Monday, May 26, 2008

Looking for Applications of Social Capital

I could talk about how I hope to launch the redesign at work and then start making my rounds on the conference circuit. But that seems a bit obvious, and also doesn't do much with the technology side of the equation of the course material.

So instead I've been thinking about what I can do at work to help incorporate these ideas into our own website, either as part of the redesign or as an area of further growth after the redesign is over. I'm not really sure if there's much point in trying to build a custom application. There's no sense in trying to out-Facebook Facebook. But maybe just getting some of our offices such as Career Placement, Cooperative Education, and the Small Business Development Center active on a site like LinkedIn and offering training to their “customers” (that seems to be a dirty word in higher ed, but I think to deny that side of our relationship with the study body leads us to mentally separate the connection between us meeting their needs and us getting a pay check).

I've worked this job long enough to know where the technophiles are, and in this situation they're not where I need them to be. This line of reason my get derailed before it even has a chance to leave the station. I guess I could try to subvert the system and take things straight to the students. But how? I mean, if there's any sort of training I want to offer to employees I've got professional development day at least once a semester. There's nothing like that for the students. There's no way to work this into the syllabus of a pre-existing class and without a PhD I won't be able to create a new class of my own. What we really need is to incorporate some basic digital humanities ideas into courses like English 101 and 102. That's something Dr. Clougherty tried to pitch back at TTU but it wasn't very well received. He was extremely lucky to get the web design program passed all the bureaucracy, but ultimately I think it was the constant fight to get even that much innovation introduced on campus that lead to his seeking greener pastures. Vol State might not be quite so resistant to change as TTU simply by virtue of being a 2 year school, but exactly how much is it worth to purposefully swim against the current in an educational institution? Ultimately, I love my job and I'm quite happy here. But couldn't picking the wrong battles do a lot of damage to my quality of life and job satisfaction without adding any real value to the students?

So I think the first step is to look up data on the rate at which our graduates find jobs. I may be dreaming up solutions for problems that don't even exist. I'll try to get my hands on some figures for both graduate employment and retention rates. Maybe I can find a couple of academic departments who would be willing to pilot a program using social media to keep their students connected on and off campus and on into their careers. I think the secret to success in organizations traditionally resistant to change is to not just tell them a better way to do thing, but to actually show them a better way. The down side is you end up often asking for forgiveness after the fact, rather than for permission before hand. Then again, is that really such a bad thing?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Social Capital and the Cohort Model in the MACT Program

I've been thinking about social capital and how it applies to our cohort. More than a few people have observed that for many of us out of towners, the end of this year's Spring Institute could very well be the last time we see each other face to face. There's even been half-joking suggestions of doing our own Spring Institute in Las Vegas in 2009, although probably not the full 3 weeks. :)

We talk about these things and we worry about these things because the cohort model allows us to make meaningful connections with each other. I think that's an important element of education in general. My undergrad program didn't exactly have a cohort model, but at the time I graduated there were only 60 or so of us in the major so I had shared classes with the few people who graduated before me and just about everyone with 2 or fewer years left to go. Many of us stay connected via Facebook or what not, even pointing out job listings to each other. We're in the same industry so that sort of things is easy.

But, that's where the social capital of the MACT program starts to break down. We're not all in the same industry or discipline. I assume, and this may be naive of me, that in most masters programs, with or without the cohort model, students can expect a good chance of crossing paths after graduation simply because everyone will run in the same professional or academic circles. Students getting a masters in Digital Humanities will probably frequent the same conferences for years to come. I don't see that happening with MACT students (or at least not in my cohort).

We've got people working in higher ed, civil service, banking, project management, IT, mass media, public relations, web development, law, graphic design...

The nature of our research projects seems to reveal the same trends. I won't know for sure until I see all the posters on Friday. In fact, that may not be enough either since we're able to change what we're doing after the poster presentation session. But based on what I've seen so far, we get a few similar groupings. I can think of at least 3 people who are looking at millennials in the work place. But they've got different approaches and varying research methods. There's a couple people using content analysis, but they're looking at radically different research questions in largely unrelated contexts. Even those of us focusing on web technologies are employing different research and philosophical lenses.

