Tag Archives: Queens College

2011

A bunch of stuff happened in 2011.

Like 2010, 2011 was a year of transitions for me: in my relationship with academia, in the way I earn a living, in the way I present myself as a citizen-builder of the internet. Being a parent is the biggest transition of all, forcing me to put into perspective the ways I spend my energy and the ways in which I define myself and what has value to me. (This transition has been overwhelmingly a Good Thing.) Continuing to strive for the right balance in these areas will, I’m sure, be a hallmark of my 2012. (Thankfully, I have no plans to have a child or get married in 2012. A man needs a year off from major life events!)

Happy new year!

WordPress for credit: Conceptualizing and justifying a WP course

A few months ago, I was contacted by Kathryn Weinstein, a local graphic designer and member of the graphic design faculty at Queens College, about co-teaching a WordPress course, for credit toward the Graphic Design degree, in the fall of 2011. Immediately, I felt drawn to the prospect of revisiting my old haunting grounds. But more than that, I was convinced that such a class had potential to benefit students in a few important ways. So I agreed to the project, and Kathryn and I have been planning, off and on, since then.

While the first goal of this fall’s course – titled “WordPress: Beyond the Basics” – is, of course, to serve its enrolled students, Kathryn and I have agreed that we also want our experience to serve as a sort of experiment for future courses, at QC and beyond. In that vein, I’ll be writing occasionally, both here on my personal blog and on our course site, about the process of planning and executing the course. This post will focus on how we’re conceiving and justifying the class, in very broad terms.

What would a WordPress course look like?

The course objectives, in the current draft of our syllabus, look like this:

  1. to strengthen web-building skills
  2. to explore the relationship between content, design and organization
  3. to gain familiarity with standards and best practices in the industry

This suggests a multi-layered approach to the course. On one level (roughly corresponding to the second objective in our list), it’ll be what I take to be typical of a graphic design curriculum. The first and third objectives, which will involve getting our hands dirty with some real coding, call for more justification. A few thoughts:

  • As anyone knows who’s ever tried to hire someone to do web work, or land such a gig himself, the term “web designer” has a wide variety of accepted uses. Sometimes it’s used in the strict sense, where the designer delivers comps that are, in turn, implemented by more “technical” folks. Sometimes a “web designer” is a front-end specialist, doing the creative work and the implementation, often at the same time. Sometimes “web designer” means “coder of web stuff”. Most often, the “designer” is the jack-of-all-trades, knowing enough about each stage of the idea-through-implementation process to be able to make it happen. By learning something substantial about web technologies, students will make themselves fit a greater variety of these definitions. That, in turn, means more job opportunities after graduation.
  • Even if the designer never touches a CSS declaration after semester’s end, it’s unquestionably beneficial to have at least a rough understanding of how the Web’s underlying technologies work. How many web professionals have been frustrated by site mockups, created by “pure” designers, that are impractical or impossible to translate into markup? More importantly, how many hours and dollars have been wasted in this way? Much of this frustration can be avoided if the relevant parties share a common grasp on some key concepts: the CSS box model; the distinction between client- and server-side processing; progressive enhancement; etc.
  • As some of my friends in the digital humanities have argued, there is a general, humanistic argument for learning about how the web works. For one thing, the Web is the medium through which so much of our communication happens – and, by extension, the medium in which our conceptions of others and ourselves are formed. Working with some of the tools that make the Web work is a way of engaging critically with the medium, thereby arriving at a richer understanding of our relationship with it, and how it affects our relationship with the world. On a related note, writing code – whether on the Web or not – is a mode of inquiry that is (arguably) fundamentally different from more traditional academic modes, and (definitely) different enough to make it epistemologically worthwhile. (This last bit is nicely summed up, appropriately enough, by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg’s pithy “scripting is the new literacy”.) Some of us would like to see these kinds of priorities spread throughout the curriculum; this class can serve as a testing ground.

On balance, I see these considerations as a pretty solid justification for the academic value of a course like the one we’re considering.

Why WordPress?

If it’s not too much of a stretch to justify a graphic design course on designing for the web – and, as you might gather from my previous musings, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all – you may still wonder why it makes sense to focus on WordPress.

