Let’s Commence With Our Usual Torture…

I almost titled this post with a Farnsworth-style, ‘Good news, everyone!’ (if you’re a Futurama fan, you’ll know that always precedes bad news). But I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. So I chose a Legally Blonde quote instead.

Maureen Ogle sent me a link to a Crooks and Liars post making vicious (and deserved) fun of a CNN article on why unpaid jobs are the new normal. The manager in the original article astutely notes that employees without actual jobs are ‘hungrier’ will go above and beyond those who have any hope of getting paid. She even suggests a strategy for weeding out candidates who won’t throw themselves in front of a bus for the company — self-respect is so off-putting in an employee.

It’s an exciting management strategy, you have to admit. Unfortunately, those pesky labor laws currently get in the way of widespread deployment. But I’m sure someone will take care of that soon. I really can’t do any better than C&L, both with their title (“Let’s go serfin’ now”) and their illustration:

Aw, they made a joke and got to the historical kernel of why this is a very, very bad idea.

The fields most likely to suffer this fate: “marketing, editorial, advertising, sales, account management and public relations.” But of course, when I read about how great it was to have employees who were”going to outperform, [were] going to try to please” based entirely on some sick sense of hard work being it own reward, I couldn’t help but think of teaching.

Some survey just claimed that “education” was the third happiest field. That seemed impossible, especially since the criteria included a sense of control  — but then I saw that in this field, it was the work itself that was deemed most important. So it seems like education is a shoe-in for the newest management strategy, especially given current events.

To be fair, I understand the role of unpaid labor; internships can lead to jobs, of course, and I’ve seen startup founders effectively barter services with each other.  But a culture where the best employee is the one who will kill themselves the most has got a real problem — a bigger one, I mean, than looking like some lame eighties movie.

One reason I found the CNN article so disturbing was because at SXSW there was a prevalent belief among the (mostly young) volunteers that you had to go ‘above and beyond’ in just the way the article was describing, that if you didn’t there was no way  you’d succeed, and that (most disturbingly) this was somehow okay and/or the way it should be and/or a method for weeding out the unworthy (dingdingdingdingding!!!! Danger, Will Robinson!) rather than being a sign of desperate times. And what we were doing was the sort of temporary, unpaid labor that wasn’t going to lead anywhere – it wasn’t even an internship.

So I didn’t tell them what I thought of that idea, or about my experience teaching, because I know full well that there’s no point trying to sway the faithful.

Man, that article was real downer. Given the early hour I’m going over to Maureen’s site to read her nifty posts on being at a brewer’s conference. But later…well, survey says that nine out of ten peasants prefer beer instead of lunch.

Fun With Google Instant

This weekend, I was trying to find articles on female mentorship, and some weird stuff happened. Mainly, I noticed that as I typed in searches using the words “women learn”, I kept getting result after result for women learning to masturbate. Huh?

I noted this on Twitter and DoctorZen mentioned that if you put in “men learn” you’d get stuff about cooking, dancing and cosmetics.

I tried it, and didn’t get those results, but everybody’s results are going to be different  because Google searches know what items you’ve clicked on from previous searches and where you live and all sorts of other stuff you probably don’t want to think about.

So today I was screwing around with the auto feature, and here’s what I got:

“women learn” brought up a bunch of websites about learning Thai — I didn’t click on them, because I was kind of afraid where they would lead. “women teach” brought up a links to debates about women in the ministry.

The top hit on “women learn from women” was a website called How To Seduce Women, and there was another article on attracting women later on the page, as well as a consideration of the apostle Paul and whether women should learn in silence; then, at the bottom of the page lessons for lady welders.

When I put in “men learn” I got still more dating sites, including  a link to this: “A recent study proves that women are more attracted to men who are unsure about them.” Thank you, scientific inquiry.

“men teach” got more sites about actual teaching, as well as more (you guessed it) dating sites.

Okay, so I guess Freud was right about the basis of Western civilization.

