Thursday, August 01, 2013

Bad Habits

My writing doesn't work when I lecture in it. Exploration is fine.  Being a know-it-all is not. As of late I find myself lecturing more and then regretting it afterward.

Something displeases me.  I react to it by showing the error in their ways.  I used to do something similar as an Assistant Professor, finding the flaw in the theoretical argument.  A lot of my training in graduate school was to do just this in working through a math model.  Finding the flaw was professional obligation and the colleague who had unknowingly made the mistake appreciated learning about the error (before a referee at a journal would or, if not that, before an erratum would have to be published).  Now it's just a vestige left over from those earlier days, applied to situations where hardly anybody else does this and where there is no expectation that I should.

Further, since it is not a matter of verifying some statement about a math model (on more than one occasion I contributed by arguing there quite possibly will be more than one equilibrium of the model when the author had assumed the equilibrium was unique) there is really no way to verify the truth of the proposition via deductive means.  Only time will tell.  Though completely convinced otherwise, I may very well be the one who is shown to be wrong. 

If applied to national politics or economic issues, perhaps it is tolerable.  A lot of other people are venting on these matters.  In this arena perhaps I can provide an insight or provoke others into thinking a little outside their comfort zone.  This piece about the documentary-with-an-agenda, Inside Job, might work at that level.  When talking about teaching and learning, with or without technology, it is an error.  The people I know are working hard to make tomorrow better.  Who am I to say that their vision is flawed?

And yet I find I can't stop myself from giving the lecture in my writing.  It is not a good form of expression, but it does show that I still care about things, even if they have a bitter taste for me now. 

* * * * *

Let me illustrate how it goes.  I have come to conclude that the most important thing we can do for college students to aid in their learning is to give them ways to express their own formative thinking.  Some of this will be in discussions with others and some of it will be in writing.  The game we should be playing, in my view, is to find ways to have this done with substantial frequency and then in a deep, reflective way.  This I take as fundamental, just like an axiom of a math model.

I don't spend my time making this point over and over again, the way Paul Krugman in his NY Times column repeatedly scolds the deficit hawks.  I find it difficult to write essentially the same thing repeatedly, though it may be the best way to "sell" the message.  So I don't know if my friends and colleagues in the learning technology field share in this belief or not, but I suspect many do not or have not thought about it in this way.

Instead, what I sense as their core value is that wherever society at large is headed with technology Higher Education should be in lock step.  Or, perhaps, they want to one up that - Higher Ed should lead in the technology arena and society should follow.

To the extent that these different core beliefs are orthogonal to one another, there is really nothing to say.  It's when they directly conflict that my instinct to lecture comes to the fore.  I have an urge to win the argument.  Part of that urge comes from an angry feeling, hence a desire to scold. 

As Athenodorus was taking his leave of Cæsar, “Remember,” said he, “Cæsar, whenever you are angry, to say or do nothing before you have repeated the four-and-twenty letters to yourself.”
I am aware of this sound advice.   Sometimes I pay attention to it.  There are many potential posts I have not written, for this very reason.  But other times the urge trumps and the product is lecturing in the writing or, if not that, then some baiting.

A couple of weeks ago Joe Nocera had a column, My Case Against Twitter.   I posted the link in Facebook, with a cutesy one-liner by means of introduction.  It got no comments and no likes.

Yesterday, Lev Gonick had a piece 12 tech trends higher education cannot afford to ignore.  The very first one of these is "the death of personal computers." The second one is "the proliferation of mobile devices."  Is there a way to reconcile these trends with the view that students need to be writing a lot to make explicit their own thinking?

I have a keyboard for my iPad.  I never use it.  I can do two finger typing on the touch screen.  It is not bad, but it is not nearly as a good as typing on a full keyboard in front of my personal computer.  Further, when writing at some length I don't want the screen on my lap or lying horizontally on a flat surface.  For writing an email message, the iPad is fine. For composing a post like this, it is not.  If  on the road, of course you use what is available.  At home where there are multiple devices, you use what is preferred for the task.

Likewise, I do a bit of text messaging.  Most of that is for quickies within the family.  It was also helpful dealing with the real estate agent when we sold my mom's condo.  But I don't view it as a writing medium. 

Is Gonick implicitly saying that a post like this one is anachronism?  Get with the program.  Stop with the slow blogging and embrace micro blogging instead, for your own writing and in your teaching.  Nobody has time to read these slow blog pieces anymore.  This is the implicit argument I want to take on and lecture back at. 

A couple of days ago Atul Gawande was on the Colbert Report.  I don't normally watch Colbert but my wife is a regular so I happened to view this segment.  I had read his recent New Yorker piece perhaps a week earlier. And a few years ago I had a very brief email exchange with him about the writing of some of my students, who had produced excellent book reviews of Better.  Undoubtedly you reach more potential readers via a stop on Colbert than by getting a review in the Sunday NY Times.  And in the latter there are rarely if ever reviews of individual essays.  So Gawande literally did get with the program.

Yet his message is somewhat anti technology.  His emphasis is on individual communication, mainly in a one-on-one setting.  He argues, this is how good ideas spread and therefore we should encourage this form of communication.  I find solace in listening to Gawande.  (Really it is from reading him.  If you watch Colbert but don't read the New Yorker piece, you might not fully get his message.)  Translate Gawande's view by applying it to Higher Education.  If you did, I believe you'd find it consistent with my core beliefs about making student formative thinking explicit.

How would Gonick react to reading Gawande's New Yorker piece?  Would Gonick engage in what Chris Argyris and Donald Schon call "double loop learning," and challenge his own tightly held assumptions?  I don't know nor do I know how to find out.  So, instead, I lecture in writing to some of my friends, though that doesn't help and indeed may make things worse.

* * * * *

I find I also do this lecturing as a parent, in speaking with my children about some of their behaviors that I disapprove of.  My dad did likewise to me.  I didn't like it then.  My kids don't like it now.  It is not an effective way to get the behavior to change over the long haul, although the immediate provocation may be addressed. 

I do much less of this when I teach, perhaps because they are not my kids.  I only get to be with them for a brief time and intellectually I understand that kids need space to stumble as they learn.  All that scolding produces is a desire to refrain from the activity entirely. 

Once in a great while the scolding as lecturing may be appropriate, particularly when addressing authority.  Some time ago Educause was embracing an RIAA message about copyright.  I thought it was wrong of them to do that.  They were being bullied by RIAA.  So I wrote this piece, which is part protest and part scold.  I stand by it now.

But when I do it with friends and colleagues I will soon wish afterward that I hadn't.  It is not persuasive.  It is only an expression of exasperation because persuasive means are not readily apparent or because I haven't thought hard enough about what a persuasive argument might look like.  Giving in to exasperation is an indulgence, a habit I should work hard to get rid of.

The first step toward the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

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