August 7, 2010


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May 27, 2010

An immodest and hopefully obvious proposal for electronic citations

I had a thought today after reading of Barnes & Noble's new iPad app, which allows customers to loan/borrow purchased books. I haven't heard whether the annotations go along with the lending, but it strikes me that academics needing to cite locations in ebooks and those interested in annotation technology both need a way to refer to locations within electronic documents.

The problem for academics looking for citation conventions is that we're all used to page numbers, which give us a way to identify a location manually by flipping through pages (or by hunting for a letter or other archival document within a file folder). Do we really need that sort of human-navigated location specificity? If we can search for text inside a document, we certainly don't. But the reference format is needed, and I think there would be an easy way to create another convention that would serve both academic purposes and ereader technology:


What's that, you ask?

location/file number (within envelope, 1 if no envelope)/file size/file checksum (using some conventional algorithm)

Given a particular edition (i.e., uncorrupted file in a recognized format with a file size and checksum), this would give a precise location. With a different edition, the approximate location within a file and the first part of the quoted passage should be sufficient for finding the passage quickly. Let's call the three numbers a brief spot location reference and the numbers plus the quotation the spot location reference. What if you're referring to a passage?


I know I'll be torn limb-from-limb by my fellow historians, until I point out the following:

When Patto/d her hat./
This passage shows the protagonist's commitment to blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda./
Sherman Dorn/20100527080312-0500

That's the range reference, the first and last ten characters of the (theoretical) passage, annotation text, annotation author, and timestamp of annotation. And there, ladies and gentlemen, is a format for annotating electronic materials. It does not require changing the EPUB format, just tracking a file of annotations and ereader software that can put the annotation in the right place (the start and end of the passage for disambiguation). They can be shared, accumulated, analyzed, etc.

There may be important reasons why this wouldn't work, but I can't think of them at the moment.

January 23, 2010

Ebook readers and markets

At the beginning of the month, one of The Big Things at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the proliferation of electronic readers (or ebook readers), and as someone who bought a Sony ebook reader a few years ago for work purposes, I have a few thoughts that are different from the standard speculation you can find online.

I bought the Sony (a PRS-505 for the geeks) because I needed a device to hold article MSS for Education Policy Analysis Archives so I could squirrel myself and it away somewhere without distraction. Then I started carting student papers around in it, and then tried downloading articles onto it, as well as a few books for pleasure reading. It certainly served its main purpose for me, with a small but important exception.

The major weakness of the Sony for my purpose was displays of tables and figures, which tend to be important in professional research papers. Since the Sony's size mimics the mass-market paperback size, it cannot display a regular 8.5x11 (or similarly-sized A4) page without reformatting it. Reflowable text is beautiful, but reflowed tables are gibberish. The Sony's handling of PDF allows a sideways-display of half a page, but that still produces fairly tiny text and is disastrous if the midpoint of a page is not the logical breaking point for a display. Even with text-only PDFs, the reformatting to text-only is awkward, and often does not work for two-column pieces. For professionals who have similar needs, the larger-format devices are mandatory for most work purposes.

The other issue that would determine future purchases is annotation. I would like to be able to comment on student papers using a device. With my current device, I can read papers but cannot comment on them. For a variety of reasons, doing so on a computer is workable but awkward (at least for me). And moreso, the point is not annotation but creating annotations that I can share with students when I return papers. I don't know whether the annotation systems available on some devices attach notes to the documents in ways that can be shared, but an annotation system that is private, just for me, is a deal-breaker. I contacted the Entourage Edge folks, and they say that the scribbled notes on PDF documents would be added to the documents (and thus can be given back to students), but not typed notes. That'll do as a minimum.  I haven't heard whether the other large-format ereaders have (or will have) similar capacity. And of course there are the two major question marks in the near-term future, the Apple tablet and the Notion Ink Adam. I mention those two because an Apple tablet that's modeled on the iPhone will have multitouch zooming (extraordinarily helpful for reading figures) and the Adam looks like it will be the first tablet with a PixelQi screen. I've heard that the Edge may have a very good shot at education markets in Asia, but an Apple or a PixelQi tablet with sharable annotation would be very appealing to me. On the other hand, if a tablet has no documentation annotation I can share, it's not practical for me.

I am not typical of e-book reader users in general, but I am typical of some. The discussion I've read thus far too often ignores the likely fragmentation of the potential market for ebook readers and tablets and the way that people might think about and use the devices. Manufacturers and software developers are obviously making bets about which devices and software will capture enough segments to be profitable (and sustainable). Maybe we should think about these market segments as potentially "thick" in some commercial sense (likely to sustain either a type of device or a type of product) or "thin" (not likely to sustain a commercial enterprise).  (Okay, I'm using the "long tail" metaphor here.) Amazon clearly went for profiting on the device rather than a printer-and-cartridge system, and that was evidently a correct judge of the market (especially customers who had become used to heavily-discounted books from Amazon). Jeff Bezos benefited from Sony going first; in technology, sometimes being the second mover is the big advantage. Who knows if the creators of the Skiff reader or various hardware or software alternatives will hit a thick-enough segment? 

