Category Archives: JAG-wire

Reconciling My Inner-BUT man

Contemplating average people: amicability, happiness, prejudice, concentric circles of concern, and a challenge.

So I’m in the midst of reading Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals, one of his most influential books . In the opening chapter he characterizes what he calls Mr. BUT in his answer to the quintessential question: What do most people say when you ask them if they like other people? Alinsky’s claim is that most people will reply “Sure, I like most other people, with a few exceptions” which I think is a fair prediction. He goes on to say, however, that when you start talking to this example “typical” person their list of people they don’t like will by far outnumber those they do. And he’s not even talking about “like” in the sense of who you might call friends, but really just general people. It is here where he unveils the grand straw man Mr. BUT, who would say something like “Oh of course I really love black people, BUT you know whenever there’s someone loud and obnoxious on the subway, it seems like they’re always black.” And this got me to thinking.

I don’t agree with him that the average person dislikes more people than they like, but I have a feeling this is my own optimistic projection operating again. I remember my roommate back in college once claimed that he thought the average person was unhappy (that is, most people are unhappy), and I was taken aback. Really? I thought. And as I started talking to people asking them this question, I began to realize that their answer really just mirrored if they, on average, were a happy person.

Anyway what Alinsky is really getting at here, is something worth turning on myself: prejudice. All of us “good-natured” privileged and educated liberals have a helping of Mr. BUT in us. I thought I’d take an opportunity to draw mine out, because I think it’s surprising. Alinsky’s Mr. BUT had resentment and dislikes for people of different religions, races, ethnicities, and more. I think my inner-BUT-man (yes, I know all of you people with a 14-year-old boy in you are laughing now, the language is unfortunate) has some really overt expressions and some subtle ones. Okay here we go.

1) Most anyone who really knows me has heard me complain up and down the wall about passive and apathetic people (or in times past, “the librarians”), but in recent years as I’ve existed in a department dominated by introverts I’ve realized that sometimes this is just tantamount to hating on the shy person, which isn’t very constructive. Sure, I’ve been hurt by my fair share of passive-aggressive people, probably in worse ways than most, but insulting or chastising these people and actions hasn’t really brought an end to them. In fact it’s encouraged the worst of them, and it has sometimes hurt the less intense people that I care deeply for.

2) The academic world is rife with rivalries. I’ve done a lot of saying things like “those cultural studies postmodernist people” or “those data-head people” in a dismissive fashion, often unfairly. The first group I often dislike more because they’re fixated on negativity, but really why make fun of people who are probably comprehensively unhappy? The second gang may at times seem cold, calculating and disconnected, but their lack of empathy or interest in social issues is probably a symptom of their own fear or ignorance, one that likely they haven’t come into in a malicious kind of way.

3) And then there’s the Christians. I just refer to them like that, as if the religion isn’t one of the most wildly diverse and complex ecologies out there. It’s downright stupid for me to transform some small extremist group into full-on representation and ignore all of the good Christians have turned loose in the world.

4) And I’m sure there are more. I’d ask readers to call me out, but that would be asking you to subscribe to my method of positive confrontational discourse (when you challenge me because we’re on the same side, building a better tomorrow), which many do not appreciate. My last prejudice I want to talk about next, because I’m not sure what to do about it.

All of this reminded me of theory I talk about from time to time, that’s not very unique or insightful, and yet has gotten me into a great deal of trouble. Here, a picture:


I sometimes call it concentric circles of concern, which apparently is a book on Amazon, and the name of the same idea as it appears on a Church website or two, according to our local expert Google. Anyway, the pitch is that most people care about the inner-most layer strongly. My roommate is this way, he’s good-natured, funny, and quite empathic at times, but quite introverted; he exhausts his social interaction needs quota at about 5 people. I think most people also expand out into the next two circles, which change composition as their life goes on, which of course makes sense. Some people don’t really have best friends (truthfully I sometimes think this is me), and many people (on a bad day I might claim introverts) don’t really care much for people in the acquaintance zone. And then there’s the last outer circle, which is what interests me. People who care, enough to act, about strangers they’ve never met. This might be environmentalists, for a counter-intuitive example, but also people like my sister, who worked with refugees for a year, or Tom Fairbank, who casually gets to know random homeless people and gives them his time and money in a compassionate way. I think there are also people who give their entire lives to random people they barely know, immersing themselves in places like the Peacecorps without really having anything in the inner-circles to fall back on.

