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Twitter is just not that into you

I've been among those most bitterly disappointed by the failure of Twitter. I have now come to realize that the failure is inevitable, in that it has become clear that if Twitter is going to succeed, they are going to do so by becoming something that alienates all of the current users in the chimeric pursuit of some other, larger user community.

I was not an immediate user of Twitter, but when I started using it, I thought it was almost perfect. It was not without problems, but it was simple and clean. Since then, it has introduced a whole series of "enhancements" that have made the experience less and less satisfactory from my perspective: image previews, quote-tweets, increasingly intrusive advertising, and "moments" all come to mind. I wondered why they kept doing that and then I saw Douglas Rushkoff explain it very simply.

When Twitter accepted the mountain of venture capital, they tied themselves to an obligation to make lots of money. It's not enough to become successful — they have to become much much bigger to meet expectations. The fact that they have a great system that's useful to the existing userbase, no matter how passionate and committed, will never allow them to meet those expectations. We aren't the users they're looking for.

With that understanding, suddenly their actions become comprehensible. But, from my point of view, very sad. Twitter has set themselves on a path where I lose no matter what.

I've heard that, in spite of users' pleas, next week Twitter intends to implement a non-chronological feed. They've also been warning they intend to switch away from the 140 character limit. With these changes, I will probably quit using Twitter. RIP Twitter.

A Place to Call Home

For several years, Makers at Amherst Media has been looking for a location to serve as a Makerspace. Amherst Media itself has been looking for a potential new home for several years. One possibility that's been discussed is the Middle School building.

The Regional School District is considering consolidating their program into fewer buildings in order to focus resources on the academic mission in an era of declining enrollments. There have been discussions about back-filling the Middle School building with community organizations. Even now, the Middle School building is significantly underutilized and some community partners are already moving ahead: Amherst Leisure Services (LSSE) and Greenfield Community College (GCC) are already occupying space.

Amherst Media did a walk through several weeks ago to look at possible spaces. We wanted to start thinking about how we might be able to collaborate with potential partners and which spaces would be a good fit. After some discussion, we decided to pursue having the Makerspace locate there even in advance of when (or whether) the rest of Amherst Media comes. Since we're offering an afterschool program for the Middle School — and looking to collaborate more deeply with the public schools — being co-located is a good fit.

During our first walk through, we went through an old Wood Shop near the LSSE space. I thought the old Wood Shop looked like a perfect spot for a Makerspace, but it sounded like they already had plans for it and it's rather far from the spaces that Amherst Media is likely to occupy for their studio. More recently, however, it was proposed as a spot we might be able to use sooner than Amherst Media's relocation.

The Wood Shop is currently in use mainly for storage and intermediate processing (receiving old school materials and organizing them for disposal or repurposing). The room is very large and it's likely that it would be divided to preserve the separate institutional use. Standing roughly where the room might be divided, here's a picture looking toward the door.

Wood Shop

And here's a second picture looking from the entrance toward the back of the room. Where the people are standing is roughly where the first picture was taken.

Wood Shop

(There's an album with these and a few more pictures.)

Currently the room still has the old woodworking machinery (drill-presses, lathes, planers, and maybe a joiner). This machinery would not be seen as appropriate for current training or use and there would likely be a process to dispose of it. But the fact that there's power suitable for running equipment like this is a potential benefit of the space.

There are workbenches in the middle with power cords hanging down. I indicated I thought it was more likely we'd want tables for people to work at. But, again the availability of power is a huge win.

It also has a door directly to the outside and although that door could not be used as an entrance, it could enable easy delivery of materials.

There is still a ways to go before we can start moving forward. But it seems likely that we'll be able to occupy this space — perhaps permanently — and we should start thinking carefully about how we might be able to use the space. A bit of planning now will help focus what we need to do and enable us to begin looking for resources to accomplish our vision.

I can think of at least three things we need: a vision of how this space will work, a list of what we need to fulfill that vision, and an operations manual that formalizes how the Makerspace will work that can articulate with the Middle School procedures and practices. Let's get started.

Court Poetry and the Roots of Haiku

Over the holidays, I found a wonderful book at the BookMill: An Introduction to Court Poetry by Earl Miner. I've read much of the English language literature about haiku and have been aware for a long time that the roots of haiku derive from the earlier court poetry and this book provided some interesting insights.

