Accessible Lessons at Sea

I don’t often blog about personal stuff. I usually write about ideas, economics, or education. This is an exception. It’s on the long side. I understand if you haven’t time to read it. I just need to share it. It’s about some experiences I had and lessons I’ve learned. But like most of my posts, I’ll wander around and tell all kinds of background before I get to the point, so get a beverage and sit down.

The first week of March this year was spring break at both my school and the school where my wife teaches. It’s nice when our breaks coincide. This year we did something different for us.  We took our first cruise.  A colleague of mine, a long-time cruiser, convinced us to join her and her husband on a cruise.  It would be fun, they said. It’ll be relaxing, they said.  They were largely right, but it turned into quite an adventure for me with some lessons along the way.

We left from Miami for a week in the eastern Caribbean with stops in San Juan, St. Thomas,  St. Maarten, and Nassua.  But the lessons have little do with what we saw. I indeed observed a lot – like I’ve said before  “For a social and institutional economist with a critical bent that just loves to observe people and capitalism in the wild, let’s just say that a cruise offers a target rich environment.” I still plan to write about that later. This post is about more intimate, personal experiences on the cruise.

The most unexpected lessons weren’t about what I saw. They were about how I saw.  More than that, they were about how I experienced the world and how people interacted with me.  You see, I’m a part-time blind guy.

I have keratoconus. It’s a relatively rare (1 in 2000 in the US) disease. It’s a progressive deterioration and deforming of the corneas. I developed it in middle age a couple decades ago. I’m kind of a medium case right now and I’ve been blessed that the deterioration has stabilized in recent years.  That’s good news because end-stage is cornea transplants.

street scene at night as seen with keratoconus: lots of glare, blurring, and loss of edges.

What I see without lenses. Actually this is just slightly worse than my right. My left sees much worse though.

In keratoconus, what should be a nice clear dome shape of the cornea that focuses all incoming light onto a small point on the retina becomes a thin, steep, really weird shaped cornea that focuses the light onto multiple points or just scatters it all over. Instead of an nice round dome, the topographical mapping of my left cornea looks a lot like a map of a mountain range with uneven peaks, steep sides, and not centered.  My right eye without lenses sees octovision. I see eight or more of everything slightly overlaid.  Edges get very fuzzy and uncertain. My left is worse. The left eye without lens essentially wipes out all edges. Everything is glowing, scattered, haloed, and smeared.

I say I’m a part-time blind guy because there is a way I can see for part of the day. I use some very specialized rigid gas permeable contact lenses. Yes, they have some refractive correction in them, but their real function is to be artificial corneas. They float and balance on the peak of the cornea, trap tears inside, and become, in effect, an artificial dome-shaped cornea.  The light focuses just fine when I wear them.  With lenses in, I’m 20/20 in both eyes. On a good day in the morning and without wind, I might even test out at better than 20/20.  These lenses make my everyday life possible.

image of a cruise ship on the open sea

The high sea.

picture of two contact lenses

How I see.
My lenses – nickel for size comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks: People work everyday miracles. (I’ve known this for a long time). Those lenses are miracles to me. They do so much. But it’s not a thing, it’s people that enable me to see, to drive (which I love!), to work, and to see people’s faces. I know that these lenses don’t just happen. There is a long, long list of people who make my day possible. The researchers, my doctors, the people at Kellogg Eye Center at UofMich (and Kresge Eye Center, Wayne State back when I went there). There’s the people who work at the companies that make these things. There’s the engineers that have designed the machinery that can manufacture these tiny little flecks of rigid plastic that float on the tip of my eye.  They are all so smart. They’ve studied and learned and as a result, I can see. Except for my doc and his assistant, I don’t know any of them personally. I wish I could thank them all.

Living with keratoconus and RGP lenses is work. Keratoconus also comes with dry eye, but the lenses depend on normal tears to float and work. It’s tricky. Wind can dry out the lenses in a flash. And by wind, it doesn’t have to be storm-warning stuff. A strong puff from an air conditioner vent in the jetway ramp right to at your face when you’re boarding an airplane will do it. Experience has taught me to close my eyes quickly and put my hands up to feel around right away. I have to carry a kit bag with different protective glasses, 4 bottles of fluids, cases, and backup lenses at all times.

Lenses can easily lose their float – after all they’re like balancing a saucer on an off-center peak.  When they lose the float, the edge of the lens digs into the cornea. It’s sharp. It’s painful. Trust me. It will get your attention and that lens will have to come out RIGHT THEN AND THERE.  That of course, will freak out your class when it happens in the middle of a lecture (experience talking).  But taking them out is tricky too. They  pop out and bounce on any hard surface. So ideally, you want to take them out with your nose over some white towel or sheet in a windless environment.  If there’s wind or they bounce when you pop’em out, well, good luck finding it. It could be anywhere . Yes, this is more experience talking.  You’ll need help finding it. This part-time blind guy isn’t very useful at finding tiny little things when he’s blind. My wife can tell you stories, so many stories, of the “fun” of searching for a nearly transparent sliver of light blue plastic.  We’ve found them as much as 10 feet away and behind another piece of furniture.

