@Rest: aaron rester's blog

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


My Paperback Debut

During the year after I graduated from Oberlin College, while I was working for the Office of College Relations, I was able to take one course per semester for free. One of the courses I took was called "Teaching and Tutoring Writing Across the Disciplines." Aside from our own writing and discussion, part of the class consisted of working as a writing tutor for college class (I tutored Paula Richman's "Introduction to Religion").

The primary text for the class, Working with Student Writers: Essays on Tutoring and Teaching, was a collection of essays that had been written by previous students in the class, edited by the instructor,  Len Podis, and his wife, JoAnne Podis. I still have my copy, filled with the enthusiastic scribblings of my 22-year-old self, who could imagine no other path than going on to graduate school and eventually becoming a professor himself.

Now, just over ten years later, Peter Lang Publishing has released a second edition of Working with Student Writers featuring the essay I wrote for that class: "The Hero With a Thousand Voices: The Relationship Between the Narrative and Academic Styles." The book is also available on Amazon. In the essay, I attempted to mediate the tension so many young writers encounter between the academic discourse community they're suddenly expected to inhabit and the narrative discourse that they've been consuming and producing their entire lives; I did so by highlighting the commonalities between the two forms of narrative and academic writing, and by reframing the writing process itself as a narrative.

It's actually a lot more entertaining than it sounds, I swear.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Building (Virtual) Community in the Big Easy

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend Do It With Drupal, a conference on the open source content management system (Drupal) that we'll be adopting at the Law School in the near future. Aside from the chance to experience Abita Turbodog, great jazz at the Spotted Cat (and more great jazz across the street at D.B.A.), beignets at Cafe Dumond, absinthe, the earliest measurable snow ever in New Orleans (thanks to Avi Schwab for those photos), and the greatest snack food in history, I had the chance to rub elbows with some of the leaders in the Drupal movement, including the conference organizers, the Drupal consulting firm Lullabot.

Now, I'm not a programmer by trade or by inclination, so there was plenty of full-frontal nerdity at this conference that flew well over my head (I'm pretty sure at one point folks at one presentation were actually talking in PHP), though the introduction to the Views module by inventor Earl Miles was worth the price of admission to me. Most fascinating to me, though, were the talks about community building, particularly those by Brian Oberkirch and Lane Becker. They really got me thinking about how we can continue our mission to make the Law School's site into an extension of the very distinct community it represents, to function as a virtual Green Lounge (the main gathering place at the school) where people can debate, argue, and laugh together.

What's great about using Drupal as a tool for this task is that it is more than a content management system -- it's a community of people building a platform for building communities. Interaction and community are, as one presenter put it, "baked into the code."

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Social Networking: Why?

When I discuss my work with friends and family, I inevitably wind up talking about the various social networking sites and services on which I've established a presence: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoodReads, iLike, assorted blogs, and so on. Whether it's my parents, my wife, or my colleagues at the University of Chicago, many of them ask the same question when the subject of social networking arises:


Why bother putting so much information about myself out into the world? Is it simply exhibitionism that leads one to sign up for a FriendFeed account and broadcast to anyone with an internet connection all the movies they're renting from Netflix and the photos from their friend's karaoke party that they've posted to Flickr? Or is it a lack of connections to people in realspace? And the hidden subtext to these questions: in a world where identity theft seems to have replaced nuclear war as everyone's number one fear, isn't it dangerous to let people know so much about you?

I've been thinking a lot about these questions lately. I don't consider myself an exhibitionist (a ham, perhaps, but not an exhibitionist). Part of the answer is a geeky fascination with new toys ("ooh, this sounds cool!"), and a professional need to keep up with the blistering pace with which new web technologies seem to be generated. When my boss or a freelance client says, "Tell me about NewKilllerApp.com," I need to be prepared. Like Dr. Jekyll, I have little choice but to experiment on myself before I can provide answers to the people who sign the checks.

Moreover, it's quite possible that my livelihood may eventually depend upon my participation in these networks. One's prospects for attracting work have always depended a great deal upon whom one knows, and what those people know about one, whether through direct experience or through word of mouth. In the Web 2.0 world, one has the opportunity to exponentially increase the number of people who know about you, as well as to have some measure of control over what they know about you. For information workers, our online identity becomes a brand.

This explains why I also participate in networks that are not obviously career-oriented. Our personality is part of our brand, and becomes a means for people to sort the signal from the noise. If a potential client discovers that we like the same music via my iLike feed, or that we like the same books via GoodReads, that is an anchor that provides them some traction in the swirling stream of information surrounding the potential hires they are considering. If a colleague I've never met who works at another university posts a question to Twitter that I am able to answer in a funny or memorable way, they may keep me in mind the next time a position opens at their school. Put in utilitarian terms, social networking is a way to build social capital that may pay dividends down the road.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008


How I Became a Designer

I am still occasionally uncomfortable calling myself a designer. It’s a mantle I didn’t adopt until I was almost 30. For most of my life, I’ve thought of myself as an academic, someone whose trade was in words; more specifically, my interests revolved around story-telling, and the study of how and why people tell "the same" story in different ways, particularly when people use such stories to transmit complex religious and philosophical ideas.

