Monday, November 19, 2007


One reason to go to College is to ask the meaning of life questions. They don’t stop mattering upon graduation, but mostly we get caught up in our work and social lives and they take priority because of immediacy if not importance. Those meaning of life questions lie dormant, waiting for some spark to ignite the fire. As we grow older we don’t look for the spark. So when it happens those questions find us, often when we’re not looking.
Recently there has been an odd confluence of the personal and the professional that has made me refocus on these questions. Timing-wise, this centered around the Sloan-C Conference in Orlando. I want to reflect on two sessions from the conference – a community of inquiry framework for evaluation and what’s next for online learning. But I want to do this in my personal way. I hope others find this illuminating, though I admit the approach is a bit odd.
My mother lives in Boca Raton. So I’ve made it a practice either before or after a conference in Orlando to drive down and see my mom. As it turns out my cousin Arlene (she’s a cousin on my dad’s side of the family) who lives in Davie Florida, a bit north and west of Miami Beach, had seen my mom on her birthday in August. Arlene sent a photo of Miriam to me and my sibs via email and in response I mentioned the conference and the trip to Boca and asked whether I might see Arlene then. Arlene invited me to stay with her after visiting my mom and I did just that. We had a good time with her family and during Sunday brunch Arlene’s children had some interesting to say about Miriam and Sidney. (My dad passed away in June 1999.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You need to know I’m a shmegege when it comes to family, particular those not in my household and those I’ve not been in contact with for some time. The communication with them seems artificial and so I shy away from it. Last year Arlene attended my brother’s 50th birthday party in Ann Arbor, as did my cousin Ann from Denmark. (Ann’s father, Robert, is my mother’s brother.) This was the weekend when I had my leg accident and odd though it may seem, that episode created a bond among us beyond what the party itself did. I have been to several conferences in Orlando. This is the first one where I saw Arlene afterwards.
A week or two before Sloan-C, my cousin Debby who lives in Israel wrote both the Danish and American cousins that her father, Fred, had passed away. Fred had been suffering from a severe dementia. My mom’s been that way for a while. I don’t think she knew who I was this time around and she didn’t know me the last time I visited in March. The cousins on my mom’s side have had an extended email thread since, where the focus was on whether the siblings were disposed to this and indeed if we too are likely to suffer the same fate.
Nowadays people are fascinated with their own personal genome, a newly opened road toward self-understanding, perhaps helping them to answer the basic question: why are they the way they are? With the cousins we did something similar – anecdotal comparisons of behavior, some based on memories from long ago about our parents and ourselves, to see whether each of our reads on how things were made sense. Did we get the story right or not? I found this enthralling and opened up quite a bit in my own messages to my cousins, in large part because I see in my son Ben some aspects of my mother’s personality and thought that highly relevant for the discussion. This was happening right during Sloan-C and not surprisingly it occurred to me that my extended family was engaged in a Community of Inquiry.
But it was a surprise to me how we got there and that we’ve had this thread at all. Debby likes to send email, much of it impersonal in my view and about the situation in Israel. Debby’s son is in the Israeli army and the war with Lebanon took a toll on her family. The issues were personal for her. But the emails did not evoke a real response from me or my sibs, nor from the cousins in Denmark. We had what could only be described as an awkward exchange when Debby sent an email asking why she hadn’t received more sympathy from us.
Growing up Fred’s family lived 10 or 15 minutes by car ride from our place in Bayside. We had Seder at their house each year. They were Orthodox and we were ultra Reform, differences that were a cause for some tension. And further, Sidney was a brittle diabetic. He had himself been Orthodox growing up, but he rejected that in adulthood. Miriam placed taking care of Sidney’s diabetes well ahead of sticking with the ceremony from the Haggadah. She pushed the others to speed up the service, so we could eat and avoid Sidney having an insulin reaction. In turn they pushed back, if not at the time then in anticipation beforehand. Why didn’t Sidney take adequate steps ahead of time so he could sit through the entire service? Seemingly, we went through this ritual every year.
We saw Fred’s family a few other times each year. I remember none of the specifics but tone-wise there was some tension; that I do remember. Occasionally on Sundays, Fred would come over to our house on his own, a lower keyed visit. I’m not entirely sure why he came, one might guess it was care about his sister, but because Miriam ran a language tutoring business in our house, she was often busy with a student. So Fred spent more time in these visits with Sidney or with us kids.
Some time later, Fred and his wife Annette emigrated to Israel. So did Debby and her family and also Sharon, Debby’s sister, and Sharon’s family. Whether I was a grad student at Northwestern then or already a faculty member at Illinois, I’m not sure. Certainly I was living in the Midwest and not much aware of the goings on in Bayside. So Fred and the Israeli cousins “fell of the map” for me. Some of that had already happened with some of Sidney’s family. (His brother Dan, who was his law partner and unlike Sidney was a hard driving and good businessman, died of Leukemia in 1971. Sidney was the executor of the estate and that took a lot out of him. He had a hard time with Dan’s widow and we all became estranged from her and her surviving son.) Indeed, part of going to grad school in the Midwest was getting away from Bayside and my roots. So at the time all this happened without much notice from my view.
