Why I Teach

(Who knows how this will turn out. An impossible topic allows some latitude in the exploration, yes? I mean, what do I have to lose? )

To try to explain why I teach seems impossible to me for several reasons. I never set out to be a teacher. They told me (you know, those folks who tell you things) that teachers were patient. I didn’t know whether my teachers were truly patient. (Looking back, of course, it seems to me they must have been in order to put up with me as a student.) I did know, without a second’s hesitation or an iota of doubt, that I was not patient. Nor am I now.

I don’t teach because I like to manage learning, though I suppose there is some kind of management that does foster learning. I love to imagine and help build interesting experiences that conduce to learning, but unless one says that Abbey Road was the result of “management,” I don’t think I like to manage learning. I’m not even sure that’s really possible.

The terrible truth is that I never set out to be a teacher. If you had told me at age 12, or 16, or even at age 21 that I’d end up being a teacher, I would probably have laughed at you. The weird thing about my laughter is that the teachers I loved imprinted themselves indelibly on my entire being. To this day, I can imagine them so vividly that I can almost believe myself back in their presence. I guess I didn’t think of those teachers I loved as part of school, and thus I probably didn’t think of them as teachers, though I knew very well that’s what they were. Instead, I thought of them as extraordinary human beings who were deeply inquisitive and thus deeply knowledgeable in ways that seemed to me to amplify one’s being far past any degree I could imagine. And the particular mode of the extraordinary had to do with the intellect, somehow, even if the visible result seemed to be a “skill” of some sort.

Perhaps I could see they were teachers, but I could never catch them “teaching.”

One approached knowledge in the spirit of making it accessible to the problem-solving learner by modes of thinking that he already possessed or that he could, so to speak, assemble by combining natural ways of thinking that he had not previously combined. (Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education)

 The teachers I loved did their work, as far as I could tell and as nearly as I can recall, by doing that. They weren’t covering or delivering content. They weren’t specifying learning outcomes on their syllabi. They weren’t prepping me for a high-stakes standardized test. They were doing that. And they seemed to be doing that because it was the precondition for the enlargement of being in this world full of people who live, talk, and work together and want to do that better.

So much of learning depends upon the need to achieve joint attention, to conduct enterprises jointly, to honor the social relationship that exists between learner and tutor, to generate possible worlds in which given propositions may be true or appropriate or even felicitous: to overlook this functional setting of learning–whatever its content–is to dry it to a mummy. (Bruner, op. cit.)

The first inkling I had that I might be a teacher, even if I generally disliked visible “teaching” in most of my classes, came in graduate school, when I led a small discussion (“recitation”) group in a large undergraduate class. I was reading some of the books for the first time myself. I didn’t think I was teaching anything. I thought I was asking interesting questions to which I was pretty sure I did not have the answers. The students responded very warmly. They said they had learned a lot from me. I found that puzzling, truly deeply puzzling, until much later when I read the second Bruner quotation above and realized that I apparently had a talent for fostering joint attention. I also realized along the way that “joint attention” meant much more than making sure all the students were paying attention to me. In fact, it probably didn’t mean that at all, though sometimes that kind of attention is warranted and handy. It meant, I think, that I was able to focus and make visible the purposeful attention any of us might bring to the learning moment, and with that focus and visibility strengthen and amplify its power and efficacy for all of us.

But it felt like being alight with delight. Together. And while I catalyzed it, it didn’t belong to me–which meant I could have it, too.


In the New Yorker‘s issue of May 19, 2014, there’s a strangely wonderful essay by Alec Wilkinson titled “A Voice From The Past.” In it, Wilkinson tells the story of a physicist who figured out a way to take very old traces of sound waves–traces predating phonograph records or even wax cylinders–and by scanning their visible marks, convert them back into sounds. By doing so, this physicist, Carl Haber, heard voices from farther back in time than anyone else had up to that date. (Yes, I’m messing with chronotopes again.) As Wilkinson tells Haber’s story, he veers into an uncanny moment in which the implications of Haber’s work–or I should say, the curiosity driving his work–suddenly grow very large indeed.

Silence is imaginary, because the world never stops making noise. A sound is a disruption of the air, and it doesn’t so much die as recede until it subsides beneath the level of the world’s random noise and can no longer be recovered, like a face that is lost in a crowd. In past times, people sometimes thought that all sounds that ever existed were still present, hovering like ghosts. Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first radio message, in 1902, believed that with a microphone that was sufficiently sensitive he could hear Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, and in 1925 a writer for the Washington Post speculated that a radio was capable of broadcasting the voices of the dead. A radio transmits vibrations, he wrote, and the voices of the dead “simply vibrate at a lower rate.”

“Teaching” might well address this conjecture with dispatch, so as to cover more content: the thing is impossible, the expression is fanciful, the conjecture is worthless. “In past times, people sometimes thought”: isn’t an essential part of critical thinking the way learners are schooled in the swift, efficient recognition that if people thought it in the past, it’s probably wrong? And if it involves metaphor or imagination in the hands of a non-expert, it’s almost certainly a naive mistake, at best. Yet that kind of critical thinking (yes, there are others) dramatically reduces the scope of one’s curiosity, one’s drive, the sense of possibility, the wild surmise that may lead nowhere but may also bring into being the very thing we all “knew” (because we were “taught’ it) was impossible.

I teach not only because I am thrilled to participate in most kinds of joint attention, but because I love the kind of idea Marconi had about the microphone, and I recognize that my love for that kind of idea is a love of enlarged forms and horizons of inquiry, and the energy released by that enlargement. I want that enlargement and that energy to be available to anyone who wants it. And I know from my own experience that this kind of idea is the most fragile of all, yet also one of the most valuable kinds of ideas we can have, because it can bring good new things into the world.

