Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

“The Stability of Data” and other Graphs

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

(or: Three graphs/charts to save for later.)

I don’t actually like most of Ben Greenman’s Graphs About Charts and Charts About Graphs (from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency), but the two of them below just grab me.   I do like some of Demetri Martin‘s charts and graphs, but I don’t like sitting through his entire show or routine to get to them.  Maybe in his new book he has just some graphs and charts?  Anyway, I wanted to save these three for later use in my teaching.


The above is ariginally from Demetri Martin before it got onto Graph Jam.


The two above are from Ben Greenman.

Why Isn’t the Internet a Required Course?

Monday, September 12th, 2011

(or: Why We Don’t Have Introductory Courses About the Internet)

I study the Internet. That’s what I do.

We’re coming up on the Internet’s 42nd birthday.  We just passed the Web’s 20th birthday.  Why is it so hard to teach freshmen about them?  

That is, why are so many of our courses about the Internet and digital media non-required electives? Why do we offer certificates and minors in “new media” and “digital media”?  Don’t those mean that a plain-old bachelor’s degree about media means “analog media” and new technologies are optional?

Media-related disciplines were originally founded to encompass, interrogate, and/or support particular technological forms and industries. Increasing professionalization in the press led to my university’s Journalism program in 1902, the rise of television led to the study of “mass” communication and the founding of the first communication research program here at Illinois in 1947, and so on.  The communication department here used to be dedicated to the medium of the human voice (it was the Department of Oration).

Although the media world has never been static, in the last 10 years computing, the Internet, and digital convergence have irrevocably transformed the technological forms and media industries that our system of undergraduate education has taken for granted. Yes, now we have new Internet Institutes, but what about all that older stuff still hanging around?

It’s a Great Career Move to Love Media

This link to real, material objects and systems is exciting. It presents a remarkable opportunity: media themselves, by most definitions of the word, are more popular than ever.

Declines in the use of traditional media forms are being matched and even exceeded by gains in attention made by new media (as video is replaced by gaming, or reading in print is replaced by reading online). It is commonly said that attention is shifting away from television, but the average American still spends around 5 hours per day watching video in some form, they simply use different devices (computers) and formats (YouTube, Facebook).

Indeed, newly vibrant media technologies have emerged and attracted very large and even unprecedented populations of devoted users and new libraries of content (e.g., gaming, smartphones, …). And undergraduate interest in media and communication related majors is increasing.

What is a “Media Job”?

But it’s common knowledge that this opportunity has been accompanied by turmoil in the media industries. As some of our media- and communications-related programs are committed to professional training and relationships with particular industries (Journalism, Cinema Studies, …), the disruption is obviously unprecedented.

This isn’t because the industry has gone away — rather we are still looking toward The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when we think about a “media company.” We should be looking at Microsoft, Zynga, Twitter, and more.

Even in media-related programs that employ a broadly-based liberal arts approach, substantial topical revision has been important to retain student interest.  And still the pace of change in the world has outstripped the University’s ability to adapt by a large margin (or a larger margin than usual).

So far, we at the university sort of suck at this digital media stuff.

Why are we so Out of Date?

Curriculum reform is — to put it bluntly — a monster.

It is a democratic process grounded in faculty governance and program autonomy. While a new course can be proposed by a faculty member or a doctoral student seeking to pursue their own teaching interests (or, ideally, student interests as well), curriculum reform can be an attempt to motivate changes among faculty who would not otherwise change. Or at least it can be an attempt to get those faculty to agree to new changes.

Some entrenched interests are likely to support any given status quo configuration of curricula, providing a great deal of inertia. Indeed, while curriculum changes may benefit student recruitment, satisfaction, and even learning, the faculty reward structure for curriculum reform is not clear at all, and it can be (in the worst case) a contentious, time-consuming process consisting mostly of meetings and negotiations.

In the best case, curriculum reform is organically motivated as a normal part of faculty professional responsibility and produces a renewed, shared vision that is in accord with educational mission of the discipline. Yet this is rare enough that programs in media and communications at other universities remain the “Department of Radio” when this does not describe them and give degrees in “Film” that do not involve cellulose acetate (film).

So we’re in this situation now:  Media careers are now increasingly information technology-related careers as the Internet and convergence has transformed these industries. Although it is crucial to continue to teach about media in a historically-grounded comparative way, beyond the valuable examples in comparative media history there isn’t much in the curriculum that refers to the present day and is “analog media.”  