Some clearly amateur thoughts on this:

  • Someone aiming for customers who read primarily fiction and nonfiction in the "bestseller" categories need a smoothly-functioning catalog of books but not necessarily a huge title list or a large part of that segment. If you doubt me, guess what proportion of books is sold in airport shops and other non-bookstore retail outlets and then find documentation of whether you were correct. 
  • A multipurpose device (such as what Apple's tablet is likely to be) needs to be easy to use in its central apps. It does not need to have an enormous feature set to be commercially successful, and an open SDK will help the apps develop. This gives Apple a substantial advantage in tablets, though someone working with Android might catch up in terms of a singularly beautiful design.
  • Something that is more aimed at a niche, such as the Entourage Edge or the Skiff reader, needs to be head and shoulders above competition in doing its job well or the niche needs to be larger than expected.
  • Alternative for niche devices: be incredibly inexpensive and incredibly consumer-friendly.

March 22, 2009

Needing a break, even for a hardened historian

During spring break, I starting reading some books on the Spanish Civil War, and I'm finding it tough slogging: it's not inherently hard reading, but it's hard to read for long about a story that ends badly, where thousands of people lost their lives and a country turned into a dictatorship that lasted for decades. I'm finding myself putting down a book after about 20 minutes of reading and needing to find something much more upbeat about life.

This is a substantial change from when I was a college student or grad student and read about all sorts of tragedies without its affecting me in the same way. After my first semester of exams, I read The Painted Bird... as a break from studying before my plane flight home. So either I was a hardboiled adolescent/young adult who has softened, or having children has changed how I react (and, yes, I teared up a bit when reading several Patricia Polacco books to my children), or the current economic crisis and the genocides of the past 20 years have been making such tragedies seem much closer. 

That, and maybe those of us who study the history of education have it easy, because even when schools have educated children worse than we'd like, the children have still been alive.

December 24, 2008

E-book readers and faculty workflow

I agree with novelist Charlie Stress (hat tip): electronic book readers are enormously useful for people who have to read enormous amounts of text. Stress's context is the group of acquisition editors ("slushpile" readers) he knows, but it is also true for faculty. I bought a Sony PRS-505 earlier this year in hopes of becoming more efficient as an editor, and that's finally happening now that I have the right tools and habits to fit with it. In the past week or so, I've been able to make decisions and send off e-mails on a bunch of manuscripts by going to a quiet location with the following:

  • The reader stuffed with manuscripts and reviewer compilations
  • A printed sheet with a bunch of prompts for me to guide my thinking and take notes on
  • A clipboard with separate compartments for the sheets of paper and pens
  • My reading glasses
No internet, no distraction. On occasion, statistical tables are difficult to read without a printout or a full computer screen, but I'm getting used to the formatting. If I'm very lucky, I can read, think about, and prepare notes for e-mails on 4 or 5 manuscripts. But it also gives me a greater chance to get some work done when I only have a few minutes.

A similar process works for reading student work of some types. I am a teacher who often writes far more comments than other people tell me are commonly read/absorbed by students. That's fine with me, but I turn student work back more quickly if I first read through a batch without commenting (and then insert comments in the files the next time I have a few hours with a computer). 

I haven't been successful yet with the reader and published journal articles (often downloadable via PDFs). But it will work with nontechnical papers I sometimes download. I suspect that if I commuted by train, I'd do a lot more work this way. But I drive, so much of my commuting time is spent with podcasts rather than electronic texts.

April 3, 2008

Jim Anderson retrospective, part 2

A few days ago I described the 20th-anniversary Jim Anderson retrospective at AERA. Now it's my turn to address some of the topics raised in that session, in a personal historiography, or my reading of The Education of Blacks in the South, originally published in 1988.

For me, the thesis of the book was not particularly a surprise, for several reasons. First, my undergraduate advisor Paul Jefferson had exposed me to a broad variety of historical arguments from the very first course I took with him, which used Herbert Aptheker's documentary collection, to a seminar course where I wrote an historiographical essay on W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction. Bryn Mawr College sociologist David Karen had exposed me to both structural-functionalists and radical education critics in a course I took with him when I was a junior (or at least I vaguely recall its being spring 1986). Then in grad school I had Michael Katz as an advisor.

But probably the teacher who lay the groundwork the most for Anderson was Bob Engs, for whom I read C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. Because Engs and Anderson use the same material to arrive at very different interpretations of the role of foundations in Southern education, it says a great deal about Engs as a teacher that he made Anderson make sense for me even while he was telling me that Anderson's book was polemical. I like both men a great deal, so perhaps a broader explanation is in order.

