Protesting Bush at Coast Guard Academy

Yesterday, I went to New London to participate in an anti-war protest as President Bush spoke at the Coast Guard Academy commencement. It was a worthwhile experience, and I took over 200 pictures (33 of which I put on Wikimedia Commons) and wrote my first Wikinews article (“Protesters demonstrate at US Coast Guard Academy“). Next time I go to something like this I’m going to take extensive notes, write down quotes, and do full-fledged original reporting.

There were about 500 spirited protesters (one news article put it at 1000, but I doubt that), and a much less formal (i.e., Democratic Party line) slate of speakers than the politician-led rally in Hartford on March 17. For most of the protesters, both speakers and the crowd, impeachment was emphatically not off the table, and the main organizing group, ANSWER Coalition, has a bunch of real-life socialists and other assorted radicals. There was also a sizable group (ca. 50-75) of counter-protesters, mostly combat vets and family members (of which there were also a fair number on the anti-war side). As one kid remarked, the counter-protesters (organized by Gathering of Eagles) were way more metal than anything the anti-war side could manage. This guy was the most interesting: he was hurling insults and provocative statements through his loudspeaker almost non-stop. Choice quotes:

“Don’t take the brown acid!”

“I like the women’s movement. Especially from behind.”

“Freedom. It’s not just for white people anymore.”

“War freed the slaves! War saved the Jews! Anti-war racists go home!”

He was the perfect example of that weird juxtaposition of conservative political ideology and intolerance in the name of American Christianity.

Overall, the event was pretty disappointing. One seventeen-year-old said something like “there has to an element of transgression, or it’s just more shit in the system.” This was an orderly gathering of fairly orderly citizens, separated by about five times the number of police officers necessary to keep the peace. No civil disobedience, and the designated protest area was well beyond the radius of the commencement activities. We caught a brief glimpse of the President’s motorcade, but mostly it was just reporters (I’d guess at least two dozen, maybe more, with several news vans) keeping us company. I did mentioned in a follow-up article this morning in the Norwich Bulletin:

Yale doctoral student Sage Ross was protesting the president and snapping photos of both sides for the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the Internet-based, free encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

He said this protest was livelier than others, because it was next to the academy. Pro-troop protesters rebuffed him when he approached them to take photos.

“They didn’t quite buy it that I was one of the press,” he said with a smile.

Related blogging:

Prospectus writing in a post-Wikipedia world

For a few weeks now (or is it months?) I’ve been struggling to get a hold of a coherent dissertation topic. I actually have a pretty good idea of the general subject I’m going to do my research on: the disciplinary splits and diversification in biology since the 1950s, especially the “Molecular Wars” between organismal and molecular biology and the history of molecular evolution, which straddled the divide. I’ve been getting to know the existing secondary material (which is very thin) and the individuals and archives that might be at the center of an extended history of molecular evolution (which are numerous).

As I collect and organize all this information, searching for a sufficiently limited yet compelling research approach, I’m increasingly drawn to the potential of prosopography (the historical study of groups of people and the connections among them). My advisor, Dan Kevles, was one of the pioneers of prosopography in the history of science with his dissertation-project-turned-first-book The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. But wikis offer the potential for a new kind of prosopography, which surprisingly has seen very little development outside Wikipedia itself. (One major online non-wiki prosopography effort is Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which has an amazing amount of information but has an all-but-useless interface.) As an experiment, I took my recent acquisition of the Evolving Genes and Proteins book (the proceedings from a 1964 conference on molecular evolution that produced a number of very influential papers) and created List of participants in the Evolving Genes and Proteins symposium. About 40 of the ca. 250 participants already have Wikipedia entries, including 22 of the 56 who contributed to the proceedings (and probably the majority of the rest will have entries as some point). If similar wiki-databases were created for other important conferences, contributors to important journals, scientists in specific fields who had been associated with specific instititution, etc. (either on Wikipedia, or elsewhere to facilitate original research), it could be the groundwork for the kind of quantitative history that social historians have been pining for but have never really pulled off. It could make prosopography (and maybe even collaborative history) worth doing.

Notability, again

Two months ago, I posted about the concept of Notability on Wikipedia and discussions about reforming that guideline. I concluded: “It’s heartening to see that Wikipedia is not so resistant to change that it cannot deal with its scaling problems, though it remains to be seen how effective the response will be.” I’m sorely disappointed in how that turned out: essentially, inertia prevails

Historian and intrepid educational technologist Mills Kelly has a great post with yet another outside view expressing bafflement over the insanity that is notability. (Of the articles written by students in his Western Civ class, only one was deleted as non-notable, though several were merged or redirected, and even the deleted one was primarily a case of unverifiable original research.) Mills discusses a Jimmy Wales interview by Bruce Cole, chairman of the NEH, in the most recent issue of Humanities, which sounds interesting but is not yet available online (damn you, old-fashioned physical publishing!)

