The symphony of voices

So what happens when you link? In the blogosphere, the party invitation is delivered. With a nod. With a wink. With a secret handshake. With just enough eye contact to be inviting, maybe even intriguing, but not at all off-putting or threatening or coercive. Or creepy. Not in the least.

It’s what Bakhtin calls “addressivity.” The “quality of turning to someone.” The thing that makes the party hearty.

The thing we need.

Ted Nelson and Simone Weil

Two thinkers I’ve never dreamed of associating … but the Web’s recursive intertwingling reveals a deeply intriguing link.

I’m teaching Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines in my Introduction to New Media Studies class right now. My students are pretty well electrified (so to speak) by Nelson’s observations and arguments, and especially by his unusually direct and non-academic prose style. And although at some points Nelson can be too anti-curricular even for me (and that’s saying something), I find myself getting swept away all over again by the energy of his imagination and by the many home truths, at least in my experience, that he speaks. Nelson is very much the Walt Whitman of new media. He sings the learning community electric.

As I prepared for class a few days ago, finding more choice nuggets in an essay in which I’ve already underlined about 70% of the sentences, I was especially struck by these words:

But there is always something artificial–that is, some form of artifice–in presentation. So the problem is to devise techniques which have elucidating value but do not cut connections or ties or other relationships you want to save…. The design of things to be shown–whether writing, movie-making, or whatever–is nearly always a combination of some kind of explicit structure–an explanation or planned lesson, or plot of a novel–and a feeling that the author can control in varying degrees. The two are deeply intertwined, however. [Emphasis added.]

I was first struck by the connection (ah, there I am, mapping and exploring the very territory Nelson describes and inhabits) between Nelson’s words and an article on the role of emotion in learning that I read recently in a new journal called Mind, Brain, and Education. In that article, the authors describe emotion not as the unruly toddler in a shop full of the glass ornaments of reason, but as the very shelves upon which our fragile glass ornaments of reason are supported and made effective for our use. Nelson’s idea of “fantics” is especially resonant here.

But then I was truly brought up short when I read this quotation from Simone Weil over at “Blogging on the Brain,” ATL Graduate Fellow Hillary Blakeley’s blog:

Attention consists of suspending out thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired….

Poise, emptiness, readiness, holding without contact but within reach: Weil’s marvelously evocative language, like Nelson’s, like poetry’s, enacts the very thing it describes. Weil also reminds me that attention is more than hyperfocus, or can be. To paraphrase Milton, they also attend who only mull and wait. At the same time, both Weil and Nelson insist that one can combine analytical rigor (the activity they’re engaged in by writing these ideas down, for example) with puzzlement, suggestiveness, deeply felt experience.

And though to my knowledge Weil and Nelson never met or spoke to each other, and may not have read each other’s works, they too are books in Donne’s library, lying open to each other, reading and speaking to each other over the years, voiced and conversing by means of linkages mediated to me by the expressive capabilities of these new technologies. Books, face-to-face classes, blogging, institutional structures, traditional disciplines, cross-disciplinary conversation, youth and adulthood and middle age, history and the present, serendipity, impulse, intuition, rigor, beauty,courage, anxiety, energy, faith: all in the choir, singing a complex harmony I must both strain and relax to hear.

Edification by Puzzlement

I wonder how this essay has been received by anthropologists. James Fernandez seems to me take extraordinary risks in the argument, or at least they would be in some intellectual circles. Perhaps not in anthropology? (Paging Dr. Wesch.) In any event, this essay is remarkable in my view for the way it analyzes non-schooled reasoning without reducing its sophistication or objectifying its practitioners.

