“As We May Think,” Annotation, and Liberal Learning: a conversation with Hypothesi.is’ Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean

Our Faculty Collaboratives Open Learning ’17 cMOOC is in its second week! Today I had the great pleasure of speaking with two leaders at Hypothes.is: Jeremy Dean (Director of Education) and Jon Udell (Director, Integrations). Our topic was Vannevar Bush’s epochal “As We May Think,” especially as seen through the lenses of online annotation and liberal learning.

As you’ll hear, Bush’s phrase “associative trails” appropriately wound its way throughout the conversation. I encouraged Jon and Jeremy to reflect on robust resource linking across collaborating minds as well as the more idiosyncratic and sometimes apparently “random” associative trails that are forged within our individual brains. I had probably registered this distinction myself in one of my many earlier passes through this endlessly fascinating essay, but today the distinction became newly vivid for me, and helped me understand areas of connection and disjunction within the essay itself.

Since a classic blog-based distributed conversation brought us together many years ago, I have interacted with Jon on numerous occasions. Some of his own associative trails have grown familiar (and dear, I must say) to me, but he’s always full of surprises, too, and I remain consistently challenged and stimulated by his ongoing work with the Web as a platform for co-constructed knowledge. I have been fortunate to spend more time with Jeremy lately, learning of his literary and musical background, and learning much more about his work with educators who are adopting Hypothes.is in their teaching as a way of helping students learn to scaffold and extend their own learning. It’s fascinating to see two people who are quite distinctive in background and personality who are nevertheless strongly united in their commitment to building a better world out of deeper, more thoughtful, more educated, and more robust human interaction.

I’m confident you’ll detect my own enduring concerns and commitments here as well. As I reflect on today’s conversation, I can see how my own work, and perhaps my personality as well, are situated almost at the meeting point between Jeremy and Jon. I hope that middle-ness helped to elicit the uniqueness, and the tremendous connections, these two thinkers brought to bear today. My thanks to both of them. I hope we can do this again, and soon.

Week One Done, Week Two Underway

Photo by Dean Shareski https://flic.kr/p/f3MPjW

One week in, and we’re aloft! The first week of Open Learning ’17 featured two Twitter events, lots of fine blogging, and some face-to-face conversations that I hope will bring more people into the network soon.

And before I forget, let me add that it’s not too late to join up! You can easily get up to speed by reading some blogs and the main text for each week. If you’ve been thinking about joining, now’s a great time to get involved. Head to openlearninghub.net and click on “join up” for all the details.

Amy Nelson has already posted a thoughtful piece on week one’s activities. So, what she said. 🙂

I’ll add that the Twitter mixer on Wednesday was very inspiring for me, as the question of “what’s open in your teaching and learning?” began to resonate through contexts ranging from professors, to students, to administrators, and back again. The Storify record of the chat will suggest much of this resonance. I encourage you to take a look. These Storify pages will preserve much of our Twitter activity during the course. I think they’re great resources for conveying the flavor, and the many directions, of near-real-time online conversation. I should also note that folks who accuse me of operating at the 30,000-foot level would have a very strong case to make in this instance, as I held up my end of the mixer from somewhere near that altitude over Nebraska, on my way to the AAC&U conference in San Francisco.

And speaking of the AAC&U conference, Steve Greenlaw and I held our Virginia Faculty Collaboratives flag high in several sessions, as did the Faculty Collaboratives leader and chief egger-on, AAC&U’s Susan Albertine. Susan was very generous in her shout-outs to our work, and joyfully connected us with other Faculty Collaboratives leaders to help us continue to get the word out and grow the network. Steve and I had many conversations with other state leaders along these lines, most notably Faculty Collaboratives folks from Wisconsin, California, Utah, and Texas. Some great ideas emerged, so as we say in the biz, “watch this space.”

I can’t add much to Laura Gogia’s intense and detailed analysis of our Twitter Journal Club event on Friday, except to say that I found the event exceptionally stimulating and exhilarating. I can’t imagine a better end to our first week, or a better first reading than “Fifty Shades of Open,”, or a better networked encounter with that first reading. I am deeply grateful to Laura for jumping in to make this event possible, even though she had only about four days to prepare. If we do indeed make the road by walking, it’s important to have what Christina Engelbart calls “expedition quality” people to walk alongside who’ll help to make that road. Laura’s expedition quality, through and through. Special thanks and a big shout-out to Jeffrey Pomerantz, one of the essay’s authors, whose presence lent special excitement to the event. Jeffrey’s insights in the article were extended into the Twittersphere in our conversation. He was most generous and thoughtful, and we are grateful for his participation. (And Jeffrey, you know you’re welcome to stick around as long as you want–we’re always open.)

