Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book hunger

The Wall Street Journal says "Your E-Book is Reading You":
Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.
The privacy issues are disturbing. So's the idea that publishers can predict when readers think to themselves "So bored now! Done with this book!" and can push for killing off characters or shortening books. On the other hand, Hunger Games or Game of Thrones fans tend to gulp books right down. That's one kind of book hunger.

 Except for Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, which I just finished, most of the e-books I read have a grand total of 5 people worldwide reading and highlighting them, although I usually turn off the feature that tells me this. As a result, I'm less concerned than I might be or should be, probably, about the privacy issue. Caro on the Kindle app is a lot easier on the arms than the heavy bound version would be, although the latter would be, as Dorothy Parker would say, suitable for throwing purposes.

 But what e-books don't satisfy is the second kind of  book hunger. I like to look at books on shelves, books I don't own. I like to think about reading books that I don't have. I like to leaf through books and look at unfamiliar print. Near me there's a used bookstore, and I've been looking at it longingly recently while saying to myself, "Stop that! You have plenty of books. Just go down and pick some off the shelves."

That didn't help, though, especially when Bookstore tempted me with the bargain racks outside. So I started cleaning up my shelves, found some duplicates and other books I didn't need, and took them to Bookstore to trade them in.

 Once I had the trade credit, I could indulge my book hunger. I could browse. I could leaf through the books. Ultimately, I could use my trade credits to buy a couple of books.

 Why is that process more satisfying than the 60-second Kindle or Google Books download? I don't know, but it is. I wonder if people who read exclusively on e-devices, especially students, will ever get that kind of book hunger.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New ways to overcharge students for textbooks

Here's a great way to hasten the increasing irrelevance of textbooks:
The college student tradition of sharing or selling used textbooks could come to a screeching halt based on a professor's new patent. That patent would require students to buy access codes with their textbooks to join in mandatory online discussion boards — and failure to participate would mean lower grades.
More from Slate:
On June 5, Joseph Henry Vogel, an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, was granted U.S. Patent No. 8195571, which proposes a Web-based system to make it easier for publishers to make students pay. The system is based around an online discussion board—one that students would be required to participate in. To get access to the board, you would need to use a code provided in the course’s associated textbook. The budget-conscious could still take advantage of used-books stores—but they’d also have to purchase a (discounted) code.
So in addition to being teachers, graders, service workhorses, entertainers, inspirers, and straw men with supposedly fabulous salaries for politicians to beat up, professors have to become unpaid enforcers for the big textbook companies? Are you ready to say"No code? No grade for you!"?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A few thoughts on the "Michigan mishegas"

Historiann recently had a post about the "Michigan mishegas" in which State Representative Lisa Brown was silenced for saying the word "vagina." Apparently Rush Limbaugh can use vile language to attack a woman with only the mildest of rebukes, but a woman naming a body part is well beyond the bounds of what the Republicans call "decorum," which is an entirely flexible concept depending on whether a man or a woman is doing the speaking.

I think they were not shocked but annoyed because Brown had broken the barrier of invisibility. When she spoke up like that, they had to look at and listen to her without the usual protective shield of inattention, and it really irritated them.

 Lots of studies and anecdata show that women don't necessarily get listened to with the same attention as men. How many times have you brought up a good point in a meeting, had it ignored, and heard the same idea praised 5 minutes later when a man said it? (*Disclaimer: Not all men do this, of course, but I'm thinking about the Michigan situation.)

 This goes double for women older than Brown who are at the true American women's invisibility barrier. I don't know the exact age, but at a certain point, women become mostly invisible (ask any older woman about this), and at that point their speech instead of silence apparently really grates. How many times in 2008 did we hear about Hillary Clinton's "shrill" voice (which isn't), her "aggressive" tone (and why is that wrong?), and so on? The pundits and the media were absolutely merciless about that, regardless of her brilliance and rationality. Now that she's Secretary of State, media types are full of praise because she's doing wonderful work that they don't pay much attention to. She's back being invisible--sadly so, IMHO, but still invisible. They don't have to listen to her, which as far as they're concerned is as it should be.

 Tina Fey said something in Bossypants that sheds a little light on the invisibility issue: "I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all 'crazy,'" she said. "I have a suspicion—and hear me out, because this is a rough one—that the definition of 'crazy' in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to --- her anymore." By saying what she said, Lisa Brown made it impossible to see her as "invisible," and let's keep breaking that barrier.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Update on Peer-to-Peer University