Discussion question: what has Google Instant taught you?

How to Speak Pessimist

In the last 48 hours, I have found myself having a number of ridiculous arguments. The first was in a context that is so mind-blowingly weird, it probably deserves its own entry. For now, suffice to say that on Wednesday I was sternly told, “You still have hope, I can tell,” from a source who was precisely the last person in the world I  would have expected to hear it from.

Yesterday, someone different told me that my decision to leave academia was courageous. No, I told them, it wasn’t, because I really truly felt like I was going to die so staying simply wasn’t an option. I’ve had this argument before, and it’s what I’ll tell anyone, but again, this person insisted: “I think it was courageous.” They also told me I wasn’t as cynical as I thought I was — well, maybe, but the whole reason I started warning people I’m a cynic is because when I don’t I’m inevitably accused of being one. This is clearly a no-win situation.

The dumbest argument, though, happened several months ago when an old friend told me that I had to admit I left because I knew things could get better.

“Not better,” I said. “Less worse.”

“That’s the same as better,” the friend insisted.

“Less. Worse.”

I was gonna die on this hill.

I tell you this because you should know something about pessimists: they’re very particular about their terminology. They do not want to be told that things are going to get better — oh, something might happen, but then again it might not. So just skip the declarative sentences altogether.

Yesterday I was sitting on my back porch. The Austin sun was beautiful, butterflies were photogenically checking out the pretty little lavender wildflowers, and my cat (who is usually evil incarnate) deigned to snuggle up and be adorable. This lasted for about five minutes, at which point the sun clouded over, a cutting breeze sprang up, and the cat left. Did the sun come back out from the clouds? Eventually. And then went it back again. And came out again. And so forth. Such is life, and I don’t want to be told that the sunny moments are more numerous, likely, or even valuable. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.

Bridging the half-empty, half-full divide requires compromise on both sides. We can probably agree on a goal, we’ll keep on keepin’ on towards it. No worries there. But seriously, people, you’ve gotta stop telling me what I am if you don’t know me.  If it helps, I’ll put it in positive-speak: please honor my churlish, fire-breathing spirit by not insisting I use your words. I have my own, thank you very much.

Networking for Introverts and Misanthropes (Again): Setting Goals

Full disclosure: I don’t have any brilliant ideas for today. I’m kinda wiped out, because it’s %$#@! networking season again. That’s one reason I did SXSW, and yes, I did try to meet as many people as possible, and now I’m following up with several of them, and it’s exhausting.

So here’s more advice you didn’t ask for, namely, how to set networking goals.  Having a specific task at hand makes me feel less at sea in conference environments. Though it also ups the ante — after all, having goals means it’s more obvious when you failed at them. But, as I’ve written before, failure is a part of success and persistence is more important than positivity. Also, if networking is difficult for you, I fully support making communication itself a goal, rather than only checking off a box if you score a followup with some highly placed individual.

Every time I’m in a networking situation, I have this list of  items in mind and require myself to perform at least one (1) networking goal per session or talk or sock hop.

1) Talk to the speaker

This is pretty easy, especially if the speaker was good — that way, you can go up and tell them how much you enjoyed their talk. The conversation may or may not lead anywhere, but fortunately, that is not the goal. Getting motivated to talk to someone is.

2) Talk to an audience member who asked a good question

Sometimes the speaker isn’t the person who sparks my interest. At the Austin Film Festival, for example,  a woman in the audience asked a really interesting question, so I made a point to approach her and tell her that. We had a good five-minute conversation because of this.

3) Give your card to someone and/or get someone’s card.

This is a separate goal from just telling someone you like their work, and it’s more likely to lead to something useful.

4) Talk to someone random (especially if it’s a cute guy or gal).

If you attend events solo, working the room is the hardest part. But if you just walk up to people and act friendly it usually works — and this is especially true outside of academia. At this time of year, it’s as easy as just asking them about their ‘bracket’.

