Unassigned Reading

Just about everything I read now is unassigned. I am no longer in school. I believe that I have acquired all the academic degrees that I care to acquire in this lifetime. And while there may be the occasional course of study to deepen my understanding of certain professional or personal development topics ahead, the reading choices at this stage of my life are entirely voluntary and self-determined. If you have followed this blog for any length of time you will know that I am an enthusiastic reader and I have the privileges of time, resources and access which afford me a tremendous wealth of opportunity to engage with texts of all kinds.

I say all this now because I have been thinking about the reading that I have done which 1) has nothing to do with education directly, 2) I do with someone, 3) is something routine that we do simply for pleasure. I am thinking about a year or actually several years’ worth of reading aloud to my sons. My youngest is 8 and reading aloud to him counts as one of my greatest parenting pleasures. He’s an astute listener for whom the length of bedtime reading is still an extremely effective bribe.

Looking back over the course of this year, it’s hard to count how many books we read all together. The first 4 Harry Potter books were big, I think we re-read A Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web. The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a recent birthday gift which we enjoyed. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf turned out to be an unexpected hit and as well liked as Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. Chapter books were always punctuated by various picture books: Piggy and Elephant are among our favorites to read in tandem. Classic fairy tales also hit the spot: The Gingerbread Man, Jack in the Beanstalk, The Three Billy Goats Gruff – we read those over and over. With his dad he has discovered the fun in Asterix and Obelix comics (which is rather lost on me; I think it may be more of a European thing).

The librarians at my school have been wonderful supporters of our reading endeavors, not only supplying us with books that have been sorted out but also directing us to great new possibilities. While I began reading Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck on my own, my son was drawn in by the detailed illustrations which run throughout the story, so that we read a big chunk of it together. Although I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret on my own, it was a highlight when a 5th grader at school saw me with it and said he was reading it, too. And it was the elementary librarians who turned me on to Jaqueline Woodson, whose autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming in verse felt like a rare gift.

So many words, characters, and plot lines and all for the sheer pleasure of hearing, discovering, following, and anticipating what might happen next. My son remembers details from books we read months or even years ago. He quotes lines from one story that remind him of what we’re reading now. And with him I am miraculously able to remember too (most of the time). Recently we observed that a lot of children’s stories involve (and often open with) the death or unexplained absence of a parent. And we tried to understand how this kind of sets up the kids in the story to be heroes of a special sort. (We’ll be chewing on that theme for many more reads to come I’m sure.) Since I put a hold on continuing the Harry Potter series until the boy is a bit older, I’ve been attentive to introducing books and stories which can pick up some of the excitement slack in a more age-appropriate fashion. We’re currently reading The Abominables which is a delightful story about extremely kind and gentle Yetis being transported across Central Asia and Europe to England by a friendly truck driver and two pre-teens. (This is a book I dared to pick up based on its cover, I admit.) When my son commented on how much he liked this story, he said, too “I like everything you bring.”

All this unassigned reading for both of us. There’s no log. There will be no reports, book trailers, or other creative expositions of our literary excursions. Studies show our vocabularies are expanding, we’ll be more successful writers, we’ll do better on standardized tests.  Fortunately for us this is not the objective. It’s just us cuddled up, turning pages, giggling, pausing in surprise, finding just the right rest stop for the night. We have to good fortune to enjoy the very best of unassigned reading: joy and connection.

Less ‘Out There,’ More ‘In Here’

As a culture, we’ve forgotten that middle classes are not naturally occurring. They have to be created, consciously.
For young people coming into adulthood now, higher education has never been more necessary or more expensive. That’s a cruel dilemma, and it speaks to polarization. If you don’t win, you very much lose. It wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be.
The great gift of education is in showing that the present doesn’t have to be.

Matt Reed, (@deandad) Friday Fragments

These few sentences convey so clearly and succinctly what I have been saying in conversation with friends, family and anyone else who will listen, what I find so troubling about the future for our young people.

And yet, Matt Reed holds out hope and insists that we can change things.

