Monday, April 23, 2007


It was a rough weekend health-wise for the entire family. We all came down with some intestinal virus. My older son got it first. He had a wretched night on Wednesday and missed school on Thursday. Then my wife got it Friday night and she was feeling miserable on Saturday, but by yesterday she was up and around. My younger son and I got it Saturday afternoon and we were both out of it then and part of yesterday. I’m still getting some aftershocks – stomach cramps – but am at work and trying to get things done, life goes on, and both kids are back at school.

So although yesterday was really quite beautiful outside and especially in the morning when there was a crispness to the air, really a perfect spring day and a good time to be outside, it was mostly a “veg out” time for me. I couldn’t get into the Sunday Times at all. Although this profile of Seung-Hui Cho makes for good reading in a macabre sort of way, between the ghastliness of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the brazenness and stupidity of Alberto Gonzales’ testimony to Congress and the shenanigans of Paul Wolfowitz each covered in Frank Rich’s latest, I literally couldn’t stomach reading the paper. Even the Magazine piece on Martin Amis didn’t do it for me. So I got a DVD and went upstairs to relax on the couch and watch some episodes of West Wing.

This was from the latter half of the second season where the big issues underlying the plot in several episodes is that the President had Multiple Sclerosis (the less severe type) and he failed to disclose the fact, not just to the Public but even to his senior staff. Only a handful of confidants had the information. And he had made a promise to his wife, a promise he’d ultimately break, that he’d be just a one-term president so the information about the MS could come out after he left office without it affecting decisions during the presidency.

Ignoring the issue of whether somebody supposedly as smart as President Bartlet could actually believe that keeping such information locked up tight in a cabal of political insiders was feasible, especially when that group included the Vice President whom Bartlet had beaten to secure the nomination during the previous primary season and who had strong ambition to be the next President, it makes for good drama time a crisis come up where the information has to get out to at least one other to accommodate the circumstance, such as having to alert the anesthesiologist after the President had been shot. And it may be truer to the Bartlet character to note that he was faced with a Hobson’s Choice about the MS and further he himself didn’t expect to win the Presidency at the outset. Yet as the lesson from Watergate clearly has taught us, though that lesson seemingly needs to be learned anew by each subsequent administration, such conspiracies have a tendency to unravel and when they do all hell breaks loose.

* * * * *

I’m really more interested in the keeping of secrets in the learning milieu than I am in considering the political context. As a political outsider, the issues behind the conspiracy in the political context seem rather mundane to me, while with learning I believe there is complexity at a fundamental level. The complexity makes it interesting but harder to reconcile.

Let me illustrate with some actual examples. I’ve been having an ongoing dialog with Susan Curtis who is one of the principals on our Business 101 proposal. Susan has been talking with me about some of the learning issues in her other courses, particularly a course where students are doing some internship in the field as part of the activity. In describing the student writing, and now these are my terms rather than hers, their behavior is chameleon-like. They try hard to deliver whatever it is that the Professor seems to want, but in the process they deny their own thoughts and feelings and sense of self. So in talking about one of our core goals for the Business 101 we discussed the students taking an open and honest approach to their own learning. In the back of my head I’ve got Blogs on my mind as the way to achieve that, certainly some electronic forum with which to share their thinking with their peers and their instructors. This would seem like something we all could embrace.

But this morning in today’s Chronicle Update there is a piece called After the Tragedy where several experts are asked the hypothetical about what they would say if they were to give the Commencement Address this year at Virginia Tech. Below is the beginning of one of those responses.

April 20, 2007

Barry R. Glassner, professor of sociology and executive vice provost at the University of Southern California and author of 'The Gospel of Food' (Ecco, 2007) and 'The Culture of Fear' (Basic, 1999)

Protect Your Perceptions: If you haven’t already done so, start a diary — not a blog but an old-fashioned diary that you write for yourself to preserve your private observations, feelings, and questions about what you have experienced these past several weeks. No one else possesses these, and they will slip away from you faster than you can imagine.

