Trails of wonder, rigorously explored.

On our way to Solsbury Hill, 2003

This week, Open Learning ’17 turns to Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”–but I want to write a few words about “As We May Think,” first.

One of the great things about a learning experience undertaken with others is the way familiar texts reveal new layers of meaning and implication. This time around with “As We May Think,” an essay I’ve read maybe twenty times or more, I was particularly struck the multiple meanings of Vannevar Bush’s idea of “associative trails.” Some of these trails we make deliberately, the way we construct an argument, but also the way we build a curriculum, organize a course of study, or even write a story. Bush envisions a time when such trails, with all the context (or “scaffolding”) that’s part of the story of the trail-blazing, will help good ideas come into being more frequently:

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

This process, amplified considerably across the Web, is very much what Jon Udell describes during our conversation last week, in a powerful demonstration of Hypothes.is as both an individual and a crowdsourced Memex.

I think it’s fair to say that we believe expertise will result in more interesting and fruitful trails, some of them so interesting and fruitful that the trails themselves become objects of study. The Memex also gives us a better opportunity to study both results and process, and to study in particular those associative trail-makers who are particularly ingenious and conceptually powerful in their ability to build new ideas and implementations out of new combinations. This power of juxtaposition and connection drives the primary modes of discovery Steven Johnson analyzes in Where Good Ideas Come From, and it also underlies Jon Udell’s idea of “manufactured serendipity” that’s taken up as “designed serendipity” by Michael Nielsen in Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science

Of course, environments that increase the likelihood of interesting and revelatory juxtapositions only work if the learner in those environments has a combinatorial disposition, one that adds to innate curiosity the disciplined education that yields the conceptual frameworks one can build with and upon, the divergent-convergent meta-education that helps one recognize when to arrange the cards and when to shuffle them (and thus try to elude confirmation bias and path dependency), and the cognitive energy to present novelty to a blinking audience and share that novelty widely whether or not the occasion provides immediate affirmation–or any affirmation at all.

Bush writes:

There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

This new profession is in one respect an old one: that of the teacher. (A quick aside: I recognize and regret that Vannevar Bush is sexist throughout the essay, even allowing for the old and regrettable practice of using “he” and “him” as so-called “general pronouns.” At the same time, I want to be hospitable to his ideas, and humble about matters about which the future will likely judge us harshly because of our own blindnesses.) The talk of “master” and “disciple” may cause our Foucault to fall off the shelf, narrowly missing our heads, or not. For me, the language is deeply resonant and liberating, as the idea of mastery conveys what Bruner defines as “understanding,” that is, “going beyond the information given.” That power of going-beyond can, I believe, be taught, not so much through direct instruction but by the teacher’s energy and commitment in modeling that process. For me, that’s what it meant to be a disciple of Dr. Elizabeth Phillips, my beloved English professor. She found delight in her making, in her going-beyond, not as a means of humiliating her disciple Gardner, putting me in my place, but as a way of encouraging me, putting me in her place, if only by helping me to imagine her and her place more deeply.

In the poet Walt Whitman’s words:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (Song of Myself, section 52, 14-16)

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

Though her death has put our lives so far apart we can no longer hear each other speak, I continue to find my beloved professor, indeed to find her by following her, emulating her as I practice my own mastery, such as it is. For among many other things, Elizabeth’s mastery revealed itself in her delighted sharing of the scaffolding of her additions to the world’s record. She instructed me, but she did so by inviting me into the workshop where she crafted those additions. That invitation is precious indeed, because the associative trails of master trail blazers can become mere “content” to be “delivered,” and thus lose what the poet Robert Frost calls the “most precious quality” of a poem, “its having run itself and carried away the poet with it … its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” My intellectual discipleship (a word related to discipline, as in the object of study we pursue and the focused energy of that pursuit) follows not only the trails she blazed, but the light of that blazing, the surprise and delight shared generously and openly by my beloved English professor, shared that I might follow.