Engs and Anderson were both pioneers as African American historians in elite majority-white universities in the same time (the early 1970s), Engs at Penn and Anderson at Illinois. I wish I could say they were part of a continuous record going back decades, but in an case they've become part of diverse faculties for the past several.

Engs turned his first research project into a book ten years before Anderson's, with Freedom's First Generation about the Hampton, Virginia, community. Anderson took a decade and a half to write his first book (something Vanessa Siddle Walked called "lingering with an idea," but I thought of as "a darned good example of a leader in my field who didn't write 7 articles a year before tenure"). And they are different books: While Anderson writes only of education, Engs writes a local history, focusing on the contingent conditions that allowed Hampton's African American community to thrive after the Civil War and hang on to wealth in the very late 19th century even while the curtain of segregation and disfranchising was closing in from all sides.

Engs saw the Hampton Institute as one of those contingencies, and Samuel Chapman Armstrong (Hampton's first leader) as a friend of the Hampton African American community. Where Anderson saw a conspiracy to undermine equality, Engs saw irony with Armstrong's showing one face to the white community and another to Hampton's African Americans. Where Engs saw opportunity that some grabbed in the midst of oppression, Anderson saw structural limitations that were covered up by a tamed education system. Let me make clear that their views of the Southern political economy and educational structure are similar; the great interpretive differences lie in the role of the foundations.

Despite those deep differences in the interpretation of late 19th century Southern education, Engs laid the groundwork for my "oh, yes, of course" reading of Anderson in several ways. First, he made me and other graduate students read Willie Lee Rose's Rehearsal for Reconstrution and C. Vann Woodward and Jacqueline Jones and Exodusters and several others in a way that raised important questions about the South's history after the Civil War. I was also his teaching assistant one semester for his Southern postwar history class (that's postwar as in post-Civil War), and apart from his tolerance for the awkward naive grad student I was then, I figured out how he could say the most outlandish things in a lecture and get the southern white male students to recommend that all of their friends take his classes. With a light baritone, he stood at the front of class, uttering outrageous interpretations in a quiet, patient manner, as if they wouldn't ruffle anyone's feathers. The students loved him (and I presume students still love him at Penn).

So in many ways, I bought much of Anderson's argument because of Engs. If it's any comfort, Bob, it's because of Anderson's discussion of communities that I bought your argument, too. Ultimately, the best scholarship in each book is about different levels of action. Anderson effectively demonstrates that white philanthropists did conspire to impose a certain type of education on the South. Yet in his work on community efforts, Anderson bolsters Engs's argument that at the local level, there was a lot more going on. I'm not sure we have to establish the moral worth of Samuel Chapman Armstrong to evaluate either book. (Some years ago, Engs wrote a biography of Armstrong, and it's much more sympathetic than I expect Anderson's version would be.)

I have both learned from Anderson's work and also failed to give it credit in one case. It was because of his book that my own dissertation research on graduation in the 20th century involved looking at the extent of high school availability in the 1950s and 1960s. And like John Rury, I am returning to the scope of high school education in the 20th century South. In Schools as Imagined Communities, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Barbara Shircliffe, and I could have enriched the introduction by discussing Anderson's work. Mea culpa.

As those at the AERA panel said, Anderson's book helped open up the history of Southern education after the Civil War, giving the subject the gravitas that it deserves and momentum that has served many other historians well. The rest of us in the field can only hope to leave an intellectual legacy as significant as Jim Anderson's.

March 31, 2008

Tacit knowledge and the AERA program hustle

Eduwonkette has commented on the heterogeneous quality of sessions at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, quoted someone saying it was a tenure hustle, and suggested that the IES-funded Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness is a rival to AERA. (Oh, yes, and her friend skoolboy is right in recommending Topaz Thai.) I've commented on the oversized aspect of the conference, but I waited until after AERA to gripe about one feature of AERA that is fundamentally inequitable:

AERA's reviewing system provides structured advantages to groups of researchers who collaborate on submitted proposals. Researchers from disciplines with solitary traditions face inherent disadvantages in such a system.

Because of its size, AERA has for years rationed session slots to divisions and SIGS by the number of submissions in prior meetings. (I don't know the formula, but I suspect it includes the number of prior submissions, number of prior panels, total membership in the division/SIG, phase of the moon at AERA two years ago, together with a cosine function tied to the inverse proportional pressure wave created by a size-10 shoe dropped from the AERA executive director's office to the street below.) So there is a huge incentive for division leaders to encourage large numbers of submissions, which produces a low acceptance rate.