Now it’s week two. What’s on the schedule? Glad you asked. This week we’re reading the immortal essay “As We May Think,” written by Vannevar Bush and published just as World War II was ending. Here are four ways to engage with this essay in our networked community:

Synchronous events:

Wednesday, February 1, at noon ET: “Associative Trails, Online Annotation, and ‘As We May Think‘”: a webcast with Jeremy Dean, Director of Education, and Jon Udell, Director, Integrations, both of whom work for Hypothes.is, an online annotation platform whose mission is “to enable a conversation around the world’s knowledge.”
In addition to reading “As We May Think” prior to the webcast, consider setting up a Hypothes.is account for yourself and glancing over the annotations that already exist for the Vannevar Bush essay. You might want to make a few annotations yourself, or perhaps reply to some of the ones you find.
For the webcast, we’ll be using the Twitter hashtag #openlearning17 for our backchannel, and for asking questions of Jeremy and Jon. Don’t miss this extraordinary opportunity to engage with two leading representatives of what Vannevar Bush foresaw as networked learning “trailblazers.”

Friday, February 3, noon ET: Twitter Chat on “As We May Think” and Open Learning. 
This Twitter chat will continue our consideration of Bush’s essay, with a particular emphasis on open learning, the goals of our course, and the Faculty Collaboratives project generally. Here we’ll do the “crosswalks” Susan Albertine has encouraged us to do between open learning, mind-liberating education, and the AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative. Once again, we’ll use our course’s Twitter hashtag, #openlearning17.

And asynchronously:

**Keep those blogs and tweets coming! This week we encourage special attention to our main reading, “As We May Think,” but as always, we’re interested to know what’s on your mind and heart about anything connected to open learning. Don’t forget that linking to a colleague’s blog post is a great way to strengthen the network! For a beautiful explanation of the power of hyperlinking, look no farther than our own Connected Learning Coach’s infographic on hyperlinking.

**Consider also annotating “As We May Think.” There’s a rich conversation there already, but it’s great to add our voices and extend the range of topics to include open learning in particular. Tag your annotations any way you want, but remember to include openlearning17 or #openlearning17 as one of the tags so we can tally and collect the annotations more easily. It’s all about building the resources together! To get started with online annotation, go to Hypothes.is and sign up for an account. Hypothes.is also has lots of short, effective video tutorials to help get you up and running. And as always, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Open Learning ’17 community for help, too.

Week Two is underway Can you find one or two colleagues who’d add to the conversation? Let ’em in!

Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives Steering Committee Welcomes You To Open Learning ’17

For many weeks, Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives Steering Committee has planned our connectivist MOOC, “Open Learning ’17,” and worked to get ready for launch week. To find out a little more about who we are and why we’re excited to be part of this expedition, please click on the image below.

It’s a cliche to say this is all a work in progress, but it’s also true–and we look forward to what we will all build together. Welcome!

Laura Gogia on the strategies – and welcome surprises – of open, connected learning

In part two of our conversation, Dr. Laura Gogia talks about strategies for getting to meaningfully connected learning–and for dealing with the feeling of information overload. (You might call it FOIO, not to be confused with FOMO.) Laura also discusses how effective strategies for openly networked learning can also lead to moments of surprising and rewarding serendipity. There are paradoxes at work here, and Laura explores them with her characteristic insight and zest.

For more of Laura’s thoughts and plans regarding her role as “connected learning coach” for Open Learning ’17, don’t miss her blog post over at “Messy Thinking.” It’s a tour de force.

Laura Gogia, Connected Learner and Connected Learning Coach

Dr. Laura Gogia practices leadership in “connected learning,” a paradigm that shaped the work of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory (ALT Lab), and one that continues to inform vital research and practice around the world. This “way of life,” as Laura describes it, also helps to describe the many powerful links between AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives project and Open Learning ’17.

Laura sat down with me recently to describe her background and how her work first as a physician, and then a Ph.D. student in educational research, led her to the practice of openly networked learning. In part one of our conversation, Laura tells the story of her search for community, and how as Open Learning ’17’s “connected learning coach” she will help our community of learners find their own paths to more effective networked learning.

