onsdag 29 augusti 2012

New term, new courses

Two courses that I am responsible for started this week and they take all my time at this moment. These two courses represent the brunt of my teaching commitments during the academic year.

The course "Future of Media" is given for the 10th time and this is the 8th time I'm responsible for the course. We change the theme every year, so it's basically a new course every year. This year's theme is "Future of Magazines / Magazines of the future". Last year's theme was "Future of Radio / Radio of the Future" (more info about that course can be found here, here and here). As usual, we have a super-cool line-up of a dozen and a half guest speakers who will visit us in (mainly) September and talk about the theme from various perspectives (technical, economic, consumption (reception/use), political, analog, digital etc.).

The course "Sustainability and Media Technology" is a brand new course and I worry about both this and that. Most things have fallen into place, but a lot is still a little unclear. Like, why are there 69 students  registered for the course, but only half of them showed up for the introductory lecture? And with so many guest lectures, will the course content be coherent enough?

I'm thus pretty busy right now I don't have the time to write a long blog post, but I expect I will come back to these two courses in a few blog posts during the autumn. "Sustainability and media" ends in the first half of October, but "Future of media" continues all the way until Christmas. To administer the courses and disseminate timely information, I have (once more) started a blog for each course; "Future of Media" and "Sustainability and Media Technology".

onsdag 22 augusti 2012

De-anonymizing students

In line with my previous blog post, this blog post is about a specific practice I have adopted in one of my courses - that of taking a photo of each student. Why on earth would I do that?

The course in question is a project course that runs over a whole term (it actually starts next week). The first half of the course consists of (many) guest lectures and the second half consists of project work where I seldom meet the students face-to-face. Around 50-70 students usually take the course.

The obvious answer is of course that I would (otherwise) never learn to connect more than a fraction of all students' faces to their names without some kind of mental aid or herculean memory effort. That would make the course very impersonal and I don't like that. Taking a photo is a way to de-anonyize the students; when I get an email, I can know who it comes from. It's also a way to being able to (after the course finishes) better recognize students and greet them! It might sound weird not to be able to do that, but if you meet many (100+) students each year, it is hard to keep track of all of them - especially a year or two later. I easily recognize many of the names, but I'm more hazy about the face and about connecting names to faces.

Another reason to take photos is that I put together a document with names and faces and disseminate it to (only) the course participants. That's a great way to help facilitate for the students to get to know each other and also to subtly/implicitly make it easier for students to form groups and work together with people they might not have known before the course started. I would assume that it is especially useful for those who know few other course participants beforehand rather than those students who already have relatively extensive networks and know many other course participants already beforehand.

...the only problem is that my camera doesn't work right now, <lens error>.

My question to other teachers is: do you use any de-anonymizing strategies, and if so, which?

söndag 19 augusti 2012

Bridging the distance between me and my students

I wrote a blog post about "bridging the student-teacher gap" last autumn. A group of students in one of my courses interviewed me about a(nother) course and about my personal interest in the topic of the course (i.e. "social media"). I contributed with some personal thoughts and anecdotes and the students contributed by editing the interview down into a 15-minute long podcast.

I later referred to this project when I wrote another blog post about different ways of solving the same problem. The podcast  was one way of solving a problem and a proposed computer system in a bachelor's thesis constituted another - and in my opinion less successful - way of solving "the same" problem; "how can students be supported in making informed choices about what courses to read - instead of finding out that a particular course wasn't their cup of tea some weeks after the course has started?"

The rest of this blog post concerns another suggestion for bridging the student-teacher gap. Before the proposed solution, I will start with describing the problem space. I'm right now reading a book where the empirical material that the authors analyze is management text from the 1960's and the 1990's. A quote struck a nerve with me, but do replace "boss" with "teacher" and "workforce" with "students":

"In large firms, the boss [...] loses contact with those who carry out orders: his orderers follow the hierarchical route [...] Since individual initiative is not welcome, orders from on high must be numerous and detailed [...] The attitude of the workforce becomes passive [...] The individual is now only a cog in an anonymous whole, subject not to human beings but to regulations."