That opening does not come within “the information given,” but in the masters’ willingness to share their experience of being carried away. The disciples learn they may be carried away too, not by the cult of personality (always a danger, to be sure) but by the energy of insight as experienced in the context of lived experience. Michael Nielsen describes something like this in Reinventing Discovery, when he recounts a transformative moment in his own learning, one that the Internet at its best can amplify and extend:

What’s important then is that blogs make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to get an informal, rapid-fire glimpse into the minds of many of the world’s scientists. You can go to the blog of Terence Tao and follow along as he struggles to extend our understanding of some of the deepest ideas of mathematics. It’s not just the scientific content that matters, it’s the culture that is revealed, a particular way of viewing the world. This view of the world can take many forms. On the blog of experimental physicist Chad Orzel you can read his whimsical explanations fo physics to his dog, or his discussions of explosions in the laboratory. The content ranges widely,but as you read, a pattern starts to take shape: you start to understand at least a little about how an experimental physicist views the world:L what he thinks is funny, what he thinks is important, what he finds irritating. You may not necessarily agree with this view of the world, or completely understand it, but it’s interesting and transformative nonetheless. Exposure to this view of the world has always been possible if you live in one of the world’s intellectual capitals, places such as Boston, Cambridge, and Paris,. Many blog readers no doubt live in such intellectual centers. But you also routinely see comments on the blog from people who live outside the intellectual centers. I grew up in a big city (Brisbane) in Australia. Compared to most of the world’s population, I had a youth of intellectual privilege. And yet the first time in my life that I heard a scientist speaking informally was when I was 16. It changed my life. Now anyone with an internet connection can go online, and get a glimpse into how scientists think and how they view the world, and perhaps even participate in the conversation. How many people’s lives will that change? (168-169)

I suppose the answer to Nielsen’s question depends on the willingness of professional trail blazers to keep an open Memex, and the willingness of other trail blazers to make their own Memexes available to help even more trail blazers to discover the work of those professionals … and the scaffolding of their delights and serendipities, the records of insight in the context of their lived experience, the context we provide to each other, to keep each other encouraged to keep looking.

Nielsen writes:

Science blogs show in nascent form what can happen when you remove the barriers separating scientists from the rest of the community, and enable a genuine two-way flow of information. A friend of mine who was fortunate enough to attend Princeton University once told me that the best thing about attending Princeton wasn’t the classes, or even the classmates he met. Rather, it was meeting some of the extraordinarily accomplished professors, and realizing that they were just people–people who sometimes got upset over trivial things, or who made silly jokes, or who made boneheaded mistakes, or who had faced great challenges in their life, and who somehow, despite their faults and challenges, very occasionally managed to do something extraordinary. “If they can do it, I can do it too” was the most important lesson my friend learned. (167-168)

Vannevar Bush’s idea of “associative trails” extends that insight in yet another direction, one that links the professional trail blazer sharing connections and scaffolding with the amateur trail blazer, the disciple, who realizes, as Nielsen’s friend realizes, that associative trail blazing is a human birthright, one to be exercised within freely chosen following as well as idiosyncratic non-following. The idea is that we should attend to our own thinking, and learn from it, and respect the humanity of it, and let that respect free us into agency: “If they can do it, I can do it too.” To which the best mastery will reply, “Yes! Go discover and create your mastery!”

Solsbury Hill

Vannevar Bush writes:

The human mind … operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

There are holes in the argument, things to critique, and (regrettably, as one sees from the Hypothesis annotations online) occasions for smuggery and snark. First, however, hospitality: the “speed of action” in our minds that creates an “intricate web of trails” and “detail[ed] mental pictures” is “awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.” The human mind: as we say to our toddlers when we walk them to the mirror, “Look, that’s you!” The associative trails within each of our minds, linkages that include others’ associative trails as well as the results and modes of professional trail blazers whom we follow, constitute the poem of the self that we draft each day, writing ourselves into being yet once more. How can one not feel interest, surprise, wonder, awe, or even liberating confusion, all of the feelings Paul Silvia calls “knowledge emotions,” at these daily rites, profoundly individual, profoundly shared? Perhaps more open and opening Memexes will bring us more occasions for wonder, at ourselves and at others. Perhaps wonder will open the way to equity, reverence, love. Perhaps we have something to say about that.

Overlooking Bath on Solsbury Hill

So what does all of this have to do with mind-liberating education? Dear reader, fellow traveler, you have some of my scaffolding and some of the trails they support. If you’re part of my network, as very many of you are, I have some of your scaffolding and the trails they support as well.

Thank you.

There is no easy way to be free.

