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One Year.

For the last 365 days, I have not drank a single diet coke.

I’ve never been fully diagnosed (I don’t know even if they diagnose this) but I’m quite certain I’m addicted to sugar (and sugar substitutes) and this addiction–while it is not limited to diet sodas–has most manifested itself best in this bubbly goodness. I started answering the question, “Would you like anything to drink?” with “Yes, anything that is diet and brown please.” Diet Coke, Diet Dr. Pepper, Coke Zero, Cherry Coke Zero (my personal favorite). Diet Pepsi, if I must…

I don’t believe I’ve publicly written much about my personal health and, while I don’t believe I plan to make a habit of it, this feels like a victory worth celebrating.

I’ve come to terms with knowing that I’ve long had an abusive relationship with food. Like others, my weight tends to fluctuate with the season. I tend to thin out in the Spring–sometimes too much too fast–and then will pack the pounds back on over the holidays.

In the past few years, I’ve tried to ratchet up my physical activity. I ran two half marathons in 2015/16 and was feeling really good about my health but desiring a new physical challenge. I had a buddy who was a regular at a Crossfit gym here in Norman. I enjoyed ragging on him about the usually stereotypes of Crossfit, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to sign up for a six week “beginner’s challenge.” The gym was also doing a nutrition challenge that started the same day as the beginner’s challenge and, through nothing more than good timing, I was automatically signed up for that too.

I am neither going to write about the actual approaches that Crossfit takes (the most comprehensive read is here) nor try to talk anybody into starting Crossfit. but what I do want to say is that what I’ve come to appreciate most is how Crossfit takes a rounded approach to fitness by integrating physical activity with community and nutrition. All of this is a setup to say one of the rules was don’t drink coke–diet or otherwise. And that one happened to stick all year.

Is diet soda bad? I don’t know. Interestingly enough, swearing it off has made me more curious to look at the research and my best conclusion (formulated from others people’s conclusions) is that it’s actually totally fine in moderation. But my issues were very much more mental than they were physical. Diet coke wasn’t making me fat, it was controlling my mind. And I just wanting to stop desiring it so much (spoiler alert: that never went away, still want it).

The best news is that, while my relationship to food has only slightly changed, my relationship with myself is much better. I didn’t actually win on the scale this last year, but I did make progress in my head. And that demon is much harder to conquer.

I don’t have the words yet to artfully articulate this next thought, so bear with me as I attempt to pull a metaphor out of this one. I’m too prideful to make New Year’s Resolutions, but I will happily set goals two weeks into the year. In the same way that I have allowed (insert your answer here: consumerism, industrialization, capitalism) to dictate my eating habits, I’ve also allowed (insert your answer here: social media, algorithms, cable television, consumerism/industrializaiton/capitalism) to control my media consumption habits. Similar to how I desire to consume bad food, I also desire to consume new information (often referred to as “news” but I’m thinking broader than MSM and will include statuses and tweets), and I frequently consume it at a rate in where likely haven’t even processed the last story before the next. Yet I desire to feed the beast.

As with diet soda, I don’t think it’s unhealthy to engage with media (mainstream, social, or otherwise. I mean I teach it…), but I do wish to focus this year on severely limiting my intake, which means less time swimming in the ever-flowing streams that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram serve me and being more conscious about other types of media (podcasts, late night talk shows, private conversations I have etc.) and dialing it all slightly back; not in an effort to go completely dark or become ignorant of our world, but rather to participate differently. Hear me when I say I’m not convinced the answer is to shut down accounts… I just sure would love to stop giving in to desire to check it all the time.

I joked with a colleague the other day that part of my solution was going to be more email. But it’s true. Recently, I’ve signed up for more daily newsletters (one recommendation is a column from the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Media Today”) so that I can continue to scratch the itch that once to know the day’s top headlines, but simply do so first thing in the morning and then go on with my day.

Exactly one year later, I’m doing the challenge again. Hoping to reclaim my mind little-by-little. I am thankful for how I have been able to grow over the past couple of years by learning about health and wellness and particularly thankful for the support of my local community gym. As someone with little-to-no athletic background, I’m much more aware that fitness is not just physical strength but also mental fortitude. And I’m hopeful that this one small, itty bitty victory will be motivation for me to conquer other physical and mental challenges.

Featured image: Trippy Diet Coke design. Great colors. flickr photo by adam.croom shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Hiking in Beavers Bend State Parking

I ended 2017 by spending two and half days in Broken Bow, Oklahoma attending one of my oldest friend’s bachelor party. I first met Ben in middle school through my dad who at the time was Ben’s bus driver. We became friends in high school and although he migrated south to Baylor for undergrad, we continued to keep in touch mostly through football games. Medical school plus residency moved him back to the Oklahoma City area and I’m thankful that we’ve continued to stay close. The older I become and more childhood becomes a distant memory, I hold on closer to those who have seen me through; a number that I can likely count on one hand.

