Blog: January 2017

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Warm fuzzy shout-outs

Cool! I made the Stack Exchange Year in Review. :-)

If you enjoy analyzing data about the Stack Exchange network, 2016 was your year. Community member Monica Cellio wrote a tutorial about our data explorer, which is maintained by another community member, Tim Stone. A resident data scientist, David Robinson, released StackLite, a lightweight version of community data. To see it in action, consider scripting language trends on Stack Overflow. In December, we connected our data to Google's BigQuery. People are already finding interesting results. Our data team has been posting analysis on the blog, if you crave more.

(There are other links in that paragraph that I didn't recreate in this post. You'll need to go to their blog post to get those.)

The link in the quote is to the blog post where they announced the tutorial (in June):

Have you ever wanted to get a statistic about your favorite Stack Exchange site, but been baffled by exactly how to do that? The Stack Exchange Data Explorer (SEDE) may be just what you're looking for. SEDE was created to make it easy to query and browse the public data that we release periodically for all Stack Exchange sites, but a lack of familiarity with SQL has been a barrier to many of you who would otherwise benefit from it. Now, thanks to friend of the company and moderator extraordinare Monica Cellio, you have a tutorial to guide you in using it! [...] But even though SEDE is nicer to work with than a raw data dump, it can still be pretty intimidating to new users, especially those who aren't trained database engineers. Up until now, the Data Explorer's own help docs have been a little thin, and mostly covered very specialized, advanced features. We've wanted to expand the guidance there for a while, but never quite got around to it. Then Monica rewarded our procrastination by helpfully volunteering to take on the writing.

Kulam: new Jewish study in Pittsburgh, and challenges of chevruta study

Last week I went to the first session of Kulam Pittsburgh (warning: website design has, um, issues). "Kulam" means "all of us", and the goal is beit-midrash style learning for Jews of all flavors. I've experienced this style of learning at Hebrew College, at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and select other places, but it hasn't been very available to me locally. The Kollel does this style of learning, but as a woman and as somebody who's not really part of the Orthodox community here, I have trouble navigating it. (Most classes are for men only, and many of the ones that are for women are on topics that aren't especially engaging for me. I'm not faulting them; I am not their target.)

What do I mean by beit-midrash-style learning? I'm talking about text-based study, with a significant part of it being deep dives in chevruta (partnered learning). It's a style where you look at text, what that text implies, how that squares with other text and what it implies... with the goal of coming out with a deeper understanding of whatever question sent you down that path in the first place. This kind of study relies on conversations, on back-and-forth, and on an inclination toward certain analytical styles. I'm not describing this very well, I don't think. Maybe you have to experience it.

The Kulam program is being led by Rabbi Will Friedman from the Pardes Institute. On first encounter I really like him; he's accessible, knowledgable, good at guiding a conversation, and seems like somebody who really cares about helping people learn. He's from the Boston area and flew down here for this; he'll do that monthly, and between those sessions there'll be other ones with a more local focus (he'll join by video call). The sessions stand alone, though each of those "local" ones is related to the previous one that he led in person.

The topic of last week's was: "Interpersonal Responsibility in a Global Age". Rabbi Friedman gave an introduction, including explaining the basic idea of chevruta study for those unfamiliar with it, and then had us pair up and dive into texts for about an hour. We were given a packet of materials -- a text, some questions to discuss, and then the next text and its questions, about a dozen in all. The first few texts came from torah, then talmud, then later commentaries. After the chevruta study Rabbi Friedman led a discussion that he used to draw out the key points he wanted us to take away. I found this last part very useful, as he picked up on some themes we talked about and drew out some things I hadn't figured out on my own. (Maybe I'll write more about the specific content some other time.)

But there's one big challenge of this sort of community-wide learning, and I don't know how we address it. Rabbi Friedman introduced chevruta study by quoting the passage in Mishelei (Proverbs) that iron sharpens iron, and said it's essential to study torah with somebody else and not alone so we can challenge and be challenged and, thus, be sharpened. I agree; well-matched chevruta study is really effective. This kind of study is traditionally done in Orthodox yeshivot where all of the participants have a common educational background. Some are more learned than others of course, and some are more skilled than others, and some specialize in particular topics, but everybody there has a good grounding and you can build on that.

Iron sharpens iron. But it dents bronze and splinters wood. Meanwhile, wood can ding bronze some and doesn't do much to iron. None of this is the fault of the wood or the bronze or the iron. But you really do want to try to match people somewhat. In a group where people don't know each other, don't have a shared context, and are encouraged to not just pair up with the people they came with, how do you do that? A good match makes for a great experience at any level; a poor match leaves both people frustrated, as one feels overwhelmed and the other feels hindered. And if the bulk of the session is the chevruta study, that can be frustrating. I want neither to frustrate nor to be frustrated by the luck of the draw.

I'm currently planning to go to all of the sessions where Rabbi Friedman will be here in person -- I really like him so far. But I'm not sure about the others (which will have an even higher proportion of chevruta study because it's hard to facilitate a discussion via Skype). I don't know if I should just recruit a well-matched chevruta to go with (BYOCh?), or if there's some way to -- without causing anybody to feel awkward -- do better match-making.

The comments contain a lot of discussion of teaching pedagogy.

Pick one

A Glassdoor review of a former employer includes these two bits:

Pro: You can get lost in the masses with over 90,000 employees. Great for under-achievers.

Con: Lots of dead wood.

C'mon, pick a side. :-)