A staircase in the Boston Athenaeum.

Some of these are from more than a week ago, but so it goes…

  1. The Boston Athenaeum is beautiful. I took the picture above back in December when I went there with Mako, Mika, and Mayo.
  2. This list of “best metro data releases of 2011” from The Atlantic makes me want to fire up R and geek out for days.
  3. There’s a bluegrass band based in Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil). They’re pretty good and you can download their album for free.
  4. Estonia has a flat tax (less surprising was the extent to which The Economist swoons over it).
  5. Studio Pampa (a variety show from Rio Grande do Sul) + President Dilma Rousseff  = Amazing (and don’t forget parts II and III).

I don’t have a lot to add to the excellent overviews and insightful commentary the SOPA/PIPA debacle, but I thought I would round up a couple of thoughts as well as some of my favorite posts related to it.

SOPA and PIPA may be history for now, but you can be sure that they’ll be back in some form or another. As a result, the big question that interests me about this particular policy fight has to do with its implications for the distribution of political power around knowledge and technology policy.

The big story in this sense is that a quite substantial sub-population of the Internet’s most active users and most powerful organizations decided to blackout their sites on Wednesday. The blackout left Reddit, Google, Wikipedia, Craigslist, AND MORE at least partially disabled for the better part of the day.

This more popular activism has been matched by aggressive lobbying, testifying, wheeling & dealing on the Hill by a staggering coalition of Silicon Valley companies.

Both the majority of these companies as well as these large online collectives and communities have only begun to find their political voices. Moments like these – when groups coalesce around particular common causes and realize that they wield immense collective power can sometimes look really important after the fact when (say, twenty years from now) we’re living in a world where the MPAA and RIAA have continued to waste away and the bottom lines (and political arms) of the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world are likely to be doing even more heavy lifting in terms of national GDP and policy impact.

Will this be such a turning point? I think one of the biggest obstacles to long term transformation is the anti-political ideology that prevails among many Silicon Valley elites. By and large, many Silicon Valley companies would prefer to avoid public scrutiny even understand what it is they are trying to create (much less regulate it or use it effectively). This is an unfortunate reality because it means that it will take a very long time for the Valley to really catch Hollywood when it comes to political muscle.

There has also been very little overlap or effective attempts by Silicon Valley to harness the public opposition to Hollywood’s positions. Maybe the SOPA/PIPA experience can facilitate some organizational alliances and capacity building to fill that gap.

Read what other Berkman Center affiliates had to say about SOPA/PIPA this week.

Jeremy Freese (who I met last week during a brief trip to Evanston and who turns out to be as awesome in person as he is online and in print!) and the scatterplotters revealed this week (gasp!) that nobody who’s anybody pays attention to the page limit guidelines for ASA submissions.

Page limit? What page limit? (photo 2009 by Sara Grajeda cc-by-nc-nd)

This page limit absorbed way too much of a close friend’s time this week, but the fact that many ASA submitters do not pay any attention to it is not a shocker.

Indeed, many ASA attendees treat the conference like you might treat an annoying relative: fundamentally flawed in ways that are both too numerous to mention and too deep to try to be repaired, but nonetheless sufficiently unavoidable once a year that you reconcile your differences and do what you need to do in order to visit.

Having also spent a little bit of time at conferences that are not sociology conferences, I can say that ASA is not extraordinarily bad. Aspects of ICA, CHI, and CSCW are equally broken and all the brokenness serves as a vivid reminder that institution-building remains a hard difficult process – even for people who study institutions, collaboration, and human behavior.

That said, there are some pieces of ASA that work quite well and maybe, if as olderwoman and Jeremy note in the comments, we want to inform future policy decisions around these issues, it’s worth distinguishing between what’s broken and what’s not a little more clearly.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that I like about ASA:

  • Socializing with colleagues and peers (In particular, I recommend the Berkeley Sociology department’s annual party).
  • One-stop-shop access to colleagues and friends who you never see in one place otherwise.
  • Cross-generational dialogues with scholars and students of all ages.
  • The occasional great presentation or conversation about research.

And here are some negatives (beyond the page limit):

  • Socializing with colleagues and peers (has its dark side too).
  • A bizarrely large program that is painful to read and navigate.
  • Soul-crushingly boring & nearly uniform format of panels and presentations.
  • An arbitrary, unblind, single review process for submissions.
  • The horrible tools and information made available to conference attendees for searching presentations and panels.

