Usernames, Identity, Bard, and Grinnell

Gowellja. It’s the username I was given when I first arrived at Grinnell, their default (tied, I’ve learned, to an old Unix format style/restriction, though I may be wrong about this). JGowell may have been more convenient, and more standardized. I wasn’t in a frame of mind to protest, or to consider this something worth making a fuss about, though I know at least one other student in my class did for reasons associated with an unfortunate outcome from the default, so it was possible. But not for me. Not then. And since, I’ve come to like my username. In a way, it’s almost like a parent giving their child a name. Grinnell gave me the moniker that has become synonymous with my online presence across Reddit, Metafilter,, Gmail (and by proxy anything tied to my email address), Facebook, WordPress, and and and… These letters in this combination have been absorbed into my identity. They are the key to the map of the digital footprint that will outlive me. I didn’t choose gowellja. And yet, I did make an enquiry upon arrival at Bard:


Is it possible to request a different username? A hope of mine is to be consistent across institutions, continuing to use the “gowellja” prefix.

And here was the response:

Hi Jakob,

Bard student emails come in only one format. First letter of FN, First letter of LN and a 4 numbers.
Only faculty and staff get to use last names.

I felt rankled. To be clear (which belies some fear that this may be seen in a negative light), I don’t ascribe the feeling to the response I received or the administrator who sent it. It comes from the belief that we* should say yes to requests when we can, and that this is an instance of a time when I believe a yes costs and risks little to nothing.

Reading into the implication of the email, my mind focuses on a few details. One, the claim that student emails come in only one format. The alpha-numericality of it is distasteful to me in a way that gowellja wasn’t. Perhaps because it seems largely arbitrary. My Bard username is jg9414. The “jg” is obvious. The 9414 has nothing to do with anything, I presume. The second thing that caught my attention was the line, “Only faculty and staff get to use last names,” which at once undermines the first claim and frames username choice (or format) as a matter of privilege. In a subsequent discussion with another Bard employee, someone in the library, I believe, I was told one intention was to create a marker of studenthood vs. professorship. A professor can look at the “from” line and immediately gauge the classification of the sender. I can imagine this to be useful, and I wonder what other effects it might have. This is a separation between the faculty (and staff, but I imagine most emails are flying back and forth between students and professors) and students. I don’t like it.

How big of a deal is this? Realistically, not much. Primarily I’m still using my Gmail account anyway. I care because it’s in the constellation of things I would call indicators about how the school approaches relationships. Another would be the college’s alcohol policy. And here I care more than I would otherwise because I see many indicators that speak of effective practice and relationship.

Is it fair to compare Grinnell to Bard? Writ large, no. On email username policy, I think so. It’s worth saying that, although more professors at Grinnell have usernames that diverge from the convention than students, many Grinnell professors have the default, the same as most students. And it’s also worth saying that Grinnell, for a short window (2013) changed their format to add a class year tag, but this was quickly abandoned in part because of the politics of it: students who took more than four years to graduate had a semi-permanent mark in the form of their username, creating an opportunity for shame.

Right now I’m in a class about identity. Its central question is how can I, as a future teacher, be sensitive to the dynamics at play, especially as relates to which labels students subscribe to. Well, at a fundamental level a username is an instance of a label. Something addressed to me via email equates me with that username. I make no demands, and I want to choose what that label is.


*As educators, mentors, coaches, administrators, parents, any persons in authority, really.


Off to the Races

Tomorrow I receive book lists for my MAT program. Or so I’ve been told.

Tomorrow I receive book lists for my MAT program. Or so I’ve been told.

Today I’m reading Fostering Resilient Learners by Kristin Souers and Pete Hall. A day or two ago I finished The Tact of Teaching by Max Van Manen. (I’ll admit to some book multi-tasking.) Some few days before that I finished Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow. Before that it was Raising Kids Who Read by Daniel Willingham. And Reading Educational Research. And A Peaceable School. And The Flat World and Education. And Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. And and and… Next I’m planning on reading Shop Class as Soulcraft (thanks Ed).

That last one was given to me, the physical embodiment of well-wishes from my own former English teacher alongside the recommendation for the Van Manen book. The one I’m reading now was recommended to me by Alex Shevrin after I reached out to her and asked for suggestions. I mention these connections because the reading I’ve done fits into a web of connections and influences. While reading Education and the Commercial Mindset I nearly fell out of my hammock when I came across mention of a fellow Grinnellian RPCV and Columbia University alum (where I was accepted and did not attend). Blogger Paul Thomas has pointed me toward still more books, via direct correspondence and also titles mentioned in his posts. The local library even purchased a book in which he appears on de-grading classrooms at my request. I recently sent some titles his way as well.

