Monday, December 16, 2013

Happiness is an idle game

A while ago, I got a request from a journalist. I want to thank him, because he pointed me to something new and interesting, even if I didn't have a good answer to him. What he did was to point me to what so far is called the "Idle game" movement, represented mainly by Cookie Clicker, A Dark Room and Candy Box.

So much for that day - it turned out jet-lag and what I rather want to call "slow reveal" games are a perfect combination. I spent the day clicking back and forth between A Dark Room which soon became a firelit room, Cookie Clicker and Candy Box, revelling in a play experience I didn't know I had missed.

My favourite was A Dark Room, which is probably the reason why I prefer "slow reveal" to "idle". A Dark Room doesn't really let you idle. I have to open that pane regularly to click to gather wood and meat, check if my villagers are sick, build stuff and later go on quests. It has a certain "idle" quality in that once I have clicked a few boxes, I have to wait until resources fill up again, and if I die while questing, I have to wait until I can quest again. But it is not idle in the manner of Cookie Clicker and Candy Box. Right now I am waiting for 379,562,151,938,677 cookies, so I can buy another antimatter converter and make more cookies. I am aiming for 100 antimatter condensers (for now), and the main work I have to do is to wait. To give you an example, while writing the paragraph above, I built a house, three traps and a workshop in A Dark Room, I ate 647 candies in Candy Box (in one click), and waited through another few billions of cookies in Cookie Clicker.

So what are these games? My first immediate thought was Ian Bogost's infamous Cow Clicker. Cow Clicker was designed as a casual game parody, and was quite good at it. So good actually, that people refused to give it up. When Bogost took the cows out of the game, people clicked on the empty box, and wrote about the emptiness of a life without the mooing sound of the virtual cows in the non-game. (Btw - there I hit 379 562 billion and something, and could buy another antimatter condenser.) Like Cow Clicker all the games are highly playful and ironic, and they play with genres as well as with their own progress: layers of meta on top of actual, functional game engines.

Unlike Cow Clicker, they play with much more than one genre. All games are to a certain degree resource allocation games. Cookie clicker is definitely one, where the main goal of the game is to gain resources. It is also about gamification, as what you do is wait for the resources to build up, gain achievements and register progress. There is no risk - even the wrinklers, the monsters that eat at the cookie world, don't really delay the progress that much. I can miss clicking on the occasional golden cookie, but - well - perhaps it's me, but that doesn't feel all that risky.

Candy Box has more action. The candy box part at the beginning feels like Cookie Clicker in that it just allows a very few acts, but in this case, you don't have to click. All you need to do is wait, and while you wait you gain candies. Then you eat some or throw some away or save some, and you wait some more. After a lot of waiting (we see where the "idle" comes from), it's possible to play, and slowly, as you gain more and more resources (candy and lollipops), you can start exploring. This is where the game changes to a more regular old-fashioned adventure, with action! Candies can be used to by gear and upgrades, and by and by you can start outfitting your little avatar and go on adventures all the way to hell. This game even lets you learn how to craft, and crafting is a vital part of making it through the levels.

A Dark Room is my favourite though, with it's almost poetic minimalist beginning, and the explorations into a world that is slowly revealed to the player. This too includes a lot of waiting, but now there is a risk to waiting. My first settlers were deeply troubled by raids, and their traps were constantly ruined, forcing me to rebuild over and over again, for instance. The exploration part of the game was a little slow-reveal game within, as the map was totally unexplored until I started to walk into it - and so I died and died and died again. The game had four phases, one which was just waking up and waiting, one was allocating the initial resources, one was exploring the landscape, and then there is the space flight.

Slow reveal games are perhaps the essence of adventure games, at least Candy Box and A Dark Room. At the same time they are extremely casual, as we don't have to go out and actually do that much of the resource allocation work. No killing of chickens to gather enough feathers for the arrows, no emptying the secret hiding places of every inhabitant in the village for coins. All you need to do is wait, let it run, chck once in a while, when you need to pause anyway, to see how the game progresses. If you're smart, you make a little routine out of it - stretch, check game, back to work. Unlike smoking, it's a casual habit that lets you get out of a rut, take two minutes to reset, without giving you and your environments lung cancer.

And they are not trying to make you spend a lot of money on them. Unlike games like Candy Crush (which I have been playing for a few months now, hardcore mode, which for me means not buying any help), you can just play. The game isn't trying to trick you into anything. It is incredibly liberating after all those casual games on Facebook, where the genius of a small horde of graphic designers is dedicated to making you lust for those micro-transactions.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Work or Play?

Yesterday I caught fractions of an ignite talk here at IR 14.0 in Denver. I say fractions, because ignite talks in English are too quick for me. No matter how much I read, write, speak and listen in English, it is still a second language. Now, give it to me in Norwegian, and I'll be fine, I might even try the genre myself, but...

