Reading “On Being an Unemployed Arts Graduate”

Reading “On Being an Unemployed Arts Graduate“, I tend to agree with the diagnosis. Humanities departments should be less ambiguous about their raison d’être. However, you can’t exempt the graduates and the corporations that fail to hire them of any responsibility so easily. Not seeing exactly what something is or what it’s for and pushing through nonetheless is a useful and beautiful thing. It requires a lot of grit, willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

What I find most disheartening in this article is the focus on monetary value and individualism (and the self-helpy vibe). Therapy and individual well-being can’t be the sole purpose of Humanities. If we go down that path in reorganising universities, we will encourage creeping individualism.

Colleges have also community missions: they help cities/states govern themselves, by informing and educating citizens. Humanities have a lot to offer in the domain of the political and the communal.

  • Urbanisation is rampant: how do we make inclusive cities?
  • Innovation is faster: how are we relating to technology?

How to move towards content ecosystems?

How to design a CMS for the modern newsroom in On Content by Lee Simpson describes how the Guardian develops content management as an ecosystem and not through a single specialized piece of software.

Creating ecosystems of smaller and interchangeable pieces joined by APIs instead of betting on a single integrated CMS seems to be the most robust solution. There are content exchange formats emerging and such an approach is not a utopia anymore. Lee Simpson describes the evolving ecosystem thus:

A standardised mechanism for handling content from draft to publish (and beyond) would allow us to take advantage of tools being built by other software houses dedicated to solving the problems at individual stages of the content publishing process. Similarities can be found in the bases of programming workflow — dedicated systems and tools for each step of the process.

The benefits of this approach are numerous. For one, it reduces the friction in the tools’ adoption. If you can offer collaborators options, you will get new procedures and systems adopted much faster. People who have already developed preferences for certain applications may use them. Others will have options. They’ll welcome this freedom and that will make them much more cooperative.

Such an approach will help encourage content creation in non-journalistic organisations as well. Lots of professionals do write. Simply not in their browsers. If you can let them have their writing app or their image manager, for example, that might make organisational changes less painful.

However, the centralized services and APIs necessary to make this vision a reality are shared resources. Organizations in which the power is distributed and where the departments enjoy, cherish and safeguard their autonomy tend to resist the complications of putting shared resources in place. Shared resources require common rules. Sorting this out is digital governance. These rules will be embodied both in policies and computer code. They will be — or at least appear — costly to change. All the negotiations between business units must happen up-front: requirements have to be defined, someone has to be empowered to enforce the rules, etc.  Even if the benefits are great, it takes tremendous amounts of power and goodwill to sell. And the organization must be ready.

10 steps to live-tweet debates

Live tweeting panels is hard. 140 characters is very little. The main goals when covering an event alone is to testify that the event has taken place and that people following either in-person or on a live stream have gotten something important out of it. This encourages attendance for the next events obviously and raises the profile of the organizer.

Go through the list of panelists and search their presence on social media. That maybe frustrating in an academic setting because you’ll often find that they don’t have one. However, you may be surprised! Some prominent figures in the academic world are pretty active on Twitter. Journalists and politicians are also often on social media. Try to memorize their twitter handles or make a list on your laptop. Panelists will retweet you if you show up in their notifications. Accidental subtweeting can be embarrassing but it’s bound to happen.

Announce the event, live-tweet and possible streaming a few days in advance. Give all the necessary details. If many or all of the participants are active online, prepare an announcement tweet featuring each of them. Schedule those tweets at regular intervals. Keep in mind that you might have to mention each of them for fairness’ sake.

Choose your #hashtag with care. Discuss hashtag with coworkers. Go for the obvious one. If the event is about current affairs, chances are there will be one already. Look at trending topics. Make a few searches about the subject of the event. The hashtag will come to you. If all this fails, invent one. If the topic is too controversial, try flying below the radars by using the name of the organizer and the date. Being roped into arguments about the event’s organisation and the choice of panelists during the live tweeting of the event is a nightmare. Try to avoid that even if it means loosing a little visibility.

