The great search

“Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous because he’s waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along. Sometimes he gives it to you through silence, by choking off the song in midflight: ‘It’s too late to stop now!’.

“It’s the great search, fueled by the belief that through these musical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed.”

–Lester Bangs, Astral Weeks,” in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, ed. Greil Marcus

Gregory Bateson I

Some men seem able to go on working steadily with little success and no reassurance from outside. I am not one of these. I have needed to know that somebody else believed that my work had promise and direction, and I have often been surprised that others had faith in me when I had very little in myself…. I therefore have to thank many people and institutions for backing me, at times when I did not consider myself a good bet.

“Foreword, 1971” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1972, reprinted with a new Foreword by Mary Catherine Bateson, 2000)

What I saw on Monday

Roaming the vicinity of Virginia Commonwealth University, I found a spot just across from Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church where I could get a few action shots:

united states whoa tight

New Zealand racer closeup

france 1 close

australia 2 close

USA. New Zealand. France. Australia. It’s fascinating to me to watch the time trials, watch the bicycles and their riders in their caravans: motorcycle, bike, car following. Like the transit of a planet, the procession has a period, a rhythm, a time. Yet the photos reveal globe-spanning difference and subtle changes in expression. Joy, concentration, effort. All kinds of time.

Later on, I was delighted to find students from the Anthropology of the Crowd course (part of the Great VCU Bike Race Book project) sitting in the library and debriefing each other on their day. They were excited by the experience of learning while participating in an event within a course that required them to make a kind of festive contact with strangers from around the world. That’s an interesting set of circles, both intersecting and concentric. The world in Richmond, themselves in Richmond, citizens whose accents enacted journeys from Broad Street sidewalks to lands far away.

The students were joyful.

Great VCU Bike Race Book debrief 1

Is this not study? Is this not study abroad?

Great VCU Bike Race Book debrief 2

A professor in Massachusetts

Thoreau and WaldenI went to the woods to see the woods Thoreau went to, hoping to feel more of the why that he felt. Thoreau didn’t erect that sign, of course. Someone else did, later. Did they betray him or his work by doing so? Did Thoreau even write those words without irony? Was / is Walden a cruel hoax, an aspiration, a bit of self-indulgence, an inspiration, a record of life-long learning, a mass of undecidability (and then how would we know?).

What are the essential facts of life that Thoreau assumes can be so confidently identified and proclaimed?

What does life (if that’s the “it”) have to teach? What does it matter what life teaches if death is inevitable? Why so many negatives in that last sentence, three in total? (How would we grade such a sentence?) How can Thoreau be so sure of his motives? “I went to the woods because”: how can we accept any such direct, simple statement of motives as anything but glaring self-deception or, worse, obfuscation, sleight-of-mind? Is it a trick? (The antecedent for “it” may be unclear, I admit it.)

I remember making many kinds of meanings as I stood behind the camera and took this picture. I imagine I would like to share the “I” who was there to take the picture, but that person is not pictured.

With all the complexities and uncertainties and critical-thinking born-and-bound modes I can and do bring to bear upon the words on this sign, in this setting, in the larger context of an August afternoon near a public pond just last year, many years after I have read Walden, I do believe, anyway, that I can learn from Thoreau, and not just about Thoreau. I sense his living hand, then warm and capable, stretching toward mine. Though I cannot map or fully articulate what that meeting is or will be, I do believe he is as sincere as one can hope, and that I can trust him enough to meet him, and trust both of us to do our utmost not to betray our meetings and the hopes those meetings might yet revive.



Meeting on the Motherblog

Yesterday was Day 3 of the first annual (do you hear me, o ye gods? first annual) University Seminar on General Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Yesterday we took a long, hard, and occasionally (contentious? spirited? anxious? dismayed?) look at Tier II of the Core Curriculum at VCU. Tier II is the heart of what constitutes the University general education curriculum, as opposed to the parts of gen ed that are defined (if that’s the right word) by individual undergraduate units such as the College of Humanities and Sciences, the School of the Arts, etc.

This information is specific and public. It is defined, described, accessible, open. Yet it was a surprise to many of my fellow seminarians–I hope they will permit me to speak of myself as in their company, as I want to be–and released a good deal of energy into the room and the conversation and indeed the rest of the day and long into the evening, as you can see in their blog posts.