Let us keep encouraged.

Overlooking Bath, Solsbury Hill

“As We May Think,” Annotation, and Liberal Learning: a conversation with Hypothesi.is’ Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean

Our Faculty Collaboratives Open Learning ’17 cMOOC is in its second week! Today I had the great pleasure of speaking with two leaders at Hypothes.is: Jeremy Dean (Director of Education) and Jon Udell (Director, Integrations). Our topic was Vannevar Bush’s epochal “As We May Think,” especially as seen through the lenses of online annotation and liberal learning.

As you’ll hear, Bush’s phrase “associative trails” appropriately wound its way throughout the conversation. I encouraged Jon and Jeremy to reflect on robust resource linking across collaborating minds as well as the more idiosyncratic and sometimes apparently “random” associative trails that are forged within our individual brains. I had probably registered this distinction myself in one of my many earlier passes through this endlessly fascinating essay, but today the distinction became newly vivid for me, and helped me understand areas of connection and disjunction within the essay itself.

Since a classic blog-based distributed conversation brought us together many years ago, I have interacted with Jon on numerous occasions. Some of his own associative trails have grown familiar (and dear, I must say) to me, but he’s always full of surprises, too, and I remain consistently challenged and stimulated by his ongoing work with the Web as a platform for co-constructed knowledge. I have been fortunate to spend more time with Jeremy lately, learning of his literary and musical background, and learning much more about his work with educators who are adopting Hypothes.is in their teaching as a way of helping students learn to scaffold and extend their own learning. It’s fascinating to see two people who are quite distinctive in background and personality who are nevertheless strongly united in their commitment to building a better world out of deeper, more thoughtful, more educated, and more robust human interaction.

I’m confident you’ll detect my own enduring concerns and commitments here as well. As I reflect on today’s conversation, I can see how my own work, and perhaps my personality as well, are situated almost at the meeting point between Jeremy and Jon. I hope that middle-ness helped to elicit the uniqueness, and the tremendous connections, these two thinkers brought to bear today. My thanks to both of them. I hope we can do this again, and soon.

Laura Gogia, Connected Learner and Connected Learning Coach

Dr. Laura Gogia practices leadership in “connected learning,” a paradigm that shaped the work of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory (ALT Lab), and one that continues to inform vital research and practice around the world. This “way of life,” as Laura describes it, also helps to describe the many powerful links between AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives project and Open Learning ’17.

Laura sat down with me recently to describe her background and how her work first as a physician, and then a Ph.D. student in educational research, led her to the practice of openly networked learning. In part one of our conversation, Laura tells the story of her search for community, and how as Open Learning ’17’s “connected learning coach” she will help our community of learners find their own paths to more effective networked learning.

Please click on the image below to see and hear our conversation.

In part two of the interview, coming soon, Laura discusses strategies for the most effective kinds of connected learning. She also points out important connections–or “crosswalks,” as Susan Albertine calls them, between connected learning and the “mind-liberating education” Dr. Albertine and the AAC&U advocate as an essential part of all higher learning.

You can read more of Laura’s impressive and soulful work on her website, Lauragogia.com, where you will also find a link to her blog, “Messy Thinking.”

Remembering Bart Prater

Bart truly was the Wizard of Rock. He was also one of my best and most generous teachers.

The summer of 1977 was golden for all sorts of reasons. Star Wars premiered. (We didn’t yet know it was “A New Hope,” much less “Episode IV.”) I met the young woman I would end up marrying–well, met her again, but that’s another story. And I had a dream summer job. Three of them in fact. All of them were radio gigs. All of them were strange.

For three afternoons each week, I worked at Beach Patrol, a weather-forecast service managed by the celebrated Dave Moran and sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic, “the tan of the islands” (thanks, Dave, for the correction here!). I sat in a house in landlocked Salem, Virginia, and called radio stations at various beaches up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Over the phone, I’d deliver a customized weather forecast tailored for each beach area, and I’d play a Hawaiian Tropics commercial. All very professional, and all very theatrical. Radio magic. For extras, Dave told side-splittingly funny radio stories, and one of my colleagues was Gary Cooper. No, not that one, the other one.

