrounds in the humanities have long cultivated our capacities of creative stitching. We should draw on them to begin sewing again, rather than lamenting our collective unraveling.
Take one idea: to create a robust, integrated higher education internship program for humanities graduate students in areas like Institutional Research, Fellowships and Awards, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Admissions, Alumni Relations and Development, Career Services and other aspects the higher education landscape. These areas are in constant need of the writing, communication and imaginative thinking talents our humanities graduate students bring with them.
The point would not be to take students away from rigorous new scholarship in their disciplines; but to recognize, as Bérubé does, that advanced study of the humanities develops powerful analytic, creative, penetrating and broad intellectual abilities that can have transformative effects on institutions and cultures in which they are valued.
The key, however, is to stitch those intellectual virtues together with cultivated habits of collaboration, time management, and institutional awareness - precisely what our humanities graduate students would learn in a robust higher education internship program. Combining these intellectual and institutional abilities will make our humanities graduate students better tenure line faculty, should they land such a job; and if they don't, such combined experience will surely make them more valuable members of whatever institutional community they ultimately enter.
This is just one example of how stitching in one area might help save and transform the entire garment, for the more people with advanced degrees in the humanities serving at various levels of our institutions -- be they in higher education, government, or the profit or non-profit worlds -- the more conscientious and humane those institutions will become.
On Saturday, January 19, 2013, I joined administrators, staff and members of the Penn State Board of Trustees for the Blue and White Vision Council Seminar at the Nittany Lion Inn. The goal of the seminar was to provide the Blue and White Vision Council a broad perspective to develop a strategic direction for teaching and technology at Penn State.
The seminar included two morning lectures, one by Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of Innosight Institute, the other by Clay Shirky, Partner for Technology and Product Strategy at the Accelerator Group. Horn highlighted a white paper on Disrupting College in which he established an analogy between the demise of the steel industry and the current crisis in Higher Education. Shirky, on the other hand, offered a different analogy, suggesting that MOOCs unbundle courses from curricula in the way Napster and iTunes unbundled songs from albums. The suggestion in both analogies was that Higher Education is an enterprise ripe for disruptive transformation that would likely lead to the demise of many universities unable to respond effectively to the revolution in technology we are experiencing.
The afternoon was focused more on the innovations we at Penn State have already undertaken with the growth and expansion of the World Campus and the integration of strategies of teaching with technology into our residence curriculum.
The day was full and I continue to reflect upon it, but I left with an unsettled feeling that the heart of Penn State was somehow missing from the discussion. That feeling was surely rooted in the absence of the voice of faculty in general, and our research faculty in particular. The seminar focused on teaching and technology, so it would have made sense for our faculty to have been more centrally included. They were, with a few exceptions, largely absent.
This absence signals something of deeper concern, for it suggests that there may be a failure to appreciate the deep connection between scholarly research and teaching.
As I have argued previously, the most effective way for Penn State to defend and strengthen its position in Higher Education is through the research mission that has long sustained and enriched the education we offer students. Only by infusing rigorous academic scholarship into all aspects of the educational endeavor--from general education at the undergraduate level, to our online offerings on the World Campus, to our professional and academic graduate programs--will we be able to offer a more compelling and transformative education than those who seek to deliver courses more efficiently and inexpensively.
To be sure, rigorous scholarship will mean different things in each of these contexts, but the education we deliver in the future will be neither competitive nor compelling unless we empower our research faculty to infuse rigorous scholarship into all levels of the curriculum and to inspire a new generation of students to take up and appreciate the research endeavor in which knowledge is not merely passed down, but discovered.
This is not, of course, to say that we ought not be innovative, or that we ought to reject opportunities to improve efficiencies and cut costs. Nor is it to deny the economic challenges facing our educational enterprise.
But our innovation must be fueled by rigorous academic research, our curriculum made relevant and compelling by engaged and engaging public scholarship, and our attempts to reach out beyond the physical campuses of the university ought to be animated by a vision of education rooted in a commitment to the transformative power of academic research.
If Saturday was designed in part to articulate for the Board a vision of the future of education at Penn State, I fear they may have left without a deep understanding of what ought to drive that future: excellent academic scholarship.
Today is Mack Brady's birthday; he would have turned 9.