And that’s all if they pop out. The worst is when they don’t. They can get stuck. They can get suctioned onto the eye. They can get off center and be in the corner or even below/on top of your eye.  When that happens, there’s a little tiny inch-long rubber plunger that can be used to grab it and take out. Of course, I can rarely do it.  I can’t see in my own eye.   But I’m lucky. I have a wonderful wife that steps right up and fishes around in my eye with that little plunger. When we need it, I love that having that little rubber stick poked in my eye because it means the pain will stop soon.

Even on a good day, my eyes will likely only tolerate the lenses for 9-16 hours a day.  It’s unpredictable. So that’s why I say I’m a part-time blind guy. I can see fine, albeit possibly with some pain, for 9-16 hours a day. But for the rest of the time, this boy can’t see those steps and has no depth perception. The lenses are tricky to insert and get right. If I have to move one when it’s in my eye but not on-center, there’s a high risk of scraping the cornea. A corneal abrasion means no lenses for a few days while it heals.  It also means pain.

I’ve long hesitated about saying much on the web about my vision impairments. I’m not looking for sympathy and in the grand scheme of blindness/visual impairment, my keratoconus is just a nuisance. It’s manageable  and thanks to all those wonderful people who studied at school, I can see just fine for part of the day.  Just before the spring break my school ran an Accessibility Summit conference for STEM. There were a couple blind speakers there.  White cane and braille blind. Full-time blind. I don’t want to take anything away from the attention and help they or anybody else needs. But when I was talking to those speakers at the summit, they actually mentioned something about keratoconus I had largely ignored.  It’s painful. Very painful. Scattered light in the eye hurts. Bright lights – especially LED lighting – is painful. I hate them. That’s why at a conference you’ll sometimes see me wearing the dark sunglasses indoors.  And along those lines, shiny surfaces and glare are not pleasant things. I hate them too.  Keratoconus is one of those rare visual impairments where the problem is too much light, not darkness.

So what the heck does all this have to do with the cruise?  A lot. The beginning of the trip was inauspicious. Wind in the jetway boarding the plane to Miami had my wife leading me by the hand with tightly closed eyes. It was an omen. Bright spring, tropical sunlight and more wind at the port boarding the ship had me really struggling.  ship atrium with shiny surfaces everywhere, even staircasesThen we got on board the ship.  It was a relatively new, less than year old, ship. And like most newer cruise ships, it has big open, multi-story spaces inside. The designer on this ship overdosed on shiny surfaces and bright LED lights.  Oh my god. I don’t think you could design a worse environment for keratoconus.  Glare. Bright lights bouncing off everything and everywhere. And the eyes and lens were drying out. I couldn’t keep my tears flowing right, even with frequent use of the eye drops.

I learned a lesson that first night. I’m sure I’ve experienced it before, but this time I was conscious of what was happening. The lights, the glare, the winds (even indoor), are a lot of work. There’s a lot of cognitive monitoring of my eyes and my lenses – how do they feel?  Are they floating? Should I add drops? Should I look away? Which of the 3 pairs of glasses/shades should I wear to protect them?  Cognitive load. Work. It wasn’t leaving much energy or brain left for anything else. So I became really sensitive to the loud speakers and audio systems. It seemed louder. It was overload. I didn’t want to hear anything or listen to anyone. My brain was working too hard just on seeing and sorting out all the glare and multiple visions. I craved quiet. But of course, it’s first night on a ship for 5000 people who are craving fun, party, and escape. And there’s a capitalist cruise line craving those cruisers’ cash for drinks and gambling.  I was so exhausted by the time I got to the cabin that night I just wanted to cry.  I thought my adrenaline and cortisol levels would never drop that night.

Lesson: People who deal with disabilities are working really hard all the time. You can’t see it from the outside. They may not recognize it themselves. It’s just the normal world to them. As teachers, we need to remember this. Dealing with a disability, even when it’s going well, can still be a heck of a cognitive load and make it harder to learn other things with other stimulation.. Be patient. Be supportive. They’re not weaker than you. They’re stronger and dealing with more.

The state room brought it’s own lesson. Visually it was better than common areas on the ship.  But it still had all LED lighting. The balcony was lovely. Beautiful. No bright lights. A beautiful ocean. But it also had wind. I forgot, we were moving at 20 mph. There’s wind. Duh.