Fernandez closes with two wonderful paragraphs that I’d like to share with you:

In a compartmentalized society like our own we are very able to compartmentalize our intellectual exercises. We are well school to heuristics–to looking for rules and applying them in limited and apparently self-contained contexts. That’s intelligence for you! But more traditional socieities with pretensions to cosmogony, and most traditional societies have that pretension, are more totalistic. Intelligence is a matter of relating to the context, in developing it, revitalizing it. Hence, it is an intelligence that employs images to a high degree in actual or suggested analogic relation. It plays upon similarities in experience, and in that play it suggests or requires answers that suggest overarching contiguities–cosmologies, totalities which encompass, absorb, and defeat particularities. All this is rarely done in a direct and explicit manner. “By indirections find directions out.”

As well schooled as we all are in the modern specialized compartmentalized societies, we tend to misread in a schoolmasterish way the masters of iconic thought. We look for a limited set of applicable rules, or we are simply puzzled, and we fail to see how these masters edify by puzzlement. Our inclination is to deprive puzzles of their mystery–that’s science for you–and thus we fail to see how the masters mysteriously suggest an overarching order–how they give concrete identity to inchoate subjects, how they reconcile these subjects. It is hard for us to tolerate ambiguites of this kind, let alone understand their function.

As I read these words I think of Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature” and his advocacy of the “indirect approach” that itself must be complicated and dialectically reversed should the puzzlement ever become a mere parlor trick. I think also of the ways in which Michael Wesch has introduced a “grand narrative” into his anthropology classes as (I suppose) a kind of cosmogony or at least an overarching order. And I think of the way poetry plays with the most precise suggestiveness one can imagine. A far cry from schoolmasters, textbooks, and bon eleves, from which heaven save us.

James Fernandez, “Edification by Puzzlement,” in Explorations in African Systems of Thought, ed. Ivan Karp and Charles S. Bird. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980. 44-59.
Church ruins

APGAR for Class Meetings slide now on Slideshare

I’ve got some thoughts and ramblings in the works on two articles I’ve read this week that have rocked my world: “Edification by Puzzlement” (I cannot overpraise this article–I feel it will be of critical importance to all my work moving forward, and I’m very grateful to Nathan for suggesting it to me) and “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education” (Mind, Brain, and Education 1:1). I also have a post in the works about an Australian blogger named David Jones whom I’ve learned a great deal from lately in a most wonderful distributed conversation. Alas, there’s no time to get it all down just now. But I did want to share a small continuation (and instance) of the framing/nudging idea I’m working on.

Three years ago I had an idea for a self-scoring checklist I called “APGAR for Class Meetings.” As I’ve developed the idea and tried it out in various classes, I’ve decided that the presentation of the checklist at the beginning of class is very important for framing the device not as a scold or a panopticonish surveillance but as a bit of helpful cognitive feedback that hopefully students will begin to incorporate into their own self-directed learning. Thus I presented the checklist as a PowerPoint slide with Dr. Apgar’s image at the top and the questions below. My hope was that the photograph would personalize and humanize the checklist and thus frame the self-scoring positively. The photograph is wonderful, I think, in conveying the kindness, determination, and keen intelligence that her friends and associates say characterized Dr. Apgar’s personality and work. In truth, I wanted to enlist the spirit of Dr. Apgar, as an innovator, scientist, physician, mentor, and altruist, as one patron of the classes I teach. A frame for my expectations, and for my hopes, hopes I hope my students will share. A trust that we can achieve breakthroughs if we are of a mind to do so.

So now I’ve put the slide on Slideshare. If you decide to try this approach or something like it with your students, please let me know how it works out. I’d love to learn from you.

Viva Dr. Apgar!


Framing and nudging

I’m still working on Nudge but the basic concepts are in the early going. The second half of the book works through how these nudges might be implemented in various public policy issues: health care, school choice, marriage, etc. There are still many fascinating bits in the public policy discussion, and of course it’s easy there to see what’s at stake, but true to form I’m most interested in the way the conceptual underpinnings lend themselves to various kinds of analogies, especially analogies in teaching and learning. (There are powerful analogies and even outright connections here as well for my work on Paradise Lost and Milton generally, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Tonight I want to meditate just for a moment on Thaler and Sunstein’s use of a psychological concept called “framing.”  The authors explain this idea with a simple example. Credit card companies didn’t want customers to perceive that they paid more when they bought something with a credit card. Nevertheless, the government decreed that credit card companies could not force retailers to charge the same price for credit as for cash. So the credit card companies “framed” the choice this way: the credit price was a normal price, and if one paid cash one could receive a “cash discount.” At first blush, the idea seems too transparently manipulative to work. But work it does.