Listen to bell hooks describe poverty in our current society (in an interview with George Yancy):

G.Y.: How is the poverty of today different?

b.h.: Let’s face it, one of the things white people gave us when they gave us integration was full access to the tormenting reality of desire, and the expectation of constant consumption. So part of the difference of poverty today is this sort of world of fantasy — fantasizing that you’ll win the lottery, fantasizing that money will come. I always cling to Lorraine Hansberry’s mama saying in “A in Raisin in the Sun,” “Since when did money become life?” I think that with the poverty of my growing up that I lived with and among, we were always made to feel like money is not what life is all about. That’s the total difference for everyone living right now, because most people in our culture believe money is everything. That is the big tie, the connecting tie to black, white, Hispanic, native people, Asian people — the greed and the materialism that we all invest in and share.

This assessment resonates with me profoundly. We all have cause for concern. Yet bell hooks is also hopeful and a believer in the power of love:

b.h.: Well, I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love, and that includes teaching. I don’t do a lot of teaching these days. I am semi-retired. Because, like any act of love, it takes a lot of your energy.

Teaching as an act of love. Education as a vehicle for change. These ideas are not ‘out there’, they can and should become more ‘in here’: in our systems, organizations, in our schools, in our approaches. But the truth is, those changes won’t happen until we, one by one; each one, teaching one decide to do it differently on as many levels as possible.

I was struck reading both of these pieces. And I felt too tired to write. Yet the need to make the connection (just one of so, so many) would not let me rest. The bell hooks interview is everything and I will be rereading it quite a few more times I suspect. Matt Reed’s hopefulness is a position I want to support and rally behind. There is so much at stake and every day we have choices.

Please read the full post and interview of these writers. Both offer wise and ultimately affirming messages of how we can and ought to move forward.

Great Reads 2015

This is a new endeavor: an end-of-year round-up of some of my favorite reads. Thanks to the wonders of technology (Twitter and Evernote, in particular), it was almost easy to do. May you find a post or article that tickles your curiosity and broadens your perspective.

January

Such a wonderfully open post! @Bali_Maha on choosing to wear the hijab: http://t.co/ity8RdeANS Highly recommended reading! #diversity

.@nicolecallahan, telling some truths about being the one friend/family member of color: http://t.co/kAoZoCivta (Tweet via @ArissahOh)

March

Must-read“@tressiemcphd: “Starbucks Wants To Talk To You About Race. But Does It Want to Talk To You About Racism?” https://t.co/QHNmrD1nzx

Why education is not a design problem: http://t.co/kzp47RM2Mh via @jacobinmag

“What If Maps Were Made By Africans For Their Own Use?” http://t.co/guS8A267CZ via @brittlepaper re: @Chimurenga_SA (tweet via @james3neal) This is the intro to an edition of a literary journal.

April

Why I Teach by @ericspreng: https://t.co/Yka7yzyGfV Very rewarding read.

May

Where are my people at?: http://t.co/ZvXf1GnaBX via @RusulAlrubail#educolor means so much.

Who am I to add value to this conversation? But who am I to keep silent? http://t.co/UtysUQHc2O #educolor via @Angela_Watson

June

Divided, Conquered: “Everybody blogs. Nobody reads.” http://t.co/raXU6Vvv8h via @plthomasEdD

Is It Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools? (my notes from our panel today at #iste2015) http://t.co/YOodhwGjZr via @audreywatters

July

tressiemc.files.wordpress.com
https://tressiemc.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/data-and-privacy-have-been-translated-as-market-issues.docx Boom!

More on Solidarity: “Speak to Shared Goals,” Not “Speak with One Voice” http://t.co/v5OqOL9fMA via @plthomasEdD

August

Absolutely one of the best things I have read recently (and I’ve read a lot): #preach Rachel Thinnes! https://t.co/qxVBqRxK1x

September

Are Americans sacrificing their right to walk? http://t.co/DwlG4qWCmn (@amalchik, @aeonmag) #longreads  This is where I began reading Amanda Malchik’s work. Now I am an enthusiastic follower, also of her astute recommendations.

Once we all get a bit more comfortable we can talk about race, and equity.
http://t.co/i5jGqTaWwh — Tom Rademacher (@MrTomRad) This is a post I really want everyone to read.