His father has recently written eloquently, even in his grief, about the theological questions the senseless death of a young boy raises. For him, it is not a question of God's punishing anyone or of some grand divine plan, but of "the broken nature of the world."
This W. H. Auden poem captures that brokenness; so I offer it here in memory of a birthday that should have been welcomed by the palpable excitement of an energetic little boy ready to enter into his ninth year of life.
When the Collegian asked me to comment on the scholarship established in honor of Mack Brady for the article they published today, they could not integrate all I had written.
This is what I wrote:
When you look at the striking photographs Chris Brady took of Mack and his entire family, you see a glimpse of the beautiful life that was lost, and of the love that endures.
The entire Penn State community mourns with Chris and Elizabeth and Izzy.
The soccer scholarship they have established will be a tribute to the energy, skill and passionate dreams of a wondrous little boy, and a lasting testimony to the enduring love our community feels for him and the Brady family.
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Tonight marks the one week anniversary of Mack's death. Here are a few images by which to remember the love that endures:
When I first wrote about my attempts to close the digital research circle in 2010, I had just relinquished EndNote in favor of Zotero for its superior ability to share and organize references. At the time, Zotero was still a plugin for Firefox and lacked a number of features I needed to facilitate my research - features like the digital reading, annotating and organizing pdf files. Those limitations led me to Mendeley, which I still value for collaborative annotations and research.
However, with three developments in Zotero, I have returned to it with renewed commitment. One reason for this commitment has less to do with features and more with the underlying open source philosophy of the product's development. Zotero was developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media, a leader in digital humanities scholarship and a strong advocate for open collaborative research.
Although I am committed to their values of collaboration and openness, without the functionality I need, I would not have been able to return fully to Zotero. Let me mention the three developments that have made Zotero central again to my digital scholarship.
First, no longer simply a plug-in for Firefox, Zotero is a stand alone product that works across browsers. I rely mostly on Chrome these days, and the stand alone version works beautifully with the Chrome extension.
Second, I have adopted Zotfile to facilitate the simple organization of my pdf files. Zotfile effectively turns Zotero into as powerful a pdf file organizer as Mendeley. It enables you to quickly pull references from online databases and across the web directly into your Zotero collections. (Don't sync using Dropbox; rather use the native Zotero syncing service to avoid generating duplicates.) Zotfile also facilitates the simple renaming of all files based on the metadata in your reference collections. With Zotfile, Zotero pulls articles from library databases even more easily and efficiently than Sente, which excels in that area.
Third, and most importantly from my perspective, is the development of ZotPad, the iPad application for Zotero. Although it still lacks note taking functionality (under development), it brings all your documents from your collections to your iPad and allows you to use your preferred annotating program to edit, annotate and update the pdf files in your Zotero collections. Because it does not download all your files at once, it works much more efficiently than the Mendeley iPad app, which has languished since its early appearance. I use GoodReader for annotating, and love the ability to annotate files, return them to ZotPad and find them updated in my Zotero library when I return to a computer.
These recent developments have brought me much closer to my goal of closing the digital research circle. They have certainly made my digital research much more efficient; allowing me even to take a moment to write a post about it before returning, as now I must, to my work on wolves and dogs in Plato's Republic.
The impetus for this little Diigo collection is the recent appearance of two articles, one skeptical of MOOCs, the other more sanguine about their transformative power.
In their December 17, 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?," Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk gather the skeptical voices who insist, as Peter Stokes of Northeastern University, puts it:
"The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis," a case of people "just throwing spaghetti against the wall" to see what sticks...
Of course, if the MOOC is psychosis, it is born of a deeper pathology; for as Robert Archibald of the College of William and Mary is quoted there as saying:
"At most institutions, students are in mostly large classes, listening to second-rate lecturers, with very little meaningful faculty student interaction. ...Students are getting a fairly distant education even in a face-to-face setting."
It is a response to this deeper pathology of contemporary Higher Education that seems to be at the root of Clay Shirky's analogy between the MOOC and the MP3 file format.
Shirky's Higher Education: Our MP3 is the MOOC is the second article to which I'd like to point as a way to begin thinking through the implications of the MOOC for higher education. Shirky's argument is based on this analogy:
mp3 : album : music industry :: MOOC : curriculum : higher education
Just as the mp3 file format, by making music accessible and sharing simple, unbundled individual songs from albums and transformed the music industry, so too will the MOOC, by making education accessible and massively open, unbundle courses from curricula and transform higher education.
