Hello, reader! If you intend to post a link to this blog on Twitter, be aware that for utterly mysterious reasons, Twitter thinks this blog is spam, and will prevent you from linking to it. Here's a workaround: change the .com in the address to .ca. I call it the "Maple Leaf Loophole." And thanks for sharing!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Making a Gift More Valuable

Spiegel Online: Forensic Anthropologists at Work
I'm starting to feel a little like an anthropologist, but I'm finding the implications of and discussions stemming from the last post framing the MTBoS as a gift culture, to be fascinating. Logical questions are: "What is a gift? What kinds of contributions earn a person status in our culture? If you're going to participate by gift-giving, anyway, are there steps you can take to make your gift more valuable?"

I think we'd all agree that status itself, here, is not the goal. That would be silly. But it can be a motivation, and that's okay. Importantly, the gifts make us, all who are participating in many different capacities, better teachers. That's worth paying attention to.

There are different kinds of gifts this community finds valuable: curation, commentary, cheerleading. But a discussion on Twitter today made me want to write down some guidelines for what features make a gift more valuable. Several people expressed incredulity, arguing that an artifact's value is too dependent on the needs of the receiver to make this exercise meaningful. But I disagree. While you might find one gift more valuable than I do, gifts can have general features that make them objectively more valuable to the community.

I am not posting this to make anyone feel like they should do something. Let's please keep the MTBoS easy fun free. You're free to do some, none, or all of these. You're free to quit this tab right now and order a pizza. But my feeling is, the more your gift displays these features, the more useful and valuable it will be. The ever-incisive Justin Lanier stated the query thusly:


Pershan's Desk

This one is about community. It's also about leveraging MTBoS so everyone becomes better teachers much more rapidly than they would without it.
  • Allows comments; responds to direct questions, arguments, and suggestions.
  • Citing/linking others’ work as inspiration. Beyond the blog roll, can I backtrack the evolution of your idea? (see Brian's adaptation of Fawn's post about a Taboo game)
  • Is on Twitter 
  • Responds to @ questions on Twitter
(A good example that it's possible to be influential without Twitter is Shireen. Her Math Teacher Mambo blog is amazing, but Twitter doesn't seem to be her cup of tea, but that's okay.)


from Infinite Sums
  • The math content is wrapped in well-matched pedagogical moves. Instead of just some cool math problem, we can see how the learning happened (see Matt's The Mullet Ratio. See Liisa and Jessica's use of dialog.) 
  • A lesson comes from some sort of curricular or philosophical organizing structure, instead of a one-off. (There are comprehensive examples like 3Acts, but see how Bowman shares a problem to motivate Riemann Sums, but frames it as a unit anchor problem.)
  • Descriptions are illustrated with classroom photos, snapshots of whiteboards or IWBs, scans or snaps of student work. (see Fawn on any given day, Jonathan's blockheaded students, Frank doing his thing.)
  • Providing docs is more valuable than not. People rarely print out and use docs wholesale, but they value not having to start from scratch.
  • When docs are provided, editable is higher-valued than pdfs.
  • When docs are provided, being able to download them immediately from Dropbox or another server is more valuable than having to request them by email like it's 1997. 
On protecting your work: when we share something, we want and expect it to be used, adapted, and re-shared by teachers and maybe professors in teacher ed programs. We don't expect anyone to take our stuff, adapted or not, and sell it on Teachers Pay Teachers or its ilk. We certainly don't expect it to show up in a book or website of a large publisher. You can't do anything technologically to prevent this (even pdf's can be recreated by an enterprising soul). But, you can give yourself some recourse down the road, should someone seriously cash in on your work. Go here and get you one of these.

Humanity and Hilarity
  • Just like your kids don't want you to be a teacherbot, no one wants to read a bloggerbot. People feel more connected to a personality. Let your voice come through. If you don't feel like you have a voice yet, the answer is to write more. (see: Mimi, Sophie)
  • Earestness and seriousness beats work-a-day, but earnestness + a sense of humor is killer (too many examples, but I'm thinking the Platonic ones are Shawn and Fawn.) 
So, let me know what you think! Did I miss anything? Do you have any better examples than the ones I cited? Am I way off base even trying to write these down? 