October

Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators via @_CodyKeith_ http://t.co/6DvNqtnF4b So much truth!

November

Traces https://t.co/Z5Rbrfej48  stunning post by @KateMfD for #DigiWriMo  (tweet via @slamteacher)

Read this because it is beautiful: Paths of Desire https://t.co/Havph4QfpH via @40houradjunct

Dreading going ‘home’ for Xmas – good advice https://t.co/fzcxRTDu3V Post by @mi_good (tweet via @PartAnnMarie )

Out of order

And… I’m not sure when this year that I read this piece by Mellanie Fullick (@qui_oui) which she wrote in 2013, but wow, it was a sort of wake up call for me:

So those are my picks this time around. Such rich reading. Enjoy as much as you can and let me know what

 

 

 

 

Woman. Black. Fit. Angry. (In)visible. All of the above.

Two essays this week caught me unawares and have left me restless in their wake. The first is “Yes, I Am An Angry Black Woman” by Stacey Patton, published in DAME magazine and the second is “Fitted” by Moira Weigel in The New Inquiry. While it is easier to guess the thrust of the first essay based on the title, the second is less overt.  Weigel talks about the rise of FitBit and other activity trackers and their association with a whole new brand of female productivity. Both of these essays spoke to me in significant ways. And their separateness from each other presents me with an internal dilemma I hope to solve by writing about it now.

First of all, I encourage you to read Stacey Patton’s stirring call to attention, whoever you are. With her words, she invites the reader to inhabit her simmering state of mind in all its complexity, fervor and power. On the day after the Charleston Massacre she describes her ride on an East Coast train:

…The news of Charleston was difficult to process, even more so while riding a D.C.-bound train packed with White people, most of them dressed in business attire, who seemed oblivious to the tragedy. It took everything I had in me to keep from erupting with rage in that Amtrak car.

I thought about racial terrorism and its larger history while a nearby White woman worked on a New York Times crossword puzzle, and sipped her Starbucks coffee. I raged thinking how not even churches are safe from the pathologies of White supremacy. Others talked on their cell phones about trivial shit or tapped on their laptop keyboards and tablets.

It was clear I was not among friends or a community that shared my sadness, anger, or angst about what it means to be Black in America in the 21st century. A pair of women sitting behind me chatted and laughed loudly. They were free of worry, they were fearless and enjoying their privilege to live, to exist apart from the horrors of racial violence. Their joy made me resentful. Fighting waves of grief and tears of sorrow, I got up to change seats to get away from the noise of White privilege. – See more at: http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/08/03/yes-im-angry-black-woman#sthash.jbKFgqre.dpuf
“The noise of white privilege.” yeah, that landed.
Patton goes on to describe the historical roots of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. And this stereotype, while familiar to me, is the very one I have sought so carefully to avoid. Although I  have a temper and can get loud, this tends to happen within the safe confines of my own four walls among family, where I’m allowed to be just angry me – minus the socio-political layering. In my professional life and among friends, few would readily identify me as ‘that angry Black woman.’  And yet I know and feel the anger about which Stacey Patton speaks.
Far too long, we have been fighting to dispel the Angry Black woman stereotype. But that’s not the solution because the truth is, we are angry. Our rage is righteous. Our ire is understandable. Yet our anger is misunderstood.
And she makes the brave suggestion that we learn to see our rage as a creative power for change:
Let’s stop viewing our anger as a negative and appreciate it as a gift. Neuroscientists’ research reveals that anger is a powerful means of social communication, and a natural part of any person’s emotional resources. Anger helps us reach our goals, allowing us to be more optimistic, creative, and to solve problems. Anger is a source of fuel for motivating us to meet life’s challenges and persuade others to do the right thing.
It’s at this point in the essay where I get on my feet and start to wave my hands: “Yaaaasss!”
 She closes with this:
To feel our anger at injustice is to be wholly alive. Our ability and willingness to express that anger, is to be committed to progress. To wield our anger strategically is the key to the justice and freedom. And to fully embrace our anger is the most healthy, sane, self-loving, nurturing thing that we can possibly do – See more at: http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/08/03/yes-im-angry-black-woman#sthash.jbKFgqre.dpuf (Do read the whole essay. You will thank me.)
“To feel our anger at injustice is to be wholly alive”  provides a frame for why I engage here at all. It’s not always because I am angry, but often enough  I am astonished, flabbergasted or amazed at the injustices we tolerate and let pass without addressing the root causes. There is plenty to be up in arms about – channeling that energy to agitate and push for change is what movements are made of.   Stacey Patton’s statements remind me that I may have to let go of the need to put on my happy face when I decide to engage for change outside of my precious four walls.
And then there’s this second essay, “Fitted” which after “Yes, I Am An Angry Black Woman” reads a bit like “the noise of White privilege.”  Moira Weigel, however,  expertly describes both the allure and burden of embedding 24/7 activity tracking in her own and other women’s daily lives.  She talks about the act of tracking emerging like a new, fully personalized religion. The sharing of one’s most intimate data regarding movement, food intake, sleep and even sex in pursuit of constant improvement becomes the new vehicle towards salvation. The desire to not just be better but to also show off your new “better” is fueled  by competing and commiserating with fellow activity trackers.  While I consider myself a modest fitness enthusiast, this more recent trend of constant self-monitoring remains foreign to me even if I can understand the various motivations behind it.  All of these elements tied up with our  cultural notions of what fit femininity looks like and how it is assessed in the current media climate made the essay a deeply compelling read for me. And as I read and re-read the essay (which is a repeated pleasure) I was struck by  how very White it all feels. Even if  I know that FitBit users come in all colors, shapes and sizes, the folks who best conform to Weigel’s  distinctive portrayal strike me as most likely to be White, straight, upper middle-class  women.  After describing the new beauty/fitness ideal of our times as exorexic, she clues us in as to how this  movement trend is likely to play out in practical and ideological terms:

Today, the ideal woman is exorexic.

In Ancient Greek, orexis means “desire” or “appetite.” The prefix an means “not.” A true anorexic wants nothing. Ex is Latin, for “out of”; arcere means “restrain.” “Exercise” meant to break out of what is holding you, and to push the limit.  The exorexic craves a challenge. Specifically, she aims to work her way out of desiring itself. …

Today, the exorexic eroticizes work itself. The army of women in Lululemons and Nike Frees who bound purposefully along the sidewalks of more and more American cities proclaim no specific taste, but rather an insatiable appetite for effort. They wear the uniform of an upper middle class for whom the difference between leisure and work is supposed to have disappeared.

Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life. When the guidance counselors say this, they suggest that if you work, you will be loved—or at least deserve love. Make yourself lovable first, they say, and sure as day you can trade that strange coin, ability, in for happiness later. They do not tell you the principle that follows. Love work above all and you will never rest.

Granted, I am enamored of this particular passage.  Weigel’s subjects present themselves vividly in my imagination: they are ambitious, well-educated, weight conscious and (to my mind)  oh so very White. These are some of  those same women who go on to become helicopter perfectionist parents, I suppose. (Cliché  I realize, but irresistibly so.)  I, too, am ambitious, well-educated and weight conscious. I enjoy feeling productive and disciplined and operate much better in the world when those two characteristics are visible. The plot thickens, however, when I consider that my White sisters’ ambition and effort will be judged and assessed quite differently from mine based primarily on  well-worn yet  invisible unconscious bias.

As a black woman, my work is consistently cut out for me.   The way the world tends to view my effort and the body I produce with that same effort is likely to be  perceived differently than those of Weigel’s “army of women”.  My muscles have often been interpreted as defying femininity. I get to be “strong” but not “pretty”.

That moment when you realize you're not invisible. (1997)

That moment when you realize you’re not invisible. (1997 Frauenlauf Wien)

I am good at my job; yet to advance beyond my current status can seem more like a mountain to climb rather than the logical next step it might be for an equally educated and experienced candidate from the dominant group. This realization has been decades in the making:  It’s not just me and my personal inadequacies, there are systemic factors at play. Being female and Black pose barriers that I previously did not wish to acknowledge. And my identification with and understanding of the dominant group’s ways of being and functioning help and hinder me in unique ways.

