Monthly Archives: July 2010

Facebook: Is it becoming a utility?

  Doubtless if you’re reading this, you are a Facebook user.  Why do I say that?  Well, you obviously have access to the internet.  And if you’re reading a blog, you probably like to keep up with what other people are doing.  And, well, you have the internet!  Facebook has quickly become one of the largest social networking tools on the internet, and it comes to no surprise that many are on it.  But do you like Facebook?

  According to a recent article in The New York Times by Joshua Brustein, you may hate it but still use it.  Why?  Brustein notes that Facebook is trying to become a lot like a utility company – a necessary evil if you will.  But how many of us view Facebook as a necessary evil?  I often do.  After all, I waste countless hours during my week performing my good duties as a Facebook user: updating my status, doing the appropriate amount of Facebook stalking, commenting on others’ wall posts and pictures.  Who wouldn’t be exhausted after all of that?  How often has your life been bombarded by the existence of Facebook?  You stop in the middle of something terribly interesting and fun to update your status because God forbid you should be doing something amazing and everyone not know about it.  Or how about those times you force someone to take a ridiculous picture of you that you have posed for JUST for the sake of making it your new profile picture?  Oh come on – you know you do it.

  But we don’t have to do these things, so why do we?  It appears that the “powers that be” at Facebook may be more brilliant than we thought.  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, states: “We’re here to build something useful.  Something that’s cool can fade. But something that’s useful won’t. That’s what I meant by utility.”  So if you thought Facebook was just a cool fad, think again.  Think about how useful and in our minds “essential” Facebook has become to our everyday social networking and connections.  But what are the drawbacks to this mode of thinking?

“There could also be unintended consequences. Treating a company like a utility, for instance, can help to lock in its dominance and discourage innovation.” – Joshua Brustein

  Facebook could become less innovative.  You see, once something becomes a necessary evil, it no longer has to keep reinventing and improving itself to make customers satisfied.  So does Facebook face this dilemma?  Well, users of it may not feel that way with all of the constant updated features of Facebook.  But how much has it changed really, and what could it actually do?  Imagine a world where Facebook could be or do anything you want it to do.  What would you make it?  This ties back in to my previous post on dreaming.  We have to dream big in order to invent and create new concepts.  But as a company, if the economic drive is not there, what is your motivator to be innovative? 

Dreams: Where grass doesn’t have to be green

As of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreaming, both in the literal and figurative sense.  You see, I am a very vivid dreamer – in the literal sense, sadly, rather than the figurative sense.  Night after night, I remember countless dreams I have.  Each dream is vivid and well-remembered.  However, the most lamented component of my dreams is that they expose my true anxieties and inhibitions to me far too clearly.  You see – I long to escape from all the things the world bombards me with when I lay my head on the pillow, but usually they just come swarming at me in a multitude of figurative representations. 

Although I do not pretend to fully understand dreams, I am still amazed by the compelling emotions we seem to feel during them and often, as a result of them.  So many mornings I have woken up deeply sad, anxious, excited, and irritated amongst a smorgesbord of emotions.  They influence my day and the happenings thereafter.  But it is my literal dreams that often drive me to try out more dreaming in my real life.  If I can’t escape the anxieties of everyday life in my real dreams, why not start dreaming about better things in real life?

I sometimes wonder where the term “day dreaming” came from.  I could do a long background of research to discover the origins of this term, but I’d rather just speculate for now.  You see – people who day dream are often accused of meditating on the impossible or unimaginable (in the real world) during hours in which one is awake.  To take the concept even further, when we talk about our “dreams” we are often referring to those almost-too-amazing-to-happen components of our lives that we hope will one day come true.  But why do we put such boundaries around ourselves and our thoughts?  That is my favorite thing about dreams – no real boundaries exist.  The grass doesn’t have to be green in a dream.

And so I sit here, wondering if I can imagine a world which figuratively speaking has different colored grass.  This could be a world where there is less racial tension and oppression of the weak.  Maybe it’s imagining a world where no matter what one’s faith is, one can be accepted lovingly and do the same to others.  When I say accepted, I don’t mean that you have to agree with the others’ viewpoint.  In fact, accepting all points of view as “right” is full of logical flaws and might represent either lack of knowledge, lack of conviction, or lack of a spine.  What I am talking about is not making disagreement and hate synonymous terms.  Believe what you believe in passionately, but try to love people who do not see that same point of view.  Easier said than done, I know. 

So what am I dreaming of today?  A lot of things – or at least trying to.  I’m trying to dream that I could do great things with my (few) talents.  I’m dreaming that racial and faith tensions could decrease, at least in some regard by understanding the components that drive them.  My own research is fulled around this dream – understanding what makes religious individuals prejudiced or tolerant toward various groups (e.g., homosexuals, African Americans, Arabs, atheists).  I dream of one day being able to say to someone,  “I’m a devout Christian who really loves Jesus,” and they instantly know that means I love others rather than judge them.  I dream of making a difference, as much as anyone does I suppose.  Even if these dreams are a little too big, I say, “Someone has to dream them first.”  Although I’ll never be a MLK, Jr. or Ghandi, I don’t want to give up the practices they practiced so well – dreaming.  Dreaming, meditating, and doing.  I think those are the three things that are required of a life to make it impactful.  More on the others later, perhaps. But for now, I’m trying to dream more.  It’s just sad that “real life” gets in the way sometimes.

