Friday, May 26, 2006

There Are More Like Him

Responding to: Churchill Fallout: There Are More Like Him.

Having read both the ACTA report and Timothy Burke's criticism, I would conclude that the criticisms are reasonable. The ACTA report is a sloppy and overstated condemnation of the American educational system that should convince no unprejudicial reader.

This column, in defense of the ACTA report, is not a lot better (and I remark in passing that this site (Inside Higher Ed) has been running an increasing number of these screeds recently).

Neal writes, "the course descriptions ACTA cites are hardly unique or isolated... They were chosen for their utter typicality, not their uniqueness." Yet she offers no evidence that this is the case. Neither does ACTA. Burke provides evidence that the descriptions are not typical. This is in no way countered.

Neal writes, "his (Burke's) claim that these documents (course descriptions) — the main resource students use to decide whether or not to register for a class — do not tell us anything about what happens in the classes in question is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst." She argues, "ACTA has never claimed to know exactly what is happening in classrooms, and does not assume authority to determine whether a class is pedagogically sound."

They say this, but not consistently, and the bulk of their criticism is directed exactly at what they purport is happening in classrooms. From the report: "Throughout American higher education, professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas in the name of teaching students to think critically. In course after course, department after department, and institution after institution, indoctrination is replacing education." How is this criticism justified by a study of course descriptions? It is not, not even remotely, and yet this is the heart of ACTA's argument.

Neal writes, "Burke implies, because ACTA has not made its argument as Burke thinks arguments should be made. But the truth is that ACTA’s report is expressly not an academic paper." But the standards to which Burke appeals are not merely Burke's opinion, as Neal disingenuously suggests. For example, he calls for "Careful collection of evidence" and urges that "Constraining claims or arguments to the evidence available." How are these merely conditions Burke thinks are convenient? They are standards for argument generally.

It is worth noting that Neal does not touch one of Burke's major arguments, that ACTA has a very one-sided and prejudicial definition of 'political'. Burke asks, for example, "Why isn’t an economics course that supports mainstream neoclassical argument “political”? It has political implications, it excludes legitimate voices who make economic arguments."

When I studied at university, I took numerous courses in religious studies. But never did I argue that the university was pushing a religious political agenda - even though, had I scanned the catalogues, I could have found course after course devoted to Bible studies, redactive criticism, and more. I could have found whole departments devoted to the field! Whole universities!

In fact, when I looked at the list of course descriptions offered by ACTA, I found myself puzzled at the sorts of things they found to be "political" and contentions. Here is their own description:

"Throughout the humanities and social sciences, the same issues surface over and over, regardless of discipline.... the focus is consistently on a set list of topics: race, class, gender, sexuality, and the social construction of identity; globalization, capitalism, and U.S. 'hegemony'; the ubiquity of oppression and the destruction of the environment."

One wonders what a university would be like were we to strike these topics from the curriculum. Are the reports authors seriously suggesting that these studies are in and of themselves 'political'? That despite the courses in classical economics, military history, religion and more (not to mention physics, biology, management and ebgineering) these courses represent a systematic bias in the university curriculum?

The argument, to any dispassionate observer, is ridiculous. It is a conclusion that could be drawn only by a mangling of the evidence and a complete disregard for the principles of inference. It is the sort of presentation that characterizes naive, bald-faced propaganda.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Pay the Fine

My response to Dan Gillmor on Backfence:

You had 30 minutes worth of parking. You took 31 minutes, even knowing that after 30 minutes you were liable for a fine. You broke the rule. You got caught. Pay the fine and don't complain.

Your response suggests that you were somehow entitled to 31 minutes. You were not. Your response suggests that the meter attendant should not have enforced a violation of the meter restrictions. He should have; that's his job.

The meter reader did a good job, catching somebody who was trying to game the system. I would have been satisfied too. It's hard to catch people who cheat by only a few minutes. That's why it's always worthwhile nabbing them.

Finally, consider the impact of your actions. The meters are restricted to 30 minutes because it's a busy spot. It is almost certain that during the time you were parked with an expired meter somebody drove by looking for a spot - your spot, the spot that should have been empty. Your inconsiderate action almost certainly caused someone some needless delay and aggrevation.

Normally I am very sympathetic to what you write here. Today I am not.

You broke the rules. You got caught. Pay the fine and don't complain.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Missing the Point

Re: Missing the Point

As was stated in my newsletter yesterday, a good reason to live blog is to interact with the material as it is being presented. It is well known that learning actively is more effective than merely listening passively. Live blogging helps you learn more effectively.

Also, when you blog a talk, you are responding to the speaker. As a speaker, I always read the blogged version after the talk. It helps me understand how I have been heard and to prevent mistakes and misunderstandings when I talk in the future.

The worst thing you can do is sit there in silence. Interaction helps you understand and to convey your understanding. Far from being rude, responding to the speaker is probably the most polite thing you can do. Indeed, if anything is rude, it is to listen to someone speak and to not respond at all.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Socialist Software

Ulises asks, "But how do we challenge the hegemony that has been coded into the technology?"

The important step is to recognize that it has in fact been coded into the technology, which means that the challenge to the hegemony can also be coded into the technology.

My own view is that a denser and more distributed network of connections acts directly counter to the hegemony, because it lessens the influence and importance of the central nodes. This is the view I try to advance in Community Blogging.

In particular, the sorts of network applications that will promote just such a network can be, again in my view, identified via four salient properties:
- autonomy - they empower individual users
- interaction - they foster peer-to-peer connections between users
- openness - anybody can read anything, anybody can write anything
- diversity - a multitude of technical, social and political systems is supported
These are just my rough characterizations; I would not say that this is the definitive list, but this is an approximation of what the list would look like. I argue for this list in Connective Knowledge.

The answer to the question posed in this essay, therefore, boils down, in my view, to this: we build and select and use software that instantiates the four principles, and where possible, we foster and encourage the use of such software in our institutions.

It will be very difficult for the hegemony to resist the use of such software, for the principles it embodies are fundamentally democratic principles, which means that efforts to oppose such software will appear more and more authoritarian (as does, for example, the recent campaign against social software).

Sunday, May 14, 2006


I have to admit it, I guess... I may be 47, but my MP3 player goes wherever I do, I'm a big Neko Case fam, and I wear old and faded jeans... yes, I am a grup... "This is where the Grup diverges from the bobo, the yuppie, even the yupster. The Grup does not want a corner office. The Grup does not yearn for a fancy title. The Grup does not want—oh, please, do not ask the Grup to manage—a staff.... You see, it's not that Grups don't want to work; they just don't want to work for you. In a recent Money magazine poll about bosses, 54 percent of the respondents said they wouldn't want their boss's job no matter how much money you paid them. Fifty-four percent."

Forest Railway

Forest Railway
Originally uploaded by Stephen Downes.
I have been posting photos to Flickr recently instead of to my own server. Part of the reason is the ease with which I can create Blogger posts like this. This photo is from the Hillsborough set I shot yesterday. I have been biking a lot recently, including trips to this picturesque town about 25 km south of my home in Moncton. It's good exercise, and biking allows me time for relaxation and reflection. This is something I've needed a lot lately, as I recover from what has been a very difficult time for me.