Hold your horses. You know the scene. A dark rainy very early Washington morning. The conference hotel has an entrance directly from Metro Center – underground, see, so you don’t have to deal with the rain – but UD‘s wild guess as to which entrance took you to the Grand Hyatt was as wrong as it’s possible to be, so she just splashed through three long blocks but is now richly rewarded with a BIG ol’ breakfast buffet in one of your basic insanely beautiful American hotels. Everything’s brownish spartan eco in style — huge bamboo crammed into speckly brown containers kind of thing.

UD has been invited by a very confused organizer to attend this NSF-sponsored event which seems to be about er computers and their implications for higher education. Or something! It’s a mark of how wrongheaded this organization was in directing its invitation to UD that she barely understands its… er… ground of being. But she’ll blog this. Whatever.


Humanoids? Okay, well, we’re all stretched out at long table-clothed tables and we’ve all got our scones at the ready and our laptops fired up. Bit of conversation behind me:

And you’re the director of … what?

For a bunch of techies, seems a genial, outgoing group. Many small gatherings chatting at the long tables. Fifty fifty men women? Think so. No doubt UD‘s invitation is about evening out the gender thing… What? Because she blogs? Has two blogs? Has a poetry MOOC? UD has also lately been invited to be on a panel at next year’s MLA about technology and the status of women in the profession… A colleague has asked her to talk to his grad seminar about the digital humanities which UD isn’t even sure what the fuck that means… Her photo is emblazoned on the front page of the last edition of the George Washington University newspaper, featuring her as the first GW professor to have a MOOC…

So is UD a pioneer??? A tech pioneer? Lordy.

I mean, read this category, Technolust. No, UD is not a Luddite, exactly – but she has always had strong Luddische tendencies… I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years UD has resisted every single new form of screen technology offered her… And she’s got that cranky old English professor thing about technology really being our enemy… But over the years she has gradually caved.


Introduction taking place. Guy pronounces academia as if it’s macadamia.

“How do you do high-quality online education” seems to be the focus.

Uses “ideation” for “thinking.”

“Recent awareness of MOOCs and whatnot.”

“The elephant in the room is the MOOC phenomenon.”

“Cheating is a big problem.”


Okay, so I knew some of this was going to piss me off and here we go. A totally stupid PowerPoint about how all students are bored in school because school isn’t like a Facebook session in your bedroom. Bullshit, honey. Have you ever heard of different experiences, different places for different sorts of experiences? Oh no – universities have to be exactly like online gaming dens or we’re failing our young people!


Oh yeah we need to wire and film every moment of our students – are their fingers moving faster on the mouse? Great! They’re excited! Wire their fingers! Follow their fingers.



She cannot even spell. She reads this big PP headline off the page for us – pointing her lighted pointer right over it – and lots of us laugh but she doesn’t even notice. She doesn’t notice that even as she pontificates about the importance of education, she cannot spell LOSE.


Next speaker seems offended by MOOCs because they don’t reflect the educational technologies he prefers. He complains that there’s no science and research behind MOOCs. First, that’s not true. And second, even if it were, so what? He spends the rest of the talk flacking his particular journals, ed-tech approaches.


Bio break.


UD learns new words.


“There’s an audio narration that worked on my pc last night.” Plenty of tech fuckups in these way-tech settings.


UD has just taken part in a breakout session (she thinks of acne and Alcatraz, but it just means a discussion made up of only some participants in a conference) in which computer science guys from MIT talked with UD about whether computers could capture the sort of thing she does – or say embodies – in James Joyce seminars. Of course the answer is no bloody way, but we tossed it around.


Big Data. That’s this hour’s buzz word.


Plus Affective Computing, where you connect a sensor to my groin while I check out the best deer poisons, and find the phrases that get me going.

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7 Responses to “What? You want me to set the scene? Okay, I’ll set the scene!”

  1. Dom Says:

    Did you engage in visioning, or just ideate? Was ambient mobile social ubiquity hiding in plain sight?

    Stupid business jargon aside, many of these terms and concepts exude from the video game industry. The term “massively open online course” itself is derived from “MMORPG” (massively multiplayer online RP game).

    “Data mining” is real. But some game developers got excited because their games generate unusually large amounts of precise data. When players run through a virtual maze inside your computer, you can count exactly how many took a wrong turn, and exactly how much later each one turned back. That’s “big data” for mining—like, petabytes of it!

    Research in this area turned out to be mostly useless, so the perpetrators are out looking for parts of the real world they can shove inside a computer. Measuring exactly how long each student spends reading a particular page is appealing. If students could be forced to read using special software, it would be possible.

    Cheating is important here: concern about cheating can be used to force students to use your special software. (Cheating in online games is already used as an excuse to force players to use the game company’s servers, for which they pay a monthly fee, and not their own computers.)

    The idea of “affective computing” was popular for a while—figure out what a game player enjoys, and throw more of it at her—until it became clear that the most profitable games are the boring ones that make the player pay real money to bypass some of the boredom. I look forward to this idea spreading to education: if each student in class pays an average of $10 extra, the professor stops reciting his PowerPoint verbatim and actually teaches for ten minutes!

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Dom: Funny! And illuminating.

  3. Bill Gleason Says:

    Wow, just wow…

    Great job, as usual, UD.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks, Bill.

  5. Polish Peter Says:

    Yesterday I heard a speaker use the expression “drill up” which is a backformation from the odious “drill down” to mean backing up through layers of links. That was a first. It brought to mind an image of trapped coal miners trying to escape their underground tomb.

  6. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    Fascinating! and alarming. I attended a similar smaller, more local gathering last year, and came away. . . .concerned. I’m not a luddite, either (among other things, I teach online — small classes that pretty closely mirror my face to face ones), but, as a non-tenure-track, middle-aged faculty member who needs to keep working for several more decades, I feel very vulnerable to the charge of being behind the times if I resist some of the more “visionary” “entrepreneurial” ideas for online education, or even some of the edu-jargon coming from the people who design, but generally do not teach, online courses (and, yes, seem to think that we need to recreate facebook if our students are to learn). One can move from “early adopter” to “over the hill” very quickly in the present tech-educational environment, I fear. And the idea that people who spend most of their time in classrooms actually teaching might have some insight into the process is just so passe (see “current education is boring and ineffective,” which seems to the mantra of the edupreneurs, none of whom seem to have noticed that, in many disciplines, lecture hasn’t been the primary mode of instruction for decades, if it ever was).

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Cassandra: All true.

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