Beyond the enjoyment of spending quality time with people I love, this trip coupled with a few days on the opposite side of the state spending the holidays with my wife’s family, was a much needed and well timed wind down from twenty seventeen.

I dabbled in photography around the time my oldest daughter was born. I bought my first DSLR camera for my birthday three months before she was born and utilized the time in between to teach myself through various YouTube videos and blogs. It’s indeed true that anybody who’s anybody can call themselves a photography based off of a very minimal amount of time spent learning the craft. In fact, I previously owned where I posted galleries of photos that I had taken. Since buying my camera, camera phone quality has increased dramatically and I find myself dragging out the DSLR less and less. Now it’s mostly just birthday parties and holidays. But knowing that I was about to experience a very scenic part of Oklahoma, I decided to work out the rust in my camera skills and play dad-with-a-camera for the trip. I’m sure nobody minded. ;-)

A fun tourism fact about Oklahoma: despite the stereotype that Oklahoma is flat and barren, it’s one of the most ecologically diverse state in the US. Virtually any type of terrain is within a few hours drive for me. From an archive page:

Mile for mile, Oklahoma offers the nation’s most diverse terrain. It’s one of only four states with more than 10 ecoregions, and has by far, the most per mile in America. Oklahoma’s ecoregions – or, terrains/subclimates – include everything from Rocky Mountain foothills to cypress swamps, tallgrass prairies, and hardwood forests to pine-covered mountains. Each is graced with wide blue lakes, rivers and streams. Plus, there’s one man-made type of terrain: urban turf.

Ecoregions of Oklahoma

Ecoregions of Oklahoma. Source.

Broken Bow feels like more like a small Colorado town than an Oklahoma town. Somehow, I had never made it down to southeastern Oklahoma to see it for myself (it’s actually closer in distance to Dallas than OKC), so that in and of itself was a real treat.

On the second day, we spent a few hours hiking a total of five miles. A freeze was about to enter the area that night but we lucked out with it being in the 40s for that day. We hiked various portions of the David L. Boren Hiking Trail in Beavers Bend State Park, a trail that is a 12 mile hike with seven various smaller trailers inside of it.

We took Beaver Creek Trail down to Lookout Mountain Trail and then went ahead onto Deer Crossing Trail before taking the road back to the visitor’s center.

David L Boren Hiking Trail and our path overlayed

Beavers Bend State Park hiking trails with our path overlayed

To keep ourselves occupied, we packed a football and a frisbee. The football came out early on Beaver Creek Trail which had level paths. In the middle of Deer Creek, we found a clearing for a telephone line and stopped there for about half an hour to throw the football and frisbee. We also converted a sizable tree branch and some pecans into a little stick ball home run derby.

Below are my favorite shots from that morning and the following hike. As the “photographer,” I felt fortunate that it was an overcast day, which meant I didn’t have to deal with harsh shadows from the sun. Grays work very well with greens and browns, so these definitely have the whole winter hipstery family photo colors one would hope for. As you’ll see, most of my favorites are just us playing around like little boys on the trail. Super fun. All and all, super happy for how both the day and trip turned out!

Road Trippin’ to O-HI-O

On Friday at 9pm myself and one of my best friends decided to buy tickets to a football game taking place on Saturday 13 hours away. An hour later we left and drove through the night and the next morning to get there.

My buddy Chris and I are no strangers to road trips. We’ve been pals since high school and have completed a number of them. For spring break our senior year, we drove to Austin, San Antonio, and North Padre Island. One time in college we randomly decided to drive to Kansas City over the weekend. We’ve made many o’ trips to Dallas for the annual Red River game between OU and Texas and for other reasons. When he was living in DC, we bussed our way to New York. When he was living in Boston, we road tripped to Portland, ME. And, in fact, the last football game we had attended together was the 2009 Orange Bowl in Miami, FL, which required a 24 hour straight drive to Orlando before heading down to South Beach. We’ve shared a lot of miles and football games.

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The desire to hop on the road and leave is real. Personally, I love it, and have a massive affinity for the Mother Road. 20+ hour drives are something I’ve experienced enough times to know what a physical toll it can take and it doesn’t scare me. Most of all, I enjoy the conversations that the road takes from you. Planes demand quietness and are usually too short to really elicit a meaningful conversation. The road is different. It demands that you contemplate. It’s organized loneliness. An incredible bonding experience.

If you don’t follow college football (spoiler alert) we won. Several times while driving to Columbus, Chris and I debated if we were beginning a death march, so it was a nice to leave this one the victor.

I wrote a year ago about Ben Scragg came down from Ohio State and stayed at our house. We talked many times about returning the favor and coming to Columbus, but it never felt quite in the cards being that the Fall semester is rather busy travel-wise and I didn’t want to put another trip in the middle of myself and the family. If Chris and I had not had our wives basically pushing us out the door to go, we would have been watching the game at home. They are the real MVPs.