Be there early. Find a good place. Next to the center aisle is good so you can get up to take pictures. Before the event, encourage people to join one last time and comment positively on the attendance. If there’s a live stream, add a link in those first tweets.

Be accurate. If you’re not sure that the tweet accurately conveys the things that have been said, don’t send it. It’s better to have a partial account than an inaccurate one. If you engage the responsibility of the event’s organizers, misrepresenting the guests could impact their ability to get guests in the future.

Focus on tiny statements. They might seem inconsequential in the grander scheme of the debate but that’s all you can count on. In fact, chances are the grander scheme of the debate will escape you because you’ll be busy trying to catch tweet-worthy soundbites. There’s no way you can follow, synthesize and live-tweet a debate at the same time. If you need a synthesis and live-tweets, take two different people. You can count on partners, especially if the panel has members of the press on it. There will be journalists in the audience. Follow them and publicize their content.

Describe the topic in general. If you can’t be accurate and focus on tiny statements, describe what is being discussed without conveying judgments or opinions. Tell who is speaking and what topics he focuses on without going into details that might introduce inaccuracies. This technique works especially well with pictures.

Post pictures. Pictures do well on Twitter and they don’t require detailed Sit in a place where no empty seats show. Enlist coworkers with phones to send you pictures during the event. You will be able to post pictures from various angles.

Be fair. Find a way to mention and represent every single panelist. Sometimes, this is going to be hard. Some people don’t make tiny statements especially if they get emotional. Use every trick in the books to give them the most equal possible air time. The casual observer of your live-tweet should be able to reconstruct the guest list from your tweets.

Do not make public comments on the quality of the coverage. It isn’t your place to comment on the quality of the partners’ work. You need them. You can count on your followers and the guests themselves to point things out and issue corrections. But do not like or comment on them. Interfere only to kick and ban assholes.

After the event. Round up pictures and take the good ones and put them in a Facebook album (if you got a page) as a long term testament of the event. Since it’s a public event that is publicized, you can tag people in it. If you tag the panelists, you have to tag all of them.

You can keep posting about your event until you announce the next one. Take advantage of transcripts, round-ups, video and audio as they come out.

Image credit: Vdovichenko Denis / Shutterstock.com

The fast and cheap curse

Cheap and fast usually bring friends to the party. Among their annoying friends is convenience. Cheap and fast websites are quickly considered an easy and self-evident commodity that isn’t worth any serious consideration. The first thing to fly out the window when you focus on cheap and fast are the arguments and questions that should precede any kick-off meeting and guide the creation of websites. “What is this website achieving for your department?” becomes an off-topic and time-consuming distraction. Everyone starts acting like it’s a rude question; as if the asker meddles with their private affairs.

“Just do the website!”, they’ll say. The word “just” insinuates itself into every sentence. It will soon be accompanied by weird semi-shrugs and sighs. It’ll spread in the team like a virus.

“Just” is toxic. It means that a half-assed website is acceptable as long as it’s cheap, fast and as long as you don’t bother people with questions. A CMS, templates and half-baked internal documents do not a website make because the job of a website is not just to exist. A website isn’t a testament to the power of the people who commissioned it. It isn’t a shrine to the cult of the emperor. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. When websites are driven by organisational ego, things go awry quick.

Proper websites have goals and provide a service to visitors and guests. Visitors and guests, by the way, have their own motivations. Having to say it seems silly. Yet project leads who hesitate to address the website’s purpose tend to overlook visitors and their reasons to visit the website in the first place. Spending time discussing the organisation’s and the visitor’s goals to find the overlap is the heart of the matter.

IT-minded, deployment-obsessed, cost-shaving, and discussion-hating internal web teams are at risk. Technology makes it easier and easier to push words, images, videos and sounds to servers. Commoditized publishing platforms such as Medium, WordPress.com and Squarespace will reach into the enterprise very soon and put our website spinning teams out-of-business.

