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.
I need to blog about my First Year Seminar meeting from last Thursday. I won’t do it justice and I won’t be able at this point even to recreate it well, but I have to try and I have to start. It really was an extraordinary experience, one I’m still marveling at. In the way of all such class meetings, the synergies defy explanation. But at least I can try to relive the sequence of events as best I can, if only as a partial and grateful memorial of that day.
I walked into class on Thursday, September 9, knowing from several of my students‘ blog posts that at least some of the students had not found the assignment very interesting or inspiring. I anticipated some resistance to the work we would do together. Nothing unpleasant or disruptive, mind you; these are very polite young men and women, and they’re high achievers, which means they’ve learned how to thrive even when their hearts aren’t in it. (An important skill, to be sure.) Yet I had wished for more, as I always do, particularly in this course, and particularly with this reading assignment: “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” Longtime readers understand how important this essay has been for me. It’s right up there with Frost’s “The Figure A Poem Makes” in my esteem, which is the highest praise I can deliver. Engelbart’s essay changed my life. And while it’s foolish and perhaps dangerous to pin one’s pedagogical hopes on one’s students sharing one’s deepest passions–well, I’m only human, and a foolish one at that, and I always do get my hopes up, despite my maturer cautions.
So I convened the class meeting. We did a little business: log on, greeted our magnificent librarian (who’s not physically in the room, but who’s following along in our Twitter stream), and filled out our Apgars. The class Apgar was low-ish: 6.8 on a 10-point scale. I had challenged the students to bring the average up to an 8 for this epic essay. My heart sank a little more. Still, like the Millennium Falcon, I had a few tricks left in my sweet heart. Time to see if we could make the jump even with uneven crew preparation.
I started with the students’ chief complaints about the essay, most of which centered on Engelbart’s description of his notecards. I gave some historical context, but paid even more attention to the fascinating mixture of humor and incandescent intensity in Engelbart’s prose. Make sure they understand he’s a writer, I told myself. The students began to get interested. They had assumed the essay was straightforward in every respect, so they had missed the drollery, the goofy moments (such as when he uses the charming word “blinko”), the multiply-layered doubling back maneuvers. I asked for passages they’d found confusing, off-putting, strange. Together we began to explore the textures of those passages, their complex tones and arguments, what Bakhtin would call their “internal dramatism”–all of which Engelbart himself acknowledges and celebrates as he writes the essay, inviting us to take a most astonishing and improbable imaginative journey with him as he describes something about our very powers of cognition, description, and communication.
I could feel interest building–there it was, just enough, just enough–and I took the next step I had imagined as I had re-read the essay and prepared for class. Time for the Oxford English Dictionary, and a deep dive into the word “concept,” a word absolutely central to Engelbart’s essay. One might guess that centrality from the title, of course, but the word just sits there so innocently, biding its time: “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” Nothing like the OED, preferably online, to release the strange energies inside those innocent little words. I had deliberately not done the deep dive before class. I knew what was lurking there in that word “concept,” but I didn’t know what words might surround it in the display, or what the OED’s examples might say. I needed to preserve moments of surprise and authentic discovery for the class and for me as well. No discovery in the teacher, no discovery in the students. I was utterly confident of the treasures awaiting us–I knew how rich and strange the word “concept” was–but I didn’t already know what we would find as we made our way through the paths of the OED–and the “not already knowing,” important most of the time, was absolutely crucial on this day.
Suddenly overcome with a wave of nervous energy, I had to pace a little. I warned the class we were about to go down a very deep rabbit hole where growing echoes of “curiouser and curiouser” would pursue us all the way to the bottom. I needed to know: were they really ready? Things were about to get very odd, very complex, very puzzling. They were about to learn some mind-altering stuff. Were they really ready?
Yes, Dr. C., we’re ready.
So to the OED we went.
–To Be Continued–