Ben was kind enough to let us park at his house and, though he wasn’t in town, he wrote an extensive email of things to do and sites to see, which helped immensely. I have to say I was incredibly impressed with Columbus, both campus and beyond. First, I wasn’t aware of how big their downtown area was. Campus appears to be off to the side and has it’s own economy. There’s an incredible amount of retail and housing space built around the campus. It feels like student-centric housing–both on and off campus–stretches for days.

The campus is sprawling and gorgeous. OSU is known (at least I imagine) for a large amount of intersecting sidewalks which I want to believe create a nice amount of serendipity for student interactions. Ben had mentioned checking out the library, who’s centerpiece is this large display of exposed stacks.

We headed towards the football field to grab drinks and I witnessed tailgating on a scale I’ve never seen before. With a stadium that can hold 110,000 bodies, it’s safe to say there’s just a lot of people. The majority of OSU fans we interacted with were very welcoming. The question I received the most was, “Are you really from Oklahoma?” I’m curious as to why this was asked. Was the assumption that outsiders never visit or that Oklahomans never leave? Either way, I was happy to explain myself.

The stadium itself was a true sight to be seen. We entered “the horseshoe” from an area called the rotunda. You feel like you are in Rome as you look up at the unpainted, concrete double-decker structure.

We were fortunate enough to be sitting amongst friends and enemies. The assumption when you buy seats to an away game is that you’ll be surrounded by fans of the home team. Fortunately, Oklahoma travelled well, and we were never left to defend ourselves. The best conversation was with a man behind us who, despite being decked out in Ohio State gear, was rooting for the Sooners. An Ohio native, his daughter had actually opted to study musical theatre at OU her freshman year before returning back to Ohio to study veterinary medicine. He said he fell in love with Norman when they visited and had planned to retired here until his daughter moved back home.

After the game and ended and the flag was planted, we unsuccessfully looked for some buckeye candy to take back to the family before heading back home. The worst stretch of the drive was ahead of us as we hadn’t slept more than an hour between us both in the last 36 hours. Night driving on a low tank of energy is never recommended. Chris drove and I dozed off a handful of times before we finally stopped near Indianapolis to catch an hour of shut eye.

The game was great and was only surpassed by the conversations. We are both admittedly terrible at forcing conversation, but it comes very natural to both of us given that we’ve experienced a lot of life together. As the saying goes, we’ve seen each other at our best and worst. As I get older, I am no longer taking for granted the opportunities to spend lengthy amount of times with good friends as they become fewer and farther between. Our friendship could have been fully put on ice after college, but we’ve always been intentional about staying in touch (and have even had the chance to work together twice at OU).

So my advice is to find that friend and go on three day road trip where you don’t sleep. It’s worth every penny and life is short.

Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?

I had the pleasure of enjoying three life events yesterday:

  1. I witnessed a (partial) solar eclipse that was (for the contingent US) 38 years in the making .
  2. The first day of classes and thus my first official day as an Assistant Professor for the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
  3. I turned 30.

I’ve started a “new”ish role where I now have a split appointment: Director of the Office of Digital Learning and the aforementioned faculty appointment. I still am kind of in shock when I look at my now double-sided business card.

I’ve written before about how I somewhat stumbled into academia. While this wasn’t exactly my long term goal, it could have been had I had the appropriate level of confidence. Anybody who knew me as a student or knows me now knows how deeply passionate I am for higher learning. As a native Oklahoman, I know how few routes there are for socioeconomic mobility there are few Oklahomans, and I still firmly believe that’s institutions like mine exist to fulfill that opportunity for our students. It certainly has for me and it’s what drives me every day. Education has a big role to play in fixing what I often see is wrong and unjust in my state.

I’ve said multiple times that my three years of teaching in Gaylord College has been the single best professional experience. It makes me better in all areas as they relate to understand the roles and needs of faculty, what good face-to-face and online teaching looks like, and empathy towards students. My classroom has played the paradoxical role of both my routine escape and laboratory. I’ve always encouraged my team to teach if given the opportunity because there is simply no better way to understand teaching than to teach. That opportunity has allowed me to grow and shape this one-man show into a small-but-mighty department of incredibly intelligent and hard-working designers, technologists, and creatives who have to deal with me. One agenda item I have is continuing to see both the faculty and staff roles as not conflicting but symbiotic and to see where that relationship leads.

I’m not one to focus too much on personal accomplishments, but I’ll be honest and say that I’m soaking it up for all it’s worth. I attended OU’s New Faculty Orientation, despite the fact that CTE runs the event itself and I’m fully aware of the resources that exist for faculty. But why not?

I’m also enjoying faculty meetings at Gaylord College and getting the opportunity to think about the future of our programs and how they can be improved. I’m quickly learning how teaching is only a small fraction of the ways faculty can positively impact an institution.