Instead of focusing on cheap, fast and convenient, we should steer our practices and culture towards thoughtful craftsmanship, accompany our internal clients in the shaping of their communication initiatives, think about visitors and address content. Such a change will ensure that our jobs are secure because no vendor or service provider can take that away. Moreover, it will make our organisations more in-tune with both employees and the outside world. And that will make us loads of cash.

Carousels work great but not for communications

Slideshows or carousels are wonderful. They provide ample space for everything to be on the homepage for weeks. There is no need to hold meetings about the website. All stakeholders think they are getting a fair deal and appropriate amounts of exposure for their content. You may even whisper to yourself that your visitors get a well-rounded idea of your organisation’s activities.

Since the space is unlimited in the carousel, it’s free and harmless. There is no need to argue over what’s more important. Everyone in the organisation can just phone the webmaster and order a new slide. Something comes up, the web gal puts an announcement online as fast as she can copy-paste and markup, adds a new slide. Peace is kept. We’re all happy.

Except. Messages don’t get through. Experts have written about the fact that carousels don’t get people to click and take action (a sequence of events otherwise known as “conversion“) and also about how carousels are a nightmare both in terms of search engine optimisation and in terms of your site’s ease of use. If effective communications are a real priority, that should be unacceptable.

Carousels are hurting your organisation. You assume it works without having checked. This creates a huge dead angle: it makes all discussions of web governance and due process irrelevant since everyone can request the creation of homepage content. Your web presence could accomplish so much more. You could rock.

Why do we refuse to? We fear tense discussions and accusations of insubordination. We don’t want everybody yelling in a meeting or, worse, agree and hold grudges. We all love peace but we have to weigh that against our need to get our messages across.

Carousels don’t work. You might be OK with that for peace’s sake. But if you’re convinced yours is an exception, at least, measure it and face the facts.

 

On inner-life and friendships

Being there for friends and family who have issues with their health – mental or otherwise is not easy. I do care and want to help further. On the one hand, overstepping their boundaries can be uncomfortable for them. On the other, helping without letting their suffering tear you down is challenging. A tore down friend is of little use. If I can learn to help more without wearing out or stepping over lines, I will be a better human. Hence, I am excited by this week’s discussions.

A mind is a delicate thing. My own gives me trouble sometimes. When I lock the door every morning to go to work, I check with one hand then the other. Despite of that, I feel an urge to go back and check again as soon as I turn the corner.

The most severe it ever got was when I was still new at my job and just got into my first flat. I’d check the windows and the stove as well as the door and needed to go back in and start over quite often. I talked about it to friends over dinner after a meetup — got some advice. It lasted a month or two. Thankfully, I am back to checking only the door.

You’d think that the absence of a door or work-related stress would make anxieties disappear. Well. No. They catch up with you pretty fast. I had been on holiday for three days. One morning, turning the corner after leaving my hotel, I heard “I flushed, right?” in my head. I almost burst out laughing on the street at the silliness.

Come on. I worry about the chambermaid liking me? Is that what’s happening? She hasn’t got the time or the energy to give me a single thought. Worrying if people like me. Fearing being rejected. Big on that. Being an anxious pleaser-type weighs on my ability to form and maintain relationships.

The internet and the web afforded me the luxury of staying at my desk and still have friends online.  With the rivers of abuse and harassment overflowing, people are more guarded than ever — with good reasons. Time was, you could form acquaintances and relationships online. I was on ICQ, and Caramail, “The Pretender” and “Dawson’s Creek” fan forums. Went on Jabber and then Twitter — it used to be such an idyllic place. Now, with the climate of rising suspicions, most of the people I follow online seem to no longer assume people’s intentions are good anymore. This barrier to forming acquaintances or friendships online becomes harder to overcome every hour. When I try to overcome them, errors are made — often by me. Misunderstandings occur. It gets strange and nobody’s satisfied.

