Featured Annotator: Jon Udell

Jon Udell

Part of the Engelbart Framework Annotation event involves what we’re calling “featured annotators.” As Alan Levine and I discussed the event last fall and early this year, we quickly agreed there should be a meta-layer, or perhaps a meta-meta-layer, in which certain annotators would be interviewed for additional thoughts on Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, and especially their thoughts on their own annotations. How did they select the passages they chose to annotate? How did they think about the nature, tone, length, etc. of the passages they annotated? Most generally (most meta), how do they think about the activity of annotating? It seemed not only interesting but pedagogically effective to hear experts musing metacognitively in this way. And it would be an opportunity to expand the annotations multimodally.

We initially thought about doing real-time streams of people annotating, asking them to think aloud (or one might say “narrate their work“) as they did their annotations, but eventually we decided that would be unwieldy and perhaps a little too much like Monty Python’s “Novel Writing With Thomas Hardy” sketch. I bring up this early abandoned idea, though, as a little marker for considering the mix and character of synchronous and asynchronous events in the act of reading and writing. (More to say on that topic sometime.)

Instead of real-time narration, then, we settled on the idea of post-annotation interviews with our featured annotators. I did three of these interviews last week. If all goes according to plan, there will be fourteen of these interviews by the end of this event. (Chaucer didn’t live to finish his storytelling plan; I hope I do.) Today I’m pleased to say that the first of our featured annotator interviews is ready for your viewing.

I’m speaking with Jon Udell, whose work I became aware of shortly after I became aware of Doug Engelbart’s, a kind of temporal rhyme in my own lifestream. I was at lunch with Jerry Slezak, a member of the dream team at the University of Mary Washington, and Jerry mentioned to me a screencast on the topic of Wikipedia and heavy metal umlaut bands. Intrigued, I watched the screencast as soon as I got back to the office, and was thus introduced to the creative world of a deep thinker–a rare and memorable event. Jon has played a major role in this phase of my own intellectual and professional development. I look to him as an exemplar, a mentor, and a friend.

Here’s my conversation with Jon.

Engelbart Framework Project podcast 2 parts 1 and 2

Image of audio waveform

Week 2 of the Engelbart Framework Annotation Project focuses on two excerpts from Doug Engelbart’s 1962 research report Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual FrameworkHere are the audiobook recordings for Week 2.

The first excerpt, Section II parts A and B, is Engelbart’s overview of the H-LAM/T framework he proposed as a way of understanding and thus potentially accelerating the augmentation of human intellect.

This link takes you to the annotation indicating the beginning of this excerpt from the report.

The second excerpt, Section III part A subsection 1-2, discusses one of the primary antecedents for the conceptual framework Engelbart proposes: the 1945 essay “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush. In my reading, I’ve tried to differentiate the long quotation from Bush’s essay from the commentary and analysis Engelbart provides on either side of that long quotation. I didn’t want to try to emulate Bush’s Yankee accent–too much of a stunt, and I wouldn’t have done it well in any case–so instead I read the Bush quotation with a more declamatory style, while reading Engelbart’s words in a more ruminative and somewhat more intimate voice. If you get lost, just refer back to the original 1962 document. 🙂

This link takes you to the annotation indicating the beginning of this excerpt from the report.

As always, I hope these readings are helpful. For me, doing these recordings has been quite a revelation at times, for reasons I’ll explore in future blog posts.

Week 1 of the Framework Annotation event begins today

In the spring of 2004, I read these words for the first time:

We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids. 

The words had been written and published forty-two years earlier, in a long research report (really, a monograph) titled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Frameworkby Douglas Carl Engelbart.

These striking sentences come at the very beginning of the document, at the close of the first paragraph of the introduction. For me, they were the framework for the framework, the compass for an expedition I’ve been on ever since. Whatever one’s take on the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis or the essential structures of thought, whatever one’s vocation–English professor, engineer, mathematician, chemist, history professor, what not?, these words define the scope and character of Engelbart’s primary concern: how to make the intellect-augmenters human beings continually invent for themselves better serve the world of meaning and benign purpose we imagine, respond to, and seek to build.

