Perspective…


I’ve been a little busy with the new job. So here’s a little something. I’m a sucker for great visual communication. xkcd did it again:

xkcd perspective

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When Science Meets Art. Again, from TedTalks.


Oh, how I loved this Ted Talk from Brussels!  John Bohannon, science journalist and PhD, creates a beautiful visual display as he builds a modest proposal for the replacement of Power Point.

Go ahead. Dance your way to the public understanding of science! It really works, too!

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Income inequality media mentions rise dramatically


Related to my post this week, this graph on Politico blogger Ben Smith’s column illustrates the impact of the #occupy sites on media mentions of the term income inequality. It was picked up later in The Washington Post.  There are some problems (as some have noted) with characterizing this as either positive or negative for the movement (it depends, as my own post notes, where your heart lies). That said, this sort of content analysis is still a mainstay – and a boost in media mentions means a boost in attention.

Here’s the graph, based upon a Nexis news search (broadcast, web, and print) for instances of the term “income inequality”:

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Occupy this front page — why professional journalism needed the tents at OWS to tell an important scholarly story


The #occupy movement camps are beginning to face eviction pressure in cities like Toronto. I thought it was useful to think through why those tents mattered to a public discussion about economic inequality.

Let me preface by making clear that my point is not to argue in favour of or against this form of activism. In fact, I think the tents were  inevitable. From what I’ve read of those whose area of academic study explores the effects of neo-liberalized global capitalism on economic inequality in democratic societies, Occupy Wall Street movement = no-brainer.

But what about those who haven’t read that sort of academic scholarship?  How do we teach publics about abstract academic ideas well outside their everyday understanding of how things are supposed to work?

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The future of Canadian TV News: Event Promo


Canadian journalist Tim Knight asked me to spread the word about the following event.

I’m posting details here to provide an easier link that I can ‘tweet’.

Next Monday, September 12, The Mark “The People And Ideas Behind The
Headlines” (www.themarknews.com) plans a four-day discussion on the
future of Canadian TV journalism.

On Thursday evening or Friday morning, Huffington Post Canada repeats
the debate.
Participants will be Kai Nagata, the 24-year-old CTV Quebec bureau
chief whose J-accuse went viral when he quit and wrote a 3,000 word
farewell  because information has become “a commodity”. Nagata
believes TV journalism has lost all aspiration to public service and
isn’t worth saving. Social media and blogs will do a better job.

Also participating is Tim Knight, Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi-award winner who’s worked
for ABC, NBC and PBS, was once producer of CBC’s The National,
Executive Producer of News at CBC, Ottawa, and, for 10 years Executive
Producer, CBC TV Journalism Training. Knight believes TV journalism
has lost its way and is dangerously sick. But, in the interests of the
people’s democratic right to know, must be saved and drastically
rethought.

1) Monday morning — September 12th: Opening Statements and Tim
Response #1
–  Monday afternoon — Kai Response #1
2) Tuesday morning — September 13th: Tim Response #2
– Tuesday afternoon — Kai response #2
3) Wednesday morning — September 14th: Tim Response #3
– Wednesday afternoon — Kai response #3
4) Thursday, September 15th — Final Statements from each

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Defining the walls around you: Piled Higher and Deeper.. or sinking into a hole?


Is graduate school worth it? Depends upon what you plan to get out of it.

In my years of teaching undergraduates, I’ve been a consistent supporter of the value of pursuing one’s passions through graduate education. I’m a higher-ed lifer myself and a true product of the idealized imagination that student life holds. I love the university and all that it represents. But, as a working-class kid who may have to face queries from other First Generation university attendees, I’m considering tempering my enthusiasm a bit these days.

First I saw this PhD Comics, about what your research desires really ends up becoming (hint, not necessarily about your interests).