Please click on the image below to see and hear our conversation.

In part two of the interview, coming soon, Laura discusses strategies for the most effective kinds of connected learning. She also points out important connections–or “crosswalks,” as Susan Albertine calls them, between connected learning and the “mind-liberating education” Dr. Albertine and the AAC&U advocate as an essential part of all higher learning.

You can read more of Laura’s impressive and soulful work on her website, Lauragogia.com, where you will also find a link to her blog, “Messy Thinking.”

A conversation with Susan Albertine about Faculty Collaboratives

Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives “Innovation Hub,” the site of an upcoming connectivist MOOC called “Open Learning,” is now open! (Makes sense, yes?) Please visit our Faculty Collaboratives/Open Learning hub to join up and explore the journey that awaits.

You may wonder, “what’s Faculty Collaboratives?” I put that very question to the AAC&U’s Dr. Susan Albertine, designer and leader of this initiative. In part one of our conversation, Dr. Albertine explains the history, mission, and aspirations of the project.

In part two of our conversation, coming soon, Dr. Albertine expands on the idea of “mind-liberating” education at the heart of Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).

Virginia is proud to be one of those thirteen LEAP states Dr. Albertine describes. We’re also a Phase 2 Faculty Collaboratives participant. And because Virginia!, we’re doing something unique with this cMOOC learning opportunity.

Join us!

Remembering Bart Prater

Bart truly was the Wizard of Rock. He was also one of my best and most generous teachers.

The summer of 1977 was golden for all sorts of reasons. Star Wars premiered. (We didn’t yet know it was “A New Hope,” much less “Episode IV.”) I met the young woman I would end up marrying–well, met her again, but that’s another story. And I had a dream summer job. Three of them in fact. All of them were radio gigs. All of them were strange.

For three afternoons each week, I worked at Beach Patrol, a weather-forecast service managed by the celebrated Dave Moran and sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic, “the tan of the islands” (thanks, Dave, for the correction here!). I sat in a house in landlocked Salem, Virginia, and called radio stations at various beaches up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Over the phone, I’d deliver a customized weather forecast tailored for each beach area, and I’d play a Hawaiian Tropics commercial. All very professional, and all very theatrical. Radio magic. For extras, Dave told side-splittingly funny radio stories, and one of my colleagues was Gary Cooper. No, not that one, the other one.

On Sunday nights from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday mornings, I’d babysit the banks of automated 10.5 inch reel-to-reel decks loaded with “beautiful music” at WLRG (“Large FM,” 92.5). I’d also program the commercials for the next day, putting pins into holes to trigger the cues that would play the spots at the correct times throughout the day. Most scientific.

Each of those gigs was thrilling in its own way, even the overnight mushy music gig. But the best gig of all was the graveyard shift at WROV, 1240 AM, midnight-6 a.m. every Sunday morning. There I was, playing rock-n-roll on the hottest hometown station, the one I’d listened to since elementary school on a little green JC Penney six-transistor radio. I was in the control room where all the greats had inspired my rock dreams: Jack Fisher, Rob O’Brady, Fred Frelantz, more. All extraordinary, larger-than-life disc jockeys, the guys who’d answer the phone when I’d call in and try to get concert tickets, the guys (and they were all guys, then, alas) who seemed to have eerie powers of concentrated hipness and wit.

But the greatest of all was Bart Prater. And in the summer of 1977, he was my boss.

I had followed Bart Prater (rhymes with “crater”) since he’d joined the WROV roster in the late 1960s. Up from Marion, Virginia, the new guy started out as the nighttime DJ, “young Bart” the upstart, the one with the long hair. As a joke, the other WROV DJs trapped him one afternoon, dragged him into the studio, and cut his hair, live on the air. Well, that’s what they said they did. It was radio, after all.

Within a few years, Bart’s career went supernova. He moved to afternoon drive after Jack Fisher left. He became program director, responsible for hiring, firing, and managing all the on-air talent. In 1974, he helped break the Doobie Brothers’ immortal “Black Water.” And in 1975, he arrived: Billboard named him DJ-of-the-year for markets of under 1,000,000 population.

