By the way, Ivan Illich

Great NMFS seminar meeting two weeks ago. Subject: Ivan Illich. Leader, Linda Tegarden, a prof from the Business School. Her disciplinary perspective helped us think about Illich in light of the very disruptive moment higher ed’s business model is facing just now. “Business model,” of course, signifies a lot more than it seems to–but Linda could tell you that much better than I could. Her particular specialty is entrepreneurship, so she had particularly keen insights to share.

As did the other participants, all of them. In fact, it was one of the most spirited and intense sessions in memory. One usefully uncomfortable moment came my way near the end. The conversation had led to a vehement moment of self-examination for all of us. As I do from time to time (read: over and over), I was making the deschooling argument with great fervor. At that, a seminarian just to my left turned to me and said, “well, what about you, Gardner? You’ve chosen to reform the system from within.”

If the conversation had a musical score, the indication at that moment would have read “G.P.” Grand Pause. “You’re absolutely right,” I finally responded. I thought back over all the debates on edupunk. (I was going to include some links there, but just a few moments of reliving that time were enough to bring me down, way down, so I leave the googling as an exercise for the reader.) I thought back over all the weirdly maverick ways I had adopted over my career–adopted? more like discovered, and fell into, and could not but claim–and how nevertheless I continue to be drawn to the academy (“like a moth to the flame,” one non-academic friend has said) and what at its best it represents and empowers. I flashed onto the deepest mystery of all: why someone who had felt like an outlier from near the beginning of grad school, and who had been continually frustrated with so much of faculty conversation and practice, would have found his way (of all places) into faculty development–which sometimes feels like trying to be a physician to other physicians, a tribe notorious for being poor patients. (And where my own imposter syndrome gets pinged incessantly.) (And where I am doubtless a wounded healer myself, on my best days.)

It was an intense moment, made more intense when another seminarian, full of curiosity and collegiality (seriously, I’m not being sarcastic here), asked, “yes, Gardner, and how did you end up in faculty development?”

So the second best part of the story above, for me, is that there was such a moment of intense self-examination (and self-articulation), and in the company of such smart, committed, and intensely sympathetic colleagues. The best part is that there were such moments that day for all of us in the room. It was a day in which “work is play for mortal stakes,” as Frost wrote in another context. It was an afternoon in which the room became a university, and that flame to which I am drawn, this idea of real school, burned with the intensity I sought long ago when this journey began.

And Ivan Illich was the catalyst. His chapter on “Learning Webs” in Deschooling Society led us all the way back into a shared moment of what is indeed best about the academy, and what we who work within it must indeed labor to preserve. A happy and convivial irony.

As a postscript, I note here one of the more striking insights in a chapter full of such insights. At one point, Illich takes up (I kid you not) the idea of gamification. Here’s what he writes, in the context of discussing a game called Wff ‘n Proof (I have this game at home, but that’s another story):

In fact, for some children such games are a special form of liberating education, since they heighten their awareness of the fact that formal systems are based on changeable axioms and that conceptual operations have a gamelike nature. (Emphasis mine.)

Two short clauses, and a fantastic opportunity for liberation. I think he’s right, and I could write a post or two just on those bits of extraordinary insight. But Illich goes on:

They are also simple, cheap, and–to a large extent–can be organized by the players themselves. Used outside the curriculum such games provide an opportunity for identifying and developing unusual talent, while the school psychologist will often identify those who have such talent as in danger of becoming antisocial, sick, or unbalanced. Within school, when used in the form of tournaments, games are not only removed from the sphere of leisure; they often become tools used to translate playfulness into competition, a lack of abstract reasoning into a sign of inferiority.

Such a delicate balance. Such an artful balance.

May I be permitted another connection? In “Ecology of Mind: The Sacred,” Gregory Bateson writes,

[W]hile it may be fairly easy to recognize moments at which everything goes wrong, it is a great deal more difficult to recognize the magic of the moments that come right; and to contrive those moments is always more or less impossible. You can contrive a situation in which the moment might happen, or rig the situation so that it cannot happen. You can see to it that the telephone won’t interrupt, or that human relations won’t prosper–but to make human relations prosper is exceedingly difficult.

Here I think Bateson refines and purifies Illich’s argument in Deschooling Society, at least indirectly. (I do not think they knew each other.) Illich’s argument can sometimes seem as if he’s got a utopian formula in mind that will make human relations prosper. All calls to revolution have something of this appearance in them, and one does well to be skeptical. Yet this is only part of the story. The other part is just what Bateson says. We can do our best to create situations in which the magic might happen and do all in our power not to rig the situation so that it cannot happen. Can we say that we have followed this path? Often it seems to me that we have done almost exactly the opposite, in the macrocosm of schooling, while the great teachers and students continue to demonstrate the possibility of flourishing–of magic–on the microcosmic level. How much better, though, to plant a healthy garden than to point to the brave flowers emerging from the rubble of urban decay as a sign that the system is working–as a sign of the “student success” we should strive toward. Perhaps I work within the system to reform it because I’m convinced that we can find that rich soil beneath the pavement, and should, as a way to demonstrate that the brave flowers knew something after all….

More insights into an integrated domain

I have been having some difficulty blogging lately. The reasons are numerous, though the biggest reasons are perhaps no more than four or five in number–but they’re been unusually intense. I say this by way of apology to my readers, with the evident optimism that comes from the plural. (As the kids would say, or text, “haha.”)

I last blogged about Ted Nelson, who for reasons of my own scheduling came before Doug Engelbart in the NMFS seminar this time. I swapped them because I wanted to be present to lead the discussion of Doug’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” The discussion went superbly well, in my view, largely because the common complaints about the difficult and at times even bizarre ways in which Doug constructs his argument were paired with unusually tolerant, playful, and even enthusiastic insights into the complexity, richness, and originality of his thought throughout the essay. Sometimes from the same reader!

For me, it was a chance to think my way through Doug’s seminal essay once again, and to invite our community of seminarians to be as open and candid as possible about what they enjoyed and what they found impenetrable or otherwise frustrating about the essay. I got lucky with the invitation, perhaps because I’ve many opportunities now to think about how to be an “invitationist” with regard to Doug’s work, and no doubt because of the good chemistry in the group this semester. I mean, folks from central IT, cultural anthropology, engineering, business, history, rhetoric, poetry, science/technology/society, and of course the library (Pan’s Labyrinth, and I mean that as a compliment). Talk about an integrated domain. This time around, I got a clearer sense than ever before of the dramatic presence, in all respects, of Doug’s writing in the minds and expression of those reading him for the first time. I think this happened in large part because I was ready to look for that presence in a subtle, attentive way.

My small reflection, now:

Among its many other enormous and admirable ambitions, Doug’s essay challenges us to think hard, harder than before, perhaps harder than ever before, about what we say we want, what we say we prize as human beings individually and in community, and to ask ourselves whether we have the courage to accept the risks implicit in that kind of thought and questioning. In words that continue to jolt my being, Doug writes:

We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain….

So much of the praxis I observe, and engage in, appears to be swinging from one isolated clever trick to another like monkeys swinging from vine to vine, always in pursuit of a banana or some other reward, never with the realization of what “forest” or “jungle” or “savannah” or “world” or “universe” might mean. No time for that. Only time to expand the repertoire of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations.

Yet the notion of an integrated domain still beckons–and in truth, it does bring me down from time to time to think about how readily I and those around me run to the clever tricks. These tricks not nearly so complex as a way of life, and require much less commitment of self and the ferocious energy it takes to try to hold a self together, and then to hold that self against another self in the strange, high ways of love.

Lately I’ve been consumed by reading Gregory Bateson. His notion of an “ecology of mind” seems to me eerily parallel to Doug’s “integrated domain.” In “Mind/Environment” (collected in A Sacred Unity), Bateson writes:

The Pavlovian dog believes that the universe is made of sequences, and that the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus are fixed by a time interval. The only way of testing that, you see, is to act as though he could influence the events. But this is precisely what he’s learned not to do. And if he doesn’t interfere, then he will in fact perceive a university in which these regularities are reasonably true, and the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling proposition.

I have preserved my typo above because it’s a telling slip, right down to the fact that my habits make “univers” end more frequently in “university” than in “universe.” Yet this habit is exactly the point, yes? What makes us in academe regularly mistake the university for the universe? What self-fulfilling propositions inhibit us from finding, or building, or sharing, an integrated domain–especially with regard to the computer as a machine, and a conceptual framework, for augmenting human intellect? An instrument whose music is ideas (Alan Kay).

It’s in the nature of self-fulfilling propositions that the answers lie in the realm of the unknown unknown. I am grateful, though, to colleagues like Engelbart and Bateson, extending into colleagues of past, present, and future seminars, for the light they share.


Loving Ted

Ted Nelson

He doesn’t always make it easy. He’ll put things in BOLD FULL CAPS. He likes gnomic utterances, especially when they’re uttered by others: “‘The reason is, and by rights ought to be, slave to the emotions’–Bertrand Russell.” [EDIT: The real source is David Hume: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” H/T Michael Thomas.] He never shies away from a huge generalization. With regard to curriculum, “There are no ‘subjects,'” and “There is no natural or necessary order of learning.” And although he speaks with great admiration of Doug Engelbart, to the point of reverence (I recently learned that Nelson actually cast Engelbart as his father in a short film–I kid you not), he also erupts with non-Engelbartian claims such as “I think that when the real media of the future arrive, the smallest child will know it right away (and perhaps first)…. When you can’t tear a teeny kid away from the computer screen, we’ll have gotten there.”

Of course we all know that an addiction to (insert favorite trivial Internet activity here) is not at all the same as the imperative “Motivate the user and let him loose in a wonderful place,” one of Ted Nelson’s most stirring admonitions. Not every online place is indeed wonderful, and not every teeny kid is glued to the display of a wonderful place on whatever screen we can’t tear him or her away from.

So yes, it’s not always easy to love Ted. But love him I do.

I love him the way I love the musician Pete Townshend, who once described himself this way:

“A beggar, a hypocrite, love reign o’er me.”

I love him the way I love the poet Walt Whitman, who in a relentlessly narcissistic poem titled Song of Myself nevertheless drew the whole world to him, writing “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I love him the way I love the poet Marianne Moore, who once in a fit of high dudgeon–perhaps–wrote these words about poetry itself:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are

I take it that the phrase “perfect contempt” has its own recursive resonance, after all. Obviously I am not alone in my love, either. No less a poet than former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (who wrote my favorite poem ever about television) has his own struggles with the poem, and his love for it (and Moore). Pinsky observes that “Moore likes to keep everything shifting and vibrating.” Yes indeed.

As does Ted. And through all of his dicta and dogmatic statements, his arm-waving and his frank anger, I love the shifts and vibrations. Most of all, I love his love, which mingles perfect contempt and unswerving commitment in a way that finally, for me at least, leads to the light.

When I read Ted Nelson, whether I’m smarting or disagreeing or exulting aloud at the richness of his insights and the intensity of his expression, I do feel that I am in a wonderful place–and motivated, oh yes.

For that, I am grateful.

NMFS Fall, 2012

Photo by Jonathan Brennecke

The official title is the “New Media Faculty-Staff Networked Development Seminar.” The tag, modified by identifiers for years and semesters, is merely “nmfs.”

And now my new unofficial category for this endeavor, now in its sixth iteration for me in this form, is a MOOS: a massively open online seminar. (Apologies to Northern Voices and its mooseology–I won’t say branding–and I hope they will not be angry with this petty theft by a friend.) I think the “massively” is important, in that it modifies “open,” not “seminar.” That said, it’s also important for me that this experience scale somehow, across institutional boundaries both internal and external.

Our seminar this semester includes two visual artists, a poet, an engineer, a businessperson, a central IT leader, two historians, a cultural anthropologist, a rhetorician, two librarians, and of course a bootstrap carny/bassist (and Miltonist). It’s a fine mix of roles and professional training, a vital part of any NMFS experience, but as always those categories are only half the story, if that. We’re also a mix of genders, of ages, of attitudes and experiences within and without higher education. We’ve come to the seminar for different reasons. We bring different hopes, anxieties, and (yes) agendas to our meetings.

If our last week’s meeting is any indication, however, we are united by a strong sense of curiosity and an unusual capacity for wonder and serendipity. We discussed Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” and the discussion was like a fine piece of music: the tempo varied, there were moments of grandeur and hushed introspection, and at its best it seemed as if we were all writing the score, together, as we went along.

Already several of the seminarians have placed their blogs in the ‘sphere. Our cultural anthropologist is wondering about “as we may evolve” (and has a most intriguing blog title: “Oscar and Eliza”). Our poet muses about the strange title of Bush’s essay, which grows stranger and more marvelous the more we think about it–as we may think about it–now the uncanny descends. Our IT leader views each seminar reading through the long lens of experience in the building, management, and use of these mighty (and mightily vexing, and sometimes ennobling) calculating machines.

And this is just the start. I’ve not yet told you about our network this semester, or the new macro-motherblog (the mother of all motherblogs) that’ll display our blogging across the network–or about some of the larger plans afoot to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”

But I will.