Many thanks to Justin Lanier who basically deserves a byline on this post, and to @algebrainiac1 @vtdeacon @JJJsally @jybuell and @samjshah whose help on Twitter planted some of these seeds.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rock Stars and the Gift Culture

I just re-read Eric S. Raymond's Homesteading the Noosphere, a work I first read in approximately 1999 right around the time I was installing my first Linux distro. I was never anything more than a baby hacker, but lots of stuff from that work stuck with me. And the parallels to my experiences blogging about teaching are kind of amazing.

Through this week, I've come across multiple occurrences of a particular refrain: "There are people in this community regarded as rock stars.  This is bullshit.  They are just teachers, we are all teachers, no one's writings or opinion should carry more weight than another's." On one hand, this makes rational sense, and I don't know anyone who's had the term rockstar (or a synonym) lobbed at them and, like, welcomed it. They're all, "Really? Me? That's weird. Okay. Please stop that now." 

The MTBoS is not a school. It's not a marketplace, not academia, not a hierarchy. It's not like any other thing most people are familiar with, and so resists explanation. But it is...something. It's a culture, with norms and taboos and status. I think, and humbly propose, that it's very much like open-source hacker culture. Understanding how might go some distance toward dispelling the bewilderment over the rockstardom phenomenon, and why we're all so nice to each other, and what motivates us to give so much time and energy for no tangible reward. 

I'm about to quote liberally from this page.
Most ways humans have of organizing are adaptations to scarcity and want. Each way carries with it different ways of gaining social status. 
The simplest way is the command hierarchy. In command hierarchies, scarce goods are allocated by one central authority and backed up by force. Command hierarchies scale very poorly; they become increasingly brutal and inefficient as they get larger. For this reason, command hierarchies above the size of an extended family are almost always parasites on a larger economy of a different type. In command hierarchies, social status is primarily determined by access to coercive power. 
Our society is predominantly an exchange economy. This is a sophisticated adaptation to scarcity that, unlike the command model, scales quite well. Allocation of scarce goods is done in a decentralized way through trade and voluntary cooperation (and in fact, the dominating effect of competitive desire is to produce cooperative behavior). In an exchange economy, social status is primarily determined by having control of things (not necessarily material things) to use or trade. 
Most people have implicit mental models for both of the above, and how they interact with each other. Government, the military, and organized crime (for example) are command hierarchies parasitic on the broader exchange economy we call `the free market'. There's a third model, however, that is radically different from either and not generally recognized except by anthropologists; the gift culture. 
Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy. 
Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.
The following section is a direct quote, but I substituted teacher stuff for hacking stuff: 
it is quite clear that viewed this way, the society of blogging math teachers is in fact a gift culture. Within it, "survival necessities" are abundant -- collaboration tools (blogging platforms), content creation tools (too numerous to elaborate), lessons carefully crafted and freely shared.  This abundance creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive success is reputation among one's peers. 
(Onto the next chapter, The Joy of Hacking:)
In making this `reputation game' analysis, I do not mean to devalue or ignore the pure satisfaction of learning and teaching well in the privacy of one's own classroom. Teachers all experience this kind of satisfaction and thrive on it. People for whom it is not a significant motivation never become teachers in the first place, just as people who don't love music never become composers. 
Imagine your beautiful lesson locked up in your room and used only by you. Now imagine it being used effectively and with pleasure by many people. Which dream gives you satisfaction?
Back to verbatim-quoting the next chapter, The Many Faces of Reputation:
There are reasons general to every gift culture why peer repute (prestige) is worth playing for: 
First and most obviously, good reputation among one's peers is a primary reward. We're wired to experience it that way for evolutionary reasons touched on earlier. 
Secondly, prestige is a good way (and in a pure gift economy, the only way) to attract attention and cooperation from others. If one is well known for generosity, intelligence, fair dealing, leadership ability, or other good qualities, it becomes much easier to persuade other people that they will gain by association with you. 
Thirdly, if your gift economy is in contact with or intertwined with an exchange economy or a command hierarchy, your reputation may spill over and earn you higher status there.
I swear I'm almost done, here, The Problem of Ego:
I have observed another interesting example of this phenomenon when discussing the reputation-game analysis with hackers. This is that many hackers resisted the analysis and showed a strong reluctance to admit that their behavior was motivated by a desire for peer repute or, as I incautiously labeled it at the time, `ego satisfaction'. 
This illustrates an interesting point about the hacker culture. It consciously distrusts and despises egotism and ego-based motivations; self-promotion tends to be mercilessly criticized, even when the community might appear to have something to gain from it. So much so, in fact, that the culture's `big men' and tribal elders are required to talk softly and humorously deprecate themselves at every turn in order to maintain their status. How this attitude meshes with an incentive structure that apparently runs almost entirely on ego cries out for explanation. 
Okay, not done. The Value of Humility:
Having established that prestige is central to the hacker culture's reward mechanisms, we now need to understand why it has seemed so important that this fact remain semi-covert and largely unadmitted. 
The contrast with the pirate culture is instructive. In that culture, status-seeking behavior is overt and even blatant. These crackers seek acclaim for releasing ``zero-day warez'' (cracked software redistributed on the day of the original uncracked version's release) but are closemouthed about how they do it. These magicians don't like to give away their tricks. And, as a result, the knowledge base of the cracker culture as a whole increases only slowly. 
In the hacker community, by contrast, one's work is one's statement. There's a very strict meritocracy (the best craftsmanship wins) and there's a strong ethos that quality should (indeed must) be left to speak for itself. The best brag is code that ``just works'', and that any competent programmer can see is good stuff. Thus, the hacker culture's knowledge base increases rapidly. 
For very similar reasons, attacking the author rather than the code is not done. There is an interesting subtlety here that reinforces the point; hackers feel very free to flame each other over ideological and personal differences, but it is unheard of for any hacker to publicly attack another's competence at technical work (even private criticism is unusual and tends to be muted in tone). Bug-hunting and criticism are always project-labeled, not person-labeled.