Anyway, that was a digression. Back to the topic. The talk was given by Jaime Banks (University of Toronto), and was called "Pixel-assassination: Protecting work and play in internet research". So, what did I catch of the stream of words with pictures? She was concerned with how, studying games, her fun became work, and she mixed the two. Mainly, she felt her fun was suffering because she was studying it, and it became work. So she claimed we need to think about how to protect our fun. Then, this morning, colleague Jonas Linderoth's Facebook stream contained a picture of 7 different digital games, with the comment "work or play? That's the question."

Game scholars are not the first with this problem. It has been an issue for literature studies for instance, for ever. Who ruined the humanities, writer Lee Siegel asks in the Wall Street Journal:

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
And still, there are literature professors who love their jobs, and still love literature. Probably even the very professors who did not manage to make the study of it come alive for Lee Siegel. Loving the study doesn't automatically mean you're a great teacher. But it is obviously a problem that by studying your passion can kill your passion.

I don't know how to fix that though, and I don't think my method will work.

After almost 20 years of studying games, I have to admit this problem stumps me, mainly because I love my job as much as I love playing games. Possibly more. Several of my game adventures are just work, and the most fun part of them is the work part. Now that isn't as horrible as it sounds, because that moment when I start seeing how things connect, how a game unravels or a social platform function, how a text is put together and theory unfolds and connects the dots - it feels better than almost anything. I have ignored family, food, health, kittens and sunsets for that sense of being in the flow, in the rush of analysing and understanding. Sadly it's a rush I have to work very, very hard to reach. I have play, to read, to interview, to observe, to discuss and then read a bit more to reach it, to touch that point within when it feels like my brain is using all available capacity on this one thing.

So - ehh - no, I don't find it a problem that my fun suffers for my work. As a matter of fact, my challenge is to find a past-time that is as fun as my work, something which is sufficiently challenging that I don't get depressed from not working. Television puts me to sleep. I have no musical talent. Crafts like knitting works if I can do other things at the same time, so knitting, watching television, chatting with family and analysing the plot of what ever we are watching in a jam of textual analysis (yeah, we do that in our family, media critique is social literacy when we have a cozy evening watching television. And don't ever watch the news with us. You'll hear more about politics, local and global, than you might want to know.). I guess I am the wife and mother of hopeless nerds.

(Now that I read the previous passage again, it looks like I am bragging about our brains. I do want to point out though, that the analysis and the discussions aren't always particularly good. They are often banal and common-place, and loaded with assumptions only a certain methodological rigour and easy access to Google can save us from.)

This way I can take the work-mode into everything. It may make me a horribly boring person for non-digital-media-researchers. But it makes me feel alive. I can sit on top of a mountain, exhausted by the climb, admiring the view, and there I can think about the connectedness of modern man. And no, it doesn't keep me from experiencing the moment, it doesn't disconnect me from the present. Quite the opposite, it connects me to all that I am, body and mind, social and professional. Studying what I love, and loving the study, I feel alive.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Life as a female academic

I just found this list, directed at male academics who want to promote equality in the workplace: Don't be that dude. It's a blogpost on Tenure, she wrote, written by Acclimatrix.

I agree that there's a lot men can do in order to make environments more welcoming for women. I spent 19 years in a male-dominated workplace, and came away from it with very few friends and not a lot of self-respect. I loved a lot of the guys there, but the general environment needed some serious tweaking to make men and women just humans together, rather than humans and women. And I think that is what lists like the one in "Don't be that dude" are supposed to achieve.

I would however feel a lot less human in a culture that followed that list slavishly. Also, the list is extremely culture-biased in what it asks for and what it doesn't ask for. Let's read it from my point of view, a female associate professor in a male-dominated field in Scandinavia:

1: Titles - we don't use them much. It's useful when we need the ethos in particular contexts, but otherwise it's not a done thing. Equality is more important than hierarchy in everyday situations. This also means that mrs, miss, ma'm and all those other little titles are absent too. I like that a lot better than suddenly being "professor Mortensen" or "Dr. Mortensen". I am simply Torill Mortensen, or Torill, and that is enough.

2: If nobody commented on my appearance when I put in an effort, I'd be really unhappy about it! And yes, we comment on it when the guys dress up too, and I get compliments from other women, and give them to women and men. It's recognition for an effort, and I think it's perfectly appropriate.

3, 4 and 5 are important in this culture too. I do appreciate how difficult 4 can be though, when cracking jokes and not watching every word, so in certain settings it's not such a bad thing. It's all about timing though, as manners and humour so often is.

