This Blog Gonna Rise Again?

I had pretty much made my peace with being an ex-blogger.   It’s been a year since the last time I posted to this blog, and, even that last post was just a speculation about the wisdom of amateurs running their own servers.  For the previous four years, the blog had been center of my digital identity and the source of connection with a host of interesting, challenging and involved colleagues.  It also generated a fair amount angst, since writing is a form of torture for me; I’m prone to embarrassing typos, and I’ve been told by several colleagues that the defining attribute of my writing is my “keen sense of the obvious”.

That said, I’ve never quite gotten rid of that small voice in the back of my mind that keeps suggesting I ought to revisit the decision to abandon the blog.  The volume of the voice has gone up this semester as I’m teaching my adult education course for the first time since 2006.   The course is a bit unusual in that it builds explicitly on adult learning principles, which immediately frames the class much differently than most other courses that the students have experienced.  (We write the syllabus together after the fourth week of class, for example.)  There are a couple of guiding principles that emerge that relate to blogging:

  • Adult  educators an ethical responsibility to engage in sustained, systematic and critical reflection about their practice.  One of the major goals of the class is to help students develop methods of reflection that will live on beyond this course and will become integrated into their own lifelong learning and will help guide their efforts in helping others learn over the lifespan.
  • If you can find the courage to do it, sharing some of those reflections in a public way can be a source of continued creativity, inspiration and professional challenge.

Three or four of the students in the class are blogging as part of their reflection efforts, so I’ve been a bit sensitized to the need to narrate my own work.  Then two things happened that pushed me over the top and back into the new post window.  First Gardner posted a comment on a year old post saying stating that he was waiting for something new to appear.  (Curse you, Gardo!)  Then, one of the member  of my class signed up for a Twitter account and started following me, causing me to think that maybe it was time for me to get a little more public about my own reflections and practice.  Maybe it would be good to reopen myself to some of that creativity, inspiration and challenge.

Words You’d Rather Not Hear

All of us have certain words we’d rather not hear:

“Hi Dad, I’m using my one phone call…”

“I think it’s important that you get to the cardiologist’s office this afternoon…”

“Um, about that money you invested with Bernie Madoff….”

I’ve added the following:

“I gave him the url to your blog….”

I still believe that all of us who claim to be students of the digital world need to continue participate in the conversation in that world, but my blog itself certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence in my ongoing activity as a an active learner/teacher and citizen of the digital universe. Those of us who have participated long enough in this exercise called blogging know that there is an ebb and flow to it–a time to write and a time to refrain from writing. The secret is knowing the difference.

When you physically cringe when someone says, “I gave him the URL to your blog” it’s time to write again.

Expanding Research Through Open Notebook Science

IT Conversations | Jon Udell’s Interviews with Innovators | Jean-Claude Bradley

He believes that scientific research happens better and faster when the entire process is transparently narrated online.

New social tools can have a tremendous impact on teaching, learning and research. The emergence of Open Notebook Science has the potential of speeding up the diffusion of scientific discoveries and of helping students and others look into the nature of “real research with all it’s glitches.” In this interview, Jon Udell and chemist Jean-Claude Bradley talk about the real-world potential of blogs, wikis and other social software tools to encourage communication and speed up collaboration among scientists and students..

Writing Strategically (Part Two)

This is a quick follow-up to my last post about choosing a writing strategy for your for your blog. In the last post, I talked about treating your blog as an a forum to explore all the interesting things that you learn about through the web, reading, conversations, and all the other sources of information that come into your personal information universe. Readers will seek out your blog as a way of entering into your world and of finding resources that they never would have found on their own.

Another strategy is to pick out a particular area of expertise and write deeply and extensively about issues within that area. Readers come to your site because you know more about this topic than almost anyone else in the world. (Or at least on the internet.) The goal of this type of blogging is summed up in this quote from Ron Gross’s book The Independent Scholar’s Handbook:

Max Schuster was not a man to mince words or to warm you up with small talk. His words were well honed; he obviously had delivered this message before and knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Fixing me with a firm eye over the glistening mahogany desktop he declared: “I have one bit of advice for you–not just for success in this business, but personally. Begin at once–not today or tomorrow or at some indefinite date, but right now, at this precise moment–to chose some subject, some concept, some great name or idea or idea in history on which you can eventually make yourselves the world’s supreme expert. Start a crash program immediately to qualify yourself for this self-assignment through reading, research and reflection. In his librarylike office, such a program did not seem impossible, as a generous slice of the world’s wisdom was within arms reach.

In a world defined by the long tail, just about every topic needs its experts. One of my favorite examples has been

43 Folders where Merlin Mann has turned his own inability to manage his time and his life into what appears to be a full-time job. If you have a passion, no matter how narrow, your blog can be a place to find others who share it.

Tying Up the Loose Ends of Your Digital Identity

re.web – The William & Mary Web Redesign

Andy DeSoto, a junior psychology major at William and Mary, has written a guide for students (and faculty) on how to use the new Tribe Voices tool to manage their presence on the web. He argues that a small investment of time can yield big benefits in 1) bringing an element of control about what readers see when they Google you, 2) increasing the reach of your community and 3) “tying up the loose ends” by pulling your digital footprints into one container.