Shirky presses the analogy further: just as the mp3 unbundled individual songs from the albums the record companies forced us to purchase, so too will the MOOC unbundle specific courses from the degrees for which institutions of higher education force students into debt.
Shirky emphasizes that the promise of MOOCs is that "the educational parts of education can be unbundled."
But that, of course, is a packed suggestion itself not so easily unbundled. For there is a difference between taking a course or series of them and being educated.
Just as one swallow does not make a spring (Aristotle, Nic. Ethics, 1098a19), neither does a course divorced from a course of study make an education. The educational parts of education cannot be unbundled like a single from an album, for the education is both in the curriculum and the manner in which that curriculum is delivered.
The challenge the MOOC posses to institutions of higher education is that they will force us to re-imagine the curriculum into which we have placed our individual courses. And institutions of higher education have not historically been particularly nimble when it comes to creating and implementing innovative curricula responsive to new forms of literacy and public communication.
If our courses are not to be unbundled from the curriculum without perverting the education they together offer, then we in higher education will need to articulate and develop new, more coherent, well crafted, and, yes, even efficient curricula capable of enriching student lives and preparing them in a relevant way for a world in which many will have been taught, but fewer well educated.
Words do things. What they do, depends on the manner in which they are said, written and received.
What they did, and failed to do, last night is something that requires some reflection.
That is the purpose of this post on my visit to the Catholic University of America to deliver a keynote address to the 2012 freshman class.
When I was invited, I was encouraged to do something innovative and unconventional with technology, so I invited students to use twitter to participate in a shared experience designed to perform the central idea for which I advocated in the lecture:
The real value of a liberal arts education is political because it teaches us how to speak, act and respond to one another in ways that enable us, if we are willing and graceful enough, to create enriching public communities that are the conditions under which a fulfilling human life is possible.
The lecture was designed as a performance in which students would be empowered to actively and publicly engage with the question of the liberal arts and politics so that we might directly experience our shared ability (and inability) to create an enriching public space of community and communication.
The lecture was designed on three levels.
First, the written text was rather traditional. It was organized around Athena's encounter with the Furies in Aeschylus's Eumenides. I argued that the story illustrated how our ability to imagine our way into the position of others, particularly those with whom we disagree, is the central virtue of a liberal arts education and the key to establishing healthy and flourishing communities.
Second, I used Keynote to create slides with images and quotations that supported and augmented the points the written text made. These slides were not merely designed to reinforce the written text, but were themselves meant to add value to the lecture by exposing students to a rich history of artwork and imagery about Athena, the Furies, and the judgment of Orestes.
Third, through my keynote slides, I was able to live tweet my own lecture: when a slide appeared, I had pre-written a tweet to go with it. These tweets, like the slides themselves, were designed to add another layer of meaning and texture to the lecture.
To give you a sense of how the images and the tweets were designed, I created a specific Storify just with my tweets and some of the artwork included in the lecture.
A Good Plan and a Calculated Audible
Because I had experience using twitter in front of a large audience of first year students at Penn State that deteriorated quickly once students realized they could tweet snarky comments to a screen that everyone would immediately see, I knew I would need a way to moderate the tweets before they appeared on screen. We used the #cuafye hashtag (Catholic University of America, First Year Experience) to curate the tweets, but we needed a way to filter out those that were immature, overly snarky or otherwise impoverishing of the community we wanted to cultivate.
The plan was to have Taylor Fayle use the @MyCUA_FYE twitter account to retweet only those tweets he felt added value to the conversation. The idea was not to censor students--they would still be able to see anything posted to the #cuafye hashtag on their personal devices. Rather, we wanted to add a layer of review to ensure the level of the conversation reinforced the points the lecture articulated.
We thought we had it worked out too, but about 20 minutes before we started, we realized that the way it was set up would not update and scroll quickly enough to accommodate the tweets we were by then already receiving.
So I called an audible and told Todd to allow the raw hashtag feed to run, knowing full well that the dynamics of the entire lecture would thereby be altered.
It was ... and not for the better.
And yet, strangely enough, I think the shared experience was educationally richer, if intellectually and emotionally more taxing.
