All posts by Joe Murphy

Where the Light Gets In

Kenyon College, Middle Path, Fall 2009, 02

Kenyon’s Middle Path is a mile-long stretch of gravel running through the center of the college. Given time, almost everyone at Kenyon walks Middle Path; it’s not just an pedestrian artery, but arguably the heart of the campus, the place where we see each other, communicate, nurture relationships.

We also joke that it’s a terrible route if you actually have work to do, since you’re likely to leave your office to attend to one job, and get snagged by two or three more people needing your attention.

I thought about Middle Path when I read this quote:

Care workers function as a human loom, shuttling from one home to another, stitching the social fabric back together while many of their employers and shareholders, and government ministers, slash blindly at the cloth… – George Monbiot

It’s not my intention to take on the whole of Monbiot’s argument about inequality, though I think it’s worthy of consideration. Nor do I want to directly compare home health workers to teachers and instructional technologists. I was struck by the metaphor of the “human loom”, and that’s what I’d like to reflect upon.

It’s easy to think of our jobs as primarily existing in their discrete locations – teaching a class, working on a project. These may be the places where we’re most aware of using our specialized skills.  When someone asks “what did you do today?”, these are the stories which are easy to tell. In that construction, shuttling back and forth seems like friction, like overhead.

The shuttle, though, actually does its work by moving, and maybe we do too. It’s incumbent on us to think about the whole “social fabric” as we move from task to task – looking for the opportunities to connect people where our departments or disciplines or institutions have separated them. Particularly at small institutions, academic support staff like instructional technologists and librarians sit in wonderfully interdisciplinary positions for encouraging these conversations. We may know who’s interested in particular pedagogies or scholarly themes, and it’s within our power to get some of these people together, at least to share information and become aware that they are not alone.

Within our professions too, there are wonderful small communities which allow people to connect across institutions. And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank some of my professional contacts, friends and mentors, who have modeled these socially connecting behaviors for me, and who I now rather consciously ape.

Cover of Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermot
I wanted to find a CC-licensed image of Anansi, but they don’t come up easily and it’s not an easy search for someone with a heightened fear of bugs…

We should also consider Monbiot’s quote more directly in context. Can we mend those parts of the academic world which are not merely imperfect, but actually broken? Most specifically, I’m thinking here of the adjunct crisis.

Even if we don’t have much power to push for permanent or at least full-time hires, I submit that there are things we can do as individuals to make short-term members of our institutions feel more part of our community. We can be conscious about inviting them to professional development opportunities. (And it’s probably important to make sure some of those events are social, so they can connect with peers better than they might at a traditional  “workshop.”) We can make an extra effort to help them get oriented – to our services and to the institution generally. And as April barrels into May and graduation and the end of contracts, we can make sure people get the support they need to exit our communities well. We can stay in touch.

“Life is made up of meetings and partings,” as a wise frog once said (and I’m surprised to find it’s not an actual Dickens line). Perhaps we should be paying as much attention to those events, little or big, as we do to the stuff which we believe is in between.


Image Credits:

1) Larry Miller, “Kenyon College, Middle Path, Fall 2009, 02″, , licenced CC-BY-NC-ND

2) Gerald McDermot, cover of “Anansi the Spider”, borrowed from

Tyranny of the Meritocracy

Book coverLani Guinier’s new book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy will be of interest to many in the connectivist circles where I run. We believe that individual knowledge is created in social contexts and through social interaction. We prize collaboration skills. We’ve heard it all, and buy it – that this is an increasingly connected age, that good jobs will involve work in teams, that globalization and demographic change will require the abilities to negotiate diversity, that the “problems of the twenty-first century” are only solvable by multidisciplinary teams, that in fact many of those social and political problems have roots in people who can’t communicate outside themselves or their home group. We want to work for an America (for a world) where all people have equal prospects regardless of the color of their skin and circumstances of their birth.

Then we exist in an educational system which mostly rewards people for individual accomplishment, and trains them accordingly in individualistic methods which are remarkably vulnerable to the privileges of class and race.

