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Fellowship Begins

Last spring, I was awarded a Professional Improvement Fellowship which gives me a release from my "regular responsibilities for one semester" to work on the project I had proposed. This is kind of a big deal.

When I arrived at the University, Lo, these many years ago, I was one of relatively few Non-Tenure Track (NTT) faculty. Although, I was hired in at a salary that was competitive with other faculty, there were no promotion opportunities and the conditions for NTT faculty varied widely across the campus. Over the years, we've made huge strides at the bargining table through patient negotiation. In the last contract, we secured a one-semester leave for Senior Lecturers to work on a significant academic project. The first time I applied, I did not receive one, but was awarded one the second time around

During the fall, in free moments here and there, I began laying the groundwork for my leave. I applied and received some travel money to attend meetings during my professional leave and I submitted a proposal to the Honors College to have my course project fast-tracked for approval as an honors seminar. This proposal was also approved and I have now submitted the official paperwork for the course approval process. And it has cleared the first level of approval. Here's the course description:

In this two 4-credit course sequence, students will build instruments using open science hardware and collect data that bears on a research question. In the first semester, students will explore case studies about creating/deploying instruments combined with hands-on activities to develop technical skills for instrument development. Each technical lesson and activity, modeled on the Software Carpentry curriculum, will lead students through two instrumentation platforms (Raspberry Pi and Arduino) and how to collect, log, and analyze data from analog and digital sensors. Students will post brief weekly "Research Notes". By the end of the first semester, students will have (1) drafted a proposal for a research project and (2) developed a functional prototype of the instrument. During the second semester, students will use Agile project management techniques to collaboratively build, test, and deploy finished versions of their instruments and conduct iterative rounds of calibration and data collection to assemble a data set that bears on their research question. By the end of the course, students will complete an individual thesis using data collected with their instrument and create an "instructable", supplemented with imagery or video, that describes their instrument, how it works, and how to make one.

Now the real work begins.

Best Western Paradise Inn Bad Green Program Implementation

When my brother Phil moved to Savoy, we started staying at the hotel nearest to his house, the Best Western Paradise Inn. We've stayed here four or five times now. And up until this visit, I was reasonably happy with them. But they've instituted a new policy: the "Go. Get. Green Initiative".

I've seen various "green" policies at hotels for years that involve some aspect of reducing laundry service or forgoing maid service. I'm a bit skeptical of these, in part, because their primary effect is to reduce labor and energy costs to the owners, with no evidence that these cost reductions are passed along to the consumers. At the same time, I recognize that traditional hotels are being forced to compete with unregulated, hobbyist "hotel-like" services, like AirBNB and are being squeezed economically.

We arrived at the hotel after about 26 hours of travel and I was exhausted. The friendly person at the counter gave me a sheet of paper with three highlighted lines to initial: two in yellow and one in green. The yellow lines were standard things like the charge for smoking in a non-smoking room. The green line was for the "Go. Get. Green Initiative." It sounded typical: earn some fake points by forgoing a couple of nights of maid service. I read it, asked a couple of questions, and initialed the line.

But the next day, we got no maid service. Nor the next night. Nor the next night. Finally, I walked down and asked about it. It turns out that by agreeing to the program, I had supposedly agreed to receive no maid service during the entire stay. I expressed astonishment that, for a 13 day stay, why anyone would want that. The poor young woman behind the counter said she would strike our rooms from participating in the program and that she was sorry for the misunderstanding (and that I would lose my "points"). She called her manager on the phone, but the manager offered no useful information or guidance — at least none that was communicated to me.

But I was still pretty angry and left them a poor review at Google and tweeted about it at Twitter. After another day, I'm still pretty angry at how the whole thing was handled.

It reminds me a bit of the Monty Python Crunchy Frog sketch. "I think it's be more appropriate if the box bore a great red label: 'WARNING: LARK'S VOMIT!!!'" The hotel should use a red, rather than green, highlighter and say, "WARNING: YOU WILL GET NO MAID SERVICE DURING YOUR ENTIRE STAY."