Then I read this blog post by Piece of Mind that describes the funding breakdown by NSERC and Canadian Graduate Scholarships. It expresses some surprise about a drop in funding for post-doctoral researcher slots. Yet, at least in hard science, a couple of years of post-doc experience is the hoop required in most job posts to even be considered for the dwindling number of full-time teaching/research posts. Even in fields without a post-doc step, Canadian doctoral candidates aren’t necessarily going to fare well upon graduation. Take this investigation into philosophy departments in Canada, published in University Affairs in 2009, that demonstrates a national tendency to hire non-Canadian PhDs in philosophy to work in departments that continue to actively train PhDs. Louis Groarke and Wayne Fenske write:

There is a deep incoherence here. If a department considers a Canadian PhD a liability, how can it, in good conscience, busy itself producing more Canadian PhDs? Surely, individuals enrol in Canadian graduate programs with the understanding that they will be advantaged, not disadvantaged, when they graduate with a PhD from that institution. They may be encouraged to believe this by departments eager to attract the very best students.

With this in mind, I reflected upon what Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction had to say on her blog about the costs of making a name for yourself in the academic millieu as a grad student. The piece is entitled “Knowing Your Value”.

The “academic economy” I described may have made more sense in the now-distant past when tenure-track jobs were more readily available, and when publishing was something you could leave until after graduation. But permanent-track professors actually don’t really do these things (publishing, conferences, and so on) for “free”. They earn a stable salary and they receive institutional support for research-related activities, which are considered part of the job. On the other hand, graduate students and early-career academics—particularly those who find themselves doing a lot of contract teaching or other part-time work—are less likely to have the time and resources to fully develop their CVs; and as the academic job market has tightened, the bar has been raised in terms of the level of professionalisation required.

I’m sure most people accept that academia isn’t that mythical, 1960s Hollywood ideal of elbow-patched tweed jackets. Lives aren’t as commonly lived in the leisurely pursuit of knowledge as one might imagine. It is getting more and more competitive to acquire and persist in academe. That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But if so much ‘free labour’ is required up front by those who seek to gain fewer and fewer post-graduate opportunities, then perhaps it is time to admit that higher ed, at least in some Canadian programs and disciplines, has an accessibility problem. The journey is becoming steeper, less affordable and the carrots students are chasing (those vital post-docs and the Holy Grail of a tenure-track job) are disappearing faster than my Twitter feed can manage.

And it saddens me to imagine that the freedom to pursue your intellectual dreams, the freedom I’ve enjoyed, is fast becoming a life risk possible only for the privileged.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem, although I believe it should be solved. In the meantime, as someone from working class roots, it strikes me as deeply worrisome that the reality of the economic landscape isn’t being effectively communicated to young people considering graduate school right now. All too often, pursuit of a PhD is framed as worthy in and of itself for those being groomed inside the bubble of the academy. And that’s not fair.

Maybe it is time that the relevant ministries and funding agencies do more to counterbalance the universities’ drive to get more ‘bums in seats’ to boost their own revenue. At the very least, some good journalism is called for that provides some comparative data about outcomes, funding levels and research directions to help prospective doctoral candidates tailor their trajectories accordingly.

I’m not calling for a planned economy approach to higher ed (far from it). But I agree with Groarke and Fenske that universities have an ethical responsibility to the students they accept, funded or not. Unlike professional programs, master’s and doctoral-level education requires an investment of close to a decade of prime, income-earning years from young people, often capitalizing on their presence to provide cheap teaching and research support.

I fear that the trends of late suggest my hallowed academy is at risk of committing an ethical breach here. Are we wasting years of the lives of a good swath of Canada’s brightest and best from the working and lower-middle classes, the ones from families that might not have extensive means to support the journey or support the graduate if jobless at the end of it all? Are universities pushing students into routes to nowhere? How effectively are the economic risks of pursuing certain trajectories within higher ed through to the PhD being communicated? And whose responsibility is it to tell those stories?

Until the facts are out there, I have two words for prospective students intending to follow a dream into the ivory tower: caveat emptor. Do your research before you start doing research, figure out if your passions will be matched by decent prospects and keep a critical attitude toward what others might be trying to persuade you to do.