Guinier points out that this is out of step. She uses Amartya Sen’s definition that merit is the “incentive system which rewards the actions a society values” and points out the stunning disconnect between the skills we claim to value for democracy, and the “testocratic” skills of the K-Ph.D system. This focus on individualized tests and grades actually serves to reinforce power relationships in society – first, because those with the means to impact curricula or hire tutors have a massive incentive to do so, and perhaps more ominously, because students who succeed in the testocracy are allowed to believe that they have achieved success alone, without noting the assistance of their teachers, parents, and classmates. More democratic education would do a better job of reinforcing the importance of working together across difference – and provide that benefit more equitably to those locked out of our current system.

The argument against the SAT is iron-clad. It predicts family income and race much better than grades in the first year of college, and was never designed to assess anything further out than the first year. Yet I found Guinier’s hope for a system like the Posse Foundation’s Dynamic Assessment Process a bit optimistic. Surely, if elite colleges shifted admissions to some form of behavioral interview, it would create a market for coaching. Such tutoring might be more socially valuable than classes on “SAT words” and how to answer a multiple choice question, but it would still be unevenly distributed. We can already see this in admissions processes which do value extracurricular and community involvement. Anyone can take such opportunities, and it makes the admissions process better to consider them. Kids whose families don’t need them to work, or whose parents can shuttle them from school to club to volunteer site, can take advantage of more of them. It might still be better than the system we’ve got, but not quite as diverse as Guinier argues.

IDIC symbol from Star Trek
“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” How you gonna grade that?

Guinier goes on to critique college recruitment strategies, and suggest alternatives in college preparation, recruitment, and pedagogy. As someone who works with college professors on teaching issues, it’s easy for me to hear the argument that we need to make changes in K-12 schools and the college admissions office. (It’s always easier when someone else has to change.) Then she points out that it wouldn’t be fair to bring students into college for their collaborative skills, and demand of them the same individualized pedagogy we tend to use now. Students selected for democratic skills will prosper most in a democratic classroom. Oh. That’s a challenge.

It struck me as interesting that the models here weren’t particularly new to me. It seems impossible to read 5 articles on improving college teaching without someone bringing up the peer instruction work of Eric Mazur, as Guinier does. Yet most of the work in the “blended learning” sphere focuses simply on how group work and class discussion is better for retention and transfer of domain knowledge. It’s an easy sell to get people to accomplish their existing goals better; it’s harder to ask professors to actually shift their learning goals in a collaborative classroom. Guinier frames these potentially fractious issues within the purpose of higher education in a democracy, and if you’ve accepted the assertion through the first half of the book, perhaps you’re ready to hear what’s required from you.

Of course, the assertion that college exists to develop good citizens is not universally accepted. Even among those who accept the general idea, we debate exactly what the proper components of a liberal education are. Guinier asserts that colleges exist to fill a democratic need, without much considering the counter-arguments, and other than skills related to diversity and teamwork, she doesn’t have specific recommendations for a curriculum. Given how much we hear about colleges as paths to “good jobs”, though, or how much “student development” can be taken for granted within the academy, Guinier provides a clear argument, crisply stated and well worth the read.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Book cover, design by Bob Kosturko, art “Seeing the World in Black and White” by Connie Cagampang Heller. Taken from

Image 2: “Idic1.jpg” by Paulo Galvão. Released by author into public domain. Taken from


You’ve got a friend in me

My friend Paul posted to Facebook today that he was having trouble with a WordPress install. WordPress refused to serve any post with a comment on it, preferring to issue an Error 500 instead. I’ve been mucking about with WordPress for, like, 7 whole months now, so of course I volunteered to take a look. (My best guess is that he’s got an out-of-date proprietary theme which is misbehaving, and he’ll end up either paying to upgrade it, choosing a new theme, or figuring out how to hack it with someone who actually knows what he’s doing.)