In the state room I could take the lenses out. Ahhh!  Relief. Rest for the corneas. But then a new lesson. I’m so accustomed to just doing things at home without lenses in. I spend a couple hours in the evening and early morning at home without them. Of course, when I get up in the middle of the night for biological needs, I don’t have them in.  I never really realized till this trip how much I rely on memory and muscle motor memory to navigate my own house. I just know where everything is. I know where to step without seeing it or thinking about it – at home.  This was a really cramped and different and strange environment. Just going to the bathroom in the middle of the night was quite an adventure – a reminder how limited I can be.  By the end of the week, I was just fine. I had learned some kind of muscle-level or unconscious familiarity with the room.

Lesson: Disability isn’t in the person. Accessibility and ability is about a specific person with a specific environment and task. I’m not like all blind people. In some environments, like my home at night, I can function as well (better?) as any sighted person, but a new environment takes time and produces anxiety.

me and my wife standing on brightly lit open stairs dressed in 1920's garbThe next couple of days I got better at handling and avoiding the glare and shiny surfaces. I learned to just wear sunglasses or glare-blockers inside. I started to get comfortable with the room.  We even had a lot of fun at a 20’s themed “Gatsby” party one evening despite taking photos on the worst who-in-God’s-name-thought-of-putting-bright-lights-on-open-steps nightmare of a staircase.  I know I probably have some karma to work off  for the thoughts I had that evening for the designer of that staircase.

However, while I was calming down the lenses weren’t. They were getting harder to put in and drying out quicker. They wouldn’t float right. I was struggling to avoid wind because I so enjoyed being outside on a deck and watching the water while trying to read.  (imagine a guy with contact lenses, sunglasses, and reading glasses over top of the sunglasses with a hat brim pulled down low to cut the sunlight).

Finally, first thing Wednesday morning, I had to face reality. I put the lenses in and couldn’t handle it. They lost the float immediately. The glare was awful. I’ve had it this bad before. I realized I must have done a minor scrape to the cornea of my left. The right wasn’t behaving much better. There is only one thing to do in the event of an abrasion. No lenses.  I was crushed. We  were pulling into port in St.Maarten that day. I’d never been there. It was the one port I was really looking forward to seeing.

I’ve had serious abrasions and even a cut on the cornea before. It’s a risk with these lenses. Those little pieces of plastic have sharp edges. They’re floating or supposed to. Abrasions make the keratoconus worse.  Light really scatters and it’s even more painful. But there’s no choice. Corneas are amazing at healing themselves, but it takes going without lenses, without seeing clearly.  I remember when I had to go a week without them 2 years ago. I was too scared to leave the house. Nothing felt safe.

So the lenses came out. We headed down to breakfast in the buffet, my lovely and patient wife leading me. It’s chaos at breakfast of course.  Hundreds of hungry people anxious to fill their plates at an open buffet.  Fortunately for me, I’d already been to this buffet for four days, so I had some idea of the lay of the land. No bumps in the floor to worry about stumbling over except when going outside on the deck. I knew the general layout. I knew generally what foods were where. Also fortunately the food was fantastic and thus worth the work.

Again,  I learned things. With keratoconus, I can’t see facial details. I can’t even see faces. I can just tell there’s a big human-ish blob near my left side until it’s right in my face.  That means I can’t pick up the subtle cues that people give off about movement. With my lenses I’d probably unconsciously see your eyes flit to your left and take that as cue to step to my left and avoid a possible collision.  Without the lenses, I just tended to stand there waiting while everybody buzzed around this big guy imitating a tree. It took awhile to fill my plate.  I also learned that when I can’t see people clearly, my sense of personal space gets bigger. I felt much more crowded than when I could see. I wonder if other visually impaired folk or people with other types of disability experience that too. Maybe they don’t know.  I’m kind of weird in that I’m sometimes blind and sometimes not. I can make the comparison.

One thing I remember from that breakfast was the sensitivity of one of the crew. I got briefly separated from my wife. I was carrying a plate and knew roughly where I needed to go. I was walking slowly, hesitantly, and with a hand out. One of the ship’s crew – the ones with an all-white uniform – was walking by, saw me, and stopped and politely asked if I wanted help.  I didn’t really need help at that moment. But I remember how incredibly good it felt to know that somebody noticed me and cared enough to ask.  I’ve tried to do that myself of course, but now I really know that I need to pay attention.

Lesson:  Pay attention. When you see people that might need or want assistance, ask them. Give them the agency. Even if they don’t need it, it feels good to be recognized and respected.

selfie picture with eye  patch, sunglasses, and tropical hat

A different kind of pirate visits St. Maarten.