The Internet has brought the possibility of reconnection. Nowadays email is considered old fashioned, perhaps even a dying technology. Maybe we’ve lost the sense of wonder in the fantastic enabling that the technology provides. And I’m sure we continue to confound the effects of the technology as enabler with the essentially human interaction the technology can engender. After Debby sent out the announcement of Fred’s passing, my sister Marlene sent a condolence message and my brother Peter wrote a long and thoughtful message about Fred, with a personal anecdote to show Fred had something on the ball. I felt obligated to write a bit of the same, though I was not comfortable doing so. I ended up mentioning that upon occasion I played chess with Fred, on some of those Sunday visits. It was true, but meant as a throw away line, nothing more.
It seems chess was more important in family relations than I had realized. This was a case in point of the life questions finding me when I wasn’t looking. Debby wrote back about an episode where I played chess with her husband at their house, with parents from both families interested in the outcome. I lost the game and as a consequence Debby’s husband rose in esteem in the eyes of Fred. The question was whether I had deliberately sandbagged, perhaps in anticipation of this happy outcome. Regardless of the answer, Debby thanked me for the consequence, intended or otherwise.
Earlier this year Debby had visited Denmark and had some time to talk with Ann. I know nothing of the details but perhaps Ann spoke of the weekend in Ann Arbor where we celebrated Peter’s birthday, where she got to know me (again) and my family (for the first time) and since Ann had also been receiving Debby’s other email right along perhaps she was able to give Debby some other context for understanding how here messages were being received. Ann is quite a perceptive person and that is entirely possible. Alternatively, Debbie may have been genuinely grateful for the outcome of that chess game, even some 20 or 30 years later. In any event, that change in tone was the opening I needed to be more forthcoming. The other cousins seemed to want the conversation too. We debated Alzheimer’s versus dementia, whether our grandfather was properly diagnosed as schizophrenic (then as a Jew in not yet Nazi Germany it is now easy to spin other interpretations), and I contributed about the connection between Ben and Miriam.
In passing I learned (or was reminded) about how others regarded Miriam, quite unlike how I thought of her myself. I heard separately from Arlene’s children, my cousins once removed, and again from Sharon on the other side of the family that Miriam was a genius. It is interesting how those with less formal education perceive us who live in the ivory tower. That’s me, not Miriam. Miriam was a language tutor and later a High School language teacher (mostly French). She was apparently an exceptional student in high school back in Germany and she was very good at letting everyone else know that. (Fred was more of an ordinary student.) Miriam knew six languages – French, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, German, and English. She knew a lot of German poetry and, for example, could recite verse from Heine. When I was in high school and college, she wanted me to read the Forty Days of Musa Dagh. I might do that in the not too distant future, to get to know her better.
I did not think of her as a genius because in spite of her aptitude she was so rules based in her approach, whether this was in teaching language or playing bridge there was always a rule to follow that would get you onto the right path. I didn’t like rules very much. I wanted to reason through the particulars of the situation and come to a conclusion based on reasoning. Miriam could not go from rules to reason and back again. Rules were it for her, or so it seemed to me. I couldn’t understand that, especially since there were notable times where following the rules let us down. And though I too was a very good student in High School, genetically I think that has to do more with Sidney than with Miriam. Sidney’s approach was more like mine.
In our thread one of the core questions was how similar the siblings Miriam, Fred, Robert, and an older sister, Gertrude, were in spite of obvious differences, including those in academic achievement. And then the question was whether those similarities stem from heredity or upbringing. In turn we were asking about ourselves. What of them is in us and our children? And how much of that has to with bloodlines versus how we were raised?
These were our core questions. I believe that every Community of Inquiry has to have its core questions. And one ingredient for the success of the community is the passion and intensity of interest that members have in pursuit of answers to the core questions. Right before the Sloan conference at Norma’s suggestion (Norma is my office mate at work and she also attended the conference) I started to read Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture. Some of what was said in the intro to the topic and the insights of Pierre Levy that Jenkins cited resonated with me quite a bit. But there was a disconnect for me too. The first real chapter in Jenkins book deals with the community of “Spoilers” for the TV show Survivor. The participants were passionate and deeply engaged in the activities of the Spoiler Community. But surely the underlying motivation, identifying the winners and losers in the TV competition, was at base trivial and unimportant. Were the behaviors of such communities of inquiry relevant to what I was experiencing in the thread with my cousins? And was it relevant to the more formal learning communities that sometimes emerge in the classroom setting and that were at issue in sessions at the Sloan conference? Clearly there is a difference if it is not just the Communities of Inquiry that should be the focus but also the questions themselves with which these communities are engaged. Hmmm, how does one categorize those questions?
My tentative answer is to look at root as to whether those questions have any personal connection to the individuals performing the inquiry. If not, it is just sport. Sport can be engaging, no doubt. But one can walk away from it and move on to something else and be no worse for wear. If it is personal one can’t walk away. Even if we get wrapped up in other things, it is still there, to intrude on us whether we want it to or not.