The credit card companies had a good intuitive understanding of what  psychologists would come to call “framing.” The idea is that choices depend,   in part, on the way in which problems are stated.

The credit card companies had a good intuitive understanding of what  psychologists would come to call “framing.” The idea is that choices depend,   in part, on the way in which problems are stated.

But why would so simple a technique actually work? Stated in cold prose, the manipulation is not only transparent but almost ridiculous. Who could be fooled by such tactics? Part of the answer lies in the way our brains have evolved. Our “blink” brain (to use Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology) tends to have a fast, all-at-once, go-from-the-gut response, typically linked to emotion and fight-or-flight reactions. Its speed was critical to our survival on the savannah, and Gladwell argues persuasively that there’s often an eerie trustworthiness in these rapid responses, as they are less susceptible to certain kinds of biases in our more executive brains, what psychologists call our “reflective systems.” This reflective system is slower but more rational. (The paradox that Gladwell explores is how this very rationality can methodically and persuasively lead us into cascading errors of judgment–but that’s another story.) Thaler and Sunstein argue that people employ their “reflective system” erratically, largely because there’s so much information to process (and that’s just in everyday life–online doesn’t enter into it) and because decisions have to be made fairly quickly. The result is that even simple kinds of framing can have enormous effects. The authors explain:

Framing works because people tend to be somewhat mindless, passive  decision makers. Their Reflective System does not do the work that would  be required to check and see whether reframing the questions would produce   a different answer. One reason they don’t do this is that they  wouldn’t know what to make of the contradiction. This implies that  frames are powerful nudges, and must be selected with caution.

Here’s where my ears perked up. It’s one thing to say that people are lazy and unreflective. Even to the extent it may be true, it’s not a very inviting doorway to understanding–more like an invitation to a good upbraiding. Box the apprentice’s ears and make him work harder next time. It’s also not a very effective strategy for awakening the joy of learning, in my view (though I suppose everyone needs some of this extrinsic motivation now and then). By contrast, it’s another thing altogether to consider that people don’t think about the framing itself because “they wouldn’t know what to make of the contradiction.” To put it another way, a way I think is consonant with Thaler and Sunstein’s argument, to think about framing is not just to detect and denounce various kinds of manipulation. Rather, it’s to awaken one to the intensely provisional quality of most of understanding itself, since all understanding happens in a context, and contexts appear relevant to a large degree depending on how questions and choices are framed. To think about framing, then, is to explore (to a certain extent) the instability of the boundary between context and irrelevant detail.

If you think I’m going too meta with this train of thought, re-read Hamlet. Or talk to any theater director. I was doing just that a couple of days ago, and she said something quite wonderful about context: the prop on the stage, placed within a charged context, acquires weight–that is, meaning and significance. And it’s the placing within that context (“framing” not only as the order of choices but the placing-within-a-context) that’s the larger point Thaler and Sunstein are making, I believe. Ultimately, what they term “choice architecture” depends on the time-and-space marker of the frame. And thinking about the frame in those terms makes folks feel uncertain, a feeling they’d like to avoid.

But of course asking our students to dwell within these thoughts, uncertainties, and contradictions is at the heart of what we call education. As Jerome Bruner points out in Toward a Theory of Instruction, inquiry is born out of “conjectures and dilemmas,” while too often education is about reporting results. And insofar as students sense their job is to memorize and spit back those results stripped of the conjectures and dilemmas that lend them meaning and human significance (honestly felt with uncertainties intact), they will naturally be suspicious of any effort to get them to think about framing per se. Yet thinking about framing, and learning the art of reframing, is at the heart of the mystery of human consciousness.

