Opening the Dissertation: Why We Need to Make Open the Default

I want to talk about open. And academia.

And the outmoded gatekeeping process of the dissertation, world’s most glorified and inflated five-paragraph essay.

Last week was Open Access week, and just before I got on a plane for Australia, Dave & I coordinated a series of Lightning Talks at UPEI about a bunch of different facets of open, and cool things people are doing on campus. There was a GONG. It was fun. I talked about doing my dissertation research in the open…and managed to limit myself to talking for *only* five minutes. There were bets.

Then I went to Australia and talked for waaaay more than five minutes. One talk was specifically on academic Twitter but the other was more me trying to frame out the whole open scholarship thing for folks new to digital pedagogy. I built out an ABC structure that I’m looking forward to digging into more deeply soon…and for the “blasphemy” piece I got to talk Donna Haraway so I was happy.


Then I flew homewards and I was unhappy for approximately 32 hours. I swear the whole “let’s do Sunday twice over with zero connectivity and connections timed so you never seem to go to sleep” gig was harrowing. My mental health and I had to just grimly dog-paddle our way through screaming newborns and back spasms and tiny tiny seats, trying to hang together and forebear. We made it, ragged and ghastly, just in time for Hallowe’en!

Which is my segue into dissertating, because hey…there are parallels.

I am not getting on any more planes this week, though a part of me wishes I were. #OpenEd16 at VCU in Virginia starts today. A Very Large Proportion of my personal/professional “everybody” is there, and while Dave and I had hoped to be too, in the flesh, we are not. Life.

But we are part of a couple of panel conversations about open, including one tomorrow that launches the followup from last year’s #dLRN15 – go check out #SoNAR, the Society for Open Narrative Research.

But this narrative is about the OTHER panel.

Opening The Dissertation: Exploring the Public Thesis Spectrum is Friday afternoon, a hands-on session with Laura Gogia and Jon Becker. I proposed the panel back before I, erm, realized I totally couldn’t go. It was supposed to be us and my committee member Alec Couros and Sava Saheli Singh and Katia Hildebrandt…but. Life. Sigh. Yay Laura and Jon for picking up the slack!

I proposed the panel because for all I shared much of the process of my dissertation research here on the blog, there was a great deal that remained an unspoken long strange trip that no trip back from Australia can hold a candle to.

I want to open up the dissertation to the light of day.

To some extent, this conversation is about open dissertations and open defences. Laura and I both opened up our defences in various ways, with the support of our supervisors and committees, so that our broader networks – who, in both cases, were the subject/s of our research – had a window into the event itself. Mine was livestreamed, right up to the end of public questions. Laura’s was livetweeted by invited guests, right through the committee questions.

Laura, being a visualization wizard, has created a chart around the different decision points involved in opening up dissertation and defence processes to public audiences, and I’m looking forward to participating in the exploration of these – and the possibilities and risks involved – via Google Docs, on Friday. If you’re at #OpenEd16 and you’re in any way part of anyone’s dissertation process, come and join this conversation and help us gather ideas and possibilities!

But. I didn’t actually propose the panel *just* so we could all have a clearer and more granular picture of where we can potentially open up dissertations and defences.

I wanted to open up the question of what – and who – the dissertation is FOR.

Laura’s most excellent flowchart captures many of the decision points in the dissertation process where openness is concerned, but it misses what I think of as perhaps the core one – audience.

Not in the specific sense of the audience who sit in the room or even in front of a screen to witness a colleague outline the work they’ve brought to fruition – but in the sense of the eyes and ears and understandings and policies that thesis work eventually touches and shapes.

The capacity to choose real-life audiences – and to be supported in preparing to *address* real-life audiences – matters. In my day job, I work in adult ed. Done well, adult ed and professional learning are all about meaningful choices and application and authentic audiences for student work.

But when it comes to preparing scholars for the so-called pinnacle of higher education, the doctoral degree, the emphasis FAR too often is on having Ph.D students spend years of their lives preparing a very long, highly-format-focused piece of writing primarily for the audience of their defence committee – THREE TO FIVE PEOPLE, usually – and whoever wants to check the damn tome out of the library in ensuing decades.