This quote comes from a French management book from 1966, but there are far too many disturbing parallels with higher education 50 years later. I teach mostly (masters-level) courses with 50+ students, and I generally hardly get to know any of the students at all. I hardly meet them. I for sure lecture them and I communicate with them (including with "numerous and detailed orders from on high"). With e-mail, they can also communicate with me, but perhaps "communicate" is to say too much, as students generally write e-mails only to ask a specific question to get a clarification about an assignment, about the structure of the course, about the exam, about the grades, or to change seminar group next Tuesday.

I do get to know (some) students (some) at seminars, and I do get to know the chosen few as their thesis advisor, but even though the relationship can become kind-of personal, our respective roles as "teacher" and "student" choreographs the interaction pretty tightly so on the whole, I don't get to know my students and my students don't really have the opportunity to get to know me. To some extent I have to admit that I don't want to get to know my students (too much) because that takes time and I always have so much to do, so much to read as well as a life (and a family) outside of my job too. The path of least resistance is to hole up in my room and just answer all the email I get, but I also find this to be a regrettable state of affairs. It is partly the effect of the stressful tempo and of the larger size of and the bureaucratization of higher education during the last decades. But how can a trade-off between total accessibility and total inaccessibility be found?

With this blog post I also have a constructive proposal for myself for this coming academic year. I would like to set aside a weekday for an "open lunch" at a restaurant on campus where any and every students who wants to is welcome to join me. Instead of sending mail, calling me or looking me up and trying to catch me in my office, students would be able to informally and with a minimum of overhead (coordination costs) join me for lunch - just for the company or for more instrumental reasons.

A student might be genuinely interested in the topic of a specific lecture or a seminar and would like to continue the discussion. It might also be a good way to informally talk and provide feedback about a course - perhaps the pace is too tough or the purpose of the course is unclear. Perhaps a student experiences other problems or challenges. I will for example teach a project course during the whole autumn term, and I know that some project groups sometimes have internal problems (conflicts) that they really ought talk with me about at an early stage, but that I don't get to know about (unless they explode). So, joining me for lunch could be a way to raise topics that doesn't "fit" an email. A student would of course have to be prepared to articulate their case in the presence of other students joining for the lunch, but I still think it's worth a try.

There are some practical challenges that I need to figure out first. I have to find a suitable restaurant and preferably stake out a regular table (the Q house?). I have to figure out which week-day is the best (based on my schedule and other commitments). I have to spread the word to students.  Perhaps hardest of all, I have to make it a habit of being there every week - even if no-one turns up for the first four weeks - and I have to figure out what to do during those (hopefully few) occasions when I can't make it. A conference or a teaching commitments right before or after lunch can be planned for in advance, but being ill, or caring for a (suddenly) ill child is a harder nut to crack. Perhaps I should reserve some screen space on this blog/homepage for the status of upcoming open lunches?

I didn't come up with this open lunch concept by myself, it's something I heard about years and years ago. The headmaster of a large elementary school had weekly lunches at a nearby restaurant and invited parents to drop in if they wanted to discuss something they had on their mind regarding the school or their situation of their child. I thought it was a great idea already then.

torsdag 16 augusti 2012

Socio-technical practices & social sustainability

We have different "teams" at my department. The teams are an attempt to create if not tight research groups, then at least critical mass + an umbrella for people with similar (research) interests. Besides the sustainability team, I also try to participate in the Socio-Technical Practices (STP) team activities.

The STP team had an excursion/kick-off that I partook in and it was a great opportunity to socialize and get to know other team members better. We were supposed to prepare by thinking about persons we wanted to nominate to the STP team "hall of fame". Who had inspired us in terms of "understanding how different stakeholders make sense of and appropriate [predominantly-but-not-exclusively computer] technology".

I've been inspired by many, but in limiting my choises, I tried to think about what Socio-technical practices means to me. I'd say STP is where Science and Technology Studies (STS) meets computers/IT/the web/social media/human-computer interaction/usability/interaction design. Something like that. Persons that have inspired me in this area are Sherry Turkle, Batya Friedman and Susan Leigh Star. I think I could have added Paul Dourish to the list if I had read more of his texts. I might come back to these persons and explain why and in what way they have inspired me in a later blog post.