Bart’s voice was an utterly compelling blend of deep baritone resonance and crisp, cutting consonants. He spoke with the same cadence and timbre as Rod Serling. Bart didn’t seem to have to work at producing the sound. He just spoke, and every syllable was imbued with his intense, witty, sometimes loopy, sometimes nearly surreal on-air personality. He’d say things so quickly, without underlining any punch line or milking any response, that I sometimes wouldn’t get the joke until the song had been playing for a minute or two. His wordplay could rival Dylan’s, or Steve Martin’s. You could almost accuse him of muttering, but he was such a stickler for great articulation that he was the farthest thing from a mutterer. It was just that his jokes and patter were so inside, so self-contained in Bart’s own world, that it really did sound sometimes as if he were talking to himself–but you were welcome there too.

Sophomore year at Wake Forest University, I took a course called “Radio Practicum.” I fell in love with radio all over again, this time not just as a listener, but as an announcer myself. Classical, jazz, progressive free-form FM rock. Heaven. As the academic year came to a close that spring, I wondered if I could find radio work at home for the summer. I could indeed. Three part-time openings to apply for. Beach Patrol. Large FM. WROV.

I went down to the converted Quonset hut that housed the WROV studios, identified myself at the front desk, and sat down to wait for Bart. I had my little reel-to-reel tape with me so he could hear how I sounded on mike at Wake Forest’s WFDD-FM. I looked around the reception area and tried hard not to hyperventilate. I’d been there before, not only to pick up the occasional contest prize but also to visit the broadcast room itself as a WROV High School Correspondent. This time, though, was different. This time I was going to ask the Wizard of Rock for a job. The lowest spot possible in the line-up, but what did that matter? I would be a DJ on WROV, and my boss would be the Wizard of Rock–if I got the gig.

An office door opened and Bart Prater stuck his head out. He looked around, saw me, asked me if I was Gardner Campbell (I believe I said yes, but who knows? I was petrified), and invited me in to his office. He asked me to sit down. I vaguely remember doing so. Bart was very low-key, very polite, and very focused. He threaded the tape up, listened to my voice, and apparently liked what he heard enough to offer me the job. I went from petrified to elated in half a second. Then he asked me a question I had not anticipated.

So, Gardner, what will you use as your air name?

I hesitated.

Well, Gardner, I’ve always thought Bob Van Dyke would be a great air name. Bob was our WROV Diamond Keeper last spring, and I really do think the name would suit you well. What do you think?

What did I think. I thought he could suggest Tommy the Tuba as my air name and I’d agree enthusiastically, if it meant I could be a DJ on WROV. I didn’t say that, of course. I just said, “Sure! That sounds great!”

And so my gig began. Every Saturday night I’d come in about 11:15 or so and get ready to go on the air at midnight. As Bob Van Dyke, I’d do my thing on the Rock of Roanoke, Oh Lordy 1240, playing the songs, hitting the network news feed at the top of the hour (a special skill I finally mastered), filling out the transmitter logs, noting when the commercials ran. And every time I clicked the microphone on, I’d try as hard as I could to be as funny, hip, and memorable as Bart. As you might expect, I failed to reach that goal, in part because I was trying too hard, but mostly because Bart was inimitable.

My air shift was effectively over at 5 a.m. each Sunday morning. The last hour was all religious and community programming on LPs with a half-hour on each side. That left me with about an hour to roam around the station, looking at the old 45s, the production rooms, the moderne-styled transmitter with its tubes aglow and faintly humming, and the pictures hanging on the walls. Several of those photos were of Bart. One framed item was not a photo at all, but Bart’s first-class FCC license. That license meant Bart was qualified not only as a DJ (that required a “third class license with broadcast endorsement”), but also as an full-fledged radio engineer. In other words, Bart was qualified to be on the air, and he was qualified to build and run an entire radio station all by himself. I could only look on in wonder. I had no idea.

But best of all, even better than the weird phone calls and the stalkers (yes, there was one), even better than the thrill of sending out Heart’s “Barracuda” to the entire Roanoke Valley from the fabled corner of 15th and Cleveland, even better than all of these, was the weekly critique session with Bart Prater. For it’s true: every week Bart would sit down with me, the guy who was as green as grass and on the lowest of the low shifts, and spend nearly an hour listening to my airchecks and offering me private lessons in effective radio announcing. Bart taught me that things move forward in time, so the song title should be the very last thing you say before the music hits and you stop talking. Bart taught me to let my voice come out naturally, without forcing it, and certainly without the exaggerated tonsil-swinging AM style he called “puking.” Bart taught me to slow down, to trust the moment, and to enjoy myself.