I’m looking forward to expanding this network of knowledge. And I’m anxious as well.

When I started at Evoke I struggled to maintain “Beginner’s Mind.” It’s complicated enough of a job that while there are experiences from your past that apply, it’s also critical to be open to learning a new way of doing and a new way of being. There were counter-intuitive lessons to learn. For example, sometimes relating to another person’s story of adversity doesn’t help, namely if you’re inadvertently sending the message, you don’t have to feel that way because you’re not alone. That message invalidates. Whatever feelings the story brings up, feel them. Help the storyteller feel them. Relating doesn’t always have that effect, and be cautious for when it might. But I digress…

I’m better prepared for teaching than I was for Evoke, and however well prepared I am, I don’t think that preparation will invalidate the need for beginner’s mind. So, how will I balance openness to new ways of seeing and thinking with allowing my current perspective its place. And how will I negotiate power and authority in the classroom, where my intention will be to act from a place of equality without denigrating the significant experience and knowledge I’ve acquired? Questions for tomorrow. I trust myself to act in good faith.

Who knows, maybe I will discover extensive book list overlap.

And for the curious, here are the education titles I’ve read:

  • What’s Math Got to Do With It?
  • De-Grading and De-Testing Schools
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  • The Teacher Wars
  • The American Dream and the Public Schools
  • Punished By Rewards
  • The Homework Myth
  • Feel-Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling
  • What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?
  • The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Death at an Early Age
  • Letters to a Young Teacher
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me
  • Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project
  • Philosophical Foundations of Education
  • The Life and Death of the Great American School System
  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting
  • The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools
  • Experience and Education
  • Why Don’t Students Like School?
  • The Power of Their Ideas
  • Education and the Commercial Mindset
  • Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom
  • Ethical Issues in Experiential Education
  • Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment
  • The Flat World and Education
  • A Peaceable School
  • Reading Educational Research
  • The Tact of Teaching
  • Writing Without Teachers

[Note: One thing I’m experiencing in attempting to get this blog off the ground is a reluctance to post drafts, or to polish them. This post is, in part, an attempt to lower my standards and therefore the bar to publishing.]

Transition (draft)

It started happening a few months ago, walking through inches of standing water in the Oregon high steppe. Not a pleasant experience, I assure you.

At work recently I’ve experienced moments when, for no apparent reason, my mind jumped to thoughts from other periods in my life: graduating from high school, graduating from college, leaving for the Peace Corps. These moments came in the form of images. I’d see in my mind’s eye the person who sold pineapples in Bafia, Cameroon (I remember them tasting like pina colada), or maybe the moment my mother gave me, an 18 year old freshly arrived at college, a brass bottle opener. I love that bottle opener; it reminds me that my mother chose to see me as at least an emerging adult. My sneaking suspicion is that my brain is telling me that I am transitioning, from my work of two years toward my work of many years to come. Subconscious, I think they call it.

 I was startled by the immediacy, tying a shelter knot one moment, pulled into the halls of memory the next. Or maybe it was a smell I can’t quite recall now, writing this. My brain, I think, is telling me something. Or not exactly telling me something, because it’s an organ, but some process is going on and filtering up to my conscious levels a belief that something important is happening. There’s a swirling of beliefs: Evoke has been a threshing barn, and I’m emerging into a place where my growth can be put to use. Myth of the separate self and all. The tendency to self-edit is strong, thanks Peter Elbow. That comma was misplaced too. I’m startinginging to see something to this post, and I can’t quite believe that I’ll get there, no yes I do. Stream of consciousnes it is, then. and errors allowed. no hitting the delete button. Back to our regularly scheduled programming (but I hit the delete butto twice there and avoided it a third time.)

After some time of incubating, there’s a whirlwind of beliefs compounding together to give rise to a perspective that I think will help the world survive. That’s why I’m wanting to teach (bsides thinking I’ll enjoy it), I think that jy efforts will decrease the existential risk of humanity by ever so slight a margin. Hopefully enouhg to ofsset my carbon footprint. Ist here a way to simply turn off the delete iey temporarily? that sounds like it would be incredibly useful. Can’t stop won’t stop don’t stop. Brother you don’t need to turn me away I was waiting down at the ancient gate. Associative trails lead toward extinction (doomsday scenario link?): artificial intelligence (link to superintelligence?) ecological collapse, etc. and just saw a hummingbird poop. I have a mix of cynicism and optimism–I think humanity is in danger, and I think there are things we can do about it–institutional changes that may increase our quality of life, and our chances of survival. So I’ll do what I can. Yes. I’ll do what I can.