A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucie’s Day

A little over seven years ago, I did a podcast series I called “A Donne A Day.” That fall I was to teach a seminar at the University of Mary Washington on the writings of John Donne, and I wanted to have a stock of poems ready for students to listen to as well as read. It was a good series, I think, one eventually completed by my students in the seminar. Most of the audio links have broken during several file migrations, and I’ll fix them tomorrow, but I need to put this post up tonight before St. Lucie’s Day is past.

I also need to post this tonight as a timely thank you to three former students who shared their remembrances of this class and this poem on Facebook today, led by the initial status update of Emily Williams. It was a wonderful class in every way. The students were bright, quirky, eager. We dove into the poetry with rigor and abandon. I attended my first Renaissance Fair (trippy indeed). We had a wiki, and a podcast series–and we had each other.

Thank you, Emily, for remembering the class and posting the poem. Thank you Anna and Charlotte for posting your memories as well. Thank you, John Donne, for the grim art you did not hold back in this extraordinary lyric. I hope my reading suggests at least a little of the poem’s power and depth.

And thank you once again, Michael Roman, for being a great teacher, and for introducing me to this mindbending poet and his work. You were exactly the teacher I needed, and you led me to Milton as well (though I didn’t know that at the time).

I hope you are still teaching, somewhere. I know you are still teaching me.


A Long Goodbye: Alex Chilton

A parting post for 2011, unrelated to education or technology, except for the recording, playback, and transportation technologies that helped with my “edification by puzzlement,” to use the evocative phrase of James Fernandez…. It’s an elegy for one of my favorite musicians, but for me it also stands for many other things, as all deeply felt things do.

Reposted with a few revisions from a burst of writing I did yesterday on the Steve Hoffman forum:

You know, I was really so wracked about Alex Chilton’s death, and then Andy Hummel’s right after it, that I haven’t been able to think straight about any of it until recently. I too was (and am still) one of those Alex fans people complain about. My brother and another close friend used to kid me (ok, mock me) in the late 80′s because of my Alex/Big Star fixation, then in full flowering because I’d seen Alex eight or nine times in that decade. I didn’t have to go too far to find him. For awhile there he was gigging the mid-Atlantic area three or four times a year, it seemed. He played Charlottesville at least three or four times while I was in grad school at UVA. I saw him in Roanoke once and put my wife up to asking him about “I Am The Cosmos,” which I’d just heard courtesy of a friend at Back Alley Disc in C’ville. I figured Alex might open up a little more to a beautiful woman than to me at that point, and he did–he told her he thought it was a really great song, and told her the story of how he first met Chris back when he’d go hear him play in the Jynx back in Memphis.

So many memories of that decade, finally getting to meet and occasionally interact with someone whose music had been so important to me.

Sometimes Alex would be prickly, or would say things that made no sense to me at all. He seemed so casually dismissive of the best of his own work, and would spend so much energy on what seemed to me then like hipster piffle, songs like “Volare.” That song still seems like hipster piffle to me, I have to say. But in that same show, at the 9:30 Club in D.C., he did a breathtaking electric version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” How could someone go from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again so quickly and perversely? I was deeply puzzled and in truth torn about it all. In my mid-20′s, seeing this musical hero every few months it seemed, and trying to figure out my own artistic and professional story: I could feel broken-hearted, inspired, and deeply intrigued at every show he did. And of course mixed emotions are perfect fuel for any obsession….

Other memories: Going up to Alex the first time I saw him, at the C&O Club in C’ville, and getting him to sign his new album, “Feudalist Tarts” as well as “Radio City” (photo above).  My friend Robin McLeod, the fellow who’d introduced me to that Big Star record about ten years earlier, was standing next to me. Alex was slumped in a chair–he’d been battling the flu–but was very polite. When I praised the sound of “Radio City,” he said “Well, that’s because of John Fry; he’s the reason the record sounds so good.” When I told him how much the record had meant to me, he said, “Thanks–I want you to listen to some of the material in the second set tonight; there’s some real melodic stuff in there.” I remember Alex with his three piece (Doug Garrison, drums and Ron Easley, bass) playing “You Get What You Deserve” (also at the C&O club in C’ville)–only time I heard him play that. When he got to the bridge and the “oh, oh-oh, ohhhh” part, I was dancing madly and grinning like a fool.

Once I went up to him during a set break and asked him why he didn’t play more of his Big Star material onstage. (Before the Big Star 2.0 reunion, I heard him play “September Gurls” and “In The Street” most every gig, “When My Baby’s Beside Me” two or three times total, and “You Get What You Deserve” exactly once.) He said, “well, the music’s pretty good, but the lyrics just lay an egg for me.” I asked, “Even something like ‘O My Soul’? I love those lyrics.” He said, “Nah, Chris didn’t finish that song before he left.” I said, “Well, I guess it’s also pretty hard to play a song like that live.” (I was really fishing at that point–plus the 1974 WLIR concert hadn’t been released yet.) He looked at me and said, “It’s not the hardest song on the album.” I asked, “What is the hardest song?” He said, “Daisy Glaze–we tried to learn it in rehearsal this afternoon–heh, forget it.”

I just couldn’t help myself. I knew his power pop radar was intact. I could tell it from the way he played Lou Christie’s “I Wanna Make You Mine” and the melancholy, soulful “Nobody’s Fool,” a song written by his former producer and vocals mentor Dan Penn. But then he’d riff on something interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, like “Boogie Shoes,” and I would try to resign myself to enjoying what I could and giving up on the bigger hopes.