We successfully navigated breakfast and made the decision to go for it. We got off the boat. We went into Phillipsburg, St. Maarten. Just getting off the boat was a small adventure. Lower decks. Gangplanks. Strange place to walk on the docks. But then we had to take a water taxi from the cruise ship docks to “downtown” Phillipsburg. Crowds. Stepping off a dock and down across a gap into a moving, floating water taxi. I have no idea which of those 8 sides of the boat I see is the real one and which ones are illusions leading to water.  The crowds are impatient and I can sense my wife getting defensive about protecting me. We did it, though. It was beautiful.  I could feel the air. Smell the water. Hear the music. I loved it.

Thanks:  To the guys who run the water taxi in Phillipsburg, St. Maarten.  Thank you. Thank you more than you know. Getting on and off the boat was challenging and intimidating, Yes, I was scared. But you two guys just sensed I needed help, gently grabbed my arms, steadied me, and wouldn’t let me put a foot wrong. Somehow you managed to do that so smoothly while exuding a sense of genuine welcome and respect. I was touched. That’s how people should treat each other.

We spent a couple hours in Phillipsburg walking around and getting a beverage. I loved it. It’s the most adventurous I’ve ever been without my lenses. Of course we didn’t get very far or see that much. My wife was, as always, fantastic. Led me by the hand on those uneven streets and sidewalks. ” 3 inch curb now, broken bricks, gap in bricks with dirt, inch down now, …” I want to go back and I want to see other eastern Caribbean islands now.  I want to climb the mountains and hills.

By Thursday evening, the eyes had healed up. I was able to put lenses in for a few hours in the evening for the “elegant formal night” affair (it’s really just adult dress-up party!). We found a quieter, less noisy, and darker lounge with a jazz quartet and had a lovely time.

The rest of the trip was largely uneventful vision wise. The eyes and lenses cooperated. I got some rest. I saw a wonderful museum in Nassau. I sat on the beach. I read on the balcony. I watched the water. And I reflected on how fortunate I am.  My eye doctors. Unknown engineers. My friends. Guys on water taxis. My wife.  They all enable my accessibility and accommodation. Accessibility and accommodation is love. It’s recognizing and connecting with your fellow humans. I got to experience that love.

rain drops on a balcony railing with ocean in background

“Only love can bring the rain
That makes you yearn to the sky
Only love can bring the rain
That falls like tears from on high”
(The Who)

 

That’s No Plagiarism Checker

I finally went on spring break as in “I actually got away from work and stuff”.  We took our first cruise.  For a social and institutional economist with a critical bent that just loves to observe people and capitalism in the wild, let’s just say that a cruise offers a target rich environment.  I’ll have more on that in some other post yet to be written.  But what I did want to comment on was the news last week in the edtech sector.

Last week Advance  acquired Turnitin, the notorious stealer of student intellectual property doing business under the guise of offering “plagiarism checking” services. Turnitin also has some other related businesses such an auto-grading service, etc.  The price was apparently $1.75 billion dollars.  That’s billion with a b.

I’m not here to talk about how awful the pedagogy of mistrusting all students is or how it’s immoral and unethical to steal/coerce student’s copyrights away from them.  These are all horrid aspects of Turnitin and among the reasons why I’ve always, for over a decade, opposed and fought against use of it at my school.  I’m not here to talk about those aspects because people much more knowledgeable than I have been saying that a lot – people like Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris.  And the sale announcement last week has brought a lot of faculty and teacher anger out in public about the sale.

What I want to talk about is the numbers on this deal (I am an economist, after all).  $1.75 billion for this company. That’s a pretty hefty valuation. Especially for a company that really isn’t that big and hasn’t been a huge growth tear.  Yes, it’s been growing and the core product/service probably has a lot of room to expand internationally. But from what I can tell on the Interwebs, Turnitin probably has annual revenue in the $127.7 million range. That’s million with a m.  1.75 B to buy an annual 127.7 M. That means Advance is paying approximately 14 times annual revenue to buy it.  Valuation of a company as a multiple of the annual revenue is common way in finance of comparing whether a deal is highly valued or cheaply valued,  especially for technology companies and startups.  Turnitin isn’t exactly a startup – it was founded circa 1998, but it’s still a “tech” company.  For a tech company 14 x revenue isn’t out of range, but it’s not cheap either. Tech companies, especially ones that are expected to grow fast don’t usually have strong current earnings (profits), so revenues times a multiplier is used to estimate value.  So what this valuation tells us is that Advance expects Turnitin to produce some very significant growth – probably much faster than Turnitin has achieved so far in it’s 20 year life.