[Haber] said that what intrigued him about recovering relic sounds was the period and the figures who inhabited it. “Roughly toward the end of the nineteenth century, there were these early guys—I like to call them the heroic inventors,” he said. “Edison, Bell, Muybridge with his time studies, Marconi. They were not particularly well established academically; they were not trained as engineers, mathematicians, or scientists; they were very creative; and they did intuitive, seat-of-the-pants, trial-and-error experiments, whereas once you get into the twentieth century, and you have an understanding of the physics and chemistry involved in these original scientific gestures, you get engineers and academics doing this kind of work. They’re more cautious. No scientist would have thought you could hear Jesus. It violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

He shook his head.

“Anyway, they were the first to record the world as it was actually happening,” he continued.

To encourage others–and thus myself as well–to be creative, intuitive, heroic inventors who record the world as it is actually happening, and thus to build a world of incautious love for the possible good we have not yet imagined: this, too, is why I teach.


From Open To Connected

cc-header1It’s been gnawing on me over the last couple of years that in our haste to open up schooling, we may well have missed the greater and more important aims that “open” strives toward. And while there’s no way to protect words from being twisted or co-opted, the phenomena of “openwashing” and the long long O in MOOC are troubling indicators that what initially seemed to be the language of openness may have fought shy of the question of what the openness was for. How otherwise to explain a world in which broadcast lectures are touted as innovations or disruptions?

Not that higher ed itself has not had its own complicity in the process, given that our practices of scaling and isolation have modeled much of what we see in the “content delivery” model of online learning.

I tried to explore some of these concerns at Open Ed 2012 in Vancouver in a talk I called “Ecologies of Yearning and the Future of Open Education.”

The yearning I tried to evoke is part of the higher aims I keep trying to articulate. Although I understand the ironies within and around E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph, I cannot help subscribing to the imperative:

“Only connect.”

So I’m honored to be part of a Connected Learning Alliance initiative called “Connected Courses,” and to be one of the facilitators of the “metacourse” that debuts in September. The course is completely open–but it is also about opening. The course is free in that participants do not pay tuition–but it asks for commitment, for participation, so that the free course can be truly freeing. Together we will explore the idea of connected courses, the ways in which connected courses can be built, and most importantly, why connected courses matter.

In fact, we start with the why, as you can see on the Connected Courses syllabus.

Just a few days ago, VCU’s first cMOOC, “Living The Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” concluded its formal work as a course of study for the summer of 2014. The connections, however, persist within the larger and more important paradigm of connected learning. That’s the goal, now and always: “Only connect.” This moment may be one of our best opportunities to reclaim what is best about higher education, and to recall higher education to its core mission and values. The task is fraught with many risks, and I’m not saying that connected learning is the only or even the ultimate answer–but this paradigm resonates so strongly with the reasons I became a professor in the first place, and the feelings of liberation and unbounded possibility that I felt when I began using the Web with my students twenty years ago, that I am invigorated and newly hopeful for the next part of the journey.

Check out connectedcourses.net. Switch on your electric blog. Turn up your radio and let us hear the song.

Caravanistas, I salute you. Turn it up!

Homophone trouble as a parable of learning

Klein Bottle: obliquity unbounded. Image cc Wikimedia Commons

This one is quite oblique, so if you’re not patient or inquisitive or morbidly curious, this one may not be for you. 

Here’s the backstory. Students in my section of “Living The Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds” are completing their inquiry projects. I’ve been thinking a lot, and emailing a few folks with some frequency, about their drafts. I’ve been thinking about writing and language and how the inquiry’s focus and articulation chart a course for the creator. Along the way, I had the opportunity to interact with one of the students about one of the most difficult homophone (or near-homophone) combos of all: “affect” and “effect.” My email turned into something like one of Vi Hart’s famous “math doodles” (or it seemed so to me). By the end, it felt as if I’d arrived at something near the core of teaching and learning.

I’m confident that what follows is not original with me. The ending, though, is where I think there may be a small contribution. It’s the paragraph that begins “now the interesting thing educationally….”

Unfortunately, the contribution needs to have the homophone discussion for context.

That small contribution draws on Bruner’s “The Will To Learn” as well as Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the latter of which I am re-reading, as I do about every two years. The whole idea is to find the place where one must stand to start building. The will to learn. The idea or intuition of “quality” that precedes analysis or even conscious experience. The place that makes all possible, and without which we try to run our marathons on broken legs.

Now for the homophone affect-effect problem. You’ve actually got it wrong in your sentence (sorry). Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the differences:affect n. means “emotion.” Example: I could not read his affect from his face.
affect v. means “to adopt in a fake or pretentious way.” Example: She affects a scholarly air.
But now it gets harder.
affected v. *past tense* means “had an effect on” and is often used with the passive voice. (English is a hard language for these and many other reasons. I blame humanity.) Example: “Computing was affected for the better by Engelbart.” It’s a vague verb so I usually try to find a different way to put it. (My typical workaround for linguistic indecision.)
affected adj. means “fake.” Example: He had a very affected manner of speaking.

effect n. means “impact.” An effect is the thing that results from a cause, the thing the cause brings into being. Example: “Engelbart had a great effect on civilization, particularly with regard to computing.”
effect v. means “to bring into being.” Example: “Engelbart effected great change in society.” A vague sentence and not very useful for that reason, but the word is correct. :)

So: “The weather affects my mood” and “the weather has an effect on my mood” mean roughly the same thing. “I affect a moody disposition when it rains” means “I put on, or fake, a moody disposition when it rains.” “The weather effects my mood” means “the weather brings my mood into being,” which is not the same thing as “the weather changes my mood.”