On Sunday nights from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday mornings, I’d babysit the banks of automated 10.5 inch reel-to-reel decks loaded with “beautiful music” at WLRG (“Large FM,” 92.5). I’d also program the commercials for the next day, putting pins into holes to trigger the cues that would play the spots at the correct times throughout the day. Most scientific.

Each of those gigs was thrilling in its own way, even the overnight mushy music gig. But the best gig of all was the graveyard shift at WROV, 1240 AM, midnight-6 a.m. every Sunday morning. There I was, playing rock-n-roll on the hottest hometown station, the one I’d listened to since elementary school on a little green JC Penney six-transistor radio. I was in the control room where all the greats had inspired my rock dreams: Jack Fisher, Rob O’Brady, Fred Frelantz, more. All extraordinary, larger-than-life disc jockeys, the guys who’d answer the phone when I’d call in and try to get concert tickets, the guys (and they were all guys, then, alas) who seemed to have eerie powers of concentrated hipness and wit.

But the greatest of all was Bart Prater. And in the summer of 1977, he was my boss.

I had followed Bart Prater (rhymes with “crater”) since he’d joined the WROV roster in the late 1960s. Up from Marion, Virginia, the new guy started out as the nighttime DJ, “young Bart” the upstart, the one with the long hair. As a joke, the other WROV DJs trapped him one afternoon, dragged him into the studio, and cut his hair, live on the air. Well, that’s what they said they did. It was radio, after all.

Within a few years, Bart’s career went supernova. He moved to afternoon drive after Jack Fisher left. He became program director, responsible for hiring, firing, and managing all the on-air talent. In 1974, he helped break the Doobie Brothers’ immortal “Black Water.” And in 1975, he arrived: Billboard named him DJ-of-the-year for markets of under 1,000,000 population.

Bart’s voice was an utterly compelling blend of deep baritone resonance and crisp, cutting consonants. He spoke with the same cadence and timbre as Rod Serling. Bart didn’t seem to have to work at producing the sound. He just spoke, and every syllable was imbued with his intense, witty, sometimes loopy, sometimes nearly surreal on-air personality. He’d say things so quickly, without underlining any punch line or milking any response, that I sometimes wouldn’t get the joke until the song had been playing for a minute or two. His wordplay could rival Dylan’s, or Steve Martin’s. You could almost accuse him of muttering, but he was such a stickler for great articulation that he was the farthest thing from a mutterer. It was just that his jokes and patter were so inside, so self-contained in Bart’s own world, that it really did sound sometimes as if he were talking to himself–but you were welcome there too.

Sophomore year at Wake Forest University, I took a course called “Radio Practicum.” I fell in love with radio all over again, this time not just as a listener, but as an announcer myself. Classical, jazz, progressive free-form FM rock. Heaven. As the academic year came to a close that spring, I wondered if I could find radio work at home for the summer. I could indeed. Three part-time openings to apply for. Beach Patrol. Large FM. WROV.

I went down to the converted Quonset hut that housed the WROV studios, identified myself at the front desk, and sat down to wait for Bart. I had my little reel-to-reel tape with me so he could hear how I sounded on mike at Wake Forest’s WFDD-FM. I looked around the reception area and tried hard not to hyperventilate. I’d been there before, not only to pick up the occasional contest prize but also to visit the broadcast room itself as a WROV High School Correspondent. This time, though, was different. This time I was going to ask the Wizard of Rock for a job. The lowest spot possible in the line-up, but what did that matter? I would be a DJ on WROV, and my boss would be the Wizard of Rock–if I got the gig.

An office door opened and Bart Prater stuck his head out. He looked around, saw me, asked me if I was Gardner Campbell (I believe I said yes, but who knows? I was petrified), and invited me in to his office. He asked me to sit down. I vaguely remember doing so. Bart was very low-key, very polite, and very focused. He threaded the tape up, listened to my voice, and apparently liked what he heard enough to offer me the job. I went from petrified to elated in half a second. Then he asked me a question I had not anticipated.

So, Gardner, what will you use as your air name?

I hesitated.

Well, Gardner, I’ve always thought Bob Van Dyke would be a great air name. Bob was our WROV Diamond Keeper last spring, and I really do think the name would suit you well. What do you think?

What did I think. I thought he could suggest Tommy the Tuba as my air name and I’d agree enthusiastically, if it meant I could be a DJ on WROV. I didn’t say that, of course. I just said, “Sure! That sounds great!”