And that’s what scares me. Advance isn’t really just a “family-owned company” as some reports have it.  Yes, the ownership of Advance is private and dominated by descendants of Newhouse family (think newspaper publishers). But “family-owned” sounds warm and fuzzy like the diner down the street where you get breakfast.  Advance is a serious technology, publishing, and communications conglomerate. And they’ve got ambitions. And they’re serious with their money.  They think like venture investors. If they invest $1.75 billion, they’ll expect to turn it into $100 billion or more. That’s the game.

Even if they had modest ambitions and only wanted to turn Turnitin into (read those last three words again just for fun)  a modest 10 or 20 billion dollar company, they have to do something big and different. Turnitin isn’t getting to that range on it’s own by doing what they currently do: call students cheats and check for plagiarism.

So how does Advance expect to get it’s money back multiple times?  I don’t know. They didn’t share their thoughts with me.  But they did share them The Chronicle:

Chris Caren, chief executive of Turnitin, said the company’s next step is to become a platform for colleges and high schools to submit all types of student assignments, digital or on paper. It would then use AI to help instructors review that work to, among other things, spot at-risk students and devise remediation plans. The company is also developing Turnitin’s software to branch out into the STEM fields and detect plagiarism in coding, for example. In other words, it hopes to become a one-stop shop for all sorts of tech-driven teaching services.

Advance, which owns companies like Condé Nast, has recently begun investing in data and analytics companies, said Janine Shelffo, Advance’s chief strategy and development officer. Turnitin’s strong market presence and its advanced technologies, said Shelffo, make Turnitin a valuable investment. “There’s a whole road map where we can see where tech innovation will increasingly power personalized learning and enhance outcomes for all students.”

It’s time we connect the dots, folks.  Advance isn’t just a newspaper publisher. They’re  adept at cookies, tracking of readers on the web, and data collection just as Facebook and Google are.  They publish online magazines (Conde Nast, hello?). They publish Reddit and Arstechnica and other sites. They also have very capable big data analysis capabilities (1010data) that “transforms Big Data into smart insights to create the High-Definition Enterprise that can anticipate and respond to change” for 850 large companies.

In the Chronicle article, Sean Michael Morris rightly observes that Advance/Turnitin could develop profiles of students using their data and monetize that via marketing and advertising.  That’s true but I think we’re missing the mark. We’re being distracted by the fact the big two of early surveillance capitalism, Facebook and Google, have monetized their vast troves of surveillance data by using it to sell advertising. Rule of thumb in business strategy:  there’s only room for 2-3 big monsters in any particular big industry.  I don’t think Advance/Turnitin will go that way.

I think it will be worse. They’re already pushing automated-grading systems and student “feedback” systems.  There’s no technological difference between a system that checks a student’s written posting or submission for plagiarism against a database of collected writings and a system that checks those same posts/submissions against a database of “approved” thoughts and phrases. In a way, isn’t that what grading is anyway? Advance/Turnitin can easily morph into the thought police.

But can thought policing be monetized?  You bet. First, any nation that thinks a social credit system for controlling ordinary behaviors like jay-walking is a good idea, will love the idea of policing thoughts and utterances. That will be worth a pretty penny. Let’s suppose that social credit would never take off in the US or Western Europe (an assumption I am loath to make).  Many, many institutions of higher education will jump at such a system.  It’s just an extension of grading – until the database of vetoed utterances, ideas, or word strings is expanded to include controversial ideas.  Are you going to tell me there aren’t some religious based schools that would buy a system that automatically rejects papers or forum postings that suggest abortion is acceptable? Of course, the system won’t just “reject”, it will provide “feedback”.  Those controversial ideas can be handled automatically and merged with the “inclusive” repository of acceptable learning materials (free!) which is also, ironically, the exclusive source of learning materials.

picture of Star Wars deathstar with caption "that's no plagiarism checker, that's a teaching death star"For profit colleges will love the systems since they’ ll allow further cutbacks on faculty. Replacing labor with capital investment is one the oldest tricks in the capitalist toolchest. And, those colleges will get automated stats and data “proving” their students learned!  Not only were the students’ papers “correct” but everything they’ve said on Reddit and other social forums since has conformed to the acceptable.

Forget social credit. We’ve got the possible (probable?) platform for thought control scoring.

By all means let’s complain, scream, and object to the abuses of the Turnitin plagiarism model. But let’s keep our eyes open for the next big data thing.  That’s no plagiarism checker.  That’s the teaching death star.

 

Literacies not Content

Note: This post is part of the LCC Literacy and Education Faculty Learning Community discussions.

A lightbulb going on to represent an

I just had an A-HA! moment.  We’ve been talking about literacies – plural, vernacular and formal, and learning.  Leslie’s been telling me “literacy IS learning” and that’s been stuck in my brain for a couple of weeks now and I’m beginning to see how indeed, it is.  There’s an HVAC literacy that some of our tech careers students acquire. When they learn their tech field they become HVAC-literate.  So now I’m trying to think in terms of my students becoming economics-literate and what does that mean, and what other literacies do they need to know to become economics-literate?  Algebra literacy? Rational choice literacy? ??

