Knowing who the Ramones are

mooc t-shirt

I saw a tweet the other day lamenting that 90% of people who wear a Ramones t-shirt don’t know who the Ramones are. It struck me that this is a fairly apt metaphor for what goes on in (probably everywhere) higher education – projects instigated based on buzzwords by people who like wearing the t-shirt but don’t really know who the band is. I am all for being a cowboy about things and coming up with left-of centre ideas and being a ‘doer’. It’s what I do. But if you’re going to be a cowboy, you’ve got to know who the band is, and in a deeper sense than just wikipedia-ing them and listening to one of their songs.

This is the problem I have with so many of the gamification projects that float around – they are instigated by people who have little or no functional experience with games, and if they did they would know that points and levels and badges aren’t what matter. I know that quite a lot of people associate me (wrongly, IMHO) with gamification, and it’s true that I’ve spent a lot of time working with games-based learning and designing game-style courses. However – when I first started to notice that game concepts might be a useful thing to bang on about, I didn’t jump right in and start setting up project teams on a whim. I spent a good year playing World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Angry Birds etc, and not just having a token walk around but playing more or less every day for an hour or two, getting to level 85, PvPing, working with a group of awesome kids to build epic things etc. And, perhaps most interestingly, I still do not have a single paper on games, GBL or gamification to my name even though it’s probably the thing I’m most widely recognised for doing.

I’m not unsympathetic to the fact that there are time constraints associated with wanting to be a bleeding-edger. However the pace of higher education is such that there is time to work through concepts in-depth prior to implementation and the benefits of doing this tend to outweigh the benefits of being ‘first’. The thing about being a cowboy is that people have to trust you and respect what you do for it to work – and there’s only one way to grind your reputation.

Academic etiquette. Super simple stuff.

So if you live in a) Brisbane or b) the internet, you’re probably aware of Queensland Rail’s Train Etiquette campaign and the fact that it subsequently turned into an excellent internet meme. It seemed to be to be far too good an opportunity to delve into academic etiquette to pass up. To wit:

Feel free to grab the posters from here and photoshop your own fun.

 

The myth of the expert

 

Advance apologies; I’m about to burst a few bubbles.

I read this post this morning. While I’m no fan of the ‘Generation Meh’ tag, she makes the point that young people aren’t digital natives, they’re just fearless. But what it highlighted to me is that, despite the fact that most of us now acknowledge that digital natives are bollocks, most of us are quite happily perpetuating another bollocks theory – the myth of the expert*. We seem to happily accept the idea that some people magically know lots more than other people about certain things because they’re smarter or have an affinity for the subject. But just like digital natives, they’re not. They’re just fearless.

I’m generally introduced to people in a professional capacity these days as ‘the Moodle expert’ or ‘the Moodle guru’. Before that it was ‘the Blackboard guru’ or ‘the Mac guru’ or ‘the tech guru’ or whatever. Aside from the fact that this bears no resemblance to my actual position description or job title at all, it’s also a giant lie and I thought it was about time I came clean about that. Here’s the secret – I don’t know any more about anything than the next person. I’m just not scared of anything and I can use google. I’ve never had any training in any technology, ever. My IQ isn’t any higher than other people’s (I assume, I have no idea what it is nor do I care) and I have no special affinity for technological devices. The only difference between me and the average person is that I’ll say ‘hmm, wonder what happens when I do this?’ and ‘oh I dunno, what about that?’ and ‘eh, let’s give it a shot and see’ and if that doesn’t help me out I’ll google it until I find out what I need to know. Half the time when someone rings me with a question I’m googling their issue, which is the only reason I can answer them. I poke and tinker and click without worrying about breaking things or looking stupid. Also I am ridiculously curious (I’m the person who, upon looking something like qualitative methodology up on Wikipedia, seventeen clicks later finds themselves reading about Guillain-Barre Syndrome or string theory or pogonophobia something) and I’m quite happy to get things wrong. That’s it. I’m no expert.

I think my problem with this is that the idea of the ‘expert’ assumes that ‘knowledge’ is the key trait we should be aspiring to. I’d be a bit depressed if the best thing someone could say about me was that I was ‘knowledgable’. I know some people like the ‘veritable font of wisdom’ tag but to me it’s superficial value and misses the point. All it does is support the notion that these things take ‘expert’ or ‘guru’ status to master. Which is bollocks – anyone can master anything if they’re fearless about it and willing to put in a bit of work.

So let’s do it – let’s stop perpetuating the myth of the expert. Stop tweeting about experts and stop inviting them to your conferences. Let’s stop talking about soaking up their knowledge and start taking on a little bit of their fearlessness. Experts are as passé as digital natives, and I’m calling it.