This makes an interesting contrast with many parts of academia, in which trashing putatively defective work by others is an important mode of gaining reputation. In the hacker culture, such behavior is rather heavily tabooed. 
The hacker culture's medium of gifting is intangible, its communications channels are poor at expressing emotional nuance, and face-to-face contact among its members is the exception rather than the rule. This gives it a lower tolerance of noise than most other gift cultures, and goes a long way to explain both the taboo against posturing and the taboo against attacks on competence. 
Um, sound like any cultures you know?

So, look. I'm seeking ways to make newcomers feel welcome, indeed we all should. But if we agree that some parallels can be drawn between hacker culture and MTBoS, the fact that those who have been around awhile become well-known, and that status is correlated with contribution, doesn't come as a surprise.  The very cool thing is, there's so much going on in our global, stateless army of awesome! So there are so many ways to contribute, make some friends, and learn something. And the best part is, you can't help but grow as a teacher, so the kids directly benefit. Which is what got us all here in the first place.

Update: thanks to Megan Hayes-Golding for writing some missing pieces of this post.
On reputation: So if the MTBoS is a gift culture, who I was previously calling the rockstars are really just the most generous members of our community. They've earned high reputations because of their prior contributions. Most hackers who contribute to open source software do it not for reputation but do it to make the code work for them. Most teachers who contribute to the MTBoS do it because they need something for their classroom. We share it because, why not? But after we share, and someone else picks it up for their classroom, we gain in reputation. Reputation wasn't the original goal, but is a natural byproduct.

