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. ­čÖé 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?┬áReducing 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, ┬áliving 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.┬á

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.

Hacking a WordPress Hacking Workshop

The inimitable Boone B Gorges wrote a great post yesterday about the WPedu community, and how we need to do a better job of inserting ourselves in the larger WP community — and sharing the work we’re doing. I’m trying to take his words to heart. As I mentioned in my comment on the post, I’m a reluctant sharer of my WP work–mostly because I tend to think it has little value to anyone but me. But there are other reasons, that are probably (sadly) tied up in the whole “imposter syndrome” that infiltrates most of academia. Even a lowly staffer/mid-tier administrator (like me) at a University can fall prey to this disease. I aim to overcome it.

To that end, I’m going to try and blog more in this space about the work I’ve been doing with WordPress over the last 6-12 months, particularly working on aggregation methods for learning communities. I got into Web design/development years ago because I loved how it allowed me to architect experiences. I got into higher education at the same time because I really do believe that education is one of our society’s highest callings. Blending my passion for education with my passion to craft experiences is basically what drives me. Over the last seven years or so WordPress has become the platform upon which I can enact these passions. To be able to make code do things that affects people’s behaviors and feelings seems almost magical to me. And, as I’ve said before, I believe strongly that the fundamental nature of the code we work with speaks to the values we’re trying to embrace in the practices that our code enables. I love WordPress because it affords me possibilities. It affords me possibilities because it is open.

All of this is on my mind as I prepare to fly tomorrow morning to San Juan, Puerto Rico and conduct a couple of workshops with students at the Universidad┬ádel┬áSagrado Coraz├│n on hacking WordPress. Given that this is the challenge that’s been looming ahead of me for the past few weeks, Boone’s post couldn’t have come at a better time. I kind of needed a kick in the pants to just get over myself and start imagining that I might have something valuable to offer these students. I’ve spent most of the past 2 months (since another inimitable, Antonio Vantagiatto, extened this invitation) wondering how the heck I was qualified to conduct these workshops.

I think I more or less know how I’m going to approach the program. I want to start by stepping back and talking a bit about the philosophical foundations that underpin the work that I do in WordPress — this includes my own biography as a English degree undergrad who moved into the world of ed tech and finally found herself working more and more as a programmer┬áhacker. People are always amazed when they find out I studied English as an undergrad. I never quite understand why. Don’t they know that code is poetry? Seriously, I’m going to talk a bit about the relationship between code and poetry — a relationship that I’ve always found fascinating. I’m also going to talk about code as a tool for building experience. Finally, I’m going to talk about the way our values and politics (small “p”) inhabit the code we work with.

From there, I’d like to talk about my own organic growth in the world of WordPress. I think that the experience I’ve gone through learning how to work with this system (and attempting to bend it to my will) has taught me more about learning than any other experience in my life. When I started working with WP in 2004, I was just a blogger. The files that comprised my blog installation were thoroughly opaque to me. As I’ve developed deeper skills with WP, I’ve learned to essentially speak a new language — ┬á the language of the application. I understand how themes are built, how templates are arranged in a hierarchy. I understand how functions provide a fundamental syntax around which I can craft a space. I understand how plugins extend the language in both predictable and unexpected ways. When you hear a foreign language for the first time, it’s almost impossible to imagine that you will ever be able to decipher it. That’s how I feel about my first experiences of WordPress. While I know I’m still not fluent, I’ve learned enough now to believe that I can figure out what the things I don’t know mean.

Finally, I’ll be spending time with the students asking them to actually DO something in WordPress. This has been the hardest part of preparing for the workshop. I’m not entirely sure how comfortable they are with the system. For all I know, they can code circles around me in WordPress! In the end, I’m going to approach this on two fronts: I’m assembling a resource for them that points in useful directions based on the kinds of thing they want to do in WordPress. I’m not providing answer; I’m just providing pathways. Then I’ll go in with a list of challenges/activities that we can tackle. Everything from basic tweaking of a theme to writing a plugin. Based on what they’re interested in, we’ll pick a few to work on in groups and see where it gets us.

That’s Friday’s plan. On Saturday I meet with a smaller group of WordPress developers at the University who are working on a grant project. I’m hoping to show them the work I’ve been doing with aggregation of posts and latest content both within Multisite and from external RSS Feeds. Hopefully, we can carve out a plan for them to use some of this in their own work and maybe even start building it.

I can’t remember ever being this excited — or this terrified — about leading a workshop.

What’s in a Week One?

Sunday was the deadline for students in this fall’s section of ds106 at UMW to complete their work for the first 7 days of class. This semester, the first two weeks of class have been constructed as a “ds106 Boot Camp.” Alan and I decided that before students really delved into the hard work of digital storytelling, they needed to get some fundamental skills under their belt. In the past, we’ve tried to interweave these skills into the start up of the storytelling assignments, and students were often still struggling with how to embed media, create links, or properly use tags in the sixth or seventh week of class.

Boot Camp is meant to hone those critical ds106 skills before the really hard work starts. So, last week their primary objective was to get their domains registered, their web space configured, and WordPress installed. In addition, they had to dabble with the Daily Create and set up accounts on a bunch of social media sites that we’ll be using this semester. By Sunday at midnight, all of this work had to be completed, and each student needed to write a summary post of everything they’d done.

In the past, the first 2-4 weeks of ds106 was consumed with just getting students’ domains registered and sites up and running — while also dealing with the first storytelling assignments.

I’m happy to say that by Sunday, every student in my section (and I believe all of Alan’s students as well) had registered domains and installed WordPress successfully. In addition, most of them had created their ds106 accounts and linked them to their new blogs so that their posts were pulling seamlessly into the main ds106 site.

I cannot tell you how radical this is. We owe the success to three things, in my mind: 1) I think the Boot Camp approach is proving successful. Students are really focusing on these fundamentals and getting it done. 2) The reworking of sign-ups on the ds106 site has proven to be great. Almost every new account automatically gets a feed and institutional tag assigned to it. Occasionally, we have to troubleshoot a problem account, but those issues are few and far between. 3) The launch of the Domains of One’s Own pilot at UMW which is delivering free domains and Web space to our students means that we can manage them through this process WAY more easily than in the past. And DTLT’s Tim Owens is the man is has made that happen all along the way.

Here’s a screenshot of the Google spreadsheet that I’ve been using to track my students progress through the first week of Boot Camp obstacles. As you can see, only 1 student is really lagging behind. Other than that, there are only a few missing pieces. (Names/domains/twitter handles have been blurred to avoid embarrassing anyone ­čÖé )

Again, this is so RADICAL.


tales of swimming upstream