Most of the court poetry takes the form of waka (tanka or longer poems termed chōka) and the simplistic description I had seen of tanka was not far off: a 5-7-5 part that sets the scene (from which haiku is derived) and a 7-7 part that offers an emotional response. Many of the tanka also use pillow-words (or Makurakotoba) and pivot-words (Kakekotoba) that represent idiomatic devices to express certain ideas, themes, or moods. To really understand the poetry, you need to also understand what these represent. Or, perhaps more importantly, who had used those terms previously.

From reading Bashō's haibun, A Narrow Road to the Interior, I had been aware of how many haiku were a reflection on some earlier poet or poem. Many of the places Basho visited were inspired by poems written centuries before and often echoed the subjects and language of those poets. I remember particularly, Bashō stopping by a willow tree known to Saigyō. The book acknowledges that his aesthetic was particularly important to the writers of haiku and haikai that followed. He also must have had a wicked sense of humor.

I suppose it should not be a surprise to realize that many, if not most, Japanese poems, need to show awareness of the previous literature to be taken seriously. With a well-documented literature that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, the trick is not only to experience something meaningful, but to say something new about it.

It reminds me a bit of the epiphany described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You can spend your whole career pursuing some fundamental question only discover that it was answered more than a thousand years ago — and more elegantly and definitively than you could ever have stated it. It could be enough to drive anyone crazy.

A small book can only do so much to survey a thousand years of literature, especially in the absence of the history, geography, language, and culture necessary to make sense of it all. But it was very helpful to me to articulate with what I already understood and help me fill in some gaps and add just a little bit more.

Zamenhof Festo

Kiam mi faris anoncon ĉe ARE pri la Boschen Kolekto, mi menciis ke ni akceptos donacojn de libroj kaj revuoj.

"Revuoj?" diris Julie. "Malnovajn revuojn vi akceptos?" Mi jesis kaj ŝi promesis alporti skatolojn kiujn ŝi volas forĵeti. Ŝi diris ke ŝi venos iam dum la aŭtuno.

La aŭtuno forflugis kaj mi aŭdis nenion. Sed finfine ŝi epoŝtis por diri ke ŝi povas veni dum la semajnfino de la 12-13a de decembro. Ŝi proponis ke ni organizu Zamenhof Feston dum ŝia ĉeesto. "Ho! Bona ideo!" mi diris.

Sed mi havis pli bonan ideon: mi volis ke ni organizu nian renkontiĝon ene de la biblioteko mem por ke ni povas tuj transdoni la skatolojn rekte, sen la bezono akcepti ilin en unu loko kaj porti ilin poste (kaj sole) al la bibliotekon.

Bedaŭrinde, kiam mi kontaktis la bibliotekisto, li estis for dum la semajnfino por prelegi pri sia nova libro (pri pasteĉo). Fuŝ'!

Ni renkontiĝis sabate ĉe Sweetser Parko kaj trovis parklokojn trans la strato unu de la alia. Iom zorge, ni portis la skatolojn de ŝia aŭto al la mia kaj tiam iris al hinda restoraĉio por festi. Post kiam alvenis nia amiko Roger, ni elektis diversajn pladojn por dividi kaj babilis gaje.
Julie kaj Roger
Post la manĝo, ni promenis al la domo de Emily Dickinson kiu estis malfermita senkoste dum la posttagmezo. Ni vizitis la muzeon kaj esploris la enhavon. Lastatempe oni renovigis ŝian dormejon por ke la ĉambro aspektu kiel ĝi estis kiam Emily loĝis tie.

Finfine, ni revenis al Sweetser Park kaj adiaŭis unu la alian. Mi bedaŭris ke ni ne sukcesis pli grandan kaj luksan festo. (Kaj ke mi damne devas mem porti la skatolojn da libroj al la biblioteko.)

Drawing a Line

I attended a screening of Drawing a Line, a film about the divisions left in Germany after reunification. I felt like I learned a lot about this period in German history and had an opportunity reflect on human nature.

A young man was recruited by the Stasi to inform on his friends in the punk underground. Being a cocky young man, and needing money, he agreed. He thought he'd be able to just tell them what he wanted them to know. But when he informs on some youth that were involved in spray-painting graffiti, it ends up with his brother (who was also involved, but not named) getting swept up and imprisoned.