In point of fact, the webpage about the "Go. Get. Green Initiative" seems to suggest that it's supposed to work by giving you a sign to hang on your door on the nights when you want to forgo maid service: that would be totally reasonable. But they didn't do that. Perhaps the Best Western company might want to look at what this particular hotel is doing.

In any event, I have to seriously question whether I'll stay at this hotel again. It's convenient because it's so close. But maybe it's time to look at other places. It's not like I don't have a car when I come here, so what's the difference between a two minute drive and a 5 minute drive?

And, indeed, I'm somewhat skeptical about Best Western itself and their oversight of their hotels' implementations of this program.

Postscript: It was Christmas Eve when I had my blow-up at the front desk. On Christmas morning, I found a little note tucked under our doors that said (in part), "we give this one day to our housekeepers to spend time with their families." We laughed a bit that, after all that, we STILL wouldn't get maid service. But when we got back after lunch, we found that our rooms had been serviced. So that's something.

You WILL Say the Wrong Thing

It was really only several years ago, in the run-up to the 2016 election, that I came to realize how serious the problem of institutional racism actually was -- even in my very liberal institution. During the last round of strategic planning the campus held a number of listening sessions related to diversity, inclusion, and equity -- and I remember a statement that one black student said about how frustrated she was about being the victim of instutional racism and yet was expected to somehow educate her white faculty and peers about the problems of racism. That struck home with me.

One thing the campus has done over the past couple of years is to institute a series of book groups for faculty, staff, and students to read a common book and then discuss the readings over a period of weeks. The group I participated in this year read the book What If I Say the Wrong Thing by Vernā A. Myers. Our last meeting was today.

Last night, at a dinner that brought all the groups together, I pointed out that a better title for the book might have been, "You WILL Say the Wrong Thing and That's OK." I told them that I had come into the group intending to say very little because I've gotten the message that old, white, cis-het men should shut up and listen. And growing up, as I did, in an environment of racism and misogyny, I found that I have a lot baggage that I learned uncritically and that can come out in surprising and unexpected ways. But that a key message of the book and the book club was that it was OK to say these things as long as you were ready to learn and try to improve. People politely applauded and the organizers seemed pleased with my expression of learning.

But, as I confessed to my group today, this was really a lie. Almost any statement can quickly snowball today into an internet mob and the instution is perfectly ready, for all their statements about diversity and inclusion, to throw you under the bus at the first whiff of controversy. Yesterday, a senior lecturer was pulled from her class for showing a parody video made by previous students in the class as an extra credit assignment. I find the current climate in academia very chilling and I watch what I say pretty carefully. Of course, I've always done that.

Many years ago, my brother Phil and I learned that anything you post online, no matter how seemingly ephemeral, may well persist forever. Some people approached this by trying to avoid leaving any tracks online. I recognized that much of what I did was going to be visble on the internet and so, therefore, I resolved to be relatively open about it: to make sure that anyone who cared to look, could easily find a balanced picture of me, so that no one negative thing would seriously distort the publically-available record. But to do so knowing that any thing you said online might be read by anyone. Forever. That said, it has increasingly become clear that, as mores and societal values change, even uncontroversial statements made in the past can come to appear problematic. I don't see any way to avoid that, though. You just have to acknowledge the past and move on.

I'm glad I participated in the book group anyway: it was an interesting mix of people from very different environments on campus. But it's still a scary time in academia.

The world is full of old, angry, bitter people

The other morning, I found myself thinking, "the world is full of old, angry, bitter people." And I realized that when I said, "the world," I was actually talking about my filter bubble. Much of what passes for political discourse, these days, are bitter statements by angry old people. And, my time is increasingly spent among old people who are angry and bitter. Of course, if I were in a different filter bubble, the world might well be full of young, angry, bitter people. They certainly have reason for it. But upon my realization, I decided I would make some changes.

My first change is to quit checking twitter during the day. I'm not going to stop altogether, but I'm going to limit my access and only check during non working hours (although I did log in briefly today to amplify a job posting that folks I know might appreciate.)