And so my gig began. Every Saturday night I’d come in about 11:15 or so and get ready to go on the air at midnight. As Bob Van Dyke, I’d do my thing on the Rock of Roanoke, Oh Lordy 1240, playing the songs, hitting the network news feed at the top of the hour (a special skill I finally mastered), filling out the transmitter logs, noting when the commercials ran. And every time I clicked the microphone on, I’d try as hard as I could to be as funny, hip, and memorable as Bart. As you might expect, I failed to reach that goal, in part because I was trying too hard, but mostly because Bart was inimitable.

My air shift was effectively over at 5 a.m. each Sunday morning. The last hour was all religious and community programming on LPs with a half-hour on each side. That left me with about an hour to roam around the station, looking at the old 45s, the production rooms, the moderne-styled transmitter with its tubes aglow and faintly humming, and the pictures hanging on the walls. Several of those photos were of Bart. One framed item was not a photo at all, but Bart’s first-class FCC license. That license meant Bart was qualified not only as a DJ (that required a “third class license with broadcast endorsement”), but also as an full-fledged radio engineer. In other words, Bart was qualified to be on the air, and he was qualified to build and run an entire radio station all by himself. I could only look on in wonder. I had no idea.

But best of all, even better than the weird phone calls and the stalkers (yes, there was one), even better than the thrill of sending out Heart’s “Barracuda” to the entire Roanoke Valley from the fabled corner of 15th and Cleveland, even better than all of these, was the weekly critique session with Bart Prater. For it’s true: every week Bart would sit down with me, the guy who was as green as grass and on the lowest of the low shifts, and spend nearly an hour listening to my airchecks and offering me private lessons in effective radio announcing. Bart taught me that things move forward in time, so the song title should be the very last thing you say before the music hits and you stop talking. Bart taught me to let my voice come out naturally, without forcing it, and certainly without the exaggerated tonsil-swinging AM style he called “puking.” Bart taught me to slow down, to trust the moment, and to enjoy myself.

As we listened to my airchecks, I heard some howlers I just knew would get me fired. I’d step on–that is, talk over–the song’s vocal. My patter was sometimes bad in ways I can’t easily describe. “Dumb” doesn’t quite do justice to the insane irrelevancies and flat “jokes” I would hear spilling out of my mouth. Once to my horror, on that little cassette that recorded my airchecks, I heard a record take about five seconds to come up to speed as I was introducing the song and yes, stepping on the vocal. Those turntables did not reach the right speed instantly, and I hadn’t taken that lag time into account when I cued up the record. So the beginning of “Hey Jude,” which starts with the vocal of course, sounded like “hohhhhhhaaahhhhhhhheeeeeeeaaaaaaaaayyyeeeeeeee Jude”–really loudly, because the station’s audio compressor was tuned for maximum impact. And all the time I was bleating away. I was mortified and couldn’t look Bart in the eye as I heard the song wowing its way to life as I kept on talking over Paul McCartney’s voice.

Bart never mentioned it. He had some kind of strange gift that could distinguish between lack of aptitude and lack of experience. I guess he assumed the latter was susceptible to education, and the mistakes would be fewer and farther between as I learned. A simple gift, really, but surprisingly rare.

And he was right. I got better over the summer. A lot better. I grew confident. My patter improved. I had more fun. I could experiment more, with better results. I could answer the phone, cue up a record, get the next spot ready in the tape-cartridge player, check the transmitter meters, and prepare to hit the news at the top of the hour with no more than a second’s lapse. And I was ready to say something short, sweet, and rocking when I clicked the microphone on.

At the end of the summer, at our last meeting, Bart looked at me and said, in the voice of the Wizard of Rock, the only voice he had and the only voice he would ever need, “Well, Gardner, you’ve improved about 1000% since you started working here. Good job.” I shook his hand and thanked him, and I said goodbye.