6, 7, 8, 9 - this is where being Scandinavian kicks in. I will happily let men open doors for me, partly because a lot of doors are bloody heavy (getting into and out of the IT department is a struggle, every time!), and partly because I just like a little bit of role-playing with my everyday life. I will also gladly let fit young men carry crates, or macho men who rebuild cars in their spare time have a go at that tire. But the men I hang out with are good at thinking of gifts for occasions, they take their own notes, and they run off to fetch their kids, so they have to run from meetings. I think the last of that particular brand of everyday inequality in Scandinavian Academia is there because there are still more single mothers than single fathers. This means that no matter how hard the guys work at equality, there will always be more women in Academia who are tied to the routines of families than men.

10, see 3 and 5.

11 - benevolent sexism. This explains why the author feels that 2 is a problem. I am still not quite there though. I find that the problem with benevolent sexism isn't that we talk about women like that (great cook AND great scientist), but that we don't talk about men like that. Women are rewarded for having a good life/work balance, men are not. We don't see it as a quality for men to be considerate of their families while also maintaining healthy careers. Yes, women have to work twice as hard as men for the same recognition, partly because we are expected to have this life/work balance, or else! But men who have it may be complimented on doing dishes (what a good guy you are...), but it's not very acceptable when they consistently leave meetings early, avoid overtime or scale back to 80% workweeks because they need to spend more time with the family. It may harm female careers, but I suspect it hurts men more. So rather than less benevolent sexism, I am in favour of more benevolence all around. Give credit where credit is due, and I know several guys who should have "great cook and great dad" in their obituaries.

I am editing point 11 to put in the "top five regrets" from Bronnie Ware's book on the regrets of the dying. It's cold comfort to know that in the end, what people regret not doing are the things women are supposed to do, but it may teach us to read obituaries differently. At the point in life when they become relevant, the good obituary will talk of a person who did not worry about what people expected of them, worked less, spent more time with their friends, expressed their feelings and allowed themselves to be happy.

12 - mansplaining. In Norway we just call those "hersketeknikker" and cite the scholar Berit Ås, who studied the master supression techniques of Ingjald Nissen and popularised them. Read up on it. It's brilliant, and you don't need to use that silly and imprecise word again. 13 and 14 falls under this.

15 to 18 are mainly calls to action, and not a problem. It's also important. Now that gender equality is less about survival and more about quality of life, it may be a good idea to consider that there's more to life than a career. Perhaps that "more" isn't the same "more" for you as for your female colleague, but working towards a system that gives everybody more liberty in how they live their lives is not a bad thing.

19, see 12.

20 - a cookie? But of course you'll have a cookie at the end of this! You may even know how to bake it yourself! How does the saying go - "give a man a cookie, and he has something with his coffee, teach a man to bake, and he will redesign the kitchen to do it more, better and faster." So in the end, you can have all the cookies you like, and you can offer cookies to others. And that's what this is all about. More cookies to go around, for all of us.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pull the plug

Recently, there's a rash of books giving advice on how to achieve the good life. The authors regularly appear on radio, talking about their books. I am still not reading them, but since I have spent a lot of this summer driving around in Scandinavia, I can't avoid hearing all about it.

They all talk about how the key to the good life is to unplug. Turn off the smart-phone, stop logging on to Facebook, keep from immersing yourself in technology, leave the lap-top at home and let the Ipad battery run low. Listening to them, the worst thing you can do is to use modern technology.

This is all very up-to-date, and in a way, it feels right. Going offline to most of us means putting away the day-to-day demands of the regular routine. Avoiding routine is a way to discover new things about ourselves, it helps us gain new experiences, and even think some new thoughts. It looks like there is a strong causal relationship between unplugging and new experiences.

I claim this is a very superficial connection, and that what connection there is relies on routine, not on technology. This kind of self-help books are much older than technology. It's all about paying attention to the moment, rather than acting from habit. There are whole religions built around this:
  • Zen is more of an attitude than a belief.
  • Zen is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than yourself.
  • Zen means being aware of your oneness with the world and everything in it.
  • Zen means living in the present and experiencing reality fully.
  • Zen means being free of the distractions and illusory conflicts
We have always known that in order to relax and be at peace, we need to let go of the day-to-day concerns that keep nagging us, all the little things we don't master, all the demands we can't meet and desires we can't satisfy. That didn't enter into human lives with Facebook. This means that unplugging won't make us instantly happy, either. I do however believe that in order to achieve some kind of happiness, we need to cherish moments of no intrusion from routine demands, and yes, sometimes that is easier if you don't check Facebook.

Personally, I find a lot of those free moments of no other intrusion when I am very engaged with technology, and I achieve a sense of being free of distractions and illusory conflict that way. But I don't think anybody will buy a book that says: "Stop worrying about how to achieve inner balance, and start enjoying the moments when you do." First, it's a very short book. Next, it doesn't give people an easy, physical way to feel they are doing it right. Third, your Facebook status won't show that you haven't posted in a week. You will just have to blog about it if you want people to know how happily unconcerned you are.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

D or F?