There are a few reasons. First is a conviction, shared by Kathryn and me, that diving into a complex platform like WordPress will ultimately make for a more engaging and valuable experience than a more staged, “Hello World”-style introduction to web technologies. It’s true that many of our students will never have seen so much as a line of HTML, and it may be true that our job would be easier if we waded in the shallows instead of diving headfirst into WordPress’s morass of HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL, JavaScript…. But I – a Seasoned Web Professional – didn’t learn about the web that way. I learned by jumping into a complex system, and figuring my way out.

The architecture of WordPress makes this kind of learning easy. Take WP themes. I’ve often heard friends (who were much smarter than me, by the way) complain about the fact that WP’s theming system involves the on-the-fly interpretation of raw PHP – a recipe for security and aesthetic disasters if there ever was one. But this feature/bug also makes the themes readable, and thus hackable. The fact that WP is written largely in procedural PHP means that you can follow its thread of reasoning, change a line of code, and see the changes with a simple browser refresh. No compilation; no MVC framework; no class dependencies. One might argue that these features of WP make it less robust or sophisticated, but they almost certainly lower the bar for the n00b.

Moreover, WordPress is really, really widely used. Starting with WP will give students a sense of what it’s like to develop a website in the actual world. More than that – facility with WP development is something that a budding designer can put on her resumé, and it will actually mean something to those who read it.

From an ideological point of view, I’m a fan of the fact that we’ll be able to build an entire class on totally free technologies. From the LAMP stack, to WordPress, to Firefox and Firebug, we’ll be developing with tools that are free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech. That’s good for students in several ways. It means that they won’t have to plop down for expensive licenses. And it means that lessons about data ownership and free software philosophy can come along for the ride.

More to come

In an upcoming post, I’ll be talking in more detail about what we plan to cover in the course. It’s still very much a work in progress – and will be right up through the beginning of the semester, as we won’t know until then about our students’ backgrounds – but I plan to use this space to workshop some ideas. Feedback welcome!

Dropout

I’m a grad school dropout.

A little over a year ago, I left my full-time instructional technolgy gig at Queens College. At the time, I cited my languishing thesis as one of my reasons for leaving. Through the summer and fall of 2010, I put in an honest effort toward my dissertation. It was certainly my most sustained and serious effort since finishing coursework a couple years earier. But I couldn’t figure out a way to enjoy it. I found myself far more productive in other areas of my life, which had the dual effect of taking the joy out of my academic work, and also demonstrating that I no longer had any career-related reasons to finish the PhD.

So, a few months ago, I counted my losses and withdrew from the program. I use the word ‘losses’ with some trepidation, as I don’t feel like I lost much, if anything. In the philosophy program, I learned a lot about philosophy, got some nice teaching experience, and met some good friends. And being in graduate school had a huge number of indirect professional and personal benefits for me. Except for the academic work, I enjoyed being a grad student. If, in quitting, I’m losing anything, I’m losing face. But, to be perfectly honest, if there’s anyone who thinks less of me because I didn’t finish my PhD, that person is more than welcome to kiss my ass.

What excites me most about formally giving up on the PhD is leaving behind the guilt associated with the unfinished dissertation. Many times in the past couple of years (and increasingly so, as time has gone on) I’ve been approached with an offer or an idea about some new project – writing, coding, eating, etc. Time and time again, I have turned down these kinds of projects, because I’d end up feeling overwhelmed by the guilt of working on something other than my dissertation. To tell the truth, I had even stopped reading books for pleasure, because I felt so bad about it. I’m looking forward to feeling more freedom in this respect. (Also, the baby’s coming soon!)

I’m not writing this post because I’m looking for any validation of the decision; I feel good about it already. I’m also not really interested in starting a large discussion about the value of graduate school or a graduate degree; my decisions are specific to my situation. I mainly just want to get it off my chest, so that I don’t have to have the inevitably awkward conversations about it. To wit: I was chatting with some academic friends at THATCamp and I told the group that I’d dropped out, which they took as a cue to rationalize and support my decision. It was, of course, very well-intentioned. But from a certain point of view it suggested pity, which I neither need nor want. I may be a grad school dropout, but I’m a happy one!

Looking back at 2010

2010 was a wild year for me, one that I’ll look back on as a turning point in my professional and personal life. For that reason I thought I might take stock of the past year. (Here’s 2009′s post.) If you are one of those snobs who think that year-end retrospectives are schlocky, feel free to get the hell out of my blog.