That then lead me to ask “do we acquire literacy or do we become literate?”  Which is when a light  bulb went off:  a huge, huge problem in teaching and higher ed is the prevalence of “content transfer thinking”.  We think and talk about courses and learning with this embedded notion of transferring knowledge to the student. The teacher knows and transfers that knowledge to the student. We think the materials and layout in the LMS or textbook *is* the course. It’s not. The course is an activity and experience. The  course is an act of learning which means it’s a becoming for the student. If we think of learning not as “acquiring knowledge” but rather think of all learning as “becoming literate in/at something” then it becomes apparent how stupid the transfer model is.  You can’t “transfer a literacy”.  You can only facilitate ” becoming literate”.

Feedback on Feedback

Note: This post is my reactions to the assigned readings in the LCC Literacy and Education Faculty Learning Community this week.

I’ve got more I’ll write and probably post tomorrow that’s been triggered by this week’s batch of readings. But in the meantime, I discovered this great tweet and thread by Kera Lovell (a history professor).  It’s the whole thread with the images that’s the magic so be sure to click on the link in the tweet.

It’s got a lot of what we’re reading. Fast and slow rhetorics. Teaching composition. Giving feedback. Different media for composing.  I love it.  And it gives me some ideas I just might try in class.

Orality, Literacy, and the Education Commons

Note: This post is my reactions to the assigned readings in the LCC Literacy and Education Faculty Learning Community this week.

I’ve always felt myself a stranger in a strange land academically. I’ve been intimidated by the thought of academic writing. Writing is so, so central to academia and I’ve thought or seen myself as writer. I never had a college-level comp course unless you count “Business Writing”. I placed out of college comp and I largely skipped all my senior year English classes in high school.   The Econ Masters thesis was 6 years in gestation. The dissertation? Started 3 of them and, well, we’re still waiting.

The irony is I have a BA in Speech & Rhetoric. I won a prize in grad school for best economic writing (yes, I realize that can be considered an oxymoron). The key here is that I wasn’t writing. Not in my mind. I was speaking. Years of college speech & debate and decades of presentations & meetings taught me to make speeches. My rhetoric studies were in a Speech department, not an English or Composition department. Everything I’ve written is largely a speech  I hear myself making. It’s all oral rhetoric. I can talk. Podiums, meetings, seminars, and the TV camera are my comfort zone.  Keyboard or pen? Not so much.

animated minions clapping excitedlySo when I saw that our first two readings in this “literacy” FLC were both about orality, I got excited – fist-pumping excited. Speaking. Listening. Oral. Now we’re talking. Literally.

Barton and Hamilton refer to the tyranny of writing over orality in the academy. They recount how the study of rhetoric, dating back to ancient Greece,  started with the oral tradition but the necessity for written artifacts (texts) to facilitate the study of rhetorics led to a domination of the written text over the oral:

The impression grew that, apart from the oration (governed by written rhetorical rules), oral art forms were essentially unskillful and not worth serious study.

Reading this, I was reminded of the story of the growth and emergence of higher education I read earlier this summer. Lowe and Yasuhara document extensively how in multiple ancient civilizations, the library, a massive collection of written texts, was the seed around which centers of higher learning grew. These library collections of texts attracted scholars. The scholars taught and learned from each other using the texts. Eventually, centuries later these collections of scholars centered by the library of texts became universities and colleges.

I’ve presented and written about how this academic, scholarly tradition is effectively a commons.  What’s relevant for this discussion about higher education as a commons is that the core activity of higher ed, teaching and learning, is primarily oral.  We prefer oral. We teach face-to-face. Seminars and conferences are built on dialogue, the oral. Even when we teach online, we add video orality and discussion forums.  As academics, we love the oral back-and-forth. We naturally gravitate to the oral tradition for teaching and learning.

Yet we also write and read. The necessity of producing the “artifacts” of learning, the texts, articles, and books that document our learning for future generations, perpetuates the “library”, the corpus of scholarly texts.  There is, or should be, a virtuous spiral here. We engage the texts by discussing, talking, presenting, and arguing. Then we write what we learn, adding to the corpus for future learners. We pad the shoulders of giants with writings for future learners to see further.