Let’s go, “Digital 101.”

Goodbye, “New Media 599.”

This is overdue.


[Note: I cross-posted this at the Social Media Collective. –CS]

The Oversharer (and Other Experiments)

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Preface: I’m also blogging over at the Social Media Collective.  This entry is cross-posted with our collective blog over there.  –CS

What new norms are we evolving via the use of social media?

Way back in 1967 sociologist Harold Garfinkel proposed that the social world was filled with hidden rules for behavior that were so taken for granted it could be very difficult to notice them even if you tried to.  To make this point he famously sent his college students home for spring break with an assignment: He asked them to “spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes imagining that they were boarders and acting out this assumption” (p. 38). In short, they were to be polite to their families and note what happened.

It turns out that people aren’t polite to family.

As family norms were broken the result was often pandemonium.  Unsuspecting family members quickly diagnosed their children as ill… or even insane. Speaking politely to your parents is so unusual that most families took it as cruel mockery, or as a kind of elaborate, unsuccessful joke.  Students found the experience unaccountably stressful, given the apparently innocuous instructions. Garfinkel’s experiment is now widely known as “the lodger” or “the boarder.”  He advocated this technique of de-familiarizing everyday life by challenging some unstated assumption as a way to discover the existence of hidden norms.  He called it “breaching.”

What would Garfinkel’s breaching experiment look like if we designed it to investigate emerging norms in social media?  In the class that I teach at the University of Illinois called Communication Technology and Society we set out to figure this out.  Here is a sampling of some of the breaching experiments we designed and conducted.  (Siddhartha Raja, Matthew Yapchaian, Dawn Nafus, and Ken Anderson contributed to this list.)

I’ll list the experiments here but not the results.  Note that a few of them produced results we did not expect.  Dear Internet: Can you think of any other social media norms to investigate with norm breaching experiments? This is like making your own failbook for the sake of science. All new Garfinkels welcomed.

Social Media Norm Breaching Experiments

  • CHATTY FLICKR MARKUP: Sign up for an account and find users on Flickr ( that you do not know. Try to start a conversation with them using the “add note” tool and the “add your comment” box to mark an image that they have uploaded. Try varying the kind of image you comment on from those that are very personal (wedding, kids birthdays, etc.) to those that are very impersonal (buildings, landscapes) and see how the reactions vary. Note that you may have to post a lot of notes and comments to get any reaction. You may have to try different and creative strategies to get people to respond to you. Describe the reactions.
  • GCHAT STRANGER. If you have a gmail account already, use gchat to begin chat conversations with people that you don’t know (or don’t know very well). Vary the kinds of things you say to see if you can get them to start a chat conversation with you. Describe what kind of chat message will successfully get a stranger to chat with you on gchat. Remember to be polite and respectful at all times. Note: You may have to try to gchat A LOT before you get someone to respond to you. Do not keep trying the same people if they do not respond.
  • WAY OFF TOPIC. On Facebook or a similar site that has threaded conversation (e.g., status updates with replies), over a period of three days leave a large number of comments that are all completely and obviously off-topic and not relevant to the thread. For this to work, there can be no relation between the reply and the topic at all; just start talking about something else. If you like, address some of them to the wrong person as well. Describe the results.
  • FACEBOOK WALL INQUISITOR. On Facebook, friend five strangers — people you don’t know (maybe friends of friends). Once they accept your friend request, post a public comment to their wall introducing yourself and asking them about themselves. In your posts, do not refer to any friends that you have in common; just talk about yourself and ask them about themselves. Try to get information from them about themselves. (You must start this assignment before Monday for it to work!). Describe the responses.
  • ONLY ONE MEDIUM. Choose one popular communication technology. Only use that technology for 3 days. (e.g. Use Facebook direct messages for ALL communication even when it is obviously inappropriate or impractical.) Describe the reactions.
  • ALWAYS MIX MEDIA. For 3 days, always “mix” media–always respond to a communication using a different medium of communication than the one that was used to contact you. (example: if you get a phone call, let it go to voicemail then SMS them. If you get an email, send a picture to their phone, etc. Respond to your twitter @’s in person.) Describe the reactions.
  • THE OVERSHARER. Pick either an acquaintance you don’t know that well or a parent. In a 24 hour period dramatically increase the amount of information you send this person using a text-based mobile communication technology that you know they can receive (likeIM on your phone, text/SMS, or e-mail on your phone/PDA). For example, you could communicate with them every time you do anything (“hi I am getting on the bus”, “arrived in class,” “class is boring,” “having lunch,” “talking with friend.”) Describe the reactions.
  • LAPTOP ALTRUISM. In a public place, ask to borrow a stranger’s laptop “for a second” to check something and then spend an excessive amount of time using it to do things on Facebook. If you get no reaction or the overall experiment is very short, repeat the experiment with another person.