For those blog posts are also public, and you can find them most easily on the University Seminar on General Education motherblog. Most of my own homework has been devoted to making that motherblog, and to trying to make that motherblog more useful. Perhaps I can make it more aesthetically pleasing as well, soon. I hope so.

I have thanked my colleagues for their candor and their commitment, their willingness to engage with what Jon Becker has taught me to call “learning out loud.” I thank them here as well, publicly, openly. While I have been intensely ambivalent (a tamer word than the tempest it occasions in my soft brain) about faculty culture ever since I emigrated there in grad school (University of Virginia, 1980s, best of times, worst of times), I remember as I read my colleague’s blog posts how inventive and funny and, yes, poignant they can be–sorry, we can be–when we have an opportunity to be our best selves (here it comes, this is vital) along a shared learning arc. That arc is what Danielle, Jeff, and I have worked on prior to this week. That arc is what all of us in the seminar are now building together. Perhaps it’s a rainbow bridge to Asgard, or perhaps it’s the disintegrating rope bridge in Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

That is, the one the strange companions try to cross in a monsoon, driving a truck filled with nitroglycerin.

As today’s Vannevar Bush reading reminds me, we have met the nitro, and it is us, our own grand challenge and wicked problem: human ingenuity. They’re my species, but what’s up with that ingenuity business? Net gain for the planet? Are we what Terra had in mind when she rubbed her coalescing chin and said, “hmm, what shall I evolve upon my shores?”

But in all of this welter-skelter, the best way I’ve ever found to make it all visible, to create at least the strongly implicit and encouraging space for meeting, linking, thinking, and making, is the motherblog, what I learned from Barbara Ganley over a decade ago, when I also learned that as passionate and energetic as I aim to be, there was a yet more vivid place to aspire to reach, the place in which Barbara made her meeting spaces. Not for the first or last time, then: thank you, Barbara.

Oh, and for the TL;DR resistant who have made it this far: please, for the love of all we profess in education, comment on the seminarians’ work, won’t you?

Appreciatively yours,


Curriculum Cooking

I’m at the end of day two of VCU’s first annual University Seminar on General Education. There’s more to say than I can possibly articulate in this small space of time, but I do want to mark this phase of the experience with a metaphor. Metaphors are how I mark my experience. (I was going to qualify that sentence with various hedging “arguably” and “perhaps” locutions, but thought better of it.)

Thanks to a wonderful suggestion by Suzie Fairman, my division’s Coordinator of Operations, we closed day one of the seminar by adjourning to a kitchen-school and cooking together. Tapas! Team. Nourishment. Fellowship. Direct instruction (recipes, kitchen rules and etiquette) along with informal learning and a good deal of improvisation. Not a bad metaphor for the way we’re trying to imagine (and re-imagine, and design) a general education curriculum (or environment) cooking with connection.


Credit: Jeff South


Credit: Jeff South

Now for a little more weight on the metaphor: see how this context problematizes the often pernicious dichotomies between “sage on the stage” and “guide at the side,” or between “group work” and “individual reflection.” And I freely confess, and loudly celebrate, that it was hard to quarrel with the very tasty results.

Below, more cooking, in a setting that could benefit from the liberal application of that metaphor:





Here I leave the further elaboration as an exercise for the reader(s).

Tomorrow, our midpoint. What will be the feast we prepare together?


The 30,000 Foot Foundation

–It’s a bag of gold.

What would I do with a bag of gold?

What would you like to do with a bag of gold?

I don’t have time for your philosophical questions.

The aim, therefore, of the philosophy of education must be to get at the meanings, the assumptions, the commitments which are implicit, but too often unacknowledged, within the educational practices already engaged in. Such an ‘uncovering of meaning,’ critically engaged in, inevitably reveals beliefs which are not sustainable or which require refining. They put the practitioners in touch with intellectual and moral traditions which give greater depth to what they are doing and which provide the basis of professional commitment, often against Government or others who wish to import a more impoverished language of educational purposes.
–Richard Pring, Philosophy of Educational Research, 3rd ed. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)

Time for a word-association game. Like Kafka and his companions as they read his writings together, we can laugh until we cry.

Action Item
Practical (pedant alert: not parallel!)
Operational (and operationalize)

Not one of these words is necessarily a bad thing (ok, maybe the concept of a “takeaway” is a bad thing and always already reductive). Yet how quickly these words enlarge to fill our entire field of view. How loud and near they become, so much so that anything outside their lexicon comes to sound like a lonely bell tolling from an ivory tower.