That was the last time I saw Bart Prater. The next summer I worked construction–the pay was better, but my heart wasn’t in it. The summer after that, I graduated from college, got married, and started working at a station in Fredericksburg, Virginia. And every time I’d go back home to Salem to visit my folks, I’d listen for Bart. I heard him in the last glory days of WROV, and I heard him when he jumped to the new FM rocker, K-92. On that new station with no static at all, Bart was still great, but it wasn’t the same. The Wizard of Rock belonged on the Rock of Roanoke. Bart Prater belonged on WROV. And in that golden summer of 1977, Bart made me believe I belonged on WROV too. What began as a polite fiction for the benefit of a young student just starting out in radio became a reality by the end of that summer. The student was ready, and the teacher appeared–one of the best teachers in the land. The Wizard of Rock himself. He taught me essential things about radio, and he taught me some vital things about teaching, too.

I paid tribute to Bart and the Rock of Roanoke at the Digital Media and Learning conference in 2015, with an Ignite Talk about radio.

But no tribute is enough for the gratitude and admiration I still feel for Bart Prater. His death last Wednesday hit me hard. I was moved by two hometown remembrances, one an article in the Roanoke Times, and one a great 1997 interview with Bart done by WDBJ television:

And I resolved to write this post.

Bart ended every one of his air shifts with, “never whittle toward yourself, or spit into the wind.” Good advice, though I also remember that other lesson he shared with me, in one of our first private conferences: things move forward in time.

Sometimes I wish they didn’t, because those things now include a big empty space where a wizard once lived.

Thank you, Bart. I won’t forget.

EDIT: I just found a remarkable “scoped” aircheck of Bart from 1972. (“Scoped” means spots, news, and voice breaks.) The aircheck showcases some fine examples of Bart’s great delivery and wicked ad-libs.

We join Bart as he shares his summer vacation slides … on the radio.

It’s also a fascinating time capsule. Those commercials, those jingles … and don’t miss the news about 14:00 in. Muskie vs. McGovern vs. Jackson vs. Humphrey. Vivid stuff.

2017: Quarks, Love, and Insight

Quark structure proton

Two ups, a down, and some gluons.  A hadron; later, perhaps, an atom.

I used to do a little warm-up exercise in faculty development workshops. I called it “Quarks of Learning.” The question was simple: what are the elementary particles and fundamental constituents of learning? The responses were always interesting, and revealed a surprising amount of agreement among faculty from different disciplines. The adventure, then, was to discuss how one might build learning experiences out of those fundamental constituents.

I liked the warm-up for a lot of reasons. There were not any obviously wrong answers. The agreement was surprising. We weren’t getting waylaid by typical categories of “skills” and “content,” a false and pernicious and very damaging dichotomy. And the exercise seemed to be self-dramatizing, in a way, as the pleasure of listing these fundamental constituents, and the engagement that pleasure empowered, seemed itself to be a fundamental constituent. We found ourselves in productive community, aligned yet varied, thoughtful and creative, having a good time building something together out of ideas that didn’t usually emerge in “faculty development”–and certainly not in “training.”

Over time, and in varying roles within institutions of higher education, I’ve thought a lot about these quarks of learning. I’ve tried to support curricula within the English major that would keep those quarks embedded in the design of the major. I’ve tried to do similar work with faculty development in pedagogy, in teaching and learning technologies involving networked personal computing, and in the large and comprehensive structures involving colleges, faculty, and academic programs (including a degree program) across an entire university. All along, I’ve wanted those quarks to be more powerfully present, in all the discussions and planning, than talk about “operationalizing” and “branding” and so forth, as I have many times seen how the fundamental constituents vanish–or are erased–in favor of talk about process that serves the institution much more than the learner.

For a long while, I advocated for “interest” as the fundamental constituent of learning, the quark of all quarks. I still believe that interest, and the psychology of interest, are fundamentally empowering elements of all learning. As time has gone on, however, I can see that interest doesn’t quite resonate with my audiences the way it does with me. As the psychology of interest and curiosity becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, that may change. As I become better at explaining myself, ditto. To this point, however, it has been difficult to make the case that the kind of interest and curiosity I care about is fundamentally different from the “look, a squirrel!” varieties of endless superficial distractions.

The two quarks I’m working on now, therefore, are love and insight.

I’ve had something to say about love elsewhere, and I’ll have more to say about that in future posts. Tonight, at the start of a new calendar year, I will write a few things about insight.