Barton and Hamilton cast written literacy as a tyrant. Ong observes

socially powerful institutions, such as education, tend to support dominant literary practices. These dominant practices can be seen as part of …institutionalized configurations of power…

I see this happening in higher education today. The curriculum is no longer what is taught and learned, the course of learning. It is a document, a written text, a “master syllabus”, a set of standardized “learning outcomes” to be measured and recorded. The “course” is no longer what a professor does in class, or what students do, or what activities they perform. The “course” is now a set of files and documents contained in a “Learning Management System”. Pedagogy, of course, being the dialectic between teacher and student is primarily oral. The literacy practice of written curriculum and textbooks ascends and pedagogy recedes

This domination of the written in the curriculum serves the purposes of the capitalist and the market. The market and the capitalist in particular is the enemy of the commons. The logic of the market commoditizes and standardizes everything. It is about things, goods and resources, not doings, like people and activities. Texts can be commoditized. Oral tradition less so.

I am excited to see where this faculty learning community takes not only me, but us. After all, it’s all about the dialogue to me.

References

Barton, David and Mary Hamilton (2000). Chapter 1:Literacy Practices. In Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context (pp 7-15) Available at: http://e503.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/2/3/8623935/situated_literacies_-_ch._1.pdf

Lowe, Roy and Yoshihito Yasuhara, (2017) The Origins of Higher Learning Routledge: Taylor and Francis. https://www.routledge.com/The-Origins-of-Higher-Learning-Knowledge-networks-and-the-early-development/Lowe-Yasuhara/p/book/9781138844834

Ong, W. J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and literacy(pp. 5–15). Retrieved from https://lcc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lfh&AN=17442153&site=ehost-live

Goals, A Non-News Announcement, and Preview of 2019

So this is just a self-indulgent note to my readers as to what to expect this year. Looking over the stats I see I didn’t achieve last year’s Don’t Call It A Resolution.  Twenty-some posts is way more than I thought I had done last year. A few were good ones of which I’m proud. But many were just posting slides from presentations and there were way too many good-topic posts started and then left to whither in the drafts folder.

Goals:  Write More, duh

So this year, I’m attempting to write more – again.  Only this time I’m making some in-person group commitments that should force the issue.  One implication is that I’m likely to jump around from topic to topic a lot more this year.  It may be economics of money creation one day and critical pedagogy the next, all followed by ramblings about the commons or accessibility and out-of-league mumblings about literacy.

The Announcement: Open Learning Faculty Fellow

It’s really kind of non-news event since I’ve already let many of my friends know, but as of last fall I’m now the “Open Learning Faculty Fellow” in my school’s Center for Teaching Excellence. It’s a 1/2 time appointment, so I’ll still be teaching a 1/2 load. Basically, I’ll be continuing the Open Learning Lab, our name for our Domains of One’s Own effort.  I’ve been doing this for 3 years but it’s all been “experimental” and tentative – meaning semester-to-semester. The school I teach at has finally committed to “institutionalize” this experimental effort and locate it in our Center for Teaching Excellence.  Doing a DoOO at a community college has been a, um, “learning experience”.  In some ways, it’s been chaos for 3 years, but I think we’re finally breaking the code on how to do it in a 2 year school with limited funds and over-loaded faculty.  I’m really excited about this new position and the opportunities it provides.  It’s going to bring additional work, though. Not only do I have the Open Learning & DoOO stuff now, but I’m also getting involved in redesign of what amounts to critical pedagogy/inclusion development efforts and our UDL/accessibility initiatives. Good stuff, but lots of work. I hope writing about it will help me and maybe I can help somebody else by documenting my mistakes (how else do we learn?).

Preview: The Topics for 2019

One of the barriers to my writing more in the past has been my insistence that a post be some kind of fully thought out argument – conclusions, not in-process thinking. That usually led to loooong posts, few and far between. I’m going to see in 2019 if this old dog can learn a new trick. I’m going to try to write my thoughts in shorter pieces. They’ll be less complete. They’ll be more a window into what I’m wondering – more wonderings than conclusions. We’ll see if this works.

So among the topics you can expect mixed up in the coming year:

  • Economics – especially macro posts. I’m teaching a face-to-face class again for first time in 4+ years. I want to shake up my previous lecture- and theory-heavy format and spend more time on the rhetoric of economics. That means I’ll need to post current stuff and help students critique it.
  • Literacy and Education – Leslie Johnson (@mtflamingo on the Twitter thing) has organized a hybrid Faculty Learning Community group at LCC this semester. I’m not only supporting the online portion through our Open Learning Lab, but I’ve decided to participate. That means reacting to a lot of readings.  You’ll know those posts from the category /hashtag #literacyflc.
  • Commons and Higher Ed Governance/Policy – I’ve really got the bit in my mouth for researching & studying the concept of higher ed as a  commons.  I talked more about this back in my Shelter post.  The OpenEd18 post on Commons  was only the start. I’ve got a big stack of notes now and Lord willing, I’ll get it in writing this year. My spouse insists it’s the beginning of a book. We’ll see. I know I’ll be updating it at OER19. It’s the passion right now.
  • Accessibility and Critical Pedagogy – These are the high priority initiatives in the CTE, so I’ll be sharing my thoughts as learn. So far, the more I learn, the more I realize how much more I just don’t know.