Beyond my professional life, I’m also shutting the books on a decade, which gives me an opportunity to reflect on life in general. Eight years ago, I spent my birthday in the absolute beautiful city Missoula, Montana, as I was touring in a band and partially living out of a van (my wife and I bought a minivan last week and I joked that I feel like this decade started and ended in a van). I always think back fondly of that specific show and how welcoming it was. We had just finished a run of dates on the west coast making our way from SoCal up to Seattle. Big market shows are so different because you are competing with so many different entertainment opportunities. And then you play shows like Missoula or Carney, Nebraska, where kids just show up because that’s just what they do on the weekends. They are true scenes and you get the opportunity to be a part of that. Some strange force has kept me planted in middle America and I’m thankful for that.

I’ve also became a husband and a father–the two most important roles I have in life. Nothing has made me understand both selfishness and sacrifice quite like these two changes. I grew up in house full of boys and baseball teams. If there has been one big personality difference over the last ten years, it’s that I’m a much softer person. I think about all the big and small special moments I’ve been able to enjoy spending time with them. Sharing parenting moments with my wife is like sharing a million new life experiences you could have never imagined.

Last, I’ve also lost. I’ve lost best friends and grandparents and I’ve seen families torn apart and relationships end. I’ve witnessed tragedy and darkness and inequality and suffering. I’ve came to know the hard truths of our world. So it must also be said that this decade has shown me the fragility of life.

Still, I’m one to not meander in one spot too long. I’ve already walked my fair share of roads and believe the best is still ahead. My favorite album of the year so far happens to be from The Menzingers and the opening track really resonated with me. The song is about the struggle to let go of your youthful ways and repeats the line, “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” It’s a fantastic song. Really, check it out.

I don’t know my answer to The Menzingers just yet, but I’ve never exactly lived my life by plotting too far in advance. For now, I’m just going to be thankful that I’ve been privileged enough to live a lot of life.

I was listening to a recent On Being episode recently with danah boyd, who tells a really great story about her brother who was into computers and introduced her to the web:

He showed me different online bulletin boards, and all of a sudden I realized that this computer was made out of people. And the computer became much more interesting to me, once it was made out of people.

I, too, feel made out of people. I’ve had a real stroke of luck of a sequence of mentors who put faith in me even when I wouldn’t have. Similarly, I’ve been able to observe so countless number of incredible people in both my life and my field who have help shape my perspective. So thank you for being a part of it and thank you for allowing me to indulge myself for just a bit.

A sophisticated heat beam called a “laser”

For the past four years, I’ve assisted with OU’s annual Deans’ Retreat with both design and organization. The retreat brings together over all of our academic college deans and the Provost’s Office for a couple day event structure around vision casting for the year, learning from each other, and team building. For the past three years, attendees have been broken up into teams of five or six and had them compete for an overall prize.

This year’s theme was called Captains and Commanders and lent itself wellfor all kinds of punny nautical references. For the grand prize, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to utilize the OU Innovation Hub which opened up last year. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to make it down there, but after reading a blog post from Terri Cullen, one of our education faculty members (who–by the way–is on a blogging tour de force this summer), I was itching for a reason to use it.

One of the tools available in the fabrication lab at the OU Innovation Hub is a laser cutter. I set my sights on taking logo’s Adobe Illustrator file and etching it onto the side of Yeti tumbler. I wanted to do a prize that felt rewarding but wasn’t too pricey and achievable from a design perspective. The pen look of the logo really called out to me about wanting to be etched (etch? cut? burn? I have yet to understand the correct verb here). So etching it was.

2017 Logo

First, I’ll say that it felt cool to just be hanging out with the students who use the I-Hub. What’s nice about the laser cutter is that you can define the type of material, so while I had always imagined laser cutters as a way to turn wood into coasters and ways to personalize Yeti’s, the students were showing me all different types of use cases. One student was cutting pieces of cloth to make backpacks. Another had designed a full Sooneropoly board. The students were thinking WAY more creative than I was with my silly little aluminum cups.

I laid the logo out on an Illustrator canvas the size of the machine and then converted it from CMYK to RGB.

Next we prepped the cups by spraying a metal marking laser spray. In all honesty, I just took their word for it that this would make it look better. I default to the experts here.

Next, we added a rotor to the laser cutter and measured the circumference of the cup so the machine knew exactly when to turn the cup as it cut it. Again, a piece of the puzzle I would have been missing had I not had excellent help. As it started, it looked like this:

You can set laser cutters to either go at a slow or fast pace. We did the first cup on slow mode and unfortunately it took about 26 minutes. On the second cup, we set it to super speed and was just under seven minutes per cup. Here’s a cup once it had completed the print:

Last thing we did was wash the cups off with regular soap and water and the soft side of a sponge as to not scratch the brushed aluminum finish.

Then you just rinse and repeat until you have your fleet o’ cups.