Animated gif of John Cleese getting his hat shot off in
“Today my jurisdiction ends here.”

This speaks a little bit to the Reclaim/Connectivist ethos and the way personal learning networks work, but I’ve had two specific thoughts I wanted to reflect on.

Technology and The Illusion of Choice

Zen [Explored]

A world of “reclaimed” pedagogy is necessarily going to involve more interactions like this. Faculty members will get a project started, and come looking for help in media res when something stops working. Support staff will be asked to jump into systems they didn’t configure, maybe didn’t even know existed. This will be a real challenge for people and organizations with a binary approach to “support” – that things are either inside the zone or not, and clear algorithms exist to explain whether or not a project gets assistance.

That binary, of course, is an illusion. No matter how big your organization, there’s always some point at which you throw up your hands and say “well, that’s just how it comes from (vendor name).” Or you say “support means reload it and start over,” or “here’s the workaround and we’ll fix it in the summer,” or some other phrase which explains that “support” isn’t really an on/off switch but a complex equation which includes available resources and institutional and personal priorities.

I wonder how we set expectations for this kind of service. I suspect one answer is that we change from talking about tools we support, to talking about tasks we support within tools. Much of “our” software is just too complex to claim that we can help you do anything it advertises it’s able to do.

We’ll also need to talk more about the level of support you can expect – whether we’ll implement a fix, or provide faculty with tested directions, or just sit next to you and say “huh, that’s a new one.” That’s going to require faculty to adopt a different definition of ownership over their tools – and it will require (many) technologists to adopt a different definition of responsibility to assist.It’ll still be a job, and there will still be service level expectations, but I think there will also be a new kind of community growing up. My neighbor once told me that he couldn’t fix my riding mower’s starter, but he could show me how to hotwire it with a screwdriver. I think some part of our job will get more “neighborly” like that.

Mister Rogers

hello, neighbor

Love and Service Professions

My friend was having trouble with his site, and was brave enough to ask for help. I don’t know the subject deeply, but I care enough to take a look. I took the time to explain my thoughts – I wanted to teach Paul anything I could, and I didn’t want any unstated assumptions to gum up a website with 15 years worth of work in it.

This can’t just be about pre-existing friendships or high-priority websites, though, because I’ve provided similar (if much less extensive) advice to strangers in communities like YouShow and DS106. I have received more than equal advice and encouragement in return – maybe it’s about models of behavior? Shared group identities?

The small nagging voice asks me if I do as well at my workplace as I do in these extracurriculars. I’m reasonably confident that I do – certainly I can list big and small projects where I made sure people were more empowered to reach their goals. For that matter, I’ve got a list of “fake it till you make it” jobs where I think I communicated caring, even though my real goal was to get some technical problem out of my hair. But – what about the other ones, the interactions where I’m basically asked for a transaction, and that’s about all I provide?

How can I make there be fewer of those? Even given that sometimes the transaction is all that’s required or desired – how can it be delivered with lagniappe?

I’ve written about this before – what can we do as instructional technologists to expand the love in the world? If my job is ultimately about nurturing the development of increasingly empowered people, what are the steps I need to take to make sure people know that my office is a safe place where they can grow? (Even if, today, all they want to grow into is someone whose Moodle gradebook works right.)

Image credits

Image 1 – John Cleese in Silvarado; animated gif by Alan Lopuszynski at

Image 2 – Zen [Explored] by Riccardo Cuppini. CC licensed BY-NC-ND 2.0 at

Image 3 – Mister Rogers by Grant Lindsay. CC licensed BY-ND 2.0 at

I’ve been told I was born to endure this kind of weather

I do want to go through some of the actual assignments for Unit 2, but this writeup is just about noticing things and taking photos of them. It’s also about learning what the little buttons on the Flickr app do.

Frost on the inside of the Olin Library door, Feb. 2015

It got real cold in Ohio again. That’s frost on the inside of the Olin Library door.  (Also, we may have some humidity issues.) I was struck by the way the screws stand out in this closeup.