But other times, the hope flared up again, very intensely. I remember Alex coming up to me out of the blue at the 9:30 Club to chat; we talked about record stores and radio stations in Memphis, and I told him I had made it to the short list for a job at what was then called Memphis State University. He said “Hey, that’s cool, maybe you’ll get it and move to Memphis and I’ll see you around there.” I tried to stay calm throughout the conversation, but it was tough. I gave Alex a cassette of some Son House after one of the shows, and he said he’d never heard any Son House before. I hope he liked it. I met Anna Lee Van Cleef, his girlfriend at the time and photographer for “High Priest,” after another show, the one Chris Stamey opened for. Chris was showing folks his new Wurlitzer electric guitar (a beauty), and Alex was holding court across the room, sitting next to Anna Lee (also a beauty).

Alex smoked a lot of pot those days, or so I was told, and it wasn’t like we were going to have a real intense or focused conversation anyway, but still, every one of those short little fanboy encounters was very important to me, as well as deeply puzzling and strangely worrying.

There seemed to me to be something about the deep structure of the universe that the music of Big Star communicated, something sad and powerful and joyful and melancholy and wry all at once. To me, Alex had been a channel for this communication, and I was trying to figure out how all that happened, trying to explain something to myself I suppose. Later, as I began to discover the heart and soul that Chris Bell had given the band, as well as the crucial roles Jody and Andy had played in the whole undertaking, I began to understand how complex that channeling really was. But I never really changed my mind about what was being channeled. I don’t think I will ever change my mind about that.

The last time I saw Alex was in 1994 at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where my friend Robin was living at the time. The reformed Big Star was playing there at exactly the time my family and I were traveling back east to my new job in Virginia. Robin and I got to the Fillmore early so we could stand near the front. We heard the opening act (can’t recall the name, alas), then heard Counting Crows (playing under a false name, for reasons I can’t recall–probably contractual). Then we saw both bands helping to set up the equipment for Big Star. I thought at the time that this was their way of paying tribute to the band. It was a moving sight. Then Big Star came out. It was an amazing set, start to finish, and I was in truth more than a little shaken up to hear all those songs that had shaped my life, songs I never imagined I would hear live. But the moment that sticks in my mind the most is the moment the band came out on stage. For a second or two I made eye contact with Alex, and I thought perhaps he recognized me when he nodded slightly. Robin saw it too, and thought the same thing. I can hope it’s true.

The recent box set got way under my skin, absolutely. The photos are truly magnificent. The bookended photos of Chris and Alex on the CD portfolio are especially poignant.

Three days ago, Alex would have been 61 years old. Almost two years later, I’m still saying goodbye.

How strange, or maybe not: writing the above sent me back to Bruce Eaton’s blog, which I had not visited since just after Alex’s death, and where I found a ton of great stuff, including fantastic interview material from Andy that didn’t make it into the book, as well as a post with a link to a completely fantastic tribute to Alex.

Feeling a little less alone, now, after reading these words by Barbara Mitchell:

There are tortured artists and then there are conflicted ones. Alex was definitely the latter. He lived off of – and simultaneously tried to destroy – his own legacy. The guy was a monumental talent and an honor to work with. He was also perverse, arrogant and a provocateur extraordinaire. And sometimes an utter sweetheart. A Sphinx without a riddle, as former Chills guitarist Steven Schayer described him. [emphasis Mitchell]

I wish I could have known him a little better, even if I couldn’t ever get the riddle straight, much less the answer. Funny how we all think we’re looking for answers. Maybe it’s really the riddle that’s hard to find, or even accept. Maybe during my 1980′s search for Alex Chilton, the riddle I was looking for was my own.

December boys got it bad.

Happy New Year.

Gratitude and clarifications

First, my thanks to everyone who responded to my blog post below. Some responses were comments, some were emails. I really do appreciate the feedback, support, questions, and concerns.

Second, a few clarifications. The “wall” I talk about in my prior post is not a person or even (in this case) a response from anyone. Rather, it’s the essential difficulty or paradox or irony–call it what fits–that emerges from the communications revolution we are currently experiencing. Massively disruptive, massively promising, and full of peril. I understand most high-stakes human experiences are exactly that mixture. Somehow, though, this particular revolution seems even more so to me–more of all those things. That’s one of the many reasons I peg the scale of this change to the invention of the phonetic alphabet.

I should also clarify that I have no intentions of giving up, though I may utter cries of distress from time to time. :)

Today’s seminar: Engelbart II, along with small questions like “what is technology?” (ten minutes of video there) and “what is a computer?” (some Turing and some Mother of all Demos there) and “what is the meaning of meaning?” (no kidding–but that’s another story).

A happy birthday

Today the father of interactive computing, the thinker whom Dr. Janet Murray called, precisely, “the Leonardo of the information age,” is 85 years old. I hope with all my heart that Doug is happy today, that he feels lifted up by the great cloud of witnesses who surround him with love and gratitude for his life and the work he has given to us, and for the future he teaches us to build together.

Everyone who has encountered this giant has a Doug Engelbart story to tell. As a birthday present and a testimony to the effect he has had on my life, I offer here my own Doug Engelbart story, or at least the story to date. For it is one of Doug’s most extraordinary accomplishments that he offers us a continually unfolding set of origins, inspiring continual horizon-work in an ongoing narrative of collaborative building. The capability infrastructure Doug imagines, the “c” process he outlines in his epochal “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” is among many things a story about how to make more complex, participative, and humane narratives for ourselves. With a researcher’s eye and a dancer’s heart, Doug Engelbart tells his own story as one of epiphanies, of flashes of insight, of recursive metacognitive journeys of self-realization that lead not to solipsism but to a just world in which individuals and community, like high-powered electronic aids and the “human feel for a situation,” live and work together in an “integrated domain.” Doug’s conceptual framework is not an endpoint, but a framework for thinking about conceptual frameworks, a complex and exhilarating accomplishment that may have come to Doug himself in flashes but took many years thereafter of patient, doggedly stubborn work to realize within an organization and a set of “tools for thought” (to borrow Howard Rheingold’s lovely phrase). A temporal ventriloquist, Doug threw his voice across decades. In many respects, it is only now that we can begin to hear the magnificence and understand the full implications of the voice that we hear in “The Mother Of All Demos,” the one that asks us how much value interactive computing would have for knowledge workers–a category, we now can dimly begin to understand, that is synonymous with “human beings.”