Everyone has their own idea of what the “the problem with Wikipedia” is (the canonical answer is found here). The most common “problem with Wikipedia” is that anyone can edit, but most Wikipedians regard this as a feature, not a bug. David A. Russell has a nice old post (which came up on my radar because of real bugs in the open wiki blog planet aggregator) on the general increase in convoluted processes and meta-content in Wikipedia; “process wonkery” is common villain for Wikipedians who can still remember when things were much simpler (well before I started editing).

To me, notability is the only issue that seems like a potentially project-breaking problem (aside from legal issues). It’s the only thing I could imagine a sizable portion of the community forking over (though things are far from that point right now).

UPDATE: Bruce Cole’s interview of Jimmy Wales is now online.

Wikipedia under attack

Within the last 24 hours, (at least) four Wikipedia administrators have had their accounts hacked, resulting in four deletions of the main page, and a bit of other vandalism. It appears that each one had a weak, easily guessed password. All editors, admin or no, should change weak passwords immediately, on all Wikimedia projects. No “password”, “fuckyou”, “wikipediarocks”, cat’s names, dictionary words, meaningful numbers, etc.

For more, see:

More scholars calling for Wikipedia involvement

After Roy Rosenzweig’s June 2006 article on Wikipedia in The Journal of American History, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past“, I predicted a large-scale change in the way scholars—humanists in particular—view Wikipedia. Things started slowly; Marshall Poe’s September article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Hive” was the next major piece, and other interesting viewpoints continued to trickle in until the Middlebury College ban.

But lately, calls for involvement and reports of classroom success have been coming in rapidly. Recommended reading:

I’m working on my own piece for historians of science, and I’m trying to kick the inflammatory rhetoric up a notch. I probably need to come up with a catchy title, though. Unfortunately, garden-variety historians and English professors have already melted the obvious Dr. Strangelove snowclone. (What’s up with that? That’s history of science territory!) Maybe I could go with the other Strangelove snowclone: “We must not allow a Wikipedia gap!”

By the way, any suggests for improving the above article would be greatly appreciated; I’ll be submitting it soon.

Metaphors of education

A semi-recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Just Scoring Points“, explores the dominant metaphors that students and teachers bring to the education process. All parties reject the “empty vessel” metaphor, where teachers pour knowledge into the passive students. Students may nominally accept the “constructing a building” metaphor, but as the author, entomologist Walter Tschinkel, challenged his students:

“You do understand that to build an edifice, every brick you add must remain in place? That is, in your education, you have to remember what you learned before, so that you can build on it in the next phase of education. But we have repeatedly experienced here that you remember little from your previous courses — or, for that matter, from the previous test, or even from last week. Your behavior violates the basic requirement of this metaphor.”

Tschinkel finds that students operate, at least implicitly, under a “sports” metaphor: it’s all about the points, and once each game is over, it’s best forgotten. He does his best to require more synthetic and progressive intellectual work in the “constructing a building” mode from his students. He avoids multiple choice, testing instead through writing, he singles students out to explain things to the class, and he gives quizzes early and often (sometimes over the same core material repeatedly, until the students learn it).

I grant Tschinkel’s point about the importance of a participatory learning process; this is where so much university education goes wrong. But reading this article got me thinking about whether “constructing a building” is even a metaphor educators should be aiming for. Constructing a building, after all, follows a set plan from the outset, with a well-defined foundation and a well-defined pinnacle.

What are other educational metaphors we can consider?

A “dining” metaphor is something close to how I’ve approached my own education (at least as an undergraduate). College is a sort of buffet, with far too many intellectual dishes for you to try everything in one sitting. So you go along, taking whatever looks good; if you decide you don’t like something, you just stop eating it (or maybe push it around the plate so it looks like you made a good attempt). If you’re a conscientious eater, maybe you are going for a nutritionally balanced meal, but more often than not you just grab whatever is most appetizing at the moment. The buffet is the liberal education approach, but other meal genres fit other educational programs: one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized school lunches for one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized primary and secondary public education; a fixed set of meal choices from a restaurant menu for the fixed professional degree programs; snacking for informal learning.

“Games”, as opposed to “sports”, may be another worthwhile metaphor. We play athletic games because they are fun. We may try to score points, but the real goals of play (as opposed to competition) are more intangible: connecting with other people, and developing general skills and abilities that are not particularly tied to the game at hand.

What other metaphors are out there in other societies? If sports is a particularly American education metaphor as Tschinkel implies, is there hope for fixing education without radical changes in American culture?