Engelbart's sketch of elements of an integrated domain

A way of life in an integrated domain.

This week marks the official beginning (Week 1) of an effort to convene and amplify a conversation around this 1962 research report. Alan Levine and I have been working on the design and implementation of this effort for several months. Christina Engelbart, Executive Director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, has contributed wise counsel, great ideas, research support, and steady encouragement. And for the next three weeks, fourteen featured annotators from many lands and walks of life, all busy and all giving of themselves and their time, will contribute their thoughts on the document and their thoughts on their thoughts in conversations that will be recorded and added to the record as a meta-layer of consideration, something I hope Engelbart himself would enjoy as a kind of level “C” activity, augmenting the augmentation so to speak.

Yet this activity is by no means limited to me, or a small circle of collaborators. This activity is an invitation to thinkers of all levels of experience, knowledge, and vocation. The invitation envisions a complex, many-layered conversation that will not obscure the original document, but illuminate it: illuminate its hopes and accomplishments, illuminate its shortcomings and failures, illuminate our shortcomings, failures, hopes, and successes.

As several speakers noted at the Symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the famous “Mother of All Demos,” networked digital computing, at scale, amounts to one of the most powerful and potentially dangerous experiments we have ever performed on ourselves. There can be no doubt, given the events of the last decade, that the experiment has brought both weal and woe to our species and our planet. What’s vitally important to remember, though, is what Engelbart insists on throughout Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework: as a species, humanity is distinctive for precisely these kinds of self-experiments. This is what we do. Agriculture, language, mathematics, architecture, poetry, science, the list goes on. All these inventions, activities, and domains are all intellect-augmenters, experiments involving our own capacity to experiment, to generate counterfactuals, to ask the questions what is good? how can we make the good more widespread? how can we make our intellects that imagine and invent good things more effective at doing so?

Engelbart insisted that effective intellectual augmentation was always realized within a system, and that any intervention intended to accelerate intellectual augmentation must be understood as an intervention in a system. And while at many points the 1962 report emphasizes the individual knowledge worker, there is also the idea of sharing the context of one’s work (an idea Vannevar Bush had also described in “As We May Think”), the foundation of Engelbart’s lifelong view that a crucial way to accelerate intellectual augmentation was to think together more comprehensively and effectively. One might even rewrite Engelbart’s words above to say, “We do not speak of isolated clever individuals with knowledge of particular domains. We refer to a way of life in an integrated society where poets, musicians, dreamers, and visionaries usefully co-exist with engineers, scientists, executives, and governmental leaders.” Make your own list.

(Find a large university, examine its intellectual and curricular structures, and check for useful co-existence.)

Of course there are many things Engelbart does not treat in his treatise. The uncertain future of labor for workers of all kinds. The vast social inequities that governments should and could address, but do not. The widening spirals of lust for power, status, and wealth. Surveillance capitalism. Climate change. You can supply many more of these examples, too. As Engelbart himself warned, if we do not simultaneously work on both the technologies and human flourishing, flourishing that will depend on a shared understanding of what it means to be a flourishing human being, our technologies will certainly run away with us. They will turn malignant and reach a stage where there is no turning back. With the invention of fission and fusion bombs, shadows dense with dread, terror, and despair that hung over 1962 with particular force, Engelbart knew very well that mere invention was not enough. Predictably, and with grim effect, the isolated clever tricks of human ingenuity will always solve one problem in one particular situation at the cost of multiplying problems and unwelcome consequences across wide swaths of planetary experience.

Engelbart thought we could do better. He knew we must try to do better. He thought that networked digital computing could release and channel neural power in the same way that physics had released and channeled nuclear power, but to far more beneficial effect. To me, that sounds like a bet on education, on communication. A bet on human potential. A bet on what Lincoln memorably called “the better angels of our nature.”

