The Importance of Responsible Computing

Like many academics, I think that many security policies and procedures are a tad draconian and based on superstition rather than evidence. One of my pets that I often rail about is the requirement that individuals change passwords on some fixed schedule; I’m still looking for any evidence that these requirements actually make our institutions more secure. In my own case, I’m much more likely to try skimp on password complexity or write the new one down in those cases where I’m forced to change.

Every once in a while, though, I get a graphic reminder of why folks with more daily responsibility for security are more paranoid (which may not be too strong a word) than I am. Several of those reminders have been delivered this week as faculty and staff have been hit with a barrage of phishing schemes. At least seven members of the community, including at least a faculty member or two, have succumbed and provided their userids and passwords. Almost immediately their accounts were attacked by zombie armies, hundreds of sessions were opened and hundreds of thousands of spam messages were generated.

A Botnet (also known as a zombie army) is a number of Internet computers that, although their owners are unaware of it, have been set up to forward transmissions (including spam or viruses) to other computers on the Internet. Any such computer is referred to as a zombie – in effect, a computer “robot” or “bot” that serves the wishes of some master spam or virus originator. Most computers compromised in this way are home-based.

In these seven instances, millions of messages were generated. Cleaning up the resulting mess takes lots of engineering time–though unfortunately with practice we’re cutting it from days to hours. Mail response for local users slows dramatically and huge internet service providers like AOL and Comcast blacklist the college domain as part of their spam management process. Reopening delivery may take a couple of days and untold amounts of mail from college addresses may be dumped to the bit bucket.

If you care about your colleagues and being a good citizen of the community, don’t provide your id and password by using a link in an email message.

Surely You Jest: HPC for the Humanities?

Humanities High Performance Computing: “”

For the last three weeks I’ve been immersed in the world of HPC–High Performance Computing. HPC is that parallel universe where researchers run programs that take five days of processing, where tiny jobs only require 12-15 processors, where terabyte drives fill up in matters of hours and where shouting at and threatening colleagues is considered a perfectly acceptable way of communicating. Now humanities scholars are being invited play in the HPC sandbox too.

The NEH Office of Digital Humanities has just launched a resource page for Humanities High Performance Computing. This new resource is designed to attract scholars in the humanities and social sciences who have masses unstructured data that needs to be sorted, mined, or visualized to be better understood. Programs include a series of grants (deadline is July 15th for award in January 2009) and invitations to access to the National Science Foundation’s teragrid.

William and Mary has a HPC operation that has recently become a part of our academic and research support for faculty. Like the folks at the NEH, we’re hoping that a broader range of faculty will take advantage of the college’s investment in these high performance tools.

I’m Going to the Faculty Academy

Welcome – Faculty Academy 2008

One of the spring events that I’ve come to look forward the most is the Faculty Academy for Teaching and Learning at the University of Mary Washington. This year I’ll be attending as an “esteemed guest presenter” and sucking in all the energy and creativity that event fosters. I’m honored to follow in the footsteps of such innovators as Alan Levine and Barbara Ganley and trying to figure out what I can add to the mix that will justify the invitation.

One contribution that I might make to the gathering is a bona fide historical artifact. I can talk persuasively about such topics as why the Commodore Vic 20 is a better home computer than the Apple II or a lament about why no one has been able to come up with a laptop that’s even close to the functionality of my Radio Shack Model 100.


One of the nice things that the organizers of the faculty academy provide is a widget that gives the countdown to the event. (29 days, 16 hours and 17 minutes as I start writing this.). The countdown serves as a constant reminder that I have a workshop and presentation to do in front of a whole bunch of people, most with laptops connected to Twitter and who aren’t afraid to use them! I’ve always felt a responsibility to try to connect when I’m making a presentation, and the special place that the Faculty Academy has assumed in the Academic Technology community really turns up the heat to contribute something meaningful. As a genuine historical artifact, my first thought for a workshop title is “Ten Ways You Can Use Vi to Get More Done and Enjoy Life More!” But then, I’ve got 29 days 15 hours and 30 minutes to reconsider.