Okay, approaching hotties is not technically a networking goal but if you’re getting yourself psyched up to talk to strangers, you might as well improve your social life.

For example, When Dr. $hiraz and I were at the Rally to Restore Sanity she ran to the bathroom at a Starbucks while I stood there looking like a twit (viz. holding my gigantic sign and waiting for her latte). There happened to be a cute guy in line, so I promised myself I would talk to him; he was ahead of me and as he was about to leave, I asked him if he lived in this neighborhood. He didn’t, but asked what I was looking for (smiling works, see?). “Beer?” was my charming reply. He gave me several suggestions, and I’d like to think that, had I felt like, the conversation could have gone further. But getting a date wasn’t an option anyway (we were about to leave town) so the goal was simply to communicate.

5) Arrange a follow-up

This is usually done via email, but you might as well throw the idea out there while you’re exchanging cards.

And last but not least:

6) Keep talking to your real friends

Networking is about creating ‘weak links’ with many people you probably like just fine, but these are not friendships. So not only is having real friends good networking advice (friends will probably want to help you)  but it’s a good reminder that networking is not the same as having a soul-deep connection with the people you really love.

What Can’t BlackBoard Do For You?

I had a really interesting online/Twitter conversation over the weekend, inspired by this Chronicle article on Coursekit, course-management software developed by UPenn students with specific goal of replacing Blackboard.  In their view, ed software is a ‘classic example of a bloated and bad industry,’ and I couldn’t agree more. Also, I may not be teaching anymore, but I still hate Blackboard with a fiery passion — its clunkiness makes even the web-savviest prof look like a moron in the eyes of iPhone-wielding students.

But one line in the article really rubbed me the wrong way: ‘Mr. Cohen says his initial strategy is to attract Penn students themselves and force professors to go where the students are.’ I didn’t like the ‘force’ and said so in the comments, and to be fair one of the Coursekit authors addressed my concerns; on the Coursekit website, it’s clearer that they’ve worked with profs and are not, in fact, trying to take over the world with computers.

(The reason I bristled was because at SXSWedu I’d noticed something about the way admin talks about teachers. I heard a lot of ‘we make teachers do X’; ‘we have teachers do Y’ and, ‘the teachers experience online learning’ or ‘are exposed to web content’ (italics mine, obviously). I don’t think they know they’re doing it, but they treat teachers as dumb herd animals that need to be managed; meanwhile, as I already reported, they happily chirped the news about ‘how excited students were to be in charge of their education.’ No kidding. So the ‘force’ really got my goat, however unintentional it was.)

And I’m still not sure about the purchasing issue. As many Tweeps noted, profs don’t even get a say in the course-management software being used most of the time. Some might ‘advise’ but ultimately most purchasing decisions are made by admin; then profs are told they need to learn the new software, often without any designated classes, certainly not with any extra pay for that training, despite not having an ‘extra’ minute to spare. Which is why most educators don’t jump for joy at the idea of new software.

Finally, there’s the question of how many times we can re-invent the wheel. Most tech-savvy profs bypass BlackBoard already. They create their own class websites or use Facebook and WordPress — free, readily available solutions (except for the grade posting, which is the thing you can’t get around). Yet at SXSWedu and in other entrepreneurial venues, I hear business person after business person talk about some ‘new’ idea for online forums or networks or course software or whatever — when, in reality, there are already plenty of forums and networks and ‘solutions.’

I’m totally on board with the idea that someone could do it better, mind you; I’d also say that, if people invented a super-awesome, super-intuitive class interface, their product would be worth paying for. Of course, then they’d have to convince admin to buy it. I think hitting the right price point is difficult; admin tends go for the second most expensive bid, like a cheapskate struggling with a wine list. And even if the product is worth paying for, it still adds to tuition, either as admin cost or as yet another student ‘fee’.

I’m still pondering. What do y’all think?

Discussion questions: How much do (or don’t) you hate BlackBoard and what do you do to get around it? And what should course-management software be doing for you?