I want to thank Brandt Smith and his student workers in the fabrication lab for helping me with this project. They made it almost too easy for me and I was able to get out of there way. I’m going to go ahead and call my shot that I’ll be back. My eyes are fixed on building a guitar this year. All I need to learn is everything.

The Offline Web

I was asked to speak to a delegation of community radio journalists from Bangladesh next week. A description of the group:

Participants will return with improved journalism fundamentals, understanding of the United States and American culture, and a perspective on convergence with and transition from terrestrial radio. This understanding will include the role and contribution of community radio in a democratizing country, the skills to optimize journalism through community radio, management and leadership exposure and how that translates into a community radio environment and more. Radio in Bangladesh is woven into the fabric of village life, but since the advent of mobile phones and 3G internet it is a matter of time until those patterns of life change.  These communities will likely still appreciate the content community radio produces. Therefore, this exchange program will help community radio stations make the transition to digital and mobile platforms while continuing to play their critical role in a democratic and democratizing Bangladesh.

This idea of bridging the space in between terrestrial radio and the world wide web had me thinking about Tim Clarke‘s presentation at the Domains Fairs at #domains17. As part of his presentation, he showed off a couple of DIY tools called the LibraryBox/PirateBox. These are tools built with some concoction of a wireless router, a USB drive or SD card, and (though not completely necessary) a Raspberry Pi. The idea is that you can flash the software on the wireless router, install your own, and thus create a mini offline web that is accessible as long as someone is in the range of the router.

LibraryBox v2.0 from Jason Griffey on Vimeo.

I thought this could be a nice way of situating some of the projects I like to work on with something that might be valuable to the group. There’s a quote that I saw Dave Winer refer to recently:

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

There’s an earlier quote that speaks directly to radio as well:

Like the press which is free for those who own and control it, the radio is free for those who can buy equipment, hire technicians and talent, and secure profitable advertising contracts.

The argument I intend to make in the talk is that freedom obviously isn’t given to everyone, but technology has significantly decreased the costs and there are affordable solutions out there. As Dave asserts, I think its necessary for journalists to not just understand CMSs but the infrastructure (or at the very least the concept of infrastructure). Per usual, it’s going to harken back to what I normally wax poetically about: domains and servers. Web servers give us an environment to come to understand what it means to take care of, produce, and serve content/publications. In many ways it is the modern press and, again while not universal, much more democratized. But it need not be limited to the World Wide Web. The skills you can learn by learning to host a site are transferrable once you can understand the concept of files sitting on a server to be received by other devices.

So as a demonstration, I’ve put together my own version of the PirateBox: the CroomBox.

At Domains, Tim Clarke gave away three gifts that consisted of everything you needed to make one of these so this gave me an excuse to check it all out. I lucked out as only two people claimed them and Tim gave me the third (thanks Tim!) I downloaded both the firmware update and the install package and by noon it was good to go. So now I have a little offline web that stays with me now and looks like this:

All anyone has to do is connected to the wifi network “CroomBox” and they’ll be redirected to this page. It’s got built in chat and file sharing and I’ve enabled a couple of extra features including a discussion board and media library.

I’ve made a couple of very basic tweaks to the index.html to personalize it to the crowd and I’m on my way.

Obviously, you don’t have to use yours to serve a PirateBox…. The site can be whatever you wish it to be. But this concept is pretty neat and I like the possibilities. An underground publication, information for disaster relief in case of network outages, distribution of OER books, a physical classroom shared network, anonymous file swapping in airports. Whatever.

I’d write more but I’m supposed to be writing my talk and/or leaving my office because it’s Friday at 4:59pm.

Featured image: CC BY/SA PirateBox

I See What Google Did There…

A few years ago, I read a book called What Would Google Do? I actually don’t recommend it. But there’s a little nugget that I took away that is the only reason I remember anything in it. It’s this quote:

Google has turned commodification into a business strategy.

It’s through this quote (and through a Coursera course on a similar subject) that I started to understand why Google, the company, makes the decisions they make. The Coursera course was called Understanding Media by Understanding Google. During this course I had this specific a-ha moment. And I actually WOULD recommend the course, as it was quite intriguing, except it no longer exists and resides in the MOOC graveyard.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 4.31.53 PM.png

But the premise of the theory (at least what stuck in my head) is pretty simple: Google exists to montetize data sets. Therefore they want data. Therefore they’ll build tools that are valuable to you so you’ll give them data. It all comes back to ads. Which is quite fascinating that it’s that simple.