Avoiding New Media: Impossible?

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

(or: Are Media Fast Assignments Inherently Dishonest?)

I just received a fascinating comment in my teaching evaluations from last year.  On the back of the eval form there is a free-response section where people are invited to make constructive suggestions about the course.  The results are usually fascinating, but in a bad way. Or in a puzzling way.

For example, one student in a previous class complained extensively about the discussion sections in a course that didn’t have any. I’ve also been propositioned in Korean. There are compliments, yes, and insults.  But this particular comment I received made me pause.

In the course I teach at the University of Illinois titled, Communication Technology and Society, one of my assignments is a new media fast. Basically it is 24 hours without “new” media, with a short reflection on it followed by an in-class discussion about what happened. This was accompanied by readings about the Amish, the Luddites, and the Appropriate Technology movement.

Media fasts have been a part of media studies courses forever, but I gave this assignment because I was particularly influenced by David Silver’s attempts to teach media by getting away from them.  (I also got my definition of “new media” from this other fast assignment I found online.)  I’ve attached the full text of my assignment at the end of this post.

Here’s the anonymous comment I received that made me pause (slightly paraphrased):

Requiring a media fast is inherently dishonest. It is impossible for anyone to be away from media for this long, or at least it is so much easier to lie than to complete the assignment that you’ve done nothing more than incite dishonesty… among 100% of the class.

At the time, I thought some of the responses to the fast were interesting, even insightful.

One student noted that they had to ask everyone the time all day because the only clock they own is a Blackberry. Another student wrote “I feel like I’m being punished for something.”

Someone decided to define the microwave and dishwasher as “new media” and voluntarily fasted from using them as well.

A student had previously fasted for religion and compared the two experiences of doing without: they concluded that doing without media is harder than doing without food.  (I’m sure a longer fast would reverse the situation though.)

Now I’m going over these in my head and thinking… are all of these lies?  How many of these responses are fabricated? It’s true, it would be much easier to simply make up the response than to actually complete the fast. Is this assignment worth giving?

It may be that for the U.S. college student avoiding new media is functionally impossible… or at least unlikely to ever work as an assignment.



ASSIGNMENT: New Media Fast

Part I: Select your fast time. The word “fast” used in this context means “to abstain.” Choose a time frame between now and this assignment’s due date when you will be able to spend 24 consecutive hours without new media. State the time period that you chose. Be sure that the time period requires some adjustment to your lifestyle, but it should not make you lose your job or harm your work in another class. For instance, you might choose one evening and the following morning so that you are not offline for an entire day. (No fair choosing 24 hours when you would already not be using new media.)

Part II: Fast. For the purpose of this assignment, new media technology is being defined as anything that has become common among consumers since 1980. During your “new media fast,” do not use these technologies. Keep notes (with paper!) about the adjustments that you needed to make in order to stay honest to your fast.

Part III: Reflect. After the end of your fast, write a blog post reflecting on this experience. Make specific reference to at least one quote or concept discussed in lecture on 3/30 (on Technology Resistance) or in the C&T book, Ch. 5 or Ch. 6 in a way that demonstrates that you understand them. Please explain:

  • What you gave up.
  • How you did it.
  • What you did instead.
  • What was easiest and what was most difficult to forsake.
  • If you failed (i.e., used new media), what you did when you failed and why.
  • Your thoughts, emotions and feelings about the assignment as it began and evolved.
  • What you learned about your own media consumption habits.
  • How this relates to the ideas in the readings.

This assignment must be at least 300 words (about 1 page).

Why the Internet is on the verge of blowing up all of our methods courses

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

(or: Methodologists, atone!)

By far my favorite book on the research methods, Unobtrusive Measures (first published in 1966), is a skeptical romp through social science where the authors take the position that most of what we call social science is wrong.  The theme of the book is that research is likely wrong because research design is very difficult and researchers too easily substitute received wisdom and procedure for hard thinking about designing studies, experiments, measures, tests, and so on.  Scientific conduct has a rote character that extensive training and preparation (e.g., making you get a Ph.D.) can reinforce.  Peer review and the tenure system can be engines of conservatism.