In much of our formal teaching, a question we don’t ask but should is whether we can make it personal for the students. Think of engineering education broadly conceived or of courses students take that are required but outside the major. Consider their motivation. What is there beyond the desire to get through that material, to earn a credential and get a good job as a consequence?
I took special note of this issue because at a session on workforce education Frank Mayadas made a comment that ALN for worker education aimed at retooling these people in their current jobs or making them attractive enough to find new employment had none of focus that traditional General Education has, to make well rounded individuals with critical thinking skills who are able to participate in performing their civic responsibilities. Rather workforce education must focus on raising individual productivity and that is the acid test of whether it is successful or not. This is true enough, but from my limited experience with adult education (via professional development activities for learning technologists) I believe this issue of whether it is sport or personal matters a great deal and the more effective education has a personal aspect to it even if it also has a strong technical component --- people find their jobs a means for self-expression and the educational opportunity needs to make that overt. This does not mean people should eschew the technical aspects of their work. Instead it means they should be able to make connections to the work on many different levels, some of which are personal.
The last morning of the conference I sat in the back of the room in a session given by Chuck Dzubian and Karen Swan about the future of online learning. For his part Chuck dutifully went through all the reasons why prediction is impossible; we just don’t know enough. Chuck didn’t even have to entertain the Random Walk Hypothesis to make his case, but I felt he was on terra firma in doing so. He spent some time talking about the Black Swan (no relation to Karen) and the impact of highly improbable but important events. With that as backdrop he then went in to making predictions based not on what is likely but rather on what online learning students and faculty seem to want, much of which falls in the category of greater convenience. I don’t recall all of it (perhaps his PowerPoint will appear on the Conference Web site soon) but I do recall a request for materials to be more modular. That was part of the prediction.
I want to make my own little predictions, somewhat contrary to the above, based on my experience with my cousins over the last several weeks and my thinking about teaching and learning these past several years. We need to engross our students in larger themes, those that make them see the big picture, those that can captivate them for some time to come. We don’t need modularity, we need a holistic approach. Students must be able to find something of themselves in the fields that they study. Their engagement will follow both from curiosity a la Jerome Bruner and self-actualization a la Maslow. And, in opposition to what most have been arguing, students will seek out depth of presentation, including in writing, as long as that provides illumination for their own inquiry. It is self-evident that information is abundant, occasionally overwhelmingly so. But that is not why so many students are non-readers or read only sporadically. Rather it is because it is so difficult to separate the chaff from the wheat.
Much of what we need to do as educators requires doing this task on behalf of students, particularly during their formative stages when the issue about their engagement remains in doubt and when the formalisms of the discipline might seem daunting and uninviting. We must see our jobs as touching the students personally so that they willingly make these commitments to their own learning. I heard a fair amount at the conference about the instructor’s main job being to get out of the way of the students, it is their inquiry after all and they should pursue it. One also reads a lot on that score in the edu-blog community, for example in the writing of Stephen Downes. I can understand why the argument is made. It makes the most sense once the passion in the student has been lit and the hunger to learn means the motivation problem has been solved. Then self-led inquiry within a community of others makes good sense.
But students are looking to be led to areas of fascination that they have not yet uncovered and they welcome the professor with both the knowledge of such places and the human understanding to make it known why these are places of strong interest. The role of the teacher then is quite different, guide but front and center, playing a pied piper role and watching carefully whether any of his students follow the tune. It might seem this role of professor makes the most sense for 18-22 years old students, particularly for Freshmen or for those starting in on the major. Thinking as such the emphasis is on the overall immaturity of the students. Thus I believe it continues to make sense at all junctures in a person’s development, even if the student is much older, as long as there is fundamentally a new perspective to be gained, a new bridge to traverse. With respect to the new perspective the person is immature and self-inquiry might very well not find the path. The professor has the keys, even now, even with all the relevant information freely available on the Internet.
The labels we’ve used to describe teaching and learning the last decade or so – teacher-centric versus learner-centric – have created a false opposition and some wrong headed thinking both about methods and about outcomes. If instead we could agree on the need for students to make personal attachments to the subjects they study, we could make more progress.
Let me leave you all with this thought. As the holiday season approaches are there lessons we can learn from interacting with our siblings and our cousins and the rest of our family? What keeps them engaged with each other? What about tone and the type of banter? These are questions to keep in the back of the mind as we take our break. Sometimes the best lessons come when we’re not trying to learn.