Here is the Storify of the event with tweets from the students to give you a sense of what happened.
But this doesn't really capture what was happening in the room. That is partly because students went back and deleted some of the more vulgar and disrespectful tweets (about Penn State, Sandusky, and other immature rudeness). But it is also because the twitter feed did not capture the overwhelming sense of respect and maturity I felt from a majority of students in the room itself. That respect and maturity was felt more palpably in the question and answer period, when we had the chance to reflect upon what we had together experienced.
What we experienced, however, was a failure to use words to create an enriching community. The twitter stream deteriorated quickly into immature snark, and students were not able to pull themselves out of that cycle of immaturity, despite some valiant attempts by some to convince their colleagues to imagine their way into another possibility.
Now, for my part, I knew exactly what was happening, though I could not follow all the posts as they were coming so quickly and I was, after all, trying to speak and tweet my lecture. Still, by calming the students down at specific points, speaking extemporaneously to refocus their attention and by emphasizing the things I had written into the text to invite their generosity and grace, we were able to proceed ... for a while.
Then someone of the faculty decided the twitter feed needed to be shut down.
When it was, you could feel the frustration of the students, but you could also feel their attention turned more fully to me, and I was able to finish the lecture in a much more traditional way - with more passively receptive students for the words I was articulating. Of course, students still had access to the live stream on their devices, but not having the feed up on the "big screen" robbed them of a shared experience and thus diminished the allure of the snarky tweet.
The most rewarding aspect of the lecture for me was the question and answer period, because we were able to reflect together on the experience we'd just had. A central point of the lecture was that a well cultivated ethical imagination is required if an enriching community is to be created.
What we experienced, among other things, was a collective failure of ethical imagination. But it is not only that the students failed to imagine their way into the position of a visitor who had travelled a distance to speak with them and who had put a lot of thought and energy into the design of an interactive lecture. Rather, more fundamentally, we failed together to imagine another possibility for ourselves as a community.
Perhaps once I called the audible to allow the raw feed to roll, the die was cast and we were destined to descend to the shallowest expressions of ourselves.
But even so, there was something redemptive about that failure and the opportunity we had to reflect upon it together afterwards. During the question and answer period, we tried to come to terms with what we had experienced: was it right to have the feed pulled? Did that go against the very points I was trying not simply to argue, but also to perform? Were the students treated fairly by requiring that they attend a lecture in which they would be expected to participate freely and in good faith?
And what about the content of the lecture itself? There were excellent questions in this regard; questions that demonstrated without a doubt that many students were not too distracted by the experience to understand at a deep level what I was trying to accomplish.
One does not often have the privilege to reflect so candidly and insightfully with one's audience about the very dynamics that emerged between us during the performance of the lecture itself ... perhaps that elusive, more enriching community began to take root during those shared reflections reflections at the end. Perhaps those roots are continuing to grow as faculty teach into the experience in their classes.
Here, in fact, is an example of what can happen when faculty do just that:
As I think further about it, and as I continue to engage in ongoing conversations with students via twitter about what we experienced, I have come to recognize that the performance of the lecture itself had all the beauty, and all the ugliness, all the hopefulness, and all the disappointment, all the complexity and nuance and texture of all our attempts to enter into public communication with one another in order to establish a more fulfilling community together.
Words do things; and what they are capable of doing depends on our capacity to imagine an enriching life for ourselves and our ability to put that shared vision into words.
An education in the liberal arts is schooling in the beautiful life.
As we pulled into our driveway after running errands preparing for her Monster High birthday party, DancinGirl, who was generally excited about the day, announced that she has been thinking a lot, recently, about death.
"I wonder what happens after we die," she says. "I don't want to be stuck in the ground in a graveyard the whole time."
At such moments of truth, I consider very carefully my response - I don't want my anxieties to eclipse her genuine attempts to come to terms with her own finitude.
We offer an agnostic response, affirming how difficult it is to live with the knowledge that we really just don't know what happens when we die.
DancinGirl knows what she wants though: "I just want to keep on being as I am."
I want that for her too and for her sister, because there are no two beings more beautiful in their being than these two quickly growing little girls.
So on her seventh birthday, my wish for DancinGirl, and for Val and ArtGirl and myself, is that she keep on being as she is and that she continue sharing her beautiful self with us as long as we are here together.