Planning a second “Online Research, Offline Lunch”

In August we hosted the first Online Research, Offline Lunch for researchers involved in online research in any field, discipline or sector in the DC area. Although Washington DC is a great meeting place for specific areas of online research, there are few opportunities for interdisciplinary gatherings of professionals and academics. These lunches provide an informal opportunity for a diverse set of online researchers to listen and talk respectfully about our interests and our work and to see our endeavors from new, valuable perspectives. We kept the first gathering small. But the enthusiasm for this small event was quite large, and it was a great success! We had interesting conversations, learned a lot, made some valuable connections, and promised to meet again.

Many expressed interest in the lunches but weren’t able to attend. If you have any specific scheduling requests, please let me know now. Although I certainly can’t accommodate everyone’s preferences, I will do my best to take them into account.

Here is a form that can be used to add new people to the list. If you’re already on the list you do not need to sign up again. Please feel free to share the form with anyone else who may be interested:



Deeper into the family files; recipes and gendered histories

One picture of my mom really captures me. It is of my parents at a political event, greeting George Will. My mother was heavily involved in politics, and she had likely been one of the event’s organizers, partially responsible for bringing George Will to town. She has a huge smile, and her eyes are sparkling. She is focused on George Will. But George Will is not even looking in her direction. He’s greeting my father, who likely had nothing to do with the event.

The deeper I look into the family files, the deeper my understanding of my mother’s particular brand of feminism grows.

As I grew into a woman, she was proud of me for many reasons, but she never came to grips with my love of cooking. She hated cooking with a passion, and she treated kitchens like they held hostages, like they had latch stations at their gates that clicked into place around unsuspecting ankles as they crossed the threshold. She was a great cook. She created souffles with ease. But she hated the kitchen and hated to see me cook. In fact, I learned to cook against her will, once I’d left home for college. In our lives together we shared many activities, but we never cooked together. She never shared a recipe with me. Granted, I didn’t push. I am a vegetarian, bent on healthy cooking and vegan substitutions, and she was a part of a sour cream generation.

Her kitchen history came alive in a wholly different way as I sorted through her papers. I found boxes, books, clippings and handwritten recipes. I’d seen all of these often in my youth, but I’d never looked through them. As I looked through them now, a new kind of culture began to take shape. These recipes weren’t the anonymous instructions that I find on the internet when I search. They had histories. They belonged to the women that created them. They gave credit to any creative twist on the old standards. They seemed as unique as footprints. And they were clearly passed around quite a bit. I imagined my mom tasting something delicious at a friend’s house and asking for the recipe, and I imagined the pride that the cook had felt in that moment. I can imagine moments like these, but they seem incongruous, deeply out of character for all involved.

Cooking is not simply about our need to fuel our bodies. And it’s a different process for my husband to cook (he loves to cook and has a professional cooking background) than it is for me. My time in the kitchen is part of a deeply gendered history. It is heavy with expectations, ideals and predefined roles. Maybe this is why I avoid recipes? Following a recipe seems to be about creating an ideal and trying to embody it. It’s about believing in your potential to make some fantasy a reality for your family. It’s about embodying a role that has been laid before you. It’s about achieving an unrealistic standard. A successful dish isn’t just food for the belly or a pleasant taste. It’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride, a sense of achievement. It’s about the success of the cook and the nurturing of those around the cook. It connects a woman to a greater tradition of women in the kitchen.

In our histories, people are pegged into traditional societal roles that they may or may not fit into easily. One one hand, they are held back from other roles and relegated to these. But on the other hand, they embody these roles in a way that rises above the call of duty.

These traditions embody uniqueness, a common respect and understanding, a kind of sisterhood, and a common striving. My mom hated the kitchen. But she was a part of a sisterhood that I’m discovering as more of a historian than a participant. Would I trade my professional or academic success for that sisterhood? Absolutely not. But as a woman in the kitchen, I want to understand what these traditions meant to the women who came before me. I want to understand how they redefined them and rose above them. I want to understand how they fit themselves and the women around them into these roles.

I will pass these recipes on to my daughters- not as instructions for cooking or instructions for life, but as a way of carrying on a sisterhood forged by the women who came before us.

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

For further (& really interesting) reading:

Upcoming DC Event: Online Research Offline Lunch

ETA: Registration for this event is now CLOSED. If you have already signed up, you will receive a confirmation e-mail shortly. Any sign-ups after this date will be stored as a contact list for any future events. Thank you for your interest! We’re excited to gather with such a diverse and interesting group.


