Claiming Identity

March 17th is not only St. Patrick’s Day, it also the day my mom was born.   Happy Birthday Mom!!!  Patricia McCarthy who later married a Sullivan.  Seems like you can’t get more Irish than that.  While my first name isn’t particularly Irish — my siblings, Kevin and Colleen, couldn’t bear more Irish monikers.

Growing up in an Irish Catholic family with many cousins, aunts, and uncles, there was always a lot of pride in this Irish identity.  Green shamrocks, Irish jigs, affiliation with the church where many of the Irish families went, and later in life trips to Ireland. Yet both of my grandmothers were French Canadian,  Quebecois.  Both spoke French as children and up until their marriages, both had been part of long, long Quebecois lineages. My cousin Jeannie McCarthy, who later became a DeSantis, has done the leg work to map the tree on my mom’s side.

I never knew either of my grandfathers, the ones who connect me to my Irish roots.  My mom’s father died when she was nine.  As I’ve gotten older, I find it strange that this Irish identity was so embraced while the Quebecois just sat in the corner.  I think some of the claiming of the Irish identity and ignoring the Quebecois has to do with power dynamics in a small rural town (including tensions around language and assimilation) and some has to do with  patriarchy.

In the years since my mom’s death, I have looked at the long, long line of women who made me possible, finding my way back to Marie Bardin born about 1597 in La Rochelle, France whose daughter Marie Boisdon would marry Jaques Vézina and travel with him to New France in the mid-1600s.  My Irish ancestors would come nearly two centuries later.  Up until my generation, my direct ancestors had not moved far from that 90 miles between Montreal and Malone, NY.

So on this very Irish of days, I also want to celebrate those French women who came before me, as well as that first generation who blended the French with the Irish, my mom and her siblings.  They have left me with an identity that is more than just being a Sullivan.  While I am at it, I  wish a happy birthday to Don Bernier who is a Franco-American born on St. Patrick’s Day.  Seems appropriate to note him here 🙂

[NOTE:  The family crest in this post was created by my cousin Joel Chapin whose mother was born Ruth McCarthy. He crafted it for our first official family reunion and it perfectly reflects the binding of the Irish and French that was our grandmother, Grace May (or Mary) Labelle McCarthy.]

The Cost of Creating Knowledge

So I was there and now I am here.  I left a research institution for a decently sized nonprofit.  This has meant losing access to a number of tools that facilitate and allow new knowledge to be built — Institutional Review Boards, statistical software, sophisticated surveying tools, library resources, and more.   Tens of  thousands of dollars in knowledge creating assets no longer easily accessed.  Luckily the new nonprofit has some capacity to start building this infrastructure.  Some it will need to be borrowed.  This is because staffers have social capital to access it through their networks or other affiliations. We also have the most expensive asset –  hundreds of thousands of dollars of human capital that knows how to create knowledge.

But what if you are a grassroots organization trying to provide evidence that your reality is actually real?  What if you are fighting against the knowledge creation resources of a much more well resourced opponent?  What then?  I may be lamenting my diminished research capacities, but I am still far more privileged than many.

Being Represented

The global is local. I may not be able to change things at the federal level, but change at the local level is possible and doable.


The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president and the near domination of the GOP at almost every level of government has me thinking a lot about what it means to be in a representative democracy. As I see the President-Elect assemble his cabinet, I do not see any person or persons who represent my vision or me for a future. While I can’t speak for the majority of voters who voted for someone else other than Mr. Trump, I doubt they see themselves or their interests represented there.

At this moment, North Carolina’s elected representatives in the state house are stripping the powers of the incoming Governor, a Democrat, who after an extremely competitive race ousted the GOP incumbent responsible for supporting regressive bills that resulted in concrete hardship, both economic and social, for the state. These very same legislators are also the ones who worked to curtail the voting rights of African Americans and young people. They did not succeed.

This anti-democratic move, so like the recent election of Mr. Trump, is a fight to see who will be represented in our government. This has me thinking a lot about my very own local elected bodies. And how like the election of Mr. Trump, I do not feel represented by those who sit on either the City Council, nor the School Committee. I do not see myself, my values, nor my Lowell represented there. There have been a few glimmers in the last twenty years, but they are fleeting.

I’ve lived and worked in Lowell for almost two decades. From the moment I first came to Lowell, I have loved its diversity. The mix of history, culture and perspectives from across the globe are like no other in the Commonwealth. I have thought this is the closest I will get to a mini-NYC in New England. Lowell is big enough to contain many lives and many stories, but small enough to belong and be known, even if one is constantly referred to as a “blow-in” or “outsider” by some. Lowell is fortunate to have committed civic actors who care, love and strive to make the city a better place. Lowell’s nonprofit sector is amazing and I don’t think we fully understand how rare it is the collaboration and partnership that happens here. But most of all, Lowell’s people sustain me. They are the reason I continue to remain invested.