Some time ago, I assessed a master's thesis at a Norwegian university (I do so regularly, at different universities). It was a half-assed piece of work, and I gave it a low mark, as I should. This didn't happen without discussion or resistance; the other assessor disagreed initially. We went through the thesis very thoroughly, and also read the descriptions of the use of the different grades in the Norwegian system. At the end we agreed that the grade was the only possible one, from the content and the descriptions. The internal assessor had hoped for a better grade for the student, but that's why we use external assessors in this system: in order to have qualified, unbiased readings.

In this process, the other assessor said something that stuck with me. "But when they apply abroad, they look at this grade, and our students don't have a chance, because in the US, the grades are used differently." The implication was that this paper would have gotten a much better grade in the US. Now, I can't grade according to a hypothetical standard in another country, so the argument didn't change anything. But it triggered a curiosity about the performance of American students vs Norwegian, because one of my impressions is that in the US, there is a much higher general failure rate. In Norway, if you start an education, you may not always excel, but you have a very high chance of finishing. My impression was that in the higher education in the US, the drop-out rate is much higher.

Today I read about the failure rate in MOOC - Massive Online Open Courses - in California, or more precisely, San José. Now, comparing regular teaching with MOOCs is unfair. Any teacher with a tad of experience knows the difference between seeing the students face to face and writing them. However, a sentence in the article caught my attention:
Gov. Jerry Brown had lauded the goals of the program to allow students to graduate faster and reduce their debt loads at a time when only 16 percent of California State students graduate in four years.

Almost all Norwegian students are state students. The education is free. How many graduate in four years? From SSB, the state-owned statistics bureau (which, by the way, has been noted as being more critical of the educational system than the private agency paid to assess it.):
Av de om lag 30 600 studentene som startet på bachelorutdanning for første gang i 2006, fullførte 45 prosent innen tre år. Etter ytterligere to år hadde 62 prosent fullført. Sammenlignet med studentene som startet i 2005, har andelen som fullførte innen fem år økt med 4 prosentpoeng. I løpet av denne femårsperioden var det 23 prosent som avbrøt studiet. 9 prosent av disse avbrøt etter første året. Bachelorutdanningen i økonomiske og administrative fag hadde høyest andel av studenter som avbrøt i løpet av fem år, hele 33 prosent.

45% have finished in three years. In five years, 62% have finished. 23% have quit, and didn't finish over five years. We don't know if they resumed/will resume their education later. Now, discussing which universities and colleges we should compare our universities with is a bit useless. Norway doesn't have the private Ivy-league schools, but we have a pretty solid state-run educational system. We can't really compare either way, but we do tend to compare our system with the Ivy-league schools, as these are the goal for many of our students who go abroad. But who are the Ivy-league students? They are the children of the educated and well-off, and what does statistics tell us about academic success and social background?

If we look at the figure in the article from SSB, it's pretty clear. Children of parents with higher education finish more higher education. Children of parents with no education finish less. (Considering that none of my parents finished high-school, I am an anomaly according to this statistic: a person from my background should not have a doctorate. Yes, I thank the Norwegian welfare state and the miracle of our educational system regularly.) We compare a system which encompasses students from all backgrounds, with a system which exclusively caters to those with the best chances. We expect our students to compete with the very top of the heap of an extremely competitive system, where failure and dropping out is more common than completing an education.

There's no real conclusion to this. I am not saying which of these two systems is the better (although, see above, I know where my loyalty lies.) What I am saying is: They can't really be compared. The Norwegian educational system needs some serious tweaking, I agree. But I don't feel bad about giving a low grade to a student who doesn't perform well. They are still miles ahead of the large numbers of US students who do not get a grade at all. If we are to compare our students with the American ones, we need to compare both ends. And when it comes to making sure the population is educated, we perform very well indeed.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Grandmother in the age of the internet

I have been a grandmother for more than 6 months. The girl in question is very much the child of a modern family: the daughter of my daughter's wife, legally my daughter's daughter, emotionally, socially and in every possible way a child of this family. She smiles like my daughter, looks like my daughter-in-law, and explores the world like her unique self.

Sadly, she's in Bergen and I am in Copenhagen. That's however nothing new. My kids were born and lived in Bergen, while their grandparents lived in Ålesund and Oslo, a similar distance and a much longer travel time. I fly to Bergen for 400,- nkk and in 90 minutes. We used to pay what felt like a lot more while we had a lot less, to spend a night either on a train or on the coastal steamer, to get from Bergen in the days when we travelled with kids.

