OpenFiction [Blog]

The Internet, education, and oppositional speech

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 30, 2005

WBUR’s The Connection reported this morning on China’s deadline today for bloggers to register with the government, and discussed political blogging worldwide with the Berkman Center’s Rebecca MacKinnon on their show “Cyber Dissidents”. The show highlights how China and other countries are cracking down on oppositional speech on the Internet, and also discusses how Cisco and Microsoft are providing technical support for such crackdowns in return for access to markets.

As goes oppositional speech in general on the Internet, so I believe goes the fate of open educational resources such as MIT OCW; the pedagogies that underpin many of the materials being shared depend heavily on space made for oppositional speech. Institutions and countries that do not allow for oppositional speech will not be well positioned to make use of many open educational materials, and open educational materials created within authoritarian environments will be undermined by the oppositional voice of other open materials. The radical dependence on oppositional speech is what makes open sharing a very political undertaking. Seen from the perspective Amartya Sen presents in Development as Freedom, open educational resources enhance both the freedoms of access to educational materials directly and freedoms of speech by providing content and pedagogical practices that value oppositional speech.


Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 30, 2005

After seeing some examples at iLaw of wikis being used to support digital communities, I’ve decided that if tOFP ever starts to develop any kind of a following, a wiki is really the thing to replace the craftbook, not this blog. Some of the staff at Utah State University’s OSLO group set up a wiki for sharing opencourseware information that might make a nice candidate, as it is really lightweight and uses a CVS rather than MySQL under the hood. Probably not robust enough for huge amounts of use, but just right for a modest undertaking such as this. Another addition to the enhancements list.


Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 29, 2005

I’ve finished Ohmann’s book, and before I leave it, I feel compelled to add personal observations that illustrate the historical (and Marxist) view he provides of changes in the professional field of composition instruction and higher education instruction since 1970. Very briefly, the narrive he provides is that the old model of the university began to break down about the same time as the old vertically integrated corporation, and opportunities for professional positions at the college level began to diminsh. For some fields, such as composition instruction, the very possibility of maintaining the professional status of the work largely disappeared, with most colleges turning to what Ohmann calles the “casual labor” force of adjuncts, teaching assistants, graduate students and other low-pay, non-tenure positions.

Through my work at Emerson, I’ve been party to this system of diminshed opportunity and witness to the real effects it has on people’s lives. As I’ve said elsewhere, Emerson Division of Continuing Education hires on a strictly adjunct basis, filling some 250 courses a year with part-time instructors. Many who contend that these should be filled with full time employees would paint the school as solely responsible for exploitive hiring practices. And while this may be true to an extent, the people being hired into these postions also help create the conditions of their labor. Many part-time instructors have full-time positions in their field and teach at night for extra money and for the prestige of being an instructor. I used the part-time positions available in the DCE to get at least a toe-hold in teaching fiction, an opportunity otherwise unavailable to me. The extra money was also critical, making up a full third of my income in my final year at Emerson.

And there are a minority of adjunct instructors who are willing to get by on a heavy diet of part-time positions rather than leaving the field for other work. I used to joke that they were “adjunkies,” because though I was the administrator hiring them into what I knew were unhealthy labor condistions, I never had to pressure any of them very much; usually a phone call to say a position was open was enough, even if they were already teaching three or four classes that term. The most I’d ever head of anyone teaching was nine courses between three colleges in a single term–an extreme case, but nonetheless a demonstration of how much these people are willing to take on. And while these are the people who most deserve the protections and dignities of full-time employment, they are also the slice of the labor pool that most enables the system. The fragmentation between professionals teaching at night and adjunkies also makes it difficult for this labor to organize, as those teaching at night only don’t need the benefits and wages that those subsisting on adjunct positions need.

I’ve always felt that–especially in the field of composition–these hiring practies were very short-sighted, given that composition instructors are likely to be among the first instructors fresmen encounter, and an overworked, stressed, checked-out, unplugged instructor can set a negative tone for a student’s college experience. If students are expected to wait until their junior year to encounter what it means to engage in vigorous and energetic academic debate, how many are going to abandon the project before then?

I suppose Ohmann would say this is all part of the sorting out function colleges provide…

Who speaks, and what gets said

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 28, 2005

A point of connection between the Internet (in particular the open sharing it allows) and fiction that I hope to explore in this space is the political, but I find myself a bit resistant because apart from a few graduate-level classes in literary theory, what I’ve picked up in discussions among both open sharers and composition instructors, and reading cranky old men like Richard Ohmann, I have not a lot of experience that recommends me. But that’s part of the rough democracy that (for the moment) the Internet allows–even the untutored and unwashed have a voice. So very briefly, let me lay out the broad picture of the connection I see, and then start off with a bit of self-critique.