As 2010 opened, I was working full-time as the educational technologist by Queens College. I believed strongly (and continue to believe) in the importance of the work I was doing there, but I already knew a year ago that I wouldn’t be able to stay at the job for much longer. I identified as an ed tech, and part of the (really great) ed tech community, but it was a label that never really felt right. When people asked what I did for a living, I hesitated. I left the job near the end of May.

Since then, I have been supporting myself doing custom web development, almost exclusively using BuddyPress. In the last six months, I’ve transitioned from an uneasy edtech to a confident (though still n00bish in many ways) developer. It’s a classification that feels better in many ways. Moving into development has allowed me to be personally productive in ways that the structures of my old career simply couldn’t support. I produce a lot of software that is used by a lot of people; moreover, I am moving toward a position where I get to select only those projects that are of independent interest to me. Measured like this, 2010 was the most productive year of my life, made possible by the career move (and the new self-identification that came with it).

My move into development is not without misgivings. As an educational technologist, working in the confines of a traditional university, there were always connections (sometimes tenuous, but always discernable) between my day job and my identity as a graduate student. Granted, in the time I was at Queens – first as a graduate fellow and then as a full-timer – I made next to no progress on my dissertation. But the fact that I was in a university, and enabling teaching and learning in a hands-on way, kept me in constant communication with my inner philosopher: drawing on my teaching experience, speaking in academic tones with faculty members, engaging in debates on the goals and methods of educational technology in ways that never strayed far from the kinds of discourse I learned in the seminar room. My work as a developer, in contrast, is much less explicitly academic; while some of my projects (notably, the CUNY Academic Commons) have sustained my contact with the university, mostly I am paid to think about software and websites rather than anything else. In the short term, this will undoubtedly be a good thing – I attribute the progress I’ve made on my thesis in the semester since I left Queens College to the fact that my day job provides me with some much-needed release from the mental anguish of the university life. But the more I make a name for myself as a developer, where ‘developer’ is unqualified by ‘academic’ or any similar modifier, the more I have to make conscious decisions about how (and whether) I want my paying gigs to connect with my academic interests. It’s an issue I’ll continue to wrestle with in 2011.

Paralleling my move into a development career has been an increased participation in the WordPress world. In July I was made a moderator on the buddypress.org support forums. In October, I was brought on as a committing developer for the BuddyPress project. I spoke dozens of times through 2010 on WordPress and BuddyPress, at WordCamps, meetups, conferences, THATCamps, and various other fancy places. At the beginning of 2010 I felt like I’d staked out a position on the outskirts of the WordPress community; at the end of 2010, I feel like I’m much closer to its center. And while I could live without the occasional drama, tunnel-vision, and personality cultishness of some WordPressophiles, for the most part it has been a real treat getting to know, and getting to work with, so many of the best WP developers. It’s broken me out of that other echo chamber I come from (academia), made me a much better coder, and introduced me to some really fabulous folks.

In 2010, I also got more and more tangled up with the digital humanities community. In July, I spent a week at the Center for History and New Media for the One Week | One Tool project, where I was on a team that built Anthologize. I attended a number of THATCamps and was witness to a number of Twitter arugments of truly epic proportions. And while I could live without the occasional drama, tunnel-vision, and personality cultishness of some DigitalHumanitiesophiles, for the most part it has been a real treat getting to know, and getting to work with, so many of the best digital humanists. (Is there an echo in here?) My intellectual connection with DH is such that it is hard for me not to put scare quotes around ‘digital humanities’ every time I write it: I am an academic, and I do extensive work with digital technology, but the connection between the two is not manifest in my own work. Still, DH in 2010 has been an exciting place to locate oneself, with cool projects, smart people, and the occasional Big Idea rising to the top over the course of the year.

I continued being a dork in 2010. I came in 66th at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (breaking 50 in 2011! You read it here first!). I switched from QWERTY to Dvorak. I visited the Googleplex. I wrote a lot about pizza and barbecue. I made the decision to stop buying Apple products. I completed Angry Birds. I wrote 45 blog posts on Teleogistic, with a smattering of posts elsewhere. Teleogistic got 960 comments. I wrote many tens of thousands of lines of code, much of which was terrible, and much of which is sadly hidden forever on client servers, but some of which is free and helpful to many.

On June 5, 2010, I got married. I mention this last not because it is the least important event of the year but because it is the most. The process of preparing for a wedding, with the help and support of so many friends and loved ones, was something I will never forget. The wedding day was the most perfect day I can remember. And the girl I married – well, duh, she is the best part of 2010, or of any year.