In any event I have this tendency to really spill the haterade (prejudice) on people who don’t expand out to the outer layers. I don’t want to do this, the negativity is unhelpful. And yet at the same time I have no good way to push them out of their inner circle, other than by demonstrating my beliefs with my lifestyle. And this method, if it even is one, is certainly not satisfying or at all effective. I can’t even get past the opening questions sometimes, as asking a person “so why is it you litter?” or “why does voting not matter to you?” or “what turns you off to feminism?” often puts them on the offensive. And rightly so, I’m not just asking to know most of the time (the true dialogic), I’m asking to understand so I can negotiate a better solution. And this, of course, is one of the many reasons people don’t like me, which is mildly unhelpful when I try to act in a leadership or teaching capacity. But I’m unable to turn my back on the tremendous desire and duty to do my part in constructing a better world.

Am I looking for answers? Maybe brainstorms instead. Tom would of course tell me that the world is perfect and I should just appreciate what good we have, which would be warm and fuzzy for a second and then promptly make my life not worth living. With blissful inaction ruled out, what other strategies remain?

–Followup: It seems this diagram can be found all over the place in varied form. My favorite version is when they turn ‘strangers’ into markets.

Rattling the Empowerment Saber

This is the sort of thing that’s really fueling my dissertation, but I’m not allowed to put it in unless it can be puppeteered by some series of academic studies or fantastic/eternal philosophical or sociological writings, which I find disappointing. If academic research doesn’t have this kind of purpose, why would people do it? If my dissertation can’t be linked directly to outcomes that matter—to me and the world—then why spend an enormous amount of time and energy on it? I don’t want to be chained to subdued and convoluted text because it’s more academic or ‘rigorous’ – the true measure of rigor is just what I propose here, why this work matters. Really.

Defining Empowerment

Let’s start with a general goal that most Americans can agree on: a desire for a world where more people are more frequently able to have access to opportunities. Now let’s focus the example with some feminist consideration: a world where all people of all genders have an increased right and prospect of being who they want to be. When a little boy or girl grows up I want them to be able to think they are capable of doing all kinds of amazing things, like being an astronaut, a good parent or person who inspires positive change in the world. I don’t want gender roles to push us into being one way or another if they isolate us from other ways of being. I wouldn’t measure a society by its support of people who fit the traditions, but by how they regard the people who are deviant. I would worry if all women grew up in a given culture and only ever wanted to be housewives and homemakers (or business owners or warriors or any other singe ‘profession’). Likewise I would worry if most of the professions that were female-dominated in a given culture were the ones that were less respected or powerful. This won’t sound surprising to many, it’s just the mantra of equal-opportunity, diversity and freedom. The bottom line to all of this is that I want people to be confident, know that they are powerful, inspired to act, but also be thoroughly grounded in self-awareness. I have no interest in ignoring the social structures that shape our experiences in day to day life. On the contrary, I want everyone to be not only aware of them but to also see themselves as agents who can and will shape them. This is what I mean by empowered. I think on some level we are obligated to actively and purposefully influencing the world and the lives of the people around us.

Arguments against this go something like…

Why tell people they can do anything when they can’t? People are unequal.

While I am interested in deciphering and even sometimes disassembling the structural barriers that push us into place – racism, biology, language, etc… I don’t want to dwell on them too much. If we see ourselves as doomed or people as too limited we start out defeated. Better to recognize the constraints and work where we do have flexibility and propensity for change.

If everyone is assertive, or an active agent like you suggest, no real productive work will get done. People will all try to dominate one another or be hopelessly caught up talking.

This statement gets at two challenges: the question of if dialectic (or argument) brings about constructive social change, and if dialogue (discussion with the objective of just understanding the other participants) can translate into change. I think we should be concerned about these things but know the outcomes are not certain. Law is, on the whole, good example of dialectic-fueled exchange that results in what I think is mostly positive change. The sharing of perspectives ultimately motivates the most important kind of learning, which I think makes for the foundation of action, so dialogue too, has potential, though I wish I had a good institutional example of it. Truthfully I fall somewhere in between. I’m out to understand other people because their perspectives matter and I care about them, but I also want to work with them to solve problems.

Why do you think this will work? It hasn’t already… Look at how unhappy people in ‘free’ societies are.

If the aggregate level of agency in a society is increased I don’t know that everyone will be happier relative to each other. I don’t know that the disenfranchised will automatically be anymore better off, the qualifications for what it is to be disempowered may simply change. I do sincerely think, though, that if on the whole everyone is more engaged with understanding the world, their place in it (communities), and the perspectives of others we will have grown in a positive way. I do think a key to finding happiness is having (and understanding) the means to change your conditions (be they relationships, activities, environment, self-image) for the better. I think this change must come about by action, be it communication, creation, or something else.