Erin Kissane wrote a great piece called “Ditching Twitter” about changes in the use of the service and what shall be done to cope. It’s a great read. Perhaps, I’ll start writing e-mails to people I admire again. I used to be less crap at that than I seem to be at getting through to them on Twitter.

Apart from the dramatic changes occurring online, shame as well as the necessity to safeguard a reputation (to remain employed, for example) often stop people from discussing health – especially mental health – issues. One of the benefits of Geek Mental Help Week will be, I hope, to make these discussions even more common. Fortunately, I do have IRL friends with whom to realtalk about inner-life — even though few of them are social media enclined or geeky.

Finding such friends is difficult and requires great deals of courage. Confessions and disclosures are not a currency accepted by all people. Some respond very positively, listen without issuing a judgment and offer their own stories in response. Others do not want to hear of any kind of struggle whatsoever, offer lame advice or, worse, a morale to your story. Attitudes vary widely from individual to individual. You, therefore, have to try and see case by case which can also be awkward and strange. When they go over well, disclosures can bring people together in subtle and new ways. It’s often worth trying.

This is published for #GeekMentalHelp Week, an initiative announced by Andrew Clarke on his website. Authors facing more severe issues have written courageous pieces. I encourage you to read them.

Geek Mental Help Week

On the week of October 27th, we’re going to have a global discussion about mental health in the web industry through magazines, blogs and podcasts. You can read all about Geek Mental Help Week on Andrew Clarke’s website. Our industry is demanding, fast-paced and the fact that we work alone in front of a computer for long stretches of time puts us at risk. I can’t wait to learn more about how to help others even as I face my own mild anxiety.

If you have something to say about mental health and/or help, consider publishing your thoughts during the week of October 27th.

Elevator Pitch

I’m flying to Barcelona on Tuesday for a few vacation days before going to Confab Europe 2014. Looking forward to meeting people I admire, I promised myself to write an “about page” for my site and brush up my resume to find a coherent and concise way to introduce myself.

I have to marvel at people who always could narrow their roles to a single job title — I struggle with that. And it is a problem in conferences and other events. I, either, do too many things or am reluctant to accept a single label. We all do what projects require — don’t we? But it’s an unhelpful answer. Whispering “I am called webmaster, an anachronism, from eons past. I do… everything” is too theatrical, not much more useful and increasingly inaccurate. “Jack-of-all-trades” does have negative connotations.

Hence, I devoted last week-end to taking my own advice and return to my “Skills and Professional History Assessment”. It is a magical document which I periodically update to keep professional anxieties at bay. According to this inventory of my present skills and responsibilities, I do CMS customization, copy writing, editing and social media community management on various projects. Now I just have to memorize that and say it clearly :)

What this also tells me is that I am indeed focusing more and more on content management . It is good news.  What is still lacking is the strategy and organisational change part. Small team, huge organisation — learning a lot every day. If I keep at it, it will come.

 

Notes around Ethics, Sexism and Manhood

Twitter erupted because of celebrity leaked nude pictures again this week. This is just the latest in gender-related abuse and violence to flare up in my timeline. There are countless others. More come sadly every day.

Social media is very much the “Parliament of the Moment” as John Roderick described it in episode #122 of Roderick on the Line. Sometimes, you have to shield yourself from it. However, some feminist Twitter accounts have made me acutely aware of the depth and extent of sexism. If you still can’t believe how bad it is, follow @EverydaySexism for a week. It is positive to gain a little comprehension and exert your empathy muscles — even if the anger proves difficult to deal with.

Perhaps it is well to be angry. On the morning after somebody stole and released these photos, my Facebook feed was full of people taking the “tech angle”. One after another, they blamed victims for not using strong encryption. Not having data security experts in their entourage. (Oh. Hum. This is Bryan. He is my 256-bit encryption key bearer.) Or they recycled stale arguments against the “cloud”. Most of the aforementioned geeks get angry when the hue of gray changes on a button’s drop-shadows. And they are pissed — albeit not surprised — at the NSA’s mass surveillance. Yet, they seemed to leave the perpetrators of this abuse off the hook. My anger pump went to 11.