But send not to learn for whom the bell tolls! Here is Pring again:

    Similarly with educational research. Here, as elsewhere, there is the constant danger of the ‘bewitchment of the intelligence by the use of language.’ It is easy to stipulate a straightforward statement of aims, broken down with a finite range of measurable objectives or targets. It is relatively easy then to identify the means which, empirically, can be shown to attain these targets. It would seem to be but a matter of administrative efficiency to ensure, through various ‘performance related awards’ or through relevant funding ‘drivers’ and ‘levers,’ that a compliant teaching force will adopt the right means to attain the right ends.
But the more philosophically minded have doubts.

Indeed. To take up yet another metaphor: trains are good things, and if we are to rely on them, we do well to run our trains on time. But we must not be too narrowly practical. Not too “grounded.” Without the 30,000 foot view as our foundation, we may find we have operationalized our timely trains thus:

Train running in circles


Downstream Deliverables

So much depends upon the language we use, the metaphors we live by.

When an assignment says, “Don’t just tell me what you think. Analyze your passage,” I understand that the assignment is really asking for something other than a superficial response. I’m convinced, though, that some part of the student’s brain reads the instruction literally and draws the obvious conclusions: analysis has nothing to do with thinking (it’s an alien exercise in trying to copy the inexplicable things teachers do), and more sadly, “my thoughts are beside the point, irrelevant.”

My own conclusion: the words we use matter, and they matter greatly. I don’t want superficial, thoughtless, or uncommitted responses, but I do very much want to know what the student thinks (no “just” about it), both because I want the student to think, and because I want the student to have the chance to be surprised by the value of their own thoughts before the rest of the lesson continues. “Don’t just tell me what you think”? I shudder. Someone just walked across the grave of higher education.

I had a similar shudder in an otherwise splendid AAC&U session today when a panelist used the phrase “downstream deliverables.” The phrase denoted the necessary, laudable goal of asking grantees to produce evidence of the results they had gotten from the grant monies. Nothing at all wrong with that–except again, that the words and metaphors matter. In this case, the metaphor brings to mind a barge floating downstream, laden with containers of, well, things–things that are probably products, products that are probably delivered to consumers. A fairly brutal metaphor when it comes to the results of messy, aspirational human processes.

Yet I will shift that metaphor into a different context. This conference has been many things for me: an opportunity to break bread and share ideas with the QEP team at VCU, a chance to learn from extraordinary colleagues from the around the world, a season of reflection on what matters most to me as a professor and a leader in higher ed, an opportunity to hear from some wonderfully thoughtful and provocative speakers. It’s been all of that, and more. Some of the most intense moments, however, have been what I will now call “downstream deliverables.” The stream is Time, that ever-rolling stream that in the words of the hymn “bears all its sons [and daughters] away.” What the hymn doesn’t say, however, is that time sometimes bears its sons and daughters back together. During this conference, my own “downstream deliverables,” the people whom the stream of time has borne back to me (and back to them), include a student from two years ago, a student from twenty-two years ago, and a student from thirty years ago; a colleague whom I knew a little during grad school and suddenly, unexpectedly reconnected with after a business conversation led to “you know, you look kind of familiar to me”; a moment in which I saw out of the corner of my eye a mentor (she walked by too quickly for me to hail her); a moment in which I learned that a huge intellectual influence was seated at the back of the room that housed a panel discussion I was honored to participate in.

My deliverables, years and decades down the stream of time, are the lives I’ve touched, and the lives that have touched mine, the thousand acts of kindness, attention, and love, “the primal sympathy / Which having been must ever be….” Each time these unexpected meetings occurred, I felt my soul expand, extend, enlarge. Each moment arrived downstream,  carrying not freight but a fullness of being among souls I am privileged and humbled to know. After many years, we are met. My downstream deliverables become a kind of deliverance, and for that I am grateful.

Word use over time

A lagniappe to yesterday’s post. The Google etymology feature isn’t new–it went live in August, 2013–but it was new to me and I continue to think about it.

I’m struck by how Google continues to work, often in very creative ways, to pique my interest. From the Google Doodle to the What Do You Love? page (go ahead and try it–you’ll find it interesting), they continue to earn my attention, even as I remind myself that they do have a business model and they are not a non-profit. They also manage to reward my intuitions about what they might do next. That’s how I found their etymology affordance last night.