To put it as simply as I can, both open sharing and fiction are political in that each reinforces or disrupts social channels of power that are self-concealing. Without getting too down the road of this idea, I think it’s worth pointing out that most effective modes of social and economic control are self-concealing, and only where these have failed do the more overt methods come into play. With both fiction and Internet, one way this plays out is in the control of who is speaking and what gets said.

The self-concealing nature of realist fiction I describe in the coursework operates by presenting a socially constructed artifact as somehow “natural” or as the way the world is, rather than something shaped by a person with allegiances to social and economic power structures, ideologies that they may or may not even be aware of. For the works that are make it through to publication (especially mass market publication), through levels of editorial review and investment decisions, they must hold significantly true to the popular imagination, with characters that act in socially accepted ways and hold socially accepted views. They can challenge these to a certain extent, but the more they do, the more they get shunted off into markets for “literary” fiction, where in some respects they fulfill the same function of reinforcing the accepted modes of thought and action for these smaller audiences. (This again is realist fiction under discussion. Experimental and “metafiction” is a whole different discussion.)

The Internet, as it interacts with copyright law, also controls (or not) who speaks and what gets said. In some ways it is more explicit, in that much is controlled–as Lessig has made a career of explaining–by the code. If you understand the code, you understand where much of the control comes from, and how that control may change over time. The most obvious example is that in the enormous explosion of communication and voices that has grown on the Internet lately, only the wired world gets heard. The chorus of voices online has become so loud that offline channels of communication are overwhelmed, and the vast majorities who cannot speak through the Internet are drowned out. The hardware controls. A step further though, and the various channels of communication on the web control what gets said. The modes vary from the one-way communication of static web pages, where only those who can write web pages and find hosting for them can speak (a low barrier to entry, admittedly), to blogs, where one voice speaks the loudest and others join in, to communities like Wikipedia and Slashdot, where the code supports the prevalence of social norms. The short story is that right now the code allows for a rich array of freedoms in communication (for those with the hardware and software), but the law may change this soon, either directly or through the code.

Ok, so I’m going to hold off on the aforementioned self-critique for the moment, and leave off with this admittedly nebulous description, with the ambition of exploring this connection more rigorously and in more depth later.

Notes from iLaw

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 27, 2005

OCW was kind enough to send me down the road to Harvard for the latest iteration of iLaw, the Berkman Center for the Internetand Society‘s road show detailing the current state and future of Internet law. If you’re not familiar with the Berkman Center, they’re a really wonderful resource and publish a great little newsletter called The Filter (which sounds ominously censorious, given their commitment to freedom on the web).

It’s always fun to catch the Larry Lessig show, live and in courier, and his new book, Free Culture is clearly a must-read for open sharing advocates. Worth noting too, is Jonathan Zittrain’s dire prediction that we are approaching a 9/11-like moment (my comparison, not his) for the Internet, in which someone finally turns the openness of the system against the system itself, and releases a virus that actually does catastrophic damage to computers worldwide. (He pointed out several times in the three day event that the only reason viruses to date don’t erase hard drives as they circulate is that virus writers have not written them to do so–and one line of code is all it would take.) It’s not hard to imagine how this will lead directly to a CyberPatriot Act.

But I have to say, the most interesting of the presenters to me was Yale law professor Yochai Benkler, with whom I’ve previously been unacquainted. Benkler painted the largest picture I’ve yet seen of free sharing economies, describing examples of resource sharing far outside of open educational resources and the free culture movement Lessig describes. He discusses the emergence of open wireless networks, which are essentially AirPort grids with only a few nodes plugged in the net, and the others functioning as repeating stations (start one in your neighborhood now.) He also describes innovative ways that people are harnessing the excess processing and storage capacity of large numbers of PC’s (as well as the excess attention of large numbers of people).

What I find most engaging about Benkler is that while his arguments have a moral underpinning for sure, they are largely economic arguments along the lines of “It works.” The open educational resources movement, and the larger open sharing movements, will get traction on moral arguments, no doubt, but that traction is limited. To pull a phrase from OCW-speak, Benkler gives these movements a real sustainability model, which will ultimately be most compelling to the largest number of people.

A few fun links from the conference:
EPIC 2014
Open Letter to the Kansas School Board
NASA Clickworkers

Research – Authenticity

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 24, 2005

What’s this?

It occurs to me that one approach to finishing the lost chapters of the courseware is to blog about the topic often enough that eventually I can extract a chapter out of it. This, then, is at least a small start in that direction.

I’ve felt since grad school that many of the secondary characters had not been well imagined (not to mention a few of the main characters). The biggest of these failures of imagination was making Annabel a book-seller, a passive occupation that had nothing to do with the main drama of the story and was an artifact of one of the people I’d known in Greensboro, the Pennsylvania town on which Endenboro is based. Annabel’s become the publisher of the town paper, a role that involves her more directly in the action. This change alone drove me to circle back and start yet another draft of the novel after ten chapters.

