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“Getting Real” at odds with “being academic”?

An enjoyable and highly practical read, Getting Real, as a “hands-on” business guide could be one of the most “anti-academic” texts I’ve been asked to read in graduate school. This comment is meant to be a humorous exaggeration, but still worth inspecting. Certainly, the main argument for underdoing and especially, doing less than others is definitely at odds with most of what we’re taught.  On the other hand, “getting it done” has an definite appeal with dissertations looming. Most of all, this made me keep in mind that we are not producing scholar-monk texts for a small circle of specialists – most of us are planning to make useful tools for a broad group of users – students or other communities–that require not only useability but also a certain “marketing appeal” (a concept probably not heard in most of our classes unless one is getting business degree). So my main motivational question in response to this reading is – did it push any of your academic buttons- was any of this advice hard to accept given the anti-commercial indoctrination of the academy?

To volunteer my own response, I found Getting Real refreshing yet sobering in its arguments. Since I spent years before coming back to school working for small start ups (including software companies) I recognized the DIY-bootstrap mentality permeating the text as a likely outcome of decades of trial and error in software developing booms and busts. Most notably, a set of survival strategies coming out of the post-dotcom era, where bloated staffs living on over-venture capitalized budgets burned through money on just an idea and an overdrawn design process before going belly up. Those days are definitely over and this new generation of developers is benefiting as well from what I see as a higher level of understanding from the user – no longer expecting slick, boxed, super feature loaded programs, today’s users seem to accept that their participation helps make the product better, and that anything is always a “work in progress.” Also–that a given program is not going to be the do-all-end-all but that all users create a personalized “mash up” of the tools that work for them. Hence the “human solutions” section (p.55) that advises the entrepreneur to “put it out there before it’s done”and just fix the details later.  I must admit I found this advice, no matter how accurate, the hardest to accept. Knowing my own work process, it’s going to be pretty hard to “go live” with a tool before it feels done. But that will definitely be a moment for going beyond habits that hold back a product from getting to the users–the real point to all of this, and the one best kept in mind. Finally, it was nice to see the emphasis on “passion” in Getting Real and as academically oriented digital innovators we will certainly not come up short on this account!

Posted in Motivations.

21 Responses

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  1. Hadassah Damien says

    Ria — your site has functional pages, readable text, links…you’ve got all the moving parts! Are people using it? Maybe you can make a white/black and a black/white one and A/B test it…oh wait, you can’t do that in WordPress. I am curious about the interactivity of A/B and want to take part in the “science” of it but worry that the time spent on it is not agile; I’m also curious about the art/swap/rhetoric of UX that could be played with…

  2. Amy says

    In terms of how our work here informs my work in other courses — there are many times I wish I had started this ITP program a little bit earlier – so as to have had more time to work on and understand how to incorporate these skills/theories into my research and coursework. Like Meiling, I’m not looking to work in academia, and so I often think about how my academic work now will translate into non-academic work later. Seems these tools we’re learning are good facilitators of that process.

  3. meiling says

    In terms of academic vs. non-academic, as a returning student I have not expected to make a career of academics by re-entering school but instead have actually been looking at the whole process as a kind of entrepreneurial exercise. I see grad school as a way to expand skills and enter new arenas of work, either non-profit or profit. After doing so much work with small businesses I’m not sure I have the tolerance for academic institutional bureaucracy, so really I would have to say I see everything I’m working on as potentially non-academic. As such the dissertation will be a kind of calling-card for potential employers.

  4. Sonia K. González says

    Michael’s question is quite timely. On Friday I met with my colleague/friend who worked on the rating system that didn’t quite take off and it gave me some ideas of how I might try to integrate ideas for ITP into a larger grant that I am writing. Why not try to get some funding to execute some of this work, right?! This particular proposal will be read by some higher up’s at the NIMH so integrating an ITP type of project is my way of pushing the envelope with older establishments mentioned by Jacob and Naomi above (or may it’s below after I click the post comment button).

  5. Michael Mandiberg says

    Yes, both of these are totally relevant responses: there is potentially a continuum between bracketing off this work as not part of your “academic” work, and merging your academic & “non-academic” work into some kind of synthesis or cohesive cycle. I would like you all to think about how the work you are doing or proposing to do in ITP informs the work you do in your other courses. It is most definitely *not* the same thing, but it should be in some way in dialogue with it.

  6. ria banerjee says

    I’m not sure if this is relevant and/or the kind of response you were looking for, Michael, but I’ve been bracketing off the projects I’m thinking about for this class from my “academic” thesis-related work. Partly because I can’t think of any way to integrate digital humanities-based approaches into my own work yet, but partly because this is like a relief (not!) from the things I usually have to think about all day.