As we listened to my airchecks, I heard some howlers I just knew would get me fired. I’d step on–that is, talk over–the song’s vocal. My patter was sometimes bad in ways I can’t easily describe. “Dumb” doesn’t quite do justice to the insane irrelevancies and flat “jokes” I would hear spilling out of my mouth. Once to my horror, on that little cassette that recorded my airchecks, I heard a record take about five seconds to come up to speed as I was introducing the song and yes, stepping on the vocal. Those turntables did not reach the right speed instantly, and I hadn’t taken that lag time into account when I cued up the record. So the beginning of “Hey Jude,” which starts with the vocal of course, sounded like “hohhhhhhaaahhhhhhhheeeeeeeaaaaaaaaayyyeeeeeeee Jude”–really loudly, because the station’s audio compressor was tuned for maximum impact. And all the time I was bleating away. I was mortified and couldn’t look Bart in the eye as I heard the song wowing its way to life as I kept on talking over Paul McCartney’s voice.

Bart never mentioned it. He had some kind of strange gift that could distinguish between lack of aptitude and lack of experience. I guess he assumed the latter was susceptible to education, and the mistakes would be fewer and farther between as I learned. A simple gift, really, but surprisingly rare.

And he was right. I got better over the summer. A lot better. I grew confident. My patter improved. I had more fun. I could experiment more, with better results. I could answer the phone, cue up a record, get the next spot ready in the tape-cartridge player, check the transmitter meters, and prepare to hit the news at the top of the hour with no more than a second’s lapse. And I was ready to say something short, sweet, and rocking when I clicked the microphone on.

At the end of the summer, at our last meeting, Bart looked at me and said, in the voice of the Wizard of Rock, the only voice he had and the only voice he would ever need, “Well, Gardner, you’ve improved about 1000% since you started working here. Good job.” I shook his hand and thanked him, and I said goodbye.

That was the last time I saw Bart Prater. The next summer I worked construction–the pay was better, but my heart wasn’t in it. The summer after that, I graduated from college, got married, and started working at a station in Fredericksburg, Virginia. And every time I’d go back home to Salem to visit my folks, I’d listen for Bart. I heard him in the last glory days of WROV, and I heard him when he jumped to the new FM rocker, K-92. On that new station with no static at all, Bart was still great, but it wasn’t the same. The Wizard of Rock belonged on the Rock of Roanoke. Bart Prater belonged on WROV. And in that golden summer of 1977, Bart made me believe I belonged on WROV too. What began as a polite fiction for the benefit of a young student just starting out in radio became a reality by the end of that summer. The student was ready, and the teacher appeared–one of the best teachers in the land. The Wizard of Rock himself. He taught me essential things about radio, and he taught me some vital things about teaching, too.

I paid tribute to Bart and the Rock of Roanoke at the Digital Media and Learning conference in 2015, with an Ignite Talk about radio.

But no tribute is enough for the gratitude and admiration I still feel for Bart Prater. His death last Wednesday hit me hard. I was moved by two hometown remembrances, one an article in the Roanoke Times, and one a great 1997 interview with Bart done by WDBJ television:

And I resolved to write this post.

Bart ended every one of his air shifts with, “never whittle toward yourself, or spit into the wind.” Good advice, though I also remember that other lesson he shared with me, in one of our first private conferences: things move forward in time.

Sometimes I wish they didn’t, because those things now include a big empty space where a wizard once lived.

Thank you, Bart. I won’t forget.

EDIT: I just found a remarkable “scoped” aircheck of Bart from 1972. (“Scoped” means spots, news, and voice breaks.) The aircheck showcases some fine examples of Bart’s great delivery and wicked ad-libs.

We join Bart as he shares his summer vacation slides … on the radio.

It’s also a fascinating time capsule. Those commercials, those jingles … and don’t miss the news about 14:00 in. Muskie vs. McGovern vs. Jackson vs. Humphrey. Vivid stuff.

2017: Quarks, Love, and Insight

Quark structure proton

Two ups, a down, and some gluons.  A hadron; later, perhaps, an atom.

