I’m taking a class on behavioral neuroscience. As expected, everything is fascinating and I’d like to spend all day for a few years just learning about how brains work — there’s been so much new research and development of knowledge since I was last immersed in studying anatomy/physiology/psychology around 20 years ago. Just now I watched this Nova video about epigenetics, and my mind is racing with ideas and implications. Holy crap, this class is going to be cool.

Cat Department Course Catalog

CAT 101: Intro to Snuggles

This freshman survey course will cover the basics of introductory snuggling. Topics to be covered include purring, head rubs, and people kisses. Familiarity with “making the bread” technique recommended.
Instructor: Miz Kirby

CAT 109: Beginner Naps

50% of your day is spent in light sleep. Are you making the most of your naps? This course addresses the various positions, locations, and styles available to potential nappers. Special attention will be paid to the “on important papers” location and the “upside down smiling face” position.
Instructor: Sadie Zap

CAT 118: Suitcases

In this course, learn the warning signs of your person’s imminent departure, often symbolized by the opening of a suitcase. We’ll discuss different types of suitcases and the best place to sit on or in them to impede your person’s ability to pack and depart. Other departure warning signs will also be covered, including cleaning frenzies, extra bowls of water, and a radio/light left on in the bedroom.
Instructor: Bailey

CAT 132: Laundry I

A hamper filled with clothes waiting to be washed is a feline paradise. Burrowing opportunities abound, and everything smells like your person. Hiding in the basket, stealing items such as socks, and scattering the clothes/upending the basket will all be covered.
Instructor: O’Malley’s Ghost

CAT 133: Laundry II

A follow-up to the popular Laundry I, this course covers the possibilities inherent in a basket of clean laundry. We’ll dive into diving into the basket, meditation to induce shedding on the clothes, peeing in the basket to express anger or frustration, and scattering the clothes/upending the basket.
Instructor: Princess Bandit

CAT 231: Advanced Snuggles

Building on the basic skills covered in CAT 101, in this course you’ll learn advance snuggling techniques designed to bring your adorability to the next level. A combination of specific movements and positions will both induce your person to pick you up for an impromptu snuggle and cause them to exclaim, “You’re so cute!” after the snuggle commences. Guest lecturers will be utilized for some positions. Please check with your veterinarian before beginning this or any form of strenuous exercise.
Prerequisite: CAT 101
Instructor: Miz Kirby

CAT 226: Situational Sounds

Instructor: With over 100 vocal sounds to choose from, communication with your human should be a breeze. From the “really, wake up, feed me now” soliciting purr to the “I want that bird” machine-gun chirp, this course will address sounds with specific meanings to help you get your point across.
Instructor: Bailey

CAT 345: Haters & Allergics

Learn to use your innate psychic abilities to identify people who don’t like cats and/or are allergic to them and maximize their discomfort by outward shows of extreme interest and affection. $10 materials fee.
Prerequisite: CAT 231
Instructor: Miz Kirby

CAT 410: Hijinks

Any kitten can get away with destructive hijinks, but what about the adult cat? In this course, re-learn some of the most enjoyable hijinks you can get into, but also how to turn your person’s ire into “awww” by way of cute facial expressions and lovable post-hijinks behaviors. This master class will cover a wide variety of destructive hijinks, including: knocking things down, stealing food off plates and running away with it, sliding behind books on shelves to knock them onto the floor, slithering into kitchen cabinets to knock things over, eating plastic shower curtains, knocking paintings off walls, and more.
Instructor: Pickle

Choosing a Topic

People who know me well know that in 2008 I was finishing up a bachelor’s degree and applying to graduate schools — a variety because I was torn between several areas of study — when Matt convinced me to skip grad school and redesign WordPress/work for Automattic instead. People who know me well also know that I am the worst tech worker ever and never back things up, and have frequent electronic failures. Kevin has been making fun of this “crazy electromagnetic energy that computers hate” since 2000, and for a while Matt was calling me Jubilee. Where these combine is that when I agreed to take the job and was leaving NYC, my final papers in a couple of courses were lost in a computer death (I loved you, 2007-era macbook!), and with no backups, I just decided to move on without wrapping up college at all. 

It’s bugged me, because while I don’t need a degree for the job I have now, nor even necessarily for a job that I may want in the future, having a degree does provide options. If I wanted to apply to grad school now, I could, if I’d finished that BA. Instead, I’d have to go back and re-do a couple of courses whose final papers never got turned in, and jump through a number of administrative hoops to clear out “you didn’t officially drop this course the term in the middle when you took a break” type things, and probably delay it a year. Being in NYC would make this significantly simpler, but alas I’m not there.