Weigel sums up the significance of  the FitBit mania for her particular demographic in the following way:

FitBit users remain, above all, productive, in our data and our visibility. We do not succumb to that wan, sick decadence, the aggressively infertile unproductivity of the true anorexic. This is female labor becoming frictionless. The point of the game is to just not disappear.

That’s it! That’s the critical difference I have struggled to name. For Weigel’s exorexic women “the point of the game is to just not disappear.”  Of course!  Weigel’s “army of women” is highly visible. They are prominent, ubiquitous – seen everywhere you look from screens to billboards, to print media; in the majority of our retail spaces.  For me in my Black female physicality and intellect, the point is to appear, to become visible, to cease being invisible.  Aye, there’s the rub! To be a black woman in majority white spaces so easily becomes a form of invisibility: either in the way that we bend over backwards to assimilate into the dominant culture and its going narratives, or we stand out through our behavior or appearance which become the excuse for Whites to look the other way and ignore our very presence. This feels like a revelation. This is where my path diverges from Weigel’s  hyper-productive women  and draws me into Patton’s harbor of validation and understanding.

In my struggle to be seen for all that I am, for all that I offer – I face barriers that are not of my own creation. The work-arounds, passwords and gatekeeper relations I develop are original and unique to me. Both Weigel and Patton offer me insights to both the world that I inhabit and the world that I am. Both authors open my eyes to fresh perspectives and for that I feel deeply grateful.

So for the record: I am Black. I am a woman. Sometimes I am angry. I am fit. I am an educator. I am a coach. I am a runner. I am a parent. I am a reader, writer, thinker, listener, observer. And more. Always more.

More Thoughts on Pasquale’s “Black Box Society”

When I finish reading a good book, my sense of satisfaction and fulfillment tends to be a rather private happening. I finish the book and even as I move on to the next (and there is always a next one), I still spend a fair amount of time processing the last. Since I’ve been blogging, I have used this space to share more thoughts about recent readings and that has felt somewhat liberating.

This summer I even went so far as to tweet out a picture of my proposed reading stack of 4 books:

https://twitter.com/edifiedlistener/status/619863567903256576

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidiche, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale and Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier. Three quarters of the way done, I find my mind twisting and turning to accommodate so much new and rich input. Only Data and Goliath remains and as a back-to-back read with The Black Box Society, I feel adequately steeled for whatever fresh insights on  data vulnerability it may bring.

Here I want to focus , however, on Black Box because I feel like I will find no peace until I have shared as much as possible while the ideas are still so active in my mind.  In an earlier blog post I noted parallels between Pasquale’s illustrations and the Harry Potter series. (Seriously.) In a nutshell, Black Box Society examines the role of algorithmic decision-making in the areas of reputation (how we appear to external parties), search (what we look for online and how the selection and ranking of responses takes place and may impact us), and finance (the business of making (much) more money out of some money). I read it because someone I deeply respect recommended it. Before I started I was already a little apprehensive.

While reading The New Jim Crow presented challenges in the form of emotional labor, I was concerned that Black Box Society might be a bit beyond me. I had reservations about my capacity to grasp all the topics author Frank Pasquale was planning to cover: intricacies of the tech industry and finance. I even wrote a sticky note to myself for a potential blog post: How to read a difficult text:
*go slowly
*talk back to your negative self-talk (that keeps saying you won’t get it)
*be patient
*allow not knowing
*come back to it again & again – build stamina over time

The sticky note is stuck just inside the front cover. As it turns out, however, I didn’t need it, per se. I made it through the text and felt well guided throughout. This was the first text in a long while that I read with pencil in hand. I underlined a lot and put notes in the margins. I got involved with the text and found unanticipated connections (i.e., to Harry Potter). And, I dare say, I had fun, even reading about finance because it was explained both generously and with significant intentionality. Particularly when the discussion turned to CDSes (credit default swaps), CDOs (collateral debt obligations) and MBSes (mortgage-backed securities) which stood at the center of the financial meltdown of 2008, Pasquale provided the necessary scaffolding for me to make sense both of the crisis itself and the underlying assumptions that made it possible.