    As for what Chrissy and Jacob mentioned re: academe itself as a work-in-progress, I’d fully agree with that. Maybe not in the rather depressing day-to-day of it, but taking a step back, I find it beautiful to think that something I present at a conference, then work into a paper, and get published, is a teeny little addition to this body of work and thought that has lived and grown for centuries in one form or another. The internet archive is nothing compared to the real archive of humanity that physically exists, discipline-specific or not… And, really, the best academic work isn’t discipline-specific per se in that it might discuss only one literary theory or one sociological phenomenon or one aspect of how the neurons in our brain work, etc. — but it nonetheless infects our eyes and changes how we approach any range of questions. Daniel Dennett, this sciencey philosopher fella of whom we read short extracts for my Tech Writing class, talks about the best ideas being like “universal acid,” or something that eats through everything it comes in contact with — and he uses Darwin’s theory of evolution as one such example. Having looked very, very briefly at that musty old tome, I must say that it strikes me as *the* most “academic” book in its discipline-centric fuddy-duddy boringness… but look how it’s spread into so many aspects of our lives, in ways both good and bad…

  7. Christina says

    This discussion is reminding me of the Seminar I am organizing for the Cultural Studies Association Conference:
    Most of the 15 participants haven’t posted yet, but you can see people writing about how their non-academic practices are shaping their academic practices.

  8. Michael Mandiberg says

    In what ways is the work you are working towards doing rooted in a academic practices, and in non-academic practices?

  9. Janice says

    Metrics of sucess for academic work..METRICS of sucess for acdeminc work…?
    Now THAT’s a good question. As a student, the most direct metric for success has historially been the grade on assignments and standardized tests and the GP, Aand to a lesser extent whether or not the information is understood and useable. It would seem that these items should belisted in the reverse in terms of priority so that students would get more out of instruction, and academic work would be mor sucessful for its wider application. And, what about effort? How can effort be measured?

    I do not yet know what A/B Testing has to offer, and I look forward to checking it and the google analytics out for what they might offer to academic achievement measurement.

  10. Michael Mandiberg says

    Also, kudos Ria for jumping in, making the website, and releasing it before it was perfect. It doesn’t need to be perfect. I only needs to be useful.

  11. Michael Mandiberg says

    Of course this book espouses many philosophies and practices that are completely antithetical to your received academic training. That is one of the reasons I had you read it. To encourage you to question some of those beliefs.

    Jacob pointed something out which is useful to consider further: the empirical proof of the success of one route versus another route in these web based projects is based heavily on the data/surveillance available through A/B Testing and analytics software like Is this an appropriate model to consider in relationship to academic work? What are the metrics of success for academic work?

  12. ria banerjee says

    Oh whoops, my bad! Here goes… In the middle of all that whinging, I completely forgot to post the actual link!

  13. Hadassah Damien says

    Ria — can you put up a URL to your site? We — at least I — will not judge the design!

  14. ria banerjee says

    My own two cents… with apologies for the delay while I got through our reading!

    Firstly, I’d also agree with Chrissie, Amy, et al in saying that the “start big, begin at the user end, break up the idea into manageable bits, and tweak incessantly” all sound to me very much like what I do on a daily basis as a grad student. As anyone who’s written a paper over 20 pages can attest, stodgy academia still encompasses, even requires, a certain low-level flexibility. If you hold too tenaciously to your original idea, your dissertation might not get written — might not even pass the proposal stage — for the good reason that initial ideas are often little more than intuitions.

    I loved the part about meetings and echo Naomi and Sonia’s frustration with management practices and red tape in general. I don’t have to go to a lot of meetings, but people close to me do, and I can safely say that *all* would prefer the 30-minute clock timer rule!

    And finally, something I tried after Michael’s pep talk from the first week was has to do with a film conference I’m organising at the GC (please come, everyone!) and the website that goes with it. I’m terrible at all manner of coding (I hate grammar), and I’ve never maintained a blog because I lack focus. But, stuck making this site for the conference — and having the wild hope that the site I build might become one that can be reused in the future — I figured it was silly to just plan this fictional site. So I made this thing that looks pretty bad, but it’s published and out there for people to look at. I’m really rather ashamed of it (something I notice the excellent designers and coders at 37 Signals didn’t seem too worried about), and I’m also working on it (finally figured out how to add a Registration form on there, although unhappy with how it works!). It’s the small pleasures, though, right? Prospectus remains unfinished, but at least this thing lives and breathes on the Commons…

  15. Naomi Barrettara says

    Sonia, I definitely empathize with your point about the frustration of dealing with bureaucracy. And as Jacob mentioned, technology does change so fast, and I feel that in organizations that are ladened with inefficient bureaucracy, it is difficult to innovate and adapt quickly – whether that innovation or adapting means changing an approach, jumping on a research opportunity, or rolling out a new project or product. I know in my own workplace, the fear of forging a path through bureaucracy is often the MAIN deterrent to innovation. I know that the “getting real” text emphasized that one should try and avoid creating inefficiencies when approaching a new project, but sometimes it can be discouraging when one feels powerless to change inefficiencies that already exist within the organization or industry one wants to work and build new projects.

