Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teaching by doing

I have to be honest: I have never been a big fan of "service learning," when it involves the admixture of academic obligation with pressured volunteerism. In the essay Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and I wrote in What Is College For?, we take a dim view of the way it had displaced civic education rather than embodying it.

But the continuing official commentary on the freshman kindness pledge has reminded me to say that the right way to get students to be more kind is to model kindness ourselves, to honor those who are kind, and to keep putting good models before them. Less talk, please, about how the exercise of pledge-signing was "hijacked" by some unnamed party. Fewer "conversations" about our values, more positive data points from which those we are educating can learn what those values are. Please, not another statement of values (we have one already, one that was the result of lengthy negotiation and editing involving faculty, deans, and the president; has it worked?). Instead, how about some official disapprobation when members of our community dishonor important values.

Consider these examples of simple but deeply educational things people could be doing instead of talking.

I learned today that my other alma mater, the Roxbury Latin School, has organized boys to help give dignified burials for the indigent. A funeral home has made its space available, the School has contributed a van and the time of a teacher, and the boys act as pallbearers. A remote graveyard was located that will accept these burials for the pittance the Commonwealth provides for such purposes.

When I described this to a friend, he told me how his mother, in a local nursing home, gets weekly visits from Harvard students, who are just trying to bring some cheer to the lives of the elderly and surely are not trying to earn any points.

Such examples are all around us, as are failures of kindness that pass without comment. I object to the pledge exercise not because I don't think Harvard should be in the business of promoting kindness and building character more generally, but precisely because I do, and the pledge is a bumper-sticker gesture where modeling the good and objecting to the bad would provide some actual edification.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

D is for Digital

Brian Kernighan's terrific book about computation and communication for the layman is out. It is called D is for Digital and is a bargain at $14.95. It's modeled on Physics for Future Presidents, and is a worthy analog in the realm of the digital. Brian wrote most of it while he was on sabbatical at Harvard last year so I had the privilege of reading drafts, and it is everything I would expect from him -- clear, funny, thoughtful, and containing quite a few profound analytical insights that enlighten the pro as well as the casual observer.

Available from Amazon.

The Internet as the Garden of Earthly Delights

Just out is a collection of essays based on lectures in Harvard General Education courses. It's called The Harvard Sampler: Liberal Education in the Twenty-First Century. As originally conceived, it was a collection of last lectures in these courses, but that turned out to be rather tasteless given that there was a best-selling book about a professor's actual last lecture in life.
So instead I and a number of other far more luminous Harvard professors were invited to write up whatever we wanted based on the themes of our Gen Ed courses. I wrote up what was, in fact, my last lecture in Bits, a course that has since gone to its just rewards. The essay is called: "The Internet and Hieronymus Bosch: Fear, Protection, and Liberty in Cyberspace." It is based on the metaphor that the Internet as we know it today is not the hell that we sometimes are told that it is, particularly when we are trying to protect our children, a place where nothing is trustworthy and demons lurk around every corner. But it has also freed us from the Garden of Eden innocence of a world of controlled and restricted knowledge. It is more like the middle panel in the famous Bosch triptych. It is naughty and not everyone's cup of tea and is so alarming that it is probably unsustainable in its present form. And yet it is within our power to decide in what direction it is going to evolve.
Hope you like it! If you don't, the book is still worth buying -- you can read the essays by big guns such as Steve Pinker and Charlie Maier instead!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How not to get your online newspaper off to a good start

I just tried to pull up an article from the Globe. I got a page with the explanation below. If I click the Sign Up link, I am given the opportunity to pay to see the online content.

I get home delivery. As far as I can see, I WILL be able to get online content free, but not until tomorrow, when I am able to "link" my online and paper accounts (which I thought I had already done, but there seems to be no way to log in). If I want to see anything today or tonight, I have to pay. Which of course I won't do, so no way to use the Globe to make the point I had hoped to make.

Whose idea was it for the Globe to treat its most loyal customers that way?

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Monday, October 17, 2011

New Book: What Is College For?

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, former dean at HGSE and now professor at Bard College, included me in  a series of fascinating roundtable discussions about higher education. A number of the participants in that roundtable have written essays about higher education and the collection is being published by Teacher's College Press. The book is entitled What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education. It is now available for pre-ordering from Amazon (click on the title to go to Amazon). Book will not be published for a few more weeks but when it is, the paperback will be available immediately, for $20.43 from Amazon.

The lead essay is by Ellen and me, and it is on the subject of civic education (something I wrote about in my contribution to another recently published edited volume, Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education). I really like our essay; it presents an interesting historical analysis of civic education, going all the way back to the Massachusetts Constitution and before, and all the way up to the present day. Instead of moaning it makes some concrete proposals, grounded in our analysis of the realities.