Theoretically, that should mean a better overall quality of sessions, but it doesn't turn out that way, because with a large number of submissions (which are heterogeneous in quality), you also need a large number of reviewers, and program folks literally go begging for reviewers in the second half of the year, after submissions are in.

If you think the quality of reviewing is significantly more consistent than the quality of submissions, I have a swamp or bridge to sell you. If you're looking for reviewers, you don't have much of a choice. And AERA's reviewing system has a one-size-fits-all quantitative rating scheme (rubric), regardless of the methodological or epistemological traditions of the scholar. "Data Sources" are irrelevant to the philosopher, but it's a required criterion for all reviews. And the quality of feedback varies as well. Here are the (quite positive) reviews my coauthor and I received for the proposal that was accepted:

Choice of Problem/Topic    4 / 5
Theoretical Framework    4 / 5
Methods    4 / 5
Data Sources    4 / 5
Conclusions/Interpretations    4 / 5
Quality of Writing/Organization    5 / 5
Contribution to Field    4 / 5
Membership Appeal    4 / 5
Would You Attend This Session?    4 / 5
Overall Recommendation    5 / 5

Comments to the Author
This is a well-written, clear, and very focused proposal. It offers new perspectives on the oft-talked about teacher shortage problem, providing new evidence from data on re-entry into the profession and analyzing entry and exit by age. The data, methods and conclusions all appear to be solid. However, I do feel that more critical issues related to teacher shortages emerge if we consider the distribution of teacher shortages--for example, shortages of teachers willing to teach in urban areas, and subject-specific teacher shortages in math and science. Nevertheless, this paper makes an important contribution to the overall teacher shortage debate.

Choice of Problem/Topic    5 / 5
Theoretical Framework    4 / 5
Methods    5 / 5
Data Sources    5 / 5
Conclusions/Interpretations    5 / 5
Quality of Writing/Organization    4 / 5
Contribution to Field    4 / 5
Membership Appeal    4 / 5
Would You Attend This Session?    3 / 5
Overall Recommendation    4 / 5

Comments to the Author
A strong, well-designed proposal on a clearly important topic.

I'm not sure if the second reviewer was exhausted from 17 prior reviews (my hats off to her or his service in that case) or just had little to say, but I've had reviews that are all over the map in terms of ratings and amount/quality/relevance of comments. I pity the poor program volunteer who has to sort the reviews and figure out what to do with submissions that receive disparate splits (4s and 5s from one reviewer, 1s and 2s from another, with either or both reviews having either many or no comments). But there's one conclusion I take as a member of AERA who submits proposals:

Whether your AERA proposal is accepted is substantially a game of craps. This conclusion doesn't mean that horrid proposals are accepted but that plenty of very decent proposals are shot down because there is no way to create a consistent system of reviewing, and there is probably no way to predict which good proposals are accepted and which good proposals are rejected. (I wonder if anyone has asked permission to look at a set of proposal ratings to calculate reliability...)

I suppose I could make money by having a side bet system (but I don't live in Vegas or Atlantic City), but there's a more pragmatic consequence that some researchers use to increase their odds of being placed on the program (often a requirement for getting travel funds from your institution): Agree with colleagues or graduate students to collaborate on submissions. The more submissions your name is attached to (either as main presenter or coauthor), the greater your chances of having a proposal accepted and thus being on the program (see the "tenure hustle" comment above).

This consequence is obvious to some but the type of tacit knowledge that isn't told to others as part of their grad-school socialization. Many of us work in relatively solitary fields (philosophy, history, etc.), where being on the margins of someone else's work doesn't seem to deserve the intellectual credit of being a coauthor. So someone coming from that field would probably not be told by her or his advisor that to maximize one's chances of appearing on an AERA program, you need to network and increase the number of submissions your name is attached to. In my subfield, the usual advice is to collaborate with others to propose a coherent panel, which is supposed to have a higher chance of acceptance because of the higher quality and relevance for the complete panel. That works in some conferences where there are advantages to complete panels, but in most divisions at AERA, that is unlikely to be true.

I'm not griping about the system this year, since I did the logical thing and both collaborated with a colleague where we could ethically submit two proposals (one emphasizing my side of the work and another emphasizing his side of the work) and also agreed to be put on as a panelist by a third colleague, and in another role by a fourth person. The proposal where I was the presenter happened to get accepted. Was that because my proposal was the most qualified? Not likely. Just having several proposals with my name on it helped, and the odds worked in my favor. But if you haven't learned this and your single proposal to AERA was rejected, you now know what you need to do: get your name on multiple submissions to the next AERA program. The submission deadline is in the summer, so it's time now to start networking for next year. Don't be unethical: network where you really can be a contributor. But if your tenure depends on AERA appearances, it's (sadly) in your interest to play this game.