For these reasons, and for many others, it seems like a good time to look forward by looking back, a good time to (re)visit Engelbart’s foundational work–not the mouse, not one of his dozens of patents, but a book. A research report emerging from a search for a conceptual framework. We will see what Engelbart got right, and what he got wrong; what he saw, and what he overlooked. We will see Doug Engelbart’s brilliant and unusual effort, made in good faith, to point his own life in the direction of maximum usefulness to the future of humanity.

That’s a calling to keep in mind. A calling to listen for, and answer.

Join us!

Engelbart Framework Project podcast 1

Graphic of Table of Contents, Week 1 highlighted

Week 1 emphasis for reading and annotating.

It’s a lot to take in. Doug Engelbart’s monumental 1962 research report Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework–really a monograph, and indeed a manifesto–is dense with yearning, with ideas, with analysis, and with a kind of moral philosophy devoted to human flourishing in the midst of–because of, in spite of–human invention and ingenuity.

The Engelbart Framework Annotation Project, in this first iteration, emphasizes just three key sections from Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Week 1 is devoted entirely to the Introduction, parts A and B. I’ve recorded a podcast of this section as an aid to study for those who, like me and apparently quite a few others, enjoy listening to books as well as reading them, and for whom listening means encountering the work while driving, doing the laundry, or a thousand other tasks in which reading would be impossible or at least unadvisable.

I’ll be doing podcasts for all the sections we’re emphasizing in this event. Week 2 comprises two excerpts describing Engelbart’s conceptual framework as well as his transclusion and analysis of key passages from Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think. Week 3 is the longest excerpt, the “Joe” story from Section III, where Engelbart himself believed the “fiction-dialogue” form might help his readers begin to imagine the unimaginable, and in doing so begin to shift toward the paradigms Engelbart believed we should consider and build toward, lest we founder on the shoals of our own blasted ingenuity.

So here’s the reading for Week 1. I hope my oral interpretation is helpful. And I hope you will join us for the annotation event, for as much or as little time as you can devote to it. This is only a beginning. Come let us build together!


Annotate and Augment: The Engelbart Framework Project

Annotating Engelbart's 1962 Framework

This February, 2019, join us as together we read and annotate three crucial parts of Doug Engelbart’s 1962 research report and manifesto, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. (New to the document? See “About Augmenting Human Intelllect: A Conceptual Framework, below. To go even deeper, see Christina Engelbart’s invaluable “Field Guide to Doug’s 1962 Framework.”)

Our annotations—responses, questions, conversations—will use the Hypothes.is annotation platform. As described on their website, the hypothe.is annotation platform is free, open source software “based on the annotation standards for digital documents developed by the W3C Web Annotation Working Group.”

Some specifics, including the schedule:

  • We’ll annotate the copy of Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework reprinted on the Engelbart Institute website: http://dougengelbart.org/content/view/138/000/ .
  • While our annotations will be public, we’ll be able to indicate our relationship to Engelbart and his work by tagging our annotations and replies. For example: #SRI (colleagues from the Stanford Research Institute), #ARC (colleagues from the Augmentation Research Center), #NIC (colleagues from the Network Information Center). #PARC (staff at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center), #DEI (Doug Engelbart Institute), #scholar, #student, etc. Multiple tags can be used to indicate multiple relationships, as will often be the case.
  • We welcome thoughtful annotations from all readers. Each week, several featured annotators will describe their annotations, and their relationships with Engelbart and his work, in special video interviews that will be posted to the Framework Project channel on YouTube and aggregated on this site.

Schedule of activities:

Orientation Week, February 4-10, will provide opportunities to experiment with hypothes.is and web annotation, and help readers come up to speed with the platform and the project.

February 11-17 is Week One.  We’ll focus our annotations on Section I A & B, Engelbart’s introduction to the entire report.

February 18-24 is Week Two. This week focuses on a section describing the framework itself, along with Engelbart’s analysis of a similar project outlined in Vannevar Bush’s essay “As We May Think.”

