Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Commissioning and Finding Possibility

After a night where I don't sleep well I feel crabby and old.  My universe then is all about vegging out, hoping the feelings will pass.  Last night was different.  I had a rather intense dream. Waking up from that, having the first cup of coffee, I feel energized.  I want to say something.  This post is about finding a broad theme around which the rest of an exploration can be organized and then chronicling how that exploration might go. 

It begins with some reflection on recent experience (and also typically with what I've written about previously).  In this case an intuition seems to becoming to fruition.  I will be part of a discussion group, with other members of the group students who took my course last fall.  We are proceeding in earnest and though there may be a variety of pitfalls, especially if we don't seem to be making progress quickly, this is exactly the "experiment" I want to try.  By moving the discussion outside the regular course, can I nudge the students into thinking with greater depth, not just in where I'm directly involved, but in everything else they do while they are students? My goal is to produce an affirmative answer to that question.

I do not know whether the process I go through when writing posts like this one is something that the students should emulate or not as their way of maturing in their thinking.  But because I haven't tried before to make that process explicit to them when teaching, I hope to do so in the discussion group and then see how they respond.  I'd be delighted if they discussed their own processes, to the extent that they are aware of them.  And where they haven't yet thought about their own processes, this should give them an opportunity to see the value in doing so.

The process begins linearly but needn't stay that way.  Step one is the choice of topic, what I call commissioning in my title.  It may seem easy and in some ways it is.  I write about what has been occupying mind mind as of late, either from interacting with others or from my reading and viewing or some combination of these.  Locating the topic this way is a pretty mundane matter. But it is not sufficient.  One needs to ask a good framing question, one where the subject matter will open up after further investigation.  How does one know whether you have a good framing question or not?

From my days as an IT administrator, I developed a sense that many of my colleagues, and I'm talking about people who were entirely earnest about doing a good job in their work, didn't think about the issues they were confronting in the most productive manner.  Partly as the result of the rigorous training I got at Northwestern when doing the PhD in economics and partly because of things I've done informally before and since, I feel I can penetrate many subjects in ways my colleagues could not.  They have much the same evidence that I have, but they don't typically ask good framing questions.  For this reason, when my friend Catherine Yang asked me to write a column for Educause Quarterly, six years ago, I opted to call the column Framing Questions.  

In the previous paragraph, I treated the well formed framing question as an objectively good thing in itself.  Now I want to take the opposite tack.  It matters who is posing the question and how that person will utilize that question once it is posed.  So I'm going to answer what makes for a good framing question for me.  The reader needs to have enough self-knowledge to make a similar determination for herself.  I have two interrelated habits that help me understand when a good framing question has emerged.  One is that I feel a need to get my two cents in. This means saying something that goes beyond what I've read or heard from others.  It could be a synthesis of apparently disparate ideas.  It could be a launch of a known idea but in a novel direction.  It could be two distinctive threads that are happening more or less at the same time and then "woven" together.  When I first started to blog, it was this last one that drove much of the writing.

The other habit is being unable to let go of the idea until I produce something with it and in that period being largely unable to do other serious thinking.  I never am writing two or three things at the same time.  Perhaps others do that, but I really can't.  If there is something else I must write, I need to finish the current writing first.  So getting something completed is liberating, not just the feeling of accomplishment from generating a product, but also the relief that I can move onto something else.

Knowing this in advance, at the outset I'm looking for a spark, you might call it an intuition, for a good framing question.  The process isn't perfect.  I generate a fair number of false positives, posts I've started but never completed.  One reason the intuition might not be a good one is if I'm angry at the time it's formed.  I then tend to be hyper critical.  Stuff I write that way usually doesn't read that well and I come off as being arrogant.  So if there is a substantial lag from the generation of the intuition and my mood has calmed down in the meantime, that post gets dinged.  Another reason for a poor intuition is that I jump to a conclusion that is false, don't realize it at the time, and then box myself in.  This doesn't happen as often, but I'm not entirely immune from it.

The intuition itself may take some time in generation and typically needs a trigger - external or internal or both - to ignite the idea.  And sometimes I'm a dull boy and just shoot blanks.  Mostly I come up with something.  It is still a mystery to me about why I'm able to do that.  But after all these years, I've come to expect it.  My sense of things is that intuition generation gets better with practice.  Just to show how my mind works, after coming up with that sentence, my thoughts turned to Catch 22 and the character Orr, who repeatedly crashed his airplane but at the end of the book was able to escape and fly away to safety.  It takes more patience than I have to endure failure after failure of attempts at hitting the home run, in the hope that eventually the effort won't fail.  For me, the aim is for each effort to succeed on its own, according to my own sensibilities.  I am disappointed with myself otherwise.  Proof reading, which is done to get at the typos (some of which continue to persist, unfortunately), also is a test as to whether the post works. 