Ultimately, I suppose AERA could be overwhelmed if groups of researchers decide they'll band together in 100-person units, each of whom submits 2 paper proposals as a primary presenter and 99 coauthors. That is probably not likely to happen, but the ad absurdum thought experiment should make my point clear: increased numbers of submissions do not inherently improve the quality of accepted panels at AERA, even with lower acceptance rates, and those who work in large research groups have an inherent advantage in a metastasized conference like AERA.

There are some potential fixes I can imagine:

  • Divide single-authored proposals from multiple-authored proposals in the reviewing process, so single-authored proposals are compared only to single-authored proposals, and likewise with multiple-authored proposals.
  • Have some metric of reviewer trust within AERA. No, I have no clue how this could be done feasibly.
  • Subdivide the reviewing process so program volunteers only have a limited number of submissions to work with and can read and filter the reviews without going bonkers.

There are two reasons why AERA should care about this problem. First, it's an issue of equity. AERA's annual meeting is already designed in a way that benefit faculty who work in better-funded institutions who can support travel to and several nights' stay in expensive hotels in New York, San Diego, Chicago, etc., and those are the same faculty who are likely to have research groups (i.e., grad students) that foster a multiple-submission system and increase odds of appearing on the program.

Second, it's also an issue of quality with the program. AERA is the best evidence I know that a high rejection rate does not increase one's program quality. That rejection rate is only meaningful if it reliably includes stronger proposals and filters out weaker proposals. Apart from disciplinary and other differences on what you or I may think are stronger or weaker proposals, I just don't think the system is working at AERA. That doesn't mean I'm going to abandon AERA entirely (I've reviewed dozens of proposals over the years, regardless of my own participation), but I am one of those on the margins of AERA in large part because the current annual-meeting structure is dysfunctional.

March 25, 2008

AERA brief note

I'm in the Delta terminal of JFK, waiting to go home to Tampa. Presented. Listened. Laughed. Bought things in both the AERA exhibit hall and also the Juliiard School bookstore (which was having a 30%-off sale on a bunch of CDs). I will be blogging later this week on a NYC nutty policy and on the 20th retrospective session on Jim Anderson's 1988 book, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935.

February 25, 2008

Students Blog

Here is why I'm delighted to have the NYC Students Blog on my list of must-reads: when Bronx Science Students Walk Out, you'll get a student perspective responding to the NY Sun article.

November 26, 2007

Florida DOE omits Patricia Polacco from holiday reading list

Missing from the state's list of Recommended Holiday Reading: Patricia Polacco, whose The Trees of the Dancing Goats and Christmas Tapestry are her typical tear-jerking, wonderfully-illustrated fare. The Trees of the Dancing Goats is also available through the Florida Braille and Talking Books Libraries.

I'm sure this is unrelated to the controversy over Polacco's "disinvitation" from the 2006 International Reading Association conference by McGraw-Hill because she opposes No Child Left Behind. Or to the fact that the books are explicitly ecumenical. But it's a shame nonetheless.

October 30, 2007

Social annotation and the marketplace of ideas

David Rothman has a wonderful idea from the growth of social annotation tools and the development of an open e-book format:

How long until savvy writers pester publishers to let them do interactive e-books? -- where readers' comments can appear in relevant places in the texts or elsewhere in the books. Imagine the possibilities for smart nonfiction writers and those in dream-with-me genres like romance fiction.

I am experimenting this semester with using Diigo to show students in one course my annotations on Supreme Court desegregation opinions. I've been able to provide translations of legal terms (certiorari, de jure, de facto, etc.), tell students where they can skip (e.g., issues of standing, which are tangential to the topics at hand for the course), what passages to read in depth, and some questions to think about specific passages.

There is already BookGlutton's idea for Unbound Reader, based on the epub standard. For those wondering what the One Laptop Per Child initiative is for, imagine an eight-year-old reading a copy of a story and seeing and replying to the comments of other eight-year-olds around the world on the same passage. 

For those who wonder about the monetization of this -- how can anyone make money off free books? -- Rothman has an obvious answer:

A community approach is worthwhile in itself, but along the way would reduce losses to piracy. You're less likely to steal from someone whom you and your friends respect. What's more, forum participation could be among the rewards for those who paid voluntarily for books distributed under Creative Commons licenses.

I suspect that savvy musicians think of mp3-sharing in similar ways, and if we're headed back to the days when vinyl records were the a way to get musicians concert gigs, maybe free books are a way to draw people into other ways to remunerate authors. For those in genre fields (romance, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, etc.), midlist authors might find that approach enormously attractive. And those of us in academe? There are some obvious possibilities that appeal to me to provide access to reading but some possibility for revenues where appropriate, such as books that are free online but that carry a Creative Commons license requiring a "binding license" fee, so anyone can read a book but where publishers or copy shops need to pay to distribute bound copies. This idea adds to that imaginary repertoire.