Are you in or near the DC area? Come join us!

Although DC is a great meeting place for specific areas of online research, there are few opportunities for interdisciplinary gatherings of professionals and academics. This lunch will provide an informal opportunity for a diverse set of online researchers to listen and talk respectfully about our interests and our work and to see our endeavors from new, valuable perspectives.

Date & Time: August 6, 2013, 12:30 p.m.

Location: Near Gallery Place or Metro Center. Once we have a rough headcount, we’ll choose an appropriate location. (Feel free to suggest a place!)

Please RSVP using this form:

Instagram is changing the way I see

I recently joined Instagram (I’m late, I know).

I joined because my daughter wanted to, because her friends had, to see what it was all about. She is artistic, and we like to talk about things like color combinations and camera angles, so Instagram is a good fit for us. But it’s quickly changing the way I understand photography. I’ve always been able to set up a good shot, and I’ve always had an eye for color. But I’ve never seriously followed up on any of it. It didn’t take long on Instagram to learn that an eye for framing and color is not enough to make for anything more than accidental great shots. The great shots that I see are the ones that pick deeper patterns or unexpected contrasts out of seemingly ordinary surroundings. They don’t simply capture beauty, they capture an unexpected natural order or a surprising contrast, or they tell a story. They make you gasp or they make you wonder. They share a vision, a moment, an insight. They’re like the beginning paragraph of a novel or the sketch outline of a poem. Realizing that, I have learned that capturing the obvious beauty around me is not enough. To find the good shots, I’ll need to leave my comfort zone, to feel or notice differently, to wonder what or who belongs in a space and what or who doesn’t, and why any of it would capture anyone’s interest. It’s not enough to see a door. I have to wonder what’s behind it. To my surprise, Instagram has taught me how to think like a writer again, how to find hidden narratives, how to feel contrast again.

Sure this makes for a pretty picture. But what is unexpected about it? Who belongs in this space? Who doesn't? What would catch your eye?

Sure this makes for a pretty picture. But what is unexpected about it? Who belongs in this space? Who doesn’t? What would catch your eye?

This kind of change has a great value, of course, for a social media researcher. The kinds of connections that people forge on social media, the different ways in which people use platforms and the ways in which platforms shape the way we interact with the world around us, both virtual and real, are vitally important elements in the research process. In order to create valid, useful research in social media, the methods and thinking of the researcher have to follow closely with the methods and thinking of the users. If your sensemaking process imitates the sensemaking process of the users, you know that you’re working in the right direction, but if you ignore the behaviors and goals of the users, you have likely missed the point altogether. (For example, if you think of Twitter hashtags simply as an organizational scheme, you’ve missed the strategic, ironic, insightful and often humorous ways in which people use hashtags. Or if you think that hashtags naturally fall into specific patterns, you’re missing their dialogic nature.)

My current research involves the cycle between social media and journalism, and it runs across platforms. I am asking questions like ‘what gets picked up by reporters and why?’ and ‘what is designed for reporters to pick up?’ And some of these questions lead me to examine the differences between funny memes that circulate like wildfire through Twitter leading to trends and a wider stage and the more indepth conversation on public facebook pages, which cannot trend as easily and is far less punchy and digestible. What role does each play in the political process and in constituting news?

Of course, my current research asks more questions than these, but it’s currently under construction. I’d rather not invite you into the workzone until some of the pulp and debris have been swept aside…

Marissa Meyer, Motherhood and the Public Sphere

Marisssa Meyer has made quite a few waves recently. First, she was appointed CEO of Yahoo, an internet mainstay with an identity crisis, in a bold act of assertion and experimentation. She made headlines for her history of making waves in internet companies, and she made waves for being female. The headlines about her gender had barely receded before the news broke that she was pregnant. This was huge news, news that had barely receded before she again made headlines for talking about motherhood.

As a working parent, I’m moved to say a few things about motherhood and work.

The first point is an obvious one. Pregnancy is a state that primarily affects the pregnant. As a working, pregnant woman I remember the absolute fear of my coworkers discovering that my pregnant head was a blurred and rearranged rendition of its normal self. There is no public acceptance or public discussion of pregnancy brain, only private, informal corroboration of the phenomena. I felt sympathetic for Meyer as she navigated the intense public scrutiny of her every move within her new position while potentially mucking through “pregnancy brain.” Granted, we are adaptable creatures. I navigated the world of working while pregnant with a minimum of catastrophic errors, mostly through subtle adjustments in my work patterns, and I’m sure that she did as well. And, just as my consuming hatred of onions disappeared during the labor process, my thinking again found clarity. Motherhood does not necessarily affect a woman’s ability to work, nor is it necessarily a negative effect. In fact, we found in a survey of physicists the world over that mothers often discover that they work much more efficiently than they did before they gave birth (may be covered in this report). The wider sense of context and greater array of responsibilities can significantly improve worklife.