Despite my love of Lowell, every local election cycle I am disappointed. I don’t doubt the fact that those who run and are elected to local bodies love and care for Lowell as much or more than I do. I don’t doubt that they are driven and aspire for what they see as best for the city. Yet, every new Council and School Committee draws its winners from a very small and limited group of the City’s populace. While they are committed public servants, their perspectives are narrow. I do not see all of Lowell represented there. The vibrant ethnic and immigrant communities, the young, the artists, the newcomers or blow-ins, the neighborhoods and so many more perspectives are missing. They are not represented. And because a diversity of backgrounds and experiences are not on our elected bodies, our local public institutions and policies suffer. Lowell suffers. We may be amazing in so many ways, but we could be even better if more of us were represented.

So while I feel despondent about the federal government representing me and I see limitations in so many places, I feel confident that Lowell’s politics could and can be better. We are about to enter into a new local election cycle and there is an opportunity to expand who represents us. There are multiple pathways to make this happen and I urge us all push to make our politics more representative. It might not be easy, or without conflict, but I believe it will benefit us in the long term. I am thinking through what I will do to make this vision a reality, and if you are in a place like Lowell, or even Lowell, what will you do?

The Open Dinner — A Modest Step towards an Engaged Community

Community Dinner

I have a wonderful friend, Y Sok.  She is a bold Cambodian woman who is by far one of the most amazing hosts.  In another time and place, she would be the mistress of a sparkling Salon.  Y has recently moved to Manchester, England to join her newly wed husband Jonathan.  Prior to her departure from Lowell, Massachusetts (whose blueprint came from Manchester), Y ran weekly Tuesday night dinners.  They were open invitation to her broad network.  You could bring along any guest and there was always room and food.  It was a standing thing and the best part of the whole evening would be the eclectic mix of people and the conversation.  The food was always fantastic, but the conversation and connection even more so.

Now Y is hosting weekly Friday night dinners in her small abode in Manchester to anyone who signs up to her club.  It is a free club organized through MeetUp.  She cooks the mains and the guests bring the sides.  That is the contract.  Here’s her report out on the dinner last night:

It went great. Best one so far. I have close to a hundred members now, and all dinners booked months in advance. Meeting really interesting people, from all walks of life. My next one is Polish food. Last night we had a newly separated rich guy, a mechanic, a Venezuelan ex pat widow, a retired teacher, a curtain maker, and a pub owner. I usually do the main dish, and they bring everything else. They love the idea that they have to research the country, and recipes. Jonathan helps serve Drinks, and cleans up.

What would happen if we each did something as simple as invite a bunch of strangers to dinner?  Not even once a week, not even once a month, but just ONCE.  Who would show up?  What sort of new connections, ideas and relationships would be formed?  It is a bit scary to open one’s home to the unknown.  It takes some courage.  I’m not sure if I have such courage.  But what if I did? What if you did?

Note:  image courtesy of –

What is the Internet’s Constitution?


Peter Levine asked “how to teach the constitution of cyberspace?”  Is it possible for students to “critically assess the basic rules and structure of the Internet, much as they should understand and be able to criticize the US Constitution”? I agree with Levine that the massive, complex, and dynamic system that is the Internet is hard to suss out.  Where would one begin to critically assess?  Where are the founding principles codified?

Thinking on this it occurred to me that if we went back to the early 1960s we may indeed be able to articulate the founding blueprint of the Internet, its DNA, its Constitution.  Skimming through a couple of historical documents — most notably Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet and Roy Rozenzweig’s Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet, I am wondering what we might learn about the values and design of the Internet from two key protocols – TCP/IP and HTTP.   The former are the essential protocols that allow everything on the Internet to work and the latter the gateway that ushered millions online.

Admittedly technical language such as these can be off putting.  The purpose and intents for the design not always clear to the lay audience.  And while the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified to provide the scaffold for an emerging nation, these protocols were designed for an emerging communication system which has grown to embody a massive, virtual and electronically fueled “cyberspace”.

So what are the principles, values, and essential design features of these protocols and what might they tell us about democracy online?

When a Course becomes a Community

image courtesy of PeachPit Press

Dave Cormier, the mind behind Rhizomatic Learning 2014 (#rhizo14), just posted thoughts on his blog about creating a wonderful learning experience that went from a 6-week course to a self-propelled learning community.  The challenge as Cormier articulates it is how to bring in new learners into this community. His original plan – create a new course, but what about the energy of the existing learning community?  Connect the new course to the first course or simply bring the new learners into the existing community?