In some sense this is essentially the debate of structure vs. agency. To explain this, I’d like to draw upon Lawrence Lessig’s depiction of constraints, because I think it’s handy. While he speaks about them in the context of the internet, they map well to the world in general. They are: law, social norms, the market, and architecture. Most people know the debate of the first three well, so I won’t do much to characterize them, other than to say that I think that all of these are essentially functions of (or permutations of) social norms. Architecture is interesting though, it gets at the structure beneath things. Lessig refers to it as the way the internet is coded or the design of an interface, and how this shapes out ability to act within this system. It could be more broadly interpreted as the physical bounds, like biology or physics, that in part define our context. I do, most certainly believe these exist (though their definitions may not always be expressible in static ways, like numbers), and that they are not merely fabricated. I just don’t think we should let them matter too much. Social norms are the site of change I’m fascinated by, but it feels like postmodernist cultural studies people and the like get lost in them, without really having a clear-cut plan to change them. Well, here we have it – we can make for policy (law) that makes people be one way or another (the libertarians groan), we can make choices more or less costly, appealing to rationale (the emotional thinkers balk), or we can mess with the stuff that we use to operate daily (make the system have some set of ways of being, or work to negotiate it: remix language, rewrite code, which is hard and only some are in a position to do it), or finally we can sell one another on ideas (create norms), be this via evangelism or living the change you wish to be.

This struggle for empowerment is what motivates my dissertation and much of my life. I can only hope I’ve made it clear enough here for those who find it to be so puzzling.

Timeless Time. Or timeless BS??

So I’m trampling my field examination right now and answering the question: To what extent do social divides in the physical world map directly onto those in the virtual world?

Which is great (if vague) and all, but part of my answer includes reference to this guy Castells, who I suggest sees it the other way around: the Space of Flows (will explain in a second) actually runs the show for the physical world – that is that it maps the divides. Here’s a partial explanation:

…It is at this point he advances to his connection between these physical world divides and what, in his composition, includes the virtual world. Castells explains that the dominant logic of the network society is timeless time, the employment of ICT’s “in a relentless effort to annihilate time… to eliminate sequencing of time” (Castells 1997:12). Time is fundamentally connected to space, a tool or relational framework that enables us to understand place and act accordingly. As David Harvey, an informer to Castells’ work, says in regards to globalization, “the time horizons of both private and public decision-making have shrunk, while satellite communication and declining transport costs have made it increasingly possible to spread those decisions immediately over an ever wider and variegated space” (Harvey 1990:147). The compression and desequencing of time facilitates social practices whose material organization is referred to as the Space of Flows: a unified but decentralized assemblage of (1) technological infrastructure and information systems (including the internet), telecommunications, and transportation lines, (2) nodes and hubs tied to physical places, (3) points of gathering for social actors that operate the networks, and (4) electronic spaces (cyberspace) (Castells 1999:364).

Okay, so check it, Space of Flows, totally fine, I like the concept. Timeless time, in my opinion, is a VERY flawed concept. He calls upon David Harvey (apparently the end-all, be-all of postmodernist thoughts, likes words and terms like deconstructionism and the project of neoliberalism) and the old philosopher Leibniz (circa ~1700), who I ended up investigating to validate my criticism. Leibniz suggests that time is denoted by its sequencing – in all incarnations, biological (pre-industrialization, based on ancestry), measured, and even relative (events may seem to take more or less time than one another but we still have cause and effect). This checks out. Castells consistently says that time in the Network Society is a circuit (circular) because spaces have been remapped. The idea is that ICT’s speed things up so much and make space so irrelevant that time becomes eliminated, arbitrary or desequenced.

I CANNOT buy this. Things may work faster, social practices may be rearranged by the speed at which process happen but this doesn’t undermine or dismiss cause and effect. In fact much of our discussion about technology is about dealing with time. We don’t forget or lose history in the Network Society any more than we do as a result of other operational discourses assuming control and wiping out other narratives that make meaning of the human experience (say modernity/rationalism knocking the religious era off the pulpit). David Harvey actually characterizes circular time in a way that would admonish Castells’ argument: “Past, present and future projected into each other accentuating continuity within change; diminution of contingency” practiced by “astrology-followers; archaic societies in which mythological, mystical and magical beliefs prevail.” (Harvey 1990:224)

His examples are bollocks too: we try to make modern wars quick and ignore long ones (okay, true, time still operates here), people can have kids after they’re dead with the saving of embryos (still, cause and effect and sequence here, no kid before the parent), and life expectancy is increasing so we’re becoming more eternal (really? seriously?). Timeless time doesn’t characterize the dominant groups, unless somebody has invented time travel and I don’t know about it. Or is always traveling at light speed and still somehow able to impact events here on earth. Is God behind the space of flows?

What’s interesting is that I can’t find critiques of this. People knock Castells for not doing proper analysis of the role of information, production, and of the relationship between informational labor and capitalism, or maybe for being sorta blatantly obvious in his painting of the information era outcomes, but not for his downright invalid reappropriation of time.