*Bear in mind I am not referring to the self-identified, big-noting promo type of expert – also complete bollocks but the reasoning is an entirely different kettle of fish :).

No need for a requiem.

The burning piano by joeri-c, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  joeri-c 

I wasn’t going to comment on this, I really wasn’t, but Twitter and Facebook feeds full of petitions and protests and posts has compelled me to act otherwise. I’ll start by saying that I have no involvement with ANU or the School of Music, I am simply commenting as someone who has a) a music degree, b) a rather vested interest in higher education and c) long-term involvement in a music community and the awareness of the politics therein.

I’m not going to start with a whinge. I’m going to start with an analogy. I’m going to tell you about a theoretical new degree in science (which will be called a degree in science even though it is in fact in chemistry). Humour me.

In this degree, students come to the program primarily to study chemistry, and only chemistry. Their goal is to become a chemical scientist who is renowned as elite in their field. In order to facilitate this, the university employs a number of staff whose sole purpose is to provide one-to-one tutorials in specific strands of chemistry for students. There’s a tutor for organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry and so on, all employed as academic staff. No student is required to pay for this private tuition (which is over and above their normal unit enrolment), but they also cannot seek tuition from outside tutors. No additional HECS can be charged to cover the salaries of these staff. Students are still of course required to take general units in chemistry to make up their degree, all taught by chemistry lecturing faculty.

Students are able to do an entire degree without ever studying other strands of science. No physics, no biology. Even though careers as professional chemical scientists are extremely rare and most graduates will in fact end up working as high school science teachers, private science tutors, or in science administration, there is no obligation to ever study science more widely than chemistry. In fact, physics and biology are looked down on as being inferior, ‘easy’ sciences that sully the value of the chemistry profession. Additionally, while a separate program for lab work based on radioactive elements is available, the standard program requires students to undertake lab work only using the ‘original’ non-radioactive elements (although carbon is only tolerated, since that verges dangerously close to biology).

No university or tax payer in their right mind would support this kind of degree structure. It is completely unsustainable financially, does little towards preparing students for any sort of realistic career, and is dangerously narrow in focus (although any scientists/chemists are welcome to tell me if study of other areas of science is in fact unnecessary). Any proposed degree program in another area would similarly (and rightly) be shot down.

Except in music. For some reason, the above degree structure has been deemed perfectly acceptable (and, in fact, desirable above all other possible structures) for many, many years. And it is complete madness. For all of these years students have been flocking to conservatories to study with ‘elite’ tutors (who nobody seems to ask who is paying to fund) to strive for the fabulously unattainable (in almost all cases) goal of becoming an ‘elite’, full-time professional musician. For all of these years students have been receiving degrees in performance with little to no nod to musicology, composition or ethnomusicology, with an almost exclusive focus on Western art music written between 1600 and 1950 (or ‘jazz’, because that’s the only other kind of music there is, obviously). For all these years people have been denigrating any music that falls outside of these bounds to an unbelievable degree, on no grounds other than tradition, elitism and rather specific sense of aesthetic. It’s broken. It is completely unsustainable financially, does little towards preparing students for any sort of realistic career, and is dangerously narrow in focus. And we desperately need to start questioning it.

Maybe ANU is nuts. Maybe the ‘fire all the staff’ approach is a little too radical. But to finally take action on an untenable system is something that should at least be investigated with interest rather than media scaremongering. To me, it’s not a death knell. It’s not the end of music as we know it. It’s the beginning of a good hard rethink that’s been a long time coming. And I, for one, like the sound of that.

On being a bad grownup.

grownups by niznoz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  niznoz , stolen shamelessly from Bianca’s post

This is one I’ve been chewing over for a while now. I think I’m a bad grownup. Two things have fed into my thinking on this – this post by @biancah80, and a conference I went to last year organised by @vormamim.

Like Bianca, I love the way kids think and think we’re missing a huge trick not running with that. But it was thinking about Dean’s conference last year that really highlighted a few things for me. He made the mistake of organising a Games for Change event on using games in education, and programming a kid-led stream of hands-on gaming (Minecraft mostly but Xbox etc also) as well as a proper adult stream of presentations. This was a mistake because it suddenly became rather clear to me that given the choice I’m not going to choose the proper adult option. Several times that day Dean kept sticking his head in the room where I was quite happily Minecrafting with a bunch of kids and trying and failing to get me to go watch the proper presentations. Despite the fact that these were presentations by people I respect and would actually have enjoyed, mucking around with a bunch of 10 year olds was hard to top. It’s still up there as one of my top professional development experiences.