"Love is dumb" - winter in Ohio, written in the frost on the inside of the Olin Library door.

Two days later. The anterooms going into the library are frequent spots for student cell phone conversations. I suppose there’s an illusion of privacy in a room other people are supposed to walk through without stopping. Sometimes those conversations get emotional, and I imagine that’s what happened this time. You might need to look at the photo full-size, but scrawled in the frosting condensate are the words “love is dumb”.

Getting those angsty letters to stand out was a neat trick of post-production. None of the Flickr app filters helped at all, but increasing saturation, contrast, and decreasing exposure helped bring up the color in the background, reduce the light in the foreground, and help the finger-writing appear.

More condensation

Same day, different door. Increased the saturation to get the orange lights at the Church of the Holy Spirit to pop a little.

Same shot as "more condensation", with image sharpening maxed out.

Same exact shot, in fact, but instead of messing with color, I maxed out “sharpening”. The condensate turns pebbly, almost like a rained-on window in a movie.

So I haven’t made much progress on taking better photos in the first place, but I have started to learn about the things I can do to help existing photos tell different stories. I even graduated past flipping through the presets. I’d love your comments and suggestions.

Hamster Dance

Cross-posted from my Storytelling blog, because I thought this was about making art and it turns out to be also about instructional technology. Kind of.

Man, I’ve got to figure out “write once, publish everywhere”.



I bought myself an Intuos tablet some time ago at work, on the grounds that I would use it for Big Serious Stuff like annotating screenshots or making screencapture videos. In theory, drawing with a mouse is hard and a pen interface should be easier. In practice, a tablet input is neither like a mouse or a pen (or a touchscreen) and it can be frustrating to get started.

And there it sat, gathering dust, taunting me to read the manual, pick software, practice, prove myself worthy.

Now might be a good time to point out that I describe my drawing talents as “maxed out at stick men.” So when it said I wasn’t worthy, I assumed it was right.

I brought it home a while back, thinking big thoughts about how I’d use it to think about the shape of stories, especially as they relate to the stories we tell when we do technology trainings. Sitting on the dining room table, it caught my son’s eye.

“Daddy, what’s that?”

“Oh, it’s for drawing on the computer.”

“Can I try?”

“I guess so… but I have to plug it in and find the software and all that.”

“OK. Well, can we do that?”

“Um… yeah. Yeah OK. Let me see.”

It’s hard to enter the Kingdom of Technology like a little child, after I’ve debugged and disinfected and documented professionally for so long. It’s a challenge to ask “why not?” But I got the drivers installed, and after dorking around looking for the “right” software, I figured out that Microsoft Paint would work as well as anything for letting my kid play.

And it wasn’t simple, his learning to match up the pen to the screen. After a bit, he got it and started exploring Paint. An arrow became a house. Green squiggles became grass. A line was the horizon; the fill tool gave him purple grass and a yellow sky.

And he said it was my turn.

Bunny and Rhino (the Hamster)

How about a bunny? I think I can draw a bunny. (It’s like a dog with no neck and bunny ears, right?) Hey, maybe the spraypaint brush will make the fur look more furry. A bunny should be on grass. OK, painting that grass was kind of annoying, what if we do the sky with a fill tool?

Draw your stuffed hamster? Sure, why not. I can draw Hamster.

Oh, the hamster’s name is Rhino? Of course it is. I’ll draw Rhino.

Objectively, I know it’s … primitive. But the fact is, I made it, and making it was fun. And I pretty much killed the excuse that learning how to use the tablet would be too hard.

I’ve tried to get multiple faculty members to try out these tablets, and few of them are willing to put in the work. I wonder if the problem is that I haven’t asked them to just draw a happy little tree.

It’s always show time here at the edge of the stage

Spotlight Beam

Most of my experiments with web publication have been experiments with form. My late-and-unlamented blog on Blogger, my Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ presences, even my DS106 blog (which needs a daily create before it starts pining for the fjords) – all primarily attempts to understand tools through their constraints.