As Rothman notes, this potential requires a standard for annotation to be folded into the next generation of epub standards.

July 26, 2007

Loss of the Weekly World News

It's true, dear readers. The Weekly World News is ceasing publication at the end of August. (Hat tip.) There goes the end of the great litany of newspaper readership analyses (which varies by country):

  • The Washington Times is read by the people who run the country.
  • The Washington Post is read by the people who think they run the country.
  • The New York Times is read by the people who think they ought to run the country.
  • The Boston Globe is read by the people who used to run the country.
  • The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who own the country.
  • USA Today is read by the people who are told where to travel by the people who own the country.
  • The Los Angeles Times is read by the people who wouldn't mind running the country as long they didn't have to leave California.
  • The Chicago Tribune is read by the people who think Harry Carey should run the country.
  • The National Inquirer is read by the people who think Angelina Jolie should run the country.
  • The Weekly World News is read by the people who don't care who runs the country, as long as she or he meets regularly with aliens.

July 21, 2007

Reading... but not what you think

Yes, I was at a local bookstore at midnight, getting two copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But I'm in my office this afternoon, reading student papers. I don't get the Harry Potter until I'm done.

In other news, Jeff Solochek reports correctly that I'm now the representative of the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform on the Florida DOE's advisory committee looking at the FCAT. I've worked with FCAR co-founder Gloria Pipkin before on a few matters, and I was flattered to receive her request. This is an interesting challenge for me, and Gloria and I took a few steps to make sure that the FCAR board was comfortable with my particular take on accountability.

There are a few things that Solochek didn't get correctly. I don't think of myself as an "FCAT critic" but a critic of the current uses of the FCAT. The conflation of the test with the policy is interesting...

The more serious problem is the way that the Gradebook's thumbnail of my portrait is all fuzzy. You can compare it to the image in the top left corner of this page and see what you think. But I understand the need for thumbnails, and I am here providing a slim, 100-by-100 portrait that should accommodate virtually any blog's storage limits:

Simpsonized Dorn portrait
(after Simpsonization)

Enough silliness.  Back to reading!

July 18, 2007

Tufte-d morning

I was lazy this morning and exercised by jogging in place on an exercise mat, browsing/read through Edward Tufte's Beautiful Evidence. While Tufte's idea of sparklines (in chapter 2) is appealing, I am not nearly as impressed by this book as by his other volumes, espcially Visual Explanations. I am not yet sure why. Then again, I am only halfway through the book. Maybe another morning's exercise will reveal the reasons for my mild dissatisfaction.

March 17, 2007

Complementary schismogenesis

I don't know about anything else I accomplished during spring break, but I learned a new term, complementary schismogenesis, that has its roots in a 1935 article by Gregory Bateson about cultural contact but is probably less used today by anthropologists than communications folks such as linguist and pop-communications writer Deborah Tannen. (See a June 2006 entry in Omniglot for a decent explanation from a communications perspective.)

The devolution of the term from a macro-societal context (what happens when two cultures interact) to microdynamics (what happens when two people interact) is a fascinating evolution in the social sciences. In both cases, the term refers to a dynamic that reinforces asymmetrical (and often dysfunctional) relationships. In the anthropology of education, John Ogbu's work comes closest to the term, arguing that involuntary minority cultures have responded to long histories of oppression by crafting an oppositional identity and punishing members of the culture who pick up even functional attributes of the dominant culture. Tannen's example of men who like to play Devil's Advocate pushing women to withdraw from active participation, a behavior which in turn reinforces the conversational argumentation of men, is a stereotypical example on the micro level.

On one level, the borrowing of concepts from another discipline is evidence of interdisciplinary creativity. On another level, I wonder if we do ourselves a disfavor by attempting to use society-scale concepts to explain individual or small-group behavior. At some point, scale does matter, and usually the borrowing/translation is one way, from the social down to the individual level.  The borrowing is sufficiently asymmetrical that there's an old joke Doug Fuchs told me about a troubled man who leaves a psychologist's office without talking to the therapist:  "I'm sorry, but you can't help me. My problems are so big, I need a sociologist."

December 21, 2006

Kids, don't write these sentences at home

I was wondering why I just couldn't get far in Theodore Porter's Trust in Numbers (1995) until I came across the following (on p. 15):

Lorraine Daston instances Charles Dufay, a French researcher of the 1720s and 1730s, to epitomize a different experimental ideal.

So it's not my lagging attention due to a virus. It's just subtly awful writing. Porter's book is looming large in the revisions of Accountability Frankenstein, but his frequently elliptical (dis)organization and style make the reading painful.

November 24, 2006

Lit-review frustrations, part 397

The next time I read someone claiming to derive postmodernism from quantum mechanics and chaos theory, I'm going to scream. This misunderstanding of physics usually ruins what otherwise would be interesting reading.

