Saturday, August 27, 2005

On Seeing

I didn’t mean a double entendre with that title, but readers of this blog couldn’t access the site starting early Saturday morning, because my campus was experiencing a denial of service attack, I believe from some on campus computers that had been compromised. Sorry that the site was down.

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Last night the kids were watching some junkie movie on the good TV and the joys of family bonding notwithstanding I had absolutely no desire to sit through that. So I went upstairs to find something I’d like and ended up renting “Million Dollar Baby” on pay per view. Part way through the movie I start saying to myself “I know that story.” Then I’m arguing, “It can’t be. That story was too gruesome.” Then a bit latter, “This is just the type of story Clint Eastwood wood pick at this time in his career, gritty and with the devastating violence of reality.” But mostly I’m angry at myself saying, “Why didn’t I see it? I should have known this long ago, when the movie came out. Why didn’t this occur to me until know?”

It turns out the movie is based on a story in a book of short stories about boxing called Rope Burns, by F. X. Toole. My wife had bought the book for me a few years ago, perhaps for Father’s Day. Sometime later I read the book, made some mental notes about it – worth the read but not great fiction – I had read a biography about Ty Cobb around that time and it kind of fit in, then I promptly forgot all about it.

Why I felt that I should be able to recall this and identify it with a movie that I hadn’t seen (but I did see Morgan Freeman on Inside the Actors Studio and he spent some time talking about working with Clint Eastwood and I also saw Hilary Swank on 60 Minutes interviewed by Mike Wallace). So the clues were all there but I didn’t tie them together. I just didn’t see it. I suppose part of the reason I was angry is that seems to be happening more and more and on stuff I feel sure I would have gotten a few years earlier.

Learning is about seeing. The goal is to see something, maybe the big picture, maybe how to do something, maybe a connection between things that are familiar but that didn’t seem tied before. When you’re not seeing it is uncomfortable, perhaps some pangs of anxiety, and if its been a long time then total desperation. When you do see it, that’s a good feeling. We say “Aha” for the moment when the seeing occurs and “I’ve got it” for afterwards. I believe we’re hard wired for wanting to see. Curiosity is a basic emotion.

All of this is in my writing of the blog. It’s easy to tell when I’m seeing something. The writing is specific, about an example that has enough fullness that it tells a little story in itself. And when I’m not seeing, the writing is theoretical I have a general idea, but I can’t make it jump up and grab you. There needs to be an angle, a point which comes out of my own curiosity. If there is one, that’s great. If there isn’t, why would anyone else want to read this stuff?

I think this is also in how to view teaching. In the metaphorical, we teachers shrink ourselves down, crawl inside the students head, and then point them in the right direction. “Not over there. Why do you keep looking over there? That will get you no place. For the love of Mike, look over here. This is where it’s happening. Look now. Don’t you see it?”

But what’s going on in the head of that student sitting in the middle row who had a question about 10 minutes ago but was too scared to raise his hand then and now teacher you’ve moved on to another point and then still another and so can’t keep up? “I’m totally lost and really I’m not sure what the point in trying is. So teacher, I’m talking back at you, but you’re not seeing it. Give me something I can make heads or tails of. What you’re doing is ridiculous. You’re not connecting. Either you don’t know it or you don’t care.”

Barbara Tuchman, the noted historian, talks about “Woodenness” in her book The March of Folly, given a variety of examples of wooden behavior throughout history. Woodenness means a deliberate act of non learning, a mulish need to stay the course even if it denies the reality around us. While we may be hard wired to want to see, we often find ourselves being wooden.

One reason why, the most obvious reason to me, is that we’re afraid. We’re not guaranteed to see and its painful to admit we don’t get it. So we stop looking, claim we have a pat hand, maybe even delude ourselves into believing we do, and then the woodenness is a natural consequence. That can happen to the teacher, especially a new one who finds herself in some tough situations with her students, largely a consequence of her own inexperience.

Woodenness can hardly be restricted to the teaching situation. I see it a lot in IT support. We providers see things from our point of view. The users of our services have a different perspective. It’s possible to connect with them. It’s also possible that doesn’t happen. The parallel to teaching is strong. There can be seeing and there can be woodenness. And the question is whether we can do anything about it.

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