The real difference is in the day to day communication. My daughter keeps skyping us when she wants company - and we keep insisting that she skypes us. Or use google hang-out, or what ever other technology we have available. Sometimes it's my husband from one place, my daughter with her family, and me. And occasionally the uncle, our son, looking in from a fourth location. And then we chat, wave at each other, admire recent tricks and I sing, very badly, to the admiring audience who is my daughter's daughter. Internet, be happy you don't have to be part of those hang-outs.

The closest thing in the eighties was long and expensive phone-calls. The cost was a constant drain on a student economy, and the grandparents weren't all that interested in paying their end of it, so it would happen perhaps once a month. Then there would be the occasional letter. These were mainly in order to send pictures back and forth, and those were really expensive: film, process and copied, so there would be enough pictures for both set of grandparents, and then a hand-written letter in there. Yes, so much more exclusive and so much more labour-intensive, if you want to feel that communication matters. But also so rare, and so formal.

Now, I can watch that darling baby, as she listens to out-of-tune scales sung to her, and she tries to respond. It's almost enough to make me go pick up a little flute, to see her face when I play to her. It's a little marvel, and I get to enjoy it instantly. But it doesn't end there. My daughter and daughter-in-law got themselves a pretty good digital camera, and they use it frequently for little movies and a lot of pictures, posted to their pass-word protected weblog. I check my email only slightly more often. I get to see her grow, sometimes day to day, always once or twice a week, and I can comment, and then I get comments on the comments. All my colleagues know this, because it offers another benefit: I am ruthlessing making them admire the day-to-day development of this miracle of normal extraordinarity which is a grand-child.

I am still not sure if she actually responds to the person on the screen as a human being, or just odd sounds and images, but when I visit, she isn't afraid. It may be because I sound so much like my daughter, or she may actually get it - I am something familiar and non-threatening. It certainly makes me feel very close to them, to my children, their friends and loved ones, and now this little miracle of a girl. Not to mention the cat. It isn't the internet without a cat.

Of course, a lot of other things have changed too, from our parents' time to us. We are generally healthier and more fit. We have more education, and expect to be able to keep learning new things all the time. Education never ends these days, and communication technology changes so quickly, a constant stream of something new is the stable normality. Not all of the changes are necessarily to the better. It's important to learn to protect ourselves from the anxiety born of potentially constant connection. But when I log on to the little darling's blog and see a new picture of her crawling, chasing the tail of their cat, information technology is nothing but wonderful. I am a grandmother in the age of the Internet, and I love it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More on pink and princesses

If you have read my blog a bit, you know how I feel about hyperfeminisation, particularly when it happens to little girls. The big Lego-debate can stand in for every time I have said: Feminine is OK, but give the poor girls more than one option!

So, imagine my interest when Merida, from Brave, has become a Disney Princess. She is already part of the Disney brand, as Brave is a coproduction between Disney and Pixar. Merida is the ultimate tomboy, the girl who resists with everything she has when her mother tries to make her a copy of herself. In the fight for power between the two women, their real love for each other is revealed, and turned into mutual respect. The story is grand, funny, beautiful and contains some of the best descriptions of feminine strength that I have seen targeted at children - both female dignity, motherly love, and strong-willed passion and dedication. Loving Merida and her mother doesn't mean loving men, it means loving the strength of women. And so taking her into a Disney universe where femininity so far means such things as sleeping until the Prince wakes you up, finding love together with the right shoe or giving up your voice for love was a bold and interesting move.

However not everybody likes the make-over she had to go through in order to fit in. Not that Merida ever wanted to fit in. That was what the whole film was about, Disney! Don't take away her bow and arrow!!!

The scariest readings are the comment fields, though. It looks like asking that one princess out of eleven remains a normal teen-ager and not a hypersexualised wet dream is a frontal attack on femininity and masculinity, simultaneously. That aggression just underlines the desperate need for more Meridas, girls willing to fight for the right to not conform to restrictive norms. You go, Merida. As for me, I aim to become a skinwalker, to show off how my inner bear wakes up when somebody threaten the freedom and safety of my kids.

Teacher evaluations - can we learn from them?

A quick Facebook comment from a fellow professor made a very good point in a permanently ongoing discussion among teachers: can we learn from student evaluations? His point was that he could very easily create a course that would make the students happy and ensure good evaluations, but he didn't feel it would be an ethical act. Why? Because he would not act according to his standards of good teaching, but according to the format for the evaluations used at his University.

One of the discussants in that thread pointed out that high scores in evaluations depend on managing expectations. If my friend had made a standard course, according to the expectations of the students, the score would quite likely have been very high. A standard course makes students feel safe, it helps them deal with the insecurity of being in a learning process. For good reasons students abhor insecurity. They know they will be graded according to their performance, so they need to minimize the risk for bad grades. And so they have learned strategies for this, by learning how to score well on certain standard tests, how to learn well in certain environments, and how to study by using certain tools. When they are asked to use new tools, they react very negatively, and try to control the situation by managing our expectations. And their main tool for managing our expectations is the evaluation: if we are bad teachers, them failing will be our fault, not theirs.