At the time, Google Plus was very new and it gave me an insight into why Google Plus exists at all. You see, there’s a lot of data that you store on your Facebook page. What your interests are, who you are connected to, etc. At the time that Google Plus launched, it was assumed that Google wanted to compete with Facebook. And, of course, that isn’t true at all. They don’t want to be Facebook. They just want to have a similar profile snapshot of the type of data you would put on Facebook. So they built Google Plus and gave it some social features and some maybe something Facebook didn’t have at the time (circles) so people would be intrigued to use it. Why does Google Plus not get updated anymore? Because they already have the data from you they want. Similarly, why does Google Plus not get killed? Because it continues to bring in data they want. And now they force it on you by having a Google Plus account be the center cog in a Google Account wheel. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Today Google announced what is, again, a fun and intriguing tool called AutoDraw. You draw some squiggly lines and it uses AI to guess what you meant to draw.


I have to admit that I played around with this tool for longer than I should have. But that’s because 1.) it actual is pretty neat technology and 2.) it almost feels like a game of pictionary. You want to know if it can guess what you are trying to draw.

And the reality is that it is a game. That’s exactly what Google wants. It wants you to play a game. It wants you to help improve the AI algorithms by drawing a bunch of doodles so it can get smarter. Does Google really want to improve drawing everywhere? Did Google find a specific weakness within the human race and thus felt compelled to solve a world problem? Or is Google creating a product that meets a market need of designers who need quick icons? Nah, none of those. Does it want to improve machine learning? Hell yes it does.

And if you don’t use AutoDraw, well then guess what? We’ve now forced it on you through CAPTCHA.


Personally, it’s fun when you start to understand the underlying reasoning for why companies like Google do what they do because you become critical enough to question intent. But it’s also scary to think that how easily we allow ourselves to become the slaves for the tech giants as well. What is really nothing more than a bar trick is enough of a carrot to get us to help improve their technology.

Placemaking and the Web

I’ve always felt that deep down I’m not a technology person–I’m a community person. And it just so happens that throughout my life I’ve happened to find an abundance of community through technology. But overall I’m much more interested in building community.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking more about what lessons can be learned from community planning, which of these lessons translates to the online world, and which ones need to be expanded/adapted. This post isn’t here to flesh ideas but rather it’s to draw a line in the sand about something I want to explore more closely over a (hopefully) extended amount of time.

How do we* make place in online learning?

*also, who makes up the “we” and who shapes who makes up the “we”. But that’s another story for another time.

It feels like there has been a lot of conversation post-Election about civility online. About how we recommit to constructive conversation. I was reminded of this from a recent episode of On Being where Krista Tippett talked about her new project: Civil Conversations Projects.

There’s a similar narrative in urban planning and design: We built to scale and not towards human-to-human interaction. I’m curious about what the web world can learn from the development of placemaking movement.

As both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region, Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

Today on campus at OU we are hosted our third Placemaking Conference and one of the speakers was Fred Kent, the Founder and President of Project for Public Spaces, who wrote a book called How to Turn a Place Around.  The book lists the following eleven principles for creating great community places:


You can read extended definitions of the 11 steps here. Again, I have little to say at the moment but I’m more and more curious about principles for designing online spaces, educational or not, in a collaborative fashion for communities with specific sociocultural contexts and believe these principles could be useful if taken with the right balance of open mindeness and skeptism. Please share if you are aware of folks that are doing research into similar ideas.

Featured image: Diodati Bike Stencil shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Looking Closer at Oklahoma and National Pell Grant Data

For the past five weeks, I’ve been leading a faculty reading group with Mark Morvant on Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. This has been a great experience given the fact that I didn’t feel I would have time to be involved in Bryan Alexander’s online group like I was for We Make the Road By Walking.

I had three main goals for being involved with the reading group:

1. I’ve been wanting to read the book myself.

Sara Goldrick-Rab’s keynote at the OpenEd Conference in Richmond, VA was a refreshing surprise for me. I wasn’t aware of any of her work prior to hearing her, but she is such a captivating speaker. I like to think of OpenEd as a group of education technologists and librarians who are interested in student equity and social justice. For this particular group, Sara’s talk felt like going to church in the sense that you have an overwhelming feeling of personal guilt as she unpacks both the statistics and the stories and how much higher education is failing our low income student population. As I said in November:

Sara was frankly a gut punch. I left her talk feeling helpless. And then I started to look around only to realize that the very voices that I would hope we could see amplified through open education simply aren’t represented in our conversations.

This group gave me an excuse to dig deeper into Sara’s work.

2. I wanted to be involved in collectively building empathy towards the student experience.

The majority of those who have been an instructor have been involved with a student story of misfortune. For me, these tend to be very individualized experiences which is probably because I want to respect the privacy of our students or because, from the student’s perspective, their issues are stigmatized. The point is that there isn’t a lot of opportunities for faculty to come together and discuss some of the experiences they’ve witnessed through their students or even talk about their own personal struggles as a student.