Several of those classes were write-offs. They’ll simply need to be re-done, because undergraduate courses fail you if you don’t finish. Graduate classes, on the other hand, have a delightful notion of an incomplete that can last for years. I suppose this has to do with long-running dissertations and the like, but in this case, taking a graduate course for undergraduate credit left me with an INC that the professor said I could overwrite if I ever sent in that final paper.

That paper was so specifically NYC, though: it examined the role of women in 1920s society through the swimwear at Coney Island. It was a really great topic, but research saved on that dead computer wasn’t stuff that would be easily re-acquired. Weeks of sitting in a microfilm (not microfiche, microfilm) carrel scrolling page by page through 1920s newspapers and magazines published in New York City to find every advertisement and news photo that showed a woman in a bathing suit had been torture, and I had no interest in repeating it. So I never went back to it.

This fall I started thinking about going back and finishing college, tying up all those loose ends. The need to be in NYC for weeks at NYPL for the research was still an issue, though, so I wrote to the professor and asked if it might be allowed to change topics. He agreed, and since then I’ve been struggling to come up with a topic that interests me and that has enough of a visual culture record to be doable without being so over-saturated with research that it’s boring.

It’s only a 30-page paper, so it needs to be something specific (like the specificity in that Coney Island swimsuits paper) but tied into a broader historical context (like the shifting role of American women in the ’20s) and with a record in visual culture (ads, editorial cartoons, photographs, paintings, whatever) that can be accessed without needing to spend weeks on a microfilm machine somewhere away from home. I’ve had trouble picking one. Passing thoughts (some to the point of clever titles, some just general topic ideas) have included:

  • Environmental Activism in America
  • Cover Girl: The Changing Face of Women’s Magazines
  • Women in Medicine
  • Women of Capitol Hill
  • American Spinsters
  • Passing Brave: Women Soldiers Who Fought as Men
  • Centerfold: Sexuality for Sale
  • Women’s Work
  • Romance Novel Covers
  • Role Reversal: The Sadie Hawkins Dance
  • Pirates, Pilots, and Prostitutes: Women at Sea in the Age of Sail
  • Witches in America
  • Women in Tech (and/or Science)
  • Lynching in American Culture
  • The Transition of Teaching: a Male to Female Occupation
  • Sewing Machines and Women Laborers in [location and/or time period]
  • Women of the Oneida Community
  • Congregations, Cults, and Concubines: Women in American Religion  [some year span here]
  • The Martha Washington Hotel, 1911 — 1983

All those thoughts (tempered by how difficult it might be to find source images) wound up in the idea Suffragettes, Spinsters, and Scientists: Non-traditional Women in American Visual Culture. But then that sounded too broad for 30 pages. So then I was thinking of narrowing it to Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage movements. But really I just can’t decide — I’ve had to make so many decisions in the past couple of months, my brain is fried. What topic should I choose?



Crossover Sensation

Fair warning: this post is long. If you’re not interested in education issues, go ahead and skip it. 

Jane = Name I go by as UX Designer for WordPress and related projects

Jenifer = Legal identity used in academic settings, interested in 1) the relation between pop culture and the acquisition of historical knowledge, and 2) ways of improving educational opportunities and programs using digital technologies to bridge the gaps between geographically/demographically disparate groups of students. 

The Jane nickname came about in 2001, and stuck. Jenifer is my legal name, is what I’m known by to family and friends who pre-date the 2001 nickname, as well as to my academic connections. These two identities had been very separate until recently, when the WordCamp Ed community began to develop and I started to get involved. Suddenly there were people who knew me as Jenifer wondering why my business cards said Jane, and people who knew me as Jane the WordPress girl wondering why WordCamp attendees were calling me Jenifer.  As I stood at a podium to talk about WordPress design, I also talked about the ways WordPress could be used to educational ends. 

The crossover between my two identities has gotten to the point that they aren’t separate anymore. While I lament this on one hand (it’s always nice to have a separate world you can step into for a change now and then), on the other hand it’s exponentially more interesting to be able to work with two amazing communities to try and accomplish things that benefit everyone. 

I’ve been talking for a while with people about the various education-oriented projects I’m interested in developing, but I’ve never posted about them, which has meant that I’m not really on the hook to do anything about them. This post is meant to be a kick in my own ass to get going with these ideas, find some co-conspirators and start trying to change the way we approach a few different slices of the educational pie. 