So the act of planning the categories for this blog creates a level of intentionality which is unfamiliar and challenging. I think that’s part of the idea of a portfolio, though. Defining a structure makes it real – establishes that there are parts of my professional presence I want to focus on. For that matter, a reflective practice offers the opportunity to notice the structure as it emerges here, in what I share and what I keep to myself.

Sidebar: I’m not understanding implications of the distinction in WordPress between “tags” and “categories”. Near as I can tell, “categories” are big and hierarchical while “tags” are small and flat, and they’re different so that you can have a tag widget and a category widget without either one being “too long”. Am I missing something?

Still, I’m struggling with what to call the categories. So let’s go back a step – who’s the audience for this site anyway? Maybe if I think about who I’m writing for, I’ll think about what the right categories are.

When I say that this blog is a reflection space, and that I’m trying to push myself to explore different ways of reflecting, I’m saying in effect that the primary audience is myself. What would the descriptors be which aid self-reflection? There might be a “reflection” category, which would then allow for subcategories depending on whether I’m reflecting on news, technology, higher ed in general, work experiences in particular…

An “experiment” space would also be a good idea – someplace where I could narrate the things I try out. I suspect part of the value of that category would be writing down the fact that there ought to be something in it.

And then who am I talking to? I might want categories for groups or projects like You Show and Connected Courses – or ongoing groups like CLAMP and EDU-ISIS. Maybe one for “professional organizations” in general?

I’m not tenured faculty, so my work resists the easy breakdown of “research” and “teaching.” There is a split focus between “pedagogy” writ large and “instructional technology issues”, so that might be a pair of categories. (There’s also the tension that there’s a website for my work which needs feeding with similar-but-not-the-same content… though I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a repost, or a link with a paragraph for context.)

I suppose this exercise has accomplished its task – now I’m thinking about the things I could be writing, and how they might best be made visible.

And more importantly, once I hit publish, I’ll give myself permission to go on to the next thing.

Top image “Spotlight Beam” by flickr user Starving Artist, licensed cc-by-nc;

Every one of them words rang true

We had an exciting visit to Kenyon by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, authors of Writing Analytically. (Dave and Jill are absolutely charming and wonderful workshop facilitators; if you’re having a campus conversation about writing you should look them up.)

NotebookOne of their techniques is to have students keep a commonplace book. As a classroom assignment, the students are directed to find a certain number of quotes in the reading to copy into their commonplace book. These might be the most meaningful sentences; they might be the most beautiful; they might be the particular sentences which most grabbed the student’s attention or expanded their thinking. In their technique, the students are also asked to free-write a paragraph or so on why this sentence is not like every other sentence. A class meeting, then, might start by asking a volunteer to read something from their commonplace book – and then another volunteer to respond to that quote – and so on, until the class has revisited a set of seminal sentences from the work… leading into class discussion or another free-writing exercise.

This resonated with me, because I’ve made a couple of stabs at keeping a commonplace book. My most formal attempt was in college, probably inspired by sections of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. I wanted to be able to quote better, and writing out interesting passages longhand seemed like a good way to practice. I also realize now that it was about practicing close reading – investing my reading with better attention to detail, both to the argument but especially to the sentence-level beauty.

Looking back and forward, I see other attempts. Growing up, my “commonplace book” was actually a Mickey Mouse poster which hung over my desk in my room. I’d never bothered to take it down, but I didn’t really care about it. (This probably started when I was 12 or 14, and way too old for Mickey Mouse, Mooooooommmmm!) And so, when I heard interesting songs on the radio, or good lines from those songs (or TV shows or books), I’d write them on the lower third of that poster.

Of late, I’ve been keeping a list of quotes in my GoodReads account. This is interesting, because it’s performative – my quotes are public, and (on the book and author pages) they’re displayed in the context of other people’s quotes. I can “like” the other quotes already in the database. I’m even asked to rank my favorites and tag them. I like feeling like my quotes are part of a larger project – and yet that reinforces that it’s not mine.