I’ve thought a good deal about framing lately. Sometimes I call it “tuning,” to evoke a musical analogy. Either way, it’s a participatory meta-perspective I try to urge upon myself and my students, not so we all join Hamlet in his rest, but so we can become better choice architects ourselves.

Still thinking all this through–definitely a work in progress. And while I’m sure there are very sophisticated philosophical reflections available on this topic, and I hope to find them and welcome their insights, I have to say that Scott McCloud gets to the heart of the matter mighty well:


From "Understanding Comics," by Scott McCloud

Faith in the conversation

At the Baylor Academy for Teaching and Learning, the program I am learning to direct, our tag line is “shared inquiry and transformative conversations.” In at least one article I’ve been quoted as saying I have “faith in the conversation.” In this article the writer got an even better quote out of me:

“I’m a big believer that the conversation tells you the way the conversation ought to go,” Campbell says.

Now, I don’t rely on emergent phenomena alone. When folks at the leadership conferences say (loudly) “Fail to plan and plan to fail!” I nod vigorously in agreement. And I really mean it.

But that still leaves many skin-prickling moments when the tables rise and wonders appear and darned if I can detect the plan–unless giving oneself to the conversation constitutes a plan (as I believe it does).

Among many other things, OpenEd 2009 was a conversational feast with many remarkable instances of champion parley, but one conversation in particular gives me goosebumps just to think about it. It was intense, rich, complex, playful, wide-ranging, all the way from movies to Hobbes and Rousseau and many stops in between. What gives me goosebumps, though, is not just the memory of the caliber of the conversation, extraoardinary as it was, and as wonderful as my interlocuters were. (Here I raise my glass to Jon, Alan, and Jim.) What really gets me going is the way as soon as the lunch was over and the conversation had faded into the backdrop of city sounds in Vancouver, British Columbia, I suddenly had a rush of specific insights into how I should tweak the presentation I was to give about an hour later. Here’s the thing: the insights had no direct relation to the conversation whatsoever. Try as I might–and perhaps my lunch companions can do better–I cannot find any direct connection. I can’t believe I would have even mentioned my presentation, since getting butterflies in my stomach wouldn’t have been a very effective digestive aid.

No, I think I know what happened, and it maintains my faith in conversation, in its inner logics, in the way even what seems to be mere banter can, if one has the right partners in the conversation and if the spirit of the questions is urgent but not adversarial, release a torrent of inspiration to dissolve even the most stubborn blocks. Blocks one may not even have known were there. I had my presentation ready (or so I thought). Slides all done, thoughts all considered, everything in order. But something was missing, and I found it, and neither I nor my friends knew what we were seeking on my behalf. Nor do I know what we might have been seeking on everyone else’s behalf as well.

Perhaps what I’m groping for here is the sense that fellowship is not merely about comfort or solace or like-mindedness, though it may be all those things. For me, on this day and on many days, fellowship in conversation grants insight. So I believe.

Here’s the video of my talk, “No Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable about Open Educational Experiences.” I thank my lunchtime companions for a gift they may not have known they were giving me: shared inquiry and transformative conversation.

Special thanks to Jim Groom for generously encouraging the Q&A during the time he was scheduled to speak–a gift I won’t soon forget.

Choice architecture and education

I’m working my way through Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The book’s argument is fascinating and full of implications for education. I keep mapping the authors’ thoughts by analogy onto everything from curriculum to instructional design to advising to student life. So far they’ve not talked about any of these topics directly, but the ideas and examples they do discuss offer themselves readily to analogies in teaching, learning, and schooling generally. Although their advocacy of “libertarian paternalism” probably won’t please either the rigid high-stakes testers or the unschoolers, it does (so far) offer in my view a very interesting model for education that takes into account the need for expert understanding and guidance of the developing learner.

More thoughts as I move along.