Now the interesting thing educationally, for me, is that a) you knew there was a difference and b) you were aware that you may not have understood the difference. The fact that you used “affect” incorrectly is of secondary importance. If those first two conditions didn’t obtain, the incorrect usage would be hard or impossible to address. For decades I have continued to work on instilling the metacognitive loop of 1) and 2) in students without having that loop paralyze their writing. It’s no good trying to get one’s messy thoughts into a rough draft if one gets blocked by linguistic uncertainty. The key is to write and keep writing, then go back and revise later. Eventually one becomes more fluent and can therefore get a lot of this stuff right on the fly, but even then careful proofreading is helpful. I still get my its and it’s wrong in rough drafts, just because I’m going quickly. Same for typos, etc.

Apostrophes? Don’t get me started…. I was laughing with an English friend in Herefordshire several years ago about a sign he saw regarding “Christma’s toys.”

In the end, it’s all conventions, but the conventions matter even though they’re arbitrary. They represent a set of agreements. It’s also kind of fun, in a geeky way, to get it right and to know why–like being able to play a favorite lick on one’s guitar, or being able to draw a recognizable face, or being able to tell a joke well.

Sorry to natter on at such length, but I thought it might be fun to stroll along and think aloud.

All best,
Dr. C.

A research assignment for a radical course

A long time ago, but just up the road, a Shakespeare professor named Bill Kemp and I devised a freshman composition course like no other. Our reader was Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. Our syllabus had four assignments, the last of which was a final paper students published to the web. This course began in the fall of 1997. Early days, radical design, extraordinary results. I can’t remember now why we stopped. I guess after six or seven iterations the freshness had turned to slog, and neither of us could bear doing the course unless it was truly magical. I had to teach it by myself at least once, and it was much less fun without Bill. He was my alter ego in many ways, Barfield to my Lewis, Lennon to my McCartney (or perhaps, sometimes, it was the other way ’round). I’ve been meaning for a long time to blog about this course, my first truly open course in the way I’d mean it today. It’s the great-great-grandmother of this summer’s cMOOC, “Living The Dreams.” I learned a great deal by teaching this course with Bill. I learned just as much from my students as well. It really was something very special.

Now we’re closing in on the final weeks of “Living The Dreams,” and I thought I’d reprint the research assignment from the Stranded course. Some of it still seems very fresh to me, and wholly applicable to the kind of research I continue to urge students to do. It’s written Campbell/Kemp because I wrote the lion’s share of it. (Yes, we also had a Lennon-McCartney thing in our heads, or at least I did.) Strangely, the Wikipedia article on research is also quite good, and very well aligned with what Bill and I were trying to do. I’d not looked it up before tonight. Wikipedia continues to instruct and delight.

But back to Stranded. Here’s the assignment. Perhaps it will be useful. To Bill Kemp, my deepest gratitude. I remember our work together with deep satisfaction, even joy. You’re one of a kind.

ENGL 101 Assignment Three: The Research Paper–Campbell/Kemp

Assignment two was about personal engagement in the context of experience. Assignment three is about personal engagement in the context of information and the ideas it contains and inspires. That is, the “research paper” is not a simple “research report”–“What I Learned About Nine Inch Nails.” Instead, like Ellen Willis and Jim Miller and (with reservations) John Rockwell and in fact most of the authors in Stranded, you should incorporate background information and other people’s commentary into your own exploration of the music you’ve chosen to write about.

Research isn’t merely finding a few facts and quotations to back up ideas you’ve already developed. Research is listening to other people, learning from them, and using their ideas to sharpen your own. Think of your sources not as dictionaries or encyclopedias but as places where you can hear a conversation and prepare yourself to join in. Each of your sources, if it’s any good at all, represents a human being who’s done something very like the work you’re now doing. They offer you the results of their work: information, ideas, conclusions. You take what they’ve done and use it to shape, support, and interact with your own ideas and conclusions. Thus the conversation carries on, and we’re all the richer for it.

What is an idea? An idea is a “take” on something. An idea is a frame you generate out of your knowledge and experience (a distinction without a difference) that you use to make a new picture out of something you’ve seen before. Where do ideas come from? They can appear out of the aether, popping into your head–but we can’t always afford to wait for such happy moments. Remember that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Everything is potentially a frame, a source for frames, an idea waiting for YOU to frame it so. Stranded is full of ideas and therefore full of frames. So is every other book worth reading. And if you don’t find a particular frame within someone else’s work, you can certainly learn framing strategies (that is, idea-generating strategies) from other writers. That’s the big reason we read: to find ideas and the story of how our writers discovered them.

Your paper should use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style of documentation, which you may find in The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. Note that MLA now has guidelines for citing online and Internet sources. Also note that Simpson Library has very informative links on their pages, including the essential sections on how to evaluate online sources. Point your browsers to library.mwc.edu/engines.html and take a look at what our wonderful librarians have assembled for you.

Remember: when in doubt about how or where to find sources, ask the reference librarian. When in doubt about how or whether to cite a source, ask your professor. Other guidelines:

  • You should have at least six separate sources on your Works Cited page.

  • At least one of these sources should be a book: either a monograph or a collection of essays. At least four of these sources MUST be print sources or online versions of print sources.

  • You must use at least two Stranded essays in some way. They do not count toward the “six source” total, though they should be cited on the Works Cited page.


Instructions: When you hand in your final draft, hand in this assignment sheet as well. On it, indicate which two of the “bits of wisdom” below you found most helpful, and rank them. Below this section, add at least one bit of wisdom you’d like to pass on to next term’s students.