Yes, scholars often adapt their dissertations for academic books or papers, but these separate publications usually involve another few YEARS of rewrites and edits from Reviewer #2 before they ever see the light of day.

We need to talk about this, academia.

Here’s my opening salvo for Friday’s presentation in Richmond (complete with sticky note diagrams, sailing metaphors, and upside-down boats):

Long story short, the status quo does not help us make a case for the value of higher ed and expert knowledge. Already we lock away too much of our research in expensive, inaccessible, and increasingly unnecessary journals because we’re attached to our own prestige economies. We miss the opportunity to get that research – knowledge that takes years and, often, public funds to develop – TO THE PUBLIC via policy and media and open channels.

But with the dissertation situation, there’s something particularly ugly about our continuing attachment to familiar forms.

Outside continental Europe, most senior scholars’ concept of the dissertation defence or viva is a tradition of intimate questioning behind closed doors, a rite of initiation, almost.

But…initiation into what?

We are no longer training for the professoriate. Any pretense that that is what the Ph.D dissertation and defence processes are for in their entirety should be met with a Come-to-Jesus about both casualization AND contemporary scholarly practices. We lived in a credential-inflated world, and there are few long-term stable jobs left in higher ed for those who complete even its highest degrees. Even when their tuition and cheap grad student/post-doc labour keeps the system afloat. Full stop.

In my own dissertation work on open and networked scholarship, I found one of the biggest benefits *repeatedly* cited by participants was that cultivating open, public audiences for their work and ideas allowed them to “contribute to the conversation” in their field and in higher ed generally, EVEN WHEN THEY DID NOT HAVE STATUS POSITIONS IN THE ACADEMIC HIERARCHY.

This is where we get back to blasphemy. Haraway (1991) frames blasphemy as a form of faithfulness, an ironic and partial nod to profaned origins that nonetheless preserves the priority of those origins.

What are we being faithful to, when we engage in research, in Ph.D programs, in scholarship? A broken system, or the creation and circulation of knowledge?

How we do dissertations goes a long way to answering that question.

Graduate students embarking on a dissertation should be able to make informed, supported, meaningful choices about who the audience(s) for their dissertations should be.

One of the prime responsibilities of supervision should be helping students select, understand, and reach – to some scaffolded extent – those audiences.

And, OPEN SHOULD BE THE DEFAULT, RATHER THAN CLOSED. That doesn’t mean always, that doesn’t mean without supports. It does mean all of us IN the academy, no matter how precariously, need to learn to navigate various aspects of what it means to be part of the public conversation in our fields, so we can help students find meaningful ways to join in and contribute.

So, as I say in the video, let’s start this conversation. How do we open up the dissertation?

In Abundance: Networked Participatory Practices as Scholarship

The second paper from my thesis came out last week, in IRRODL.

I tip my hat to IRRODL…there is something truly lovely about publishing a paper on networked scholarship and being able to share it immediately and without barriers. In actual networks. Here’s the link, Twitter – BOOM. Here you go, Facebook – right there for all the people I went to high school with to enjoy. Whatever. Right there. Just like…like the internet actually works in scholarship!

Oh right.

I didn’t even have to pay any highwaymen hybrid open access rates, which is a blessing, as my institution does not offer funds for that and I enjoy being able to feed my children and other frivolities. I obviously do not understand the oligopoly that is academic publishing. I do, however, understand not paying thousands for things that can – broadly speaking – be accomplished for free. I’ve been trying not to do that for a way longer time than I’ve been playing this academia game.

Sometimes when I read the stuff that comes through my Twitter feed, I actually get the impression that we – “we” being the sub-species homo academicus, seldom the sharpest knives in the drawer of life, oddly – might slowly be getting it. Academic successs is not a lottery, I read today, but a rigged game rife with implicit bias and discrimination. Why, my stars! And then I saw, in black and white, words that said citation metrics “should never be used as the sole criterion to evaluate academics” and I swear little cherubs started singing in my ears.

But while these messages may be making their way through our Twitter skullz they are still not the dominant narratives of a profession in which digitizing journals – thus getting rid of the cost of paper and distribution – has actually resulted in a HIGHER concentration of scientific literature in the hands of a few major for-profit players, even though all the reviewing is done for free by academics who often don’t even have contracts that cover service labour anymore. Uh, brilliant system, guys. I’ll take Boardwalk, please!