I used to do a little warm-up exercise in faculty development workshops. I called it “Quarks of Learning.” The question was simple: what are the elementary particles and fundamental constituents of learning? The responses were always interesting, and revealed a surprising amount of agreement among faculty from different disciplines. The adventure, then, was to discuss how one might build learning experiences out of those fundamental constituents.

I liked the warm-up for a lot of reasons. There were not any obviously wrong answers. The agreement was surprising. We weren’t getting waylaid by typical categories of “skills” and “content,” a false and pernicious and very damaging dichotomy. And the exercise seemed to be self-dramatizing, in a way, as the pleasure of listing these fundamental constituents, and the engagement that pleasure empowered, seemed itself to be a fundamental constituent. We found ourselves in productive community, aligned yet varied, thoughtful and creative, having a good time building something together out of ideas that didn’t usually emerge in “faculty development”–and certainly not in “training.”

Over time, and in varying roles within institutions of higher education, I’ve thought a lot about these quarks of learning. I’ve tried to support curricula within the English major that would keep those quarks embedded in the design of the major. I’ve tried to do similar work with faculty development in pedagogy, in teaching and learning technologies involving networked personal computing, and in the large and comprehensive structures involving colleges, faculty, and academic programs (including a degree program) across an entire university. All along, I’ve wanted those quarks to be more powerfully present, in all the discussions and planning, than talk about “operationalizing” and “branding” and so forth, as I have many times seen how the fundamental constituents vanish–or are erased–in favor of talk about process that serves the institution much more than the learner.

For a long while, I advocated for “interest” as the fundamental constituent of learning, the quark of all quarks. I still believe that interest, and the psychology of interest, are fundamentally empowering elements of all learning. As time has gone on, however, I can see that interest doesn’t quite resonate with my audiences the way it does with me. As the psychology of interest and curiosity becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, that may change. As I become better at explaining myself, ditto. To this point, however, it has been difficult to make the case that the kind of interest and curiosity I care about is fundamentally different from the “look, a squirrel!” varieties of endless superficial distractions.

The two quarks I’m working on now, therefore, are love and insight.

I’ve had something to say about love elsewhere, and I’ll have more to say about that in future posts. Tonight, at the start of a new calendar year, I will write a few things about insight.

I presented my first talk on an insight-oriented education in November, when I was honored to be the opening keynote for OpenEd 2016. I wanted the talk to be about insight, to be itself insightful, and to help to stimulate insight in others (in this case, the audience for the talk). You can see the opening video montage I created here. And you can see a Periscope recording of the talk made by the redoubtable Robin DeRosa here. I’ll have more to say about that OpenEd keynote in subsequent posts. At this point, I’ll simply say that I was working from Jonah Lehrer’s account (in “The Eureka Hunt”) of the neuropsychology of insight, as well as from ideas regarding sustainable psychotherapeutic improvements stemming not from medication but from what we used to call the “talking cure,” and which now seems to be about the power of language and story in particular to re-wire the brain by means of patients’ insights into their own circumstances, histories, and personalities.

Those areas alone merit and require a great deal of work. Little did I know that another enormous journey of discovery in this area was about to begin as well.

One of the more remarkable things that emerged from my talk was a tweet I received from an indispensable member of my personal learning network, Morris (Mo) Pelzel. Mo’s first tweet to me about Bernard Lonergan, the one that alerted me to Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, is just out of Twitter-reach tonight. I’ll need to download a new version of my Twitter archive soon so I don’t lose that tweet! It was a vital moment. But at least I have the follow-up for you below.

Mo opened to me an exhilarating, difficult, yet utterly direct and moving text that took everything I had said about insight to the next level, and helped me understand that I was right: insight was indeed one of the quarks I sought. The word, the idea, the core reality of insight bridged the affective and cognitive realms more effectively than interest had. It connected with deep self-awareness. It was strongly aligned with ideas of creativity and imagination, but resisted being limited to only the arts, or only the humanities.

Most of all, it was a quark that met one of the prime requirements for quarkdom: it would be difficult for anyone in higher education to say, out loud, that insight was dispensable and played no necessary role in education. Or so I hope. And: once insight is in there, I reason, it becomes very difficult to retreat to reductive views of anything regarding learning, assessment of learning, expertise, pedagogy, etc. Like love, but with a more powerfully cognitive presence in most conversations about learning (alas, but I’ll take what I can get), insight would be the quark that was not only a fundamental constituent of learning and thus of school, but also a quark whose presence would liberate discussions about learning and schooling from the deadening technocracies that surround them.