Almost immediately after the intuition has come I start to produce narrative in my head.  This isn't a full story.  Much of the rest of the story is discovered while at the keyboard.  Yet I'm compulsive about the initial narrative; it is what I do, process formative ideas.  I spend a good chunk of my time doing that.  I suspect this is the part that is much more mysterious to students than the intuition generation itself.  How does one come up with a narrative that is good enough to say to yourself: the pre-writing is far enough along; I can now go to the keyboard and start composing?  I look to produce different things with that narrative and each time I do it there seems to be a different mixture.

One possibility is to come up with a mental image for the idea.  In this case, I come up with something of the opposite - what we don't want.  It recalls a time when my kids were young - too young to take them to a museum but we were in Chicago and I hadn't been to the Art Institute for quite a while.  We were in the large room at the Art Institute with all the armor, which you might think would fascinate a child, but my younger one was too impatient and instead he just walks through, not noticing much at all.  It may be an unfair comparison, but sometimes I think this is how undergrads go through the subject matter we teach.  What might they get by lingering and taking in a particular object for an extended period of time?

Another possibility is to come up with an example for use in the main piece.  Sometimes I go from example to more general proposition and I've learned that leading with an example is a good thing, if a compelling one can be found.  I will use the example of writing the current post to illustrate.  The first two paragraphs were written a few days ago, after which I put the post aside.  You might think I'd dash off the rest in short order, but it isn't how things actually get done, especially when some of what I want to talk about is prospective, not retrospective.  The discussion group I mentioned has agreed to imitate the course last semester in its process and use blogging as a way to inform the group discussion.   One student will write a post before the group meeting with some ideas about what we will discuss.  The rest of us will write comments on the post before the meeting.  This way we'll all be ready for the discussion.

The first post for the discussion group came in the morning I started to write this piece.  I read it then, but I didn't write my comment on it till the afternoon.  Instead, I stewed about it. The subject matter in the post was very important for us.  But the post was written at such a high level and each topic zipped through so quickly that I was bothered by it.  It was that post which triggered the image of my son in the museum.  And because I was bothered, I needed to find some way to resolve my issues.  On the one hand, I had already indicated to the students that I wanted them to drive the discussion.  On the other hand, I have enough prior knowledge to know that we must do so slowly and drill down a lot to get at points the students might very well miss on a first walk through with the issues.  How we will do both is still a mystery to me, one that I hope we will feel our way through at the group meeting.  But I began to see that in writing this post I would be doing the necessary pre-meeting thinking so I am aware of the issues we need to address.

Then there is a possibility of making a theoretical point, in a palatable way, of course.  Here the point is that ideas tend to be nested.  We don't take it all in with one big gestalt.  We get it piecemeal.  When we've become comfortable with one piece we are ready to see an adjacent piece. This means that ideas come as discovery and the process of discovery gives a sense of motion to the learning.  It's what makes the process fun.

This theoretical point gives the answer to why there is benefit to lingering on a particular object.  The lingering is readying for the next discovery.  Without it, there will be no discovery at all.

I knew this theoretical idea ahead of time, having discussed it many times over in this blog.  But it was not immediate for me in the current context and only occurred to me after I had read the student's post and had come up with the image of my son in the museum.   Then, deciding that theoretical point is relevant to the issue at hand  gave me enough confidence to return to crafting this post.

I'm making it seem like all the pieces fit together, as long as one takes the time to assemble them in an interesting order.  It is my belief that we prefer to read essays when the pieces do fit this way, but our own thinking doesn't necessarily produce such harmony of the various components.  Instead, there is yet another matter, which is the skill in the telling.  A good story teller will know how to arrange the various ingredients to make for a sumptuous dish.  Students as fledgling writers likely don't yet have that skill at a mature level.  But even novices can get some sense that the presentation matters as much as the ideas.  (In grad school I used to debate from or content with my friend Nick.  Now I would say it is form and content.)  Then they can practice getting better at it.   And they can learn that new ideas may yet emerge as the presentation becomes more refined.

Let me close with one last issue.  When should you keep on going with the process and when should you claim victory, so you can move onto something else?  Hard deadlines often determine the answer to this question, but not always.  I don't write to a deadline in authoring posts for this blog.  Instead, I have come to develop my own personal bar.  If I've cleared it, I'm done.  If not, I must go on or decide the piece is not do-able to my standards.  Developing a sense of taste as to where the bar should be is a big part of learning to write.  And for that it seems necessary to read a variety of other people's stuff, within that reading find stuff that you like, and then come up with reasons as to why you like it.  The sense of taste comes more from reading others than from your own writing.

Maybe the bar needs to be raised over time as the writer's skill improves.  A perfectionist too early on will end up producing very little.  Conversely, a bar that is too low won't challenge the writer and the person will get bored with the endeavor before producing something worthwhile.  Finding the sweet spot requires tolerance of self and knowledge of self too.

This is probably more than we can get at in our first discussion.  Yet I still have some puzzles to solve regarding how we will proceed.  It's an opportune time to stop, for now.

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