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Computer security – humanizing the internet virus


Here’s another fantastic TED lecture. Yes, it is from a Finnish expert (Mikko Hypponen), so bias may exist in my assessment. But I liked this because it was a really ethnographic/investigative explanation of computer viruses.. lots of the who, what, when, where, how and important information about where we are today in internet security.

The knowledge reminded me of the plot twists near the end of another Scandinavian’s best-selling book.. The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. 🙂

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Freedom’s just another word… Kai Nagata’s not taking it anymore


There’s a wave of interest in a Canadian man’s blog entry about his voluntary departure from a network CTV journalism job. Kai Nagata, 24, wrote a heartfelt tome (3K words!) that was incisive, heartfelt and pretty much sums up (for me) that a lot of us are suffering this crisis of conscience as we observe what’s happening to truth-telling as a profession (as in, bill-paying) fields.

He says it best, so grab a coffee and take yourself through it. But if you don’t have time, here’s his exit paragraph:

“What I need is to better myself spiritually, physically, and intellectually, so I can effect meaningful change in the world around me. I don’t know yet where this impulse will take me, but I know I can’t go back to working parallel to the real problems, hiding my opinions and yet somehow hoping that one viewer every night might piece together what I wanted to say. I thought if I paid my dues and worked my way up through the ranks, I could maybe reach a position of enough influence and credibility that I could say what I truly feel. I’ve realized there’s no time to wait.

If storytelling turns out to be my true passion and the best use of my skills, then I’ll continue down that path. If elder care, academia, agriculture, activism, art, education, Budo, or as-yet unforeseen pursuits turn out to make the flame burn brighter, I’ll make the switch, or do them all. I’m willing to work with anyone of any religion or political stripe, if they’re sincere about doing what it takes.

Right now I need to undertake a long-delayed journey of personal discovery. Having given away all the possessions that didn’t fit into my truck, I’ve set out on the road again, heading West. I know I need to go home for a while. I need to surround myself with family and friends. I need to consult, meditate, and plan the next steps.

I’m broke, and yet I know I’m rich in love. I’m unemployed and homeless, but I’ve never been more free.

Everything is possible.”

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Journalism, teaching and digital media technology


I just spent an enjoyable two days in the student role in a technology workshop formalizing my e-learning software knowledge. While I don’t mind getting all technical, I couldn’t help but get all reflexive about what I was doing.

First, I realized quickly that I had come to this table no blank slate. When I got stuck inside the e-learning system, my self-taught blog management skills and imposed maintenance of webpages for my department for a few years paid off handsomely.

From widgets to file management, pixel counts to html content editors, these interfaces are beginning to elide. It is all getting so wysiwyg and intuitive, if you know some web creation tools in one context, you’re in good shape for the next.

Second, even if it was intuitive, there’s no question that e-learning requires a lot of front-end, trial-and-error time and energy to be invested well before you can think about what content you want to deliver.

I can imagine this realization would put up a horribly frustrating barrier to teaching what you’ve always taught. If you’re not a techno-type (or, heaven forbid, a techno-phobe), the dawn of ‘blended learning’ is not going to be fun.

If you’re teaching something for the first time, ever, you’re also now facing more work than you might have anticipated for prep.

My blessings and good karma to people in learning support who will be dealing with the increasingly harried inquiries as the summer wanes.

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Final post: Valuing Research about Teaching (Part 3)


I’ve been blogging this weekend in reaction to a panel at the Worldviews conference on Higher Education and the Media in Toronto in June (see first installment and second). Two Canadian university presidents were resigning themselves to the media-generated ranking system of their institutions, although they made sure to express that they didn’t like it one bit.

I’m arguing that the presidents are in an excellent position to do something about the rankings. My suggestion is that universities that want to take questions of student engagement and experience seriously need to bring faculty to the core of the question.  Administrations can  encourage this by ensuring that the scholarship of teaching is explicitly shifted from the “teaching” column of faculty activity and squarely over into the “research” column for faculty evaluation purposes.