Joe’s quotes


“There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”— Charles Dickens

And so this is as far as I’ve gotten on the portfolio structure task. One of the things I’d like to do here is to share my work commonplace book. I think it would be fun (and useful) to expose my professional reading, share particularly well-crafted passages, and reflect on then. I might even get around to playing with typesetting… or even making inspirational posters.

If I abandon this project I would be a man without a dream and I don't want to live like that.
-Werner Herzog, from

Everybody eats when they come to my house

I love to be in the kitchen. The kitchen is my playhouse. It’s a place where I can focus, where learning and doing emulsify, where this singular moment connects to long tradition. I expect I could find the path from the stove to the fridge to the sink with my eyes closed.

OW! Well, I can if the cat’s not in the way.

So it was easy to drop what I was doing and answer the question “where’s the you in your kitchen?”  I had a quick look around – knives on a magnetic strip on the wall, utensils on hooks, fridge, cluttered counters, the sink…

the Lodge cast iron skillet. The stove is my place in the kitchen, and what I want on that stove is either that heavy black pot frying chicken, or the large brewing kettle full of wort.

Brew kettle, chicken frying pan. My place, in my kitchen.

Yes, the cabinets really are that cattywampus. It’s an old house.

This was a pretty quick shoot – though I did have to get the stock pot down and declutter the counter a bit. No flash, though it took one overexposed shot to learn that.  I’ve loved playing with the presets in the Flickr app, but this shot didn’t need them.

I’m a relative latecomer to the smartphone world, and I’m still getting used to this idea that I am always carrying a camera. I tried to become a shutterbug for a while in my early teens, but it never really took. If playing with the You Show and DS106 only made me better at taking photos (and more conscious/confident of the option to take photos), that would be a big step in the right direction.

Five Golden Toques

I was watching YouShow Episode Zero this morning, and about 3 minutes in, my wife called out “What is that, Bob and Doug McKenzie teach the web?”

Bob and Doug and Brian and Alan
I’m not sayin’… I’m just sayin’.

Hmm… getting Photoshopped by their students is exactly the kind of thing my faculty are afraid of. I might be doing this wrong. Good thing it’s not graded.

I could probably riff on the parallel between the plucky DIY attitude of SCTV’s fictional TV station and the open web concepts of the Reclaim movement, but that’s a lot of intellectual weight to hang on a cheap joke.

I’m joining up with the You Show because I would like to have a more reflective practice in my job, and I’d like to do that publicly. I’ve come to realize that I envy my colleagues who have more explicit agendas for research and speaking and engagement with their professional communities. My practice has been very reactive – what’s happening, what’s interesting, how can I help. It’s got me this far and I have no (OK, few) complaints, but I think valuing my own process enough to narrate it might be the first step in developing an agenda of my own.

mortadella sandwich
Mortadella sandwich picture by Flickr user jeffreyw

I often quip that my job is to buy faculty members lunch and get them talking. So when I think about a visual metaphor for my own interests, a sandwich is what comes to mind. I combine different ingredients, sometimes asking them to blend, sometimes hoping they will retain their essential flavor or texture while affecting and being affected by the others. I create an environment where (I hope) people can relax, reflect, and open up… literally with a sandwich or a beer, figuratively in the way I try to approach the tasks at hand.

He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind

Some weeks ago, at office hours, I mentioned that I might be able to keep up with the Hangouts better if they were available in a downloadable audio format. That would allow me to load up my phone and listen to them on long drives.

Howard and Company said that was a great idea, and this being a web course, they deputized me to do it.

Well, I’ve got a nice long drive ahead of me today, so I finally did it. I’ve got a Google Drive folder which includes an MP3 for each Hangout and it’s shared with the world. Perhaps it’ll be useful to you during commutes or exercise or whenever you might enjoy podcasts or audiobooks.

If there’s a better way to store these, or if you have an idea why they came out 25-50 MB larger than I’d expected, let me know.