I don’t know Glassner but he obviously is a person of some importance and a respected Academic. And he is quite clear in advising to keep thoughts private, secrets just for the student/writer, to document emotions, thoughts, and issues in a way that is not altered through public conversation. So here the complexity begins. Keeping secrets can be a good thing, a way to explore our inner being. It doesn’t have to mark a conspiracy. It can be a healthy part our own intellectual development.

I have a friend who is a writer and teaches writing as well and who would have no problem understanding Glassner, but who doesn’t understand how blogging can be a legitimate form of inquiry and self-expression – it connotes too much of living one’s life on one’s sleeve and the showing off part invariably must get in the way of the honesty and the inquiry. I hope it’s obvious that I don’t agree with this view. But I will concede that there are circumstances where the explorations are best kept private. And I will argue that in many other instances the blogging being public conveys an important benefit. I get reader comments, quite a few by email. My inquiries are often speculative – I think I’m onto something but I really can’t be sure. I’m somewhat comforted in this by the observation that Hollywood Studios really don’t know what picture will be their next blockbuster, and ditto for publishers of fiction. There is a fundamental unknowing of what will pique the interest in others, especially when we’re not part of an ongoing conversation where the next thing follows immediately from what came before. Hence an email from a reader remarking favorably about a post provides an important confirmation about the ideas themselves and provides a kind of legitimacy as a consequence.

But I’d be the first to admit that not all my ideas find their way into the blog. I filter extensively. I filter because many of the ideas I generate are not very good (my filtering is imperfect so be merciful on this one) but I also filter because the ideas are personal and those ideas don’t belong in the blog, whether they are good or not.

This division sounds straightforward, but it is not. Real learning is personal and full of emotions. There can be emotions about the ideas and the implications of those. And there can be emotions about people, in large part because of the exchange of ideas. The two are inextricably mixed and finding a good sense of what to make overt and what to maintain as secret is difficult. I hope the reader notes that I started this post with something personal, but not too intimate. The vast majority of my posts come this way and that is for a reason. We learn in our own context based on our on situation and that drives the learning. Leaving it out entirely misses a crucial element in what is going on.

I do omit things deliberately. It simply is not in good taste to dwell on the symptoms from the intestinal virus. Good taste can be delineated. In the 1980’s, Miss Manners was a best seller. But good taste and the common sense ideas that underlie good taste is really only the tip of the iceberg.

I omit things out of self- protection, mostly, and also to protect friends and colleagues, on occasion. And it is on this point that I’ve made no progress in my own thinking since I first thought to write this post. There are many who believe that deep learning occurs when one’s previously held world view gets challenged by facts and observations that simply can be reconciled with that view. When one is so challenged, typically one treats it as an affront rather than as an opportunity. Often one goes into denial. When the issue is about the Laws of Physics, as a third party one can see confronting that in an open way is the best course of action. When the issue is about being jilted by a girlfriend, in contrast, blogging about it may be the worst possible thing to do. Yet the feeling for the person going through the experience might be quite the same in the two situations. And I fear that apart from saying to learn what’s right from the context, clearly necessary but not sufficient, I can’t articulate a good principle to distinguish the one from the other.

What can be done is to articulate “safe principles” by which I mean that if the principles of the condition hold then you should know how to behave in the circumstance. One of those is “No Surprises,” a maxim I’ve talked about before and I think a reasonable guide to professional behavior. President Bartlet should have told about his MS as a candidate for this reason – the information was going to get out and he should have known that. And there are like guides for keeping information private, such as when a friend or even more importantly a staff member who reports to you entrusts you with a confidential piece of information. Preserving the trust is paramount. It’s pretty easy to agree on those. But there is a huge amount of gray in between.

It would be good to have some principles for parsing that. Absent those, what are we teaching our students?

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