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Weeks in Review: 5/4-5/19

I missed a couple posts. Here’s what I was reading and working on in the first part of the month.

What I’m Working On

OU Creaties

We awarded the Creaties this week. These annual awards honor the best new web sites and blog posts in the OU Create Domain of One’s Own project. To announce the winners, Andy Vaughn, our graphic designer, produced this wonderful video:

In addition to the video, I also started a series of blog posts about the winners:

Goblin 2.0

I’m still working with Keegan Long-Wheeler and Maddie Shellgren on a big project for this summer. Unfortunately, I still need to write up introduction to the project. I’m so excited about it and think it’s such a big deal that I’m having a hard time finding ways to even describe what it is. Hopefully, I’ll get that up this week.

What I’m Reading

I’m trying to read a book every week this year. By my counting, these were the 19th and 20th weeks of the year, and I’ve read 26 books. In the past two weeks I finished reading:

  • Andrew Sean Greer’s Less
  • Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion
  • and Michael Eric Dyson’s What Truth Sounds Like

Less

Less by Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer in 2018 for fiction. Normally, I associate these big prestige prizes with deep, philosophical tomes that challenge the reader. Less on the other hand was much closer to a summer beach read.

The book focuses on Arthur Less, a gay minor-novelist who is about to turn 50. On learning that his former lover is about to get married, Less decides to accept every invitation he has received as an academic and author and sets out on a world tour to find himself.

Book cover for Less

Less is extremely like-able, both for the characters he meets within the novel and for the reader. He is self-aware enough to recognize his privilege and relatable for academics and writers who feel like lesser lights compared to their genius friends and colleagues. His adventures provide both comic relief and an excuse for him to reflect on his relationships and his own desires. This was the most enjoyable and easily recommendable novel that I’ve read so far this year.

The Female Persuasion

Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion hits a lot of the same notes at Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations with Friends, but with a much more like-able protagonist. I read this right after Less, while also reading a little bit of Pride and Prejudice to my daughter, which helped me to realize how much I like novels to have a relatively friendly protagonist and a happy ending.

As with Rooney’s books, The Female Persuasion is a coming of age story for a millenial woman. We follow Greer Kadetsky and her boyfriend, Cory Pinto, as they transition from high school to college and then their first jobs. Meg Wolitzer is less explicit in her focus on class than Rooney, but she covers similar ground as Greer and Cory struggle to balance chasing money, purpose, and familial obligations in their early careers. While Greer goes through ups and downs in each of her relationships, the twists and turns feel less contrived and easily avoidable than those of Rooney’s protagonists.

While Rooney is explicit in her exploration of class, Wolitzer is more interested in the history and current state of feminism. In the book, Greer admires a second wave feminist leader modeled on Gloria Steinem. However, Greer grows to recognize the datedness and failures in relation to inclusivity/exclusivity in her mentor’s work. She also struggles with the ways that money can both support and control the work. At the interpersonal scale, all of the relationships in the book also ask questions about how women are treated and how they treat each other.

Structurally, I had a few qualms with how the book was written. Some of the chapters are told from the perspective of other characters, which felt both jarring and slightly clumsy. One of the big turns in the book also felt a bit tacked on. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this book and suggest adding it to your summer reading list.

What Truth Sounds Like

Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, What Truth Sounds Like, uses the 1963 meetings between Bobby Kennedy and James Baldwin as a focal lens for studying black intellectualism and the struggle for racial equality in the last 50 years.

Here at OU, Jim Ziegler organized a guided reading centering on James Baldwin last year. Through those readings of Baldwin, his contemporaries, and his influence on modern writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, we covered some of the same topics that Dyson studies in this book. Dyson’s book would be a great central text in similar reading groups in that he presents a sort of annotated guide to the black intellectuals in Baldwin’s networks.

Michael Eric Dyson provides a series of little biographies on the people who accompanied Baldwin in his meeting with Kennedy. I learned a lot about Harry Belafonte, Kenneth Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, and Jerome Smith.

Surprisingly for a book on intellectualism, I found this book really accessible. It’s very short and well written, so it serves as a great primer on black intellectualism. While reading this, I was making a lot of notes on what I want to read, watch, and listen to next.