And it’s worst in the social sciences…which *mutter mutter shoemakers’ wives something something.*

But we cling to the academic publishing system because it’s a prestige economy. It’s our prestige economy, dammit. And apparently they will have to pry it from our cold, dead, mostly-precariously-employed hands because there seems to be far more attachment to the impact factor of prestigious journals than to the possibility of changing things.

This logic would tell me that open publishing and networked sharing are not in my interest, because they do not fall under the purview of the narrow circle of “what counts” drawn by impact-factor-focused publishing. Yet that impact factor primarily counts because it’s supposed to increase citations and that‘s supposed to count because it’s supposed to help me snag one of the last remaining tenured professorships from the Mad Max landscape of contemporary higher ed…and do please send your tenure lines my way, friends. But. BUT.

This paper is about networks as sites of scholarship. Already. Not some kind of proto-scholarship but actual sites of scholarship of discovery and scholarship of integration and application and teaching – all Boyer’s (1990) categories for the profession. Plus, many participants indicated that their networked scholarship actually fulfills Boyer’s additional vision of a scholarship “beyond the hierarchy of functions” – a more inclusive, comprehensive and dynamic approach to professional practice. Networks are admittedly still supplemental sites, for the most part, because few paying scholarly careers are to be eked out here, and the odds remain slightly better in the institutional game. But in a world where the capacity to distribute ideas no longer requires paper, or printing, or the oligopoly of an Elsevier, it might be cool to at the very least try to reward the IRRODLs of the world and their other handy, hey look you can click this and there’s a paper right there at the end of that link! ilk. It might save our institutional libraries from bankruptcy, even. Maybe.

I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud. I should be sleeping. I got in a car at 7:10 this morning, fluffed and buffed and ready to give a talk, but my jetlagged body was still under the impression it was shortly after midnight and even though I had practiced deep yogic breathing in my hotel bed for two solid hours I was awake. All. Night. Like Thelma in Thelma and Louise, awake with the kind of raw adrenalin that comes to some when they’re on the lam or me, apparently, when I cross the Atlantic. So now it’s 2am again here. And I am punch-drunk from lack of sleep and from the deep cognitive dissonance the academic publishing monopoly triggers in me, so I will just shut up now and say hey, pssst, click this link if you’re interested in how networks do some of the work of scholarship because the paper is RIGHT THERE, you guys. Because internet.


the dissertation is done; long live the dissertation?

There is a little nook in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport with four black leather armchairs along the back wall of a 10×10 room. I finished my Ph.D in one of those chairs, last weekend.

I mean finished finished, as in the summative completion of the document that somehow is meant to stand in for nearly five years of my life’s work. I actually defended the dissertation the week before, with a livecast public presentation, two+ hours of good, challenging questions…and a lovely Bowie reference from my Supervisor…then twelve long minutes waiting in a hallway and a handshake and hug from my Defence Chair and the words, “Congratulations, Dr. Stewart!”

I exhaled. Celebrations all round.

But there were still a couple of tiny revisions, due upon my return to PEI if I wanted to make my mother happy and walk across the stage for May convocation. And in the interim, a plenary and sessions to deliver at #et4online in Dallas and a talk at UT Arlington’s LINK Lab and a NINTH (how did THAT happen?) birthday for a boy who is one of the joys of my life and so I found myself in that DFW armchair, tidying up formatting and re-thinking methodologies and preparing to freeze it all in the amber of .pdf to live forever in library stacks.

I pressed “save.” I looked around. No choirs of angels materialized to sing “hallelujah.” And I thought…yep. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Or something like that.

The truth is, though, the quiet was fitting. This final form of my dissertation has felt more like a tactical necessity than a living thing.

It’s because I don’t actually expect anyone to read it.

This is no false humility, kids. I believe in making my learning open and accessible, so I’ll put a pre-print of the full .pdf up online later this week for any brave souls who want to show me up as wrong. And hey, this research process has been rich and meaningful and funded in part by the taxpayers of Canada, so if reading 150-page documents is your bag, be my guest.