Folks who want more features than those available with Tribe Voices can take a look at wmblogs, William and Mary’s wordpress multiuser solution.

Disclaimer: Both Tribe Voices and wmblogs require a William and Mary userid. Folks from outside the William and Mary community can easily get the same benefits by starting their personal space at WordPress.com or a similar service.

Andy provides a series of suggestions of ways to establish your web presence:

  • Pick the right name (yours) for your site.
  • Update regularly.
  • Link freely.

He also suggests that folks do a little light reading on “search engine optimization”–which might be beyond what most folks are willing to invest in this process.

Read up on search engine optimization (SEO). Search engine optimization, a multi-million dollar industry, is the science of improving the volume and quality of traffic your website receives. It’s a pretty technical topic, but worth a little bit of further reading. Take a look at Wayne Smallman’s Blah, Blah! Technology blog for some beginner articles.

Open Notebook Science

Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?: Scientific American

M. Mitchell Waldrop’s excellent introduction to “open notebook” science in Scientific American fits nicely with some of the work we’re doing to support the Charles Center’s initiative on expanding undergraduate research at the College. My class last semester helped plan a web site that will help students in all disciplines make the process of their research more open and transparent. The site will use a series of Web 2.0 tools to build a community among students at William and Mary who are actively engaged in research.

Most students get lots of exposure to the end products of scholarly work, but they are much less likely get much exposure to complexities of producing that scholarly work. As Ron Gross noted in The Independent Scholar’s Guide:

Rarely do researchers or writers “let their hair down,” revealing that they started where each of us must start: with mere infatuation for a subject… Established researchers rarely portray the faltering steps by which they came to pinpoint their purposes, chose their subject, sharpen their skills. By the time the work of the scholar or scientist comes to our attention, it is usually well packaged as a finished monograph, a carefully-crafted article, a well-honed paper, a polished book, a museum worthy collection or display, a documentary on film or videotape, or as some other finished work. This final project seems to have sprung full-grown from the author’s head. So we get a misleading picture of how intellectual and creative projects get started.
Gross, Independent Scholar’s Guide, Introduction to Chapter Two: From Messy Beginnings to Finished Product

In open-notebook science, blogs, wikis, and social networking tools provide a way to share the everyday decisions that shape an actual research project–both the successes and the failures. Scholarly papers offer clear views of what has been accomplished, but generally don’t provide much insight into the things that didn’t work. Often those details are precisely the ones that can jump-start the work of other scientists, making the whole research process more productive and efficient. The OpenWetWare initiative at MIT, for example, has expanded well beyond its beginnings as a few graduate students refining protocols for getting DNA cultures to grow:

In short, OpenWetWare has quickly grown into a social network catering to a wide cross-section of biologists and biological engineers. It currently encompasses laboratories on five continents, dozens of courses and interest groups, and hundreds of protocol discussions–more than 6100 Web pages edited by 3,000 registered users.

The article raises some interesting issues for institutions that are trying to expand undergraduate research. Timo Hannay, head of Web publishing at the Nature Publishing Group summarizes his vision of scholarly publishing in a way that fits nicely with our goals for the technology integration program:

Our real mission isn’t to publish journals, but to facilitate scientific communication,” he says. “We’ve recognized that the Web can completely change the way that communication happens.” Among the efforts are Nature Network, a social network designed for scientists; Connotea, a social bookmarking site patterned on the popular site del.icio.us, but optimized for the management of research references; and even an experiment in open peer review, with pre-publication manuscripts made available for public comment.

Waldrop has posted the article in Scientific American’s Edit This section where readers get to collaborate with the author in giving the story its final form.

Welcome to the New Semester

Gardner Writes >> My New Year’s Blogging Resolutions

I love to walk around the campus on the first day of the new semester. From the snippets of conversation it’s obvious that many students have a genuine sense of excitement about the new things they’ll learn, the books they’ll be reading and the people that they’ll meet. This is my 49th semester opening day in my career in higher education, and I’m struck by the gift that the academic calendar gives us–that gift of a fresh start. New books, new classes–maybe even a new commitment to blogging.

I’m inspired by the surge of creativity emanating from Fredricksburg, particularly now that Gardner has begun to focus more energy on the care and feeding of his blog:

I resolve to blog at least once a day. Short or long, ill- or well-considered, focused or rambling, a post is better than silence, and I have learned to my cost how difficult it is to sustain momentum when I skip a day, or two, or ten. This blog has been a crucial part of my own teaching and learning for over three years now. It deserves more care and feeding than I’ve been giving it. Nothing against slow-blogging and its magnificent practitioners–but I feel I need the daily discipline.

Gardner’s recent posts have re-awakened a desire to get back in the game and start participating in the conversation again. I’d spent the last semester down in the weeds trying to improve some of the nitty-gritty details of the way we manage time, deliver services and organize information. (Or, as Jon Udell calls it in his IT Conversations interview with Gardner , taking a “more tempered approach” toward being a change agent and advocate for transformation.)

In many ways, the academic calendar is a historical artifact that sucks the life out of authentic learning. But the fact that twice a year we have the chance to start over, however symbolically, is pretty cool. No promises, but I’m going to hit the post button.