I also want to be more intentional about making time to seek joy. I've always found winter difficult and this year, with so much uncertainty, I find myself at times paralyzed with anxiety. I don't like being intentional: I take great pleasure in letting my life organize itself organically but, when stuff isn't working, I should probably wring my hands and agonize until the crisis has passed. Or spring comes.

At least, it gave me a good story to tell at my learning community book group on inclusive and respectful communication.

Bit Rot and Search Engines

It's sad when you go to look for something you read once and discover that it's not there anymore. And not just not *there*, but unfindable. We've gotten spoiled by the idea that you can just go to Google and find anything, but it's not true anymore.

It was never really true. But there were grand ideas when the web was being created that URLs would persist and that soon all information would be digital and immediately at your fingertips. I remember an ad with the slogan "Everything new is digital and everything old is being digitized." Or this ad that said "all rooms have every movie ever made in any language anytime, day or night." Or Google's project to scan every book ever printed and make available a vast library of human knowledge.

Instead, much of the early internet has quietly withered away. Some of it can be tracked down at the Wayback Machine. If you have the time and patience. But the effort of carrying forward old internet content is non-zero and there's always pressure to focus on new content.

I remember a presentation at ContactCon where a guy was describing a pattern language for internet content. I found his talk somewhat incoherent at the time, but more easily recognize now what he was talking about. Rather than having a bunch of systems for styling and presenting information, we would do better focusing on tagging and relating content. It shouldn't matter as much whether you're posting an article or a comment, or posting it here or there. Let writers write and curators curate.

The most discouraging aspect is how Google now doesn't even bother to return results about vast swaths of the internet. Take this page for instance. OK. You can certainly argue that it's not a very important page. But this page used to appear in Google search results. And it doesn't anymore. Google does index some pages at "revo.bierfaristo.com' which includes links to that page. But Google has evidently decided it's not worth maintaining links to less interesting or important content. And that bodes ill.

It's not a "search engine" anymore if it's making decisions about what to include and what not to include. But that's where we're at. The Internet Genie has been stuffed back in the bottle and we're left with just a few giant corporations being the gatekeepers to all human knowledge.

Artisan's Asylum

On Saturday, I drove to Somerville to meet up with Don Blair, a former student/staff member who was offering a presentation as part of Somerville 2069: Imagine Somerville, billed as an "interactive tour of the future" at a local elementary school. Don had been persuaded to demonstrate a "robot" and talk about emerging manufacturing techniques. He brought a Morphorn CNC (or similar) and set it up to show students an example of applied robotics.

It's an inexpensive, nifty little device that Don has used to make prototype circuit boards: you can quickly and easily route out traces on copper-clad boards.

The other tables in the display were not particularly interesting, although I did appreciate the Gentrification Obelisk:

Gentrification Obelisk: a testament to those who had to move away from Somerville. pic.twitter.com/tL52Z1qg8C

— Steven D. BREWER (@limako) October 26, 2019

Afterwards, we visited Aeronaut Brewing where I tried a flight of their IPAs. It was busy, but the bartender I got was cheerful and very knowledgeable. She helped me figure out what to try and promptly got me filled up. No surprises: I liked "Louie", the American Imperial IPA, the best. The others were fine, but that one was really very good.

Just down the street from Aeronaut is Artisan's Asylum, a giant makerspace. People rent space for a "stall" and then gain access to various "shops" with tools for woodworking, laser and plasma cutting, welding, electronics, fiber arts, etc. A big part of the attraction is the focus on community and they have a nice spot in the middle with lots of comfortably-worn furniture where you can hang out and chat with interesting folks.

One thing I hadn't really thought about a makerspace was to envision it like a home-away-from-home workshop. For both young people without settled means and for older people downsizing, having a place for a workshop is really useful. And, of course, everyone could benefit from being engaged with a supportive community.

It was a long day of driving, but time well spent.