The other essays are also worth reading, of course! Here is the full set of author bios.

Paul Attewell is a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests focus on issues of education and social inequality. His most recent book (coauthored with David Lavin) is entitled Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? He has also published about the effects of remedial coursework on college students and on the impact of requiring a more de- manding high school curriculum upon college success. His current research examines the causes behind high dropout rates among college students. 
Elaine Tuttle Hansen served as president of Bates College from 2002 until 2011, and is now executive director of the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. Previously she was professor of English and provost at Haverford College and authored three books: The Solomon Complex: Reading Wisdom in Old English Poetry, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, and Mother Without Child: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crisis of Motherhood. 
Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is the Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College, a Senior Scholar at the Levy Economics Institute, and a senior fel- low at the Bard Prison Initiative. She has served as the Charles Warren Pro- fessor of the History of American Education at Harvard University and as dean of the Graduate School of Education there, as well as president of the Spencer Foundation. She is the author of many books and articles, includ- ing An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research (2000), and chaired the National Research Council committee that produced Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy (2010). 
David E. Lavin is professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and also at Lehman College. He is author and co- author of several books, including Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations (with Paul Attewell), Changing the Odds: Open Admissions and the Life Chances of the Disadvantaged (coauthor), and Right Versus Privilege: The Open Admissions Experiment at the City University of New York (coauthor).

Harry Lewis is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of Harvard University and is a fac- ulty associate of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He has served as dean of Harvard College and is the author of Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future (2007) and coauthor of Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (2008).
Catharine R. Stimpson is university professor and dean emerita of the Gradu- ate School of Arts and Science at New York University. She is past president of the Modern Language Association and of the Association of Graduate Schools. She has written widely on literature, women and gender, and educa- tion. Her books include Where the Meanings Are and Class Notes, and she was the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
William M. Sullivan is senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Ad- vancement of Teaching, where he has directed studies of professional educa- tion in law, engineering, preparation of the clergy, nurses, and doctors as well as research on liberal education for undergraduate business students. He has authored or coauthored a number of books in these areas, including Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America, 2nd edition, 2005
Douglas Taylor is professor and chair of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. He is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in how conflict and cooperation arise and are resolved in the natural world. He has published more than 50 scientific papers on these and related topics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Enthusiastic Consent

In 2006, in Excellence Without a Soul, I noted that the first "Take Back the Night" rally at Harvard took place in 1980. I continued,

From this point on, the issue of rape flared up on a schedule approximating the four-year cycle of college generations—sometimes emerging after three years in the background, sometimes after five, but not every year. Different circumstances bring the issue to the fore in different years, and each time the college community starts from a different place in responding.
Right on schedule,  it's back. According to the Crimson, the University "recently appointed student representatives to a special committee to review the sexual misconduct policies of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response." I am not quite sure what to make of that sentence. Quite possibly I missed the announcement and news reporting on the creation of the committee, but this is the first I have seen of it in either Harvard announcements or the student press. In any case, I seriously doubt that it is the OSAPR itself that creates sexual misconduct policies, de jure anyway (I thought it was the Faculty). Be that as it may, the revival of the "what's rape?" issue seems to be due to the series ("slew," in the Crimson's scrupulously objective journalese) of Title IX complaints against universities, including the Harvard Law School.

The article itself is about a delay in consulting students. But what is rather arresting, if you will pardon the expression, is this passage in the reporting. Instead of the legal definition of rape--sex is rape only when the victim refuses or is incapable of refusing--one of the students

… said that she and other students on the committee hoped to push the University instead toward an “enthusiastic consent” model, in which an incident can be called rape in the absence of affirmative agreement.
“The only people who lose out in this model are the rapists,” said [another student], who had also intended to serve on the committee.
[The first student] said that she plans to discuss the stay on student involvement with Rankin, but she might eventually consider leading a “student protest” or “something more radical” than acting through administration-approved channels if she feels that student voices on this issue are not being heard.
The question of sex with a partner who was agreeable but not eager sounds like a chapter in a book about improving your marriage, not a standard for prosecution of a crime. But the change would definitely have the effect of increasing the conviction rate. One is reminded of Humpty Dumpty: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." The student is correct: If rape is redefined to mean sex with consenting but unenthusiastic partners, the "rapists" will, by definition, be the losers. Only that category will be rather broader than it used to be. 

I am sorry to see this no-win issue coming around again, and sorry that it seems to be getting off to a bad start, with threats of radical action before the committee has even begun its work.

Sorry, but not surprised.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In Those Days There Were Giants in the Earth

Dennis Ritchie has died. Ritchie bears more personal responsibility than any one else for C and Unix, and hence for their many derivatives. The world would be a VERY different place had he not created these things.