On social capital: Have you or anyone else here read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow? In it, he describes a utopian currency called whuffie. It's a reputation based system where the highly-respected have high whuffies and the universally hated have low. When it comes to giving reputation points, "A person with a score of 0 is just as capable of giving and revoking Whuffie as someone with a score of 1,000,000." Reddit gold and Slashdot karma are popular online social capital-measuring sticks. gasstationwithoutpumps also mentioned stackoverflow as a third.
On secrecy: Rebecca commented about the secretiveness of her local colleagues. Yes, to that point! Folks who know little about open source software often comment that they don't understand why people would volunteer to write software when they could get paid for doing the same work under a different banner. Why would you want your work out in the open? Because gifting makes us better teachers.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hello Out There (HELLO Hello helloooo....)

There was a great discussion in Global Math Department today, lead by the intrepid Chris Robinson, about how we facilitate, and how we sometimes fail, new people participating in the little online math teacher thing we have going on here.  At one point I tried to take the mic to add a few thoughts, but the technology failed me.  (I really wish I knew what I did to anger the technology gods.  What's an appropriate sacrifice for that?  Do I have to throw my iPhone into a volcano?  Would they settle for a nano?  Will they settle for a hibachi?)

So, here they are, the thoughts.  Embellished, just because I'm way better at writing than speaking.  Broadly categorized as assumption-disspelling:

  • I'm the worst at keeping up with blog posts.  The worst.  I'll let Reader go unchecked for weeks on end.  And now Reader is going away, and everything else sucks.  (Yes even Feedly.  Feedly is not good.  There, I said it.  I want to be able to mark either a post or a whole blog as *&^%ing "read" and I want it to go away forever.  I want to see all the subscriptions all the time, and I want to know which ones have unread posts.  I don't want you making decisions about what to show me.  This is basic reader stuff, Feedly.  You should have learned this in reader Kindergarten.  Get it together.)
  • I blame Twitter.  I just assume if a post is noteworthy enough, someone will mention it there and it will catch my attention that way.  This is all to say, if I didn't read your post, I'm sorry.  And if I've never interacted with your blog, I'm also sorry.  It's not personal.  I'm just disorganized and lazy and over-reliant on Twitter to act as my newspaper.  And also, because of new job, I'm not desperately Googling "how to teach factoring" at 6AM anymore.
  • I don't think there's a single thing on this blog that I thought up all by myself.  Look around if you don't believe me.  It's all adaptations of the work of other people, or there's a vague statement apologizing for not remembering where I first saw something, or it's a dumb story about how a kid accidentally grabbed my boob.  That is to say, you don't have to wait until you have the next great inspired original lesson idea to write a blog post.  Write about a thing you tried that bombed.  Write about a thing you stole from someone else and adapted for your unique situation.  Write about how the light looks outside your classroom at 5:30 when you are all alone and cutting out laminated blah blah.  Write about how that kid in third period asked you for crush advice and you felt unqualified to help because you have been divorced forever, so you just told him to smile and try not to act like a spaz.  People love reading about humans.  It hardly matters what they are even doing.  
  • I should take my own advice.  The last post on here was like a million weeks ago.
  • People aren't fans of f(t) because there's awesome stuff on it.  People are fans because it's honest, and I try to pay at least a little attention to telling a story.  Plus it's been around forever because I'm a super nerd who knew what a blog was in 2005.  That's all.  That's really all.
  • It is always a good idea to add some pictures.
  • Everyone should comment more.  Everyone.  Me, you, YOU.  WITH THE FACE.  Deal?  Deal. 

Update: Featured Comments (in which I steal a(nother) good idea from dy/dan)
[Lots of good Reader alternative / Feedly customization advice.]
GregT:  I think some of it is just EXPERIENCE, which is something you can't really teach or help with. But at the same time there's a perception that we're LOSING promising people to misconceptions, which is not good either (is it even really the case?). 
Christopher Danielson:  If you're seeking engagement with a larger audience, do more of what they have responded to. It turns out not always to be what you might rather be writing about, nor what you expect will resonate. 
Josh Giesbrecht: "F you NSA"
Everything Elizabeth said.