Dan Perkel's Stuff on the Web

Category: personal


I don’t blog much (repeated tries and fails). But I am an occasional tweeter: @dperkel. When I do post to Twitter, the part I enjoy the most is forcing myself to the 140 character limit (I think this is a common feeling). Those who have been exposed to my verbose writing might appreciate this bit of self-reflection and the challenge it entails for me.

Cool Little Cluster

On the way to the gym today, I think I discovered my theme song. At least as I work on my dissertation. KCRW’s Today’s Top Tune from March 12 featured Mose Allison’s “My Brain,” a perfect little blues song. I considered posting the lyrics, but I think that part of the delight of the song is in their simple surprises. But I’ll just say that my brain is always ticking and working, and well, what happens later seems inevitable.

So if you’re so inclined, go listen to it for free here (KCRW) or here (Spinner).

Q: Who’s Mose Allison?

A: “Dubbed the “William Faulkner of Jazz,” Mose Allison  is one of the wittiest songwriters around,” says the producer of Today’s Top Tune here. “His music has been covered by a diverse line-up of musicians including The Clash, Leon Russell, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison. At 80 years old, his self-analysis and humor is captured with the help of producer Joe Henry and a bevy of some of L.A.’s finest session players,”

Q: And what’s this song really about?

A: “This track, which should probably be subtitled Old Man Blues, dealing as it does with mind deterioration, is from the wry opener of the Joe Henry-produced The Way of the World…,” explains Jerry Shriver at USA Today.

Yikes. Maybe I should re-think this.

“The process of writing is dealing with crisis”

People always tell me that any crisis of confidence I have as I do my research and writing is likely to be shared by others. Intellectually, I know this. Emotionally, I often don’t experience it this way. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to hear from a scholar and writer of Marilyn Strathern’s experience and quality sum up exactly how I have been feeling during my last several writing projects:

I write all the time, but what marks off new tasks from old (or going over old ground) is finding myself plunged into something close to despair.   I lose confidence, my self-esteem plummets, it is clear that everyone has already said things better, and it had been quite absurd to take on a task that now seems insuperable.

In my case, I don’t “write all the time” (though that would be a good idea…), but the rest resonates.

The “gap” between “between what needs doing and the capacity to do it,” Strathern says, “can actually be a prerequisite to writing at all.” They can be the “threshhold of creativity” when:

…past certainties melt away, and everything one thought was at one’s fingertips (materials, notes, analyses) slips out of grasp.  For myself, at least, it is climbing out of the crevasse, emotionally speaking, that is the writing.   I am solving a problem not (just) on the desk, but somewhere else in my life, while at the same time knowing that without the urgency of that dissolution the writing, on the desk, won’t do the gathering work it is meant to do.   The process of writing is dealing with the crisis.

This is wonderful stuff to stew on. I love the idea of each new significant writing project being a moment of significant crisis. It certainly has felt that way to me, most recently on that paper I posted last week. Nevertheless, while it’s comforting to know that I am in much better company that I previously might have imagined, I still am not sure I want to embrace crisis every few months or so. Perhaps the challenge is to learn to enjoy crisis and avoid Strathern’s feeling of “despair.”

Anyways, it’s a short essay called “Outside desk-work“. I am now looking forward to the rest of this new series coming out of Durham University.

Spring semester is underway

Spring semester started this week at Berkeley. But, if most of last fall felt like Spring and Summer, Spring semester feels like winter. It’s no snow belt (though there is snow on Mt. Diablo), but I felt almost as warm in Dayton, Ohio a few weeks ago as I do now.

I don’t update this blog very much as my two readers are aware. But every semester I try to start up again, so I thought I’d do a little update to kick this one off. For me it’s the beginning of my last phase of grad school. I’ve been here longer than I spent as an undergraduate. But last semester, I passed my qualifying exams, which ended a not-so-fun semester of working seven days a week and missing most of my friends (who work strenuous days jobs, but get paid and get to take most weekends and evenings off).

To give you a picture of what last semester felt like, picture poor Smeagol:

“And we wept, precious. We wept, to be so alone… And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.”

Yep. That was me. Beady eyes and all. (Thanks to these folks for being number one on Google for the search “we forgot the taste of bread.”)

But somehow the worst part was all over by Thanksgiving and by the time I took my quals a few weeks later, I was more Deagol than Smeagol, and by the time I passed my quals, I was more Merry, than Deagol. Now, I’m just me (here endeth the silly LOTR references), ready to finish my dissertation proposal, begin research in earnest, and live a normal life again. Yee-haw.