As I read I kept coming back to thoughts about privilege, wealth and status. Whether describing the titans of Wall Street or Silicon Valley, Pasquale captures a very wealthy, white male demographic who wield an immense degree of power and influence in both the private sector as well as in government. And their ability to carry out so many of their transactions behind various cloaks of secrecy and complexity or “black boxes”, reinforces and expands the wealth and privileges this group continues to amass. As an African-American woman, an educator – I found myself reading and thinking that there are few who  expect me to read and be up on this stuff.  I find myself in this narrative as the clueless user/consumer who stands largely at the mercy of these gigantic corporate structures whose services I engage to write this post, to make it findable on the web, to purchase more books, to tweet more links, to tout my professional skills, connect with hundreds of other educators, and so on.

Frank Pasquale is extremely candid in his assessment of the current state of affairs:

What we do know is that those at the top will succeed further, thanks in large part to the reputation incurred by past success; those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages. Despite the promises of freedom and self-determinism held out by the lords of the information age, black box methods are just as likely to entrench a digital aristocracy as to empower experts. (p. 218)

Think about that for a moment. “Those at the top will succeed further…those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages.”
This captures our society with alarming accuracy. And we can be certain that black boxes abound, especially in areas where power is increasingly consolidated. I cannot help but think of the aggressive pursuit of corporate interests in K-12 and Higher Education where transparency and openness can quickly become casualties in the fight to “reform” public education through various forms of privatization. I must also consider the prison-industrial complex which provides shareholder billions as the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of its citizens in the developed world. As Michelle Alexander asserts in The New Jim Crow, the war on drugs has enabled the creation of a new social undercaste whose political, economic and social disenfranchisement underscore  the essence  of “cascading disadvantages.”

While reading Black Box Society I was frequently reminded of an essay by sociologist,  Tressie McMillam Cottam whom I quoted in a previous blog post:

…give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics.

There seems to be no escape from the political no matter where I turn.  Completing The Black Box Society becomes a political act,  as is reading The New Jim Crow and Data and Goliath. This is me “getting up on politics.” Getting informed, adding depth to my otherwise fuzzy notions of impending social and economic demise. It is impossible to read Pasquale and not become politicized.  He writes:

Internet and finance firms “set the standard” for our information economy. So far they have used their powers to know the world of commerce ever more intimately…Knowing more than a rival, or simply knowing it faster, is the key to vast fortunes.

But what if economic success were based less on information advantage and more on genuine productivity? Distracted from substantive judgments on what the economy should produce, we have been seduced by the mysterious valuations that Wall Street and Silicon Valley place on goods and services. But their algorithmic methods framed as neutral and objective, are predictably biased toward reinforcing certain hierarchies of wealth and attention. (p. 187-88)

The choices we have become very narrow very quickly unless we take steps at the very least to understand the evils to which we appear to be wedded. My attempts to comprehend the scope of  algorithmic dominance in our information economy seem to have been a wise and useful step. Following @FrankPasquale on Twitter has also broadened my perspective on related topics. This is not about learning the ins and outs of  a subject area. Rather this is about opening my eyes to what is unfolding right in front of me and has a daily impact on how we function as a society. We can’t see everything at once. But we can train our eyes on a specific field for a time in order to gain perspective, insight, and cause for further observation.

Frank Pasquale, The  Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2015.

 

 

Parallel Realities and Summer Reading

I believe that I am on vacation. I am with my family at a beautiful alpine lake enjoying the landscape, their company and a break from our usual routines. I am finding more time for concentrated reading and that feels very much like vacation.
I’m reading two books currently: Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale which was recommended to me by Audrey Watters and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling which I am reading aloud to my 7 year old. It just dawned on me that there are striking parallels in these readings that kind of blow my mind when I think about them.

Frank Pasquale is a legal scholar who describes the largely mysterious yet highly engineered algorithmic foundations of our increasingly digitized existences. Beyond our patterns of online clicks, he examines the degree to which mathematical models of reasoning are used to determine everything from credit scores to having a job application get beyond an initial (computerized) screening to the privacy of our health data. As consumers and citizens we submit our data in the hopes of fair treatment and are confronted with decisions and outcomes delivered via ‘black box’ or opaque processes which are nearly impenetrable in their secrecy and complexity. Black Box Society takes on this omnipresent state of affairs and at the very least seeks to acquaint us with the monster that is not merely in the room, but is instead the room itself.