One of the other failures of imagination in the early drafts of the novel was Foster’s first wife being a country singer. It was too easy, and too clichĂ©d, to do this, and so I was seeking some way to make her interest, and her character, more authentic. I’d been reading a book called Appalachian Ways, which had been published in the seventies by a cultural agency. It’s a collection of forty or so vignettes about various aspects of traditional Appalachian life. One of these vignettes described a gathering of bluegrass musicians at a country store in Tennessee. This provided both the impetus to make Gina a bluegrass and folk singer, and also the inspiration for a similar scene in the book, which replaced a one paragraph, poorly imagined trip to a country bar.

In addition to making Gina’s musical interests more authentic, this also led to opportunities for further developing Foster’s character, and making his growing involvement with Gina more convincing. In the scene, he dances with Gina, and has a flashback to dancing with his mother. I am also able to seed some of the later exposition about Gina’s family. Only drawback seems to be that to complete the scene, I need to do yet more research to get the names of appropriate bluegrass songs and dances.

Copyright, monopoly and the author

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 23, 2005

I suppose I shouldn’t be as suprized as I am about the connections I’m discovering between various interests I’ve had in the past ten years or so, but in reading Information Feudalism, Who Owns Academic Work?, and Politics of Knowledge back-to-back-to-back has brought together interests that I’d previously pretty much held separate in my mind. The (of course still unfinished) writing project that originally brought me to Boston was a history of the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, which may well have been the last extravagent vaudeville house built. The building itself is a touchstone for a larger history of the era, including a study of how monopolies were built and run before antitrust laws were written. Keith’s vaudeville empire died a natural death to the emergence of new entertainment forms–radio and movies–but the circuit he ran was a textbook turn-of-the-century monopoly.

In grad school, I had followed that story as far as the writing of antitrust law in the 1920’s before turning my attention to writing fiction. I didn’t reincounter the topic until early this year when I read Drahos and Braithwaite’s book, in which they trace the rise of intellectual property law as the new tools for maintianing monopololy in the 1930’s. The history of intellectual property as a tool for monopoly goes back much futher, of course, especially copyright. In a vast oversimplification I’ll restate the history that Corynne McSherry gives in her book, that copyright law as it developed in England really existed to protect the monopoly of printing guilds rather than the rights of authors. The author as individual genuis who required legal protections for his creative output was a useful tool for commodifying and propertizing writing, which at the time could only be brought to market by a printer. At the time, it was really beyond comprehension that an author would be able to bring his work to market without signing the property copyright granted over to a publisher, an arrangement that held for 450 years.

That accident of how writing was propertized, which could easily have been otherwise, is one of the things that really allows the open sharing movement to function. I came back to this idea in reading Ohmann’s essay “Book and Magazine Publishing Through the Period of Corporate Revolution,” which talks about how some producers of genre writing in the early 20th century reduced “the writer’s part to that of pseudonymous hired hack fleshing out the editor’s outline.” In the earliest model of publishing, this was exaclty the model, that the writer–like the typsetter and binder and editor–was just one of many people involved in the production of the finished book, the ownership of which could have been located in many places and many ways. Because ownership had to be located in the content of the text rather than the finished commodity of the book in order to insure monopoly control, the idea of the individual genius of the author and his rights emerged.

Enter into this the internet, where suddenly the author does not have to sign over the copyrights of work in order to publish to the whole (digital) world. Suddenly, any hack can publish their fiction or poems or courseware. In an environment where the vast majority of writers don’t make money on writing they publish, this reduces the incentive to sign away their work, and increases the incentive to share it. On top of this, the academic tradidtion that locates faculty production as similarly owned by the creative agent of the individual faculty member rather than the institution (as a work-for-hire), suddenly the vast majority of teaching materials is available for owners not interested in profits to release to the web.

Drafting – (Re)drafting

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 22, 2005

What’s this?

I’ve developed an approach to drafting the novel that on its face probably seems overwhelmingly labor-intensive, but I’ve found that it really helps me to maintain momentum in the writing. One element of the approach is taken from Pam Painter’s redrafting advice, which is to literally rewrite each word of the story–literally recommit to each word–by starting with a blank file rather than simply editing or cutting and pasting in the previous draft file. She went so far in class as to ask a student with a laptop to find the file of their story and delete it, so that all they have left is the paper copy. I’ve found this advice, once you’re used to it, to be tremendously helpful. It’s one thing to type out a flabby passage once, but you’ll almost never do it twice.