Teaching: Anybody can do that (oh wait, it’s actually quite hard)

Teaching is an art form, plain and simple, yet we often treat it as something anyone can do.  “Anybody can do that” we often think.  Why is that?  Why is it expected that nearly anyone with professional skills can be thrown into a classroom and teach effectively?  I think the problem may not be that we actually think this about people; we just may not care.  Although education is one of the most valuable components of helping developing minds grow, we often forget the most important component of teaching.  We have confused learning facts with actual learning – the kind that engages you and pushes you to achieve more than you thought possible.  In a lot of school and university system’s minds, it is decided that as long as there is a body in the room to teach facts, we have it covered.  Wow – how you miss out on the possibilities of teaching and learning when we take this stance!

When I think back to my most valuable experiences as a student, I do not think about the teachers that could cram the most amount of information into a class period (not that content is not important).  No – I am struck by the professors who gave me the tools to discover, explore, and LEARN myself!  In looking back, I realized how brilliantly they orchestrated my own learning without me realizing it.  By letting ME be the main actor in my learning experience rather than letting me passively sit by to be “taught,” I learned to discover, interpret, explore, and create.  More importantly, I learned I was capable of these things. 

So here I sit, at a crossroads as both student and teacher.  Soon I will move further into the role of teacher and more out of the role of student.  And sadly, I can admit to often being that teacher that just “teaches” facts.  But I want to be that teacher who engages students’ minds for all they are worth.  I want to learn to expect more from my students and to let them be the actors in their own play of education.  The challenge is doing it.  As I said, teaching is an art form.  And like all art forms, it requires a finesse that is vaguely described, hard to comprehend, but unmistakable when you see it.

A child’s creativity gone – where to find it again?

  When I think of creativity, I am reminded of a childhood full of it.  If you knew me today (and only in the present), you might be stunned to know the child version of myself.  I was the child that dreamed about alternate worlds of existence and then made up my own stories to tell if I thought my dreams weren’t interesting enough.  I created elaborate stories about flying princesses and dragons that walked upside down – often to the point of my parents telling me not to lie about it being a dream and just tell it as a story.  At one point, I pretended I had a make-believe friend because I wanted to test out this “trend” existing among my friends.  But I was determined to be unlike my friends, so the friend I created was a 6 ft. tall hamster named Harry.  In my world, all the toys talked in it, all my house pets were exotic animals, and every walk to the creek was an exciting expedition.  I wrote endless stories with the intent of everything becoming more unbelievably not-of-this-world, and I once created a magical place in my mind where an open field near my house would turn into a tropical oasis full of the freshest fruit, the most exotic animals, and the clearest stream – but only when I arrived.  Sometimes my imagination was so real that I almost believed at any point those fruit trees would really appear and come to life.

  Enter my life now.  I am a researcher.  I enjoy data analysis, designing research experiments, teaching, and all of the hobbies that lie therein.  I am terribly afraid of costume parties, role playing, and anything in which clearly defined social roles are not intact.  However, I also love traveling, exotic foods, new experiences in new cultures I know little or nothing about.  Surprises are a favorite of mine.  My perhaps most woeful regret is that I am not more artistic.  Would you call me creative now?  Would you call the childhood version of me creative? 

  In some ways, I think the answer to the former question is “yes,” but that creativity is often hidden if not crushed by the way the “system” works.  A recent article in Newsweek entitled The Creativity Crisis gives an interesting and somewhat disheartening spin on the current state of creativity.  According to the article, creativity is on the decline (unlike IQ) and our educational system may be to blame for it.  We are so obsessed with cramming facts and numbers into students’ heads and teachers are often overloaded with too many students or classes that the students may be suffering from it.  By not engaging them in “out-of-the-box” thinking and problem solving, we are doing our children a disservice.  By not allowing them to ask endless questions and explore, we may be preventing them from exploring their own creativity.  Interestingly enough, childhood creativity as measured by Torrance’s assessment tool (see the Newsweek article) is one of the biggest predictors of future success as measured by patents, software programs, buildings designed, etc.

  Another thing I like about this article is that they debunk the myth that the only domain creativity plays out in is the arts.  Hello engineers and scientists!  As a scientist myself, I comprehend the important role creativity plays in my job.  Without innovative thinking, I cannot come up with new theories to test or experiments to run.  The most brilliant social psychologists in my field design the kind of experiments that make you go – that’s brilliant!  Like using hot sauce allocation (click her for original research article) as a way to measure aggression towards others.  Lieberman and his colleagues designed a new measure of aggression as the amount of hot sauce administered to a participant known to dislike spicy foods.  Love it.  I want to be that creative.