This fascination with story runs deep in my consciousness. On one of my favorite podcasts, "Design Matters," host Debbie Millman often asks her guests the question (which she admits to lifting form Milton Glaser): what is your first creative memory? If I ask myself this question, I find a neatly packaged origin story for my lifelong interest in narrative. As a young child in the heyday of Star Wars mania, I had dozens of the little plastic action figures ("They're not dolls!" I insisted) based on the film, for which I would construct and act out elaborate stories that were grounded in the universe of the movies but taken in very different directions -- I distinctly remember a visit by an Imperial Star Destroyer to a fast-food drive-through, for example. Often, I would play out these scenarios over and over, making tweaks to the storyline here and there, until I either got them just right or simply abandoned them in favor of a new idea.

From Star Wars I moved on to classical mythology, then Arthurian legend, Celtic myth and Joseph Campbell in high school. At Oberlin College, I created an individual major in Comparative Mythology. One of my advisors was an expert on the Ramayana, a Hindu religious epic that has been told and retold countless times over the last two millenia. In the last twenty years or so, the story has become embroiled in Indian political disputes due to its adoption by the Hindu right as a kind of acid test for determining the boundaries of the Indian nation; these political disputes were also closely linked to traditional and modern visual representations of the story. This interest launched me into graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I earned a master's degree and put in an additional three years in the History of Religions Ph.D. program, studying the ways in which religion, the idea of the nation, and visual media overlap in South Asia.

In the meantime, I had become a designer almost by accident. Though I had grown up in a house full of art and interest in the visual -- my mother was a landscaper and my stepfather an illustrator and graphic designer -- I had never thought of myself as having much artistic talent. After all, I couldn't draw or paint. In the year between my graduation from college and beginning grad school, however, I took a job as electronic projects intern in Oberlin's Office of College Relations and discovered the power of computers for creating visual artifacts, as well as the unique challenges of information architecture for the emerging medium of the web. When I headed to grad school, I took a work-study position building websites and later designing print materials for an on-campus research center. I discovered to my delight that design was not all that different from the story-telling that I was studying in my academic life -- at it's core, all communication is about telling a story, but I was now telling stories with image and typography rather than words.

Eventually, I decided that I was enjoying doing the actual story-telling more than I was enjoying studying it, and in 2006 I decided to withdraw from school and devote myself full-time to design. Along with working full-time, I started taking on freelance projects, and in 2007 founded Design:Intelligent, a collective of Chicago freelance designers who share clients, knowledge, and resources. Still, though, I was uncertain about hanging out my shingle as a "designer." There is an ongoing debate in the design community about the kinds of training one needs to be a good designer (see this, for an example), which often leads those who understandably wish to protect their professional standing to bewail a hypothetical mob of n00bs who think that learning Photoshop makes them designers. In the back of my mind, there was a little voice that asked: "Aren't you just one of those n00bs?"

I've come to realize, however, that a designer is really a problem-solver. A degree in design is an excellent way to gain skills in solving problems of visual communication, but it's not the only way. Since the day I decided this was going to be my career, I have immersed myself in books, discussion boards, mailing lists, converstations and podcasts devoted to design -- I am constantly reading, listening, and observing the world through the lens of one who must help others communicate visually, learning through experience what works and what does not. Perhaps the best piece of advice I've ever received was from a designer friend, who said the best way to learn design was simply to “Look at everything.” And I've never looked at anything the same way since.

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Friday, January 4, 2008


Confessions of a Reluctant Blogger

I swore I'd never do it.

Since I filled a hand-made journal given to me by my oh-so-artsy high school girlfriend with the painfully earnest poetry of a grunge-era teenager so many years ago, I've resisted the diarist's urge. After my brief flirtation with chronicling a life that had barely begun, a diary seemed self-indulgent beyond the point that even my less-than-abstemious twenty-something self could tolerate. When people started posting the prosaic day-to-day minutiae of their lives on the (then-new) World-Wide Web, I was even more skeptical; it was clear to me that everyone's lives were in fact a lot less interesting than they themselves thought they were. The launch of technologies -- like Blogger, for example -- that were devoted to democratizing the weblog form beyond those who knew how to make webpages seemed like just another brick removed from the crumbling wall between the private and the public -- reality tv for the web medium.

And so I sat out the beginnings of the blogging revolution, satisfied that I was missing nothing. Why, then, after so many years of resistance, have I taken up the virtual pen now?

So in this space, you'll find musings and notes on some of the things that make me tick both professionally (design, web technology and culture) and personally (mostly music, with the occasional diversion into my previous life as an academic studying the history of religions and Bollywood film). If, from time to time, you do me the honor of reading my ramblings, I hope they prove interesting and that you'll occasionally take the opportunity to leave some comments.

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