The assumption underlying fears about motherhood and work life is that the mother is the sole or primary source of childcare. This is not universally true. Parents make parenting work with whatever tools they have. Some parents have partners with varying degrees of involvement, and some don’t. Some live with family, some don’t. Some have dependable community networks or friends who help out with childcare. Some have financial means that can be used to find help with childcare or to help with other areas of life, in order to make more time for childcare. There are no assumptions that one could make straight out of the gate about a person’s childcare options or preferences.

Meyer made a point of calling her child “easy.” I don’t really see how this should bear on anyone else. I have often called my own kids easy. Maybe a more technical way of saying this would be that their actions generally jive with my own needs and preferences. There are times when that description couldn’t be further from the truth (like when they scream! or puke at dramatically inconvenient times. or cover me in Spaghetti at lunchtime in the office cafeteria!), and times when it seems gloriously true, like the times I couldn’t find a reliable childcare option and my quiet second child hung out in my office all day without most of my coworkers noticing. The truth is that children are people, with a full set of emotions and physical states that they are just learning to reconcile. They start out very dependent and grow independence before we’re ready for them to. Sometimes they are a lot of work, or a lot of frustration. And sometimes they enrich our lives in ways we never could have imagined.

The part of Meyer’s statement that most struck me was that she spoke about her enjoyment of motherhood. Motherhood has plenty of little joys, plenty of cute moments, and plenty of little smiles. They don’t often get as much press as the frustrations, especially from moms who are working on their careers. In a professional world that seems to be eying moms for any sign that motherhood is negatively influencing worklife, moms are often thrust into this dynamic, where being a parent is thought to be at odds with a career. I have often been caught in this dynamic. I enjoy my career and enjoy motherhood and in fact enjoy being able to do both. I rarely hear this dynamic echoed- almost like we need to chose a side and stick to it. But the need to pick sides is an old one, one where the mother is thought to be the primary caretaker, leaving her child adrift if she chooses to also pursue other activities.

Instead, I try to use my enthusiasm for work and school as a model for my kids. I want them to know that it is possible to find and pursue work that they find interesting. And I work to let them know how much I care about them and enjoy spending time with them. And I rely heavily on the networks available to me for help. My system is far from perfect. In November, after being out of town for a few days, I returned to a severely wheezing child. Nothing can make you feel worse as a parent than taking a child to the doctor when they are seriously ill and you know nothing about the history of their illness. And now the wave of finals is creeping over us like an ominous tsunami, threatening to swallow our homelife whole in its voraciousness.

Motherhood is complicated. Parenthood is complicated. Meyer may be moved to characterize parenthood one way in one interview and then in a completely different way fifteen minutes later. As a fellow parent, I would like to issue my full support for her speaking publicly about parenthood at all. I wish her  a string of lights in the thicket of family life and work life and a cord to hold it together in the points between.

And I wish her press about her professional life that isn’t defined by her personal life.

Education from the Bottom Up?

Last night I attended a talk by Shirley Bryce Heath about her new book, Words at Work and Play, moderated by Anne Harper Charity Hudley and Frederick Erickson. Dr Bryce Heath has been following a group of 300 families for 30 years, and in her talk she addressed many of the changes she’d seen in the kids in the time she’d been observing them. She made one particularly interesting point. She mentioned that the world of assessment, and, in fact much of the adult world hasn’t kept up with the kids’ evolution. The assessments that we subject kids to are traditional, reflecting traditional values and sources. She went as far as to say that we don’t know how to see, appreciate or notice these changes, and she pointed out that much of new styles of learning came outside of the school environment.