An organization and a set of tools for thought. Sounds like a place where students won’t “confuse learning with schooling” (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society ). Sounds like a real school.

And the architect of that conceptual framework? Sounds like a real teacher.

Yet I did not encounter Doug Engelbart or his work in any of my own schooling. Although “Augmenting Human Intellect” appeared before I entered first grade, and “The Mother Of All Demos” took place before I entered junior high, not one of my twenty-two years of formal schooling included a word of Doug’s writing or even a passing mention of his name. My own computer romance began to flower in 1988. I was in full-blown geekitude by 1992, when I installed OS/2 2.1 on a machine I bought for my first tenure-track job, a machine with a full eight megabytes of RAM and a crazy-big 200MB hard drive (lol, as the kids say). By 1994 I had an office with a 19.2 kbps connection to the campus network, reading newsgroups and telnetting around the world and downloading files and using PINE on a daily basis. And still Doug had not entered my life. I began to learn about ARPA, I heard about PARC, I was living in San Diego, for crying out loud, looking at the future through the California end of the telescope just before the first dot.com boom, buying and installing my first internal CD-ROM drive (a Mitsumi) and my first 16-bit sound card (not a Soundblaster, but another brand that worked better with OS/2–a Media something that I cannot now recall). I was visiting my colleague Bart Thurber’s house and seeing his work with the “Warsaw 1939″ project on the extraordinary NewBook platform, a project in which students could enter an immersive textual world and record, store, and share the traces of their own engagement.

I was living in successive approximations of a universe Doug Engelbart had imagined thirty-two years before, and I had not so much as heard his name. I could have hopped in my car, driven ten hours, and met the man whose work was changing my life daily, filling my mind and heart with the wild surmise of collective intelligence, with a dream of how the world could be. But I had not so much as heard his name.

I look back at that time with mingled awe and frustration–awe at the ways in which Doug’s vision shaped so much of what fired my imagination and inspired my work when I was a young scholar and teacher, and frustration at the years I could have been studying that vision, spreading the news about it, perhaps even interacting with the architect of that conceptual framework himself.

But the frustration did end, and my Engelbart story did at last have a proper beginning, one in which I finally encountered, and thanked, this extraordinary person who wrote my future into being.

Fall, 2004. I was at my desk in the English, Linguistics, and Communication department at the University of Mary Washington, reading through an issue of InfoWorld magazine. InfoWorld was one of the many new reading materials I had added to my intellectual diet  as I began my second year as Assistant Vice-President for Teaching and Learning Technologies at Mary Washington. 2004 was the dawn of Web 2.0. Several crucial events had prepared me for that dawn.  In the fall of 2003, I visited MIT for the first time, during an AAC&U conference on educational technologies. In the winter of 2004 I went to my first National Learning Infrastructure Initiative annual meeting, where I met Bryan Alexander, Brian Lamb, Colleen Carmean, Vicki Suter, Cyprien Lomas, and many, many others whose lives continue to intertwingle with mine in wholly unpredictable ways. (I met Phil Long on a plane back coming back from a conference in Colorado, and I first saw Alan Levine on a webcam feed projected in a conference hall in New Orleans. Crazy world.) I knew I had some learning to do, and fast. My own contrarian naiveté led me not to the edtech literature first, though, but to trade magazines like InfoWorld, where I found writers like Jon Udell (though there’s really no other writer like Jon Udell) who had a peculiarly bracing long view that charged my own imagination in ways that academic discourse sometimes could, but often did not. And in one of those InfoWorld articles, in a sidebar as I recall, I first read the name “Doug Engelbart,” right next to the name “Vannevar Bush,” with citations of both “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” and “As We May Think.” Both titles struck me like thunderbolts. It sounds trite to say they called out to me, but that’s how it felt.

So I put InfoWorld down, moved the mouse that I didn’t yet know Doug invented, interacted with the computer in the familiar way that I didn’t yet know Doug had imagined (well, in a way that was another successive approximation, since even the riches of the Web are not a patch on what Doug imagined), and launched myself into a universe that would change my life.

I read the articles in chronological order. Bush’s “As We May Think” made my head spin. 1945? Was that a misprint? Bush’s vision of the Memex, and especially his idea that we could learn how to record, store, and share our “associative trails” in ways that were modeled on, and in turn amplified, our own mental processes, was exactly what had struck me the first time I saw Bart Thurber’s NewBook project, over a decade before. I was shocked to find what that what I had struggled to articulate for ten years had been described complexly and poignantly in an article published almost sixty years ago, an article I had never heard of.

Then I moved my mouse again, clicked again on a hyperlink, and read the opening of Doug Engelbart’s  “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” By the end of the first paragraph I knew I would never, ever be the same.

By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by “complex situations” we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers–whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human “feel for a situation” usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

Immediately, T.S. Eliot’s words about John Donne flashed into my mind: “For Donne, a thought was an experience. It modified his sensibility.” Doug Engelbart’s vision of an “integrated domain,” set down forty-two years before that day in 2004, was the vision at the heart of my own passion for literature, for computers, for education. He had given my dreams, in Shakespeare’s words,  “a local habitation and a name.” And he had given me a language with which to share those dreams.

Turning points of this magnitude are rare in one’s intellectual life. I can recall only two or three others of this size, and they occurred much earlier in my journey. Now I had learned that a major part of my own intellectual life had unfolded within a parallel world I scarcely knew existed, that there was a language and a literature for what I had thought were only my own private mutterings and wandering fantasies.