1. You have a right to be in this conversation. You are a scholar.

2. Tell us what you think, not just what you found.

3. Research is a way to explore your own emotions intelligently, and perhaps to find a friend.

4. It isn’t true just because it’s in print.

5. When in doubt, cite.

6. A thing is psychedelic if it changes when you look at it closely”–Robyn Hitchcock.


J. C. R. Icarus: Nugget for “Man-Computer Symbiosis”

Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

No one knows what it would do to a creative brain to think creatively continuously. Perhaps the brain, like the heart, must devote most of its time to rest between beats. But I doubt that this is true. I hope it is not, because [interactive computers] can give us our first look at unfettered thought.
J. C. R. Licklider, “Computers in the University,” in Computers and the World of the Future (1962)

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”

“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.”
Stanley Kubrick

Yes, it’s all about human intellect, that strange product of a decisive moment in our evolution in which we got just enough working memory to begin to generate counterfactuals, to imagine that things could be different, and then to invent symbols–language, of course, but also art, math, music–to be able to share those imaginings with each other. We even came up with a word for the concept of “symbol” itself, a way of talking about how we were thinking, and thus generated what Douglas Hofstadter calls “an infinitely extensible symbol set.” As we shared our symbols, we began to be intentional about what we could build together, and what might persist beyond our own deaths.

So much extraordinary capacity, and we take most of it for granted.

And now come computers, with the promise of helping us generate, store, retrieve, share, and more fully understand the rich symbols that form the record of our species.

In “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” Licklider talks about all of this symbol-use in pretty straightforward ways. The essay reads very much like a project outline, at times almost bureaucratically so. There’s the research (on himself), the conclusion, and thus the problem description. There’s the itemized analysis of what will be needed to realize the vision of intellectual augmentation he imagines. By the end of the essay, he’s outlined all the engineering and seems well on his way to putting a budget together. I’ve always found the end very abrupt, oddly so, given the highly metaphorical way the essay begins. It’s very different from Vannevar Bush’s poignant, almost plaintive ending to “As We May Think.”

The passage I’ve chosen exhibits both the project-oriented Licklider (he preferred to go by “Lick”) and the dreamer Lick. It’s interesting to see how they don’t quite go together:

In short, it seems worthwhile to avoid argument with (other) enthusiasts for artificial intelligence by conceding dominance in the distant future of cerebration to machines alone. There will nevertheless be a fairly long interim during which the main intellectual advances will be made by men and computers working together in intimate association. A multidisciplinary study group, examining future research and development problems of the Air Force, estimated that it would be 1980 before developments in artificial intelligence make it possible for machines alone to do much thinking or problem solving of military significance. That would leave, say, five years to develop man-computer symbiosis and 15 years to use it. The 15 may be 10 or 500, but those years should be intellectually the most creative and exciting in the history of mankind.

Lick simply assumes that AI will be developed, and that when it is developed, “dominance” in “cerebration” (meaning “thought,” I believe) will belong to “machines alone.” We will invent our own obsolescence. Yet the 15, or 10, or 500 years during which we invent our obsolescence “should be intellectually the most creative and exciting in the history of mankind.” The note of excitement is familiar and thrilling. And we are living in that time as I type these words on my computer’s keyboard, which makes Lick’s pronouncement doubly thrilling.

Yet I hesitate to say with Lick, “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.” Moreover, I don’t think he’s being very careful with his own argument. In the essay, he distinguishes “formulated” thinking from “formulative” thinking. The latter is more about problem-finding, about using the algorithmic powers of the computer in concert with the goal-setting and meaning-making activity of the human being to refine the human’s questions and enrich the scale and depth of the human’s powers of imagination and analysis. Does Lick believe that computers will eventually become superior meaning-makers? (Does the Netflix recommendation engine create meaning, or simply reveal it?) Does Lick believe that computers will identify problems for us to work on, optimizing the work for our messy associative brains? Does he believe that creativity itself will take on a new meaning independent of human input or judgment? Hard to say. I don’t think he’s consistent in the essay. And in truth, as John Markoff notes in What The Dormouse Said, the split between the AI researchers and those who, like Doug Engelbart, imagined that computers would augment human intellect, not replace it, was eventually unbridgeable.

And yet the dreams were similar, which brings me back to the epigraphs. From cave paintings to epic poetry, there’s strong evidence that ever since human beings became symbol users and symbol sharers (really two aspects of the same thing), we have found our minds to be spooky, paradoxical, oddly free, and strangely limited. And in the midst of that feeling, we aspire to greater heights of ingenuity and invention. It is our very minds that drive us to enlarge our minds, since somewhere in our minds we find we have not reached the end of what we can imagine grasping.

That’s a strange thought, a troubling thought, an exhilarating thought. Many cautionary tales have sprung up around this thought. Many dreams have emerged from it as well. Given the nature of our ingenuity, I’m not sure we have much hope of stalling this thought.

Might as well see what we can build with it.

As Pete Townshend once sang, “No easy way to be free.”

Letter to a learner

Right Stuff Thumbs Up

Our VCU summer cMOOC, “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” has finished its first week. 12.5% of the experience is behind us in time (though not in memory and certainly not on the Web). I’ve already learned a great deal from all aspects of the experience and, more importantly, from all the people who have worked and are working to make this experience go. Chief among these people are those students who have committed time and thoughtful energy to the work they’re doing already. I’ve seen some extraordinary work, much of it splendidly blurring the line between creativity and analysis in ways that should remind us that any such lines are provisional at best and damaging at worst. The work these students have contributed fascinates me and encourages me. I am grateful.

At the same time, there are the inevitable frustrations that come with learning experiences that differ from the norm, as this one most certainly does. it’s understandable (if regrettable) that there will always be some frustration when one wants a learning experience that’s clear, tightly scripted, and doesn’t require consistent participation. Many college courses are like this. Such experiences, even when the work is difficult, are easily managed and can be compartmentalized, even walled off, from the rest of one’s life. There are at least three principal problems with such transactional designs:

1. The learning typically doesn’t persist beyond the final exam, which itself is often little more than cramming and regurgitating.

