cri de cœur

August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck - Anguish - Google Art Project
“Anguish” By August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck (1828 – 1901). Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


I don’t really like polemic, most of the time. I think it often just feeds the beast, as Martha might say. I don’t like polarization or pointing fingers. I truly aspire to “generous questions … questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.” But there are times when I must voice my outrage and sorrow.

I’ve spoken several times over the years about the abominations that are most online course registration systems. The example I typically use is a Nikki Giovanni seminar at Virginia Tech where the information in the course registration system is so vacantly unhelpful as to be, practically speaking, nihilistic. Such displays of casual disregard, in this context, move from irony into tragedy.

giovanni course 1 giovanni course 2

One may object that the point of the course registration system is simply to facilitate a transaction. That belief, of course, is precisely my point. A key moment of learner agency should not resemble online banking, or worse. C’mon people. Netflix does better. Amazon does better. Craigslist does better. Even the Division of Motor Vehicles does better, for crying out loud.

And I am crying, out loud.

But wait. It’s worse than that, as Jon Becker’s recent blog post demonstrates. (Go read it. I’ll be here when you get back.) Not only do we use Banner (or whatever) to strip out all the meaningful information from the moment when students actually choose to devote a substantial part of their lives and energies and financial resources to enroll in a course of study–meaningful information like a course website, a welcome from the prof, a syllabus, a full course description, heck, even a complete course title–but then we turn around and make these impoverished little information slivers nearly impossible to find.

This is probably the worst example in academia today of how decision-makers working on “business information systems,” in both universities and the vendor-land that supplies their habits, ruthlessly (and perhaps ignorantly, but that’s no excuse) pull up, by the roots, the values that could be strengthened and indeed amplified by the web-enabled affordances that could be bought or built.  It reflects the destructive idea that the internet is a utility only, a set of super-fast announcement channels, a clutch of electronic four-color brochures, a warren of pneumatic content-delivery pipes, a non-network of isolated transactional sites for decisions about learning that are drained of meaning or discovery.

Unfortunately, it appears that most faculty have acquiesced to this destructive idea. It may be that most faculty actually agree with this destructive idea. This is where the anguish really starts.

If higher ed were not so stubbornly resistant to the open web, and if faculty acted more vigorously (or at all) to experience the greatness of the web for themselves, and insisted on web design for the entire university that functioned as effective learning environments fostering richly connected learning, we might yet be that fabled city on a hill. If higher ed truly believed that all of us have a stake in a digital commons, a commons we must contribute to and be nourished by, we might help build a future we’d want our children to live in. But we have insisted on our status and comforts, slandered the web we should be helping to build alongside our students, defined meaning too often as “those things we know and will tell you about in your courses,” and outsourced nearly every possible zone of online learning innovation, invention, and discovery to the vendors who peddle digital soma that will relieve us, gently and with peaceful slumbers, of the need to change our lives.

 

Epigraphs for a new semester

A response to new learning:

“It wasn’t shocking; it was mysterious and beautiful; one felt no resentment, only a different kind of joy, and a curiosity that was new to me.”

Robert Hughes, “My Friend Robert Rauschenberg,” in The Spectacle of Skill (2015).

A favorite Baudelaire aphorism, on the purpose of study:

Je resous de trouver le pourquoi, et de transformer ma volupté en connaisance.
I made up my mind to find out the why of it, and to change my pleasure into knowledge.

Robert Hughes on the “unspoken but always present motto” for his book and television series The Shock of the New. In Hughes, “The Shock of the New,” The Spectacle of Skill (2015). (My friendly amendment: not simply to change pleasure into knowledge, but to charge each with the other.)

A reminder of our stewardship as scholars, and our failings:

“Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory–or simply attitude–to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective.”

Lisa Ruddick, “When Nothing Is Cool,” in The Point.

And finally, a crucial observation about writing:

“[T]he real challenge of writing is not mechanical, but epistemological: how we say something isn’t separable from what we know and how we think we know it.”

Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres,”Introduction,” in The Future of Scholarly Writing: Critical Interventions, ed. Angelika Bammer & Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (2015).

 

 

A candle in the window

My blog was pretty quiet in the year just past. I count twelve posts.