I ran to my boss’s office and told him what I had learned. Chip German was the kind of boss who made you want to do that sort of thing. It didn’t matter that he had more items on his daily to-do list that I would encounter in a month of my own work, or that I was raving about things that he hadn’t yet encountered himself. He always trusted–more than I did myself, to speak the truth–that my excitement was meaningful, and that it would be productive, and that it didn’t matter if what my excitement produced was anything he could imagine or predict. He was that kind of boss. And so the second event in my Doug Engelbart story is that the moment I learned of Doug’s work, I had exactly the colleague I needed to sustain and expand that cognitive explosion.

I began talking about the integrated domain and Doug Engelbart to other colleagues. I found that some of my new mates in the edtech world knew Doug’s work. More conversations blossomed. I started talking about Doug at my staff meetings, visiting my ravings upon the folks who were working for me at the time. Some of them began to talk about Doug themselves. I started reading more and more. Bryan Alexander directed me to Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought, where the chapter on Doug is titled, with uncanny accuracy, “The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Thinker.” I read on. I dreamed on. I began to write about Doug and his vision in this blog, the one I had begun just a couple of months before.

Then, later that fall, podcasting emerged. I looked around for podcasts to listen to. One of the podcasts I found was called “IT Conversations.” These podcasts were full of talk about Web 2.0, about emerging technologies, and about the giants who had written this world into being. When in mid-2005 Doug Kay issued a call for volunteers to do audio post-production, I jumped at the chance. My thirteen years of radio experience got me the gig. I started editing the audio for programs I knew I wanted to know intimately, ones that I’d have burned into my brain after hours of matching levels, editing out ahs and ums, and polishing the audio for maximum impact. I scanned the assignment board for new prospects. One day I saw that a talk by Doug Engelbart was available, I snapped it up immediately.

Human voices are a particularly intense experience for me. To hear the voice behind the written word is especially intense. As I listened to Doug’s voice, I heard a mixture I hadn’t expected and couldn’t have predicted:  Midwestern farm boy, shy geek,  preacher, dreamer, child, sage. I spent hours and hours getting the audio just right, haunted equally by the ideas I was hearing and the power of Doug’s understated yet passionate delivery. When IT Conversations CEO Doug Kay complimented the work I’d done–”nice and tight,” he wrote me in an email–I was thrilled, but not for the reason you might think. I was thrilled because I had, in a way, collaborated on a project with Doug Engelbart himself, though I was literally a silent partner. A stretch to think so, perhaps, but that’s how it felt.

Not long afterward, I got to edit the audio for a two-parter devoted to John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Here I learned even more about the Augmentation Research Center and Doug’s work as its conceptual architect and leader. That work was obviously the stuff of legend. As is often the case with good legends, the story was also fraught. Like any human being, particularly those blessed or cursed with the kind of vision he has, Doug Engelbart is complex and in some respects, it seems, he could be difficult. Yet everyone in that two-parter, from John Markoff to the many computing pioneers who shared the dais with him to respond to his book and offer their own histories and testimonies, returned again and again to the centrality of Doug and ARC. And Doug himself, present in the audience, once again contributed his voice, and just as he had in 1968, he drew an ovation from his colleagues.

The pace of change in my own life was accelerating at this time. Learning from Doug’s work the scale and potential importance of the community of practice I yearned to be a part of, I found myself in the grip of what I felt was a need for haste. I felt a strong sense of urgency and at the same time felt the exhilaration of unfolding marvels before my eyes. And then, early in 2006, driving from my home to my office, I heard the podcast that led to a conversation with Doug himself.

The podcast was the audio from a “Nerd TV” interview with Doug. (Typically and tragically, the author of the website identifies Doug only as  “the inventor of the computer mouse,” when the full truth belies such shallow summaries. Alas.) In the podcast, Doug told the story of the demise of ARC, a story I had read about but one whose poignance emerged only when I heard the tone of Doug’s voice as he told the story himself. In Doug’s story, there was a day in which he was visited by the great J.C.R. Licklider, another genius and visionary, whose “Man-Computer Symbiosis” launched efforts that eventually became the Internet itself. Lick (as he liked to be called) had been struck by Doug’s 1962 essay, and when the time came, he funded Doug’s Augmentation Research Center. (I’m writing all this from memory, so please spot, correct, and forgive any errors here.) With Lick’s funding and support, Doug built out the capability infrastructure for that extraordinary integrated domain he had envisioned in his essay. But by the end, Lick’s vision and Doug’s had diverged pretty dramatically. In the podcast, Doug described the day in which Lick came to his lab, saw a demo of the latest iteration of Doug’s NLS (oNLine System), and completely rejected what he saw. Here’s an excerpt from the interview transcript (I’ve done some light editing for clarity):

So [Lick] came out to see us at SRI, my big brother. It was just great to see him and so we sat together; I was in the conference room and he was there and I was starting telling him about drawing on the board and telling him, so I just got telling him about this great thing how the application support team had worked so well and I turned around and looked at him and he was sitting there, just looking like this [gives an unhappy look].

I said, “Lick, what’s the matter?”

“You just told me your system’s no damn good,” [he replied].

[He was] just dead serious.  I said, “Well, what do you mean?”

“If it was any damn good, the computer system itself would know what the people need to learn and teach them; you wouldn’t need any of these damn kids out there teaching them. That just tells me your system’s no damn good.” And he was unshakable in this – his belief in artificial intelligence stuff.

Two roads diverged. Markoff writes of the split between proponents of Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Intellect. It seems that Lick came to Doug’s lab expecting the first kind of AI, Artificial Intelligence, and what he saw was Augmented Intellect.

Not long after, Doug lost his funding.