Required Reading for Turbulent Times

Dealing with the Future Now

Every few years those of us in public colleges are plunged into the same turmoil of budget uncertainty that invariably results in canceling travel and professional development, hiring freezes, and creative attempts to defer payments for every non-essential expense possible. The atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) hangs over every decision and even the most promising experiments in innovative teaching and learning are likely to be abandoned. In Virginia, most of us in are in the midst of the FUD part of the cycle right now with no long-term end in sight.

This is the part of the cycle where this Change article by ALan Guskin and Mary Marcy should be required reading for every leader in a college or university. The authors argue that these periodic retrenchments are not short-term problems–they are long-term and structural. The three sources of income for universities–tuition, state and federal government support and private philanthropy–are all limited, while those of us who work in higher education have unlimited aspirations and imaginations that eventually have to bump up against the sustainability of our funding models.

Guskin and Marcy call for leaders to recognize the fundamental changes in the higher education environment and to try to find more sustainable ways of dealing with the structural limitations of future funding. Transformation rather than “muddling through” is the goal.

“Muddling through” is a time-honored practice for dealing with recurring fiscal problems in higher education. So in the face of the present fiscal constraints, one can almost hear people voicing familiar sentiments: “We have always been successful in the past and we will surely come out of this okay…But in the present environment, responses that assume an eventual turnaround in fiscal conditions are difficult to justify. Projected future economic realities indicate a scenario very different from past projections.”

The key to transformation is focusing on developing a vision of the future that challenges our conventional way of doing things and focuses on two overarching purposes: enhancing student learning and maintaining a decent quality of faculty work life. Unlike many models of learner-centered education, Guskin and Marcy acknowledge the importance of reestablishing a quality of life for faculty that allows universities to remain true to their core values while responding to inevitable economic and cultural change.

Achieving the vision won’t be easy in that it requires changes to some deeply held assumptions about the nature of higher learning. But if the structural financial changes predicted by the article are accurate, the consequences of not changing may be even more painful than giving up some cherished assumptions.

YouTube – Campus Voices: Forging an honest dialogue

YouTube – Campus Voices: Forging an honest dialogue

Susan Evans pointed me in the direction of this student produced-video on the situation at William and Mary campus. I think it’s a very effective piece of student work that captures a much better sense of what’s actually happening on campus than what I’ve seen in the “mainstream” media. The video itself is a potent argument for why having the right media tools in the hands of students is so effective–particularly with the support of folks like Sharon Zuber and Troy Davis.

Several folks from the BOV will be on campus this afternoon to meet with staff, faculty and students. You can follow the action from the student perspective on or Wrengate.

The Rules of Engagement: Socializing College Students for the New Century

Tomorrow’s Professor Blog: 844. The Rules of Engagement: Socializing College Students for the New Century

One of the few listservs that I still subscribe to is the Tomorrows-Professor Mailing List, The TP Mailing List seeks to “foster a diverse, world-wide teaching and learning ecology” and goes out to over 25,000 subscribers at over 600 institutions and organizations in over 108 countries around the world. To date there have been over 750 postings by author and engineering professor Rick Ries.

The pieces posted are often thought provoking, like the one entitled Death to the Syllabus. I taught my last course without a syllabus–using a prospectus instead that I think avoided some of the baggage that has become intertwined with the syllabus in far too many courses:

It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.

The most recent post to capture my attention probably won’t find its way into my practice anytime soon. Extracted from the subscription only National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, the thrust of the article is that students are becoming ruder and more inappropriate in their behavior and that many arrive at college with no understanding of the basic standards of classroom civility, etiquette, and socialization that make a class run smoothly. Professor Neil Williams from East Connecticut State has developed an elaborate set of classroom Rules of Engagement to ensure that students live up to those standards. The rules include greeting the professor by name when arriving and leaving class, taking personal responsibility for errors in personal and academic judgement and my personal favorite:

When you yawn, cover it completely with an entire hand. When the event has passed, mouth the words ‘Pardon me’ or ‘Excuse me.’ An open-mouthed or uncovered yawn is about as insensitive, rude, and inappropriate as it gets. There is almost no instance in which a yawn arrives without some sort of internal biological warning, and all that is being asked is for students to cover their mouths out of respect for the person who is forced to look at them and their dental history.

According to Williams, the rules work as long as everything is done with a smile. When the rules work, the students can become better people, better citizens, and eminently more employable or acceptable to graduate school. What more could a teacher ask for?