But the thing is, I wrote my dissertation as a three four paper thesis. And much of the work is already out there, living and doing its thing in the world, whatever that is. The first paper is out and getting traction thanks to #tjc15 and an Inside Higher Ed knowledge translation piece, the second is in press, and I condensed the conclusion fairly drastically for Hybrid Pedagogy. I’ve been talking about pieces of this research and its findings in presentations for a year now. A part of me likes it better in presentation form than I do in writing, even if some of the nuances are lost.

That part of me – the part that wants you to see the slide deck more than I want you to read the final bound tome, or its online equivalent – recognizes its own blasphemy. I own the blasphemy. As Haraway says, “blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously.”

I take research seriously. Last week, I had a fascinating and somewhat heated conversation about research with my #dLRN15 (October! Stanford! Can you come?) co-planners and colleagues George Siemens and Kristen Eshleman as we sheltered from a Dallas tornado warning in the corner of a coffee shop. My contribution to the discussion consisted mostly of running around in full Chicken Little mode shouting WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!…but the upshot, from less panicked minds, was that there’s tension between:
a) the need for research as leverage at the decision-making table of higher ed, where capital, technosolutionism, and hyper-rationalization currently reign supreme, and
b) the need for any changing conversation – the (*cough*) humble goal of #dLRN15 – to engage and include more voices than only those who can speak in research terms.

I think of research as important both as knowledge AND as leverage…my work is all about the idea that “what counts” in higher ed is complex and ever-shifting; a contested crossroads of narratives and practices and allegiances. I am old-school in one sense: it is the vestigial logic and spirit of public education and learning as a good in itself that drives my work. Yet I am not sure that the language of research in its traditional forms is always fit to grapple with the logics of business and media that hold increasing sway in the academy.

I am not trying to get rid of traditional forms. But their capacity to (sometimes) leverage a seat at the table shouldn’t excuse us from looking at their communications capacities and limitations, as well, and from pushing to legitimate other forms of expression that could contribute to the conversation – and the crossroads of what counts. I loved this piece on Beyond the Dissertation as Proto-Monograph, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with monographs but because they hold such a place of dominance in the training of Ph.Ds as researchers, and I’m not sure we serve our own survival as researchers by sticking primarily to long-form texts deeply bound to their print origins.

I’m proud of my dissertation, such as it is. I’m willing to have the full document sit out in the open, a testament to what I thought and found and was able to spit out at a particular time, in a particular form.

But in the end I’m more excited about continuing to work through those ideas here, in blog form, and in slides and talks, and as contributing premises to new research. Onward. Out loud.

I’m curious: how do YOU prefer to take in research and/or new ideas? 

Open to Influence: Academic Influence on Twitter, The Short Version

The Preamble:
I am the sort of person who was born to be elderly and didactic. Deep in my nature lurks the spirit – if not the vocabulary – of a teeny, slightly melancholic sixth cousin of Marcel Proust hankering to wax pensively about the eternal nature of change and What Once Was. Inside my head, it’s all Remembrance of Things Past, all the time. Not because I’m nostalgic – je ne regrette rien! – but because this appears, even at midlife, to be my only wayfinding strategy; reflective recall is how I make sense of the world.

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So I cannot leap back onto the blog after four months of TOTAL SILENCE without spitting up metaphors. I am surfacing from the thesis. I am almost at the finish. I am beginning to get my voice back; my feet back under me. You would be forgiven for thinking I’ve been engaged in some kind of strange swimming marathon. Or drowning. Because both are true in the ways that matter even through really I’ve barely left my couch in three months. Back about mid-November I embarked on the gradual withdrawal from everything except my thesis (and working and parenting and – sadly – shovelling SEVEN FEET of %#&*(ing snow). And it is done and submitted, which is still surreal to me. It is three papers and another forty-odd pages and has itself a fancy title and will be defended in April, warts and all. It is about scholarship in the context of knowledge abundance and how online networked practices intersect with/assemble with institutional practices in terms of influence and engagement and attention, in particular. It is basically a slice of a particular cross-section of academic Twitter circa early 2014. And it is done (I never really actually thought it would be done). Done.

The first paper of the three that comprise the body of the thesis was actually finished and submitted back in July, which feels like a misty past now, The Time Before. That paper came out today and the pre-print is here if, like me, you don’t actually have access. And below I am going to break it down into the Very Short Version in case reading 38 pages isn’t what you’re on about.

