An assignment

All you have to do is dream up something, anything, that’ll fit in this box, whether a big folded-up sheet, a tiny book, pieces of this or that, a sculpture—whatever—just something that can be produced in multiple form (edition to be determined) and enclosed within.

* * *
…this is extremely important—you will be asked to structure your contribution around a feeling, event, memory, person, imagining or notion that means the absolute most in the world to you… that for which you’d give or sacrifice anything to memorialize, keep alive or somehow make real, since


and if there was one last piece of art you could make or leave behind, what would it be? What if the life you’ve lived so far would you want to make real for those who haven’t yet been born? Or, put another way, what of the art you love most has made your life worth living, and can you do it, too?

—Chris Ware, syllabus for “Comics, Emotional Directness & Self-Doubt,” taught at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, reprinted in Chris Ware, Monograph (2017), p. 274

Small beauties

Bas Bleu contemplates grace:

The corollary to this—something I also frequently fail to recognize—is that I can be a grace in the lives of those around me, by being kind, by being attentive, by showing recognition and appreciation. By picking up the litter someone else has tossed. By making room for the baby stroller on a crowded Metro car. By letting someone merge into traffic.

When you feel you have little to contribute, it’s heartening to think that you can give grace. It doesn’t require great wealth or grand gestures; it only needs awareness and willingness. I don’t get to choose when to receive grace, but I can choose when to give it. And by giving it, I can choose to be it. That is within my power.

My Twitter profile describes me, in part, as in favor of “that which is mindful.” That bit sometimes feels inauthentic to me, because I don’t have a regular practice. I am only once in a while mindful myself. Other words or phrases that I have considered for my profile: compassion, sharing, awareness, care for the natural world, thoughtfulness, quality. Maybe the word I am looking for is grace.

Two distinct problems

Charles Severance reflects on his experiences teaching MOOCs. In much the same way that John Markoff analyzes the situation (as I summarized earlier), Severance draws an important distinction between the objectives of conventional university training and those of massively open online courses. From the full article (behind a paywall):

My goal in a MOOC is to teach as many volunteer learners as I can and keep them engaged and learning as long as I can. In an on-campus course, my goal is to teach captive students as much as I can over a set 15 weeks. [Emphasis in original.]


Five last vocabulary builders from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie. Most of these appear over and over again in the book:

la fente
slit, as between the slats of a jalousie
la pente
to flatten
étendu (p.p. of étendre)
outstretched, extensive
l’accoudoir (m.)

Robbe-Grillet decoded

Five words and phrases from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie that I know I never learned in high school:

le margouillat
any of various species of lizard; on the narrator’s banana plantation, probably the gecko Hemidactylus frenatus
l’igname (f.)
yam, of genus Dioscorea
la crémone
window-latch, perhaps named for the city of the same name
zone blanche
“blank area”, in Richard Howard’s translation; blanc having the senses of “unwritten”, “innocent”

A… n’est plus à la fenêtre. Ni celle-ci ni aucune des deux autres ne révèle sa présence dans la pièce. Et il n’y a plus de raison pour la supposer dans l’une quelconque des trois zones blanches, plutôt que dans une autre.

A… is no longer at the window. Neither this window nor either of the two others reveals her presence in the room. And there is no longer any reason to suppose her in any one of the three blank areas rather than in any other.

dans le sens inverse des aiguilles d’une montre


Five words from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie that I had to look up and probably have unlearned since high school:

en revanche
on the other hand
to remain
any, with connotations of ordinary, banality; n’importe lequel
to spread open
la paroi
interior partition, wall

Working for scale

John Markoff posts an interesting item about evaluating the success of MOOCs. (Aside: tell me again what the difference is bewteen an MOOC and distance learning?) There’s been a lot of chatter about the fraction of students registered for a course that actually complete all of ites requirements—numbers like 10% are being kicked around.

Markoff emphasizes the point that 10% of a class of 100,000 is nevertheless more than 100% of a class of 500 in a conventional freshman lecture course. And, as one of the panelists at the Frontiers in Education conference in October pointed out, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how many of that hypothetical 100,000 are serious registrants. When the course is free and there’s no cost to dropping out, a lot of students will sign up on a whim. Some registrants are even other instructors, checking out how their colleague handles this new environment.

Leta has participated in two classes offered by Coursera in the past year and has been very pleased with the results. Meanwhile, I’ve been fairly busy with traditionally structured classes:

  • Short-term training in proprietary software technology. Three days of slideware and coding exercises — what Andy Hunt calls sheep-dip training. Moderate value for the money: I did refer to the class workbook a couple of weeks ago for some code samples. Having the instructor on hard was useful when I got stuck.
  • Foreign language instruction from Fairfax County Public Schools. Classroom time with a native speaker, a workbook for writing exercises, and a DVD with lots of listening drills. Good value for the money.
  • The Natural History Field Studies program from Audubon Naturalist Society and Graduate School USA. Each course is different, but it’s usually a blend of reading, lecture, writing, giving presentations to the class—and field trips. Moderate to excellent value for the money, depending on a couple of factors, but every field trip has been worth it. Some of the courses are reviewed by an accrediting agency: these have been the most challenging and the most valuable.

Markoff considers Duolingo, a web site for language instruction that doesn’t precisely fit the MOOC model, but it is operating at that scale, with roughly a million users. I could see myself giving it a try.

I need seven credits to finish my NHFS certificate. I think MOOCs have a ways to go before they can capture the five-senses experience of a cordgrass salt marsh.

MOOCs are scaling up the evaluation of students by problem sets and short writing assignments. I wonder how they can deal with evaluating spoken contributions: speaking a foreign language, giving book reports and oral presentations.

On deck: 9

and one not picturedWell, I knew that Kent Minichiello’s Conservation Philosophy class would have a lot of reading, but I’m not sure that I planned for quite this much. This is the reading list, including my two book report books, but missing Santos’ prohibitively priced Managing Planet Earth (loaner copies will circulate) and various offprints.

My presentation on the Cooper is in two weeks. Too bad I don’t have a long commute to carve out reading time for me.

Perfectly good

Paul Graham realizes some things about stuff:

Another way to resist acquiring stuff is to think of the overall cost of owning it. The purchase price is just the beginning. You’re going to have to think about that thing for years—perhaps for the rest of your life. Every thing you own takes energy away from you. Some give more than they take. Those are the only things worth having.


Via Lifehacker, Steve Pavlina explains scaffolding as a means to establishing productivity habits.

A personal productivity scaffold is like wearing braces. It’s a way to redirect your time and energy back onto the “straight” course and away from the crooked one. Once you’ve set it up, it’s fairly easy to maintain, although you may still regard it as a small sacrifice.

Perhaps the most important function your scaffolding must perform is keeping your attention focused on what you want and off of what you don’t want.

Some links: 7

Advice from Buster MacLeod on choosing and achieving goals. As you might expect, the tip most resonant with me is the low-tech one:

4. Talk to friends about your goals. You can write a thousand entries on your blog about your goals, but real accountability and a surprising amount of support comes from simply talking about your goals in social settings. Relationships are strengthened by people helping each other, and good friends want to help each other. Also, find ways to help them with their goals too.