This part of her talk reminded me of an excellent blog post I read yesterday about unschooling. Unschooling is the process of learning outside of a structured environment. It goes further than homeschooling, which can involve structured curricula. It is curricularly agnostic and focused on the learning styles, interests, and natural motivation of the students. I mentioned the blog post to Terrence Wiley, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, and he emphasized the underlying idealism of unschooling. It rests on the basic belief that everyone is naturally academically motivated and interested and will naturally embrace learning, in their own way, given the freedom to do it. Unschooling is, as some would say my “spirit animal.” I don’t have the time or the resources to do it with my own kids, and I’m not sure I would even if I were fully able to do it. I have no idea how it could be instituted in any kind of egalitarian or larger scale way. But I still love the idea, in all it’s unpracticality. (Dr Wiley gave me a few reading assignments, explaining that ‘everything old in education is new again’)

Then today I read a blog about the potential of using Wikipedia as a textbook. This idea is very striking, not just because Wikipedia was mostly accurate, freely available, covered the vast majority of the material in this professor’s traditional textbooks, and has an app that will help anyone interested create a custom textbook, but because it actually addresses what kids do anyway! Just this past weekend, my daughter was writing a book report, and I kept complaining that she chose to use Wikipedia to look up the spelling of a character’s name rather than walk upstairs and grab the book. Kids use Wikipedia often and for all kinds of things, and it is often more common for parents and educators to forbid or dismiss this practice than to jump right in with them. I suggest that the blogger not only use Wikipedia, but use the text as a way to show what is or is not accurate, how to tell, and where to find other credible, collaborative sources when it doubt. What an amazing opportunity!

So here’s the question that all of this has been leading to: Given that the world around is is rapidly changing and that our kids are more adept at staying abreast of these changes than they are, could it be time to turn the old expert-novice/ teacher-student paradigm on its head, at least in part? Maybe we need to find ways to let some knowledge come from the bottom up. Maybe we need to let them be the experts. Maybe we need to, at least in part, rethink our role in the educating process?

Frederick Erickson made an excellent point about teaching “You have to learn your students in order to teach them.” He talked about spending the first few days in a class gathering the expertise of the students, and using that knowledge when creating assignments or assigning groups. (I believe Dr Hudley mentioned that she did this, too. Or maybe he supplied the quote, and she supplied the example?)

All of this makes me wonder what the potential is for respecting the knowledge and expertise of the students, and working from there. What does bottom-up or student-led education look like? How can it be integrated into the learning process in order to make it more responsive, adaptive and modern?

Of course, this is as much a dream for a wider society as unschooling is for my own family. To a large extent, practicality shoots it all in the foot with the starting gun. But a girl can dream, no?

Adventures in Digital Puberty

My digital enthusiasm hit a roadblock lately. My oldest daughter discovered the addictive world of social gaming. What began with her checking out an ad on TV for a gaming website soon evolved into pops of smuggled light in a dark room after bedtime. I looked into this gaming website, and I was able to read all kinds of horror stories about it. Parents told tales of bullying, of graphic talk and advances in chatrooms, and of kids receiving points for dating.

Once you consider some features of this site- the chatrooms, the constant clothes changing (into mostly skimpy outfits), the pursuit of cash and fame, and the encouragement to “date,” it’s easy to see this place as a playground for the perverted. It didn’t help that my first questions about the site were answered by my daughter with a speech about the site’s value as a teaching tool. Apparently they give quizzes, and they give you the answers if you get the questions wrong. So, for example, she learned from this site who Brad Pitt is married to. Although I am a big fan of learning tools, I’m not sure I’d characterize celebrity gossip as useful or necessary knowledge…

I know that some parents would (& do) forbid their kids from going to the site. My first reaction was to limit her time there as much as possible. But today I swallowed my prejudice and jumped in.

The truth is that if I did just dismiss this site altogether, she would still find ways to visit it. I would much rather that she not hide her activity, but instead have me to talk to about what she encounters on the site. So I told her about my experiences trying out chatrooms when I was younger and about what I’d read about this site. We talked in detail about the different features of her site. I offered to sit down with her any time she wanted to talk about things she saw. We talked about bullying, we talked about the possibility of people not being who they say they are, and we talked about making connections online. We talked about her favorite parts of the site and the parts that made her uncomfortable. She told me about the friends she made and what brought them together. And I pledged to talk to her about it again any time she wanted.

She was full of questions and of stories and examples, and I was really struck that I never would have heard any of it had I not gotten over my initial set of worries and discussed this with her. And what would that have meant? She wouldn’t have had a chance to vet her strategies for safety and bullying with me, and she wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing some of her stranger encounters. She would be left without my guidance when determining what was acceptable to her.

From time to time, we parents need a kick in the pants to remind us that raising kids isn’t about creating copies of ourselves, but about providing guidance and safety for them as they develop. She is a different person, growing among a different set of influences. And that’s okay with me.

I did, however, discuss all of this with her as we headed out to the woods to take a gadget free walk among the fall colors!