What I unfortunately couldn't come up with was a STP-relevant person who had inspired me and who also knew and had written good stuff about (environmental) sustainability. That is a little worrying, because it means that if I can't bridge the STP - sustainability gap, there is a chance that I will retreat from STP activities if I get choked up with stuff I care even more about. I don't want to split my attention if I can't unite these two approaches.

A possible "bridge" between STP and (ecological) sustainability could be the concept of "social sustainability"; STP - social sustainability - ecological sustainability. That could work, but until now I haven't really been convinced that social sustainability has very much to do with ecological sustainability at all, rather than just denoting "shit we like" - values we cherish here-and-now in the western world at this point of time - stuff like democracy, transparency, legitimacy etc. I haven't been able to find a good definition or list of criteria of what social sustainability really means, so the concept is sort of a floating ephemeral term which seems to be able to mean pretty much anything. My hope is that local ph.d. student Henrik who focuses on social sustainability in his work can clear things up for me after he comes back from his paternity leave. Meanwhile, I'll just have to do with the draft article he just sent over to me.

As to a definition of what ecological sustainability is, I very much like Richard Heinberg's short text "What is sustainability?" (pdf). He states that sustainability is all about "that which can be sustained over time" and proposes five axioms that a sustainable society must live up to. Axiom number three is for example: "To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment".

I would like to see (a proposal for) the corresponding axioms as regards to social sustainability. In fact, Heinberg partly disparages social sustainability and not so subtly says it is not relevant to and does not have that much to do with "real", i.e. ecological sustainability:

"The purpose of the axioms set forth here is not to describe conditions that would lead to a good or just society, merely to a society able to be maintained over time. It is not clear that perfect economic equality or a perfectly egalitarian system of decision-making is necessary to avert societal collapse."

Even worse is that I can spot a potential conflict between ecological and social sustainability. If social sustainability means "stuff that makes people happy" and people translate "stuff" and "living in a good society" with actual physical gadgets and consumption and CO2-emitting activities and material wealth, then social sustainability would in fact seem to be bad for the environment (environmental sustainability). It's not a long stretch to imagine that it would thus be good for the environment if almost all people are (stay or become) poor - despite the human misery such a statement implies. For example, the only "coordinated" large-scale reduction in global CO2 emissions this far came about in the wake of the 2008 financial crises and the global recession that followed it. Bad for the economy, a source of human misery - but good for the environment!

If social sustainability instead means stuff that doesn't cost money but that makes life better (harmony, justice, transparency, economic (and gender etc.) equality, low societal discontent, tensions and conflicts), then I don't see a direct tension between social and ecological sustainability. I unfortunately think that immaterial values ("justice") are so mixed-up with material wealth in our discussions that it's difficult to budge them apart at this point in time. Also and in line with Heinberg's statement above, I'm not sure why a stable social system by definition would not be "socially sustainable" even if we find that social system distasteful from our current "enlightened" position. I would thus like to propose the ancient-Egypt-test:

In ancient Egypt, 95% of the population worked in the "agricultural sector" and they managed to (only) generate of surplus of food that was sufficient for feeding the remaining 5% of the population who were slaves and who were busy building the pyramids (beyond of course the minuscule ruling elite). The ancient Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC and was around for more than 3000 years. Do note that it came to an end not because of environmental degradation, but as an effect of military conquest - it became a Roman province 30 BC and was a veritable granary for Rome.

A civilization that lasts for 3000+ years seems to fulfill any possible requirements as to sustainability ("that which can be sustained over time"). Ancient Egypt with is ruling elite and with its peasants and slaves thus ought to be regarded as being a society that was "socially sustainable", right? If not, I'd like someone to please tell me why (do leave a comment if you can contribute anything to this admittedly detailed-oriented technical discussion about the concept of social sustainabiliyt).

söndag 12 augusti 2012

Books I've read on my vacation

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I took a pause in my "regular" reading scheme over the summer and these books jumped the queue. All three books are relevant for my upcoming course on sustainability and ICT

After having gotten it recommended by a colleague, I thought Bill Tomlinson's "Greening through IT: Information technology for environmental sustainability" (2010) would be a lot better than it was. As potential  course literature, I on the whole found the whole book lacking. I got worked up and irritated by many things in the book, so I don't even know where to start. Let me instead show you one of the problems I had with a quote from the book:

"If we spend all of the available effort on research, without any attention to acting on the results, no actual change in environmental impact will occur. [...] On the other hand, action alone, based on the current imperfect information that we have about these issues, may result in misdirected effort, solving trivial problems, missing important and achievable goals, and potentially doing more harm than good. Engaging simultaneously in high-quality science and vigorous courses of action will have the greatest effect."

