In Defense of Organic Project Development

Over on his blog, Tim is talking about some very exciting work we’re doing with Domain of One’s Own right now, and he’s inspired me to add my own post to the conversation. Tim’s outlined beautifully some of the initial steps we’re taking to build a community space around Domain of One’s Own — a space that can capture information about the various installations that our users are doing in the system, and display that information in ways that allow us to easily filter and expose the work that’s happening. I truly believe we’ve only just begun to imagine what we could do with a space like this, and I can’t say how exciting it is to be working on this with Tim right now.

What I want to talk about specifically is the approach we’ve taken to Domain of One’s Own and how the work we’re doing is informed by that approach.

Continue reading In Defense of Organic Project Development

WordPress as a Data Collection Tool

A few weeks ago (actually, I think it’s more like months at this point), I blogged about publishing my first plugin on the WordPress Repository. I thought I’d take a moment to write about what that plugin is — and the projects I’ve been working on that inspired it.

Making data collection as easy as cheese

Continue reading WordPress as a Data Collection Tool

Domain of One’s Own: When the Planets Align


A LOT has been going on around these parts — and given all the things that have to happen between now and the start of classes next week it feels a bit indulgent to take time to write a blog post right now. But, quite frankly, I need a break from mentally scanning the lists of tasks I need to complete so that I can reflect for a moment upon what all those tasks actually add up to.

Continue reading Domain of One’s Own: When the Planets Align

Key(note) Points

In two weeks, I’m going to be presenting at the University of Cincinnati’s 3T: Teaching, Techniques, and Technology conference. I’m very honored to have been asked to present as a keynote, along with my friend Mikhail Gershovich. Good news: I get to present first, so I don’t have to be in the position of following Mikhail’s tough act. :-) Also, it means I’ll be able to fully relax and enjoy the rest of the conference after presenting in the morning. I’m looking forward to seeing what faculty at Cincinnati are working on; the event seems similar in ethos to UMW’s Faculty Academy, and it’s always cool to see all of this through another lens.

The title of my talk is, Technologies of Possibility: Digital Identity, Citizenship, and Personal Domains in the Classroom.  Continue reading Key(note) Points

Not an easy checklist

Some rights reserved by sr. mzocoxito on Flickr

I just want to go on the record saying that I have a HUGE problem with this proposed legislation to have colleges collect and publish data about the average salaries that formers students are now making (broken down by major). I think this is indicative of a terrible trend in our society — assuming that “success” is measured wholly on earning potential. Other critics of the legislation have noted that the data, without further explanation, misrepresents aspects of earning potential.

My issue with it is more general. Why are we assuming, and sending the message to young people, that when thinking about one’s future the potential to earn big bucks is the main factor we should be considering?

I majored in English here at Mary Washington. I got a graduate degree in instructional technology and media. I now work for the University and, while I make a decent salary, I could probably increase it by half as much or more if I went to work in the private sector. I’m not doing that because I happen to be passionate about working in education. I think that working in a job where I feel like I’m doing something that contributes to the public good is more important than making a lot of money. On a personal level, I also enjoy the laid-back nature of working in higher education, the freedom to explore and try new things, and the overall flexibility. All of these factors make me HAPPY in ways that money would not.

My husband and I just had a conversation about this issue yesterday. He’s a scientist who teaches at the community college level. He could definitely double his salary by going into the private sector. But, to do so, he’d likely have to travel about 30-50% of the year. He wouldn’t have the option to take his summers off. He wouldn’t be able to set his schedule so that he can easily be home to see his kids on weekdays. We would be a lot more wealthy, but, for us, that doesn’t translate into happier.

I HATE our culture’s tendency to think of earning potential as some sort of validation of one’s self-worth as a person. It’s one-dimensional.

Yes, I understand that when you graduate from college you’d like to be able to assume that you can earn a good living — enough to support yourself and, perhaps, a future family. But I think that reaching that goal is more about understanding, holistically, your needs as a human being, than it is about looking at a list of majors and picking the one that has the highest starting salary/earning potential attached to it.