2. The learning typically doesn’t transfer well into other domains, As a result, there are few connections and fewer insights generated in other learning situations. The learning isn’t made “strong,” to quote Richard Feynman, who used to be very puzzled when his fellow students at MIT couldn’t see that, say, a particular chemistry problem and a particular biology problem were really two versions of the same set of concepts and questions.

3. Related to both of the above, the compartmentalized learning design (as opposed to a connected learning design) typically does not rely on, or encourage, meaning-making, Without meaning-making, the human significance of an activity dwindles to nearly zero, or perhaps to zero (I try not to speak in dogmatic absolutes, but in my heart I believe “zero” is correct).

The idea of “connected” learning as opposed to “compartmentalized” learning has been on my mind a great deal lately, prompted in particular by a special issue of The International Journal of Learning and Media. I’ve written about this issue before, but the abstract from one article in particular keeps coming back like a haunting melody, or perhaps a trumpet call to action:

What Is Connected Learning and How to Research It?

Kristiina Kumpulainen
University of Helsinki 
Julian Sefton-Green
London School of Economics and Political Science 

Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now, are presently challenging traditional definitions of learning and education. How can we conceptualize learning in a way that is able to respond to and explain the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our times? We elaborate on the notion of “connected learning” as a conceptual heuristic that has recently received recognition as a potential lens and a model through which to research and promote learning as a holistic experience that stretches beyond formal and informal communities. We reflect on the methodological challenges of describing, defining, and analyzing connected learning across young peoples’ everyday “learning lives” from the sociocultural and dialogic perspectives. We discuss such key notions for connected learning as understanding, tracking, and tracing learners; chronotopes; boundary crossing; intertextuality; and learning lives.

(I’ll put a marker here to say that I’ve gone back to my Bakhtin to investigate the connection with chronotopes, “time-space” as Bakhtin calls it, and the matter merits much further investigation.)

The rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular have given us an unprecedented opportunity to experience, and to study and learn from, the “dynamic processes of learning.” At this stage of my career, I find myself pursuing these goals with greater energy and focus in all my work. I even find that my specialization as a scholar of verbal art, especially that of poetry, relates strongly to efforts to understand these dynamic processes. While these connections and the very idea of connected learning itself are exhilarating, they’re exhausting too, because they require a lot of work to make them intelligible, and a lot of persuasion to encourage people to dive into the experience and make something of it themselves. There’s a lot of apparently successful compartmentalized schooling going on, and while I find it deeply frustrating and more of a tragic failure of the human imagination than anything at all successful, it is easily managed and it is familiar. It can also narcotize both teacher and student in ways I find very troubling, though I do not doubt that in most instances everyone is trying to do the right thing.

Which brings me back to “Living the Dreams” and the cMOOC learning experience this summer. After one week, it’s becoming clear to everyone that this is a very unusual course. It’s taking a great deal of time and energy to attend to the network that’s sprung into being, to learn from and within that network, and to reassure ourselves that something extraordinary is possible here (indeed, is already happening) that could transform the way we think about research, research writing, and the power of an Engelbartian intellect augmentations, a true dynamic knowledge ecosystem (DKE), a networked improvement community (NIC). One student–to judge by the writing, a very fine student indeed–communicated her frustrations in an honest, searching, and self-aware fashion that I found rather inspiring, especially as she continued to interact with me and her section’s professor over the course of a comment string. I won’t link to that post directly, as I don’t want to try to single her out; I’m sure she speaks for many students. But I did want to share the comment I just left as I tried to respond to her honest and thoughtful struggles with a course built on “social media” (are there other kinds of media?) that’s a pilot course (meaning that it’s a work in progress itself) and that looks and feels so very different from any course she’s taken before. I salute her because she’s truly trying to make something out of what she’s experiencing. And I dedicate this post to her.

Here is the comment I just left. It’s a follow-up to an earlier comment from me, so I’l start with a bit of her reply for context. You should know that she’s a science student, and that in an earlier comment she was wondering about what this learning experience had to do with preparing her for scientific research. The words in italics are hers.

Thank you, Dr. C…. I think I just need some time to adjust to this unusual course structure. However, as this is a pilot class, I really do feel that it may be useful to some students if there were some consolidation on the UNIV website. Perhaps that will also just take some getting used to though.

You’re very welcome! Coordinating the information is always a challenge when there’s an emphasis on variety and yet also on connection. Most face-to-face courses de-emphasize both because of limitations that exist in the physical world (though there are great things in the physical world too, certainly!). Online kinds of interaction present new possibilities. Some thinkers (including many scientists) believe online communication represents a new stage in human biocultural evolution, one comparable to the invention of writing itself. The Web itself was invented to improve research by enabling scientists to be in better communication, which also means to be able to build and work together better. It’s all about communication in the end. Once human beings got language, everything changed.

I’m just now watching a talk Martin Hawksey recommended to us on the Twitter stream: https://twitter.com/mhawksey/status/477781704762216448 (each new tweet is a web page–you can get the URL as I did above by clicking on the date or the “hours ago” numeral–I find this v interesting). I immediately thought of you and your interest in science. I also thought you might enjoy a book by a physicist named Michael Nielsen called “Reinventing Discovery: The Rise of Networked Science.” Science is all about networks. And social media are about much more than Facebook “like”s (though these too can be interesting).

Anyway, sorry to ramble on–but obviously your thoughtful engagement with some core issues has continued to elicit thought in me, so thanks for that. I’m also glad to see you’ve been in touch with [your section professor]. I think you’ll find [the professor] quite an engaging and provocative thinker.

Sincerely, and with best wishes,
Dr. C.

 Perhaps these thoughts will be helpful to others as well.

Oh, and here’s the splendid video Martin recommended. Many thanks to him for the recommendation as well as for all the crucial work he’s doing to contribute to the study and design of connected learning. Salute!