October 25, 2006

Errata week: To be read (yet)

I'm declaring the next week or so to be Errata Week, where I declare a bunch of mistakes I've made professionally. One of the obligations of academics is to acknowledge these openly. Since publishers don't print errata sheets frequently, it's time to use blogs to do that instead.

Today, I'll start with a list of very specific omissions (and omissions count as errors): books I've committed to reading in a very concrete way, by buying them, but where I haven't cracked the covers (yet). When I was studying for comprehensive exams in 1989-90, I realized I had three lists of books in my head: books I wanted to read, books I should read, and books I should have read two weeks some time ago. That last category has grown considerably in the past 17 years.

I'm amazed at The Little Professor's frequent This Week's Acquisitions notes (a personal version of an academic library's recently acquired list), and I admit that I don't scarf down books as voluminously as Miriam Burstein because, well, I'm not as persistent. So here's the tip of the hat to Miriam and a commitment to get to the following books Very Soon Now:

  • Steven Mintz, Huck's Raft
  • Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods
  • Richard Neumann, Sixties Legacy
  • Lee Jones, ed., Brothers of the Academy
  • Roger Geiger, Knowledge and Money
  • Clive Griggs, The TUC and Education Reform, 1926-1970
  • Beverly Daniel Tatum, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?"
  • Philippe Meyer, The Child and the State
  • Judith Sealander, Private Wealth and Public Life
  • Antwone Fisher, Finding Fish
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • Vincent Harding, Hope and History
  • Lisbeth Schorr, Within our Reach
  • Etta Kralovec, Schools that Do too Much
  • Linda Christensen and Stan Karp, ed., Rethinking School Reform
  • Viviana Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money
  • Candace Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman (though I think someone else picked this out in the bookstore, it's lying in my pile)
  • Pauline Vaillancourt Rosenau, The Competition Paradigm
  • Scott Sandage, Born Losers

And adding to that list is a package on its way to me this week:

  • Michael Bérubé, What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts?
  • David Nye, America as Second Creation
  • Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics
  • Thomas Misa, Leonardo to the Internet
  • Natalie McMaster, No Boundaries
  • Cape Breton by Request (2 vols.)
  • Harold Jones, Let us Break Bread Together

Oh, wait: Those last items are CDs, but at least the last one deserves to be on the list. Jones's chamber group played at my wedding more than 18 years ago (my wonderful mother-in-law knew him for years while living in New York), and I should've gotten it before now.

Tomorrow's errata: acknowledgment omissions of various types.

September 1, 2006

Emergency! Abstract needed!

The first author of a piece I'm third or fourth author of e-mailed me with an urgent request to shape the abstract before it's sent off, tonight, to an editor. This is a long MS (88 pages), and he hoped to have the abstract in an hour "or so." 

I leaned on the "or so" heavily.

It's an important piece to me, or I wouldn't have seen it as an urgent request, but occasionally you can drop everything else without going nuts. (And there are other considerations I won't describe.) I'm glad he didn't e-mail in the middle of my make-up chat to take care of students who were absent from Wednesday's chat thanks to Ernesto.

But it's an act of relative concentration to review a MS that you've seen most (but not all of) in a prior draft and try to squeeze the ideas into 250 words in a short time.  I failed: my abstract draft was 350 words. And I still cut out many of the rather cool small points (that other coauthors wrote).

I think I just experienced what writing on a deadline is like. I haven't done that since my stint as Junior Journalist in high school. I can do it, but it's not my joy.

August 26, 2006

Graduation-rate report, just out, is already obsolete...

Seastrom et al.'s technical report on graduation rates, volume 1, was just released this week. (Hat tip: edspresso.) Kudos to the authors on it.

And, unusual for an area in my research expertise, it's already out of date. Warren's 2005 paper was released while the report was in peer review and was addressed briefly in a footnote; Mishel and Roy's book isn't mentioned anywhere. Please don't blame the authors—the ED's internal review process can be slower than academic journals'—but it means the report should be read cautiously, limited to the grade-based methods analyzed in it. The omissions are a reflection of the literature's quick turnover, not necessarily flaws in the authors' work.

No, I haven't had a chance to read it thoroughly... in my copious free time at the beginning of the semester. I need to breathe, first... and get some other writing done.