I find that students who are stressed and afraid give much worse evaluations than students who feel reasonably secure. Also, students who have a wide range of experiences, and know that they can learn in very different environments, give much better evaluations when they have to relate to something new, than students who have only experienced a narrow range of teaching/learning styles. Whether or not the students are used to doing well, if they can expect to do well, or if they eventually do well doesn't matter, it's their experience of stress at the moment which influences the evaluation they give the teacher.

One term I taught the same course in three different classes. That gave me three different evaluations to read. One class was extremely negative in their evaluation, and several of the comments were pure character assassination of me and the other teachers (there were three of us). One class was critical, but not personal, and while they didn't all love the course, they didn't set out to trash the professors either. One class loved the course, loved the topics, and loved the teachers. All three classes had received the exact same lectures by the exact same teachers. The difference between them was in the dynamic in the room, how the students related to each other.

In the negative class, when we discussed something there would be two responses: The loud, main one was a demand to change things, mainly the teaching, in a way that they liked better. My experience from several years of trying out what would work didn't matter, their experience with what made them feel comfortable was more important. In the same class, several people who never spoke in class would later come up to us and say: "I love the way this is done. You are all great teachers. Don't change things just because of this. It works for us." The group obviously had an internal dynamic that was killing the openly spoken diversity. Some strong voices made the others feel afraid of speaking up, and when I did not submit to their pressure, it made them increasingly aggressive. Now I made a few errors with them - rather than saying "no" to the changes they wanted, I should have let them know that if I did what they wanted, I'd have to stop doing something else, which I knew they also wanted. I didn't have the resources to do both. Instead I just said "no, not going to happen." That was bad management of their demands, from my hand. After that, they didn't see the changes they wanted that we did make: they were all convinced I would never listen. Interestingly, the same group decided among themselves that a letter did not contain what to them was vital information, and afterwards they were not able to read that information when they read the letter. I had several students make the claim that they had not been told A, and then, when we read the letter together, I could show them where the letter said A. This kind of selective perception is interesting, and quite daunting when such a large group suffers from it. It does say something of the power of self-deception inherent in group dynamics, and the power of the negative thinking I was unable to break up.

In the fairly neutral class, the students were outspoken, vigorous and active, they took charge of the tasks they were given and approached them with a positive attitude, and worked hard at making things work. They tested out new things, asked questions, participated in discussions. When they came up after class, it was to talk about examples, ask questions, be to-the-point. They didn't think we were god's gift to teaching, but it didn't matter, they managed, they responded and they helped each other figure things out. The main characterestic of that class was that they were not afraid. They were not afraid of laughing, being laughed at, being sanctioned by each other. Their group dynamic was positive and generous, and they also addressed each other while in class, and not just us.

In the extremely positive class, they were all very quiet, but it was a contemplative silence. This group took it all in. Their questions were reasonable. They read not just the readings, but also the emails and the material describing the course. They smiled when they talked to us, and they approached us with questions about what they felt was unclear, rather than with demands to change things the way they wanted it.

So, how can I get a better evaluation, based on this experience? Obviously, the main errors were made with the negative class. I should have managed their demands better, given them a feeling of influence rather than saying "no". But both cases of "no" were based on my previous experience. The first was due to several years of positive feedback to how I presented the readings. If I was to do it the way this class wanted it, I'd have to give up the way I was doing it, a way I knew worked from several previous evaluations and conversations. The second was due to experience with student results. When I had previously done things the way these students wanted it, certain errors were a lot more prevalent than they ended up being. Sticking to my experience helped the class as a whole to maintain their focus on the correct task at the time, rather than mixing up the tasks, as bad timing had caused earlier.

I was in a situation where I knew that not giving in would make the students annoyed, but giving in would cause their results to deteriorate. At that point I chose to get a lower score on their evaluation of me, in order to ensure that they performed better in the long run.

And this is the reason why my friend on Facebook doesn't want to design the "perfect score" course. While the students are experts on what makes them feel they control their individual learning process, we, the teachers, know a thing or two about how to manage courses. Sadly, some, like me, also have a temper, and will in a stressed situation answer directly and honestly, rather than pause and consider how to make students feel good about what I am about to tell them. And this is actually a bad thing for a teacher, because students are genuinely nervous, with good reason. They are in a tense situation, and I need to address that fear as much as I address my own truth. I need to make them feel that I am on their side, and my choices are made to help them, not to make their lives more difficult.