Things get even more interesting when you see the rest of the affordance, portions I didn’t include in last night’s post:

certificate use over time credential use over time


(Ignore the bits from the Online Etymology Dictionary, as these aren’t Google’s work.)

Google’s used their culturomics data (the Ngrams) to yield the usage stats over time. What’s interesting is that the data prompt thought. If these data provide a representative sample (granted, something I cannot tell), I will wonder why the use of certificate has declined steadily since its peak, plateauing for now, while the use of credential has grown suddenly and sharply over the last 20 years or so. One hypothesis might be that “credential” is being used in places where “certificate” might have been used earlier, perhaps because “credential” implies something more prestigious than “certificate.” That’s a chain of suppositions, so not at all reliable, but still perhaps an interesting inquiry project.

If “credential” and “certificate” become synonymous, as I hope they do not but fear they may have already, then the added luster of “credential” will be a cruel illusion indeed.


Credential or Certificate

I continue to think about what we mean by a “degree.” Or rather, I think about what a degree might or should mean, and what we in higher ed increasingly act as if it means, and how that disjunction (if it is one, which I think it is) plays out across our practices, our assumptions, our mission statements, and our civic life. (I’m sure I’ve left out several crucial areas there.)

My thoughts are spurred by a conversation I had several days ago with a colleague who wanted to know what kind of certificate we might offer as an incentive for open participants to complete a cMOOC. I started thinking about the difference between a certificate and a credential. I talked about credentials many years ago in a presentation I podcast here. At the time, though, I simply urged we recall the root meaning of credential, a word that derives from credence, the mark of believability and the grounds for trust we stipulate as a result of some experience or, perhaps, a formation of character we have collectively witnessed.

I didn’t then have the contrast, though, that would drive the point home. I think now the contrast is between “credential,” a condition of being, and “certificate,” something that is not of a person so much as about some specific competency the person has demonstrated. I grant that I am skeptical of any education that focuses narrowly on “competency,” as if skills could be divorced from contexts, or ideas, or personhood. I grant that my skepticism may lead me to exaggerate the distinction I’m trying to make. Yet the distinction may prove useful in articulating how two views might diverge, an what the consequences might be.

Incorrigible and largely unrepentant English professor that I am, I went on an etymology hunt. R. W. Emerson observed that language is fossil poetry, so it was time for some paleontology. I usually go to the Oxford English Dictionary for my etymologies, for there I will also find a useful set of historical definitions that help chart how early usage changes over time. Tonight, though, I had only my iPad with me at dinner. (I try to travel lighter at conferences when possible–I’m writing this post from the annual meeting of the AAC&U.) I have long known how to use Google to define a word: simply type in the search box “define x” (without quotation marks and with a word where the x goes, of course), and away you go. On a lark, and because Google is always introducing cool new things on the sly (aside from tracking its users, that is), I typed “etymology credential” — and here’s what came up!


Ah. The word was first an adjective, and only later became a noun. First a descriptor, then the thing it described. Alas, the thing described, a credential document, seems to have skipped the possible middle sense of a quality or virtue. Instead, a credential, a trustworthiness or recommendation, is typically reduced to that piece of paper we call a diploma–in other words, a certificate.


As “credential” moves toward “certficate,” “recommendation” becomes “document,” indeed an “official document” attesting to facts, records, achievements, ownership. I’m not arguing that facts, records, achielvement, and ownership are unimportant. Not at all. They’re vital. But taken outside the context of trust, of personhood, of recommendation, credentials edge toward a kind of “guarantee,” or a license. Something transformative becomes  instead flat and transactional. Get a certificate, get a raise, get a job. Yes, and those are important, But what of the person?

I continue to mull these things over. A small shift in meaning may lead to a large and potentially regrettable shift in civic and cultural practice. I am especially struck by this possibility in the aftermath of the challenging and fascinating opening forum tonight at the AAC&U meeting.

And I think of the words we say at our higher education commencement ceremonies when it comes time to award to–or is it confer upon?–our students their degrees: we deans present our degree candidates to the President, and say that we are doing so upon the “recommendation of the faculty.” In that moment, deep within that phrase and yet still visible if one knows to look, we may still find what is most valuable about a truly credential education.