February 25-March 3 is Week Three. We’ll conclude this initial annotation project by looking at a long and very unusual section from the 1962 report that’s often referred to as the “Joe” section. Part Platonic dialogue, part short story, part shop talk, this section imagines “Joe,” an intellectual worker of the future, demonstrating Engelbart’s imagined computing environment to a sympathetic observer who’s also somewhat skeptical and at times more than a little baffled by the futuristic scenario he is “witnessing.”

This event is just the beginning of the Engelbart Framework Project, with more opportunities for learning and conversation to come. For more details about this event, and for resources emerging from the event, see the Framework Project website at framework.thoughtvectors.net. You can also sign up for email updates at the project website. If you have questions, please contact Gardner Campbell: gardner.campbell AT gmail.com (substitute @ for AT). We look forward to your insights!

Heartfelt thanks to colleague and collaborator extraodinare Alan Levine for all his help with project planning and website development, and especially to Christina Engelbart, Executive Director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, for her constant encouragement, inspiration, and support for this and many other projects. 


About Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework

People who have heard of Douglas Carl Engelbart probably know that he invented the computer mouse. They may have heard of the 1968 “Mother Of All Demos” in which Engelbart and his Augmentation Research Center presented an comprehensive, interactive human-computer co-evolutionary environment to an auditorium of astonished engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, all of whom gave Engelbart and his team a sustained standing ovation for this glimpse of a future we have yet to inhabit fully.

But even those who know the name “Doug Engelbart” may not know the demo before the demo, the research report Engelbart described as “the public debut of a dream”: a nearly 150-page monograph titled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, published in October, 1962.

This project seeks to bring Engelbart’s 1962 manifesto back into view, and to encourage close, hospitable (though not uncritical) attention to its central ideas and Engelbart’s unusually varied strategies of analysis, argument, and description. The fruit of over a decade of intense reading, thought, and writing,  Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework deserves our full attention, especially at a time when many (perhaps most) computer technologies appear untethered to any philosophy besides the pursuit of maximum profit.

Engelbart’s dream was different. He believed that networked computing could empower collective intelligence, offering humanity a way to address complex problems together. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework insists that benign, liberatory collective intelligence is not only possible but urgently necessary. And it seeks to demonstrate that an “integrated domain” of human-computer co-evolution was the most powerful means human beings had yet devised to permit their intellectual capabilities to solve problems faster than they invent them.

The Art of the Diary

Yesterday I discovered a very beautiful bit of prose. It seems relevant, and is certainly resonant, so I share it here as an affirmation, encouragement, and reminder–for myself and for anyone else it might benefit:

The art of the Diary rests in a unique way of addressing Time itself, by holding on to a particular instant, suspending it briefly in the light of the mind, underlining it, and throwing it back into the stream. In the process it acquires a special meaning, a kind of salvation from the universal drowning that sweeps our acts and thoughts–and everything we have ever loved–into the gray horrors of entropy.

From Forbidden Science 2: California Hermetica. The Journals of Jacques Vallee, 1970-1979.

The Cynical Question

Recently I spoke at a faculty development luncheon, trying to convey the pedagogical value of student blogging as well as other openly networked student activity on the web. Things I’ve been practicing and thinking about for about twenty years now, depending on how and what you count. This time I deliberately did not go to websites or demonstrate information architectures or cite examples with screenshots or anything of the kind for at least the first half of my talk. Instead, I put up several quotations from various pedagogical thinkers, with the aim of discussing principles and values first, and at length, before I said a word about any kind of specific implementation. I wanted to share the conceptual frameworks within which I do my work and within which my students do their work in my classes. I hoped that by doing so I could put the inevitable and worthy operational questions–how do you grade this? how does it scale? what about FERPA? etc.–into a larger perspective that might keep the operational questions from being conversation stoppers, as alas they often are. In other words, if we can agree on our values and principles, and articulate what we believe to be important aspects of the learning experience as demonstrated by our own experience as well as by careful research into the complexities of learning, then we might not get stuck when it becomes obvious that the systems we’ve devised don’t support, and often actually block, the values and principles we profess. If we know what we value and why, then we can always reimagine the operational details, difficult and jarring though that will be.