The whole story is much more complex, and those complexities are analyzed with depth and precision in Bootstrapping. There were many other factors in play, certainly. But as Doug told the story of that moment with Licklider, I heard not so much bitterness as a kind of plaintiveness, a sense that he himself had failed to understand how or why he had disappointed his mentor–or, as he called him, his older brother. In that moment, I heard in Doug’s voice many years of bewilderment and longing. By his own testimony, Doug has often wondered if he simply lacks the skills to put across his own ideas in the context of boardrooms, bean counters, and bureaucracy–or even in the context of fellow computer scientists. Lick was no bureaucrat and no bean counter–he was a famously disorganized manager–but the problem was the same: how to put across a powerful idea when the conceptual frameworks are so different, even at odds?

The podcast came to an end. By this time, I’d arrived at school and parked my car in front of the building where my office was. I listened to the closing moments of the interview, and heard Doug say, with that same plaintiveness and longing, that he was still working on his ideas and still hoped he could find people to talk to about them. As I listened, I found that I had begun to cry.

I had no illusions that I’d be able to be in conversation with this great thinker in any way that would measure up to his expectations or answer any of the hope or longing in his voice, but I knew what I could do. I could contact him and thank him. I could tell him that one more person had been transformed and inspired by his work, and that I had met others who felt exactly the same way. I suppose I wanted, perhaps foolishly, to assure him he wasn’t alone–foolishly, because the kind of loneliness that long-distance thinking inspires is not the kind of loneliness that a single phone call from an obscure English professor can touch or even begin to address. But looking back on it now, I also realize that I wanted to tell him something even more complex, something I could tell him, something I felt a strong ethical and personal obligation to tell him.

I wanted to tell Doug Engelbart that in this computer romance, in this strange parallel universe of longing and dreams built on a platform of ones and zeroes,  a universe (or a university) in which we could record, store, access, and share the traces of our own engagement, he had taught me that I was not alone.

I ran up to my office and called the number on the Bootstrap.org site, the site where I’d first read Doug’s work. A recording of a woman’s voice–I still don’t know who it was–played on the answering machine and invited me to leave a message. I left what must have been a truly strange and semi-coherent message of gratitude and a pledge that I would do whatever I could to further this vision within education. I left my telephone number. Then I hung up the phone and went to a department meeting.

When I returned from the meeting, I was weary. It was six o’clock. Time to go home.

The phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number on the caller ID. Maybe it was a vendor. Maybe it was a wrong number. Maybe I should just go home. The caller could leave a voice mail and I could call back.

I hesitated. Then I answered the phone.


“Hello, may I speak with Gardner Campbell?”

“This is he. How can I help you?”

“This is Doug Engelbart. You left a message on my answering machine.”

What followed was an hour-long conversation. I feared I might hyperventilate, so I periodically grabbed the desk with one hand. He immediately told me to call him Doug, not Dr. Engelbart. (“I’m just a northwestern farm boy,” he said.) I asked about augmentation, about symbolism, about metalanguages, about collective IQ. Doug talked about scale, about the eternal paradox of people who didn’t ride tricycles to work but thought all computing should be just that stable, simple, and unthinking. I told Doug I worked in education and desperately wanted to do something to bring his vision into that realm. He told me about Valerie Landau’s work, and about EdNIC (Educational Networked Improvement Communities)–and later, Doug wrote an email to me and Valerie as an e-introduction, signing it, as is his wont, “Appreciatively, Doug.” I told him I would love to be in conversation with him in any way he’d find helpful. He replied that he often had trouble even remembering what day it was, so he didn’t know how much conversation he had in him. (I didn’t understand the full import of what he was saying until I learned later that he was probably experiencing the early stages of the Alzheimer’s Disease he would be diagnosed with in 2007.)

Then came the moment the conversation should end. I didn’t want to hang up, of course. I wanted to stay on the line–online–with Doug Engelbart forever. In just that hour of conversation I had learned a staggering amount from the complex voice of that long-distance thinker, especially about how much more there was to learn. Yet I was not fearful or anxious in that moment. I think now I felt no fear because Doug’s voice and manner clearly demonstrated that he thought of the challenge, its scope and scale and disappointments and triumphs, as a series of adventures. Expeditions. The eye of an engineer and the heart of a dancer.

I groped for the words I wanted to say. Finally I said, “I just need to tell you that you have changed my life, and very much for the better. Your vision and your work are of crucial importance to me, every day, in all I do. I hope I’m not sounding too strange or putting you off in any way by saying so.”

He replied, “No, it’s very nice to hear, though I can’t quite grok it.”

I drew in a breath and said, “Thank you for all of it.”

He responded, “You’re welcome. Now go change the world.”

Nearly four years later, my Doug Engelbart story continues. In late 2008 I met him face to face, at the Program for the Future. He signed my copy of the book Valerie and Eileen Clegg had just published. I heard testimony after testimony from extraordinary, distinguished speakers to the power and enduring importance of Doug’s accomplishments and vision. I saw Alan Kay (who deserves a post of his own on his next birthday) embrace Doug Engelbart on the stage of a conference room in Adobe’s San Jose headquarters. I rose with the hundreds of others attending the program at Stanford University honoring the 40th anniversary of Doug’s “Mother Of All Demos,” giving Doug a prolonged standing ovation to give thanks for his life and work. Then in 2009 I saw Doug again, this time on the occasion of his being named a Fellow of the New Media Consortium. Here I met his daughter, Christina Engelbart, whose leadership of the Doug Engelbart Institute continues the work her father began, and who has been just as deeply generous and encouraging to me and my students as her father was in that surprise telephone call to an office in Fredericksburg, Virginia nearly four years ago.

So here’s the timeline.

2004, I learn who Doug Engelbart is, and begin to read his work.

2005, I hear his voice.

2006, I speak with him.

2008, I meet him face to face.

2009, I meet Christina Engelbart, and the conversation continues.

Five years. Another education for me. Another commencement.

“You’re welcome. Now go change the world.”

Happy birthday.

