Image from BoingBoing (cc-by-nc).

In the midst of all the excitement about the Higgs Boson, I’m not the only one who has been fascinated by the metaphors that different people use to try to explain what’s going on to us non-physicists.

Depending on who you ask, the Higgs field might be better imagined as a giraffe or paparazzi or a swimming pool. The best explanation anybody’s encountered was a hand-drawn animation. Meanwhile, the Higgs particle itself has been compared (figuratively) with God. The research project itself has even been set to song .

All of this led me to think a little more about the fact that metaphors are among the best linguistic tools you can imagine when it comes time to explain a complex idea to someone who is (relatively speaking) clueless about the topic in question.

So that (and the more general notion that academics ought to put Malcolm Gladwell out of business <link>) got me thinking about some big sociological ideas that could do with a bit more metaphori-ification (?) in order to make them more intelligible.

First on my list is the notion of social structure – or maybe any of the big, structural social forces that contribute to the reproduction of social inequality (e.g. class, race, gender, etc.).

Even though it’s important to continue to think and argue about exactly how these phenomena operate, it’s critical to communicate that, in general, social forces are often invisible and never equally experienced by everyone, even though they effect everyone to some extent or another.

In other words, socioeconomic structure could be thought of as a sort of Higgs field in its own right — conditions of birth, early childhood, culture, and socialization impart a certain, relative amount of “mass” (poverty? oppression?) to individuals, who are then generally able to move more or less easily through the social world as a result.

Does this make sense? Are there other, better ways to explain complex sociological notions in a manner that do not involve the words habitus, governmentality, hegemony, institutions, etc. but that also do not deviate too far from the way sociologists use them? For someone who has never encountered such theoretical jargon, these terms can be literally meaningless and it’s up to someone else who understands them to provide some sort of conceptual bootstraps so that the rest of us can haul ourselves up.

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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!