A conceptacular experience

ultima retweets my post on as we may think

I’ve dedicated this post to one of my very most favoritest former students, Ultima Castro, whose conceptacular work has continued to inspire me for–can it be?–four years. When I thought of the title “concept experience” for this assignment, I was thinking of many things, but one of them was conceptacular Ultima.

But I digress–which means I’ve started down another associative trail. You’d think that this meta level–write a post about the associative trails concept experience!–would be enough to keep me occupied. But starting down the trail-about-the-trail creates other trails … but again I digress.

So here’s the history. Two screenshots, in reverse chronological order:

associative trails history one


associative trails history list begins

Rather than be like Tristram Shandy endlessly narrating his own life, I will just go down the trail with a little reflective commentary on some key stops.

I started by putting on my headphones–Sony MDR-7506–to put myself in a thought-cocoon. I can’t usually write and listen to music at the same time. But I knew the music would start me on associative trails with just enough distraction–or immersion–to ensure I wouldn’t be too self-conscious about what I was doing. So now, where to find the music.

Associative trail mile marker one:

associative trails start with time

Pandora, and my High Llamas channel. I used my Windows Snipping Tool to get the screenshot, and the little “pen” in the tool to make a crude, trackball-generated time check. I knew this channel would be just right to get me in the zone: melodic, a little melancholy, a little puckish, a little curious. So on I went.

The Pandora site had a link to the High Llamas website. I hadn’t been there in quite awhile, so I decided to pop over there to see how the band (really one guy, mostly) was doing. To my delight, they seem to be active again. I saw a link to sign up for a newsletter, so I clicked on it and signed up. Then of course I had to go to gmail to click on the link that would confirm my subscription. I doubt the High Llamas will be coming to RVA anytime soon, but by signing up for the newsletter I felt I had signaled to someone, if only to myself, that I was a deep fan of the band and its music; as if I had signed a petition supporting the band. I also realized that when I follow associative trails on the web, I’m often looking for more stuff to read, even the long things that many people believe are tl;dr material. But then, my oldest intellectual addictions are music and words, so there you go.

After doing some more reading and confirming my subscription to the newsletter, I remembered that I’d been meaning to follow up some suggestions regarding music that’s apparently like the kind of music the High Llamas make. Well, close enough: I went in search of “dreamcore.” Eventually I discovered a huge list of dreamcore bands–on a last.fm page–and was fascinated by the images associated with a band I’d never heard of, Tears Run Rings:

I clicked on the thumbnail and found myself on a profile of the band and its second album. I’m now about six minutes into the experience.tearsrunrings


I click on the link to the band page and spend a little time there, finally selecting two images I wanted to keep and share as part of this experience–which is something I do pretty often, and which reminds me that when I follow associative trails on the web I often look for things to download or otherwise capture. In other words, when I’m learning, I’m also on the lookout for stuff to share. It’s a teacher’s habit, I guess, but it’s also something I’ve found very helpful in my own learning. When I find the thing and at the same time think about sharing it, I’ve kind of found it twice–that’s not quite right, but perhaps you get the gist:



By now I am getting a wee bit self-conscious. I hadn’t intended to make this concept experience into music only. But obviously, tonight, this was something I needed or wanted. Nevertheless, time to check my email. (It’s always time to check my email. Sad, I know.)

(Well, perhaps not always sad.) When I got to my email, I discovered that one of our Thought Vectors participants had replied to one of my tweets. Which one, I wondered? Ah, it was the tweet about my own recent inquiry project (this one took a couple of years, or maybe twenty, depending on how you count):

bill smith tweets re cambridge companion

I hadn’t anticipated that anyone would find my tweet ironic, but it was actually pleasant to be tickled in this way. I wanted to counter with some irony of my own, so I thought I’d head to the Kindle store and find an image of the Kindle edition of the book in which my essay had appeared. But of course, it’s back to music, as today Amazon launched a new service called Prime Music:

amazon prime music

And I’m still only ten minutes into the concept experience. I stop here for a bit to speculate about whether Amazon had made these particular images pop up because they knew my demographic or my buying/listening preferences, or whether this was an ad based on the music they actually had the rights to. I’m guessing the former. But onward, onward; I must find my response to those who were giving me the needle, in a very friendly way, about tweeting about an analog book. Me being such a digital person, and all. (Yes, but a Miltonist, let us not forget. An amphibian, as Sir Thomas Browne would put it.)

Ah, here’s the Kindle edition.

kindle edition ccpl

And here’s the TOC that includes my name. Just another drop in the lit-crit ocean, but it represents a lot of work alone and in conversation with both fellow professors and (even more crucially) with students asking great questions to which I did not have the answers.

ccpl table of contents

This post is growing exponentially, it seems, and I’m still only about 15 minutes into the experience. So I’ll pick up the reflective pace here and avoid the reverie.

After spending some time looking at other Milton books on Amazon, I quickly realized that I could spend the entire time on Amazon, clicking around to window-shop as well as to learn things about the various books, movies, records, and other items that drew my interest. Over the years I’ve watched Amazon grow not only in the variety of goods and services it offers, but in the range and volume of information they have on the site. Fascinating, and instructive to compare with other retailers’ sites. But enough of Amazon. Amazon is not the Internet. Everyone knows that Reddit is the Internet.

So to Reddit I went, where I immediately found this image of Bill Nye the Science Guy in his ninth-grade science class:

billy nye 9th grade


It’s always fun, and a little unnerving, to see childhood photos of people who look almost exactly like their adult selves. This image is a perfect example. By now, however, I felt a growing realization that I was going to spin back to music and I should just surrender and do it. On my way, though, I thought I’d preserve for posterity my strategy for keeping every possible option open for further orienteering and trail-blazing:

multivector tab menagerieI sometimes wonder why my computer is slowing down–and then I take a look at how many tabs I have open.