I began the reading group by introducing myself and my own student story. I entered college from a single income family. I worked part-time the entirety of my undergraduate career. Most of the time I was working two jobs although one semester I worked three (and paid for it heavily–it was my worst semester grades-wise and I had to drop one of my classes mid semester). The cost of living in the residence halls forced me to look elsewhere in Norman after my first semester. We managed to pay for the first year with no loans due to some local one-year scholarships I had earned. But those ran out and I had to make the decision to take out both federal loans and parent plus loans the next three years. Of course, I say all of this knowing I was in a much better position than other students. My parents still assisted with rent and my cell phone while I covered the rest of my living expenses. While I feel this is a very normal story, it was something I had yet to share in my professional life.

3. I wanted to use this as an opportunity for faculty and administration to have a collective conversation.

The truth is that OU really doing some excellent work and my guess is that faculty haven’t been painted a full picture of the resources that students have access to. For instance, through one of these conversations, I learned that there is something called a Work Assistance Tuition Waiver Program at OU. Students qualify for the scholarship if they are working 25+ hours a week. Even if there hours get cut to 10 hours a week, they can maintain their scholarship by completing 15 hours of school credit (summer courses and be banked towards this) and keep a 2.0 GPA.

For the reading group, we’ve had visitors for Financial Aid, the Provost’s Office, and Administration and Finance come talk about various efforts taking place on campus. As someone who strattles the line between the faculty and the administration, this reading group was a great opportunity to continue to build that bridge.

Looking at the Data

The last goal has been my favorite part of it. I came to know through the reading group how little I knew about the different groups of students we had on campus. Before, I couldn’t even tell you what a Pell Grant was or its monetary value. Now I feel much more equipped to speak towards the issues at hand and better support our students. It’s also been great to understand what efforts are happening for student success. I was given these figures on Pell Grant recipient retention:

Student Cohort Head Count ACT/SAT After One Year
2011 968 24.8 76.40%
2012 1004 24.7 75.80%
2013 779 25.5 79.10%
2014 757 25.6 79.90%
2015 727 25.8 87.30%

You’ll notice the big jump from 2014 and 2015. What will be really interesting to follow is to see if that jump maintains towards graduation.

Getting this data though led me on search for some bigger data set. I was curious to look at Pell Grant data a little bit more in the state of Oklahoma and beyond and landed on a 2015 Report called The Pell Partnership: Ensuring a Shared Responsibility for Low-Income Student Success. I created this interactive graph that helps you visualize some of the data specific to Oklahoma.

You can download the data set for this visualization or get the full data set rom the report to make sense of it however you wish.

Once I started playing with that data, I got even more curious about where Oklahoma is lands in the grand scheme of $31.5 billion spent on Pell Grants by the federal government. I came up with a visualization, colored for public vs private, that looks like this (sorry if your on a smartphone, it’s not very mobile friendly and you’re going to have to scroll a lot):

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 3.13.16 PM.png

I ended up adding a handful of filters so you can look at the data from a multitude of angles. Beyond looking at specific states, you can look at number of undergrads, grad rates, specific institutions, etc (again–sorry for mobile users. This one is virtually useless unless you are on a desktop).

View this visualization in a new tab

I’ve got to be honest and say that I’ve spent more time building the visualization than I have playing with the data. So if you find anything particularly interesting to you, please let me know in the comments. I’m also happy to visualize the data in a different manner if you would like custom views.

The main reason for the leading group is that Derek Houston, a visiting professor, was able to get Sara to come to campus to speak. This is my second time already this year where I’ve had the opportunity to rewatch a keynote presentation from OpenEd. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have those opportunities but also how valuable it is to watch anything twice. It’s like your favorite movies; the first view is awe and surprise while the second viewing allows you to catch the nuisances of what makes the work really special. I don’t quite have the words to describe the feeling quite yet, but there’s something swirling in my head about watching these talks both pre and post election and being reminded about the issues at stake. There’s something about being grounded in the type of work people like Gardner and Sara are doing. I think Gardner would firmly agree with the quote from Sara’s talk about OU (below)

I want to say thank you to Sara Goldrick-Rab for a number of things. First, you’ve been really inspiring to me as a scholar and an advocate and I so admire somebody who is  willing to play both of those roles in higher education. Second, thanks for jumpstarting a larger conversation around serving Pell Grant recipients at OU at both the faculty reading group level as well as the institution. And, last, thank you for inspiring me to look closer at my own local data, issues, and potential pathways forward.

Restarting the Battle

I’ve been listening to the New York Times Daily Podcast since it launched the last couple weeks. They end the first episode asking when in your lifetime you have felt that your life was intersecting with history. For me, the first time was April 19, 1995 when a white radical named Timothy McVeigh terrorized the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, less than 19 miles from my school, killing 168 people, including nineteen children in the day care center on the second floor, and injuring 684 others.

My dad was on the interstate at the time and felt the aftershocks of the bomb. One of my aunts, whom I am very close to, is a survivor. She worked in the building next door and the bomb blew out all of their windows. She likely would have not survived had she not been shielded under her desk. She was only down there because she walked to the Murrah Building every morning to get an iced tea and was reaching down to get some money out of her purse.