Week in Review: 4/29-5/3

What I’m Working On

OU Creaties

We awarded the Creaties this week. These annual awards honor the best new web sites and blog posts in the OU Create Domain of One’s Own project. To announce the winners, Andy Vaughn, our graphic designer, produced this wonderful video:

In addition to the video, I also started a series of blog posts about the winners. You can see the first post, which feature’s Alice Calmon’s wonderful student portfolio at the Office of Digital Learning’s blog: http://digitallearning.oucreate.com/creaties/ou-creaties-best-student-portfolio/.

DiSH

Over the past year or so, I’ve been working with the OU Libraries and OU IT to try to create a portal that would help people find resources for expanding their digital skills. The Digital Skills Hub provides a calendar of all of the workshops and events offered across the OU campus that have something to do with digital skills, digital literacy, media literacy, etc. We are also building in a contact form where people can ask for help and we’ll direct the request to whoever works in that space. We’re hoping that this site will bypass confusion over who to go to for help on VR/AR, web development, LMS support, multi-modal writing, critical understandings of technology, data collection, data analysis, data viz, and all the other stuff.

This week we discussed the idea of a certification in digital skills. Beyond just attending several workshops, what would we want a student to know or do to earn that certification? What value would a certification have for the student? How would we track such a thing in order to grant the certification? We’re still at the early stages of the conversation, but we got everyone thinking about it this week.

I also talked to Jenae Cohn at Stanford about digital literacy this week. Jenae is doing a ton of interesting work with their writing program on multi-modal composition and also studying reading during the digital age. I’m still working through a lot of links she sent. I’m hoping that we’ll get a chance to collaborate on some media and digital literacy initiatives in the coming months.

Goblin 2.0

I’m still working with Keegan Long-Wheeler and Maddie Shellgren on a big project for this summer. Unfortunately, I still need to write up introduction to the project. I’m so excited about it and think it’s such a big deal that I’m having a hard time finding ways to even describe what it is. Hopefully, I’ll get that up this week.

What I’m Reading

I’m trying to read a book every week this year. By my counting, this is the 18th week of the year, and I’ve read 23 books. This week I finished reading:

  • Sally Rooney’s Normal People
  • Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
  • and Sitting in a Tree, a collection of Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen comics written by Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli, Jason Latour, & Robbi Rodriguez

Normal People

Over the weekend, I finished Normal People by Sally Rooney. I had read her first novel, Conversations with Friends, earlier in April, and I find her work really interesting.

Book cover for Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The faces of the male and female protagonists are depicted in line drawings against a green and blue color-block background.

Many of the reviews of Rooney’s novels focus on how her Irish millenial characters are coming of age in the recession that hit Dublin hard in 2008. Rooney is 28 and a self-avowed Marxist, and the protagonists for both novels have been read as Rooney’s self-insertions.

I think Rooney may be using her protagonists as critiques of the generation now coming of age. The protagonists’ claims not to care about money or jobs are are undermined by the generous stipends and accommodations provided by their families. Their relationships are marred by the miscommunications and assumptions made possible when you can’t read the tone of the other person’s texts. At the very least, I read these characters with the same ambivalence that I feel towards Holden Caulfield. It’s easy to see them as disaffected and cool, but equally easy to criticize them as modern phonies.

I’ll try to write up a more coherent critique that actually quotes the books when I get time. Both have been short-listed for lots of prizes, and I think they’ll be on lots of lists over the next couple of years. I’m looking forward to hearing what others think of Rooney’s characters.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

I’m also torn as to how I feel about Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I think this will also be on a lot of reading lists over the next few years. I’ve heard it compared to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and I think my colleagues in both history of technology and digital pedagogy will find a lot to think about in the book.

Book cover for Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

I found myself agreeing with almost all of Zuboff’s observations. Google and Facebook have built some of the largest businesses in the world by sucking up as much of our data as they can and creating the most detailed and searchable advertising profiles that they can. Zuboff details how they have worn down our individual and societal defenses against this surveillance capitalism with a very convincing framework.