(Also, can we talk about how UMW was just ranked (for the third year in a row) in the top 5 small universities that produce Peace Corps volunteers? Reducing a presentation of our students’ potential to what they earn completely IGNORES this kind of information.)

How can we really prepare our students for happiness AND financial security in the future?

  • Create programs at our schools that prepare our students to be adaptive, life-long learners in the 21st century
  • Talk honestly with students about what kinds of jobs they’re likely to get out of college and what kind of money they might be able to earn. Talk about this topic in a well-rounded, honest way. Acknowledge the difference between starting salaries and late-career salaries. Discuss earning potentials with regards to graduate school. Bring in former graduates to talk about what they actually do AND what they actually can earn. Tie this information to real people,  living real, full, happy, and complicated lives. Talk about the choices we have to make as adults when it comes to weighing salary potential against other, important factors in our lives.
  • Teach kids (from a young age) how to manage and save money, and how to not spend more than they have
  • Understand the realities of financial aid and college debt, and do our best to arm students and families with information to make good decisions
  • Encourage our kids to strive to do something they LOVE. Yes, they need to think about how to translate that passion into a living, but picking a major JUST because it can earn you a lot of money is one to way end up in a career you hate — which can quickly translate into a life you hate
  • Teach our kids ALL the dimensions of happiness — public service and giving back to our communities; living a healthy, active life; building meaningful relationships with people we love; raising a healthy, happy family (IF that’s what one wants out of life)

I know this is NOT an easy checklist of things that we can do to ensure our students’ future success. Guess what? Life (and learning) are messy and complicated. There is no checklist, or list of data, or easy answer that is going to guarantee success.

(Also, can we talk about how SICK I am of adding another data reporting burden on institutions of higher education? Can we please spend our money on what matters — quality teaching?!)

Start Your Engines.

This post is the first in a series I’ll be writing as part of UMW Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative

Last week, a few of us here at UMW kicked off a new program: The Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative. This program, sponsored by UMW’s Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, brings together a group of almost 30 faculty work with and discuss the implications of the Domain of One’s Own (DooO) project.

Start your (DooO FI) Engines

Continue reading Start Your Engines.


I’m at a bit of a standstill right now. Events over the last few weeks have sort of interrupted my life, and I feel like I’m failing at a lot of things right now (apologies now to all the people whom I’m failing). I’m having a hard time figuring out how to stop failing and move on. Tonight, while pondering what to do to get myself moving again, I realized that the best thing I could do would be this: to write.

I’ve been working under a bit of a shadow on and off for the last few months, cast primarily from the failing health of two people who are incredibly important to me. My grandmother (for whom I’m named) has been fighting health issues for a number of years, ever since she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. This spring and summer, her health declined, and my family (particularly my mom and her siblings) were searching for answers to get her the help she needed. Luckily, doctors were finally able to locate and treat the problem, and we were fortunate that her recovery was speedier than it has been in the past. And, the best news, is that 4 years after being diagnosed and treated, she is still cancer-free!

Unfortunately, while my grandmother’s health was failing and then she was being treated, my grandfather began to deteriorate. While fighting a battle on one front, another one emerged.

Eight days ago, after a rather sudden and intense illness that landed him in the hospital for almost a month, my grandfather, Ricardo Daniel Barrera, passed away. He was just shy of his 89th birthday, which would have been on Thanksgiving this year.

My grandfather, who for my whole life I have called Cardo, was diagnosed with diabetes 56 years ago. He had lived with that disease for as long as I’ve been alive, and for a lot longer before that. But he really did more than live with it; through his own determination and resiliance and the strength and love of my grandmother, he managed to thrive. Up until a few months ago, my grandfather was the healthiest 88 year-old diabetic that you could ever imagine meeting.