If the new paradigm is to move towards learning as a continual process in which individual learners build and find communities where they can explore and connect their interests and knowledge, it seems is just screaming to emerge.  Cormier, himself, is inclined to move this way and has put the question to the existing community.

So what happens when we break even further from the traditional configurations of a course?  Participants in Rhizo14 took the call to be agents of learning seriously. They continued to meet and discuss beyond the stated time frame and framework of the “course”.  So what does it take for a course to become a community?

I’ve thought about open and self-organizing spaces, both real and virtual, for some time. The Rhizomatic Learning community / course / space — has created a container and bounded the space.  Folks are there to explore a specific knowledge domain and they bring a wealth of energy and enthusiasm. Intersections are welcome, but the focus and boundaries need to hold to some degree or else the space becomes an unfocussed mess.

The space has an ‘open invitation” to act, engage, and be an agent.  The host, Cormier, is critical in ensuring that happens and was particularly excellent at looking for the wall flowers and overlooked voices, using his status as organizer to highlight these individuals. The spaces I’ve explored all have these “hosts.”  Sometimes they may not initially be visible, but they invite, connect, and focus the activity and when need be redirect or quell disrupters.  They also provide the platform and maintain the space. It is sometimes thankless, invisible and frustrating work — but good hosts who are open enough can make amazing new ideas and creations emerge.

It seems that with new comers into any community space they need the sort of supports that Cormier has laid out in exceptionally helpful Success in a MOOC animation — orient, network, cluster, focus.  I’ve been part of many MOOCs where folks are coming and going at all phases of the MOOC.  There are often new people coming in well after the “course” has started.  So Rhizomatic Learning isn’t really experiencing a new phenomena, but rather Cormier is consciously articulating it as such and working to be thoughtful about it.  In the real-world spaces I’ve been part of — new comers seem to need a few things:

  1. an initial designated place to go or structure to plug into to help ground them in the community and get comfortable with its norms
  2. a recognition or welcome as a means to acknowledge that they have entered and exist
  3. introductions or the ability to connect and “know” others
  4. a place to ask questions, express concerns, vent and openness and transparency in the community to these processes
  5. multiple ways to engage and the opportunity to exit and return

I for one would love to see how this course becomes a community. I am also thinking that looking to the best practices in open source software communities or other communities of practice may hold answers and insights as well.

Success in a MOOC: An Extension of Dave Cormier’s Recommendations

Dave Cormier has done excellent thinking on network-enabled learning and knowledge building and he has created really useful tools and sign posts to help others engaged in such learning endeavors. One of these is a brief video that helps new participants in a MOOC get the lay of the land for this new learning format. When I found “Success in a MOOC”  during my first cMOOC experience, I felt like I’d found that secret guide to the new foreign land I’d just travelled to.

Dave nicely details 5-key steps to MOOC participation that provide some sense of how the journey can be embarked upon.  One must orient, declare, network, cluster, and focus. I encourage you to watch the video to get the full details on these steps. I now have a number of network-enabled learning experiences under my belt and these steps certainly have replicated themselves to some degree in each environment..

During a recent Collaborative Exploration on Running deep learning communities hosted by the Critical & Creative Thinking Program at UMass Boston, a discussion emerged about how to support learners in MOOCs and other self-motivated learning spaces find their sense of purpose and agency. A version of this conversation was also part of Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning MOOC. Add to this that a few months earlier, an online seminar on Personal Learning Networks run by the MSLOC program at Northwestern engaged participants in an exercise that asked them to define personal learning goals for the seminar.

These discussions had me considering a couple of additional step that might expand upon Dave’s fine core. Specifically, a pre-step (prepare) and a post-step (reflect).  PREPARE helps participants start to think about their reasons and goals for participating in any new learning endeavor. The PREPARE step might include questions like these:

  • What type of learning experience are you looking for?
  • What are your learning goals?
  • How confident are you that you will meet these goals?
  • What barriers or challenges do you think you will encounter?
  • What could you put in place to minimize the barriers or challenges?
  • What additional supports or resources do you think you will need?

Just as one needs some time to think and get ready for a learning journey, one should take some time at the end to REFLECT and understand what the journey was about. This not only helps solidify the learning experience, but creates a foundation for future leanring.  The REFLECT step questions might include:

  • Did you meet your learning goals?
  • Did your goals change? If so, how?
  • What supports did you find or use during this process?
  • What challenges did you find during this process?
  • Do you have new learning goals as a result of this experience? If so, what are they?
  • How will act on meeting these new goals?