Sadly, that doesn't always work. But all I can do is to try again. Redesigning the course to get a good score on the evaluation of me is not going to happen. Everything I do is intended to make sure the students get a good grade, and that, in my experience, they do. If it means they have to be angry with me to do it, well, so be it.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Pink blogs, money and professionalism

Several of my students have decided to write about fashion blogs and what we in Norway call "pink blogs". In relation to that I want to link to an interesting article that indicates a bit about the economic realities of blogging. It's originally published in the Norwegian newspaper VG, but behind a payment barrier.

Some interesting parts of it:
She was so young when she started, she didn't think about what getting money for her blog meant. That is probably very common in this field.

This indicates a very unprofessional approach to writing, ethics and the knowledge she spreads.

Both of the above topics indicate that the firms who use these bloggers also have no ethical and very few professional considerations on how they spend their publicity budgets.

Last: her parents didn't notice she was making 5000 - 30 000 n kr each month.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Effort is the real real

By way of a Facebook contact, Jesper Tække, I found this article on what the author calls the IRL fetish. Jenny Davis, one of the editors at Cyborgology, describes the sense of importance that comes with old-fashioned birthday greetings, and she gives this a name: the IRL fetish.

This resonates with Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together, which I have written about earlier. As I expressed in that post, the communication efforts before and after the internet have changed so much of the framework, that to be nostalgic for the analogue past, romantic as it may feel, blurs the hindsight.

Jenny Davis is however on to something, even if I think she errs when she appreciates one thing over the other, as if a handwritten card is more "real" than a birthday greeting on Facebook. Where she is right is that the specially made greeting is more significant of the connection between her and her loved ones than the quick Facebook greeting from that guy in the dorm 15 years ago. Of course it it, and, seriously, would you want it any other way?

Back before Facebook, if you knew about somebody's birthday you'd congratulate them. The effort you'd put into that gratulation depended on the closeness of the relationship. It also depended heavily on reciprocity, and carried with it expectations. If I knew about a colleague's birthday, or heard somebody else congratulate him/her, I'd congratulate them. They would do the same to me, for my birthday. I would however not make a big effort for their birthday, unless it was somebody I was already closely connected to. I would avoid that in order to not be pushy. Being too nice and generous is a way to force your way into an intimacy the other person might not desire. Giving attention, gifts, cards, whatever, carries with it a demand in return: See me, return this, make us even, make us friends.

It's still like this. It hasn't really changed. The people who might have said "happy birthday" in the corridor now say "happy birthday" on Facebook (ok, some of the Facebook Happy Birthdays are from people I'd invite to my party if they were here). The people who might leave a regular, store-bought card now text you or email you. And the people who would craft their own card lovingly do the same now, and you most likely do something similar in return. And then there's the ones that call you on your birthday, and the ones that come over with cake, and the ones who have carefully chosen presents, lovingly wrapped. Those are the same people as they were 30 years ago.

That is because no matter how the technology has changed, the investments we are willing to make in communication are pretty much the same. To a person I know vaguely, I am willing to say "happy birthday" once, effortlessly. It's a nice thing to do, it doesn't cost me anything, and if they want to they can hit "like" - which is an effort equal to a quick "thanks" or a smile and a nod in passing. The person I know a bit more will receive a more elaborate greeting. This may mean a longer email, a call, a card - perhaps I'll chase down a place where I can create a silly electronic card if I know about one, or perhaps I will send them a gift in a game.

Because it isn't necessarily the materiality of the present which is important. I get presents in World of Warcraft and SWTOR - and I love it. A stack of virtual crafting materials, a piece of armour, or just a sprig of flowers - yes, it's electronic, but it reflects real effort. I know how much time goes into finding some of these things, and they are willing to sacrifice that for me!

This is what birthday greetings, christmas presents and all that have always reflected: The effort we are willing to put into the attention we give each other. An expensive gift feels overwhelming, not because of the quantitative value, but because we appreciate the effort that goes into gathering the resources used to purchase the gift. It gets its significance from the initial effort money symbolises. This is why a very expensive gift and a cheap, but thoughtfully hand-made gift can carry the same emotional value.

It all depends on whether the recipient is able to value it, though. I brought a pair of hand-knitted mittens to an American woman. She was offended at the weirdness of the gift: what the hell was she to do with something that useless, a pair of unfashionable ugly mittens, and she couldn't even take them back to the store and get something useful. It wasn't until her partner pointed out that I had knitted them myself, and talked about how intricately made they were, that she managed to thank me for them. We need to understand the effort to appreciate it.

I suspect that the current confusion about what is appropriate, not to mention the snobbery of the hand-made object (which is nothing new), is a confusion about effort and the appropriate level of effort to invest in for instance a birthday greeting. As Jenny Davis doesn't ask for expensive presents, but rather thoughtful ones, I suspect that what she fetishises is effort and attention, not the physical presences of something.