He continued to provide information to the Stasi until he refused military service and became a conscientious objector -- for which he was imprisoned. He refused to be an informant in prison. Then, later, he left the GDR and was in West Berlin with several of his friends from the punk community that he had informed on -- it wasn't clear whether he continued providing information after he left prison or after he left East Germany.

In West Berlin, it was his idea to conduct an action to paint a white line along the entire length of the Berlin Wall. A variety of viewpoints are expressed in the movie about what exactly the line represented: crossing something out or drawing a line under the events that happened in this young man's life.

Twenty years after the Wall came down, they released the Stasi files and someone put together who the informant was. He had never told them or confessed to his role in the events. The tension in the relationship between the two brothers was the central feature of the movie.

The movie ends with a scene of the Palestinian Separation Wall where someone had painted a blue line all along the wall and questioning who made it, what their motives were, and what it meant.

Having just watched Douglas Rushkoff's talk about throwing rocks at the Google bus, I was reminded very much of Ishmael. We are captives of a system that constrains our range of options. It was easy for me to imagine, as a young man, believing I could control the situation and then finding that I was in over my head. Another gripping part of the movie was of a man who'd been a guard on the wall. He was unapologetic — proud even — of the role he'd played: he'd accepted the duty, been good at it, and taken pride in his work.

Near the end, the film-maker tried to bring the two brothers to reconciliation. It's emblematic, I think, of the divisions that still exist in Germany after reunification. How do you move past this pain point without letting go of the past, yet recognizing a mistake that can never be balanced or unmade? It was a poignant movie. Well worth watching.

Contingent Faculty at UMass

Recently, a 2008-2010 work/life study by UMass faculty that included findings about about contingent faculty got some new play at Inside Higher Ed. When this got tweeted around, I posted Balancing Interests: Tenure System Faculty, Contract Faculty, and the Administration at UMass Amherst which are the remarks I made at an AAUP conference in 2009.

Since then, the join faculty union of UMass Amherst and UMass Boston has continued to make significant progress to improve the circumstances of contingent faculty. In the previous two contracts, we negotiated several really key enhancements. In the first one, most of the benefits went to UMass Amherst faculty and in the second, most of those benefits were extended to UMass Boston faculty.

The largest benefit was to transition faculty from fixed-term contracts to a state of "continuing employment". Upon renewal of the second one-year contract, faculty receive a two-year contract and there is an evaluation process after the first year of this contract. Faculty that fail this review have the second years of the contract as a terminal year. Otherwise, faculty move to "continuing employment" where they are no longer subject to fixed length contracts. For this reason, we have moved from calling contingent faculty "contract faculty" and now use the term non-tenure-track (NTT).

Another benefit was to ensure and verify that departments actually evaluate NTT faculty for merit. It had become clear that a number of departments didn't even consider NTT faculty. Now, in addition to improved directions to personnel committees, there is a committee that looks at the data and investigates departments that don't fairly compensate NTT faculty.

Some progress has been made toward workload, working conditions, and other concerns as well, including the formalization that a 3-credit class can count for no less than .25 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) per semester. My personal aim has been to assure that all NTT faculty have some professional space in their workload available for performing University service. This would imply no faculty with a 4/4 teaching load. If your teaching load equals 1 FTE, you can't serve on any University or department committee in a professional capacity. But this hasn't happened yet.

There is, however, a growing recognition on the part of central administrators that it serves the institution poorly to hold NTT faculty at arms length. And they are making efforts to change how lecturers are viewed and treated by the administration. For many of them, it's a difficult transition to make, and you still hear them (e.g. the Dean and the Provost in Fall 2015) refer to "faculty and lecturers" as if lecturers are not faculty.

There are still gaps. We have not yet successfully organized the Continuing Education faculty. This remains a growing pool of disadvantaged workers in the heart of the enterprise. We have also failed to create a system of effective professional development opportunities for NTT faculty: this is a glaring problem. When NTT were only used for sabbatical replacements, the need for professional development could be overlooked. But many of our NTT faculty have been teaching continuously for 20 or 30 years with little or no opportunity for maintaining their currency with the field. This is a travesty that does not serve the institution and needs to be corrected.

Those factors aside, UMass Amherst still represents a far better model for equitable treatment of NTT faculty than the national average. We should do more to show what we've done and help other institutions — and faculty unions — recognize the benefits of organizing the NTT faculty and not allowing them to be exploited.

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