I’m not supposed to take any more classes (though Berkeley still requires us all to have 12 units of something or other), but I can’t help myself and will try to get some classroom time to help me structure my life a bit. I’m also continuing to work with my research group as we try to figure out what’s going in the everyday technological lives of American youth.

On that note, a couple of my colleagues (CJ Pascoe and danah boyd) were interviewed for last night’s Frontline — “Growing up Online.” It’s all online now and I think it’s definitely worth watching. It’s not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s more nuanced and compelling than a lot of the other stuff I’ve seen on TV on this topic. The stories were quite powerful and while I’ve been reading contrasting opinions on the balance of positive and negative portrayals of young people’s engagements online, I found the many of the statements made by the young people and their parents transcended the positive/negative debate. I hope this show sparks more discussions between parents and their children and sets a different tone for discussing these issues.

Fall 2006: Denmark, Informal Learning, Quality, and more Literacy

At the end of last semester, Ryan, Megan, and I sat around and talked about how it would be useful to write a nice semester recap, a chance to reflect on what we’ve been up to. I usually do this as a sort of “progress report” for my advisors, but Ryan said that he was thinking about blogging his, and I found what he wrote really interesting; even though I thought I knew everything he did this semester, it’s a lot different to read someone’s reflections than just hear what they have to say everyday about what has been going on. So, I thought I’d follow suit and write my own Fall 2006 recap.

When classes started again, it didn’t feel like I was at a beginning. I was in the middle of writing human subjects proposals for various Digital Youth projects and preparing for my first conference presentation at the DREAM Conference of Digital Media and Informal Learning. The conference was held at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. It was attended mainly by Europeans, the majority of whom were from Scandanvia. It was a great experience for me, because I was so unfamiliar with most of their work. I also met many interesting doctoral students, some with work that surprisingly similar to mine, such as Oystein Gilje’s, and others that were quite different. I really enjoyed the presentation of this paper on game design and toy theater by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh.

My presentation on my “Copy and Paste Literacy” paper went well, in that I got some good feedback from people with a lot more experience than I do. Some people really liked the ideas presented, some people didn’t get it, and I think some people thought that I was kind of out of my element. I’m trying out Slideshare and thought I’d include my presentation (warning: without notes, I’m not sure how useful it is…):

(As an aside, the “Copy and Paste Show” on Rhizome decided to include my paper on the reading list. The rest of the show is a bit more interesting, though. Check it out…)

Usually people say that the best part of a conference are the conversations that happen in the halls and the connections you can make between your work and others. That was a great part of my time in Denmark, but I have to say that my favorite moments were hearing some of the keynote talks, especially the keynote roundtable where James Gee, Julian Sefton-Green, Sonia Livingstone, and Glynda Hull spoke very candidly about their views on topics. One of which took aim at the title of the conference.

Already, I had begun to pick up a lot of chatter of people questioning the continuing usefulness of the distinctions between “formal learning,” “informal learning,” and “non-formal learning.” Julian Sefton-Green (author of the 2004 Futuralab report on the topic of informal learning outside of school claimed on his blog before the conference that he would be arguing that the term “informal learning has become a way of describing the value of digital technologies but that the term has no real meaning—there is only learning” (http://www.julianseftongreen.net/?p=12).

This issue was the first on the table at the Keynote speakers’ roundtable. When asked to comment on the usefulness of the distinction, Hull argued that that we should just toss out the distinction. I think she said something to the effect that looking at contexts for learning doesn’t include or exclude either informal or formal. Sefton-Green followed up by saying that the term came out of a perceived historical necessity: people had been focusing so much on learning in classrooms that they had been completely ignoring learning everywhere else. But now, what difference does it really make? Now, there is only learning or not learning. Livingstone argued that we should be looking at what kinds of institutions organize learning. Finally, Gee weighed in by acknowledging that while the concept of “informal learning” may have had some value, we also can’t ignore some of the problems it has caused, primarily that for a while people had ignored all of the teaching that goes on between people in “informal learning.” He argued that “teaching is always going on.” The literature on informal learning, he claims, has largely ignored the parents’ “curriculum.” Livingstone later said that an important question may be to look for what is continuous across a range of contexts.