And effort is real, no matter what medium it's presented in. It's why money is so extremely important: it represents effort. In a way, I guess what Turkle and Davis are getting at is: Effort is the real real.

It's just hard to recognize. But personally, I'd rather have a Facebook greeting than nothing at all, which, for 90% of the people who sends one, would be the attention we would be able to give each other across continents and time-zones.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Blank books and new years

All who have been around me for a while know about my passion for blank books. I keep buying them, more than I can fill. When a beautiful one snags my gaze, I grab it and bring it with me. Accompanying this passion is one for pens, but I don't buy those as frequently. I do have a couple I love and guard though, like the engraved fountain pen which was a present from my colleagues for my Ph D. I love that one. I am keeping it in a drawer, though, safe like the blank books, which are on the book shelf. What is up with that?

The thing is - what I love about both pens and books is their potential. Most of my writing happens under pressure, with deadlines, and in a hurry. I sit hunched over the computer for a week or two, and a new article or chapter is borne. Then I send it off and move on. There's no cherishing the process in advance, no anticipation of the beauty of the words I am about to shape, no glorious joy of the ideas I tackle and play with. All of those things are lost in some nostalgic memory of writing from when I learned to write. When I learned an elegant longhand, and trained myself to write it, fluidly and easily. When I wrote my first poems, and hid them in the first journal I kept for more than a few weeks, and filled it slowly with words I'd go back and play with, poke at, tug around. The first academic papers, when I dropped the fluid script of writing lessons during childhood, and reinvented myself with something clear, easy, readable and modern looking, a black line marching determined over the white page. It was all by hand, back then, and I think it's me missing that process that makes me buy all these books.

Because when I do start another journal (I do use them, quite a bit, really) there is always this thrill, this moment of breathless anticipation. It can contain anything: The next great novel, or the theory of human-text interaction to make everything make sense - potentially, that's in that blank book, in that beautiful pen, just waiting to flow out of me.

And yes, that is all about the new year, too, because right now, the year is really mostly potential, and can take us anywhere.

And it's about the Hobbit, because of what Bilbo says to Frodo: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'".

 Happy new year, happy new book, happy new road to you all.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

13th day of Christmas

Also known as Epiphany, Three Kings Day, and the night before as the Twelfth Night, the 13th day of Christmas marks the end of the celebrations. Or, as my mother said: "13 dags Knut feier jula ut." I have no idea who Knut is or why he would sweep Yule out, but it's a good date for cleaning up.

And so I have been packing, sweeping, carrying and stashing ornaments all afternoon. This year the tree was tiny (by our standards), but I had to do all the packing up and carrying out alone, something I have never, ever done before.

This year, due to the size of the tree and the amount of ornaments I have collected in the 26 years we have been a family, we had our first dogma-tree. A dogma-tree is a tree with a topic, and the topic this years was birds. As some may see, there's a little bit more than birds there. We filled in with some stuff we pretented to be frost and icicles, and pine-cones. The real discussion was as to whether a butterfly can be said to be a bird, and does it belong on a pine-tree in December? The yes-side won, through a democratic process. A good thing we were an uneven number present during the decorating.

The first thing to get packed up was the second thing I put up: The advent wreath. This year's wreath had been lighting up the stairwell with it's overwhelming lights: shining, white roses. My sense of style is kicking my shin hard every time I am close to admitting that I actually love the string of lights in rose-shape, because they were a lot bigger and more prominent than I expected. But I will find a way to use them next year as well, if nothing else to honour my father, who more than anything loved colourful, abundant lights for Christmas. He'd have adored the roses, and might have wanted to keep them up all through the winter.
My favourite thing is the advent star. When you drive along the dark roads of Norway in the winter, often the only thing that lights the side of the road are the lights in the houses. Late, when all have gone to bed, there's not much, a few outdoor lights, a window where somebody are working late, the flicker of a television. But during advent, there are stars and seven-armed electrical "candlesticks" in every house, often several - one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one to the side... We use a very old real candlestick, from my husband's family, for the 7 candles and never in the window, but we always have an advent star. I have always loved the muted light of the star, and I sneak into the living room to turn it back on if my family have been sensible and energy-conservative and turned it off before going to bed. The soft light at night is the colour of expectations and secrets, and comes with the scent of cookies and the sound of sewing machines, of conversations I am not supposed to hear, and the memory of waking up really early to see how the rooms are transformed, night by night, into a nest of Christmas cheer.
But now it's over, it's all boxed up, the tree is in the yard, the star in the cabinet, the birds and the glitter packed down. Tomorrow I'll bring the last few cookies in to work, and then I'll make soup stock from the bone of the dried sheep leg (fenalår) I had for Christmas. It's over, until next year.