  16. Sonia K. González says

    The Getting Real approach reminds me of a mantra that I have tried to live by for some time now, “work smarter, not harder”. I don’t turn away from hard work, but I much prefer when that work is efficient and towards a clear, and, preferably, applicable goal. While I see Chrissy’s points about academic’s work going live and the process of contributing knowledge to a growing and constantly changing body of work/knowledge, I also see and have experienced the inefficiencies within that model. At least in public health, there is a huge difference in timing of implementing an intervention at the community level vs. having a researcher develop the same work. Actually, I was at a conference last year (Sex::Tech) and the first day was organized for researchers to exchange ideas on a number of areas, including a session in which a national funder asked what they could do to help move this research forward. Not surprisingly, one of the salient themes that arose in that conversation was the need for funding research applications to move through the assessment phase faster when there is an interest in new media/technology for the very reason that Jacob raises: technology changes so rapidly these days.

    This issue of efficiency has been on my mind recently as I think “what I want to do when I finally grow up”. The bureaucracy isn’t something that I’m particularly good at dealing with and it is keenly on my mind how I might manage wanting to be a researcher of new media and urban youth of color while minimizing the inefficiencies that come with that role – at least traditionally.

  17. Amy says

    This was definitely a good read, and I think much of the broad themes can apply to a lot of different situations, as they lay out at the end. I would echo what Christina said, in that I don’t really see this as “anti-academic.” Mostly because all I hear now, from faculty and students, is “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” and that the goal is to find something do-able, in a not-to-long amount of time, and any ideas that arise throughout should be pursued after the fact.

    This reading also reminded me of my experience of developing a community website within an academic-community partnership. We spent 2 years in “development” — which meant going back and forth, and back and forth with the Drupal developers, to fix content, wording, display, order, etc. We did countless rounds of usability testing. And we kept adding features. Essentially we tried to make everything “perfect” before going live, which was interesting particularly given our “community-based” approach and our philosophy that the community and users will inform us of what is needed. If we had stuck to that philosophy, perhaps we would have focused on the putting out the basics/essential, rather than become inundated in the minute details. So as we move forward with our projects, this will be a good read to constantly refer back to.

  18. meiling says

    Thanks for all the great responses. I think I was trying to make “provocation” as much as “motivation” but now I realize that I am also probably biased due to my humanities training. Social sciences are waaay more practical than literature, history, etc. in my experience. But–this thought might open up another stream of dissent. Just wondering…..

  19. Janice says

    Great motivational question! I definitely see where you are coming from, Meiling. It seems that the mantra for higher education/living persistently has been about putting the best foot forward, and striving for comprehensive presentation: If it’s not complete, “A” material, keeping working at it.

    All the same, my more recent academic, professional, and life experiences have revolved around the basic tenets of “getting real”. Bite (byte)-sized pieces, and try-and-try again enable an all-important early interface with the audience (consumers, the public), require a high level of focus, and engender opportunity to test and perfect as you go that I find results in greater satisfaction all around.

    Though I would not say that “getting real” is expressly at odds with academia, I agree that as an instituition we have not adopted the mindset. I think that explicit instruction/acknowledgement that our contributions will necessarily need more work even when they are “done” would be a helpful counter to the perfectionistic quality of so much of our world. To date, I am lucky to have the pleasure of the inconsistent encounter with the odd instructor who clearly has swallowed that cool aid, whole.

  20. Jacob Lederman says

    I think Getting Real responds to the fact that technology is changing so rapidly that developers can no longer afford to develop software that can be expertly designed, marketed, etc. since so much now depends on how end-users make use of these products. I think it also responds to the explosion of data that is available now on users/uses that perhaps wasn’t during the time that Meiling mentioned. Instead of doing user testing or focus groups to understand how people will use applications or software, there are now millions of data points that can be extracted simply because of the web’s ability to agglomerate data/clicks etc. I’m not sure how much this applies to academia. In part, I guess I wonder how we would measure how useful our work is to others…

  21. Christina says

    I have to disagree that it’s anti-academic, although I see where you are coming from. As I’m trying to get my dissertation done (well, okay… started) I think that the advice in Getting Real is exactly what you ultimately have to do as an academic. Whether, it is to prioritize and have a reality about the kind of things you can accomplish (p.19), or to “pick a fight” to get your idea (p.21) or only building half (p.48). I could go on, but every other page is something applicable. Ultimately, we have to “go live” with our academic work before it feels done because it’s never going to be really possible to complete something (despite that on some level, yes, the academy is modeled on that appearance). Maybe conference presentations are like our work in beta form. But our work will be far from a finished project as it all it really ends up being is a contribution to a body of knowledge that is constantly building on itself and is itself a work in progress. The academy is a work in progress.

    That said, perhaps it might be useful if someone might critique my argument by saying it is too discipline specific and doesn’t pertain to other fields of the academy. I have a hunch that could be true.

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