  And so I sit here, missing the creative child within.  And when I wonder why I often forget the creative component of myself, I am once again reminded of the system.  The system tells me I should be in my office 8-5 or 8-6 each day plugging away at my desk.  But what if that doesn’t always foster creativity?  What if sometimes I need to do other things to stretch my mind and get outside of the box?  For fun, I did that yesterday.  I just didn’t go to the office but instead engaged my mind in other creative ways – brainstorming, moving around my workspace (home, coffee shop, etc.).  The result – I have two more publications to write up now.  I’m not saying it’s fool proof, but I have to wonder – where has all my creativity gone and am I allowing the system to drain it out of me?  More importantly, how can I as an educator make sure my students’ creativity is fully engaged?

Getting with the times

So, I’ve finally jumped on board another technological thing late in the game.  But hey, it’s still good.  I downloaded the Kindle app for my iPhone.  Did you know you can download sample books on that thing??  Yes.  I’m sure you did know that, but I just figured it out.  It’s amazing, and now I want an actual Kindle.  Currently, I’m sampling Exploring the Psychology of Interest by Paul Silvia.  Silvia is an amazing social psychologist (of course, I love them) who does a lot of research on interest and curiosity (among several other things).  I am most amazed at his viewpoint of interest as an emotion.  He states in the beginning of his book that a lot of people view interest as a cognitive process or motivational state but that there is a lot of evidence for it as an emotion.  Before picking up his book, I would have associated myself with that camp.  However, as per usual, I am slowly being persuaded by his data.  *Side note folks – the best way to win me over to your side of the argument is to show me a lot of very good, conclusive data.  I will always be a researcher at heart.*  Soon I’ll be getting the full version of his book because I’ve torn through my Amazon sample.  Marketing ploy win.

I encourage anyone out there looking for a good read to pick this book up.  It relates to almost every area of interest (no pun intended) – education, vocation, personality, motivation, etc.  As far as I have read, it’s a very good read which I highly recommend.  Once again, this relates to my job.  How lucky am I?  So lucky.

Work flow – how do we get there?

Well, if any of you academics out there are like me, the summer means two things for you: 1) A large amount of time to really catch up on the things you love most and are probably behind on (reading, writing, researching, idea creation), and 2) feeling like you’re repeatedly banding your head up against the wall with no real “work flow.” While you are attempting to be the most productive person ever, the sunny poolside beckons your name and drinks (ice cold beers…I mean, lemonades) call your name.  So how is a person supposed to get into work flow anyway?

All summer I’ve been trying to figure this out.  In fact, the past two summers I have been trying to figure this out, often with no avail.  I try to explain to my non-academic friends that even though I theoretically have more time to get things done, the main things left for me to accomplish are just simply DIFFICULT.  It’s a constant state of brain storming new ideas and projects, writing (ughh…journal publication process – shoot me, please), and data analysis and reading (which aren’t bad at all and often distract me from the first two).  But regardless of what you do, most of us strive to acheive that amazing state of “work flow.” And therein lies the problem – work flow isn’t achieved by striving.  It’s acheiving by being.  Being what?

Here are some things I’m learning about acheiving work flow.  *Disclaimer* – this is purely anecdotal, and I have no actual data to support this except from my own life.  Ok – the researcher in me had to qualify that!  This is just meant for me to share with you what I’m learning this summer, but if these things are helpful, by all means, implement some of them!

1.  I have to ENJOY the process, not the outcome.

I am terrible at always looking at the outcomes of things.  I view the process as something that is a necessary evil to get to the outcomes.  In my case, more journal pulications, studies run, data analyzed, articles and books read, etc.  This has not really done me much good in the past, and I’m starting to realize why.  It’s draining!  For the first time ever this summer, I am actually viewing my summer workload as an opportunity to brain storm ideas I’m excited about, write up things I think people need to know about, and just dream.  It may sound hokey, but it’s actually working.  This summer, I have already been about 500% more productive than I was last summer in my writing alone (meaning I have written about 5 MORE publications than last year).  And it’s only a little over half way through the summer.  Enjoying the process, surprisingly enough, makes you engage in the process MORE.  And guess what that means – more outcomes.  Why hadn’t I alread realized this.

2.  Get around colleagues who are excited about what they do. 

  I have been very fortunate to be around colleagues who get really pumped up about the work they do, and it’s contagious.  My lab partner and I have had a few really exciting brainstorming sessions in which we realized the cool things we could actually research and do.  My advisor at the Academy for Teaching and Learning has a contagious enthusiasm for higher eduction, technology, and learning, and he sets me on fire.  And my advisor, well, he’s always pumped about his research.  These people are crucial players in my life to getting the fire burning beneath me and getting really excited about being engaged in the work I do.

3.  Take breaks!

  Simple enough.  If you’re really drained, take the day off.  If you haven’t slowed down in a while – go grab a coffee.  I’m terrible at not listening to myself when I need a break.  When I do listen to myself, I am constantly amazed at the higher levels of production that ensue afterwards. 

Well, that’s where I am at.  In short, I feel insanely fortunate and blessed to do what I do.  The moments I realize that are the moments I produce the most work.  So here’s to good work flow this summer!