In no particular order, then, a few ideas:

1. Using technology to broaden educational horizons. My nieces are the product of a really crappy Georgia school district. I’ve listened to their stories about racist teachers (and lesson plans), curriculums that involve little to no reading, and the failure to instill skills like spelling under the reasoning that “you can always use spellcheck” (!!!)(Seriously!), and the worst part about it is that the kids don’t realize the subpar education they are receiving and many students are internalizing the bad attitudes of these subpar teachers. If only they were in schools with better curriculums, had more enlightened teachers, and were part of a more diverse student body!

So, what if…. students from around the country (and eventually the world?) were placed in online study/discussion groups that mixed up students from different geographic regions, socio-economic profiles, racial/ethnic groups, family makeups, etc.? Would a discussion about slavery or immigration take on a different tone? Would talking about civil rights have different results? What if instead of just reading (often biased and/or just plain inaccurate) textbooks, students engaged in group projects using online video, photos, documents, blogs, chats, and other forms of communication? Would a more immersive experience requiring personal investment of time and energy bring about a kind of learning that goes beyond memorization and regurgitation, requiring kids to develop critical thinking skills and an open mind?

I think so. I think a study to test this theory would be awesome. We’d need to pick a course topic to use for a pilot (I’m thinking a unit or two of U.S. History would be ideal), get enough teachers/classes to participate so we could have test and control groups including:

  • Traditional class, no interactive element 
  • Class using interactive assignments, but only working within own class group
  • Class using interactive assignments with students from different areas/profiles

For a pilot, would be nice to include 4-5 regions. Maybe students from a NYC magnet school, a rural south public school, somewhere in Idaho, some from East LA, etc. To get enough students to cover integrated test groups plus controls it would require a number of teachers and students, so it would take a fair amount of coordination. Would be ideal to run study through a university and if possible get a grant to cover costs and pay the teachers for participating, etc. 

2. Developing a generation of geek girls. Enough has been written on how girls (often right around middle school/junior high) are tracked away from math and science despite there being many girls with high aptitudes and interests in these areas. In addition, I think a lot about how the web industry really doesn’t require much formal education… it’s largely a meritocracy, and you can learn most of what you need for free online. Why, then, aren’t more low-income kids guided toward this area? They could have awesome careers and jump ahead socio-economically based on their own merits rather than being stuck in a dead-end job because college isn’t a financial option. 

Combining these two thoughts, I’d like to see a program designed to get girls, and especially girls from low-income situations, who might have an interest into fields like social media, computers, design or related jobs. Starting with middle school, there could be summer camp-style programs or online groups or some combination thereof that provided guided lessons and exposure to the kinds of opportunities available to people with these skills. 

One thing I’ve talked about with Matt in regard to this is the idea of bringing together some girls who fit this profile and teaching them how WordPress works, maybe doing workshops for them that gets them working together to create a plugin or design and build a good web site, bringing them to San Francisco or New York and doing tours at some of the cool offices/campuses where people in our industry work. A visit to the Google campus? Might be kind of inspiring to someone whose parents work 3-4 jobs between them to support the family. Getting to meet web luminaries for lunch and hearing how they spend their workdays, same thing. 

So that would be cool. There are a number of programs out there that do girls in tech camps, etc., but I haven’t seen anything that starts with social media or focuses specifically on the demographic I’m interested in supporting. 

3. Open Source online educational software that is awesome instead of aggravating. Blackboard sucks. Angel sucks. Moodle is a good project, but is a little clunky. The Courseware plugin for WordPress is a good first step toward building an educational system on top of WordPress. Scriblio is also fantastic. We need a set of plugins that address the need for testing/grade reporting according to AICC/Scorm standards that many educational institutions still require, multimedia collaboration and non-sucky ways of discussing content. I’d volunteer to do the UX/interface stuff on this if any badass developers wanted to step up to build the thing. Anyone?

4. This one isn’t WordPress related, but it’s been pinging around in my head for a few years. I’m interested in how people learn about history from non-academic sources. Films, novels, songs… more people learn about history from these sources than they do from textbooks or non-fiction publications. That wouldn’t be bad, except that most of the time these sources are heinously inaccurate, and media consumers don’t know/don’t care. I think a study the looked at where information came from, how it affected attitudes/historical knowledge/perceptions of how knowledgeable one is would be really interesting. 

Okay, so now all that stuff is off my chest. I’m going to try and attend the Edupunk panel at SxSW this week and see what they have to say. If you’re in town, you should come too. 

(And if you are interested in maybe working on any of these projects, let me know!)