Cardo lived an amazing, full life. After immigrating to this country from Ecudador in his twenties, he rose from a clerk in a Manhattan company to become a vice president. He and my grandmother traveled extensively, circling the globe five or six times.

He eloped with my grandmother when he was 22 and she was 16 (!), despite the protestations of her protestant Dutch parents about their daughter marrying a Catholic from South America. They had nothing when they got married, but over 60+ years of marriage they built an amazing life for themselves and for their family.

They had five children, of which my mother is the oldest. My youngest uncle was only a few years older than my brother, and the three of us grew up together. Upon passing, my grandfather leaves behind 14 grandchildren (ranging from 42 to 6) and 7 great-grandchildren. In another two months, two more will be added to the role call. My mother’s family is very close, and so for the last month, my uncles, aunts, and cousins have been arriving in Virginia to be with each other as we struggled to figure out what was going to happen to my grandfather.

On the night before Cardo died, I was lucky enough to sit with him in the company of one of my cousins. He was in and out of consciousness, and, he was having difficulty making himself understood. At one point, we asked him if he wanted us to put some music on, and he didn’t respond. About 20 minutes later, he opened his eyes, sat up a bit and said, “Music!”

That was the last thing he said to me and my cousin, and it was very fitting. My grandfather loved music, and he passed that on to all of his children, grand-children, and great grand-children.

When I was a child, my grandparents took my brother and I on trips on the east coast — to Pennsylvania and Florida. When I was thirteen, they took us on our first trip to Europe, a six-week journey that spanned Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and France. When I was sixteen, they took me and another cousin to Hawaii for two weeks. It was the first (and only) time I’ve been back to the place where I was born and which I left when I was three years old. They went on trips like this with almost all of their grandchildren.

Absolutely nothing mattered more to my grandfather than family. Nothing. If he had his way, our entire extended family would have lived together in an extended community. (We would have driven each other crazy.)

I have a memory from when I was a child: I’m maybe 5 or 6 and I’m at my grandparents’ house on Long Island and someone has died. I’m not sure who, either my great grandfather or my father’s father.

I’m sitting in the living room, and someone has given me a stuffed rabbit, which I am hugging. Elsewhere in the house, I know that there are adults who are grieving and crying. I’m very scared by this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say or feel. All I feel is alone. And at the time, I remember realizing that this thing called death was unavoidable. That at other moments in my life, it would mark days of grief and sadness. Sitting there, I tried to figure out how to solve this problem. What was I going to do when other people died? How could I make sure it didn’t feel this bad? How would I know how to act and what to feel?

And what I remember thinking is, “It’s okay. This isn’t how it will always be. I’m young, and in the future when people die, I will be much, much older. I will be an adult, and I will know how to get through this then because I will be an adult.”

Last Saturday morning, after getting the call from my mother that Cardo had just passed away, I got in the car and drove from my parents’ to my grandparents’. And on the way, I thought about that memory. I’m much older then I was when I sat on that couch, but I wasn’t sure that the years had given me any more wisdom or strength.

Then I got there, and I found my family, and that’s when I realized that what the years had given me was what Cardo had given me — all these people who love me unconditionally and who, through that love, would help me to know how to grieve. And they did.

And now my grandfather is gone, I’m not sure where the last month went, and, as I said, I’m having trouble figuring out how to dig down and just keep doing what needs to be done. All I really want to do is curl up with a book and read under the covers for, oh, a few months. I feel drained and sad and a bit at loose ends.

And I’m reminded of another memory. This also took place at my grandparents’ house on Long Island. The whole family was there, probably for Christmas. And I was upstairs, in my uncle’s old bedroom, reading. Cardo came to find me. I remember all that I wanted to do was read, and I thought that certainly he would get that. There couldn’t possibly anything wrong with wanting to read. But instead when he found me he said, “Mija, there is a time to read, and there is a time to be with people. Right now is the time to be with people.” And then he took me downstairs to be with my people.

I miss you, Cardo.

Cardo holding my daughter, Madigan, in May of 2005.

tales of swimming upstream