His passing also makes me remember the days when one or two people could change the computer world. Some may argue that is still the case, but I am not so sure. Too much legacy code now. It is harder to take a clean sheet of paper and start over, as Ritchie did.

I love James Grimmelmann's tweet: "Ritchie's influence rivals Jobs's; it's just less visible. His pointer has been cast to void *; his process has terminated with exit code 0." 

(Harvard folks will remember James as a summa undergrad in CS who TF'ed CS 121 three times, having taken it as a freshman, and wrote his senior thesis on quantum computing. Internet lawyers know him as a professor at NY Law School who is the expert on the Google Books copyright case.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A bit of nuance on Steve Jobs

I think the canonization of Steve Jobs is getting a little tiresome.

I actually thought that within a day of his death, but restrained myself out of respect. De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

The statute of limitations having now run out, I'd like to add a few words.

First on the plus side. Jobs was a design genius. His resolute insistence on simplicity and cleanliness wasn't a new thing in technology, but it was a new thing in computer technology. The over-complication of Microsoft software created a huge target to shoot at, but Jobs did not stop at being better. He really did have a genius for reducing things to their intuitive essentials and not accepting anything less.

So of all the tributes, I like Ross Douthat's in today's NYT the best. Nobody would have said that a computer was beautiful before Apple products. The all-white IBM Charlie Chaplin ads tried to make you think that PCs were beautiful, but they weren't.

And one of Jobs's greatest successes has not gotten a lot of press: The iTunes business model. He jerked the music industry into the Internet age and found a way for everyone to make money by selling singles for $.99. That was a stunning development given the rigid conservatism of the music industry's selling-plastic business model. (But see Dan Gillmor for appropriate reservations where this success is taking us.)

Having said all that, I would add three reservations.

First, Jobs was not a technological innovator in any significant sense. As has been told many times (though not often in the past week), the snappy, intuitive Mac interface was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Jobs oversaw the process of squeezing it down to fit in a box with 128K of memory and no hard drive. Those first Macs barely ran, but they got the ball rolling. There are many other examples. I toured the Mac assembly line in early 1984 -- the manufacturing technology was Japanese and had never been used in the US the way Apple was using it.

So part of Jobs's genius was recognizing the potential in other people's inventions, and executing the consolidation and integration of those developments. Of course, this is not really a negative. The world is full of examples of inventions that changed the world due to the genius of the executor, not the inventor. (Think Facebook.)

Second, Jobs's uncompromising insistence on simplicity sometimes got the better of him. When the Mac was designed, it was a courageous decision to insist on a one-button mouse. That was the source of some ridicule at the time (as well as some admiration). PCs already had two-button mice and there were experiments with 3-button mice. In this case the insistence on simplicity was right. But Jobs also insisted on a keyboard with no function keys. That pretty much cost Apple the business market, because Excel users needed function keys. I felt sorry for the true-believing Apple salespeople trying to sell Macintoshes into the workplace. Except for graphic design, it was a non-starter. So in this instance at least, the refusal to compromise was short-sighted. The course of computer history would have been different if Jobs had put function keys on the early Mac keyboards.

And finally, I am glad to learn that Jobs was a good family man, but he wasn't always a nice person to the people who worked for him and who challenged his absolute authority. Perhaps some of those people have already written about their experiences or will do so shortly. And even with family members, it wasn't always all love all the time--for years he refused even to acknowledge his first child.

Perhaps I am being churlish to note any of these things, but as Tom Lehrer said, if you don't like my song, you should never have let me begin!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Two Extremely Powerful Op-Eds about Copyright

Both by Lewis Hyde, relevant to a case being argued before the Supreme Court today: the Constitutionality of the US law restoring copyright to foreign works that had fallen into the public domain. The citations from American history and the examples of copyright abuse are breathtaking.

The Genius of Free Governments
Hold the Line: Stop Copyright Rendition!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The explosion wreaks more destruction

The Globe Corner Bookstore is dead as a physical bookstore anyway. If I remember correctly Harvard gave it some preferred treatment as other book emporia (including the Harvard University Press store) closed. But it just couldn't last.

In other news, I was interested to see that the "Fleeting Expletives" case, FCC v. Fox, is back on the Supreme Court docket. The last time around, in 2009, the Court upheld the FCC's censorship rights on somewhat technical grounds but noted that the case might come back on pure First Amendment grounds. That is what is happening. This is not a standard liberal-conservative-Kenney split. Justice Thomas signaled in his independent decision two years ago that he might switch over to Fox's side if the only issue were the government's right to censor Cher's televised "Fuck 'em." In essence, the Internet has smashed the uniqueness of the broadcast media, and with so many other ways to get speech out, it is not at all clear that the premises for the government's authority to censor speech on the airways still hold. Fascinating.