This is why I’m a bad grownup.

On reflection, this is part of the reason I struggled so much with teaching, particularly discipline. Not because of hordes of out-of-control children but because as an authority figure in an institution with rules and litigation to worry about, I was required to say things like ‘stop standing on your chairs’ and ‘sit and listen quietly’ and ‘no we can’t go play with the ponies instead’ (private school w/ equestrian centre). The problem was I could not think of any scenario outside of the classroom in which I would say these things, and I personally didn’t have a problem with any of them (in fact given a social event with some kids I’d probably be the first to suggest standing on chairs and playing with ponies). Despite being known as a bit of a nutter (my teaching methods were quite tame by my current standards but most other teachers thought I was a bit out there), I still felt like I was squashing the kids. I couldn’t (and still can’t) answer the ‘why do we have to learn this?’s with anything other than ‘because the syllabus says you have to’. Most of my best memories of teaching are from kindergarten, because you’re allowed to get down on the floor and play stupid games with them (although I did occasionally manage to get year 10 on the floor playing stupid games too when no one was looking).

In hindsight I also struggled with the teacher-student relationship. I really had a hard time seeing myself as superior to kids. In play, kids and adults are equals (mostly – I’ve observed in the time in #massivelyminecraft that I play like another kid, whereas many adults play like adults or teachers). Obviously there are times when you need to pull rank but in schools most of these times are arbitrary (unlike in a parenting scenario, say). The idea that I was the boss and should not want to have fun was really kind of soul-sucking. Really, I just wanted to play. The irritating thing is that none of this occurred to me at the time and I just felt overwhelmed and sellout-y a lot.

I’m left wondering why we suck the fun out of adult life. Why we’re supposed to be proper and serious all the time, and try and teach kids to become the same. Why we have to favour structure and outcomes and frameworks and syllabi over unstructured play and whimsy. Do we actually enjoy being boring?

 

Memebase your thesis.

Just a quick aside and 5-minute challenge on the back of reading this article about effective dissemination of research. Blyth makes the excellent point: ‘Turn it into things people can understand, let go of the academese, and people will engage’.

To which point – I think there’s value in using interweb zeitgeist to communicate your research in ways that are much more fun, approachable and grokable (is that a word? Is now) than a rambling paper full of polysyllabic guff. Why not memebase your research questions, or knock up a ‘What I Do’ poster instead of a conclusion? Turn your case study methodology into a ’15 amazing’ Twistedsifter post. Chuck Norris your validity analysis. Aside from being amusing, it’s an excellent exercise in brevity and isolating the key features of your research, and an excellent way not to take yourself so seriously. Why not take 5 minutes and give it a shot?

Want to play? memegenerator.net your research question/s, and tag them #thesismeme. Why not. I did.

Got a minute?

This is something I’ve been meaning to write for a while now, and answers several questions that I field regularly. The most common of these is ‘how do you have time for that?’ (usually followed closely by ‘I just don’t have time for that’) but I also often get asked how I keep my inbox so small or manage to get stuff done quickly. So, in the interests of demystifying, I thought I’d rough out a few of my MOs here.

Disclaimer: I don’t have kids. However. I know plenty of people who do have kids and still manage to get much awesome done (@biancah80 springs to mind) and plenty of other people with no kids who never manage to get anything done, so I don’t believe kids are in influencing factor here.

Email

I have to credit an old boss of mine with my email management technique. I’ve been using it ever since she explained it to me (I used to be a normal ‘inbox of thousands’ type) and it hasn’t let me down since, nor has my inbox ever been over 10 for more than an hour or two. The rules are:

  • Address all email as soon as possible after it lands in your inbox
  • If it’s not relevant and/or doesn’t require you to take any action, delete it. Right away. Probably 90% of emails I get go this way – marketing emails from services I use, mailing list fluff, stuff from people who should not be allowed to use reply-all etc etc.
  • If it doesn’t require you to take any action but you need to keep it, file it. Inbox =/= filing.
  • If it requires you to take action, leave it in your inbox (unless it’s a calendar date, in which case, bung it straight in your calendar then delete it)

This means that your inbox effectively functions as your to-do list, and is always short and manageable (rather than having big, infrequent cleaning sprees). I swear by it.