Meanwhile, my son clamors for more every time I read a section of Harry Potter. This is at least my second time around reading the first in the 7-book series (of which I have only read the first three) and it is quite simply a well told yarn. I have a new appreciation of the vivid characters and actually can catch more of the fabulous play on words that abounds. ( Just got Diagon Alley, for instance.) So he and I both are having a fun time with this project.

Even if you haven’t read any of the Harry Potter series, you’ll likely know that the story is predicated on parallel realities: the magical world inhabited by witches, wizards, goblins and other fantastic creatures and characters and the non-magical Muggle world in which the rest of us carry on our day-to-day. These worlds co-exist. While the magical folk have plenty of awareness of Muggle society, the Muggles remain decidedly unaware of any such alternative to their known ways of functioning. The witches, wizards and goblins know what Muggles cannot fathom, entertain or comprehend, unless a Muggle is specifically invited and initiated into the magical world. Hmmm…

The algorithmic ‘black boxes’ that Pasquale illustrates are by no means magical. On the contrary. They are fully human engineered and calibrated processes created with the assistance of great computing power and speed. They are complex, they hold and demand secrecy, and exert influence on an enormous scale but they are not magic. However, almost all of us function without specific knowledge or understanding of exactly how and to what degree these ‘black boxes’ help and hinder our daily affairs. Pasquale likens this state to a one-way mirror:

We do not live in a peaceable kingdom of private walled gardens; the contemporary world more closely resembles a one-way mirror. Important corporate actors have unprecedented knowledge of the minutiae of our daily lives, while we know little to nothing about how they use this knowledge to influence the important decisions that we – and they – make.

(p. 9)

It therefore seems as if we inhabit a sort of parallel reality – a space in which matters run their course and we accept and deal with the outcomes without having a full idea of how these matters took their precise shape or ran the way that they did. For the black boxes which have so firmly taken root in our lives and the control we continue to surrender to them both individually and institutionally, they may as well be magical. And we as oblivious as Muggles.

Thankfully, Harry Potter provides a narrative of ongoing discovery. Although he is a born wizard, he spends his unhappy formative years in a fiercely Muggle family and has no idea of his magical roots until he is eleven. He has to learn about all things magical from the ground up: his powers, his limits, his status, his role – and then make something of it all both for himself and ultimately for Hogwarts (his wizards’ academy) and beyond. Granted, I know how this part of the story ends and Harry Potter is a likable hero – he struggles, he succeeds, we can cheer and we know he’s not done. He gets to work through similar processes for 6 more books, after all.

In a similar vein, I am hopeful for us as a society in coming to terms with our monster that isthe room. I’m not finished with Black Box Society yet and Frank Pasquale shows that he is by no means resigned to the current status quo. He is cognizant of the hurdles we face in confronting our self-created beasts which we steadily feed with more detailed personal data and he has ideas about how to both tame the beasts and counter our patterns of surrender which appear to be spreading rather than abating. Resistance to a prevailing network of powers requires a commitment to discovery, learning, challenging and acting – in concert with many others, and not just individually. It means getting educated: striding from not seeing, to not knowing, to gradually comprehending, to sharing the findings, building awareness and also acting on that new knowledge. It’s not like in the movies. There will be no sweeping revolution that lends itself to being captured in a two-hour cinematic treatment. The path of deliberate resistance tends to be slower and more fragmented; measured in increments rather than dramatic leaps. This is how I see my connection to Pasquale’s work: as part of my discovery and learning process; not quick, but substantive and valuable.

At the very least I can offer two highly recommendable reads this summer, on vacation or off:

Frank Pasquale, Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2015.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury 1997.

Humanity Rant or Why #PeopleAreWorthIt

The Washington Post headline says this:

Education
If you want your children to succeed, teach them to share in kindergarten
The opening sentences establish the following:

Kindergartners who share, cooperate and are helpful are more likely to have a college degree and a job 20 years later than children who lack those social skills, according to a new study.

Kids who get along well with others also are less likely to have substance-abuse problems and run-ins with the law.