I think educationally this is one of the strengths of the MACT program. Discussions tend to be rich with idea generation as we bring our various backgrounds and understanding to the table and bounce ideas around. But this same multi-disciplinary approach robs us of a certain level of long term social capital. I wonder if the stronger ties facilitated by the cohort model will stand the test of time without the occasional reenforcement of weak ties found in chance encounters “in the field”.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Das Sozial Kapital

First of all, on the off chance that anyone reading this isn't currently in the MACT program at the University of Alberta, you may need to spend a little time on this site or maybe Wikipedia entry on social capital to follow this. I'm using this blog to meet course requirements, because I am both innovative and lame, the two great tastes that taste great together.

I'm still confused as to exactly what social capital is and what it is not, but looking at the literature it seems I'm not alone. Just about everything we've read in class, and some of the stuff I've read outside of class on this topic, include some sort of definition for the term. Often they go back and cite Bourdieu or Coleman or Putnam.

I understand the arguments against Putnam's definition as inviting circular reasoning. His proof-is-in-the-pudding approach seems to equate social capital with success, then cites that success as evidence of social capital. Being a southerner, I've seen such ideas used to justify “New South” racism. This is particularly true when a few examples of “successful” minorities can be cited as “proof” that racial inequality no longer exists, therefore anyone “playing the race card” is just making up excuses. Their lack of success is evidence of some sort of character flaw because framing it in those terms means it's not racist, even if those terms are being applied to the majority of the members of that race. Not to imply that Putnam himself is racist, just that I've seen similar lines of thought abused for such purposes.

Portes seems to be the only one to call shenanigans on Coleman for his definition. Maybe I'm the dense one here, but this is so close to meaningless as to be functionally worthless to me:

[Social capital is] “a variety of entities with two elements in common:
  1. They all consist of some aspect of social structures, and
  2. They facilitate certain action of actors – whether persons or corporate actors – within the structure.

Aren't we dealing with “social structures” any time we're dealing with 2 or more people? And since we're all people, doesn't that mean that we're dealing with social structures anytime we're dealing with even 1 other person? Some would even make the argument that social structures exist among various elements of ourselves either because our sense of identity itself is a social construct and/or the social elements of language that permeates our inner dialog and idiolect. And what the hell are “some aspects”? Can we be more vague there? And they “facilitate certain action of actors”? Really? Reminds me of “certain substances”:

That leaves us with Bourdieu's definition, which I'm still not completely clear on. I know he differentiates between the resources and the access granted to them, which helps steer clear of some of Putnam's circular reasoning. For example, say I'm a white male from a prominent family in a small town and I know that if I attempt to start my own business and fail, my family won't let me starve. This knowledge encourages me to take more risks than I otherwise would and luckily for me those risks pan out, making me quite successful. I never had to tap into the social capital afforded me by my family's status, but there mere knowledge that I could contributed to my success in significant ways. I think that's an instance of social capital that Bourdieu's definition covers but Putnam's does not. Coleman's definition seems to cover just about anything I can imagine.

But I could be mistaken. The biggest part of Bourdieu's definition that I'm left unclear about is do you have to access some more traditional forms of capital via social ties for it to count? Obviously, if the same guy in the hypothetical situation above got an interest free start up loan from a family member, that would be social capital, even under Putnam's definition. Also, when I was looking for my first job after I got my undergrad degree, I turned down some higher paying positions because I knew I would be less happy in those environments. Is such at-work happiness social capital even if it doesn't necessarily lead to increased productivity? It's a boost to my quality of life, but is that alone enough? Things that are hard to put into monetary terms are equally as hard, in my mind, to judge as social capital (or not).

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Got 16 Minutes?

Watch this:

Don't have the patience? Read the gist of it here.

Are we as a society slowly awakening from a TV induced stupor?