I know I seem quite naive in this hope. I’m not, really. I can show you all the broken places inside me that ache very badly in certain kinds of institutional weather. I can show you places where the brokenness has limited my range of motion, metaphorically speaking. For some odd reason(s), though, I keep trying. Actually, the reasons aren’t odd at all, though I say that ruefully as I think about the next time I’ll hear that sound somewhere inside me, the sound that says that once again something has snapped or at least been chipped.

So there I was, and the moment came. I could hear it arrive. “I need to ask a cynical question,” the voice said. You need to announce that need, too, I thought. I understand. This is pretty standard for this kind of discussion, and if anything, I was surprised it had taken so long to come out. But yes, here it comes, and I’ll do my best to respect the real concerns within the cynicism while at the same time I’ll attempt to move us back toward aspiration and imagination. For of course sometimes the cynical question helps to refine the hopes and dreams, and to make them more resilient so they can actually make their way toward reality.

As the cynical question emerged, however, there was a stinger at the end that I hadn’t anticipated. Although I can’t remember the exact words, the statement was along the lines of “I don’t want to find new ways for my students to humiliate themselves.”

Obviously there’s a lot to unpack in that statement, including a concern about student vulnerability that I take very seriously. I would rather cut my own throat than to set my students up for failure. But of course that’s not what I think I’m doing when I advocate openly networked kinds of learning experiences. Quite the contrary. Along with all the usual and valuable aspects of teaching and evaluation, I add openly networked learning experiences as places where students can succeed in new and potentially liberating ways. Succeeding at what David Wiley calls, with much justice, “disposable assignments” can have real but limited value, no doubt. But succeeding at interest-driven opportunities to move in creative, unpredictable ways to connect one’s learning with classmates’ learning and with larger experiences of life? That seems valuable to me, and a worthy, even essential addition to the experience of a course of study.

But then I do not look at these things as opportunities for students to humiliate themselves. I look at them as opportunities for students to distinguish themselves by telling the story of their learning.

At the outset, my students are often surprised and even confused by the very idea that their learning is a story, one they should consider and share. This leads me to believe that the opportunity to consider and share the story of their learning is sadly absent from much of their educational experience. But there is a story there, and it is their story, and by considering and sharing that story, learners will perhaps begin to value and own their learning with more depth and intensity rather than seek the next set of credit hours that will fit their schedule, though I know that matters, too. They can see themselves, in the company of their fellow learners, writing themselves into ampler being.

And as they write, my students distinguish themselves. Paradoxically, as they become more fully individuated, they also become more communally aware, too. At its best, the openly networked activity gives them the opportunity to be fans, even connoisseurs, of each other’s voices and insights. They can come to know that a classroom, like a brain or a heart, can be much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Ironically, that realization can take hold more readily and more effectively through the openly networked activity, for here at last they see what John Dewey observed long ago: education is not preparation for life but the very process of life itself. The openly networked aspects of learning are like a lucky coin in one’s pocket, an amulet almost, reminding us that a stuffy room with bad fluorescent lighting and uncomfortable chairs is also, potentially, a portal or a threshold or a liminal space. It’s also quizzes and syllabi and exams and papers, all of which matter too. But it cannot only be those things.

This extra space, this singularity we carry in our pockets and backpacks and find like a bookmark or a marginal note among all the things we read and write, is not a space for humiliation, but a space for wonder and curiosity. To share those spaces with each other, in our distinctive voices, is to distinguish ourselves in a way that can, at its best, reveal to us the distinctiveness that is the birthright of each of us.