Alan Kay and Doug Engelbart, Adobe corporate headquarters, San Jose, California, December 8, 2008. cc licensed flickr photo shared by jeanbaptisteparis

EDIT: You can wish Doug a happy birthday on a special Posterous site, here. And when you do, spend a moment reading what other people have said. The mix of family, friends, and colleagues from many years and many projects is a powerful demonstration of the connections we can make–and witness–in the age of social media Doug helped to create. And the sentiments people express are deeply moving. They testify to the capability infrastructure Doug exemplifies and inspires others to make for themselves.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Gardo

"In Our Time" podcast series on the Royal Society

There’s a new set of four episodes from BBC Radio 4′s consistently splendid “In Our Time” series honoring the anniversary of the Royal Society. I’ve just started listening to the first one, but already it seems this series will likely be at or near the level of the magnificent series on Darwin that Melvyn Bragg hosted about this time last year.

Early lessons from the formation of the Royal Society:

Their first leader, John Wilkins, was a born diplomat (a Cromwellian who could be trusted with Royalists’ children), endlessly and widely curious, thoroughly geeky (he loved automata and gadgets generally, and speculated about life on other planets), and convinced that natural philosophy, what we’d later call science, was best practiced in groups, and with plenty of informal opportunities for interaction (read: coffeeshops, where one could drink all day without falling over, but also without sleeping at night).

Some clear connections here to ideas of learning environments, integrative learning, interdisciplinary learning, autodidacticism, tinkering as a vocation, informal learning, and plenty of social learning.

The coffeeshops were called “penny universities,” because coffee cost a penny a cup. What are the equivalents today? There are usually hangouts nearby–can’t we count them as learning spaces, too?

And Gresham University at Oxford offered free public lectures on a regular basis, for those who wanted more formal learning. Something like iTunesU, maybe?

Most of all, the Royal Society offers us an opportunity to analyze a truly transformative learning community in the early modern era, one empowered by new technological platforms–chief among them print, which few today regard as a technology, though they should if they want to have any understanding at all of the communications revolution we’re currently undergoing. But that’s material for another post.

In the meantime, give the podcasts a listen, and let me know what you think.

Waves in phase

It feels like a little like a scene from a classic 50′s SF movie.  There’s a big oscilloscope in the center of the frame. On the screen, two distinct sine waves. Someone turns a dial, then another one, and the two sine waves move together into phase. Then the next plot point appears.

I’d gotten an invitation to Google Wave from Pumpkiny (thanks!) three months ago. I’d given Wave a quick look. It was mystifying for the most part. Ellen Filgo, Baylor’s E-Librarian and intrepid pioneer in all online matters, put a Baylor Waver wave together. There are about twenty of us on there, including a few of my students from last term’s New Media Studies seminar. But when I checked in today, most of the Wave activity was dormant, on that Wave and on the six or seven others I’d been added too. It looked like we’d all given it a try and then gone on to other matters. (The exception in my inbox was one Bryan Alexander had started, a Wave about Wave–a popular genre–with some extra Wave information resources and some typically trenchant commentary from Bryan.)

Today somebody turned the dials and got the waves in phase, somehow. A faculty colleague emailed me asking if I’d heard about Google Wave. I was cleaning up email and found the one that described the official EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Wave for the annual meeting in a couple of weeks. I finally read some entries in the Google Wave Blog. I re-read the ELI “7 Things You Should Know About Google Wave” with renewed interest and attention. One colleague in the Baylor marketing/communications division emailed me with a question she’d received. I replied with an overview and links to resources. Another colleague in that division emailed a colleague in the library, then the University Webmaster. The emails were crossforwarded. The flurry of interest sent me back to Wave again, where I began to add to the public Baylor wave and soon found myself in a conversation with a fellow from Spain about dragging and dropping pdf files into Wave. (Turns out you can do it, but only in Chrome natively; Firefox and Safari need Gears installed to do it.)

A closer look, a harder look, more people in the network, a little more conversation, a few more resources, and things begin to coalesce here. I haven’t gotten my head around it yet, but I think I know more of the “it” I’m trying to get my head around, if that makes any sense.

I feel that old spidey-sense tingling. A good feeling. Wave is ambitious, subtle and bold as well. It’s a version of Ted Nelson’s intertwingling.

I’m getting interested.

Intelligible explanations

Jon Udell directed me to a very interesting Seb Paquet blog post today, “The Fate of the Incompetent Teacher in the YouTube Era.” I read Seb’s post with great admiration. Seb tells a disheartening story of his own education that resonates with some of my own experiences. To take but one minor example, as an undergraduate I had a professor who put tristram Shandy on the syllabus but said “I don’t really like this book very much, and you needn’t bother with it.” I’m sure many students shrugged it off, but the implications were disturbing to me. If the teacher intended a kind of wry irony in his pronouncement, he failed in my case. The message I got was that he was largely going through the motions and that keen, wide-ranging interests were subordinated to personal taste and casual dismissal. The worst part is that I didn’t read the book. A few years later, I had a much better teacher in graduate school, and I read the book with great relish. In fact, it inspired one of my better papers, one I’m still proud of, and one that elicited very witty and acute comments from the professor.

I’m sure many variables make it risky for me to generalize too freely about the differences between the two teachers, but I feel confident that a certain kind of studied superficiality, a kind of arch mock-urbanity, put me off the eighteenth-century novel for a long time, regrettably so given the great treasures these novels embody.

I flashed on this memory as I read Seb’s post. I kept reading. I arrived at the part where Seb praises a competent teacher, Sal Khan, who does his teaching not in a classroom but via YouTube. He’s got nearly 1200 videos up there to date, all free to the world (aside from those parts where YouTube is blocked, such as many public schools). They’re the product of a project he calls the Khan Academy. The videos are about 10-20 minutes long. Aside from some standardized test prep and some brain teasers, the videos concentrate in economics, finance/business, science, and math. Really quite astonishing stuff. I’ve only dipped in to a couple of the videos myself, so I’ve no considered evaluation of my own to offer yet, but the testimonials and the success of Sal’s efforts are very impressive. Jon’s right to say Sal Khan is “on fire.” And he’s also a great stovemaker for the fires of others.