We’re talking about the violent grabbing of someone’s property and an unacceptable violation of their intimacy. This is a maddening issue of ethics. Many have written about it, some eloquently and some even with proper disdain for keyword density. The Verge has a great post about the reaction to this leak versus the NSA mass surveillance thing. Jessica Valenti wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian explaining why we shouldn’t seek out these leaked shots. Scott Mendelson on Forbes calls these events what they are: sex crimes. They’re all great pieces. I don’t have anything to add about these events.

Every time abuse and humiliation of women are discussed. I am lead to examine my own ethics and how I interact with women day to day. Including to woo them and seek their company. Not only because I am a self-centered person but also because my own behaviour is the only one that I have a little bit of power over. And, it’s something we shall all do if we’re to get better at living together. “How am I to conduct myself in this world?” is a question worth asking. It surfaces periodically. I had never felt articulate, pissed and courageous enough to post about it online until now.

One semester of gender studies is enough to give you a lot of guilt about privilege and defamiliarize you with a lot of thought-patterns and ubiquitous stereotypes. For one of my seminars, I picked apart Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” — one of my favourite books, and uncovered countless instances of prejudice and revolting one-dimensional female characters. Taking a book from your formative years and deconstructing it is a terrifying exercise because it shows how aesthetically pleasing stories and tropes make it right past our defences and lodge themselves firmly in our consciousness — and most probably our subconscious. One semester isn’t nearly enough to put a mind right, though. It has left me confused and afraid and without the vocabulary to even properly voice my concerns.

My mind rattled and chewed on personal history and literary influences obsessively for weeks after that. For example, the Romantics’ language that I was enamoured with when I was a teenager proves to be deeply problematic. It not only objectifies women. It is based on complimenting a woman on separate parts of her body in sequence. For example, poets state their appreciation of a neck and collar bones abstracted from the woman they belong to. Just a random example. It can be construed as symbolic slaughter, can’t it?

Then, there’s the blues I listen to. Blues songs are often sexist and sometimes outright misogynistic. But their form is often so cool that you want to overlook it. Not to mention self-pity is sometimes a comfy cushion. In her column about pop songs, Ann Friedman concludes that we can compartmentalize and appreciate music that may be sexist. I am still not sure it is OK, though.

When I am in full freak out mode, part of me (Let’s call him my inner Earl of Lemongrab) becomes convinced that everything I say contains, encoded within, sexist and/or misogynistic things. I imagine exchanges with women I admire. I won’t have finished my first sentence and a loud buzzer is going to s… See? I just metaphorically equated having a conversation with a woman to a game show. Objectification. (Hello!) Oh. What is coming out of my mouth?

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Some (Most?) of that comes down to irrational insecurities. In the face of the ubiquitous abuse women face online, the endless street harassment, revenge porn and other rivers of shit we (Yes. I include everyone.) have to deal with all the time, these concerns can be dismissed as petty and laughable. But at the heart of it lie some big and important questions about the ethics of language use, sexism and how we sustain relationships.

It’s all part of the larger “how to be a man” line of inquiry. It is a valid one. That problem is long ways from being solved. Ann Friedman wrote “What Does Manhood Mean in 2013?” in her The Cut column and said:

“Patriarchy” doesn’t just mean concrete systems that ensure only men have access to the upper echelons of power; it also encompasses our ingrained cultural understanding of what men should be and how they show dominance.

She makes a good point that we have to address this question for the sake of all genders. However, we can’t get to it because we need to, with good reason, address endless streams of sexist attacks. In the meantime, it continues to be “confusing out here”, as Ann Friedman wrote, and I sometimes feel baffled.