However, I disagree with her characterization of both the motivations of the companies and her argument that what they are doing is completely novel in the history of capitalism. In the final section of the book, Zuboff defends what she sees as a traditional, corporatist capitalism that flourished in America in the first two thirds of the 20th century. I see that period as deeply problematic, with the systematic consolidation of money and political power in the hand of capitalists at the expense of the working-classes. Zuboff praises General Motors and the other big companies of the period because they provided benefits to their employees, while minimizing the importance of the unions and the ecological and economic degradations of big business in the 20th century. As with Sally Rooney’s books, I hope people read Zuboff, but mainly so I can talk through her problematic conclusions.

Sitting in a Tree

Easily the easiest read of the week for me was Sitting in a Tree, a collection of Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen comics. This crossover narrative focused on inter-dimensional shenanigans going on between Miles Morales’ earth and Gwen Stacy’s earth. The two spider-people meet a couple of other spider-folk while trying to stop the evil forces of S.I.L.K. from gaining access to trans-dimensional travel.

Cover for the Spider-Man/Spider-Gwen collection, Sitting in a Tree. Both characters hang upside down and kiss, reminiscent of the scene from the Toby McGwire Spider-Man movie.

The main plot is pretty thin, but there’s some good bits about father and son relationships with Miles and his dad Jefferson. The best part of the comics though is Miles narrating the whole adventure to his friends in his high school dorm room. While one of his friends is trying to follow along with the story, the other just wants to hear about Miles getting to kiss Gwen. I recommend all of the Spider-Gwen comics, because she’s a badass. I enjoyed the animated Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse movie more than the Miles Morales Spider-Man comics, but I like the characters and animation style enough to keep going with them.

Google Maps Timeline & Digital Security

I’ve been (slowly) working my way through the 23 Things List, a project on digital literacy from the University of Edinburgh. Thing number 4 was Digital Security. While we include Web Security in a lot of our digital literacy prorams, I’m not a huge WebSec person. It’s not something that I think about or worry about to the extent that ….. does.

Probably because WebSec hasn’t been a huge concern for me, I was surprised by what I found on Google Maps Timeline.

My data on Google Maps Timeline

If you go to https://www.google.com/maps/timeline, you will likely find your own movement history for the past several years. As you can see in the picture above, Google knows my home and work addresses (I’ve removed them from the screenshot), the cities that I’ve been to, and even the modes of transportation I took to get there.

I can go through the data and find out how many times I’ve been to my favorite coffee shops over the past week or year. Google has data on my location dating back to 2009, which is probably when I got my first phone that tracked geolocations. The data is a bit patchy for the early years, but pretty thorough since about 2015.

My colleague Keegan Long-Wheeler has been doing some work on reconstructing his memories from the past few years. He had a brain tumor removed earlier this year, so he has been going back through the softwares that track him to retrace his steps and reflect on his activities.

If we want to be very generous to Google, we can suppose for a moment that this is how they intended such data to be used. I enjoyed spending about 15 minutes looking back through my data and remembering some of the trips from the past couple of years. Google also uses this data to send us notifications about how long it’s going to take to get to work in the morning and what the traffic is like around us. They put our maps through algorithms to understand our daily routines, and build that information into their phones, watches, and assistants.

However, I think we all realize that the reason Google collects this information is so that they can use it for marketing. Google is an ad company and a data company. They want to micro-target us with ads, and they want to sell our data to companies that will be most interested in us. Knowing literally everywhere that I’ve been over the past 10 years is valuable for their business model.

If you haven’t done it yet, go to https://www.google.com/maps/timeline and look at your data. Play around with it for a few minutes. Reminisce about those trips and your favorite spots around town.

Now look at the little black trashcan at the bottom of the screen, and seriously think about deleting all that location data. If you didn’t know about this service until today, and if you don’t care about those notifications you get to your phone, you won’t be missing anything and Google won’t be able to sell all of your location data any more. If you love your Google notifications, and you’ve got a Google Home listening to your every move at home, then maybe leave it on. Either way, control of your data should be up to you. You can find more about your data security in the Thing 4 walkthrough or check out this Medium post by Nick Rosener on Personal Cybersecurity.

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