Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

The Brief Life of “Squeezy”

I squelched the brief life of an emergent signifier today.
I feel a bit bad about doing so, which perhaps inspires me to blog about it… and thus at the very least create an archival record of the brief life and death of the very evocative word: “squeezy”.

This word is one that I have noticed my son using for some time (not sure when it first entered into his vocabulary). In fact, I was not entirely clear what he meant when I first heard him use it (which in part is what brought it to the attention of my consciousness).

Today may be the beginning of the end for “squeezy”, however, as I authoritatively stepped in and eliminated it from his vocabulary by suggesting a “correct” alternative. Here is an account of the events:

The animals (of which there were about 18… in plastic toy form) were fighting the dinosaurs (who were bigger and stronger, but out numbered about 2-to-1). This was happening on the floor, in the middle of our family room (I was sitting to the side, marking exams, trying to keep out of the battle). The fight, according to my son, was taking place in the middle of the road, making the road “squeezy” and nearly impassible to some of his larger (toy) busses and cars. He proceeded to demonstrate (“look daddy, look daddy”) how the road became more and more squeezy as the animals and dinosaurs closed in on one another in close combat.

A Very Squeezy Situation

A Very Squeezy Situation

At this point, I stepped in to explain that the word he wanted was “narrow”… the road was “narrow” not “squeezy”. He took a few moments, contemplating this, then smiled, moving the dinosaurs and animals yet closer together. “Look daddy, it’s more narrower!”

Children are a wonderful agents in the production of linguistic (and more broadly cultural) diversity. It is a bit sad that we have to constantly reign in their creative energies – in order that linguistic complexity not devolve in to sheer chaos.

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Random Walks | , , | 2 Comments

Wiki Wiki Boom Boom

I don’t know what the title of this post means…
Just a rhythm bouncing around in my head…

Here is what this post is about:
I have now finished two semesters using wiki as a platform for participatory learning. It has been a booming success.

The last time I updated my thoughts and experiences on Day 18 of the Wiki Experiment. It is now about day 180. And it may be day 1800 before I update again. I hope no one out there is holding their breath for my posts.

In the first semester of this 2008-2009 academic year, I used wiki for SC2218: Anthropology and the Human Condition (an undergraduate, introduction to anthropology course with an enrollment of 68 students) and SC6214: Gender, Culture and Society (a graduate seminar with an enrollment of 10).

In the second semester, just completed, I used wiki for SC2220: Gender Studies (an undergraduate, introduction to gender studies course with an enrollment of 145 students).

While all of the wiki “experiments” were useful and successful (IMHO), I’ve been most impressed by the amazing work and outcomes of the most recent wiki; in part because I built on some things I learned in the first semester.

The main benefits of the wiki medium were:

1. Students contributed very substantially to the course content.They brought into the course, via the wiki all manner of valuable, thought-provoking, useful and even hilarious (but relevant) material – from book reviews to current news items to YouTube videos to songs to you-name-it. For a small sample, take a look at the page of my favorite things on the SC2220: Gender Studies wiki. As the instructor, I learned about all manner of things – from a documentary on the “Sworn Virgins of Albania” to latest findings in primatology to “the mom song” (hilarious, check it out), which I did not know about and might never have stumbled across. Those are just a very few of the great items contributed. Just as great is the commentary and discussion of these by the students who posted them as well as replies by other students. And in some cases, insightful valuable contributions were not references to external sources and materials, but reflections and commentary by students themselves, on such topics as Islam and Gender (started as a discussion thread by one student, then re-created as a ‘page’ by another) and on Islam, Gender and Culture, contributed by Muslim students in the course.

