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,


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

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.


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.

The Sweet Spots

I have been thinking very hard lately about the nature and value of focused learning, and especially the kinds of focused learning experiences we might explore and craft within school. I greatly admire the DALMOOC George Siemens and his research group at UT-Arlington crafted last fall, but I also worry a little about the binary structure. As a practical matter, the dichotomy makes a great deal of sense. Those of us who are trying to work on modes of openly networked learning continually struggle with the question of how to define, recognize, and reward multiple modes of engagement–or to speak even more precisely, multiple ranges of commitment. Yet I wonder if one can truly read a book, hear a symphony, or watch a movie without being all in. I wonder if being led and being leaders are necessarily always mutually exclusive. That’s not to say that what Tom Woodward calls the “energy inputs” of open participants who come and go during a course of study are of no benefit to the class. Quite the contrary. But I do worry. Are formal structures of  what may amount to lesser commitment really a way forward? The opposite extreme, of course, is a formal structure of pedantic insistence–i.e., much or most of what constitutes school-based learning– that can bleach away all the energy of self-directed learning. But these are sad realities of misguided practice, not necessities. I just don’t think that “instructor-led” or “learner-centered” set up the deeper conceptual framework very well. And if I never again hear the grinding binary of “guide at the side / sage on the stage,”  I will weep tears of joy. Even Ivan Illich, the great prophet of deschooling, recognized the role and importance of the genuine pedagogue.

For me the positive vectors are commitment, openness; a willingness to dwell in conjectures and dilemmas and to insist on precision (or the nearest aspirational approximation) when precise information and precise execution are needed to keep the spacecraft from disintegrating. I must also testify that experts lead in many different ways, and many of those different ways are not only important and eminently cherishable but have in fact changed my life. When I watch The Godfather, or read A. S. Byatt, or talk with a gifted and humane practitioner of the healing arts and sciences, I give myself over to the experts, not uncritically, but with commitment and a desire to open myself toward those talents, so long as they are not exercised with cruelty or in mere self-interest.

I too keep looking for the sweet spots.

Oddly, that search has also characterized much of my scholarly work as a Miltonist. How could it not, when one of Milton’s choicest lines is “the sober certainty of waking bliss”?

Here’s an anthology of sweet-spot readings, placed together with minimal commentary: bread crumbs along my wandering way.


glenn miller direct disc[Jimmy Henderson] has been compared to Miller as a strict disciplinarian. Certainly he is an excellent leader. Jimmy sees the band as self-disciplined out of pride in themselves as artists and pride in being associated with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. “Discipline we do have,” he affirms, “but regimentation we do not. There is an enormous difference. Regimentation has no place in music.”

Patricia Willard, from her liner notes to  The Direct Disc Sound of The Glenn Miller Orchestra, directed by Jimmy Henderson (The Great American Gramophone Company, 1977. GADD-1020).

giant hairball tocOrbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mind set, beyond accepted models, patterns, or standards” — all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.

To find Orbit around a corporate Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit. from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed it eh bureaucracy of the institution.

If you are interested (and it is not for everyone), you can achieve Orbit by finding the personal courage to be genuine and to take the best course of action to get the job done rather than following the pallid path of corporate appropriateness.

To be of optimum value to the corporate endeavor, you must invest enough individuality to counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity, but not so much that you escape that pull altogether. Just enough to stay out of the Hairball.

Through this measured assertion of your own uniqueness, it is possible to establish a dynamic relationship with the Hairball–to Orbit around the institutional mass. If you do this, you make an asset of the gravity in that it becomes a force that keeps you from flying out into the overwhelming nothingness of deep space.

But if you allow that same gravity to suck you into the bureaucratic Hairball, you will find yourself in a different kind of nothingness. The nothingness of a normalcy made stagnant by a compulsion to cling to past successes. The nothingness of the Hairball.

Gordon Mackenzie, Orbiting The Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace (Viking, 1996), p. 33. H/t @marianafunes. NB: I question that “it is not for everyone.” I believe Mackenzie is delivering a strong caution there, not a statement about eligibility or desirability. Or he may simply be trying to forestall objections.

By virtue of a privilege which he shared with the greatest creative artists, the composer [Maurice Ravel] never lost, in his obstinate determination to acquire technical mastery, that fresh sensibility which is the privilege of childhood and is normally lost with advancing years.

Alexis Roland-Manuel, quoted in Richard Freed’s liner notes to the original 1975 Vox Quad recording of Daphnis et Chloe (Ballet Suites Nos. 1&2) and Ma Mere l’Oye, as reproduced in the Mobile Fidelity SACD reissue of that recording in 2005. Ravel is one of my favorite composers, and I cannot imagine a sweeter spot than at the intersection of an “obstinate determination to acquire technical mastery” and “that fresh sensibility which is the privilege of childhood….” How to keep that intersection always in view and always yielding energy? Great teachers have a feel for those tasks.


And yes, such commitments are difficult to manage, especially when they take vastly different forms, experiences, and methodologies. Ironically, an obsession with standardization built out of superficial outputs, outcomes, and analytics will appear to ease the learner’s path, only to rob the learner of the very many-mindedness that leads to the deepest, most transferable, most enduring learning of all.

The changing values of the 1960s influenced the CMU [Carnegie Mellon University] drama department’s instructional program. A few faculty members explored innovative techniques, while others adhered to the acting methods they had learned, or passed along specialized skills like mime, dance, and diction. The diversity of their approaches was both helpful and challenging for the undergraduates. Leon Katz remembers, “There was no uniform attitude to the faculty. We had five acting teachers. All of them were tremendously good and they loathed what one another was doing. Each one had a totally different conceptual training. The students were confused. They would go to [department chairman] Earle Gister and say, “What are we supposed to believe? We’re totally confused!” He said, “Good, that’s your training. You sort it out and find the thing that’s right for you.”

Carol De Giere, The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical (Bethel, CT: Scene 1 Publishing, 2014, pp. 21-22)

Teachers, Leaders

Nadia Boulanger 1925

“May I have the power to exchange my best with your best.” —Nadia Boulanger

I have been mulling over this great and greatly insightful post for a couple of days. What follows is a slightly modified version of my comment there. Please go read it and share your own thoughts however and wherever you like.

I have many tangled responses that are a little painful to contemplate, so I’ll just leave this marker here for now: I think part of the subject here is leadership. I have had many spirited disagreements with a leader named Jim Groom about the role, necessity, and ethics of leadership. For me, a teacher is also a kind of leader. Ivan Illich, no fan of schooling or authoritarian structures of any kind, writes movingly about the role of the true, deep teacher. So does George Steiner, using language of “master” and “disciple” that would make many open-web folks cringe–or worse. Yet even the great and greatly democratic poet Walt Whitman salutes his “eleves” at one point. And I have experienced and been very grateful for the wisdom of those teacher-leaders who brought me into a fuller experience and understanding of my own responsibilities as a leader. What is “self-directed learning” if not an act of leadership?

One of the books that’s affected me most profoundly this year is Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. In it, I find this wisdom:

And every day you must decide whether to put your contribution out there, or keep it to yourself to avoid upsetting anyone, and get through another day. You are right to be cautious. Prudence is a virtue. You disturb people when you take unpopular initiatives in your community, put provocative new ideas on the table in your organization, question the gap between colleagues’ values and behavior, or ask friends and relatives to face up to tough realities. You risk people’s ire and make yourself vulnerable. Exercising leadership can get you into a lot of trouble. To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear—their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking—with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility. Moreover, leadership often means exceeding the authority you are given to tackle the challenge at hand. People push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium they know. And people resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game: pushed aside, undermined, or eliminated. It is no wonder that when the myriad opportunities to exercise leadership call, you often hesitate. Anyone who has stepped out on the line, leading part or all of an organization, a community, or a family, knows the personal and professional vulnerabilities. However gentle your style, however careful your strategy, however sure you may be that you are on the right track, leading is risky business.

Perhaps everyone is called to some form of leadership as an ethical imperative. Perhaps for everyone, a moment or occasion of leadership will emerge, reveal itself, and call to us with the painful, necessary task of speaking up, patiently asking for alternatives, insistently rocking the boat … and lovingly organizing the celebrations and rites of passage. Not to mention keeping the tribe alert to the value and splendor of newcomers, and to the persistent value of encountering other tribes to work together in building the commons.

I think that leadership may be mostly a commitment to the constant mediation and care required by love, that place where both individuality and relationship must assert themselves and somehow walk and dance together.


Why I Teach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head.

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

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


Homophone trouble as a parable of learning

Klein Bottle: obliquity unbounded. Image cc Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All best,
Dr. C.