Where was I? Oh yes, music. No better place on the Internet to feed my music habit than the Steve Hoffman Forum, the place that back in 2002 opened my eyes to one powerful way an Internet community could become a learning community.

hoffman music forums

There were a couple of Who threads tonight, including one in which the forum’s host, mastering engineer Steve Hoffman, posted his favorite picture of Pete Townshend. I’d never seen it before, but based on what I know of Steve from the forum, I can guess what he likes about it. It really is a terrific photo of the main creative engine behind my favorite band:

pete and records

I clicked into one more thread, this one about the newly released Blu-Ray “Pure Audio” 5.1 remix of The Who’s Quadrophenia, and found an hilarious YouTube video by a UK critic/musician/YouTube webcaster named Darren Lock. His video review of the new edition of Quadrophenia made me laugh out loud, especially when he comments on the acoustics in the room and how they make the crackle of the cellophane especially vivid. Talk about digressing… (But I digress.)

Pulling myself away from a possible 15-minute YouTube excursion, I decide to close the loop and see if I can find more information about the kind of music I was looking for earlier. It seems that “dreamcore” may be too specific a genre label. I really was looking for something more like the new Real Estate album, I think.

real estate

Going to the Wikipedia article on Real Estate, I found the genre “dream pop” (I almost went for “jangle pop,” another genre label for Real Estate, but I was intriguing more by “dream” than by “jangle”). And here I found some very extensive resources indeed. I think I’ve found my starting place:

dream pop

list of dream pop artistsClearly this page will give me more new bands to discover than I could possibly get to in my remaining life, unless of course I win the lottery tomorrow.

“Time is my tedious song here hath ending.” for those who persisted with my trails until the end, the final stop on my journey. The Kings of Convenience, a band Pandora (with its own “music genome” trailblazing) originally led me to.
kings of convenience--end

Wait, still not quite the end: as I tidied up my savings and prepared to write the post, Pandora was still playing, and a song came on by a band I’d never heard of but instantly liked.

pernice brothers all music

Note to self: follow up on Pernice Brothers. And so another associative trail is born.

And so to bed.

Reviewing our shady past: Nugget #1

Satan Overlooking Paradise

Above is a many-layered photograph of Gustav Dore’s illustration of an episode from Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I say “many-layered” because it’s a photograph of a blacklight poster that uses the Dore image as a starting-point for a psychedelic vision of a psychedelic poem published by a blind genius in 1667.

The poster is in fact illuminated by a blacklight in this photograph, which is why the colors give off a strange and compelling glow. I took the photo during an all-night Paradise Lost readathon at the University of Mary Washington March 23-24, 2007. The photo has been viewed on Flickr 537 times since then. I did fourteen of those readathons from 1980, when I did my own first reading of Paradise Lost all the way through, overnight, in one sitting, to the summer of 2008, when I taught the last Milton seminar of my tenure at Mary Washington. One of the students who came to that final readathon had done the readathon ten times over the years.

The second readathon I did, and the first as a professor, was at the University of San Diego. During the later books, the sky began to rain. Because rain was an unusual occurrence in San Diego, the students got very excited. They ran outside during the break so they could play in the rain. I found this strange and weirdly engaging, too. Rain is to SoCal as snow is to Virginia, or so it seemed to me at the time.

I bought this poster from a head shop in Bristol, Tennessee in the fall of 1970, ten years before I would read the poem it came from. I had no idea what it was a picture of. The caption said “Overlooking Paradise,” and the picture looked to me like an angel overlooking a landscape of such extraordinary beauty that I hoped one day I might be able to climb inside the picture and explore that country. I didn’t know that the angel was really a fallen angel, and that the figure was that of Satan as he overlooked the Paradise that would break his heart and harden it, too, as he resolved to bring ruin and destruction, war and hatred and death, to a country in which, to quote Milton, “spring and fall danced hand in hand.” A country with a garden at the center, one that was “wild above rule or art,” a country of “enormous bliss.” That’s what this angel wrecked.

In 1970 I was building an associative trail without any knowledge that I was doing so. Maybe I was continuing it. I had no idea at all that the blacklight poster I bought in one of the coolest stores I’ve ever seen (the house was painted purple, and it was called “The Spirit House”) was a picture from my future commitment to a poem from centuries past. I did not know that I was at that moment making good on Milton’s words that “books are not absolutely dead things.” All I knew was that the poster was shopworn and a little tattered, so the shop had it on sale for a dollar. And I had a dollar to spend, so I bought it.

In “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush writes,

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

Reviewing our shady past better, analyzing our present problems more completely and objectively: is this a way forward, or a moment in which we will overlook the Paradise from which we are now excluded, the Paradise to which we can bring only destruction. We have indeed built a complex civilization. The building we have done together makes the words I type at this very moment able to appear and move on a screen as I push tiny switches on a keyboard. The complexity allows me to turn every bit of nearly everything into a bit, thus to send it at the speed of light around the world, discoverable by that world, reviewed perhaps by some part of it. What do we see as we look over this complexity in this civilization we have built? What do we overlook and what do we overlook? Vannevar Bush writes of pushing our experiment–presumably, the experiment of “civilization”–to its logical conclusion. Will the machines we have invented, these personal interactive networked Memexes, bring us a happy conclusion for our experiment? How will we know the experiment has ended?

These are important questions. At this moment however I write not of them, but of a moment from my own past, shaded by years but lighted by memory, that proved important on a scale I could not then imagine, but which now I can share, with a whole heart, and with you.

Thinking about “As We May Think”

The Memex.

1945, and Vannevar Bush writes a history of our future. No, he wasn’t the first to imagine a world-wide storage and retrieval knowledge engine. Paul Olet often gets that credit. Yes, he uses “man” for “humankind” and “a man” when he may mean “a human being” or he may simply mean “a male” as he defaulted to his culture’s blinkered views in that regard. And yes, he has dirty hands (philosopher Wilhelm Luijpen says this is true for all of us) because of his involvement with the development of the atomic bomb.