I presented my first talk on an insight-oriented education in November, when I was honored to be the opening keynote for OpenEd 2016. I wanted the talk to be about insight, to be itself insightful, and to help to stimulate insight in others (in this case, the audience for the talk). You can see the opening video montage I created here. And you can see a Periscope recording of the talk made by the redoubtable Robin DeRosa here. I’ll have more to say about that OpenEd keynote in subsequent posts. At this point, I’ll simply say that I was working from Jonah Lehrer’s account (in “The Eureka Hunt”) of the neuropsychology of insight, as well as from ideas regarding sustainable psychotherapeutic improvements stemming not from medication but from what we used to call the “talking cure,” and which now seems to be about the power of language and story in particular to re-wire the brain by means of patients’ insights into their own circumstances, histories, and personalities.

Those areas alone merit and require a great deal of work. Little did I know that another enormous journey of discovery in this area was about to begin as well.

One of the more remarkable things that emerged from my talk was a tweet I received from an indispensable member of my personal learning network, Morris (Mo) Pelzel. Mo’s first tweet to me about Bernard Lonergan, the one that alerted me to Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, is just out of Twitter-reach tonight. I’ll need to download a new version of my Twitter archive soon so I don’t lose that tweet! It was a vital moment. But at least I have the follow-up for you below.

Mo opened to me an exhilarating, difficult, yet utterly direct and moving text that took everything I had said about insight to the next level, and helped me understand that I was right: insight was indeed one of the quarks I sought. The word, the idea, the core reality of insight bridged the affective and cognitive realms more effectively than interest had. It connected with deep self-awareness. It was strongly aligned with ideas of creativity and imagination, but resisted being limited to only the arts, or only the humanities.

Most of all, it was a quark that met one of the prime requirements for quarkdom: it would be difficult for anyone in higher education to say, out loud, that insight was dispensable and played no necessary role in education. Or so I hope. And: once insight is in there, I reason, it becomes very difficult to retreat to reductive views of anything regarding learning, assessment of learning, expertise, pedagogy, etc. Like love, but with a more powerfully cognitive presence in most conversations about learning (alas, but I’ll take what I can get), insight would be the quark that was not only a fundamental constituent of learning and thus of school, but also a quark whose presence would liberate discussions about learning and schooling from the deadening technocracies that surround them.

So here and now, at the close of the first day of 2017, I offer a bit of Lonergan for you. His writing is extraordinarily ambitious, dense with meaning and implication. At the same time, his subject is so important, and the need for the thoughtful engagement he advocates and demonstrates is so urgent, that the book reads to me like a special edition of a newspaper written just before a crisis, not simply in response to it. I can’t pretend to grasp it all, yet. Parts of it may be beyond my reach. But the parts I do get thrill me. They help me think. They help me understand. And as I go along, Lonergan teaches me how to understand him better.

Here, then, now:

First, then, it is insight that makes the difference between the tantalizing problem and the evident solution…. Secondly, inasmuch as it is the act of organizing intelligence, insight is an apprehension of relations…. Thirdly, in a sense somewhat different from Kant’s, every insight is both a priori and synthetic. It is a priori, for it goes beyond what is merely given to sense or to empirical consciousness. It is synthetic, for it adds to the merely given an explanatory unification or organization…. Fourthly, a unification and organization of other departments of knowledge is a philosophy. But every insight unifies and organizes. Insight into insight [the project of the book, Lonergan tells us], then, will … yield a philosophy…. (4-5)

[I’m skipping items five and six because a) they’re too difficult for this already lengthy post, and b) seven and eight are crucially important.]

Seventhly, besides insights there are oversights. Besides the dynamic context of detached and disinterested [i.e.: not self-interested] inquiry in which insights emerge with a notable frequency, there are the contrary dynamic contexts of the flight from understanding in which oversights occur regularly and one might almost say systematically. [Yes, indeed–one of the reasons I have been reading books about the 2008 financial meltdown as well as the tragedies of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia–not to mention watching Titanic over and over.] Hence, if insight into insight is not to be an oversight of oversights [what can I say? the man has a sense of humor], it must include an insight into the principal devices of the flight from understanding. Eighthly, the flight from understanding will be seen to be anything but a peculiar aberration that afflicts only the unfortunate or the perverse. In its philosophic form, which is not to be confused with its psychiatric, moral, social, and cultural manifestations [rather large exceptions here, but let’s keep going], it appears to result simply from an incomplete development in the intelligent and reasonable use of one’s own intelligence and reasonableness…. [I’d say that such incomplete development is partly a failure of education, and that much contemporary schooling, especially at scale, not only neglects but indeed tends to block or thwart such development.] (5-6)

[Again, skipping two elements, for reasons as above.]