I had already been a bit concerned about the notion of “informal learning” going into the conference, but this conversation and others at the conference made me really concerned. It’s a term that seems to resonate in many circles, and was a part of the thinking behind the Digital Youth project. So, I don’t know if it’s worth trying to change people’s minds about it. But how should I use it, if at all, in my own work? In response to one of Gee’s point above, we probably have a valuable contribution to make in thinking about the teaching between peers, “technementors” (see Freshquest by Megan Finn et al.), parents, and siblings. Many of our projects are trying to address this issue and have been from the start.

The week after returning from Denmark seemed like the real beginning to my semester as I scrambled to catch up on classes and start new stages of my research. The smartest decision I made was to add Paul Duguid’s and Geoff Nunberg’s class on the “Quality of Information” to my schedule, despite having to play major catch up. There are very few people that I have met who can deliver 2-3 hour lectures that are incredibly interesting and entertaining, yet each of them did an amazing job. I ended up writing a paper on the search for quality information about the video game Bully, which launched last October but was on some people’s radar for much of the year and half between the actual release date and the original game announcement way back in May of 2005. The original focus of the paper was on how members of a Bully fan site negotiated and made sense of the variety of rumors and misinformation, but I slowly turned to pouring through the version history of the Wikipedia article on Bully and noting how the article evolved with respect to a few pieces of information, including the release date, the rating, and the game’s presmise. I didn’t reach any grand conclusions, but I did get the sense that on Wikipedia the model is that information is assumed to be quality until someone makes an edit. Lack of discussion, verification, or change over time implies quality. However, on the fansite, lack of verification, comment, or discussion usually seemed to indicate a lack of quality. The notion of “quality” comes only from interaction, discussion, and active verification. I can’t generalize to other Wikipedia articles, but my research left me a bit more confused and ambivalent about the site (despite the fact that I still use it). I think that someone needs to do a detailed study on the site by looking at how people actually read and use Wikipedia articles in their everyday practices, not by studying what is in the articles themselves.

Another class I took last semester was my second on the topic of literacy. Taught by Laura Sterponi, this is one of the core classes taught in the School of Education for their doctoral program in Language, Literacy, and Culture and consists of a heavy dose of theory and writing on a range of literacy related topics. The class had many small writing assignments and no major project to complete the semester, but I wrote a paper for my third class on Computer-Mediated Communication, that tried to show the relevance of the study of literacy to thinking about CMC. The basic point of the paper was to argue that scholars who have been researching literacy have been studying “mediated communication” in the form of writing (and more recently other media). In my CMC class Coye Cheshire and Andrew Fiore repeatedly made the point that it’s important when thinking about CMC to think about the “mediated communication” part of the acronym and to not get too distracted by the “computer” part. Therefore, the relationship between literacy and CMC seemed clear to me, but required a lot of thinking and writing.

All of this has helped me think about my ongoing work on literacy practices on MySpace, though I don’t have any grand statements to make here. I spent roughly ten hours a week last semester doing participant observation at a youth and technology center where I had a chance to watch how some teenagers use MySpace in their “natural” environment for using it. My thought is that one way, by no means not the only way, to understand online social networking is not by just studying online interactions, but by talking to people and observing them and their tools as the use them. This isn’t that novel a proposition, but it is challenging to make it all work. The jury’s still out for me on where this research is taking me.

One place where I hope it’s taking me is the development of a good dissertation topic. I feel myself playing the role of a stereotypical PhD student in this regard…where everything is fairly interesting, but nothing seems captivating enough to want to spend years on, only to one day suddenly realize that there is life after dissertation, so I might as well just pick something…anything. My plan is to find that something soon. This semester will be difficult, but fun, I think.

However, I am refreshed after a great winter break. I’m glad I took some time off over break to learn to ski (it’s taken me way too long to get off the little bunny hills. Now I have to get off the slightly bigger bunny hills.). I also had a first trip to Hearst Castle and a first time attending an Indian Wedding. Each of those firsts have its own stories for my friends and family.

Well, maybe something for this site as well. The most fascinating part of my Hearst Castle trip was learning more about the working relationship between Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. While I recognized her name from various Berkeley sites, I didn’t know much about her. The tour guide talked mostly about Hearst, while the exhibits and other materials talked a great deal about Morgan as well. However, what I saw is how much Hearst Castle is a product of the their collaboration. The creativity and “genius” was not so much in the vision of Hearst or the execution of Morgan, but in the interplay of their ideas and work over the course of many years. And of course, it is likely that there are others in this story who are critical but who remain nameless. If I were to do a historical paper on collaboration and creativity, I might start with the building of this castle.

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