Seb praises Sal for the clarity of his explanations. They’re “clueful” and “understandable.” So much to the good. Seb also makes these hard-to-refute observations:

Let’s not kid ourselves: within a school, the students know who is a good teacher and who is no more illuminating than a wet pack of matches.

The net takes that to a whole different level. Eventually everyone will know who the good teachers are, and will be able to tune into them. They will be rock stars.

But what will happen to the bad teachers then?

There’s a quote by Warren Buffett that I like to bring up from time to time: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

Well, the incompetent teachers have indeed been swimming naked, and in a world where learners are free to tune into many other, competent teachers, it will inevitably show. When you have something to compare to, bad becomes tangibly bad.

No argument here from me, at all. Love that Buffett quote, which will scale in interesting ways as the tide goes out on all sorts of institutions in the networked intelligence age.

But questions still remain. What constitutes a great explanation? Seb’s answer is that students know it when they experience it, because they experience understanding. That’s part of the answer, certainly. But it’s also a tautology, in many respects, and deeper questions soon emerge. Some writers–Ted Nelson comes to mind–say that teacherly explanations are themselves part of the problem, as they encourage simple paraphrase, reductive teacher-pleasing spitback, and other all-too-familiar adaptive behaviors. More haunting questions follow. What makes a learner capable of understanding that he or she has “got it”? Is it possible for learners to think they’ve “got it” when they don’t? Is it possible for learners to think they haven’t gotten it when in fact they have? (Yes to both, in my experience, with the latter more frequent than the former.) And what demonstrates understanding? For that matter, what constitutes understanding?

These are very difficult, complex questions. At the same time, I think it’s true that most students respond to great teachers in ways that are qualitatively different from the ways they respond to average or poor teachers. But what are those qualities? And what qualities of mind in the teacher are needed for great teaching to emerge? Can those qualities be learned, or is the idea to nurture and encourage the growth and refinement of those qualities in those teachers who already have them, with the first order of business being to devise good tools to identify good prospects for this profession?

If Bruner’s right and to demonstrate understanding the student must be able “to go beyond what is given,” then great teachers are great givers, great framers of the opportunity to go beyond, and generously perceptive when the “beyond” is not what they would themselves have identified as a beyond before the going occurs–that is, the “beyond” is really a beyond, not just something the teacher has withheld in anticipation of eliciting it from the students in what’s often called the “Socratic” style of teaching.

Perhaps the truly generous and great teachers ares the ones who best prepare, inspire, and welcome their students to teach them.

And how does one assess that?

Much to continue to mull over here: some ideas to tinker with, and some practices to encourage, but still very much a set of “conjectures and dilemmas” (Bruner) to keep exploring.

I do think that great teachers exhibit a peculiar and peculiarly useful self-awareness of their own presence and approach as teachers. I’m not talking methodology here. I’m talking mindfulness. And this Sal Khan has in abundance. When I read his reflections on his work, I’m truly awestruck. This is the reason I always read the acknowledgements and dedications when I pick up a book. They offer their own “about”-ness, and at their best they demonstrate the author’s particular cast of mind and character of heart in relation to the thing he or she has made.

I’ll close this ramble with a very inspiring selection from Sal’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page, one that set me thinking most fiercely about the sources of clarity and intelligibility, qualities that are essentially communicative and cannot be understood outside the context of communication, especially communication with oneself and the willingness to enact the drama of one’s own cognition, wonder, and passion:

The conversational style of the videos is the tonal antithesis of what people traditionally associate with math and science instruction. The less obvious distinctions are, however, what make the site hard to reproduce.

I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him. The concepts are conveyed as they are understood by me, not as they are written in a textbook developed by an educational bureaucracy. Viewers know that it is the labor of love of one somewhat quirky and determined man who has a passion for learning and teaching. I don’t think any corporate or governmental effort–regardless of how much money is thrown at the problem–can reproduce this.

A lot of my own educational experience was spent frustrated with how information was conveyed in textbooks and lectures. There would be connections in the subject matter that standard curricula would ignore despite the fact that they make the content easier to understand, enjoy, and RETAIN. I felt like fascinating and INTUITIVE concepts were almost intentionally being butchered into pages and pages of sleep-inducing text and monotonic, scripted lectures. I saw otherwise intelligent peers memorizing steps and formulas for the next exam without any sense of the intuition or big picture, only to forget everything within a matter of weeks. These videos are my expression of how the concepts should have been expressed in the first place, all while not compromising rigor or comprehensiveness.

“An actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him.” A simple description with enormous depth. Can there be a true going beyond, a deep understanding, without fascination? And for the teacher, what are the most effective ways, given the teacher’s peculiar strengths and gifts, to convey fascination in a way that permits understanding, and also results from that understanding, in a recursive and never-ending process? My suspicion is that the highest-quality fascination, the kind that generates and releases the most energy, cannot be the result of method, though certain techniques may help. Instead, it must come from the readiness to be fascinated–and a gift for turning that readiness into a certain quality of mindfulness about the possibilities for fascination in others.

Learning environments: stoves full of butterflies

Let me try to elucidate that metaphor.