 

Writing energy

I used to devote a significant amount of writing energy to maintain a blog, but over the past half-year almost all of my writing energy has been focused in other directions. I've been writing a lot — just for other stuff which I mostly haven't posted publically. I wrote an application for my Senior Lecturer Professional Improvement Fellowship. I wrote a long letter when I resigned from the Board of Amherst Media. I taught two classes over the summer and wrote a lot as part of that. I wrote a pre-proposal for a grant. I'm writing up the leafminer work we did. I'm writing a proposal for my course-based honors thesis class. And, of course, these days I do a lot of microblogging (using twitter) that, in the past, I would have probably devoted to blog writing.

I've also started sharing some Research Notes via Public Lab. Over the next few weeks, I'll need to make the transition to writing full-time for my new course development project. But, hopefully, much of it I can share publicly.

I also want to write some new fiction. I still have several stories I've written, but never made enough effort to get published anywhere. But writing is its own reward, even if you never get stuff published. The opportunity to be reflective, explore your own thinking, and try out ideas is always valuable.

At the same time, part of me is afraid that my lack of writing here is due to reduced ability to be productive. I don't know if I'm slowing down or if my standards are just higher. But I don't seem to be able to organize myself to work on as many things as I used to.  I tell myself that work has simply become more demanding: I used to have more slack than I used to. But maybe that's just an illusion.

Still, I'm looking forward to my professional improvement leave with a mix of excitement and terror. It will be amazing to switch gears and take on a new, significant project. But terrifying too: I have a huge number of hurdles to overcome to successfully pull this off.

UMass Reconstruction of Lincoln and North Apartments

I asked a question during question time at the Sept 12, 2019 Faculty Senate meeting about the proposed reconstruction of Lincoln and North Apartments

The University recently announced proposed replacement of the Lincoln and North Apartments with new housing stock to be constructed via a public/private partnership. Some are expressing concerns about how these new housing units will be managed. In particular, (1) Who will make decisions about the management of this housing? UMass or a private partner? (2) Will these units continue to be available principally only to UMass students? Or will they be available to other members of the community, potentially displacing students into the local rental market? (3) Will there continue to be the same balance of one- and two-bedroom apartments? Or, as some reports suggested, a shift toward two-bedroom only? Finally, (4) what concrete steps are the University taking to assure that students, especially those with the greatest financial need, will continue to be able to secure suitable housing, both during the construction process and beyond?

The questions were answered by John Kennedy and Swamy, with the clarification that Andy Mangels (absent) would probably be the best to answer these questions. Below is my effort to capture the sense of their reponses, although eventually the minutes will be posted and a transcript will be available.

Many of the details will be worked out during the bid process: the campus will be considering bids that may have more or less management included as part of the overall bid.

The units will be for a mix of graduate and undergraduate units at Lincoln and the North apartments will be for graduate student families. It's not anticipated that the housing would be made available more widely.

The graduate student senate is involved in the planning for the redesign of these units in order to strike an appropriate balance between 1 and 2 bedroom apartments to meet current needs.

The university is in conversation with landlords in North Amherst to find appropriate placements for families displaced from the North Apartments, at the same rent, such that children will not have to change schools.

 

Comments about College Closures

On July 26, Carlos E. Santiago, the Commissioner of Higher Education spoke about new proposed regulations to respond to college closures in Massachusetts. These regulations are aimed at giving the Department of Higher Education more information and tools to deal with colleges at risk of closing, primarily to mitigate the impacts on students. Many of the comments were about preventing closures or recognizing the the broader impacts on the community.

There's a good showing for the #collegeclosures presentation: a full room, three college presidents, and good representation from town leadership. pic.twitter.com/H1ghUcdplS

— Steven D. BREWER (@limako) July 26, 2019

I offered the following comments.

Hi. My name is Steve Brewer. I'm a faculty member at UMass Amherst. I also wanted to thank the Department because the Department of Higher Ed is funding the "Bridges" program that I'm teaching in this summer which is taking students from community colleges that are transitioning to the university and providing them with a summer opportunity to be on the University first hand, learn about it, and then transition to begin as students in the fall.

