Friday, November 29, 2013

The hard to come up with one

Here's a little game you can play at home.  Ask the participants to come up with words where the b is silent.  I did this earlier today over the first cup of coffee with my wife and her niece, as I tried to determine whether a second pot was needed (it was).  Can you guess the first one they came up with?  It's probably the one that popped into your head too.


Then, immediately after they produced the following


But they failed to come up with


The question is why.  One obvious reason is that here the b doesn't come at the end of the word.  But perhaps a more important reason is that subtlety is not prized as something we should all be after.  It remains elusive for most people, even those who are very well educated.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Subtlety does remain an important value for me.  And I suppose one of my bigger frustrations as a teacher is that I rarely see it in my students, nor do I see them striving for it.  This observation leads to a larger question.

Can a preference for subtlety be taught?

I don't know the answer to that one.  The magic pedagogy that might produce this result remains elusive to me.  Truthfully, I think such a preference is years in the making and requires continual practice in the development.  Expecting it to manifest in a single college course over fifteen weeks when it hasn't yet appeared in the student is folly.  Though I can reason through the point, I can't seem to refrain from making the same mistake over again and hope to see the miracle occur. 

In lieu of such a pedagogy, let me describe how my own preference for subtlety manifests and guess at its origins.

I think of this preference as three distinct things that are interrelated.  The first is a kind of "mental skating to the where the puck will be."  You are exposed to ideas that are new to you.  There is a compunction to ask and answer - what are some of the implications of those ideas?  In other words, the mind activity is solving for y where x is given in an expression of the form: if x then y.  I wrote this sentence deliberately in the style of something you do in a math proof, the kind everyone should learn when they study Euclidean geometry (I did that in tenth grade).  Having a feel for the math is one big way that subtlety gets enhanced.  In my own development I think I had this much earlier than that geometry class and I wonder if the game is actually over for others before it really has begun if they don't have have it earlier as well.

Outside the math setting the universe of possible y's is quite large, so there is something of an art in intuiting what sort of y's might solve the conditional.  A pure trial and error approach won't work and will frustrate the person, who will end up with no solution, having given up on this quixotic quest well short of the goal.  A quicker way to identify plausible y's is needed.  So the development of intuition of this sort seems to me a big part of the deal.  It requires a lot of practice.

The second is not being satisfied with tentative answers, particularly the first thing that pops into your head.  Even if your intuition is well honed, further reflection can often give a better result, this in spite of Gladwell's Blink.  The search for other ideas is more than persistence, though persistence is a necessary part.  It requires developing a practice of testing the answer for whether it fits and also whether it is complete.

For me, there is an emotional aspect to it as well.  The quest must produce a kind of enjoyment.  It is something I want to do, not something I have to do.  This is the part that scares me about teaching a preference for subtlety, because it may depend fundamentally on personality type.  Teachers should not want to remake the personalities of their students, even if the egoist in us wants to see junior clones of ourselves spring up whenever we hold a class. 

The third is developing a sense that a tolerably good understanding has been produced so closure can be achieved.  When I was playing with learning technology with my staff in the College of Business, the method required trying the technology out, often doing this by producing objects that others might view.  A significant part of the production process was seeing whether I found those objects so produced pleasing or clunkers.  So there is a sense of taste that needs to develop about what is pleasing.  Just as the doctor shouldn't have himself as a patient, the author shouldn't be the primary judge of whether the work produced is pleasing.  But if a work is put aside for a while, say a day or two, and then revisited as a viewer would engage in the work, one can get a sense of whether it clears the bar.

This is an example to illustrate.  I made quite a few of these sort of things.   On the technical side, it is a screen capture video of a PowerPoint slideshow, with musical accompaniment and text narration in the captions to accompany the images on the slides.  I used Camtasia for the capture.  On the storytelling side, the approach blends a short narrative with each images to illustrate the idea.  The music then acts as a wrapper so the parts can be placed within a larger whole.  Ignoring the technology and focusing on the authoring activity, there is intelligence exercised in the selection of images and again in the music that fits the narrative.   I had students make these in one honors course I taught (just those students who were taking the course to fill the advanced composition requirement).  We used slidecasting in rather than screen capture and posting to YouTube, because it was technically easier for them to produce. The completed projects are still available to view.  I don't know if making these advanced the students in the direction of appreciating subtlety, but they did seem to enjoy the production activity and also enjoyed viewing the completed projects their classmates made.

This is the skeleton.  The body gets added by exposure to the ideas of others and the willingness to plagiarize these, as Jonathan Lethem says we must.  My idea of the screen capture movies with narration didn't emerge by spontaneous generation.  Many years earlier I was part of a project led by Joe Squier, Nan Goggin, and Gail Hawisher called Words and Images.  It was an exploration into a new form of communication where the graphic and the textual created an interplay that was large than the sum of the parts.  In searching for reference to that project, I found this essay by Paul Prior, Gail's protege, and another participant in the project.  Paul's paper is too formal for my tastes, but I'm neither an expert in rhetoric nor in communication more broadly.  I'm a user.  If I'm to use these sort of ideas in teaching, I need to bring them down to my level, so I can appropriate them for my own purpose.

This is how I put flesh on the bone.  Doing that means being on the lookout for interesting ideas even when one doesn't see an immediate use for the idea.  There must be some ability to create a mental rolodex of such ideas that can be tapped into when the time is right.  This provides the source for the candidate y's. 

There's one more piece to the process and with it one more word with a silent b.  This last bit is to maintain a balance between optimism and skepticism.  Most of us can handle one of these at a time, but we really need to do both simultaneously.  What's required is a deep belief that we'll get to an interesting place eventually, but a doubt that we're there yet.

Can that be taught? 

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