Adventures in Annotation: Knowledge Emotion Tags

Knowledge Emotions: Confusion, Surprise, Interest, Awe

As I continue to tinker with the “cognitive disciplines” framework I’m using for my courses these days, I also tinker with what I might call the students’ performance spaces for these disciplines–that is, their opportunities to exercise and demonstrate these cognitive disciplines as part of their work in the class. For example, I’ve discovered that asking students to put a tagline in their blogsite names (blogs are for “zooming out”) seems to generate a small but noticeable increase in their engagement. That’s a qualitative judgment on my part, of course, but it reinforces my sense that naming opportunities–domains, stars, children, etc.–can be powerful occasions for personalization, expression, and emotional investment. Taglines are very piquant naming opportunities.

I’m tinkering with the annotation (“zooming in”) space as well, using Hypothes.is. Here my goal is not only to encourage close and careful reading, but to help shape an environment for consideration, for mulling things over, for thinking at a deeper and more reflective level than a kind of op-ed reaction (though that too has its uses, of course). It’s easy to get a reaction, but much harder to elicit a response. It’s harder still to encourage a spirit of still contemplation that doesn’t leap to judgment, even though judgment, in the end, can be not only warranted but essential. Before that judgment, however, a certain hospitality, a certain expansion of the bounds of consideration. A space for entertaining ideas.

So this time I’m asking students to tag their annotations with a word describing a specific quality of the passage they were annotating. I gave them a taxonomy of three possible tags:

  • Interesting
  • Puzzling
  • Insightful

At first I merely stipulated that students should use a tag, remaining silent about the possibility of combining tags. Sure enough, without any direction from me, one student started to combine tags–a very thoughtful strategy, and one true to my own experience as a reader. Then, others did as well.

I adapted the tags from Dr. Paul Silvia‘s article “Knowledge Emotions: Feelings that Foster Learning, Exploring, and Reflecting.”  (Knowledge emotions? Yes.) Using appraisal theory, Silvia identifies four such emotions: Surprise, Confusion, Interest, and Awe. For my first trials, I used the word “puzzling” instead of “confusing” to stimulate some thought about the possibility of solutions or further inquiry, as the word “confusing” is often a stopping point for students instead of the starting point it should be. I omitted “surprising” because I wanted to keep the set of tags to three, at least for starters. I’ll add it soon. I omitted “awe,” not because I don’t believe in awe or experience it myself (quite the contrary), but because I didn’t want the term to be overused or to slip into “awesome.” Instead, I added the word “insightful” as a way to extend a part of the knowledge affect into a evaluative realm, and because I’m very interested in insight.

Some students forgot to tag their annotations, but most remembered. Hypothes.is makes it easy to sort by tags, so at a glance I could see which passages had struck students as interesting, puzzling, or insightful–or some combination. Obviously this gave me opportunities for follow-up in later classes as well.

As I say, early days. Still tinkering. But I thought the idea was worth sharing, and I hope folks will build on it and help me improve.


The Professional Ethos


By Bidgee – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 au, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12857136

Although Open Learning ’18 has come and gone, the questions and issues linger in my mind. I continue to think about faculty development, and more widely, professional development. I wonder about the routine and damaging separation of skills and content, teaching and research, computers and pedagogy. During the thirteen years I worked in faculty development, as I worked with colleagues to foster deeper and more intellectually stimulating varieties of professional development, I saw organizational and cultural barriers of all kinds; and while I did my best to identify, address, and overcome those barriers, I feel that I failed more often than I succeeded.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to frame professional development as an ethical project–which of course leads me to think about the ethos of the contemporary university, which is not a happy thinking spot. Still, it’s interesting to think not about programs or outcomes or assessment or any of those useful but secondary things, but about ethos, and ethics. I understand that trying to identify one ethos in the contemporary multiversity is probably a fool’s errand. I wonder, though, if we can talk about ethical higher education without asking about the ethos of the university.

In this regard, I find Jerry Z. Muller’s definition of “the professional ethos” very interesting.