I'm reminded in the conversation today of the parable, that I'm sure most of you have heard, that you see babies floating down the river. We've seen 18 babies floating down the river, and so we're trying to figure out, how can we rescue these babies? Can we pull them out of the water with nets and resuscitate them and do all the things to see if the babies are going to die or not. And, of course, the question we really ought to be asking is why don't we go upriver and see what's throwing the babies into the water. I  mean, that's, THAT'S the real problem.

We're looking here at how to rescue institutions rather than thinking about what's causing the institutions to become unstable in the first place. And saying "demographics" is, of course, one part of it.   But there are a lot of other pieces that fit into that as well: the fact that we've systematically disinvested in higher education and that inequality is causing people to postpone or not engage in child-rearing at all. There are a whole bunch of factors that are resulting in the decline of higher ed.

And we recognize that your part is to sit there with a net and pull babies out of the water and that's what these regulations are about. But I think all of us need to think about the political advocacy we need to engage in. And, of course, we have the right people here (pointing at Mindy Domb and Jo Comerford) that are fighting that fight on the front lines. But to try to save higher education altogether.

You can also watch the full video.

Writing in Biology: Fourth Class

By this class, students should have completed their figure, written their methods, and had their methods followed. Usually only about 50 percent are actually there, but they're coming along.

The main purpose of this class, is to practice comparing the two figures, separating observations from inferences, and organizing RESULTS and DISCUSSION sections. For this purpose, I have collected together many examples of figures from previous semesters that they can practice on.

I've looked for a long time for an accessible reading for students to discuss the idea that observation and inference are inextricably linked. I've used an article by Fodor which was OK, but too high level. And several other things that were contextualized, but the context was too distracting. There was a nice section in Rudwick's Great Devonian Controversy that might work, but I worry that the context will still be too distracting. Instead, for the past couple of years, I've asked students to do a pre-class activity where they provide an example of an observation and inference. This has worked pretty well to get them thinking in the right direction.

I've learned to provide a little therapy up front to students before we do the practice activity. There's nothing like suddenly discovering all of the factors you never realized to control or document. Some students panic that they need to redo their figure or rewrite their methods. So I remind them that a primary purpose of the activity is to help them learn this stuff and it's OK that they didn't know it beforehand. And that if they did, we wouldn't need to do it in the first place. But it drives home the need to actually try methods out before you use them, a lesson which I hope they carry forward to their Proposals.

For the activity, I have them start to compare the figures. I ask them to remember the Writing from Experience activity: to start out just making a list of things they notice. Many students want to jump forward to conclusions like "It's a different tree"  and I ask them to back up and indicate what they can see that allows them to draw that conclusion. I wander through the room answering questions and looking at what students are recording. Then I ask them to begin to separate observations from inferences and to identify factors or variables that were different.

I provide some scaffolding along the way. First, after making a list of observations, I encourage them to try to separate their list into observations and inferences. And to try to organize the observations into an outline that presents them systematically: I ask them to recall the narrative-to-exposition activity where we came up with categories and organized their activities using a framework other than time.  Many students default to organizing around what they noticed first. Or what was the "most noticeable" difference, so I caution against these.

I also caution against making judgments: the goal is not to assign blame or say that differences are caused by errors — or to speculate about what might have happened or would happen under different future circumstances. But rather to simply observe differences and identify factors dispassionately. This is really hard.

Eventually, I ask them to present the two figures they compared side-by-side and give a quick presentation of first, just differences, and then the factors that they identified. And then I invite the other students to find other differences they might have missed.  If the class is small enough, I encourage everyone to present, but frequently the class is large enough that there really isn't time. I try to gently point out when they're describing inferences rather than observations. Or making judgments.

As we go through, I often take a few minutes to show them how to use ImageJ to collect data about differences: to measure items and to compare colors. And to emphasize that there is an immense amount of data available in the figures.

Before the end of class, I remind them that their rough drafts are due next week and that they should come to class ready to present their findings and to take notes of any feedback from the class that they can use to improve their analysis. I point out that I will start commenting on their rough drafts as soon as the next class ends and that I can give much better and more useful feedback if their manuscript is complete and as good as they can make it.

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