August 24, 2006

Comparative studies in special education: a brain-bursting exercise

This evening, I'm finishing up my reading and note-taking on non-U.S. history of special education placement for a review article on inclusion. I'm writing a small section, and I know it would come to this: someone who knows just about the U.S. (me!) has to search for and read the secondary literature on comparative perspectives. And it was just as I feared: big enough that I couldn't quickly grasp it, and small enough that I really could read the entire field or close to it. I'd been hunting and pecking away over a month with moments stolen here and there, but the primary author came down with the hammer (properly so) and told me, Thou shalt redo your section and do it quickly. That means now or yesterday, whichever is earlier. (Un)fortunately, I found an extra book or three today and also realized I needed to scavenge a three-volume reference work to really flesh it out. (The problem with wonderful online resources is that when a field is mostly journal, you sometimes forget to check books... silly historian who should know better: me, again.)

You didn't think it would be simple, did you?

So I headed to the library this afternoon to do that. Shortly after I entered the library, I realized a few things: I had forgotten my laptop for notetaking in the reference section, I didn't have an umbrella, and the skies had just opened.  Great, just great.  Oh, yes, and I had forgotten my reading glasses, so I had about an hour of useful reading time before a headache was inevitable.

So I tried a technological crutch I've never used before: the cell phone. Scrounging through the encyclopedia, I'd find and read an article and then call my own voicemail and leave a minute-long message: author, title, pages, and the bit I wanted to extract. I left the reference section sometime later having made 10-11 calls. So far, so good. Then I headed up to the stacks and gathered the volumes and brought them down again. Still pouring. Okay, check out the books, extract cash from the in-library ATM, and get a latté in the foyer Starbucks. (I get the decaf, nonfat version, or what one wag barrista tells me is the "why bother" drink there.) I sit down, skim through a third of one of the books, and realized it's down to a drop every 10 seconds and so it's time to rush to my building.  Whew!

... until I got to my office realizing I'd have to transcribe my own dictation.  Note to self: never torture a dictation secretary with your talking.  Please. By the time that was done and I had finished notes on all but one volume, I headed out (with that last volume) to pick my son up from school. The poor guy had started a headache at 1 and didn't know he could go to the school nurse and beg the nurse to get approval from me to dose him with ibuprofen. So we stopped by a pharmacy, came home so he could rest (which worked, in combination with the Motrin), and after I told the story of the parent-teacher conference that morning (at my daughter's high school), I realized I still needed to finish that reading.  Off to local ChainCafé (where I sit tonight almost, almost done).

And so, after all is said and done, I'm left with about 4-1/2 single-spaced pages of notes on various countries and a few broader models. I suspect I'll need to condense this to about 2 pages of double-spaced text (and also delete some of the U.S. material that was in the earlier draft). And I hope to return it to the primary author tomorrow, while there are two meetings. 

The practical problem is that this has sufficiently engaged me that I want to puzzle the patterns out. The most sophisticated comparative model I've read, by Rosemary Putnam in 1979 (Comparative Education, vol. 15, pp. 83-98), addresses the generic size of special education, not placement issues, and suggests that different looks suggest either a stage theory of national development or a wealth effect. (The data is a little different, suggesting by the relationship with health expenditures that it may be a matter of state welfare development as well.) A book by Mazurek and Winter in 1994 (Comparative Studies in Special Education) specifically suggests a stage theory of inclusion, except for some pesky countries that have well-developed, "mature" special education systems that are largely segregated (or were at the time): Japan, Russia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Czechoslovakia. So that throws a wrench in the comparative developmentalist (i.e., stage) model.

All right: time to get another drink, ponder my notes, and think of a way to organize this material.

March 23, 2006

PAA poster

I've gone and committed a poster for my presentation next week at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America. I decided to create a generic explanation for the poster (which is 5x3') and then smaller side panels for more details, the examples, and references. It's my first use of the copy shop in my college, which creates them all the time for my colleagues, and a good use of some residual funds in the internal mini-grant that runs out at the end of the year. I should get some good feedback on what I'm trying, which I'll use in revising a grant proposal and writing another one (the fourth this year with this idea). Maybe I'll hit on one of the grants!

Note: I've just caught a technical (not grammatical) error in the poster. I'm going to use this to my advantage—get a small-denomination Starbucks gift card and give it to the first person who catches the error. Maybe it'll get people coming over and giving my stuff a very critical eye (which is what I want).

July 19, 2005

Bérubé on theory

Why I read Michael Bérubé's blog: items like today's, which discusses ostraninie (a Russian term which I've heard translated as "technique of the naive observer") as a starting point for the last n decades of literary criticism and broader theory. One pithy bit:

When theory works—when it leads you to see things about texts and textuality that you’d never seen before—it’s a remarkable thing: you come away thinking, “well, I’ll never look at rhetorical questions quite the same way again,” or “I’ll never look at drag the same way again,” or (for you Raymond Williams fans out there) “I’ll never think of the word ‘culture’ in the same way again.”

Then Bérubé rips into Baudrillard by discussing when theory doesn't work, but you'll have to read the entire entry for that passage. He may be appealing to my baser nature with the reference ot Williams and Keywords, but I'll forgive him.