Conference Hopes:

The conferences I’m planning on attending/presenting – not including the ones we present on campus as part of the CTE:

  • LAND – Michigan Liberal Arts Network for Development for MI community college folks, Feb 6-8. I’ll just be listening.
  • OER19 – Ireland and Galway here we come! Accepted to speak about the Commons and the connections to pedagogy and open.
  • Domains19 – Reclaimhosting is getting the gang together again.  I’ll be there, god willing in June.
  • WPCampus – always a worthwhile WordPress conference in July.  Not sure yet where or when exactly, but I really hope to make it again. It’s become my go-to “wordcamp”.
  • Digital Pedagogy Lab – UMW in August, of course.  I went last year.  I really hope I can repeat, but depends on some issues at the school.

The rest are all just aspirational at the moment. We’ll see.

  • Michigan OER Summit – usually in September at some Michigan CC.
  • Lilly Teaching Conference – Traverse City in October
  • OpenEd19 – Phoenix at end of October. Can’t believe this will be my fifth year. As David Wiley says, I’m old-timer now.
  • OE Global – Milan around Thanksgiving time.  Gee, if I’m really good, maybe Santa comes early and finds a way for me to go to OE Global.  We’ll see….

Response to Mike Caulfield Question

Mike Caulfield on Twitter asks a question today:

There’s more to it. It’s a whole thread.  Rather than respond in what would inevitably be a  long thread myself, I’ll just post my reactions & poorly formed thoughts here. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Simons in decade(s) and all economic “facts” I mention here are really stylized facts or trends.  Enter at your own risk.

Mike asks for example:

No. I don’t think so.  The idea of  industrial production –> scarcity of capital & scarcity of markets doesn’t fit.  Rather, I’d characterize the broad swath as surplus of savings amongst elite –> supply of finance for capital –> capital investment –> industrial production –> greater surplus of savings amongst rich elite –> rinse and repeat.  If anything, we suffer in recent decades from a surplus, not scarcity of capital. Indeed there’s been a fair literature about that in recent times.  Somewhere in that cycle, the supply of finance for capital creates a demand for markets (both capital & final production). I don’t see much evidence that there’s been a shortage of markets, though.  Indeed, the supply of markets seems to be rather elastic and responsive to finance capital’s demand for markets.

I agree with Simons observation but I think it helps to understand the mechanism. Scarcity issues are often driven by either physical constraints (real scarcity) or changes in opportunity costs (relative scarcity).  In the information – attention context he’s talking about it’s both real and relative scarcity.  There’s a real, fixed, unchangeable constraint on attention. Attention necessarily requires time (also other inputs such as cognition, etc). Each human is at maximum only capable of 24 hrs of attention per day. Information, all information, requires some degree of time to process (i.e. “pay attention”), ergo, more information bumps up against fixed constraint. Result: increasing real scarcity.

We can also consider the opportunity cost of paying attention to a piece of information.  Notice we use the term “pay attention” – we’re implicitly doing the trade-off.  As more information exists, the value of our attention rises. When I pay 10 minutes of attention to a particular chunk of info in order to gain the benefit of knowing that info, the opportunity cost is the not-knowing-other-stuff.  When there’s more info, that means there’s a lot more other-stuff–to-not-know.  It gets expensive opportunity cost-wise to learn something in particular.

I’m not sure where your’e going with this, Mike, but one econ phenomenon that might be relevant is the entry of married (middle+upper class) women into the workforce in the mid60’s to mid-80’s. In that period, the rise of feminism and feminist attitudes led to a cultural and values change in the middle and upper classes (in U.S.).  Workforce participation among married women rose from 1 in 4 married women working outside the house for pay to 3 of 4.  That was a big shift. It was a huge increase in supply of married women to labor markets.

That in turn led to much larger numbers of employed women. The opportunity costs of time changed a lot. Their time was now worth a lot more since it could be traded for substantial $ in labor market and previously social/cultural constraints prevented that.  At the time, social/cultural constaints on married men cooking meals for their households hadn’t changed yet (that’s been pretty laggy), so the “responsibility” for meal production in households still largely resided with the married women.  A home cooked, largely from scratch dinner now became very, very expensive opportunity cost wise.  Goodbye home-cooked from scratch meatloaf or fried chicken, and hello McDonalds, KFC, or microwaved factory-prepared food.  Ultimately, this translates into a what appears to be a relative scarcity of home-cooked food from fresh ingredients.

Don’t know if I helped. I fear I only muddied things. But then, that’s what I do. I’m an economist.