Twitter

Perhaps one of the biggest I-don’t-have-time-fors I get asked about. Functionally I don’t do anything special about it, I just use the standard Twitter apps. However. Twitter for me is about priorities (as is everything, really). I prioritise checking that little blue bird icon frequently because a) it only takes a few seconds each time to skim my feed, and b) it is so useful to me and the way I work I would be an idiot not to prioritise it. It allows me to keep on top of news and events (not just in edu but world events too), find new things relevant to my research, make and maintain relationships with fabulous colleagues from pretty much anywhere, and find new ideas and opportunities. An @ reply only takes a second to fire off, and interesting links can sit in browser tabs until I’m ready to read them. If you think you don’t have a few minutes each hour you can use for this, you’re a bit nuts IMHO.

Blogging

Another great I-don’t-have-time-for. I blog (either here or on my other research blog) during work hours. The half hour or so I spend writing a post once or twice a week helps me chew over and solidify new ideas for research, helps improve my practice, maintains my professional profile and sparks provoking conversations. No workload is so huge that I can’t take an hour or two for this each week.

RSS

My reasons for using RSS are similar to Twitter, just in a non-interactive extended form. It’s my way of keeping my pulse on the world. The way it fits into my day is over lunchtime – eating lunch without reading something just seems inefficient and frankly boring to me. I use Reeder on my iPad and trawl feeds ranging from edu-blogging colleagues to journal feeds (although tbh most of these fail at the concept of RSS) to cooking/baking/music blogs to xkcd, Damn You Autocorrect and I Can Has Cheeseburger (humour and fun is a hugely overlooked aspect of most peoples’ days). I can get through a feed of around 100 posts in a half-hour lunch pretty easily (skipping any that don’t interest me that day).

Gaming

This is probably the thing that people understand the least of everything I do. Most people assume gaming is addictive and you can’t do it without spending 8 hours a day glued to a screen or console. Which is, of course, bollocks. I play for maybe an hour a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, usually either after work or after dinner. What I find strange is that the ‘I don’t have time’ crowd often watch TV in the evening without doing anything else, but that’s several hours you could be doing something awesome with. It’s not unusual for evenings at our place to consist of Dr Who or something ABCish on in the background with me playing WoW and Steve practicing guitar. We get so much more benefit out of this than just rote TV-watching.

Baking

Invariably, every time I take something I’ve baked into work, someone will ask me how I have time for it. My answer? I make time. Again, it’s about using the time other people usually spend watching TV, and it’s also about relaxation. Occasionally my more ambitious baking projects get a bit stressful, but the other reason I do it is because it’s a great way to make people happy en masse. Additionally, my cupcakes raised several hundred dollars for charities last year. It’s a pretty decent trade-off for making the decision to get off the couch and go bake something.

What gives?

I do have some secrets for getting some extra time to devote to the above. I only have one scheduled one-hour meeting per week, for one. I am very careful about what administration I spend my time on. Meetings are very rarely productive, especially those of the ‘everybody report on their progress’ types, so I avoid them if at all possible. I don’t use voicemail (world’s most ridiculous waste of time), and almost never use the phone (I have people mostly well-trained to email me instead of calling so requests can be triaged as per email system above). I use text chat in preference to voice chat whenever possible as it fits into a multitasking workflow much more easily. I don’t often do trivial tasks sent to mailing lists that turn up in my inbox – a while back I thought I’d see what happened if I just deleted such emails instead of doing whatever it was asking (nothing, if you’re curious). I delegate help requests heavily – I used to let myself get bogged down with helping people because I could, not because it was my job. These days I’m much more likely to delegate to someone whose job it is (generally, tech support). I also prioritise really heavily – if someone asks me to do something that won’t take me long but will benefit from efficiency, I bump it to the top of the list and do it right away. It seems obvious but apparently many people don’t do it, given how many people are surprised at my ‘efficiency’. I don’t always win this way (my Masters is currently languishing towards the bottom of the list, for instance, hence why #universityofawesome has been quiet for a while now), but to my mind being known for efficiency is a good trade-off. ‘Gets shit done’ is pretty high on my list of things I’d want people to say about me.

So. There you have it. Essentially, it’s all about priorities and finding out what productivity-sinks you’re currently doing that you can dump. It by no means makes me a genius or a guru, but it works for me, and some of it might work for you too.

EDITED TO ADD: It’s occurred to me that I haven’t commented on the fact that our department tries to make time for social activities – every month or so we run an event where I bake cupcakes, our web dev becomes a barista, we put some music on and we spend an hour or two raising money while chatting over good coffee and cake. Many see this kind of thing as a productivity black hole, but IMHO including fun, social aspects in work is essential for productivity. Happy people are productive, and equating screen time with productivity is generally completely misguided.