Forget taking seminars, applying for awards or building a killer teaching portfolio. Study the pedagogy as it applies to your discipline. Do it formally. Publish it in peer-review journals. Make it count toward your “count”.  Make that an expectation of your colleagues and peers in your department and discipline. Reward those who pursue this line of research on par with those advancing new discoveries in your field.

I think such an action would have an immediate impact because it eliminates the tension some faculty experience between a desire to make teaching and engagement better and the demand to focus upon building up traditional research publications instead.

But it would need an edict from the highest levels (such as a common call from many presidents) to make it happen. As long as research into teaching is deemed as “softer” or “second tier” scholarly work, it would be a risk to rest one’s chances for promotion on such pursuits.

Here’s why.

The biggest barrier to mutual understanding between the rankers and the presidents about university rankings rests, in my view, in the soft bigotry (real or perceived) within some parts of  the academy toward pedagogy.

An anecdote comes to mind.  To this day, it remains my favourite capture of the difference between liberal arts professors (particularly in education) and those in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

As a long-time teacher of journalism long before I was researching it, I remember talking to a niece  about the efforts I was making in my undergraduate classes to generate engaging, active and collaborative peer-learning environments. On my liberal arts campus, there was a lot of concern about student success.

I had a pre-service education degree under my belt, so I was already happily socialized into the idea that my pedagogy should be learner-centred. I hadn’t started a PhD yet, so had no idea that this wasn’t knowledge my colleagues shared.

My niece is currently a doctoral candidate at one of the top American STEM universities. She was a very successful product of a Canadian top notch engineering science program. This is how she described her “learning experience”.

The professor arrived. He wrote an equation on the board. He directed the class to solve it, thusly (and I paraphrase).

“If you can’t complete this, [local 2-year college] is just down the street.”

Clearly, this is but one anecdote. I don’t for a moment think it paints all STEM faculty with the same brush. But it didn’t happen that long ago. And it was in keeping with my own memory of  science undergrad culture on the hard-core side of the university.

There, a sense of  intense competition remains, a sense that the conditions ensure only the cream rises to the top.

Engagement in that pedagogical culture is presented as a dare, an extreme sport. Students hanging on by their fingernails with gritted teeth are “engaged” in learning engineering. “Disengagement” means you couldn’t hack it (and were, as such, unworthy).

While I suppose that goes a long way to ensure our bridges remain standing, surviving in that pedagogical culture embeds the survivor  with the assumption that all success was intrinsic —  you must have had it in you all along.

Of course, that’s utter bullshit. The bulletin boards and pillars in the Engineering Science building at the U of T are littered with informal student calls to create collaborative communities of learning on their own. Those seeking mutual support (or private tutoring revenue) are applying the best practices to maximize their learning in a DIY manner. They didn’t pick it up in lecture. They need more help.

I would think students wouldn’t dare complain to professors in such an environment about a lack of quality pedagogy or efforts to engage or support student learning, at risk of public shaming. Faculty, those who rose to the highest echelons within those highly competitive disciplines (and did so without the benefit of pedagogical theory), replicate for a new generation the experience as they remember it.

Teaching isn’t really their problem.

So, I can see why they might hold at a distance (and with some distain) efforts on campus to engage faculty in means by which they might make learning better.

And, if my thesis holds, the members of the kinds of committees senates strike to study student engagement are potentially the very survivors holding that internalized belief (reinforced, possibly, by the culture of their disciplinary peers).

Imagining the micro-social politics, one can see how the authors charged with producing the U of A report to (and its recommendations for enhanced engagement) would find consensus easiest to attain by keeping faculty engagement in these processes to a minimum.

So, we get recommendations about class size or extra-curricular support groups.

The hand-holding and fuzzy cultural stuff that is at the core of pedagogical theory is already from that foreign Planet of the Arts. It utilizes methods that are hard for positivists to embrace as “real research”.  It would take a lot for STEM faculty to erase years of indoctrination over what really ‘counts’ (their ‘count’) to embrace the space between themselves and their students as a site of legitimate (and important) knowledge production.