Back in 2009, I wondered about Peer-to-Peer University's business plan, which kept prices low by using volunteer faculty:
"While it has yet to get accreditation, the not-for-profit [Peer2Peer University] plans to offer bachelor's degrees in business and computer science using open courseware and volunteer faculty; fees would add up to about $4,000 for a full four-year degree." Uh-huh. "Volunteer faculty." What's not to love about working for free?
This update on P2PU at The Chronicle confirms that, yes indeedy, there were a few glitches in getting faculty with mortgages and lives to work for free:
When plans for P2PU were announced, in 2008, the idea was to have well-known professors moderating the discussions, with graduate students serving as tutors and grading papers. But finding volunteers to keep the courses going has been a challenge, the organizers admit, and the push recently has been toward transforming courses into "challenges" that require little or no mediation by outside experts.
P2PU has developed a modified alternative, though--sort of a MOOC lite, with badges and students teaching each other. It seems to depend on social networking to put like-minded learners together to complete "challenges." That's intriguing, because the gamification of learning is something that's being much touted these days, and completing challenges sounds like an interesting way to approach some topics.
But as Jonathan Rees of More or Less Bunk points out, expertise (Ph.D.-holding professors) ought to count for something: peer-to-peer may work for a book club, but what about getting at the hard questions or unpopular topics that sometimes are necessary for really understanding a subject?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Of Mad Men and MOOCs

Of MOOCs: Once again, with the UVa mess, we have a group of privileged people who presumably reaped the benefits of face-to-face higher education in the humanities anxious to ensure that others do not receive the same benefits (go read the links at Historiann's or IHE). Once again we have wildly enthusiastic cheerleading with no critical analysis from the Masters of the Universe at the WSJ:
This challenge can be met. Over the long term, online technology promises historic improvements in the quality of and access to higher education. The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education.
The WSJ and the U.Va. board members cited Head Cheerleader David Brooks, so no surprises there. And this:
Institutions such as the University of Phoenix—and it is hardly alone—have embraced technology aggressively. By integrating online courses into their curricula and charging less-than-elite prices for them, for-profit institutions have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the last decade, now topping 10%.
Aside from showing an astonishing lack of awareness that just maybe traditional institutions are also promoting online courses and maybe, just maybe, have also pursued technological innovation, this is the "if it makes money, it must be good!" school of logic, the kind that says that a summer blockbuster is better than an indy film because it makes more money.
And this:
College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world—and do locally what it does best, person to person.
No one is asking whether College X can continue to exist if it focuses only on high-intensity, high-cost person-to-person classes without the lecture classes to support it. Is a state legislator going to fund those courses in this continuing Great Recession?

Of Mad Men (season 5 spoilers ahead):
  • Great concluding scene. Great music.  After the two James Bond music cues, I expected to have him say, "Draper. Don Draper" to the girl at the bar. 
  • One parallel between Lane Pryce and Adam Whitman, besides the manner of their deaths and Don's guilt, is that they are both redheads. Should any male redheads on this show worry about their longevity? Or is that any redhead of either sex except Joan, given that the woman Don strangled in his fever dream had red hair (as did Megan's friend who got fired from Dark Shadows)?
  • Weiner & co. are paying attention to physical similarities this season even more than before--hence Pete & his virtual twin Beth with their youthful looks and twice-discussed blue eyes.  No wonder Pete fell in love: she's the female Pete physically as well as emotionally. Megan, dark hair and sexy good looks, is a young advertising wunderkind like Don who uses her sexuality to control him. Roger has met his match with Marie  "don't bother me with commitment" Calvet. Is Weiner saying that men can only fall in love with female versions of themselves? 
  • Megan tells Don she loves him more frequently than Betty ever did--but it's always in the context of something he does for her.  He gets her an audition: "I love you, you know." Is it just a way of thanking him, or does she mean it? 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Of Foreign Lands and Places

Traveling to a place you've never been is both lovely and exhausting--lovely because of the food, architecture, and immersion in the past, and exhausting because you have to figure out every single thing, from street directions to how to get train tickets to how to work the faucets, from scratch. What's wonderful, though, is how every tiny thing you manage to do becomes an "aha! success!" moment. Walking down the street and realizing that you actually know where it leads after getting lost a number of times becomes as much a pleasure as figuring out new places.

It's a ridiculously low bar for success, but here's a little context: My family didn't travel, mostly, and when we were growing up we were strongly discouraged from travel because any trips beyond a 200-mile radius from home would surely result in our being eaten by wolves [country version] or killed by muggers and stuffed in a trash can [city version].  I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea: I've traveled a lot since then, but I'm still a naive, not sophisticated, traveler.

This trip was especially exciting because I'd been reading about these places and seeing pictures of the art and architecture since high school. It's a cliche to say that the U. S. is a young country, but when you get money from an ATM that reminds you that the bank was established 700 years ago, it really hits home. Looking down some narrow, empty streets, I kept picturing youths like Botticelli's Young Man with a Red Cap walking around with swords and looking for a fight, a vision inspired equally by history and Shakespeare and Hollywood movies.

To round out this post with one more cliche: it was great to be there, and it is good to be home.

http://youtu.be/DIXZ8SzL1Vo

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Quiet for a little while

Due to travel and some writing that needs to be done basically yesterday, I won't be posting for a little while.