But this is The Preamble and elderly didactic cousin-of-Proust me just wants to chew upon how different it all was when all my words were being lined up tidily for academic digestion. I nearly choked getting them out. I nearly choked on having no time to think in This Voice, because I had to give up most of my tweeting and all of my blogging to get the thesis finished and yet in doing so I gave up my primary wayfinding and sensemaking processes and that felt exactly as untenable as you would imagine and it was all *almost* as ironic, to me, as the fact that my first paper for the thesis is about openness and networks in a closed journal. But you may as well laugh as cry, right? I made each of these irreconcilable choices. These are the contradictions of our time and even researching them has not helped me navigate them remotely cleanly or well. I do not know what all this means for my future in whatever academia is becoming but I do know that writing in my own voice gives me joy and not writing in my own voice breaks my spirit and I do not think I want to slide so far away from the networked side of things again for awhile yet. And still.

Je ne regrette rien.

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This paper is about what counts as academic influence on a platform like Twitter.

Influence is how we determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways we assess influence: first, there’s the teeny little group of people who understand what your work really means. Then there’s everybody else, from different fields, who piece together the picture from external signals: what journals you publish in, what school you went to, your citation count, your h-index, your last grant. Things people recognize and trust. It’s a complicated shorthand.

And now, in the mix – against a backdrop of knowledge abundance and digital technologies and the fact that nobody needs to go through a gatekeeping institution to contribute to knowledge anymore – Twitter. This paper explores what circulates or counts as influence and credibility in academic Twitter, and in networked participatory scholarship more broadly.

The paper concludes that scholars assess the networked profiles and behaviours of peers through a logic of influence that is – at least as yet – less codified and numeric than expected. Participants in the study did perceive relatively large-scale accounts as a general signal of influence, but recognizability and commonality are as or more important than quantifiable measures or credentials.

The paper suggests that the impression of capacity for meaningful contribution is key to cultivating influence and the regard of actively networked peers. The value and meaning of that sense of contribution is tied in part to the ways in which network signals operate individual to individual – more on that in papers #2 and #3 of the thesis, as well as its conclusion. The value is also, frankly, in the fact that we can see our signals received, in networks, in real-time. Never underestimate the power of people listening.

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Key messages from the findings of the paper:
1. Metrics matter, but not that much

2. Scale of visibility (ie having a large account and a large active reach) is a signal of influence but also a weird and complex identity space

3. The intersection of high network status with lower or unclear institutional academic status is also a weird and complex identity space

4. The perception of someone’s capacity for contribution is created and amplified by common interests, disciplines, and shared ties/peers

5. Institutional affiliations aren’t considered that important by active Twitter users (unless they’re Oxford)

6. Automated signals indicate low influence

7. Digital networks offer scholars a sense of being someone who can contribute…in ways that the academy does not offer. (The academy offers other ways. But this paper focuses on the signals and lived experiences of networks.)

If you want to read the rest, there’s lots. The official article is here, and the open pre-print is here. Your feedback and your thoughts and your ideas are very welcome. :)

The Post-script:
The fourteen participants and eight examplars who stepped forward to be a part of this research…I thank all of you hugely, for your time, and your teaching, and mostly for your trust.

Networks of Care and Vulnerability

This Thursday – November 6th at 1:30pm – I’m a guest in George Veletsianos’ #scholar14 open course, talking about networks as places of care and vulnerability. It’s a Google hangout, so the talk will be an informal back and forth, open (I hope?) to multiple voices if folks want to join in.

It may even be a little bit fraught, as George may have had a different concept of vulnerability in mind when he first suggested the topic. He frames vulnerability in terms of sharing struggles, which I’ll definitely talk about on Thursday; my online origins lie deep in the heart of that territory. But, the juxtaposition of care and vulnerability, as a topic, was rich enough it that it helped me grapple with some of the complexities I was trying to frame from my research study, and I took up vulnerability more through a lens of risks and costs. As I am wont to do, I ran with that lens, and ended up not only with the presentation below (liveslides from Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt’s EC&I831 class last month) but with half a research paper under that working title for my ongoing dissertation project. So. Yay for networks.