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Barbara said...


Much of what you say here I agree with, especially about learning from extended family, perhaps because they are people who we do not necessarily choose but are given us. And because we see them over time, but perhaps infrequently, we have opportunities to learn from people with shared history and blood, but who may well be as different from us as we can imagine. This doesn't necessarily happen in many other spheres in life.

I don't agree, however, (and as usual) with your position on teacher front and center. Not because I think you are incorrect about the importance of a strong mentoring, guiding presence, especially early on in an undergraduate education--students are well aware of my presence and contributions-- but because you left out the crucial element in a good classroom--collective intelligence. My classes are not student-centric but learning-centric, and I would hold that learning is a social activity (as you pointed out about your cousins). My students thus learn as much from one another and from the building of all of their thoughts and explorations as they do from anything I say or do. Igniting the passion comes, I think, out of this dance between individual, group, and spirited mentor, not from a pied piper. I resist the notion of the cult of the teacher, I really do.


Lanny Arvan said...

Barbara -

Yes. I know we're close in a lot of our thinking about teaching and learning but there is a serious point of disagreement. I read your latest and then reread after finishing my post and the discord was quite apparent.

Perhaps it would be useful to zero in on what we disagree about, if that is possible. I'm going to try to do that here by talking about teaching economics.

The current hot issue in the Presidential campaign, and one expects this issue to be with us for a while, is health insurance. Economics has a lot to say about that problem. The explanation is elegant and somewhat sophisticated. Further, the explanation is comparatively new. Wealth of Nations was 1776. Akerlof's paper on the Market for Lemons was 1970.

Motivationally, in a Principles course nowadays I'd say you should definitely talk about Health Insurance and give an economic analysis of the issues. This would be the way to show economics is both highly relevant and a beautiful metaphor worthy of understanding.

There is no way in my view that students taking Principles will discover Akerlof's ideas on their own. They won't be able to negotiate meaning and come to a useful conclusion. It will be over their head.

So I think it's my job to get them there. Once they are there, they can poke around more on their own and I try to encourage that. The poking around is where I think we agree. But I see a need for translation of sophisticated ideas that only a few years ago would have been taught just in graduate school and bring those to a general audience in an intelligible way. That, in my view, requires the teacher to be a pied piper.