I’d be curious what pieces of other peoples’ positive and negative ASA experiences I’m missing. Other thoughts? Feedback? See you in the comments…

A Modest Academic Fantasy

January 9, 2012

Image credit: curious zed (flickr)

For today’s post, I offer a hasty sketch of a modest academic fantasy: free syllabi.

As a graduate student, I have often found myself searching for and using syllabi to facilitate various aspects of my work.

Initially, syllabi from faculty in my department and others helped me learn about the discipline I had chosen to enter for my Ph.D. Later, I sought out syllabi to design my qualifying exam reading lists and to better understand the debates that structured the areas of research relevant to my dissertation. More recently, I have turned to syllabi yet again to learn about the curriculum and faculty in departments where I am applying for jobs and where I could potentially teach my own courses. When I design my own syllabi, I anticipate that I will, once again, search for colleagues’ syllabi on related topics in order to guide and advance my thinking.

The syllabi I find are almost always rewarding and useful in some way or another. The problem is that I am only ever able to find a tiny fraction of the syllabi that could be relevant.

This is mainly a problem of norms and partly a problem of infrastructure. On the norms side, there is no standard set of expectations or practices around whether faculty post syllabi in publicly accesible formats or locations.

Many faculty do share copies of recent course syllabi on their personal websites, but others post nothing or only a subset of the courses they currently teach.

I am not aware of any faculty who post all the course syllabi they have ever taught in open, platform independent file formats to well-supported, open archives with support for rich meta-data (this is the infrastructure problem).

Given the advanced state of many open archives and open education resources (OER) projects, I have to believe it is not completely crazy to imagine a world in which a system of free syllabi standards and archives eliminates these problems.

At minimum, a free syllabi project would require faculty to:

  • Distribute syllabi in platform independent, machine-readable formats that adhere to truly open standards.
  • Archive syllabi in public repositories
  • License syllabi for at least non-commercial reuse (to facilitate aggregation and meta-analysis!).

In a more extreme version, you might also include some standards around citation formats and bibliographic information for the sources and readings listed in the syllabi.

In any case, some sort of free syllabi project seems doable; useful; and relatively inexpensive (at least in comparison to some expensive, resource intensive projects that involve streaming full video and audio of classes).

Update: Joseph Reagle, who is – as usual – much better informed on these topics than I am, responded to my post over a Berkman Center email list. Since  Joseph’s message points to some really great ideas/references on this topic, I’m re-publishing it in full below (with his permission):

Aaron S’s posting today about “A Modest Academic Fantasy” [1] (free syllabi) reminded me I wanted to share a post of my own [2] in response to Greg Wilson’s question of “would it be possible to create a ‘GitHub for education’”? [3].

While a super-duper syllabus XML format might be great (as I’ve heard David W discuss) — but would have fork-merge-share problem’s as Wilson notes — I’ve always (since 2006) provided my syllabus online, in HTML, with an accompanying bibtex file for the reading list. I think this is the best way currently to share without waiting for a new standard.

On the course material front, I recently started sharing my class notes and slides. These are written in markdown — which makes them easy to collaborate on — put up at Github, and are used to generate HTML5 slides (e.g., [4]). I’ve also started putting up classroom best practices and exercises (e.g., [5]) on a personal wiki; I’d love to see something like this go collaborative.

For in class collaboration, I understand Sasha C[ostanza-Chock] has successfully used etherpad. The PiratePad variant even permits wiki-style links. I desperately want a light-weight synchronous editor with wiki-style links but none exist. (etherpad-lite is a great improvement on etherpad in terms of memory requirements, but does not have wiki-style links; I’ll probably end up using Google Docs because I don’t have to worry about any back-side maintenance.)

I’d love to hear from other people about what they are doing!?

[1]: https://fringethoughts.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/modest-academic-fantasy/
[2]: http://reagle.org/joseph/blog/career/teaching/fork-merge-share
[3]: http://software-carpentry.org/2011/12/fork-merge-and-share/
[4]: http://reagle.org/joseph/2011/nmc/class-notes.html
[5]: http://reagle.org/joseph/zwiki/teaching/Exercises/Tasks/Mindmap.html

Thanks, Joseph!