The second element of my (re)drafting approach happened quite by accident. Really the only consistent time I’ve had to devote to writing in the past few years has been my half-hour ride into and out of Boston each day. In the period before I had a laptop, I talked myself out of writing on the train because I didn’t have a computer available to me. I eventually came to see this as another of the excuses I use not to work on my writing, so I got a legal pad and a pen, and started on the current redrafting effort by hand. I’d do the handwritten draft on the train during the week, and squeeze in some time on the weekend to type through what I’d written out. Eventually, I got a laptop (and God bless the people at Apple for developing one that doesn’t have to be booted up every time you open it), but by that time, I’d discovered something interesting–making two passes, one by hand and one by keyboard, had some really unique benefits.

For one, I found myself writing myself into a corner less and less. If I wasn’t sure what to do next with the story, I could put down the legal pad, pick up the computer, and run up to the sticking point again. I’d very often have figured out the next move by the time I got there the second time. I also found that it was really helpful to be mentally in two places in the story at the same time. Often it lead to connections between story threads that I doubt I’d have developed otherwise. And I am certainly more economical when writing as opposed to typing, so the writing tended to be less flabby. So while I can now type as much as I want on the train, I have stuck to this double-drafting approach. It may not be the fastest approach, but it has a momentum I’ve not felt with either handwriting or typing alone.


Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 21, 2005

TOFP blog site in part replaces the craftbook that is usually associated with my coursework. A craftbook is a notebook I keep, and ask my students to keep, in binder form, with sections devoted to different aspects of craft. I also created a digital version for each class, usually on the discussion board of the WebCT system. Here’s the description from the class material:

Craftbooks — Each student will create their own craftbook, a three-ring binder with sections matching each of the subsections of the course materials (Point of View, Plot, Charater, etc.), in which you will keep notes, writing exercises of your own and from your fellow students, and relevant quotes about each of these topics. This craftbook will become a resource for you as you begin and draft stories, both during the class and as you continue writing afterward. If you find yoursef stuck on a particular problem in a story, it will give you somewhere to go for help.”

Some entries for the blog will be craftbook entries. I’ll precede the title with the section (e.g. Plot – Gardner’s character-driven plot model). I’m sure this will be no end of confusion from both the coursework site and blog ends of things, but at least I can say I made a note of it here.

Signal when you’re through, please

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on June 21, 2005

A few notes on designing the distance learning course: As I’ve said elsewhere, the course was designed and first taught in 2001, which is important to note given the pace of IT development in the education field. I was working then in the Division of Continuing Education at Emerson College, which at the time had a very popular web design and management certificate program. This was during the brief period of time in which it looked like web skills were going to be a marketable skill, rather than a commodity to be outsourced. I had some background in computers, and had taught myself a fair amount about relational database design (insofar as FileMaker 3.0 was a relational database). Still, around the millennium, I couldn’t shake the feeling that technology was leaving me behind, so I made the decision that I would learn HTML. I taught myself on train rides to work with an O’Reilly book, and later audited the web certificate program. This decision, and training, provided the skills I needed to build the course.

We made the decision to experiment with distance learning in early 2001. Emerson’s IT situation was, I imagine, similar to that of many comparable colleges. They had an ancient VAX system that handled student information, which was painfully difficult to get information into and out of. Emerson had just adopted the BlackBoard course management tool, which was not able to communicate with student information system. The continuing education students, too, had mixed technology available to them. Some used the school’s labs as their primary access, others home computers, but most used their work computers. In the first group of students to take the course, quite a number used dial-up connections. This situation produced many of the constraints that shaped the course.

One clear example was the decision to create the course materials as a stand-alone web site rather than entering the materials into the BlackBoard system. This was done for two reasons: One, because management of that volume of text in BlackBoard was awkward because the web interface was slow and there was no “universal replace” option; and two, since the student information system didn’t talk to the BlackBoard system, students were registered manually, which meant they might not have access to the course management environment for a week or two into the course. Having a separate site meant it could be located outside of the BlackBoard authentication system, and students could access it freely. This became important when the College made a sudden switch to the WebCT system, which was painful for almost every instructor involved, but was not a problem at all for me, since none of my content was in the system. Interestingly, this decision also had implications for the eventual open sharing of the materials—since I knew I was going to post them in an unprotected environment, I went out of my way to avoid (for the most part) including any third-party materials, so I had little to remove when I started the OpenFiction project.

A second set of decisions driven by the constraints involved the use of HTML and e-mail as the primary communication tools. Though I probably couldn’t have articulated it at the time, the constrains enforced (and I believe still enforce) a doctrine of “least effective technology.” In many ways, mediation when it comes to learning means “something that gets in the way of,” so the less of it you have, and the more reliable it is, the better the learning experience would be. Even if we had the budget to invest in Flash animations and the like, I still would have designed the class as I did, because at the time, HTML and e-mail were really the only two rock-solid web communication technologies available. In later iterations of the class, I experimented with instant messaging, and we used the BlackBoard bulletin board somewhat, but neither was sufficiently developed to be of great use. All of this had implications for how the class was conducted, which is fodder for another posting.