The research, which involved tracking nearly 800 students for two decades, suggests that specific social-emotional skills among young children can be powerful predictors for success later in life.

The research was set up as follows:

“The study is based on data collected beginning in 1991 at schools in Nashville, Seattle, rural Pennsylvania and Durham, N.C. Teachers of 753 kindergartners were asked to rate each student’s skill level in eight areas: …

Each teacher was asked to assess how well each statement described the child on a 5-point scale: “Not at all (0),” “A little (1),” “Moderately well (2),” “Well (3)” and “Very well (4).”

Researchers then tracked those students for two decades, using police records, reports from parents and self-reports from the children.”

And all of these findings of course support the conclusion that quality pre-school really matters and that if we invest there, we can further improve student outcomes: “It does offer the promise that if we can help kids get to this place by 5, that it will be sustaining,” he [a director at a nationally recognized university research institute for  Early Education] said. “You don’t have to worry that it is going to unravel.”

I am so tired of these studies and the reporting of these studies which would love to have us believe that there is a magic solution; a key strategy we’ve overlooked but urgently need to reassert. That more funding and resources should flow in this direction instead of that one. I am so tired of experts commenting in ways which inflate the reported research with false significance. The wherewithal to comment about how correlation is not causation fails me. Enough of the false assumptions that ‘if we would finally focus on X, we could really improve Y’ in isolation from the systems in which all these things work!  I am so done with this approach of trying to explain the world.  I do not plan to read the study and find the holes in the fly-by, sensationalist reporting but I do want to pause and say that I have had my fill.

In a different post, Diane Ravitch lends space to the arguments of NYT columnist, Joe Noccera and his discovery of research by an MIT professor, Zeynep Ton.

“Joe Nocera heard a radically sensible idea from a professor at MIT named Zeynep Ton. She said that instead of cutting costs to the bone, employers should “provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work.” This strategy “can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.”

To read on is to learn that Ton’s research performed in the retail sector supports the idea that companies can benefit (i.e. boost their profit margin) by actually taking good care of their employees rather than treating them like disposables. And Ravitch suggests that Ed reformers could take some cues from these findings.

Why do we still require so much instruction on these points?  That is my main question. What failure of understanding prevents us from creating communities and organizations that serve the interests of many rather than of the very few? What fears keep us from meeting the social-emotional needs of our students without reams of data which demonstrate the benefits for achievement outcomes? When did it become so damn counter-cultural for us to educate our children with kindness and warmth? At what stage did we begin to view employee well-being and satisfaction as a wasteful and unnecessary expense?

Can we assume that these company CEOs and their supporting management in Ton’s research failed to learn to share in Kindergarten? Of course not! They are the ones with lucrative jobs and high levels of academic attainment. They learned well how to get along with others and most likely enjoyed a host of privileges throughout their school and work careers. The operating systems smile upon these sons and daughters of positive social adjustment. (And their likely well adjusted economic and social backgrounds.)

I get so weary when we employ academia to tell us what our moral and human responsibilities should be: to respect each others’ humanity, to connect our self-interest with the positive welfare of the commons. And to understand that we are all, yes all, better for it when we share more rather than less, provide support rather than strip it away.

One of my twitter colleagues and friends supports the hashtag #peopleareworthit. His name is Kris Giere and he consistently invokes this phrase. I see now why it needs to show up every day, several times a day. We need these reminders. We desperately need to be reminded of our capacity to do good in the world, to make someone’s day easier, nicer, more worthwhile in simple and complex ways. We have this capacity and more of this needs to show in the world. Wherever you can make a positive contribution be it a smile, a tweet, a show of gratitude, a donation – do that. Show your humanity, model kindness, stand up for fairness, lend a hand where it is needed.

We shouldn’t require research to tell us how and why these actions are good and that #peopleareworthit.  We also need to do more than play nice. We need to apply our intelligence in moving past the rhetoric into concrete action, no matter how seemingly small and local. Start somewhere, start now, start because caring shouldn’t need to take a number and wait to be called on. Thankfully, I have found so many positive models both online and off, locally and globally. And I see that I have much more work to do – on myself, in my communities of belonging and beyond. This is one more start.