I mean really, I buy pretty much everything else the guy says, but not that time is desequenced or eliminated. Just compressed or altered. Sorry bud.

Intentionally Empathic

I get it. I’m a social scientist. I think about everything.

I’m finding more and more this identity is overwhelming, in that the sociological imagination is not only permanently switched on my mind, but I’m not sure how to (or if I want to or could) switch it off. The same way in which I see myself situated within the world as a powerful actor who can influence the people and issues around him: I’m presented with a problem – a complaint, a question, a curious circumstance – and I look to understand it, and usually, solve it or make things better. I feel it’s downright unethical to not to at least want to. So in the same way I obsess over social experience and individual actors and actions – I like to think a lot about what it means when I or someone else does or says something. I don’t always realize the full ramifications of a statement or action, like all of us humans, but I’m usually actively thinking about some sizable portion of those occurring around me. I do this instead of reading for school.

I’m contrasted by my friends who suggest that this is ‘over-analysis’ or wonder why I always have to ‘go so deep into everything all of the time.’ They’d rather float about life, making statements about the weather or complain about things without any intention of envisioning a better world. They don’t ask questions or wonder all that much about what others are thinking – it simply isn’t important to them.

In research we talk about discerning intent – how we measure it, what cues we can examine to find it, or even the possibility or importance of capturing it. We can ask someone what their intention is, but it may be futile – they cannot possibly know everything that motivates their decisions, and the structured provisional truth they present us in explanation is built to its audience, mode of communication and the person’s current feeling. Beyond that, regardless of how reflexive we might be – our intent is constricted to a realm of discourse – the way we talk about it in certain ways (social norms, language) and in some sense, people may only have free will to a certain degree within the bounds of how they make sense of reality.

So what struck me today was the way intention and empathy intersect. I’ve often wondered what fosters empathy. Intent implies purpose, an active action to desire and see to an outcome (that may or may not come to fruition). I’m so utterly concerned with investigating intent not because I think it will uncover some hidden truth (it may tell us a better story, though), but because I think by being concerned with the intentions of others we facilitate the construction of empathy (a reflection of concern for others, the ability to identify with their experience).

This rests on a value, a sort of social good. What would happen if everyone were a little more empathic? In some sense this is no different from seeking to understand the perspectives of others, but it’s mitigated or encapsulated by action. That is discovering intent involves a communicative process – people making efforts to engage one another – starting with speculation, leading to questions and observation and ending, in, what may be something close to a spiritual belief for me, understanding similarities. I do think, at root, we have a lot in common with one another, when we take the time to find it, at least. We all have the ability to be empathic and seek this – and really this process is how we forge emotional maturity, I think.

And it’s multifaceted. Some of this is explaining our own intentions and actions, putting them out there for others to relate to, inquiring about the intent of others, and, potentially, figuring out what they all mean together in the world we live in.

So I know this is a variation on a theme for me, championing the compassionate and assertive individuals of the world, but I’d like to entertain many ways of being that produce social good. So I’ll ask all of you – how might someone develop empathy without taking action to understand one another’s experience? Could it be done as well with just listening and observing, but not actively starting conversations and asking questions? Might we divulge empathy from texts and not live people>? What more can we find?

Musings with Tom Fairbank

I recently asked one of my best friends where he gets his drive from – his unrelenting passion to work for himself and others.

He replied that he focuses a great deal on those who have done more than him – role models, both in history and in the contemporary, which leads him to set high expectations and found inspiration. He’s managed to get into the habit of asking himself what he could do better, which makes it a cycle.

Doesn’t seem too outstanding if you just read it like that, but if you knew him, you’d know why I asked. The guy sleeps for a mere two hours a night, works in a downtrodden school full of kids getting screwed over by our education/class/governmental system and will not hesitate to care intensely about anyone at any moment, homeless person or family member, if they ask. And even sometimes if they don’t. I have never met a more compassionate and driven human being.

In contrast, I find that I’m I’m some blend of my own expectations and those that others hold for me, which are necessarily intertwined. Further, most of my role models and would-be mentors don’t have any time… for me or anyone else, which is probably a bad sign 🙂

My friend pointed out that it may not matter if what you know about them is real or an exact ‘truth,’ the perception of it can sometimes be motivating enough. That is if I create a hero out of someone that might still be viable inspiration, even if I barely know them. And I do this often. Unfortunately I have the bad habit of getting to know them and then watching my hope and positivity be brutally murdered in front of me. If you read about someone in a book though, this is at least less likely to happen.

Anyway what this led me to a really neat question. If we asked all of the outrageously driven people we know what makes them go – what commonalities would we find?

