What’s in Your Backlist?

In his post from yesterday, Seth Godin talks about the concept of the “backlist” and how the idea no longer belongs to just authors and musicians.

A backlist is the collection of works from earlier in a career that fans discover (or rediscover) even as the artist continues to create new works.

It used to be that ordinary people didn’t have anything like a backlist. Before web publishing tools became cheap and easy to use, very little of we did was ever stored in a way that someone could easily find. Now I have ten years of a backlist* that may have value to someone, even if it’s only me.

The same applies to students. Not too long ago, the work most of them did – both in and out of school – largely disappeared after graduation. It was as if their creative life didn’t exist prior that point.

Now most are building their backlist at a furious pace, whether they realize it or not.

Godin ends his post by stating “Your history of work is as important as the work you’ll do tomorrow.”. 

So, what are we as their teachers doing to help kids make that history something they’ll be proud to have their fans discover in the future?

*More if you want to go rummaging through the Internet Archive.

The Future of Work?

Although it may only appeal to web geeks like me, Forbes has an interesting profile of WordPress, the software that “powers one of every 6 websites on the Internet”, and it’s co-creator Matt Mullenweg.

This being a business site, the writer keeps coming back to the issue of money*, specifically on why these people are not trying to cash in Facebook-style on the explosive growth of WordPress. But he also finds space to briefly discuss the unique working arrangement for employees of Automattic, the for-profit company Mullenweg founded.

Along with independence, Automattic has an idiosyncratic workplace. As a legacy of its open-source roots its 120 employees are spread across 26 countries and six continents. Although most work alone at home, each team—usually made up of five or six people—has a generous budget to travel. “All of the money we save on office space, we blow on travel costs,” Mullenweg laughs. Groups have gathered in Hawaii, Mexico and New Zealand. Once a year everyone meets for a week at an accessible destination with a solid Internet connection. A distributed workforce means Automattic can hire talent from around the world—without having to offer the perks and pay of Google, Facebook and Apple.

That same pull quote, more specifically the last sentence of it, motivated Mullenweg to write a reply on his own blog to the implication that their distributed workforce was motivated by cost savings. Instead he says that this is “the perk and the luxury of being part of an internet-changing company from anywhere in the world”.

Mullenweg ends the post by saying “I really believe this is the future of work, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”.

If he’s right about that future, how do we help our kids learn to work in it? What are we doing to help them understand how to communicate and function with people in multiple locations, from many different countries and cultures? Will we assess students on their contributions to large projects, instead of their abilities to take tests?

Lots of questions, few answers.

*Mullenweg is more interested in gradually growing his company and in fostering the WordPress community, an approach the writer doesn’t seem to approve of, as evidenced by his concluding paragraph: “Cyrus Field and George Westinghouse weren’t quite as generous with their inventions. But they died rich.”

Leave it to a business magazine to assume the most important thing in life is to die rich.

Half Time

While people in countries that use the Gregorian calendar are celebrating the start of a new year this weekend, to me it feels more like intermission.

And here in the overly-large school district, the first half of the show has been marked by a lot of chaos and change (some good, some bad, some just different).

But the really big alterations in my work life are yet to come.

The first occurs in less than a month when my friend and colleague Karen retires.


For nearly eleven years (with one notable hole), we have collaborated and conspired on a variety of projects, throwing ideas, discoveries, and toys back and forth as we tried to help our colleagues understand the place of technology in teaching and learning and adapt to all the changes it brings (or should).

Beyond that, working with Karen has been a wonderful experience since she is also someone who’s not afraid to let me know when I’m headed in the wrong direction, regularly calling BS when I’m about to go over the top and/or get myself fired and/or arrested.

While retirements often seem like funerals (mostly you never see the victim again :-), I’m pretty sure Karen is not going away completely (except for a few months in Yellowstone).

At the very least, she will remain in my back channel, continuing to let me know when I’ve screwed up.

Ok, that’s the big one, but definitely not the only major shakeup waiting in the wings.

Another goodie arrives in mid-February when our little group will be moving to an office building somewhere closer to the center of the county.

Just setting up shop in a new place is not a big deal. I’ve done that many times in my life.

However, what makes this different is that this will be the first place I’ve worked in my professional life that wasn’t a school, a former school or some other institutional space (Circle K doesn’t count).

Instead of a converted elementary classroom, with their somewhat quirky characteristics and relative privacy, we will be in what can only be described as a cube farm (just call me 2-110) straight out of Office Space.

What makes this really unique is that by the end of the second half, almost all the central office people I work with (most of three departments) will be in one building instead of spread around five or so. With many of the big, big bosses in the executive suite downstairs.

So, among other things, we will need to be careful about impromptu inter-cube discussions, not to mention where I fire the screaming monkeys.

Between the large hole that Karen will leave and the strange new work space, the dynamics of my work life will be very different. My primary goal going forward needs to be figuring out how to find the positive in that difference.

Of course, adding a continuing surreal feeling to the balance of the year will be the on-going conflict over drastic cuts to next year’s budget (with all the accompanying doomsday rumors), and the uncertainty of how they will affect the school-based trainers we work with (and us).

Unfortunately that soap opera is not likely to end in June. We’re already being told that the academic year beginning in July will likely also be a bad one.

Anyway, that’s a brief summary of how the second half of my year is shaping up.

And why January 1 is no beginning around here – just a short break in the circus.

Image: Farewell to Tai by Techmuse (Karen, who has become an excellent naturalist photographer in the time I’ve known her), used with the expectation that she won’t mind if I do.

Working Outside The Cube

A good article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine takes a long look at the world of work and finds value in (and a growing need for) people trained to do something with their hands.

But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades – plumbing, electrical work, car repair – more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

He also speculates that we may be doing our kids a disservice by preplanning their future.

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things.

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions.

As the writer of the article makes clear, the process of repairing a motorcycle or working in other “vocational” trades (to use a discredited term from my past) can often require thinking skills that go beyond what is required by some in “information” jobs.

The whole article is worth the time to read, especially if you are someone who subscribes to the idea that every student should be trained for college admission.

Even if it’s not the path that fits their interests and talents.