To humanities graduates seeking employment

Lots of friends I had left behind in university ranks are now considering entering paid employment. Even though unemployment is low in Switzerland, getting a job is still difficult. Transitioning from a liberal arts education into the “workforce” is an especially long ordeal. So I worry…

The worst part is fear. Politicians and employer union representatives keep screaming that there are too many college educated people who they label as “unemployable”. It’s HR-speak for “useless”. It saddens me. It carries a lot of stigma. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to wash the label off. When counsellors at the unemployment office, friends or family say you have to work on your “employability”, what they mean is you have to weasel out of being useless. These levels of jargon and condescension are hard to stomach. No matter. They’re right on some level: you will have to change, gain experience, etc. However, you’re not as far behind as you might think. It’s a matter of attitude and learning to market your skills.

Young humanities graduates are squished between romantic ideals of our “calling” as defenders of the besieged humanities and the harsh realities of a world which seems in perpetual crisis. At my graduation ceremony, the dean of our faculty told us that starting a career would take 18 to 24 months of suffering. Right after that, an 80 year old alumnus said that it was our responsibility to “shine a light” upon the world and dispense humanistic lessons on scientists, engineers and bankers who seem to run things (poorly). If you’ve ever bought into the idea that your role would be to impose humanist values upon the uncaring, you better saddle up. It’s gonna be a hell of an attitude adjustment.

Such arrogance gives credence to the prejudice we face from employers — in fact. They don’t care about our values, what we learned about the human condition by analysing the Prose Edda, or the inconsistencies of chivalric discourse uncovered by Chaucer’s tongue-in-cheek humour. Calling knights hypocrites may get you somewhere among gender studies and feminist intellectuals, but in most workplaces it only makes people snigger at your inadequacies and question your competence. Nobody cares. The phone’s ringing — you better get to it.

robin-llorando

If they don’t care about medieval literature, what do employers care about? They care about weird shit like getting things done on time and under budget. Since you took two years to submit that twelve page paper about “Hamlet”, you may not see yourself as an ideal candidate just yet. But don’t worry. You just have to adapt. Unlearn some old habits and learn some new ones. That’s really what this 18 month period is about. Wave goodbye to your humanities student self.

All young graduates are in the same boat. Or at least they face the same rushing river. Even people who got degrees which seemed more marketable when you started college need to adjust. It’s raining MBAs and they are more prone to grandiose expectations than humanities students.

Once you are sufficiently distraught and poor, you’ll have no scruples left. You’ll use our secret killer-rhetoric techniques to sell yourself. There are lots of experiences which come from growing in the humanities you can sell. For example, do you remember when you had to get the signature of two super-busy professors, run from one department to the next, talk to twelve administrative assistants and five teaching assistants just to register for an exam? And then had do it all over again to get the credit? Believe it or not, this kind of grit is marketable. Put that down on your resume: You know how to navigate horrible backwards bureaucratic systems and get results. That will come in handy because there are lots of bureaucratic systems in large organisations. And it’s only an example of all the things you manage very well already.

  • Revisit your past, every growth opportunities, every teachable moments and every task. Make a list.
  • Then, gather job postings that might interest you and analyse them as you would a literary text.
  • For each task description, prepare arguments with stories about how you already did a version of that.

Always speak to the fear. Looking for a job is scary. Hiring might even be scarier. The people across the table from you are scared out of their minds — always. Their hire may be a mistake and they will look bad if you under perform. It is very important that you raise no alarms in their minds. As humanities students, we always were taught to address complexity and unpack simplifications to expose flaws. Do that in private. In public, you’ll get farther by reassuring people.

I don’t expect any of this to sink in and make a difference on your first reading. There are a few resources that might help you, though, such as the classic podcast “Back To Work” — especially episode 7. Statistics do say that you’ll have a hard time no matter what you read off the internet. Make the best out of that time and learn as much as possible about yourself, work and how to get things done. Eventually, you will find a nice job and you too will know the joys of being baffled by office politics, bewildered by unclear hierarchies, perplexed by obscure expectations and inconvenienced by endless rambling meetings.

kermit waving arms

Have faith, dear reader. Have faith.