This also led to a question of drive and progress towards what. As Tom said:

“I don’t know if we should look for that perfect job, perfect person, or perfect day. What if instead we choose to see the perfection in what is already in front of us?”

I of course replied that we have to do both – recognize what’s great in the present (and past) and also work towards a better future. Often one will make us appreciate the other – trying the new greener grass makes us appreciate the old and recognizing current opportunities leads us to striving for more, it’s almost modesty vs. aspirations. And then it came – that classic statement, that we need balance. To which Tom replied:

“…because lets be honest the idea of balance is a boring, an easy answer that says almost nothing.”

WHAM. But yeah, he’s right. Just saying we need balance and shutting down an issue with it doesn’t really churn the dialectic. The question of balance, that’s where the action is at!

I kind of want to say we’re probably better off as a society by looking for more (or better or progress) by default, and that recognizing what we have is secondarily at best. We can find all kinds of explanations for that (Calvinism, capitalism, evolution, economics, spirituality), but it raises the question of what we mean when we say better. In some sense it’s probably the age-old eastern vs. western thing with an accent. What would the world look like if we were all, by default, more prone to appreciate what we have instead of striving for more? Would we be more or less passionate? Would we be less assertive? Would change happen is easily?

In the middle of this, I burst out:

“See this is freaking scholarly exchange! not reading a book! You can’t talk about stuff like this in academic research and bringing it up in the classroom only makes you the annoying one – but it’s stuff that really matter and determines what we do with our lives!!”

And also later a fun exchange:

“Tom: Again, that’s where we differ. In practice we are very close, we both do things to ‘improve the world’ but I would rather see beauty in the now and you would rather create it in the future. The problem with your belief is that the future is always the future. My plan allows for perfection in the present.

Jeff: I guess I don’t accept perfection, present or future.”

What we came to, ultimately, though, was this. If we try to imagine a person who’s all about appreciating the awesome things in their life, as well as striving to find and make new awesome things, we think of a really intense and driven person. Well there we go: Appreciation is the fuel and striving for improvement is the direction.

A Plan for Mentoring in CI – Cohorts

I couple of Thursdays ago I attended a program called “Mentoring Inside/Out” that took place in the Illini Union as a sort of conference in the form of theatrical performances and workshops. It was put on by the graduate college and a group called the CRLT Players, a cadre of researchers who investigate some of the issues and difficulties of mentoring in several forms and break open the discourse with acting, role playing and dialogue.

I actually initially entered the event thinking I could walk away with a few ideas about how I might better connect to and advise Masters students, but rapidly realized it was mostly focused on PhD students… and in turn started to relate my own confused experience caught between Sociology and GSLIS. Several key distinctions were made clear over the course of the program, which evolved between sequences of acting and audience response sessions.

One of these was that there is a definitive difference between an adviser and a mentor; often the two are not the same and arguments are to be had as to if they should be. Some feel that they cannot appropriately advise students without really knowing them, whereas others feel like this may be too much commitment or taint decisions and honest feedback. But if our advisers are not our mentors, who are they?

In my own experience I’ve actually found more guidance from others: teachers who take an interest in what I do, older students who can offer wisdom, work advisers with give me a long leash and the like. This in part has much to do with what happened to me in Sociology, but also perhaps the biggest obstacle to fostering good mentoring relationships: time. Professors aren’t given much in reward for spending time and caring about students and while many of them find arrive at a sort of ‘feel good’ (or worse guilt or defacto obligation inspired) motivation it’s far from sufficient.

A lot of the problems also arise from miscommunication and misinformation. Professors often aren’t aware of what students know, need to know, and most importantly, what they’re thinking and feeling. And vice versa. Students don’t know that they should ask a professor in advance to meet with them instead of just ambushing them in the office, and sometimes they don’t know what to prepare for a session, or even what questions they should be asking. With changing rules and class offerings professors don’t always know what they should be telling their students to do. Many of them are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with informal relationships with their advisees or can’t relate to them. Some have trouble telling a student they don’t have time for them.

Other factors find their way into the mix, like assistance for junior faculty, support and identification for students of color or other minority status (such as women in engineering), and people with split appointments or affiliations.

I couldn’t help but relate all of this to GSLIS. In certain areas we have very strong connections between PhD students and professors. Other areas don’t. In general we have very little going on between MLS and PhD students, largely because of the professional nature of the program, though this shouldn’t be the case as many of our PhD’s were previously in library science. Many of the gaps have to do with time, priority and stage in life– who wants to hang out with 20-somethings when you have a kid at home or a spouse to see? Much of the work the PhD’s do has nothing to do with libraries or practice. There are other symptoms of issues, too. If I walk down the halls of GSLIS I see only a few doors open for random visitors. This may be a reflection of personalities, but also of the environment. Only some professors offer regular office hours for anyone to come visit, and of those only a few post them publicly online. We have a couple of staff members who are formally tasked with taking care of advising and mentoring Masters students formally, but this leaves the PhD’s on their own. The PhD’s make some effort to bring students together with a Friday symposium but this is typically pretty small and doesn’t involve many Masters students or most of the social science related faculty (they are of course invited).