My colleagues in the Critical & Creative Thinking Program will be testing out the full 7-step process with the upcoming Learning Creative Learning MOOC offered for by the Media Lab at MIT. We will see how it goes.

Setting the Stage for Designing Young Lives

I’m currently engaged in a new Collaborative Exploration offered up the the Critical and Creative Thinking Community out of UMass Boston entitled “Young People Designing Their Own Lives.”  The case challenges explorers to think about how we might go about helping young people tackle their life design challenges by presenting the concept for a script or book that would guide young folks as they chart their course.

Interestingly, this coincided with a conference session at the National Humanities Conference this past weekend.   Folks from the PA Humanities Council talked about their Teen Reading Lounge program. The program has teens read books, discuss them, and then do hands on activities related to the books. The presenter linked the program and the exploration of literature to these key life questions teens are confronting:

  • Who am I?
  • What is my place in the world?
  • What do I believe?

Definitely, important prompts to start a life journey.  As I’ve been contemplating this case, I have also been thinking about creative books and activities from my youth.  One of the things I loved most when I was young were Colorfoms.  I loved having scenes where I could place characters and props.  I could rearrange and reconfigure infinitely.  I was free to orient, overlap, and edit.  At the same time, I had a container or structure that bounded my exploration.

About a year ago, a few of my favorite pre-teens were interested in creating their own “tv show.”  I gave them some simple guidelines:

  1. they each needed to have a character and know what their character was about and how that character related to the other characters
  2. they needed to have at least 3 settings
  3. they needed a challenge, task, or mission that they were trying to accomplish
  4. they could each bring or include one friend in the process

The girls scripted out a basic story line.  They knew what each scene was and what they were trying to do.  I told them to come to the tv studio ready to act.  They should bring any costumes or props that they needed.  I then let them design and arrange the various studio sets and furniture how they wanted.  I showed them how the green screne worked so they could see the possibilities for creative backgrounds.  From these basic elements they created and orchestrated a pretty silly, but cohesive story that was generated out of their own creative mind.  It was sort of like Colorform media.

So, as I’m exploring and thinking on this month’s collaborative exploration, I’m contemplating how to go about crafting a basic environment with enough raw materials that might jumpstart the life design mindset of teens.  What would this look like?  What format — book, script, media production, game?  What elements need to be in the mix and what will allow them to productively craft this?  What supports or guidance are needed?  It is exciting to think about.


The “N” in PLN (#xplrpln)

So in considering the contours and definition of a “personal learning network” (PLN), I turned to the trusty online dictionary.  So the words personal and learning seemed to garner definitions that resonated:

Personal — relating to, directed to, or intended for a particular person
Learning — the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill

Then I came to network and that is when things started to get really fuzzy and exciting at all?the same time.  So one possible definition revolves around the connective mechanisms:  any combination of filaments, lines, veins, passages or the like in a netlike form
So here we have conduits, tissues and live wires formed into a specific pattern that is interlocking, decentralized, yet strong.   Then there is this definition related to radio and television:

a group of transmitting stations linked by wire or microwave relay so that the same program can be broadcast or telecast by all

This idea of entities transmitting information and relaying it seems useful.  The part about broadcasting “the same program” not so much.  And then there is this:

a system of interrelated buildings, offices, stations, etc., especially over a large area or throughout a county, territory, region, etc.

This definition brings in the sense of geographic space and travel across that space.  That seems cool. Then there is the idea of a network related to electricity:

an arrangement of conducting elements, as resistors, capacitors, or inductors connected by conducting wire.

In some ways this harkens to the first definition, but the inclusion of concepts like “resistors,” “capacitors,” “inductors” and by extension “transmitters,” “amplifiers,” “switches” and such start to flesh out the dynamic processes that are inherent in electrical grids — overloads, blackouts, excess capacity are also part of this analogy.

So, I’m sure if I search further there would be other networks with finer nuances depending on the sector or field — social networks, computer networks, underground networks.

So how do I make sense of network as a definition?  These are the things that work for me:

decentralized, interlocking, formed by many materials to aid movement and conduction, spread out across space (and I’d say time as well) with dynamic components that work for and against its smooth operation.

So a personal learning network?  So if we add this network definition to the personal and learning I would get:

spanning space and time, a personal learning network is a decentralized, interlocking, multi-material form with dynamic components that work for and against an individual’s process of acquiring knowledge and skills.

Any way, that’s what I have for the time being.  I realize, that the “what” moving across this network is till not particularly clear with “components” being a particularly fuzzy concept. I’ll need to think on that. (#xplrpln)