The present work, then, may be said to operate on three levels: it is a study of human understanding; it unfolds the philosophic implications of understanding; it is a campaign against the flight from understanding. The three levels are solidary. Without the first there would be no basis for the second and no precise meaning for the third. Without the second the first could not get beyond elementary statements, and there could be no punch to the third. Without the third the second would be regarded as incredible, and the first would be neglected. (6-7)

[And now Lonergan writes with even greater urgency.]

Probably I shall be told that I have tried to operate on too broad a front. But I was led to do so for two reasons. In constructing a ship or a philosophy one has to go the whole way: an effort that is in principle incomplete is equivalent to a failure. [A beautiful analogy and for me a home truth–as well as one of the principal failings of higher education’s approaches to “educational technology.”] Moreover, against the flight from understanding half measures are of no avail. Only a comprehensive strategy can be successful. To disregard any stronghold of the flight from understanding is to leave intact a base from which a counteroffensive promptly will be launched. (7)

I have used a more gruesome analogy for my own version of Lonergan’s last point when I say one cannot have a “pet cancer.” Very often it seems to me that bureaucracies and especially technocracies are pocked with strongholds of the flight from understanding, so much so that it becomes quite an adventure merely to identify the valiant and embattled strongholds of insight among them. And even when those strongholds of insight are acknowledged, there is usually a sense that they are rare and special, and thus not essential or fundamental. Therefore everything else can be defined as business as usual, “operational” in a very narrow definition of “operations.” When those “operational” elements become in fact more strongholds of the flight from understanding, they become malignant–and it is in the nature of malignancy that it strives to overtake and feed on, thus ultimately destroy, the good. And the shuttle explodes, or burns up on re-entry, metaphorically and historically speaking.

Lonergan’s final argument for my post tonight circles back to why his endeavor matters. He insists it’s practical to work through a complex and difficult philosophy of insight. It’s operationally relevant! Vitally so. “But to be practical is to do the intelligent thing, and to be unpractical is to keep blundering about. It follows that insight into both insight and oversight is the very key to practicality” (8).

I’ll come back to some of these points as I continue to work though Lonergan’s book. But now, here, then: we must build and offer our learners an insight-oriented education. Do you hear talk about an insight-oriented education when you hear “student success” discussed? If not, pull the emergency stop. Help to avoid a civilization-sized train wreck.

What I am discovering about my “quarks of learning” is not simply what must be included in all learning design, but the very ground I must stand on myself, those aspects of real school that are non-negotiable. In this way, I begin to have insight into insight, myself.

Much to explore. Thanks, Mo.

Happy New Year.

Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. 5th edition. Ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Volume 3 of the Collected works of Bernard Lonergan. University of Toronto Press, 1992.

An Encomium for Diane McColley

One day in class, thirty-six years ago, my first great Milton teacher. William Kerrigan, said that “we practice biographical criticism because we want to know whom to thank.” Something about that teacher, in the context of that subject, at that moment in the semester, and at that moment in my life, made the saying stick. I’ve never forgotten it.

While I hope it will be awhile before I can thank Milton in person, I have been lucky to be able to thank many others who have influenced my life, including that first Milton teacher. One of the amplest opportunities for giving thanks came almost twenty years after that initial lesson, when I was humbled to deliver an encomium for my second great Milton teacher, Diane McColley. The occasion was the Milton Society of America’s annual banquet meeting, where in 1999 the Society gave Diane its highest recognition: the Honored Scholar award. Awardees get to name their encomiasts, and Diane had asked me to serve in that role. The night remains one of the highlights of my life.

Why do I share this with you now? I’m writing an article on Milton. I’m also going through old files from my time at Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). I’m thinking about pasts, and futures. I’m trying to remember and recover a grateful mind.

When I saw this encomium, after many years, I could see evidence of a lighter, more graceful, more grateful self. And while no one could do justice to the heart and mind of Diane McColley, I tried my best, and I see in my attempt the great gifts Diane has given me. For a moment I am at peace.

Encomium for Diane McColley

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