These challenges suspended, the benefits of mentoring are incredible. Most people who’ve found their way to where they are owe much of it to the time and investment in them by others. The informal networks, the people who dare to care deeply about one another, the conversations had over a cup of coffee (or beer?), all of these play an underrated role in fueling inquiry and learning. In some sense it’s our duty, but how can we institutionalize this so it’s not such a drag on people who have culturally and temporally staged inhibitions?

One answer, I think, is what I know as cohorts. I’ve seen them in a few places around this University, and hear they operate well elsewhere. The general idea is to take a given area of research and structure people around this. The effort might span multiple departments and could involve varying funding, mostly dependent on fit and convenience. You might have one or two guiding professors, a few PhD students (who would be their advisees) and possibly a number of Masters students. Together they would form multiple layers of work distribution, guidance and productivity. The professors would provide the overall foresight to the operation, working with PhD’s to invent projects and publish papers on common interests (topics initiated by either, not just professors), which gives the collaboration strength. It’s worth a professor’s time to publish and the new perspectives and related areas of interest brought in by PhD students could help them to widen their range of influence and connection. The PhD students in turn would receive vital experience leading research projects, establish their first published works, and really actively participate to learn what it’s like to be an academic. They could also help to manage and advise masters students, who could spread the load of large-scale projects by conducting research work and providing additional feedback. The entire group would be connected informally as well, sometimes sharing the same projects and papers, sometimes not, engaging in social and personal interests together, attending reading groups, speakers, discussions, conferences and more. This kind of collaboration could be unrelated to funding sources, potentially, as participants could fulfill these needs with other jobs, such as positions teaching, administration or working at jobs outside (such as in the libraries at U of I).

I’m not the first to have this idea. Martin Wolske wants to establish a studio class that would call in graduates from many departments to work together on independent study research and provide feedback to one another. This is a good start, but also only a partial answer—there’s no professor advisers to mentor the students and it doesn’t have any teeth because it doesn’t result in published papers, the hard currency of academia. Martin would like to include grant writing as part of the class, though, and it does, however, engage most of the practice and informal learning opportunities mentioned in the scenario above.

I’d like to see something like this happen in Community Informatics. I know there will be buy-in from Masters students (it can be an activity of the club, essentially), and several of the PhD’s have expressed some interest to me. The missing link, right now, is the professor leadership. Martin’s class may end up filling the hole, but ultimately I think we need faculty support for something like this to be successful and sustainable.

My hope is to create a community informatics research group. We already have a few instances of things happening that are somewhat like this, but I think we could do better. As we walk into next year we’ll have several PhD students pretty strongly associated with our area of research, and I suspect the timing could be right, even if we face some challenges.

Time will tell! I’m starting by talking to a few people about the idea…

Meandering Thoughts

I’m supposed to read this horridly dry book on social research methods tonight. Thus I’m blogging. It seems like the further I get into grad school the less I like reading… A simple 10 page paper full of new ideas or problems can get me thinking and scribbling for hours, stomaching hundreds of pages becomes an exercise in rejection, skim reading or other futile actions. I find my mind spends at least as much time thinking about the various people and social circumstances in my life as it does on research, classes and work combined. I wonder if I should have been a social worker.

Anyway I was thinking about my community informatics concepts class from last semester. I played a rather strong – no overbearing – role in it. It felt like I was in a room full of terrified mutes but looking back on it and knowing what I do now, I think it’s largely that people didn’t like me. I think I may have actively ruined participation with my intensity. Anyway, it’s this reason I need to be in PhD classes, but besides this I was thinking about this and feeling bad. I want to apologize to all of the shy and quiet people and those who might have felt squelched because of my all too often open mouth. But what would I be apologizing for? To make myself feel better. And that’s rather shatty. So my current theory is a new metric of apology. Generally, one should only apologize when they will make the other person feel better at least as much as themselves.

This clearly leaves apologizing to (forgiving?) oneself off the docket, but still.

As my studies go, I’ve come upon another revelation: Facebook was easy.

I mean seriously! I was an insider in to the community (or at least one of them) and could find all kinds of different social and psychological theories that would apply to the way people behave online. Data-collecting techniques were clearcut – find a theory and a bunch of questions, and observe, interview or survey. Done.