2. The Wiki provided a window into students’ thoughts, perspectives and understandings.The basic format of large lecture classes at NUS (with 100, 150, 200 or more students) is a two-hour lecture once a week supplemented by two-hour “discussion group” (or “tutorial”) sessions every other week. The “small groups” in tutorials are made up of 25 students. Attempts at discussion in tutorials are often met with long stretches of painfully awkward silence and more often than not when discussion does get going, it is dominated by a few students. I’ve used all kinds of techniques to try to overcome the deficits of this format, but the bottom line is my access to what the students are really thinking and understanding about the course material is extremely limited. With the wiki, my knowledge about the students’ understandings and ideas was radically transformed and multiplied many fold. As an educator, this is invaluable in allowing me to speak much more directly to the students. It allows me to engage with the issues they care about and identify their concerns and important points of course content that may be misunderstood.

3. The Wiki inspired peer-to-peer learning. Ok, I have little or no direct evidence of this (other than the engaged, back-and-forth discussion in the wiki!), but I can’t imagine that if I as the instructor learned a lot that the students did not learn just as much if not more from each other. This harnesses the network effects that Mike Wesch discusses in his Portal to Media Literacy lecture (it is fairly far into the video/lecture; but there is a very nice discussion with diagrams of the network structure of classroom learning; watch from min.42-45).

4. The Wiki make “participation” far more transparent.In so far as part of my job as a university professor is to  evaluate the students (that’s why we give grades and write letters of recommendation), the wiki is very valuable in making students’ contributions far more obvious and accessible. Part of the built-in architecture of the Wetpaint wiki platform that I’ve used includes a list of “members” each of whom has her own pages, listing (among other things) all of the contributions she has made to the Wiki. It provides a quick quantitative overview (number of page edits; number of discussion thread contributions; number of words and other material added!). More over, the list of each students contributions is hyperlinked, connecting me directly to those contributions. When it comes to the evaluative stage of the course (not my favorite part of teaching!), I can very quickly access everything each student has done on the wiki and quickly browse/read through all their contributions – student-by-student. This is much, much easier and more accurate (IMHO) than trying to take notes or recall the flow of discussion participation in the 25-student tutorial sessions.

5. The Wiki provides great participatory flexibility.With the wiki, students (and teachers) can “participate” in the course any time day or night (if they are online or have access to an internet connection). This is an obvious but important value of the wiki. For students, if they have a brilliant idea or comment 10 minutes after a class or tutorial session ends, in the traditional format (classroom attendance) it is difficult if not impossible to make that contribution. With the wiki – no problem. They can post their ideas any time. Also, the wiki provides much more space (and time) for students (and teachers) to develop their ideas more fully than a rushed classroom session.

So, those are some of the things that made use of wikis a great success in my opinion over the past two semesters using them. It was also very rewarding, in that I felt like I got to know the students in my classes (especially the large classes) better than I ever had in the past. Our “mass education” system is not only alienating to students but to professors as well. Most of us cringe at the large lecture structure, which inspires pontificating to the masses but not interactive (Socratic?) teaching-and-learning. It is also deeply depersonalizing to stand in front of a hundred or two-hundred students (who of course, all insist on sitting way, way in the back, up by the rafters!).

That’s all for this post. I plan to write more soon about what worked and what didn’t… when I have time (this week, I hope, but as I said, don’t hold your breath!)

Wiki Wiki Boom Boom
Wiki Boom Boom
Wiki Wiki Boom Boom
Wiki Boom Boom

Has a nice rhythm to it… don’t you think? 🙂

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Teaching | 2 Comments

Mapping Global Connectness… From the Source

So, within 48 hours or so of my previous post on small world syndrome, I get a message from Andy Nelson who is one of the main authors of this work. Thanks Andy! This is certainly evidence that global connectedness is for real. (As far as I can tell, he is based in Europe; and I’m in Singapore).

As a public service, here are the links he sent me:

Time Travel to Major Cities: A Global Map of Accessibility
This is the original map, research and related papers. This should be of great interest and value to all of us who do serious research on globalization. Even if you don’t, you’ll likely be fascinated by the pretty maps and pictures… really, worth a look.