Today I didn’t necessarily witness history, but I was certainly in the presence of it.

I had scheduled what was expected to be a rather normal meeting with a group of faculty members in the Department of Human Relations. As I walked into the department’s conference room, I noticed a picture of a man on the wall. I had a hunch that that I knew who it was, but lacking full confidence, I walked up and read the plaque which read, “George Henderson.”

My hunch was correct.

Despite never have meeting Dr. Henderson face-to-face, I know his story quite well. In 1967, Dr. Henderson moved his young family to Norman, Oklahoma from Detroit to take a professor position in Sociology. Coming from an all-black neighborhood, he would be the first African American to purchase a house in Norman.

Last year, the Norman Transcript did a wonderful in-depth on those early times for the Henderson’s shortly before the upcoming 50 year anniversary of the Henderson’s move to Norman.

Barbara said they knew immediately that they were not wanted by some of their neighbors. It took many forms: Rude phone calls, trash in the yard, hateful messages passed between acquaintances and even threats to their daughters. Their son became the first black player to win a varsity letter in basketball at Norman High, but despite his talent, he still faced an uphill battle. George said that his son’s coach, the late Max Marquardt, told them straight up: “Norman isn’t ready for a black starter.”

Much to the advantage of everybody, the Henderson’s never left Norman. According to his biography, they went to incredible lengths to both foster human rights initiatives and mentor African American students. Fast forward 48 years later to 2015, when a campus-wide racist fraternity chant led OU President David Boren to swiftly and decisively ban a local chapter. The video of the chant was released on a Sunday night and early Monday morning Dr. Henderson was seen front-and-center standing in protest with others in the OU community.

Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman

For the students involved in the incident but continued to remain on campus, they were the beneficiaries of getting the opportunity to go through a sensitivity training personally led by Dr. Henderson.

“He’s a great civil rights pioneer in the state,” Boren said. “He’s made a tremendous difference in the fabric of our society. And he has counseled me as well during this crisis.” (source)

So you probably know where this is going. Unexpectedly the meeting starts and in walks Dr. Henderson, who quietly unbuttons his overcoat and takes a seat in the back and the head of the table.

I don’t want to go over the specifics of the meeting–mainly because that’s not the point of this post–but I found myself in what felt like an out-of-body experience watching him talk. He spoke about a number of topical issues: creating the Department of Human Relations two years after joining the OU faculty, being a retired dean of the College of Liberal Studies, where online education first came to bare at OU, and about a major focus of the department: social justice. With the turbulence happening across the country, it feels like that focus is as important as it has ever been in the department’s history.

The meeting ended a little over an hours worth of time. I was sitting next to Dr. Henderson and, feeling a bit at a loss for words, I attempted to convey my abundance of reverence by simply turning to him and mustering together, “Thank you. For everything.”

He knew what I meant. Slowly, Dr. Henderson responded, “I would have never believed that in 2017 we would be starting the battle all over again.”

I looked back at him–now with tears in my eyes–and responded, “Dr. Henderson, you’re going to make me cry.”

We talked a little while longer about a handful of issues. How the events we witnessed at OU in 2015 were somewhat of a early signal and how they had put the institution in a much healthier position to lead moving forward. We talked about what a model citizen Barack Obama was and how proud Dr. Henderson was of that moment in time (he specifically mentioned being particularly proud of Michelle). And we talked about when he first met President Boren who, at the time, was a law professor at Oklahoma Baptist University.

Dr. Henderson thanked me for what our department was doing to bring faculty together. He doesn’t like faculty being “in their silos,” which is a comment I imagine he often says. I found this from an Oklahoma Daily article:

This might surprise you. When I came in ’67, through the ’80s, we valued as a university teaching more than anything else — this was an excellent teaching place. So therefore, as teachers, we were not so much driven by our academic discipline in terms of research, we were driven by just the quest for knowledge. And so, we were not in silos — the physical, the social, the fine arts and so forth. People were not in silos, we were together.

I think as a whole, faculty members knew more individuals across campus than they do today, which meant also it was a time in which it was not uncommon to go to a student union and see faculty members, either from different departments together, or faculty members with students. There was an awful lot of that going on. I don’t see much of that anymore. Maybe that’s the price of progress — I hope not.

If you didn’t–as I didn’t–witness the Civil Rights Movement firsthand, it can be hard to fully understand the length at which our citizens went to fight for equality in our country. And if you are a white male–as I am–it’s easy to ignore how far we have to go. It’s much easier when you get the opportunities to interact with people like Dr. Henderson because he has witnessed both sides. There are many advantages and disadvantages to living in a state so young (our university is predates statehood), and being able to work in an environment where people like George Henderson and David Boren still work, people who have come to help shape and define our state’s short history–that’s a real blessing that the University of Oklahoma affords.

And so we start the battle all over again.

Dr. George Henderson and me