Now I’m essentially enacting as a nonprofit consultant for social service institutions. I’m pretty inexperienced and bad when it comes to figuring out their needs – and all of my leadership experience has been with people pretty similar to me (rich students). Suddenly I have to figure out how these places work, design programs for them involving technology training (pretty much on my own, I have 2 other students to help me), and while that, to me, seems like a worthwhile ‘project’ or challenge, it’s considered elementary. Never mind that establishing relationships and workable programming is scary, I’m supposed to evaluate all of this and keep it housed in scholarly questions and theory. My advisor warns me to stay away from being ‘too practical’ and I increasingly worry that I’m going to turn tale and run back to Internet studies for my dissertation.

Sounds like I need to have a conversation with Ann Bishop, but then she sometimes struggles to find acceptance in academe, and she’s a tenured professor.

Once in a while I think about radically changing my trajectory, nabbing an MLS and running off to the nonprofit/saving people world. And then I remember that this economy is (supposedly?) disastrous and I’m wildly privileged. I just don’t feel like there’s a lot of academic guidance or support for me right now, I guess. Which worked well when I was studying Facebook, the thing I understood and no one else (around me at the time) did, but not so well when I’m trying to study something that’s new and uncomfortable to me.

The good news, though, is that my social life has managed to stabilize a bit post-Mandy.

Time to go back to reading…

Connectors, revisited

Some of you may be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous set of archetypes that are the key to social epidemics (social movements that sweep very quickly over a nation or group of people). He outlines salesmen (people who can convince you to do anything) and mavens (people who know a lot and like to share knowledge) and connectors (people who know a lot of people and bridge different types of people/groups together). The notion has gotten a lot of attention and spurred a lot of argument. Regardless of the usefulness of the typology or classification we can generally agree that there are traits in people that might make them connectors (relative) in almost any group.

I was giving this some thought tonight. I’ve always considered myself a connector – particularly because I’m an extrovert and leader and I know (and like!) a lot (different) of people. I tend to make invitations and initate contact and start groups. But I’ve often struggled with getting groups to be cohesive once the basic connections between individuals have been formed. It makes me wonder what a connector does, exactly. Like in some sense an alternative measure of a connector is the type of person who would be interested (not just willing and able) to go to an event or break into a new group alone. I’m sure we can think of many people we know that refuse to go to a given event, especially when it’s recreational, unless they know someone there. Moreover some go so far as to need certain people there.

And this spurred me to thinking about who those people are. I think there may be another class (if you will) of connectors who don’t initiate (usually anyway) or may not be the most outgoing or outspoken. They are instead the ones who still know a lot of people, but know how to make them feel comfortable. I’d like to think I can do this but the reality of my personality is that I’m intense, I’m often overwhelming, and if I really would like a person to be a real friend I expect a lot of them. And this is too much to face up to for some people. I’m often action-oriented and while I like to talk about feelings or ‘just hang out’ I’m usually more interested in creating something or discussing a topic towards some greater benefit. I’m overtly passionate, and especially interested in people, which is a little freaky sometimes to those who aren’t.

Anyway thinking over my friends I can point out several who’ve been sort of complementary connectors to me. I bring people in and make the initial group/event formation (whatever it is, club, social, class group, etc…) and they end up making that person feel extra comfortable and bringing out the best in them. My X played this role in my life for the past year or so, which ispart of why I’m sort of floundering now trying to figure out what to do with my social life.

So where do I go from here? I suppose I could try to work on making people feel more comfortable, but honestly my personality is what it is, the fragile, picky or undependable ones are always going to be a problem. I think maybe a better direction is to show more appreciation for the connectors I know who make it their job (overtly or covertly) to create a welcoming rapport with others. Meanwhile I can continue to keep a positive hat on.

I won’t make any specific shout-outs to people at GSLIS, but there are several of you who I think really fill this role. Thank you.


So I keep accumulating little snippets of items and issues I want to blog about, writing them down, and then putting them off forever. So to help deal with this I’ve decided to write little blurps in series, much like I did in “Shotgun Blast” a while back. Okay here we go:

Babies in the Doc Study
As many of you know I’m a baby when it comes to comparison to other doctoral students, both in sociology and library science. In fact one of my friends in GSLIS has a daughter my age. Weird, huh? Yeah well nearly all of them are married and several have kids, which isn’t a big deal, except one of the students has now made it a habit of bringing her small child with her to work. He’s little, probably less than a year, and is typically pretty happy and well behaved. My issue is not with the baby, but what he does to what I would normally consider to be a place of scholars and quiet study. Every doc student but myself (and perhaps the detached foreign students) lord over the little baby and fuss about him for hours. I can’t possible work with it… I find it downright annoying. I got to thinking about it, though, and the feminist inside of me says I should shut up and deal with it. Why? Because women are often tasked with taking care of kids, and to exclude them from access to advanced degrees on account of it is something of a form of discrimination. So as much as the herd of fussing old PhD students and somber baby might annoy me, I should probably appreciate her right to bring him along, it makes our school a friendly place to young mothers. I think what perhaps bothers me more is the contrast it brings out between myself and the older mass of graduates. I’m so very different than most of them.