Did you get that? He says we should not spend all our time and effort on only research or on only action, but rather simultaneously on "high-quality research and vigorous action". Has anyone ever argued against doing both instead of doing just one or the other? Exactly which straw man is he attacking here? This sounds more like the non-committal feel-good mumble of an experienced politician rather than a person who actually has something to say on the matter. This also basically summarizes my critique of the whole book - it just doesn't add much and doesn't even says that much at all that is of substance. There are a lot of chapters and pages and words, but not a lot of content in the book. I even found the proposed basic framework of IT helping people to cope with larger scales of time, space and complexity pretty vacuous, or at least not having the necessary weight to anchor the rest of his reasoning in the book. His outlook on IT in relation to sustainability glosses over and diminishes the problems we face, and he habitually overestimates the effects of (for example) social media, online communities, education, learning software (etc.) for creating real change; "if we could only scale this experimental software service up by a factor of 10 000, we could actually decrease all US consumers' total waste by 1%!". Even the references are pretty crappy and every second one refers to a webpage or a newspaper article. On the whole the book was a huge disappointment. On the other hand, Tomlinson is the first author of one of my favorite articles that I read during the spring, "Collapse informatics" (pdf). That paper had far more substance, much better reasoning and a perspective that was so much more interesting  than his book. I wonder what has changed since he wrote the book and how come he has so much more to say now than when he wrote the book? 

Lorenz Hilty's "Information technology and sustainability: Essays on the relationship between information technology and sustainable development" (2008) on the whole covers the same area and is thus another attempt at a primer on IT + Sustainability. It is much more successful, more substantial and less "chatty" than Tomlinson's book despite is slim format (175 pages, large text). I love to hear someone say (backed by research) that "As a rule of thumb, the length of the useful life of most ICT devices is more important than their power consumption during use" and "Renewable power holds far greater potential for sustainability than, for example, fighting standby power consumption".

I liked the chapters on life-cycle assessment of IT, on rebound effects and especially the final chapter with practical advice for users, politicians and hardware + software designers. That doesn't mean there weren't any problems with the book though. It's no secret that the book is a mash-up of articles rather than a monograph, so there are some things missing and the book and chapters could have been more coherent and better integrated. As apart from Tomlinson's book, there really is no framework ("story", "narrative") that tries to integrate the different parts, so it's more like a jig-saw puzzle. The book as a whole won't work as course literature, but selected chapters are very good. The book is unfortunately expensive and it could have used a better designer - the very basic layout of the book easily fools you into thinking it was printed sometime in the 1980's or 1990's. 

The final book in this blog post (and on this vacation) is journalist David Owen's "The conundrum: How scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse" (2012). This is a popular science book about "rebound effects", i.e. unintuitive and unexpected side effect that backfires and defeats the purpose of the original intention (of saving energy, money, water etc.). It's a book about how things can go wrong even with the best of intentions. It's an easy read with its sub-pocketbook format, but I found it a little bit too chatty at times and it unfortunately lacks any references at all which is pretty rare (even for popular science book). Perhaps it's meant to be picked up at an airport and read on a flight?

Owen drives home the point over and over again that desirable change won't happen just because we (for example) increase the fuel economy of our cars. The only change that is certain to happen is that we will drive more, or buy larger and heavier cars, or fill it our cars with conveniences (air conditioning, music and other gadgetry) that draws electricity, decreases the fuel economy and eats up any potential savings. Worse still is that even in those cases where we do save gasoline and money, we just use the money saved on buying other stuff that consumes energy and resources. When some people start to carpool or take the bus, that leaves more and faster highway to those who keep on driving, increasing the utility of the highways and letting commuters reach their destinations faster and more conveniently. The end result is that people settle (even) further away from the cities - defeating the original purpose of the carpools and buses. Owen's advice is to instead move to New York (live really densely, without cars), or "build more New Yorks". Another tough way to "solve" the conundrum is to combine increased efficiencies with decreased consumption, i.e. when more people carpool or take the bus, the highway should also shrink by a lane. But Owen's conclusion is that since we won't like that, it's bound to not happen and we are in a hole:

"if we're serious about both climate change and global equity, the actual challenges we face are vastly greater - and will require far larger reductions in consumption by the word's more fortunate citizens - than the ones we currently treat as inconceivably huge."

torsdag 9 augusti 2012


We stopped in Lübeck for a day during our vacation. Imbued with the ambience of the city, I purchased local author and Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann's (1875-1955) book "Buddenbrooks". Buddenbrooks (1901) was his first book and Mann apparently used his own family of Lübeck traders as a template for the novel's Buddenbrook family in decline. The book tells the tale of four generations of the Lübeck trader/bourgeois/burgher Buddenbrooks family (from 1835 to 1875). I hoped to also learn something about the city of Lübeck through the book but that was not to happen.

I'll forego much of the content of the book (setting, characters, plot) and will instead here exclusively concentrate on the conception of work, duty and related topics in the book. These topics are the easiest to connect to my job as a teacher and educator and they give some perspectives on how much has happened in schooling, in work and in society during the last 150 years.

1) There is no doubt about what occupation the Buddenbrook sons will have. They are a family of merchants and at least one son in each new generation has to take charge of the firm. That is a given and alternatives are not even contemplated - no matter how unsuitable or unwilling a son might be. Will and want plays a limited role in the occupational choices - duty plays a much larger role in business as well as in marriage (see below).

2) Women don't work in the family firm. No woman (or child) ever has any idea whatsoever about the financial shape of the all-important family trading company. Women in fact don't work at all. Never. What they do all day long is actually hard for me to fathom. They don't cook or clean and they don't seem to take care of their children that much (they have servants and governesses for these tasks). They seem to live pampered but boring lives. Even social life is enclosed by different limitation (propriety, etiquette etc.). To socialize with people much below or above their own station in life is unimaginable. To socialize with people in the same station is necessary but oftentimes very formal - personal bonds of friendship seem to be hard to form. It easier for the men who at least have the choice to go the "club" to have a drink and meet "the boys".

3) There are so many people who do so very little in the book and even many men "in their prime" seem to live slothful lives. Both men and women young and old sometimes have "bad nerves" (or "indigestion" etc.) and need to go to a health resort for an extended period of time. They really do are lucky they are affluent since many are so frail. Or wait, perhaps "bad nerves" is an effect of affluence (boredom)? One character in the book seems to be able to go through life without hardly working at all and when working never accomplishes anything at all! The family ties and riches guarantees him a certain level of comfort. It would be shameful beyond imagination for the family to not support him. A scandal! The head of the family/firm is on the other hand under a lot of pressure to maintain the family fortunes that so many other people's wellbeing depend on.

4) Duty is big. And inheritances and dowries. And family. You marry strategically. You marry (also, or primarily) for the good of the family. Sometimes it goes wrong, but there is anyway little room for free will or love. The family has a semi-public "family diary" where important dates and events diligently are noted down over the decades and over the generations. This book is like the family bible. Even if you fight within the family (sometimes bitterly), you are still always family (i.e. always invited to the Thursday family dinners and to Christmas celebrations).

5) Even those who work diligently seem to be remarkably uneducated, uncurious and unintellectual. Or perhaps that is an effect of working diligently but within a very practical and limited field? An ambitions merchant son needs to have a lot of hands-on training and knowledge about the family's ships, warehouses and business associates and he needs to know how to talk to workers, clerks and lawyers, but he doesn't seem to need to know much else (and no-one else seems to live an intellectually stimulating life either). The local newspaper holds only gossip about "important" marriages and local events. Hardly anyone in the book seems to read books or enter into an discussion about something that demands hard thinking. Much is dictated by tradition and etiquette (what would the other leading burghers think?); "everybody knows that...", "it is obvious that..." or "never in the history of our family has it happened that... [...] and you are not allowed to...". Music is to some extent present though (playing yourself or listening to others).

Much has happened since, but will the pendulum swing back at some point? I can imagine that hard times by necessity brings family and perhaps neighbors together. Instead of buying professional services to the extent that we do today, you will need to rely more on family, friends and neighbors.