So here and now, at the close of the first day of 2017, I offer a bit of Lonergan for you. His writing is extraordinarily ambitious, dense with meaning and implication. At the same time, his subject is so important, and the need for the thoughtful engagement he advocates and demonstrates is so urgent, that the book reads to me like a special edition of a newspaper written just before a crisis, not simply in response to it. I can’t pretend to grasp it all, yet. Parts of it may be beyond my reach. But the parts I do get thrill me. They help me think. They help me understand. And as I go along, Lonergan teaches me how to understand him better.

Here, then, now:

First, then, it is insight that makes the difference between the tantalizing problem and the evident solution…. Secondly, inasmuch as it is the act of organizing intelligence, insight is an apprehension of relations…. Thirdly, in a sense somewhat different from Kant’s, every insight is both a priori and synthetic. It is a priori, for it goes beyond what is merely given to sense or to empirical consciousness. It is synthetic, for it adds to the merely given an explanatory unification or organization…. Fourthly, a unification and organization of other departments of knowledge is a philosophy. But every insight unifies and organizes. Insight into insight [the project of the book, Lonergan tells us], then, will … yield a philosophy…. (4-5)

[I’m skipping items five and six because a) they’re too difficult for this already lengthy post, and b) seven and eight are crucially important.]

Seventhly, besides insights there are oversights. Besides the dynamic context of detached and disinterested [i.e.: not self-interested] inquiry in which insights emerge with a notable frequency, there are the contrary dynamic contexts of the flight from understanding in which oversights occur regularly and one might almost say systematically. [Yes, indeed–one of the reasons I have been reading books about the 2008 financial meltdown as well as the tragedies of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia–not to mention watching Titanic over and over.] Hence, if insight into insight is not to be an oversight of oversights [what can I say? the man has a sense of humor], it must include an insight into the principal devices of the flight from understanding. Eighthly, the flight from understanding will be seen to be anything but a peculiar aberration that afflicts only the unfortunate or the perverse. In its philosophic form, which is not to be confused with its psychiatric, moral, social, and cultural manifestations [rather large exceptions here, but let’s keep going], it appears to result simply from an incomplete development in the intelligent and reasonable use of one’s own intelligence and reasonableness…. [I’d say that such incomplete development is partly a failure of education, and that much contemporary schooling, especially at scale, not only neglects but indeed tends to block or thwart such development.] (5-6)

[Again, skipping two elements, for reasons as above.]

The present work, then, may be said to operate on three levels: it is a study of human understanding; it unfolds the philosophic implications of understanding; it is a campaign against the flight from understanding. The three levels are solidary. Without the first there would be no basis for the second and no precise meaning for the third. Without the second the first could not get beyond elementary statements, and there could be no punch to the third. Without the third the second would be regarded as incredible, and the first would be neglected. (6-7)

[And now Lonergan writes with even greater urgency.]

Probably I shall be told that I have tried to operate on too broad a front. But I was led to do so for two reasons. In constructing a ship or a philosophy one has to go the whole way: an effort that is in principle incomplete is equivalent to a failure. [A beautiful analogy and for me a home truth–as well as one of the principal failings of higher education’s approaches to “educational technology.”] Moreover, against the flight from understanding half measures are of no avail. Only a comprehensive strategy can be successful. To disregard any stronghold of the flight from understanding is to leave intact a base from which a counteroffensive promptly will be launched. (7)

I have used a more gruesome analogy for my own version of Lonergan’s last point when I say one cannot have a “pet cancer.” Very often it seems to me that bureaucracies and especially technocracies are pocked with strongholds of the flight from understanding, so much so that it becomes quite an adventure merely to identify the valiant and embattled strongholds of insight among them. And even when those strongholds of insight are acknowledged, there is usually a sense that they are rare and special, and thus not essential or fundamental. Therefore everything else can be defined as business as usual, “operational” in a very narrow definition of “operations.” When those “operational” elements become in fact more strongholds of the flight from understanding, they become malignant–and it is in the nature of malignancy that it strives to overtake and feed on, thus ultimately destroy, the good. And the shuttle explodes, or burns up on re-entry, metaphorically and historically speaking.