At the same time, for all his faults and limitations, he did extraordinary work in bringing scientific research into the center of university life via government funding. He founded the National Science Foundation, for one thing, thereby making the center of scientific inquiry the non-profit educational institutions of the nation, not the corporate interests. And he took the time to write up his vision in “As We May Think” for a general audience. It appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly, and then later in Life magazine with the famous illustrations of the Memex and, of course, the camera-eye in the center of the man’s forehead. GoPro cameras, you owe Vannevar Bush a debt of thanks.

As do we all, in fact. The Wikipedia article notes that “As We May Think” was both “visionary and influential.” Indeed it was. This article led directly to Douglas Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” and it influenced many others besides. For additional evidence of its power over the years, take a look at this set of videos from a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication.

I’ve embedded here a little video ramble I made to illustrate the idea of “associative trails” Bush explores in the essay. Note that I make a mistake late in the video–but that YouTube’s annotation feature allowed me to express my second thoughts. I hope Vannevar Bush would be pleased to see how I’ve tried to use the great Memex-like Web we’ve built for ourselves–a Web that he could conceptualize long before anyone could actually build it.

How does it feel when I think?

I’ve always associated thinking with feeling. I’ve always known that thinking makes me feel a certain way. I used to wonder if other people thought that way, felt that way. One of the great pleasures of getting to know the world and my fellow human beings a little better over the years has been learning that however idiosyncratic I may feel (or be) at any given time about my thinking and the emotions it brings, I am never really alone.

Those times I feel that the way I feel when I think is not unique … those are good times. Sometimes those times last a while. Sometimes they come in flashes. Either way, those times are truly meetings. Each of those moments is what Richard Linklater’s characters in Waking Life call a “holy moment.”

I remember those moments. I remember the moment Dr. Roman read us T. S. Eliot’s words describing the way the Renaissance poet John Donne felt when he thought (or what Eliot believed was true, given Donne’s poetry and other writings): “For Donne, a thought was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” Those words are just as thrilling (ah, there’s one feeling I’ll come back to at the end) today as they were when I first heard them, age 19. They suggest that thinking is not just detached, ethereal, or impractical. Thinking is an experience. It changes you. Thinking changes your mind, which means that thinking changes the way you think. As one neurologist put it in the title of his recent book, we human beings have a Brain That Changes Itself. It’s like that great Escher drawing of the two hands drawing themselves. It’s recursive, and gloriously so.

And then it turns out that interest, which is the brain reaching in and out to experience the glorious trails of wonder and puzzlement within and without its hard-boned boundaries, is an emotion.knowledge emotionlike confusion and awe. Just thinking about that idea fills me with joy. I’m listening to Pandora (The Buckinghams channel, if you’re curious) as I type these words, just to keep my brain in the happy state that allows the joy of these ideas to permeate every axon, jump every synapse.

Thinking doesn’t always feel great, of course, even for someone like me who’s frankly besotted with it. Sometimes thinking is unpleasant, hard, regretful. When I worry, for example, I’m thinking about things that either a) make me anxious or b) consume me with an urgent set of problems, the way we say a dog “worries” a bone. Actually, now that I think about it (heh), “b” can feel unpleasantly focused sometimes, but other times it feels like good exercise. By contrast, I try to avoid the “a” variety of worry, sometimes with more success than others.

But leaving aside that unpleasantness, I believe there are other varieties of thinking that are pretty much unalloyed pleasure, though of different kinds. (Anyone who tells you that all pleasures are really the same needs to get out more.) Here’s a partial listing of my thinking pleasures.

Musing is a great relaxed pleasure as long as “a” worries don’t intrude. Musing is that state when the mind floats free, playing with associative trails the way a child plays with soap bubbles, balloons, or sticks in a brook. When musing gets very intense, it gets even dreamier, at least for me; it becomes a reverie, which to my ears is one of the loveliest words in the language, though obviously we borrowed it from the French. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Mulling is a somewhat more arduous pleasure. “Mulling” means thinking hard but without any single goal in mind. Mulling is like a great conversation that grows more intense by the moment, but without any agenda or “takeaway” that has to be agreed upon or accomplished. I once did a talk on mulling (the thinking kind, not the vintner variety), and because I had to do the talk, I ended up learning what it was I wanted to say. It came to me in the course of my research (see, there’s inquiry for you). I learned that the words “mull,” “meal,” and “muddle” were all related. Irresistible words. Alliterative, and nicely balanced between two monosyllables and one disyllable. Best of all, they gave me the grand finale that I hoped would also give the audience something to mull over as they thought about my talk on thinking: I concluded that “mulling” was what we did to make a “muddle” into a “meal.” Ok, two disyllables there, but I’m an amateur poet only.

Worrying (“b” type), musing, mulling: all are pleasures, though all feel different. But for the tip-top pleasure, the one that keeps me moving through uncertainty and courting more (heaven knows–for a fact–that there’s no lack of uncertainty in life and in this weary world), is the feeling I get when an idea comes to me. When that idea arrives, it sometimes feels like moving through a door to see a splendid sunlit landscape on the other side. Sometimes it feels like I’ve spotted a long-lost friend while music plays in the most exquisite foreign land I’ve ever visited (the choice of which, music and land and friend, would depend on the day). Sometimes it feels the way I felt when I saw my newborn children and the exhausted joy in their mother’s eyes. Sometimes I get the feeling and I don’t know why, because some part of my brain has registered the insight, has felt the charge of the connection, before my prefrontal cortex has had a chance to say to itself, “Whoa! I see!”

Roger Penrose describes this last sensation so perfectly that I leave the last word in this post to him, as given to us by the superb immortal filmmaker Errol Morris: