Curriculum Cooking

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

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

cooking3jeffsouth

Credit: Jeff South

cooking1

Credit: Jeff South

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

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

whiteboard1

 

whiteboard2

 

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

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

 

The 30,000 Foot Foundation

–It’s a bag of gold.

What would I do with a bag of gold?

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

I don’t have time for your philosophical questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Train running in circles

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

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!

image

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.

image

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.

Loving the Engineers

Note: the title suggested itself when a melody from a certain song by the Roches popped into my head. That’s exactly the kind of thing that engineers might find puzzling or irrelevant, at least within an academic context, but it may tickle the funny bone of anyone who knows the Roches song I’m talking about.

A couple of weeks ago, Tom Woodward and I had the privilege and pleasure of presenting the new Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory, ALT Lab, to the VCU School of Engineering at their undergraduate studies retreat. We were on a high platform, and our good friends and colleagues from Engineering were arrayed below us at circular tables, waiting respectfully for the cookies that would follow our talk. (The cookies were on the schedule already; we didn’t bring them, though in retrospect we should have offered.)

We came to the task with a little trepidation. As one of my Virginia Tech colleagues once said, “Gardner, you have to understand: these folks really are rocket scientists.” Just what a Miltonist wants to hear, though perhaps Miltonists are the engineers of those who study literature (I did hear of a senior Miltonist shouting out the correct date when a grad student got it wrong at a conference, so obviously we don’t make it all up as we go along). My VT colleague did have a point, however: engineers are smart, math-savvy, and makers of high precision and (sometimes) no small degree of monetizability. Engineers have to get the answers as right as possible, lest the bridge fall down or the pacemaker short out. Precision is an ethical imperative of the discipline. Not much talk about epistemology within engineering circles. A realist epistemology underpins the discipline’s work. So here we were, a history major (Tom) and an English major (me), talking about concepts and pedagogy and doing our best to demonstrate some core questions about understanding and some pretty nifty examples of new ways to represent and do math. And of course I led with the patron saint of ALT Lab, an electrical engineer (with patents!) named Doug Engelbart, and I shared with them Engelbart’s abiding vision of human capability, as well as the conceptual framework that supported and represented that vision.

I also worked in two film clips from The Right Stuff. I was very excited to do so, as you can imagine.

Time flew by, we fielded some questions about learning and digital technologies, and then we packed up our sample cases, so to speak, and left the platform. I found, as always, that my trepidation had turned to excitement. Don’t let this get around, but engineers are some of the coolest folks on the planet, even though some of them pronounce “blogging” as if it rhymes with [redacted]. Not to worry: I’ve known a couple of champion engineer-bloggers in my day. I know it’s possible.

My one regret is that there wasn’t enough time to get to the last three slides in our deck. These were slides that I thought might stimulate some interesting conversation, if not controversy. They also represented a little conceptual framework I was eager to try out, to hear what they might say in response.

Here’s the first slide:

ALT Lab for Engineering Retreat-linearThe idea here was to identify four stages of engineering process. No doubt Montessori or Papert covered a similar idea somewhere. Nevertheless, I wanted to try out the idea that both unstructured and ultra-focused stages informed the particular kind of making that characterizes engineering. As I put the slide together, I realized the stages probably informed many other disciplines as well–perhaps all of them.

Play is pretty obvious. Both Huizinga and Bateson have written eloquently about the way play pervades culture, as well as about the way in which play is liberatory in terms of thinking. Some kinds of play involve very elaborate if-this-then-that modes of thinking, all counterfactual, and all on the edge of a dreamworld where everything can turn to metaphor. Here new ideas first emerge. I thought the idea of “play” might be challenging within an engineering context, so I wanted to see what they’d say.

Tinkering is playing with what emerges from play. Tinkering is a more focused and experimental version of play. I’m particularly drawn to the idea of “stochastic tinkering” much loved by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And here I thought I’d have a slam dunk with my colleagues, since many of the engineers I’ve talked to are quite comfortable with the idea of tinkering. Indeed, many of them became engineers precisely because they love to tinker. Our station engineer at WFDD-FM was nicknamed “Tink,” and it was always a treat to visit him in his office and see all the pieces and parts carefully hanging on the wall or gathered into small plastic drawers in apparently endless organizers.

Practice comes in from music, for me, but stands for the deliberate repetition of any task until one can do it without thinking. Many learning theorists (and others) call this quality “automaticity,” and while human beings are not automatons (at least, not yet), it is still very useful to be able to perform precise motions repeatedly, and to focus on getting it right, whatever “it” is.

Make is as obvious as play, though I figured it would be the most obviously resonant and relevant element for this audience.

Then the next two slides were to explore more complex and, I believe, more accurate representations of the linear process, which even in its more radical moments (“play”) still resembles a standard design model, what project managers would now call a “waterfall” model.

Iterating upward in complexity, I had this slide for us to consider:

ALT Lab for Engineering Retreat-circleNow the line has become a circle, with the implied argument that the cycle cannot be considered complete when the make occurs. Whether one calls this iterative development, rapid prototyping, or the like, the idea is that “make” is more or less perpetual beta. I don’t think we can say that a bridge or a jet engine is itself in perpetual beta, in terms of the engineering that keeps the bridge intact and the jet aloft, but of course we can always iterate toward better bridges, better engines. I am especially interested in the notion that one should play as the next step of iterative development, not simply refine or troubleshoot what’s been made. This is a challenging notion and I could be wrong, but it seems to me that one danger of a thoughtless. automatic model of iterative development is that one can be confined within confirmation biases, iterating away on the polishing of the thing that cannot be polished without revisiting the essential question of “what are we assuming?” (In the article I linked to above, the dangers of too much automaticity are illustrated beautifully by the ham-in-pan story.) I should also say that I am continually saddened by how much “educational technology” is pretty much ham-in-pan thinking. But I digress.

Finally, the most complex of the slides I’d prepared:

ALT Lab for Engineering Retreat-networkThe implicit argument here has to do with resemblances and analogies. How are play and practice related–indeed, how might they be versions of each other? Similarly, in what way do making and tinkering represent similar activities?

I’ll leave those questions as exercises for the reader.

And yes, I confess: still loving the engineers.

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)

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.

 

From Open To Connected

cc-header1It’s been gnawing on me over the last couple of years that in our haste to open up schooling, we may well have missed the greater and more important aims that “open” strives toward. And while there’s no way to protect words from being twisted or co-opted, the phenomena of “openwashing” and the long long O in MOOC are troubling indicators that what initially seemed to be the language of openness may have fought shy of the question of what the openness was for. How otherwise to explain a world in which broadcast lectures are touted as innovations or disruptions?

Not that higher ed itself has not had its own complicity in the process, given that our practices of scaling and isolation have modeled much of what we see in the “content delivery” model of online learning.

I tried to explore some of these concerns at Open Ed 2012 in Vancouver in a talk I called “Ecologies of Yearning and the Future of Open Education.”

The yearning I tried to evoke is part of the higher aims I keep trying to articulate. Although I understand the ironies within and around E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph, I cannot help subscribing to the imperative:

“Only connect.”

So I’m honored to be part of a Connected Learning Alliance initiative called “Connected Courses,” and to be one of the facilitators of the “metacourse” that debuts in September. The course is completely open–but it is also about opening. The course is free in that participants do not pay tuition–but it asks for commitment, for participation, so that the free course can be truly freeing. Together we will explore the idea of connected courses, the ways in which connected courses can be built, and most importantly, why connected courses matter.

In fact, we start with the why, as you can see on the Connected Courses syllabus.

Just a few days ago, VCU’s first cMOOC, “Living The Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” concluded its formal work as a course of study for the summer of 2014. The connections, however, persist within the larger and more important paradigm of connected learning. That’s the goal, now and always: “Only connect.” This moment may be one of our best opportunities to reclaim what is best about higher education, and to recall higher education to its core mission and values. The task is fraught with many risks, and I’m not saying that connected learning is the only or even the ultimate answer–but this paradigm resonates so strongly with the reasons I became a professor in the first place, and the feelings of liberation and unbounded possibility that I felt when I began using the Web with my students twenty years ago, that I am invigorated and newly hopeful for the next part of the journey.

Check out connectedcourses.net. Switch on your electric blog. Turn up your radio and let us hear the song.

Caravanistas, I salute you. Turn it up!

A research assignment for a radical course

A long time ago, but just up the road, a Shakespeare professor named Bill Kemp and I devised a freshman composition course like no other. Our reader was Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. Our syllabus had four assignments, the last of which was a final paper students published to the web. This course began in the fall of 1997. Early days, radical design, extraordinary results. I can’t remember now why we stopped. I guess after six or seven iterations the freshness had turned to slog, and neither of us could bear doing the course unless it was truly magical. I had to teach it by myself at least once, and it was much less fun without Bill. He was my alter ego in many ways, Barfield to my Lewis, Lennon to my McCartney (or perhaps, sometimes, it was the other way ’round). I’ve been meaning for a long time to blog about this course, my first truly open course in the way I’d mean it today. It’s the great-great-grandmother of this summer’s cMOOC, “Living The Dreams.” I learned a great deal by teaching this course with Bill. I learned just as much from my students as well. It really was something very special.

Now we’re closing in on the final weeks of “Living The Dreams,” and I thought I’d reprint the research assignment from the Stranded course. Some of it still seems very fresh to me, and wholly applicable to the kind of research I continue to urge students to do. It’s written Campbell/Kemp because I wrote the lion’s share of it. (Yes, we also had a Lennon-McCartney thing in our heads, or at least I did.) Strangely, the Wikipedia article on research is also quite good, and very well aligned with what Bill and I were trying to do. I’d not looked it up before tonight. Wikipedia continues to instruct and delight.

But back to Stranded. Here’s the assignment. Perhaps it will be useful. To Bill Kemp, my deepest gratitude. I remember our work together with deep satisfaction, even joy. You’re one of a kind.


ENGL 101 Assignment Three: The Research Paper–Campbell/Kemp

Assignment two was about personal engagement in the context of experience. Assignment three is about personal engagement in the context of information and the ideas it contains and inspires. That is, the “research paper” is not a simple “research report”–“What I Learned About Nine Inch Nails.” Instead, like Ellen Willis and Jim Miller and (with reservations) John Rockwell and in fact most of the authors in Stranded, you should incorporate background information and other people’s commentary into your own exploration of the music you’ve chosen to write about.

Research isn’t merely finding a few facts and quotations to back up ideas you’ve already developed. Research is listening to other people, learning from them, and using their ideas to sharpen your own. Think of your sources not as dictionaries or encyclopedias but as places where you can hear a conversation and prepare yourself to join in. Each of your sources, if it’s any good at all, represents a human being who’s done something very like the work you’re now doing. They offer you the results of their work: information, ideas, conclusions. You take what they’ve done and use it to shape, support, and interact with your own ideas and conclusions. Thus the conversation carries on, and we’re all the richer for it.

What is an idea? An idea is a “take” on something. An idea is a frame you generate out of your knowledge and experience (a distinction without a difference) that you use to make a new picture out of something you’ve seen before. Where do ideas come from? They can appear out of the aether, popping into your head–but we can’t always afford to wait for such happy moments. Remember that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Everything is potentially a frame, a source for frames, an idea waiting for YOU to frame it so. Stranded is full of ideas and therefore full of frames. So is every other book worth reading. And if you don’t find a particular frame within someone else’s work, you can certainly learn framing strategies (that is, idea-generating strategies) from other writers. That’s the big reason we read: to find ideas and the story of how our writers discovered them.

Your paper should use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style of documentation, which you may find in The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. Note that MLA now has guidelines for citing online and Internet sources. Also note that Simpson Library has very informative links on their pages, including the essential sections on how to evaluate online sources. Point your browsers to library.mwc.edu/engines.html and take a look at what our wonderful librarians have assembled for you.

Remember: when in doubt about how or where to find sources, ask the reference librarian. When in doubt about how or whether to cite a source, ask your professor. Other guidelines:

  • You should have at least six separate sources on your Works Cited page.

  • At least one of these sources should be a book: either a monograph or a collection of essays. At least four of these sources MUST be print sources or online versions of print sources.

  • You must use at least two Stranded essays in some way. They do not count toward the “six source” total, though they should be cited on the Works Cited page.


THE WISDOM SECTION

Instructions: When you hand in your final draft, hand in this assignment sheet as well. On it, indicate which two of the “bits of wisdom” below you found most helpful, and rank them. Below this section, add at least one bit of wisdom you’d like to pass on to next term’s students.

BITS OF WISDOM FOR THIS ASSIGNMENT:

1. You have a right to be in this conversation. You are a scholar.

2. Tell us what you think, not just what you found.

3. Research is a way to explore your own emotions intelligently, and perhaps to find a friend.

4. It isn’t true just because it’s in print.

5. When in doubt, cite.

6. A thing is psychedelic if it changes when you look at it closely”–Robyn Hitchcock.

 

Letter to a learner

Right Stuff Thumbs Up

Our VCU summer cMOOC, “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” has finished its first week. 12.5% of the experience is behind us in time (though not in memory and certainly not on the Web). I’ve already learned a great deal from all aspects of the experience and, more importantly, from all the people who have worked and are working to make this experience go. Chief among these people are those students who have committed time and thoughtful energy to the work they’re doing already. I’ve seen some extraordinary work, much of it splendidly blurring the line between creativity and analysis in ways that should remind us that any such lines are provisional at best and damaging at worst. The work these students have contributed fascinates me and encourages me. I am grateful.

At the same time, there are the inevitable frustrations that come with learning experiences that differ from the norm, as this one most certainly does. it’s understandable (if regrettable) that there will always be some frustration when one wants a learning experience that’s clear, tightly scripted, and doesn’t require consistent participation. Many college courses are like this. Such experiences, even when the work is difficult, are easily managed and can be compartmentalized, even walled off, from the rest of one’s life. There are at least three principal problems with such transactional designs:

1. The learning typically doesn’t persist beyond the final exam, which itself is often little more than cramming and regurgitating.

2. The learning typically doesn’t transfer well into other domains, As a result, there are few connections and fewer insights generated in other learning situations. The learning isn’t made “strong,” to quote Richard Feynman, who used to be very puzzled when his fellow students at MIT couldn’t see that, say, a particular chemistry problem and a particular biology problem were really two versions of the same set of concepts and questions.

3. Related to both of the above, the compartmentalized learning design (as opposed to a connected learning design) typically does not rely on, or encourage, meaning-making, Without meaning-making, the human significance of an activity dwindles to nearly zero, or perhaps to zero (I try not to speak in dogmatic absolutes, but in my heart I believe “zero” is correct).

The idea of “connected” learning as opposed to “compartmentalized” learning has been on my mind a great deal lately, prompted in particular by a special issue of The International Journal of Learning and Media. I’ve written about this issue before, but the abstract from one article in particular keeps coming back like a haunting melody, or perhaps a trumpet call to action:

What Is Connected Learning and How to Research It?

Kristiina Kumpulainen
University of Helsinki 
Julian Sefton-Green
London School of Economics and Political Science 

Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now, are presently challenging traditional definitions of learning and education. How can we conceptualize learning in a way that is able to respond to and explain the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our times? We elaborate on the notion of “connected learning” as a conceptual heuristic that has recently received recognition as a potential lens and a model through which to research and promote learning as a holistic experience that stretches beyond formal and informal communities. We reflect on the methodological challenges of describing, defining, and analyzing connected learning across young peoples’ everyday “learning lives” from the sociocultural and dialogic perspectives. We discuss such key notions for connected learning as understanding, tracking, and tracing learners; chronotopes; boundary crossing; intertextuality; and learning lives.

(I’ll put a marker here to say that I’ve gone back to my Bakhtin to investigate the connection with chronotopes, “time-space” as Bakhtin calls it, and the matter merits much further investigation.)

The rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular have given us an unprecedented opportunity to experience, and to study and learn from, the “dynamic processes of learning.” At this stage of my career, I find myself pursuing these goals with greater energy and focus in all my work. I even find that my specialization as a scholar of verbal art, especially that of poetry, relates strongly to efforts to understand these dynamic processes. While these connections and the very idea of connected learning itself are exhilarating, they’re exhausting too, because they require a lot of work to make them intelligible, and a lot of persuasion to encourage people to dive into the experience and make something of it themselves. There’s a lot of apparently successful compartmentalized schooling going on, and while I find it deeply frustrating and more of a tragic failure of the human imagination than anything at all successful, it is easily managed and it is familiar. It can also narcotize both teacher and student in ways I find very troubling, though I do not doubt that in most instances everyone is trying to do the right thing.

Which brings me back to “Living the Dreams” and the cMOOC learning experience this summer. After one week, it’s becoming clear to everyone that this is a very unusual course. It’s taking a great deal of time and energy to attend to the network that’s sprung into being, to learn from and within that network, and to reassure ourselves that something extraordinary is possible here (indeed, is already happening) that could transform the way we think about research, research writing, and the power of an Engelbartian intellect augmentations, a true dynamic knowledge ecosystem (DKE), a networked improvement community (NIC). One student–to judge by the writing, a very fine student indeed–communicated her frustrations in an honest, searching, and self-aware fashion that I found rather inspiring, especially as she continued to interact with me and her section’s professor over the course of a comment string. I won’t link to that post directly, as I don’t want to try to single her out; I’m sure she speaks for many students. But I did want to share the comment I just left as I tried to respond to her honest and thoughtful struggles with a course built on “social media” (are there other kinds of media?) that’s a pilot course (meaning that it’s a work in progress itself) and that looks and feels so very different from any course she’s taken before. I salute her because she’s truly trying to make something out of what she’s experiencing. And I dedicate this post to her.

Here is the comment I just left. It’s a follow-up to an earlier comment from me, so I’l start with a bit of her reply for context. You should know that she’s a science student, and that in an earlier comment she was wondering about what this learning experience had to do with preparing her for scientific research. The words in italics are hers.

Thank you, Dr. C…. I think I just need some time to adjust to this unusual course structure. However, as this is a pilot class, I really do feel that it may be useful to some students if there were some consolidation on the UNIV website. Perhaps that will also just take some getting used to though.

You’re very welcome! Coordinating the information is always a challenge when there’s an emphasis on variety and yet also on connection. Most face-to-face courses de-emphasize both because of limitations that exist in the physical world (though there are great things in the physical world too, certainly!). Online kinds of interaction present new possibilities. Some thinkers (including many scientists) believe online communication represents a new stage in human biocultural evolution, one comparable to the invention of writing itself. The Web itself was invented to improve research by enabling scientists to be in better communication, which also means to be able to build and work together better. It’s all about communication in the end. Once human beings got language, everything changed.

I’m just now watching a talk Martin Hawksey recommended to us on the Twitter stream: https://twitter.com/mhawksey/status/477781704762216448 (each new tweet is a web page–you can get the URL as I did above by clicking on the date or the “hours ago” numeral–I find this v interesting). I immediately thought of you and your interest in science. I also thought you might enjoy a book by a physicist named Michael Nielsen called “Reinventing Discovery: The Rise of Networked Science.” Science is all about networks. And social media are about much more than Facebook “like”s (though these too can be interesting).

Anyway, sorry to ramble on–but obviously your thoughtful engagement with some core issues has continued to elicit thought in me, so thanks for that. I’m also glad to see you’ve been in touch with [your section professor]. I think you’ll find [the professor] quite an engaging and provocative thinker.

Sincerely, and with best wishes,
Dr. C.

 Perhaps these thoughts will be helpful to others as well.

Oh, and here’s the splendid video Martin recommended. Many thanks to him for the recommendation as well as for all the crucial work he’s doing to contribute to the study and design of connected learning. Salute!

A conceptacular experience

ultima retweets my post on as we may think

I’ve dedicated this post to one of my very most favoritest former students, Ultima Castro, whose conceptacular work has continued to inspire me for–can it be?–four years. When I thought of the title “concept experience” for this assignment, I was thinking of many things, but one of them was conceptacular Ultima.

But I digress–which means I’ve started down another associative trail. You’d think that this meta level–write a post about the associative trails concept experience!–would be enough to keep me occupied. But starting down the trail-about-the-trail creates other trails … but again I digress.

So here’s the history. Two screenshots, in reverse chronological order:

associative trails history one

 

associative trails history list begins

Rather than be like Tristram Shandy endlessly narrating his own life, I will just go down the trail with a little reflective commentary on some key stops.

I started by putting on my headphones–Sony MDR-7506–to put myself in a thought-cocoon. I can’t usually write and listen to music at the same time. But I knew the music would start me on associative trails with just enough distraction–or immersion–to ensure I wouldn’t be too self-conscious about what I was doing. So now, where to find the music.

Associative trail mile marker one:

associative trails start with time

Pandora, and my High Llamas channel. I used my Windows Snipping Tool to get the screenshot, and the little “pen” in the tool to make a crude, trackball-generated time check. I knew this channel would be just right to get me in the zone: melodic, a little melancholy, a little puckish, a little curious. So on I went.

The Pandora site had a link to the High Llamas website. I hadn’t been there in quite awhile, so I decided to pop over there to see how the band (really one guy, mostly) was doing. To my delight, they seem to be active again. I saw a link to sign up for a newsletter, so I clicked on it and signed up. Then of course I had to go to gmail to click on the link that would confirm my subscription. I doubt the High Llamas will be coming to RVA anytime soon, but by signing up for the newsletter I felt I had signaled to someone, if only to myself, that I was a deep fan of the band and its music; as if I had signed a petition supporting the band. I also realized that when I follow associative trails on the web, I’m often looking for more stuff to read, even the long things that many people believe are tl;dr material. But then, my oldest intellectual addictions are music and words, so there you go.

After doing some more reading and confirming my subscription to the newsletter, I remembered that I’d been meaning to follow up some suggestions regarding music that’s apparently like the kind of music the High Llamas make. Well, close enough: I went in search of “dreamcore.” Eventually I discovered a huge list of dreamcore bands–on a last.fm page–and was fascinated by the images associated with a band I’d never heard of, Tears Run Rings:

I clicked on the thumbnail and found myself on a profile of the band and its second album. I’m now about six minutes into the experience.tearsrunrings

 

I click on the link to the band page and spend a little time there, finally selecting two images I wanted to keep and share as part of this experience–which is something I do pretty often, and which reminds me that when I follow associative trails on the web I often look for things to download or otherwise capture. In other words, when I’m learning, I’m also on the lookout for stuff to share. It’s a teacher’s habit, I guess, but it’s also something I’ve found very helpful in my own learning. When I find the thing and at the same time think about sharing it, I’ve kind of found it twice–that’s not quite right, but perhaps you get the gist:

trr_words_lg

trr_destroyer

By now I am getting a wee bit self-conscious. I hadn’t intended to make this concept experience into music only. But obviously, tonight, this was something I needed or wanted. Nevertheless, time to check my email. (It’s always time to check my email. Sad, I know.)

(Well, perhaps not always sad.) When I got to my email, I discovered that one of our Thought Vectors participants had replied to one of my tweets. Which one, I wondered? Ah, it was the tweet about my own recent inquiry project (this one took a couple of years, or maybe twenty, depending on how you count):

bill smith tweets re cambridge companion

I hadn’t anticipated that anyone would find my tweet ironic, but it was actually pleasant to be tickled in this way. I wanted to counter with some irony of my own, so I thought I’d head to the Kindle store and find an image of the Kindle edition of the book in which my essay had appeared. But of course, it’s back to music, as today Amazon launched a new service called Prime Music:

amazon prime music

And I’m still only ten minutes into the concept experience. I stop here for a bit to speculate about whether Amazon had made these particular images pop up because they knew my demographic or my buying/listening preferences, or whether this was an ad based on the music they actually had the rights to. I’m guessing the former. But onward, onward; I must find my response to those who were giving me the needle, in a very friendly way, about tweeting about an analog book. Me being such a digital person, and all. (Yes, but a Miltonist, let us not forget. An amphibian, as Sir Thomas Browne would put it.)

Ah, here’s the Kindle edition.

kindle edition ccpl

And here’s the TOC that includes my name. Just another drop in the lit-crit ocean, but it represents a lot of work alone and in conversation with both fellow professors and (even more crucially) with students asking great questions to which I did not have the answers.

ccpl table of contents

This post is growing exponentially, it seems, and I’m still only about 15 minutes into the experience. So I’ll pick up the reflective pace here and avoid the reverie.

After spending some time looking at other Milton books on Amazon, I quickly realized that I could spend the entire time on Amazon, clicking around to window-shop as well as to learn things about the various books, movies, records, and other items that drew my interest. Over the years I’ve watched Amazon grow not only in the variety of goods and services it offers, but in the range and volume of information they have on the site. Fascinating, and instructive to compare with other retailers’ sites. But enough of Amazon. Amazon is not the Internet. Everyone knows that Reddit is the Internet.

So to Reddit I went, where I immediately found this image of Bill Nye the Science Guy in his ninth-grade science class:

billy nye 9th grade

 

It’s always fun, and a little unnerving, to see childhood photos of people who look almost exactly like their adult selves. This image is a perfect example. By now, however, I felt a growing realization that I was going to spin back to music and I should just surrender and do it. On my way, though, I thought I’d preserve for posterity my strategy for keeping every possible option open for further orienteering and trail-blazing:

multivector tab menagerieI sometimes wonder why my computer is slowing down–and then I take a look at how many tabs I have open.

Where was I? Oh yes, music. No better place on the Internet to feed my music habit than the Steve Hoffman Forum, the place that back in 2002 opened my eyes to one powerful way an Internet community could become a learning community.

hoffman music forums

There were a couple of Who threads tonight, including one in which the forum’s host, mastering engineer Steve Hoffman, posted his favorite picture of Pete Townshend. I’d never seen it before, but based on what I know of Steve from the forum, I can guess what he likes about it. It really is a terrific photo of the main creative engine behind my favorite band:

pete and records

I clicked into one more thread, this one about the newly released Blu-Ray “Pure Audio” 5.1 remix of The Who’s Quadrophenia, and found an hilarious YouTube video by a UK critic/musician/YouTube webcaster named Darren Lock. His video review of the new edition of Quadrophenia made me laugh out loud, especially when he comments on the acoustics in the room and how they make the crackle of the cellophane especially vivid. Talk about digressing… (But I digress.)

Pulling myself away from a possible 15-minute YouTube excursion, I decide to close the loop and see if I can find more information about the kind of music I was looking for earlier. It seems that “dreamcore” may be too specific a genre label. I really was looking for something more like the new Real Estate album, I think.

real estate

Going to the Wikipedia article on Real Estate, I found the genre “dream pop” (I almost went for “jangle pop,” another genre label for Real Estate, but I was intriguing more by “dream” than by “jangle”). And here I found some very extensive resources indeed. I think I’ve found my starting place:

dream pop

list of dream pop artistsClearly this page will give me more new bands to discover than I could possibly get to in my remaining life, unless of course I win the lottery tomorrow.

“Time is my tedious song here hath ending.” for those who persisted with my trails until the end, the final stop on my journey. The Kings of Convenience, a band Pandora (with its own “music genome” trailblazing) originally led me to.
kings of convenience--end

Wait, still not quite the end: as I tidied up my savings and prepared to write the post, Pandora was still playing, and a song came on by a band I’d never heard of but instantly liked.

pernice brothers all music

Note to self: follow up on Pernice Brothers. And so another associative trail is born.

And so to bed.