Lonergan’s final argument for my post tonight circles back to why his endeavor matters. He insists it’s practical to work through a complex and difficult philosophy of insight. It’s operationally relevant! Vitally so. “But to be practical is to do the intelligent thing, and to be unpractical is to keep blundering about. It follows that insight into both insight and oversight is the very key to practicality” (8).

I’ll come back to some of these points as I continue to work though Lonergan’s book. But now, here, then: we must build and offer our learners an insight-oriented education. Do you hear talk about an insight-oriented education when you hear “student success” discussed? If not, pull the emergency stop. Help to avoid a civilization-sized train wreck.

What I am discovering about my “quarks of learning” is not simply what must be included in all learning design, but the very ground I must stand on myself, those aspects of real school that are non-negotiable. In this way, I begin to have insight into insight, myself.

Much to explore. Thanks, Mo.

Happy New Year.

Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. 5th edition. Ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Volume 3 of the Collected works of Bernard Lonergan. University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Confessions of a Computer-Mediated Communications Addict

Yes, I’ve been going through the closets lately. Here’s something I caught that might be of interest: a closing keynote address I presented at the 2002 Mary Washington College Faculty Academy on Instructional Technology.

It was an interesting in-between time. Our Assistant VP for Instructional Technology, David Ayersman, had left MWC in 2001. Our first CIO, Chip German, would arrive and begin his work in the fall of 2002. I had led the Instructional Technology Advisory Committee for several years but had not yet become an administrator. That step occurred in the summer of 2003, at Chip’s instigation, and would change all that followed in my career.

And I had not yet read Doug Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, or Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, or any of those writings. I had never even heard of those people. I had no clue whatsoever about the “resonant frequency” of this stream of thought. No blogging, no podcasting, no Bluehost Experiment, no domain of my own, nothing. As you’ll see from the talk, it was all listservs (surprisingly sturdy and useful then) and what turned out to be ugly, slow, and ultimately disappointing Blackboard discussion forums. (I don’t think I’d discovered the Steve Hoffman Music Forums at that point, either–a new moment in my experience of discussion forums that would eventually turn me away from Blackboard and its ilk for good.)

So this paper tumbles out of my closet, and I caught it. In this talk I see that nearly a decade of working with computer-mediated communication had brought me into the thought world of dreamers who’d imagined and helped to build my future–ironically, unmet dreamers whom I had yet to discover. I see that my discovery of those dreamers ended up radicalizing me, in a way, as what I would read just two years later awakened me to the scope of those dreams and their liberatory potential for teaching and learning. Those dreams, and those dreamers, seemed to me a secret history of shared yearning, flawed and stained as all human endeavors are, but one that asked the central questions about the most salient concerns. It was an intellectual rebirth for me, but also the beginning of a trial-by-fire in some respects.

I see how ready I was for my next teachers to appear. I see a discontinuous moment ahead that I could not have anticipated. (I see that I am already using the word “bootstrapping.”)

I am trying to draw some lessons from this moment that comes into a new focus, fourteen years later.

I also like the muddle-mull-meal idea, which I’ve never used since in any talk I’ve given or any paper I’ve written. Maybe you’ll like it too.

Confessions of a Computer Mediated Communications Addict_final-2

An Encomium for Diane McColley

One day in class, thirty-six years ago, my first great Milton teacher. William Kerrigan, said that “we practice biographical criticism because we want to know whom to thank.” Something about that teacher, in the context of that subject, at that moment in the semester, and at that moment in my life, made the saying stick. I’ve never forgotten it.

While I hope it will be awhile before I can thank Milton in person, I have been lucky to be able to thank many others who have influenced my life, including that first Milton teacher. One of the amplest opportunities for giving thanks came almost twenty years after that initial lesson, when I was humbled to deliver an encomium for my second great Milton teacher, Diane McColley. The occasion was the Milton Society of America’s annual banquet meeting, where in 1999 the Society gave Diane its highest recognition: the Honored Scholar award. Awardees get to name their encomiasts, and Diane had asked me to serve in that role. The night remains one of the highlights of my life.

Why do I share this with you now? I’m writing an article on Milton. I’m also going through old files from my time at Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). I’m thinking about pasts, and futures. I’m trying to remember and recover a grateful mind.

When I saw this encomium, after many years, I could see evidence of a lighter, more graceful, more grateful self. And while no one could do justice to the heart and mind of Diane McColley, I tried my best, and I see in my attempt the great gifts Diane has given me. For a moment I am at peace.

Encomium for Diane McColley