Urban Prairie Archeology
I had the chance to sweep down to East St. Louis last November and work with the Katherine Dunham Archival society. I dubbed the experience “Urban Prairie Archeology” because it was such a strange endeavor. East St. Louis has areas that are sometimes referred to as Urban Prairie, which is when buildings and empty lots are overgrown with prairie grass because of neglect and environmental factors. Archeology comes into the mix in a unique form – we were rescuing documents and artifacts from storage houses that contained many items belonging to the venerable Katherine Dunham, a female black scholar and anthropologist who traveled the world and expressed what she learned in the form of dance. She ran a dance company and retrieved a number of pieces of art from countries around the world – Haiti, China, etc… Unfortunately much of this material hasn’t been preserved or sorted and instead packed into small run-down houses that are infested with animals and invaded by the elements. Our job was to venture into these houses and search through a mass of junk for valuable items dating back to the early 1900’s. The experience was invigorating, we were able to save some community history, a worthwhile cause.

My Digital Literacy
Occasionally I think back to my education and wonder how I came to be so technical. I didn’t really learn much of what I know in school. Or did I? Certainly none of my classes ever taught me how to use programs or work on digital art but many of them provided me with absurdly good inquiry-based and self-led learning opportunities. I was able to make videos and websites and required to integrate them into the traditional learning objectives present in most of my classes. It wasn’t perfect and none of the instructors ever really understood half of what I did but in some ways it was the best possible way I could have learned much of what I did. I also came to remember a teacher – the only one who ever really successfully integrated computers into the classroom – from my junior high. He let me read a Star Wars book for a book report, something no English teacher or my mother would have ever considered worthwhile learning. It wasn’t about the book’s quality or difficulty – it just wasn’t considered valuable from institutional eyes. I was supposed to read Shakespeare to To Kill a Mocking Bird. Anyway, Mr. Block was all about encouraging students to explore what they found interesting and engage them on their own level with relevant topics. He brought Legos into science class and we were encourage to play games on the computers and also use them for science and exploration. I never found another teacher to so seamlessly and effectively blend computers into class like that. Not until grad school. I should find out what he’s up to now!

That said, school really didn’t influence my digital literacy all that much. Our Packard Bell 1995 computer provide me with art/animation sequencing programs that I made strategy games and FPS narrative robot stories out of, architecture and landscape design software that resulted in mansions and gardens, and I even used MS paint to create Battlemech blueprints, pixel by pixel.

Oh and that whole Web2.0 thing? Pictures, message communities, blog-like editorials, travel journalism? Yeah I was doing all of that on long before Facebook, Flickr and Blogger. Sad that I was made fun of so vehemently for it, these days it’s ordinary.

I lived in virtual communities online, practicing writing skills and playing characters while imagining and creating universes in my mind. I modified game systems and shared my innovations – character sheets, programs, and new rule systems – with people from all over the world.

And all the while this was at odds with my mother, who saw everything that I did as treacherous and unhealthy. She thought that the exposure to violence would drive me to hurt others and that the time spent on computers would prevent me from acquiring people skills. And here I stand, one of the most extroverted people I know (online and off!) looking to help other people for a living.

I have to give her credit, actually. Without her to oppose (and prove that I wasn’t a bad person or mistake of a child like she made me think I was) I wouldn’t have come to where I am now.

And for the record my mom now feels horrible about how she treated us as kids. She was a mixed up and insecure person stuck in a world of rich housewives all concerned with appearing upper class. She had a poor relationship with her mother growing up and has struggled over her views of equality, gender roles, and common good. A lot of what she did was because she didn’t have confidence, and had even less control.

So where did my digital literacy come from? In terms of people – school, my mother, and, well, the internet. In terms of the abstract (in parallel) – drive, defiance, and curiosity.

You Are Missed…

Be assured my mission is not to elicit guilt or play pogo stick atop your already immense and growing burden… but I miss you.

Strangest of times and circumstances I know. Happy Thanksgiving, I’m sure your family is a much welcomed solace and sanctuary. I still watch from afar, with at least as much as proverbial internet-born books of faces can afford me.

Last glimpse you were swimming, in at least a couple of ways. Think I can join some time?

I’m also bringing back a hefty helping of my childhood in a car full of Legos…

If I don’t hear from you I might churn up something more drastically creative and figure a way [someone] could help me plop it on your door step.

Find me. You know how.


(unrelated: coming for whenever/winter break – babies and doctors, urban prairie archeology, more…)