The 12/21-12/28 New Yorker has a fascinating story on stoves. Stoves, it turns out, are of the utmost importance for reasons of public health and climate change. The stoves in question are chiefly the wood-burning kind used in the Third World, that is, when stoves are used there at all. You’ll have to read the article to get the rest of the story. For now, I want to do three things: 1) register my amazement at this crucial piece of civilization infrastructure whose complexity and importance were entirely beyond me before I started the story, 2) register my wonder at the talents and commitment of the people involved in research, engineering, design, and organizational activity related to stoves for the Third World (many of those talented people are from the Island of Misfit Toys–even better), and c) quote a very striking moment early on in which the connections to education were too urgent to overlook:

Fire is a fickle, nonlinear thing, and seems to be affected by every millimetre of a stove’s design–the size of the opening, the shape and material of the chamber, the thickness of the grate–each variable amplifying the next and being amplified in turn, in a complex series of feedback loops. “You’ve heard of the butterfly effect?” one engineer told me. “Well, these stoves are full of butterflies.”

Substitute “learning” for “fire,” and substitute “learning environment” for “stove,” and you can take it from there. Sadly, most of the time our schools and their learning environments (read: classrooms) seem more like feedlots (or holding pens) than stoves.

Small wonder the sparks don’t fly and the fires go out.

Reading on all platforms

Sales of e-books are surging, and the voices of those moaning at the bar (cf. Tennyson) are getting louder too. You’d think the Kindle police were going to knock on our doors and confiscate all the printed bits of paper we own. Sometimes the laments are more nuanced and playful: witness Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ puckish yet poignant essay at the Wall Street Journal–online, of course. Moreover (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a blog post), I saw the link in a news feed update from Dolen on Facebook, an update that soon trailed several comments pleading with Dolen not to give in to her newfound affection for the Kindle she received for her birthday. (The layers of irony here are large enough not to need pointing out, I trust.) It’s not enough to swear one’s allegiance to what “book” has meant since roughly the sixteenth century–or, if one’s talking about paperbacks, for the last sixty or so years. One must be vigilant to warn one’s friends away from their unwitting complicity in the destruction of this most loved of all media: the book.

That’s overstating it a bit, but not much. And speaking of irony, just two days ago I saw enough abandoned books in the Half-Price Books store to make a bibliophile weep.

I have a hard time rejecting any communication technology. When it comes to reading, I want it all. You can’t have my books, and you can’t have my Kindle, and you can’t have my PC screen, and you can’t have my iPhone. The first time I registered for college classes, back when one went to a large room and stood in line to register (a custom that had some interesting social mediation that’s been temporarily lost with online automation), I was advised to bring a book with me because I was likely to wait awhile. I’d never done that before, but once I did, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve tried never to leave for any appointment without some reading material with me just in case waiting’s involved. So you can see how I’d be especially excited by the idea of books on my telephone, if the book suits and the screen is nice.

Perhaps one day we’ll think about publishing media the way we think about cups, mugs, and stemware today: it all depends on the occasion, and some vessels are more apt for some libations than others.

In the meantime, I’m off to see if any more of those delicious 33 1/3 books are available for the Kindle. They’re perfect for those down moments in the orthopedist’s waiting room….

Poignance as a critical skill

(By the way, I firmly believe we need to include “poignance” as an essential analytical and expressive skill, particularly for scholars.)

So I wrote, nearly a year ago. One commenter wanted me to elaborate on that aside. What did I mean? Here’s a little more context:

And so back to education. Are our students not universes within a universe? Are our faculty and staff not likewise? Are we not a university? If so, why all the talk of management? Why not more talk of exploration, of representation, of communal mental activity, of the exciting and taxing co-labors of symbol-making and symbol-sharing? That’s the test of life, as Michael Wesch has poignantly observed. (By the way, I firmly believe we need to include “poignance” as an essential analytical and expressive skill, particularly for scholars.)

The Oxford English Dictionary offers many definitions for “poignant” over the years, with an etymology tracing the word back to an Anglo-Norman word meaning “sharp, pointed, prickly, biting, stinging, jagged.” The meanings take some interesting turns, sometimes to the point of making “poignant” one of Freud’s primal words–a word that contains opposite meanings, like “cleave.”

But the meaning I had in mind when I wrote that passage a year ago was closest to the OED‘s last senses in definition 2a: “tenderly sorrowful, bitter-sweet.” Something like what I think my father must have meant when he said some words could go “clear through” him. Or perhaps it’s the feeling Dr. Ralph Stanley has when he hears some old mountain music and feels deeply touched, moved to his soul.

In the context of education, especially as one gains more sophisticated skills of analysis and expression, it seems to me vitally important that we maintain a sense of humility and shared tenderness in the midst of our uncertain journeys through the strange days we experience together. Working in academia for the last quarter-century, I’ve seen the ugliness and winced at the clanging cymbals of intellectual triumphalism. No doubt there have been times when I’ve contributed to the ugliness myself. It’s a great temptation, once one has a store of knowledge and a set of sophisticated argumentative strategies, to try to be the one to stop the conversation, instead of being the one to further it. We learn it in graduate school, or perhaps earlier, first as a survival skill, then as a set of career moves, and finally as a shield. And what do our students see? That learning is largely a matter of being overruled, of memorizing the lesson that beginners don’t know enough to ask intelligent questions (when in fact some of the best questions come from beginners). And that teaching is an exercise in providing answers and furnishing conclusions, not in guiding inquiries or (heaven forfend)  asking real questions.

Yet the subject always becomes more interesting in the context of leading a committed learner through what Bruner calls the “conjectures and dilemmas” that shape our own ongoing inquiries.

No, one doesn’t get the triumphalism or the sounding gong of ideological precision. One doesn’t get to play “first rank, second rank.” If that’s what one wants, that’s disappointing, of course.

But there are other things to want, especially in the context of the tender sorrow of our brief lives and maddening partings, those things we may enjoy and those things we must endure.

What will be on the test? Brevity, uncertainty, absence. Not only these, of course–but here Robert Frost, as so often, had it right: one of the most poignant questions we must frame in all but words is “what to make of a diminished thing.” That’s where the poignance lies, out of which we may learn, perhaps, love.

Not victory, scolding, surveillance, management, or proctoring.

Just love.