To those who hold that view, I note the increasing commitment to interdisciplinarity within hard science. There is a growing literature in most disciplines relating to importance of student learning and public engagement in the sciences. In fact, the public understanding of science is well-recognized as a growing imperative if the science community is going to survive (in terms of science funding and the preservation of a robust and valid national research policy).

Anecdotally, my niece’s current doctoral program approaches complex problems with the ethos that a scientific solution to a problem — no matter how sound the science — remains a failure if it doesn’t also survive translation and uptake into the public sphere through policy.

If you can’t make it go, it doesn’t work, does it?

It’s a great ethos. Considering her work relates to atmospheric physical chemistry (read: climate change), I think it speaks well of her current institution that these engineers are taking culture so seriously.

The point of these blog entries, and the rankings in general, is the optimization of the undergraduate learning experience. While food services and pub crawls are a part of that, the elephant in the room is the engagement of students in the knowledge that we love so much ourselves that we’ve dedicated our lives to its pursuit.

So, to conclude, if I were on that panel at Worldviews, I’d have leaned over to the esteemed presidents and said:

Take the following statement (no need to attribute it back to me) and run.

Teaching and student engagement is more than a customer service function. It is a scholarship function.

It is a professorial research function.

It is every faculty’s business to study and improve the teaching and engagement of their students in their subject.

Faculty that pursue that scholarship as part of all of their research portfolio could easily be welcomed and valued if you make it so.

I don’t know  if one has to believe it. (Presidents, like politicians, are required to reflect values of their constituents that occasionally conflict with their own). But at least it would be better than the sort of presidential passivity I witnessed during that panel. Pedagogical research is already alive and well within their own universities, albeit understandably in the shadowlands of their powerful, “research-intensive” institutions.

There will likely be objections from the “cream” crop of scholars within the scholarly pecking order that such a move would devalue research in general. Surely a university-wide declaration (or maybe a common edict from all university presidents) won’t strike the fancy of every professor, either.

But that’s not the point of such a blanket assertion.

The goal is to effectively ignite and validate a good, broad smattering of interested faculty across the entire enterprise — those folks Boyer himself notes in the quote I included in my last post. Offer them presidential protection, make them the favoured children for awhile in their respective departments. Legitimize and validate their interest by presidential decree such that it might withstand the withering distain of their hard-core, competition-based compatriots (should that be their circumstance).

All it would take is a common call. The result would allow faculties to generate good, solid data about engagement and learning effectiveness that will inform and support the institution’s efforts to better engage and educate the undergraduate.  Faculty members following their passions would be rewarded appropriately for the research they produce and not have to feel like they’re “wasting” their precious research time in order to pursue this work.

We could ditch the decision to marginalize teaching and learning as an ancillary “support service” that helps profs build better courses in a culture that treats such effort as a distraction to research. Instead, we could restore those “support staff”  into scholars (and they are scholars of teaching) and allow them to engage with faculty as peers. As co-investigators, those EdDs and PhDs who provide instructional design support could help frame the study and recommend the most appropriate methodology for the question the disciplinary professor seeks to answer.

Perhaps, over time, tenure review would require evidence of that sort of breadth of scholarship within one’s publication record. One can only hope. But at least, for some faculty who already have an interest in engagement and teaching, it will render its pursuit possible.

As I noted at the outset a couple of posts ago, University of Alberta President Dr. Samarasekera declared university admin staff shouldn’t be wasting university resources on filling out questionnaires for Macleans.

I agree.

If the university presidents are serious about students, they could offer to do what universities do best. Rather than reject the rankings as bad science, they could support the generation of good science within their own walls.

Good quality, peer-reviewed scholarship on the subject would do much more to solve the problem in an efficient, discipline-by-discipline, organic manner. University presidents need to declare that research on innovations in student pedagogy and engagement is as much a function of professorial life as research into the latest discovery.

Teaching is more than a talent to be rewarded. It is a knowledge to be cultivated.

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