A Glimpse into the Educative Power of Community

Gardner Writes » Blog Archive » Techfoot’s back on the bull’s eye:

Hamilton College Career Center Philosophy Twenty years ago I wrote the first draft of this philosophy statement. Glad to see it’s still there.

I appreciate Gardner’s kind words about my renewed attention to my blog and his comments on missed opportunities for integrating the academic mission with the goals of other units. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on student affairs:

Student experience: that’s the purview of Student Affairs, right? The people who schedule the mixers and dances and res-hall activities? The people who get the pool tables and climbing walls together for student recreation? Yet how many rich, unexplored opportunities are here for creative informal learning encounters, among students and faculty and staff. Instead, we seem to have independent, centrally funded catering operations–credit catering, activity catering, etc. Where’s the academic mission situated within a view of the whole person?

I spent 14 years of my professional life as part of the student affairs “division” at Hamilton. As the director of the Career Center, my community of practice was a pretty diverse group–the priest and chaplains; the clinical psychologists and counselors; the residence life folks; nurse practitioners and “the doctor”; the campus activities staff, the directors of multicultural affairs and service learning, along with the occasional faculty member doing a three year term as “downstairs dean”. We met in (seemingly endless) staff meetings, task forces, study groups, parties, retreats, sporting events, art shows and campus protests, and developed a remarkable sense of shared purpose and passion, even with the diversity of our professional training and experience.

The passion that held us together was the belief that, as Gardner says, the four-year, residential, liberal arts experience provides an unparalleled opportunity for learning in all its richness. We believed deeply in an expansive view of education that included emotional, motivational, spiritual and physical components as well as the cognitive and critical skills and understandings that were the centerpieces of the “academic mission”. While the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of our work were largely invisible to our faculty colleagues, we believed that we were contributing to something more substantial than merely organizing the next Smashing Pumpkins concert.

Early in my tenure at Hamilton, I got a call from the president’s secretary. One of the president’s practices was to schedule one-on-one meetings with new administrators shortly after they were hired. (His other practice was to protect the college from administrative bloat by writing a statement into appointment letters: “I’m sure that someone with your outstanding qualifications and potential will build on your Hamilton experience to move onto more challenging opportunities within five years.”) During the conversation, he asked me what my goals were for the new job.

Even in my short tenure, I was aware of the general distrust by the faculty of such a pristine liberal arts institution for anyone with the obscenely vocational title of Director of the Career Center. “My goal”, I told the president, “is to be as good at doing my job as the very best of your faculty are at doing theirs and to have you recognize and appreciate the contribution that makes to the College. The folks in my office share the same goals as the instructional faculty. We want to help students develop self-knowledge and understanding, learn to make decisions creatively and critically, and apply their writing and oral communication skills to building their own careers and contributing to their communities. Our methods of doing that are different–but they are every bit as complex as what faculty do within their disciplines. For us, the ultimate measure of success won’t be a book or publication in a prestigious journal. The measure of success will be if we can build on the best ideas of the psychologists, sociologists, learning theorists and our colleagues at other universities to help students lay the foundation for lifelong career development. ”

The president looked at me like I was nuts. He said something like, “As long as all the theoretical stuff doesn’t get in the way of building a good on-campus recruiting program, we’ll be just fine. I would really like to see more top-tier investment banks coming to campus though.”

For the rest of my tenure at Hamilton, we tried share the idea that the Career Center program made an important contribution to the developmental learning process and that students would benefit integrating their skills, values, interests and passions into a commitment to lifelong learning–starting with their first job or grad school search. The success of our attempt to communicate that vision could probably be summed up in the words of the tour guide with the most abrasive voice I’ve ever heard in my life. During the last summer I was at Hamilton, the admissions tour went right by my open office window, and five times a day, I had to listen to her holler:

And this is our career center where the recruiters come in the spring and the seniors go to get jobs…

So much for all that theoretical stuff…

I have to hope that our new tools of communication and collaboration can help someday make the various communities on our campuses more open and more transparent. Blogs, wikis, YouTube and the rest might help provide glimpses into communities that otherwise might be invisible to us, and those glimpses may well grow into something more.