Also, a radio program discussion of the global accessibility map.

April 24, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | Leave a comment

Everywhere (Almost) is 48 Hours Away

The BBC reported this morning (Singapore time) on research by mapping transportation interconnections in the world. Almost all of the earth is accessible within 48 hours (less than 10% of the Earth is not).

We all know this. In the social sciences, this is taken as an important “social fact” with important consequences. In fact this map of connectedness, demonstrates that this is not simply a social fact (in the Durkheimian sense). This particular mapping of that social fact and social reality is worth considering in some detail.

I’m very frustrated, because I am unable to find the BBC report that I heard! (Spent a good hour or more searching the BBC WorldService website for it… if anyone can find it, please let me know!)

The interviewer said something like, “If you can get anywhere on Earth within 48 hours, it’s very hard to say that you are an explorer.” Reflecting – in a different register – the theory that ‘we don’t need anthropologists’ because there are no more ‘primitive’ (remote) peoples. Of course anthropologists know this is nonsense; that anthropology is not “the study of primitive people.” But that is how our discipline is still percieved (and many of us still feed that myth in various ways).

There is really too much on could say about this map and the “small earth” syndrome it demonstrates. So a few points:

1. These maps have incredible potential in the context of teaching/demonstrating this social fact. Beyond that, they have great potential for us as researchers (in anthropology, geography and related disciplines) to imagine our research agendas and projects.

2. One respect in which I am interested in the map and its implications regards my own research on cultural theory. It may be very useful in thinking about culture and cultural diversity. I have made the point before (somewhere in writing… forget where at the moment!) that cultural diversity, at least in the (very limited) way we generally concieve of it, is primarily a product of geographic isolation (just as ‘racial’ difference is; but culture changes at a much more rapid rate… thus, far more diverse than our genetic make-up). What does all this mean for cultural diversity? I believe it forces us to rethink both what we mean by culture in general and cultural diversity (cf. Wesch on YouTube). 

3. This map (the data and methodology behind it) could be used to produce a “remoteness index”. It would be a empirically grounded way to think about all these vague notions of ‘global flows’ and such we are all keen to talk about. I imagine a project to construct such an index such as the following: For any point on the map, one could produce a set of other points (maybe n = 10?), then measure the average proximity from those 10 points. This would produce a “global proximity index” (or remoteness index; whichever one wants to call it). How would this be useful? It would demonstrate the global, networked interconnections of humanity. It would also provide substantial findings to consider in how we think about what places are truely “remote” and central/peripheral in the world today. (It reflects a recent discussion at a seminar here, where a colleague was talking about “working from the periphery” here in Singapore… I – only half-jokingly – said, “you should try living in Kansas, where I grew up… relatively speaking, Singapore is not a peripheral site!” The point being: working with this map in a form of a “global proximity index” would provide at least one method for actually addressing the question: Which is more “peripheral” in our global society, Singapore or Kansas? (Yes, of course, there is much more to it than mere transportation networks; still such an index might push us to consider more seriously what we mean by center/periphery relationships.)

4. The methodology of the map itself raises major questions. In fact, what the researchers have done is to measure “time to nearest population center of more than 50,000” (hmmm… Manhattan, Kansas almost counts as one of those!). The time measures are based on several factors of ground/surface transportation: roadwaysrail connections, shipping laneswaterways, and topography. They exclude air transportation from their mapping! (Assuming that when you reach an urban center of 50,000 population, one can then easily fly to anywhere? Haha, not from Manhattan! Though one can fly to Kansas City from there.) Nevertheless, the map they have constructed is very impressive and valuable. “They” are apparently the EU’s Joint Research Centre; but I can’t find any of this on their website at the moment!

At the very least, this research is interesting enough, it gave me reason to blog again. 🙂

P.S. – In case anyone missed it; I was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas. Which is, of course, the center of the universe.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | 2 Comments