Something is wrong.

Many things are wrong, in fact, but just yesterday a former student taught me an important lesson about the thing that is fundamentally wrong, at least as far as my blog is concerned.

I’ve been pretty active on Facebook, craving the contact, the immediate rewards, the comforting network there that seems so much more tangible, knowable, known. It’s a gated community and that’s certainly the main point of what now appears to me to be my retreat there. I expect I will continue to crave that network of friends and family and colleagues, perhaps now more than ever before. No terrible thing, that craving: the gates are also a circle of trust, which is how I got my lesson yesterday. And yet the circle immediately expanded into a much larger realm, one in which a larger circle of trust, one I had drawn myself but forgotten or neglected (they amount to the same thing), lay waiting for me.

My former student’s husband was driving on the highway when two deer hit his car. The car was a total wreck. He was fine. The torrent of gratitude one feels at such a moment came pouring out of his wife in a status update on Facebook. In that update, she remembered something she had learned from another Mary Washington professor, an Ethiopian scholar who emigrated to the US and taught at Mary Washington for many years. I worked with him for over a decade. His name was Taddesse Adera.

What did the young woman recall? What learning outcome appeared as a moment of terror yielded to a torrent of gratitude?

She remembered that Taddesse had taught her that in his culture, people were never counted, for anything that can be counted can be taken away. In that remembering, she resolved she would not count her blessings in this intense moment, but rather think about the depth and expansiveness of her blessings as they spilled over any possibility of measure or containment. And in that resolve, she remembered her teacher. Memory became memorial.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. How marvelous in this moment of readiness for this grateful woman to have a dear, wise teacher appear before her once again. And in the responses she received, other Mary Washington students shared in her gratitude, for her husband’s safety as well as for Taddesse Adera’s lessons–for they too had been students in his classes.

As the comments continued, the young woman wrote again, and the circle expanded. She had felt the presence of her teacher Taddesse so intensely in that moment that she went to Google to find the marks of his works and days. In doing so, she found a memorial I had written on my blog just after Taddesse had died, suddenly, in early 2006. The post spoke to her, and she shared it with her Facebook network.

And now I saw the post again, many years later, and I remembered something.

Sometimes my blog advances an argument, or tries to. Sometimes it aims to explore (or affect) the metaphysics. Sometimes it’s just thoughts, more or less unshaped, Sometimes all it is, is writing. Me writing. Gardner writes.

Reading what I had written about Taddesse, though, reminded me of what my blog is, at the deep heart’s core. These moments of love, or pain, or wonder, or confusion, these are important moments. Not every moment, and not all equal, but more of them than we can well remark upon, and more that should be discoverable, and unpredictably so. More moments we can reach for, and bring close.

One of my favorite scenes in The Year Of Living Dangerously comes when Billy Kwan, looking at the pictures of the new reporter in town, asks the empty room the essential question: could this new arrival be the unmet friend?

The wider circle of trust is the faith that the world has more unmet friends, more hands to hold, more hearts to mark and remember. I started blogging because I believed in the possibility of that wider circle, and marveled at the ways in which the Internet and the World Wide Web had symbolized that possibility and demonstrated the yearning that had animated many of its builders.

The young woman’s love for her old teacher, my love for a departed colleague, a link that leads to a memorial that still lives. A departed colleague and years of my own life now long past. A loss of faith interrupted by a young wife and mother’s joy, and a hyperlink to a past self who rebuffs my deflated disbelieving present self. A past self, now present, remembering a fine student and sharing in her joy, remembering a colleague who helped to nurture and shape my growth as a scholar and teacher, and whose life once again illuminated mine. A live link to help me recall why I blog.

A candle in the window.

"there's a place I got when I'm all alone." Photo by Psyche Della. CC-by-nc.

“there’s a place I go when I’m all alone.” Photo by Psyche Della. CC-by-nc.

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

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,

Gardo

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.

Takeaway
Measure
Target
Outcome
Metric
Dashboard
Timeline
Action Item
Practical (pedant alert: not parallel!)
Pragmatic
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

Image: http://www.sevenoaksart.co.uk/trains.htm

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.