The professional ethos is based on mastery of a body of specialized knowledge acquired through an extended process of education and training; autonomy and control over work; an identification with one’s professional group and a sense of responsibility toward colleagues; a high valuation of intrinsic rewards; and a commitment to the interests of clients above considerations of costs….  (The Tyranny of Metrics)

Mastery. Processes that take time. Self-regulation. Responsibility. Intrinsic rewards. Commitment to the interests of clients (not mere “customers”). It’s hard to think of what professionalism might mean without these commitments. It’s hard to watch such commitments being eroded, or forgotten, or forsaken.

When I hear vapid and damaging talk about how the university is a “business” (as if there’s only one kind of business in the world, the kind focused on making as much money as possible) or about how we need to “give the students what they want, not what we think they need,” I hear a refusal of this idea of the professional ethos.

When smart and perceptive experts feel they must problematize the idea of expertise as what I can only assume is a sincere but misguided egalitarian gesture, I hear a refusal of the idea of the professional ethos. As should be clear by now, putting the word expert in scare quotes can result in a truly frightening and harmful rejection of knowledge itself. To see any part of this rejection in higher education is to see a process of self-consumption that cannot end well.

I wonder if the assumptions underlying much (not all) professional development in contemporary higher education reflect a similar erosion of the professional ethos. Expertise is not simply a quantity or something to be certified. Expertise is a practice emerging from, and reflecting, an ethos. A professional ethos.

Food for thought.


I know what I know, says the almanac.
Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina

Where does responsibility begin? Where can it end? Alasdair MacIntyre observes that we tell our stories in part to account for our actions–which is also to say, to make them intelligible to ourselves in terms of the responsibilities we accept. Of course we must also accept forgiveness, and we must also forgive ourselves. Yet there is responsibility, which in one crucial respect simply means the thing I should say something about, that thing to which I should respond.

Obliged, accountable, responsible. Yes. But also, at its root, “responsible” means “answered, offered in return.” A largely silent blog, the blog this blog has become, suggests no answers, no response, little or nothing to offer in return. Yet not to offer some response seems ungrateful, and especially ungrateful to those whose responses continue, often at great cost, to offer hope: a great gift. I know this blog is my responsibility. I have not responded as I ought. So I write these words for myself, to answer myself, to speak of my own silence–but not to excuse it.

This week, which is Holy Week for Christians, I am particularly haunted by these words from They Thought They Were Free, a book recommended by Timothy Burke, whose recommendations I take very seriously:

A man can carry only so much responsibility. If he tries to carry more, he collapses; so, to save himself from collapse, he rejects the responsibility that exceeds his capacity. There are responsibilities he must carry, in any case, and these, heavy enough under normal conditions, are intensified, even multiplied, in times of great change, be they bad times or good…. Responsible men never shirk responsibility, and so, when they must reject it, they deny it. They draw the curtain. They detach themselves altogether from the consideration of the evil they ought to, but cannot, contend with. Their denial compels their detachment. A good man–even a good American–running to catch a train on an important assignment has to pass by the beating of a dog on the street and concentrate on catching the train and, once on the train, he has to consider the assignment about which he must do something, rather than the dog-beating about which he can do nothing. If he is running fast enough, and his assignment is mortally important, he will not even notice the dog-beating when he passes it by.

Forgiveness may be at hand. In the meantime, there is Peter’s bitter weeping: a response, a measure of responsibility, a dark offering, a key still before him.

Good Friday.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.

POSTSCRIPT: And speaking of responsibility, another mea culpa: Mayer’s phrase “good American” is harshly ironic in this context. They Thought They Were Free is about Nazi Germany, and one of Mayer’s throughlines is that no one is immune to the rejection–and even more damning, the denial–of responsibility he describes here. Not even “good Americans.” And Mayer also suggests, hauntingly, that difficult calculations are inevitable, and very painful, and that wrong answers are wrong nonetheless.

I am sorry not to have made this clear in my initial post, and grateful to Stephen for his response in the comments.