The changes of 2010 were more significant for me than any year since I was in college. Nearly all of those changes have been for the better. I have some exciting plans for 2011, but for now I am happy to reflect on the year that was. For me, it was a good one.

Social Media and General Education: My Queens College Presidential Roundtable talk

This week I gave a Presidential Roundtable discussion at Queens College. The talk was titled, somewhat anemically, “Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages”, though arguably what I was saying didn’t really end up having much to do with text messages! (I justify my being misleading by reference to the fact that the Presidential Roundtable was not in fact a roundtable format.)

The thrust of the talk was that there are important structural similarities between social media like blogs and Twitter (their openness, their relative lack of imposed structure, their focus on audience and emergent conventions, their positioning of the individual as the locus of value and meaning) and the kind of general education that we’re seeking during this year of gen ed reform at QC.

I transcribed the video after the break, mainly so I’d have the text for my own purposes. It’s lightly edited to cut out some of the more egregious ums and ers and actuallys. Video of the talk is below for anyone who is interested. I spoke mostly extemporaneously and said some dumb things, so please be generous in your interpretation!!

Special thanks to Zach Whalen, who generously answered some of my questions about his Graphic Novel class. (And to his students, whose tweets served as fodder!)

Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages from Boone Gorges on Vimeo.

Continue reading

Moving on

This week I resigned my position as instructional technologist at Queens College. May 27 will be my last day.

My main reason for leaving is my dissertation, or rather my lack of dissertation. I’ve been done with graduate classes for longer than I care to admit, with nothing between me and the degree but the dissertation (as if it were a small thing!). During my time at Queens College – two years as a CUNY Writing Fellow followed by two years as a full-time instructional technologist – I managed to consistently use the job as an excuse not to work on philosophy to the extent that I should. I plan to continue doing web development for the CUNY Academic Commons and elsewhere while I work on my thesis.

Вперед!

Вперед!

As a number of my dear readers are already aware, the path leading to my decision was paved with self-doubt and second guessing. Obviously, there is the stress of going from having a full-time job (and paycheck) to not having one. More surprising, to me at least, have been the nagging misgivings about my relationship with the world of educational technology.

Like a lot of other people I know in the field, I entered edtech on accident. But over the last four years I have found a place in several different kinds of communities built around the intersection of technology and the classroom: communities at Queens College, across CUNY, and beyond. To the extent that leaving day-to-day instructional technology means distancing myself from those communities, I am very sad to do so.

As for the work itself? Here my feelings are more mixed. Certainly the high points of the job have been quite high indeed: working in close collaboration on meaningful projects with great people. But even during the good times I’ve always had a lurking feeling (which has occasionally crossed my lips in mixed company!) that the position itself was an unnatural one. It’s in a broken system – mediocre software, insufficient resources, unthoughtful pedagogy, a stagnant culture surrounding the relevance of digital technology in the university – that the instructional technologist flourishes. Like a doctor or a plumber or a parent, a big part of my job was to get people not to need me anymore.

That’s not to say that edtech is somehow pointless, anymore than it is to suggest that medicine or plumbing repair or parenting are without value. You might even argue that a field that arises out of such genuine need deserves to exist even more in virtue of that very fact. And so it probably is with edtech. Still, a sort of (mild) existential angst has plagued me since I took the job, a feeling that I’ll be glad to leave to my more intrepid colleagues.

I have enormous respect for people doing the extremely important job of on-the-ground edtech. That I will be respecting from a distance leaves me feeling bittersweet. But mostly I’m excited, to watch, as an outsider, how the field evolves in the upcoming years. In the meantime, I’ll be being productive in new ways!

Вперёд!

Check out Revisions

Every year, the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Queens College (where I was a Writing Fellow for two years, and across the hall from which I currently have an office) publishes a zine on writing called Revisions. This year’s issue is titled Inside the Writer’s Process: Inspiration, Perspiration, Procrastination, and features articles written by Writing Fellows as well as QC faculty and students.

Check it out here: http://blogs.qc.cuny.edu/blogs/revisions. There’s lots of stuff worth reading.

I was asked to write a piece related to technology (being a Technologist and all). Here it is: http://blogs.qc.cuny.edu/blogs/revisions/procrastination/gorges.html. In it, I challenge the related assumptions that technological distractions are necessarily bad for writers and that the best way to become a good writer is to isolate oneself.

Also, I made the website. I am awesome!