Join us Thursday for the fisticuffs over sharing v. risk. Or something like that. ;)

More seriously, I may have ended up in a somewhat different place than George envisioned, but it’s a place I think needs to be visited and explored.

The Risks and Costs of Networked Participation
I just spent a week almost entirely offline, for the first time in…oh…about a decade. Not an intended internet sabbatical, but a side effect of extended theme park adventuring with small children and a phone that turns into a brick when I cross the US border. Y’all were spared an excess of gratuitous commentary on the great American simulacra that is Disney, basically. You’re welcome.

Being disconnected from my network was kind of refreshing. No work, no ambient curation, no framing and self-presentation for a medium with infinite, searchable memory.

It didn’t mean I was magically present the whole time with my darling offspring: I remain a distractible human who sometimes needs to retreat to her own thoughts, online or off. Nor did it mean I missed out entirely on the surge of painful yet necessary public discussion of sexual violence, consent, and cultures of abuse and silence that bloomed in the wake of Canada’s Craziest News Week EVER. Still. Sometimes a dead phone is a handy way to cope with the overload and overwhelm of networked life, especially for those who both consume and contribute to the swirl of media in which we swim.

Because contributing and participating, out in the open – having opinions and ideas in public – has costs.

Participation makes us visible to others who may not know us, and makes our opinions and perspectives visible to those who may know *us,* but have never had to grapple with taking our opinions or positions seriously (oh hai, FB feeds and comments sections hijacked by various versions of #notallmen, #notallwhitewomen, and #notalltenuredscholars).

Participation enrols us in a media machine that is always and already out of our control; an attention economy that increasingly takes complex identities and reduces them to sound bites and black & white alignments.

The costs are cumulative. And they need to be talked about, by those of us who talk about networks in education and in scholarship and in research. Because in open networks, a networked identity is the price of admission. The costs are what one pays to play. But they are paid at the identity level, and they are not evenly distributed by race, gender, class, orientation, or any other identity marker. And so with participation comes differential risks. This matters.

Bud Hunt pointed out in a (paywalled but worthwhile) Educating Modern Learners article this morning that October was Connected Educators Month…and also Gamergate. Two sides of the participatory coin. Audrey Watters doubled down on that disconnect this afternoon in Hybrid Pedagogy, riffing on Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm and asking edtech to take a good, hard look at what we ask of students when we ask them to work online:

“And I think you need to think about your own work. Where you work. For whom.

And then you must consider where you demand your students work. For whom they work. Who profits. Where that content, where that data, where those dimes flow.”
– Audrey Watters, 2014

So. This post comes, like Bud and Audrey’s pieces, from a growing dismay and uneasiness with what’s happening at the intersection of technologies and capital and education; a growing belief that the risks and costs of networked identity are an ethical issue educators and researchers need to own and explore. It comes from looking through my research data for what Audrey calls “old hierachies hard-coded onto new ones.”
Attending to Each Other in the Attention Economy
But it also comes from the sense that there is more; that the ties created even in the most abject, hierarchical, surveilled online spaces tend, like good cyborg entities, to exceed their origins.

It comes not just from the formal research data collected over months of ethnographic observation and conversation, but also from some deep and powerful conversations that the research process created.

I didn’t know Kate Bowles especially well when I put out the call for participants in my dissertation project a year ago today. She didn’t know she had breast cancer when she agreed to participate. Somewhere along the road of the past year, our discussions of identity and networks and academia and self and life sometimes got beautifully tangled, as ideas actually do, freed from eureka-moment idealizations of authorship. And somewhere in the middle of one of those tangles, she reminded me that my sometimes grim vision of the attention economy is not the only way to conceive of attention at all; that its origins come from stretching towards and caring for each other.

“the attention economy…isn’t just about clicks and eyeballs, but also about the ways in which we selectively tend towards each other, and tend each other’s thoughts–it’s an economy of care, not just a map to markets.”
– Kate Bowles, 2014

I don’t know what to make of all that…but there’s hope in it that I’m not willing to abandon just yet. When I think about networked scholarship right now, it’s in terms of these contradictions of care and vulnerability, all writ large in the attention economies of our worst and better angels.

Maybe on Thursday, in the #scholar14 hangout, we’ll figure it out together and I’ll know how my paper should end. ;)