So you perform a survey in which you ask a particular question of a particular group not because it means something as evidence or it is a particularly good idea.  You do it because your advisor did it that way, or someone else (cite, year) did it that way and it is therefore respectable. And if someone did it before, it’s comparable.  This is perfectly reasonable.  It’s likely you are interested in a particular problem, but not really in the methods or statistics relevant to tests related to that problem, so you offload all of the thinking about statistics by performing the methods and statistics that everyone else does.  It’s efficient.

Yet when you stop and actually think about the intricacies of any particular research design, it gets ugly.  Einstein said, “Theory is something nobody believes, except the person who made it. An experiment is something everybody believes, except the person who made it.”  For decades (since even before Webb in 1966), various cranky types have been alarmed at the misuse of quantitative research.

My own struggles with the topic led me to design a graduate course called Unorthodox Research Methods.  The premise is this:  Most research courses teach procedure, but we need to train our students to think about research design and evidence first and we are not doing a good job of that.  (I’m revising the syllabus for this course and so I’m thinking about these issues again, hence this post.)  The Internet is making us rethink many of our research methods, and Webb’s 1966 critique has never been more apt.

A blog post is only big enough for one example, so here’s a big one:  A huge pitfall in our procedure-based methods education is the use of statistical significance.  Even non-quants are familiar with those nagging asterisks that appear after all sorts of columns in all sorts of journal articles across the social sciences.  Statistical significance is the end of conversation about method in many research projects.  Once p < .05, you pack up your kit and go home. Why do you test significance this way?  Because it’s a step in your list of steps. I think it is fair to say that most researchers have internalized this approach despite the fact that it is totally wrong and the statistics literature has railed against it for decades.

Just so we are clear: statistical significance is often useless — it’s not even a hint toward the right answer for your research project in many situations.  Luckily for the truth, the rise of the Internet is about to cause this test to blow up in our face.  We have taught statistics so badly in the social sciences that most researchers do not appear to realize that the test of significance is about sampling.  (Bam!)  It is a test that helps you figure out if you are being excessively skeptical because of the small size of the sample that you’ve got.  And our samples are now changing.

Thanks to the Internet and our ongoing revolution in computing we are entering the era that the UK calls e-Social Science, and here in the US we call Computational Social Science.  Fast processors. Big iron. Big datasets. Many variables.

Data from the cloud now potentially lets us test all kinds of social science questions (particularly if you are interested in human communication) that before would have by necessity sat in a small sample questionnaire. As social scientists turn toward “big data” they are going to trip over their bad habit of significance testing.  The fact is, most methods courses and research procedures in wide use are obsessed with errors caused by sampling, especially small sample sizes. (Bam!) But as a sea of digital data opens up to the horizon, our problems are increasingly about specification error and not sample sizes, just as measures are increasingly unobtrusive and not self-reports.

Remember, statistical significance is about sampling.  “Except in the limiting case of literally zero correlation, if the sample were large enough all of the coefficients would be significantly different from everything.” (McCloskey, p. 202).  Take your study of communication patterns from 60 paper-and-pencil questionnaires replicate it with a random sample of a million Facebook accounts (if you can get access… see this editorial).  You’ll find that statistical significance — particularly at the arbitrary point of p < .05 — tells you zip.

(click for more shirts like this.)

I think most of the solution is to de-emphasize procedure, as social science procedure is becoming much more volatile as information technology improves.  We need to get people to understand that research design is a creative act, not the boring part of the research process.  Students need to write new procedures, not memorize old ones.  To that end, we need classes about evidence and research design.  Figuring out how to do that is a challenge but we’ve got to step up to it.  (If you’ve got ideas for revising the syllabus for my last attempt, send me an email or a comment.)

Chant it with me:  Statistical significance does not equal substantive significance.  Please chant it with me.  This is something we ought to know already but it may take the big datasets of the Internet to teach us.  What other lessons are in store?

Read more:

Deirdre McCloskey: Rhetoric Within the Citadel: Statistics ( and Why Economic Historians Should Stop Relying on Statistical Tests of Significance (

John P. A. Ioannidis: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False (

Jonathan A C Sterne and George Davey Smith: Sifting the Evidence: What’s Wrong with Significance Tests? (

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